Philip Whalen: The Zen lineage . . . . The succession of patriarchs is passed on from teacher to student - they say from warm hand to warm hand - which means from the eldest to the eldest without interruption. In other words, the teaching, the understanding, the Buddhist understanding of the teacher is passed on to the student, and the student understands that that's what's happening. The private ceremony [is] very elegant, very elaborate, it takes hours and hours, and endless quantities of equipment and so on. It's a huge affair that goes on a week. Culminating in all night, all day, all night ceremonies, after which you are added on to the list of patriarchs of the Zen school.
And at the end of that year I decided to come back here. I forget how it happened. I got here right at the moment when Jack and Dolores were going to make a trip to Boston. They wanted someone to watch their house for them. So I fell into a place to live accidentally, which was very nice. They had that big funny house on Church Street that had many, many rooms and studios, and a wonderful garden with those strange South American chickens that lay the blue eggs. Then they got back eventually, and so then I was looking for a place to live. Brit was a friend of Jack's and Dolores's, and Brit came over one day, and he was moaning around the house. The fella that he had had, who shared his apartment, had packed up and left him. And I said, "Well I'm looking for a place." And so we figured that that would be nice, and I went over and looked at his place, and it was fine, so I moved in there. So I was there for a year, during which time I did a lot of traveling back around the United States and went to Europe to help Roshi do a session in Germany, and got to see Paris on that trip, briefly. It was wonderful.
David Meltzer: You'd never been to Europe before?
Philip Whalen: No. Wait, let me see. What year was it? It was 1980 . . . . I think it was 1983 or a little later that I got invited to that international poetry festival in Rome. That was my first trip to Europe. I really dug it. I really dug Rome because I was hung up on it when I was a kid, and studied Latin. So, anyway, that was the first time in 1989; we went to this Buddhist Center outside of Andernach, after which we went and visited Heidelberg, where Roshi had some friends, and came back. So I came back here to San Francisco. That was in 1989. And I moved from Sanchez Street to this place, to help his son Darcy on New Year's Day, 1989. And that was the year I went off to Andernach. And, 1989, his son was becoming ill. And the following year he perished of AIDS. And Steve Abbott, who had been working here with him . . . he had Steve take over the business of trying to operate the Hospice, which had started now, and trying to run the Zen Center also, and all kinds of attendant horrors and scraps and screams and things, resigned in 1991. That was a disaster in his memory ever since. And so, here we are on Hartford Street and feeling pale because in 1992 I came down with a case of endocarditis, which put me in the hospital for weeks.
David Meltzer: What is that?
Philip Whalen: It's an infection inside of the heart. There were all sort of staph bugs in there tromping on the heart valves.
David Meltzer: Jesus.
Philip Whalen: And so, Sander Bernstein bumped me into the hospital at Mt. Zion, and I dropped in just gallons of all sorts of exotic antibiotics and pills. It was terrible because it gave me nightmares you can get from antibiotics. So anyway that was pretty nasty. And then after I got out of the hospital, Sander was worrying abut me, and fussing, and telling me, "You're still in heart failure." I thought, "this is wonderful. It's like being in Peoria." And I had to take pills and things.
It was the next year that he said, that he and several other people said, that I had to have a heart valve replacement operation. And I said, "C'mon, this is too fancy." And so I was introduced to a celebrated heart specialist who was then at the county hospital, a guy who had been President Eisenhower's cardiologist. And he came up - after he looked at me and looked at the records - and said, "Well, if you don't do an operation you're gonna have liver failure, kidney failure, heart failure, and everything is going to hell. You'll be in bad trouble."
So I was in between him and Rick and Sander, and I finally got roped into doing this goddamned operation. Horrendous! You know they kill you? First of all, they refrigerate you. You don't know about that 'cause they anestheticize you. They refrigerate you and bring your body temperature down to some wonderfully low level where you're, what'd ya call it, the functions, life functions . . . decline and fall. Everything comes nearly to an end, and then they get out their electricity and pop you with that and hook you up to a heart-lung machine. And you don't breathe anymore. And your heart isn't leaking anymore.
David Meltzer: The machine is breathing for you.
Philip Whalen: The machine is doing everything, and you're deader than a doornail. It's very interesting. I didn't know anything about it. The next thing I knew . . . well first I was being anesthetized, which was a very good job. It didn't bother me at all. I passed out cold. But the next thing was that I was waking up in the intensive care unit and people pulling tubes and whatnot out of my person, and there I was. So I've been sick ever since. I have the arthritis in my knees. I have the rotary cuff trips going in my shoulders. I can't see anything. So it's all wonderful.
I suppose it would be gracious of me to mention along the way that the Academy gave me an award for inventive modern poetry, or something. It's named after some guy; I forget what it is called. I'm sure it was engineered by Allen anyway. And books are published, things are published. I haven't been able to read anything for years now.
David Meltzer: How does that then . . . how does that affect . . . can you write?
Philip Whalen: No.
David Meltzer: So have you not been able to write for the last several years? Do you give readings?
Philip Whalen: No. Can't see print. Well I certainly can't remember what I write, so I write it down.
David Meltzer: That's a difficult turn isn't it, for a poet and a person of letters.
Philip Whalen: It's very frustrating.
