Friday, May 05, 2006

from Hoppinjohn to East 12th Street, NYC

Hoppinjohn is a classic Southern dish made with black-eyed peas, rice, and ham or ham hock. It was served as a complete protein meal in poorer households and eventually as a celebratory dish on New Year’s Day. There must be hundreds of Hoppinjohn recipes. Most recipe books indicate Hoppinjohn refers to imaginary little Johnny hoppin' his way to the dinner table. But there are other etymological origins such as its Caribbean derivation or that the combination of ingredients had African roots. Hearing Muddy Waters, the other day on Dylan's theme time radio show got me thinking about Hoppinjohn and the Mississippi delta of his origins.

As a child my mother and I drove through Mississippi with my older half-brother, Charles, in the early 1950's where we heard cotton pickers singing in the fields. That road trip is among my earliest memories. Going over the Mississippi River, we were involved in an accident. That's the first time I tasted a life-saver when a policeman handed me one through the car window.

Great Culinary classics almost always derive from ordinary people. You even see this in classic French cuisine. The renowned chef, Henri Charpentier for whom my father, Alexander Pierre Gens worked at the Cafe de Paris in Chicago circa 1930's in his classic Food & Finesse: The Bride's Bible, the first French culinary book widely distributed in America, must have had dozens of recipes for scrambled eggs naming them after famous Americans.

I was first introduced to Hoppinjohn by Marty Brennan-Sawyer at the Putney School where I cooked from 1996-98. Putney School is where I met my colleague who is also a poet, Chard deNiord, with whom I now co-direct the New England College MFA Program in Poetry. On and off over the years, I've cooked professionally or to supplement my income.

For awhile, Chard and I, ran some poetry programs for the Great River Arts Institute in Patzcuaro, Mexico called "The Spirit & the Letter" with Tom Lux, Heather McHugh, Jerry Stern, Ellen Bryant Voight, Joanne Kyger, Jane Miller and Anne Waldman, who all visited at one time or another. Every morning, I made breakfast for all the poets after shopping in the colorful market and local bakery around the corner from 17 Ibarra Street, the address of our hacienda in Patzcuaro. Jerry Stern still mentions the scrambled eggs I made each morning. You’d think that was the only thing I knew how to cook! After breakfast, everyone would convene for writing workshops followed by the daily comida prepared by Esperanza, the housekeeper at Casa Don Miguel. Here Anne Waldman is with Alexandro and her mother. Lupe, one of the Puerepecha staff employed in running the house.

Casa Don Miguel is a huge hacienda, the length of a football field with four inner courtyards surrounded by rooms on one side. Built in the late 18th century, it was originally a nunnery. Casa Don Miquel was owned by Michael and Vladina Pavlik whose sons went to Putney School. At one point, they approached Chard asking if he would be interested in making an artists colony in Casa Don Miguel. Once I got involved, I was amazed to realize that the town of Patzcuaro was the place where the late Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa, my first Buddhist teacher, received many of his terma teachings for Shambhala, particularly his Werma sadhana practiced within the Shambhala Community. Today, Casa Don Miguel is owned by the Catholic school next door to 17 Ibarra Street. But for a couple of years I traveled several times each year to run programs. In the photo above, Ellen Bryant Voight is teaching a workshop in front of the fireplace, where by night, she entertained us with great stories and poetry gossip. She and her husband, Fran, were delightful guests.

During our first Spirit and the Letter Conference in 1999, I made a point of visiting Casa Werma, the house Trungpa’s family still owned in Patzcuaro. Close to the market, it is a small casa surrounded by an astonishing five acres of gardens. Deep into the property there were several smaller structures including a traditional Tarascan house on stilts. I stayed at Casa Werma several days prior to the conference and was appalled at the weird vibes and general strangeness of the place. Later, I discovered that the caretaker was running a brothal out of the house. As a testimony to its partying heritage, there was a huge glass heap of liquor bottles in the backyard. Another quality of Casa Werma was the almost incessant radio station playing 24 hours a day at the garage next door. hardly the contemplative environment I had envisioned. There was also a strange housekeeper who gave us the creeps, whom we later learned from the gardener was a local currandero. The movie, "Rough Magic” was filmed in the town of Patzcuaro and around Lake Patzcuaro which somewhat gives the flavor of the place as both a traditional colonial town but also a powerspot--a corridor into other dimensions, one senses on the subtle level.

All the years I worked at Naropa in the 1980's, I moonlighted cooking part time at a sorority and catered a lot of poetry events for the Jack Kerouac School. My first job at Naropa was cooking for the Kappa Sigma residence during the 1984 Summer session. That was the year Allen broke up with Peter Orlovsky who moved back to New York with his girlfriend, Juanita Lieberman. Allen feeling a bit forlorn used to walk over to the Kappa Sigma and eat dinner with the poetry students. Sometimes Bob Creeley joined him. Here's a photo Allen took of Creeley at the Kappa Sigma dining table.

That's really where I got to know Allen. I don't think he figured out until much later that I was part of the Naropa scene--then a student in the Buddhist Studies department. Every night after his meal, he would bring his dishes into the kitchen and wash them chatting, asking me questions thinking I was just a local girl working in the kitchen. One of the Naropa faculty, Fiz Harwood, told me that he was astonished when she told him I had a degree in Classics from Smith. I have to say that this sense of inquisitiveness was one of Allen's most endearing qualities. Some people feel that he was a misoginist but, in fact, he was immensely curious about all sorts of people--both women and men. I was always so impressed by his good manners. I guess, in my book, after long years working in bars and restaurants, you come to size up people's character quickly based on how they treat the hired help. Well, Allen got my OK early on from those initial contacts in the Kappa
Sigma kitchen. In my experience, the only other person, of note, who matched his good manners and depth of connection was the Benedictine monk, David Stendl-Rast who stayed that same season at KS for Naropa's annual Christian/Buddhist Conference prior to the poets.

Here's a photo of three ilustrious beat authors chowing down on a lunch I made in honor of William Burroughs at the 1000 Mapleton Avenue house lent to Naropa for the summer of 1985 by Allen's old Columbia friend, David Padua. I spent eight weeks in the house living with a vairety of poetry faculty including Allen, Philip Whalen, and Nanao Sakaki. My favorite was Philip Whalen, a marvelous man with a totally interesting mind. I was very sorry when he died in 2002. He used to occasionally scare me creeeping up behind me and yelling some mantric sounding syllable tha tmade me jump. Later, after I had more training in Vajrayana Buddhism, I understood that he was creating an experience, the Tibetan's call "hedewa," a kind of shock that introduces one to primordial mind free from concepts. I also had a really strong connection with Philip dharmically. once when he was about to undergo open heart surgery, I had some powerful experiences while doing long-life practices for him. Some years later, after he had died and I was having a very difficult time with lots of obstacles in my life, I dreamt that Philip came to my aid reciting protective mantras and dispelled the negativity. I always felt that he was reciprocating my good intentions for him while ill. I only mention all this because it is possible to have an internal connection with someone with whom there is little actual contact. In retrospect, I'm very sorry I didn't pay him more attention although he made a number of overtures. He had a great mind, nor did he repress his emotions which sometimes ran from childish to downright tempermental. To read what it was like to be around him towards the end of his life, Randy Roark wrote a great essay. Michael Rothenberg also wrote about Philip's last year in his collection of poems,

During that summer of 1985, Philip had an attendant stay with him at the Mapleton house. Each evening they cooked up huge meals with pieces of beef the size of the BBQ surface. I read somewhere that Philip said the only thing his friends could not forgive was that he was "fat." But it was always fun to be around him as you never knew what he was going to say or do.

Later, once I got to know Allen and started working for him, it was amazing to see how he connected with people. Cab drivers were especially prone to his inquisitive inquiries. I was with him on that ride Bob Rosenthal writes about somewhere when he yelled, "Fuck Allah" to a Muslim cab driver only to engage the fellow in interesting conversation after getting a rise from him.

Once at Naropa around 1988, several prominent Indian poets came to visit as part of their tour organized by the Committee on Poetry, Allen’s non-profit organization to support poets. They represented a number of different language and religious groups. All of them gave long testimonials to Allen whom they credited for revitalizing Indian poetics by introducing a modernism and a more cosmopolitan aesthetic. One of the poets told a story about how Allen at a coctail party in the early 1960's while in conversation with the Minister of Finance or Economy, said he really liked his native Indian garb suggesting that American young people might like it too—thus, in a sense, planning a seed for revitalizing India’s economy as well through exporting Indian clothing catering to the hippie culture of the times.

As many people experienced, being a guest at Allen's table could be charming. Until he got the office on Union Square around 1991, for a couple of years, every day I picked up his mail at Stuyvesant Station and then delivered it to his 437 East 12th Street apartment around the corner to sort through it with him. Allen, still inhis pajamas ( the yellow pair) would be getting up around 10-11: 00 AM when he would put out breakfast often inviting me to join him.

There were almost always guests—poets, translators, journalists, old friends. A typical spread would include low-fat Alpine cheese, olives, good bread, sometimes boiled eggs, or kanji, iceberg lettuce with his family’s salad dressing recipe made with sugar in a white vinaigrette, fresh fruit-- like mango, papaya, or melon, and herb tea.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Harry Smith (1923-1991) OLD WEIRD AMERICA

Harry Smith was among the most interesting people I met while working for Allen Ginsberg, but a royal pain. Around 1986/87, Allen brought him out to Naropa in Boulder, Colorado to live where I was then working as a director of marketing and publications overseeing five departments. Previously, I had worked for the summer institute especially the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics that ran a 4-week program each summer. The college had just purchased a property adjacent to the school which had several small cottages subdivided into two apartments each. Harry was given one of these apartments for his residence. His health was already deteriorated due to many years of abuse. Somehow, I ended up as the official go between managing Harry's affairs and Allen who funded him from NY during the school year. Eventually Rani Singh, a Naropa student rose to the occasion, and took over, much to my relief. Later, Rani would develop the Harry Smith Archives and devote herself entirely to him for the last few years of his life. There was a period of overlap where we both were involved. I have one vivid memory of the two of us checking out Harry's freezer one day and finding some frozen underpants among other non-edible items ( I think they were Allen's, maybe Rani would remember). Rani had an infectious laugh, I can still hear.

Harry was rather difficult to maneuver for even the simplest activity such as getting him to doctors or helping him file for his ssi benefits and very very bad with money--often spending his last dime on some extravagant book purchase. The pose he's striking in this photo is typical of his stubborn 'dig-in-my-heels' streak. At the time, my job was very demanding while at the same time 1986-87 was the period my mother was dying so I made about 5 trips to New England when I couldn't be there for Harry. I lost my temper with him a few times over his more childish behaviors and eventually Allen had to read (write) him the riot act. I still have a copy of the long letter Allen sent to him from NY which in retrospect, reading it now, seems pretty funny and uncharacteristic of Allen--outlining all Harry's faults accompanied with a precise itemization of every penny he had spent on Harry. Harry, of course, was just another one of Allen's 'dependent' charges--the others being Corso, Huncke, and poet, James Schyler. Fortunately, Rani adored being around Harry. Bringing Harry out to Naropa was a great gesture and worked for a number of years as it allowed Harry to connect with lots of young people who paid him court and learned from him. Many of his lectures were recorded and are available online at in the Naropa collection.

When he was lucid, Harry had an incredible mind and was knowledgeable about many things. I tended toward his anthropological studies and vast knowledge of American folklore but he collected all sorts of amazing things nobody ever thought of--like the string art of little girls, paper airplanes, barn door keys. He was always making recordings that he donated to the Helen Keller Institute. Some of these recordings were around particular sound themes, such as a hammer, or the sound of different fans or some everyday activity to serve as educational tools for the blind. I haven't really read or heard what became of these recordings so that might be interesting research project. He was very curious about people and their ethnic backgrounds. There was one former Naropa student, Lee Ann Brown, later Steve Taylor's girlfriend, who had grown up in North Carolina. He used to ask her and her sister to sing traditional songs he recorded. Lee Ann went on to become a fine poet, publisher, and film maker. He tried to engage me hopelessly in complex conversations about Allester Cook but by that time I had already done many studies of gnostism and alchemy while a student at Smith and was more into the American Buddhist scene. His spirituality seemed intellectual rather than integrated in any practical way into his daily life. Still, considering what a rascal he could be, sometimes he was exceptionally compassionate and sensitive too. The day my mother died, I left a note on his cottage door saying that I couldn't pick him up for some appointment. Later, several times, he told me he had saved that note and cherished it.

Sometime in 1989 or 1990, Harry moved back to NYC. Rani was in NY too, so she resumed her caretaking of him.I'm not all that good with dates. The Harry Smith Archive probably has an accurate chronology. All during 1989, I lived on McDougal Street with Anne Waldman's dad, John Waldman, cooking his evening meal in exchange for a room in their brownstone (Anne's childhood room). I also started working for Allen around that time as Bob Rosenthal was immersed in a building renovation with his neighborhood association who were gutting an abandoned building and then restoring it. My working for Allen coincided with his first outside office on 14th Street where we rented a suite of rooms from Alene Lee, the inspiration for Kerouac's novel, "The Subterranians." Lots of people came and went through the 47 McDougal Street house then for dinner. Each week, John invited Bernadette Mayer and her family. Harry came lots of times. For Allen's 63 birthday, I made a big dinner at the house where Harry, Robert Frank and his wife June Leif whom I admired very much for their art, and some other younger people too came. I remember sitting around the table after dinner and everyone saying they were on some kind of meds except Allen and me. While I was still at 47 McDougal, Harry asked me out on several 'dates' to see his films at the Film Forum picking me up in a taxi and delivering me home--an unusual departure frm his previous neediness. In retrospect, I think he might have wanted to show me that out there in the world he was respected and not just the wreck I had experienced in doctor's offices or other intimate activities. It was amazing how he cleaned himself up for these excursions wearing a snazzy new trench coat. Gregory Corso also had that capacity--to transform himself to a respectable degree when called for.

It was a great moment when Harry received a grammy for his lifetime achievment award. Allen describes the scene. More to come...

Photo credit: Harry in the Naropa classroom tent July 16, 1988 by Allen GInsberg

Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash Singing "A Thousand Miles Behind" Together : Click Here

Circa 1964 in Casitas Springs, CA, riding the bus to St. Catherine's by the Sea in Ventura with the Cash girls. Once sitting next to Roseanne around the time of "Just Like a Rolling Stone", I asked her if her father knew Bob Dylan. It was interesting to see a small segment in the film, "Walk the Line," devoted to Casitas Springs with mention of Bob Dylan. Casitas Springs was about as backwater a California dust bowl holdover you could find. My mother had the first thrift store there. My parents for a brief time owned "The Purple Wagon Restaurant" in nearby Oak View, another spit as you drive through small California town. Whenever any of the Cash family came in (Mama & Papa Cash owned a trailer park in Oak View), my baby brother would play "Ring of Fire" on the jukebox. The restaurant was one of many ill-fated ventures my parents tried their hand at. It must have been so strange, my father, a famous French Chef, who had once run the Garden of Allah, the Ben Blue Night club and famed Malibu, Holiday House, trying to dish up French culinary classics in a diner setting, a diner painted purple out in nowhere!

Quansit huts lined both sides of the highway in and around Casitas Springs where lots of down and out elderly people lived. leftover from the dust bowl diaspora to California. One of them, Minnie, used to help my mother in her shop. She always seemed breathless with excitement whenever she worked in the store where I sometimes helped out after school. In those days, a high end thrift store was rare, about as rare as a purple diner. The local clients really appreciated my mother's stylish window displays. Later in 1965, when my family moved to New York City, travelling by train accross country, the sale of that store funded our move and a lot more too. I remember my mother, Olga, standing in our kitchen saying that if she failed at the store, her life would be meaningless, or something like that. From then on, she always had some kind of antique or second hand store until her death in 1987.

Not much happened in Casitas Springs. Some days, Mrs. Cash would drive down to the country store & post office next door to pick her girls up from the bus. She was always dressed up--I remember once I saw her in a silver lame pants suit, her hair done in a beehive. Another time, I remember, seeing Johnny slumped over in the front seat while she went inside the post office store. They lived on a hill overlooking the town as a respite from Nashville. The video clip of Dylan and Johnny Cash singing together a few years later that I found on another blogspot this morning reminded me of the connection between them and my rocollections of Casitas Springs. That period must have been really a rough time for those girls who semed so serious and self-possessed--especially Roseanne, the oldest. I had my own family problems too that emerged around then compounded by normal teen age angst.

It was in Oak View a year earlier when I was thirteen, I first learned about Allen Ginsberg. One night getting up to go to the bathroom, I noticed the TV was on, my father asleep on the couch. As I went to turn the TV off, a wildly bearded man with a distinct voice magnetized me. It was Allen Ginsberg on the Les Crane Show. At that moment, my hand still on the dial, I heard the sirens of poetrymnd beckon. Here was the epiphanious moment when I told myself that I wanted to know people like him. Odd how that eventually happened years later. I guess one should be careful what you wish for. The power of Allen's voice just grabbed me out of the blue TV haze. Those years in Oak View/Casitas Springs had their own magic. I wasn't born there but my cultural mind was--my ear glued to the transistor radio my grandmother had gaven me one Christmas, tuning into kindred mindsets out there in the world. The Southern pacifc railway tracks were not too far off and every night I was filled with a longing for something greater. It all begins in the hinterlands, the swamp, among the lost and forgotten, the wasteland, outsiders of no import, the diamond in the rough, the "old weird America" of blues and raw vocals--where one hears the true range of duende soul found in American poetics. Listening to Dylan's radio show brought it all back.

By November of 1965, my family would be living in NYC where my father landed a job as the head chef for the Hilton Hotel and at age 15 I was let loose into the cosmopolitan energies I longed for so much. But I never really forgot those years in Southern California. I'm reminded of C.D. Wright's poem, "Lake Return."

Lake Return
by C.D. Wright

Maybe you have to be from there to hear it sing:
Give me your waterweeds, your nipples,
your shoehorn and your four-year letterhorn jacket,
the molded leftovers from the singed pot.
Now let me see your underside, white as fishes.
I lower my gaze against your clitoral light.

Yeah--that's where the bliss is--white not as in race but in naked mind infused with light. What a line, "I lower my gaze against your clitoral light." Maybe it is about sex but to me it resonates more about body and mind consciousness coming together in the first awareness of greater forces at play.

I'm on a roll here using up my vacation time. Nobody really out there but stay tuned anyway. Next time more on Harry Smith, my karmic debt to Allen.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Hey, Allen--The Sun is Shining: Bob Dylan on Xm Radio

It’s already been a month since Glen died. On April 4th, the previous night, I had visited the local Shambhala Center in Brattleboro a few blocks from my house to celebrate the 'parinirvana' of Chogyam Trungpa, also the day Allen died nearly ten years ago. He’s been on my mind lately so decided to include “Visitation” in my forthcoming chapbook I've been working on:

For Allen

A few days later I saw you
seated at a dusty crossroad
looking toward a vista of waterways
reminiscent of a cranberry bog or saltwater marsh
I once visited, maybe the river Styx.
A geography of immensity without habitation

where you sat on an old wooden stool,
pored over books and papers, focused intently.
One air of familiarity—your Calvin Klein
Goodwill navy blazer, my favorite;
your pens poking out from the pocket.
I stood quietly to your side waiting to assist you
yet not disturb your concentration.
Finished, you handed me a sheaf of papers,
Here, these are for you—for translation.

Then, you got up and walked slowly down the left-hand road.
I followed but you turned to me and said,
"This is as far as you are allowed to go, I don’t have the water rights
for your passage" —
a hitch of sadness in your voice, your face mostly
impassive, Bell’s Palsy, making one eye bigger, your face a bit cock-eyed,
but looking straight on as we finished our business together once again
in clarity and respect, our natural elegance hanging there a second
as we stared at one another.
I watched you walk off and knew that you were finally gone
on some other journey, to some other place.

Dylan's theme-time radio show debut yesterday morning on XM radio's Deep Tracks station delivered the kind of smarts, warmth, and expansive presence so absent in current media. We're not talking here about a quaint ole time radio show like "Prairie Home Companion" but a magnanimous reach for the underbelly of American music-- Harry Smith at Allen's kitchen table circa 1988

"Old Weird America," folk scholar, Harry Smith called it. Don't let Dylan's folksy accent kid you. He's erudite and comfortable with it too. His consonants sounded as crisp as ever. Dylan, if nothing else, is a master of elocution. Listening on that dank and rainy spring day in Brattleboro to Dylan's show on "Weather" with him asking the audience if it was raining here too was a bit of magical synchronicity.

I'm sorry Allen isn't around to experience Dylan's graceful shift into old age--the "Chronicles", "Masked and Anonymous", "No Direction Home", now his theme-time weekly radio show on XM. Seeing Dylan at last coming to terms with his fame would have eased his mind as he worried that Dylan found it all too concrete unlike himself. During the years I worked for Allen, there were many precious moments but one of the two times I wished I had a tape recorder was on my 40th birthday when Allen made dinner for me (or rather Jack Shiu did) inviting friends Ellen Pearlman and her Tibetan husband, Tsonam, to join us squeezing us all around his four-sqaure kitchen table in the East 12th Street apartment. That night, he played host bearing books to the dinner table to introduce Tsonam to Cezanne. Later after the guests left, Allen started playing Dylan records--all of them for hours, commenting on phrases here or there he thought especially exquisite. Here's where I wish I had the tape recorder or took notes. [the other time was driving with Edith Ginsberg, Allen and Bob Rosenthal around Patterson]. He loved Dylan, I think more than anyone--for his brilliance. In "No Direction Home", Allen's commentary is heart breaking. Seeing him already so ill-looking was a shock. His comments about Dylan as a "receiver" were faithful to his long recognition of Dylan's literary genius which he perceived as amounting to a quintiessential archytype for poetrymind.

In the office, we were always a bit amused how unusually "ga-ga" Allen would get when talking with Dylan on the phone.As far as I know, Dylan was the only one who commanded such reverence. For our pleasure, Allen would put their calls on speakerphone. Late in 1994, after work one night he took me with him to a concert at the Beacon Theater where we went back stage. In previous years, Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale had the privilege. One of the telling signs about Dylan is that his staff has worked with him for years. Diane Lapson, one of the co-producers of the radio show, brought us back stage where that particular show Dylan wasn't seeing many people. That might have been the last time they saw each other, I'm not sure. Bob Rosenthal woould know as I left NYC about two years before Allen died. Somehow that event made it into Barry Miles revised bio from a journal entry Allen made later that night....they had bantered back and forth about—Gregory Corso, Blake, the room was dark and lit with a candle with Dylan sitting on the floor and Allen in the only chair. Did I imagine this? The first thing you notice about Dylan is just how smart he is. At one point, Allen said to Dylan something like, "“If you want to know about Buddhism, ask her" which embarrassed me. Dylan laughed harshly saying something about a laughing Buddha bar in Kansas City. I must have jumped or reacted in some way because then Dylan flashed his dazzling smile, the same one his audience would get a momentary glimpse of at the end of his set later that night at the Beacon--—a few seconds of blazing sunshine, a gift from the poetry muses or devas and dakinis we mortals can only take in small increments. Yes, the sun is shinning these days...Thanks, Bob & Company. Hope Harry, Allen, Gregory and all our departed are taking a break to tune in!

See You Later, Allen Ginsberg

Photo credit copyright by Dale Smith, 1965 at TEXT
Photo creditof Harry Smith by Allen Ginsberg circa 1988