Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jack Foley on James Broughton

From The Potted Psalm in 1946 to Erogeny in 1976 I could not have created anything without sharing love with my collaborators. This is a weakness I take delight in. “Relations are real, not substances,” said the Buddha. And the more intense the love, the livelier the work.
—James Broughton

I would like to profile Joel, Stephen (who is working on a bio) and Jack in relation to your projects and your lives with James and since his death.
—Franklin Abbott


I was interviewing Michael Lerner, a politically active rabbi, on my [KPFA-FM] radio show. When I asked him about death, he answered, “Death?” His answer made me think of my dear friend James Broughton (1913-1999).

James—not easy to write about. Where to begin? There are so many incidents, so many feelings. Scarcely a day passes when I don’t have some kind of thought of him. His image, his poems are on the walls of my house—more are in my memory. Dear James, a lovely, deeply funny, deeply deep man:

I am

a center of gravity
a thermal spring
a magnetic field
a mercurial planet

We met in the mid 80s, probably 1985. I was running a poetry series at Larry Blake’s restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The series was quite successful and featured a very wide range of poets. One of these was Robert Peters—in full drag as Elizabeth Bathory, his “blood countess.” Peters asked me whether I’d like to be introduced to James Broughton. I said, “Sure,” though I was only vaguely aware of his work. I had heard of his films and had read the excellent early poems published in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry. I also knew that he was a gay man—but I don’t think I knew much more than that. Wonders awaited. James read for my [radio] series many times—including one memorable occasion when the series day fell on November 10, 1987, James’s 74th birthday.

My first experience of him was a lunch: he invited me over for one of those incredibly delicious gourmet feasts regularly prepared by his lover, Joel Singer. Though at that time I was a very little-known poet—and straight!—both men made me feel not only at ease but extremely comfortable in their presence. James spoke to me as if I were an old friend. One of the interesting things about him was the fact that, though he was a deep and lifelong believer in “love,” he was never sentimental or treacly. His wit and intellect cut through the false faces of love and went directly to its deep heart. By this time I had read—and adored—his Androgyne Journal. I knew he was in some ways a “Jungian.” I remarked to James, “I like Jung but the problem with Jungians is that they often seem to skip over the body in their zeal to arrive at the archetypal.”

James smiled and answered with his ironic drawl, “Tell me about it.” Then James and Joel set me in a little room with a film projector in it. They started Testament (1974) and left me to see it. I emerged starry-eyed. I had seen something stunningly beautiful and incredibly rich. What a movie! At once personal—even self-deprecatory—and magical, alive with transformation. I loved film and had published articles about it, but this was the vita nuova. James wrote of Testament,

I spun what I thought would be my final film: a self-portrait bouncing me from my babyhood to my imagined death. To summarize the quest for erotic transcendence that animated all my cinema I mixed film clips, still photos and staged scenes. I was assisted at the camera by an ingratiating redhead named H. Edgar Jenkins… At the film’s beginning I am seen rocking in a chair by the Pacific Ocean, questioning my life:

I asked the Sea how deep things are.

O, said She, that depends upon
how far you want to go.

I mentioned to him once that the word “testament” was connected by etymology to the word “testicle.” “Is it!” he said.

Over the years I knew James, I wrote many articles about him and interviewed him often. He was a regular guest on my KPFA radio show. I loved his work and was very pleased to discover that he enjoyed mine. One of the features of my poetry readings is the presentation of choral pieces read by my wife Adelle and me. James—unlike some of my other friends—immediately understood the significance of these pieces and dubbed them “androgynous,” a very important word in his cosmos. I introduced James at many of his events. For one I wrote something particularly special. James knew that Adelle and I had been singing a slightly parodic version of the old waltz, “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” Adelle ended the song with a little tap dance—a bit of waltz clog. James asked me to rewrite the words of the song to introduce him on the stage of the Castro Theater in San Francisco. I tried to catch a bit of the feeling of Cole Porter—whom we both admired:


Sweet Jamie O’Broughton
Our bountiful James
It’s he that we’re toutin’
He’s water and flames
We’ll go to his movies
(We’re taking the bus!)
We love sweet Jamie O’Broughton
And Jamie O’Broughton loves…(worried) somebody else?
(emphatic) No!
Jamie O’Broughton loves us!

Adelle did her tap dance and James came onto the stage to thunderous applause!

On June 28, 1990, Adelle and I read at Cody’s Books in Berkeley with James. We decided to imitate each other’s styles for the reading. James wrote a choral piece—his only one—for him and me to perform together. It begins,

A Hymn to Herm
(Duet for Tenor and Baritone)

This wonder this wonder
this prize this surprise
this secret this skyrocket
this wonder your wonder
my wonder our wonder
my steering gear my takeoff
my sword my songbird
my bird in hand my flying carpet

Your wonder O wonder

The entire poem is included in ALL: A James Broughton Reader. For my part, I wrote a fanciful prose piece, “Broughton Fountain,” in which I heard his voice clearly. It was full of quotations from James’s work and began:

The Master stood on the edge of the cliff. He asked which of his disciples would thrust himself over the side, plunging into the mouth of a horrible and certain death. “I,” said one, eager to get a running start.

“Wait,” said the Master. “Do you think I’m some sort of idiot? I was only raising an abstract question. I need all the disciples I can get—and besides, it’s a long way down the side of that cliff.” “True,” said the eager disciple. “But wouldn’t you always honor the name of the disciple who died for you?” “Well, I might,” said the Master, “but really it all depends on whether I’ve written it down. My memory’s a little shaky these days, and I can’t seem to locate my pencil.”

“Master,” said the disciple, “I would be the one who died for you!” “Well, go ahead if you must,” said the Master, fumbling in his pockets for a piece of paper. “But I’m not guaranteeing anything. Oh, where is that pencil!” “Thank you, Master. Aieeeee!” said the disciple as he leaped over the edge. “What was his name?” said the Master. “I suppose,” said another disciple, “there isn’t much left of him now.”

It ended,

—My name is James.

There is nothing

But the indestructible sweetness


Everything! Follow your weird.

I knew James in the last years of his life, as he began his witty, deep, courageous meditation on the fact of his own mortality (“I am / a moony old vessel, / I have / garbled many a hanker”). The thought of Death began very early in his work, but the notion of it changed as he grew older. In the end, Death became the greatest lover of all—propelling James into whatever eternity might await him.

James’s work stands by itself and stands high and tall. (I’m sure that James would remark to that, “Hermes bird!”) To those who were, like me, lucky enough to know him personally, he offered the image of another sort of manhood. He was a gay man, I was a straight man—yet we simply accepted each other and loved each other just as we were. He had his fears and anxieties—explored especially in the early work—but he kept the feeling of child-like wonder alive in his consciousness throughout his long life. He once wrote, “People don’t grow up. They just get taller.” How do you describe the sun?


My life since James’s death is not dissimilar to what it was when he was alive. I continue my writing and my performing—both of which are undoubtedly improved because of my knowing James. I feel very strongly still the sense of his multiple selves: “You are your own twin and your own bride and all your gods.” I put together ALL: A James Broughton Reader because I felt the need of a book in which the various aspects of James’s work could all join together in a chorus and sing to one another. I’m very proud of the result. I am currently writing a long history of poetry in California from 1940 to 2005. It will probably be published next year. James’s work is an immensely important element in that history. I feel his presence as I write this, as I re-read his work, as I turn my mind towards the amazing man he was.

Jack Foley

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