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Landis Everson

in conversation with Kevin Killian

Landis Everson grew up in Southern California and studied at Berkeley and Columbia. He became a poet and a painter, involved in the ‘Berkeley Renaissance’ in the late 1940s along with Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan and others. After a long hiatus he has recently begun writing poetry again, in his late seventies.

This interview is 4,500 words
or about 10 printed pages long

You were born in Coronado, California, but I don’t really have a sense of where that is, what it’s like or how it enters your poetry. Tell me a bit more about Coronado.

I was born and brought up on an island. In my time, Coronado was connected by ferry boat to San Diego. Half of the island was vacant lots and horned toads. I used to sit in my room, looking toward Mexico, feeling I was at the end of the world, especially lonely when the soft, southern fog seeped in and hid everything except the remote fog horn.

The highway from Los Angeles to San Diego was a two-lane road connecting all the little towns in between. My life was pretty happy and thought-free. I lived for the waves at the ocean. Our high school was so tiny it was an extended family. Those of us still alive continue to feel this kinship with each other. My life couldn’t have been more different from Jack’s: outdoors, dates and dances.

“California-ness” seems like a bond between your poetry and that of Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan — a sense of being at the end of the world, a place therefore of freedom and experiment.

Jack and I certainly had California in common. We both had attended the University of Redlands in Southern California, although Jack had already left Redlands before I arrived. By comparison, Jack came from a far more sophisticated California.

Peter Gizzi and I found a list Spicer drew up when still quite young of his poetic influences: he was trained to recite, at the age of three , Vachel Lindsay’s “The Chinese Nightingale”, and he also recalled his parents reading Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to him. And then the teenage discoveries of Eliot, Dickinson, Stefan George, Dylan Thomas, and “Rimbaud, who burst upon me like a bombshell when I was fifteen.”

My influences: one day a friend I seldom saw in Coronado High School came over to my house with a paper in his hand. His name was Campbell Armour, inevitably nicknamed “Soupy.” He said he’d written a poem for the school writers’ contest and wanted to show it to me. I said, “Okay,” and read the poem. Soupy said, “How do you like it?” I said, “It’s terrible.” He got mad instantly. “Why don’t you do better, if you’re so hot-shot?” “You bet I will,” I told him. He left. I walked to my Mother’s desk and sat down. Now I had to write a poem because of my smart tongue. I thought for awhile, and then began to write. I turned it in the next day, and when the prizes were announced at school assembly, my name was called as the winner of the poetry prize. This was the accident that caused me, after World War Two, when I enrolled at Redlands, to decide to see what I could do with poetry. “Soupy” Campbell, therefore, is my choice for Number 1 influence.

Since I knew nothing about poetry, the next influence ( #2 ) at Redlands, was Louis Untermeyer’s Modern British and American Poetry (1942). When I went to Berkeley, that was my only library. (One time, Jack looked through my bookcase in Berkeley and pronounced that I did not have one “surprising” book in my entire collection).

Number 3 influence was Robert Duncan, but not in Berkeley. The Opening Of The Field made me realize that my feeble education would never suffice for such poetry. I tried to be like Duncan even before “Field,” but it was simply not in me. It just made my poetry worse. In fact, I think every time I have tried to be “like” another poet, the poetry would be bad.

The next poet I fell in love with was John Donne. This love affair caused me to major in late 16th, early 17th Century poetry at Columbia for the master’s degree. That becomes another story. (Did I ever tell you what I did my Master’s on? It doesn’t belong on this list) I think to this day, Donne has seeped into my veins and will never come out. He is quite disguised, but the “Metaphysical Image” lurks too thinly under the skin. How do you rid yourself of a kind of “bonding” that takes place when you’re young and unprepared?

Landis Everson, left

The young Landis Everson, left, visiting England in 1950

Finally, # 5, is T.S. Eliot. I read him my first year at Berkeley. I think he showed me both the freedom poetry could have and the formality as well. Along those lines, it is written somewhere that Josephine Miles criticized the “Literary Behavior” magazine as having too many poets influenced by Eliot. I never heard that. However, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed The Occident in 1949 and complained that “all the poetry reads like T.S. Eliot.” I thought that was really unfair and untruthful. Either the critic was ignorant of poetry or trying to be witty at the expense of young poets who were trying their best.

