One thing which has to make me laugh in 2015: Abby Heller-Burnham would never fly on the Main Line. The way folkways work with the kinds of characters who live here, Main Liners are never allowed to have personal problems. Those with personal problems are encouraged to quarantine themselves until their personal problems are resolved. Main Liners like to say to each other, in a calculated, manipulative fashion, "things good?" The joke is that, on the Main Line, things had better be good. So, for Abby Heller-Burnham to set up shop at the Conshohocken Starbucks and start yap yap yapping about her personal problems, everyone would fall to the ground and start writhing in agony. As to other ways of falling to the ground and writhing- summer '04 to summer '05 was the heaviest year to be on the street in Aughts Philly. There was an explosive energy around everything- and my emotions oscillated, personally, between euphoria and dejection from night to night. It wasn't just the PFS Highwire shows; because the Making Time DJ nights had a large national and international following, and all the DJs worked at the Last Drop, just to be in the Last Drop at that time was to be in a realm so supercharged that we might as well have been doing lines off the tables. Adam Sparkles, who shared my name and birthday, ran the place with an iron fist. If he was laconic with PFS, it is because at that time he considered us competitors.
Yet, for many of us, the euphoria of success was counter-weighed by the dejection of living a life more excessive than I (or Jeremy or Abby, especially) had planned in our comparatively "salad" early Aughts days. Abs and I picked a weird moment to consummate our relationship, but there it was. The low point of the year for me was confessing to Mary Harju, who was no dummy and knew the score, what we'd done. Mary and I had been separated for over a year, but still. The one Philly Free School show Mary deigned to attend at the Highwire (at which we showed her Dionysus), she brought her sister Laurie, who was as blonde and pixie-faced as Mary but much sharper about making her way materially in the world. She was essentially conservative, and had a way of making us feel like heathens for being artists. Mary's "husband" that night wore a tie-dye, and was truculent. Ruth, the third sister Harju (or Hariu, as they sometimes spelled it), was more handsome than pixie-faced, brunette, and wavered somewhere between Mary and Laurie. So, oddly, my most promiscuous time passed without much real contact with Mary at all.
Unsurprisingly, Mike Land was (or appeared to be) in heaven. Everywhere we went together, including the Highwire, we were treated like celebrities, because the Free School shows were big news- even the City Paper was in on them. It also didn't escape my notice that for these months, we were living the way the Beatles and the Stones were supposed to have lived. If Mike Land was a surprise and a superlative running buddy at a time like this, it is because he was good with euphoric moods, but also with dejected ones- he had a precociously developed appreciation of the human condition, and an empathy with pain and human suffering, which meant that (as, again, I was surprised by) he was no fair weather friend at all. I came to the conclusion- beneath the hustle and the good looks, Mike Land was a very old soul. Jeremy was crabbed and deficient this way and not someone to lean on; Abs, maybe. In the right mood, she could be a stand-up friend. It also never ceases to amaze me that it is here, with all this tumult going on, that Abby fulfilled her destiny and painted her masterpieces. My writing at the time wasn't completely desultory; I was doing my low res Boston MFA; and, in '04/'05, churning out many of the poems which became Returns; even as the destiny-fulfilling thing would have to come many years later. It is also funny, for me in 2015, to have been through something like '04/'05 and find myself on the Main Line. Aughts Philly was so resolutely personal; it was about self-expressive individuals, and all the collectives, from PFS to Making Time, were distinctive and self-expressive as well; so that the Great Recession and the Main Line are reminders of how very lucky we were, to have the space and time to express ourselves the right way. Not everyone gets that opportunity, or to fulfill the fantasy of living like a rock star for a year. I am glad it happened for me, and for us.