David Meltzer: I've heard that Leslie Scalapino, for instance, [who wrote the introduction for your new collection, Overtime] would come and read to you. So you have people, besides Leslie, who . . .
Philip Whalen: Sporadically, yes . . . . Lou Hartman from the Zen Center comes on Wednesday and reads to me out of Buddhist texts.
David Meltzer: When you have other people coming, like Leslie, reading to you, do you choose what it is you want to hear, or do they choose?
Philip Whalen: Fifty-fifty.
David Meltzer: What have you heard lately?
Philip Whalen: Well, most recently it was a book that Leslie had discovered and got for me [The Zen Poetry of Dogen, Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace, Steven Heine, Tuttle Publishing, 1997]. Lou read it to me, most of it anyway. It's all about Dogen's poetry, which is interesting, his ideas about it and so forth. The translation was nice. The learned explanations by the translator were a crashing bore.
Anyhow, the translations are very pleasant. Lou also read to me the entire volume called Crooked Cucumber, which is the life and times of Suzuki Roshi. It was very funny and very interesting. All the trials and tribulations that fella went through to get to where he was, was something else.
David Meltzer: Is most of the hearing dealing with Buddhist material?
Philip Whalen: Yeah. It's what I want to know about. Of course, Leslie reads me her own writing which I admire immensely, and Michael McClure reads stuff of his to me, the new stuff.
David Meltzer: That's great stuff.
Philip Whalen: Yeah. And very - sort of a schedule on every other week - Michael and Diane di Prima and I have lunch together, and yak and carry on down at the sushi restaurant on Church Street.
David Meltzer: How was your selected poetry volume put together?
Philip Whalen: That was done with an immense amount of work for me by Michael Rothenberg. He sat here with me, and we went through all of my books page by page practically, to pick out what would be a manuscript for Penguin; and decided what we could use and what we could throw away, and then we went through it again to throw away some more, because they were only going to give us three hundred pages plus Leslie's essay, which is remarkable.
David Meltzer: So, in a sense, you are through with poetry?
Philip Whalen: Not really, no. I hear things, and see things, and think about things.
David Meltzer: One thing that interested me was your relationship to music. In fact, I think of all the poets we've interviewed, you're probably the only one who's had any kind of background in it or is familiar with the language.
Philip Whalen: Yeah that's sort of busted, 'cause I can't remember anything, and I can't read [now]. [Then] I was always reading music and playing, and I certainly miss doing that. I miss having a radio that will pick up this classical music station. I have three radios. One is a Sony with two speakers in it, and I have another little one that has a CD player in it, and I have a Sony Walkman. Somehow-or-another if you hold the Sony Walkman in the right position you can pick up that classical music station when none of the other equipment will.
David Meltzer: It's like the wireless or the crystal radio you have to jockey around to get the station located. I remember when we talked many years ago about Gertrude Stein, and you painted this picture of you in the Army reading an awful lot of Gertrude Stein in between your other roles. And I know that when you, and Lew, and Gary were at Reed, Lew was working on his Stein thesis . . . .
Philip Whalen: The thing is I was able to continue reading more of her 'cause they had a lot of stuff in the Reed library that I hadn't been able to find anywhere else.
David Meltzer: You talked about coming upon her Narration?
Philip Whalen: A high school friend of mine had liked that book, and he was by that time in the Army over in Germany, and he had written to his mother and told her to get me a copy of it. And so she wrote to the University of Chicago Press and had it inscribed for me in his name and sent it to me while I was someplace else. I forget where I was in the Army at that time, where I was stationed. In any case, I really loved it. I thought it was marvelous. And then I went around to locate Lectures in America and stuff like that, which I think I read later on. It got me into searching for books.
David Meltzer: You talked about a deep involvement with her work and in learning from her.
Philip Whalen: The way she talked about what it was she was doing made a great deal of sense to me. In that essay called "Composition as Explanation," I think it is, she says "I am not I when I see." Meaning that the place, as I understand it, the place where the poetry operates from is not a programmed business where you sit down and say, "Oh I got an idea," and then write a sonnet, etc., etc. And instead she would hit something and start writing, and what came out was what it was.
David Meltzer: It was interesting for me to realize how so much of her writing was speech driven. And once you understood that she was speaking, there was no problem in reading her. It's only when you started reading her as you expected to read writing that you got tangled up and would have to re-read it.
How did you first receive poetry? When did you first get poetry, in a sense that it really woke up a different sensibility in you?
Philip Whalen: Oh, when I was in high school. I was maybe fifteen or so. I suddenly decided, or suddenly had read a bunch of stuff, and I was sitting in, I think it was supposed to be a study hall at that particular time, and I wrote out this thing, four or five lines, and handed it to the girl ahead of me, who was somebody I had known since grade school. And she thought it was wonderful. So that was very encouraging. So there was a very lively teacher in the high school, and he was teaching Creative Writing, Drama, Speech, and god knows what all, and he also directed the plays and so on. And he got into getting everybody to perform Gilbert and Sullivan, and it was such great fun and very nice. And I got a lot of encouragement from him working with his Creative Writing class and his other classes as well.
So I kept reading more and more stuff. There was an anthology of American poetry that's published in the Modern Library Giants . . . .
