Friday, May 21, 2004

 

Here is the next question in the 9 for 9 project.

 

QUESTION 5: How did you first come to enter the larger community of poets? Does that initial encounter affect how you relate to the community of poets you are a part of now?

 

Of the various honors I’ve received, the one that I’m happiest about is my participation in the Addison Anthology, a walkway of sidewalk tiles in downtown Berkeley devoted to poets associated with that city.

 

I was exceptionally lucky to have been raised right on Berkeley’s northern border. There were few books in my own house as I was growing up, but the idea of books & of the possibility of writing was literally right outside the door. One of my teachers in high school, Ken Davids, had had a novel accepted by Grove Press, The Softness on the Other Side of the Hole, tho I don’t think it appeared until after I’d graduated (& after he’d moved on from this “student teaching” assignment). Berkeley in 1964 & ’65 was in a period of extraordinary turmoil & creativity. Studying at the University of California were a number of young writers mostly associated with the New American poetry, such as Ron Loewinsohn, David Bromige & Kenneth Irby. There was an active “street poet” scene on Telegraph Avenue – the South Street of Berkeley – with the likes of Charlie Potts, Richard Krech, Jon Oliver Simon, Pat Parker, Pat’s husband Bob, Alta, Andy Clausen, Gerard van der Luen (later an editor & then IT manager for Penthouse & a blogger these days with a libertarian point of view), Martin Abrahamson, Paul X, Steve Schwartz, Wesley Tanner (later of Arif Press & now teaching fine press printing at the University of Michigan, I think) and john thompson (later to become known as the music critic, john poet). Older writers, such as Robert Duncan & Kenneth Rexroth were around, tho mostly in San Francisco. During the fall of 1964, the University of California exploded with the first major student movement of the decade, the Free Speech Movement, triggered when the UC Regents, trying to placate the rightwing Republican senator Bill Knowland, who also owned the one daily newspaper in Oakland, by forbidding organizing for civil-rights pickets and actions on the UC campus. One student, Jack Weinberg, volunteered to be a test case and set up a card table in order to get arrested, but when he was put into the patrol car, instead of letting the cops take him downtown & book him, several thousand students surrounded the car and kept it from moving for days! This led to a sit-in in the school administration building with over 400 arrests & much hoopla for the entire school year. I wasn’t even a student, but just hanging out on Telegraph Avenue one got swept up into the events of that year, and I ended up getting to know an enormous number of those folks. Among the young writers I got to know during that period were Barrett Watten, still a senior at Skyline High, Rochelle Nameroff – my first wife – who was a volunteer secretary for Jerry Rubin as Rubin coordinated the first Vietnam Day Teach-in the following spring, and Krech, who first published my work in a mimeo’d sheet called Community Libertarian & later in a little magazine called Avalanche. In the summer of ’65, the Berkeley Poetry Conference on the UC campus brought the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley & Ted Berrigan to town. Paul X was having a little thing with Peter Orlovsky & through their auspices I was able to sneak into events at the conference that otherwise would have been way too expensive for me.

 

The point I’m trying to make is that, for me, there was an absolute continuum between the poets I knew, the antiwar movement, the local hippie scene & the general circus of life. For a part of that period, I didn’t even have a home, but just stayed wherever I happened to be last on that day, often with one of the kids of KPFA Sovietologist William Mandel, sometimes with Krech who still lived with his parents, or with Wes Tanner. In the Café Mediterranean – the institution that was at the heart of Ken Davids’ novel – one could go in the afternoons & predictably watch Ken Irby, drinking lattés & writing in his notebook. More often, tho, I hung out two doors down, a Pepe’s Pizza, which had both a younger & more lumpen crowd than the studied bohemia of the Med. The person I first met Barrett Watten through, David Smith-Margen, was part of the scene at Pepe’s & somebody  I might have described back then as a dealer, but he was also a friend, an exceptionally intelligent & creative kid with all the classic ADHD signs. His death at the age of 16 in an auto accident in the spring of ’66 felt like a huge blow & I still miss him 38 years later.  

 

So I can’t stress the continuity of these worlds enough. Because I was taking part in a regular open reading series at Shakespeare & Company Books on Telegraph Avenue, I went to a memorial reading there in January 1966 for Jack Spicer, about whom I knew nothing. That was where I first saw Robin Blaser. Duncan must have been there that day as well, although by then I already knew who the owl-eyed man with the white mutton-chop sideburns was. I met Rochelle Nameroff first through the picket lines sponsored by the Congress of Race Equality (CORE), but it was she who convinced me that attending the creative writing program at SF State made sense – and it did, in a way – and it was through her that I met more than a few other poets, such as Rae Armantrout & Aaron Shurin. Nameroff – whose birthday is today (Happy Birthday, Shelley!) – also convinced me to submit my poems to the Joan Lee Yang Award contest at UC once I’d finally transferred there in 1970, through which I then met its judge, Robert Grenier. I first met David Melnick hitch-hiking home from a reading given by David Bromige & Harvey Bialy at the Albany Public Library, literally in the same room where, a few years earlier, I had first discovered the relevance of poetry to my life in a copy of William Carlos Williams’ A Desert Music. The host for that series, Paul Mariah, was the editor of what then was the only little magazine devoted both to poetry & the gay community, Manroot. Paul’s work was essential in keeping the poetry of Jack Spicer in view during the ten year period between his death & the publication of the Collected Books. Melnick & I, as it happened, knew people in common – most notably Iven Lourie, the former poetry editor of the Chicago Review – and had similar, tho not identical, tastes in poetry. He immediately recruited me into his plan to bring the UC poetry magazine – Occident – at least far enough into the modern world to consider the likes of David Shapiro, David Bromige or even some of its own former editors, such as Duncan & Spicer.

 

One of the reasons poetry worked for me, especially as a teenager, was exactly because it wasn’t some abstract practice – it connected directly to all the other worlds that I was then exploring. It was as real as the rent – and sometimes even more so. During much of this period as well, it is worth noting, every single male I knew was struggling with questions of the draft & the war in Vietnam – I’d received my own “Greetings” letter from the US Army in January of 1965 & was perpetually involved in a series of appeals over my conscientious objector’s application from 1964 through 1970, when – with the help of the ACLU – the government finally conceded, which is how I ended up two years later (bureaucracies are slow) working with prisoners. I can still recall my Selective Service Number – 4 46 46 196 – I might as well have it tattooed on my arm. When I say that there is an integral connection between language poetry & the Vietnam experience, this is very much what I’m getting at. My own experience was unique to me, but not at all exceptional. Everybody always had a story.

 

Now there was, fairly obviously, a gap of around six years from when I first began this process to when, towards the end of 1970, I began publishing Tottel’s & Barrett Watten & Bob Grenier first published This. But this was the broader environment in which I saw whatever I was doing fitting in. It made sense to me then & tho I am a very different person at 57 from the one I was at 17, it still makes a fair amount of sense to me now.





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