Category: Peace

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 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 and

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.



[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,

[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.

[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.

[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.

[53] Holiday, Harmony. “The Last Black Radical: How Cuba Turned LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka.” Chicago, Poetry Foundation, Dec. 10, 2018.

[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

[59] Daniel Moore.

[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 and Wikipedia.



Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Willis and Tony Barnstone, Poets, Scholars, Translators, and Artists

Willis and Tony Barnstone

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Willis and Tony Barnstone, Poets, Scholars, Translators, and Artists

interviewed by David Garyan


Click here to read Willis Barnstone’s poems Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

Click here to read Tony Barnstone’s poems in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: Let’s begin with a question for Willis: You’ve met and worked with many renowned persons of our time. In 1981, you conducted a lengthy interview with Jorge Luis Borges, where he says: “Personally, I suppose all writers are writing the same book over and over again. But I suspect that every generation rewrites, with very slight variations, what the other generations wrote. I don’t think a man can do much by himself, since after all, he has to use a language, and that language is a tradition. Of course he may change that tradition, but at the same time that tradition takes for granted all that came before it.” In your view, have today’s writers changed literary traditions for better or worse?

WB: You ask me about today’s writers. I have to say that I’m quite old-fashioned. I mean, for me, Hart Crane is a modern poet; in part because I find so much modern poetry to be stunt poetry, meaning it’s an exhibition, and it really doesn’t depend upon language as it depends upon circus, which is fine, but it doesn’t interest me too much. I’d rather read Sappho or Homer.

DG: That’s interesting. Those are strong traditions. So, in your view, modern writers haven’t exactly taken advantage of this tradition in the best possible way?

WB: Well, no, not all writers, but many of the most popular ones. I mean, today, I had a long conversation with my friend Khaled Mattawa, who was my student at Indiana university, and I got his first book published, and he feels the same as I do—that people tend to be on the illiterate side. They don’t read Sappho—if they’ve ever heard of her. I’m a kind of pedant. You know, I don’t mind being pedantic.

DG: Let’s talk about that and about Borges perhaps. You met him in 1968 in New York and the two of you went on to have a long friendship, in which you discussed this literary tradition—

WB: I spent a year in Argentina or so, and I lived exactly across the street from him. I brought him three times to Indiana to give talks. I went around the USA with him. We had a fun thing. When we got to New York, one of the questions from the audience was: “Mr. Borges, you know so many things. When will we ever finish the East Side Highway?” And he said to me: “What’s that woman talking about?”

TB: I remember when Borges was in Indiana, he was on stage, and someone from the audience asked him: “Mr. Borges, I wonder, was there ever a woman who for you was the quintessence of all womanhood, who was your Muse?” And he said: “Yes, in truth there was, but the strange thing is, she kept on changing her face.”

WB: I remember: “She kept changing her face and name.”

TB: And name, yeah.

Jorge Luis Borges with Willis Barnstone

DG: That’s a wonderful story.

WB: Borges also had this theory: He said that Charlie Chaplin was an outsider and had a very distinct view on humor, because he was a Jew, and Jews are on the outside of things, and, therefore, can laugh. Well, the fact is that Charlie Chaplin married two Jews, but he was from a Catholic family—he was self-educated, and brilliant, of course. As an acrobat, he was a master. He wrote the music, everything. But it wasn’t because he was Jewish, it was because he was Charlie Chaplin.

DG: Certainly, dual identities, and navigating that is certainly a tough task—

WB: I think you’re like Borges. You know so many languages—it’s popping out of your ears.

DG: English is my third language. It’s my native language, but it’s not my first one.

WB: It’s good to have a native language. We’re not happy without one, but the problem is when you’re like us—in what language do you dream? For years, I dreamed in Chinese, but always with a dictionary in my hand.

TB: One of my great anxiety dreams is I have to speak Chinese, and often what will happen is that it’ll come out in Chinese and when I forget the words, I’ll switch over to Spanish or Greek—in my dream—and then it’ll be so confusing, I’ll wake myself up.

WB: Tony was very good in Chinese, especially when it came to legalistic stuff, things like how much we have to pay for a room, because everybody was trying to cheat us, alas.

TB: The thing is that we were given special treatment as scholars from the West, as Fulbright Scholars. They gave us “Friends of China” status, which meant that we had what’s called the “white card,” and with a white card you could get Chinese prices as compared to Western prices—which meant sometimes the difference could be—

WB: Almost twice as much.

TB: Could be, yeah, sometimes the difference of a thousand percent in the price. And so, you would go to an expensive hotel and ask for the Chinese price, and first they’d say: “We’ll get you into a room.” But when you showed them the white card, they’d say: “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve just filled up.” And then you’d have to argue. Just to have a place to stay the night. This is a long time ago.

DG: These are idiosyncrasies and peculiarities you can’t read about in books. You can only get them through stories. Let’s shift gears a little and talk about your recent work, Willis, Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation, published in 2017. In the foreword, you wrote: “Bible speech is our atlas and guide to language, literature, and philosophy. The great voices in Genesis, Solomon, Job, and Psalms, and Gospels, Paul, and Revelation keep the biblical fountain flowing with magnificent speech. It continues in contemporary poetry from T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas to Joan Baez, John Lennon, Theodore Roethke, and C.K. Williams.” Would you say that declining religiosity might produce poorer literatures, or do you see faith and religious texts as independent things?

WB: Well, I think religiosity is a pejorative word. No, I don’t think that religion helps or hurts. It depends on who you are. If you’re good, you’re good. It doesn’t matter whether you are Catullus, or secular, or Sappho, who certainly was secular. If you’re good, you’re good, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing in Provencal, Italian, English, French, or Inuit language—whatever they write in. I say “whatever” because every twenty miles, it’s slightly different.

TB: Another way of thinking about it is that declining religiosity, or the undermining of the church because of Darwin and science, and so on—without that, you wouldn’t have the essential crises of morality, consciousness, and spirituality that gives us “The Waste Land,” or the terrible sonnets of Hopkins, for example, or the great poems of Matthew Arnold. My point is that the sea change caused even religious people to doubt their own religions, like T.S. Eliot did his childhood Unitarianism. So he converted to a conservative Anglicanism, with some forays into Indian Vedic Literature—The Upanishads, and so on—exploring world spirituality as options to a childhood religiosity, and that transition gave his work an arc, from the early poems of Prufrock, all the way through the Four Quartets. His example shows us the decline of faith, but also the reassertion of a certain necessity for faith in the end.

DG: That’s interesting because it’s this kind of difficulty—the crisis of the modern that makes a lot of this modern poetry possible. It ties in with what Willis said—this idea that it’s about who you are and not the religion itself. And so I’d like use this as a jumping off point: You’ve lived and worked in different parts of the world, and this exposed you to ideas and customs in a direct, tangible way. At the same time, you’re also a man of letters, having studied at the most prestigious institutions such Yale and Bowdoin College. You’ve seen the world through books and travel—the wisdom of experience and the tangible truth of the page. What’s a place and book that made a particularly strong impression on you?

WB: Well, I think the person who influenced me maybe most is Sappho, and she writes in a dialect of Greek—Aeolic Greek, which isn’t that different, if you learn a few consonantal changes. About religion, I think it’s probably done nine-tenths harm and one-tenth good, in terms of painting for example. Except in Greece, where you have the sculpture of Antiquity, which is infinitely beautiful. They rescued so much of it there when they had the 2004 Olympics, because they went underground, and all they found was marble statues. I think if you go to every great museum, about eighty percent of the pictures are religious, until you get into the middle of the 19th century, and it’s so repetitious, but also sometimes marvelous. Most of the time it’s not. And so, I don’t think religion in that sense has helped diversify the stories we can tell.

DG: Indeed, when something follows essentially the same formula, one can get overwhelmed by it.

WB: Much of it is New Testament, and I did a translation of the New Testament. It’s a two-thousand-page book attacking the outsider. And I could go into this at great length. I have lots of essays on it. I wish it were a good book, but Jesus does too much punishing.

DG: That has to be admitted. It’s like that. There’s very little of what you can do and a lot of what you can’t.

WB: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Let’s go back to you, Tony. I would like to ask you about your creative process. Your literary approach is multifaceted, in the sense that you prefer to blend various kinds of media with the written word. With Alexandra Eldridge, for example, you released The Radiant Tarot: Pathway to Creativity. You also wrote a collection of poems, of War From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, which later evolved into Tokyo Burning, an album of songs with John Clinebell and Ariana Hall, part of a duo called Genuine Brandish. Along with a discussion of these projects, what are other ways you’ve mixed literature with different arts, and do you prefer to start with the written word or to draw inspiration from another art form?

TB: The Radiant Tarot came about because I had the idea—what would it be like to publish a book of poems that was actually a deck of cards? A book that didn’t have a page order—a page numbering. You could shuffle the poems, and pull them out, like you might deal cards from a deck. I had the idea it might be interesting—it’s a bit like Rayuela or Hopscotch, the great novel by Julio Cortazar—to choose your own story. Or “The Garden of Bifurcating Paths” by Borges—the idea that you can find your own path through the story, and time, and the universe. And partly I was inspired by “The Waste Land,” where Tarot cards appear. You can think about the different scenes or different voices of “The Waste Land,” many of which could go back to Madam Sosotris’s reading of the cards, the drowning man, and so on, like cards. In this way, “The Waste Land” itself is a kind of shuffled deck, and a lot of that modernist collage from Paterson to The Cantos to The Sound and the Fury, or Ulysses, has that shuffled card effect. That was my interest. Then it slowly evolved, and it ended up being a Tarot deck, not a book of poems. I wrote the book that accompanied a Tarot deck. My friend Alexandra Eldridge made the wonderful art, and it turned into a twelve year journey together—about fifteen years since I started it—in which I delved into the history, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of creativity. So it becomes a Tarot of creativity—a Tarot which tries to get at what makes us creative. And what is the creative process? Without going into much detail, if you think about the four Tarot suits (which have evolved into spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs in the common deck of cards) the Wands, the Pentacles, the Swords, and the Cups are each associated with different mental acts, so that the cups are meditation and dreaming, the prewriting process, and the striking of inspiration, the charging forward, the fire of the creative process is the Wands. The process of revision and cutting back and rationality is the Swords, and the process of giving it all structure and grounding is the Pentacles. So I ended up making this Tarot, which is really for everybody, but especially for creative people. For every card I’ve created a creative prompt—a game, an act, or a journey you could apply to your life. They’re not all about sitting down and writing a poem, or making art. It’s really more about taking the ideas of the card, applying them creatively to your life, with the idea that your life itself could be your artwork, and you could be the creator of your life, just like you’re creating a work of art. That’s The Radiant Tarot in a nutshell.