David Meltzer: I know the one.
Philip Whalen: Is it Seldon and Rodman? I'd been on Pound, and although I'd already seen his Chinese translations and stuff, here was one of his cantos which I thought was terrific. And then there was e.e. cummings, which I thought was very funny. And probably anybody could do that.
David Meltzer: If you had a typewriter.
Philip Whalen: And various other things turned me on to the idea that poetry didn't have to be like Edgar Allen Poe, 'cause I never did believe it, and that idea was confirmed by the anthology. And then of course the Louis Untermeyer anthologies came out while I was in the Army, and always with the same people, though, unfortunately. Do you remember that?
David Meltzer: The same Williams poem too, the atypical poem about the boats in the harbor.
Philip Whalen: "The Yachts."
Well, I'm fried. In the synapses. I'm sorry, I can't remember what it is I wanted to tell you - well, I can't tell you. A geriatric moment.
David Meltzer: Okay. We will cherish it.
Philip Whalen: I got into the idea of trying to do experiments, trying to write as freely as possible, and so on. The next really encouraging thing happened when I was in college, after I got out of the Army. William Carlos Williams came up to Reed for a week, and we got to hang out with him and talk with him and hear him read.
David Meltzer: How was his health then?
Philip Whalen: He was very bad. He had had the first couple of strokes, and he was able to get around pretty good, and he had a lot of energy at that time. When I saw him, maybe five years later, at the University of Washington, I was up there on my way up to Lookout, and I heard from friends of mine that he was coming, or was there, or something like that. So I went over to the university to hear him read, and then I talked to him after the reading. And he was really sort of gimpy by that time, slurring, and one of his hands was sort of bent.
David Meltzer: Williams gave you what kind of permission as a poet?
Philip Whalen: Well, just that. He looked at our stuff - all the students that were interested in writing came to hang out with him. And he would put in time reading your stuff and marking it up and making comments on it and so on, which was very useful. And the thing was, he accepted us as writers. That was permission, I guess.
David Meltzer: As an example, of his work . . . .
Philip Whalen: Well the thing that was important to me at that particular time was the Paterson material that was coming out. I think I got the first volume of it before I got out of the Army. And then I took the rest as they came along. I think that Paterson Three had come out by the time he was up there. And so it was very exciting to talk to him about some of it, especially one point about some punctuation. So he bestowed a semi-colon on it, which was very nice. I don't know whether it survived into the later copies of the poem anyway.
David Meltzer: I can see Paterson in relationship to lots of your work with those kinds of streams and strands of heard language and written language and also this notion of the concreteness as the source of this mystery.
Philip Whalen: "No ideas but in things."
David Meltzer: Yeah, that's right.
Philip Whalen: The trouble is, I no longer believe in concreteness. I think that everything is fluid. And so maybe that has a lot to do with where my head is at now. But I'm very embarrassed when people don't know I'm blind, and they want me to come and read to them in various places in various venues, and I have to tell them I can't do it. Although I would like to.
David Meltzer: For the record, for the book, you were a participant in the famous Six Gallery reading and also had a friendship with Kerouac. I wonder if you could detail or just speak to the reading and the friendship with Kerouac.
Philip Whalen: Well, that's hard because he was such a difficult character. Sometimes he was very open and funny and telling stories, and other times he would just be kvetching and cranky and fussing about various people and things and so on, and moaning about how nobody loved his poetry or his books, and he was unhappy. And I tried to cheer him up once in a while, but I was not very successful at it. But, somehow, I think that both Gary and I were strange creatures that he had never seen the like of before, being from this part of the world, this West Coast and so on. Being people who spent a lot of time in the woods or outdoors or what not caught his attention. And he went out of course and got a job as a lookout one year. And so we were sort of responsible for that. And he went and did a lot of writing, I guess, up on the lookout, and he wrote me into several books, which is embarrassing anyway. But it's all right because he always was very gentle about what he said and did. I never really could pick up on his poetry very well, somehow, and I don't know why. But the prose books are marvelous anyway. And he was very religious. You know, he did that funny book called Some of the Dharma and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and he never stopped being a Catholic.
David Meltzer: That's right.
Philip Whalen: He's quoted by that lady who did that biography . . .
David Meltzer: Ann Charters . . .
Philip Whalen: . . . saying, "I fooled all those people on the West Coast about Buddhism." I never supposed that he had become a Buddhist, but he was certainly interested in the teaching, and I think especially in the language of the translators. He had quite a lot of insight into Buddhist writings, actually. I don't know how it was he could set all his favorite saints off in one corner and really plug into all of this Buddhist stuff that he did.
David Meltzer: Well maybe as a Catholic, as a sort of mystic Catholic, he could see the hierarchies and structures of the very similar yet removed . . .
Philip Whalen: Yeah, I think you're right. He had all these favorite things about Catholicism that he enjoyed, particularly various saints and, what's her name? - the one who was called the Lily Flower of Jesus?
David Meltzer: Theresa?
Philip Whalen: Theresa of Avila, I guess, was one of his favorite persons. And sometimes he would draw pictures of Jesus in various ways and sometimes of The Virgin. He never talked very much about her. He had this wonderful relationship with his mother. Which people seem to have misconstrued, misunderstood or something. They thought some simple thought . . . . He never talked about doctrine at all, about what it was about. He would just go and do it, and get a lot of good out of it in some way or another. But at the same time, it would whip up his guilt feelings in various ways about stuff, and he would be very unhappy.
