Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 6 Dec 10 14:05
And now Inkwell.vue welcomes one of our own, Peter Conners to discuss his latest book, "White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg." Peter Conners' published books include the memoir Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead; the poetry collection Of Whiskey and Winter; and the novella Emily Ate the Wind. His newest book, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, was published by City Lights in November 2010. His forthcoming books are the poetry collection The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees (White Pine Press, April 2011), and JAMerica: An Oral History of Jam Bands, Festivals, and Sharing the Groove (Da Capo, Fall 2013). He is also editor of PP/FF: An Anthology which was published by Starcherone Books in April 2006. He lives with his wife and three kids in Rochester, New York where he works as Publisher of the not-for-profit literary press BOA Editions. Leading us through the psychedelic voyage is Peter Richardson. Peter Richardson is a lecturer in the humanities department at San Francisco State University, editorial director at PoliPointPress, and chair of the California Studies Association. His publications include A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009) and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (2005). He has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and lives in Richmond, California. Take it away, Peter(s)!
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Mon 6 Dec 10 15:13
Welcome, Peter. I've been looking forward to this conversation. I ingested *White Hand Society* very quickly after it arrived, and I recommend it highly. Before we get to the book, I'd like to hear more about your decision to write it in the first place. What drew you to this topic? I gather from your City Lights interview that you came across Allen Ginsberg's archives at Stanford almost by accident. Can you tell us about that? I'm interested, too, in how you came to understand your book's unique contribution. Before reading it, I would have said it was a challenge to write originally about Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, or the social history of LSD. Did you see a gap in that literature, or did you think of your contribution more as a unique way into or through that material?
Peter Conners (peterconners) Tue 7 Dec 10 09:59
Thanks, Peter, and hello to everyone tuning in! Let's get right to it: The seed for WHS was planted in the mid-90s. I had graduated from SUNY Potsdam college and was driving around the country in a blue Ford Ranger with a futon mattress in the back. I'd stay with people, pick up random jobs, write, read, then travel some more. One of my friends (for anyone who has read it, I'm talking about "Shasta" from Growing Up Dead) was in law school at Stanford. I knew that Stanford had purchased Ginsberg's archives, so I asked him to get me in to see them. As I remember it, he signed in with his I.D. and then we just pulled a switcheroo and I walked into special collections and requested the boxes (sorry, Stanford... you guys are the best...and it all turned out okay in the end). I didn't have a particular focus and I definitely wasn't thinking about researching for a book. I just saw it as part of my writer's education. Ginsberg was an astounding collector and his archives are rich, rich, rich. There were many things in there that were just plain cool (cocktail napkins with scribbled notes from Kerouac, etc.), but I was most intrigued and intellectually stimulated by the correspondence with Leary. The letters cover a wide range of emotions, experiences, geographies, mutual friends/causes/organizations... On a micro level, they tell the tale of a friendship (or "partnership") between two truly unique men. On a macro level, they tell a fascinating story about mid-twentieth century America. The 15-odd (sometimes very odd) years between first reading those letters and actually starting WHS served to germinate the idea in my mind and reinforce to me that this was a story worth telling. (I am getting into the second part of your question now, Peter). While a great deal has been written about both Leary and Ginsberg, I hadn't read any books specifically addressing their relationship and its impact on mid-XXth century American culture. So, yes, I saw that there was a gap and felt that I could make a contribution by investigating, probing, and writing about that relationship.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Tue 7 Dec 10 15:02
The book is about a (psychedelic) partnership between Ginsberg and Leary. Can you talk about the nature and purpose of that partnership, what each man brought to it, and how it changed over time?
