Excerpts from a longer essay, “Poet in the Streets” about l960s San Francisco
Paul Dresman , reposted Marc 30th.
I shared an apartment in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, San Francisco in l967. My room was in the rear of the apartment on the fourth floor. The room had high ceilings and a three-sided bay window that looked out on the crown of a young redwood tree. Beyond the tree, backyards stretched up the hill toward the foggy heights of Mount Parnassus. I was a student who had applied to become a conscientious objector, but I wanted to be a poet, too, so the room often had an air of superficial creativity: papers scattered across the floor as if they had fallen from Rimbaud’s own hand, books open to impressive passages I had underlined, sometimes memorized, and, if inclined, recited to any one who came to visit. Such visits were rather short, not because of my recitations, surely, but because there was only one chair in this room where I slept in a sleeping bag directly on the hardwood floor. The lone chair faced a built-in desk that had been originally intended as a lady’s vanity in the nineteen-twenties when the apartment had been built. I often wrote my latest poem far into the night before the cloudy mirror that supposedly faced a lovely woman in her make-up chair. Being quite proud of my ascetic life, I awakened every morning to California sunshine through the open windows of my room and looked up into the boughs of the redwood.
One night, in a coffee shop on Mission Street, my friend Lawrence Coulter and I happened to walk in and sit at the counter near an exotic-looking couple. The man was a Mexican; he wore cool sandals and had a distinguished look. We both recognized the woman with the long, dark hair because we had fallen in love with her photograph in Fred McDarrah’s book of Greenwich Village poems and photos, late l950s: The Beat Scene. Her name was Margaret Randall, and the man was her then-husband Sergio Mondragon. Together they published a bi-lingual poetry magazine in Mexico City called El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn). Avant-garde poetry in American English and translations from everyone rebellious across the hemisphere. Many of the New American Poetry anthology poets published there and the best of them did translations of poetry, everything from Jerome Rothenberg’s Paul Celan to Paul Blackburn’s Octavio Paz and the Troubadour poets-- from Gary Snyder’s Han Shan to Clayton Eshleman’s César Vallejo and especially Randall’s own presentation of Latin American women and militants, so-called “Guerrilla Poets,” to recall the title of the then-future (l968) Edward Dorn / Gordon Brotherston book of translations, of poets Randall, either published or recommended to them: she was the clearing-house. I was already being foreshadowed by later events and developments encountering many influential poets and translators. That was what I had gone to San Francisco to do, and I would encounter these figures in many ways in my life ahead.
Larry and I carefully avoided staring at Margaret Randall, but we did try to eavesdrop on their quiet conversation. At one point, she expounded on “the need for national literature.” Perhaps she was speaking of Mexico. To say we were impressed by this beautiful, smart, hip poet wasn’t even close. We were groupies who were in awe. We did not rush her for an autograph, but we might have.
On another occasion, I went to dance at California Hall. It was a memorial for a Hell’s Angel named Chocolate George, who had died in traffic, or it was a benefit to raise defense money for an Angel on trial for resisting arrest during a Digger parade down Haight Street--I forget which. In truth, I did not want to go, but my friends said the best bands would be there. I guess you couldn’t say no to the Hell’s Angels.
Steve Miller and his blues band with Boz Scaggs singing, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin singing. Destiny’s darling had a few years left to run, and she was in peak form that evening. She blew her way through several songs, and then the band put down their instruments, formed a line across the stage with big smiles and, a cappella, sang a gospel dirge, lyrics penned by Michael McClure:
O, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all have Porsches--
I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime,
no help from my friends.
O, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
The Angels could hardly be contained by neo-hip gospel; they got drunk on beer and threw each other all over the dance floor. Avoiding these slam-dancers, the flower children moved off to the sides to observe and avoid the destruction. We were up against the wall, when, through the doors of California Hall, a couple came walking forward and out into the middle of the flying Angels. The man rang Tibetan finger cymbals using both hands, and the woman was a dark-haired beauty. The Angels parted like the Red Sea. Gary Snyder and his date sat right down in the center of the dance floor and centered the space for tranquility’s sake.
The Angels stopped slinging each other, started to behave themselves. The dance continued on a more civilized basis for the rest of the evening.
One day, walking the block from my apartment at Cole and Waller Street to Haight Street, I realized I would have to walk past a gaggle of goosenecked bikes, Hell’s Angel bikes, and I hoped none of those shit-kicking centaurs might emerge from the seedy apartment building across the street--where they might be snorting long white lines of methedrine, getting way too high and ready to wallop a long-haired hippie.
As I came within fifteen yards of those bikes, who do you think comes strolling out of the entrance of that shabby apartment building? One Hell’s Angel dressed in a leather jacket with colors, filthy jeans, terrible, steel-toed, engineer stomper boots. He crossed the street. I’d need to pass by just as he arrived.
The trajectory closed. About to throw caution to the wind and sprint past him, I froze. The Angel was the poet Michael McClure. Who looked as proud as Tyrone Power and as windswept-handsome as Shelley. Delicate, as well, so the contrast of the man within the biker get-up and the poet himself practically made me gasp aloud. I quelled myself and continued along. To say I was relieved wouldn’t begin to say it.
To be stomped by an Angel or to trip on an iambic foot--there’s really no choice. He straddled his bike, kick-started it, roared off to the corner, turned right in the direction of Downey Street where he lived. He was one of the few poets who actually lived in the Haight.
Poetry brought me to San Francisco and I studied and wrote diligently to become a poet. Oh, mother, in the shadow of Parnassus, in the howl of the Haight, by the end of my stay in San Francisco, I fulfilled hope and published a poem:
You Kissed Us Both
I once laid idols out for you:
weird, relaxed skulls
growing out of castles
of ordinary clothes.
You kissed us both.
The skulls turned
back into pillows
and we fell asleep
in the grass like stones.
—Rolling Stone, San Francisco, 1971