DG: When you’re reading the work, you’re both discovering the work, but also discovering yourself in a sense. Both for you as an artist, but also the relationship between the reader and the text.

TB: Absolutely true. Think about the Tarot card as a Rorschach. You look at a Rorschach—there’s an old joke. A man goes into a psychologist’s office and says: “Well, I’ve been having all these strange dreams. I don’t know what to make of it.” The psychologist says: “Well, let’s do a little test. Here, look at this picture. It’s called a Rorschach. And what do you see?” The man says: “Well, I see a man and a woman making love.” The psychologist says: “Well, look at this next one. What do you see here?” The man says: “I see a man and another man and yet another man and a woman making love.” The psychologist says: “Okay. Look at this one. What do you see here?” The man says: “A man and a woman and a dog making love.” The psychologist says: “Well, I think I’ve diagnosed your problem—you’re a sexual addict.” The man says: “You’re calling me a sexual addict after showing me all these dirty pictures?” So, anyways, bad joke, but the point is that so much of what see in the cards comes from what’s in our mind. It’s just like theater exercises or art prompts or creative writing exercises. You drop a line into the unconscious and whatever deep sea fish is swimming around down there will grab the hook. You pull it out and the Tarot card is your fishing line.

DG: This leads into the next question of mindset, and what you feel in any given moment. I would like to ask you, Tony, talking about psychology and this sort of fishing hook into the psyche, there’s a story that you met the pilot of Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima—that must’ve been a pretty big fishing hook into your psyche. What was that meeting like, and for better or worse, what did you learn as a result of the encounter, and how did it change you?

TB: At that time, I was married to my college girlfriend, Ayame Fukuda, who was born in Japan, later naturalized as an American citizen, parents also born in Japan, and I was very close with my in-laws, my Japanese-American family, knowing that the children I thought we were going to have were going to be Eurasian, so sitting down at the dinner table with the man who dropped an atom bomb on a non-military target—creating a chain-reaction explosion that with the power of twenty-thousand tons of dynamite killed 130,000 people in an instant, plus all the people who died of radiation poisoning afterwards—it was a challenging moral moment for me. I felt I couldn’t just sit silently and be polite and have good dinner conversation with this “honored guest” who was brought to the college. I had to ask the question: “What do you think about these revisionist historians who question the morality of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima?” And his response was: “If you could’ve seen the patriotism we felt—if you had seen our sincerity, you would never have asked that question. The days of knights meeting out on the field in one to one fighting, that’s long over. In total war, everyone is guilty, and everyone deserves to die.” Now, that’s a moral stance. That’s a very strong moral stance. You asked the question: “How did that make me feel?” Well, I mean, obviously I didn’t have much to say. I wasn’t going to argue with our distinguished guest, right? I did, at least, ask the question, and I got his response, and it made me really understand something key, which is that maybe the atom bomb sped up the end of the war, although some argue that, in fact, it didn’t—depends on the historian. If my father, for example, had gone off—he was of the age—to Japan and fought, well a million Americans, they say, would’ve died in the invasion of the home islands, and there is a good chance that I would never have been born. On the other hand, I was married to a Japanese American—my mother-in-law was from an old Samurai family, and it’s a complex mix of feelings. In some sense, I was on both sides of the war. It felt a bit like the perspectivism of Santayana and Nietzsche—this idea that your morality depends on your perspective. There’s the African proverb: “Until the lions learn to speak, the hunters will always be the heroes of the story.” And so, this launched me into the Tongue of War book, because I began to ask: “Well, what would Oppenheimer say? What would Gandhi say? What would Truman say? What would a Chinese prisoner of war say? What would a Japanese Kamikaze pilot say? What would they all say about these aspects of the war—the dropping of the bomb, the Rape of Nanjing, and so on. What would a prisoner of war who found himself released because the war had ended—what would the people in America who were dancing in the streets and celebrating after the dropping of the bomb, because finally this war is going to be over—say? What would a child walking through the streets of Hiroshima— watching people walking with their arms stretched out because their skin had been burned black, it chafed too much, it hurt too much for the skin to touch skin because their skin had been charred like a roast in an oven—say? What would all those people say? And so, this one perspective—this very intense perspective of Paul Tibbets launched me on this journey.

DG: A lot of people feel it was a necessary act, but it was truly courageous of you to ask that question, because, really, necessary for whom? That’s ultimately what we’re talking about. It certainly wasn’t necessary for the innocent Japanese people who had nothing to do with the war.

TB: Do you know why they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki?

DG: I know they dropped the bomb because it was a way of deterring the Soviets—

TB: From seizing more of the islands, because they understood the next conflict was going to be with the Soviet Union, but more specifically, why Nagasaki? Because the first two targets—

DG: Ah, yes, I know this story.

TB: You know the story?

DG: There was the cloud cover—

TB: That’s right.

DG: They moved the target and dropped the bomb on another city—I don’t remember which city they were initially supposed to drop it on—but they moved the target because the original city had been covered by clouds. And that’s fate for you.

TB: That’s fate. The clouds opened up just in time for them to drop the bomb. If the clouds had not opened up, 80,000 people in Nagasaki wouldn’t have died.

DG: And we’re talking about religion. Is this an act of God?

WB: I was with the Quakers—I’m not a Quaker, but I went to a Quaker school, and I worked for the American Friends Service Committee in many countries, especially Mexico, Spain, parts of Latin America, and so forth. I happened to be in an Indian village called Miacatlán. The only people who spoke Spanish were the doctor and the pharmacist. The rest spoke Aztec or Nahuatl—the ancient language—and it came over the radio that the bomb had dropped and the war was over. Most of people whom I was with were Quakers, but not the kind in the East, who were rich and sophisticated, but Central American, who didn’t believe in dancing or going to the movies, and all of them got on the table, and they sent me down to get Tequila, and we all screamed at the top of our lungs: “La bomba ha caído. Termina la Guerra.” “The bomb has dropped. The war is over”—in English and Spanish, and any language we could figure. So, it was a magnificent day for the rest of us. As far as the bomb goes, it’s a long story, as many people had been killed in Tokyo with all the radiation—

TB: In the firebombing of Tokyo, 100,000 people were burned to death in a firestorm.

WB: And the Japanese had tried to have poison gas blown to America so that all the people on the West Coast would die; unfortunately, the winds changed and blew it back on Japan, so they quickly got rid of it. I mean it was a ruthless war on all sides.

DG: Let’s hope we won’t have another—

WB: Hopefully there won’t be major ones, because the world will disappear. Look what’s going on right now. By the way, I just got this book—it’s a beautiful translation of Baudelaire, whom I’ve translated also, the complete poems. It’s by Aaron Poochigian.

DG: Ah, yes, I’ve heard of him. He’s posting on social media about that for some time. It’s such a pleasure to know that you have it, Willis. He’s working incredibly hard on that.

WB: Yes, yes.

DG: He’ll be glad to know that you have it.

TB: He’s a wonderful translator and he’s done many of the great classics.

DG: Willis, let’s transition back to China. You were in China during the Cultural Revolution and even translated some of Mao’s poetry before arriving. In a 2015 NY Times interview you stated that “Mao was an excellent poet behind the gibberish translation. It was the worst kind of Chinglish. If you are a writer, you can see the writing behind even a bad version. Most of his poems have a political element, but he never forgets to bring the classical gods in.” It’s also interesting that China—a country with such an ancient history—should have a language whose grammatical structure accommodates only the present. With respect to the past, how does Mao’s poetry measure up to the great historical voices of Du Fu or Su Dongpo, for example?

WB: Mao had an interesting life. He was a laundry man, of all things, poor. He slept in a bed with eight other people. When they wanted to turn, they had to give a message, and they’d all turn at once, or they’d all fall on the floor, kind of ridiculous. I thought he was a very good poet. I haven’t looked at his work in recent years, but I hold to that. The works are all political, and they refer to ancient Chinese gods, and they’re all based on ancient tradition.

DG: That’s interesting because this is an aspect of his life that many people don’t really know about—the fact that he did write poetry, and, like you said, his poetry isn’t actually that bad. One more question for you, Willis, before we transition back to Tony. So, Chinese poetry and actually Asian authors in general are largely ignored by Western academics—

WB: I don’t think so. On the contrary. It was Pound, Amy Lowell, the whole Bloomsbury group that discovered Chinese poetry, and Japanese, which gave them Imagism, and a whole new way of expressing picture poems in verse. No, I think Chinese poetry had an immense effect on Western poetry, in particular English poetry. I mention Amy Lowell and so forth, and Pound, of course.

DG: What I mean is that, of course, Chinese literature did influence many individual writers, especially those you mention, but what I’m saying is that the academy doesn’t study it often. We don’t really read translations of Chinese poets, for example, in an MFA program, or even Comparative Literature programs—

WB: That depends on which one it is. They certainly did in mine.

DG: So times have changed, then? When I was a teaching assistant at the comparative literature program at Cal State Long Beach, most of that was very Eurocentric, but it seems like in the past there was this emphasis, like you say—there was a focus on Eastern authors as well, yes?

WB: It’s not only Eastern authors, but also “Eastern” authors also in Europe, like Mayakovsky, and a whole gang of other marvelous poets, including Greek poets. I think in the 20th century—this is a generalization, but I stand by it—the greatest poetry, apart from English, was written by the Greeks and the Spaniards (Lorca, Jimenez). They had more Nobel Prizes than America has had, but America has never had a Nobel Prize in Poetry—

TB: Well, with the exception of Bob Dylan, because that’s songwriting, of course. And, actually, Louise Glück just won.

