The Sense of Utopia: Bruce Boone and Eric Sneathen in Conversation
Bruce Boone’s most well-known published works include My Walk with Bob, Century of Clouds, and his collaboration with Bob Glück, La Fontaine. Other publications include chapbooks, essays, five volumes of translations, his blog A Stele for Jamie, at least one play, and scores of poems, many of which have yet to be collected. (There’s rumor that a Selected is forthcoming.) Normally I can say that I met with an author on a certain date to conduct an interview, but with Bruce, blessedly, the conversation never stopped — the river of gossip, recollection, and deep feeling kept gushing. Though my first sit-down with Bruce occurred in April of this year, we exchanged thousands of words via e-mail and met again in late June to elaborate on some of our conversations. Bruce has always been at the center of this particular project — he was the one, following my work with Daniel Benjamin on the New Narrative conference, to direct me toward this body of work, and he was the one who connected the dots between everyone on The Capri Tapes. As I type this, there’s another e-mail from Bruce now.
Eric Sneathen: Much of the research for this Open Space series was conducted following repeat listenings to Forrest Baker’s Capri Tapes, which are the result of his desire — more than a decade into the AIDS epidemic — to collect people’s memories of the bar, The Capri, before even more of his friends from those years died. I’m hoping you can say a bit more about Forrest and how you got to know him, what he was like.
Bruce Boone: It must have been at a bar, and it must have been at The Capri. That’s the only thing it could have been. I remember going home with him to his place in the Outer Mission in the middle of winter. That’s how I met him. There was no heat, and he was living with Michael Ford and a few others. I knew it would be one of those hippie things, where you just have sex and then become friends. We were like sisters. Forrest was a rush of energy, explosive, big, loud, delicate, crude.
You know, as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve thought more about friendship, I think there are limits to every relation. You meet someone and it’s a bed of roses. Things explode and then there’s a pause, you set up conditions around that relationship and you have to figure out whether this is worth it or not. If it is, you can move on, and it’s really solid. That’s how it was with Forrest. He had an impeccable political consciousness and was incredibly good-willed. But he was big, awkward, loud, and pushy. Big in stature and big in confidence. He was president of his high school and valedictorian, too. He was fearless.
I’ll add this: another shock for me was seeing Forrest’s great energy, his vitality dwindle over years. Years. One day he rang me up to say, “Okay baby, this is it,” because he knew he was dying. Michael had moved to Portland by this point, so he wasn’t there to help. So Forrest and I got into the taxi together and went to UC Medical Center, which is where you went for AIDS treatment, what there was of it at that time. He had no money. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stay at the hospital, but he wouldn’t let me come inside. His partner at the time wouldn’t let me visit him later, either. He said, “Okay, you won’t see me again. This is goodbye. Kiss, kiss.” And it was another few weeks — he was sent to a nursing home — but he correctly foresaw his end. At the curb with the taxi, that was it.
For a person of such gargantuan stature, he was cut off so early in life. It was terrible. What would he have been if he could have lived longer? So many talents, so much to offer.
ES: Listening to the tapes, it’s hard not to fall for Forrest. He’s so charming and gregarious. Big laughs, deep romance, he was so sweet and so passionate. Did he ever live with you and Michael and the rest at your commune on Divisadero?
BB: Michael, his ex, and someone else — we were all in a commune together, though there was always someone floating in and out. The commune, it scandalized me because… in a way I think that principles are a middle class thing. You can’t afford principles unless you are at least middle class. And I grew up with lots of principles. They were things that were all for the betterment of humankind, how to behave, what’s proper, all that. I’m still trying to throw them out.
The commune was on Divisadero near Washington, and it was an old Victorian, which at the time were cheap because they were thought to be shit. I was really scandalized because there were no principles, either in terms of the treatment of others or in terms of politics. Like there’d be a march against the Vietnam War and I would think it’s important, of course, and want to go. But these guys would laugh at me. And when we disbanded, they stole everything in sight from that place: doorknobs, finials, everything. I had never met people who really stole before.
