Poetry A Tribute to Lewis Warsh
Remembering Lewis Warsh, a Planter of Poets
When Lewis Warsh died, Kyle Dacuyan, the director at the Poetry Project, told me that he felt a spirit at the church lingering but about to leave. Perhaps that is what I was feeling and have put words into Kyle’s mouth, but I too was especially saddened by Lewis’s passing because I knew he wasn’t finished, that he was working up to the end. But it is good to have Death find us doing what we love to do, isn’t it? That we might say over our shoulders, not out of fear but necessity, “Could you just wait a minute? I have to finish this sentence.” I felt the sudden loss as I walked through the East Village where his presence remains present. Lewis lived many places, and wherever that was and whenever that was, he was writing—I have heard him typing—but the East Village is uniquely alive in his pages.
The East Village is also where I moved in 1979, and where I would soon meet Lewis when he returned from Massachusetts with Bernadette Mayer and Marie, Sophie and Max, their children. I remember Bernadette working as the new director at the Poetry Project, and Lewis often at home publishing other writers for United Artists, writing, and happily, it seemed to me, taking care of the children. A lot of the East Village was rubble back then, burned out buildings and brick-filled vacant lots. You could stand at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C where I lived and see devastation all around. One day a guy in my building whose name was Paul Terry decided to write a letter to the city and arranged to have trees planted up and down our block from Avenue C to Avenue B. Paul would die of AIDS a few years later leaving behind his ashes that were scattered in a community garden he helped preserve at the end of the block, and the many trees that he planted. Passing people hardly notice the trees—especially without the desolation of the past to compare them to—nor do they think about the shade on their skin or the air cleaned and filtered by the leaves when they breathe, but there they are anyway, the beautiful trees.
In the recent January 2021 Poetry Project Newsletter there are many testimonials from writers about the creative effect Lewis Warsh had on them. When I remember Lewis, I believe he planted poets like my friend Paul Terry planted trees. Several writers I know began their careers in his workshops. If you do a Google search for Poetry Project Newsletter Lewis Warsh In Memoriam you can read all of these testimonials there. A writer I admire a great deal, Maggie Dubris, whose books include Weep Not, My Wanton and Brokedown Palace writes this in the January Newsletter:
Lewis Warsh was my first poetry workshop leader when I got to New York in the late 1970s. It was such a wonderful experience; he was low-key, but very talented and opened up a whole world of poets that became a huge part of my life. He got us all to put out a workshop magazine, 8:30, that was a revelation—I had no idea you could just PUT OUT a magazine! I still treasure the photo I took for the cover; a young Bill Kushner is there, along with Pat Jones and myself. Lewis was a giving and inspirational presence in the world, and I’ll miss him.
Yes, Patricia Spears Jones was also in Lewis’s 1975 workshop. She has recently written an essay entitled “My First Reading, St. Mark's Poetry Project, 1975,” which everyone who likes good writing should read. I did an online search and found the essay typing in Patricia Spears Jones My First Reading, St. Mark's Poetry Project, 1975. Check it out. In her memoriam, Patricia writes:
He had a way of focusing on a word, phrase or line and sort of teasing out what should or should not be there. This could be blunt or very subtle. I don’t remember him ever saying something was crap (I did hear that in other workshops), but the weaker writers slowly left the workshop leaving a band of very smart, imaginative people in their wake.
Lewis looked at my lyrics and well … the adolescence in my writing departed. In a way, what was happening in the workshop was what was happening to me. I would bring in these long shifting pieces. Lewis would look at them and say, “What’s really going on?” And then I would have seen what was really going on.
When I look at that description, I realize that Lewis’ greatest asset was his generosity. He was generous with knowledge. Generous of spirit. Generous with praise. Generous with encouragement. Maybe that’s why he was so skinny. I don’t know. I just know that he had a way of finding the poem, the person, the tune and tone of the moment. He could be sharp if something did not work, he’d let you know—but that sting was never hurtful. I think he worked very hard to not be cruel. I think he worked very hard to express love and friendship. I think he worked hard to honor his ideas of poetry, poets, the writing life. Sometimes he was rewarded for this, often, much too often, overlooked…He could arch those considerable brows when needed. He gave me some of the tools I needed to become a really strong poet and he did that for so many others because in so many different ways he knew what was really going on.
