Reading HOWL with S.A./Watching HOWL with Iris
Old Man Red had given me the worn edged book and told me to read it on a rainy day on Hollywood Blvd.
It didn't seem like much at first, but he insisted this had the importance of any of the big books I was looking at that day.
I had just gotten my first room of my own in a run down house up in Laurel Canyon and it had bookshelves, bookshelves, bookshelves that begged to be filled and, lord knows, I wanted any women I brought in there to think of me as smart enough to be something other than what I felt inside, so I wanted to fill the bookshelves and Red was the man with the store that had cheap used books as well as expensive new ones. I figured I could make a deal with the old codger, since making little deals on the boulevard and down on the boardwalk or over in the canal had become quite a forte for me. Red was helpful and glad to see I had some money, but he insisted I take this little, old book with simple, bold letters across the front reading "HOWL".
He said "This is the bible of the beatniks, it will help you understand your mother better." I remember that because Red knew me and my mom did not get along too well at the time and he knew my mom claimed to have been a "beatnik" or beat something, before I came into the world and after that it seemed to just be about beating me. I knew I had it coming most of the time, but still, every kid on Hollywood Blvd. had an axe to grind back then, and I ground down axes with the best of them. I didn't really get it when I read it. I took the book back a few days later on a mission to get some stuff that Bukowski had referenced in his Notes column. I tried to give the book back to Red, but he bristled. "Did you read the damn thing or not?"
I was a little taken aback. I had heard of this Ginsberg guy, from my "godmother", she was a hippie, toured with the Grateful Dead, gave me the best shrooms and acid, and read and wrote poetry that did not make a lot of sense to me. This seemed like more of that gibberish that she would make me listen to and I would oblige her because I was at her place in the canals of Venice to get some of that good stuff and to get a little money for some of my good stuff. It seemed like professional courtesy to listen to her recitation as we smoke a doobie and some Ravi Shankar played in the background. But this was, while interesting enough in its use of words that just a few years before would have made me giggle to read, making reference to something that I didn't quite get yet. Pussy was my god as a teenager, or goddess to be more gender specific, and the reason I wanted to read and be smarter was because I had stumbled into the world of attainable pussy in the dark bars and strange parties that I would slide into at night, pretending to be older than I was, and making plays at older women. Even though I read every day, voraciously, all the things that seemed important, poetry was still a bit mysterious to me. I was still struggling with Whitman, Frost, cummings, Pound, but totally enthralled with Poe and Kipling. I was dramatic enough, but not quite romantic enough. I had begun reading Bukowski, which was teaching me romance on terms and conditions that I could relate to, but I still read more of his prose than his poetry. I rarely wandered over to Western Ave. because that area was not as welcoming as the Hollywood I frequented. And, being a young boy/man when in I was in Venice, I would rather be in the water on a hot day than reading at the bookstores on the boardwalk. So the real poet in me had yet to emerge, but I knew I had give it a go the same way a kid knows he will get no pudding if he doesn't eat his veggies and meat, even if it is brussels sprout and chopped liver to him.
"All right, I will give it another go, but what is so important about this one anyway? It is cheap looking and thin, I am trying to impress the ladies, Red, this book don't look like it is gonna do much of that."
"Criminy, kid, that damn book was once banned, sold like contraband, they put the publisher on trial, it set a legal precedent at the time, so guys like me could peddle books to dumbshits like you without the cops busting in and taking us all in to the hoosegow. That poem is the voice crying out for recognition, for validation, for some company on a lonely night of terror. What dame wouldn't want to hold on tight for that ride? You might not be as good with the dames as you say if you can't pick up on that one."
I had been playing with writing my own stuff up until then. I would still show up to this English Lit. class during the week and the teacher, Mrs. Waldech, would cut me slack on my truancy rate if I would write original work, short story or poem, and write something every week. It seemed like an easy hustle and I enjoyed the feeling of getting over on the school by giving her something in exchange for leniency. She was more of and Ayn Rand contemporary, so I read "Atlas Shrugged" and wrote short stories that were based off of ideas I got from Stienbeck and London. It wasn't very genuine writing to my experience and truth, but it got me out of trouble. I had not really discovered my own voice yet. Looking back on it from here, Red was making a recommendation that he knew would only be helpful in that respect.