WB: That’s right!

TB: Now we have two.

DG: Times are a-changin’ and so I agree with you, Willis, it depends on where you are and who you’re studying with, but there should be more emphasis in general on Eastern literature, because it’s just as good, if not better sometimes. Let’s come back to you, Tony, but let’s stay with China. With your father, you spent one year in Beijing translating the work of Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Can you talk about those experiences, what you learned, and not just about translation but the overall culture in which you were situated, and how the approach in translating Chinese poetry differs from other translations? In other words, how close can an English version, for example, get to what you’ve called “the poem behind the poem?”

TB: It would help to define my terms a little bit. When I talk about the “poem behind the poem,” I go back to an idea that was prevalent in modernism—that, as Le Corbusier said, “a house is a machine for living in,” and a book is also a machine for understanding. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “a poem is a machine made out of words.” Well, if it’s a machine, it does work, and it does a particular kind of work. And if you translate a poem without translating the work that the poem does, then what ends up happening is you haven’t really translated what the poem’s function is, like for example, let’s say you translate the poem’s meaning—meaning by meaning, not just word by word, but meaning by meaning, phrase by phrase, image by image, and you get that all across in your English, but maybe the poem was really not about any of those things. Maybe the poem was really a sound poem, or maybe the poem was a formal poem in which the rhyme is really essential, or maybe like “Drinking Alone in the Moonlight,” by Li Bai for example, it’s a poem about the moon, but the word “moon” only appears once or twice in the poem, but the moon radical—Chinese characters are made up of radicals put together, like little pictograms—appears several times throughout the poem. And so, the poem has moonlight shining all the way through it. That’s the poem behind the poem. So, your job isn’t just to figure out what the poem says—that’s what CliffsNotes does to literature; it says: Here’s what you can write your paper about. So, it’s not just what the poem says, but what the poem does. If you’re translating the poem behind poem, that’s what you’re translating. When you come to Chinese poetry, that’s particularly hard, because compared to English, Chinese is immensely ambiguous, especially classical Chinese poetry. You often don’t know the number of things. Is it one crow and one tree, or is it many crows and many trees, or many crows and one tree? We don’t know, right? And so, there’s an incredible ambiguity—you can drop the pronouns, it can almost be just pure language in the five characters, or seven characters, or four characters of the line. It might be largely nouns, verbs, and adjectives—power words—with maybe a preposition or so, but these connectives that give it specificity in English are dropped out for a more precise, more intense vision in the poem. So, what do you do in English? How much of that ambiguity do you bring across without losing the poem’s meaning? Another question—is this really what the poem’s work is? Is this really what the machine of the poem is trying do? So, in the sense, the deeper question to ask yourself is: How can I translate the machine of the poem? And from Chinese to English it’s really hard as compared to, say, Spanish to English, where there’s so many cognates, and where the structure of the language is so similar.

DG: Indeed, the whole concept of the machine of the poem, not just the meaning, but what it’s doing, the process itself of the poem—it has many parts and they come together and it’s important not just to translate the parts, as you say, but what all the parts do—

TB: I’ll give you one quick example. There’s a poem by Su Dongpo that is a poem which can be read beginning to end, or end to beginning. Now, when you’re translating that poem, you better damn well make sure that your translation can be read the same way.

DG: That’s going to be quite a challenge.

TB: It’s a challenge. It’s a big challenge, but if you don’t live up to that challenge, you haven’t really translated the poem.

DG: Very interesting. Let’s stay with one more question for you and then we’ll jump back to Willis. Given all the fascinating things you’ve said about Chinese poetry, I’d like to talk about your anthology of Chinese poetry, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, covering 3000 years of literary tradition from the Book of Songs composed during the Zhou Dynasty to the Swiss-Chinese poet, Yang Lian. In the introduction, you write: “We have also attempted to adjust the canon, here and there, to shine a spotlight on fine poets whose work is often overlooked, and especially to make room for the poems of Chinese women.” Along with the difficult process of selecting, compiling, and editing this anthology, can you talk about how the activity of bringing less recognized Chinese writers to the forefront helped shape your own understanding the literary tradition, and how is their writing either stylistically different or similar to the more well-known names in the anthology?

TB: I think of the Chinese tradition in contrast to that of Japan, where sexism made the mainstream of Japanese literature female versus male. In Japan the male writers were so caught up in Chinese culture that they often wrote in Chinese, as a literary language—in the way that many writers through Milton and onward would write in Latin in addition to writing in English, but the real language of literature was supposed to be in Latin. Or like those Greeks who would write in the artificial language of Katharevousa versus Dimotiki (Demotic Greek), the clean, cleansed language of newspapers and politicians in which you couldn’t really write good poetry—so many examples of that. In Japan, because the women were often not educated in Chinese they wrote in Japanese, and because they were writing in their home language they wrote better literature, and they’re now remembered when a lot of the men are forgotten, so fascinating. But in China, a lot of women were not educated. Sometimes scholars would educate their daughters, and so on, but it was—remember that education in the arts in China was the high road to political promotion, because it was part of the Confucian classics that you had to study, the memorization of The Book of Songs, imperial anthologies, calligraphy, and musical ability, this is what in the West we would call the “renaissance man,” but in China it was a necessary part of passing your imperial exams in order to be promoted up in the government—not something that women could do, unless you happened to be the empress and the emperor died in which case you could run the country as the Empress Dowager, but that was rare. So, therefore, women’s literature wasn’t preserved; it was often written but not preserved in the way that men’s literature was. I’ll give you an example: There’s the Nüshu, the woman’s writing, where women in the west of China created their own language, and would write in this women’s language poems of love, poems of friendship, elegies, and so on, that were so important to them that knowing they would never be published, never be part of the literary tradition, they often would take their books of poetry and ask to be buried with them or burned with them upon their death. So there’s a great literature in China—a great women’s literature in China, and guess where it is? It’s ash in the sky. It’s rotting in the ground, underground. Yet some women’s literature still does survive. It may be that Li Qingzhao only has fifty or some poems that survive versus Lu You who has over a couple thousand, but every one of her poems is better than every one of his. So, I’m happy to emphasize her work over his, even though fewer of hers survive.

DG: That’s fascinating. Talking about women, we spoke about Sappho as well. Much of her work is just fragments, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Only God knows how much better she would be if we had the complete collection, all the work?

WB: We still have enough to make her the best of all, the best we ever had and have.

TB: It’s a process of literary reconstruction, right, Willis? You work with the fragments and fill in the gaps.

WB: If you have any knowledge of Greek, you can save so many poems, as I did.

DG: You have to recover as much as you can.

WB: One thing, however. If you have a son as smart as Tony, you better watch out. You’re in trouble.

DG: Aha, but this competition is a healthy competition. It leads to a lot of positive creative developments and breakthroughs, so this is quite good. Let’s come back to you, Willis, and go to a different continent now, Africa, where you also traveled extensively. You spent a lot of time in Kenya, for example, and your sequence of poems, African Bestiary, contains sonnets as well as invented forms. Can you talk about your travels throughout Africa, the uniqueness of this land, how it influenced the poems you wrote, and some of the forms you invented for this particular sequence?

WB: Well, I first began going to North Africa, back in 1951, and I kept going to Tangier, which is a fascinating city where the exiles of former kings and counts—from Eastern Europe, especially, but also some from Western Europe, French—went because they had no taxation, so they could make as much money, inherit as much money, and not give anything back. I loved being there. I loved the meals, everything. Later, Tony came up with the idea of going to Africa, and he said you have about twenty minutes to decide, and so we went. It was the most magnificent experience. We saw not only Kenya in the end. We also saw Tanzania. We went down as far as Zanzibar. We were in the middle of the Indian Sea, and a boat came by with about fifty or a hundred college girls, and Tony went off, saying: “See you soon, Willis.” And fortunately, I had—

TB: I don’t remember that.

WB: I had rubber fins to keep me floating because we had been towed up by a motorboat—it was impossible to get back to shore on my own. And I thought: “What a wonderful way to die out here in the sea.” But after a few hours or so Tony came back, and we had a great time. We continued, and I hope he had a good time with the women. I don’t think he ever told me, but Tony—

TB: I don’t remember any of that, but I do remember going to the island that we swam to and seeing the giant sea tortoises there.

WB: Yeah.

TB: I remember that.

WB: He must have been intoxicated—totally intoxicated by the lovely, young American women.

TB: I think Willis had an erotic dream and placed me in it.

DG: Aha! You’re still here, Willis. You made it through all of it. You’ve been everywhere and lived to tell about it all. You wrote about it, so you’ve truly seen and done everything there’s to do.

WB: I’ve never been to the South Pole—

DG: There’s still time, Willis. There’s still time. God willing—

TB: One quick thing about Africa. When we went to Kenya and Tanzania, and especially in Kenya, we did an extensive amount of touring of the game parks, along with birding at Lake Baringo, as well. So we would be in our truck, our Jeep, and we would be driving along with our guide through the Savannah—who was named Moses, which was appropriate. And so, Moses would be taking us along, and I would be like: “Look, Willis, a rhinoceros. Look, Willis, a leopard. Look, Willis, an ostrich.” And Willis would be writing sonnets in his notebook. He would look at the animal and then look away from the animal to write it all down. He spent his whole time writing, but he enjoyed it too. This book came very much out of his focus to write a bestiary.

DG: There was a poem about a hippo that you sent me, Willis, with your illustration that was quite nice. I like that poem, and now I know where all the inspiration came from. Tony was directing your inspiration there.

WB: We had a marvelous time. I remember in Zanzibar we each bought shoes to go on our rough feet. I think we paid about a dollar or fifty cents for them. They were lousy but at least we had something to protect our feet. The Africans were so sweet. They were poor. They ate too much meat. When we left, they treated us to a big free meal at a restaurant called something like—

TB: It was called Carnivore. It was a place where you would go to eat unusual animals, like ostrich, or crocodile.

WB: Crocodile tongue.

