Bryan R. Monte – The Political as Personal. My Memoir of Steve Abbott

The Political as Personal
My Memoir of Steve Abbott, 1980-1990

by Bryan R. Monte

Steve Abbott was the first writer I met in San Francisco when I arrived in the summer of 1980. We met at a poetry reading, held in a Haight Street bar or restaurant, where one of the poets, a female African-American, complained about “gay men in Gucci shoes” who were ruining the Haight. I looked down at the scuffed and worn toes of my grey Hush Puppies and my second-hand store clothing, thought about my cockroach-infested, small flat with six, all-night bus lines under the window and considered leaving before the reading concluded. I was at this reading, my first in the City, because it was listed in a free newspaper, Poetry Flash, that I had found on the shelf at the cobbler’s below my flat in the big, yellow, wood-frame building at Haight and Clayton Streets.

It was fortuitous I didn’t leave early because after the reading I struck up a conversation with a thin, middle-aged man with thinning, black hair and glasses. He wore slender black jeans, a thin, thrift shop, early-’60s tie, a light blue shirt and a second-hand, thin-lapelled, black suit jacket. Somehow we struck up a conversation perhaps because we were both natural talkers or because we felt an affinity for each other. Whatever the reason, on our walk back to our apartments, we discovered we lived not more than a block from each other and we had both moved to San Francisco because of politics and poetry: Abbott in the mid-70s and I just months previously.

In the course of our walk, I mentioned the reading’s listing in the Flash and Abbott told me he was one of its editors and had a monthly column called “Up to the Aether,” from a poem by Jack Spicer (San Francisco Renaissance poet, active 1950s and ’60s). Abbott said the column sort of made him the Hedda Hopper (an actress cum gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times, 1938-1966, and House Un-American Activities Committee informant in the 1950s) of the San Francisco poetry scene. He said that he and Poetry Flash sometimes took a lot of heat for what they wrote. Abbott also told me he worked as a freelance journalist for the city’s gay newspapers—the Bay Area Reporter, Sentinel and Advocate. Before he’d moved to San Francisco, he’d been a monk, a university newspaper editor and married. I told Abbott about my recent move from Ohio and how I was just getting oriented to the City’s cultures and its weirdly, quickly changeable weather (hot and sunny one minute and cold and foggy the next just over the hill). Abbott explained the City’s various microclimates—Mission and Potrero Hill hot and sunny, the Avenues and the Haight, foggier and cooler—and SF’s reading venues and locations.

Either the same day or soon thereafter, Abbott invited me to his apartment at 545 Ashbury. His flat’s furnishings were what I would call basic Bohemian. I think there was a large, wooden spool, the type used by utility companies to coil cables, in the center of his living/dining room (the first room when you came in) that functioned as a table. This table was used both for eating and for writing and always held stacks of books and papers (and sometimes a few dishes). The room’s walls were lined with bookcases filled with double rows of books on top of which were loose papers, letters, mailing envelopes, magazines, newspapers and clippings. There was also a second room off to one side that overlooked Ashbury Street, separated by a curtain and/or French doors. It had a futon that was rolled up into a couch during the day.

I don’t remember much more of what I talked about with Abbott that day but I do remember him showing me his first book of poetry—Wrecked Hearts with its cartoon cover of Jesus and his sacred heart being shot through by a cowboy who had tattoos on his biceps such as “Kill Faggots” and “Anita (Bryant) was right” the latter referring to a 1977 campaign against gay rights in Dade County, Florida. Abbott mentioned he’d given the book to the first gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, and wondered if its cover had flashed through his head as he had been murdered by one of his former colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, Dan White. Wrecked Hearts also has a cartoon of Baudelaire and Rimbaud first having an argument and then sex in their flat and later, Rimbaud’s desiccated face in Abyssinia 20 years later wearing a pair of big sunglasses (similar to the ones Abbott wore and to the faces of men I would later see of men who, before they died of AIDS, actually shrank behind their glasses and clothes) where he’d gone off to make his fortune, underneath which Abbott had written “The Dismal End — Abbott.” (I wonder now how prophetic this was of Abbott’s own death). I was excited about Abbott’s poetry because of its honesty and its political awareness. A brief scan through the table of contents yielded poems such as “Three Revolutionary Poems,” “Lines Written for Chairman Mao,” “To A Soviet Artist in Prison,” and “So Why Did We Go To Vietnam.” Abbott gave me a copy of this book inscribed: “To Brian (sic)—In friendship and struggle for a better world. Steve Abbott.”

I read it and found Abbott’s poetry surrealistically co(s)mic and what I would refer to almost three years later in my UC Berkeley English B.A. thesis as “religiously irreverent.” It was quite different from the Modernist poets such as Eliot, Pound, and W. C. Williams that I studied during my first two years of college. Abbott’s poetry reminded me more of Allen Ginsberg’s, (who Abbott told me he’d first met at the University of Nebraska in the ’60s), and his cartoons’ reminded me of Robert Crumbs’ naked honesty. Abbott also mentioned that poet Thom Gunn, another Haight-Ashbury resident who I hadn’t heard of at that point, taught every other quarter at Berkeley. Abbott promised to introduce me if we ever ran into him. I also remember that at some point I met Abbott’s nine-year-old daughter, Alysia. I remembering being consciously shocked that it was the first time I had met a single parent, let alone one that was gay.

I don’t remember the next time I saw Abbott. I do remember that both of us had nowhere to go at Christmas for several years, when Alysia went off to see her maternal grandparents in Illinois for the holidays. Due to my poverty then as a new arrival and later as a single, self-supporting student, I usually worked through every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, if possible, to make as much money as possible. So on Christmas Day 1980, Abbott and I ended up in the Castro only to discover that the only store open was the 24-hour donut shop.

Then we walked down Market Street to a place at 16th that looked like a green house, its glass walls and translucent, green, corrugated ceiling panels, however, vibrating from punk music. Inside an upside-down Christmas tree hung from the ceiling and behind the bar was an old, sideshow poster advertising a turbaned Karmi. We sat and listened to lots of loud, punk ballads such as Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” Lene Lovitch’s “Angels” and The Clash’s “London’s Calling.” I was surprised to have missed this literary, musical jewel so close to the Castro my first seven months in San Francisco. But then, at that time, I was so poor I only went to gay bars without a cover and ordered a bottle of sparkling water that I refilled in the toilet when I thought no one was looking.

Abbott explained to me that Flore was Writers’ Central for most gay and some straight or bi-sexual writers in San Francisco and not a bad place to pick up guys. He also mentioned that Finnela’s Sauna was also just one door down. On another occasion, Abbott introduced me to Harold Norse at Café Flore.

Sometime during the next few months I received a copy of Abbott’s second book, Stretching the Agape Bra. It had another memorable cover: a photo by Ginny Lloyd, of Steve dressed in a dark suit and white tie holding a white flower next to his daughter wearing a long white dress. Both stood next to the columns of The Portals of Past in Golden Gate Park at the edge of Lloyd Lake. It was this same photo that was used for the cover of Alysia’s memoir of her father: Fairyland. Abbott inscribed Stretching the Agape Bra: “For Bryan—This is a book to mellow out to (I have). Steve Abbott.” This book’s poems seemed to be more private than public compared to Wrecked Hearts and concerned with shape, texture and stance in a poem as well as a political agenda. I wrote an analysis of deformalisation of the images in “Do Potatoes Want Sex After Highschool” for my thesis because of its formalist turns and camp persona. The last poem “Elegy” is especially chilling in that it seems to foretell some of the circumstances of Steve’s own death. Steve told me personally that he thought he had had at least one previous lifetime in which he needed to escape to the North to avoid the Black Plague. According to Alysia’s memoir, this poem was read at her father’s funeral.

My first journal entry that mentions Abbott is the one for 29 March 1981 about “Riding to Oakland in Abbott’s car” (his old, beige, Volkswagen bug he mentions in his poem “It’s a Strange Day” where Alysia discovers a mushroom growing in the backseat). Here I was “Putting the Flash together in the basement of a downtown printshop.” I was excited because I was “getting to know everyone on the Flash staff—having dinner together at a Mexican restaurant on Telegraph—near campus—across from Cody’s Bookstore.” After that visit and dinner, my phone was “ringing off the hook,” and I was glad to “have broken into the (SF) literary scene.”

On 23 April 1981 I had a rather long journal entry about Abbott and socialism. I wrote “Abbott…came by my apartment to see me. (I’m still flattered and amazed) and to invite me out for a drink. Great time with him talking about lit.(erature) and politics. Everyone— A.(bbott), Alison Brown, Beth Craig, Jim Peters—all say I should get in(to) UC Berkeley Professor James Breslin’s course this summer—either to associate w/ a great mind—to make a literary connection—(and) to see if he—actually (has) a knowledge (of?) socialist critique. Told Abbott I was fed up with poets calling them(selves) socialists and then living in (separate) studio apartments paying $300 a month for rent and utilities and shopping for groceries at Cala (Supermarket). If poets can’t make socialism fly in microcosm, then they should forget about revolutionizing and reorganizing society…” I wondered why artists in San Francisco couldn’t co-operate similarly to fix up an abandoned building so they would have more time to make, print, show or perform their art. My German-American, third-generation Ohioan, bricklayer grandfather’s, three-room house was built by other German-Americans in one weekend. All my grandfather had had to do was dig the brick house’s foundation ahead of time, pay for the wood, glass and nails for the structure and show up the next time someone else needed a house built. (Of course this was in a time before indoor plumbing, electricity and telephones but still in one weekend, my grandfather had a roof over his head for himself and his new family with the assistance of his ethnic community). I wondered why couldn’t gay people in San Francisco cooperate to build a better housing for themselves to ensure the future of their nascent community?

As a result of this family history, I wondered why the gay super-tenants or landlords who had arrived in the “Summer of Love” and had bought houses then now (in the early 1980s) worth ten times as much or lived in rent-controlled apartments (at a third or a quarter of the current market rate), instead of helping the new, gay arrivals, exploited them. They did this by charging current market rates for rooms to newcomers instead of sharing their low rent-controlled rents or mortgages. As a result they made a handy profit as super-tenants or landlords. They pocketed the extra money they charged over what the actual rent or mortgage was so they could continue “to do their own thing” rather than reinvest it in the community as my grandfather’s German-American neighbours had done. Furthermore, why was the majority of gay “community” only organized around capital and consumption—Castro, Haight and South of Market bars, stores, restaurants and sex and not around lasting community building institutions and cultural transmission? New gay immigrants even had to pay for access to a central register gay-friendly, shared apartment listings at a business called Community Rentals.

I felt good talking to Abbott—he did more for me to learn to accept my gayness than the people at the Mt. Zion Clinic. And Abbott agreed that therapists are for people who don’t have friends to tell their problems to. I also talked to him about writing an article for Processed World called “Fear (and loathing) in Fagland”—describing my frustration as a slightly-educated, gay, temporary officer worker trying to find a permanent job downtown. I continued to seek Abbott out for support and advice with my poetry even when I moved to Berkeley in August 1981 to attend university. In September 1981 I did the layout of the October 1981 Flash with Richard Silverberg at my Channing Way apartment. Despite my initial enthusiasm for meeting the people at the Flash and doing the layout, in my Christmas 1981 entry I lament that “it’s been three of four years since I’d left Salt Lake and, with the exception of Abbott, my literary compatriots have either been very poor or non-existent.”

My next entry about Abbott was on 16 April 1982. I mention that I had come over from Berkeley “….to see Steve Abbott on Wednesday in the hope of having him look over my poetry and provide some imp.(ortant) comments, but no such luck. He was so tired from 8 ½ hours at his temp. market research job that he barely had enough energy to cook dinner. I told him I would mail him a Xerox of everything the next day so he could look it over.”

By September 1982 I had moved back to the City first sharing a flat briefly at 19 Sharon Street just off of 15th and Market and then moving to a larger, sunnier shared flat at 783A Guerrero and 20th in the Mission in November. I was still in contact with Abbott, interviewing him for my B.A. honours thesis on shamanism in gay poetry (including his own) that I would complete in March 1983. (The thesis analyzed the poetry of Robert Duncan and its effect on that of Aaron Shurin’s and Abbott’s). I saw Abbott once or twice a month during this period as I collected material, sometimes at his suggestion, for my research. Abbott gave me a copy of his third book, Transmuting Gold. Consistent with my theme of gay poetry having a shamanistic, transformative effect, Abbott signed this book: “Dear Bryan, Wrecked Hearts transmute gold. Thanks for being so patient when I was late to see you this afternoon. Love, Steve Abbott, 10 Oct 82.”

My journal entry of 23 December 1982 mentions my continued research for my thesis and social contacts with Steve:

“Steve Abbott and Steve Benson, two of the poets I’m doing (research on for) my honours thesis, both called me after a period of two weeks of silence or rather non-response. Abbott called yesterday and said he had a surprise for me….He’d met a blond masseur, 27 (years old) who was counseling him about what he should do with his boyfriend, Joe—and that Alysia had bought him a jogging suit before going off to her grandparents in Illinois for Christmas….(we) ended up going to Café Flore and listening to the music, talking about poetry and politics for four hours.”

Abbott talked a lot about Steve Benson’s poetry and how they had influenced each other. Abbott said Benson influenced him with the odd spacings between lines and the internal rhymes between lines. He demonstrated this with the opening lines of Benson’s “Echo.” Abbott also said that in his poems “Rapture” and “Dark Star” the internal rhymes fold words into each other. Abbott and Benson were doing a lot of correspondence at this time. Abbott said he discovered the influence of (Frank) O’Hara in his work through his study of Benson’s poetry, who had been reading O’Hara.

My writing had been invigorated by workshops at Berkeley with Thom Gunn in winter/spring 1982 and with Naomi Shihab Nye in autumn 1982. Finally back in the City that autumn, I couldn’t wait to attend and participate in poetry readings just down the street and around the corner from where I lived. I asked Abbott if there were any good reading series or workshops in the City I could get involved in and he suggested Bob Glück’s gay men’s writers’ weekly evening workshop. It met in the back of the Small Press Traffic Bookstore on 24th Street in Noe Valley. I started to attend it in the winter of 1982/3. It was here that I first met Lewis Ellingham, Gerald Fabian, Kevin Killian, Richard Linker, Edward Mycue, Wallace Parr, Paul Shimasaki, David Steinberg and Alexander C. Totz. I attended this workshop regularly, inspired by the heady mix of both traditional and slightly experimental gay poetry, fiction and essays. The workshop also gave honest, close readings of my work, the participants neither mystified nor revolted by my poetry as others sometimes had been and would be in academic settings.

In March 1983 I submitted my completed B.A. thesis entitled: The Gay Poet as Shaman: the Poetry of Robert Duncan, Aaron Shurin and Steve Abbott to the UC Berkeley English department. (During my conferences with my two thesis advisors, it was decided to leave out the material about Steve Benson’s poetry because it didn’t seem to have as much connection with the poetry of Duncan and Shurin). That enormous weight finally lifted from my shoulders, I decided to spend more time exploring San Francisco’s live readings.

Initially, I attended readings sponsored by local, literary magazines to hear what else was being published around town. Five Figures Review sponsored one at a café at 17th and Valencia. Channel Magazine also held a benefit reading for its publication at Newspace, a storefront gallery and dance studio. This was directly across the street from New College and next door to the Valencia Rose, the gay and lesbian cabaret. One Friday evening in April 1983, I arrived there for a Channel reading straight from work and very hungry. It was here that I had my first and only completely unexpected brush with San Francisco’s drug culture.

Since there were brownies on sale at the reading and I hadn’t had dinner, I ate first one and then another. Halfway through the reading I began to feel a bit sick to my stomach, then warm, light-headed and finally dizzy as the room seem to rock from side to side if as it were a boat. After the interval, someone found me outside talking to a parking meter and took me back into the gallery for the second half of the reading. After the reading, Killian walked me home to make sure I made it there OK. When I went to bed, my boyfriend, Harry Britt lay down next to me because I kept remarking for hours about the fireworks on the white ceiling. I was so high from the brownies I didn’t come down until the following Wednesday. I found out later that the usual “dose” for that evening was just half a brownie.

My 2 May 1983 journal entry mentions that Abbott said: “the Channel readings are infamous for their hash brownies.” Sue Carlson, Channel’s editor apologized to me the next time I saw her and lamented: “No one will remember a word said that evening, but they will never forget those brownies.” That unexpectedly moving experience aside, I continued to attend readings at least twice a week and the gay men’s group weekly. On 25 April I also participated in a gay men’s group reading which included most of the group members listed above at Modern Times Bookstore at Valencia and 21st. Abbott gave a reading in the same series two days later at Small Press Traffic.

Less than two months later, Killian organized a graduation party for me at his flat near 24th and Guerrero. From the photos my mother took, I can see it was a good mixture of the academic, political and literary people I’d met my first three years in San Francisco. Present were Boone and Glück along with Intersection for the Arts reading series co-ordinator Robert Bedoya, L.R. from Thom Gunn’s workshop, whose poems I published in No Apologies first issue, and Paul Melbostad from the Harvey Milk Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club.

Bryan Monte’s Graduation Party, Killian flat, San Francisco, June 1983. L. to r. Robert Bedoya, Bryan Monte, Bob Gluck, Kevin Killian and Steve Abbott. Photographer: Mary M. Monte. Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

Bryan Monte’s Graduation Party, Killian flat, San Francisco, June 1983.
L. to r. Robert Bedoya, Bryan Monte, Bob Gluck, Kevin Killian and Steve Abbott.
Photographer: Mary M. Monte. Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

 

That summer, I remarked to Glück’s writing group that even though much good work was being produced there, few seemed to be able to get their work published regularly. I suggested that I publish the men’s work in my own magazine, No Apologies. I decided on this title because it was what my flatmate, San Francisco County Supervisor Harry Britt, had said to the press when they asked him to apologize for the destruction a gay mob had done at San Francisco City Hall. (A rioting crowd had broken off iron grillwork and smashed windows with it and also set half a dozen police cruisers alight in protest at the light sentence given to White for murdering Harvey Milk, the first elected, openly-gay politician in America, and Mayor George Moscone. The police retaliated a few hours later by smashing windows and heads at the Elephant Walk, the most popular gay bar in the Castro at the corner of Castro and 18th Streets. Afterwards Britt said: “We will make no apologies for our rage until straight America apologises for the history of homophobia that enrages us.” In my journal from 3 August 1983, I asked Abbott if I could use his “The Personal as Political” poem because I felt it “furthered the shamanistic function of gay poetry.” My journal entry the next day confirms that Abbott agreed to this and that he also “gave me two articles about Spicer/Duncan I could publish and suggested I might review Soup magazine in No Apologies.”

