Monday, September 17, 2007

The Pavement Picasso Celebrates the Peoples’ Poet: Jack Powers: Interview with Sidewalk Sam

(Sidewalk Sam accepts an award)

The Pavement Picasso Celebrates the Peoples’ Poet: Jack Powers: Interview with

Sidewalk Sam

By Doug Holder

Sidewalk Sam is a Boston-based street artist, who often uses sidewalks of the Hub as a canvas for his work. Sam believes bringing art to the people through his sidewalk paintings, outreach, and through his organization “Art Street.” So it seemed natural for Sam to be organizing a 70th birthday party for Boston’s poet of the people and founder of the venerable “Stone Soup Poets.” Stone Soup, since it was founded by Jack Powers on the foot of Beacon Hill in Boston in 1971 has been a venue for readings, and publishing. Powers and his band of brothers have published poetry books by folks like the San-Francisco poet and “City Lights” bookstore owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other known and unknown poets over the years. A slew of poets like Lyn Lifshin, Frannie Lindsay, Gregory Corso have read and passed through these poetic portals. And many more have got their first reading experience at this supportive venue. Currently “Stone Soup” is housed at the ‘Out of the Blue Gallery” 106 Prospect St. Cambridge, Mass., and meets at 8PM. I spoke with Sam on my “Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: I am told John Kerry discovered while you were painting on the street in Boston, and helped you get funding for your organization “Art Street.”

Sidewalk Sam: He said: “I want to connect you with a community group you could associate with.” He helped with “Art Street” which is an association of artists, poets, actors, musicians, who go out to the streets of Boston to celebrate humankind.

DH: You are organizing a birthday party for Jack Powers’ the founder of Stone Soup Poets. How his mission does compare to yours?

SS: I am a voice crying in the desert, making straight to the way of the Lord. And in a way that “Lord” is Jack Powers. Let me explain to you the vital role he plays in the 21st century. Society—modern life has been corrupted by commercialism and abstract giant powers working their will on we the little people. A gentle, giant began to fight out against this some forty or fifty years ago. A man named Jack Powers who was born into the projects of Boston and had every disadvantage given to him, but yet he emerged as a holy man. A visionary, a poet, someone who sees the beauty in daily life. And he brought his poetry out so that he could celebrate all of us. He has been doing this celebration of “you and me’ in his poetry for fifty years, without once thinking of personal gain, without making it an advantage for him, without caring about his own future. He wanted to bring beauty into the world and notice and mark the goodness in people. He has done this more completely than anyone I know in modern day life. He has it done it more than priests and nuns, philosophers, more than politicians. He brings a kind of “love” to “You and Me” and into all the things he does. It is almost a religious experience. What I hope to do is pause on his 70th birthday and have all of us appreciate people like this. Jack has turned every little gesture of everyday life into a prayer.

DH: How did you first meet Jack?

SS: I was doing drawings of old master paintings on the sidewalk: Rembrandts, DiVinci and so forth. Jack was reading poets like Ferlinghetti—poets of the Beat Generation. We were both celebrating little acts of consciousness in daily life, and we drawn instantly to each other. This was some fifty years ago when we were both in our late teens. We did not know how to be “great”’ or “imposing” or make it into the cultural scene. We thought that by being good and doing decent things was the way to go.

DH: You were the son of a Harvard professor. Jack was a son of the projects. Interesting chemistry for a friendship, no?

SS: But we noticed a similarity. Both of us were castoffs, but both of us were believers. I think of the early mystics, knowing their mission, and when they were in touch with a good human being.

DH: Can you talk about some of the projects you two have been involved with over the years?

SS: Oh, we had lovely projects. There was a derelict entrance way in the North End that passed under the elevated expressway, only a few short years ago. The Freedom Trail passed under the expressway. It seemed to lose itself in the ghoulish land of the underpass. The underpinnings of the expressway were dark and gooey, dripping and rusted. It was a scab on the city. I didn’t understand why such a place could exist in the entrance to the North End, one of the glorious parts of Boston. This was in the 80’s. We painted the underside of the overpass in bright blue. We painted gold stars on the ceiling and had cherubs flying on the walls. We painted pillars as if they were important cathedral pillars. We painted the sidewalk—we put in flower boxes, we put paintings on the wall, we had poetry and music on the street. The underpass was turned into a delightful place and people in the North End loved it!

DH: Jack moved from Beacon Hill to the North End, right?

SS: Jack lived on Beacon Hill at a time when it was known as: “Beatnik Hill.” He was gorgeous person in that area and era. He was a handsome and noble leader. Every inch a poet.

DH: Jack was known as a political and poetry activist. He established a food bank at Columbia Point, had poetry on the Boston Commons, started the Beacon Hill Free School, protested the Vietnam War, etc... But he is also a fine poet in his own right.

SS: I think he is a very good poet. His poetry has a strong sense of spirituality. He makes words special. He has the gift of having a large dramatic vision. But he has the ability to bring it down to the everyday. As an artist using the name: “Jacques Debris,” a genius name, he has used all kinds of left over things on the street and turns them into art. He found a piece of white stone and put it on a pouch on a plaque. This is in my opinion is one of the most beautiful, insightful pieces of art in the city of Boston. Jack has expanded his art into the field of social responsibility.

DH: You talk about rampant commercialism in art today. Do you think artist are more careerist as opposed to the 60’s?

SS: People have always looked out for themselves as best they could. I think each “age” of people has people looking out for themselves. But what is unique about Jack is that he is almost a saint, in the way he doesn’t look out for himself. He is a holy fool. He is willing to preach to the birds and bees because there is glory in it. He has respect for humans on the tiniest level.

DH: I was surprised with all that Jack did over the years he never had a teaching position in a university, etc… Do you think the “academy” didn’t know how to take him?

SS: This is the case. Because he wasn’t self-promoting, he runs the risk of passing away unknown. I think that would be enormous mistake.

For more info about Jack Powers go to

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