Posts Tagged ‘Lew Welch’

Glimpsing the Future

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet 2014

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet) © 2014 David Jouris Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene

I like that quote, but I think for me there were many moments in childhood when doors opened and the future came in.

When I was six, having arrived mid-year in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade class at Las Lomitas Elementary, I won my first friends by telling them stories at recess, stories I made up. And there came a day when Mrs. Bushnell was desperate for a nap and asked us to put our heads down and nap with her, but Donny Dorset protested, “We’re not tired, Mrs. Bushnell. Couldn’t Todd tell us a story?”

So while dear Mrs. Bushnell slumbered, I stood before the class and told a story about a boy who befriends a talking alligator named Albert and a smart aleck parrot named Cocolamoko and the adventures that ensued from their friendship. And as I gazed out at my classmates and saw them hanging on my every word and laughing at the goofy voices I gave Albert and Cocolamoko, I saw what I might be one day: an actor playwright.

During the summer after First Grade, I fell madly in love with my classmate Diana Fernandez who lived just up the hill from me. She was the fastest runner in our class and the most fearless of girls, and to my eyes she was exceedingly beautiful and I wanted to kiss her. To that end, I started a neighborhood Science club, a fancy name for catching bugs and lizards and looking at drops of pond water through my father’s microscope and discovering the strange creatures therein. When I invited Diana to join my club and she unhesitatingly said Yes, I immediately scheduled our first field trip.

Looking back on this scheme to be alone with Diana in the forest, I marvel at my ingenuity and perspicacity, for I never again was so ambitious and calculating in my wooing of anyone or anything.

The blessed day of our expedition arrived and Diana came to my house in a darling blue dress, her long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, a bag of freshly baked cookies in her knapsack for our luncheon in the field. And then, with each of us carrying a large glass jar and notebook and pencil to record how and when we captured our specimens, we ventured into the forest of giant oaks a quarter-mile from my house.

Several of these ancient oaks had branches so long and thick that over time they had bent down to earth under their own weight without breaking and snaked along the ground before rising up again to become entangled with other massive branches.

Thus it was possible to simply step up onto one of these branches and walk along and up until we were high above the ground. This is what Diana and I did in the name of science, though we both knew we were aiming to find the perfect place for kissing, which we did. I remember feeling confident we were in no danger of falling, though I cannot quite picture our perch. I do remember looking down at my dog Cozy who had followed us, and how small she seemed so far below.

Then we gazed into each other’s eyes, and Diana hypnotized me, and I was no longer a boy but a man, and she was a beautiful woman, and we kissed for a short infinity, during which I glimpsed a future where kissing Diana or someone like Diana would be a primary motivating factor in my life. I also glimpsed (or certainly sensed) the steamy jungles of adult sexuality, though I had no ready place to file that glimpse in my emotional file cabinet, though I must have filed the sensation somewhere because I remember those moments with Diana vividly sixty years later.

And then there was the poetry reading I attended with my friend Rico in a little church in the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. I was sixteen. To quote from my novel Ruby & Spear (available for a penny plus shipping online):

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

“I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.”

Graphic Novels

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

The Search

The Search painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“I’m a comic book artist. So I think to myself, what do I like to draw? I like to draw hot chicks, fast cars and cool guys in trench coats. So that’s what I write about.” Frank Miller

Last night we watched a DVD of the new movie People, Places, Things. The film did not have a theatrical release, which is the fate of most movies made in America these days unless they are massively expensive blockbusters. People, Places, Things is not a blockbuster and probably didn’t cost much to make, and Marcia and I both very much enjoyed the movie.

The male lead is played by Jemain Clement who has a strong New Zealand accent, so should you rent the film, turn up the volume. Also be sure to watch the opening credits; they are a graphic novella about the five years preceding the beginning of the movie.

Clement plays the part of a graphic novelist who teaches graphic novel writing and drawing at a college in New York, Stephanie Allynne plays his stressed out wife, and Aundrea and Gia Gadsby play their six-year-old twin daughters.

