Bionote on Philip Whalen
Phil Whalen in New Mexico
Phil Whalen in Taos... Anne MacNaughton's story

Wed thought up a brilliant fundraiser to support the fledgling Taos Poetry Circus: an Evening with Phil Whalen at the Taos Community Auditorium, a 275-seat theater. It was scheduled for a Thursday in early April. That day we had a long, lovely snowstorm, leaving the town buried in deep drifts where heavy snow had thumped to the sidewalks from overburdened tree limbs. It was overcast and warm that evening. But no one drove through the wet, black streets to attend the $10 event. There was an audience of eight, mostly staff.

At the Caffe Tazza (in its former location on Guadalupe Plaza) there was another poetry reading scheduled. Thinking that perhaps our audience had been stolen by the Chicano-NuYorican Connection, Peter walked across the empty plaza to check it out. Despite another celebrity-filled performance, there too the audience had stayed home. He watched the last few minutes with the Andy Vargas, the only other person who’d shown up. Then he invited the poets back to our house for a glass of wine and a chat.

The WPBA was always a poor organization, and we’d gladly offered our living room couch as lodgings for Phil. He was a large presence in my tiny japanese car, sitting shotgun in his black monk’s robes as I piloted us through deserted streets the mile or so to our small house. I was stoking the fire when Peter arrived with poets in tow.

There was our old friend Rudy Anaya and our new friend Jimmy Santiago Baca, who’d organized the wildest tour of latino poets yet. We were introduced to Miguel Algarín (an originator of the NuYorican Poets Café in Midtown Loisaida Manhattan), Mikey Piñero (famed playwright and Tony Award-winner for Short Eyes), Lucky CienFuegos and his strung out girlfriend, Candy. Rudy stayed straight, but most of the others were smacked out happy. We poured alcohol, pulled out books and poems and began reading to each other. It started high and got higher. Each reader in turn would out-do the previous with outstanding poetry. We read into the early morning, going further and further on a roll only poets ever get to experience, reaching the peak of the universe just before dawn.

Phil watched, bemused for the most part. Algarín read elegant pieces, Baca spouted language from the top of his glib mind, Lucky fumbled with folded scraps of paper, and Mikey declaimed excitedly, paging through a thick notebook. As he paced the brick floor, Piñero wore a sleek satin jacket, black, with the words Miami Vice in turquoise and pink. Hed just finished his stint with that series. My young daughter was fascinated. She’d seen that show on the small tv we had. It suddenly dawned on her that she was in the midst of a stellar gathering. She came to me in the kitchen and whispered, “So all these people are famous, huh?” When I affirmed her suspicion, she asked if she might try on the jacket. Mikey declined her request, but she went to bed with memories she still retains.

Everyone crashed on rugs and pillows on the floor, around the great mound of Phil on the worn couch. Except for Lucky. After a huddle with the NuYo- Burque poets, he requested a ride to a motel for himself and his girlfriend. Peter knew his host duty and ferried the two to the local motel. As Peter negotiated the price, Cindy leaned against the doorframe and went on the nod. When the rate was established, Lucky reached into his jacket and pulled out a plastic baggie apparently full of cash. In his stoned state he was unable to untie the small wire twistie holding it closed. He held it up as the motel clerk cut the top open with a pair of scissors. Immediately large packs of rubberbanded bills fell out, accompanied by a faint dusting of white powder. The Taos motel clerk was nonplused. This is how all famous poets always carry their money, no?

As for our fundraising efforts, it took several months of begging contributions from friendly but poor poetry fans to pay off the debts we owed from the snowed out event. Nevertheless, the poet-filled memory is precious.


Anne MacNaughton, Taos