Speaking to a crowd at the Festival of California Poets in 2007, poet and scholar Harryette Mullen introduced Bob Kaufman's woefully under-celebrated but critically acclaimed work by saying: "He often seems to be overlooked when people discuss African American poets, partly because he's a Beat writer. And he often seems to be left out of a lot of Beat history because he was a Black writer." She concluded her brief introduction to the poet by adding, "He dedicated himself to the antithesis of a literary career."
Unlike Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, Kaufman's removal/liberation from mainstream bourgeois society by way of poetry wasn't arguably an attempt to join that society or remake it in his own image. But like many facts about Kaufman's life, the degree to which this removal was self-imposed remains a mystery. These mysteries remain mysterious, even after spending a long hour and half with Billy Woodberry's documentary on the enigmatic poet, And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead.
Over beers, ex–cool cat poets such as former San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman spread Kaufman's legend as they heard it or experienced it, telling stories of the poet's involuntary electric-shock treatment, the fortunate coincidences that led to his publication, his vow of sort-of silence following the death of JFK, and the friends who saved his work from dissolving into pure air.
Both family and friends seem to believe their interactions with Kaufman amounted to a visitation. For some he was a silent angel, and for others he was a cigarette bum. To many women, he was a fly-by-night lover, an absent father—and for some a welcomely absent father. For the French, he was a genius—they called him "the black Rimbaud." For the canonical Beats, he wasn't "political" in the way they wanted him to be, says Hirschman. He seems to have embodied truth at the base of a paradox, a figure he obsessively employed in his hilarious and still-fresh poems.
And When I Die presents a mosaic of conflicting stories about Kaufman. This structure uses the poet's style as a guide to framing the story about Kaufman, which is clever and artful, but ultimately Woodberry fails to translate the liveliness and humor of Kaufman's poetry from the page to the screen. Though there are a few moments of visual humor in the doc, the overall tone is self-serious and reverential. (Think lots of poorly mixed jazz playing over old B-roll of San Francisco streets.)
My advice to you: Watch the trailer for this documentary, which accomplishes the film's larger mission but in a much shorter period of time. Then read the rest of "Abomunist Manifesto," Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, and The Ancient Rain. All of that might take you twice the time of watching the documentary, but you'll get a fuller feeling of the poet's genius.