Looking back, it was October 2011 when I accepted a friend request from a man I had never met, or heard of, named El Habib Louai. He said he was a Moroccan poet and I tend to accept friend requests from poets. Right off the bat he also explained he was a Beat scholar and Jazz fan and so realized we had much in common. I told him my own literary interests were where the Beats left off and Black Mountain school of poetry began.
Soon after he told me he was planning a trip to the U.S. in summer 2013 and I told him if he came to Seattle, I would get him some readings and lodging if necessary. It turns out that one of the professors he had in Grad school, Ryan Burt, was now living in Seattle with his wife Jennifer Evans and they would be pleased to host him.
So I got to work, applying for grants, finding venues and arranging talks. The Subud International Cultural Association came through with a grant, as did the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and I created a poster for all of Habib’s Seattle area events.
Habib would arrive a few days earlier than planned, which worked out to our advantage, because I could get the tourist stuff out of the way and start showing him the town as well as turning him on to some uniquely USAmerican and Seattle experiences.
He had his first reuben sandwich in the Pike Place Market and visited the graves of Denise Levertov, Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee and Jimi Hendrix. We visited the Hillman City P-Patch. The term P-Patch is unique to Seattle and refers to a community garden where neighborhood residents can grow vegetables or flowers on their own little plot of land and share resources like shovels, wheelbarrows and rakes. We saw the Fremont Troll, the Fremont Lenin statue and Kerry Park. We visited Open Books,
Seattle’s all-poetry bookstore, as well as used bookstores in the Pike Place Market and Fremont. We loaded him up with books like the Naropa Disembodied Poetics anthology, Poets on the Peaks and the Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. I would give him copies of Nate Mackey’s Splay Anthem and School of Udhra, Michael McClure’s Three Poems and Lighting the Corners and other books. To see him drag around this hideous yellow suitcase full of books was quite telling as to Habib’s priorities. But they became clear as we hung out and had intelligent and intimate conversations immediately. He did not use alcohol or drugs and worked about 12 hours a week, so had lots of time and energy to read, write, translate (including some of Allen Ginsberg’s poems into Arabic) and connect with other poets and scholars on Facebook. He is developing quite the impressive network. His perception astounds me, as evident in his poem Kerouacian Epiphanies in the Portland Greyhound Bus Station. But also his heart, humility and generosity are noteworthy.
I was especially delighted to be able to take a ferry to Bainbridge Island, visit Eagle Harbor Books and find a park bench to read the first half of McClure’s poem Dolphin Skull. It is a poem that has had a huge influence on my life and writing. He was astounded at the consciousness behind such a poem and wished that someone had showed that to him ten years ago! It said a lot about Habib that he would get McClure so deeply and have the patience to listen to me read 33 pages of the poem in one sitting! He said it was a “life-changing experience” but he seemed to have a few when he visited here.
And then the gigs would begin. As I posted before here, this is what happened next. Habib (& I) would read with the Jim O’Halloran Quintet at Bradner Gardens, one of the jewels in Seattle’s p-patch network. Habib would begin to get his fill of Jazz with this remarkable band and get to have them accompany his original work and his translation of Ginsberg’s poem A Supermarket in California.
Habib reading Kerouacian Epiphanies in the Portland Greyhound Bus Station with the Jim O’Halloran Quintet, August 10, 2013 at Bradner Gardens (9:56).
The next day’s gig was at the Subud House, also known as the Spring Street Center. Habib would talk to an interesting mix of older Subud members and younger poets from Seattle and as far as Virginia. (Habib’s networking pays dividends!) Habib would speak about his Ph.D. work on the Beats in Morocco and the counter-cultural movements that had much in common with the Beat ethos before the Beats arrived. The notion of who influenced whom was brought up by Habib and some older Subud members were stunned that their life experiences were now being referred to as history!
Habib’s Talk, Part 1 (19:57)
Habib’s Talk, Part 2 (22:20)
Habib and I visited Sam Hamill and his daughter Eron in Anacortes on August 11, 2013, & Sam gave Habib several books, and showed him the book Habitations, a remarkable work of book art by Ian Boyden. It is a huge series of original paintings with Sam’s poems laser-etched into the work. Hear part of Sam’s impromptu reading here.
It was this evening that Habib got his first taste of sushi, as Sam loaded Habib up with books and we headed to Sakura in Burlington. To see Habib react to a hit of straight wasabi was priceless. Sam said: That’s why we water it down with soy sauce. Sam also told Habib about reading with Mahmoud Darwish about six months before the legendary poet’s death. Sam also told Habib he’d be delighted to visit Morocco some day after Habib suggested he might be able to arrange a visit. Habib passed on the Mu sake, which left more for us. Eron suggested I take advil for what she said looked like a neuroma on my left heel, which could have inhibited my climb up Desolation Peak. We drove home and made plans for the following night’s reading at the Wedgwood Ale House.
Monday (8.12.13) Habib got to go thrift shopping with my wife Meredith, a thrift store expert and fan of the song of the similar title and Habib got to hang out more with Ella, who LOVED him.
