The ALF, kayak, and Santa Cruz
from Northwest Review, Fall/Winter 2008, "A Tribute to George Hitchcock"
In 1966, along with several hundred others, I became one of the original members of the Artists Liberation Front, a wildly disparate contingent of San Francisco artists who joined together at first to protest police harassment of theatrical and musical groups in the city and later to create a San Francisco whose cultural and physical landscape would be pervaded by the arts. We met every Monday evening at Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium—the night the rock-and-roll hall was closed—to suggest and discuss plans to improve the quality of the city's cultural life. The meetings were tumultuous, anarchic, almost violent in their political and aesthetic biases, as the artists' egos, as much as their ideas, continuously clashed like an orchestra composed of several hundred cymbals.
While all these activities were swirling around me, I found myself working closely with George Hitchcock, who I had briefly met on several occasions a few years before at The Actors' Workshop. Now we were the one-two punch of the Front's Neighborhoods Committee, with George as the chairman and me the vice chairman. The committee was assigned to ferret out the local arts in the city's various ethnic and racially dominated neighborhoods, develop and encourage the artists we found there, and have them share their artistic ventures with the people living in other neighborhoods.
George was a singular presence. Well over six feet tall, with a booming voice and the countenance of a Prospero or Oedipus (both parts he had played on stage), he was a commanding figure wherever he went. His style was baroque or, less kindly, flamboyant. He reminded me of those bigger-than-life character actors in Hollywood movies, like Wallace Beery and Charles Laughton, or like Vitamin Flintheart, the ostentatiously dressed and extravagantly posturing character in Dick Tracy comic books. Besides his work as a leading actor over the years with the city's Actors' Workshop, Hitchcock was a playwright and novelist before he turned his hand to poetry and editing in the late 1950s.
He had come to San Francisco from Oregon in the 1930s and became Kenneth Rexroth's protégé and friend. During the '30s and '40s, he had traveled throughout California as a union organizer, and had written columns under the alias "Lefty" for The Western Worker and People's Daily World. Later he taught philosophy at the California Labor School, and was chairman of the Independent Socialist Forum in San Francisco. In 1957 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, in a famous verbal exchange with Frank S. Tavenner, Jr., counsel for the Committee, admitted that he did underground work—on plants, because he was a gardener. That statement, and the laughter from the audience in the room that followed it, was heard by radio across the nation, and amply illustrates Hitchcock's merry wit and irreverence for all sham and pomposity, as does his statement a few minutes later that " ... this hearing is a big bore and waste of the public's money."
When I began working as his vice chairman on the Neighborhoods Committee of the Artists' Liberation Front, George was over fifty years old, had given up his life as an activist, and lived with his wife Eva in a comfortable, rambling, three-story house on Laguna Street, a block from Union.
In 1957, Hitchcock had become poetry editor for the San Francisco Review, and when that magazine folded in the early '60s, he founded kayak, a magazine of poetry. His stint as editor with the San Francisco Review had taught him two important lessons—the only way to beat crushing printing costs was to print his journal himself; and to publish the work he liked, he'd have to be the sole arbiter of the contents. Thus, kayak, a vehicle propelled in all respects by one person, was born in 1964.
The style as well as the contents of kayak reflected the man. The magazine was filled with melodramatic engravings and illustrations clipped from nineteenth century books and magazines. Several of these were usually joined in a collage and carried a witty line or two of dialogue or commentary, which ironically commented on the illustration, or had some wittily incisive parallel to current events.
The selection of work alternated between surrealist, deep image, or political poems, or all three at once. Hitchcock's rejection slips were florid sentences printed at the bottom of one of his seemingly endless selections of nineteenth century illustrations. His editorial method was to accept any piece that appealed to him on first reading. The rest he sent back to the would-be contributor within the week, or, in a typically flamboyant flourish I witnessed several times, he would cast an unacceptable manuscript into the nearest wastebasket. (He would always retrieve the discarded manuscript later and return it to the sender.)
Hitchcock's interest in surrealist, imagist, and sensuously surfaced poetry, which gave free rein to the imagination, was what I had been looking for as a home for my work since my first year at Iowa, and I had sent him several batches of poems before we started working together. He rejected all of them.
As his right hand on the Neighborhoods Committee—actually, his gofer—I learned not only a lot about organizing, but about the man. His creative ingenuity never ceased to astound me. I would drop over the house on Artist Liberation Front business while he was printing an issue of the magazine or a book, and he would go about his business while listening to me, or instructing me to do one thing or another.
