Phil Nurenberg's Bern Porter Interview
Reprinted from Vagabond Press, Ellensburg, Washington
From a taped interview, August 25-27, 1980 in Belfast Maine
I corresponded with Phil Nurenberg throughout the 1980s after we were brought together by mutual friends such as Carlo Pittore, David Zack, John M. Bennett, Bern Porter and Dick Higgins. I cannot remember exactly who hooked us up but it was one of the above. Then at some point Phil sent me this amazing interview he did with Bern Porter and I never forgot it. I present it here because it is an excellent recap of some of Bern Porter's amazing accomplishments. Phil said it was an excerpt from some twenty seven hours of taped interview with Bern. A little magazine called Vagabond White Paper Number 5 contained this portion of the interview and I am indebted to them and to Phil Nurenberg who retains the copyright. Phil Nurenberg is an important archivist of Henry Miller information and I presume he still lives in Los Angeles. If anyone knows his whereabouts or those of the Vagabond Press, please let me know.--Mark Bloch
Phil Nurenberg: How did you first get in touch with Henry Miller?
Bern Porter: When I was in Paris during the 30's, I was a member of Gertrude Stein's spawn. And Gertrude said to me, 'Why don't you look up Henry Miller?' I had read the original manuscript of Tropic of Cancer before it became famous and told her how good it was. She didn't know Miller but Michael Fraenkel was a friend of hers.
I wasn't able to locate Miller at the time. I later found out he was then living in a theatre and sleeping nights in the ticket' office. But I did meet him briefly in Paris through Fraenkel when he was waiting for a ship to return to America. The first address where I visited him in America was .Beverly Glen in Los Angeles.
When he moved to Big Sur, I eventually went there and stayed with him to work on the first Henry Miller bibliography and chronology; and to examine his unpublished manuscripts which he kept in a trunk. I also stayed at George Leite's and' Emil White's places there on various visits. I believe I first met Noel Young there through Miller. On a daily basis, I saw many people come and go, and I saw his manuscripts. When I was there, he had more manuscripts than he knew what to do with. He was literally a 'writing machine,' He used to pile it up in a trunk and there are so many of these trunks that nobody knows where they all are, I have personally seen several of them. This was about 1944 and he was writing day and night.
Nurenberg: What was the house like there?
Porter: He was then living in a garage which had been converted into a servant's quarters. The garage was on the street level and there was a mansion up above on a cliff. Henry was also producing watercolors like mad during this period, He was turning out painting after painting.
Nurenberg: What about the women in his life at that time?
Porter: Henry, all his life, just by his mere presence, has been able to attract women.
Nurenberg: How did he seem to do this?
Porter: Just by being himself, regardless of what the world thinks. That was what Henry stood for. When I first arrived, two women had been there the night before. They brought him cake. They brought him food. They brought him sex, And they brought him life and joy.
He had just moved in. One of his great problems was, 'What do I do with this flock of women?' His days at Partington Ridge were devoted solely to writing, June Lancaster, a dancer from Los Angeles, was in residence there, Henry erected a ballet ring for her, and she would go out and practice.
In the evening, two other women would come in, dance and carry on to phono- graph records, and act out comedy scenes for us. And they provided for Henry and myself, a kind of conic relief to the day.
One feature of the life at Partington Ridge was a trip down the hill every two days with a cart Emil White constructed. This was to get the mail 'and bring up the groceries. The groceries in those days were brought to Partington Ridge by the mailman. This was an act which required a special dispensation to the postal system because theoretically they were supposed to carry only the mail. Tony and Val, Henry's children, were of course not yet born. Later, after Lepska, their mother, arrived to live.there, I would commute back and forth to Berkeley with her. Lepska viould go to Berkeley to visit with George Leite and help with the editing of Circle Magazine,
This period when I lived with Henry day in and day out was a very moving one for me because I got to watch his process of writing, editing and experiencing in general.
Nurenberg: How about the fans?
Porter: There were many. There was Harry Hershkowitz, who approached both Henry and George Leite simultaneously. There were the Stettheimer sisters, Charles Henry Ford, and Parker Tyler, Parker Tyler was one of the contributors to the Happy Rock, He started some of his books in Paris in what was eventually to become The Odyssey Press.
