Michael McClure Interviewed
This interview was conducted on June 28,1993.A section was published in River King Poetry Supplement Volume 1 # 3
Michael McClure was born in Marysville, Kansas in 1932 and lives in San Francisco,California.His published work includes Dialectics of Love (1952),Hymns to St. Geryon & Other Poems (1959),The New Book (1961),Dark Brown (1961),Meat Science Essays (1964),September Blackberries (1974) Lighting the Corners (1993) as well as a play ,The Beard (1965)
In 1993 his work also appeared in Fantasy Records CD release of Beat poetry and music entitled Howls,Raps & Roars.
In this interview McClure discusses a myriad of topics.They include his contribution to the then just released CD; his on going collaboration with keyboardist Ray Manzerak (formerly of The Doors); the influence of the Beat Movement on the contemporary music scene;the transformation of the American counter culture since the !950’s; how his work has impacted on movies particularly thru his participation in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz; and the influence of Jackson Pollock on his poetry.McClure also talked of his unique involvement in the world of theater and his subsequent dilemmas with censorship.
Gounis: There are two older pieces of yours included on Howls,Raps & Roars I’m interested in how you still relate to those pieces recorded in 1963.Do you still perform those pieces live and do you still feel pretty much connected to them emotionally and artistically?
McClure:Absolutely.They are slightly mistitled on there.The one which is called”Love Lion” which starts out”Oh fucking lover roar with joy.”I do that when I perform with Ray Manzerak.We do a longer version of it at almost all our gigs.
Gounis: You’ve continued to perform it over the years?
McClure: Yes.It’s one that’s most meaningful to me and I hope that it’s as meaningful to other people.The McClure/Manzerak version is seven or eight minutes long.And we’ve done it on the Dennis Miller Show and on Night Music the David Sanborn show.David Sanborn accompanied us.I have done “Love Lion Blues” everywhere from the Jack Kerouac Festival in Lowell to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and a couple of television shows.
Gounis: I missed you on the David Sanborn program, but I enjoyed that series because they would often have artists on there that you wouldn’t see on other programs.
McClure: I liked seeing Leonard Cohen playing with Sonny Rollins. How about that one?Beat that one.
Gounis: I did see Leonard Cohen on there, but I don’t remember him with Sonny Rollins. I remember David Sanborn and Marianne Faithfull on there as one of the memorable nights.
McClure: Oh yeah! In fact we were on the program with L.L. Cool J.It’s a great contrast,you know…and Jon Luc Ponty was on also.
Gounis: Another performance of poetry that I wanted to ask you about was… I remember seeing you perform with Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute in the summer of 1976…
McClure: Yeah.Allen was goading me to read “Fuck Ode”, a censored poem of mine that Kerouac liked a lot.Ginsberg read his “Please Master”and he was goading me to read “Fuck Ode” so I did.
Gounis: I think that it was in an auditorium of a Catholic school.Do you remember?
McClure: Right! That was wonderful.
Gounis: It was a very entertaining night of poetry.
McClure: I’m going to read with Allen and Anne Waldman on the thirty-first of July (ed.1993).
Gounis: At Naropa again?
Gounis: I’d love to see that.
McClure: Manzerak and I work sometimes with Allen. Sometimes we work with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, sometimes with Jim Carrol.Mostly we do our own shows.
Gounis: When I saw you read again about twelve years later in Saint Louis I noticed the very different type of delivery that you gave to the poem.
McClure: Was that at Cicero’s ?
Gounis: Yes.Do you remember that gig?
McClure:Yeah! What Ray and I do…it becomes neither Michael McClure nor Ray Manzerak. We call it McClure Manzerak. It becomes a symbiosis.It is another art form in which I contribute the words and Ray contributes the music. I’ve learned from it.And when I read solo now, I have methods of bringing the words to the audience more clearly that I have picked up as Ray and I work together.
Gounis: In regards to a quote that I recently read of yours:”Now anyone with any degree of human feeling is a bit of an outlaw and knows it”; do you think that that type of sensibility is a response to the political use of language for manipulative purposes,which we’ve seen so much of in at least the last twelve years? Is that why young people are responding so strongly to the ideas of the Beat Generation?
