Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Bohemian Life

"A man does not set out saying, 'I am going to be a Bohemian,'" Arthur Ransome said, "he trudges along, whispering to himself, 'I am going to be a poet, or an artist, or some other kind of great man,' and finds Bohemia like a tavern by the wayside."

From a quite young age to the present day, I have enjoyed walking in solitude.
I recall rather distinctly an episode from my fairly early youth. It involved my decision to skip the predictable activities of the group of boys my age whom I usually played with, and to go off on a walk by myself. I was already something of an outsider from the common experience of these boys, because every school day I walked the half-mile to my Catholic school. I usually walked alone or with kids my age since my two older brothers had no patience for walking with a younger kid. It was a great walk with a splendid comic book selection and a pinball machine in a corner store, two parks with baseball diamonds (empty on school days), and a row Dickensian tenement buildings looming over the final stretch, all along the way.
I had followed those brothers to the park in our neighborhood as well, again without encouragement from them and their age group friends but tacit protection nevertheless as I was quickly labeled the "wise punk." My mother was also a walker and never acquired a driver's license. We would take cabs and buses, and also walk home from downtown, or from her old neighborhood church and its great park, with a bandstand and a pavilion to bay views, and fireworks on Independence Day. So I was used to walking from a young age.
There is a natural joy in walking. We see it in the toddler struggling to remain erect, and in the child that begins purposeful walking toward a destination. The joy of walking deepens when we begin to walk for edification or for recreation. It is an emotion that I have tried to retain throughout my life. I remember for example the enjoyment in taking a walk with my mother after dinner, bundled up on a cold December night, to walk a few blocks and survey the neighborhood Christmas displays.
My mother was middle-aged when I was born and she was the memory babe and the reader of her family of seven kids, and she passed immeasurable knowledge onto me as well as ineffable, intuitive qualities, and always had an abundance of time and attention for us. Kerouac was known as "Memory Babe" in his French-Canadian American youth, and was called "Ti Jean" at home in not too distant Lowell. My mother's name at home was "Ti Noire."

The great story of my right of passage into the age of reason, as always precociously, involved me getting separated from my mother and brothers in the crowd one day in front of Ste Anne. It's an admirable neo-gothic church built by the French-Canadians who came to South-eastern New England. There had been a parade that day and in the hurry afterward I found myself alone. Resourceful and prematurely mature, I never did panic, though I was very young at the time. Neither did I ask for help--I had walked the route before with my mother and I started up it again. I climbed precipitous Middle street to Second street with its view all the way to Swansea, then past the ceremonial great rock and down wide Plymouth avenue
Almost home, I was walking alongside it when Mrs. Wolstencroft, the lady who lived next door, drove past and spotted me. Naturally there was rejoicing upon the arrival of the remaining family unit. They were of course much more frightened than I think I had been.

A few years after this, I was sent off in a cab with a large bill to stop at an art supply store then continue on to a Saturday art school at a local college next. The building was next door to the crenelated granite armory and stately "People's University" Library downtown. I seem to remember the pleased amusement of the art supply store proprietor to serve such a self-possessed young kid. The downtown was fully operational in those days with a towering City hall and Granite Block of stores all fashioned out of local stone. This was before the sixties came along and a huge interstate highway was plowed through the middle of the city. I remember it then, looking from the art class window out over the landscape falling toward the bay. I remember a nightclub visible from there, maybe called the Americana Lounge, with paintings of silhouettes dining and dancing, a puzzling and sophisticated veneer, a world long-since disappeared.

I return to the day I ditched stick ball or some such pursuit to go on that walk by myself. My thoughts and my direction was entirely my own, and they were comprised a great new state of being. Freedom is second only to the love of God as the experience that brings the greatest feeling of growth to an individual. And I can still revisit the freedom and joy I felt that day as I toured familiar streets under my own steam. In my mind's eye, I can see the "Little Woods" I walked past that day, a place of minor intrigues and much Tarzan or Tonto impersonation. It was at this precise point, as I reached the wood side and was out of sight of my immediate neighborhood, that I place the beginning of my Bohemian life.

