Category: Music

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Clive Matson, Beat Generation Poet and Creative Writing Teacher, interview...


Clive Matson

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Clive Matson, Beat Generation Poet, Creative Writing Teacher

interviewed by David Garyan

in collaboration with Pace University*

“This project is the result of a Pace University interviewer’s questions and those of David Garyan, General European Editor of Interlitq. The choice of whose words to use was largely guided by the flow of the narration rather than by more traditional parameters. The interviewers, in their individual ways, showed a keen sense of how to bring out meaningful aspects of the Beat Aesthetic. I am grateful to them both.”
—Clive Matson

 

Click here to read Clive Matson’s poems in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

Instinct, Be My Guide

Pre-modern life within life

If you were reading books in the late 1950s, you would know about Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and the adventures of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise and their penniless friends, all “in love with life, beauty, jazz, sex, drugs, speed, and mysticism.” And they were in full revolt against mainstream society. They treated life as an adventure. They honored impulsivity and partying and fostered a devil-may-care attitude toward the hard-working Puritan ethic of their time. They became emblems of the “Beat Generation.”

The prevailing conformity of the late 1940s and 50s, an outgrowth of the rigors of World War II, was the social backdrop for the Beats. How quickly they made a strong impression on the literary world was a reflection of how urgently the culture at large wanted some release from restrictive mores. The people honoring the white picket fence and safe, respectful performances at their jobs and in their relationships were “Squares,” and the Beats displayed a much healthier version, at least at its foundation, of what a human being really is. A refreshing, lively, and freedom-loving version. The marketing prowess of Allen Ginsberg helped immensely in spreading the message and the image of the Beats.

Along with Kerouac and Ginsberg were poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Diane di Prima, surreal writer William Burroughs and story-teller Herbert Huncke, all progenitors of the movement and all advancing a similar rebelliousness. Younger aspiring writers, as myself, discovered a host of other interesting writers in the same group, including Lenore Kandel, Alden Van Buskirk, Amiri Baraka, Michael McClure, and John Wieners, all of whom Jack Hirschman called the “lyrical heart of the Beat Generation.”

The Beats showed us a positive direction toward freedom and away from repressive conformity. Poet Sharon Doubiago said, “The Beats saved my life,” and that’s probably not an exaggeration. She grew up in a small town in Southern California near where I grew up, and the conformity was stultifying. The Beats gave Doubiago hope. How I survived the same conformity I don’t really know! My guess is that luck played a part. Mostly I did my best to look good and to fit in, and privately I stayed as honest as possible within myself, painfully ignoring many of the signals of how I should behave.

Doubiago was more conscious than I was of the issues of the times, and she came along later, so she was in high school, where conformity was the worst, when the Beats exploded on the literary scene. I had already left and was finding my way through the college thickets, when word of the Beats arrived at the University of Chicago. I was captivated by riptides of the movement a year or two after the Beats had earned some attention.

My journey into poetry had begun a few years earlier. I grew up on an avocado farm in Southern California and there were special places in the chaparral hills behind the orchard, intriguing and exotic locales. I was the middle child of five and we were delighted, every now and then, to abandon our farm chores and explore the world around us. Nature supplied some magical places that, not surprisingly, aroused my emotions to something like poetry.

I had a favorite spot along a shallow creek. A path climbed over a nearby ridge to what we called “The Big Valley,” and at its beginning the path crossed the creek which, every few years, had a trickle of water. A large manzanita bush grew on its banks. You usually can’t get under a coastal manzanita, with its sharp, angular branches growing close to the ground.

I could slide under this bush, though, because it was rooted high on the bank. Its branches grew out over the creek and the area under the manzanita was pleasant, shaded by smooth, reddish, four-foot limbs with waxy leaves and dotted with tiny white flowers and pea-size, shiny red-brown berries. The area was moist and dark and replete with mystery. There were insects. There were spiders. I was sure a rattlesnake enjoyed the shade when I wasn’t there. I was a voyager in a beautiful, and eerie, natural place.

Interviewer: Can you recall the first poem you wrote and the first one you published? Along with touching upon the themes and structures of these works, it would be interesting to know: Were the differences in quality huge, or do you find that writing came naturally?

Matson: My first poem was about the wind and not, directly, about the manzanita. I didn’t have the tools or the awareness, at age fourteen, to articulate the intricacy of feeling and observation around the manzanita. The wind seemed simpler and I could handle the wind. The wind rustled the waxy leaves; the wind was portal to adventure, to the exotic intrigue of the manzanita and to the wide world beyond. My heart was involved. The wind was freedom and excitement. It conveyed a pure, primal feeling of being.

The poem was assigned by our high-school teacher, Robert Olson. He was a World War II vet and, when we annoyed him, he threw chalk at us. And blackboard erasers. His praise, always verbal, was equally obvious, tangible and direct. When he asked us to write a poem, I knew it was all right to be real. I had a rich imaginative life which I mostly concealed from my family and, for this assignment, it was a joy to understand that I could write what I truly felt.

I thought about the poem for what seemed like two weeks. It may have been only two days. Words circled through my head and finding words that matched the wind and the feeling in my heart, both, was a wonderful challenge. I felt connected to body, heart, and mind and, through my senses, to the world. Writing the poem intensified the feeling.

My touchstone of “being real,” and its connection to poetry, comes from those early years. A few years ago I found that first poem and could see its music was natural, like the easy, common language of Spoken Word poetry. I use similar language here and there in current work, especially in Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye. While my present language might seem to arise smoothly, it’s evolved gradually over time. It comes from a long journey through hip and cool vernacular all the way to politically correct language and beyond, sometimes as an exciting experiment and sometimes earned painfully after treks through an aesthetic briar field.  

Gradually the touchstone of “being real” became a mantra, which took its natural role as a guide to finding my own voice. What am I really thinking? What do I really feel about my topic? Later it would become a filter, identifying work I could learn from and separating that from work which, to my mind, didn’t merit attention. The filter works well for Beat Generation indulgences and equally well for elite, academic pretensions.

Interviewer: Growing up on an avocado ranch, you experienced life viscerally and directly. At the same time, there was a contradiction—something inauthentic began encroaching. Your father wanted you to become a scientist—to study the earth, rocks, and wind that you enjoyed but didn’t want to dissect in a systematic way.

Matson: Dad was born in 1904 to a lay preacher and he seemed to have transferred his father’s religious awe to science. That would have been natural. Kitty Hawk, when people began flying for the first time, took place in 1912, when Dad was a youngster of eight. There’s little doubt he was enthralled. His mother was partially invalided and Dad was raised by his sister, our Aunt Erma, who was ten years older. And her boyfriend was a pilot. The stars had aligned to bring up my father as a devotee to technology and to science.

Mom was a sweet, smart lady but quite retiring. She didn’t feel comfortable showing her deeper emotions; she was verbally abused as a child and as an adult. Grandma, when she was living with us, reported that her doctor thought Mom was the ugliest baby he’d ever seen. Every few days she made this pronouncement and let loose a big, delighted Irish laugh. Mom cringed. She didn’t stand up to her mother, she just flinched and continued her household tasks.

She’d put food on the table for her husband and five children and after dinner she’d organize us to clean up the kitchen. Then she’d disappear to her bedroom, where she read mysteries. There was very little nurturing from her. My younger sister said, later, that the only way she might have gotten attention from Mom would have been to press the point of a carving knife to her chest. Mom liked babies but, beyond that, kids were a problem.

Dad’s love was science and he was plenty smart. He went to Cal Tech and among his teachers was Linus Pauling, whom he admired. But the Depression interrupted his education. He dropped out and enrolled in drafting school and then worked in the aircraft industry, at Douglas, in Los Angeles County. During World War II the company moved to Oklahoma City, out of fear that the Japanese would bomb the West Coast.

Mom and Dad made friends with the Swiss family who ran the child care center in Oklahoma. The husband was a farmer. He bought land in Southern California, planning to start an avocado ranch, and he offered to include our family in the project. He planted trees on an adjacent property and that became our orchard.

After the war ended, we moved back to Los Angeles and Dad worked at Douglas for three more years. On weekends he built a house on the avocado property, and when I was seven Dad left Douglas and we moved to the ranch. But the house wasn’t finished, and the first year the whole family lived in a tent – quite an adventure.

At that time, four and a half acres of avocados was enough to support a family. We came home every day from school and worked on the farm, even as youngsters.

Dad entered the agricultural community and eventually became a local expert on the fungus that attacks the avocado trees. He modified a Jeep to include a tank for fungicide, along with a pump and a spray nozzle. He’d test for the fungus and then go to the ranches and fumigate the areas where there were infected trees. It was complicated to consult the growers, test and treat other orchards, while also keeping his own farm productive.

Around this time Dad chose me to become the scientist he wanted to be, to live his life for him. I had some interest in rocks and in geology; a neighborhood boy and I hiked through the undeveloped countryside and picked up pretty stones. Dad, as a young man, had been an amateur naturalist and studied butterflies. He took the family on outings into the backcountry, sometimes to the mountains and sometimes to the desert. Sometimes abandoned mines were a destination, too. Dad was as interested in nature as he was, as an engineer, in abandoned mining machinery.

While I liked rocks, writing about the wind was, for me, a greater excitement. And I found it expedient to keep that interest private. Dad was clear that art and dreaming were beyond the pale. When he expressed confidence that I could be a scientist, I took him to mean, nevertheless, that I could be a writer, too. But the underlying message was stark: I was alone and I had to write on my own. Without support.

My high school artist friend Marie Martin and I started a literary journal, Las Obras. [1] That gave me a place to express my passion and I happily wrote stories and poems. We made friends among classmates and I didn’t need to hide from teachers. My feeling of connection grew and I’ve been chasing that feeling my entire life. It’s a primitive feeling of soulful power – connecting body, heart, mind and the senses to nature, to people, and to the world.

My parents knew I spent time on Las Obras, but their silence was deafening. I continued to lowball my writing, or to hide it entirely. When the time came, I applied to the University of Chicago, though I knew little about the school. But Chicago did have glamour. It seemed energetic. It was a big Midwest city a long ways from the farm. I was fortunate to win a full scholarship and I felt I was coming into my own.

Interviewer: It seems that the greatest challenge writers face is paradoxically the ability to write like themselves, without fear or censorship, that is. How did the University of Chicago contribute to your growth?

Matson: I had grown up in a small, agricultural town and at the University of Chicago most students were better read than I. They enjoyed kicking around wild ideas and strutting up the intellectual ladder. It was a challenge and I was game. I was excited. I made friends with a classmate, Eliot, who knew Chicago well and guided me to museums, literary events, and to the symphony. We spent frequent Friday afternoons at dress rehearsals of the symphony – for a dollar fifty. Fritz Reiner was the conductor, and the music was an education. Mahler, Bruckner, Prokofiev, and Beethoven were my favorites, along with more modern composers, Bartok, Carter, Hindemith, and Messiaen.

The world was opening up and my interest in writing continued to grow. I kept a journal with many fragments of poems and stories. But the University, in contrast, seemed bent on suppressing my urge. I told my intake counselor I wanted to write and to study literature. He judged that I had a better background in science and advised, therefore, that I study literature only in my electives.

How had he made that decision? Did Las Obras not count? Did my desire not count? I was disheartened and, sadly, I went with his program.

My first paper for freshman English was a romantic piece on geology. I got a D minus. I went to the instructor and complained. He indicated I had written purple prose and, reconsidering, he acknowledged that it was good purple prose. He raised my grade to C plus. He was sure, though, that I had used a thesaurus to find the word “vug” – he didn’t believe I knew the word on my own. One wonders, does personal agency not exist? After that I treated the class more as a job than as a place to develop my passion.

The Hutchins’ Great Books liberal arts program at Chicago had placed me in an upper division literature course. We read books I’d never even touched: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars. I was a long ways from the small Southern  California  town where I had grown up and I loved these books. I was the earnest kid in the back of the room. This was a fascinating adventure. I didn’t talk much, but I got involved with Milton and I could feel the swirling energy in Paradise Lost.

The professor, a cheerful, caring sort of man, asked, “Why did Milton write this poem?” I raised my hand. I knew why I liked the poem and I was sure Milton wrote it for the same reason. I answered, “The conflict between good and evil is ongoing. It’s part of life and Milton was laying it out for us.” The professor smiled. “Well, that’s a good answer. But not the answer I’m looking for.” Milton was quarreling with the King of England, the professor explained, and the King becomes God in the poem, and Milton identified with Satan. Milton thereby gave the conflict somewhat equal antagonists and garnered sympathy for the devil.

I wasn’t comfortable with that thinking. It didn’t speak to my heart. The professor had shown me the specialist’s awareness one needs in order to “join the club” – the academic club. I liked my answer better than his and this was a turning point. I didn’t do anything with it, I just noticed it. And I felt sad. The perception that I was on my own was reinforced.

I read in Milton the honesty and passion of the verse itself. The passion seemed an extension of the primal feeling I had when lounging under the manzanita tree. It was one iteration of the magical world where we live. Academic literary society was teaching me, by negative example, to avoid it and to feel my way to places where I could find nurturance. Where I felt involved and where I felt inspired. I was on my own and instinct was my guide.

Interviewer: When did you decide to become a Beatnik—not in the superficial sense of joining a movement or meeting one specific individual, but having the courage to become the person and poet you always wanted to be?

Matson: My development wasn’t so much a decision as it was, over time, an accumulation of modest changes. I was following my sense of connection. The same feeling that had grown around writing my first poem, about the wind, had stayed primary. Reading Milton and the discussion of Milton, together, were a significant step. Equally significant was the book we were carrying around in our back pockets in 1959.

Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind was that book and the poem that intrigued me was “Christ Climbed Down.” [2] To come down from the cross and view the material world through a spiritual eye, as Christ does in the poem, was startling. To dare write with the awareness of a mythic figure, or simply with one’s personal awareness, either one, was a challenge. Nothing requires our minds to follow a prescribed path!

With a single poem, Ferlinghetti brought poetry out of the ivory tower and gave it to us as an everyday event. A magical event, true, but in ways we could fully imagine happening today. Presented in our own spoken language and with a recognizable sensibility. This path felt harmonious with my urge to be real and to be connected with primal feeling. And in the poem Christ, by turning a critical eye on a typical materialistic Christmas, also spoke plainly to a widespread, underlying unease in American society.

My schoolmates were studying T.S. Eliot. Together we read “Prufrock” and The Four Quartets. My friends Tony Berracoso and Phil Broemmel and I struggled over images in “The Wasteland”; Phil and Tony called the poet “Tough Shit Eliot.” I memorized much of “The Dry Salvages”: “I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong, brown god, sullen, untamed, intractable….” These words were parallel to my feelings under the manzanita bush. They showed an uncluttered mind looking fresh at the world, just as Jesus did in Ferlinghetti’s poem. Exploring the vision of The Four Quartets, also, was a delight.

The first stanza of “Prufrock,” however, is what stayed with me: “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.” These lines stirred my psyche with a dark insistence. Our conversations allowed that they show Eliot’s disenchantment with nineteenth-century poetry and with received wisdom on how poems should be written. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized their full import: the lines are a Modernist challenge to all who follow.

My friend Eliot knew something was brewing with the Chicago Review in early 1959. [3] There was a reading of Beat poets featured in Big Table at the North Dearborn Street music hall “Gate of Horn” and we attended. More than a hundred people were there and Allen Ginsberg orchestrated the show. The audience urged him to read his iconic Beat poem Howl and he kept us in suspense. He waited until the end of the event and read Howl as the finale.

Mostly what I felt, even when the Beat poems were dark and critical, was joy of life. This was not the academy. This was full engagement of body, heart, and mind. These were artists speaking their truth. They fit John Clellon Holmes’s formulation, “To be Beat is to be at the bottom of your personality looking up.” [4]
I stood at the back of the room where someone gave an analysis of the Beats. “They’re Communists. They found they couldn’t influence the political process, so they turned to poetry.” Really? Poetry was more effective than demonstrating or organizing or working with the Party? I loved this. I had no idea whether it were true, but the thought amused me. The quote is a crack-up even now, sixty-plus years later. Indeed poetry can influence our political process: by raising consciousness.

The audience asked questions and Beat poet Gregory Corso was quizzed about his influences. I was interested. His writing displayed a tone akin to my primal feelings. But Corso listed the canon and I thought, he’s lying. These aren’t personal influences, this is a recital of great literature. He started with Homer and Sappho and went through Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Keats, Shelley, Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Dostoyevsky – almost everyone well-known.

Later I realized that, in the context of the times, Corso was providing a crucial insight. The Beats were listening to the pulse of literature. What makes it strong, what makes it speak to us, what makes it relevant. The professor, who said Milton’s quarrel with the King was the poem’s pivotal strategy, had revealed the motivation that prompted Milton’s full engagement. But full engagement is the point, full engagement of body, heart, and mind. Not the royal quarrel that brought Milton there. Corso had answered well for the Beats as a whole.

I gathered the Chicago Review had been thrown off campus by the University because of its Beat content. The editor, Irving Rosenthal, had launched Big Table [5] with the writing he’d collected, with help and prodding from Allen Ginsberg. I had no connection with Rosenthal or his staff. But the Gate of Horn reading impressed me deeply. I carried the range of personal, radical honesty of those writers – sensitive, crude, sexy, joyful, angry – as an ideal.

After a year at Chicago I dropped out and went home to the avocado ranch in Vista, San Diego County. My folks were unhappy and insisted I enroll in University of California at Riverside. The school seemed like child’s play compared to Chicago. I took a geology class because I liked minerals and had collected rocks as a youngster.

But the professor described the seasons inaccurately: He said the earth’s orbit is elliptical and when our planet is closer to the sun it’s summer, and when it’s farther away it’s winter. A student at the back of the class said no, it’s because the axis of the earth is tilted. The professor didn’t understand. He held up a piece of chalk and said, to his credit, “Come to the blackboard and explain.”

Gary Jurberg did just that. We became friends.

There was a group of student writers and I visited their meeting. It seemed banal. Someone did know contemporary writing and mentioned poets were using lines like “gray ashtray room.” I liked that line, though it wasn’t close to what I heard at Gate of Horn. It wasn’t anything like Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness….” It didn’t reveal much of body, heart, or mind. My instincts measured what I was feeling. “Gray ashtray room” was strong, but cerebral and dry. It didn’t connect with what I felt, not with my yearning nor with my sense of a larger, magical world. I dropped out and returned to the ranch.

My father made a deal: I could work four hours a day for my room and board; the rest of the time was mine. Mom was working at the local library and I began catching up on my reading. I wanted at least to equal the students at Chicago. The local library was integrated with the San Diego County system and I could check out a wide variety of books. Every week I came home with another five volumes – the limit for one person.

It’s no accident that Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist attracted me. And it’s no accident that the opening – with “moo-cow” and the smell of urine – stayed vivid for me, even more than Molly’s soliloquy. Why obsess with society’s madness, and with relatives’ and with teachers’ madness? The connection, the child-like, pure, lyrical connection, is guileless and obvious on the first page.

Much later, at Ginsberg’s memorial in 1996 in San Francisco, Robert Hass made a similar, extravagant assessment of the first lines of Howl. I’d been making judgments like that for years, and to hear an accomplished writer – even if one in a limiting tradition – do the same thing made it seem legitimate. The first lines of a piece do reveal its soul or, at least, point to its core. I had meandered for a long while, in my reading, to find first lines that spoke to me. Now I see that poets, generally, aim to climb into a literary elite, and the impulse is usually displayed in the first lines. You couldn’t turn me off faster by pulling the pin on a hand grenade.

I worked all spring at the ranch and read books and wrote. I got a call from Bob Gonzales, a smart, sensitive drifter who hung out with students in Chicago. He had come to the West Coast and wanted to travel together. The world was calling and I answered. I was tired of working on the farm. Bob stayed with my family one night and early the next morning we took half a ham Mom had prepared and hit the road. We spent a week in Northern California and I truly enjoyed the traveling and exploring.

When I returned to the farm my parents, again, were not happy. Dad threw a rare tantrum. Mostly he kept control and only occasional grunts and mutterings and sneers indicated that, inside, he was frequently raging. He said, if I wanted to be a writer, “What are you working on? Where are your notebooks?” He predicted, “You’ll be in the snake pit within a year” – his sobriquet for a mental institution.

I was living in the guest room and I’d filled the bottom drawer of the dresser with notebooks and sheets of paper. Covered mostly by one paragraph that I was trying to perfect, the same paragraph, over and over! This helped me, eventually, to become wary of my own wish for perfection. But I wasn’t going to show this writing to my father. He might read it and take the repetitions as evidence that something was seriously wrong.

I did reveal I wanted to go to Northern California and get a job. Dad allowed me that freedom, provided I consented to psychological testing. The thought, at the time, was if you didn’t conform to society or to your parent’s wishes, you might be schizophrenic. Indeed, that’s what the tests showed. This was a gift in disguise. Several years later, in 1963 when the draft for the Vietnam War was ramping up, I referred to the tests and received the designation “4-F.”This saved me from going to war.

I came to Northern California and stayed with Gary Jurberg, the student in geology class who had explained the seasons. I drove a truck for an electrical contracting company and continued my reading and writing. I was becoming a guy who hangs around universities and makes friends with students. One was Roberto Epperson, who would smoke marijuana with me and we experimented getting drunk on bromide cough syrup. I remember tossing a can of soda up high and delightedly watching it spin and spin, in slow motion, as it fell.

Interviewer: I mentioned the development of your own authenticity came from the nature which surrounded you. But clearly it also came from your relationships.

Matson: Yes, one evening I started ragging on other writers, complaining about their work, and Roberto looked me in the eye and handed me a pen. “Time to get writing,” he said. How likely is it that a casual friend would make a gesture with such insight? I’ve never felt special. Any gifts I have are well-contested by my challenges. Roberto’s thought directed me in a simple direction: get working.

A reviewer recently criticized the reissued Mainline to the Heart (1966) because “everything worked out too well.” [6] The reviewer thus implied that this made the book suspect. It’s not easy to accept that legitimate forces may be at play here. Everyone must have buoyant moments when an event shows there’s more intelligent caring in the universe than we realize. It could even be divine dispensation simply to notice when our guides do appear.

I met Erin Black, who was a painter and four years my senior. She was friends with Gary Jurberg’s roommate and the buzz between us was intense. Erin saw me as an attractive bad boy and I was along for the ride. We planned a tour of Europe; she had enough money to make that happen. I’d heard you could ship out from the East Coast on freighters and earn passage to Europe. I hitchhiked to New York and found that such jobs were available in Montreal.

I started hitchhiking north and Fred Helmers picked me up. He taught at Briarcliff College and his sister was married to Beat poet Ed Dorn. [7] Fred offered me a place for a few days and invited me to attend a reading of Dorn’s that weekend. It must have been early spring 1961 and his brother-in-law was coming to the 12th Street Coffeehouse in New York City. How likely was that? Those guardian angels were helping me continue to find the Beats – they weren’t going to let me escape.

I met Ginsberg, James Warring the dancer, Irving Rosenthal, and Diane di Prima at the reading and got their phone numbers. I tried to be interested in Dorn. I liked some of his lines: “I know that peace is soon coming, and love of common object, and of woman and all the natural things I groom …” and his poem “Rick of Green Wood.” [8] But mostly his poetry didn’t take hold with me. He was, nevertheless, part of this group. These were the people who had the honest energy, passion and joy of life on display at the Gate of Horn. I planned, after traveling in Europe, to return to the City and look them up.

Europe was eye-opening and Erin was an enlightening and valuable companion. She appreciated my adventurousness and my openness in exploring Europe and its art with her. We visited churches and museums. She loved going to cathedrals and I absorbed their beauty and learned something of their history. She was thinking about her own painting as we went along and we had many discussions about art. And, as Erin was older and moved more easily among people, I saw how she did this and I gained some confidence. We spent time in Greece with the family of the ship’s captain who had brought me to Europe. We also visited Morocco.

I came back from Europe and stayed with Irving Rosenthal in New York City. He honored me by taking me under his wing and introducing me to the Beat writing he admired. He was especially effective when reading John Wieners. It’s easy for a young person to slide over the surface, not noticing Wieners’ depth. It may be that we see through a personal lens and, having expectations already too well-defined, we miss what’s in the words. Irving would read from Hotel Wentley (1958) [9] and repeat the lines slowly. He insisted I take in the words and he’d roll his eyes, appreciating their layers and their intensity. I had been gliding by Wieners’ conversational words too smoothly and Irving, in essence, showed me how to read contemporary poetry. He taught me to slow down and pay close attention. That was a gift.

But it was a mixed gift. A month or so afterwards I wrote a poem, showing my background and my passion, giving the ocean the mystique the wind held in my first poem. “The sea is alive” was a repeated refrain and Irving said the poem was a failure. When I said McClure had inspired me, he said, “No. It’s Wieners.” He spoke with a hurt intensity, as if I’d betrayed him.

I was friends with Marian Zazeela, one of underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s [10] actresses who was close to Ira Cohen. She read the poem. She liked it and asked, deferring to Irving, what he had said and I told her. She commented that he was probably correct, and added, “But don’t feel you can’t write about mythic figures!”

Zazeela lent an encouraging note. What Irving did was not teaching, it was something else. It was dictating. And I had a healthy response to Irving: I discounted him. I continued to develop my writing and to accept McClure’s influence. To Wieners’ credit, and also to Rosenthal’s, Wieners did eventually become a primary influence. The writing in The Hotel Wentley Poems was, for a while, my highest ideal.

What Irving did was eerily familiar. My father maintained a similar passive abuse. If I wouldn’t be a scientist, I was not his son. And if I couldn’t love Wieners the way Irving did, on the spot, I was beyond hope.

That year the young poet Elise Cowen committed suicide. Irving was deeply upset; he loved Elise. And he warned me severely, around the same time, against Herbert Huncke. [11] One might suspect he was letting grief exaggerate his opinion of Huncke’s danger. He was nevertheless consistent in his warning. “There are some people on the scene who are bad news. Huncke is one of them. Stay away from Huncke.” He listed people who had become addicts, or were in jail, or had their lives otherwise ruined – because of Huncke.

Still, Irving was inspiring. He repeated, in various ways, that great art “often contains something childlike.” [12] An excellent litmus for a young writer! Especially since we’re prone to inflate ourselves. And especially when viewed as a marker for when we’re “present to what is.” [13] A complete human being includes an abundance of the child. Irving’s remark echoes Carl Jung’s pronouncement: “The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.” [14] Once, when we were out walking, Irving noticed someone a half block away and said, “Look, there’s one of us!” Something about their hair and outfit stood out from the gray, uniform streets. They weren’t following the given pattern of conformity. They were living counter to the culture.

Erin went back to her family on the West Coast, with plans to return to New York City. Three months later she came to the Lower East Side, where she and I lived through the 1960s. Rosenthal had helped find our apartment; he knew the landlord. It was 48 dollars a month at St. Mark’s Place and Avenue A, now gentrified.

My evolving appreciation of literature came into play when I read pages from Naked Lunch to Erin. Irving had edited the book for Grove Press and was proud of his work. I laughed at the bizarre humor and surreal twists in Burroughs’ writing and Erin was aghast. But she was also curious. She kept coming back to the writing and listening to me talk. In a few weeks she was there, too, appreciating Burroughs as a rebel with immense power, working outside traditional story-telling.

Erin was, for me, comfort and stability and sanity. She was sociable and talked companionably with people. And she painted well. She used oils with a quirky flare for colors and shapes, as if bringing a hidden story to the surface. Her website erinmatsonart.com and a Facebook page display her work, considerably influenced by Chagall, whimsical fantasies and surreal landscapes and several gorgeous portraits. One of me, which I love, one of herself as an innocent, which I also love, and one of “Bear,” not so innocent, the man she left me for.

My favorites are clouds behind the side view of a house with a curving porch; trees with white blossoms and curling, dancing limbs; mythic faces with flames for hair mashing cheeks in the sky; a tumbling melee of flowers and cats and fabrics; a simple, repetitive portrayal of flowers on a windowsill. Her deliberately gauche style has, at the same time, a flamboyant, uniquely expressionist feel.

Interviewer: You had the privilege of knowing and studying with Allen Ginsberg. You met and worked with many other writers from that period, too. Who was one person you really admire?

Matson: Huncke was a surprise, the more so since Irving had judged him with such severity. That judgment, though, could have served to make Huncke attractive. Who was this calm older man, showing me the favor of his eyes, and treating me with understanding and kindness? I have a vague memory of my new friend and poet Ceely – John (nee Ceely) Paige [15] – introducing me to Huncke on the street.

But my soon-to-be wife Erin Black [16] may have established the connection that worked. I wish I could remember and there’s no one I can ask. These people have passed on. Remember, I was still a shy kid from the avocado farm. I was experiencing a rich tumble of thoughts and imagination but I hadn’t learned how to talk easily with people.

Huncke, however it came about, became a regular at our apartment on St. Mark’s Place. And Huncke and I had an arrangement: I liked sandwiches and so did he. When Huncke came over, out came the sandwich makings. We’d enjoy a meal of rye bread and cheese and sliced meat sandwiches and he’d start talking. He could see I needed tutoring and he’d supply some, discretely, here and there.

Huncke shined for Erin. She was fascinated with him and with his stories, and he would wait for her to join us, mulling over what story he would tell. She was his adoring audience. They’d smoke a joint and Huncke would drape a scarf over the lamp, casting a warm, welcoming glow throughout the room. He’d begin to talk. I heard, first hand, most of the stories that were later printed. I listened, enthralled.

One afternoon Huncke dropped by after a visit from John Wieners, who often stayed with Huncke on his sojourns from Boston. Huncke read, with an amused twinkle in his eye, a short poem John had composed the day before: “Huncke in the kitchen making a sandwich. / I hate him and he hates me.”

I was delighted. There was general excitement around this time about haiku, and I hadn’t joined. The form seemed too finicky. And few writers seemed able to wed an American sensibility with haiku’s traditional elements – nature, humanity, and time. But Wieners’ poem grabbed me. He showed how much can be done with a simple couplet. I began writing poems like his, which I called “Shorts.” And I noticed, along the way, that much of Wieners’ work is composed of couplets.

I heard that Ginsberg was writing “American sentences.” I imagined he reacted to the overly refined allure of haiku, as I had, and was doing take-offs in English. I felt the warmth for Ginsberg one feels for a common mind. The magic of poetry displays itself in surprising ways! I learned later that Ginsberg composed his sentences with the same number of syllables that haiku uses: seventeen. [17] This conflicted with my studies, as if magic relied on the number of syllables, not on the images! Did he imagine poetry requires a specific number? That was a disappointment.

After a while Huncke and I started walking the streets. Huncke would run into someone he knew, or someone he’d heard of, or someone he’d never seen before, and in a minute or so he would establish some intimacy. He’d move on to a cup of coffee, a meal, a score of drugs, a place to stay overnight, or a meeting the next day. Watching and listening to Huncke was an education.

At bottom his success was simply that he loved people. And he appreciated people. He was curious what they do – religion, work, meditation, art, relationships, drugs, whatever – to make their way through the day. He had seen most all variations and he made almost no negative judgments.

Interviewer: Herbert Huncke, of course, was well known in bohemian literary circles in the 1960s. And his life was celebrated, or mythologized, in Kerouac’s, Burroughs’, and John Clellon Holmes’ writing. Was Herbert Huncke really the reason you began using heroin, or was it someone/something else?

Matson: I wake up most mornings with an immense yearning, coupled with a penetrating helplessness or powerlessness. At bottom is an ocean of sadness. These emotions are acute now, and more so when I was young. I wanted that feeling under the manzanita to endure and merge with a sense of belonging. My family offered none of that – they supplied shame and critical disappointment. But the Beats frequently displayed a passion I connected with, as if I had returned to the manzanita.

Huncke was not interested in my taking drugs. I got into drugs through David Rattray and Ceely. Drugs were plentiful on the Lower East Side and so was the abuse of drugs. I had sniffed cocaine and liked it, and Rattray offered me a shot. I accepted. But I couldn’t find the sensation – perhaps because it wasn’t cocaine! It was heroin.

Are you kidding me? Just because the Beats ignored conventional mores, is this how you treat people? Behavior like this I never saw even a hint of in Huncke. But many indulged. The saving grace was that Rattray’s shot was so small I didn’t feel anything. True, I was expecting a different sensation, and perhaps Rattray’s conscience limited the quantity he prepared. Or he wanted the remainder of the bag for himself.

A while later I went with Rattray to his connection in Harlem and sniffed some of the drug. It worked. I was stoned all night.

Heroin makes you feel loved. That’s the simple, unacknowledged gift of the drug. Heroin takes away anxiety and paranoia and you can be yourself. It’s safe [18] and comfortable. One young addict attests, with authority, that heroin is “like a warm bath. [19] Heroin supplies the feeling of being accepted by your lover, by your family, and embraced by the community.

Every child comes into this world with a gift. Having that gift accepted is a birthright, but acceptance very rarely happens. It’s very rarely even moderately respected. Even more rarely nurtured! The poet’s job may be to uncover the gift and to develop it. Show it to the culture and show the path to its discovery. No matter how difficult the path might be.

Huncke knew that some people were convinced he turned youngsters into addicts and, from there, into derelicts. He didn’t want to be seen as that person. He also knew, of course, that the drug is a mixed challenge. He didn’t like my taking the drug. I used heroin for four years, and after the first few months we started shooting up together. He was extremely careful. He’d taste the drug with his tongue or put a smear on his gum and then he’d inject the tiniest amount in his vein. All this to check its purity and strength. If it passed these tests, then, and only then, would he proceed to shoot up.

Interviewer: If you could take any drug, without it being dangerous, addictive, or against the law, which, out of the ones you’ve tried, would best complement your writing and which the least? 

Matson: For me psychedelics were most important, and are so today, in my writing. Their influence is direct. I do feel heroin is equally valuable, though heroin is in no way psychedelic. It’s very different. I aspire to recreate its feeling in psyche and body in how I live every day.

People do assume that I, like some others, were seduced into taking heroin by Herb Huncke. I recall having a discussion to this point while sitting behind Allen Ginsberg in court in lower Manhattan at a parole hearing for Beat poet Ray Bremser. We were supporting an artist in our community. The topic of Bremser’s addiction came to the court’s attention, and how he had gotten involved in heroin.

Under my breath I said, “Every addict is a pusher.” And Ginsberg was quick to admonish me. “Not literally,” he said firmly. Of course he was correct.

But Huncke did make the drug seem attractive, without his being a pusher himself. My friends and I would discuss if the drug helped Huncke become the beautiful man he was, or whether it spoiled him some way. The issue was never decided. He did show, in his caring and in his interactions, that the drug does not take away one’s humanity. When, under the eerie guidance of David Rattray, I started taking heroin, Huncke was disappointed. He may have been fearful that he would be thought responsible.

I discovered the many benefits of the drug. Heroin doesn’t need pushers. On its own it does a good job, making one feel loved. All paranoia and self-doubt disappears. You become yourself, if a quiet, slow-moving self. The relief and inspiration is palpable. It becomes another tool, whether used at the time or remembered, in staying healthy and optimistic as we go forward. And health of body and mind is much needed.

How valuable was Huncke’s mentoring? In this era of hysteria around drugs and the availability of much more dangerous drugs, fentanyl and carfentanil among them, I pass the information on to my son and to his friends who take drugs. They should know the precautions that Huncke took and that generations of addicts who survive would often take. There are fentanyl detection sticks available now that test for the drug and that’s a help. Still, we must make those precautions known. To everyone.

My other main love was psychedelics. “Expand your consciousness” was the call throughout the1960s. Drugs did provoke and enhance that effort! The intricate layers that LSD and other psychedelics revealed, and the activity of those layers, fits the world we’re in now. As well as the world when I first took acid. Psychedelics let vastly more material into the brain than we’re used to. We felt that we were seeing the world as it actually is. In its fullest. This is the primary effect of the drug.

Of course, psychedelics are not for everyone. For those who are sympathetic, in body and psyche and mind, it’s hard not to recommend them. For writing and for thinking and for living. I think of acid almost every day. Every day something shows a hint of the intricacies and interrelatedness of things, all of which is tangible and visible on acid. Acid informs how I live, even if I haven’t taken it in forty years. Insights gained from its expanded view can be valuable for anyone trying to navigate today’s world.

Interviewer: In 1966, Diane di Prima’s Poets Press published your collection Mainline to the Heart, and the very first lines of this collection are the following: “Fuck you, Huncke / Leave me / hung up for junk, waiting.” You’ve also gone on record saying that “Fuck you, Huncke” were the very first words you uttered at your debut poetry reading.

Matson: I wrote the opening poem in Mainline, “Teardrop in My Eye,” in 1963. The next year I read it at my first public reading, at Le Metro on Second Avenue in lower New York. My hands were shaking so much it was fortunate I had rehearsed with Ceely, and rehearsed more than once. We had challenged each other to sign up and read before an audience – firsts for both of us. I knew what my words were, even when I couldn’t make them out on the trembling page.

It’s difficult to conceive, if you weren’t there, how wild and boundary-less and bizarre was the freedom of those times for a writer. The Beats had blown down the barriers. An immense new territory was open. And our own selves, authentic or not, were prominent in that territory! We could write about ourselves and it was news. We felt seen and welcomed. Even the funkiest parts of ourselves were welcomed. When else, in history, has a rebellious segment of the writing community been given such deep and thorough appreciation?

The culture at large was hungry for freedom like ours. Hungry for our honesty, our partying impulse, our unabashed sexuality, even for our swear words. And ephemeral magazines, along with established counter-culture publications, were flooded with writing that catered to that hunger. I, too, appealed directly to the hunger with the first words of Mainline. The audience wanted honesty and, when they heard the words “Fuck you,” they responded with spontaneous applause.

Life without one’s birthright is an aching. Life is an aching anyway, of course, but the aching is amplified without some hint of a birthright. I was writing by instinct. I was writing a lot and I read with appreciation writers who showed a similar connection – a primitive, innocent, complete connection – to one’s own feelings and to people and to nature. And to the streets. Ginsberg, once in a while, writes a wonderful line from a like mentality. I was more drawn, though, to Wiener’s “When green was the bed my love / and I laid down upon” [20] and Michael McClure’s “Oh awkward Love awkward” [21] and Diane di Prima’s “The sidewalk is crumbling into diamonds” [22] – early lines from these poets. And to the frequent extreme honesty in Van Buskirk, as “What does she mean to me?”

