THE GOLDEN GATE POET: INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL LUIMNIOS
A.D. Winans is a native San Francisco poet and writer. He is the author of over fifty books, including North Beach Poems, North Beach Revisied, and This Land Is Not My Land, which won a 2006 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature. Recent books include Billie Holiday Me and the Blues, No Room for Buddha, Love-Zero, and the just released San Francisco Poems.
In 2009 PEN Oakland awarded him a lifetime achievement award. In November 2010 BOS Press published a 365-page book of his Selected Poems. In 2012 Little Red Tress Press published his book San Francisco Poems. He is a graduate of San Francisco State College (now University).
From 1972 to 1989 Winans edited and published Second Coming Press, which produced a large number of books and anthologies, among them the highly acclaimed California Bicentennial Poet’s Anthology, which included poets like David Meltzer, Jack Micheline, Charles Plymell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ishmael Reed, Josephine Miles, Bob Kaufman, Gene Fowler, and William Everson.
He worked as an editor and writer for the San Francisco Art Commission, Neighborhood Arts Program, from 1975 to 1980, during which time he produced the Second Coming 1980 Poets and Music Festival, honoring the late Josephine Miles and John Lee Hooker. He has read his poetry with many acclaimed poets, including Jack Hirschman, Diane DiPrima, Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, Harold Norse, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and all of the past and current San Francisco Poet Laureates.
In April 2002 a poem of his was set to music By William Bolcom, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, and performed at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. Writers like Colin Wilson, Studs Terkel, James Purdy, Peter Coyote, Herbert Gold, and the late Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski have praised his work.
His essay on the late Bob Kaufman was published in the American Poetry Review and was republished in 2007 by The Writer's Research Group. In September 2009 the article was again re-published along with a poem of his for Bob Kaufman, as part of a booklet produced by the Los Angeles Afro American Museum.
Michael Limnios: Poetry and music…can these two arts confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?
A.D. Winans: Well the mind can only be imprisoned if you allow it. The spirit is a mysterious force that exists within the mind. Music is like a tantric massage that stimulates the senses. I don’t think life would be worth living without music. What comes to my mind is that song “American Pie,” and the line “The Day The Music Stopped.” I believe poetry and music can become as one. At their best, they offer us salvation and hope. A means of escaping the prison we are born into. Most humans are not capable of seeing beyond the depth of their eyes. The universe is all around us, but when they look up at the sky, all they see is the sun, the moon, and stars. I am of the opinion that poetry and music unite man with the spirit of a higher force, be it God, or a mysterious force we don’t understand and will never comprehend. I believe poetry and music are like man and woman in that they complement the other; spirit, creation and music are intertwined. Since creation man has sought to find perfection, and thus the need for the existence of a God. To me poetry and music is the path leading toward self-enlightenment and a reunification of the flesh and spirit.
ML: What characterizes A.D. Winans’ Philosophy? How do you describe A.D. Winans?
ADW: I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I was born in San Francisco, and have lived here almost my entire life.
I was a misfit in both grammar school and high school. I spent time at the public library, where I discovered the works of Jack London and dreamed of shipping off to sea and writing about my own adventures.
The Joseph McCarthy era, the struggle for civil rights, the treatment of the American Indian, and the Vietnam War all became fodder for later rebellion, which resulted in the many scathing political poems I have written. Early on I began reading the works of Camus, Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and later became interested in poetry after discovering Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso and other Beat poets and writers.
In 1958 I returned home from the military to discover the San Francisco North Beach Beat movement. I met Richard Brautigan and Jack Spicer at Gino and Carlo’s Bar and Bob Kaufman at the “Co-existence Bagel Shop.”
North Beach opened up a new way of life for me. It was the training ground for my becoming a poet and writer. In 1972 I started up Second Coming Press, which lasted seventeen years. I served three terms on the Board of Directors of COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers), which later became the International Organization of Independent Publishers.
I was active in promoting poetry events and in 1980 I organized the 1980 Poets and Music Festival, a three- county, seven-day festival honoring the late poet Josephine Miles and the late Blues musician, John Lee Hooker.
The truth is I find it difficult talking about myself. I prefer to let my poems do the talking for me. My poetry largely addresses issues of concern to millions of Americans who spend the majority of their lives struggling to survive in a society bankrupt in spirit and moral fiber, where money is the only common denominator.
