from American Poetry Review, September / October 2012
May 2011 : I had not forgotten that these pages existed, but I’d not read them since I wrote them in 1969 recording a visit of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to give a poetry reading. I had been in correspondence with Allen for a few years. It started simply with a fan letter which he responded graciously to. The accessibility of a famous poet and cultural figure to a kid trying to write poetry at Arkansas State College in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was exhilarating. I had been reading him since I was in the tenth grade. It was the early sixties, and I, too, wanted to Howl. By the time I finally met Allen, I had discovered Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur and drifted from his influence. And Allen obviously thought I had become overly ornate, but he did kindly offer to write the introduction to a small limited edition of my poems called Orbs printed in 1968 by Harold Swayder, an artist who made woodcuts for each of the poems. Swayder’s woodcuts and Allen’s kind introduction are the only good things about the book, which, thankfully, was in such a small edition few people have ever seen it. In 1969 I entered the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, which at that time was one of only thirteen MFA programs in the country. Because of my connection with Allen, the question arose of whether I might be able to get him to come for a reading. The MFA Program’s budget could not afford his fee, but it was still the beautiful sixties—so he cut the fee in half and for several electrifying days the world seemed to glow. I started keeping a careful record of them, but finally exhaustion overtook me. They were all written in the evenings after a lot of activity and a good bit of drinking, and so a word every now and then is illegible. The following does not presume to be elegant or even well-written prose, and I have not tried to improve upon it, except for deleting a few redundancies. It’s merely a diary of those intense days, a diary I think may hold some interest for others, especially as it relates to Allen and to Frank Stanford.
Thurs. May 1, 1969—Larry Johnson and I drove down from Fayetteville today to Little Rock to meet Peter and Allen as they came in from Arizona. They missed the plane in Tucson that would have put them in Little Rock at 2:15, but made it in at 6:10, which was o.k. as it afforded my parents a chance to drive over from Pine Bluff (about 40 minutes away) to meet them, too. The people in the airport had a treat. My mother, a large, loud, laughing woman, had been at the shooting duck machine raking up the points. Then came in Allen and Peter with beautiful hair and beards (and I have long curly blond hair). But the great thing was my grandmother who is nearly 80 also came along—she and Allen (on a cane from his accident some months ago) going through the airport arm in arm getting looks like “Why doesn’t that hippy give the old lady her cane back”—and Mother at the top of her voice chattering away about Arizona, where they had just flown in from, and her sister out in Tucson and [telling] Allen what to see in Arkansas, and Daddy telling Peter about his heart condition, and all of us talking about the hazards of cigarette smoking. Then the baggage was screwed up—but got worked out and my parents and Grandma seemed to love them and they liked my parents and Grandma a lot too and talked about them for some time.
Allen was very concerned that he had messed us up and made us wait—but it was o.k. since Larry and I went to the museum and looked at Egyptian things and went downtown and also had a meal with my Grandma and my parents.. Next, he was really concerned about the money, where it came from, etc. because we were paying him. This was essentially a student project to bring him here but with the largest chunk of the fee (which he had cut in half) put up by the Program in Creative Writing. He seemed worried that it had come from the pockets of students and faculty members, though few faculty members had contributed anything. I was struck by his kindness and honest concern over all this.
We headed out of Little Rock up into the left corner of the state, into the mountains, trying to see as much as we could in the two hours left of daylight. I was quizzed about Arkansas foods, politics, [illegible], and other things I hadn’t thought about in a long time, and why all that wasn’t subject for my poems instead of my “Baudelairean bullshit”. But I’m too close to Arkansas at least right now to give it much poem material I think.
Allen wanted to get some native Arkansas food and insisted on stopping in Atkins, Ark., “the pickle capital of the world,” so they claimed, and where they sold fried dill pickles, which he really seemed to like and which weren’t at all bad. We also had catfish and “taters,” which is what the big menu at the back of the cafe called them. Peter had fried chicken, and Larry, having eaten as I had in Little Rock, wasn’t hungry. Allen gave me hell for the longest time about being overweight and smoking too much—all of which is true. Allen asked the waitress if she had black eyed peas or possum, but she didn’t. We left and went higher and higher into the Ozarks. I couldn’t get over what a beautiful person Allen was and all of Peter’s kindness, too. The moon was full and made enough light in the car for me to see Allen’s great profile and head beside me. We talked of Lenore Kandel and Harold Norse and this and that. We stopped at a mountain top and looked down at Lake Fort Smith—one of the grandest views around. And we watched it awhile. The moon’s light was just enough and it was better than daylight, and Allen talked on about an ancient Tibetan festival going on tonight for the moon—in Tibet, I guess. And we pissed and got going again.
