kirby congdon

February 4, 2010

kirby congdon, bakers lane, key west 1960s  (photograph by marie cosindas)

Kirby Congdon, Born to Be Beat

by Mark Howell

from “The Cat’s Story” by Kirby Congdon

All living things are born
To be canned as cat food.

But we don’t can people
Because people have can openers
And, so, are useful.

All animals have their uses.
A cat, however, does not need to be useful.

He is born a cat, he stays a cat, and he lives forever.
Any cat is the oldest and wisest
And the most beautiful creature
In the whole animal kingdom.

Be thankful you’re a cat.

I first met the cat called Kirby Congdon in an alley called Appelrouth Lane. Back then it was a bopping place of poetry and the neo-beat life, and the very first time he turned up for a reading we almost missed him.

I was racing up the lane to retrieve Harry Calhoun, who’d checked out of our opening night at the Appelrouth Grill by running away and I don’t blame him. I felt he should take another shot. At least another shot of tequila from an upturned shot glass, snorted up the nostril.

That was then. And blow me if we didn’t get back to the grill to find it packed with poets, among them Kirby. “Milky ways across the night,” he told us, “are what this world is all about.”
Kirby was a cool, flustered guy in blue shirt and leather pants, with a huge motorcycle on the street outside. “Wild, nameless, untamed” was another line of his.

He was different from the rest of the poets. In the limelight his face was a parchment with a photo printed on it of a poet from the nightclub called the hungry i. He looked sharp and he seemed kind and we loved him right away.
“Then I go the other way,” he said of the way he trips the listener.

I had an inexpressible question of the beats at the time but it went unasked of Kirby because I had no real idea of what the question was. Maybe later, I thought.

Todd Swift, a book reviewer in England, once called Kirby avant garde “only by virtue of being completely unknown.” Of the anthology in which Kirby appeared, Todd said, “Never have I seen an uglier front or back cover. It bears every resemblance to the smallest of smallest publishing ventures. For that reason alone it merits a nod of respect.”

I’ll give him that nod of respect, and to Louis Weingarden too. Louis was the composer whose “Inquiries of Hope: Ten Poems of Kirby Congdon” is the earliest musical composition to address the epidemic of AIDS. Louis owned a boot shop and erotic art gallery on West 4th Street in New York City, where he exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland. In the summer of 1978, Louis organized a group of leather men called SMASH (Society to Make America Safe for Homosexuals). Where Louis was, you could find God. You could find God where the leather men were. Kirby was a leather man.

He started it. At 18 he had joined the army for three years, then went to Columbia on the GI Bill. He went out one day and bought a motorcycle and the leathers to go with it. Leather was a release, he explained, especially for army veterans “old enough to express themselves.”

Kirby has written of industrial machinery, motorcycle fantasies, heroes from the comic strips, rural Connecticut and cats. I never did talk with him about God or about that question I had.

The big book we all associated with Kirby’s was one of his first, “Iron Ark: A Bestiary,” a wholly original work that e.e. cummings found attractive and Marianne Moore liked as well. But the New York Times failed to review it – too original – so Kirby was assigned to public obscurity.

Poets, however, recognize him. “‘Iron Ark’ poems are truly fine,” said beat pioneer Gregory Corso. “You is a poet, son.”
Kirby went on to write “Juggernaut,” “Dream-Work,” “A Key West Rebus” and a dozen other books of poetry and prose. His language, says Alyson Matley, is a liquid connection between inconsequential perfection and primal forces.

His house on Baker Lane is a bookman’s temple. His partner of 41 years, Ralph Simmons, also his primary designer and publisher, has never been able to throw a book away.

The cottage is floor to ceiling with them. Kirby bought this house, right across the lane from where Richard Watherwax lives, in 1959, when the beat movement was at its height.
Kirby’s other home on Fire Island he inherited from his first love, Jay Socin, who died three months after him and Kirby split. Fire Island is where he and Ralph go in the summers, the setting of many of his poems.

Kirby once told me how he it was he got to know Gregory Corso, the Lancelot of the beat round table, in the early 1970s. An editor named Eli Wilentz could no longer take the divinely inspired Gregory hanging out at his New York pad, so Kirby and Jay took him in, or on. Corso’s life was a mess of drugs and marriages and children that would finally came to rest (he was the last of the founding beats to die) right next to Shelley in the cemetery in Rome.

