I was born in San Francisco, and have lived here almost my entire life. I was born at home, premature. My mother said the doctor told her I would not live a long life. Now I’m 71 and the doctor is long dead.
My father was seventeen years older than my mother, and they fought constantly… When my mother wasn’t yelling at my father, she was yelling at me. This left deep scars which is reflected in my book Scar Tissue.
My mother was born in Canada and was smuggled illegally into the U.S. when she was three years old. When she later tried to become a U.S. citizen, she was told by immigration officials that there were no records of her entry into the country, and was advised not to pursue the matter or she might face deportation. She died a woman without a country.
My father had a difficult time expressing himself. It was my mother who took me for walks in the park and to the movies. My father didn’t like his job as a grip man on the Municipal Railway and frequently called in sick. The fondest memories I have of my childhood were the times we gathered in the living room to listen to our favorite radio shows. (The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger) and the occasional weekend trips to Alum Park and the Russian River. However, the good times were few and far between, in what can only be described as a dysfunctional family.
I was a misfit in both grammar and high school. I was shy and largely kept to myself. I spent time at the public library, where I discovered the works of Jack London and day dreamed of shipping off to sea and writing of my own adventures.
I joined the Air Force in 1954 and was assigned to an Air Base Defense Unit, which doubled in peacetime as an Air Police Unit. I spent three years in Panama, where I saw the President of Panama assassinated and a dictatorship supported by the U.S.
There were three classes in Panama: The rich people who frequented the gambling casino at the Hilton Hotel; the middle class comprised mainly of Chinese immigrants who owned the shops and small restaurants, and the lower class who lived in squalor and poverty in the downtown area.
It was while serving in Panama that I became disillusioned with the American system. Panamanian canal workers, who performed the same work as their American counterparts, were paid less than half the going pay. In the American controlled Canal Zone, the U.S. Governor refused to allow the Panamanian flag to fly alongside the flag of the United States. Elections were rigged and ballot boxes were found floating in the canal.
The Joseph McCarthy era, the struggle for civil rights, the treatment of the American Indian, and the Vietnam War all became fodder for later rebellion, which resulted in the many scathing political poems I have written. I was honorably discharged from the military in February 1958, and returned home to discover the Beat generation.
I found a part-time job working at the post office and attended day classes at City College of San Francisco, graduating in 1962 from San Francisco State College (now University).
I began reading the works of Camus, Steinbeck, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and later became interested in poetry after discovering Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso and other Beat poets and writers.
While attending college, I spent my nights in North Beach, spending long hours at City Lights Bookstore browsing through underground magazines and books by established and emerging Beat poets and writers. I hung out at Mike’s Pool Hall and drank at the Coffee Gallery (now the Lost and Found Bar) and Gino and Carlo’s Bar. My favorite hangout was The Place, where “blabbermouth” night was presided over by Jack Spicer, an evening event where poets and philosophers could get up and speak their minds on any topic that came to their head.
I met Richard Brautigan at Gino and Carlo’s Bar and frequently saw Bob Kaufman at the “Co-existence Bagel Shop,” where he held court. I frequented the Anxious Asp, (a jazz establishment) and was the first feature poet at the Coffee Gallery, receiving five dollars and all the beer I could drink. Discovering North Beach opened up a new way of life for me. It was the training ground for my becoming a poet and writer.
In the sixties and into the early seventies I worked at a variety of jobs, none of which were to my liking. The lone exception was when I received a coveted CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) position with the San Francisco Art Commission, Neighborhood Arts program, where I worked from 1975 to 1980.
In the seventies, I started up Second Coming Magazine and Press, which began in 1972 and ended in 1989. I served three terms on the Board of Directors of COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers), which later became the International Organization of Independent Publishers.
These were exciting times, with annual conferences bringing together poets, writers, editors and publishers from all across the country. Thanks to my CETA position, I was able to organize poetry and music events throughout the city, including the 1980 Poets and Music Festival, a three county, seven-day festival honoring the late poet Josephine Miles and the late Blues musician, John Lee Hooker.
I met a lot of poet and musician friends and engaged in conversations that lasted into the early morning hours, but the truth is that I find it difficult talking about myself. I prefer to let my poems do the talking for me. Too many poets perceive their craft as a “holy” mission, seeing themselves as prophets. That’s a hard message to sell to the homeless and downtrodden souls that walk the streets of our inner cities, or the working-class men and women struggling to make ends meet.
My poetry largely addresses issues of concern to millions of Americans who spend the majority of their lives struggling to survive in a society bankrupt in spirit and moral fiber, where money is the only common denominator.
