The Beat Goes On
One man's mission to bring great poetry back to MPC.
Thursday, June 5, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnel: Word Magician: Once you''ve hung out with Janis Joplin, the rest of life can seem pretty tame.
In 1974, David Gitin drove up the coast in his VW bug, heading from Orange County to San Francisco. He never quite got there.
The young poet had recently left Madison, Wisc., choosing to go on tour rather than finish his PhD. His first book of poetry, Guitar Against the Wall (1968), had been heralded by Allen Ginsberg as, "Maybe the clearest sort of writing anyone can do." And now that his second book City Air (1974) was out, he wasn''t looking back.
On his way up the coast that day, he stopped to give a reading at Monterey Peninsula College. He accepted a temporary position there teaching creative writing. That job lasted for 25 years and five more books. Four years ago, Gitin became a full-time creative writing in-structor at MPC, a position he still holds.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1941, Gitin''s lust for reading and writing began at a very early age. "I started reading voluminously when I was a kid," he says. "I was reading paleontology when I was 11 years old. I read Shakespeare before I was 13--I mean complete--and I was already writing. I wanted to know everything."
Jack Kerouac''s On the Road and Allen Ginsberg''s "Howl" came out in the late ''50s when Gitin was an undergrad at the State University of New York at Buffalo. These works and writers gripped Gitin in an inescapable hold.
Frustrated with the conservative environment he faced in grad school in Pittsburgh, Gitin sought a place that would afford him the intellectual freedom and stimulus to expand. To him, that meant New York or San Francisco.
"I had been in San Francisco as a teenager in the ''50s and liked it a lot," he says. "The world was changing and that was where a lot of it was shifting. And I had already been in New York. I had been all over that scene in the early ''60s; the folk thing, the jazz thing, poetry, all kinds of things were going on."
Gitin arrived in San Francisco''s Haight-Ashbury district in 1967 like a fireball, quickly connecting with many of the Beat poets whom he had so admired. He tugged on the shirttails of the Beats as a little brother might to older siblings, although, as it turned out, he didn''t have to wait long to hang out with the big kids.
It was a time when poetry was music and music was poetry, a time when energy effervesced everywhere. "All these people were just people in the neighborhood," Gitin relates. "I was involved in the theater--directing Poets Theatre--and they were involved rehearsing their bands, like Santana and Big Brother or other bands. It was just part of the scene. It''s hard to explain it to you. Somebody comes to your door and says, let''s go someplace, and you hitchhike and the next thing you know you''re on Alan Watts'' houseboat in Sausalito. It was kind of magical, I never knew where I was going or who I was meeting."
One of the legendary figures Gitin hung out with was the ''60s singer Janis Joplin. He was first introduced to her 20 minutes or so before one of her rehearsals. "She had seemed to me quiet and friendly and intelligent. [Then] when she opened up--the first number was "Down on Me," a famous song from her first album with Big Brother--it was an electrifying shift. It was so hard for me to believe that the girl I just met was in fact this person roaring on stage."
Joplin "loved to read," he recalls. "She would always ask me to recommend stuff to her."
This vibrancy and energy resonated in Gitin''s poetry during his Haight-Ashbury years, from 1967 to 1970. "When I was younger, of course like most people, you kind of flounder around in the modes and vocabularies of people and things that interest you. There''s a lot more variety of techniques and styles in my earlier work. [Now] the work is more concentrated.
"It was post-Haight-Ashbury, the stuff that immediately followed those years, that really brought me into my own. The ancient Greek lyric and the Japanese haiku, these are two compressed lyrical fountains that I particularly like." Gitin expects to complete his next book, Passing Through, this year. It will represent a collection of his poems since Fire Dance, published in 1989.
Michael McClure, a Beat poet and winner of an Obie for the play The Beard, has known Gitin since their time together in Haight-Ashbury. "David is a poet who writes perfect poems," he says. "Usually if I get a poem of his or a book of his poems, I just stop whatever I''m doing and sit down and read it. [His work] certainly makes no attempt to be the most modern, nor to have anything retro about it. It''s just very uniquely his sensorium--his sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, his way of apprehending things."
up from the tea leaves
that fears to touch
and not be
in spite of which
--"Lonely Woman," from This Once: New and Selected Poems 1965-1978.
In addition to teaching, Gitin chairs the MPC Guest Authors Committee. Not many people know that MPC has an illustrious history of drawing poets and writers of phenomenal talents to give readings at the college. Some of those who appeared in the past were Keith Abbott, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), Peter Beagle, Bill Berkson, Robert Bly, Tom Clark, Michael Hannon, Diane diPrima, James Houston, Galway Kinnell, Morton Marcus, Carl Rakosi, Ron Silliman and Al Young.
The reading series dropped off sharply by the ''90s, but started to make a comeback three years ago, spurred on by Gitin''s committee. Economic woes at the college have not made things any easier. "Despite recent cutbacks," Gitin says, "the committee hopes to continue to bring poets and fiction writers to the campus for the benefit of the students and community."
The committee''s coup this spring was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine''s reading on April 3, followed the next day by an open discussion with MPC students. Last year, the college invited acclaimed poet Jack Marshall, author of Gorgeous Chaos. And two years ago, Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott gave a reading. It''s an impressive list of visitors, due in no small measure to Gitin''s presence in the department.
"We are very lucky to have him," McClure says. "The more we hold him as an example of fine writing, the better off our works will be."