Early in my life I was influenced by the writings of T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, but my mentors were the late Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski.
I have never worn the label of poet well. It’s not a word I’m comfortable with. It carries a connotation that somehow the poet walks on a higher ground than the average person. The truth is I would not be a poet if it were not for these strange voices camped inside my head; demon voices that confront me and demand I write down their thoughts.
The demons invade my thought process and take over. In this, I share Jack Spicer’s philosophy that “verse does not originate from within the poet's expressive will as a spontaneous gesture unmediated by formal constraints, but is a foreign agent, a parasite that invades the poet’s language and expresses what it wants to say.”
Many people have called me a “street” poet. I suppose this is because much of my subject matter deals with life on the streets. I don’t think this is an accurate label. I have been writing for over four decades and my style continues to evolve. The subject matter is as diverse as life itself. The form and technique I employ can and has changed from time to time. The one constant is that people remain my favorite subject matter. If John Weiners was a poet’s poet, I’d like to be remembered as a poet of the people.
Being a native San Francisco poet, I know the streets of this city like a gambler knows when to hold and when to fold. Jack Micheline wrote in a foreword for A Bastard Child With No Place To Go: “A. D. Winans is a man in search of his soul His compassion and love for his native city San Francisco shows in his poems. A. D. takes us on a journey of lost souls in the cruelty of a large city. He writes of the people he loves: poets, musicians, and the ordinary souls who have moved him. He knows the wars, the lost hookers, the crazies, the victims, and the ones gone mad. The system and the tragedy of America.”
There it is in a nutshell. I’m not a guru. I don’t go to the mountains looking for the Dalai Lama. I create largely in isolation. I write out of a sense of loneliness and sadness and anger, but also with love and humor, the latter for which I am indebted to the late Bob Kaufman.
I write with the same observational intensity as Charles Bukowski, yet entirely unlike him. Like Bukowski, you will never have to search in a dictionary to understand my poems. I try in the most direct manner possible to say the things I have felt and experienced in life, and hope that the reader will find the voyage a memorable one.
The noted writer Colin Wilson said: “Everything I read by A.D. Winans fills me with pleasure because of a beautiful natural and easy use of language - he seems to have an ability which should be common but which is in fact very rare to somehow allow his own pleasant personality to flow direct into the page.”
Poetry and writing have kept me going all these years. They have been the wife and children I’ve never had. I’d like to be known as a poet who never compromised; I’d like to think my work has made people think. If in the process, a poem or poems of mine has inspired someone, then it will all have been worthwhile.
I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and read the newspaper, spend a couple of hours at the computer, pick up the mail at the post office, take a thirty minute walk, return home, listen to my jazz records, put in a few hours of writing, and then it’s time to go to bed and get up in the morning and start all over again. That’s what life is pretty much about. The growing up, the learning, the wild years, the mellowing, the settling into a routine, and then one day it’s over.
I don’t think any one man’s life is really that important, but what he does with it and leaves behind is. I hope I have earned more good karma than bad karma points. I hope in the end I can look death in the face and say I’ve played the game honestly and that I never sold my integrity. In the end integrity is all a writer has. Sell your integrity and you’ve sold your soul to the devil.
ML: Mike Bloomfield said: "The music you listen to becomes the soundtrack of your life."
ADW: I love that quote and it’s so damn true!
ML: So, what first attracted you to the Blues & how has the blues and jazz music changed your life?
ADW: I can’t say that the Blues or Jazz has changed my life, but both have brought endless hours of pleasure. I met Blues musicians like John Lee Hooker (whom I presented a music award too in 1980) and Charlie Musselwhite and had the pleasure of drinking with both of them. I also met John Handy, who performed for me at the Second Coming 1980 Poet’s and Music Festival, and the late Jack Micheline introduced me to Charlie Mingus. Not one of them had a giant ego, unlike many poets I know.
ML: What was the relation between jazz and blues music, and poetry and why?
ADW: So many forms of music draw on the Blues, like Country and Rock and Roll. The Blues speak to the downtrodden souls struggling with life’s sorrows. Jazz would not have existed without the Blues. The great Bessie Smith featured Louis Armstrong on a recording. Today the Mingus Big Band has linked Blues and politics. The Blues and Jazz are like husband and wife; they reinforce each other.
ML: Why did you think that the blues and jazz continued to generate such a devoted following?
