Shiv Mirabito on Shivastan Publishing
Since its start in 1997 Shivastan Publishing has produced over 50 chapbooks and broadsides, on hand-made Nepalese papers on a press in Kathmandu, including most recently the ravishing collaboration between Chris Martin and Peter Lamborn Wilson, Opium Dens I Have Known. These beautiful editions include some of the most esteemed American poets, Buddhist thinkers, and Shiv Mirabito’s extended community in Woodstock, New York. Mirabito met with Peter Lamborn Wilson, Jarrett Earnest, and guest editor Raymond Foye, to discuss the history of Shivastan.
Shiv Mirabito: I guess if we’re going to start from the beginning, I was born in a small town upstate called Norwich, New York. As I grew older my best friend and I realized that we were the only hippies in the town, so we thought we should go to Woodstock and camp out for a couple weekends. Without telling my parents—I would say we were going to go camping—we would hitchhike to Woodstock and hang out. It was a much more hippy scene in those days, and was eye-opening. At a certain point, this one friend of mine said, “Did you know that Allen Ginsberg has a farm nearby and they have all these parties. Why don’t we go?” So we went. They would have all these Solstice and Equinox parties, that kind of thing.
Peter Lamborn Wilson: In Cherry Valley?
Mirabito: In Cherry Valley, just outside of Cooperstown. I had never met these freaky kind of poets and artists and writers. We started staying there and talking to everyone. At that point I decided, “Well, I’m never cutting my hair or combing it again. And I’m not going to eat meat anymore, as a philosophical thing, to be kind to all beings.” Ginsberg wasn’t there that often, so my best friend and I would have the place to ourselves. Allen had a huge library and I could read all his books on Hinduism and Buddhism and philosophy.
Raymond Foye: So you were occupying his house, and you were occupying his world—
Mirabito: Right, even sleeping in his bed when he wasn’t there.
Foye: But you never met Allen?
Mirabito: Yes actually a few times.
Foye: And what was that like?
Mirabito: It was just, “Oh, hi. Nice to meet you.” We would be hanging out, staying in a little pup tent out on the lawn, and he’d say, “Oh, isn’t that cute.” But we were never invited to hang out and have dinner with him. We were only teenagers. Then I started coming to Woodstock more and deciding that is where I needed to be. Every summer and weekend that I could, I would come and get to know people; eventually, I met a lot of people who had traveled back and forth to India. I started studying anthropology at SUNY Oneonta and at a certain point there was a professor who was Indian, and he wanted to visit his family there and he decided to bring a dozen of us students along. That was 1988. I went and it was basically like the professor just threw us into this scene, hardly planned at all. We had one month in Kashmir of intensive Hindi lessons, living on houseboats—to get over jet-lag and that kind of thing. We had to sit in New Delhi for a couple of months at this youth hostel, and he would bring in a new professor every day for a two or three hour class. The professor would condense their class into one, two or three-hour sessions, and we would have a different class every day.
Foye: You took to it pretty quickly.
Mirabito: Yeah, I saw how easy it is to travel there and how fascinating all the different cultures are. So in my three-month stint, I just went around by myself, traveling around the country by train, up to Kathmandu, Nepal and all over Varanasi and Calcutta and lots of different places. Eventually, what did I write my paper on? I can’t remember. I stayed with the Hare Krishnas—I think I wrote a paper on the Hare Krishnas.
Wilson: In Vrindavan?
Mirabito: Yeah, in Vrindavan. But it was a very restrictive scene. I really loved just being on my own and traveling around, sleeping in temples under the stars, it was so empowering. I got hooked on it when I realized how easy it was to travel there. I wrapped up my college years when I got back from India and graduated in ’90 and moved to Woodstock full-time. Then I started going back and forth to India every year—and Nepal—and I thought, “Wow, this is really great, studying Indian philosophy and Hinduism and Buddhism.” And I got very involved studying with the Sadhus, the Shibababas.
Foye: What was your first exposure to either the Sadhus or the gurus or the holy men?
