At birth, before the umbilical was cut, Ralph Steadman pooped in the hand of the hospital nurse. This marked, according to Steadman, the “earliest manifestation of a Gonzotic event.” He claims to have sole understanding of Gonzo, a term taken from an astonished medical student, Giuseppe Gonzaga, who witnessed the immaculate crap and shouted, “Biologico impossible! Mama mia! Gonzo puro!” Steadman figures, “Pure shit.”

Three hours later, he remembers, the Spanish Civil War started. This all of course is apocryphal, laid down as fact by one of the pioneers of Gonzo journalism. “GONZO is the essence of irony. You dare not take it seriously. You have to laugh.” Not even friend and collaborator Hunter S. Thompson, he says, really knew what Gonzo is. Steadman writes, “I am the only one who does”:

GONZO makes you feel GOod rather than BAd, which is BANZO. Pursue BANZO if you must but don't blame me or even credit me or you will make me sick. GOnzo is GOod. BAnzo is BAd. It is a simple equation.

Steadman is best known for his illustrations of Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and his ties are decidedly literary. Steadman has worked with poets Ted Hughes and Brian Patten, and illustrated editions of Alice In Wonderland, Treasure Island, Animal Farm, and, most recently, Fahrenheit 451. And he is…wait for it…a poet himself.
“Hunter always hated me to write anything and warned me that it would bring shame on my family,” Steadman says about Thompson. “Don’t write, Ralph! It’s a filthy habit…”
Nevertheless, Steadman has written Molto Gonzo story books and chapbooks and art books, including two prize-winning titles on wine (plus one on whisky), not to mention reams of editorial illustration. You can find an amazing array of information about Steadman on his website, and look at our good luck of having his work on the cover of October’s Poetry.
Cover art comes in to the office a variety of ways. Some come in a pinch and some we store for winter and some we commission and wait months for. In this case an e-mail was sent from Winterhouse Studio to Steadman’s website, on a lark. Happily, a series of three illustrations of the late Princess Diana came back.
The connection between Steadman and poetry might come as a surprise, but his admiration of verse is etched in steel in these manic portraits (images courtesy of
T.S. Eliot
Dylan Thomas
Ernest Hemingway
Hugh MacDiarmid
James Joyce
Robert Graves
Marcel Proust
Samuel Beckett
Oscar Wilde
Robert Burns
Thomas Hardy
William Shakespeare
Next month: Death Knells.

Originally Published: October 16th, 2007
  1. October 16, 2007

    There's also a Steadman-themed brunch restaurant in Minneapolis, which I recommend. (Be warned: there are lines on weekends.) Don't know what poems the manager reads, though.