“He’s wasn’t a nice guy,” Gerd Stern said on a Saturday afternoon at the Sonoma Valley Museum in Sonoma, California, where Jack London once lived, farmed and wrote fiction and non-fiction. Stern was talking about Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, whom he first met in 1949 inside the New York State Psychiatric Institute where they were both inmates. Carl Solomon, the anti-hero in Ginsberg’s 1956 poem Howl, was also there.
“We were a trio,” Stern said. “We were mischievous but we weren’t crazy.” Solomon—who had returned from Paris—introduced Stern and Ginsberg to the works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jean Genet, whom neither had read, and whose names they didn’t even recognize. Celine and Genet both became Beat Generation literary heroes.
Long ago, Ginsberg accused Stern of something he never did, but that made him notorious. Ginsberg insisted that Stern threw away a 16,000-word letter that Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac in 1950 and that Kerouac claimed was a great work of literature the equal of anything by Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Herman Melville and Thomas Wolfe.
“It wasn’t pleasant to be perjured by Allen,” Stern said. ”I wouldn’t throw away someone’s work. I value creativity in all its forms.”
He added, “Jack was a terrible alcoholic and Neal was a raving con man.”
Neal’s letter was in the files at Golden Goose Press, a defunct San Francisco publishing house. Stern felt vindicated, but by then Ginsberg was dead and couldn’t apologize.
When Ginsberg first introduced himself to Stern at the Psychiatric Institute, Stern told him, “I’ll call you Al.” Ginsberg replied, “No one calls me Al!” They got off on the wrong foot right from the start.
At 90, Gerd Stern—a pre-Beat and a post-Beat—remembers every café and dive he knew and nearly everyone he ever met: Henry Miller, Harry Smith, Timothy Leary, Philip Lamantia, Nancy Peters, Jaime de Angulo and the African American surrealist poet Bob Kaufman who took a vow of silence to protest the war in Vietnam.
“Leary was the most boring speaker I ever heard,” Stern said. “Kaufman was a good poet, but he burned me once for an ounce of grass. I even helped Lamantia kick his heroin habit in Woodstock, New York, but he went back it.”
These days, Stern divides most of his time between New York and New Jersey. He still writes and publishes his poetry. His unruly white beard gives him the appearance of a sage. He also sounds like one.
“I keep doing what I think I can’t do,” he said. “It’s harder now than in 1936 when it was easy to predict the future.”
Stern came to the U.S. from Germany aboard the SS Washington as a refugee from Hitler.
“We escaped from something,” he said. He added, “I became an American. Paranoia was a driving force.”
Later, in San Francisco, Stern befriended a World War II veteran named Larry Ferling who would become Lawrence Ferlinghetti, opened a bookstore called City Lights and published a book of his own poetry called The Coney Island of the Mind.
“I lived on a barge in Sausalito,” Stern said. “I went to Kenneth Rexroth’s living room where he had a kind of salon, and I took a poetry workshop from him, the only writing workshop I ever did take.” He added, “Rexroth was from Chicago, which was a whole different trip.”
If Stern needed help remembering old friends and acquaintances, Larry Kennan’s photographs on the museum wall might have helped. In one photo, Neal Cassady peers in a mirror and shaves. In another Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Ginsberg lean against a wall at the back of City Lights Bookstore.
Poet, biographer and memoirist Neeli Cherkovski—who was born Nelson Cherry and who has lived in San Francisco since 1975— shared the stage with Stern.
“I feel like we’re two Talmudic scholars in ancient Babylon,” Cherkovski said.
Cherkovski wore jeans, suspenders and a T-shirt that read “Elegy for My Beat Generation,” which is the title of his latest book of poems.
“I’m 73,” Cherkovski said. “I’m doing the same thing now that I did when I was 12: writing poetry.”
Stern’s old friend Stewart Brand—best known for The Whole Earth Catalogue—sat in the front row and asked about bi-coastal and mono-coastal writers.
“San Francisco accepted me in ways that New York never did,” Stern said. “The New Yorkers who came here were live-wires. The San Francisco people were laid back, but that was another time.”