The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

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MAR 2010 Issue


Fame can be a huge pain in the ass. And sometimes, of course, it can be a hell of a lot more than that. On the one hand, it can mean that an artist has a decent-sized audience—often a necessity if the artist wants to focus on the work and not have to deal with crappy jobs to make a living. On the other hand, being famous means being in possession of a public image that’s difficult to control and, often, impossible to live up to. Still, of all the things that an artist may obsess about, there’s something about fame that seems particularly trivial and undignified. Ironically, this trivial and undignified thing also possesses a potent ability to drag an artist down (and sometimes very quickly).

Lydia Tomkiw, born in Chicago to Ukrainian immigrant parents, was first and foremost a poet. (Many of her poems that were published in journals were gathered in the chapbooks The Dreadful Swimmers and Popgun Sonatas. Her poem “Six of Ox Is” was included in a John Ashbery–edited edition of Best American Poetry.) But in the early 80s, she found a way of presenting her poetry that brought her work attention outside the narrow realm of literary journals and poetry readings—and what she did was combine her poetry with the music of her then-husband, Don Hedeker.

Oftentimes, the poetry/music mix seems affected if not absurd—indeed, for every successful melding of poetry and music, such as the work of the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Sekou Sundiata, there are dozens of such concatenations that are just unlistenable. Well, maybe that’s just me, but more often than not I find that music adds nothing to poems that are good on the page or read without musical accompaniment.

The combination of Tomkiw’s recited poetry and Hedeker’s guitar licks, however, did work—and it worked very well. Calling themselves Algebra Suicide, they gained a following in Chicago—a following that soon expanded from local to international listeners. Mind you, it was not some huge “cult” audience, but for a poetry/music outfit, it was damn good. Algebra Suicide opened for folks like John Cale and was once described as “Joy Division with a sense of humor,” while Tomkiw was even referred to as “the female Lou Reed.”

I was first acquainted with Lydia Tomkiw simply as a name. A number of friends of mine from New York’s downtown poetry scene knew her well and spoke glowingly of her. There was, rather than the jealousy you sometimes see amongst artists, a sense of pride that a practitioner of our oft-neglected art had made it relatively big. But, in addition to that, they simply loved her and her poetry.

I met Tomkiw once in New York, when she was in the process of moving there from Chicago (she and Hedeker had recently split up) and I was getting ready to move back to D.C. I can’t say that at this first and only meeting I sensed something remarkable about her, but my friends were clearly thrilled to be with her again and excited at the prospect of her moving to New York.

From time to time I’d see her name listed at the sorts of places you’d expect a poet to perform—the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the Knitting Factory—but somehow I still never got acquainted with her work. It wasn’t until the release of Summer Virus Night, a CD of live recordings Algebra Suicide made during a tour of Germany in 1990 (and recently reissued on the Dom Elchklang label), that I finally really listened and came to understand why she and Algebra Suicide were so highly regarded.

Perhaps the first thing that struck me about Algebra Suicide was how strange a combination it was. Hedeker’s engaging guitar playing, which might be described as predominantly new wave with a touch of punk, both complements and seems to be at odds with Tomkiw’s spoken word—which, naturally, makes the whole Algebra Suicide experience that much more interesting. It’s also most likely what makes this poetry/music combination work where others fail, because Hedeker never seems like background to Tomkiw’s lead. Indeed, Algebra Suicide was not some easygoing duet—it was a battle between words and music.

One dramatic example of the battle occurs at the end of “True Romance at the World’s Fair”—the studio version of which was named one of the best indie singles of the decade by Trouser Press magazine—where Hedeker forges ahead confidently with anthemic guitar chords as Tomkiw’s words suddenly deflate the entire concept of romance:

This ain’t no musical romp,
No screwball comedy.
This is just dog-collared loneliness.

The world is not a wild place.

Then there’s “Please Respect Our Decadence,” where Hedeker’s energetic riffing is countered by Tomkiw’s reflections on the inevitability of death:

Everybody’s dying,
So we send them flowers.
After their funerals
We go out to dinner
And then we try
To forget about it.

We’re all committing suicide,
And everybody points it out to us.
Is that coffee you’re drinking?
Is that a cigarette you’re smoking?
Is that meat you’re eating?
Is that air you’re breathing?

Tomkiw delivers these lines with a voice that’s both off-the-cuff and prepared, bored and enthusiastic, fragile and confident. In other words, Tomkiw didn’t try to strip her poems of their complexity—and Algebra Suicide’s lyrics were nearly all created first as poems on the page—in order to make her work more accessible as “songs.” So while Algebra Suicide may have altered the experience of her poetry, the effect was essentially the same.

Although Summer Virus Night was recorded live, very little of the audience noise and applause comes through in the mix, which gives it a more intimate feeling than most live recordings. Another plus with this release is the liner notes by Bart Plantenga. Plantenga, who was among my friends and colleagues in the New York downtown scene who lauded Tomkiw’s work, reminisces about Tomkiw’s poetry and performances, and also mourns what could have been, because after Algebra Suicide ended in 1995, Tomkiw’s output, and her life, slowly started to decline.

Some of Tomkiw’s problems, it seemed, involved recovering from the dose of fame Algebra Suicide had given her. After Incorporated, the solo record she did in 1995, went nowhere, it seemed like the thing to do was to go back to just being a writer. In New York, Tomkiw told friends she was working furiously on a novel entitled Ugly Kids. But what was going on more than any writing were, as Plantenga explains in his liner notes, “insomnia, headaches, nightmares” and “countless office jobs.” That and some heavy drinking and overall neglecting of her health which amounted, more or less, to a slow and less physically messy form of suicide. And, if the lyrics to “Little Dead Bodies” are any indication, this was the way Tomkiw wanted to leave.

I went out with a boy who died.
The hardest part was knowing
That his body didn’t just disappear
On the bed the moment he left.

I think that’s what keeps me off of suicide,
The idea that there’s something left
For someone else to clean up.

Tomkiw was, to a certain extent, what some people disparagingly refer to as a one-hit wonder. Her work was lauded and received attention for a few years in the indie/alt rock scene, and was then forgotten. There are, of course, people who feel no small amount of satisfaction in the pathetic act of pissing on someone who has achieved a certain level of fame only to quickly lose it. In her post-Algebra Suicide days, Tomkiw was almost certainly trying not to fall into the category of the pissed-on, used-to-be-hot artist.

As the poet Sharon Mesmer has noted, it wasn’t always easy being a friend of Tomkiw’s—her decline into alcoholism was difficult to witness. But Mesmer, who had known Tomkiw since their days at Columbia College in Chicago, recalled in a piece she wrote in 2007, that “some things still stand, and can’t be ruined. There’s always a moment outside of time, when all the hurts and resentments go away and you’re left looking at the physical proof that something beautiful and important really did exist once.”

Tomkiw died in 2007, at the age of 48, in Phoenix, Arizona, where she’d moved to be near family members. Although her health had been steadily declining, Tomkiw’s death still came as a shock to her friends. As for them, they continued to write, and some of them have become decently successful, as far as poetry and serious literature are concerned. That their friend was never able to reach the same level of success again did nothing to diminish her memory.

And Tomkiw, despite her fall from fame, was no one-hit wonder or flash in the pan. Announcements of her death on various websites brought comments from near and far by people who never knew her but who were moved by her words and inspired by her work.

Because even though Tomkiw’s star shined for only a short amount of time, the brevity of her moment does nothing to diminish what she accomplished.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

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