We are all storytellers. Imagining the world, then sharing our tales through the written and spoken word is our genetic heritage. Come join Writers of Koh Phangan each Tuesday night at Orion’s waterfront Beach Shala for an evening of communing, writing, and sharing. Every level of writing experience welcome, including non-native English speakers. We learn, we swap ideas, and we have a ball writing and sharing on a theme, from a prompt. Bring something to write on, then shuffle in to the shala next to the restaurant, grab a mat and a bolster or two, and leave with a new story.
Mark Phinney’s epic weeklong Koh Phangan Man event, the second in a series, concluded this week. One of the joys of living on the island is the presence of numerous artists, entrepreneurs, and idealists innovating new modes of living, entertaining, and transforming.
With the talented Gabrielle Leon providing the background tunes, Liz Griffin and I performed the entire 3,000 word poem Howl as part of a playful sunset poetry happening we organized, “Filthy Sunset.” I also read Love’s Victim from Ovid’s “Amores.”
Earlier this year, I visited City Lights Bookstore, the scene of the legal battle to publish Howl six decades ago, and talked to the store’s manager Elaine Katzenberger about that unique fight for First Amendment free speech protections. Here are excerpts from that interview, parts of which will be used in my upcoming book on the art and alchemy of successful political protests.
There is a museum at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborh0od dedicated to the beats. It’s worth visiting but for my money the sacred epicenter of the social movements that shook the youth of a nation for decades is across at the street at City Lights bookstore. Any bookstore is magic, the holder of promised secrets and a slice of the grand history of human knowledge. City Lights, with its mythic origins and tumultuous past is one of a tiny subset of literary shops that holds something more, something sacred. I walk in and a mother stands at a respectful distance while her pre-teen boy engages the cashier in a line of questioning. Do you have this book, where can I find books on that subject, mom knowing some of the answers but choosing to allow the experience of discovery.
I met the manager of City Lights bookstore (and publishing house) some years back when I video recorded and livestreamed some of their author events for FORA.tv. Elaine Katzenberger is, as you might imagine, a thoughtful and interesting woman, two attributes required to choreograph the visitor experience and keep it relevant as one of America’s important bookstores. On this weekday morning, the place was packed buzzing with visitors, the out-of-town tourists, the loyal locals, and no doubt one or two devotees of the faith, the never-ending pursuit of that one new book that will crack open the universe in some new way.
Gruber: Why is City Lights such a quintessential part of San Francisco’s civic life?
Katzenberger: Well, I don’t really think of it as belonging to San Francisco because people who don’t live here come for the same reasons that you do and that I was originally drawn here. San Francisco was the place Lawrence birthed City Lights, but it has transcended that, it’s more of a world location and it holds something that people need. It also may sound a bit abstract or metaphysically corny…
Gruber: Keep it coming.
Katzenberger: It has to do with ideals, feelings of integrity; there are a lot of interpretations that have been layered over the founding stories. Some visitors are just tourists, and some are clearly making a pilgrimage, but everybody is looking for the same thing on some level.
Gruber: And what is that?
Katzenberger: People would use different words – it’s a large stew – but it’s that creativity trumps capitalism, and that the human spirit is somehow communicating with other human spirits in this way that is authentic, and not subject to the rules that the rest of the economy is playing by. Maybe that’s why San Franciscans who have lived here a long time want to claim it, because the city used to talk about itself that way, it was an illusion, but a lot of people came to San Francisco for the same reason that people come now to City Lights.
Gruber: Lawrence is about to have a big (100th) birthday. Can you articulate what was the ethos at that time, the ethos of the beats that motivated Lawrence to publish Howlin 1956? What was happening then, particularly in the context of how that might be relevant now?