Nurenberg: Was Emil White there?
Porter: Yes, he was there and he was helping Henry in every conceivable way. He helped. Henry answer the mail, bring the supplies up the ridge, do the dishes, wash the floor...everything.
And Henry needed help at the beginning at Big Sur. He had no mechanical ability or knowledge of how to fix things. Emil helped him. Someone had to do it. Here was a genius at work. This was done to Einstein at Princeton. He had 70 people helping him. Henry had only Emil.
Nurenberg: How did Henry react to this?
Porter: He needed help in order to be able to concentrate on his writing. And all the people who helped Henry out made out all right in the end.
Nurenberg: How would you compare Big Sur then to Big Sur now?
Porter: Places like 'Big Sur change about every three year's. In those days George Leite was there with his wife Nancy. Emil was there, Noel Young was there. I've known him for years. I've known him since he was in short pants, so to speak. At Big Sur he did some carpentry, became a printer, and later became Henry's publisher at Capra Press.
At Sulphur Springs there was nothing. Today it is the Escelon Institute. I remember one typically humorous scene at Big Sur when Henry was in the tub taking a bath. He was splashing around like a madman. This was his i
Nurenberg: Is this the same James Laughlin who was arrested by the police while a student at Harvard for publishing Henry Miller in the Harvard Advocate?
Porter: Yes, and he was one of the contributors to The Happy Rock. He started New Directions Press in his mother's garage in Connecticut about a year after I started Bern Porter Books in Houlton, Maine.
He and I have been sort of friendly rivals ever since. He would call me a 'son of a bitch' and I would call him 'a son of a bitch.' Yes; we're very close. We started off essentially in the same field and are still in it all these years.
His family is connected with Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh. He and I became rivals because his position became, in effect, that I was to take what was left over of Henry's work which he didn't publish. I published in all, about 17 titles of Henry's.
James Laughlin and I finally came together and agreed to be friends in a title called Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, in which I agreed to let him reprint,some of Henry's things; which he did.
Nurenberg: How would you explain the tremendous commercial success of Henry Miller's watercolors?
Porter: Well, I point out to you that had he devoted his life to painting exclusively, this might not have happened. It happened to him, I think, because he is a well known writer.
When I got to Big Sur, he was producing watercolors like mad. The photo that I took of him for the introduction of our book Echolalia was him sitting on his couch with his materials, ready to paint watercolors.
Nurenberg: What kind of camera equipment did you have?
Porter: Just an ordinary Brownie.
Nurenberg: Would you talk some more about the hook Echolalia?
Porter: This book was composed of reproductions of Henry's watercolors. This was done mostly with watercolors which he produced at Beverly Glen soon after his return to America from Greece.
With conditions of war coming on, he vas obliged to leave France. He went on to Greece and I believe, his passport expired. And so he had to return to America. And I think one of the greatest books about Greece was the one he wrote about this -period of his life called The Colossus of Maroussi.
In any event, I owned at one time approximately 15 watercolors of Henry's, and reproduced about 12 more from other collections for Echolalia.
Echolalia came out in 1945. It was arranged to be simultaneously published in England, It is now, of course, a very rare book. Miller actually got relaxa- tion from his writing by dabbling and doodling with watercolors, I say dabbling and doodling because if you study and. look closely at his work, it looks very primitive and untutored. But this is because it is a spontaneous rendition.
He asked me sometimes if I could help him. I recommended some of the hooks of Paul Klee, And he actually went and got a book by Klee. But he wrote me that he was unable to make sense out of it.
However he continued with the painting and devised a way to get money by writing to The New Republic. Besides requesting clothes and the like, he wrote that he had watercolors available and would sell them for any contribution sent him. -
People began sending him as little as two dollars and they received by re- turn mail a watercolor. I suppose these watercolors would now be selling for $850, and probably more. And his success, with this was based upon his position as a writer,
You see, this is all tangent to the note that here was a man who had a hobby, and other people on the sidelines pushed him Into a business with it. And it is a form of uninhibited expression, and as such, serves a very real purpose as art,
What I'm saying is that in those early days, he was not only elated when he got two bucks, but it actually did serve to keep him in postage, typewriter ribbons, and paper. And this was, in fact, a very interesting way of getting some necessities; this along with the begging.