The old guys who worked at the local magazine, candy and tobacco shops would comment that I was a man about town when I showed up solo to score licorice babies and flying saucers.* It helped matters that my mother trusted her children. By no means did she bind us to the immediate vicinity of her kitchen window as many of our mates' mothers did.
Although the myriad of crime, confession, scandal, and girly magazines suggested a world of transgression just beyond my reach, I gravitated to more intellectual and more humorous rebellion. The comic books gave way to Famous Monsters of Filmland, then to Mad magazine, then to Beatle books, Bob Dylan, Howl, Kerouac, Kesey, Evergreen Review, Ramparts, Tim Leary and so forth. It represented a progression from images disapproved of by the authority figures in my life, to underground expressions proposing a whole forbidden way of life, not necessarily sinful but certainly more outlaw and erotic and so even more threatening to repression and status quo morbidity.

I became so independent that one evening toward the end of summer a small delegation of my old chums from the backyard gang came and knocked at our door looking for me. They missed me and wanted me to come outside and regale them with my ostensible new hipness.

* Flying saucers was a type of candy with sugary pellets inside two "saucers" of starch dyed pastel-colors. They had a texture like the little unleavened bread rounds used for the Holy Eucharist which we received at Mass. they were not good to eat but they were sputnik weird. Thirty years later, I bought one in a tiny shop in Westport, Massachusetts and kept it until it collapsed.
Memories of the world of penny candy stores deserve their own journal entry. As an example of how different that world was, those little doll-shaped licorice candies were called "nigger babies." For similar candies in printed boxes, the name read "black babies". The penny-candy style were much better.

I will resume this thread concerning my early Bohemian formation before long...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Laureate of the Berkeley Poetry Renaissance

To arc back to the beginning of this journal, I recall my first encounter with a luminary of Berkeley's rarefied realm of Poetry...

On my third day in California, I arranged for a solo outing. The brother with whom I was staying in nearby Contra Costa county took me into Berkeley in the morning with a plan to rendezvous after his work day was over. I began the day in the Telegraph Avenue area taking in an assortment of its offerings--in the form of capucino cafes, record shops, a Japanese lunch spot, and most of all various bookstores.
It was a dim day in early January, yet it was ravishing to me a few days after the frozen New England I'd just left. Only the year before, 1978, a blizzard had left so much snow private automobile travel was banned for six days--it was sort of heavenly though. Trains and buses were running and I traveled sixty miles to explore the streets of Boston and Cambridge, bustling with foot traffic alone.

Winter can get old and wearying in Massachusetts, and I had twenty-five of them under my belt by then. Here in California the growing grass was green and some flowers were actually in bloom. In a text book style store on Bancroft Way, I found books on separate shelves devoted to individual publishers. I gravitated to the New Directions shelf and encountered some interesting titles for the first time, ones I had only seen listed in the back-lists included on the end pages of beloved books--Rimbaud, Borges, Bob Kaufman.

Upon leaving the store I crossed over to the UC student union building . Within minutes I observed something that fulfilled my most naive notions of stepping into scenes from a Kerouac novel the minute I got here. It was a person famous in the world of obscure poetry browsing around the student stores-- Robert Duncan, a name synonymous with the Berkeley Poetry Renaissance. He was a forebear of the Beats and a real high-artifice poet of an even older type. He had an expansive forehead with long white sideburns and wore a coat with a built-in rain cape. His "frontispiece" included a jeweled art-nouveau bolo tie on a flowered shirt, anachronistic even then. His eyes were remarkable and are much-noted--they were as large and sensitive as can be imagined; moreover, one eye was slightly lazy and seemed to look off into the poetic marvelous at all times.
He in fact was a mystic of sorts descended from California theosophists. His florid early poetry was celebrated and he was indulged from an early age as someone profound beyond his years. Young Robert Duncan put in his mandatory Rimbaud phase, finding his way to New York city as a desperate young poet. He published an early crie-de-coeur entitled "The Homosexual in Society" that was a milestone in the queer rights movement. It alone would entitle him to a place in cultural history. He quickly established relations of one sort or another with all the poets and poets manques of his time--Pound, Patchen, Anais Nin. Avant-garde poetry was and is a quite small pond.
Eventually, he returned to Berkeley where he became the biggest fish of his school rivaled only by Jack Spicer (who actually emerged as more of a group leader after he had decamped to San Francisco.) I had become interested him along with the rest of poets identified with the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance which followed and flowed into what became known as the Beat generation. Two other well-known poets of this group were Mary Fabilli and William Everson a.k.a. Brother Antoninus. (I will devote a future entry to Mary with whom I became friends.)
Most of the best-known Beat poets were also Berkeley dwellers including Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, and Jack Kerouac who even moved his supportive mother here for a period.