Katzenberger: Lawrence always talks about how, first and foremost, he wanted to publish it because he identified it as groundbreaking poetry, he thought that Ginsberg was doing something that no one had done, and that had to do with poetics as (much as) anything else. And then, in terms of the content, the way in which the poem decries capitalism and militarism, that is what the counterculture in the 1960s was trying to talk about, rebellion against conformism, against the celebration of what capitalism was supposed to bring to quote, unquote average Americans. It meant reaching for freedom outside of that, somehow captured in this poem, which was especially exciting to him (Ferlinghetti). It was also the shared declamatory nature of it, very much talking about making poetry some form of actual communication, and that was part of what the beats were about, poetry as speech, poetry as a way of actually getting the message across.
Gruber: A key focus for the store is books on progressive politics. What does it mean to be progressive?
Katzenberger: Another big question. Something to do with putting the social contract with other human beings and other life forms on the planet before profit and power.
Gruber: One of the premises of the ’56 trial was that Ginsberg and, by extension, Ferlinghetti, were subversive. Do you think that the acts of protests of Ferlinghetti and the beat poets and the kind of literary explorations that City Lights does are patriotic, are aligned with what the founders had in mind in terms of how citizens need to be engaged politically?
Katzenberger: Obviously. If you want to be able to participate in a democracy, you need to be able to not only be informed, but to form opinions based on critical thinking, all of those things are part of civic life and a healthy democracy.
Gruber: When a visitor walks out of your store, what do you hope they leave with, in addition to a large handful of books? What’s the experience?
Katzenberger: I hope they feel validated in being part of a community of interesting, thoughtful, sensitive human beings. That’s what books have always given me. That’s what I hope that books give other people too.
I started Writers of Koh Phangan two years ago, after participating in writers’ groups in San Francisco and Berkeley. I especially enjoyed writing prompts, with the group getting a theme or guidelines, writing for a specified period, then sharing with the group. It built confidence, and nurtured the sheer joy of creating and sharing in a communal setting. We started on Phangan in a British pub in Thongsala then moved to a queer place, the waterfront Beach Shala at Orion Healing Centre in Srithanu.
Lately we have been using short clips of Master Class videos on themes such as finding your voice, coming up with ideas, using an outline, from writers such as Neil Gaiman, James Pattison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Malcom Gladwell. But the main event is always the prompt, and we experiment with various forms; breaking into small groups for feedback, longer vs shorter sessions, pulling words out of a grab bag to include in one’s stories.
The groups range in size, sometimes more intimate gatherings of 6-10, frequently groups of 12-20. Orion provides the space for free. All of our events are free to the community, including our Phangan Poetry Jams at Green Gallery and occasional book club offerings (On the Road, Sapiens, Henry and June, Siddhartha).
Our Facebook group just surpassed 400, quite a thing on an island with about 2,000 expats.
Sharing is optional but most people do. The stories are often highly personal, and attendees seem to feel safe sharing their most intimate and vulnerable thoughts. Many, as with 2-3 storytellers last night, say they in their lives shared their writing publicly. One Vietnamese woman said she has been writing almost daily since five, and her reading was the first she had ever done publicly.
Here is mine from last night. The stories by definition are rough, unedited, and something of a risk to share in print. Enjoy!
Oh, businesses have been complaining that this “low season” has been unusually slow. So Low Season was the theme, and I chose to interpret it as a reflection of mood, or mental state.
The epiphany arrives during my 234th$180 per hour session with my therapist, realizing in a furious burst of insight that he, a kind man, was useless to me. Each week, he sits there, waiting for me to speak, and I go on and on through the same material, boring even myself, certainly Dr. Frederick as the lids of his eyes drop to half mast, a large wooden Buddha staring listlessly at his feet as I, as we, get nowhere.
I am on 11 medications, anti-anxiety, depression, ADHD, heart meds, and I am a wreck, wandering oftentimes through my Baltimore neighborhood dazed and suicidal.
I am at my lowest ebb, and the more I read about my condition, the more I explore my dog-eared copy of DSM-V, the worse I feel. I leafed through the book at random last week and found myself muttering, I got that, yeah, that too, oh definitely that, whoa, and I think that’smy main problem.
I am afflicted with a disease that if not yet epidemic is on its way, and that is American ennui, consumerist addiction, addiction to shopping, to screens, to schadenfreude, to violence, and I believe there is a way out of this lowest of low passages, but it’s not with Frederick. So, I walked up and out of his life forever, mid-session, him stammering something about insurance files.
