by Mitchell Smith
This interview was originally conducted in the Summer of 1992 by Mitchell Smith for broadcast on KCSB FM Community Service Radio of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Mitchell Smith: You recently published Rebel Lions, your first new book of poetry since Fragments of Perseus in 1983. Have your concerns shifted much in this new book?
Michael McClure: Yeah, that's a double-headed question because I can say in one sense I've expanded the concerns that have always been in my poetry, and in another way I find out that I have concerns that have probably been in my poetry that have never surfaced before. The long poem in the book is called "Stanzas from Maui," and it is unlike any poems that I have written before with the exception of having some resemblances to a play I wrote called The Beard. But those I think are just passing resemblances. And it's a sculpture in words of the experience that I had when feeling one love die in myself at the same moment that another love is born. And being on the island of Maui when it happened, which was a strange place for me to be, not having been there before. So on the surface that poem looks in some ways like other works of mine, and in other ways it looks absolutely new. And if one really pursues a certain style then one begins to reject more and more of the poetry that one produces. As it becomes easier to produce more poetry you reject more which makes your own art more difficult, and in making it more difficult, you are forcing new areas of subject matter into existence. So in Rebel Lions, I wrote poems about things I'd never written about before. About seeing carvings done in ivory that had turned black, carvings done by eskimos in the pre-Columbian period, about 800 A.D. that had been dug out of the tundra. Looking at these through the glass while standing next to somebody I love. And realizing "what is spirit but another chunk of black ivory."
MS: Are there any other subjects that were new to you?
MM: Living in San Francisco, I was so acutely grieved by homelessness that I wrote poems about it. And not the kind of poems like, "tut-tut, you musn't do this." I hate poems that like that. I don't like poems that say "they" or "they are doing this" or "we shouldn't being doing this." I think you have got to look something in the face. You can't do anything about it truly until you look at it in the face. I found it very hard to really look the kind of poverty and homelessness and madness that I see around me in the face. And I did a lot of that.
MS: Your poetry previous to this was more visionary, less specific to immediate topics like homelessness, looking as one of your reviewers put it, less at current events than at the current that runs through events.
MM: That's very nice, whoever said that had quite an insight. I think there was a lot of that in much of my poetry, and yes, I think of lot of that did drop away. It seems to me that I take a firmer stance on a given stepping stone in the river that's flowing past, and look at it more deeply. There's a lot to be said for the first way, for being a part of the current that flows through. I find right now for instance that I have taken this a step further. Because since Rebel Lions, I wrote a long poem about a skull. I thought about Hamlet holding a skull; I thought about Goethe taking Schiller's skull and actually holding it in his hands. And I've written a poem in an earlier book about holding a dolphin's skull in my hands that I found on a beach in Baja California. I started writing a poem about a skull, and all of the dumb, expected, litarary things come through one's consciousness in relation to that skull and then you realize, wait I haven't really held the skull yet. And it's quite shocking when you say that I have still stepped back from it. And then you put your thumbs inside of the eye-orbs and you feel the smoothness in there. Or you put you finger through the hole at the base of the skull, that sits upon the spine, and you realize, my god this is different. Everything till this point has been what I thought I should feel about a skull. What I have done in Rebel Lions is that I have gone past what I think I should feel about anything.
MS: Does this mean you have gone past your own preconceived notions?
MM: Certainly past the preconceived and I may have felt that I was beginning to get preconceived notions about what the critic you're quoting calls the current of things. Maybe I had already explored the current. Maybe I had already stood in the river and listened to its roar and it was time to reach my arm in and pull out a trout or a salmon or a crayfish.
MS: One of the ways suggested in the sixties for breaking out of preconceived notions was the use of drugs. In Rebel Lions, however, you have a very negative poem about cocaine.
MM: I had some lengthy experience with cocaine. And I finally hurt my friends, and my friends were telling me that my experience had been far too lengthy, and I got rid of it. And then there are some poems in Rebel Lions that are remembering certain things that have happened while I was high on acid in the sixties, but it's more to get the feeling of the sixties than to do a drug recollection poem. I think peyote was very important to me, but I had peyote in 1957 and I have surprisingly little to do with any kinds of drugs today.
MS: A phrase that you have used for many years is "poetry is a muscular principle." We usually think of poetry as thoughts, as language, while you found poetry to be physiological. Has this idea also undergone changes in Rebel Lions?
