Originally printed in (and written for) Best Minds: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg, edited Bill Morgan & Bob Rosenthal. Lospecchio Press, New York, 1986
Alan Ansen: Memories of Allen
I think I first met Allen at the Chelsea loft of Bill Cannastra, a young charming self-destructive drunk, who'd been an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, where he'd met Chester Kallman and Auden, and a law student at Harvard. I was Auden's secretary at the time. Allen struck me as intense but attractive in ways intense people so often are not.
It was in the interests of cultivating that attractiveness perhaps at the expense of the intensity that when he invited me out to Paterson I spent much of my time in a quiet little bar he'd discovered there reading P. G. Wodehouse to him. He was working on a long poem with various titles —"The Shrouded Stranger" and "The Green Automobile" come to mind.
Among my scabrous reminiscences of the period, always a delight to recall—our brief encounter at my house in which I played the mad impetuous girl, he the wise patient man, his consoling me for a victory over a male whore I'd dragged back to his flat and his introducing me, again at my house, to a tall Denver boy, who would probably very much appreciate not having his name mentioned here.
Allen and his friends were more interested in stressing homosexuality's capacities for Dostoievskian misery rather than Wildean eclat, and this made for a strain between the sects of the church. A resentment at Kerouac's being something of a victim of the homosexual publishing world, the irksomeness of the closet, Burroughs' snarl about "chic as Cecil Beaton's ass" and his dissatisfaction with his gay Harvard friends and, above all, the Lucien Carr David Kammerer affair were signs of the divergence. And, in retrospect, misery seems to be more artistically productive than snobbery; though I, for one, at this late date should like to enter a plea for reconciliation.
During Allen's Yorkville period he introduced me to little Jack Melody and his friend Vicki, people I felt were bad news on sight. Introductions for which I was much more grateful were to Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and, above all, William Burroughs.
Gregory's line "A stone will peel, even as an apple will" convinced me he had star quality; but, unfortunately, our incipient, friendship was postponed for what I now consider ridiculous reasons.
When I first met Burroughs at Allen's East Village flat in the spring of 1954, I was fascinated. In Paterson Allen had read me impressive excerpts from Burroughs' letters about the wetbacks and other East Texas matters. My parents had died some five years before, the aunt with whom I'd been living had died in 1953. And Helen Parker and her two enchanting subteens, who'd been my house guests for the past six months, were moving to the city. Auden and Chester Kallman were spending more and more time in Ischia. So I was at something of a loose end; and Burroughs, who planned an exploration of Rome and Tangier, seemed to provide the ideal aegis for a first trip to Europe.
Our departures seemed to precipitate Allen's and Gregory's, eventually to San Francisco and, respectively, Howl and Gasoline.
Burroughs was staying with me in Venice when he first saw Howl and said, "Allen's really done it this time, hasn't he?". As part of the sensitive underground, I certainly felt Allen's poem was pushing me up from the coal hole and helping me clamber menacingly toward the light.
Allen and I met again in Tangier in the spring of 1957, both of us making fair typescripts of sections of an early version of Naked Lunch. He and Peter had introduced a hapless Swede to our communal meals at which Burroughs and I grew increasingly restive. Burroughs upheld Melville as the greatest American writer, while Allen insisted on Whitman. The once and future rat, I, when Allen read me excerpts from early Beat correspondence, asked what would happen if one of the correspondents had mentioned Henry James. And I remember Allen and Peter giggling in the garden of the Villa Mouniria outside my window while I was in bed with a lovely Spanish boy, a gift from Burroughs.
Allen and Peter stayed with me in Venice that summer. The festival of Redentore was a disaster. I had given one of my boys some money to hire a boat for the evening, and he'd taken the money and run. I was so miserable I stayed home and sulked while Allen and Peter went off to watch the fireworks. When time failed to abate my gloom next morning, Peter jumped into the Grand Canal to propitiate me. His mood wasn't always so placatory—he called me a baby whore for quarrelling with Eric, an English sailor, about money.
He and Allen drove Peggy Guggenheim from the fiat by tossing a dirty towel, which hit her by mistake, and almost did the same with a young Dutch painter, Guy Harloff, by showing up with Paul Goodman in manic mood expatiating on the joys of the Lido dunes. It was Harloff who introduced them to 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur, later famous as the Paris Beat hotel. On one occasion I recited Allen and Peter Crashaw's "0 thou undaunted daughter of desires" from his Hymn to Saint Teresa much to their satisfaction.
From my point of view the most important aspect of that summer was Allen's encouraging me to write verse, the first result being a poem inspired by the arrival of an American cruiser, the Newport News. However minimal my subsequent success, I can never be grateful enough to him for helping give my life a structure and content it would otherwise have lacked.
He showed me Gregory's latest poetry and I was so struck with it, particularly with "Amnesia in Memphis," that I could hardly wait to see Gregory again that autumn in Paris after Allen and Peter had gone there.
I should not omit my presentation of Allen and Peter to Lord Faringdon, whom I'd brought back to the flat from a party at Peggy Guggenheim's, an exploit that earned me a good deal of ill will from the expatriate community in Venice.
When Wesleyan University Press accepted my book of verse, Disorderly Houses, I think it was in part a tentative gesture in the direction of the Beats in the person of one of the less frightening members of the group. There could not have been much satisfaction over my treasonably casting Allen, Peter, Gregory and Burroughs as a comic antimasque in a masque commissioned by Jimmy Merrill and performed in Peggy Guggenheim's garden. He who has a foot in both camps is liable to have his feet chopped off.
When asked for a blurb Allen characterized me as "a campy Dryden" much to my editor's fury but, oddly, to my own growing satisfaction in that it couples my name with that of a poet I regard very highly; and, though "campy" may not be the ideal description of the matter and manner of my verse, perhaps it will have to do. Certainly this text does nothing to impeach the justice of Allen's adjective.
Allen and I saw each other with some frequency in Tangier over the next few years when he taught me how to watch the flowers grow under marijuana and again in the spring of 1967 in San Francisco, where he was kind enough to sing me soothing mantras and take me to Los Gatos to see Neal Cassady again (someone else I owe him) a good deal the worse for amphetamines, and in New York. Since then our ways have diverged—desultory correspondence, a call from Jugoslavia; but I think of him with affection and respect.
Originally printed in Best Minds: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg, edited Bill Morgan & Bob Rosenthal. Lospecchio Press, New York, 1986
“Tompkins Square Lower East Side N.Y. Four skin heads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella. 1987”
— American Sentences