I listened to this while sunlight mellowed in the great window behind Kirby, silhouetting his sinking profile as he sat in the big, deep couch. My eyes roamed the room. At the piano was an open piece of music.
On the table lay a chap book with the title, “What is Poetry For?” I took a taste.

“The sense of reality,” wrote Kirby in this book, “depends on a live and changing environment of facts and influences. Otherwise it disappears from view, and becomes blank. And we become blank. Without a flowing and changing context, every item we know becomes invisible, even if it is one’s own identity, one’s own name, one’s own sanity.”

How’s this for a change of context. Kirby Congdon is 81 years old; Ralph Simmons is 73. “Let my tight heart’s hope live on air,” says Kirby.

I meet mostly Ralph these days, on his trips to the newspaper office to deliver the latest from Kirby. I wish him well with his health, then ask him to pass on a message or two to Kirby.

Kirby’s mother was from Norway, where the average high school education beats a college education in the United States. His dad was a New England native. From those roots Kirby has cultivated a body of work that has attracted collectors.

Kirby’s works (as they used to call William Burroughs’ drug equipment) are gathered at the Kurtzman Collection of Beat Literature at the University of California, along with first editions of Burroughs plus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Also collecting the works is the Kenneth Spencer Research Library in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Kansas, home of the Burroughs papers.

He surely is, then, the man to answer my question, the man to solve the puzzle, the man to tell me what it is about the beats that I wished to ask.

Like, how did I miss the boat?

And more directly, What’s God’s plan now?
A week or so later I received a postcard in the mail.

“Ralph shared your confidences with me,” read the black ink in Kirby’s recognizable hand. “Sometimes the only thing we have to fall back on is the assertion that we bear injustice and disappointment with dignity.

“Before we have any champions on our behalf, we have to believe in ourselves.

“That is an irrational position, but anything else, anyone else, isn’t very sane either!

“With affection.”

Next I received a puzzling package in the mail.

Inside was a little book with the words “Dear Fathers” on the cover. It had been published by Kirby in 1972 and consisted entirely of the typescript, verbatim, of a letter from Gregory Corso to a monk.

“Man is the closest thing to angels and angels are sensitive things,” says Gregory in his letter, chiding the church for collecting souls. (Collecting souls is what the devil does.) “Life will always be subject to drive people mad. It is not death holds the wonder and mystery and horror and sadness. It is life needs to go to heaven, not man.”

It was addressed to the only beat Benedictine in all of Christendom, a monk who lived in a monastery in the west of England, an abbey on the very same hillside where my brother and I had been raised. He was our neighbor, Dom Pierre Houedard. An ocean away.

Of all people. Being lectured by sweet Corso. In a package from Kirby.

My ego crumbled with the punch line.

“I have it in me to put myself down for no reason at all,” confesses Corso. “Maybe it’s because sometimes I feel so way above. And believe me, above is not a very pleasant place.

“You’re alone there, and help is of no avail there.

“That is the sorrow I see in God.

“And no one can help him.”


January 12, 2009


I know you won’t believe me, but it sings, salt sings … Dust of the sea, in you the tongue receives a kiss from ocean night … in it, we taste infinitude. – Pablo Neruda, Ode to Salt

The winds of change are blowing, and as we adjust our sails, this publication changes its course a bit … from the previous ‘bound’ book form into a newsprint format. The idea is to put beautiful things down on paper (some new, some re-visited for a closer look), make a lot of copies and then … give them away.

Pick up your copy of the new Salt: an indigenous journal newsstand copy during the walk on white gallery stroll this Thursday evening from 6 – 9 and then to follow at the Key West Literary Seminar and island-wide. I think that you will really like it. (and it is free!)

