Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Q & A, with Thomas Rain Crowe

by Caleb Beissert

ON A clear September day, I sat down with Thomas Crowe over a couple of slices of fresh homemade pumpkin bread on the patio at his modest homestead nestled in a river valley in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Crowe is a poet, translator, writer, publisher, and environmental activist. He grows much of his own food on the land on which he lives. In addition to his more than 30 published books; translations of Hafiz, Yvan Goll, and Hugh-Alain Dal;  and his efforts to save sacred Native American sites and to fight against pollution of the environment; Crowe is known for being one of the Baby Beats, a 60s generation group directly derivative of yet distinct from the American Beats, sustaining and carrying on the literary movement in San Francisco into the ‘60s and ‘70s. Crowe, hailing originally from Chicago and growing up in Robbinsville, North Carolina, first arrived in San Francisco in 1973, after “chasing dreams and dragons” for a year or so in France. He came back to the U.S. to “try and turn my back on the literary life” and got a job working at a winery in Napa Valley. “Before I knew it, I had gone into North Beach to visit City Lights Publishing, because [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti was something of a hero of mine.”

CB: Tell us about walking into City Lights for the first time.  
TRC: After visiting the bookstore, I made my way up Grant Ave. a couple blocks to the publishing house offices. The publishing offices were located in a corner building in a storefront. I walked in off the street to a single-room office with several desks and people working at their various tasks. Nancy Joyce Peters was working at the front desk near the door and greeted me as I came in. I told her who I was and that I had been a big fan of City Lights books and Lawrence’s poetry and wanted to see for myself where all the City Lights books were made, and… that I had a poetry manuscript that I wanted City Lights to consider for publication—poems that I had written during my time in France. About this time Lawrence appeared through a door in the back of the room. He was carrying something in a frame and proceeded over to one of the walls on the side of the room as if to hang his picture there. He was having some problem with getting the framed picture (one of his smaller paintings) in the position he wanted it in and looked over to where Nancy and I were standing and talking. Nancy said something to Lawrence like, “This is Thomas Dawson [he later legally took the name “Crowe”] from North Carolina, and he has brought us a poetry manuscript to look at.” Lawrence replied by saying that he needed some help hanging the picture and would I help him. As if in a dream, I said, “Sure,” and made my way over to the wall where he handed me the picture, and I got up on a chair and placed it up on the wall at a certain height—moving it left and right, up and down, until I got it exactly where Lawrence wanted it. He then picked up a hammer and nailed a framing hook into the wall, and I put the picture on the hook and got down from the chair. We both stood back and looked at the picture from a distance and he looked at me and said: “Perfect. Thanks for your help. What did you say your name was?” I told him my name and we talked for a minute or two about the fact that we both had a history in North Carolina in common. And he told me that he would take a look at my poems and would get back to me as soon as possible. (Which he did, even though the book was rejected.) He proceeded to walk over to an old roll-top desk that had an old wooden office chair on rollers, sit down and begin to go through a stack of mail that was there on the desk. I gave the publishing office room one last look and went out the door and onto Grant Ave.  In a state of star-struck euphoria, little did I know then that I would soon be moving to San Francisco and would be spending a lot of time working and hanging out with Lawrence during the next several years and also that I would later become the proud owner of that old wooden office chair on wheels which had seen and been a part of the furniture of so much American literary history.

CB: What was the artistic atmosphere like in North Beach during that time, the general vibe? 
TRC: San Francisco, by 1976, was in the middle of a huge artistic renaissance. I just happened to be right in the middle of it, as a participant rather than a spectator. [He says this with his eyes wide with the same excitement he must have felt at the time to find himself in the ultimate right place at the right time.] I just happened to be there when this renaissance was happening. Good timing, I guess. You know what they say: Timing is everything!  