Mirabito: Well, living in Woodstock, I had met a lot of Hindu and Buddhist teachers who passed through town, even from the time I was a teenager there were great teachers passing through like Ganesh Baba, who was one of Peter Wilson’s teachers in India. The Hindu teacher I was closest to was Bhagavan Das, who’s also from that first generation of Americans who went to the East. He was a California surfer dude, and in the ’60s he went to India and became a naked Sadhu and wandered around and learned all the songs and Hindu practices. And at a certain point he met Richard Alpert, who became Ram Dass, who was a Harvard professor working with Timothy Leary, who had gone to India to hand out LSD to people to see what the effect would be. That became the book Be Here Now, where Ram Dass, who was a repressed gay Harvard professor, fell in love with Bhagavan Das and started following him everywhere.
Mirabito: When people ask me what my practice is and what sort of spiritual activities I do my response is that it should be about every waking moment of your life, that you’re trying to practice loving compassion for all beings: become vegetarian, to help others, to be positive, to try and create scenes and communities that will help others. Basically I realized that I can’t really be a Sadhu like they are in India—with no possessions whatsoever, no clothing—but what I do is about austerity. I don’t have a lot of the things that most people do in American culture, like a car and that kind of stuff. And not cutting my hair, being a vegetarian, not having a family and instead relying on community: these are the kind of things that I think are the elements of being a Tantric yogi. The thing is, with the Vedanta, basically, everything is an illusion, so you don’t really have to have a practice. Whatever happens is your spiritual path. You’re just interpreting the unfolding nature of reality.
Foye: Do you remember the names of any of the other gurus who passed through Woodstock in those days?
Mirabito: There was this one Baba who came through who was very interesting. His name was Shivabalayogi. I got into studying with him for a very short time in Woodstock. He had dreadlocks also. I had one really great teacher who was a hippy who had also studied the Sadhu trip in India and his name was Paul Giraud. They called him “Taxi Paul” because he’d been a New York City taxi driver, and also “Paul Babes” because he called everyone Babes. He traveled throughout India and Nepal during the Golden Age, he lived there continuously from 1965 to 1981. I met him and Ira Cohen, and they were telling me, “Yeah, you gotta go study with the Sadhus.” So I went, and I started studying with any of the Sadhus that I could meet there in India. And they’re pretty much all over the place, and they all want you to be their student. Everybody said, “You have to have guru. This is a lineage thing,” but as a kind of anarchist hippy, I felt I should be able to learn from whoever I want. Why would you want to eat one food your whole life? Why would you want to have one kind of teaching from one teacher your whole life?
I studied from everybody that I could, and then I started going to the Kumbh Mela—that’s the largest gathering on the planet where all the Sadhus also get together, and they’re naked, covered with ashes, worshipping nature, with dreadlocks, smoking all the time. They worship fire, and they sit around a fire, basically, and they’re constantly praying but not in a very organized way. Loosely, that’s my lineage. It’s more about nature worship than about one lineage or one form of worship. And as an anthropologist, I was always kind of standing a little bit outside being the participant observer and trying to intellectualize everything instead of stating, “I am this.” People would constantly be saying to me, “Who’s your guru? Who’s your teacher?” And I would say, “You are, because you’re teaching me right now. I’m learning from you and hopefully you’re learning from me.” I kind of shunned that whole concept of guru worship. I just wanted to study as much as I could, and kept going to every scene that I could, to learn as much as I could anywhere. Every year I was going to Kathmandu, which is really the best place in the world to study Tibetan Buddhism. Since China invaded Tibet all the greatest teachers had to leave because they weren’t free to teach or practice their religion. A lot of them moved to Kathmandu, and it’s really like a little Tibet there. There are thousands and thousands of monks and teachers and lamas that you can get teachings from, whereas I had gone for years to the Tibetan monastery here in Woodstock, where the cheapest teaching on Buddhism was $20 for a one-hour teaching or $300 for a weekend teaching. In Nepal you could just study with any Tibetan Buddhist teachers and they weren’t saying, “You have to pay me money to hear my teachings.” And I don’t think Buddha would have thought that his teachings would be sold and that you have to pay money to hear his teachings thousands of years after he died. In Kathmandu, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche was my main teacher.
