Once you’ve heard Puma Perl read her poems, solo or accompanied by live musicians, you can’t help but hear that voice in your head as you read her work on the printed page.
It’s a voice as distinctive as her poetry, born in Brooklyn and nourished on the streets of New York. Seeing her perform at the Anyway Cafe, where she has a residency, or the 11th St. Bar or Bowery Electric or one of the other East Village spots where she has been known to frequent, you would never suspect that there was a time when she spent the moments before going onstage “sick to my stomach.” Around 2006 was the first she read at an open mic and said, “I’m never doing that again!”
Nowadays, she commands the attention — sometimes literally — of the audience while fronting a band that can expand to seven or eight musicians. Awhile ago at the Map Room, she stopped the show to admonish a particularly talkative set of patrons.
“If you want to talk,” Perl informed them, “there’s plenty of room out in the bar. As a matter of fact, there’s even more room out in the street.”
Puma is definitely deserving of your attention as she recites unflinching tales and observations of her past and present — somewhat reminiscent of early Patti Smith, but without the pretension.
The past is a long story — leaving home at 17, 20 years of on-and-off heroin addiction, two deceased husbands (by suicide and heroin overdose) , two children (now adults and doing well), bouncing from apartment to apartment in the East Village before ending up in the Lower East Side where she’s resided for several decades.
“It was so much easier then,” she recalls. “There were always cheap apartments available. My first one on East 10th Street between 1st and 2nd was $86 a month.” She recalls moving from her fifth-floor walkup to the building next door by throwing her stuff from one roof to another.
Although her parents had drilled into her that “being an artist was for other people” and encouraged her to aspire to a civil service job, Perl had her own ideas.
“Writing was always something I was good at growing up, but for awhile I thought poetry was stupid,” she says. “My secret, burning desire was to be an actress – I guess that’s why I like performing now, all these years later.”
After getting clean, putting herself through grad school and becoming a social worker in 2005, she began to write again after having not had much time for that pursuit.
“I had a very demanding full time job as a director for a housing project people with AIDS, I had two kids, I was in graduate school and my mother — who I never had a good relationship with — developed dementia,” she recalls.
Eventually, Perl got out of the house and onto the stage, with one night being particularly memorable. It was a benefit for Hurricane Sandy victims at Bowery Electric, headlined by the somewhat notorious David Peel — at least that was the plan.
“Peel decided that he didn’t like his time slot and, well, he peeled off,” Perl recalled. Joff Wilson (The Bowery Boys, Soulcake) was also on the bill and Puma ended up closing the show with Wilson backing her up, beginning a collaboration that continues to the present.
“We just winged it and it went well, so we just kept going,” says Wilson. He’s now a fixture in “Puma Perl and Friends,” although the lineup does change from place to place.
Their partnership is “totally organic,” Wilson explains. Some of their material is rehearsed, but much of it is musically improvised. Puma will sometimes pull out a poem which the band – which can include a drummer, two guitars, a bass, two saxes and maybe a harmonica, violin or clarinet – has never heard before.
“I ask Puma, is it a happy or sad mood?” Wilson says. He starts to play something accordingly and the band follows along. “Everyone she plays with brings something extra,” he adds, “and Puma is always in control.”
Guitarist Joe Sztabnik, also a singer/songwriter, is Perl’s other major musical partner. Like Wilson, he’s flexible enough to go into parts unknown when called for.
“Collaborating with Puma is the easiest thing in the world,” he states. “Improvising with her is invigorating — she’ll give me a mood or a tempo and I’ll just follow it. Her words sing — they are authentic to her life. We’re confident in what we do and I have 100% faith that we’ll pull it off.”
“I wish I had more confidence when I was younger,” Perl admits, “ but I didn’t have a lot of ambition then.”
Nowadays, she lets on that she’s “horrible at business,” but that “as an artist I’m always looking for the next thing to do.” She’s published five collections of her poems and is looking forward to releasing some audio, which at the moment can only be checked out on YouTube.
Although she relates to Bruce Springsteen, who recently told Howard Stern that he only writes when he “has something to say,” Perl seems pretty prolific.
“I used to jot things down on scraps of paper, now I just stop in the street and write on my phone,” she says. “Every April I write a poem a day.”
Sztabnik doesn’t have to think much when it comes to summing her up as an artist: “For all the words out there, all the songwriters, she’s the cream – the real deal. There aren’t many of them left.”
Puma Perl and friends will be at Anyway Cafe on Monday, Jan. 9. Her books are available at bookshop.org and Amazon. She has a blog at pumaperl.blogspot.com and is on Instagram at @pumaperlandfriendsband.