I met Ron [Allen] back in the mid to late 90’s. He was running therapeutic poetry groups out of treatment centers in Detroit. He ran one out of Mariner’s Inn and the other out of Harbor Light and I was a therapist at Harbor Light and worked with him on those groups. We stayed connected until his passing.
I do write poetry, I have some poetry published and certainly that was one of the things that kept Ron and I connected. He actually introduced me to Vievee Francis, another Detroit poet. He did that so that she could edit some of my poetry for me. [It had] a huge influence on my ability to write well. Because of Ron’s influence and connection, I thought that was probably one of the more significant things he did for my writing. My writing and his are not similar but he understood enough to connect me with somebody who knew how to do that. She of course, is quite successful.
Ron talked to me about that quite a bit [schizophrenia], mainly because I’m a Psychologist and he thought I might have some insight. He just had a very interesting take on his schizophrenia. He felt that it was something that allowed him to break free of the way that we construct our reality and in doing that, he felt that it really helped him with his writing. He would talk about that sometimes, the language that would come to him when he was experiencing what others might call a break. It would free up his language.
In fact, one of the lines that [he and I] connect with, he used in relationship to a poem that I had shown him by E.E.Cummings. It was from Xaipe by E. E. Cummings. I gave him the book at Cass Cafe, saw him again a couple days later and he says, that was the shit! That guy reads stuff that, like, makes the air split open. Then a couple months later, he shows me a copy of one of his plays and I’m sorry that I can’t recall which play it was. But he showed me a copy and we read through it a little bit and there was a line, I want to split the air open with my words. So, that idea of splitting, a schism, schizophrenia… it really kind of flowed throughout a lot of what he wrote.
As I said, I met him working with addicts who were working at their own recovery at Harbor Light. So we had occasion to talk about how he had to master those things that kept him from having his own voice. I think that was really kind of a cornerstone; breaking free from some of that. Not that he broke free from all of his addictions. From what he told me, he was addicted to a number things, alcohol and drugs. I think he was also addicted to women. I think he was addicted to kind of a lifestyle…I don’t even know if I can say addicted to that, but certainly caught up in a lot of things.
I mean, I’ve suffered my own addictions. So I know that there’s some that you become prisoner of and some that just become that really bad friend that you hang out with every once in awhile. That kind of derails you for a bit, then you get back on track. And you love hanging with ’em but you can’t do it all the time.
I certainly know that in the end of his time in Detroit, he was spending a lot of time at the VA. All of that [had to do with] complications he felt that he had gotten from things that happened to him in Vietnam. My brother had served in Vietnam, [Ron] was about my brothers age. No matter what your experience, its a huge interruption in your life; completely changes whatever direction you might have had. He seemed to at least have those kind of feelings about it. I didn’t have a detailed account of any of it.
I’ve only seen one of his plays, I’m trying to recall the name of it. It was the one that Tyree Guyton did the sets for. Just visually a gorgeous play and I mostly remember it because of the lead up to it. I met Tyree Guton because I sat in on a drug panel, a drug discussion panel that Ron invited me to. He introduced me to Tyree at that event and they talked a little bit on what they were working on. I thought that was very memorable to me because of course Tyree was just gaining in his prominence or he had already gained in his prominence but it was still rather fresh.
I loved almost all things that Ron did, having done the poetry at the treatment centers. That was when he was just starting out. I would hear him do performances at a microphone. So he had a lot of stuff that was really good for performing in kind of that open-mike type cadence. Near the end of his time in Detroit, he gave me a copy of The Unborn Muse of Shadows. I thought it was just a gorgeous collection. You could certainly start to see the Buddhist influence in his work and it was just like a gorgeous book of prayers. Very different from almost everything else of his that I’d seen at the time. [The Buddhism] is something we didn’t talk a lot about. It’s something he stated he was interested in because he knew that I was Buddhist. We had kind of moved in separate directions. I had moved away.
He was starting to disconnect from [Detroit]. We didn’t have a lot of conversation about it. Of course, it fits. It fits his whole…everything here is an illusion and I think that tied in with his ideas about schizophrenia and his ideas about what the human experience is. It was kind of a natural progression and I hope it helped him near the end.
