Lydia Tomkiw: Glowing Bright as Nirvana

“My pristine self is melting, my old whore halo / Glowing bright as Nirvana.”

• Lydia Tomkiw, “Blush #102”  


A conversation between Sharon Mesmer and bart plantenga about Lydia Tomkiw.

BART: Lydia Tomkiw had it all and I was envious. Envy melted away to admiration, however, after her early book of poetry, Popgun Sonatas, led to her first single with partner Don Hedeker, “True Romance at the World’s Fair.” This took college radio by storm – in some ways reminding me of Tim Buckley – creating a delicate balance between precious and punk, tender and hardened. It became one of the most played indie singles during my early listening days at WFMU, before I started DJing there. She had it all, including poetic chops and a partner who played Lenny Kaye to her Patti Smith or Sonny to her Cher, or… They toured, she got fan letters, was on the avant edge of the spoken word explosion in the early 1980s and was a pioneer of the fusion of difficult poetic investigations of the heart with pop flirtations.

Lydia & Sharon, Photo by Margaret Hussey, Dec. 1979, Clark Street, Chicago

She loved the taste and perks of fame; one of my favorite lines of hers is from “Charming Twilight Haze”: “We feel like celebrities – we / Sway and the crowds scatter; / We’ll go home when the birds start singing.” That this high could go higher was never in doubt, that it could precipitate a dramatic and tragic fall from the grace known as some renown still bugs me because this good friend died and talent and poetic insight could not save her.

We couldn’t save her either – or could we have? She died in September 2007 of a broken heart or ill health due to a what’s-the-use existential shove into a hard deep corner. This is how I see it. What’s your take?

SHARON:  Firstly, you write that “talent and poetic insight could not save her.” To me – and I’m no romantic – that’s exactly what does some people in. What did her in, among other factors. It’s a savage truth, no less true today than it ever was.  Maybe it’s truer today, when there’s even less of an advantage toward survival for the intelligent and sensitive, and a surfeit of advantage for the dull and unimaginative. I think Lydia both wanted and didn’t want to be saved, though I think she wanted to be saved more than she wanted to end up adrift. She truly wanted to be saved, but I think she was reluctant to try to save herself, and that was probably what would’ve saved her: utilizing that ability herself.

BART: I agree for the most part. I remember lots of conversations about death, however. She really seemed like a Romantic poet or some Pre-Raphaelite with her elaborate preparations for her death. She is portrayed in my novel Beer Mystic and here I quote from it:She dreamt of the lavish funeral details and the exact circumstances of her death – in bed on the brink of being discovered for her musical accomplishments, her best friend [”You don’t want her,” She warned. “She don’t drink beer, hates it.”] holding her left hand, It was as if we grew up in a time when one’s poetic gravity could be measured by one’s insights into death and dying – many we admired killed themselves, it just seemed like part of the job description. In one scene she takes me to the local coffin maker in Brooklyn, just on the other side of 3rd Ave. I think and she showed me the kind of coffin she wanted. She told me the songs she wanted played at her funeral; to quote once again from Beer Mystic: “She knew the exact four songs – I can’t remember, a Roy Orbison song, something by Joy Division, a song by Sinatra, and one by Echo & the Bunnymen with the line ‘Everybody loves you when you’re dead’ – she’d hummed them all.”

But when she was on top of the world she could be the most effervescent, gloriously alive and happy…

SHARON: Lydia was an incredibly self-directed person, and I think if she had wanted to kill herself, she would’ve just done it. She would’ve made the decision and carried it out.  She would’ve made sure that she was dressed a certain way and her make-up was perfect.

BART: You might be right, but her preoccupation with death in her songs was noteworthy although it may have been a poetic device; although preoccupied with it, it was meant to emphasize how precious and short life is/was and that we need to live a gung-ho life as our best revenge: “I am nothing to put to rest / I am nothing but a fireball / Take it! Take it, and something will erupt” [”Mantic Sway,” Swoon].

