“To live outside the law, you must be honest.” -Bob Dylan
Following a 1967 police raid on his East Cleveland apartment, poet, d.a. levy (who used lowercase almost exclusively), wrote to a friend, “we give books to the libraries, we give candy to children, we don’t murder people, we’re trying to stop people from taking Bad Trips, we don’t deal with narcotics, we are trying to help Cleveland grow up by giving the city a literary tradition and bang ARRESTS.” His frustrations and paranoia proved well warranted. As the troubled writer intimated in the same letter, “we all expect to be in jail again soon and it’s not the police who are doing it, it’s somebody higher up. The subversive squad? Of course the narcotics dept, but I can’t find who is giving them orders. FBI? It doesn’t make sense.” By the time of this raid, the dam had already burst. It was the beginning of the end for the troubled writer, but in only a handful of years prior, d.a. levy single-handedly created an alternative Cleveland literary scene—a life’s work that cost him exactly that.
d.a. levy held court amid University Circle. Haunting the corner of 117th Street and Euclid Avenue, he could often be found in the corner booth at Adele’s, drinking cheap cups of coffee and scribbling in notebooks. Lines like, “lakefront rats race rock to rock like medieval monks,” “The Parma police are still waiting for Pancho Villa,” and “a pigmy fleet drops anchor at the East Ninth Street Pier and the lake nights are haunted by visions of fresh water Flying Dutchmen” fused the impersonal steel and concrete downtown with an inherent spirituality levy saw in everything.
levy encapsulated his vision in “Cleveland Undercovers”: “the city tries to impress me with its / mass, it struggles to encompass me with / shadows, but i know it exists / ONLY because i perceive it…” His roommate at the time, Russ Salmon, recounts levy’s singular focus in The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle: The Art and Poetry of d. a. levy: “It seemed a great outrage that Cleveland had no great poets. It was a fervent necessity to give Cleveland great poets and great poetry. [levy] didn’t bother to check with Cleveland if it wanted them, he knew it needed them.”
The passion driving levy’s literary pursuits were rivaled only by his search for spiritual enlightenment. Balancing the Jewish mysticism of his heritage with his love of Buddhism. The two halves of his focus were expertly married in his “North American Book of the Dead,” which blurs ephemeral transcendence with the blue-collar reality of day-to-day life in Cleveland. In it, he details his spiritual struggle within the city: “last time i took acid / i wanted to get liberated / immediately / almost dropped dead / decided i didn’t want to get liberated / that way / too clinical … working out problems of the universe / thinking weird thoughts / writing paranoid poems about the police / nothing to do except / change the kitty litter, empty the garbage / nothing to do except go to Adeles bar / the last religious frontier / & watch it be destroyed by the University property-mongers … Everyone Sez, / write a poem about east cleveland / yah man, wouldn’t that be cute!”
Working out of his dingy apartment overlooking the Flats, levy’s wiry frame was in constant motion. An unsung godfather of the indie ‘zine movement, levy produced several infamous hand-run prints including The Seven Flowers Press, The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle, Renegade Press, and The Marrahwanna Quarterly that were prized and traded throughout the underground literary scene. The eccentric printings were an indispensable outlet for an enclave of brilliant locals. Paired with rare pieces by Beat luminaries such as Charles Bukowski, R. Crumb, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, and Allen Ginsberg, levy’s publications hosted some of the most daring thoughts in America at the time.
While other contemporaries of the 1960s were dreaming of idyllic West Coast sunsets or hustling to reach the authenticity found in New York’s East Village, levy knew no riper terrain than his hometown to chronicle such daily triumphs and tragedies. The infamous Hough Riots of 1966 saw Cleveland streets besieged with firebombings, looting, arson and multiple deaths. Naturally, levy sought the center of the chaos. In “Suburban Monastery Death Poem” levy reported, “only ten blocks away / buildings burned—perhaps burning now / the august night broken by sniper fire / police men bleeding in the streets / a sniper surrenders (perhaps out of ammunition) / gun jammed? / someone sed he was framed in a doorway / like a picture—his hands in the air / when they shot him … only ten blocks away”
A poignant account of the racially charged riots, levy added in the same piece, “I cld try to tell you / about the hopeless despair / ingrained in ghetto walls / & police brutality or police stupidity / or police reality is more than just words / to define situation by / students looking for a cause / the situations exist and continue / quietly in the dark while the / protest goes on in daylight—both unheard / Really the police try to protect / the banks—and everything else / is secondary / during the riots.”
Levy’s most socially-focused writings worked to expose an expansive East Cleveland housing scam that sought to drive out low-income housing in favor for new developments around University Circle—one of the many inciting elements that fed into the Hough Riots. levy often criticized what he considered a heavy-handed police force and Cleveland’s mayor at the time, Ralph Locher. Playing a recurrent foil for the poet, Locher was featured in levy’s seminal Cleveland: The Rectal Eye Visions. There, levy accuses the mayor of fostering a fetish for Nazism as well as moonlighting as an airport police dog, foaming at the mouth for a fresh bust. He ends the poem with no room for subtlety, “Ole wise man of cleveland / you’re just like prez johnson / who plays / musical electric chairs / With The People. … Mayor Locher / you ain’t even smart enough to be the bad guy / & the parade of parades of death / whisper in the marching marching / of the 4th Reich America / UBER ALLES”
Whether spoken or mimeographed, people were beginning to listen to the poet. As his influence grew, so too did the frustration of local authorities, who increasingly became the focus of his wrath. What happened in the coming months would see d.a. levy the target of an orchestrated series of arrests, stings, surveillance, and harassment courtesy of the Cleveland Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office—hounding the writer until a trigger was pulled…
Check out the next issue of PressureLife for the chilling conclusion of Leaving Levy in Part Two: “The Death of a Cleveland Icon”