A few hours after seeing the movie, I realized the blocking of the scenes in the film mimics the static nature of scenes in graphic novels, otherwise known as comic books printed and bound as if they are novels. The writer/director of the movie James C. Strouse refers to graphic novels as comic books throughout the film, which I found refreshingly honest. American publishers have been striving for decades now to convince readers that graphic novels are not comic books, but they are. Calling a cow a bovine does not mean that particular bovine is not a cow.

My favorite scenes in the movie were those in which Clement is speaking to his class of aspiring comic book artists. These scenes took me back to the early 1990s when I oversaw the Creative Writing department at the California State Summer School for the Arts and many of my teenaged students were disinterested in novels and poetry, but keenly interested in comic books.

These bright young writers were in the first wave of humans to have their brains programmed since childhood by watching thousands of hours of music videos—messages conveyed by streams of swiftly changing images underscored by walls of sound and rhythm that cause viewers to hunger for more such streams of images and sound. My students were also among the first wave of humans to grow up with personal computers, thus many of them were incapable of writing longhand or speaking in complete sentences.

As a consequence of my collision with this demographic, I was given several comic books to read, each comic book touted by the giver as his or her favorite. I had not read comic books since I was a kid, and even as a kid didn’t so much read them as flip through the pages in search of arresting images. These comic books given to me by my students were essentially storyboards for shallow unoriginal movies. What, I wondered, did intelligent teenagers find so compelling about these comic books?

So I asked my students to enlighten me, and the gist of what they said was that these comic books provided them with armatures on which to hang their fantasies. Indeed, each comic book starred a lead character superficially similar to the person who gave me the comic book. What were these comic books about? Young, lonely, alienated outcasts doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” George Burns

I screened a number of movies for my teenaged writers, movies I was fairly certain they had not yet seen and would appreciate. Alas, The Maltese Falcon bored them to tears and they hated Stardust Memories. As one erudite student said of Woody Allen’s magnum opus, “That is one fucked up dude.”

However, they loved Diva, despite the subtitles, and no wonder. Diva is about a lonely, alienated young man doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest, with great music and fabulous cinematography. As much as I love Diva, there is no denying it is a comic book brought to life.

“To me, it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not be put to words.” William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams likened a poem to a nude, a novel to a strip tease. Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963 and was claimed as a major influence by the San Francisco poets I most admired in the 1960s and 70s—Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. My favorite collection of William Carlos Williams poems is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.

As a young writer inspired by Williams’ poems about the stuff of every day life, I practiced writing detailed descriptions of simple objects, a practice I found challenging and valuable. However, many years later when I asked my teenaged students to write descriptions of simple objects: a pen, a bowl, a piece of paper, I was startled by the dismay this exercise aroused in many of them.

“What does this have to do with writing?” asked one angry young woman.

“It’s just a stupid pen,” opined an outraged young man.

“This has everything to do with writing,” I replied. “And the pen will only be stupid if you make it so with your words. In order to write stories or poems that someone else can read and relate to, we must be able to clearly describe things with our words. And the way to get good at that is to practice. With your pen. On a piece of paper.”

Last Beans

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

last beans

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

Step out onto the Planet.

Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

 Inside the circle are

300 things nobody understands, and, maybe

nobody’s ever really seen.

How many can you find?

                                                                                    Lew Welch

Rained almost an inch today in Mendocino, October 23, 2014. Will we look back from drier times and say, “Remember when it rained almost a whole inch in one day?” Or are we in for years of deluge? Most weather scientists think we’re in for a multi-decade drought, but the globe has so many feedback loops, known and unknown, currently looping and feeding back in ways we barely understand that five years from now California could be getting a hundred inches of rain a year. Or no rain at all. Or a hundred inches one year and none the next.

