Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The First Painting

Self Portrait (Penelope's Picture). Jerry the Bird, 1973

This is an image of what is reliably believed to be Jerry the Bird's first painting. It was made with acrylic paint on cold-press paper, approximately nine by twelve inches. It can safely be assumed that it was painted in 1973, or possibly early in 1974.

Jerry himself referred to this painting as "Penelope's Picture." He is referring to the character of Penelope in his memoir "Among the Humans," although the real name of the woman upon whom Penelope was based is something Jerry never revealed.

"Penelope's Picture" refers to the painting that she painted of Jerry. According to "Among the Humans," she and Jerry were next-door neighbors in an apartment court. He sat for her and she painted his portrait. Jerry writes that Penelope was a fan of Marcel Duchamp, the French-born artist and thinker. Late in his career, Duchamp decided to create miniature museums of his work, tiny enough that they could be carried in fold-out suitcases. He meticulously recreated his earlier works in reduced size, and this was a concept that Penelope was very taken by. After painting Jerry's portrait, she also painted a miniature version, about the size of a baseball card.

When Penelope leaves the apartment at the conclusion of "Among the Humans," she leaves the miniature of her portrait behind for Jerry to find. Jerry later decided to recreate her original portrait of him by copying the miniature back to its original size. This was his first attempt at painting, and according to interviews where he discusses his visual art, it took him a great deal of work. The painting took dozens of attempts to get right. Early attempts were destroyed. The only one that survived was the only one Jerry felt even marginally satisfied with.

The creation of this painting was a watershed project in Jerry's career, and it is yet another example of the profound effect his relationship with the Penelope woman had on him.

From a textual point of view, the painting is quite extrordinary as a "self-portrait"; it is a self-portrait based on a miniature copy of a portrait painted by someone else. But it helped establish what would become Jerry's signature style: crude, simplistic, but evocative and colorful. How much of this style is copied from the portrait Penelope painted is unknown. It has never been seen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Poem: Unwritten Unsent

Self-Portrait (pretending to be a writer) Jerry the Bird, 1975.

It's been a few years now, he said, starting a country song.

There was a fuss with you and I
                          crazy things happened
                                                crazy scenes and a desperate love (one-way)
and you didn't want to deal with things too deeply
You left so fast and left no trace, just an empty apartment next to mine.

I can't blame you,
but you'll understand if I take your decision to disappear in so dramatic a fashion personally.

All the same, I wish I could write you letters and tell you about how I love who you are.

If I heard from you again or never did, I could write you letters to sing your praises.

Of course I understand not wanting those letters. Forget things, leave it behind.

But wouldn't it be nice to get love letters every once in a while that asked no obligation?

I've got nowhere to send those letters, so they don't get written. Instead it's the bad poems that get sent out in search of your eyes, one thousand issues of a very little magazine into the two hundred and fifty million of us in America.

The love comes out one way or another, looking for you.

Jerry the Bird, 1977.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Poem: Subway Pigeons

Self Portrait, Walking at Night. Jerry the Bird, 1975.

The one winter night I was going back and forth across town
I'd been staying in this dump of an apartment
it was a flophouse, really,
some burned out hippies had made the place open to
whoever wanted to come around and drink wine or smoke pot
or just needed a place indoors to crash

but nothing lasts

and eventually the hippies and the drunks and the burnouts all got the boot
and we all ended up out on the street
scratching our asses and wondering where to go next.

I knew a few people around town
and I had a pocket full of change from playing cards
with the hippies and the burnouts and the winos
so I made phone calls
and rode the trains
and walked
and went all around the city
seeing if anyone had a couch
or even a space on the goddamn floor where a bird could sleep for a few nights.

Back and forth across the city a few times
and I hate riding the trains because people stare and get weird around me
some old bastard once shooed me with a rolled up newspaper
and I said hey man, what's your problem
and he said people only
and I said the man took my fare and didn't say anything so get lost

but it was getting late and I was stuck with nowhere to go
and it was getting cold

and I was standing around in a station
wondering if I should walk up to street level
(there was nothing up there for me)
or should I go back down and get back on the trains
(there was nowhere to go)

near the staircase that led up to the street was a big heater
blowing warm air into the station
but it wasn't warm to stand under it because of the wind from the stairs

but sitting on top of the heater is a half-dozen pigeons
and there are a few walking in little circles under the heater
and they are taking turns

one of them walking around in circles will fly up
and bump the end of the line
and the one at the other end will get bumped off
and they all get moved down a little bit
and so they all get their turn

but they all seem to look at me and say
don't even think about it you big bastard
you're you and we're us
and you're not one of us
so don't try to play bird
you're wearing a coat
you're playing human
you've crossed the line
and you're on their side now
go play with your human friends
and don't try to play bird anymore

you're out of the goddamn club.

