Modern Beasts Have No Memory: A Laurence Weisberg Dossier [part 2]

To read part one, visit this page.


Peter Garland: I don’t recall the exact moment Laurence and I met, nor even which year. At some point, certainly by the 1971-1972 school year we were good friends. We did participate in several of Clayton Eshleman’s classes (including one on translating Cesar Vallejo). Early memories of our friendship? Good hashish. Listening to music. I probably turned him on to world music, the American “modernist” composers (Partch, Harrison, Ives, Nancarrow, et al), and the then-new “minimalist” scene. Laurence caught on immediately—of my poet friends he probably had the best appreciation for truly radical music. We were also fans of the early psychedelic-era Grateful Dead. Laurence was also a good source for LSD and we did our fair share of tripping together. We both moved to the Bay Area around 1973. He and Alice Farley both took part in the Harvey Milk/Dan White riots, where Alice notably set fire to a bank.

BL: You consider some of your early 70s compositions to be “surrealist.” Was automatism a compositional tool? What aspects of these pieces do you consider “surreal”?

Peter Garland: My first early piano pieces (1972-72) were very Harold Budd influenced (He was my teacher). I broke away from that with my 3 Songs for Percussion (1972-73). The second piece, Three Songs for Mad Coyote had a strong Native American influence; and the third piece, Obstacles of Sleep, took its title from a poem of Laurence’s. A certain element of automatism and creative “delirium” were part of the composing process; but I eventually moved away from surrealism in that sense.

Unpublished poem by L.W. , courtesy of Peter Garland. Written circa 1970-71.

Alice Farley: Everything I write is not true enough.

There is poetry that is not realized in ambition. There is poetry that is understood so deeply that it can be awakened in others. There is a poetry that is given away as freely as a drink of water. There is poetry that is contagious truth.

Laurence was a true poet. A poet of the living moment. He loved the conversation of the street. His poems on the page speak for themselves. But the living dialogue with him was something else.  He challenged the common wisdom, he seduced timid thought with infinite possibilities. Laurence’s books were never published while he was alive, but everywhere he awoke poetry in those he met.

For his friends he changed everything. He always had an antenna for pretense, and none of us escaped.  Poetry was never a credential, it was the burning ground. He could convince you. Truth does exist.

The beauty in Laurence, (after the compassion and humor) was the speed of his thought, instantaneous access to a roar of knowledge. To hear him in conversations with Philip Lamantia, or Radovan Ivsic and Annie Le Brun,  was to be in the volatile center of some surrealist storm of  thought unwinding….  Leaps and dancing though esoteric, political, philosophical or literary worlds, but passing through, just there… ideas not claimed. They were in pursuit of elsewhere.

We met at 19, dancer and poet reading Samuel Beckett. Our professor is disappointed LW is so distracted by love. Laur breaks through the window of my bedroom and covers me with flowers while I sleep. This is no gesture, this is what we already know we are. The web between us is fully formed.  30 years later, we always knew (even across continents) the moment when the other saw lightning.

Alice Farley Dance Theatre at Land’s End, S.F. Photo by Raman Rao


Peter Blegvad: Did we meet at the reading Clayton Eshleman gave with Helen Adams? Not sure. I was emphatically unsober on that and most occasions of our paths crossing. I remember sitting with him outside a bar a few blocks from St. Marks Place, quaffing lubricants and talking about poetry and Laurence was so appalled to discover that I hadn’t read Philip Lamantia that he leapt up and disappeared. About ten minutes later he ambled back with a collection that he’d coolly lifted from the nearby bookshop in order to remedy my lack with minimum delay.  I remember playing Exquisite Corpse writing games with him and Dana Johnson in a John Street loft. I remember “burnt black by the fire of his mask”. He had a good sense of humour, but I remember his disdain or disappointment when on a subsequent meeting he noticed I had altered the text of one of my bits — editorial interference with the automatic process being a betrayal of Surrealist principle. He made me nervous. He could be sensitive and tender, but he was somehow always a bit scary. I was a neurotic bourgeois ephebe, after all. I couldn’t compete with him and I didn’t feel I could trust him. He was vivid and intense, uncompromising. I sensed he was gonna follow the line of greatest resistance wherever it led, something like that. Self annihilation, in the Romantic tradition, seemed to be part of his program. I could dig that, on some level, but I didn’t wanna get too involved.