Duncan's poetry was elegant, classical in ways, reflective of European modernism and somewhat old-fashioned because of that. His work is like California Surrealist painting somehow. And his life partner Jess could be roughly described as belonging to that movement.
Diane diPrima had called Duncan the greatest living poet at a reading of hers I attended at the Smith College library in 1975. (People smoked a big joint of gold Columbian at that reading without any conflict---ah, those were the days). I had been reading more of him following that and had even bought a rare book of his by mail order from City Lights books in San Francisco. It was his Selected Poems one of the more scarce volumes in the Pocket Poets Series from 1959. The series had made a considerable seismic waves the previous year with Ginsberg's volume Howl & other poems. I was collecting them, interested in every forgotten copy of any underground poetry press I could find.

I thought immediately of the tried and true method for graceful meetings with authors one esteems. And I recalled that the New Directions rack I had just examined had included one of his best books, The Opening of the Field. Before hailing him, I dashed over to obtain a copy of it to ask him to sign it. He seems almost startled to be recognized by a young person out of the passing stream. This was despite the large number of his books and papers in the Bancroft library a stone's throw away, despite his prominent role in local literary history.
To be a success at poetry is like being a failure at any thing else, I once heard a perspiring acolyte of Duncan's admit. This particular poetry maven has Duncan's old hat on his old hat-rack by the front door of his home today.
As a young poetry hustler myself I naturally had my own self-published chapbook to press on Duncan. He may have even had me sign it to him, though it seems doubtful in retrospect. We spoke for a while, a conversation now lost in time, and bid a friendly adieu. He said perhaps he see more of me in the poetry scene.

And he did. Following what was reputed to be a reclusive period, he seemed to be making a lot of appearances in the following year. There was even talk of forthcoming new books from him, something he had declined to publish since the Viet Nam war. I was at the majority of these events--generally with an estimable old book. He signed them usually with some drawing and noted seeing me again in the inscription. I saw him give an art lecture at the Oakland museum; I attended a reading by him at the UC Alumnus hall, and before long we became acquainted.
This was until the afternoon I was talking to him and a few other poets at the Berkeley Art Museum (now UAM). The event was a Wallace Berman retrospective. Berman's Semina artwork/magazine had published Duncan, as well as diPrima and Michael McClure who were all there to read and talk about him.
An anthology of English language Surrealist poetry that included Duncan's work had been published by Penquin. It also had the work of my poetry professor and friend of a few years earlier, James Tate. Tate had always disowned the identification of his work as Surrealist yet had agreed to be included. I wondered how Robert felt about the designation, adding that I hadn't thought of him as a Surrealist. This possibly did not sit very well with he who is Poet in all Poetry.

One poet who was long recognized as a Surrealist was the aforementioned Philip Lamantia. He was one of the models for what I wanted to pursue in poetry. I was influenced not only by his poetry but also by his essays and his association with the American Surrealist movement centered around Franklin Rosemont and Arsenal, The Journal of Surrealist Subversion out of Chicago. Lamantia had been an early associate of Duncan's but somewhere in the volatility of their storied lives, they had experienced a decisive split.
Philip was discussed in the introduction to that Surrealist poetry anthology, as both the perfect exemplar of its subject and also because of his pointed refusal to be published in it. The Surrealism he adhered to came with well-defined doctrines and a revolutionary ideology. These were not major concerns of this collection nor were they precepts owned by Duncan in his many essays and interviews. I will devote at least another entry to Philip who died in 2005.