I remember another instance at Big Sur when he felt he needed a thermos bottle. Instead of asking a friend, 'Would you please send me a thermos bottle,' he wrote about 22 friends. Each card said in effect, 'Here I am the world's greatest writer...' and he was of course '...on top of this forlorn and isolated ridge. And if I had a thermos bottle, I could have my coffee in the morning, and then I could make a little extra, put it in the thermos bottle, and have it for lunch. So could you please send rue a thermos bottle?'
And out of the 22 cards, it is my recollection that about 17 people sent him thermos bottles. And they did It, I'm sure, out of compassion for-the great genius. And the result was that the 17 thermos bottles were of innumerable sizes, shapes, colors and prices. Once this collection had arrived, in addition to the storage problem, was what to do with them.
My solution was, 'Well, Henry, since you only need one, why not start giving them away to the first people who walk through the door? Ask then if they need a thermos bottle, and if they do. Just pass then along in that way. Select out of the 17 the one which most fits your personality and which is the best in terms of quality, finish, and size. And let's give the rest away.'
Well he didn't go for that because he saw them as a gift from God, And some- where in one of his books he speaks of this principle. It goes something like, 'When you're, stuck, you don't ask one person to help you, you ask a total of seven people.' Henry felt that the world owed him a living. And ironically, it's very possible that he was right.
But at any rate. Henry was a master at milking people. And I must say, in all fairness to him, that having acquired by various means, he also exhibited great generosity in sharing with others. And what he has shared with us in his books, is a wonderful stew of unusual content.
Nurenberg: What was Anais Nin's relationship to Henry Miller?
Porter: Her role was that of a patron, friend, and advisor. She set him up in an apartment in Paris. She paid the rent and -then she put up the money for Jack Kahne to bring out the original edition of ropic of Cancer with his Obelisk Press. After that, she went even further and wrote the introduction to the book. And she stayed with him through all his trials and tribulations to the bitter end.
Nurenberg: Why do you think the feminists have embraced Anais Nin so much?
Porter: Because she led them for years. She showed them that women have talents, rights, use, and knowledge to contribute to society. She had the intelligence to say to them, 'You too can and should do something creative and important.' And then when they did, she supported them.
Nurenberg: Do you remember Emma Goldrman? - '
Porter: Yes, and she was very early. She was even older than Henry, Henry went to her as one of her disciples. She was a well-known feminist of the early school, and an anarchist. And from her, Henry became interested in anarchism.
Nurenberg: You published a book by Michael Fraenkel called The Genesis of Tropic of Cancer. He also wrote a, contribution to The Happy Rock., Could you talk a bit about him and his relationship to Henry Miller?
Porter: He gave Henry room and board in Paris, where he later formed the Carrefour Press, in which he published his own and Henry's work. And in a way, he pushed Henry into print.
He advised. He was almost like a literary agent. He advised Henry to write as he talked and not be stilted. He pushed and urged. And in this way he contributed to Henry's natural and informal style in Tropic Of Cancer.
Nurenberg: What do you think were the ingredients behind Henry Miller's 'prose poem' form
Porter: In short, he was being himself, and to hell with what the world or the.critics think about it
Nurenberg: Do you think this contributed to the delay in the eventual wide and Favorable, critical recognition, which did come to him finally?
Porter: Henry decided at a very early age, that, if necessary, he would fight the system in order to express himself and' that he was through with the rat race. Well it took years of financial and other privations, culminating in the landmark censorship trial which has given this country's writers the freedom of expression which they enjoy and take for granted today.
There were great, great obstacles. It took years of faith and determination that he would tell the truth and be himself no matter what others thought. And what does it matter whether you are recognized or not, as long as you are being yourself? It's very, very important to be yourself. That's what Henry Miller stands for.
Nurenberg: What, in your opinion, is good wriling today?
