Earlier Selves, Strangers: A Conversation with Robert Glück
Robert Glück is a poet, fiction writer, editor, and theorist; he is also a recognized ceramicist, educator, cook, and all-around enthusiast. His work — with its pleasures, intimacies, and daring discursive leaps — continues to exert an influence across generations. For decades, Bob has encouraged his contemporaries to re-purpose the strategies of innovative writing in order to underscore how such innovation was actually constitutive of marginal experience. Last April, it was my singular delight to sit down with Bob to discuss his experiences as a hippie, postal worker, writer, and activist before leading the informal, community-based workshops at the young Small Press Traffic, which fostered the community of writers now known as New Narrative.
— Eric Sneathen
Eric Sneathen: Good morning, Bob. It’s great to be with you. I’m hoping that we can start by talking about a character who’s at the center of gay liberation writing, Winston Leyland, who eventually became the editor of Gay Sunshine.
Robert Glück: Gay Sunshine started off as a Berkeley collective, and in 1970 or ’71 Winston gained control and moved the press to San Francisco. Gay Sunshine was mother church, and Winston her bishop. In the early seventies Boston had Fag Rag, Toronto had Body Politic, and we had Gay Sunshine. Gay Sunshine was by far the most literary of these publications. The thing I love about these early gay magazines is that all kinds of matter appeared together — actual scholarship, funky verse next to poetry by John Wieners, funky art next to drawings by Joe Brainard. Aaron Shurin and I gave and received support, and I transcribed some of the wonderful interviews that appeared occasionally. There is a great one of Aaron interviewing Robert Duncan. And interviews with Genet, Ginsberg, Isherwood… Once I was on the cover of Gay Sunshine — my torso, drawn by my lover Ed Aulerich-Sugai. The German filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim, during his trip to California, cited my image as an example of the headlessness of the gay community. We were a community without a head.
ES: That’s amazing! I’ll have to find it, though I wouldn’t have been able to recognize you by your chest alone.
RG: And certainly not by my waist! [Laughter] We had a falling out when I gave Elements to Donald Allen to publish instead of Winston — ingratitude! But I hope Winston is given his due. He really helped shape gay publishing — he published more than 135 books! Remember in that era everything came from New York.
ES: When I look at Gay Sunshine and James Mitchell’s Sebastian Quill, I notice how they simultaneously portray Gay Liberation as political, literary, and visual experiences. Even in James’s earliest books, there’s this sense of these things coming together.
RG: Yes, that was the work of the ’70s. People look back at that decade as a heedless time, but there was actually the tremendous achievement of creating a gay community, a gay readership, a gay voting bloc — that was accomplished and more. The hard work was done then, various kinds of support for an identity that barely existed.
ES: Your phrase — “an identity that barely existed” — makes a deep impression on me. It’s fascinating to think about how aware you must have been about actually building up an identity and a community.
RG: There was a shift between an older closeted gay culture and what we were doing. Bruce might have a better handle on that. I knew all about the closet of course, but less about the vivid culture of the closet. Basically, gay hippie culture saved my life. To enter a society in which my gayness was not repellent — well, that was everything. Though perhaps that was hippie culture in general. And I still believe in the guiding principle of that culture — that play is more important than work — it’s a great, radical, utopian idea.
ES: Was this a principle of gay hippieness or hippieness in general?
RG: It’s a principle for civilization, if we’re going to survive. So yeah, I guess at heart I’m still a hippie because I really do believe that. The other guiding principle — that a good heart is enough — was the hippie downfall. That is, the idea that you can will away power relations with only the power of a good heart. Maybe for ten minutes, but not for a longer stretch of time.
These were the years when feminism started to influence those of us who were not women. Feminists shook up everything by showing how power dynamics happen at home in intimate relationships, not just between states and armies. This was an understanding of power relations that hippies didn’t have. I remember reading Sexual Politics by Kate Millett and having my world tipped over. Books like hers — all you had to do was say three words and the whole world changed.
ES: Do you feel like gay politics, as it developed in the ’70s, was able to adapt that kind of flipping of the world?