SHARON: I know in my heart she did not want to end up how she ended up. She was not angling to be on anyone’s Heartbreak Top Ten. On the other hand, she made it difficult to be friends with her, and I’m not just talking about near the end. We didn’t speak for eight years, mainly because she withdrew her friendship from me after my engagement to an abusive fiance broke up and I spun out emotionally and acted out, acted up. She wrote me a long letter, detailing my bad behavior, and how I made it impossible to be friends with me … ironic in light of later events. I’m not saying I disagree with anything she pointed out in the letter; in fact I agreed with pretty much all of it. I was a selfish and self-absorbed (in my own pain) pain in the ass.  I was pissed and someone — anyone, everyone — was going to pay. So, I didn’t see or speak to her for eight years. It was during that time that her star was rising, and so I can’t speak to what she was doing during those eight years, though she did tell me some things about Algebra Suicide’s European gigs, her break-up with Donny, the break-up of the band, etc. You know more about that era than I do, so I’m gonna back up to before that, to before she and I split as friends, and connect the years that we were close (1978-1982) to the later years, from 1996 on, when we had our rapprochement (and then went our separate ways again, a couple of years before she died).

BART: I opened for her a couple of times in Paris with Black Sifichi, a great spoken word performer in France. She seemed almost desperate for adulation and luckily it was there – even at this very cool underground club in Paris. In “May I Take Your Order Please” [Incorporated, 1994], for instance, she sings: “I’d also like the adoration of millions, but if that’s not possible / It would be nice if this became a Broadway musical.”  Algebra Suicide was very professional, especially for the late 1980s with visuals, slides and such. But by tailoring her work to a spoken word performance market I almost thought she was hemming in her poetry to be, well, more entertaining, like stand-up almost. That world has a glib and slippery feel to it that is different from poetry regardless of the overlap. Stand up poetry is mostly about one-liners and the more humorous and outrageous, the “better” the poem.  And she was one of the first – but as we know, and as she felt, she never really got her just due once she moved to NY.

Bart & Lydia, photo by Foto Sifichi, 1990, E.P.E., Paris

SHARON:  She was different by the time she got to NY.  She was depleted and exhausted and unsure of herself, precisely (I think) because of what you just noted — that she did not get her due – but I think that situation had begun even before she came to NY.  She came to NY already unsure of herself, so I think some things had begun happening when she was still living in Chicago. I say this because the Lydia with whom I was best friends, with whom I was a college freshman, with whom I shared the stage at readings (we did our very first poetry reading together), with whom I went to punk clubs, who was my kindred spirit and older sister, lived fully alive. She was witty, charming, beautiful, funny, brilliant, daring, positive. What I learned from her was immeasurable… about getting off my ass and creating a career for myself, about getting behind my work and being proud of it without being egomaniacal, about trusting my ideas and seeing them through, about getting into all the corners and hidden places of a situation and seeing what treasures were there and using those treasures to my advantage. For any abilities I might have in those areas, I have Lydia to thank (also our teacher Paul Hoover). But here’s the thing, the thing that I see as part of what did her in: at a point, she was unwilling to do those same things for herself. Those things that she knew so well how to do, those things that she taught me to do, those things that would’ve lifted her out of the slough of despond. She needed to do those things, and she could’ve done them with little effort — it was second nature (or at least it seemed that way to me). She had a base here that she could’ve worked from, she had a new CD out, she was working on manuscripts, she had a job, friends, connections, a family that loved her, a mother that lovingly and selflessly supported her. But I think she resented that she was going to have to do it all over again on her own, because she was exhausted by the divorce, losing Lower Links, and not having the kind of audience in the States that she had in Europe. In fact, I think that might’ve been what did her in: in Europe she was the kind of artist she’d always known she could be, knew she was. Her perception of herself — talented, charming, beautiful, inspired, the creator of powerful work — was mirrored by an appreciative audience. And they were not misled. She was all those things.

BART: I think that’s the gist of it. A combination of blows – some beyond her making, others very much her own fault – led to a despondency as a result of perhaps basing her esteem on something so fickle as pop fame. That and a series of NY-style setbacks: lost jobs, endless job interviews, that stress leading to more drink and drink on breath never leads to a job not even in a bar.