TB: Crocodile, or wildebeest, yeah.

DG: Truly an experience. This is not something you can get from books. You can only get it from people who’ve been there, like you. And so, I want to ask you, Willis, would you say you learned more about the world through your travels or books. If you had to have one or the other—is travel more essential to the human experience or books?

WB: I think it’s an unfair question because—

DG: It is. It is. I admit: It’s an unfair question, but you’re the perfect person for it. You’re both well-read, and you’re also well-traveled.

WB: If you’re not well-read, you can’t do anything with travel, and if you haven’t traveled what you read isn’t necessarily superficial, but it lacks a lot of very emotional and pictorial truths, which you only get by being there.

DG: That’s a perfect answer. I agree with you, because you miss much of the context in which that literature is written.

WB: The Romantics had—I mean Keats was marvelous but he hadn’t been to many of the places he wrote about. At least he ended up in Rome, and sadly died so young.

DG: Shelley, on the other hand, didn’t make it.

WB: The wind was too strong. He drowned.

DG: One more question for you, Willis. We’re basically at the end. We’ve done a good job.

WB: We’ve gone so fast through an hour? Is there no way of expanding time?

DG: Time is time. We can neither shorten nor lengthen it. Let’s go to the last frontier. Let’s go to the New World. Let’s go to America. I would like to talk about something quintessentially American. So from Africa we jump to America and Babe Ruth. It seems like you knew him. Did you really live in the same building, and do you have any interesting stories?

WB: I did live in the same building, on 90th and Riverside, which went from 90th to 89th. He lived on the 89th street side, and what happened was I was ten years old, and the doorman said: “Hey, kid, we’re going up to the Babe’s.” We crossed the little place there, the courtyard, we go up to the 18th floor. He had the penthouse up there, in a very big place. And when I went in, there were twenty or thirty photographers. It was 1939, just before the war started, and he had been an orphan himself. Very poor as he started out. He had sympathy for the poor, believe it or not, even though he was one of the richest baseball players. He loved women. He loved alcohol—

DG: And cigars.

WB: So, anyway, they took the picture, and it appeared on the front pages of most newspapers, and so I became famous for a day. When I got back to the World’s Fair (1939-1940), we picked up Pepsi and Coke bottles and sold them for two cents each at the local grocery, so we could get rich and pay our way back on the trains. It was great fun in those days.

(Willis Barnstone, left, with Babe Ruth)


From Willis Barnstone’s STICKBALL ON 88TH STREET

The Building

Babe Ruth lives on the other
side of the court. His brother-in-law

jumped from the 18th
story into the handball

area where play until tenants
got angry. I heard the thump

when I was in
bed. The Babe gave

me a baseball diploma. The same
elevatorman, Joe, who slapped for

not being nice to
Jerry (it wasn’t true)

took me upstairs to the Babe’s
for the photos in the Daily News.

Sunday afternoon we hear
Father Coughlin and Hitler

live, shrieking on the radio. Everyone
hates Hitler. Comes a strike, new

men keep billy clubs
by the doors. I

like the scabs same as Ruddy
and Joe outside to whom we

bring sandwiches. I heard
Ruddy got hit trying to

bust in. They almost broke
his head. It’s funny for men

to ride me up
the elevator. I always

run downstairs. They slow me down
as I race for the outside

into the north pole
wind and the gully.

But often I spend the afternoon
in a corner of the elevator,

going up and down
in the tired coffin.

When no one else is riding,
they let me close the brass

gate. I do it
like a grown man.


DG: Indeed. These stories are equal to the ones you and Tony told about Africa, and they’re quintessentially American. Thank you for that. Let’s transition back to you now, Tony. In staying with the American theme, I’d like to talk about your 2006 collection, Golem of Los Angeles, which won Red Hen’s Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and contains a powerful poem, “Parable in Praise of Violence,” featuring the following epigraph by H. Rap Brown: “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Throughout the poem you sarcastically give thanks for all the greatness and depravity produced on these shores, but the fourth stanza is especially powerful: “My life is like a loaded gun, and when I aim it at you / I hope to take off the top of your head, / no safety on, no playing nice, just the spark, / the flash, the damage, just red American / cherry pie violence.” Did you compose the poem as a response to something specific or was it more a state of mind back then, and how do you feel about all that today, when things aren’t exactly improving—do you manage to retain a sense of optimism?

TB: Part of it, of course, is the reference to the Dickinson poem—“my life was like a loaded gun,” a very interesting poem. But for me, it also goes back to the idea of the poem being a machine made out of words. And one kind of machine, of course, is the gun. Like the gun, like the violence of the gun, the poem itself, as a machine, may not take off the top off your heads—”I know it’s poetry if it takes off the top off my head,” as Dickinson writes. It may not actually take off the top of your head, but it can give you that sense of almost violent ecstasy. The poem can ravish you emotionally. For me, from the very beginning, I wanted my poetry to do something, not just be polite—nice, domestic poetry that didn’t actually move the emotions and challenge you intellectually. So, there’s that. But on the other side of the question is the way in which, at that time and especially today, the American obsession with violence—particularly with guns and using guns as part of our revolutionary consciousness—permeates so many levels of society. I think we have been a sold a story of America, one story of America, whereas there are many stories of America that could be told—as can be seen with the current debate about critical race theory. But one story of America is that it was an enlightenment project, a revolutionary project against the order of absolute monarchs, or limited monarchy such as in England, and of despotic rule, culminating in a move towards the democratic representation of the people that started out with only white males of a certain economic level who could vote, and slowly that expanded to the rest of Americans, except for children, of course. Yet, that story of the Revolution, that story of the justifiable revolution against the father country, against the king, where we take up arms against oppression, has so permeated American consciousness, it has so become our “rebel without a cause,” not to mention the “movies” that are constantly sold to us about these violent men who create Second Amendment solutions to social problems, who are basically, if you think about it, no different in their own way than those men who put on white hoods and lynched African Americans, Jews, and others they considered undesirable—the lynchings in the Old South—that vigilante justice is at the core of the story Americans tell about themselves, and especially how it ties into our idea that the three hundred or so million guns owned by Americans are a bulwark against an oppressive government. And what’s happening right now, sadly, is that because of the pervasive propaganda, the disinformation of right-wing media has sold Americans a story that their government has been taken away from them, and they need to threaten death against election workers, politicians—they need to be ready to take up arms, as they did on January 6th, and storm Congress to take back America, just like the American Revolutionaries had to do against King George. That story is being told to us. It’s all a lie. But Americans sadly enough, if they get their news from the wrong place, they will get that propaganda, and they will believe it’s true, and they’ll be willing to kill each other. That’s why violence is as American as cherry pie. It’s our essential story. We need to take up violence, take up guns, take up arms, against oppression, even if that oppression doesn’t exist, even if the people we’re taking up arms against are, in fact, the victims. So, sadly enough—obviously I’m worked up about this—we’re in a bad place in America. We might be at the end of democracy. And I hope not.

WB: I don’t think that’s true. I mean it’s something that anyone who went to junior high school should know, but the notion of the Second Amendment giving people the right to have guns is not in the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment was written because—I think it was in 1812 or 1810 that they thought the English were going to attack again and try to reconquer the States, or America, whatever you want to call it. And it said they could have militias—it did not say people could have guns, and it was only for a special purpose of fighting the British, and so this misleading idea that it gave single people the right to have guns is just nonsense.

TB: And the supposedly originalist Supreme Court justices who said we have to go back to the context in which the laws were written ignore that history, because it doesn’t fit with their preferred story.

DG: I agree. The laws were written for a certain time. We can’t apply the standards of one time onto another.

WB: Right, and it isn’t only that it didn’t say that—it didn’t even say that because it doesn’t deal with the question of personal ownership. It doesn’t say you can’t have guns. It only says you can form militias.

TB: Dark image to end the interview on. Do you want to ask another question, so we end on something lighter?

DG: I have two more questions. For you and Willis. Are you reading or working on anything at the moment, Willis? What are you up to these days?

WB: I’m up to about three books. I did a book on Apollinaire—a translation with many illustrations. I finished my Baudelaire translation, again with paintings, and right now I am just tuning up with Tony’s help to make it all stay in place—these are big books—a 656-page book called Magic Couplets: Portraits of Poets

TB: Beautiful paintings he made, and with couplets.

DG: Yeah, the stuff you’ve been sending me, Willis, the illustrations, the poems—you’re incredibly active. You work on every level—

WB: I’m only 94 years old—give me a break.

DG: You work like you’re 55. That’s what I’m trying to say. You’re incredible. The energy you have. The vitality with which you produce the work is just incredible. May we all reach that point. May we all have a little bit of the blessing that you’ve had. Keep on going, Willis. All the power to you. You will write more books. You may even make it to Antarctica. Who knows?

WB: I’ll tell you a funny story, if there’s time for it. When I was 20, I went to spend a year in the Doctoral Program at the Sorbonne. At 21, I went to Greece, and Louis MacNeice, the poet, was then head of the British Institute. And in those days, everybody knew everybody. The world was small. If you wanted to get in touch with Camus, you wrote him a letter, and he answered you within twenty-four hours. I had wonderful correspondence with everybody. And so, MacNeice, said: “Willis, you know, I’m here, head of the British Institute. I taught Greek history and translated plays from Ancient Greek all my life, and here we are, and I’ve never climbed the fucking Acropolis.” In those days, they didn’t have roads to go up there, because they didn’t want the Turks to bring their big guns up top again. So it was a farce, this thing—MacNeice was a man of about 6’3 or 4, handsome guy, and we’re walking together, and he trips and falls. His head is full of blood. He takes his handkerchief—there’s a huge smile on his face. He takes his handkerchief out of his—in those days, you know, everyone who climbed the Acropolis had a three-piece suit on, and so he takes his handkerchief, wipes the blood of his face, and he says: “I’ve come to Greece. I’ve climbed the Acropolis. And bathed myself in blood and marble.” The image of blood and marble is memorable.

TB: Let me tell a very fast anecdote. I was walking through the streets of Athens with my ex-girlfriend and her nephew. He was six years old at the time. And we look through the streets, and up the hill we see on top of the hill—the child says: “Look, look, over there, you can see the apocalypse!”