McClure: I carry it back further than that. In the 1950’s we were the radical forces at work in a bitter Cold War.It was a Mel’s Cheeseburger Diner Pit -flannel suit- Buick -cocktail America.We were the radical forces and we stood up because we had things that we wanted to say.We wanted to bring poetry off of the page into the listener’s ear to share with them more fully, to make a more complete experience.And we did that.The Beatles saw that and said,”Well we like that, we want to do something like that.”Their words became more serious and they also incorporated black American music;Willie Dixon for example or Howling Wolf or Robert Johnson, and much of what the Beat poets were doing,as well as drawing on their own great English gifts.
The Beatles’ music became more serious.It had mystery and beauty.It was art and it spoke in the language of the spirit and at the same time it spoke in the language of the pop culture.That was good.We had influenced that. Then we (the Beats) heard their music and we wanted to become more musical. I began writing songs and hanging out with Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg.And I knew artists in the Haight-Ashbury scene.
The rock scene was a radical scene when it first started…radical is a poor word.The rock scene was part of a total advanced art scene.Then corporations came and bought up rock and roll and stole the art to sell beer and tennis shoes.
Gounis: Now were talking about the era of the late 1970’s into the early ’80’s?
McClure: Yeah.Rock and roll was co-opted,de-radicalized, castrated, turned into plum pudding,however you want to describe it.And people listened to that for awhile and then said,”Hey wait, this isn’t what we want to hear.We know that we’re living in The Great Society with lots of propaganda, but can it be that much of our music has betrayed us also?…not all of it of course, but much of our music has betrayed us also – then they wanted to hear intelligence again.
Manzerak and I are doing the same thing that we have always done which is bringing poetry directly to the people and telling what our vision is.
Gounis: Right – and people under twenty five are now responding to what you have been doing for thirty years.
McClure: Yeah.Although I do think that there’s more.Part of it would be this collection on the CD Howls,Raps, & Roars.Another part of it would be Ann Charters’ interesting anthology The Beat Reader, just put out by Viking Portable Press.And the Beats are now being taught in some schools right along with Emerson and Thoreau.
Gounis: Another subject that I wanted to talk to you about, which ties very much into what’s going on the 1990’s, is that you have been very cognizant of the power of personality in literature.You’ve used subjects like Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid, as diverse as they are, together in the play, The Beard.Would you comment on the concept of the cult of personality and how that has been used theatrically and politically?
McClure: Well, I’ll tell you that I agree with the great “body philosopher” Moshe Feldenkrais that that part of our body that is not genetic is largely an accident.Until we mutate to the point where we are able to select from our genetic hard wiring and also those things that happen to us randomly, then we accrue heavier and heavier personalities.
I don’t have a high opinion of personality.I think that I would like to shed a little bit of my personality every year rather than growing a more delightful, shiny, white toothy, cha-cha-cha, boogieing down the stage personality.I’d like to drop a little bit more personality and be a little bit more like I was when I was born.
The cult of personality is another ploy of the corporations and the big blind goverment to delude people into thinking that this is the way that one makes it in the world.And that may be,but it is a social world created by people having the same delusion. I don’t have a high opinion of what is called “personality”.I don’t like to see people making it on their personality.It’s delusional.People grow with something tougher, deeper, softer and sweeter, meaner and and angrier and gentle and more loving than that, if they’re really going to be something.
As for Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid…they’re great personae, and they’re great beings out there. I always felt that Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid selected me. I didn’t select them. You might think that I’m nuts for saying that they came to me, but they came to me for a good reason.I studied them, both of them historically.If you read my description ( in Lighting the Corners) of how my play The Beard came about and the various bunch of censorship busts that the play went thru, it will give the whole story.But I can tell you right off, I don’t like the cult of personality.There are great people; like Francis Crick is a great person,Francis Crick the Nobel Laureate for the elucidation of the DNA molecule.Herbert Marcuse the visionary philosopher is a great person.I have been privileged to know some great people, but the personality stuff,that’s to sell beer and tennis shoes.
I don’t think of Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid as being personalities.What came to me was more like spirit.They kept coming back to me.After The Beard arrest I really didn’t want anymore,but Harlow and the Kid came back to me for one last group song that I wrote for them.
William Blake said,”The authors are in eternity.”I understand what he meant now.They are in eternity and I feel like I’m taking dictation.
Gounis: We’re not getting close to the idea of channeling are we?
