The poet Martin Matz died in the evening of October 28, 2001 at the hospice unit of New York’s Cabrini Hospital. I believe Marty was 67 years old. I met Marty in the Chelsea Hotel in 1989 and we remained close till his dying day. This is some of what I remember him telling me about his life. Because we were usually pleasantly loaded when we talked, some of my memories could be off a bit.
Marty was not a prolific poet, but he was a poet’s poet. Marty’s poetry was a unique fusion of Surrealism, Lyricism and Beatitude. He was inspired by, and refined, the traditions of vagabond poesy. Look on the back cover of his book Time Waits: Selected Poems 1956-1986 (JMF Publishing, 1987; privately revised and expanded, 1994), and you will find encomiums from the likes of Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Harold Norse and Howard Hart. Beat eminence Herbert Huncke wrote a stirring introduction to Matz’s book of opium poems, ‘Pipe Dreams’ (privately published in 1989). Huncke wrote that Matz “…draws support for the solidity of his statements from the earth, the soil–all of nature; trees, rocks and gems–upheaval and restless winds–strange dream-producing flowers. His is an awareness of the endless mystery we are all so much a part of.”
Marty was decidedly his own man, and stayed true to his own poetical calling. He wrote poems for himself and for his friends, and did not taste the admiration of a wider audience until late in his life. What quenched Marty’s soul was late night pow-wows burnished with jazz, sharing tales of the brotherhood of fringe dwellers. His love of the nocturnal shines through in his masterful poem I KNOW WHERE RAINBOWS GO TO DIE (On The Death of Bob Kaufman):
TOGETHER WE WALKED THROUGH A FABLED CITY
OF HALLUCINATING GREEN
AND TALKED AWAY
A THOUSAND SMOKING NIGHTS
AS YOUR ACHING HEART
BEAT ITS BONES
IN TIME TO BIRD’S BRILLIANT SOUNDS
OVER THE NEON STREETS OF MURDERED SCHEMES
Matz was born in Brooklyn, spent his adolescence in Nebraska, and served in an alpine unit (no mean feat for a flatlander) in Colorado during the Korean conflict. After the service, Marty gravitated to San Francisco, where he studied anthropology and met Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman. Just as he was becoming part of the incipient North Beach poetry scene in the late 1950s, Marty hit the road, heading south.
I AM THE PERPETUAL WANDERER
THE INSATIABLE TRAVELER
THE MYSTIC NOMAD
TOWARDS SOME STRANGE HORIZON
OF TWISTED DIMENSIONS
AND CHAOTIC DREAMS
(From “Under The Influence of Mozart” by Martin Matz)
His insatiable thirst for travel led Matz to Mexico and South America, where he wandered from the late 1950s through the late 1970s. He told me so many wondrous tales of his meandering in Peru, Chile, the Yucatan. On one of his journeys he ran into the legendary director John Huston. He told of how he and John and several others drank for a solid week, talking through the nights. Marty insisted that Huston never once slurred his words.
Marty was an intrepid traveler, restless, always seeking and finding the least-trodden path. He told me of how he was once bitten by a snake while crossing a river in Mexico. The flesh on his lower leg turned a hideous purple-black, but he kept going. He always kept moving.
Another time he was stricken with a flesh-eating parasite. Doctors told him that his arm would have to be amputated. He sought out a shaman, took a week of yage cures in a longhouse (in which the shaman “threw light” into the darkest corners of night), and successfully avoided any surgical procedure.
Matz became fascinated by pre-Columbian art, and translated an unknown Aztec codex, “The Pyramid of Fire” (for more information, please check out this site).
Marty was also an accomplished smuggler, but those are tales to be told at another time. Suffice it to state that National Geographic did a story which elucidated some of his unique talents as an contraband ceramist.
In the late 70s, Marty was pinched in Mexico with some grass and cocaine on him. Because Mexico had signed a treaty with the Nixon Administration which forbid transfers of drug prisoners, Matz’s only recourse was to bribe his way into a somewhat inhabitable cell block in the notorious Lecumberi Prison.
Lecumberi was an old, dingy, frightfully overcrowded prison, built by Porferio Diaz in 1903. By his wits, Marty was able to survive four horrific years of the most abominable incarceration. In 1994, he told Huncke and me how he once was sitting in the Lecumberi yard when one man stabbed another in the throat, showering Marty with “a fountain of blood.” He said: “I didn’t know the human body could pump blood that fast.” It was a tribute to Marty’s formidable powers of resilience that he chuckled as he emphasized that “I don’t like to be showered in blood.” Matz’s warm and infectious sense of humor always remained intact.
