Linda Klakken, 2010
Linda Klakken is a freelance writer and and author of a book on Lawrence Ferlinghetti to be published in the fall of 2010. She interviewed me by email in April of 2010.
Linda Klakken:How would you describe yourself as a young woman in the Village in the fifties?
Helen Weaver: Confused! I hit the Village in 1955 or 1956, right after my divorce, which I have always regarded as the true beginning of my life. I got married right after I graduated from Oberlin, mostly out of fear. I had always been in school and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after school, so I got married. Turned out that was not a great basis for marriage!
I was twenty-five, an English major with a minor in French, not sure whether I was straight or gay. I did know I was a rebel. My parents were kind, intelligent people, but they were both born in 1894 and had pretty Victorian ideas about things like child rearing, sex, and so on. I always felt that I had had “two generation gaps for the price of one.” I’d been brought up in Scarsdale, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S., where it was all about what does your father do, do you belong to the Scarsdale Golf Club (we didn’t), do you have the right clothes, and so on. That’s not really fair–Scarsdale High in the forties was the best public high school in the country and I got a great education and made some lifelong friends. But I was shy and brainy and had never really felt at home in Scarsdale.
So when I hit the Village I was ready to rock’n’roll! I actually loved rock’n’roll, which started with “Rock Around the Clock” the summer of 1955, the same year as my divorce.
I’d describe myself as sheltered but rebellious. I had an apartment in the Village and a job in book publishing and for the first time in my life, I could do anything I wanted!
Linda Klakken: Early in the morning in November 1956 you met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg for the first time. What was your first impression of them?
Helen Weaver: I was bowled over! First of all, having four young men with rucksacks land on your doorstep at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning was startling enough. And of course Jack had those movie-star good looks, and Peter Orlovsky, Allen’s lover, was no slouch himself in the looks department.
But it was more than that. Jack and Allen both had this aura about them–this charisma, if you will. Their energy was very compelling. Even though they had just hitchhiked from Mexico and looked as if they had slept in their clothes (which was in fact the case), they were glamorous in an off-beat way.
Jack and I took one look at each other and it was what the French call the coup de foudre: love at first sight. We sat down on the floor and started talking immediately. He took a copy of his first book, The Town and the City, which had already been published by Harcourt Brace, out of his rucksack, along with manuscripts of at least three other books: Tristessa, Mexico City Blues, and Desolation Angels. He was a published author! I was impressed, especially because that’s what I wanted to be myself.
Our first conversation was an argument about the respective merits of Thomas Wolfe and Henry James. I had read Look Homeward, Angel in high school and loved it, but now I felt I had outgrown Wolfe. Jack leaped to the defense of his idol, and the battle was joined. But there was no acrimony in our discussion. I felt as if we were already old friends.
When Jack went into the bathroom to take a shower, Allen told us about the legendary poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco where had given the first public reading of Howl. He read us passages from his poem. I recognized it as an electrifying manifesto. Allen looked like a nice Jewish intellectual in his horn-rimmed glasses, but he read like a cantor and waved his finger in the air like a Hebrew prophet.
Allen told us that the day after this reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Books, had sent him a telegram that quoted what Ralph Waldo Emerson said to Walt Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that both of these men were going to be famous. City Lights had already published Howl and Jack would soon be signing a contract with Viking for On the Road. The two men stood confident on the threshold of their fame.
Linda Klakken: In your book The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties you paint a very sympathetic portrait of Kerouac, but I also get the impression that it wasn’t always easy to relate to his switching personalities – the quiet, sensitive mumbler and the loud, outspoken drunk (and I don’t mean to use the word “drunk” in a derogatory way)?
Helen Weaver: Jack Kerouac was a mass of contradictions. He was a sensitive soul who wanted to be a famous writer but was terribly uncomfortable in the limelight. But the loud, outspoken drunk came later. When I knew Jack he was definitely already an alcoholic, but not a nasty, overbearing one. Quite the opposite.
When he was drunk he often retreated into a melancholy silence or started singing softly to himself, drumming on the table or scat singing (which he was really good at).
What I had trouble with was his irresponsibility about time. When he was out drinking with his pals in the Village he would lose all track of time. I never knew when he was going to show up for dinner or whether he’d show up at all. I had been brought up to be punctual, and that really bothered me.
Yes, he and Lucien did wake me up in the middle of the night once playing my My Fair Lady album at top volume and singing along with Stanley Holloway, but that was a little unusual. That was my first real hint that this living arrangement wasn’t going to work!
Linda Klakken: Apart from being close to Kerouac, you also had ambitions of becoming a writer, right? How would you describe your dreams and ambitions at that time?
Helen Weaver: Well, they were still pretty vague. At twenty-five, about all I’d written were diaries and journals, a lot of poetry, and a great many letters. I didn’t know that I was going to become a professional literary translator from the French. That was five years in the future.
But I had always loved books, reading, and writing, and I think I knew I had some talent as a writer. My English teachers had always been encouraging, and in high school my friend Eleanor and I had more or less run the school literary magazine. The poems I wrote for that magazine were my first published work.
I am an ambitious person, with a strong competitive streak; and yet I don’t remember having any definite plans or ambitions at the time I met Jack. I think my ambition was to try to become less neurotic, and to have a good time. I lived very much in the moment.
I’ve always suspected that I had no talent for fiction, and to write non-fiction for publication, you have to know something! It was really not until I began the serious study of astrology that I started to write in earnest, and then it was only for newspapers. Let’s face it, I’m a late bloomer!
