Tuli Kupferberg: For Nothing’s Sake

by Carl Wilson

This weekend, I watched the Spanish not-so-gloriously defeat the Dutch in the World Cup, and figured that would be about that: Unlike the Italians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Italians, Koreans and other past contenders, whose victories bring masses of revelers into the streets of Toronto honking horns and waving flags, there isn’t to my knowledge an especially big Spanish-expatriate community here. So I bicycled down to the Kensington Market area to attend a panel discussion about the “avant-garde” (“old school and new school”). But when I arrived in the neighbourhood I found pandemonium had broken out and there were hundreds on foot and wheels jamming the streets with Spanish flags.  It seemed anyone who spoke a Romance language had decided this win was fairly theirs to celebrate.

I watched for a little while, especially blown away by the fact that there was a stopped streetcar that had a crowd of some 40 people dancing high atop it, blowing vuvuzelas, rocking the vehicle on its tracks.

Then I went into the back of a bar, where for some reason in what was billed as kind of an open-discussion forum, the lights were dimmed to nearly black, there was a group of people on stage giving (very intelligent) semi-formal presentations, and the matter at stake was the survival of the “radical gesture.” This seemed like a strange juxtaposition. I wanted to shout, “Um, guys, there are people outside dancing on top of a streetcar!”

Not that I mistake a soccer party for a radical gesture – as others pointed out, shutting down several city blocks for a sports party is just dandy with authorities, but doing so to protest an international financial summit makes you a criminal. But such communal outpourings certainly can approach poetry, while the debate that bogged down in that dark back room about “difficulty” versus “accessibility” (as if, among other things, accessibility is not difficult) seemed only to get further away from poetry as it progressed. The participants weren’t to blame; it’s just such a hard question to frame in the present moment, or maybe a hard one to refrain from framing.

Yesterday, poet-singer Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs died, which was kind of a reminder of an idea of the avant-garde that didn’t measure itself by “difficulty” or even “innovation” (and not that all self-identified avant-gardists do now), though challenge was certainly involved. It seems the sensibility was that you are experimenting or innovating when you change the stakes, and only secondarily the form or material.

My friend Erella tells me that she knew Kupferberg in New York years ago and remembers him selling his newsprint poetry zines – the pricing structure was something like $9.99 for one, and 79 cents for two.

This other avant-garde might have been marked by sloppiness or lack of rigor at times. But then there are other definitions of rigor: The song above was recorded not long ago when Kupferberg was already housebound and blinded by a series of strokes and other illnesses (he was 86). The rest of the Fugs laid down tracks in a studio to support his home-recorded vocals. Kupferberg probably did all this – along with his regular YouTube video posts – because he understood himself to be a bohemian, an existential label, instead perhaps of being a member of the avant-garde, more a matter of aesthetic affiliation.

It doesn’t seem viable to call yourself a bohemian now, among other reasons because anticonformity has been adapted as a dominant capitalist value. (Although Tupferberg seems to have felt being foolish or clownish in that identification was better than the alternative – he’d always prefer to be on top of the streetcar.) But looking at yourself in that mirror you can see some barred doors in shadows behind your back, and wonder if they lead to a room where we could propose talking about avant-garde poetry and it wouldn’t break down into a factional fracas about criticism – which seemed more like a fight over whose fault it was that we were sitting in a cold dark place and not out playing in the sunlight of victory, however purloined.

Below is one of the Fugs’ more beloved early songs, which I won’t try to connect to all the above. It’s based on a popular Yiddish folk song about eating potatoes, day after day after day. The Fugs changed “potatoes” to “nothing,” and I’m not sure, Toto, that it’s about eating anymore. Not bad, as radical gestures go.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under carl wilson, dance, lectures, literature, music, other, poetry

One response to “Tuli Kupferberg: For Nothing’s Sake

  1. Sandro

    Wonderful post, Carl. Love the Fugs. Have very little knowledge of Yiddish music history and did not know that my favorite Fugs song was a riff on “Potatoes”. Never heard this song by Tuli either but God does it ever pay to let a youtube clip play all the way through every once in a while…