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an interview with MIchael McClure

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  • Michael McClure Photo: Courtesy Of The Artist
    Michael McClure Photo: Courtesy Of The Artist
    Michael McClure

  • Ghost Tantras, by Michael McClure Photo: City Lights
    Ghost Tantras, by Michael McClure Photo: City Lights
    Ghost Tantras, by Michael McClure

Michael McClure,

81, might be the most photogenic of all the Beat Generation writers, and maybe the most beautiful of the young male poets who stormed North Beach when City Lights was a bookstore no bigger than the proverbial hole-in-the-wall. Moreover, more than any other Beat poet, he’s been wild about wild beasts, both real and imaginary, as in his illustrated book for children, “The Boobus and the Bunnyduck” and in “For the Death of 100 Whales,” a kind of funeral dirge that he read at the historic Six Gallery poetry jamboree in 1955 that launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.

This month, City Lights is republishing his 1964 classic, “Ghost Tantras” (99 pages; $13.95), a collection of 99 poems in which he pushes language to the outer edge of human expression. Written in conversational English and in a guttural “beast language” that he created, “Ghost Tantras” begins rambunctiously and ends on a note of tranquillity. The new edition includes a spirited introduction by McClure in which he takes readers behind the scenes and describes the process of spontaneous creativity that gave birth to the poems. “I have no idea what I’m doing – just writing,” he explains.

All in all, there’s no other book of poetry like “Ghost Tantras” in the annals of Beat literature. Fifty years after he self-published his experiments with language, the world of publishing has finally caught up with the book and the author, now in the midst of a revival as a spirited performer of the spoken word.

With bass player Rob Wasserman and drummer Jay Lane, McClure plays to audiences on college campuses and at venues such as the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. Janis Joplin, with whom he co-wrote the hit song “Mercedes Benz,” would not be surprised by the youthful energy that he still exudes as though just arrived fresh from Kansas, an American Shelley ready to shift the shape of reality itself.

When he showed up in San Francisco in 1954, McClure enrolled at San Francisco State and took literature classes. Then he met the bad boys who were remaking American literature: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ever since the Six Gallery reading, he’s fused the spoken word to live music. In the 1960s, he caroused with Bob Dylan. Years later, McClure and keyboardist Ray Manzarek of the Doors took their rock-Beat act around the country and recorded several CDs.

During a morning conversation in the Oakland hills, where he lives with his wife of 27 years, the sculptor Amy Evans-McClure, he talked about his love for the verses of Percy Bysshe Shelley and recited lines from some of his most beloved poets – William Blake, John Keats, Walt Whitman – and his contemporary, Diane di Prima.

Q: Why is City Lights republishing the book after all these years?

A: Of all my works, it’s the one I most wanted to be republished. It draws together everything in my own personal experience from that time in the early 1960s. It also opened doors to the possibilities that followed: my novel; the years as a resident playwright at the Magic Theatre; the work with musicians such as Ray Manzarek of the Doors, who died in May; and all the way to the present day, performing at the Sweetwater with Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane.

Q: You read from “Ghost Tantras” to animals at the San Francisco Zoo.

A: Bruce Conner and I went there to record roosters. We ran into the lion keeper, who was also a poet, and he invited us to see the lions. I read and they roared. We roared together. You can Google it. I also read Chaucer to kangaroos that waved their heads back and forth and to seals that were barking.

Q: I’ve been staring at the cover of the new edition that shows a very wild-looking caveman. What’s the story?

A: That’s me with a lot of makeup on my face – and a lot of hair – that the artist Robert Lavigne applied.

Q: In the best-known photo of you, you’re elbow to elbow with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.

A: Allen, Bob and I hung out together in San Francisco, went to parties and shared ideas. One day, Dylan said, “Let’s take a picture of the three of us.” Larry Kennan shot us behind City Lights; it’s Jack Kerouac Alley now. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has done a great job renaming so many of the alleys. He has also done more than anyone else around to create the audience that we have for poetry. His “Coney Island of the Mind” has sold more copies than any other book of contemporary poetry except Pablo Neruda, plus he’s published nearly everybody at City Lights.

Q: With the exception of Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, you may be the last major poet standing from that generation of poets who first published in the 1950s.

A: Don’t forget Diane di Prima, who’s still alive and still in San Francisco. She might be the greatest living American poet. I like everything Diane has written.

Q: On the back cover of the new edition, there’s a quote from the actor and director Dennis Hopper – “Without McClure’s roar there would have been no Sixties.” What does that mean to you?

A: That’s praise from a real genius as an actor, director and photographer. We hit it off from the start; we were very close for years; like me, Dennis was from Kansas.

Q: Have you ever thought who you’d be now if you hadn’t left Kansas?

A: That thought has never entered my mind. Everyone I knew wanted to get out of Kansas; most of the people in my circle left. I have hardly ever gone back.

Q: The poems in “Ghost Tantras” seem to me to be love poems.

A: Love is humanity’s greatest invention.

Q: In the new introduction to the book, you write about your “shyness.” Hard to believe.

A: I thought I was the shyest person around until Allen Ginsberg brought Jack Kerouac to my house in San Francisco. Jack had a deep-down shyness – way more than me. I overcame my own shyness when I read at the Six Gallery in 1955 with Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Lamantia – when we all put our toes to the line in the sand. That was a pivotal moment in a life punctuated by pivotal moments.

