Walter Simon is reciting a poem over the phone. His voice is technical, mechanical, like those computer text-reading programs. The poem is “Black Night; No Light,” one of the older ones, he instructs, written in 1981 about kids cruising in their cars in Spokane. “Tonight my dreams are the dreams of the hopeless,” he reads in an aggressive monotone. “And helpless go I into another evening of travel. Let’s call this one Assignment: `Riverside in the Night.”‘
Simon is on his annual poetry tour, which will take him to three cities: Montreal, Cambridge, Mass., and Bangor, where at 5 p.m. today he will present a free evening of his surrealist poetry at Lippincott Books on Central Street in Bangor.
His close friend Wally Warren, a visual artist in Harmony, designed the assemblage set for the reading, and will participate in the show.
“He’s loose,” says Warren of Simon. “When Walter’s loose, he’s loose. He brings out a lot in me, as I do in him. He’s a great collaborator.
It is absolutely appropriate to call a Simon poetry reading a “show.” True to his dadaist roots, he doesn’t only read a poem. He explodes into it. Sometimes there is accompanying music — a piano, dulcimer, mouth harp, guitar. Sometimes there is just Simon’s voice.
“The heavy stuff is strong phonetics,” says Simon, who is 63 and lives in Montana. “That’s my training. It’s a lot of sound packed together in a sequence.”
By training, Simon means the years he studied radio, TV and acting techniques in Boston in the 1960s. He was trying to get rid of the accent he had osmosed growing up around gangs in the city.
“Look: I started in north New Jersey — my God,” he says with a laugh. “You’re born in Newark, you plan your escape. I read `Pygmalion.’ [George Bernard] Shaw says language keeps you in your place. Now, only slip when I am in a Jewish delicatessen.”
Simon left New Jersey when he was 15. He was failing high school and needed to get out, find work, try again. He landed in Maine, where he worked for a lobsterman before heading to California. He had hoped to get his diploma there, but could see that a formal education wasn’t going to happen for him so he joined the Army.
Finally in New York, he picked up work doing publicity, and developed careers in marketing, broadcasting (he was hosted of a talk radio show in Seattle) and writing. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona. He married, divorced. Climbed to other jobs.
Eventually, he chucked it all — the security, the Mercedes, the second marriage — to be a poet.
The events of Simon’s life fly forth quickly and unbelievably. In the contemporary world of hyperaccomplishment, his story seems anachronistic. The inspiration, he says, is American poet Vachel Lindsay. Others have compared his work to Walt Whitman’s, that most American poet who looked deep into America — on its back streets, down by the river, beneath the middle-class surface.
“I don’t think I’m an anachronism,” says Simon, a willing and friendly conversationalist. “But I have my own slant. That’s the Whitman.”
What it isn’t is political, he says.
“I’ve been on the road 24 years with this,” Simon says of his poetry. “It’s about America, an endorsement of democracy, certainly. But I’m not political. Not left. Not right.”
And what does that mean for an audience?
“A good time,” he pounces with a hip, bee-bop rhythm. “If I’m cooking, they’re jumping.”
Already, in Bangor, he is, as Whitman might agree, “endlessly rocking” with poetic imagery. It takes him about two years to write about a place, he says. Then adds: “Sure, Bangor is in there. I was popping on the architecture as soon as I got there. You bet, I’ll write on Bangor.