Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cozy & Loud as a Camel in the Rain: An Interview with Mr. Tod Perry

This is our third in a series of posts about Cornell University in the late 1950s, when literary legends Thomas Pynchon ('59) and Richard Fariña were in attendance.

Our first two posts (you can read them here and here) chronicled our hunt for a couple of rumored photos from this time/place and spiraled out further and further as we examined the successful group of students who helped pave the way for the 60s countercultural revolution. 

The more we learned about this time in Cornell, the more we felt that this was an under-appreciated nexus of talent and events, including the 1958 protest against Cornell’s in loco parentis policy that precursored the wider student activism of the 60s.

A couple of the people we wrote about in the first two posts contacted us and were kind enough to answer some questions that we shot their way. The first was Mr. Carl P. Leubsdorf, (‘59), who was an Associate Editor and frequent contributor to the Cornell SUN (student newspaper), and who--under the guise of "Dr. Ivan Cbarl"--was featured in a series of mock-duelling photos in the SUN along with Fariña and others whom we discussed in our first post.

The next key player to contact us was Mr. Robert "Tod" Perry (Feb. '59). Both Mr. Perry and Mr. Leubsdorf seemed happy to discuss these pivotal times at Cornell, although they were both respectively protective of Mr. Pynchon’s privacy. Mr. Perry, for example, asked that before we post anything he provided, we let him: 
“…review what is related to our correspondences.  I really mean to honor the privacy of my friends where it seems appropriate.  It is hard to define tho' what really is appropriate since you two have a genuine interest in learning about that period.”
We have also, in our own way, tried to respect Mr. Pynchon's wishes, and we did our best to prevent placing anyone in an awkward situation. We have focused, for example, more generally on these times at Cornell and on Fariña and his friends' escapades, including the lives of the people kind enough to contact us.

We are going to focus here on one of the many talented students who attended during this time: poet Tod Perry. We will write a subsequent piece focusing on our conversations with Mr. Leubsdorf, if we continue to have his okay.

The Sub-standard Disclaimer
Please note that we are not reporters. We were not paid to do this. We did this out of our own curiosity to learn more about a fascinating time and a talented group of people. I say this because I hope that readers will enjoy this and use our comments feature to help share more information and enthusiasm with us, as well as to let us know if we've gotten anything wrong. As always, we would appreciate hearing from anyone we discuss, hopefully as an opportunity to learn more, but we'd even welcome a "hey, knock it off" from anyone who would rather not be so publicly discussed.

Okay, so enough background—let's get to business.

Tod Perry
Mr. Perry is a published (and we think strong) poet. After attending Cornell, he attended the renowned writing workshop in Iowa. His poetry has been featured in Prairie Schooner, Contact, Epoch, the New Yorker, and some anthologies, although much of it was lost as publications folded and Mr. Perry moved to Europe.

More recently, in 2012, Mr. Perry was a winner in the Robert Frost International Poetry Contest.

But why is this fellow so important to our research? In the words of C. Michael Curtis ('56), one time roommate of Fariña and a SUN contributor who went on to become the fiction editor at The Atlantic Monthly, “With 'the whole sick crew' there was Tom Pynchon and Farina, and Tod Perry” (source, a honkin' big PDF). Likewise, Baxter Hathaway, an influential writing instructor at Cornell, referred to a "triumvirate" of "Pynchon-Farina-Perry". 

Mr. Perry was also one of the four students suspended following the 1958 Cornell demonstration. The other three suspendees were J. Kirk Sale, Richard Fariña, and David Seidler – all close friends with Pynchon. (Note that Peter Wheelwright, '61, was also temporarily suspended. We don't have a good understanding of his involvement with the people we've written about. If you do, please let us know.) 

