In 1954, I was (not) selling magazines from door to door in southern Ontario. In 1955, I was (not) helping Ukrainian wheat farmers recover their everyday senses in Oliver Mental Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. But in 1956, I was in Vancouver, staying at my sisters, and talking to a registrar at the University of British Columbia into admitting me to the University of British Columbia because, although I had only a 10th grade education, it had been gotten in England, which probably made it the equal of Canada's grade 12; and to my surprise, he agreed with me. I didn't know that education in BC was in crisis: the baby boomers were in desperate need of teachers. He told me this. And he added that I should have to take four education courses and one Survey of English Literature course. Sign here.
The ed courses were terrible, except for one taught by a man who had clearly realized this long before. I much enjoyed the various moves he had invented to deal with this discovery, like leaning into the room from the hallway while talking, or lying on the table and teaching to the ceiling. The other classes were hell on wheels, but I carried on by improving my doodling, waiting for the bell to ring and thinking about my English class. UBC had paid me bursary of 750 Canuck bucks to help me get thru this first year, after which they hoped I would become a teacher in Kamloops or Castklegar, or some other slight dot on their map overflowing with the products of postwar lovemaking. Those fucking soldiers and their fucking wives without intending to had found work for me that I liked to do. Teach their fucken kids.
But not just yet. In the following summer, I worked with my muscles on campus. My muscles got big with planting and shoveling. My skin, shirt off, got tanned, and when one Saturday afternoon I went to see a play opening on campus, I saw two actors, a man who would be my friend for life, and a woman who would be my wife, and thereby interrupt my UBC career, since she was going back to England almost at once to take up a scholarship at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, LAMDA. I spent the summer working for a landscaper on the UBC campus, drinking beer at the Georgia, and writing long letters to Ann. (She wrote with equal intensity to me, and I still have those letters, bibliophiles.)
Come September, together with Geof Eliot, a Yorkshire lad who'd been studying Forestry at UBC, we flew to NYC, spent three days there seeing a play each night, "Look Back in Anger," "Death of a Salesman," and "Long Day's Journey into Night," which latter turned me into a playwright. I wrote a play that winter in London, which took four hours to read when we invited a group of Ann's fellow-students to the Bromige home, where Ann and I had a small share of a big house that my father bought for $1,000 in 1943, as you couldn't insure a house against bomb damage—luckily, we sustained none. (My sister, to whom the house was left, sold it for some 80,000 pounds in the late 80s, about one fourth of which was sent to me. With an even more unexpected gift of about the same amount from my father's widow, his third wife, I was able to buy the house I live in today, which is worth half-a million plus.)
Back to the 50s: I worked as a supply grade school teacher—in one case, at the school I had won a scholarship to a high school named in a British way "public" (it was, in fact, private) that had been in existence for four hundred years and whose most famous modern scholars, apart from me, have been Sir Leon Brittain, Home Secretary in Thatcher's government, until she made him the scapegoat for one of her swindles; and the movie actor named Cohen, who played "Borat" in the film of that name. It was duller in my time. The best times I had at that all-boys school were trading jerkoffs with a variety of lads, right there in class. Oh, there is Sir Samuel Brittan, my mate in grade school, whom I've visited several times when poetry events have brought me back to England.
But enough of the future. My teaching job didn't pay enough: at Dad's suggestion, I applied to a firm of solicitors in New Suare (it's very old); and they hired me for 11 quid a week, twice what I got for teaching. I was given a sheaf of old accounts, which I was to tot up in case there were mistakes. It was boring work, but I was quick with figures. Then, after a while, I took out a paperback and read it, covering it with a sheet of accounts when anyone came by, which they seldom did. I liked this job. One of the clients who frequently stopped by was Group Captain Townsend, so good-looking he made me feel like Princess Margaret.
Meanwhile, Ann and I saw a lot of West End plays without paying: management papered the house on opening night if there weren't enough tickets sold. Soon I too wanted to act, and found a small theater that could use me. I mention this because one critic reviewing my poetry years later said I read as though acting a part. Perhaps his insight is why I've written in so many styles.
I might have stayed on in London—I know Ann wanted to—but one day the mail brought an unpleasant surprise. It was a notice to appear at a nearby hospital to get checked out for the draft. My father, twice wounded in the first World War, had always told me never to join the army. I went for my physical, thinking all my drinking and smoking would save me, but I was pronounced A-1. Not only would I have to leave my wife for two years, but I would have to shoot whoever the enemy was, and be shot by them.
