The Epic of d.a.levy
d.a.levy wanted to give Cleveland great poems about itself. Instead, prosecutors charged him with distributing obscene literature in 1966. Decades after his death, the most Cleveland of Cleveland writers is as popular as ever.
He was 22 then, living in Ohio City on the Cuyahoga River valley’s edge. He looked out a window and saw all of downtown, saw Rapid trains cross the bridge and barges and freighters crawl up and down the dirty river, saw the Guardians of Traffic standing watch over the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. He saw the city as it was and imagined more.
His name was Darryl Allen Levy, but by 1964 he’d already shortened it to the pen name d.a.levy. Every day he wrote or read or printed little poetry booklets on an old letterpress, sometimes going without food or sleep until he finished a project.
He was a tiny man, about 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds, with a serious, angular face. He was moody, often sad and quiet. When he spoke, his voice was thin and reedy. No one who drove past his slight figure, walking alone across the mile-long bridge, would have guessed his future. No one would have thought that his quiet energy and creativity would soon make him a central figure in Cleveland’s growing counterculture, that the Cleveland police would arrest him for the poems he published and threaten him with years in prison, that his opinions and legal battles would make newspaper headlines, or that readers would still be drawn to him and his poems decades after his death.
In 1964, levy and his roommate Russell Salamon would descend into the Flats and take long walks up Old River Road, past its factories and warehouses, under the rusty bridges, reading the tattered old placards, looking out across the overgrown grass, gazing at the derelict trucks, exhilarated by all the history and decay. Some factories still hummed with work. Others were abandoned. A single restaurant served dinners for 70 cents. No one else was around. The two poets thought they’d found the secret, grimy essence of Cleveland, the industrial lifeblood artery from which the whole city flowed.
Levy didn’t have a paying job, so Salamon, a college student and poet working in a steel plant, became his patron. “I said, ‘You can live here, but you can’t be gloomy, and you have to work,’ ” he remembers. Salamon, like others close to levy, could see the darkness surrounding him, so he hoped to keep him writing, reading, painting, publishing.
Little in levy’s voracious reading, from American and French modernist poetry to local history to intense study of Eastern religions, had given him peace of mind. When levy moved in with Salamon, he brought the .22 rifle he’d owned since childhood and hung it on nails in the living room. He joked it was insurance against bad writing — that if his work wasn’t good, he’d shoot himself.
“Another time, he said, ‘I’ve got three more books to read, and then I’m going to kill myself,’ ” Salamon remembers. Levy said he’d sit in a lotus position, aim the rifle at the center of his forehead and fire.
Nervous, Salamon bought a bunch of books and gave them to levy, who plunged into reading them. Figuring it might keep levy from suicide, Salamon kept going: buying 50, then 100, then more.
Salamon was transfixed by the intense, aware look in his friend’s eyes and his way of pausing mid-sentence until inspiration struck him, like lighting a match. Levy looked up at the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge and thought of Diego Rivera’s murals. He told Salamon he wanted to paint frescos in the style of ancient Mayan and Aztec art on the bridge’s columns. Levy even wrote to Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher, asking for permission to do it. But the city thought plain sandstone looked better. It said no.
Levy had traveled to New York City that year, read his work at every poetry coffeehouse he could, and befriended Ed Sanders, a writer whose Peace Eye Bookstore was becoming a center of New York’s growing counterculture. But in levy’s letters to Salamon, he’d swung from liberated excitement to complaining that New York poets’ abrasive styles made him homesick: “I almost hate it here — want cuddly sophisticated indifferent Cleveland.”
When levy got home, he talked about Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams’ epic poems about Chicago, Brooklyn and Paterson, N.J. “These cities have major works,” he told Salamon. “Where’s ours?”