After graduating from Cornell, Mr. Perry also spent some time in NYC with Pynchon and Fariña. He eventually wound up living part of the year in Key West, while living most of the time in Germany where he tells us:
[I] have a small business that keeps us going, Been here since early 1970.  That explains why most everything left in the USA just drifted off, including almost everything I wrote before coming to Europe. I have almost enough again now for a small volume of poems but most important I feel at home with my work now more than ever.
In our original piece about Cornell in the late 50s, we noted the following about Mr. Perry:
Paul Nunn Cleaver wrote an article that discusses Seidler, Sale, Lesham, Osterholm and a Todd Perry, among others, who could have been in these pictures. This Todd Perry could have been the Robert Perry charged in the wake of the riot (see for example, here, and note that both Todd/Tod and Robert Perry seem to have links to Florida). Note that Hathaway spells "Tod" with [] "d". Anyone out there know if Robert was also called "Tod" or "Todd?" There doesn't seem to be much about him. Cleaver indicates he died of alcoholism, but he seems to have taken second place in the 2012 Robert Frost Poetry and Haiku Contest.
Mr. Perry responded to our remarks on 10/5/13, with the following comment on our blog: "In fact I am alive. tod perry". He later helped clear up our confusion over his name: "My name is Robert Michael Perry. Tod is what my mother called me, and so does everyone else. I was suspended with the others." And later, after we'd both called him "Robert", he quipped, "Both of you might want to address me as Tod, rather than Robert.  Even after all these years, using Robert makes me feel as tho' I am in court."

Daurade responded with an apology for passing along an incorrect rumor and an invitation to correspond. Mr. Perry was kind enough to follow up with series of emails, which we have rearranged to form the appearance of a more formal interview. There were three participants:
  • P – Perry (Mr. Robert “Tod” Michael Perry)
  • G – “Gid” (a.k.a. Dave)
  • D – “Daurade” (a.k.a. Steve)
P: So then […] what are your questions?  And why are you so interested in this period?  Were you […] Cornellians?

I'll answer just about anything I can remember, tho' there was a sense of privacy that is peculiar to Tom, and to a degree I share that trait.  So what I answer depends on what is asked.

D: Mr. Perry, I first got interested in the "riot" after reading Fariña's novel.

P: I haven't read that in a while.  It was a fun read.  I was the character with the bright blue eyes.  Good old Dick gets me killed off.  I better re-read the book.

D: I was an assistant librarian at Olin at the time (early 90's) and found it interesting to associate those events with the Cornell I knew at the time.  The immediate genesis of our post was the dueling photo, which I had read about and describe finding in the post.  Our blog is about small details in history and we figured these events were an appropriate topic for us.  As we looked into it, we got caught up in the old SUN issues, details piled up and we exhausted what we could find in them.  So we left a lot of unanswered question.  Here's our first list of questions.  We respect your privacy and that of the other people involved, especially when it come to Mr. Pynchon, so we won't be put out if you decline to answer anything.

P: Good, thank you.

G: I really enjoyed Thomas Pynchon's novels, which were my immediate pull. Farina's music and writing pulled me in deeper. Once I started looking into these times, I found the idea of the protest at Cornell to be really fascinating. It seems like it was a sort of precursor to many later student protests—although I guess that I am not sure if it was something that led to other actions or if it was something that arose around the same time frame as part of the more general zeitgeist.

P: I think it was a precursor of things later.  Also there were some "older" students on campus, veterans of the Korean "police action".

G: Either way, I was really impressed that such a talented group of students were at school together. Their later accomplishments are outstanding. I also went to a small private school and spent time with a group of creative, tight, talented, and motivated group of students, but we did not go on to this kind of success. Why not? This question kind of pushed me into looking into the Cornell crew of '58. What did they do/have that we did/do not? A combination of motivation and talent at a younger age is my best guess, although how important was the protest and its fall out (including, perhaps, Nabokov's resignation)? I still ask these questions to myself often: What did they do right, or did they have the curse of interesting times thrust upon them?

P: Seems there were so many talented people, off the bat the other names like David Lougee, Dee Snodgrass, Bill Dickey, students like Kris Osterholm, Emil Karfiol, Lee Meyers, a brilliantly delightful law grad student and his buddy.  There were other good writers too, plenty. Ruth McKendry. Bob Tuttle.  I'm sure with time I could come up with more names […] 

At Cornell there was another rather well-known poet, but can't remember the name.  That saddens me.  He was a faculty member.  Too bad.  And let's not forget Dave Seidler, who was a playwright.  I understand he was somehow the force behind the diction in the Oscar winning Kings Speech film […]

I don't think anybody did anything or had any sense that our time as a group led up to the demonstrations, or that we became something on the pivot of that moment.  I do admit being amazed that there were folk songs being sung about us, as heroes of sorts.  It may have been more pivotable for others.  I had already pivoted.

