The main Philly Free School characters were all idiosyncratic. Because she was a tall, leggy blonde who liked fashion (for instance), many Philadelphians would stop at the surface and claim Mary Harju ended there. Then, they would see the paintings and make an amended judgment. Yet, the complexity and richness of Mary's character went deeper than just her paintings. Mary was an avid reader, and made a fetish of Victorian novels. Among her favorites, Wuthering Heights, which she frequently re-read, seems to have made the deepest impression on her. She approved of the Catherine Earnshaw Romantic ideal, and loved the dramatic intensity of deep-set longing and tempestuous passion. Naturally, the Bronte sisters worked for her as well, and her imaginative life was stimulated by what enchantments nineteenth century Albion had to offer, specifically for women. Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats we shared- down to the fact that Mary claimed not to understand free-verse. This meant, of course, that anything I wrote which was not strictly formalist would go over her head. Since her paintings were largely Renaissance-derived, from her habits I learned that the two periods- Regency/Victorian England and the Renaissance- constituted a cognitive bedrock foundation for her art and life, even if, where her clothes were concerned, she maintained a contemporary stance. Because her imagination was fertile and she read constantly, Mary was also able to churn out first-rate academic writing when she needed to. So, the Grace Kelly veneer had much more beneath it than acquaintances (especially customers and co-workers at B & N) thought. As was disappointing for Mary and I, Abby Heller-Burnham was not a reader. She couldn't be- Abby was plagued with a kind of visual dyslexia which made it impossible for her to focus on texts. Numbers on pages and certain word sequences drove her crazy. When I bonded with Abs, it could be about music or her teaching me about visual art; she never showed any real interest in my poetry. Fortunately, we were both absorbed in the same social nexuses and activities, including PFS, so I didn't notice that much.
Matt Stevenson, being an avid reader of science fiction and comic books, also had a catholic streak about literature and could enjoy anything well-written and intelligent. Thus, when I would occasionally do a reading at Tritone or the Highwire with Matt accompanying me with his keyboards/effects pedals rig, his choices, from poem to poem, were always thoughtful and germane. Matt's intelligence had a polished quality which made an amusing contrast with his ragamuffin appearance. What was habitual about Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum on these levels was a contradiction. He had an English degree from Villanova; had already founded and edited a successful literary journal ("d") from Villanova and Manayunk; and had established himself as a publishing poet on a national level, from Philadelphia. Poetry jargonese was perpetually on his tongue- anaphora, enjambment, parallel structure, etc. He championed my poetry and his critiques were helpful. It's just that Jeremy had a books problem- he didn't like them very much. Pound he stuck to as to an obligation (the English department as Villanova being crammed with furious, inchoate Poundians). Yet it was impossible not to notice, as the Aughts progressed, that Jeremy's affair with literature had soured. Once the split with literature, by 2004, was made concrete, Jeremy could be seen with random, obscure texts in public (usually avant-novels in the vein of Pynchon, John Barthes, for instance) and not much else. It also needs to be stated that some of the poetry Jeremy published, in the Columbia Poetry Review and elsewhere, is interesting enough to merit consideration. But when he moved to video, photography, and graphic design, the move was more or less final. He did still have a gig drafting proposals for Venturi, Scott, and Brown in Manayunk; I met Robert Venturi through him in the mid-Aughts, who even bothered to come once to a PFS Highwire show; but Jeremy needed personal space around him which literature impinged upon.
St. George's in Philadelphia, on 7th Street between South and Bainbridge, was a bar that had an upstairs which could be used as a performance space. One night in the late summer of '99, within a few days of shifting to Philadelphia from Manhattan (briefly stationed in Glenside before the move to 21st and Race), I got the tip-off that a bunch of acts were putting on a show at St. George's (I was at Philly Java). It was a sultry night, and cloudy, threatening rain. As I ascended the stairs, I looked and saw Matt Stevenson, who I had met at Robin's Books a little less than a year before at the last Siren's Silence reading, hunched over his keyboards/effects boxes rig, and Lora Bloom reciting into a microphone. This early, "pure" version of Radio Eris, as a duo, remains my favorite. Matt was short and stocky, 5'7, wore spectacles, had a slight hobble, and topped it off with a kind of inverse sartorial splendor, making semi-rags look as unique as possible. His speaking voice was rich and memorable, and he spoke quickly and articulately, even when stoned, which he often was. That's why, at a later date, Penn kids had a problem with Matt Stevenson- when a seeming stumble-bum could out-argue them, they became visibly uncomfortable.
