"I was at a party in Syracuse, New York, in '63 or '64, and a dog was drinking out of the toilet bowl, there was folk music in the living room, someone was having a fight in the stairwell and trying to push a refrigerator down on someone else, and someone in the kitchen was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti," says David Plumb. "I'd never heard anything like that before, and I was stunned. It totally changed my life. They were reading from his book [A] Coney Island of the Mind."
In that tumultuous setting, Plumb's lifelong fascination with the Beat writers and poets of the '50s began. As he recalls: "Then I just started writing and had my heart set on moving to San Francisco, but it took me about four years to get out there."
San Francisco by the late '60s had gone from being the West Coast home of the Beats to becoming the center of hippie Flower Power culture. But the sociopolitically charged writings of the Beats actually took on more importance during the turbulent '60s, and the literary coffeehouse circuit thrived.
Plumb became an integral part of this second Beatnik wave but not before having a succession of adventures not at all unlike those chronicled in the Beat bible On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Now a published author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, Plumb is a creative-writing instructor at Florida Atlantic University. He'll share anecdotes about his time in San Fran and read his works and those by his favorite Beats during "Revisiting the Beat Generation With David Plumb." The event will also feature a soundtrack of bebop jazz by the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
The jazz-poetry connection so often associated with a roomful of beret-wearing, finger-snapping hipsters, according to Plumb, originated with Kenneth Rexroth. "He was doing jazz poetry back in the early '50s in San Francisco," Plumb says, though he doesn't know this from firsthand experience: "I'm too young to have been a Beatnik," he claims. "I was between the Beats and the hippies."
Following the inspirational Syracuse party, Plumb did a tour as a Navy gunnery officer in Vietnam before buying a ramshackle farmhouse in upstate New York and going to work in a slaughterhouse. That was 1969, and around that time he also started writing poetry seriously and received his bachelor of arts degree from Syracuse University. Plumb and his girlfriend then headed west in a 1964 Plymouth Barracuda towing a U-Haul trailer.
Plumb worked as a cook, preparing food at roadside diners for a few days before moving on. They made their way to Albuquerque, where his girlfriend's father had promised them jobs that didn't materialize. Instead Plumb hired on as a cook at the Window Rock Indian Reservation in Arizona. When he saw Black Panther "wanted" posters hanging around the res, Plumb says, "I knew I had to go to San Francisco."
Leaving his girlfriend behind, Plumb hitchhiked to the City by the Bay looking to become part of the countercultural revolution. He arrived in May 1970, got a job at a coffeehouse, and rented a room for $60 per month. "My experience was that everybody wrote all of the time," Plumb remembers. "I got into the whole political Beat thing. We'd go to readings, then go to somebody's house and read all night, go to work the next day, and do it all over again."
Landmark coffeehouses like Gallery Six (where Allen Ginsberg's Howlwas read for the first time) had closed, but others picked up the slack. "The Coffee Gallery was there," says Plumb. "Thom Gunn and Andrei Codrescu would come in."
Eventually Plumb began publishing the literary magazine Journal 31 [later Smoking Mirror Press] out of his hotel room and became director of San Francisco's renowned Intersection Poetry Series for a time. In those roles he rubbed elbows with Beat writers like Bob Kaufman, Lou Welch, Gary Snyder, and Gregory Corso.
"I'm going to read Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and some lesser-known writers like Lou Welch," Plumb says. "And maybe some pieces of mine, which were influenced by the Beats."