by Tim Gilmore, 1/27/2023
1. 55 Years and Thousands of Miles
Francis Poole had spent the last few years “chasing Soviet submarines and warships up and down the East Coast and throughout the Caribbean” when he started college on a campus made of military barracks “emptied out and outfitted with chalkboards and old school desks carved with graffiti” and launched his literary career with two poems in a stapled student publication called The Experience.
It was 1968, the deadliest year for American soldiers in Vietnam. Assassins murdered Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. President Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for reelection. Police beat hundreds of protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The nation’s cities burned.
Stationed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville from 1964 to ’68, Francis Poole served as an aircrewman on an anti-submarine patrol bomber. “It seemed like everyone knew someone who had either been killed or wounded,” he says. In 1968, nearly 17,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam.
Cumberland Campus, a collection of barracks squatting in the mud beneath longleaf pines, offered no bathrooms, campus security guards, lecture halls or eateries. It did, however, include a library, with the only water fountain on campus. “Talk about thirst for knowledge,” Francis quips.
“I don’t remember a parking lot,” he says. “You just parked where you could find a spot. That seemed to work fine. Between classes, we would meet in cars to study and talk. We met with faculty either in an empty building, if one could be found, in cars, or out under the trees.”
A “great spirit of togetherness” moved Francis and his classmates and friends, who included faculty members, through that most apocalyptic of years. An optimism as irrepressible as it was inexplicable glued the campus together.
That optimism imbued the first issue of The Experience, 20 pages, black and white, under the guidance of Professor Marilyn Gooding. It included “Inside-Out Jesus,” fashioned from the depths of Francis’s war experience. He had no idea this moment would lead to living in Morocco and Portugal, to a long friendship with the American expatriate writer Paul Bowles in Tangier, to more than a dozen collections of poetry and the 2022 novel Ultrazone: A Tangier Ghost Story, co-authored with poet Mark Terrill, in which the ghosts of William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles try to save Tangier from a “word virus” launched from the pits of Burroughs’s guilt-frenzied and drug-addled hypergraphia.
Now Francis, a retired University of Delaware librarian, is coming back to Cumberland Campus, now called Kent Campus, of Florida Junior College, now called Florida State College at Jacksonville, to a conference hosted by that same publication, The Experience, and the release party for its new issue, still in print and sponsored by playwright and English Professor Jennifer Chase.
“I was completely unstuck,” Francis tells me, “when Jennifer first contacted me about The Experience. Of course I have my copies here. They’ve been with me all this time. They’ve traveled 55 years and thousands of miles, my first publication. An apropos title in my case, since it led me into areas I might never have gone without the experience of helping to put out that little mag.”
Jacksonville, Florida 1968 was a strange crossroads, a place and time where a Cold War veteran left the military a hippie, took “Experimental College” classes in emptied military barracks, wrote poetry and hung out with soon-to-be famous musicians in big ramshackle houses and learned to surf. “Surfing was the other escape,” he says.
Francis lived in the upper left apartment of a large brick foursquare on Ingleside Avenue, about six blocks from campus. The landlord was an elderly woman who lived on the ground floor. Francis took her to doctor appointments and the library. When temperatures weren’t soaring toward 100 degrees, he sometimes walked to class.
Some of the restaurants and bars in the Riverside area and Downtown “were good and cheap” and “offered real Southern cooking.” He liked the Five Points Diner, Morrison’s Cafeteria and the bar at the Hotel Roosevelt down on Adams Street.
“Music was a huge part of Jacksonville culture,” Francis says. He hung out several times at “the big green house” where members of a band called The Second Coming were living on Riverside Avenue. Out of the The Second Coming would grow The Allman Brothers Band. On the back of the band’s 1971 live album At Fillmore East, Francis points out a roadie named Mike Callahan, says, “We went to high school together in Tarpon Springs, were partners on the debate team. Somehow he ended up being the band’s sound technician.”
Francis recalls the theatrical New Orleans blues funk musician Dr. John staying in town and playing with the band Cowboy in one of those Riverside mansions-turned-boarding houses. Sometimes he traveled out to The Tropical Teen Club up on Norwood, no liquor license there, but “You got burgers, fries and sodas and the house band called The Lemon Twisters who did two or three shows a week.”
