Ed Sanders was standing at a desk surrounded by overstuffed book shelves, assorted works of arts, and stacked banker boxes in his home off Meads Mountain Road. Song birds trilled as he spoke about his latest book, Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy, illustrated by noted comic artist Rick Veitch.
“I trace this book back to 1974, after my book on the Manson Family had come out (The Family), when I had become friends with police officers in California. I got some information about the Robert Kennedy assassination from these cops who didn’t believe the accepted theories about what happened,” he said. “So I started collecting files, which have grown to 20 bankers boxes tracing my investigation. This book is where my investigation was as of 2017.”
The style of Sanders book will be familiar those who have followed his impressive literary arc from later Beat poet through East Village bookstore owner and publisher to the seminal poetic grunge band The Fugs and founding years and efforts of The Yippies on to bestseller success with The Family, the creation of a manifesto for Investigative Poetry, and a steady stream of incisive inquiries into the history and nature of his times in both epic lyrical and more traditionally narrative memoir forms. It’s meticulously researched, like the best of non-fiction, but rendered in a highly-personalized fashion that prismatically covers a panoply of interpretive means of seeing facts with an authoritatively caustic sense of the multilateral ways in which history moves.
Talk about a perfect tonic to this second age of unilateralism, and all the inherent dangers in the keeping of state secrets, and real dangers of today’s child-like and narcissistic calls about a “deep state.”
The book is segmented into small songs tied to observed moments drawn from those banker boxes. In an early one, “March 24, a SundayRFK’s Defenses Perhaps Tested by Rodo-Washers,” the poet investigator writes,
“After landing in Los Angeles the afternoon of the 24th,
a huge crowd followed RFK through
a lengthy tunnel at the airport out to the street
and then on the way to the rally
bumper-to-bumper traffic w/
autos abandoned along the roadsides
RFK spoke to 11,000 filling
& spilling beyond the Greek Theater in LA.
Nearing the close of his talk that day
RFK said, “The failure of national purpose
Is not simply the result of bad policies
And lack of skill,
It flows from the fact that for almost the first time
the national leadership is
Calling upon the darker impulses
Of the American spirit—not, perhaps
deliberately, but through its actions & the example
it sets—an example where integrity, truth, honor
and all the rest seem like words
to fill out speeches
rather than guiding beliefs.”
Those who robo-washed Sirhan
May have tested RFK’s defenses at the Greek Theater…”
Sanders goes into reports, from FBI and police files, of a bomb scare that day, and the ways things went on nevertheless. Later, he builds mysterious characters, a flurry of eyewitnesses who saw a second gunman, and even a third, when Kennedy was shot entering the kitchen of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel after giving a Primary Day victory speech. There’s a repeating woman in a polka dot dress, seen by over a dozen witnesses, and found in reports from the day, and later re-investigations and hearings.
Every few dozen pages, one of cartoonist Veitch’s illustrations simply and elegantly captures a sense of the modern epic, a grand still-redolent tragedy, to back up what one’s reading. They feel fresh, yet also reminiscent of the man’s work with the classic comic, Swamp Thing. Footnotes throughout the book, along with asides by the author, humbly reference all who have maintained an open case on the assassination over the past half century.
“Nothing is too weird for 1968,” is a repeated refrain, this book’s version of The Family’s memorable repetition of a simple “oo-ee-oo” to comment on its similarly nefarious doings.
Sanders said he chose to write Broken Glory in verse because that had been his original intention with The Family, which was then transformed to prose paragraphs by his typists. After all, it was his own 1975 manifesto that called for poets to again become historians, “as they were in ancient times.”
“I learned that even dry FBI reports can be broken into lines and placed, like William Carlos Williams, in staggered tercets and make it more interesting and readable,” he explained. Asked how he chooses to make such lyrical line-break decisions, Sanders noted that he’s been writing poetry since he was a sophomore in high school. “You must trust yourself,” he added.
“I print out the documents and then I breathe poesy into it,” he says, referencing the historian Thomas Carlyle’s call for writers to wipe the dust off musty facts and bring them to life as a usable history. “You create a holo-tragedy, like a hologram, and need to focus on different views to focus in on to the event and give it a four-dimensional reality.”