RG: Of course, because it asserted the unbelievable proposition that being gay is normal, a revelation that made a new life. You could say there were two gay politics. The women were on their own and the men were on their own. The communities rarely overlapped.
In the late ’70s there was a reading that did this rare, almost unheard-of thing, to bring men and women poets together. There was a gay community center on Page Street and it was a two-night event. There were maybe twenty-four readers in all, and there was a lot of anxiety because these two communities had not met. People could be well known inside their own community and not really known outside. And, oh, one woman read about a mother and a son and some kind of brutal thing happening on a bus. And some of the men tittered, nervous laughter, and the poet looked up, trembling with rage. “I have read this at women-only readings for five years and nobody ever laughed.” And Robert Duncan called out, “No one was that boy — no one in your audience has been that boy.”
ES: Hmm. Your story about that reading reminds me of Steve Abbott’s interview with Judy Grahn, and how I think about New Narrative as one of those places where these two distinct communities are actually being knitted together, or at least maintaining a conversation with one other.
RG: I hope so. Because that was what was happening in our lives, and all we were doing was representing what was going on in our lives. So, yes.
I was good friends with Judy. I would go to a reading of hers and there would be an amazing audience, say 200 women, including truck drivers from Susanville. And they would ask me at the door, “Are you here to make trouble?” And I would enter like a mouse.
She’s amazing, so generative of community. In her work people were seeing for the first time their lives put into words. Judy taught me how to throw a ball, though I’ve since forgotten. [Laughter]
ES: She’s incredible. The reading she gave at the conference was absolutely breathtaking and I was so honored to have that moment, as distant as I was from her in the room, to witness her there, and hear her read. That was so important.
RG: I was really happy to see her.
ES: We’re all the way in the present now, but we’re trying to go back into the past.
In 1969 you graduated from Berkeley, where you first learned about ceramics, were schoolmates with Barrett Watten, and studied English. Then I see you in Sebastian Quill in 1972. So at some point you move from Berkeley to San Francisco?
RG: I studied ceramics first at the College of Art in Edinburgh in 1966 — at Berkeley, I took ceramics with Peter Voulkos — Barrett and I took Robert Grenier’s poetry class. Those were the days of People’s Park. I graduated and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was at a complete loss. I spent three weeks in bed smoking and then some friends moved to a commune in the Sierras. I just went along as sort of a rest cure, though I was only semi-tolerated.
Only the cucumbers thrived so we were all malnourished. Somehow there was enough money for drugs, and we went swimming in the South Fork of the Yuba. The people in the main house actually knew what they were doing. Their vegetable garden was a beautiful success. They were raising children — they were in it for the long haul. And our cottage was, well, eventually it burned down because we started a candle factory. Hippie candle factories burned down. We had hauled furniture from ghost towns, like a beautiful wood ice box. Balso died in the fire. Balso Snell, the dog of our commune.
It wasn’t an idyll but it did give me elbow room. I couldn’t be a poet there — that became clear — so I moved to New York because of the glamor of Frank O’Hara, just to be in his town, and I lived there for about a year, first on East 10th in the East Village and then on Perry Street in the West Village.
I went to Ted Berrigan’s workshops at the Poetry Project. No, actually they were in his apartment on St Mark’s Place. He was on various drugs, amphetamines, so he would just emit a beam of talking and show us work and talk and talk about it and then he would ask, “Does anybody have a poem to read?” Very few actually participated but it was good. I gave him poems in private. That was my first publication — in The World, Anne Waldman’s magazine.
I started working in the Post Office, which in San Francisco was a hippie job, but in New York it was for burnouts and people at the end of their tether. I worked the night shift unloading trucks and, well, the elevator doors would open and someone would be on the floor with a needle in their arm, passed out. It was like that, gritty, and the people who made that their lives became very odd ducks. That’s where I met Andy, who worked there briefly.
ES: This is the eponymous Andy?
