Q&A with David Meltzer, Author of San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets

Written by Bob Riedel on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


David
Meltzer is the youngest of the West Coast poets generally associated with the
"first wave" of the Beat literary movement (he was barely in his 20s
when his poetry began appearing in publications like Big Table). Meltzer
has a new book of interviews out, San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets
(City Lights, 425 pages, $19.95). Five interviews (with William Everson, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth and Lew Welch) from his 1971 book
The San Francisco Poets are reprinted and updated, along with new conversations
with Diane DiPrima, Jack Hirschman, Joanne Kyger, Philip Lamantia, Jack Micheline,
Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. Meltzer himself also submitted to a new interview
for the book.

It’ll
sell to Beat-fixated anecdote-seekers, but more importantly, it may be one of
the best poets-on-poetry collections to see print since David Ossman’s The
Sullen Art
.

In
your preface, you’re pretty tough on this whole Beat revival that’s
been going on: "The reclamation and reinvention of the Beats and Beat literature
in the nineties…removes it from its historical complexity." Do you see
this book as trying to restore some of that historical grounding?

It’s
interesting that when the subject of what Beat was is brought up to the poets,
they invariably say, "There wasn’t any," and that the label came
after the fact. My sense of it was that as it became more and more removed from
that shared reality that so many people experienced–unaware that they were
a "movement" or anything like that–it’s become mythopoeticized,
turned into a kind of comic-strip version without any reality.

Did
you find, in your thinking and in talking to the West Coast poets you interviewed,
that "Beat" was kind of a label brought in by the New Yorkers–Kerouac,
Ginsberg and Burroughs–and the Californians were dragged in under the umbrella?

I
don’t think it was that simple. I think the local press and then the national
media created it more than it created itself, at least self-consciously. Ginsberg,
of course, was a notorious promoter–wonderfully so, for his friends–but
I think the taking up of the whole "Beat" and "beatnik" stereotypes
that came out of that period, that was all media-created, and unfortunately it’s
that image that seemingly many people still believe in and are nostalgic for.
But they’re nostalgic for something that never really existed in the sense
in which the media represented it. Movements, as we understand them historically,
are always labeled as such after the fact–they’re easier to nail down
that way, when they’re over and when these guys aren’t in your face
anymore. Then you can place them and you can basically study them–take them
off the streets and into the more formal institutions. And it’s the great
irony, of course, that so many of these radical and dissident literary and political
movements of the past 50 years or so now have become subjects in university studies,
where they become even further removed from the urgency of their gesture.

And
taking up big corners in some libraries.

I’m
amazed. It’s an endless industry. And it’s cyclical–it seems like
the past five or 10 years has seen the growth of a new industry of books, memoirs,
conferences, journals and cultures that are created around these writers–with
conventions like Star Trek conventions.

Do
you have a take on Christie’s $2.2 million auction of the On the Road
manuscript?

Well,
it represents a kind of Rosetta Stone of that whole myth-history, in that it has
taken on almost a sacred aspect, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was invited to a
showing of it out here, where it’s displayed in a Lucite cube, and you can’t
touch it, you wander around it from side to side. It’s like that big obelisk
in 2001–whatever you imagine Kerouac to be, you can try to pick up
on the aura or vibe of the thing.

Limiting
the book to West Coast poets has the benefit of dropping off some of these looming
Eastern figures–all of a sudden these poets who are often overlooked, like
Lamantia, Kyger and Hirschman, come to the fore. How did you decide whom to approach
to be in this book? Or did you just look around and see who was still standing?

It
was a matter of poets that would be most likely to be associated in a kind of
loose cultural way to the place and to each other. It’s interesting because
you have Diane DiPrima from Brooklyn, Jack Hirschman’s from the Bronx, Ferlinghetti
was born in New York, I believe. The only native Californian you have there is
Lamantia–all the others come from elsewhere. Basically we were trying to
tap poets who, as you say, are still upright and were historical actors in that
period, and have lived to tell the story.

I
wanted to ask you some particulars about the interview process. Especially in
the extended ones with Rexroth and Welch, there’s some biographical and historical
reminiscing. But for the most part, at some point all the people you interviewed
get pretty down and dirty about their own poetics. Was this something you had
to push in order to cover all the bases, or did it just work out that way?