– Kim Narenkivicius, Publisher/Editor

contributors (bios to come)

margit bistray

jim savio
once i took a photo on the road back to paradise

joanne savio
jasmine road

nick vagnoni
leaving key west, photographs

sandy mckinney
epitaph for the last poet

carol munder
deja vu

curt richter photographs from his portrait series ‘still and all’
carol munder, artist
lincoln perry, artist

jennifer o’lear

danne hughes

cricket desmarais
hurricane shadow puppets

mark howell
kirby congdon, poet

kirby congdon

rosalind brackenbury
the future

helen michelle mack
bahama village, we’re speaking

kim narenkivicius
bahama village, polaroid series

cricket desmarais
last mango in paris, captain tony tarracino

michael blades
cricket desmarais and captain tony

reese palley

tony klein

eric vaughn holowacz
the mango thief

nell husted
here on bone key

lynne bentley-kemp
refugees of the culture wars

what a lovely life we live

November 11, 2008


cricket reads to capt. tony in the backyard . photograph by michael blades

by Cricket Desmarais

I’m sitting in a world-famous bar built around a tree from which 77 criminals were hung, feeling a bit like a rebel drinking a Corona on a Tuesday afternoon. I’m not there to drink, per se, or to enjoy the live music I’ve heard for so many years emanating out of this little dark bar covered in business cards and bras, so much as I am to collect the real story about a man that’s so infamously famous, he’s been dubbed “the salt of Key West” by the New York Times.
And I’m a little nervous he may have forgotten about me. He is, after all, nearing 91. But then a car pulls up and I see a flash of white hair and feet decked out with house slippers behind the car door that is now slowly opening. Out steps the ultimate rebel himself — Captain Tony Tarracino — former bookie, shrimper, gun-runner, gravedigger and mayor, as well as father, husband and general legend of lust, love and lore.
We make our introductions and tuck ourselves into a corner to keep us free from distractions, where I quickly learn there is no such thing when it comes to this man. Captain Tony is like a rock star or a celebrity of sorts — people recognize him and want a little piece of who he is. He is more than happy to oblige. Within minutes, a small crowd has gathered nearby.
“My daughter,” he announces to the crowd, motioning to Josie, who has just returned from parking the car. “One of 13.”
They balk, kindly.
“Where you folks from?” he starts in. The bantering goes on for some time, and then he says “I’m gonna tell you a joke to make you happy.” He points to me and says, “I’m taking you home.”
“I gotta tell you girls,” he adds. “The advantage you have. Every woman has a little bit of whore in them.”
More laughter, except from me. Sure, I’m half-smiling, but my professional footing feels more than a bit shaky. I figure I better roll with it, though, or I’m in for a tough run with this legendary figure who clearly plays by his own set of rules. But this captain’s not insensitive, either; He sees my discomfort and quickly shifts his game. Later he’ll confess that, “in the end, if you want to win people, go to sex. It’s the bottom line.”
“I come here from 7 to 10,” he says, “and tell stories. I sign their boobies, I sign their bellybuttons. You can’t believe what I do.”
There’s a long pause, as if he’s reflecting on the hours of storytelling he’s done over the many years here in his namesake saloon. But then he says, “No one honestly has really done me. The way I feel it should be.” He hands me a manila envelope filled with articles, photos and letters from his children. “No one really captures what I think they should have captured.”
“Which is what?” I ask him.
“The truth, without the bullshit. Sometimes my language is rough. Sorry about that.”
His eyes peer into mine. Right then and there, I decide that I’ve been given unspoken permission to reveal something below the surface of this man, something far beyond the shtick he performs to the people that seek it. A story he hasn’t told. Only I have no idea what that is.
“You got something that I like,” he says. “I can tell. I can tell people that are human beings. I have some things I’ve never said and I’d like someone to carry the message. All I ask is that somewhere you put down that Captain Tony wanted you to help carry the torch.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say, and for the next few hours, I just sit and listen, taking it all in.