WB: He was a Bible scholar, obviously …. Heaven is described terribly in the New Testament. I translated the New Testament—2000 pages—and you know, there’s nothing to eat up there, because the walls are made of diamonds, the floors of gold, etc. You can’t get much food growing in pure, rich, wealth of stones. It doesn’t work, so better go to Hell where you can roast things—you can roast lousy hamburgers on the fire, unless you’re with Dante.

TB: It’s like an old joke, but I won’t tell the joke, but it’s like an old joke I could tell you.

DG: Well, well, guys, we’ve come a long way. I’d like to ask you the same question, Tony: What are you working on? You’re helping Willis, and it would also be nice to hear something about your own projects. This is a nice note to end on.

TB: Sure. Four things right now, which is actually less than normal. Usually, I’m working on about fifteen, but a lot of them have come to fruition. One: I just published a translation of the Urdu ghazals of the great Kashmiri poet, Ghalib, and that just came out with White Pine Press. That took a good fifteen years or so. I’m really happy to have that out—

DG: Congratulations.

TB: Thank you. My co-translation is with Bilal Shaw—a good friend of mine. I’m writing children’s poetry. I’ve written a book of children’s poetry. I’m collaborating with my niece, Maya Barnstone, who’s a wonderful young artist who lives in Sydney Australia, and so that’s going to be a really exciting project. We hope to get the book illustrated within a year and start sending it out. Here’s one poem:

I’ve also written an ABC of animals that I illustrated myself. Here is “N is the Nightingale”:

The other thing I’m working on—a very large critical book about William Carlos Williams that uses Williams as a lens to open up modernism, within the question of how the arts and humanities relate to technoscience, and the battle for authority between, let’s say, science and technology on the one hand, and poetry, art, and philosophy on the other hand. And the ways in which they began to—you know, the machine made out of words. When Williams talks about that, he’s appropriating the language. He’s doing the intellectual appropriation of technology, so as to give poetry the aura of the machine. Poetry in the machine age, or the authority of science. It’s a long story and a big book that starts with Bacon and goes all the way through the atom bomb. It’s a big project.

WB: What are you working on?

DG: I’m living in Italy, Willis. I’m working on interviews. I’m having fun interviewing incredible people like you. I’m focused on my writing and teaching English here to Italians. It’s all going well. Thank you so much for asking, Willis. It’s going well. It’s going about as well as it can.

WB: Yes.

TB: There’s a lot of room for good translations of contemporary Italian poets.

DG: There is. There is. I just have to pick up the language a little bit more. I’m not quite at that level.

TB: Indeed. Oh, I did want to mention one other project I forgot to mention.

DG: Sure.

TB: The other last project I’m working on—I’ve finished a book of new poems. And as you could probably hear from what I was saying before, it’s very much a response to where are in the current moment politically, to four years of Trump, and the certain rhetoric of violence, the decline of democratic norms, the fear of the end of democracy that we seem to be spinning towards, the era of climate change, environmental degradation and disaster. “Look, you can see the apocalypse!” Right? That sense of difficult times that we’re living through right now, and that’s really what the book’s premise is about.

DG: That’s fascinating, Tony. Probably the Greeks—they would’ve perhaps had better solutions. They’re an ancient people, but, in a sense, perhaps, they would’ve been more in tune, more in touch with how to solve these problems because they had a complete education. They focused on the whole individual. They didn’t just focus on the so-called mental aspect of education—they cared for the spiritual, the physical side of the individual, which are things we neglect, and perhaps this is why we’re in the state we’re in today. We are focused on science, but we neglect the spiritual side of our own being, and that’s maybe why have these disasters—COVID is a product of science. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to the question. All I know is that we have to try and get out of this conundrum.

TB: It could be that we’re living inside a Greek tragedy.

DG: Maybe. Maybe. Yeah, like Huxley said: Maybe this world is another planet’s hell. Who knows? No one really knows, but somehow we have to persevere and make do. We have to stay positive. Thank you so much. It’s truly been a pleasure, Tony, Willis. With immense gratitude from the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate it. This has been an incredibly positive experience for me. I wish you, Tony, all the best with your projects. Willis, likewise. I wish you all the best. I look forward to seeing more of your poems, more of your illustrations, more of your books. I’m sure that will happen.

TB: Thank you, David. Thank you for all that you do.

DG: Be well.

WB: And as I say to my good friends: “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

DG: I won’t, Willis. I won’t.



About Willis Barnstone

About Tony Barnstone


“Il Colpo,” un racconto di Isidora Tesic, edito da Interlitq

Il Colpo

un racconto di Isidora Tesic



Quella strada è senza direzioni. Il paesaggio ha qualcosa di malarico, l’aria è rugginosa, la vita acida. L’uomo si trova lì da qualche tempo. Quota cinquantatré anni, portati per dovere. La strada si dilegua dopo alcuni chilometri in direzione nord-est. Tutto attorno c’è solamente argilla grigia, granulosa. L’uomo ha montato una tenda sul ciglio della strada.

Il sole rotea, le notti si riversano contuse e violacee. Lì il buio appare spesso illuminato da chiarori abbacinanti. La distesa allora si incendia come per un fuoco pallido, biancastro. L’argilla s’increspa, si deforma. Dal suo torbido sembra che sorgano infinite trascurabili creature, che scivolano lungo la superficie. Si allontanano sempre dalla luce. L’uomo è intimamente uguale a una di quelle creature. Nudo, molle e pauroso. Ma non si muove mai.

Da qualche parte ha una famiglia. Nella distanza sono anonimi, corpi un tempo amati e ora soltanto alieni. Se hanno ancora una vita è una vita ologrammata, facilmente replicabile, facile e basta. L’uomo li ama e ne ha paura in egual misura. Gli sopravvivranno, forse di molto.

Di giorno sta seduto accanto alla tenda e guarda fisso l’orizzonte. Se i giorni passano, si sciolgono lungo le verticali del suo organismo. Continuano a rimanergli attaccati come trasparenti sanguisughe.

L’uomo ha un fucile da caccia che apparteneva a suo padre. Arrugginito, scarico. Forse ci sono delle cartucce da qualche parte nella tenda. Sta appoggiato ai suoi piedi. Lui non lo guarda mai. L’ha portato just in case ma il caso non è ancora arrivato. L’orizzonte rimane morbido, senza pericoli. Talvolta, all’ora della posta, si sente un colpo in distanza. Ogni tanto compare anche una fioritura rossa in cielo, un bocciolo sanguiniforme pieno di presagi. Lui osserva dalla sua sedia da campo, con il fucile ai suoi piedi e aspetta.

Suo padre era un uomo tranquillo e rovinato. Guardava con disamore alle cose vive, belle e selvatiche. Da piccolo l’uomo lo accompagnava. Entravano nell’alba, in silenzio, scrutando il sottobosco senza fretta. Se una beccaccia si alzava in volo, il padre prendeva la mira quietamente e il colpo partiva quasi sempre. La preda finiva in un istante al di là della canna del fucile. Non vedevano mai l’agonia ma la migrazione era rapida ed efficace. Il cane riportava sempre indietro una regina già morta, molle.

Nelle terminazioni nervose rimaneva certamente uno stupore terrificato, lo spettro volubile della salvezza. Ma la carne, come tutte le carni, non tratteneva il dolore né l’istinto. Restava svuotata e pietosa, rassegnata alla ciclicità dell’esistenza.

Il padre si sistemava il fucile sulla schiena. Il male, la violenza e il sangue rimanevano fluttuanti ad angosciare tutte le creature. Li seguivano fuori dal bosco, fino alla porta di casa e poi dentro.

L’uomo presagiva che tutta la sostanza del mondo si potesse sempre disgregare così. Che sotto la superficie apparente si potesse sfaldare in miseria e perdizione con o senza interventi. Semplicemente seguendo un istinto originario e insondabile di estinzione.

Qualche volta, e sempre più spesso con il passare anni, l’uomo aveva sentito un periodico disfarsi, pericolosamente simile a una tarlatura interiore, rimanendo in apparenza sanissimo, fortunato e senza pietà per se stesso.

Il corpo si era pian piano plastificato, assumendo tutte le posizioni convenienti per un essere umano adulto, soddisfatto della propria esistenza.

Ma la pelle era rimasta tesa su intercapedini, permeabile e sensibile agli eventi che gli piombavano addosso, imboccando il quid spellato, infetto e devastante, il dolore di essere vivo.

Dentro di lui queste piccole, vertiginose gole si schiudevano, via via più insaziabili. L’uomo ci sprofondava, sgretolandosi, incapace di aggrapparsi alle fenditure, di rallentare in qualche modo la sua corsa verso il fondo. Dall’interno-corpo vedeva la sua vita scivolargli di dosso a tradimento, fluttuando verso l’alto, cerulea, disincantata, sfilandosi dal suo controllo e mostrandosi, infine, per quello che veramente era: melliflua e senza promesse. Quanto credeva di essere riuscito a ottenere rimaneva a galleggiare accanto al corpo, fuori dalla sua portata, inservibile e incapace di proteggerlo, mentre tutti gli abitanti secondari della sua vita, pieni di aspettative e affamati, rimanevano a volteggiare come imperturbabili uccelli di rapina. Da sotto la fodera della carne, solo l’orribile, finale scoperta che nulla sarebbe mai stato sufficiente.

Dall’orizzonte arriva una luce grinzosa. Ogni tanto sussulta. L’uomo continua a guardare verso quella luce. È tenera, brillante. L’orizzonte va a fuoco in modo morbido, rassicurante. Sospira. Ora che è lì, non ha più alcun motivo di allarme. Non sente più frulli d’ala sopra la testa. In qualche modo un altro giorno sta per terminare. In lontananza sembra che riecheggi l’ultimo colpo, forse si sente un brusio. L’uomo socchiude gli occhi e rimane ad attendere.