This, also, went along with my own restraint when it came to drugs. It seems like a parody, and it’s a scene in my play Fucked Up, you know. We shared the space, and we pooled some resources, bought some food in bulk: beans, lots of red wine, dope, the necessities. But it just shocked me to the roots of my bourgeois principles that there was a back porch where everyone would leave the garbage bags, until they nearly reached the high ceiling by the time we left.
ES: Is there anyone else from the days of The Capri, or the ’70s more broadly, that you’d like to say more about?
BB: My choice would be Don Lee, as he illustrates both a different set of friends than so far have popped up as Capri groups and because he illustrated the supposition that we all shared at the Capri scene. I think most of us were really misfits. Like hippies in general, gay hippies to me seemed often to have not just social-group-outcast status in general, but in some personal way to feel psychologically, well, “damaged.” Jim Mitchell might be the exception. And for me, I think The Capri and gay hippie-dom were harbors from my agoraphobia and terminal shyness. I expected I would never fit into any society but would have a respite of a decade or so of hippie play and then perish early as we all were destined to do.
Most of us lived from day to day not thinking of the future — not because of some “Be Here Now” perspective, but rather, I think, because many of us were assuming that there wouldn’t be a future for us, that we’d die early. It felt a bit like the movie Cabaret or the Isherwood Berlin stories: wasn’t there a bit of the essence or perfume of Weimar in the air?
The gay hippie deaths seem, in retrospect, a run-up or preview to the AIDS deaths of the ’80s and ’90s. Bodies falling constantly. Rumors that the mafia had finally caught up with Arlene Arbuckle — the owner of The Capri — and that they had finally done her in. The two Karl Johnsons dying violently. There was the melanoma that killed Paul Egger. Johnny Pippetone, the scene’s connection to the best drugs, in Chicago continuing on in his criminal career, was found in forty-eight pieces. Suicide attempts transpiring all too often: so many friends and former lovers, perched on that edge.
ES: And Don Lee?
BB: From someplace in Indiana originally, he had been abandoned by his father, came home one day in high school to find his mother’s body dangling from a chandelier, a suicide. He arrived in San Francisco more or less after graduating high school, an extremely bright young man but very much precarious even at that tender age.
Donnie and I met one morning — he was drunk — in the kitchen of the Bachelors’ Quarters hotel, a block from the Capri on upper Grant Ave. I recall our engaging in a furiously intellectual conversation about the meaning of the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which we considered a major text. We ended up in his closet-size bedroom drunk, trying to engage in sex — then vomiting all over each other.
Though one bout with him was enough for me, he saw himself as a charmer and continued to flirt outrageously. We’d see each other near-daily. Each of our fiercely intellectual natures engaging, challenging the other’s, and he’d make a practice of returning us to his hotel room for a few moments, the reason for this soon becoming apparent. He’d need to change clothes. He’d pull down his underwear-less jeans and turn his back provocatively to me and say, “You know I could get any man I wanted with this ass of mine, don’t you?”
I had already had some time in grad school by that point. And though Don barely had finished high school, through his own learning he had or was in the process of gaining real and serious knowledge. Don pushed me to Sartrean critiques and the language of the Existentialists. We would walk and have coffee and talk constantly. Then he would snicker as we passed a building wall and sneer, “Bruce, isn’t this the very meaning of Sartrean ‘facticity’?”
One special morning we got up early to go to a place overlooking the Bay and take some LSD. We popped our Purple Owsleys, sat fraternally next to each other, watching the sun come up as the acid came on. Donnie turned to me with a look of joy: “Bruce, isn’t this just like the first pages of Being and Nothingness!?” He was filled with delight. So was I. That moment was way, way closer than sex. We were seeing the universe as it really was.
ES: When was the last time you saw him?
BB: Well, by now Don was a full-on heroin addict, a speed freak, an alcoholic, and connoisseur of a full spectrum of uppers and downers. He had with varying degrees of seriousness tried to take his life many times. I was his last friend. And I had become something like an adult guardian for him, I believe. I wanted to be the one friend who wouldn’t desert him.