Peter Conners (peterconners) Wed 8 Dec 10 07:51
The partnership developed out of a mutual desire to share the psilocybin experience with an established and influential group of artists and intellectuals. They both believed that the use of the drug could benefit people creatively and psychologically. Ginsberg was a great networker and had access to many of these people. Leary had solid academic credentials, a Harvard position, and access to psilocybin through Sandoz Chemical. They both understood that if they combined their efforts they could get the drug to these artists and intellectuals. That would aid Leary in his research (he had the "subjects" provide follow-up information after the trip which was then gathered and evaluated through the Harvard Psilocybin Project) and it would allow Ginsberg to share this powerful, transformative hallucinatory experience with people he thought would benefit from it. There was also the mutual belief that if they could get enough influential people behind the drug before the government caught on, it would be harder to demonize and criminalize it. Leary was more convinced of that than Ginsberg though. Ginsberg had been through a lot more drug experiences by the time they met and had a more measured opinion about how the public and government would handle the promotion of psilocybin. That difference speaks to how their relationship evolved over time too. Leary ended up spending the next dozen years preaching the benefits of psychedelics and becoming "the pope of dope" and the public face of psychedelics. Ginsberg was always a poet first and increasingly shifted his visibility and influence to support political and humanitarian causes. Their paths certainly crossed back-and-forth for the rest of their lives, but my premise is that the solid core of that partnership started in Leary's kitchen at Harvard in November 1960 and culiminated with the Human Be-In in San Francisco in January 1967.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Wed 8 Dec 10 08:53
Folks, feel free to jump in on this. Peter, if I had to check a box, I found Ginsberg the more sympathetic character of the two. But as you say, Leary's path was also intriguing, not least because he gave up the role of Scientist--at Harvard, no less. Playing that role was supposed to be his big contribution to the partnership. Over time, he seemed to be going for a kind of mystical or poetic register, but Ginsberg was already covering that, as per the plan. Do you think Leary's move away from his original role affected the reception of psychedelics in this country? That is, would it have made any difference if Leary had been able to provide more academic legitimacy? I realize that another, somewhat more rambunctious, part of that reception was playing out in Palo Alto and San Francisco
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 8 Dec 10 11:47
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Peter Conners (peterconners) Wed 8 Dec 10 12:55
Ultimately, no. I don't think one person - no matter who - could have made America embrace psychedelics. A Gallup poll taken in October of this year revealed that 46% of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, yet we know where that stands. It's hard to imagine a well-meaning psychology professor breaking through that sort of static to secure a safe haven for psychedelics.
(fom) Wed 8 Dec 10 18:03
I read the book and really enjoyed it, but did not make note of the questions I'd like to ask (except for one mundane one that I'll ask later). So I must go back through it, because I know I had some questions in mind. One thing that struck me is how ridiculous most of those guys look from the vantage point of 2010. I was there in those days, and I actually dropped out for several years (and turned on and tuned in), and now it all looks... just silly. And amazingly snobbish. The idea that somehow the actualities of human life on the planet would fade away and we could all live idyllic lives without things like education, science (other than empirical psychedelic research), engineering, roads, buildings, medicine, everyday work, everyday workers -- that line of thought seems quite insane to me now. So I guess I would ask -- do you think Leary was sincere when he suggested that we should just drop out? Do you think Snyder was sincere when he suggested that there should be a big wall around Chicago, and the rest of us could live a wild life in the woods? If sincere, weren't they totally in cloud cuckoo land? And if not sincere, what was their objective? (I'm leaving out Ginsberg because he never dropped out, as far as I can tell; he was an industrious, serious working poet all along.)
(fom) Wed 8 Dec 10 19:57
Also -- I look at parti (a way to see who is participating) and it looks like around 40 people have been here today. I'm wondering if any of them read the book, and what they have to say about it.