Porter: Today, in a I980 context, I think that good writing turns out to be the true depiction of feeling and emotion. I think that those things which stand up over a period of years do so because they have a universal quality of depicting human emotion and feeling.
But of course the test of whether it is good, bad. or indifferent is always a matter of opinion and context.
Nurenberg: What were your artistic aims and goals in the first edition of . The Happy Rock?
Porter: One of the objectives of all of my work has been a kind of attack against people's lack of sensitivity to the things around them.
In my life and work I have been trying to demonstrate that life is really a beautiful thing. And the layout of the first edition of The Happy Rock was an attempt to shake people up and wake people up. By using different colored papers and .lettering, I was attempting to kick people in the teeth so to speak, or more correctly, in the eye. I was trying to make them up and- capture their attention.
Nurenberg: Do you know what Henry Killer's children, Tony and Val have been up to recently; have you met them?
Porter: Yes, I net them when they were young. As I understand it, Tony is now his father's literary executor and Val, unfortunately, went through an unhappy marriage.
Nurenberg: Have you been out to the house in Pacific Palisades?
Nurenberg: How would you compare it to the ones, he had at Big Sur?
Porter: Well, you have to understand that Henry was allergic to houses, real estate agents, banks, and checks. Someone had to do all this for him. Someone had to go pick it out and buy it and. almost bring him in by the hand and say, 'Henry, this. is a house.'
You have to hear in mind that here was a guy who never had a house except the one which Anais Nin bought him. He was literally given a house at Big Sur. It was given to him and he really didn't understand it. Later, he built one there and he didn't understand that either.
Why didn't he? Because he wasn't concerned with such things as houses. Here was a man who was concerned with words.
Nurenberg: Would you comment upon Henry Miller's anti-war book which you published in the middle of WWII?
Porter: Murder the Murderer is an incredible diatribe and, in my view, one of the greatest anti-war satires ever written.
And one of its features was that Henry could not initially put his name on it as author, and I could not initially put my name on it as publisher,
It was first published outside the gates of Oakridge, Tennessee, where I was engaged in the separation of uranium. And because of this, it was necessary for me to go through the guard system to the printer almost surreptitiously, owing to the circumstances of the times.
We were doing this on principle because owing to the circumstances of the time Henry could have gone up for treason and I could have lost my job. And, of course, I was under continuous observation anyway because of my job. And I probably still am for that matter. At any rate, the circumstances of publishing the book were difficult and not done for commercial gain.
Nurenberg: What was the punishing world like during WWII?
Porter: Besides censorship, in those days there was a shortage of glue, thread, and paper. Some of the books I did were bound in wallpaper notably Philip Lamantia's Erotic Poems. This was done because it looked interesting, was a substitute for cloth, and was not subject to quotas. And Philip Lamantia, by the way contributed a poem to The Happy Rock.
Nurenberg: What was your inside view of The Manhattan Project?
Porter: The Manhattan Project was spread all over the country. There were so many people employed upon it that it was a close approximation to a WPA for scientists,
I started off with it as part of the contingent of the Physics Department at Princeton University, Albert Einstein was across the way. I was the liaison between him and an experimental group in the Physics Department. I got to know him pretty well because my job required me to be in personal contact with him.
His function had to do with him developing some of the theory we were using. We were separating uranium. I would ask him for suggestions for reinterpreting his theory into practical terms for use His role was that of a consultant and. highly sophisticated super intend ant in charge. But he wasn't always required to be physically present. He would tell us things like, 'Here, do this. And if that doesn't work, then here, try this.'
Nurenberg: Was Einstein aware of what the end result of this project was going to be.
Porter: Yes, he knew what the results were going to be. This was a very serious matter with him. He was well versed in the knowledge that this thing was going to produce incredible amounts of energy.
Nurenberg: How did Einstein reconcile this with his pacifism?
Porter: Most of us were pacifists. We were also stuck with the problem of board and rent, and buying shoes for the baby. I was publishing Murder the Murderer at my own expense and jeopardy at this time. . i
Nurenberg: What part of the chain of process of this huge project were you involved in?
