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Poet Be Like God
Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
Lewis Ellingham, Kevin Killian




Wesleyan
1998 • 461 pp. 30 illus. 6 x 9"
Poetry Criticism / Gay Studies / Biography


$40.00 Hardcover, 978-0-8195-5308-9



The first biography of poet Jack Spicer (1925-1965), a key figure in San Francisco’s gay cultural scene and in the development of American avant garde poetries.

Jack Spicer, unlike his contemporaries Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, was a poet who disdained publishing and relished his role as a social outcast. He died in 1965 virtually unrecognized, yet in the following years his work and thought have attracted and intrigued an international audience. Now this comprehensive biography gives a pivotal poet his due. Based on interviews with scores of Spicer's contemporaries, Poet Be Like God details the most intimate aspects of Spicer's life—his family, his friends, his lovers—illuminating not only the man but also many of his poems.

Such illumination extends also to the works of others whom Spicer came to know, including the writers Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Helen Adam, Robin Blaser, Charles Olson, Philip K. Dick, Richard Brautigan, and Marianne Moore and the painters Jess, Fran Herndon, and Jay DeFeo. The resulting narrative, an engaging chronicle of the San Francisco Renaissance and the emergence of the North Beach gay scene during the 50s and 60s, will be indispensable reading for students of American literature and gay studies.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“Any book this long and this thorough that is also this readable is a wonder to be praised. Poet Be Like God makes the art and passion of Jack Spicer luminously legible. This is a grand biography; it is also a deeply searching delineation of an epoch, deploying living and vivid narratives of the San Francisco Renaissance. Here is the life every aspiring poet must know if she or he would risk self and soul in the mills of American art.”—Samuel R. Delany

“No American writer since World War II has proven to be more complicated or mysterious than Jack Spicer. Ostensibly a ‘New American,’ his writing was unlike that of any of his peers. The first major poet to have been professionally trained as a linguist, he compared his work to a radio taking dictation from Martians. The most intensely personal of authors, he proclaimed that he didn’t like ‘his life written down,’ ran a Magic Workshop that proved a crucible for an emerging San Francisco writing scene and died of alcoholism at the age of 40. Lew Ellingham and Kevin Killian have worked for years to give us this absolutely essential portrait of a man as badly misunderstood in his own day as Gertrude Stein was in hers—and whose writing may ultimately have as deep an impact on the culture of the 21st century. This book is a great gift to us all.”—Ron Silliman

“Here is the definitive account of the San Francisco Renaissance, a sourcebook not only for a central figure within that movement but for the anxious condition of literary bohemia during the Cold War. It is also a major document in gay cultural studies and a history of an important western literary movement.”—Michael Davidson

“From the time it first emerged as a renegade liberating voice in the early 1950s, beat writing changed the American social literary scene. Poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti altered the sound of U.S. poetry while Jack Kerouac's bebop chant — particularly in his classic On the Road — literally changed how Americans spoke. The beats' fame became so great so quickly that their critics accused them of hypocrisy. Not so Jack Spicer; while Ginsberg and Kerouac were busy publishing and promoting their work, Spicer — whose original lyric voice and gay content still resonate today — spent most of his time disdaining the publishing world and making enemies. In Poet Be Like God, journalist Lewis Ellingham and experimental novelist Kevin Killian have produced not only a fully realized portrait of Spicer, but a complexly woven historical and literary tapestry. Spicer emerges here as a brilliant, difficult, and largely unlikable man whose talent for writing matched his inability to function in the world. Ellingham and Killian are equally concerned with explicating the San Francisco renaissance and charting the emergence of North Beach as a gay neighborhood; Poet Be Like God thus rediscovers Jack Spicer for a new generation of readers and presents us with a unique and startling look at gay and literary history.”
—Michael Bronski

Awards/Recognition:

Short-listed for the Asian American Literary Award (2003)
Short-Listed for the PEN Center USA's Literary Award in Poetry (2003)


LEWIS ELLINGHAM is a freelance editor and writer and author of The Jefferson Airplane (1972). Writer KEVIN KILLIAM’s recent books are Little Men (1997), Arctic Summer (1997), and Argento Series (1997). Both live in San Francisco.



Sun, 19 Mar 2017 18:58:25 -0500