MM: A poet named David Melnik, author of PCOET (sic) did something very valuable for me. I kept saying that our minds are really our bodies, that we usually misunderstand this thing. I meant the obvious thing, that the mind and body are the same thing, but I meant something even more physiological than that. And David said, "Yes, but you must remember Michael, my dog is a mind." And that's had a profound effect on me. Every time I say that our mind is really our body, I probably ought to say that our body is really our mind. That's pretty abstruse out of context, but that shows up in Rebel Lions in that I am no longer afraid to say mind because I know my body is a mind.
MS: Does this alter your belief that poems are extensions or extrusions of our bodies? That seemed to be the concluding statement of Scratching the Beat Surface, the book of aesthetics that you published about ten years ago. There you said that poems are living creatures whereas now in your introduction to Rebel Lions you say that they may be alive.
MM: I know that much of my thinking about poetry was probably obsessed with the idea that my poems are physical extensions of myself. All I can say is that I don't give it much thought now. The either are or they aren't at this point. I kind of think they are, but I don't care that much anymore. I am much more involved in an individual poem now than I was before when a book of poems flowed out, and then I cut it down from a body of poems into a book. I absolutely do not believe that I know as much as I thought I knew ten years ago. You're absolutely right, that's one of the differences in my work now. I had to make powerful assertions in order to get anybody to listen to what I was saying, and in order to focus on it myself, to get to a certain stance where I could have some kind of freedom.
MS: One of the ways you broke free from traditional poetic forms was to center your poems rather than to set them on the left margin. It's really now a McClure trademark. Has this then changed?
MM: In the introduction to Rebel Lions, I state that the poem on the center axis will only be part of my equipage in the future. I thought it was time to do away with any mysteries that I'd left hanging there and say briefly and clearly some things that hadn't come out. And that was one that I thought was one of the most confusing. And I had let it hang out there and be confusing. I never got the distance to say it so simply until the point where I decided that in the future the centered poem would only be part of what I am doing. But the centered poem is still at least half of what I am doing at this point in my newest work.
MS: Similarly, your use of capitalized type and multiple exclamation points often gets attention from critics, and you say in your introduction that it's a way of reminding the reader that it's a made object.
MM: Yeah, Bertold Brecht had a term for this that I can't remember, but it's an alienation effect. Like say in 1954 when I first capitalized a line and used a lot of exclamation points, it was because I felt that the poetry we were writing was so beautiful--not just me, but the poetry that Kerouac was writing, Philip Lamantia was writing, and Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen and Diane Di Prima--was so beautiful that it was dangerous, dangerous in the fact that it would be just looked at as a consumable item, almost as a delicacy. That taste for poetry has now been subsumed in other interests so my interest in alienating the poem as an object so it would be seen as something foreign to the consciousness of the consumer is almost beside the point now. Although I still like it stylistically.
MS: In light of all these changes, what do you think of current literary theories such as deconstruction which seem diametrically opposed to you and your biological vision in their insistance that nothing exists except as a mental construction of language.
MM: Well, Derrida is very interesting to me. He's a minor philosopher of language, and there's something alchemical about the intensity of his deconstructing a passage of Artaud, and of relating one's view of what he calls a text to the world of all other texts and to the social mileau from which it springs or the unconscious mileau of the writer in the midst of those other realms. This is very interesting. I'm glad Derrida did it. It's such specific and fought-for insights that are very valuable, and it's like seeing a buckeye butterfly land on wild buckwheat. You say what an incredibly beautiful and perfect thing this is! But if somebody spent their time making papier-mache buckeye butterflies and putting them on cardboard buckwheat plants, I would think after a while that I wouldn't be too interested in it. The buckeye is a very beautiful butterfly and that's why I'm using it as an example. It has three huge eye-like moons on its wings, a medium brownish background, two bright red stripes up at the top, and a deeply vivid scarlet-orange bar under the three moons. Certainly one of the most beautiful animals on earth. I see that kind of intense beauty in Derrida, and I could even see the next generation where somebody for some reason that would be abstruse to me would make imitation buckeye butterflies and put them on top of imitation buckwheat plans. But then when their followers do the same thing imitating them, I would see this as getting more and more mindless. And I think I demand a certain amount of mindefulness, or mind-bodiness let's say, before I want to take things seriously. I think what has come after Derrida is pathetic. And many people who do it are in the self-congratulatory position of feeling that they are some kinds of radicals because they have taken a cynical and negative viewpoint toward our animal mammal creaturely possiblities. Which seems to me to be a sad thing for them and even more sad for anybody who might be gullible enough to listen to them because they're trapped in some collegiate establishment that carries that forward.
