"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

17 Oct 2015

Guest Contributor—David McKinnon on Jim Christy

No Southern Gentleman: Jim Christy, Vagabond Poet

'Everything in this story has been extracted from my obsolete memory banks, other than the quotes.
If Jim Christy has a different version, let his prevail.' David MacKinnon

Vagabond Poet still looking cool at 70
(photo John Hamley, October 4th 2015)

I have my own litmus test for writers. I ask whether my literary heroesplain-speaking men such as Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Blaise Cendrars or Harry Crewswould drink with them. It’s unlikely that Blaise Cendrarswho had lost his writing hand in World War I, counted serial killers and gangsters among his acquaintances, couldn’t stomach Picasso (“the son of a curator”), André Breton (a “liar” who barely knew Apollinaire) or Rilke (whom he punched out in the Closerie des Lilas for his pacifism)would welcome say, Alice Munro, with an open arm, or for that matter, Ondaatje, Umberto Eco, John Irving or Salman Rushdie. Henry Miller wouldn’t be fooled by fake tough guys like Nick Tosches.

On the other hand, I’d bet that vagabond poet Jim Christy would find a place at Cendrars’ or Bukowski’s table. For what it’s worth, Christy, and his pal the excellent poet Len Gasparini could match Cendrars yarn for yarn and drink for drink at the same tempo, having followed the same delirious trajectories that Cendrars was capable of and Christy would probably get Cendrars laughing in that nasal pre-television twang that belied the rough exterior of the vagabond poet with some of his own humourous tales of woe and wildness.

Jim Christy first contacted me out of the digital netherworld on a cold January Friday the 13th through my writer’s site, in early 2012. The subject line was “Blaise Cendrars”:

“I figure anyone who writes as well as you do and likes Blaise and the rest of those scoundrels can't be all bad. [I also did a short book on Bukowski (ECW Press)]”

He mentioned that we had the same publisher, and that he’d written about thirty or forty books. While searching for his work on the net, I fell onto a video of a reading of a poem called “Forever Maria”, a 2008 performance in Melbourne, Australia. The video was a fuzzy-toned sepia production that was filmed about ten rows back from the stage. Christy stood on a stage, dressed in a white linen, two-button suit, straight out of Miami, and was rasping a poem while a four piece band led by a clarinetist screeched out a torpid New Orleans jazz numberit was hard to tell whether the band was back-up or there’d been a double-booking that day for rehearsal space. People in the audience were shuffling in front of the cameraman blocking the view of Christy. Christy however was oblivious to it allhe seemed to feed off the casual disorder of the reading to tell his poetic tale of Maria, a woman who was kicking the poet out of her apartment and her life. The tone of the reading seemed to imply that it wasn’t the first time the performer had been kicked out of an apartment, and that quite possibly one of those “I quit; you’re fired” conversations had just taken place. I was witnessing that rarest of rare eventsan artist actually enjoying himself onstage. An almost extinct species, to be treasured alongside the Java rhinoceros and the cross-river gorilla. 

Christy was self-deprecating to the point of carelessness, but at the same time he looked like somebody who could throw a little deprecation your way if he felt like it. His delivery was flat and his voice raspy, and immediately you got the sense that Jim Christy had never really picked up the habit of taking orders from anybody.

Four days later another Christy missive landed in my inbox, informing me he was scheduled to speak at the Fiery Tongues festival in Amsterdam, where I reside, and not to send him anything “as I'm going to India in ten days”

I did a little more research on him, and found out he was a south Philly poet living on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. But when I wrote him back, he informed me that he had since relocated to rural Ontario, and would be out of touch since he was leaving for India for a month. As a ps, he mentioned he had written a book on Bukowski, and was writing a column called “Scalawags” for a “glossy Canadian rag”.

“I got two items off to you in the mail a couple of days ago. Unfortunately neither of them was the Bukowski book. Someone has made off with them which is ironic because at the beginning of the book, I mention how frequently his stuff is stolen. So I sent you a CD of poetry and music, and a book of poems. I note that the thieves (posing as friends) did not take any of the translations of Bukowski.”

Christy was sixty-six years old at the time, running about ten gigs at once, including his private investigation agency called “Extreme Research”.

“I sent a query a few days ago to the head of a circus research centre in Virginia; I'm on the track of a cult of people from decades past who searched out very unusual phenomena, both human and animal.”

On January 27, I learned that his real name was Christinzio, and noticed that the initials of his assumed name were the same as those of Jesus Christ. Since I’d referred to Rashaan Roland Kirk in my previous missive, Christy informed me that he happened to have a great story about the Mississippi musician “which involves him, me, my new girl friend and her mother (this was in 1971) Will tell you when we meet.”

