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My Life Among the Outlaw Poets

Christopher Miguel Flakus

Bill “Big Country” Bandolini, 1971 Galveston, Texas---2021 Marfa, Texas

Bill wouldn’t have liked to hear himself referred to as a “cowboy poet.” More than likely Bill’d give you his famous gap-toothed grin, put an arm on your shoulder and lay a blast of beer-breath on your face as he said, “No I ain’t, son. I’m a goddamn storyteller.”

And that he was. Bandolini was the son of first-generation Italian immigrants who operated a small specialty meats store in Galveston, Texas. They worked with Sal Maceo¹ from 1942 until his death in 51. After that, the family moved to Houston and his father worked a series of odd jobs before opening up his own restaurant, “The Spaghetti Westerner,” a Texas-themed Italian joint off Studewood and 21st street. Their former employer Sal Maceo, as it turned out, went down as a racketeer and small-time gangster, but remains remembered as a kind of Robin Hood to the people of Galveston. He’d once famously “escorted” Al Capone off the island and was well known for saving businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, asking nothing in return. The Maceo’s cared about the island. Sal was double-crossed by a snitch and their whole empire crumbled. The Maceo specialty meats shop exists to this day, the last remnant of a once-great dynasty.

It’s always been hard to be an immigrant in this country. Some things will never change. This, coupled with the fact that his family was Jewish and he had an ever-growing interest in boys instead of girls, seemed destined to mark young William Bandolini forever. He relied on his own rich inner life to keep him sane through middle school. Blessed with a truly boundless imagination, Bill “improvised” in his room alone. Every night after dinner he’d excuse himself from the table and scuttle upstairs to his room, where he would conjure entire worlds. Battles, romances, and tall tales of the wildest proportions. Every single story he conjured invariably ended up set out West, on the plains of Texas or the rock-strewn bush of Nevada. But this fantastical dreamscape had little or nothing to do with the reality, either historical or current, of that region in the United States. It remained the constant inner-landscape of his life. A place where both dreams and poetry were born.²

Young William Bandolini thought constantly of how best to go about casting off everything life had so unjustly imposed upon him. He fought tooth and nail to become something better than what life seemed to have set out for him. Bill saved money, begged and stole, even turned his first trick, until he bought himself an acoustic guitar at the age of fifteen. It had been all he’d ever wanted. To become a songwriter. To tell real stories.

When asked how he felt at that moment, having achieved such a long-held goal in his heart, he shrugged and said: “I started saving up right then and there for my next big purchase: a gun. That turned out to be one helluva bad idea.”

What he really lacked, Bill decided one drunken night in the only sort-of gay bar he could find in all of Conroe, was a persona. He’d just turned nineteen years old when he’d finally earned the money from one lucky scratch-off ticket worth $250 and a few profitable drug deals. He bought the gun, a .38 revolver that reminded him of the kind Popeye (Played by Gene Hackman in the film) wore on his ankle in The French Connection.

When he’d finally reached the point of drunkenness which makes mad thoughts invade the minds and souls of weak, intoxicated, and distressed men like Bill “Big Country” Bandolini, he grabbed his gun and knocked over a gas station without even bothering to wear a mask. A shivering attendant rattled all the money out of the register into an open plastic bag. Bill yawped his best goddamn “Yee-haw!” and put three bullet holes through the ceiling and one through the window that was just meant to leave a little hole like but brought down the entire side windowpane in a fountain of shattered glass. Bill leaned over the counter and kissed the attendant on the top of his oily, bald head. Just for shits and giggles.

“I don’t know why I did the fucking thing to begin with,” Bill told me, the one and only time he related the tale to me in its entirety. “But I really don’t know why I laid the smooch on the poor bastard at the end. That’s what makes me feel really awful to this day. Fuck the gas station, fuck the money. I must’ve scared the living shit out of that poor man behind the counter who’d done no wrong to me at all. I deserved what I got.”

They caught up with Bill an hour later, about five miles down the road, gun and money in his lap, asleep in his truck. He’d only scored a hundred and fifty dollars.

Prison wasn’t all those country songs cracked it out to be, Bill soon found out. He ended up getting five years, which the judge assured him was a lenient sentence considering the utter recklessness and shameless nature of his crime.