The end is near and I ponder the correct reaction. I don’t want to mope, to complain, to succumb, I want to rise above it, and do it in a stylish manner, something whereby a Baltimore Sunreader, while perusing my obituary, might say, hey, that’s clever, I might do that myself.
And so, I began walking, a wallet, a flimsy backpack, 3 not yet maxed out credit cards, 1,500 dollars, and cold turkey on the medications, thus only a toothbrush, Tom’s spearmint toothpaste, and some deodorant, Neosporin and Advil in toiletry bag.
My plan is, walk across the country, and figure it all out. I’m 44, I’ve had what you might call a good life, a couple divorces, a couple kids, a couple college degrees, but it seems shit to me now and I had my second epiphany which is, this low season, this declaration of the absurdity of my life is my liberation. I believe in nothing but if I was a believer, I would say, I buy in to the idea that you have to shed your skin, your musty overwrought life, and push out in some new direction. I threw away my phone in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I‘m sure people are worried and that this is all irresponsible but, maybe it’s the withdrawal from the Ritalin Zanax Prozac Statins cocktail, it all seems clear to me now.
I have waves of insight, and nausea, and ideas that I come to think of as revelations. OK, ready? Here’s a few,
I’ve lived for nothing. Love my kids but sorry, for nothing. Nothing.
Western civilization is on the brink of extinction, the species too by extension. All the Descartes “I think therefore I am” rationalism and peer-reviewed science and global financial networks have brought us to the brink. I think we’re doomed. I say that with no malice or fear. Why not stare it in the face?
I believe I am the messiah. Well, to be more specific, the one and only savior of my world, my soul, my sense of wellness, I believe in myself and in my capacity to be well.
I pull my ruled notepaper out of the wet back pocket of my jeans. I wrote out a plan, and it’s simple. I will walk across the country, and by the time I hit the Pacific Ocean, I will have a new plan for my life, a career path, a program of self-care, I will have a new love interest, I will have a sudden set of realizations about the nature of reality and life on earth and America, or I will jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and do myself.
And so, I have scribbled notes on a new business idea, I wrote out details of a new exercise plan and I’m going to go vegan, I have pages and pages of philosophical meanderings, and I’m sitting in a bar at 1am, and a woman with crooked teeth is giggling and staring at me, so, I would say my chances of survival are pretty good. Wouldn’t you?
On an occasional basis, monthly during high season, spoken word artists from around the island come together to perform under the mango tree at Green Gallery on Koh Phangan. There are always surprises, some choreographed in advance, some spontaneous sharing from the audience. Phangan Poetry Jam is an ongoing project of Writers of Koh Phangan, a group I founded 20 months ago. We recently added our 400th member, quite a group on a small Thai island with 2,000 expats.
I perform the Master of Ceremonies role so I often choose not topresent. This time, I presented two pieces. One, the opening page of my last book “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation,” and an except of my interview with Adbusters publisher and Occupy Wall Street provocateur Kalle Lasn.
Michal Dohan, the impressive proprietor of Green Gallery, set up, once again, a living style set, with a couch and both a handheld and standup mic. The night was lovely, with a near full moon and a calm about the place. Perfect weather.
Here is the Cobham book piece that I read, imagining how Bill’s love for percussion originated in his Bedford-Stuyvesant walkup brownstone.
Chapter ONE: In the Beginning
Brooklyn, New York, Spring 1947
A three-year-old boy alone in his room on a Saturday morning is master of the universe.
The rest of the week is regulated by Ivy and William Senior. What to eat, what to wear, what to hear. Bath time, shopping time, promenade time. And this just months into the cacophony of Bedford-Stuyvesant life. The Cristobaltransports the family from Panamanian shantytown Colon to Manhattan’s west side, then they’re on to Harlem, then Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy, Chauncey Street, across from Fulton Park, a brownstone clustered with other Caribbean households.
