In Close Proximity—Part Two
Excerpts from Side Effect
A Journal of Zen Life with Philip Whalen
by Tensho David Schneider
Tensho David Schneider’s journal, Side Effect, came about from the idea that the sayings and doings of Philip Whalen—Zenshin Ryufu —would be of interest to others. It takes place during a golden decade (early 70s to early 80s) of the San Francisco Zen Center in what Whalen called his “life of elegant retirement,” and covers a period of 18 months. This is Part Two of excerpts from the unpublished manuscript.
—10 May 81—
Philip and Joanne Kyger gave a poetry reading together at the New College last Friday night. Years ago Philip had been enamoured of Joanne, but she’d left him for another, younger man. Philip had then written some stunning heartbroken poems. So the evening had a kind of edge to it. Philip and Joanne seem friends now—a kind of rough and tumble affection. It does sometimes get rough. Carol said it right when she compared them to Ralph and Alice of The Honeymooners.
They came in together about 8:15, Philip holding a bowl full of nasturtiums, and they began to complain immediately. Philip started up about the lack of air in the room, and Joanne too about that, and the light. Couldn’t they rearrange the room she wanted to know.
Philip said, “It’s alright, there’s nobody here anyway.” Which wasn’t true. In addition to the Bolinas crowd and the Zen contingents, there were writers and listeners of many kinds—about 80 people. Joanne wore a clingy black dress, slit no small distance up each thigh. She looked great. Philip wore blue jeans, his blue China jacket, and a cap. Carol said he looked sexy.
While we were waiting, Carol asked me if Philip got nervous before giving a reading. I said to look. He was sitting slumped in plastic chair, watching Joanne fuss. From time to time he issued loud, leonine yawns. The fact that he wanted to go home early and get to bed was a point of contention in his repartee with Joanne.
Joanne announced that she would read first, though only for a short while; then before the break Philip would read, “So he can go home and go to bed.” After the break she would read again. “Did that take long?” she asked Philip in front of everyone.
He slowly and elegantly raised his arm, turned his wrist, inspected his watch. Joanne asked several times, after finally beginning to read, how long she’d been going. Sometimes Philip just laughed at her and waved her on; sometimes he told her. Once he gave minutes and seconds. Joanne began to warm up to her work and forgot to ask about time. She read very well, and once going, seemed reluctant to stop.
“Do I have time for one more?”
Philip frowned a giant theatrical frown, raised his watch to eye level, squinted at it, her, it, the audience, and finally smiled. Joanne, of course, had already begun the poem. She read zippy Bolinas life stuff—kind of funny and delightful.
When Philip rose to read, he hitched up his pants, held On Bear’s Head aloft and said, “Now I’m going to read all this really heavy, beautiful poetry, and bring you all way, way, DOWN!”
It turned out to be the opposite of that. He electrified people, and his many little asides and jokes were loudly appreciated.
“I don’t understand,” he said, at one point. “This is all really, really SERIOUS, and HEAVY! It’s all about REAL LIFE and SUFFERING and like that.”
He read from On Bear’s Head, Severance Pay, and then a long take from The Diamond Noodle, which commanded enthusiastic applause. He continued with material from The Kindness of Strangers, Enough Said, and finally from loose sheets in a folder, which were handwritten.
Early in his reading, which ran 40 solid minutes, Joanne interrupted him and said, “Do you realize Philip that you haven’t ONCE looked at your audience? Not once. You just keep looking down that book. You’ve GOT to look up at people…,” she trailed off, laughing hard. As soon as she had started this little speech, Philip had taken a bookmark from On Bear’s Head and walked toward her, holding it with his arm extended in front of him, as if he were approaching Dracula with a silver cross.
“I want them to read the book,” he said, and went on. Joanne saucily asked permission to move to the back so she could smoke.
When he began to read from Enough Said, he called out, “Where is that girl? Where is she? Oh! Yeah, OK, this is the one you said you didn’t understand. Now listen carefully—it’s really quite simple.”
