There are few poets as underappreciated today as Michael McClure. For close to six decades now, he has been writing visionary poetry, lauded by many of the most original American minds of the second half of the twentieth century--figures such as Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg. McClure seems to have been at the center of many of the most important artistic developments of the last 50 years. His new selected poems, Of Indigo and Saffron, is just out from the University of California Press. This seemed a good time to catch up with him for a wide-ranging discussion about his own poetics, his major influences, poetry and science, and poetry and biology, not to mention his formative associations with leading poets, artists, and musicians.
Shivani: Leslie Scalapino, a San Francisco language poet, picked the poems for Of Indigo and Saffron, just issued by the University of California Press. How do these selections differ from your earlier selected poems? Was there a particular emphasis for Scalapino? Did you collaborate in the selection?
McClure: Leslie Scalapino writes in her introduction, " This is not a traditional selected poems. It does not seek to represent the body of work of a poet by encapsulating the books in excerpts...my choice of poems was based on tracing certain gestures as related to vital elements in Michael McClure's poetry: particularly, a struggle evident in his work for apprehension of being and language of poetry--as that language is enactment of being."
If I had edited this selected, I would have known what belonged in it, and used my set pieces and pieces that were bravado with my conscious and established ends. That is what we do when we edit our own works. Instead, I receive exhilaration from Leslie's selection, which shows a me who is freed of the surface, and the armoring of self-image. We know we are many. Leslie presents one of my many, which is close to me and allows me the feeling of freedom--not to be dragging around a dinosaur tail of self-image. On seeing one of her earliest drafts I was delighted and stepped back. As her editing continued, she presented more groups of poems and my pleasure grew at her finding another shape of my poetry that is so deeply representative of all that I am. Once or twice she asked for advice--as in her selection of my beast language poems, Ghost Tantras. Also, I made sure that the entirety of my bio-political poem, Poisoned Wheat, is in Of Indigo and Saffron.
Shivani: You have remained consistent with your form over 55 years of writing poetry: the poem centered on the page, with some lines in capitals interspersed throughout. Once you got this form down, did you ever feel like experimenting with other forms? Why has this form been so productive for you?
McClure: Let me call what I do "shape" and not "form," but more of that later. I have never gotten shape "down"--shape remains open, not fillable nor unfillable nor closeable. When I wrote my verse play, Josephine the Mouse Singer, the poetry became narrow, supple, intense, and soft like the lives and voices of mice. In another drama, The Blossom, my poetry is long-lined, disruptive, angry, fierce. In new writing in this Selected, "Swirls in Asphalt," there is a newborn shape, and shapes I have never confronted before, and they slip in and out of the sizelessness of moments, and from the being in one moment to another without linear chronology. Writing my biomorphic, centered verse is protean for me. Also, I enjoy many traditional forms and use their standard requirements, especially the sonnet, which can be a perfect instrument of poetry in the hands of Shelley or Keats.
Shivani: Do you see a danger, as you limit the line to the breath, of the lines flowing almost too smoothly, too rapidly? Can this form lead to piling on phrases upon phrases, instead of forcing one to pause and check the interrelationship of ideas, as might be more true of a line not correlated with the breath?
McClure: My poetry at its truest is an extension of my physical person. It isn't my nature to extend constructions until they begin to pile up and overlap or cataract themselves away. Strange as my poems might appear on the page to some readers, and as unlikely as some might guess it to be, a goal in my life and poetry is the maintenance of equipoise. However, equipoise is as likely to be misunderstood as the concept Reason. For an understanding of Reason I would look to Alfred North Whitehead's understanding, an apprehension and action, not intellectual apparatus.
Shivani: In your essay "Breakthrough," you write that "Robert Creeley reminded me of Olson's maxim that form is the extension of content," but also that you "could not use this [Olson's'] concept of form" in your work. What was the contradiction there, and how did you solve it?
McClure: My poem, "Rant Block," published in The New Book/A Book of Torture, written in what I believe to have been a dark night of the soul begins, "THERE IS NO FORM BUT SHAPE! NO LOGIC BUT/SEQUENCE" These lines answered for me my youthful quarrel with the concept of form. "Form" became invalid after the freedom I found in the work of Jackson Pollock and Bop.
Shivani: In your essay "The Beat Surface," in the book Scratching the Beat Surface, you write, in connection with Francis Crick's use of your lines from Peyote Poem, about the "reaching out from science to poetry and from poetry to science that was part of the Beat movement." What do you mean by this? Similarly, in the introduction to your recent collection, Mysteriosos and Other Poems, you write: "Like Crick I believe that flesh and consciousness are one thing--and I see there is no wall between biology and poetry."
