Beyond Baroque

Frank T. Rios — Venice West Poet (March 22, 1936 – August 20, 2018)

By Bill Mohr

Frank T. Rios’s Last Reading

“Beyond Beat” Beyond Baroque March 8, 2018, Frank Rios reads Lighting Flame 10. Photo by Pegarty Long

Frank T. Rios, a poet who joined the Venice West poetry scene in the late 1950s and remained one of its most loyal advocates, died early this morning, at age 82, according to his friend, the poet S.A. Griffin. Rios was born in New York and grew up there; he moved to Los Angeles in the early months of 1959, where he found kindred spirits, such as Stuart Z. Perkoff and Tony Scibella, who guided his unflinching imagination towards lyrical epiphanies that eventually appeared in collections of poems such as Memoirs of a Street Poet. By turns, the Venice West scene was both contumaciously avant-garde and nostalgically archaic. In the latter manner, their brotherhood of effusive devotion to the Lady, the muse from whom they fervently believed that all of their work flowed, evoked a kind of romantic poetics that one would hardly expect of young poets whose ideological proclivities were more influenced by the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s than the Beat poetics of Kerouac and company.

Perkoff (1930-1974) celebrated their comic confrontation with the straight world in a long poem shortly after Rios and Scibella teamed up with him to rule the Venice Boardwalk.

almost every day frankie & tony & i
three stooge it down the beach into the world
on the sharp lookout for
poems & dope & love &
colors reflecting off the laughter
.. . . .
We’ll water pistol ‘em
We’ll seltzer bottle ‘em

The Venice West scene became well enough known by the late 1950s that Donald Allen, the editor of this past century’s most influential anthology, The New American Poetry, referred to it without feeling any need to demarcate its location. It was, in point of fact, a nationally known Beat scene, largely because Lawrence Lipton had devoted himself to publicizing all of its most transgressive aspects in a book entitled The Holy Barbarians (1959). The scene’s origins never quite recovered, even though other poets showed up to bolster the ranks of those devoted to remaining outside the clutches of literary acclaim. It must be said that the surviving poets of Venice West never relented in championing underground poets; Rios, for instance, was one of the major forces behind Black Ace books, which produced several issues of a magazine that embedded younger poets in their provocative utopia.

There are very few people from that scene who still remember Frank T. Rios, but a whole new generation of readers was introduced to him a few years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Rios gave a very fine reading of his poems. He announced that his usual ritual of burning a poem before beginning a reading almost caused him to decline the museum’s invitation to read his poems underneath the classic mural from the old Venice Post Office. At the last minute, he said, the Muse instructed him that he would be exempt this one time, and be allowed to tear up a poem and scatter the pieces wherever they may flutter. He did so, and then read with as solid an intonation of heart-beleaguered vision as I have ever been fortunate to overhear. As Rios intoned his poems, they were already on their way elsewhere: a double journey of time and eternity that only those blessed by the Muse are permitted to record.

About the same time as Rios read at the LACMA, the museum also mounted the first production of Stuart Z. Perkoff’s one-act play, “Round Bout Midnite,” which was directed by S.A. Griffin. If anyone in Los Angeles is attuned to the impact that Venice West had on younger poets such as Scott Wannberg and Ellyn Maybe, it would be Griffin, who has sent me the following tribute: “Frank was truly one of the greats, the real deal, committed heart and soul to his wife Joyce, his sobriety and the Lady muse until the last. An inspiration for us all as we carry on in process.”

Frank T. Rios is survived by his widow, Joyce Castagnola, as well as his first wife, Carolyn, and their two daughters, Prima and Zana.

Farewell, Frank. Your poems remain mid-flight.

POSTSCRIPT:

For those who never heard Frank T. Rios talk about his life in Venice West, here is a link to some tapes produced at KCET:

https://www.kcet.org/shows/departures/beat-poet-frank-rios-the-holy-three

For the record, some of the other poets of the Venice West scene were Bruce Boyd, whose poems appeared in Allen’s anthology along with Stuart Z. Perkoff’s major poem, “Feasts of Death, Feasts of Love”; Charley Newman; Saul White; John Thomas; Maurice Lacy; Bob Alexander (the founder of the Temple of Man); Eileen Aronson Ireland; Bill Margolis; Jimmy Ryan Morris; and Barbara Bratton. As significant as this scene was, it probably constituted less than twenty percent of the total activity focused on poetry in that decade in Los Angeles.

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