Venice poets from 1950s
BY BETSY GOLDMAN
If only walls could talk.
What stories we would hear coming from 1439 Cabrillo Ave., former location of the Temple of Man, started in 1959 by Bob Alexander and his wife Anita.
It was during the time of the Beat poets in Venice that Bob, a proponent of the spiritual and mystical, formed an alternative to organized religion.
It still exists today.
Participants of the Venice “Vintage” Architectural Tour held in April were in for a double treat.
Not only did we have the opportunity to view this wonderful 1910 Craftsman house, we were graced by the special appearance of original Venice Beat poets Frank Rios and Philomene Long.
When Frank was first asked to be part of the tour, he declined, saying it would be too emotional.
The memories of all the people who were no longer here would be hard on him.
He finally agreed and the tour-goers were enthralled.
Members of the Temple of Man who have passed on will always be remembered. A “Graveyard,” with gold and silver plaques, were once in the front of the house.
The plaques are now in the backyard of the Beverly Hills home of Marcia Getzler. Marcia, along with Frank and George Herms, a noted sculptor, are the three Temple of Man board directors.
Over the years there have been a little more than 400 members.
“Now we gather once a year or once every two years and do the ritual of the ringing of the bells,” says Frank.
The ringing of the bells is a calling forth of both the living and the dead.
Frank started writing poetry in 1954.
He recited his first poem, “Ball,” for us.
“That was the first poem I ever ‘received’,” he says. “And after that, I had to become a poet. It wrote itself, as all my poems do.”
He’s working on his 11th book, to be titled “Courtyard Poems.”
It wasn’t easy being a poet in those days.
“When asked what I did, I said I was a poet,” says Frank. “They (the “straight” people) kept asking, ‘But, what do you do?’
“Being a poet in America was like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.
“Then it was like ‘last man standing’. You do it, you do it, you never stop doing it.”
“After a while they say, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not hurting anybody,'”
Every Temple of Man member is a poet priest.
Frank remembers the weddings performed.
“I can wed and bury and write the ceremony,” he says. “We had the gowns and everything.
“We tried to follow the same tradition.
“I married (people) with the ‘ritual of the poem burning,’ where I’d write the ceremony, then burn it and give you a copy.”
When asked the significance of the burning, he replied, “When I became an ordained poet, the Muse touched my tongue and gave me the ‘ritual of the poem burning’ as an invocation to pay homage to the Lady.”
The “Lady” is Calliope, the Muse of Poetry.
Philomene dedicated her poem on Poet’s Wall near Ocean Front Walk and Windward Avenue to the Muse.
“One of our last calls was that we were too locked into ourselves,” say Frank. “It had to do with magic.
“Being in a place in America where the freedom to be what you are was really important and there was a kind of unconscious fear about letting anybody in.
“They came, thousands of them, they came and wanted the magic and they didn’t know what the hell was going on.
“Some would wig out. Some would try to get it. Control it. And you can’t.
“So, we kept to ourselves. We had a thing about we didn’t want to be discovered.
“If they discover us, they’re going to kill us, because we were free.
“I never worked, voted, drove a car or paid taxes until I was 55 years old.”
Philomene adds, “‘They’, the straight society, included a crooked justice system which did persecute the Beats and others.
“Stuart Perkoff was given the maximum sentence in jail — four years — for a marijuana drug deal.
“Venice Beat poets served time because of their lifestyle and choices. There was a loss of life.
“‘They’re going to kill us’ is not to be taken lightly. It really happened.”
Stuart Perkoff was a mainstay at the Temple.
He came to live there when he got out of jail.
He and Frank were at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution together.
“He sold some grass to some rat,” says Frank. “We wrote some good stuff in jail. We’d read and write and had some fabulous conversations walking the yard.”
Philomene was with him when he died.
A tour participant asked if Frank knew Lord Buckley — who was written up in the June issue of Los Angeles magazine.
“Yeah, I always felt that I wanted to be a Lord Buckley,” he says. “Because Lord and Lady Buckley, their history is like he used to blow poems to the gangsters in Chicago and I always wanted to be a gangster poet.
“It’s symbolic. He used to come to Topanga Canyon and on Sunday afternoons, we used to go up there in 1959.
“He didn’t live in Venice but everyone else did.”
I asked Philomene to explain what “blow a poem” means.
“Black was the color, jazz was the sound,” she says. “To ‘blow’ the poem like a saxophone. Body, mind, breath — one thing. The poet becomes the poem as well as those who receive it.”
Frank acknowledges Beyond Baroque.
“It was on West Washington Boulevard (now Abbot Kinney Boulevard) first and then it moved,” he says. “We used to do readings there. Beyond Baroque was real good to us.
“It’s still a really good place. They’ve got a great bookstore. Thank God it was in Venice and it stayed here.
“Part of the history of Venice is the poets and painters and, also, the Jewish ladies with numbers on their arms. They were here before us.”
Philomene adds, “Beyond Baroque is the only place, because of the very nature of the institution, where what went on in the past can be protected.
“The director, Fred Dewey, is very conscious of this and the necessity of keeping Beyond Baroque in Venice and bringing that history to the whole country.
“For example, Fred got the work of Frankie, Stuart, Tony (Scibella), John (Thomas) and myself carved in concrete around the new Venice Boardwalk park area where everyone in the world can see it. Beyond Baroque is all we’ve got.”
Still on the front door of the house on Cabrillo Avenue is a quote of lines written in 1916 by Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore in Stray Birds, a collection of musings.
“The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words that are clear; the great truth has great silence.
“Those last two sentences are the essence of Zen,” says Philomene. “To explain them would be to do the opposite of what they suggest.”
Instead, she offered two other sayings as a clarification:
“The more you know, the less you understand” from Tao Te Ching, and “Knock on the sky and listen to the sound,” a Zen saying.
Philomene was struck by memories, which were living inside the Temple — memories of her late husband John Thomas, her lover, the late Stuart Perkoff, and friend, the late Tony Scibella.
“I taught Zen/Yoga to the ‘poets, saints and mad ones’ of Venice West for 20 years at the Temple of Man,” says Philomene. “My memories are of fire. When I visited a couple of months ago — it was tactile. I still feel the heat in those walls.
“Perhaps it is because of the gentility of the people who are currently living there, but the presence of old-time Venice West madness has dissipated from the Temple’s walls.”
“All that remains is the poetry, the beatitude. Frankie and I are the only ones left. But our ghosts, too, are in these walls.”
Maybe the walls are talking in their own words after all.