In the late ’60s, while a dramatic cultural shift was taking place across the United States, New York City was the home of a thriving poetry scene. And perhaps no one remembers the era better than Nick Piombino, a poet, essayist, artist and psychotherapist who studied poetry with William S. Burroughs, Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer, performed with Patti Smith and was friends with Jackson Mac Low and Allen Ginsberg, with whom he spent an afternoon in jail as a result of a sit-in against the war in Vietnam. In the same year, 1967, he burned his draft card as a member of the Resistance group led by David Harris.
Born in New York City in 1942, Piombino studied English at the City College of New York before receiving a Masters degree in social work from Fordham University. In 1982, he completed his psychoanalytic training at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health. Finding beauty in early works of psychoanalytic theory, Piombino incorporated aspects of psychoanalysis into his writing. Piombino’s first published poems appeared in 1965 in American Weave Literary Journal. Encouraged by Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer, Piombino gave his first poetry reading with Patti Smith at The Kitchen in 1973. He has had an ongoing private practice in psychoanalysis since 1985 at his office on West End Avenue.
After a journey to Italy and Morocco — and inspired by both the cut-up writing techniques used by Berrigan and Burroughs, along with the work of German artist Kurt Schwitters — Piombino began to experiment with using found materials to create collages. He later published a photocollage novel, Free Fall, and his work was included in a series of art exhibitions.
Piombino’s first volume of poetry, titled Poems, was published by the Sun & Moon Press in 1988 and won an Author’s Recognition Award from the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health in 1992. His second book, Light Street, was released in 1996. It was followed by 1999’s Theoretical Objects, a collection of manifestos, essays and prose poems. Best known for his essays in poetics first published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and later collected in The Boundary of Blur, his most recent book, Contradicta: Aphorisms, was published in 2010 with collages by his wife, the artist Toni Simon. From 2003 through 2012, Piombino posted frequently to his blog fait accompli, leading to the publication of a book of the same name, based on the first three months of the blog, which received more than 250,000 visits during that period.
A fixture on the New York poetry scene for decades, some of Piombino’s many poetry readings are collected on the Penn Sound site. He was the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry in 1992 and currently lives in Brooklyn. To learn more about Piombino, visit the Penn Sound site or read his work on Twitter or at The Electronic Poetry Center.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I was very fortunate to be an Army brat, so I got to travel and live in Germany, California and Florida as a child and teenager. When we arrived via a small army passenger ship over the Atlantic, we settled in Nurnberg, Germany. It was 1950 just after WWII, and the city had been completely bombed out and leveled, consisting mostly of rubble. There was hardly a building standing. The allies spared the small medieval city at the center of the town. I attended a school built by the U.S. Army. Although my parents were not religious, I became an ardent Catholic and volunteered to be an altar boy. I loved listening to the Latin I couldn’t understand while the music of the mysterious chanted language fascinated me. At one point, I became friends with a stage magician who called himself The Great Salini. He showed me how he could make it appear he was cutting a woman in half onstage and how to pull a cigarette out of the air by making a simple device out of sheet metal I could wrap around my finger to attach to the cigarette behind my finger. I also remember a second grade teacher who would punish the class by forcing the kids to push pieces of chalk across the floor with our noses.
Although I am sure officers at that time were not paid well, my parents were given a housekeeper. One day I asked her about Hitler, who I had heard about. I was perhaps 10 at the time. She said, “Hitler was not a bad man, it was his ministers who were bad.” The fact that my mother was Jewish, although she converted to Catholicism upon marrying my father, must have added to the painfulness of living in postwar Germany away from her family in New York. Although I hated to keep losing groups of friends again and again whenever we moved (Army assignments were about three years), I responded by learning to be open to creating new friendships. By the time I was in Junior High School in San Francisco at the age of 12 I was chosen to be someone who would greet new kids coming to the school to show them around and introduce them. My very first writing took place in that same school based on my interest in the life of Lincoln, and I performed it solo for my classes. This was the time of the great San Francisco writing renaissance, so perhaps many of those teachers were brilliant writers themselves. There were no grades but you were given points for accomplishments and, as a result, I consistently led the school.
But when my mother moved back to Coney Island, Brooklyn and my father left for Korea, I was placed in the lowest class there because they had not received my grades from the previous school. Yet I loved this, as I enjoyed meeting these young teenagers who were tough types I had never met before. Their styles included folded up collars and ducktail haircuts, the girls in tight sweaters and skirts. When I was admitted to a top high school one of the boys even threatened to beat me up, claiming that no one from that class had ever been admitted to a top high school!