D: I see a group of people who pushed each other to further themselves.

P: I don't think anyone pushed or was pushed.  There was one great circus master in retrospect, and that would be Dick.  He was certainly the catalyst for much mischief, and he had some energetic and willing near mad men ready for most anything.

G: Can you point us to anything that Pynchon or Fariña wrote (or collaborated on) in The Cornell Daily Sun under pseudonyms?

P: No, if there was a collaboration, that may have come after I graduated in Feb 1959, leaving my pals in Ithaca for some months before we all were back together again in NYC.

D: In our [previous] article, we wrote, "If Minstral Island is a jagged look at concerns Pynchon and Sale would address throughout their lives, mightn't the SUN articles also have some use, however minimal, in that regard?" Any thoughts on this speculation?

P: I suppose so.  There was always a whole lot of writing going on, and Tom liked nothing better than writing three penny opera type librettos.  Kirk was phenomenal in that he could master so many topics. He is smart and educated and who was to know then, a real good poet in his own right.

D: Any other anecdotes about Kirk Sale—what do you think of his secessionist views?

P: Plenty about Kirk too, but I think Curt needs his flanks covered these days.  It seems strange that secession puts him in bed with some odd groups.  Just this week I wrote him a short comment about that.  He replied that what was important is that you get in bed.

G: As we've already said, we think this was a fascinating time and place to have gone to college. What a talented group of students! Do you have any stories you'd care to share or misconceptions you'd care to clear up?

P: OK, I see so much emphasis on leadership. I think Kirk has written on that elsewhere in regards to our participation, something like Dick held my one leg and Tod the other. That is true, and something else I had forgotten.  I don't think the riot started out as that. Kirk was embroiled in this battle (remember, the whole country could not buy Lady Chatterly's Lover then), and as it got bigger, we all dived in to support him, and the theme. After all it was Spring.  But there was a sense that there was a turning away from the world of Republican and Eisenhower years. I believe we were filled with an idea/feeling that we could create literature and a new politics.  None of us were enthralled with the work coming out of the West Coast, I remember some years later "the whole sick crew" (surely at this time Kirk, me, Dick, Tom and I don't know who else) at a party sitting on the floor not 5 yards away from Allen Ginsberg and his sick crew and not a word went back and forth from the two groups. Ginsberg's group was getting lots of PR, but we thought, or at least I thought, we were writing something possibly great, and these guys were breaking glass but not making more than noise. I can't say that is what my pals thought, but we did keep to ourselves. Also we were plenty tanked, as maybe they were too.

D: As friends, did you actually refer to yourselves as the "whole sick crew"? (Why not? We called ourselves "Alpha Las Vegas".) How did you get to know all those guys?

P: No, we did not refer to our selves as the whole sick crew.  That was more of a tag, something Tom used that sort of caught on I guess.  I can still hear Tom using that with his broad LI accent.

D: Mr Perry, so, if I get your comment about "leadership" correctly, the "riot" was much more of a spontaneous eruption?  Why did the administration target you four....why were you identified as the "leaders"?

P: I think Kirk was arguing the points of the demonstration, but the administration was resolute in keeping the restrictive codes in place.  This just would not work, and plenty of people were steamed up about this.  One young woman, a good student, I wish I could remember her name, was tossed out of school because it was determined she had relations with another student.  That was a real harm to someone for no good reason.  I know I was surprised to see Kirk engaged in preparing notes to say at a demonstration, and to see making posters at the College St. apartment he shared with Dick.  At that time I was living on Seneca St in an apartment shared with Tom, and two other fellows.  One of them was Nick Grieven, the other I cannot remember the name.

[...] One more note:  I didn't answer your question of why we four were made "the leaders".  This was clearly Kirk's show.  We were his back up as it grew outsized, out of hand.  Dick had plenty of contacts with the architects, mainly the Latins, who said they had plenty of experience with demonstrations.  That was a scary thought.  Who knows what gangs in frat houses around the gorges might have done.

