Stop a Head when Flashing


[note] I wrote this for a publisher who wanted something about the people, days and events in it. After he accepted it, I checked it with Charlie and he objected to what, in his memory (admittedly somewhat more acute than mine, for reasons that will become apparent). I pulled it, so you’re reading it fresh. Rather than change it, I’ll just call it a work of pure fiction, and add Charlie’s objections in the home stretch. Let the reader make of it whatever he or she likes.

Charles Potts and I met in Pocatello not long before he left for Mexico, so I didn’t get to know him well until he showed up months later in Seattle. Charlie and LSD came on me at about the same time. Acid was stronger, but had nowhere near Charlie’s legs. He was staying with a friend in Olympia, intent on starting a poetry magazine in Seattle. I had quit my job at Boeing the day after dropping my first acid. I had a room in Abie Label’s “artist’s colony” on the eleventh floor of the Frye Hotel at 2nd and Yesler.(It wasn’t all altruism-the elevator went only to 10. The rooms on 11 were just over 6 ft high on one side, sloping up to about 7 and a half on the other to allow for drainage from the roof.)


I had been reading publications like Screw and Fuck, a lot of Ed Sanders’ and Tuli Kupferberg’s stuff, and other arcana of hipness at Jean Andre’s Id Bookstore on 1st Avenue at Yesler, kitty corner Pioneer Square. Sitting around the Id a lot, one lighthearted day (if that’s the right body part), I wrote a send-up of Poe, encountering his eponymous Raven on acid.

Everybody I read it to thought it was cool, naturally, so I was having my 15 minutes when Charlie came back from Mexico with poetry, or more accurately producing a poetry mag on his mind. He didn’t have a name for it yet, and in my new-found acid consciousness, I reached down into memories of my boyhood and found “Litmus”, with its cool dual entendre of the little strips of paper chemists use to test solutions for acidity, and the alliteral allusion to literature. This account is disputed by the estimable, and otherwise absolutely dependable Larry Kent,  also present and the time, and making the same claim for himself. Maybe we had become the same person in that moment. The difference was that I knew exactly what the idea had sprung from.

My father had given me a chemistry set for Christmas back when you could still get one with everything needed to make black powder. His demonstration of the use of litmus paper was magical, indelible in my memory. I’m not sure Charles is ready even now to acknowledge that I named Litmus. I let him down in the stretch, leading up to the appearance of #1, by failing to get the big old multilith printing machine into orbit, that I had acquired in hopes of ensuring book quality printing work.  I was also smoking a lot of weed by, and during, the time he was laboring herculanimously to get #1 out, and off, and on multiple fronts. He took a job at a motorcycle tire dealer to save enough to move to Seattle from Olympia, where he had, in a very short time, become a popular reader in the [name?] coffeehouse.

I’d had friction with some of the artists at the Frye by then. Their underwear bunched up at my plan to move a noisy printing machine into their Zen sanctuary, as it might disrupt the flow of lissome art groupies fluttering in and out of their ersatz ashram. With no appetite for another war, ‘Nam nowhere near over yet, I bailed from there.

Charles and I took an apartment together for a couple months in Belltown, on 2nd Avenue. We found it tastelessly ironic that our new pad was directly above the navy recruiter’s office. That any of our crowd had to pass the “Go Navy” sign to reach our door, tickled us nonetheless. It was there where I took the photo of Edward Smith in the same bathtub where Charlie has written elsewhere that he had found his roommate breaking up a “key”, and it was also there where I shot the picture of Charlie uprooting the Space Needle, both hands under the cap as if it were a great metallic fungus.

Edward Smith was one of several persons that Charlie and I met in the poetry workshops we led together for the Magic Mountain’s Miriam Rader and her Free University of Seattle project, who would become influential in our lives. I was a farce as far as being a poetry teacher goes. I was a humorist abusing the privilege by pretending to write poetry. While the occasional jokes might amuse, they didn’t make for good poetry. A redeeming fact, perhaps, was that I recognized this before anyone else, with the outcome being that I dumped the A B Dick lemon on a guy eager to strike a blow against the man in the form of a magazine for transvestites, and I bailed.

This left Charlie holding the growing poetry bag-Litmus, poetry class, and all, but with with a pair of good hands. I moved into the back room at Jack Cabe’s Zig Zag Gallery in the Pike Place Market, where I would still be in a position to help Charlie host the “Theodore Roethke Gladness Wake” (he still has the flyers!) About that event I can say that on that evening, Charlie, Edward and another former Pocatellan, Clair Oursler, showed me how exciting a live poetry reading could be; it really had to be if it was to do more than merely derive from others’ earlier work, however magnificent.

Of course I did my Poe turn, which was already tasting stale in my mouth. Edward read his feminist call to arms, “Rise up my cunted ones”; Charlie read “I dream of Oaxaca” (which I had been the first person to hear, earlier, when he finished writing it in Belltown), and Clair, astonishingly enough, read the product liner notes from a package of VA douche powder, by the light of an electric lint remover. Whatever one thinks of Roethke, his name lost some of its luster that night, or if not, at least the 30-odd poets and hipsters who attended the readings left less inclined, probably, to use reverential tones when dropping the name.

Another poet who read was David Hiatt. Because I didn’t know him well, I lost complete memory of him and his reading until recently, although I was always aware that there was a hot poetry connection between him and Charles Potts. I recently got a Facebook friend request from David, and in a subsequent exchange of messages he debunked my presumption of propinquity between him and the too-soon-gone poet, Ben Hiatt, he reminded me that I had given him a small amount of “walking around money” at that reading. Maybe Facebook is as close as we have yet come to the global electronic village promised us all those decades ago by Marshall McLuhan and Tim Leary.

