Fri Feb 11 11, Fillmore Café
A.D. Winans, 75, is a serendipitous poet. He found himself in North Beach in 1958 and fell in with Bob Kaufman and Jack Micheline, who remained lifelong friends and inspirations; he found himself writing, and never looked back. He has now published 52 books, the latest of which—Drowning Like LiPo in a River of Red Wine (Bottle of Smoke Press), is a beautiful limited collection of his life works—all the way through 2010. He is still putting out several small volumes a year; having just traveled 4 decades via this collection, I can attest that his writing is only becoming more lucid with the passage of time.
Winans also founded Second Coming Press and published many accomplished poets—including Bukowski—well before they were widely known. We spent a leisurely hour together over a cup of coffee, and to retain the flow of our conversation I have not doctored the syntax or altered our statements in any way. Part 1 of a 2-part conversation, was published in conjunction with a profile @ SF Weekly, which you can read here.
Evan Karp: What makes someone a writer?
A.D. Winans: Well, the only thing I can say is I didn’t choose to write. I’d have picked another field if I wanted a career, but it’s just something that I started taking in poetry readings in 58 and 59 in N Beach and other places, and then I got hooked on City Lights on the books down there, just started writing, you know. It’s sort of like a disease almost. I don’t really know what else to say: I don’t think you choose writing I think writing chooses you. I can’t understand these people who say they write a poem a day; I just can’t write that way. I write when something comes to me that I feel like writing. Might see something on TV—like this Egyptian thing—I’m sure I might get a poem out of that. But it comes on its own time; I can’t just sit down, you know, and compose a poem.
EK: I have a friend who says poetry is an affliction.
AW: Well it is. Disease, affliction—that’s basically what I feel.
EK: Do you remember the first reading you went to? Who turned you on?
AW: Well actually one of the first ones wasn’t billed as a reading—it was the old Co-Existence Bagel Shop where Bob Kaufman sort of held court. He used to jump up on the table and start reciting poetry—not only his own but Blake, Eliot, Pound—a lot of the masters he just had memorized by heart. So that probably was the first, if you want to call it that … wasn’t a staged reading, something you went to because poetry … people went there in the hope that they would catch him doing that. You know Ginsberg and those people gave readings; Bob sort of owned the bagel shop. That was his talent. Then I heard Jack Micheline—he read somewhere I can’t remember the name of it. That was in the 60s though, that was Malvina’s. Jack and I became really close friends until he died in 98. Him and I—I don’t consider myself having a mentor but he’s the closest thing I would have to a mentor. We had so much in common: he was born premature I was born premature, we write about the same topics, subject matter, we feel the same way about poetry business, which it’s become somewhat, with a lot of these people trying to make it a … well, they get into the poetry world and they don’t really have that much talent but they’re great organizers and they get in with the right crowds and they make a name for themselves, whereas Jack … or Bob. Bob was every bit as good as Ginsberg. In fact I think his overall body of work was better than Ginsberg’s. Phil Lamantia was another surreal poet. But I’d say Bob was my [first]. And then I got into Bukowski because I was publishing Second Coming. I wrote him and asked him for some poems and he wrote back and he said, Well, I had a second coming myself last night—because he’s always into sex. And anyway we met and I published the second issue—the Charles Bukowski issue—and then we became friends for 17 years, exchanged about 83 letters I wish I’d hung onto rather than giving them to the Brown University archives because they’re very valuable. Some of them are hand-written and they’re all artwork on each one, you know.
But there’s a misconception about him. If you were with him when he was sober, he was actually a very pretty much shy guy; it was only when the drinking things that he had the persona of the drunken, you know, guy. But if you saw him in person sober you’d find an entirely different person. Ferlinghetti I know but I never got that close to. I met most of them: Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder. Snyder got me a nice grant when I hurt my neck in 89. He wrote a letter to the Academy of American Poets on my behalf and I got 5000 bucks I really needed. Of course I had to sign it that I wouldn’t tell anyone because they didn’t want to be handing out a lot of grants to people. I mean now I can talk about it. But then they didn’t want it. So, what else?
EK: I don’t know! I mean I’m fascinated by the life experiences you’ve had. I usually talk to younger poets; I usually talk to people I already know. So … you’re from N Beach originally, right?