Saturday morning at the park is time for driving percussive beats, untamed power. The boy notices the Puertorriqueño, Cubano, Colombiano, Panameno congueros in the neighborhood, coming off the ‘A’ train on Utica Avenue all week long. Exhausted bus drivers, filthy construction laborers, put-upon janitors, exasperated store owners, all beholden, controlled by someone or something. The twenty-something Nicaraguan accosted by his girlfriend with furious accusations, the older fellow burdened by some damn thing. A week of complaining, protesting, bemoaning. Then…Saturday comes.
It’s 1947, so Saturday morning cartoons on black-and-white televisions are a decade away. He’ll have to wait till he’s eight to make his weekly trek with kids on the block to the local movie theatre for six hours of movies, shorts, cartoons, and trailers. These men, some just back from World War II service in Europe or the Pacific, some feeling sucked dry from a week of bosses, cops, families, life, exude power and joy, their laughs are fierce, fat, and ecstatic. He is captivated, the beats filling his room. Here’s an early lesson: joy, power, freedom, human connection flow from the hands of men who can drive a beat forward.
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I then read this short excerpt from an extended interview with Lasn in Vancouver, about the effects of the “mental environment” of western culture and the value of travel in transforming and clarifying one’s view of the world. The full interview will be in the upcoming book fro the Surmountable project on the art and alchemy of effective protest.
Gruber: How does a young person who has grown up in the mental environment you’ve described engage in the world effectively?
Lasn: For most people, I just feel like saying to them, you’re all fucked up, go back and start from zero. That’s really my advice. If we can identify the memes and meta-memes and come up with books with big ideas, a new set of first principles, this is something I still believe in. Trying to talk some guy in San Francisco into living a more benign life, I don’t have time for that.
Gruber: In the Culture Jam book, you made some provocative statements; one of them is, a free, authentic life is no longer possible in America today.
Lasn: No, I don’t think so. It was motivated by the reality of what a constant barrage of two or three thousand marketing messages actually does to your brain. I mean, once your brain has been pickled with emotionally coercive advertising like that, from the moment that you’re a little kid, you’re running around the living room, you’re looking at the TV set, then you’re a cooked goose.
Gruber: It’s not just the advertising, it’s in the television shows you watch, the movies, the way the culture is formed and structured, the cars people buy and the reason that they buy them, what you see as you walk down the street. Living on a Thai island, coming back to visit, it’s an interesting difference in the physical and mental living experience.
Lasn: I can understand that. I also understood that when I traveled around the world for three years, when I was young, I found people who were still authentic, still alive, still real. And then you arrive back in LA, and you realize that these people running around America, they’ve lost it, they just can’t live an authentic life anymore. They’re finished.
Gruber: You mentioned the travel experience. I think for many people the experience of travel is a kind of revolutionary personal act.
Lasn: I’m still running on that juice. I have never forgotten many of the lessons and epiphanies I had during those three years. And actually, there is an answer to that young guy in San Francisco, the answer is, go travelling. Go travelling, go and find yourself. Find your true self. Go travelling, go to Thailand, go to magic mushroom village in Mexico, look at the people in the streets of Calcutta dropping off like flies, and then come back and then figure out what has to happen.
Next Phangan Poetry Jam is slated for late November, details to be announced at the Writers of Koh Phangan Facebook group page.
Koh Phangan is a long way to come for a writers group meetup but if you are on the island, come by some time. Each Tuesday night at 7:30pm, aspiring island writers meet to connect, create, share their work, and learn. We write from prompts at Orion’s gorgeous waterfront Beach Shala.
Join the island’s writers group, Writers of Koh Phangan, for news of regular free events, and network with 300 fellow storytellers.. Whether you are on or off the island, free introductory coaching sessions on your project or writing process are available, as well as longer term writing coaching programs. Have a writing project you need help completing? Email me at email@example.com.
Also… our next book club event is 15 May 6pm for a discussion of Anais Nin’s erotic classic “Henry and June.” Read the book or watch the movie or just come with a passion for Nin or Henry Miller.