Sometime in February, a message turned up in my Inbox from Pondicherry, India, where “twenty dramas were going on simultaneously”:

“Swimming elephants, pygmies, naked people: the usual stuff!

No, listen, this place is truly unique but ruined somewhat by the groups of young "hip" tourists who all look exactly alike whether from Germany or Israel. Dressing like slobs they are totally unaware that they are insulting the locals who, although dirt poor, try to maintain the respectable appearance. I sincerely hate this smug self-righteous middle class "hippie" bullshit.”

Another email arrived the next day, this time on Bukowski:

“I saw a copy of Women at a store here. Might get it and reread. In the Vancouver section he gets involved with a woman who I got involved with a few years later., though I hadn't known of the connection. She told me once that he didn't drink anymore than she or I did. And stuck to white wine. Expensive and German. Said he was very, very funny. The guy could write ten bad poems then floor you with one that came out of the blue.”

By February 8, he was by the Bay of Bengal:

“And again went into the bookstore I was in a few days ago when I saw the copy of Women. I was thinking how I hardly even see a copy of Cendrars in a used bookstore in most parts of the world, and NEVER in Canada, and what do I do but turn around and there is a copy of To The End of the World. And then I eat in a hotel that could be out of Celine’s Africa or someplace by the great Alvaro Mutis, after which I come here and there\s a letter from a guy in south of France who is the authority on Blaise buddy Albert Serstevens. The two of you are the only ones I have any talk with about B.C. nobody else gives a flying you know what.”

On February 10, he was scribbling from a Pondicherry dentist’s office, letting me know that after returning home to Canada, he’d be leaving town again, “taking off again for Guyana a few days later” and asking for one of my books to “read when I go off into the jungle”.

By the 13th, he was on the topic of writer’s voices and who was and wasn’t good at reading:

“Last night finished To the End of the World. I don't think anyone has ever written that well. It's really too much. There is a woman in India who has done a book about a certain temple and all that goes on there. Levels and levels. Reminds me of To the End. I can see why so many people can't begin to read him. He's like dealing with both Klitschko brothers at the same time and then Charlie Parker and Mary Magdalene pop up here and there to change the pace. I'd read it before but didn't appreciate it.”

Our correspondence over the next month or so involved his upcoming visit to Amsterdam. He was coming to town for the Fiery Tongues festival, via some of the old guarda Brooklyn gangster poet named Eddie Woods and a member of the old Dutch provo movement named Hans Plomp, who’s keeping things alive for a hardcore group of radicals who were cronies of the Beat poets and have somehow managed to survive to the 21st century. 

“Listen, I don't expect ANYTHING in regards my visit. If we get together at your place and it gets late, I can stay in a local hostelry of some kind. Is there one? Don't know and won't know when I read, until I get there. Last time I read twice and bombed once: trying to head off a migraine with booze, this before I read at ten am! Last time I got photographed for the society pages with some punk rock singer turned poet. Some good people; met the richest man in Netherlands--some department store dude. Also, a crazy Jewish woman lives in a cave in Italy, etc.

You will find me a respectable house guest—if it comes to that. I mean, my table manners are passable and I don't tell risque jokes or get obnoxious when drunk. Gad, I sound dull.”

I hadn’t had a visitor in about six months, but as luck had it, the morning Christy arrived, there was a group of stick-in-the mud anthropologists in my back yard droning on about Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu. Christy showed up four hours late at my home2:30 pm for a mid-morning meeting. He looked jet-lagged, and was skinnier than in his photos, as if he didn’t care enough about eating to get around to it, but you could see the man still had plenty of resilience. I was reminded of the early-twentieth century gentleman super- tramp, W.H. Davies.

“I just want you to know that I’m late due to bad directions, and not from lack of concern. My landlady pointed me to the right bus, but the wrong direction. Doesn’t anybody have road maps in this city?”

“They do, but nobody uses them.”

“You know that park you told me about, the one with the Church? There’s four parts to that park, and there’s a church at the far corner of each. Just in case you’re interested ...”

“They should rename that park,” I interrupted lamely. Christy ignored me.

“I had to duck into a pub to get proper directions.”

“Wine or beer,” I offered.

“Gimme both,” he grinned, showing a full set of gold teeth, “after that Kafkaesque jaunt”.

Christy glanced outside in my back garden.

“That’s an impressive gathering out there. You sure I’m not bringing down property values?”

I introduced Christy to Josh, a handsome Kenyan poster-boy for the new Africa who had that “president-in-waiting” look. 

“Kenya, you say?” said Christy. “How about the King of Swaziland? You ever meet him?”

“You know King Mswati III?” he said, surprised.

“Never heard of him. Must be talking about different Kings.”

“You’re not saying you knew Sobhuza II?”

“Knew him? Last time he walked by me, he even winked.