Q: You’ve always emphasized the political nature of the Beats, especially in your book “Scratching the Beat Surface,” one of the best books about you and your fellow poets.

A: We were definitely not uprooted from politics. We were environmentalists, though there were times when we talked about the environment and audiences booed us.

Q: Why did you write the poems? Do you remember?

A: I wanted to change the shape of the known universe.

Q: Do you remember the city when you arrived on Dec. 31, 1954, and ate with chopsticks for the first time in Chinatown?

A: I remember shacks and goats on Twin Peaks. I remember falling in love with the wildflowers, the beauty of the ocean and Mount Tam, and I remember growing to hate all the wars. Roads were narrower then, traffic was lighter; the natural world seemed so close. Then houses crawled up all the hills, and there were more and more people, more cars, more everything. I belong to a generation that wasn’t trained by the computer. I read a lot of books. I still do.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.” E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com

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1967 THE BEAT SCENE-WRITERS

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Richard Brautigan.  Trout Fishing in America..
Trout Fishing in America
Richard Brautigan
RICHARD BRAUTIGAN WAS another member of the Beat scene of San Francisco in the fifties and is often considered a bridge between the decades. He became, with the publication of Trout Fishing in America, one of the most popular of the counterculture writers of the sixties. He is often thought of as a modern Thoreau; his love of nature and his concern for the environment are recurring themes in his works‚in one sequence he writes of sections of a trout stream being sold in a junkyard for $6.50 per foot. Written in 1961, Trout Fishing in America was finally published by the small Four Seasons Foundation in 1967, and was so popular that many of the communes that sprang up around the country were named after the novel. Thousands of copies of Trout Fishing in America were ordered for sporting goods stores in the mistaken belief that the book was about the subtle art of angling. Richard Brautigan died in 1984, an apparent suicide. Richard Brautigan.  Love Poem
Love Poem
Richard Brautigan
Richard Farina.  Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me Cover
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me
Richard Farina
THOUGH RICHARD FARINA died young and his literary output was minimal, he was a larger-than-life figure whose writings and exploits entrenched him in the mythology of the sixties. Farina was of Irish and Cuban heritage; in the fifties he fought both with the Irish Republican Army in Ireland and Fidel Castro in the mountains of Cuba. He attended Cornell University, where Thomas Pynchon was his friend and roommate. Pynchon writes of the novel, “It’s been a while since I’ve read anything quite so groovy, quite such a joy from beginning to end.” Richard Farina died at the age of thirty in a motorcycle accident on his way to a publication party for this book.
Allen Ginsberg.  T.V. Baby Poems.
T.V. Baby Poems
Allen Ginsberg
JUST AS HE did for the Beat era, Allen Ginsberg, perhaps more than any other figure, helped to define and shape the aesthetics of the psychedelic sixties. He was one of the earliest experimenters with hallucinogenic drugs, having taken psilocybin mushrooms with Timothy Leary in 1960; he traveled in India, Nepal, and Japan, to study Eastern religions; his association with Bob Dylan purportedly helped transform Dylan from a one-dimensional protest singer into a modern poetic genius; and his participation in virtually every counterculture event from war protests to the various Love Ins, Acid Tests, and musical festivals made him one of the most influential figures of the era. T.V. Baby Poems is one of his many publications from the sixties.
Michael McClure. The Beard Cover
The Beard
Michael McClure
TROPIC OF CANCER and Naked Lunch had challenged literary censorship in America, but there would be many more in the new era of freedom of speech. Michael McClure was an integral member of the Beat scene in San Francisco in the fifties, (see page 31), and he segued easily into the new Psychedelic Era that was beginning to coalesce in San Francisco in the sixties. The Beard brought to the stage a raw, explicit look at sex, violence, and conventional morality, exploring a relationship between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in the afterlife. Performed in San Francisco in 1968, the cast members were arrested and jailed on fourteen consecutive nights, due to their depiction of simulated sex in the third act. Michael McClure continues to write plays, novels, and books of poetry.
 
Terry Southern.  Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes.
Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes
Terry Southern
TERRY SOUTHERN GAINED renown in the early sixties as a writer of controversial novels and screenplays. Candy, published in 1958 was one of the few novels in English ever banned in France on grounds of indecency, and The Magic Christian, published in 1960, was a brilliant, dark satire that Lenny Bruce called, “the funniest book I’ve ever read.” Stanley Kubrick tapped Southern to work on Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the bomb, a movie that film historian Robert Sklar said, “satirized the cold-war mentality and helped lay the groundwork for the 1960s counterculture.” Southern later collaborated with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on Easy Rider, a movie that became an instant counterculture classic.
 
Diane Di Prima.  The City of San Francisco Oracle.
The City of San Francisco Oracle
Allen Cohen, ed.
EVERY SUCCESSFUL SOCIAL movement needs a newspaper and the Oracle became the most important and influential of the serial publications to come out of the Haight Ashbury community. Allen Cohen, with financial backing from psychedelic entrepreneur, Ron Thelin, published the first issue of the Oracle in September 1966. Easily recognized by its psychedelic covers, the Oracle’s goal was, in the words of Cohen, “to judo the tabloid lowprice anguish propaganda and profit form to confront its readers with a rainbow of beauty and words ringing with truth and transcendence.” Vol. 1, no. 7. features Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and Gary Snyder on the cover. The four had gathered for a “historic” meeting to discuss “the problem of whether to drop out or take over.”