So levy, an early admirer of Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, spent several weeks in late 1964 and early 1965 writing “Cleveland Undercovers,” a wild, surreal, sometimes profane travelogue that raced from Short Vincent Street to Karamu House, from Public Square to the Bay Village police station. It’s filled with allusions to Cleveland’s history, from Lake Erie shipwrecks to the Torso Murders to the city’s vagabond founder, insolently renamed Mose Ass Cleaveland. “Cleveland Undercovers” shared the Beats’ restless vision of city streets as dreamscapes and nightmare-scapes, as canvas and palette for imagination. In levy’s poem, the streets had “magical names,” incantations full of mystical power: “If i paint WINDERMERE/on my apartment door like a/Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign/will it keep the angel of death away?” he wrote. “If i scratch SCOVILL/on Severance Hall/will George Szell lose his temper/and the cellos pop their strings/in terrified ecstasy?”
“Cleveland Undercovers” was a young poet’s manifesto: “I still have a city to cover with lines,” it declared. Salamon expected levy to do just that: “I figured he was going to make Cleveland famous.”
Cleveland never gave d.a.levy the fame he felt he deserved. The city never rewarded him for the power of his poetry, his pioneering work as a small-press publisher, his paintings, or for bringing coffeehouse poetry readings to Cleveland or publishing its first underground newspaper. But levy did become a celebrity in Cleveland in 1966 and 1967. The press anointed him a spokesman for the youthful rebellions trickling into the city, the searches for new ways of living unbound by old rules. Levy’s advocacy of marijuana and LSD made him a public enemy in the eyes of the Cleveland police. They raided his friend’s bookstore, confiscated levy’s writings, seized his mimeograph, called his publications obscene, accused him of corrupting teens with poetry and tried to imprison him.
Now, 40 years later, levy — who would have turned 65 this fall — has a cult following at least as large as he had then, probably larger. The pamphlet-sized publications he hand-pressed to ink and refused to copyright, feeling they should be shared, sell for hundreds of dollars. Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Memory Project has assembled a growing online collection of his work. Writers are drawn to his poems and his work as a publisher, visual artists to his paintings, ink prints and wood carvings.
This Oct. 29, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan celebrated levy’s birthday with readings and discussion. Cleveland has at least one d.a.levy event of its own every year. This August, about three dozen people gathered at the Art House in Old Brooklyn for a book-release party for “d.a.levy & the mimeograph revolution,” an essay and interview collection, and Salamon’s republication of the 1967 levy anthology “ukanhavyrfuckincitibak,” as well as a screening of a documentary film on levy, “if i scratch, if i write.”
Levy, like Kerouac and Ginsberg, has become a literary symbol of rebellion and complete freedom. His wild, brash “Cleveland Undercovers” may truly be the most imaginative poem ever published about Cleveland — it’s excerpted in the “Anthology of Western Reserve Literature,” published in 1992. Yet levy was a young, raw talent, still developing as a writer when he died, and a lot of his work is undisciplined. On an early 1967 recording of him reading, he sounds like an above-average local spoken-word poet, mixing a Buddhist search for enlightenment with Western restlessness like the guys in Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums.” His protest poems’ over-the-top fury reflect his fevered times, and his confessional poems read like unedited, passionate journals. His experimental concrete poetry, using words as art, ranges from quirky to powerful to unfathomable, even purposely illegible. He published almost everything he wrote, so the quality varies widely, but the anthologies of his best work are thoroughly interesting.
Another reason levy still attracts a small but intense local following is his deep Cleveland-ness. Levy had an impossible, crazy poet’s dream for the city: He felt called to open Clevelanders’ minds to culture, art and a radical new political and spiritual awareness. He donated hundreds of books to the Cleveland and East Cleveland libraries. When the city didn’t return his appreciation, he lashed out at the rejection. But unlike the city’s greatest poets, Langston Hughes, Kenneth Patchen and Hart Crane, levy never left. “His hometown, Cleveland, that he wouldn’t move from,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, another influence of levy’s, in 1971 — “like the Sioux warriors who tied themselves to a spear and stuck it in the ground, never to retreat. Why? An almost irrational act of love.”
