What can we define as "Beat" poetry? A loose blend of Whitman, Blake, open sexuality bordering on erotica, and socio-political ideals, all cooked in a broth of jazz rhythms or at least associated with or accompanied by jazz? If this loose definition works for you, then Kazuko Shiraishi, a Japanese poet first embraced by Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg, fits that bill. Shiraishi came into prominence in the '60s as a female poet who openly confessed to basically not being the good mother type, leaning more toward the liberated woman-poet-thinker that came to dominate that era. A poet who knows how to "embrace the mountain" while "being embraced by the mountain" yet at the same time openly soliciting kisses from a "glittering, nameless...private custom made America" or her lover's lips, her own life being "charred with" that love. She is also one who is capable of speaking of Lou Rawls and Henry Miller in the same breath, as any good modern poets should be able to do. She has become closely associated with the jazz world and writes about and reads with jazz.
One of her most famous poems is titled "Dedicated to the Late John Coltrane," and one of her most outstanding collaborations is an LP with the great Sam Rivers and his group consisting of Buster Williams, Abdul Wadud, and the late Andrei Strobert on the Musicworks label. This memorable poem appears both on the LP and in her first major book in English, seasons of sacred lust (New Directions, 1978) -- translated by, among others, Rexroth. The poem drips sensuality in such lines as:
"Coltrane / with your extremely heavy and short pilgrimage / full of fleeting eternity.... spicy sweat streaming down your forehead / Thought is an otter's scream / The sexual legs of chickens / Killed by your old lady / Boiling in a pot / Women's pubic hair...the strong, black soul of Saint Coltrane / In heaven."
This is certainly one of the strongest poems of its kind, and even stronger for the fact that it came from a free-thinking woman. I suspect that Shiraishi, like Yoko Ono, owes some of her personal, non-rigid openness to the fact that she spent much time outside of Japan. She was born in 1931 in Vancouver, Canada, where she spent the first seven years of her life, and has traveled and lived extensively throughout America and Europe.
Those of you in the New York City area and able to attend the following events are in for a rare treat. Shiraishi will read/perform her work three times this week in Manhattan with her long-time colleague, the great trumpeter Oki Itaru, born in Japan but living in Paris and the possessor of the world's third-largest collection of trumpets. Poetry Project at St. Marks Church on the Bowery on Wednesday, January 28 at 8 PM along with poet, singer, and activist Ed Sanders, co-leader of the legendary band The Fugs and editor of the infamous magazine Fuck You, a Magazine of the Arts. Sanders is also the recent epic-poem biographer of Ginsberg.
Shiraishi will also read with Oki and be interviewed on Friday, January 30 at Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. and then again on Saturday at 2 P.M. at the Bowery Poetry Club along with Oki, the great Ira Cohen, Herschel Silverman, and myself. Do yourself a favor and try to catch one of these gigs. And in Shiraishi's own words, "our daily lives are a wax museum," so "skillfully dance through life," "take off [your] masks," and come listen to "the incessant soundless music of eternity."