Marc in the desert
Marc Penka
Marc Penka was one of the most charismatic and brilliant poets of the last two decades. Anyone lucky enough to have seen one of his rare public readings will remember the mesmerizing effect his words and recitation had on his audience. His poetry treats of the disjunctions, misapprehensions and failures-to-connect inherent to nearly all human relationships. Hypocrisy, abuse of power, cynicism, and self-delusion were the targets of both his biting wit and his existential frustration. His acute aptitude for laying bare the psychological tactics and strategies deployed by people intent on dogmatically advancing their own agendas, also allowed him to see beyond the noisy surface of life, and to intuit patterns of action and randomness that led him to value the work of such diverse schools of thought as Taoism and Buddhism, and poets as various as Blake, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. A combination of subtle and sophisticated humor, a profound familiarity with a wide range of literature, a satiric bent, and an unerring sense of lyric rhythm, lend his poetry an uncommon vigor, sense of purpose, and utterly individual style, partaking as much of Milton as of Jagger & Richards, inspired as deeply by Taoism's uncarved block as by his own tumultuous and finally tragic life.

Marc was born in New York City on June 7, 1956, and spent the first nine years of his life in the Bronx. After a brief move to Texas, he, his parents and his younger brother and sister moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he attended public school and, in high school, the Poughkeepsie Day School. He attended Bennington College, Vermont, from 1974-1978. It was there he first became acquainted with critical theory, which he would later pursue for his doctorate. He studied poetry with Alvin Feinman and completed a creative thesis under his auspices.

After graduating, Marc lived for various years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He held a number of odd jobs, mostly at bookstores, and he wrote for several underground magazines, including Stuff and Wet. In the mid-80s he settled down briefly to study critical theory at Berkeley under Avital Ronell, and then, starting in 1987, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he studied with Paula Rabinowitz and John Mowitt. He defended his dissertation, "The Deep Taint Of His Nature, Uncanny Allegory and Mr. Hawthorne's Gothic", in 1999. He was married in 1987, and divorced in 1991.

Marc had begun suffering from alcohol and drug-related emotional problems as early as the late 1970s, and was first hospitalized in 1982. His condition fluctuated, and though there were periods of relative health, alcohol was a constant temptation and he was hospitalized several times over the next 18 years. During this period his passion for the deserts of the Southwest led him to make many solo excursions into little-known areas of Arizona and New Mexico. After qualifying for his PhD, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was found dead in his apartment in October of 2000. Cause of death was ascribed to an overdose of alcohol and heroin, and deemed accidental.

Despite Marc's often precarious mental health, he managed to complete his stunningly original work on Hawthorne and post-modern thought, as well as dozens of poems and prose pieces that will certainly place him among the most provocative and important American poets of the last half of the 20th century. This Web site is intended to offer an introduction to Marc Penka's challenging and exciting poetry and prose. Works will be added periodically, and a poetry prize has been established, dedicated to his memory, to disseminating his work, and to encouraging the work of young poets who write with something similar to Marc's rebellious and liberating spirit. We encourage all visitors to add their comments or thoughts about Marc's work, or this site, to the guest book.


Thanks to Marc Penka's mother Elaine and brother Clint for their invaluable help in offering complete and unhindered access to all of Marc's manuscripts, letters and journals, as well as for their constant encouragement and support. Also to Peter Carini, for his expert editing and care in the transfer of Marc's work to the digital medium. To Josette Urso for her uncommon generosity in allowing us to include her beautiful artwork as a complement to Marc's poetry and prose. And to Jonah Spivak and Sadelle Wiltshire of Spectrum Design for their patience, technical acumen, and elegant design solutions, without which Marc's words would have had a much harder time embarking on this journey into posterity.

It's our hope that this modest site will permit a small part of Marc's genius to continue to illuminate the ways that words express the inexpressible, now, and for an unforeseeable future...

Terry Berne
June 2002

bio     prose      poetry      thesis      links      guestbook
chapbook      journal      featured artist      home