A.D. Winans has worked as a poet, publisher, essayist, and short story writer. After returning from the service in Panama in 1958, he went on to become an active member in the Beat and post-Beat Era. He has written more than 60 books of poetry and prose and has appeared in over 1,500 anthologies and magazines. His archives are housed at Brown University.
What was it like being born and raised in San Francisco when you were growing up? What are some of your most fond memories from that time?
San Francisco has changed considerably since I was a child. I grew up in the Haight Ashbury when it was a blue-collar working class neighborhood, with a sizable Russian population. The Fillmore was largely a black neighborhood with many jazz clubs in a consolidated area that many referred to as “Bop City.” The blacks were squeezed out when the neighborhood underwent redevelopment, and the jazz clubs went with them. The Geary Street, Richmond district, had a large Russian population, many of whom moved to Burlingame. Today it is largely Asian. The Mission district was an Irish neighborhood, but is now home to a large Latin population. Only the outer Sunset district, which was made up of largely middle class whites, has remained the same. My high school (Polytechnic) was torn down long ago and replaced with Condos.
Among my fondest memories is Play Land at the Beach. It was a smaller Coney Island-like amusement park, and a favorite hang-out for sailors and their young women admirers. I spent a great deal of my time as a teenager there. The original (a new one was built after a fire destroyed it) Cliff House was (and remains) a popular eating-place. They had a penny arcade as part of a bigger complex, which included the Sutro Baths with magnificent swimming pools. It was a marvelous indoor swimming facility (my sister used to swim there) with six saltwater pools and one fresh water pool that included seven slides and one springboard. Farther down was the now closed Fleishhacker pool, at the South West corner of San Francisco near the San Francisco Zoo. It was the world’s largest swimming pool in its day. 4,500 feet long with separate bathhouse wings for men, women, and children, and a large restaurant upstairs overlooking the ocean. It was closed in 1971 (although the foundation remains) after the main pipelines were destroyed during a severe storm. There was also an adjacent ice skating rink.
The San Francisco Seals Triple A Coast League Team were my father’s pride and joy, and he passed this passion on to me. Lefty O’ Doul was the Manager and had played the outfield in the big leagues. He would later manage the San Diego Padres to the championship in 1954, the same year I enlisted in the military. Joe Sprinz, the coach, formed two teams of kids and slow-pitched for both teams. I was one of the better hitters. Poetry and writing couldn’t have been further from my mind. I spent hours bouncing tennis balls off the walls of apartment complexes outside our flat on Page Street, living and breathing baseball, always looking for a pickup game. There were two baseball fields in Golden Gate Park, and you could always find a weekend game being played by semi-pro teams like Lucky Lager Beer, Moffit Manteca (a meat packing plant), or Horsetrader Ed’s (used car dealer), and others. The San Francisco Seals were the premier team in the old Coast League, and at one time all three Di Maggio brothers played in the outfield at the same time.
A memory that will always stick with me was an exhibition game between the Cleveland Indians of the American League and the Seals. Bob Feller, who later was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, pitched the first three innings. Before the game they held a raffle, my name was pulled from a fish bowl, and I was called down to the field to have my photo taken with two others kids whose names were also drawn. We were all given a baseball glove autographed by Feller and had out pitcher taken with him that appeared the next day in the evening edition of the News Call Bulletin.
I talk about all this in great detail, in my memoir, The Holy Grail, Charles Bukowski, and the Second Coming Anthology.
There is so much more I could talk about, but it would take up the entire interview. Here is a poem of mine that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
I have walked these San Francisco streets
Like a crime photographer walks his beat
My eyes taking in her every movement
My brain recording images real and imagined
In seventy-plus years
Her changes have not eluded me
She is older now
More wrinkled and cranky
Much like me
But the two of us manage to get along
Like business partners looking after
The other’s interest
Market Street once a fashionable socialite
Now a gaudy whore
Mission Street once the home of the Irish
Now glossed over tough looking youths
With dagger stares
The city is like a cup of strong coffee
Stir her long enough
And the flavor floats to the top
I have walked these streets all my life
In good condition
And run down physique
Knowing there is no other city
In the world like her
She is like a pair of empty shoes
Sitting under the bed
With no feet big enough to fill them
She is like a squirrel running between
The live wires of a utility pole
She is like the last bullet
In the executioner’s gun
She is like a room full of poets
Crazed with their own conversation
She is like the face of God
All forgiving in her insatiable
Lust for life
Do you happen to remember what your very first favorite story was?
It was a series of them, the Earnest Hemingway “Nick Adams,” stories. Early on I wanted to be a novelist and short story writer, and submitted stories to magazines like Harpers and the Atlantic. They were returned with the standard rejection slip, which I pasted on the wall of my one room apartment in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. I turned to the Evergreen Review and Avant Garde Magazine. The latter commented, “Your style reminds us a lot of Vonnegut, and he’s no slouch, but it isn’t what we are looking for.” I decided to concentrate on poetry, which has always come easier to me than fiction that
I find I need to constantly revise.
