Interview with Donald Allen, early Suzuki student and influential editor at Grove Press who helped to introduce to America DT Suzuki, Alan Watts, the Beat poets and other new poets

See Don Allen Obituary in the NY Times and his AP obituary.

Empty Mirror Books tribute to Don            Wikipedia on Don

When I first met Suzuki Roshi, he explained that one should enter the zendo with the right foot. 

Don Allen died on August 29th in San Francisco. I'd heard mention of him first through Richard Baker in the sixties and then from Philip Whalen when he moved across the hall from me at the City Center in '72. Elizabeth Tuomi introduced me to Don in 1976 in Bolinas. I was living with her and he lived not far away on a little side street close to a cliff overlooking the ocean and beyond - the lights of San Francisco. I'd read and reread quite a bit of his The New American Poetry while in high school and it was a treat to get to know him what little I did. I walked around a lot and sometimes I'd stop by and say hi to him. He was quiet, private, and dignified.

In about 1995 Don and I met at the Depot, a coffee shop and bookstore in Mill Valley. He just had a little bit to say about Zen Center and Suzuki and those days. And then he told me some about his life before that. I took some notes and recreate what he said here.

DC: So what do you remember about the early days at Sokoji with Suzuki?

DA: Lew Welch lived with Lenore Kendall in the East/West house near Sokoji. Lew was often hung over. I took him to the temple on Bush Street, Sokoji, to zazen. Suzuki would walk around with his little stick and hit people on the shoulder if they were sleeping. Sometimes I'd ask for it.

DC: You'd bow when he was approaching you.

DA: Yes. Lew said, "I'm not going to let that little Jap hit me," when I asked for the stick. That was at zazen on Saturday morning. Lew went fishing.

DC: How'd you end up at Sokoji?

DA: I Worked with Grove Press in New York in the '50s. I'd gotten Grove Press to publish Daisetsu Suzuki and Alan Watts. I knew Dick Baker there. Dick was maybe in textbook sales. We knew Frank O'Hara. Dick heard there was some sort of Buddhist center in San Francisco.

In 1960 I came out to San Francisco. I hated New York in the summer so I came to San Francisco in the summer. That's enough of New York, I thought. I got a garden apartment on Washington Street near Filmore and Dick came out and took a room in the same place. Also a regional salesman for Grove Press was living there too. I met Ginny who Dick married. We went to Sokoji and sat with Suzuki Roshi. Dick found Suzuki and I went with Dick and then I started to sit - twice a day for six months before I went to Japan.

In 1962 Grove Press sent me to Majorca for a literary conference. so I figured I could go around the world for the price of a first class ticket - they gave me money for a first class ticket. On that trip I went to Japan for 5 months. I arrived in May of 1962 and met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. Ruth Sasaki said she sat a week at Sokoji.

[I wonder if maybe I misunderstood this last comment. Nobody else has ever said anything about Ruth Fuller Sasaki coming to Sokoji. But of course it's possible. - DC]

I met John Blofield at Bangkok.

I came back and moved to Jones Street. Dick and Ginny were living off Broadway, above the tunnel. Sally was born.

DC What's your first memory of Suzuki?

DA: When I first met Suzuki Roshi, he explained that one should enter the zendo with the right foot. I never sat sesshin. I was the oldest person there. Suzuki would ask my advice, because I was older.

[He was 38 in 1960, about the same age as Della Goertz, Jean Ross, and Betty Warren and there were a few other women around there of that age. Maybe there were no males his age around.]

Suzuki married a couple and the wife asked him not to register it. Suzuki asked me what I thought about that. I asked a lawyer who said he was obliged to register them. That's the sort of thing Suzuki would ask me.

DC: You were the first president of the board of the Zen Center.

DA: Yes, but I didn't know about it at the time. Dick just did that without asking me. He used my name when they were arguing about their letterhead.

On Saturday we sat and cleaned. I liked to dust the stairs on Saturday mornings. We'd eat breakfast. They had cold scrambled eggs. Sunday there would be a talk with optional sitting. Suzuki Roshi always gave a talk and I enjoyed them. I don't remember the lectures now. Suzuki tried to explain the terminology of the Heart Sutra, etc.

DC: How was his English?

DA: His English was okay.

After I came back from Japan I would donate money and support Sokoji as a layman, and would occasionally go there to sit.

There was a young guy at Sokoji seeing devils who I talked to. He talked to Suzuki Roshi. He was from the Midwest Suzuki said it did happen sometimes that you would see devils, and the guy went back home. He was at Suzuki's funeral.

DC: Did you go to Zen Center any after Suzuki died?

DA: Oh, to visit. And when I lived in Bolinas I went at times to Green Gulch.

DC: Tell me about your life. Where do you come from?

DA: I was born in Cherokee, Iowa in northwestern Iowa in 1912. My father was reared as a Covenanter - Scottish Calvinism. Charles II had to deal with them. There were two uncles who came over in the 18th Century. My paternal grandfather was a Covenanter minister. My grandmother was a nut on the subject. She wrote long letters with Biblical quotes. At 14 I decided I didn't believe but we had no falling out about it.

At the University of Iowa I got an MA in English and became a college professor at a Catholic school in Davenport. I tried Mass and Vespers but couldn't do it.

In the summer of '36, I remember the Spanish Civil War was going on, and I went to Mexico on the newly opened section of the Pan-American Highway.

