Marc Goldfinger is a poet with a hardscrabble background, here is the inside dope, on this fascinating street poet.
When I first saw Marc Goldfinger in the late 90’s in Central Square, Cambridge; he looked like an aging Flower Child, with his earrings, and his long gray hair spouting out from under his Stetson Hat. He was hawking a well-known street newspaper Spare Change News . Later I learned that he was a poet, and would often see his work appear in the paper he was selling. His poetry was sharp, visceral and in-your-face. It spoke of his drug addiction, the mean streets, ne’er-do-wells, stumblebums and hangers-on, who populated his hardscrabble milieu. In the Winter of 2000, Marc and I were part of a group of poets who came together to put out an anthology of verse, City of Poets/ 18 Boston Voices. Marc was the editor of Spare Change News , when our paths crossed again. I was covering the art scene, and he edited many of my pieces.
I became increasingly interested in this enigmatic, puzzle of a man. He presented himself as an articulate and sensitive person but it was evident he carried a lot of baggage that most of us had not endured. Marc Goldfinger had been many things during his fifty-seven years: a shy, chubby, bookish kid living in the conformity in the New Jersey suburbs; he was a long-time heroin addict on the run from the law; a prisoner who held a controversial poetry reading on the maximum security tier in the Worcester County House of Correction, an editor of a street newspaper; an anti-war activist; and a poet with a host of publication credits on his resume such as: Boston Poet, Whats Up Magazine, Ibbetson Street Press, Poesy Magazine, and a long list of others.
In spite of the ugly skeleton’s in Marc’s closet, he has edited a newspaper with a 20,000 circulation in a major urban market, produced a well-received Jazz/Poetry CD with the acclaimed Jeff Robinson Trio; self-published a number of his own poetry books, and helped put out the once popular poetry magazine The Boston Poet. Marc also has a history of working as an activist during the Vietnam War era to the present day. He has lectured extensively at public schools, colleges and other venues about the national disaster of homelessness and the tragedy of drug addiction.
I met with Marc at the Au Bon Pain café in the middle of Davis Square, Somerville ( Mass.) before he was to host a Poets Against the War reading ( Feb. 2003) at McIntyre and Moore Booksellers.
Doug Holder: You were a nice Jewish boy from a middle class family in New Jersey. How did you become involved with an unsavory life of drugs, criminal activity, and life on the lamb?
Marc Goldfinger: In retrospect I might say, “ I can see clearly now.” But this isn’t necessarily true .
I am in deep therapy. One of the things I’ve found out is that I never saw my mother and father accurately. I always thought my mother was the bad guy and my father was the good guy.
My mother had expectations for me, that were different from the expectations of my dad.
I was a bookworm. I lived to read. My mother used to read to me all the time.The giftshe gave to me was the gift of books. My father was not supportive of my reading. He started taking me to a shop he managed in Newark, N.J., but I was afraid to wait on customers. He used to shame me for this, but I couldn’t help it. I was a shy kid. This was a pattern of interaction that developed between me and my father. He used to say: “ you are going to grow up to be a fag. All you do is stay in and read., why don’t you go out and play like other kids.?” I felt as if I was less than zero. I was in therapy by the time I was seven. I was very hyperactive. If I got excited I would jump up and down for an hour or two hours at a time.
My father was inflexible in his thinking, which is no surprise. His parents were separated when he was seven. He had to sneak out to see her, and was beaten by his father when he found out. His mother died suddenly when he was twelve. I suppose he held on to a rigid thought process to maintain self-esteem. My father’s side of the family didn’t care for education--hard work was valued. Unfortunately because of this history my father was very critically of me and often resorted to the ”strap.” It is no wonder why I eventually turned to heroin as a balm for my psychic pain.
DH: How did you get first get involved with drugs?
MG: I was a fear-based kid, and so I was open to things that might relieve my bad anxiety. When I was about fifteen years old my girlfriend’s junkie sister, introduced me to the wonders of codeine-based cough syrup. It relaxed me…it made me dream. Later I learned from other druggies I hung with to take barbiturates along with the cough syrup to boost its effects. We used to call this combo “ goof balls.”
When I was about seventeen, I was taking a ride with a friend of mine, who was about to score some heroin. I told him that I was drinking all this cough syrup. He told me that I didn’t have to go through all that trouble. He showed me a syringe. I was frightened but willing to take the dope. I turned my head, and he injected me for me for the first time. I turned to him, the sweat broke out on my face and I felt that I would do this for the rest of my life. Did I get relief when took heroin? Yes I did. When you are high it works, but when you are not high, you know everything you are not. Heroin for me now is the end of the road.
