The KDHX Poetry Beat Interview
This is a transcript of the May 2,1991 broadcast of Michael Castro’s Poetry Beat program on KDHX 88.1 FM,interview with Philip Gounis.
Castro: Welcome to Poetry Beat, River Styx’s magazine on the air where the word is well on KDHX fm88 in Saint Louis.This is Michael Castro master of these ceremonies every Thursday night where we bring you the best of poetry and allied art forms in the area.
Tonight live in the studio is Phil Gounis, Saint Louis based poet and literary journalist. We’ll hear some of his poetry and we’re also going to talk a little bit later in the program about some recent interviews that he’s completed that will be coming out in upcoming issues of River Styx.Namely interviews with some of the leading poets emerging from the Sixties and still going strong; Ed Sanders for one,Amiri Baraka a.k.a. Leroi Jones and most recently Diane Wakowski.
But we’re going to hear a little bit from Phil right now.So without further adieu,live in the KDHX studio,from the other side of the board,from yours truly,here is Phil Gounis.
Gounis: Hello Michael.It’s good to be at the Poetry Beat microphones again.I’d like to start of f tonight with a poem which is,I guess fairly typical of the kind of poetry that I write.And the kinds of themes and images that I work with.I’ll start off with this poem and then do a couple other poems and then a new prose piece.This poem is called Bristles.(reads poem)
And this next poem appeared in the Soulard Review #1.(reads Out In The Woods) That’s for all you people who might go out in the woods as the weather gets nice and springtime is here.
Castro: All those nice Missouri copperheads come out of hiding.
Gounis: That’s right…and now a brand new prose piece,working with a different kind of symbolism.Kind of tied in directly or maybe the flipside of the snake image.The title of this is Rancho Deluxe. (reads prose piece)
In the early Eighties Michael,at night I worked at a lounge in Berkley, Missouri.I was spinning records;I was a dee-jay and we had a very diverse clientele.There were a lot of bikers,and there was a lot of rowdy people and crazy people.It was a new adventure every night.There were a lot of fights,some night fights,some shootings,just craziness.
I remember that at some point,things for one reason or another seemed to calm down.And there was a period of time…maybe four or five days when things had really quieted down…nothing was going on.So I was talking to a biker, one of the regulars there,his name was Huckleberry.I asked him”What’s goin’ on? Things have really quieted down,it isn’t even like the lounge anymore.And he said,”Well, maybe we got civilized.That’s what this poem is about.(reads Like Huckleberry Finn)
Castro: You’re listening to Poetry Beat. Listening to the poetry of Phil Gounis who you’ll be hearing more from in a minute.( reads public address announcement)Now back to our guest tonight Phil Gounis.
Phil, lets talk a little bit about your own work and then try to segue into some of the poets that you’ve been talking to.What influences your work? As your looking at some poets of the Sixties,does your work also evolve out of that period?
Gounis: As I talked to you earlier about…one thing that I do find when I go back to my poetry and look at a lot of it…and start going through it and see some reoccurring touch stones as far as my mythology pulling in certain figures,even in religious mythology…Catholicism and Christianity…pulling certain figures from that kind of mythology and reworking a certain personae,or working with the idea of what they represent into a kind of modern setting.That’s one of the things,for instance, that I found in common with Diane Wakowski.
Castro: The idea of a personal mythology?
Gounis: Right. Creating that mythology and expanding on it and the moving around in it.
With Ed Sanders,the thing that really excited me about Ed Sanders and the The Fugs twenty years ago or more, I guess almost twenty five years ago… I remember an issue of a magazine called Avant Garde and there was a lengthy article in there about Sanders.So I read that and I had listened to The Fugs.I just loved this idea of The Fugs doing this kind of tribal dance and song in their urban setting.They seemed very tribal;and they seemed to bring a very primitive energy to that urban setting.And to bring it alive.I thought in that way,that was very exciting.I found their poetic relationship to William Blake and Allen Ginsberg interesting also.
With Amiri Baraka,I remember the first thing that really stirred me about him was not his poetry.It was a film he made called Dutchman,which I saw…
Castro:…based on his play
Gounis: Yes, I saw the film based on his play.It was very stark and very powerful.Then when I did start to read his poetry and examine his poetry I found the same kind of immediacy.That’s something that I hope maybe I can capture in my poetry.
I don’t think that there are particular pieces by Baraka or Sanders or Diane Wakowski that I’ve ever sat down and said,”Well, I want to write like that or I want to do my version of that.”That’s not the way that it worked for me.It was just a matter of their work being so exciting or intriguing to me, that later when I did write my poetry, theirs did have an influence on me.
Castro: You know I remember…speaking of The Fugs,seeing them many times in the East Village when I was living in New York and also when I was a student at the state university in Buffalo…There was quite an incident that involved The Fugs.
They had been invited up to read and perform during the Spring School Weekend. And Ed Sanders had performed a poem, which was called, for purposes of KDHX not getting slapped by the FCC,we’ll call”Elm blank”.It was a poem about making love to an elm tree.It seemed sort of prophetic of the ecological movement which was a few years down the road.But this created a tremendous stir in the local community, in which there was a kind of town/gown controversy already simmering.There was a big outcry by the townspeople about spending state funds, tax payers money as it were, to bring this allegedly pornographic “act” to the youth of the state university at Buffalo.
