Bob Flanagan’s Birthday Bash

Friday, December 27, 2013 — Bob Flanagan’s Birthday Bash

Last night an audience of about 40 people gathered at Beyond Baroque to celebrate the birthday of Bob Flanagan, poet, performance artist, and musician (1952-1996). Sheree Rose organized the event and introduced each presenter. George Drury Smith, the founder of Beyond Baroque, lead off by commenting that, in the 1980s, he had stopped attending events that honored people who had died. The AIDS crisis took too many of his friends for him to endure the extended mourning of public rituals, but Smith said that last night’s assembly helped him reevaluate his reluctance to participate in these kinds of tributes. In praising Flanagan for his consistent contributions as a workshop leader and a poetic presence in Beyond Baroque’s early days, Smith also reminded the audience of another important figure in the organization’s survival, Alexandra Garrett, who died 20 years ago this coming New Year’s Eve. Smith’s opening remarks were followed by readings of Bob’s poems by Harry Northup, Jim Cushing, Michael C. Ford, Jim Krusoe, myself, and S.A. Griffin, after which Jack Skelley performed a song (“It’s Fun to Be Dead”) that Bob and he had written while they were bandmates in a group called “Planet of Toys.” Sheree capped the evening off by reading a letter from a young gay man in England who also suffers from cystic fibrosis and has found in Bob’s life and art a way to give meaning to his indefatigable suffering. Sheree also screened a slide show of Bob’s performance as well as a portion of a video of one of his last readings. It was a bit odd to have so many male presenters, even though at least a third of the audience was female.

The evening once again raised for me the question of Bob’s inexplicable absence from any of the anthologies that have organized themselves around the notion of “Stand Up” poetry. Several of the poems read at last night’s event generated sustained laughter from the audience. I was surprised, in fact, at how funny the poems still were. “Fear of Poetry,” for instance, which I read from the POETRY LOVES POETRY anthology, required me to improvise at least three unanticipated pauses in the performance so as the let the laughter play out. Flanagan’s poems represent some of the most successful examples of “Stand Up” poetry in the movement’s earliest days. Perhaps the singular blend of eros and thanatos that permeates Bob’s writing made his poetry unwelcome in the milieu of middle-class aspirations that underlie “stand up” ‘s editorial preferences.

Beyond Baroque’s back yard featured one of the best parts of the evening, an exhibition of “Bobaloon,” a twenty-foot tall inflatable figure of Bob with a fiercely erect cock, pierced with the full regalia of priapic masochism. I believe it was Richard Howard who noted in an essay on the poetry of Edward Field that “Stand Up, Friend, with Me (the title of one of Field’s books, which lent itself out to the movement’s name) is a joke on the arousal of the phallus. Bob’s stand-up figure in the back yard served to remind us that any anthology that would title itself “Seriously Funny” seriously needs its editors to start reading up on those who got it all started.