“Thank God the prosecution never found out I was gay,” Bill sighed when he told me his story. “If they’d brought that piece of evidence out into court, I’d have gotten twice as long. Maybe life.”

“The Walls,” is in the city of Huntsville and is the most famous prison in Texas and the current home of the death chamber. It’s where all inmates initially go after catching chain out of the county jails that initially housed them and it’s where those on death row wait, pray, and appeal until their last breaths. It’s what’s known as a “transfer facility,” meaning inmates will likely spend no longer than two or three years there either waiting to be killed, transferred to another unit, or paroled out.

Bill certainly staked his hopes on the last eventuality.

In prison, Bill began doing two things which would alter the course of his life forever. He began reading and writing poetry and he began working out. His body, mind, and soul, he’d read in some Buddhist book, were all part of the same ever-fluctuating force. By bettering his body, as he’d read in another book, not exactly Buddhist but by a Japanese author named Yukio Mishima, who was also a body-builder. One book in particular, Sun and Steel, had a profound effect on Big Country.

From then on he read from it daily the way some inmates read from the 12 Steps or The Bible. Over the next six months he bettered everything about himself. Perfection existed within the reach of certain men. Bill believed himself to be among them. Touched by something special and terrible. Doomed and destined for things beyond the normal scope, for better or worse. He worked out until his muscles screamed. Every night he read and wrote. First letters. Letter to no-one. To Rock Hudson, Charlie Chaplin. Just for fun. Then the letters turned into stories. Little by little one or two stories turned into a dozen.

His writing earned him a reputation for penmanship which blossomed into a fruitful jailhouse career. He wrote poems to thousands of inmate’s wives, girlfriends, and plenty of their prison boyfriends too. He wrote a lot of “One-Handed Reads,” as he liked to put it. Dirty stories for the other inmates.

“I wrote custom work you see,” I remember Bill wiping BBQ sauce from his long gray beard when he told me. We were in the backyard at some sober event, the both of us trying to keep off the booze for different reasons. I can’t remember what his were, but I’d gotten busted with some pot and had routine drug tests to put up with. I couldn’t even drink. Bill had decided to shape up for some new boyfriend of his, a sassy Montrose twink with almost as much fight in him as Bill had. His name was Gary and was one of Bill’s last lovers if I remember correctly.

Bizarrely, though most inmates were still outwardly aggressive and hostile to homosexuals, prison didn’t necessarily frown down on it in every case. I asked Bill outright, “How was it for you in there? I mean, being a gay man. Weren’t they horrible to you?” He said that it wasn’t much better than the free world, but it wasn’t that much worse either. The more he worked out, the more his muscles swelled and his chest struck out from his wide body, the less anyone dared to call him “punk” or “faggot.”

The last inmate to do so got his jaw broken by a single punch before Bill threw him off the second story tier of their cellblock. The man fell with a sound the Bill said he would never forget. His mouth opened as if he were about to describe the sound or maybe even--I remember the thought occurring to me then, but thinking about it now it would have been quite ludicrous of him to do so--maybe even imitate the noise vocally. Instead Bill’s voice trailed off. He said nothing but looked profoundly sad. In a small voice he told me that nobody fucked with him ever again. He said it bitterly, without a hint of pride. I think he never forgave himself. No one on the block said a world even though they’d all seen Big Country do it. He’d earned respect. From there on out, things went smoother. But he’d had to take a man’s life and that’s not something that goes away. I learned a valuable lesson that day: be careful what you ask people who’ve been to war and prison about what it’s like when the shit gets bad.

Because it’s worse than we could ever imagine or understand.

In the third year of his five year prison sentence, Big Country fell in love. His name was Arthur Maddis. Arthur had been a bright and promising mathematician as a child and grew up to become a successful accountant at a prestigious firm, like many of his brothers and sisters. Old Austin money. They claimed to be descendents of the great Stephen F Austin himself. Arthur had grown used to living a double life already. He’d hidden his homosexuality from them successfully since he was twelve years old. His foray into crime occurred under similar circumstances, something he’d later virulently blame society for. “They made me equate the way I loved with crime. I was already a criminal in their eyes, so I thought fuck y’all I’m gonna make some profit.”