What was Josephine Miles like as a teacher? What was her influence on you?

Miss Miles was my first poetry teacher, although the course I took with her was on criticism. Miss Miles told us not to write poetry in “the closet,” but to imagine every poem we wrote to be broadcast to the world. This would take us immediately from the amateur realm to the professional. (I understand she once referred to me as “the white hope of the English Department.” I must have disappointed her prophecy.) I remember after Columbia, when I returned to Berkeley to start my PhD, showing her my “Laments Of Alcibiades,” a long poem published by The Quarterly Review Of Literature, and she said only that it was “very moving” and looked at me strangely. It was an emotional poem, very unlike her poetry. I don’t quite know what restrained her tongue. She meant the word “moving” (as opposed to certain evasive words she could use, such as “interesting”), but her inability to say more could have been the subject matter (gay) or the emotional nature of the poem.

She must have been an influence. Everything was an influence, because I was green, open, always ready to explore and naive. Duncan was a strong influence. I would say that Robin [Blaser] influenced me, but not Jack Spicer. Jack’s poetry at that time was too restricted by form to be interesting. Not like the later Spicer, who showed the genius he always had in him when, with After Lorca, he broke free.

In Miss Miles’ course, my first (Junior) year at Berkeley, I met George Haimsohn, a poet of whimsy who went to New York and co-wrote the musical comedy Dames At Sea [1968]. At Berkeley he lived in the same apartment house as Duncan. Philip Dick also lived there, although, alas, we didn’t know him.

Can you help me correct my misconceptions about the nature of the Berkeley Renaissance? On the one hand I sometimes take it as a fraternal organization where everyone helped each other out, a kind of “Poetry Guild.” On the other hand I sometimes view it as charged with internecine strife, rivalry, envy and healthy competition. Which of these two myths is closer to the truth?

Kevin, can you imagine Dante or the Italian painters getting together and saying, “I know what! Let’s call ourselves the ‘Italian Renaissance’.” Of course, they did no such thing. We looked back and dubbed them that. Well, not so in Berkeley. I think Haimsohn told me that “we” had decided to be “The Berkeley Renaissance.” Really funny, because we weren’t looking backward but were judging and naming ourselves from past to future. Pretentious. I don’t think it was meant to be serious when it was suggested. Duncan came up with the idea? It really just meant, to me, a whole lot of poets. I don’t even remember names now forgotten. Gerald Sedgewick. Alexander Pope (his real name!). Victor di Suvero (“I am going to be famous,” he told me). Others were women poets like Barbara Brown. Older poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason. I can’t remember them all. I was the Poetry Editor for Occident one year. I turned down poets. Jack Spicer said to me, “You turned down — ?!” (I don’t remember his name now). I said, “Yes. He’s boring.” You ask, was this a ‘fraternal organization’ or more a group in strife, rivalry, envy and healthy competition? I can really only answer that from my point of view. Rivalry never occurred to me. Envy, but a positive kind. I thought Duncan’s poetry exciting and mysterious. I had read T.S. Eliot saying, “There is no competition, only the trying.” I believed that.

Something else was happening with me. At the same time that I was discovering writing, I was discovering my sexuality. Most of the poets were gay and I was discovering that I was gay. The two things became almost synonymous for me. I just came back from Boston, and I was dumbstruck that all of the poets were straight! It was like a new concept. I told Robin over the phone. He said, yes, we are a rare few, the gay ones. But not so then. So, I entered two worlds at the same time. You can see that for me, it was all adventure, excitement, fun, challenging, and endlessly new. Each poem and each poet was an experience, but just of joy. I was aware that there were occasional “differences” between Jack and someone else, maybe Duncan, but I didn’t pay attention. It seemed silly to start fights within such a small circle.

I think your original questions about the group would get answers as varied as the poets. How did each one “see” the movement, if it was even seen as a movement? I thought the “Berkeley Renaissance” was a joke. And yet I doubt that the San Francisco Renaissance would have been named that, if the “Berkeley” title didn’t just sort of morph over the bridge into San Francisco as we all moved over there. Who took the original seriously? I suspect Jack did. When McClure and Wieners and the other young east coast poets came, I admit I did feel they were butting into what had always seemed our territory.