One day I told him I was going to have to leave town for a few days, no more than three or four. I had to drive a friend back to Chicago after he had attempted to end his life, but that he shouldn’t worry, I would be back.
Donnie went into a tailspin of despair. He accused me of wanting to abandon him. I thought of this as just another scene, full of drama, but not really amounting to anything.
I was wrong. Getting back from Chicago the very first thing I did was to go over to his hotel to check up on him. I approached the front desk for permission to go to Don’s room. The wizened and somewhat cynical old clerk didn’t bother looking up from the paperwork he was engaged in. He croaked, “He’s deceased.” I stood there, shocked, and for a moment couldn’t move. It seemed like the end of an era.
Looking back now I suppose I’m recounting this in an effort of disclosure or honesty. To emphasize that in addition (like Weimar again?) to the great joys we had as gay hippies living like mayflies, it wasn’t as if the experience didn’t have its dark side. And wouldn’t I be remiss in failing to note that darkness as a part of this exciting communal time, of trying out new ways of well, not necessarily living, but just being?
Don meant a lot to me.
Later on, returning to Berkeley, and after writing my dissertation, on the title page I wanted to remember him. After the dissertation title, I put: “to Don Lee” as a dedication or in memorial.
ES: That’s a beautiful gesture, Bruce, and thank you for telling me more about Donnie. It seems so fitting that he would be attached to your dissertation, which is a study of Frank O’Hara’s poetry — how it evinces, through Frank’s lexicon, his robust participation in the gay world that was coming together in New York City in the 1960s. I’m struck, as you’re recounting this story, by how you, Bob, Jim, and all these others are doing the same in your work a decade later. Donnie wasn’t a writer, but he’s part of the milieu, like Forrest. And it seems that New Narrative, because it was genuinely a part of the local community and founded at the back of a small, independent bookstore, was able to keep these others close to its history.
How did you come by O’Hara in the first place?
BB: In the early ’70s, a friend took me to City Lights, and my friend, Brett, said, “Here, I want to show you a book I like.” And it was Lunch Poems, prominently displayed in their basement. And unlike Spicer, who I really didn’t understand, I was mesmerized on the spot. I just knew that I had to find everything he had written, and I had to keep up with him, and he was gonna be my main man. Though he was dead by then.
ES: It seems there’s an interesting parallel between the poor reception of the Cockettes in New York City in 1972, and you all getting turned on to the New York School throughout the 1970s.
BB: But the Cockettes were so lousy! Unlike the Angels of Light, whose shows were paradise on Earth thanks to Hibiscus, there was no form. Everybody was high and drunk and couldn’t remember their lines. I know that’s the minority report, but —
ES: I’m trying to bring out this possible sense of overlap, I guess. That here are these two countercultures, each radical in its own ways, with its own techniques. Though, yes, the Cockettes flopped in New York, while the relationship between the New York School and the unaffiliated gay hippies writing in San Francisco was virtual, and fostered by way of letters, books, and short run-ins here and there. There’s a certain thrill of representation at this time, something in the language you’re attracted to — the embeddedness in gay community that you talk about with O’Hara, for example. Is that too simple?
BB: No, that’s pretty much on the mark. I would say the counter to that is John Wieners, who I met at that time. Did I tell you about his reading in San Francisco? It was in some church basement downtown.
ES: Which meeting was this?
BB: Maybe thirty people showed up. And John was there in a transparent raincoat — and nothing else! That was John.
ES: [Laughter] What?!
BB: Well, you know, there was a precedent. Robert Duncan revealed himself to the world by taking off all his clothes at one point. Taking self-revelation so literally.
I recognized something that was really great in John Wieners, but I felt scared of him. Perhaps it was my bourgeois upbringing, or whatever, but I thought he was such a loser, and I felt a little scared. A little scared. Then afterwards, I had liked his poetry so much that I approached him and we began talking and talking, until we were the only people in the basement. He said, “Oh, why don’t you come up for some tea in the apartment I’m borrowing from a friend…”
BB: And I was still a good Catholic boy. I thought, Oh, he’s such a great poet, I’m so lucky —and then he wanted to give me a blowjob. I was shocked!