AW: Well I was born in SF but I lived in the Haight Ashbury through high school, and actually moved to Glen Park in my senior year. And then I went to Panama in the military from 54 to 58. When I got out in 58 I was going to school so I lived with my parents for a while, back in Glen Park, but that’s where I hung out in N Beach all of the time. In fact I hung out in N Beach until about 1989. And then things really began to change after the Reagan years. All the art things they were disappearing; most of the poets were leaving. They still have poets out there—maybe Hirschman is the oldest—but he didn’t come until about 73. So I was probably the oldest from that era still around. Except Ferlinghetti. But he doesn’t really hang around the scene much at all. He doesn’t drink—well if he does he doesn’t do it in public—so he would hang out at Trieste and I would hit with Jack and all the others hit all the bars, from Vesuvio to 1232 Club, Coffee Gallery. Gino and Carl’s was the biggest because Jack Spicer and Richard Brautigan hung out there—they were always drinking there. And then up on Upper Grant there was a place called The Place, which Spicer co-hosted. And that was called Blabbermouth night where you could get up and espouse anything you wanted to talk about. And those were wild days.
I still remember my first night in N Beach—1958, February. The sexual revolution—people think that started in the hippy era—bullshit. Way before that. I went into a hotel down from City Lights, I forget what its called … and I was ordering a beer, and I hadn’t been there about maybe 10 minutes, and I feel this tap on my shoulder, turn around it’s a nice looking French woman, she looks at me and I said “What?” She said “Would you like to fuck?” [laughter] Blew my mind. I said “Of course!” So we went upstairs to where she was staying at one of the rooms, and then she took me down afterwards to Big Daddy Nort’s place on the old produce district—that was an old warehouse. Bob Kaufman used to hang out there and blacks would be shirtless with bongo drums dancing with white women, which in 58 was still sort of iffy outside of that area. So I wandered up to the roof, I get up to the roof and they have all these mattresses strewn around on the roof and all these people are fornicating in open view. I mean—I had seen a lot in Panama, but I didn’t expect to see that in my hometown, I mean that was my first initiation into North Beach. Oh yeah, it was a hell of a night. I wrote a piece about it. Then I was just hooked to going up there after that.
EK: I was going to say I’m sure that wasn’t your last visit up there.
AW: Oh I didn’t hang out at Eric’s pad that often. Maybe a half dozen times. But it was a place to go after hours when the bars closed—that’s where people gathered. Except Kaufman would sometimes go to Aquatic Park with two black guys I guess they were musicians and one would be playing the congas, Bob would be chanting poetry, and then he’d be passing a jug of wine around and smoking grass, you know, So grass was fairly plentiful too, but you got caught it was a felony. And I remember Herb Caen the columnist—I met him—Charlie McCabe, you know he was a great guy … so they were exciting times. I don’t think anyone will see anything quite like that again. It just isn’t likely to happen. They had jazz around, and it was just a camaraderie—everybody was friendly. I remember Marlon Brando was photographed in the window sitting in Vesuvio—I think that was before 58. And then they started moving to Venice Beach and Mexico, and William Margolis used to co-edit the Beautitude magazine with Bob, and I don’t know I guess he tried to commit suicide, jumped out a window and all he got was paralyzed, which was sad, because to me I’d rather be dead than paralyzed.
The Post-beat era was pretty exciting too. Gene Ruggles, Kell Robertson, Kaye McDonough, Janice Blue—we were probably, you know, it was just as wild as the other times. It started from Vesuvio’s all the way to Upper Grant. If you went up to Filbert that’s where it stopped. Filbert had the bread and wine mission run by some renegade father. You could go up there on Sundays and get free wine and spaghetti and watch the sunset. Watch the girls.
EK: Wow. Doesn’t take much more than that.
AW: No, and then after that it sort of I guess you could say coexisted with the hippies for a few years in the 60s but the only poet I remember being out there was Ginsberg, George Tsongas and Alan Cohen, who did The Oracle magazine. So I’d say about 80 it started to … all the ones who are still alive are in different places. David Plum’s in Florida, Kell Robertson’s on his last legs, he’s in New Mexico. Kaye McDonough is in Rhode Island. Janice Blue is … somewhere in California. But they’re not around here anymore. I’m one of the few holdovers who are still here. And Mel Clay, he’s in North Beach. And then some that came late to the scene. Hirschman lives off of Union Street, so that’s still North Beach. But he mostly hangs out at Caffe Trieste.
EK: Yeah I see him at Trieste sometimes.
AW: He used to go there at a specific time just about every day; you’d see him at the same time. I think he liked letting people know that he’d be there at that time.