When he finished, Joanne said, “Well it is kind of HARD, don’t you think?”
“No, not at all—it’s perfectly simple. Oh well.”
At the conclusion of his reading, Philip received a fine ovation, and made ready to leave. Joanne rushed to the front to clutch him. “You’re not leaving now are you? Please, please stay. You remember, we made a deal. You can’t leave now, just stay for a while. It won’t be long.”
Everyone hushed to see what held do. He turned slowly from packing his books, and said loudly and distinctly, in the voice of an ancient prophet, “The tongue of a strange woman is sweet as honey, but her latter end is bitter…as…GALL!” The last words were an emotional growl. The room sort of exploded. Philip calmly packed his books and sat back down. Joanne called for a SHORT break.
After it, she read poems from a folder. Philip sat very attentively in the front row, guffawing at every joke, raising his eyebrows at little outrages, but completely stonewalling any Buddhist references. She mentioned one of the members of the Tibetan pantheon in a questioning tone of voice, stepped a step closer to Philip, and paused a little for some help. He just looked up at her with interest, and blinked. Joanne went on with the poem, but shook a loosely formed fist at him, in kind of a sexy way. That didn’t seem to faze him either.
I certainly never heard him read better, and Joanne was obviously a big factor. Carol said she loved seeing Philip like that, “Just so obviously in love…I mean, he sat there like a little kid with his mouth practically hanging open.”
Besides all the nudging from Joanne, I think the bad room actually worked to the poets’ advantage. The readers had indeed been cramped into a sort of a cul-de-sac, while the audience had had a lot of space, because the room opened out in that half. Being literally up against the wall seemed to focus their energy. The crowd, a little drunk, a little high, was just right to push against. It wasn’t a stupid crowd, and it was fundamentally sympathetic, so it seemed that the poets could push pretty hard. Everyone agreed that a very fine performance had been called forth.
Talking about it earlier in the day, Philip had said this would probably be the last reading he’d give for a long time. “It’s hard and it’s boring, and I don’t have anything new to read. I’m only doing it because Leslie (Scalapino) asked me.”
“Oh. Well, did you see that McClure and Corso are reading day after tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” he slurred. “I wanna go!”
—15 May 81—
“Oh Gregory’s always like that. Right away he comes on like he’s trying to get me to hit him—you know, to see how far he can push. He always comes around and talks to me later, though.”
We were leaving the McClure-Corso reading at the intermission, because it was so crowded and because we’d had enough real magic to hold us for that night. It had also been a long hard day, and we both had to get up about 4 the next morning. It certainly felt better walking up Columbus St. in the cool evening than it had sitting in the hot room.
We’d left Zen Center early, about 5:15 pm, to avoid the ruckus of setting up for the “Music Night.” Philip also wanted to try out a new restaurant—U Lee—where the Lemon-Chicken dish had been recommended to him by Al Wong. It had been difficult to park, so by the time we were seated my already lousy stomach could stand only soup. We ate, talked, and explained in pidgin English to one of the Chinese women who ran the restaurant that yes, we were indeed Buddhist priests, but no, we didn’t say mantras on our beads.
We told her, “Chan! Chan!” which us Chinese for “Zen! Zen!” We said other things like “Sitting! Sitting! Sit monk.” She did a very funny caricature of a monk practicing zazen, to indicate that she knew who we were and what we did.
After dinner we headed over to the Ecology Center in North Beach, Philip aiding my driving by screaming things: “Oh oh! …LOOK OUT! …Oh GOD! …Oh my nerves! My poor nerves are totally shot to hell.”
It had actually been a beautiful U-turn on Columbus St. and a Chinese guy had just barely beat me to the parking space. Eventually we found another space and started back toward where the reading would be held—an impossibly small room on lower Columbus. Philip began discoursing on what the buildings we passed had once been. He explained first about the Barbary Coast in general, then told me that the pale green building that Francis Ford Coppola now owns had once been home to a newspaper outfit.
