Paul Mills graduated magna cum laude in 1990, with degrees in both literature-writing and French. At GS he won the Lily Palmer Prize in French and published in Quarto. He then attended UCLA Law School and began a civil rights and criminal defense practice, concentrating on police misconduct homicide and First Amendment cases.
Before any of that, however, he was Poez, a street performer who recited poetry (both celebrated pieces and his own work) all over Manhattan. In collaboration with choreographer, director, and company founder Patrice Regnier, he performed “Spontaneous Combustion” and other works with the Rush Dance Company in New York and Paris. In February 2006 he married his one-time girlfriend, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, 23 years after first proposing to her.
He will be performing POET BAZOOKAED ON W. 4TH STREET!, a one-man show detailing the beginning of his performance career and his return to New York and featuring some of his most requested performances, from Sept. 27-30 at the Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (near Bleecker Street), (212) 614-0505, at 8 p.m. except Sunday (3 p.m.). The show’s opening night, Sept. 27, will double as the release party for his new book, The Poetry Dollars, which features an essential guide to performing street poetry as well as his own prose and poetry. Tickets are $20. Poez Website: http://www.poezthepoet.com/
What did you do before you became a street performer?
I was a feature writer for a Boston-based but nationally distributed magazine rival of Rolling Stone, Fusion magazine. Many luminaries in the music and literary world—people like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jon Pareles, and Lou Reed (he wrote poetry)—were writers for Fusion. I wrote cover stories on various topics, including coverage of a local cult/religious figure, Mel Lyman, which resulted in a nice write-up about me in a Rolling Stone cover story, followed by a story about the history of Rolling Stone itself, and some fiction pieces. I also wrote for Creem. Also during this period, I traveled around the country and to Europe and India, working a variety of jobs, including selling philosophy textbooks, driving a cab, and working as a security guard, and I also did children’s theatre. I was the eponymous Kim in Rudyard Kipling’s story in a production that toured the Deep South. All of these things were wonderful experiences, which I’m pleased to say I survived unscathed, although there were some close calls. But the children’s theatre was ne plus ultra.
Is that what prompted you to go into street performing?
I wouldn’t say that. I had already performed poetry in a Boston University production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Street performing is a world apart from indoor theater performance. People seldom go from theater to the street, I think. Street performing was for me a means to two ends. One was to develop as a poet/performer, of which, in that time, there weren’t any others. I modeled the program after the development of similar performing artists who were developing a new form—jazz musicians. They would begin by learning and performing standard pieces of music to develop a set of skills and vocabulary of structures for both writing and improvising a new form of music called jazz music. I wanted to begin by performing equivalent “standards” of poetry, and in that way develop the skills and structures I would need to create a new form of poetry, “poez”, from “poetry” and “jazz.” That was goal number one. Goal number two was to bypass the existing apparatus for control of poetry—publishers, editors, academics—and go directly to what I imagined would be a receptive audience to poetry, if only they knew. And that meant to go directly into the street, for starters. As part of the development of the form I wanted to make a living at poetry, which I felt would give me a connection to what I was writing that you’re probably not going to get if, for example, you’re writing for a class. There’s a different, live connection. That’s the connection that jazz musicians have—the sink or swim connection. Rats learn the maze better when there’s food at the end.
You were a performer for over 10 years, so you were able to make a living as a street performer?
During the summer I could. I paid the rent and my food, clothes, and entertainment expenses with money from street performing. During the winter months I worked in clubs and cafés and made a living any way I could.
You got started around the time punk began to take off. Did you identify with the punk ethos, or did you regard it as something separate?
Very separate. I can’t really comment on the punk ethos, other then to say that my understanding is that it was a rejection of polished craft, and I embraced polished craft.
Your performance seems to have an interesting mix, though, of both old masters’ standards and a sort of do-it-yourself, I’ll-play-the-guitar-even-though-I-don’t-know-any-chords philosophy.