My model for Mainline was Alden Van Buskirk’s LAMI (1965), [23] a manuscript I typed from raw notes. Van Buskirk had been tight with Ceely, Rattray, and Martha Muhs and, after Van Buskirk’s death in 1961, Rattray became custodian of his writing. He knew I’d been typing Huncke’s stories from hand-written notebooks and in 1963 he recruited me to do the same for Van Buskirk. I read his work on scraps of paper and notebooks that Rattray brought me. We puzzled out Van Buskirk’s writing and I typed the poems.

The power of LAMI comes from Van Buskirk’s vision. He saw the world that Huncke saw, the world that I saw and that Ceely saw. And he articulated it with insight and precision. He created a mythic friend, “Lami,” a savvy, intuitive hustler and street person, and followed him day and night through East St Louis. By the time I arrived in New York City, Ceely, Muhs, and Rattray had already established themselves. Van Buskirk had been and left and had died. The Beats, from our vantage, were caught up in celebrity-hood and we contributed our admiration. They were new celebrities, true, but celebrities nonetheless. They were living in the sky. [24]
The Beats had moved emphatically away from conformity. They ignored conventional boundaries and opened up a world suddenly without fences. This was wildly exciting. Our acclaimed Beat writers seemed swept away by the feeling and why not? A breeze of exhilaration was still blowing through the Lower East Side in the early 1960s. It was stimulating. It was life-affirming. The Beats envisioned and celebrated a world that was wonderful, many-layered, and glamorous.

In contrast, Van Buskirk and Ceely and I recognized the streets as they are: painful. Not pretty. There are interesting aspects – even intriguing aspects – but they are not glamorous. Or when they appear glamorous, it’s a reverse, gritty sort of glamour. And that glamour is fleeting, or a gloss on the surface. My visionary ideal was Van Buskirk, with Wieners’, di Prima’s, and McClure’s emotional acuity and clarity in the background. I’d already finished most of the poems in Mainline to the Heart. I organized the poems and wrote a few more.

I wanted to convey as authentic a vision as had Van Buskirk. Did I write some to fit? Yes. Most, though, were already written. They affirmed my connection with life and with people and with the streets. Not the same as the Beats’ connection! Very little of the glamorizing we read in Kerouac and in Ginsberg. “We know so much more than they do,” was poet Andrew Heath’s summary, as he observed the Beats from the sidelines.

Diane di Prima knew me as the typist for Huncke’s journals a year or two in advance of her offer to print my work. Eila Kokkinen had recruited me to type those journals; she had been art director for the Chicago Review in the crisis years and I met her through Irving. Huncke himself would never have asked me to type his journals. He didn’t think of himself as an established, professional writer, and he likely assumed that to ask for help would be an imposition.

I spent many hours on his writing. The manuscripts were hand-written, in Huncke’s looping, slanted script, across pages of a variety of notebooks. Often his choice was a miniscule spiral notebook, one that would fit in a shirt pocket. There’s nothing cool about Huncke’s style. About the material, yes. The people he writes about, the curiosity, the intelligence, and the encompassing love he has for them, the compassion and the vision of humanity behind his relationships – these are hip in the best sense. They’re inspiring. But his writing was careful, leisurely, even Victorian, and typing the journals taught me about language. I learned what can be accomplished in a style that’s not written through a hip lens. Writing that’s not cool.

If I could articulate the core of Huncke’s writing, I’d offer that his words open us to our shared love for each other, whoever we are. The learning is subtle. We begin to appreciate and love people with backgrounds and creative impulses very different from ours. He inspires what has become known as “radical acceptance.” How we get there is intangible, but the journey is enriched by the vividness and accuracy of Huncke’s portraits. The typescripts became the Poets Press Huncke’s Journal (1964) and, eventually, The Herbert Huncke Reader (1997). [25]
When Diane asked me for a manuscript, I was thrilled. She and Alan Marlow were Poets Press. They had printed A.B. Spellman’s The Beautiful Days (1965) and I appreciated the grounded, everyday expressions and observations in his writing. “Love doesn’t grow on trees,” he proclaimed one day in the basement bookstore where we both worked. And we celebrated everything Poets Press did of Huncke’s. We all knew that Huncke was a superb storyteller and Diane had the foresight to publish him.

We found inspiration—new, exciting Beat writing—in Yugen, [26] the magazine edited by LeRoi Jones, later Imamu Amiri Baraka, and his wife Hettie Jones during the early 1960s. The Floating Bear, a casual newsletter, edited by both LeRoi Jones and di Prima, also attracted interesting and magical work. We read other Poets Press selections with interest, but I wasn’t much drawn to them. The holy grail for us was The Auerhahn Press in San Francisco. Auerhahn had printed Wieners and early McClure, and they printed Van Biuskirk’s LAMI (1965). They were the press we watched.

Writers postured, taking on Beat attitudes, showing their funkiness, and they were more than accepted. They were praised along with authentic examples of many developing movements, as the New York School poets, the surrealists, the Language poets, concrete poets, minimalists, even the objectivists. Di Prima did have an eye for emerging writers from the various schools, and some appeared as Poets Press volumes. Her roster provides a broad view of 1960s counterculture writing.

Some of us were looking for writing that felt authentic. Were the people we loved not posturing? Yes, to an extent, they were posturing: Wieners was the tragic gay lover, McClure the obsessed emotional male, Van Buskirk the ultimate cool hipster, di Prima the free-thinking, feminist alchemist. But these postures served their visions. What a relief to read, scribbled on notepaper, Van Buskirk’s assessment: “Fuck Olson and the crowd. For me only Ginsb., McClure, and Wieners.”

Diane was not at the Le Metro café when Ceely and I read. Did Huncke tell her what I was writing? Probably not. I think we have to credit di Prima’s intuition for soliciting a manuscript. We knew each other, I had visited her several times and talked about Wieners and Huncke and about what I was writing. A.B. Spellman, my boss when I worked downstairs at the Eighth Street Bookstore, had looked at me and said, “Diane makes a good mother.” [27]. But I hadn’t shown her any of my poems.

I was honored and flattered when Diane offered to print my book. I had not thought of a career. I was simply writing by instinct, influenced by an uneducated, sensory vision of the world. “I’m a leftover primitive” states one of our poets, Carol Lee Sanchez, [28] brilliantly, referring to her indigenous background. All humans have a Paleolithic core we may hardly be aware of, especially those of us who share nothing of the culture and the struggles of indigenous people.

Was I writing from this core? Not likely. I was listening, though, in that direction. The axis of Mainline contains the lines, “I’ve a dis-ease called life / and its aching, what to / do with it.” You don’t have to reach far to realize that’s the question Huncke saw in the back of everyone’s mind. No doubt it was on Huncke’s mind, too. Answering that question informs the path we take, and my hearing the question as fundamental speaks to how open Huncke was. I don’t remember his using those exact words, ever, but the question was on the air. Huncke sought to answer it for himself, probably constantly. And to hear how others answer it.

What was most flattering about Mainline was that Diane knew my love of John Wieners. She knew I was close to John, too, and she invited John to write the introduction. I was on a cloud. I felt as I had on earning the scholarship to University of Chicago. I had put in seven or eight years in earnest as a writer, reading the Beats and classics and writing almost every day. With Diane’s offer I felt in my element. I was getting what I had earned. I remember thinking, this is how it’s supposed to be! My gift is being honored.

After Diane gave John the manuscript, he came to my apartment and sat down at the same modest kitchen table where Huncke would sit. He started leafing through the pages. This was in 1965 and, through my relationships with Erin, Ceely, Huncke, and Eila Kokkinen, I was no longer so shy. I had become knowledgeable in the ways of the world and of how people treat each other – especially in the counterculture. Wieners focused on an early poem that ends with “creep away from the slinking hand.” I was twenty-three years old when I wrote those words and I’d sweated blood to come up with an image that emphatic. Wieners read the line and said, “I wonder how we can make this more dramatic.”

I took the manuscript and slid it across the table away from him. I knew, by then, that there are people who – I’d watched them operate – have an unerring sense for your most tender spot and want to play with it. Or to squash it! And that’s who John showed himself to be. I was not letting him tell me how to write – much as I loved his work.

Wieners’ introduction is not flattering. But one can feel in Wiener’s words his struggle with the power of Mainline. Not that he acknowledged it – he didn’t – but the reader can sense John grappling. He states baldly that he still carries “the wand and the fleece,” implying that I may not. Is he thinking Mainline might be of another genre? Or is a debased version of poetry? Or of Beat poetry? He writes, “One wonders about the nature of love in these poems. Are they vicious or not? … Human vermin inhabit the world … The ‘angel headed hipster’ … That dream is lost, as these poems testify.”

John was way ahead of me. I had no idea such an ideal existed or that my writing could indicate its demise. I was interested in being honest. “Angel-headed hipster,” while Kerouac’s writing and Ginsberg’s Howl had placed it firmly in the literature, [29] was not a familiar icon for me until later, with the advent of the Hippies. For us, for Ross Perez who drew the cover for Mainline, and for my friends, a “hipster” was someone who could successfully navigate relationships and the streets and the drug world. Huncke was a hipster – though the moniker usually applied to younger people. The “angel-headed hipster,” the visionary and all-loving Hippie, had not entered my consciousness. I’m not sure it entered the general conversation until a little later, when Hippies filled in the image.

Wieners also mentions that, in Mainline, “There’s breath and the practice of it. Form is not of the question here.” When I turn his statement one way, Wieners seems oblivious to how much attention we, including younger poets Rattray, Ceely, Goldenberg, and Richkin, were giving to the structure of Wieners’ poems. We were looking for clues on how to improve our own work. Turning his phrase another way, Wieners seems psychic. We would often end our analysis of – and our quandary with – structural intricacies by simply listening to our own breath. Our breath, as taught and referred to by Ginsberg, often gave us the road signs.

John is correct, of course, to say “Form is not of the question,” especially if he means not the single, primary question. We were following Robert Creeley’s dictum, “Form is never more than an extension of content.” [30] The question is whether the words convey the impulse of the poem, whether they capture its reality. This follows the original mantra of “being real.” And this also guides the structuring of the poem. Some lines are breathed, some enjambed, some are paused at the end, some end-stopped, and some words are placed on the page for visual effect.

The poem chooses its structure. Attention to reality comes from the poem itself! As well as from the revising mind. The poem’s impulse is best honored if a range of forms and techniques is available. The origins of voice are instinctive, but they have external influences, of course. I wanted to write like Wieners.

I went to book stalls on 4th Avenue in the City and picked up ephemera – mimeographed journals that published Wieners – and memorized his poems. Each one seemed to have special magic. I memorized most of The Hotel Wentley Poems, too. I tried to write poems like these. Imitating John gave me an ideal I could not attain, though I tried and tried. The template succeeded in showing how different my voice is from John’s. My efforts, deny it as I might, allowed another voice to come through the cracks. The template, in failing, gave me a sense of what was my own.

Interviewer: In 1966, Diane di Prima’s Poets Press published your collection Mainline to the HeartYou had the privilege of knowing and studying with Allen Ginsberg. Tell us how his mentorship ultimately influenced your poetic development.

Matson: Concrete guidance on how to write, a plethora of guidance, really, came from Ginsberg. We were wondering, Paul Greenough, Noah Goldenberg, Ceely, myself and other young writers, where do you end the line? Where to start the next line? And why? “The line is an expression of your breath” [31] was Ginsberg’s reply, which he took from Williams and Olson. We puzzled over this and repeated it endlessly.

And the requirement to be honest was at the foundation of all our conversations. Much later Ginsberg made the formulation, “Make the private world public” [32] and this simple, brilliant statement expressed our need exactly. The impulse was ubiquitous.

Ginsberg was tireless in passing on what he’d learned from Pound and Williams. And, by osmosis, from Eliot. It was Modernism – or, rather, it was the impulse behind Modernism. It was not the school of Modernism, which became overly articulated and fragmented and which, eventually, many artists found oppressive.

But the impulse behind Modernism is inspiring: wipe the lens clear of preconceptions and see what is. The Beats added their strong belief in the physical body and an indulgence in the self as legitimate sources of inspiration. We were familiar with both! They were the legacy of Walt Whitman. The acknowledged precursor to the Beats was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and, without it being said, the book was required reading.

I’ve always had a stream of words flowing inside, as McClure’s early poems demonstrate in Dark Brown (1958), with their twenty-four-carat honesty and tight focus. But I’ve rarely dipped into that flow very precisely. Listening inward did inform me what was authentic. I’d match, if I could, the accuracy of what I wrote to the internal flow.

This is part of an ongoing dialogue between the poem’s impulse and the assessing mind. Later I wrote many pages of “Crazy Child” exercises – similar, spontaneous words – which became raw material for Squish Boots (2002).

I do edit to fit. I listen to the music of the vowels and consonants and rhythms and accents, and ask whether they’re apt. Is the music consistent? Does this phrasing suit the purpose of the poem? Yes, at times, I do count syllables and bring out rhymes, especially rhymes otherwise hidden. In Hello, Paradise I relish rhyming, or rhyming on a slant, a word at the end of a line with a word at the beginning of the same line.

When he visited our workshops, San Francisco poet and publisher Paul Mariah [33] showed us how he examined his drafts and found a line or two with energy that expressed the poem’s intent. He’d modify the other lines to fit – or reflect or incorporate or build to or match – that energy. I realized I was doing similar revising by instinct and I adopted his strategy. Parts of a rough draft feel right and I’ll work to arrange other parts to support or augment their effect.

I read a lot of Williams along the way and wondered about his “variable foot,” the scheme of line lengths and rhythms that he said determined the shape of his poems. It seemed, though, like rhythms of speech to me and not much more. I didn’t notice anything precise. I couldn’t extract a system that would apply to my voice. That would probably have felt like a forced fit, or a distortion, in any case. It did make sense to listen, openly, to speech – internal and external speech.

In this Williams is a fine guide. He uses conversational language, period. Cummings does too, but cummings employs such cleverness, his language doesn’t feel conversational. It feels artful. Williams would use words you’d hear in conversation and they become his exact building blocks. John Wieners was masterful at this, too. In addition, Wieners often places in the underpinning a double meaning or a pun or a metaphor – developing right along with the flow of common speech. And perfectly disguised – though when you read closely you can feel his thought and energy shaping the poem. He raised making poetry from spoken word into high art.

Williams’ greatest gift is seeing magic in commonplace events. That’s priceless. That’s what I got from Williams, and it’s not basic Modernism – though perhaps it’s a sub-species. Modernism asks us to see what’s before our eyes, and commonplace events qualify. The Beat aesthetic develops this further and asks us to look in particular at the commonplace. At the commonplace and, in line with Beat rebelliousness, at the despised. Trash in a gutter, a leaf blowing across the sidewalk, the hum of the refrigerator, spiritual glints in a drunk’s eye. Modernism makes no such demand.

Breath was always the issue. We’d look to postmodern Beat scholar Charles Olson, who taught poetics at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the 1950s – and “we” were a changing group, Rattray, Ceely, Erin, Martha Muhs, myself and earlier, before he died, Van Buskirk. The Olson poem we passed around was “The Kingfishers.” [34] It seemed like a good poem, though it was difficult to understand how reading each line as a breath contributed. Poet Robert Creeley, in his writing, did this unerringly. He read each short line in one breath, which created a sort of hyperventilation that suits his material well. [35] It’s an effective writing and performance technique.

I change positions of words in the line, and breaks in the line, to give visual emphasis to the meaning. Is this projective? Not exactly, for breath is not a strict determinant. But the writing can be a loose projection; “casual projective verse” might be a label that fits. The page is a score and I’m making visual projections that are guides to reading the lines. An example is the final sentence of Mainline where I divide the phrase “… words, / words …” so that the second word is on a line of its own. This is a simple visual alteration, not indicating breath, probably more in the manner of Los Angeles poet Stuart Perkoff. [36] It gives emphasis to the final “words.”

Conflating metrics with voice, though, other than in the special cases of Creeley and a few others, seemed indulgent. Years later my friend Noel Sack and I listened to tapes of Olson reading and, at the same time, we followed his words on the page. Olson did indeed use the page as a musical score. And he did this precisely! One word on a line was read in one breath. Twenty on a line, too, was read in one breath. It’s an absorbing enterprise. Noel spent much time observing the nuances and reading analyses of Creeley and Olson on this strategy. But all that seems a cerebral bypass. Ultimately, I’m not sure we can make a scheme that fits our voice.  Or if we could, how would it be useful?

We listen to our heart for our voice. Listen and practice. Practice and listen. Start anew with a new poem. We learn nothing cognitive that we can bring forward. It’s ineffable. Wieners plunges into the depths and comes back with “answers? No. Poems.” [37] We can use statistics to analyze use of words and this might serve to identify authors by style and word choice. But voice? We won’t identify it with surety. We can’t tame it. We cannot make voice comfortable. We won’t make it safe.

Van Buskirk expressed our sentiment, again, with his declaration [38] “Fuck Olson & the crowd. Only Ginsb., McClure, and Wieners for me.” Western culture teaches us to listen to our minds and reap what rewards. Olson, along with others, indulges in a complicated cerebral endeavor that only initiates can follow. That’s a violation of the heart.

A further violation is to quantify voice. Voice comes from somewhere else. Being present to your material requires you to sense what voice and what metrics are fitting. You won’t find options by paging through a book. Or you might! But those pages are jiggering the surface while below, in the depths, the heart makes its choice.

“I’m your leftover primitive,” from Sanchez, comes to mind again! Your cosmogony does the choosing. Listening helps. Van Buskirk says, “Poetry now – 1961 / indolence….” [39] When you’re doing nothing, you are capable of hearing.

Interviewer: In ’69 Croton Press published Space Age (1969). There your style changes, seeming more open and ranging and doesn’t sound quite so street-wise, not so hard-core vernacular. The lines sound more like the ordinary speech of William Carlos Williams, like “The poet carrying his own air around everywhere.”   

Matson: Space Age was inspired by psychedelics and by Bob Dylan. Dylan’s confidence seemed to enable him to carry “his own air around.” As if he’s independent and invulnerable! And he shows how our topics may be as big as the culture. Better if they are! He opened the field. When I embraced the Beat aesthetic, I was not aware of its implicit boundaries. Dylan blew them away.

Lately scholars have noticed that Dylan’s early images are taken from – and probably inspired by – Kerouac’s On the Road. Could Kerouac’s free-wheeling, devil-may-care attitude have inspired Dylan? Or fit his temperament so well that Dylan extended it freely? While my friends and I were reading poetry, we barely noticed Kerouac. Perhaps we thought prose was a lesser art. Interesting that Kerouac’s adventurous spirit may have transmitted to Dylan and then circled back through Dylan’s work to inspire us. Adding magic to the saying, “What goes around, comes around.”

“Seeing” itself was expanded immensely by psychedelics. We started tripping in 1963, when peyote was available by mail from Texas. We’d heard of Gnosticism, the direct perception of God, and some Gnostic texts were passed around. I didn’t understand them fully, but high on peyote I could understand touching and feeling divinity. It’s everywhere.

This receptive mind was amplified by Ginsberg with many images in Howl. And by his love of Blake, who would lie with his wife under the trees in their back yard and talk to God. [40] The power and teaching of this story – this simple scene – was great. Far greater than any exposition! We could imagine doing it and could easily imagine its rewards. Best, of course, if one were high on acid. We took courage and recreated the Blakean scene many times in our apartments on the Lower East Side, with trees integrated with classical art and sounds of the City blending with progressive jazz.

Psychedelics, plus the model of Dylan, gave me artistic freedom. I could name whatever was in view. All the energy I had committed to being a cool hipster was released. I could look out more broadly and write with accuracy whatever I was seeing. No analysis necessary! I was floating, buoyed by psychedelics and buoyed by a feeling of confidence I imagined was like Dylan’s. And buoyed by a young person’s sexual energy and a sexual vision of the world, seeing sexual buzzing everywhere. Not judging the verse! “High on life,” the perennial ideal aided by psychedelics, egotistical to the fullest, naming the things around me.

Reading those poems seems like a journey back in time. It’s both exciting and scary to revisit that frame of mind. Further, as research into psychedelics has recently re-opened, it’s revelatory that science shows psychedelics disable the filtering activity of the brain. We let much more in when we’re tripping – precisely what we experienced in the early 1960s. Research also determines that meditation has a similar effect. Aside from some visionaries in spiritual traditions, we may have been seeing what’s real for the first time.

The signature moment was a free concert by the Grateful Dead at Tompkins Park on the Lower East Side in 1966. They were showcasing their first album and it was mind-blowing. We were dancing in the sunlight, and I took to wearing an ankle bracelet and walking barefoot. A challenge in New York City, but doable. The next year the Hippies were fully in the eye of the mainstream, and a movie producer was searching for actors to portray the Summer of Love – at its advent. I went for an interview and did well. It became clear, though, that the interviewer wanted an innocent, non-thinking, “angel-headed hipster.” I was too much an intellectual.

I kept the vision of LSD alive, nevertheless, and keep it alive today. Through most of the 1970s I took acid once a year, at various spots in the Oakland Hills. Life on the planet is that interesting, that layered, that magical, fully as entrancing as what psychedelics present. I came back from each trip refreshed and reconnected. “Expand your consciousness!” [41] Later I augmented the vision with a meditation practice. I revisit the buzzing in my body and in my psyche – my non-cerebral connection to the planet – for an hour or two every day.

And Dylan cries out for change. Yes, we have Beats railing against the system, [42] Bremser and Ginsberg and Corso waving their Beat creds at the cops. Dylan, by contrast, took on icons and politicians and generals as if face to face. Like an angry youngster! He confronts our adversaries and calls them out: “You!! You masters of war!!” He’s as uppity as he likes and as sarcastic as he wants – and he’s very smart.

Dylan probably had Woodie Guthrie as a guide for language. We had Williams’ wisdom of the body – “The line is an expression of your breath” [43] – extrapolated from Patterson by Ginsberg and Olson. And Williams’ “No ideas but in things,” [44] also extrapolated by Ginsberg. This runs parallel to Eliot’s “objective correlative”: [45] items in the physical world that echo or mirror one’s internal feeling.

For tangible guidance we had Pound’s ABC of Reading, where he presents the three Imagist dictums. [46] The first is “Direct treatment of the topic, whether subjective or objective.” And “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” This one may be prevalent in about every writing class on the globe. Also: “Compose by the music of the phrase, not the metronome.” That fit most everyone in the counter-culture writing community, Williams, all the Beats – until the advent of Rap, HipHop, and Spoken Word.

Those dictums matched my sensibility at the time, too, and the first dictum still does – emphatically. They were part of our conversation. We repeated those ideas to each other while reading our poems. I applied them as best I could in Space Age.

Ezra Pound’s Cantos may require scholarly study, but his madrigal imitations have a song-like beauty and innocence that appeal to primitive instincts. They’re pure song. “Now if no fayre creature followeth me, it is on account of Pity….” [47] Whew! The meaning is horrible and the song is to be adored. I’ve sung and enjoyed and revised those lines for sixty years.

The expanded consciousness in Space Age shows itself in the line “I’m watching the twentieth century on my outside skin.” This was the mode of observation and response throughout the book. It fits the insight Diane di Prima presents in “Rant,” [48] where she observes that we’re born with a cosmogony and the journey of a poet may be to find that cosmogony and to develop it. Superb! An astute conception of the poet’s passage.

Not only of the passage but also of what the passage feels like. You carry your personal vision around – somewhere at the base of your psyche, discovered or not – your whole life. “Rant” opens this territory. To my knowledge, it’s never been opened so clearly before.

“Watching the twentieth century on my outside skin” is, for me, the observing part of this cosmogony – amplified by LSD. “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” [49] Acid separates the user from consensual reality and this may give the tripper true sight. This relates to Eliot’s challenge, of course: what is truly before your eyes? This, in turn, is the impulse behind Modernism.

The line from Space Age is a lighthearted, optimistic summary of the book. As if viewing the century “on [our] outside skin” is an exercise available to everyone. And is informative and enlightening. There’s little sense of being distant from the world. I sometimes bring early lines into my present writing, and I think this one deserves to make that journey.

Today the line would have a sense of despair. Of noticing how our own culture holds us in thrall. And that our own lives – the meaningful parts – are very separate from what this new century manifests. Separate from destroying the forests and oceans and deserts and ice lands, aggravating class and race inequities, eliminating songbirds and animals and insects, and poisoning ourselves and our children.

That di Prima named the poet’s role so clearly speaks to how robust and far-reaching the Beat aesthetic is. And it speaks to di Prima’s brilliance. Her vision fits the impulse behind Modernism, seen with pagan, magical, spiritual, and perhaps psychedelicized eyes. I doubt if she could have developed her insight without Whitman’s belief in the self, either, as augmented by the Beats. She shows us that cosmogony – the origins of the human universe – is a personal prerogative.

“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…” That’s an imitation of the template from the previous century and Eliot begins it perfectly. We expect colorful parrots in lush trees and dancing nymphs and Scheherazade’s veils rippling in the breeze and – whatever is lyrical and lovely. We get, instead, “like a patient etherized upon a table.”

What is on the table? What is in the field of the poem? Is the etherized patient the objective correlative, too? The external object that mirrors the sense in the solar plexus? Or the feeling in the heart of the poet? This thinking thrives alongside Ginsberg’s “making the private world public.” That etherized patient couldn’t be more private.

The meta-message is a challenge to everyone who follows. What do you see with your own eyes? What is spread out across your view? Wonderful to hear an echo of Eliot in Burroughs’ title Naked Lunch: when you pause and see what’s on the end of your fork! The fork you’re bringing up to your mouth at lunch. This confirms that the original impulse of Modernism is at the Beats’ foundation. But the Beats may have been spoiled by the success of their social persona! Did their attractive, unruly locks block sight – and memory – of the need to wipe the lens clear?

According to Abraham Rothberg, [50] Snyder posits that any time sapiens are able to be less reliant on hunting and gathering and start a civilization, there are complications. Like at the Tigris and Euphrates, where some of the various vegetation are always fruiting or flowering. In any season there’s some plant that is edible. And the animals come to the rivers for water. You don’t have to go hunting, you can ambush or trap the animals. And sapiens have the leisure to establish a hierarchy and perform collective socialization. Some of the tide of humanity – at the bottom of the social order – are not pleased with this.

The Beats added a discontent, as indicated by Snyder, to the cerebral vision of Modernism. A rebelliousness. Plus a belief in the person and the body and in mind-altering substances, all of which have been obvious over the years. And further emphasis on impulse, emotion, sexuality, adventurousness, and on youth and vitality.

Interviewer: Heroin (1972) brings in other aspects of Beat life. The poem “Lotus Glow” proclaims, about the drug heroin, that there’s nothing like it: “Each day through a pleasure garden and on brambled ways back through purgatory….” Did the drug help you in your overall evolution as a poet?

Matson: Heroin’s feeling of love suggested that I no longer need to quarrel with whatever I’m thinking. Or whatever I’m feeling. It’s okay the way it is, and that’s huge. I’d had the exhilaration of being published by Poets Press and then I stepped into the freedom and elevated consciousness of Space Age.

Time to come to earth and be grounded! To land on my feet and develop who I am, to take a compass reading on what to do next. My urge was to leave bohemian culture. To run from the Beats. To run from their arrogance and sexual predation and drugs and the social rigidity and be myself – outside the hip world.

I could have relaxed if I had understood “maturing out.” It’s an identified dynamic. [51] The appeal of heroin diminishes when you finally learn what you need to, under the helpful, protective umbrella of the drug. It helps you relax and feel who you are and gives you the time to grow. You don’t need the drug so much anymore. The threat and fear of addiction diminishes. You’ve learned better how to be yourself. You’ve “matured out.”

My early learning let me know I was on my own. I had a sense of how to write, with lounging under the manzanita as the driving metaphor. And I knew well that few would support me. I had to keep the instinct alive by myself.

In New York, even with Erin’s help, I would wake up each day with that same yearning and powerlessness and an ocean of sadness and lethargy. By doing nothing, we let the creative unconscious present itself. Van Buskirk’s “indolence” is likewise a portal to the creative unconscious. Being quiet unlocks the door to a vast, energetic realm.

I would navigate through the day, through the yearning and the powerlessness. The yearning asks for something approximating a birthright. To feel part of family and community and nature. To feel honored – not more than others, but as well as most people – in bringing one’s gift into the world. I could work on poems. Heroin didn’t lessen the helplessness much or lessen my yearning, but it did make those feelings okay. Heroin says you are loved and you have your birthright. You can do what you’re able to do. You don’t have to strive for something extraordinary.

Heroin is a clear window outside societal pressures. I didn’t solve any issues with heroin, but heroin helped me accept my helplessness and write at the same time. At the foundation is love. Love as a tangible force in the community, love as a sensation high on heroin – why not map one onto the other? Transfer the tangible sensation of the drug onto its lack in the community. I had something, connected with others at least on the surface, that I could do. I could write.

This fits well with having a natural voice or a cosmogony at birth. There’s much in the culture – it’s worse now – about how you have to present yourself. You have to be witty, you have to be smart, you have to look good. You have to be fit. Probably there’s so much pressure that those who are immersed aren’t able even to perceive it, let alone respect its immense, subtle power. You have to do all these things today in every corner of society, gangsta language, surfer language, hipster language, all these things in order to be a viable human being. And heroin just says yes. You already are viable.

Sometime in the sixties Phillip Lamantia came to New York, with significant personal caché. He was a surreal poet and talked style and drugs in cool language. Huncke spent some time with him and reported, later, that he was “bogus.” He was a “poser.” He spoke the language but he didn’t walk the walk. He didn’t have the experience he seemed to claim.

Huncke may not have been accurate about Lamantia, who was, among other things, instrumental in bringing City Lights Books into prominence. But Huncke’s summary was the judgment we feared. We wanted to be real – there’s the mantra again. Martha Muhs, who knew the poet David Rattray well, commented on the competitiveness and arrogance of our youthful circle. Rattray made himself into a surreal avatar, and he backed up this image with extensive knowledge of the arcane. Huncke noticed how little heroin I took and called mine a “chippie” habit.

He was correct. I took careful amounts over those years and I had no desire to be a heavy. Some placed me on a pedestal because I was comfortable with heroin and spoke well of the drug. Others put me below the lowest rungs of society for the same reasons. The topic is charged enough to tilt people out of rationality.

We wanted to be authentic. Our models were already so acclaimed that imitating them with veracity was beyond reach. And our admiration pushed them further away. How could we equal the years they’d already put in? Or the special status they had taken in society? We could jostle for position in the lower ranks. But we couldn’t easily become hipster kingpins.

We’d practice our walk and our talk. We’d amp the hip vibes in our writing. Amp up our smoothness in the sexual world – the guys were supposed to be cocksmen and the women cool and unflappable – maybe, I don’t really know. Certainly our astuteness was important when we talked about Beat figures and their writing.

The long poem “Junk Knot Untied” in Heroin (1972) identifies and reviews habits of mind that could hook me back into the drug life. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to affirm my ability to become my own person and grow, outside of heroin’s aura. The larger issues in the poem are with drug culture. I wanted away from the pressure to be cool and from the need to rise in the Beat hierarchy. And especially I wanted away from the single barometer of getting “high” as life’s pinnacle.

It’s natural that poetry and sensation are linked. And the link is emphasized in much Beat poetry. But this link doesn’t require taking drugs. Being in touch with poetic magic means being in touch with entities beneath or beyond the mind, where our perceptions are not fully sensed. They’re a stirring underneath, or a stirring far above. We know they’re present because they ripple into consciousness every now and then. Not what one might think of as a high or a precise sensation, more like a meditation or a rumbling. Awareness of sensation opens doors so that we can feel the range of what’s going on. Letting in some of its subtlety and some of its many variations.

Heroin did help me be more real. To inquire more thoroughly and more calmly into who I am – and with greater awareness.

Mainline to the Heart showed I was cool and could navigate the same streets that Van Buskirk and Ceely did. Mainline was my credential in the hip world. With Space Age I stepped into a larger arena. I opened to a full range of society and viewed its many characters with their pluses and minuses, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with scorn, often with amusement. With Heroin came a measure of self-reflection, clearing the way for what I might now bring into the world.

The shared element is awareness of personal growth. And of the need for growth. I think it’s commonplace that artists, in their writing, trace their development as people – directly or by implication. Their writing changes over time. Some writers do this fluidly, others not. And there may be no correlation to the quality of the writing. McClure was a high ideal and, at Woodstock in the 1980s, he read some of the early poems I loved. He said they were his “dark night of the soul.” He dissed them himself. He didn’t need a critic.

The finale of Mainline reads “words, / words / someone will take as drug and discover / a friend inside.” There’s daring here – with a tinge of defiance – implying that taking in words is akin to taking drugs. And what the “friend” could be is not specified. But there’s some hope that the idea has validity. In hindsight, I’d say the “friend” is the part of the psyche aware of who we are at bottom and – possibly – that part that’s invested in growth and appreciative of the value of growing.

I probably had a sense that this friend might exist. If the friend is present enough in the words, the reader may relate. Not highly likely, but it’s possible! And there’s some blind faith that this friend could be my guide and protector. Interesting to realize, fifty years later, how well this thinking fits the journey di Prima describes in “Rant.”

The “dark night” McClure identifies goes on our entire lives, to a significant degree. His writing got more cerebral and more elemental over time. While there are occasional resonant and beautiful lines – “We are dancing / in the roar of the car / in the acid rain. No fear” – but overall he turned away from his early work. His writing seemed to apply for entry into the academy as a challenge for scholars to decipher. That’s an avoidance of the heart.

In 1978 I traveled with the emerging poet Michael Daley to Port Townsend in Washington State to give readings. Daley had connections there and we read at coffeehouses. Jack Estes taught at Peninsula State College in the neighboring town, Port Angeles, and he kept tabs on who was reading in the area. He asked me to visit and teach a workshop. I told Jack I had no classroom experience and wouldn’t know how to lead a workshop.

“Oh, it’s easy,” Jack said. “You just do what David Waggoner did last month. You divide the psyche into the same three parts that Transactional Analysis does and give them different names.”

During the late seventies Transactional Analysis was part of the public conversation. The discipline presented the same three parts of the psyche that Freud described and gave them familial names: Parent, Adult, and Child. Waggoner changed these labels to fit the writer’s psyche: Editor, Writer, and Child.

Jack continued, “Waggoner tells his students to have the Editor and Writer go for a walk and let the Child write whatever it wants.”

I was game and led a class, though with some trepidation. The workshop went surprisingly well and everything that was said fit the scheme. If it was critical or analytical, that’s the Editor; if it showed understanding of the process, that’s the Writer; if it was elemental or emotional, that’s the Child.

Teaching that one workshop was a great surprise. In one session I felt myself become the custodian of everyone’s creativity. It’s clear from the scheme that the source of writing, the primal and uneducated source, is the Child. Or, using Freudian nomenclature, the id – the unconscious mind. All the writing done that day was free and energetic. The topics were birthday parties, cotton candy, balloons, and candles on birthday cakes.

I came back to the Bay Area and supplemented my income with teaching workshops. I took over John Oliver Simon’s workshop and, using the same exercise, got the same cotton-candy results. Eventually we revised the scheme. After much experimentation, the Child became the “Crazy Child.” This designation produced the most honest, spontaneous, and energetic writing. The “Crazy Person” produced even stronger writing – when it worked! But often, probably because the phrase evokes serious problems, it stopped any creative activity.

At the same time I started private classes. I had two students for my first year, and then the classes started expanding. I found I had a knack for teaching. And I enjoyed it. Some people in my workshops knew Susan Smith, who was running the writing program at University of California at Berkeley Extension. A short while later she arranged for me to teach a beginning writing class, “Discovering Your Creative Writing Style.”

Interviewer: On the Inside (1982) moved in an explicitly political direction. Economics are brought in, so is the Vietnam War, so are city riots. Friends are named, people who were part of your life and part of the counterculture. You were also teaching at the Bay Area Socialist School. What motivated you to make these changes?

Matson: When I was interviewed for the Summer of Love cinema in 1966, I didn’t disagree with the producer. Perhaps the Hippies were harbingers of a sensitive, natural mind that would bring significant change to people’s consciousness. And, as a person, I didn’t represent that image of Hippies very well. Later, as the Hippies and the culture’s response became clear, I saw what had happened.

The dissing of the Hippies started before they blossomed! Were they too high to develop a political presence? Or a political arm? Too disorganized? Too innocent? Or did the media penetrate our minds so well everyone believed that, for the Hippies, such focus was not possible? The media told us what we thought, and we agreed? [52] Nixon’s “War on Drugs” was implemented in the same period and that, too, probably cast a pall over the Hippies.

Hippies became titillating entertainment and not much more. Their spokes-people, as reported by the media, made zany fun of the media – they, Tom Hayden and others, were plenty sharp and amusing. But the media presented them in a way that reinforced the idea that Hippies were neither serious nor focused.

I felt more comfortable with Hippies than with Beats. I had more political and social empathy with the Hippies. They fit the training I received from my parents – and especially from my grandmother, who was a Communist. If I had been younger, joining the Hippies would have been a greater temptation.

What drove me – and the writing of On The Inside (1982) – was the unfair treatment of Hippies. They were belittled in the media in a much more sophisticated and brutal way than the Beats were. The Beats were made fun of, yes, but they were also given respect. They expressed a raw sexuality and adventurousness that the overall culture had pushed underground for much too long. A powerful, positive response from the culture was ready to erupt. And it did erupt: into fashion, into entertainment, into advertising, into mainstream culture.

To extend the Beats’ passion, as the Hippies did, into more general love and caring for each other and for the planet might seem natural – today. But when the Hippies emerged, the mainstream media reacted as if they’d had enough of rebels. There’d been enough rebellious change with the Beats and more would not be tolerated. Hippies were not to be taken seriously.

Interviewer: Is there a definite connection between “turn on, tune in, drop out” and the fact that you were getting more political? I mean, in one sense, the Hippies were not political. They disavowed political structures, political programs, and there was no discussion of unemployment, racism, or proper housing for the poor. The harsher critics accused them of narcissism. How do you square these contrasting perceptions?

Matson: It’s a good question. And I think it asks us to revise our traditional assumptions. Much of the Hippies’ politics played out on interpersonal levels. At their foundation is idealistic anarchy – belief in the goodness of the human spirit. In the late 1960s, when Ginsberg started his farm in upstate New York, many of us wanted to join and many of us, also, wanted to start our own communities.

When I talked with friends, I found very few who had a clue about what’s required to keep a farm going. I didn’t want to go along and be the only one getting up at 5 a.m. to feed the animals! And I didn’t have the power – or the commitment – to school others.

With the right people, a community in the country is an ideal. Taking care of children, race, gender, employment, the poor, the disabled, animal rights, would be done within the community. From the natural compassion of our hearts. And the community would be off the grid and out of the reach of invasive capitalism.

The traditional mind might not think that’s political. To the contrary, the political issues are starkly present and to be worked out, up close and personal. It’s extremely political.

