Shaman of the Surreal
by Thomas Rain Crowe
photo by Rob Lee
Philip Lamantia was born to Sicilian immigrants in San Francisco in 1927. His father was a produce broker in the old Embarcadero. He began writing poetry in elementary school and was later inspired by the paintings of Miro and Dali at the San Francisco Museum of Art. After being expelled for “intellectual delinquency” at age sixteen, he dropped out of high school and moved to New York City, where he lived for several years and where he was associated with Andre Breton and other exiled European artists such as Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. During these years he worked as an assistant editor of View magazine and his poems were published in View as well as in publications like Hemispheres, which was being published by another French ex-patriot Yvan Goll. In 1943, when Lamantia was only fifteen years old, Breton heralded him as being “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.” In 1946, at the age of nineteen, his first book of poems Erotic Poems was published by Bern Porter Books in Berkeley, California, followed by two collections (Narcotica and Ekstasis) published in 1959 by Auerhahn Press. A literary prodigy whose poems delved into the worlds of the subconscious and dreams, his love of Surrealism had a major influence on the Beats and other American poets. On March 7, 2005 he died of heart failure in his North Beach, San Francisco apartment at age seventy-seven.
After World War II, Lamantia traveled the world, living for periods of time in Mexico, Morocco and Europe. During the 1950s he lived, off and on, with native peoples in the United States and Mexico, while participating in the peyote-eating rituals of the Washo Indians in Nevada. During these early years, he delved into such subjects as astronomy, philosophy, history, jazz, painting, ornithology and Egyptology, becoming not only conversational, but eminently knowledgeable in these subjects and others. During these years he became part of the literary bohemian scene in San Francisco and was often associated with the Beats. He went on to publish books of poetry during the 1960s such as Destroyed Works and Touch of the Marvelous.
“In the 1950s, Philip was writing a stream-of-consciousness Surrealist poetry and had a huge influence on Allen Ginsberg. Before that, Ginsberg was writing rather conventional poetry. It was Philip who turned him on to Surrealist writing,” said poet and publisher of City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a tribute to Lamantia in a March issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Another member of the Beat pantheon, Michael McClure, in the same article said of Lamantia: “He was highly original. He was thrilling to be around. Everybody would sit around and listen to him all night. The flow of his imagination was a beautiful thing.”
I was introduced to Philip Lamantia thirty years ago on the streets of North Beach, San Francisco by Shig Murao who was, then, manager of City Lights Bookstore and probably best known for his role in the Howl obscenity trial which took place in the late 1950s. Even then, in his forties, Lamantia was something of a legend—due partly to his personal associations with famous French Surrealists and his reclusive history, but mainly for his soaring yet searing Surrealist poetry which had come to the attention of some with the publication of his first book at the precocious age of nineteen. I remember soirees at Lamantia’s North Beach apartment during the 1970s in the company of a young Rimbaud-like Ken Wainio and a Ginsberg-like Neeli Cherkovski and long discussions that ranged everywhere from Hopi prophecy to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to social revolution. Lamantia was an encyclopedic source, in fact a font of things mythic, mystic, historical, and literary. His mind, even when it was quiet (which wasn’t often), was a powerful presence.
Some twenty years earlier (in the 1950s) Lamantia had been the Beat movement’s bona fide Surrealist voice. His work stood out and was featured in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry—the collection that put the Beats on the American literary map, and in truth, changed the course and the look of American poetry, if not international letters, forever. To those who knew him, Lamantia is known not merely by his associations with the Beat writers, but by his work, with accolades and high praise coming from such canonical voices as Kenneth Rexroth, Yvan Goll, Allen Ginsberg and most prominently Andre Breton. In April of 1999, Philip Lamantia and I were reunited in a conversation that, in many ways, began where it had left off twenty-five years before, with my asking simple questions and Philip responding like a flowing font of free-associative discourse.
Thomas Rain Crowe: Let’s go back to those conversations that I remember from the 1970s in your North Beach apartment and your talks about ancient traditions and cultures—the Hopi, pre-Christian Egypt, and the like. What sort of influence have these particular interests of yours had on your work—which in your case, began at a very early age?
Philip Lamantia: Good! We’ve gone right to the heart of it right off the bat. This is a good question. We can cover almost everything by talking about this one question alone.