Matters were made worse when the PA system broke down.  So there was a large crowd, energy, and no one could hear anything more.  So off the masses went in various directions.  Dick and I were probably pretty visible, but we had little to do with any riots except that we were expressing our objections to the stand of the administration.  Rather, Kirk was expressing his position.

I don't recall that Tom had anything at all to do with that affair.  The four were Kirk, Dick, me and Dave, and our involvement was in that order.

G: Can you tell us if Pynchon, Sale, Fariña, and/or yourself appear in any of these photos of the student protests (see the attached photos which we explored in our earlier posts)? If so, can you point them out for us? These photos all appeared in the SUN's coverage of the student protest, although the first one is copied from an AP reprint in the NY Daily (by the way, President Malott is the person circled in this first photo). If it helps to see these images in the context of the SUN, here are links: images 1 and 2; image 3.

P: I think so.  In the third photo.  I have attached the cut out, and Dick is on the left and I to the right:

G: Who was using the name Ludlow in the photos? Just to clarify, in the third picture on our first blog post, was that Guy du Puy on the left and Ludlow on the right?

P: No idea.

G: Did Fariña write the dueling article?

P: I don't recall the duel at all.  It may have come after I left, but if not, it was just part of the usual stuff. I do not think that is Tom with Dick in the duel.  If anyone, it might be Al Kurdle.  He would also be the likely impersonator F. Scott Fitzgerald as that was his guru.

D: We'd like to know more about the pantheon of characters and pseudonyms [from the SUN]. Aladar, Cbarl, Hochkappler, Ludlow, du Puy, Huntington...what other adventures did they get into, other than those we cited?

P: Cannot help here.  It might have come from the confusing visit from Oswald LeWinter, a fabulous phony who showed up in various disguises over a period of years.  One time as Rommel's son.  Dick got taken in every time but was also very impressed.

D: As for Oswald LeWinter, I just looked him up and he got me very intrigued.  When you say he showed up, what do you mean?  Was he a regular visitor to Cornell or something?

P: He popped up 3 times I believe. Dee Snodgrass all riled up too.  Dick was completely taken in by the son of Rommel impersonation.  I think it ended badly for Dick.  Loss of money, loss of a girlfriend too I vaguely remember, and for a time loss of pride.

G: Do you know why Sale's arm was in a sling in photos of the protest?

P: I remember the arm was broken, but I can't remember how or why.

D: I know that the "riot" has been written about quite a bit so I was hoping to ask a few more questions as we go along? One thing I was wondering is if you could speak a little bit about the writing culture in general at Cornell.  It seems like a lot of talented writers were together at the same time and that you had some excellent professors to stimulate that.  Baxter Hathaway seems like a great guy.  Of course, having Nabokov on staff was pretty cool too!

So my questions: Could you tell us your impression of the writing program and culture at Cornell?

P: It was fabulous, more like an immersion.  I sometimes think I learned by osmosis there.  No one said that we were in a period that would be regarded as great.  We just felt without being self conscious we would do great things.  Everyone around us was writing something ambitious or lyrical and interesting.

We just expected a creative experience all the time I guess.  153 Goldwyn Hall was as much a hang out as the editorial offices of EPOCH magazine. 

[…] Jim McConkey […] was like a mentor to both me and to Dick.  He had taught at Montana I recall, and Baxter Hathaway brought him into the faculty.  He, Ammons, + Walter Slatoff, were faculty located I think at the Epoch office at 153 Goldwyn.  Jim is an accomplished novelist [and] short story writer, […] for sure he was a pillar in the Cornell writing scene.  He also talked Dick and me out of at least one outrageous prank.

G: You were surrounded by talented crew at Iowa! I like this idea of bringing together so many hard working people. That's something where I think the Internet has helped--a great tool for bringing people in contact, perhaps collaborating, or perhaps just being motivated by like-minded people.

P: Yes, the Internet has been a game changer, Still, I think poets need to interact.  I hear from people that the workshop environment has changed in ways that the old guard is not so happy with.  For me the old guard were the teachers of people like Dickey, Justice, Snodgrass.  These would be Lowell, Berryman and others who were mythical, and whose spirits were always in the air.

D: You corresponded quite a bit with Hathaway—some of your letters are in his archives—what is your opinion of his role in all of your writing lives?