The Maddis family name, however, would forever become besmirched when a cache of drugs and guns were found at a safe house with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. The money trail eventually led the Feds back to Arthur. He’d only balanced their books a few times (for an obscene amount of money). He moved some funds from one account to another and he made a couple choice pieces of paper disappear. He’d incurred some gambling debts, a lifelong vice of Arthur’s (along with sex, cocaine, poppers, alcohol, marijuna, Xanax, Valuum, Viagra, and Ketamine), to the wrong people. What choice did he have? He did whatever they asked of him and they paid him a hell of a lot of money to do it. When the Feds brought him in and told him to cooperate, Arthur didn’t say a word. Far more afraid of the Cartel than the FBI, he very sweetly told them to go fuck themselves and ate the charge. His family hired the best lawyer in Texas and Arthur only got four years in the end. Sure, they disowned him, but that was later. After he told them he was HIV+. But I’m jumping ahead…

“These drug dealer fellas don’t ask nicely,” Arthur told Bill late one night, the two of them together on the bottom bunk of their shared cot (by then Bill had arranged to have Arthur moved into his cell by bribing a few bosses and calling in a couple favors).

“You did the right thing darlin’,” Bill said, rubbing his large rough palm up and down Arthur’s flat stomach. “We’re not going to be here forever. When I get out, I’m going to publish books. I’m going to be a big writer one day. I’m going to be the first great writer from Texas.”

“What are you talking about,” Arthur laughed. “There’s lots of great writers from Texas.”

“There are?” Bill asked, incredulous and embarrassed at the same time.

“But don’t worry,” Arthur said, kissing him chastely on the lips in teased affection. “There’s always room for another.”³

Arthur devoted his prison sentence to sharpening Bill’s mind. His family sent dozens of books beginning with the classics: Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, before moving on to Joyce, Beckett, Auden, Pound, and Frank O’Hara, whom Bill adored and critics would later note as a primary influence on his own work.

It was Shakespeare that finally grabbed Big Country, gave him a good shake, and made him a real writer. Got him by the soul the way no other thing had, perhaps even including his love for Arthur. Big Country poured over the tragedies and histories, favoring them to the comedies, at least at first.

Arthur felt a sudden, bewildered jealousy at the intensity with which Bill devoted himself to work. A month later he’d produced a book called Desensitization Tank: A Cyclone of Prison Poems by Bill “Big Country '' Bandolini. Arthur read them and felt so moved, so impressed, that all traces of his jealousy disappeared. In fact, he felt proud of himself. He felt damn proud. He looked up at the eager, frightened face of the man he loved and thought it was lined with worry, scars, and leathery from years spent working under the sun, at that moment he looked just like a little boy.

“Well,” Bill asked Arthur. “What do you think?”

“Baby,” Arthur said, whistling. “I think this just might be the real deal.”

Bill’s poems bounce you alongside him from the saddle to the bedroom, the bucking of equine bodies intermingling weirdly and at times indistinguishably in an erotic western romp that’s half Jodorowsky and half Badger Clarke, America’s great, forgotten cowboy poet, the cowboy poet’s Whitman, their primogenitor and greatest saint.

Desensitization Tank was successfully smuggled out of Huntsville inside the anus’s of five separate inmates and one reluctant woman’s vagina in the visiting room.

Of course Bill tried sending it out through the mail first, but the bosses wouldn’t let it through. They deemed it “filth,” and “pornography” which was strictly against the rules to write, promulgate, sell, send, or receive through the prison mail system. Initially, Bill seemed despondent. He’d nearly given up hope on writing when Arthur brought the five brave queens into their shared cell.

“Get up baby,” Arthur said sternly. “These three gals got something they need to say, and you need to listen.”

They knelt at the foot of Bill’s cell and saluted him, brave soldiers every one.

“We’ll get your book out of here boss,” they swore to Bill. “You just leave it up to us.”

Though the stern Judge Hawley Jenkins of Harris County’s 232nd District Court would deny that the success of Desensitization Tank had any impact on his decision to parole Bill “Big Country” Bandolini, it’s hard to imagine his being paroled under any other circumstances.

Arthur had preceded him in being paroled and was living in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston where he’d prepared a nice three-bedroom house for them just a few blocks from the Rothko Chapel, where Bill would later spend many hours, either inside gazing at the massive black paintings, or out by the broken obelisk with his acoustic guitar, plucking gently at his nylon strings.