In the meantime, some things have carried on as per usual. The redwood roots have swarmed into our vegetable beds and made of them non-beds until I dig all those roots out in the spring and give us seven months to grow things before the redwood roots conquer our garden again. Veteran vegetable growers in my watershed shake their heads at my annual root digging and suggest we get big boxes with impenetrable bottoms and sides and admit defeat. Now that I have attained the ripe old age of sixty-five, we’ll see how I do next year battling the roots, and then I’ll decide whether to surrender to boxes or keep fighting.

Our vegetable plants are giving us their last tomatoes, string beans, carrots, basil, and lettuce, while the kale and parsley soldier on, redwood roots be damned. There is something especially poignant about these last few suppers made with our garden-grown goodies, these last days before we start buying vegetables shipped from warmer sunnier climes and inland greenhouses.

The apple trees have been prolific hereabouts this year, our kitchen table covered with bowls brimming with apples crying to be made into applesauce, apple juice, apple crisp. And we grew some nice sweet pumpkins, a victory given our proximity to the coast and the cool foggy summer. Just outside my south-facing office is a patch of ground twenty-feet-long and seven-feet-wide in which I planted tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, and beans, nowhere else on our property hot enough and sunny enough to grow such vegetables so well.

And the last potatoes are yet to be harvested. I’m waiting until Thanksgiving, barring an early frost, before I dig up the gangly plants and see how many pink red orbs the earth gods give us. The mid-summer harvest was spectacular, but this end-of-the-year patch has had almost no warm days and very little sun. I love growing potatoes. The plants are fantastical when they burst from the ground and grow by leaps and bounds in their first few weeks in open air. I love not knowing what each plant might produce, the size of a potato plant no proof of how many or how large the tubers she might produce.

I once grew a spectacular potato bush in Sacramento that was five-feet-tall and five-feet in diameter and green as Ireland. Visitors to my garden stood before the mighty thing as if they were in the presence of a god, which they were. I was sure that massive green thing would produce a bushel of spuds, but the gorgeous giant only birthed two golf-ball-sized potatoes, while seven feet away a wimpy little scraggly thing produced a dozen two-pounders. Mysterious, humbling, fun.

The blessed rain falling, darkness coming earlier and earlier every day, the fire in the woodstove a necessity as much as a pleasure now, the woodshed reassuringly full, the last beans clinging to the wilting vines—winter coming, such as winter comes in California. My friends who live in New England scoff when I speak of our seasons. I think they have northern California confused with southern California, but I don’t argue with them because I know how proud they are of their long icy winters that make our winters, rainy or not, seem mild by comparison.

Buddhism warns us not to compare ourselves to others. Buddha declared such comparing a form of jealousy and a mental trap, an obstacle to clarity of mind. Maybe so, but when I see somebody growing better bean plants than mine, I can’t help but compare. And through comparison, minus jealousy, we may learn how to grow better bean plants.

These are also the last days of baseball season. As I write this the Giants have split the two opening games of the World Series with the Kansas City Royals, and by the time you read this, one of those two teams will have won the World Series. If the Giants win the series, happiness will reign in our town and at our post office and all over northern California for many days. Millions of World Series T-shirts and hats and sweatshirts and jackets will be sold throughout the Giants’ kingdom and around the world. If Kansas City wins, the people of Kansas City will feel special and good and buy many baseball-related products.

The last beans, the last baseball games, the last days of October, the setting back of the clocks, the early darkness, the cold mornings, the match igniting the paper to ignite the kindling to ignite the logs. Thank you Frank’s Firewood for your foresight and full cords. Thank you forest earth gods (trees) for giving of yourself so we may be warm. The last days of the American empire, the last pickle in the barrel, the last bit of mayonnaise at the bottom of the jar. Is there another jar in the cupboard or will mayonnaise go on the list? Is it time to give up mayonnaise? No.

The last post-it of the pad of post-its on the kitchen counter. Is there another post-it pad in the top drawer of my desk or will post-it pads go on the list? We make our shopping lists on post-its, so if there are no post-its, on what will we make our lists? I remember life before post-its. I remember life before answering machines and cell phones and computers and email and big screen televisions and e-books and digital everything. I grew beans then and I grow beans now. Beans and baseball and the dark coming earlier and earlier until the Winter Solstice dawns.