So, I wrote the draft board a letter saying that I was due to return to Canada to resume my studies in the Fall, and they replied, giving me until the end of September to leave England. As I feared, my wife was furious. "My big opportunity," "Just the right time to make my West End breakthru," etc., etc., but I was holding the winning hand: if I went into the army, I'd probably step on a landmine and have my legs blown off and be a cripple for the rest of my life. My cock might be injured too.
"Ah," I would add, "but I'm being selfish. We've had a good time together. Forget Joan Reid, she meant nothing to me!" How she should launch forth on her own, "And my deepest good wishes go with you, and watch out for that Brummagen accent at auditions," and she would cave in, sobbing, "I'm only 25, and you're already my second husband. I can't leave you," and so we flew back to Vancouver. (Did I give Dad one last chance "to lend" us the fare, or were airline tickets still affordable to the likes of us?)
I went back to UBC, part-time, keeping three days-a-week free for substitute teaching (still at grade school level, the eleven year-old girls were my favorite fantasy figures) and hard going Ann and I made the ensuing year, '58-59.
I kept on writing plays, but I also wrote poems, my first as a grownup. By school-year's end, Ann and I were apart, after a hellish year, which included her attempt to drown herself in English Bay—or was she just acting?—and my going on tour with UBC's production of "Charley's Aunt" thruout the province of British Columbia.
When I got back, all the summer jobs were gone, so I helped my friend, Roy Cooler, later a West End star, with his window-cleaning business. Later that summer, I met a lovely blonde two years my senior, who was mourning being ditched by a local theatre director, Norm Young, and promised her I'd be more famous than him, so she should marry me. Which sooner or later, she did.
Now my life, at last, was waking up. I wrote a poem, "For Joan", which won the poetry prize at UBC—50 bucks, equal to about $250, today; I won a prize for a play I wrote that winter, "Save What You Can", $1,000 in the dollars of those days; I got straight A's in all my classes, save for Psychology, which I took in the wrong room by mistake of an usher, and so was passed, a lucky break. And Kenneth Patchen came to read with a jazz combo, and I saw that poetry was entertainment.
Joan Peacock's salary—she'd been thru Law School—was enough for me to go to Summer School, which was useful for appearing to learn French, since class met every day. I read Rimbaud. I read Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound. My interests were all over the map. If only some genius could come tell me which lines of inquiry would be of most use. If only.
That summer, Robert Duncan came to teach in Vancouver. I was a bit put-off by the people he drew to him—people whose own poetry often seemed suspect, not up to par—simplistic, in a word. But I heard such tales of his talking that I cut class and sat in. The group had pitched in for his bus-fare from San Francisco, so I offered him five bucks, but he said, "Don't bother, I've got enough already." He was fantastic to listen to. Yes, he too was all over the map, but he always knew where he was headed. I waited intently for his next book.
Meanwhile, the Allen anthology came out. "Who is this Ronald Duncan you're always reading in that book?" my now wife, Joan, asked me. "Joan, it's Robert, and his work is so—mysterious. I don't know whether I hate him or love him. Both, I guess. But take a look at this anthology—there's some dumb fucks, but there's this great one, Robert Creeley, and dozens of others who are great to read." We had many happy moments in our coach-house days. For me, discovering that anthology was like discovering a new continent.
Creeley read at UBC in the winter of 61-62, but Bowering and I missed him, because we were at a writing conference being held at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where at the party he and I acted out a book title, "The Naked and the Dead." George looked good, dead. But I got more screams.
Next spring, 1962, I was invited to go to Seattle to be interviewed for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. I went, and I got one. But the rules stated that you couldn't do your graduate work at the school where you graduated from. I asked my UBC mentor, the poet Earle Birney, and he said: "Berkeley." So, that's how I left Canada.
But before I did, Creeley, who was going to teach at UBC the next year. Damn it, he came in the summer and offered the same kind of workshop that Duncan had done the year before. I was there for every one of those. At some point, Bob found this out and said, "Let me give you Robert's phone and address, and don't fogret to look him up." Excitedly, I wrote this down, but I knew I would not use it. I was still so damn British. However, being British likely got me into Thom Gunn's poetry-writing class, and to this class, Fall of '62, came Bob Creeley, who'd read on campus the night before, and with him came, goodness gracious me, Robert Duncan, who sat next to me and said, "So, there you are—regressing?" Creeley reading, Duncan talking—and after class, we three, with several more, went to Telegraph Ave and sat at a table in Robbie's, and talked for hours on end.
After that, Robert D looked me up at least once a week, when he took the bus over from SF, and we'd meet at various places—often, just across Telegraph from Robbie's, The Heidelberg—someplace where we could get a sandwich, anyway, without risking the anarchist splendor of The Med.