Allen talked about my parents and Grandma and seemed surprised at how ribald and funny they were. I said, “Grandma’s getting older but laughing more and more,” and he said that was a good line, better than all my “purples,” and we began talking about the poetry of natural speech and got into Fayetteville around 11:30 or so and took Allen and Peter to The Mountain Inn, where the people behind the desk knew who he was and looked pleased, and a young kid asked when he would read and Allen replied at 8:00 tomorrow. We went up to the room, which was nice, had a good view, and overlooked the pool. Allen was opening his suitcase and had some interesting looking beads, which I admired, and which he immediately put around my neck—and again I thought what a kind and gentle guy. We went back down. Allen and Peter wanted to get a cup of coffee and wander around the town, but Larry and I were too tired, so we went to my apartment where our wives had fixed popcorn. Some people came over and we didn’t get to bed for a long time.
Friday, May 2, 1969—Rick Ryan, another one of the poets in the Program, Larry, and I picked up Allen and Peter at the hotel at 10:30. We took them to the Student Union to get breakfast. On the way we looked at Steve Pollard’s tree, which was now blocked off because grass (which could never grow under it because of the shade) was being planted there. [Note: Pollard’s tree had been a cause célèbre. Pollard, a U of A student, had climbed the tree to protest the Vietnam war. Threats were made on his life, and students and faculty rallied in support and kept a day and night vigil around the tree for days. I don’t recall now, these 42 years later, what caused him to come down. I assume the grass planting was done to suggest that Pollard’s protectors had ruined the area under the tree.]
As we wandered into the Student Union, we immediately ran into everybody, and everyone was happy to meet Allen and Peter. They got some food and we pushed three large tables together, which weren’t enough, and we all sat down. In a few minutes Allen had met one of the undergraduate poets, Frank Stanford, whom he took a liking to and they conversed at great length about Ozark folk music. He also soon met the SSOC people [Note: Southern Student Organizing Committee, an anti-war organization similar to Students for a Democratic Society] and Steve Pollard.
Allen had to go call his agent—this was an hour or so later—and after that a group of us headed out with him across the campus. We picked up Jim Whitehead, the head of the poetry program, who kept telling Allen he wanted him to come over to his house to see his triplets. Allen humorously responded something about his [illegible] desire to [illegible, possibly “replicate”] himself and that he could see triplets any time and that he wanted to see the Ozarks. It was good fun and we all enjoyed seeing Jim teased by Allen. [One afternoon after I stopped keeping this diary, Allen did go see the triplets. Jim picked Allen, Peter, and me up and drove us over to his house to see them. They were cute and Jim was immensely proud of them, and Allen and Peter said all the appropriate things.]
Then we headed out across the campus, first to where Allen would read, the Science Engineering Auditorium. Everywhere we went people were coming up to meet him—a lovely experience. We looked at the hall and then wandered around the Greek amphitheatre, which we thought would be a better place for it but couldn’t get it.
From there we went to the Art Department. A fine student show was up and Allen and Peter liked it and met one of the artists and talked to her—she was very influenced by Mucha, and Allen gave her the name of a man who would be interested in her work.
As we were leaving one of John Little’s students came up and said John (John is another student in the writing program and had been one of Eudora Welty’s students) wanted Allen to come to his Essay Writing class. Allen had met John earlier that morning and I had also told Allen about John last night, that he was a good friend, one of the Pollard tree setters, and that he had the richest Southern accent of anyone here. We all went to John’s class and Allen talked for a while and read an essay he had written about being in the hospital (still in ms) and it was very funny. But he stopped after a while, because he said he was getting embarrassed because it was, he said, getting too dirty. We (which were Allen, Peter, Larry, Rick, Frank, and I) then left to go for a drive and show Allen a beautiful forest. We headed toward Lake Wedington in the Ozark National Forest. Peter wanted some milk, so we stopped at a country store and bought half gallon of milk and some bananas and we were off again going down the road eating bananas and sharing the milk.