“And this Chinese restaurant used to be really high-class. They served smoked duck in here. Now let’s see…” He wandered over, squinting at the menu taped in the window. I came and stood beside him, and found smoked duck. Suddenly a grating voice with a New York accent said, from practically over our shoulders, “It’s a good thing that you’re looking at prices, ‘cause I’ll tell you something. Tonight you’re going to PAY.”
I looked around and saw first tousled gray hair, so messy and massive it seemed to dominate the short thick man beneath it. Then I saw intense, slightly crossed eyes—I looked down into them—and then incredibly crooked teeth. This man was so fired up about how Philip was going to have to pay that I remember him as having smoke coming out of his nose. “I want you to PAY! You hear? Really!”
Philip finished reading the menu, turned around slowly with a smile and said “Hi, Gregory.”
“Listen, I want you to PAY! I paid for your shot with McClure last fall, and I want you to pay tonight, you hear?”
“McClure said he left my name at the door.”
“NO NAMES AT THE DOOR, GODDAMN IT!!” Gregory was jumping up and down. “I DON’T CARE WHAT McCLURE SAID! You pay 4 dollars to go see Star Wars, don’t you?”
“No, man.” Philip said, very cool, very hipster. “I rarely go to the movies.”
“Well, don’t you think you ought to pay for Poetry?”
“No way, baby. I never go to poetry readings.”
Gregory smiled and hugged Philip and said, “How the hell are you anyway?…. Listen, you know the best part of you ran down your mother’s leg?”
Philip laughed and got red. They started down the sidewalk together, Gregory with his arm up around Philip, talking at his ear. “What do I need you for, I already got one asshole.” Philip laughed again, but I couldn’t understand what was going on.
“You know, you’re looking good. How does it feel down there?” Gregory reached down towards Philip’s ass crotch, and groped there for a while, the both of them still walking along.
“Feels good. Feels real good.”
Philip nodded in assent.
“But you know what,” Gregory said, as they arrived at the Ecology Center. “I want you to PAY!”
“Fuck that shit,” Philip said calmly. “I’m going home.”
Gregory went inside and told everybody not to let ANYBODY in, unless they PAID! Philip and I stood around on the sidewalk in beautiful North Beach, and I suddenly felt I needed a doughnut and coffee. I walked back up to Winchells, got one and came back. I paid and went in. Philip was inside, sitting by the door.
“Did you pay?”
“Of course not.”
The Ecology Center was crammed to the rafters. Both Micheal and Gregory read their newest poems very well, and the crowd cheered and clapped and shouted and stamped after each poem. It was very hot and electric. Philip sat near the door “so I can get out first.” He held his hands cupped around both ears, and kept asking me, “What did he say?” He thought, somehow, that both poets had done well.
At intermission we stepped out, and Gregory came out on the sidewalk and stood with us. “Great, Gregory. Really great.”
“You like the new poems, then?”
“You know,” Gregory said, pulling down his reading glasses, dead-pan expression and Yiddish accent, “I don’t think I live this poetry life too good, you know? I mean, like you—you stay in one place, you’re patient, like that. But me? I’m always crashing through, you know what I mean?”
Philip threw his head back and bellowed with laughter. Then he put his arms around Gregory and said, “No, Gregory, it’s OK, ‘cause you got the real genius.”
“Take my picture!” Gregory shouted to an angel-faced guy with a camera. “Take my picture with the MAN!” While the guy was shooting, Gregory noticed me. “Where’d you find him? Zen Center, I bet. Huh?” Then, “You got my picture with the man?”
Philip tried to introduce Gregory to the photographer. “Do you know Chris….”
“Yeah I know him,” Gregory said, and made a down-waving gesture with his hand. He suddenly seemed dejected—almost as if Philip’s attempt at civility had been a bring-down. He walked away. I heard later he’d been pretty wild in the second half of the reading.