One day I arrived just as he was preparing to do the illustrations for one of the early Kayak books. The artist he had contracted for the job had failed to deliver the illustrations, so George, as I stood talking to him, turned away from me, sauntered into the garden, pulled a handful of weeds, and transported them to the photo offset machine; then he scattered them on the glass, putting the resultant photographic plate on his press. Next he loaded different colored inks in the press, and ran the pages of what turned out to be an exquisite floral design in a multitude of swirling reds, greens, oranges and purples.
Another time, he gathered a fistful of nuts and bolts and repeated the process with equally stunning, although quite different, results. Literally, it seemed whatever he touched turned into art.
Even before he began publishing my work, Hitchcock invited me to join the kayak collating parties. These were extraordinary affairs that occurred four times a year, when Hitchcock—ever the host and organizer—assembled a regiment of Bay Area poets, both young and old, to put together the magazine at his home. He would load the kitchen table with cold cuts, bread, salads, and cakes, and stock the refrigerator with six-packs of beer and soda. Any poet of note who was passing through the city at the time would be there. W. S. Merwin was there several times, and once David Ignatow appeared, a mild little man wearing thick glasses who was making his first reading tour of the West Coast. He stood all afternoon against one of the living room walls, while well-wishers and local poets came up to him and paid their respects. When the crowd around him thinned at one point, I went up to him and told him how much The Gentle Weightlifter had meant to me during my years in the Air Force. "You know," he said, "for years I thought my poems were disappearing into the void. But on this trip I've been surprised at the number of people who know my work." His last words were almost whispered, and I saw tears coursing down both his cheeks.
I met many poets who became lifelong friends at the collating parties, among them Robin Magowan, Ray Carver, Jack Marshall, Robert Peterson, Bert Meyers, Lennart Bruce, Robert Peters, and many others. I'm sure Hitchcock had made this meeting of poets, who would form alliances and share ideas, one of the purposes of the collating parties. But only one. The main purpose was to put the magazine together and mail it off to its hundreds of subscribers around the world. Many of us would sit around showing each other names and addresses of internationally known poets who subscribed from such faraway places as Europe, India, and Australia.
Hitchcock would assign newcomers one of five jobs—collating pages, folding covers, stapling pages and covers together, putting the magazine in envelopes, and addressing and stamping the envelopes. He would have people switch assignments every hour or so, which allowed the happy workers to meet other volunteers as well as not become dazed by production-line boredom and thereby make mistakes.
Starting with the second or third collating party, I attended almost every gathering of the magazine—definitely more than anyone else except Hitchcock himself, and Hitchcock would send newcomers to me to instruct them on the assembly process or on how to operate one or the other of the machines.
The magazine was usually collated by 6:00 p.m., and all the volunteers were given bundles of magazines to mail in various parts of the city. Sometimes the last of us would go out to dinner or remain and talk. Sometimes Hitchcock and one or two of the group would do impromptu dramatic improvisations, to everyone's delight.
In time, Hitchcock bought a collating machine that abolished the tiresome circling of the dining room table to collect pages by hand. Soon, other simple machines appeared, all discarded or auctioned from old print shops. In addition to machinery, Hitchcock managed to find disused rolls of paper that he hauled from factories free of charge most of the time. We made several runs to the factories together, and one day we picked up five or six rolls of a particularly heaVy porous beige paper.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Target paper from the Army's shooting range," he replied with an arch smile. "They'll be the pages for the next issue of the magazine."
All in all, kayak, in its design, content and method of production, reinvigorated small magazine publishing in the country and elsewhere in the world. Although Hitchcock went more and more to professional typesetters and printing companies as time went on, especially for Kayak books, he proved that literary journals could survive monetarily and at the same time have an exciting look. The magazine was also the only home in the country for a poetry based on all aspects of the image, and Hitchcock's high standards kept each issue's selection vital, compelling, and lively.
In 1968, Hitchcock was invited to Cuba by Fidel Castro to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. He returned with several boxes of Cuban cigars, smuggled into the country for him by the Dutch ambassador, who he had met in Havana. Knowing my mystical pronouncements on cigars (for which he would wryly chide me), he called me up and invited me over for "a smoke." I remember we sat facing each other in his shadowy living room on that sunlit afternoon, puffing contentedly on our cigars, so comfortable together I don't think we said more than two words to one another in an hour. It was one of the best times I had in his presence.
Yes, one of the best times. For with all his talents and know-how, Hitchcock was a hard man to approach personally. I never stopped respecting and looking up to him and feeling a certain kind of affection for him. In many ways he was my teacher. To be candid, he was the father figure I had been unconsciously looking for all my life. Unlike Don Justice, my mentor in Iowa, whose art was constricting and whose personality repressed, Hitchcock was expansive, earthy, larger than life, freewheeling, and endlessly inventive. But he was also gruff, impatient, and although he could be charming when he wanted to be, he was easily annoyed and had no tolerance for intimate conversation, or anything he considered doctrinaire assumptions or literary programs. In fact, he refused to be pinned down to any viewpoint or system of beliefs—a strange, if interesting, quality in a person who had been a political activist for years, although he once said that he disapproved of doctrinaire writing because, for years as an activist editor, he had to, read and write it.