By evening we were in Wedgwood for Peter Munro‘s excellent North End Forum open mic, which happens on the 2nd Monday of every month at the Wedgwood Ale House, except maybe July when Peter is on the fishing boat in Alaska. Peter is an excellent open mic host and poet and the evening is well-attended. Many came out for the Beat scholar and poet from Morocco on Monday, August 12, 2013, and the open mic was excellent. We arrived early, so I got a prized spot in the first half of the reading and read some postcard poems from THIS August’s Poetry Postcard Fest. The guidelines for the fest suggest writing about the here and now and, by mid-month, postcards were revolving around my experiences with Habib and his uncanny perception of Portlandia, his appreciation of the Hillman City P-Patch (community garden) and other aspects of Habib in Seattle. Since I like to leave enough time for actual postcard recipients to actually get their postcards in the mail, I will not post them yet except for this one here:
However, Habib was the star on this occasion and the audio of his reading is here:
Habib at North End Forum, Wedgwood Ale House, August 12, 2013, Part 1 (16:40)
Habib at North End Forum, Wedgwood Ale House, August 12, 2013, Part 2 (19:37)
& Tuesday morning, after a meeting with Ellen Terry at Humanities Washington, Habib and I headed to North Cascades National Park. We got our backcountry permit and a water taxi from Ross Lake Resort to the dock at the Desolation Peak trailhead. We arrived late, at about 5pm and we could not stay at our first choice, Lightning Creek Falls campground, so got a permit to camp ON Desolation Peak, but we were not about to try that so late in the day, so camped on the dock. I would talk to Gerry Cook later about this decision and he said that our choice was a very low-impact way of camping. The stars were brilliant and I saw at least four shooting stars. You could see the nebulae as well, the skies were so clear on August 13.
Now, keep in mind that when I found out Habib was a Beat scholar and coming to the Northwest, I felt a hike up to the top of Desolation Peak was the right thing to do. A literary pilgrimage. For more on Jack Kerouac’s 63 day stay atop the peak, see this link.
And so the morning of Wednesday, August 14, 2013, Habib and I awoke before 6A and were hiking with full packs up to “Jack’s Shack” as I like to call it. But after an hour, maybe less, I knew we were not going to make it with those heavy packs and so we dropped them, took smaller packs up the mountain and it would take me 6 hours, Habib about 5 1/2, to get to the top of Desolation Peak. It would be my 2nd time up there, having participated in the Beats on the Peaks trip in 2008. We took our sweet time, as I introduced Habib to mountain huckleberries and we ate almost every one we saw. By the time we hit the blueberries, at a surprisingly high altitude, we ate a few, but were motivated to get to the fire lookout and the remarkable view. It was just to the west of the fire lookout where Habib and I sat down and conducted our interview of his life, his work, his visit to the U.S. and his approach to poetry.
El Habib Louai Interview atop Desolation Peak, Part 1. In the first segment, Habib talked about his background, his parents (who are illiterate), how he found the Beats and how their counter-culture ethos greatly appealed to him and seemed to be a method for changing the culture of his country. He discussed the cultural encounter between the Beats and Moroccan poets in the 50s and 60s and hopes, through his Ph.D. dissertation to dispel the myth of Euro-centricity. Mohamed Choukri is one of the Moroccan novelists on which he will be focused. (14:13)
El Habib Louai Interview atop Desolation Peak, Part 2. In the second segment, Habib talked about his tour of the U.S., how it came to be mainly through Facebook networking, his visits to New York, Paterson and Newark, New Jersey, (retracing the steps of Allen Ginsberg and others), Altoona, PA, Boulder, Portland and Seattle. He recorded some of his Ginsberg translations at the Ginsberg Trust with Peter Hale, visited Amish country in Pennsylvania, rode the bus from Altoona to Boulder, Shambhala Mountain Center and sites in Seattle and the Northwest, including the graves of Denise Levertov, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce and Brandon Lee and a visit with the very live and always entertaining Sam Hamill, who introduced Habib to sushi. He also talked about his poem Kerouacian Epiphanies in Portland Greyhound Bus Station, how that was composed and how he tends to write organically, in a first take manner. (17:25)
El Habib Louai Interview atop Desolation Peak, Part 3. Habib discussed his method of composition which he says owes something to the projective method, his deep experience listening to Michael McClure’s poem Dolphin Skull, how it must have been written at a deep level of consciousness and how moved he was to hear it. He discussed the upcoming stops on his tour, including San Luis Obispo, Santa Rosa, Berkeley and Los Angeles and visits with Michael Rothenberg, Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger and other friends and poets. He also discussed his plans for the future. (16:20)
Once down from the top of Desolation Peak, we camped on the mountain that night and the next day at Noon our water taxi whisked us to the trailhead that led to the short hike to the car and the short drive to the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center. A beautiful center on Diablo Lake, we had a chance to shower, have some lunch and coffee before our talk that evening.
Habib and I had been invited to speak to the Beats on the Peaks class. NCI Executive Director Saul Weisberg, longtime North Cascades National Park employee Gerry Cook and his wife Hannah Sullivan are huge Beat poetry fans and very capable guides for the Beats on the Peaks program. It was the first night of the 2013 Beats on the Peaks event. Gerry Cook discussed Fire Lookouts in the North Cascades and showed some very dramatic photos of the Lookouts in winter.
Gerry Cook Fire Lookout Talk, Part 2 (15:04)
Gerry Cook Fire Lookout Talk with Hannah Sullivan, Part 3 (14:25)
Habib talked about the Beat connection to Morocco and other aspects of his Ph.D. research.
Habib at NCI, 8.15.13, Part 1 (15:21)
Habib at NCI, 8.15.13, Part 2 (17:02)
Habib at NCI, 8.15.13, Part 3 (12:27)
The following morning Habib and I got into my car early and I made sure he was on the 9:35 Coastal Starlight to San Luis Obispo with the instruction to tell Michael McClure: The Amtrak is a person as much as people are.
I am grateful to everyone who made Habib’s visit to Cascadia a huge success, including those mentioned above, my wife Meredith who took great care of our little girl Ella and especially the Subud International Cultural Association and the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Habib, your trip was mythic. May your mythic journey continue in the best way. I am honored to call you my Brother.