Throughout my childhood, when I would arrive in new places and have no one to hang out with, I learned to make books my friends and, as a result, became interested in writing. I haunted libraries and collected dozens of science fiction books and magazines. I remember thinking that I wanted to be a writer when in the first grade! By the time I was 10, I was reading at least a book a week. I loved school and worked hard to get good grades which became my version of keeping score in a video game.
The downside of my childhood was that my mother was a large, imposing bully, very bossy, angry and punishing. My father never stood up to her. This created some psychological problems which also turned out to be something of a good thing because I decided to change my childhood dream of becoming a priest in the Catholic church (a religion I rejected by the time I was 12) to becoming a psychoanalyst.
How did you initially become interested in writing and poetry?
I was in my high school chorus and, when my voice changed, I looked for something else and found poetry. I always loved music but apparently did not have the patience or the talent to become a musician. Poetry was the closest thing I could find. When I was seven, I had asked my parents for piano lessons and instead they gave me accordion lessons (ugh!). So poetry came along to replace all that. Also, I was an honors student in literature in college and loved writing literary papers which were apparently appreciated by my professors. But the idea of getting up in the morning and talking to groups of students about the same books over and over turned me off. Also, the professors looked unhappy to me. So I went to a therapist who suggested I go into the field of social work in order to become a psychoanalyst, which I did in the mid ’60s.
This was fortunate because Lyndon Johnson had this idea of placing a social worker in every neighborhood in the United States, so the federal government offered many social work fellowships, and I got one. I was broke and living on my own, but that paid for my graduate studies and I’ve been a social worker and a therapist ever since. To my amazement, my parents came up with $1,000 for me in my second year.
As for the poetry, in high school in Florida, a teacher offered to read any poems a student wanted to give her. I published some poems in the high school literary magazine and I kept on writing. I published some poems in college and after, and then went to some workshops with terrific poets in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
How did psychotherapy and your psychoanalytical studies influence your approach to writing and the themes you explored?
Sigmund Freud, who very famously created psychoanalysis in the late 19th and early 20th century, had this idea of free association. He had read an article by a famous writer of the time in Germany named Schiller who suggested that writers bypass their inner critics by practicing writing down every thought that came into their heads instead of censoring them. Freud picked up on this idea as a technique of working with neurotic patients in his psychiatric practice. By the way, this appealed to the surrealists, notably Andre Breton, but Freud refused to meet with him.
As a result of this and many other factors, psychoanalysis is deeply related to literature. This connection obviously appealed to me, as I have always been strongly interested in both. In my book The Boundary of Blur, I wrote about connections between the two fields. Also, I used the idea of free association in writing many of my poems, especially in my early years.
In recent years, my writing has been influenced by my therapy practice in another way. I had always been interested in writing aphorisms, even when very young, and came back to this over the past 20 years. In 2010, I published a book of these under the title Contradicta. The idea was to pair two aphorisms which were both true but contradictory. This evolved into writing pairs of connected aphorisms. The book also contains many collages created by my wife Toni Simon that respond to and characterize the aphorisms.
What role did Bernadette Mayer have in shaping your career and writing style?
I was very fortunate to connect with some great writers as teachers early on and Bernadette Mayer is a writer whose work deeply inspired and inspires me. I took a writing class with William Burroughs in 1965 who taught us how to collect pictures from magazines that corresponded to our dreams and use that as a way of jump-starting a piece of writing.
I was also lucky to have met Allen Ginsberg in the mid ’60s and I even offered to be his literary secretary, which he declined, saying it probably wasn’t for me. In November of 1967 I participated in a sit-down action with the War Resistors League, blocking the White Hall Street draft induction center and was arrested. Allen Ginsberg was my cellmate. At that point, I was obsessed with the poetry of Jackson Mac Low. I asked Allen if he knew Jackson and could he introduce us. I ran up the street when we were released and introduced myself. Jackson then sent me a signed copy of his great book The Pronouns, which he had reproduced on a mimeo machine. From that point on, we remained friends until he died a few years ago.
In 1968, I took some of Bernadette Mayer’s work with me on a trip I took to Europe and Morocco. In the early ’70s, Bernadette gave a famous writing workshop which helped usher in a writing movement now called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Bernadette’s early work was deeply lyrical as well as sweepingly free associational, conceptual as well as personal. Connecting all of these things in writing is essentially her unique contribution. Her books Story, Moving and Studying Hunger became templates for many writers then and since.