 

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Rewriting Kerouac

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac

More than fifty years after his novel was first published (in 1957), a movie has finally been made based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have not yet seen the film, but because the movie was written and directed by Walter Salles, the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker who made the most magnificent Central Station, I wager his movie of On the Road will be beautifully made. I will also wager that On the Road, the movie, will owe much more to Salles’s genius than to the text after which it is named.

“I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to come incongruous matter which quit distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.” Alfred North Whitehead

Any meaningful discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road must take into account when the book was written and published. The book is a loose-knit rambling account of male friendship set in America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when automobiles and the advent of suburbia were swiftly reshaping the physical and social landscape of the country and accelerating the breakdown of the social mores that had defined America for generations. Outside of this specific historical context, much of the novel will have little or no relevancy for most contemporary readers.

I think many of the complaints (and they are legion) about On the Road being badly written, boring, misogynistic, juvenile, shallow, and a colossal waste of the reader’s time are the result of readers hoping the book will reveal itself to be a timeless masterpiece, a revelation that will elude the reader unless he is that rare bird who enjoys Kerouac’s speedy chatty name-dropping word flow that is short on plot and continuity and long on…word flow, which in the context of the literary style-revolution of the 1950’s is significant. I think it no coincidence that Samuel Beckett’s highly abstract existential play Waiting For Godot, about two guys hopelessly lost on the road, was written and produced at roughly the same historical moment that On the Road was written and published, both works eschewing many of the structural and grammatical rules that theretofore governed their respective literary forms.

“All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land.” Jack Kerouac

I first tried to read On the Road when I was thirteen, a paperback edition being available on our living room bookshelf. I was hunting for sex scenes and hopeful of finding them because the cover illustration on the 25-cent paperback featured a sexy young stud in the foreground with little pictures of scantily clad women in the background, including one picture of a couple in bed making love. Racy! Alas, careful skimming of what was to my young mind nearly unintelligible prose, uncovered only a few references to people having sex or having had sex, with almost nothing remotely juicy or graphic or titillating. Even the Mexican whorehouse adventure—a sort of climax to On the Road—was not particularly sexy, but rather pathetic. Fortunately, I would soon discover Lady Chatterley’s Lover and need no other masturbatory aid for years to come.

 “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Jack Kerouac

In 1966, when I was sixteen, I was introduced to the San Francisco Beat poets by my friend Rico, and over the next several years I attended poetry readings featuring Philip Whalen (my favorite), Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. In retrospect, I find it fascinating that though all these poets owed much of their notoriety to their intimate connections to the world-famous Jack Kerouac, I never heard a single mention of Jack at any of those readings. When I was twenty, and only because I was so enamored of Philip Whalen’s poetry, I attempted to read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (starring fictionalized versions of Whalen and Snyder) but could not force myself to read more than a few pages, no matter how many times I tried. Then shortly after giving up on Dharma Bums, I learned that Kerouac had recently died at the age of forty-seven from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.

“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Jack Kerouac

And so I attained the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having read any Kerouac (other than my teenaged skimming of On the Road). I was living in Sacramento and very much enjoying the local poetry scene when I was invited to participate in a show entitled October in the Railroad Earth, a celebration of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. My fellow readers were D.R. Wagner, Patrick Grizzell, and Bari Kennedy. The format of our show, which became an annual event for many years thereafter, was that we would read works by Kerouac and his Beat poet pals in the first act and our own work in the second act. The readings took place in October in various dives around Sacramento, and for the first few years one of us was assigned to read October in the Railroad Earth, Kerouac’s poetic prose account of riding the train from San Francisco to Gilroy in October.

