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, http://www.virginformica.blogspot.com/
, 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
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
but no repaid diaper on tub.
O grab me, ala embargo
Re-Wop me, empower
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.