Anyway, his mother was this wonderfully lively Canadian, and she was a great cook, and a great storyteller. And he says that's where he learned to tell stories, from her. She was a bouncy, lively lady, and she was very devout, and she wore little religious medals pinned to the straps of her slip, and so on. He was much attached to his father, who apparently was not a very nice man. But he was very attached to him. And in many ways, perhaps, when he was into his curmudgeon mode he was probably being his father.
But his mother was much more lively and funny. She would tell stories, and he would say, "Well, Ma, Phil and I are going to San Francisco." And she'd say, "Oh, Jackie, why don't you stay home? I will cook dinner for you and . . . "
So we would got off into the wild sweet bop neon American Night, run around North Beach, and hang out in Chinatown. And, we'd be out running around, and he'd be busy asking me did I see this or that, and he'd be writing in his notebook. He was very perceptive. He saw lots of things. His eyes were real good, which mine are not.
But he told me, he said it was out walking with Williams in Rutherford, and Williams pointed out to him that there was moss growing on the underside of the railroad tracks. And he thought that was kind of wonderful
He was very attached to much of his family besides. There remains his sister, Caroline, who is called Nin, his nephew Paul . . . I forget who else, but he was always in contact with them. And wherever he went he was always writing back to his mother and telegraphing for money. So she was always bringing him back from wherever he was.
And he appreciated it. So that when he was able to take care of her, he did. Like he bought that little house in Northport to take care of her, and she didn't like it. So, he had to . . . I guess they went down to North Carolina for a while to where Nin was. And then to Florida, and then back to someplace, maybe back to New England, and then back to Florida again. I guess it was, maybe when he got back to New England that he married what's her name . . . [Stella Sampas].
Oh, god . . . isn't that awful? Memory just fails completely. Anyhow, probably I'll think of it tomorrow. Anyway, I didn't see much of him after 1960. I think that was the last time he was out here, and he wrote that piece about Big Sur.
It was very funny. We were supposed to go on this great expedition with Lew and Lily Carr and everybody. We were all supposed to drive down to meet Henry Miller at Big Sur, and have dinner with Emil White and everything. It was later, and later, and later, and more and more wine, and more and more grass, and more and more everything. God knows what time it was when we left, and we arrived down there many hours after we should have. So we never met Henry Miller, or Emil White, or anybody. It was very embarrassing.
But we did stay at what was then Larry Ferlinghetti's cabin, which was a very rough piece of carpentry. Big doors that could open out into the deck on the outside. It was very pleasant. It was by a crick in Bixby Canyon. Very nice place. Later he built it into a real house. Very, very pleasant. One time, Allen, and his father, and stepmother, and I, went down there and stayed there for a weekend or something. And thinking about Jack and hearing the ocean and being scared.
David Meltzer: Of the ocean?
Philip Whalen: Yeah. And of course there's the adventure that you recorded of Lewie going there at that time, or near to that time. Golly, he sort of went to pieces there too.
David Meltzer: Do you want to talk about Lew [Welch]?
Philip Whalen: Yeah, all right. I first met him in the Reed College coffee shop. I think it was 1947, spring. And I was sitting with somebody or another, and in the next booth there was this guy sort of spouting off all sorts of wonderful nonsense. I kept listening to it. I heard him say, "Red glass birds! In brass dome!"
I said, "Wait a minute." So I got up and went over to the next booth where this redheaded guy was, talking to people. And I said, "What was all that about red glass birds?"
"Oh," he says, "no no." It was a song that he had been working on that had to do about how, "She hollered and roared and tore all of her hair. And I carved my initials on her breast bone." "Thin breast bone" is what I heard as "bright brass dome" or something like that. And, ahh, "Told her don't cry little darlin' that's the mark of the man." And so we continued talking and telling, "You ought to write things down, for god sake." And he said, "Well that's no good."
And so we went on from there talking about Gertrude Stein and about Williams and all sorts of things. He was very funny. He was like Jack in that he was sort of bipolar. He would be fine sometimes, and other times he was down. And you knew him well enough to know when he was down what he was like.
David Meltzer: Inconsolable.
Philip Whalen: Yeah. It was very funny. We would go to the mail room on the main floor of Elliot Hall at Reed College, where the student mail came in. And I wouldn't have any letters, but he would come out with a package. And I says, "What'd ya got three?" And he says, "I got another god-damned sport coat. My mother goes out and spends $200 on this sport coat, which I don't need, and I do need the $200." And he's got his hands on it, "Why don't she send me the money!?" It was just terrible. He'd grouse around about he was broke and was having a hard time, and then, you know, presently, a couple of hours later he'd be sparkling all over everything and having a grand time.
So he was very interesting. He had had this marvelous life in California being the son of seven or eight other people at different times but always his mother's child. She's a funny lady. She was very talkative and lively, bustling around. So that when Lew went to college up in Portland after having been down here at - what did they call it then? - the Stockton, ahh, College of the Pacific? - where he knew Brubeck and Desmond and all those people and sang with them, and anyway, his mother was inspired to return to college and complete her education.
