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James Broughton

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James Broughton

James Broughton
Born (1913-11-10)November 10, 1913
Modesto, California
Died May 17, 1999(1999-05-17) (aged 85)
Port Townsend, Washington
Occupation Poet, Memoirist, Playwright, Film maker
Nationality American

James Broughton (November 10, 1913 – May 17, 1999) was an American poet and poetic filmmaker. He was part of the San Francisco Renaissance, a precursor to the Beat poets. He was an early bard of the Radical Faeries[1] as well as a member of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,[2] serving her community as Sister Sermonetta.


  • Life and career 1
  • Works 2
  • Life with Joel Singer 3
  • Filmography 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • Collections 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Life and career

Born to wealthy parents, Broughton lost his father early to the 1918 influenza epidemic and spent the rest of his life getting over his high-strung, overbearing mother.

Before he was three, "Sunny Jim" experienced a transformational visit from his muse, Hermy, which he describes in his autobiography, Coming Unbuttoned (1993):[3]

I remember waking in the dark and hearing my parents arguing in the next room. But a more persistent sound, a kind of whirring whistle, spun a light across the ceiling. I stood up in my crib and looked into the backyard. Over a neighbor’s palm tree a pulsing headlamp came whistling directly toward me. When it had whirled right up to my window, out of its radiance stepped a naked boy. He was at least three years older than I but he looked all ages at once. He had no wings, but I knew he was angel-sent: his laughing beauty illuminated the night and his melodious voice enraptured my ears…. He insisted I would always be a poet even if I tried not to be….Despite what I might hear to the contrary the world was not a miserable prison, it was a playground for a nonstop tournament between stupidity and imagination. If I followed the game sharply enough, I could be a useful spokesman for Big Joy.

In the book, Broughton remarks on his love affairs with both men and women. Among his male lovers was gay activist Harry Hay.[4]

He briefly lived with the film critic Pauline Kael and they had a daughter, Gina, who was born in 1948.

Broughton is the subject of the 2012 award-winning documentary film, Big Joy: the adventures of James Broughton[5] from Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, Dawn Logson and cinematographer Ian Hinkle.[6]


That meeting with "Hermy" prefigured the cavalcade of mystery, imagination, sexuality, danger, humor, and transformation that would mark the 23 books and 23 films Broughton produced in a life laced with travel, teaching, self-analysis, and rich and prickly friendships.

This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That

and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That

— "This is It"

His work is quintessentially Californian – exploring and engaging the polar frontiers of wildness and civility, male and female, body and spirit—with the crash of Pacific Ocean waves echoing throughout. "Ultimately I have learned more about poetry / from music and magic than from literature," he wrote.

Broughton was kicked out of military school for having an affair with a classmate, dropped out of Stanford before graduating, and spent time in Europe during the 1950s, where he received an award in Cannes from Jean Cocteau for the "poetic fantasy" of his film The Pleasure Garden, made in England with partner Kermit Sheets.

"Cinema saved me from suicide when I was 32 by revealing to me a wondrous reality: the love between fellow artists," Broughton wrote. This theme carried him through his 85 years. "It was as important to live poetically as to write poems."

Despite many creative love affairs during the San Francisco Beat Scene, Broughton put off marriage until age 49, when, steeped in his explorations of Jungian psychology, he married Suzanna Hart in a three-day ceremony on the Pacific coast documented by his friend, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Suzanna’s theatrical background and personality made for a great playmate; they had two children. And they built a great community among the creative spirits of Alan Watts, Michael McClure, Anna Halprin, and Imogen Cunningham.

In 1967’s "summer of love," Broughton made a film, The Bed, a celebration of the dance of life which broke taboos against frontal nudity and won prizes at many film festivals. It rekindled Broughton’s filmmaking and led to more tributes to the human body (The Golden Positions), the eternal child (This Is It), the eternal return (The Water Circle), the eternal moment (High Kukus), and the eternal feminine (Dreamwood). "These eternalities praised the beauty of humans, the surprises of soul, and the necessity of merriment," Broughton wrote.

Indeed, Broughton repeatedly explored the temple of the human body – the "Godbody" – as a taproot for healing and peace, both for the individual and society.

Come forth unabashed
Come out unbuttoned
Bury belligerence
Resurrect frolic
Only through body can
you clasp the divine
Only through body can
you dance with the god
In every man’s hand
the gift of compassion
In every man’s hand
the beloved connection
Trust one another
or drown

— "Shaman Psalm"

He developed a great following, especially among students at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught film (and wrote Seeing the Light, a book about filmmaking) and artistic ritual.

Despite his poetic and cinematic explorations throughout his career, Broughton was drowning in his own unresolved mother-issues, which translated into impotence:

Had my soul tottered off to sleep
taking my potency with it?
Had they both retired before I could
leaving me a classroom somnambulist?
Why else should I at sixty-one
feel myself shriveling into fadeout?

— "Wondrous The Merge"

As poet Jack Foley puts it in All: A James Broughton Reader, "In Broughton’s moment of need, Hermy appeared again in the person of a twenty-five-year-old Canadian film student named Joel Singer:

Then on a cold seminar Monday
In walked an unannounced redeemer
Disguised as a taciturn student
Brisk and resolute in scruffy mufti
He set down his backpack shook his hair
And offered me unequivocal devotion

He dismissed my rebuffs and ultimatums
He scoffed at suggestions of disaster
He insisted he had been given authority
To provide my future happiness
Was it possible he had been sent
From some utopian headquarters?

— "Wondrous The Merge"

Broughton’s meeting with Singer was a life-changing, life-determining moment that animated his consciousness with a power that lasted until his death." In 2004, Singer wrote of their long relationship and collaboration in White Crane.[7]

Life with Joel Singer

With Singer, Broughton traveled and made more films – Hermes Bird (1979), a slow-motion look at an erection shot with the camera developed to photograph atomic bomb explosions, The Gardener of Eden (1981), filmed when they lived in Sri Lanka, Devotions (1983), which takes delight in friendly things men can do together from the odd to the rapturous, and Scattered Remains (1988), a cheerfully death-obsessed tribute to Broughton’s poetry and filmmaking.

In fact, Broughton explored death deeply throughout his life. He died in May 1999 with champagne on his lips, in the house in Port Townsend, Washington, where he and Joel lived for 10 years. Before he died, he said, "My creeping decrepitude has crept me all the way to the crypt." His gravestone in a Port Townsend cemetery reads, "Adventure – not predicament."




The Films of James Broughton, a DVD compilation of seventeen films on three discs, was released in 2006 by Facets Multimedia.[8]

A selected collection of his work, All: A James Broughton Reader, edited by Jack Foley, was released in 2007 by White Crane Books.


  1. ^ Hernandez, Vic (Summer 2009), "Time After Time and Again",  
  2. ^ "Obituary: James Broughton",  
  3. ^ Broughton, James (1993). Coming Unbuttoned. City Lights Publishers.  
  4. ^ glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, Gary Morris, January 9, 2005.
  5. ^ "the Adventures of James Broughton |Simplify, Clarify, Vivify|". Big Joy. Retrieved 2014-06-29. 
  6. ^ IMDB
  7. ^ "Ripe Fruit" by Joel Singer, White Crane - Spring 2004
  8. ^ Todd Konrad. "The Films of James Broughton". Independent Film Quarterly. Retrieved 4 January 2014. 

External links

  • James Broughton at IMDB
  • Morris, Gary. "Laughing Pan James Broughton" Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 27 (2000)
  • BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton, a documentary about Broughton (2013)

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