Baltimore's David Franks was the sort of poet/artist whose work makes good stories to tell in bars. There was the time Franks conducted a musical composition played by tugboat whistles at Fells Point, or the time he commandeered a Xerox machine at Social Security headquarters, undressed, mounted the machine and photocopied his body.
When he was found dead in his apartment in Fells Point last Thursday, Franks left behind many such tales, along with published writing, photographs and sound recordings documenting his experiments on the frontier between life and art, performance and provocation, design and sheer chance.
Franks apparently died of natural causes, but no details were available. Franks' friends said he seemed, with the help of treatment, to be bouncing back since his cancer diagnosis about five years ago. A native of Washington, Franks would have turned 62 at the end of this month.
He left his brother, Paul, who lives in New Hampshire, and his beloved black-and-white cat, Sarah Jane. A memorial has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Creative Alliance at The Patterson in Highlandtown, to be followed by a potluck reception and selected readings.
Franks was a writer by academic specialty, having earned a master's degree in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. For most of his working life he taught writing on and off at many schools, including Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of New Orleans.
He wrote songs, essays, poetry and even speeches in the mid-1970s for two Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Peter Rodino of New Jersey and Barbara Jordan of Texas. As much writing as he did, however, Franks was as much a performer and conceiver of artistic projects that words could scarcely convey.
Andrei Codrescu, a poet, National Public Radio commentator and editor of poetry anthologies in which Franks' work is included, said he considered Franks "a major artist of the late 20th century" in the company of "some of the best conceptual artists."
Codrescu said he particularly liked Franks' performance as conductor of "Whistling in the Dark," a composition played by a fleet of Baltimore tugboats in 1976, and his concept - never executed - for a piece orchestrating church bells across the city.
While Codrescu was teaching in Baltimore in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two men sometimes appeared on the same bill. For one such poetry reading at a Washington club in 1981, Franks' performance included a moment in which he drew a revolver, aimed it at his head and fired a booming blank.
"He started bleeding from the temple," Codrescu recalled. "His girlfriend in the audience was the only one who realized it wasn't supposed to happen. People thought it was part of the act."
Codrescu is sure it was an accident, a mix-up in a bit that was supposed to involve firing the blank into the air. With Franks, though, it was often hard to tell.
Years before there were poetry slams, Franks was pushing poetry outside its usual bounds, blending words and action in a way that made him "one of the first of the performance poets," said Megan Hamilton, co-founder and program director of the Creative Alliance.
In doing so, the man with a gentle demeanor that some friends described as "courtly" could be aggressive on the stage, trying to provoke the crowd. He took his show on the road in the 1970s, touring as a poet/performer for a few years with the Washington-based bluesy rock act Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band.
In one routine he appeared in a wheelchair as a disabled poet, solicited donations from the crowd, then thanked everyone, stood up and walked off the stage.
"David liked to shock people," said Baltimore writer and musician Glenn Moomau, a longtime friend of Franks'. "He liked the shock value of art."
That seemed at least part of the idea of "Destroying Narcissus: A Body of Language," of the early 1970s, in which Franks made an array of photocopies of his genitalia and other body parts. Because he was convinced that only the Xerox 7000 machines used at the Social Security offices in Woodlawn could produce high-quality copies, the project involved another performance, as he got into the building by posing as a Xerox consultant.
"He was a trickster, that's what he was, a professional trickster," said Peter Walsh, who curated an exhibition at Artscape in 1992 that included the photographs documenting "Destroying Narcissus," which about 20 years before had a showing at the Leo Castelli gallery in Manhattan. The array of photographs of the escapade could be read as a discourse on self-regard, art and mechanical reproduction, the dynamic of man and machine - also as an elaborate gag.
As funny as Franks could be, he was as likely to be using his work to manage his own emotional turmoil, including his struggle with alcohol and drug addiction.
His "Dead Letters" project reflected his practice of art as alchemy: transforming emotion into artifact, artifact into object of art. In this case, the artifact was a stack of letters from his father, with whom he had a stormy relationship. He had the letters enlarged, took the copies to a rifle range and shot them full of holes with a shotgun, then used the remaining words and fragments of words to create poetry. He also ran the letters through a computer program to scramble the meanings.
"There was no line between art and life with David," said Daniel Schiavone, a co-founder of the Creative Alliance who worked with Franks on the "Dead Letters" project, which appeared as a series of photographs and written compositions shown at a Baltimore gallery.
That willingness to face his demons in his work was what made him artistically "as authentic as you can get," said his friend, Adrianna Amari.
She said she'd seen him last in November, and he seemed emotionally buoyed by the experience of facing cancer and surviving. He had been decorating his apartment in Hampden with images of bluebirds, and when he recently moved to Fells Point he put a powder blue "Zippedy-do-da" sign on his front door. He recently sent her a poem about bluebirds that ended this way:
I want to say a prayer
For all that has been given
All that has been received, It is said
They are all the same.
100 bluebirds swarmed the back yard.