"Look, read these, then read the Howl piece again." He handed me an old book that was titled The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes ."This will help you understand the rhythm of jazz in poetry. This will open up a whole new world of understanding. I forget how young you really are, if you are even that age, I wonder sometimes." Red was pretty perceptive. I told him I was 17, going on 18, but he new I had a fake ID and went into several of the area bars. I had been going back and forth between San Bernardino, Hollywood and Venice for a couple of years now. I was 15, going on 16, but I was wise for my years and motivated. I wanted to get this, to pull this off, to survive the crazy circumstances I had wandered into by being born and had been seemingly wandering into ever since. "Thanks, Red, I'll read em up." I took the books, along with a Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller and Nin that I had purchased for the shelves, and went on my way. I was building my first library of books. I did not like school so much, but I loved reading. The fact that I was now living in a room that had once been a study was perfect for me. It was my refuge from all things Berdoo and street and unfriendly in my world.
I read the Hughes books and was so moved by the words and the movement of verse that I would imagine myself transported into those times of his struggle to be heard in the face of the racism and all the feelings he went through and poured into every line that reflected his experience and outlook. Red had gotten me. This was golden to me. I started to read less of Bukowski's prose and more of his poems. I read HOWL and I realized that it was meant to be read aloud. That people wrote these poems and read them aloud, screamed them, somewhere. I realized what my mother was doing in the Village in the 50's a little better. I started to open up in a way that was new and awesome.
Then a tragedy struck. A friend I had known my whole life was walking with me down a street in San Bernardino. We had gone to a "ditching" party. We had been drinking all afternoon and some fights had broken out when the kegs were dry, so we left to get some more beers and go to the park to drink them. We were laughing and buzzed when all of a sudden shots broke up the moment and I hit the ground. I was not hurt, but my friend was bleeding out. He died there in my arms, although they would not pronounce him dead until they got him to the hospital. I went out to my room in Hollywood and stayed in it for a couple of days. I began writing in a way I had never written before. Years later I would read Ginsburg's "Kaddish" and I would cry in the bookstore after reading it. My experience with HOWL had been potent and was compounded by what would quickly begin to happen around me. The murder, the suicide, the insanity, the disease...it was all there in that poem, in long form, the way it drops along into your life. Just as present, as well, was the hope, the spiritual connection to survival, the celebration of the now in the moment it is read aloud.
Ginsberg was an aging hippie throwback guru to me when I met him at the Naropa Institute many years ago. I was driving from New York City and back to San Francisco and I had an old girlfriend who was living in Boulder, Colorado that said I could kick some dust off there for a moment. I had done a few readings on my trip, the Nuyorican in the LES, an artists loft in Williamsburg, a bar in Buffalo, a school in Rochester, a bar in Detroit, MI, an art gallery in Minneapolis, MN, a school in Iowa. I only had a few chapbooks left from the 300 I started out with. The books themselves only brought throw away money, I had paid for the gas and made enough cash by selling some speed, LSD and some weed long the way. Occasionally taking it with people who were putting me up and trying to be grateful as I could, because I was a fugitive in 3 states at the time, so housing me could be trouble for folks.
There was a reading at a cafe next to the Institute and my girlfriend was going to it the night I arrived. I was a little road weary, but I figured I could maybe read something if I felt compelled and sell a couple of the 2 dollar chapbooks and retire back to her place with some folks and party it up. She had a nice backyard with a wooden hot tub and I was ready for some time off driving. The reading was cool, I learned about the school, sold some books, sold some acid, met a couple of real nice students from there that came back to the house and dropped acid and frolicked around naked all night. The next afternoon they took me to Naropa and showed me around. I was introduced to Ginsberg and we chatted briefly about some people we had in common. He told me to come and see him do a reading with musical accompaniment later that week as a guest. It seemed cool, but there had been these remarks and this letter that Ginsberg had written where he came out as a member of NAMBLA, or at least in support of them. I don't go throwing rocks much in my glass house, but that bothered me some.