Porter: I was in at the very beginning. I an an experimental physicist and it was my function to take Einstein's theory and apply it to the molecular structure of uranium. My part was to separate the plutonium from the uranium by separating the uranium into its component parts. My job was also to train and supervise people in the science of this separation.
But while I was doing this, I was aware that the talent I and the others had could be converted into more peaceful and useful functions. And I have devoted a large part of the rest of my life, from 1945 on, to demonstrating that this is so.
Nurenberg: What happened to the uranium when you were finished with it?
Porter: In this case, we shipped it off to New Mexico where it was put into a Bomb. From there it went on to the island of Saipan, and then eventually to Hiroshima and Nagasaki where it was dropped.
Nurenberg: Who had the ultimate authority over whether the bomb was dropped or not?
Porter: President Truman, as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and he ordered it dropped.
Nuremberg; When the bomb was dropped, what was the reaction of the American public?
Porter: The immediate reaction to the explosion of the bomb was a combination of relief and total horror. There was relief that the war was over; but many people, including myself, were not sure that it was over in a fair and honorable way.
The problem was this unleashing of one of the most horrible gadgets that man has ever devised upon innocent civilian citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are a number of things which could have been done historically, in retrospect. For example, having dropped one, was it necessary to drop the second? And historically, was it necessary to drop any bomb?
The truth is that when the bomb exploded, it was necessary for the government to explain to the American people where this staggering sum of money went. And the easy way to do this was to say, 'Well, we made a bomb, and now we will give you atomic power.'
Nurenberg: How and why did you cone to embrace the anti-nuclear movement so strongly?
Porter: In my life and work since 1945 after going to Hiroshima and seeing first hand what happened there, I have been trying to pioneer in an attempt to show that there are other things to physics besides destruction and nuclear radiation.
Many people here in Maine, including myself, are asking whether we should. shut down nuclear power plants here and prohibit future construction of then, because of the dangers. On the basis of my experience and expertise in this field, I think that we should shut them down. They are still too dangerous and risky.
Nurenberg: Could you elaborate on the part you played in the development of the first television tube for the Acheson Colloids Company in the late 1930's?
Porter: The Acheson Colloids Company in New York City was involved in a process which used graphite suspended in water. In those days I took this process and used it to coat the interior walls of a cathode-ray tube. The cathode-ray tube is what is today called the television tube.
The cathode-ray tube is the tube which projects the image on the front of the TV screen. And this is done by a beam of electrons which must be shielded with an electrical conductor which must be opaque.
This is what required the graphite mixture and the methods of applying and using it were developed by me at the Colloids Company back in the 30s.
And the ideal state, as I conceived of TV being used back in the 30's, would be purely to educate. And I visualised plugging it in to our entire school system, with the students sitting at hone and getting their lessons over the TV. Then they could send their reports and exams into a central station. And in this way, all the non-essentials of education could be eliminated and thereby reduce the tremendous time and expense of education that we have today. Then education could return to the simple basics that it should be. But unfortunately, TV has mostly turned out to be just the opposite of what I had hoped.
Nurenberg: What do you think is responsible for this departure from your ideal for TV as you originally conceived it?
Porter: Commercialism and the requirement of making money are mainly responsible for TV as it is today. Programming is determined mainly on the basis of making money rather than quality.
And in order to do this, they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. Here and there is an occasional spark of quality. And it seems that most of these sparks come from England where the government subsidizes the BBC. Now and then. some artistic effects and programs come from Japan.
Often; in this country, you'll notice that just at the moment the program begins to approach quality or suspense, they interrupt and cut to a commercial. And sometimes, quality-wise, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between the commercial and the regular program.
Nurenberg: What experiences have you had with radio?
Porter: There is a poet by the name of Bob Holman who went on the radio with me in a kind of symposium discussion. And that kind of thing used to be quite common for me.
I personally ran a radio program In Sausalito every Sunday, I used to interview all kinds of people, including Anais Nin, who was at that time living across the Bay in San Francisco.
Nurenberg: How did you get to know Allen Ginsberg?