You became a painter and in fact, many of the poets at Berkeley were heavily involved with art: Duncan, Spicer, and Blaser were all in their way, connoisseurs and promoters, though they wrote little art criticism when compared to their East Coast counterparts. What was the visual experience at Berkeley? Did you go to museums, galleries?

Actually, none. I went with Robin once to the San Francisco Museum of Art to see a show of Bonnard and Vuillard. My art education was haphazard. My Father took me to Europe after I graduated from Berkeley, and I saw Art! The Louvre, the Uffizi, Petit Palais, The Museum of Art in London. In New York, with George Haimsohn, I went to all of the museums and then to many private galleries. I became knowledgeable rather effortlessly, painlessly and agreeably. When I was 30, back in California, I met the painter Robert Harvey and we became lovers. He opened the art world to me even more, and I became friendly with Nathan Oliveira, Bill Brown, Paul Wonner and many other contemporary painters.

I barely knew Jess. He and Duncan lived in Stinson Beach at the same time that Robert Harvey and I bought a house there. I never felt comfortable with Jess when I went over to see Duncan. I felt he didn’t like me. Furthermore, they were calling Robert a “decorative” painter, a strong put-down. Then, Jack was forbidden by Jess to visit them and finally the big fight between Jack and Duncan that had been brewing for years. By then I was far more comfortable with Jack than Duncan.

Robert Harvey and I spent one year in Santa Fe, where I found I couldn’t write and so I began to paint as a hobby. I entered a national show of small paintings and won first prize, so I became very excited. Robert Harvey’s gallery in San Francisco was Gumps, and the director used to come to our house to confer with Robert. She saw my paintings and liked them and asked me to bring paintings to Gumps to sell, which I did. For about three years I painted, and then we went to the Canary Islands for a year. Once there, I could not paint. Instead, I started to learn Spanish, putting all my usual compulsiveness into language. When we returned to San Francisco, I bought the house next door and began to remodel it. That was the end of poetry, painting and Spanish. I became a full-blown remodeller for the next ten or so years.

In Berkeley was there a hierarchy of poets, with Duncan perhaps at the top, or maybe there was another top layer composed of visiting poets like Dylan Thomas or Auden or Henry Miller (or Olson, as Ben Mazer suggests).

The people who were famous who came to Berkeley, I avoided from vague fears of insufficiency. When Auden came to Berkeley, an older poet friend of mine asked me to have dinner at his apartment in order to meet him, just the three of us. I was terrified. I felt without any merit, thoroughly worthless to Auden. I didn’t show up for dinner — proof I was worthless and very rude as well. I am still a lot this way. It’s fear. When I feel that people like me despite my incompetence — like Jack and Robin — then I’m all right, happy and comfortable. When Karl Shapiro came to Berkeley to teach a poetry class, the English Department asked me to be his teaching assistant. I considered quitting the University. Iron will and good manners kept me enrolled, and once I met Shapiro, he put me at ease immediately, mostly by treating me as an equal and being friendly. But thus I cheat myself.

Jack Spicer was in love with you, but you didn’t find out until after his death.

I did not know of Spicer’s interest because he never said anything. I thought he was a poet-friend, and that’s why I was so crushed when he publicly denounced me in the “And You, Apollo...” poem. I felt betrayed, humiliated and utterly confused. Robin walked me home and tried to explain, but I just couldn’t get it. I felt used for the sake of theatre. I felt abused by a friend I had trusted. So, I guess I was always careful with Jack afterward. Friendly, but careful. As I had learned to distrust him, I learned to distrust his poetry and even why he was writing it. I felt he used everyone (ultimately, I guess we all use each other, but there still is ‘sincerity’) and every thing (poetry). Just understand a slight puzzle: I loved Jack as you do love special friends. I even loved the smell of him, if that makes any sense (he smelled good to me). I respected him. He was the smartest person I knew. I didn’t much like his poetry. I felt it was too traditional and too self-indulgent in his cries for love. (I think he thought so, too, later).

