March 2008 – The Venice Beat Poets – The Great River Outside The Mainstream – Philomene Long

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By Jim Smith

Philomene Long came late to the party, but she soon made up for lost time with her dynamic personality and soaring poetry. The Beat scene was a decade old when she arrived in Venice, but Long gave it new life and energy.
Readers of the Beachhead will know that her death last August resulted in an outpouring of articles and poems reflecting the great love and esteem in which she was held by our community.

She was born in another bohemian community, Greenwich Village, along with her identical twin Pegarty Long. After growing up in San Diego, she decided to become a Catholic nun and lived in a convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet for five years. 

After climbing over the convent wall one night, Long traveled extensively in Europe and had two children, Maureen and Patrick, before settling in Venice in 1968. Here she met Beat Poet Stuart Perkoff, and became his steady companion. When he died in 1974, she was at his bedside.

Long continued to write. Some of her books published over the years included The Queen of Bohemia, American Zen Bones, and with John Thomas, The Book of Sleep, The Ghosts of Venice West and Bukowski in the Bathtub. An excerpt from her unpublished novel, Memoirs of a Nun on Fire, appears in The Outlaw Bible of America Poetry. She also made films and acted, often collaborating with her sister, Filmmaker Pegarty Long. Her films include The Beats: An Existential Comedy, with Allen Ginsburg and The California Missions with Martin Sheen.

In 1974, Long began the study of Zen with Master Maezumi Roshi. She continued with him until his death in 1995. She later described herself as a Zen Catholic. Roshi gave Long her Zen name “Gyokuho” (fragrant jewel). He said, “Your fragrance will permeate the universe. But there is a reverse side to this as well – Don’t Be Stinky!” (American Zen Bones)

In 1983, she married Poet John Thomas (see February Beachhead, page 9). Long and Thomas were together until his death in 2002. They lived in the Ellison Apartments at Paloma Avenue and Speedway for many years. “Cold Ellison” became a theme of a number of Long’s poems.

In 2005, she was recognized as the Poet Laureate of Venice by the Los Angeles City Council. 

Long’s poetry combines a descriptive love of her community with a Zen sensibility that often takes her poems in directions that are both surprising and pleasurable to the reader. Jack Kerouac’s concept of beatitude also had a profound influence on Long. Kerouac said that “Beat” stemmed from beatitude, which he defined as “trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart…”

Philomene Long is generally recognized as one of the major women poets of the Beat Generation. Even though the Beat milieu was dominated by men, many with inflated egos, she gave no quarter. It has been said that Long “filled up a room” when she entered, by virtue of the force of her personality. She was friends with Allan Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, and with Venice poets Tony Scibella, Frank Rios, and others. 

At an inauguration ceremony for Councilmember Bill Rosendahl at Windward Plaza in 2005, Long was invited to read the poem she had written for the occasion (see Beachhead, August 2005). Much of the poem was a paean to the glory of Venice. When she read it at L.A. City Hall, to the City Council, at Rosendahl’s invitation, its celebration of Venichismo caused shock and consternation among the Los Angeles officials. 

Their reaction must have pleased Philomene, who once wrote: There is no comfort/In the poem./Expect to be seared/But to have entry.

•••••

Venice
Holy Ground
Stained with the blood of poets
City which lies
Beneath the breasts of birds
Guarded by cats
Behind every corner
The Muse, Angel of Surprise
Poems out of pavement cracks

–Philomene Long
Her poem, reproduced on the Venice Poetry Wall in Windward Plaza


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