"WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, BILLY MARSHALL STONEKING" at http://stonekingbio.webs.com/
The American expatriate poet, Charles Hasty, had been cajoling me for years to spend some time in Mexico in the hope that he and his wife and myself might be able to create a kind of poets' colony down there, so in the summer of 1997, sitting in a cyber-cafe in Florence, having discovered the wonders of email. I wrote to Charles telling him I was on my way to the States and, perhaps, if he still thought it a good idea, I'd come down to Mexico.
A number of minor and not-so-minor mishaps (disasters might be the better word) had made me reappraise my options. It'd been my intention to spend a year in Tuscany, watching the figs ripen and later the snow falling; getting to know each season intimately while working on my next play. But after breaking three ribs in a motorcycle accident, then waking the next morning to discover the cistern had gone dry, I'd started to have second thoughts.
For two weeks in mid-July I carried bottled water in a backpack from the shop in Petroio - a daily journey of ten kilometres. It was so hot I usually ended up drinking two of the four bottles before I got home. So this was what Jean de Florette felt like! And since my Italian was woefully deficient, and no one within miles spoke any English, I felt even more isolated than the would-be flower farmer.
Italy wasn't turning out to be the sort of place I'd been hoping for, not that I'd had a clear idea of what I was hoping for; all I knew for sure was this wasn't it. To make matters worse, I'd taken to talking to myself, which wouldn't have bothered me had "we" only had something in common. The only thing that even vaguely cheered me up was the thought that maybe I was having a nervous breakdown.
A letter from my old friend & teacher, Ed Field, settled the matter once and for all - a letter heavy with symbolism... allusions to Percival and the prodigal son. He reminded me that I had a place to stay in California if I needed it. For weeks I'd been fighting against it, but I was finally beginning to accept the fact that staying wasn't going to prove anything to anybody; and that leaving without having finished my play wasn't necessarily a failure.
With the figs still not ripe, and snow still a month away, I walked into Petroio, rang up my friendly cabbie in Sinalunga, and the following morning - bags packed, and with the house returned to the pristine state in which I found it - rode like a conquering hero into Florence where I rested at the Hotel Europa for a few days, wrote some emails, and took in a few sights before catching my flight back to America.
Ed's place was a book-stuffed mobile home next to the Capitola Mall, outside Santa Cruz. The Blue and Gold Star Mobile Home Park, Space 31 - No Animals or Children - and in easy walking distance of Pacific Ocean. The salt air aromatically mingling with the scent of suntan lotion and exhaust fumes from the nearby interstate.
I recalled my first journey to Santa Cruz, more than forty years earlier. I was seven. My mother, sister and sister's boyfriend, Clay, had made the hour-long drive down from our apartment in San Mateo one weekend. We'd planned to meet some friends of my sister's at a place called Half Moon Bay, but couldn't find it, and eventually ended up at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. The day was overcast and cold; the amusement park shrouded in fog and empty except for us. We wandered through the mist like shadows looking for a summer that had already gone south.
My most vivid memory was the merry-go-round. One of those colorful old carousels with rearing bejewelled horses and mirrors everywhere. There were also brass rings you could reach out and grab as you passed by, which you were s'pose to throw into the mouth of a clown painted on canvas. If you got your ring in his mouth, you won a prize. What, I'm not exactly sure. Probably another ride. But it wasn't the prize that excited me - it was the rings. Magical objects, shiny and full of promise. The problem was, my arms weren't long enough. I'd lean as far as I could, to the point where if I leaned anymore I was gonna fall off the horse, but each time I swooped by the rings were just out reach. It was a cruel amusement for a solitary seven year-old on a shiny white horse in a deserted fun park. I trace my interest in poetry to that seminal event.
Ed Field was a retired university philosophy professor who'd been a kind of mentor to me during the time I was at college, after my parents had died. We hadn't seen much of each another since I left the States in 1972 to go to Australia. Now, ensconced at space #31, I was looking forward to renewing my friendship with Ed prior to making the long trek down to central Mexico. Part of me was hoping he might be able to help me put my life back together again, or at least make a running start at it.
I tried to tell him everything at once, about my life, my doubts, why I'd left Australia, and how I felt empty inside and had no idea what I was doing anymore, or even if it made any difference. He listened patiently, or nod and smile and make himself another cup of coffee. When I ran out of words, he'd lean forward and ask me something like: "what is the flower in the flowerpot outside your window saying?" He was speaking metaphorically, but for some reason it made me feel miserable. Probably cos I could never think of a good answer. "No worst!", he'd proclaim, referencing Gerald Manley Hopkins. Now and then, I'd ask a question or burst into tears.
Most evenings were taken up talking about his work-in-progress, a study of paideuma and the application of modus tollens to the mistake of humankind's situation of irony - me, lying on the floor, and he, sitting in the mobile home's only easy-chair. He did most of the talking, though it was difficult for him. A near-fatal stroke two years earlier had affected his speech. Waitresses and shopkeepers found it difficult to listen to him, mainly because it took him so long to get his words out. But I didn't mind. We joked about it. I told him how the stroke had finally slowed down his speech to the point where it approximated the speed of my brain. He'd type one-fingered during the day and present his "lecture" - usually a half-page of writing to me each evening, which he'd get me to read aloud prior to discussing it.
