Editor’s Note: Memorial for Ted Jonathan
I’m listening to Springsteen’s “Letter to You” as I write. I didn’t know Ted the way his good friend, Tony Gloeggler did. Tony introduced us by mail and I quickly learned what an excellent poet and all-around caring, tough, good guy Ted was. Damaged too but we are all damaged in some way. That’s how life works. Somewhere along the line, he sent me a tape of himself reading new poems in a bar. I was struck by his presence: intense and so undeniably There. Now he’s gone.
So, this is my letter to you, Ted. We hadn’t been in touch much recently. I sensed you were having a tough time, alone in Jersey as you were, and I thought, maybe, you just wanted to be left alone. Wrong, I see that now. Totally wrong. When in doubt, I retreat further into myself. Not everyone is like that. I should know that. I do but I am a loner by nature and, I guess, I project. We all project whether we mean to or not. No excuse. No one survives taking refuge only in himself. I should know that. Too late wise, too soon disillusioned.
You always encouraged my work, especially the Arbus stuff I have been working on for decades. More off than on, until the beginning of the Plague Year. I settled down, did the research, read the books, bought as many collections of her work as I could afford. Wrote the poems.
At some point a writer has to realize that going too deep into the head of an outsider artist who killed herself is not healthy. Empathy is one thing, emulation is another. I wrestled with including the graphic details from her autopsy report at the end of the collection. What could be more final than that? Still, I hesitated. At what point does an insult to a body become a desecration of the person? Totally graphic as her work and life was, the artist has to decide whether to let the life’s work; the productivity and vision speak for itself, as opposed to the hard, ugly truths of where the journey ends. After all every story ends in tragedy. I left the gross details out.
This quasi-biographical collection of Arbus is called How Will the Heart Endure. It is still unpublished. I sent it to you, after completing the first draft, and you remain the only person, outside of a couple of editors who rejected it, to have seen it. I will publish it someday, I swear to you, I will. I will dedicate it to you. I just wish you were here to read it.
Tony Gloeggler Remembers Ted
I first met Ted Jonathan at a reading for Skidrow Penthouse, probably in 2007. We both had work in the current issue and there was an afternoon reading in someone’s Manhattan apartment. I didn’t know anybody except one of the editors, a friend of an ex-girlfriend, Joshua’s mom, and I was looking to make a quick getaway. I had liked what Ted read and told him so and he said he had liked my work for years in NYQ. He was real tight with the editor and his mentor Bill Packard. He told me how much Bill loved my work. Packard was my most important poetry teacher by far. I’m still full of myself knowing that and Ted has always been the biggest backer of my work. So flattery will get you anywhere when it comes to me.
We ended up at a Diner for a few hours. Had he started with turkey burgers back then or was he still ordering real hamburger specials? He was dealing with cancer shit and I’m not sure whether it was at the start, middle or end, whether it was Cancer #1 or #2. I do remember it had something to do with his throat. I’m sure we talked poetry, Bill/NYQ, sports & music and probably people we couldn’t stand and how awful their poetry was. Pretty much our life-long conversation. Later we added old girlfriends, my work, Joshua, his childhood. I knew pretty quickly he was a guy it would be good for me to know and of course, I was right. We were both neighborhood guys-though his was tougher and his life was even rougher than the Bronx-who surprisingly ended up writing poetry and thinking it mattered. Probably more so to him. He’d say it saved his life and he was happiest when writing. It makes mine better, fuller, happy to think I’m good at something and when I’m not doing something I like better, I’ll write.
In my mind, poetry was the initial contact, but it was the other stuff that brought us close and connected us. But this is a poetry mag and I will talk about poetry. We started exchanging poems and I doubt we have written anything that we didn’t show each other for at least 10 years. He had a good eye even though I fought against every suggestion. I’ve always dug his work, always felt he had a unique voice that very much matched his personality. Blunt, straight forward, take no prisoners kind of stuff with a sick sense of humor. He has this punchy rhythm that I once described as a boxer working a heavy bag, powerful blows with a lot of stops and starts followed by unanticipated combinations and surprising sound play. His words were conversational, everyday language. But the rhythm was more like an angry Tarzan and Jane having an argument especially in his early work. He was a master at the rant except his rants never seemed to run on endlessly backed by an easy to ride rhythm. His rants were calculated, contained and had a pissed off attitude that felt like it was ready to explode. He was shoving his finger into your face and poking your eyes with a list of points that hurt and at the same time made you laugh hard enough until stuff came out of your nose.
His poems explored his darkness, a lot of what he missed out on and hardly any of the poems turn out good or happy. He portrayed scenes and situations that seemed plucked from his life and he told them honestly, the way he remembered them. There was never a sense that he was looking for sympathy or any attempt to come across as a good guy. But it was clear he was a good guy. He had a strong code of ethics and took responsibility in his poems which is something I admire and try to do in my own poetry. He had this gift, ability to take the tiniest instance that I would completely ignore and grow it into this weird, funky, kind of crazy world on a page.