Porter: We appeared together in New York City in the late 1940's. He and Gary Snyder cane to me in San Francisco in the 50s to publish his books including Howl. He had already published with Laurence Ferlinghetti and City Lights, and because I only had enough money to bring out a limited edition, I felt I owed it to him to advise him he'd probably get a better deal by sticking with Ferlinghetti. The same thing happened with Anais Nin's Diaries. I wanted to publish all of them unedited from the very beginning. But she and I agreed in the end that I wouldn't be equipped to handle more than a deluxe limited edition, financially,
Allen and I still exchange letters, and he is quite a figure, a real character. He has made his way with his craft, but has assured me that he has not made as much money over the years as others think he has. He even told me that he would like nothing better than to get a professorship at some college. But the colleges would, require him to wear a suit and tie, a clean shirt, and shine his shoes, and he wasn't quite ready for that yet. But one of these days he will be.
Nurenberg: Have you ever met his friend, Ken Kesey?
Porter: Yes, I was in touch with Ken Kesey because I consider it part of my work and business to get in touch with these people who I call 'producers.'
Ken Kesey was one; Lawrence Lipton was certainly one, along with others like Rexroth and Patchen.
Nurenberg: Is Lawrence Lipton the writer from Venice who Henry Miller mentioned meeting in Santa Monica at the same time he was invited there by his friend, Dr. Robert Fink, to see the paintings of Abe Weiner?
Porter: Yes, Lawrence Lipton was a kind of 'big wheel and celebrity in Venice, the way Henry Miller was at Big Sur. Lipton was a kind of founder, operator and. center of the works, so to speak, in Venice. He was sort of the hero to which people came from all directions when they settled there.
He was prominent in Venice and wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press. And in his column, he gave the Beatnik view of the world. And he saw Venice as a sort of cross section of the rest of the world. He also wrote a book about the Beatniks which received a "prize. He wrote a book called The Holy Barbarians. He was a well known figure there, but his Beatniks were different from the ones in San Francisco.
He passed away not too long ago. It was unfortunate because he was ill for two or three years before that. His wife had to take care of him and they eventually had to move out to the desert for his health.
And Venice was indicative of a kind of lifestyle which was going on at that time. It was very, very cheap and reasonable in those days. Now it is almost impossible to live there because of the high rents. Other people went north to San Francisco. Some went further into Oregon and the north country. And still others went to Sausalito, Colorado, and Greenwich Village.
Nurenberg: Who is Harry Kiakus?
Porter: He was the author of a very significant book about Venice called Venice: Beatnik Capital of the World, which I published. Actually there were two or three books of his having to do with Venice being a Beatnik capital.
Nurenberg: Were you ever in Venice during the Beatnik era?
Porter: Yes, several times. In those days people were gravitating to Venice because of the low cost of living. There were low heating costs because of needing less gas heat, and Iow rents. Vegetables were free. There were a lot of artists and writers there because of this.
Venice was basically a ghost town inhabited by artists who were there for the isolation and low rents. And for that reason, it was a very vital force. The Beatniks didn't cone to Venice per se. They were mostly up in North Beach in San Francisco, But in Venice there was a unique subculture, as we used to refer to it.
Nurenberg: What would you say were the major differences between the Beatniks in San Francisco, and those in Venice.
Porter: Well, the Beatniks in San Francisco seemed more mobile. They were. always traveling all over the country. They seemed more national in that respect and they often used freight trains to migrate and commute from East to West. Whereas the'Venice crowd seemed more static. They seemed more centered in Venice and tended to stay there. They tried to stick together and developed a system of becoming their own merchants and opening shops so that they could live off of one another cooperatively. And the environment in Venice was very favorable and conducive.
But Kerouac and Ginsberg for the most part shied away from Venice, It wasn't their kind of operation. And others went to Big Sur,
Nurenberg: What were Gertrude Stein and her famous salon in Paris like when you were there?
Porter: Well, her contributions to literature were many. One of them was her salon, where she fostered -introductions and interplay between artists and writers.
For example, among the people she told me to look up was Ezra Pound. Hemingway was there, Fitzgerald was there. James Laughlin knew her and published her. And a great number of American expatriots were hanging around. It was almost like a Greyhound Bus Terminal in a way.
