Friday, August 05, 2011


Poet Roy McBride

Poet Roy McBride died July 29, a week ago today, of multiple health problems (some of which were effects of Alzheimer's disease), at age 67. Roy was for a large part of his life a huge presence and driving force in the local poetry scene here in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He published only a couple of books of poems that I know of -- one long out of print, and one (which I haven't seen) a letterpress limited edition. He was known mainly as an oral poet, a poet of great skill with improvisation and a quietly electrifying presence when he read poems to audiences. * (See the note regarding the CD and DVD of him below at the bottom of the article.)

I first heard Roy McBride read probably about 1976, at Walker Community Church in Minneapolis, a church that for decades has given over much of its space to community organizations and activities. Sometime around then Roy organized a poetry writing group at the Pillsbury-Waite community center in Minneapolis, and I began taking part. We met Wednesday evenings, more or less weekly, around eight or ten of us initially, and gradually a few more people began showing up sometimes. We would write and read our poems together, and from time to time we did group readings at various places around the community and the city at large.

Besides Roy, other participants I remember from that time are Jim Dochniak, Linda Bryant, Kevin O'Rourke, Ivory Giles, Ruth Magler, Dale Handeen, Steve Linsner (he was also involved with the local Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater; Heart of the Beast is still around and is one of the main organizers of the large May Day parade here each spring), and myself; around the time I began showing up, poets Etheridge Knight and Mary McAnally began participating. Sometime after that poet Mike Finley started coming, and poet Mary Karr (now the author of several bestseller memoirs, and still writing poetry). I'm sure I'm forgetting some people.

One sweltering hot Wednesday evening, sometime in July 1976, five of us (Roy, Kevin, Mary, Steve and I) got on a bus in south Minneapolis headed toward downtown at evening rush hour, and began reading poems to the bus riders. (Roy had talked to the driver about it ahead of time, so he wouldn't think a bunch of people were going crazy on his bus.) The bus was fortunately air-conditioned, a good thing on a July evening. People on the bus were agape and thrilled and spellbound. People's jaws dropped and their eyes widened like the moon. We took turns reading, whoever had a poem ready. People clapped, offered comments, a few people stayed on the bus two and three blocks past their regular stops to finish listening to our poems. It was joyful and giddy.

We rode the bus through downtown to the north end of the route, then rode back the other way, planning to do the same thing. Only it turned out it was the evening of the Aquatennial parade (Aquatennial is an annual summer event in Minneapolis, made up mainly of water sports on the lakes and a couple of parades), and the bus quickly became packed with talkative smiling people going downtown to the parade, and it was so noisy we couldn't hear ourselves talk. So the reading on the way back was a washout. Oh well. We got off the bus at the same place we'd gotten on, a half block from the community center, in time for the regular Wednesday evening gathering of the poetry group.

The group continued meeting for a year or so; eventually our energies and lives became somewhat dispersed, and the group more or less stopped of its own accord. A few years later Roy published a book of poems, Levi Strauss, You've Left Your Mark on the Ass of America and Other Poems of the Seventies (Animal Press, 1982), which has been out of print for decades. I still have the book, and I spent time with it again during the past couple of weeks, when I first heard that Roy was seriously ill, and then in the days after I heard the news of his death. All of the quoted passages below are from that book.

His poems often have a joyful audacity, socially and politically aware and keen-edged, poems of great tender compassion and vulnerability. Often his poems bring a kind of fearless humor mixed with the political seriousness and ecstatic vision. Here are some lines from the long title poem "Levi Strauss, You've Left Your Mark on the Ass of America":

The anguished scream
The anguished dream of America
The battles joined
The New York Mets vs The Chicago Seven
The Kansas City Chiefs vs the Minnesota Eight
Who can win these games
Who can make rules that will make a dream come true
American emerges as a giant wet dream
                                                    full of life
                                                    full of death
The Black Panthers stalk the New York Yankees
to Lincoln Center sponsored by Leonard Bernstein