Sanders notes that what he’s created is controversial, drawing on facts that have been overlooked or hidden for decades, from the possibility that convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan may have been firing blanks to contemporary accounts of the use of “robo-washing” in the 1950s and 1960s, including conspiracies involving Bobby’s brother’s assassination, which the author notes the candidate promised to bring up in new investigations should he be elected president…another possible reason behind the assassination.
“The person I believe shot Robert Kennedy is still alive,” Sanders said. But he adds that such material must await others’ investigations before he can prove such things in the next edition of Broken Glory. Sanders adds that he decided to work with Veitch, brother of Woodstock’s Michael Veitch, based on the two’s success with a book about Sharon Tate several years ago.
For now, the latest book is but one of many projects the long-time Woodstocker is working on. He’s readying to have his multi-volume history of America in verse published through the Barrytown-based Station Hill Press, and he’s creating glyphs of the new book for a possible visual arts exhibit. He’s also put together an impressive poetic memoir, again in glyph form, of his late friend and mentor, the poet Charles Olson (who he mentions having once tried to match up with Janis Joplin during the heady 1960s, in San Francisco).
Sanders will be presenting the Olson work, which he’s seeking a publisher for, at an event near the influential poet’s Gloucester home in Massachusetts. We spoke at some length about Olson’s innovations creating poetic meter based on breath and perceptions.
We also spoke about lessons learned from history, whether related as dry facts or enlivened poesy.
“We’ve learned that there is no bottom of the barrel,” Sanders said. “The barrel is still murkily unexplored at its bottom.”
Yet the poet, who years ago helped author his adopted home town’s zoning law of many years’ standing (and also ran for Ulster County legislature) noted how “most lives are still based on differentiating good from evil, and working to keep military powers from seeping into all aspects of a nation’s life.”
He talked about how artists, and historians, must “assign their minds to come up with text” to order the facts of existence and grant them the power to shape a future. But pointed out how “you really have to take the time to memorize everything, to get to know your subject.” The idea, to borrow modern thought, is to force your mind to give one a “read out,” a summation. Which is work…always lending oneself a means for catching one’s thoughts, be it with notebooks, a recorder, or as Sanders’ late friend, the historian Alf Evers would do, on an endless supply of small index cards to be placed up on the walls of one’s writing room.
Asked about his memories of the moment when RFK was shot, and the tumultuous half year that followed, Sanders spoke about playing The Fillmore East with Moby Grape the night it happened, of his work as a leading light of the Yippies, and the all-encompassing political climate of the day. It was only later that he came to realize what a “great American leader Bobby became,” from acknowledging past mistakes to imagining soaring futures where we could meet challenges involving poverty, war and other societal ills straight on.
So where does Ed Sanders stand now that he’s reaching his 60th year of marriage with his longtime partner, Miriam, in his longtime hometown of Woodstock.
“I’m determined to go out in a blaze of leaflets. And, as Allen Ginsberg put it, keep my shoulder to the wheel,” he said. “Miriam and I are struggling on. Thanks to her, I keep struggling on; I’ve not really had a job since 1965 but on the other hand I have to write everyday and work every day…It was also Miriam who suggested I get Rick to illustrate the work instead of using photographs.”
We’re all quiet, Miriam whispering to the song birds as they sing.
“The point of my book is that Robert Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War four to five years earlier, had he lived, and saved thousands of young American lives,” Sanders said. “And the history of the United States would have been much better. Probably we would have had national health care by now…He would have had eight years, and America would have been a more glorious place.”
“Miriam and I watched the returns
in our apartment on 12th Street & Avenue A
just up the street from the Peace Eye Bookstore
I was weeping and wondering what to do
on such a violent planet
and gory nation,”
That’s on the penultimate pages of Broken Glory, in a song entitled “The View from Avenue A.” It’s followed by “Sung:”
“Oh, won’t somebody please tell me why
the guns aim so often to the left
It wounded the nation
in countless ways,
wounded her history
the rest of her days…”
It’s an epic question, worthy of aging Ed Sanders’ epic investigative poetry.
Sanders will read from Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy at Golden Notebook on June 8, three days after the 50th anniversary of RFK’s assassination, starting at 6 pm.