Catfish McDaris Interviews Charles Plymell
"By 1964 a new generation had arrived in San Francisco and made City Lights their rendezvous. Claude Pelieu, a young Frenchman with a thorough understanding of surrealism, had arrived with Mary Beach, the distant cousin of Joyce's publisher . . . and Charles Plymell, a jazzy poet from Kansas, onetime editor of Now, who did sadistic collages. The two Bulletins from Nothing and Grist from Wichita give the prevailing mood. ... Funk in San Francisco, rather different from Ed Sanders's blithe scatology and the total sexual gluttony of Tangier, has at least something to do with the tough spirit that Kansas gives to the West Coast." (Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture. [New York: Delacorte Press, 1968], 194.) CATFISH: With the republication of The Last of the Moccasins by Atom Mind, do you have any plans for a reading tour?
CHARLES: My plans never work.
CATFISH: How has the poetry scene changed since the beat days in San Francisco?
CHARLES: Like everything else, I suppose; it seems (somewhat eerily, let me add), we have gone past the mark. Is there poetry and scene beyond 2000? The appreciation of durability in the artifact is on the wane. It has been replaced with contingency, instant gratification, monetary value. Remember how artists used to establish artistic value as powerful? The only power now is monetary reward. Art is not long (through history) anymore, but immediately imitative, broader, more isolated, more contingent. Money is the element that can make it cohere for an instant.
Ginsberg called me a while back and read a little poem he had written, about two punks. It was late at night, and I had to get up for work the next day, but as nearly as I could tell, it was no more distinctive than any other poems that are in the magazines I receive. It sounded like Mark Strand on marijuana. Your poems are as good as Ginsberg's. Dave Reeve's are as good as Bukowski's. Adrian Louis' are as good as Ferlinghetti's. You're just not famous. So the New Yorker doesn't publish you alongside a ghastly illustration of you.
The scene has changed; Bill Moyers claims that there are more readers, or people who think they're interested in poetry, never mind that we still largely think of poetry as a message in rhymes. It is mostly didactic and dull, solipsistic and very dull. Those on his Public Television special will receive another grant. Maya Angelou is on the cover of Forbes as earning $4.3 million a year with a life appointment at $100,000 as professor of American Studies. She has turned it around. The article fails to mentioned that direct tax monies put her there. She had an office at George Washington U., when this old white man was scraping by on a part-time composition course. She attracted a great and huge audience, who with the help of our tax money, turned it all around. But I had always known how it feels to be on the bottom. The government has created an odd situation for poets and artists. It is much different that in the poem about Akron, Ohio by Harte Crane, where they paid the violin player from their pockets because they felt like it. That is, they were moved.
The point here is not to complain that Maya Angelou is a multi-millionaire, but to present a case where the federal government ironically had a paternal role in putting this once brothel madam to the top of ruthless capitalistic heap. A success story, but would it work again for a cowardly feeble little old white fairy, even if he was Shakespeare? No. At best, he could keep selling his ass until he was pitched in the street to be hauled off in a Ford dump truck to be buried at Rikers' Island in a hole convicts dug. That's the reality. But that picture won't help you get a lifetime appointment at a university, or even on the over of Forbes magazine, now will it? The truth is, we have to pay a system to rape and reward whom it pleases.
However, with the Internet helping to make all words more democratic, somewhat like John Cage's notes, it's very difficult to find stuff that knocks your socks off, and it may be the end to poetry as we've known it; yet, people think that there must be a reason to read famous poets, because if they don't, then they may not be hip, and so on. In other words, the audience is made before the work. I watched the audience on the Bill Moyers special. I think it would be difficult to know with all that was going on, if I was moved, or was I supposed to be moved. I wouldn't want to be the fool. It's much better that I go along with everyone else. You must understand how difficult it is to answer you honestly. But it seems a poet must have a gimmick, or be a publicist and politician to get anywhere in poetry. You must tell the audience what it wants to hear. Recreated lines by the poet from the supermarket tabloids will always get appreciation. I learned that by reading with Ginsberg. And believe me, it's no fun not to speak to an audience. It seems, sometimes, that an audience is shaped for us, to be politically, socially, and artistically correct. And poetry is used so much as a filler now, so magazines like the New Yorker can retain a perception of quality between the parlor humor, or whatever they need for their audience. Or you can use poetry as an ointment like in a new age publication I received recently from Woodstock. Any normal poet would "go with the flow," and apply for a grant to write my poetry. Why don't I apply for your money? That's a good question.
Getting back to your question, if you mean the "first" beat days (pre 1963), that was poetry with the old social revolutionary flavor, and literary, from the canons of the expatriates, and political, with the fart of old Marxism wafting through it. For example, the famous trial over Howl and obscenity was about the word "fuck." That set in motion the publicity for an half century to come. Now ask yourself, how many times you hear the word, "fuck." Can you imagine having a trial over it? Of course, I guess the beats can take credit for revolutionizing the word "fuck." They were ready to go to court over it, which is commendable; but it was a little like Reagan-Bush taking credit for ending Communism (the other profane word of the day). Would its downfall have happened anyway? I'm sure. Would we hear "fuck" as our daily word if they hadn't have gone to court? I'm sure. But they were the garde. You have to give them credit for that. Like many things concerning the beats, it seemed to me somewhat anachronistic to have Ferlinghetti show up as the quintessential bohemian to defend the word. Lucky that he probably had good coaching from his attorney brother, so he wasn't really a poor beat poet, he knew what was happening, but why didn't he just go in the courtroom and say he was Lt. Commander Ferlinghetti in WWII, who had just fought for this country's freedoms, and besides, that's how sailors talk all the time. It was still close enough to WWII that the judge would have dismissed instantly. But no, they had to drag out the old hype, the old Ellis Island poetry emigré pathos, in this case the old downtrodden intellectual class millionaires tromped on by society. It sold a hell of a lot of books, this thinly disguised capitalistic marketing approach, by the ex-market researcher cum poet and the ex Navy officer cum bohemian proprietor; P.T. Barnum couldn't have done better. It was like the famous hyperbole, "I saw the best minds..." Actually if he was really looking at reality, he would have seen the best minds of his generation at Almagordo, NM, playing out the old Faustian myth of power, changing the world forever. Chernobyl leaks.