And I stand and watch them trade places for a while

and I bum a cigarette off an old fellow

and I walk back up to the street to walk nowhere

and goddamn is it cold out here tonight.

Jerry the Bird, 1975.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interview: Jerry meets The Underground Press, 1975

Self Portrait "In My Prime." Jerry the Bird, 1976.

Following the publication of Among the Humans in 1974, Jerry was briefly something of an underground star. He was interviewed by some mainstream media outlets, but more often by student newspapers, small-run magazines, and so-called "underground" papers. One such paper to interview him was the Denver-based "Underground Calliope," which spoke to him in 1975. The article is reprinted here in full.

"Jerry the Bird Comes to Colorado."

by Taylor Gibbs and Wallace Carlson

Sometimes the clouds part and the sun shines in on our little freakshow in the mountains. Even though the Mile High State can be a little hard to take, occassionally a wandering soul joins us to remind us what's going on in the real world. Such is the case right now, as Denver welcomes writer, poet, and unintentional animal rights activist Jerry the Bird.

Jerry has come to Denver to give a poetry reading at Roy's Cafe on Saturday night. We caught up with him at the Holiday Inn hotel lounge and watched him drink beers and smoke cigarettes. And of course, we asked him some questions about what it's like for a bird in America.

Taylor Gibbs: Welcome to Denver.

Jerry the Bird: Thanks. I've been to Denver before actually, but not for a few years. It looks about the same. Except this time I'm staying in a hotel.

Wallace Carlson: Where'd you stay last time?

JtB: Larimer Street, down on skid row. I remember crashing one night in a shelter down there, but they wouldn't let me in the second night.

TG: How come?

JtB: I don't know. I guess somebody complained or something. A lot of places don't like birds or animals coming in. You hear all sorts of stuff. You'll bring in fleas, you'll shit all over the place. It wasn't so bad though. It was in summer time. It would have been worse in winter, I imagine. I've never been here in winter, but I bet it sucks to sleep on the street here in December.

WC: You bet.

TG: Your book, "Among the Humans," deals with a lot of issues like that, with harrassment and discrimination of animals who are trying to live in human society. There are incidents like having popcorn thrown at you at an ice hockey game and being mistreated at parties. Do you still deal with those issues?

JtB: Sure. Not much has changed, but the events in the book are fairly recent. It's all pretty much the same, but I try not to get all angry or broken up about it. I can see things from a human's point of view, to a certain extent. You look at a big animal and you don't see an equal. You see someone who belongs outside, or on a leash, or in a zoo. You have a hard time computing that this big furry or feathered beast could be your friend, or could get served in a restaurant.

TG: Do you think your book could help change that perception? Like people could read it and maybe see animals differently?

JtB: Maybe. That's possible, but I don't think it will have that kind of reach. Maybe it will be a drop in the bucket, like a small part of a bigger wave. I think things will eventually get better. I don't know if I'll see it in my lifetime. Like black authors in the Nineteenth Century, maybe their books did some good, but I bet it still sucked for them at the time, you know?

WC: You think there are comparisons there?

JtB: I don't know, man. I wouldn't want to open that can of worms, because someone will get sensitive. You don't want to say animals are like the blacks, because then it will get turned around and someone will say oh, he's saying blacks are like animals. You can't say anything. It always gets twisted around. That's why I didn't talk about any of that stuff when I wrote the book. I just tried to talk about me, my experience. The book is supposed to be just a little love story, but it gets blown up into the bigger issues surrounding it.

TG: Johnny America has been talking about your book a lot. He says it tells the story of a lot of birds and animals in America.

JtB: Right, Johnny America, the great American eagle. That's true, I've seen him mention "Among the Humans" in a few different interviews. You know what's funny? He talks about it a lot, but I can never tell if he even liked the book or not.

TG: How come?

JtB: Because he always sounds so mad when he's talking about it.

WC: Yeah, but don't you think he's mad about what the book is talking about? He's mad about how you're treated in the book?

JtB: Maybe. But like I said, the book is meant to be a tragic love story. He's blowing it up into something bigger.

TG: Isn't the tragedy of the book the social injustice though? The girl and the bird can't be together because she's a human and he's a bird.

JtB: That's not why they can't be together.. Well, it is, but it's not a social barrier. He doesn't have a penis. Girls want a guy with a penis. It's like Hemingway. In Hemingway they're both humans, but they can't be together because the guy got his dick blown off in the war. She wants a guy with a dick.

TG: I don't remember that part.

WC: I only read "The Old Man and The Sea." In high school.

JtB: It's in one of his other ones. It's not important. You get my point.

