An Act of Recovery: A Review of New York Diary

Tim Dlugos was turning 26 when he came to New York for the first time in 1976. His life was filled with gossip, art, sex, and danger. Dlugos’s books include Je Suis Ein Americano, Entre Nous, and Strong Place. In 2011 Nightboat Books published A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, edited by David Trinidad. Now, Trinidad has edited Dlugos’s diaries. They give more context and insight into one of the most vital voices of the New York poetry scene in the 1970s and 80s, and show what it was like to be a young person in New York at that time. Dlugos was always a young person. He was never old. He died of AIDS at 40 in 1990. 

Like his poems, Dlugos’s diary is overflowing with enthusiasm and disillusion. The dual nature of his life produced a humming tension in his best work that is unforgettable: a religious Catholic (and later Episcopalian) and a homosexual; a self-destructive alcoholic who nonetheless embraced sobriety; a pacifist and a militant; a minister of education to the poor and a Republican. 

Dlugos’s own life becomes a metaphor for the grace he was seeking in his religious and poetical endeavors. There is a feeling of complicity in his best poems in that he makes the reader love the burnished, tumultuous late nights and affection for those around him. His poems are an act of recovery for the passionate embrace of life (and those other forgotten lives) lost to AIDS. 

The circumstances of the writing of Dlugos’s poems and the lenses by which we can read them now belong to the coexistence of two trends, the push toward a peaceful, quiet domestic life that constantly wrangles with the pressures of New York in the 1970s, and the still more urgent, ephemeral pulling away from death; a need that is communicated in the Dlugos’s relationships to language. 

His New York Diary begins June 3, 1976 and the last entry is November 23, 1976. They’re a who’s who of every important writer and artist of the time period: Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Alfred Corn, J.D. McClatchy, Frank O’Hara, Patti Smith, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, and Kurt Vonnegut make appearances. They suggest a restless person, drinking all this life had to give him—filled with sex with both men and women, ballet, film, art galleries, poetry—as its liquids dripped down his face, and the wild landscape of the city as his companion. It is the city itself that becomes the “main character” as all these other players swirl around it. 

An early entry from June 5 describes a typical day: 

Got rain check for sex from Richard, who told me I should have grabbed him a year and a half ago—but I remember him at that time as uninterested. Put it down to my basic shyness. This afternoon took subway uptown to see Rob’s ship leave—and as we arrived after they allowed guests to board, that’s exactly what happened. Afterwards, walked thru West-Side-Story-land to Gotham Book Mart & tried to find new book by Alfred Corn (Sandy McClatchy’s lover) with no success. Now stereo of person in apt. next door is pounding through 2 brick walls into our living room. May write occupant a little note if it gets to be a habit.

The tone and perspectives are similar to Frank O’Hara’s poems, but set twenty years later. Dlugos had a hagiographic adoration for Frank O’Hara and this compulsion unfortunately produced many “I did this-I did that” lists, yet even in his throwaway observations, there is a way of revealing the human that is indelible to the reader. 

There are moments in the diary, such as this entry from June 20, that shows his introspection and loneliness, even though he was at the center of everything: 

What I may be feeling—what I am feeling, dammit—is lonely. This despite a lover, many caring and interesting friends, and a lot of mental and physical stimulation within easy reach. Brakhage would say Be there, that’s where the human being has to be, and what the artist celebrates and fights against simultaneously.

Dlugos’s New York Diary is a wonderful companion to A Fast Life. It shows how layers of artists in all genres—theater, dance, poetry, film, and painting—got to interact; that none worked in isolation, but among each other, in a kind of network. His details put the reader in the middle of his life at the time: “Joe Brainard left some chocolate mint candy, which I’ve been gobbling up (washed down with Miller’s High Life this early afternoon, Randy’s at the grocery buying lunch).” 

Reading his diaries puts your ear to the door, so to speak, but it’s really an account of gossip among his friends and social acquaintances, so much of it feels like “you had to be there,” with its inside jokes, drama, and lists of names. These names are clarified in the form of helpful footnotes Trinidad provides. Other entries show other experiences that reveal his vulnerability, such as this from June 15: “rec’d very upsetting letter from my mother, pressuring me to forget about writing as anything important. Thank God I’m away from their loving, ignorant opinions about the future of my life. I listened to A Chorus Line straight through, crying at half the songs; then I felt much better.” 

Nearly all of the entries are bursting with energy and enthusiasm—for people, for books, for movies, for everything around him, as in this entry from July 18: 

Yesterday sunned on roof in a.m., read Diane di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik in about 2 hours, then walked to Pier 51, where people sunbathe nude (among other things). Caught the eye of someone tall with reddish hair & freckles [this makes me think of Frank again], and we sat in a window on the second floor watching the cruise ships go by (incl. The Statendam, bearing Rob to Bermuda) for hours. Then came back here (my apt.), had coffee & went to bed—clean salt-water taste of his body. We had dinner together at a great looking restaurant w/ OK food called Chelsea Place, just up Eighth Avenue—ducks swim in their garden, “real ducks!” as every group of diners passing our table near the garden entrance exclaimed. 

New York cultivated all kinds of artists at the time, and they could afford to live there. The median rent in 1970 was $108. Today the median rent is $2,750. Dlugos offers a great view into what New York City was like in 1976, a time before neoliberalism changed the city into a playground for the rich. Unfortunately, the political economy and now Covid-19, which has killed 29,866 people in New York City alone, have made moving there and surrounding oneself with artists, as Dlugos once did, completely impossible. 

Tim Dlugos’s New York Diary is an important read for anyone interested in New York culture in the 1970s, the second generation of the New York School poets, or gay mens’ lives before the AIDS crisis. It is a rare moment inside that world, long the territory of memory, from a smart and underrated figure of American poetry. 

Sean Singer was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, in 1974. He has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark. Singer is the author of three books of poetry: Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, 2015); and Today in the Taxi (Tupelo Press, 2022). In 2004 he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.