Getting to Know Lorenzo Thomas: Ron Padgett
“Have you read Kerouac? Camus?” Lewis Meyer asked me. Tulsa, 1958.
Lewis was the proprietor of Tulsa’s only good bookstore and I was a high school boy who kept turning up to buy things. Before long I was working in the store, where Lewis told me about the hippest publishers—New Directions, City Lights, and Grove Press. I soon found myself reading their authors: Rimbaud, Lorca, Patchen, William Carlos Williams, Pound, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Beckett, and Kerouac, among others, as well as Grove’s new literary magazine, Evergreen Review. I read every word of it, right down to the small ads in the back pages, one of which was for a literary magazine that bore the unusual name of Yugen. I subscribed to it right away.
For several years I had been writing traditionally rhymed verse, but under the influence of Whitman, Ginsberg, and Cummings I veered sharply toward modernism. Soon I got the idea of starting a literary magazine in my high school, but when the class counselor said that it would require a faculty advisor I balked. At home, looking at Yugen (edited by LeRoi Jones), I realized that it wasn’t a big fancy production, and so I invited several other highschoolers—notably Dick Gallup and Joe Brainard—to join me in producing what turned out to be The White Dove Review, in whose five issues we eventually published Kerouac, Jones, Ginsberg, Creeley, and other beacons of contemporary poetry. We sent multiple copies to contributors and to the bookstores they told us about, such as New York’s Eighth Street Bookshop and Books ‘n’ Things, Cleveland’s Asphodel, and San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop. Word got around, which led to unsolicited submissions.
The envelope said “Lorenzo Roberto Thomas” and came from an address in Jamaica, Queens, NY. I was intrigued even before I opened it. However, the poems didn’t live up to my expectations, so I wrote Mr. Thomas a letter rejecting them and offering advice on how he could improve them.
A week later I got a reply that began, “Who the hell do you think you are?” It went on to take me to task for my presumptuousness and arrogance. No one had ever said this to me. Like a bully challenged to a fight by a smaller but fiercer person, I was stunned, but the letter made me reconsider the cavalier way I had patronized Mr. Thomas. I wrote back, apologizing and ascribing my behavior partly to the callowness of youth. He responded with courtesy and tact. It turned out that he too was a high school student! Although he didn’t submit any more poems, I felt that we had made an amicable connection, albeit a brief one.
A few years later, in New York attending college, I had become part of the underground poetry scene that floated around what was then called the Lower East Side. One of its focal points was a basement coffee house on Second Avenue called Le Métro, where weekly poetry readings were taking place. Le Métro, with its bare brick walls, funky lighting, stacks of antique furniture, and somewhat rough-and-ready atmosphere was the coolest poetry venue in town. For me it was also intimidating, as the dominant tone was set by male poets who seemed big-city savvy and tough. Among the crowd were Paul Blackburn, George Montgomery, Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan, Art Berger, Jackson Maclow, Al Fowler, Lennox Raphael, Harry Fainlight, Carol Bergé, Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg, and Dan Saxon, who circulated rexograph stencils for the poets to write their poems on so he could publish them in his magazine Poets at Le Métro. For me to read my work before this audience (usually between twenty-five and fifty people) took courage, but at the same time Le Métro had a social and artistic fluidity that was encouraging. Every week you could meet someone interesting or at least unusual.
“Ron, let me introduce you to Lorenzo Thomas.” The name rang a bell, but this guy couldn’t be Lorenzo Thomas. This guy was black. Then I heard another bell. I had assumed that Lorenzo Thomas was white! Duh. I extended my hand and reiterated my apology of a few years ago. He shook my hand and, giving me a nice smile, told me not to worry about it. I had found a colleague, potentially a friend.