TG: Does it bother you that Johnny America keeps talking about your book?

JtB: Not really. I know he's trying to help animals get equality, or better treatment, or something like that. That's all right, I guess. It's probably helping with sales, too. But I don't necessarily want to be a spokebird for anything. I'm still trying to figure things out for myself. The Eagle of Washington seems to have everything figured out for everybody.

TG: You mentioned he's an eagle. Some people say he's using the fact that he's an eagle, which is an obvious American symbol, to elevate the status of his arguments.

JtB: Maybe he is. He sure looks like someone who should be arguing in Washington.

TG: You make it a point in the book not to say what kind of bird you are. Why?

JtB: Because people make assumptions based on it. If I told you I was a pigeon, you would think about shitting on statues. If I said crow, you would think about eating roadkill. It's not much different from humans. What's your background?

TG: German and Irish.

WC: I'm obviously black.

JtB: Right. And maybe someone would say, oh, he's black. He's probably a good athlete. Or he's Irish. He has a hot temper. Or he's German. He likes war or something. People make assumptions. Who cares what kind of bird I am? Does it make a difference? If I write a good poem or a good story, that should be enough.

TG: Is it true you write detective novels under pen names?

JtB: Sure.

TG: Why don't you just use your own name?

JtB: For the same reason. If people know a bird wrote the book, they'll be thinking about a bird the whole time when they read it. I'd rather they didn't think about it at all.

TG: Do you want to reveal your pen name? I'm sure a lot of people would like to read your detective novels.

JtB: That's the beauty of it. They may have read them already.

* * *

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Poem: The New York City Animal Scene

When I was still very young
(my adult feathers had just become permanent)
I heard that there were a lot of animals like me
in big New York City.

NYC became some kind of magic kingdom for me then
and I knew I had to go.
It took me a few years to get there
I was still learning how to survive
I couldn't read or write
I could scratch around for bugs in the dirt
but getting a straight meal wasn't so easy

but I finally found my way to the Big Apple.

It was winter and New York is cold in the winter
I had a thin coat and puffed up my feathers
but I was freezing.
I found the little strip in the Village
where the signs said "Animals Welcome"
and I stepped inside a small bar.

For the first time ever, nobody seemed to give a crap
that I'd just walked into a bar.

There were some dogs drinking beers at a table
and a doe was sitting at the bar.
There was a human with the doe
and it looked like he was trying to pick her up.
He bought her a drink,
which the bartender, a lynx or some kind of wild cat
wearing a bow tie
served to her in a small bowl
because her hooves had no thumbs to lift a glass.

The bartender looked like her wanted to kill the man
who had slicked back hair and a thin mustache
and he looked like he wanted to kill the deer too
and maybe the dogs
and when he looked at me
I thought he wanted to kill me too.

Maybe it was just the look on his face.

I sat at the bar and counted out my nickels for a beer.
The cat didn't talk to me except to serve my beer.

Other animals came and went
A few humans too
and nobody talked to me
and I didn't see anyone I wanted to talk to.

I thought when I got there I would feel
like I was with my people
like I belonged
but I felt just as alone there as ever
maybe more so

I counted out a few more nickels
and had another beer
and then I left

and just like any other night
in any other city

I tried to figure out where I was going to sleep.

Jerry the Bird, 1973.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Poem: "What Are These Things"

Poetry is pulling your hair out trying to create the line

Unsure of everything unable to tell the good from the bad

Poetry is sifting through wasted time looking for a sign of worth

It is struggle and wanting and trying to remember

Poetry dies in the absence of understanding and contact

Pain and wondering confusion and grasping for a sign

Poetry is fragments broken thoughts unconnected dots

Occasional rejoicing that perhaps a breakthrough has been made

Prose is having without reaching

Prose is being receiving without begging

Prose is comfort

Poetry is pain

With you, prose

Without you, poetry
Jerry the Bird, 1976.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Jerry's Paintings

Self-Portrait in Bedroom, Jerry the Bird, 1975 (approx.).

Jerry the Bird came to painting late in his life. His interest in art was inspired by his relationship with the human woman who inspired the Penelope character in his famous memoir, Among the Humans. "Penelope" was an artist, who painted a portrait of Jerry, and involved him in a few of her art projects during their brief relationship.

After they parted ways, Jerry began to draw and paint. Like his poetry, he drew his subject matter from his own life, creating many self-portraits and painting his friends, including those who appear in Among the Humans: Carter J. Lizardman, Tank the Goalie, Penelope, and others.

One of Jerry's notable painting projects was a series of water color paintings he created to accompany his prose poem "The Bird." The poem is an early, extremely simplified version of what would eventually become his memoir. The tragi-comic poem and painting series chillingly foreshadows his eventual death. Jerry also worked on paintings intended to accompany Among The Humans, but a complete illustrated version of the memoir never saw publication.

