One afternoon in 1981, Donald Allen introduced himself to me on the phone and asked me if I had a manuscript he could publish in his Four Season Foundation series. Robert Duncan had shown him some of the stories which would become part of my first prose book, Elements of a Coffee Service. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Don’s New American Poetry had been my Bible — my copy was so worn out that it had come apart and I read it in smaller and smaller sections. The backlist of Four Seasons was a role call of sorts, and Don was the literary executor of Frank O’Hara, another one of my gods.
When Don and I worked on my book, we had our troubles. I was driven, obsessive (still am) and Don was imperious, incommunicative. Every few days I sent him pages of, say, a hundred comma changes. I expected wisdom from on high, but he made only a few assertions and those baffled me. No, we could not put a Caravaggio on the cover because the book was not about boys. In one story he wanted me to change garden path to allee. Allee! — as though I were a swish New York fag, blind to the class aspiration behind word choice! Had I been misunderstood by my own deity? Of course it was simply the correct word, though it still seems a little dressy. When my book was done, he knocked on my door, handed me a copy, and turned away, and he attended the book party long enough to shake my hand. On the other hand, Don was absolutely meticulous, and he produced a book with no errors in it, a miracle I could not appreciate at the time. When the trauma of publication was behind us, we became friends. It took me a while to realize that his abruptness had no particular emotional valence. When he was done talking on the phone, he hung up without complimentary close — click.
Don famously did not like crowds. Very occasionally we would attend a reading by an old friend — Barbara Guest for example — but there was no telling how long he would put up with the social occasion, and we usually left before the end. Later he became deaf and that naturally increased his disinclination. When Small Press Traffic gathered poets who had appeared in the New American Poetry in a reading honoring the republication of that book, I somehow convinced Don to attend, though he equivocated till the last moment. “Is that Ebbe Borregaarde?” Don marveled, “He looks like Santa Claus!”
Like others who are engaged with the present as they grow old, Don always had young friends. At one point he asked me to go to Spain with him, and we made plans, looked at maps, discussed cities, made arrangements. I got a passport. Then a week before we were supposed to leave, Don mentioned in passing that he had cancelled our trip. That is a Don Allen story, and most of his old friends have one to laugh about in retrospect: the cancelled trip, or, say, the dinner in his honor that he didn’t attend. In his late seventies, he bought a sports car, a red Porsche, and that was a surprise.
Don may not have avoided crowds, but he did enjoy people one at a time and in small groups. Often he asked me to make a third when his friends came to town, perhaps to deflect the burden of conversation from himself. And yet he was ready to be amused by it all; he would sit back, taking it in with a smile. I think Don’s leading characteristic as a friend was loyalty. Every year we traveled across the Bay to fete Sam Steward with lunch on his birthday. Sam was dear to Don. In fact, they were both gentleman of the old school, courtly, cultivated. Sam had been a tattoo artist, a pornographer, and a member of Gertrude Stein’s circle in Paris. Don also took me to lunch with John Ashbery at the Grand Café, tea with James Schuyler. It was amazing for a young writer. Don told me about dinner parties he gave in the fifties for his artist and poet friends, when he served asparagus with a soft boiled egg in an egg cup and the spears were dipped into the yolk. During one era of our friendship we went to Berkeley every few months to look at Japanese art and eat at Ginger Island. We were interested in Yoshitoshi, a late nineteenth-century woodblock artist. Don had lived in Japan and China; his interest in Asian culture helped to shape Grove Press in its early days, and so the counter culture.
Don talked about Frank O’Hara and the other great poets who had been his buddies, but not so much as one might expect. He told me one day that O’Hara read “Hotel Transylvanie” to him as they were on their way to a party, and the poet had wept as he read. Once Don asked, “Did you get to know Jack?” “Jack Spicer? — No I came into the scene years after Jack had died.” “Oh?” Jack’s supporter and publisher said in his blandest manner, “You were lucky.” I think Charles Olson was Don’s favorite poet, and one of his last projects was Olson’s Collected Prose for UC Press, which appeared in ‘97.
Don always had a number of projects going — as recently as two or three years ago he was considering a publishing arrangement with City Lights. He never seemed to be in a quandary about what he wanted to do. He did as he pleased. He continued editing for the UC Press into his late eighties. Writing about Don, I realize that few people know what he was like, and I would not want to torque my description. At the same time, I find I am reluctant to intrude on a privacy that was closely guarded. He would start off a conversation by saying, Say Bob, do you like — ?And then he would make a gift of whatever it was: a certain Scotch, a certain book, a sauce pan, lunch at a certain restaurant. When I kissed him on the cheek, he murmured thank you. He ended his notes with Onwards (drolly), or Later.