McClure: No, I don’t think so.I don’t know much about channeling,but I don’t see any relationship between what I’m talking about and channeling.Nor do I have any easy explanation for what I’m talking about other than that I know people that have had the same experience.
Gounis: I was thinking more in terms of how the concept of personality has been used,as you said, to sell tennis shoes,and in a very political way,especially in the Reagan years.
McClure: Yeah, I’m absolutely against it.I think that if we can all shed a little personality we’ll be much happier,much more intelligent,much more like we imagine ourselves to be.Society is a masterful educational device and at this point the education device is run by people who use others as marionettes to make themselves greedily rich and powerful.
Gounis: Do you think that the recognition of the values that the Beat movement has expressed and elaborated on, offer a resistance to that kind of thing?
McClure: One dimensional values already dominate society.They have already been internalized by society and the counter force that we represent is now part of the society and part of the polarization that is going on.And I think that the same thing is true not only of the Beats but of the ’60’s.The ideas that were represented by the Beats and by the great artists and socially active people of the ’60’s have been absorbed into the social environment.
You can see this yourself.You’re standing next to a young man and he’s got three earrings on, one side of his hair is grown out long and the other side is short and maybe he’s got a tattoo and his speaking very gently and you find out,that in many cases,that you share many of his ideas.He’s for peace; he’s for the environment; he’s for the body; he’s for liberation of energies; he’s often times very open minded.I’m using the male gender here, the same thing could be said with the female gender, let’s just say “that person”.Yet sometimes the person says,”whatever happened to the ’60’s? Why did the ’60’s fail?”And you look at them and laugh.And you think,”Jesus,kid if you only knew that you would be standing there with a crew cut and a grey suit saying,”Sir” and you wouldn’t even ask me these questions much less have the thoughts going thru your mind,if it hadn’t been for what happened in the ’50’s and the ’60’s.
Gounis: An exchange like that is mentioned in your book Lighting the Corners.
McClure: I knew that I had mentioned it in an interview somewhere.
Gounis: Don’t you feel that to major capitalist minds these values were a threat?
McClure: There’s that famous quote of Eisenhower’s…where he was warning about the military-industrial state.I think that he should have been warning about the military-corporate state.But on his way out he warned the United States.
One of the major reasons…that we started the Beat Generation together…that’s Allen Ginsberg,Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Diane Di Prima ,Lenore Kandel,Kenneth Rexroth and me…the reason that we were artists working together, speaking together, reciting our poetry together…one large reason was the Korean War – and our hatred for the idea that the U.S. was going over to kill Asians to protect the property of the wealthy of America.
To be anti-war was a radical idea. People now can say,”I don’t believe in the war.”In those days if you said that,you were thrown in jail.I don’t know if they had closed the conscientious objector camps in Oregon yet in the 1950’s.There was one nearby Oregon.They still had those things open.People were thrown in jail for saying things like that,even in the form we said it in.
I had been presented in Life magazine a couple of years previously in 1955 as being a”careful, young craftsman” with my picture.In Life magazine, that’s like being on TV today, because TV wasn’t big yet.Life magazine was it. A couple of years later they had a scandalous article,totally made up,full of lies about the Beat Generation.Insinuating that it would be a good thing to hang these filthy ,young jackal up from their necks by lamp posts.
And when that didn’t work, the next thing was to try to deconstruct who were by having pictures of silly people with rubber tire sandals, goatees and berets, playing congas in the street sipping warm,red wine – I mean, hey we were active! We weren’t doing that.The media showed people in coffeehouses having blabbermouth night.
We were busy.Active.Before the media had finished portraying North Beach as the Beat Generation, we had already left North Beach.It was a tourist scene. We were working with our environmental friends or we were working with our friends in Buddhist monasteries,or we were working with our friends in anarchists workshop circles,or we were joining our friends in publishing books,or we were working with our friends in editing magazines.It was an active period for the people who were called Beats.
Gounis: And that hard work translated into the underground press in the ’60’s…
McClure: It doesn’t translate; it just gradually blends into it.These activities were a threat to corporate greed on a day to day basis.
Gounis: I talked to Ed sanders about this idea that if you can make a pair of moccasins, you’re not going to buy a pair of new shoes.So this was a threat…
McClure: I think that you will, because you’ve been educated by that great educational device that we call television,to think that the moccasins that you made aren’t any good.I don’t think that we were much of a threat to capitalism.I’d like to think that we provided portholes for the imagination so that people could reconsider themselves.