Peter Conners (peterconners) Thu 9 Dec 10 07:51
I think Snyder was very sincere because he was actually living it. It wasn't theoretical to him. He had his land, his people, his kids, and he was making a real effort to build a sustainable life "off the grid." The sincerity in his efforts and also his sincere effort to acknowledge that he didn't have the answers, but was actively striving for a way to simplify and humanize his life, comes through in the Houseboat Summit at the end of the book. That said, the Summit was a group of poets and philsophers sitting around talking together... and there will always be a high level of metaphor, wit, and untethered-ideas-from-cloud-cuckoo-land floating around in a group like that. That's what poets and philosophers, bless them, are for. That said, you can also hear Watts, Ginsberg and Snyder pushing Leary to explain how one survives post drop out. And you can hear him fall down in giving any concrete suggestions. In other words, they were bashing their dreamer heads up against the same reality questions you pose above... and while they had historical anecdotes, metaphor, poetry, stories, and high aspirations, there was no sense of reaching a sustainable solution. You can feel the frustration in their discussion. It's a very powerful, provocative and telling dialogue - that's why I couldn't bring myself to chop it up, paraphrase, etc. It was just too revealing and begged to be a stand-alone addition to the book.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Thu 9 Dec 10 08:44
I got a lot out of reading the Houseboat Summit. Yes, it showed the thinness of the political program, and many of the ideas and aspirations haven't aged well. We may be in trouble if Allen Ginsberg is the grounded, sensible one in our partnership. But I'm less inclined to dismiss the utopian impulses behind that conversation as lunacy. I find myself wishing we had more of that energy today. (Or maybe I'm just not looking in the right places.) Peter, in retrospect, what were some of the more fruitful aspects of the partnership you document in the book?
(fom) Thu 9 Dec 10 09:15
I'm so glad that you included the whole Houseboat Summit. It's fascinating. Thanks for your answers. Whoa -- I just found a recording of the PILL press conference: <http://www.archive.org/details/PsychedeliaLa6-pill-press-conf-sf-1974> I listened to this live on a Bay Area radio station, maybe KSAN, and found it riveting. For those who haven't read the book, this is the press conference where Ginsberg, Alpert, Jerry Rubin, and Leary's son -- and maybe others, I forget, haven't listened yet -- denounced Leary after he got out of prison by informing on his former attorney. I remember Alpert and Ginsberg discussing the discinction between "rascal" and "scoundrel" and agreeing that Leary had been the former but had become the latter.
Peter Conners (peterconners) Thu 9 Dec 10 09:55
First of all, I want to say that I agree wholeheartedly that we need more of this energy today. That was a big part of why I wanted to do the book - as a reminder and also a way to furthur instruct myself and readers about how this energy was generated. Whether you like these guys or not, they spurred a lot of thoughtful activity around alternatives to the dominant acquistive culture. We ignore and dismiss that activity at our own peril. That's my answer to your question about fruitful aspects of their legacy as well. Ginsberg, Leary, and many others helped push an alternative agenda and outlook that has become so seeded in our culture, it's easy to dismiss their role. Whenever I see soccer moms carrying yoga mats, I think of them. When I hear people say, "I'm not religious, but I am spiritual." When my kids take recycling and conservation for granted. When I see a new vegetarian or macrobiotic restaurant open in Upstate NY. There is a whole host of activities (not theories or pie in the sky, but real actions) that have become mainstream as a result of these guys (and many others) presenting new practices to American culture. Obviously we're not all the way there yet... lord knows... but they helped move the marker forward enough to celebrate as a success.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 9 Dec 10 11:46
Very well said.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Thu 9 Dec 10 12:53
Yes, good point. A quick question about politics, which isn't the focus of the book. You note that many leftists (not to mention conservatives) saw Leary's message as "dangerously irresponsible," and you quote Abbie Hoffmann: "I saw the reverse of Leary's trip: change the world and you'll change your mind. Total absorption with the internal voyage made you easy to exploit and convert." Does that charge make sense to you? Or is there a better way to understand the politics of the "cosmic campaign"?