There was a night in late 2002 I was recording in South Philadelphia with Radio Eris keyboardist/utility producer Matt Stevenson. What we were recording became the spoken word album Raw Rainy Fog. I have described in detail elsewhere precisely what Main Street West (aka Webster Street Studios) at 11th and Webster was like; to compress and nut-shell the thing, a lovable hovel. I had picked up some Paisano red wine, because we were to have guests that night- Mary Harju and Abby Heller-Burnham. As of autumn '02, Mary and I were very entrenched, and Abby was our constant companion. When they arrived, we smoked the requisite bowl (Matt's weed) from Matt's little marble-textured piece, and I poured the wine. This was, I laugh to remember, rather a mistake- Mary and Abby, together or separately, could hold their pot but not their booze. So, Matt was forced to watch, in semi-bemused fashion, as the two painters disintegrated into cacophonous incoherence and tantrum-like upset. They were a tumultuous pair, those two; and, a few months after that (February '03), they moved into a two bedroom flat in a complex on 42nd Street off of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, where Mary had lived for a few years already at the pictured 4325 commune. I was Mary's "hubs," and there constantly.
One nuance to remember about Mary and Abby, as a Dynamic Duo- Mary, through a rigorous and rigorously enforced regimen of scant eating, was always perfectly thin, if still rather more big-boned up close than one would think; Abby Heller-Burnham's weight was always fluctuating between extreme thinness and chunkiness. Her quandary was clear- the better she was painting, the more she liked to eat. Mary had a height advantage, as well as a weight one- her Grace Kelly-ish near 5'8 to Abby's elfin five feet even. The flat itself was nondescript- a large kitchen/living room space (the kitchen had an "island"), flanked by bedrooms on either side. No serous painting could be done there- Abby and Mary both had studios elsewhere. Because Mary had a hubs, she was given the larger, "master" bedroom, as we alternated apartments night by night as usual (I was still at 21st and Race). An important facet of Abby's personality which became visible at this time was her slow-burn Virgo temper- she was pissed at Mary's marriage to me, and harbored a secret grievance that she (the reason wasn't important) deserved the master bedroom. It's just that they both knew by then (without necessarily verbalizing it to me) what it would take me a number of years to realize- Abby Heller-Burnham was a far greater artist than Mary Harju. She was more inventive, imaginative, and formally rigorous, building on French Neo-Classicists Ingres and David from a firm base of solid contemporary engagement, while Mary settled for aping the Renaissance and hoping for the best. What was simmering in them in '03 was a congeries of all these issues.
Yet we all enjoyed ourselves in that apartment for a while. We could all sing, so that spring we conceived the idea of writing and rehearsing some tunes. Perhaps Matt could record us at Main Street West or we could play a few clubs. The material we compiled over a few months was intriguing, including a nod to Sister Lovers-era Big Star called "She Slit Her Wrists." We managed to play out together, sans name, precisely once in the summer of '03. It was upstairs at Book Trader, then still at 5th and South, at an event coordinated by Brian Patrick Heston, who was a benevolent presence for us then, and his posse. I'm sure we sounded like lunatics, but a good time was had by all. In the middle of all this, On Love and Hamlet On Pine Street appeared in Hinge Online; Mary and I were still studying at Penn; I did several readings at the Kelly Writers House (all taped, and tapes which may still exist); and Mary and I were planning our trip to Montreal. I was moving, in my writing, away from Romantic pastiche towards a kind of groping around for a resolutely contemporary voice yet mindful of Romanticism's lessons. Abby, who had then begun The Skaters, was performing roughly the same aesthetic task. Our secret sense of being attuned to each other was a surprise for both of us later.
When I think about the poetry journal Siren’s Silence, and what it meant for Philadelphia in the Nineties, the first thing that occurs to me, and it is salient, is that most of the dramas that lit up Siren’s Silence, both as a literary entity and as a scene, were invisible to me as a second-tier player in them. Vlad Pogorelov, Dawn Mopurgo, Lora Bloom, Christian Hand and the rest were all dramtic personalities; moreover, the social world they inhabited was a dramatic one. I was only able to see what I saw on semester breaks and visits home from State College. Here is the narrative of what I did see: I discovered, on a semester break, an open mike night happening at Philly Java Company on 4th Street between South and Lombard in (I think it was) spring ’97. I began attending the open mike night as regularly as I could. It became clear to me that the open mikes in the back room of Philly Java were there to represent the interests of a print journal called Siren’s Silence, which I became a regular contributor to. It took some time going to these open mikes to begin to differentiate personalities. The first Siren’s Silence character I noticed who made a substantial impression on me was Vladlen (“Vlad”) Pogorelov.
Vlad was different. Average height, very thin, prematurely balding, very dapper, and he talked with a thick Russian accent. The material Vlad was writing, which was published in ’98 as “Derelict,” had much in common with the urban, gritty realism of Charles Bukowski, and I told Vlad as much. His signature poems were about whores, drugs, poverty, and drunkenness, and (oddly enough) they demonstrated an impressive formalist streak which (one would think) Bukowski would have hated. To hear Vlad recite, “The dirty whore/ takin a bath/ smokin crack/ singing songs from time to time” in his thick Russian brogue was a distinctly otherworldly experience. Vlad was the poetry editor of Siren’s Silence at the time. Other poems he had around, like “At the Train Station,” detailed a sensibility which, if a little long on adolescent romanticism, still had a flavor of imaginative decay, artful deterioration, which made them memorable to me. Oddly, Vlad sometimes appeared at Philly Java with his mother. There was talk that he had a trust fund, or was from a rich Russian family; I was never able to find out. In the intervening years, I have found ways to tip the hat to Mr. Pogorelov; in the Virtual Pinball section of Beams (“Nicanor Parra/Jimmy Page/Yossarian…”), and in Apparition Poem 509 (“on greasy days in Philadelphia…).
Lora Bloom I came to know later as the vocalist of Radio Eris, her collaboration with my own friend and future producer Matt Stevenson. Jeannine Campbell was around the Philadelphia arts scene also for many years, but we didn’t make much contact; Dawn Mopurgo same. When the final issue of Siren’s Silence was released in late ’98, I happened to be home from State College, about to shift over to Manhattan, so I went. It was at Robin’s Books, on 13th Street off of Walnut, upstairs. I had seen Vlad read that spring behind “Derelict” on South Street, but Vlad wasn’t there. If my disappointment was overcome, it’s because I found a group of pick-up friends who set me up with some free Valiums. Even more serendipitous was my encounter with Matt Stevenson, who would play such a pivotal role for all of us in the Aughts. This is the truth….you must believe me. Matt needed (for some reason) a copy of the Doors first album, and I happened to have the cassette in my pocket. I handed it over to him, and thus sealed the deal that when I returned to Philadelphia a year later, pieces would fall into place which could start a revolution. Siren’s Silence advertised itself as a literary explosion; if so, the explosion cleared some crucial space for everything which followed the one century ending and the next jumping into being.
These two stories, one in Philadelphia City Paper and one in Philly Weekly, demonstrate the cohesion/coherence of Aughts Philly culturally, esp. around what Hinge Online was, both for Philly Free School and generally. Here, also, is a 2005 calendar for the Highwire Gallery including PFS. Cheers.
#1218 Everything you do every day becomes stifling if you do it every day, even love-making, art-making, going over an edge into interstitial, red ecstasy— move out into colorless space— what’s new is what’s undone, what’s undone is nothing, if you have the guts to do it, if you can take the hard agony—
#1257 In my mind’s eye, I see her take the letter to a café in Paris, read it over black coffee, as chansons play via I-Tunes— she’s moved, she sees her world dance, swirl, cream— Philadelphia torques in an eternal ellipse towards knowledge of Paris, sister city, with me sitting in it, at this café, holding this missive with candy hearts, French racy writing— centuries undress before our ground texts.
This last page from Hinge Online features two poems from '03/'04. "Hamlet On Pine Street" I debuted at a Penn workshop with Bob Perelman; "Technician of Tough Love" is a kind of elegy for Alexandra Grilikhes, who died in '03.
Grays, whites mix— gloomy grandeur in an autumn sky; I’m back outside Palmer Museum, 1995; so much time will have to pass before I know myself, as I was then, with any real thoroughness, that as the breezes dance, I mosey back to North Halls with a bone on for whomever, I see into the fallen leaves’ moods that it’s the beyond, past the human, which should make or break our fragile, gamine little days, as the father hovers over us, with his own idea of what constitutes consciousness.
Endure one-hundred years of silence, until some ambitious scholar discovers your books hiding under a rose-bush, publishes a long thesis that gets every-one’s attention— suddenly sentimental girls come to leave candy hearts at your grave, where your body is— no one cares to remember how it felt to die as you, realizing the human race to be largely munchkins, bending over backwards to please them, who you so got in the way of that they initiated whole phony epochs just to remember that you didn’t exist—