It all centers on the idea and the reality of “the sacred.” Surrealism begins with the sacred. And for me “the sacred” begins/began with my early reading of books like The Temple of Man. This book goes way beyond the simple histories of ancient Egyptian culture and includes some of the most profound alchemical texts written in modern times. Later, I spent a year studying in Spain with a teacher who taught me Pythagorean geometry during the years when I had stopped writing, essentially, in order to study this school of the sacred art of mathematics—which was at that time still passed on from teacher to student by initiation only.
By reading other important and related thinkers such as de Rougemont—who, as the author of such books a Love in the Western World, in my mind is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, I was introduced to the relationship between the esoteric and the exoteric. I became familiar with places like the Great Temple at Luxor and the hermeneutic writing at the entrance to the temple, which as early as 1800 BC was a kind of writing that was considered as “sacred.” Exoteric. In these hermeneutic writings there was purportedly an existing door to the sacred.
As humans, we’re constantly looking outward for evidence of the sacred. I’m now convinced, however, that the universe is within us! There’s no need for us to go into outer space to find out about the secrets of the universes. In earliest childhood all knowledge is inborn, I believe, and it’s all retrievable!
And then there is Blake… The other source (or source for “the Other,” if you prefer), whom I read at age fourteen. And Poe! I figure it was Blake and Poe who led me directly into Surrealism.
TRC: Yes, I’d like to know where Surrealism fits into your interest and study of mysticism, ancient cultures and arcane wisdom. And in particular, your personal association with Andre Breton and other French Surrealists.
PL: As I said, Surrealism begins with the sacred. And the premise that each individual poet, or painter, seek the “golden fleece” on his own. This point is critical to understanding Surrealism as it appeared in Paris around 1910 on the coat-tails of end-of-century poets such as Saint Paul Roux, who was known as “Le Magnifique!” and then with Apollinaire’s writings on modernism. Apollinaire wrote about the “new spirit in poetry,” with emphasis on the word “spirit.”
The French Surrealist movement was created and sustained by the interaction between artists and writers in the cafes. And this went on for years, with, as I say, the business of the movement being carried out through constant day-to-day contact between artists.
Then, with Breton and his Manifesto, the advent of Dada, the Surrealist group’s connection to Hegel, and the embracing of alchemy and what were referred to as the “damned sciences,” the whole thing took on a much more social and political persona.
While, early on, there was a very real interest in “The Underworld” via Rimbaud and Dante, for instance, poets like Kathleen Raine later opted for a non-demonic route that, as she said, was not a risk to the pure surrealist process—a process of writing that focused on the stages of wakefulness and sleep that occur at the points of moving into and out of sleep. These bridges, these interstices, were considered key, if not critical, to the writing process and were catalyst to the advent of automatic writing which appeared around 1919. These so-called “bridges” had been defined earlier by Poe in his essay “Between Waking and Sleeping.” I now refer to this state of conscious-unconsciousness as “being in the zone.” This amounts to writing from and experiencing from a sort of waking trance state, a place from which many of the world’s great prophetic writings have come—writings of the old biblical prophets, The Song of Songs, and so forth.
TRC: And what was your connection with this group in France during the first half of the century?
PL: I was the only Surrealist poet of my generation, especially with direct connections with Breton and the French. Breton was my first interpreter. I first met him at the age of sixteen in New York through a series of arranged meetings. We would meet and talk about my work and the ideas and work of various writers and artists in France, or about Surrealism in general. I have to say that Breton, contrary to rumor and innuendo, was one of the most civilized people I’ve ever met. My experiences with him were always of this nature up until and including our last meeting—which was a chance meeting in 1944, again in New York, and which is documented in my poem “Poem For Andre Breton” which appeared in my book Bed of Sphinxes published by City Lights. At that chance meeting, Breton was with Tanguy, who of all the visual artists was most important to me, as early on I was influenced very much by painters and musicians.
TRC: In many people’s minds you are associated with the Beat movement in this country—through such connections as the Gallery Six reading, Don Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry, and more recently with things like your inclusion on the CD set Howls, Raps, and Roars. How does this association sit with you, especially in light of your French Surrealist connections and affinities?
PL: With regard to the whole Beat thing, I see it as a matter of karma, really. Or, timing in this case. I was there and “on the scene” as it was referred to. But then, in the forties and early fifties, it was really about the music! As I was hanging out with musicians mostly. The terminology referring to “hipsters” was about those people hanging out with musicians, and wanting to be musicians. “Wannabees” I guess they’re called now.
