Once upon a time there was this very unique child who spent most of his formative years in a town by the sea called Marblehead. We’re talking about a community that is insular in the fact that it’s pretty much a peninsula; however this little town is close enough to the intellectual and artsy vibe that is Cambridge and Boston. It’s no wonder that this bright and talented individual was attracted to that scene and was able to start spreading his wings and raising his voice. His name is Paul Mills better know in the literary and performance art world as Poez the Poet.
And also once upon a time, this vibrant poet met a singer-songwriter named Suzanne Vega. The songs and writings by Suzanne are contemporary classics. I’ll leave it at that.
Poez the Poet and Suzanne Vega are both appearing at the me&thee in Marblehead on Friday, November 22. In its 50-year long history, the me&thee has never had a show sell out as quickly as this one did. We are honored to present both Poez and Suzanne.
To learn much more about Poez the Poet, visit his website here.
Here’s a video of his piece “Monotone.”
Paul was nice enough to answer a few questions prior to this historic event at the me&thee.
The story goes that you grew up in Marblehead. What are your most distinct memories of that time? Do you have any impressions about how the town has changed since you lived here?
I came to Marblehead from a town in Illinois. I went to grade school through the 4th grade there, and that was my view of the world when I came to Marblehead. Compared to Chicago, Boston seemed like a small city, while Marblehead was the ocean, foreign to me, coming from the Midwest. I felt like a foreigner for awhile. The change I see in Marblehead since is that it has become much more modern and cosmopolitan. I don’t mean by comparison with what it was in 1961. I mean by comparison with the rest of the world. Marblehead seemed more isolated then, from other places in the US. Going from Marblehead to Harvard Square in Cambridge, was like traveling through time 20 years into the future. It doesn’t feel that way now. Today Marblehead feels much more connected.
I have heard that the story of the King’s Rook on State Street has a tragic ending, but it was my first experience of a serious coffeehouse and that was important. I was 16. The dim lighting, the chessboards, the Beat atmosphere affected me. When I worked on the craft of being a poet performer, 10 years later, I had in mind performing at coffeehouses. My act was aimed at a coffeehouse audience. And that idea owed a lot to iced Guittard chocolate at the King’s Rook.
Your entry into the world of spoken word poetry is fascinating. Were you inspired by the Beats? If so, did you have any poets who were special favorites?
Like everybody else, I was inspired by Jack Kerouac and his book, On The Road. Kerouac was one of those writers who left their home, maybe to war, or digging for gold, or signing up as a merchant seaman, to write about it.
Trying to fashion some version of that in my life, is probably what I would best describe as the influence of the Beats and I guess is what was going on at the time of writing the poems I am doing at the Me & Thee. New York was not my home town. It was an exploit, a mission to dangerous whereabouts, when I moved there in 1977, on the job as a performing street poet. My version of “On The Road.”
A reviewer from The New York Times once proclaimed that your performance was “a sonic fantasia.” Can you explain what it was that you did to garner such a fascinating description?
My idol is Jimi Hendrix, or one of them. He fashioned a new form of performance for himself, and I was emulating that with Poez. Jack Anderson, the Times columnist, is talking about that. This was a show I was doing with a downtown dance company, first in Paris, then in New York. The choreographer heard me at the Bottom Line in New York and set dances to a couple of my poems, which I performed live, stage left, with a microphone, while the dancers took the rest of the stage. No musical instruments. The poems had their own rhythm and music. Sallie Wilson was in that show, though not in either of my dances. I remember her gently shoving me out from the wings to take a curtain call, which I didn’t know anything about at the time. This is what the Times was writing about that time.
When you were in the Boston/Cambridge arts scene in the 1970s, were you primarily performing other poet’s words?
Yes. My poetry menu in the street, specifically in Harvard Square, in 1975 and 1976, offered “Your Choice of Poetry — Classic or Original” and I would say people chose classics by a ratio of about 2 to 1. Inside, though, in a club or at a poetry reading, it was almost exclusively my own poetry, including improvised. People were very excited to hear poems that they might have puzzled over since elementary school, acted out in a way that made sense of them, often for the first time. And they were all great poems. And they worked! I’m sure I made more money off “The Bells” than Poe ever did. Much of my own poetry, by the way, comes out of “The Bells.”
When did you start writing your own material? How would you describe your own work? Was it angry, funny, contemplative?
From the start. That was the idea, start with classics, learn from the experience of having them be how I made a living, develop this new form of performance writing. So, right from the beginning.
Angry, funny, contemplative? I think, all of those, sure. I don’t make a decision that, for example, I want this to be a serious poem, not a joke poem! I get an idea for a poem and I write it. The poems end up all over the place.
Reading about all the incredibly talented people you have appeared with is a list of who’s who. One name stands out right away: William Burroughs. What kind of show did you do with him? (wow!)
This was a sort of literary cable TV program, produced by the owners of Greenwich Books, a West Village used book store that disappeared many years ago. Right where 8th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue meet, right by St. Vincent’s Hospital, maybe 5 blocks from where I lived. Very good friends. They also produced a regular cable TV show. I performed a passage from Naked Lunch, a monologue by Dr. Benway, one of Burroughs’ regular characters. His writing wasn’t what I was usually looking for, because not musically structured, plus, he was alive. Everything isn’t in the public domain. But they were really good friends and they asked me to see if I could find something of his that I liked because they wanted me in their show and obviously he wouldn’t object. I picked Dr. Benway’s monologue, which if you know it, it’s brilliant and hilarious.
Did you ever have to occasion to do anything with Patti Smith who was a friend of Burroughs?
No, nothing. Sorry. You think I would have left that out? She was very much an East Village type, while I was a creature of the West. She passed through the New York club scene before I got there. I think Suzanne introduced me to her once backstage. We might have shaken hands? I had more of a connection with her guitarist, also Suzanne’s erstwhile producer, Lenny Kaye. He and I both wrote regularly for a Boston counter-culture magazine, “Fusion,” in the late 60s and early 70s. He came to our wedding. And not a lot of people did. There was a blizzard, for one thing. Historic snowfall. Fortunately the wedding was in the living room so Suzanne and I didn’t have to go anywhere.
Right in the middle of that grand list of people who you performed with is Suzanne Vega. It seems that you were quite smitten with her and eventually married her. A long and happy love story! I understand that your show at the me&thee will reveal some of your history together. Care to give us a tidbit of what to expect on November 22?
This is a show that we thought of doing, as I recall it, over martinis at our favorite French restaurant. These are songs and poems that we wrote about, or to, each other, and only we, and our closest friends, were supposed to know what was going on. There were enough of these songs that it seemed we could make a pretty good show out of it. So from me you will hear poems about going out with Suzanne Vega, with cryptic, suggestive titles like “I’m Going to Kiss Her On The Lips By The Year 2000” or “I Wanna Sleep With A Genius.”
In addition to your life as a poet, you put your education to good use as a lawyer devoted to First Amendment rights and police misconduct cases in Los Angeles. Did your experiences with such an intense day job inspire you to convey your unique perspective into spoken word pieces?
This is more of that Jack Kerouac idea: go to a big city on the other side of the country and immerse yourself in free speech, sudden death, and jury trials. Then you might have something to write about, perhaps. You won’t hear any of that on the 22nd though. All of that “Once Upon A Time In Greenwich Village” material was written between 1980 and 1983. I didn’t start cross-examining police in LA until 1995.