My father was a frontier Republican. When he fell in love with Mom, she made it her job to straighten him out. She was a red diaper baby. She had become a good liberal and she converted him. Grandma would speak a harder line, but she was good natured and ironic. She told us, her grandchildren, “Oh, don’t worry. Just have fun. Capitalism will fall of its own weight.”

She didn’t seem to be correct, but maybe that’s what’s happening now. The problem may be that capitalism, which has gained immense power and is more pervasive than ever, when it falls it may take the planet down and all the animals and plants – and us – down with it.

Whatever else the climate of my family’s home, the political foundation was caring for people and caring for the planet. I found nothing to criticize in the Hippies’ stance. All my buried political thought and idealism came burbling to the surface. The Hippies were my cause. On the Inside meant inside of prison. The book is a delineation of righteous political actions being taken at the time, right then. Actions generally dismissed or not reported. To list them in one place, and show their compassionate foundation, was giving them credit. To show the rest of us their power and their usefulness.

Can poetry influence how we think? That was my presumption. From today’s perspective, having written Hello Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye, it’s obvious that the Hippies were correct. They had the substance to become a prominent voice in our culture. They seem to have gotten lost in a not-very-productive dance, a dance between how forcefully they presented their views and the belittling lens of the media. A non-productive dance? More like a war between different ways of being. A winnable war if the transformative power of Hippie ideals were generally appreciated.

Interviewer: The charge has gone up that for all of their “realness,” the Hippies and the Beats were very white middle-class. None of it was as real as the black streets or the Latino barrio. In the 60s you met Amiri Baraka, who, at least in my view, was neither a Beatnik nor Hippie. In Issue #22 of the Progressive Librarian, released in the Summer of 2003, there is an article “Poetry Matters! On the Media Persecution of Amiri Baraka,” defending the publication of his controversial poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” It is a statement which you and many other reputable writers and scholars signed. What were things you admired about Baraka, and do you think his voice remains relevant today?

Matson: It’s a cliché, it’s happened so often in history. Our revolutionaries are middle class or upper middle class and often white – Lenin, Marx, Che Guevara, Fidel, Mao, Marcuse, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and most of the rest. It may be that no one else has the time or energy or freedom to develop political thought. And perhaps no one else is free enough – from immediate oppression – to see clearly.

Amiri Baraka has my respect. Through the sixties, regarding politics, we all talked a good line. And we went to demonstrations. But work in a community? Baraka went to Cuba, [53] saw what was happening, and heard the criticism that he needed to come back to the States and work in his own community. And he did just that. No one else had the balls. And no one else had a defined community.

I faced a parallel problem in writing On the Inside. The work felt like personal indulgence when compared to direct action. I had no community, other than a few writers, and few people knew me on the West Coast. I was writing in a near vacuum. I justified my choice to continue writing as developing and playing to my strengths. No one else was taking my position supporting the Hippies,  and this needed to be part of the conversation. On the dedication page I wrote, “This book is to be used.” It may never have garnered enough attention to be noticed, let alone used productively!

Amiri Baraka had our attention, however. He already had a track record. When I scanned the people who signed their names in support of Baraka and his poem Somebody Blew Up America, I found Diane di Prima and Gary Snyder from Beat circles, David Meltzer and Adrienne Rich among the politically-aware, and Archie Shepp from the jazz world.

Recognizing so few names does not signify that few people supported Baraka. It may  signify, instead, how thoroughly the media discredited Baraka and how deeply they buried the controversy. Baraka’s friends may not have been generally aware that a platform existed where they could express support.

Somebody Blew Up America is a fine poem. It’s complete and vigorous. And it’s brilliant that Baraka doesn’t answer his own question, “Who blew up America?” He asks, “Who? Who? Who?” in the poem and recites these words as a refrain, as recorded on YouTube, in rhythm with saxophone accompaniment. He lets the answers percolate up as the poem proceeds. And he gives plenty of examples of American ideals being blown up. And destroyed quietly, too. Plenty of examples that beg the question.

That he did his research is obvious, and he should be honored for that. I have no doubt he followed political oppression all his life, and I’ll wager he’d done the study in the flow of his life, as a politically aware Black, long before he wrote the poem. I know a fifth, more or less, of the incidents he lists.

The poem was widely read and Baraka performed many times to enthusiastic audiences across the country. It’s in the established tradition of much of Langston Hughes’ work, especially “Let America Be America Again,” and its influence is in the background of my “Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye.”

But the media persecuted Baraka? Let it not be a surprise, the media have their agenda. The media are not much in touch with “we the people” in any respectful or viable way. The media know we like the poem but chose to deny its value, probably in direct proportion to how much we like it.

Baraka could add so many names and incidents today. Besides George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Ferguson and Julian Assange and the CIA operative who on his deathbed confessed planting thermite explosives in the Twin Towers and Building Seven the week before 9/11. The heartbeat of the past, basketball avatar Bill Russell notes, “beats on into the present.” Of course, and that’s no longer news.

What’s news is that the veils are down. The curtain has dropped. Not only is the heartbeat palpable, a myriad of institutions have revealed their classist, racist, and privileged basis and intent. We know who destroyed America. And who perpetuates that destruction today.

The curtain’s dropped

and everything’s bare.

There’s nothing in the closet,

there’s nothing on the stair.

The wind whispers words

and nothing’s blurred.

Black smoke hanging in air

shows us nothing’s fair.

 

America, look at yourself from the grave

Look at yourself from the lynching tree.

Look at yourself from the bottom

rung of the marketplace.

From the garbage. From the dirt.

 

America, look at yourself.

Guilty of murder verdict for Chauvin

could polish the brass plaque

of a just and fair country.

But that burnishing rag’s stained

with old blood, plantation

bones, despise and fear of slaves.

 

Shake out that rag

over the forgiving grass.

 

High rise steel and glass

built on profit, white privilege, class,

race, slavery, misogyny, homophobia,

gender-phobia, genocide, murder.

 

You ask, was Amiri Baraka a Beat? That question needs parsing. Amiri never, to my knowledge, adopted Beat manners and social ethics. Was he a typical Beatnik, with a joint in his hand or a bottle of cheap wine in his back pocket and ready to party? No. Nothing about him hinted of the Beat social persona.

LeRoi Jones, as I knew him, was carefully present, soft-spoken, empathic, and intelligent. Was he of like mind as the Beats, intellectually? Yes. His summary of the Beats shows how thoroughly: “The Beats,” and I paraphrase, “are a collection of people of all classes and races and positions in life who agree that society sucks.”

Baraka spoke to the rebelliousness that the Beats expressed passionately, even vehemently. They were “anti-establishment.” Was Baraka sympathetic to their rebelliousness? Obviously. He proclaimed, “I love America, I hate the system.”

What we’ve found in setting up our writers’ foundation, the nonprofit WordSwell, is that a declaration of, or wish for, diversity isn’t enough. We need to learn the language, go into diverse communities, and propose what we might do together. Hippie ideals won’t be transmitted by themselves. We need to put them on the table – and on everyone else’s table.

We’re in a place similar to where the Hippies were. There’s plenty of energy for a general strike and for real change. But our political system has stymied us. There’s nowhere we can vote to support our ideas, other than on comparatively minor propositions. There’s no single, effective platform. Major platforms are taken away. The “Black Lives Matter” movement needs a powerful arm. It needs a coherent plan – along with a political identity – that promotes the ideas that so inflame us. That President Biden is doing as well as he has, is a blessing.

But Biden has entrenched, vicious opposition in the more conservative party. Preserving voting rights and the right to abortion, and curtailing assault weapon violence require every bit of energy we have, but these are defensive battles. We are defending rights against hostile attacks. There is so much more that needs direct, aggressive, positive, cooperative change.

The root problem may be classism. It seems similar to Herbert Huncke’s lack of recognition among Beat scholars. How can a street person, with no formal education, contribute to the sophisticated strategies set out by Ginsberg? But without Huncke, Ginsberg may have had no strategy whatsoever. [54] To acknowledge this would be to acknowledge that sometimes, just sometimes, street wisdom may be utterly crucial to effective action.

How could the Hippies, already labeled as non-thinkers – partying in the streets and on farms, albeit ecologically sound ones, in the country – without regard to position or ascension into intellectual circles – possibly have something to contribute? They’re not high enough in society. Could this be a similar problem for Black Lives Matter? Even though Black scholars and activists vigorously support the movement.

Snyder’s essay is a dynamic one: people on lower rungs of the culture don’t like the hierarchy. And people on top don’t like the people underneath – they’re disrupting things. Though of course entrepreneurs found ways to co-opt attractive Hippie styles into their products and make profits! Weren’t corn row hair styles in Whites a celebration of a Black style? Or were they a colonial annexation? Or both?

I know only that there was – and is – general validity in what the Hippies were doing. I resonated with them. Look, there’s good stuff happening and we’re not getting it together. My job was to lay out what I saw happening. From the inside, as from the inside of prison.

Interviewer: How does the collection Equal in Desire (1982) come into the reckoning in these respects?

Matson: In the 1970s feminism was coming to the fore. Women’s issues had already been more than a token part of conversations in the sixties. Why were Denise Levertov, Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, and Barbara Guest the only women in Don Allen’s The NewAmerican Poetry anthology? [55] Were Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel and Joanne Kyger not visible when Beat work was collected? That seems like pure sexism. It’s understandable that younger women, Elise Cowen, Bonnie Bremser, and Janine Pommy Vega were not included, because they hadn’t emerged when the anthology was put together.

“Our women,” that is, hipsters’ women – note the possessive – needed to be cool. And we men needed to train them. How to use hip language, how to avoid the stigma of being seen as bourgeois or middle class, how to maneuver through the conversations and verbal banter of the times. “Follow the dharma,” was the unspoken, and spoken, demand. It had many variations on the same theme: follow the flow of what’s happening in this male-dominated world and don’t make waves!

Deborah C. Segal, in her drama Natalie’s Story: A Raincheck for Jack Kerouac, gives a true-pitch depiction of the Beat’s repressive sexism. Well-known Beats push Natalie to “follow the dharma” in contradiction to her own interest and in contradiction to her emotions. This after the Beats exploited her gender and clean-cut manners to procure a bank loan! Segal’s dialogue displays the men’s absolute, unwavering belief in the correctness of their demands. Which they voiced with supreme arrogance! The blind arrogance of a presumed enlightened position.

I tried at various times to coach Erin in her language and in her style. Why ever would I want her to be different? Somehow, if her bearing in the art world were more hip, that would give me more stature. It was about me! Erin had heard my dharma lectures in enough variations that she could see them coming. Finally she called me out.

“Stop that!” she said. “I’m a person.”

She spoke with some force. I was used to her, an older woman, commanding my respect. She needed only that one statement. She had a wealth of feeling and ways of thinking that were hers and, moreover, were correct for her. She expressed her sovereignty.

A loving relationship, including sex, had been an aspiration for me for a while. The feeling paralleled that sense of connection with the manzanita of my young years. You could, without argument, present this topic as part of the development of my muse. How was I to keep some of that loving feeling in my life? In the rightful presence of feminism? And in the rightful presence of our nation’s ideal, revised: “All [people] are created equal”?

How could I write about it? It seemed obvious that a relationship – one that was respectful and consensual – was a safe container for the primal, raw emotions that often arise in men. And that Beat men were expected to express forcefully.

I followed the conversations of friends, especially women, after moving back to the West Coast. And I read the feminists: Robin Morgan, Marge Piercy, Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Hite Report, Susan Griffin – “even the air is political.” I didn’t need gross behavior to feel the warmth and satisfaction of a good relationship.

But how to capture such respectful caring in a poem? In order to help myself feel and honor the mutuality of a loving relationship, I needed to use language that was not sexist – or was genderless or at least equally respectful of genders. Anything that smacked of cool language was tainted! The Beats had been sexist for too long.

Language was a challenge. I wanted to be real – there’s the mantra again – and use words avoiding the rasp of sexism. And our language is chock full of embedded sexism! The basis of Language Poetry shows its profound applicability here, in its firm strategy to avoid biases embedded, and hidden, in the language.

I had heard the term “Neo-Beat” and the label sounded attractive. Did it signal that others were revising the Beat social persona? And were on a journey similar to mine? I checked around and found the Café Barbar readings in San Francisco were called “Neo-Beat.” But the venue seemed mostly to celebrate writing that relished and amped the roughness and rebelliousness of the Beats. Not for me.

I moved further away from the Beat Generation. I started writing poems for the collection Equal in Desire (1982) which called for language that did not trigger sexual issues. Equally important was to discover and describe scenes that show the sacred mutuality of attraction and love. So much had been interpreted about – and argued about – men’s and women’s every gesture that it seemed an impossible task. This was underlined by a woman friend who knew my dating patterns. She said that I, in our discussions, “…sounded like an expert but, if you’re that good, why can’t you maintain a relationship with a steady girlfriend?”

The quest to be real entails, periodically, a portal that opens to unknown territory. My friend had nailed the personal issue. I needed to become an explorer, giving full respect to what’s observed – disregarding any injuries to my pride. Little by little I realized that, in looking at relationships, one’s stance toward commonplace events is pivotal.

Our habit of focusing on the ordinary, learned from Williams, comes into play. You could sometimes resolve a tilt in love-making by noticing what one’s partner is feeling. Of course! Mutuality may be present, or attainable – and sacred and equal – in the undercurrents. There are layers and layers of interaction in a relationship, as a matter of course. They are present and ordinary. The selection of what aspect of those layers to bring into focus becomes as important as “being real.”

Dealing with conflicts between feminist women and our early training as men was the intellectual – and psychological – ferment of the times. Discussions were everywhere, especially at work. I drove for Taxi Unlimited, a producers’ cooperative in Berkeley. The role of women needed equitable and concrete designation in the company. At the same time I was solidifying thoughts and images for On the Inside (1982). The poem was spread out on the desk of the little house on Sixth Street in Berkeley where I lived. I pored over the pages, revising, adding, and shifted the sheets around – for several years. A friend called it my “desk poem.” [56] During that same period I developed an interest in letterpress printing. I was given a hand-lever letterpress by Harold Adler, of the Art House in Berkeley. I printed issue number four of the Berkeley Poets Cooperative – I had joined the group in 1971. And there, too, the role of women, and male attitudes toward women, and the similar issues in On the Inside were kicked around quite a lot. How do you run a cooperative? How do we set up equal positions for all writers? Of whatever gender? It was a living laboratory. And it ran parallel to the thinking in the desk poem. Life was feeding poetry in a dynamic way – scary, exciting, and productive.

In printing I was coached by Clifford Burke. On weekends he opened his Cranium Press shop in San Francisco for people to learn the craft. Amazingly, at the same time as I looked for a larger press, Irving Rosenthal was switching to an offset press for his Kaliflower Commune in San Francisco. He was looking to give away his foot-treadle letterpress. I applied to him, and Irving gave me the press.

I started a small shop, “Neon Sun,” in the basement of the little Sixth Street house. I mostly printed letterheads and business cards, with occasional broadsides and poetry chapbooks. Along the way I developed a relationship with Paul Mariah. I produced letterpress editions for his ManRoot Press and printed camera-ready copy for his trade editions.

As a politically savvy man in the gay community, Paul was thoroughly aware of sexism in mainstream culture. He took on Equal in Desire as one of his list. It was an honor on par with being printed by Poets Press. He didn’t have the stature or the celebrity aura that Diane di Prima had but, in the gay community, he was a pillar. ManRoot was prominent. And, as if validating his choice, Equal in Desire became Mariah’s best-selling book.

I also published Heroin (1972) and John Ceely’s The Country is Not Frightening (1974). It was a gift to a friend and an honor for us both to have well-printed books. Ceely and I shared many experiences and had similar world views, having come up just after the Beats. What attracted us was the Beats’ passionate reality and their distrust of conventional wisdom. Both Heroin and The Country expanded on real visions. What more was needed? Ginsberg and McClure and di Prima and Wieners were real, and we paid attention.

But we had no sense of how the Beats were marketed, or how timing contributed to their success. The crucial ingredient is capturing the public imagination. And the Beats did this well! They played to a culture that had suppressed its sexuality and was hungry for freedom of expression. Ginsberg’s vision and energy was on point. We felt, on the other hand, that when something is real, it’s a magnet that gets people interested. With some reason, at least.

Interviewer: Hourglass (1987) alternates poetry and prose. The preface states, “I want to be free from responding to the world and its artifacts automatically, like a robot, and free from needing to follow or dispute my inner thoughts.” In the prose sections, like travelogues to the poems, there’s mention of meditative techniques, yoga, Zen, and psychotherapy, often as aids to awakening consciousness. And, along the way, poetry is identified as a vehicle for consciousness.  

Matson: In 1978 a basketball friend, Jack Litewka, offered as a birthday present to me a session with a hypnotherapist. He could see I was stressing: I kept catching the same cold over and over, a surefire sign I was out of touch with my body! The therapist, Elaine Chernoff, taught me self-relaxation and self-hypnosis which, as I practiced them, evolved into vipassana meditation. I didn’t do more than glance at other disciplines mentioned in Hourglass (1987) – yoga, Zen, traditional Buddhism. But I was fascinated to watch thoughts come into consciousness and disappear. I’ve meditated every morning since then, more than forty years.

This morning I meditated for an hour and a half. It’s a way of feeling who I am, separate from the chatter in one’s mind. The ideal is to be free from responding “automatically, like a robot” and free from arguing with thoughts and free from rejecting them. Who we are is not that conversation in our heads! The spiritual being is underneath – and separate from – the machinations of our brains.

I had a girlfriend, Annie, [57] during that period. We would occasionally smoke marijuana, and the combination of meditation plus marijuana produced visual snapshots. These may have gained their vividness from the marijuana we used – powerful “Thai sticks,” imported from Thailand. The snapshots were signature moments in meditation. Some were wholly imaginary, others were places we had visited or things we had seen – a cave in Baja California Norte, a winged Hindi sculpture in a textbook – that, in some way, mirrored the meditation. This recalls both Eliot’s “objective correlative” and Williams “no ideas but in things.”

I would endeavor to capture the snapshots with words. The snapshots, to my surprise, seemed suited to sonnet-length poems. The possibility of writing in forms had teased me for a long time and I was ready for the challenge. I indulged in a rigorous form – the Italian sonnet with eight-syllable lines. I would find some phrase, in my voice, that fit the subject and the form and I would design the poem around it. Often the scheme became sticky and I’d re-examine that first phrase. The metrics and rhythms – after I did some revising – would sometimes fall into place gracefully. As if the original phrase had devolved, after providing its valuable, initial stimulation, into a roadblock.

After many of the poems were written, I realized they were arcane. No one would understand them who didn’t also meditate as we did – and perhaps smoke the same marijuana. “Making the private world public,” and doing this clearly, was the challenge. It occurred to me that a prose travelogue for each poem would be useful for readers not on our exact journey. A map guiding them into the territory. They could join us, at least in imagination.

I felt satisfied with poetry as a “vehicle for consciousness.” For a while I believed it totally. These poems are, after all, about consciousness – or at least about the doors to consciousness. As they clatter back and forth! Now I think poetry is a vehicle for much more. Finding the “much more” may be a lengthy adventure. I do recognize that these poems are a step in growth – from hipster to psychedelic to recovering user to political thinker to pro-feminist to – hopefully – more clear awareness of self. The part of the psyche invested in growth is engaged. How well this process fits the poet’s journey, as described by di Prima in “Rant,” is uncanny.

How, too, one might wonder, did the Beat aesthetic help this enterprise? On the surface, not a whit. Closer examination, though, reveals several ways: first, Beat curiosity about Eastern religions and philosophy served to elevate meditation as a legitimate topic. And second, to use language designed to communicate to ordinary people, not to an elite class, fits the Beat sense of justice and democracy.

Far more important than either, though, is the Beat value of being present to the topic and present to one’s response. Was this learned from Whitman? It’s certainly expressed in his writing, and it also has a more recent, vigorous iteration in progressive jazz. The musician must be supremely present to hear a phrase evolving from a previous phrase. And to stay authentically in focus, without sidetracking. If a scholar were there in the 1960s, listening to the alert improvisations of Ornette Coleman or of John Coltrane, this strategy could be heard in their music, demonstrating itself with precision.

Catching images that meditation reveals asks for such alertness, too, and it’s akin to hyper-awareness. The subtle and fleeting images require instant, accurate photography by the poet’s eye. On one chasm to the side of the visuals are sloppy clichés and, on the other side, disbelief and disdain. “Wiping the lens clear of preconceptions” is thus key, too. One presumes scholars could expand, with fruitful results, on these aspects of the Beat aesthetic.

Was my understanding mitigated by my teaching? By appreciating the power of writing that comes from the unconscious? I thought myself an experienced writer who didn’t need the Crazy Child exercise. There I was, having taught for ten years and having meditated, in my personal life, about the same amount of time. And both practices cross and re-cross the border between the conscious and the unconscious. Meditating, I’m watching what comes up from the unconscious as evidence of the authentic self – or of the inauthentic self. Teaching, I’m watching how, in the Crazy Child exercise, when the unconscious moves into the writing as a dominant player, the writing is enlivened.

The exercise is simple: let the editorial and writerly voices take a walk while the Crazy Child expresses whatever it wants. Most people crack open a window to the creative unconscious and reach through, pulling in shards and stringers of Crazy Child energy. Once in a while, though, for some people – at mention of the moniker “Crazy Child” – the walls fall down. A torrent of images and scenes comes screaming through. The problem is not keeping up with one’s writing – no chance of that! The problem is keeping one’s balance. I did the exercise one day and, surprise, the walls fell down. I was one of those people.

I wrote volumes of the exercise. I had no idea what was coming through my psyche. It was so energetic I felt compelled to save the drafts and it was three years before I grasped what was happening. Three bewildering years! I was receiving unfamiliar material from childhood – as if the child had words, and the feelings and insights were a baby’s or an inarticulate boy’s. These rough drafts became raw material for Squish Boots (2002).

Interviewer: Squish Boots displays an immediacy of expression that comes out strongly in most of the poems. They seem to be first hand. They seem “on the pulse,” conveying raw experience, following the organic logic of the topic or event. There appears to be no containing or supporting structure, either, and no judgment or interpretation. 

Matson: In my working life, in the same period that I was drafting Squish Boots, I could see the writing on the wall. My income had been augmented by teaching at Cal Extension but, since I did not have a degree, I would eventually be dropped from the roster. A Masters degree was preferred.

I applied to schools for an MFA and learned that, while many graduate schools do not require a BA, they prefer their students to have demonstrated the ability to be successful. That means they came close to graduating. And Columbia accepted me by accident!

My file had not gone to the education committee, who would have noticed I dropped out of Chicago after one year. Rather than reverse their decision, Columbia accepted me as a “special student.” I would do the normal course work and write a qualifying essay at the end of my first year. If, in their judgment, I acquitted myself well, I’d be accepted as a regular student and a legitimate degree candidate. That’s what happened.

I was happy with Columbia partly because I knew Sharon Olds would be there. But I was not comfortable with Columbia’s unspoken belief in poetry as an elite enterprise – which could best be understood by people with a special education. This became obvious in the first classes. Anything I had to contribute ran counter to that belief.

I didn’t want to be silent, though. I challenged myself to say one thing during every class. Often I designed my remarks to help the class and the teacher. By then, after all, I’d been teaching for ten years and I was familiar with classroom dynamics. Sometimes my remarks would be well-received, sometimes the students would mutter, “That’s so California!” I’d have done well to wear a t-shirt emblazoned “I’m so California.” But it might have been more accurate to proclaim, “That’s so Beat!” Except, by then, the Beat influence was not perceptible beyond some distant, well-worn bricks at my foundation. Maybe “That’s so pre-Modern!” would have been accurate, and I would understand this now. But not at that time, before I’d developed the thought.

Once, during a Robert Hass’ “Intensive,” discussion came to involve gender issues, and the atmosphere became tense. I thought it helpful to offer, “Received wisdom suggests women are more comfortable with emotion than men are.” And I got an inflamed response. “That’s not true!” Hass was shouting. “What about lust? What about anger?”

My jaw dropped. Had he not taken part in a conversation with a feminist? A respectful conversation? Strange how words of the patriarchy can slip into our mouths automatically and become proclamations. When we parse the words and understand their defensive agenda and their history, we begin a soulful process of learning about gender issues that’s vastly enrichening. Hass has plenty of fully aware women around him. I expect he’s done the good work since that time.

Early on I was astounded at how poorly Sharon Olds taught. She did recognize edgy lines similar to her own, which she praised. But she displayed no interest in what students were trying to achieve. None whatsoever. And I had enlisted her as my thesis advisor!

I showed her drafts of Squish Boots and interviewed her. As she fingered the poems, she gave a preamble about how pieces need a beginning, a middle, and an end. “These are all middle, middle, middle,” she proclaimed.

What the bleep? She had read these carefully evolved drafts and she didn’t respect the writing enough to engage her mind? I must have flinched or made a face. Olds looked contrite and said, “Oh, I see I’ve offended you.” As if the offense were my doing.

She was triggered by something in my work. And she’s far too intelligent to believe  “Middle, middle, middle” was the problem. Triggering comes from unconscious sources and they’re elusive and much more difficult to grasp than, say, an irritated response from the patriarchy. But the patriarchy may relate, nonetheless. The patriarchy might be judging, on subliminal levels, that direct, vulnerable emotions are distasteful in the extreme.

Even worse was the professor who took issue with the preposition “across” in “Motion Grasshoppers” from my thesis draft of Squish Boots. I replied that the grasshoppers were “moving across my shoulders, right to left,” and that the preposition identified their path. With accuracy. This is one function of a preposition: to show the physical relations of actions in the sentence.

This did not satisfy the professor.

The discussion was laughable and so inappropriate it suggests that a different issue had been triggered. One that’s also not acknowledged. The professor wasn’t doing instruction of any kind. What he did seemed more like hazing, and his blunt tools were about on level with third grade. Though I see nothing obvious about the patriarchy here, it’s tempting to infer that academic culture is phobic about childlike emotion. About real emotion and radical honesty.

One friend laughed and dismissed the incident, saying the prof probably had some problem with his toddler that morning. And the conflict got mapped onto my poem. I took her words to mean I should downplay the incident. Then I remembered many similar reactions, without any observable basis. I could not resist adding, “If academic society hadn’t shown such evidence in abundance already, I couldn’t have made that statement about phobias.”

The institution is culpable, though, not so much the individuals. Institutions have frailties. To accept thought that might change their culture is threatening. Keeping the discourse going fluidly inside safe boundaries, boundaries which may be very strong, whether or not articulated, is more crucial than risking the influence of truth. Unfortunately.

We saw similar safety measures come into play with the first draft of this interview. Pace University declined to observe the Beat aesthetic as it evolved through my work; instead the editors chose to convey the beginnings of my journey in a twenty-page excerpt in Journal of Beat Studies #9 (2021). Those pages convey the excitement we young writers felt for the Beat aesthetic, and they enhance Pace’s identity as a singular authority on the Beat experiment in the mid-1960s. That seems to be their agenda.

But to follow the evolution of the Beat aesthetic? Pace didn’t take one step in that direction. Was their hesitation that, after some evolution over the years, the aesthetic would appear weak? That it would become so watered down as to be unrecognizable? The reverse is true. Distillations of the Beat aesthetic, which I and other artists made, became essential for writers not living the Beat life. This speaks, instead, to the strength and resilience of the aesthetic. Many of us follow the Beat aesthetic today, and these times demand that we employ it to the fullest extent that we can. No other aesthetic, it appears, has the strength to stand up to what confronts us in the 2000s.

Ceely and I and other young poets were looking for an aesthetic that was durable. “Wiping the lens free of preconceptions and see what is before your eyes.” Though we didn’t use this pre-Modernist phrase, the concept was crucial to our investigations. “Being present to your material and present to your response” is an extension of the same precept. In the foreground was our requirement to be real and to be honest.

We knew about the wisdom of the body, too. Whitman started us in that direction and the idea was on the air and developed fully with psychedelics and meditation and alternative medicine and psychology. I carry the image, also, of the Gate of Horn reading, of the Beats’ full engagement of body, heart, and mind. You can’t work with these elements, “full engagement” and “wiping the lens free” and “wisdom of the body” without embracing a high level of honesty. Our nonprofit foundation WordSwell calls it “deep honesty” or “primal honesty” or “radical honesty.”

These precepts are so effective we can use them to escape the restrictions of the Beat aesthetic and the Beat social persona. And develop freely on our own. Radical honesty both confines and explodes what we do. Combine these precepts with the Beats’ disdain of conventional wisdom – and the rebelliousness that infers – and you have literary dynamite. Along with Pound’s imagist precepts and Williams’ “paying attention to the breath” and “no ideas but in things,” you can create a body of writing without showing much of its Beat origins. Even though logically – and ironically – these precepts come clearly into light in a vigorous exploration of the Beats’ foundation.

Emotion and passion influenced our evolution dramatically, and they are not safe. Especially when they course freely outside accepted boundaries. The academies might think these elements together undercut the Beat aesthetic but, again, close examination shows they do not. They stand in praise of that aesthetic. They show its immense power. They are what we need today, and need desperately, in order to deal with anything even remotely as devious and complicated as modern life.

The careful restraint of universities not only keeps truth away from students and scholars, it has the effect of creating a closed society. A closed society that, in this era, is very like the literary society the Beats reacted against seventy years ago. The academies seem most interested in maintaining their stature and their good image within an elite world. We must venture outside that world to learn. The original Beats faced a similar closed, incurious, and fearful academia.

You might complain, well, it’s literary society. It’s a fluid culture, not hard science. It’s nuanced thinking and fashion and opinion and intelligent conjecture from comparisons of texts. Issues that are large, highly charged, and barely recognizable come into conflict with each other. They are difficult to identify and they require careful discussion. What do you expect?

But to those of us involved in writing, it is science. Perhaps soft rather than hard science, but it’s science nonetheless.

We’re observing what’s happening. That’s science.

This issue gets more interesting when viewed through the lens of race. One early reviewer of Mainline was surprised when he learned that I’m not Black. I took that as praise. I had early on developed a love of Black culture: its songs, its jazz, its language. And since then, on the basketball courts, in the workplace, and living in Oakland in a racially mixed neighborhood, my love has grown. I’ve seen many incidents where Blacks are clearly more fluid and more comfortable with big emotions than Whites are. It’s become a truism. It’s indisputable.

The specter of a penalizing Puritanism is haunting Whites. Maybe every second, maybe every minute, maybe every hour. The Puritans toned down the fire and brimstone of gut-level religion, but that’s only on the surface. Carefully hidden, behind ironed robes and good grooming, is an orange-hot scepter that breeds in historical memory and flashes unseen through our psyches. It will singe your gonads and cut your neck precisely at the carotid artery.

No wonder we flinch! No wonder we have to think twice while holding our faces stiff and numb. No wonder we have to run every feeling through a brutal, multi-faceted assessment before we speak. I was happy to be identified as Black. Happy to be identified as someone who might not go through all the over-thinking, or double-thinking, that Whites do.

We don’t need to be attacked to reveal our “White fragility.” The source of the disease is already full-blown. It’s in our bones, our blood, our lymph system. It’s in our history. You’re damned to hell forever if you let some unruly feeling show, even a hint of one. But, well, I am all unruly emotions – or something like eighty-nine percent. I should expect exactly the response I am getting.

I had maintained my distance from the Beats for more than twenty years, and Columbia University was a turning point. I turned back toward the Beats. Nowhere in the poetry classes at Columbia was there anything of value. There were several other well-known poets – who offered nothing. I did find substance in Frank McShane’s nonfiction class, in Williams’ General Studies fiction workshop, and in George Montgomery’s playwriting class.

It dawned on me that the Beats, and my study of McClure, Wieners, di Prima, and Van Buskirk, had provided a solid foundation. One glace at the depth of my involvement proved the point: a less durable aesthetic would have found ways, on its own, to show ineptitude. Academic society has no way to contest or devalue the Beats or, certainly, no legitimate way. That gives them one choice. A student at Columbia identified the option when he remarked, “The academies are just waiting for the Beats to die.”

Later I realized that my foundation rested on the impulse behind Modernism: to see clearly what is before our eyes. However much I evolved away from the Beat social persona, I had developed an identity informed by the Beat aesthetic, an identity true to myself. Wipe the lens clear of preconceptions, and see what is before my eyes. My realization was not articulated then, however. I had only a vague feeling of unease and loss. I knew I was on my own – this was familiar. The unease stayed with me and fueled my desire to look more closely at what the Beats offer.

Modernism seemed in full contrast to what was available at Columbia; Modernism seemed not present at all. Are our institutions developing an aesthetic of puzzles with oblique physical scenes, a meditative voice, edgy or dissonant music, and a prideful flavor? Elegant puzzles that have a special history and a language all their own? One that invites essays and careful, nuanced discussion? That only a specialized education can prepare you for?

Do scholars think this is moving forward? It seems like their poetry is going backwards. And becoming remote. If it can, legitimately, even be called poetry.

The splurge of writing several years of Crazy Child exercises became, after much editing, my thesis: a first draft of Squish Boots. I kept one file for myself and a watered-down version for Columbia. There was no one I could trust to read my work with understanding. I enlisted an amiable basketball player who taught there and a Joyce scholar to be my advisors, finally, knowing they’d approve of what I was doing – without knowing what it was. I didn’t need to deal with whatever Olds and her colleagues might think.

I kept struggling with Squish Boots. The poems were difficult to organize, but over time I became familiar enough with them to recognize they offer internal clues to an organic order. One small realization adds to another and then to another, all stringing along on a learning curve. Together they build, eventually, a self with a very child-like interior.

I had no problem staying connected with my passion, my heart, and my history – disregarding judgments of the academy. The poems are emblems of vulnerability. What this might feel like, underneath conflicts with family, with society, and with fruitless dialogues with one’s intellect. Purely the experience of the childlike heart and of a young, uneducated mind.

Perhaps it could be called the primal psyche. “I’m your leftover primitive,” to paraphrase Sanchez again. Extend her statement one short stride into paganism and animism and we are, indeed, in primitive, childlike territory. That’s where small animals seem to invade the body. Grasshoppers are guiding one’s tendons across joints and bones, and molecules form a bridge one could fall through, at the splash of a single cosmic ray.

Interviewer: Wasn’t the anthology An Eye for an Eye put together during this period?

Matson: Yes, the anthology was a relief and strangely welcome. An Eye for an Eye was Alan Cohen’s project. He enlisted me to gather the poems and it was a pleasure, looking for engaged and insightful writing in a period of confusion.

The times immediately after 9/11 were so chaotic that any writing with awareness and honesty stood out in stark relief. And Cohen’s title is on target. It refers, naturally, to the Old Testament where “An eye for an eye” is justice. But, and we have this as an urban myth, Gandhi corrected that: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” [58] Exactly. Continuing this behavior brings us toward nuclear holocaust. Brings us autocrats like Trump and like Putin who brandish modern weapons as if it’s their job to put out as many eyes as they can. And brings us to pollution out the wa-zoo. Toxins at every level, filling the graveyards.

Interviewer: The “Chalcedony” poems were your next project, and you found it expedient to opt for a woman’s voice and a woman’s persona, in the poems and songs. Tell us how this came about? And how did you choose “Chalcedony” for the woman’s name? It’s a mineral name, and I presume it came from your interest in crystals.

Matson: The only explicit evidence of mineralogy in those poems is the name “Chalcedony.” I thought I’d chosen the name at random, or by feel only. When I finally looked it up, I saw that, spiritually, the word means the “clear, blue, feminine light of truth.”

If I’d searched for a good title it could have taken six months to find one as fitting as that. This speaks to the intuition that guardian angels work through the unconscious. Or perhaps the angels are part of the unconscious? Chalcedony (2007, 2009) came in a natural sequence, I think, after Squish Boots and Hourglass – as a step in the journey to feel and be who I am at root. This recalls the importance of one’s cosmogony, again, as delineated by di Prima in “Rant.”

I had the uncomfortable feeling that who I was in relationship did not invoke what I truly felt. The thought was aggravated by awareness that my marriage was more than fraying, and that at bottom were communication problems, probably by both parties. I thought to try seeing relationships from a woman’s point of view. That expanded my voice. I became aware of an arena I hadn’t known existed. Being male but speaking in a woman’s voice allowed access, little by little, to large, little-known parts of myself.

I can’t pretend to know a woman’s voice. But I can present what my psyche thinks I would feel in a woman’s position. That was my guiding strategy. Having some homosexual experience gave me daring in the enterprise – and it’s mostly a matter of daring. Trying to attain psychological accuracy gave me the drive to work. But to be accurate to another gender, truly?

John Ceely Paige, who has since passed, was my poetry buddy from 1962 on, a 50-plus year relationship. He asked repeatedly, “Where’s the man in these poems?” I didn’t have an answer. It’s one thing to say, for instance about George Sand, that writing as another gender can be done accurately. That’s not for me to judge about my own writing – or whether a male is needed.

I judged the lines by whether they felt authentic to me, as part of my psyche. That was attainable. Reading the poems aloud, repeatedly, helped the voice to feel gender-fluid and one-hundred-percent mine. They feel like human passion. That fit my wish.

Interviewer: Your discussion reminds one that developing a new voice is an art. And doing it well means the writing, in a way, enters the very persona that’s being assumed. We have many examples of how to use the monologue, which is what the Chalcedony poems are – dramatic monologues. The voice is clearly one that you take from a feminine perspective.  

Matson: The Chalcedony poems definitely are dramatic monologues. I don’t recall having a model, though. I think first of “Prufrock,” certainly it’s a monologue, but Eliot’s tone is uniquely droll and despairing. This does not fit Chalcedony. What comes to mind, perhaps more aptly, is John Donne’s work – the absolute surety and range of his voice, and its engaging quality. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.” Perhaps his influence was working, unacknowledged, in the background.

Another source might be geology, again. The text I studied was Palache, Berman, and Frondel’s 1950s’ editions of Dana’s System of Mineralogy . The physical descriptions are models of accuracy, focusing on color, shape, texture, and luster. There’s no drama in the descriptions, and many of the mineral subjects are pedestrian. Driving the descriptions, nevertheless, is supreme confidence in close observation: that the results are invaluable. Even to the point of revealing internal atomic structure! That belief is one I adopted early on.

Nature and minerals enthralled me as a youngster. Any excursion in geology is an exercise in observing – both as a youngster and, now, as an experienced adult. What is before your eyes? Where are there seams, what signs are there of crystals – or not of crystals? When writing the Chalcedony poems, likewise, I’m in unknown territory. I can’t simply look at what’s before my eyes. I must engage in more adventurous and more nuanced ways of seeing. I need to become conversant with images and emotions in an arena where I have no conscious experience. Territory that is at first quite strange to me.