Did you always have a love of words or is it something you developed along the way?
No, I wanted to be a baseball player for the longest period of time. It wasn’t until I discovered Ginsberg, Kaufman, and others in 1958 that I became fascinated with the written word.
I was discharged from the military in 1958 and returned home to find West Coast Beat mania thriving in North Beach, which was referred to as “Little Italy.” I found a part-time job working at the post office and enrolled at City College of San Francisco. I began reading the works of Steinbeck, Hesse, and Camus, and discovered the poetry of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Brautigan, and others. It was while attending CCSF, and after getting off of work at night, that I began spending hours at North Beach, browsing the basement at City Lights Bookstore, devouring underground magazines and reading both known and little known poets. It was there that I discovered Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind, Ginsberg’s Howl, Patchen’s Love Poems, and Corso’s Gasoline.
What led you to serve in the military? What did you learn from your time there and in Panama?
I didn’t have any job skills when I graduated from high school, and a friend talked me into joining the Air Force with him. My military days are not something I like to look back on. The day I arrived at Boot Camp, I was taken to the processing center and asked what religion I was. I replied Protestant. I was asked what denomination I was, and again I answered Protestant. I had no idea what “denomination” meant. To me there were only Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.
The sergeant felt I was being a wiseass and kept asking me the same question, and I replied in the same manner. I was taken to the barracks and told to strip down to my shorts, and made to sit on a straight back chair in the middle of the room, where the sergeant and a corporal used me for batting practice. When they tired of the game, the sergeant told me, “We’ll put you down as Agnostic, why didn’t you just say so and save us all the trouble.” Of course today this kind of thing is prohibited.
After completing boot camp, I was assigned to Albrook Air Force Base in Panama, where I played on the baseball team until I injured my leg and was assigned to the Air Police Unit, mostly standing guard at remote jungle posts of no strategic value.
My first year in Panama, the President was assassinated at the racetrack. There were three classes in Panama: The rich hung out at the gambling casino at the Hilton Hotel, the middle class was comprised in large part of Chinese immigrants who owned small shops and restaurants. The majority of the people belonged to the lower class, which lived in squalor and poverty in the rural areas and in downtown Panama.
It was while serving in Panama that I became disillusioned with the American system. The U.S. leased a section of Panama called the Canal Zone, which had all-white schools, a white Governor, and an all-white police force. The Panamanian flag was not allowed to fly next to the U.S. flag. Panamanians were only allowed there to work on the canal, and it was off limits to the military for fear we would contaminate the daughters of the civilians there. It may as well have been Selma, Alabama.
Could have been
Any slum city in America
Run by corrupt police
But when you add
The American troops
Sent to safeguard
It was worse than
Any slum you might imagine
Young boys selling their sisters
Taxi drivers taking you
To a donkey show
Or to the homes of young whores
While less than ten miles away
In the American Canal Zone
It’s home town, U.S.A.
The Governor’s Ball
U.S. Civilian police
Sipping coffee and tea
Living the American dream.
(This poem is from This Land Is Not My land that won a PEN National Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature.)
When did you first know that you were a writer? What do you love most about the act of writing?
I never gave this much thought. As for being a poet, I can’t tell you what makes a person a poet. I write because of these strange voices inside my head. I’m like a caretaker who writes down what they dictate. I share the same philosophy as the late Beat poet Jack Spicer that “verse does not originate from within the poet’s expressive will as a spontaneous gesture unmediated by formal constraints, but is a foreign agent, a parasite that invades the poet’s language and expresses what it wants to say.” I have been both blessed and cursed by the inner voices (demons) that possess me.
What was life like during the Beat era? What stands out most in your mind from that time? How has the world changed most since those days?
The difference is like night and day. Back then the San Francisco North Beach Beat scene was like Alice in Wonderland. It was an exciting period of time. I drank at Gino and Carlo’s Bar, where poets and writers like Richard Brautigan and Jack Spicer hung out, and frequented the Vesuvio Bar and the Coffee Gallery, on Grant Avenue, where I was the first feature reader, being paid $5 and all the beer I could drink. Mike’s Pool Hall was another favorite hangout that Ferlinghetti frequented. One of my favorite bars was The Place that Jack Spicer presided over. They had a weekly “Blabbermouth” night, an occasion where poets and philosophers could get up and espouse on any topic that came to their minds.
Another popular place was The Co-existence Bagel Shop, the private domain of Bob Kaufman. People came there in the hope of seeing him read his work. He would jump up on one of the tables and recite his poems and the poems of the Masters. He became a target for the San Francisco Police and frequently was taken to the old downtown Hall of Justice and subjected to beatings.
I ate at Woy Loy Goys, a downstairs Chinese restaurant that served low cost meals; however, my favorite restaurant was Sam Woo’s whose waiter Edsel Ford had the sharpest tongue in town. You had to pass through a butcher shop with cooks wielding meat cleavers to get to the upstairs restaurant where the food was brought up on a dumbwaiter.