In her workshops, she emphasized experimentation and risk as well as collaboration. The value of an intense connection between the unconscious as well as to other writers appealed to me and many other writers and still does.
Bernadette Mayer also collaborated with the writer and artist Vito Acconci in the ’60s on a magazine called 0-9. This magazine helped usher in the conceptual art movement and created a deep and lasting connection between art and poetry in the latter part of the 20th century. For a time, Bernadette and I became closer friends, even living together briefly, but that is another story.
The last time I saw Allen Ginsberg, we were scheduled to read together in a group reading. I had come down from my therapy office on the Upper West Side and went with my wife Toni Simon to the Second Avenue Deli to have some dinner. Allen came over to me and said I should get over to the (St. Mark’s) church and read or I would miss my turn. Then I saw him go into the bathroom with a guy he was with.
What is your connection with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group?
I met Charles Bernstein in the mid ’70s. Our conversations often centered around issues in contemporary poetry and he was interested in the fact that I had been indirectly part of the New York School of poets since I had also attended Ted Berrigan’s poetry workshop in the late ’60s and later, as I mentioned, Bernadette Mayer’s workshop in the ’70s. I met the poet Ed Friedman through Bernadette Mayer’s workshops and Ed began inviting me to perform. I gave a reading with Patti Smith and then he invited me to perform at a party he gave. I was writing songs at the time and working with a guitarist. I wrote a song in French about a breakup I had gone through titled “La Masochiste Exstatique” and this was a evidently a big hit at the party.
Charles Bernstein was there and introduced himself to me. We became friends and, some years later, he began inviting me to contribute to a magazine he started in 1978 about contemporary poetics.
I began a series of essays that were poetic in nature but also theoretical in a literary sense. This series of essays became part of an emerging movement that later was called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry after the magazine my essays had appeared in. There were many writers who ushered in this movement and of course I was only one of them.
What inspired you to create your blog, fait accompli?
When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, I was working at a middle school in Manhattan. I had been a school social worker, in addition to working in my private practice in psychotherapy, since the late ’70s. When the attacks happened, I had to help the parents get their children out of the school as everyone then was terrified of further attacks. At the time, Charles Bernstein was sponsoring a poetics discussion listserv out of SUNY Buffalo, where has teaching. The fact that I could write and connect with other poets about this on almost daily basis led to some discussions which had a huge effect on me in coming to understand the dangers of exaggerated patriotism.
I had written an essay titled “The Flag as Transitional Object” based on some ideas by the psychoanalyst Winnicott. The idea was that the flag could keep every one connected at a time when so many felt threatened and terrified. I was warned, especially by the writer Barrett Watten, of the dangers of this idea that could lead to intemperate flag-waving as well as bellicose responses to the attacks. This idea helped me, as I’ve always been a strong anti-war advocate, particularly during the Vietnam era, when I burned my draft card in a Selective Service center as part of the resistance movement led by David Harris.
I kept posting on the list until the important L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Ron Silliman advised me to open a blog, Blogging was becoming very popular at that time before Facebook, in 2003. The poet Gary Sullivan advised me to put together an organizing idea for the blog, which I decided to base on my unpublished literary journals going back to the early ’60s. I thought of the title Fait Accompli because the journals already existed, but also the connection to irremediable acts of war. I started blogging in May of 2003 and was still writing on the blog 10 years later in 2013. The blog led to a book published by Heretical Texts in 2007 also called Fait Accompli, based on the first three months of the blog which contains over 1,000 pages of writing and is still online.
If you could craft the perfect sandwich, what would be on it?
I have a strange but powerful taste for very dry sandwiches, overcooked with cayenne pepper on them, usually composed of baked or fried chicken or turkey. I start almost every morning with a fried veggie burger like this, on a wrap.
Is there anything that you’d like to do that you simply haven’t gotten around to yet?
Write a novel.
If you could change one thing about the world or society, what would it be?
Successful worldwide coordination of efforts to feed the poor, hungry and starving.
What do you hope to be remembered for?
Henry James had an aphorism… “Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
I hope I will have lived up to this by the time I go. Around 2010, when I received a threatening diagnosis that fortunately did not lead to anything fatal, I created the book Contradicta with the idea of leaving behind some of the ideas I have come to understand that might help others. It was my good fortune about a year ago to meet the wonderful thriller writer Patrick Quinlan, who plans to include many of these in a coming e-book of my selected works. In September of last year, his press Strawberry Books republished my chapbooks Light Street and Hegelian Honeymoon also as e-books.