But I see it as another instance of elitist capitalistic intellect at work, screaming at the press for publicity, building a lasting enterprise on old bohemian sympathies. I look at political poetry politically. I can't experience the necessary catharsis; for me, the vision is off. Now the poet who cried MOLOCH has received hundreds of thousands of our tax money to keep that old well pumping, and the officer always a had piece of the most valuable real estate in the world. What do you think a building at the corner of Grant and Columbus is worth anyway? And homes in S.F. Big Sur, Florida (by the last count.) He didn't need the money anyway. If I had that money, I would probably publish everyone. The thought of being a poet with a great deal of money, or asking others who may be already taxed to their limit to give money to our government, to in turn give me $20,000 to write my poems has always bothered me. I don't know why. I should just apply like everyone else. I read in our local paper that Mr. & Mrs. Frost, who both received a $20,000 grant to write poetry, are traveling this summer. Another beginning poet in their department was on the list of recipients this year. They also run a poetry workshop in the Catskills which invites the mainstream poets who sit on the grants panels that give the grants, but I suppose that pattern is not apparent to the Daily Star readers. I shouldn't bother with it either because I have to find a job this summer to pay the dentist and my taxes. Both of the Frosts, by the way, get a large professorial salary and benefits and sabbaticals from the local universities. They sent me their workshop program this summer they will teach when they return. I thought it was very pricey. Should I go and learn how to write a workshop poem? If you're a poet without an audience, patron, or connection to the academe or government funding, and without some travel plans, you might as well be on the information highway, not on the road.
And the poetry? Is it better than what I receive from poets almost daily? No. It's difficult to analyze critically. It all sounds like workshop poetry, but think how difficult it would be if you were famous. You'd really have to take your poetry seriously. I'm not famous, I'm just jealous; I sound like Taylor Mead, one of my favorite beat poets. Is he beat, too? But even Ginsberg told me one time that Ferlinghetti wasn't that great a poet. I like some of his work, but it's dated. Quien sabe? I don't. But I can see why they would try to keep my fame down. I'm not only a loose cannon, I refuse to canonize any of it. You can say any truth as long as it fits the party line. All I'm doing is offering an analysis from a larger point of view. And of course, I have had to pay for it. Sycophancy is necessary to any poetry scene.
Now, if you mean beat days in S.F. the second time around, which younger people lump historically into the 1963-1967 scene.... that was quite different. Billy Batman had the Batman Gallery going from the late '50s to '63. It was the transitional seminal scene that wasn't beat. The kids on the (Haight Ashbury) block began late '62 and bloomed in '63. I was living there when it was still a Russian neighborhood. The new heads had it up and running before the old line beats had gotten their antennae up. Of course Ginsberg, scene zapper of all time, booked the first flight from India where he had been sitting for four years, when he heard the news." Ferlinghetti was always a bit stiff from sitting in Mike's Pool Hall and had to wait to see how big the play was, and for his marketing man to make the scene. The establishment Time and Life was at stake. An old beat, who used to dress like Cyrano De Kerouac, asked me... Hey, man which way is the Haight Ashbury? Ginsberg joked that he was afraid word would get back to the poet, John Ashbury, in N.Y. that he was joining a "hate Ashbury" movement. Things were happening very fast, the old garde was established, therefore, cautious, and few in the forward garde of that scene had much knowledge of the beats.
The two guys who opened the head shop in the Haight, where I first saw Garcia and the gang (being a little impolite to the old Russian ladies of the neighborhood who probably saw them as real baddies) were just two good capitalist kids who had sold their parking lot in Reno and happened to hit town at the right moment.
This was not a scene started by old Intellectual Class Bohemians, Navy Officers or Elitist Dilettantes sitting at the feet of S. I. Hayakawa eating semantic salami or fifties fishcakes with Alan Watts at Gate 5 in Sausalito's Za Zen; this was a scene for Everykid, burning bridges fast. Of course it was a Ripe Plum for the beats, who could bring their baggage of Eastern Mysticism (which, by the way, had been popular in the soirees since the Industrial Age, and 'er more so by the 50's), and Reefer Madness, and "Fuck" and All That Jazz that Patchen, Kerouac, Rexroth had read to...this was one Big Event. Even McClure, the Great Lion Tamer, Showman Extraordinaire, Kansas Opportunist, and Authority on drugs he hadn't taken, offered, on Public Television, tours of the Haight. I felt that the beats as well as others who were taking notice were a bit overwhelmed at just how they could "set up shop" and stake their claims.
Remember that this (Acapulco) gold rush was drawing Everykid, most of whom were uneducated formally (a big contrast from the beats) and who were not really that worldly...quite innocent, really, henceforth the flower children. And that innocence was usually expressed in poetry and graphics, the only expressions they could muster, mainly old Judaic patterns and words with religious symbolisms (historically, the uneducated, or lower classes did not easily absorb objective literature). I never made an effort to publish anything in the underground ORACLE, though it was successful as the paper of the scene and was hawked in huge quantities by street hippies; I thought its contents were ghastly.
If true Paganism did arise to translate the new alchemistry, it was through the art form of music, a medium that could use its purity of form to capture the moment. Of course, it had its influences, even Ravi Shankar, who I was told by an insider was really the "Lawrence Welk of India." I don't know. We had listened to him at the university in the 50's. But music defined the scene and took it "to the other side" and used the Word and Graphix for its promotion. Later, the Underground Comix was ushered in. I had a hand in this. The 8mm and 16mm experimental films too, were happening, but poetry and painting... well the two most famous beat poets were sometimes it seemed a little tone deaf, but interested in the scene...especially if they could usurp it for profit, being such old capitalists at heart. Even the old coffee house folksinging scene got on the bandwagon, from the protests songs of Dylan and Baez to pop mainstream like the Mammas and Papas and Peter Paul and Mary, who popularized the anthem "Blowing in the Wind." As I mentioned, when I played it to Allen the first time, he acted a bit reticent; whereas, my friends who brought the album by was digging it as the times. Dylan had just been booed in Hollywood. It was kind of risky for a middle-class Jewish kid from Minneapolis to try to imitate the Okie twang of Woody Guthrie even though he was sincere. As I write this, I catch Ginsberg on a documentary talking about his hearing Dylan and wanting to cry. He said it was as if the torch was being passed from Kerouac to Dylan. I can't imagine what torch he meant, unless it was his own. Ginsberg was never keen at the bigger picture. He always seemed to see the world in terms of his own self snapshot.