McClure: Schlegel the German Romantic wrote, " All art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one." When I gave my first poetry reading in 1955, it was the time to go beyond Existentialism. Reductionism had reached its peak in the sciences and in art. Inspiration and imagination were there to be freed and reflect their presence in nature. 150 years earlier Shelley saw Nature being there--to erase huge codes of fraud and woe. The Fifties were marked by fraud and woe. But Francis Crick performed a luminous deed in his elucidation of the DNA molecule. He, like the new poetry, began shaking free from mechanistic ideas of Biology--from pinpoint reductionism to an understanding of all life to be a single molecule. It was surprising to be on the stage reciting a poem "For the Death of 100 Killer Whales" and to hear Allen Ginsberg recite "Howl" while Kerouac shouted "Go!", and to understand that we were not speaking to but for the audience.
Shivani: You also write in the same essay, "Much of what the Beat Generation is about is nature." Do we have too freighted a conception of Beat poetry as being urban?
McClure: Following the publication of On The Road some academic critics leapt on the Ginsberg/Cassidy/Kerouac romance, which gave them much to write about and answered some of their problems regarding the new American writing. After 1955 we became, intentionally or not, the first literary wing of an environmental movement. (Please note: Jack Kerouac went from an East coast kid driving Route 66, looking at cows with awe, to climbing Desolation Peak, a fire lookout in the North Cascades, with Gary Snyder in Dharma Bums. He later experienced his depths in the vastness of nature in Big Sur. A new critic could write about the effect of coastal California, Mexico City, and Jack's free-form but deeply experienced Buddhism and give a wider view of what happened.)
Shivani: You always make a distinction between the intellectual and the intellective. What does intellective mean to you?
McClure: Intellective is use of the intellect with fresh circumstances without being freighted down with societal mental structures. Intellectual is the performance of thinking with pre-established customs and viewpoints, good or bad.
Shivani: Was Allen Ginsberg intellectual or intellective?
McClure: When I first met Allen, he was a young Socialist, bohemian, artist intellectual living in San Francisco's North Beach, and even then his sparks of imagination kept him high above intellectualism. Allen grew from intellectual to what I would call "Mahatma," as in Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma meaning "Big Soul."
Shivani: The Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg first read "Howl" and you read some of your youthful poems--the inaugural moment for the Beat generation--seems impossible to conceptualize today. Did Ginsberg ever tell you that he had become jaded over time, particularly after the sixties, that such a renaissance of innocence was more difficult to imagine in postmodern culture, where irony and surface are everything?
McClure: It was not Allen's nature to be jaded, but being swept in the samsaric undertow of media, overpopulation, censorship, and the attempt to disparage or hide what we accomplished, all of us have had troubled moments. Possibly at the Six Gallery we were innocent, but all of us were serious. We felt a new seriousness. We were variously Socialist, Buddhist-Anarchist, Anarchist, Surrealist-visionary, and Zen. The reading's master-of-ceremonies Kenneth Rexroth, in the sharpness and acuity of his person, lacked any innocence that I'm aware of. Postmodern irony and surface that you speak of, were in 1955 entropic, militaristic, and dreary--as they remain today.
Shivani: You have often talked about the "biological basis of poetry," as you do in your essay "Hammering It Out." These ideas seem to have something in common with Robert Duncan and Charles Olson's views. About Olson you say, "I believed that the spring of poetry must be more physical, more genetic, more based in flesh, and have less relationship to culture." How do your thoughts differ from Duncan and Olson? Is your view more mystical than theirs? You've also referred to Artaud as a key influence, as someone who showed you the "open space of verse" and the "physicality of thought."
McClure: Robert Duncan introduced me to Charles Olson's essay on Projective Verse, with which I wrestled long and hard for an understanding of an absolutely new poetics, grounded in one's physique, perceptions, and inspiration. It is about prehension--apprehension by the senses. Stirring in the body to the heart and joining with the breath, expressing itself outwardly, energetically onto the field. The field might be the sheet of paper or the screen or the vocal air. Robert Duncan called his personal projective verse, "composition by field." His punning meaning was that he dealt with the "feeled," as in his earliest projective work, The Opening of the Field.
Artaud's solid and daunting denials of lies and politics, as in the opening of Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (To Have Done with the Judgment of God), and his horrific explorations, like flaying of the psyche and Manichean screams were there to be read, heard, and imagined. An inspiration to be straight with oneself. I see that we seek out inspiration, not just for its beauty and thrill, but because the existence of that inspiration proves to one the reality of their own inspiration.
Shivani: Is Olson the major figure in American poetry after Pound?
McClure: I do not like seeing poetry as literature rather than art and I'm not happy with the separation of Poetry and the sister arts, I prefer to see Art as Art. I perceive that a major figure after Pound would be Jackson Pollock, and instead of looking at "American" Poetry as William Carlos Williams exhorted all to do, I would look worldwide at the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, Federico Garcia Lorca, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and of course Charles Olson, and all.