Rick knew where there was a fire tower on a mountain top which had a great view, so that’s where we then went. And the whole time there was great conversation which I’ve forgotten. We climbed the tower and the door at the little room at the top was open. Peter had started first and rushed up the tower. Unbelievably beautiful view, but the little room only held four of us at a time. The room had wires all over the floor and Peter was worried about them for Allen, who walked all over them paying no attention. Finally we just unplugged them, whatever they were, and we enjoyed the view for a long time. At one place the ground rose up like two tits, which all of us noticed. From the tower we could see into Oklahoma and Missouri as well, I believe. I was the first down and it was
great looking back up there and seeing Allen’s hair and beard blowing. Then we walked around the area—really impressive place. Lots of [illegible] and a magnificent gulley—very deep, giant blocks of white stone, lichen covered—cut out thousands of years ago by nature. [illegible] was blowing and a woodpecker was pecking away and here we were. We sat for a while on one great stone and looked down at how a whole cliff had been pulled away from itself to form the gulley and one great chunk had just pulled back and was standing alone.
And we were off again going deeper into the forest—talking of yage. Soon we came to a little town, Savoy, that was really only a store, filling station, and a few houses but with the most beautiful stream and falls. Frank had directed us here. We went down to the water, lilac everywhere, gushing over the rocks—and brown leaves were on them, which Peter at first was sure was shit and Allen also thought so, but on closer inspection found it wasn’t—and we watched the water pour off the little falls. Allen and Frank and I wandered off to the store, which was run by an old woman and it had hardly anything in it—cornflakes, Brillo, some canned food, and [illegible]—and mounted arrowheads and [illegible] that she had dug up, but they looked odd because she had shellacked them—and on the counter a poem about not being [illegible] was posted. We got orange drinks and Allen talked to her about the land, etc., and they got on well. And the orange was so good in the heat. She thanked us and we her and left thinking we were probably her first customers in a long time. We took off down the road toward a farm that belonged to the University but finding it was only cattle turned back. Allen talked about his farm, DDT, and the [illegible] of the bald eagle dying because the eagle is at the top of a food chain that gets DDT.
Heading back we talked of local words and customs, which Allen was very interested in and local words of other areas we knew about, and he recorded every one of them and their meanings in a notebook. Allen was particularly interested in the word “peckerwood.” On his last day he gave a reporter from The Arkansas Gazette an interview and wanted to use his new word “peckerwood” but got it combined with “rednecks” and called them “peckernecks.”
About 5:15 we got back to Fayetteville. Allen had wanted to go to the Black [E illegible] Week Banquet, as well as the Ozark Opry, but both were at 7:30 and the reading was at 8:00, so neither worked out. We left Allen and Peter at the hotel, and Rick let Larry and me off at Larry’s, and he took me on home. Sandy [Note: my ex-wife and later Larry’s ex-wife] and I ate a light supper and went to the reading with Leon [Stokesbury] at about 7:15. Larry, Rick, and Jim, who was to introduce Allen, picked them up.
We got there about 7:30 and it was absolutely packed. We had to sit in the aisles, which at that time weren’t crowded. The audience was excited, and the excitement could be felt. When Allen entered a high cheer went up and he waved to the crowd. Whitehead walked to the podium and gave the Peace sign—cheers again. The place was really packed now, and there was no room in the aisles. The stage even filled up with people. By the time he started, Allen only had about two square feet around him free. People were everywhere—in the vestibule at the back, outside the back door. It was the largest hall on campus but three times as many people in it were turned away I heard. I was sorry I hadn’t booked the fieldhouse, but we didn’t expect such a crowd, especially with Black E as well as Gabilee, the fraternity carnival going on at the Fairgrounds.
The reading started at 8:00. Jim gave Allen a great introduction and Peter and Allen began with Blake songs—“I went to the garden of love” and others. Then the complete Howl and [illegible] and poem after poem and the “Elegy for Che” in manuscript. People sang with him in Hari Krishna. I had goose bumps on me the whole time. Allen talked about ecology and dedicated a mantra to Pollard, praised the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], spoke of drugs—and read and read until 10:30. It was the greatest reading I’d ever heard. Really moving. At the intermission I managed to introduce some of my students to him. Also at intermission I gave him a string of beads to return the favor. The chants were also quite moving and he looked so happy singing and playing the finger cymbals and with Peter on the harmonium. I wish I could communicate the excitement of the audience. It was beautiful. Also beautiful and exciting was that in the audience was a member of the law faculty here who was Allen’s old roommate from Columbia. So the end was a touching reunion.