I had been out on the street a lot as a kid and had a seen the dynamic of teens being considered valuable chattel in the sex trades. I had experienced it first hand as three different girlfriends who had worked the streets died from suicide, overdose and at the hands of killer. All were under the legal age and felt the pressure, same as I felt, that you had something valuable to older people with money and you needed to cash in that value now, before it was too late. The too late was in reference to the fact that they were obsessed with your youth and it would be too late for them if you waited any longer. I didn't think of Allen in that way, as a predator, but I didn't want to condone behavior that I really felt strongly about due to personal experience and not because of some sexual orientation prejudice that I didn't want to be a part of either. I was going to have to think hard about it so I could get to the truth for myself.
I was having a good time in Boulder, so I figured I might as well let the jets cool longer and catch the show. I just wanted to get clear on my feelings and I always felt a little vulnerable when coming down off of tripping. I talked with one of the girls that took a class from Allen in New York and had then come out here. She was really opened up to the whole chanting thing and the buddhist spiritual aspect. I was willing to let go of my feelings to have the experience while I was there as long as I was honest about how I felt. She said she understood and we bonded for the next couple of days, writing haiku, drinking wine, smoking grass, reading Basho and Brautigan. I even left the speed alone, which was more because I needed what I had left for the rest of the drive. I sold out of the LSD and bought some decent homegrown mountain weed that kept me happy, too.
The reading was kind of strange at first, a lot of chanting to purify the room and whatnot, then some music from a sparse rhythm section and a dobro player. Allen read some stuff that resonated and some other wordings I did not connect entirely with, but I was stoned enough where I just went with it and latched on to what I liked and let go of what didn't work for me. It was easy enough. At the end, he announced that he would read HOWL, which he said he had not read out in some time. I remembered my first copy of it and how, after learning more about the trial and other writers and the reading at Gallery 6, I had made it a point, on my first trip to San Francisco, to purchase a copy at City Lights and ask Ferlinghetti to sign it later. Hearing the old man read it that evening was very moving. It brought the piece alive in his voice and you could see him get young again, get a hold of the youthful exuberance that he wrote the piece with, the feelings that this was it in every word. I really knew Moloch after that reading. Really felt it as a presence brought to life and dimension in those words. my feelings about the poem changed again. I rode on back to Frisco with a little different take on being a writer.
S.A. Griffin has graced the room at many readings in my time. He has always been a pivotal part of the world of writing in so many ways I can honestly say I don't know anyone, especially in Los Angeles, who adds to the culture of the written and spoken word with as much effort and willing sacrifice to create not only his own art, but to share it by creating a community for it to be shared in and encouraging others to stand as peers with him in this community that, as he tells it, is a handed down tradition that came from scared humanoids huddling around campfires many millenia ago and now we are in the moment with it now. There are plenty of others who do a lot as well, but S.A. is just this time proven entity for me and I have yet to meet anyone who is worth their weight in ink that doesn't know him or does not want to meet him. He has that beatific shine when he wrangles the words around and he has the consummate soul of a bard. He seizes the moment and wrests all the feelings and experience out of it while sharing it with anyone willing to drop their inhibitions about flying freely into words and sounds and join him. It is that spirit that the beats had gotten from their influences and wanted to pass on that Ginsberg had captured in HOWL that I felt S.A. has always passed on to me.
When Rafael Alvarado called me recently to ask me if I would participate in a reading of HOWL that he and S.A. were putting on and I was like "When is it, where do you want me to be?" as soon as I gave it a minute to sink in. I am not a big "scene" guy. It is just not my thing, I got outside issues and life situations that I am involved in my whole life that preclude any involvement on a serious level with being in one place for readings on a weekly basis, or submitting in to zines and publications and making friends with people outside my inner circle of people that I have come to trust with my life. The last few years I have been changing that about my life, but it made it so, as far as literary connections that made me a part of anything, well, I was pretty much the opposite of S.A. I was very inconsistent, not really interested in sacrificing time that I wanted to use doing other things and not really seeing myself as a writer the same way a lot of these other people did. So, now that I am trying to do things differently than before, I am more willing to try to participate and I am grateful when I am asked to participate and try to minimize any egocentric internal voice that would interfere with me showing up and having a good time at an event like this. I don't get loaded anymore, so the option to self-medicate is off the table, which means I got to show up and deal with these uncomfortable social situations that these events can be for me and just try to do my best.