The first poet I met was Allen Ginsberg, then through him, others like Kerouac, whom I met in 1950 when I was twenty. He was older—about five years older I think. But the Beats never thought of themselves as “hip” in the early days before On the Road made Kerouac famous and the whole scene was changed. In fact, Kerouac’s whole thing was about the “beatific” presence in the world. This is different from “beatitudes” as are found in the Bible. It’s more the exoteric. About the opening up to the divine.
In those early days, there were no established writers in the “Movement.” I guess the most revered and celebrated writer connected with the Beat scene was Kenneth Rexroth, who was hardly establishment at that time! With his left-leaning politics and all. I met him during these years, and thought of him always as someone with an interesting mind and who was an interesting figure. It was through Rexroth and his intense interest in ecology and nature that I, too, became consciously interested in these things—although I had already become interested in nature and ecology as a boy when I went with my uncle to the Santa Cruz mountains on hikes and trips. I fell in love with the great stands of redwoods and madrones, and with the Native American associations with these places, which was the basis for trips I would later make to Mexico, the Southwest and my work with the Washo and Cora Indians.
I was working for a good bit of that time with View magazine in New York. I guess all in all for between five to ten years. So, there was a more formal connection to things literary through my association with View, which was really just a job for me in those days and had no real influence, really, on my involvement with either the Beat or the Surrealist movements.
So, that was it, and as I say, it was pretty much karma—being there in New York and then San Francisco as part of “the scene.”
TRC: Your work has also been linked to the American Surrealist movement based in Chicago, which, as I understand it, has no ties with the French group. What was, or is, the nature of your involvement with the American group and its activities and publications?
PL: The American Surrealist group members were a younger generation from mine, most of them being born around 1948 and that generation. There was never anyone in America for me, literarily speaking, which is why I gravitated toward what was going on in France. But the American Surrealist movement was established around 1963 by Franklin Rosemont and his friends as a direct response to the Viet Nam War. In many ways it was a statement against the war. I’d gone into exile in Europe around this time in anticipation of the Viet Nam war. I didn’t return from Europe until around 1970, and wasn’t contacted by the American Surrealists until 1972. They were interested in publishing my work in their various publications. I contributed to their publications for many years. Now, I guess its been over a decade or so since I’ve had any direct input into anything they’ve published. Even so, I’m still in touch with some American Surrealist poets whom I have a great deal of respect for—poets like Will Alexander, for example.
TRC: Your selected poems Bed of Sphinxes covers your work from 1943 to 1993. I’m wondering if over the course of this half century and through at least four or five different “periods” or “phases” in your writing, you can cite for us a nexus, a still-point, where all these periods and work interconnect. Is there a common thread, a common direction? I think of the poem “Still Poem 9” (1959) that was published in the Donald Allen anthology, as something of a credo, hinting strongly at a metaphorical “grail search” of sorts that you may have followed over the course of your life and career and that would also be connected with your travels to the Hopi mesas, Central and South America, Africa, Egypt, Greece…
PL: Yes, in fact you’re not the first person to draw this kind of analogy to the poem “Still Poem 9”—and it’s a good one, I think as I like the association with the grail quest. That poem was written in 1959 and I’m still on the grail quest.
TRC: We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I’d like us to end by discussing “Ex Cathedra,” a poem which appears toward the end of Bed of Sphinxes. I have to say that I think that the last line in this poem is one of THE great last lines. “On that day black holes of thought radiate the wind’s lost word,/this death that is not death: that day is magic is love.” How does this poem and particularly this last line reflect upon what I understand are fairly recently renewed interests on your part in Catholicism and Christianity?
PL: Well, first of all, let me say that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Nancy Peters, without whom this book wouldn’t, couldn’t have been done. I doubt if I would have been able to put this book together without her assistance. She’s a brilliant book editor, and I can’t emphasize this enough.
“Ex Cathedra” was actually written around 1989, but it does, as you suggest, speak to a renewed interest in this, but in this case, negatively so. The line directly before the one you’ve cited reads: “The absolute pulverization of all the churches will be the grace of/love’s freedom!” Need I say more?
This all goes back to the beginning of our conversation and the business of “the damned sciences” and the problems the Surrealists faced early on. In fact, someone, and I won’t mention their name, said to me recently in regard to this poem: “In times past, they would have burned you for writing this poem!” So, yes, I’ve found my way back to the “exoteric church” as I spoke of it earlier. I continue searching for alternatives to opening up to the divine, as well as searching for the “grail”—which I have yet to find.