Gertrude originally came from a wealthy family In San Francisco. Her brother later joined her there in Paris, where they spent their money buying works of art. Her talent was to pick out art and just who was an artist. The result of this was that she was able to buy the works of Picasso and Modigliani, for example, before they became more widely recognized.
Nurenberg: How do you view Gertrude Stein's free form verse style of writing?
Porter: Well, Gertrude started, and I am continuing, in various forms of experimental expressions. My forms are more the result of physics; but Gertrude and I have experimented with words all our lives.
Nurenberg: Do you think her work had its influence on your own experimental poetry and prose?
Porter: I wouldn't necessarily say I was influenced by her, I knew and admired her. I produced things that she also produced. I would say that I did the things that she did simultaneously with her. And I'm quite sure that we influenced each other in this way. She was what I would call a truly original person.
Nurenberg: How did you decide to become a physicist?
Porter: Upon graduation from high school, I went to Richter Junior College, and from there I got a scholarship to Colby College, And with that, I was allowed to start as a sophomore ray first year at Colby. And I did pretty well in physics. I did so well in fact that during my junior and senior years I was made a student instructor in physics.
And thereby I got the money to go to school. My first year at Colby I worked as a janitor in the gymnasium, I had to keep the furnace going day and night, in return for which I was allowed to go into the kitchen of the women's dormitory. There I would sit and, in effect, eat the food. that was left over from the girls.
My junior and senior years I became a laboratory instructor in physics. And in order to become a laboratory instructor in physics, I had to become a physics major. I actually had three majors at the time: chemistry, economics and physics.
In order to survive, I accepted this. But with the new information and experience that I have gathered since then, I now feel that I would have been better off to have quit school when I was eight years old.
After Colby, I got a Master's Degree from Brown University. I would say now that at a very early age, if you are sure you want to become some kind. of professional like a doctor or lawyer, then you have to go through this procedure, But if you are not a "professionally oriented person, then I think it's a waste of time to continue with formal education beyond the basics.
Nurenberg: What would be your advice about education to a non-professionally oriented person?
Porter: Well, my advice would be for them to do what Anais Nin did. She quit school and went to the library every day instead.
Nurenberg: Do you feel that self-education is preferable to having to take formal, required courses which are determined for you by someone else?
Porter: There's no question about it. To hold down a job, I had to take certain courses. If I had had the experience and information I now have, I would have taken certain others. And looking hack now, I probably wouldn't have gone to school at all.
Nurenberg: As a student and teacher in many universities around the world, where would you say the best ones are?
Porter: In terms of scholarship, I would say that the best are in Germany and have been for years. It used to be that if you wanted to become a top-notch physicist, doctor or mathematician,, you went to Germany. This is because one went to Germany to be a scholar, whereas one goes to Harvard to make dollar bills, I think the best university in terms of scholarship in this country is M.l.T.
In the German universities was a difference in attitude, approach and concern. They seem to be more interested in learning for itself vs. learning to make money.
Nurenberg: What was working on the space program in a locale like Huntsville, Alabama like?
Porter: Well, there was of course the usual white/Negro problem which was part of the South, However, they were obliged by the government to accept Negro engineers on the Space Program,
Werner von Braun, the famous rocket scientist, was brought in by the Air Force to brief us on rocket production. And of course he brought with him all his German pals, along with their wives and children. And so they were obliged to set up for them a sort of German colony. They had German supermarkets, German foods, and German language newspapers for them. They gave them possessions, land and free rent. They also -provided them with brand new homes. And because they were part of the Amerlcan Space Program, this was necessary. And in Huntsville of course, all the while there was an undercurrent of rivalry going on between the Negros and whites.
Nurenberg: What kind of woman do you think it takes to adapt to a marriage with your traveling lifestyle?
Porter: It takes a very remarkable woman. People like myself, somehow or others, find it difficult to manage this kind of married life. Henry Miller would be a prime example. He went through five marriages, and I believe Norman Mailer has had six. I myself have been married three times. I suppose there is something about our temperaments, work and lifestyle which do not readily lend themselves to marriage.
