An Introduction

The following is the foreword to Rocky Wilson’s upcoming book of poetry, which will be published by Whirlwind Press. It was a pleasure editing and collating Rocky’s poems for this collection. Mr. Wilson has been a friend, mentor, and inspiration. His collection should be released by the end of this year.

The bus ride to Camden from the JFK Airport felt longer than I’d expected. The passing scenery of post-industrial New Jersey was depressing in contrast to the rolling green pastures of western Ireland that I’d grown used to in the past week. I owed a fellow traveler a couple hundred Euros borrowed out of desperation. I was to immediately head to an ATM as soon as we arrived at the Rutgers campus in Camden, and pay him back with even more borrowed money from my parents. Human Resources decided that I didn’t work enough hours to earn vacation pay.

It was hot for early June. I was a sweaty mess. My mindset was in self-centered, pissed off at the world mode. As my friend and I got off the bus we encountered a bronze figure on a bicycle calling out in a high pitched voice to passer-bys while waving a monkey puppet. I smiled, but my creditor-companion had a look of mild concern on his face. I turned back and saw the figure approaching us while walking his bike. This man was darkly tanned with wavy gray hair, wearing a black tank top, shorts, and sandals. His bike basket was filled with fruit and miscellaneous items. He was dazing off at the Philadelphia skyline behind us.

“Rocky!”

“Sean! I thought you were in Ireland!”

We hugged each other.

“I just got back. You’re so tan.”

“I was in Atlantic City. Where’s my post card you promised?”

I apologized to Rocky for not being able to send it due to something called a “Bank Holiday.” I almost didn’t recognize him without one of his signature rainbow tie-dye shirts. We talked briefly about the Aran Islands and western Ireland, as he’d been there a few years earlier for a poetry festival. He said he stayed in the same house on Inishmore as John Synge. I asked him when the next Pizza and Poetry reading was taking place (the date changes every month, a reflection of Rocky’s mercurial personality). I told him that we’d have to meet up for a Blue Moon at The Victor beforehand, but that I had something I had to take care of at the moment with my friend. Rocky said hello and introduced himself, as well as Bongo, his monkey puppet, then they both took off toward the Delaware River.

My friend was baffled.

“Was that a hobo?”

“No. He’s a poet.”

“Oh…”

Serendipity allowed Rocky to welcome me back home, making me smile in the moment I needed it most. Rocky actually lives one block away from where we had stood, on Penn Street in Camden. His house is a beautiful three story brick row-home built over a century ago. This wasn’t the only time that I’d introduce Rocky to someone and they thought that he was an eccentric homeless person. This is because Rocky Wilson is the epitome of what it truly means to be anti-establishment. Although he grew up in comfortable Haddonfield, he’s far from a bourgeois poser. In the 70’s, Rocky felt the need to return to the decaying city of his birth, Camden, not to evangelize, but rather to spread enlightenment. And to Rocky that involves both poetry and puppetry.

“The puppet man” some people call him, he prefers to declare himself the Puppet Laureate of Camden. Why not? Rocky Wilson is one of the few who actually makes a difference in America’s most infamous city, along with priest and poet, Father Michael Doyle (famous for being one of the Camden 28). However, Rocky isn’t a grassroots activist. He’s much more than that. He is in the grass, one blade among many; he lives the pure life that the beatniks could’ve only wished to have led. Rocky brings joy to the hearts of strangers, especially children. As a substitute teacher in Camden, Rocky has built relationships with residents of the city that have endured for decades. It seems like every time I walk down Cooper Street with him someone calls out “Mr. Rocky! Where’s Bongo?” Rocky replies with heart-warming sincerity, a virtue which is present throughout his poetry as well.

At first glance Rocky Wilson’s poems could be dismissed as confessional or romantic. The former being over-killed by the beat poets of the last century, the latter even more so in the century before that and since. However, there’s something deeper here, a myriad collage based off of an awareness of all that has preceded it, but with a subtlety that does not explicitly acknowledge it like too many contemporary, “post-modern” poets do. The status quo has been stagnant for decades. In the age when Anne Carson is touted as the avant-garde of North American poetry, Rocky Wilson brings us back to our poetic roots. He does this in the spirit of Walt Whitman, which may seem trite to some, but it’s necessary in our fragmented and bewildered society.

Rocky Wilson proves that what’s needed isn’t art which reflects more confusion, but art which cures confusion. Rocky does this through recognizing subconscious pain stemming from a lost baby brother, bearing witness to natural beauty surviving in urban ruins, reflecting on the potentiality of love, observing camaraderie between whales, and in many more ways. These poems may seem more like stories at times, prosaic, narrative driven, and even conclusive. That’s because Rocky sees life as poetry, and vice versa. He does all of this and still manages to avoid cliché, which is one of the many remarkable yet simplistic traits that can be found in his poetry. This is what America needs.

-S. W. Lynch

Photo courtesy of Moonstone Arts Center.
Photo courtesy of Moonstone Arts Center.