DH: Did you feel more creative when you were doing heroin?
MG: I felt very creative when I was using heroin. That doesn’t mean I was. It drops your inhibitions. Ironically though I have written my best work since I have been straight. In my “TALES of the TROLL” stories ( published in Spare Change) the heroes were heroin addicts. I wrote this when I was straight. When you are on dope you are constantly on the run, trying to score, it doesn’t make for a stable writing environment.
DH: Throughout your life, you were always reading and writing. When did you begin to write, and how did it play a role in your turbulent life?
MG: I started writing when I was in Junior High. In ninth grade, I had a great teacher Mrs. Baker, but I was a non-participating student. I use to sneak into the bathroom and smoke cigarettes. Also-- I was a member of a club, really a street gang. Usually on tests I would just scrawl in zero. I wouldn’t complete them. Still in spite of this, I enjoyed reading. I read all the time. Some of my readings from my adolescence were: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Junkie by William Burroughs, Confessions of An Opium Eater by DeQuincy , No Blade of Grass by John Christopher to name a few. I had an appetite for reading like I had for heroin. Once in class a teacher called me up and said “ Who wrote this?’ “I wrote it” She said, “ Come on. Who wrote it for you?’ I said: “I tell you what. Give me a topic and I will sit right in front of you and write, while you watch.” So she said “ You did write this.” After that, she worked with me after school for quite some time.”
I went to college in my mid 20’s in New Jersey. I took English Composition and U.S. History. I failed U.S. History, but aced English. But shortly after I dropped out. I went to Franconia College in New Hampshire and did well. I was writing poetry all through this period, literally volumes of poetry which I later lost sometimes between 1962 and 1982. Between being a fugitive and going to prison, I lost everything.
As I said I was a dark little kid. I wrote my first poem when I was thirteen or fourteen. Later in life, I read in Biker’s Bars. From 1982 to 1983 I was in prison for drug possession and sale of drugs. I organized a maximum-security tier poetry reading at Worcester County Prison, where I was incarcerated. The prisoners loved this reading. However the guards were very edgy. I was reading some very provocative drug and crime poems, shouting out lines likes “ Just passing through this fucking state, my mind a cesspool of bubblin’ hate…” The guys were cheering, arms raised, if the poetry reading went on that way for much longer, we might have had a riot. So I switched to love poems, and they quieted down. Needless to say that was the last poetry reading I conducted there.
DH: Any favorite authors in the prison genre?
MG : Of course I like everything by Jean Genet, and Jack Henry Abbot was interesting.
DH: Before you wrote for Spare Change what kind of literary pursuits were you involved in?
MG: Well, I had a reputation for Open Mikes in Florida, where I had lived for awhile. I never really got published until I started working for Spare Change. When I left prison, I started using heroin with a suicidal vengeance. I wrote maybe 12 poems between 1984 to 1994; frankly they weren’t my best. When I was a fugitive, I kept journals but lost them. I never tried to recreate the journals; maybe I will in the future.
DH: What was it like being the editor of Spare Change?
MG: I was the only one available to do the job for the salary they were willing to pay, which wasn’t much. For the first year and a ( 1994 to 1996), all I got for compensation was two hundred papers a week that I could sell. Since I didn’t have time to sell them, other homeless vendors would buy them from me. I was making fifty dollars a week. The paper didn’t have any money. When I was clean I wanted to give back to it. I didn’t want to see it fold. We didn’t have a board of directors because everyone had drifted away. We had major upheavals in which the managing staff ripped off Spare Change to the tune of $30,000.
As editor , I organized the format of the paper. I knew what I wanted the paper to look like. I was writing poetry and essays. The first story I wrote Angels in the Snow, and I later rewrote it and won best story submitted in Streetwise Magazine. During my editorship I covered the Marijuana Rally in the Boston Common, and the Bikes Not Bombs organization. I wrote a story on the underhanded dealings of the Bush family, that I think was the first nasty and comprehensive story to come out of this ilk. Basically the story dealt with Jeb Bush’s business loss to the tune of 4.5 million in 1985 in Florida. He took advantage of laws that were favorable to corporations, and only had to pay about a half a million. The government covered the rest of the loss and the taxpayers suffered. It also dealt with George Bush’s use of insider information to dump a large amount of stock. As a result many share holders of the stock suffered severely. George W. Bush once stated a few years back: “If this was a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier--so long as I am the dictator.” I think this is a very telling statement, don’t you?
