Richard Rizzi — poet, prankster, provocateur, and high priest of post-millennial Dada — will no longer stupefy and astound the good people of New Paltz with his outrageous escapades. Who else could have staged a Dionysian theater piece at the local laundromat? Or finagled his way to secure the college’s permission to produce an “opera” that included the first (and possibly the only) nude scene in the McKenna Theater’s history? Such capers were not confined to the village of the Huguenots — for instance, on a visit to the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam, he pulled off his pants, sat on the Xerox machine, and presented the director with a copy of his buttocks.
Rizzi, who died on Valentine’s Day, was no Buddhist, but he incarnated what certain Buddhist traditions call “crazy wisdom.” As one of the many artists and poets beguiled by him put it, in a 2010 interview in the New Paltz Times, “Rizzi, in his living philosophy of total commitment to the moment, is unrelenting and absolutely courageous . . . [he] has never been cautious about exploring those areas that may be seen as taboo or out of bounds and that most people — let alone his fellow poets — just won’t go near.” Or take this testimony from New Paltz resident and writer Martin McPhillips: “When I walk down Main Street in New Paltz alone, it seems like I’m wandering through a black-and-white movie, but when I walk the same stretch with Rizzi, it’s in Technicolor. That is also the gift that he gives through poetry.”
Though his behavior at times could be appalling, he was always very generous to, and supportive of, younger artists and poets. He was part of the founding triumvirate, with JJ Blickstein and Susie McKechnie, of Hunger magazine, which published the work of area poets cheek by jowl with such major American and international voices as Clayton Eshleman, Amiri Baraka, and Aime Cesaire, among others, and had the longest run of any small, unfunded literary journal in the Hudson Valley. (Hunger Press has also published Rizzi’s 1998 chapbook, the monkey in his body.)
By his own admission, Rizzi became a “metaphysical mobster” in part due to his
father’s having been involved with mobsters of the non-metaphysical kind. “The only things he really cared about were his Cadillac and his hair,” Rizzi related in that 2010 interview. “When he was dying I went to see him, and all he wanted to know was if his toupee was on straight.”
Early on, Rizzi said, he had nowhere to go but his imagination. So he became a poet, “and when I realized I owned the entire world and everything in it, by just a thought, no one could stop me. I couldn’t be bought, sold, or taken out . . . It’s all magic, man. If you believe in yourself and you don’t have a vibe that threatens anything, people aren’t going to be afraid. We’re blessed, man. Artists are blessed. And that’s all there is to it.”
His survivors include his wife, Su Kaufman; and two sons, Domenic, a neurologist, and Robert, a composer/musician. He is also survived by a thousand poems, a few trees, the gentle rain of heaven, and a rusted soprano saxophone that has taken a vow of silence in a Japanese rock garden.