RG: Part of being in New York was coming out. I fell deeply in love, and so learned that even though I was gay, I was part of the human club. I tried to will Andy into my bed, and I did sometimes though he was basically straight. I thought, He got into Columbia on a fencing scholarship, how can he be straight? [Laughter] He dropped out and I brought him into my life. We hitchhiked around the country, around the US and Canada, and after a year or so I felt that I was harming myself by being so obsessed by a man I could not have a future with. When he left the apartment I would wrap myself in his blanket to wrap his smell around me, play Billie Holiday, and weep.
So I moved back. I shouldn’t say “back” because I rarely went to San Francisco. I had lived in Berkeley, but the City was an unknown where every once in a while we went to a concert or to hear the Dead in the park. In 1970 I moved to San Francisco and soon after I arrived I met Ed, and for eight years we were rarely apart.
Panjandrum was the publisher of Andy — it was a hippie press, not gay at all. Dennis Koran. He published poetry books and anthologies — my group in those years was included in them.
ES: This series of conversations regarding what I’m tempted to call New Narrative’s prehistory might give the impression that you and Bruce and James were all running around together as intimates for almost a decade before New Narrative is really a thing. You’ve told me in e-mails and before we started talking, however, that that’s not quite the case. Can you help me piece this together?
RG: Bruce and I met around 1973 through the San Francisco Art Institute’s bulletin board: Ed and I wanted to move and Bruce and Burton wanted to move. In the end, both couples dropped the idea and remained in our separate flats for many years. But our obsession with Frank O’Hara forged a bond. I was part of another group. Some of us graduated from SF State as I did, from the MA program, but most didn’t. Leslie Scalapino sometimes came to our salons — before she had published anything. I have the galleys for her first book, The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs. The group had energy, but it did not survive in any sense. Everyone slept with each other in various combination, as young people do.
ES: That seems to pop up wherever you are. [Laughter]
RG: We gave a reading at the Erotic Art Museum, which San Francisco had in that era. We made a script of our sex dreams. Steve Schutzman, Gene Berson, Jeannie Sorotken, Anne Valley Fox, a gracious wonderful woman — they all still publish. So basically we were hippies and, oh, I suppose we thought of ourselves as surrealists. We didn’t have much ideology: strong images, strong lines, emotional, what was happening in those in-between years, and, well, we controlled Intersection and the Coffee Gallery, both in North Beach. There were only two important reading series back then: Intersection and The Poetry Center at SFSU, and the scene was located in North Beach, where the Beat era still felt present.
Ed and I were the only gay members of this gaggle. I find it almost unendurable to say that our anthology was going to be called Parachute Salon. It was too macho for Bruce, but they were our friends. Ed and I hung out with them and had dinners and Thanksgivings with them so they were really part of our demi-monde. And then there was gay counterculture, which included picketing racist gay bars and isolating preachers who sent us to camps to straighten us out, for example. We were involved in Gay Sunshine and countless little mags that perished in their cribs.
I remember one — I wrote about it in my book About Ed. The editor, Gus, needed erotic drawings so of course he came over — Gus and I had sex all afternoon while Ed drew us. [Laughter]
ES: When guys talk to me about the ’70s, I always get a lot of sex and a lot of drugs. And that makes sense and is fine, of course, but I think —
RG: And accurate.
ES: And accurate, maybe best of all. But there was so much else happening at that time, adjacent to and interwoven with the drugs and sex, of course.
RG: Well, yes, the development of a community, a voting bloc, a readership. Gus was rolling around with me on a mat, but he was also printing a magazine on his own, creating a space for artists and journalists and a collective point of view.
I remember these huge drag queens somehow arrived at our house to stay for a while. They had just been to the American Psychiatric Convention — they’d driven across country in an ornate VW van. They had stormed the stage, grabbing the mic and so on. Remember, at that time we were subjected to shock therapy, institutionalization, and lobotomies, not to mention loss of employment and shelter. It was illegal to congregate. Imagine that. Imagine the importance of that. To have homosexuality not listed as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association. That’s the work of the ’70s.