ADW: Because they are infused in man’s blood. They are the breath and heartbeat of the creative soul; they will exist as long as man exists.
ML: It is said that "A picture is worth a thousand words." When was your first desire to become involved in the photography?
ADW: I became interested in photography when I was publishing Second Coming and began complementing poems with opposite page photographs. It was not until around 1990, however, that I bought a Pentax camera (later replaced with a Nikon) and began walking the streets of San Francisco photographing people and street scenes.
I began going to the annual San Francisco Folsom Street Fair and taking photos of the "leather" crowd, most of them gay and lesbian. Some of those pics can be found on my web site. I have had photos published in literary journals and neighborhood newspapers and elsewhere. I don't consider myself anything near a professional photographer, certainly no more than a tad better than an amateur photographer. However, a professional photographer friend has said I have a "poetic" eye for subject matter. I think he is right. I quit shooting photos several years ago after a fire in my apartment that displaced me for close to a year. I plan later this year on going back out into the streets with my new Nikon digital camera and exploring this art once again. I hope if the fates are kind to me, to put together a book of poems accompanied by opposite page photographs of my own.
ML: Do you know why the blues and jazz is connected to the BEATS & what characterizes the philosophy of blues and jazz?
ADW: The influence of Jazz on the work of the Beats is evident. Charlie Parker and Mingus were two primary jazz greats to whom the Beats were drawn. In the late Fifties and into the Sixties, jazz was central to what was happening. Wes Montgomery and Cal Tjader were very much part of the scene. The Fillmore District, a largely black community, in San Francisco, was known as “Be Bop City,” visited by musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Poets like Kenneth Patchen and Bob Kaufman read their work accompanied by jazz musicians. It was common to see New York Jazz musicians visiting San Francisco’s Fillmore District, and it was here that musicians and lovers of jazz gathered in the early hours of the morning. The Beats and “bebop” were like cousins. When discussing the Bebop movement in terms of Beat literature, you are talking about the “freedom” it represents.
ML: What is the most interesting period in your life and why? What experiences in your life make you a good poet?
ADW: I’d have to say the late Fifties through the Seventies. I returned home from the military in 1958 and discovered the North Beach Beat movement. I met Bob Kaufman, and later Jack Micheline, Gregory Corso, Ferlinghetti, Howard Hart, Harold Norse, Jack Spicer, Richard Brautigan, and a host of post beat poets. In 1966 I met then Senator Robert Kennedy. I began publishing Second Coming in 1972 and served three terms on the Board of Directors of COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazines and Publishers). I began publicly reading my poetry in the Sixties and organized many poetry events, including the 1980 Second Comi8ng Poets and Music Festival, honoring the poet Josephine Miles and the blues legend, John Lee Hooker. I worked for five years as an editor and writer for the San Francisco Arts Commission, Neighborhood Arts Program. I hung out in North Beach for over thirty years. I taught two poetry classes with Paul Fericano at the Junior High School level and along with Jack Micheline was an active participant in the Folsom Prison Writer’s Workshop, as well as reading my work at San Quentin and other prisons. I met blues musicians like John Lee Hooker and Charlie Musslewhite and jazz musicians like Mingus and John Handy. I shot a game of pool with Janis Joplin at Gino and Carlo’s bar. I knew newspaper figures like Warren Hinckle and the late Herb Caen and Charlie Mc Cabe. My life experiences shaped my poetry. In essence my life and poetry are one and the same; they can’t be separated.
ML: Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
ADW: I don’t believe one can have a career in poetry. If you think career, then you really aren’t a poet. I leave that category to the poetry politicians who pollute the poetry world. I didn’t choose poetry it chose me. Like the late William Wantling said, “I’d carry a lunchbox, just like the rest of them, if only these strange voices inside my head would leave me alone.” There were special (best) moments in my life, like meeting Robert Kennedy, having a drink with John Lee Hooker, and shooting a game of pool with Janis Joplin, among many others. The worst time in my life was working eight years as a security guard at a hospital, just to put food on the table and pay the rent. It was eight years of living hell, and I don’t wish to revisit them here.
ML: Are there any memories from North Beach spending long hours at City Lights Bookstore, which you would like to share with us?