MS: That kind of imitation of Derrida is reminiscent of the danger that you point out that lies in all systems, that they tend to imprison us. And you resolve this with your term "system-less system." What is the danger with systems as you see it.
MM: The problem with systems is that they work so well. Probably many a well- created and well-oiled and long running system does about what it's supposed to do. But if there is not an element built in there that allows it to shift off its patterns and quit making deeper and deeper grooves so that the system becomes fossilized--this is pretty abstract--and those things that are involved in the system become imprisoned by the ruts. So one wishes for something that works well, as a system works, but something that will not trap one. I think one of the most interesting examples of such a thing would be wildebeest migrations in east Africa. Their migration is a system that they must follow for their life sustenance but for all the shifting patterns that are going on around them, it must be a system that also has enough systemlessness in it that they can adapt to changes as they occur. Evolution is a systemless system because of the random genetic factors, otherwise all life would simply be smashed by the changing of the environment.
MS: In a political context, one of the problems with systems is that they are founded upon notions of absolute right and wrong and so can be used to oppress.
MM: Yes, Noam Chomsky points out, and I'm talking about him here as an anti- politician not as a linguist, that we have an information system that picks an arena and only deals with one aspect of a situation. Then there are only two sides to it: the left and the right. But no one ever steps back in the media and looks at the field to see what the problem or question really is. A very small system of viewing.
MS: Since you don't choose sides, left or right, and you even celebrate what is usually considered evil in lines like, "Let's celebrate the black side of joy," doesn't this preclude political activism?
MM: Absolutely not. I'm concerned that I left open the possibility of the construction from what I am saying that I am against political action. Like where I say I am for a kind of anti-political action. I think it's not clear that I am of a generation that takes it for granted that we do all the political action that we can first. It takes for granted your political involvement in those problems that you can deal with. Then after that, an anti-political stance which is directed toward taking the system down. My new poem "Disturbed By Freedom" addresses this issue.
MS: One of your most urgent social messages is about the danger of losing our animal nature, or as you put in "Stanzas Composed in Turmoil," the "loss of our deep behavior." How would this occur.
MM: Let me give you the most common, mundane example of what I am speaking of. One goes into a mall, the kind that's the size of an airport, that looks like a cross between an airport and a Holiday Inn. And there's a Macy's department store at one end and a Penny's in there and a vast range of shops. You go in and you see that the shops that are in there are the same shops that are advertised on television. So this validifies them. You shop there, and then you go home and the television is on because perhaps you didn't even turn it off. So you are not even leaving an artificial environment. But you've been programmed by that television in very natural hunting and gathering instincts which are mammalian in nature, and they have been cued toward finding their fulfillment in the mall. Not in anything resembling the fulfillment that they were evolved for. A range of appetites and skills has been so programmed by television that you go in and find the utter and complete satisfation of it in this mall and go away feeling that you've done a very good thing to have purchased these things. It's more complicated than that also because in the case of younger people who grew up with television, they may not be aware of the fact that their language is largely derived from television. Their language adapts them for consumerism. This is both a political gesture in the sense that it's the government/media directing one's life right down to the smallest selection, and it's a manipulation of your mammalian self. It's very biological, it's very political, and it should be seen that way.
MS: You've recently gone on reading tours doing jazz-poetry with Ray Manzarek. Many of your new poems were written for those performances. Has your work with Ray affected the way you write poetry.
MM: One would think that one would learn about one's craft from somebody in one's field, but I think I've learned a lot from Ray as a keyboardist. Or actually I may be teaching myself, but I go slowly, and I am getting better all the time, and I am able to bring in a lot of what Ray and I do. And in addition Ray is such a pleasure to be on stage with. One goes from the nervous thing of being on stage by oneself to being up there with somebody who's really professional, one of the Doors! Great musician! Loves to be on stage! So that allows you to have that same feeling, and once you've had that felling, it's yours. You can go do that by yourself. I feel more capable on stage now. And what Ray and I do is a symbiosis where we both do our best. We never rehearse. We don't have anything to rehearse. I only show Ray poems of mine that I think he might find musical. He only finds music for the ones he has music for. We never reach for anything that isn't natural for us. And the only rehearsal we have is at sound checks where he'll say, "You know that poem you sent me? How do you like this melody with it?" And I'll say yeah or no, or "I'll start it out with voice and then you bring the piano in after a couple of voice bars." And maybe we'll run halfway through a piece at sound check and do it that night live for the first time on stage. And that's not because we're so alike but because we both come out of the same period so consequently we know how to listen to each other. So I always hear Ray when I'm on stage. It's very difficult to make a mistake when I hear him.
