Monday, August 07, 2006

"Close the Goddamn Door!:An Afternoon with Louisa Solano: Memories of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop"

At the Wilderness House Literary Retreat Louisa Solano, former owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop held court for a few hours of casual conversation concerning her experiences running the famed Harvard Square book shop for over 30 years. It seems that almost every major contemporary poet passed through these doors at one time. Here is a sampler of what Solano had to say about the times and poets she knew:

Gordon Cairnie: (the founder of the store) ?These goddamn browsers, close the goddamn, door!? This was a declaration often heard by Solano. Cairnie was ?quirky,? and did have a temper according to Solano. Solano said, ?After I bought the store I had a whole line of people who told me that Gordon ruined them emotionally. It was the way he talked to them.? Cairnie in part was reacting to the browsers who never bought a book, and the ones who shoplifted. Obviously keeping people out of the store was not good business sense. But Solano felt there was a prevailing attitude at the time that poets were abused by society, so poetry and commerce were viewed as totally separate entities.

After he died Solano recalled that many folks thought it was a ?sin? that she took over the store.

Solano on shoplifting; ?According to a study 98% of people steal. People steal because it is an adventure, a high. It?s like shooting up; you have to do more and more. You become an expert on justification.? Solano said that studies indicate that shoplifting is highest among people in religious orders. She recalled that a monk with a flowing robe ripped her off. She said, ?His robe was a little less flowing when he went out.?

Solano on Harvard Square: Whatever part of the country people come from, the suburbs or little working communities, they come to the square and reality diminishes. She said:?People are walking in a state of grandeur. I remember being accompanied down the street by someone who said he was going to kill me because I was a Harvard capitalist!?

Solano on Robert Lowell: ?I met him twice. I thought he was homeless. He was carrying two bags full of newspapers, and he was disheveled. The first time he said to me: ?Young lady. I want you to know that Gordon talked too much, and you should never do that.? He walked out of the store. A week later he came and said, ?Young lady. You are not following Gordon. You don?t talk to customers.? I found out later that this was Robert Lowell.?

?I went to Lowell?s memorial service. Not one person mentioned his poetry. They all talked about his family. His family felt he should not have been a writer. It was not a proper occupation for his class.?

Solano?s favorite poet: ?Philip Levine. He has always been my favorite. I think his approach to poetry is wide open. He loved an audience. He was a great standup comic. I loved the love he had for the Jewish community. I really love him.?

Solano on the small press; ?I always thought the small press was the most interesting part of poetry. When I took over the store there was a big small press movement going on. This was the 70?s. Some magazines were printed on colored tissue papers, different sizes, etc? Most of the bigger presses were publishing Lowell, Sexton and Plath. They were not particularly democratic. Diana Di Prima was first published by a small press and then started her own, and it is still going strong. She has done translations, and poetry publishing. The University of Texas/Austin was wild about the small press. They probably now (besides the University of Buffalo) have the best small press collection.?

?Black Sparrow Press? started out selling books with three or four poems for a dollar. Most of the bookstores today would not accept these.?

?Even if you were published just in the small press; the fact is you are in a book on a public shelf. Then if things went well you would do another small press book. If things continued to go well, you would get known.

Solano on Charles Bukowski: ?He sent his poems out virtually everyday to every small press magazine out there. This totally admonished the myth of him as a disorganized drunk. He wouldn?t be able to do this if he was.?

Solano on Ed Hogan of ?Aspect? magazine and ?Zephyr Press?; ?Ed was brilliant. He had a lot of energy. He talked endlessly and rapidly. He got a great group of local poets together, and got the magazine out.?

Solano on Allen Ginsberg. ?I loved Allen. When he died I thought the world would cave in. He visited the store when he was quite ill. He looked yellowish and diminished. I was shocked. I thought of him as immortal. He brought poetry in the open from a very closed 1950?s America.?

Jack Kerouac: ?When I first met him he was sitting down at Lowell House. (Harvard University.) He was wearing a checkered shirt, and sloppy chinos, partly because he was so fat. The audience loved him because he was what they expected. He was the crazy writer. At the end of the reading, Desmond O?Grady, a wild Irish poet (I was madly in love with him), and I escorted him to a bar in Cambridge. There was a young woman who announced to Kerouac and all the guys around him that she wanted a ?multiple lay.? Kerouac didn?t do anything and just waddled off to the bar. We got him back to where he was staying and he passed out.

?The next day we met him at the Oxford Grill on Church St. in Harvard Square. The news came out that Plath committed suicide. Desmond threw his arms around Jack and very dramatically said ?We are the only ones left.? Jack said,? Stay away from me.? He was homophobic. The last we saw of him he was walking down Church St. with two Harvard undergraduates looking for the perfect ?Gold,? marijuana.

Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/ Aug 2006/Somerville, Mass.