At any rate, all my attempts to get close to Hitchcock over the years were met with rebuffs. I don't think he was even aware that I was trying to get close because he was never really that in terested in me. If anything, I annoyed him. When I was in his presence for more than half a day, he would become short-tempered with me, and on more than one occasion—to the embarrassment of younger poets present—he would unfairly yell at me for not working, or for not keeping on one task or another.
The bigger problem was a difference in temperament and cultural background that, as I've said many times elsewhere, I encountered with many white, Anglo-Saxon American men. It was similar, I felt, to the reactions I would have at times from my friend, the novelist James D. Houston. They represented a world that was laconic and self-protective. They epitomized the self-controlled male who embraced deeds more than words, whereas I had come from the East Coast, where Jews, Italians, blacks, and Irish ethnic attitudes were ameliorated into aggressive, intense, highly verbal ways of expressing themselves. My emotional enthusiasms, repartee, and constant machine-gun punning, that turned language inside-out, were pure Marx Brothers and made the stolid males with whom I came into contact, especially those from the western United States, uncomfortable, and even Hitchcock, for all his flamboyant posturing and verbal wit, in this sense was a western male to the core. In fact, he was clearly annoyed at my chatter. So what could have been a deep friendship remained an acquaintanceship over the decades to come. Never allowing myself to be vulnerable in his presence, I came to look upon George as a benevolent despot who deigned to publish my work, alternately treating me as a fellow poet and a lowly subject.
Another problem was the differences in our motivations and practices. I was in intense pursuit of meaning and my place in the universe, even in my comic poems, whereas George loosed his considerable poetic talents in extravagant flights of linguistic flourishes. Poetry in many ways was a game to him, and he would include in the magazine the amusing, the witty, or the grotesque poem over the truly penetrating one. His own "Villa Thermidor" is a case in point:
He sits in a deckchair reading Colette
and fanning himself with a pair of
shoelaces. In the rose garden
giant snails copulate in rhythms
undulant and infinitely beguiling.
His ancestors lie snoozing
in the family urns. Fog has lately
attacked the poinsettias. On the pier
by the lake there are adenoidal
swellings—the boathouse no doubt is
ill. Umbrellas are descried gliding
above the local peaks.
Undulant and infinitely beguiling.
Next year, says the Oakland Tribune,
snowshoes may be taxed
for their illicit oils. Stingrays
flap in the sand like wounded moths.
Infinite and undulant.
Cocktails are served from five
to seven at the bottom of the pool.
Hitchcock was at his best in short, lyrical nature poems, which usually consisted of a list of closely observed details from the natural world.
AFTERNOON IN THE CANYON
The river sings in its alcoves of stone.
I cross its milky water on an old log—
beneath me waterskaters
dance in the mesh of roots.
Tatters of spume cling
to the bare twigs of willows.
The wind goes down.
Bluejays scream in the pines.
The drunken sun enters a dark mountainside,
its hair full of butterflies.
Old men gutting trout
huddle about a smokey fire.
I must fill my pockets with bright stones.
When in the 1970s Hitchcock wrote a series of poems not only in closed verse but in forms for the first time—remember, he had not started writing poetry until the late 1950s—he scoffed at my admiring response to the pieces by saying they were easy to write. I remarked on how effortless the rhymes seemed, how natural the forms—how could they have been easy even for him to execute so perfectly? He grinned with satisfaction and confided triumphantly that he had copied the rhymed words and the forms from poems he had found in old anthologies, discarded the rest of the poems, and "filled in" with his own words the lines he had erased. Then he sat back and enjoyed my obvious discomfort at the confession. He was being his most irreverent self, I realized, and I quickly regained my composure, telling him that I had several unpublished villanelles of my own that I would never even consider sending to a magazine. ''Why not?" he said, suddenly interested, and smiled again. "Send them to me," he commanded, more amused than serious, and published one of them in the next issue of kayak—one of the two, in fact, I had written for Don Justice in Iowa years before to prove that my subject matter was as reprehensible to him and the workshop as was my free verse.
Finally, the problems between George and me were exacerbated by, I think, his not seeing anything extraordinary in my poetry. But I may be laboring this point, since he regularly published my work over the years, including my first book.