One day, walking by Larry Blake’s, a restaurant near Sather Gate on Telegraph [in Berkeley], I saw Jack through the front window, talking to someone I didn’t know. I went inside to say hello, but Jack and the stranger, a somewhat older man, were so intense in their conversation, they didn’t see me. I listened in amazement to Jack arguing with this man over philosophy, but in such a learned and scholarly (technical) way, that it was all far beyond me. When Jack saw me, he introduced me to the stranger who was, as it turned out, a philosophy professor from the University of Redlands, though not the professor I’d had there.(I had made a straight A in philosophy at Redlands, but their conversation was way over my head). This professor was speaking to Jack as an absolute equal and had come up from Redlands just to talk to him. But Jack never showed this side of himself to us, except perhaps to put down Duncan occasionally in battle.

This side of him began to show in his poetry much later, though he believed in a kind of simplicity. Finally, lest there be no misunderstanding, I am in awe of Jack’s later poetry and often enamored of it. I still see the cry for love, the loneliness in it. I still distrust it. But that doesn’t detract. I was lucky to be his friend, though Jack didn’t believe in luck or unmeaningful coincidence but in fate, or “molecules arranging themselves.” I see him as a poet whose poetry I could never approach, but then, to do so I would have to have a duplicate brain with duplicate experiences.

But all of them were in love with you — not only Spicer, but Blaser and Duncan too — or at least lusted after you. You never noticed?

How oblivious was I to those who swooned over me? Not oblivious, but dubious, suspicious, sometimes really unaware and scared. About a year before he died, Jim Felts (Robin’s ex) was talking to me in San Francisco, and he brought up Berkeley days. “You were really beautiful, Landis.” I was taken aback. “You thought I was beautiful?” “Absolutely. You were something else.” It had never occurred to me that Jim Felts had ever thought this way. Same with Gerry Ackerman, Duncan’s ex. There were levels of unawareness for me. How many? I do wonder. If I had a time machine and knew what I now know, I might hop a ride back and start over: “You! and You! and yes, you, too, You and Your Twin Brother!” Actually, could not have happened first time around because I was only looking for that Special One.

Since I was very new to the gay world, I wasn’t used to men finding me attractive. I had just quit the Sigma Nu fraternity and none of my fraternity brothers, all straight, were sexually interested in me. Or any men on the Berkeley campus (or Redlands). Unless I missed it, which is a possibility, I suppose. I had been in the army with no tales to tell. Nor was I especially aware of women finding me attractive. I was raised hearing an old slogan: “Beauty is as beauty does.” In reality, I had a pretty deep inferiority complex about my looks .... too this, too that, not enough this, not enough that. I was great at picking people to compare myself unfavorably to: So-and-so has better hair, or better chin, or better feet, or better you-name-it, always to my detriment. This is bound to keep egos in place. So, in some cases I was aware but couldn’t take it seriously, as I think I shouldn’t have. I was also quite good at picking people who had no interest in me, so I knew how Jack felt. Also suspicious of Jack and me, that we did this out of fear of being loved or not being loved: fear of love. One last quote. Someone at Berkeley once said, “Landis doesn’t have any friends; he only has lovers.” How would that make you feel, Kevin?

And then you went to grad school at Columbia, and encountered New York.

In New York, I lived in a remodeled brownstone owned by a professor at Parsons School of Design, a very friendly man who gave me the run of his house, a freedom I never exercised except to go through his downstairs bedroom onto his patio which in turn led into the interior of the entire city block, a vast garden of tall trees and lush flowers and flying birds shared by every house and apartment. The area was called Turtle Bay. I lived next door but one to Katharine Hepburn, and often saw her talking to tradesmen at her front door, or friends.

The room itself was skimpily furnished: bed and dresser, but very clean and new. I moved there after Columbia because I wanted to see more of New York. I worked for Pan American Airlines as a telephone salesman. I had very little money but was forced to eat out, since the room had no kitchen. One day the landlord knocked on my door, asking me if I’d like to see his “new Kuniyoshi.” I didn’t know who Yasuo Kuniyoshi [1889-1953] was, and followed the owner upstairs to the living room where above the mantle, hung a painting of a merry-go-round horse upside down with all four hooves and the head amputated. Using Miss Miles’ dodge, I nodded my head and stated hat the painting was indeed extremely ‘interesting.’ In reality, I was at a loss.