P: I didn't know I wrote often to Baxter Hathaway.  [ed. - We were probably mistaken in our previous question. Looking back through Hathaway papers, we found only one mention of Perry in box 4 folder 21.] He [Hathaway] was the head of the program, but I never had a course with him. I just had conversations I guess when I was in 153 Goldwyn, and then there were frequent socials with Baxter Hathaway in attendance, and also senior professors like Mike Abrahms, and if I recall Robert Adams (not so sure here) and plenty of profs in between.

I may have had some correspondence with Baxter when I was at Iowa.  While at Iowa I think I had two poems published in Epoch.  I am pretty certain Baxter H. had a lot to do with my getting funds at Iowa because my undergrad grades were marginal at best.  My learning took place more at night.

D: Do you recall if there was some scandal around Nabokov and more importantly, was he as good a teacher as writer?  (Lolita to me being one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, but otherwise I don't really know his oeuvre.)

P: I don't know of any scandal with him.  I never took a course with him either, tho' I got plenty of feedback from Leigh Buchanan who did.

G: I believe that Nabokov left while you were at Cornell. According to Hathaway, this was partly stemming from in-fighting among the faculty of the English Department, a tussle for power between scholars and creative writers, like Nabokov. Lolita came out in the US in '58, which was not only possibly embarrassing to other faculty members at Cornell, but it sounds like it helped provide Nabokov with the funds to move on from Cornell.

In '59, a student named Alan Metcalf (perhaps you knew him?) wrote story for the SUN called Christmas Tale that seems to be a satire commenting on Nabokov (it features a foreign professor with a butterfly collection who scares students with an eagle named Hubert who swoops after students -- not exactly discrete, in other words). I have to confess, however, that I don't really understand the satire beyond the surface references; it seems to commingle commentary about Cornell's in loco parentis policy alongside commentary about Nabokov and events that led to his leaving Cornell.

Perhaps none of this rings a bell, but if it does, we were hoping you might have some insights to the events surrounding Nabokov's departure or insights into the Christmas Tale that you could share.

P: I only recall that Nabokov left quickly and that seemed a result of his financial success.

D: Also, more delicate [...] Are there any anecdotes you can share with us about Fariña?  Did you stay in touch at all after you left Cornell?  I'm sure this must be a source of some sad memories so I apologize beforehand if this is an unwelcome question.

P: There are so many.  Some funny, some dangerous.  As I mentioned Dick loved The Compleat Practical Joker (a Cornellian) and we were always conspiring to pull off something memorable.  I should say Dick would be in the lead on these.  As you may know many thought of Dick as a self promoter, as Dee Snodgrass commented once, he had this thick Irish sweater but nothing much under it. That is really how I saw Dick too.  I had that in common with Dave Seidler.  On the other hand that was only one side of the truth.  Dick really was a deep friend of mine.  I almost saw him drop into the raging Triphammer Gorge when the cable broke as he descended into the gorge. By some miracle, his descent ended as he lay prone on the last ledge before his certain death.  I saw this like in slow motion, and then I also had weeks of aggrandisement in the telling how he, Hemingway-like had flirted once again with disaster, and his time was not to be now.  Certainly there were gods who watched him especially.

I think it was about then that I sent two lyrical poems to the Writer and submitted using Dick's name.  No one knows this I don't think.  They were accepted and the editors spoke to him about them. He went into a tizzy, people imitating him "already", but then there was a second explanation:  these were truly 18th century lyrical poems with his name applied.  Dick took them to Mike Abrahms, sr authority, and he apparently told Dick these were modern, the word choices and diction made it 20th century.  It was a great laugh.  And for me it was a strange kind of breakthrough.  I wrote these with ease; they were exactly the opposite of the tortured things I was doing, or trying to do.  In a way it gave me structure.

I found later that I have several styles I slip into back and forth, and the easiest for me to write, and what is most liked publicly is this "easy" voice.  I never told anyone (I hope) because I was a bit sheepish.  Dick was so pumped up over it.  I thought it was a bit mean.  Nothing was ever mentioned again from any side.  I bet someone knew.

Dick wrote me several times while I was at Iowa, and he even came roaring thru town arriving at Vance Bourjailey's with a shot deer over the fender arriving in the dead of winter out of Montana.