1992 Arthur succumbed to complications from the AIDS virus and died quietly, peacefully, and with dignity, in Big Country’s arms at their shared home on Dunlavy street. Bill remained inconsolable a full year after Arthur’s death, though a diligent and loyal group of friends (which included Arthur’s parents and siblings, all of whom had come to accept Bill as one of their own, a remarkable thing in it of itself considering the family’s conservative roots and their initial disavowal of Arthur upon first hearing the news of his diagnosis) supported him through the darkest nights of his mourning.

On the second-year anniversary of Arthur’s death Bill published Saddle Song, a swan song for his lover, for an entire generation of young men lost to a terrible disease, towards the end of the poem (which is epic in length, fluid, mutable, at times orchestrating itself into a semblance of structure before succumbing to harsh reconfiguration, taking on new dimensions, defying categorization) it grows angry, reaching its pitch as a cry of rage denouncing the indifference of a government which allowed so many to die simply because of who they were.

The book is, of course, dedicated to Arthur, but also to the millions of victims of AIDS. Through many poems and an extended introduction, Bill thanks and details his various friendships with Arthur’s family following Arthur’s death. Critics and fans agree that these sections of the poem are the strongest and among Bill’s finest work.

Saddle Song can hardly be classified as a “poem” by normal standards. Critics have compared it to other literary works that defy categorization like Guilty by Georges Bataille and Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector, who coincidentally (or perhaps not) were two of Bill’s favorite writers along with Gide, Genet, Trocchi, Lowry, and Camus.

Larry Kramer, the famous playwright responsible for Faggots called Big Country’s book: “A raucous tour-d-e force. It grabs you by the throat and pulls you out of time in its first section, then whisks you to our current age of plague and the dead that have been forgotten by so many.” The conclusion of its second section culminates with a punk shriek of defiance against all those who sat idly by and watched as the crisis worsened and worsened. The lack of education. The fear. The fear of being breathed on, of being touched. Imagine that? Fear of breath. Fear of touch.

“This is the reminder that we needed to shake ourselves free from the uneasy, placated sleep we’ve succumbed to,” Bill said. “There’s always a group on the bottom. Always someone whose touch or breath will be feared. Until that kind of thinking is eradciated what does it matter? Fuck what it matters,” Bill loved to say, “what do it mean?”

The next few years saw Bill move from Austin to the oppressive, endless flatness of the desert in Marfa, Texas, where he held a writing residency for several years. Although he continued to work and produce novels, books of poems, and theoretical texts, this came to be known as his “minor period,” though there are still many notable exceptions and all in all, it must be admired as the most prolific time in his career despite its lack of “major works.” Bill dedicated himself to painting (which by his own admission he was awful at) and spent most of his time out on the desert plains, on his his horse, a real Texas mare named Rebecca, not so much because of the novel by Daphne DuMaurier, but the film adaptation which he fondly remembered seeing as a child.

In Marfa, Bill published several theoretical, book-length essays through Semiotext(e) on topics as diverse as human sexuality, decolonial indigineous movements of the American West, and a small pamphlet on survival skills necessary in an urban war environment. These combined became canonical just a year after his death. They were heralded as heirs to Witold Gombrowicz’s Diaries. It wasn’t the first time the two authors had been mentioned in the same breath. When asked about this comparison, Bill simply retorted by asking: “We told who what?”

Bill remained in Marfa and in general, was said to live a peaceful life, until suddenly experiencing a coronary event in 2021, having just successfully survived the pandemic. His burial was live-streamed to tens of thousands of computers. The ACLU Honored him with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement award and the pin was clipped to his big 70’s style lapel in the casket. Steve Earle dedicated all the performances on his upcoming North American tour to Bill “Big Country” Bandolini and even named his album, “Desensitization Tank,” as an homage to William Big Country Bandolini. American original and outlaw poet.

1. For friends and the few readers I can count as my fans (perhaps only with the fingers of one hand, perhaps two) it will come as no surprise that I’ve decided to unearth this period of time from my past in the hopes of exploring the last uncharted territory in all of literature.

When I was twelve years old my parents, prompted by my father’s sudden interest in the poetry of Badger Clarke, quit their jobs, sold the house, and took to the road. We joined a caravan of touring cowboy poets and for a period of several years traveled across Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, The Dakotas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, California, and especially Texas. Although at the time, being only thirteen years old, I couldn’t appreciate either the breathtaking beauty of the lands we crossed by Jeep or the cowboy ballads themselves (which I found corny (keep in mind I’d only just turned thirteen and was as dour and uninterested as any boy that age), the oral tradition they preserved, but above all the cowboy tradition it preserved.

