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‘This is Gene Derwood speaking’

By Kevin Killian
Flyleaf of New Poems 1940 signed by editor and several contributors.

Flyleaf of New Poems 1940 signed by editor and several contributors.

It’s still going at a reduced scale down on 24th Street at Folsom, but Adobe Books used to be a barn of a store on 16th Street in the Mission District of San Francisco, and to my mind the epicenter of a revolution in art, music, and poetry from the late 80s onward.  It was always a funky sort of place with couches and chairs for regulars to sit on, if you dared, for the place had a persistent smell of cat urine, and an art gallery built into the back around the restroom, where I first saw the work of some of those who became my favorite artists.  It was a place you’d take visitors to see, as people still take their chums to City Lights Books in North Beach, or perhaps to Alcatraz or Coit Tower—something that had to be participated in if you wanted the whole San Francisco experience.  Alas, living in San Francisco today is very different.

And in that store as I was prowling around the sale books I reached up to a high shelf because I thought I saw a rare installment of Mazo de la Roche’s “Jalna” series—the Glass family of Canada—and accidentally knocked down a putty colored volume onto my own head.  It was only a dollar and I thought, this book didn’t come down bruising me by accident, it’s meant to happen, so I bought it, one must always regard the things that assail you with reverence as well as with sensible fear.  When I got it home—New Poems 1940: An Anthology of British and American Verse, edited by Oscar Williams—I noticed that its flyleaf had been signed in the front by a number of contributors to the book,  Oddly enough, each one signed smaller and smaller as the list progressed, as though modesty was the supreme attribute in 1941 when the book came out.  Editor Oscar Williams signed first, and under him came Lloyd Frankenburg; then Willard Maas, Marshall Schacht, Alfred Hayes, Gene Derwood and George Barker.

Sounds like a boys club going on, doesn’t it, though Gene Derwood (1909-1954) was actually a woman, a writer ad sculptor who happened to be married to Oscar Williams.  Even in her day, poor Gene Derwood’s reputation was all about, “Ah, she’s nothing, she only got into that book because Oscar put her in.”  Did he make a mistake putting her in all his anthologies?  Why, I’d do the same thing, even if my wife weren’t the great poet of life, death and love of today.  There’s always room for one more, says I.  Anyhow I’m looking at this list and thinking, “Okay, George Barker?  I remember him from the Elizabeth Smart biography; in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept she wrote about him,” and “Okay, Willard Maas!  Weren’t he and Marie Menken the models for George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  And, as the unseen man who performs the blowjob in Andy Warhol’s fascinating (and itself too little seen) film Blow Job (1964), he deserves more acclaim that he has gotten of late.  But why, why, why, if the poets of 1940 were passing around my copy of New Poems, couldn’t everyone have signed it?  The book also features Auden, Berryman, Bishop, Empson, Jeffers, Kees, Macleish, Marianne Moore, Prokosch, Rukeyser, Delmore Schwartz, Stevens, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams—and more my fingers are too discouraged to pick out.  Then my copy might be worth a bit more than the dollar I paid for it at Adobe Books in 2011.

The poems themselves are pretty cool.  I gave myself airs, lording it over the poets on my block here in San Francisco when I was chosen for the inaugural volume of The Best American Poetry back in the day; —but wouldn’t it have been awesome to be in New Poets 1940 when Auden contributed both September 1, 1939, and In Memory of W.B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)!  It doesn’t get better than that says I.  The Empson is “Missing Dates,” with its great Tennysonian refrain, “The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.”  Marianne Moore’s poems here include “What are Years?” while Thomas’s “Ten Sonnets” begins with the one that I loved as a teenager, “Altarwise by owl-light….”

But now I’m a grown man and I love that Gene Derwood and Oscar Williams named heir son “Strephon.”  Too bad that lovely Arcadian name didn’t take off more.  That way the young poets I meet today wouldn’t be named only Andrew, Ryan, Jason, Paul, Tim, Ben, and —did I say “Ryan”?  And Ryan.  We search for images of Gene Derwood, beautiful, glamorous and doomed, on Google and most often you will find them on Strephon’s flickr page.  And then you press a little further on and discover that even Strephon Kaplan-Williams, the eternal shepherd of these pages and fittingly enough the founder of the first dreamwork training institute, the Jungian-Senoi Dreamwork Institute, which lasted 10 years in Berkeley, California. —even Strephon has left us, dying in the Netherlands in 2009.  The final words of his blog, “Strephon Says,” are as poignant as anything in New Poems 1940.  I currently write from obscurity. The final value to humanity of my work will only be known from the books I yet hopefully write, and from the true value of my work to be discovered after my death.”

Not poignant per se but just as bone-chilling are the computer animations that you can find online of Gene Derwood reading her poetry.  (She has a beautiful, stagy type voice, as though trained by RADA or the BBC.)  Who could have done this, taken still photos from Strephon’s flickr page and animated the mouth area so that it really looks like a grainy clip of Gene Derwood filmed live?  Here’s one:

Thanks to my students Ryan and Jason for pointing this out to me.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 by Kevin Killian.