Once again, I am not a performance poet, don't memorize stuff well at all, don't have the drive to deliver a performance for you; all I have that has ever worked for me is the desire to express my feelings in the moment I wrote something and transcend it into the feelings I am experiencing when I read it. It is kind of like a crude method acting, at best, but I am very comfortable at my rate of growth in this department over the years. I feel I possess a certain amount of integrity because I keep my experience doing spoken word true to who I was all those years ago when I got drunk and rambled out some punk rock lyrics off a crumpled piece of paper in hopes to bang a girl that had encouraged me to do so. I didn't get the pussy, but I got exposed to a whole world that I would dance around the periphery of for the next 30 years. I don't ever want to sell that experience short by forcing my reading at an audience. I have to just deliver it from my heart without my head getting involved too much.
Long story short, I said yes, S.A. made a poster, I saw who would also be at the reading, and I was very excited to be a part of it. I borrowed a book from Shira Tarrant, that was a complete HOWL, with notes and copies of original drafts, history of the poem and all the players in the trial with synopsis of the trial proceedings. I brought my friends Beah and Issa, who had never seen HOWL read out loud before. We got to the Sunset Laemelle 5, not far from where I had holed up over 30 years ago to read HOWL for the first time and begin to have an experience with all the different poetics I would encounter in life since then.
The reading began with Laurel Ann Bogen, who has been an important part of the literary movement in Los Angeles and world wide in one of the most consistent and concrete ways I have seen. Both her and Wanda Coleman were at the first readings I ever went to and I always learn something from her. After her lead , the reading was handed off from poet to poet like a hot potato or a relay baton, sometimes being read in choruses from both sides of the group, people coming in and out of it with S.A. punctuating moments giving everything he had to give. We howled and howled. Doug Knott, who was the M.C. at the first reading I went to in Silver Lake at the Lhasa Club and later at the VAC and the Onyx. Rafael Alvarado who also helped in setting up the event, Lorraine Perrotta, Steve Abee, Mende Smith, Brendan Constantine, Richard Modiano, Luivette Resto, Billy Burgos, Mike M. Mollett and a host of others that joined in and rode the thing like a wild cyclone until the end. No mics, no egos, no breaks or waiting, just full tilt boogie until it was done and it was holyholyholyholyholyholy.
It was a very humbling experience for me. Never thought I could make it this far. Never was looking to be a writer or a poet as much as I wanted to have something that was not corrupted in the face of all of the corruption that was in the world, that was in me. I have come to see writing as my spiritual connection to the inner and outer worlds that I live in. It has been a huge part of what has saved my life, guiding me through the darkest moments of insanity, despair, grief, loss, institutionalization, homelessness, hunger, addiction and pain. I think Ginsburg spoke to all of these in the most capable way he knew how to. He wove love through it as a common thread, an unconditional love that spread across everything, no matter what. A powerful statement, then and now, still very much relative to the world around us, and very much so to me on a personal level. When it was done, I went and watched the movie with Beah and Issa. They seemed to really enjoy it, they are very enlightened girls to say the least. I went to sleep that night having a new experience with the poem HOWL and with all of the words of the world and the life I live by them. My integrity has never meant more or felt better since that day a couple of weeks ago.