And what does she do? She gets this degree in Home Economics or something, over at the University of Utah. And she parlays that into this fantastic job working in a lunatic asylum, or no, it was a home for bent babies or something like that. And anyway, the state paid her immense sums of money to do the cooking or arrange the cooking. And there she was. She was happy and making lots of money. And Lewie would fuss because he said she would go down to Macy's and buy some "goddamned porcelain shepherdess." And all wrapped up pretty in a box, she would take it home, and then she would put the box, with the shepherdess in it, up in the closet. Never bothered to unwrap it. And, "Goddamnit! She has all that money!" And he was absolutely tortured by the fact that his mother, who was born rich and had her money removed from her variously by certain nefarious husbands and so on, even then made this big comeback on her own as a successful Home Economics lady. And she was a lively one, and the two of them together in one room was something else because they were both talking at once.
Her name was Dorothy. Lewie would be mooching around town here, driving a cab or not, and going broke and whatnot, and finally he would say, "Goddamnit. I guess I'll have to call up mother and go and see her." And so he would leave on the appointed day and come back at the appointed time with a hundred dollars and all wore out and crazy. Of course he would drink the hundred dollars as soon as possible. This was tragic.
And anyway, he could also get out from under . . . something could pull him out from under, maybe, I don't know whether it was the hypoglycemia or what it was. He'd eat a candy bar or something and be turned on for a week afterwards. He was very funny, and lively, and smart, and had all sorts of ideas about writing and about everything else. And then he would say, "You know, I've got this idea for a poem it's gonna go: Do-do-Da-do-Dee-do Pop-Pop-a-Dop-Doop-Zep-Zep."
And, "Well that's great Lewis. Why don't you write it down?" "Ahhhh. I don't know. I haven't finished it yet." And you'd see him two weeks later or so, and he says, "You know that poem I told you about, it goes: "Da-do-da-da?"
And I says, "Yah."
He says, "Well it continues like: So-so-So-So Sa-sa-Sa-Sa Zoop-ze-Zip-pah-pah."
I says, "Well great Lewie. Why don't you just write it down?"
"Ahhhh. It's no good."
And then maybe three weeks later he would come up with some sort of typewriter version of it to read, and we'd say, "Well that's great. Why don't you sell it or somethin' or do something with it?"
"Ahhhh. It's no good. It's no good at all."
But he would, like Williams taught us, put it away in a shoe box and save it, not throw it away. Anyhow, I thought that was very remarkable how he did all his composition and these rather complicated things in his head without recourse to paper and pencil. And keep it there and be able to resurrect it and tell you what it was and so on. And then later on write it down, and then tell you it was no good.
David Meltzer: Yeah. He more than most I know, would fuss, and fuss, and fuss over each word once he put it down on paper, sometimes erasing a poem completely by fussing, and fussing, and fussing with it.
Philip Whalen: It was very sad to see him when he was sad and great to see him when he was up. And then he had all those problems with all those ladies. That lady that he married in Chicago, Mary, was a very nice but very square lady. She had wanted to be a nightclub singer. And so when she was in college she was able to sing with different outfits, but when she didn't become rich and famous doing it, she just stopped. Said, "Well, that's obviously no good. I'm obviously not a nightclub singer, and goodbye," and gave up on it. And that's very sad, I guess.
David Meltzer: Again one of these simple questions: when was the first encounter with Buddhism?
Philip Whalen: Oh, I think when I was still in high school. First of all, I ran into the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. And then I went to see where was she coming from? Where is she getting all this stuff? And then I found the actual translations of the actual Vedanta writings. You know the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and so on. And that was very satisfying that this system was really there, and it made sense to me. The Christian religion never did. And that led me into Lin Yutang's big anthology, Wisdom of China and India. And then also to a book, a very obscure little book by a friend of Yeats's, called A.P. Sinnett, called Esoteric Buddhism. And it was sort of a run down on tantricism. But very interesting and clear. And then, of course, I run into the Evans-Wentz translation, which he calls The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But I couldn't read it. I couldn't get past about the second page because of the density of the footnotes. And at that time I had not yet learned the joy of footnoting and reading them. They were this tiny print that was hard to understand. I couldn't do anything with it. But the pictures were interesting.
So, and then reading Lin Yutang's book and then scraping some elsewhere that Buddhism was interesting but overcomplicated I thought compared to Vedantism. So for a long time I might have well been a Vedantist. I was also very interested in the idea of being a Christian, to fit in with, sort of, the world. And I couldn't do it. First of all, I had to decide what was real. And then I finally decided, well all right, the Roman Church has all of the backing for being real, although it was pretty clear that the Russian Church was a kinder gentler Christianity, I thought. Their emphasis was on the resurrection, whereas the Catholic business was about blood, and tears, and nails, and so on. So that was rather unattractive. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't do Christianity on any level, even in spite of the Christian mystics . . . it was too sticky to me. Too many little gummy things, infinite damnations and so forth. So I gave up on that.
