James Semark: Galactic Mind Forever, R.I.P.

James Semark and John Sinclair
at the Book Beat, 2009

On one hand, we experience the collapse of an economy built by people who put self-interest first, and on the other, we discover an economy of consciousness shaped by people who put the planet first – and themselves in it. -James Semark

James Semark departed his earthly shell sometime during the first week of December, 2010; his death due to a possible heart attack or complications from an allergic reaction to antibiotics–something we will never know as an autopsy was never done. The coroner’s office explained it as “death by natural causes.”  He was found alone at home with the front door left unlocked; perhaps to not trouble anyone by having to break  it down.  His body was discovered by the Ferndale police several days after he died.

James Semark was a poet, musician, composer,  cosmic communicator, organizer and creative spirit born in Toledo, Ohio who moved to Detroit as a student at Wayne State University in 1959. His interests were diverse; from meditation and macrobiotics to technology, green-economics, jazz, urban renewal and theosophy.

James pioneered a type of early proto-rap form that he called the rhythm ballads. These late 50s and early 60s compositions were “investigative verse” works; long tripped-out epic poems set to music that undertook the study and description of  jazz legends John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and even a judgment day “jazz-poem in heaven” of Edmund Zwingy, an imaginary be-bop star. He began to put the ballads to syncopated sound beats around 1964,  inspired by a jazz drummer that practiced in a basement room next to his own, in the John Lodge Artist Workshop “Castle”.

James studied music at Wayne State University under his mentor Harold McKinney. McKinney’s idea of community and the “World Stage” would remain a major influence for Semark. He was also mentored by jazz greats Yusef Lateef, Elvin Jones and Eric Dolphy. In the mid-1960s Semark collaborated with Lyman Woodard, The DC5, MC5, Charles Moore and John Sinclair.

James was tall, quiet, even-tempered and soft spoken. Suddenly and spontaneously he could ignite an audience with blazing rhythmic oration and fiery live performances. James was equally influenced by occult writings and world religions as he was by beat poets and jazz artists. He took on cosmic topics, questions about space, time, the universe; the origins of mankind, drugs and illusion. He was a founding member of the Detroit Artists Workshop and his poetry found an audience through publications by the DAW press.

cover of "The Book of Humors" -poems and essays by Jim Semark and graphics by Larry Weiner, AWS press #1, 1965

cover of “The Book of Humors” -poems and essays by Jim Semark and graphics by Larry Weiner, AWS press #1, 1965

Semark’s The Book of Humors–was the first manuscript published by the AWS press, and one of the oddest and rarest books they made, illustrated with graphics by artist-filmmaker Larry Weiner (founder of the Red Door Gallery). The book is a collection of Jim Semark’s concrete poetry and essays: wild, other-worldly, twisted rants; “for by the fireside or at the dinner table, companion piece to the medieval Book of Hours.

In his book Night-Vision Express, Semark wrote a series of surreal Kafkaesque essays. Many of these reflected on the afterlife. “The Antivalue” is one continuous rant that ends; Guardians of the river Lethe, with their tortured honor and malafied smiles, transport Antivalue to the Tower of Xmea and throw him into the ocean…  but it is transformed into the gnarled bones of circumvented lovers. From “Blood Echoes for Allen Ginsberg” – you and i we’re lucky / to know about expanded consciousness/ to get this far and not sentenced to “involuntary lobotomy”/ we’re lucky in this free / democratic republic/  rally-round-the-flag-boys/ society of ours/ to get by without any kind of “brain job”… Semark’s poetry was infused with a kind of dystopian rock ‘n roll fever, a Burroughsian “Naked Lunch” stew, finding its home beside quotations from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Kafka, Zen Buddhism, Sun Ra, Concrete Poetry, Stanley Mouse, Gary Grimshaw and Madame Blavatsky.

Semark was a kind of holy saint goof, an architect for the coming psychedelic revolution. He mixed metaphors with dreams, plays, essays and made direct statements, rants and pleas to change mankind. His creativity and process was centered on consciousness. Forms were broken and arranged to fit his vision of expanded awareness, he was Detroit’s answer to Wavy-gravy and Allan Watts. He could be over-the-top, extreme and repetitive, reciting, “OH! EYE! OH EYE! YOU!” for pages and it wasn’t always easy to digest, but his enthusiasm, humor and eternal conversation with the cosmos and prehistoric monsters were fascinating to watch, and something to be discussed over the next millennium.