La famiglia gli sta accanto. Il venerdì è giorno di visita. Lo sfiorano, mormorano qualcosa, ma senza particolari speranze. L’uomo è sospeso al di là della canna del fucile da quando era a quota cinquantuno. Se solo quel giorno avesse preso meglio la mira.



Isidora Tesic nasce a Brescia nel 1996. I suoi racconti e poesie sono stati pubblicati su varie riviste, tra cui Nazione Indiana, Il primo amore e Nuovi Argomenti. Dal 2015 collabora con Q Code Magazine.

“Communist Ravenna,” an article by David Garyan

June 10th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy


Communist Ravenna

It can’t be denied that Ravenna is full of Christian history. With its impressive basilicas and connection to Dante, the city can entice the fascination of people coming from all faiths; while its past religiosity certainly contributes to shaping many attitudes and characters all around, it’s the communist modesty which really provides that simple charm so rarely found in other cities, especially those with eight UNESCO World Heritage to their name—in this case, all of them Christian, with the exception of the Masoleum of Galla Placidia (where she isn’t actually buried), and the Masoleum of Theodoric (who’s no longer there).

While the Christian monuments have remained, memories of how Italy was once home to the largest communist party in the West have all been forgotten; since many of its members had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, this combat experience helped them become, according to UM-Ann Arbor professor, Dario Gaggio, “the best-organized anti-Fascist force during the Second World War.” Communists held substantial power in several regions, and Emilia-Romagna was one of the most notable in that regard. Modena, for example, had an uninterrupted stretch of communist mayors from 1946 to 1992. One of the longest streets in Bologna is called Stalingrado while Ravenna has its own unique way of paying tribute to the Communist past.

The first example is at Piazza Ugo La Malfa, where this large portrait of Che Guevarra can still be found.

I tried searching the area for any kind of information about the artist but wasn’t able to find anything; after returning home and digging on the internet for a bit, I discovered that the art was done by a group of Cuban students from the Escuela de Arte of Trinidad in collaboration with the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna; this particular piece is based on the famous photograph by Alberto Korda, who also photographed the revolutionary leader on other occasions. Sadly, the murals were vandalized by fascists at some point and required extensive cleaning, proving that perhaps—now more than ever—we need to be vigilant about the rise of right-wing extremism.

In any case, Che Guevara is one of the most interesting figures to have emerged in the twentieth century. Born on the 14th of June, 1928, he was the oldest of five children raised in a middle-class Argentine family of Spanish origin; his grandmother, Ana Lynch, was a descendant of Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant who settled in Rio de la Plata when it was still a governate of the Spanish Empire, now modern-day Argentina.

Already as a young child, Guevara had a propensity for restlessness, according to his father, Don Ernesto: “In order to understand how my son became Major Che, one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, and what led him into the Bolivian mountains, we have to look into the past and find out something about our family ancestors. The first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels, the Spanish conquistadores, and the Argentinean patriots. Evidently Che inherited some of the features of our restless ancestors. There was something in his nature which drew him to distant wanderings, dangerous adventures and new ideas.” This restlessness, however, wasn’t just physical. Besides excelling in sports, Guevara also had plenty of energy for books. He was interested in poetry and literature in general. He was likewise informed about philosophy and history, according to declassified CIA reports: “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino. He is quite well-read in Latino literature and has an appreciation of the classics from other literatures. He is intelligent and quick.” The memo continues by stating that soldiers under his command “never saw him reading Marx or any other Communist authors.” To educate his troops, he would read to them “from the works of Charles Dickens and of Alphonse Daudet, among others.” Already, the arrogance of the US is apparent—quite well read for a Latino, as if it’s some kind of miracle. Clearly, we’re dealing with an intellectual here, not a party hack ready to oblige any high-ranking official.

On a visit to the USSR, officials were equally impressed with this former doctor, who had, in fact, completed his medical studies in 1953, shortly after returning from his long motorcycle journey through the continent (these events are recounted in a 2004 biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries, based on the diaries Guevara kept during the journey). During this journey with his friend Alberto Granado, Guevara witnessed the poor working conditions of many families and how wealthy landlords exploited peasant farmers in remote rural areas. Towards the end of the journey, he began to see Latin America as a borderless land of united people and not as a fragmented continent of separate states; this change of attitude is highlighted in the movie when Che is celebrating his 24th birthday in the leper colony and makes the following speech, which I’ll do my best to paraphrase: We are a single mixed race, from Mexico to the Strait of Magellan. So, trying to free myself from any nationality, I raise a toast for Peru and for a united America. It’s not clear whether this event depicted in the film actually happened, but the fact that he held such a belief is certain.

According to Douglas Kellner, who authored the book Ernesto “Che” Guevara (World Leaders Past & Present), it was the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratic government by the United States which finally convinced Guevara that armed struggle was necessary for the liberation of Latin America. Kellner quotes Che’s wife, Hilda Gadea, who stated the following: “It was Guatemala that finally convinced him of the necessity for armed struggle, for taking initiative against imperialism.” Indeed, his experiences in Central America shaped the young revolutionary deeply. It’s precisely there Guevara realized that being a democracy won’t protect you from US imperialism. Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected by the people and simply had the interests of his population in mind when he attempted to institute his land reforms; however, because this agenda went against the corporate interests of the US, he was swiftly removed. Guevara, thus, realized Latin America would never be able to rule the way it wanted to, even if it made this attempt democratically. It’s at this moment that he abandoned his profession and truly became a revolutionary, although it’s clearly evident that he never lost hope for returning to medicine: “When I was in Arbenz’s Guatemala, I had begun taking notes to try and assess what would be the duties of a revolutionary doctor. Then, after the United Fruit Company’s aggression, I realized one fundamental thing: To be a revolutionary doctor, you first need a revolution.” That dream would be cut short—once again at the hands of the US, when Bolivian soldiers, trained and equipped by the CIA captured and killed the revolutionary.

Across from Che’s mural at Piazza Ugo La Malfa one can see the depiction of Arrigo Baldrini, from whose portrait the Cuban flag trails. Having joined the Italian Communist Party in 1943, he became a central figure for the Italian resistance in the Romagna region. A fearless warrior, he took part in most of the liberation missions in the region. Baldrini died in Ravenna on January 22nd, 2008 at the age of 92.

Not far from Piazza Ugo La Malfa is the street named after Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1972 to 1984.

Considered the best and most popular national secretary of the party, Berlinguer distanced himself from the USSR and proceeded to govern along more ideologically moderate lines. His philosophy revolved around the Third Way, which can best be explained with the phrase “centrist socialism,” or the attempt to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics. In a book, Visions of the End of the Cold War in Europe, 1945-1990, edited by Frédéric Bozo, Laura Fasanaro writes the following: “Berlinguer used this expression to refer to a model of socialism that did not yet exist, either in the USSR or in other ‘socialist’ countries, but that would, he hoped, be implemented in Italy. This model would go beyond the Soviet model but preserve the legacy of two historical landmarks: the October revolution on the one hand, and the anti-Fascist alliance of the USSR with the Western democracies during the Second World War on the other.” Politicians like Berlinguer offer a refreshing way to look at communism from a different perspective. Whereas the US is fanatical about suppressing any debate surrounding socialism, along with preventing every politician like Bernie Sanders from seeking power, Italy, for example, has proven that a more moderate course isn’t just possible but can also offer new solutions for the ills of capitalism.

It’s certainly hypocritical that even candidates such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were more than willing to run on revolutionary platform themselves, but when Bernie Sanders attempted to institute his own innovative ideas, the two former candidates didn’t waste any time trying to discredit him, simply because the US doesn’t do socialism. Clinton claimed that “nobody likes him” and Obama promised to speak in order to stop his possible nomination.

Well, enough US bashing. Let’s return to Berlinguer; in his own words, he had realized that neither authoritarian communism nor unchecked capitalism was the answer and he wanted to find a solution: “The fact that the socialist experiments that have so far been carried out in various parts of the world do not represent an historically adequate and politically feasible solution for the West, i.e. in the high points of capitalism and hence also here in Italy, does not mean that we should abandon the objective of socialism and the struggle to build in Italy and in the other European capitalist countries a system of social and human relations superior to those produced by capitalism and its crisis. On the contrary, this makes it more urgent than ever for us to make the theoretical and practical effort so that the workers’ movement, having reached a maturity and a new phase of its history, can decisively bring to bear its constructive and innovative strength.” People like Berlinguer are further proof that the hypersensitive attitude (the kindest possible way to put it) with which the US attempts to stay away from socialism is at best ridiculous and at worst filled with the greedy desire to further empower the rich at expense of its own people. Italians, on the other hand, admired the political ability and courage of their socialist leader, recognizing his integrity and intelligence. Sanders, meanwhile, could’ve brought all the competence in the world to the table; so long as he was a socialist, however, winning an election, much less getting the nomination, was certainly an impossibility—it remains to be seen whether Biden can beat Trump. Let’s just hope Sanders won’t need to be vindicated.

Speaking of democracy fighting fascism, it’s always noteworthy to speak of Antonio Gramsci, who, like Berlinguer, is honored by the city of Ravenna with his own street.

An incredibly prolific writer, Gramsci produced over thirty notebooks, along with countless other pages of historical and philosophical writing. Born on January 22nd, 1891 in Sardinia, he was the fourth among seven brothers. As a child, he experienced health problems which would contribute to the deterioration of his condition in prison. Due to his poor health and financial situation, he abandoned his studies at the University of Turin at the age of 24; because of his involvement with a militant anti-fascist group, Gramsci was arrested in 1926. He was sentenced to five years confinement on the island of Ustica; after this, he was given an additional twenty years to be served out in Turi.

Due to his already weak physical disposition, prison didn’t take kindly to the great philosopher: In one of the introductions written for his Prison Notebooks, the following is stated: “Gramsci’s letters from prison reveal a sense of isolation that was more than simply a physical one—but compounded terribly both by political preoccupations and by anxiety about Julia [his wife]. Increasingly, Gramsci was forced back into himself. Much of the time, particularly towards the end of his stay in Turi, he was too ill even to read or write. Hunchbacked, sickly, having suffered at least three major breakdowns of his health even when he was free and able to enjoy medical attention and maintain a special diet, his years in prison were literally an eleven-year death-agony. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food, his chronic insomnia became permanent so that he could go weeks without more than an hour or two of sleep at night; he had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered from headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell. It is against this background that the achievement of the Prison Notebooks should be seen.” Indeed, the ability to create original thought—then muster the willpower to actually write it down coherently—is a task that proves difficult for people in the most perfect situations; Gramsci’s situation, however, was anything but ideal.

