Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.
Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
I’m planning to teach Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (or excerpts therefrom, not the book in its entirety) in my course this fall. The work is a serial poem begun by Di Prima in 1968. It was published as part of the famed Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books — the same series that released the original iconic edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems a decade earlier. Di Prima lived for much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew in upstate New York on the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook.
I haven’t been much of a late-night DJ lately, speaking out across the airwaves, broadcasting via trance-script. Sarah and I have been hard at work. Time to relax, clink glasses, admire a mason jar filled with roses and azaleas picked from our garden. But work calls and the baby calls, placing demands upon our time. A student shares with me Allen Ginsberg’s plea to the Hell’s Angels, a piece the poet read at San Jose State College, asking the Angels not to violently disrupt a peace protest. Why did the Angels refuse Ginsberg’s plea? Was there a flaw in the poet’s telling of the difference between poetry and rhetoric? It’s the same difference Audre Lorde struggles to master in her poem “Power.” How does one ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence? Gene Youngblood says leave the culture without leaving the country. Secede from the broadcast. Build the worlds that will be the destinations and destinies of those who walk away. Use these worlds for meditation and transform oneself. “You’re either leaving,” Gene notes, “or you’re not.” Invite alterity into one’s media universe. Gene calls the current era “The Build,” as we detach from the corporate-state broadcast into that which comes next.
“You there,” says a cursor, a pointing finger: “Feed your head.” DC hardcore bands of the 1980s laughed off the hippies, refused to remember what the dormouse said. Contra Jefferson Airplane, they clamped down defensively, shouting “Flex your head” through speakers and sound systems across time. That stance appealed to me. I was hailed by it. It formed me into a position as a particular kind of subject. Emanating from the capital, coeval with an era of federally-waged drug war, straightedgers like Ian MacKaye denounced drugs as “crutches.” The stance conveyed an ableism that was simultaneously hyper-defensive, its anger a reaction to fear. As punks, MacKaye and his friends and bandmates faced routine bullying and marginalization. Early episodes of teenage drug use led to denunciations of party culture, as on Government Issue’s “Rock’n Roll Bullshit,” and dramatic public acts of abstention from drug-assisted Dionysian revelry, as on Minor Threat tracks like “Out of Step” and “Straight Edge.” Always flexing, never feeding. It took years for me to recover and loosen up — but loosen up I did.
The Hippie counterculture can be imagined as a kind of heroic collective subject. History needn’t be told only in the tragic and dystopian modes preferred by the Western hegemon. Picture instead “Evolvers” on the West Coast wearing sunglasses, edgelords opening portals onto virtual frontiers. The internet needn’t be cast only in the role of Dark Side of the Moon. Earth needn’t be distant. Earth and its profusion of life. The Revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron observed, “will be no rerun.” One hero’s fate needn’t be the fate of the character in each of the myth’s retellings. Time to bypass the past, pursue a different path.
We adjust into our roles, that which is demanded of us, we grow into the space-time afforded. By these means we deliver unto each other spontaneous collective beatific visions. Turning ourselves into players in a living theater, we pursue walks, meditations, digressions; we deliver field reports and other odd utterances from wonderlands and other elsewheres. Dreamwork integrated into each day. Julian Beck was one of the invited guests — one of the performers, we might say — at the Dialectics of Liberation conference. Beck was a co-founder and director of The Living Theater. He published a book of poems years later called Living in Volkswagen Buses and Other Songs of the Revolution. Forming a story out of it is up to us. Look, perhaps, to Steven Foster and his School of Lost Borders. Foster taught romantic poetry in the Humanities department at San Francisco State University. During the strike that occurred there in 1968, he sided with the students: an act of rebellion that got him fired. After that, he became a kind of “white shaman,” I guess, and started staging modern initiation rites, “vision quests” involving three-day, three-night fasts, alone, in nature. That’s the problem with so many of these characters of the Sixties — most of them disappoint as they fade. The trick, then, is to imagine the alternate future, where they successfully walk away.
On these walks each day around my neighborhood, I weigh possibilities for revolution and admire trees and gardens. Yet so much else of the capitalist neighborhood seems distant, alien, preconstituted, practico-inert. Little sense of community other than polite hellos. Nods of the head, the assumption being all of us are “about our business,” do not disturb. This is what it’s like, existentially, to live under the regime of social distancing — while in some more abstract sense, everything around one is the land of Trump. Time to practice drumming and horn-blowing. Noisy, clamorous complaint. Yet the parent in me knows to be quiet so as not to wake the baby during her nap. She’ll wake on her own when she’s ready. Or WE will: into happier times, each day tending toward the better. So too with consciousness. The surrealist revolution attempted a synthesis, an overcoming of dualisms, did a stately pleasure-dome decree: dream-states and pleasure-states reconciled with reality. Or so it seemed as I sat after my walk, mind at play. A student’s paper has me thinking about the politics of “liberation.” By dream or by memory I summon up before me a book from Verso, The Dialectics of Liberation, resting in a stack of books across from me atop Lenore Kandel’s Word Alchemy. What better thing to read? Dialectics of Liberation was a congress held at the Roundhouse in London in 1967. Radical “anti-psychiatrists” like David Cooper and R.D. Laing met with Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, among others. Paul Goodman was there, as was Gregory Bateson. A “curious pastiche,” as Cooper says in his introduction. In a kind of “circus poster” at the start of her book Word Alchemy, meanwhile, Kandel announces, “ALL dreams ARE true / THIS is a dream / THIS is TRUE.” Kandel’s poems are funky, wonderful, and witchy.
White roses overgrow a trellis beside the driveway. I admire them from atop my perch on my front stoop as I shelter in place. Look at all the lovely everything, the leafy and flowery manifold Earth, sunlit and glorious, waving in the wind! A softness, a gentleness, enters into one’s manner. A grey tabby that likes to visit now and then sleeps out on my porch. I let it. Dreamboat baby tell all. At some point, though, I plan to grill some hot dogs. In a journal I note down the following: “In an imaginary interview published in his book Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie Hoffman uses language borrowed from his mentor Abraham Maslow to signal how his own approach and vision differed from those of his contemporaries in the New Left. Movements for change should be built, he says, not on sacrifice, dedication, responsibility, anger, frustration, and guilt, but on fun. ‘When I say fun,’ he tells the interviewer, ‘I mean an experience so intense that you actualize your full potential. You become LIFE. LIFE IS FUN’ (61-62).”