I happened to be on the group called the…it was a kind of literary council.We had to review this case and decide what we were supposed to do in response.The Fugs were loved at the University of Buffalo, as they were in most places where they had constituency.So the response of this official student body was to invite The Fugs back the next month.(laughs) And I’ve sort of jumped at any opportunity to see or hear them since.
But the work of that period, the Sixties…I remember during that time and just after in literary circles,it was looked at kind of askance, particularly in the academic area. I remember coming to Washington University and being shocked no one was taking seriously the work of artists like Creeley…they never even had heard of Ed Sanders.And some of the other artists like Olson that were important to me as a young poet coming up, (they) were really just sort of not even in the dialogue.Not even familiar or respectable names to bring up.Do you think that’s changed or is changing?
Gounis: Yes, if for no other reason than these poets continue to be relevant.Like Allen Ginsberg receiving the acclaim and the kind of establishment awards that twenty years ago you would never have imagined.Even in recent photos, he looks like the Grand Old Man of Beat Poetry.And not that long ago he was deemed too outrageous.Again, it’s one of those things where you wonder has the culture moved toward them or have they somehow compromised? And I don’t think that they have.
I think that Sanders for instance, is the same provocative,playful poet and artist that he was when he was with The Fugs.And I think that the same is true of Allen Ginsberg.The culture has somehow changed enough to receive these artists and to give them their credit for what they have done and for the changes that they have made in the culture.
Castro: Is that hopeful in your view?
Gounis: Yes, to my mind …
Castro:…casting about in this age of Reagan/Bush.(laughs)
Gounis: (laughs) I didn’t want to get into that too much, but into the Nineties,the Sixties ethics…without embracing tie dyed tee shirts and beads,which are okay,but not really my thing…but more of embracing the real ethic of the Sixties in the Nineties becomes not only very important,but necessary when you consider things like respect for nature, respect for the environment;and a kind of self-reliance that came through in the Sixties’ ethic that was all but forgotten by many people in the Eighties.
So I look on it, like I said, as a decade (the Sixties) that produced values and modes of operation that are really necessary for survival now.Not only entertaining and fun and all of that…but some the things that came through might be necessary for our survival into the next century.
Castro: In talking to Sanders and Amiri Baraka and Diane Wakowski…any predominant themes emerge out of those talks?
Gounis: I think that they were real hopeful.I remember talking to sanders and he said that it’s amazing that when he goes from city to city…that these ideas and these… ethics are very alive and well and vibrant;that it’s not just a sense of nostalgia for something that’s gone on.It’s people that weren’t even born by the Sixties, holding on and working with these ideals.
And Baraka said pretty much the same thing.He didn’t tie it down to any geographical location,but he talked about…especially the struggle of black people.It can often be two steps forward,then one step back;but people are persistent.Things opened up in the Sixties.Once you open those societal doors,there’s no closing them.So I think that it’s very hopeful,despite what went down in the Eighties.And there were some very tough times and some very authoritarian, oppressive ideas that were kind of pervading the scene there for awhile.
Castro: Well if nothing else poets work with consciousness, with spreading consciousness and attitudes, ways of being and seeing the world.Sometimes…I like to look at it at least…the poet is the antennae of the race.Like Ezra Pound said…sounds maybe a little arrogant, but there is something to it…the artist having the antennae out in front, picking up on the necessary steps.And maybe despite ourselves, maybe some of the vision of the Sixties will be fulfilled.Some us of us would say,”It’s a matter of survival.”
Gounis: Yeah, I know that when I talked to Diane Wakowski…we were talking about this concept of creating mythological worlds which the reader can inhabit and that the poet inhabits.I asked her about this metaphysical concept of,”If you will it;it will be that way?” And she perked up and exclaimed,”That’s it! That’s it exactly!”She said that you can create a world and that world in fact exists and is as real as any material world or any other world that anyone puts any claim to.
Then I mentioned that quote of William Carlos Williams,”A new world is only a new mind” and she said,”That’s it exactly.”And I think that that’s true too.As idealistic or maybe even farfetched or metaphysical as that sounds;I think that it can be true in a nuts and bolts fashion.I think that we do indeed create the world as we go along.
Castro: And as we get ready to bring the curtain down on the world of poetry here,let me ask you if you have a last poem that you would want to leave our listeners with?
Gounis: Okay.This poem also appeared in the first Soulard Review and I think that it’s a pretty good example of using myth to create a real world.( reads Music in the Air)
Castro: This is Michael Castro.You’ve been listening to my guest Phil Gounis.He’s my Beat consultant.His interview with Ed Sanders will be appearing in the next River Styx ( issue # 33) and then subsequent issues will have his interview with Amiri Baraka and most likely Diane Wakowski.So look for those down the road and keep listening to Poetry Beat and KDHX fm88.Stay tuned for Latin Rhythms with Mario Roma.This is Michael Castro saying until next week,support your local poets.