Monday, July 25, 2011

Alastair Johnston

You know those old platitudes, "All good things come to he who waits," or "We serve no wine before it's time"? Well, I can't be bothered with them. However, after 35 years I have published a book that has indeed improved with age, and furthermore was worth the wait. Back in 1975 when I was a young poet in my mid-20s I met Kevin Power and his wife, Romilly Waite, wandering Britons like myself, in Berkeley. We were idealistic young writers going to anti-War readings with Ginsberg, Whalen, Kyger, McClure, Snyder and Nanao Sakaki, checking out the New York poets at Intersection or the Bolinas poets at Cody's. Kevin was doing post-graduate work at the University and his wife wanted to learn the art of letterpress so they could start a small press, Editions Braad, back in their home in rural France. Romilly is W. S. Merwin's niece and they had bought an old red-tiled farmhouse in a village high up in Templar country that had been home to Creeley and other wandering spirits. Kevin was writing about the relation of painting and other visual arts to post-War American poetry, so had come West to interview those poets he felt had a significant relation to visual art in their work. In Buffalo he had talked to Creeley and Bly (who was in town for a reading) & he had tracked down Rothenberg on an Indian reservation in Upstate New York. In San Francisco he spoke to McClure, Duncan, Meltzer and the Oppens. He drove out to Bolinas to find Berkson. I expressed interest in his collection of interviews which were beginning to appear in little magazines like Vort, Texas Quarterly and Spanner. When they returned to Europe, Kevin entrusted the typescript to me and I began setting trial samples at the West Coast Print Center, where I worked as a typesetter on the nightshift (other typesetters included Barrett Watten, Mary Anne Hayden and John McBride). But then I started working on Philip Whalen's novel The Diamond Noodle and the Power book languished. A decade later Kevin asked me if I still wanted to do it. By then he was living in Spain and teaching at the University of Alicante. I dug out the manuscript and decided, yes, it was still a worthwhile project. But by then Duncan had died and his estate were being managed by Robert Bertholf at the University library in Buffalo, after Bancroft turned down Duncan's papers because they thought they had enough Duncan material. I wrote to Bertholf asking permission to reprint the interview and he wrote back that he was planning a collected works, including interviews so therefore had to refuse. My girlfriend at the time had been a Duncan student at New College and with his permission had taped his lectures. I duplicated a dozen C-90 tapes of the classes and sent them to Bertholf, reiterating my request. He sent me a formal thank you and a second refusal. When I saw Kevin in San Francisco in the 90s we didn't discuss the book: we were both on to other things. Then last year Kyle Schlesinger reprinted Power's interview with Creeley on his blog, generating a lot of cyber heat about what a brilliant insightful interview it was. I ran into Steve Dickison of SF State's Poetry Center and we were discussing it, and I mentioned I had the manuscript of all 8 interviews that were all equally brilliant, but then told him the sad story of Bertholf's refusal. Oh, said Steve, Bertholf is no longer Duncan's executor. It's now Christopher Wagstaff, and he gave me Wagstaff's number. I phoned him, expecting the same kind of frostbitten denial but instead Wagstaff was cordial and thrilled that I wanted to print the interview. The heirs of Creeley and Oppen were also happy to see the work published in book form & so, after 35 years, like vintage wine, we can drink deep from the wisdom of these grand old bards.

15 comments:

  1. An amazing drive-by survey of [some slices of] recent literary history. Breathless & convincing. Footnote: I was also one of the typesetters at the West Coast Print Center, from which gig I was nearly fired when the editors of a feminist film criticism journal I was setting complained because the hyphenation algorithm of the CompuGraphic photo-typesetter we used insisted on breaking "woman" as "wo-man" and "therapist" as "the-rapist." . . . . And now to buy the book!

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