Killian volunteered to do the typesetting for the magazine on his word processor at work. He, in turn, introduced me to graphic designer and writer Dodie Bellamy, (who would later become his partner) and she introduced me to her colleague Mike Belt, who donated his time to create a one-colour magazine cover for No Apologies to save expenses. His design used thin, parallel alternating, light and dark horizontal lines that were mesmerizing. In addition, I could use the cover as a template for future issues by just changing the base colour and the white box with the issue’s theme and the authors’ names.

Abbott’s piece “The Political as Personal: A Poem for Men,” was the first poem in No Apologies’ first issue. It described the development of his awareness of his sexual orientation from childhood, waiting for his father to come home from WWII. Abbott described in his poem that when his father did return, he was “straight-back, distant/cold & fierce as a drill sergeant’s whistle.” Abbott also described that how, early in grade school, he had “learned to swagger like a man.” Abbott also discussed some of the aesthetic limitations of gay culture and sexual liberation and wondered: “Why do we still not demonstrate the strength of our unity/ our sisters share/ except through the State controlled commodification of Death?” The poem’s coda then asks “who has organized our isolation…our states of desire…our emotional education and why?” It concludes with: “Let our songs ring out & overwhelm the perpetuators of division,/oppression & death.”

Abbott, Bellamy and Boone, writers’ group members Mycue, Shimasaki and myself, fellow UC workshop member L.R. and California Poet in the Schools Tobey Kaplan all contributed poetry, stories or essays to the magazine’s first issue. Headlining the issue was Lew Ellingham’s interview with Robin Blaser, “Opposition in the Life and Work of Jack Spicer.”

The first issue was published in November 1983. I held a reception for Robin Blaser and the magazine’s writers, including Abbott, at my apartment the same month. Other guests present according to my journal for 10 November included Joanne Kyger, Aaron Shurin, Robert Bedoya, Duncan MacNaughton and Jack Winkler from Stanford.

Robin Blaser Reception, Monte/Britt flat, San Francisco, November 1983. L.-r.: Kevin Killian, unknown man, Bryan Monte, Lewis Ellingham, Roberto Bedoya & Steve Abbott. Photographer Unknown. Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

Robin Blaser Reception, Monte/Britt flat, San Francisco, November 1983.
L.-r.: Kevin Killian, unknown man, Bryan Monte, Lewis Ellingham, Roberto Bedoya & Steve Abbott.
Photographer Unknown. Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

 

A benefit reading for No Apologies was also held at Intersection on 6 December 1983. Abbott read that evening along with the others mentioned above plus Glück and Killian. It was a full house and the reading lasted for at least two hours. Afterwards, some of the writers posed for me in the gallery.

Steve Abbott at No Apologies #1 Reading, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, December 1983. Photographer: Bryan R. Monte Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

Steve Abbott at No Apologies #1 Reading, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, December 1983. Photographer: Bryan R. Monte Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

In April 1984, I won a scholarship to Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program. I continued attending the gay men’s workshop and finished the second issue of No Apologies. In May, a benefit reading for issue #2 was held at Newspace. Harold Norse was the headliner and Abbott also read that evening.

Abbott’s participation in No Apologies continued through issue #3. For #2, he contributed an interview with Judy Grahn (conducted with Dodie Bellamy) and a short piece for a literary symposium about Vittorio De Sica’s “Statione Termini” organized by Kevin Killian. For issue #3, in autumn 1984, he contributed an excerpt from his novel in progress Holy Terror: Three Nights in Paris.

I received at least three letters from Abbott within months of moving to Providence to attend Brown. His first letter is undated and written in Abbott’s hand on the back of a poster for a Benefit Reading for Julian Beck scheduled for 5 October at the SF Art Institute with Dianne DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Harold Norse as readers. Abbott opens his letter saying he’s: “heard gossip you have a new boyfriend already. Wish I did (hee, hee).” He also wrote that: “Last No Apologies was teriffic,” and that he assumed someone had sent me John Carr’s write up of the magazine (they hadn’t according to my files). He says my problem now is “to do a bigger run…at least 500” because all of the magazine’s are “sold out,” which he wished were the case with Soup.

Abbott asked further about my studies and if I’d met “Susan Sontag yet or gay writers from Boston, NYC.” Then he mentioned David Levitt’s Christopher Street magazine debut, with his headshot on the cover. “They might as well have superimposed a target over his face—so many writers will be jealous” Abbott wrote. At the end of the letter, he mentions the Beck benefit he organized and that the next issue of Soup “should be out by January.”

The next letter, another undated missive I received in late October/early November on lined, three-hole composition paper, looks as if it were torn from a tablet. Abbott wrote that it was “Good to hear from you.” (I was so poor and such a poor typist that I did not keep carbon copies of the correspondence nor make copies of what I sent, so I could only guess at what I had written to them by their responses. Unfortunately, I do not see any of my correspondence listed online in the Steve Abbott Papers in San Francisco Library’s Hormel Collection). Abbott wrote he was sitting in Café Flore with his 13-year-old daughter, Alysia who was “driving him crazy,” because she kept suggesting he read things about personalities, such as “Johnny Rotten, from a rock & roll magazine.” He mentions a female reader’s angry response to a Flash article by or about Jack Micheline that she considered pornographic.

Abbott listed pieces and projects he had just completed: an interview of Ginsberg for the “Advocate and Poetry Flash,” the Beck Benefit and one for Harold Norse on Nov. 28th and one “probably for Soup.” He wrote he was “still getting on” with his boyfriend Joe, he hadn’t smoked for a week and that he was going to a movie with some men from Berkeley. In this letter’s second last paragraph, Abbott questioned my choice of Felice Picano as the interviewee for No Apologies #5. (Editor’s note: I went ahead with the Picano interview). Abbott ended his letter saying that both of us had accomplished a lot in the last year and that we should “pat ourselves on the back.”

The third letter from this period is dated 15 Nov 84. It mentions in just four short paragraphs, 19 artists and writers, a list that would have given even Hopper stiff competition. The typewritten letter begins with a handwritten note at the top: “Still off cigarettes!” The first paragraph says this letter is an “addendum to (the previous) letter.” Abbott says he’s busy responding to a “pissed off” letter from (1.) Bob Peters, but doesn’t mention why Peters is angry.

The second paragraph is a list of his recent contacts with writers and the news they brought him, demonstrating Abbott’s Hopper persona at its best and the importance and speed of gossip in his New Narrative group. Abbott wrote: (2.) “Neeli Cherkovski wrote him he’d had a nice visit with me. Although this is not included in my journal, Cherkovski must have recently visited Brown to read and I had the chance to speak with him afterwards as I did with Michael Palmer and Allen Ginsberg when they visited campus and read. Abbott said he heard (3.) Michael Mullen (a friend from my UC Berkeley English B.A. programme) who was returning from Paris because of money. Steve also wrote he’d seen films with (4.) Kevin (Killian) and (5.) “Bruce (Boone). He continued that Bruce and (6.) Bob (Gluck) dined with (7.) James McLaughlin,” and that McLaughlin had also had (8.) (Christopher) Isherwood, (9.), (Don) Bachardy and (10.) (Robert) Duncan to his place for dinner and that Bob’s book had found a publisher. Abbott reported he still hadn’t found a publisher yet for his novel, Holy Terror, but he did say that (11.)“Randy,…(who’s) rooming with an ex- of Sam D’Allessandro’s, was working on illustrating the book.” He also mentioned that the Gay Men’s Press of London “wants Malcontent.”

The third paragraph consists mostly of news about Abbott’s relationship with his boyfriend Joe, including a recent spat they’d had because Abbott had “razored” one of Joe’s bike tires after Joe had stood him up for a date. Abbott ends the paragraph the news that Finnella’s could close and would probably be replaced by a “shopping mall.” He wrote that “…if that happens, Joe wants to travel…—maybe even to Europe for a year.”

His fourth paragraph revealed the reach of Abbott’s writer’s circle and the speed at which news in it, even from afar, travelled. When I had phoned (12.) Dennis Cooper to request an interview a month or two earlier, Boone had been visiting at Cooper’s flat and the news passed quickly on to Abbott. Abbott asked in his letter if I’d done the interview yet. He mentioned that he’d recently seen (13.) Tim Miller, (14.) Judy Grahn and (15.) Paula Gunn Allen and his interview with (16.) Allen Ginsberg didn’t make it into the Flash because co-editor (17.) Joyce Jenkins put (18.) Bobbie Louise Hawkins’s interview in instead. Hawkins, however, telephoned Abbott a few days later and said she would submit Abbott’s name as a possible judge for some writers grants. So he concluded: “…every cloud must have some kind of lining (ha, ha).”

He ended his letter with a “hi” from Alysia and a description and drawing of her Halloween outfit which included a white prom dress, pearl earrings & necklace. (19.) “Robert (Pruzan) across the hall took pictures & she looked like a movie star.” Abbott’s drawing is directly below this text with an annotation “like a big water lily” next to the billowing body of Alysia’s gown.

Unfortunately after such a detailed, newsy missive, the next letter I have retained from Abbott is one dated 9 Jan 87, more than two years later, six months after I had graduated from Brown with my Masters in English and creative writing.

One of the reasons for this long break in his correspondence might have been my break with Killian in the winter/spring of 1985 over the miscommunication of pieces accepted for No Apologies #4. At any rate, it was two and a half years later before Abbott wrote me again. This time Abbott wrote he’d got my address from Roberto (Bedoya) and he’d “hear(d) yr teaching.” Abbott then wrote that during the past two years he’d taught at UCSF, would start teaching a gay writers workshop on Jan. 19th and was interviewing for a job at Mother Jones.

Abbott continued in the next paragraph to update me on his personal life. Two years previously he’d “stopped drinking or doing drugs” since he “broke up with Joe.” He’d tried to quit smoking but resumed after a year. At present, he didn’t have a partner, “just friendships.”
Abbott indicated that he was getting his “new book, The Lives of the Poets” through the presses. Rudy Kikel was sending him the final proofs. Abbott was also writing more for the Sentinel “(art criticism and his own column),” and that he’d recently met a “bright 22 yr old I like a lot.”

Abbott continued with news about Alysia, who was 16. She had worked at vegetable and clothing shops over the holidays, dated a 24-year old French cook and won a ACT Young People’s Theater scholarship the previous summer.

In the last full paragraph, Abbott indicates that although he’d been thinking of me from time to time, he had forgot to get my address from Phil Wilkie when he taught at James White Review last summer, and that he “missed the inspiration of my energy.” He ended the letter with “Best to you for this new year.”

In one of the rare instances in which I saved my correspondence with Abbott, on 17 January 1987 I sent Abbott a letter with a Sylvia cartoon at the top. I thanked him for his letter and commended him for “kicking the habit.” I congratulated Abbott on his new book and asked if Rudy Kikel was editing it for Alyson Publications. (The book, in fact, was published by Boone’s and Gluck’s Black Star series). I told Abbott I enjoyed his column and the article he’d sent about dreams and I commented: “if we quit dreaming, we’re dead.”

I then wrote I was teaching writing to high school students in exurban Massachusetts—“units on essay(s), autobiography, poetry, short story, and computer-based journalism.” I reported I’d been writing every day since October. I also described the crazy weather that winter—a foot of snow overnight—and my two-bedroom apartment in the little town where I taught. I told him I’d like to hear more about his teaching experience at the JWR writers’ retreat and that Phil Wilkie had invited me to read that weekend in NYC, but I couldn’t spare the time because I had a stack of 52 essays to grade. I told him to “Take Care” and I sent my best to Alysia.

The following month I saw Abbott in San Francisco when I flew there to visit and look for a job so I could return to the City that summer. He was at a dinner hosted by James Broughton and Joel Singer at their Noe Valley home. I made an appointment to meet Abbott later that week at Café Flore, but he didn’t show up. He called me the following day at Edward Mycue’s and Richard Steger’s flat, where I was staying, to tell me he’d fallen asleep and forgot about the appointment.

As I mentioned in my previous memoir of James Broughton, I wrote a review of Broughton’s poetry tapes, but had trouble placing it. Bay Windows and the Sentinel both rejected it. My review was eventually published by the James White Review.

The next month, in an envelope postmarked 23 March 1987, I received Abbott’s The Lives of the Poets with its reproduction of Samuel Johnson’s book’s title page of the same name, but with Johnson’s name crossed out in red and “Steve Abbott” written beneath it. Abbott sent the book with a personal inscription for me and a two-paragraph, typewritten letter in which he praised my review of Broughton’s poetry, which he had passed on to Eric Hellman (Sentinel) and Joyce Jenkins (Poetry Flash). Abbott added that “James will be pleased…it’s the best review of his work I’ve seen.” Abbott continued with the news that he’d resigned as the Sentinel’s books editor.

In the next paragraph he mentioned Lives. He also indicated that there was also a TV piece and an interview with Sam Steward inside, but both of these, however, I have unfortunately misplaced or lost. He wrote further that the visit with Steward was “depressing” but that my visit the previous month (with you) “was very pleasant.” Abbott’s title page inscription of Lives reads: “To Bryan Monte: In memory of so many shared things. (Now you’re in this book). Steve Abbott 3/27/87.” Abbott probably wrote the parenthetical comment because when we’d talked in February, I had asked him who, from our circle, was in Lives, but he wouldn’t tell me. I read the book and discovered that Abbott had mentioned himself and many of the writers we knew in San Francisco, such as Bellamy, Boone, D’Allesandro, Glück, Killian and Norse, but he had left me out even though I had published all of them.

Strangely enough, when I returned to San Francisco in July 1987, Abbott was one of the first writers I ran into, albeit coincidentally. We met by chance in Haight-Ashbury after my meeting with Thom Gunn. A passer-by took the photo of us below.

Bryan Monte and Steve Abbott. San Francisco, July 1987. Photographer unknown. Copyright 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

Bryan Monte and Steve Abbott. San Francisco, July 1987. Photographer unknown. Copyright 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

This is one of the last recorded contacts I had with Abbott. Once I moved back to San Francisco in July 1987, our communication was mostly face-to-face at readings or via telephone calls as it had been when I had lived in San Francisco before. I have a few journal entries of meeting Abbott in the late 80s, usually at Café Flore or other readings such as one for the James White Review in 1988. One journal entry for 11 September 1987 mentions that I saw him at Flore and that he was very apologetic about the Broughton review not appearing in the Sentinel. Alysia was there also. I wrote: “She’s 16 and beginning to look very beautiful.”

One of the best, undocumented memories of I have of Abbott is when he took me to what I think was John Norton’s Pacific Heights flat for Christmas. Here there was a free, buffet dinner for people who had nowhere to go, which someone had christened “Christmas Anonymous.” On a large table in the dining room was a carved turkey, a carved ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad, corn, pumpkin pie, Jell-O—all the traditional Christmas fare, for anyone who was there. It was here that I saw Norse and other members of SF’s LGBT literary scene who had spent the holidays alone because they weren’t welcome at home and/or didn’t have any other place to go. I remember eating my Christmas dinner sitting on a sofa looking at the downtown skyline and talking with Abbott and Norse. It was one of the most poignant and happiest parties I attended with these two men.

If I had any other further correspondence or contact with Abbott, I do not remember it, nor have I yet uncovered it. The last news I remember about Abbott, however, was less pleasant than my Christmas memory. In July 1990, I was at the KPFA-FM to possibly turn in my keys after a dispute with the one of the members of a weekly LGBT radio show. This member had taken an excerpt from my exclusive interview with East German, film director Heiner Carow and actor Dirk Kummer, the stars of the LGBT Frameline Film Festival, and rebroadcast it on another station without my advance permission and payment. This led to an argument with the other members of “the collective” that couldn’t be resolved by the assistant station manager. As I waited to talk him to decide whether I should quit the show, I saw a reading poster advertising an event headlined by Abbott and Jerome Caja, of which I knew nothing even though I’d been doing the gay news and event announcements for almost a year. Once again I felt ignored by Abbott, Caja and the other writers and artists I had known, reported on, published and promoted. I realized that after nearly a decade in SF, I had found virtually no solidarity with the gay community or its writers and artists. That poster tipped the balance and I decided to quit the show and KPFA even though the station’s director had offered me a Sunday news slot. From that moment forward, I decided to devote all my energy and time, outside of my 9-to-5 insurance job, (which would end two and a half years later due to four reorganizations), to teaching ESL and technical and creative writing evenings and weekends in preparation for my emigration to the Netherlands. AQ

Thea Droog – Makassar van Het M.S. De Tegelberg

Makassar van Het M.S. De Tegelberg
door Thea Droog

Mientje hoorde hoe de grote mensen zacht zaten te praten op het platje.

Ze luisterde en herkende de zware stem van haar vader, de zachte maar duidelijke woorden die tante Laurien sprak. Ze kneep haar ogen een beetje dicht bij de korte schampere lach van oom Hoogeveen.

Ze kon nog niet slapen. Morgen moesten ze zich inschepen maar er was nog niets gepakt. Dacht nou niemand daaraan? Koffers hadden ze natuurlijk niet, maar ze hadden zelfs geen grote tassen in huis. Mien piekerde daar al dagenlang over, maar als ze er iets over vroeg aan een van de volwassenen kreeg ze geen rechtstreeks antwoord. Papa zei dan geïrriteerd: “Dat komt heus wel in orde, meisje. Ga jij nou maar spelen.” Tante Laurien aaide over haar hoofd: “Maak je maar niet druk, Mientje.” En mama leek niet veel aandacht meer voor haar te hebben sinds papa terug was gekomen uit Singapore:

“Daar zullen papa en ik wel voor zorgen, jij hoeft alleen maar te spelen.”

Spelen! Hier in Makassar moest je dus spelen, al wist je niet hoe.

In Kampili, het interneringskamp waarin ze drie jaar had geleefd, kon je beter niet spelen, de Jappen waren overal en konden ieder moment weer een bevel brullen dat je niet verstond. Je mocht niet weglopen en dus kreeg je slaag omdat je niet gehoorzaamde. Daarom had ze buiten de barak altijd net gedaan alsof ze bezig was met iets dat haar was opgedragen. Het mocht vooral niet lijken op spelen, oftewel niets doen.

Meestal was ze ergens binnen. ’s Morgens vroeg kreeg ze soms les van een non in het houten schoolgebouwtje, maar elke dag begon om 11 uur het micasplitsen: tamelijk licht werk dat door de meisjes onder de veertien moest worden gedaan. De dunne plakjes waarin de mica uiteen viel werden gebruikt voor de Japanse oorlogsindustrie. Mientje had, net als de andere kinderen, geleerd wat dat moeilijke woord betekende en allemaal werkten ze daarom zo langzaam en onhandig als maar mogelijk was.

Daarna moest ze op haar broer Jantje van drie passen tot mama klaar was met werken. Ze was mama’s vertrouweling, net als haar broer Ap: ze kon geheimen bewaren en zorgen dat de dingen in orde kwamen en dat Jantje zijn bord eten kreeg bij de uitdeling en niet opzij werd geduwd. Ook moest ze goed opletten dat het jochie geen aandacht trok en daardoor misschien de boosheid van de Jap uitlokte.