The poets stood at a lectern, reading as a big candle melted over a vase, illuminating and casting shadows across their faces. Between readings, a jug band scratched out music on bongos and a washboard. There was a flourish when levy was introduced.
“The Support Your City’s Poets can has collected only $2.65,” levy complained to the crowd. “This may be the last time you see me here. I’m going to start begging.” Levy was probably the fund’s main beneficiary, since he still didn’t have a job. His common-law wife, Dagmar, supported him by working as a waitress.
Someone threw a quarter on the floor, and levy picked it up. “$2.90,” he noted. Then he read his “Para-Concrete Manifesto”: “Our concrete poems are written to purify our minds and intestines of all Western sophisticated hypocrisy. … Each poem is a drowned angel dredged from the polluted sludge of the Mahoning and Cuyahoga rivers.”
The readings at The Gate — a gathering place for college students founded by a Christian youth group — were the first coffeehouse poetry events in Cleveland. They were completely uncensored: The poets could read explicit love poems and angry four-letter words, could write and perform the way people really talked — a thrill they and their audience had never known in tradition-bound Cleveland. Across the city, little outposts of counterculture were springing up — and d.a.levy was a central figure in almost all of them.
On Friday and Saturday nights, young women with flowers painted on their cheeks twirled through the Bohemian Hall in Slavic Village during The Midnight Hour, a dance night named after the Wilson Pickett song. While a DJ played popular dance music, levy, his cousin Joan Kinney and his friend Kent Taylor poured colored oil into concave glass and shined light through it, projecting a psychedelic light show of flowing blobs of blue, red, yellow and green onto the enormous walls.
Levy spent hours hanging around the Asphodel Book Shop, a quiet poetry bookstore hidden on the fourth floor of the Euclid Arcade. Levy, still moving often, used the Asphodel as his address. Though the store had few customers, its narrow aisles were filled with small-press poetry chosen by the owner, the reserved, gentlemanly Jim Lowell, exposing levy and his poet-friends to other young writers and small publishers nationwide. Nationally known writers stopped by to see Lowell and browse.
Usually clad in boots, jeans and hooded sweatshirts and sporting a scraggly black beard, levy also frequented the sketchy, run-down little bohemia at Euclid Avenue and East 115th Street, near University Circle. He met Dagmar, 17 years old to his 23, while working part time at Sam Dogan’s bookstore and carving its orange-crate bookends into art. He was friends with the owner of The Headquarters, a psychedelic head shop at the corner. He’d meet friends at The Coffeehouse, a hangout hosted by a lay minister, and Adele’s Bar, where writers and artists would drink a table away from tough bikers.
In the two years since he’d written “Cleveland Undercovers,” levy’s charisma and creative restlessness had made him a major figure in Cleveland’s growing literary and artistic underground. His writing ranged from spare, precise lyric poems to experiments with concrete poetry, which used words as art, to the ambitious and esoteric “North American Book of the Dead,” inspired by the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” His artwork included wooded carvings, paintings of abstract figures and inked woodprints on paper. He’d printed dozens of poetry booklets and a literary magazine, the Marrahwannah Quarterly, publishing Charles Bukowski, the now-legendary outlaw poet from Los Angeles; Sanders from New York; and even Ginsberg. “Your energy is marvelous,” Ginsberg wrote him in fall 1966. Levy produced more than 40 small publications that year alone — switching from the letterpress to a mimeograph to work faster.
“He’d work into the night on things, and go on and on,” recalls Dagmar. “I’d go to bed and wake up, and he had stuff stacked in a line, stuff that had to be collated and made into books.”
Mainstream Cleveland was not rushing to the Asphodel to buy levy’s poetry, which he published in small print-runs of 500 or less. Most Clevelanders didn’t know him as a poet, but as an advocate of drugs. “Beatnik Leader Wants Marijuana Legalized in U.S.,” announced a January 1966 Plain Dealer story about his views — radical for the time, when pot possession was still a felony that could mean years in prison.