ADW: I think I pretty much covered this in earlier questions, but I will share with you my first night in North Beach, in 1958, after returning home from Panama. I walked into the San Gottardo Hotel and bar. It was packed with people. I made my way to the front of the bar and ordered a beer, when I felt someone tap me on the back. I turned around and saw this nice looking French woman, who asked me, “Would you like to fuck?.” We spent the next hour making love in her upstairs room. Later she took me down to what was the old warehouse district, where “Big Daddy” Nord had a pad. I walked in and there was Bob Kaufman dancing with Eileen Kaufman surrounded by a group of black bongo and conga drum players. She took me up on the roof where I was taken back to see a string of mattresses strung out on the roof and people openly fornicating, oblivious to anyone watching them. This was my introduction to North Beach. Some of my memories can be found in my memoir, The Holy Grail: The Charles Bukowski Second Coming Revolution.
ML: Which memory from Charles Bukowski makes you smile? What advice did Bukowski give you?
ADW: At a reading in San Francisco in the Seventies, Bukowski thanked the crowd who was whistling and yelling for an encore. Especially loud was a young man in the back of the auditorium who kept shouting, “More. More.” Bukowski flashed the young man an impish smile and asked the kid how much he had paid to get into the reading. The kid took the bait. Three dollars,” the kid said. “And you’re a $3 audience,” Bukokwski shot back, much to the delight of the crowd.
As for advice, Bukowski told me, “Stay away from bars, cafés and poets. Especially stay away from poets.”
ML: How does the jazz music come out of Bob Kaufman’s words?
ADW: Google poems like “O Jazz O and Round About Midnight” and you can see for yourself. Kaufman borrowed from jazz improvisation. He was a friend with the likes of Charlie Parker and Mingus, pioneers of the Be-Bop movement. He adapted harmonic complexities and the spontaneous invention of Be-Bop and was frequently referred to as the Be-Bop poet. Kaufman was a poet of the oral tradition who believed it was the poem and not the poet that mattered, reading his poems on the street, in cafés, in bars, in parks, and in the open windows of cars waiting in traffic. I regard him in the same category as Kenneth Patchen when it came to reading his poems to jazz.
ML: What is the “feel” you miss nowadays from the 60s and the 70s pool halls, bars and cafes in North Beach?
ADW: The only pool I played in North Beach was at Gino and Carlo’s Bar. The bar is still there, but it’s no longer a hangout for poets and artists. It has gone from a Bohemian bar to a more or less Yuppie Bar. Some of the locals still hang out there in the day hours, but at night, it’s more of a younger crowd. The Café Trieste is still there and is still frequented by poets, artists, musicians and philosophers. City Lights will always be there, but it’s now more of a tourist stopping point, not much different than any other bookstore you will find in the city. Spec’s, across the street from City Lights, is still a popular hangout for poets. I guess what I miss is the “spirit” that existed in the old days. The neighborhood was a 24/7 hub of creativity. Everyone knew everyone. There was a sense of camaraderie; a family like atmosphere that just doesn’t exist today.
ML: What characterize San Francisco's "air" and life, ...why San Francisco was the place to reference at 60s?
ADW: You have to remember I was born in San Francisco and have lived here almost my entire life. I reference the Sixties in San Francisco because it was a particularly exciting era. Until the mid-Sixties, the West Coast Beats were still active, along with the beginning of what would be known as the post-beat era, which flourished through the Seventies. Wayne Miller painted a poster featuring the major players and titled it "The Wild Bunch.” It' hangs on the wall upstairs at the Vesuvio Bar. Bars like The Place, Gino and Carlo's, the Vesuvio and to a lesser degree the 1232 Club, were meeting grounds where poets met day and night, going from one bar to the other. The Trieste Cafe was the meeting ground for poets like Ferlinghetti and philosophers like Shig, who managed City Lights Bookstore. In the Sixties, jazz was very much alive, and poetry readings and festivals were everywhere. You had anti-Vietnam war protests raging, and the Hippie era began, with some poets like Ginsberg crossing over into this era. I too spent time in both North Beach and the Haight Ashbury, but my roots primarily remained in North Beach. The Sixties and the Seventies were two eras unlikely to ever again be matched in creativity and spirit. It all ended in the Eighties around the same time Reagan was elected President.
ML: What are some of the most memorable tales with Shig Murao?
