30ish guy reads a glowing comic book
on his electron tablet =
Marvel Comics superheroes of my youth
here with zombie eyes
and ravenous skull mouths
some apocalyptic disease
from outer space
The Maitri Benefit was for the San Francisco Zen Center’s new hospice (maitri is Sanskrit for compassion), and included Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Ginsberg, trumpeter Don Cherry and others. Libby came, too. She worked at the hospice and, with the encouragement of the Lama at our Center, we were now romantically involved. It led to us moving out.
Most hilariously, Don Cherry kept noodling on his horn as if warming up with a seeming acid casualty glee during some of the other lesser poets. It was clear that Don knew pretty well what he was doing, but he acted like he didn’t so there was no calling him on it and certainly no controlling it. It had a Corso-esque prankster element that really showed the true selves of the various posturing poets who attempted to read with his merciless punctuations of blat and bleep. Cherry was mainly there to read with Ginsberg, and he behaved himself then. Afterward, McClure asked Philip, Allen and me to sign his poster, which I appreciated. I saw a young man preparing to squire Allen away, and he had that self-important look that I knew was difficult to avoid.
Libby and I had a tumultuous affair that eventually resolved into a lasting friendship. She’d heard about this interesting teacher, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, and took me to an empowerment of his in Berkeley. I came into the small apartment where it was being given, and Lama Tharchin looked up from his preparations and directly into my eyes. His expression seemed to say, “Oh, it’s you.” For me it was an immediate connection that remains to this day. And Libby wound up his consort after our affair had burned out. One might say our romance was her slumming between lamas.
A month later, Allen read with Andy Clausen at Cody’s in Berkeley, the place was absolutely packed. Allen saved me a seat, thankfully – the scene extended far beyond the ability to view him. As per usual, he was gracious and mentioned to the audience how nice it was to be in the company of old poet friends, and I was listed. I have always loved Clausen’s work, an enormously under appreciated poet and great reader of his own stuff – a real American voice, gravely, bear-like, voice of the blue collar with strange baroque Whitmanic expansiveness, the poetic equivalent of Orson Welles but with a down home intelligence, like the wisdom of a hobo. We wound up over at Clausen’s in Oakland afterward, and I sat next to Wavy Gravy, charming old doper who remembered everyone from the Merry Prankster Electric Kool-Aid ‘60’s – mentioning that a lot of people had died trying to imitate Neal Cassady.
The next day we walked around the Haight, looking into the used bookstores. With Allen, a new boyfriend that must’ve been my age when we first met. I’ve forgotten his name, but Allen showed good taste. Sweet, gentle bespectacled intellectual kid – I had one of those amazing moments where one readjusts one’s own sense of age, for this boy’s face was completely without lines, as if newborn, or even still of the womb. It was similar to the way college freshman just look younger and younger as time progresses and the carcass grows tired. We chatted a little – he knew I was an old boyfriend, he was a little shy, perhaps thought I’d try to make him like I had been hounded at his age. Allen bought me a couple of finds, including a copy of Antler’s poetry that had been signed by Antler as well to some ingrate who’d sold it. We ate in a place called Hell’s Kitchen that didn’t last long – the service was so terrible everyone had to be on drugs.
I drove Allen and his new boy around in my ’64 Plymouth Valiant which the previous owner had painted black with house paint. Photographer Chris Felver was along for the ride. I remember driving up Market Street past the Cinema Theater, and somehow getting into an extended explanation as to how it mainly pitched out-of-town porn stars with gigantic tits – and I mean behemoth – their main act was that they’d altered their tits to near-beach ball size. Allen asked me if I’d ever gone and I said no. I only knew about it from ads. Funny, I later wound up in 3-year-retreat with a lesbian woman who lap danced there, but she, like all the local strippers there, were not of this huge tit mutated variety.
We visited a venerable queer hippie commune in the Mission that had been around since the ‘60’s. Irving Rosenthal’s place, the “Kaliflower” commune, who also once edited Big Table (a Chicago Review splinter mag named by Kerouac) with some of the initial publishings of Beat authors . Allen somehow managed to get Felver to wait in the car (at least for a while) just to get a break from the camera and not agitate the soft-spoken Rosenthal. Felver eventually grew restless and knocked on the door, video camera under his t-shit like a strange bionic growth. Needless to say, Rosenthal wasn’t fooled. We talked about the Gulf War, how everyone he knew was against it except for Burroughs, who said, “Those Arabs, give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Ginsberg laughed, repeating it. Of course, Allen knew all the political history that had led up to it, the incredible meddling we’d done in the mid-East that kept backfiring, even the father of the then-current General Schwarzkopf helping the newly enthroned Shah of Iran develop his dreaded secret police.
