Poetry at the Old Longshoreman’s Hall

A memoir by Don Carpenter

It was the spring of 1964 and Gary Snyder had just come back from several years in Japan, and I thought it would be a good thing for him to have a public reading of his new poems. Up until then the poetry readings I had gone to had been chaotic and profitless (for the poets), and so the trick would be to set up the reading on a professional basis.

Some years earlier I had hosted a poetry reading in my basement in Portland, Oregon, with Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen reading, and it had been awful, all except for the poetry. It was too crowded, too hot, and when we passed the hat to pay for the wine we only got $1.75. A window got broken and somebody trampled my nasturtiums. But hell. This time, I resolved, there would be planning, care lavished on every detail, the audience would be comfortable and the poets would make a few bucks.

I asked Snyder and Whalen if they would like to read together again if I did all the work and they got all the money, and they agreed. But, it turned out, Donald Allen, the redoubtable editor and translator, who sprung the Beat Generation on the world with Evergreen Review Number Two, had it in mind to offer Snyder and Lew Welch in a joint reading. A meeting was called at my apartment on Jersey Street and it was quickly agreed that we should pool forces.

Actually, it was a wonderful combination. The three poets were all friends, had gone to Reed College together, living in the same house at 2121 Lambert Street. All three were deeply involved in Zen, not Marin County Zen but the real thing (or perhaps I should say the unreal thing). But they had totally different personalities and wrote totally different poetry. Gary Snyder was quiet and scholarly, living simply, an anthropologist as much as a poet and able to read and write both Chinese and Japanese. Philip Whalen was big and soft-looking, but not soft. He loved to talk and laugh and he knew very nearly everything. He was a man of extreme courage, and refused to work at anything but being a poet. “I had a job once,” he told me, “and I don’t ever want to have another one.” Sometimes this meant he would go days without food, but he always managed to pull through and do his work.

I didn’t know Lew Welch well at the time, but I liked very much his intimate raffish and quite beautiful poetry, what little there was of it. Tall, thin, handsome, always wearing a crooked smile, Welch liked to think of himself as a hip conman. He liked to drink and sit in the Jazz Workshop and listen to good music. He loved Sausalito and the no name bar and he loved to play pool and skulk around the Tenderloin. He had just come down from the Trinity Mountains where he had been living in a little cabin for two years, writing, and, incidentally, winning a turkey in a turkey shoot. He was a complex and interesting guy, who had worked in Chicago as an advertising writer, he had traveled crosscountry with Jack Kerouac, and I don’t know what all.

I didn’t start getting nervous until I looked at the hall. The Old Longshoreman’s Hall on Golden Gate looked gigantic and empty. I had never seen more than a couple of hundred people at a poetry reading (the night Allen Ginsberg first read ‘Kaddish‘) and this damned place could hold six hundred or more. But the price was right, $75.00, and so with a gulp I wrote out the check. It was all the money I hoped to lay out and nearly all I had in the bank. I expected to get it back off the top, should as many as seventy-five people show up and pay their dollar. We decided to keep the price low so that people with limited funds could come.

Publicity, that was the trick. We would make a handbill, get somebody to run off copies for free, and plaster North Beach with them. The poets would make big posters and put them up in key places like City Lights Books and Mike’s Pool Hall. Up to now both the Chronicle and the Examiner had been icy to North Beach and poetry, but we would change all that, we would shower them with photographs and press releases. I would badger my friend Ralph J. Gleason and he might announce the reading at the bottom of his column, although he had never done anything with poetry before. It would be a snap.

But that looming empty cavern of a hall still kept me awake nights.

Lew found a friend who volunteered to run off our handbills, if we would only come up with a design and furnish the paper to print it on. Don Allen and the poets were busy with a scheme of their own, to print up one poem from each poet in his own calligraphy (the three had all studied under Lloyd Reynolds at Reed), and so, biting my lip, I went down to Flax’s and bought sheets of rubber letters. It was simple, all you had to do was place the little letter where you wanted it, rub it with something hard (I used the rounded end of a fountain pen) and the letter would stick, and you go on to the next letter. Simple. It took me two days, and I never worked so hard or sweated so much or cursed so hopelessly. But finally the thing was done, and we printed up 500 of them, posted them everywhere, mailed them to everyone we could think of, and finally realized we were committed to this thing. Not just a reading, but a damned successful one.

