Prose from Poetry Magazine


The lives of Frank Lima

A member of the New York School—part of a second-generation group around Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch — Frank Lima (1939–2013) is a major Latino American poet. Yet Lima rejected both labels in relation to his poetry, and this is one reason why his work remains little known. Even the recent retrospective New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight by Jenni Quilter barely mentions him, though his presence is unavoidable: there he is in Alex Katz’s painting The Cocktail Party (1965); there again in William T. Wood’s photograph from the New York City Writers Conference, behind O’Hara and Bill Berkson; and yet again on a Living Theatre handbill, alongside David Shapiro and Joseph Ceravolo. Though not in the book, Wynn Chamberlain’s double portrait of Poets Dressed and Undressed (1964) features Lima standing behind the seated trio of O’Hara, Joe Brainard, and Joe LeSueur. That same year, Lima published his first volume, Inventory: Poems, with Tibor de Nagy and he would also appear in the two New York School anthologies, The Poets of the New York School (1969) and An Anthology of New York Poets (1970). Though he told Guillermo Parra in an interview that he “d[id] not align [his] lifestyle or work with the second generation New York School,” it would be difficult to assemble more evidence of someone being a New York School poet than we can in the case of Frank Lima.

Though New York School poets tended to be white, highly educated, and middle- to upper-class, Lima was born into poverty in Spanish Harlem on December 27, 1939, the oldest of three sons of a Mexican father, Phillip Lima, and a Puerto Rican mother, Anita Flores Lima. A prodigious alcoholic, Phillip was a hotel cook, and by age eleven Frank was working in kitchens alongside him. His mother, also alcoholic, was more educated and is listed as a registered nurse in the entry on Frank in the reference book Contemporary Authors. The marriage was troubled and ended when Lima was twelve; the family threw Phillip out of the apartment after he slashed Anita’s face with a razor. Homeless and unable to keep a job, Phillip would die of alcoholism in Central Park not long after.

The young Lima was subjected to multiple forms of sexual abuse. As an altar boy, he was molested by a priest, who he refers to in his autobiographical “Scattered Vignettes” as Father Archangel. In the same poem, he records the inappropriate behavior of his father, who, drunk, would don Anita’s makeup, bra, and nightgown and crawl into his sons’ beds “to roughhouse with us.” But the greatest trauma stemmed from Anita herself, who, after her husband’s death, began having sex with Frank. It would be difficult to overstate how central to Lima’s life and his art this incestuous relationship with his mother is. On the one hand, it sent him into a spiral of self-destruction whose consequences would have lasting effects. On the other hand, this spiral indirectly led him into the world of contemporary poetry, and the experience of his mother’s abuse would form the subject matter of his best-known early poem, “Mom I’m All Screwed Up”:

With popping antennae ringlets
                    you looked like
                        a praying mantis
                          cold cream & turban
                                science fiction gleam
                   as real
          as cancer
                               that stunk
                                   all over me
                                   on me

Such a portrayal seems remote from the stereotypical image of New York School poetry, yet it isn’t hard to see why those poets appreciated Lima’s work. As Koch writes in the preface to Inventory: Poems, “In [Lima’s] poems there is no moral, and no romantic exaggeration.” Later, in the introduction to Inventory: New & Selected Poems, Shapiro would write of Lima’s “amazing lack of self-pity,” and the matter-of-fact dissociation from this depiction of his mother’s aging body and his own intimacy with it distances Lima’s early work from the confessional poetry of the time. Shapiro characterizes Lima’s early poetry in terms of “the snapshot aesthetic of Robert Frank” and, in their depiction of an impoverished urban landscape, Lima’s poems evoke a Beat sensibility; Allen Ginsberg was an early admirer and Lima counted both Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as influences.

Yet Lima was critical of the Beat Generation’s exaltation of street life, and his refusal to romanticize his difficult origins seems intimately related to his rejection of ethnic identity in relation to poetry. The assumption of identity politics is that the poet typifies a shared cultural experience to which he or she gives voice. But, as Urayoán Noel writes,

Lima’s work mostly eschews the social voice of the diaspora poet....    If there is a political aspect to Lima’s work, it has to do with the politics of experience, and with the poet as cataloger of experiences both transcendent and mundane.

In an interview, Lima told Guillermo Parra that “the sources I draw on for ‘inspiration’ are universal”:

I do not want to be a “Latino” poet....    I do not feel I have to pontificate to any one of my origins and roots.... I do not want to be limited to screaming and bombast for the sake of being heard. That is esthetic colonialism and just too fuck’en [sic] easy to do. Our culture is richer and classier than glorifying El Barrio....    We’re not just “Latinos.” To me, the theater is much bigger than that. It’s history and heritage, and a magnificent language that is almost half Arabic. I know this of my own blood, half Mexican and half Puerto Rican that I am. This is my culture, not one or the other.

