F. A. Nettelbeck, who died Jan. 20 in Bend, Oregon at age 60, is probably the most important avant-garde poet you’ve never heard of. Through his 23 books and chapbooks, countless magazine (and more recently online) publications, quite a few infamous readings and, for me personally, a friendship and correspondence spanning nearly four decades, Nettelbeck since 1970 established himself more than anyone else I’ve known as a truly outside-the-law literatus, a man who, if not for poetry, very likely would have ended up in prison. His genius as a writer was to echo or reflect back through a fractured idiom some of the deepest pathologies of our culture, and through anger and outrage and an irrepressible need to offer some cry of defiance, to create a formally meticulous, visually musical, highly personal yet anti-lyrical poetry.
Aggressively urban, angular as the cacophonous media din we live in, often obscene, occasionally sexy and tender, ruthlessly perceptive, precise in its indictments, full of combative energy like the bar-fighter he was, Nettelbeck’s poetry is not fit for most mainstream tastes, and that was fine with him. But for those readers to whom it spoke with electrifying vividness—cognoscenti of the poetry underground and more lately many of the younger rebels of the Internet—his voice resonates with great authority and authenticity and is a bracing antidote to the “well-crafted” workshop poem and to the cerebral obscurities of some of the more refined postmodernists.
the broken neon
sentence by its
power of suggestion
makes those bald
tires screech before
the heart does for
every son of Hank
when there is all that
waitress ass inside
where this bulbous
nosed Indian is
about how it was
before you quit
buying him drinks
in a storied world
of the guitar strings
strung tight within
his broken radio
that he still carries
around like the name
of a woman that has
long since lost any
I first discovered Nettelbeck in Santa Cruz in the mid-1970s when he was publishing poems in little magazines and working as a janitor at San Lorenzo Valley High. I’m pretty sure he had finished high school, but he had no use for higher education and had lived by his wits since leaving LA not long before. He was the kind of hustling entrepreneur who would dive into Goodwill boxes, appropriate whatever merchandise he could use and sell it that weekend at the flea market. It’s hard to figure out how he made that kind of improvisational lifestyle work for some 40 years, but even recently, out in central Oregon, he was organizing swap meets and supporting a family of five on virtually no visible income.
Though Nettelbeck was nothing like me—quite the opposite in most ways—and his poetics miles from my own, I recognized something real and forceful and highly skilled and inspired in his writing, and by 1979 I had the privilege of publishing, under my Alcatraz Editions imprint, what many still consider his magnum opus, the epic poem Bug Death. Only 500 copies of Bug Death were ever printed (up to now, anyway) but I and some others remain convinced that it’s one of the key poetic documents of our time, a Waste Land or Watts Towers that collects and recombines fragments of ruins into a soaring testimony of societal breakdown and human suffering and creative transformation.
Fred, as Nettelbeck was known to his friends, was a loyal comrade and a no-nonsense partner in conversation, but I can’t say he was easy to get along with. Born in Chicago in 1950, he came to LA with his family as a boy and grew up in Inglewood, gravitating to the bohemian shores of Hermosa Beach and to the sun-baked streets of Watts for his cultural education. At 20, during what’s now called “the mimeo revolution,” when hundreds of little journals were springing up across the United States, he started his own magazine, Throb, which featured writings by and interviews with such then low-on-the-totem-pole and under-the-radar bards as Charles Bukowski, Gerald Locklin and Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. In the later years of his career as a publisher he put out a series of tiny folded pamphlets called This Is Important with a half-dozen or so texts by distinguished renegades like William S. Burroughs, Tom Clark and Wanda Coleman, among others. Fred would photocopy a few hundred of these little poem-bombs and place them like evangelical propaganda in unlikely places like Laundromats and public rest rooms—a guerrilla assault on a-literate complacency.
For nearly 40 years he published a steady series of his own books from very small presses—books with titles like No Place Fast, Americruiser (remarkable notebook of a cross-country journey by Greyhound), Hands on a Mirror, Everything Written Exists, Drinking & Thinking, Pesticide Drift, The Used Future, Don’t Say a Word, Ecosystems Collapsing and Happy Hour, handsome books in editions of a few hundred epitomizing the best of low-budget independent publishing. As some of these titles suggest, Fred was a serious drinker—a habit or genetic disorder inherited from his abusive alcoholic father—and while he was sometimes violence-prone (fueled by the rage he felt at the way things are and the hand he’d been dealt), he managed to channel much of his urge for destruction into verbally devastating works of literature. His formal experimentation sometimes extended to readings, as the one I witnessed at a Santa Cruz restaurant where he set up a half dozen tape recorders with his and other voices and cranked up the volume until the scandalized host, responding to complaints from the adjacent dining room, literally pulled the plugs.