CB: Bob Kaufman, the American Beat, surrealist, and jazz poet, was known for his eccentricity, disheveled appearance, roaming street corners shouting poetry into passing cars, (etc.) Upon learning of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence that lasted for nearly twelve years. I understand you were sitting at the table with him, the day he broke his silence. Will you share that story with our readers? 
TRC: It was early 1975, and I was living in North Beach and haunting all the bohemian coffee houses and bars. We had already begun to publish Beatitude magazine again and a group of San Francisco magazine editors and book publishers were meeting upstairs in the Malvina Coffeehouse—working on a group project to publish a book of poems by an inmate who was incarcerated in San Quentin, whom we all knew. We were all sitting around one of the larger round tables there in the café when Bob Kaufman appeared, as he was wont to do in those days—ghost-like and still adhering to his ‘vow of silence’ from 1963. He sat down in a chair next to where we were sitting and just gazed out the large windows into the street below, saying nothing. Then, all of a sudden and with no warning, he proceeds to stand up on his chair and begins speaking. Mind you, he hadn’t had a normal conversation with anyone in 13 years. To say we were all shocked would be an understatement. But then he began this incredible recitation of poetry that was a combination of Keats, Yeats, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Rexroth, Ginsberg and his own work that went on for what seemed like hours—but which, in reality was maybe 10 minutes or so. I don’t think any of us sitting at that table had ever heard anything like this, ever. When Bob finished his recitation, he calmly got down off his chair, sat down, and sat quietly looking out the window into the street below, while we all sat there in stunned silence. Bob finally broke OUR silence and asked us what we were doing, and someone in the group explained to him about our project. From that day on, Bob began to interact with everyone in North Beach in a more normal (although Bob was never “normal”) way. Almost immediately, Jerry Kamstra (author of The Frisco Kid) and I set to organizing a “Welcome Back” reading for Bob at the Spaghetti Factory—which we did and which was held a few weeks later and was a packed house with maybe a hundred people standing out on the sidewalk and in the street hoping to get in. This event had catalytic repercussions that led to future “Beatitude readings” and what would eventually expand into a huge literary renaissance in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

CB: How did you get involved with editing Beatitude magazine? 
TRC: Beatitude started in the ‘50s with [Richard] Brautigan and Kaufman and died off in the early ‘60s. It was resurrected it during a time a bunch of us younger poets were taking classes with Harold Norse. Several of us got together  and started putting together a first issue of the magazine. That first issue was hand-cranked on a mimeograph machine in the basement of a house on Potrero Hill under a single light bulb and later collated with the help of a lot of wine. The next day the copies were hand-deliver  to places like City Lights, Moe’s and Cody’s in Berkeley, and other local bookstores and cafés. Eventually, I was able to get it distributed at major bookstores all across the country.
     Maybe we were very naïve, then, but we really thought that with Beatitude we were making a difference. Thought we were changing things.

CB: I understand the term “Baby Beats” was first coined by Richard Brautigan as a sort of insult, yet the writers in your literary circle at the time seemed to embrace the label. When did you first hear the term “Baby Beats”? And what was your reaction?
TRC: Well, I was there that night in Spec’s bar when Brautigan let fly with his epithet and reference to a bunch of us younger poets who were publishing Beatitude magazine as “Baby Beats.” Brautigan had been one of the founders (along with Kaufman and a few of the lesser-known Beat poets in North Beach during the mid-1950s) of the magazine in its first incarnation and was in his cups and I think feeling a little bit jealous and possessive of the magazine and the fact that we had resurrected it and were creating quite a stir with it and all the readings and protest actions, etc. we were doing at the time. He was in Spec’s with the poet John Logan, who was also a legendary drinker. John had invited a bunch of us younger poets to come and join him and Brautigan, which didn’t please Brautigan at all, as he clearly wanted Logan’s attention all to himself. As we were pulling up our chairs and joining the two of them, Brautigan turned to Logan and said, loudly, “Why do you want to waste your time with these guys? They’re just a bunch of wannabe Baby Beats.” That was the first time, to my knowledge, that this term was ever uttered. At the time, I actually thought the term was kind of endearing, even though it wasn’t meant to be. It had a nice ring to it. And quite honestly, I felt it was something of a backhanded compliment. I liked the idea of being a “Baby Beat.” As a moniker it felt more like an honor than an epithet. Brautigan must have gone on to tell this story to his friends around San Francisco, as soon Herb Caen, the journalist who had a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, had written a column on the North Beach literary scene and mentioned the term “Baby Beats.” From that column the name stuck and has been used in various circles, writings, books and anthologies ever since. And I’m still proud to wear that moniker and to be connected and associated to the Beat literary movement—as one of the only true indigenous literary movements that has come out of the American culture.

