Puma Perl comes clean



“knuckle tattoos” strips bare bygone era of LES addiction

Puma Perl is a survivor.  Even she isn’t quite sure how she managed to escape, with everyone around her OD’ing, dying from AIDS or just disappearing. There’s no one from the old days left to hang out with.

Perl’s new collection of poems, “knuckle tattoos,” chronicles her journey from self-destruction through the rocky road to recovery and self-realization. It is a gut wrenching, straight-talking, introspective, take-no-prisoners bumpy ride in which she looks at her life straight in both eyes and makes it blink.  The title says it all. Knuckle tattoos are exposed, and “fisted letters don’t hide meanings entwined in lies and butterflies.”

Structurally, the poems present a week in the life, but not in a linear way. Each day is significant in terms of what the cluster of poems around it means. Sunday defines her environment, starting with “Sunday rituals.” Monday explores her unhappy childhood and primary relationships. Tuesday narrates events after childhood and adolescence, which “found me nodding into my coffee cup.” It’s hitting bottom and rising from the wreckage. When she wakes up on Wednesday, she decides to live and starts to write. Thursday continues “finding freedom” and significant others. Friday reveals more relationships, gets out of the city and travels around the country.  Saturday, the end of the week, looks back and pulls it all together. Sunday addresses losses and births with a glance back and eyes forward.  The first line of the first poem is “i decided to kill myself on a Sunday,” and ends hopefully with the last line of the last poem, “if i keep looking up everything stays clean.”

“It gets to a point where the emotional bottom is one of such emptiness that you either kill yourself or get clean,” stated Perl.  “For many years I didn’t know there were options.  But one day, I ran into somebody who got clean and told me about places I could get help. The seed was planted, and a year later in 1986, I got off heroin with the help of some people, without a formal program. Recovery has become part of the culture now, but at that time it wasn’t.”

From the 1970s to the present, Brooklyn native Perl, when she wasn’t living a nomadic life, has lived mostly on the Lower East Side, currently settled on the eastern end of Water Street. Parts of “knuckle tattoos” narrate growing up in working class Brownsville, leaving the city and coming back. Other parts have to do with abusing drugs and kicking the habit; but it doesn’t center around the LES, like her 2008 character-driven “Belinda and Her Friends,” which got the whole ball rolling.  It garnered the U.K. erbacce-press 2009 Poetry Award for best chapbook, selected from an international field of over 1,400 applicants.  The prize was a contract for a full-length collection, thus, “knuckle tattoos” — her “I book.”  “It’s coming from within rather than observations from without.  Maybe that’s the way my work will always be,” she said.

As a kid she was attracted to the dark side, which she writes about in her early poems. “Looking down into Red Hook, places that seemed dark and mysterious, I was fascinated by addiction, prostitution. If you have an addictive personality, it wasn’t a big leap from doing the gateway drugs to putting a needle in my arm. I would see people nodding out and they looked so peaceful,” she recounted.

“I didn’t make a decision I was going to be a junkie, but at one point, I remember thinking, well, I can just be strung out for the summer [laughs].  Fifteen years later…. I’m not trying to normalize it.  Shooting drugs is not a normal thing to do.  But if you are around so many people doing it, it becomes a part of your life,” she observed.

“knuckle tattoos” is dedicated to her two grown children and to the memory of their fathers, dead for quite some time. Her son’s father, Jonathon B. Grell, was part of the anarchist group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers — and her daughter’s father, Edwin A. Gomez, was born in the projects of Puerto Rican parents. “My grandparents immigrated to the LES, and my father was born there, so there’s a history as well,” she said.

“I didn’t grow up saying I’m going to live on the Lower East Side,” said Perl. “But it’s where I wound up and became entrenched in the neighborhood.  It had a really active street culture. You didn’t need money, it was cheap, you could panhandle and hitchhike out of there. I went beyond the kids who hung out there and moved on.  Maybe if you put me somewhere else, I would have taken on that culture. Maybe it was a lack of sense of self,” she reflected.

Perl lived in a poor neighborhood, but she acknowledged there were other faces to the LES.  “There was the immigrant experience of people just trying to survive, working people trying to get by, artists and the upper middle class. Now with gentrification and Bloomberg’s Manhattan, we’re becoming homogenized, but the LES that existed in the years I’m talking about, for better or worse, no longer exists.  Even if that were not part of your life, if you had taken a walk down certain blocks, it would have been part of your life at that moment.”

By her own account, Perl is a Poster Girl for Reinvention.  After subsisting as a “professional welfare mother” who worked the system, she became a social worker, eventually earning an MSW in 2006.  She had considered going for an MFA in writing but didn’t think she was worthy.  She stayed at the job for a year more and then took off on the back of a bike for two months with a laptop in the side bag.

“I was writing and submitting work and that’s when it all started to come together.  I had submitted stuff before that and been rejected.  The first time I was invited to read somewhere, I thought I was going to throw up.  Then it became so natural. I had a sense of exuberance to be able to perform and read.  What I’m doing recently is much more performance oriented, and I have a passion for doing it,” she said.

Regrets, she has a few. “I’m not going to say I don’t get very frustrated and self-incriminatory. Why didn’t I do this before, why wasn’t I doing what I wanted to do?  I’m not even talking about when I was on this fucked up path. Even when I got clean, why the hell wasn’t I doing this?”

However, she is also savvy enough to admit she can’t change the past. “It is what it is,” she sighed. But her past has produced some awesome poetry, and the present is looking up from there.