Few of Jerry's paintings have been seen by the public, except on this website. As more paintings are made available they will be posted here. Check back often.

Jerry's Poetry

Self-Portrait with Writer's Block, Jerry the Bird, 1975 (approx.).

Although Jerry earned his living writing pulp mysteries under a variety of pen names, he began writing poetry late in his life, and during his last few years he was able to write several hundred. Only a few dozen of these were ever published during his lifetime, mostly in small magazines of limited circulation.

Jerry acknowledged that he wrote mysteries for money, and did not put much emotional investment into them. He described them as technical exercises where he tried to imitate human behavior. In his poetry, however, Jerry was able to explore his own feelings and experiences. He wrote about his early life, his many years as a drifter, and about the difficulty he had in finding his way in human society. We can speculate that writing about this personal subject matter led him to try his hand at memoir, which led to the him writng Among The Humans, the one book for which he is remembered.

According to Among The Humans, Jerry was inspired to try writing poetry after meeting and falling in love with a human woman. The woman, named "Penelope" in the book, tells him that she read poetry, and he began studying the form in hopes of impressing her. But even after that relationship failed, Jerry continued writing poetry, and wrote them almost every day until his eventual death.

Few of Jerry's poems are still available. Original copies of the magazines in which they were published are incredibly rare, and there has not yet been a serious attempt to collect and republish them. This website is attempting to bring some of them back to the reading public, and new poems are published as they are found. Check back often to see more.

The Book: Among The Humans

Self-Portrait with Determination, Jerry the Bird, 1975 (approx.).

Among The Humans was published in 1974. A memoir about Jerry's failed relationship with a young human woman, it was a brief success. The book sold well and was nationally reviewed, but was out of print within a few years of Jerry's death in 1977.

There is a growing movement to bring Among The Humans back into print, either on paper or electronically. It is the hope of this website's staff that it will be available to the reading public sometime in 2014. Check back for updates on the book's availability.

Intro: Who Was Jerry the Bird?

Self-Portrait on the phone, Jerry the Bird, 1975 (approx.).

Jerry, commonly known as Jerry the Bird, was an author, painter and poet, best know for his memoir Among The Humans. The book was a minor hit when it was published in 1974, and briefly made Jerry a minor celebrity. Among The Humans was especially important to the several thousand birds and animals trying to live in human society as equals, as it detailed the frustrations and prejudice often felt by non-humans trying to adapt to human life.

Not much is known about Jerry's early life, although it has been estimated he was probably hatched around 1944, likely to normal bird parents. Like many animals who have chosen to live in human society, Jerry determined at a young age that he didn't "fit in" in the natural world, and started hanging around small towns. He learned to speak English and spent most of the 1950s and early '60s as a bum, crossing back and forth across the United States, as well as travelling in Canada and Mexico.

During his time "on the bum" as he called it, he was encouraged by a fellow traveller to learn how to read and write. After that, Jerry began to visit the libraries in whatever towns he passed through. With the help of other transients he learned to read and became a voracious reader, trying to gain insight into aspects of human life that were otherwise inaccessible to him.

As he settled into his twenties, Jerry realised that he wanted a more stable life than the homeless road. He also recognised the need to earn a steady income. Animals and birds were not welcome members of American society in the early sixties, and employment for non-humans was hard to come by. He decided to try his hand at writing for pulp magazines to earn cash. He read widely, but found the clockwork nature of detective and mystery stories the easiest to imitate, and after a long period of trial and error, he began making sales.

Encouraged by his first successes, Jerry tried his hand at writing novels, and began producing dime-store paperbacks under a variety of pen names. These cheap thrill books did not earn him much, but after a life of destitution, the small checks seemed like a fortune. For the first time he was able to rent a place of his own. He lived in a variety of small apartments, moving often, always looking for a place where he felt like he fit.

The turning point in his life came when he met and fell in love with a young woman. She became his friend, but never quite returned his love. Despite this, she had a profound effect on him, and after meeting her, he tried his hand at both poetry and painting. These artistic outlets would become important parts of his life. He later recounted this period in Among The Humans.

Among The Humans was published by a small press in 1974 and was reviewed by several national papers. It sold well, and Jerry was finacially stable for the first time. He was interviewed by magazines and briefly became an important spokesbird for animals like himself.

He did not wear the success easily. Like many outsiders and transients, Jerry dealt with loneliness, depression, and substance abuse. The attention he recieved made him feel more isolated than ever, and he dealt with his negative feeling through heavier and heavier drinking.

Jerry the Bird died in 1977.