Paul L. Mills/POEZ
Years before there was slam poetry, spoken word poetry, performance poetry, slam poetry, there was Poez, making a name for himself, and originating this branch of the dramatic arts. “A voice musician … a young man with a flow of words like a river … like a jazz instrument.” In July, 1979, this is how the New York Daily News (Ernest Leogrande) described Poez (Paul Mills) early in his career as the world’s first spoken-word poet-performer, which began in 1976. There was no one else like him, because from 1976-1982, the notion of a poet who placed the emphasis, when writing and presenting his poetry, on live performance, rather than the printed page, was revolutionary — and the rest of the poetry world was slow to catch on. As the NEW YORK TIMES put it simply, he was “a spoken-word pioneer,” his performance “a sonic fantasia.” “A consistently interesting performer with an unclassifiable act,” agreed THE STAGE of London. “Plays his voice as a violinist moves the bow across the strings … beyond the writing, beyond the performing, to a personal portrayal that is a virtual song” THE AQUARIAN WEEKLY (Diane Umansky, July 29, 1981). “Une presence ‘vocale’ etonnant et imprevu,” were the words used in July, 1982 by LE FIGARO of Paris, “Incroyable et extraordinaire … les mots deviennent soudaine rythme et musique” gushed LE QUOTIDIENNE, also of Paris, about his concert engagement at Le Theatre du Rond-Point on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, when Patrice Regnier’s RUSH Dance Company joined him in the live performance of his original work, “Spontaneous Combustion.” And back in New York: “the obvious relish that only a creator can bring to his own poetry … punching, pulsating lines” BACKSTAGE (Jennie Schulman, August 13, 1982).
Earlier — much earlier — at least one poet historically engaged in the dramatic performance of memorized poetry. Scholars dispute his actual existence, but he remains a predominant figure in the etiology of Western myth and literature. Homer, reputed offspring of a river and a nymph, comes to us in the form of a troubador poet, regaling audiences at religious festivals in ancient Greece, with rhyming narratives compiled today as The Iliad and The Odyssey circa 7th Century B.C. The blind Homer’s poetry would have to have been recorded by others, and in this fashion come down to us. After Homer, it seems that publication so dominated poetry that even a poet intent on dramatic performance of his works, Vachel Lindsay, in the early 1900s, was foremost an artist of publication. This remains the convention in the 1920s with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance; and the Beats in the 1950s, as well as the later Nuyorican Poets, in the 1970s, who, while they collaborated with musicians in readings, and even improvised poetry, continued to regard the printed, published poem as the poetic product of greatest importance. Criticism of the published poem or poetry book was the only measure of a poet’s value. Review of a poem’s unaccompanied theatrical performance, by the poet, who has learned the poem and prepared it for dramatic presentation, if it ever took place, was still of no moment.
The concept of a “poet-performer” who writes poetry for dramatic, theatrical performance from memory, by the poet him- or herself, began for writer-actor Paul Mills in 1973, following a trip to India where he came in contact with the work of classical vocalists, the Dagar Brothers, in New Delhi. Earlier, “Brilliant in both his roles … a fine sense of poetry,” had been the judgment of Boston After Dark critic Peter Filichia, when, in 1969, Mills appeared in the T.S. Eliot poetic drama, Murder in the Cathedral at Boston University. Later, as Poez, he applied his skills and experience as writer, actor and musician to invent the “poet-performer” he believed would bring a new kind of poetry and performance to the world stage, beginning in 1975, in the Boston-Cambridge area. Taking his cue from that renowned singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan (whose stage name was adopted from Dylan Thomas), he began by learning “standards”, and performing them. That is, he memorized and developed dramatic performances for the poems he had grown up with, and believed would work best in live performance, by Poe, Coleridge, Frost, Yeats, Eliot, Dickinson, Blake, Keats, Thomas, Whitman, and others, and offered them to the public in the form of a “Poetry Menu.” Learning classic poetry, and living by its performance, he believed, would teach him how best to write original poetry for performance.
By 1976, Boston’s NIGHTFALL magazine was telling its readers to “Tear up your Playbill and leave it in the aisles–someone’s finally taken Boston’s usually dull theater scene by storm and turned it upside down. He’s Poez, and practically overnight he’s established himself as the Hub’s most innovative, alive performer.”
Ultimately, he found and created audiences for dramatic poetry, performed from memory, in the streets, parks, cafes, clubs, and theatres of Boston, New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris, sharing the bill in live, radio, and television programs with such performers as William Burroughs, Mose Allison, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, The Roche Sisters, Suzanne Vega, Richard Hell, Steve Forbert, and Shawn Colvin in New York at CBGBs, The Bottom Line, The Bitter End, Kenny’s Castaways, Folk City, Trude Heller’s, The Ginger Man, The Pyramid Club, and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater, on television and FM radio broadcasts. Two of New York’s nationally-known poets, veterans of the spoken word scene, more recently offered the following impressions on “Whatever Happened to Poez?”, an About.com web page dedicated to the groundbreaking artist: “The first performance poet I had ever seen, decades before anyone coined a phrase like “spoken word. … He didn’t so much stalk the stage as swoop at it. … More than twenty years have passed, and this poet holds his own clear space in the amazement of my memory.” — Jackie Sheeler, author of The Memory Factory, curator of the Pink Pony West readings at the Greenwich Village Cornelia Street Cafe, and director of one of the premier online guides to spoken word poetry. “A rogue poet, lone wolf, his own mission. … He really got to me. Brilliant… iconoclastic… savvy… bitter.” — Bob Holman, producer of the PBS series United States of Poetry, author of A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, and founder of the Lower East Side’s Bowery Poetry Club.
In 1995 he left New York to practice law as a civil rights and criminal defense trial lawyer in Los Angeles, concentrating on police misconduct homicide and street artist and activist First Amendment cases, while directing L.A. Police Watch. In 2006, he married singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega and returned to New York City.
Since then he has collaborated with Gene Pritsker’s Composers Concordance of New York City; jazz composer and fine artist Mark Kostabi; musicians Paul Nowinski (bass), William Galison (harmonica), Rick Shields (violin), and Jenavieve Varga (violin), accompanying himself on keyboards and developing yet another poetry performance format, the spoken-word singer-songwriter, performing in New York at such venues as the Cornelia Street Cafe, the Bitter End, Le Poisson Rouge, The Cutting Room, St. Anne’s Warehouse, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and the Bowery Poetry Club; in New York, Prague, and London. He has also collaborated on award-winning films with Joeann Calabrese screened at festivals in New York, London, and Berlin and available on Amazon Prime Video. He has released one book of collected writings, The Poetry Dollars, published by Bowery Books, and three CD albums, The Monotone, Sleep With A Genius, and Stay Loose And Fake It!, available on iTunes and Spotify.
Paul L. Mills is a graduate of Columbia University, graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a double major in Literature-Writing from the legendary Columbia Writing Program, and in French Literature, winning the Lily Palmer French Prize.