In Search of San Quentin’s Prison Poet


Posted by in May's Magazine

The first Ed ‘Foots” Lipman poem I ever read was Because San Quentin Killed Two More Today, discovered in a collection published in 1977 called Second Coming Volume 5 No1, where Lipman appears last of three poets alongside A.D. Winans and the infamous Charles Bukowski. I had never been so affected by a poem in my whole life – its honesty and sensitivity were two attributes I had never before associated with the habitual criminal class to which Lipman belonged. So naturally, as is now the way, I searched for his name on the internet, found little to nothing, and felt overwhelmingly compelled to change that.

Before experiencing his poetry, I read a short biography outlining Lipman’s life as a prisoner and a letter that he had written; he mentions the famous prisoner poet William Wantling and asks, ‘Did he not once graduate from this concrete sewer?’. He was, of course, referring to California’s notorious Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison, San Quentin. Even in this environment and among its flawed and frightening characters, Ed “Foots” Lipman was described by those who met him as “something of a legend among prisoners” – a mix between Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Randall P. McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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Born on New Year’s Day 1941, this MENSA-recognised man went on to spend almost 15 of his 34 years in the U.S. prison system. He was paroled from San Quentin on the 22nd May 1975 and died on the 8th September of natural causes. He had been free for just 3 months and 17 days.

Now, sitting writing this article about the man, my desk is covered with snippets of information collected over months of research; court transcript documents, prison records, mug shots, finger prints and newspaper cut-outs dating all the way back to his first offence in 1958 when he stole a ‘57 Buick Sedan from the Iron Coal and Coke Company in Wichita Falls, and drove it 6000 miles across America, evading capture 8-10 times (all at the age of 17). To my left is a photograph of Lipman and his publisher, A.D. Winans, at a reading – one of the few pictures of Lipman still in existence.

There’s a feature article from a magazine in which an inmate recalls the time Lipman refused to give a prison guard the piece of paper that he was writing on (we must imagine it was a poem). This resulted in a fight and Lipman – the 250-pound 6ft 5” Texan – throwing the guard out of his cell. He was visited later by the “goon squad” and subjected to tear gas and clubs, a combination that sent him straight to the prison hospital.

These are just snippets of a life less ordinary, but my own entry into this story had begun with a late night transatlantic phone call to the San Quentin Prison public relations department, who were, despite their best efforts, not equipped to deal with a bizarre request, made in broad Scottish brogue, regarding a prisoner from 40 years ago. Understandable, when all I had was a name.

I fared partially better with the Californian State Archives who found some of the information I had requested: microfiche documents of his mug shot, finger prints and prison record. I also submitted a freedom of information request to the FBI, for which I’m still waiting, although it has been acknowledged. At this point, having exhausted all official avenues, I decided to investigate whether the original publisher was still in business. Of course they weren’t, but fortuitously, one of the poets featured, A.D.Winans, was actually the person who had run Second Coming Press, the publisher of the collection that introduced me to Lipman. I checked whether he was alive.

He was. I emailed. I waited. Three months went by.

Then came a reply from Winans now 81 years old, and as surprised by my enquiry as I was his reply. He answered all questions, most importantly regarding whether Lipman had further work. It turns out he had published one chapbook, Winans informed, back in 1975, titled No Capital Crime.

This was all I needed. I discovered that a rare book dealer in San Francisco had a copy so I contacted him. He knew nothing of Lipman, the chapbook having been bought unintentionally – but for me serendipitously – in a job lot. With another purchase and import expense run up against the ever-increasing “quest” account I waited feverishly for it to arrive. It was during this time that I had the idea of republishing all Lipman’s work. I had no experience of doing this but by now I was regularly corresponding with A.D. Winans, so ran the idea past him and he was more than happy. 

I asked Winans once more if there was anything missing, and there was. At some point in the last 40 years Winans had donated all his Second Coming Press work, which included original letters, poems and past issues, to Brown University’s creative archives. ‘There has to be something in there from Lipman’ he wrote, sure that there was a tape of both men reading in 1975 – the only recording in existence. So, next stop from the correctional facility that is San Quentin was the Ivy League.

Winans was right, they had everything: prison letters Lipman had sent to friends, first draft submissions of poems, final drafts and newspaper clippings and, most importantly, that tape of them both reading…Lipman starts nervously, the first poem is short and there’s no applause from the crowd. He moves quickly onto the next. There’s a pause, then a loud cheering this time. This seems to settle him and he is then entertaining and calm throughout the rest of the reading even stopping in between poems to tell stories.

I knew that I could never profit from another man’s work and that sales from the proposed book, however small, should go to a good cause of which Lipman would have hopefully approved. I started corresponding with a woman who runs the creative writing class at San Quentin and asked if she had ever heard of Lipman (sadly, she was yet another who had not). But we agreed on the charity that provides her funding for San Quentin and Folsom as the best place for any profits to go. Hopefully this will play some small part in Lipman’s name echoing around the prison once more, for all the right reasons. Hopefully it will inspire others trapped behind its walls and wire.

It’s difficult to talk about a man like Ed “Foots” Lipman without either glorifying or vilifying him, hard not to concentrate only on his crimes as there seems little else to map out his life. But then of course, there is the work. With that in mind, I’ll end with a line I think perfectly sums this up, the last from a short review of unknown origins that I had translated from its original Portuguese, about the poem Prison Poem for Instance. It simply reads. ‘Don’t be misled by the apparent artlessness’. 

Info: Only by Flashlight: Collected Poems of Ed “Foots” Lipman with an introduction by Scott J Lawrie (Published by Laura Press £10 RRP). All enquiries: scott.j.lawrie@hotmail.com

Timeline

01/01/1941

Born in Waco, Texas

13/11/1958

Age 17: Arrested for stealing ’57 Buick Sedan

05/05/1959

Age 18: Awaiting trial, receives 3 years 11 months

11/01/1965 – 09/02/1965 – 23/02/1965

Age 24: Arrested for robbery. Pleads guilty to robbery of first degree. Prison term starts – 5 to life

07/08/1967

Age 26: Escapes the Halls of Justice in Tujunga, Los Angeles, California

02/03/1968 – 06/10/1968 – 18/10/1968

Age 27: Caught after 7 months and 5 days. Attempted

escape San Diego County Jail. Pleads not guilty acting as his own lawyer

11/02/1969 – 26/06/1969

Age 28: Convicted of attempted escape from lawful custody of the San Diego County Jail by force of violence and kidnapping – 10 years to life. Sent to San Quentin prison

02/10/1970

Age 29: Moved to Folsom Prison

09/08/1971

Age 30: Moved to San Quentin Prison Hospital

25/03/1975 – 22/05/1975

Age 34: Granted parole. Freed from San Quentin Prison Hospital.

08/09/1975

(Deceased)

Because Truth Is Seldom Silent

(San Quentin killed two more today)

 I have seen some good friends

lie bleeding

on The Yard

broken victims

of the errors in us all.

(The wall doesn’t care:

it’s savage stones washed

by peaceful rains,

it’s solid eye recording

our every move.)

We write down their names

and remember their faces

at night

or in lines at mealtime.

But, altho we watch completely

the weeks melt in to months

and soon those myths are silent,

placed with respect

in books nobody knows.

 

 

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