We were in touch also in NYC.  I remember the night he breezed into the White Horse on Hudson Street showing the bandage on his arm as he was to marry Caroline Hester.  Years later after I got back from Puerto Rico, and was working while living in New Jersey, Dick had me join him and Mimi at some parts (Vanity Fair sticks in my mind for some reason).  He was playing a zither and she sang, I think.  He wanted me to drop everything and come to California and live in his compound and write songs for Joan and crew.  I did not,  I had children.  I should have I think.  I just never had the instinct Dick had to do things the easy way.  He knew that, and that was one of the strange things about our friendship.  We just had lots of fun together, and in many other ways thought much alike.

D: Likewise the following [is more delicate]. Are there any Pynchon stories you could share with us regarding his writing habits at the time, which do not violate his well-known request for privacy?

P: Tom was so prolific, so capable.  In the background I always hear the Rakes Progress, which I think I knew by heart.  It always was on the hi fi Tom had in his room where we lived on Seneca St.

I do remember one of his periodic lock downs for 3 days in his room because he wanted to write an opera, maybe it was over two weeks with one severe 3 day lock down.  To write the opera (his first with 3 acts) he had to learn Italian first.  That did it.  True or not he was confirmed a genius.

Finally, going back to the culture at Cornell then, I saw no change in the intensity of talent at Paul Engle's Iowa: Al Lee, Bill Brown, Mark Strand, Annette Basalyga, Donald Justice, Mike Harper, Robert Berner, Phillip Roth, Walter Travis(?), Jerry Bumpus, Jim Crenna, Vern Rutsala (an excellent poet and straight thinker), Tad Richards, there were more, many more plus visits from previous years all friends of the workshop ringmaster Don Justice--  Henri Coulette, Phil Levine, Bob Mezzy, Chris Wiseman, people like Kim Merker, bars like Irene Kenny's, politicos, musicians, frequent visits by people like Karl Shapiro, WH Auden.  Hard to remember so many talents.  […] The poet Charles Wright, and also Steve(?) Parker.  And Nick Crome.  And for sure Knute Skinner.  I hope I have not forgotten other really talented writers […] I am uneasy about the name of people I forgot to mention. […] Verlin Cassill (RV Cassill) at Iowa […] was a faculty writer, always it seemed involved with Chuck Wright.  I had no classes with him but I was to be found often at the same parties late, late at night.  He was for sure one of the many top fiction people with Bourjaily and Phil Roth. 

I had less contact with Morty Marcus and Lew Turco.  I know I met both of them, in Kenny's I recall talking with Lew and also Bill Brady, another good poet.  Morty and Lew were associated with a group of Iowa poets and writers before my arrival, but somehow made extended visits during my time.  I had several good evenings with Morty but Lew I recall meeting only once.

Then there was a fine teacher of translations by the name of Fitzgerald.  Don Justice had me look into translations, and that was a wonderful training that led to writing some prose poems.

G: It seems like a number of your friends from Cornell ended up in NYC after graduating: Pynchon, Farina (off and on, I think), Sale, and others. I suppose that makes sense since you all went to school fairly close to the city. I really loved reading about Farina's adventures in NYC in "Positively 4th Street". I also can't help but imagine that spending this time together really helped encourage you all to stay focused on writing, which contributed to your successes. Can you share any more about this time?

P: I don't know how much focus there was.  There were two locations in NYC, the  "west side flophouse" on 84st and West End or was it Riverside (in those days not much gentrified at all), and the East side "flophouse" a five story walk up between York + 1st ave in what was then a slum building with armies of cockroaches.  I had left Ithaca after graduating in February 59 and then I think it was in June that the rest came down from Ithaca.  (Hard to figure this out because I thought Dick had already left and was at an ad agency, but then it must be that he returned to Ithaca after I left.)

I was rooming with Robin Palmer first on 79th street on the east side.  This was a room with no kitchen, no bath except in the hall.  So I guess then that I am confused on the time, because later we had the 49th St place, and even later I was back at the 79th St rooming house.