We did work together when he was in the treatment centers doing these poetry groups. Broadside Press put out a few chapbooks and I actually [wrote a poem and introduction for one of those chapbooks]. Most of the men in those chapbooks were guys from the treatment centers and they’re all guys that I worked with. Certainly, in that way [Ron and I] worked together. I participated in the groups just [as] an observer and to help people deal with things that come up when their poetry perhaps unlocked something that we needed to talk about. So I was always able to follow up with that. It was a powerful process. In that way, we certainly did collaborate.
Ron is a great example of the fully dedicated artist. He lived for his art, he supported himself for his art. I know quite a few artists, especially from Detroit. While many of them kind of dabble in it, like I do, there are a few who, it’s everything that they are. He’s certainly an original Detroit artist that came from that time, the 80’s and the 90’s. He was an artist of that time. Historically, he is Detroit art. To not recognize that, I think would be missing something. I think that it is very important that somebody with a unique voice is always preserved in some way. Just so that others can benefit from it.
Ron has influenced countless artists, artists that write very differently. I have a friend name Sean Kilpatrick,who I introduced to Ron. I had tried to nurture Sean (much younger than both of us). [Ron ] took him under his wing and gave him some encouragement. But [Sean’s] work is much different than Ron’s. A few years back, Sean Kilpatrick wrote an essay called, Where Are the Collected Plays of Ron Allen. It was all about how he feels it’s a shame that we haven’t at least just collected these things in a book that is available for somebody who wants to get the idea of what an artist from [that time and that place was].
The Ron Allen of Detroit was a lot about struggle and just trying to live that struggle. When he moved to LA, it was about peace. He was trying to come to peace with things. That seemed to be the nature of it. I can’t say that we talked deeply about that. I know that is how he felt. Unfortunately, he also verbalized a lot that the LA artists respected art more and probably at the time, that might have been very true. Right now, we’re respecting artists more here in Detroit but there was a time when it was a struggle and he certainly felt that.
[Ron] certainly was encouraging. We’re very different people and he has a different voice. But he wasn’t in any way disrespectful of the voice that I had. As untrained or…I didn’t dedicate all my time to poetry like he did. He didn’t see that as any kind of barrier. He just said, if you’re doing it, you want it to be as authentically in your voice as you possibly can. I remember reading a piece of work at one of his poetry get togethers; where he’d give the chili out and we’d all sit and read our stuff and we’d kind of workshop. I remember somebody talking about my work as being too much in a white man’s voice. Ron said, where is he supposed to write from, that’s his voice. We don’t disrespect that voice. Whether we want to hear it or not. He jumped in and said, your voice is your voice and your perspective is your perspective. I don’t know if he taught me that but he reinforced the idea that you have to find your voice and from there you can expand in many directions but you have to find your voice.
Ron was a lot like his poetry, his writing and his art. Some of it’s rough and Ron can be rough at times. I think all of his relationships were like everything else; it’s all secondary to his writing. If you’re willing to take that role of second place, sure. If you’re a person who wanted to love Ron and be with Ron, it probably was not always comfortable. And certainly, he had an appreciation for women. We had
a few discussions about those kinds of things. That was also not easy to take; Ron wanted to be with lots of people.
[Ron’s] strength, I would say, was that no matter what differences in backgrounds, he saw a basic similarity to everybody who was trying to find their voice. He really tried to nurture and value that in everybody that he encountered.
He was very anti-establishment. I think sometimes to his own detriment, he was anti-establishment. I understand the appeal. I think the establishment is there; so sometimes you need to work with it just because it’s there. I think that it sometimes caused him problems. Ron didn’t go through a formal education for his writing. At least not significantly. He was always thirsty for anything that you could give him that he didn’t know. Becoming familiar with the art of others was important to him.
I think if you really want to understand the art scene in Detroit in the latter half of the twentieth century, you need to know Ron Allen. I think that its important for Detroit, if it wants to truly have a complete picture, that something needs to be put together that honors the fact that in that area at that time, not only his own work but the influence and impact he had on pulling all kinds of artists together from various backgrounds was just incredible. The amount of people that I met through some connection to Ron Allen was just incredible and they’re all still doing it. They’re all still doing their own work.
As far as I could see, everybody he met, he liked. I loved Ron. Ron was great.
Dr. Christopher Parks
This is a transcription of an interview given to The Ron Allen Project in 4/7/2019
Chris passed in August of 2019 (1962-2019)