Steve Dalachinsky, Avant-Garde Poet, Is Dead at 72

By Neil Genzlinger

Sept. 20, 2019

To write about the life of Steve Dalachinsky, one first has to decide what to call him. “Poet” comes to mind, given all of his books of poetry, the poetry awards and the countless times he read his work, often accompanied by jazz musicians, in the avant-garde clubs of New York and environs.

But Mr. Dalachinsky was always wary of the term. A mini-documentaryStraw2gold Pictures made about him in 2013 opens with 45 seconds’ worth of Mr. Dalachinsky talking about the label and whether he wants or deserves it, a rambling musing that ends with him saying, “I forgot the question.” A 2016 article about him in The Villager quoted him as saying both “I don’t even like being called a poet” and “Let’s put it this way: I’m a poet.”

“Steve didn’t want to be pigeonholed in any way,” his wife, Yuko Otomo, said by email, “although towards the end of his life he realized he wasn’t good at anything but writing poetry.”

Stay on top of the latest in pop and jazz with reviews, interviews, podcasts and more from The New York Times music critics.




So over what might have been his objections, he will here be called a poet. But he could also be called a jazz aficionado, one so knowledgeable that musicians enlisted him to write liner notes for their albums. Music critics said that if you saw him in the audience at a club, you knew you were about to hear some good music. 

He could be called a collagist, whose artwork turned up in exhibitions. And he could be called an omnipresent figure on the avant-garde scene, known in and around SoHo, where he lived, both for carrying forward the sensibility of the Beat generation and for nurturing new jazz talent.

Mr. Dalachinsky was in his element on Sept. 14 at the Islip Art Museum on Long Island, where he gave a reading after having attended a concert by the Sun Ra Arkestra that afternoon in Manhattan. Not long after the reading, his wife said, he had a stroke and a cerebral hemorrhage. He died the next day at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore. He was 72.

“The whole avant scene — music, poetry, visual art — in New York City is going to change now because he’s not around,” the guitarist Loren Connors, one of many musicians who collaborated with Mr. Dalachinsky, said by email. “He was a poet, but he had a lot of music in him. His modulation of sound and rhythm was unsurpassed.”

When he wasn’t performing himself, Mr. Dalachinsky was there, encouraging and absorbing the work of others, especially free jazz musicians, who were part of a scene he documented in a long-running monthly column for The Brooklyn Rail.

“Whereas most writers would say to their editor, ‘I’d like to see So-and-So next Thursday and review the show,’ Steve was already seeing everybody, so it was just a matter of highlighting the shows he’d been to that were most worth mentioning,” David Mandl, who gave him that column in 2008 when Mr. Mandl was The Rail’s music editor, said by email. 

“I have trouble recalling any significant, edifying or exhilarating free-jazz or total-improvisation concert I’ve attended,” one critic wrote, “at which Mr. Dalachinsky has not been in the audience, rough-edged, congenial and ready with an opinion.”
“I have trouble recalling any significant, edifying or exhilarating free-jazz or total-improvisation concert I’ve attended,” one critic wrote, “at which Mr. Dalachinsky has not been in the audience, rough-edged, congenial and ready with an opinion.”Brian Harkin for The New York Times

“Steve went to as many shows in a month as I did in two years,” he added, “multiple shows every night.”

Steve Smith, reviewing a Dalachinsky performance in 2013 in The New York Times, described his reading style: “He rushed one phrase and elongated the next; occasionally he stuttered on a single syllable, and then released the pent-up tension in a gush.”

In the same review, he complimented Mr. Dalachinsky’s taste in musicians.

“I have trouble recalling any significant, edifying or exhilarating free-jazz or total-improvisation concert I’ve attended,” Mr. Smith wrote, “at which Mr. Dalachinsky has not been in the audience, rough-edged, congenial and ready with an opinion.”

Steven Donald Dalachinsky was born on Sept. 29, 1946, in Brooklyn. His father, Louis, was a house painter, and his mother, Sylvia (Wolf) Dalachinsky, was a homemaker and office worker.

Mr. Dalachinsky graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn College “for about 30 seconds,” as he told The Villager. More important was what he had been learning by knocking around town. 

In an interview last year for a segment of the radio program “Jazz Night in America” commemorating the pianist Cecil Taylor, who died in April 2018, he recalled a particularly formative moment when, walking by a nightclub when he was 15 or 16, he heard Mr. Taylor’s music wafting through the door.

“The music went right inside me,” he said, “and my addiction to free jazz began.”

Before he became known for his poetry performances, Mr. Dalachinsky had a humbler distinction: He was a street peddler. 

“With only a table and merchandise kept in his apartment a few blocks away, he has for more than a quarter-century displayed a selective stock of records, Beat literature and his own books,” Richard Kostelanetz wrote in “Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony” (2003). 

Mr. Dalachinsky, in an interview for that book, recalled that early in his street-vendor career he had to defend his territory against a young artist who went by the name Samo and who would become a hot art-world commodity under his actual name, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“I used to chase Samo away from my corner on West Broadway and Spring, where he sold handmade postcards,” Mr. Dalachinsky said. “He was a real brat. If only I had those postcards now.”

Mr. Dalachinsky never went in much for regular jobs, although he did serve as superintendent of his apartment building on Spring Street for years, work that led to “A Superintendent’s Eyes,” a poetry collection published in 2000. 

“The poems, assembled over 20 years, are a sometimes joyous, sometimes shattering glimpse of life seen from behind the headlines,” Alan Kaufman wrotein a review for A Gathering of the Tribes Magazine. They mixed the mundane — overstuffed trash cans, money worries, which tenants tipped best — with bigger themes.

The clutter in Mr. Dalachinsky’s own apartment was the stuff of legend. 

“Living in our tenement shoe box, Steve didn’t have a study or free space to work in,” his wife, whom he married in 1986 after almost a decade together, said. “I’ve never seen any poet who walks and writes on scraps of paper. The whole world was his desk.”

Much of his poetry was inspired by the jazz he loved. His book “The Final Nite & Other Poems: Complete Notes From a Charles Gayle Notebook, 1987-2006,” for instance, consisted of poetry he wrote in response to listening to Mr. Gayle, a multi-instrumentalist, over the years, including this:

I stand outside

on the edge of my shadow

at the edge of the doorway

& the nite is crying

small tears

for me

Mr. Dalachinsky was well regarded in France and other countries. In 2007 he received the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Book Award, and in 2013 came an Acker Award, celebrating avant-garde achievement. In addition to books, he made recordings, including “Phenomena of Interference” (2005), with the pianist Matthew Shipp.

Besides his wife, Mr. Dalachinsky is survived by a sister, Judy Orcinolo.

His final reading was at the opening of an exhibition related to death. Accompanied by trumpet, it was a wide-ranging poem made of words, sounds and breaths, and lasted some 13 minutes.

“You go where you must,” he said midway through the piece. “You always go where you must.”

Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: