John Wieners: A Day in the Life
Allen Ginsberg was doing housework when John Wieners and I phoned from the street. “I had people over last night and they stayed till four in the morning . . . I’m just straightening things up and doing the dishes. I’ll meet you at Christina’s coffee shop in half an hour.” We walked back up East 12th Street to First Avenue and around the corner to Christina’s. John ordered coffee and toast, and we began spreading manuscripts across the table, in preparation for his reading later that day in Allen’s class at Brooklyn College. I produced a huge file of unpublished poems and John looked through them, glancing briefly and silently at each page before turning it face down. He lingered momentarily over a poem, “New Beaches”:
Poetry has nearly ripped my life off,
kept me on the streets and in boarding houses,
drove me into asylums and mad drug-addiction
tenements, where I lost my mother and father . . .
“I’d love to hear you read that,” I said. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” John replied flatly. At length he gathered up the manuscripts and stuffed them into a yellow and black vinyl travel bag emblazoned with the Boston Bruins hockey team logo. He then produced his own file and announced that this is what he would read from. The manila folder was stuffed with glossy photos of 1940s movie actresses and 1950s glamour girls. He held up a Technicolor photo of a buxom Terri Moore, circa 1957. “Whatever happened to Terri Moore,” I wondered aloud. “I subpoenaed her recently,” John replied, and continued to thumb through copies of The Hollywood Reporter, National Enquirer and The Star. The front cover to Bob Dylan’s New Morning was folded in four: “I don’t like the album,” John explained, “but I’m mad about the photo.” Sentimental greeting cards, nude male photos, postcards of Boston’s Beacon Hill and several pages of Heddy Lamar’s Ecstasy and Me were stuffed between the covers of a biography of Ann-Margaret, from which John had ripped all the pages. On the inside covers of the binding he had scrawled two brief poems, and a rather lengthy geneology of Lord and Lady Norwich — Duff and Diana Cooper. “The Rainbow Comes and Goes has always been one of my favorite memoirs,” John remarked to no one in particular, his voice trailing off. Suddenly Allen Ginsberg sat down.
“Hello dearie,” Allen said as he kissed John on the cheek. What have you been up to?” John made some cryptic remark about being pursued by Truman Capote’s autograph hounds. “Are you looking forward to today’s reading?’ Allen asked. “Positively,” John replied with a laugh. After ordering French toast, Allen unpacked his camera and began snapping away. John struck a variety of mock-poses, but each time closed his eyes as the shutter clicked, which unnerved Allen greatly. Over breakfast the poets gossiped about old friends, until it was time to leave. We walked back to Allen’s house where a car was waiting to drive us over to Brooklyn College. Poet and editor Simon Pettet was already seated in the back seat. He and John exchanged warm greetings and we were off.
The reading was held in a large sunny conference room, filled with students and video cameras. After Allen’s brief introduction, John Wieners stood at the lectern and shuffled papers for an inordinate amount of time. After sufficiently mystifying his audience for fifteen minutes with obscure readings from contemporary documents, he took from his bag a battered copy of the Black Sparrow Selected Poems and read for forty minutes. He seldom recited a poem in its entirety, choosing instead to collage sections of one poem onto another, a method that resulted in juxtapositions of startling insight. He read rapidly, always prefacing each new poem or section with the page number he was reading from, while students quickly suffled through the book, scrambling to read along silently with him. Allen made a nuisance of himself by peppering John with questions regarding every obscure reference. One could understand that he wished to know what was going on inside John’s head (and John always had a good answer), but ultimately the constant interruptions proved both rude and annoying. John handled the situation with great aplomb, as usual. “If you call the embassy and tell them you’re Allen Ginsberg, they’ll provide you with a translation,” John answered airily at one point. Following the reading a brief question and answer period took place, recounted here in its entirety:
Q: Have you ever had shock treatment?
A: The typewriter had it for me.
Q: How do you write your poems?
A: I have two teenage girls who help me, Norma and Edith. They do most of the writing. Then Martha Randolph congeals it in my head.
Q: Have you been pleased lately with the critical response to your work?
A: No, I hate being singled out.
Q: It seems like you’re blaming God in some of your poems.
A: Those are just secret roadmaps.
A: It comes from the fact that Swiss dressmakers are not allowed to speak English. It has something to do with the art of strapless gowns. (pause) A woman who carries the Index of Forbidden Books in her bodice must always be deferred to.
Q: A lot of your poems are in touch with the feminine instinct.
A: I’ve never been able to come to grips with male topics.
Q: What were your early influences?
A: The sidewalks of New York. East 11th Street, West 12th Street . . . so many side streets one doesn’t think of when not in town.
Q: When did you first come to New York?
A: I think on my way to Black Mountain. They had some townhouses in the Village, owned by some of the Board members of the college. Students and faculty could spend a few nights when in town.
Q: Why did you go to Black Mountain College?
A: To be avant-garde, and break the strictures of the Jesuit order.
Q: Did it have that effect?
A: I can’t paint.
Q: What do you think of the poetry of Charles Olson?
A: He kind of makes one lose one’s mind.
A: The works of Petrarch are patterns we can probably never translate.
Q: Do you believe in the existence of Hell?
A: I always have.
Q: And Heaven?
A: Less so.
Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, doing anything, what would it be?
A: I’d like to be in a railway station in Moscow as Sonja Heinie.
Q: Did you ever spend much time in New York?
A: Yes, in the early sixties, I worked as a clerk in the 8th Street Bookshop. I liked being around avant-garde material in the late afternoon. I like New York for its speed.
Q: Are you still writing?
A: Yes, but I didn’t bring along a pen.
Q: Why do you live in Boston?
A: I used to say Carol’s Cut-Rate. Now I’m looking forward to the new South Station opening.
Q: How do you spend your days?
A: I get up early to avoid custodianship.
Q: What contemporary poets do you like and why?
A: Creeley for his stewardship. Ed Dorn for his regional accents.
Q: Which women poets do you admire?
A: Barbara Guest: She’s the most important figure as a male spy that the N.Y. Public Library has ever produced. They trained her as a spy, like Mata Hari. I also admire Carol Berge. I met her first in 1944. I was ten and she was eleven. She asked me to put a dime into a pay phone for her . . .
Q: Why do you put so much emphasis on style?
A: I don’t! I’m sworn off that subject! Now I use vowels. A, E, I, O, and U are the best ones. Alice, Evian, Ian, Olga, Uggams.
Q: What was your most recent poem?
A: A poem to Dolores. I’ll publish it when I’m seventy-three.
Q: Who is Dolores?
A: Dolores Moran, the step-daughter to Achibald MacLeish.
Q: Mr. Wieners, last week John Ashbery came and read his poems, and then aswered questions. He seems to be completely irrational in his poetry and completely rational in his life. You seem to be completely irrational in your life, and completely rational in your poetry.
A: It is never my intent to be irrational.
With this John gathered up his papers, and smiled at the students to acknowledge their wild applause. We retired to the cafeteria for mid-afternoon coffee and cake. John was silent on the ride back to Manhattan, but obviously pleased with the way the day had gone. Allen went home to work, while Simon, John & I retired to a Chinese restaurant on Sixth Avenue for an early dinner. John rummaged about in his pocket for a moment, and took out a tiny green ceramic Buddha which he placed in front of his place setting. This charmed our waiter greatly. In the course of our dinner, Simon spoke of the volume of Collected Art Writings of James Schuyler he was assembling. John evinced great interest in the book: “Smart New York,” he mused admiringly.
Dinner finished and drinks completed, Simon and I opened our fortune cookies: “Gather all information that could be remotely apropos,” mine said. “You will soon honored for contributing your time and skill to a worthy cause,” read Simon. “What does yours say, John?” we asked eagerly. “I ate it,” he replied. And in fact he had.
Simon walked us to Fifth Avenue, and before we parted company asked John if he would like to join him for lunch the following day. John quickly accepted. “We could meet over in the East Village,” Simon volunteered. “No,” John objected, “it’s too poor over there.” Simon looked slightly offended. “What, you just want to stay over here on Fifth Avenue?” “Yes,” John replied decidedly, “I do.” As we walked down West 9th Street, John stood still in the middle of the sidewalk, gazing upwards at the moon through the tree branches, street lights and town houses of Greenwich Village. He was silent for a long time. At last he spoke, in that familiar, arching, slightly distracted tone of voice I have come to know: “What did Longfellow say? Life is long, Life is earnest . . . “