This is not an e-mail: Excerpt from “Robert Duncan in San Francisco” by Michael Rumaker

February has been, at some point in time or another, unofficially deemed “letter writing month” Recognized elsewhere or not, we’re going with it.  Throughout the month, we’ll celebrate the lost art of letter writing by featuring new and backlisted titles published by City Lights, as well as collections in our store. Enjoy!

Let’s start with the never-before published letters between poets Michael Rumaker and Robert Duncan, which appear in the new edition of the classic Robert Duncan in San Francisco:

Michael Rumaker to Robert Duncan, September 19, 1956

Dear Robert,

I finally got your address from Mary F. [Fiore] I’m leaving for San Francisco on October 15 or 16-probably hitchhike as far west as I can; plane too damned expensive and you don’t see anything; train a drag, cost more than the plane, figuring meals, wear and tear, etc. Anyway, I’m having my stuff shipped air freight (trunk and typewriter) and want to know if it will be all right to have it sent care of your address. Friends advised me that they knew plenty of people in Frisco but when it came to a showdown turns out they only know them slightly or haven’t seen them in years. You see, I’d wanted a place to stay until I found a job and could get a room or something of my own. So if you know somebody who’s willing to put up with me for awhile, I’d be very grateful. If worse comes to worse I’ll put up at the Y, but I’d rather not have to do that. Also, if you hear of any not too impossible jobs available, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep me in mind. Will you let me know what you think of all this as soon as possible?

Am getting very excited about going away from here. Have started my journal again (due, I think, to your enthusiasm), and a nutsy story, meandering and sick, just going on and stopping and braking, all the parts loosely connected, trying to see if I can write from the “I” since the invisible third person doesn’t seem to want to work right now. But I’ll get back to that. I really believe once I get out of here I’ll be all right again. I’m not expecting anything great in San Francisco. If it’s there, fine. If not, okay. But it’s the change I need, ‘the new scene,’ and it’s that I know will stimulate and get me going again. Cant sleep here, cant work and everything gets more and more tangled. Impossible and stupid. [. . .] Hope to hear from you soon.

Love, Mike

Robert Duncan to Michael Rumaker, October 5, 1956

Dear Mike / ‘As soon as possible”-and here it is two weeks at least since I received your letter. Yes, you can send your things care of me at this address [1137 De Haro]. Where we will find a place for you to stay is still up in the air. When I got your letter I phoned Tom Field who was looking for a place himself-but I haven’t seen him since. If that worked out, it might be easiest for you but however it goes I think I can find a corner of this city ready for you when you arrive.

I am just getting down to correspondence again-two days ago we were given a perfect little writing desk, almost classical for letters: so it is a pleasure to sit and write on and maybe on. Jess has finished building all the book-shelves and the books are somewhat distributed, and paintings are on the wall, and we are in debt for a handsome new Columbia phonograph model Kilosphere: it is like living.

News comes that Black Mountain has suspended operations (for the winter?)-Wes had me call him long distance to ask me if I could find out if there was any possibility of enrollment around here for one of BMC’s G.I.s; and also to ask if he might find a theater out here. I wonder if there would be any chance of any of MEDEA’s cast coming west?? I finished that first play, you know-for production there. Ann Simone is almost irreplaceable-Now, having completed the “Preface” for Letters, my task is to do some re-writing on the prolog for the play: and to submit it then to a theater group here. The Poetry Center plans for a theater failed to find funds.

We are looking forward to your arrival-

Love, Robert


robertduncancoverA newly expanded edition of an enduring classic, Robert Duncan in San Francisco is both a portrait of the premier poet of the SF Renaissance and a fascinating account of gay life in late 1950s America. Following his graduation from Black Mountain College, Michael Rumaker made his way to the post-Howl, pre-Stonewall gay literary milieu of San Francisco, where he entered the circle of Robert Duncan. His account of that time gives an unvarnished look at Duncan’s magnetic personality and occasional failings, while delivering vivid snapshots of other significant poets like Jack Spicer, John Wieners, and Joanne Kyger, against the backdrop of legendary North Beach haunts like The Place, Vesuvio, and City Lights Books. Contrasting Duncan’s daringly frank homosexuality with his own then-closeted life, Rumaker conjures up with harrowing detail an era of police persecution of a largely clandestine gay community struggling to survive in the otherwise “open city” of San Francisco. First published in 1996, this expanded edition includes a selection of previously unpublished letters between Rumaker and Duncan, and an interview conducted for this edition, in which Rumaker provides further reflections on the poet and the period.

Read the introduction and first chapter here.

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