It’s perhaps, thus, very strange how given that Gramsci was forced to endure all kinds of physical and psychological deprivations, such as hunger, isolation, pain, and despair, that the fanciest place to buy groceries should be located on a street named after him.

Coop, indeed, is where the so-called bourgeoisie go to shop; it’s like the Whole Foods of Italy, and, not only that—it’s a megacorporation, which runs the largest supermarket chain in Italy. I rarely ever shop at Coop because everything is just so much more expensive and the necessity to shop at such markets is really not necessary in Europe; the food standards are already of such a high quality that the average supermarket here is probably equivalent to your organic store in the US. The use of growth hormones in meat are banned and regulations on additives are much stricter in the EU.

In any case, we’ve gone off-track, but not so much. The ability to feed its own population has always been a problem for communist regimes. To industrialize China, Mao starved millions of people. Stalin engineered a man-made famine in Ukraine, known as Holodomor, and today considered a genocide. The Soviet famine of 1932-1933 killed a great number of people as well, but let’s not make the mistake of forgetting that even today there are over fifteen million people in the US still having trouble getting access to food (it’s so bad, the euphemism “food insecurity” is sometimes used in conjunction with hunger), or the economic policies which led to the Great Depression. Furthermore, to this day, the US remains the only power to have used nuclear weapons against another nation, and who can forget its own genocide against the Native Americans? However, things are rarely analyzed from such perspectives because the US is a democracy (meaning it can do no wrong) while the aforementioned countries are or were communists (obviously they can’t do anything right—even when they actually do); such cultural discourse (which is constructed by the West) proliferates itself through society until it becomes the dominant, normative view, which is exactly how Gramsci said power works.

Despite the hardships he endured in prison, the influential thinker managed to produce some of the greatest Marxist philosophy which is studied both in the US and in Europe alike. I encountered his ideas in classes ranging from graduate literary criticism seminars at CSULB to courses on international cooperation and development at the University of Bologna.

A founding member and eventual secretary of the Communist Party of Italy (dissolved in 1926 by Mussolini’s regime and re-established as the Italian Communist Party in 1943), Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony; its main argument is that the status quo must not always employ force to maintain its dominant position. Power and control can also be exercised by culturally engineering the desired normative behaviors that serve the interests of those in charge. In other words, institutions like the church, media, police, and even the cultural apparatus are used to create discourses that not only correspond with the views of those who wield power, but, more importantly, seek to manufacture an environment in which dissent becomes less likely.

Indeed, force can be used to suppress a revolt; however, Gramsci argues that coercion is only effective for a short time because it’s less likely to resolve the hegemon’s problem—violence can only contain unrest for some time until the pressure gives way to revolution; cultural engineering, on the other hand, manipulates society by influencing public opinion so that dissent is seen as something which is both contrary to the cultural norm (hence against the interest of society) and also perhaps unnecessary. The most effective regimes, like the US, have utilized cultural hegemony very well—although capitalism has created huge inequalities, there’s historically been very little desire on the populace’s part to change the system because of how the country has been able to successfully present its economic ideology as superior to communism.

After the Soviet Union fell, however, the US no longer has the same “enemy” to contend with; thus, in its effort to find a new “threat” in the Middle East, it has engaged in a binary civilizational discourse of our way of life (Christianity) vs their way of life (Islam) to both maintain its cultural superiority, and, naturally, at the same time plunder the oil it so desperately needs; in that sense, Trump is the complete embodiment of a nation no longer able to create a cultural discourse capable of maintaining the cultural engineering necessary to wield total power, which is why it’s now resorting to force.

Still, Gramsci argues that revolutions in developed and “democratic” cultures must be of the passive variety, meaning that transformations must be a slow struggle to change institutions from within, using counter-hegemony and alternate values. Speaking at the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Gramsci said the following: “History has spoken, and we have to know how to recognise the reality, we have to recognise that in the advanced countries the socialist revolution will not begin as easily as it did in Russia, the country of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas, and where for a majority of the population it was a matter of indifference what kind of people lived on the periphery or what was happening there. In countries like these, starting a revolution is as easy as lifting a feather. But in a country where capitalism has developed and produced a democratic culture and organisations that involve every last person, it is absurd to imagine that the revolution can begin without proper preparation. If we fail to do that, we will destroy the socialist revolution before it begins. That is the reality.” Gramsci’s philosophy paints a very clear picture of why it’s so difficult to counter the hegemony of the US; it has achieved such a level of cultural engineering that its democracy is unquestioned; however, when one looks closer, it’s not difficult to see that a democracy in which a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose an elections isn’t a democracy; a democracy in which the rich have all the say in politics and the poor have almost none isn’t a democracy; a democracy which has occupied other countries whose people didn’t welcome the occupation isn’t a democracy; likewise, a democracy which has overthrown other democracies isn’t a democracy. The US has done all those aforementioned things, but due to its ability in utilizing a discourse that successfully justifies these actions, the populace ends up believing that the actions really are justified.

Last but not least in Communist Ravenna, is the bookstore la Feltrinelli.

Anyone familiar with publishing will immediately recognize the name as Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the legendary publisher, guerilla, and communist. Perhaps best known for first publishing Dr. Zhivago, he’s most likely the first editor to have releasing the first edition of a book in a language it wasn’t originally written in. I can think of no other publisher with that kind of feat to their name. When Boris Pasternak completed the novel and submitted it for publication, the work was rejected by Soviet censors. The manuscript was eventually smuggled out of the USSR and delivered to Feltrinelli. The novel went on to win the Nobel Prize, which, as one might imagine, didn’t make the Soviets too happy. Not surprisingly, the CIA would go on to use the novel as a weapon against the USSR, showing both their own citizens and those behind the Iron Curtain how bad life was under communism. After retiring, Nikita Khrushchev, the man in power at the time, obtained a copy of the book and changed his mind about it: “We shouldn’t have banned it. I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.” I guess people do really change—even communists, for that matter.

The morality of Pasternak’s actions are debatable. Since he spent ten long years of his long life writing the novel, he may have deserved to see it published; at the same time, his actions led to an even greater wave of censorship and suspicion of artists in the Soviet Union. Many of Pasternak’s friends felt like he had betrayed them and made things that much more difficult. Not only had he gotten the glory and fame (which, again, he may have deserved), but, more importantly, he had created additional challenges for writers and artists in the USSR who were fighting for greater artistic freedom. Pasternak, they argued, wasn’t a real dissident because he had assumed none of the risks which come with working from the inside—trying to change the system by challenging it directly, instead of from a periphery. What’s done is done, however. The novel is now available in its original language and has been part of the Russian school curriculum for years, although this might no longer be the case.

And with that, we’ve reached the final stop of our Communist Ravenna tour. For those who prefer less ideologically extreme readings about the city of Ravenna, please do consult the free internet or even my accompanying article to the first section of the poem I wrote about the city.

Here’s to you, tovarish.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

“Something More than Civil Discontent,” an article by David Garyan

June 7th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy


Something More than Civil Discontent

The international solidarity surrounding the fight against racism is, perhaps, the most refreshing thing to have happened since the election of Barack Obama in 2008; at the same time, the moods with which one might categorize these respective events could not be any more divergent—hope twelve years ago and utter despair today. What has happened to us?

For the record, not only do I see these protests as a positive development, but I also support the violent nature that embodies them. Before Malcolm X used the phrase “by any means necessary,” it was actually employed by a likewise famous writer and activist, Frantz Fanon, best known for his book, The Wretched of the Earth, in which he analyzes colonialism from a linguistic perspective, arguing how language is used to shape the mind of both the colonizer and the colonized, so that they can each assume their respective role; in that sense, the identity and experience of the colonized is always lived through the colonizer, denying the subjugated population their own history, culture, and humanity—all things which they must perceive through the agency of the colonizer; this naturally causes great psychological distress. Fanon writes: “Colonized society is not merely portrayed as a society without values. The colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or worse never possessed any. The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values.” Through this discourse, the colonizer gives himself the justification to fill the so-called void (which he himself has created) with the values that the colonized are supposedly “lacking,” and, naturally, the colonizer doesn’t take into account a native’s outlook on life, but, rather, fills his worldview with western values.

Even the religion he brings has more to do with espousing the virtues of whiteness than with the actual worship of God (for if the colonizer actually did have genuine religious inclinations, they would never allow him to commit violence against a people to begin with). Fanon writes: “The Church in the colonies is a white man’s Church, a foreigners’ Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the white man, to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor. And as we know, in this story many are called but few are chosen.” Thus, the parallel can easily be drawn between Fanon’s discourse on colonialism and the completely paradoxical nature with which Trump famously used violence and force to clear protesters in order to pose in front of a church, just to be photographed holding a bible. The man neither worships God nor perhaps even believes in him—what he worships is a fanatical idea of whiteness perhaps so extreme it rivals the militancy of 19th century Belgian and English colonial administrators.

I can imagine no greater suffering than to be denied your own identity; it’s for this reason that Fanon espouses violence as perhaps the only conceivable way to loosen the colonizer’s unrelenting grip on the society which he seeks to subjugate eternally. As Fanon argues, it’s not enough for the colonizer to know that he’s committed violence in the past or that he’s committing violence in the present; no, colonialism is the most brutal form of subjugation, for it’s perhaps the only method of tyranny that seeks to operate across all periods of time—past, present, and future; in other words, its aim is to continue forever under the guise of “civilizing” the natives; in that sense, everything is always done for their own good and this will continue until the ways of natives can no longer be distinguished from those of white people—civilized, that is.