Philip and I started up Columbus. “Gregory’s always like that….”
—30 June 81—
The great poet and teacher Ted Berrigan was in town for 5 days last week, with his two eldest children, David and Kate. He came to give two readings and two talks, which constituted a “Residency” at 80 Langton St. Philip and Ted have been friends for several years; moreover they are sincere admirers of one another’s work. Ted said this time, in a talk on the genesis of his own poetry, that in 1963, when Donald Allen came out with his anthology, New American Poetry, the book contained very little, if anything, in the way of a formal ‘breakthrough.’ There were breakthroughs, he conceded, in terms of stance. He then singled out Philip’s poems and said that they had indeed seemed different, but that he, Ted, couldn’t think of them as breakthroughs simply because, “Philip was already through. He was just doing it…. But it turns out,” Ted went on, “Philip Whalen is just this big hick from the Northwest who has everything going for him.”
“That Ted Berrigan,” Philip said one day in the small kitchen. “He knows a thing or two. He’s a real toughie.” These are Philip’s highest praises, practically for anyone.
“Is he the priest?” somebody asked.
“NO!” Philip said in exasperation. “Ted Berrigan lives with Alice Notley. You know old Alice. Well, she’s a genius, and Ted has kept up all these years at a very, very high level, and they have these little babies, and they all live in dire poverty, which is located in New York City.”
“They have no money?”
“Well, Ted you know, I mean he’s just incredibly fat and he lies around in bed all day eating Oreos and drinking Pepsi, reading junk novels and writing gorgeous poetry. Oh—and taking pills. He must be in terrible shape by now.”
Ted did seem in physical pain this trip, but also conveyed a big sturdiness. He is not as fat as Philip is, but he’s much taller. “A monster.” Philip called him when Ellie asked who the Ted we were talking about was.
“Is he Allen Ginsberg’s boyfriend?” She’d heard Allen’s name in conjunction with Ted’s acupuncture treatments.
“No. He’s Alice Notley’s boyfriend.”
“I’m not really as in awe of Philip as I’ve been sounding,” Ted said to me, after his first reading. We’d just been introduced, and several of us were standing on Valencia St., listening. He hadn’t sounded particularly in awe of Philip to me, but I’m not objective. “I would like to have a short visit with him, because Alice will strangle me, if I don’t at least go talk to him and seduce him into saying something nice about her.”
Carol, John, and I all assured Ted that we’d make the arrangements.
Ted said, “I’ll get back to New York, and Alice will ask me ‘Did Philip say anything about me?’ and I’ll tell her, ‘No…. Philip didn’t seem to remember you at all….’”
Ted had a long week of readings. First, one at the New College, then 4 successive nights at 80 Langton St. I went to all of it, and Philip asked each day how it had been. “How was Uncle Ted last night?” We couldn’t get Philip out of the house though. On one of the nights, Norman, Carol and I almost managed it, but then Philip said he had dishes to do, and a headache, and that “anything at night was too hard….”
We all three leaned pretty hard on Philip to get him to come, but he made it clear finally that he wasn’t up to it. We ran off without him.
Norman did manage to arrange a visit for Ted to see Philip at home the next day. Ted reported later that he’d gotten a good anecdote for Alice, and then told how Philip had set out cups, and brought tea, and then run into the kitchen. “He came shuffling out,” Ted said, “holding a little can of Pepsi, and grinning an idiot grin. It really touched me. Then he went and got another one!” Ted said it had been a problem to keep Philip from bringing him a third Pepsi.
Ted’s last reading was Saturday night, and Philip finally attended. We’d sort of caravanned down there after a big dinner at Carol’s. After pleasantries at the door with Ted, Philip went in. Ted said he was “still admirer enough and fan enough to be totally flattered when Philip Whalen comes to a reading of mine.”
