Unknown If Not Forgotten: Billy Woodberry On Bob Kaufman

13 January 2018

The L.A. Rebellion filmmaker speaks about his first film in three decades, a documentary on Beat poet Bob Kaufman, ‘the Black Rimbaud’

This text was originally published by 'Keyframe' in January 2016.

The title of Billy Woodberry’s new film, a documentary about Beat poet Bob Kaufman (1925-1986), is something of a mouthful to recite. I should know. Marching to the front of a packed auditorium to introduce And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead - Bob Kaufman, Poet during the Viennale last October, I botched things almost immediately. “And When I’m Dead, I Won’t Stay — hang on, that’s not right.” A quick self-correction didn’t dampen my embarrassment, as I handed the floor to Woodberry and prepared private apologies for when we reconvened in the hallway outside. Presenting the world-premiere of his first feature-length film in three decades, Woodberry could have been forgiven for being a little aggrieved. But the director was unfazed. He never mentioned it. Any nervous tetchiness he might have had was countered by a natural graciousness. The singular focus, for him, was Kaufman.

There are two stories to tell here. The first concerns Woodberry, whose return from an apparent wilderness as a filmmaker prompts several questions: where has he been, what has he been doing, why hasn’t he made more films, etc.? Rising to prominence as a leading figure of what is now known as the L.A. Rebellion — an ensemble of African and African-American filmmakers studying at UCLA between the late 1960s and late 1980s — Woodberry is still best known for directing Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), a low-key drama about a financially embattled family in Watts, L.A., which the Library of Congress selected in 2013 for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Though Bless Their Little Hearts remains his only fiction feature to date, Woodberry also acted in When It Rains (1995), by fellow ‘Rebellion’ notable Charles Burnett. In Vienna, Woodberry’s eloquent, deep-bass drawl might have also been familiar to those who’d seen Thom Andersen’s Red Hollywood (1996) or James Benning’s Four Corners (1998), both of which he narrated. In fact, Woodberry, born in 1950 in Dallas, Texas, has counted both Andersen and Benning among his colleagues since he joined the teaching staff at CalArts in 1989; large chunks of Bless Their Little Hearts featured in Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a sprawling, comprehensive amalgamation of films shot in L.A.

At a glance, not much else is known about Woodberry, which makes the similarly elusive Kaufman — a man who was once described as “the Black Rimbaud” — a fitting subject matter. Indeed, the second story to tell here is Kaufman’s, and it is Woodberry himself who’s been busy telling it, both in this new documentary and in the fifteen-year period of research that went into its production. Perhaps, then, this is not two stories, but one single story with dual strands: Kaufman’s life on the one hand, and Woodberry’s career on the other. Woodberry, a palpably unassuming filmmaker who seems to have etched out a content existence away from the hype and publicity machines that oil artistic careerism, evidently prefers one of these narrative threads to be secondary to — if not entirely subsumed into — the other. Again, for him, Kaufman is the reason he was at the Viennale in the first place.

The story’s origins go back some four and a half decades. Speaking to me in Vienna, Woodberry says he first encountered Kaufman’s poetry in the 1970s. “A friend of mine had some books by him that she found in a used bookstore in Berkeley. They were very dear to her, and she carried them around all the time. I picked one up and read it. The poem had an interesting title: ‘Golden Sardine.’ I was impressed, but it meant a lot more to the other person than it did to me, because I didn’t know so much. I didn’t really get it.” In 1986, Woodberry read an article about Kaufman’s death in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. By that point, he knew a little more about the poet, and even thought that he might like to make a film about him.

Years passed. In 2000, Woodberry began to read more by and about Kaufman, and a year later he committed to making a documentary about him. Five years of research followed: “I went all over. It was sort of my thing. He was a traveler. He was a voyager. He sends you on a journey.” Ten more years passed, of extracting stories from the material and putting the film together. “You’re constantly encountering people who have a kind of investment in him, and they are interesting in themselves so you say, ‘Oh, that’s fascinating.’ You want to talk to that person, and that person, and that person.”