When I was interviewing Bill Kushner in 2010 for a chapbook we did together called Singing Secrets, he talked about that seminal 1975 workshop because he was in it too. What Bill told me was this:
I was a very repressed little Twinkie. In Lewis’s workshop I was trying to hide my homosexuality by writing abstractly, academically. It wasn’t until I wrote a poem called “Kiss” where I was just fooling around about kissing. Lewis said, “I think you’ve got it. I think you broke through.” Something to that effect. And I was so proud. It was like I finally connected to you know that important person, you know, your teacher becomes that important person, that important interest. It was like I broke through to my sister, to Lewis and I kept writing more stuff like that. It freed me, that kiss. Lewis freed me more than, I mean I’ve studied with a lot of people after Lewis, OK? I studied with Bernadette, with Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, wonderful teachers, but Lewis was the first guy who really freed me. They were all pretty much teaching the New York School of Poetry. I think that Language Poetry sometimes can skirt true feelings, and I ah I came from the Bronx. I wasn’t from New York. Lewis was the great unlocker. Oh, Mr. Warsh! He’s helped me so much.
After that workshop, Bill wrote his masterpiece, Head, a collection of sonnets he composed while cruising the West Side Piers and the porno movie houses, activities he always had done, but Lewis gave him the permission to write about it.
I slowly got to know Lewis via Bernadette who became my friend very fast. We translated Catullus together, and sometimes she and the kids would come over to watch a movie on my VCR—once we also watched two buildings burn on Avenue C while they were there; it was night, the flames were high; Marie sometimes still remarks about it. Lewis was always in the background, distant, but we were also family. I attended his children's birthday parties, and sat with him at Sophie's graduation at Bennington; I knew his mother. I stood with him at Bernadette's hospital bed when she was in a coma after her massive stroke when things were very grim. I was standing by him in Saint Mark's when Bernadette gave a reading there sometime after the Invasion of Iraq—a great crowd had come—and when she began her "Fuck George Bush” poem, which was simply her repeating "Fuck George Bush” over and over again until it filled the church up to the rafters, Lewis lowered his head in his large hand and shook it muttering, "Bernadette, Bernadette," but he did this with a smile on his face. Perturbed as he might have been, he was also enjoying it. Lewis was funny, ironic. Every now and then I would say to him, "God, you look just like Max,” and he would smile and say back, "No, Max looks just like me,” a little game we played, one Lewis enjoyed because he not only loved his kids, he liked them, and any mention was a delight to him.
It was Bill Kushner who brought Lewis and me together because we both loved Bill and that love emanating into and out of Bill included us, a literary ménage à trois of sorts. Last autumn, via Katt, Lewis’s wife, we communicated about a book he was putting together, some of Bill’s unpublished work. Bill had left behind trunks full of notebooks full of poems, and Lewis who was their executor, wanted to add the interview I had done with Bill at the end. As he lay dying, it became clear that I and others will have to finish this if it is going to exist. There would not have been a Bill Kushner if there had not been a Lewis Warsh. Before Lewis, Bill was a man paralyzed by the fear of being exposed by what he wrote. One rainy night, Bill even threw himself in front of a car, but the driver swerved and Bill lived to attend that 1975 workshop. Over his lifetime, Lewis Warsh nurtured, edited, and published writers in his quiet gentle determined kind focused caring endlessly creative way, creating writers as prevalent and unnoticed as the air we breathe or the grass we see growing out of the cracks in the sidewalks of the city. Even at the end there was Lewis as we talked advocating for Bill and not himself.
Everybody loves Lewis, but he’s not been given his due. I’ve just reread A Place In the Sun. I enjoyed it before and I enjoyed it again reading clearly and admiring how he brings his disparate characters together in what at first seems a very loose work of gossip, a fast fun sexy surprising read with riveting relentless sentences that catch one’s breath moving on to the next, held together by his talents. I did tell Lewis that I loved the book, but I wish now that we had talked more particularly about it. Everybody has their favorite; A Place In the Sun is my masterpiece at the moment because it is perfect and I’m certain it will continue to be read by many more than me. I also think of the writers Lewis helped create like my friend planted trees. Who thinks of the planter when they look at the tree? But the planter is ubiquitous. Alive many writers mourn, grieve and rest, and then get up to begin again engendered by Lewis with every breath.