A.D. WINANS: second coming

Fri Feb 11 11, Fillmore Café

(Evan Karp)

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 2 of a 2-part conversation, this is published in conjunction with a profile @ SF Weekly, which you can read here. Read the first part here.

Evan Karp: I wanted to ask you a question about the demons in your head. I’m interested in where you think politics fit in poetry, especially in light of this idea.

A.D. Winans: Well I’ve written a lot of political poems. Because I felt deeply what I was writing about. But most political poetry I’ve read—a lot of it is just ranting. You know rants—it’s not really what I would call a cohesive poem. … I would say the most difficult poems to write are political and love poems. The Love – Zero book I did I’m quite proud of that book because it took a long time to write it after I broke up with a woman and, without even seeing the book—which you knew how evil she really was—she felt I was going to really slam her, and write this terrible book about her, and was writing friends of mine, publishers, threatening lawsuits about a book she hasn’t even seen, for Christ’s sake. So I waited five years and said “Now nobody’s going to identify you.” So five years. But it’s really like one epic poem, sort of different segments of the relationship, you know. And other than that I’d say I’m only pleased with about 3 love poems I’ve written, and people really like those poems.  So I’m going to start reading them at readings.

EK: What are the names of those?

AW: They were just for people … like one is “Poem for Annie” and one was, I think for Patti. Just on relationships but pleasant, pleasant parts of the relationships. Whereas with Love – Zero I don’t even have titles … I just use 1, 2, 3, 4. But yeah, love and political. Very hard to write a good poem. Kenneth Patchen wrote a lot of good love poems. I don’t know why Ferlinghetti doesn’t publish Patchen’s work. He’s falling out—people don’t know him because … it’s funny to think about, you know. Boy in his day—considered a great poet; 30 or 40 years later nobody knows … well, the ones who know him are going to die. And then who’s gonna know unless somebody picks up in the academic community and starts writing a book on him? That happened for Spicer. Somebody wrote The House that Jack Built, which was all on Spicer and his work. Spicer only had a couple of smaller books published in his lifetime; he didn’t have a lot of books published. I probably had too many poems. But politics—I all but shy away. I mean I’m sure a good one from Egypt will come out, from someone, but it has to be heartfelt and you really got to feel what you’re writing. I wrote a poem 20 years ago called “The System” I was amazed I pulled it out and it applied to today with our economic recession. Everything I have in that poem 20 years ago could have been written a week ago. So I should maybe read that again. But my best political poems it took me over 35 years to put them down on paper was “This Land Is Not My Land,” my poems on Panama, where I served in the military.

EK: How long were you in Panama again?

AW: Three years. Grew up fast there. The President got assassinated within months when I was there. That one was a Josephine Miles PEN award. And I mean I finished that book I had only done about 6 of them or 8 and I ran into Harold Norse on Valencia Street coming out of Abandoned Planet bookstore and I said “Can I show you the poems,” and he said “I’ll write a foreword if you make that into a book.” He said “You must put this into a book!” So I went home and within weeks I finished the book. That was 2006. Last year I got a PEN lifetime achievement award from Oakland. The only other award I think was SF Arts and Letters Foundation in the 80s.

EK: Wow. Tell me more about Second Coming.

AW: Second Coming. I was hanging out with poets who were doing publications, presses, Kell Robertson Desperado Review, Ben Hiatt, Grand Rhonde Review, and I decided ‘Well hell I’d like to do it too.’ I thought poetry was moving in a different direction from the 50s and the 60s  and I wanted to bring it kinda back there. The first issue was kinda timeless—had no date on it, you had to be invited to be in it because I didn’t know if there was gonna be a second issue. And then I got into it and some of the issues I actually typed myself on an IBM Selectric, we snuck into a print shop where a guy worked and did it at midnight—put out a real nice issue there. And they just kept on going much longer than I thought—17 years. But it expanded into a press, into book publishing also in about 75. And then I was getting a lot of grants from the NEA, the California Arts Council, so I was able to put out real nice perfect-bound books. And then around 89—actually it was 88—I had a real bad neck injury and I was laid up for a year, and then I didn’t have any money after that so I said ‘Well, it’s as good a time as any to, you know, let somebody else pick it up and do it.’ Couple people are still around from that era. … and then Brown University approached me and asked if they could buy my archives.

EK: When was that?