Ze lette ook nu nog behoorlijk op, nu de jap verloren had en ze uit het kamp waren. Nu ze in een echt huis in Makassar woonden en een hele kamer voor hun vieren alleen hadden. In een andere kamer woonden de Hoogeveens met twee kinderen, en tante Laurien sliep in de eetkamer. Manja en Piet Hoogeveen en Ap en Mientje hadden de tuin grondig doorgesnuffeld en de bijgebouwen onderzocht op schuilplaatsen. Wie weet waar ze die nog voor nodig hadden, want er liepen nog steeds af en toe Japanners door de stad.

Er was nog iets waardoor Mien behoorlijk moest uitkijken: er kwamen steeds meer mannen in haar huis wonen. Ze was niet gewend aan mannen. Zouden ze ook de baas spelen, net als de Jappen? Elke man vroeg aan de kinderen: “En? Ken je me nog?” Maar Mien herkende ze geen van allen. Oom Hoogeveen was als eerste uit zijn mannenkamp terug in de stad gekomen. Hij had dit huis gevonden en hen toen allemaal uit het vrouwenkamp Kampili gehaald, dus hij woonde er al voordat de vrouwen en kinderen erbij kwamen. Daarna kwam de man van tante Laurien. Toen was ineens op een middag papa verschenen (thuisgekomen, zei mama). Een lange en brede magere man met zwart haar, die wel iets bekends had maar er toch als een vreemde uitzag.

“Dat is mijn Mientje” – zo zwaar klonk zijn stem. Hij had een arm om Mientje heen gelegd. Ze begreep dat ze moest blijven staan – mama glimlachte zo gelukkig naar haar – maar ze was bevroren van angst omdat ze gevangen zat en niet zou kunnen vluchten als dat nodig was. Stel je voor dat er ineens een Jap binnenkwam! Ze kon niet eens in de houding gaan staan Ze kon niet weglopen om Jantje te beschermen, niets. Ze had van toen af aan goed afstand gehouden tot papa, zodat hij haar niet weer vast kon pakken.

Haar vader! Mien kende hem eigenlijk niet meer. In het kamp hadden ze vaak en verlangend gepraat over de tijd dat hij weer bij hun zou zijn, in hun eigen huis in Makassar. En nu was hij er. Ze woonden wel in een ander huis, waar ze samen maar een kamer hadden, maar ze waren weer bij elkaar. Mien keek soms met verwondering naar mama als die een arm om papa’s hals legde en hem een zoen gaf. Mama was heel blij dat hij er was. Ze vond het niet erg als hij haar vasthield, terwijl ze dan toch niet weg kon. Maar Miens hart klopte angstig als papa dichterbij kwam: hij wou de baas spelen, net als de Jap altijd deed – en ze wist nog helemaal niet wat voor trucjes ze kon gebruiken om zijn bevelen te ontwijken. En mama lachte alleen maar als Mien die zorgen met haar wilde bespreken.

Nu hadden de volwassenen besloten dat ze weg zouden gaan, naar Holland. Iedereen in huis had een plaats kunnen krijgen aan boord van het MS de Tegelberg, dat in Batavia op hen lag te wachten. En morgen vertrokken ze al, met een kleiner schip dat hen van Makassar naar Java zou brengen.

Ze waren met niks uit het kamp gekomen, want bij de laatste brand waren de allerlaatste eigendommen van iedereen in rook opgegaan. Mien begreep best dat de matrassen en de muskietennetten waar ze nu op en onder sliepen en die nieuw waren, pas morgenochtend opgerold konden worden.

Maar hoe zat het met de pannen die ze hadden gekocht? Met de nieuwe kleertjes van Jantje? Met de spulletjes die ze in de as hadden gevonden en die nooit zoek mochten raken: het koperen tafelbelletje waarvan de klepel met een touwtje was vastgebonden, en het zakje met de zes knikkers van klei, waarin ze ook de blokkralen in vier verschillende kleuren had gedaan? De bomscherven die Ap had meegenomen; het met dons versierde pantoffeltje dat je kon ophangen en dat mama voor haar laatste verjaardag in het kamp had gekregen van tante Laurien?

En dan was er nog de naaidoos die die lieve Australische soldaat voor haarzelf had gemaakt. Australische soldaten hadden de kampen geopend, daarom was iedereen heel vriendelijk tegen ze. In ieder huis waren ze welkom en Mientje was helemaal niet bang voor hun uniformen.

Mien lag te draaien in het warme bed. Ze hoorde tante Laurien zeggen: “We moesten maar eens gaan inpakken en dan naar bed. Morgenochtend moeten we om negen uur op de kade zijn.” Mama voegde eraan toe: “We gaan met heel wat minder terug naar Holland dan waarmee we hier aankwamen! Dat pakken van ons zal niet meer dan tien minuten kosten denk ik. Maar we gaan wel naar bed, nog een laatste nacht naar de kikkers in de slokan liggen luisteren.”

De kikkers kwaakten diep, sonoor en ritmisch. Waren er geen kikkers in Holland, dat je er hier nog maar eens goed naar moest luisteren? En hoe wilde mama alles in tien minuten inpakken?

Toch was ze gerustgesteld. Als ze, zoals gewoonlijk, om zes uur opstonden, was er misschien toch nog genoeg tijd voor het pakken. Ze ging in gedachten nog eens na wat er mee moest en waar dat nu lag of stond en voelde toen de slaap in langzame golven over haar heen komen.

Thea Droog – Makassar from The M.S. De Tegelberg

Makassar from The M.S. De Tegelberg
by Thea Droog

Mientje heard the grown-ups talking softly as they sat on the terrace.

She listened and recognized the deep voice of her father, the gentle but perfectly clear words that Aunt Laurien said. She narrowed her eyes a bit at the short, scornful laugh of Uncle Hoogeveen.

She couldn’t fall asleep. Tomorrow they had to embark but nothing had been packed yet. Hadn’t anyone thought about that? They didn’t have suitcases of course, but they didn’t even have large bags. Mien brooded for days over this, but when she asked one of the adults, she received no direct answer. Then dad said somewhat annoyed: “That’ll be all right, girl. You go play,” Aunt Laurien stroked her head.” Don’t worry, Mientje” And mum didn’t seem to pay much attention to her since dad had come back from Singapore.

“Dad and I will take care of that, you only have to play.”

Play! Here in Makassar you had to play, even if you did not know how.

In Kampili, the concentration camp where she had lived for three years, it was better not to play. The Japs were everywhere and could, at any moment, shout an order that you didn’t understand. You could not run away, and you were struck if you disobeyed. Therefore, she had always acted outside the barracks as if she was doing something she was told to do. It couldn’t look like play or doing nothing.

Usually she was inside somewhere. Early in the morning she was sometimes taught by a nun in the wooden school building, but each day at 11 AM, the mica splitting began: fairly light work to be done by the girls under fourteen. The thin slices of mica, which fell apart, were used for the Japanese war effort. Mientje had, like the other children, learned what that difficult word meant so they all worked as slowly and as awkwardly as possible.

Then she had to watch her three-year-old brother Johnny until mum had finished work. She was mum’s confidant, like her brother Ap: they could keep secrets and ensure that things were in order and that Johnny got his plate of food at the distribution and was not pushed aside. Also, she had to be careful that the boy did not attract attention and therefore, perhaps provoke the Japs’ anger.

She still especially watched out, now the Japs had lost and they were released from the camp. Now she lived in a real house in Makassar and they had a whole room for the four of them. The Hoogeveens lived in another room with their two children and Aunt Laurien slept in the dining room. Manja and Peter Hoogeveen and Ap and Mientje had rummaged through the garden and outbuildings thoroughly for hiding places. Who knows where they might still need them, because the Japanese still walked occasionally through the city.

There was something else that Mien had to look out for: more and more men came to live at her house. She was not used to men. Would they be the boss, just like the Japs? Every man asked the children: “And? Do you still remember me? “But Mien didn’t recognize any of them. Uncle Hoogeveen was the first to come back to town from his men’s camp. He had found this house, and he had collected them from the Kampili women’s camp, so he had lived there before and the women and children had joined him. Then came Aunt Laurien’s husband. Then suddenly one afternoon, papa appeared. (Come home, mum said). A long and wide, thin man with black hair, who was somewhat familiar, but who still looked like a stranger.

“That’s my Mientje” – his voice was so loud. He placed his arm around Mientje. She understood that she had to remain standing – Mom smiled so happily towards her – but she was frozen with fear because she was trapped and could not escape if necessary. Imagine if a Jap suddenly came inside! She could not even stand up in that embrace. She could not run away to protect Johnny, nothing. After that she stayed a safe distance from dad, so he could not hold her tightly again.

Her father! Mien didn’t really know him anymore. In the camp they had often and eagerly talked about the time he would be with them again, in their own house in Makassar. And now he was there. They lived in another house, where they only had one room, but they were together again. Mien sometimes looked with wonder at mum as she put an arm around dad’s neck and kissed him. Mum was very happy that he was there. She did not mind, as he held her, that she could not get away. But Mien’s heart was anxious when dad came closer, he wanted to play the boss, like the Japanese always did—and she did not quite know what tricks she could use to evade his orders. And mum just laughed when Mien wanted to discuss her problems with her.

Now the adults had decided that they were going to leave for Holland. Everyone in the house had been able to book passage aboard the MS De Tegelberg, which awaited them in Batavia. And tomorrow they would all leave on a smaller ship that would take them from Makassar to Java.

They came out of the camp with nothing, because in the last fire the last of their belongings had gone up in smoke. Mien knew very well that the mattresses and mosquito nets, on and under which they slept, were new and could only be rolled up in the morning.

But what about the pans that they had bought and Johnny’s new clothes? The stuff they found in the ashes and that they were never supposed to lose: the brass table bell whose clapper was tied up with string, and the bag of six clay marbles, the beaded blocks she had found later in four different colors? The shrapnel which Ap had brought; the feather-decorated, little slipper that you could hang up and that mum had received for her last birthday in the camp from Aunt Laurien, and that had survived everything?

And then there was the sewing box that the sweet Australian soldier had made for her. Australian soldiers had opened the camps, so everyone was very kind to them. They were welcome in every house and Mientje was not afraid of their uniforms.

Mien turned and turned in the warm bed. She heard Aunt Laurien say, “We’d better pack up and go to bed. Tomorrow morning we have to be at the dock at nine o’clock.” Mum added: “We’re taking back a lot less to Holland then when we arrived! I think it won’t take us more than ten minutes to pack. But we’ll go to bed one last night listening to the frogs in the slokan. ”

The frogs croaked deeply, sonorously and rhythmically. Weren’t there any frogs in Holland to listen to, so that you had listen to these closely again one more time? And how was mum going to pack everything in ten minutes?

Still, she was reassured. If they got up at six o’clock, as usual, maybe there would still be enough time for packing. She went over in her mind, once again, what still needed to go with them and then felt sleep come over her in slow waves.

Translated by Bryan R. Monte

Joan Z. Shore – The Media: Then and Now

The Media: Then and Now
by Joan Z. Shore

I was lucky enough to be working in the media—radio and television—during the glory days, right up to the end.

Personally, I place the end shortly before the year 2000, just before the Internet took over our lives.

For nearly a decade, I was the Paris correspondent for CBS News, lurching from press conference to press conference, from calamity to calamity, along with my colleagues from ABC, NBC, and later, CNN. We were just a handful among 3,000 accredited foreign journalists in Paris—writing, recording, filming, editing whatever we thought would be important, or interesting, to our unseen audience “back home.”

In America, as in in most countries, foreign news does not take priority over local events. So while radio needed endless material for the hourly reports, television was only interested in foreign news when something really big happened: a presidential election, a terrorist attack, an airline accident. We didn’t have to wish for those: inevitably, they happened.

One of the more delightful events that absolutely had to be covered was the inaugural flight of the Concorde: Paris to New York in three and a half hours! To cover this momentous occasion, CBS sent over their venerable newsman, Walter Cronkite. He spent a couple of days in Paris before the flight. It was the first time we’d met, and we quickly established a friendship. One afternoon, we were sitting at an outdoor café on the Champs-Elysées, and at least half a dozen American tourists spotted him and came over to say hello.

“You see?” laughed Walter. “They recognized you!”

Hardly.

When the day came for the Concorde flight, I accompanied him to the airport, and we joked about sneaking me on board. No way.

We met again when he visited Paris with Betsy, his beloved wife, and we had dinner together at a simple restaurant in my neighborhood. The French clientele didn’t pay much attention, but the owner recognized him and asked him to sign the guest book. Graciously, he did.

We met again in Nairobi. I had just been on safari, and he was doing a story on tribal medicine and witch doctors, part of a series.  He seemed fairly impressed by what he had learned. “There may be something to it,” he said. Walter never dismissed a new idea, a new concept, a new viewpoint.

We met again in Vienna, after his retirement from CBS. He was reporting for CNN on the gala New Year’s celebration and the New Year’s Day concert, as he did for many years. He looked splendid in his tuxedo, but expressed regret that he had retired from the CBS news desk “too soon.” Clearly, those cultural jaunts were fun, but too tame for this maestro.

Whenever I was in New York, we tried to get together. I remember a lovely lunch at the Russian Tea Room, where he had his special table. And a drink one afternoon at his favorite East Side bar, when he arrived limping due to a leg injury. There would be no tennis and sailing that summer.

And once, he called me and simply said, “Hello, Joan,” and I absent-mindedly said, “Who’s this?”

“Oh, my God!,” he said. “She doesn’t recognize my voice!”

“Walter!” I exclaimed, thoroughly embarrassed.  “I must be deaf!”

Walter’s voice was distinctive and rich, as were most media voices in those days. Today, the networks concentrate on appearance, not voice: the perfectly combed hair, the deftly powdered face. But even this may be a vanishing illusion, as network news shrinks in relation to the Internet.

In Paris now, there are fewer than 1,000 accredited foreign journalists. The big three American networks closed their Paris bureaus 20 years ago believing that more important things were happening elsewhere in the world, and that maintaining a fully staffed bureau anywhere was simply too expensive. So there are no more cameramen, soundmen, editors, bureau chiefs. There is, instead, a whole generation of free-lance writers and bloggers. Sometimes their reports get picked up by an Internet site; rarely will they be paid. (Arianna Huffington perfected this “fame but no fortune” principle, promising her contributors “exposure” in lieu of monetary compensation.)  So we have an army of self-appointed journalists who lack training, experience and pay; who probably have a camera in their pocket; and who can, at a moment’s notice, tell the world that there’s been an accident on Main Street or a deadly fire in a garbage dump.

Let us not blame the messenger entirely; the nature of our communications today is fast and shallow. In-depth reporting is rare, and audiences are impatient. The 30-second soundbite has been reduced to 20 seconds, and the seasoned correspondent who spent years in a foreign office—lunching with a senator, interviewing a local businessman—exists no longer.

And we are the poorer for it.

Bryan R. Monte – Our Vaudeville – A memoir of James Broughton

Our Vaudeville
A memoir of James Broughton
by Bryan R. Monte

Unlike the other writers I’ve mention in this memoir series, I do not remember the first time I met James Broughton. I do however, remember two of the last times I saw him. One was captured in a photo by Rink, the well-known LGBT photographer at the OutWrite! writers’ conference in March 1990 in San Francisco in the 4 April 1990 edition of Outweek. James and I are in a closeup profile, with the caption: “Dangling Part(iciple)—Poet Bryan Monte is embraced by poet/filmmaker James Broughton.” The second recorded on a receipt from a Different Light Bookstore dated 11 November 1991 for a copy of Broughton’s Androgyne Journal and a notice of his reading the same evening.

Compared to five other writers, with whom I corresponded during that period, my missives to James were the most frequent and voluminous. Between 25 September 1985 and 2 November 1992, James sent me 18 letters or cards and sometimes books, whilst I (according to the Kent State University Special Collections where James’ later correspondence is kept), sent James ten communications in the form of postcards, letters and a review of his tapes series, True and False Unicorn and other poems, Songs from a Long Undressing, Graffiti from the Johns of Heaven and Ecstacies.

I don’t know if I’d met James when I lived in San Francisco the first time between 1980-84. I had certainly heard about him through Steve Abbott who told me about a boat cruise with a select group out on the Bay to celebrate James’ and his partner, Joel Singer’s union. I’d certainly read James’ poetry while working at the Small Press Traffic and Walt Whitman bookshops September 1983 to June 1984, both of which stocked his books of unabashedly gay, Whitmanesque, naked, cosmic, hippie poetry.

As far as I can determine, the first piece of our correspondence was a plain white postcard he sent dated 24 Sept 1985. I was then in the second year of my Masters degree in creative writing at Brown’s Graduate Writing Program. On this card, James wrote that he was surprised that I had moved to Providence and that he got my new address from a copy of No Apologies #4 which he found at Small Press Traffic Bookshop in San Francisco. He was happy to see that I was still publishing “gaily,” and wanted to know what I was “interested in printing.”

James went on further to ask if I had an address for John Landry so he could contact him. (James had contributed a poem, as I had, to Landry’s Collision magazine/anthology). James signed his name with a extended bar on top of the “J” and stamp with his name and address and, just to the left, another stamp of a petal-flamed sun looking towards his Mill Valley address. It felt like a ray of California sunshine in the midst of a cold, rainy Rhode Island autumn.

At the bottom of the card, James asked: “Do you have a copy of Ecstacies?” Either in San Francisco or after I arrived in Providence in August 1984 to attend Brown’s Graduate Writing workshop, James had given or sent me a signed copy of that book. In my letter of 20 November I told James I had “a beautiful, autographed” copy. I also told him I was swamped with work (writing poetry and putting together my MA thesis, working at the John Carter Brown library cataloguing rare German books and preparing my paper on the “homosexual” discourse in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz for the MLA convention in Chicago that December.

I told him I was missing California. I wrote: “I hope the sun is warm, the air tingles with a mentholated fog, and that you sit reading this letter in a eucalyptus grove.” I also enclosed a birthday present—a signed copy of No Apologies #5. I wrote that I hadn’t been able to locate John Landry, but an acquaintance at Brown, Natalie Robitaille, said she thought he was working up at the Plymouth Plantation exhibit at the national park. I asked James further if he was inquiring about the Collision anthology that Landry was editing in which I had some poems also.

In addition, I mentioned that I’d been a T. A. that summer for a film course up at a boarding school in Massachusetts and that their textbook mentioned James and his “several experimental films.” I told James: “I’ll have to re-read your poems now with a different eye to see how you manipulate your images from scene to scene.” I also told him I had to sign off because it was past 11 PM and I had a grant writing workshop to attend the next morning to try to get an NEA grant to help fund my magazine, No Apologies.