Generally any one of the crew just stayed at either place depending on what side of town they were on. Walking up 5 flights made the East side place even more undesirable I think, so the center of our group would be the West side location.  There I think it was Tom and Kirk who lived there, and then somehow Dick and Bob Tuttle.  The west side was also easier for direct subway shots downtown to the village.  Often we would yoyo late night on the returns past our stops.  A miracle we were  not robbed and beaten several times.  Sometimes on these late returns uptown Kirk and Bob Tuttle would amuse themselves by playing chess from memory, making moves in their heads with no board.

On the East side we had other amusements.  And there was the fabulous table and hospitality of Hans + Gerda Meyerhof.  They entertained a really amazing group of intellectuals from CCNY and Columbia and elsewhere--art historians, scholars, artists.  Often we had dinner there, Dick, Kirk, Tom, Bob, Robin.  Frau Meyerhof sometime shook her head and said it was like listening to a convention of the poetic plumbers.

G: I know that Pynchon didn't spend too much time in NYC while you were there because he moved to work for Boeing, but V., if nothing else, must have been influenced by this time. On the other hand, I think that you and some of the other Cornellians must've spent a fairly long time there. Did you move from NYC to go to grad school in Iowa? That would have been in the '70s, prior to moving to Puerto Rico?

P: Yes, I suppose there was an 18-month period or so in NYC.  I had a crumby job as an assistant editor on a trade magazine, and then did some leg work for Hans Meyerhof before the enterprise died.  I learned a lot then, and most importantly the first lesson on how little I knew how things run in corporate America.

Then off to Iowa and the poetry workshop for the next 3 years starting in 1960 thru June 1963 […]

Right after Iowa, summer in Scranton, then to Puerto Rico to teach 3 semesters.  This stay was financially difficult.  Teaching was a dead end unless with a PhD, and with 2 children I was not going down that path.  I needed a job that paid.

It was during my time in Iowa that Dick was doing his Gerdie Folk City thing.  My sister was closer to that scene, much closer.

D: What contemporary authors do you read?  I'm a big fan of Jonathan Lethem myself!

P: I read whatever strikes me, tho' mostly political, and then poetry.  Recently Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, Mark Strand (again) Kirk Sale (did you know The Sea is Salt?), Marvin Bell, Annette Basalyga, Tad Richards and Roz Brackenbury.

D: Are you going to try and publish your recent work?

P: I hope to.  I send it out, but it takes months for responses.  Very painful to get rejections again because some things [are] plenty good. 

G: Not to butter you up, but could you point us to anything that you've written that we could read?  We're really interested in knowing more about your work as a poet.

P: There is not much alive today.  Certain domestic upheavals ended in the loss of magazines where early work appeared, Prairie Schooner, Contact, Epoch, one piece in the New Yorker, some translations in a contemporary French poetry book put out by Don Justice, that Robert Frost prize last year. Basically, what I had during and after the Iowa workshop seems lost or destroyed.  I didn't write again until about 4 years ago, and now I seem to be doing some good things.  Publishing them is not so easy as before as it seems the little magazines need to know you first, and I am not just forgotten, I was even thought dead as you are aware.

D: I was sorry to hear about losing your poetry.  I photocopied everything I'd written at my job a few years back and left a copy each with two writer/poet friends....just in case.  Still, I have lost full notebooks and shrugged it off!  Any way we can see the poem that won in the contest?  Or maybe a more recent one...I gave up writing poetry about the time I started this blog and now feel the urge to get back to it....

P: There were one or two pubs in Epoch I think in the 60s, and then the Tsunami poem in the 2012 Robert Frost contest.  Years back the NYer had my "For Nicholas, Born in September" poem and it was reprinted in a collection of NYer poetry.  I don't know where the Prairie Schooner poems are but two were published in the early 60s, and there was December magazine, and in Contact out of San Francisco.  Also some anthologies over the years.  Here's the Tsunami:

[…] One other thing lost was a prose poem I wrote that won 1st prize for the fiction-writing contest. Vance Bourjaily was the judge. I think it had the unlikely name Omaha Northern natural Gas Iowa Fiction Writing Contest. That too is lost, all copies of it vanished. I would try to contact the company, but it morphed into Enron! I guess we all change. [ed. note: If anyone has a copy, please share it with us so that we can get it to Mr. Perry!!]