After the reading we left (Leon, Frank, Sandy, and me in one car—Larry and Mabel [Larry’s wife at that time] and Peter, Allen, Rick, and Jim in another) to go to a pizza parlor because Allen hadn’t eaten anything much all day. We all got giant pizzas and pitchers and pitchers of beer and talked mainly about poetry. At the pizza place people and people and people came up to meet him—rednecks as well as others—and again we were all really moved. One kid had been kicked out of [illegible] State for having smoked pot and was scared and didn’t know what to do—they had refused to send his transcript on. Allen talked to him, gave him advice, and some addresses, and Jim also gave him the names of people to write to get it worked out. He was very thankful. Another person came up to tell Allen that he was his “hero,” and Allen seemed embarrassed.
Then came the big argument. Allen and Whitehead got into it about prosody. We were all at the tops of our voices—mainly trying to hush Jim so we could hear Allen and what he was saying about Pound and Bunting and about open verse. Jim ended up calling Allen a pedant and it got going again. I thought at least it was a change from the arguments you usually hear about Allen being in. Peter kept trying to find out exactly what Jim was saying and Jim roared on, which isn’t to say anything bad about Jim, for he is a fine man, fine poet, and fine critic, but he does roar. Allen kept trying to say you have to be aware of a totally different approach and look at it through their (those of that approach) comments. Don’t try to impose traditional meter on Olsen. He also talked of Pound and what he was doing with vowel length, saying what if Pound had written “With Usura the line gets thick” instead of “With Usura the line grows thick,” picking up extra vowel sounds which serve to give the metric feel. He talked of Pound’s pronouncing each word so that the vowel could be heard. Jim had said you could look at the poems and not know how they were to be read. Allen said no. But none of this was as bad as it might sound. And we kept ordering pitchers of beers, and things weren’t so bad, but I was a little embarrassed.
About 12:30 we left Peter at the hotel—tired. From there we went over to John Little’s. He had a home up on Mt. Sequoyah overlooking Fayetteville. It was filled with people—people I’d never seen—2 floors—Allen was up and down—everybody wanting to talk to him. I was downstairs most of the time where the beer was. Later Allen came down and said “Well, John Wood” and sat down beside me. Some guy was going off to Europe and wanted Allen to autograph his [illegible] book, the “bible” he said. Allen drew a pretty sunflower—talked with me and Jesse, another poet, about old watches, this and that—and to Susan, a friend going off to Ghana—Peace Corps. About 1:30 he told me he was tired, so I called Rick and he took him back. They stopped for a while at a truck stop where once again everyone came up to meet him. Strange, the power he seemed to have over people.
Saturday, May 3, 1969—Allen had lunch with his old roommate and met all of the poets in Old Main at 1:30 for a workshop, criticism on the poems, etc.—didn’t get to everybody. I got him off the subject on Lamantia. And then Jim did on Neal Cassidy, which was wonderfully interesting. Allen said he was the only man to ever make it with Cassidy and talked of his gentleness, turning everybody on, his life, death, etc.
About 3:30 we went over to the Student Union for about 30 minutes for cokes and Allen got a sandwich—talked about this and that—just being with him was moving—so beautiful a man. John Clellon Holmes had told me Allen was the only “great” man he had ever met. It’s true, I think—never have I met anyone so humble and so honestly modest.
About 4:00 we headed to the Deep End (Presbyterian) Coffee House. I introduced Allen and he sat down on a small stool and people asked questions and he talked till about 6:00—talked of ecology, the Greenhouse effect, [illegible], and chanted for Pollard the Prajna Paramita Sutra in Sino-Japanese and then in English—beautiful. One girl accused him of not [having or possibly being] [illegible] in his poetry. He talked of that and what life was—said he felt he had done what he was to do and was ready to die—those were not his exact words—spoke of the [illegible], zazen meditation, and all sorts of things—a great two hours.
At about 6:00 we left—Leon, Sandy, and me together—Allen, Frank, and Bob Ross, an art teacher who had mutual friends with Allen. We stopped at Leon’s house to get some records Allen wanted to hear. Allen stopped to get Peter but he didn’t want to come, and we all headed over to Paul Lubenkov’s house. He and Leon had recently bought a side of beef and were having it for all of us. Paul, Terry (his girl friend), Frank, Leon, Sandy, Jim, Gen [Jim’s wife], Bob Ross—Rick and [illegible]— Larry and Mabel came over later.