Bibliography: Books by Philip Lamantia
Erotic Poems (Bern Porter Books, Berkeley, 1946)
Narcotica (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1959)
Ekstasis (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1959)
Destroyed Works (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1962)
Touch of the Marvelous (Oyez, Berkeley, 1966)
Selected Poems 1943-1966 (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1967)
The Blood of the Air (Four Seasons Foundation, San Francisco, 1970)
Becoming Visible (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1981)
Meadowlark West (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1986)
Bed of Sphinxes: Selected Poems 1943-1993 (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997)
Thomas Rain Crowe is a poet, translator and publisher of New Native Press. During the 1970s he was Director of the 1st San Francisco International Poetry Festival (1976) and Editor of Beatitude magazine and press. His own work includes The Laugharne Poems which was written in Laugharne, Wales at the Dylan Thomas home during the summers of 1993 and 1995, and The Personified Street (with an Introduction by Jack Hirschman) from his years in San Francisco during the 1970s. He has written a preface for an anthology The Baby Beats & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance to be published in France by La Main Courante in the fall of 2005.
STILL POEM 9
There is this distance between me and what I see
everywhere immanence of the presence of God
no more ekstasis
a cool head
watch watch watch
He’s over there…It’s an Ocean…
sometimes I can’t think of it, I fail, fall
There IS this look of love
there IS the tower of David
there IS the throne of Wisdom
there IS the silent look of love
Constant flight in air of the Holy Ghost
I long for the luminous darkness of God
I long for the superessential light of this darkness
another darkness I long for the end of longing
I long for the
It is Nameless what I long for
a spoken word caught in its own meat saying nothing
This nothing ravishes beyond ravishing
There is this look of love Throne Silent look of love
To weave garter belts with chaos and snakes, the nun’s toenail
of crimson phallus, her breast of alligator, her tail, crow’s
buttocks. Steel pricks of the ciborium dovetail her white
pantaloons—snake oil on a eucharistic tongue.
In crystal movies: an owl’s path beneath slumbers of the woods
that died to bolster the miserable stations of the cross, instead
of Bugs Bunny laminating the hedgerows through the pews,
stench gathers power in censers of the debasing perfumes.
Time of frostbites laid over crumbs of bile-soaked christies,
famines roasted with divinity, allah jacks up his “prisons within
prisons,” the flayed kaaba-stone pitched to the solar gobbling
After the great Dusting, this Pope exhibits his toes in carnivals
sure to spring up in sideshows of enigma, hot flints of the
anti-christ, my brother, in lesions of the darkening space,
Revolution the Star in the West springs the play of foam
on the rocks below . . .
Field mice from the mouths of “the hell sermon,” I lop off the
head of the oldest nun with a fragment of the reforgeable
brassy metallic cross; this priest whipping Sister Matilda with
guts spilled from the monstrance his tongue laps up at her feet.
Oh, junkyards of eternity fester in leads of clock time, but
Humankind invents the bomb I hurl to The Box of Infanticides,
Black-hearted children flee gehenna, pissing through mountains
of priestly corpses, those burnt hams in the tree of winds.
Schools of fish move in the night, plagues of scripture blown to
Secret rooms fly open absolutely by stealth.
The star card bestows the charm of new rivers, this word
tomorrow, Andromeda, and with you, Amor.
With the skull splendors of the imperium romanum, the alchemical
pope skewers a host of puffers on the backsides of saints.
Cardinals butcher in the market day for clerics.
Inside the chalice of battered gums, the vengeance of witches,
salmons to spawn the invisible eruption in the Street of the
Talismanic, the marigold’s not a wing-feather less!
From the stone bubbles of Mother Angelica a herd of corpses
rides to the spider compass of my bones: the blood of swans
lace my handcuffs floating the altars, the inebriate sickle quick
to slice those melting emeralds inlaid with scripted shit the
great unknown rages to fruition on the flanks of Carthago.
The absolute pulverization of all the churches will be the grace of
On that day black holes of thought radiate the wind’s lost word,
this death that is not death: that day is magic is love.
from Bed of Sphinxes (New & Selected Poems, 1943-1993) City Lights Books, 1997
Special thanks to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters of City Lights Books, San Francisco and also to Thomas Rain Crowe. An edited version of this interview appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 10, Number 2.