SHARON: When you move to New York you kind of have to give yourself over to New York (though maybe this isn’t true anymore) and be like Jack Kerouac said: “Submissive to everything, open, listening.”   She was not about to be submissive, because she’d already established herself, and it had taken years of work. Honestly, I think she felt like I did when my engagement to the abusive fiance broke up: worn out, angry, depressed, pissed, and not about to kiss any more ass.

BART:  I don’t think its giving your self over. New York takes it regardless and you have to run with it to catch up as it tears on down the hall with your soul in fist like a damp gym towel… I mean, I really felt for her because I was going through the same things. I was sleepless, run ragged by the city that never sleeps and seldom lets you sleep… Indeed. I think there is this need to prove you can make it in NY. Even though most great artists, writers, musicians DON’T live in NY and never lived here. There is something almost Wagnerian, like defying the mermaids noisy din, to prove you can make it and come out on top. I thought that once for about 3 weeks in 1978. But you have to give it up. And being on top of her game in the Second City and accepted and pad in Europe tuned and lubed her for some placement in the NY top 40 with a bullet and rising fast. But she had to start at the bottom and that bottom was just too far down. Even our Unbearable mates mostly ignored her and were not really interested in her accomplishments. This I never quite fathomed.

SHARON:  I agree.  I never fathomed their ignoring of her, but I just chalked it up to a kind of distrust of what she did: spoken word, poetry with music … I think some Unbearables saw that as not serious writing or something. There was a lot of judgement there, of her and in general, as I later learned. That’s a whole other complicated conversation, though.  Also, there was that idea floating around the Unbearables that if you’re famous somewhere else but not in New York it doesn’t matter.

BART: Yes, totally – not everyone but still, in the NY scene she was an interloper and no matter how many times I introduced her with her credentials to this or that group or scene it did not matter… On a more societal level, why is it that people/poets investigating the heart of the matter, those who have the material of our nature in hand so often opt for suicide – I’m not saying Lydia committed suicide, not in any conventional way, however, she did stop wanting to live on some level [is that OUR failure?] – Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Tim Buckley, Sylvia Plath, Ian Curtis, Jim Morrison, et al. I know she embraced things close to the bone, her system was like a barometer of sorts, a sensitive gauge for things decadent, frivolous, joyous and painful but WHY could she not write her way out?

SHARON: First of all, you ask is “Is it our failure?” This is something I’ve been struggling with in regard to my sister, who died of cirrhosis in 2009. I’ve been going to Al-Anon to deal with this, and the impression I get from hearing what gets spoken about there is that people make their own decisions, and once that decision is made, it’s made. That said, though, I believe that Lydia did not opt for suicide. I’m telling you. I know what you’re thinking: she didn’t put a gun to her head, but she might as well have. And I don’t care what she wrote in “Little Dead Bodies,” either. She knew a good idea and a good poetic phrase, and the drama of both of those put together, combined with some sincere belief . . . you can’t beat it. It’s brilliant. But you know how I know she didn’t opt for suicide? Lydia and I were both raised Catholic, in the Old World, Eastern European sense … the grand, ornate neighborhood cathedrals, the altars at home with the statues and the candles, the rosaries, the saints, the whole deal. The unspoken, unconscious recognition of this shared past was probably what drew us together in the first place. And they teach you, almost from the minute they pour the oil on your head during Baptism, that you don’t kill yourself — it’s against your religion. It’s drummed into your head. Suicide is not an option. You may think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” and you may even want to do it, you may even fantasize about doing it, but there’s this thing — the threat of Hell — that stops you. Even if you haven’t gone to Mass in years, even if you don’t consider yourself Catholic anymore, that idea is still there.

BART: Gotcha. But on some level, dying of natural causes at age 50-something still seems vaguely suspect. I know she was terribly unhealthy, drank a lot, ate poorly and that, to me in part signal a nihilistic pattern of what’s-the-use that leads to a logical devaluation and…

SHARON: I think you can want to stop living but not want to die. I think you can want the pain to stop without wanting life to stop. As for what Catholics pick up and embrace (in spite of themselves) along the way: it’s there with the guilt and the fear and not being able to breathe because of all the incense during First Friday benediction and the memory of how nuns smell.