I called Gleason and told him what was up and he laughed and said he’d be delighted to help in any way. On the phone he told me how to get announcements on the radio, and that I should hand-carry the press releases and pictures to the papers. Then a few days later I drove Lew over to Berkeley to meet Ralph. It was a wonderful afternoon, full of ripe conversation and jazz, and as a result Ralph gave over an entire column to Lew and our reading, called “Bread vs. Mozart’s Watch.” It was about how poets usually never got paid (Mozart was often paid off with a watch) and how we were going to try to change that. “If you can pay the printer, you can pay the poet,” Lew often said.

Jim Hatch the photographer was unearthed somewhere and we had a photography and wine-tasting session at Gary’s tiny apartment on Green Street. I wrote up press releases, mailed them to the radio stations, hand-carried them to the newspapers and began to sweat in earnest. We were all having a lot of fun, but that didn’t mean anything. Gary and I went down to Market Street and bought a huge roll of tickets for the door, ate hot dogs, and that was about all there was to do.

On the night of the reading, June 12, I came two and half hours early, to fiddle with the sound equipment and because I couldn’t stand waiting around at home, and was astonished to find that some people were already there, sitting on the steps or hanging around the lobby. Crazy people, I thought, and went on in. Don Allen was there in the lobby, arranging the broadsides on a big table. He gave me a nervous smile and I went backstage, where the three poets were reacting in their own ways to stage fright, Lew jacked up and visibly nervous, Gary tense and short-tempered and Phil Whalen calm and quiet.

“People are already out there,” I said.

Yes, they had noticed. Had I checked the sound equipment? I went out on the stage and turned on the equipment and positioned myself behind the microphone. A mob of poets and their friends marched into the hall and took choice seats, led by Jack Spicer.

“I can’t hear you,” Spicer said critically.

I turned it up. “Can you hear me now, Mister Spicer?” I boomed.

I went out front again to bask in it. I was feeling very good, not nervous at all anymore. More people were coming all the time, filling the lobby and spilling out onto the front steps. I went outside. There was Ralph Gleason, come over to cover the event. He introduced me to two record company executives, who were there to tape the reading. And mobs of people milling around. This was getting to be fun!

But in the press of other matters, I had made a near fatal mistake. I had forgotten to put somebody at the door to take money and issue tickets. I rushed back into the building. Sure enough, people were entering the hall and taking seats without having paid (of course Spicer and his friends all had complementary seats).

“Hey!” I yelled into the hall, “come back out here and pay!” Many laughed, and a few came back out sheepishly and gave me their dollar. Dollars were being shoved at me from all directions. I had to make change, tear tickets and watch the door all at the same time. Across the lobby, Don Allen was selling broadsides by the dozen, and looked as harried as I felt. At last an old friend, Rick Rubin, took pity on me and helped me out, but we had easily lost a couple of hundred dollars.

The place was packed, and the crowd had an expectant air. Something really good was going to happen that night and they were here to be part of it. Eight hundred of them, lovers of good poetry, the cream of the Bay Area.

Lew led off, and it was the perfect choice, although there had been some fear that he would read too long. He was a master at reading. He was funny, intimate, in tune with the audience (and they with him), and obviously enormously pleased by the size of the response.

Whalen came next, and if the crowd had loved Lew, they adored Philip, who read some of his best and funniest stuff and left the audience exhausted.

Gary came last. His poetry is not as funny as that of the other two, but it had other equally responsive elements, and the audience sat rapt under the sound of his voice, and when he would come to the end of a poem sometimes there would be only silence or an occasional “Whew!” But at other times a poem would bring down the house.

Afterward we all rode in the same car up to Gary’s apartment, where we counted the money and then hid most of it in the oven. The rest we took down to Tosca’s in North Beach, where everyone was waiting to celebrate. The reading had been a great artistic success, and we were entitled to a great blowout. Which we had.

When the dust cleared and I had been paid off, the poets each had a little over a hundred dollars apiece. Nobody held it against me that I had let other hundreds escape. “Hell,” said Lew, “A hundred bucks for half hour’s work? Not bad!”

That was all a long time ago. Gary Snyder has gone on to win many honors, including a Pulitzer prize, and is a leading figure in the ecology movement. Lew Welch, troubled by poverty and alcoholism, went into the mountains never to be seen again. Phil Whalen has become a Zen monk.

* * * * *

(All rights reserved. Copyright 1980-2001, Estate of Don Carpenter. This memoir of what became known as the Freeway Reading was written by novelist Don Carpenter in 1980. Carpenter died in July of 1995, and this piece was given to Literary Kicks by his daughter and executor, Bonnie Howard, who is currently editing a volume of her father’s letters.)

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