AW: 86. I didn’t know what to ask because I needed money then and so I just picked a figure out of my head. I was amazed: I had 3,000 letters that I had written from those 17 years of Second Coming. Because anyone wrote me a letter I wrote back. And some of them were real good exchanges. So those were good days. I did a lot of broadsides and some postcards and two key—well one real key anthology: California Bicentennial Poets Anthology. That one actually sold. I think we got 700 library orders … 3,000 copies. Even the guy from Harpers came over at a fair and he said “We couldn’t have done a better job with that”—it was a nice compliment. It’s a landmark one. We did a SF Poets anthology and it was good, but nothing that would distinguish it like the California one. And then I had a New Zealand anthology of New Zealand poets because New Zealand was doing a lot back then. But nobody gave a shit. So I couldn’t give the copies away. The only ones that made money was the CA anthology, my own North Beach poems, and the Bukowski issue—all three of those turned a profit.

EK: How early was that in his career?

AW: He wasn’t famous then but he was big in the small presses. First poem I published of his I think was 74, 73. And after he made it his letters became smaller and smaller and shorter and shorter and I think the last one I got from him was something like 2 or 3 lines, like take care of your neck or something like that. The injury and then … he did that with all his friends. Sooner or later he would dump you. I don’t know why. Harold Norse had a poem on that: the worst thing you can say to him is “I love you.” Because if he ever thought you were getting too close to him he found an excuse to push you away. And I found that quite interesting.

EK: I wanted to know a little bit about the SF Arts Commission and the Neighborhood Arts Commission and what you did for them.

AW: That was in 75. They were hiring 200 artists—poets, writers, musicians, puppeteers, everything—and there was 2,000 applications, and out of 2,000 I was one of 200 that got hired. Oddly enough not so much for my literary work but because they had a law—it was federally funded—that said if you had a police record they had to hire you over someone else, so I actually got hired—most people get not hired, and I got hired [laughs] because of it, which I thought was totally amusing, and that’s too long a story to go into on the arrest … maybe you can get it in the library; it’s in my memoir, Charles Bukowski and the Second Coming Revolution. It’s really a book worthwhile for reading because it’s not just on Second Coming and Charles Bukowski, it’s on small presses and Kaufman and Wantling—there’s a section on Wantling—on how they tied in with us. …

The one arrest was for, politely put, driving an auto without permission from the driver. It’s a long story—someone slipped LSD in a drink I was drinking and I was getting real paranoid and wandered outside and having hallucinations and there was a double parked cab there and I had to get out and I just jumped in the car and drove off, and I had the police chasing me through the streets of San Francisco [laughs]. Part of it’s amusing but it wasn’t amusing then, believe me. You don’t want to be in a felony wing with those guys. They finally reduced it to a misdemeanor, but yeah.

So anyway with the Arts Commission. I was supposed to be hired as an editor and writer, but I really just used the time to pursue Second Coming. I did put some poetry readings on in N Beach, and the biggest event I put on was 1980 Poets and Music festival, [for] which we honored John Lee Hooker for music and Josephine Miles for poetry and it was a 7 days, 7 nights, and 3 county event. I don’t know anybody that’s every done a 7 day consecutive thing in three counties. When it was over, Wilfredo Castano and I were so burned out—I don’t think I did much of anything for 3 or 4 months. I was just totally wiped out. But mainly it allowed me to continue the Second Coming and do my activities. Peter Coyote was there, and he was serving on the CA Arts Council. The person in charge of it was pretty meek; she pretty much let us do what we wanted to do. Rather than say … well she once asked me if I would teach in San Francisco and I said no. [laughs] And then I went out and taught in a junior high in San Mateo, and she said, “Well … you’re hired in San Francisco.” And I said “It doesn’t matter; poetry’s experienced everywhere!” And I said “besides, no one had ever taught in the junior high school in the poets and schools program.”

Me and Paul Fericano went in there and taught as a team. And then I published a book of their poetry under Second Coming. And we had one class of creative writing students who were almost all white, did very mediocre poetry; and we had a class of primarily minorities—two years behind in English, and they were damn good because they were writing about their lives: grandfather that committed suicide, you know, an alcoholic mother; whereas the white creative class was just writing about love poems and what do they know at 15, 16 about love or anything? I mean it was like they were given an assignment in their class and that’s what they were giving us. And we told them not to do that. Write about your experiences. Unless they didn’t have any experiences. But those were great years. I had a good time—pay was poor, but I had a health plan, and sometimes I would only work 4 hours a day; sometimes I would work 1, 2 times a week. There was no time clock. Nothing to punch in on. So those were definitely great times.