CB: In cofounding the International Poetry Festival, what was your mission and purpose behind the idea? Did the festival accomplish what it set out to? Who were some of the poets that read? 
TRC: As I hinted at in answering one of your earlier questions, after the “Kaufman incident” and reading, things began to escalate rather rapidly. By 1976 we were already doing large readings at public venues and able to draw large overflow crowds to our events which featured a combination of the elder Beat poets and some of us younger “Baby Beats.” Many of these readings and events were benefits for or sponsored by Beatitude magazine and press. One day Neeli Cherkovski (who was writing a biography on Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the time), the surrealist poet Ken Wainio and I were hanging around the City Lights Publishing offices and talking with Lawrence about the biography, etc, and he came up with the idea to do a “San Francisco Poetry Festival”. We talked about it some more in the coming weeks and then got artist Peter LeBlanc involved as someone who might do the poster and publicity for the event, wrangled an office space in the San Francisco Public Library and we were off to the races. Lawrence suggested that I should be the Director for the project, which I agreed to do. The festival was several months in the making and a huge learning curve for a novice impresario like myself. But we got through all the radio and TV appearances, the tacking up posters all over the Bay Area in the middle of the night, the endless negotiations and legal work in securing a large venue (the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in the city’s Civic Center), enlisting sponsors for the event, and in coming up with and securing a list of poets.  In the end our list included Gary Snyder, Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Everson, David Meltzer, Jack Hirschman, Diane DiPrima, Bob Kaufman, Bobbi Louise Hawkins, Barbara Szerlip, Kaye McDonough, Wayne Miller...  By this time the festival had become “The San Francisco International Poetry Festival” and we had gotten commitments from poets from Central America (Fernando Alegria and Pancho Aguila), Russia (Alexandr Kohav), Romania (Andrei Codrescu) and the Poet Laureate of Sweden (Ospen Sjostrand), as well as African-American Herbola Middleton.  In the end we had two back-to-back evenings of poetry and had overflow audiences for both evenings (breaking the fire code maximums) in a 2500 seat venue. To say that this was a success would be an understatement. It was a huge success and was the model for many such large festival-style readings and events that would follow in coming years and secured the notion that San Francisco and the Bay Area was experiencing a “renaissance” in literature and the arts.

CB: It seems that writers have reclusive tendencies, some more than others. Even the best writers need people they can share their work with and get feedback. In my personal experience, I can tell you how helpful it is to read at open mics and little cafés or on the street and get peoples’ reactions, meet other poets, and see how one’s poems work when they’re out in the real world. How did the poetry community in North Beach help you with your own writing? Do you feel this type of interaction is essential for a writer?  
TRC: My years in North Beach and my work with Beatitude magazine were essential, even critical to my subsequent life as a poet and writer. Had it not been for those years in North Beach and San Francisco, I don’t know what direction my life would have taken. And it was the community of poets that were part of the bohemian scene in North Beach and what poet Jack Hirschman referred to as “the Beatitude cadre” that allowed me to gain a sense of confidence about my work and my role in society as a poet. A combination of working together with other artists on various literary and social-political publications and events, daily conversations about “the work” in the cafes and bars we frequented in and around North Beach, and the kind of gentle competitiveness that occurs between young writers as they are struggling to develop their own voice  were all part of my “formative years,” my “training” that eventually allowed me to have the confidence to continue living the life of the poet and doing the work. “The University of the Streets” we used to sarcastically refer to our itinerant years there in North Beach—surrounded by our literary heroes, who were also our teachers, and also our friends. And  I can see now that they needed us as much as we needed them.  
     While everyone is different, and some would, as you point out, prefer a more solitary approach to their writing and/or life, I think in general that it would benefit any young person who thought they might want to pursue a life and career as a writer—to find a scene somewhere where there is a combination of young people their own age, as well as some older writers who would be mentors and to engage themselves in this scene, in this community of like-minded people and partake in their own version of that “university of the streets.”  

CB: Do you see any parallels between San Francisco, then, and the Asheville of today? 
TRC: We’re talking a big city vs. a small city. I wrote a piece once for the North Carolina Literary Review in the mid-‘90s about the “Asheville Renaissance” focusing on  the things happening in Asheville and why a literary renaissance was in the making. Problem was, in the end, that  the factions never unified. You had the UNCA scene, the slam scene, the creation of the Asheville Poetry Review, the opening of Malaprop’s, but I had called it “a renaissance” prematurely. There has been some down time since then and now things seem to be starting up again. The main difference was, that in San Francisco there was a lot of interaction between different types and ethnic groups of artists, which Asheville doesn’t have.  

CB: What is your latest book, and what are you working on now?  Also, I’m interested in what your main concerns are—in moving forward in the vastly different world in which we now live? 
TRC: I’ve got a book coming out later this month from an environmental conservation group in New Mexico called Voices from the American Land—which I’m sharing with poets Brent Martin and Barbara Duncan. These are poems in celebration of The Great Smoky Mountains region and its uniqueness and diversity. It’s a book that aims at focusing on our region and the need to preserve and steward this bioregion into the indefinite future.  
     My concerns?  In a word: the environment. We’re losing it to our insatiable hunger for consumption and commodities (things, stuff) and in our incompetence to manage and balance population and pollution in relation to what we think of as “growth” and “progress.” Almost all of my work (writing and activism) these days has some foundation in my concern for the environment and what we have done to it and what MUST be done to stop the destruction and desecration of the planet and the atmosphere that surrounds it. This is critical and we ALL need to be working on this in one way or another—to try and put things back in a state of homeostasis.