“Check out this suit, five bucks; leather shoes, three bucks; shirt, two bucks; tie, one dollar – all of it secondhand – Only my poetry is first-hand”, Allen once boasted.
I met Allen in 1983 when he came to China as part of a group of American authors. My English translator, Bonnie McDougall had arranged for me to meet him and his comrade-in-arms Gary Snyder. We met secretly in Allen’s hotel room, as I was, at that time, a “problematic person” and a key target in the government’s “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign“. I had recently been told to take some time off from work and “reflect”.
During our first meeting I wasn’t overly impressed with either of them. They didn’t know much about contemporary Chinese poetry and the only thing they seemed truly interested in was my dissident status.
The next time I saw Allen was five years later in New York at a Chinese poetry festival he had organized (Editorial note – actually organized by the Committee For International Poetry in conjunction with the Junior Council of the Museum of Modern Art -sic) – As soon as we arrived, Allen invited Shao Fei, my wife, and me to dinner at a Japanese restaurant.. A mutual friend hissed across the table in Chinese “make sure the penny-pinching Jew picks up there tab”. At the time I had no idea what he could possibly have against Allen, who willingly picked up the cheque, gave me a second-hand time as a memento, and was extremely gracious throughout dinner. It was obvious that he had paid absolutely no attention to Shao Fei throughout dinner, but that seemed like a fairly minor offense.
The sponsor of the festival was New York’s Shower Curtain Queen (sic Lita Hornick) – an obese and arrogant old woman who moved sluggishly but with a great deal of style. It was rumored that many of Allen’s expenses were pulled out from behind her curtains. Allen followed behind her like a humble servant, his head bent low – occasionally looking up and winking – his “humility” amused me.
From that point on, we saw each other more frequently. In the summer of 1990, we both attended the World Poetry Congress in Seoul.. Well-dressed as usual in only the finest of second-hand clothes, he questioned South Korean officials about the release of political prisoners and Korea’s human rights record. The organizers of the festival were upset but unable to do anything because of Allen’s celebrity status. At the banquet, the highest of officials and the lowliest of interns pushed their way into photos with him.Allen always dragged me along despite my protests. I had never seen him as an guy as when one of the officials, seeing that I was sharing in Allen’s lime-light, shoved me out of the way. Allen stomped his feet and exploded: “You son of a bitch! Don’t you fucking know – he’s a friend of mine, a Chinese poet!?” The official quickly apologized and, much to my embarrassment, pushed me back into the line of photos. Every time a similar situation arose later, I always made myself scare.
When I asked Allen at the Congress why he always wore a tie, he answered that he often needed to speak with politicians, concerning human rights, and then added slyly, “And my boyfriend’s parents wouldn’t like me without a tie…..
Allen was given to fits of nostalgia. In his small New York apartment, he played me a recording of his conversations with Kerouac. Looking forlorn, he talked to me about friendship, arguments, death. “So many my friends have died from drugs or alcohol”. He sighed. I told him in our twenties, my friends and I consumed On The Road. We could recite entire pages. I was genuinely moved by his ability to live in comparative communion with the dead, continuing dialogues from years ago. I pictured him sitting alone at home, listening to the recordings over and over until dusk crept in through the window.
All of these past experiences had convinced Allen to give up smoking and drinking.And apart from the occasional boyfriend, he lived the life of an ascetic. Allen was a workaholic. When at one point he had to hire three-and-a-half secretaries to handle his frenetic schedule, Allen quipped, “I need to keep busy or else who’d feed them?” Sheer capitalist logic. He told me that his generous salary as a tenured professor at Brooklyn College made up only a third of his total income. The second third came from royalties and readings, and the remainder from his photography. “I am Allen’s head”, complained Bob (Rosenthal) his longest-lasting secretary, “He drops promises all over the world and then forgets. I’m the one who cleans up after him”.
The pride and raw strength of his younger days remained evident throughout his later poetry readings. Allen’s is poetry to be read aloud – with no silence. At a festival in New Jersey, he read several of my poems in English translation. After scribbling notations all over the page and rearranging the order of various lines, he ascended the podium and began screaming away like a runaway engine pointed straight for te audience. I was left behind like a lost soul and never again dared invite him to read my poems,
Suffering from heart-disease and diabetes, he celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1996. The doctor advised him not to travel. He told me over the phone that lately he’d been dreaming about his dead friends. Thy were discussing death. He was aging, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”
to be continued