We listened to a lot of country music that Allen was interested in. Terry charcoal broiled the steaks outside on the grill—talked of the desert and Taoism and Robert Duncan. Whitehead tried to show off about country music but got put down by everyone. He wasn’t trying to be a smart ass—just Jim’s way. I went back in after I finished eating. Allen kept telling me I didn’t need so much bread. More music. Larry brought a camera to take pictures, and Allen called me over. He lay back on me and said “Let’s snuggle” and we snuggled up and Larry took the picture and pictures of everyone else with Allen, too. Allen and I sat and talked a good while about Vedanta, about a Swami I’d studied with, and other esoteric things. I asked if he knew the Mantra of Chenrazi. He, of course, did and he said he would sing me two versions. He started chanting and everyone grew silent. I’ll never forget that or the beauty of his voice.
May 2011 There was much more, of which I can only recall bits now. It became too exhausting to keep such a pace and then write it all up at the end of the day. I do remember that the next day Allen, Peter, Jim, Frank, Jack and Lynnice Butler, and Sandy and I all went to Eureka Springs to see The Christ of the Ozarks, a tasteless monstrosity built by Gerald L. K. Smith, the anti-Semite. A brochure given out at the statue remarked how it could support two Volkswagen busses from each arm and withstand certain high mile an hour winds. Smith also owned an “art gallery” in Eureka called The Christ Only Art Gallery; however, the first painting you saw when you entered was a painting of Smith. I remember that Allen made a comment to whomever we paid the entry fee that he had a beard just like Jesus had. I also recall that on the drive to Eureka we saw a large Pileated Woodpecker and Frank told us about local woodpeckers. All day Allen had talked about wanting to go to Gabilee, but none of us thought that was a good idea. His interview had just come out a month or so before in Playboy, and we worried that his frankness and openness about gay matters could get us all in a fright. This wasn’t New York; it was the Ozarks and a party for fraternity boys. But he was determined, and so nervously we went. I don’t recall who drove—maybe Frank because I can only remember the three of us being there, though Peter must have been there, too. From the moment we walked on to the Fairgrounds, amazing things started happening. Allen was as much a celebrity there as he had been at the pizza restaurant. One frat boy came up and said, “Mr. Ginsberg, would you please take a drink out of my beer mug with me?” which Allen, of course, did. I can remember another coming up to tell him how much he enjoyed the Playboy interview. And it was like that the whole time we were there. We all got very drunk, and I remember Frank was saying “namaste” to everyone who came up to us. Somehow we got home, but I have no memory of it.
Earlier that day at the statue Allen took photographs of us and Jim took one of the group with Allen in it. Allen told me he’d send the photographs after they were developed. On September 25th he wrote saying, “I finally got the roll of film developed (camera broke with film inside)—Enclosed copies (not very sharp) and the original negatives.” But more importantly he wrote, “I’ve forgotten the name of the poet with dungarees—dark glasses but I liked his poetry. If he has copies, he can send to Charles Plymell, c/o Johns Hopkins Writing Seminar, Baltimore, MD. Charlie would appreciate them—there’s something akin in their poesy.” It was, of course, Frank Stanford he was referring to. I wrote Allen back that day reminding him of Frank’s name, and I called Frank and he came over for supper—a crazy meal I still remember cooking for us: biscuits, milk gravy, and sweet Greek wine. On October 9th Allen wrote me: “Frank’s poems seem slightly electric—curious what he’ll make of Plymell’s poesy. Stanford might try sending out to Poetry or Evergreen or anywhere wherever it interests him if it interests him to publish some.” And in a surprisingly short time Frank had published poems in many of the finest journals in the country, though I believe his first published poems were in the University’s journal Preview (1970), edited by Leon. Frank’s contributor’s note read “Frank thinks, ‘most of the people in this book, and most of the people in this school, are tight-assed honkies.’” My copy fortunately is inscribed “to a good friend, from Frank.” In 1971 his remarkable and beautiful book The Singing Knives was published. My copy includes another kind note: “I would like you to have this as a gift from me for taking a genuine interest in my poems. Thank you for writing Allen. Cordially, Frank.”
Allen, Peter, Frank, Jim, John Little, John Holmes—all gone. But these jottings I made a lifetime ago bring back a good place, good times, and sweet memories—especially of those who are gone, and most especially of Allen and Frank, two gentle, good men I’m happy to have known.
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About the Author
John Wood twice won the Iowa Poetry Prize of the University of Iowa Press: for In Primary Light in 1993 and The Gates of the Elect Kingdom in 1996. His Selected Poems 1968-1998 was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1999. In 2009 he won the Gold Deutscher Fotobuchpreise for Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the Nineteenth Century, published by the German press Edition Galerie Vevais. His most recent book of poems is The Fictions of History (2011). He is also an art and photographic critic whose books have won numerous awards.
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon