Interview with Michael McClure
Michael McClure and Jacob Eichert
Born in Kansas in 1932, Michael McClure gained notoriety as a young poet in the Beat circle of the San Francisco Renaissance. Over his six-decade career, he has published numerous books of poetry, several books of essays, and a novel. In 1966 he fought a censorship battle over his play The Beard, which later received two Obie Awards. He co-wrote Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz and has collaborated with Ray Manzarek (former member of the Doors) for more than 150 gigs. McClure’s book Plum Stones, Cartoons of No Heaven was published by O Books in 2002. This interview took place at McClure’s home in Oakland, CA.
JE: How did you come to participate in the Six Gallery reading?
MM: I’m going to start a little before the Six Gallery reading. Early in 1955, I met Allen Ginsberg at a party in San Francisco. It was a party given in honor of W.H. Auden’s poetry reading at the museum. Allen and I were two wallflowers at this academic, stuffy party. We met each other, hit it off, and began talking about our two ideas of William Blake. He and I tended to get together after that. We would talk about poetry, about Blake, he’d tell me about Jack Kerouac, show me Kerouac's letters, or read me Mexico City Blues; I liked Mexico City Blues very much. I had been in a staged reading of Robert Duncan’s play Faust Foutu at the Six Gallery that summer. Wally Hedrick had seen it and he wanted to have a poetry reading. Wally was one of the six founders of the Six Gallery in San Francisco, which was a co-operative art gallery where previously Pere Ubu Gallery had existed (run by Robert Duncan and Jess Collins). Jack Spicer, one of the founders of the Six Gallery, was in Boston, so they couldn’t ask him to set up the poetry reading. Later in the year when Wally asked me, I said “absolutely.” But it turned out that I was extremely busy at the time; I was working, and my wife was pregnant. I was beginning to wonder what to do about it when I ran into Allen. He asked what I was up to. I said, “I’m setting up a poetry reading at the Six Gallery, but I can’t do it very well.” Allen asked if he could do it. “Absolutely,” I said!
There were three or four poets I knew. I knew Philip Lamantia quite well. I knew Kenneth Rexroth from going through his salons. In the meantime Allen met—I think a week or two before the night of the reading—Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. They had been roommates at Reed and joined up in San Francisco again.
At the Six Gallery that night, there was Jack Kerouac drunkenly shouting “go” and passing around the hat to raise money for wine; Allen read a new poem called Howl; Gary read a new poem Berry Feast, which I liked very much; and Whalen read his wonderful Bodhisattva cartoons of poems that I enjoyed a lot. Lamantia read poems of his deceased compadre John Hoffman. The rumor was that Hoffman died of a peyote overdose. I don’t believe there is such a thing. But anyway, Rexroth was the master of ceremonies. So that’s how the Six Gallery reading came about. I read my poems For the Death of 100 Whales, Nightwards the Ravishing, Point Lobos Animism, and Mystery of the Hunt. I also read a poem called Poem which starts out: “linked part to part / toe to knee / eye to thumb,” etc. Those are the six poems comprising my first book, which was published by Jonathan Williams. I started out with a large manuscript and ended up with the same six poems that I had read at the Six Gallery. Not deliberately, they were just the poems I felt most right with.
JE: How long was that whole evening? It seems with Howl, your six poems, and…
MM: Well, the Howl Allen read was not the finished Howl. The finished version was read the following March at a theater in Berkeley. We repeated the event; all of us read again. I would say Howl was probably twenty minutes the first night. I read Gary’s Berry Feast out loud the other day to myself, and I would say that’s ten minutes. Of course, he read other poems too. My six poems couldn’t have taken more than ten or fifteen minutes. I also read a letter from Jack Spicer. He was asking for help; he wanted a job in San Francisco. He was stuck in Boston and asked Johnny Ryan to find someone to help him. Johnny gave me the letter and I read it at the reading.
I would say there were more than a hundred people attending. There were all types: painters, North Beach Pre-Beats, members of the Anarchist Workman’s Circle, elderly women professors with tacky fur coats, and just about anyone that intuited that this was going to be an event. Given the fact that it was “smack-dab-snot-nose-dead-as-a -mackerel in the middle of the Cold War” (to quote Jack Kerouac), it was an outspoken event. All of us felt that we were speaking what people in the audience were feeling. It was time to say things. These were extremely radical poems—radical now even—and we certainly didn’t get tamer as time went on. I don’t think I answered your question.
JE: It seemed to me like it would have been a two or three-hour event.
MM: I would say it was an hour and a half. People were not in any hurry to get out, and they stayed around afterwards talking. It felt like it was a solid evening of socializing. Regarding the actual reading, we got in there and did it with much audience commentary as we went. I heard a tape of myself reading those poems the other day; it was a remarkable job for my first poetry reading. I believe it was also Gary, Phil Whalen, and Allen’s first poetry reading. It was not Lamantia’s first.
JE: Was it widely advertised?
MM: No, the only advertising was Allen Ginsberg’s postcard, but all of us had our own reputations. I was young, like ten years younger than Allen, Jack, and Phil. But as young as I was (I guess I was twenty or twenty-one), there was even some sense of importance of what my poems were, what my feelings were. I was close to Robert Duncan and his circle…
JE: Through school?
MM: I met him at the first writing workshop he taught at San Francisco State. I was also in Rexroth's circle. I also knew a great many painters from the Six Gallery and from other areas. Kerouac and Snyder were introduced at a Rexroth salon beforehand. They surely would have met and spoken to a good many people there. There were streams of information going out. But no one has ever asked me about the “advertising” before. I just realized how many people knew. I always thought Allen’s card did it, but that’s only part of it.
JE: Is it possible to perceive or experience without naming?
MM: To perceive or name without naming makes me think immediately of the first stages of Zazen, where you sit with your legs crossed and you have the imagination that you are going to sink into or be absorbed by your Buddha mind. You hear the garbage truck going by. You hear the red tail hawk screeching at the raven. You hear the rain falling on the window. But you do not give them form. You do not give them named form.
No one pays enough attention to the imagination. No one pays enough attention to inspiration or the fact that these two play together. I strongly believe in inspiration, but that’s another issue. The verbal imagination is an experience. In writing workshops the focus is on creating the numbskull “workshop poem” and not on exercising the verbal imagination.
JE: In what way are sensations thoughts, and how do you use language to transcend language?
MM: I agree with Einstein. [laughs] That’s quite a statement. He spoke about so many of his thoughts being carried on in his body, being what he called body-thought. I believe that there are several kinds of thought, but body-thought is important.
To answer the last part of that question, language is beautiful and very fulfilling of my profoundest ideas. I need to endeavor constantly to learn to extend my consciousness and my ideas into the possibilities that language already has for me. That’s what I work towards.
I think these things are important: to name, to not name, to think about transcending and realize that transcending is not something that is even on the books. Why transcend when you haven’t done any other business first, if you don’t know whether there is anything filled out of the possibilities of language to transcend or not? I do like what the Dadaists and Surrealists did in their magazine Transition. They were working towards creating Vertigral: an invented word for poetry. In other words, a poetry that loomed upwards I suppose, “to strike through the mask,” as Captain Ahab said about Moby Dick. That seems to be appropriate to that time. In the meantime so much richness has been created by those geniuses, and by Artaud, and by Blake, for us to work with that we have a lot of exercising to do.
JE: Tell me about it…
Goethe said: “The incommensurable and incomprehensible are the best of poetic creation.” Children have specific reactions to the nonsensical, while adults have difficulty relating to the same material. What sort of information is being transmitted in these types of speech acts, and how does that differ from customary signification? I’m thinking especially of your use of beast language.
MM: Goethe also said, and this is almost an example of what you’re asking: “Colors are the deeds and sufferings of light.” Now if that is not incomprehensible… But at the same time, it’s surprising if one does not feel its immediate truth. I was talking to a biologist friend about Goethe’s idea of picking up the spine of a sheep and saying, “The skull is just a flowering vertebrae.” I said, “That’s the kind of incommensurable statement Goethe made,” and he said, “Yes, but it is absolutely true.” He defended Goethe’s statement exactly as I wanted him to because I believe it also.
The things that have been done with beast language interest me. When I wrote Ghost Tantras, I was doing Kundalini Yoga. I knew there were going to be ninety-nine poems in the book. They were going to come from the sounds that I could hear in a ball of silence that I felt within myself, a ball bigger than myself but within myself. A silence filled with these sounds. They were written just about everywhere I happened to be at the time: in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, while on an expedition to bring back psilocybin mushrooms; in somebody’s front yard; in a bedroom; in an airplane; in San Francisco; and in Mexico City. They came from a religious experience.
At the time I first finished them we were all very social. We often had dinners and we would pass the manuscript around and read the poems. It was an after dinner-party game. Everybody gave their own reading of these Ghost Tantras, and it was hugely enjoyable. Someone would read one, and it would sound Welch. Somebody else would read one, and it would sound Martian. Somebody else would read one, and it would sound Dutch. And somebody else would sound Indonesian.
When they were published as a book, people would come up and say, “Ghost Tantras was used as one of the tools while I was in a psychiatric institution.” I’ve heard several times of it also being used in jail workshops. In those days, I thought that the function of a tantra was to change the shape of the universe, a way of liberating—not that we get very liberated; we get as liberated as we can. I think they may have had some use for that. I wrote a play in the same beast language too.
JE: Which one was that?
MM: !The Feast!
JE: What you were talking about before (the hawk screeching at the raven, this pure thing without form) do you think that can be transmitted or transported through nonsense or beast language?
MM: I don’t think that there’s any pure thing, so I have a hard time relating. I don’t think things are pure or impure, natural or unnatural. Maybe I’ve studied too much Zen and not done enough sitting Zazen. [laughs]
JE: Is there anything else you want to say in response?
MM: No, it felt comfortable. [laughs] I don’t know what it will look like in type, but it certainly won’t be pure or impure.
JE: It’s suspected that about seventy-five percent of verbal information is visual. How do you deal with the other twenty senses, of what you’ve called “interior affective perception,” within the confines of language?
MM; Well, we have the five traditional senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. They seem to be traditional among cultures. They could be broken down in other ways. We tend to break them down from a larger group of senses, probably eight or nine senses right there. Then there are numerous other senses that have to do with interior affective perception. The sense of balance and the sensory organs that determine the amount of stress on the mesentery in the intestines structure our equipoise (our useful or healthy balance to ourselves as critters). The best thing that we can do is to make ourselves athletes to write the way Jack Kerouac did. He was an athlete of his writing. He prepared himself for it; he did exercises for it. I believe it is the only way I can write.
I believe that the senses of interior affective perception can be managed by maintaining a regimen of exercise: imagination technique, opening to inspiration, and allowing oneself to stay straight with the help of those interior senses. When one becomes involved in a state of crisis, this enables them to speak the language of the state of crisis. Stéphane Mallarmé said that poetry is the language of the state of crisis. Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that poetry was a product of the best and happiest minds. I don’t see any contradiction.
JE: Do you care to elucidate?
MM: No, well, yes I would. I’d say that Antonin Artaud’s ability to use his psychosis as an instrument of exploration, and to find so many diamonds among the coal, means that he had one of the best and happiest minds. I’m using the word happy not in the 20th century way but in Shelley’s way of using such a word.
JE: Turn suffering into triumph so to speak?
MM: No, I don’t think we turn suffering into triumph, but if we’re lucky we create some beauty as we go. We create a clarity that suffering is suffering. Stéphane Mallarmé’s feelings were so enormous that they must be quite embarrassing for a middle-class college professor to read about. You read about them in his letters, not in his poetry. His emotions were so oceanic. That does not mean that they were not real; they were his emotions.
JE: When confronted with your own psycho-physical crisis you wrote that “much of the energy of my mind, body memory, and imagination, unable to expand into the world, uncoiled into the writing.” Is the physiological crisis used as a tool for exploration of consciousness—which you partially addressed in mentioning Artaud—or is it an obstacle to cleansed perception?
MM: In that quote, I am speaking of my poem from six years ago Crisis Blossom. Each stanza of the poem began with a quote from an earlier long-poem that sought to find hidden insights in the unconscious. These “graftings” then carried on with the moment that I was in, which, for a great many reasons, was one of the great crises I’ve known. It was so intense to me that much of what I might have written in a more outward sense went into interior processes. Streams of memory and experience uncoiled in them and filled them out, and then they in turn created unsuspected and unremembered bits of consciousness from other moments (which turned out to be the same moment). I discovered all moments are the same moment: your moment is my moment, just different things are happening in it.
JE: Is what you’ve called the “meat coil of poetry” a way of objectifying the self in an attempt to overcome Self? Does this relate to the idea of “poem as body?”
MM: I do like the idea of objectifying oneself through self-dramatization or through understanding the intensity of senses, gestures, and actions. I don’t think at all of going beyond myself. I’m not concerned with transcending myself. I’m concerned with letting myself be myself and discovering myself. Because lets face it, society is a gigantic educational mechanism to keep you from the experience of yourself and to substitute a one-dimensional inner life for your real, inner life. This is what I’m speaking of about Mallarmé. If one accepts that they’re a mammal, that’s a good place to start. Let’s be mammals; it’s the best I can do.
JE: In your performances with Ray Manzarek you’ve had a chance to explore the complex interactions of word and song. Through those experiences, how have the linearity of language and the simultaneity of music created a third form?