An “incredible singer-dancer known as Little James Brown” led the all-black group. “There were small tables scattered around a dance floor in front of a small stage with a red and gold curtain. Between shows, blues recordings played. At showtime, everything stopped. The lights dimmed. The announcer called out, from behind the curtain, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, get ready for the fabulous Lemon Twisters.’ The curtain would open and Little James Brown and the band would rule. Everyone danced and had a blast. I don’t think I ever saw a teenager anywhere near The Tropical Teen Club.”
Francis also frequented a psychedelic club called The Scene, just west of Cumberland Campus and Riverside on Roosevelt Boulevard. There, Duane Allman first started jamming with The Second Coming, which included guitarist Dickey Betts and bassist Berry Oakley, founding musicians of The Allman Brothers Band. Occasionally he listened to musicians play down at the open-air “be-ins” in Willowbranch Park.
Then a history class at the former South Jacksonville Grammar School, Florida Junior College’s Southside Campus from 1966 to 1970, changed his life. In that class began Francis’s lifelong friendship with Professor Ben Edmonson.
From his office on McDuff Avenue in the middle of Riverside, Edmonson, now a hypnosis therapist, recalls his arrival at FJC. With a new master’s degree from the University of Mississippi, he found Jacksonville on a map, noted its nexus of river and ocean, and looked forward to trying out a cool new town he’d never heard of. Then he arrived and wondered why there were so few seafood restaurants. “So then I find out I’m teaching in this abandoned elementary school by the railroad tracks, and I thought, ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’” In the middle of class, he’d pause to wait for the trains to go by.
Often the college failed to pay professors on time and administrators followed them around campus, coming uninvited into their classrooms and offices. When J. Bruce Wilson, the college’s first president, told Edmonson, a self-professed hippie, to cut his hair, Edmonson refused, noted the president’s bald head and told Wilson he ought to grow a beard to make up for the lack of hair above. Administrators fired faculty without explanation. At the college’s first graduation ceremony, student protestors marched up and down the aisles with placards reading, “Down with the President!”
Yet students and faculty possessed an optimism, a resistance and resolution that, despite the chaos from around and above them, made the college work. “It was primitive,” Ben says, “but there was an excitement, a desire for learning, a determined core of faculty and students.” So a young Francis Poole became a published poet in the optimistic experimentation of a college and a city afloat in that swirling chaos.
The sense of experimentation at Cumberland Campus, of building a college out of optimism and old barracks, made any dreamt venture seem realizable. Students were watching Fellini movies and reading Walt Whitman and now they were making a literary publication.
Marilyn Gooding, daughter of Judge Marion Gooding, who told Elvis Presley not to swing his hips when he came to town or he’d be arrested for obscenity, taught Creative Writing. A previous faculty advisor had overseen a single issue of a publication called Reason, but Gooding’s students started over with a new publication they called The Experience. So Experience followed Reason like Romanticism followed the Enlightenment.
Marilyn DeSimone, née Gooding, tells me 55 years later that though she advised The Experience from the late ’60s to the early ’90s and sponsored the student acting group Troupe de Kent for years, “Francis was the most dedicated of any student writer I ever had.” She recalls that he wrote “deeply from his military experience.”
Francis says, “No one in the class knew what a poetry magazine was, nor how to go about making one. Marilyn had some experience with publishing, but we all kind of learned together. After a staff had been selected, we put up flyers around campus with a call for submissions.”
The selection process was daunting. “Who were we to judge poetry? That question led to a lot more reading, more learning and discussion.” And they had no template for technical aspects. “We had to figure out what size, how many pages, what kind of paper, what typeface, layout, cover color, binding, number of copies, publicity, distribution.” To figure these things out before computers, Francis says, was like making a Beatles album without George Martin, yet seeing the first publication was as exciting as seeing any other artwork made by hand.
Two of Francis’s own poems made that first issue. The first, “August Nightmare,” traverses a fantasist, almost Lovecraftian landscape, like something August Derleth might have written in response to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. – “As the menacing black gull dipped earthward / We dove into our tombstone filled boat, / Scarcely saved by the cosmic air warning / From the death-syrup curse in its throat.” The poem also prefigures the voice of Francis’s novel Ultrazone, published 54 years later.
