I love the question, “how did you become a poet?” because it’s such a personal odyssey. I asked it of Jackie Sheeler, and she started in about this guy who used to read in the park back in the day, which is another reason I like the “how did you become a poet” question... so many points of connection between our seemingly so-individual journeys. “Poez!” I replied — she fainted.
Poez, Paul D. Mills, was a rogue poet, lone wolf, his own mission. I booked him for a reading at St. Marks, 1978?, and he still blasted me about the elitist Mafia of the Church (we’re of course talking the poetry scene here). I remember writing him from an airplane the next day — he really got to me. Brilliant... iconoclastic... savvy... bitter. He’d usually only show up at open mics. For a while, he brought his girlfriend around. Very quiet, shy, she stuck to it. She’d sign in in a very clear handwriting, Suzanne Vega. Last I heard, he was a lawyer. Come back, Poez!
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO POEZ?
In 1977, Poez played Washington Square nearly every day, his poetry menu on a rickety music stand and a homemade sandwich board sign propped beside him on the joint-littered concrete ground of the park. He wore jeans, raggedy t-shirts, a tall black stovepipe hat — the first performance poet I had ever seen, decades before anyone coined a phrase like “spoken word.” Strict and stylized as a Shakespearean actor, he’d tip his hat, extend the list, and ask, “Would you choose something from the menu?” I always selected the same poem, not one of his, but Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” hoping (pretending?) that Poez wouldn’t remember my identical request of yesterday and the day before and the day before that. No one ever spoke that word — “RAGE!” — the way that he did, twisting it out like a long and angry string of taffy. He vaguely solicited his listeners for cash but never seemed to mind if we didn’t pay: a good thing for me in that fundless year. It was the summer of blackout and debt, when the lights went out in Manhattan and looting stripped the boroughs of a city nearly in default. Poetry wasn’t fashionable; hip hop was unborn. Poez did his strange formal thing in verse for spare change on the corners.
When he got a weekend gig at Kenny’s Castaways I scrounged up a few bucks for cover and drinks, dragged along a couple of my friends, and sat for ninety minutes sipping White Russians in the dark, packed house. He didn’t so much stalk the stage as swoop at it, his close-fisted red-headed body lurching like the spring bursting out of a broken click pen. As much as I loved hearing my Dylan Thomas standard in the open air of the park, Poez competing with the scrape of four-wheel roller skates and chess-playing poppies on the southwest side of the square, there was another dimension inside this staged performance.
After that sold-out reading at Kenny’s, he stopped performing in the park. But I was watching for his skinny arms and freckled face on the cover of the Village Voice, in the Broadway pages of the Times, listening for him on the radio — certain he wasn’t around the neighborhood any more because he’d been promoted. Then I got a flyer for a reading at — of all places — tiny Weiser’s bookstore. Then... nothing. More than twenty years have passed, and this poet holds his own clear space in the amazement of my memory. But I have not seen or heard of him in all the years since then.
The picture above right is from that last postcard flyer. And the sound file below is — what else? — my cheap-o cassette recording of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as he performed it that weekend at Kenny’s, decades ago, when the story of Poez ended for me.
Poez doing Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” 1977 (recorded by Jackie Sheeler)
Note from your Guide: This article appeared at About.com Poetry in 2000, and five years later we got the answer to its question “What ever happened to Poez?” — when he resurfaced to perform again in New York: Poez Is Back in New York!
Jackie Sheeler is an award-winning poet, founder of the Pink Pony reading series in Manhattan and Poetz.com, former New York correspondent for the About Poetry Museletter, and the voice fueling Talk Engine.