Captain Tony’s bad-boy reputation of bootlegging, smuggling, gambling, booze-loving and womanizing has become the backbone of his now larger-than life and iconoclastic image. Most people who know anything about him know that he hitchhiked to Key West in 1947 with $12 in a milk truck, on the lam from the mafia, his lucky streak of gambling coming to an almost fatal halt. They’ve more than likely heard he became a shrimper and a skipper of a charter boat (coincidentally called “Greyhound,” dogs he loved to bet on at the old race track out on Stock Island). That he caught what is reportedly the largest tiger shark on record (12 feet long, now pictured in the Smithsonian), took care of Tennessee Williams’ pet monkeys, and participated in the Haitian invasion and the Bay of Pigs rescue in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And certainly they’ve heard about his two terms as mayor, with Jimmy Buffett as his campaign manager, a friend who the Captain paid in six-packs in exchange for playing at his bar before Jimmy became a Key West icon himself.
“The two best years of my life,” he touts of his time in the political hot-seat, where he unabashedly called a spade a spade, unveiling real estate scams and helping establish a two-year moratorium on big development.
“When I ran for mayor, they were calling me a dirt-bag,” he recalls. “But The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran <positive> editorials about me.
And rightfully so. He achieved more than just glory and a title by winning that 1989 race (“We won by 31 votes. 28 were hookers,” he says), helping the city get state assistance to create firmer financial footing, boosting the economy and proving it could be done without outside investors who would inevitably come in and change the face of the island.
“Tell me what you think a rebel is,” I ask, alluding to the theme of this issue.
“A rebel is a very honest person. He’s not afraid, he’ll say what he believes. A rebel is not interested in what the reaction is or what people think. This is my life. That’s it.
“A rebel does not give a damn if it’s gonna hurt him, if it’s gonna help him. He’s not interested if a person believes him or not. This is me, this is what I feel.”
He recounts a story of buying the saloon.
“You gotta remember I’m going back to the ‘50s, the first gay bar, out-and-out gay bar, in Florida. It was called the last … well, something. A great guy from Pennysylvania. Didn’t even sell beer. Way upscale, way ahead of its time.
“I came to this bar, I was making a lot of money fishing, and I was having an affair with a Navy wife, who I married later on. The big scandal was me having an affair with the navy officer’s wife. But the BIG scandal was the big doctor in town made the mother superior of the church pregnant. But I was the one they talked about.”
People don’t talk about people that are boring, so the saying goes.
“There isn’t anybody in the world that don’t have enemies,” he adds later on. “You don’t know why. In fact, I have two people in Key West that destroyed me. For no reason.”
We talk local politics for a while, exchange stories about the misuse of power, how one can quickly be side-swiped for speaking out too loudly or standing up for something unconventional or unpopular.
“This is history,” he reminds me, and then adds, “I’m blackballed. I’m really blackballed,” shaking his head in disbelief.
Then another crowd comes in, and the Captain switches gears, not missing a beat. They gather around him, smiling and taking photos.
“They’re real, man,” he says, cupping one woman’s breasts. “You guys are lucky.
Oh my God. Take me home.”
They soon leave and he turns his attention back to me and calmly asks, “Now where were we? See, that’s what happens. Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It keeps me young. Now how are you going to describe that?”

Real. If there’s one word I would use to describe Captain Tony, that would be it. Genuine, fundamental, essential — serving as the quintessential reminder to be more ourselves without apology, to stand up and do what we feel is right — even at the risk of seeming unpopular, of getting blackballed or beaten down.
These are things he learned long ago, growing up in the ghettos where he “was always a fighter, and always for the underdog.” He was a also “a labor organizer and supported the gays,” the hard knocks of his own life adding up to something that made him more than willing and able to embrace the diversity Key West is so well known for. Refusing to posture as a victim, he instead focuses on the positive and keeps a pro-active attitude. He remains open to the world as it presents itself to him, with a sense of wonder and humor that keeps him moving forward without pretense or regret.
“My secret is — I’m confessing now — if I can make people laugh, if I can make them smile, if I can make them feel good about themselves, I don’t want nothing.”
But he knows when to shelve the humor, too, getting dead serious at the drop of a dime.
“The world is changed. The whole nation is disappearing. We can’t speak anymore. They take all these kids and put them in college and all they teach them is the right answers — Don’t offend anybody — Money is God — Money is everything. And they don’t even know how to use it. They don’t even know how to buy good food. All they know is automobiles and houses. So when they come out of college, you got a bunch of blanks.”