Robert had always an errand to run on campus, sometimes someone else to meet, often an old friend from his Berkeley days, so I met a variety of persons thru him. He'd also show me poetry he was writing (wasn't 1963 the year he began "Passages"?) Sometimes, I would show him a poem I'd written, to which he might suggest improvements, but often say nothing—perhaps because he had nothing to say but perhaps because that was the quicker way to let me grow.
Suddenly it was summer, my wife and I rented a house near the Vancouver campus which, payment forthcoming, we were willing to share with as many others as its broad walls might accommodate. I can't recall them all. Ed van Alstyn was one, and Richard Sassoon was another; RS was the last tenant to be squeezed in there, and I had cause to regret his presence, an exemplary instance whereof was a piping hot day when he found out the windows of his little room had been, by the landlord, painted shut. I could hear him struggling to let air in, but was nonetheless shocked to hear glass breaking. This he refused to pay for, because the owner's not to have done such a thing, but Joan and I felt the window had to be fixed, so we called a pro in and paid for it. Sassoon kept refusing, perhaps this was because he had inherited his poet-cousin's determination "never surrender" game, first against the Germans then later as a pacifist, but it was awkward for us, and it was good of Joan to tell me he had paid her for it but sworn her to secrecy. He was writing plays, then; the last time I heard of him, he was counseling persons in Arizona on how to stay calm.
Van Alstyn was another bowl full of impatience that those days brought forth. He had been fun AND helpful at the Eugene conference, for instance, making me poetry editor of the Northwest Review, which he edited, but how come he accepted a wad of Whalen without submitting it to the eyes of his poetry editor, me? But I actually got paid for doing it, so I put up with my madman editor's ways.
Inevitably, things got worse. For our next issue, we had a poem by Whalen in which he said he must stop masturbating so often; a poem by Michael McClure in which God was named blasphemophemohemomoblashphelasphphem. I sadly advised Van that he should put one of these poems in this issue, one in the next, and one in the third. I knew a thing or two about our editorial board. Three poems like this in one issue would sink it. Van was right, of course. We had to fight for freedom of expression. But we were all fired, the journal produced by the faculty, and nothing of worth put in it. Van went on to publish Coyote's Journal, never published a poem I sent him, went south to teach at SF State College, affecting a number of students, then went north to settle on the Oregon coast, where he has drawn some like-minded spirits.
I had gotten my MA at the end of Winter quarter. My wife, Joan, was six months pregnant, and was determined our child would be born in Canada. So, we traveled N to Vancouver and then NE to a little settlement called Deep Cove, then cheap enough for us to afford to rent a house, a house almost at the end of a road and just steps from the endless forest. Bears lived there, and we sometimes saw one, standing up to look at us. Across Horseshoe Bay east ranged 6,000-foot mountains. Once a week, I drove out to UBC to collect a stack of essays, which I'd bring back to the house and grade for a professor, whose name I've forgotten. For three months, this was my only paid work. My wife was soon too big to go on walks in the forest, so I would go on my own, praying I didn't meet a bear on my way.
But I did encounter dizzy spells and other signs of ill health I couldn't decode, and finally I went into West Van to see my doctor, who was also my father-in-law, and Dr. Peacock said I was diabetic, and put me on insulin. My wife was due to give birth any day now, so he could hardly be blamed for fixing me up best as he could, although it was likely that I was suffering from a temporary condition brought on by nervous strain, and using insulin to deal with it was going to render a temporary condition, permanent—which in fact it did. But even the doctor didn't know this.
And meanwhile, my wife was delivered of a 12-pound boy we called Christopher, some male to really suck on Joan's hefty breasts. When you have a kid, we discovered, you need more money, so it was good I got to teach summer school. When it was over, I was told they thought I'd got my PhD or they wouldn't have hired me. There had been no way I could have earned a PhD in the short time I'd been there. Thanks, for the kindness, though.
But now I was coming back to Berkeley to begin teaching, while Joan resumed her former job. I also had a job with Fybate Notes, typing up what a kindly old Russian had to say about the 19th century of Russian writing, twice weekly. After awhile, Joan had to go back to work, and we had to make crazy arrangements and finally hire a baby-sitter, so I could get to my Russian class, which probably just paid for the sitter. But what distracted me further began when I couldn't make my way through a crowd of students blocking Sather Gate. I was trying to get across Bancroft in order to deliver my typed-up version of yesterday's lecture to where they could be checked for errors and then mass-produced to be sold to the waiting masses. (Well, there were some thirty in this class.) "Hey, I know it must be fun to do what you're doing, but I actually have some work to deliver!" A couple recognized me and began to build an archway to the exit. That the protesters made way for me smilingly made a big, lasting impression on me. Some guy stuck a flower in my hair, and I wore it proudly. When I talked with a campus friend about the matter that evening, he made me feel that the protesting students had right on their side. Why should they be solicited on-campus to go get shot in Viet Nam?