“Everyone thinks marijuana is so dangerous,” levy told reporter Gene Maeroff. “Well, it isn’t. It’s far less dangerous than alcohol.” A newsletter he published raved tongue-in-cheek about LSD as a religious sacrament and included an empty envelope for carrying about $10 worth of pot (“A good dime bag is a good time bag,” he typed on it). “Marijuana is available in Mexico, not from me,” levy warned his readers, and his friends and ex-wife say he used drugs sparingly and sporadically; he was so small, even a couple of tokes could knock him out. “He liked altering his consciousness,” says Kent Taylor. “[But] I think the police really thought he was the drug king of Cleveland.”
In fall 1966, soon after a PD story on The Gate, six plainclothes narcotics cops came to a reading there. That November — either at the same reading or the next — levy read a poem by Joel Friedman, a 17-year-old from Shaker Heights who was too shy to read it himself. The 18-line poem, “Black Revolt (Hough, July, 1966),” a teen-radical rant praising the recent Hough riots, included the words “motherfucking,” “assholes” and “cock.” Though the riots had upset and terrified levy, he printed the poem in his local anthology, “465.” “I thought it was an interesting poem for a 17 yr old to write,” he later wrote, “esp. a white 17 yr old.”
this poem is wired
they are listening
they are in the audience
they are in the poems
they are in the words
they are waiting for something obscene
for something un-american
for something about drugs
they don’t know
i am as frightened as
“Grand Jury Named Beatnik Poet in Secret Indictment on Filth,” announced a January Cleveland Press headline. The story reported that levy was wanted on an obscene literature charge brought by county prosecutor John T. Corrigan — who had famously taken the owner of the Heights Arts Theater in Cleveland Heights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, trying to prosecute him for screening “The Lovers,” a film by acclaimed French New Wave director Louis Malle. (The Supreme Court struck down the conviction in 1964.) “Cleveland was very Catholic-Protestant in their approach to a lot of this — very provincial attitudes,” says levy’s lawyer, Gerald Gold.
Still in hiding, levy met the PD’s Maeroff at a restaurant for coffee and cigarettes to defend his writing and publishing. “It’s absolutely not obscene,” he said. “And even if it were I wouldn’t care. You can go anywhere in this city and pick up something published by Grove Press” — publisher of censored works such as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” — “or girlie or nudist magazines. The cops aren’t bothering them.”
A few days later, levy turned himself in — “to protect the police from any further embarrassment,” he wrote. News footage shows levy, clean-shaven, wearing a blue-gray zip-up sweater over his thin frame, looking around nervously but also smiling and joking with the man at the police station booking desk.
Authorities never said exactly which literature prompted levy and Lowell’s indictments. But police arrested levy again in late March, confiscated his mimeograph and charged him with five counts of tending to contribute to the delinquency of minors. The charges could have sent levy to prison for up to five years. He was indicted for publishing the 17-year-old Friedman’s “Black Revolt” in his anthology “465”; giving a copy of the book to Julie Weisberg, a 15-year-old Cleveland Heights girl; and reading the poem to a Gate audience that included the two teens. “465” was made up of youthful literary experiments of mixed quality — a delicate poem about two lovers, an overwritten but vivid scene at Adele’s Bar, Vietnam War protests, a eulogy for the dying Euclid Beach Park — but to cops looking for smut, it had plenty to offend: sexual passages ranging from romantic to crude, four-letter words, levy writing about rolling a joint.
Weisberg, 56, now a historic home renovator and caterer in Georgia, says she got to know levy at the Asphodel and thought of him as a mentor. “He really got me fired up about the English language — how to connect your emotions and your brain to the world in words.” She says levy never talked to her about drugs — and she never knew that prosecutors charged him with endangering her morals through poems. “What they did was tragic,” she says. “On the other hand, they were only mortal. They didn’t have the grace to see someone ahead of his time.”