The influence of the Beat aesthetic in this enterprise may not be apparent. The lesson of Ferlinghetti’s “Christ came down,” though, does come into play, as I encountered images with mythic flavors. Small and large events that seem to be acted out by mythological beings. I needed to open my eyes wider and with more appreciation, seeing beyond boundaries I had assumed were real for me. This made the writing, for one used to dealing mostly with facts, an adventure into the imagination. Tuning the imagination to fit physical and emotionally-charged events in a relationship was an eye-opening challenge. At the pinnacle of the poems, perhaps their most rewarding achievement, is a joining of extreme passion and extreme vulnerability.

The practice of observing geology no doubt helped my ability to look and accept what I see. For many years, in New York City and involved with the Beats, I lost the inclination to study geology. The Natural History museum was appealing, though, and I made frequent visits. I may have kept my eye sharp by observing crystals under glass. But I didn’t fully recover my interest in minerals until the nineteen-seventies, after returning to the West Coast. At a flea market in Alameda an attractive rock was on sale for fifty cents and I had no idea what it was. I made the purchase.

There are fascinating crystals around the Bay Area. I started to look for them and Jack Litewka, the friend who connected me with the hypnotherapist, introduced me to a mineralogist, Dr. Francis Jones. I learned an immense amount from him, and from Bay Area Mineralogists, the organization Jones belonged to. The interest became an excellent complement to writing. I worked for a furniture mover, I worked with the printing press, I spent a lot of time in the classroom – and more time with a notebook and a pen, writing. It was a relief, a refreshing and energizing activity, to go to the seashore or along country roads or to the mountains with a bar and a hammer, looking for crystals. I started backpacking and bringing along my tools. I found I loved camping in the mountains.

One favorite place is the Dinkey Lakes area in the southern Sierra. There are crystals hidden high in the ridges. Behind me, as I sit at my desk, is a cabinet with a glass front. It’s a display case of crystals from a pocket in the Sierra. The specimens are from about ten thousand feet in elevation and I went there several years in a row.

On my journey to the area in 2015 the lakes were lower than usual and scum had accumulated around their edges. A lot of trees were dying – there’d been drought for several years and the trees were vulnerable to disease. The mountains up past ten thousand feet had no snow pack. There was brown haze on the horizon from a distant fire.

Probably this was the result of a few difficult years in the southern Sierra. But, if things were to continue as they had, in ten years the lakes might not be recognizable. And there I am, with thirty pounds of tools in my pack! Observing the deterioration. In my chest I felt the Western template that was despoiling nature. Let’s use the planet however we like, without awareness and without regard to consequences.

That first night I got out my notebook and pen. And I fell into an ocean of grief! Many phrases came to mind for easing the pain and managing grief. But no, no! I was going to express the grief in my body – and I was going to express it fully. Refrains were going through my mind, distortions of commonplace sayings, of ads, of quotes from literature, all applying to legitimate topics. I got busy bending and twisting the words to fit what was before my eyes. I had been following environmental thought and problems casually. I had the basic knowledge of what’s happening on the planet, in the sixth mass extinction, that most everyone has.

The outpouring did not surprise me. It fulfilled the Beat requirement to be honest, especially to one’s passion, of whatever kind. To be real. I spent most of that week writing – and not looking for crystals. The flow felt natural. I was connecting with emotions and with history and with the natural world. And with grief!

The images probably have their strength from my having gained freedom and insight in writing Chalcedony in a woman’s voice. And from writing Squish Boots in a child’s voice. Both enterprises brought me to frontiers of awareness that required observing with alertness and to expand the arena of my images. Required my being present to the material and present to my responses.

Is the voice in Hello, Paradise the full range I can have? I aspire to attain what I observed at the Beats’ Gate of Horn reading in 1959: full engagement of body, heart, and mind. The range of voice in this work does feel more vital and powerful than anything I’ve done before.

Interviewer: Your most recent work, Hello Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye, strikes me as in many ways a summa for you. Length comes into the equation: we’re used to talking about the American Long Poem and the epic nature of Whitman. The poem overall draws together the threads you’ve developed, issues of creative self, the sense of a political world, a corporate world, a climate world, a citizen world. To an extent it’s a Jeremiad.

Matson: The foundation of the poem is grief – with a heavy dose of guilt. Grief and guilt over our destroyed future. Yes, it is a Jeremiad, but not from on high! I’m not above the criticism. I stand before you, bar and hammer in my hands, turning lustful eyes toward the geology, in the shadow of brown and dying trees. Wondering where on the lake I can pump water that won’t clog the water filter.

I’m an emblem of the Western culture that’s destroying the biosphere. And all evidence suggests the culture is not about to change. We seem bent on driving faster and faster toward disaster.

Interviewer: Well, that’s very palpable, not least because there are theories even now that say climate change and our degradation of the planet is intimately connected to this corona virus.  That may well be right, who knows. What would be the Beats response to the virus?

Matson: I think the Beats would not have a more enlightened view of the virus than we do. The positions probably would be changed, though. Beats who took the vaccine would likely need to defend their actions, quite the opposite of the general disagreement now.

It’s certainly true we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to the virus. Not only with the poor overall response at the highest levels, but with flawed healthcare systems, degraded and polluted air and soil and food and water. We have weakened immune systems. We are vulnerable, since our bodies now carry an immense number of toxins – in our nervous system, in our bones, in our bloodstream, in our cells. There is plenty to grieve and plenty that warrants guilt.

I remember a conversation in the mid-1970s with Daniel Moore, the founder [59] of San Francisco’s Floating Lotus Opera Company. He mentioned guilt as a suspect emotion. Guilt could write a lot of poems, he said, but they would not be good ones. We can’t absolve guilt by writing about it.

I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot absolve guilt by writing. But I disagree that it’s a flawed drive. It’s crucial. At bottom the guilt is societal. And we carry the full load of guilt and grief in our bodies! Every one of us, with even a shred of Western civilization. I need to feel the grief and the guilt thoroughly, with rage in my voice and tears streaming down my cheeks. When those sensations overtake me, I’m in the authentic flow. I’m expressing our common grief – or some of it! And if we don’t bring grief and guilt fully into the light, these emotions may direct our behavior, either in a straightforward manner or in contrary reactions, from the shadows. Lew Welch perceives this emotion as litmus for how deeply he is taken in by the spirit of a poem. He calls it, “The gift of tears.”

My basic hope is to bring the emotions in our bodies to the surface and help them become part of the conversation. Yes, this will involve accepting how very far we’ve gone wrong. Most everywhere!

We’re wrong especially in the illusion of who we think we are. Including our emotions in the discourse, including the shape of our mindscape – and of the landscape – will suggest approaches for bringing our planet back to health. And our species forward toward health.

Interviewer: It’s hard to sustain a long narrative poem. We know that from the Cantos or Williams’ Paterson. Was it difficult to pull off Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye? Or do you have a special way of sustaining the poem’s interest, and also of sustaining the effort of doing the writing?

Matson: I enjoy writing the poem. Even as I’m weeping – I require those tears! It’s the sign of full engagement. At the same time, it’s fun to rhyme words like “faster” and “disaster,” no matter the tragic meaning. And it’s exultant, righteous play to create rhymes that are neither traditional nor lyrical nor poetic, rhymes with names of radioactive ions and names of chemicals in dyes and names of psychoactive drugs. That stuff is a riot to put together.

A friend [60] pointed out that the poem similar to Charles Ives’ music: he took clichés from all around the culture and stacked them together. That’s what I’m doing. It’s all nonfiction, too, it’s a “nonfiction poem.” I’m pulling in stuff from everywhere, all the way from hard science to casual clichés, hammering and sawing and chopping till the words fit the problem.

What sustains the poem are the refrains. This is my strategy and I trust it works. The refrains pop up here and there in a rhythm and then they change, and change back again, as the poem proceeds. Wheelbarrows full of glorious phrases that show the beauty of our planet or exult our power or relish our self-fulfillment or have zero positive effect on the current crises, and phrases that embody the destruction. The whole range of our beauty and of our disaster. The phrases keep drawing the reader in, hopefully, and the reader won’t know the tone of the next refrain until it arrives.

I don’t want the reader gloss over the topic. One refrain is “Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. None chance.” Pointing to some underlying structures that don’t contribute to our health. Or to strategies, or to grief, or to the feeling in our bodies, or to the sense of coming disaster. Coming faster. That we’re doing our fruitless best to avoid.

I got into many quarrels with John Paige, my poetry buddy. He quoted lines and showed me how they failed. He said I had too many swear words and he was right. I pulled a lot of swear words out and then put a few back in. Some were crucial. Another friend said it would be obscene not to include swear words. The discussion was ongoing – and continues in my mind today.

John loved nursery rhymes and he showed me their value. I found many that fit the poem and add humor and pathos. Many jump-rope songs, too, and many pithy youthful and adolescent sayings as well, like “Roll over, Red rover …” and “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” These bring delight in their music and playfulness and, at the same time, turn my core inside out, at a child’s level, with grief and rage. Rage at our species destroying the planet’s birthright. Yes, yes, our planet has a destiny, too, and a birthright. A birthright that is circling the drain.

And our conversations covered other ground. One item was the lines “Stand in the hurricane and stare it in the eye. / Contrails write our obituary across the sky.” John wanted “an” obituary, not “our” obituary. What needs be said here? What fits what’s happening, what fits the trauma we feel? Is the obituary for all of us? And could John’s version be too hopeful? Indicating that many more positive alternatives exist, ones that should be investigated?

This planet is an amazing and beautiful and spectacular and nurturing place. It’s paradise for us. We evolved with it. This world speaks to us in many ways – many more ways than we can imagine. I want lines expressing such beauty and intricacy throughout and scattered about in rhythms. The poem goes back and forth, from glorious appreciation to ugly pessimism. From grim decay to hopeful insight. Seeing paradise and seeing destruction! They’re both here, in aces.

Paige’s son Michael Ceely tells me the poem will never end. It does have an ending, though, which I wrote that first week in the mountains. A mourning. A full-on dirge. Michael notices, however, the flood of new material coming in every day. A constant avalanche. And it’s on topic! Dorothy Parker asks, when the phone rings, “What fresh hell is this?” Whatever variety it might be will likely point to our self-created mess. We cannot go back to normal. “Normal” was a disaster waiting to happen. And it did.

If we go back, we’d be going back to abnormal. [61] And that would be, well, yet another disaster waiting to happen.

Interviewer: Teaching has been a large part of your life, which is obvious in the insight and thoroughness of your tutorial Let the Crazy Child Write! How have you squared that vocation with the time and effort needed to be a practicing poet?

Matson: The blessing of teaching is that students teach the teacher.

And the foundation of my teaching is appreciation. I recognize and appreciate students’ writing that has power and brings in deep, raw honesty from the creative unconscious. I have enough experience in the several fashions of contemporary literature not to judge one over another. Any judging would skew the adventure of finding a student’s honesty and skew the clarity of mirroring or showing that talent to the student. I need to keep my mind clear as I read what my students are writing.

I now easily recognize the honesty of the creative unconscious. I appreciate such honesty. And students challenge me to honor the same in my own writing. Encourage me, really by natural course, whether they’re aware of it or not. By natural course they demonstrate the value of radical honesty, since it gives their work power.

I especially need to heed this advice as I work on Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye. I need, as has been pointed out, to be present to my material and present to my personal response. I don’t have much corona virus in the poem. I need more, but not so much that attention is deflected. The pandemic has brought the failings of Western culture into stark focus. That focus needs to stay on the failings and not shift to the virus.

I often remember Trungpa Rinpoche’s mantra, as I’m examining stanzas that need work: “First thought, best thought.” We heard it in the 1960s, frequently from Ginsberg, and we repeated it among ourselves. I say it to my classes today, as well! It’s wrong, of course – first thought is not best thought. But it is a highly effective prompt. “First thought” is a door opening to the creative unconscious. It pitches us hip-deep into honest, native, primitive thought.

Frequently, while writing the poem, I’m captivated by a flurry of images. Is this part of our classist apparatus? Maybe, maybe not. I might ask, what do I really want here? The more productive question might be, what was my first thought? I hear myself saying it to my students – and I prod myself to hear it as well. It’s another case of students teaching the teacher: keeping the teacher alert on how best to write.

Of course, I can’t teach a simple, strategic plan to students! All I can do is point in the general direction, point to where the student’s energy seems to be strongest. The student’s internal world, their cosmogony, will teach them how to proceed. And I repeat this often, meaning to follow it myself. The poem teaches the poet how to write.

One day I discovered that Let the Crazy Child Write! fits what Ginsberg did and what Kerouac and Burroughs did often: automatic writing. What a surprise! There I was, thirty years away from the Beats in what I imagined was full rebellion – a rebellion against the rebels – and for the last few years I’d wholeheartedly embraced their aesthetic, without knowing I had done so. I’d been playing in their playpen!

Their “automatic writing” came into the literary world through Yeats and his wife. Automatic writing was – and is – the spiritualists’ way of being in touch with the dead. You write, automatically, whatever the dead say. This requires ignoring one’s agenda and one’s thoughts and getting rid of any analysis, then going into a semi-trance or a full-on trance that appears to connect with the spirit world. Then you simply write what the spirits say.

The Crazy Child is dead center in this tradition. We even use similar language: ignore the critical and writerly thoughts and write only what comes up from the darkness, from the unknown – from the creative unconscious. For the Beats, Kerouac gave the process its name “automatic writing” and showed its efficacy by typing On the Road on a continuous scroll of butcher paper that was trimmed to fit his typewriter. He didn’t have to stop and insert fresh pieces of paper! He could keep typing, following his spontaneous thought. The paper would continue rolling through his machine.

That this process is followed by very different writers doesn’t imply that the quality of their writing is comparable. The Yeats version in Vision, so our scholars report, was mostly done by his wife Georgiana, who drew Yeats into their seances. But Yeats put his name on the book and didn’t give her credit! Similar pieces of misogyny have happened so frequently in the literary world it’s become an ugly cliché.

Interviewer: We’ve covered much of the span of your career. What are you looking to do now? What is captivating your attention in this strange COVID period? Do you have a project in mind?

Matson: This interview is an honor and a challenge. It’s thoroughly absorbing. How to describe my journey with poetry? What were my influences? And what events were transformative?

As I came to the finale of Hello, Paradise, I thought to write one-page or two-page poems from the same mind. I wrote one about walking to the polling place and voting. Another on driving the I-80 corridor on a sunny day in the sixth mass extinction. Another on going to market in the first days of corona virus. My videographer friend, Vic Owens, made videos of two of the poems. He posted them at https://youtu.be/1iy6DOQqPpE and https://youtu.be/ZFcvfu6dMFc.

These poems are interesting to write. I look for what’s in our hearts in this current decade. “Occupy” and the “Me, Too” movements were raging and, about when they eased, our society was shocked by the murder of George Floyd. “Black Lives Matter” came to the fore and tension skyrocketed. Then more spikes of COVID-19! Vic asked me to write about these new times. Everything appears to be collapsing. And collapsing rapidly. Some friends were astonished that “Black Lives Matter” developed so fast and became so widespread and so deep.

No issue! It must be because, in combination with “Occupy” and “Me, Too,” and now with gun violence, the reversal of Roe versus Wade, and the effort to limit and distort voting, the Black Lives Matter movement echoes through all society and all history – straight from historical foundations of racism, slavery, misogyny, and murder. The tide of these systemic atrocities is running under the surface of American life and is ready to erupt. Has already erupted, really, in Donald Trump’s presidency and – note the court’s ease in overturning Roe versus Wade – continues to develop in political rip tides since. One commentator suggests that Trump did not change the Republican Party, he revealed its core. The Civil War has not ended. And the Republican Party is on wrong side.

The system is due for revision. Complete revision.

Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And the specter of nuclear destruction and World War III, along with a milder designation, a “Soft World War III,” which has become a war of information and a war of finance. Our media may be much more accurate than Russia’s in depicting destruction in Ukraine, but it’s equally obfuscating about the real issues. Issues and broken agreements involving NATO. How Biden has been fighting the Russians and avoiding the diplomacy previously set up for Ukraine to become neutral. And for civil unrest in Eastern Ukraine to be brought to the negotiating table.

I have no idea how to handle the current material. It’s happening so fast, echoing through such depths of history and illusion. Where do we find tools to grasp this? We have little accurate idea what is happening. And no idea what will happen next. Has our species ever – outside of the biblical flood – been in a position so dire? Or so pervasive? Or so persuasive!

We don’t have a vocabulary for this, and neither do we have a set of images. Not outside of apocalyptic religions – but these are themselves destructive forces. We need a story that is fresh, comprehensive, loving, and effective.

We know, in our hearts, that life is sacred. The sanctity of all life! How do we combine this with images that fit what’s happening today? How do we make this knowledge operative? That’s a tall order. The Crazy Child allows unknown material to appear, and what’s effective might be unknown. Give the unknown a chance to appear, I will say in class. I need to tell myself what I tell my students. Take the freedom to be wild, to reach into strange, unlit territory, and pull words into the flow. The freedom and courage to hear what our own hearts are saying.

The trance we’re in is supported by a general mindset that is attractive and difficult to resist. “Are even my personal motivations commodities?” Kaira Loving laments, and adds, “This internal propaganda is exhausting.” [62] That many young students have the propaganda fully developed is disheartening. They came to my class “The Beat Aesthetic and Why We Need it Today” with a sophisticated apparatus in their minds on how to decipher poetry. “Wrong from the start.” [63] Poetry doesn’t need deciphering. Good writing is obvious. Stuff that needs deciphering is probably not poetry.

Carol Lee Sanchez acknowledged, “I’m a leftover primitive.” At the level of our primitive heart, the Paleolithic heart, we are all leftover primitives. And poetry speaks from, and speaks to, this bottom, primal level. We understand it by instinct. The educated apparatus students learn was created and is sustained by the pressure, or the urge, to rise in class. Marx was right. Poets want to rise into the upper-middle class intelligentsia.

That impulse needs to get flushed. So does the apparatus. I need, as well, to flush the apparatus from myself! Can the impulse to rise in stature be a sticky, limiting sort of glue? Yes. Our first effort should be to get that junk out of our minds and clear the way for language and impulse that’s honest and real. Clear the way for deep, primal honesty.

“Make the private world public” is key. But Ginsberg’s mantra is demanding. It has two arms: one, to bring awareness to the private world, so we’re cognizant of what exactly is in our hearts and on our minds. Two, to write so well that our private world is clear to the outside world, to the public. This clarity makes real connections possible.

What we’re seeing is the intersection of many worlds. “Black Lives Matter” added to the “Me, Too” movement added to “Occupy” added to the attack on Roe versus Wade and gun violence added to the general fight to preserve and extend voting rights gives our social unrest huge energy. All six issues shine light on inequities of race and gender and class. These plus the climate crisis and reactive trends toward authoritarian governments – if not fascism – require us to examine the entire structure.

Gaps in society link to race link to gender link to class link to production methods link to planetary destruction link to species extinction. This is not a surprise! Everyone knows this.

We can’t address these issues if our goal is to rise in class. Or to rise in affluence! We need cooperative effort, instead. Across all boundaries. We need to pull together. The current unrest has energy vast enough for a general strike and plenty enough to set up a coordinated approach to our looming destruction. A single, broad platform is necessary. Involving both political parties and involving a full spectrum of the general population.

But our political system may have betrayed us. Democrats chose a candidate who was good for ousting Trump and has already ushered in significant change, with support for those troubled by the pandemic and by bringing Ketanji Brown Jackson firmly into the Supreme Court.      The enduring issues, though, need to be addressed clearly and energetically. The tides of racism and white supremacy from the Civil War are still running strong. Can one party muster sufficient energy and strength of vision to make systemic change? To make systemic change possible? Bernie Sanders is speaking truth, and he’s put his effort into supporting individual candidates with progressive agendas – which is fine.

But the larger issues? We seem not to have a forum.

Our fledgling organization, WordSwell, seeks to affirm the joy of writing and to restore honesty to writing – following the precepts of Let the Crazy Child Write! The presumption is that only radical honesty can be successful in addressing what confronts us. The difficulties of setting up WordSwell became obvious early on. The initial group agreed we wanted plurality and youth and the tide of insight and inspiration coming up through the generations.

But when we included people outside our small group, the white elders in our community quailed. They wanted the organization to suit themselves – and not be influenced or overtaken by emerging culture. More, they displayed how fractious our community is and how incapable of cooperating. Cooperating is difficult even in a community of poets! Who appear to be enlightened, but are not.

Today’s complexity could shake down to a few images. Images containing our grief, our horror, our love, our challenges. As an example, we might look over the Sierra landscape, or follow the curve of a Pacific beach at low tide, and proclaim “How beautiful!” Then take a photo, pleased with the photo and with ourselves. Good enough!

But how different to look at the same landscape, invite the earth’s energy and the biosphere’s energy into our bodies and affirm, “This is part of me. I come from this. I’m subservient to this. I am beholden to this.” And from this foundation, “What are my thoughts now? What am I required to do now?”

Does this same insight apply to the blatant inequity all around us? Of course it does. As a luxury car drives up from the beach toward a summer home over the next ridge, supported by – who knows what – disasters and exploitation. Environmental problems and social problems link inextricably. The car runs on tires made from rubber, dollars, cheap labor, sweat, and the destruction of jungles.

We need stark simplicity in order to foster a rise in global consciousness. The human soul is crying out for such effort, everywhere. Sound familiar? It’s our old friend speaking: the impulse behind Modernism – in new dress. Or in no dress! Just what is before our eyes? What patient is etherized upon the table? Does radical honesty provide a response? A response of any kind?

And how do we start a productive conversation? We need what we saw blossoming at Gate of Horn in 1959: full engagement of body, heart, and mind.

Of course we know, in our hearts, that all life is sacred. The sanctity of all life is the understanding that needs to be operative. The conversation leading in this direction needs to be discovered, ignited, and pursued so vigorously that it produces change.

The primitive heart still believes that a few words thrown into the mix, like Vonnegut’s “ice nine,” will crystallize all thinking, globally, in an instant. Or in two instants! And our consciousness will change. Astrology sees the current cataclysm in the stars, and predicts that consciousness will rise to the challenge. And, in rising to the challenge, we will change. We will change completely as we deal with our disaster. Many of our enlightened, encouraging New Age thinkers speak from the same template. Our minds and hearts will change focus as we confront the disaster that is taking over our planet.

But we might need to grow by slow accretion of insight. Or through the abrasion of falsehoods, until generation by generation the illusions are worn away, and we see the truth. And then we’ll see what we must do? We’re captivated by the allure of our own culture. But, hidden beneath current obsessions and impractical, destructive drives, like rising in class or making money or becoming an adored hipster, are positives. Our species has wisdom and god-like capabilities.

We need stark simplicity in general. I need stark simplicity, personally, for my videographer. Images so clear he’ll know what photos to employ. To take our thought a step further, to become a help in the rise of global consciousness. The human soul is crying out for such general effort, everywhere.

What’s happened with Marcuse’s prediction, made decades ago: “Now begins a long march through the institutions”? Many marches have begun and results are not generally conclusive. Things may have even become more slippery than they were, when Marcuse’s insight had force. Institutions are now adept at sliding around crucial, system-changing questions and continuing on, with their images refined and polished. They look more attractive and more political. But their foundations may remain intact. Are they as exploitative and destructive as ever? And they’re strengthening? Probably. They have more tools. And it’s their job to create profit.

Jonathan Haidt posits in a recent Atlantic that social media have “made America stupid.” Trust, respect, and sense of decency have been eroded from the social fabric. Haidt calls these the social “mortar” and his argument is convincing. The media are more than forgiving when their users express negative thoughts.

They’re paired with what a political friend calls the general “Conscience-ectomy.”The media don’t mind and won’t care. Capitalism thrives on a population devoid of conscience. As with institutions, capitalism has a job: to accumulate users and consumers. The attention of users is their commodity, and nothing else matters. That’s short-term profit.

The effects of this strategy are probably not intended. They’re a natural outgrowth of free marketing in open ground with no restrictions, ground kept open with the lever of free speech. The decay we feel is widespread and operates at a level deeper than where money is exchanged. At a level more fundamental than Haidt, or almost anyone, considers.

Media and email leave out nonverbal communication. And science informs us that seventy-percent or so of communication is nonverbal. None of the honest material we consider in our writing workshops, in WordSwell, comes through in digital media. It’s invisible to media.

Has the macrocosm of our national “stupidity” infiltrated the microcosm? “As above, so below”? If this is so, then the deep, primal honesty in our workshops reveals itself as three or four of the unnamed and unacknowledged cornerstones in the equation for survival. And they’re under attack.

Or, conversely, has our deteriorated microcosm infiltrated the macrocosm? “As below, so above”? Perhaps the decay in personal relations has spread outward and upward and become universal. And holds us now on the blunt edge of extinction.

We are so used to lying and misinformation we don’t even recognize they’re unusual. Even though we’re dealing with such distortions every day. What else is new? We know politicians stretch the truth, sure. So does marketing. So do performers. So do hipsters. So do clerks. Whenever we enter a store, we adjust to the lies. Automatically. Adjust and re-adjust.

Lies are all around us. Beautiful images on the packages do not much resemble the contents. If at all! Though, maybe, when you spend twenty thousand dollars and six months in gourmet cooking school and add the ingredients just right, you can create something like the picture.

Even the names are distortions! In the interest of having allure. “Safeway” must mean safe. But safe from what? Everything unsafe? There’s no tangible content in the word and likewise none in its use as a brand. Only an appeal to emotion. “Continual intrusive mistrust” fueled by ads and lies and misinformation from all sides. Maybe that’s the psychological diagnosis of our dysfunction! Code CIM.

No wonder our difficulty, in understanding what we see, is ingrained. There’s a Puritan history of four hundred years pushing up the pressure of our culture. Even the Beats, who usually embrace impulse and passion, have a scholarly arm that stays sequestered in their minds. As we stated, “Western culture teaches us to listen to our minds and reap what rewards.”

This leaves out the nonverbal stuff. What’s in the creative unconscious is love and compassion. They’re not in social media or in email, or it takes great awareness and insight to find them. We’re brought into the conversation without agreeing that human discourse is founded on cooperation and compassion.

If global change is about to happen, leaving it to governments might mean, fearfully, leaving it to laws imposing change. That’s frightening. That seems a lose/lose proposition. That brings to mind propositions that would necessarily spread and strengthen the swing to autocracies across the globe. Difficult to envision such autocracies enhancing social justice or bringing on real environmental solutions to the crisis.

What else could we have? There are hopeful proposals by astrology, by new Age readings of Tarot decks, by spiritual leaders, in whatever predictive traditions we have. We’ve mentioned the template earlier, that humans will change in response to what confronts us. The lure of this thought is that the change happens automatically.

But would it truly be automatic? History doesn’t provide many examples. The horror of Hitler, instead of changing our consciousness, finds itself repeated to a frightening extent by Putin and in the treatment of Palestinians and Somalians and Yemenis. The U.S government is worsening the mess in these last three countries, in case you’re of a mind to believe our government’s promotion of itself as a proponent of democracy. Is there any time in history where our consciousness changed and that in itself solved a difficult problem?

I think our eyes are veiled in a way that doesn’t let us see these simple truths. My awareness is mostly inchoate but, nevertheless, I sense there are strict, unacknowledged boundaries on how to live. We’re in a trance. And it’s an artificial trance, with very little understanding of what a healthy human being might be. When writing Hello, Paradise I bumped into boundaries so many times the message indicates the trance is universal. We’re living a lie. And spreading the lie across the planet.

What we’re facing is a huge challenge. Humanity is continuing a destructive trance and, once you see it, it’s obvious. The terror of 9/11 established a foundation for conformity and oppression worse than what prevailed in the 1940s and 1950s. We think we’re more aware now and the trance should be easy to see and to slough off.

But it’s not.

What’s missing in our conversation is compassion. Marcuse, again, noticed that compassion is the foundation of social justice. We do not have to look further. But we should look far enough to see it. Far enough to see it in each other’s eyes. Compassion is in my eyes, and in yours, whenever we see each other. It’s born from the understanding that we are on this planet together and we share a common fate. We will leave the planet.

My pet cat, your pet dog, has the same understanding. Look into their eyes! Look into the eyes of a bird, of a possum, of a coyote, into the eyes of a cow or of a horse. The same fate and the same understanding. Your neighbor has the same understanding. So does the family across the street. So does the family whose skin is a different color from mine or yours. So does your child.

Compassion is at the root of our conversations. Deny it however you like and next morning you wake up and look into the eyes of your partner or your child or into the eyes of your pet and it’s there. You don’t need to impose anything or do some special magic to see it. It’s there. On its own.

And it’s what email and social media leave out. Compassion is in the unconscious and that’s seventy or ninety-some percent of the brain’s activity. We need to acknowledge compassion. We need to nurture it and to acknowledge its power. It needs to rise up from where it’s been simmering, without words, all this while. In our unconscious.

We don’t know what will happen. We’re in unknown territory and we’ve been improvising. We don’t know what tide is streaming toward us and what tide will come crashing around the corner in the next few hours. Spraying memes and slogans onto the walls and sound bites into our minds. We don’t know how the conversation about compassion will serve us. Or whether it can be successful. There’s no way to tell in advance.

We do know nothing else will work.

We’ve considered the other stuff. The new age hypothesis that consciousness will change globally in a short time is tempting. It’s obvious it should happen. The need cannot be denied. The microcosm confirms the need. The walk by our local underpass homeless shelter confirms the need. Scammers and hackers confirm the need. Cold calls confirm the need. The worn-down welcome mat on my porch confirms the need. And the macrocosm presents a huge obstacle.

We don’t know what awaits us. If we continue in the same way, we’ll face familiar problems. Build sea walls. Flee to the interior. Cut your losses. On alert. On alert. No way to live. No way to die.

We are walking the planet in worn-out shoes. They’re designed for striding through paradise. The moon still shines on us like a loving mother. Trees still bear fruit, flowers blossom, butterflies still find their host plants. And it’s all sliding toward oblivion. Quickly. Along with bees and insects. Along with ice at the poles and in the glaciers. Along with us.

We need to search for a conversation. We don’t know where it is! The news, week to week, searches, too. The conversation needs to be discovered, started, and participated in generally. And pursued so vigorously that it produces change. Pursued so vigorously and kindly that it involves everyone.

Interviewer: You had the privilege of studying with Allen Ginsberg. Along with discussing how his mentorship influenced your poetic development, do you have any interesting stories you’d like to share, and why might today’s generation be long overdue for a figure like him?

Matson: Marx himself said that history is not driven by dominant personalities. Social movements already exist and have their engines running. Rebecca Slotnik echoes this thought in saying that solutions will come out of darkness or from the margins of society. And any movement will pick its own leaders. Notice who has agency here! The movement will do the choosing.

The situation that faced Ginsberg seems, in retrospect, very simple. The urge to be free of a restrictive conformity, established during World War II, was ubiquitous. That was the engine running the general discontent. It may have taken very little for Ginsberg to give literary society a push in the direction of the freewheeling, partying Beats.

What we have now is immensely more complicated. Though our strict conformity, if we could boil it down to components, might explain the complications. Assuming the components are simple! They aren’t easy to grasp, since the engines are covered by layers and layers of misinformation and seductive social media. On top of which layers and layers of society have either co-opted, or have conspired to join, the conformity. Largely without knowing that’s what we’re doing.

Yes, we’re living in prison. And it’s a self-made prison: we’ve been complicit in constructing it. The song “Hotel California” puts it well: “We are all prisoners here, of our own device.”

We can’t say, “You’re a square,” to our neighbors and be persuasive. The moniker won’t prompt a productive conversation. “You’re a hipster” might be a phrase that fits our time. But it means something different from what it meant to young artists in New York City. Then, it was high praise. And spoken with admiration.

Now it’s said with envy, irony, and suspicion. Even though there’s nothing wrong with hipsters! Though we could complain the lifestyle is expensive and doesn’t lend itself easily to compassion.

It’s counter-intuitive to ask a writing teacher, today, whether we need a leader like Allen Ginsberg. How could our workshops inform us on this issue, one way or another? On second thought, we may have something to offer. Our writing workshops do not show people how to write so well they rise in the literary community. Instead we teach accurate, soulful communication, “radical honesty.” Without such honesty it’s difficult to imagine any productive conversation. It’s difficult to imagine any change, or any negotiation for change. Difficult to imagine any change to be successful.

The best we might do is bring the conversation into the foreground. And, with the conversation, bring along compassion as the one single, necessary, vital component. We aren’t solving a problem by doing this. We are building the foundation for a movement of compassion. We know the movement will choose its own leaders.

The movement needs a broad foundation. It needs to include everyone or, if not to include everyone, to appeal to everyone. We’re not trying to start a war. We’re working to eliminate war.

Our feet are grounded in compassion. Know it or not! We are capable of carrying light into an increasingly dark world. We can make the conversation public. We can help the conversation become vigorous and visible. We can start spreading the conversation and refining it and at the same time we spread awareness of the need for compassion. Any conversation with anyone in any venue is an opportunity. “As below, so above” applies. We are the “below” and anything we say has nowhere to go except to spread upward.

Start the conversation. Start the conversation and keep it going. Keep it going.

 

References

[1] Started at Vista High School, Vista, San Diego County circa 1956 and continued for two years.

[2] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Christ Climbed Down.” Coney Island of the Mind. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1958.

[3] February 1, 1959, at the Gate of Horn, a folk music club in the basement of the Rice Hotel at 755 N. Dearborn Street, corner of Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.

[4] The New York Times, Nov. 16, 1952. Section SM, p. 10.

[5] Big Table 1, ed. Rosenthal, Irving and Paul Carroll. Chicago, Big Table Inc., 1959.

[6] Ring, Kevin. Jacket Magazine, No. 37, early 2009,  http://jacketmagazine.com/37/r-matson-rb-ring.shtml

[7] Edward Dorn, 1929-1999, Black Mountain poet, author of Gunslinger and numerous other collections, taught at a variety of schools and eventually became director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

[8] Dorn, Edward. “Rick of Green Wood.” The New American Poetry 1945-1960, ed. Donald Allen. New York, Grove Press, 1960.

[9] Wieners, John. The Hotel Wentley Poems. San Francisco, Auerhahn Press, 1958.

[10] Jack Smith was an independent filmmaker who produced the avant-garde Flaming Creatures in 1963. He used Ira Cohen’s loft as a studio for the film and invited many artists from the Lower East Side to participate as impromptu actors.

[11] Herbert Huncke (1915-1996) was a brilliant storyteller and accomplished writer, “the charismatic street hustler, petty thief and perennial drug addict who enthralled and inspired a galaxy of acclaimed writers and gave the Beat generation its name.” From his obituary in The New York Times, August 9, 1996.

[12] Rosenthal, Irving. Personal communication. New York, circa 1961.

[13] Matson, Clive. “The Beat Aesthetic and Why We Need It Today.” Caveat Lector, Spring 2020, Vol. 30, No. 2. https://www.caveat-lector.org/3002/pdf/3002_essay_matson.pdf

[14] Jung, Carl. “Without … playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.” Psychological Types, Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Volume 6. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 63.

[15] We often called John by his last name, Ceely. He changed his name later, after coming to the West Coast in the 1980s, to John Paige, honoring his mother’s lineage.

[16] Erin and Clive married in 1963 in a Buddhist church in San Diego, during a visit to the Matson family.

[17] At a reading of very short poems at the Belvedere Social Club in downtown Oakland, in 2012, I went over the history of these poems with Jack Foley, a Ginsberg aficionado. He was familiar with Ginsberg’s “American Sentences” and informed me that Ginsberg designed his sentences to have exactly seventeen syllables. The kinship I felt with Ginsberg vanished. His process suggests that the number of syllables were the source of magic. He was fitting his sensibility into a restrictive form, rather than allowing the poem to choose. How is that different from my interest in sonnets? It may not be different. The sonnet is larger, has flexibility, and demonstrated early in my drafts how well they frame the meditative visions that make up Hourglass. A brief study of “American Sentences” should reveal how well Ginsberg’s sensibility fits those seventeen syllables.

[18] This image was supplied by poet Lori Lynne Armstrong, p.c., May 2020.

[19] Lyon, Banning. Jennifer in The Stolen Year, manuscript copyright 2020, p. 178.

[20] Wieners, John. Op. cit. “A Poem for Painters,”p. 11.

[21] McClure, Michael. “OH WHY OH WHY THE BLASTED LOVE.” Dark Brown. San Francisco, The Auerhahn Press, 1961, p. 7.

[22] From a short lyric in The Floating Bear, a poetry newsletter edited by Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones in New York City, circa 1963.

[23] Van Buskirk, Alden. LAMI. San Francisco, The Auerhahn Society, 1965.

[24] Kokkinen, Eila. P.c. Fall 2019, commenting on McClure’s, Snyder’s and Ferlinghetti’s inability to supply a political line, when asked for a quote to augment my essay, “The Beat Aesthetic and Why We Need It Today,” presented at the 2019 European Beat Studies Network Conference in Cyprus, October 2019.

[25] Huncke, Herbert. The Herbert Huncke Reader. Schafer, Benjamin, ed. New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997.

[26] Yugen ran for eight issues from 1958-1962, co-edited with Jones’s wife, Hettie Cohen Jones.

[27] Spellman, A.B. P.c. circa 1963. A.B. Spellman ran the paperback section in the basement of the bookstore. He was six years older than I and treated me with respect but, at the same time, like the young person I was. Spellman is a master of pithy statements. He became an active member of the Black Arts movement and later held several positions with National Endowment for the Arts.

[28] Sanchez, Carol Lee. Conversations from the Nightmare. San Francisco, Casa Editorial, 1974, reprinted in From Spirit to Matter: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1996. San Francisco, Taurean Horn Press, 1997, pp. 24-25. “They have disappeared me as they have done to all my ancestors before me.” She describes the ceremonial costume which may appear, to uneducated eyes, as if it’s from another century. “But it is real! Look close. I may vanish before your eyes.” Then a closer look at how the costume is put together. “Are you watching? I may be disappearing right now …. I’m a left over primitive and you’re supposed to feel sorry for me …. You see how it happens? … You disappear us every day!”

[29] “Angel-headed hipster” was linked so often with Jack Kerouac and On the Road that his biographer, Steve Turner, used that phrase in the title of his book. Turner, Steve. Jack Kerouac, Angelheaded Hipster. New York, Viking Adult, 1996. The phrase also appears in Ginsberg’s Howl (1956): “Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

[30] Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Poetry New York. Vol. 3, 1950.

[31] Allen, Donald M., ed. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. New York, Grove Press, 1960, p. 386

[32] Ginsberg, Allen. “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”

[33] Paul Mariah was a pioneer of the gay literary scene in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. He founded ManRoot press, and was the author of Personae Non Gratae (ManRoot, 1971) and This Light Will Spread (ManRoot, 1978).

[34] Olson, Charles. “The Kingfishers.” In Cold Hell, in Thicket. San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation, 1967.

[35] For examples of Creeley reading, a wide selection is available at the Penn State archives. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Creeley.php

[36] A Los Angeles poet, Stuart Perkoff earned admiration and intrigue for spewing his words all over the page – which then becomes a record of intense thoughts and emotions, words sent out like a shotgun blast. These were poems we saw in small journals out of Los Angeles. The Perkoff poems in Donald Allen’s anthology op. cit. are earlier and more nearly conventional in form.

[37] A journal entry quoted in the appendix of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 op. cit., page 425. “… [B]ecause it has been given me the means to plunge into the depths and come up with answers? No. Poems.”

[38] Van Buskirk. Op. cit., p. 38.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ginsberg, Allen. Personal communication, circa 1965.

[41] “Expand your consciousness” was commonly used to describe many activities, including taking psychedelics. The phrase may first have been used by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard while researching LSD, as reported by Ralph Metzner in his essay “Consciousness Expansion and Counterculture in the 1960s and Beyond.” Maps Bulletin, Vol. xix, No. 1, p. 16.

[42] Allen, op. cit. A quintessential example of political confrontation is Ray Bremser’s “Poem of Holy Madness, Part IV,” p. 352.

[43] “Projective Verse,” Allen, op. cit., p. 386. The line is also referred to by Ginsberg as “ONE SPEECH BREATH” in a letter to John Hollander. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Morgan, Bill, ed. Philadelphia, Da Capo Press, p. 208.

[44] Williams, William Carlos. “Paterson.” The Dial, Vol. 80, No. 2, 1927. First usage by Williams of a phrase that he used multiple times: The Wedge, 1944, and in various versions of his later epic poem Paterson 1946-1958.

[45] Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” The Sacred Wood. London, Methuen & Co., 1921.

[46] Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. London, George Routledge, 1934.

[47] Pound, Ezra. The Pisan Cantos. From Canto XXX.

[48] Di Prima, Diane. “Rant” in Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems, City Lights, San Francisco, 2001.

[49] Spoken by Leary in 1967 at the Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

[50] Rothberg, Abraham. “A Passage to More Than India.” Southwest Review. Vol. 61, No. 1, Early Winter, 1968.

[51] Maddux, J.F. and D.P. Desmond. “New light on the maturing out hypothesis in opioid dependence.” Bulletin on Narcotics. New York, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, January 1, 1980, p. 18. The authors paraphrase the original researcher, C. Winick, writing that he “speculated that the addicts begin taking heroin as a method of coping with the challenges and problems of early adulthood. Then, some years later, as a result of some process of emotional homeostasis, the stresses and strains of life become sufficiently stabilized so that the addict can face them without the support provided by narcotics.” See also C. Winick. “Maturing out of narcotic addiction.” Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. 14, No. 1, 01-01-1962, pp. 1-7.

[52] Idea ascribed to George Orwell as “The people will believe what the media tells them they believe.” There is, however, no evidence that Orwell ever expressed this sentiment. The use of the word “media” is a clue, since it was not in use during Orwell’s lifetime. See the Powell’s Books’ blog, “The Ministry of Truth” by Dorian Lynskey, June 5, 2019. https://www.powells.com/post/original-essays/the-ministry-of-truth

[53] Holiday, Harmony. “The Last Black Radical: How Cuba Turned LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka.” Chicago, Poetry Foundation, Dec. 10, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2018/12/the-last-black-radical

[54] Holladay, Hilary. Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. New York, Schaffner Press, 2015, p.305. “… [W]ithout Huncke there in the beginning to push him out of his middle-class myopia, prod his conscience, and puncture his ego, Ginsberg would have lacked the impetus to craft a movement.”

[55] Allen. Op. cit.

[56] Weissman, Peter, p.c., circa 1973.

[57] In the poems “Annie” is code for all the people who provided input, whether intentional or not, as if they are one person. The inspiration for the process and the poems came largely from Judy Quinlisk, p.c. circa 1983 to 1985.

[58] The quote should more accurately read “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” While attributed to M.K. Gandhi, the Indian independence leader and pacifist, there has been no documented evidence that Gandhi ever said or wrote it. Quartz https://qz.com/

[59] Daniel Moore. https://1960sdaysofrage.wordpress.com/2019/01/19/floating-lotus-magic-opera-company/

[60] Novelist Deborah Janke of Lafayette, California.

[61] Mattis, Kristine. P.c.i, January 2020. Mattis repeatedly points out that twentieth century life in Western cultures had gone far beyond what should be considered “normal,” or healthy, or viable – or respectful of the biosphere.

[62] Loving, Kaira. “Lady Moth.” Dogma of the Inflorescence. Arcata, California, Bag Lady Books, 2018, p. 18.

[63] Pound, Ezra. “Ode pour l’election de son sepulchre.” Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. London, Ovid Press, 1920.

 

 

About Clive Matson

As a young poet I hung in New York City in the 1960s with Beat Generation writers. My second father was Herb Huncke, who taught me how to buy a pair of pants and how to talk to people. My love of John Wieners and Alden Van Buskirk immersed me in streams of passionate intensity that run through us all. I write from the itch in my body and, as best I can, with full engagement of body, heart, and mind. I bow to the creative unconscious, as defined in the tutorial Let the Crazy Child Write! (1998) and presented in our web site WordSwell, currently under construction.

That itch is a ceanothus bush on the banks of the creative unconscious, whose torrential flow and unpredictability is hardly contained anywhere. I returned to school in 1987 to earn an MFA at Columbia University, which offered two priceless gifts. One, irrefutable evidence that poetry has lost its moorings in the labyrinths of elite, intellectual fashion. And two, that my background in pre-Modernism, as taught by di Prima and Ginsberg, is more than enough: wipe the lens clear and begin from there.

I taught creative writing at U.C. Berkeley Extension from 1985 to 2018 and, over time, I’ve given more than 3,000 workshops in the States and internationally. I was honored with the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles National Literary Award in 2003, the City of Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry in 2012, and a Lifetime Beat Poet Laureate award in 2021 by the National Beat Poetry Foundation. Of nine volumes of poetry, amazingly my seventh, Squish Boots (2002), was placed in John Wieners’ coffin.

A 2015 backpacking trip into the southern Sierra plunged me into grief and guilt over the dying of our planet – scum-rimmed lakes, drought-stricken trees, a layer of wildfire smoke on the horizon, and no snow pack even at thirteen thousand feet. I began writing Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye, a record of what attitudes further destruction and a tearful, gritty litany of what, in Paradise, we must do.

Today I aspire to find images that identify and convey what we, as a people, are experiencing. I am challenged to read the climate of our corroding times, challenged by my own writing and by a revisioning of di Prima’s “The only war that matters is the war to [reclaim] our imagination.” And to reclaim our honor as human beings.

Visit Clive at www.matsonpoet.com and Wikipedia.

 

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Dana Gioia, California Poet Laureate (2015-2019), interviewed by David Garyan


Dana Gioia

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Dana Gioia, California Poet Laureate (2015-2019)

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Dana Gioia’s poems Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: These days you mostly stay away from what you and many others have called the “po-biz.” In your conception, what precisely does the term embody? And why might younger poets, especially, be better off not immersing themselves in this world?

Dana Gioia: “Po-Biz” isn’t my term. It’s literary slang for the Creative Writing profession. I use it literally. There is a difference between poetry as an art and teaching poetry writing as an academic job. Art is the pursuit of the individual imagination. Creative writing is an institutional career, subject to all the compromises of professional employment.

Creative writing has become a business. Unfortunately, it’s now a low-growth one with poor outcomes for many participants.

DG: It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on narrative poetry. In Studying with Miss Bishop, you write: “My literary education had trained me to consider plotting an obvious and superficial device unworthy of serious attention. Plots were what the unenlightened noticed in literature. Showing too great an enthusiasm for the story line of a novel or long poem bordered on bad taste.” You have published many narrative poems. The first was a powerful longish poem, “The Room Upstairs.” Can you talk about the composition of that poem? What inspired you to do something so different from most other contemporary poetry?

Dana Gioia: Until the past century poetry was understood as a capacious art. One could write poetry in any of the major modes of literature—not only lyric, but narrative, dramatic, even didactic. When I was in college, however, I was quite explicitly told that contemporary poetry was limited to lyric expression. All of the other traditions were spent, defunct, exhausted.

I was puzzled why the champions of poetry professed such a diminished version of the art. In the general culture, people still told and acted out stories in every other media—from novels and movies to comic books and pop songs. People need stories to clarify their own existence. There are some truths that can only be expressed as stories.

Why couldn’t poetry tell stories? It made no sense. It seemed like a failure of imagination.

DG: Did studying with Robert Fitzgerald at Harvard help you transcend the so-called “standard” literary training of that time?

Dana Gioia: At Harvard I took a seminar from Robert Fitzgerald on narrative verse. We read Homer, Virgil, and Dante. I was impressed by how powerful these ancient poems were. I also saw how differently the poems told their stories as opposed to how they might have done the same in prose.

It is crucial for young poets to read old works. If you read only current writing, you are at the mercy of fads. You develop no perspective on what really matters. Let’s even use the terrible C-word—classics.

Great works from other ages and other languages are not only enjoyable and illuminating in themselves; they provide perspective on the assumptions of your own age. Otherwise you are a prisoner of your own historical moment. Most of the great Modernist innovators—not just Pound and Eliot but also H.D., Jeffers, and even Frost and Cummings—revived some lost primal element from ancient poetry. The Modernists used ancient things to make themselves new.

DG: Did Fitzgerald’s class spur you toward experimenting with narrative verse?

Dana Gioia: Fitzgerald’s class got me thinking about how I might write a contemporary narrative poem—not an epic but a sort of intensified short story in verse. I knew I couldn’t begin with something on the monumental scale of Dante’s Commedia. How could I tell a more compact and realistic story, a contemporary one, at a sort of middle length? I wanted a compelling narrative that would rise to the level of lyric poetry at key moments.

There were no useful models by living poets. The narrative poems I found were prosaic. So I went back—first one, then two generations. And there was Robert Frost at the very start of his career. I saw the possibilities in Frost’s second book, North of Boston. Critics had seen that collection as an interesting dead-end. I saw it as a road not taken to an alternative kind of modernism. It took me a year to start drafting a piece I called “The Mountain Climber” and several years to revise it into “The Room Upstairs.” It was my first long narrative poem.

DG: Let’s stay with narrative and Fitzgerald for a moment. In the same memoir, you write: “The surface of the poem, Fitzgerald’s method implied, was the poem. No epic survived the welter of history unless both its language and story were unforgettable …. Only a few poets at a few fortunate points in history had met this challenge successfully. To understand the true value of these poems, Fitzgerald insisted, one not only needed to study the cultures and literary traditions that created them. One also needed to test them against life. The ultimate measure of Homer, Virgil, and Dante’s greatness was that their poems taught one about life, and that life, in turn, illuminated them.”

How did Fitzgerald’s ideas shape your own aesthetic? Was his international perspective important for you?

Dana Gioia: One of the most important things I learned from both Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop was that the surface of the poem was the poem. If the language itself didn’t communicate everything the reader needed, the poem would fail.

Both of those two poets had lived for long periods abroad—Fitzgerald in Italy, Bishop in Brazil. Both of them were fluent in other languages and had translated seriously. For Fitzgerald, translation became his life work. They both believed that poets needed to read broadly and not just in English.

As for judging a poem, I can’t see the purpose of a literary work, no matter how well written, that doesn’t ring true to life. It has always been the temptation of poets to spin out elegant fancies or empty bravado. Poetry must reconcile its sense of beauty with the world we actually inhabit.

DG: Your narrative poem, “Homecoming,” talks a great deal about life, but the violent ending inverts our understanding of it in a very dark way. The narrator kills his foster-mother in what initially feels like a clarifying moment of liberation. He quickly realizes, however, that the energy he felt “was just adrenaline—the phony high / that violence unleashes in your blood.” We understand that the speaker “had come home, and there was no escape,” which subverts Odysseus’s triumphant return home. What inspired the composition of this unusual poem? Was it an attempt to highlight how perverse our own society has become when compared to ancient civilizations like Greece?

Dana Gioia: “Homecoming” can surely be read as an indictment of contemporary society, but that wasn’t how I saw the poem. It was a tragic story that grew out of my own early life. There have been several murders in my family history—on both the Sicilian and Mexican sides. I even had a cousin who murdered his own brother. I began the poem with no idea where the story was going. I heard the speaker’s voice talking to me. I knew who he was but not what he would tell me.

“Homecoming” is the story of a young psychopath who eventually kills a number of people, including his foster mother. The tone is realistic, though often hallucinatory. The story grows slowly as the young boy develops, according to his own dark internal logic, into a sort of monster. What disturbs readers is not the violence or perversity of the poem but the intelligence of its narrator. That was the central premise of the poem—how could someone so intelligent and sensitive become so evil?

The way the poem grew and changed surprised me. I let the protagonist go where he needed to go. I first published it in a journal as “The Killer.” I then tore the poem apart, revising and expanding it to nearly twice the length as “The Homecoming.” It was only after I saw the first version in print that I understood how it needed to be fleshed out. I had no model for this kind of poem. I had to discover the style, the tone, and the narrative structure as I proceeded.

When my second book, The Gods of Winter, was in proof, my publisher, Scott Walker of Graywolf Press, wanted me to drop “The Homecoming.” He found it brutal and upsetting. I refused, but I decided to cut and sharpen it so that he could come to terms with its uncomfortable vision. Playwrights revise plays when they are in rehearsal. Why shouldn’t a poet do the same thing? The poem became stronger, and Scott agreed that it belonged in the otherwise tender book.

I actually revised the poem again for my selected volume, 99 Poems. I changed the title to “Homecoming” to distinguish it from the previous versions. So many people had written about the poem, I couldn’t change anything significant, but I sharpened a dozen or two lines. A poem this dark and unpleasant needed to be as perfect as possible.

DG: You mention working in isolation on your early narrative poems. Were other poets following a similar impulse? Did a new narrative tradition emerge in American poetry?

Dana Gioia: I didn’t know it at the time, but there were several other poets in my generation who shared this narrative impulse. Interestingly, they were mostly from the West. Robert McDowell and Mark Jarman had met at U.C. Santa Cruz. Like me, they were both from Los Angeles. Later they started an irreverent magazine called The Reaper which championed narrative. I did not know of the journal at the time, but I eventually met Robert and Mark. Meanwhile David Mason, who is from Washington state, began by writing short stories, a skill which helped make him the best narrative poet now active.

Each of us developed a slightly different solution to the challenge of poetic storytelling. All of us shared an admiration for the three modern American masters of narrative verse—E. A. Robinson, Robert Frost, and Robinson Jeffers.

DG: So you consider David Mason the most gifted narrative poet? What distinguishes him from other poets committed to exploring narrative?

Dana Gioia: Mason is unmatched in his talent and versatility. His stories and characters are compelling, and his language never loses its lyric impulse. He has also mastered different forms of poetic storytelling. He has written several remarkable short narrative poems, such as “Spooning,” as well as a compelling full-length poem, The Country I Remember. Narrated by a father and daughter, speaking a generation apart, it tells the story of a survivor of a Confederate prison who later makes his way West on the Oregon Trail. The poem is an astonishment. Finally, Mason has written an epic poem, Ludlow, about the tragic miners’ strike and massacre at Ludlow, Colorado in 1914. It says something about the imaginative power of these two poems that The Country I Remember was staged as a play, and Ludlow is being turned into an opera by composer Lori Laitman.


David Mason, WCU, 2013

DG: Your affinity for the work of Robinson Jeffers is well known. Born in the late nineteenth and writing in the early to mid-twentieth century, his work already anticipated much of the destruction, alienation, and apathy brought on by modern society. “The Purse-Seine” seems to be the most poignant and well known in this respect. What do you think of the political and environmental issues addressed in his work?

Dana Gioia: You can say that nearly everything Jeffers wrote is political in the sense that he rejected his age’s assumptions about society, culture, and the environment. He was, in some ways, the most political major poet of the Modernist era, but his views were never partisan in the narrow sense. He saw the horrific political events of his age from a global perspective—the destructive human race destroying themselves and the planet.

For that reason, it’s more accurate to consider Jeffers a prophetic rather than a political poet. A prophet tells people the uncomfortable truths they don’t want to hear.

DG: What are your favorite Jeffers poems, especially those that bring greater awareness of environmental and political issues?

Dana Gioia: I have a long list of poems by Jeffers I’d recommend. Let me suggest ten very different poems in addition to “The Purse -Seine,” which you mentioned. If readers don’t know these poems, they don’t know modern American poetry or California literature.

I would offer “Shine, Perishing Republic,” “Fawn’s Foster Mother,” “Hands,” “November Surf,” “Ave Caesar,” “Love the Wild Swan,” “Hurt Hawks,” “Rock and Hawk,” “Fire on the Hills,” and “Carmel Point.” I could go on. And we can’t forget his long poems, such as CawdorRoan Stallion or The Double-Axe. Jeffers would have considered the long poems his central works.

DG: There’s a photo of you and Morten Lauridsen, the great contemporary American composer, at Jeffers’s Tor House—his final residence in Carmel-by-the-Sea which he helped build with his own hands. Having been born in the Pacific Northwest and worked as a Forest Service firefighter, Lauridsen, too, like Jeffers, retains an affinity for the natural world. Can you talk a little bit about the special circumstances of this particular visit, what you talked about, and how the composer’s music has ultimately influenced your poetic sensibilities?

Dana Gioia: Jeffers is the greatest nature poet to have emerged in the American West. Even his home, Tor House, is a work of art. He built it, stone by stone, beam by beam, with his own hands on a promontory above the Pacific.


Latin Inscription: “With his own hands RJ built Hawk Tower for me.”

The composer Morton Lauridsen and I were the featured artists at a two-day choral festival in Santa Cruz. I wanted Lauridsen to see Tor House, and the staff made it available for us to visit, even though it was officially closed that day. We had the place to ourselves.

Lauridsen has spent much of his creative career living alone on a remote island in the San Juan archipelago in the Pacific Northwest. He bought and renovated an abandoned building overlooking the bay. Out of his sustained solitude, he created a music of intense beauty and spiritual force. His best music has a strange power. It fills an audience with awe and wonder. It brings many people to tears. The first time I ever heard his Lux Aeterna, which I knew nothing about before the concert, I understood I was hearing a masterpiece.

I knew that Tor House would have a profound effect on Lauridsen. He spent several hours there. Once we had seen every part of the place, he sat down at the old piano in the parlor, an instrument George Gershwin had once played during a visit. As the late afternoon light poured in from the Pacific, Lauridsen played the music that Una Jeffers had left on the piano sixty years.


Mort Lauridsen Playing Piano at Tor House


Dana Gioia with Mort Lauridsen at Tor House

DG: Your work tends to be associated with New Formalism, a movement which emerged in the early eighties, promoting the revival of meter, rhyme, and narrative. At the same time, having collaborated with jazz musicians like Helen Sung on an album, you also have an affinity for a genre that seems to resist strict organization and structure. Two questions: Do you accept the New Formalism label, and if so, do you find that it contradicts, even in an interesting way, your relationship with jazz music?

Dana Gioia: The two parts of your question are more interrelated than you might think. I was drawn to poetic form not from any theory but because I love poetry for its sound. Poetry is speech raised to the level of music. I’ve tried to explore every way I knew of making words musical. A poem should be like a song, a kind of aural enchantment.

I have never liked the term “New Formalism,” but it has entered the critical vocabulary. It’s now listed in literary histories and books of literary terms. There isn’t much I can do about it. I accept it without enthusiasm. But anyone who knows my works understands that I work in both free and formal verse. What I’m after is lyrical energy in whatever way I find it.

Jazz is formal. It is a musical style in which there is a steady metrical beat which the soloist plays with, thereby creating a polyrhythm. The performers play with a melody and improvise over set chord changes. Jazz couldn’t improvise without that formal structure.

I do exactly the same thing in my metrical poems. I play with the beat. I contrast the underlying metrical rhythm with the speech rhythm. I’m always astonished that most critics don’t understand that fundamental fact of formal poetry. They only notice one half of the expressive structure.

DG: Let’s return to another narrative poem, “Style.” This long dramatic monologue addresses style in many of its varied connotations. The speaker Charlie proclaims: “Just look at me. Isn’t it obvious? / I have no style. I’m just a human blur.” Charlie’s friend, Tom, however, always “had the perfect sense for what was perfect.” The rich, handsome, and successful Tom becomes the subject of Charlie’s story. As we read the poem, Tom’s health problems conspire to destroy his perfect life, bringing him more or less level with Charlie. The lives in the poem reflect the sensibilities of jazz—they’re guided by unwritten rules, traditions, and expectations, and yet also totally governed by chance, luck, and improvisation. The business world that serves as the background to this poem harkens back to your life in New York.

Tell us about the creation of “Style.” Did moving to California affect the way you wrote about the world of New York business?

Dana Gioia: “Style” is a poem with such strong narrative thrust that the audience doesn’t notice how complicated it is. Only at the end does one realize how unreliable the narrator Charlie is and how complicated his relation is to Tom and Eden, the seemingly blessed couple. Those two characters are based on two people I knew in my New York years, though they weren’t a couple. Charlie is my own invention.

Poets don’t write about the business world—it is outside both their personal and imaginative experience. And yet it is the subject of great films, novels, and plays. I tried to get that part of the American experience into a very dark poem. “Style” captures the exhilaration, attraction, and precariousness of wealth as well as the destructive envy and fantasy it fosters. I saw that world as an outsider, and I was surprised by its fragility.

You are right that “Style” is a poem about New York where I spent twenty years, but it was written in California. The poem suddenly came to me when I heard about the death of the figure on which Tom is based—a man whose life seemed perfect in every respect. It’s about a man who was blessed in absolutely everything until the end. I don’t think I could have written it in New York. I needed the distance.

DG: In 2015 you became the California Poet Laureate. In a 2017 interview, published in Catamaran, you stated the desire, apart from the minimal official requirement of doing “just a few readings a year,” of wanting to accomplish something “more ambitious in order to reach beyond the urban cultural centers,” which are, as you said, “Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley.” Indeed, you made good on that promise and outlined a plan to visit all the state’s fifty-eight counties. At the time of the interview, you had already visited thirty-five, an impressive number.

Did you manage to complete this ambitious goal?

Dana Gioia: Yes, I eventually reached all 58 counties. It took nearly three years. In every county we arranged a public event that included local writers, musicians, and students.


Dana Gioia, Orange County, 2016

I didn’t want the tour to be about me. I wanted it to be a celebration of local culture. In some small, rural counties I gave what might have been the first poetry reading ever.


Dana Gioia in Ventura County

DG: Do you have any particularly fond recollections from these travels across the state?

Dana Gioia: I have a thousand memories, large and small, about the trips. My wife drove with me to many of them. We are both native Californians, but we discovered places we had never seen before, especially in the Sierras. There are dozens of small counties that originated in the Gold Rush.


Dana Gioia at a Sacramento Poetry Society

It is a different world from coastal California. We organized 125 events, mostly in small towns or neighborhood libraries.


Dana Gioia in Toulumne County, 2016

We went to fascinating towns such as Mariposa, Downieville, Alturas, and Ferndale. I loved Crescent City on the edge of Pelican Bay and the Central Valley town of Turlock, full of Assyrians, Sikhs, and Vietnamese.


Dana Gioia and his fellow poets in Downieville (Population: 200)

My favorite single event was probably in agricultural Madera County where the library committee hosted a reading attended by people who worked on farms and ranches and a group of young men from the juvenile detention center. My BBC Radio producer had come out to make a “radio road movie” about the tour.

The Madera library ladies baked huge quantities of treats, which the teenage guys devoured. I took an extra break so that the guys could load up again. I got the most interesting and intelligent questions there, all from non-literary people. I read poems. A local high school student recited her Poetry Out Loud poems. My BBC producer, Julian May, who is a fine poet came up to recite, and I got one of the “cadets” of the detention center to perform a rap. A South American woman in the audience recited in Spanish, and a local Mexican welder showed his remarkable sculptures in the library lobby. It was an exciting event, and it gave the community a chance to understand itself.

DG: You’ve said that the “history of California poetry is mostly unwritten.” What do you mean by this?

Dana Gioia: There are many significant California writers whose lives and works have received little or no coverage. When I was editing the anthology, California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, with my co-editors Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks, we had trouble finding basic facts about many poets. But it’s a larger issue. California has been lax in recording and preserving its literary history. San Francisco has been well chronicled, but the rest of the state has not had much attention. A lot of that history is now unrecoverable. I wish California writers took their own traditions more seriously.

DG: For the past forty years you have championed the work of Weldon Kees, and kept his poetry and fiction from slipping into total obscurity. Can you talk about his influence on you, along with his importance to California poetry?

Dana Gioia: I consider Weldon Kees one of the major American poets of the twentieth century. Born in 1914, he is “mid-century” poet, a contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Gwendolyn Brooks. When I first came across his work back in 1976, I was astonished that he had been entirely forgotten. His poetry was out of print. His fiction had never been collected. He did not appear in anthologies. There was not a single substantial essay written on his work. I wanted to revive his reputation.

Kees is the darkest poet imaginable but also full of bitter humor—a writer who stares into the apocalypse and makes a graveyard joke. His poems are full of stylistic experimentation. He works in different forms—sestinas, sonnets, villanelles—as easily as free verse. His poems present the farrago of contemporary America without losing his imaginative control. When I first read him, I admired how he incorporated elements of popular culture—movies, jazz, advertising, radio, journalism—into his poems as naturally as high cultural literary elements. To him, it was all the detritus of a doomed society.


Weldon Kees

DG: What was his importance to California literature?

Dana Gioia: Kees came to California in 1950 and created a series of projects in poetry, film, painting, music, and theater. He was a true polymath. He started a literary cabaret, The Poets’ Follies and hosted an FM radio show on cinema. He played jazz, wrote songs, and shot experimental films. He painted as well as wrote poetry. Kees would have been at the center of San Francisco Renaissance had he not killed himself in 1955.


Dana Gioia at Mechanic’s Institute Library, San Francisco

DG: Let’s return to supposed contradictions. Your personal background is a fascinating one—a Sicilian father and Mexican mother, Old and New World. Having myself visited Sicily, it’s certainly a place much like LA, in the sense that the island is a cultural melting pot: Greek, Roman, Spanish, French, Arab, and others, over many years, have come together to form a distinctive blend. And yet, the island is a place of contradicting, dialectical forces—people are both extremely open, gregarious, and welcoming, especially to guests; at the same time, they’re incredibly closed, suspicious, distant, especially to strangers.

You have stated that your “father was the only person in his family who had married a non-Sicilian.” In this respect, there’s even a proverb: “The love of a stranger is like water in a basket,” a sentiment which your parents fortunately proved wrong, but the contradictions nevertheless remain, and many Sicilian authors such as Giuseppe Borgese have commented on these Hegelian oddities: “Pride, and also baronial haughtiness, jealousy, impetus of love and hatred, constancy of loyalty and revenge, loyalty even in evil, generosity, if generosity can exist, even in crime; these are proverbial traits.” Is this really what it was like growing up, or did these traits slowly fade with time in the New World, and how did your mother’s New World perspective ultimately complement the household dynamic, along with your later development as not only a poet, but a California poet?

Dana Gioia: I’m the product of both the Sicilian world of my father and the Mexican background of my mother. I think of myself as a Latin. In both of those cultures, poverty does not keep someone from being proud and independent. I like Borgese’s notion of “baronial haughtiness.” Most relatives had great suffering in their lives. They took pride in their resilience. There was something old-world, indeed medieval about my family. Loyalty and toughness were two key virtues.

My background confuses some people, especially in the intellectual world. I don’t fit their stereotypes of Mexicans, Sicilians, and the poor. If you don’t fulfill their preconceptions, they don’t know what to make of you. I’m well educated and well read. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, but I learned as much in the public library as I did at Stanford and Harvard. Poor people aren’t dumb. I’ve moved among all American classes, and I’ve found intelligent and creative people at every level.

The other thing that confuses intellectuals and academics is that I still identify with the people who raised me. I have not tried to erase my cultural or class identity to become a generic American intellectual. I don’t see much value in an education that separates you from other people, especially your own flesh and blood.

DG: What are you working on at the moment?

Dana Gioia: I have two new books coming out. My new collection of poems, Meet Me at the Lighthouse, will appear in early 2023 from Graywolf. That publisher has been my home for nearly forty years—an amazing thing in the current literary world. I also have completed a new book of essays, Poetry as Enchantment, which will appear in two years from Paul Dry Books, in Philadelphia. Dry published my memoir, Studying with Miss Bishop, last year.

I have two other projects I want to complete—one in verse, the other in prose. I want to finish a book-length poem, called The Underworld. It is a narrative poem that moves in short lyric moments. I’m also writing a critical book titled Two Cursed Poets. It looks at the lives and works of Charles Baudelaire and Weldon Kees.

Who knows how much more time I have? I’m now seventy-one. I’m very conscious of how often older writers lose their edge. A well-known writer can coast on his or her past. I want to write at my best level. If I can finish those two projects with punch and panache, I will be satisfied. Anything more will be pure gravy.

 

About Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia is a poet and critic. He is the author of five collections of poetry, including Interrogations at Noon (2001), which received the American Book Award, and 99 Poems: New & Selected (2016), which won the Poets’ Prize. His critical collections include Can Poetry Matter? (1992) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. He has written four opera libretti and edited twenty literary anthologies.

Gioia was born in Los Angeles in 1950, the son of a Sicilian father and Mexican-American mother. He was the first person in his family to attend college. He attended Stanford as an undergraduate and Harvard as a doctoral student in comparative literature before leaving to obtain an MBA at Stanford Business School. For fifteen years he worked in business in New York before quitting in 1992 to become a full-time writer.

Gioia is the former Poet Laureate of California. He also served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. For nine years Gioia was the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County, California.

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Charles Harper Webb, Poet, Editor, Musician, Psychotherapist, interv...

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Charles Harper Webb, Poet, Editor, Musician, Psychotherapist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Charles Harper Webb’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your upcoming novel is scheduled to be released in May 2022. Without divulging too much, can you give readers a glimpse into the project and possibly also discuss the inspiration behind the work?

CHW: The easiest way to answer your first question is to quote the so-called tag-line for the book: “In the fast-paced, sexy, and very scary literary thriller Ursula Lake, a husband and wife trying to save their marriage and a rock musician trying to get his career back on track find big trouble, natural and possibly supernatural, in British Columbia’s spellbinding wilds.”

The book was inspired by several fishing trips I took into northern British Columbia back when I lived in Seattle. It’s gorgeous country, haunting and wild in every sense of the word—the perfect setting for the novel I wanted to write. The plot grew out of the characters, of course, but the setting, too.

DG: Many writers have said that the difference between poetry and fiction is that the former is crafted with precision instruments while the latter requires hammers and wrenches. Why are such distinctions ultimately unhelpful and how did your work as a poet ultimately influence the direction of your prose?

CHW: Writing a good novel requires precision instruments as well as wrenches and sledgehammers. I prefer a running metaphor: sprint versus marathon. Poetry-writing skills can benefit prose, just as prose-writing skills can benefit poetry. I’ve tried to bring both skills to bear on Ursula Lake. I hope that my prose embodies poetic virtues such as rhythm, conciseness, strong imagery, and potent metaphor, just as I hope my poetry makes good use of the devices of narrative, not the least of which is entertainment value.

DG: One of your crowning achievements was collecting and editing work for Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology. Readers will find no shortage of candid, powerful, and brave poems in these pages. Indeed, the anthology feels and reads like a response to much of the tepid “academic” verse written today. Was this your original intention, and, if so, what would you say is wrong with much of the work written today?

CHW: The Stand Up anthology, which has gone through three different editions, began as an attempt to collect poems which I felt sure that my undergraduate students at CSULB would enjoy. “The cardinal sin of art,” I tell my students, “is to bore.” Too many times, beginning readers of poetry find themselves befuddled and stupefied by the poems they come across, even in prestigious books and magazines. Veteran readers, including me, may also feel that way. This, needless to say, isn’t good for readers or writers of poetry. The three Stand Up anthologies were among my many attempts to  return poetry to being a pleasure, not a chore. To make it, dare I say, fun.

Too much of the poetry being written today fails, it seems to me, to take into account the reader ‘s pleasure or lack thereof. Except in writing workshops and submissions to one’s mom, no writer is owed the reader’s attention. Attention must be earned. Too many poets seem to forget this.

DG: Very relevant to this discussion is your collection of essays about the state and craft of poetry, published in 2016, under the title A Million MFAs Are Not Enough. On one hand, the title seems to say it all—greater instruction of creative writing won’t revitalize the essence of poetry; on the other hand, you’ve successfully taught craft and aesthetics to students who are now publishing their work in some of the best literary magazines, meaning there are benefits and advantages to this approach. In your view, what are the pros and cons of a degree practically non-existent in mainland Europe—the MFA?

CHW: The title of my book means to imply that a readership of poetry specialists, even a fairly large one, should not be the ultimate goal of poets and poetry. I have wanted, from my beginnings as a poet, to entice the “general reader” back to poetry.

Poets have to learn their craft, and a good MFA program can help serious students move forward, and save them years of trying to re-invent the wheel. Students should realize, though, that having an MFA doesn’t guarantee a good teaching job, or any job at all. Nor can it turn every student, however diligent and well-meaning, into a Shakespeare, a Keats, or even a Colley Cibber. The MFA is simply one possible step on the road to possibly writing good poems.

DG: Before embarking on a teaching career, you were a professional rock musician for over ten years. We’ve already discussed the similarities between poetry and prose, but music, despite being a different genre, seems to be even closer to poetry, mainly due to the former’s melodic characteristics, which the latter has much in common with. It would be interesting to hear more about the nature of your musical career—how did the years of being on stage ultimately make you a better poet?

CHW: I think that music and poetry come from similar places in my psyche. My musical ability translates into what poets call “a good ear.” That means I’m sensitive to what sounds good, whether music or poetry. Many of my poems have a propulsive rhythm that feels very rock-and-roll to me. I try to bring the same high energy to my poems that I brought to music.

As a professional musician, I learned the importance of exciting the audience, and giving them a good time. If a band fails to do that, they either don’t work, or don’t work for long. Poetry is a different story. Poetry which pleases almost no one can flourish in academia if a few influential academics champion it. Since there is a very limited market for poetry, there is no real trial-by-marketplace. A receptive audience has no chance to overrule the arbiters of taste, as can still happen with music and novel. (These arbiters of taste, by the way, often have very peculiar, or at least atypical tastes. I could write a whole essay about the reasons why.) My goal has always been to write poems of high literary value that simultaneously enlighten and entertain.

DG: It’s sensible to assume that music still dictates, to a large extent, the writing of your poetry. Is the same true for fiction, or do you gravitate towards something else?

CHW: I try to bring the same musical qualities to my prose as to my poetry. I want my fiction to possess high energy, and utilize language that can roar, whisper, and sing as it tells stories that give the reader excitement, emotional involvement, insight, and pleasure. In both poetry and fiction, I try to write books that I would like to read.

DG: Will you continue focusing on fiction after the publication of your novel or will you return to poetry, and which one, for you, is more enjoyable to write, and which is more enjoyable to teach?

CHW: I plan to continue to write both poetry and fiction. Because I wrote only poems for so long, I have a buildup of fiction-energy that I’m currently using to fuel short stories and two new novels, as well as a collection of prose poems.

Poetry is more fun for me to write than fiction, because poems come out in an exciting rush and generally take less time to complete. The sprint versus the marathon. Also, if a poem fizzles, it doesn’t cost me a year or more of my writing life. I find great satisfaction, though, in creating a whole world, as one can do in a novel and on a smaller scale, in a short story. I’m fascinated by the human psyche, and enjoy delving deeply into characters, watching a compelling story grow out of their interactions with each other and the world.

 

About Charles Harper Webb

Charles Harper Webb has published twelve books of poetry, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms & Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, and Brain Camp. His latest collection, Sidebend World, was published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. A Millions MFAs Are Not Enough, a collection of Webb’s essays on the craft of poetry, was published in 2016 by Red Hen Press. Webb’s awards in poetry include the Morse Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Felix Pollock Prize, and the Benjamin Saltman Prize. His poems have appeared in many distinguished journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Poets of the New Century, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. A former professional rock musician and psychotherapist, he is the editor of Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, and recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the Guggenheim foundation, the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award, and the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: S.A. Griffin, Poet, Actor, and Performance Artist, interviewed by Da...


S.A. Griffin (photo by John Tostado)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

S.A. Griffin, Poet, Actor, and Performance Artist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read S.A. Griffin’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: The poetry you compose remains eloquent on the page, but your dynamic reading style brings an extra dimension of power to your work. How has your background in acting influenced not only what you write, but also how you present it to an audience?

S.A. Griffin: That’s very kind of you, thanks. Does my experience as an actor influence my work as a poet and performer? How could it not? One always informs the other. As to what comes first, it is the chicken or the egg. In truth, I’ve probably learned more about acting banging around in cafes, clubs, bookstores and libraries than I have in most any acting class as these forums tend to be more liberating. The poets’ voices are often unfiltered, the structure being whatever the individuals bring to it, or what the crowd allows. As a general rule, readings and performances are an arena with few, if any, rules. No one knows what to expect as they all hope for the unexpected, and often get it. Aside from the few times I actually write about acting or my experiences in the entertainment business, acting has little influence on what I write or what I do as a poet except that I have been fortunate enough as a professional actor to patronize myself.

The very first place I ever read poetry in public outside of school was at the Water Espresso Gallery’s Wednesday night open readings in Hollywood about 1981-82. The Water was part of a complex of creative spaces in a building that rested at the corner of Santa Monica and Hudson owned by artist and entrepreneur Frederick Sauls, who claimed the entire top floor as his residence. The building also housed the Figtree Theatre next door to the Water, and the Lhasa Club in back, with its entrance on Hudson. Three vital venues. During that first year, I deliberately read everything very flat so that the words had to kick on their own merit. I worked at not acting, just reading. I suppose you could call that acting. Ironically, I found out about the Water through an ad in Dramalogue, which was the periodical of note for stage actors at the time. Those open readings at the Water were small gatherings that first year, really geeky. It wouldn’t take long for it to really take off as there were scant few places to read or perform back then in the Hollywood zone. Johnny Forever, Ben Downing, Salmon Murphy, Doug Knott, Michael Lane Bruner, Mike M Mollett, Peter Coca, Johnny Cool, Rod Smear, Sally Thielen, Allen J. Freedman, Fernando Castro, Steve Clark, Mike Maggio, Bobbo Staron, Jimmy Townes, Lynn Rosen, Leah Really, Steve Wolfe, Linda Sibio, and Alan Pulner were some of regulars. Bill Murphy ran the place. After the readings were over, the fun began. Murph would lock the doors and we’d all hang with him long into the night, drinking, smoking and talking crazy creative shit. The Water became our poetic home until it closed sometime in 1985. After the Water closed, the Lhasa Club became our ground zero.

DG: You were a founding member of The Lost Tribe, and the founding member of The Carma Bums, two poetry performance groups which were remarkably active in touring the U.S. Can you talk about how it all started and some of the fondest memories you have of those years?

S.A. Griffin: The Lost Tribe sprang out of the aforementioned Wednesday night open readings at the Water Espresso Gallery in Hollywood. That is where I met Michael Lane Bruner, Doug Knott and Mike M Mollett. We all wanted to break out of the reading scene that we were experiencing and do something more with our words. Leap off of the page, make what we were doing more accessible. Transform our poetry into something like a band, making ourselves the instruments. At the time, punk was everywhere, not just in music, but in everything, everywhere. It was a deeply symbiotic time, exciting as hell to be alive—everyone skinny-dipping in an amazing, swirling, counterculture miasma. The post Vietnam energy of the time was bold, urgent and electric, pushing everyone to go beyond where they were politically and creatively. Techno, Ska, Reggae, New Wave and performance art were all raging white hot. Rap and hip hop were on the rise.

We came up with the name, the four of us squatting in the back of Mollett’s 1964 VW Dada bus (no seats in the back), one of those super rare buses with 23 windows that sported “Questions of the Month” on its side panels. Questions like, “Is there life on earth?” or “Whose karma am I hearing?” He had sold the bus to his friend Hermine, a fellow Dadaist. Hermine lived in Orange County and was kind enough to shuttle us back to L.A. after our reading that night. A truly wonderful human being. Head shaved, tattooed, scores of piercings with a heart of art, a punk soul and a beautiful mind. We cooked up the name on our way home that night in the infamous bus. A group effort all the way.

On our road trips, I was always the driver because it was always my car. It sounds a bit corny, but I also considered driving a big part of my performance. For this maiden adventure, I needed to get my ride road worthy, a 1971 Mercury Capri that had been in an accident. I’d purchased a 1972 Capri in perfect shape that needed an engine. The morning we lifted off, my neighbor and I literally pulled out the good engine, stuck it into the new body, bolted it down, loaded up the guys and all their gear and we headed off. Four adult whack jobs and all their stuff shoved into that little car, pure trust and instant insanity.

April Fool’s weekend, 1985. San Francisco, our first Lost Tribe gigs anywhere, and our first road trip beyond the gravity of Los Angeles. That weekend San Francisco was experiencing 80-degree weather and blue skies, picture perfect postcard weather, rare for San Francisco. We had three gigs booked, but only one panned out, the San Francisco Intersection of the Arts, which quite appropriately fell on April Fool’s Day. About a dozen people were at that first Intersection gig. We could not have had a more auspicious beginning. One of the venues that bailed on us had actually put a sign on their door that said, “Gone Fishing.” Don’t blame them.

DG: One of your most thought-provoking accomplishments came with The Lost Tribe, which ran for President of the United States as a collective candidate. Naturally, the prospect of winning was slim, but the campaign nevertheless helped further the cause of poetry. What are some of the things you did in this respect, and do you think we’ll ever have a poet-president?

S.A. Griffin: Jimmy Carter wrote and published poetry. Abraham Lincoln wrote poetry. Barack Obama is a published poet and a great orator who quite often uses uplifting poetic language. If our democratic experiment can survive our present turmoil and widening divisions to achieve some balance, then maybe we’ll be ready for a poet president. Czechoslovakia did it, why can’t we? Amanda Gorman has already publicly stated that she aspires to be president someday, and she seems rather unstoppable. So, maybe in the next quarter century we’ll have President Amanda Gorman. More than anything else, we need more humans in public office. We need that which can be argued drives and divines the poetic: candor. However, our culture has a bad habit of clearing the forest in order to see the truth of one tree. And what good is a tree alone?

When we collectively ran for president in The Tribe Must Be President Out of Historical Necessity at the Boyd Street Theatre directed by the late, great Scott Kelman in January 1988, I doubt we moved any needles or changed any minds with our absurd poetic slapstick, but we sure as hell had a good laugh. And judging by our audiences, so did they. If we did have any positive affect on our audiences, maybe we got a few apathetic intellectuals to get off their smart asses and vote.

I ran on the merits of my prominent proboscis suggesting that voters “pick my nose” because I obviously had a “good nose” for the office. Bruner was the good neighbor, the “human” candidate for president who wanted everyone to march to his goose-stepping rhetoric, or else! Doug was running on a love platform, because he really loved everyone, especially since he was running for president. Mollett was probably the most qualified having literally, “nothing to say.” He just stood on stage, shrugging his shoulders and looking at the audience with a dumb “Who me?” Alfred E. Newman look repeating, “I have nothing to say,” as we all began to attack one another until we were all “dead” on the floor. A fitting end as we all bid a fond farewell to the slamming punk ‘80s and the Reagan-Bush era. This would also be the end of the Lost Tribe, our last gig until being briefly resurrected for The Carma Bums 1992 Lost Tour of Words where we opened our shows as The Lost Tribe, took a break, and then returned to do another full set as The Carma Bums. The only time we toured with all six of the Bums since Mollett didn’t go on the first tour, and Bobbo Staron was only along for the ride in ’89, ’91, and ’92.

DG: To what extent was the approach and style different when comparing Lost Tribe and Carma Bums, and in which troupe did you feel your creative powers to be at their highest?

S.A. Griffin: Apples and oranges, equal parts sweet and sour. By design, the Lost Tribe was a very well-rehearsed, choreographed poetry-performance ensemble with costumes, props, wigs, fake beards and occasional asides. The one unnegotiable rule for the Tribe was that we never wrote anything for performance. Never. We only used material deliberately written as poetry for the page, then we’d tear it apart as a group and reassemble it. Each poem became a separate little play, or song. Our goal was to take something that was meant to be read and make it readable as performance. There was always someone on lead, the person who wrote the poem, with the other guys generally functioning as chorus. Not too far removed from what the Greeks were doing centuries ago. The Lost Tribe memorized everything, all very well-rehearsed and polished. The only things that the Bums had in common with the Tribe were a few memorized poems and common members. As The Lost Tribe we had a blast performing, but working together could be hell. People who sat in on our rehearsals would often comment that we were just like a band, always arguing. We were, and are, bad brothers to the bone. We were gigging all over the southland, and people we digging what we were doing. At one point we were scouted by the Tonight Show, but didn’t get the booking. However, we did book The Gong Show as “Slobs in Suits” and won with the lowest score ever recorded: 8. I think that we are all rather proud of that stat, I know I am. It was our experience at the time that nobody else was doing anything like what it was we were doing as a group. Remember, this was before performance poetry really took off. Before slams came roaring in and took over the top of the pops as Spoken Word. Also, before the internet, so whatever was happening on one end of the country, or even in another part of the state or county, wasn’t necessarily being heard beyond regional borders. Punk and performance art was happening everywhere with separate, unique scenes in Hollywood, downtown, south bay, Orange County, etc. We were working our butts off playing everywhere we could. The other thing that the Tribe and Bums have in common, is that it was always the very highest of highs, and lowest of lows. But man, when it clicked, it was free as a bird. A thing of pure joy and beauty.

By 1988, I was well into my second marriage, my son had arrived and the acting was really taking off. The biggest problem at the time with the Lost Tribe was the endless arguing, which had become toxic. We were also starting to come apart because as we got more popular, the devil started showing up in the fine print as ambitious goals and ideas began to invade. This wasn’t good. The other rule the Tribe had was that if one guy dropped out, the game was over. Nobody could be replaced. I dropped out and hit the top of everybody’s shit list as poetry public enemy number one. The Lost Tribe raged from April 1985—January 1988, and for the one brief Lost Tribe—Carma Bum tour, The Carma Bums 1992 Lost Tour of Words.

The Carma Bums began in a much different way, as the antithesis of the Tribe.

Whenever I go on location, I always seek out local poets and poetry readings to fill my down time. In April 1989 I was working on a Perry Mason movie of the week in mile high Denver as the guest star bad guy. It was a four-week gig, so I had plenty of down time. I hit all the opens I could, one night ending up at Muddy’s Café, a Denver club that closed in 1997. This open reading was a game changer in every way. I signed up and read, heckled when I hit the stage for being from Los Angeles, a predictable cliché. After the reading one of the poets introduced himself to me, Ed Ward. Ed was, and still is, one of the prime movers and shakers on the Denver scene. Through my association with Ed, I would learn how Denver and Venice West were directly connected, remaining so to this day. Ed and I hit it off and began spending a lot of time together, my new Beat buddy hipping me to the regional history and local legends, going out of his way to introduce me to the local poets, including Larry Lake (Bowery Press) who at one time, was an active member of the Venice West community before moving back to Denver. At the time, I was deeply vested in Beat lit and poetry, and although I knew of Neal Cassady and Larimer Street, I knew nothing of the Holy Barbarians of Venice West who had fled L.A. to reestablish themselves in Denver, where they blossomed and thrived.

Ed was going to a book fair at a junior college in Denver, inviting me to tag along, meet some of his pals. Leaving the parking lot, we made our way down a tight, winding path that felt like dropping down the rabbit hole in Wonderland, the path finally opening up to reveal a small grassy knoll in the center of a complex of buildings where this poetry reading was happening. I was immediately taken by what I saw. Everyone was actually listening to whoever was reading as if what was being said was actually being heard, or important. I was blown away. It felt like magic, like the kind of thing I had been looking for in Los Angeles. Lots of great readings in L.A., no doubt, but this one that we had stumbled upon this day seemed to possess an extra edge of something indefinable. I spied to see if there was a sign up, or who might be in charge. I quietly crawled over to the person who seemed to be the keeper of the names and whispered, “Where do I sign up?” Art Goodtimes whispered back with a broad Cheshire grin, “You already have!” That moment, this epiphany, was the true genesis of what would become The Carma Bums.

When I returned to L.A., I began making phone calls. The first poet I called was Scott Wannberg. I had been aware of Scott and his poetry while working as part of the editorial staff for Jim and April Burns’ poetry ‘zine Shattersheet. The ‘zine published a lot of great poetry, but more importantly it was the only poetry periodical in Southern California from that period that was publishing extensive lists of venues and readings. Michael Bruner and I had experienced Scott doing The Ed Meese Blues at the Anti-Club with Kevin Jacobs on guitar. It was completely improvised. As Scott was blowing language like a mad volcano, I turned to Bruner and said, “We have found the source of the river.” Scott remembers this as before we’d met, but I remember it as after. However things did or did not happen, I really connected with Scott at a backyard poetry shindig somewhere in the Valley produced by Vol. No. Magazine (Volume Number Magazine, 1983-2000 published by Richard J. Weekley). That day Scott and I became instant, inseparable friends. I then called Michael Lane Bruner and Doug Knott. We were also hanging out a lot with singer-songwriter Bobbo Staron, another person we’d met at the Water Espresso Gallery. Bobbo was not only a gifted singer-songwriter, but was a natural master of deliberation. We had met Giggling Goddess of Word Ellyn Maybe at a Midnight Special Bookstore open at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, that evening being her first-time reading poetry in Los Angeles. When Bruner and I went to sign up, Ellyn had just put her name down on the yellow legal pad as “Ellyn (maybe).” As she stood in front of us shuffling her feet and nervously twisting her hands we asked her, “Why ‘maybe’?” After an extended bout of nervous giggling, she finally said that it was because she was too shy and didn’t know if she’d be able to read in front of an audience. I looked at her and said, “You are Ellyn Maybe.” The last person I called was Laurel Ann Bogen, but she begged off saying that she had slept on enough floors in her time. Wise move, as the Bums slept on many a floor during our twenty years on-and-off the road together. Once I had the poets set, the real detective work of booking the shows began. Destination Denver was a given, we would perform at Ed and Marcia Ward’s Passion Place. I spent weeks on the phone scouting leads, cold calling venues, explaining who we were and what we were doing. If they didn’t bite, I’d ask if they knew of anyone who would be interested. And so it went, the first year’s crew being me, Bobbo, Bruner, Knott and Wannberg, with Ellyn Maybe as our opener.

All of us that were members of the Lost Tribe had been studying performance with Scott Kelman in downtown Los Angeles. Deliberation and empathy. Where the creative nervous system was always, and is only, process. I knew that the guys really wanted to do something, so did I. The itch to perform our poetry as a group was still there, but I really didn’t want to argue anymore. Not fun. In order to avoid any arguments, I told everyone that it was my car, my money, and my idea, all they had to do was say yes and come along for the ride. I would pay for all the gas and hotels; they were responsible for feeding themselves. I also told them that we were going to be called The Carma Bums, the name coming from three sources: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, karma, and Cadillac, King of Cars: The Carma Bums. I figured that funding all the fun might preclude most all of the struggle and pain, and for those first years, it worked. I had recently bought a somewhat broke-down 1959 Cadillac Sedan De Ville for $2,500 and dropped a few grand into it, making sure it would be road worthy.

The first trip was August of 1989, to Denver and back, the scene of the poetic crime: The Carma Bums 1989 No Seat Belts Tour of Words. Our first show was at BeBop Records and Fine Arts in Reseda (1982-1990), owned and operated by Richard Bruland and Rene Engel. Across the street from the world-famous Country Club, BeBop was the place to read or perform in the Valley and regularly held one of the best opens anywhere. Los Lobos, Henry Rollins, Victor Banana, Holy Sisters of the Gaga Dada, Beatle John the King of Reseda, Linda Albertano, Jane’s Addiction, Michael C Ford, The Minutemen, Dave Alvin and Jack Brewer are just a few of the incredible acts that came through there. The night of our first show was packed. Our opener, Ellyn Maybe, killed. It was a great gig. After the show, Mollett spray painted red polka dots on the front hood of the Caddy and the word “FARTHER” on the trunk, and with that the Carmamobile was born. Having been built years before Ralph Nader blew the lid off the auto industry with Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, the 1959 Caddy didn’t have any seat belts. This feature also figured into the Bums’ open structure and our tour name, No Seat Belts, indicating that anything goes. In theory, the new rule was, no rules. In practice and performance there was no rehearsal, no choreography, no costumes or props, no predetermined ideas, no plan; all poetic improv and process. Any poems were to be seamlessly included as they spontaneously flowed out of the improvs. Free and easy, including reading off the page if one so desired. Tear down those walls! Everything that happened from the moment we were together on our two-week tour of words until the moment we returned to our homes was the rehearsal and the performance, which was always on, and literally, on the road. No holds barred; everything was up for grabs and gabs. The second year Mollett would join the group and Bobbo would drop out for The Carma Bums 1990 No Seat Belts Tour of Words. The brilliant and beautiful Ellyn continued to open for us off and on into the mid 1990s.

The Tribe was all practiced moves and memory, the Bums all group grope, or as Doug Knott would later describe us, “mortification theory in practice.”

Aside from the bookings themselves, not much else was thought out or planned. Once on the road, all direction was by sense, or if necessary, folding map. As a result, we ended up in some pretty strange and fascinating places, like the edge of a high cliff at the end of a silent meadow thousands of feet in the air somewhere in New Mexico, or the entire group crashing in a single room at some whorehouse motel next door to a carwash in Seattle on our 1990 tour. That first trip in ‘89, the alternator went out along the Continental Divide in Frisco, just beyond the Eisenhower Tunnel. Trying to find an alternator for a ’59 Cadillac in a small town of about 1,600 at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon was pretty exciting, but I managed to find one and got us back on the road. Somehow luck was always with us, making it to each gig with enough time to check out where we were, get something to eat and perform. Sometimes we’d leave for the next destination right after performing, but usually we’d leave the next day, giving us time to hang out with whoever was hosting us.

In concept, The Carma Bums were meant to only exist on the road. I deliberately never fixed the Caddy’s speedometer so that we never knew how fast we were going, which never stopped one of the guys bitching at me for putting the metal to pedal, but I sure as hell got us to where we were going on time. I also never fixed or replaced the broken radio, so that we were forced to interact with one another. Nobody could really focus on speed or distance, or be distracted by canned or digital music coming out of the dashboard, just one another and whatever was going on in that great big beautiful car floating effortlessly on its way, suspended in time rolling across empty stretches of lost two-lane highways and byways disappearing into the horizon. As suggested previously, everything that happened the entire time we were together was part of one single ongoing performance, process. On that first road trip in Taos, New Mexico, without knowing what the others were thinking or doing, we all simultaneously reached up and unscrewed the light bulbs hanging overhead at the exact same moment to indicate that the show was over. Doesn’t sound like much when you read it, but it was quite surreal in action. Later, we would all wander into the dark New Mexico night led by our host Peter Rabbit, who took us down the Penitente trail, where we all took turns hugging the old rugged cross at the trail’s end, swaying back and forth under the weight of it as we spontaneously offered poetry to the milky stars. In Boulder, Colorado, we parked outside the big glass façade to Penny Lane so that everyone could see us partying and ranting inside the car, wondering what the hell we were doing, and when were these freaks coming in? But they had no idea that the show was already on, that we had deliberately seized their undivided attention. As we exited the car and entered, we carried whatever conversation we were having with us into the venue as the show flowed interior.

Many who saw our shows over the years said that the Carma Bums was more of a happening than anything else. From the beginning, we had people following us from gig to gig: the First Amendment Hallelujah Chorus. In 1989 it was actor Eb Lottimer in his big red 1975 Cadillac convertible, and poet Uncle Don Fanning in his Toyota pickup. At our peak on the Carma Bums 1991 Start from Zero Secret Tour of Words we had about thirty or so friends and poets on the road with us. It was pretty amazing. During that weekend in Ocean Beach and San Diego, we ate carpet, walked on our knees on the Ocean Beach Pier, and created the Vortex within which Bobbo performed a spontaneous wedding for Michael Perrick and his girlfriend Rachel. The weekend culminating with a spontaneous “secret tour,” our cars slowly parading through Ocean Beach, all of us waving at people waving back wondering who in the hell we were. On this secret tour we met a homeless man at a Burger King who interacted with us that we decided to call “Dave.” Whatever he said, we responded with “Dave.” After a few minutes of this, he kept anxiously repeating, “My name’s not Dave!!” And we’d say, “Of course not, Dave, we know that!”

DG: Antics and improvisation featured heavily in your shows—there are two in particular worth mentioning: With the Lost Tribe you once stormed Gorky’s, a downtown restaurant in LA, and in a Vancouver Carma Bums performance you were bitten so badly in the chest by a drunk girl that you began bleeding; with regard to the former, although such “takeover” shows were unpredictable, presenting potential liabilities, they were nevertheless precisely coordinated, while something like the latter incident is unforeseeable in the best circumstances and infectious in the worst. Can you talk about how these “takeover” shows were planned, and if stuff, in most cases, actually went according to plan, and what about that incident in Vancouver—did you feel things were getting out of hand at that point, even by Carma Bums standards?

S.A. Griffin: The Gorky’s show is one of my all-time favorite performances by either group, something we couldn’t possibly get away with today, we’d be shot. We never planned any of this stuff, it all came out of each unique environment. Usually, the Tribe would be booked at places with stages, or in small galleries. However, Gorky’s was a restaurant right off 9th and San Julian in downtown, and always playing the cosmic ball where it lies, this was our stage, our moment. As the Tribe, even though we were well rehearsed, asides and improv were still always part of the equation. Easy to surmise that the Gorky’s audience really knew nothing of who we were or what we were doing, just that there were was going to be a poetry reading. I don’t recall how we acquired them on the spot, but we all decided to wear pantyhose over our heads and bust through the door as if it were a robbery. As we flung open the doors and rushed into the place, I had my arm around Mike Bruner’s neck as if he was my hostage. With my free hand, I picked up a fork and stabbed a baked potato (stealing it from some innocent patron’s plate), as I held the stuffed spud to Bruner’s neck I shouted out to the patrons, “Nobody move, or the potato gets it!! Everyone just relax and behave as if you are all at a poetry reading and no one will get hurt!!” Bruner was great as the hostage cowering before the threat of the baked potato begging, “Save me!” At the same time that I was barking orders and Bruner was begging, Doug Knott and Mike Mollett were calmly, but urgently telling everyone to, “Just relax, pretend like it’s a poetry reading.” The potato lived. We had a blast. Like I said, if it were today, somebody would have probably shot one or all of us, including the innocent baked potato, and we would’ve made the nightly news for all the wrong reasons.

For the Carma Bums, as primarily an improvisational troupe, this was always our prime goal, inhabit the space, find it. At our gig at the Black Bart Playhouse in Murphys, CA (an old gold mining town about 27 miles from Sonora) we stood outside arguing over whether or not we could use four letter words for almost an hour. The audience was primarily older people, and there was fear within our ranks that we’d offend them. In time, free speech won, as once again the poem ruled the day. The Black Bart was an old theatre with a proscenium arch and elevated stage for an orchestra pit which rose about five feet high. The place had a house that would hold about 3-400. Our audience of 30-50 were scattered throughout the middle seats. Our mission as a group (besides having a good time) was to break through any preconceived notions or ideas. So, we decided that the five of us would start at the back of the house (where we could not be seen) and as we entered, introduce ourselves to every single member of the audience as we worked our way up to the front of the stage. It was quite a wonderful thing to see all their faces light up as we took our time to introduce ourselves to every one of them, working our way to the front, where we never stepped foot on the stage, doing our entire show from the floor in front of it. Everyone had a good time, and nobody said one word about any words, dirty, or otherwise.

Another truly memorable Carma Bum show was in Big Sur at the Henry Miller Library where we led everyone into a redwood forest after they thought the show was over. We had scouted the location, as we always do, first thing. We discovered that about 50 feet or so from the appointed performance location, there was a beautiful redwood forest just out of sight. This too we argued over, for about half an hour, some of the guys worried that nobody would follow us down. But in time, process and creative fun won. We did our regular set up top as expected, then slowly, as a group, when everyone thought the show was over, we began to move toward the path that led down into the redwoods as we continued performing. As we wandered into the giant trees, the show had only just begun. Only one person didn’t follow us down. I cannot tell you how truly magical it was to be shouting poetry and song into the branches of those sacred ancient redwoods as the audience followed along. There many are other examples too, again, each show unique.

As the Carma Bums, nothing was ever rehearsed or planned. What happened at the Smash Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. as part of our 1990 No Seat Belts Tour of Words was a wild and crazy spectacle that nobody could have seen.

There was a beer hall next door to the Smash Gallery. About four or five young punkers, 86’d from the place, had discovered the gallery and were swilling down all the free beer. As we attempted to launch into our set, the small gang of young punkers were now an obnoxious gang of very drunk young punkers with no beer who decided that they weren’t going to allow us to do our show. But as we used to say in the Lost Tribe, “Fakers who fake fine art have met their match.” Long story short, we struggled through, with the drunk punks inserting themselves into our show as part of an out-of-control improvisation that we were attempting to ride like rodeo cowboys on a wild bronc. Their attempts at improv weren’t wearing well as the battle for the Smash Gallery stumbled along, the sloshed invaders upstaging the hell out of us, a gig that we had travelled all the way from Los Angeles for. The only woman in their ranks, completely blotto, kept following me wherever I went, shoving her Doc Martens directly up my ass. Her boyfriend, who was about my size and many years younger, as part of his unwelcome performance had been repeatedly calling her “Death.” Finally, she had kicked me in the ass one too many times, so I turned around, took her by her shoulders and shouted, “I am tired of death in my life, I want love!” and wrapped my arms around her in a sincere effort to stop her from putting her boot up my aching butt, and to offer what I thought would be a loving embrace of peace. That, as they say, was my first mistake. She wrapped her arms around me, buried her face into my chest and dug her teeth into me. She went primordial, clamping down on my chest like a starving animal. I immediately tried to pull her off, but the more I pushed and pulled, the tighter and tighter she clenched. I pulled at her hair, she bit harder! I pulled again, she clamped down even harder!! As the intense pain increased exponentially, I was becoming more than a little concerned about what was going to be left of my chest. So, after multiple failed attempts to disengage, I did the only thing that I could do before this rabid weasel actually ripped my flesh and slapped her once hard enough that she finally let go. She was stunned, so was the dumbstruck boyfriend who thought he was too cool for school. Improv, over. The gallery went silent waiting for someone to make a move as the boyfriend and his entourage stood there in complete disbelief. “You’d better get out of here before somebody gets hurt,” I said. And with that they turned and disappeared into the night. We went on a bit longer with some more improv and poetry, which was all kind of anti-climactic. Some incredibly excited guy that ran a local club came up to us after the show and started offering us drugs, money and even women if we could do it all over again at his place. We kept telling him that we were lovers, not fighters, that this was all unplanned, trying to convince him that violence wasn’t our thing. That our gig was to go with whatever was happening, and at that place and time, that was what happened. The next morning, the entire left side of my chest was swollen and completely black. If I hadn’t been wearing two layers of clothes that night, it might’ve been the emergency room, rabies shots and the jaws of life to get her unclenched. This poetry stuff is sometimes a dangerous business.

DG: At that time, did you ever feel there was a disconnect with the so-called “high art” you were doing as a published poet/Hollywood actor and your work on the road, and how has your view changed, if at all, with regard to your live performance years?

S.A. Griffin: I don’t know if I’d call anything that I was ever doing, or that we were doing, then or now, high art, except maybe we were stoned at times. I don’t really think of things as being high or low, only creative. When it works, it’s high, when it doesn’t, it’s low. Regardless of form or forum, the goal is the same: get there. It is all, process.

During my Poetry Bomb tour at Progress Coffee in Austin, Texas, I had an audience of five people. That included my brother Charles, two friends that drove up from Corpus Christi and the barista, who was very nice to us. So, the one person that was there for free, worried I wasn’t going to deliver the goods because the small audience blurted out, “Hey, are you going to give us the same show you give everybody else?!” Shooting from the hip I fired back, “Whether it’s five people or five thousand, everyone gets the same five dollar show for free.”

In general, you can suggest that as poets, we have been, and are, outsiders. Not a bad place to be, you can be high and low at the same time. I’ve been called a rock poet, punk poet, street poet, performance poet, page poet, outlaw poet, Meat poet and Beat poet. I would suggest that I am somewhere in the middle of all of these things. I’m just lucky and grateful to be recognized by anyone as “poet.” And even luckier to have made my living as a professional actor since landing here in 1978.

Michael Lane Bruner (now a professor of persuasion and politics at UNLV) and I talk all the time about how we can bring the all these worlds together, but it remains rather impossible since the demands of the academy are so rigid. One could argue the same about the alternative, or underground scene as well, that they too can be just as rigid in their assumptions. The prejudices and jealousies often go both directions at once, with guilty parties on all sides. I just published a third book with Bruner, a collaboration between Bruner and Mollett on my Rose of Sharon imprint, Hard to Say in a Way that Might Be Heard. In this book especially, poetic language is really being tested, or “unreadable” in some circles. It’s a beautiful thing. Presently working on another book with the two Mikes, Windows to Talk Through, for which I’ll be on board as a writer as well. Ironically these books that my friends and I are writing, that I am sometimes publishing, that nobody really reads, and the true majority of what most all of us in the small press world create, are more than likely what academics may be studying in the future.

DG: Lost Tribe and Carma Bums proved that poetry can be appealing to people who aren’t academics—it can be fun, entertaining, and may I dare say also relevant. In many ways, your work as a performance poet came at the expense of being shunned by academia and the mainstream literary industrial complex, but that’s a small price to pay. Many have gone even further to say that the study of creative writing should be discontinued altogether and that writers should really live like writers, instead of merely “learning” how to live like one. What’s your take on these matters and why is there such a disconnect between writing that’s taught and writing that’s lived?

S.A. Griffin: I have heard that some schools aren’t even teaching English anymore, much less creative writing. Cursive is out, civics too. From what I understand about this rumor regarding English, seems that the assumption is that computers will teach children how to read and write. Critical thinking for dummies. I hope that this isn’t true, but I fear that there may be some truth in it. We just keep dividing and separating, dumbing ourselves down to the point of neo-feudalism. It seems to me that this is all a part of an orchestrated apathy. A political and cultural cancer that rots from the head.

Who knows how a writer lives? Writers survive. You live, you have a life. You read. You listen, with your ears, your heart. You learn, keep learning. You remember, you forget. You let it all go and it all comes back to you on the page, or in performance. As Jack Micheline said, “This cat eats everything.” I find that I am most comfortable among creative people, especially poets, because they live openly, some by choice, but most as a matter of emotional and creative survival. Poets don’t hide well; they don’t know how.

I don’t really think that what we did really reached enough people to say that it was much of a success in any way that would actually effect much change. Individuals, yes. Based on response and immediate feedback from many of our audiences over the past forty years, we certainly succeeded with many of them. It is unfair to suggest that academics are really against us, or can’t be reached, although it can be quite a high and rather impenetrable tower. There is also some truth that the small press doesn’t register with the star fucking machinery of New York and beyond, no money in it. But honestly, so what? We do what we do and will continue to do, regardless; whether it is academic, coming from a big publishing house or in some small café. Over the years, that was always our goal, my goal, Michael Bruner’s goal as both an academic and a small press operator, to break down these barriers and talk to one another. The theme that has been running through most all of this interview. A theme that is found in most everything we do—break down the walls, scale the walls, splash paint the walls, graffiti the walls or simply ignore the walls and wander freely beyond, singing to the empty mirrors that will inhabit you. It really is hard to say in a way that might be heard when you are stepping out of familiar bounds. Fear is the ghost in most every machine. The fear of not being accepted, of not being good enough, smart enough, talented enough, of being found out as a fraud. Granted, some are simply lost in their own wonderland of wonderful, never to be found. More power to them. I try to sidestep those trains as they come charging down the tracks. There are many fine examples of academics with the common touch, some sadly no longer with us. I know of quite a few amazing poets teaching in colleges and universities.

DG: Who are some of the poets writing today that you particularly admire in terms of their fearless and commitment to the craft?

S.A. Griffin: I am very fortunate that many of those that influence me the most profoundly are those closest to me, my friends and colleagues. And they are all, deeply committed to their craft. Venice West poet Tony Scibella died with his boots on, so did Scott Wannberg. They were both creating until the very last. One of Scott’s best poems, his last, The Cleaning Women Will Tell You What You Need to Know to Get By, was penned within a few hours of his passing.

DG: We have to talk about The Poetry Bomb, one of the most fascinating, original poetry projects. Can you talk about how you first got the idea for the project and how you managed to get a bomb in the first place?

S.A. Griffin: I still don’t have any idea where the idea came from. It was like a field of dreams sort of thing; I just had to find an old bomb and fill it with poetry. Everything reveals itself in the process. I had been looking for some years before I actually found an inert bomb. They just don’t exist anymore. The hippies smoked them all in an effort to end the Vietnam War, or they were turned into coffee tables. Who knows? I was looking everywhere, eBay, Craigslist, called old junkyards, went looking on military sites, nothing. I had kind of given up. Then late one night, it just hit me to do a search on Craigslist and there it was, a bomb, for $100!! I immediately hit the link and got it. The guy that I bought it from said that he had just posted it at midnight, and seconds later, I was the first hit. He even delivered it to me. Serendipity. Meant to be.

DG: In a 2013 KCET article written by Mike Sonksen, you state the following: “War, the art, artifact and artifice of war were created to invent and enforce agreements. Hopefully by transforming this piece I have created something that will inspire disagreements. The democratic process depends upon disagreement in order to function. By definition all agreement can only happen as a result of disagreement. As a nation, as a people and as a government, if we do not learn to disagree immediately, we are lost.” Given how the tendency to disagree with anything mainstream these days is a recipe for being cancelled, have you felt the urge to revive this project you’ve called a “weapon of mass discussion?”

S.A. Griffin: It saddens me to say that the project is much more relevant today than it was when I went on the road with it in 2010. Seriously, who woulda thunk? I would love to go on the road with it again, but that takes money, which I don’t really have right now, and I honestly don’t much like asking anyone for money. It is something I really don’t do very well at all. The van that I had bought just for the bomb, a 1995 Ford Econoline van conversion, I sold to a friend who needed it to live in years ago. One of the best vehicles I have ever owned, a real workhorse of a vehicle. The bomb fit perfectly resting on the hideaway bed, strapped down tight with her nose snug between the back seats. And gas today is extraordinarily expensive. Trust me, I was taking a big chance rolling around the country with a bomb in a van then, and it would be an even bigger risk today. The night before I pulled out of town in 2010, there was an event with a bomb in New York City. All somebody would have to do is pick up a phone and say, “Hey, there’s a crazy old bald guy in a van, and he’s got a bomb in the back of it!” And that, my friend, would be all she wrote. But if I could get the dough together and book a decent tour, I think that the time is more than ripe to shake a few apples from that tree.

The Poetry Bomb 2010 Couch Surfing Across America Tour of Words was a five-week, 11,000 mile journey around the continental United States. The bomb’s name is Elsie, after my paternal grandmother. I grew up with world class dysfunction and abuse, my grandmother really kind of loved me into being. Elsie is just over seven feet tall. A one-hundred-pound MK 240, Vietnam era 1970 U.S. Navy practice bomb that shows the scars of use. It took the effort and input of about half a dozen friends, fabricators and artists and six months to create her. I had my hands in it every step of the way. She has about 1,000 poems and art from all walks of life and from all four corners of the globe stashed safely inside of her. There are also the ashes of beloved pets, family and friends inside. Elsie has a Mobius hatch and was painted a beautiful blue by One Day Auto Body. The exquisite pinstriping is by Skratch, a gifted pinstripe artist and metal fabricator best known for his work on TV’s Overhaulin’. Skratch freehanded the entire piece in one day as we sat and rapped while jazz played in the background. Incredible!

At every venue I would reach inside Elsie and pull-out poems to read aloud. Then at some point, I would point to the bomb and say that all of these poets collected inside of her have tacitly agreed to be in there together. That war, the art, artifact and artifice of war were created to invent and enforce, agreements. That hopefully, I have invented something that will inspire disagreements. That all civil discourse, all democratic process depends upon disagreements, and if we don’t find a way to disagree, right now, we’re fucked. And that, was the sole reason for creating Elsie and touring the country with her, to tell everyone that would listen, we must learn to disagree, to agree to disagree, before it is too late. What is happening is more than just cancel culture, it is the end of civility and quite possibly the end of our republic if we don’t get our heads out. It’s a toxic pushmepullyou, and nobody wins. We have devolved into a world into a world of willful ignorance where science and reason are no longer relevant. Algorithms ‘R Us in this, the United States of Reality Show. When I was a kid, the future was supposed to be flying cars, not flying monkeys. To quote the incredibly amazing future President of the World Greta Thunberg, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah ….”

End of story, lights out. Humans: Zero.

DG: Let’s talk about Scott Wannberg, your close friend with whom you had the great fortune of collaborating on many endeavors, including Carma Bums, and your short film, Tumbleweed in a Box. Along with a discussion of the movie, can you talk about the influence Scott Wannberg had on your work, your fondest memories of him, and what it meant to have that rare friend who never drove but “always rode shotgun… spiritually and physically,” as you said?

S.A. Griffin: Scott was my best pal, a human’s human and poet’s poet. A big man with beautiful mind and a beautiful heart. As I said before, he was the source of the river, the radio. We had a deeply symbiotic relationship and would spend hours in free association, riffing nonsense, rapping, talking endlessly about film, or rattling off political satire with wild names for all involved. We would come up with some nutty scenario, plot it out and then sure hell, Scott would write it. We performed a few of them at readings, and on radio shows. The first one we freaked into being was Max Roach and the Case of the Missing Dead Nude Models. I was always intrigued by the signage on that giant strip club just outside of LAX that reads, “LIVE NUDE MODELS.” Why would anyone want to see a dead model? Our hero detective was Max Roach. At the time, we weren’t hip to the famous jazz drummer Max Roach, we were just going for what we thought was the obvious stoner reference. Max was out to solve the mystery of the dead nude models that kept popping up all over the city. In the end, it was the evil Ed Meese, the Reagan era U.S. Attorney General, Mr. Meese Report, that was the bad guy. Most of the plays Scott wrote were hilarious satirical things that included everyone around him, things that he created on his own although sometimes I’d generate a wacky name or two that would show up like Kinda Sleazy Nice, or Dick Chainlink. Scott loved the absurd, he had an incredibly inventive mind and super smart sense of humor, which was always evident in his work. He almost always worked stream of consciousness while listening to music: roots, blues or some fine bluegrass like Hazel Dickens, Norman and Nancy Blake, a movie soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith or his uncle Ken Wannberg, the Grateful Dead, John Prine, Lucinda Williams or Dave Alvin. He rarely edited any of his work as his hands flowed virtuoso across the qwerty keyboard with a blurring speed and grace. Music was incredibly important to Scott and his process. Scott was a true Dead Head, he and I attending many of their concerts together. Scott would spend the entire time dancing full tilt boogie hands dancing and feet shuffling like they were on fire. Hand dancing was something we did a lot together. We would extend our arms toward one another and just let the electricity express itself through our frantic hand and arm movements. Lots of fun, you should give it a shot. Scott was also a huge fan and good friend of Dave Alvin, and according to Dave, whenever he had a gig in town, Scott always had a fresh poem waiting for him in his dressing room or stuck inside his guitar case, whether Scott was able to make Dave’s show or not. One of the most unique things about Scott was that he often wrote spontaneous poems for anyone he had just met, writing them on napkins, paper plates, pieces of cardboard or whatever was available to him that he could write on. I must’ve seen him pen hundreds of such poems. He would jot them down at warp speed and then hand them to the stunned person lucky enough to be in his sites. I would love to find and collect enough of them for a book, scanned images on one side, deciphered poetry on the facing page.

Scott was a voracious reader, an avid student of American history and a political junkie. Much like Jack Kerouac, Scott had a driver’s license but never owned or drove a car. He was dog’s best friend, cats too. Born in Santa Monica, he spent the majority of his young life in the San Fernando Valley but did attend and graduate from Venice High School. Scott received his Masters in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University where he studied with Stan Rice and was mentored by Daniel Langton with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence. A book of poetry, Salesmen of Mourning (1977), was his thesis. His oral exam was on Walt Whitman. Another poet who really turned his head was Charles Bukowski. As Scott wrote in his poem People Just Aren’t—

Bukowski taught me a very important thing when I was
beginning
You can write what you see and you can see what you
write and you can write anything
There is no taboo subject matter

However, his most profound influence was William Carlos Williams and his search for the American idiom in writing. Scott spent much of his creative and intellectual energy in search of the same as evidenced in his poem The Dancer Steps Forward.