Foye: It sounds like you always had a wanderlust for adventure.
Mirabito: Definitely. Maybe I got it from watching the Little Rascals on TV. I used to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. Then I got E.M. Forster and J. R. Ackerley, authors who went to India and wrote books about life there. And Christopher Isherwood—he was also a traveller and writer. Paul Bowles of course, and William Burroughs. That was the tradition I got into. The other big influences were the legendary travelers who disappeared into India sometimes for decades. I knew this one guy named Eight Finger Eddie, who back in the 1960s was an American jazz musician and then he decided he didn’t want to live in America anymore so he moved to India and ended up in Goa, on the west coast of India. He’s pretty much the one who started the tradition of the hippies staying in Goa half the year, and then going to Kathmandu up in the mountains for the other half the year— in the hot season they’d go north.
Wilson: I knew him too, in 1969 in India.
Mirabito: Yeah! He’d been there from something like ’64 until he just died two years ago now. Another early pilgrim, a good friend of mine when I first started going, was this guy named Peanut Butter Harry—did you ever meet him?
Mirabito: He was from Far Rockaway, New York. He dodged the draft in 1967, and moved to Nepal. Nepal was not even opened until the ’60s, before that no one was ever allowed to go, they were kicked out at the border. First he was studying classical Indian music, and then he got into the Buddhist trip and became one of the white cotton-clad yogis like Milarepa. But they are a type of yogi who can also get married, and do business, they don’t have to become like a monk. Even though he did all this intensive Tantric Buddhist practice. He married this Nepalese woman who was a kind of a shaman, and adopted her kids. They called him Peanut Butter Harry because when he got there they had peanuts, but nobody was making peanut butter. People were coming there to go mountain climbing and trekking in the Himalayas, so he started a peanut butter factory. That was one of his claims to fame, besides being one of these Tantric yogis who was there forever—a big white beard, and always wearing white robes, that kind of thing. He was a great friend of mine, and he would come here and stay with me in Woodstock, and I would hang out with him in Nepal. He also died a couple of years ago.
Mirabito: Yeah, definitely. All the old first generation of wanderers, before jet travel came in. It was really like opening a brand new door. When Ginsberg went to India in 1962 it took him three months to get there. Now you buy a ticket, you fly over.
Foye: But even then, in Allen’s Indian Journals, he would go very deep into the mountains in India, and suddenly he meets a young American traveller who’s been there for a few years. I guess there have always been the super rare people who just got out there.
Wilson: Sure, ever since Ancient Greece, Apollonius of Tyana.
Jarrett Earnest: When did you start writing and how did that evolve into wanting to have a press?
Mirabito: From the time I was living on Ginsberg’s farm I felt I should be a writer—that I should write poetry. I wrote in notebooks and kept very intense diaries of everything that I was doing. I started thinking about Ira Cohen and Angus MacLise—I wasn’t friends with MacLise because he died in 1975, but I was good friends with MacLise’s wife, Hetty, and his son, Ossian. Angus MacLise was the first drummer for the Velvet Underground and he had lived in Kathmandu for many years and was publishing poetry on handmade paper along with Ira Cohen. Hetty was the art editor of the San Francisco Oracle, and she was a wild and crazy musician and artist. They were living in Kathmandu in the ’70s, and had this little boy, Ossian, who became the first Western Tulku—a child reincarnate and lineage holder. I became good friends with them, and she kept showing me all these books. She had a huge collection of all these publications from Kathmandu.
Foye: The Bardo Matrix press was the name?
Mirabito: Bardo Matrix and Dreamweapon Press. I thought, “Gee, I’ve been going to Kathmandu every winter for several years. I really should start publishing my own stuff.” Woodstock has a really great poetry scene, so many great poets around like Janine Pommy Vega and Ed Sanders. When Ginsberg passed away I started regretting that I didn’t become better friends with him, that I didn’t become a student of his or ask him to help me out with my writing. I went through this change at that point in ’97 when Allen died. I thought, “I need to start publishing my work and start a press in Kathmandu like Angus and Ira Cohen.” One of my other biggest influences, of course, was Hanuman Books, by Raymond Foye and Francesco Clemente, which was a small art press that printed a lot of beats and different writers of avant-garde and even classical writing. And that was all through the ’80s and ’90s.
