Darrell Gray: A Great Adventure

This piece was written by Coffee House’s founder, Allan Kornblum, to be included in the forthcoming book The Ultimate Actualist Convention.

I’ve been involved in literary publishing for some forty-four years, and in that time, I have met few people with more enthusiasm for poetry or more devotion to the muse than Darrell Gray and Anselm Hollo, my late mentors and dear friends. And even though neither of them cared a whit about baseball, they call to mind one of the classic clichés of the sport: the baseball season is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. If you let yourself get too high or too low over a few wins or losses, you won’t make it to post-season play. Perhaps being read after ones death could be compared to the post-season, but of course there are no winners or losers, and there is no World Series of poetry. One could say that Anselm ran a marathon, and Darrell blew everything he had on a sprint. One could also say the analogy is completely ridiculous—which is true, and yet . . .

Like all poets, Darrell noticed details and sometimes brooded over them, such as sharing his birthday, April 20th, with Adolph Hitler. On the other hand, he was charmed to have been born “on the cusp” between two astrological signs, Aries and Taurus, although he never ascribed any importance to it. (He once showed me a poem he wrote called On the Cusp, but I have no idea what became of it.) Considering his delight in details, he sure didn’t leave many facts about his personal life behind. Legends aplenty abound, but no one really knows about his childhood.

Darrell Lee was definitely born in 1945, probably in Sacramento, California to a single mother (name unknown) who married Horace Gray, who in turn, formally adopted Darrell shortly thereafter. When it comes to his Mr. Gray’s occupation—some believe he was an accountant, a highway patrolman, a landscaper, or just an ordinary gardener mowing lawns and trimming hedges—no one is certain. Darrell once told me that on his mother’s side, he had an Uncle Farrell and an Uncle Harrell, but no one can confirm it, so this might have been a late-night tale, told on a whim and enhanced by a few puffs of smoke. I do know that families sometimes get a little crazy with alliterative names, however, so it’s possible. Warren Woessner, who published Darrell’s Essays and Dissolutions, has two brothers named Walter and Wilbur, as a for instance.

I believe Darrell’s family moved back to California during his high school years, but I’m not sure when or where. He did go directly from high school to UC Hayward, and despite attending college near the heart of the movement to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” he graduated in four years. It was at Hayward that Darrell met David Hilton and formed a lifelong friendship.

In his senior year Darrell applied to and was accepted by the University of Iowa Writers Workshop for their MFA program. Today, just about every university has a creative writing program, as do most colleges with a reputation for liberal arts, but in 1967 such programs were few and far between, and acceptance by the Iowa Writers Workshop bestowed quite the cachet back then. As it turned out, Darrell attended during a period marked by a power struggle between the confessional poets and somewhat looser and perhaps more celebratory poets like George Starbuck, Jack Marshall, and two of his major influences, Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo. By the time he graduated in 1969, Starbuck and Berrigan had been forced out, and perhaps in protest, Darrell often claimed that although he had attended classes, he never actually received his MFA. However a phone call to the Writers Workshop confirmed that he did go through the program in two straight years, and graduated and received his degree with most of the rest of his incoming class.

After graduating, Darrell moved to Colorado for a while, futilely applied for a few college teaching jobs, and briefly sold encyclopedias and insurance door-to-door. During this period he also became a Krishna devotee for a time, and after reading a somewhat academic translation of the Vedas, he tried rewording them to give them the expansive feel he thought they deserved. Unfortunately his version has long since disappeared.

Next, Darrell tried using his poetry chops in what was probably the most ridiculous job of his life, when he moved to Kansas City, Missouri to work for Hallmark Cards. As anyone who ever met Darrell or read his poems would have guessed, that didn’t last long. And so sometime during the fall of 1970, a little over a year after leaving, he returned to Iowa City, which was when and where I met him. I had moved to Iowa in July 1970, and by fall I had already mimeographed the first issue of Toothpaste magazine, and met Dave Morice and George Mattingly. It was George who called to tell me Darrell had moved back to town, and brought me over to Darrell’s apartment for an introduction. I have no record or clear memory of that afternoon, but George has written a marvelous account of his own first meeting with Darrell that accurately captures a feel for those days gone by, and he has graciously granted permission to share it:

