of "A Biography of Winning His Way" appeared in the Call on February 17,
Biography of Winning His Way, Part 2
By Irving Rosenthal
The memorial at Green Gulch Zen Center was scheduled for September 1. I
had my doubts about distributing so brazen and light-hearted a book at a
formal Buddhist ceremony even though “a chance for appreciations” had been
announced. But in mid-August a big free memorial poetry reading at
Presentation Theater in San Francisco was announced for Friday, August 30.
It was to be co-sponsored by the Hartford Street Zen Center, the MFA
Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, and the Poetry Center
of San Francisco State University. A poetry reading of many of Philip’s
poet friends seemed like the right place, and I was hoping to replay the
magical 1968 distribution of The Invention of the Letter.
But this time, no Philip would be reading!
On Thursday August 22 I called an old friend of Philip’s and mine, to
discuss handing out the book at that reading. Would he help? He told me
that he had been asked to read, and that I could distribute the book
during his reading. He suggested that I email Rick London, “a nice guy,”
who had invited him to read, and gave me his email address. I told my
friend that I didn’t see why I needed to call Rick - or get anyone’s
permission to hand out a free Whalen book at a Whalen memorial reading,
but that I would think about it.
I had never heard of Rick London, and my friend had never met him. I
thought to myself, “Maybe Rick’s a young guy-maybe the organizers are
inexperienced folk who might freak if they saw people handing out books
into the audience. Maybe they would think the books were political or
religious tracts or even letter bombs. It might be a courtesy to let them
know beforehand.” So I emailed Rick, asking him to call me.
He did that on Friday. I explained my intention. He was lukewarm to it
and urged me to put the books out on a table in the lobby, where other
printed material was to be given away. But after further conversation, he
gave me a tentative go-ahead, asking that I OK it with Maria Hirano, one
of the other two organizers
(the third being Steve Dickison of the Poetry Center at UCSF). He
seemed surprised that I didn’t know who Maria was (“Oh, she’s Philip’s
editor at Parallax Press”). I knew I wouldn’t call her. I was a little
afraid that I had got myself into a bureaucratic situation.
In the next five days Rick called me three more times, saying No, Yes,
No. In the meantime I had made an appointment with Brooks Oswald, manager
of the Presentation Theater, for a brilliant programmer that I knew, to
visit the theater and work out, from the seating, the logistics or a
rapid, efficient giveaway.
Rick’s last refusal was somber - I must not distribute the books
“anywhere in the Theater at all, including the lobby.” When I pressed him
for an explanation, he said that someone remembered seeing the book
fifteen years ago at the Hartford Street Zen Center. At that time Issan
(spiritual adviser of the Center) was supposed to have advised Philip to
give the book away “judiciously.” Issan’s name was probably invoked to
suggest that even he, a self-described “faggot speed freak drag queen,”
thought the book too raw for the public. Issan is dead and can’t be asked
if he’d been quoted correctly. A Zen student who had lived with him in New
Mexico thought it unlikely that Issan would have said such a thing, and
pointed out that he was, by nature, completely open about himself at all
times, and that it wasn’t within his psychic vocabulary to advise anyone
to be shrewd or wily. For the most part, Rick sounded like he wasn’t
speaking for himself, but as a battered enforcer for someone else. At the
end, as if to soften his last refusal, Rick suggested that the books could
be handed out “at the door” (i.e. on the sidewalk).
I asked him to tell my friend who had put me in touch with him, about
the refusal - which he did. My friend later told me that when he asked
Rick what was objectionable about the book, Rick answered that there were
pictures of masturbation in it.
Then Brooks Oswald called to relay an urgent directive from Steve
Dickison: that I must not be allowed to distribute the book anywhere in
the Theater. “So if I see anyone do it,” she said, “I’ll call Public
Safety [campus cops] immediately. And I will be at the reading.”
I didn’t distribute the book inside the Theater for fear of shifting
the focus of the reading to the issue of censorship, and I turned down the
suggestion that the book be distributed on the sidewalk in front of the
Theater, for that would confirm the apparent opinion of the organizers
(who may not even have seen the book themselves) that the book represented
some dirty and shameful aspect of Philip’s life. At the reading the
following coupon was given out:
Anyone can still use this reproduction of the original coupon or
a facsimile of it to procure a copy of Philip Whalen’s Winning His Way, as
long as the supply lasts.