My first marriage in 1946 was to Helen Elaine Hendren and ended in divorce. Looking back now, " think it was probably inevitable. She was a poet who came from Boise, Idaho, to the University of California at Berkeley while I was there working on the atom bomb. She wrote very fine poetry and took part in numerous small magazines prevalent in Berkeley at the time. After we got the divorce, she went home to Boise, I think one of the factors was that I was about 15 years older than she. In any case, at this later date, I now agree that the divorce was the proper thing at the time.
My second marriage was in 1955 to Margaret Eudine Preston, who was an anthropologist and writer. I met her at her estate in Sausalito, She asked me to join her at a restaurant for a meal. Suring the meal, she remarked how she had observed me in and around Sausalito, and considered me in desperate need of food; which I'm afraid was true. She befriended me, and assisted me in the formation of the Contemporary Gallery, which I ran in Sausalito, This gallery became a meeting place for photographers, playwrights, moviemakers, painters and crafts- people in general. This was a very rich experience for both those who took part in it and for myself. And upon her death in 1975, I established in her memory, the equivalent of it in the basement of the public library here in Belfast, Maine. This is a place where people of all sorts can meet and carry on what she and I were doing in Sausalito at the time of our meeting.
Soon after my marriage to Margaret, while living on California Street in San Francisco, I also did a magazine called Broadside. There were some 52 issues done as a calendar, with one for each week of the year.
My marriage to Margaret as a startling one, in part because it lasted for 20 years. As a result of my occupation, we traveled the world together and literally lived out of a suitcase, We went to Tasmania to assist that country in the manufacture of paper out of hardwood. We went to Alaska to assist them with communication problems of a technological nature which they were having there. We then took the communication system we developed for them to Venezuela. How it worked was that we projected a beam up into the ionosphere, which was then reflected back down across the horizon, miles away-, This proved very helpful and adaptable to remote areas like Venezuela and Alaska.
And on these excursions, my wife Margaret accompanied me. And she was a source of inspiration for what was to be many happy years of my life. She was a very unusual woman in that, first of all, she was an anthropologist. So she was just as interested as I in different cultures. She was interested in comparing one culture with another to see how people dressed, talked and functioned. And I was very fortunate that we shared this common interest in travel.
Nurenberg: Does constant travel nevertheless create inherent difficulties?
Porter: There's no question about it, particularly when you are traveling together. Because of this, I think Margaret was an incredible person to be able to adapt to living out of suitcases; actually it was a suitcase.
When we came here to this house in Belfast, I was 63 years old. This was an extremely significant event for me because it marked a major turning point in my life. I remember going down to the local furniture store and buying a simple thing like a table and four chairs. In 63 years, you see, I had never owned any furniture. And because of this, it was, an event of the first order for me. Even today it seems that way when I think about it. Suddenly, at the age of 63, I am the owner of furniture.
BERN PORTER IN PRINT
Bern Porter! Interview! conducted by Margaret Dunbar. 72 pages. I've Left, autobiography. 48 pages.
Found poems, companion volume to The Book of Do's, 400 pages.
The Manhattan Phone Book, visual satire of the New York phone book. 300 pages.
The Wastemaker, 1926-1961, visual satire and commentary. 300 pages
Gee-Whizzels, found- pieces. - ' 42 pages.
Dieresis. sequenced found photographs. 110 pages.
Where to Go/What to Do/When in New York/Week of June 17, 1972 visual alteration of a weekly entertainment guide, . 50,pages.
Art Productions, catalog of Porter's artistic productions from 1928 to 1954, 36 pages.
Bern, a decorative wall-piece and autobiography of Bern Porter. 17 x 22
What Henry Miller Said and Why It is So Important. concrete poem, collaborated with Opal Nations, 17^x 22.
The Last Acts of Saint Fuck You, anarcho-liberationist wall-poster. 17 x22
(Above titles available from The Dog Ear Press, P.O. Box 155, Hulls Cove, Maine 04644 &/or The Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, P.O. Box 143, So, Harpswell, Maine 04079.)