There's a very useful prefix from Greek that we've used as a word in English to describe this very peculiarity, but anyway, maybe a torch from Guthrie; and what was passed? Song, poetry, social consciousness? If so, he left out a great deal of the picture. It was the humble, myopic, Americazenish professor, again, not seeing beyond his own specialty.
So, there you have it! Wheh! The old marketeer Ginsberg called me not long ago wanting to know if I had anything from that period for the Whitney Museum. I had a collage show which had sold out at the Batman Gallery where Bruce Connors had shown, and I did two films which Jonas Mekas preserved for many years, and a few little mags, one called NOW, which I just received a letter from Lawrence Welsh, who said he read somewhere that it was the cutting-edge mag of the time. I told Ginsberg that I could probably get a hold of a copy if he was really interested, but I told I didn't have anything left for the Whitney Museum's travel show, which had shown a big beat retrospective in N.Y.C. and according to him, was heading to the Midwest somewhere (Minneapolis?) and then to San Francisco. He called me perhaps out of his good guilt, or his shrink's guilt (I never know which I'm talking to; being poor, I can't do what one is SUPPOSED to do in N.Y.C., and just have to stay crazy), telling me I should be included (after the N.Y.C. show of course). Well I'm more Midwest and San Francisco, anyway, I fell for his pitch and gave him the name of someone in S.F. who might have some of my artifacts; (thinking that he would tend to it). He gave me the old big apple and said he would pass along the information to the Whitney Museum in case they were interested. That's how it goes. I was dealing with the millionaire manager of marketing now, but what the hell, some of us know we're still selling day-old bagels too!
CATFISH: Do you think the poetry freedom survives today or are poets knuckling under to grant money and academic parameters?
CHARLES: The academe and local governments have claimed all this phony baloney. Poetry is their "tool," as they say, when it should be the other way around. It's dead in the academe and with prizes. A few years ago, I saw two Nobel poets read at a nearby university. Get one prize and you get them all, a tie-in with the federal NEA grants given to those poets who are doing such marvelous workshops. The prize, of course, is a thing in itself controlled by the other players who cop the big one plus several $20,000 federals while they fix the MacArthur whopper. The genius tag goes along with the half a million or so bucks. Does this give you an incentive to write more poetry? Well you shouldn't be interviewing me if you apply for grants! One was a Russian poet who read with a Caribbean fellow, grooming him for the prize next time. I forget their names. Alzheimer's is very useful when it's not worth remembering. Anyway, before political correctness, I used to work on the docks, where the guys had a name for everyone. A lot of times the name was associated with something about the geographical origin of the person or what he was like. These associations were childlike; children tend to be mean in this respect, too. We always want to change them. They are kind of like how the Indians name; the guy from Hawaii was called the "pineapple." This would be illegal now, and in my role as tutor at the afore-mentioned university where Professor Frost sends his poetry students to me to correct their comma splices, I could get fired for such talk. Anyway, allow me to say that the "cabbage" had at best had a few warmed over Pound images, and the "coconut" (both in prize breeding and grooming for the McArthur genius award in addition to the Nobel), didn't, to me, have anything to his poetry but his Carribbeanus. Maybe there should be fruit poetry and vegetable poetry. It's so hard to categorize something without sounding silly, but like Professor Ginsberg, we must earn our salary. I asked a woman poet what she thought about the Caribbean poet. Oh! it's his marvelous rhythm. Oh. I saw him later on public T.V. doing a thing on Harte Crane, because of Crane's "Carib Isle" poem I guess, or he had to do something since he was Nobel Laureate. He missed Crane, though. The aged librarian from Crane's hometown out in the Midwest knew a lot more about Crane's poetry that this genius did, and she spoke about it wisely. Maybe she was a genius. Then I read in my alumni magazine that Mark Strand, who probably has the longest strand of money awards, including the genius, had taken over the writing program I attended. I read his dead lines and quickly got the small sheaf of poems of Elliott Coleman's (the founder of the program) to read a few lines of his to see if I wasn't going mad. Yes. Elliott had poetry. Strand did not. It looked like poetry, but in my opinion, it was not. Another phony, or mediocre poet, or I don't know what they are. Then a few years, back I attended a ceremony at the capital when Cuomo was awarding the State of New York Poet (thing), whatever; Creeley was there, hugged me, Why? Give me money! I make less than 15 grand a year. I read some lines of Richard Howard, who was the State Poet, receiving 10 grand of my tax again. I thought he was autistic. No, I'm not making fun of the disabled, there should be an audience for them as well. Maybe there is. Maybe that is the future of poetry. I mean it would make sense if it was the farm program and they paid them not to grow crops, but to subsidize this highly polluted industry of fakery? I've seen the two Frosts in action. They're shameful, and as usual, quite well off while milking the system for all it's worth. They're such sycophants.... one of them shook my hand. Ugh! Dead fish. But I'm not supposed to talk about money.