D: OK, quite a few q's and some open-ended ones at that! Hope you are well. […] This has been a cool experience for us, so I hope the final product doesn't disappoint you.  We often write these posts and appeal for comments or thoughts, but this rarely bears fruit.  It’s very gratifying to have this opportunity to get into more detail, so thanks again for taking the time to talk with us.

P: [...] I had a chance to reflect on the events in 1958, and more I sort of anticipated the direction your questions might take. Specifically, regarding the "culture" of this group at Cornell, and then how this fit in or compared to later experiences.

I realize that what I thought I remembered so clearly often has no beginning or no end.  It is like a photo that you might say "oh yeah" to, but which has no context in memory.  I wrote about this phenomenon last year with my poem, Que Guapo.  Seems to apply here.  It is attached.  It has not been published.

D: Thank you, Mr. Perry, for allowing us to post this poem along with the photo that inspired it.

Que Guapo

These photos all have voices
saying what you think they say,
you just can't hear them.
None have exactly the face in the mirror now,
the one with the demeanor of a nasty camel,
a Yasser Arafat over the hill in his final years.

At five, a smile shines with blessings, dimples
radiate a love straight from a mother's heart,
the teeth so wide, it is disarming to see
such innocence in this buck-toothed beauty.

At ten beside my sister, with four hands each
counting the gloves pinned to our cuffs,
we stand shoulder high in snow after a romp.
Scribbled on the snapshot border--
"how I loved that coat",
That toothy boy there with no idea
how soon his time would come to knuckle down.
Today, I don't remember just what it was
about the coat or why I loved it so.

We save these photos for so many reasons,
perhaps as many as there are photos.
I always avoided them:
too toothy, too thin,
too much like my father.
I didn't know enough back then to calculate
how a lifetime comes in steps all much the same
till time deceives and changes by degrees,
and so I trusted more a power held within
to know what things would stick,
what fresh or subtle face would keep
each smile safely stored inside like yesterday.

Que Guapo, says the young technician from Columbia
(and means my picture as a slender lad in white),
as she buffs the golden stumps inside my mouth,
white shirt, white pants, white shoes,
all 140 pounds, yes, 19 and handsome,
a day remembered for one ugly hangover,
yet the photo doesn't say how my head was fuzzy,
and that the lean stomach growled with beer.

Que Guapo, so sincere, and what a compliment,
Que surpriso! Me, in her eyes dressed so fine,
and in mine, harnessed to my first working whites, 
and not a bit the gentleman cabellero. 
By then a camel suited up for burdens, I had no time
for the liberating euphonies of the arts,
or most other pleasures not foaming in a glass.
Que Guapo. Awakened here, the animal alert
to the daring scent of the caravans, 
at the start of a marathon run full gallop.

Of these matters the photos hardly say,
forgot to say, or never knew to say.
Familiar people, nameless,  are stranded together
pasted onto the lost islands of an album.
They send out their messages in dots and dashes
to a world that chatters now in a busy stacatto 
with cyber-friends in terabytes and holograms.

In time there was more that I forgot,
the small and simple things began to fly,
the keys to start and then the glasses,
the names of friends, new words for everything,
those wallets for extra credit cards and currencies
which then developed wider into categories,
personal IDs, then user names with puzzling alterations,
logins, PINs, with passwords and mutations stored
in vaults where codes are keys,
some 48 and counting, or maybe 50 now
like the states, (plus some territories).
And so, just so, do simple thoughts get buried,
important from the start, but in the end unsaved.

That girl who loved her monkeys and the color purple
is a doctor now, and maybe several kinds of doctor;
she spent a life like Sisyphus in search of funds
to save the floods of children abandoned by the earth.
Despite the disappointments of her work
in the crushing world she sought to change,
she mourns, by Skype, the most for children lost 
and not at all her fortunes lost for causes,
and loves her monkeys still and the color purple.

What I remember less each day is not so clear,
but more than just a favorite coat:
the people first by ones, and then in groups,
and now whole buildings disappear.
These photos put a face on things long gone,
a time and place to show in bits what partly is,
a space that sees the small forgotten rains
before the deluge, and after, how time spilled over
to well up in that amazing face in the mirror,
that me, cozy and loud as a camel in the rain,
most at home on a path to somewhere,
at my best with things uncomfortable,
and, hey, it has been a ride, Que Guapo.

Tod Perry

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