“I was introduced to Darrell in autumn 1968 by dorm mate John Deason and his friend Marc Harding who was sharing a ramshackle farmhouse near North Liberty with Darrell and Merrill Gilfillan. One Indian summer afternoon Marc drove us in his not-so-late-model land yacht out to the farm for a party. Darrell was sitting in an armchair with fugitive stuffing, wearing an off-white shirt, well-worn sport coat, slacks, and his favorite shoes, Hush Puppies. He was puffing on his pipe, while leaning his head toward a speaker pumping out Steve Miller Band’s Children of The Future. Handed a joint, he put down his pipe on the arm of the overstuffed chair and took a deep toke. ‘Greetings,’ he said, with a shy smile, pushing a wavy bang out of his eyes, ‘You’re here.’ I’d been wondering what a real graduate of the Writers Workshop would say to me. Now I knew.”

I can see George way back then, suddenly realizing all the permutations of Darrell’s simple statement: “You’re here.” The billions of people who had been represented by “you” over the tens of thousand of years since humans had acquired the gift of speech. The short verb, “to be,” which has generated unending philosophical speculation over the nature of existence. And with the word, “here” George had been placed in a location that could easily have been anywhere. Meeting Darrell made you suddenly aware of language in ways you had never imagined.

Because I came of age during the hippie era, I have always been hesitant to speak of people with auras—the term was so overused in my youth. But when Darrell spoke about poetry, turned you on to new writers, or read his poems or poems by others, he very visibly glowed with a contagious energy that was immediately communicated to all present. Never had I met anyone, nor have I met anyone else since, who so fully embodied such a sense of the powerful potential for magic in the written word.

Anselm Hollo, who was born in 1935—fifteen years before me—served as my elder mentor, and he too delighted in turning others on to writers he loved. But although Anselm had merely come to America from Finland, he seemed to have come from much further away, and with his wolf-like face and earth-shaking basso profundo laugh, he seemed much larger than life. One of Anselm’s poems was called Any News from Alpha Centauri?, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told me he had actually been born there. It seemed natural for someone so astounding to be a poet.

Darrell, however, was only four years older. We’d grown up eating the same food, going to the same movies, listening to the same music, and so perhaps he was better able to make the literary life seem like an ongoing, eye-opening expedition that I too could join, a gift for which I have forever been grateful. I know many others who felt the same way about him. That’s what led George to publish Darrell’s first trade book, Something Swims Out, in 1972 under his Blue Wind Press imprint, followed in 1974 by his second book, Scatted Brains, that Cinda and I published as the first full-length Toothpaste Press title.

Between that first meeting and his permanent departure to Northern California in 1974, Darrell and I shared more than a few amazing adventures. During the summer of 1971, we accompanied Anselm on a long drive to Allendale, Michigan for an incredibly comprehensive poetry festival that actually had a right to call itself, “national.” Ted Berrigan and Robert Creeley, two of the featured poets, were as close as brothers to Anselm, and as a result, Darrell and I spent a lot of time with them during that week. Through Anselm we also met Joel Oppenheimer, Paul Blackburn, and Philip Whalen. Other featured poets included Gregory Corso, Robert Bly, Robert Kelly, John Logan, Diane Wakoski, Sonia Sanchez, Tom Weatherly, Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg, and Al Young. I was all of twenty-two, and that week hanging out with Anselm, Berrigan, and Creeley was enough to make my head spin. We also met Morty Sklar at the Allendale festival, a refuge from New York, crossing the country on his motorcycle, looking for a new direction in his life. He wound up moving to Iowa City as a result of a chance encounter with a woman he met that week, and he eventually became an important part of the Actualist community.