So in summary, in March of 1993 I started with Spare Change as a homeless heroin-addict paper vendor. When I became an editor in 1994, I was clean from heroin.
DH: How did Spare Change start?
MG: Spare Change was started by Tim Harris, and seven or eight homeless people in 1992. Tim pulled together a group of people, who hustled and raised money. He acted as a leader and a guide. Tim gave me pointers and how to edit the paper when I took over. I think now he is the head of a street paper Real Change out in Seattle.
DH: Can you talk about your life as an activist and your political views?
MG: I was extremely active against the Vietnam War. I was on Upsulla College radio; as a guest poet. I broadcasted even though even though I was high on drugs, but of course in the Sixties almost everyone was doing drugs.
We use to broadcast information about what to do in case of a tear gas attack by police and things like that. We were shut down by the F.C.C. because of Anti-American activity. I demonstrated over the years, and I was active with the anti-nuke group, the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire.
Most recently, in Feb. of 1993 I hosted a Poets Against the War reading at McIntyre and Moore Books in Davis Square, Somerville. I also organized an anti-war reading ( Iraq Conflict) in March of 2003 at the Central Square Library in Cambridge, Ma., with the poet Douglas Bishop. My poetry is also on the website for Poets Against the War.
I’ve been anti-violence for most of my life. Violence makes me ill. I think war is out of date for where the human species is today. I believe that at this point we have to go beyond perceived differences. We have to step back and take a look. I think if we continue on the path we are on now, we will blow ourselves up and sicken ourselves, and regress to a primitive state. There will be a massive die-off and we will create conditions in our environment in which we can’t survive.
All of us are bits of God. We all see ourselves a s separate, yet we live through the same force. We all come from God, be it Allah or Jesus. I was born a Jew, but I feel like a Buddhist or a Christian.
My goal is to go to bed everyday without any regrets. My passions now are to write and to help other people with the illness of addiction. I want to work toward ending war. To end war as we know it. I want to put myself in front of the war machine and say I won’t tolerate this.
DH: Can you talk about the Jazz CD you produced Getting Fixed with the Cambridge-based Jeff Robinson Trio?
MG: I did that under Jeff Robinson’s Honey-Boo label. Robinson had a open-mike at the well-known Cambridge pub the Plough and Stars ( where the literary magazine Plough and Stars was conceived). I showed up one night to read. I read some poems about addiction, accompanied by music from the Trio. After my set, Robinson said: “ We want to make a CD about heroin addiction and you are going to write it.” We kept in contact, and he kept on bugging me to write. So I gave him a few things about heroin addiction, and he chose this one story I wrote Getting Fixed in South Carolina , which became Getting Straight. It was first written in free verse but I changed it to story form because I got paid for it that way. Jeff Robinson added music and produced the CD. It got some good write-ups in the Boston Globe, etc… It paints an ugly picture many of us don’t want to hear about, but believe it or not, many of us have family members with the illness of addiction.
DH: How do you feel now, as compared to a decade ago?
MG: My life is much different. In April of 1999, I put down heroin. Since then there has been only one minor relapse. I now have a wonderful relationship with a healthy woman who had similar demons that she had to work through. She was homeless, and also an addict. Now she has her doctorate from Brandeis University, and works for a state agency that helps people with disabilities. She treats me better than I feel I deserve to be treated.
Recently I got a job as a drug educator at Cambridge Cares About Aids, an agency in the city. I educate addicts about intravenous needle exchange; basically trading clean needles for used ones. to prevent AIDS. We have a non-judgmental atmosphere in this program. We accept the fact that these folks are addicts, and we help them to stay disease free and alive. These clients are not in this program to kick the habit. If they want help in that regard we assist them with that too.
DH: How hard is it to stay clean?
MG: You must be constantly vigilant. I can’t imagine the future without heroin, so I take it one day at a time. I did have a relapse in October of 2002, but I haven’t since. There have been periods when I have been drug-free for several years, but when things got tough I went back on it. So I take nothing for granted.
DH: What’s replacing the “high” you needed?
MG: I don’t know if anything can replace it, really. I do a lot of work with the development of my spirit. I pray and meditate, and try to help people through service work. All this gives me a good feeling.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with my work. I’d be happy if one of my poems stood the test of time. I won’t be around but my ghost would be chuckling away. My personal growth has to come from my heart. I don’t know how to say it. My poetry says it better.
DH: Do you plan to have a collected anthology of your work?
MG: That’s a long-range possibility. Right now I am working on a collection of essays about drug addiction.
* This article originally appeared in "the new renaissance" magazine. http://www.tnrlitmag.net