Gounis: You don’t think that Madison Avenue saw the communal hippie movement as any kind of threat to consumerism?
McClure: (pauses) Gee, I couldn’t tell you in retrospect.I think that they first saw it as a chance to sell new products.(laughs)
Gounis: I thought that it became that later, when they realized that they could sell the hippies in the teepees acoustic guitars, but I thought that early on it was seen as a threat.
McClure: Actually the people that were called hippies were rather ingenious, because they had to learn to manipulate the media and actually take advantage of the media.We (the Beats) were used to being usually interviewed in a negative way.People like myself were the senior fellows of the hippie movement.We were like the old admired uncles of the family…or however you want to see it…or of the scene.
In talking about the thinking people of the’60’s,the movement had a wonderful way of dealing with the media.There was an enormous amount of media manipulation in favor of getting their ideas out before the ideas could be squashed.You’re right, some ideas were squashed by misinformation, but a lot got out.
I remember, I did a television documentary about Haight-Ashbury and we got that out…it showed in a lot of cities… a beautifully done documentary.
I remember Walter Cronkite’s program on Haight-Asbury had me reading a poem that had been distributed by the Diggers’ Communication Company which was an anarchist political movement.It was one of the centers of activity in Haight-Ashbury.
So I see The Movement not just simply as a poor calf that got beaten to death in the stadiums, but as a young creature of a lot of fight that got out a lot of energy of consciousness.That in fact in a large way got born into the general consciousness.Remember that the Vietnam War was going on then and remember that that many of the people that came out to protest against the Vietnam War, God bless ’em, were old women – some of the first demonstrators – as they often are up here. The next demonstrators were the gays.The hippies and the gays came out about the same time.And then pretty soon you had young married couples with kids -baby strollers in the streets.Then the next thing that you know you had fifty thousand people marching down the streets instead of fifty, then the next thing you know, they’re having marches in Washington D.C. with half a million, then a million in New York City. That’s the only thing that stopped that war – that’s what Mister Pentagon Papers said – Daniel Ellsberg…demonstrations and protests stopped it.
Gounis: In regards to the use of media and popular culture, I have always looked on your appearance in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz,as one of the highlights of that film and really one of the bright moments,when mass audiences became at least a little bit acquainted with yourself and Lawrence Ferlinghetti…
McClure: Yeah! Thank you.
Gounis: Would you talk a little bit about what your interaction was like there that night with the other performers? And what kind of interplay you had, if any, with people like Van Morrison for instance.I know that you knew Bob Dylan…but what was the interaction like between you and Ferlinghetti, Dylan and Van Morrison? Van Morrison by the way is a big Beat fan and long time reader of Kerouac.
McClure: Well, I was asked to put together a group of readers for that evening.And that came about again through the Diggers and the Communication Company.They asked me to put together some poets with the musicians because they wanted a real evening like the way things used to be.Remember that I said at one time there wasn’t a rock scene and an art scene, the rock scene was part of the art scene? There wasn’t that hugh platform separating us from “the stars”…they wanted to go back to that kind of situation. They said,”Let’s have poetry again”…and they probably were showing paintings in the lobby again like we used to do at the rock shows.So Emmett Grogan, who was one of the founders of The Diggers,said to me,” I talked to Martin Scorsese and he wants me to get some poets for the film.Will you ask some poets?” I said,”No problem.”
I had just finished writing the biography of my Hell’s Angels friend Freewhellin’ Frank and he was writing poetry,so I asked Frank.And I asked Lenore Kandel,one of the great Beat poets and I asked Ferlinghetti…and I read myself …and Robert Duncan great visionary San Francisco poet of the Modernist Period, kind of like my father in a way, in poetry anyway. I invited all of them; so we had a full evening of poetry.You only see Ferlinghetti and me in the movie.They edited it down that way.It would have been awfully nice to see some of those other poets.
Gounis:I wonder if those outtakes are floating around somewhere.
McClure: Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I never even thought of that. I’ll bet Scorsese has never thrown an outtake away in his life. I’ll bet that he has them.
Gounis: They could possibly do a “Behind the Scenes of the Last Waltz” like they did a “Behind the Scenes of Apocalypse Now”…
McClure: Mostly I talked with Joni Mitchell and Allen and Bob Dylan. I was backstage talking with Robbie Robertson and Bob.And my wife and daughter were there that evening and I was just …just doing business,being a poet.