Iris Berry is the girl of my dreams, so to speak. We were introduced once backstage at The Scream Club, by Dayle Gloria's friend, who played in a band called Samman and The Apes at the time. She was pretty busy that night, but was cordial and kind. I was back there doing some business, but I told myself, one day I got to try to talk to her away from this scene. I was very taken by her. That was about 25 years ago, and that moment never came when I had hoped for it to, but in the last 5 years we have become close and dear friends. She was unable to make it to the reading that night and I told her what I thought of the film and the experience. She wanted to see HOWL and I told her I would gladly go see it with her. We do a lot of stuff together lately, so it just seemed like a good idea without much thought going into it. Iris is editing my poetry manuscript for Luis Rodriguez's Tia Chucha Press, my first book published since the last of my chapbooks that was done over 15 years ago. She is the most perfect editor for this manuscript and Luis is the perfect publisher, it just doesn't get any better for a schmuck like me than that, even though it has been a long, hard time coming, it is so worth it now. I am proud to say that Iris and myself are connected by years of history and a common bond that is very special to me.
We met at Greenblatt's Deli for a turkey pastrami sandwich and a greek salad. As we sat down, Ron Jeremy came in and said hello to us as he walked to his table. It was a pretty upbeat happy time and we kept it up all the way over to the theater across Sunset Blvd. The theater was near empty and we grabbed good seats and the film began. It was more emotional for me this time. I was more clear on the message and the portrayal of Ginsberg in the moment, with everything suspended in midair as the trial went on and he tried to explain to an interviewer what it was all about. The lines come from Ginsberg's own words and James Franco delivers them with a lot of authenticity. The whole film is shot and edited in a way that is indicative that it was very much a labor of love. It touched us both in personal ways. We teared up, we laughed, we were in love with the moment that was on the screen. I don't have the ability very often to be very open like I was, and it was nice to feel safe enough to enjoy the film this way.
Since then I have spoken to some who did not enjoy the film when they saw it. I have spoken to others who did not see it, but don't like HOWL or Ginsberg or poetry or films or, for whatever reason, just did not like it or the idea of it. I know that it is valid that this occurs with art. No art is everyone's cup of tea. Art, in any form, is flawed in some aspect as it is created by the human experience as run though the artist and it is, therefor, human itself, somewhat. No one is right or wrong in this sense, no matter how strongly they feel they are, they can only be right in the sense that it feels that way for them personally and then they can align themselves with like-minded people and create their own or anti movement to what they feel so strongly about or against. After giving it thought and encountering several negative responses, I wrote a comment on Iris's page that stated thus-
...I had an awesome time watching that film...it is inspiring to me...to think in terms of inclusion as opposed to exclusion...to see a literary movement begin in such a humble way...basically with a lot of love and not much else...it is doubtful...l there would have been the focus on that literary movement if not for the trial that ensued around the publication of howl, but also what made it important to the people portrayed in the poem, the reading at Gallery 6 in San Francisco that was hyped immediately and talked about and the language passed on in an age with no internet or intricate personal phone service...these people became a community around this poem...this poem galvinized a consciousness that inspired people to have more readings, write more poems from the heart, help friends get published, hold readings in small, independent places, think differently about their place in the world, about their voice in the world...it shook the foundations of an academic stranglehold on the words that describe everyday people who strive toward a higher understanding of life in all its tragedies and love in all its glories...it set a permanent mark that has only been added to, even by people that dislike the poem, or the writer, or the publisher...it doesn't really matter, because if you get up in a room of people with a piece of paper to read your words out loud to them, to share your truthful bond to your muse, you are part and parcel of this...you are in its legacy, its tradition, its lineage, its canon...it is just a movie about a moment, or several moments, that combined, led to a discovery of self-truth for a writer (the reason I write myself) and the discovery of a hidden potential for a marginal group of artists that had never had access to the world beyond this precedence in such a way as to incite riots of base emotions that had been, prior to this howl, truncated into nothing that was permanent enough to notice or pass on so easily from generation to generation...I hope it is never lost into the dark margins again...I hope the howl will last forever...
I stand by the comment and the sentiment in it. I have no squabble with anyone who believes contrary. I am very secure in my integrity and honesty regarding my art and my lifetime of work in it. In the end, it is just a film, just a poem, just another writer beatified by accolades from sycophants. I don't really mean to add to that here. Just to memorialize the effect on myself and the people I have loved, the people I have lost, the people that have come and gone and those that stand by me today.
My people. I have a lot of love for you all and it has something to do with these words that I write, whether I am right or wrong, under any opinions or circumstances.