It was during those first years of getting to know Hitchcock that I discovered the poetry of Vasko Popa and experienced my first uncontrolled outpouring of writing poetry. I was in a small poetry group at the time, which consisted of Shirley Kaufman, Laura Ulewicz, and myself, and was presided over by a fatherly and wise fellow Jew named Larry Fixel, a writer of prose poems, parables, and aphorisms of extraordinary insight and originality. The four of us worked without regard to ego: we just wanted to write the best poems we could, and we listened to each other's perspectives almost fervently. One of the group must have told Hitchcock what I was doing because one day in the summer of 1968, he called me up and asked to see a manuscript of the new work. The result was the publication of my first book, Origins, by Kayak in 1969. I was as surprised by Hitchcock's decision to publish the book as I was by his phone call. But more surprises were to come. I would be dealing with Hitchcock long after I left San Francisco, and would be considered by many young poets in the future not only a Kayak regular but a "Kayak poet."
In the summer of 1968 I moved to Santa Cruz, a small coastal town on the northern point of Monterey Bay, seventy miles south of San Francisco. I had been hired to teach English at the local community college.
That fall I began a poetry series at the college. George was the first poet I chose to bring. He drove from the city, participated in a gathering of four English classes, and gave a reading. He was in fine form, and the response, in attendance and appreciation, was enthusiastically appreciative. In the course of his meeting with the classes, he was asked what writing accomplished for him as far as his well-being was concerned. His answer jolted me. He said he wrote to achieve heightened consciousness for as many minutes or hours as he was able to attain it each day. It reminded me of the beginning of a Richard Eberhart poem I repeated to myself like a mantra over and over almost daily, "If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness." Hitchcock's quest for heightened consciousness struck me as the precise rendering of that line in two words, and I have used the phrase ever since to explain my pursuit of the creative life.
I took Hitchcock on a tour of Santa Cruz, and he was so impressed by the mountains and the town, he said he would move there within the year. True to his word, a year later he secured a lectureship at the university of California campus at Santa Cruz, and purchased a steep-roofed Alpine house with a stream running through it high in the mountains among the Redwoods. The house was in the wilds outside of town, and with Hitchcock presiding over it like a squire, it resembled a Wagnerian chalet. The house was only two miles from mine, and for the next several years we were neighbors. Then both of us moved to different parts of the county, finally winding up several years later with homes barely a mile away from each other in the town of Santa Cruz.
Despite our proximity, we didn't see much of each other. As the years went on, George's time and attention were taken up with his chores at the university, where he always had an entourage of admiring young students around him and where he regenerated his acting career in the county's Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival. Those were very satisfying years for George. They were also the years he met Marjorie Simon who would become his lifelong companion and could brighten anyone's days. I don't mean to imply that George and I were estranged. We saw each other for dinner once in a while and he would invite me to speak to his classes or attend parties, and of course there was always the collating parties and his continuing to publish my poems in kayak.
It was always fun getting together with George, but, as happens, people go on to different phases in their lives, a truism which applied to both of us. Even though we weren't working as closely as we had in San Francisco, George was still a presence in my life. I was always aware of him, would include him in any of the artistic programs I set up in Santa Cruz, and would acquiesce to any request he made of me. When I needed extra graduate class units to increase my position on my college's pay charts, he graciously tutored me for a semester in his role as University lecturer. And, of course, we read together on a number of occasions.
George's outspokenness and irreverence never flagged. Once, as I was sitting with him and the poet William Everson during a Robert Bly reading, Bly declared, "Christianity must renounce the doctrine of the one God," and Everson (formerly Brother Antoninus) got up and walked out. Abashed, Bly called after him, "Are you leaving, Bill?" "You better believe it," said Bill over his shoulder. "But Bill—" Ely started to say in confusion. "For Heaven's sake, Robert," Hitchcock boomed at this point, "You've been insulting the man's god and everything he believes in for the last twenty minutes. What did you expect?"
And as for George's irreverence: Catching sight of me in the third row of the audience one night while he performed the part of Polonius in Hamlet, he winked at me—I swear it.
The truth of the matter is that since George and Marjorie left town after the earthquake of 1989, Santa Cruz has not been the same place. Not for me, anyway.
About the Author
Morton Marcus is the author of a novel and ten collections of poetry, including Moments Without Names: New & Selected Prose Poems, and Shouting Down the Silence: Verse Poems 1988-2001. A new collection of prose poems, Pursuing the Dream Bone, appeared in 2007. His literary memoir, Striking Through the Masks (Capitola Book Company), from which this article was adapted, appeared in 2008.
University of Oregon
Editor: John Witte
Fiction Editor: Janice MacRae
Poetry Editor: John Witte