BART: Good point.

SHARON: So, I don’t think Lydia wanted to die. I think she wanted to live — she was one of the most life-savvy people I’ve ever known — but she didn’t want to live the life of a nobody, having once lived as a somebody.  I think drinking put her in that space and time of notoriety and fun again. But I don’t think she drank because she knew it would eventually kill her. She drank because when she was drunk she was who she’d always wanted to be, who she knew she was. And that was not a corpse.

BART: I’ve always believed that words are like heaps of words on the shovel of poetic sensibility – to mix metaphors – like we’re heading toward cement as in cement shoes. What I mean is, Lydia had a kind of modern or Victorian or Romantic poet nagging preoccupation and fascination with death – in “One Night I Fell in Love,” Tongue Wrestling, she sings: “I was holding my breath / I was so much in love, and I turned a lovely blue.” She talked about it to me like others talk about a pet rabbit almost, with deathas the ultimate profundity, as the ultimate challenge but I think that, although I admire many of the poets, singers, artists, writers who went before their time [or maybe they prescribed their time, their end, so as not to be beholden to the effects of aging – handsome corpse syndrome] I also admire those who deny or defy this whole looking in the maw of mortality too much. There’s way too much distracting beauty out there and that seemed to be another message that Lydia had for herself and for us – smell the roses or the Wild Irish Rose and be distracted from death’s inevitability with a real dose of distractive joy of living found in the grand emotions like love and in the incidental and most miniscule of life’s details.

SHARON: I also admire “those who deny or defy this whole looking in the maw of mortality.” And that’s one of the reasons why I took Buddhist refuge vows (though I still consider myself an Old World, Eastern European Catholic at heart!): Buddhists look unflinchingly into the maw of mortality, and after I had experienced the sudden death of my sister in ‘09 I wanted to learn what went on when we died and how to deal with it. Buddhism had presented itself to me at key points in my life, and so I decided that maybe I should pay attention, finally. And what I learned, through Buddhism, was pretty much what I’d been taught in Catholic school, through the example of the Catholic saints (but without the flogging and the whipping and the bleeding and the baggy and unattractive sackcloth): looking into the maw of mortality is really all about the precious nature of human birth.  And I re-learned it yet again this year, when I had to deal with my own mental and physical health issues by living in the present. It’s the only way. I think it’s one of the places where Buddhism and Catholicism agree, actually, on the idea of the preciousness of being here, …

BART:  I don’t know, I think Catholicism has too often neglected the here and now for the sanctity of the hereafter and denying the pleasures of the now to enhance your place in the hereafter.

SHARON:  … and Lydia and I talked about this, too, back in the day, and also the last time we were together. She and I took a bus from Penn Station out to Jones Beach to see the band Chicago. We sat way the hell up in the nosebleed section, and while the Doobie Brothers played (they were the opening act, and thankfully it was the non-Michael McDonald Doobies!)

BART: Yikes, talk about embarrassing moments of musical indiscretion. That beats MY doing a school report on Chicago [album 3 or 4] and their use of street noise and I once liked Dan Fogelberg! Albeit, because the gal I was after at that time was a fan…

SHARON: If we’re going to confess our musical geekitude: I liked Bread when I was 12.  We went to that concert more for the Chicago part than for the Doobies part, and for the sheer goofy stupid fun of it.  But going back to Lydia… we talked about life and death that night, and the “distractive joy of living found in the grand emotions like love and in the incidental and most miniscule of life’s details.” It was my impression that, even though things were bad for her, she didn’t want to die. There was always something to live for, and that something was found in life’s details. Her work is about identifying those details, don’t you think?

BART: She would have loved this conversation about embarrassing musical likes. I imagine the 3 of us sitting on your stoop until way past midnight talking about our musical Achilles heels, until a neighbor leans out the window and yells “Shaddap!”


Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008). Fiction collections include Ma Vie à Yonago(Hachette, 2005) and In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose, 2005).

bart plantenga is the author of Beer Mystic & other fictions plus YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the Worldand his forthcoming YODEL IN HIFI. His radio showWreck This Mess debuted in 1986 on WFMU (NY), moved to Radio Libertaire (Paris), then Radio 100 and is currently on Radio Patapoe (Amsterdam). He lives in Amsterdam with partner Nina Ascoly and daughter Paloma.

informative, Poetry

Wow. Heaven must be a big place.

(Lydia Tomkiw, Little Dead Bodies)


Lydia Tomkiw grew up in a tough neighborhood, Humboldt Park in Chicago. She was born in 1959 to Ukranian immigrant parents. She graduated from Lane Tech High School in 1977 and attended the University of Illinois/Chicago campus and Columbia College, where she received a masters in Disciplinary Arts.

She was a poet whose chapbooks included The Dreadful Swimmers and Popgun Sonatas. Her poem, Six of Ox Is, was included in the John Asheberry edited Best of American Poetry. Her work can be found in the Columbia Poetry Review, as well as a little poetry magazine from Ohio called Amanda Blue, which is how I personally first got to know her. (We advertised in diverse places like Rock Scene magazine, looking for adventurous poetry. We found some.)

In 1983, Lydia and her husband Don Hedeker formed a band, Algebra Suicide, melding Lydia’s spoken word with Don’s new wave/punk guitar. They gained a cult following in Chicago, which spread to international proportions. Algebra Suicide opened for musicians like John Cale, and Lydia was dubbed “the female Lou Reed.”

Six Algebra Suicide albums were released between 1986 and 1995, as well as a cd, Summer Virus Night, which documents live performances from their 1990 tour of Germany.

In 1991, Lydia became part owner of a club, The Lower Links, in Chicago, but had to sell out two years later, in 1993, also the year when she and Don divorced. Tongue Wrestling, released in 1994, was the last Algebra Suicide album, the band broke up in 1995. Lydia moved to the East Village/NYC, where she made the rounds of poetry readings and continued to write poetry and reportedly worked on a novel called Ugly Kids.

A solo album, Incorporated (1995) failed to make an impact, and Lydia’s drinking got out of control. As her health declined, she moved to Phoenix, Arizona to be near family, where she died in September 2007, aged 48.

info from Wikipedia and a March 2010 article in the Brooklyn Rail

gathered & processed by Cher Bibler



Correspondence on Too Thin Paper and other poems

by Lydia Tomkiw


Correspondence on Too Thin Paper


You wish to make me dinner

Having spent your life in the kitchens:

“Come, woman, we must dance,

But first I have to feed you.”

We were so wicked at the zoo that day,

I imagined you dark and subtle

With eyes so large they seemed tempted to

Drip off your face.

Or perhaps I imagined you washed out and shallow-eyed

With nothing of a chin;

I don’t remember,

Since then I have sent you boxes of inflammable birds

And you have replied with decorative blindfolds

And books that smell of brown paper bags.

Today, while reading them,

I feel too buffered by this house,

Waiting for the postman

Or telephone panic,

Waiting for the doorbell’s novocaine hum

When I could be strapped in yellow satin

Waiting on a hill

For an exiled young actor to offer me refuge

In a taxi that will take me to Coney Island.



Cafes I Have Known


The Café of Mismatched Silverware.

The Small Animal Café.

The Café of Too Many Teas that Taste the Same.

The Revolving Table Café.

The Windowless Café.

The Café of Dead Telephones.

The Fur-lined Cup Café.

The Café of Dwarfish Waiters.

The Café of Voluptuous Salt Shakers.

The Inflammable Café.



Recalling the Last Encounter


There is no anemic embrace on the street;

A kiss is thrown, meets another,

Drops to the sidewalk and goes for a tumble.

You warn of tight clouds that

Wriggle like army worms;

A form of algebra suicide, I guess.

I want to telephone the sailors,

Curse their songs of gasoline,

As the light in the booth turns me hideous.