When the Mexican government decided to close Lecumberi and transfer the prisoners to a new facility, Marty and another prisoner hid for days in a tunnel which they had spent months excavating. They hoped the prison officials would eventually stop searching for them. They were finally captured after hiding for a week, and much ado was made of their daring exploits in the hyperbolic Mexican papers. (For moreinformation on Marty’s experiences in Lecumberi, I suggest checking out his interview in Romy Ashby and Foxy Kidd’s wonderful Goodie Magazine, issue number 6).
In 1978, Marty returned to the US as part of a prisoner exchange with Mexico. He settled in San Francisco and once again shared his poetry at readings. He renewed old friendships with the city’s poets, including Jack Hirschman, Gene Ruggles and Neeli Cherkovski.
In the late 80s, Marty married film maker Barbara Alexander. They spent the better part of the next eight years in northern Thailand, living on Barbara’s inheritance.
Marty and Barbara also spent some of this period in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where they presided over a convivial literary salon. Their Chelsea suite was filled with the lost art of conversation, the walls covered with exquisite artifacts from Thailand, Nepal and Burma. Painter Vali Myers, storyteller Herbert Huncke and poet Ira Cohen were frequent guests. At one memorable birthday party for Matz’s longtime friend and patron Bob Yarra, Harry Smith held court. Huncke and Matz gave two compelling readings at The Living Theatre at this time.
In 1991, I traveled with Marty and Barbara to Thailand and Burma. Together, we made a 26-minute video travelogue called “Burma: Traces of the Buddha,” which documents a boatride down the Irrawaddy River, a Shin Byu (coming of age) ceremony in Pagan and the dedication of a new temple in New Pagan. Our time spent exploring together was indeed inspiring. After our visit to Burma, I settled with Barbara and Marty in Ban Muong Noi, a small hilltribe village north of Chiang Mai in Thailand. It was in this small, remote village that Marty wrote his book of opium poems, ‘Pipe Dreams’.
In the late 90s, after having settled in Healdsburg, California, Marty and Barbara separated. Marty again hit the road: Mexico; Vienna, Austria; Italy. He found a warm receptiveness for his poetry in Italy, where he joined a “Beat Bus” tour of poets, including Ira Cohen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Anne Waldman. For several readings, Marty was backed by avant-saxaphonist Steve Lacy. M
arty stayed for months with friends outside of Rome, where he basked in the glow of recognition of his poetical gifts.
In 2000, Marty found himself back full circle in his native Brooklyn. He recorded a CD of his poetry (“A Sky of Fractured Feathers”) with master musicians Chris Rael (sitar, guitar) and Deep Singh (tabla, harmonium). He gave memorable readings, embellished by Chris and Deep’s deft playing, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Gershwin Hotel.
Marty was a thoughtful and comforting presence throughout old and dear friend Gregory Corso’s valiant final months battling cancer. Gregory affectionately referred to Marty as “my Matzoh Ball.” Matz’s eulogy for Gregorio was among the most moving at the memorial services for Corso at the Orensanz Foundation and the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.
Matz spent his final months at Lower East Side apartment of his longtime friend Bob Yarra. Marty, like Huncke and Corso before him, received a new generation of admirers in a modest, tv-lit abode. He graciously acceded to interviews while drinking cognac and watching his beloved San Francisco 49ers (Marty loved football and the sweet science of boxing). Old friends Roger and Irvyne Richards, owners of the much-missed Rare Book Room, came by to watch the Yankee playoff games. All the while, Marty continued to spin his magical tales of a fiercely uncompromised, hectically picaresque life.
Like his close friends Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso, Marty Matz stayed true to himself, always traveling, always savoring extraordinary experiences, always sharing freely his unique impressions yet never straying from his chosen, off-the-Beaten poetical path:
UNDER A SHADOW OF FRACTURED ECLIPSES
IN THE WINTER’S UNHARVESTED SHADE
IN SOME MARINADED ANGLE
SOME SECRET PERSPECTIVE
SOME HIDDEN TRAPEZOID
SOME MECHANIZED EQUATOR
OR OCCULTED WRINKLE
ON THE INVISIBLE LONGITUDE OF MADNESS
IN MONEY’S FROZEN SMILE
IN EXPLOSIONS OF ENDLESS EXPANSION
IN THE GULLEYS AND CANYONS OF TIME
(From “In Search of Paititi” by Martin Matz)
Before he passed, Marty bragged that he was “the laziest man in the world–and getting better at it every day.” But like Huncke, Matz was not aware of how giving he was, how generous he was with his time and his tales. His words will resonate for decades to come.
Matz is survived by his wife Barbara Alexander of California, and his half brother Bruce Hoberman of Nebraska.