A Visit w/ John Wieners

In 1997 I was living in Providence. My father was working in Quincy that year and I used to come up for the weekends to see him. I'd gotten a chance to go & see John Wieners read at the Old West Church and at Waterstone's Books (w/ Fanny Howe) around the same time. On both occasions I had been amazed and inspired by his approach to reading. In between the lines of his poems he would intersperce comments, memories elicited by certain words, references to friends in the audience, newspaper clippings, pieces of paper and moments of silence as he looked at the audience or took off his glasses & put them on again.

I spoke with him briefly at Old West Church and he told me to stop by for a visit sometime. I took him up on his offer a few months later and showed up unannounced at his apartment on Beacon Hill. I had wanted to talk with him because his poems had revealed so much to me (and still do). I was also there to interview him for a friend's poetry magazine (which ended up never publishing). But all I had brought with me was a pen & notebook, so I wasn't able to keep up with everything we talked about. I remember his kindness as a host and how he patiently answered my dull questions with a smile and plenty of anecdotes about his travels.

The "interview" I wrote up later that month is what follows. Thank you to Julien Poirier and Marisol Limon Martinez for publishing it in New York Nights.


In the summer of 1997 I interviewed John Wieners at his apartment on Joy Street. He had windows opened to the rainy gusts off Charles River, offered me a glass of water and wandered in speech over the next hour, smoking Kent cigarettes. I didn’t have a tape recorder & mainly wrote in notebook unable to keep up with divergent stories and black & white film vignettes, Ella Fitzgerald music, newspaper clippings (one photograph showed four Native American children smiling, “they’re angels”), a typed list of graduates from Black Mountain College displayed.

Having gone to Boston College, he received a scholarship for Black Mountain, taking a train from South Station in the summer of 1955 or 1956, his first time out of Massachusetts (other than Cape Cod and New York City): “I loved it there, the lakes and paths and mountain lodges…being away from a too incessant love affair.” He took workshops with Robert Duncan and “the mighty magus stratus Charles Olson”—drama workshops, studio production of plays.

In 1962-1963 lived in New York’s Lower East Side, for a while with poet Stephen Jonas but “we found each other intolerable due to amphetamine.” At that point he was oriented toward modern jazz, while there was much going on in the academic world. He worked at the Milton Public Library. Also had jobs at Filene’s in Downtown Crossing, books at the Lamont Library and Measure’s three issues. Through Olson attended graduate school at SUNY Buffalo for a masters, four years living off campus, reading John Ashbery in Connecticut along with Robert Creeley, Paul Metcalf spoke of “transcendental meditations”—found their work an inspiration. Received a Guggenheim grant, money allowed travel because “yes I always wanted to travel, even as a young boy.”

Did he keep a notebook or journal? He said not anymore, I’m past my prime. I published my best work in the 1960s and 70s. No poems now, just reading is enough. Writing taxes the brain too much. On his bookshelf were poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.D., Allen Ginsberg’s Cosmopolitan Greetings, Quentin Crisp, The Postmoderns anthology, his own Black Sparrow Selected Poems: 1958-1984 in hardcover, newspapers and magazines on the table and floor. As he handed me the glass of water he wondered if Shirley Temple had anything to do with Black Mountain College. He referred to “a wild Bob Kaufman poet” living like me in Providence, then said Bob Kaufman’s work was too far out for him to read and that Ginsberg was less obnoxious the older he got: “Of course, Allen overworked himself. He worked himself to death. He never let up one minute.”

I asked him to sign a copy of 707 Scott Street—he said that book reminded him of a time when he was living in various poverty-stricken San Francisco apartments. He had now been on Joy Street for twenty-five years. Having told him about my family’s departure from Boston in 1976, inscribed: “the author / Jacky Wieners/ August 29 Summer / All best wishes and sincerity yours / Home after a long journey.” Of his work he said: “The poem is not the measure of the man, anyway.”

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