From September 1971 through the end of July 1972, Cinda and I shared the second floor of an old Victorian house on East Court Street with Dave Morice. Dave had a small bedroom across the hall, and Cinda and I shared a larger bedroom adjacent to a comfortable, spacious living room that practically became a clubhouse for our group of poet friends. Endless collaborative poems were written there by sliding an overstuffed hassock—which served as the perch for an old Remington typewriter—from one seedy Salvation Army armchair to the next. The bedroom Cinda and I shared was separated from the living room by glass double-doors, so we had to wait until the last guest left if we wanted real privacy. One rare evening, Cinda and I looked around and realized we had no guests. We looked at each other, and being a young couple in love, we retired early, enjoyed an uninhibited figurative roll in the hay, and fell asleep. Hours later, when I heard the sound of typing in the next room, and I slipped out of bed, pulled on my jeans, and went to the living room where I found Dave and Darrell, at 3:00 am, completing a twenty-five page collaborative poem—complete with a cover drawing—that they called Second Winds. After they read the poem to me with gusto, Dave realized how late it was and went off to bed, but Darrell was still awake, and was ready for more. I remember him turning to me and saying, let’s surprise Dave and write a few sonnets together. Between the wine, other intoxicating substances, and the heady creative mood in the air, I felt that night as if I could write about anything, no matter how ordinary, and make it sound fantastic. Six full hours later we completed a sequence we called, Good Morning: Fourteen Sonnets, each with the traditional fourteen lines, albeit without rhyme or meter. When Dave and Cinda woke up, Darrell and I read the sonnets to them, and needless to say, Dave was surprised. Then I went back to bed for a few hours, and Darrell finally went back to his apartment and got some sleep. I felt honored when, a few years later, GP Skratz published the sonnets in a little booklet.

During that year on East Court, Darrell, a frequent visitor, dropped by one notable afternoon and asked if we had a long strip of paper, and a pile of pages cut to the size of Dave’s mimeo magazine, Gum—4¼ by 5½ inches. He took the pages, took the typewriter over to a desk in the bedroom Cinda and I shared, and started writing. A half hour later he emerged with The Actualist Manifesto on the long strip of paper, and over a dozen “Actualist” poems on the Gum sized pages. Within a month or so, other poets became involved and before long, we were all Actualists (whatever that actually meant), on our way to our first convention. A few years later, Darrell co-edited The Actualist Anthology with Morty who published the book under his Spirit That Moves Us Press imprint in 1977.

Darrell also played a role in a very personal experience by serving as our witness when Cinda and I went to the Iowa City Clerk’s Office to get our marriage license. As he peered from behind one of those old bank-teller window cages, the clerk asked Cinda and I a few routine questions about date and place of birth, and then abruptly turned to Darrell and barked out, “Now are you prepared to witness that you have known these two people for more than a year and that they are not brother and sister?” We were all stunned by the absurdity of both the question and the overall moment, but poor Darrell was the one on the spot, and at first he didn’t know what to say. “Uh, yes, or uh, no, uh, yes I know them, and uh, no, they’re certainly not brother and sister,” he stammered, looking totally flustered. He knew he had appeared more than a bit uncertain, and was hoping the clerk had believed him. All turned out well in the end, of course.

After we got married, we moved to a large old house in West Branch, ten miles east of Iowa City. Every few weeks, Cinda would pick up Darrell on her way home from her job at the University Hospital, he’d join us for dinner, and we’d talk and write poetry long into the night. Darrell slept over on a spare mattress, and Cinda brought him back to Iowa City the next day. When Jim Mulac began renting a spare room in our house, he too fell under Darrell’s spell and began writing collaborative poems and plays with us, and performed in two plays during the second Actualist convention. But we all had a hunch that Darrell wasn’t going to stay in Iowa forever.

Finally, in December 1973, using money he received when the University of Iowa evicted him so they could bulldozed his house and put up a new building, he bought a Greyhound Bus ticket and moved to California with Patty O’Donnell, and together they moved into an apartment on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. Alas, the relationship didn’t last. When contacted, Patty said she knew very little about Darrell’s family. She did suggest visiting his parents once, but he told her he found visits too embarrassing, and was particularly disturbed by his mother’s habit of dressing her dog in baby clothes.