Clocking in at just less than 90 minutes, the finished product is an unpretentious survey of Kaufman, about whom very little is still known in comparison to more studied and celebrated contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. The biographical basics are there, certainly: born in New Orleans of a German-Jewish father and a Black Roman Catholic mother, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines in his late teens, before later enrolling at The New School to study literature in New York. There, Kaufman met Burroughs and Ginsberg. In 1958, he moved to North Beach, San Francisco, where he had a son, Parker, with his second wife, Eileen.

A year later, Kaufman founded the poetry magazine Beatitude with others — Ginsberg among them. In 1963, after the assassination of President Kennedy, he withdrew from the Beat scene and entered a so-called vow of silence, which lasted ten years and has become something of a legend among peers and biographers alike. Woodberry admits to being too young and inexperienced back in 1986 to comprehend the tragic aspects of these later years — not just the mystery and extent of his vow of silence, but also the evidently prolonged trauma he’d suffered after receiving electroshock treatment following one of many arrests in the early 1960s; his estrangement from his daughter, born of his first marriage to Ida Berrocal; and the grandson he never knew.

Woodberry’s film takes some of its material, and the second half of its title, from Bob Kaufman, Poet: The Life and Times of an African-American Man, a two-part documentary produced by David Henderson for Pacifica Radio in 1992. In fact, as its full title suggests, though Woodberry’s work contextualizes Kaufman as a literary figure, it could just as easily have concentrated all of its running time to an altogether different aspect of his life — his private life, his politics, his short career at sea. Kaufman wasn’t just a poet. At one point in Woodberry’s film, one interviewee tells an anecdote of encountering him on a stairwell. “Are you Bob Kaufman?” he’d asked. “Sometimes,” Kaufman replied.

Woodberry’s research has made him an authority on Kaufman. Over the years, he’s acquired various paraphernalia, traces of a life, what he calls modest documents. Research proceeded jaggedly; Kaufman was not a materialistic person. “I knew I would not find his book as a merchant sailor. I didn’t even look for it. A friend found that you could get all the records of him as a sailor by going to the coast guard, because they had to sign in and sign out. Whenever they leave the country you know the ship, you know the date. I had a friend, and I said to her, ‘You know, Bob Kaufman was arrested a lot of times in San Francisco. I wonder if I can have his mugshots.’ And she said, ‘Let me ask.’ And that’s how I got his rap sheet. The photograph from his last arrest? I have the original. The [police] department gave it to me.”

One discovery led to another. “When I got his San Francisco police record, I noticed he had an FBI number. A scholar who I knew at the University of Illinois Champaign had just published a book about the FBI and Black literature. Apparently, there was a division of the FBI that scrupulously read, in manuscript or in the first printing, every book by a Black writer since 1950. And then they wrote reviews and copious notes for the director to see what these subversive types were up to. So we gave Kaufman’s FBI number to this man who talks about bebop [in the film], a very good scholar called James Smethurst. He was in contact with the agency and they were cooperating with his research. Within three weeks we had his file. That’s how I got that. I was collecting things for a while.”

One challenge for any researcher is gleaning a coherent, digestible narrative from what can at times be piecemeal findings. Though he started compiling information in 2005, Woodberry required outside guidance to find something resembling a finished entity. “At one point, friends told me, ‘Okay, you have enough. You need to edit.’ Then as I worked on it for nearly two years, others came on and said, ‘Finish the damn thing.’” The film obtained financial support from Rosa Filmes, a production company based in Lisbon. “The producer, Rui Alexandre Santos, took a look at it, and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to Lisbon and spend the month and we’ll finish it?’ So I did that. It took us maybe three sessions, over three months or something. Rosa Filmes gave me a lot of energy, life, and vitality. I want to give them the credit for that, because — I was not exhausted and I was not giving up — but I was sort of looking at some more months to finish the work.”

The patchwork nature of Woodberry’s findings brought other problems. As he met one interviewee after another, the filmmaker quickly realized that he was dealing with conflicting accounts of Kaufman’s life. As is common with any cultural figure about whom relatively few concrete biographical facts are known, Woodberry had to sift through truth and hearsay. “A lot of his story is not so obvious. A lot of it is myth. Humans apparently need this, because it satisfies so many things we desire. I didn’t want to disabuse people of it, but at the same time I wanted to allow the factual accounts and move between them. Because even if you present [people] with evidence that it didn’t happen, they will still say, ‘Well you know, he took a vow of silence for ten years.’ It was tricky and interesting, to find my own way of sharing with people, and have enough information for them to judge themselves.”

