The poet Bob Kaufman spent the entirety of his life in a manufactured obscurity. Although he published two books and several broadsides for City Lights Books, he was overlooked in mentions of the Beat Movement, of which he was an integral part.
Over the last decade, there has been a renewed interest in Kaufman, due in no small part to the rise of the Afrosurreal Arts Movement. And after nearly 50 years, City Lights Books recently released a new collection of his poems and writings, finally illuminating one of the most influential poets of the late 20th century.
The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman is a mystery-box. Each turn of the page pulls the reader into a house of mirrors filled with smoke, creating more questions than answers. That’s an apt metaphor for the criminally overlooked San Francisco Beat poet’s work and life.
The book’s jacket correctly places Kaufman, who lived from 1925 to 1986, as one of the most important — and original — poets of the twentieth century. “He is among the inaugurators of what today is characterized as the Afro-Surreal, uniting the surrealist practice of automatic writing with the jazz concept of spontaneous composition.” In my 2009 “Afrosurreal Manifesto,” published in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, I included Kaufman as an original Afrosurrealist; however, I used Amiri Baraka’s definition of the term, which was, “skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one […] the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life.” That’s a skill that Kaufman certainly possessed.
Well before the poems, the other ephemera gathered together in Collected Works — a timeline, bibliography, and previously unpublished photographs — creates a kaleidoscopic labyrinth on the author’s life that begs for excavation to help solve the mystery of his manufactured obscurity. Fortunately, the City Lights volume presents the most complete chronology of Kaufman’s life to date. If read closely, it tells the pitiful tale of a neighborhood, city, and publishing industry that Kaufman saw as failing him, leaving him to die penniless and homeless on a borrowed bed in Collected Poems coeditor Neeli Cherkovski’s North Beach alley-way apartment in 1986, even as contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the late Jack Kerouac enjoyed international fame and wealth. Without a hint of irony, the street was named “Bob Kaufman Alley” in 2015.
Born in New Orleans in April 1925, Kaufman was the seventh of thirteen children to a Black-Caribbean mother and German-Jewish father. In his poem “Grandfather Was Queer Too” from the City Lights collection Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, Kaufman wrote:
He was first seen in the Louisiana Bayou,
Playing Chess with an intellectual lobster.
They burned his linoleum house alive
And sent that intellectual off to jail.
He wrote home every day, to no avail.
Grandfather had cut out, he couldn’t raise the bail.
At first blush, this poems smacks of whimsy and play. But a second reading conjures images of white supremacist terror (“They burned his house alive”), and the incarceration of innocents with no means of attaining justice but to flee from prosecution. It was such absurdist wordplay, which could conjure both joy and horror in an economy of words, that inspired French readers to dub him “The Black American Rimbaud,” and the group Surrealist International to label him the only American surrealist poet in the 1960s.
At the age of twenty-seven, he acquired his certificate of service as a messman — basically an aquatic waiter or steward — and began shipping out as a merchant marine. He did that until 1948, when his work as a union organizer landed him on an FBI watch-list. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Coast Guard declared Kaufman “a poor security risk” and refused to renew his mariner’s card. The FBI reportedly lost track of Kaufman after blackballing him.
In 1953, Kaufman traveled to San Francisco with Burroughs and Ginsberg, writers he’d met after his brief stint as a student at New York’s New School. He’d met Kerouac earlier, as they’d run into each other several times as merchant marines. Although Kerouac was three years older than Kaufman, the author of On The Road is said to have been inspired by Kaufman’s life and poetry to such an extent that he considered him a mentor.
Although Kaufman officially relocated to San Francisco in 1957, his poetry began to reflect the sinister machinations at play that would eventually force him into obscurity. In his 1956 poem, “West Coast Sounds,” he wrote:
Swinging, in cellars,
Kerouac at Locke’s,
On a high typewriter …
Now, many cats
New York cats
Too many cats,
Monterey scene cooler,
San Franers, falling down.
Three years later, after being brutally beaten by SFPD, an incident that caused such an outrage in North Beach that it made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, City Lights published Kaufman’s Abomunist Manifesto, and he was invited to Hollywood for possible involvement in the film version of Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans. It’s been reported that Kerouac only based this novel in San Francisco at the behest of his publishers, but this invite tells a different story, since Kerouac based his characters on people that he knew.
In his 1967 City Lights collection, Golden Sardine, Kaufman appeared fully cognizant of what San Francisco and the world of arts and letters was doing to him. Reminiscent of his treatment at the hands of the FBI and the Coast Guard, he wrote in his poem “Oct. 5th, 1963“:
Arriving back in San Francisco to be greeted by a blacklist and eviction. I am writing these lines to the responsible non-people. One thing is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything bearable.
The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman seems to re-write the poet’s biography despite itself, which has led to a call for a serious re-examination of not only his life and works, but also the conditions and publishing apparatus that contributed to his homelessness, death, and obscurity. The most pernicious of these deadly conditions is the myth is that Kaufman wished to be forgotten, something he was quoted to have said long after he had actually been forgotten. That he preferred poverty and obscurity flies in the face of his poems, especially his poem, “Dolorous Echo,” which ended with the line:
When I die,
I won’t stay,
He was right.
The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, City Lights Books, 276 pages, $19.95