In a letter dated 12 December in response James said he had received the copy of No Apologies #5, which I had sent him and that he had “…enjoyed reading everything in it…” because it was “lively” and had a “fresh tone.” He also wrote that he “very much…would like to “send (me) …some material in January.” He continued: “I thought you knew had I been making films off and on most of life.” He sent a bio with a separate sheet of his films that were available through a distributor. He reported further that “Joel and I are doing fine…he is mostly making collages and I am working on my memoirs before I forget everything.” He ended the letter with “All my best wishes and tender regards,” wishing me a “Happy Christmas.”

In his next letter dated 17 Feb 1986, James apologized for being slow to respond to “your good letter.” (I don’t know if James is still referring to my letter of 20 November, or whether I wrote him another letter in between that date and his writing. His papers at KSU do not include a second letter from me). James had decided to submit some stories for consideration in the next issue of No Apologies. (That would have been issue #6. However, due to my financial situation as a working, sole-supporting graduate student, I wasn’t able to publish another issue of No Apologies). He sent “Two Tales for Fairies” and wrote “you can arrange them any way you wish.”

In the next stanza he mentioned he had “notes of all kinds for a chapter about the experience of my filmmaking.” Then he asked if I “would be interested…on how I made I made my first films in San Francisco in the late ’40s and ’50s?” Futhermore he wondered if my readers would know who “Maya Deren, Willard Maas and Parker Tyler” were because he had a piece “out at a cinema type magazine,” which if rejected, he would send to me.

I responded to James in a letter dated March 4, 1986 in which I thanked James for his submissions and accepted his poems, “Senior Scorpio’s Foxtrot” and “Off to the Lifelong Races,” and his film memoir, “Mother’s Day Goes Off to New York,” (which was currently under consideration by another magazine), for No Apologies #6.

I continued by asking James how his stay in Hawai’i had been. I mentioned I had been a newspaper intern there on Maui a few summers before. I also said that I liked his film memoir because of its metaphors which described a screening location for one of his films as having “the intimacy of a car barn in Siberia,” and in another place where he compared his film to “chamber music.” I told him: “Anyone who loves film should be interested in this piece.” I ended my letter by thanking him:

“for your invitation to keep in touch. It makes me feel good to know that people in the Bay Area miss me. I wish I could have been at your birthday party. It sounds like it was lots of fun. When I return to San Francisco, you’ll be the first person I’ll visit. Take care of yourself – and of Joel. Get back to me as soon as you can if the Mother’s Day piece is out of the running.

Around Christmas 1986 I sent James a card indicating I had a job teaching writing at a high school in semi-rural Massachusetts and that would be discontinuing publication of No Apologies. James responded with an undated card (probably from January 1987) the text of which read: “If it’s the last dance, dance backwards.” probably meaning to review what I’d done and look back on it with pride. In any rate, I felt supported and affirmed by James even though I wasn’t able to publish his pieces in my magazine. Inside he wrote: “Sad that we may lose No Apologies.” He hoped that things would improve for me and that I could start over again. He also asked if I would return his manuscripts.

The next piece of correspondence is my letter to James dated February 9, 1987. I told him I was able to locate his Mother’s Day manuscript in my correspondence binder, but not “the MSS of the two poems I accepted.” My happiness at receiving James’ card was also continued in the next paragraph when I told James I would visiting him the following week during one of the high school vacations. It was the first time I’d returned to San Francisco since I’d left in July 1984. (I’d also go through three blizzards in Massachusetts that winter before it was over). I told James that while in SF, I would be staying at Ed Mycue’s and Richard Steger’s apartment near City Hall and to give me a call. I added a handwritten P. S. and the bottom of my typed letter that read: “I’d really like to see you.”

During that holiday, I visited with Ed and Richard and with Steve Abbott and Thom Gunn. (In between I also looked for jobs in San Francisco through contacts in the the Brown Alumni Association. I was warmly received by a prominent SF hotel, a newspaper and a publication relations company. Each of these company’s reps. told me I would get a job if I returned that summer. I had a memorable dinner with James and Joel and Steve Abbott and Dennis Green at the couple’s 21st and Church Street hilltop apartment overlooking the lights of San Francisco. Joel cooked a lovely Italian meal, which I mentioned in my review.

Broughton poured wine and reminisced about his years in Paris and the Beat scene in San Francisco. Present was also Joel Singer, Broughton’s partner and artistic collaborator, who created the cover photomontages for Broughton’s new poetry tapes. Singer cooked an exquisite dinner of cheese gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce, osso bucco alla Milanese, and orange slices mascerated in Grand Marnier.

The same evening, James gave me his new, audiocassette collection which including recordings from his True and False Unicorn and other poems, Songs from a Long Undressing, Graffiti from the Johns of Heaven and Ecstacies to review. Either that evening or when I returned to Massachusetts, I gave or sent James a copy of Neurotika, my MA poetry thesis at Brown, which is included in Broughton’s KSU papers. At the top of the Neurotika MS is a handwritten note: “2.20.87 To James Broughton and Joel Singer, Thank you for your gifts of laughter and joy. Good luck and good health to you both! Bryan.”

The pleasant memory I have of visiting James and Joel at their SF apartment is reinforced by James’ postcard of his face in close up by Rink, dated and postmarked 28 February 1987. James wrote that he “enjoyed” my poetry and my visit and he hoped my “listening (to his tapes) had been productive.”

I responded with a postcard dated 3.8.87. “Dear James, I just finished my second draft of my review of your tapes. I will do the final draft tomorrow and Tuesday…Steve (Abbott) should have my copy by the end of the week.” I also continued on a personal note writing that: “I hope I can see you again this summer. Depending on the job possibilities, I may move back to SF. The West Coast isn’t Lotus Land, it’s the Promised Land! If I hadn’t gone to Brown for my MA in creative writing, I probably would have never left. I hope I can continue to teach writing (in SF).”

On 1 April 1987, I sent a copy of the review to Rudy Kikel at Bay Windows in Boston, who had just typeset Steve Abbott’s chapbook, The Lives of the Poets. I also informed him that Steve had sent copies to the San Francisco Sentinel and Poetry Flash.

In my review I wrote that: “Broughton is to be applauded for his return of poetry to its rightful medium—oral transmission. I remarked to friend once that reading poetry on the page is like trying to understand a song’s melody by reading the lyrics sheet.” I continued my review by praising Broughton’s tapes for their versatility and musicality. I mentioned his “The Water Circle,” which was set to a Corelli gigue.

I played this selection for my high school freshman, who were not the least bit reluctant to join in with Broughton the second time around. I used this poem as a springboard for their own poems about the natural elements and the seasons of the year. Another poem I played was “Mama is Gone.” It’s soft consonants and vowels echo a child’s lament….Broughton’s other “Songs for Anxious Children,” such as “Papa is a Pig” and Mrs. Mother Has a Nose,”…are strictly for adults due to their subtlety and subject matter.

I concluded that: “These tapes will surely establish James Broughton as one of the greatest (and one of the most underrated contemporary (American) poets….they will provide many hours of good listening.”

I don’t remember hearing back from Kikel about the review. Steve Abbott was also unable to place it at the Sentinel and Poetry Flash. James got back to me about a month later with an Uffizi Galleries postcard of Cranach’s Adam saying that he had read and liked my review of his tapes and wanted to know if I knew where else it could be published. He suggested The James White Review or The Advocate. He also invited me to dinner another time.

A little more than a month later, James sent me a typewritten note dated 8 June 87 with the epigraph “Garlic cures every infirmity/ except death where there is no hope.” Inside he wrote that he hoped I’d had “success in placing” the review because he thought it was “valuable and essential reading.” And he added an invitation saying that if there was a “festschrift for my birthday next year,” it or “another piece by you,” would certainly be welcome.

On 10 June 1987, I sent James a postcard of View from the Pilgrim Monument, Provincetown, Massachusetts. I thanked James “for your card of 4/28” and confirmed “I did enjoy writing the review of your tapes” and that “I’ve sent the review to Phil Wilkie at The James White Review.” I also said that I hoped “Joel’s show” had gone “well.” I also confirmed I would “like to come back for dinner” that I’d be out on the West Coast again “on the 20th of July for about a month.”

The next communication I received from James was on the back of a Pitti Galleries postcard of St. Sebastian by Giovanni Antonio Bozzi detto ill Vercelli. James wrote that he was “delighted” to see my review of his tapes in the JWR. “Praise and thanks.” He also wished me well.

By January 1988 I was living in Silicon Valley and working for an insurance company in San Jose. In order to learn the trade practiced by poet Wallace Stevens and composer Charles Ives, I was required to spend one evening a week in insurance classes for the next year and a half and to study at home for at least two hours every night in order to pass the three, four-hour written exams (included calculations which could only be done by hand) for my general insurance certificate. As a result of all this work and living an hour’s drive from San Francisco, I had to drop out of the literary life up North. I received an invitation from James for the premier of his new film, Scattered Remains, made in collaboration with Joel, at the Castro Theater on 26 March 1988, but I doubt that I attended. On the back of the invitation, James wrote his “Good wishes.” Later that year, in October, James kept his promise of inviting me to his schriftfest when he sent me an invitation to read at his 75th and Joel’s 40th birthday celebration at the San Francisco Art Institute on November 10, 1988. For that evening, I wrote and read the poem below:

Birthday blessings for James Broughton and Joel Singer
by Bryan R. Monte

A white house on the side of a hill
high above San Francisco’s lights
holds the home of two lovers and friends
we gather here to honor tonight.

A house of Beauty, a house of Mirth
where Love’s books are reinvented
cook, write, film, fuck, sleep
two lovers by Zeus’ cup demented.

A man and a youth they once began
almost thirteen years to this night
the young pupil and the wise teacher interchangeable
twin novitiates of androgyne delight.

For three days they stayed in bed
two lusty monks on spiritual retreat
and fed Love’s thirst through sweat and tears
sweet nectars of their bodies’ meat.

They taught their hands to sing Hermes’ hymns
to fashion a world for lovers’ delights
and wrought in film, photo, word and deed
the lives we celebrate tonight.

May we be eternally as silly as they:
forever as blessed
forever as blissed
forever as full of life.

On the copy in the KSU archives, I wrote at the top: “by Bryan R. Monte 11/10/88” and a personal note: “Happy Birthday! James & Joel. I hope you enjoy your new home up North.” The audience howled with laughter and applauded my poem, which was good. Just a few minutes before, though, I had mounted the stage with knees knocking so badly I didn’t know if I would be able to stand up and deliver my poem properly to the audience of nearly 300. It was good training. I was able to keep my nerves under control and it gave me extra confidence for my Walt Whitman Bookshop reading a fortnight later.

I invited James and Joel to my reading at the Whitman on a Friday towards the end of November. In response to my birthday poem and my invitation, James sent a postcard dated 17 November 1988 with a painting of “Shelly composing Prometheus Unbound in the Baths of Caracalla,” from a posthumous portrait in oils by John Severn from the Keats-Shelly Memorial House, Rome. He said he “loved” my “tribute,” asked for a copy and thanked me for taking part in his birthday celebration at the Art Institute, which he referred to as “our little vaudeville.” He also said he couldn’t make it to my reading because he had another appointment.

At the reading, I premiered some of the poems I’d written at Brown, including the long poem, Neurotika, about sexual longing, the AIDS crisis, and the probihitions against LGBT rights around the world with aural backing from Brian Eno’s Ambience. On November 28, I sent James and Joel a card with my best wishes. I told them I had had a good time at the Institute reading and his birthday party and I that enjoyed his films—especially Window Mobile, Shaman’s Psalm and the nude interview series, which I’d never seen before. I also told him that my reading “was quite a hit…there were about 25 to 30 people in the audience and my Neurotika piece caused quite a stir.” I also mentioned that: “I realize by now that you may be in Port Townsend. I hope your mail is being forwarded and that you receive this copy of the birthday poem, (and the picture of Joel I took last year at your house at the dinner party with my friend Dennis (Green) and Steve Abbott). Good luck up North and Happy Holidays.”

In response to my letter I received a card with two men on a bicycle, one doing a handstand on the handle bars, with the caption in the upper left “Please Stay in Touch with James & Joel” and their new address and postbox in Port Townsend in the lower left. On the reverse, James thanked me for my “delicious” poem and said he would put it “prominently” in in his “archive.” He also told me about his travel plans after Christmas which included stays in SF in April and June.

During 1989, James and I don’t seem to have corresponded. In September of that year I moved up from Silicon Valley back to San Francisco and into an apartment in the Mission at Valencia and 19th with a view of the apartment I shared with Harry Britt at 20th and Guerrero from April 1983 to July 1984. Here I wrote my weekly news stories and scripts and prepared questions for my bi-weekly interviews on KPFA’s weekly Wednesday night Lavender News on the Fruit Punch radio hour. From this base (and my day job as a computer technician in SF’s Financial District), I trawled the Castro for the LGBT news alone or with photojournalist Rink. I covered demonstrations, AIDS memorials, protests, school board meetings, baseball games, art exhibtions, etc.—anything of interest to the queer community. Every other week I interviewed gay writers, politicians or commentators such as Stan Leventhal or John S. James.

At this time that I also began attending poetry and prose readings in the Mission, the Castro and Berkeley. I started my own weekly writers workshop with regulars such as Donna Kreisle Louden, Edward Mycue, Ronald Linder, Richard Linker and Andrea Rubin. It was Ed in fact, who, according to my 11 November 1989 journal enry, told me about a reception for James on Green Street and said that my invitation had probably been sent to my old address in Silicon Valley.

My journal entry for that evening reveals clearly the happiness and beauty that surrounded James and Joel’s lives and their willingness to share that with me.

James greeted me wearing his ubiquitous pin-purple square oriental pill box hat, a light blue scarf tied around his neck and a darker, blue cordurouy shirt. He put out his arms immediately (to embrace me) . . . The first thing he said was: “It’s a been a year since I’ve seen you; a year exactly.” He was right. He told me I looked good. I told him him he was (as) full of life as ever and as always, happy. He told me he worked at being blissful every day

Joel asked me if I’d like to go to dinner later and I said yes. We ended up with about six people in our party: Hal Hershey, a Berkeley book designer, John Carr, critic for the BAR, Michael Hathaway who hosted the party for James that afternoon and, of course, James, Joel and myself…(at) a Japanese restaurant on Fillmore and Union. We sat upstairs around a low table and I was on James’s right hand. Joel described some Native American ornamentation he’d painted onto the side of their new house. (I also heard that Joel is working on a series of watercolours…He says they’re in the style of photomontages). I asked James the secret of his longevity, but he just smiled.

My training as a radio journalist gave me good training for my writing. From the press releases, books and reading and event announcements, I was aware of what was going on in the gay community. All this, of course, was happening whilst the AIDS crisis was decimating the LGBT community. At least once a month I announced the death of a prominent man or woman I had known personally who had died of AIDS. In addition, one quarter of my radio stories were about AIDS fundraisers and support groups. I felt useful providing this information weekly to the gay community. And it helped me hone my skills as a writer to go out and get stories, sift the facts from the gossip or outright lies, and shape it into the type of telegraphic language necessary for radio news. I soon discovered that for every minute on air, I needed to spend at least an hour preparing my script either at home or gathering information “on location.”

The next piece of correspondence I sent to James and Joel is a letter dated January 6, 1990 from my Mission District apartment. I wrote “It was a pleasure to see both of you during your recent visit to San Francisco. I enjoyed having dinner with you at the Japanese restaurant and listening to James read at the Intersection. I hope both of you had a good holiday. (Did you throw a winter solstice party?) I had a great time on Christmas and New Years. On the first holiday, I went to the Fruit Punch party, and on the second, my roommate and I hosted an open house in our apartment.” I enquired further about their welfare and asked if “Joel is still painting Native American designs on your new house?” and “How is Special Deliveries coming along?” I asked James when his book came out to send me a review copy since “I’m doing 10-20 minutes of news, reviews and interviews on Fruit Punch.” I ended the letter saying that I was thinking of travelling North to Port Townsend with Rink to visit James and Joel.

James responded about three weeks later with a This is It Syzygy Press poetry postcard dated 26 January 1990. James wrote he had just returned for the Yucatan with Joel and that he was working on the final proofs for Special Deliveries.

The next time I saw James was at the OutWrite! Writers’ Conference in San Francisco in March 1990. I covered the conference, speaking with Allen Ginsberg in addition to James.

James Broughton and the author, OutWrite! Writers’ Conference, San Francisco (March 1990). Photo by Rink © 1990. All rights reserved.

James Broughton and the author, OutWrite! Writers’ Conference,
San Francisco (March 1990). Photo by Rink © 1990. All rights reserved.

In response to the above photo in the 4 April issue of OutWeek, James sent me another postcard of a 60+ man logging crew standing on top or next to an enormous tree trunk which it is strapped to a semi-wagon saying that he liked Rink’s photo of “beauty and the old beast.” He wrote would be sending a review copy of Special Deliveries and would be in town for Gay Pride at the end of June to read. He signed the postcard: “Big Log.”

Once again there is a gap of at least a year when James and I did not correspond. During this time, I moved from my flat in the Mission to one in the Outer Sunset from which I could hear and see the Pacific Ocean’s breakers. Here I had hoped to get away from the problems of the City, especially the AIDS crisis. A receipt from A Different Light Bookstore from 11 November 1991 indicates I purchased James’ Androgyne Journal the morning of his reading, and his signature in the book along with the message “for Beloved Bryan. Rejoice in Oneness with Love. James” indicates that I must have attended, but unfortunately I have no journal entry for this day, nor any memory of James’ reading.

Unfortunately, it was also at my oceanview apartment that my new boyfriend, who I’d met in April 1991 and moved in by July, coughed through Christmas with pneumocystis. During the holidays, my new, next-door neighbour abandoned his apartment to die in the arms of his family. By February, my boyfriend was in hospital. Then one Friday evening I came home from work and found he had moved out without giving notice or leaving a forwarding address. In addition, the things he’d left behind were scattered around the flat, including a plant whose soil he’d swirled over the white livingroom carpet.

After my ex-boyfriend left, I kept the AIDS crisis at bay by teaching four times a week after work—twice a week to Russian émigrés out in the Avenues and once a week each to technical writing students at the University of California Extension and to my own writers’ workshop in my living room. Previously this moonlighting had been contractually forbidden by my daytime employer, but once the company went from 17 to 12 to seven to five offices in four massive reorganizations in two and a half years, no one cared as everyone scrambled to find new jobs before they lost their old ones and their homes or apartments.

I remember driving home on night from the UC Extension’s Menlo Park campus at 11 PM along I-280 in thick fog. I was so tired I had rolled down the window and turned the radio up so that the cool air and loud music would keep me from falling asleep behind the wheel. I also remember coming home one night at 10 PM, surprised to feel I was choking as I ate my supper hot out of the oven only to discover I still had my tie on that I’d put on for work that morning at 7 AM. The death of my neighbour, the impending death of a second ex- and the loss my job, all of this was on my mind when I corresponded with James in 1992, one year before I was forced to leave S.F. because I couldn’t find a full-time job or combine two or three jobs that would pay the bills.