And when I got out of the Army and was looking in Portland, I found that there was a local Vedanta society operating there. It took me a long time to get up the courage to go and visit one of their evening lectures. And I went, and I was very surprised because it all was about stuff I had read. I thought that was very nice, but it was depressing because it was a collection of elderly people sitting around this room. We got to sit on straight chairs, and they had this lady play sad songs on the piano while they were waiting for the Swami to come in and lecture. And then he would come in and lecture on some aspect, which was very good. I enjoyed him. I thought he was really a cool guy. And I finally went through another crisis of trying to get up the nerve to go see him and talk to him. Which I did, and I thought, "Well that's very good." So I thought, "Well, I'll just keep on trying to meditate at home and come over here and see this guy."
But after a while I couldn't do it. I couldn't get through the middle class miasma. That was a very interesting trip because I found out: where was I getting off criticizing other people's middle class miasma? Why wasn't I just going there and shutting up and doing what I did? I didn't go any more.
And then there's a great controversy about whether Snyder had found something about Zen in the Reed College library. He denies it categorically. But I have a recollection about, at some point, about everybody talking about what is the sound of one hand clapping, and all sorts of stuff. But he says, "No, no, no. We didn't know anything about it till we all moved down here." So that's a mystery. He was busy going to see Alan Watts over at the American Academy for Asian Studies, which was then over on Broadway. And listening to lectures by him and by other visiting Japanese folks. And that was where he met a painter - I can't think of the man's name at the moment [Chiura Obata] - but he tells about it in the introduction to Mountains and Rivers Without End, getting the idea of writing this long poem based on a Chinese scroll.
And he was busy, as I say, studying Japanese and Chinese language over at Berkeley. I found this very interesting. Especially when he turned up with the essays of, well first of all, with the translations of Haiku poetry by R.H. Blyth, whose first volume is almost entirely devoted to commentaries and great revelations about Zen. And the writings of D.T. Suzuki. And so, of course, the next thing that happened was that we started reading the essays of Zen Buddhism. And that converted me, I think, pretty much into the idea that Buddhism was more free, and certainly Zen, was a much more free and unbent kind of operations where it was an individual number. And that one could live in the mountains and be crazy and be fine. Nobody would care. So I thought that was a swell program. Of course misunderstanding the whole point.
But anyhow, we were all sort of trying to sit [meditate], around that time. And the next thing is we met, out in Mill Valley, mutual friends of ours that were friends of Albert Saijo, and Albert showed us how to sit. And so he kind of set up a funny Zendo in an unfinished house up there on the hill. And he'd show us how to sit with pillows on us, how to chant the Heart Sutra in Japanese, and how to drink tea. So that was very helpful and made me feel like something was happening.
So that you actually sat down and did zazen, and then you go outside and do some fast-walking up and down through the brush and timber out there and come back and sit down some more. And just blew away a lot of the theoretical stuff that I had read, but in general it seemed to work; I meant it did something for you. It changed your mind a little bit about things, and I thought that was a good idea. 'Cause I had, apparently, I learned that I had a great many thoughts I could jettison, start jettisoning, and I still have too many. Anyway, it was interesting, and Albert Saijo was very helpful, and was a very creative guy. He wrote, he eventually wrote, this funny little book about hiking. I forget the name of it.
He made that trip with Lew and Jack back to New York and they put together that little book called Trip Trap. Anyway, the next big bop was when Gary was leaving for Japan and had that monumental party at a place in Mill Valley which Jack wrote about in Dharma Bums. What was entertaining, to me, about all that was, to see, to actually see what he was writing about, and who was there, and what I thought was happening, what I thought it was all about, and then Jack's version in writing about it, which was extremely carefully selected. I thought it was really terrific how he had boiled so much nonsense away and kept a particular track through the midst of all this confusion and hoopla and blah-blah. He could make a sequence of stuff and people and so forth out of it, that held still on the page, and yet it was lively. I thought that was quite a great accomplishment.
And so Gary went off to Japan. And then the next year, Joanne [Kyger] went over, and they got married. Then he got that big grant - which one was it? Oh, what was that publisher that Paul Mellon supported for years?
David Meltzer: The Bollingen Foundation.
Philip Whalen: Yeah, Gary got the Bollingen Prize, and so he and Joanne got to go to Vietnam and to Ceylon and up into Northern India where they connected up with Allen and Peter up in Delhi on New Year's Day of 1963, I think it was. And together they all went visiting celebrated Lamas. The Dalai Lama and endless other marvelous creatures up there.
David Meltzer: Joanne has written about that trek in a very . . .
Philip Whalen: It's a very nice book; a very funny book. Well. Anyhow, it ended up that I liked the Japanese aesthetic very much. I enjoyed living in Japanese houses in Japan and walking around through Kyoto and through the old temples and shrines and things. I miss it. It's really a wonderful place. I think I like it better than Paris. Maybe Rome has a lot of stuff that I would still like to poke at and look at. Still, as a living continuous tradition, since the year seven hundred and something, here it is. And it's wonderful to be there and read The Tale of Genji on the spot as it were. And Lady Murasaki had a real eye for the look of things and for weather. Her accounts of what it smelled like and felt like and looked like were really marvelous.
David Meltzer: In interviewing Gary, we talked about the experiences in Japan, especially the hard work of Zen. I asked him what were some of the things he found so useful? and he said, "One of the great lessons was manners."