Quickly things snowballed and led to students sitting-in at Sproul Hall. A student of mine, Sherril Jaffe, was among this crowd. She has a great laugh and a winning smile, but I was impressed with her gravity when she told me she expected to be arrested, and grateful that she advised me not join her: "I'm just a Jew, but they might send you back to Canada. Remember those long winters. Besides, we'll miss you here." She impressed me. She had the tone of the times.
And those fucken pigs were rough on them. Hey, why not? It was their big chance to get at these privileged pigs, while they had the chance to win a battle in the class war—fuck the law, drag them down the stone steps so that they bounce their over-educated heads on the stone edges.
Yes, tempers were rising. But take the long view: more children of Oakland cops were dying in Viet Nam than Cal grads. And President Nixon's big disgrace was already charted in the heavenly stars.
Now, let's cut to the summer of '65. What changes? Well, at the beginning of the Berkeley Poetry Conference, Robert Duncan ran into me, accompanied by Suzanne Mowat, an 18-yr old who had just graduated from an exclusive girls' school in Vancouver, and who, while Joan and her baby were vacationing in Vancouver, was using our spare bedroom, which as far as I could observe, she never used by night, except for the night when she was eluding Warren Tallman (she said), and sobbed her heart out recounting her various exploits, named in my still-clothed arms. But people love the conclusions they leap to. "I see everything is changing at your house," RD snarled as he ran down some stairs I was ascending. Suzanne's ascension did not stop until she had Mr. Big, Charles Olson, fall in love which, I admit, was not hard to do. CO's sexual performance can't have amounted to much the night he gave and gave his reading. Meth, grass and hard liquor were some of the alleged and witnessed substances that he took and from which he drew inspiration that night. Listen to the tape, a remarkable performance. I found it best when he read his poetry, but he never read one thru to the end. There are so many things dope can make you say. It was a bad show, tho remarkable. Duncan and Jess left at halftime. As far as I could see, I was the one person who wouldn't stand to honor Charles Olson's blitzed and staggering performance when the janitors had called for the campus police to rid him of this troublesome nave. I admired his poetry very much, but not his drunkenness, drugs or love-swoon. I wanted them for myself.
But others of the poets outdid themselves. Duncan's voice had a cold fury I'd never heard before, in his new poem against the slaughter in Viet Nam: "Now Johnson would go up to be" the devil's agent—an anti-war poem that still makes me shake, all these years later. Creeley, too, gave a great reading, and also a wild (yet sober) talk—prefaced by a little trouble with Richard Baker, the unfortunate man in charge, now subject to RC's order that those who had no money should be admitted to his talk, so that Richard Krech and Richard Denner, the man who has for five years has been a close friend and ace collaborator, along with other colleagues from the Berkeley underground, could sit inside and listen. As for Baker, he went on to become a Buddhist monk, and later a disgraced ex-Buddhist monk, and later still, a renewed and respected teacher in Colorado. Or so they say.
The last poet I heard that summer was Jack Spicer. In the tape, I can hear my youthful (tho now 31 year-old) voice challenging his professional pessimism: "People on all sides challenge this war. It can't be won." Spicer had his habitual answer. And a month later, he was dead. He couldn't wait for the good news, tho he was barely forty.
And a uniquely beautiful and surprising poet.
But it was Fall again, I had a scholarship, and another gig at Fybate Notes, and my second book soon to be published by Black Sparrow Press. I was to go on and on win big prizes, and make alarming mistakes. Maybe, I shouldn't have told the truth of my stay at Harry Spider's place. Had been wiser than to expose editor Josiah Panting in print. (Jersey Roth let me know the truth of that.) But this mean archive is still intact and still for sale. Read the letters from Michael Davidson, Pat Nolan, Robert Duncan, Andrei Codrescu, Michael Palmer, Kathy Fraser, Susan Geviritz, Steve Tills, Richard Denner, Belle Randall, D.A. Powell, Robert Hass, Rachel Loden, Ron Silliman, Clayten Esheleman, Charles Berstein, Nick Piobino, Steve Benson, Diane Ward, Bruce Andrews, Kit Robinson, Rae Armantrout, Ray di Palma, Bob Perelman, Robert Grenier, and more than 400 others—friends, acquaintances mainly poets.
I thank them for a full life in the Age of Letter-writing.