Tucked into a Hamtramck neighborhood, a few blocks off the Joseph Campau strip, the Atlas Bar is efficiently (if not magnificently) anonymous. It's really a hideout; a place to buy drinks, bully the juke and shoot pool; a place to lay low and wait it out — whatever it might be. You might hear Fela Kuti pounding over the speakers, and you might see a paint-splattered 25-year-old hunched over Aldous Huxley essays and sipping tea. It's the kind place where you might stumble onto a poet. Seriously.
The only pictures of Richard Wohlfeil you can find on the Internet are grainy black-and-whites in which he appears sedated. In person, he looks like he could be related to that guy, but Wohlfeil is wild-eyed — more so than you'd expect from those snaps — and the muscles in his face and neck contort with expressions, of which he has an arsenal. His hair is oily, unruly and alive.
As he sits inside the Atlas, after a long day of house-painting in the suburbs, there's an obvious fire in him, as if he's waiting for the right question, one he can tear into and then shoot back out.
But my tape recorder on the table doesn't turn on, despite its new battery, and it's Wohlfeil who apologizes: "Sorry, I don't know what it is — mechanical things don't tend to work around me. It's not that things break — they just go on the fritz." His grin doesn't say I'm totally bullshitting you, it's more I can't believe this still happens.
Later, when ink refuses to flow from my new pen, Wohlfeil smiles big and shakes his head. It's his fault. Later still, two cars crash right outside the bar — and Wohlfeil's not the least bit surprised. He looks up, his brow raised like Johnny Rotten's, and says something like, "Crazy, right?"
Wohlfeil's a poet and it turns out that he's a multi-instrumentalist too (currently playing in Mother Whale and the Potions). He's also a DJ who holds down three Detroit residencies (including Wednesday nights at Northern Lights Lounge between Dennis Coffey sets), as well as a carpenter, painter, videographer and graphic designer.
"I'll do whatever's asked of me," he says later.
Last Autumn, Wohlfeil released Explorations of a Page: A story of Love, Space and Form. It's a chapbook of verse that braids romantic love with the author's adoration for poetic device, for myth and for those poets who've preceded him. And there's sex too.
Sex is too often bastardized in poetry, left limp on the page like porn tripe, and it's a fine line for the writer, and even the greats cross it. Voltaire once wrote to his niece: My soul kisses yours; my prick, my heart, are in love with you. I kiss your beautiful ass.
Wohlfeil at least engages it head-on:
This is a LOVE story... have you heard that one before? — that you've already spread my thighs bit? — anyway, that's another story, another time, another page — anything to provide Kicks Now In This Womb — any sort of dialogue between a page and its place — and if you really loved me, you'd do right to stay inside my s p a c e
Other poems (like one typed in the shape of an hourglass model that celebrates the womanly form more explicitly) are easier to swallow because there's as much to say about the pleasure the author gets out of writing it as he does its subject.
Explorations uses devices with vigor, but when Wohlfeil's not taking the time to contour stanzas, his is a spontaneous torrent of thought, broken up by long, yielding dashes. Poetry is to be read aloud. Wohlfeil peppers his work and conversation with references to poets and verse, but it's not pretentiousness, it is, as he calls it, "just a point of reference. You may know it, you may not. It's just something I may associate with the subject at hand."
It's hard to fault the guy for being turned on by reading poetry enough to make it his art. After all, poetry is the epitome of thankless art. Hence, Wohlfeil maintains a suspicious level of calm. He says with no irony that the only thing that has truly pissed him off in recent years was a stale translation of French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. It irked him so much that he wrote to its author, Wyatt Mason.
"I don't like to talk shit, but this guy sucks," the French-speaking Wohlfeil laughs, showing me his red ink edits and the scathing note.