Ted only read for 30 – 40 minutes. Carol and I sat a row in front of Philip and we could hear him laughing with delight the whole time. It was very wonderful to be listening to Ted Berrigan in front, and Philip Whalen behind. Ted unveiled what he called his “new Anne Waldman style of reading.” When he finished the reading, and with it the Residency, he walked over near us, and squatted next to Philip, remarking that his new style was very exhausting—almost apologizing for the brevity of the reading. Philip wouldn’t hear of it. He had only praise for the work, and told Ted the reading had been “very solid.”
—20 Feb. 82—
The phone rang. I could tell from what Philip said that it was someone from 80 Langton St., inviting him to be the Writer-in-Residence there. Barry Watten and Bob Perelman had approached me earlier, asking if I thought Philip would be interested. I’d told them I’d sound him out. Philip had said yes, he was interested in the $800, but that also right now he was busy three nights a week with classes, and with running a zendo in the days… maybe later, late spring, early summer. He said he wasn’t sure he could come up with anything anyway, but he told me I could tell them he was “interested.”
I passed all this along to Barry, and Philip said it all again on the phone. But whoever it was must have said something to push one of Philip’s buttons, not that it would have taken much in his frazzled condition.
“No, No! It’s all too tight down there. It’s getting very much like Clayton Eschelman-land or something….”
Then there was a long pause.
“No. You guys remind me of the NFR of 30 years ago – you know, trying to run the universe and what not. Who needs it?”
Another pause, then, “Well then, I guess we have to make it ‘No,’ OK?”
“That was your friend Barrett Watten calling about the 80 Langton thing.”
“And you told him no?”
“I’m just too busy is all. I’m afraid he may give you the what for next time he sees you.”
“Well, I just told him that I wasn’t interested in what he and those kids are doing down there. He apparently thinks 80 Langton St. is this very big deal, and I compared him to the NFR. Then he said I had to tell him yes or no. He said he wasn’t going to hold the door open so I could walk in, so I told him no.”
Philip’s description of the conversation, and actually the conversation itself from his side, the side I’d heard, had been mostly civil. It was interesting that someone should try to tell Barrett Watten anything.
When I got back to Zen Center there were messages to call Barry. A message at Carol’s house too. I got hold of him mid-afternoon, and the first thing he said was that I could give Philip the finger for him, next time I saw him. Then he complained about how he’d been mistreated, and put down, and so on, venting for quite a while. He misquoted and more, to make his case sound convincing. Of course he didn’t know that I’d overheard Philip’s side of the conversation. I didn’t really want to tell him either, but even if I had want to, it would have been hard, because Barry was being pretty put-out and vocal.
I said I was sorry he’d had to go through an unpleasant scene, and I tried to tell him my observation of how busy P. really was, and how sick. I added that Philip was a well-known crank.
“I don’t buy that ‘crank’ business,” Barry said. “I think it’s a specific marketing strategy. It’s like painters who only show their work in certain galleries, so it’s more exclusive and more expensive.”
I tried to tell him that Philip was very far from that sort of thinking, but Barry said he intended to write him a letter…on and on. I mentioned that Philip had turned down his good friend Allen Ginsberg, who’d wanted him to come to Boulder for the Kerouac Conference celebration, and that a year or two ago, he’d also turned down an invitation to some big Lew Welch commemoration.
“I can understand both those decisions,” Barry said. “In fact, I can even understand this one. I just don’t like the way he did it. It was really, really awful.”
Later I related all this to Philip over the telephone. He didn’t seem at all surprised, even at the misquoting.
“People do it all the time. All the time.”
“Oh yeah, Barry did say that I was supposed to give you the finger next time I saw you.”
“Oh! OK. Thank you very much.”
David Schneider is the author of two biographies—Street Zen (Issan Tommy Dorsey, Shambhala Publications 1993 & 2020) and Crowded by Beauty, The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen, (UC Press, 2015). He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and he served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. His forthcoming book of short stories (Cuke Press) is called Goods.