These mythical characteristics are as true of Kaufman’s formative years as they are of his later period. “Kaufman joined the Marines at seventeen. His mother signed because you had to be eighteen years old. He probably started working earlier. It’s disputed because a lot of biographical accounts say he went to sea at thirteen. He might have worked on boats around New Orleans to get money because his mother, who had fourteen children finally, had at that point about eight children to raise.” Woodberry utilizes such contexts, time and again, to inform our reading of Kaufman’s influence upon the North Beach scene. “Given the way things work in American culture, some people come to exemplify particular cultural forms. In some ways it’s not their choosing, but what happens sometimes is that others get obscured by that. Kaufman is one of those people — it’s not so difficult in the United States to explain why he’s not as well known as the others.”

Woodberry is here referring to Kaufman’s racial makeup. As we discover in the film, however, such explanations for the Beatnik’s relative obscurity are a tad facile. “It’s a bit more complicated than that. Partly, it was his wilful avoidance — a sort of rejection of his own renown. In some ways he gave the cultural scene in North Beach its ethos, and as a consequence of that he’d also given it his own history and political context as a labor activist from when he was seventeen years old… I’m trying to address his place in the North Beach scene. In the poetry scene he was a kind of singular figure. He has a different intellectual origin than many of the poets that have come to exemplify the Beat movement. Kaufman didn’t attend university. He’s an organic intellectual. But we learn that his mother had been a teacher and she revered reading books and learning music.”

In fact, literacy was held in high value in Kaufman’s childhood home. All of Kaufman’s siblings were encouraged to read and write. At a certain point, Kaufman discovered a preference for poetry. And When I Die concludes with an extract from a ten-minute continuous take of Kaufman reciting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, as well as ‘Prufock.’ None of these literary preferences, however, came at the expense of a highly politicized outlook, which Kaufman maintained throughout his life. Rather than viewing his arrival in North Beach as some unprecedented, transformative experience for Kaufman, And When I Die shows the very opposite to be true: Kaufman helped, in his own way, to imbue the scene with his own sensibilities.

“He was sort of born to that,” Woodberry remarks. “New Orleans has that kind of hedonistic, good time thing. And then he went to New York and he found the Village very quickly. It was an integrated social space with jazz and hip people and literary people, and all those things. Even when he was not committed to that, it was still his world. So when he finds it again, in San Francisco, he enacts many of the things that he learned in organizing the community that he’d found himself in. He just didn’t give them all the theoretical texts that were informing it.

“One reason Kaufman and others might have ended up there,” Woodberry continues, “is that it was one of the few places where radicals running from the McCarthy era could find sanctuary and sympathy and support. The waterfront would employ as many of them as it could. It was a red town. It was a labor town. So this appealed to Kaufman. It was always a progressive town because they had this strong labor history. The other thing is that Kaufman has a certain kind of iconography that comes from leftwing American culture, if not communist culture. They talk about certain people. They talk about Lorca. The other poets talk about Lorca maybe because of the poetics and that thing, but for Kaufman, Lorca was also a martyr for the left in the United States. He’s a martyr of the Spanish Civil War.” 

In the film, it’s Jack Hirschman, the prolific poet and social activist, who remarks that the political and the poetic remained deeply connected throughout Kaufman’s life. For Woodberry, Hirschman is a central figure in Kaufman’s story. The two shared a kinship. It was Kaufman, for instance, who taught Hirschman the Soviet national anthem in Russian, which he’d learned from his time at sea. He taught him collective farm songs too. They would get kicked out of bars for singing them. Guys would throw ice at them on the way out. “[Kaufman] never really lost his political sensibility,” Woodberry agrees. “He might have changed his position and attitude towards certain things and places and political phenomena, but he never really lost it. It’s just that he found another way and another place to pursue his ideals and ideas.”