It's no wonder he's upset. The guy takes poetry personally. I almost ask if he majored in Rimbaud — at 25, Wohlfeil is at the master-thesis age — but he didn't do college. Instead, how he stumbled upon studying Ezra Pound, translating the likes of Rimbaud, and publishing in the shadow of Lawrence Ferlinghetti was as practical as learning how to lay bricks and frame walls. "It's not collegiate; if anything it's only a natural progression for anyone willing to get to the source of things," Wohlfeil says. "Take On the Road: Every kid reads it, and every kid that wants to dig deeper will naturally be led to Kerouac's contemporaries — Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, Snyder — followed by Kerouac's influences, such as Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller — maybe Céline if you dug the Miller — then Whitman, following historically till you reach Homer's tales of travel and adventure. A name like Rimbaud is heard by anybody that owns a Patti Smith record; you don't have to go to college to get one of those."
Quiz Wohlfeil about literature or music and he gets going, but then he's subdued, which might explain why he's quick to contradict himself. It's as if he intends on remaining half-veiled by small doses of anonymity. It's a tactic that lends itself to infinite conversation, sure, but it's also the reason Explorations almost didn't happen. Wohlfeil only published after his reading sparked listener interest.
When he says, "I don't care about being published," it's because he's legitimately shy, not a self-righteous prick trying to manipulate a reputation. "If I don't want to publish something of mine, it's probably because I don't think it'll do anybody any good," he says. "It's probably irrelevant." Taking a cue from Ferlinghetti's City Lights Pocket Poets series, Wohlfeil self-financed Lo & Behold! publishing and saw he could create a venue for other fringe poets.
So far, Wohlfeil's published his work and that of a school-bus driver from Livonia (Randy Foreman), whose The Sea as the Sky/Scoundrel double-volume chapbook was released in February.
"Artists have the power to really say and do something, so they owe it to people to make us feel it," Wohlfeil says, at once summing up Ezra Pound's ideas on the morality of art and the effect Foreman's writing had on him. "Artists have a place in society; if you're doing it solely for yourself, well that's pretty shitty."
Wohlfeil says his Lo and Behold! will soon release an anthology of Detroit poets that'll include himself and Foreman, as well as Drew Bardo and Brittany Billmeyer-Finn. Asked if there's an artist statement behind Lo and Behold!, Wohlfeil's response is contradictory, as they often are.
"There is and there is not," he says, "There isn't in the sense that if there was I would limit myself, and there is in the sense that I would only want to seek out new forms, to boldly go where no publisher has gone before."
Ease up; this poet has no problem throwing out his nerd-card.
"Honestly," he continues, "I just want to put out work that wouldn't normally be published, but should be. There's enough of it out there."
This guy walks and talks poetry. So where did he come from? When asked, his response is metered, if not mannered:
"Wayne, Michigan, is a Ford plant. Everybody that lives there works there — except me," Wohlfeil says, careful to pause just long enough. "West of the Ford plant is a tiny neighborhood; a four-block cube. Across the street from that are a series of landfills. As a child, I had to wait till 11 o'clock for sunlight because factory smokestacks obscured the sun. After the coming of daylight, I only had about five hours to play because after four o'clock the sun would set — behind heaps of trash."
Wohlfeil's work is mature in that he's practiced, but he's not (yet) haggard and worn. He's as proletarian as a factory-town kid can be, but never elementary in that you can assume what line is coming next.
And as quick as he references wordsmiths he loves, he cowers in the face of real love, exposing the vulnerability that makes his work universal. Without that, we'd just have a smart writer, but a broken heart can go a long way:
I'll be damned if I don't love her still, even though her kisses have turned bitter from contact with vulgar spittle ... I have her disease in me and I can't shake it ... I'm nothing more than a leper when she comes around ...
We might not get any new poems from Wohlfeil for some time as he is, get this, translating the collective works of Rimbaud — a project born of his reaction to Mason's butchered attempt.
And as disconnected as he wants to be at any moment, Wohlfeil can't hide that he represents a new kind of Detroit poet; he's not spoken word, he's definitely not "slam," and he's not MOCAD-y either. Instead, he performs, fittingly, at Cliff Bell's and the Lager House, sketching in grit his own tales of love, critique and confusion for literate liquor-swillers of the Motor City.Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]