Monday, October 22, 2007

Lydia Tomkiw

The poet Lydia Tomkiw recently died in Phoenix. She was 48 years old. Her death is a shock to those of us who knew her, but as someone has commented, not a complete surprise. She had tremendous promise as a young poet. Please see Sharon Mesmer's blog, Virgin Formica,, which contains her letter to Lydia on news of her death. They met in my workshops at Columbia College Chicago in the early 80s and immediately became best friends. The following poem, which Lydia presented in class, was based on an assignment to create your own form. Maxine Chernoff and I published it in one of the first issues of New American Writing, and it was also included in the first edition of The Best American Poetry (1988), ed. David Lehman and John Ashbery. The poem consists entirely of palindromes, some of which she must have created to suit the poem, for instance the next to last line:

Six of Ox Is

O, no iron, o Rio, no
red rum murder;
in moon: no omni
derision; no I sired
drab bard,
but no repaid diaper on tub.
O grab me, ala embargo
emit time,
Re-Wop me, empower
Eros' Sore
sinus and DNA sun is
fine, drags as garden if
sad as samara, ruff of fur, a ram; as sad as
Warsaw was raw.

Lydia became interested in poetry in her first year of college at University of Illinois Chicago, where she took a class with Maxine. She then transferred to Columbia, where she and Sharon became part of a strong group of young poets that included Connie Deanovich, suZi (then Sue Greenspan), and Deborah Pintonelli, who made such a hit in Chicago with her book Meat and Memory. Elaine Equi, who had taken her B. A. at the college in the 70s, returned to get a graduate degree, but was not identified with Lydia and the others, though of course admired by them. A strong generation of Chicago poets, all women with the exception of Jerome Sala, was beginning to surge. Later Lorri Jackson arrived in the classes with brilliant sleeves of tattoos done by her boyfriend. When she died of a heroin overdose at age 28, the news made the front page of the Chicago Tribune ("heroin takes life of young poet").

At the same time, Marc Smith was developing the Slam format, so there was a lot of performance energy in the city. The first bardic competition in Chicago was created by Al Simmons, who had been a student of Ted Berrigan at Northeastern Illinois University. Its concept was that of a boxing match, with a ring marked off to perform in. Jerome Sala was featured in the first bout. Marc switched the concept to wrestling, and the rest is history. It was in this atmosphere that Lydia and her husband Don created the band Algebra Suicide, which was centered around her poetry. The group had some success, but Lydia was drawn away from the page, and for perhaps that reason, she was not included Nicholas Christopher's anthology Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets (Anchor Books, 1989), though Connie, Elaine, and Karen Murai, also a Columbia College student, were. I hope that new attention will now come to her work. I believe that recordings are available online and perhaps a You Tube item.


At 6:52 AM, Blogger bart said...

hello paul,

over the years i heard yr name mentioned and it was very nice to read yr piece on lydia. i became friends with sharon and lydia about the same time in 1979 i think when i co-edited NICE Magazine in NY. we became 'best' of friends over time and i also became pretty good friends with deborah. this triangle of chicago writers was a bit like an emotional bermuda triangle but it was vibrant [some would say caustic].

I watched [and tried to intervene] as lydia declined in NYC as a result of many things, symptoms of both the times and her mental state. i thot if nothing else she should write [therapeutically?] about her 'down and out in ny' experiences. she consistently deflected pointed criticism by promising me she was indeed well along into and continuing to write [ca. 1995!] a novel.

i would like to publish/produce something of a booklet [book?] and cd type of package of her selected work. me and don have just preliminarily discussed the possibility of doing something like this. maybe you are interested in helping move it along.

i recently dedicated a radio show to lydia and algebra suicide here in amsterdam. you can see some photos and read more about lydia at . i also wrote a fairly long article on her that was published by fringecore and available on the www.


bart, amsterdam, nl

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Paul,

Charlotte Eulette here in NJ. Lydia, Sharon and I were classmates in your poetry classes along with some other (if you ask me) great writers. My heart is heavy in learning that Lydia has died. I was looking for Chicago poets and poetry for a ceremony I'm writing. When the ground softens I'll plant a tree in her name somewhere where a tree should go. I see her very much alive now in my mind's eye with her long hair and short bangs with a point. Its so good to know she had such wonderful, life-long friends like you. How sad it is for me to loose her now just when I found her again.

Charlotte Eulette
old friend

At 12:24 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Paul!

My name is Robert Coddington. Lydia and I first met when she owned Lower Links. She used to book my bsnd PANTHERSAHIB for monthly gigs. Later she and I collaborated on INCORPORATED.

Tonight Iwas framing various letters from my past. I found one Lydia sent me. Such sweet words she wrote me about how she loved the music I wrote for her and how she was planning to perform the piece in NYC.

When I Google'd her, I found out she was dead. It comforted me to know that I wanted to frame the letter before I found out she died, and I know she would have appreciated my logic. I think she was sympathetic to blonds.

Thank you for allowing me to glimpse in her world, my history.

Much love from the land of Los Angeles,

Robert Coddington
Queer historian / Musician
April 21, 2010

At 1:34 PM, Blogger jon strick said...

I was listening to AS on Youtube and on one of the posts it mentioned her death. I first heard the music on KBOO radio in Portland. Always loved it. Thanks for posting the palindrome poem. It really speaks to her love and master of workds.


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