The Interview

Exercise your franchise.


Last Friday i was interviewed for a couple of hours by an excruciatingly young British scholar named Mike Nott.  I find it shocking that there are now people with doctorates who look like handsome high school students,  and this one is writing a biography of Thom Gunn.  He was in town tracking down as many as he could of the people here who knew Thom, concentrating this trip on non-academic  folks who knew him as a friend rather than as a fellow scholar.

And since Thom was so promiscuous, there were quite a lot of us even though, as we were the underground and are dying off, finding us was problematic.

So how did i know Thom?  Well, i spent the summer of 1974 in San Francisco, studying Spanish in the daytime and, since at that time i was in my twenty-five-year gay phase, sampling the gay scene at night and on weekends. Of course i went to the Polk Street Fair, the only gay fair at that time because the Castro and Folsom street fairs were yet to open.  Thom spotted me there but was unable to swoop on me before i vanished into the crowd.  Later that evening, though, he saw me at a gay bar on Folsom Street and picked me up.  I took him to my summer rental apartment, where we had an unwholesome good time.  Sometime during the evening i asked him what he did, and he said he was a poet, at which point i changed the subject since i’d already seen a lifetime of bad poetry written by poets who weren’t.

I’d told him that i was planning to move to San Francisco the following summer, so he gave me his number and asked me to look him up when i got here.  A couple of weeks later i returned to Midland, TX and my job as Acting Chairman of the English Department.  We had decided to change textbooks for our freshman Introduction to Literature, and so i started reading new textbooks to try to find something better.  One included a poem i quite liked, “The Cherry Tree”, and when i was sitting there savoring it,  a little bell rang.  I raced to the library and sure enough, it was he, my Thom Gunn.  And yes, i had an MA in literature, but modern poetry was an area of least interest, and Frost was as late as i had got.  Besides, in 1974 Thom was only beginning to be recognized in this country, which only moderately relieved my embarrassment.

Anyhow, i moved to San Francisco in June of ’75 and quickly reestablished contact with Thom.  I was eager to talk about his work, and we did to some degree, but i was quick to learn that Thom lived a highly compartmentalized life – the scholars and fellow poets in one section and in the other the men he’d befriended for purposes outside academia.  He introduced me to MDA, and we tricked a couple more times, but it became apparent to both of us that we were not really all that compatible in bed.  So the friendship became platonic but close enough that he kept supplying me with MDA until i was well enough established in the city to have my own candy man,  umm, men.  In September, 1978 Thom introduced me to his house guest from Boston, a man named Allen with whom i immediately hit it off.  We wrote letters to each other throughout the fall, i spent a week with him in Boston after Christmas, and upon my return home i called him up and proposed.  He said yes and joined me in San Francisco six months later.

For the next ten years, we saw Thom frequently, mostly at parties that we and Thom gave but also on other occasions.  After Allen died, i was feeling a bit sorry for myself because after he came down with AIDS, Allen had made our lives rather difficult owing to his brain damage, so Thom invited me to dinner at which another guest told (as Thom knew he would) of the horrors he was going through as caregiver of his lover with AIDS.  Turns out, i’d had it easy because this other guy’s totally demented lover had tried, with near success, to kill him.  So yes, Thom was a great friend to me and i saw him at Zazie for lunch about once a month for the rest of his life.

There was one event that affected me profoundly, about which i’ve sometimes wondered whether i made the right decision.  After Allen died in 1988, i was his executor, and as i was going through all his stuff, i made a significant find – a slim bundle of letters from Thom to Allen.  Oh wow, i thought, and immediately read the one on top.  It was superb, but by the time i got to the end of it, i was feeling a bit slimy.  So i called Thom, told him i’d found his letters and was feeling guilty over reading one of them and was hoping he’d give me permission to read the rest.  He said yes, with one caveat, that i burn the letters after reading them.

Well look, i’m no great scholar, but i certainly know that scholars studying a major author are quite eager to get their hands on his letters, and i remember that many great writers have left explicit instructions on their deathbeds that their letters and unfinished manuscripts be burned, an injunction that is routinely ignored. And thank goodness.  After all, if Virgil’s friends had burned the almost-complete Aeneid as he requested,  we’d be missing one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time. Likewise Kafka, etc. etc. etc.

So i was torn, but after i’d read and reread the letters with great delight, i realized that my desire to give the letters over for scholarship wasn’t quite as strong as my desire to obey the request of a dear friend, their author, so i recycled them.  And have waffled for decades over whether i made the right decision.

The letters, after all, were of great significance to me, let alone their value to researchers.  See, Thom had met Allen a couple of years before he met me and had been tricking with him whenever they were in the same city.  They also corresponded.  And one of Thom’s letters described his tricking with me. He said a number of nice things about me, but he had to point out a major flaw:  unlike the two of them, i didn’t have a leather fetish and worse, the only leather item i owned was a leather jacket that i wore only as bait.  But since he’d had us both, he knew that Allen and i would be perfect for each other as sex partners.  So he gave a dinner party and invited us, suspecting that nature would take its course and i’d invite Allen home with me.  It did, i did, and we hit it off so well that we lost track of time and Allen missed his flight home.

So yeah, i owe Thom a lot, which reinforces my feeling that recycling those letters was the right course.

And besides, now that i’ve sat for that interview, i’ve made a contribution to scholarship to compensate for not saving the letters.  Off the hook?  No, i should have written “partially compensate”.

Meanwhile, i’ve discovered that windows can be just as interesting as doors.  Here’s one on Coleridge St.

Window on Coleridge St.






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