An American surrealist who made his life his art

It took a sort of heroism for Ted not to take the easy route through life but to live off his wit, his writing

The bedbugs that lived at the Paris bookshop called Shakespeare and Company were peculiarly vicious. Something in the atmosphere - the book-lined walls, the various dodgy aromas drifting from the small first-floor kitchen - must have given them strength, or perhaps they had developed a taste for the type of person that used to stay there, and probably still does.

Drifters, students, bibliomanes, tourists and, above all, would-be writers have visited the small, rather celebrated Left Bank bookshop. Those who found favour with its owner, George Whitman, were allowed to stay in the shop in return for a few hours' work. When I was there, in the 1970s, there would usually be at least one mousy young American woman in residence, brewing tea for George. "We got a brand new house-mother," he would say. "A very talented young writer from Illinois."

Now and then, a real writer would pass by to do a reading and sell some books. During the 1950s, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beat poets had been regulars but, by the time I was feeding the bedbugs, there was really only one star draw and that was the black American poet Ted Joans, whose death has recently been announced.

Ted was a wanderer of the world and various legends had accrued about his person since he had started visiting Paris in the 1950s. He had been a friend of André Breton, who had described him as the only black American surrealist. He had hung out with Kerouac and the rest of the Beat crowd; Langston Hughes had been his friend and mentor. When Charlie Parker had died, it had been Ted who had decorated the walls around Greenwich Village with the legendary graffiti "Bird lives".

By the time we became friends, Ted's life had taken on the pattern which it would follow for most of the rest of his life. He had a house in Timbuktu that he visited during the winter. The rest of the year he would spend roaming around Europe and America, doing readings, selling copies of his books, staying with friends.

When I moved back to London, he would visit occasionally, showing the traveller's knack of moving on at (or just before) the right moment. My girlfriend became my wife. With the arrival of our first child, Ted explained that we would be seeing less of him. In spite of managing to father 10 children, he had never been a family man. He left a couple of suitcases, which followed us from house to house, a copy of his book Black Pow-Wow and a strange piece of decorated driftwood, bearing the words of a poem called "The Truth", which hangs on the verandah wall where I am now writing.

The poem reads: "IF YOU SHOULD SEE A MAN/ walking down a crowded street/ talking ALOUD TO HIMSELF/ DON'T RUN IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION/ BUT RUN TOWARD HIM/ for he is a/ POET/ You have NOTHING TO FEAR/ FROM THE POET BUT THE/ TRUTH."

And the truth is now that, while I enjoyed Ted's company and liked some of his writing, I never entirely bought his image. It seemed to me then that he was more showman than artist. His persona, the black beret, the notebook, was a touch self-conscious. His work celebrated black womanhood but the female company of which he was never short was invariably young and white. For a bohemian, he was peculiarly keen on money. "No bread, no Ted" became something of a motto when he was asked to do a reading. "Your face is pale/ your love is hollow/ but you are real/ when you give the dollar!" is the way he puts it in one poem.

When someone important to you dies, you not only remember them but reassess your own younger self. Years on, I realise that, priggishly, I failed to see that it took a sort of heroism for Ted not to take the easy, domestic route through life, not to accept a comfy gig in a Faculty of African-American studies, for example, but to live off his wit, his writing, the sustained performance art that was his life. Far from being a taker, Ted was giving his company to those of us lucky enough to know him

He never came back for the suitcases. I would have liked to see him again, once the house had become acceptably child-free but Ted was never easy to track down. According to tributes in the American press and on the internet, his life had become difficult as he entered his seventies. He had sold a letter to him from Jack Kerouac to keep going, then his papers went to Berkeley's Bancroft Library. He died, alone, in Vancouver and it was several days before his body was discovered.

Perhaps, when I open the suitcases, there will be something of interest to Berkeley, but I suspect that Ted Joans's greatest work was himself, his life. As he put it in his note to me on the title page of Black Pow-Wow, he was "a spade to dig deeper with".

Terblacker@aol.com

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