Charles Upton

Biography, Page 1
(1, 2)

I was born in 1948, Baby Boom. I grew up in Marin County, California, which means that I had my head turned, somewhere along the line, by an obscure privilege which did not hold. I am descended on my mother’s side, through Virginia tidewater gentry and English squires and lots of female lines, from many European kings, including Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great, and at least one Byzantine Emperor, and also from Guilluame de Poitiers, the first Troubadour, and his granddaughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Richard the Lionhearted was an uncle; my direct descent, regretfully, is from Bad King John, who as Prince Regent offered to give away England to the Emir of Cordoba while the true King was fighting Muslims in the Holy Land, thus making England a Muslim nation—that would have gotten Richard’s goat!—but the Emir honorably declined.) Let Mark Twain tell you how much all that blood is worth on the open market. Like one of my great-grandfathers said, “Don’t be like a potato—the best part of you under ground.” In modern times another ancestor, a Baskerville, died a hero’s death in Iran, like Byron in Greece, fighting with the Constitutionalist forces.

I was educated in Catholic school up through high school, where I wrote my first poetry—which probably means I got a better liberal arts education than many people get in college these days. I attended U.C. Davis for a total of four days, then quit to take the Counterculture Course, which was much more interesting to me, and to many, at that particular time. Since there is no way to compare what you did do with what you didn’t, there is no way to measure the effect of that choice. God knows best.

1

And so I attended riots and demonstrations (Oakland Induction Center; 1096 Democratic Convention), went to rock concerts, protested the Vietnam War with Vietnam Summer (a nationwide student antiwar project), hitchhiked around the country, rode freight trains, took psychedelic drugs, wrote poetry, visited gurus, dabbled in yoga and meditation, and delved into comparative religion and mythology. (I was ineligible for the draft due to asthma and one bad eye.) During the time I became a student of Beat Generation poet Lew Welch, through whom I met Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen and Robert Duncan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But the most significant people Lew introduced me to were Samuel Lewis--(“Sufi Sam”) who was taking one of Lew’s courses at U.C. Extension--and Carlos Castaneda. He did this in an attempt to “initiate” me on a freelance basis, and actually came up with two people who perfectly represented the two sides of my character: Samuel Lewis my light side, my Sufism, and Carlos Castaneda my dark side, my foolish tendency to dabble in magic and psychic powers.

Through the contacts provided by Lew Welch, I was able to publish two books of poetry at the age of 19: Time Raid (my juvenilia) through Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation, and Panic Grass (my first epic) in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. I read the whole thing out loud (and I do mean loud) at a poetry reading in Glide Memorial Church, and afterwards Lawrence Ferlinghetti came up and said, “I want to publish that poem.” (Interestingly enough, a great grandfather of mine had been Methodist pastor of the congregation that later moved to Glide; that pulpit must have been in my blood.) In the words of Lew Welch:

       More people know you
       Than you know
       Fame.

So at 19 I was “the youngest member of the Beat Generation” (a completely inaccurate characterization), with absolutely nothing more to say. So I withdrew. I hid out. I never did a public reading of Panic Grass after it was published. My poetry fell apart, became corny or sentimental or eerily thin. I had no idea who I was or what I was supposed to do with my life.

2

The 60’s were ending. Many were paying dearly for the psychic inflation of that era. Culture heroes (like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix) were dropping like flies. Women were getting angry and frustrated and desolately lonely. Men were turning into clowns and puppets, losing their manhood. With my first live-in girlfriend I followed the northward migration to Canada spearheaded by American draft resisters. As soon as we got there, we split up. I was in an automobile accident and totaled our van (unconscious suicide attempt?), and awoke with a serious concussion. With my parents’ money I bought a piece of land in the far North, with absolutely no idea what to do with it (except sell it later at a profit). I hitchhiked and rode freights far into British Columbia, where I went commune-hopping. I passed from one weird or sinister experience to the next—the mini-hacienda of Frank the Sorcerer, a tough, tyrannical little near-dwarf from Eastern Europe surrounded by dependent, sleepy drones, in a tributary canyon to the Fraser River, deep in the wilderness, a six-mile hike the only way in…the Valley of the Three Sisters in the Okanagan, where hash-smoking hippies didn’t get their crops planted in time, a stay that ended with a night of bad wine (I was told) attempted rape…then back to Vancouver, where my parents sent me a newspaper clipping about how Lew Welch had disappeared in the Sierras, but had apparently been seen again…

On my way back to California I stopped at Gary Snyder’s place, which had been Lew’s last base, and found that he never had come back. He’d swapped his rifle for a revolver, and left a cryptic suicide note. I would never see him again.

Back at my parents’ home, where I grew up, I found my father dying of cancer. A few months after he passed away, our house burned. I ended up living with my mother in a small apartment, and drinking like a fish. During this time the consequences of my abuse of kundalini yoga also began to show up; I had used it to rise above grief, and ended by nearly losing my connection to my body and the earth. It took years of effort, including freelance excursions into the world of sorcery via the Castaneda techniques and more psychedelics, to reestablish that connection, (which probably happened despite these “efforts” rather than because of them). I continued my association with the San Francisco Poetry Scene, and this led me, temporarily, in the direction of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly that of Chögyam Trungpa of Naropa Institute, who was guru t the more intellectual sector of two generations of American Bohemia—Beat and Hippy—during the 1970’s. I became involved, as a “skirmisher,” in the Great Naropa poetry Wars, which revolved around certain scandals Trungpa was involved in (apparently the required “initiation” for so many Eastern teachers when they come to the West), and which were also an attempt on the part of my generation to resolve the huge, half-conscious contradiction between our “progressive” social myths and our attraction of traditional spiritual authority. I carried on an epistolary debate with Allen Ginsberg around these issues, the text of which was privately circulated.

At that lowest point of my life I met Jenny Doane through mutual friends—a fellow-poet and a rare one, reputedly descended from John Donne, whose poetry started out like a cross between Emily Dickenson and Sylvia Plath, and later became more like that of Rumi or Rabi’a. She was in flight from an abusive family situation in Appalachian Kentucky. I had sold my Canada land and bought another (worse) piece near John Day, Oregon; so with nothing to live on but a tiny check from her mother and the proceeds of my land sale—I subsequently sold the second piece too—we moved into a camping trailer. A year later we were married, and living in a downscale apartment in Petaluma. I was drinking more than ever. After two years of this, spurred by a dream-message from my father, we moved into a one-bedroom house my grandmother used to live in, a block from the house where I grew up. We live there still. It’s been 23 years.

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