Scott was a world class cinephile. Before there was IMDB or the internet, there was Scott Wannberg, typing up endless reams of lists—film and television shows with entire casts. His favorite film was The Wild Bunch, his favorite actor, Strother Martin. Other favorite actors were Frank Faylen and Whit Bissell. His favorite directors included Sam Peckinpah, Sam Fuller and Budd Boetticher.

When he was in high school, Scott and a few friends found out where Strother lived and decided to pay him a visit, crawling over the fence into Strother’s backyard where he was relaxing poolside. Strother asked Scott who he was and what he was doing there, “I am the president of the Strother Martin fan club,” Scott happily replied. Completely taken by Scott’s contagious enthusiasm and genial charm, Strother invited them in. Scott was in heaven as Strother and his wife spent the afternoon entertaining the “Strother Martin Fan Club” poolside, Strother regaling them with stories of his life as an actor and champion swimmer.

I very happily carry on for Scott as his estate, keeping his work in print. Scott was the true genius of our crowd, we shall never encounter his like again in this dream of life. I miss my pal every day.

DG: Although you’ve traveled extensively over the years, LA is the place you’ve lived for the past forty-four years. What makes this city unique and what are some poems written about it that you particularly enjoy?

S.A. Griffin: Los Angeles is the mother of reinvention.

Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, Harry Northup and Iris Berry have all written some great poems about L.A. Doug Knott’s Sunset Strip Self Improvement Affirmations is one of the best poems about L.A. I’ve ever experienced.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

S.A. Griffin: How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter.

 

About S.A. Griffin

S.A. Griffin lives, loves and works in Los Angeles.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Grant Hier, Anaheim Poet Laureate Emeritus, interviewed by David Garyan


Grant Hier (photo by Xun Chi)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Grant Hier, Anaheim Poet Laureate Emeritus

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Grant Hier’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your long poem, Untended Garden, won the Prize Americana; one of its major themes is the human connection to nature—the very aspect of our lives many individuals seem to be losing. In addition, it doesn’t help for countless academics to argue that language is the ultimate signifier of belonging, when simply knowing how to speak can still make you an outsider—the immigrant, indigenous, and minority experiences are proof of this. Can you talk a little more about what inspired the poem and why you ultimately believe, like Jeffers, that place—especially the nature which has surrounded us for thousands of years—might be more relevant to the human experience than the languages we’ve invented and continue to invent.

GH: Thanks, David. That’s a connection I’ve not been asked about before, and one that bridges the main theme of Untended Garden with an implied one, often overlooked. Yes, connection to nature is at the very heart of it, absolutely. And as a part of that, connection to other humans. My worldview is that humans evolved with the Earth, as a part of nature, so with that comes an obligation to co-exist responsibly—with respect to all of it, literally, since we are all one organism in essence. But if you see all things being created separately from humans, as in the Orthodox World View, with humans then placed into this garden and told by their God that they are granted dominion over nature, to “subdue” it and do with it as they pleased, well then … you might not be as concerned with how we treat things. By the way, Jeffers’ world view of “inhumanism” is often misunderstood, but he thought that all of nature was divine despite humankind’s presence in it, and treatment of it.

The other point you mention about academia and language directly parallels this, and it is also about recognition and authority. Let me start with that part, and then offer a few examples to clarify, because I think that will help to answer why “place” is so relevant. It’s a complex question! And an important one.

Okay, so first, yes, there are definitely those in academia who argue that language is the ultimate signifier of belonging, a code they have reinforced with their hiring and publication histories, it’s clear. But it’s also true that those who know how to speak “properly”—meaning, according to academic standards—will sometimes still be treated as an “outsider” by those very same people, and kept out of the power structures. We know from studies like those at Yale’s Linguistics Department that instructors who hail from minority ethnic groups get accused of being “difficult to understand,” even though they are extremely articulate and speak a standard dialect of English. We know without a doubt this prejudice exists. It’s at work against students, too, sadly. Teachers will sometimes judge students as being less intelligent if they hail from households that speak “non-standard” dialects, and these students will receive lower grades based on that alone. Worse, they’ll be discouraged throughout their academic careers because of it. It’s horrible. A student with a “non-standard” dialect too often gets judged as lazy or stupid, when in reality they might speak more languages than the ones judging! “Linguistic prejudice” is what it’s called: The negative stereotyping of those who speak differently than oneself. You see it rampant outside of the educational system too, of course, like in the housing market. Or when jurors discount testimonies, as was the case in the George Zimmerman murder trial. It’s very hard to root out because people just don’t see it, or want to see it, much less admit to it.

It starts with each individual. I mean, we all walk around babbling our opinions of the world, with “me” and “I” the most common words chosen by this brain that, you know, because of the way our senses feed it, thinks of itself as the center of the universe, around which everything else revolves! We’re tethered to our first language as our primary way of making meaning and expressing ourselves, so it’s understandable that one’s “native tongue” is an integral part of self-identity—as is the place one was born, or grew up in. That makes total sense. But here’s the thing: Rather than belonging to a place, some claim the place as belonging to them—“their” hometown, “their” nation—as “their” God-given birthright, which is the Orthodox World View. And when these attitudes get carried to the extreme and treated as absolutes, well, that’s where you’ll find nationalism and jingoism … and Grammar Police.

Language is used as a signifier of belonging, as you said, but there’s a real blind spot to history when people try to preserve the language as “pure”—by which they mean the way they speak it. This also parallels other ways that the power elite manages to keep the under-represented under-represented. When I got to college, I saw this linguistic prejudice inherent in some of the highest educated people I know. And then, too, when I got to graduate school and started teaching. There is a real attitude of elitism held by those in high positions of power in universities and in businesses, and I think it often stems from a feeling of superiority based on the number of degrees hanging on the wall or money in the bank, but which often downplays the reality of the streets. I’m not accusing everyone in academia of this, of course. But you can find it there, for sure.

Here’s the truth that often goes overlooked: that even though some groups claim to be the authority on things and the keeper of the rules, there is no universally objective correct way to speak English. There’s no “right” or “wrong” meaning for any word, or way to pronounce something, or permanent rule of grammar. At one time I believed there was, because that was what I was taught, and those rules were enforced within the fixed systems of my orbits. But once I began studying semiotics and linguistics, and how all languages naturally evolve on their own, it was clear that those artificial frames that strict grammarians put in place can often lead to intolerance and prejudices, and those attitudes can manifest into discrimination and injustices in our society. This is why it needs talking about.

Grammar policing is based on intolerance, but English thrives because it is a tolerant language. English has remained widely spoken through history precisely because it’s remained the most open to changes, always hybridizing, assimilating new words and new word meanings and usages as new speakers adopt and adapt it across the globe. It needs to be malleable to serve the needs of its ever-changing users. I know there are prescriptivist grammarians who balk at this, but those who study linguistics and semiotics understand that words themselves are merely symbols, possessing no inherent meanings, much less “correct” meanings. What any word “means” at any given time is determined solely by usage, and usage is constantly evolving along with the culture, especially with English. I like Alan Watt’s example in The Way of Zen, how a child is taught to accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed upon term for that tall thing over there with branches and leaves. One role of education is to assimilate people into a society, whether it uses “tree” or “boojum” to denote that beautiful branching thing over there. And I myself uphold these broad societal conventions as a teacher of writing and rhetoric, of course. Yet … I also recognize that language conventions are always shifting, and differ according to region, even. The U.S. and U.K. divided by a common language, as one example. So yes, we teach the conventions of our time and place in order to communicate, which in necessary, but it’s when the rules are thought of as inflexible that the problems arise.

For instance, both as a teacher and an editor I was taught to correct the very common “misuse” of the word “hopefully” when being used as a disjunct to describe an emotion: “Hopefully, I will win …” Because old school grammarians had long ago declared “the rule” that its only function is as an adverb: “’I will win,’ I said hopefully.” Very few teachers and editors enforce this now though, because, well … it’s an archaic rule out of touch with current everyday speech. It’s rarely even used as an adverb anymore. But believe it or not there are still some out there who get all bent out of shape over that! Such prescriptivism is … ridiculous. You can really see the futility of Grammar Police where their own inconsistencies bump up against other strict conventions, like those in science. I mean, what we call the magnolia flower’s petals aren’t really petals, you know. And a strawberry isn’t a berry. And a koala bear isn’t even close to being a bear! Jellyfish. Starfish. Horned toads … The same Grammar Police insisting on correctness use these “incorrect” scientific terms unwittingly, every day. Just imagine if scientists acted like those inflexible grammarians: “It’s a ‘Lady Beetle’ not ‘ladybug,’ you fools! And don’t ever call that other beetle a firefly because it’s not a fly, and saying it wrong weakens all of science and causes communication to suffer!”

Hopefully … (hah!) my analogies make sense … That languages grow organically, as shaped by their environment, right? Sure, one can practice Grammar Bonsai and force stems and trunks into specific shapes with shears and clamps and wires, but trees grow perfectly fine on their own. And since it’s about control and the assertion of power, it can sometimes be used to signal other ways of controlling. The blatant flaunting of who has the wealth and status as seen in the man-made gardens with rows of roses or manicured mazes behind imposingly high gates. The physical manifestations of superiority and class status. By the way, Tom Stoppard uses this same analogy in Arcadia to discuss the class conflicts in Britain, using the conflict between the Classical and Romantic sensibilities—yet another implication I wanted to evoke with my title Untended Garden. The meticulously landscaped gardens from the 1700s were meant to convey power and the ability to impose order. But then the zeitgeist changed as people rebelled against those straight-line restraints of 18th-century Neoclassicism, preferring to honor the wild heart over controlled intellect, and so Wordsworth ushered in a new attitude with poetry as “the spontaneous flow of powerful feelings reflected on in tranquility,” as he said, which then evokes a new emotion, one that can then be molded into art. And so the naturally wild gardens of the Romantic movement overtook the forced symmetry of the Neoclassical era. “The astonishing beauty of things — earth, stone and water,” as Jeffers put it. The wild groves of coastal redwoods preferred over the overly manicured Gardens of Versailles. I’ve never pointed this out before, but I partially allude to this in a brief ars poetica passage in Untended Garden:

It was the purple grace of Sweet Alyssum
that defined the placement of the path.
My brain insisted one way, arguing
in eloquence of Euclidean logic
for a straight course between
the porch and the gate. But the heart
(never good at logic or direction)
demanded something else:

respect for things encountered
along the way, regardless of
distance or convenience.
And so I succumbed,
laying pink paving stones
in a snaking trail to avoid.
Perhaps more than required,
but no more than necessary.

Anyway, regardless of whether you think language is some innate faculty or a cultural system we learn, the bottom line is this: If a language becomes inflexible, a language dies out, as Latin did—now termed a “dead” language because no one speaks it anymore, because changes weren’t allowed by the pedagogues. And the changes that the Language Police claim are now ruining English are actually the very things keeping it healthy and relevant, what has kept it alive through the ages. In a living, thriving language, changes in word usage and word meanings occur naturally. Inevitably. And constantly. New definitions evolve from the previous definitions once found in dictionaries. (And if you read the editors’ notes and prefaces in dictionaries, by the way, you’ll see that they are there to de-scribe how words have been used and are currently being used, not to pre-scribe how they “should” be used.) So I think it’s really important to educate people about this, because broadening our frame of reference can remove some of these biases and injustices that are rooted in the false perception that “bad” changes come from “outsiders” who speak differently than we do, the fears from Linguistic Prescriptivists fighting against change, arguing that everyone needs to learn to speak the “proper” way, meaning the way they do. “English Only” initiatives, and all that.

Okay, here’s one last example for perspective. Rewind English back to the Middle Ages. It’s the same language that you and I are conversing in, but because it changed day-by-day since then, only 15% of that vocabulary has remained. We probably wouldn’t even recognize it as English because it sounded more like a blend of Dutch and German spoken by those living near the North Sea. Anyway, after settlers brought it south with them, its adaptability as a hybrid is precisely what kept English alive and the preferred choice of the people, eventually displacing all of the tongues and dialects in place in Great Britain that had previously been brought in from the Romans. And so then the Norman Conquest brought a major evolutionary shift in word usage, and grammar, and spelling, and pronunciation … More toward the heavy French and Latin infusions, and so the era of Old English morphed into this transitionary stage for several hundred years that scholars refer to as Middle English, with Chaucer riding that new wave with his corresponding new style of English literature—earning him the title of “The Father of English Poetry.” Then came the “Great Vowel Shift” and sonic changes that drastically changed the English language yet again, and so on, in a continuum, right up to this afternoon … Now, here’s the truth that often goes uncelebrated: It was the rural, non-educated laborers that played the biggest part in keeping English alive and the preferred tongue of the people, by readily adopting and assimilating words from the various influencers that passed through, often mispronouncing those foreign words and employing them in new contexts and with different meanings to suit their own situation and needs —which subsequently, through popular usage, became the agreed upon new meanings and usages of those words. If there were Grammar Police who somehow managed to stop language’s evolution and froze the meaning of “nice” in the Middle Ages when it was spelled necy, or nesy, or nyci, say, then when you called your mother “nice” this morning, you were really calling her ignorant. Or foolish and silly. Or, if the Grammar Police somehow froze its meaning at the Elizabethan Age, you were calling your mother lascivious, as Shakespeare called the “wenches” in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Yikes! Can you imagine! But nice later came to mean virtuous. Depending on the era, calling your mother “nice” would have been understood to mean anything from vulgar to respectable, cultured to slothful, agreeable to fussy and difficult to please. The Oxford English Dictionary lists all of these, and dozens and dozens more as being the accepted definitions for “nice” since the 1300s. I picked “nice” because it’s had more time to evolve, but the point is that word meanings change all of the time. Many words today mean the opposite of what they used to mean, like awful, egregious, and terrific. And now “literally,” literally means “figuratively” as well. “Unique” currently has the listed definition of “the only one of its kind,” but soon “rare” and “unusual” will be listed too, simply because more and more people are using it to mean these things. And that’s okay! It’s certainly nothing to get bent out of shape about. Funny, too, that the current pet peeve of Grammar Police is when people use “ironic” to mean “sarcastic” or “coincidental” because until recently—meaning, in their lifetimes—it hadn’t meant those things. So they outright insist that these are not what it “ironic” really means, and then try to “correct” the recent “misuse,” or worse, make fun of and ridicule the speaker. Well, guess what? “Ironic” really does mean coincidental now, because that is how the word is commonly being used and largely understood to mean. By the way, “ironic” actually derived from the Greek for sarcasm and simulated ignorance, which many current Grammar Police now insist it doesn’t really mean. (People might call this both “ironic” and “nice”—both sarcastically and not …) People need to accept that language is very much like art and culture, people driven from the bottom up rather than policed from the top down.

And that’s exactly the crux of it as it relates to your question: It is exactly because language is a collage of its users’ imprints that it is also a portrait—of all users who came before. We fail to understand our full identity if we fail to recognize the influence and importance of our own evolution, the unseen threads that connect us. To which I would add, not just in the distant past. Look at how some today discount the contributions of immigrants, or the “lower class,” and others labeled as “outsiders,” who might speak differently and so are judged as “lower,” who aren’t part of the privileged power structures and so aren’t regarded as essential or belonging. Bigots will gladly benefit from the fruit of their labor and make fun of their speech, appropriate their symbols and rituals without a second thought, and then appropriate their words and mispronounce them.

I see these things as being directly related. They are symptoms of indigenous tunnel vision and historical myopia. Much racism is hidden, or “unintentional,” as people say as a way of forgiveness, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging, of course. It’s true, though, that many are never taught the more complete histories, or shown the less obvious connections that bridge us. Which is why we need deeper education, and from multiple points of view. Otherwise, the “haves” born into power, “owning” both wealth and the dominant language, will continue to feel superior over others and resist any changes to that, trying to keep things “pure” (meaning, freezing the world the way it was with them in control). And Grammar Police will continue to tell you their efforts are noble, upholding the “correct” way of things in resisting change. It’s a form of binary thinking: Us/Them, Right/Wrong, Good/Bad. They consider themselves the defenders of language, protecting it and preserving it. But again, language is a naturally changing thing, reflective of the very culture and beyond any individual’s control. They might as well stand at the shore, hold up their palms to the surf and demand the tides and waves to stop moving in, to use a Jeffers’ analogy.

And like Jeffers’ poetry, here’s where that extends into your observation on “place” and belonging. The key lies in understanding the links to our past, which brings awareness, and a switching from the narrow framing of “self” in the “now” as being the one true reality. I strongly believe that education is the key. More specifically, educating ourselves as a society to the larger reality of our interconnectedness, to how things have evolved and to gotten us to this place, including all of the peoples and voices that came before. This is crucial to our understanding of ourselves, to understanding how nature works—and by extension, crucial to our survival. Allowing the opportunities for everyone to share their own stories is what can most build empathy and unite us toward a common good, and yes, peace and justice—and this is precisely what the arts provide. By widening and deepening our knowledge base, listening to many points of view, seeing from perspectives different than our own, discerning the connections while honoring the individual cultures and voices within that—as opposed to isolating and building walls or trying to reject and exclude what might appear as different or foreign. I don’t want to go on too long about this, but it’s all related, and central to your question. And to the major themes of my work, I would say. The unseen connections. The stories untold that exist just outside of the lens of those histories that are dominating the discourse. This last point is exactly the focus of my latest book, California Continuum, Volume 1: Migrations and Amalgamations, which I co-wrote with John Brantingham, the inaugural Poet Laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks. John is one of the best writers working today, and it is always an honor to work with him. We’re currently working on a Volume 2, and will be inviting a diversity of voices from a wide variety of authors, the common threads being those invisible ties we don’t recognize, but which bind us and our common humanity, regardless.

That’s exactly what inspired Untended Garden. As a very small boy I would dig in the dirt of the front yard of the new tract home that my parents had purchased when I was less than one year old, and where I returned to live in my 20s, and currently live with my wife. When I was a child I would also dig holes as I played in the sand at the base of the foothills where the San Gabriel Mountains flattened out to the western Mojave, which is where my grandparents had homesteaded when they were in their 20s. Martin Aguirre, the last Sheriff of Los Angeles County to patrol on horseback, used to ride through that area, and he was the best man at their wedding … Anyway, we found arrowheads out there. And my grandfather, years earlier, had found old sunbaked, hand-made bricks. When I asked about what these were, I was told they were left by the people who once lived here before we did, long ago, and my brain just lit up. It was like the sky cracked open. Whenever I would dig into the Earth, my brain would soar into the sky, tingling in anticipation of what I might discover, imagining those who also held this very soil in their hands—wondering what they looked like, sounded like, acted like, believed in.

I think that might have been what started my storytelling and writing. At least, it was the catalyst that kickstarted my imagination to soar across those open landscapes of California’s wilderness, the desert night sky strewn with the ridiculous brilliance of blue-white stars and the Milky Way glowing like … a spilled sack of flour, strewn to bridge the horizons … Sorry. I got a little too poetic there! But such vast distances urge the mind to wonder. And the power of it, the questions … They just well up inside a child. And my grandparents and parents all invented stories and poems and songs that they shared with my sister and me on a daily basis. I was reading by the time I was three, my parents tell me. CUT TO: Me having moved back into that childhood home in Anaheim where I once played in the dirt, with the saplings that my mother’s mother and father’s father planted in the front yard now towering some 30 and 40 feet into the suburban sky, my sister’s and my tiny handprints still visible in the cement that my dad had poured in the backyard, even a few of those Mojave bricks long since built into the fireplace wall by my dad’s hand. So, there I was, surrounded again by these rich visual metaphors and having been just accepted into graduate school to earn my Master’s Degree in Literature and Creative Writing at CSULB, sweating out in the yard, building a picket fence around the property line—that irony not lost in the verse I was about to compose! As I was digging holes narrow and deep in which to sink the long fence posts, as I lowered each pole far down into the darkness, I was that child again, pondering those unknown stories that I knew were linked to this place but that I had yet to discover, asking myself exactly who and what had lived during each inch of sediment’s brief time as topsoil. What had hunted, fled, bloomed, and thrived during each successive season on this open plain? Which prior to that was marshland. Which prior to that was ocean floor. What did this garden look like back when wilderness reigned, then after that when rancheros were defined by compass needle and land grants, then after that aligned into orchards, then streets, then the sweeping edge of cul-de-sac curbs? I saw the fence post—wielded by the privileged as claim of possession and individual ownership of “place”—now doubling as a metaphor for the vertical axis of time that connected things—not by blood, but by the continuum of all the forms that have occupied this same space through the ages: the floating signifier of “family.” All living things that occupied this patch of earth, and that have also called this place “home.” The flora and fauna. The hummingbird and rattlesnake. The juniper bush and jimsonweed. The mushroom and cocoon. Those Millingstone Horizon peoples and the Tongva. The missionaries and ranchers. Orchard owners and laborers. And, more recently, my grandparents homesteading, then planting new trees in their childrens’ garden (the barks of which grace the covers of my books). Then there’s me, temporarily migrating away as a young man, but ultimately returning. And now my wife and I add to the story with our history of stewardship of this patch of land, with our dogs and our weirdo cat.

Untended Garden has the subtitle “Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia,” and the term “Reinhabitation” I borrowed from Gary Snyder, which he coined in his essay of the same name, and which I quote from as one of the epigraphs to the book:

“How does knowledge of place help us know the Self? The answer, simply put, is that we are all composite beings, not only physically but intellectually, whose sole individual identifying feature is a particular form or structure changing constantly in time. There is no “self” to be found in that, and yet oddly enough, there is… no self-realization without the Whole Self, and the whole self is the whole thing. Thus, knowing who and where are intimately linked.”

That’s it. Now, the knowledge of the Whole Self, Snyder argues, requires our re-discovery of the natural cycles of nature that we’ve lost touch with—the mineral, nutrient, air, and water cycles, for instance—and if we keep in contact with these energies, we can then let that knowledge ethically guide our actions toward the planet and ourselves, in sustainability and gratitude, thereby “reinhabiting” nature after being estranged from it. This really speaks to me, and was exactly what I was implying in my attempts at discovering, or re-discovering, the histories that came before I arrived, and my place in that continuum.

That said, there’s a huge gulf between becoming aware of something and truly understanding it, much less understanding it from the inside. I knew I could never possibly know the minds of those peoples from other cultures that came before, be they Tongva, or Millingstone era, or earlier immigrants. In my poem the narrator states outright:

Some plants reject grafts too alien
to the native rootstock, and I will not
attempt to appropriate cultures and
customs beyond my reach
and understanding.

I will not romanticize the past.
The muddy dark holds shell after shell
of unworthy myths, and perhaps I’ve sunk
yet another with this, but there will
always be some leaking boat
left behind as new revelations arrive.

I cannot deny the mistakes I’ve made.
I will not raise my hand to the breaking waves
and ask them to stop…

To be clear, artists need to be free to assume characters far different from their own, of course, lest literature be reduced to exclusively first-person accounts. But in this case I didn’t want to attempt to speak from another’s point of view, or in any way appropriate cultures or pretend to have knowledge or experience not my own (something Snyder himself was accused of profiting from in his own Master’s Thesis, Turtle Island). Instead, I wanted to allude to those people who migrated here, including my own relatives, but without ever assuming to be them. In some places, words and phrases from the Tongva language appear, indented and in italics, arising in the poem as … oh … the sound of a river might, gradually emerging into one’s consciousness. That was what I was aiming for, at least. Those Tongva words are not attached to any specific character, but do parallel to some degree what the narrator is thinking, or seeing with his own eyes, in that same place, centuries later.

I was thinking it would be cool to have the reader discover these histories as I discovered them, so the main quest is told via a persona who is occupying the same physical place that I once did, discovering those fragments of the buried past as I myself had discovered them, and I presented them into the narrative that way. But even as the narrator’s arc of discovery is sequential, from not knowing toward knowing, it is not a continuously chronological story. There are unspecified gaps. And I wanted to create a greater tension by having the much older histories staggered non-chronologically in a 3-way braided narrative. Craft wise, typographically, I made the distinction by having three different indents on the page: The “now” persona is flush left in that limited first-person point of view, unsettled within his own ignorance and seeking understanding. In the central column I placed voices and events of the more recent past, deeper down that vertical axis of family, which include parents and grandparents, with allusions to developers, ranchers, missionaries, and Tongva. A third column farther right penetrates the even older histories, the Millingstone Horizon culture, other migrations of peoples and species, plate tectonics, the formation of the planets and the solar system, and yes, all the way back to “the singularity / of one explosion.” It’s a big canvas!

And it took an enormous amount of researching, pondering, processing, writing. The crafting of it was very similar to composing a musical piece, I found, where there are movements, motifs, and various tempos at play, creating a dynamic flow. And because of the weight of the subject and grand scope of it all, it resulted in a longer, more immersive experience, roughly the shape and length of a classical symphony actually, in three movements of 13 parts each. The first draft was the creative element of my master’s thesis, and took a year to compose. My research was pretty intense, beginning with me poring over plats in the City of Anaheim’s records office, then maps in libraries, photocopying U.S. Department of the Interior Geological surveys, State of California Department of Water Resources water tables, aerial photographs, and even pages from Thomas Brothers map books. I stacked the photocopied sheets in chronological order and began to understand the layers of the history of the land, running my finger along ancient creek beds, city wells, contour intervals. I likewise educated myself on the indigenous plants and animals of the area, and did a considerable amount of studying of the earliest known lifestyles, as best we have records of. The different social structures, belief systems, and rituals once native to this place. Nomenclature became a major concern. Those peoples who were inhabiting Southern California when European colonizers arrived have been referred to by various names, like Gabrieleño and Fernandeño, but these were imposed by outsiders, so there is wide debate over what their “proper” name might be. Regarding this, and the vocabulary that I cite in the poem, I didn’t want to be another outsider messing with someone else’s language, or profiting from it, so I immediately knew I wanted to donate all of my author earnings from the book to non-profits like the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, which is one of the groups I sought out and consulted, along with leading linguistic scholars, and members of various tribes connected by bloodlines—some claiming to be the only true authority on the matter. It is not without its politics, let me tell you. I decided to use the word these peoples called themselves, according to the extant records: Tongva. My wife, incidentally, is part Tongva, with documented DNA lineage, and she is registered as a member of the tribe. She has some Mexican blood too—and of course this place was also once part of Mexico. She is more native to this place than most …

Anyway, after graduating, I came across other lesser known histories that seemed essential to the poem, like that of the Council Tree in downtown Los Angeles, so I kept working on it sporadically over the next few decades. Then, some 20 years after the poem’s inception, I happened to see a call for submissions for Prize Americana, and when I read their mission statement, it resonated exactly with what I had been attempting: “… creative writing to enact positive social change …that examines such issues as social justice, human rights, environmental awareness, the human condition, diversity, love, compassion, ethical and moral obligations. Projects that empower and uplift humanity.” So I submitted it, and it won, and the following year it was published as a book as part of the prize.

Now, some creative projects of mine unfold over long periods of time, but 20 years was definitely my longest gestation period for a single poem! In retrospect I can see that it really did require all that writing and reflection and revision to get the tone and pacing and content in the right balance. And once I discovered the mysterious cogged stones at Bowers Museum shortly after I had completed the first draft, well … the poem really opened up for me. Because I knew I had to widen and deepen the depth of focus, to long before the arrival of the Tongva to Southern California some 3,500 years ago.

I then began adding the histories of other migrations here, from the Great Basin, and even earlier events before recorded history. The poem at that point became more like a Mugen Noh play in places, with time being not linear so much as a sphere, or even taking place outside of time, or atime, with characters from vastly different eras appearing on the same page, alternating lines—and at one magical point the narrator briefly shares the same typographical line, opposite a woman carrying her child across that very same soil, centuries before—the narrator:

When I wrote that, it gave me chills. Because symbolically, that was spot on in terms of connecting with the past and aligning with it, to reinhabit on many levels. The setting can also be seen in a mythic sense, with the central garden doubling as the world omphalos source of life. Plus, of course, all that a “garden” might symbolize. So, all these ancient histories, both mythic and scientific, required a separate omnipresent POV in places as it moved away from the flush-left limited first-person POV, the authorial voice expanding to attempt to contain multitudes, as Whitman claimed to do. It was truly exhilarating, and a bit scary to attempt something of this scope. I want to clarify that I was also “assuming” as Whitman did—not the cultures or voices of others, but rather, “assuming” in the sense of engaging and inviting the reader in, as an astute reviewer once also pointed out, which gave me some reassurance I had achieved my goal in that regard. So, yes, without specifically naming the cultures, or assuming to represent them, I point to them as I myself discover them. The suburbanites, developers, slave laborers, invaders. The Tongva, and other previous occupants of North America who migrated here, going back more than 12,000 years ago, according to Mitochondrial DNA evidence. And I go farther back still to “Mitochondrial Eve,” whom I allude to only once in the poem, but she’s a key symbol. Not the first Homo sapiens woman, but around 150 thousand years ago, as all other mother’s bloodlines dead-ended on the hereditary tree, it was only her offspring who continued. Ready to have your mind blown? Okay, that woman’s genes have been carried by every human thereafter, including all 7.8 billion walking around today. So … randomly pick any two people from anywhere on the planet. Okay, now sample their DNA. Bingo! There’s her mitochondria strand in both of them. It’s been handed down through each person born ever since, across the millennia, a gift from that one woman who walked this planet, oh, some 51 million sunsets ago. Meaning … if we trace our tree backward, all human lineage converges at this same point, a shared great mother. Meaning we are all, literally, distant relatives. That fact still takes my breath away. If more people remembered this more often, we might be treating each other better.

Which brings me back to my first response to this question: yes, connection to other humans, and to all of nature, is really at the heart of it. I think it’s important to write about because everyone frames their “realities” tightly around only fragments of stories and experiences that have happened only in the most recent blip of time. And because of this we fail to see the unseen threads that exist, connecting every one of us. So we feel cut off, even though we are not. Live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, receding into the lonely country, feeling separate and alone. And so we invent separate fragmented realities, ironically, in search of a sense of identity and belonging, a sense of place and home.

DG: Speaking of place, you’re the current Poet Laureate of Anaheim, a city, like so many in California, that possesses a rich, indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and more surprisingly, German history—the translation of heim from German is “home.” It must be particularly challenging balancing these often-conflicting histories in your work. As Poet Laureate, how do you reconcile these forces with each other to make a harmonious whole?

GH: Well, the thing is, even though I would call myself an optimist, I don’t see the city as ever being a harmonious whole, any more than I see California, or the United States as a harmonious whole. Or the world, for that matter. Though I can see us being far more peaceful and more accepting of each other, that’s for sure. Anaheim certainly has its share of ugly histories and conflicts. To this day. There is so much political division and growing intolerance here—and all over the world, really. The trend is not encouraging. Still, I refuse to lose hope. As I say when I teach conflict resolution in my Critical Reasoning classes, conflict resolution takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

I think it’s like music. What you have to do is listen carefully to the voicings, and seek out complementary notes to build into chords. Then seek out complementary chords groupings toward a larger theme, if that makes sense. Reduce the dissonance that way. Try to find a common air that respects all individual notes within the chords, to extend the metaphor. It takes work and careful listening. Large changes will need to take place systemically, but even the smallest gestures of respect are crucial, because they create a good atmosphere, and in that way we can model the world as we wish to see it. One act at a time. Like when we give a slight nod to the stranger as we step into a line with them at the market. Or out on the streets. I’m thinking of the Anaheim Stadium parking lot exiting onto State College after a concert or ball game. Or the Disneyland Drive offramp that narrows away from the Santa Ana Freeway. Think of all the people cooperating but who don’t think anything alike … Red bumper sticker, blue bumper sticker, green bumper sticker, no bumper sticker, each taking turns merging. And it doesn’t matter one’s personal point of view or what we do in the privacy of our cars or homes or bedrooms. We aren’t bothered by that. We simply share the space as second nature, and treat each other as equals without arguing or cutting in front … Well, usually! Okay, so maybe the 5 Freeway wasn’t such a good analogy. But seriously, just think of that. Danusha Laméris, in her poem “Small Kindnesses,” nails it:

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other…

Oh, I know that there are those who don’t follow this model. Or even believe in it. Make no mistake, I have very strong opinions, and I am ashamed at and appalled by much of what some have done, and are doing now in my community, my city, my country. I speak my personal politics and resistance to injustice through my actions, and my world view is quite evident in my writings. The blatantly political poem I let fly when appropriate and necessary. But I also recognized that were I to use the mic as Poet Laureate to do nothing but shout my personal beliefs and shake my clenched fist in the air about the ugly politics and prejudices within Anaheim, of which there are many, it would do little to sway anyone—and it would be rather selfish of me, I think, because it would be more about me, and I was there to promote poetry. I knew if, instead of shaking my fist, I offered an open palm, and literally extended it to others with a microphone in it … and I made sure it happened when the public spotlight was there anyway because it was following me as Poet Laureate… If I invited and encouraged those who normally never get to be heard to come step up onto the stage and into the spotlight, and at a time when people were specifically there to listen… If I then stepped aside to let the voices of Anaheim speak for themselves, the people experiencing firsthand how their voices mattered … and the community saw that too and started listening more … that’s what mattered. So, that’s what I wanted to do.

And so when they contacted me to say that the Mayor wanted to announce the first Poet Laureate post at a City Council meeting, and would be inviting me up to hand me a fancy gold embossed proclamation, I requested to have a few minutes at the mic too, to make a statement about the post—knowing it would be livestreamed into Anaheim homes, recorded as part of the official minutes of the meeting, and locked into the official records. And they granted me that! It was great. So with the mayor standing at my side and the City Council posed for a picture behind me, along with declaring my gratitude and my deep love for this city that I’ve lived in all of my life, I first noted that the naming of a Poet Laureate and Literary Ambassador for Anaheim was a historic and bold statement about the importance of the arts in our community—and that poetry is about community. I then quoted one of my mentors, Robert J. Brophy: “…literature is largely to make us more compassionate, larger-souled, immeasurably more perceptive … it is to wake us from somnambulance, to clarity, and thereby to make us better citizens.” Then with that as preface, I let my intentions as Poet Laureate be known, by way of a passage about family and tree planting from Untended Garden: “This book is about roots, about Anaheim history, but moreover about the longer histories of the geologic formations, and the lineage of migrations to this region. In studying our past, we are reminded that every one of our families moved here from somewhere else. And like our nation, our city is strengthened by such diversity. Anaheim is no singular thing. As Poet Laureate then, rather than attempt to be Anaheim’s voice, I will facilitate ways for the city to speak for herself, inviting the community to read and write their own poems along with me as I visit our schools, our libraries, our businesses. Celebrating ourselves. Singing ourselves. The old growth and new buds.”

It was important to stress this, and I made it a point whenever I could, including in my interview before the Poet Laureate selection committee, and in my subsequent meetings with city employees. I emphasized that I shouldn’t be seen as the voice of City Hall, or as an elected official, or have anyone view me as their employee or in any way controlled by the City—because I wasn’t. That my politics and poetry would always remain my own. Because I was still going to write blatantly political poems when they came to me—about racism, pay inequities, the environment, corrupt politicians, the makers of war, the refugee crises, and so on—just as I always have as a writer and artist. I was still going to have these political poems published in anthologies like PEN America’s Only Light Can Do That, and in literary journals, and in my own books. And so that’s what I did. I read these poems as part of the Poet Laureate public programs. I took a knee for some eight minutes in Chaparral Park as part of the George Floyd protests. I didn’t shy away from making my politics known. But I didn’t just linger on that and make it all about the blatantly political all of the time.

Speaking of not lingering, and of finding a way to let other voices have a say … I made a decision early in my term as Poet Laureate to not re-apply. So I am no longer Poet Laureate, having served the two-year appointment from 2018-2020. Now, I had heard many people mention how great it would be if I were to stay in place as the longstanding Anaheim Poet Laureate, and it was made clear to me that there were no limits as to the number of re-appointments I could have. It was certainly flattering to hear that, and my ego probably initially perked up the sound of it—but only for a split second. Because even though it would have allowed me to build those more ambitious long-term programs I had envisioned, I knew that such a tenure would not be what would be best for the post, or the City. Because I believe there needs to be more places for those who are currently underrepresented to be seen and heard, and appointed to positions of influence.

So in fact midway through my two-year appointment I contacted the Culture and Heritage Commission—which, by the way, is made up of passionate and dedicated citizens who volunteer to serve the community by advising the City Council on matters concerning the arts, culture, historic preservation, and heritage, and they have accomplished positive change on so many fronts … They’re the ones who first stepped up and agreed to oversee the post of Poet Laureate as a subcommittee in the first place. I have nothing but great things to say about them. Anyway, I asked the commission to be given an agenda item at their next meeting so that I could, for the record, give an update of my activities to date—the State of the PL Post, so to speak—with the intention of using that opportunity to announce that I would not be re-applying for a second appointment. I told them I was letting them know a year ahead of time so that they might start their campaign right away to call for new applicants, and that would give them a chance to more broadly publicize it so that more people could find out about it, especially since it was a relatively new position. I told them that I was specifically stepping aside because I hoped they would receive a diverse range of applications that paralleled the demographics of the city. At one point I said, “Look, I’m going to be candid and address the elephant in the room here … I’m an old white male, and I look more like the mascot of Anaheim High than the majority of the city!”