AW: [laughs] I don’t like the beginning. People are really taken by the Crazy John poems. I have about 18 unpublished ones—I’m gonna put them in with the previous books and do one final series. Cause that was unique; it was different; you don’t see that subject matter floating around too much. And of course as you get further and further on you see a progression of where my writing went.
EK: Yeah I think I got through Crazy John and then I got wrapped up in my own life and as today got closer I skipped ahead and I wanted to be more hip to the newer stuff, so I … went all the way to the 2000s. What struck me is that a lot of your writing seems not conversational but very straightforward and open.
AW: I write for … to me, writing academic poetry, you’re writing for other academic poets; you’re writing for a limited audience. I try to write to an audience of people who may not have even been exposed to poetry. That’s why they like Bukowski—because he wrote in a language you don’t have to run to a dictionary to understand. And it’s not like all confessional; a lot of what I write about is observations. That’s why I had The Streets of San Francisco, because I’ve walked all these streets. I observe the homeless and whatever it is and I write poems about it. Something that moves me, or sometimes I’ll stop and talk to the guy, like I did with one I found out he was a homeless Vietnam vet—that brought about a poem. I’ve also written haiku, I’ve written surreal, I’ve written a couple of academic poems. I don’t try to stay in once place. Most of them are small editions—500 and 300 copies—but I’ve had about 52 books out. And this one I’m proud of because he did a really good job. …
I don’t want to be pigeonholed. Sometimes I’ll purposely write something totally different from what I normally write just to see what people’s reactions are. The Mexico poem—that’s not what I usually write.
EK: What would you say are some of the major changes you’ve seen as your poetics—as your style has evolved?
AW: I don’t know. I would think … it’s hard to answer because [for instance] I had a book of 13 jazz poems come out that were lyric poems. I don’t usually write lyrical poems. Micheline did a lot of lyrical poems. So that book. And then of course Crazy John was totally different. So I don’t know if it’s a style that’s evolving, because I still write the way I wrote before, but I just expanded into other forms. I never thought I’d write haiku, but I got into writing some haiku and they published the stuff, so I said well it must be fairly good. But I don’t think I’ll go back to haiku; I think leave that to the Japanese and Chinese. Chinese are masters at it and I don’t think Western haiku is anywhere as good as Asian haiku is. So I don’t know. I don’t sit down and say well I’m gonna write lyrical today. You know. The poem just came lyrical, and the other poems followed suit. …
I’ve often told people—because I’ve never said I was a poet; if it’s poetry, fine. Micheline never said he was a poet. I just feel like William Wantling said once, said “I’d give up writing and carry a lunchbox just like the rest of them, if only these strange mutterings would leave me alone,” and that’s how I feel. Except I use “demons” that dictate … like I’m kind of a caretaker for their voices. Jack Spicer sort of felt poems came that way too. Certainly not to a lot of poets, but they come that way with some people. And that’s how they come for me.
Our conversation continues in a second installment, to be published soon. But first, my favorite Winans poem (so far):
“For William Wantling”
Looking into the cracked lips of sorrow
I walk the harsh streets of tomorrow
The ghost of my fears demanding that
I face my destiny
But i am not a graveyard poet
In search of chilled bones
The words i speak hold no fear
For like you
I have tasted the laughter of life
Walked the sinister circus of reality
Playing out the game like
Knowing there is no power
Strong enough to still
The song inside you
The long years of silence
The grave brings can only
Be broken by those who care enough
To take up the cause
There are those who seek
The underground warmth
Desire to be closeted in blackness
Moths of night with closed minds
And hardened hearts encased in stone
And then there are those like you
Who sense to be a poet
One must first die
Inspiration comes naturally
Expiration takes effort
It is not enough to passively die
You must expel life while living
This is the mark of the true poet
The night rolls back its wings
Teeth as cold as naked bone
But neither the night nor
The poet dies quietly
Only the flesh expires
The words linger on welcoming
The taste of ash
And morning comes as no loss
For wherever you are
You survived the pain
Refused to surrender
Earth’s flesh removed from reality
Here in the wakening of dawn
Where the mist smells sweetly
And one can hear the throats
Of birds singing like cannons
In the hour when the spirit
Collects its visions
Replaying them on old walls
Gatsby shots from another era
Stills to fill the void
In a world of runaway tongues
You are everywhere beneath
The wild grass
The silver star of night
The face of morning
The crystal clear sky singing
Gone with others
Who dared to hold
The sun in their hands
Read Part 2.