If I felt a certain urgency about talking to Matt at length for the first time, it is because an intuitive call had been sent out from somewhere in the universe to me- Philadelphia was going to be a cultural monster, one way or another, and it was my responsibility (and Matt's, if he cared to join me) to start the ball rolling. I managed to convey this to Matt at the upstairs bar, and began to learn Matt's quirks- even when he was deeply interested (and he was), Matt Stevenson had to be a cynical bastard. It's just that I had him, and I knew it. When we looked at what was happening onstage, it was obvious that something magical was there- as Dave and Nemon Buckery played, the skylight above them was wild with windy rain and lightning, and the phantasmagoric effect was intense, the little crowd there assembled rapt. It spoke to me as a metaphor for what Philadelphia could be culturally, and it did so with the spacy, chiaroscuro, eerie ambiance of Philadelphia at night I was already in love with.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Matt and I were joined by a third attendee. He introduced himself as Dan Baker, painter and musician. Dan was another lanky six-footer, with flaming red hair cut into a bob and a red beard to match. Dan was a transplant from Chicago, and (he inferred instantly) underworld-consonant. You could feel the dangerous edges all around him. For all of Dan's musical involvements, with Dan (for me) the paintings are the point and, for their elegant simplicity, will eventually come to light. As I left St. George's that night, forced to walk to Market East Station sans umbrella, I felt something click that was like having a sudden million dollars in the bank. In the days that followed, I moved my stuff from Glenside to 154 North 21st Street. The flat was studio- but, because the front/facade of the apartment faced east (lots of morning sun) and was all bay windows, and the living room space had loft-level high ceilings, it felt much spacier the right way. I was to live in "2A" until mid 2008. I also had a gig working at Great Scot Rittenhouse Market off of Rittenhouse Square- B & N would come later that year.
I had Matt and Dan's contact info, and other things going on- Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and I were hosting readings in Philly Java's back-room, where the Siren's Silence readings had been in '96-'98. Jeremy and I, oddly enough, knew each other from earlier in the Nineties- when, on semester breaks, I would hang out with Chris DeFranco in Manayunk, I met Jeremy and his Villanova-based "D" Magazine posse. Jeremy's unique self-presentation- Al Pacino meets Oscar Wilde, in Smiths-land- was difficult to forget. The night of St. George's, I had probably started with Jeremy at Java before migrating over. Perhaps St. George's was not posh enough for Jeremy; I had (and have) a ratty streak, and no such scruples. In fact, Aughts Philly depended on most of us having a ratty streak most of the time. Penn notwithstanding, we weren't rich kids, and didn't always bother to cultivate rich contacts that much. A perfect moment in Aughts Philly could happen anywhere, at any time, and we were all attuned to that wavelength.
Dear Adam, These
poems strike me as profound in a new way. It's their
more complete integration of form and subject that
creates meaning transcending what is on the page. But they
must be read on the page. "Day Form" is like a
struggle to create out of the mundane. And of course
the play between form and content. Maybe a little
obvious. It gives an effect of desperation (subtle)
with the first and last words "Form...splintered-".
With "To Gil Ott" you have approached
death more succintly than any other poem of yours
I've seen on the subject. A more metaphysical effect
produced by word choice and form. I like this one
better. But death is more of a meaty subject, no?
Gaetan Spurgin was a major Free School presence, partly because we all liked him, and partly because he'd been a major presence in This Charming Lab, the predecessor to PFS. The shows we'd done in 2000 (Gaetan with his band Metro, me solo, and others, including Matt Stevenson and Radio Eris) at venues like The Khyber, The Pontiac Grille (JC Dobbs), and the Killtime Warehouse in West Philadelphia, had been, at best, semi-successful, but they had bonded us socially. Later in the early Aughts, I used the This Charming Lab moniker to book readings at the Kelly Writers House at Penn (see 3/27/04) as well; the multi-media angle was gradually built into it. But the 2000 version of This Charming Lab was mostly straight rock, and Gaetan, as front man for Metro, was a selling point to get the gigs. Gaetan was tall, brawny, and statue-esque, at 5'11; had lank blonde hair usually dyed jet black; closely resembled a Goth/fetish boutique version of Hugh Grant; and had (like Matt Stevenson) a killer IQ which meant that those who condescended to him as a degenerate were stunned to find themselves articulately rebuffed.