So, here's how it operates. I get these programs that feature so and so to their fancy little workshop in the hills of academe. So and so is on the next NEA Fellowship panel and knows their dead lines. It is all political. They pass it among themselves. And if you say something, you're out. It's a class thing not to talk about public monies for artistic endeavors, though Rimbaud said, "While public funds evaporate in feasts of fraternity, a bell of rosey fire rings in the sky." That's why, when I did apply for grants, I never received a penny to write my poems. Their defense? Quality! That's the Ford Motor Company's line. Couldn't they have at least co-opted Rimbaud? No. They're all Edsels. But you would think the NEA could come up with something original. And believe it or not, this dying civilization is stuck paying these Edsels to write because of the sanctity and protection of the word, historically, in our system. This funding fraud has become the paradigm imitated all the way down the line, in state and local agencies. At my level of poetry politics, neophytes in the business insist that I read at their workshop for nothing and their pitch is that when they receive funding, they'll ask me again. I say no. They put my name on the program anyway because that helps gets funds (to show they're having lots of poets read). They get funding. They want me to read for a hundred bucks and with that comes a flyer urging me to write my Congress to save the arts. I don't want to be in their "we" business, so I say I will only read for $500. They say their funding has been cut, so they can't give me that much. I think, good. I'm out of that. They put my name on the program again. Next year they get some poets from N.Y.C. who happen to sit on a panels. They get $500. Then they have enough to pull in bigger poets and they pay even more to them. Now the academe kicks in, giving the local art agency enough to bring in a famous poet like Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti (because now they've finally caught up to 50 years behind scene). It's like the government giving bigger grants to those guys holed up out in Montana. They got bigger by taking government money and then howled MOLOCH! It works the same way in other government programs. Because poetry is undefinable, it's a soft hustle with established sycophancies, ironies and subtleties. It is a Soft Fascism paradigm that probably won't fully be understood until the next century. But meanwhile, let's get the NEA $20-grand fellowship the next time around. I don't apply because they would not give it to me. Ginsberg said, with his little humble shrug that maybe my poetry was not that good. He and Peter O and all the St. Marks' poets got fellowships, so I guess they're better poets than I. Even an old Marxist can win under this system if he's willing to live a lie. I am a loser because I know how it operates. Play the game. Take the money. But it seldom helps the little grass roots poet-farmer, the one who is used to make the whole thing sound credible. Any scam needs the illusion of credibility; in these cases it's the poor artist, the poor farmer. The millionaire farmers have always been on the dole. They are an essential part of the political system, yet on the surface, we don't see the personality trait that would ever link Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dole. You know what they say about politics and bedfellows. They may have more in common than the way the hold their pen(is)... subsidized seeds!
So, in the poetry funding paradigm, a big name is pulled in now and then, just like the prizes, to show credibility. It is "togetherness" at the funding consortiums. "We" are all one and "they" are trying to cut our funding. I'm on all the mailing lists, instructing me to write my representative. If I did so, it would be to abolish the NEA! It's the same on the state level in the arts and music; for every one recognizable name there are a hundred phonies who play the game. And when the funding controversy hits the news, it is either red-herringed to pornography or to some pathetic little arts community in Georgia or somewhere that begged for 10 grand for its community fiddler dance, etc. But meanwhile the untouchables are the phonies hiding behind the word and raking off the funds. And then there is always the actor making a big pitch. Well you know what Capote said about actors; anyway, I can imagine them reading their Kahil Gibran every night. Like they really know poetry! Look at the poets on the recent Public Television's Bill Moyer's GEE, GOSH, OH GOLLY SCHOOL; aren't we all politically correct. Step right up and get your award next year. And as always, a couple of legitimate names in poetry, even Gary Snyder in line for his umpteenth grant and his Boy Scout Zen didactic ribbons, a few big names, even the hag poet, Adrienne Rich, but look at the rest of them. The audience of course was under the delusion that since it was called poetry, they should experience it. Look about you. Is there something you would rather see your tax dollars go to rather than this? I don't mean the T.V. special necessarily, I mean the $20,000 awards that will certainly be given (again) to the participants. Then the argument turns comparative. Well what about the military? One would think that the scholarship branch, the NEH should get it straight, and tells us what poetry is. Not at all. The real premise is that poetry is undefinable as it happens. Let it be. How can you say that it is fair to reward some and deny others when you can't even say what it is?
CATFISH: What effect if any has drugs and alcohol had on poetry?
CHARLES: Shakespeare probably had peculiar brain chemistry that allowed him greater language facilities, presumably Mr. Natural, but who knows? Some would call that genius. I suppose chemicals, in that they effect the brain, do effect the language. The most direct evidence of the effect of drug chemistry is "Kubla Khan," but would that apply to everyone? Doubtful. To most, chemicals would probably make language more difficult. Poetry can easily be a privacy of language in its making, therefore more conducive to the accidental, the linguistic evolutionary grammars, which in other more technical skill-oriented art forms, might be seen as a mistake. Though the idea of mistakes "working" probably precedes Jackson Pollack or other associates of Post-Modernist Impressionism.
CATFISH: What do you think about the separate movements in poetry--gay, women's, black, Asian, Latino, Native American
CHARLES: These categories have nothing to do with pure art forms, and those who think they do aren't artists, but dilettantes. It is probably true that identification with the other sex, hormonally, chemically, or psychologically...tunes empathy, but this doesn't always guarantee validity to the artifact. But, again, government control (for or against) is applied both discretely and obviously, with these categories in mind. In the convoluted case of Maplethorpe, all control was switched to "bad." But more often it is "good" control, soft, correct Fascism that we mustn't compare to the Totalitarian state art control those evil empires used to regulate, but it can achieve the same effect. Or else there would be no problems with Maplethorpe. Hitler could put all the "bad" Jewish abstractionists like Chagall in one room (to hold as bounty) and display the good Aryans in Speer's hallways. The soft political effect is felt in Democracy's art today, though of course, not along Party lines, but along "party lines." Orwell's doublethink and doublespeak is probably thriving in all manner of codes in all systems, and the NEA has enough elasticity to soften any argument. It's whorishly supple. Remember "need" can't be a factor. That could subvert the process. But in the example of the little farmers, not much helps them anyway; they should move up to the bigger systems.