Gounis: You had known Robbie Robertson too since ’65…didn’t you?
McClure: I think so…’64 or ’65…They were with Hawkins.
Gounis: They were with Ronnie Hawkins.There is a kind of well known photograph of you and Robertson in ’65.I think that it was taken around the time when Dylan had first gone electric.
McClure:Yeah, he had just gone electric a few months before at a festival.That was his first tour with an amplified sound.
Gounis: That was around the time that he gave you the autoharp too wasn’t it?
McClure: Yeah, that was the year.
Gounis: You have had a continuous influence on rock music with your poetry and other work that you have done.It has come to the forefront more recently because of your work with Ray Manzerak.
McClure: I would like to think of it that way.All the Beats have set a foundation.And all the great Black American artists of blues and of rhythm and blues have set a precedent for what’s happened in popular music.And some of us have returned…sort of counter…sort of counter-play.We are touched by music and go to the music world again and we go back and forth.I have done a lot of that.
Gounis: When I think of your poetry,and I think also in terms of Charles Olson’s Projective verse; we are getting very close to the idea of body expression which is closely related to the performance of rock music.
McClure: And also the painting of Jackson Pollock.
Gounis: I wanted to bring his name up.I recently saw where they are going to do a film biography starring Ed Harris.
McClure: I understand that there are three being planned right now.Robert De Niro and Barbara Streisand are planning another one and someone else is planning one.
Gounis: I think that it’s a very good idea to bring Jackson’s Pollock’s work to a mass audience and let people become aware of what he did.
McClure: Yes, it’ll be good won’t it?
Gounis: Would you talk a little bit about his influence on your work and again kind of discuss a bit this concept of projecting poetry onto the page?
McClure: I first encountered Jackson Pollock when there was an article about him in life magazine in the ’40’s. I was a kid in Kansas and I said,”Let me out of here! Something important is going on.An artist is using his body to think with in a media…in a media – painting…in the art media. I gotta find out about that.”And I went to New York shortly after that.That was the sort of thing that drove me to New York. I actually grew up in Seattle, Washington too,but I was living in Kansas when I first saw Pollock.
I had always considered the goal of my poetry was to make a gesture of art the same way that Pollock was involved in the gesture of painting.I originally came to San Francisco thinking not that I would take classes with Robert Duncan the great poet, who I did study with, but with the painter Mark Rothko and the painter Clifford Still, who I understood were teaching at the art institute here.They had come here.So when I got to San Francisco I had the good fortune to find a field of poets that were also interested in gesture as a basis for poetry. I quickly discovered Charles Olson and began trying to write Projective Verse. People see my poetry and think that it is free verse or something like that.They don’t recognize it when they see it,that it is a complex poetic act using the breath line and the gesture of the imagination with the syllable as a base.It is profoundly related to things such as the work of Jackson Pollock and Theolonious Monk and Miles Davis for that matter.
Once a person understands Projective Verse and how it relates to gesture in art, they can begin to see the threads of it in many of the things that they’re interested in. I now see gesture in art that I would never have thought of.
What Ray Manzerak and I are doing is very complex.I like working with Ray because one side of the brain registers language,the other side registers pitch;and the event that takes place,if it involves both pitch and word is much more complex than if it involves only pitch or only word. So when Ray and I work together it becomes complex and much easier to understand because the human brain is not attuned to simplicity.Sometimes people can’t understand something because it is to simple.They are poems of mine that absolutely baffle people when they see them on the page.When they hear Ray and I do it they say,”Oh yeah, of course – yeah! Perfect.”
And I say,”That’s right.This is the way that we are built to work.This is body art,because your brain is your body too.”
Gounis: You’ve completed a video tape with Ray Manzerak.Is that out?
McClure: We have a video out and we have CD which will be out on August 15th (1993) from Shanachie Music,which is a world music company.
Gounis: What is the title of the video?
McClure: The title is Love Lion. You heard us do some of it at Cicero’s. The album opens with “Action Philosophy’,beginning with the words by Thoreau so that the listeners understand where we’re coming from and also so give them a chance to hear us before we get loud.And then the second piece is Love Lion, and then we go into a piece in memory of Jim Morrison,then a piece about the rain forests. I think you’ll like it.