MM: This is not a direct answer, but it has to do with the question. It might even be a restatement of the question, in a way, or an affirmation of the question. I have a long poem called Stanzas in Turmoil. It is a poem that is very important to me. It’s considered to be arcane and esoteric. When I have read it to audiences they claim to have no idea what it is about. Ray Manzarek loves the poem. The reason we started working together is that he heard me read that poem. At our first performance we got a standing ovation; I think largely because we ended the set with that poem, and of course Ray’s music was wonderful. I asked people if they understood it. They said, “Of course.” I asked if they knew what the poem was about. They said, “oh yes, it’s perfectly clear. Why wouldn’t I?” I thought about this for a long time because they’re telling the truth; they understand it. What is the music doing that allows them to understand this extraordinarily arcane—I’ll go along with my critics—poem? Does it float on the music and make it easier to listen to? No, it doesn’t at all. Does it makes audiences more comfortable and relaxes them while they listen to it? Possibly, that could certainly be part of it. Gradually I got the idea why poetry, when it works with music, works with music so well; we’re not talking about songs here necessarily. There are two important centers in the brain. One is the language area that responds to language, and the other is the pitch area that responds to pitch. When you set both of these working simultaneously, in harmony, the consciousness of the person who listens is more filled, enlarged, and open. The individual becomes a more psychically and physiologically active being because more is at play, more of them is functioning. It’s more fun to be more! I think that’s it. I’m sure it also has a lot to do with the pleasure people take in song. There may be other factors relating to song that I don’t understand because I don’t sing.
JE: When was your first performance with Ray?
MM: Fall 1986 in Brockport, New York. I forget the name of the College. We’ve done about a hundred and seventy gigs since then.
JE: Did things just click during that first performance?
MM: Yeah, we’ve gotten better since then, but we knew how to do it then. Ray was an admirer of the Beat poets, and he had always worked with a poet: James Douglas Morrison. Jim was an old friend of mine; I was close to Jim the last years of his life. When I met Ray, we just clicked. We think alike. We’re different, but a lot of our ideas come from the same direction.
We never rehearse. As a poet I’d be willing to rehearse. As a musician he doesn’t want to rehearse. At the sound check we maybe rehearse half of something new. Ray often says to the audience: “Tonight you’ll hear this for the first time.” And I say, “So will we.”
JE: He improvises, but do you always have a set piece?
MM: He improvises the way Miles Davis does. In other words, Miles Davis knows damn well what he’s going to do when he goes up on stage, and then he does something else. It’s that kind of improvisation.
JE: He knows what he’s not going to do?
MM: Well, no, he’s going to follow it. These are pieces the same way many jazz musicians have a piece: it’s certainly not played the same way many times unless it’s some sort of hardcore commercial tour where they’re trying to play an album for the audience. That’s hardly our problem. So we’re free to do what we want.
JE: Is there a show that sticks out in your memory as paramount?
MM: In a way it’s the one that’s on our CD, There’s A Word. That is one of the best. By sheer luck it was recorded, which we weren’t planning on doing. Sometimes Ray’s better than that, sometimes I’m better than that, but for us both to be at that level is really great.
JE: Do you have any shows coming up?
MM: Yeah, in Phoenix in October. We just had to cancel one in San Francisco because the Doors are doing a big performance for the Harley Owners of America. I wish I could go hear that, but I’ll be doing the Watershed event in Berkeley.
JE: Just last week I heard your song Mercedes Benz in a Mercedes television commercial.
MM: Yes, I phoned my ex-wife because someone told her they had seen it. I’ve never seen it; I don’t watch television.
JE: Are there other instances of your art being recontextualized and absorbed by the media it was intended to subvert?
MM: The art tradition I come from is not intended to subvert. It’s intended to counter, to face down, to say, “Hey, try this instead.” I agree with Bertolt Brecht that art is not a mirror to reflect society but a hammer to shape society. Poetry might be kind of a velvet hammer. I don’t think the idea of subversion is an idea of my generation. I think it’s a later idea.
The real social defiance of Mercedes Benz was, shall we say, subverted from the very beginning when Janis Joplin asked if she could sing it. I asked her to sing me her version. I said, “I don’t like that as much as my own.” [laughs] She said, “Play me yours.” I played it, and she said, “I don’t like yours as much as mine.” Then she asked me if she could sing it, and I agreed. I had no idea that her songs were worth so much money. Janis was a wonderful singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company; that was outstanding high art. When she left Big Brother I enjoyed her as a pop star, but I missed the beautiful shows and work they did. You can still see it; they got some footage of it on the Monterey Pop Festival film. Certainly the festival was not subversive, but it was art saying it could be done this way instead: your guitar can be on fire. Actually, I was backstage and could see Jimi Hendrix hunched over pouring lighter fluid on his guitar.