Since real education requires transformation through immersion, Francis read all the poetry he could find, submerging himself in Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Gary Snyder and Ferlinghetti. He read Roethke and James Dickey, James Wright and Ann Sexton, W.S. Merwin and Ann Waldman. He delved into all the arts, realizing “the cultural explosion of the 1960s” involved music, film, literature, every dimension of creative action. Working on The Experience, he learned about the L.A. poetry scene and the magazine Pearl, about Charles Bukowksi, about Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore and Press, grass-roots ventures that introduced the most revolutionary, now often anthologized, new poetry in America.
In 2021, when Jenn Chase became faculty advisor to The Experience, she pored through the journal’s first issues and found Francis’s 1968 response to his military experience, a poem called “Inside-Out Jesus” –
“The eyes of the tinker-toy children / Have boiled down their cheeks, / As the Orange cauldron in a crescendo of death / Burns free in its own wind. / Saluting as they crawl, / They stab the poisoned jello of their consciences / With knives and spoons, / Trying to split and peel the eye of fate. / The death-wish oratory between disciples goes on. / Rotten teeth CHATTER, CHATTER, CHATTER; / Their patriotic breath smelling like / Freshly painted garbage. / To light the smothering darkness, / We smear every head with napalm, / And give every messiah a match.”
When Florida Atlantic University refused to fund printing of the student literary journal Zephyr in 1971 because it contained the word “fuck,” its editor, Frank Poole, raised the funds to print the publication himself.
In the mid-’70s, he moved to Panacea, Florida in the Panhandle to work for The Wakulla News and started his own “little magazine” called Skullpolish, named for a Tibetan Buddhist breathing exercise. He moved to California and published two more issues of Skullpolish, but printing costs felt prohibitive, so he changed direction and started a literary ’zine called BLADES.
For years he’d admired the underground entrepreneurial endeavors of “little magazines” and ’zines (from “magazines”). He liked the mimeographed and stapled Floating Bear, edited by poets Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka, John Bennett’s The Lost and Found Times, and the absurdist artwork of Blaster Al Ackerman in Shattered Wig Review. In years to come, he’d collaborate with Bennett and Ackerman both.
More than 60 issues later, Francis still publishes BLADES, in which he’s featured writers like Paul Bowles, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright, and Henry Miller, alongside dozens of less famous names and a strong showing of Florida poets like Van K. Brock, David Kirby and Hal Shows.
Francis credits FJC History Professor Ben Edmonson for steering him to Morocco, which he visited several times before settling in Tangier. “Ben’s wonderfully rich telling of history opened new doors for me on the world and the past,” he says. A photo from the early ’70s shows Edmonson the embodiment of the ’70s hippie, with long hair and beard, sitting with Francis, who looks blaze-eyed at the camera and holds a large-bowled pipe. They sit on a couch with unmistakably ’70s autumn leaf patterns in front of a brown panelboard wall.
Ben tells me how he and Francis attended the 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival together, “the Woodstock of the South,” where they saw Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. In 1973, Francis, Ben and two other friends traveled Europe’s so-called “Hippie Trails,” where few American tourists wandered and prices were dirt cheap. Francis calls it “a free-wheeling excursion through Germany, France and Spain and finally to Morocco.” Later, Ben would visit Francis in Delaware and they’d head up to New York City, or visit Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, the infamous medical museum of oddities established in 1858.
Francis moved to Tangier in 1979. He loved the mythos of the Interzone, the Tangier International Zone, which lasted from 1924 to ’56, a Through the Looking Glass world that attracted American and European expat writers and artists. He hung out at the legendary Dean’s Bar, run by Joseph Dean, often compared to Rick’s Cafe, run by Humphrey Bogart’s character in the 1943 movie Casablanca.
Paul and Jane Bowles hung out at Dean’s. So did the post- but proto- Surrealist Francis Bacon, and writers Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond), Samuel Beckett (author of Waiting for Godot), William S. Burroughs (Junkie and The Naked Lunch) and Tennessee Williams (well after The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Francis’s essay Everybody Comes to Dean’s: Dean’s Bar, Tangier takes its name from the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s from which Casablanca was adapted.
In 1998 and ’99, Francis traveled back and forth from the University of Delaware to Tangier to meet with Paul Bowles, whom he’d befriended 20 years earlier, to arrange for the acquisition of the writer’s papers. The Modern Library lists Bowles’s 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky as no. 97 of the 100 most important novels of the 20th century. When Bowles died that November, 88 years old, 50 cartons of annotated manuscripts, photographs, notebooks and letters from writers like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Burroughs moved to the University of Delaware and formed the library’s Paul Bowles Collection.
