Stern collage

     It is an amazing experience, as well as an honor, to be present at the birth of a movement or great event: with Fidel in the Sierra Maestra mountains or buried with Enrico Fermi below Chicago’s Stagg Field while he lassoed the atom.

     Such an honor befell Gerd Stern, a poet and later multimedia artist, when he landed in a New York psychiatric institute in the late 1940s and met up with Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Carl Solomon (1928-1996) whose friendship helped launch the Beat Generation.

     Gerd’s winding up in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute–“P.I.” to its alums–is a story all its own. He was born in 1928, in the Saar Basin, a swath of land that France and Germany had feuded over since the end of the First World War. When Germany annexed the territory after a dubious plebiscite, the Sterns decamped for New York and settled on the Upper West Side in an area that was so crowded with German Jewish refugees that it was known as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.

     A strict disciplinarian father proved an invitation to rebellion. After a few unhappy weeks at CCNY, young Gerd dropped out and ‘gravitated” toward Greenwich Village. (From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978, G. Stern, M. Callahan, V. Byerly, University of California, 1996)

     There, he was offered his first joint by a local hipster, “Jimmy the Greek.” Living in the Village, Gerd soon discovered that “poetry was my call.”

     At the suggestion of Isaac Rosenfeld, a noted critic, he headed to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to round out his education. But the experimental institution was in turmoil with teachers and administers “fighting with each other on philosophical and financial grounds.” Stern’s sojourn lasted two weeks.

       One misadventure led to another, in San Francisco and New York where Gerd survived on bagels and milk that he stole from storefronts and wound up living in a car with another young poet, John Hoffman , whose laconic poems and early death were to give his work an aura of romantic mystery. Later, Stern and Hoffman shipped out to Uruguay where they wandered the streets of Montevideo looking for the haunts of the Comte de Lautreamont, whose Les Chants de Maldoror had influenced them and their San Francisco friend, Philip Lamantia.

     In New York, Gerd’s daily wardrobe consisted of a cowboy hat and buffalo skin jacket, which in 1949 was rather odd attire on the streets of the city. It was at this low point that a family friend who was a doctor suggested that the young man check into the Psychiatric Institute where, at least, he would be fed and have a roof over his head.  

     “Tell them a story,” the doctor advised, “They’re looking for interesting people to study.” So Gerd came up with a suicidal fantasy and was promptly admitted.

     One of the first friends Gerd made at P.I. was a man with wild hair and large glasses. When Gerd introduced himself, the man dropped a stack of books on the floor, stuck out his hand, and said: “Define your terms.” The new friend was named Carl Solomon.

     Solomon was from the Bronx and had briefly served as a merchant seaman after the war. In Paris he had attended a frenzied reading by Antonin Artaud, the surrealist whose madness inspired his poetry, and returned to America excited by the works of French writers like Henry Michaux and Jean Genet who wrote of the pimps and thieves of the Parisian underworld.

    Solomon shared his enthusiasms with Gerd and another new friend, Allen Ginsberg who had been exiled to the “bughouse,” as he put it, after being suspended from Columbia College for his involvement in a petty criminal ring. Carl had been committed after a string of strange episodes, including tossing potato salad at a lecturer at Brooklyn College–a Dadaist gesture that went unappreciated by the school authorities.

    Later in life, Solomon would go straight, take a job in a department store, and renounce the Beat Movement, but at P.I. he dazzled the impressionable Ginsberg with his zany antics–behavior that earned him the nickname, “the lunatic saint.” According to one Ginsberg biographer, Carl claimed that Allen “meticulously took notes of everything I said.” (Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1989)

    For Easter, the institution had decorated the inmates tables with plastic rabbits. Solomon disappeared with one of the rabbits into the bathroom. When he confessed to an aide that he had committed a sexual act with the toy, he was carted away. The trio were “three weirdos out of the literary world,” Stern later put it.

    Gerd was allowed out for the weekends because he was considered “less dangerous” than his two friends. When he smuggled marijuana inside for them, the two turned him in–a purely literary gesture, out of Genet- they assured him.

    After his discharge, Gerd ultimately made his way back to San Francisco to concentrate on his poetry. There, he reacquainted his friendship with Philip Lamantia, the young poet who had been part of the surrealistic circle of Andre Breton in the early forties, and whom Stern had met one night at a reading at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1947.

    Born in San Francisco in 1927, Lamantia had gone to New York to meet Breton and had published his poetry in Breton’s journal as a teenager. Since the war, Philip had been migrating back and forth between the two coasts where his, and soon Gerd’s, worlds intersected. The publication of Lamantia’s first book, Erotic Poems (Bern Porter) in 1946, crystalized his reputation as a serious poet. The book was originally intended to be a series of love poems dedicated to individuals, including the editor of View, but Philip deleted the names before publication.

    In New York, Gerd introduced Philip to both Solomon and Allen who admired Lamantia’s work and was taken with his erudition. When Allen wrote “Howl,” his great saga of the Beat Generation, he included references to Lamantia, as well as Carl Solomon–to whom he dedicated the poem–and their time in the asylum. In fact, Stern was in the audience at the Six Gallery in 1955 when Allen read “Howl,” and Lamantia read several poems of John Hoffman who had died at 24 in Mexico.

    To enhance poetic imagery through “derangement” of the senses, Philip used peyote and then heroin–the “white lady” of his poems. Inspired by Artaud’s Voyage to the Land of the Tarahurara, Lamantia traveled to a remote mountain village in Mexico in search of peyote rites; he also used heroin to escape the cycle of depression that plagued him throughout his life. (The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, ed. by G. Caples, A. Joron, N. Peters, University of California Press, 2013)

    In the early 1960s, Philip was expelled from Mexico because of his drug use. At the time, he was depressed over the breakup of his marriage to his second wife, Lucile Dejardin, a French artist living in Mexico, and he fell back on heroin. In Woodstock, New York, Gerd Stern and his wife let him stay in a cabin near their house while he kicked the habit. “He was sick,” Gerd remembers; and it was a “very tough time” for Philip. They fed him: “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Philip was “always grateful” for his friend’s generosity, but continued to relapse. Even when he was high, he would thank Stern for what he had done.