After the breakup and political fermentation of the Detroit Artists Workshop in 1966, James struck out on his own, opening his Nova Express inspired “Terminal City” commune in Highland Park. He was “new age” before the term existed, the first to bring the distinguished founder of macrobiotics and the organic/natural foods movement Michio Kushi to Detroit.  emark did his best to spread the word on organic living, publishing the first book by Kushi in English translation. Semark remained a strict vegan through his entire life, convinced of the power of healing through pure foods and meditation.

James maintained a strong interest in metaphysics throughout his life. From his lifelong friendships with Robert Thibodeau and Howard Weingarden to his weekly meetings (for over twenty years) with his metaphysical/theosophy study group, he had an inquisitive and questioning mind. Ever hopeful and on the side of intelligent transformation, James was an inspiration and light for many who sought positive change.

He was an early adapt of the Baha’i faith, embracing the idea of oneness in all religions and continued to explore ideas found within the writings of Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky. In the early 1970s James was initiated into the Mahariji Ji Charon Singh’s order, and continued daily meditation and ‘sound mediation’ practices throughout his life.  Some of these rituals and practices are known as Radha Soami Satsang Beas or the Science of the Soul.

Semark’s third book The Sun (1966), is an exceptional and beautiful object/poem broken into two parts. In the first half are quotations from the Bahai faith, Sufi and Chinese poets, Sun Ra, Michio Kushi, Alice Bailey and Madame Blavatsky, all together forming a thick multi-cultural stew of spiritual truth. This radiant (and surreal) broth became the foundation for the Sun poem which stretches across the second half of the book. It is one of the most beautiful and powerful statements in poetry and art made by Semark. Punctuated by drawings, collages, letterpress embossing, colored and metallic inks and photos, the Sun poem is a cosmic rhythm ballad, a lovely handmade artbook that evolves through many forms and shapes; “When You and I are real, the words have Light.” At the end of the book, Semark states that he mixed the book’s special colored inks by his own hand. It remains one of the most powerful, well designed  and spiritual books in the Workshop canon.

Another aspect of Semark’s character was his disciplined ongoing devotion to the Detroit Artists Workshop. Its community goals and ideals were his own and he maintained these throughout his life, even as he resided outside the state. His return to Detroit coincided with the planning stages for the 40th anniversary reunion in November of 2004. At that time, James took on an enormous responsibility in the preparation and development of the reunion project which led to a continuation of the DAW co-op in the form of meetings, concerts, fund-raising and its online presence as the website for The Detroit Artists Workshop, The DAW website was Semark’s baby and he designed and watched over it as a dotting parent.

One of Semark’s last projects was Work #6: A 2009 Detroit Artists Workshop Anthology of Generations -an extension of the sixties era workshop, returning to familiar names and writers (Robin Eichle, Bill Harris, Ed Sanders, John Sinclair) and including many new and unheard of writers. He was, “building the reincarnated DAW collective as a vital platform, confident in its future as a world cultural hub.”

His epic environmental poem-ballad The Saga of Steely R. Stone (included in Work #6), was an autobiographical self-portrait,  a sketch of a man who after loosing his beautiful wife Jenny due to a toxic poisoning, envisions a horrid apocalyptic landscape on the planet, finally causing a nationwide uprising that resounds in the collective chant, “WE’RE GONNA DO SOMETHING FOR OUR WORLD!” The poem was directed toward his lovely wife Judith Janis, a strong supporter of peace, multiculturalism, Trans-Love Energies, and traditional Indian dance – a peaceful and grounded counterpart for James. Judith died of cancer suddenly in 2007.

The Detroit Artists Workshop website Semark worked on, designed and helped to create, was over several hundred pages long. The DAW website, his writings and his deep archive of DAW publications and records were sadly lost soon after his death. A quick auction of his belongings dispersed a major portion of the Workshop writings and artworks. Semark had a visionary approach to language and an unshakeable belief in the Workshop – he saw it as a model and beacon through which future generations could learn and establish their own networks of artistic sharing and growth. It would seem an injustice to Semark and others involved with the DAW to see that legacy disappear.    