You have to read Robert Peters, who has approached the problems of poetry today in an objective, scholarly way. I can hear him bitching about his sitting on a grants panel in California complaining that if hears one more squaw... It is a fact that we have given public funds to reward minority artists with little substance, but we do not say this. We have also done the same to WASP establishment academics, who do not need the money in order to find time to write, and who also have no substance, yet someone who knows nothing about poetry scenes often turns up with exciting, original verse. We all know this, yet we insist that one or the other should be awarded government monies. Yet who can say what it is that is created, and who is worthy of reward? Pound said at the end of his Cantos that his errors and wrecks lie about him and he cannot make it cohere. Of course, I paraphrased some of the world's greatest lines of poetry, but who agrees? Could a grants panel see the greatness of the lines? Any racial remarks are out, even if they are used to reflect reality. On the flip side, I had a white male friend who wrote poetry in black dialect and got a grant, presumably because a quota was needed. Do you think this mess is any different than any other government mess? It is art, therefore it is good? And how can we pretend that this is a good use of tax money? One defense is that the peer system decides. Yeah, politics as usual. Never mind that art, and poetry especially has always been unfair, even the artists were backstabbers. To say that your peers in poetry judge you is obviously NOT A POSITIVE (as they say in Long Island) and it is not necessarily good for art in the long run, but it's an easy token for government policies and perhaps society....to reward those who point out the wrongs of society, or even lover's quarrels, but in the long run, I don't know how this changes anything. The rappers claim they make their fame and money by telling it like it is, and then the mainstream artists work at saying how it should be better and meanwhile society goes to hell faster that ever before. You tell me what poetry can do.
Race and gender. I guess one could say that all of poetry is a backward look of almost 400 years to an Englishman fairy, or over 2,000 years to a Greek Lesbian. Generally, poetry is seen as a transvestite art in that great writers are hormonally adept. I am part Indian, but I don't think Indians are generally good at poetry. Poetry as an art form was limited throughout history to an elitist conceit. The New Yorker magazine is in that tradition. One could also argue that seeding art would culturally benefit humankind, but that remains to be seen. As you know, many great poets have always gone against the grain, regardless of their ethnicity. It is unlikely that there is a system now which could spot them and reward them....and for what? If they have something to say, you can't stop them anyway. Most of the Indians have a unique natural purity that supersedes words, and to me, the white word medium doesn't work well for them too many times. There is a reason that some of my plains tribal brothers won't let me take their picture. And you know that reason. Of course any of them could produce better Native American poetry than Robert Penn Warren's attempt to mimic them. Robert Peters called his book "UGH Poetry."
Latinos have a poorer language, simpler, so it doesn't have to untangle as many ambiguities as does English. They can dramatically and more easily compensate with metaphor and pathos. I have always noted a special sense of expression from Latinos in my college composition courses. I may be biased because I am lucky in that I can fully appreciate Latino music of all flavors, to the point I can almost cry in "happy pathos," even if the words become silly Mariachi. Most all Latino music moves me to an ecstatic plane (I still have some old pre-Castro Cuban records). You know what I mean, but this allows me to also appreciate more fully their poetry.
Asian, well that's, a different story too. Pound found that subtlety, clarity, and economy in the ideographic language worked well for the image. I can see its lesson in my Japanese student papers in college. Remarkable, compared to some of our more cumbersome innate English grammars. You can't take that away from that old coot. The River Merchant's Wife, and those basic Taoist subtleties, and economy of word and image; it belongs to that pure environment I think of when I imagine the Greek Island poets, before Aristotle and Plato put their nasty linear fingers over it, named it, and posted it for social order. Pound found it all, even the didactic lessons of Egyptian poetry, as fresh as any school kid's. That why his last Cantos have some of the greatest lines in all poetry. Of course it isn't politically correct to teach Pound.
Blacks....again if it weren't for their soul music, I'd happily be a racist, but I am humble to any race that produces such beautiful feeling. It's in their jeans and Blacks are easy adapters. Indians can never adapt to white man's ways, but Blacks are a natural. They've done so much, and they are much like whites in many ways. They have great humor too, they can lay on the heavy guilt trip even though they have done slavery just as much as the Portuguese, Dutch or any white scoundrels. Even with their early slave trading to this country. They still practice it, and I don't like it when they use the slave thing against whites as did Shange whatever her name (The Woman who walks like a lion) and Ishmael Reed. I've sat on panels with him. They're politicians again, mainly making sure the awards go where they want them. I was in an audience recently where Shange cut off a student's question saying you mean there was no SLAVERY in this country. Sure there was. There was also a terrible civil war. I wish some of those veterans could have been in the audience. She was shameful, and a lousy poet, in my opinion. Even the title of her famous play was a stretch for idiom. Don't people understand bathos anymore? It's like Clinton saying he would date that 15 year old mummified girl. Are we crazy yet? Who's deciding the fellowships next year on the literature panel? Who wants to tally the hurt of slavery or the Civil War? I have no use for those pouty Blacks with an attitude, and there are plenty in the literary/academic/national endowment hierarchy. As with whites there are those Blacks who do receive awards and who are truly admirable writers, like Wanda Coleman, Langston Hughes, and the multi-millionaire Maya Angelou, who were certainly not academic in their formative years. And don't forget poor millionaire Rod McKuen, who had to find his audience without any government funding. As with whites, for every good poet there are hundreds of pretentious phonies. If they do play the race card, it doesn't help their work. Is Farakan honest? I can't say, but for me there is no question of honesty when it comes to Little Richard, Richard Prior, Otis Redding, Ray Charles; I could go on and on; I have a lot of old LP's. I used to teach Black Literature. I used Malcolm X's work. I think many rappers have good poetry. Some have a monotonous message, but you really have to be skilled in prosody to make rap work. Some of the newer toned-down groups sound like the old scat of King Pleasure. In that respect, they deserve more credit than pretentious poetry piranhas. I grew up on Gospel too, so I can't be a racist.
CATFISH: What's it like knowing and/or living with Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ed Sanders, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure?