Although his relationship didn’t go as planned, Darrell was well received upon his return to his home state. He discovered his reputation had preceded him, and before long California became the new center of Actualism. More conventions and a variety of publications followed, several from Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press. But while it was possible to get by in Iowa City with very little money, the Bay Area was less forgiving. Darrell managed to survive through emergency grants, mental disability payments, and occasional gigs as a private tutor and substitute teacher. But as difficult as it may have been to pay the bills, somehow Darrell found it easier to purchase liquor out West. Although he told himself the mental disability money he managed to obtain was the result of a clever scam, in truth, he simply couldn’t hold a job for more than a few months, and most lasted only a few weeks. Darrell’s poetry continued to soar through the cosmos, but he was never did learn how to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground.

As we now know, alcoholism is a disease, not a behavior problem or a sign of loose morals as people once believed. Some manage, with great effort and support, to control their genetically acquired urge to drink, but Darrell was driven to ignore efforts to help by some secret source of pain. I remember dropping by his apartment one time, before he moved west, and I saw that glow in his eyes that meant he was excited about a poem. Sure enough, he insisted that I sit down and listen as he read a sonnet by Heinrich Heine that ended with two rather chilling lines: “Sleep is good; and Death is better, yet / Surely never to have been born is best of all.” Then he repeated the last few words again—“never to have been born is best of all.” —and damn if he didn’t sigh with longing. I was willing to follow him almost anywhere he led into the land of literature, but I could not understand a desire never to have even existed.

Some very good people in California made noble efforts to intervene and supply desperately needed support, including GP Skratz and his wife, Linda, Alastair Johnston, David “Daf” Schein and Bob Ernst (two Iowa theater people who formed the heart of a Bay Area group called the Blake Street Hawkeyes), and even Whoopi Goldberg—they all took him to a hospital at one time or another, ultimately to no avail. He finally departed from this realm of existence for good sometime in late August 1986, and was discovered a few days later by his landlord. The poetry community didn’t learn about his fate until October. At the time of his death, his parents were living in Medford, Oregon. Because Darrell had never revealed that he was a poet to his parents, they had no idea that he owned anything worth saving. Thus, when Darrell’s landlord asked if they wanted his possessions, they told him to just get rid of everything. Many of his unpublished manuscripts were fortunately recovered from a second-hand bookstore by his friends.

I once asked Darrell what he knew about his birth father, and I was really startled by his response. “He was probably just an irresponsible drunk,” he said, his voice practically quivering in anger. “And I was probably the result of some drunken weekend,” he continued, bitterly. Then he paused, looked at me, and added, “Sorry if I sound unfeeling.” Unfeeling? Not by a long shot. Much could be made of that exchange, but I’m not about to play amateur psychologist and ascribe his own drinking to some over-simplified anger at his father. Nor will I repeat any of the far too many sad stories about his drunken escapades during his last few years. I actually did recount one on a recent phone call to George, and he said he knew those stories too, but that wasn’t the way he wanted to remember his old friend. I regarded that reply as excellent advice.

I do want to remember Darrell’s response one evening when I told him I was about to plunge into a book by the Italian poet, Eugenio Montale. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed, his round moon-shaped face beaming with pleasure and approval. “You are about to embark on a great adventure,” he concluded. As anyone who ever met him will attest, every minute spent with Darrell Gray at his best, was an amazing adventure, and I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of it.

3 Comments

3 Responses to Darrell Gray: A Great Adventure

  1. Allan has written a moving and pinpoint accurate account of the Darrell Gray I knew. The account of Darrell’s magical effect on those around him is absolutely right. Ultimately he couldn’t continue to live in this world, but while he was here he completely transformed it for those of us who knew him. Really happy that Allan was able to write this. In Darrell’s words, “Goodbye goodbye / It seemed so real.” And it was.

  2. Jack Marshall says:

    Dear Allan,
    Thanks for the lovely, loving tribute for Darrell.You’ve caught his great enthusiasm for poetry just as I remember him.
    I wonder how your health is these days; is that new trial med you’ve been taking working out OK? Still working on your history of small presses?
    I am putting together a new collection, may take awhile to arrange, but it’s all there.
    Keep well, and keep me posted, if you care to.
    All best wishes,
    Jack Marshall

  3. Pat O'Donnell says:

    Darrell was remarkable person and a wonderful poet. Thanks for this, Allan.

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