Frank T. Rios, among the last Beat poets of Venice, embodied a lost way of life

By Kyle Knoll

Frank T. Rios invokes The Lady during a 2015 reading at Beyond Baroque
Photo by Pegarty Long

Before he could begin a reading, Frank T. Rios was compelled to offer a benediction to The Lady in the same way he had done for decades. Draped in black and commanding attention with his lilting Bronx accent, the last living member of the Holy Three — beatnik poets who reigned over the long lost Venice West Café in the 1950s, igniting Venice’s national reputation as a mecca of counterculture — invoked the omniscient muse that he, Stuart Perkhoff and Tony Scibella channeled through poetry.

To conclude this invocation at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, Rios lifted the paper he was reading from, folded it over width-wise a few times, and took out a cigarette lighter. Holding the roll at a slight downward angle away from his hand, Rios lit the paper, maintaining a steady hold on the literal literary torch as fine curls of white and gray smoke curved out above the podium, creating an abstract representation of a female figure. “Do you see her?” Rios can be heard asking in a 2013 video recording of the ritual.

Rios died of cancer on Aug. 20 at age 82, and with him went the last living connection to The Lady, the Holy Three and a zeitgeist that sparked, sustained and nurtured the world-renowned creative spirit of Venice.

“He’s leaving a way of Venice that went on for years — of artists, of community, of low rents and of people meeting each other on the boardwalk and talking,” said filmmaker Pegarty Long, who befriended Rios during the 1974 memorial for Perkhoff.

There are few remaining who can speak firsthand of Venice’s original beat poetry scene — Beyond Baroque itself formed 50 years ago in an attempt to revive it — but Rios continued to command literary audiences with his religious devotion to the muse.

“Sometimes you’d get some screams from the audience. The flame would start getting really big, and people would yell at him. And he would yell right back,” said Long, twin sister of the late Poet Laureate of Venice Philomene Long.

Rios did not take his responsibilities to the muse lightly.

“The Muse is all through history. It’s a concept that goes through every creative act,” Rios told Venice Stories creator Jason Hill in an October 2015 issue of The Argonaut. “You don’t write the poem — you realize, man, you’re just a vehicle and she blows through you … and it’s total surrender.”

Given away at birth, Rios bounced around a series of foster homes in New York before taking to a life of crime in the streets. After becoming addicted to heroin at the age of 12, Rios spent time in prison before discovering poetry after relocating to Venice in 1959. “He would always say, ‘I hung up my gun,” Long recalled.

“I see Frankie’s life and work as the hero’s journey,” said S.A. Griffin, a longtime friend of Rios’ and a member of Beyond Baroque’s Curators Council. “He came down a rough road and he spent a lot of his life committed to the poem and to his recovery. I think that it’s an inspiration for a lot of people, including myself.”

At that time Rios arrived, the Venice West scene was already in full swing, and poets read their work to each other in their living rooms, on the street and under the colonnades along the boardwalk, said Bill Mohr, a member of Beyond Baroque’s nonprofit board and an associate professor of English at Cal State Long Beach.

“Through poetry, he found individuals he could really call friends and companions,” Mohr said. “He seemed to have a great deal of inner equilibrium, especially considering the chaos in his life.”

Rios was among a handful of poets immortalized on the Venice Beach Poetry Walls in 2014, telling The Argonaut he chose to offer the stanza “I am a man/ who stands against the mountain/ and thinks of pebbles” because “that’s how we build, from the bottom up.”

Griffin remembers that the redemptive nature of poetry was the central topic of conversation one of the last times he and a group of poet friends spent time with Rios: “We were talking about how the poem saved us.”