Ira Cohen reads a poem for Ronnie Burk

Into the Mylar Chamber by Ira Cohen, published by Fulgur Press, UK, 2019

April 1st…April Fool’s Day…Birthday of Ronnie Burk:

Surrealist Poet, Chicano, heretical AIDS activist, prophetic collage artist, Witch.

Untitled collage by Ronnie Burk

Ronnie Burk was a visionary creative force who participated in a dizzying number of political and artistic communities. As a student at Naropa University in the 1970s, he studied under Allen Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima. As a resident of the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, he associated with David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner and programmed the calendar at NUYORICAN Poet’s Cafe for Miguel Algarín.

Video still from Ronnie Burk’s 8mm film of Charles Henri Ford in his NYC apartment.

In San Francisco in the 1990s, he protested alongside the two most fearless and feared HIV+ activists Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli. As a Surrealist poet, he called both Phillip Lamantia and Charles Henri Ford friends. As a Chicano artist, he associated with Ana Castillo and Miguel Piñero.

Video still from Ronnie Burk’s 8mm film of Charles Henri Ford making a collage in his NYC apartment.

It was Ronnie who first introduced me to Harold Norse in 1999. One night at an ACT UP San Francisco meeting (we were both active members) he showed me a copy of Harold’s cut-up novel Beat Hotel, which I’d only read about but never seen.

When Ronnie died of complications from AIDS in 2003, memorials were held in the two cities he had called home: San Francisco and Manhattan.

It was at the NYC memorial that Ira Cohen read his tribute “Poem for Ronnie Burk” which was later printed in Ira’s chapbook Chaos and Glory. The accompanying video was recorded by Colin Hayle.

Ira Cohen, poet, photographer, filmmaker, magician, first met Harold Norse in Tangier in the early 1960s. It was Ira who first published Harold’s breakthrough cut-up text “Sniffing Keyholes” in his seminal publication Gnaoua.

It was also Ira who photographed Harold in his legendary Mylar Chamber. One of those images later graced the cover of Harold’s classic collection of gay themed poems Carnivorous Saint (Gay Sunshine Press, 1976).

The Mylar Chamber was a series of moveable wood panels covered in mylar which Ira used, in a loft on New York’s Jefferson Street, between 1968 to 1971 to create fantastical psychedelic images of his friends and visitors, such as Jack Smith, Angus MacLise and Vali Myers, dressed up in fanciful clothes and colorful makeup. A collection of these photographs, accompanied by an insightful essay by Ian Macfayden, was published in 2019 by Fulgur Press in the UK.

Ira Cohen’s Mylar Chamber photo of Angus MacLise

Among the many cultural contributions of ACT UP San Francisco, which included a pirate radio show, magazine publishing and a TV show, was a monthly poetry reading–OPEN REVOLT! Both Harold Norse and Ronnie Burk were featured poets at the first reading, on August 9, 2000, which was captured on film by the renowned archivist KUSH. At another reading in January 2001, Ronnie read from his review of an exhibition of Ira’s photographs. You can listen to a low-fi recording of it.

Ronnie Burk reads his review of Ira Cohen’s photography retrospective 2000.

Sky*Boat, Ronnie’s selected poems and collages, was compiled and edited thanks to the dedicated work of his close friend and fellow writer Mia Kirsi Stageberg. It was published in 2012 by Kolourmeim Press.

To read more about his life, read my post at arteidolia.

To understand more about Ronnie’s impassioned AIDS activism, read my post at ACT UP Archives.

There remains an abundance of material from Ronnie’s archives which have yet to transfer to the digital realm. In the meantime, his poetry (like Harold’s) continues to guide and inspire us with his ferocious prophecy. Take his poem “Asoka” which can be heard at the clip below. This could be culled from the headlines of panic-stricken 2020.

Ronnie Burk reads his poem “Asoka”
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