By early '03, Gaetan was stationed in a live-in recording studio in South Philly, at 13th and...Carpenter? Ellsworth? I don't remember. I had the intriguing idea of fixing Gaetan up with Abby Heller-Burnham. I was with Mary. So, the three of us descended on Gaetan's studio one late afternoon in spring. What happened was classic Philly Free School mayhem- Abs took one look at Gaetan, decided he was declasse (though she was happy to smoke his deliciously laced weed, as we all were) and wouldn't talk to him much. Even with me there, Mary and Gaetan started flirting. Blatantly. In such a way that I was gripped with weed paranoia. So, I disrupted Gaetan and Mary and found a manner of asserting that, in this time zone/context, Mary was mine. Another little factoid worth offering up- Mary Harju is the only woman in my life who has ever caused me sustained, chronic jealousy. In those days, when Mary decided to tart it up, I would go bonkers; and she enjoyed yanking my puppet strings. Yet, significantly, she did end up following my lead. Through our stoned fog, I managed to frog-march Mary and Abby out of Gaetan's studio. Mary confessed to being attracted to Gaetan; but Gaetan had fallen for Mary very quickly, and was never quite the same again. A year later, I had broken up with Mary, and I encouraged Gaetan to go after her. The truth is what it is- had Gaetan made the right moves then, something could've happened between them. But Gaetan was otherwise engaged, and forced not to act. Their moment never returned.
Gaetan's band by '04, ElektroWorx, were at a tangent to Metro's glam/garage-punk; it was all Goth/industrial electronica, complete with (for their live shows) multi-media slides/ image presentations which made them perfect for the Highwire and the Free School shows. ElektroWorx did precisely two Highwire shows- and, for the long season Mike and I spent doing the Center City rounds recruiting, promoting, and hustling our wares, Gaetan's studio in South Philadelphia was always a port of call for us. Mike and Gaetan got on well, as Mike treated Gaetan respectfully and was gracious (as was I) about smoking Gaetan's dope. Matt Stevenson and Gaetan Spurgin had a bunch of levels in common, including high IQs and involvement in rock music production work. But because Gaetan was derisive about Radio Eris (who, honestly, I couldn't include in the Free School shows in the form they were in then because they were too dissonant), which was Matt's baby, they couldn't bond. Gaetan did visit us once while we were recording Ardent at 11th and Webster, also South Philadelphia. One punchline of this whole narrative is that ElektroWorx brought a crowd to the Highwire- the pungent Philly Goth/industrial crowd- who made an amusing contrast to the standard Philadelphia art-gallery ambiance enough that I knew these shows should be noted for posterity somehow. PFS had that stock-in-trade going: amusing juxtapositions. One perk about the Highwire shows I know Gaetan enjoyed- he got paid. As was important to the Highwire, our shows there did turn a profit.
Summer '04 to summer '05 was the heaviest year to be on the street in Aughts Philadelphia. 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 Philly Free School 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. 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 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 Philadelphia 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 New England College MFA, a rich experience. I was also, as of '04/'05, churning out many of the poems which became Returns and Beams; 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 Philadelphia was so resolutely personal; it was about self-expressive individuals, and all the collectives, from Philly Free School 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.
There was a night in October 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 in South Philadelphia was like; to 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 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; 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- her Grace Kelly-like 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 serious 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) what it would take me a number of years to realize for myself- Abby Heller-Burnham was a 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.
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 on the Penn campus (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 the Romantic pastiches of '01/'02 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.
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 Morpurgo, 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 Morpurgo same. When the final issue of Siren’s Silence was released in late ’98, which featured "Clean," 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.
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.
Hinge Online, an online journal and arts conglomerate, were influential in Philly in the early Aughts. Many of their events were an influence on the Philly Free School events at the Highwire Gallery. These early Wayback'd pages from Hinge feature three poems from my late State College days ('98) and also a lyric poem written from Philly. Cheers.