Okay, so many argue “The Colonists” mascot specifically refers to the original German settlers who founded a winemaking colony here, but their longstanding cartoon mascot was a pilgrim with a musket for crying out loud. And their heraldry had a pilgrim behind two crossed muskets. Eesh. Even the revised mascot of a white-haired, pony-tailed pilgrim with an angry scowl charging in with a flag doesn’t sit right with me. Those flag-planting colonists rushed into lands not their own to claim ownership, and the whole history of colonization is one of eradicating cultures. And worse. Anyway, my point to the Culture and Heritage Commission was that there are still optics involved that send a message, intentional or not. And I know it was not intentional at all, but still … a part of it has to do with the German connections to this place that you mention, of course. I mean, even though my surname derived from an Ellis Island bastardization of the Swedish Höyer, it does so happen to be, coincidentally, the German word for “here.” And in French, “hier” means “yesterday,” which is yet another Euro-centric reference. So to have an older white man of European descent repeatedly appointed to a position of power, by a city whose own name derives from German and which was “settled” by Germans, well, that would be maintaining the status quo of an older Anaheim. And that was problematic to me. Even though my personal politics differ greatly from the conservative stronghold of an older Anaheim, and even though Anaheim is rapidly changing demographically, there’s still a lot of old Anaheim’s past I’m not very comfortable with. This is a city whose City Council seats were taken over by the KKK at one point in the ‘20s, by Klansmen who put up signs at the city borders “You are Now Entering KKK Country,” and they advertised nationally as Anaheim being a model Klan city, and Anaheim became the site for huge, record-breaking Klan gatherings. It’s also a city whose police force was long dominated by the White Nationalist John Birch Society, whose thinking couldn’t be further from my own. And, I might add, it’s also a city that catered to Walt Disney, a man who openly aligned with the House on Unamerican Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50s, and who in the ‘60s tried to keep gays and Hippies and Yippies and people with longer hair out of his “Happiest Place on Earth.” Anyway, I can’t express how much I find these histories abhorrent. So to have me, as an old white male of Germanic European decent being appointed over and over, well no … Just being appointed as the first Poet Laureate, I knew, might be seen as troublesome to many, for these very reasons.

That’s exactly why I led off my application statement when I applied by emphasizing that a “Poet Laureate is often considered a monolithic entity, but no single person or voice can fully represent such a multi-faceted city as Anaheim. Like our nation, our city is strengthened by its diversity, by the unique talents and cultures of immigrants—which all our families were, at some point. Currently 37% of Anaheim are foreign born, and 61% speak a language other than English at home. As Poet Laureate, rather than attempt to be Anaheim’s voice, I would facilitate ways for the city to speak for herself.” Anaheim is a wonderful city in so many ways. I do love it, deeply. It is actually much more diverse than other U.S. cities, according to the government census numbers. Anaheim residents are more than 50% female, more than 50% Hispanic or Latino/Latinx, nearly 40% foreign born … and more than 60% of us are speaking languages other than English at home. So when I applied I said that as Poet Laureate, these things would not just be recognized, but celebrated.

I also told the commission at that meeting that I thought there were a lot of great candidates out there who didn’t qualify to apply because of a few prerequisites that were unnecessary, and I handed each commissioner a two-page list of recommendations for moving forward, which included several changes to those requirements. One thing I thought needing changing was the five year residency requirement. What if the world’s greatest poet lived just 10 feet across the city border, say? Or lived even farther away, but who worked in Anaheim and knew the city as intimately as its residents? Or how about those who have long lived within the city limits but who simply didn’t have a mailing address to qualify? They are still Anaheim residents, still our neighbors, still with valuable voices worthy of being heard. There are far too many in our community who are underrepresented, across a variety of fronts, including, yes, as you said, those who possessed the rich, indigenous histories and who would also be more reflective of the diversity of the city—which I also pointed out to the commission. I’m very happy to say that I just learned that they took my suggestions to heart and changed the residency requirements as a result. Let me tell you, there are a lot of great people behind the scenes who are making important changes, and making a difference for the better. People like Holly Unruh, Community Services Superintendent, and William Camargo, who chaired the commission, but who is best known as a visual artist and community organizer (a.k.a. “Billy the Camera”).

Oh, another of the recommended changes on that list was to loosen the minimum required number of publications. I know that’s a common requirement for a Poet Laureate, but it is a bit exclusionary because minority voices are simply not represented as much as they should be in the publishing world. It has always been a difficult task to get recognized as an author and get books published by respected presses, but especially for minorities. So when there are inequities in publishing, and you require validation via publications in order to even apply for this post, well … I mean, poets often submit for years to literary journals before their first poem will get an acceptance, and some of the best poets I know still don’t have their own book out. So the publishing world is finally awakening to how even the requirements of submission fees and a mailing address hinder equal representation, and some publications are starting to also change their criteria, which is great. Similar to what I said at the start of this interview regarding language, how those who are in power, intentionally or not, tend to make decisions that maintain the status quo. To get any significant changes happening at a deeper level, I think those who find themselves with such privilege and in positions power must first acknowledge that publicly, and then also relinquish some of that power—maybe even work to clear spaces for the underrepresented to step in and have more of a say in things. So, it was very clear to me on a personal level that I needed to do just that. To only serve one term and pass the mic, both figuratively and literally.

Oh, one other thing … I wanted to qualify what I said at the start of this response. It’s true that I don’t see the city or the world as a harmonious whole, but that’s only because of people’s behavior. I deeply believe we are all one whole, one organism (to go back even farther to my other analogy), and once you eliminate all of these artificial borders that the brain insists upon when operating out of the “me” and “I” at the center of the universe point of view, well, it’s then you can slip into the omnipresent to broaden your perspectives—which is what happens when we feel empathy and love, when we read literature and experience the arts, especially out in the community.

DG: Being the inaugural candidate to the position of poet laureate, you had to invent most of the activities, programs, and initiatives from scratch. It would be interesting to hear a little about these challenges—what worked and what didn’t, and how did your efforts bring poetry to a larger audience in the city?

GH: Yes, actually all of the activities, programs, initiatives I had to invent. Nothing was in place. I knew I could get my writer friends to appear with me, to read and co-teach workshops and whatnot, because we were already doing those things together, often through programs that I had previously created. So I started with those connections. But anything new that I wanted to do I had to invent from scratch and then make happen. For the larger projects it was me making cold calls, finding out the names of contacts, venue rental fees, insurance liabilities and waivers, if chairs and PA systems were there, and then inquiring if the places and people involved ever did pro bono events for non-profits (even though the City of Anaheim isn’t a non-profit), and if they would consider doing one for a new Poet Laureate program.

I would say the singular main hinderance that affected everything else was definitely having no budget whatsoever—even though the Poet Laureate post for Anaheim was initially drafted up with a stipend attached. So, this position was first envisioned by a wonderful assembly of leaders from various arts organizations and library groups across Orange County who had joined forces to research and articulate a plan for the post, and took it upon themselves to formally present it to Anaheim’s City Council. Then they continued to diligently push for it as it made its way through the slow, bureaucratic gears until it was ultimately approved by City Hall, which then allowed the Culture and Heritage Commission to start the application process, conduct their series of interviews, go through the final selection deliberations and vote of approval, and then it at last became an official appointment, via that mayoral proclamation. But it all began as a grass roots effort originating from outside of the government. I heard later through the grapevine that the approval process was hung up for more than a year at the city attorney’s office, the point of contention being whether there was a stipend that would come with the title, as originally proposed by that coalition of arts and literary organizations. The logic the city offered was that any person appointed Poet Laureate could not be given any moneys since none of the Culture and Heritage Commissioners, over whose watch it was, received any moneys for their appointments. The flaw in that argument, of course, was the premise that the person appointed would be receiving a personal paycheck for their labors, when really all that was being asked for was a stipend to pay for expenses to stage the Poet Laureate events, for things like chair rentals, snacks, posters, and speaker fees. A dedicated fund to reimburse or even partially reimburse receipts would have sufficed. But eventually, as it dragged on, I think those pushing for the post ultimately decided that it would serve the greater good to just eliminate that stipend in order to get the program approved and out into the community, and then once in place do whatever they could to appeal for whatever was lacking. So that’s what happened.

I mean, even if there were a stipend involved I wouldn’t have been taking the post for that! I was actually happy to do it for free, and saw it as an honor, really. Merely an extension of what I had already been doing, creating classes and workshops and readings and so on out in the community, starting back in, oh … I guess it was the ‘90s, at the Braille Institute in Anaheim, when I proposed and volunteered to teach their first ever class in poetry writing. I mean, even when I got paid for a reading or to participate in a literary event, I would donate any moneys I received right back to the cause. So, it was never about a stipend for me. I applied for the post because I thought it would be an opportunity to give back on a larger scale, with the title of official Literary Ambassador and Poet Laureate adding some cred to help publicize events and reach more people—and it absolutely did, I’m happy to say.

I was pretty active, fulfilling the minimum number of events that the position required for the two-year appointment in my first few months, and paid for everything out of my own pocket that first year. Then the Anaheim Arts Council, which was a long-standing non-profit made up of local artist and arts organizations and art supporters, which I was briefly a member of, had to make the hard decision to dissolve due to a lack of support from the city—and when they liquidated their assets, they specifically directed $1000 of it to annually fund the Poet Laureate events, a decision I had nothing to do with but for which I was very grateful. It was a wonderful surprise actually, and that money immediately went to the guest authors who were helping me with workshops and readings. Once that money was given out, I returned to asking for favors and pro bono work from colleagues and various organizations, and almost all of them came through and helped however they could. There were a lot of good people who donated their time to help.

But from day one, being an educator and a lifelong lover of public libraries, that’s where it made most sense for me to start, and where I knew I could leverage the biggest positive effect with limited resources. So, I began visiting classrooms and organizing free library events my very first week. I deliberately started by visiting those places that I knew weren’t getting their fair share of the resources and programs, often in the poorer districts of Anaheim on the far west side, which is also where I live. I visited a continuation school right off the bat, worked with unwed mothers, did some appearances and readings at volunteer organizations already in place and working toward similar goals, and then started extending things out from there. A lot of generous and good people working in our schools and volunteering for non-profits out there, let me tell you.

People like Carol Latham, who definitely deserves a shout out. She is the Community Outreach Coordinator at the Muzeo in Downtown Anaheim, and longtime Altrusa volunteer—and recent recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, I might add—and she has done more for the arts and various non-profits than just about anyone I can name. I had met her right after my first book came out when she invited me to read as part of the Author’s Series she had created at the Carnegie Building Downtown, and after that we collaborated on some free writing workshops, and she asked if I would be interested in organizing other free literary events. Carol also really helped me to locate some of the venues for the programming that I was inventing as the Poet Laureate. Big time props to her. And to the Anaheim Public Libraries, which I used as a home base for many of my programs, too. So many wonderful people working there. So many … I can’t begin to tell you.

A public library as a symbol, actually, was what I envisioned as the model for my Poet Laureate mission—because both are all about serving the entire community, free of charge, with programs that grow from within the community. Existing there at its heart, supplying lifeblood in the form of great literature, which is the wisdom of the most brilliant minds that have come before us. I was asked once to make a speech at an event honoring community volunteers, and I emphasized that a library is far more than the brick and mortar and books it contains. It also really stands as a symbol for an ideal. That of egalitarianism. Because a public library is a very powerful vehicle toward equality. I remember my father, who was a very smart man, saying: “Not everyone can afford to buy books. That’s why we need public libraries.” That’s it right there. I mean, I was extremely fortunate because our house was filled with books and encyclopedias and magazines and newspapers, but even so we would often travel to the library together on family outings and check out books together. I distinctly remember the day that the Anaheim Haskett Branch opened across the park from our family home. I had just turned six, and the librarian at the checkout desk reached across the counter and handed me my first (powder blue) library card, which I got to sign on the back! It was a profound stepping stone in forging my identity, let me tell you, and I used to carry it around with me in my pocket everywhere I went! I still check out books from the Haskett today. (I just did earlier this week, in fact.) Not to sound overly romantic, but this is the absolute truth: I always swell with pride and a profound love for my community when I enter the doors there. Not just because of what it’s meant to my development, but because I am entering a universe that knows no borders, that is filled with wonderful books containing imaginations that I know will expand the way I think, that invite me to new places. And I absolutely love it that I see people from around the world there, dressed in their native clothes, speaking different languages. It’s like that that analogy I made earlier about cars merging. Here we all are, vastly different individuals weaving together, sharing the community resources and the spaces freely, each of us there to improve ourselves and our children, which ultimately improves the lot of us. It is us at our best, really.

I mean, if it is true that knowledge is power, then a library also is a major force in equalizing the power structures in a society. With public libraries, then, it is not as it once was where only those of privilege and wealth controlled the information. With public libraries the true power—the knowledge—is free and equally available to all. And for a society to be strong, isn’t the ideal to have an educated public across the board? So this is why the public library became the working model for my mission as Poet Laureate. And not surprisingly, Anaheim’s libraries were the perfect place from which to launch and maintain much of the programming that I created. And I want to acknowledge, con tu permiso, the extent to which they opened their spaces up for me for events, which was crucial to the success of my term. APL had previously invited me to serve as emcee for their Big Read programs on Fahrenheit 451 and Censorship, so I already had a great relationship with the librarians and staff there. Brilliant and dedicated people like Audrey Lujan, Joe Purtell, Sarah Emmerson, to name just a few. I really can’t thank them enough.

One of the most beautiful events during my two years as Poet Laureate, in fact, was at Anaheim Central Library, downtown—the very first “Poet Laureate Open Mic Night.” With very little publicity and very short notice (since it was at the very beginning of my appointment), more than 60 people showed up! That’s a good size crowd for any reading. Creative writing is alive and well in Anaheim, I’m happy to say. We wound up opening the room dividers and taking up the entire basement! Truly a diverse and eclectic gathering, with a couple dozen signing up to share the mic, the oldest being a double cancer survivor who was about to turn 80 years old reading her original poetry, and the youngest a 5-year-old kindergartener who read a story she had just written, who walked up with her sister at her side who then sang a favorite song she had just learned. Those who read included young students, retirees, rappers, and veterans. I remember a woman with a baby carriage and several small children in tow. A few people I think might have been homeless. A man in a suit who had just left work, still holding his briefcase in one hand and a poem he had written in longhand in the other. Everyone there applauding enthusiastically after each performance, encouraging and enjoying. It was … emotional. And truly inspiring. Beautiful. Still is, in fact. That program continues as a regular feature at Anaheim Central, downtown.

Certainly the most ambitions programming I pulled off was a multi-event campaign that took place during World Refugee Month, culminating in a closing celebration to honor the many contributions of refugees to our community, which absolutely packed that same basement of Anaheim Central Library to SRO. We were clearly well beyond the room capacity! Waves and waves of people kept coming throughout the evening.

Since June is Refugee Awareness Month, I had decided to create several Refugee-related programs and community-sponsored live events across Anaheim and on social media across all 30 days of June. I wanted them to accomplish several things: raise awareness of writings from other cultures, document the experiences of refugees in Orange County, raise awareness about the importance of humanitarian relief efforts, and educate about opportunities to help, including locally, immediately, in our own community.

I thought a broad-stroke public awareness campaign should run through the entirety of Refugee Awareness Month, so that people who otherwise have negative associations with the word “refugee” might better understand who today’s refugees really are. Also the level of the crises both locally and worldwide. I discovered that the Refugee Forum of Orange County had created a poster of famous refugees—the Dalai Lama from Tibet, Albert Einstein from Germany, Bob Marley from Jamaica, Salvador Dali from Spain, Gloria Estefan from Cuba, Mia from Sri Lanka, Aden from Somalia, Mika from Lebanon, Bao Nguyen from Vietnam, Ilhan Omar from Somalia—tagging it with #WeAreAllRefugees. They granted me permission to use those images for my posts from my official Poet Laureate Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. (This was before TikTok.) I also asked photographer Jim Lommasson for permission to incorporate images from his series What We Carried—Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, which documents, in gorgeous fine art prints, items that Syrian and Iraqi refugees carried with them as they fled their homes to come to America. Each refugee then took a permanent marker and wrote directly on the photo, offering a bit of the story and meaning behind that item. What We Carried is one of the most powerful and educational photo series I’ve ever seen. No hyperbole. I urge people to look it up.

Another arm of that multi-event campaign I created for World Refugee Month had the goal of honoring some of the literature and other first-person stories about the refugee experiences, so I invited Lauren Ming Holden, author of the book Refuge, to come to Anaheim, and she drove all the way down from the bay area I’m happy to say. Refuge was awarded the inaugural Kore Press Memoir Award, by the way, and is a brilliantly original book that, quite cinematically, spans some 12 years of her work as an international development and aid worker—from refugee camps in Syria, to exiled writers in Sweden and China, to a slum of Nairobi where she co-founded a self-sustaining theater project with Congolese refugee women as a vehicle through which they could safely tell their own stories and finally be heard. Brilliant work. So I created a special event centered around Refuge, which was a combined author reading, interview, and audience Q&A, followed by a book signing and mingle at the historic Carnegie Building (originally built as the home for Anaheim Central Library, by the way). At the entrance to the gallery I projected even more of Lommasson’s refugee photographs, which provided powerful visuals to augment and enhance the day’s events.

There are also a lot of refugees currently living in Anaheim, and throughout Orange County, and I wanted to properly honor and support them, so I piggybacked on the mission statement of the California Department of Social Services, whose own refugee awareness campaign “honors the courage, strength, and determination of men, women, and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict, and violence…and recognizes the hard-working network of refugee agencies…and highlights the remarkable achievements of refugees.” Anaheim is the home of one of the best organizations I know of, Access California Services, founded by its Executive Director, Nahla Kayali. I partnered with both AccessCal and the Refugee Forum of Orange County to stage a series of programs throughout June, which included free writing workshops specifically for refugees, where each refugee could articulate their unique stories in their own words. Borrowing from the What They Carried project, I asked the refugees to focus on a single item that they carried with them when they fled their homeland. I enlisted the help of the brilliant poet Dania Ayah Alkhouli (aka Lady Narrator) to both co-teach those writing sessions with me and act as a translator for those who spoke little or no English. I couldn’t have done it without her, really. She is amazing. Many of the refugees wrote in their first languages, which was wonderful, and that produced an even wider variety of good literature in the end.

I then invited those same refugees to read their first-person accounts written in the workshops as a special “Refugee Storytellers” segment of an even larger World Refugee Day event that I initiated at the Anaheim Central Library, which grew and grew in size as I planned it and ended up being co-sponsored by the Poet Laureate of Anaheim, Anaheim Central Library, Refugee Forum of Orange County, and PEN America West. It was hugely successful. For the culminating evening of celebration on World Refugee Day I enlisted the help of the Joe Purtell of Anaheim Libraries, who was always generous in his support, and he both secured and managed the space for us. I also handed it over to the fabulous community organizer Rida Hamida to curate, and she then arranged for Sara Alshehabi and Bao Nguyen, two highly successful refugees, to emcee. The event packed the entire basement of the Central Library to SRO. Our “Refugee Storytellers” from Dania and my creative writing workshops were each given a featured spotlight to read what they had written. Many tears and thunderous applause ensued. One of the refugee readers, in fact, was contacted the following day by an international reporter who was in the room, and he interviewed her the following day for BBC Radio, specifically asking her to tell her story from the workshop which described how she had to leave her grandmother to come to America as she fled the violence in her homeland of El Salvador. All throughout the main World Refugee Event in the library there were refugee chefs showcasing culinary arts and dishes from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. There was also a screening of the Elias Matar film From The Front Line. Also, remarks and proclamations from numerous local leaders, plus a very inspirational honoring of refugees with awards and certificates, which ended with the presentation of special “World Refugee Day Courage Awards” on behalf of the Refugee Forum of Orange County (one of which I was both surprised and deeply honored to receive—along with related Certificates of Recognition from the County of Orange, California State Assembly, California State Senate, United States House of Representatives, and the United States Congress—which made my parents very, very proud, I might add).

In the time since my tenure as Anaheim Poet Laureate ended, the refugee crises across the globe have only worsened. I wanted to ask anyone reading this to please consider donating to AccessCal and other humanitarian relief organizations. We’ve never had so many refugees on the planet worldwide, and so many of these are now children who are in desperate need. People can donate talents instead of money, too. For instance, my wife and I created a special summer school workshop with writing and science lab experiments for all the children taking classes there. Whatever anyone can do, at any level, would help.

I know form my own experience how a simple gesture of kindness when you are a child can change a person profoundly for the better, and set them on a positive path. So, working in kindergarten and in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classrooms might have been the most rewarding activities for me, personally, and probably was where I did the most long-term good, I’m guessing. In the kindergarten classrooms I visited I asked them to all sit cross-legged on the floor, and I plopped down right there in the middle of them much to their surprise (which always led to wide eyes and laughter!) … and we talked about things in their lives and what words could be used to describe them and the sounds of the words and the breath and music of language and soon we were inventing lines of poetry together. There were always lots of smiles, and cheering even, and every time I said goodbye the classes enthusiastically promised to continue writing poems even after I was gone. That would be a pretty good legacy to leave behind …

The things that didn’t work? Hmm, pretty much the ones that required more resources and time than I had. I did all of this in addition to my full-time job, along with everything else in my life, so it was a very full two years…

Oh, one big disappointment were the Angels. As in “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” as they say … which sounds both oxymoronic and redundant. I had a few cool ideas that would have cost them nothing in terms of resources or time, and would have done a heckuva lot of good, but they never replied to my initial inquiries. Then a City Council member offered the number of a high-level contact and said to drop his name, but instead a staff member emailed back to say the Angels were doing plenty of things to help promote literacy already, so they weren’t interested. So, yeah … The Angels proved a big disappointment. But, to be fair, having been an Angels fan since I was a little kid, I was certainly used to being disappointed by that organization … (rim shot) … Sorry, I couldn’t resist that joke. The players I’m cool with, don’t get me wrong. And I love the game itself. But man, that team has a long history of bad decision making.

Seriously though, there were certainly bigger challenges to the post that that dead end. In the scrambled schedules and re-configuring of everything around the pandemic, which arrived in the final months of my term in early 2020, several of my planned events had to be quickly reimagined or cancelled outright. And there were plenty of other events I had drafted up but which didn’t materialize due to lack of budget, time, and resources. So what I did was add those plans and contact information for the next Poet Laureate to consider.

Actually, I’m hoping the next Poet Laureate will be able to announce a Student Youth Poet Laureate program that I had created with the amazing Regina Powers, District Librarian for the Anaheim Union High School District, which took all two years of my term for us to draft up and get in place, but which has yet to be officially announced and launched. I can see that program as seeding the official Anaheim Poet Laureate post once those students turn 18 and can apply. There were several brilliant student poets I met and worked with, and who were showing up at the Open Mic nights I had set up.

I just gotta say, David, that I really appreciate you asking about these things. The end of my Poet Laureateship happened in lockdown, and in the non-stop craziness that’s gone on since, I hadn’t really had a chance to look back much on those two years of work. This was really my first time doing that in any depth. So, I know this was a long response, but it was a really good process for me, and provided some perspective and closure to that score, which had ended sort of mid-note. So thank you.

Anyway, yeah, these days I continue to move ahead, organizing community events and readings but without the Poet Laureate title attached, just as I did before that.

DG: Very soon you will organize a group reading of 88 poets who contributed to the special Pratik issue, Poets from Los Angeles. For our readers who have yet to visit LA, and or those who may not be familiar with any of the contributors to this particular issue of Pratik, what makes this city so unique—again we return to place—and not just from the perspective of its literary offerings, but culture in general?

GH: Well, exactly that. It’s an amalgam of cultures existing side-by-side, and it’s that ever-shifting mixture that keeps it unique. That keeps its literature unique. Diverse influences migrating here from around the world to interact and create something new—which is a microcosm of our country, really. A lot of original voices have risen up from that. I mean, this city is always evolving into something new. I think of Carl Sandburg’s brilliant Slabs of the Sunburnt West:

…every day the people shake loose, awake and
build the city again…

The city is made, forgotten, and made again,
trucks hauling it away haul it back
steered by drivers whistling ragtime
against the sunsets…

“I will die as many times
as you make me over again”
says the city to the people…

Such a great book. In fact, I quote another section of it as the epigraph to my novel Flight of the Angels (Hungerdust). Anyway, yeah, that’s it right there, right? What makes L.A. unique is that it is constantly being rebuilt and has never remained any one thing. For a more poetic elaboration on that, I’ll refer you to the liner notes that I wrote for the band Los Lobos, for their album Native Sons. Do you know that band? They came up with the Blasters and the punk scene in L.A., along with X, Black Flag, and all those bands in Penelope Spheeris’ great doc, The Decline of Western Civilization. Los Lobos’ first album was titled Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, subtitled Just another band from East L.A.—and that kinda says it all right there. There’s a ton of bands and artists always springing up from this place, but I think Los Lobos is most like the City of Angeles herself—always finding a way to survive, always finding beauty in the most surprising ways, always growing into new spaces but relying on its deep roots in this old soil rich with heritage. So I started those liner notes on the inner sleeve with, “Los Lobos, like the city it calls home, in not any one thing.”

DG: Many scholars criticize place-based poetry as “regional” in the best sense and perhaps even “territorial,” in the worst. In the first sense, we find the noble interpretation of affection and commitment for one’s surroundings, and a need to describe them; in the second sense, however, there’s the more cynical understanding of exclusion, exclusivity, and superiority. As a poet whose work is intimately tied to place, how do you respond to these challenges? In other words, do you find that a specific place can also have universal relevance in poetry and society in general?

GH: Yes, it absolutely can. Just as one’s personal story—if delivered authentically and if containing emotional truth—can resonate with any human being, regardless of place, or time, or any of the differences in classifications and labels we put on each other. The real challenge, then, comes first as a human, to be able to get in touch with the emotions and locate the truths, and then find a way to authentically communicate these to others. We can do this one-on-one, in our friendships, and through relationships and love—but also through our art, which allows us to reach a much larger audience.

I do have a great affection for and commitment to my surroundings, as you say, but part of that commitment involves admitting its flaws and doing my best to make this a better place in whatever ways I can. And by doing these things I am demonstrating my love for it. Otherwise it’s just blind love and blind obedience, which is not healthy for any type of love. “America: Love it or leave it,” the rallying cry for a blind love of country, is terribly territorial I think, and some regional poetry can sound similar to that, be similarly reductive, peeping through the narrow keyhole of history. Regional poetry in the worst sense. Robert Frost’s line “The land was ours before we were the land’s” is one glaring example. So the challenge is to check your privilege and positioning, be brave enough to not reduce or oversimplify. To look unblinkingly, as the poet Sharon Olds said to me once. Don’t shy away from the uncomfortable. Dare to admit impediments to the marriage of place and the ideal (he said, with apologies to Shakespeare).

Untended Garden, for instance, is definitely place-based poetry, and I kept it regional and not territorial by doing just that, I think. When working on the galleys of it, I realized that including a few striking historical photographs and a Tongva glossary would be really useful toward that goal of reinhabiting the past, discovering more of “The Whole Self” and thus a larger understanding of “place.” So rather than discard the extensive research I had done, I obtained permission to include some of it as appendices, and even created study questions so that it might also be used as a teaching text. (That’s the educator in me, trying to avoid a missed learning opportunity!) And to clarify my earlier point about language naturally changing and being replaced, even though that’s true, it is not to deny the need for the preservation of cultures and languages like the Tongva, which would otherwise become extinct and eventually invisible. Visibility is crucial to history, and human rights, and survival.

This was the driving force behind the book California Continuum too, by the way. John Brantingham and I were honored to get the historian D.J. Waldie to pen the Introduction to provide some context for what it was we were doing with our somewhat experimental narrative structure and the non-traditional form of “Historical Flash Fiction”—which admittedly sounds like an oxymoron. It’s pretty obvious that a recurring theme of my writing is the search for those unseen connections that we often overlook. Not that I think, “I’m going to write about connection now.” It’s just one of the returning threads I see running through all my work—including my writing in other genres. And in my paintings. And my music. I also felt compelled to write a lengthy foreword for that book, about the idea of “history” and the small frames that we put around fragments of things but then come to regard as complete pictures, and the importance of those other “histories” we are never even exposed to, if they are recorded at all.

When I visit classrooms, I’ll sometimes start by asking: “What’s under our feet right here?” The floor or tile will be the first response. Yes, and directly beneath that? Puzzled looks usually, then… Glue! Concrete! Yes … and beneath that? The Earth! Dirt! And what will we find if we dig? Roots. Rocks. Bones. Ah! Arrowheads. Pieces of pots. Tools. Yes. Each thing attached to multiple stories that we are living right on top of, walking our own paces through, adding our own story to, on top of. We forget that history is made with every breath, through every gesture, yet we don’t even think about that as we move through each day, acting without thought of the long term beyond the mundane moments. Literature helps to remind of the connectedness. In an essay I wrote in the current issue of So It Goes—The journal of the Vonnegut Museum, I quote John Muir, whose autobiography is subtitled One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. He wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”

I created an American Literature class at my college called “California Literary Landscapes,” and as part of it we all travel up the coast on a field trip to camp in Big Sur country, visiting Tor House and the places that Robinson Jeffers wrote about. I used to be an editor on the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, and I had the honor of studying his poetry with the leading Jeffers scholar alive at the time, Bob Brophy, who I quoted earlier. Anyway, when I was a student in his class on “Whitman and Jeffers,” he took us on that camping trip, and years later I re-created it for my classes, even taking Bob along as a special guest in what turned out to be in his last trip up there. So, we caravan up the California coast in separate cars, and when we get to Big Sur and Carmel, we pull off at select places, get out and stand in those very spots Jeffers wrote about, and then we pull out his poetry right there and take turns reading his lines about that very place, releasing his words back into that sky, literally vibrating with the literature at its exact point of origin. Talk about connection to place! And “regional” poetry in the best sense!

It always brings to mind Jeffers’ poem “Hands,” which is regional in the best sense, and which likewise reminds one that they are a blip in the larger continuum of history. Jeffers describes the handprints still hanging in the twilight on the wall of a cave in a “narrow canyon” near Tassajara, and how these

Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: “Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.

DG: America is a land of great diversity, both in terms of its population, but also geographically—a fact less often emphasized. Which poet and or poem, in your opinion, has best captured the essence of this land?

GH: Oh, wow. That’s a difficult question. Okay … So I’m gonna fudge my response and give you more than just one, hoping that what I’ve said earlier will allow it, since I don’t believe America is any one thing. No poet or poem could singularly capture America’s essence. But … If could offer a smattering, admittedly incomplete, with each one capturing some essential aspect of the whole …

Okay, so first off, “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman if I had to name just one poem. But I want to qualify that with admitting that both Whitman and the poem are not without their flaws. Even so, it’s a great, great poem that captures, on a large scale, America’s wonderful diversity and geography—and also the dream of democracy and equality, within those sprawling landscapes. Whitman would probably be my choice as the singular poet who best captured us. Um … not just with that one poem, but his writings on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, his stories of working in war hospitals and talking with the dying wounded as he transcribed their last words to their families and then personally saw to it their families received those letters. His Preface to Leaves of Grass alone as a manifesto for living…

“Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers I actually see as a companion poem to “Song of Myself,” in that it extends the view forward to capture America’s slide away from a democratic republic, and more towards an empire. Jeffers often alludes to the natural cycle of things, how the decay will be swept away by nature’s forces to make way for new beginnings—or burned away, as in his poem “Shiva”—but I think Jeffers would not be surprised that the cycle has yet to come fully around in the decades since he wrote that poem. Citizen’s United has turned America into a Plutocracy, it seems to me. And we’re inching more and more toward a flat out oligarchy, if we’re not already there. The optimist in me winces when I say this but, well … I think historians just might look back and box these days that we find ourselves in as the early days of America’s second Civil War.

On that note, “The People, Yes” by Carl Sandburg. Definitely. Actually, Sandburg might be the better choice as the singular poet who best captures the essence of this land, come to think of it, if you include his entire body of work. His long-term reporting as a journalist on those key issues at the heart of what later erupted as race riots, which nobody else was writing about at the time. In fact, the NAACP asked Sandburg if they could publish his collected newspaper columns as a book, which they did, under the title, The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919.

Oh! “38” by Layli Long Soldier, too. Yeah. The 38 refers to the “Dakota 38” who were accused of crimes related to the U.S-Dakota War of 1862, which some refer to as the “Sioux Uprising.” It took place 160 years ago, but that history remains all-too-familiar—the rampant injustices and broken promises, the demands for the execution of the falsely accused with mobs raising public gallows and chanting—and the false narratives that are poisoning so much of the discourse but being accepted as true history to many. By the way, Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief presided over that war commission’s investigation, so he was the one who decided the sentence of those 38 convicted (some falsely): Death by hanging. The executions were ordered to take place in public, and 4,000 converged, cheering on what still stands as the largest sanctioned mass execution our nation’s history. On the day after Christmas. Six days later, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. So, yeah, this poem too captures a bit of us …

Let’s see … “Facing it” by Yusef Komunyakaa would be on my list for capturing the toll of America’s continuous state of war on the nation’s psyche…

And “Not one more refugee death” by Emmy Pérez. That’s a poem that captures what’s happening right now, which is greatly defining our character. By the way, Emmy is originally from Santa Ana, a city just south of Anaheim, and she was the Texas Poet Laureate from 2020-2021.

“Not one more refugee death” starts with an epigraph by another brilliant poet, María Meléndez—an excerpt from her poem “Why Can’t we all Just Get Along?”

A river killed a man I loved,
And I love that river still

Mercy, yes. I love my country deeply still. I love my home town and the place that I work, but … Because of that love I have to call them out when they misbehave, and work even harder to correct things. That’s the role of any responsible citizen. Not “America, love it or leave it,” but “My country, I love it, but am ashamed by it sometimes, so I’m staying here and trying to fix it.”

DG: What are you currently reading or working on?

GH: Oh, next to my desk I always have a stack of books in queue to read, then more lined up on the shelves in my den. I hope that I live long enough to get to all of them! Next up on my stack to read are Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli, How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie by Gaston Bachelard, and Lawns Into Meadows by Owen Wormser … whose dad, by the way, is the former Poet Laureate of Maine, Baron Wormser. Baron has written some excellent texts on teaching poetry as well. Shout out to him.

So yeah, poetry books are always at hand, and in hand, especially during the semesters when I’m teaching creative writing poetry workshops, like now. I’m always cycling in different batches of favorites to teach from and brand new books just arriving on the scene. This semester one of the new books that I’m teaching is Her Read by Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, which I’ve really been impressed by. A book like no other, quite literally. So, Jen found an old art history textbook for $1 at a thrift store, The Meaning of Art by British cultural critic Herbert Read. When she took it home she discovered it contained zero female artists, yet plenty of male gaze image of women, as painted by male artists. So Jennifer reappropriated the text to transform it into a work of erasure poetry and new art. Using scalpel and X-acto, colored marker and correction fluid, needle and thread and embroidery floss and yarn, she completely transformed it to a book of feminist verse and art criticism. It’s wonderful. And the title is an erasure of the original author: Herbert Read. I acquired some money from our Liberal Arts department to bring her into my workshop via Zoom this semester. A bunch of my former poetry students, including alumni, sat in for the day, as did the president of the college. It was great. And as prep for her visit, after the class read Her Read, I assigned an erasure poem, and one of my students, Vicky Vargas, submitted their’s and got it accepted for the upcoming issue of Oyster River Pages. It’s an erasure of a few pages from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Very cool, and worth checking out.

Some old favorites I’m re-reading for that same class are Donny Jackson’s Boy, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Wendell Berry’s Window Poems, and Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares. All original and brilliant.

Simultaneously, just for my own enjoyment, each night before I fall asleep I’ll listen to some audiobooks, and right now I’m really enjoying Figuring by Maria Popova, who also has that great blog The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). By the way, I know I sound like a spokesperson, but I just gotta say that anyone can get audiobooks for free from the Public Library. Just sayin’…

As for personal creative projects, well … I’m really stoked about a podcast I’ve been creating with Louie Pérez, which we just started recording episodes for. It’s yet to launch, but the first episode will be a two-part conversation with Jackson Browne. The podcast itself will be called “Grant & Louie Call a Friend.” That’s been a blast. Lots of laughter and fascinating conversations about art and the creative process. Plus new daily writing I’m always working on. Poems are what comes to me, mostly. But I’m constantly editing and revising work, too. I’m nearly done editing and revising my next book, in fact, which is yet other huge project of mine that has taken many years to complete: Practice—394 Poems in 365 Days, which will be part poetry book, part teaching text. I’m polishing the final galleys now, and have just finalized the cover art.

And I’ve just agreed to be on the Advisory Board of a brand new publication, Citric Acid, the brainchild of a dear longtime friend and office mate at UCI, Andrew Tonkovich. Issue #1 just went live. We’re billing it as An Online Orange County Literary Arts Quarterly of Imagination and Reimagination, and the goal is to feature both established and emerging talent, including that of historically underrepresented writers and artists, as well as promoting books and arts projects and such consistent with a social justice agenda. So it’s got some prose, some poetry, memoir, history, art, comics, and long-form journalism—as well as photography, reviews, interviews… I urge people to check it out, and to submit! www.citricacid.ink.

“So I think I’ll stop…” to quote the oxymoronic opening of James Harms’ “Fear of Angels”—another poem that I could have listed as one that captures America’s essence (and which contains one of my favorite lines: “how everyone needs help now and then”). Anyway, yes … Wow, we covered a lot of ground! I really want to thank you, David, for this conversation and the excellent questions though. They were complex, and I very much appreciate your generosity in allowing me to take my time to elaborate on things. This is by far the longest interview I’ve ever done! I haven’t had many interviews where the questions are so thoughtful and spot on regarding the work, so for that I’m very grateful, too. Also, major props for the other interviews published in this series. And for this forum. Really, for all you do and are doing to promote poetry. Very much appreciated, by me and the other writers out there. I’m honored to be a part.

 

About Grant Hier

Grant Hier served as the inaugural Poet Laureate of the City of Anaheim from 2018-2020. Other literary honors include Prize Americana (2014), the Nancy Dew Taylor Prize for Literary Excellence in Poetry (2014), and the Kick Prize (2013). For his community service, on behalf of the Refugee Forum of Orange County, he was named recipient of The World Refugee Day Courage Award (2019). Other poetry books include The Difference Between and Similitude. Practice: 394 Poems in 365 Days (a new book of poetry and instruction), and a volume of new and selected poems, are both forthcoming. His poetry has been widely anthologized in such books as Monster Verse—Human and Inhuman Poems (Knopf/Everyman), Only Light Can Do That (Rattling Wall/PEN Center USA), Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday), Without a Doubt—Poems Illuminating Faith (New York Quarterly), and many others. A flash fiction book, California Continuum Vol. One, he co-authored with John Brantingham, and individual fiction pieces appear in LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press) and Flash Fiction Journal — Two. His essays and reviews have been widely published as well, including in So It Goes—The Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Jeffers Studies, Explorations in English Studies, Teaching Composition with Literature, and the book John Fante: A Critical Gathering. He has been entered for three Grammy Awards: as a writer for “Best Album Notes” (for the last two Los Lobos albums, Llegó Navidad and Native Sons) and as a producer for “Best Folk Album” (for Joyride: Friends Take the Wheel). He recently wrote the liner notes to a forthcoming, special edition 5-LP box set (WAR—The Vinyl: 1971-1975). As a voice actor he contributed to the audio book of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2018 Audie Award for Audiobook of the year. Grant Hier is a Full Professor at LCAD, poetry editor for Chiron Review, and on the advisory board of Citric Acid. More at www.granthier.com