He'd write things like:
"Freedom is the name God hides behind. Its other name is Love, without action. Romantic love is abyss in the mind, [Gerard Manly] Hopkins' cliff from which you hang until you understand that LOVE is something you DO without action on your part. Until you understand that love is without action; the activity of love leads to lust in action... straight into a situation of IRONY... - see Shakespeare:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
"There is no irony in love. If there is, there is no worst that can befall. The point where it is impossible to ask, Why? The absence of foundation or ground is the essence of love."
After I'd been at Ed's about a month, I came down with e-coli poisoning. Every night for a week, a huge clown with a spinning bow-tie appeared at the edge of my bed. We'd stare at one another, its head bobbing up and down like a giant inflatable out of some Gothic Easter Parade. And all the while, a million insistent voices bombarded me with questions, endless questions, as though I was the chief witness in some kind of monstrous inquisition. When it felt like my head was going explode, I'd scream: "Shut up! SHUT UP!", and everything would go quiet. Then... a voice... then another... and another, and soon they'd all be back again.
I didn't meet very many people during the four months I was there, though one of the poets I'd met during my stay in Paris, Will Staple, drove down from the mountains for a visit. He gave me copies of his two books, I Hate the Men You Sleep With and The Only Way to Reduce Crime Is to Make Fewer Acts Illegal. I'd heard some of his poems at Shakespeare & Co. when I'd been staying there, and had enjoyed them. Poems like...
what good did
at 5:30 to
We spent the day together, and he invited me to come up and stay with him for a while in the Sierras, but I never took him up on it.
While I was in Santa Cruz, I went to several poetry readings. None were particularly memorable, though I did manage to lay to rest any remaining vestige of awe I might have still been harbouring concerning the so-called art of Beat poetry. One of the readings I attended featured Robert Creeley and the shopkeeper/poet, Larry Ferlinghetti. I use the diminutive of Lawrence because he impressed me as diminutive.
The first thing that surprised me about this duo was how they read mostly old stuff. Larry read from Pictures of a Gone World, which was more than forty years old; and Creeley wasn't much better. "Drive, he sd." They were like two, 50s rock'n'roll singers trotting out their greatest hits. They'd done it a million times. And they were doing it again, with as much enthusiasm as one would expect from someone who'd done it a million times.
To be fair, Creeley did have some new stuff, stuff he'd written at a writers' retreat in Key West. He mumbled something about Wallace Stevens speaking to him; or maybe what he meant was that Wallace Stevens was speaking through him, I can't remember. Whatever concordances there may have been between his new stuff and "The Idea of Order at Key West", were completely obliterated by a rather hackneyed and overly cerebralised self-back-slapping nostalgia for lapping waves, endless beaches, and the good life 'mongst one's fellow writers. It was difficult deciding which image was least tired. All I could think about was how the ex-insurance salesman must have been spinning in his plot.
When the poems were done, the M.C. threw it open for questions from the floor. The place was packed with university students and a few of us who could actually remember when Jack Kerouac died. Hundreds of hands went up. Everyone had something they wanted to know. But unfortunately, the questions weren't much. No one asked: Why are you still reading old stuff? or When are you gonna write something about what's going on in your life now? For many of these kids, Creeley and Ferlinghetti hadn't really existed until they'd suddenly materialised in the lecture hall; for others, well, their reputation had preceded them - these were legends we were dealing with. So they got the sort of treatment you'd expect from fans, rather than the engagement that might have been possible had there been enough lovers and doers of poetry to make it dramatic.
Instead of drama there were questions like: "Is it true that Kerouac wrote all of Mexico City Blues on pot?". And "Did Burroughs kill his wife by accident, or did he mean to do it?"
This went on for about thirty minutes, and I was on verge of leaving when a young woman over near the wall stood up and asked: "Mr Ferlinghetti, I've been writing poetry for about a year now, and I was wondering if you might be able to tell me what you think a person ought to know if they want to be a good poet?"
I couldn't believe my ears. A question! A real question! After all that prurient and predatory interest in Jack's drugs, Burroughs' crimes and Corso's gayness it was a sudden blast of bracing fresh air.
I looked towards the stage. Ferlinghetti grasped the side of the podium, staring hard at the women, as though she'd broken one of the rules of the game. He glanced at the M.C. (can you believe this?!), then sipped some water from a paper cup, ala e.e. cummings.
"Would you mind repeating the question?"
The audience burst into laughter, and the young woman looked round as if she'd committed a crime, or as if she was desperate to find some hole into which she might crawl.
"Good question," I interjected, wanting to let her know there was at least one person in the audience who was on her side.
"Well," she stammered... "I was, you know... I just wondered if... well, I dunno. What things are important to know... you know... if..."
"This is why I don't teach in a university," Larry said, playing to his audience. He beamed as they laughed uproariously.
"Answer the question," I yelled, but it was drowned out by heavings of deceit.
The young woman sat down.
"Just write... that's all," Larry said at last. And with that, the Q & A was over.
It took two months to regain my strength after the ecoli had done its work. During my convalescence, the long-awaited email arrived from Mexico, a brief note from Charles telling me that they'd received my Florentine missive and that the University of Sinaloa wanted to translate and publish one of my plays as well as a collection of poems, and that I oughta get down to San Miguel pronto.
NOTE: This article first appeared in "Performance Poetry", Suite101.com on May 15, 2001.