By Jim Smith
Philomene Long is back. The works of Venice’s poet laureate, who died three years ago, are more accessible than ever thanks to the publication in August of The Collected Poems of Philomene Long. This epiphany-inducing book of hundreds of her poems is a must-have for poetry lovers, students of Beat culture and Venice history. Poetry lovers and Philomene lovers gathered for the third annual Philomenian at Beyond Baroque for the book launching on August 17 (the birthday of Philomene and Pegarty Long). The audio from the event can be found on www.freevenice.org.
Long’s book and Stuart Perkoff’s Voices of the Lady – Collected Poems, published in 1998, are like bookends for the Beat generation in Venice. Perkoff created the Beats in the 1950s (although he didn’t use the name), along with Larry Lipton, Tony Scibella, Frank E. Rios, John Thomas and James Ryan Morris.
Long arrived in Venice in 1968 and was a close companion to Perkoff until his death in 1974. Except for brief absences, Philomene Long personified the best of Venice poetry until her death. Between the two of them, Perkoff and Long kept Venice on the poetry map for more than 50 years.
Before the publication of The Collected Poems of Philomene Long, finding her poetry was like an Easter egg hunt (green eggs included). A small number of her poems were published in Queen of Bohemia, Cold Eye Burning, The Dream Awakening, Odd Phenomenon in An Abandoned City, The Ravens, The Book of Sleep and The Ghosts of Venice West (both with John Thomas), Bukowski in the Bathtub, and of course, in the pages of the Free Venice Beachhead.
Thanks to the diligent work of her twin sister, Pegarty Long, who hunted down and edited more than 300 pages of poems and 27 pages of photographs, a new feast of poetry is available in one place.
The book does not include all of Philomene Long’s creative work. There are also films, including The Beats, An Existential Comedy, and The California Missions, with Martin Sheen (Long’s Mission poems are included in the book). It does include much that will be new even to friends and fans of Philomene Long. Many of the chapters are in chronological order. Others are titled “The Cold Ellison Poems” (some of Long’s best work, about the castle-like apartment building at 15 Paloma Avenue where she and husband, John Thomas, lived for many years), “The Raven Poems,” “Mission Poems,” “A Book of Hours,” and many others.
Philomene Long, in the opinion of this writer, was one of the greatest poets since Sappho’s time. She was also one of the great Beat poets, although her work was much broader than any label. She was highly respected by the male-dominated Beat fraternity. Her friends included Allen Ginsberg, Jack Micheline, Charles Bukowski, Jack Hirschman, Jack Foley and counter-cultural heroes like Timothy Leary.
Long’s poetry also helped reinforce the importance of Venice in world Beatdom. New York and San Francisco have usually gotten the lion’s share of attention as the center of the Beat generation. However, Venice in the 1950s and 60s was just as vibrant, perhaps more so. Our small beach community sported two major coffee houses, the Gas House and Venice West, and many active poets and artists. Venice poets were more faithful to the Beat credo of eschewing fame and material rewards. Our poets often read their poems in a coffee house and then either threw them away or set fire to them, believing that the act of creation was more important than the act of preservation. Other poems and paintings existed only on the walls of their ‘pads,’ and were painted over by disgusted landlords. In contrast, many of the New York and San Francisco poets sought notoriety and book deals.
In 1984, Long married poet John Thomas (whose work is yet to be collected). John Thomas had been an early Beat poet and cook at the Gas House. He had stopped writing for several years before Long inspired him to begin again. For 18 years, the two had a fairy-tale romance that inspired both to ever-greater collective heights.
Thomas died in 2002, an event which shattered Philomene but led to many great poems of lost love. She survived, in part due to her Catholic fatalism and Zen tranquility. Long had entered a nunnery when she was 18 years old. She became a postulant at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in the Brentwood hills. But the pull of Venice poetry caused her to go over the wall one night. Later in her life, Long took up the study of Zen with Maezumi Roshi. A book came out of this spiritual education: American Zen Bones: Maezumi Roshi Stories.
Philomene Long was a stalwart supporter of Venice, a frequent topic of her poetry. Besides being Poet Laureate, she was an active supporter of Beyond Baroque, our poetry center, and worked closely with its director, Fred Dewey. She also taught creative writing at UCLA and cultivated young poets and writers including Mariana Dietl and Mariano Zaro. Now, with the publication of this book, we can all be inspired by this great soul and poet, Philomene Long.
The Collected Poems of Philomene Long can be obtained at Venice locations including Beyond Baroque Books, Small World Books and Mystic Journey Bookstore. It can also be ordered on the web at: www.Raven-productions.com.