As much as I enjoy Ted on the page, his poems grew more powerful, funnier and more poignant when he was on a stage and they were coming out of his mouth. He had a deep voice he was proud to show off and he just owned a stage. I think he felt most at home, most comfortable up there. He had this swagger, this- I can say fucking anything attitude and I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks- and everybody loved it. He’d get to the mic and he always started off with making a production of taking off his glasses slowly, clearing his throat with a guttural sound that shook the walls, taking a long drink of water, swallowing loudly and often followed that with the latest thing that pissed him off on his way to the reading that somehow ended up being hilarious. And then he punched you in the guts with his lines and somewhere in there he’d read one or two that made your heart ache with a tenderness that somehow still survived inside him.
Ted had been having a horrible time since Covid kicked in and he convinced himself that he had nothing to look forward to despite all the support he received from those of us close to him and loved him. (And yes, we have all thought about what we could have done differently, better.) He said he had nothing to write about, that he’d never get out of the neighborhood he was stuck in and hated.
I was shocked, though not surprised if that makes any sense, when I heard the news of his death. Rob told me over the phone he was gone that Friday afternoon. I just expected that since he had fought through so much more horrible stuff before, that he would fight through this.
I have been trying to believe it doesn’t matter how people die. The result is always the same. I’m trying to look at his decision like he was sick of suffering, was too worn out from the constant struggle and he just had enough and he found some control, dignity, relief, peace. But usually I end up wishing I knew what he was going to do and rush over to Jersey, start calling him a dumb fuck and beat him over the head with a stickball bat until he comes to his senses and I go back to Queens feeling good. A hero.
But in all those diners, we always argued and constantly disagreed: Mets, Yankees, him saying Suite Judy Blue Eyes sucks and retelling how he once threw snowballs at Buffalo Springfield while I do do doodoo dood along to the end.
People, and I think me and Ted would agree, just do what they’re gonna do. Especially hard headed ones like Ted and me. I do hope he knew that so many people loved him, that I was one of them. I know I will miss him too often, too deeply…..Ted.
Mike Flanagan Remembers Ted
There was a phone call, a week before Ted Jonathan ended up dead (and dead is forever Ted, a thing I know you knew but now believe maybe you needed a reminder of, also that it comes to everyone so why rush it brother). We emailed often but spoke only occasionally. With, I'm fairly certain, a few drinks in him, he said a lot of things that last time. The luck for me was most of it was about a story I'd just written. I'm not talking compliments, but critiques, shots from his sharp eye, his weird sensibility. Weird. Dark. Comical. Burning. Mordant. Honest. That's the Ted I knew. You can add careening to that list, careening with a gleam in his eye, knowing the ratio of screwed to honorarium falls mostly away from the blooming flowers, hard on the side of the sharpened knives. He had his troubles, his stalled dreams, lost loves, childhood trauma. Listen. There was this time he wrote a piece about two dentists. The first he deified, the second he condemned, railing and sanctifying. We're talking about dentists here, as benign a group as ever there's been. The damn thing would have been as ridiculous as a crucifix on a coke whore, but for the fact he did it in a way that was hilarious, bizarre, elevated above the mundane by his unique (oh god it was unique) voice. Ted, friend, you were suffering bad times that last week. Through this midnight of the soul, you got on the phone to help me with my pissant story. In my neighborhood, we called that, good people. You were always telling me you didn't have anything left to offer, while laying down avenues I might take to make better the situations burdening me. Dumb son of a bitch. You ought to have known you were loved. The way you saw the world is
gone now. I'm dumfounded, and angry, because I want more, and you're not here to give it. There is no Celine to hold the mantle, no Hamsun or Dostoevsky, the big boys with lunatic designs, the ones like you the ones like me look to. For fuck's sake man, I miss you. And one more thing: Spiked Libido; Bones & Jokes; Run. These are the works of Ted Jonathan. They're available online, and at select bookstores around the country. Do yourself a favor, buy them.
B. K. Tuon
Wait until Spring
You texted me about Karl Malden
and the film On the Waterfront.
I said that’s my favorite of Brando’s.
You texted back, “I’ll leave you alone
but in Last Tango Brando pretty
much raped Maria Schneider.”
I couldn’t believe how the director
and film crew allowed that to happen.
“I’m confused you’d be confused.
It was Brando and a major Italian
director. It was the 60s and 70s.
Lots of girls wanted that coveted role.”
You knew all about cruelties and evils.
Your parents were Holocaust survivors.
I was a child survivor of the Cambodian
genocide. A refugee. An orphan.
At one point I wanted to do myself in.
But my pain paled in comparison to yours.
Your poems which I assume is your mind
circle back to those original moments.
Later we talked on the phone: you
in your studio apartment in Jersey,
me in my ranch home in Upstate.
I had two kids and you had ghosts
sitting on each shoulder, haunting
you. I said, “The world would never be
the same.” But your world had never
been the same since you were a teen.
I worried about my kids’ futures.
You said, “They will be fine. All you need
is one good parent. And they have two.”
I knew where that was coming from.
I tried to save you and save myself
from breaking. I said, “Wait until spring
when the snow melts and the sun rises
waking us to the beauty of this world.
You’ll leave your apartment, get fresh air.
It’ll do you good.” The snow is melting
now—and goddamnit Ted, you’re gone!