Lima’s disinclination to be labeled a Latino poet is thus nuanced. He deconstructs the category, pointing out he’s from “two Latino cultures,” while he broadens the meaning of “Latino culture” by invoking the Arabic influence on the formation of Spanish, through the Moorish conquest of Spain. One senses too, in the disavowal of “screaming and bombast,” the estrangement Lima felt from the performance-oriented writers of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the seventies; in the interview with Parra, he speaks of the “terribly high” price he paid in his exclusion “from New York P[uerto ]R[ican] anthologies and other events celebrating our culture.” But as Parra suggests, it may be that Lima “was simply way ahead of his time,” given Pedro López Adorno’s contention that Lima is “an important precursor” to “younger Nuyorican poets    ...    the major framework of [whose] poetic 
endeavor centers on the individual and his/her search for a liberating identity articulated from the social, historical, political, and 
economic displacements the respective subjects have had to endure.”

At age fourteen, Lima dropped out of school and, by 1956, when he was seventeen, his gun arrests and heroin addiction landed him in a juvenile drug rehabilitation program, which he would be in and out of until 1960, when he aged out of it. Though it failed to keep him off heroin, the program proved to be Lima’s salvation in the form of his encounter with the painter Sherman Drexler. Drexler was teaching art at North Brother Island when he first met the young Frank Lima. According to Drexler, Lima “was influenced by Keats and Shelley and had not yet found his real voice. I lent him books by Tristan Corbière, François Villon, and William Carlos Williams.” That Drexler perceived Lima to already have poetic influences contrasts with Lima’s own recollection, which implies that he only began writing after their encounter. As he told Bob Holman in Poets & Writers:

One day he came in with Life Studies / by Robert Lowell, when it first came out. / I was amazed — I thought, I’d like to write / like that, and I told Sherman. He said, / Why don’t you write, then? / I was flabbergasted that he’d ask / such a question. I told him quite frankly / I didn’t know anything about writing, / in fact, and I remember telling him this / exactly, I don’t even know the English / language. Sherman looked at me, // I’ll never forget it, and said, “Well, you can talk, / can’t you? Why don’t you write like you talk?”

Whether or not Lima had written poetry prior to meeting Drexler, their encounter galvanized the young poet; Drexler’s epiphanic advice to “write like you talk” led to Lima’s earliest mature work, which the painter promptly shared with his poet friends, including Lowell himself, as well as Koch and O’Hara. These poets responded with enthusiasm and sent Lima books; among the other poets he recalled reading at this time are Ginsberg, Corso, Apollinaire, and Baudelaire.

Lima met O’Hara and Koch at the New York City Writers Conference at Wagner College, on Staten Island, in August 1962. There he would also meet two of his lifelong friends, Joeseph Ceravolo and then-teenaged David Shapiro. His new friends helped Lima land his first publication, in the Evergreen Review, in 1962. Unlike Koch, who imposed a professorial distance, O’Hara offered drinking and companionship, bringing Lima everywhere from the symphony to the Cedar Tavern. O’Hara took an interest in Lima’s personal well-being, allowing him, during a period of relapse and homelessness, to sleep on the couch at the East Ninth Street apartment the older poet shared with Joe LeSueur. O’Hara went as far as organizing an art sale through Tibor de Nagy to raise money for Lima to see a psychotherapist. The two Franks also collaborated on a play, Love on the Hoof, intended for an unrealized Andy Warhol film project called “Messy Lives.”

Like many, Lima was deeply affected by O’Hara’s 1966 death. Because O’Hara personally constituted a social nexus for so many artists and writers, his death brought a premature end to a major phase of the New York School. Some of Lima’s distance from the scene also resulted from his continuing struggle with heroin. When Ron Padgett and Shapiro began preparing the New York Poets anthology in 1967, Lima was the only contributor unable to supply an author 
photo, because he was in jail. In the following decade, Lima published two books, Underground with the Oriole and Angel: New Poems, and received an MFA, despite his lack of even a high school diploma, from Columbia University (that he was able to enroll was undoubtedly due to the influence of Koch, who served as Lima’s advisor). But even as he received this academic and professional validation, Lima began to withdraw from the poetry scene because of familial obligations, embarking on a series of high-end executive chef positions in Manhattan. Achieving sobriety for the first time in his adult life also drove Lima further away from the poetry world; not only did he need to avoid the hard-drinking atmosphere of places like the Cedar Tavern, but he had difficulty writing in the absence of drugs and alcohol. As the eighties began, Lima’s life as a poet had seemingly ended.