    Towards the end of his life, Philip returned to the Catholicism of his youth “in a very heavy manner.” Some of his last poems were influenced by St. Francis of Assisi. “God is a surrealist,” Lamantia concluded in a poem. “He wasn’t very social,” Gerd recalls, and lived in a cramped apartment “so full of books” a visitor “couldn’t even move in it.” But the Philip he remembers was “a beautiful human being,” and “very sophisticated,” someone who “read everything” and loved “all music: jazz, blues, Mexican and classical....”

    For a time, Stern lived on a houseboat in Sausalito and was active in the artistic life of San Francisco. His work as a multimedia artist became well-known in the sixties and was widely exhibited. Today, in his nineties, he lives on the East Coast where he continues to write poetry. His most recent collection, WhenThen, (Dos Madres Press) was released in 2017. Of his own poetry, Gerd noted in his oral history that he has never been “conjunctive” to any of the other “movements or schisms or literary coteries;” and, “It’s isolated me, which is still true.”

    Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, conducted over two sessions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and via e-mails, Gerd Stern remembers Philip Lamantia.

AL: What was Philip like when you met him in the late forties?


GS: He was small and had a lot of energy. The sense that he came from a very Italian family was there. At the time, he was working in his father’s wholesale vegetable business at the Crystal Market. Philip didn’t do that for long though.



You and he got along right away.


We had similar feelings about the world and were both pot smokers. Plus there was the Jewish Italian thing, the natural affinity there is for each other. Philip was a very engaging guy. He didn’t harp on his background, the mythology of his connection to Breton. He was not impressed. Others were.


AL: You’ve noted that there were a lot of rumors about Philip’s relationship with some in the surrealist group, Parker Tyler, the film critic, and Charles Henri Ford who edited View.
GS: Some people thought of Philip as gay. Jack [Kerouac] hinted at a lot of shit. He was a terrible human being. Always drunk. He spread a lot of rumors. If anybody was bisexual, it was Jack.



How did Philip feel about the subject?



He didn’t like being thought of as gay. He did have some gay mannerisms, his gestures and whimsical way of speaking. Also, his poetic imagery could have been part of the gay movement.



Philip has been identified almost totally with surrealism. Were there other poets he admired?



He admired Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. He had a strange relationship with the surrealists. I could never get him to talk about it. In a way, it was not helping him with his reputation. He was very ambitious. In his last years, he returned to Catholicism and turned reclusive. I visited him in North Beach, and he took me to St. Paul’s where he was very friendly with two priests. As a youth, he had been an altar boy. The priests were happy about his coming back. They knew who he was and weren’t above using him.


AL: Philip and John Hoffman both wrote on drugs.

Of course Philip wrote on drugs. He and I had a very early peyote trip at Jaime De Angulo’s cottage, Gloria, on top of the mountain at Big Sur where we both wrote. I was with John Hoffman in Provincetown. He would write a lot of poetry on the sand dunes.


AL: Did Philip rewrite?



It’s one of the things poets tend to do. Inspiration is first origin. Philip was extremely conscious of his imagery bank and tended to both rely on it and expand it beyond his early dependance on the surreal.



One of the people in Philip’s New York circle was Sheri Martinelli. Chandler Brossard (1922-1993) based on character on her in his Greenwich Village novel, Who Walk in Darkness.



She was dramatically beautiful, very vital. She would hang out at the San Remo and Minetta’s Tavern in the Village. One time she took Philip and me to visit Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s She had some kind of tight relationship with him. We sat there and talked to him. Philip was not that heavy into the Cantos but was very impressed. After, he acted like he knew him. It was “Ezra this, Ezra that.”



You have talked fondly about Philip’s first wife, Gogo Nesbit, who was a photographer and poet.



She was quite wonderful. She loved Philip a lot. I thought she and Philip were great together. She was a really good poet who was not recognized. She loved the fact that I used one of her lines as the title for my poem, “The Priestess Gagged.” I wasn’t around when she and Philip broke up, but I didn’t like her new husband and didn’t see much of her after.



In the sixties, you helped Philip kick heroin.



He visited my wife and I in Woodstock where we were living. We put him in a small cabin down the road. There was no toilet. He had only grass, no supplies. It was a horrible week, very painful. He kicked it, but he got hooked easily. It happened over and over again.



You knew Philip for almost fifty years, until his death in 2005. What is your final impression of him.



If he liked you he was warm and familiar and generous. But with some people he could be paranoid and non-communicative. He could be difficult. For instance, I had asked him to write the introduction to my oral history, but he was angry because I quoted him about an affair he claimed he had had with a beautiful San Francisco socialite which it turned out he had never had. He wanted to be part of that society. I wound up editing it out before publication, but he still didn’t write the introduction for me although he had originally promised. On the other hand, he was always grateful to me for helping him kick his habit in Woodstock. He never ceased to mention it. And he was always an “on” poet and a good one.


(Philip Lamantia’s work has been the subject of a full length serious study, Hypodermic Light by Steven Frattali, Peter Lang Publishing, 2005, and Garrett Caples’s critical introduction to Tau, City Lights, 2008, as well as a biographical essay by Nancy Peters, Philip’s widow, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 16. AL would like to thank Caroline Mosley of Bowdoin College Library for allowing access to Bern Porter's papers.)


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