[Can't make out the next thing he said. Something about being in the Zocalo which is a town square, especially the big one in Mexico City. Either he was in it in March or there was a march there. He mentioned nurses and doctors, painters and art, the whole scene and Easter and says he worked at odd jobs.]

I went back to Davenport and then to New York. Got room and board in a settlement house on the Lower East Side. I ran discussion groups that talked about politics. Couldn't get a job. A woman from Colombia [the University I'm sure] said there is a job in China after the paper said the Japanese bombed Canton. So I went.

Charlotte Gower told me to get travel money and go through Europe [or maybe she gave him some travel money] so I took a ship to Europe and spent a couple of weeks in France. In 1938 I took a ship to Colombo, Ceylon, Saigon, Hong Kong. In September I arrived in Canton during an air raid in the evening.

There I worked as a professor. Crossed the Pearl River.

[Then there's a note I don't understand: Rest - West lit. gardens (trans.)]

The Japanese marched in October in Canton. We took care of the refugees. Farmers from the delta had evacuated the facility. The women and children went to Hong Kong on a Standard Oil boat. We had open classes in Hong Kong after four in the evening. The sloppy Japanese came into Canton with pigs and chickens and rickshaws. In Hong Kong I worked with organizations helping the Chinese.

Then I went back to America via Japan - Shanghai to Kobe, a beautiful seaport. Then I went to Kyoto and from Yokohama to Vancouver and from Seattle took a train to Iowa. It was 1940. Then I went to Madison as a teaching assistant working on a PhD.

In 1941.I went to Washington and volunteered for the navy. Went to Berkeley in January 1942 to learn Japanese. Took an intensive course. In May the faculty and students moved to Boulder because all Japanese had to leave California in December. I was commissioned and went to Pearl Harbor in January in the translation section. There I worked on the interrogation of prisoners.

I Volunteered to go to the Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific. [Marshall Islands] I landed there and we were looking for code books. I landed on an island evacuated by the Japanese. They were shelling them on the next island. We found a Navy code book. Gradually the American Navy took over all the islands. I got on the command ship.

I was going through soldiers' diaries. We learned about the whole picture there in the Pacific. Then I volunteered for Eniwetok to the north. Later they tested the bomb there. We learned there must be a division of troops there. As we landed at Eniwetok we were shot at and survived mortar fire. We moved inland. The Japanese were all dug in underground. I Kept reading documents, etc. I Read the advanced plan for all islands.

One day standing by some munitions on the shore of another island, the enlisted man next to me lost his leg. He go it at the knee, spun on the ground spurting blood. I was hit by the right ear and got a purple heart. Later an Israeli painter took my Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

I talked to two Japanese doctors and learned there was typhus. We found notes of officers with abbreviated kanji [Chinese characters] and numbers and learned the Japanese Kwantung army from Manchuria was in the Pacific.

I went back to Pearl Harbor and arrived in San Francisco the day Roosevelt died. I really hated the Japanese and didn't want to go back and work with the occupation, so I went to London where I was liaison with British Intelligence. I went to France and met writers. Came back to the States in '47. Then I went to Berkeley graduate school for a couple of years. I didn't like teaching English majors.

I had been publishing with Navy Intelligence, getting information to other units, and had a weekly magazine. Then I went to New York where I was freelancing. Then I got involved with Barney Rosset [the founder of Grove Press] and Loly, Ross's (Barney Rosset) ex.

DC: Yes, I remember Loly coming to Tassajara.

DA: That's about it.

DC: Well thanks a lot.

[And my apologies for not having gone over this with him and clarified a few things. - DC]


From the Errata section of

take out - P.221, #1: {The honorific title "roshi" came from Richard's friend, Don Allen, one of the foremost editors of the Beat poets, who had become the chairman of the new Zen Center board. He'd been to Japan and said that was what they called Zen masters there.}

Change to: <Richard at times used the honorific title "roshi" for Suzuki. He'd read it, heard Suzuki use it when referring to priests he revered, and according to some people who'd studied Zen in Japan, it was the proper way to address Zen Masters there.>

[Don Allen sent me a thoughtful note about Crooked Cucumber (accompanied by a classic Edward Conze book on the Prajna Paramita he'd once published) in which he had very nice things to say about Crooked Cucumber, but pointed out that I'd goofed as far as mention of him was concerned - that he didn't know about the title "roshi" when he was in Japan, made no suggestions of it, and that he had never been asked if he wanted to be chairman of the board back in '61; that his name was just used, and would I take that stuff out. I responded immediately, apologizing for having neglected to check with him (I checked with just about every American mentioned in the book, but he'd just slipped through the cracks. About checking up on people in Japan, I just kept a running dialogue going with Hoitsu Suzuki). So this paragraph had to be rewritten. The number of characters and spaces used in each is almost identical to make it easier on the folks who have to make the changes - so that the prior and following pages would not be effected..--DC]


I notice in the interview with Margot Patterson Doss, in talking about advising Suzuki on where to look for a retreat, she says, "Small world department. Anyway, Don Allen, meantime, who was the editor of my first book. That was "San Francisco At Your Feet." Don was the West Coast editor of Grove Press at that time. Don had suggested that the project that would be suitable would be getting hold of Green Gulch." That was back like in '65 and Green Gulch was acquired by the Zen Center in early '72 soon after Suzuki died.