My Poe takedown appeared in Litmus #1, which also used my B/W photo of a spider on a chrysanthemum on the cover. From then on, as a result of having met David Horton, already a master photographer espoused to another of the dozen or so brilliant attendees of the poetry class, he became my mentor in a visual art form for which I thought I had more aptitude than for writing poetry. Prose was always more “my thing”, and we all know its not the same.

I was probably a little jealous of the bond I watched grow so quickly between Charles and Edward; they are, or were, now Ed is deceased, both eminently loveable men. The final cooling stroke in the relationship between Charles and I was delivered in the person of Janice P, a lively Nordic blonde, with  a large Alsatian, and  also in the poetry class. We thought of her as our groupie, as she had put a lip-lock on Charlie before you could say “fellatio trumps cunnilingus”. In the end, she threw us both over for a guy who “could beat her at tennis,” but I chalked it up to a rough first acid trip. Twenty years later, either one of us would have accepted the tennis challenge, switching gender roles for the Bobby Riggs-Billy Jean King Classic match-up result, but I didn’t come here to take up sports writing.

For awhile, as time was reckoned in the Summer of Love, it was fair to say she was Charlie’s girl. One day she came around the gallery looking for Charlie, so she said, and I don’t claim otherwise. Charlie wasn’t there, nor was he usually, for if not at his job, he would be very busy working to get Litmus out. Before anyone but the rare clearheaded person realized what was happening, Janice and I were putting the wood away on the gallery floor while the Alsatian licked his balls in the corner.

I felt a little self-conscious about it afterward, all our fashionable pretensions about the correctness of free love notwithstanding. I didn’t think Charlie was too pleased about it either when I told him later, but the damage was done. A few months, a thousand poetry publishing headaches, and a few issues of Litmus later, and Charlie was off to meet his alter ego, Laffing Water in Berkeley (cf. Vol II, Valga Krusa, Green Panda, 2007, Cleveland).

It’s been said that if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t there, and there may be truth in it. I sent the above text to Charles, expecting his memory to be as good or better than mine. Our versions don’t match, but I have neither an argument against his, nor an inclination to vary mine, since I remember it. Even so, I concede to Charles’ account of his motivations, intentions and actions. His mind wasn’t nearly as addled with weed, wine and psychecelics as mine, then or ever. His account of the time follows:

“Per the biography, my memory is substantially different from yours. I did not return from Mexico or move to Seattle obsessed with publishing a poetry magazine. When we re-met in Seattle, you and David Wagner and others whose names escape me were planning an anti-war anti-establishment magazine that was to be called Shrapnel. For which Wagner had made a proto typical cover misspelling the word as Scrapnel I believe.

What I offered in those late days of August was to procure some poetry for this magazine as I had left Pocatello feeling slightly guilty that I had let Bob Serpa talk me out of including Dawn, Clair, and Mary Heckler in an anthology Serpa and I published called Do You Want to Be in Our Zoo Too? which contained the works of Serpa, CP, Zig, and Geoffrey Dunbar.

I had read Ford Madox Ford’s It Was the Nightingale which was a nightmare about publishing The Transatlantic Review and I had determined never to be the editor or publisher of a magazine.
As time went along, and the name of the projected magazine changed to Litmus, it became apparent that you and Wagner weren’t going to be able to produce. I was perfectly willing to let down my friends, Oursler, Dawn, and Mary Heckler one more time and let the project languish. It was only after the 3rd meeting of “Poetry—Language—Now” at the free university when Ed Smith read “The Queen of the Blue Fox” and we had a poem that had to be published, did I become obsessive about getting the first and second issues out, and subsequently took over the publishing in order to finish it.
Those are the most substantive objections to the portrayal of me in those days. Per the Theodore Roethke Gladness Wakes, the first one was you me and Clair. Ed Smith read at the 2nd one along with Paul Malanga and Bobby Byrd. [Charles Potts, personal email, 11 March 2009]

Sequelae: I sought Charlie out in Berkeley alongside a “buying trip” I had undertaken, as necessitated by seekers from Seattle in those early days of designer chemistry. I arrived at the airport early in the morning, bought a newspaper and took the bus into Berkeley. The headlines blared the the cops raiding Black Panther headquarters in Berkeley, killing two men, including Bobby Seale, and arresting Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton. It was not unexpected push-back by the police, and was viewed on the streets as the cops getting even for the Panthers well-established habit of “patrolling the pigs”, or cruising the streets of Oakland and Berkeley with serious firepower protruding from every window. It was a policy ostensibly designed to awaken all to a perceived need to protect local citizens from being harassed by police for walking while black.

Reaching Charlie’s room, I woke him up to read him this news, as he had as yet no inkling of it. It was a delicious moment for me, that rare one when any of his friends learned a salient fact before Charlie, always so diligent in his pursuit, and rarely forgetting anything. I imagine it enabled me to somewhat refuel Charles’ esteem of me as a reliable participant in our scene. I have been lucky in that way.

If you have read this far with any interest (and how could you not?)  and yet are unfamiliar with Valga Krusa (in 2 vols: The Yellow Christ, and Laffing Water, which details the hair-raising and heart-rending experiences of Charlie in Berkely, culminating in his descent into psychiatric hell, and subsequent (and quite brilliant) recovery, the book is available by contacting this space.

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