In the Limelight
With trembling knees and after one too many slugs of cognac in an attempt to quell my jittering heart, I stood before a small New York City audience in March 1967 and read a few of my poems. I’d been writing poetry only a few months, but I was on a roll.
Soon I was performing, in my psychedelic dress, with jazz musician and poet Alan Surpin. The highlight of our collaboration remains the weekend we performed at the American Ethical Culture’s Society’s national youth convention in New Jersey on the same program as the blind musician Louis “Moondog” Hardin, whose minimalist albums impressed musicians like Philip Glass and Charlie Parker.
Alan and I had seen Moondog around town. Who hadn’t? His homespun costume made my psychedelic dress look decidedly “off the rack.” A tall, genial man with flowing gray hair and an even longer beard, Moondog dressed in full Viking regalia: sweeping robes, a tall spear, a fur helmet sporting steer horns. This apparition, more forest spirit than military man, stood stock still in the middle of a busy Sixth Avenue sidewalk, begging for his living. Or he’d play drums and keyboards, recite his poetry. “She bought a cover to cover the seat; but the cover was so nice/she bought a cover to cover the cover; and now it’s covered twice.”
When I returned to Nebraska in the mid-1980s and saw scholar-performers in Chautauqua roles, I thought, “I can do that.” Soon I wore a bustle and lacey gloves, carried an umbrella and pretended to be Louisa May Alcott.
That went so well I invented other roles. In Omaha, I dressed in a long flowing gown and pretended to be Eostre, the Germanic goddess of Easter. I dressed in overalls to narrate a chapter from my Great Plains Patchwork. I slipped into a negligee and tossed a hot pink boa around my shoulders and, as “Lady Plume,” read my erotic poetry. I pretended to be “Henrietta’s Mother,” dashing about New York looking for Henrietta who was riding on an orphan train. Then using a series of hats and other props, I pretended to be eight different orphan-train characters. Backed by the Nebraska Humanities Council, this became my most popular presentation. I performed “Orphan Train Riders” 29 times, not knowing I would soon be writing a biography of one of the riders, Mail-Order Kid.