ADW: Shig was in a class all his own. He was in the true sense, a "real" Beat, as were poets like Kaufman, Jack Micheline, and Ray Bremser. Ferlinghetti showed his true colors when after Shig had a stroke, and returned to the store, for what he thought was to be his old job, found that LF had replaced him with a young business man (who later would become a lawyer).
Shig was never bitter. When I would pass him on the street, I'd always ask, "How is Ferlinghetti?" He would always smile and say, "You mean Mr. Spaghetti." I was published in a couple of the stapled journals he put together. Shig did not walk away from City Lights, Ferlinghetti walked away from him.
ML: Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Second Coming Press?
ADW: There are so many memories. I guess the most vivid one was the 1980 Second Comi8ng Poets and Music Festival. No one has ever or since organized a seven-day, three-county festival of this magnitude. It featured poets and musicians from San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin County I elicited the help of a fellow poet, Wilfredo Castano, and secured grant funding from the California Arts Council, the San Francisco Foundation, The Bing Crosby Youth Fund, and other private foundations. This allowed us to pay the poets and musicians. We honored the poet Josephine Miles, the Blues legend, John Lee Hooker and poet activist, Roberto Vargas. We held events at small and big venues. It was a diverse program that included high school poets, a high school jazz group, senior poets, former prison poets, street poets, and Beat poets like Jack Micheline. At the conclusion of the festival, I was literally burned out for several months.
ML: You had pretty interesting project in the Poets and Music Festival, a festival honoring the poet Josephine Miles and John Lee Hooker. Where did you get that idea?
ADW: I have always been a fan of music as much as poetry. I knew that music events always drew decent if not large crowds. Poetry is another matter. Some big name poetry events draw a good crowd, but the usual poetry reading consists on the average of 20 to 30 people. I wanted to try and bring poetry to people who would not ordinarily attend a reading. I believed if I could put together readings with both poets and musicians on the same bill, and not inform the audience in advance of what performer would be performing at any given time, that they would be introduced to poets they were unaware of. So I would have a few poets read their work, followed by a musician, more poets and then another musician or band.
I don’t know if this concept worked or not. The ticket was good for the entire day and not just a single performance. If you were coming to hear John Lee Hooker for instance, you did not know if he was coming on early or would be the closing act.
So people came earlier and stayed later than they ordinarily might have.
ML: What is your dream and what is your nightmare?
ADW: My dream is in my lifetime to see universal health care with everyone covered under a single payer system; to see all citizens covered under the current Medicare system. My nightmare is the fear the current radical right wing Republican Party will gain control of all three branches of our government.
ML: If you go back to the past, what things would you do better and what things would you avoid?
ADW: It’s hard to rewrite history. My life was shaped by my experiences, change any of them, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today. What would I avoid? I know I would drink less than I did in those early days. At times I was described as “stone drunk,” and during those days, I had many bad experiences, like being sucker punched by cowards who wouldn’t have challenged me sober.
I would certainly avoid drinking and driving; the two DUI arrests I had, one of them quite frightening. Other than this, I don’t know if there is anything I’d want to change.
ML: What historical personalities would you like to meet?
ADW: That’s a hard question to answer. There are so many that come to my mind. I’d like to have a drink with Hemingway and discuss the art of the short story. I’d like to meet Henry Miller and discuss censorship. I’d like to meet Shakespeare and ask him if he really wrote all those great works. I’d like to meet Woody Guthrie and Isadora Duncan. Historically, I’d like to meet Napoleon, Lincoln, and Spartacus.
ML: How would you spend a day with Buddha? What would you say to Charlie Parker? What would you say to Robert Johnson?
ADW: I’d ask Buddha how to keep from getting leg cramps when meditating and how he felt about the many variations of his teachings.
I’d ask Charlie Parker what it was like to meet Bob Kaufman and his thoughts on Kaufman as a Be-Bop poet.
I’d ask Robert Johnson to sing a song for me. I’d tell him how much the music world owes him. I’d ask him if he has any regrets over not having the public recognition he so richly deserved. I’d have a laugh with him about published rumors that he “traded his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar.” I’d tell him that like Leonard Cohen his song lyrics are pure poetry.
[Originally published at Blues GR: Keep the Blues Alive, 2012, http://blues.gr/profiles/blogs/poet-writer-a-d-winans-talks-about-the-beats-poetry-blues-jazz-1. Used by permission of Michael Limnios and A D. Winans.]