CHARLES: Well they were all beatniks! I think Ed Sanders turned out to be a bore. Pelieu said he saw him in Albany recently looking like an Irish politician. You'd only appreciate that if you watched the Albany political news, as we do. I liked him when he was with the Fugs. He had a good rap. He did write and exposé about the police state and CIA influences of Naropa. That book was off the shelves as soon as he got his NEA and Guggenheim. I would imagine Ginsberg was helpful in that. It sounds just like all those shady political deals. I never got on with Ferlinghetti; he used to publish me a lot until I repeated that Ginsberg said he wasn't all that great a poet. I like some of his poetry. I think it's every bit as good as Ginsberg's, but I don't think Ferlinghetti considered me to be one of his best poets. He used to come to these soirees in San Francisco and he liked some of the performance types, who I thought were real bores. He had odd tastes. The poets he found and published were mostly bores, I think. For a short time, I was very close to McClure and his wife, Joanne; (ex-, I now hear). They were charming and sweet. I was very close as well to Allen, but there was distancing too, especially with Allen, who'd take up with anything. There was some poetry paranoia. Neal was a pal sometimes in a good-buddy way, alluding (not quite seriously) to those "queers." He indicated that he sometimes felt like an errand boy for those elitist writers, hell, he had a yarn too, and I sometimes felt sorry for him having to do hard time for nothing and having been ratted out by his own wife and Kerouac's lay! I would have expected a little more solidarity. He was sometimes defensive to maintain his title, the fastest word in the west, and on amphetamines that could sometimes be tiresome, but not for long. Phil Whalen forced me to look at a flower outside his window one time when I was tripping. He was always the good monk, breaking up paranoia battles.
CATFISH: You once wrote a poem in Gary Snyder's bathroom--would you describe the situation?
CHARLES: I can't quite remember this. I don't remember him that well. I think it was when we were all in Bolinas digging for mussels? I don't think it was at his house. It probably was a haiku Boy Scout Zen poem I scratch on a public wall. He had just returned from Japan.
CATFISH: You once met Thelonius Monk at Monterey Jazz Festival with Allen Ginsberg, what was that like?
CHARLES: We had a lovely ride down to Monterey on my motorcycle. Allen was chanting, practicing poetry, lines taken from signs off stores and the road. A lovely trip. He was being recognized a little bit because he had just been in Life magazine about his stay in India. It was my first experience being around a famous person. He could always connect with other famous people, and he said he would introduce me to Monk. Monk seemed on many levels at once and just finished a set, which was, I guess, ordinary for him, but he had trouble remembering Allen. Allen helped him by saying something like you remember in N.Y.C., I gave you my book, Howl. Still not quite. Then Allen said. You remember. I gave you the L.S.D. (still called so in those days). Monk lit up. Oh-yeah-man, now I remember... Hey, man, you got anything stronger? Allen graciously introduced him to me. It was if I shook hand with someone wearing a baseball glove, and I have big hands! Not much more to it than that. But I did have the experience of shaking hands with a genius.
CATFISH: You went to Joan Baez's ranch in Peter Orlovsky's car--what happened?
CHARLES: I don't know how Peter managed to have a '49 or '50 chartreuse Ford convertible. I was a thrill to me because those used to be a hot number. Peter changed all the time. He was in his driving and cleaning modes then, washing the car and acting surprisingly like Neal. His brother Julius was along. When we got to Joan Baez's ranch in Carmel, she was sitting on her wall in the sun, with her long black hair and nice legs crossed, her pores just hot enough that the Carmel sun glistened slightly on a moist sheen up her shinbones into her short skirt. I was dazzled by her beauty, and thought, Oh God, please, what should I do? She was kind of snooty like a New England prep schooler who had just inherited the world, and she referred to us as Ginsberg's entourage. That kind of put me off; hell I had shook hands with genius! She didn't offer hers. To me, the whole meeting was awkwardly formal. It seems her mother was there. A lot of introductions; I'm always slightly uncomfortable with white society's introductions. I don't like eye contact like they teach in college communication courses. To me, eyes are the opening to souls, that I don't like to feel obligated to enter right away, or at all. I've always had this problem in meeting. Before I ate, I washed up in her hammered copper sink. I was living in a skid row hotel on Turk St. at the time. This was my first up-scale experience. She had other guests and had the afternoon planned. We were to discuss peace. We had to sit for 30 minutes in meditation and then lunch was served. We had nice sandwiches, but she wanted all of us to pay 60 cents for them. I would hope it was for some peace cause, but I wasn't sure what he hell was going on. Meanwhile Julius, who was usually somewhat catatonic, had broken one of her windows. Allen, who is easily embarrassed when he's not in control of the scene, and seemed to always be put in a situation where he was responsible for everyone (that should send anyone to a shrink) either paid or offered to pay. I went outside to get away from everything and was looking over her Jaguar. They decided to come out to me, since in those days, everything was sort of inclusive, and if someone was out of the "group" he or she was to be shepherded. It was thought awkward to do things out of the group. Don't ask me. It was just the way it was. Then, for lack of any other directions, things focused on my waywardness. I can't remember if L.S.D. played a part in all of this, but it had traces. So then, (perhaps) in order to include me, Joan and her shrinks (as I thought, perhaps correctly) one on each arm, decided we should go for a walk down the trail to see her horses. For some reason, I rebelled. It was probably because even then thought of getting next to her would be impossible because I'd have to get past her two shrinks. To even presume this was of course my fantasy, but I couldn't act any other way. Why should I think she would have anything to do with me at all? So they went for a walk and came back and she came up to me and talked a little bit, probably asking if everything was O.K. I said I had to get back to my hotel on Turk St. and would she move her car so Peter could drive me to the bus station. She became more concerned as to why I didn't go on the walk and wanted to move her Jaguar so Peter could drive me to town. If you can recall a Richard Prior scene where he gets overwhelmed and gets that look on his face and says and does something stupid, well that was it. I had on shiny black boots, and I said I didn't want to get my boots dusty, and then turning into a driver guy, I said I'd move her car if she didn't want to. She then had someone move it and I forget how it ended. I think we all left together soon thereafter. I probably ruined the whole peace scene. I don't know why, but I know how little kids feel when they can't accept too much of another bigger lifestyle all at once. I guess I was being a little kid overwhelmed by it all, especially her beauty. I was shuffling my feet in the dirt. Maybe I was on drugs. Maybe I wanted her attention. Maybe I was as crazy as the rest of them. Maybe I wanted to flip back to the 50's and be Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Maybe I wanted her to be Natalie Wood. I don't know what the hell happened. I did stand outside one of her concerts after that because I couldn't buy a ticket. I could hear her voice and had a vicarious thrill and watched all the people and thought to myself, hell, I probably could have walked down her path with her hand in mine, if I wasn't so stupid. Or could I have? One of those mysteries. Bobby Dylan you little sleezeball! I never did like that kid. Ever since I played Allen his record, "Blowing in the Wind." That was the first time Allen had heard of him. (Before the Joan Baez trip).