Lorenzo’s quick, sophisticated sense of humor and his impressive knowledge of poetry and jazz were what made his early poems so strong and enjoyable (“The Yellow Peril,” for example). We had a lot in common. We were roughly the same age, we had gotten seriously into contemporary poetry in high school, we shared an agile sense of humor, and we were energized by certain artistic influences. I wasn’t always sure about my authenticity, and though at the time he was spelling his name Lorenzo Toumes (his family’s original name in Panama) I was pretty sure he was the real deal.
At readings over the next several years the bond between us grew stronger. We always retreated to our respective colleges and private lives but we were definitely part of the same literary scene. We were literary buddies.
And so it was that when David Shapiro and I decided, in 1967, to assemble an anthology that focused on poets we admired and knew, we wanted to include Lorenzo. After college, living far from New York, I had been out of touch with him, so what I didn’t know was that in those few years he had changed. The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement, and his participation in the Umbra group had led him to a much deeper political engagement. He hadn’t changed his name the way LeRoi Jones had when he became Amiri Imamu Baraka, but he had had a similar awakening. (Lorenzo later told me that he had thought his being Panamanian made him special, but when he walked down the street he saw that he was just another American black man.) By 1967 a number of black poets were distancing themselves from white poets. Lorenzo didn’t answer my letters inviting him to be in the anthology. I was so naive and oblivious that it took me a while to understand his silence and to figure out that he especially didn’t want to be seen as the token black in our book. It just hadn’t occurred to me. Duh again! One upshot was that our anthology lost a good poet; another was that I had lost a friend.
The next I heard he had joined the Navy (in 1968) and been sent to Vietnam—in the middle of the war. Lorenzo always had a mysterious, private side, but his enlistment made absolutely no sense to me. First, not one poet I knew joined the military at that time; on the contrary, a number of them had even fled to Canada. Given Lorenzo’s political awareness, why had he volunteered to fight a white man’s war against a Third World country? No one could provide an answer. After four years of service he came back—with a drug problem.
Not long thereafter he was scheduled to read at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. I wavered, then decided to go. Waiting for him in the church’s sanctuary was a sizeable crowd, and then, wearing a three-piece suit and with
two attractive young women in tow, he swept in, openly radiating an energy I had never seen in him. He mounted the podium and, like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, erupted in a torrent of elusive surrealistic imagery fueled by rage. He was like an Aimé Césaire on steroids and cocaine. It was impressive, but kind of scary. When he finished he strode straight out of the church and went off into the evening with his entourage. The beauty of his voice and the power of his performance notwithstanding, my heart sank, for I saw with regret that trying to revive our friendship was utterly hopeless.
Around 1973 Ted Greenwald, probably his best white poet friend (going back to their college days in Queens), told me that Lorenzo had moved to Texas, partly to escape the ravages of New York’s drug culture. Indeed Lorenzo had gotten sober and was working as a poet in the schools in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, as well as serving as writer in residence at Texas Southern University. Now in touch with Lorenzo again, Ted spoke with him often and at length on the phone. Eventually Lorenzo co-organized a popular annual blues festival in Houston and hosted a weekly radio show. In 1984 he joined the faculty at the University of Houston-Downtown. When he invited Ted and me to read in Houston, we jumped at the chance. The three of us had a great time together there, like in the old Métro days, but this experience was thoroughly relaxed and joyous.
After that, whenever Lorenzo returned to New York to visit his family, sometimes my wife and I would have him come to dinner at our apartment, where we had long, cascading conversations. Lorenzo was not only a poet but also a serious intellectual, with an incisive intelligence and a sly wit. His strong sense of social justice had never left him, but now it came through not in jeremiads but in an angular irony that was piercing and sometimes just plain funny and sometimes both. His spirit had not been diminished by life, even by the cancer that had required the removal of part of his jaw. He continued to arrive at our apartment, dressed in a perfectly rumpled suit and tie and a tan raincoat, toting a worn leather satchel filled with books and papers.
Years after he died I found myself alone in a clearing in the woods in northern Vermont, and suddenly I thought of him and burst into tears.