Juanyta Clivette: A Reincarnation of Sappho
This post might not present or describe an unrecognized radical experiment in poetry, but it’s a story too strange not to tell. These past couple of months, in my never-free time, I’ve been carving out a little guilted space through a rather insatiable impulse to know more about the bohemian NY village poetry scenes of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. It’s an impulse that grew out of an incessant re-looking at the French ex-pat scene of the late 20s / early 30s, trying to understand what happened to a bunch of those folks when, with their independent wealths ruined by the depression, they returned to dwell states-side (this all started with my many years-long A. Lincoln Gillespie obsession and someday I might do a post here on ol’ Link that would include scans of some poems and scraps of poems that didn’t make it into his now long out-of-print Collected).
The subject of this post though is Juanita or Juanyta Clivette, whom at a very young age announced herself to be Sappho reincarnate and wrote and performed poems, hosted salons, and generally became a bohemian celebrity in the village scene of the 1920s. While the claim of a six-year-old (who’s writing poems that are way precocious) to be the reincarnated soul of an ancient poet is distasteful to dispute, it might be worth mentioning that Juanyta’s local context was slightly unusual. Her father, after all, was Merton Clivette! Born in Portage, Wisconsin, Merton Clivette was a well-known magician, psychic, palmist, tight-rope walker, knife-juggler, poet, political activist and writer, whom in his life as a sculptor and painter was a student and friend of Rodin’s and whose gestural brushwork has been retrospectively considered a precursor to abstract expressionism. As a magician, during the first years of Juanyta’s life, Merton Clivette performed a mind-reading magic he called psycho-astralism, traveling around the US under the moniker “The Man in Black” in collaboration with his wife Catherine as “The Veiled Prophetess.” So, short of being an unbeliever, all I’m saying is this was a scene ripe for the supernatural.
Most of the evidence of Juanyta Clivette’s poetry that I could find is from rather sensationalist newspaper clippings from the 20s and early 30s, it reads not quite like Sappho, but it’s sometimes beautiful by image and its main subject is the problems of loving and being loved. Feature length stories of Juanyta as reincarnated Sappho were reproduced around the country in 1921 and a similarly sensationalist story about her failed engagement to the young artist Emile Gruppe is published widely in 1925. Her poetry appears regularly in a number of syndicated columns sensationalizing the village bohemian life in the late 20s and early 30s, including the Your Broadway and Mine columns of the infamous Walter Winchell (the face of tabloid journalism for many many years). It’s a little counter-intuitive for me to think of the origins of tabloid journalism as mixed-up with poetry, but it seems the two were regularly engaged, and including a poem is a regular feature of Winchell’s or Louis Sobol’s or Rian James’s columns, usually accompanied by some gossip about Max Bodenheim, Harry Kemp, Juanyta Clivette, or some other bohemian poet. Considering all this press, it seems strange to me that Clivette never had a book or even a pamphlet out, but she didn’t as far as I can tell. I’ve made a little scrapbook document here that scans some of these clippings, beginning with the two feature articles, for your amusement (that is for educational purposes). There is also evidence that Juanyta published in numerous literary mags of that time, but I’ve yet to get my hands or eyes on any of those. Let me know if you can…
Albert Parry’s Garrets and Pretenders: Bohemian Life in America from Poe to Kerouac (Dover, 1960).
Merton Clivette’s IT (Originalar, 1907)
Winchell, movie about Walter Winchell starring Stanley Tucci and Paul Giamatti (I haven’t seen this yet, is it any good?)
Joe Gould’s Secret, movie fictionalizing amazing village poet Joe Gould directed by Stanley Tucci (I haven’t seen this yet, is it any good?)
Louis Sobol’s The Longest Street (Crown, 1968)
Lewis Freedman moved to Madison where he’s starting a brand new reading series (OSCAR PRESENTS) with Anna Vitale, Andy Gricevich, and Jordan Dunn. He’s most recently the author of Hold the Blue Orb, Baby (Well Greased, 2013) and Solitude the Complete Games (Troll Thread, 2013), the latter a collaboration with Kevin Rydberg. non-symbolic non-symbolic non-symbolic is due out sometime soon from Minutes Books.