CATFISH: How did you meet Rod McKuen and get your picture taken with him at Poe's grave?
CHARLES: This was another thing that ruined my career. I, and Aram Saroyan, thought Rod had a lyric gift. I think Aram was also banned from poetry for this opinion. You'd have to read Robert Peter's work in Hunting the Snark and in Where the Bee Sucks, there's an excellent quiz (my idea, he won't credit me for) just as well. Peters puts together some famous poets' stanzas. You'd be surprised. What it shows is that there is a lot of hokum to spread around. Rod admits to his. Here's an orphaned kid, gives a lot of money to animal shelters, came up the hard way playing clubs, always wanted literary recognition, not willing to give me money but willing to read with me in Baltimore where we lived after attending Hopkins. I was in Coleman's course with P.J. O'Rourke. Before that time, Rod had invited me to his show at Lincoln Center, which was full! I had been in N.Y.C. giving a poetry reading at Fordham University right next door. There was the usually poetry crowd at my reading that took place in an area right off the elevators. Every time one stopped, I thought the people on it were coming to my reading. At the end, I quipped that we could all leave together if someone would press the down button. Anyway, I wanted to see how Rod did it. I wanted an audience too! I had just had my Kulchur book come out and I was honored by a big party at the Gotham bookstore, just like the famous expatriates of the twenties. It was crowded too. Few people knew me. I saw some poetry hucksters just come in to count people. Now I wanted to be a poetry huckster too! I couldn't asses Rod's show because it had a lot of other things going on, but he said he'd come down to Baltimore to read with me, even though he said he always bombed in Baltimore. Well, if you know Baltimore, the cultural elite draws from D.C. and N.Y.C. Same issue of The New Yorker and all that. Again, it's like the still life painting reproductions WASPS send invitations on. It like the academic poetry, describing the baskets, bowls and bottles and the prints left in the sand, that sort of thing, much like McKuen's songs but not as lyrical and much more "serious." That's another NEA code word, by the way. So the poetry geeks of Baltimore, who later became mastered by Andre Codrescu, made fun of the whole thing of course. It was for my benefit, since I wouldn't get an NEA fellowship, other poets offered help. Ironically, the photo was taken by Len Randolph, head of the NEA literature program, who came over to thank Rod for his contributions to the arts (and indignant poets). I told Rod he would be there, and afterwards Rod asked me where that official from Washington was. I said he's the one in jeans who was going everywhere with us and talking to you and he took our picture. I guess Rod, coming from Hollywood area, was waiting for the man in the pin-striped suit. I asked Allen to do a benefit for our press and read with Rod over in D.C., but Allen didn't think that would be politically appropriate. Maybe sometime in Kansas, he said. I guess you do have to be aware of your constituencies. I was naive. I thought a poetry reading was just that, but there's a lot more to it if you want to merchandise yourself, even though it seems a little awkward for a poet, but it's necessary today more than ever. No one is going to create fame for you, and I've often wished I had this talent. I have had my share of help from famous poets.
CATFISH: Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?
CHARLES: No, I was spared Any Warhol. I drove to New York with my girlfriend Ann (in photo in front of City Lights). She ran off to Andy's factory and later took up with Miles (the official Ginsberg biographer). Gerard Malanga used to come to Cherry Valley and visit. From him, I got the feeling that Warhol was another cheapskate in terms of sharing with artists. It's understandable when people who come from the poorer class think that you ought to make it on your own and that they are under no obligation to help you. Which they aren't. But there's a strong message that you have to make it yourself, and we all know that art doesn't always work that way. There are always many deserving artist who suffer monetarily, and I guess there always will be, NEA, famous friends, or not. If there was ever a personification of the protagonist in Willa Cather's Paul's Case, Andy Warhol was it. Geographically, socially, artistically.
CATFISH: Did your wife, Pam, ever catch a ride from Jimi Hendrix while hitch hiking in San Francisco.
CHARLES: That was before I knew her...I think...you have to ask her about that.
CATFISH: How would you describe William S. Burroughs?
CHARLES: A straight shooter. Naw, I'm sorry. I meant that figuratively. I've always had the utmost respect for Burroughs and great sympathy for his family tragedies. Bill Burroughs I think is a genius. I share his Midwesternness. He has real class. He's always helped me. There is no reason he should. I'm sure my letters to him sound naive because I don't know what I could say that he is not already aware of. I've always felt a little foolish in his presence, thought he has always been cordial, generous and hospitable to me. He even let us stay in his loft in the city for a while. I remember Patti Smith would call him all the time. I was afraid of her and answering his phone, so she left messages. She really dug him too. When he stayed with us here in Cherry Valley, he explored the house as a cat would, choosing where to sleep. Peter Orlovsky came by and asked Bill if he had heard about Guru so-and-so, who he said was ailing. Burroughs said in his flat Midwestern acidic voice I don't give a shit if he lives or dies." In Lawrence he was always very hospitable and entertained my son with his collection of knives, guns, and poisoned blow darts which he aimed and stuck in the front door so hard we had to pull it out with the pliers. I had told my son Billy, who was 14 or so to stand away from the door. I remember Burroughs asking in a totally flat matter of factly way, "How old's the kid?" After a great Kansas steak dinner some of his friends had prepared (Bill drank Vodka and just nibbled at the food), James Grauerholz brought out a big bowl of gumdrops, apparently his favorite, and much to the entertainment of Billy, he grabbed a big handful and crammed them into his mouth and chewed them for a long time before washing them down with Vodka. Burroughs was influenced by magic when he was a child. I get the impression he doesn't know how this influenced him. He's a great artist; he showed us a carnival-like painting mobile he did which was illusionary. Like all good artists, he could also have been a good medicine man, a carny, a magician. His contribution to the word is highly experimental, needed for the time to gain the juxtaposed speed of meanings to word, as important as what Jackson Pollack did kinetically in painting; he is also a great humorist, as good as Mark Twain. I have written a critique of his artwork--I think it was published somewhere.
CATFISH: When you moved to Cherry Valley and bought the building used by inventor Samuel Morse, did you ever try doing any poems in mores code?