Much of my memory of Fred as a friend—beyond his mordant and bleakly funny letters—is set in one bar or another where he would sometimes resent the fact that my capacity for beer was far smaller than his. He actually tried to choose me off one night, when I’d stopped after my second draft, insulted by my refusal to keep up the pace. I left the saloon, and in maudlin fashion he followed me home to apologize for his aggression and to tell me how much he loved me. Once, in another dive, we picked up a woman and went to her place nearby for a three-way ménage—the only time I’ve ever done such a thing. Last time I saw him, at a reading a couple of years ago in Santa Cruz, he was so drunk and so obnoxiously uncool and out of control that I fled the scene as soon as possible. I couldn’t abide that kind of behavior—by now it is so passé and cliché, no longer amusing nor the sign of some Bukowskioid or Kerouackian genius. Alcoholism may be an illness, but so what.
Yet within a matter of weeks our correspondence resumed as if nothing had happened. He would report with dry stoicism on the struggle to get through the winter in his trailer in the boondocks with his family, and I would send whatever news I had along with selected clips from The New York Times, and we would exchange whatever new books we were bringing out. It was a strange friendship, in some way purely “literary” except that Fred was among the least literary—though most accomplished—of my writer friends. Between our common Southern California backgrounds (though from very different parts of the LA basin), our respective efforts as small publishers and our highly distinct yet parallel paths as poets, somehow we sustained a strong connection across the years.
What I saw in him, beyond the belligerent drunk, was an artistic brilliance and drive to create that nothing could stop. I found a lot of his writing to be too harsh and hardboiled and vulgar for my taste, but it was also powerful, unique and honest, formally inventive and tight and true to his experience, so I couldn’t escape its integrity. Like the music of Howlin’ Wolf or Albert Ayler, the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Hubert Selby Jr., the lowdown assemblages of Ed Kienholz or Robert Rauschenberg, Nettelbeck’s verse might at first puzzle or repel, but you could, if you paid attention, feel its soul and its peculiar beauty. Unsentimental yet sensitive as hell, his lines were a conduit for an unruly current of discontent and chaos barely contained beneath the surface of civil society. His alienation was both intelligent and visceral, and his ear for the tones of contemporary American speech impeccable.
Man Of The Times
Because of his solid reputation and long history in the avant-garde, Nettelbeck’s papers have been collected for several years now by the Ohio State University Library in its archive of experimental literature. It’s a relief to know that, disreputable though he may have been to the tastemakers, his documents will be saved for any future scholars or publishers who may eventually wish to unearth and possibly re-issue his works. More than an intensely personal record of a life lived on the edge and in service of the word, Nettelbeck’s writings are a vivid if not a very pretty picture of our world, and testimony to the toughness and wit of a human being determined to survive and even thrive under the most unforgiving conditions.
At the end he was brought down not by his liver, as I expected, but by a spinal infection that surgery could not repair. He was left paralyzed but clearheaded enough to ask to be taken off life support, a decision that seemed to me both reasonable and courageous. He died on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural address. Fred never asked what he could do for his country, but he sometimes wondered aloud what has country had done to him and other similar hard-luck, sub-working-class, godforsaken, seemingly good-for-nothing citizens—the kind one sees on the streets of any American city, and in poverty-stricken parts of the countryside, too.
“Not much news here, kind of hitting the wall,” he wrote to me in a fairly typical letter dated June 4, 2008, shortly after Obama had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. “The flea market is dead, no one has money, gas is $4.50 a gal. Blah blah, everything is fucked up. I’m too old to get a job, if there was any. Can’t even sell weed anymore. Too many of these ‘medical marijuana’ growers now. So I sit waiting for ‘change’ and ‘hope’ to set us all free. It’s not even summer-like here yet, I got a fire going this morning! A long, long winter. And that’s about it. Kids are doing good. So that’s all that matters. I don’t hear from anyone in the poetry world…. Maybe I’ll get picked for the vice president spot, I’ll keep the phone lines open…. I ain’t quite beaten yet.”
I’ll miss those letters.
Stephen Kessler’s most recent book (as editor and principal translator) is The Sonnets by Jorge Luis Borges. For more about F. A. Nettelbeck, visit www.fanettelbeck.com.