MS: Looking back to some older performances, is it true that your play The Blossom was censored in the early sixties?
MM: Absolutely, the first play I had censored was not The Beard, but much earlier at the University of Milwaukee when Robert Cordier, the dramatist- filmaker who still teaches and directs in Paris, was teaching at the University of Wisconsin and put on my first play, The Blossom, which had previously been put on in New York by Diane Di Prima at the Poet's Theatre. And he did a beautiful production of it. Because of the language of it, the establishment at the university said that it might not be presented. We did a rehearsal presentation of it, and we were told that the actors, who were students, would be kicked out of school. And Cordier was absolutely willing to quit his teaching job over it because he was being censored. And Morgan Gibson who was there at the time was also willing to quit his teaching job. None of us wanted to ruin the kids. This was far enough back so that the censorship was a serious thing. In the Middle West at that time, to be kicked out of a college would be a serious thing. And the threat was against all the students in the production, not just the actors. We didn't want to do it. Our plan was to take it out and to film it. In the snow, which was a foot and a half deep around the college. I'd just go out and say we're having a film production, and everyone would get off scot-free, and we would have it on film. But something went wrong when Cordier flew in the film people, and we did not get it filmed unfortunately. That was my first censorship and it was quite a serious one. Although actually my first censorship would have been with my book Dark Brown, which Jack Kerouac considered as he said in Big Sur, "the greatest poem written in America." It was a book-length poem that ended with a visionary sexual passage. And he wanted it to be done by Olympia Press in Paris who was doing that sort of book at the time, this was in the mid- fifties. Instead it was done by Auerhaun press in San Francisco, and it had to be sold under the counter.
MS: And then The Beard was also censored later on?
MM: Yeah, first the Actor's Workshop was scheduled to do a production of it, and they tried to cancel it. We got one performance. And then we had one performance done at Bill Graham's Fillmore auditorium. And then Bill was warned by the police that if he gave a second performance of The Beard that he would be closed down. So we took the play to The Committee which was a comedy theatre, and we did the play there, and the police department came and arrested us. The actors were charged with various charges of obscenity and indecency. So I asked the actors if they wanted to stop. I said I certainly didn't think we ought to do any more in San Francisco. They wanted to go ahead with the play so I said ok let's do it across the bay. The actor who played Billy the Kid, who you can see now, he's a well known Hollywood character actor Richard Bright, went over and rented a theatre in Berkeley. Then we got a letters from the sheriff saying that we would be arrested if we put the play there and threatened us with awful kinds of threats considering that he didn't even know what the play was. It turned out that Richard had rented the Board of Education's little theatre, and then it became kind of clear why there had been a problem. By then it was a big confrontation. So we went ahead with the production, and the sheriff had many people there. In the meantime, I had rounded up all the intellectual public figures of San Francisco who wanted to see the play, from Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Alan Watts to the literary critic Mark Shorer, and I had all of them sitting in the front row. And I read the letter from the sheriff, which was an outrageous letter. And then we did they play, and we were videotaping the play, and the police were videotaping the play, and we were videotaping the police. They finally did arrest the actor and actress. Those were the first two arrests, but those were only the very beginning. I went through many more arrests after that, one in Canada, one in Boston, and then in Los Angeles in 1968 it was arrested fourteen nights in a row, and the actor and actress were taken off each night.
MS: Were they ever convicted?
MM: It was never convicted! The play was never convicted of anything, nor should it have been. The only other play that had ever been tried by this police law in Los Angeles was Lysistrata by the Greek comedian Aristophanes so I felt like I was in good company. In the meantime the play had won two Off- Broadway Obie awards in New York City. One for best direction and the other for best actress. And it had been extremely well-received in London. From the very beginning the actor and actress and director and I considered it a work of art. Considered it a poem. I actually considered it a nature poem. And we just decided we weren't going to be pushed around. Howl had already happened in poetry, and in novels there was the Lady Chatterly case and the cases with Burroughs' novels. We saw no reason to be censored in the theatre. The Beard is to theatre what Howl is to poetry or what Naked Lunch or Lady Chatterly is to the novel. It's very difficult for anyone who wasn't here before 1968 to understand what the censorship laws in this country were like.