I really became starved in New York for fellow poets after I got my MA from Columbia. I had a lover in New York who, only briefly, while courting me, remained faithful. His infidelities were a tremendous blow to my ego and my heart. In order to finish my thesis, I had to move out and rent a room across from the Columbia Library so I could concentrate. I never moved back with my friend and continued to deteriorate apart. I had asked him if he could introduce me to any poets in New York some time earlier, and so he suddenly, through a friend, arranged for me to meet John Ashbery. The meeting took place at the Yale Club (a curious place for poets to meet) and after lunch, I asked John if we could meet again, and he said yes. I liked him very much, but I was not really in any shape to meet anyone. John came over to my room and we talked. I showed him some of my loose poetry (not any of my published things) and he took an interest in one long, narrow poem of two or three pages (which I’ve lost), asking if he could copy it. I said, of course, and he had to sit on the floor of the room to transfer the poem into a notebook. I just sat quietly on the bed as he did it.

When I asked him who his friends were, I got a list that intimidated me: Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, — people I’d heard about who weren’t academic (tame) poets and painters and therefore “wild.” I wasn’t ready for those people. A shame, because I could have enjoyed them if I hadn’t been so beaten down by lost love and self-absorbed misery. I think I would have liked Frank O’Hara under any other circumstances, and I did like John. I felt out of my league with these names he gave me, not so much intellectually as spiritually. I had become more of a traditional poet.

It was this east coast publishing in magazines like Hudson Review that got me in wrong with the San Francisco poets when I returned to the Bay Area. They made me ashamed of the reputation and caused me to revert to earlier, more freely-expressed poetry, which they immediately approved of. I really valued the approval of Duncan, Spicer, Blaser and the large group of newer poets more than I valued publishing in Hudson or Kenyon. I cut my poetic teeth with these people and was much more comfortable with an immediate audience than a remote and unresponsive magazine. I add all of this because I felt I had skipped it before, alarmed by the length of what I had written

Shortly thereafter, I couldn’t stand my own misery in New York and returned to California. I felt that my entire personality had collapsed, that I no longer knew who I was and that perhaps by going back to my home and my high school friends, I might, through their eyes, rediscover who I had been up to l944! So, I missed any chance to become part of any New York scene, which is a pity. I think I had had a nervous breakdown in New York. It took me years to get over the fear of another relationship. I started to work on my PhD at Berkeley, but I dropped out in a German class, realizing that I was not a scholar by temperament. I then taught college for about seven years, until I met Robert Harvey.

When you returned to the San Francisco scene you were invited into the Sunday afternoon group of 1959–1960 in which Spicer wrote The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether.

Jack was always far more serious about poetry than I was. When he and Robin and I met for our sessions in 1960, I was late one Sunday (I had to come into San Francisco from Stinson Beach) and arrived with a joke to tell Robin and Jack But Jack was not amused (Robin smiled) and I never repeated that mistake. These were completely serious meetings. Jack was after something, possessed .The theme of those meeting was the “serial” poem and “dictated” poetry, both novel ideas to me and very interesting. It was unfortunate that I didn’t have much time to write. I was remodeling an old house in Stinson Beach and very involved with a new partner who didn’t much like my going off every Sunday to San Francisco. I had very little time to give to the two poems I did write. If I hadn’t met with Robin and Jack, I never would have written them. They were essentially the last poems I wrote, although I may have written a couple of smaller poems. If I did, I have lost them.

Landis Everson, a recent photo

Landis Everson, a recent photo

When Jack was in San Francisco, he spent his evenings in bars at North Beach. I didn’t like the bars and my social life was pretty tame and domestic. I can’t seem to write poetry if there is no audience. Consequently, I stopped writing. I once thought that publishing poetry would give me the same incentive and enjoyment that I got from direct contact with poets, but after a couple of poems were published, I had no lift from it. I have started writing again because I had, suddenly, someone interested in poetry, another poet, Ben Mazer.

By the time Ben Mazer got in contact with me, I had moved to San Luis Obispo, bought and remodeled a small house and was not doing much more than crossword puzzles, and, I suppose, getting ready to die. I was too old to redo houses, not interested in painting or poetry, I think because there was no immediate audience for me. Of course, Ben changed all that by encouraging me to try to write again. Now, because of Ben Mazer, there is suddenly poetry again, a different poetry and consequently another challenge.

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