The first missive is from James dated 23 January 1992 on James Broughton’s Port Townsend stationery and sent in a Holiday Inn Aeropuerto envelope. He welcomed my suggestion that Rink and I visit him and Joel up North, but he said he couldn’t host us at the moment because he had a family visiting for one month and “some brutal dental surgery” the next. He also reminded me that it was a two-day drive from San Francisco to Port Washington. He ended his letter with “I love you & send you my love & welcome too. Be sure to flourish. Joy from James.”

I must have sent James another letter talking about putting together my poetry collection because I received a postcard of a young man with a muscular torso and legs holding a mirror dated 2 March 1992. It announced a visit by James to San Francisco in “mid-May” and said he “hope(d) you are getting it (the poetry collection?) all together.”

Then about a month and a half later, I received a flyer from James in an envelope postmarked 16 April indicating his readings and screenings in May. On the 14th James had a reading at the Art Institute sponsored by the Cinematique and City Lights Books. The flyer also mentioned that besides the readings, signings and parties, two of Broughton’s films, Scattered Remains and Dreamwood would be shown. James wrote a personal note on the flyer indicating the precise dates he would be in San Francisco and a telephone number in town.

I don’t know if I saw James this time. I may have because I sent him an update of my poetry collection that I had first sent in 1988. This Neurotika, however, was twice as long as the first because it included my performance piece of the same name about the AIDS epidemic.

James responded on 2 Aug 1992. He wrote I had packed a lot into my book because he thought it was really “two different” books: the first poems and the second part the “prose paragraphs of the Neurotika section” which he felt “is almost of a book of its own…an impressive picaresque elegy.”

Broughton’s critique of the poetry (first) section was that it: “…often dropped words so the sense of the line is unclear…” He suggested I “not capitalize” (the beginning of my) lines so it would be easier to distinguish when a new sentence occurs.” He reassured me, however, that: “You have a genuine gift for nuance and impression, for phrasing and shaping.”

He also commented that he was “a hard-hearted reviser” of his own writing and that he was now on his third revision of his memoirs. He advised me: “when in doubt, cut.” Broughton’s letter ended on an encouraging note: “You have enormous potentiality….”

I responded to James’ letter on the 10th thanking him “for your suggestions, especially those concerning the (non)-capitalization of (the first word in) my lines” and for his encouraging words about the Neurotika section. I also asked if he would provide a book blurb.

On November 2, I received the following blurb from James: “Neurotika does not belie its title. On the contrary it pushes sexual neurosis to painful lengths…The neurotic fear of sex that pervades governments and communities around the world provides a concurrent theme. This is a sad, savage, sorry chronicle.”

By that time I had “finished” Neurotika, however, I had lost my job. I had to choose between staying in the City and living from my unemployment benefits and free-lance teaching (which, unfortunately, wouldn’t pay three-quarters of my expenses) and to self-publish Neurotika from my savings, or pursuing my vision of a new life in the Netherlands, which I had had since I was a graduate student.

I purchased an Apple PowerBook laptop and a journalist quality camera and applied for teaching jobs in the Netherlands. Luckily, just after my job ended in San Francisco, I got a job in the Netherlands as an Apple computer system administrator and a substitute English teacher, which is how I began my now 23-year stay.

From James I learned the ropes of writing business—both backstage and on stage. Through his correspondence and books, he taught me how to improve my visual communication as well as my word choice. He provided opportunities for me to create and present work, and, through his and Joel’s hospitality, I learned the value of good food, conversation and company. As a result of this, the time I spent with James and Joel were some of the happiest and most fulfilling I experienced as a writer in San Francisco in the 1980s and ’90s during a very dark period for the LGBT community.

Bryan R. Monte – A Tribute to Philip Levine

A Tribute to Philip Levine
by Bryan R. Monte
copyright © 2015 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

Whilst searching through my 35+ years of journals for information on James Broughton for my planned memoir on him for the September 2015 issue of AQ14 on radio, television, and film, I stumbled upon entries about my creative writing classes with Philip Levine at Brown University. As Thom Gunn mentioned in my previous memoir, Philip Levine did shake them up at Brown. I thought perhaps these five, largely unedited observations might be a fitting tribute to one of the best poets, (bar Thom Gunn), with whom I studied. Philip, unfortunately, passed away last February 14th. I hope these entries capture some of the waves and tremors he created in class.

24 January 1985

Yesterday, (was the) first day of Philip Levine’s class. (He wore) Blue, Nike running shoes inside of black rubbers, a beige zip jacket under a tweed blazer. (and) An old, gold-brown shirt unbuttoned at the top with a brown tie that looked like it could have come from the Salvation Army. His head (is) much older than the picture on the (cover of his) Selected Poems. (His) Hair (is) bald at both temples, but with brown and grey curls and tufts in the centre. (His) Teeth (are) yellowed and spread apart.

He talked about the poets he liked—Rexroth, Patchen, (William Carlos) Williams—a lot of poets who had been undiscovered, whose names were completely unfamiliar to me so I can’t remember them. He talked about (T.S.) Eliot in the negative sense quoting Williams saying he’d created a regression in the poetic climate that would take America 30 years before they would read his (Williams’) poems again.

He talked about Charlie—a theoretical, but very real student who was an arrogant prick. Levine used the word “prick” a lot—a world full of “pricks.” Levine said Charlie would wear a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, smoke a pipe and write poems that were so learned they were incomprehensible. He said: “Charlie’s a good talker too—he can win any debate about his poems, especially since he’s the one who wrote them. Well, in this class, Charlie keeps his mouth shut.” I hope Student A and Student B were listening, or else he’s going to tear them to pieces.

Levine seemed fairly intrigued by the idea that the poetry students take the same (writing) classes together for two years. I think he likes the idea of the community of poets referring to former students visits and mentioning that we could ride the train up to Boston with him after class. He talked a little—tangentially—about the loneliness in his life—mentioning the superb quality of Rexroth’s love poems saying they were so good they reminded him what having sex was like.

He seems like everything I would want from a writing teacher—scorn for (the) academic/hermetic tradition in poetry, strong-willed, strong convictions, interested in the sensual in poetry, in the community of poets, or sitting on disruptive, pompous assholes, or bucking the GWP (Graduate Writing Program) and letting some of his own students in (our class)—and filled with a “flaming centre,” a burning love for poetry.

1 February 1985

Less than glorious things to say about Levine’s class after he trashed a poem by Student C. He seemed, however, to have his finger on the pulse of a lot of writers—(he) told Student D she had a good sense of line, but that her poem was like the travelogue poems that are very popular at the moment, he told Student A his poem about a fisherman wasn’t detailed enough and he told Student F, that she needed more tension in her poem. But he really savaged Student C’s poem about the elevation of suicidal women—Plath, Sexton—in American letters and how that’s used as a device of oppression.

I found myself arguing how woman are oppressed by a monolithic, (straight) male tradition—I remarked that it wasn’t until my senior Modernist lit. class at Berkeley that a studied a woman writer—Gertrude Stein. But I found myself arguing with no support in a class with a majority of women. Even Student G didn’t support Student C’s idea of the oppression/self-oppression of women even though that’s all she writes about.

Levine fell in my estimation (today) when he couldn’t even find anything salvageable in Student C’s poem. She had one line I especially liked: “We never strike in anger except at ourselves.” This is the language of the oppressed, the inward violence that gay men/lesbians, women do to each other/themselves because they’re powerless to lash out individually at the monolith of straight, male oppression. (This is) The self-laceration, (the) scars we don’t talk about or wear as merit badges.

12 February 1985

Last Wednesday I met with Philip Levine in Michael Harper’s office and he was very enthusiastic about my poetry. He especially liked “Wayne” (now entitled “The Boats” and published in Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets in 2013) and he showed it to me in a new light so that I became aware, for the first time, of its power and its deficiencies. I told him that I was very happy that he had been able to do a close reading of my poems. I told him that the previously I had had trouble getting accurate feedback because students and instructors were repelled and/or threatened by the homosexuality in my poems. Levine said he couldn’t understand why an instructor would do that. He also looked at another poem, “Brushstrokes,” which he felt had potential but was actually two separate poems. He thought the sound and sight imagery at the bottom of the poem was the raw material for another poem—he saw it as discontinuous, but not as leading away from the base of the poem inspirationally.

At any rate, he saw that I was able to take criticism of my work very objectively. I think that telling him a poem is “in progress” gives him more to say, what he thinks can be done with a piece. He suggested we go over “The Predators,” (published in Assaracus 15 in 2014), in class. He liked it very well and sort of guided it through a lot of negative criticism. He said, however, that my description of the attackers was too stereotypical. He liked the line breaks, however, saying they reminded him of Williams’ line in “The Desert Music.”

24 February 1985

Wednesday, met with Levine in Harper’s office before class. He was very happy to see me and we talked about three poems—two finished that I had turned in and one that is in process. Levine said that the images in “In Envy of Naturalism”  (published online by BMUG in Baaad Poetry in 1995) were too romantic and therefore, too distant from the perceptions of the modern reader. He also said that the lines seemed too awkward—too forced. He absolutely adored “Heterophobia,” (published in The James White Review as “The Visit” Volume 3, Issue 1, Fall 1985) which I wrote in practically one sitting. He said that the surrealism and the language flowed very swiftly and took them reader with them—that the tension created in the first line carried throughout the poem. He echoed these sentiments in class. He also looked at my first drafts of “The Bunker” which I told him would probably be typeset the same way as the lines in the “The Predators,” breaking every line every fourth or fifth word and distributing them over the page.

6 March 1985

Another hit today in Levine’s class. (I) Read my poem, “Mrs. m.” which the students and Levine praised. To me, it seems awkward, especially the rhythm of the lines—but they seemed to have liked it or at least respect the sentiment it expressed—Student A said that he thought the poem was very close to me so he didn’t think he should say anything about it. As much as I dislike Student A, that’s the kindest thing he’s ever said about my poetry. One of Levine’s guests (invited students) said that she like the poem because I respected the mother enough not to try to get into her head—I just described the physical things a child could see. Levine liked it even though he didn’t understand the image of the (broken off) chair leg next to my mother’s bed. He really seems to like my work and to be encouraging some kind of close communication. This is my chance—to really learn from someone who is really gifted.

Irene Hoge Smith – Anxious Attachment

Anxious Attachment
by Irene Hoge Smith

Ann Arbor, February 1961.

I don’t know where she is. Maybe I’m supposed to know what she’s doing this afternoon, but I just know that I’m cold and that it was a long windy walk from the bus stop and that I’ve been thinking all the way up the hill how pleased she’d be that I took the bus by myself. I leave the soggy black leather boots on the concrete floor of the carport and come into the kitchen in damp knee socks.

Mama doesn’t get why I hate to take the bus and I can’t explain it. I started worrying even before I left the house this morning. Is the fare still twenty-five cents? Do I have quarters in my pocket? Are they still there? It’s the 12B, I know that. I thought I knew that. Unless it’s 12A. No, I’m sure it’s the 12B. Except how will I know if I’ve already missed it, and when will the next one come? If I get on the wrong bus I could end up in Ypsilanti or, worse, Detroit. But the boxy black and white 12B bus stopped at the foot of Pinecrest Crescent about five minutes after I got down the hill, and during the long stretch down Miller Road toward town my heart gradually stopped pounding in my ears. When I saw the first red-roofed university buildings I started watching for the arch at the corner of the quad, but everything looked different from inside the bus. I was supposed to get off at the corner of South University and East University, I remembered that, but at State Street I saw the Carillon and got confused again. What if we’ve already passed my stop? I should have gone up front and asked the driver, but then everybody would have looked at me. There’s the arch. There’s Ulrich’s bookstore. I pulled the cord and the bus slowed to a stop and I was on the sidewalk. For a minute I was sure I’d made a mistake, but I was just looking the wrong way and when I turned around I saw, halfway down the next block, catty corner from Ulrich’s like I remembered, the school steps. My armpits were wet and I didn’t catch my breath until I got to homeroom.

Now it’s almost four o’clock, no one’s home, it’s getting dark out and it’s even darker inside. Across the living room the tall windows glow blue in the twilight and it reminds me of something that I want to ask her about. The blue time? A perfume? A poem she wrote? When I switch on the light, indigo turns to black and I see only a reflection of myself and the living room, the kitchen, orange countertops, dishes in the sink, piles of newspapers and books on the table.

Where is she? I hope there’s something to eat. Maybe she’s at class? Which class? I’m pretty sure there’s some instant cocoa. I’d like to go with her to pottery class again. I run water into the scuffed aluminum kettle, put it on the electric stove, find a heavy white china mug in the sink, rinse it out. I wish she wouldn’t go to that writing class. She’s wearing lipstick and putting something on her hair called a “rinse.” Yes, there’s the red box of Nestle’s EverReady, and it’s at least half full. I feel better, and realize I’ve been crying.

#

My parents met in Washington as World War II was winding down. She’d dropped out of Smith College to join the WACs, he’d gone into the Army after finishing an engineering certificate in Arizona, and both of them were doing secret work that, as far as I know, neither of them ever talked about to anyone. She’d found a handsome, smart engineer, like the father who died when she was eight. He was fascinated by her writing, her education, and most of all her admiration for him.

Getting married and having babies was what everybody was doing and what they did, but they weren’t cut out for it. He was insecure, angry, needy and nasty to her when things weren’t going right for him. She was looking for someone to take care of her and help her grow up, but as she began to realize, they were both infants themselves.

#

We moved from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor in the summer after sixth grade. I was going to start seventh at the University School in the fall, and everything seemed to be looking up. Daddy finished graduate school, left Willow Run Labs for a job on campus, and things were better in ways I can’t put into words exactly that had to do with them not fighting so much, not being so mean to us, me and Patti not having to take care of the little kids all the time, and not—not other things I don’t even want to think about.

And there must have been more money and enough hope that they decided they could build a beautiful new house in a nice part of Ann Arbor.

#

She’s happy here. She was excited all during the construction. When a gigantic boulder came out of the excavation she got the bulldozer man to move it to the back yard, imagining the bachelor buttons, Queen Anne’s lace and purple vetch that would grow around it. She chose the pumpkin-orange Formica, told the workmen how to arrange the gray-speckled linoleum tiles, found a dramatic black stain for the vertical support beam in the middle of the house, didn’t let them box it in with drywall. She’s in a good mood a whole lot more since we moved here last summer. Our house is as nice as the other ones in the neighborhood, or it will be when Daddy gets the foundation painted and when Mama plants the Japanese maple tree out front that she wants. She finally made curtains instead of just buying fabric and saying she’d get around to it. They’re just bed sheets but she sewed pleat tape across the top and put in the little pronged doohickeys that make gathers like machine-made drapes. Daddy put up real curtain rods and I helped Mama draw free-form flowers on the bottom edge of the sheets with magic markers, and they look pretty nice. She’s cheerful, making things, full of plans. I forget to worry about her for a while.

#

I’d always remembered the house we lived in when I was born, a corner row house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, as a vast castle with an enormous round tower. After we left Ann Arbor, I developed a similarly aggrandized image of that house, imagining the low-slung yellow rambler near the crest of Morningside Drive as larger, more striking, more beautiful than it really was. It had the shallow-angled roof that says “contemporary,” cathedral ceilings, and clerestory windows—elongated scalene triangles just under the roofline. It was a nice house, especially compared to anywhere we’d lived before, but not really grand. Ann Arbor has a rich architectural heritage of mid-century modern houses, and their iconic lines, expanses of glass, and pleasing simplicity became conflated, after we left, with memories of the actual house we lived in for two and a half years. Two and a half years. It doesn’t seem possible. I don’t want it to have been such a short time. How could it have always meant so much to me when we were hardly there at all?

#

Our parents’ marriage was never easy, and at times it was awful. He had affairs and left several times when we were small. At least once she tried to leave him but he convinced her to come back. In the darkest time (his father died, he had a setback at work), he abused all of us, and she was powerless to do anything about it.

Things calmed down between them after the first decade. He got a grip on himself as his career became more promising, and being less afraid of him helped her start to rebuild her self-esteem. She was changing, hoped he’d change too, and it started to seem things were going to be okay.

#

They have a housewarming party. Mama serves angel-food cake with frozen strawberries and sour cream. I think sour cream sounds like a good way to ruin strawberries and cake, but it’s delicious. Like the curtains, the orange counters, the unfinished post in the living room—I wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing but it turns out to be exactly what she had in mind, and just right.

They haven’t had a really bad fight since we moved to Ann Arbor. She still doesn’t always get up in the morning, but she doesn’t stay in bed all day, either. Patti has the alarm clock, and I get out of bed when I hear her in the shower. I put cornflakes, milk and sugar, four cereal bowls and four spoons on the table while Patti wakes the little kids up. Sally’s in kindergarten, and can dress herself and help Ruthie, too. Usually they’ve had their breakfast and are ready by the time the car pool comes.

I’m in seventh grade, have some friends, and am starting to feel pretty good about this new school. I draw a peace sign on my olive-green canvas book bag and sling it over my shoulder just the way Patti and her ninth-grade friends do. I try to forget Ypsilanti, and hope that this tenth move will be the last.

#

At Christmas our parents were happy all day long, although we were on edge, waiting for the first impatient words, a quarrel escalating to yelling, crying, and four girls running to separate corners of the house.

She sat smiling, legs crossed in the yellow canvas butterfly chair. He leaned back on black leather, put his feet up on the matching ottoman. They talked and joked after the presents. Kennedy was going to the White House, a friend had landed an important job in the administration. She’d gotten over Stevenson, didn’t sneer about Kennedy any more. He said something about a leave of absence from the university, about a job “on the hill.” She said it’s too soon to tell the kids. I didn’t know what a leave of absence was or what hill they were talking about and I didn’t want to ask.

In January they told us that there would be another move. We agreed to believe them when they said it was only for a while, that after a year or two in Washington we would certainly, definitely, absolutely move back to Ann Arbor. Daddy went to Washington after the inauguration, coming back every few weeks, and things were more relaxed with him gone. We wouldn’t have to leave until the end of the school year.

I stopped expecting to find Mama at home in the afternoons. She was taking a class in poetry and another in Russian and I came home one day toward the end of winter to find the living room windows lined with Cyrillic letters painted in robin’s-egg blue. Yevtushenko, she said. The most beautiful poetry in the world. Much better to read it in the original Russian. Maybe in Ann Arbor it’s okay to have Russian words on the windows. I hope so.

I knew about the poetry and the Russian and even Artesian, the literary journal she was helping to revive. I didn’t know about the man, the teacher, the editor of the journal, about what was happening between them while she was so happy and busy and creative. And I couldn’t know, of course, how little time was left.