Linda Klakken: When people talk about the Beat Generation, they always seem to forget the women. In scales of popularity Ginsberg and Kerouac were extremely popular and cast big shadows. Was it at all possible to “survive” as a female writer during the 50s and the 60s?
Helen Weaver: You know, I wasn’t really conscious of the struggles of my sister writers back in the day. But looking back, it seems significant that in many cases it took years before the voices of the women who were part of the Beat Generation were heard.
Diane di Prima’s trail-blazing Memoirs of a Beatnik was published in 1969; Carolyn Cassady’s first take on her life with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady came out in 1976; the first of Joyce Johnson’s Kerouac memoirs, Minor Characters, came out in1983; Kerouac’s first wife Joan Haverty’s Nobody’s Wife was published posthumously in 1990, the year which also saw the publication of Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road and Hettie Jones’ How I Became Hettie Jones. Joyce Johnson’s Door Wide Open came out in 2000 and Kerouac’s second wife Edie Parker’s You’ll Be Okay was published posthumously in 2007.
There were certainly women writing in the fifties and sixties, as Brenda Knight’s excellent anthology Women of the Beat Generation will attest: Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman, and Jan Kerouac are only a few of the fine writers of the Beat Generation who happen to be women. But you are right that the women were much less visible than their male counterparts. That they have survived is a tribute to their talent and gumption and to the courage and stamina of their sisters in the women’s movement.
Linda Klakken: Your generation of writers, both male and female, changed the political and social atmosphere of the 50s and 60s. They also changed literature by writing poetry that opened people’s eyes as to what poetry could be. It became the language of the heart. Did you comprehend the greatness of the persons you met and befriended?
Helen Weaver: I think poetry has always been the language of the heart; but that language can take many forms, and poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso certainly did expand the possibilities of poetry, in terms of both form and content. They brought the language of poetry down from the ivory towers and the groves of academe into the streets, as it were, and they taught us the truth that anything–or nothing–can be the subject of poetry.
I think I recognized the greatness of Jack and Allen from the very first moments after I met them. On the other hand, it is also true that I never fully appreciated Jack’s writing until many years after he died. For some reason Allen’s work was more accessible to me. I remember that back in the sixties every time I read Howl I went into an altered state of consciousness. I think it took me longer to understand Jack’s work–to realize, for example, that On the Road and Doctor Sax are poems–partly because I read his books through the somewhat jaundiced eyes of the disappointed lover. Better late than never!
Linda Klakken: You talk a lot about Jack and Allen, and I guess people tend to ask a lot of questions about him/them and your relationship, but did you feel the same restlessness as they did?
Helen Weaver: What an interesting question! When I hear the word “restless” and the name “Kerouac” in the same sentence, I think of Jack’s frenzied shuttling back and forth across the American continent. His friend John Clellon Holmes said that wherever Jack was, he wanted to be someplace else. Like many Sun sign Pisces people, Jack did not feel at home on the planet.
I think Allen did feel at home on the planet, and was less restless than Jack, but he traveled widely too. I don’t think I was ever as restless as either of them. But perhaps meeting Jack and knowing all the places he’d been and then seeing him take off for Tangier after the end of our affair, had something to do with my leaving my job and taking off for Europe a few years later. Perhaps I was inspired by their restless spirits to broaden my own horizons.
Looking back, I’d say I was calmer than Jack (most people are!) and less calm than Allen, who found his way to Buddhism (with Jack’s help) long before I did. Ironically, Jack–who introduced so many people to Buddhism through The Dharma Bums and other books–could not sustain his meditation practice. He was too restless and in too much pain from his old football injuries and the chronic phlebitis in his legs for formal sitting. His daughter Jan, whom I met at conferences, said, “Neither of us could keep our seat.”
If by restlessness you mean something more existential–not being satisfied with an ordinary life–then yes, I think that has always been true for me. In that sense, restlessness is the foundation of art. Even though Jack’s intense energy was too much for me at the time I was with him, in later years I was able to access my youthful independent spirit and find the courage to become a writer too.
Linda Klakken: Have you always been a spiritual person? And would you rather consider yourself an observer than a participant?
Helen Weaver: We are all spiritual persons, as we are all spirit; but not all of us are lucky enough to find a spiritual path in any given lifetime.
I am one of the lucky ones. I had a mother who made me memorize the Sermon on the Mount when the other kids on our block were outside playing. I sang in a lot of church choirs. I loved the communion service long before I began to understand it.
When I was thirteen, I had a dream in which I remembered four of my past lives. I knew it wasn’t “just a dream.”
At Oberlin my favorite teacher taught Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Almost forty years later, I found my way to Buddhism.
Being a participant implies belonging to a group or as the Buddhists have it, a sangha. When it comes to organized religion of any flavor, I guess you could call me a non-observant observer. As a lover of solitude who has seldom connected with a spiritual teacher–and has failed to sustain my commitment to the few I have connected with–I have my own prayer and meditation practice.
Perhaps the words of Matthew 6:6 I learned as a child really did sink in: “. . .thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret. . . .”
Except that I don’t pray to a Father, at least not the father Jesus is talking about. I pray to my ancestors, or to the universe. For me the word God is a metaphor for the truth that everything in the universe is connected and that everything in the universe is alive and has consciousness: rocks, plants, animals–the works.
My sangha is invisible. It is made up of all the women and men who pray and meditate on a daily basis for the healing of the planet and for the awakening of all to her peril.