Friday, March 11, 2005

Phone Calls to Philip Lamantia 

- a note from Joseph Massey



Your email is the first word I've read about Lamantia's death. Yeah, when I first moved out here, almost four years ago, I found his name in a Bay Area telephone directory. I felt compelled to call him. I was very familiar with his work and more than a little star struck. The Beats were my introduction to poetry, starting with "On the Road" (the typical introduction). Through reading tons of Beat material,
Lamantia became a kind of mythical figure to me.

When he answered the phone I got nervous and asked for Cid Corman, knowing he would know who Cid is, and then I would say, "ah, damn, I called the wrong number -- who is this? you know Cid?" and he would say "of course! This is Philip Lamantia..." -- "Lamantia, Jesus, I love your stuff, wow!" And that's exactly what happened.

He asked me my name and he got excited when I answered. Apparently there was an African American poet named Joe Massey who wrote poems while in prison, in the 40's, and had some connection with Lamantia and other Surrealists.

Lamantia asked if I wanted to have coffee with him (he was jazzed over the "serendipity" of my call). I said yes, of course. I told him I'd call him in a few weeks before I planned on coming down to San Francisco. When I called him a few weeks later, he sounded very depressed -- he said he was, and on medication. He wouldn't be able to meet me. Even through that depressed state he was very kind, apologetic; he asked me a lot of questions of the “how are you doing“ variety -- a sweet guy.

During that conversation, I remember he talked about Native American history in Humboldt County, where I live. We talked a little about Patrick's Point state
park, one of my favorite local parks; he said he used to bird watch there, with his wife. He lamented the clear-cutting that goes on around here due to the evil lumber harvesting practices of Pacific Lumber Co. He recommended that I visit some local museums devoted to Native American history. He went into vast detail about what I'd find there -- a lot of information about basket weaving. The stories about Lamantia
having an encyclopedic mind are true.

I called him a third and final time, a few months after the phone call I just recounted -- this was about two years ago, in the spring, I think -- and he said he was still not feeling well. He sounded worse than the second time I had called him; I got off the phone. Didn't want to bother him.

So, I never got a chance to meet Lamantia, but the little time I got to spend in his company, over the phone, was a blessing.



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