Had Lima never resumed writing, he might rate as an extraordinary but minor poet, one of several colorful footnotes of New York School poetry. But his silence was not to last. “In the late ’80s,” he told Bob Holman, “I was clean, / unhappily married, and desperate. / I started to write again as the marriage / ended.” While Lima’s earlier poems increasingly incorporated a surrealist tendency, the later work might be seen as the full realization of this impulse:

I found the words in a box and became recklessly enamored with
Them. As I watched, they blew smoke rings into my sacramental
Face. I was a blind old man, unzipping my life before them and
Trembling at the touch of cold marble. My fingers were once wild

Pigeons perched on the statues and I would sacrifice my soul for the
Erotic stillness of yesterday. The words would arrive through the nail
Holes in the century wearing the flickering faces of the past. I fit myself
Into anyone that will have me, who will shoot at me with the hours of a

Wheelchair. When will I stop looking over my shoulder in the subway?
I collected the tickets at the door, and made it perfectly clear that
Writing is as lonely as a pile of discarded shoes. Heaven is wingless and
Far away and there are no books that mention your name or mine.

This poem, “01.03.2000,” is typical of later Lima. Frequently untethered to any recognizable scenario, even as they often seem to 
deliberate on the act of writing itself, the poems move effortlessly from assertion to assertion, with no sense of logical development. Yet they seem the opposite of random phrasemaking, instead motivated by an inner emotional necessity. Intriguingly, in light of his more open field-like compositions of the sixties, quatrains — sometimes varied as tercets or quintains — predominate. Filip Marinovich, who attended Lima’s workshops at the Poetry Project around 2000, offers insight into Lima’s compositional process:

It’s not like he would write quatrains. He would just freewrite. He even had these Xeroxes of Peter Elbow’s freewriting manual from the ’70s or ’80s    ...    And he would just freewrite and divide it up into quatrains.... And there was something about that new form that allowed him to write poetry where he felt like he couldn’t write poetry before because it was part of the whole vortex of addictions.

Any distinction here between freewriting and automatic writing is probably academic, and it’s clear that the use of Peter Elbow’s 
techniques resulted in a form of automatism that liberated Lima’s imagination in the absence of mind-altering substances.

In 1997, Lima was drawn back to the poetry world when Hard Press published his Inventory: New & Selected Poems, edited by Shapiro. Over the next few years he would find himself featured in such places as the American Poetry Review and the Poetry Society of America, and even on the cover of Poets & Writers. Much of this was preparatory to a new collection, The Beatitudes, an incendiary volume of invectives against the Judeo-Christian tradition. The book was announced, scheduled for publication in 2000, and even typeset, but ultimately never appeared due to upheaval at Hard Press. This was a source of great bitterness to Lima, destroying the momentum of his comeback in the poetry world.

Despite this, the last two decades of Lima’s life were probably his happiest. Lima became more prolific after an encounter with Koch before the latter’s 2002 death. Lima’s wife, Helen, recalls Lima visiting Koch in the hospital:

Kenneth told Frank that you have to write every single day. When you write, it’s not like someone doing a job. This has to come from you....    Frank tried really, really hard to write a poem every day.

As a result, there are hundreds of pages of work from the last decade of his life, and the bulk of Lima’s poetry remains unpublished. But it is with this late work that we can ultimately support the claim that he is a major poet. For here Lima developed a distinctive mode that accommodated everything from the quotidian to the literary and historical to the most exalted displays of surrealist imagination.

Only in the last year of his life, which was beset with health problems, did Lima’s output diminish. He died on Monday, October 21, 2013. “He struggled so hard; he wanted to get better,” Helen Lima said. “The day he passed away, that Sunday, he woke up in the morning and it came right off his lips. ‘Helen, when are we gonna go to Cancún again? I still want to take you to Cancún.’” It’s an expression of both romantic longing and the will to live characteristic of a poet for whom poetry represented an escape from suffering and a means of survival.

Originally Published: November 2nd, 2015

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...

  1. November 12, 2015
     Alice Lynch

    I really enjoyed reading about Frank Lima's troubled
    life. His sexual abuse and the fact that his mother
    pulled the wool over his eyes. I got a real sense of
    this man's strengths and his ability to bounce up and
    down after bouts with heroine. His poetry is touching
    and I like the way he wrote without borders, if you

    I am sitting here tonight in Kiev, and I feel blessed
    to have had an opportunity to get to know a little bit
    about another great man who has proved that he rose
    from the depths of the drains.

  2. November 12, 2015
     Gina Sangster

    I remember Frank from the School of the Arts 1973 - 75 when we were students there together. I didn't know he had died. Much appreciate this slice of his biography.