Philip Whalen: Yeah. Oh yeah. Japanese buildings feel good, and smell good, and then there are other out of doors smells in morning. People are grilling dried fish, and there are black fumes and stuff floating around, or they're setting fire to one of those big briquette things that they put inside of the heating . . . . But they have to set fire to it out of doors because the starter has al sorts of vile chemical mess hooked up to it.
David Meltzer: What time in the morning?
Philip Whalen: Oh, it wasn't very early. It was probably about seven or so. I would get up and sit, and then I would take a trolley over to this coffee shop that I liked across the street from Kyoto University, and eat croissants and drink coffee, the delicious coffee that they make in small quantities. It's great.
That was when I was doing a lot of writing. I would write every morning. I would go out, after I had been sitting, I would go out to the coffee shop, take a notebook with me and start doing stuff. What I was doing at that time was Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head, which somehow got published.
David Meltzer: Yeah, it's a wonderful book. So much of your work is generated out of notebooks, is that right?
Philip Whalen: Well, sometimes it's lifted. Maybe very small changes, or large cuts. It was very hard to start writing in a notebook. I used to try and do it, and would get hung up about trying to . . . with the lines on the paper . . . . It wasn't until Bob LaVigne turned me on to, some kind of artist pad thing, book thing, that had blank pages. You get 'em down at Patrick & Co., or some such place. He used them because they would take ink, paint, color, whatever. And so I used those for a long time. And then in Japan, the stationers had these marvelous bound books that were very cheap, but the paper was very good. It could take anything and not lose it. That's probably why I scribbled so much, 'cause it was fun working with these blank books. The ones that LaVigne turned me on to were bound. They were books about yay thick and had a heavy binding, so it was a little hard to open at first, but anyway, the paper was very good right away. And so that was something that had a great effect on everything, LaVigne's blank book business. 'Cause I had been using small notebooks, and that didn't work as well, although I filled up a lot of them. And, as I say, in Kyoto you had all these papers and books, blank books, and then also Pentel pencils, colored stuff to play with.
David Meltzer: You also have that calligraphic style that you learned at Reed and which was dependent on having good fountain pens, as I recall. I was interested in the notion of writing by hand. It's so much different than working on the keyboard. I wondered if you have any thoughts on that.
Philip Whalen: Yeah, and the idea what the page, what the whole page would look like, and the spacing, how much space to use here and there, or adding stuff on the side or what not.
David Meltzer: I mean your pages would be filled with various sizes of script, blasts of all caps, and drawings, all part of an interesting process of thought unfolding.
Philip Whalen: Well, it was fun to do them . . . . It was entertaining to me, and sometimes people thought it was nice. The thing is, that I think . . . let's see . . . one poem that's in, I think it's the last one in Memoirs of an Interglacial Age, I dictated to McClure, who typed it, and it came out all right. Now, what was it called? It was called "A Press Release" 'cause Elsa Dorfman was rigging up these series of readings for Mike and me back east, and she wanted a press release, she said on the telephone. And so he says, "C'mon you have to write."
"I don't have anything to say. I don't know anything about it."
"I'll go write it on the typewriter."
"Then alright." So I started talking. And there seems like there were some bits and pieces that I actually wrote on the typewriter but very, very few.
David Meltzer: So in your process, you take the material out of the notebooks, and then type it?
Philip Whalen: Yeah. And at one point McClure told me, he says, "You shouldn't do that. You should get 'em to print it the way you wrote it, because it's beautiful."
"That's very kind of you." But it's impracticable, apparently.
David Meltzer: Well, there was a book of yours that was published.
Philip Whalen: Yes. It was called Highgrade, which was all short poems and doodles and stuff. That was one of the books Coyote Press published. Zoe Brown did a very good job on the cover and the layout and stuff, and the insides.
David Meltzer: She also typed up some of the books that Don Allen did.
Philip Whalen: She typed up You Didn't Even Try, which came out while I was in Kyoto, the first year I was there. And she had to write queries. Every once in a while she would write, and she would say, "On page so-and-so there's this sentence . . . ." And I would look at it and think, "Oh brother, what have I done? It's made of mush." So I would have to think what it was and recast it and ship it back to her. And she would be pleased. And then she would find another totally impossible piece of writing that I had to simply redo because it didn't make any sense, on any level.
David Meltzer: An important absence, who is a presence throughout all these interviews, is Allen. Any words in lieu of the presence of that absence that you'd like to address?
Philip Whalen: Yeah. Allen was just great, you know? He was a brother, and he took endless bother, and to some extent Jack also, to get my stuff published. And when people would ask him for poems, he would say, "Alright I'll give you some, but you have to print something of Phil and Gary's also." He was a very interesting person to be around because his head was going 500 miles a minute. And he had huge quantities of English poetry by memory, which he could quote if he wanted to. And he and I had an endless argument about how to pronounce the name of Shelley's poem, I think called "Epipsychidion." Anyway, he had this real wild passion for Blake for various other writers, and I remember when I first met him and Jack, they were both pushing Melville's novel Pierre, which I had never read. So then I read it. And, of course, their big drive when they were in college was Dostoevsky, which I had read and admired, but not to this passion that they had for him and thinking of it as a model for something. I always thought it was funny that Dostoevsky's model was Charles Dickens.
