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February 24, 2003

  [Part 1 of "A Biography of Winning His Way" appeared in the Call on February 17, 2003.]

A 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.