BL: Why did Laurence not publish more during his lifetime (books, chapbooks, journals/magazines)? What was his involvement with the poetry scenes in NY and SF (any affiliations with the Beats, Language poets, NY School)?


Allan Graubard: He didn’t care for literary or poetry journals. He didn’t care for any scene that did not reveal to him marvelous values. And he was a bit anti-social when it came to other poets and writers that he did not immediately take to in terms of poetic evidence.  He was not out to make a career for himself as a poet. But he also took things a bit too far in that regard.  And it hurt him in the end. For Laurence, the “poetry scene” was just another sad sideshow; the Beats over and done with and, for just a few, never as interesting as too many people made them out to be; the Language poets were an excrescence of vapidity; and literary careerists could stuff their “careers.” He was the other voice. And he lived that.


Will Alexander: The first time I met him was in the late 70s/early 80s in San Francisco. He was an elegant cat. He saw the world through surrealist lenses. And it shows in all the work. There’s a stream of a singular mindset. His writing was a private activity, but he would read his new creations to me on the phone. I was always encouraging him to go out and move stuff around, get his work out there. After the World Surrealist Exhibition in 1976, a falling out with the Chicago Surrealist Group, and as other groups dissolved he went into a more socially hermetic kingdom. That’s the Laurence I knew. He had a magnificent library. I have a book on Tibetan dream interpretation from his library I’m reading right now.

The Heart is the Only Master by L.W.

BL: Can you comment on Laurence’s peripatetic life? His travels to Indonesia and Mexico (what prompted them, etc.)?

Allan Graubard: For Laurence, travel was a dream until he met Alice, they became a couple and both entered the surrealist group around Philip Lamantia in San Francisco. They didn’t have much money either. Who did? During summers, they went east to Alice’s family “farm” in rural Pennsylvania. Walter Farley, Alice’s father, was a successful author—the creator of the “Black Stallion” line of novels—and wrote in a small studio behind the house with its big windows and deck and swimming hole surrounded by trees. A beautiful, isolated, somewhat wild spot…

They went to Mexico in 1976, where they met their friend Peter Garland, prior to the World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago. When Laurence left on that trip, he gave Tom Burghardt a manuscript of poems for safekeeping, which later reappeared in his collected papers after his (Laurence’s) death.

L.W. in Mexico

Laurence would return to Mexico, visit Paris, and Indonesia. It fed his wanderlust, which we all shared. He was planning to move back to Oaxaca when he died. From his travels he tasted a kind of freedom and despair that fed him and his writing. Laurence was very good with people he liked and could make do in a foreign society with ease despite his elementary Spanish.

Always, he sought the exotic, the magical, and the poetic. He had a keen eye for locality and culture, and enjoyed them. Once, in order to help him cure his drinking, he sought out a Mexican curandero; I don’t recall the drug she used with him. He mentioned it helped him. His poems reveal other experiences. He hated being a tourist; he wanted to travel more widely than he did. Otherwise his life in the US—moving between LA, SF, NY, with visits to Arizona (where he twice viewed Katina ceremonies) —were a result of two things: desire for change of place and failure to find a way to make a living in anyplace.


Brian Lucas is a poet, musician, and artist living in Oakland, CA. He’s the author of Circles Matter (2012, BlazeVox Books), Telepathic Bones (2011, Berkeley Neo-Baroque), and Light House (2006, Meeting Eyes Bindery). He plays in the improv-ambient group Cloud Shepherd. His visual art blog is at

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