Interview #1: Samara Kupferberg
Tuli Kupferberg's daughter talks to Rock and the Beat Generation about Fugs, family and film as a documentary celebrating her poet/musician father merely awaits a final kick start…
Tuli Kupferberg, who was 86 when he died in 2010, was one of the key links between the Beat Generation poets and the rock-fuelled counterculture of the 1960s. He was both writer and musician, mixed with the Beat crowd but was also a member of the seminal Fugs, a band who combined rock and folk, politics and poetry, in almost equal measure. Tuli’s daughter artist Samara Kupferberg is currently working on a new film celebrating her father’s life and work. Her Kickstarter campaign is extremely close to achieving its target. Here we chat about her, her family, her father, the documentary and, of course, the Beats and the Fugs. please note that a link to the fundraiser site for Tuli! Tuli! Tuli! can be found at the end of the interview.
Please do tell me about yourself initially. What have you been doing in your own life, professionally and artistically?
I'm currently living in Portland, Maine with my husband and our 9 year old son. I own a small eco-friendly children's clothing store. Before my son was born I was running a children’s art studio. I've always been interested in visual art and went to Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where I majored in textile art. My personal art practice has been focused on weaving and drawing. Most recently, during the height of the pandemic, I began a new series of small abstract drawings, my way of remaining centred during these challenging times.
Can you tell me a little more about your family set-up? Was it a conventional or unconventional experience?
I would say that growing up, my home life was far from conventional, especially at the time. My Mom, Sylvia Topp, was the breadwinner of the family, doing freelance copy editing from home when we were young and then, when we went to school, working at Soho Weekly News, a neighbourhood arts newspaper, and later on at the Village Voice. My Dad stayed home with my brother Noah and I and was a very loving stay-at-home Dad who still managed to spend copious amounts of time hidden away working on projects in his office, a room made up of bookshelf walls within the labyrinthine maze of our Soho loft. My parents also had an ‘open marriage’, something I knew as a child but didn't share with anyone until I was much older.
Have you been inspired by Tuli and in what ways?
I have been inspired by my Dad in countless ways; I feel his presence in every choice I make. Most importantly that every single being, human, plant, animal and otherwise, is deserving of love. To be open to the connection that we all share and allow others to get close to you without reservation. To laugh at things that would otherwise drive us to tears and madness, to never blindly trust what an authority figure tells you, to be cautiously optimistic, to respect and listen to others, even if their opinions may not all align with your own – something that I feel is particularly important right now. Also to follow your passion and not give in to the daily grind, continue to pursue your creativity, it's never too late. Lastly, never give up hope for a better world!
How did the film idea come about? I understand it is going to be a documentary but what sort of doc do you envisage?
Last winter I got an interesting Facebook message from Italian/French filmmaker David Liver, saying he was going to be making a documentary about my father and that he would like to talk to me about it. After seeking advice from some wise friends I decided to get as involved as possible so that I could be sure to help create the best possible tribute to my Dad's legacy. David and I became fast friends and have a wonderful rapport, making it a joy to mold and shape this project together.
Will it incorporate material from your father's archive? Will it include talking head interviews?
We will be focusing heavily on his immense archived materials, housed at NYU Fales Library Downtown Collection. It won't be a typical talking head interview style doc: there will be a storyline which involves a group of his friends and family, myself included, who will gather to reminisce about the many ways Tuli affected and inspired us all, our favourite works, memories and bits of wisdom – in this way we will discuss and explore many different facets of his life and artistic career. There will also be a sub-plot in which we decide to cast an actor to stage one last posthumous Tuli performance, so that he might instil some of his unique humour and wisdom upon the audience, much needed in our current social climate. David describes the film as an off-beat doc with a comedic spin.
Will there be a musical soundtrack? Might members of the Fugs be involved?
We won't be focusing specifically on the Fugs: that is its own project for another time. We will be showcasing many of his solo songs and unreleased material including many lovely home recordings of him practising his new songs, speaking into his beloved hand held tape recorder.