Over the next ten years I began to form attachments to the other poets simply due to the frequency with which my family attended readings, cowboy happenings, bonfires, and booze-soaked BBQ’s. You could say that I was in a sense partially raised by the cowboy poets. I discovered the outlaw contingent as a teenager. Looking back, it was a fine time in my life and I’m richer and happier for it, but as is often the case with such idyllic, happy times, it’s only in retrospect we’re able to identify them as such. 2. Tangential to the greater genre of “Cowboy Poetry,” is the subgenre, “Outlaw Poetry,” which comprised the roughest cowboy poets of the bunch. These were the cowboys who’d done time in jails across the border in Juarez. Or who’d had bullets extracted on kitchen dining tables, their buddies digging out the lead with tweezers and a hunting knife (all this after a drunken gunfight. Rather than risk going to a hospital where they’d ask questions. I’m thinking specifically of an incident I witnessed with Stanislau “Combo” Valinsky, an unlikely Russian-born outlaw poet from Houston who decided that his friends Patrich Grupple (a fool and a pimp who still owes me forty dollars) and Kique would be able to patch him up, probably, without letting him bleed out. Stanslau’s book of prison poems, Concrete Island was a finalist for the coveted Badlands Cowboy Poetry Award for best new book in 1997).

Here, at last, among the riffraff of my parents' beloved cowboy poetry scene, I’d found my people. The slow doldrums of the usual cowboy poetry readings, the more civil, moderate readings my parents preferred were suddenly replaced, or perhaps it’s better to say that they were electrified and given life by a new style, form of delivery, and a rock n roll swagger that captivated my young mind. All I wanted, then and now, and what I will never achieve, is to be a real outlaw poet. Alas, I am doomed to be a humble scholar. So I will devote my time to recounting these great lives and hopefully some of you will find value in this. 3. From the only existent definition found in a short-lived bilingual, Trotskyite literary magazine from Houston called Nepantla, from Issue Number Six, 1978: “The so-called “Outlaw Poets,” are in fact a group of maniacal, anarchistic, exuberant revolutionary writers that can be regarded as friends to the revolution. They’ve been called “Situationists on horseback.” and in fact the claim is not as far off as one would think. The Outlaw Poets are known to practice psychogeography almost religiously. Preferably by horseback, though more and more we’re seeing that tradition replaced by cars and especially motorcycles. The Outlaw Poets began as an offshoot from American Cowboy Poetry as a whole. Some of these writers are famous and their names will likely be familiar to you, dear reader. Some are barely known to the world, little more than a breath, that perhaps wouldn’t exist at all were it not for research conducted by I, your humble author and biographer. I propose this be an ongoing project. I can have this book-length tome written by the end of summer. It, as you see, is part autobiography and part bestiary. On one hand I speak of my time attending outlaw readings and my friendships and direct experience with the outlaw poet culture, which I remain fascinated by to this day. However, the bulk of the book and what might end up being the only sections that I keep are the biographies of the outlaw poets themselves.

This text comprises my favorite biographies. This, Bill Bandolini’s, is one of my favorite poets and also one of my closest friends towards the end of his life. He was a friend to me and a great friend to my writing and I owe him a lot. I humbly assert that he is the most important voice of our generation, but because of the kindness and friendship Big Country showed to me. I admit that I’m perhaps a little biased.

This ongoing literary project is for Bill and for them. The wild ones. The tattooed and grease-haired, the outside-the-outsiders, the gas station ghosts and every lost soul on every skid row or place like it all over the earth. Just a handful of them were given voices strong enough to sing. Every drop of blood, of ink, is dedicated to my outlaw brothers and sisters.

4. This novel, by American writer and AIDS Activist Larry Kramer, caused quite a stir upon its publication. Not the moral majority (obviously they’d never even make it past the title or be reading Kramer in the first place.), it came from within the queer community itself. Kramer’s frank portrayal of gay culture, drug use, and sex. This was pre-AIDS, of course. Most of the gay scene supported Kramer and the novel is now regarded as a classic.

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