A New York Times article about the acquisition samples a 1966 letter Bowles wrote his wife Jane from Bangkok: “I was wandering in the Pharmane Market last week, the only European in sight among tens of thousands of Thais and Chinese. Suddenly somebody pushed me and said: ‘Aren’t you Bowles?’ I looked, and it was Irving Gelles, who used to live next door to Number 15 Itesa – the mystery man with the codes and radio, whom everyone disliked and suspected of one thing or another. He was just as mysterious as ever, going to buy clothes, he said, in the market, and accompanied by a Thai youth. He grinned guiltily and said: I’m living in Laos now.”
Francis’s strange 2022 novel Ultrazone: A Tangier Ghost Story, co-authored with poet Mark Terrill, features the ghosts of Burroughs, Bowles, Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, artist and sound poet Brion Gysin and Dean himself (alongside a band of rebellious macaques, international art thieves, junkies and kif smokers, cursed tombstones and self-immolating fedoras).
A series of what-ifs pondered by a character named Dr. Microbia voices the central crisis of the novel: “What if there was indeed a lost manuscript by the late William Burroughs that had now surfaced in Tangier? And what if it was the host of a kind of virus, a virus that attacked words, both written and spoken? And what if that virus was actually some kind of evil spirit, whose destruction was the only way to stop the virus?”
The novel is full of lovely psychogeographic passages like these final sentences of chapter 18, redolent of lines from “August Nightmare,” published in The Experience 54 years earlier: “In a few hours, dawn would break, and the boats would return filled with the night’s catch. The only sounds to be heard now were muted conversations from the clustered houses and the sea breezes which blew through the medina alleys. One could imagine one was hearing the old city whispering its secrets to the sky.”
5. Full Circle
In the Tangier of Ultrazone, William Burroughs’s lost secret writings, out of which emerged his infamous 1959 novel The Naked Lunch, stand, on their side, thicker than the Central London and Manhattan phone books combined. They spawn a virus that scrambles all other writings, from magazine articles to newspapers to street signs. Burroughs wrote them in the depths of his heroin addiction and guilt for shooting and killing his wife Joan Vollmer in their youth in Mexico City.
Most frightening of all, the ghost of Burroughs realizes, “If there’s even a single page still unaccounted for, it could conceivably start self-reproducing at any time.”
That’s the threat. And the promise. When you place a poem into the world, it might wither or it might commence its own travels. It takes on its own life apart from you. It might come back to you, most of a lifetime later, and say new and unexpected things. It will speak for you when you’re no longer here to walk out into these streets and speak your first word of the evening. You won’t be here to explain it, to defend it, or to silence it.
Francis was born in Vermont, remembers childhood truck farms and trailer parks in Naples, Florida, moved, after his parents’ divorce, between his grandparents on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and five different Florida foster homes. Then came the submarine chases, Cumberland Campus, the Hippie Trails of Europe, then Morocco and Portugal.
Now Francis Poole descends the East Coast again from Delaware to Jax, and Jenn Chase and the young staff of The Experience celebrate his return. Jenn too has circled the world, traveled to Mexico City and Senegal and every year to her husband’s hometown in Spain. Francis’s return forms a 55-year circle.
“And here I am now,” Francis says to me, “like everyone else, wondering how/why and what next.”
Perhaps inevitably, those famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” come to mind: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I’m reading a poem from Zero Zero, a collection of Francis’s poems from 1974, when I board this train and let it take this story home: “Wet sirens / laughter and comicbook nightclubs / troll the gay evening of its blouse. / I sit drunk from waiting / for a morning train to Florida.
“The pennstation bazaar / holy and high domed above me / spins on its throne of rails. / Upstairs from this bright vault / I step outside / for one last walk / before I am expelled on silver / tracks toward Carolina hills. /
“The calloused nipples of the city / recede beneath cool fingers of / morning. Soon Manhattan will / tremble erect in light. /
“I browse in all-night bookstores / with lone sailors who, like me / are most alive this early searching. / To return I will lose / what I have found here / on my way down to dreaming diesels.
“I glide below to a platform / gazing beyond cold rail filaments / into groves of bleary red / switch lights. / The departing timetable of the / arriving day blinks Camden / New Haven Scotch Plains Brooklawn / the dead sleep as yet escaping / the ticket punch of dawn.”