I want to become hydraulic,

Hit the newsstands—national exposure,

Feel the world crawl into me through the fingertips,

As the traffic locks, stops, goes soft.

I want to talk about milk,

About the invisible bones of the face,

About the brain that sits too close to the skin

While I hear you say that we can be chainsaws

Under the stars.


Under what stars?



My Favorite Dadistic


A delicate young artists stands:

Switchblade at his neck, snakeskin at his feet;

A siren sings, the city turns away,

And all I can hear are the cries of those who are

Being eaten by the music.


I dream I wake in a striped blouse

somewhere in Jamaica.

Each time I blink, a million sounds escape my eyes,

Run out into the waves

And kick themselves to death.

Then I dream the dream called laundry.


But when he comes near, I admire the glimmer

Of doll’s hair,

The muddiness of complexion as

He reassures me through the side of his mouth

“The yellow eyes of fish are not sad,”

And I reply

“Yes, but have you ever caught the whispers of sidewalks

As pale women walk by?”

He shakes his head, sends lucite chips scattering

And keeps repeating

“The moon has no odor,

The moon has no odor……..”



This is To Notify You


Here I am, doubled over,

Dreaming again in Manhattan,

City as dull as

Death by natural causes.

I can not bear the stars anymore;

They just hang there, silly, useless as neckties,

My fingers are stained with newsprint

And my lips are nervous.

Where are all the hungry boys,

Those who will want my shoes after I die,

Those who taxi drivers are afraid to touch,

Those who wear their hair like some

Badge of beauty?

Yes, overproduced things appeal to me.

I crave an ex-husband,

Chilled perfume, a pillow that smells of hairspray

And now you even want to take this from me.

I will take off my arms and go to bed;

I am so sleepy,

I don’t care to hold hands with anyone.



Speed of Light

(for Donnie)


In previous lives we were born in cities

We really didn’t admire;

We ate atomic breakfasts,

Hid in map factories,

Sang foreign hymns until my brainwater ached.

We were a kind of Siamese twin,

Severed lungs cut at what doctors called

“The Golden Bridge.”

Even then they sensed something uncanny,

Seeing we were somewhat happy on our crutches,

Spread slap against the sky

Which is another man’s floor.

The memory dazzles me.

Now, in the sonic dashboard din,

I can sense the traces of aluminum in my blood

As we begin to breathe in unison

And our fingerprints become






Everyone is so boring:

No cure for colds, no carlot chases,

Nothing to make this a faster asteroid.

Even your fevergiving drone makes me pensive,

Puts me at a melancholy pace, as if embodied in an egg.

I should freeze oxygen at midnight and thaw it at dawn,

Plow fields just to make the earthworms nervous,

But instead, I am ready to throw bricks

(but only something as dull as bricks);

Pardon me

While I

Strip and melt.



A Shot in the Head


I fear science, I fear math,

I fear anything thick and inflexible:

The space between your ribs, too tough

To poke my fingers in.

And you decide to move to Pittsburg

Where men shovel on their knees making

Their stomachs hard enough to dance on.

What is left for me to do?

I have lost my desire to provoke noise;

No longer want to flirt with the enemy or

Terrorize Alaska;

I’ve stopped stealing books for a living

(that small time crime),

Test driving cars and never coming back.

This is quite serious.

I go to bed, still in parenthesis,

A mere elbow nudge.

It’s things like this that make you find refuge in sleep,

So dreamless, you could slip into death

And never find out about it.



On My 21st Birthday


Like a gesture held back in an elevator,

So is this day.

I strap these hands to my hips

When they should be waving in frenzy,

Dance with the nude bamboo man when

I really should be waltzing.

I know no one who has died in August,

No legal holidays attached to it;

It’s all mine:

Month of eternal redheads.

Look what I’ve created for myself:

A butterfly grows dizzy in heat,

Buzzes into a wall and drops.

A girl, picked at random from the crowd,

Sits on the roof of a decorated Chevy,

And as it pulls away,

Waves to the empty streets.



Published 1980 -1981 in Amanda Blue. Used with permission.


photo by Dan Griffin