ES: Following Bruce’s Century of Clouds, which relates his experiences at the Marxist Literary Group, and his correspondence with Frederic Jameson, the politics of New Narrative are sometimes situated at this intersection of Marxism and Gay Liberation. There’s also Bruce’s pamphlet “Toward a Gay Theory of the ’80s,” which has a clearly Marxist bent. In the example you just gave about the work of the ’70s, I find something worth pausing over, because, well — how do you see these two critiques coming together?
RG: It’s hard to imagine the leftist turmoil in San Francisco. The major events in the city’s history in the twentieth century were refracted through the Community Party and labor activism. At Small Press Traffic we hosted events by the Women Writers Union, affiliated with Radical Women, part of the Freedom Socialist League. The Spartacist League sometimes turned up in order to disrupt these meetings, obstructionism. Both groups were Trotskyist. But we learned how to organize from the leftist groups. How do you get information out? How do you form an affinity group, an ad hoc group, how do you run a meeting? Set priorities? Make decisions? Organize a demonstration? In the ’70s I was part of BAGL (Bay Area Gay Liberation), and that’s how I met Marxism, as part of a BAGL reading group. We were reading laboriously because of the difficulty of these texts.
ES: Did Marxism come naturally to you? Did you feel like, “Oh, I can read a little and then I’ve got it?”
RG: No, none of it came easily. It was quite strange. However, even the basic concepts changed my world in a minute. ’Cause once you’ve got it, it reorganizes everything. But no, the language was not especially easy.
ES: I appreciate you saying that because I feel like when I read, for example, your “Long Note” and read about New Narrative writers coming to theory, it certainly seems like a welcome deluge of information. I don’t always read it as being this struggle to actually get through Kristeva or Lukács or whomever it is. So when I hear you say that “it wasn’t natural,” it’s a relief of sorts, it’s really helpful to think of the genuine challenge those writers posed.
RG: They opened a window into my own experience. I don’t need to rigorously understand systems. Perhaps I’m too lazy. I more or less pillage. But Bruce, for example, is a completist. Once he gets interested, he needs to understand the whole system.
I want access to my own experience. I want to wake up. The writers you mentioned gave me access, showed me how my life is structured, how my life is part of history, showed me connections and possibilities. Also, critical writing sometimes teaches me about writing itself. Roland Barthes is a beautiful writer, for instance. I suppose I’m more of a visual artist at heart.
ES: We’ve come to the end of our hour together, but before we turn off the tape I’m hoping you’ll indulge me with one more question. I’m still working my way through the question, so I hope you’ll be patient. You always are, but I’m curious: What do you like to remember from those years, given all of the invention and exploration and road trips and psychedelics — what does remembering do for you? Is the past a site of pleasure, and what might it mean to live with it? Why do that? Is there some way that we might fit memory, pleasure, and justice together
RG: What an interesting question. You are asking what it’s like to be old. George Oppen wrote, “the old new to age as the young to youth.” This odd thing — the assertion into daily life of the memory of most of that life, or the feeling of that memory. Memories that grow less complex, turning into the language that describes them. Friendship, romantic despair, activism, threadbare years, rich veins, the sudden feeling of seeing history, pervasive fear, an endless afternoon with nothing to do — are they experienced as ballast or the opposite, a phantasmagoria? Of course the meaning of a memory changes — now I like the ones that show I am part of the human club, like weeping in my would-be lover’s blankets. The memory of pleasure is its own problem, is it not? What to do with pleasure in the past? It makes a kind of tragedy if it’s not replaced by pleasure in the present. I like ephemera to be ephemeral. I’m not one of those writers who saves it all for the archives.
When I was young I could share my experience whole cloth with an intimate, a friend. At a certain point I couldn’t. My experience was only mine — a matter too complex, containing too many distances and receding eras and deaths to convey entirely. It’s isolating to be lost in a crowd of earlier selves, strangers. I carry this matter that can’t be fully expressed, which in some sense is myself. Friendship becomes more important, friendship with people who knew me when I was young, like Bruce and Kathleen and Elin, and also friendship with the young, like Damon and Jocelyn and you, Eric.