Clearly, Tuli was active in so many ways, creatively, socially and politically. What do you feel is his most important legacy?
Since I've started this project, I have received so many lovely anecdotes about my Dad and his kindness to those who reached out to him. He responded to every letter, he spoke to fans on the street and on the telephone when they called, he invited them over for tea, he was just a genuinely loving man who was interested in getting to know people and sharing his immense knowledge and wisdom. I think that ability to relate to others is something that really touched people, and he was a teacher and mentor to many.
As one of the older characters in the 60s counterculture scene, I feel his legacy of being a role model and helping to lead the youth to vent their anger through joyful rebellion was incredibly significant and shaped many younger artists' views and work. Artistically, he had so many different areas that he was prolific in. I personally love his early drawings and poems, and hope to make those more widely appreciated through introducing more people to them.
He was famously referenced in Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', as the man who jumped off Brooklyn Bridge and survived. I have a sense the poet might have named the wrong bridge! But is this story essentially true, as far as you know?
Ah, yes. This was a story that haunted him for years. It was the Manhattan Bridge. He was distraught over a breakup and the inherent injustice of the world, the war, World War II, and who knows what else.
He did not get up and walk off into Chinatown. He was spotted by a passing boat and taken to the hospital with a broken transverse process, part of the spine. He was in the hospital for many weeks recovering. He always worried that people might see this act as romantic and try it themselves. I believe it greatly altered his path in life and inspired him to go after what he really wanted, to not give in to the daily hustle of jobs and pay cheques, and to seek out joy, humour, and connection in daily life.
To what extent do you feel Tuli Kupferberg saw himself linked to the writers and artists of the Beat Generation? Do you feel he was, at heart, a Beat?
Good question. Yes, he definitely felt linked to the Beats and he was an active member of the Beat scene in the Village in the 40s and 50s, publishing poems in the Village Voice and later doing readings at Cafe Le Metro with Ginsberg, et al. My Mom remembers going to a party with Norman Mailer and James Baldwin that was supposedly celebrating ‘the end of the Beats’. My parents were friends with and published the work of Allen Ginsberg, Ted Joans, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and many others, in their little magazines, which they published as Birth Press. I believe my dad always felt like a poet at heart.
Did he talk to you about the Fugs? I am assuming he was continuing to work with the band during your early years in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, when I spoke to band member Steven Taylor in the early 2000s, Tuli was still an active member of the group.
The Fugs broke up in 1968 or 1969 I believe, and I was born in 1974. So I was only marginally aware of them until 1984, when they reunited with an amazing show at the Bottom Line in the Village. It was a very exciting event that drew a big crowd, and I remember it quite vividly. My Dad actually stripped down to nothing on stage, and I was mortified, but the crowd loved it! They started touring again and from that point on they were a big part of his life.
How did you perceive his relationship with Ed Sanders?
I would say that he and Ed had a strong artistic collaborative relationship, their ideas meshed well together and the energy they created on stage was captivating. Ed was the one who took care of all of the details and the business side of things, and my Dad was very thankful for that because that wasn't his strong suit. When they reformed in 1984 he became very close to the newer members, Coby Batty and Steven Taylor, as well as Kramer, who was the bass player briefly, before going on to produce my Dad's solo album Tuli and Friends.
Tell me a little bit about the importance music and the band had in his life.
Music was a lifelong passion of his, and he was always singing and trying to get me and my brother Noah to sing with him and embarrassing me by singing songs like ‘Caca Rocka’ in public. He was a master at creating ‘parasongs’, new lyrics sung to existing melodies. I have no doubt that his voice and warmth will win over many who have not yet felt the joy of knowing him.
Note: Do visit the Kickstarter site which is supporting the campaign to make Tuli! Tuli! Tuli!: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tulitulituli/tuli-tuli-tuli-1001-ways-to-be-joyfully-revolted?ref=creator_nav
My Guardian obituary of Tuli Kupferberg can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/26/poetry-usa It is also reprinted in my book Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: the Beats and Rock Culture (Bloomsbury, 2013)