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Aaron Shurin

Donald Allen (1912–2004)

About 1982 Don Allen approached me to work with him as an editorial assistant for Grey Fox Press and Four Seasons Foundation. Had I met him before? I can’t remember, but probably so. My work-study job from New College was — get this! — to be Robert Duncan’s assistant (I had already known Robert well), but after two years or so that money ran out, and Don asked me to work for him. I wound up learning how to proof and copyedit, did some layout, some typing, and had the singular job of going through all of his correspondence in preparation of his papers going to San Diego. I was a pig in — well, gold: O’Hara, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Frechtman translating Genet, you know the list. They all passed through my hands before they settled down into the archives.
    Don the editor: are there better books of poetry in the twentieth century than The New American Poetry (original version) or O’Hara’s collected? Not for me. The world may have been smaller than, but even so what Don did was beyond remarkable. He was a champion of many, he had a foundational gay sensibility way before that term could be invented, he knew both the world and the underworld, somehow, and found a way to bridge them, and certainly how to bring the bottom up. I mean, in addition to all the poets we readily think about he was responsible for publishing Genet in the U.S.! As far as I know he really never stopped working: he was unstoppable.
    Personally, I want to say he was a “gentleman,” to signify some old fashioned manner he had, a courtesy and delicacy and diplomacy. Which is not to say he wasn’t perverse, too. He loved gossip, had a wicked salacious eye, a sly coyness, and he actually snickered all the time, delicious and conspiratorial. To me, he operated within the framework of, oh, an older gayness, I’ll put it, which was almost courtly (at least viewed from the front.) He had manners, so of course in private he could be a gossip machine: pure relish. One of my great pains: that I didn’t get to sit and cackle with Don and O’Hara together.
    His generosity towards me was unceasing. He took me to fabulous lunches on a regular basis as if I were his concubine (I wasn’t), never let me pay even later when I could and tried to, was always ready to help. Dear Don: I will mark forever your thorough, warm-hearted generosity to me as a younger poet. He was harder to reach in the last years, and I didn’t see him much, though I tried from time to time. I think he kept moving his present into the past on a regular basis and circumscribing it. He’d often dismiss, in conversation, his old cohorts — it was actually hard to get him to talk about the old days — as if they existed in an anterior world that had ceased to figure: he was impatient to be doing what he was doing. If I moved from a present to a past I can still only say goodbye with the fondest appreciative wave, and a bow of deepest admiration. He had a regular twinkle in his hound-dog eyes, a scrupulous if obstinate disposition, a literary pedigree he was modest to the point of dismissive about, and an ethic that found him forever working in the service of those he loved and admired and in whose work he discovered meaningful integrity. As I see it, he was one of the Masters.

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