When I confessed to D.R. Wagner (a great visionary poet) that I had never read any Kerouac and had no idea what to read for the show, D.R. suggested I find a little something in On the Road. So to find that little something I decided to read the book and see what jumped out at me. Alas, if Kerouac’s word flow was largely unintelligible to me as a thirteen-year-old, On the Road held even less interest for me at thirty-two. And so I resorted to skimming, which brought me to a passage in which the narrator (the fictional Kerouac) hooks up with a young woman he meets on a bus—a passage I hoped to perform with some success for an audience of inebriated poets and poetry lovers.

However, when I previewed my reading for an audience of friends after supper one night, the unanimous judgment was that despite my best efforts, the narrative was difficult to follow and essentially pointless. And so, though I knew I was committing a great sacrilege, I spent some time editing the passage, adding a descriptive line here and there, and clarifying the myriad antecedents therein, something Kerouac seemed little concerned with, as if he assumed his readers needed no such clarity.

“It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac

When the night of our performance arrived—the venue appropriately a subterranean bar (appropriate because one of Kerouac’s novels is entitled The Subterraneans)—the place was packed with Kerouac aficionados and poets and the special sort of people drawn to such literary social alcoholic events. And as I listened to D.R. and Pat and Bari read their Kerouac selections, I was filled with dread about what I was about to do: read my rewritten Jack to some of the only people on earth who might know that I had dared revise the work of their god. Was I crazy? Well, I was young and arrogant, which sufficed, so I took my turn, read with zeal, and garnered loud applause for my perfidy.

During the interminable intermission, I was approached by an enormous man with a prodigious mustache and a menacing look in his eyes. I braced myself for condemnation, but none was forthcoming. On the contrary, he shook my hand and declared, “You nailed it, man. You got the rhythm of his words absolutely spot on. I could hear the bass line going as you read. Bravo.”

And hot on the heels of the mustachioed behemoth came a gorgeous woman wearing a slinky sheath that clung most pleasingly to her many admirable curves. She clasped both my hands in both of hers and gushed, “Wow, I hate to admit, but I never really got Kerouac until now. I just…he never made sense to me, but as you read that scene I saw everything so clearly, like a fabulous movie. Thank you.”

At the next year’s Kerouac reading, I read Jack’s October in the Railroad Earth, and I didn’t change a word; and as I read that lovely flow of words I really got what Jack was trying to do with language, which was, I think, to sing like a jazz musician, talking and emoting through his instrument of words while staying open, wide open, to the feelings of the moment.

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.

Slow Going

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Five years ago, a few weeks before I made my move from Berkeley to Mendocino, I came within a few inches of being killed by a young man who was driving his pickup truck very fast while simultaneously using his mobile phone. I had just stepped into the crosswalk at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Avenue, having been given the go ahead to cross by the illuminated symbol of a human being taking a walk. The young man who was driving his pickup very fast apparently did not see the red light or me or possibly anything as he sped through the intersection with his phone pressed to his ear. I don’t know if he was talking to someone or listening to someone else talking, or perhaps he was listening to music; I am only certain he was pressing his phone to his ear as his two-ton missile shot by within inches of my puny little flesh and blood body. And whether there is such a thing as fate or whether life is a muddle of meaningless happenstance, had I been one step further along at that moment, I would have been smashed to smithereens.

So today I’m driving our old truck into our soggy hamlet to get the mail and groceries, a cold rain falling, and because I am the unelected president of Mendocino Drivers Not In A Hurry To Get Anywhere, I’ve only gotten a few hundred yards down the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway before my rearview mirror is filled with the sight of a pickup closing fast upon me. As is my custom in these situations, I move to the outer edge of the road and slow to a crawl, timing my move so that whoever is driving that oncoming pickup will have an easy time passing me—the road ahead empty, the broken yellow line entirely on our side. But this particular pickup (going at least seventy miles per hour) zooms to within a few feet of my bumper before swerving around me and becoming a dot in the distance; and I, frightened and angry, unleash an obscenity-filled and punctuation-free description of this person’s intelligence, sexual predilection, and everything I wish to befall him in the near future.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mohandas Gandhi

Seriously, folks, the village of Mendocino is not, I repeat, not a city. I’m not even sure we qualify as a town given we only have one criminally usurious gas station and nary a Mexican restaurant. Yet on most Fridays, some Mondays, every summer weekend, and unpredictably throughout the year, people drive around the village as if they are in Santa Monica at lunch hour late for I don’t know what, surgery? and in mortal fear of not finding a parking place and therefore doomed to die in their cars.