“And where might that have been?” said the Kenyan, his smile wary. “He had about 70 wives, didn’t he? But, he was winking at me.”

“I’m not sure your story adds up.”

“Oh, it adds up all right. Adds up to a thousand grandchildren!”

Christy laughed, at himself I thought, but still checking out the Kenyan man- with-a-plan’s reaction, his golden front teeth in full view, reminding me that one of his introductory missives had been from the waiting room of a Bay of Bengal dentist. I figured from his sharp look that whether he’d tossed back one or two was irrelevant. This was a real pro à la Bukowski. Christy casually surveyed the coterie of four black Africans, a couple of Malagasy and an anthropologist from Pittsburgh, named Dr Delaney, from the University of Pittsburgh.

“Doctor, doctor, anybody not a doctor around here? You from Pittsburgh?” he asked as he was introduced to Delaney. “Down in South Philly, we hated people from Pittsburgh. The enemy!” he pronounced with a laugh, while waving me due north towards the fridge “anything available David, pour it into a glass, I’m ready!” enjoying himself, and not quite ready to let “the enemy” off the hook.

Then he smiled warmly, all charm.

“Don’t take me too seriously. I wasn’t born there. I was born in Richmond, Virginia, but don’t get me wrong,” he smiled, “I'm no southern gentleman”.

“The Kenyan said, “Well, you’ve told us where you’re not from. Where are you from?”

“I was raised among hoodlums in PhiladelphiaSouth Philadelphia, if that conveys anything to you. My mother's peoplethe Clantonswere gunned down by the Earps at that corral. My father's people were all mob-related figures.” 

Two of them begged off and went for a walk. Christy didn’t notice, as he was busy telling a tale about blacks singing doo-wop by the subways of south Philly.

My wife had noticed that I was dipping into the libations, and the combination with some antibiotics I was taking was producing unforeseen effects. She thumbed me a quick “both of you get out of here,” signal so we stepped out into the street, and headed west for some ribs and Argentinian rosé at the Abina, my local watering hole. By this time, it was late afternoon, and we were on to Kerouac.

“Hey man, let’s have a debriefing on the garden party,” he said, as he refilled my glass.

“You were a hit. They’re just not used to people with actual opinions.”

Over another flask of rosé, we talked about Cendrars, Rimbaud, Catallus, the levitating saints St Theresa of Avila and Joseph de Cupertino, boxing, working in circuses. Sometimes Christy would mention strange titles I’d never heard of, like “The Bird that swallowed its cage” by somebody named Curzio Malaparte. He dwelled on Kerouac a lot, saw him as one of the great writers still, and instead of talking about the “beats”, he emphasized Kerouac’s deep religious fervour.

He didn’t have much use for Hemingway.

“Hemingway makes and has always made me sick. And the rest of that bunch too. The big American three of that era, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, I think were inferior to Dos Passos. And Wolfe. Even Steinbeck. Certainly to Miller.”

“Tell you, I live in Canada, and both the country and Guernica and Ekstasis Editions and a few other people have been good to me, but listen, don’t go anywhere near the Canadian literary scene. It’s pretty nasty, the most nasty being the would-be bohemian elite.It’s the Can lit types, man. Nasty and timid, those are their qualities. Start fights and then run out to the parking lot while others settle it.”

“It’s not just the writers either. Tell you what, I was in Australia a while back, doing some film work and I asked the director, how is it possible that Australia, with a similar demographic base and history, made so many good films and that everything out of Canada was shit. He answered ‘the Canadians are good at looking like film directors. We Aussies just make the films, mate.”

“I wrote this article once on the workshopification of Canadian culture. There’s all these people making more than you and me ever will, and they’re selling bogus goods. Anyways, I started getting threatening letters, man. One guy said I’m gonna come and take you out man. I wrote him back with instructions how to get to my farm. Said I’d be waiting for him. He never showed up.”

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. But that’s the whole point. Nothing wrong with it, technically speaking, and nothing right about it. You can’t tell the difference between these people. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that every book in Can Lit is the same book. ”

The man hated hippies, hipsters, Can-Lit and Hemingway. So what’s not to like about that?
“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. Prophet in your own land and all that. Go figure, I’m leaving for Norway after this. I wrote this C & W song, and this guy put it to music in Oslo, and it’s on the charts, baby, ...in Norway.”

“The Nashville of Norway.”

“I might have told you I have one "on the charts" well it's a song about a dead woman but the fact that she's dead is not revealed until after the second chorus. Well, the guy has removed the lines wherein the crazy fact is revealed and replace the lines with one from another song--to me it makes no sense but maybe it makes sense to them. To me it is number twelve by mistake.”