Peter Conners (peterconners) Thu 9 Dec 10 13:11
Peter - before I answer (and assuming you have them handy) can you give me the page numbers on those two quotes? I just want to refresh my memory before I answer. Thanks.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Thu 9 Dec 10 13:18
The pioneer effort in the governments anti-marijuana campaign Reefer Madness was made in 1936 in close collaboration with the FBI. This video continues to explain the tape on the back of its cover saying it was intended to educate the public about narcotics. Need I call this a conspiracy? Don Juan appeared on Whats my line and spoke about his book. The spirituality of peyote was captured by that book well enough that I could only read one chapter at a time with a nap between. The spirits about which the book detailed affected me although I knew little of peyote. My 2003 word recommends poet when I misspell peyote. ;-0 I too need to reread the book. The above I put together last night until my battery stopped.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Thu 9 Dec 10 13:23
;-) By the way, greetings.
Peter Meuleners (pjm) Thu 9 Dec 10 14:08
Clare, do you mean Castenada was on What's My Line? I'd love to see that.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Fri 10 Dec 10 05:36
Page 207 for the quotes, Peter. While I'm here, another question. You say that Leary formed drinking clubs and that his wife had a drinking problem, took tranquilizers, and eventually committed suicide. (My note in the margin: "Drugs but no ecstasy"). Can you talk a bit about alcohol? I had the feeling that it was thematically significant.
Peter Conners (peterconners) Fri 10 Dec 10 08:42
Thanks for the page reference, Peter. Those quotes lead directly into a paraphrasing of the Houseboat Summit (which didn't satisfy me enough and led to my including the entire Summit at the end) and they do get to the heart of the split in the wake of the Be-In. The leaders of the anti-war movement (just like the makers of war) were counting on the country's youth to fill their ranks. Then along comes Leary making headlines by telling them all to "drop out" and - as he makes clear during the Summit - not get involved in politics, including protest. So, yes, there was a sense that Leary was acting irresponsibly and derailing the anti-war movement and the Summit was called to figure out what was behind this "drop out" philosophy. The "dangerous" part comes in when we consider the very real stakes of kids getting shipped off to Vietnam. re: alcohol, I wouldn't go so far as to call it thematically significant to my book. It's more of a background reality. There was drinking going on throughout this period, but I didn't feel that alcohol was significant enough to the specific Ginsberg-Leary relationship to warrant an isolated study. The differences between alcohol, psychedelics, opiates, etc are well-documented and it's certainly worth looking at how drugs-of-choice impact different generations. It's seems we're living in a pill era now. Leary was a good bit older than most of the other countercultural "leaders" of the 60s, so he had some generational differences and biases (not to mention a fixation on youth) and I believe his relationship with alcohol falls under that category. That's not to diminish the significance of his father being an alcoholic, his 1st wife committing suicide after a drinking bout, the role alcohol seemed to play in the harrowing "O'Donell incident" and any number of other places where alcohol negatively impacted events in his life. I'd venture to say a whole other book could be written on Leary's relationship to alcohol, but in many ways it'd be a study of how alcohol was used and viewed by mid-xxth century America...
Peter Meuleners (pjm) Fri 10 Dec 10 09:59
(You don't normally see this many Peter's all in one place :-)
(fom) Fri 10 Dec 10 12:22
Because it's a little slow here, I'll ask my mundane question: Page 228 says that the escaping Leary was "stashed in a duplex in North Oakland, where he bathed and got some much needed sleep." Any idea just where that duplex was? I have a personal reason for asking; I live in a duplex in North Oakland that's around the corner from the former Black Panthers HQ, and that was occupied by Angela Davis for many years (though not as far back as 1970 -- I think she lived here in the '80s). I don't know who lived here before Davis. Anyway, I'm wondering if Leary might have been "stashed" in what is now my place.
Peter Conners (peterconners) Fri 10 Dec 10 13:31
Ha, yes, there is definitely an inordinate number of Peters in this talk. I hardly ever meet anyone else named Peter. Guess I was looking in the wrong places. Sorry, I don't know the address in Oakland.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Fri 10 Dec 10 19:06
http://www.tv.com/whats-my-line/episode-344/episode/95495/summary.html I hoped that worked... They are calling him Luis.
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