The difference in my mind is that there are plenty of people who can teach you how to play the guitar. Punk struck me as a deliberate rejection of the training and sophistication in existing forms of rock that readily available instruction could provide–elements that punk artists considered “soft.” By contrast, if there had been a source of training in how to write and perform the art form I intended to call “poez,” I would have sought it out. There may be people today who can teach you how to write or perform performance poetry, but at that time there wasn’t anyone. There were no teachers in how to write or perform performance poetry. To me, punks are approaching an established art form and saying, “This has grown corrupt,” and then going into the garage and banging out what seems right to them, without all the “bullshit.” By contrast, I feel that the prose direction that poetry took in the 19th century is not the only valid direction that it could take, and that another direction, the one which interests me, is a more rhythmic and musical direction. While others revere and follow Whitman, I take as my model his contemporary Edgar Allen Poe, particularly in a poem called “The Bells.”
What’s the strangest thing that ever happened while you were performing?
One thing that happened was the act got to be pretty popular, and I would recite on West 4th Street. And neighbors became irritated, not by the poetry, but by the applause. One night I was reciting for a nice-sized crowd, and they began to applaud, and a neighbor started throwing eggs at the audience and drove them away, except for one guy. And he said that his name was Alan Pepper and that he was one of the owners of The Bottom Line, a very important club in those days, and he wanted me to perform at his club. I don’t think that had ever happened at any other occasion, to have people actually throwing food at me from a third-floor window, and to have that combined with this club owner was really striking.
Have you considered going back out on the street to perform?
I’d like to do that this fall, in part because I love to do it and in part to support the show and the book.
How did you hear about GS?
I had taken my writing and performing pretty far without much in the way of post-secondary school sophistication, and I felt pretty secure that at this point it wasn’t going to be “tainted.” I was confident as far as that was concerned. And I wanted to see if I could take it further with the benefit of formal instruction. I investigated a number of adult education options, and, living in New York City, looking at Columbia was an obvious avenue of investigation. Once you look into the program at Columbia, the others—there was just nothing that even approached the features of the Columbia program.
Were you ever recognized as Poez at Columbia?
I don’t think so. No one ever came up to me, at least.
What was the most significant thing that happened to you at Columbia?
I came under the sway of Phyllis Raphael, and she helped me to learn to write about my personal experience. At that time she was teaching non-fiction writing. Just a wonderful instructor who made a big difference to me.
What made you decide to go to law school?
The poetry and writing adventure seemed to have reached a logical place to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to me. When I was very young, being a lawyer was a very desirable choice—I don’t just mean in terms of being a secure job, I mean lawyers were heroes when I was young, and I very much wanted to be a hero. People had from time to time urged me to become a lawyer. And what I knew about lawyers made me want to be a lawyer. When I went to Columbia, I took a course in the history of New York, which re-emphasized to me how important lawyers can be in people’s lives. And there’s always the idea that you can have experiences, if you’re the right kind of lawyer, that can add to your writing, along with the training as lawyer adds to writing. For example, I think Charles Dickens’ writing is very much influenced by his experience as a lawyer. And of course, Solomon was a noted jurist, as well as an outstanding poet.
Are you still practicing law? Yes, I still practice today, although as of this conversation I’m only licensed in California. But I’m in the process of being admitted to the New York State Bar and will again practice both civil rights and criminal defense law.
It’s really amazing that you were able to get back together with Suzanne Vega after 23 years.
Well, that’s a huge understatement.
Did you stay in touch throughout that time?
We stayed in touch just enough to have a succession of profound misunderstandings. And then finally after Bob Holman and Jackie Sheeler posted a webpage, “Whatever Happened to Poez?,” I got back in touch with her by way of her website. In the fan email forum, I posted an inquiry there in which I used her former address at Barnard as the thread topic, because she was still a student at Barnard when I first dated her. I thought that might draw her attention, and it did.
Do you have a favorite Suzanne Vega song?
It’s never been recorded, but it’s called “Mystery.” Other than that, “Cracking.”