In 1964, the Workshop was a spiritual foundation for artistic freedom. It was infused with a bohemian ideology similar to the Beat generation and the Black Arts Movement, and became the beginning roots of psychedelia and Punk. It was the definitive key movement of the Detroit counter-culture, whose ideas exploded in the later half of the 1960s and as one of the founders, poets and an elder statesman of that movement and energy, James Semark was a mighty force, a cyclone we barely knew.

The grave of James and Judith, Clinton,  Lenawee County, MI

The grave of James and Judith, Clinton,
Lenawee County, MI

In a quotation from his own website chronology, James states, “However long I may live, the endgame will still hold true. You’ll notice that, in my 20s, I was a hot shot in the Artists Workshop and I thought I had it together. In my 30s and 40s, I thought I understood the cosmos. In my 50s I had a vision of world transformation. Now, in my later years, I realize I understand only a milli-fraction of what’s going on in the universe — it’s as though I don’t understand anything at all! On the other hand, I see no end to the discovery process — the opportunity to explore greater and greater realms of galactic mind goes on forever. This is the endgame.”

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9 comments on “James Semark: Galactic Mind Forever, R.I.P.
  1. Dear Cary, what a great piece of work for a difficult position – to describe “a mighty force, and a cyclone we barely knew.” Thank you. I can’t wait to print it and share it with Gary. We will both be at the WSU undergrad library on Noel night.
    James will be missed, and one cannot help but remember Judith in the same thought. James and Judith, or Judy as Becky and Gary knew her, were dynamos in life and will be missed.

    Laura

    • Laura, thanks for your comments – I knew Judith for just a moment and before I knew it, she was suddenly gone. I remember watching some the films of her Hindi dancing that James brought to her memorial at the Scarab club, and she was so beautiful and lit up – really an energetic being. I did several interviews with her and James together and when I have the time I’ll transcribe and share them. c

  2. Well put. James was our Wavy Gravy. I will always remember him as a great artist/poet who was very soft spoken and who’s words were chosen carefully. He was a very kind man who would never hesitate to help out a brother or sister in need, and do poetry readings at many benefit/fundraisers for those who needed help. We have lost a key figure in our artist community. A man like him, no one can replace. If more people were like him, this world would surely be a much better place. Miss you Brother.

  3. Thank you for honoring James’ life. I met James and Judith when they lived in Maryland and I in Virginia around 1989. We became good friends and both of them were an inspiration as well as companions on life’s journey spiritual and personal discovery. While Judith had a reverence and practicality, James was the “Spaceman” and truly lived in multiple realms, from which, now, I am sure he is presently plucking strings in the cosmic symphony to help harmonize the chaos on earth planet and propel us into new levels of awakening. I am also musician, and we dreamed about musical and metaphysical collaborations, but logistics never quite worked that out in real time. James had the capacity to be a stick of dynamite and a gentle spirit.

    He – and Judith – were blessings. . .

  4. I received Jim’s book in the mail, and it had to have been in December! I remember thinking of it as a present from him. I was so busy with finals in school, I neglected to call him to thank him — it is an entrancing journey through several artists’ writings. I feel very angry with myself for not sharing with him my delight with the book and with his sweetness and thoughtfulness. It is very hard to say good-bye to that gentle and fiery spirit. I miss him, the idea of him being in this world (well, he had a foot in many worlds, :-), and this makes me resolve to make time for those I love. I’ll be seeing you, Gentle Warrior.

  5. Dear Cary,
    I recently found out about the passing of James. He was a remarkable soul, whose spiritual presence forever remains a source of light in my life. He spoke of that light, at length, during the few times we exchanged, and illustrated to me a dynamic referent to a special world- one he knew and felt. He was a transcendental soul, dear to my heart. The breadth and depth of your article captures his being and presence with grace.
    Sincerely,
    Monika

  6. I have know Jim since the early ’90s or so. He was a kind and gentle soul. Everything I have read here is so, true to what I recall of him. He was a well spring of knowledge and such a kind and gentle soul. He loved the arts. We had lengthy discussions on the differences and similarities of Carnatic (Classical Southern East Indian music) and Jazz music. He delighted in trying to explain Jazz syncopation to my East Indian wife (later we would head for Baker’s Keyboard Lounge for some Jazz). I had no idea what he was in the community or anything about his poetry. I knew that he was kind of a beat Jazz composer and a piano player. However, he never mentioned his poetry or the Grande to me. I was saddened to hear of his passing from my Guru. My wife and I liked him very much.

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