CHARLES: The thought never occurred to me. We bought the two buildings for $3,500, yeah that's what I said, and sold the buildings to the keyboard artist/composer, Paul Bley, who just received a N.Y. State grant, for $7,000. He sold one of the buildings in the 80's for 30 or so thousand. Maybe I'm doing something wrong? Maybe he can do an atonal composition in code. I'm trying to sell our house to go to Russia and write an opera called "Chernobyl."
CATFISH: Where and when were some of your most memorable reads?
CHARLES: I guess the one in Montreal with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Waldman et. al. There was some Quebecois hippie by the name of Buffalo something. I learned he was from Berkeley and called him a fucked buffalo. The press quoted me the next day as saying he was a fucking buffalo. They didn't like me. Thought I was a right winger, and as you know it's still the left vs. right with Ginsberg, the old 50's mainframe, as if all that means shit in the contingency of electronic immediacy. It's whatever hype works. Always has been. Another reading, my last, I think, was when my son Billy and I were in Kansas. I had a book contract with Random House that I never completed (another story). I read to a good crowd in the old Hotel Eaton, a beautiful derelict hotel owned by Senator Nancy Kassenbaum, where Cary Nation had chopped up the bar. In the '60s, I had taken the photographer Robert Frank there and to Okie's Bar next door to take pictures. He and I and Allen and others used to eat wee hours big breakfasts in the hotel's dining room. It was in the same area of Moody's Skidrow Beanery, where I coined the term "Hobohemian" writing. I liked the reading because it was the first time Billy had seen me in action. I think he was impressed at the turnout of people.
CATFISH: You told me of breaking up a fight between Kerouac and Capote--what were they like?
CHARLES: That was in New York on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line". He wanted another Republican, Jack Kerouac, on the show; Ginsberg, Sanders were there. I was tagging along with Allen because the next day I think we were driving Upstate to visit the Big Pink's house. When the show finished, Truman Capote was in his dressing room prepping to go on the next show. His door was open, and as we walked by, I mentioned Capote. Kerouac said, "Where is that little queer." And something like I've been wanting to get even with him for years. I pulled him from the dressing room door and down the stairs. He said, Who do you think you are? or something like that. Nothing really happened and we went to the bar later to drink. He was with one or two of his relatives. I thought they were all jerks, with their Jack Daniels, Budweisers, and bar talk. He had no class. A typical momma's lush. Capote would have scratched his eyes out.
CATFISH: Do you have any favorite poems you've written?
CHARLES: Some are better than others.
CATFISH: Is there anything you would have done different?
CHARLES: Joined the Air Force at 18, so I would have had a pension at 37. Stayed on the docks and not gotten an education. Stayed with the only full-time teaching job I ever had. Accepted the tenure-track poetry professor position I could have had at Carnegie Mellon. Not sold the 1952 MGTD Classic Billy Batman gave us in San Francisco. Not sold my '48 Caddy. Not sold our '66 Mustang convertible. Not sold my '52 Buick Roadmaster Riviera. Not sold my '51 Chevy my dad bought me new. Been more receptive to Anne Waldman and tried to keep her from being brainwashed by the Gurus. Stayed away from famous people, especially poets and the filthy rich. Not called Ginsberg a "kike" at Lita Hornick's dinner party in my honor. Even though Ginsberg helped me get published through his fame, and I enjoyed being around famous poets and writers, I would not do it again. I don't have the correct showmanship and can't accept a leadership role.
For example, when Reagan got elected, for a joke, I said I was forming a group called "Poets for Reagan." I expect a "situationist" if any political fall out from it, but it made the "Notes on People" section of The New York Times, and you know many of its readers are very N.Y.C. provincial and intellectually serious, even more so than the "Wichita Kid", so all the Lower Eastside poets like Waldman and Ginsberg took it seriously and ex-communicated me from any further activities like ever being asked to come to Naropa or receive any N.Y. State funds, which, as culture politicians, they all had a say. Ironically, my publisher Lita Hornick relied on her grantswomanship from the Fed and state during the Reagan years and gave it to her stable of poets, who would read at the Museum of Modern Art, where she provided as one of their benefactors a poetry reading series. Never mind the finer political analyses that Nixon and Reagan gave more to the arts than other presidents, or that Carter let the Contras behead children and serve them on plates as a warning to the peasants, etc. She is filthy rich, a kulcher broker, publishes who Ginsberg says. Me. Thank you. Kept the collage I did. No, send it back. It's worth more than the sloppily printed book. She used to invite me to her parties, had her portrait done by Warhol, etc. But in the end, she published a horrible book, where she wrote combination Yenta poem combinations with St. Mark's Lower Eastside push poets. I would have liked to become a pretentious academic prick, so I could go on a sabbatical, get a grant, paint a still life, have a pension. The academic world has always been a half century behind with their old still lives, so it's no wonder Ginsberg is milking that scene now.
CATFISH: When you leave, how would you like to be remembered.
CHARLES: I just ordered a new cassette from Down Home Music of Merle Haggard's tribute to Jimmy Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman." New Yorkers have recently accepted country; Johnny Cash is acceptable to them as their country singer, and the Nashville Network, Garth Brooks et. al. They wouldn't dig the old music I grew up on, or wouldn't realize how songs like "A Picture Without You" by George Jones or "Honky Tonk Angel" by Patsy Cline evokes the real country pathos. Anyway, having kept my old LP's of Jimmy Rodgers, I hadn't realized how great an audience he had in his time. I knew he was the father of country, but on the tape Haggert tells about the train bringing Rodger's body back from a New York recording studio to Meridian, Mississippi, and how the engineer pulled the whistle's quill down to a low moan for the whole distance while people gathered along the tracks. It's a very moving story. I think in the Jack Black's book that Burroughs turned me on to, or in some hobo lore, the expression they used when someone passed on was that he "caught the westbound."
© 1996 by Charles Plymell and Catfish McDaris
GRIST On-Line. June 1996. This page edited by Robert Bové
Photos by Ginger Eades
Charles Plymell Let it Roll
Collage by Ginger Eades
Stacked Plymell Books Psychedelic View