In 1960, Fanon addressed the Accra Positive Action Conference, where he stated the following: “Colonialism, however, is not satisfied by this violence against the present. The colonized people are presented ideologically as a people arrested in their evolution, impervious to reason, incapable of directing their own affairs, requiring the permanent presence of an external ruling power. The history of the colonized people is transformed into meaningless unrest, and as a result, one has the impression that for these people humanity began with the arrival of those brave settlers.” Given that colonialism doesn’t merely seek to deprive the colonized but also desires to replace the Third World’s values with their own, Fanon, thus, espouses violence as the only way to escape the “eternal” colonizer’s chokehold; the discourse, “by any means necessary,” is in this respect another rallying point for colonized people to untangle themselves from the colonizer’s web that has trapped their own past, present, and future: “Violence in everyday behaviour, violence against the past that is emptied of all substance, violence against the future, for the colonial regime presents itself as necessarily eternal. We see, therefore, that the colonized people, caught in a web of a three-dimensional violence, a meeting point of multiple, diverse, repeated, cumulative violence, are soon logically confronted by the problem of ending the colonial regime by any means necessary.” What do we say about the peaceful (really?) protests of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King?

Well, it seems even violence is a right which the West reserves strictly for itself—the right to exert force is interpreted exclusively with the intellectual apparatus of the hegemon so that savagery can only be used to protect the status quo, and thus, it becomes a method of action which is only acceptable when employed by the colonizer. Fanon writes: “When German militarism decides to resolve its border problems by force, it is no surprise, but when the Angolan people, for instance, decide to take up arms, when the Algerians reject any method which does not include violence, this is proof that something has happened or is in the process of happening.” It’s, therefore, clearly in the interest of the West to establish a discourse which makes them the bearer of values while depicting colonized subjects as those who lack them—and it’s precisely this intellectual effort that justifies the use of violence on the colonizer’s part when the natives refuse to be “civilized.” Here’s ethnic cleansing interpreted somewhat differently—whether it’s peaceful from the perspective of both sides, I can’t say.

Likewise, this is the very reason why the West continues to call for “peaceful” protests because it’s exactly such “obedient” attempts at dismantling the colonial system that the West can easily neutralize, discredit, and eliminate. Even Gandhi, who considered nonviolence to be superior, ultimately believed that violence, in the absence of other choices, had to be utilized if that was the only way to bring about change; regarding India, he wrote: “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.” The West, however, would rather keep people from realizing that an individual like Gandhi could’ve held such beliefs because it would rather deal with people who are docile than those who are violent, especially when the docile ones have no real opportunity to change anything.

Truly, it’s very often the case that peaceful protests benefit the colonizer and no one else. With its cunning, crafty intellectual mechanisms, the West has managed to convince the entire world that Gandhi’s and MLK’s protests were peaceful—on many occasions, they were anything but that. Indeed, they were non-violent on the part of the protesters themselves, but there was plenty of violence on the part of colonizers (those who attempted to silence the protesters). One must only remember the Amritsar massacre or the countless beatings, arrests, and instances of brutality that these “nonviolent” activists needed to endure for the sake of real change; it’s precisely this asymmetrical violence that allowed the world to feel solidarity with the protesters—to garner the attention these leaders needed so badly in order to bring about real changes; without the uneven barbarity, without this violent response from the colonizer, very little would’ve been achieved in terms of real change. The presence of violence is, thus, imperative for any substantial transformation to occur, whether it comes from the protesters themselves or in this case from the hegemon.

Firstly, peaceful protests by themselves (by this I mean the absence of a violent response on the colonizer’s part) have been mostly ineffective, and secondly, are the main forms of revolution that the West prefers. The hippies, for example, and their nonviolent movement was largely tolerated by the government and perhaps even encouraged until the Kent State shootings happened. When violence ended up being used against the movement, the message of peace, love, and pulling out of Vietnam suddenly became a threat to the US government and the previously docile music-loving, marijuana-smoking youngsters at once became public enemy number one—in other words, by forcing the state to commit a violent act, the counterculture effectively managed to put the government’s depravity on full display for the whole world to see; furthermore, only when the state itself was forced to step back and witness its own barbarity did the course of Vietnam really begin to change. According to CNN, “The shootings turned the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War, and some political officials even argued that it played a role in the downfall of the Nixon administration.” It’s unfortunate that governments only listen when their own existence is threatened but that seems to be the recipe at work even with the so-called “nonviolent” protests, which the Kent State one certainly was—again, depending on which perspective you look at it from.

After the shooting, however, the government could no longer ignore the counterculture; their own violent response created a rift in the system that continued to resonate exactly ten years later when Ronald Reagan gave a speech in 1980 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, stating the following: “And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.” Put another way: the hippies caused the government to stab us in the back, for lack of better words, and this great nation could’ve won the war, but it was prevented from doing so by a treacherous entity which didn’t want to see victory.

This sounds awfully close to the stab-in-the-back myth employed by Nazi Germany, which became the widely-held belief in right-wing circles that Germany didn’t lose WWI in the trenches but was betrayed by civilians on the home front, mainly those who overthrew the House of Hohenzollern; not surprisingly, the Jews were also blamed and the connection between this now-discredited myth and the reasons for trying to exterminate an entire race during a subsequent world war aren’t difficult to see.

It’s after all Friedrich Ebert, the first president of Germany, who uttered the following: “No enemy has vanquished you. As you return unconquered from the field of battle, I salute you!” Not far from that discourse is Ronald Reagan, when he said this: “We continue to talk about losing that war. We didn’t lose that war. We won virtually every engagement.” Defeat is the most difficult burden for a nation to bear and it will do anything to avoid it, even, paradoxically, when it’s actually been defeated. A nonviolent protest doesn’t have the power to bring powerful nations like the US to their knees—only war and violence can do that. Hence, both Ebert and Reagan could tolerate dissent so long as they remained victors, but when defeat threatened the existence of their nations, they both resorted to measures of blaming the protesters and dissidents within their respective societies.

It’s perhaps not surprising that it’s now—when the country is once again at a critical juncture—that the NFL is finally admitting it was wrong about Colin Kaepernick, not because they really see racism any differently, but only because they fear an unprecedented backlash from players that could threaten the existence of the entire league. In the end, it all comes down to survival—and money. Whereas before, in more peaceful times, Kaepernick looked like a nuisance disrespecting the US flag, now, in a country governed (if you can call it that) by a deranged president capable of dismantling the entire nation, the very same player has become a beacon for human rights and the NFL has just realized that—a very convenient time to learn that lesson indeed (precisely at a moment when the survival of not simply the entire organization but also the whole country depends on it). Kaepernick’s protest was a peaceful one, precisely what the status quo preferred because it could neutralize him very easily; however, when his actions suddenly contributed to creating a monster that the colonizer could no longer deal with, it was time to make a deal with the devil, so to say, and admit the fault to save your own skin; this is precisely the reason why sometimes only violence brings about real change.

The other convenient rhetoric that the West employs to smother violent discontent which doesn’t serve its own interests is to say that the protesters are damaging property, looting, and have by their very actions turned away from what they’ve been protesting to begin with. Again, this is another devious element of the Western intellectual apparatus, for who’s really the responsible one? Is it not the West and its colonial/capitalist tradition which has exploited, stolen, and corrupted not only societies abroad but their own people? Is it not corporations which employ child-labor in order to maximize profits for themselves?

Indeed, who’s, in fact, responsible for stripping the Third World of its resources and leaving nations to fend for themselves when they no longer have anything to offer the West to steal? Similar to Fanon’s argument about the tolerance of historical German militarism to secure their borders, along with the hypocritical outrage when violence is used by non-Western powers, we can likewise say there’s a double-standard surrounding theft—it’s okay for big corporations to steal from people but when a black person swipes a few Iphones, it suddenly becomes all the rage. For all I know, the protesters haven’t stolen enough, given how long this country has historically exploited the slave labor of African-Americans and continues to make use of a different captivity—child labor overseas, and the good thing about that is that we don’t even have to put them on boats; they can be enslaved right where they are. Who’s the real hooligan, looter, and thief? It’s not the protesters because no revolt can steal on a regional scale the amount that corporations pillage on a global one. We must only remember how the environment is destroyed, how families are exploited, and how developing nations are bankrupted to realize who the “thugs” really are.

Contrary to what the media says, the looting and destruction has just as much to do with the murder of George Floyd as the so-called protest does, because it’s the legacy of capitalism and colonialism that has always disenfranchised minorities—not just racism itself. Colonialism was always motivated by profit, and, in that sense, the destruction of the natives’ society was justified through the socially constructed inferiority which the West imposed on the Third World; thus, it’s impossible to dismantle racism by leaving capitalism untouched because it’s precisely the former which gives the latter justification to steal. As Fanon writes: “It becomes clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” This colonial attitude has permeated to modern society because it’s now the underdeveloped world that’s viewed as poor (and paradoxically ripe for exploitation) and the developed one as rich (but only so because it exploits the abundant resources of the “poor” countries that can’t utilize them effectively due to a global system that only benefits the West). The devastation of a family’s livelihood, earned justly through hard work, is an unfortunate consequence of protest activity, but I have no empathy for the destruction of corporate property, which is accumulated through the exploitation of cheap labor and Third World resources.

Suffice it to say, the US has to burn before the colonial administrators (rich, white Republicans) begin to feel their existential crisis threatened and bring about some real change. As Fanon states: “Colonialism and imperialism have not paid their score when they withdraw their flags and their police forces from our territories. For centuries the capitalists have behaved in the underdeveloped world like nothing more than war criminals. Deportations, massacres, forced labor, and slavery have been the main methods used by capitalism to increase its wealth, its gold or diamond reserves, and to establish its power.” It’s now beside the point to discuss US foreign policy and its destruction of democracies, such as Guatemala and Chile, among many others, which didn’t align with their economic interests; the only relevant thing, perhaps, in this discourse is that the devastation which this country is currently witnessing isn’t just necessary but also justified. If the US now calls you a terrorist for being against fascism, then it’s better to be a terrorist; after Mussolini fell, we stopped having that problem here in Italy.

At this time, I stand in full solidarity with Black Lives Matter—by any means necessary.

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.