Early in my life I was influenced by the writings of T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, but my mentors were the late Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski, and to some extent, the Beat poet John Weiners, whose book the Hotel Wentley Poems (1958) moved me deeply.
I have never worn the label of poet well. It’s not a word I’m comfortable with. It carries a connotation that somehow the poet walks on a higher ground than the average individual. Too many of today’s poets are more concerned with publication credits than the human condition they write about. The truth is that I would not be a poet if it were not for these strange voices camped inside my head; demon voices that confront me and demand that I write down their thoughts. The finished poem often bears little resemblance to whatever I initially had in mind.
The demons simply invade my thought process and take over. In this, I share Jack Spicer’s philosophy that “verse does not originate from within the poet’s expressive will as a spontaneous gesture unmediated by formal constraints, but is a foreign agent, a parasite that invades the poet’s language and expresses what it wants to say.”
I have been both blessed and cursed by the inner voices (demons) that possess me. I’ve never kept a notebook or used a tape recorder for future reference and I seldom write in long hand, although this may be in part due to my poor handwriting. Many people have called me a “street” poet. I suppose this is because much of my subject matter has dealt with life on the streets. I don’t think this is an accurate label. I have been writing for over three decades and my style continues to evolve. The subject matter is as diverse as life itself. The form and technique I employ can and has changed from time to time. The one constant is that people remain my favorite subject matter. If John Weiners was a poet’s poet, I’d like to be remembered as a poet of the people. My poems and my life are one and the same. They simply can’t be separated.
Being a native San Francisco poet, I know the streets of this city like a gambler knows when to hold and when to fold. Jack Micheline wrote in a foreword for A Bastard Child With No Place To Go:
“A. D. Winans is a man in search of his soul His compassion and love for his native city San Francisco shows in his poems. A. D. takes us on a journey of lost souls in the cruelty of a large city. He writes of the people he loves: poets, musicians, and the ordinary souls who have moved him. He knows the wars, the lost hookers, the crazies, the victims, and the ones gone mad. The system and the tragedy of America.”
There it is in a nutshell. I’m not a guru. I don’t go to the mountains looking for the Dalai Lama. I create largely in isolation. I write out of a sense of loneliness and sadness and anger, but also with love and humor, the latter for which I am indebted to the late Bob Kaufman.
I write with the same observational intensity as Charles Bukowski, yet entirely unlike him. Like Bukowski, you will never have to search in a dictionary to understand my poems.
I try in the most direct manner possible to say the things I have felt and experienced in life, and hope that the reader will find the voyage a memorable one. The noted writer Colin Wilson said:
“Everything I read by A. D. Winans fills me with pleasure because of a beautiful natural and easy use of language—he seems to have an ability which should be common but which is in fact very rare to somehow allow his own pleasant personality to flow direct into the page.”
I believe this statement to be true, but acknowledge too that my personality is not always a pleasant one. Sometimes the anger cuts through and severs an artery, but I believe this only serves to make the poem stronger. In essence, I write about life, its ups and downs, the laughter and the tears, the real and the imagined, the good and the evil in man. I don’t pull any punches. I simply try to tell it the way it is, from the 9/11 tragedy to the homeless plight on the streets of America.
Poetry and writing have kept me going all these years. They have been the wife and children I’ve never had. I’ve had forty-five chapbooks and books of poetry and prose published and have appeared in several hundred literary magazines and anthologies. I’ve given countless readings and made lifelong friends. None of this would have been possible if I had not discovered the magic of poetry. I believe that in the long run my poems and prose will tell you most about who I am. As I said earlier there is no separating my poetry from my life.
I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and read the newspaper, spend a couple of hours at the computer, pick up the mail at the post office, take a forty five minute walk, return home, listen to my jazz records, put in a few hours of writing, and then it’s time to go to bed and get up in the morning and start all over again. That’s what life is pretty much about. The growing up, the learning, the wild years, the mellowing, the settling into a routine, and then one day it’s over. I’m satisfied with my life and the way I have lived. Writing poetry has helped keep lady death from my door. The demons are still there inside me, but I no longer let them control me.
I don’t think any one man’s life is really that important, but what he does with it and leaves behind is. I hope I have earned more good karma than bad karma points. I hope in the end I can look death in the face and say that I’ve played the game honestly and that I never sold my integrity. In the end integrity is all a writer has. Sell your integrity and you’ve sold your soul to the devil.
A. D. Winans is available for readings and can be contacted at .
(This essay first appeared at emptymirrorbooks.com)