Levy was not charged with any drug offenses, but George Moscarino, who prosecuted him, remembers it as a drug case. “What we were mostly concerned about was [levy] espousing the use of marijuana and LSD,” Moscarino says. Corrigan assigned Moscarino to investigate the Euclid and East 115th area, which he remembers as a “cesspool” of drug deals, “where young girls were going to various coffeehouses, and d.a.levy and others were there. They were painting them while they were nude. They espoused drugs, LSD and everything else.”
A friend of levy’s, arrested with him, served two years in prison for possessing a photograph of a nude 17-year-old with flowers painted on her. Levy had helped him paint the girl, another friend told an interviewer for the new book of levy essays. So levy was fortunate that poetry-related offenses were the only charges he faced.
A deep paranoia haunted levy and his friends. No one knew when they might be arrested next. Levy was followed home from the Rapid station one night, Dagmar recalls.
Levy and his friends spent much of 1967 churning out fevered protest poems about the arrests. Their pamphlets, posters and fliers attacked the police and City Hall: “Legalize Poetry,” “Legalize Levy,” “Levy Not Locher,” they read. Levy lashed out at the police, saying he hoped they wouldn’t make him a martyr, and mocked the PD for naming him a “Beatnik leader.” But those close to levy saw another side of him. “That whole police thing — I think he kind of liked the notoriety,” says Dagmar, “but I think that kind of put him through some bad times.”
The newspapers mocked the authorities for jailing a poet. Mike Roberts of The Plain Dealer and Dick Feagler of The Cleveland Press both went to visit levy in the county jail in late March. “No poet in Cleveland’s history has been treated like Levy,” Roberts wrote.
“I remember he was kind of sad,” Roberts says now. “I went over to do a story, and I went back just to cheer him up.” Roberts enjoyed levy’s company. “There was a certain tranquility that he created in the midst of all this hectic loud gnashing,” the tumult of the 1960s rebellions.
Nationally known writers, from controversial novelist Hubert Selby Jr. to Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, championed Lowell in a book benefiting his defense. Allen Ginsberg and The Fugs, Ed Sanders’ rock band, headlined a benefit for levy and Lowell at Case Tech’s Strosacker Auditorium in May 1967. The benefit was a coming-out party for Cleveland’s blooming counterculture — just before the Summer of Love inspired local hippies to claim Cleveland Heights’ Coventry Road as theirs. The sold-out crowd of 600 was full of women with long-flowing hair and bearded guys wearing boots or sandals. One 20-year-old woman brought a live hawk perched on her gloved hand. Dozens of policemen also attended: “From the stage all the way around the perimeter, they were shoulder to shoulder — 45 or 50, just standing there,” remembers poetry instructor Jake Marx.
Levy read two poems. Ginsberg chanted a Buddhist prayer, played with finger cymbals and read one of the poems believed to be part of the court cases. The Fugs played their bawdy jug-band folk rock. “Make your love today, ’cause death is comin’,” they sang. Ginsberg and The Fugs taunted the police, Marx recalls, asking why they were afraid of poets reading.
The cases dragged on for a year, and they took a toll on levy. “A hounded, haggard look gave way to his childlike, ancient smile, a nervous almost incoherent smile that looked as if he hadn’t used it much,” wrote Andrew Curry in Dust, a California literary magazine, after visiting levy in Cleveland in June 1967.
“We probably made a mistake in that case,” Gold says. “Even though there was no real sanction imposed, it was an inner sanction with him. I think it broke his spirit a lot.”