In a photo, Felver caught the new boyfriend with me & Ginsey in the Booksmith on Haight St. Allen signed books at the Booksmith, so I stepped outside for some air. I ran into McClure who was very nice to me, also waiting for Allen. Diamond Dave, an acid fry of the good old days, came up and began holding forth on Allen like I had no idea who Allen was. McClure smiled and said, “You may not know who you’re talking to.” Dave looked at McClure and said, “After 40 you get your real face.” It was a compliment for McClure, of course. Less so for Diamond Dave, who looked like a cheery derelict, only shorted out with electricity rather than alcohol.
I went to a week of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s summer retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, his new property that he’d christened Pema Osel Ling, Land of Lotus Light. The practice was Vajrakilaya, a wrathful blue-black Buddha clutching his consort in ritual union.
The experience of Vajrakilaya was like an internal explosion of a subconscious A-bomb – I was completely roto-rootered. I’d never practiced anything so wrathful before – and the wrath meant no prisoners were taken in the pathetic kingdom of my obscurations. By the end of the retreat, I sobbed convulsively. When this subsided, I stumbled up to Lama Tharchin and said “Will you formerly accept me as your student?” “Absolutely,” he said, and then eyeing my obvious terror that I had just married him in a psychic shotgun wedding, he softened it with “I will help however I can.”
I was so enthusiastic, I wrote Allen if he would do a benefit for Tharchin Rinpoche to help pay off the retreat land. I misspelled my new lama’s name, and this misspelling would find its way into Allen’s poem, “Death and Fame.” Lama Tharchin Rinpoche remembered meeting Allen in Spokane, Washington some years back. “A nice guy.” Allen, like meeting Trungpa in India, had no memory of it. Still, Allen agreed to the benefit. Allen would be here again in December anyway. Everything went very well in the planning stages, including booking local club DNA Lounge, until he called me the day before the event, short of breath. He had “mild congestive heart failure,” he said, “not life-threatening,” but he “had fluid around the lungs” and had checked himself into a hospital.
Of course, relatively speaking, all Hell broke loose. A reporter called me, and I had my first experience of how an extremely low-key conversation, “off the record,” literally became national news. I told the reporter what Allen said to me. I was quoted again and again across the country.
Bob Rosenthal, Ginsberg’s longtime secretary, gave me a lot of shit about leaking this to the press without Allen’s direct authorization (a statement for Lucien Carr to release had been in the works), saying, “You won’t get famous that way, Marc.” But Allen later said that it was a “tasteful and accurate” response.
–photos copyright Chris Felver
gaps in suffering
big as Mt. Fuji
the Buddhist nuns
Now I was a punk writer, age 35, living with a Tibetan lama, recovering from Hollywood and alcoholism in a San Francisco late 80’s landscape of rock clubs, tattoos, piercings, 12-step meetings and personal ads.
I came back to my room after a visit to the nearby Haight. Christiane had shoved a note under the door, another resident of the Center who was French, into Burroughs – really sharp Buddhist student. Allen Ginsberg, was coming to town for a book signing! This seemed incredibly auspicious, it was just two weeks since I was back in town and three years since Allen had been in San Francisco. Made me feel confident in my move out of Hollywood and my efforts to restore myself as poet, for Allen had helped get me published in a few prestigious journals and had been a longtime champion and teacher. I had nearly stopped writing poetry at all age 20 when I met him, frustrated with a college scene that wasn’t particularly supportive of the shaggy aesthetic I was offering, directly out of the tradition of writers like Jack Kerouac, but without the refinement that would come with Allen Ginsberg’s tutelage.
And now Allen was coming into town, our sexual relationship over for 8 years, our friendship intact. I had broken off sex when I moved in with Gretchen and never resumed it in the horror of AIDS.
Above all, he had taught me Buddhist meditation, awareness of the outbreath dissolving into space. We had sat together naked in his San Francisco room. It began my interest – I was at the Meditation Center because of him. Bill Voigt was in 3 year retreat because of him, though never slept with him, but studied poetry at Naropa, the Buddhist writing college Ginsberg helped found in Boulder.
Ginsberg would be reading at the Jewish Community Center and I got Christiane the French writer to accompany me. First thing I saw was author Michael McClure, who looked remarkably fit after his last boozy appearance. Turned out he’d quit coke and had either stopped the drinking or cut back considerably. McClure was amazingly handsome – even James Dean might not have made such a stately appearance in his 50s if he’d survived. “You look great,” I said, having met him a number of times. “So do you,” meaning he liked my ninja flattop. I briefly talked to Ginsberg beforehand and he saw that I got into the event free. As usually, people swarmed him. What a good feeling to see his bald pate again, like an emanation of the writing muse come to reassure me – it’s o.k. to be a poet – fuck Hollywood – we’ll work something out.