“Funny, your name being MacKinnon. I just lost out in an outdoor sculpture commission worth ten grand to a guy named MacKinnon.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

“Don’t worry about it. I won’t hold it against you. You any relation to that Judge MacKinnon?”

“Sure. He’s my father.”

“Was he the Judge MacKinnon presiding over the Eddie Haymour trial?” 

“One and the same.”

Eddie Haymour was a famous case concerning a Lebanese man who sued the BC government successfully for forcing him to sell an island he wanted to turn into a Middle Eastern resort. Things turned sour, and he returned to his native Lebanon and took some hostages.

“Every single thing the government said about him was true. A complete psychopath!”

“Everybody seems to have an opinion on that case.”

“Look, I didn’t just have an opinion on the case! I wrote an article for Canadian Business.”

“You’re an Eddie Haymour expert.”

“Listen, buddy, I didn’t just write about him. At one point I even took a job managing his hotel. Even though his wife tried to warn me off.”

“Why would you move in with Eddie Haymour?”

“I was at Castle Haymour "managing" his joint --which meant mollifying customers who complained about the beer and wine. This might sound trivial, but Eddie would turn off the beer-filled fridge at night to save electricity, and he wouldn't put the white wine in the fridge to save electricity, and then he got me to wash dishes to save electricity. Are you getting the picture? Then it was some landscaping and hustling customers.”

“How does that save electricity?”

Christy ignored me. He was somewhere else, washing dishes for Mad Dog Eddie Haymour.

“Three months of pure hell.”

“My old man wouldn’t have changed his mind. He was no fool, and on the evidence, he thought Eddie deserved a million bucks for his troubles.”

Christy shook his head.

“Lemme tell you. Eddie’s wife used to say to me ‘the thing about Eddie is that he’s always three steps ahead of you’. Ah, to hell with Haymour. I didn’t come all the way to Amsterdam to talk about that psychopath. You remember that note you wrote me about Cendrars?”

“Sort of.”

“There was a phrase in itbout what Cendrars pointed at. Yea, that's the thing. Or the things. He pointed at so much. Opened up the world. Threw open his windows, I immediately responded to that when I read it. Modern literature, left its goddam laughter at the door.”

“I think Blaise was the best I've ever read for capturing the spirit or possibilities of vagabondage. Or, if you'll pardon the expression, of Life. Have you ever read Malaparte,” he suddenly asked. “I’ve been meaning to ask you that.”

“Never heard of him.”

“I tell you I’ve just been taken on as an actor in a mega-German gold rush western to be filmed in British Columbia? I'd like to get it in order to ride a horse in the movies. Did that once in Mexico, in a film called La Batailla Desconocida. I don't think I mentioned it in my "jobs" thing but I was in a lot of movies. Big deal. I had little interest in all that.”

He’d sent a photo of one of the takes in the film, and there he was dressed up in cowboy gear and knocking back whisky. He wasn’t too happy about the take:

“The photo I sent makes me look really old. On the other hand, I am old,” he laughed.

“I prefer not to dwell on the "really" part. I'm 66; I'm guessing you are not far passed 55”

“I’m getting too old to write novels. I’m more in the brick and mortar and stone stage, doing landscaping, and sculpting. It came late in life, but I immediately had a feeling it was in my blood. Incorporate all that now in sculptures I do outdoors.”

“As for my stories, they are mostly based on mis-adventures and ludicrous experiences. I have managed in my time to fuck EVERYTHING up. Especially my writing life and my love life."

“I always look for Maqroll bars wherever I go. Not too many of them these days. My second biggest literary kick was when I was leaving Mutis' house and he gave me un abrazo and said, "Hasta Luego, Maqroll." And the first, Charles Bronson read my Flesh and Blood, and told our mutual friend to tell me he liked it a lot. Okay, I should probably reverse the order.

I don’t know what happened. It must have been the antibiotics, or just the inebriating quality of Christy’s speech, because we’d only gone through about 3 bottles of rosé and suddenly I couldn’t see straight. I don’t recall the end of the day, but Christy got me home okay, so I probably owe him something there too.

I was in the north of British Columbia sometime in 2014, and Christy’s partner sent me a note saying he’d had a heart attack, but survived, after being clinically dead for “3 minutes and 42 seconds”. I managed to track him down in a Belleville hospital.

“Yea, lucky, turns out I died, but it all happened in the hospital, while I was talking to the doctor. I asked him after what we were talking about just before I died. He said “Vietnamese food”. Which reminds me, I’m getting hungry!”

We’ve only seen each other once since that day in the Abina, and since then, he’s died once and come back to life, got divorced, and now lives with the Romany entertainer Reyna Lynne. Jim Christy is 70 and he’s outshone Cendrars in one area – he is still on the road... 

see David MacKinnon on Blaise Cendrars

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