Wilson: It was printed in India?
Mirabito: Yeah, it was all printed in Madras, India. Beautiful little books, and I thought I should also do something like that to benefit avant-garde writers and readers that I know. In 1997 everything was still very cheap in Nepal. The king was in charge, it was the only Hindu monarchy in the world at that time. I could publish books made with handmade paper, and the crafts there were so ancient—it was really like walking into the Middle Ages. Everything was done on these really ancient presses.
Wilson: The first books were hand-set?
Foye: What was the first book?
Mirabito: The first book I did was my own writing, Welcome to Freaksville. It was the first one done with letterpress. I always felt “freak” was a good term and that people should take that back. A freak was somebody who wasn’t like the norm, the regular, middle-class society in America that I never really wanted to be a part of. From that point, I just flew with the press and I started organizing all kinds of readings with my friends—outdoors at Dharmaware, the little shop I worked at, or at the Magic Meadow, this beautiful outdoor field on top of the mountain near the monastery.
Wilson: Back in 1969 or ’70, I self-published a little book in Pakistan. It was done on a hand-set press. Every time I brought them a set of galleys with corrections, they would make the corrections and then they would make new mistakes because they were resetting the whole line. And they couldn’t read English, they were doing it by sight alone. Did you have the same experience, or by ’97 there were people who were actually good at it?
Mirabito: Nobody who worked in these presses could speak English or even read English because they have a different alphabet. So I basically started using friends of mine, Nepalese guys who spoke English well, and they became my go-betweens. I would make a dummy book to show what I wanted. I wasn’t that concerned about errors. People would tell me about all the misspelled words and letters that were backwards. I always thought that was just part of the charm of it.
Wilson: After seven galley proofs, I just said, “Oh well, I’ll just go with the mistakes that are in it.” Because it was charming.
Mirabito: And there are some cultures like the Huichol, who believe it’s an insult to god if you do something that’s “perfect.” So you should have a mistake in there, just to be human. It’s the same with the handmade paper I use, it’s all made above 10,000 feet in the Himalayas, and mostly by women in little co-operative villages. The paper might have all kinds of imperfections—dirt stuck in it, feathers, hair, bits of trees. I find that’s a great feature.
At a certain point I just flew with the press and I started involving all my friends in Woodstock. I started thinking, “The good thing about this press is that I could print books for all my friends.” Everybody could throw in a few hundred dollars and then they could have a book they could sell then for 10, 15, 20 bucks each and that could pay for their lunch. Everybody always says poets never make any money, but if you actually do have this object of your work that you could then sell to all your friends or people who appreciate poetry and art, then you can make a little bit of money to support yourself, or for extras, to eat, to smoke, to drink. I started offering that possibility to my friends. A lot of the earlier books were by local people, like this 90-year-old great-grandmother who wrote poems.
Foye: What was her name?
Mirabito: Rosalyn Z. Clark. Usually, either I would pay for the book and I would keep half the copies and they would get half the copies, or I would get them to pay for the printing and they got most of the copies and I would just keep a few. I had a different situation with everybody. I started asking people who were a little bit bigger in the poetry world and more prestigious, like Ed Sanders, and I would say, “I’ll pay for printing and do all the design work”—I was doing the design work from the beginning—“and then I’ll give you half the copies and I’ll keep half the copies.” I got into correspondence with different poets; I would write to these different poets all around the country and just try and enter into a conversation with them, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Anne Waldman—people like that. Generally the runs were like 333 copies, something mystical like that, so very low runs and very limited editions and all craft-printed and all handmade paper.
Foye: Shivastan Press has always been very community oriented for you?
Mirabito: Right, the way I thought of it was as a co-operative where everybody was involved. I wasn’t the only one deciding what was going to happen, other people could make decisions about what poems went into a book. I never strongly dictate things editorially or say “You can’t have this in there” or “No way, I want it this way.”
That seems to always work out because that’s one of the main things I’m about with poetry: being part of a community. Now it’s been 20 years or more that I have been cultivating and growing this community and all these poets work together. I have a little bookshop where we have regular readings, themed parties and costumed parties, vegetarian pot lucks, huge bonfires in my garden, and that’s been really great. The best thing about publishing is creating a community, I think. Getting people to participate and also to enjoy themselves as part of the poetry scene. Most mainstream people are not that into poetry, unfortunately. I think it’s because they think of it as something more academic or intellectual, so I hope to make it a fun or community-orientated thing, a place where you could go and meet fascinating people who offer an alternative way of living.
Earnest: During the time you had been living in Kathmandu, was there a comparable literary scene there?
Mirabito: There was, but it was mostly just Nepalese-speaking people.
Wilson: Was Ira Cohen still living there when you first took up residency?
Mirabito: No, Ira had left by the late ’70s.
Wilson: So there was no beat enclave?
Mirabito: There was a little bit, Hetty MacLise was there sometimes, and we would have poetry readings in little cafes, that kind of thing. Sometimes also Moira Moynihan, the daughter of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was involved—we had our own little Kathmandu scene, but there is a huge scene there and they really do appreciate poetry—
Wilson: In Nepalese?
Mirabito: Right. In Nepal, poets are thought of as great national heroes. They’ll even take them and put them on their shoulders and carry them through the city.
Earnest: Did you ever try to get any translation projects going?
Mirabito: No, I never got involved in that because I knew what I wanted to be promoting here was more of an alternative hippy thing. I’m obviously a gay poet and artist, but I don’t know if I want that to be my main thrust in life or pigeon-holed into that.
Earnest: Although one of the things you published was this great book of Henri Michaux translations.
Mirabito: Right, that’s one creative poet friend of ours, Louise Landes Levis, she translates from French, Italian, Sanskrit. She plays the Sarangi and studied in India with Ram Narayan. She even knew Annapurna Devi. She’s a great wandering yogi poet, who translated the poems of Mirabi. She actually hung out with Michaux.
She’s very famous for translating the book Rasa by René Daumal. That’s another book we published together.
Foye: Do you have any favorite Indian musicians?
Mirabito: I would say my favorite Indian musicians are the Bauls of Bengal and their ecstatic music. It’s so funny that the Hindu Kirtan and Bhajan scene is so big here, because that to me is so much like church or synagogue—whereas over in India it’s so ecstatic in that people really lose themselves in it. They really feel it with their heart and their whole body. It’s not just a sitting there and moaning kind of music.
Earnest: Another great figure from Kathmandu was Charles Henri Ford.
Opium Dens I Have Known, poems by Peter Lamborn Wilson and Drawings by Chris Martin. Shivastan Press, 2014.
Mirabito: I didn’t really spend much time with him. I met him in New York. In the old days they had these really wild and crazy Surrealist scenes in Kathmandu. He was there all through the ’70s and had a magazine called View (1940 – 47) with all the Surrealists who had to leave Europe because of World War II. He gathered them all together as a community and created this magazine, which was very inspirational to me. I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times and then he passed away in his 90s in 2002. I asked his Nepalese friend, Indra Tamang—who inherited everything from him—to do a book. That book became Operation Minotaur with Ford’s poetry collages and Tamang’s photography.
Foye: Have you used the same printer since the beginning or have you used different printers?
Mirabito: I was so fascinated by the handmade paper, and I wanted everything to look like a medieval manuscript. It would be something that was quite different from the glossy trade paperbacks that most poets were publishing. I have one printer in Nepal who is really my facilitator—he’s a computer guy, his name is Sherap Sherpa. He speaks perfect English. When I realized that he was involved in printing and facilitating printing, I asked if he could help me with these books and now I’ve worked with him pretty much on the whole run. He knows everything about every printing company in Kathmandu and can facilitate everything for me, he can work with these small printing companies that don’t speak English.
Earnest: Are there design aspects affected by printing on this type of paper, or with these types of inks? How does that affect the designs and objects themselves?
Mirabito: My printer actually developed a process where he would run the handmade paper—which is a rough paper that is hard to work with, a lot of people have tried and weren’t successful—through these rollers and flatten it out so we were able to actually print any way we wanted with the handmade paper. I think that’s probably why I’m the only press doing it, because my printer developed the process. One of the things I’ve figured out over the years is line drawings work best on the handmade paper because it shows better. The covers are all hand-silkscreened by these craftsmen. I can do basically anything with a silkscreen, and something I would like to further develop is to start doing more broadsides with multiple screens and that kind of thing. We always have to finish before monsoon season or we have trouble with the ink and paper not setting or drying properly.
Earnest: Are there any artists who have influenced the aesthetic aspects of the books?
Mirabito: I would say the artists that have really influenced me were Aubrey Beardsley—mostly for the kind of look that I’ve been trying to go for—and then there’s a British-Tibetan Buddhist artist named Robert Beer, who has done the most amazing artwork since the ’60s with traditional Tibetan images. He has decided to give all his artwork to the world, and anyone can use it in any way they like, so I often use his work because it’s traditional Tibetan Buddhist artwork but more psychedelic, because he was a psychedelic pioneer in the ’60s who had these visions on LSD.
Wilson: If any single book sparked off all the psychedelic art in the ’60s it was the Dover Collected Drawings of Aubrey Beardsley that influenced so many people.
Foye: When you think back over these books, are there any that particularly stand out for you?
Mirabito: A lot of people have said they wish I could do a book for them, so I thought I should do an annual anthology. I call it Wildflowers because that reflects the spirit of nature and also of “flower children” and the hippy scene that’s such an integral part of my life, and the wildness of most of the people that I would publish. So far I’ve done 10 different Wildflower editions. At first it was mostly local writers from the Woodstock area, but as I started expanding my correspondence, I would ask writers that I liked from all over the country if they would contribute. Toward the end of the series I started doing more themes. Like this one, it’s called the “Not a Warhol” issue, and it’s about people who were associated with the Warhol scene, like Andy Warhol’s nephew, James Warhol, and my good friend Allen Midgette, who I lived with off and on in Woodstock, and Billy Name and all these people like that. It was really fun to do a Warhol-related art and poetry anthology. Then there was a Buddhist theme that I tried to get people from all different aspects of the Buddhist scenes that I had been in. And I also got a poem from his holiness Karmapa, who is the head of the big Tibetan monastery in Woodstock, called Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.
I have a funny story about Rene Ricard. I wrote to him at the Chelsea Hotel and said “I’ll give you $50 for a poem for my anthology that I print in Nepal.” He received the letter at the Chelsea Hotel and immediately ran to the desk and said “give me a piece of paper and a pencil” and he wrote me this poem Cecil about his love affair he had with a Nepali prince in the ’60s, who became King Birendra of Nepal who was tragically murdered in 2001. The whole royal family was murdered in this medieval take over scene, supposedly by his son, but everybody was saying it was really by his brother, Gyanendra, who became the next king. Rene Ricard wrote me this poem in pencil very quickly and then wrote at the bottom, “send me the $50 as soon as possible, darling.” That’s a great letter! I turned Cecil into a chapbook and a broadside.
There are over 50 different broadsides and books that I’ve published since ’97. The one that I’m really excited about now is the most recent one which is called, Opium Dens I Have Known, by Peter Lamborn Wilson. It’s very exciting because it’s also an art book, a collaboration with Chris Martin who created a lot of drawings for it. It’s an oversized book compared to the ones I usually do—a limited edition of 400. It’s breaking into a whole new genre for me, which I’m really excited about.
Earnest: Do you see yourself continuing to travel and to live in the way you have been living?
Mirabito: Definitely. I think that’s the thing about growing older—you kind of design your lifestyle and you decide what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. What I found really works for me is creating a community in Woodstock of like-minded people who are artists, writers, and musicians and then going to Asia in the winter and studying all this fascinating ancient culture and then being with fascinating, interesting alternative-types there.