At first I thought these lunatics had to be tourists or weekend residents bringing their urban neuroses to our hinterlands, but over time I have come to realize that such irrational behavior is contagious, that locals participate, too, and that even I, determined to honor my inner slow poke, do at times react to this transplanted insanity by momentarily joining in the madness.

“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place.” Mark Twain

A good friend recently visited from San Francisco and accompanied me on my errands in the village. He was envious there was no line at the post office, and he was impressed that the postal employees knew me by my first name, but my gabbing with Jeff and Patty at the Mendocino Market as I lollygagged in front of their delectable fish and fowl drove my friend mad with impatience. And as Garnish struck up a conversation about opera with me as he rang up my purchases in Corners, and I having already complimented Sky on the fabulous cauliflower and blabbed at length with Deborah about the benefits of cocoanut oil, my friend began whirling like a dervish and I had to send him outside to wait for me, though he is sixty-one and should know better.

“Teach us to care and not to care.” T.S. Eliot

I first delved into Buddhism in the late 1960’s when I ran into Buddhist references in the poetry of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, my favorite San Francisco Beat poets. For many years thereafter I read essays and books by American, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, and Korean Buddhist teachers discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of Buddhist dharma.

Nowadays I’ll go a year or two at a stretch without reading any dharma, and then a book will befall me or I’ll be hunting for something in my bookshelf and pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or White Sail by Thinley Norbu, and the next thing I know I’ll be deep into a refresher course in mindfulness and the wisdom of no escape.

Most recently I couldn’t resist buying a brand new hardback copy of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, his four-hundred-page treatise on Buddhist psychology for only a few dollars from the Daedalus Books catalogue. Such a deal! One of my all-time favorite Buddhist texts is Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, a brilliant illumination of both Buddhist psychology and western (derived from Freud) psychology in which Epstein compares and contrasts these two very different yet complimentary views of human emotionality and behavior. So far, I have only read sixty pages of Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, but the text has already proven to be a good kick in my mental ass, so to speak, to slow down and smell the moments.

So this morning I decided to walk very slowly on my way to pick up the morning paper at the mouth of our driveway. As I took my slow and mindful steps, I focused on what I was stepping on. Lost in fascination with the conglomerations of pebbles and soil and dead leaves and tiny green shoots of new life composing my path to the highway, I arrived at my destination in no time at all. The newspaper in its plastic sheath seemed enormous and prophetic, and my hand as it entered the frame of my vision to pick up the paper seemed incredibly complex and beautiful—everything shaped by the quality of my focus.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

I have been practicing the piano every day for forty-five years. Of late, I have been playing tunes as slowly as I can without entirely abandoning their rhythmic forms, and in so doing I have discovered tunes within tunes I would otherwise have never guessed were there.

“People ought to listen more slowly.” Jean Sparks Ducey

In 1972 I attended a single meeting of a group practicing Therapeutic Conversation. Had I been a bit more emotionally evolved, I probably would have attended several more of their meetings, but one of the members so repulsed me I never went back. However, I learned such valuable lessons from that one meeting, I was changed forever as a conversationalist.

The first process of the evening was Circle Talk, in which we took our turn speaking after the person to our right had finished saying whatever he or she wanted to say. However, we couldn’t just jump right in the moment the person finished speaking. We had to wait a full minute before we spoke, the time being kept by the leader. And I discovered, in the silence of that incredibly long minute, that what I initially thought I wanted to say was almost never a real response to what the previous speaker had said, but something only tangentially related. Yet if I could be patient, a true response would rise from the depths of that short infinity.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.