The Poetry Project

In Memoriam: Tom Weigel by Joel Lewis

In Memoriam Tom Weigel 1948-2017

by Joel Lewis

Tom Weigel, a poet, playwright, publisher and editor associated with what is retrospectively called the “3rd Generation” of New York Poets died October 18 at his home in the “Black Dirt Region” community of Chester, NY from lymphoma. He was 69. He was cared for during his illness by his sister Monica Claire Antonie, whose photographs of the Poetry Project in the 70s and 80s are a valuable documentation of that period and have been frequently used in the Poetry Project Newsletter.
For me, as a young poet arriving at the Project in the late seventies from atop the Palisades of New Jersey, Tom seemed a constant presence in the poetopolis of the Lower East Side. I’d buy copies of his magazine Tangerine at East Side Books. He published small chapbooks of downtown poets under the names of Andrea Doria books and The Full Deck Anthology. My workshop teacher, Maureen Owen published his chapbooks and taught them in class. Tom’s dancer girlfriend, Jenny Salmon would periodically turn up in Alice Notley’s legendary yearlong workshop that I dutifully attended. Tom, in fact, was the only one of my older colleagues to invite me to a party.
It was a Halloween event in his East 6th Street crib and I met the legendary Jackie Curtis, best known today as part of Andy Warhol’s group of “Superstars”. Tom’s memoir of Curtis, “Portrait of a Playwright: The Jackie Curtis Story” is a terrifically intimate document of cultural history that deserves a wider readership.
According to Monica, Tom got the poetry jones in his teen years; not content to submit poems to his high school’s literary journal, he began publishing magazines with titles such as “Mind Inklings” in the family’s basement in Northport, Long Island. Somehow he acquired a mimeo machine and pressed his sister into child labor of collating pages.
Tom moved to Manhattan in 1970 and one of the neighbors in his building was poet/ filmmaker Piero Helcizer who put him and the Chicago poet, Jackie Disler, to work handing out fliers for his latest films. Afterwards, they all headed over to St. Mark’s Poetry Project where Harris Schiff was hosting the Monday night open reading series and Harris signed them all up to read that night.
Tom married, left New York for Buffalo and later ended up on his bride’s family farm where his father-in-law exempted him from farm work to allow him the time for his poetry and playwriting. Despite this rural 4F classifcation, Kentucky lacked a Gem Spa, Ukrainian dives and the lively art scene of the East Village in the 70’s. Back in NYC to visit his sister, he dramatically threw his house keys overboard a Staten Island ferryboat and announced, “I’m not going back to Kentucky! I have to be part of this NY scene”.
Tom read extensively in NYC during the 70s and 80s including The Ear Inn and The Museum of Modern Art. He also read on Belgrade radio while with the poet Nina Zivancevic. He published over 12 volumes of poetry, staged plays, and appeared in magazines ranging from the Paris Review to Skidrow Penthouse. The most available volume being Watch That Side published by Accent Editions, which offers a terri c entry to his poetry, which I nd manages to consistently nesse the dif cult balancing act of off being both offhand and dead serious. His work is unprogrammatic and never allows the reader to anticipate what is waiting on the next line.
After the death of his brother along with downtown friends including Ted Berrigan, Jackie Curtis and Margo Howard Howard, Tom left Manhattan and ended up in New London, Connecticut, an old whaling town whose most famous literary resident was Eugene O’Neill. Tom found work at the local museum and began running a poetry reading series which grew a devoted group that saw Tom as a generous friend and a wise mentor. When health issues caused the move nearer to his sister in Chester, the Mayor of New London issued a proclamation thanking him for his contribution to the cultural life of his city.
Tom was a prodigious letter writer – he did not own a computer and was suspicious of online poetry. I received some of these missives, including copies of his latest magazine Burp! and feedback on poems that I had submitted. I must admit to have been out of practice in the art of physical correspondence, so was always a bit slow in responding. In my later contact with Tom, I was struck by his near religious devotion to poetry as a social act -- less what effect your writing has on the imaginary/potential audience than it has on yourself as the writer.
You live for the numbers
& the numbers make you what you are OK
then you finagle
then you flutter flutter flutter
(from Watch That Side)

Tom Weigel reading at Poetry Project circa 1978
Tom Weigel reading at Poetry Project circa 1978

#254 February / March 2018

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