ES: Bruce, how could you be shocked?
BB: I was shocked because I was still a good Catholic boy.
ES: So you gracefully declined?
BB: It’s one of the things that still makes me feel ashamed. Like, what the hell? He was a great guy and a great poet. Why didn’t I just unzip myself and say, “Here it is, all yours babe.”
ES: I have always known you as a permanent fixture of this city, but can you remind me what brought you to San Francisco?
BB: I came to the Bay Area when I begin attending Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, which is where I attended school as an undergraduate. I double-majored in Philosophy and English. And in fact, that choice, which seems so fortuitous or arbitrary, so insignificant, now comes back and seems to explain my enduring interest in all this Bataille, Hegel, Marx. Perhaps it explains all of the philosophical tangents in my work.
ES: Say more about that. I can’t imagine you think philosophy is a tangent.
BB: Honey, I was trying to be modest. [Laughter]
ES: And when do you graduate from Saint Mary’s?
BB: 1962. Then I go into the novitiate for a year and a half up in the hills above Napa. There was one monk, Brother Timothy, who was a wine master in charge of about four hundred people making wine.
I was a postulant and took temporary vows. But when it came time to submit my name to the Council so I could take my permanent vows, mine was rejected. I was the only one not to be passed, though they said, “Well, the Holy Spirit is telling you, Bruce, that you are not ready now, but you certainly have permission to stay another year and try again if you want.”
ES: Did they give you a reason why they didn’t pass you?
BB: No, the Holy Spirit doesn’t give reasons, doofus. [Laughter] It’s the Holy fucking Spirit!
ES: I don’t know. I thought maybe it was because they thought you might be gay, like, you know, they could smell you out. There’s something up with this guy —
BB: Oh, most of the novices were sleeping together. It was just that I was the only one who wasn’t doing anything about it.
The reason I didn’t get passed, I think it was more political. I asked too many questions. I challenged them because they would all turn on each other during confession of faults, but I refused. I thought, this is mean, and meanness is not Jesus’s way. So I’m not going to do this. I mean, I was almost faultless, such a perfectionist. But I wasn’t going to get up there and point a finger at my brothers. And they saw this as rebellion, when I planted my foot to say, “I will not do this. This is wrong.” They didn’t care if I messed around with the others, sexually. But they would not abide a loose cannon, so I left instead of completing another year.
ES: And so you moved back to the Bay Area?
BB: I moved to Berkeley and completed a semester in their English department as a graduate student. I couldn’t stand it. And that began my long history of graduate school. I just got so… I felt like puking. Everything about graduate school was wrong. But I knew I had to get a graduate degree if I was going to get a berth in life as a teacher. So I figured, because I still had all these Jesus-ideals, why not go to Germany and become a Catholic lay theologian, under the tutelage of Karl Rahner. He was the guy who laid the foundations for Vatican II. I did that for a year, visiting the most exquisite Baroque churches instead of eating. I would go in and pray. Jesus, tell me, I just want to go and have sex with these beautiful German boys, and I know it’s against your law… but is it? Because I know that that’s stupid, and I don’t think you’re a stupid person. Enlighten me. It took about a year. But the Holy Spirit enlightened me and said, “Well, you’re right. It is all stupid. All these things. The only things you can know for sure, you know from experience. Jesus was just a good guy. Forget miracles. Forget the Church. Go be a hippie. Fuck your brains out. Take lots of acid. And be happy, dear.”
So I did.
ES: [Laughter] Suddenly the Holy Spirit is so verbose. You came back?
BB: I flew back to the Haight-Ashbury, and I staggered everything from them on, in terms of money.
I knew I’d need an income, so I went back to get my Ph.D. because I couldn’t think of anything else. I’d put in a semester and then quit to be a hippie for a semester when I couldn’t stand it. Back and forth like that through the rest of graduate school. I got my degree in 1976.
ES: Okay, so that helps me figure out where you’re at when you meet Jim at the Rendezvous. And you do teach at Saint Mary’s at some point.
