Leonard Cohen, who is not given to easy praise, has called Sinclair Beiles “one of the great poets of the century.” Meaning the 20th century — they met back in the early 1960s on the Greek island of Hydra. Was Cohen being uncharacteristically hyperbolic? Well, William S. Burroughs, also not given to easy praise, once wrote:
The poetry of Sinclair Beiles is distinguished and long distilled; its unexpected striking images bring a flash of surprised recognition. The poems open slowly in your mind, like Japanese paper flowers in water.
You’ve probably never heard of Beiles, not even if you read a lot of poetry. As the title of a recent book from Gary Cummiskey’s Dye Hard Press put it, Who Was Sinclair Beiles? Good question, answered in part by Cummiskey’s probing article-cum-interview. But Beiles was something of a mystery even to those who knew and marveled at him.
Heathcote Williams writes in an unforgettable essay, “Sinclair Beiles: The first poet in space”:
Despite Burroughs’ impressive recommendation Sinclair Beiles often fell asleep during his own poetry readings thanks to a hefty diet of prescription drugs which Sinclair would carry around in a large plastic bag and which were always placed beside him on-stage so as to be within easy reach. This was a pity since Sinclair’s poems, as Burroughs had attested, were worth listening to, once he could be aroused.
Apparently, the better you knew Beiles the more you marveled. Williams continues:
When I first met Sinclair he was living in Paris with a Creole woman who had filed down teeth ending in needle-sharp points. Early on in his life Sinclair would appear like an alert wagtail, always hopping about possessed by new ideas: some new artist he’d met – an exiled Romanian covered in etching ink in a recondite atelier in the Marais whose poems were, in Sinclair’s view, “better than Blake”; Serbian glass-blowers who made crystal balls that were “better than television”; artists in light who would “open up your Third Eye till you go completely blind and mad but you won’t mind”. He had an eye for the exotic; there was a transgendered Marxist performance artist from Namibia who would recite the Communist Manifesto in Xhosa.
Earlier this year, in a first edition of 36 copies, Cold Turkey brought out a collection of 25 previously unpublished poems by Beiles, entitled The Idiot’s Voice. Before the year is out it intends to publish a collection of tributes to Beiles, Bone Hebrew, in a similiarly limited edition. (The title comes from Paul Celan’s poem “In Prague,” which Beiles translated.)
I can’t tell whether I’m cynical or optimistic — whether there is something out there organising a life of pleasure or pain for us. It’s beyond my scope. Whatever happens is meat for my poetry. I record what’s happening. I don’t care why. I haven’t been able to discern any pattern to my existence. I don’t hunger after being part of a total harmony.
The scarcity of Cold Turkey editions makes it imperative to post an excerpt from The Idiot’s Voice. You can judge for yourself what has inspired not only the forthcoming homage but also a biography being written by the Dutch author Fred de Vries in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Beiles grew up. (Beiles was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1930, lived most of his peripatetic life in Europe, and died penniless in Johannesburg in 2000.)
Here is a poem from a series, called “Inmates.” You’ll notice it does not depend on dazzling language or rhetorical flourishes. There are no well-turned phrases or brilliant metaphors. Instead the language is plain, sometimes awkward. The poem is rich just the same. It reads like a folktale that tells a story of the sort a Chinese sage might tell. It’s what I like to think of as “poetry for real.”Brion Gysin, and Harold Norse, and with visitors like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, to stand the literary world on its head. One major project did. While working as an editor at Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, Beiles shepherded the manuscript of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch into print.
Furthermore, according to Williams, “Sinclair always claimed that it was thanks to his own acquaintance with the dadaist Tristan Tzara that he was able to introduce Burroughs and Gysin to Tzara’s method of composition, commonly known as ‘cutup.’” Beiles was in fact a co-author — with Burroughs, Gysin, and Corso — of Minutes to Go, a book of experimental cut-up texts published by Two Cities in 1960.
But it was Beiles’s nonliterary revelations that give a truly indelible impression of the man. One, for example, was “that the barren Sahara desert might be set on a much more productive course with the aid of industrial quantities of discarded tea-leaves,” Williams recalls. He writes:
I never met Beiles, but we had corresponded. A mutual friend, Nanos Valaoritis, had put us in touch. Nanos knew him from Athens. He was enamored of Sinclair’s off-the-wall grandeur, both in his writing and his personality. I subsequently published several of Sinclair’s pieces in a little magazine during the late-’60s in San Francisco. I also made plans to publish a book he co-wrote with Annie Rooney, Alice in Progress, under the Nova Broadcast imprint. It was announced in promotional materials. Regrettably, Nova Broadcast folded before that happened.
The idea arose as follows: One evening after a meal with his mistress (whose distinctive teeth were invaluable in the maceration of Sinclair’s food — their meals together echoing the erotic meal in “Tom Jones”) Sinclair noticed that something was growing in their window box.
There was nothing unusual in this except for two things: first, Sinclair’s window-box had been filled entirely with sand and secondly, Sinclair’s horticultural attentions had been limited to emptying tea-leaves into it. Yet some form of vegetation was beginning to grow there, despite these inauspicious conditions.
It was when he was hovering above the tea leaves, the sand and the newly sprouted shoots, that Sinclair had his Eureka moment whereupon he began to urge everyone that he met that tea-leaves were the answer to the whole of the African continent’s food shortages.
He didn’t let it go at that. With indefatigable verve he’d throw himself into setting up elaborate presentations … all in the hope of attracting investors who were to be persuaded that limitless acres of North African sand could be composted using Sinclair’s method. Not only were the Algerian, the Moroccan and the Libyan embassies and their trade legations approached but also the Secretary General of the UN, and the Queen of Holland together with Tetleys Teas and Lyons PG Tips who were also all targeted. …
Bellaart, who like Cohen met Sinclair in Hydra, brought out a dozen Cold Turkey books by 1975, all in limited first editions of 250 copies, including Sinclair’s Sacred Fix along with works by Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Williams, as well as Artaud, Cendrars, Lorca, Vallejo, Bukowski, Carl Weissner, Ed Sanders, and Ira Cohen. More recently, and in more limited editions of pamphlets, posters, and cards, the list of Cold Turkey authors has grown to include many others already in the pantheon, such as Beckett, Pound, Arp, Mallarmé, Schwitters, and Céline. But for now it is Bellaart’s special devotion to Beiles that almost alone keeps his gloriously dissident writings alive.