#

She’s smoking, pacing, clutching a cup of black coffee and I want to talk to her. It was exciting at first to think of our father and Washington and the Kennedys and I even imagined our family might become like them and thought maybe it would be fun and make me special to go away for a year and come back. But the school year is ending and I’m starting to feel sad. I really don’t want to miss being in eighth grade with my friends. I’m tired of being cooperative. I’m ready for an argument.

I start in on her. “I still don’t get why we even have to move to Washington.”

She sighs, but I have more to say.

“We practically just moved here and I’ve only been at U high for one grade and that’s not fair, because Patti’s had three whole years. I finally have friends and Mr. Berg said that next year I should try out for choir but I won’t even be here!”

I start to get even more upset than I thought I was.

She seems willing to hear me out. Maybe I can convince her we should all stay here and Daddy can keep coming home every other weekend and not make us move.

“I know you really like school now, but that’s just because you have a better attitude. University School’s not so special; you just don’t want things to change. Lots of people are afraid of change.” This sounds like one of her speeches about how narrow-minded most people are, but she still sounds sort of sympathetic.

“I’m sure there’ll be a choir at your school in DC, or at the Unitarian Church. You’ll find new things to like. You’ll make lots of new friends.”

“But I’m never going to see my old friends anymore! I don’t want new friends, I want to live here! This is the best place we’ve ever lived and I don’t see why we have to leave!”

“But it’s not forever,” she goes on. “We’ll be coming back, I told you that. That’s why we’re just renting the house and not selling it.”

I’ve heard this before. “When are we coming back? Will we be back in time for ninth grade? Can you promise it will be exactly one year, that I’ll only be gone for eighth?”

“I told you already we’ll come back. Your father’s just on leave, so he has to come back.” She’s not so patient, getting a little sharp.

“Well, how long exactly?”

“I don’t know exactly! You’re making too big a deal out of it, going on about never seeing this place again. That’s just stupid.”

It’s probably her saying I’m stupid that does it. Daddy says that all the time but usually she says of course not, you know you’re really smart but he’s in a bad mood and stay out of his way. But I’m so mad that I say what I’ve been thinking from the first time they told us about moving.

“Well, isn’t that the same thing you said when we left Riverside?” I’m using my most sarcastic voice. “And that didn’t happen, did it? When we came to Michigan you promised we’d be moving back to California, and did we? No, and we never will, either! So why should we believe….”

She puts the cup down, switches the cigarette to her left hand, and slaps me across the face.

#

Mama’s maiden name was Frances Elizabeth Dean. “Frances after my grandfather,” she told us, which made no sense until I learned to read and could grasp that they did have the same first name, with a different, final vowel. Her father was Samuel Winthrop Dean, and his father was Francis Winthrop Dean. Twelve Dean brothers were supposed to have come over before the Mayflower, settling first in Taunton and later in Lexington. An ancestor’s revolutionary war musket had been in her grandfather’s attic on Elliot Lane, which meant, she said, that she could have joined the DAR if she’d been interested. “Some people think that kind of thing is important,” she sniffed, and I knew I shouldn’t be too impressed. As grand as this all sounded to me, I knew it was because her father died that they had to move in with her namesake grandfather. She and her mother and sister were always the poor relations, and her memories were not happy ones.

I remember Mama. I never called her anything else. I didn’t know the Frances Elizabeth Dean or Frances Dean Smith who wrote so many poems before I was born, and she didn’t start writing again until after she left. I didn’t really know her after that until I was grown up with children of my own. I don’t remember her as S. S. Veri, or f.d.b., or FrancEyE. I only remember Mama.

#

FrancEyE dies at 87; prolific Santa Monica poet

Frances Dean Smith, a Santa Monica, Calif., poet known as FrancEyE who was inspired by Charles Bukowski, lived with him and had a child with him in the 1960s has died. She was 87.
….A singular character affectionately called the Bearded Witch of Ocean Park—or, as Bukowski fondly referred to her in one poem, Old Snaggle-Tooth—Smith had lived in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica for decades.
Her work under the pen name FrancEyE was published in poetry journals and gathered in the collections “Snaggletooth in Ocean Park” (Sacred Beverage Press, 1996), “Amber Spider” (Pearl, 2004), “Grandma Stories” (Conflux Press, 2008) and “Call” (Rose of Sharon Press, 2008).
….Although Ms. Smith had been writing poetry in fits and starts nearly all her life, she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1960s determined to reinvent herself, leaving behind the man she had divorced and the four daughters they had produced during an unhappy marriage.

(The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2009)

Bryan R. Monte – The Long Workshop: A Memoir of Thom Gunn

The Long Workshop: A memoir of Thom Gunn, 1982-1994
by Bryan R. Monte

I first met Thom Gunn in January 1982 at the University of California, Berkeley as a student in his creative writing workshop. Strangely, even though we lived close to each other in Haight-Ashbury the previous year, he at Cole and Alma and I at Haight and Clayton, nine blocks away, we had never run into each other at neighbourhood or gay-themed readings or parties. (Haight-Ashbury poet and friend Steve Abbott, however, promised he would introduce us if we ever did).

I didn’t know what to expect from Thom personally, though something about his poetry “spoke to me” years before I knew he was gay and I had moved to San Francisco. My first contact with his poetry was during my last year of high school as I prepared for the Advanced Placement exam in English by reading through the Norton Anthology of English Literature from cover to cover. His poem “Human Condition,” about walking through a fog “Contained within my coat”. The phrase “…condemned to be/An individual,” certainly resonated with my teenage angst, growing up gay in Ohio. It was also consistent with all the walking around I did looking for who knows what, trying to quiet the ever-turning wheels in my head.

Two and a half years later after I had returned early from a mission to Germany due to a nervous breakdown, I received The Poetry Anthology 1912-1977 from my senior high school English teacher as a New Year’s gift to help me recuperate. The book featured Thom’s young face at the top of the book’s thick spine with a young Tennessee Williams in the middle and a matronly, 19th century looking Harriet Moore, the magazine’s editor for many decades, smiling at the bottom. This book contained three of Thom’s poems—“High Fidelity,” from 1955, “The Unsettled Motorcylist’s Vision of His Death” from 1957 and “The Messenger” from 1970. All of these poems are formally constructed, but the rebellious, young man seemed nonetheless to burst through these restrictions.

This is one of the few books from that time, before college, that I’ve kept all these years and certainly one of the few I had with me when I moved to Haight-Ashbury in 1980 to find out what it meant to be gay in a more tolerant environment and to see if I could be a writer. I think I considered it phenomenal for a living poet to have one poem in the Poetry anthology, let alone three.

At Steve Abbott’s urging I purchased two copies of Thom’s books from a second-hand bookstore. These were the thin, 47-page, chapbook length, My Sad Captains (1961) and the somewhat thicker, 78-page, Jack Straw’s Castle (1971). So these two books, published almost a decade apart, had launched and maintained the great man’s career, I thought.

From the very first day class, I knew Thom was going to be different than the other male Berkeley professors. Instead of coming to class in a button-down shirt and tie, chinos or jeans and a wool jacket with elbow patches, Thom arrived wearing a tight, white, round-neck T-shirt, tight Levi’s black jeans, black biker boots including the silver chain back by the heel, and of course, a leather jacket, the scent of which filled the room as his body warmed it. In contrast to his tough guy, rebel-without-a-cause wardrobe, however, Thom proved from the very beginning to be a somewhat shy, soft voiced man, who, nonetheless, commanded the respect of all his students without (as far as I can remember) ever having to raise his voice to call the class to order.

To fill the time during the first meeting, Thom had us introduce ourselves around the circle. (Yes, as a former educator, I’m shocked to realize that this was the one and only class at Berkeley that I can remember in which the classroom chairs were arranged so radically!) The students generally introduced themselves and talked briefly about their writing interests and experience. I don’t know what I said about myself that day, but I remember one or two students mentioning university poetry awards they had won or that they were putting a (chap)book together.

As far as my background was concerned, I’d written about two-dozen, short, imagistic (and some homoerotic poems), which I’d submitted with my admission’s essay to Berkeley. This had earned me a blue, “Do Not Admit Under Any Circumstances” sticker on my admission folder, but that’s another story. These same poems this time, however, were good enough to get me into Thom’s class. In fact, for the next 20 years, Thom’s workshop was one of the few I attended where sexuality of all kinds could be freely used and discussed in poetry.

Five fellow classmates mentioned in my journals include L.R., a short, dark-haired lesbian, Taras Otus, a blond, laid-back Southern Californian with a calm smile on his face that reminded me of Yoda from Star Wars, Miles, a shy, sixth-year undergraduate who wore a broad-brimmed, light-tanned, Australian hat with corks hanging around the brim during class, Cindy Larsen, a Mormon wife and mother, and another woman whose name I think was Marina, who wrote a poem about a homeless man or woman who everyone passed on their way to work. The terminal lines to her poem, as I remember them, went something like this: “How do you sleep at night/ knowing he/she’s on the street/ and you, in your safe, soft, clean bed./Very well, I bet.” It exemplified the smugness and lack of social consciousness of the Zeitgeist as yuppies gentrified San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Western Addition and Castro neighbourhoods (some “homesteading” as they called it with guns next to their beds and bars on their windows). It also typified the new breed of Berkeley students who seemed more interested in buying clothes than books as more stores devoted to the former opened on Telegraph Avenue replacing the latter.

After the dozen students had introduced themselves and their poetic backgrounds and/or aspirations, Thom explained the rules of the workshop. Students were to submit work twice during the quarter. These submissions could be four short poems (shorter than one page), one long (longer than two pages) and two short poems or two long poems. The poems were to be photocopied and distributed a week in advance of class so that students could make micro and macro annotations about the manuscripts under discussions. Each student was allowed five minutes time to critique the poem before the discussion moved on to the next speaker. Students who had not read and annotated the poems in advance of class were not welcome to critique the poems.

In addition, while a poem was being critiqued, its author was to remain silent and take notes. Only after the critique was finished (usually after a half hour maximum) was he/she allowed to speak and then only to address questions posed by the readers to fill in missing details such as: “Who is speaking here?” or “What colour was the stone?,” etc.

Thom then gave us a stack of handouts about the basics and nomenclature of rhyme and rhythm and also a short collection of representative modernist poems including an excerpt from Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (which, to his horror, Thom discovered none of us had heard of).

I soon discovered that Thom was a humble, professional, impartial, caring and reserved instructor. He never took up class time telling old war stories about his time with other famous poets and writers. For example, he didn’t mention his Stegner Fellowship to Stanford to study with Ivor Winters or his journey down to Santa Monica to visit Christopher Isherwood. He also didn’t “testdrive” new poems in class. Furthermore, even though Thom was gay and he knew I and some other writing students were gay, as far as I know, he was one of the few gay instructors who respected the barrier between instructor and student. Moreover, he didn’t groom protégés for class or for the poetry contests he judged.

In Thom’s workshop the students’ writing was the most important thing week after week. I don’t ever remember him giving us specific assignments like those I’ve had in other classes which half of the time, the teachers haven’t bothered to check or review in class such as: “Go write a poem from the perspective of an animal of a tree,” or “Imagine you’re attending your own funeral, what would you want someone to say about you in verse?”

Thom was very secure in his role in the class. He just left us to the business of writing and he used the students’ texts as the examples from which he taught. In addition, I don’t remember Thom ever talking about grading as most professors did during their first classes, nor mention participation as a means of boosting one’s grade.

One last very important aspect about Thom’s workshop that stands out took place in the second class when student work was first being discussed. Tom became a bit agitated by student responses that were mostly complimentary and only barely critical of each others’ work.

“C’mon. Stop being so nice. You can be harder on her/him!” Thom explained this outburst by saying that West Coast students had trouble being critical of each other’s poems because they were afraid of giving offence, whilst those on the East Coast tended to be much too critical and competitive, fighting their way to the top over the bodies of the poets whose work they sometimes happily tore to pieces. Soon the chorus of “be harder” started to ring through class spontaneously (followed by giggles) after the students had finished describing most of the good aspects of the poem, but had just barely touched what needed improvement.

Thom waited until everyone else except the poet had spoken, before summing up what had been said and usually adding something important that the students had missed. Thom may have walked into the class the first day by projecting his hard guy leather rebel persona, but he was, on the contrary, the most careful reader and capable writing instructor I’ve ever experienced. Thom returned poems with helpful micro-level (correction of spelling, punctuations and word order, and crossing out overwritten phrases leaving just the essential words behind) as well as a paragraph of macro-level comments (the overall effectiveness of the poem and/or where it fit in contemporary American/English poetry). As a result of this, I can remember his writing class as being orderly, respectful, inspiring and productive. In addition, I don’t remember students ever questioning his judgment.

Within a few weeks, everyone in the class, due to the intensity of the class’s discussions and comments, knew who were the better, more interesting and/or controversial poets. Despite this, Thom gave everyone equal time in class. He was one of the few poetry teachers I can remember who carefully kept track of the time each students’ work was discussed. He waited for the end of the maximum half hour of discussion before he made his summation and delivered his final judgment and/or recommendations.

Thom shared his personal life in class only once that I can remember. That day he asked us if we thought he was too old or physically over the hill. We assured him he wasn’t. I mentioned that he didn’t have anything resembling a beer gut which most men his age had and that he had all his hair. This seemed to put Thom back on top and we got on with the class.

After listening to others’ poems being critiqued the first two weeks, I submitted my own poems for consideration, a long one in three parts called “Coming Out,” and two shorter ones called “Subway” and “To Harry in the Hope of Your Speedy Return.” Because Thom was gay, I felt comfortable submitting the “Coming Out” poem to class for critique. The students in general liked it and weren’t repulsed by the gay subject matter as students in other programs were a few years later. Thom’s students, whatever their sexuality, were able to offer helpful recommendations on how to tighten up lines or rearrange word order to make the poem stronger. After class ended and most of the students had left the room, Thom confided to me that many times he’d tried to capture the spirit of a gay march or protest, but hadn’t been able to. My “Coming Out” poem, however, in its third part, was able to capture that raw sentiment with the image for example of ““I tore my bedsheets to make a banner” (which was about the first march on Washington for gay rights in 1979). He also liked the images of the “soldier boy” and “his boots/laughing on my ribs.” The soldier boy image was one he would refer to in his correspondence for years after I had graduated from Berkeley and gone onto graduate school.

I also remember the laughter in Thom’s class and the constructive criticism when L.R. read her two poems “Femme Dykes” and “sitting on a fence” about blowing up traditional stereotypes and not wanting sometimes to identify with a specific sexuality, which I later published in the first issue of No Apologies. It was then I understood another reason I enjoyed writing workshops so much—to hear previously unpublished work read by as yet undiscovered authors—(and later, the thrill being the first to put it into print). This laughter also rounded out the class when someone, I think it was Marina, wrote a cento for the last class, taking one or two memorable lines from the students’ poems and putting them together into a poetic valediction.

I took Thom’s compliments about my poetry as a sign that he would be open to discussing my writing during his office hours which I tried to sign up for each week. That was when I discovered that even though Berkeley had 36,000 students on 12 campuses, you could still see professors once a week for ten or fifteen minutes. All you had to do was sign up in advance for the professor’s mandatory office hours on the bulletin boards next to their doors in the attic of Wheeler Hall (At least that’s where most of my professors had their offices with windows looking out onto the cement urns at the roof’s edge).

And my visits continued even when I was no longer in Thom’s poetry class. In addition to discussing my poetry, I also talked about readings I was attending in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and Mission districts, both hotbeds of young, experimental writers, my new relationship with Harry Britt, and how I was getting on as a working student. Thom, on his part, however, confided very little to me except that when he’d come to California on a scholarship it had also been difficult for him to get established and to stay.

Some weeks only a few students would show up, so Thom would give me an extra time slot or two of his time. It was those days that I couldn’t believe my luck as Thom discussed even in more detail, the tricks and tools of a poet. During one of these sessions, Thom took out one of the computer punch cards he gave to students to register late for his class and wrote his home telephone number on the back of it. I don’t remember what prompted him to do this, but I only rang this number rarely to talk to Thom about poetry, to tell him about a reading or my gay literary magazine, No Apologies, or to request a recommendation to graduate school.

After I left Berkeley and during the time I attended Brown we continued to correspond at least three times per year. In June 1983, Thom wrote to apologize for not being able to make it to my graduation party. On the back of a Poetry Comic Card #7, showing Walt Whitman sitting in an armchair watching television dated 7 June 1983, Thom sent me his “Congratulations” and wished me “a good summer” but apologized for not being able to attend my “graduation party.” Other times he wrote to confirm he’d received my request for recommendation letters to graduate school. In January 1984, he sent another postcard, this one featuring a short-haired blond man at the Air Force Academy holding its falcon mascot on his arm. Thom commented on the back of this postcard that that man looked “like the “soldier boy” at the end of your poem!…” Thom thanked me for sending him a copy of No Apologies’ first issue and for the recommendation forms for me for graduate school. He was confused though, “Now, one goes to Harvard, one goes to Brown, but where does one other one go?” He guessed that it went to the graduate program at Berkeley and he was correct.

I also phoned or wrote him during this time, asking him to read at No Apologies book parties in November 1983 at the Intersection and in May 1984 at New Space, a converted store front gallery, reading and dance space across the street from New College at 19th and Valencia. Thom, however, declined both times and Steve Abbott and Harold Norse respectively were the featured readers for those two events. Both times Thom thanked me for my invitation, but declined gracefully.

Only once did I see Thom in San Francisco when he wasn’t as eloquent and graceful as he’d been in class or on the phone and which also revealed a bit about his own private life including his recreational drug use. One Friday evening as I was walking on Market Street at 15th near where I lived, I saw Thom stumbling on the pavement. I walked up to him and asked “Thom, are you OK?” Instead of being able to speak to me, however, he could only gurgle and giggle in response. He must have been high and on his way from the N-Judah Duboce Park stop. Thom continued down the Market Street hill in this state.

Whilst at Brown from 1984 to 1986, Thom and I exchanged postcards and letters at least bi-annually, four of which I still have and which are fairly representative of our correspondence from that time. (Taras Otus also contacted me in December 1984 after some of my poems where published in Bay Windows in Boston. We got together at least once in Cambridge to talk about poetry and share our work). In March 1985 I sent Thom a long letter in which I asked him whether I should remain at Brown a second year and get my MA in creative writing. So far, I’d experienced opposition at Brown due to the homoerotic poems, the continued publication of my gay magazine, No Apologies (which ironically had won me the scholarship to Brown) and the response of some of the faculty, their spouses and fellow students to my partner’s presence at some campus readings. Unfortunately in the spring of 1985, even though I had been a fastidious student, attending all my classes and completing my assignments, I was passed over for a teaching assistantship for the next year. This was despite the 15 poems I’d had accepted or published, the three readings I’d given or sponsored on or around campus and the two major readings I was scheduled to give—one at the Small Press Fair at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the other at the Modern Language Association in Chicago.

About this time I had also been told all writing fellowships were being reconsidered. My response to this was to go home and see if I had enough boxes and suitcases to pack everything into to move back to San Francisco. Given the choice of borrowing $8,500 to complete my degree in creative writing or moving back San Francisco to continue with my magazine, the latter not the former seemed more reasonable based on my experience.

Around this time, I sent a letter to Thom in which I wondered whether the move to the East Coast had been worth it. Thom responded in a letter dated April 8 (1985). He said he was “glad that you are shaking them up at Brown…and I’m sure Philip Levine is glad too,” because he felt Levine had also done that at Berkeley even though it was something Thom felt he had “never been able to do” there. Thom also wrote about the value of getting a degree in teaching creative writing. He said that he sort of “fell into it.” He said that he felt teaching writing at a very elementary level—“giving them that starting push,” was “good” and “honest,” but he didn’t feel that writing “needs…or should be taught beyond that level.” He went on further to say that the “Writing Workshop style seems…responsible for the general wimpiness in too much American poetry.” But he concluded that the best thing for me to do “would be to try to get an MA in poetry.”

Then he went on to share that it had also been a “difficult semester” for him also. That even though he: “did a lot writing last year, which made me happy,” he had still decided that his next book would not come out until 1992, à lá Robert Duncan, who published a book only every ten years.

In addition, Thom wrote at the top of the back of the letter’s envelope at the top: “P.S. It gets slippery on that big hill you’re on, esp. in the winter, doesn’t it.” I can’t help thinking he was referring to more than meteorology and geography.

Reverse of envelope of letter from Thom Gunn to Bryan R. Monte, 8 April 1985

Reverse of envelope of letter from Thom Gunn to Bryan R. Monte, 8 April 1985

After his receipt of issue four of No Apologies which featured the second part of the long memoir by Harold Norse and an in-depth interview with Dennis Cooper, Thom wrote me a thank you note on 22 May 1985 on the back of a postcard featuring the Martin Theater in Talladega, Alabama. It was sent to my address at the Graduate department (where I assume the secretaries and anyone else could read it in my open cubby hole before I collected it). He wrote he liked the Cooper interview and my poem Heterophobia (later published by The James White Review as “The Visit”). He wrote me that “Heterophobia” was “good, interesting, gutsy, original.” About my other poem, “Daddy Dearest,” Thom said it reminded him of a man I’d written about “before, in a poem where he was a soldier boy.” Thom wished me luck at the private boarding school where I was about to teach that summer and warned me not to have “too many illusions about it” because it might turn out to be “a more tight-assed place then where you are.”

The next piece of correspondence I have from Thom is dated 16 July 1985. He sent it to that “tight-assed” school where I assisted with a poetry and a film class and was the instructor for track. I had written Thom about a contract an editor had sent me for an anthology. The contract prohibited me from republishing my poems chosen for the anthology for three years. I didn’t know whether I should agree to this because they’d taken many of my best poems like “Intimations of Frank O’Hara,” “Coming Out,” (the one with the soldier boy) “To Harry in the Hope of Your Speedy Return” (which Thom had said reminded him of Ezra Pound’s letter of the merchant’s wife letter in the Cantos) and “The Visit.”

In response to my question, “Should I sign?” Thom wrote that he found it “odd” that I had to sign a contract for a group of poems and not a book especially if I was only getting “two copies” of the anthology in return. He mentioned his own publishing experience and said that “the only times I have been asked to sign a contract for a poem….have been with The New Yorker which pays a great deal of money.” Thom’s advice was that I should either “a. ask for my poems back and send them elsewhere or b. sign the contract with the intention of breaking it.” Thom went on further to explain that “Obviously a. is the more honest.”

I had also sent Thom copies of the poems the publisher wanted me to sign the contract for including “The Mistress of Castro Street” and “Intimations of Frank O’Hara.” Thom called the latter “a real triumph in its assurance of tone, its certainty and tact, and….unashamed sexuality that reminds me of Marlowe in Hero and Leander.”

Thom ended the letter by saying he’d just attended a reading by Robert Duncan lamenting that Duncan was “the only great poet left alive” due to Basil Bunting’s and Cunningham’s deaths. “And, given his kidneys, I’m not sure he’s left to us much longer.”

The next month, I received Thom’s recommendation (on University of California, Berkeley stationery) dated July 30, 1985 for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund my magazine. First, Thom praised my magazine saying it was “innovative, bold and interesting” and that it was “one of the few magazines whose main concern is with Gay literature rather than…Fall fashions, cultural chit-chat, etc… and that its approach is consistently serious and responsible.” Then he mentioned my ability as an editor saying in the last five year he had “watched with interest the growth of his editorial talents in connection…with his poetic talents.” Thom called me a “dedicated and discriminating editor” and my magazine “worthy of whatever support” the NEA “could give it.”

I was over the moon with such a recommendation (and also one from Felice Picano, the editor of the Seahorse Press). One afternoon, out of the blue, I was telephoned by a woman from the NEA, who asked if I could raise half of the magazine’s budget from private investors. Instead of lying and telling her what I now realize she wanted to hear, I told her the truth—that I didn’t think I could raise 50% of my operating costs for the magazine’s expansion from private investors. (I could barely scrape enough money together each month to pay my rent and groceries!) This honest answer, unfortunately, probably doomed my request. I don’t know how far it got and if that was the last hurdle, but at the time it didn’t matter. I was exhausted from working two and sometimes three part-time jobs to pay for graduate school and keep a roof over my head let alone go out fundraising for private backers for a literary magazine.

The last piece of correspondence I received at Brown or have preserved is a short note on a piece of cardstock paper in an envelope dated 15 November 1985. This was in response for a letter of recommendation to a graduate school that was to be sent directly to the university without me seeing it. Thom, forever the anti-establishment hippie, wrote: “Now you can see it and still have waived your right to see it!”

I returned to San Francisco in February and July of 1987, the first time during a winter school holiday and the second after finishing my first and last year teaching high school in Massachusetts. While in San Francisco that February, I stayed at Edward Mycue and Richard Steger’s apartment and also visited James Broughton and Steve Abbott. On 16 February 1987, on the way back from Steve’s, I stopped at Thom’s. This is my journal entry:

On the way back, I stopped by Thom Gunn’s house….Thom was on the phone, so one of his roommates let me in. When he came in the room, he was as shy as always, wearing a leather band with flat metal studs on his left wrist. He’s thinner than the last time I saw him….His back was bent forward and he hugged himself. We talked a little bit about Massachusetts versus California—weather is warm, it’s spring already, drivers are nicer, etc. and I told him his picture was in the English Lit. textbook we use for the upper levels. He asked which one it was, but when I mentioned the title, he didn’t recognize it. I said it was the one in which he had a beard and was wearing a black, Zig-Zag T-shirt. He still didn’t remember it. A few minutes later, he walked up to me and shook my hand after we made a date to get together Friday at 5 at the Twin Peaks Tavern.

We met that Friday in the Twin Peaks Tavern at the busy corner of Castro, Market, and 17th Streets. As the rush hour traffic whizzed by and the music played not as loudly as other places in the Castro in the bar, Thom and I talked about my first job teaching creative writing in Massachusetts’ high school. I told him I intended to return that summer to San Francisco, that I’d spent the last week contacting San Francisco employers via the Brown University graduate network. A hotel and an advertising firm had both promised me work, so we both drank to my imminent return in just a few months for an hour or so before we both went off to our next appointments expecting my return that summer.

In July 1987, Thom’s was one of the first places I stopped to show off my new car and tell him about my road trip across the country. (My journey started just 30 miles west of where the Pilgrims landed with a detour north at Iowa to Minnesota to see Phil Willkie and Greg Baysans at The James White Review. (I attended a writing camp in the Wisconsin woods sponsored by JWR and led by poet, Robert Peters). Thom was happy to see me and posed for a photograph with me.

Bryan R. Monte & Thom Gunn in San Francisco, July 1987

Bryan R. Monte & Thom Gunn in San Francisco, July 1987

The next record I have of Thom is a black and white photo postcard of a short-haired, young, bare chested man with a chain around his neck looking at his shadow against a white wall. It’s dated Nov 16/88 more than a year later and it was sent to my address in Silicon Valley with the instructions to “Please Forward” if necessary. I had invited Thom to a reading of my long poem, “Neurotika.” It featured snippets of my own erotic misfortunes and the escalating AIDS crisis in San Francisco interlaced with music loop of Bryan Eno’s Music for Airports, part 2, gay travel magazines reports about where homosexuality was criminalized in the world and newspaper reports of the spread of the world-wide AIDS pandemic. Thom’s response to my invitation was short saying he wouldn’t be able to make it because he would be in Portland then. He did however wish me “Good luck.”

I saw Thom for the last time at a reading he gave at Black Oak Books in Berkeley in 1992. It was just after the publication of his fourth major poetry book: The Man With Night Sweats. I attended that reading with the late poet and doctor, Ronald Linder. It was a cold, overcast, foggy day and I remember all the lighting was switched on inside that enormous store.

Thom still recognized me without me having to introduce myself even though it had been more than a decade since I’d sat in his class. He smiled, chatted with me briefly and signed a copy of Night Sweats and also a broadside of the book’s title poem, “a gift from Black Oak Books”…“on the occasion of the reading by the author.” As he’d mentioned in his letter to me in ’85, Tom had kept his promise not to publish again until 1992.

I corresponded with Thom at least once more that I remember after I moved to Europe in 1993. In 1994 I sent him my poems arranged in a book-sized collection entitled Neurotika asking for his opinion and, if possible, a book blurb. Thom posted the poems back to me a few months later with a letter that I have either temporarily misplaced or lost during one of my four moves during the next seven years. I can’t remember exactly what was in the letter, but essentially it said that the publishing world had changed considerably since his first book, and that he no longer knew where to refer me. I did notice, however, that Thom had taken the time to go through my entire manuscript, just as if I were still in his workshop, and edit it. For that I was grateful, even if it seemed I was on my own to find a publisher and/or an agent.

More than twenty years later, I still consider it a privilege to have studied and corresponded with Thom Gunn. He was a great poet and a modest and masterful teacher. He gave me the start that I needed and offered advice for years after I’d left university. This kept me going through the dark years when I had no time to write whilst trying to keep my head above water financially and trying to forge ahead with my teaching career in a new country. Now that due to my disability I have time to write again, I look back on Thom, his class, and my classmates fondly. As I sit in a bookshop in Amsterdam listening to the Westerkerk’s two o’clock chimes signalling it’s time for Amsterdam Quarterly’s monthly writers workshop to begin, I realize that Thom taught me all I ever needed to know about writing and teaching writing—and I want to do the same for these writers.

Pat Seman — Homecoming

Homecoming
by Pat Seman

The road lies before me. A dirt road. Empty. On either side vast fields stretch in long, smooth undulations to the far horizon. Not a house, a farm or a person in sight.

I’m about to visit my grandmother’s birthplace, the village she left so long ago to look for a better life in the New World. I’m here in the ‘old country’—a phrase my Dad always used, that I haven’t heard since my childhood.

I have no idea who, if anyone, is left of my grandmother’s family. All I have is the name of a village.

Now, only a few kilometres to go on the last lap of a journey that started in Amsterdam and has brought us more than a thousand kilometres through the forests and hills and wide plains of central Europe to this remote south-west corner of Ukraine.

We’ve just come off the main road—a switch-back road through gently rolling countryside, lined with huge trees leaning towards us, newly-leafed and in blossom.

A wooden signpost at the turning points the way along the dirt road which seems to go on and on in a straight line to nowhere. The village has to be out there somewhere. Surely not far now. I don’t know what to expect. A huddle of houses surrounded by an eternity of empty fields?

Dust rises from our car wheels as we hit the dirt track. We drive slowly, swerve to avoid shallow ruts and potholes. I roll down a window. A lark is singing somewhere over the fields. The earth is a deep, rich brown, alive with tender, green shoots laid out in long, neat rows.

The road goes into a long curve. Trees appear, a farm. The land on our right rises into a steep, grassy bank. We drive downhill past a memorial inscribed 1941-1945, with the figures of two men, strong torsos, heavily muscled, one bare-chested, kneeling, his arm twisted back in the grasp of the other who is booted, holding a gun.

A church, then another large concrete building that could be a school.

The road narrows, steepens, follows the course of a shallow stream. We’re drawn down into a tiny valley. Low houses painted in shades of blue and green amongst trees. Gardens with neat wooden fences. The land, carefully ploughed and planted, reaches down to the stream now lined with willows. Ducks float on the water, waddle in convoy across the road. We slow down to let them pass. The stream disappears. Houses hug the grass verge as the road winds and curves. It climbs round a bend and I look down on a small house with a steep corrugated iron roof, on its sky blue plaster walls and decorative panel work painted green, white and blue. There’s a wooden fence immaculate in exactly the same pattern of colours. A pile of logs is neatly stacked in one corner. I glimpse a vase of flowers at the window. A man pushes aside the curtain at the doorway and steps out into the yard.

I wonder if this is my family’s village. It feels sheltered, intimate. But the road widens, the houses fall away.

Then, on a rocky bank at the side of the road, in large concrete Cyrillic letters, painted blue,

VASYLIV.

All I had to guide me here was a scrap of paper on which, years ago, my father had written the name of his mother’s village. I remembered him telling me that it was near the town of Chernivtsi, the capital of Bukovina, which is now in Ukraine. He also said that my grandmother’s father was the mayor of the village. This was all the information I had. I’d never thought to ask any questions until it was too late and my father had died, taking any stories about the Old Country with him. So, when I decided to try and trace my roots, the first thing I needed was that scrap of paper. I knew that we’d kept it, put it away somewhere safe. But where?

It was my husband who finally hunted it down; in the attic, on a faded post-it stuck to the screen of an old computer that we’d stored way, gathering dust. We deciphered the faint letters to read ‘Vasolau’. Then poured over atlases – old atlases in which Bukovina was part of the Soviet Union, more recent ones placing it in an independent Ukraine; found nothing. So we homed in on Chernivtsi and its surrounding area on Google Earth. There were villages aplenty in tiny Bukovina: in the foothills of the Carpathians, on the banks of the River Dniester, close to the border with Romania. But none with this name. We’d come to a dead end.

I was teaching at a language school in Amsterdam and in one of my English classes was a Ukrainian student, Luba. She already knew about my Ukrainian roots and, when I told her about my failed efforts to find my grandmother’s village, she offered to look for information online on a Russian site. She came to the next lesson with a printed-out map of Bukovina. She’d circled one village as the most probable.

It lay thirty kilometres north of Chernivtsi on the banks of the River Dniester. It was called Vasyliv.

We drive past the large concrete sign into the village. A long row of low wooden fences stretches on either side of the wide road; beyond it houses set back in courtyards, down narrow side streets, spread out amongst gardens. The road is all but empty of traffic. We pass a group of women in headscarves. They turn and stare at the strangers in the red Renault with its foreign licence plates; at me sitting in the back, my husband, Jaap, at the wheel and beside him the slim figure of Tanya, our interpreter.

I’ve been more confident that this could be my family’s village since Tanya has thrown herself into the task. We were brought into contact with her when we asked at the hotel reception for an interpreter. This is the first time that she’s helped someone find their family and she’s curious, full of enthusiasm. She took us to her language school, to its small office at the edge of a school playground. We sat at a table piled high with English textbooks, next to two teachers preparing lessons, while she made phone calls in an attempt to trace my grandmother’s records. First to the regional office in the neighbouring village to Vasyliv where she was informed that the archives had just been moved to Chernivitsi, then to Chernivitsi where they told her that they were in the process of transferring all records to a new office. Finally, she contacted the chairman of the Vasyliv village council. When she told him my grandmother’s name he said,

“Bring her along. Of course her family is here. Half the village is called Semenyuk”.

I’m nervous, yet at the same time feel strangely numb. It comes, I think, from a sense of surrender. Now that I’ve set this process in motion, that I find myself in this remote corner of Europe about to meet complete strangers—strangers to whom I’m tied by blood and history – I’ve no choice but to take whatever, whoever, comes. I’m also curious.

Last night I talked to a young woman from Canada staying at our hotel, who’s also searching for her relatives. She wants to make a film. But first she must go to the village and find out if there is still family. And if she does find them, she has no idea how they’ll receive her, what she can expect.

When I was a child, about six or seven years old, a stranger came to our flat in London. I was sent down to open the door. Standing on the pathway, framed in the dim and foggy light of 50’s London, was a man in a long, grey raincoat, his face in the shadow of the hat tipped over his forehead. He could have stepped straight out of our tiny black and white TV screen—Harry Lime, the cold war agent, fresh from the war-torn streets of Vienna. In fact, he was an old friend of my Dad’s from his hometown, Brandon, in Canada. He’d just arrived off the boat and had come to see us before setting out on the final part of his journey. He was about to visit his family in Ukraine, to go behind the Iron Curtain—for me, at that time, an undefined but hostile world; a world that was uniformly grey, peopled by dour, unsmiling faces. I realise now that he was probably going to Bukovina. He must have called in again on his way back but I can’t remember. I don’t even know if he managed to meet his family; only that his by presence there and the fact that he was trying to make contact with them, the authorities were alerted and his family was put into danger. He was certainly not made welcome. It was a period, when all communication between Ukraine and the outside world was frozen, when the people and families trapped in that world for all intents and purposes disappeared.

The long line of fences and houses is broken by a football field, then a cemetery—a large field full of white stone crosses. We reach a small concrete building set back from the road. Mikola, the chairman of the village council, is waiting for us at the gate. As Tanya introduces us he reaches out to shake Jaap’s hand, then greets me with a courteous nod. He’s a short man with warm brown eyes, a drooping moustache and grey shoulder-length hair. He takes us into the building, down a wide corridor and into his office. It’s a homely and comfortable room. In one corner is a long three-part dressing table mirror over a small table. On the table stands a jar of wild flowers. Next to it is a computer desk against the wall. Its shelves are full of greeting cards and family photos and one pink toy dog. A big, yellow fishing net is propped near the door and there’s goldfish in a small tank by the window. On one wall hangs a portrait of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra and facing them, impassively, President Yevtuschenko. Three women rise to greet us as we enter. Mikola introduces us to his assistants; Vanya, Svetlana and his wife, Katya. Katya and Vanya are cousins. They are both Semenyuks. They greet us warmly with firm handshakes and big smiles.

We all sit down at a long table and Tanya shows the photograph taken in Canada of my grandmother and my father, a young boy in his teens. Looking full of responsibility, he stands sternly at her side. Gathered around them are his sister, Jean, his younger brother, Mike and sister, Ann. Only the little ones, Mike and Ann, are smiling. Tanya tells them that my grandmother’s father was chairman of the village.

In Mikola’s white Mercedes we’re driven to a small house on a rise where we’re introduced to Alexander, whose great-grandfather had once been the village chairman.