Later, inside the packet he’d given me “to help me with my interview,” I find photocopies of articles from The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and the Miami Herald and photographs of his fishing days, the skipper on docks lined up with tremendous grouper and other salty dogs from days and ways gone by. But most telling is an old school assignment from the very daughter (now a graduate student of psychology) that brought him to the interview, given to him on some far-gone Father’s day:
I was upstairs doing my weekend homework when my phone rang. Too lazy to strain her voice, my mother was calling to tell me dinner was ready. I hurried downstairs and plopped into my chair.
I noticed my Dad’s place at the table wasn’t set and I was wondering where he was. No sooner had I had that thought than he came down the stairs in a pair of tuxedo pants and a white dress shirt. He went to the mirror and began combing back his wet hair. He slicked it back and then made sure he had a clean shave around his grey beard. It was Fantasy Fest night and my Dad was to be on a float playing the one and only Capt. Tony. As he fastened the cufflinks on his shirt, he panically yelled, “Where’s my tie?”
“Right here,” I said, waving it in the air.
My mother helped him put on the tie and he smoothly slipped into his jacket. He added some Old Spice cologne — he has to smell good for the women — looked into the mirror one last time, and replied more to himself than us, “Your old man doesn’t look bad.” I secretly rolled my eyes. This was Capt. Tony the hustler and womanizer. He placed his top hat on his head and with a twinkle in his eyes, walked out the door.
The next morning, I came downstairs to get breakfast. And as always, there was my dad. A cup of coffee and The Key West Citizen sat in front of him on the table. A cigarette was secured between his lips and the Weather Channel was on T.V. He had been transformed overnight. Capt. Tony was now the skinny old man in pin-striped pajamas that I saw every morning. His hair never combed and his main concern being what the lotto numbers from the night before were. “Good morning, daughter,” he’d say in an annoying New York accent, nagging at me because I was getting up at noon. “Good morning,” I’d have to yell, because he keeps his hearing aids off until he’s done reading the papers.
I never really look at my dad as the famous figure of Key West. He’s just my dad. Every now and then I get a glimpse of Capt. Tony and it amazes me how well he plays the part.

“The greatest thing I ever did,” he tells me during our interview, “I raised all my kids. Lucky.”
More than all his high-powered adventures and misadventures, it is his love of his family—the one he was born into and especially the one he made with the women he loved— that has given him his biggest sense of success.
“I made women my life.” He says. And then, with great pause, “I lost three of them. To cancer. But I made women my life. Every woman to me is like a treasure. I can’t believe how fabulous they are. And yeah, they are whores. They’re like a mystery…
“My wife today … I’m so lucky,” he says of Marty, whom he’s been with for 34 years. “She keeps me alive.
“Imagine having 13 children!” he continues. “And when I see them, I see their mothers … so it’s like a reward, like nobody died. I brought it all back. What a reward. Isn’t that beautiful?”
When ask him about his life as a Jersey boy, it’s as if he’s teleported himself back in time in the telling of it.
“I come from a great family, four boys,” he reminisces. “We’re all theatrical. My brother Sal, who was gay, he made it big in N.Y. — an artist, played operas by ear, you can’t believe it. It was my gay brother, 10 years older than me — then there was Louie and Joey — who took me out into the world.
“We used to go to the opera, 50 cents was WAY up. I loved Aida because it had camels, elephants. There’s so much you could talk about. He taught me about art, the great artists. I fell in love with the guy who cut his ear off. He’s my favorite.
“Back when I was mayor, we had one week in Chicago where they invited mayors from all over, and they had all of his (Van Gogh’s) paintings. I couldn’t believe it. So I got to know a lot of artists,” he says, talking especially about Polaroid photographer Marie Cosindas, who snapped the image of him that now sits inside The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“And I got to know the great writers,” he says, meaning Hemingway, Capote, Williams and the many others that bellied up to his bar on more than one occasion.
“What a life.”
Earlier this year, that life was compromised by some serious health issues. Carotid artery disease was severely decreasing the flow of blood to his brain, putting him at a very high risk for a massive stroke and causing heavy forgetfulness. But with a visit to Mount Sinai and some cutting-edge procedures, the Captain regained his blood flow — and yet a few more stories to tell.
“They couldn’t give me any anesthetics, so they had these Cuban girls in the room with maracas, dancing and showing their breasts. The guy was working on me while they were dancing. It’s a true story!”
It was doctors like these and priests that were the gods to him in his life.
“I was an altar boy,” he says. “I loved it. Father Anthony was my guide. When he was going to Italy for some kind of course, he asked me for a big marble and I gave it to him. Twelve years later he comes back and gives me the marble. I never forgot it. He said to me, “Anthony, you grew up, you’re a little man now, I want to tell you something, Now you listen to me. You belong to the world. And you go out there. You get older and you travel. There’s no better education.
“And so I went to the biggest college in the world. The streets. I could have been a multi-millionaire 10 times over,” he says. “But I made my life living and gambling.”
Tony Tarracino gets quiet for a moment. He is getting tired. But before he ends our session, he puts me on the spot, asking me what I will tell people about him.
“Well,” I venture. “I would say that you are honest. Entertaining. Alert. Genuine. At the same time you’re bullshitting for all the entertainment, there’s still a direct genuineness. An immense heart. And you’re a little bit feisty, too, which I think we all need a bit more of.”
We walk toward the sunlight streaming in from Greene Street. He gives me a black T-shirt with his face on it, makes me try it on to be sure he picked the right size. He did.
“I’m good, aren’t I?” he asks. And then, “He told me to go out into the world. And I did. Man. …What a lovely life we live. If I died tomorrow, I didn’t miss anything.”