In
interviewing you get this raw footage, after going into it with some set of questions
that the interviewer thinks make a certain kind of organic sense. One of the things
that made this different is that we’re all kind of like peers–we’ve
shared certain hunks of history together from our various vantage points. Invariably,
I go in there first to get the basic information out to the reader who may not
be aware of some of the historical background of each poet. Then it’s like
playing jazz–you have like a head arrangement and everyone knows pretty much
where the song is going, but in the interim, when you start improvising and dialoguing,
it takes turns even though it’s located within the format of the interview.
The poetics always struck me as something imperative to deal with. Everyone’s
living in the present tense, too, and very much engaged in it, and so often I
too get tired of being freeze-framed back somewhere else as if everything stopped
at that point and the only work that mattered was the work you did then. There’s
a kind of strange reductionist way that cultures celebrate their people–they
refuse to let them grow as artists, thinkers and people–which is often what’s
going on with this reclamation of the Beat movement.

I
was so affected by the Welch interview. Did that experience have an effect on
your own poetics and your own work?

It
wasn’t so much that it affected my work; what was affected mostly had a lot
to do with the immense generosity of all of these poets to leap in, as it were,
thoughtfully and playfully. And Lew of course was waiting for this interview–he’d
really prepared for it, he’d thought about what he was going to say.

That’s
the sense you get, that he said, "Come over, turn the recorder on and shut
up."

He
knew some of the questions in advance and he’d taken it very seriously–but
it was more than that. I mean, it was a very powerful emotional experience because
it turned into a platform for this howl of rage against his mother. I think I
describe it in the book, how as the interview gets to that point, the sun is starting
to set, and the only light in the living room is the light on the tape recorder,
this green oscilloscope kind of light going back and forth while Lew begins to
really let go of this tremendous anguish and diatribe against this mother-figure.
But Lew had planned out in a very methodical way where he wanted to go in this
interview, including the mother–that was a kind of cathartic thing, and then
he went on to talk about his poetics and so forth. Lew was another poet who said
he wanted people in bars to understand his poetry–coming off of that dissident
notion that poetry is for everybody, that it’s not good poetry if it’s
not for everybody, if it indicates a kind of elitism that makes people who can’t
understand it feel stupid in the face of it. Lew had such a conscientious relationship
to each word that he put into a poem–he had been trained as a linguist at
the University of Chicago. I’ve never known a poet who would fuss more over
a poem, keep at it and keep at it, never satisfied, but had a profound regard
for stripping the poem down to absolute essentials, then having it work across
the board.

There’s
this really touching moment that Welch talks about in your book, when William
Carlos Williams comes to visit Reed College in the 1950s, and Welch, Snyder and
Whalen show up and tell him, "You’ve won–you’ve defeated T.S.
Eliot!"

Well,
you know how it is when you belong to a community of peers. Very often the community
will define itself in relationship to who the opposition is. And in those days,
a lot of these younger poets–who themselves were very educated in terms of
literature, it wasn’t that they were anti-art or anti-intellectual or anything
like that–they just believed in another possibility of what poetry could
be. The world of poetry in those days, as I recall, was indeed a very sort of
high mandarin art, a sort of formal, lifeless form of poetry, that sought to identify
itself with the cultural and institutional elite. I think Eliot was very responsible
for that too, and he was looked upon as the enemy by a lot of the younger poets
because of the formalism, the neoclassicism, the adherence to older forms. But
we all do this, I believe, within our groups. And you find through time, as the
young poets get middle-aged and geezerly, you begin even to feel the warmth of
your perceived enemies. You suddenly realize that they can live too, and you sometimes
can create strange alliances with your former nemeses.

You
had a strange alliance, yourself–Clark Coolidge was the drummer in your 60s
band, Serpent Power.

Well,
I always felt Clark was very much out of the bebop mode–he’s probably
one of the best readers and writers about Kerouac that I know of. He’s the
first to admit that the great turn-on for him to become a poet in the first place
was Beat writing, and specifically Kerouac.

I
told someone I’d be talking to you, and they sent me No Eyes, your
long poem on Lester Young that came out last year, and it’s a great labor
of love. I wondered whether you’re doing anything musically yourself nowadays.

Recently,
an album that we recorded during the 60s for Capitol that never got released was
released on vinyl by some company in Switzerland that specializes in psychedelia
of the past. It’s kind of funny–I never considered myself to be a Beat
writer, I never considered myself to be a psychedelic musician, but you get put
into these historical zones and they’re difficult to get out of.


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