Anyway, Allen was into taking care of people and taking care of things, and he was always helping me all the time. And sometimes, you know, he would cook, and we would have dinner together, and we'd go running around North Beach together. He was tremendously good company. He was seldom down, crying, or moaning. He was usually operating. He was too fucking smart to take time off to be sad. He could be sad enough, being that he was by nature a Russian, but he kept out of it as much as possible. And he was always writing. All the time he was writing and talking at the same time, and telling about everything. But he was interested of course, in painting, the New York painters and various poets that he knew and he liked, and various wonderful ethnic foods. And one time he made up this lung stew, if you can imagine such a thing. But it was quite good.
At the time we were running around together he wasn't reading much. He was very hung up on writing. The only time he really got suddenly interested in reading something was when his mother died, and he tried to get a minyan together to read Kaddish for her. And he couldn't do it. He couldn't find enough people. But he wanted to know how to do it, and so he got a hold of all the literature, and he bantered in everybody's ears from here to New York trying to find out how to do it.
He had this endless string of applications to him from various friends, old and new, about how they were broke and needed money, and could they please have $200 right away. Which he always answered, always sent money. He had a real motherly instinct. He was very tough also. He had a very clear head and a very tough set of reasons and rhymings and so forth, but went on. But he stuck to it, and he had this very, very exact vision of himself and about what it was he wanted to do.
And what he wanted to do was to be famous. If he was famous then a whole lot of people would go to bed with him. So that's what he did. He contrived to become famous. And he contrived to go to bed with a lot of people which amused him, and pleased him, and made him happy, and so on.
And then he had this relationship with Peter which lasted on and on for years. Which was sometimes very hard for him because Peter had periods of total insanity and had to be taken care of and was a mess. Later on, a few years ago, Peter just got totally crackers, and Allen paid to put him in some expensive sanitarium in Wisconsin. And when he got out he was just fine until he'd get a drink of liquor, and then he would go bananas. It was terrible.
I don't think I ever met Allen's brother, who was a lawyer. And I did meet his father, who was a lively fella and whose conversation was entirely made up of puns. Which was a little stressing. And his step-mother, Edith, is a very pleasant person who still lives in part of his apartment in New York some of the time. She lives in New Jersey most of the time, I guess. And he has . . . I think his brother had two or three sons that he kept track of and helped out in various ways.
But he knew so many people, and could tell wonderful stories about all these famous people, literary people and so on, and places that he went, and things that he saw, and did, and smelled, tasted and touched. And he could project so much excitement and so much force and so much life, that it was incredible. And it's funny though, 'cause Jack had every bit as much talent, and could tell you what he wanted, and could do things, but he was so bottled up with that Catholic education, it just absolutely squashed his personality or his mind or something in some terrible way, that made it hard for him to get out and do things. I mean he could, but then he would also have to get drunk to get out from under all that stuff.
It was very hard because he had a theory about how if you had just enough alcohol, that you would feel good and be able to do things. And if you waited until it was not too late, you had just a little more, and then you would get back to where you were at, and so on. Of course later, there you are, plotz.
David Meltzer: I remember seeing a letter that he wrote to Don Allen, actually, outlining very seriously his regimen for writing, which would include methodically drinking so much, and then taking half of a benny, and so on. And if you just kept on, taking a little of this, and a little of that, you could go on for days and days and days, and write at this incredible speed.
But I'm thinking of an interview I read of yours. You talked about how spontaneous bop prosody was not necessarily as stated. That Jack actually had been, as you, filling up notebooks, and that when it came to writing, there was so much of the material that was there that he could then extract it in the process of translating it into type.
Philip Whalen: And then the typewriter would somehow make it possible for him to expand on the notes and go to bop, maybe half a page. Or he would make a mistake in typing, and say, "Oh," and it would drive him another line or so.
David Meltzer: In one of your interviews, you talk about the regard that you have for Kerouac as a writer. So often that's overlooked. The fact that he was writing very interesting, and in some cases, very radical experimental writing. And so much of this 'mytho-poeticizing' bypasses the fact that he was a very serious and innovative writer.
Philip Whalen: Right.
David Meltzer: I think Clark Coolidge is about the only other poet I know that looks upon Kerouac as this great feast of writing that instructs him.
Philip Whalen: You know Clark himself has done remarkable stuff. I haven't seen any of his stuff since he wrote the one called At Egypt, which I thought was terrific, and I don't [know] what he's done . . . .
David Meltzer: He's prolific.
Philip Whalen: That's what you gotta be, you know, to get anywhere. You gotta get a lot of words on paper. Kerouac used to say that writing was like having a dope habit. You just keep on doing it.
David Meltzer: I suppose it gives a sort of clarity to the time you occupy. At least you know that from this time to that time one writes, regardless. You become addicted to the process.
Philip Whalen: And it feels good.
David Meltzer: And the pages stack up. It's like Thomas Mann talking about writing two pages a day - it's very elegant . . .
Philip Whalen: One page.
David Meltzer: One page.
Philip Whalen: Wearing this tourmaline ring that his daughter gave him.
David Meltzer: And after a year, there's volume one of Joseph in Egypt stacked up.
I guess we can talk, if you like, about some other absences like Kenneth Rexroth?