This weekend I had an unusual–and poignant–experience: the chance to talk at length about poet Phil Whalen with two people who knew him very well. David Schneider is the author of STREET SAINT–the astute biography of Isaan Dorsey, who ran a Zen Center/AIDS hospice on Castro Street. Now Schneider is focused on Whalen, who although of superstar status in the group I knew around him is one of the lesser known Beats.
Actually Whalen didn’t really consider himself a Beat, despite knowing Kerouac and being close to Ginsberg. Really he was part of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance–and his influences were intimate ones–he roomed with Gary Snyder and Lou Welsch at Reed.
David Schneider was visiting from Germany, and researching Phil’s handful of years in Santa Fe–essentially “lost” years or years of exile from San Francisco. He came here with his Zen teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, both in show of loyalty and to finish his training. Miriam Bobkoff, who knew Phil both at San Francisco Zen Center and here in Santa Fe, joined in the discussion, coming from the Pacific Northwest.
Phil was endlessly witty, amusing, opinionated, crabby, erudite…and endlessly in need of cosseting, feeding, driving, and amusement. Robert Winson and I were just caretakers in the midst of a long line of many. I was shocked, though, to realize that when I met him in 1984 in Santa Fe Phil was only 60, just four years older than I am now.
It can be difficult to say how well we really know another human being. And I wouldn’t say I knew Phil–I admired him, served him, and feared him a little. Our relationship was always a triangle, with Robert as the apex.
Miriam B, David, and I sat for several hours in my living room, drinking tea and then wine and beer. It was freezing out, the snow unmelted, adding to the enclosed feeling of the scene. David did a hilarious imitation of Phil doing an imitation of a Russian sailor talking about potatoes. Everyone who knew Phil has dozens of stories about him–but who was he?
Apparently he once said at Naropa that he regretted giving up poetry (presumably for the practice of Zen). I always wondered about this–because Santa Fe seemed o be the place he stopped writing anything but off the cuff ephemera, charming but insubstantial. Did he give up poetry–or as is the way of the fickle Muse towards the middle-aged–did poetry quit him? What about the relationship of Zen to writing–a relationship which talks out of both sides of its mouth? On the one hand, Zen roshis may insist their students give up art. On the other hand, artists from John Cage to Allen Ginsberg claim the formidable influence of Buddhism.
I’m glad I have no professional relationship to Buddhism. To my shock I’ve been anthologized as a Buddhist poet–but frankly the poets of the 20th and 21st century claim everything from lesbian feminism to ecology as the basis of their work. We live in a culture–something even writers seem not to notice–a culture we breath like invisible oxygen but a set of norms nonetheless. So the poet’s viewpoint we attribute to Zen might as easily come from the new physics or even the pursuit of art itself.
I have no answer about the compatibility of Zen practice and writing–because the question doesn’t present any dilemma for me. But I suspect it did for Phil Whalen. However, despite that, and despite his complex personality, it is rare to hear someone’s memory spoken of with as much affection as his is.
For a sample chapter from the forthcoming biography, go to http://www.coyotesjournal.com/