In those days you really could hear and get to know many of the renowned Beat poets. The Bay Area poetry scene was still happening and a monthly Poetry Flash newletter listed readings galore. Gary Snyder's statement around then was that since the Six Gallery reading in 1955 there had not been a day here without a poetry reading of one sort or another, and it was true.
I got to know even the reclusive Lamantia and was once sitting next to him in City Lights basement, a rather close catacomb of books and odd chairs even a church pew. It matched the strange holy roller left-overs painted on the walls, "Remember Lot's wife!"
The event was an exceedingly rare reading by the legendary David Gascoyne, one of the greatest poets let alone Surrealist poets in the English language. After achieving high regard for his books in Britain, he had slipped into a depressive state. He was eventually living in a clinic without speaking. Then objective chance brought a woman to his clinic to read to the patients. Without knowing he was present, she read one of his poems aloud and it brought him back from his lost place. It was an unmistakable triumph of l'amour fou (mad love) that charged the occasion of this reading at which the woman, now his wife, was present.

Also present was another major visionary poet of the epoch, Robert Duncan who sitting a few feet away from us. Now, that he seemed somewhat disinclined to greet me a few years after our slight acquaintance was unremarkable to me. This was especially so since I was sitting with another person who seemed mutually disinclined to say hello to him. But that was what was illuminating to me to see-- how calmly these two poets well-known to each other for forty years could ignore each other. It was a lesson in the ways of poets for me that is now a familiar drill whenever it occurs. Harold Norse was there too, a good but I'd be reluctant to say visionary poet. A few other poets had turned out for this poet's poet who was almost completely unknown in this country, but rather few civilians. A couple sat in front and polished off a quart or so of the cheap wine on the house. They would occasionally ask him to repeat his name which Gascoyne, between exquisite dream-like poems, would do.

There are photos of Duncan with Lamantia from that day, and there is no unfriendliness implied by my description of their demeanor together. A few years later, Philip's wife and long-time City Lights second-in-command, Nancy Peters described to me the experience of flying to a poetry festival seated between the two. Both talked continuously, listening not to each other but each expecting her to hear himself in full. But she said that they were friends again if a little precariously so at times.

Since I quoted one San Francisco poetry scene-maker, mover and shaker, (without naming him) I will include an exchange with another. This was at Tosca on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, the customary poets' drink after yet another reading, that day at Canessa Park.
"Hey, Adam, is hell other people?"
"Hell is other poets."

Those last books of Duncan's came out in 1987. Groundwork: Poems Before the War, Vol. I and II, they were actually off-prints of his own type-scripts so no typo or spacial change could occur. Frankly, it rendered a typographic dullness on the page as a result. I went to a publication party for it at a bookstore in Berkeley. I brought my old hard bound first edition of Roots and Branches, one of my favorites, not expecting to be among the many people buying his new one that day myself. I was an old book collector--a few excerpts of Groundwork would suffice.
There was a nervous and expectant staff; there was a table of respectable victuals; there was a free letter-press broadside of a new poem; and there was not at that moment any other apparent attendees. Berkeley being what it was, people may have been en route and arrived soon after. We greeted him, got the broadsides signed somewhat solemnly, and had to cut out. I had made an prior agreement to just pass through the event. For my companion meeting Robert Duncan had even less of a thrill than it still held for me at that time.
A year or so later the obituaries for him ran. Poetry Flash devoted an issue to this pater familia of the scene, second only to Kenneth Rexroth for that title. At an event at Fort Mason cavalcade of poets read their work in homage to him. I made a table display of my collection of his books, obliging interested parties to handle only the sturdier editions. And in an adjourning room a videotape of Robert Duncan speaking played on to an empty chamber.

I continue to hold Duncan's poetry in high regard. An interesting biography of him expanded my reading. At one point I re-acquainted myself in order to give a tutorial on him to a student of diPrima's who wanted to impress the teacher. I am grateful for the fleeting access fate granted me to him and to his performance. As if by objective chance, other than family, the first face I knew in California was his.

"In sound and sense it is the music of inner relationships that moves me."
Robert Duncan

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Son Trouve

Thinking of my three favorite environmental sounds of Berkeley, the ones that summon a strong sense of place...