JE: Does anything come to mind in addition—any of your paintings or words being recontextualized?
MM: I’ve been pretty careful. I was asked to do a large light and word sculpture for a building in Los Angeles. I wanted to. It sounded interesting, but it turned out it was for Mitsubishi and one of the big bank corporations. I said no. You can’t be used; you can’t allow it. You will get used and it’s going to happen, but you try not to. People criticized Allen Ginsberg for his Gap ad. But if you look at the bottom of the ad you’d discover that the money was being donated to the Community On Poetry, which is a fund that raises money for poets who are in need of help, medicine, or care. There are different ways of being used and using. I certainly respect Allen. Gap let the fox into the hen coup.
JE: Well, that was his forte.
MM: It was.
JE: Will you comment on your statement that personal revolt is a circumstance where “there is no interaction only confrontation.”
MM: What you’re quoting is from an essay I wrote back in the late fifties called Revolt. What occurs to me today is what Alfred North Whitehead said about confrontation: “The clash of a confrontation creates opportunity.” Confrontation is the most important part of theater. Confrontation is more important than plot; confrontation is what you go to the theater for.
JE: Do you think of revolt more as a revolt against the social world (mammal against mammal) or the natural world (mammal against nature) or both?
MM: Certainly not mammal against mammal or mammal against nature; that’s part of our complex web of mutual support and aid. When I first wrote about revolt, I was concerned about my inability to break free from my own inner blockages of psychophysical energies. My model was a flat worm, which is our most distant cousin, evolutionarily speaking. This flat worm is a common creature in streams and ponds. Big ones are a quarter of an inch long. At certain times it takes a hold of something stable with the tail part of its body and shakes the head off. Then the head is free to grow a new set of tail bodies. When I say “set of” it’s because, like a tapeworm, it is comprised of sub-individuals with a head. In other words, each segment is an individual, and the head holds the individuals together. The head is the boss and pulls them in the direction they’re going to go. In the tail shaking off the head, I saw the body in revolt against the head, against the mass of what we could call societal education: life-shaping by others, their whims, laws, and conformities. One shakes their head off to grow a new head, explore it again, and let the head grow a new body. Maybe the new body has something good to say.
JE: So it is a revolt against Self.
MM: I wanted it to be a metaphor for the fact that, at that time, our country was deeply involved in attempts (before Vietnam even) to obliterate impoverished Asian nations in defense of American corporate, imaginary, and imagined political interests. Certainly a revolt was needed. But I was concerned that a revolution would simply change who was running things, and there wouldn’t be any real change. It would be the same show but with different people in the box seats.
JE: The only revolution I can think of that goes against that model is the peasant uprising in Chiapas. As far as I understand they don’t want to be the head of Mexico, they just don’t want anyone telling them what they have to do.
MM: “Stay out of the Lacandon; we’ll take care of it,” they say.
MM: I like them.
JE: A principle of new physics is that the whole informs the parts rather than the parts determining the workings or character of the whole. Does this conflict with your sense of personal revolt, and how does that relate to the individual within society?
MM: Good question: is the whole a controlling agent or are the parts a controlling agent? That is a scientific paradigm a lot like the chicken and the egg. I’ve been quite interested in science’s exploration of what’s called hierarchies, interlocked hierarchies, or hierarchies within hierarchies to discover how systems work. This is part of systems theory and particularly biological systems. Now what you’re saying is that you see a swing towards saying that the whole operates as a whole. I could not agree more. I think the exploration of hierarchy that has taken place the last few decades is very important, particularly by people like Stewart Kaufman. On the other hand, I also believe in Hwa-yen Buddhism, which is the physics of Zen. Speaking a little metaphorically, it believes that all things come into being through mutual arising, and that nothing has any substantiality except its presence or reflection in other things. That doesn’t have anything to do with hierarchies; I just wanted to throw that in. I follow, as well as I can, two apparently contrasting systems of physics. They both seem absolutely true.
JE: How does that relate to your work?
MM: The ideas of western biological physics and the ideas of Hwa-yen physics are both wonderful styles of imagination that feed my own imagination with their richness. It helps me to understand them in the same way Antonin Artaud’s madness helps, Blake’s vision, or Dogen’s deep insight. Dogen was the thirteenth century founder of Japanese Zen, and his profound insights create a skating rink for my freedom.
previously published in He@d Magazine 10 & The Walrus 2006