And then there was Eric Nord’s Pad, in the old Warehouse District. Eric self-appointed himself as the “King of the Beats,” and wild all-night parties were held until sunrise. Some people think the sexual revolution began in thee Sixties, but it began before the Hippies, where on the rooftop of Eric’s Pad, you would find a string of mattresses strung out with couples fornicating in open view.
On my first 1958 visit to North Beach, on my return home from Panama, I wound up at a bar and restaurant run by an elderly French couple, who also owned the upstairs hotel. I was half drunk out of my mind when I made my way through the crowd to the bar and ordered a beer, when suddenly I felt some one tapping on my back shoulder. I turned and saw an attractive young woman who asked me point blank, “Do you want to fuck?” She had a room at the hotel and we spent a couple of hours in heated passion until she took me to a party and later for my first visit to Eric’s Pad.
What moments from over the course of your career so far do you hold most dear?
First of all, I don’t consider poetry a career. Those who do either teach or live in a fool’s world. And then there is a second group of poets who do see it as a career, but I find most of them fall into the category of “political poets,” not committed to the art of writing, but on how they can personally benefit from it, how they can milk the system and the grant structure, and they are very good at it.
The dearest moments to me? That would be meeting and becoming friends with poets and writers like Alvah Bessie, Jack Micheline, Bob Kaufman, and Harold Norse. Meeting musicians like John Lee Hooker and Charles Musslewhite. Publishing Second Coming Press for 17 years. Shooting pool at Gino and Carlo’s Bar with Janis Joplin and her friend Sunshine. Organizing the 7 day, 3 county 1980 Poets and Music Festival, honoring the poet Josephine Miles, Blues Legend John Lee Hooker, and poet, community activist Roberto Vargas.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t play it safe. I have always said the only thing a poet has is his or her integrity, sell it out, and you have literally sold your soul to the devil.
What advice would you give to the writers of tomorrow?
The same advice that was given to me, to become politically involved, not by writing “ranting” political poems, but by doing something active in your community, something that helps others. Walk the streets and talk to the people. They are the ones who know what life is really about. And above all else, remember that poetry is not holy; it is only holy when it forgets its holiness.
How do you think you have changed most as an individual?
Well I’m pretty much the same person as I have always been, with the same compassion for the Down & Out and dispossessed, the same mistrust of government, but one mellows as he grows older. I try to hold back the inner anger except in the form of poems. Negative energy is bad karma that comes back at you with health issues.
Are there any little known things that your readers might be surprised to learn?
We all have skeletons in our closet, and I see no purpose in revealing them here. As for my life as a poet and writer, I think it’s all been laid out there. If you have read the body of my work, you know where I’m coming from. My poetry and my life are one and the same. They can’t be separated. But I’m sure most people are not aware of my 1973 arrest for alleged Felony Auto Theft, where I took a parked Yellow Cab (while under the influence of Jack Daniels and LSD) and led the police on a wild chase through the streets of San Francisco. I was not aware of the LSD that had been slipped into a wine punch bowl that led to this incident. This is actually a funny story revealed in full detail in my book, The Holy Grail: Charles Bukowski, and The Second Coming Revolution, a memoir of my days back in the Beat and post-Beat days, so there are things revealed in the book that a large majority of people are not aware of.
What are you own personal feelings on life and death and the things in between?
You begin the dying process the moment you are born and take your first breath. In between is life. We are all a product of our experiences along the road to finality. What you learn from those experiences and how you play them out ultimately defines who you are.
What do you think is key to a life well lived?
That’s not for me to say. I’m no guru, shaman, or prophet. Each individual must discover this for himself or herself.
How do you hope to be remembered when your time comes?
I’d like to be remembered as a person who played it honest, as someone who cared for the down and out, as someone who valued integrity over monetary success or status in the literary hierarchy. As someone who valued friendship over the almighty dollar.
Do you have a dream project you’d most like to accomplish?
Writing wise I have pretty much accomplished everything I want to accomplish. I want to see my grandniece graduate from college and hope her dream of becoming a marine biologist becomes a reality.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I had three books published last year. Some of the best poems I have written were written in 2014. I want to put a book together of these poems and find a publisher with a decent distribution to publish it.
Anything you’d like to say before you go?
Just be happy. A smile brings fewer wrinkles than a frown. Live each day like it may be your last because you never know if it might be. I recently turned 79 and consider each year a “free Pass.”
IT’S HOW YOU LOOK AT IT
Sitting here alone as
I’ve grown accustomed
Listening to Billie Holiday
As I pound the keyboard
Try to make a little magic
Jack Daniels racing through
Having just returned home
From a book party celebrating
the life of Bob Kaufman
Gone like so many others
An army of poets sitting
On my bookshelf
T.S. Eliot playing the banker
William Carlos Williams
Micheline walking the streets
Of New York with Mingus
Kaufman riding the subway
Getting off at 58th Street forever
Blake rolling dice with God
Lorca playing Russian roulette
Gary Snyder building word bridges
And suddenly I’m not alone anymore
The words falling like