A Taste of Hidden Culture in America’s Most Dangerous City

Camden_NJ_poverty
An almost completely abandoned block in Camden is not uncommon.

It’s 7 pm on a frigid Wednesday in November on 3rd street in downtown Camden. It’s dark and
the streets are mostly empty, but there’s a little bit of light and sound coming from the pizza shop
called Little Slice of New York. No, it’s not a bunch of rowdy Rutgers students on break from
partying in order to get their drunk-munchies fix, it’s a bunch of poets eating pizza, sipping on
wine, and singing along to classic folk and Bob Dylan songs. Many of the attendants are
baby-boomers or older, but there is a consistent influx of Rutgers students who come to read and
listen at this casual open-mic as well, both undergraduates and graduates.
Who is responsible for this outrageous display of, (could it possibly be?) culture in Camden?
The man’s name is Rocky Wilson, and he’s been the host of Pizza and Poetry for almost as long
as Little Slice of New York has been open. And the before and after photographs hanging on the
right-side wall of this small pizza parlor portray the two buildings that it now occupies,
previously boarded up and abandoned, now a thriving business. The same goes for the monthly
Pizza and Poetry event, in the seventies Camden’s movie theaters closed, along with many of the
other businesses and factories that made this city a bustling center of industry and culture in
South Jersey. The amount of success in the mayor’s agenda of supporting the universities and
medical centers in the city may be debatable, but the mission of a few Camden residents to
establish art and propagate peace has become undeniably more and more apparent in this city.
Mr. Rocky, (as his former students call him) was born at Cooper Hospital, but grew up in
Haddonfield. However, Rocky has been living in Camden for thirty some odd years, and his
house is appropriately situated on Penn street, right behind the Walt Whitman Center. Even
though Rocky’s business card reads “The Puppet Laureate of Camden”, he’s most well-known
for what he calls being a Walt Whitman interpreter. This means that he’s frequently invited to
events where he is called upon to dress up as America’s greatest poet and recite classic poems
such as “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric” with stunning theatrics. Mr. Wilson is
also a formidable poet himself, and has had his poetry published in reputable journals, such as
Painted Bride Quarterly. His first poetry collection, much of it involving the desolation and
hidden beauty of Camden, will be published in the spring of 2014 by Whirlwind Press.

Rocky Wilson isn’t the only Camdenite who is responsible for a resurgence of culture in this
troubled city. Cassie MacDonald, a frequent attendee of Pizza and Poetry, hosts writing
workshops and spiritual healing meetings at her home in South Camden, which she calls Brigid’s
House. Her home is down the street from Sacred Heart Church, which is on the corner of
Broadway and Ferry, in a struggling neighborhood that these local artists call “SoBro” (south
Broadway). This run-down and dangerous part of Camden has benefited from Sacred Heart
Church and Father Michael Doyle’s mission to support the downtrodden community through art,
charity, and activism. Cassie MacDonald hosts an outdoors poetry reading and barbecue in the
summer months at what is known as “Peace Park,” a circle of stones on a well-kept triangular
field of grass on what used to be a vacant lot. MacDonald and the community have been slowly
transforming the park into a safe haven for locals, and next year plan to officially name the park
after the late nationally renowned poet and pacifist, William Stafford.
Close by, on the corner of Jasper and 4th Street, lies the South Camden Theatre Company, a
“nonprofit professional theatre company dedicated to helping revitalize the City of Camden,
New Jersey by producing meaningful, professional theater in the City’s Waterfront South
District.” The theater is in its ninth season, and has produced high quality plays that have caught
the attention of local and regional theater enthusiasts. Downtown Camden is just a short trip
north up Broadway, however, what lies in between Rutgers and “SoBro” will dishearten and
frighten anyone, as Camden’s rampant poverty and drug epidemic is absolutely evident even on
what’s supposed to be a main street of the city. Although another cultural event that is meant to
alleviate the despair of Camden, the 3rd Thursday Art Crawl, occurs every month at Gallery
Eleven One, Rutgers’ own Steadman Art Gallery, Filbert Studio, and other venues that can be
found on art11one.com.
It’s getting late on November 20th, and the host of Pizza and Poetry keeps humorously
reminding everyone that it’s a school night. The main themes of the night are the celebration of
two birthdays, that of Rocky’s childhood hero, Roy Rodgers, and Father Michael Doyle,
Camden’s real-life hero. A few poets read in tribute to the famous Irish Catholic priest and
activist, and Cassie MacDonald reads some of Father Doyle’s own poetry, which was published
in a book of poems and letters called “It’s a Terrible Day: Thanks be to God.” All of a sudden,
Michael Doyle himself makes a surprise appearance, and the priest (who’s known for being
among the Camden 28 Vietnam activists) ends the night by reading several moving poems and
expressing his gratitude in his gentle brogue to Rocky and company for helping to make Camden a
better place.

Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.