Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bob Watt: Great Inferior Poet Passes

How many beautiful bodies/can Dylan garner a night --/ 50 - 100? How many can James Dickey garner'/two - or three?/How do all the girls with beautiful bodies /who get aced out, for dickey or dylan feel? - Poetry & Beautiful Bodies (1970)

Came to learn from Dave Murray recently that great Milwaukee poet Bob Watt died. It happened in January. It was old news to many, but it was new news to me. This set the mind neuros to popping. I think I’m going back to the time when Bob Watts’ poetry first blew my mind. I remember when I first heard Bob Watts poetry: it was sudden and familiar. Music of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Midwest. Most importantly it said that poetry was right here, where we were. Not far. Moreover it did not have to wear a sportscoat. One with leather elbow patches. Watt was an exterminator. On the outskirts. His obit tells us he was in the service in Japan. That gave him a jump on Zen, maybe. 

 In a local night club, a girl got drunk/And yelled, “I’m a heavier Zen Master than Watt is!”/ I consider this a good turn of events./Why should I do all the enlightening?/Let others do some of the work. –Heavier Zen Master, 1970 

In fact, his poetry didn’t have to be that damn good to matter. Watt was a genuine, in his own words, minor poet, which was his unique take on the commanding ethos then, before punk, Do something, don’t focus on how good it has to be. As much as anything his poems told a story. Often they were prose poems. For the right audience - us - it did matter.

Watt’s poetry: It was disarmingly understandable – it was about the place we lived – and – it was humorously offbeat. He liked to give things a Zen twist or koan-style questioning addenda. Make the poem an encounter, an adventure. As much as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, he became a beacon holder, and looking back at our high school poetry pub (Garage, one issue, 1967), I can still see the effect of Wattage.

Among all things he could be he could be disarming in outlook. His was one that said anyone could do poetry, and that there was poetry in Wisconsin, that things might best be viewed weirdly.

I don’t have the poem, but I still carry the image of one of Watt’s. It was read at a St Catherine’s high school assembly in Racine: He had a poem about a parish priest waking up in the morning to find empty wine bottles littering his lawn. As I recall: the ending motto, familiar, a refrain, was “We are great and growing greater.” (It was the Wisconsin state slogan at the time.)

So, we’d were there in the assembly then thinking about the issue of discarding used wine bottles –something many of us had encountered by that point, some among the giddiest among us could probably visualize dropping them on the padre’s lawn. We probably hadn’t yet absorbed the pathos of the whole ‘were great and growing greater” thing yet, but we were getting there. Bob, well and the Beatles too, pushed us over that edge.

 The brand of surrealism was native, could have travelled the vaudeville circuit. Like the Marx brothers. It worked for high school kids then (and later).

It was transformational. Watt, introduced as the exterminator poet, was read that day at St Cat’s by Roger Steffens who had a road show then called “Poetry for people who don’t like poetry”.

THE RID O'PEST STORY – When we went from Racine to Milwaukee and Madison too we were primed for Watt Watt was on top of the scene that read at the Av-ant Garde, that hung out at the university, that appeared in Kaleidoscope. It included poets Barbara Gibson, Moby Dick, Bob Reitmann…Kathleen Wiegner.. many others .. but Bob was on top, the poor man’s beacon. Cleveland in the 60s had D.A. Levy. Other places had others. Milwaukee had Bob Watt. He was weird, calm, polite, mellow – would not have done well at a slam. What best he was not was he was not was an intellectual.

Dave remembers at Cambridge Castle he collected the rent. He was also the bug guy. He came to remove the roaches. Little wonder, poetry in the hands of the intellectuals was abhorrent to Bob, and to us. We wanted our poetry, but we wanted our Braves and Packers, Schlitzes and Millers, at the same time. Keep the pretense, give us the vision. Poesy egalitarian. Poetry that might say, like the DeMarks on a bus one day: “We are no better than you.” Laziness was a virtue too. Surrounded as we were by hardworking and sometime sour burghers, there was a need of a pointless Zen. Watt had the Zen, the Milwaukee Zen. God, Milwaukee needed Zen.

Bob read, and people went to Bob Watt readings. We did too. And we got to see at first hand the Watt metre. Some of the philosophy was like Charles Shultz. That was ok. Like a gerbil standing on his hind legs, he read his poetry. To people.

When I start reading the audience is strong, I / am weak as I go I lay certain notions on them,/  they start to run… / They seem so confident to begin with that I can/Hardly slow down enough to avoid running some down/ Under the wheels of this poor man’s zen masters machinery. -Audience on Balance, 1970 

THIS BOOK INSULTS WOMEN - So there he was, around 1971, on top of the little bitty part of the poetry world that ran from North Water St. to the Lake – and from E. Juneau up to UWM. And trouble lurked. You see, Bob had this thing for taking pictures of naked women. In this way on the one hand he was like great Renaissance painters. On the other hand the business cards were unseemly. He handed them out, for example, in the UW Madison quadrant, and they were an invitation – sometime to young run-run-runaways to pose. Many great people jumped in and got with the Watt twat boogie happily. But sometimes he’d hand out poems in the quadrangle – this is Madison now.. and you might wonder if sole purpose was a Polaroid, not a great moment of art.

You might wonder about the purpose. In a way, for me Bob’s downswing was he got into something like pornography. And it was anathema to the Wisconsin Woman’s movement, for sure, It was them who maybe could have more humor, but who had a fair point in not being kind to his vague sort of philosophy. He exacerbated things. His poems and books would say: "This poem insults woman." An infantile response, to be nice. Still, a high point of my poetry career was when Bob came to a 39-cent reading I did with Jeff DeMark, Dana Poissin, Jim Haas, Natawa, and cherished others in 1977. I shook his hand and thanked him, cause for me, it was a full loop. And honor.

Jeff DeMark speaks: I did a couple readings with Watt and his crew in Madison. One of them was at Rocky Rococo's' Pizza shop on GIlman street just as it opened...Watt had a few of his acolytes with him and they were wearing these bizarre wool masks with long noses and other stuff and they were all reading "Bob Watt poems," trying to imitate him. Of course, none of them could come close to his style, which was an anti-style really. I found him very funny and surreal and he was always sweet and encouraging to me. He came to a bunch of my little happenings. 
When I was working as a substitute English teacher at Eureka high in the early 90s the teacher once gave me a week to teach American modern poetry. I brought in TS Elliot, Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, W.C. Williams and many more but the one thing those students loved more than any other poet was Bob Watt. They instantly got that "inferior poetry" thing...just write, even if it is terrible, at least it's YOUR thing and people can't take that away from you... I remember on the back of one of his books he had a picture of Jackie Kennedy and she was saying "Inferior poetry." 
He did have car for his Rid-O-Pest business with a large bug on top. He said he was a zen master who didn't believe in killing and would first try to talk the bugs into coming out....maybe he was a con artist but he was funny and original and I had many good talks with him...he fascinated me. He was more interesting than a bunch of these very pretentious poets I did readings with on Williamson Street at Gallery 853...he lacked their pretension.

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