Ed ‘Foots’ Lipman: San Quentin’s Forgotten Prison Poet

The story of how a Scottish poetry lover has come to re-publish the work of Ed ‘Foots’ Lipman, the American prison poet it seems everyone had forgotten

Feature by S.J. Lawrie | 16 Nov 2017
  • San Quentin's Forgotten Prison Poet

The first poem of Ed ‘Foots’ Lipman I ever read was Because San Quentin Killed Two More Today, discovered in a collection published in 1977 called Second Coming Volume 5 No 1, where Lipman appears last out of three poets, alongside A.D. Winans and the infamous Charles Bukowski. I had never been so affected by a poem in my whole life – its honesty and sensitivity were two attributes I had never before associated with the criminal class to which Lipman belonged. So naturally, as is now the way, I searched for his name on the internet, found little to nothing, and felt overwhelmingly compelled to change that.

Before experiencing his poetry, I had read a short biography outlining Lipman’s life as a prisoner and a letter that he had written; he mentions the famous prisoner poet William Wantling and asks, "Did he not once graduate from this concrete sewer?" He was, of course, referring to California’s notorious Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison, San Quentin. Even in this environment and among its flawed and frightening characters, Ed ‘Foots’ Lipman was described by those who met him as "something of a legend among prisoners" – a mix between Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Randall P. McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 

Born on New Year’s Day 1941, this MENSA-recognised man then spent almost 15 of his 34 years in the U.S. penal system. He was paroled from San Quentin on 22 May 1975 and died on 8 September of natural causes. He had been free for just three months and 17 days.

Now, as I sit and write this article about the man, my bed is covered with snippets of information collected over months of research: court transcript documents, prison records, mug shots, finger prints, newspaper cut-outs dating all the way back to his first offence in 1958 – he stole a '57 Buick Sedan from the Iron Coal and Coke Company in Wichita Falls, and drove it 6000 miles across America (evading capture eight to ten times), all at the age of 17. There’s a photograph of both him and A.D. Winans at a reading – one of the few pictures of Lipman still in existence.

There’s a feature article from a magazine where an inmate recalls the time Lipman refused to give a prison guard the piece of paper that he was writing on (we must imagine it contained a poem). This resulted in a fight and Lipman – the 250-pound 6ft 5'' Texan – throwing the guard out of his cell. He was visited later by the 'goon squad' and subjected to tear gas and clubs, a combination that sent him straight to the prison hospital.

These are just snippets of a life less ordinary, but my own entry into this story had begun with a late night transatlantic phone call to the San Quentin Prison public relations department, who were, despite their best efforts, not equipped to deal with this bizarre request spoken in Scottish brogue, regarding a prisoner dating back 40 years. Understandable, when all I had was a name.

I fared partially better with the California State Archives, finding parts of information I had requested: microfiche documents of his mug shot, fingerprints and prison record. I also submitted a freedom of information request to the FBI, on which I’m still waiting, although it has been acknowledged. At this point, having exhausted all official avenues, I decided to investigate whether the original publisher was still in business. Of course they weren’t, but fortuitously, one of those poets featured – the aforementioned Winans – was actually the person who had run Second Coming Press, the publisher of the collection that introduced me to Lipman. I checked whether he was alive. He was. I emailed. I waited.

Three months went by. Then a reply, from Winans, now 81 years old and as surprised by my enquiry as I was his reply. He answered all questions, most importantly regarding whether Lipman had further work. It turns out he had published one chapbook, back in 1975, titled No Capital Crime.

This was all I needed. I discovered that a rare book dealer in San Francisco had a copy, so contacted him. He knew nothing of Lipman, the chapbook having been bought unintentionally, but serendipitously, in a job lot. With another purchase and import expense run up against the ever increasing 'quest' account I waited feverishly for it to arrive. It was during this time that I had the idea to re-publish all Lipman's work. I had no experience doing this but by now was regularly corresponding with A.D. Winans, so ran the idea past him and he was more than happy. 

I asked Winans once more if there was anything missing, and there was. At some point in the last 40 years Winans had donated all his Second Coming Press work, which included original letters, poems and past issues to Brown University's creative archives. “There has to be something in there from Lipman,” he said, sure that there was a tape of both men reading in 1975 – the only recording in existence. So, next stop from the correctional facility that is San Quentin was the Ivy League.

Winans was right, they had everything: prison letters Lipman had sent to friends, first draft submissions of poems, final drafts and newspaper clippings, but more importantly that tape of them both reading. In them, Lipman starts nervously, the first poem is short and there’s no applause from the crowd. He moves quickly on to the next. There’s a pause, then a loud cheering this time. This seems to settle him and he is then entertaining and calm the rest of the reading, even stopping in between poems to tell stories.

I knew that I could never profit from another man's work and that sales from the proposed book, however small, should go to a good cause of which Lipman would have hopefully approved. I started corresponding with a woman who runs the creative writing class at San Quentin and asked if she had ever heard of Lipman. Sadly, another who had not. But we agreed on the charity that provides her funding for San Quentin and Folsom as the best place for any profits to go. Hopefully this will play some small part in Lipman’s name echoing around the prison once more, for all the right reasons. Hopefully it will inspire others trapped behind its walls and wire.

It’s difficult to talk about a man like Ed 'Foots' Lipman without either glorifying or vilifying him, hard not to concentrate only on his crimes as there seems little else from which to map his life. But then of course, there is the work. So, we end with a line that perfectly sums this up, the last from a short review of unknown origins translated from its original Portuguese, about the poem Prison Poem for Instance. It simply reads. 'Don't be misled by the apparent artlessness.'

Ed 'Foots' Lipman: A timeline

Born in Waco, Texas
1 Jan 1941 

Aged 17
13 Nov 1958
Arrested for stealing ’57 Buick Sedan
Aged 18
5 May 1959-11 Apr 1963: Awaiting trial for 3 years 11 months
Aged 24
11 Jan 1965: Arrested for robbery
9 Feb 1965: Pleads guilty to robbery of first degree
23 Feb 1965: Prison term starts. Five to life

Aged 26
7 Aug 1967: Escapes the Halls of Justice in Tujunga, Los Angeles, California
Aged 27
2 Mar 1968: Caught after 7 months and 5 days
6 Oct 1968: Attempted escape San Diego County Jail
18 Oct 1968: Court case. Lipman pleads not guilty and acts as his own lawyer.

Aged 28
11 Feb 1969: Convicted of attempted escape from lawful custody of the San Diego County Jail by force of violence and kidnapping. 10 years to life.
26 Jun 1969: Sent to San Quentin prison
Aged 29
2 Oct 1970: Moved to Folsom Prison
Aged 30
9 Aug 1971: Moved to San Quentin Prison Hospital
Aged 34
25 Mar 1975: Granted parole
2 May 1975: Freed from San Quentin Prison Hospital
8 Sep 1975: Deceased

Only by Flashlight: Collected Poems of Ed 'Foots' Lipman is published on 1 Dec, with an introduction by S.J Lawrie. RRP £10