"The thing is that we were all trying to work on the same thing out beyond the academic poetry being published in poetry magazines. We all tried to get published in those places, but nobody would think twice of reading such stuff," Whalen says.
On that night, however, they found an audience that could hear what these poets had to say. "It was exciting; the audience really seemed to enjoy what they were hearing--and that was jumping right over the whole top of the publishing industry," Whalen says, with a big grin.
And jump right over the top they did. Ferlinghetti did his part, publishing the City Lights Pocket Poet Series, and in the late 1950s McClure and a friend formed Auerhahn Press and began publishing "poetry that couldn't get published anywhere else," according to Whalen. Using a printing press once used to print the daily news on a merchant ship, they put out the first edition of Whalen's Memoirs of an Interglacial Age.In 1959, before the book was bound, the press cranked out a broadside so that Whalen would have something in hand as he and McClure headed off to New York for a series of joint readings. The two have remained close friends, and Whalen says these days they get together every couple of weeks with fellow poet Diane Di Prima to "go and eat and laugh," ruminating about poetry, Buddhism, and the like.
Whalen's friendship with Snyder has also spanned the decades. Though they met at Reed and lived together, along with the poet Lew Welch, in a house full of students on Lambert Street in Portland, Whalen says he can't recall just how he and Snyder struck up their first conversation.
"I remember meeting Louie in the campus coffee shop," he says of Welch. With a smile in his voice Whalen says: "I could hear somebody saying wild strange things and I went over to congratulate him on his poetic genius." Whalen, Welch, and Snyder were all drawn to the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats, which Whalen says gave them something to argue about. They also shared an interest in Asian thought, haiku, and eventually Zen Buddhism--and took classes with Lloyd Reynolds, a professor of English and art history at Reed.
"He was a very lively, impatient man with gray curly hair, kind of busted-up teeth, and glasses, full of energy and enthusiasm," Whalen remembers from the 1946-51 period he spent at Reed.
"At one point I got thrown out of Reed because I wasn't attending enough classes. I was staying home writing a novel. It was a disaster," Whalen laughs. With the help of Reynolds and Marianne Gold, a resident artist from Dresden, he was reinstated. "I decided I should try to get out of that outfit, get my degree, and get on with life," he recalls with a chuckle. After writing a book of poems called The Calendarfor his thesis, he headed off to San Francisco to make his mark as a poet. He lived on and off with Snyder in the San Francisco Bay Area before Snyder moved to Japan in 1956 to begin his formal Buddhist practice. Whalen followed suit in 1966 and lived in Japan for a year, then again from 1969 through 1971, teaching English and studying Buddhism.
Whalen was first attracted to Zen in 1953 when he read a book of essays on Buddhism. "Going through that made me think, gee, this Zen business is really going to suit me because it always included all sorts of painters and poets and lunatics and whatnot and it would be groovy," he says.