BB: A year and a half, part-time. This is just paying the bills, but I was halfway between a celebrity and a scandal. I had long hair down to my shoulders, wore dark glasses, took drugs, and I hung out with the kids, because I was really more their age. I think I was a very good teacher, though. Or at least many students said so. I taught World Classics.
At one point Saint Mary’s sent me to a drug conference in Los Angeles. At that time, drugs were in the air, of course, and they wanted to send someone who was friendly with the kids. Who do they pick? Doctor Boone, of course. I think I only went to maybe one of the sessions. What I learned of drugs was just whatever we took while we were down there. It was only later that it struck me that they never asked me for anything in return. You might naturally expect that they would want you to prepare a report of some kind, but I didn’t. I didn’t even think of it. I have felt guilty about it for all this time. Still do, kind of. I should have known. That still gnaws on me.
ES: When I think about New Narrative, I’m always so glad, so encouraged to think of you all — real people in real time, inventing this thing together. And there’s this question of time. Do we talk about New Narrative in the present, or is New Narrative something that has been, that we continue to mourn its passing?
BB: The latter.
ES: [Laughter] Well, you get to say that, authoritatively —
BB: I just think, for practical reasons, you could never have had a conference on the scale that you and Daniel [Benjamin] made it, without a certain quantity of people involved. But I think that the idea of New Narrative is way overrated. It was basically a small handful of people, and after that it gets so diluted. How do you even talk about a group of people so small? It’s not like the New York School or Black Mountain College or Surrealism. For me, it doesn’t get beyond that small handful of people.
There are many people who took up some of the techniques, some of the principles, and that kind of widens the circle. But it was basically that handful of people in a little pond. An iteration that could recur, and probably does, all over the world without much notice. We happened to be in San Francisco and a spotlight was cast on us here. It wasn’t cast on others for various reasons. There might be thousands of communities like ours emerging, ones you’ll never hear of.
ES: I want to agree with that. But if we think of New Narrative strictly in the past tense, arising from specific conditions that will never return, we have to acknowledge that New Narrative continues, has continued, into the future. Not just because people have read the books and the histories, been inspired, and taken what they want to into their own work. New Narrative has a present tense.
BB: Where do you see that? Which aspects of it are in the present tense? How is it not dead?
ES: In the strictest sense. Bob’s About Ed has yet to be published. Camille is still writing. Kevin and Dodie are still writing. You have a book forthcoming. All of these books, which I’m looking forward to, from what I’ve glimpsed, are all bigger than what’s come before. And they are not all relics, fossils, petrified pieces exhumed from the glory days. New Narrative continues to be forthcoming, and I’m excited for people to see these things, though it may not be for years in some cases.
The work for this Open Space series began after we had wrapped up the New Narrative conference, when Matt and I drove over to your house to return the artwork you had lent us for the gallery show. That night you gifted me a copy of Veins of Earth, which has several early poems by you, Jim, Stephen Mark, and Michael Ratcliffe, alongside artwork by Norman Jensen, mostly printed on vellum, so it’s occasionally possible to read snippets of poems through drawings of swirling, winged phalluses. Thank you for the book, but also for pointing me toward this treasure trove of stories, reveries, lost poems, and visionary work. Though Daniel and I put in a year of research and organizing for the conference, I had only the slightest clue of all that there was awaiting me.
What do you think — why go back to the ’70s? What is there that’s worthy of reconsideration?
BB: Utopia. It’s one of the things I’m grateful to Fred [Frederic Jameson] for, because he fronted the idea of utopia in his criticism. There’s Rob’s [Rob Halpern’s] essay that so thoroughly and carefully connects what we were writing with what Fred was doing, to what we were doing as hippies or whatever. The reason this whole period is so important is for the sense of utopia. Every so often conditions conspire such that people, rightly or wrongly, and so far it’s only turned out wrongly because it’s always reversed by the powers that be — people get the idea of living a fully human life, as if for the first time. To say yes, in such exaltation, we will do all this. That’s the reason — I think, that’s the reason to remember at all.