George Witte’s intorduction at Huncke’s launch last summer (Nightingale Lounge, Greenwich Village):
I work in book publishing, and in that capacity have attended many a hopeful, but painful launch event at chain and independent bookstores around New York. If it’s sunny, no one will come: too nice. If it’s raining, no one will come: too gloomy. And if it’s snowing, no one will come: too much fun to be had outside. But I think we’ve discovered the key to a successful book party: if it’s 100 degrees, and there’s beer, and the book being launched is an epic poem, they’ll come.
So I’d like to welcome and thank you for joining the Nightingale Lounge to celebrate the publication of Rick Mullin’s book length poem, Huncke. There are several things to celebrate this evening before Rick gets up to read.
First, ambition. I can’t think of the last time I read a book length narrative poem. Most poets just don’t—or can’t—write one, and to summon the power of concentration and create enough drama to sustain a long poem is very difficult.
Second, let’s drink to formal writing. Huncke is constructed in 12 cantos, composed in iambic lines of ottava rima, which is stanzas of eight lines each, with the rhyme scheme abababcc—the same form used by Lord Byron to write Don Juan. The advantage of this form is twofold: it accommodates dramatic narrative, because the stanzas are long enough to do the work of storytelling—character, action, plot twists, dialogue, and so on. And, that closing rhyme—the cc at the end of each stanza—lends itself to twists, punch lines, and surprising transitions to whatever comes next. So when Rick reads from the poem, listen for the rhymes.
Finally, the subject. Some of you here tonight will know who Herbert Huncke is, and perhaps knew him personally. For those of you who don’t, here’s a quick introduction. Herbert Huncke was many things: a writer, a heroin addict, a drifter, a felon, a celebrated storyteller in conversation, a Merchant Marine, the so called “Mayor of 42nd Street” when it was a much different place than it is today, a subject featured by Dr. Alfred Kinsey for his landmark Report on the sexual practices of Americans, and a kind of muse, mascot, object of professional interest, acquaintance, friend, and sometimes fall guy for more famous writers, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, all of whom portrayed him in their most famous works. He is sometimes credited with first using the word “beat” to describe his wayward life, and that word was picked up by Kerouac to define the rootlessness of a generation.
Rick Mullin’s poem Huncke is not a biographical account of Herbert Huncke’s life. It’s a much grander, bigger enterprise, a wide-ranging exploration of American history, politics, pop culture, and the influence of the Beats, which uses a 2009 memorial tribute to Herbert Huncke as its organizing structure. Yes, there are walk-ons from Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, along with Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians that Huncke knew. But we also meet George Washington and other founding fathers at the pivotal point in the Revolutionary War, when all would be lost or, perhaps, won. Mickey Mouse appears throughout the poem as an antic but somewhat menacing prankster, along with his sidekick, Rudy Giuliani, who spends most of the poem in drag, adjusting his garters, tugging on his dress, and tucking money into his bra. And there is a big screen panorama of scenes and allusions, shifting between history, music, movies, cartoons, paintings, and books, from the Midwest to New York’s Bowery to the beach at Normandy, from jazz clubs in the 1930s and 40s to bars like this one, today, where we’ve gathered to listen to an utterly-singular poem.
Please join me in welcoming Rick Mullin.
George Witte, the author of the poetry volumes The Apparitioners (Three Rail Press, 2005) and Deniability (Orchises Press in 2009), is editor-in-chief of St. Martin’s Press in New York