NYC Artist Puma Perl, on Regaining Our Footing and Bringing Communities Together 

NYC Artist Puma Perl, on Regaining Our Footing and Bringing Communities Together 

Q&A by Rew Starr; edited by Marisa Torrieri

Poet, artist and author Puma Perl’s been busy lately, not just with her new rescue pup, but with state of the world weighing on her conscience. The timing of the Ukraine war feels cruel after two years of life with Covid, before which Puma was on a roll.

Puma Perl
Puma Perl (Photo by Len DeLessio)

“Our last 2020 performance was February 26, at the historic Café Bohemia on Barrow Street, which opened in 1955 and was the hangout for every name in jazz from that period,” Puma, a mom of two grown children, tells Rockmommy correspondent and artist Rew Starr. “We had a full house of friends cheering us on and it felt like we were truly moving into new territory and then … boom.” 

So what’s next given the challenges ahead, and the lessons learned? Rew caught up with Puma Pearl earlier this month to find out. 

Rew Starr: How’s it going? What have you been doing these days?

Puma Perl: “How’s it going?” was once a commonly asked question with no hidden layers. Today, all answers are loaded. I’m personally doing reasonably well in the crumbling world we live in. Like most of my friends, I think about Ukraine every day, about climate change, poverty, the threat of annihilation and of how we can bring our communities together to support our beliefs.

We’ve been doing shows again and everything in NYC feels sort of a little normal, and also not normal at all. Recently, I’ve been giving much of my attention to my newly adopted rescue, Fae. She was one of 49 dogs brought from Tijuana to New York City to start new lives. It was a poem that led me to her. 

Rew Starr: How many published books do you have out?

Puma Perl: I’m the author of five solo collections, comprised of two chapbooks and three full-length editions. I’m also one of the principal writers in several other books and widely published in anthologies and journals. I’m currently working on a new collection in conjunction with my sister by another mister, Iris Berry, co-founder of Punk Hostage Press. It will be an east-west collaboration as I’m all NYC and she’s one of those rare LA natives.

Rew Starr: We met … at Mamapalooza and believe me, it was love at first sight! I was so drawn into your poetry and knew you were the real deal. Now years later we have crossed paths more than I can count and your music and songs resonate so deeply with me. I LOVE … Love you Hate you…. and so many other songs you articulate so well. Is there any difference when writing a song versus a poem…?

Puma Perl: That’s so funny that you refer to “Love you, Hate you” since that’s our nickname for “I Love You, Fuck Off,” which was “borrowed” from a song of the same name by a French punk group called Lucrate Milk. That’s an example of a poem that was written as nothing but a poem in mind and, with literally no alterations besides the “love you hate you” chorus at the end, lent itself to a song. Joe Sztabnik (New York Junk), songwriter and musician, wrote the music for it and we often do it pretty much the same way. 

Puma Perl performing in early 2020.
Puma Perl, performing in early 2020

Other poems that I do with my band, Puma Perl and Friends, lend themselves to improvisation, of which Joff Wilson is the master. There is a difference in consciously writing song lyrics in cases where there’s a focus on meter, internal/external rhyme, bridges and refrains. I have some poems that I recreated as song lyrics and some that are the exact same lines as originally written, and some lyrics that were composed to be sung. Not by me, though!

Rew Starr: Are you making any new music?

Puma Perl: We are always making new music. I started out improvising with musicians whenever I had the chance and, in 2012, Joff Wilson and I started working together in a deliberate way. At the beginning it was often Joff, Walter Steding and/or Danny Ray and myself, with an additional rotating cast of characters, and I do mean characters. 

Ticket to Hell, Puma Perl and Joe Sztabnik

A few years ago, I stripped it down to basically four of us — Joff on guitar, Joe on bass, and Dave Donen on drums, with some guest appearances by our friends. While the pandemic obviously limited us, it also gave me a chance to focus more on writing and recording skills. I’d say we are sort of a hybrid of composed music, improvisation, and turning the songs we rehearsed inside out, so something is always new. 

We also play in various configurations. Sometimes it’s the four of us, other times Joe and I do a duo, or Joe, Dave and perform as a trio, or Joff and I do something out of the box. One night, it was Joff, myself, and two saxophonists, and it worked.

Rew Starr: What about playing out? Do you have any favorite performances?

Puma Perl: We were on a great roll right before the world shut down. Our last 2020 performance was February 26, at the historic Café Bohemia on Barrow Street, which opened in 1955 and was the hangout for every name in jazz from that period. 

Charlie Parker, who lived across the street, had offered to play the club in exchange for free drinks, and it took off from there. After being closed for decades, it reopened October, 2019, keeping the same décor and vibe, and we kicked off what was to be John Pietaro’s series “West Village Words.” Danny Ray and Seaton Hancock aka Raven or Chuckie both played sax that night. It was an inspired performance, influenced by the spirits of those who had stood on that same stage. 

We had a full house of friends cheering us on and it felt like we were truly moving into new territory and then… boom. We have been lucky to regain some footing and in the last several months have played more regularly, including the Teen Cancer America benefits at City Winery and the Cutting Room, opened for Wreckless Eric at Our Wicked Lady, established a residency at Anyway Café, and played the 11th Street Bar a few times.

Rew Starr: Who inspires you?

Puma Perl: You do. All my friends who keep going and don’t give up, or who do give up and regroup, inspire me to do the same. I’m inspired by the concept of reinvention and pushing ourselves in different directions. 

Going back to my roots, as a pretty young kid, still in junior high, I was fascinated by the Beat Generation. I bought books at the 8th Street Bookstore because I liked the covers and wound up reading Ferlinghetti and Kerouac, as starters. I bought ‘Kind of Blue’ for the same reason and that’s one of the ways I was introduced to jazz. 

The miracle of FM radio introduced me to all kinds of music and new ideas. 

I became most inspired by Diane DiPrima, an Italian girl from Brooklyn who found her own way out and into the world. Inspiration comes from both expected and unexpected places. After I adopted Fae, I learned that she had survived cancer, Lyme disease, an abdominal hernia, and malnutrition before her original rescuers found her in Tijuana and provided treatment. I’ve recently started calling her Gabba Gabba Fae because she is such a little badass and warrior princesa. 

Rew Starr: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

Puma Perl: I started out doing street outreach in the late 80’s when the AIDS epidemic was raging. I worked in the fields of HIV, homelessness and addiction for over 20 years, eventually attending college and earning a Master’s in Social Work.

Rew Starr: What’s the greatest part about being a rockmommy?

Puma Perl: That my kids know I’m cooler than they are.

Rew Starr is an actor, musician and mother who lives in New York City.

1 Comment
  • Ralph Beauchamp
    Posted at 20:57h, 11 March Reply

    Great interview as usual. You do spotlight the coolest people.

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