I went to see Allen Ginsberg read in Marin in 1985 with a French girl I was sure I was going to screw, especially when Allen called me to come up on stage to help him with his harmonium. “I’m too loaded!” I yelled out. It was true. “Come up here,” he demanded, so I did. He showed me where to put my fingers on the keys while I pumped the bellows with the other hand. He held a wooden clave, clacking it with the other clave. He was singing “Put Down Your Cigarette Rag.” The girl was impressed, but not enough to sleep with me.
It also happened that the last time I saw Gregory Corso (in a dapper suit, no less) was that same night at the after-reading party for Allen. I was astounded to see how put together Gregory was, in fact I reflected how many times I’d seem him rise phoenix-like out of the depths of the most harrowing binges over the years, chasms that many, even most, did not return from. “I think Gregory is too aware of his own genius,” I overheard Allen say. On another occasion, Allen said, “Gregory Corso has a lot of prajna but very little skillful means.” Prajna is a Buddhist Sanskrit term that translates as “Transcendent Knowing.” “Skillful means”: the ability to apply it. Gregory pinged off life like a blind pinball. It had cost him fame and position. Sometimes he seemed to care.
Apparently unlike Gregory Corso, drinking was scaring me shitless. The fear of what would happen from drinking’s result would soon eclipse the terror of quitting. The black-outs were the worst part – walking and talking with the id in charge, the light on but nobody home. This is how barroom murders happen.
I was now trying to control it. Richard had suggested I get my liver routinely checked. It turned out to be already swollen at age 31. “Drink a lot? Cut your drinking in half,” said the doctor. This was even before moving out of Gretchen’s. My effort at cutting my drinking in half was to drink only on the weekend, but the binge would then be so severe Gretchen had actually asked me to go back to drinking every day.
Some days I just didn’t bother. I was invited along to lunch when Allen was again in town, which included legendary anthologist Don Allen (New American Poetry) and great Zen poet Philip Whalen, now a sensei. I drank a half-liter of wine and ate nothing. Being 5’6” and still looking barely in my 20’s, Don Allen was somewhat astonished and wondered if I wanted any coffee before we left. Coffee, I thought, fuck no! I’ve worked for this buzz. But my tolerance was a great deal more than Don could’ve guessed. Only Philip actually reached me while talking of a friend’s illness, turning to me at one point and looking pointedly in my eyes, “Like cirrhosis of the liver, it is a very painful death.”
In the autumn following the trip to Naropa, Allen breezed through San Francisco once again in a few months and offered to take me to see a video work-in-progress of Kaddish. I wrangled an invitation for my friends- there were four of us crammed into the back seat, me, Ginsey, Peter Marti and Mort Shapiro (still two years away from his debut as front man for the band Invertebrates) – the other two people, one behind the wheel, I don’t recall at all.
We arrived at a loft space South of Market. I was dressed in my black raincoat with broadbrim Shadow hat and Allen introduced me as “famous Italian film maker Marc Olmsted,” longhaired Fellini kid I guess. The director, whose name I can’t remember (and not sure he even finished the film), predictably reacted like “Maybe he is.” I do remember what we saw was not particularly successful, and Allen asked my opinion when the director was out of the room. I told him and the director entered in the middle of it, eyeballs full of death rays. He demanded I start my opinion from the beginning. So I did. He was not pleased. Then we left.
REFUGE VOWS WITH CHOGYAM TRUNGPA WEARING GINSBERG’S FLOWER TIE
During my 1978 visit at Naropa Institute, Allen showed me a “Refuge Tree” of the Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist lineage. Allen explained how it was visualized and how one did prostrations in front of it, the preliminary practice Trungpa Rinpoche required before one embarked on the “deity” visualizations of the Tantric or Vajrayana path. One had to do 100,000 prostrations and Allen was working on his. I was intrigued and impressed. Little did I know such practices would be required by my own teachers years in the future. Ginsberg also explained that at this level of the path, it was like marrying the guru, and if you felt you had to leave the teacher, you didn’t want a “messy divorce.” It was a very straightforward explanation of the Tantric vow with the teacher known as “samaya.”
Refuge vows are a formal commitment to Buddhism, and here I was in Boulder, visiting poet Allen when suddenly it was possible to take refuge from Chogyam Trungpa (who resided there that summer), a totally unexpected situation and quite auspicious. Ginsberg encouraged us to take the refuge vows. Both Richard and I had to meet with a meditation instructor senior students who would determine if we were serious enough to take refuge (Allen arranged the appointment). Richard thinks it was Judith Zimmer-Brown. Anyway, she asked us how long we’d been meditating, who taught us, what did we understand about taking refuge. She asked us to sit on cushions and examined our posture. She thought my posture was too military (now that was a first) but still signed off on my aspiration for refuge. Richard was not criticized and also passed. Since our answers were satisfactory and our posture was correct enough she added us to the list and said we’d each get an individual audience with Trungpa who’d give us our refuge names. Although it may not sound like it, I had been relatively diligent with Buddhist sitting on and off since Allen taught me in ’74.