In later years, we see, Kaufman was known to frame his ideas in gnomic fashion. “In his younger days he was quick. As he got older it became his manner of speaking. Like when he tells the guy, ‘Oh, I was just in Dante’s Inferno.’ And then the Dante Hotel is burning down, and that’s just where he lived. He told another friend, ‘Nazis are coming to North Beach, and they’re coming in pyramids.’ And the friend said, ‘Right, Bobby.’ Well, the same friend received a notice from Pyramid Realty saying that he was being evicted from his place in one month and that they were converting it into a condo. That’s how he moved and conducted himself.”

In addition to this apparent penchant for oblique aphorisms, another key reason why myths around Kaufman’s life endure today might be that he was a poet in the oral tradition. In coffee shops, you could find him quoting Eliot or Ginsberg, or Langston Hughes, and he would mix in lines of his own. “There’s this mythology — and it’s probably true — that he was an oral poet, that he recited poetry. One guy said Bob Kaufman maybe published three hundred poems in his life, and he gave away twelve hundred. Because if he was in a place he would improvise and create a poem from his own work and other poets and he would mix them in a kind of montage. He would say this to you, and if you were there you heard it, if you weren’t it’s gone. If people had recorders, you might know Kaufman a little better, but they didn’t have those devices.”

Looking at his life in broader terms, we might say that Kaufman’s dual legacy — as a largely neglected man of letters on the one hand, and as a quietly uncompromising man of the left on the other — is indebted to his two wives. Kaufman married his first wife, Ida, in 1944. Though they divorced in 1947, Ida’s political sensibilities no doubt had a lasting effect upon Kaufman. As we discover in the film, she herself was a committed trade unionist. In fact, Ida retired from a leadership post only at the age of 87, and took five years to agree to be interviewed for Woodberry’s film. The director laughs: “She thought, ‘I divorced this guy in 1947. Why are you showing up? I’m a busy person!’ She said to me the first time, once she heard me out: ‘Okay, I tell you what. Right now I’m in the midst of contract negotiations. Call me back in six months and I’ll give an interview.’ But she’s a tough New York person, so afterwards her niece, in her office, would just say, ‘She’s not available!’ And then I met her son-in-law and he called her from the living room and she agreed.”

Kaufman married Eileen Singe within a month of meeting her, in 1958, not long after she herself had moved to North Beach following a career in the Navy and a divorce from own first marriage. When she died of respiratory failure aged 93 in February 2015, one article in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted the author and journalist John Geluardi, a family friend: “Without Eileen Kaufman, there is no Bob Kaufman. It is most likely that he would not have been published and would have slipped into obscurity.” When Kaufman embarked upon his vow of silence, the marriage faltered and the pair separated — only to renew their vows when, at the end of the Vietnam War, the poet began communicating again. In the interim, their professional relationship had continued. Eileen — a poet and music journalist in her own right — was largely responsible for the publication, in 1965, of her husband’s Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, and is known to have written down for posterity many of the poems he verbalized.

“They had an agreement with New Directions to publish his first book,” Woodberry clarifies. “And then Kennedy was killed. He didn’t see that on television but he saw the whole thing with Oswald, and it just sent him [insane]. Bob told Eileen, ‘I don’t want to be involved. You take the book, all of it. You do it, you keep it. I’m not going to be involved.’ And then he wrote, ‘I won’t be speaking.’ She used to see him in North Beach. She would see him take three steps and then bow and kiss the ground. He’d said to a friend, ‘When they kill a president they’ve gone too far.’”

Though Woodberry learned of Kaufman’s death from the front page of Poetry Flash, a newspaper devoted to poetry published in Berkeley, obituaries had also appeared in the New York Times and Le Monde. In France, Kaufman’s poetry was first translated in 1967, and published frequently thereafter in various magazines. “They apparently like poetry more in France than they do in the States,” Woodberry remarks, wryly. Today, scholarship on Kaufman continues to grow, while on occasion there are newspaper or magazine articles that mention him. In 2008, Woodberry came upon a piece about people who had refused fame and notoriety. Kaufman was included in the list. “He found that when he had a kind of renown, it brought problems. It brought him attention. So he said he didn’t want to be famous. He wanted to be unknown — if not forgotten.”