In earlier entries to this journal I gave voice to my resentment of several noise sources in my immediate vicinity. To refresh, they were the loud disco boom-boxes employed by the Asiatic dance gangs that collect around lower Sproul plaza, the trucks and tour buses on Bancroft way that idle their engines far beyond the legal time limit, and, the most intolerable but least frequent annoyance, the Taiko drummers who bang out their identity politics in the same general area.
But really, despite any impression I may have yet made, I actually celebrate more than I find fault. In that vein, let me praise my three favorite sounds of this locality. These would be sounds I dig in particular, as opposed to the more universal salvation of sounds as widely defined as let's say bird song.
And they are: the sound of morning doves calling especially in the early twilight of a summer's eve when the fog is vigorously rolling in; the train whistles along the tracks through far West Berkeley as they echo off the hills; and the life-enhancing music that peals off the carillon bells in the Campanile on the UC campus.

I lived for fifteen years in a much quieter residence on Woolsey street, the last street in South Berkeley. The place was locked in the center of block, flocked by rich trees, and it was reached by a long driveway separating it from street noise. It was there that I grew so accustomed to the plaintive but somehow encouraging sound of the doves calling back and forth in the cool of an evening. The fragrant smoke from an outdoor mesquite grill frequently accompanied what is now a vivid sense memory. I see less of the once ubiquitous morning doves and hear them still less of them these days in my more urban part of town--I hope it is not because they have become more scarce in this habitat.
The trains, the trains-- they won me over to Berkeley in a strange way. I relocated here but intended to settle in San Francisco. Berkeley can often seem somewhat dull and insular in comparison. But over time the things we see everyday become sacred and that goes for the sounds we here. I have long had a love affair with trains and many of my heroes were train-riding, or at least train-identified, from Alfred Hitchcock to Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan etc. To me there is nothing more evocative than the sound of trains as they pass in the night, suggesting unknown realms of possibility. And the sound of trains are profuse in the great night that envelopes the populous eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
There once was a sense of solidarity among most residents of this chilly and saintly shangri-la. Like-minded people had gravitated here with a strong shared sensibility that included an appreciation for what was right with the place. This was followed by the coming of the nimby-
the not-in-my-backyard type, often a property speculator. Several such bought homes along the railroad tracks in Berkeley, knowing full well what that entailed. Then they proceeded to complain to the powers that be that they were egregiously disturbed by the train whistles. Just as with the lobby against legal medical marijuana dispensaries, long-running street fairs, and San Francisco's traditional night life, the East Bay nimbys tried to get restrictions on the train whistles. These are the house-flipper types who were a big engine of the latest economic crisis in the "Highway 61 Revisited" brand of late capitalism that characterizes the current US scene. Well since this latest bubble burst perhaps we can relegate them back to the democratic margins where they belong. Thus far they have failed in their attempts to stifle the trains.
The romantic siren call of all my years living in earshot of those ever-traveling trains, the summons on the precipice of sleep so many nights, eventually inspired my own far-reaching adventure by rail. In 2005, my North America travel pass in me pocket I crossed North America, including Canada the wide part, twice in 28 days. As I left this part of the world on the 11 o'clock Starlighter to Seattle, I thought of how I was at that moment boarded on one of those poetic, oneiric trains. Moving past the Marina, sounding off the hills, and drifting through nocturnal chambers of the town, I had joined the sound that had stirred my soul for decades.

And the bells, the bells, the bells that toll from a glorious towering perch atop the campanile. They are essential and intrinsic to my perception of where I live. They were recently the raison-d'etre for a carillon festival held on campus. Players from far-flung places came to offer their grooves. The sound of these fabulous bells underscores all that is pleasant about the controversial campus. I came to a liminal point sitting on a wooden bench on the Campanile plateau, and listening to a carillon-playing adept perform one of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedies." I reached the conclusion that classical pieces and other old chestnuts played on these great bells was my purest and best loved form of music. It is just waves of sound emanating from percussion on a tuned metal bell-- no opportunity for distortion, no amplification, and no pro-tool sweetening of wrong notes.
Just the ringing of the hours alone is important to me. But again this has been constrained in cranky over-wrought Berkeley--another fuss-budget crabbed about the "disturbance" caused by bells tolling the time. So they only toll to nine in the evening or some such. While for myself, having grown up in a city of Catholics, where the bells tolled the hours, called us to church, and gave us an agreeable and sustaining sense of community--I say, like Bob Dyan sang,
"Ring them bells.'