*  *  *

Men are allegedly killing men
in front of billions of people
Men driving straight into death
fasten their seatbelts
so that their insurance policies
will cover them
with a green mantle of American dollars
Men are locking their most prized possessions
in highly tuned bombs
exploding them at midnight
Americans float band-aids
fifty miles square
over tiny villages
to hide where they've been

*  *  *

Americans from Sioux City Iowa are in the capitols
of Europe are in Japan are in South America
meeting people seeing things
Can't you see Americans
Trees in Iowa plot the death of America
Dandelions sprout in the suburbs
There is no way to stop this yellow menace
Crabgrass is out to overcome all law and order
Sparrows roost in the eaves of your cities
and will not be moved
Each night the fences that hide you from your neighbors
creep inches closer to where you are sleeping

Roy was African-American, born in 1943 in Magnolia, Arkansas, and lived his early years there. When he briefly described the town once, he said that when you would approach the town on the highway, coming up over the hill the first thing you would see was a large painted Confederate flag at the edge of town. His family moved north sometime in the years after the Second World War. Roy moved to Minneapolis in 1968, and attended Macalester College in St. Paul. For many of the years I knew him he worked for a living, at least in part, teaching poetry to kids in grade schools, through the local Poets in the Schools program and through other channels. He worked at a variety of other jobs too over the years.

Roy was physically large, moved with a slow calm, spoke in a relaxed even manner. His voice was fairly high, someone nasal, and tinged with a southern accent that lingered into his later years. He seemed somewhat quiet in conversations, not saying a great deal though always paying close attention. Other people who knew him better than I did have said similar things about him.

They have eyes like the sky.

He reaches into the pools of their eyes; the lakes, the rivers
flowing down Hennepin, up Seventh, on the Mall, in the IDS.

Lonely and scared day. Ice.
We are burning and do the love.
"Hi," he says, "How are you?"

Monuments grew downtown. Are growing. Dream money.
And those with no dreams are given housing. Housing grows
around the edges of the structures and the structures grow
towards the sky and birds of startled eyes flit in the shadows.

He prowls downtown picking up the girls from the small towns;
the farms, working in the offices, the stores, the waitresses,
students. Little white birds of love.

Wounded eyes of history. Light.
Touch in the shadow of the steel beams.
Bright eyes; fields of harvest, fields of flowers,
fields of wildness beside roads.
Dark adventure of morning. Alien landscape.
Creatures of herding anon. And none. And none. Touch. Touch.

(From the poem "MN City," written in 1976.)

Over the years Roy and various other friends organized further poetry writing and performing groups, in which I also took part. One met for a little while in 1981 at a used book store on East Lake Street in south Minneapolis. Another, a few years later, met for a while at May Day Books, then located in a neighborhood a little south and east of downtown; we informally named the group Poetry for the People, and again did a number of group readings around the city.

The Secretary of Defense
is known in some circles
as "The Casting Director."

For many years now
young traffic victims
and cardiac arrests
are shipped secretly
half-way around the world,
wardrobe people
stepping in the chest
of Richard Smith from Boston
to place a blood uniform
on the stiff body
of Jerry Jones from Topeka
who wilts under the hot sun
of Southeast Asia
for CBS news
a few hours later. [...]

[...] And when the son is missing
men from Washington
rush to the town,
to the hometown of the boy
to brief the family,
relatives and friends
and a history begins.
Old Silas says,
"Yep, I remember the day
Jimmy went into the Marines";
even though Jimmy served him
at Harder's Gas Station
two days before
he dived into the lake
never to see the surface again.

(From the poem "Vietnam -- from a Secret Document," written in 1970.)

Sometime during the early 1980's, Roy McBride collaborated with a local filmmaker and a local dance company, to make a short film titled "Shinder's to Shinder's", a kind of impressionistic and choreographed montage about one city block on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. (The film title referred to the two locations of a bookstore that stood at each end of the block -- the stores, which had been there for many years, sold a mix of cheap paperbacks, newspapers and magazines, and "adult" magazines.) Roy read/spoke/improvised a poem in the film, partly on camera, partly as voice-over; the film showed some documentary-style scenes of the street, and some scenes where dancers did choreographed moves and gestures of people hanging out on the street, asking for spare change, etc.