Alexander is excited to see us. He sits me down and kneels at my side showing me photo after photo of the family in ‘Moose’. Moose? I suddenly realise, he’s talking about Moose Jaw, the Canadian prairie town in Saskatchewan, where my father was born. So one after the other the villagers must have followed each other out to Moose Jaw and formed a community there – an extension of Vasyliv on Canadian soil. I’d had no idea. I’d always thought that my grandmother’s emigration had been a solitary adventure, that she’d followed her husband out to Canada and that they’d settled where there was work. The photographs keep on coming, but I recognise nobody. I can see Tanya shaking her head. Alexander is really keen to establish a family relationship but it turns out that his great-grandfather’s name was not even Semenyuk. The connection is on his mother’s side. He takes us out to meet her. She’s sitting on a bench in the yard. She is blind. She takes hold of my hand, tells me that she spent the years of her childhood in Canada, in Moose. She went to school there, but she can’t remember any English now. All the words have gone. And she certainly can’t remember my grandmother. It was so long ago.

The first time I met my grandmother was not in Moose Jaw but in another prairie town, Brandon, where my Dad grew up. I was eleven and had to take some extra time off school for the big trip to Canada. It was the first time my Dad had been back since before I was born. I remember my grandmother’s hair was tied into two plaits, pinned to her head. She wore dark clothes and an apron. She looked like my Dad, the same long, serious face. I remember the wooden house where she lived. It was long and low with a veranda and out back was a big garden full of vegetables and at the end of the garden, the toilet, a little wooden hut with a hole in the ground. I was scared to go in because the walls were draped with spiders’ webs. I remember her bedroom with an iron bed and plain white sheets. Underneath her bed she kept a trunk, which she drew out and opened to show me the white linen shift that she’d made and embroidered for her deathbed. I remember that she and my Dad spoke Ukrainian together but I had no ear for the lilt and the music of it then, no interest.

I also remember my Dad leaning against a wooden fence in Brandon as he talked in Ukrainian to my grandmother’s neighbour and the two onion-shaped domes of a Ukrainian wooden church that rose in the distance behind them. I can see already how much there is in Vasyliv that would have been familiar to him had he ever been able to come here; how little, at least on the surface of things, life has changed here since my Dad’s childhood, spent far away in Canada. I wonder what more I’ll learn about my father now that I’m in Vasyliv.

Mikola takes us for a tour of the village. He drives us to the river and parks in the middle of a field. in deep grass. We’re on a bluff looking down at a point where the Dniester is joined by a smaller river, the Siret. He tells us that, situated on this confluence, Vasyliv was once an important town linked to the great trade routes that flowed from the Baltic to the Black Sea by way of the Dniester. Here he says, pointing to the banks below, was a harbour and there a trading station, and there, pointing to a large field to our right, a castle. Vasyliv, he says, was once wealthy and powerful, a fortified town with numerous wooden churches and monasteries. All destroyed, burnt to the ground when the Mongols swept through. The bones of the slaughtered still regularly turn up in the gardens and fields around the village.

He drives back along the main street and draws our attention to the big, yellow pipes on either side, high above the ground. After years of wheeling and dealing he’s finally managed to bring gas to the village and is proud of his victory. As we drive past the large football field he points out a small white wooden tribune standing at the far edge – yet another of his achievements in the long struggle with the authorities to get funding to improve the village. He reels out story after story of official corruption and indifference. Yet, Mikola is in buoyant mood. He has plans. Vasyliv, he believes, with its gently rolling hills and river setting is the perfect tourist destination.

And, as if to prove his point, he takes us down another turning to the river; this time down a narrow, bumpy, dirt path lined with low fences and small wooden houses. Here on the left he tells us, along the banks of a tiny stream, were once a row of windmills run by several Jewish families. The path stops by a copse of trees and we walk down to a wide river meadow where two or three tethered cows and a piebald horse quietly graze. Just before us is a small island in the river. Two boys are swimming across the channel, another sits on the bank, fishing. To our left a narrow track trodden through the grass leads along the river, through the trees that crowd its banks, towards a row of small houses visible on the rise, their long plots of land, curving down to the water’s edge. To our right the river makes a wide turn, disappearing behind a high cliff, where the land rises into a steep hill.

The spring sky, high and blue with its thin drift of clouds, the sheltering trees. The green meadow and the winding river; its quiet, steady flow.

It is beautiful here.

On the way back along the bumpy path we glimpse a young girl walking towards us up the slope from a garden below, herding a flock of geese.

Now Mikola takes us along yet another path. It runs down between high grassy banks and this time comes to the river at a point where immediately opposite, on the other side of the water, is a high cliff, its earthy brown and green contours stretched into rippling reflections in the river’s strong flow.

Two women in wellington boots stand ankle-high in the water washing clothes, a pile still stacked in a wheelbarrow behind them. Two little girls sit close by, balanced on the prow of a wooden skiff beached on the riverbank, their feet dangling in the water.

Mikola leads us a few metres up the path again and then turns off and through a gate into a large yard. We’ve come to his house. A well stands in the middle of the yard. It’s made of wood and painted blue with an intricately fretted and decorated tin roof that gleams in the morning sun. Proudly he demonstrates his latest acquisition – an electric pump for the well. He turns on a switch and we watch as the water gushes out. He takes us around his property, shows us pigs in a sty, then a big garden at the back of the house with long, neat rows of vegetables. Their frail green fronds and leaves are just emerging from the soil.

He picks up a handful of soil, holds it out to us. “Black gold, they call it. The richest soil there is. Stalin came here and stripped us of our earth. Took it back to Russia in trainfulls.” He lets the soil slide slowly through his fingers.

Back at the office a woman is waiting for us. She is tall and wears a bright yellow, floral headscarf. Mikola introduces us to Maria Vasileyevna, a teacher at the village school and Vasyliv’s local historian. She’s here to help me trace my family. She sits down with us, puts on her glasses and studies the photograph. As she takes out a notebook I notice her large, work-roughened hands. She has the shape of my father’s mouth, his eyes. She tells me that she’s a Semenyuk on her mother’s side.

“We are one big family here,” she says. “ We all come from the same earth. It’s in our blood, we take it in with our mother’s milk. The earth of this village is a magnet. It pulls its children back. And so you have come to us”.

Maria finishes her notes and asks if she can take my grandmother’s photo with her. She promises she’ll do what she can to find my family.

Mikola drives us, together with Katya, Vanya and Svetlana, to a restaurant by a lake in the next village. We sit in a wooden arbour, eat stuffed chicken cutlets, cabbage salad and a huge carp, fresh from the Dniester. We drink vodka and each time the glass is filled for another toast – to our health, our wealth and happiness, to our continued friendship.

On the way back to Chernivtsi we stop off at a petrol station. In the office a man is leaning against the counter, drunk. As we leave he suddenly bursts into song in a deep, rich baritone.

The next morning Tanya calls me on my mobile. Maria phoned her at seven o’clock. She has found my family.

Sharon Feigal — How to Drive Stick

How to Drive Stick
by Sharon Feigal

One day in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, a small boy on a small bicycle prepared to ride directly into a small pile of freshly mounded earth. The red bicycle was so tiny that, with its training wheels, it looked more like a tricycle. The boy, helmeted head bent in concentration, readied himself for the challenge. His father’s hand on his shoulder steadied his nerves.

I cycled past, and as I did, I heard a light thump, and a satisfied harumph as the father groaned in sympathy. I looked back. The daredevil was still jaun-tily upright, his front tire just slightly embedded in the soft dirt, his eyes wide with confusion under his helmet but his mouth held in a proud line.

When I was his age, I had many idols, among them the great motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel. I couldn’t jump a motorcycle over several parked trucks, but I could line up logs beside a small ramp and attempt the jump on my bicycle. I lined them up, but a memory of actually missing any of them in the subsequent “jump” eludes me. It probably never happened.

Somewhere along the line, we lose our fearlessness. We become cautious with our possessions, aware of their vulnerabilities as well as our own. We are terrified of collision, terrified too of a loss of control. As children, some of us crave those feelings and learn from them. Some of us ride our skateboards as hard and as fast at the flat wall as possible, alone in the parking lot, anticipating with delicious dread the impact that will follow if we fail in our daredevil last-minute pivot.

Maybe we’re the same ones that always have to learn everything the hard way. Or at least the painful way. Maybe we’re the pigheaded non-believers, distrustful of the loving parents who tell us that our antics will end in raw knees and broken toys. Or maybe we’re just experiential daredevils, out to discover for ourselves what it feels like to fling ourselves headlong into a muddy pile of dirt.

As it happened, my dreams of living up to the legacy of Evel Knievel weren’t completely unachievable. I did have access to a motorcycle—my dad’s humble 1969 Honda CL70, silvery grey with blue trim, which his own dad had given him when he was at Western Washington University studying Biology and Chemistry.

The first in his family to go to college, Dad had used the bike to get himself and sometimes my mom around to classes, work, his apartment, and on adventures, back in the early 1970s in damp and grey Bellingham, northwestern Washington State. Despite the very limited capacity of a 70cc engine, he once convinced Mom to ride with him to the top of nearby Chuckanut Mountain, a well-intentioned adventure that disappointingly ended in hours of rain and two frozen and bedraggled individuals returning home late that night.

Out on the winding country roads of the Lincoln Creek valley in the southwestern region of Washington, I rode on the front between Dad’s arms when I was very small then on the back when I grew a little bigger. When I became a teenager, my dad began to let me take it out on my own, although never very far. I was too young for a driver’s license, and didn’t even have a learner’s permit, so I was forbidden from traveling as far as town, but farm kids grow up driving many vehicles in order to help out with the work, and I’d been driving tractors and 3-wheelers for most of my life.

At the age of 15, the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous adventure that was my parents’ marriage was long over and I was mainly living in town with my mom, stepdad, and a handful of siblings. My dad still lived out at the farm, 20 minutes away up Lincoln Creek, and my brother and I still spent lots of time out there with him.

My friend Nathan lived just inside the city limits. His parents had converted their garage into a house extension, which meant that his teenage bedroom was accessible covertly at any hour by side door, after knocking on the window.

One afternoon, I borrowed Dad’s bike with a promise that I was only going to cruise up and down the valley, certainly no further than the foot of Cook’s Hill Road, about 5 miles down the creek. Along the way, fuelled probably by lovesickness from a crush on either Nathan himself or one of our other friends to be found at his place, I decided to drive an additional five miles into town for a visit.

Partially in order to make up the time so that my dad would not suspect the distances, I had an excuse to drive much faster than I ever had before. My hair was flying out behind me, and the twists and turns of Lincoln Creek Road—a death trap to many motorists over the years—were exhilarating. Not much later, my first boyfriend and I would race up and down that same road in his VW Beetle, misunder-standing Dad’s cautionary advice: “You should drive so that you never use the brakes on this road.”

Nathan wasn’t home when I got to his house. I pounded on the window of his bedroom, but was not brave enough to ring the doorbell and ask his parents about his whereabouts. Disappointed by the unavailability of my friend for my unannounced visit but excited from the ride, I turned around and headed back to Lincoln Creek and the farm.

Our farm lay in a particularly wide and low section of the valley, and the road curved down out of the evergreen trees and into it at a distance, then continued in a wide bend past further farms and homes before disappearing around the next big curve. The farm itself squatted at the end of a long driveway, leaving the entire section of valley and road visible from the front porch of our house. At night, headlights from occasional vehicles chased patterns around the walls of my childhood bedroom.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that my dad heard me coming, and was waiting for me in front of the house.

“Everything alright with my bike, Sharon?”

“Um, yeah…” I killed the engine. I wasn’t really sure what he was asking, but his hands were on his hips and his tone told me that I was in trouble.

“Engine sounded a little harsh. Did the clutch stick?”

“Clutch?” I knew the word. Tractors had them, I knew. It had something to do with the gears, in the form of a little lever or knob, and you needed to be in a very low gear to get them out of deep mud. You’d probably want someone to give you a push, too, and a few boards to wedge under the tires. 3-wheelers had them as well, but you changed gears with a little joystick. The car that Dad had been trying to teach me to drive had a pedal that you operated with your left foot, usually resulting in us rolling backwards down Cook’s Hill. I wasn’t entirely sure what the clutch had to do with the allegedly harsh sound of the engine, though. I can still feel the bewildered look I must have had on my face, eyebrows crinkled and raised, teeth poised to bite my lips.

Dad tried again, “What gear is it in?”

Uh oh. The motorcycle had more than one. On cars, tractors and three-wheelers, there are numbers stamped on the joysticks or levers. I hadn’t ever noticed one on the motorcycle. I got off and peeked back at it. Nope, I still couldn’t see any num-bers.

At this point, I’m sure my dad knew exactly what had happened, every part of it. Our valley echoed very well. It was usually possible to guess the size and speed of the vehicle by the sound of its engine through the valley. My dad must have deduced that whether or not I’d gone further than I was permitted, I’d done it at speeds far too fast for first gear.

There are second lives, and probably third and fourth, for motorcycles. The lucky ones get repaired, using the parts of other machines, and restored. Unfortunately, that little CL70 took the hard knocks from that lesson in transmissions. A few weeks later, and only after I asked, my dad told me that his mechanic could do nothing for it. Heartbroken, he’d watched it hauled away on the back of someone’s truck, des-tined for parts.

Shortly after this incident, we gave up trying to teach me to drive a car with a manual transmission. No amount of explaining could teach me how to smoothly operate a clutch. Through a barter, Dad acquired a beige 1981 Buick Regal, a giant, safe boat of a sedan, and I learned to drive an automatic transmission. I won’t lie—it’s much easier, especially on the hilly terrain of the west coast. I made it through my first three years of college in eastern Washington with automatic transmission. At the end of those three years, my life and my second car in tatters through a series of other mishaps, I relocated to Minnesota to start anew.

My fresh start turned out to be vehicular as well as personal, since the loss of my last car. I started with a bicycle, which was soon stolen, but home, classes and jobs were sometimes too distant from each other. A motorcycle is a lot cheaper than a car, and motivated by limited resources, I rode the bus from home to home, test driving secondhand motorcycles, always in first gear. I dared not touch the lever beside the left foot peg—the clutch itself.

Eventually, I found a 1977 Honda CB550k, a black beauty with orange detailing and all the extra bits you can imagine. We went for a ride around a parking lot, but I was too afraid to brave the streets and traffic home, that cool spring evening. The seller, an attractive and rather bewildered guy only a little older than I was, arranged to drive it the half hour to my place while a friend drove him home. Meanwhile, I wrote the biggest check of my life so far, for $500.

Once again choosing the most obstinate and solitary method of learning new things, I did not enrol in the Motorcycle Safety Course offered by the State of Minnesota. There, I could have been patiently instructed on every step of riding a motorcycle, starting with getting on it and leaning it up. I could have experienced falling over and picking up a bike with a very manageable 125cc motorcycle, larger than Dad’s old CL70, but still not much more than a moped. Instead, I took the written exam that granted me my learner’s permit, enabling me to ride, during daylight hours, with no passengers, on non-freeway streets, in full protective gear, something not required for fully licensed bikers in Minnesota.

A friend had given me a well-worn and very oversized leather biker jacket, and another friend gave me a pair of matching second-hand helmets. I wore combat boots and leather workman’s gloves that I’d bought at an army surplus store. I spent every free moment of every day teaching myself to ride that bike around the calm, flat, and uninhabited streets of the quiet residential neighborhood where I rented the attic bedroom of an elderly couple. There was very little street traffic there, and almost no one was ever parked on the streets because every home had a full garage in the alleys that snaked around backyards.

Every corner had a stop sign, and at every stop sign I fell over. Years of attempting to understand how clutches were operated behind the wheel of a car were repeated and condensed by the visceral experience of falling over every 30 seconds. The motorcycle, bearing protective guards for its engine that kept the whole bike off the ground, was unscathed. My wardrobe and knees were not. Within a couple of weeks I no longer owned a pair of pants without holes in the knees, and I’d had to retire the first of the two helmets. But I was able to ride.

I spent that summer taking weekend road trips around the level terrain of the upper Midwest, studying the mechanical manual and learning to do my own frequently needed repairs. I took the Motorcycle Safety Course, where the teacher asked me to please stop showing off. The other students were intimidated. My first passenger was a friend about twice my size, and we got home—slightly tipsy from Foster’s lager—through the traffic gridlock that was downtown Minneapolis’ BBQ Festival.

Dad visited the following autumn. Autumn in Minnesota is beautiful, with all the deciduous trees showing reds and golds, mounds of leaves everywhere. It’s a great time to visit. By then, I was fully licensed. We went for some short rides. Now it was his turn to sit behind me, on this newer, larger Honda, trying to steer me from the hips when he got nervous, but lacking any imaginary brake pedal as he’d had in the cars.

When it was time for him to fly home, the only way I could get him to the airport from my new place in a student house in Dinkytown, just north of campus, was to borrow my boyfriend’s car, a dull-grey Japanese compact. It had a manual transmission. I had never borrowed his car before. I had never driven his car before. I had never told him that I didn’t know how to drive a stickshift.

My dad was more wary. “When did you learn to drive stick?”

I hesitated. “Well, the bike has a clutch. It can’t be much different.” I was game, if nervous. We packed up the bags and I got behind the wheel.

“Do you want me to drive?” he wanted to know. Was he worried that I would ruin this person’s car like I’d ruined his little bike?

“No… I’m going to have to drive back without you anyway.” Maybe he could coach me like he’d done when I was younger. Wait. That had never really gone all that well.

I put the car into gear and drove off down the street without incident, in the direction of the southbound freeway. We needed to get past downtown Minneapolis to the airport, south of the city and its wealthier suburbs.

When I moved to Minneapolis, I was shocked by what passes as driving skills in the locals. They seldom used their turn signals, they veered left on their widest of wide lanes in order to execute a right turn, and they descended into a complete panic whenever traffic needed to merge.

I was pretty pleased with myself as we started down the ramp leading to Interstate Highway 35 West. Freeways should be easy—without stopping, you smoothly change into higher and higher gears until you are gliding along at a reasonable pace. That’s the theory, anyway.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account what time of day it was—rush hour. The freeway was a tangled mess of traffic. Cars were stopping and starting, making wild rushes to pass each other on the left or on the right, and swerving in the lanes to look for a chance to do so. All of the best examples of Minnesotan driving were to be seen. My poor dad, never comfortable with city traffic anywhere, started to look a little pale. His right hand reached out, not so subtly, and took hold of the panic bar above the passenger door. His left hand gripping the edge of his seat steadied his nerves.

There were some mishaps along the way. I stalled the engine a couple of times, coming out of a dead stop on the packed freeway, a harumph from Dad every time we came to an abrupt stop. But we got there in the end. Dad made his flight, I made it home again, and my future husband was none the wiser about the dangers visited upon his hapless vehicle. I couldn’t have been prouder. I’d finally mastered manual transmission. I could drive stick. And no one had taught me how.