David Melnick, Bay Area poetry pioneer and co-founder of Gay Artists and Writers Kollective, dies at 83


A poet’s job is to find the exact word to convey a feeling, but David Melnick had a workaround for that. He invented his own language and spent his career integrating it into his published works.

Melnick, a top-notch linguist, was nationally known as a pioneer among a group of experimental poets in the 1960s and 1970s who developed a style known as linguistic poetry, combining invented and real words for arouse an emotion. response in the reader.

“my royal tables want to breathe. can’t cry. clocks. know the slowest clocks in the universe”, begins “Les Réguliers”, the first poem of his first collection, “Ecologs”, published in 1972.

By his second book, “Pcoet” (1975), the language became even more abstract. “thoisu thoiea ackorn woi cirtus locqvump”, begins the collection. “icg ja cvm woflux.”

But poetry doesn’t pay in any language, even the one he invented. So Melnick became a copy editor at The Chronicle. He was also co-founder of Gay Artists and Writers Kollective, a publishing house and cultural organization that has worked in all areas of the arts. GAWK creates a spectacle each time its members dress up in period costume to attend San Francisco Opera performances.

“David had encyclopedic knowledge. You could ask him about some obscure 10th century pope and he would know,” said his friend David Greene, co-founder of GAWK. Always nice, even if he’s also grumpy, Melnick was given the nickname “Nice” by his friends, and he had the spirit to adopt it. “He used to introduce himself as ‘I’m Nice,’ like that was his name,” Greene said, “but he lived up to it for the next 45 years.”

Melnick died Feb. 15 at a qualified nursing home in San Francisco, his nephew, Robin Melnick, said. The cause of death was a progressive neurological disorder that left him in convalescent care for years. He was 83 years old.

Melnick’s literary output has been compiled into five volumes, but a sixth is forthcoming, “Nice: The Collected Poems of David Melnick”, due out in 2023 in hopes of introducing the power of linguistic poetry to a new generation.

“David Melnick was…one of the most fearless and widely read avant-garde poets in the United States,” said Ron Silliman, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the forthcoming Melnick’s collection. “Almost as fierce as his poetry was his feeling that he should not become famous, and he often had to be persuaded to perform in public.”

David John Melnick was born on February 16, 1938 in Urbana, Illinois. His father, Perry, was a pathologist at the University of Illinois who left academia to volunteer for the military after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He uprooted the family and moved away before ending up in West Los Angeles. He was also a trained violinist who played in a doctor’s orchestra, and he instilled in his son an interest in classical music.

David studied piano and violin and developed a side hobby of inventing words and languages.

“I started using private language when I was six or seven,” he said in a 2019 interview for Open Space, a publishing platform for artists and writers at the San Francisco Museum. of Modern Art. “And then when I was thirteen or fourteen, I had a friend with whom I co-invented a language.”

They also co-invented the country where it was spoken, “Meldmonia”, but before it could be used more widely, the language died out when Melnick’s father took a job at a hospital in Detroit, which moved the family to Michigan.

After graduating from University High School, Ann Arbor, in 1954, Melnick enrolled at the University of Chicago to study mathematics and pursue his dream of becoming a concert violinist. But after his second year, he abruptly retired and sold his violin to fund a year-long tour of Europe by rail.

He ended up in Paris where he “came to terms with his sexuality”, his brother Daniel said, and upon his return he informed his parents that he was gay. He later transferred from the University of Chicago to UC Berkeley, arriving just in time for the Free Speech Movement in 1964. He was part of the Sproul Plaza sit-in around the police car holding Jack Weinberg, a leader of the movement, and was arrested and sent to the prison of Santa Rita.

“He was already pretty leftist,” his brother said, “but after that he stayed leftist for the rest of his life.”

In 1965, Melnick received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, then made another about-face by returning to the University of Chicago, this time to pursue his master’s degree in English. After obtaining his master’s degree in 1970, he returned to Paris to begin to pursue his life as a poet.

He is fluent in French, and his bilingual (or possibly trilingual, counting the language he invented) skills landed him a job as a journalist and classical music critic at the International Herald Tribune. While on a break in Crete, Melnick composed her first book of poems, “Eclogs”.

That same year, he returned to UC Berkeley to pursue his doctorate in English. He wrote a 50-page prospectus for his thesis on the influence of Shakespeare’s language on 20th century poetry. “He didn’t care about finishing his thesis,” said Daniel Melnick, who earned his own doctorate in English at Berkeley. “He said what he had to say about it.”

By then he had met his partner, David Doyle, and they had moved in with David Greene, in an apartment in the Castro district of San Francisco.

His third collection was published in 1983. “Men in Aida” altered Homer’s Greek language into a homophonic, homoerotic satire of the bathhouse,” said Michael Davidson, professor emeritus of literature at UC San Diego.” Polymath, musician and classicist, Melnick brought enormous erudition and humor to his poetry. “

Always a reluctant public reader of his work, Melnick enjoyed creating many distractions. At a 1978 poetry event in a Haight Street cafe, Melnick stood and whistled the opera theme “Lucia” perfectly, while a musician cried on a saxophone in the street and a third man threw fireworks down the street. toilet sink, all to distract from reading at your fingertips.

These antics were sanctioned by GAWK, which formed in October 1973 when Greene and Melnick and a few others built a small group of poets, photographers, performance artists and bon vivants.

At Melnick’s request, they bought standing room for the Russian opera “Boris Godunov” and wore capes and fur hats, which Melnick accessorized with a rhinestone necklace and a tiara. “He was going for the czar look in a playful way,” Greene said.

San Francisco Opera thus became a GAWK tradition, with a different set of costumes for each new production. When they spied empty seats during intermission, they would sneak up to orchestra level. But it was hard to blend in wearing 19th-century Italian ballroom costumes and masks, like they did for “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

“The chief usher, Miss Beverly, was a formidable presence,” Greene recalled. “If she found us where we weren’t supposed to be, she would send us back to the standing room, with a stern look.”

Melnick and Doyle, who were never able to legally marry, lived for a year on an 18-foot sailboat with a small forward cabin, moored in an East Bay harbor.

“It was a testament to their relationship because there were no amenities and they had nowhere to hide,” Greene said. The sailboat prepared them for a year spent wandering Greece. Doyle died of AIDS in 1992, and Melnick was single thereafter, living in a rent-controlled apartment at 14th and Sanchez streets.

On Melnick’s 83rd birthday last February, Greene called him, and though Melnick was desperate and overpowered, he was still “as nice as he always was,” said Greene, who had planned to calling again for his 84th birthday. But Melnick died the day before.

Survivors include his brothers, Philip Melnick of Albuquerque and Daniel Melnick of Beachwood, Ohio; nephew, Robin Melnick of Cupertino; and the other members of the Gay Artists and Writers Collective, many of whom have had their works of fiction and collections of poetry published.

“David’s legacy was a generation of gay artists and writers who impacted culture,” Greene said. “Some things started with GAWK.”

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@samwhitingsf

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