photograph by michael blades

Refugees of the Culture Wars
essay by Lynne Bentley-Kemp

The search for one’s soul begins with a will toward independence and authenticity. It is a journey for the impulsive and courageous, not the fainthearted. You have to wear your spirit on the outside. That’s what poets, artists and outlaws do.
Key West is like a magnet for the ones who inhabit the fringes of society and the ones who would like to be there, if only temporarily. Here we can be transcendentalists in the way that Emerson and Thoreau were. Here we can practice individualism at its best and most interesting. Nonconformists, iconoclasts, contrarians all — we belong to a community of saints and sinners. We come to rest in a tropical stew of eccentricity, vulnerability and drunkenness.
The outlaws exist to remind everyone else that there is another way of looking at things. It’s a pain in the ass really. You have to be tolerant and allow your sensibilities to be trampled sometimes. No gated communities allowed. The culture wars rage on.
Here’s to the refugees of the culture wars at the end of the road — jesters and visionaries — dressing up for the revolution. Long may they reign.

– issue #3, the secret of salt

a sincere thanks to everyone who made this such a beautiful evening …

florida keys council of the arts, our contributors, sponsors & advertisers, cricket desmarais, nadja hansen, gregory henke, emily dunn, marky pierson, desnudo productions & key west burlesque, ganesha dance theatre, christine gorham, dj ray, sheil, cory heydon, brady thomas, jennifer o’lear, eric anfinson, key west tara mandala, michael forster, thomas suylan, che stein, christine marguerite, svea & steve, mawari, rick keith, waterfront market, creperie, banana cafe, la trattoria, la dichosa, crossiants de france, louie’s backyard, the cafe, the bottlecap, pepe’s, blue heaven, the beach club, mangia mangia, green parrot, mary ann & tim, revati, victoria, marlene, key west innkeepers association, marci, carol morin & stephanie, solares hill, the keynoter, paradise, michael marrero, captain tony and last but not least … our covergirl, frances crowe stahl (she made her own hats.)

Epitaph for the Last Poet … by Sandy McKinney

I am the poet. I will be heard.
I speak for the mute, the fallen bird
bereft of flute and flutter,
for the damned
the dim, the daft, the desperate
the ewe new-lambed in winter
the mutter of worms, the spider’s fantasy
Forget my name, but by God remember the leaf
floating windless without wings
and the cold sod
that receives it, the seed
ungerminated, the need
for light on growing things.


an indigenous journal

December 4, 2007

1 Originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment.
See native.
2 Intrinsic; innate.

“This is our story.” — Solares Hill, in a review by Rosalind Brackenbury

The secret of salt: an indigenous journal is a bi-annual collection of fiction, poetry, essays, interviews & images inspired by our unique environment.

The journal explores a new theme with each issue and encourages thoughtful artistic expression. We celebrate our diverse island community … artists, writers, healers … fishermen, sailors, dreamers … and are grateful for the opportunity to live in a place where we can really be ourselves.

Emerging artists, as well as those long established, are included in our pages. It is our vision for the journal to be a container for our stories … a record over time and a beautiful gift to share with those who are just passing through.