cleveland, i gave you
Paging through issues of the Junkmail Oracle, which levy first published in June 1967, is like paging through levy’s radical, rambling mind. Articles on Buddhism by Allen Ginsberg and Zen author Alan Watts, levy’s own poems and some by Charles Bukowski ran along with his wild collages, which mixed images of Buddha and Hindu gods with cutouts from newspapers, movie ads and skin magazines. He railed at Mayor Ralph Locher for his arrest and endorsed Locher’s 1967 opponent. “Carl Stokes Believes in Cleveland!” levy wrote. “Could it be possible that Carl Stokes will bring Cleveland out of its 150 year psychic and spiritual depression?” When police shut down the bars and cafes at Euclid and East 115th, and fires struck the buildings, levy accused the cops and the University Circle development corporation of destroying the area to create a wall between blacks and whites. (Two parking lots and a McDonald’s sit at the corner today.) Levy also wrote about books, movies and music, even interviewing the Velvet Underground, the legendary art-rockers — who, for once, made the witty hipster sound naïve. Was their music meant to evoke “the drug experience,” levy asked? “I never saw anyone get high off feedback,” Lou Reed replied. “Did you?”
In July 1968, Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood exploded in riots. Levy, watching on TV, recoiled. He still distrusted the police, but, as he wrote in his last major poem, “Suburban Monastery Death Poem,” he “didnt pick sides for a change,” seeing dark irony in the rioters “looting stores/trying to get televisions/so they can watch the riots/on the 11 pm news.” The poem also shows levy wandering East Cleveland, stopping by the restaurant where his wife waitressed to drink coffee, strolling past Mister Donut and the Luxemburg Motel — the dream visions of “Cleveland Undercovers” gone, the righteous anger of his fight with the cops and prosecutors gone. He was lost, looking over his life, unsure where to go next.
“Things were starting to get better for him, and he didn’t know how to deal with better,” says Dagmar, “because a lot of the time, I think his writing only existed as long as he had somebody to push against.”
A month in Madison, Wis., earning $150 as poet-in-residence at the Free University, briefly lifted his spirits. The trip’s highlight was a class in telepathy levy was asked to teach. He walked past the door and left, but the meditating students raved about the class afterward — they assumed he was teaching them telepathically.
Levy returned happy that the school had appreciated him as a poet. “He was very excited — they really treated him well there,” remembers George Fitzpatrick, who managed the Continental Art Theatre. “He was so pleased when he came back.”
Dagmar had decided to moved out. She was tired of levy not working, not facing up to the fact that no one would pay for his poetry; tired of the weird hangers-on he attracted, tired of his mood swings.
Most, but not all, of levy’s friends say he was probably mentally ill, perhaps manic-depressive. “He was rarely content to be in his skin,” says Dagmar. “He liked it when things were crazy high and crazy low.”
He had never stopped talking about suicide. “If i have any courage/next week i’ll kill myself/every week i tell myself that/& find something new to write about,” he wrote that summer. In today’s era of suicide prevention hotlines and Prozac, it’s hard to imagine why few of his friends tried to stop him — but most of them were as troubled and fatalistic as he was. “[They] were full of their own problems,” says Dagmar. “Every time he talked about killing himself, everyone would look at him and smile! That’s not rational.”
In November 1968, levy went to see several friends, told them he’d be leaving Cleveland soon, and gave away many of his possessions. Then, on Nov. 24, in his East Cleveland apartment, he shot himself in the forehead, exactly as he had told Russell Salamon he would four years before. Two friends found his body the next day.
Mail from levy rained down into his friends’ mailboxes. To one, he’d sent his last poem, which despaired over whether he had accomplished anything: “poetry seemed like such/a good idea,” he wrote, but “the people want blood & guts/like it is on television/& in the newspapers.”
Levy’s avid readers argue he left Cleveland a lasting gift, a vision of a city that embraces its own culture and opens its eyes to art, poetry and the imagination. “He sees the city differently,” says Joanne Cornelius, who curates Cleveland State’s levy collection and Web site. “He didn’t want to settle and thought the city shouldn’t settle. His poetry says that beautifully.”
Sometimes, levy’s friends and fans wonder what he’d be doing today: Publishing on the Internet? Owning a bookstore? Still living in Cleveland? Still protesting the city’s poverty? But levy asked himself that question, in “Suburban Monastery Death Poem,” and found it unanswerable: “they are waiting for me in the future,” he wrote, “but then, ill be someone else.”
12:00 AM EST
October 19, 2007