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.

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