Reading Joy Aloud
It’s a rarity to see BookWoman, Austin’s feminist bookstore, filled with gay men. But there they were, most middle-aged or older, most poetically inclined. The purpose of the BoWo gathering was to read and re-ignite the poetry of James Broughton.
Broughton, of course, is the subject of a documentary called Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, playing at SXSW. Known as much for his poetry as for his films, he was an elder statesman in the San Francisco underground. That scene trended towards natural-cosmic concerns, as opposed to the rough-and-tumble New York underground. Broughton was a radical faerie, a sermonizing sister of perpetual indulgence, baby daddy with Pauline Kael, lover of men and women alike. He spoke of flowers and phalluses, and loved them both.
But these men, many who knew Broughton personally (he died in 1999), were kindling a familiar pile of tinder, and chuckling all the way through it. In today’s literary climate, Broughton’s poetry can read as downright Pollyanna-ish in its idealism and munificence towards the human spirit. Broughton’s most circulated phrase was an invective, “follow your own weird.”
The man was short on irony, big on sincerity.
The readings at BookWoman tended to be short and potent, even though Broughton’s long poems are worth a read aloud too. Kd (Kitten) Calfee, who is Big Joy’s PMD (Producer of Marketing and Distribution), played emcee, reading Broughton’s “Haikukus” as interstitials between readers. Performative hand gestures accompanied Calfee’s delivery, as though he were showing us a new delicious red apple on a tree. Most, but not all, readings came out of Broughton’s praise poems for his late-in-life lover Joel Singer*, compiled into a (1983) book entitled Ecstasies. They’re graphic and joyful – meaty. Broughton’s humor was also on display as one of the film’s directors, Eric Slade, read an occasional poem to Alan Watts, a figure best known for bringing Zen Buddhism to an American consciousness. With a quippy rhyming scheme (drop dead, Ogden Nash), Broughton took turns teasing and loving the subject of his ode. “This is it” was also a stand-out and read by one of Big Joy’s editors, Kyung Lee. It had the strange staccato languidness of certain Gertrude Stein paragraphs; it’s all personal and demonstrative pronouns jumbled and rearranged. Cumulatively, the poem expresses a desire to be in the here and now.
Some poets came from out of town, like Alex Gildzen, now residing in New Mexico, who worked organizing Broughton’s archive for the Kent State University libraries. A poet himself, Gildzen read a couple poems with aplomb. Local poet Prana read a short, but emotionally hot poem, drawing out each line as though it were something to savor. Here was a poet reveling internally, then externally, in what another poet had to give. No one in the room seemed to show any trace of ambivalence with the material they read – love was the understood currency. Hell, I even got up and read one. I felt it was in line with Broughton’s epitaph, which reads: “Adventure – not predicament.”
* An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect surname for Joel Singer.
Big Joy plays a final time on Wednesday, March 13, 4:15pm, Alamo Ritz.