The film was shown downtown, outdoors at after dark, two weekends in a row, projected on a billboard on the roof of one of the corner bookstores, with large speakers so it was audible over the whole intersection even above the sound of busy Friday and Saturday night traffic. Large crowds gathered for each showing. It was excellent.

Some of Roy's poems are large, evocative of epic (if not literally booklength); others are brief and terse and keenly focused.

We, in shiny steel and chrome,
drive through
the littered streets
past the rotting
houses and stores.

"Ain't no work around here.
Everybody's on welfare.
Your daddy ain't changed.
Your mama's been sick.
You shoulda wrote her.
Boy, you show have changed.
How much you weigh now?"

Getting out of the car
a pool of blood glows
in the dirty snow.
"J.D. cut Willie last night,"
my uncle said.

(From the poem "Home," written in 1972.)

Some number of years ago, Roy and his wife Lucinda Anderson bought a farm in western Wisconsin, and they and their daughter Laci began living there during the summers; they lived in Minneapolis (sometimes house-sitting here) during the rest of the year. In recent years I didn't see or talk with Roy as much as I had in the time prior to that, as we each settled into our lives, though I would hear word of him fairly often through the general grapevine.

During the past year or so I heard news here and there that he might be having health problems, though it was mostly second- and third-hand and without much detail. Then this past month general word went out that he was in the hospital seriously ill. I was able to make it to the hospital to visit him briefly -- he recognized me as soon as I came into the room, though the rest of the conversation went in every possible direction, and he was in obvious pain at times. Lucinda was there and we talked for a little while. It was a good visit, even as difficult as it was to see a longtime friend in pain and struggling for life.

And as it turned out, it was the last time I saw Roy. He died four days later.

News of his death went like a wave through the local poetry world here -- people telling their stories and recollections of Roy, shaken at the news that he's gone. The family is talking about having a memorial for him, maybe in September, though no date or specific plans have been set yet. It sounds like there may also be a poetry gathering at some point in remembrance and celebration of Roy and his work -- nothing definite yet, and there is still much talk going about the idea. I'm guessing something will take shape eventually.

Because Roy McBride published few books and in small editions, his work is hard to find in print; however there is a good CD available of him reading his poems, and a DVD of him released within the past year or two.

The CD is Traffic, compiled from tapes originally recorded in about 1985; Roy reads his poems accompanied by Minneapolis musician Willie Murphy playing keyboard. Willie Murphy, who also produced the CD, is locally renowned the bandleader and keyboard player of Willie and the Bumblebees (later Willie and the Bees); among their memorable credits, they were the band on Bonnie Raitt's first album, which Willie also produced. The CD is available in Willie Murphy's website, here (in the row of CD's pictured in the page, it's the one furthest to the right.) The CD includes the printed text of the poems.

The DVD is A Poet Poets, produced by Mike Hazard. The DVD is available from Hazard's Center for International Education (the CIE) in St. Paul, here. I watched the DVD for the first time within the past couple of weeks, and I love it.

Many other excellent poetry videos are also available from the CIE; the main page of the website is here. Also in the main page, if you scroll down to the entry dated August 1, 2011, there's a brief item about Roy McBride with some additional details about his life.

I'll finish with a few more lines from one of his poems. Each time I read this one, I'm almost startled by the absolute raw openness, the undisguised tenderness and pain and simple honesty in the poem.

I am lost
in the shop
of Central Junior High
trying to finish
the electric motor
the other guys finished
in seventh grade.
Perhaps my mechanical ability
can only be found
in the mountains
of the moon [...]
[...] I was eighteen
before my first signs
appeared in the mirror.
That was three years
after I stopped dreaming
of muscles.
I would be ugly,
but I like
being beautiful more.
Your body
like a warm machine
encased in leather
moves through
the icy air
of Minnesota.
You are my dream
of love,
but I
am no good
with my hands.

(From the poem "Love Song for Debra Wiley," written in 1972.)

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