John Robert “Jack” Mueller, was a well known poet among poets, long active in the legendary North Beach, San Francisco scene, as well as New Orleans and the Western Slope of Colorado. He was a literary icon, educator, organizer, ocean sailor, mountain climber, poet and cultural leader in the arts. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, Mueller gained a reputation among the post-Beat poets in the Bay Area literary scene with his readings and cultural performances. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, renowned poet and co-founder of the landmark City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, said, “Jack Mueller is the biggest-hearted poet I have ever known.”
Mueller published six collections of poems and two books of sketches, most notably Amor Fati (Lithic Press, 2013). A reviewer praised his approach to “almost exclusively cosmic questions — about mortality, love, and our relationship to language.” He created art wherever he went, making sketches and short poems on bar napkins, coasters, index cards. Family and friends knew him from his unforgettable coinages and signoffs; “Stay solid in the mystery,” “All power to the paradox,” or “Drive recklessly and at very high speeds.” His fierce independence, quick wit, and renegade creativity enchanted children and, usually, adults.
Mueller was born in Philadelphia, Pa. on October 11, 1942, the youngest of four boys, and grew up in Louisville, Ky. His parents, William Arthur Mueller and Mary Martha Fink, had emigrated from Germany in the 1920s. Mueller earned his BA from William Jewell College and received an MA degree from George Washington University before joining the Peace Corps in India, where poetry became his passion and life’s pursuit. In 1970, he moved to New Orleans, where he taught poetry in public school and founded a sailing academy with his brother Nick Mueller.
He moved to San Francisco in 1975. The Bay Area would become his home, where he would devote himself to his own poetry and to public arts programs. In his 15-year role as the Executive Director and Chairman of The National Poetry Association, he organized thousands of readings, performances and festivals, eventually being named one of the best cultural organizers in the Bay area.
Bukowski biographer and torch-keeping poet Neeli Cherkovski recalls his close friend fondly, “Jack Mueller remains a literary hero in North Beach. He Has left many influential poems to be read and treasured. He illuminated the San Francisco streets in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Along with San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman and artist Kristen Wetterhahn, Mueller founded the Union of Street Poets in San Francisco. “He was responsible for thousands of poems reaching people in their daily goings. Jack was a true comrade and is much beloved,” said Hirschman.
In 1979 he married Judith Faust, of New Orleans. They had one daughter, Cristina Mueller, in 1981. They divorced in 2000.
Mueller maintained his ties to New Orleans, serving as the summer Director of Cultural Affairs for the University of New Orleans International Summer School in Innsbruck, Austria where he organized the Alpine Symposium for Poetry and Literature featuring San Francisco poet Robert Duncan and other major European poets and literary figures. He moved to McAllen, Texas in 1997 where he served as Director of the International Museum of Art and Science.
In 2003, Mueller moved to Ridgway, Colorado, where he helped spark a renaissance of poetry on the Western Slope of the Rockies, continuing to publish his work with Lithic Press and giving readings through the state.
Poet and publisher Danny Rosen said, “In addition to the wide impact Jack Mueller had on poets throughout Colorado, he was also instrumental in the birth of Lithic Press, which arose from the manuscripts and loose papers piled on his dining room table. It seemed obvious I should make books of his chaotic gatherings.”
From the thousands of ‘compression sketches’ (rapid ink drawings on bar napkins and 3×5 cards) came Lithic’s first book, Whacking the Punch Line, followed by his masterpiece, Amor Fati.
“Steeped in science and the heart, his poems hold an importance for me like no other,” Rosen said.
In Maggie Milner’s review of Amor Fati for ZYZZYVA, she writes, “One moment pondering the nature of death, the next exuberantly describing a bird, Mueller vacillates between optimism and resignation as he moves between the registers of philosophical abstraction and concrete observation. Throughout, Mueller’s timbre is characteristically Beat, marked by both contempt for human dysfunction and a Blakeian zeal for the ineffable.”
There are boxes upon boxes upon boxes of his bar napkins, note cards, and poems reflecting this deeply profound, navigational wisdom, from which Lithic Press will be publishing for years. Jack was a full-time maker, creating everywhere he went. Dada theater, live ant-syrup paintings, chalking the circumference of what’s what, measuring the distances between things rarely seen, taping off the void, and always, “Obeying the emerging form.”
“Jack Mueller possessed one of the most lively, most dangerous minds to grace the halls of American poetry,” said George Scrivani, translator, scholar and partner in crime.
Cristina Mueller said her father had a difficult time in the hospital for the past four months, but would teach hospital workers — doctors, nurses and cleaning staff — one of his short poems:
You will never
I will never
Love starts there.
Jack Mueller died in Grand Junction, Colorado, of cancer, at the age of 74, on April 27th 2017. His work lives on revealing wisdom from deep within the mystery.