was sometime in the early eighties in Seattle and two people had
suggested that I should meet Willie Smith. One was Mike Kettner,
a poet who had written a poem about "soap-borne diseases."
Kettner ran a small-press bookstore near the university. While shopping
there, he suggested that I should meet Willie Smith. I don't really
like to meet people, so I put the suggestion out of my mind. Later
that same month, however, I was talking to James Winchell, who was
teaching a French class for beginners while getting his Ph.D. in
French literature from the fin-de-siecle. I was taking Winchell's
class, and giving Winchell a lift to the class in exchange for taking
the class for free. Winchell had lived in Portland with Smith, and
they had edited a journal called Tropical Harmonica Digest together
in the seventies. Ever interested in pushing Smith's literary fortunes
and widening his circle of contacts, Winchell arranged a dinner
so that I could meet Smith.
My first impression of Smith wasn't
good. He was terribly thin and ragged, reminding me of Falstaff's
comment on one his soldiers, "the foeman may with as great
aim level at the edge of a penknife." No bullet could hit him.
This is fortunate because bullets have often streaked through Smith's
houses, as his economics have forced him to live in dicey areas.
His face was crimson from drinking, and the veins in his nose broken,
and his clothes strictly Salvation Army -- a tattered gray coat,
a torn t-shirt, torn bluejeans, and boots that looked about as old
as he was -- somewhere between thirty and fifty. He had thinning
gray hair pushed to the edge of ridiculous sideburns. Somehow his
face was handsome, and even boyish, and there was laughter in his
eyes, but I sensed some deep disaster within.
I kept seeing him around town, and
discovered he had been a French major at an excellent college --
Portland's Reed, where Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen
had gone. Smith knew French, and spent his days off reading Proust
or laboriously translating Michaux in the library. He also read
up on Fibonacci numbers and chaos theory. Strangely, he had no books
at all in his house save for a few xeroxed literary periodicals
which had published his work. Unlike me, or almost anyone else I
knew, he didn't buy books. He rarely even took them out of the library.
His house was strangely clear of bookshelves, as I was soon to see
One evening Willie invited me over
to dinner, and I wanted to see if he would actually serve large
boiled cockroaches or something, so I went to his bizarre house
overrun with brambles on a street overlooking the highway. At first
it didn't even look like there was a house at the address given,
so overrun with vegetation was the residence. The house overlooked
the I-5 freeway, and looked like an abandoned lot in the early winter
evening. I couldn't find any lights in the brambles at the address
designated. Did he live underground, in some kind of hole he had
dug? The other houses on the street were all normal in appearance
and had lights on and clear steps up to the front door, but Smith's
house was just not there. Finally I found a door in an alley around
back that seemed to function, and which appeared to belong to a
house. I rang, and the door was thrown open by Willie, who padded
into the kitchen in rubber thongs and shorts, and I followed him
with some trepidation. The windows had been painted black to avoid
creditors (a standard practice in the poetry milieu of the time)
and this was why I had not been able to see a light. What I dared
to eat of the dinner -- boiled brown rice, was quite good, but there
was a strange smell in the house, and I was afraid to eat the meat,
which might have been rat, or dog, or human. A candle glowed in
a skull at the center of the spool table. Several other poets were
at the dinner, including several American Indians, and when they
started to pass joints and nod out, I went around the house for
a look, and discovered a lot of empty rooms, and one enormous wall
chart with mysterious jottings.
I began to visit Smith regularly.
I read his novels Oedipus Cadet, and Zombie Inna Basement,
and thought he was actually edging more towards Proust than towards
Bukowski. I wrote them up in a Seattle literary journal as the best
novels I had seen among Seattle writers, and I think I had something
to do with the eventual acceptance of Oedipus Cadet at Seattle's
best press -- Black Heron. The novel sold poorly, and the publisher
was later angry with me, I believe, for not having marketed the
book through reviews, when I had hinted that I would, a fact for
which I am still sorry, because the result was that no more of Willie's
works were printed by this publisher.
Oedipus Cadet is a novel about
a young boy who masturbates all the time, and has a war going with
his dad over who is going to fuck the mom. It takes Freud to a disgusting
literalness, and maintains a cheerful commentary on the average
American family. There is an impossible problem left over from Puritan
times in which kids aren't permitted to have a sex life or even
talk about it, so they go underground, and get more and more depraved.
War scenes from World War IIdocumentaries are intercut with revolting
masturbation sequences. The father has an obscure job in the Pentagon
and returns home evenings and weekends to fuck and beat the wife
In the emerging field of Masturbation
Studies, I think Smith's work will rapidly become canonical. In
his house, there was a huge chart, spreading nearly fifty feet along
several walls. The chart had dates, with numbers. There was an entry
for every date, for instance, June 6, 1977, had the number 71 behind
it. Forming an immense hieroglyph, I thought for years this must
be the number of times he had jerked off in a day. Finally, one
day while Smith was performing his relentless back exercises, I
asked him about the numbers.
"Ounces of beer on any given
day." Smith notified me. "I like to keep it to at least
Smith's wife was a commercial artist
who sold hand-painted umbrellas to the Japanese at a huge mark-up.
Smith, whose income was dependent on a temporary secretarial job
at the local unemployment office, only had a fraction of hers. He
was regularly laid off by the manager there so that he could attend
to his writing while receiving compensation from the state. Smith
was dependent on his wife for a roof over his head, but he was terribly
faithful to her, and never had a bad word to say about her. In this
sense, too, he was no Bukowski, but had rather elegant manners,
and was an extremely considerate spouse. The couple moved to a large
house in a no-man's land between Chinatown and the black area of
Seattle, just before Seattle real estate prices shot up in the late
eighties. His wife purchased the house for around 50 grand, if memory
serves me correctly, but the property must be worth several times
that by now. It overlooks the Central District (mostly black) from
the back side of Beacon Hill (mostly Asian). This house is where
most of his recent letters in the Corpse have been written
from. It is surrounded by a scrubby forest, where whores take their
dates to fuck in the alley behind Smith's house. I went there several
times to get Smith in the late eighties, before we would commence
ten-mile hikes through the city. As we walked, Smith would often
whisper unlikely guesses concerning the sexual preferences of the
geeks we passed in diverse neighborhoods. When I arrived to pick
him up for the walk he was usually found doing his back exercises
on a red mat, an irritating routine which took him several hours
every day to complete, and which often forced me to wait thirty
or forty minutes while he continued to stretch.
"What happened to your back?"
I finally asked one day in exasperation.
"Like many young people interested
in literature," he said, "I hurt it trying to blow myself."