Shivani: Can you please talk about the set of poems called "Fields" in Simple Eyes, where you take off in multiple directions from a boyhood photograph? This seems to me one of your most successful experiments.
McClure: Simple Eyes: Fields came winging to me with the news that it wanted to seek shapes on the page and hover around a boyhood snapshot of myself wearing a sweater vest from the neighborhood YMCA in Seattle. In the major earth-moving reconstruction of the enclosed basement of the YMCA, gangs of boys had mock wars, hurling clods of clay at each other and shouting. In the hilly and forested neighborhood of the YMCA, I delivered newspapers from an oversized canvas pouch around my neck. And walking through a marshy area in the morning on my way to school, I'd lie down at the edge of the vernal pond and look at fairy shrimp, large fresh water crustaceans, swimming on their backs; water beetles; pollywogs swimming around and others wriggling out of the jelly mass of the egg cluster. This moment was an opal--a universe of living stuff. What I call "the spiritual autobiography" of Fields lifts out of those experiences, which sometimes take the shapes of much more recent experiences connected to them.
Shivani: Can you please discuss your relationship with Robert Duncan? Was he the poet who most gave you a sense of vocation?
McClure: Robert Duncan and Jess Collins, in their household filled with sculptures, collages, paintings, sounds of Webern and Lou Harrison, and their attention to the arts and biological sciences made an example for me of one of the ways in which life might be lived. Another example was Wallace Berman, photographer and collage artist, and his family who led an equally complex and rich life.
Shivani: In "Hail Thee Who Play!" you write: "OH MUSE, // SING THAT I BE ME, BE THOU, // BE MEAT, // be me, be I, no ruse / -- A MAMMALED MAN, / and stand with rainbow robes / that drop away and globes / that float in air about my hand." "Meat"--it's a concept that occurs throughout your work. What do you mean by it, and why is it so important to you? Is it something to be overcome? Are you alienated from--"meat?"
McClure: "Hail Thee Who Play!" is dedicated to James Douglas Morrison. Jim Morrison and I met because of his interest in my play The Beard, an erotic succes de scandale, a confrontation between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in a blue velvet eternity. It was arranged for us to meet at an Irish bar. We disliked each other at first sight--both with long hair and leather pants--and began sullenly drinking Johnny Walker, which quickly turned to talk about poetry and Elizabethan theater and actors. The simpatico we arrived at so quickly seems like a triumph of meat. Usually when I say "meat" in my poetry, and it's a word I often use, I mean flesh. But "flesh" is too good, so clean, so contrived--far away from the experience of actually touching the stuff or eating the stuff. I take it as my mammal duty to remind others that the flesh we love and touch is meat, which is the same thing as and inseparable from spirit. To continue our lives we devour spirit as well as make love to it. It's mammalian MEAT.
Shivani: "Meat" appears in your play The Beard as well, in the confrontation between Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid.
McClure: In The Beard, when Harlow or The Kid speak of "meat," they use the word in at least five different ways; from sarcasm to contempt to admiration to love, that's what we all do. We use the word all those ways.
Shivani: Also in your essay, "The Beat Surface," you write: "We hated the war and the inhumanity and the coldness. The country had the feeling of martial law.... We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead--killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life." You did bring it back to life. Do you see an analogy today, as we fight another perpetual war? Is poetry again dead? If it is dead, why is it so? Who or what can bring it back to life?
McClure: In spite of the smothering effort by many in the academy and by the ignorant, poetry is alive. It is often hard to find, because it is dodging the samsaric breakers and one-dimensional undertow, or it is in plain hearing in the art of Bob Dylan, or kept a little out of the way from readers in the dimness of misinformation about poetry. There is no finer poet than Diane di Prima who, like Joanne Kyger, does not broadcast or flaunt her rich creation. Amiri Baraka seems to be in the midst of a personal renaissance of commitment and clarity. Jerome Rothenberg continues bringing me news of poetry that I never imagined. Clayton Eshleman is exploring the Paleolithic galleries of his person. Philip Lamantia's almost lost poetry will be published soon, in a Collected Poems by a major university press. Poets of modesty, brevity, and intense genius like David Gitin can be found in small press editions. Online sites contain shimmering ongoing streams of poetry by younger people who do not press for public recognition--they have to be sought out.
Shivani: Three Poems brings together your longer poems, "Dolphin Skull," "Rare Angel," and "Dark Brown." You seem to have a particular affection for these three poems. Did they teach you things you hadn't known in your shorter poems?
McClure: "Dark Brown" is my first breakthrough in searching out the possibilities of Projective Verse and the freedom that I saw in the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, and in the music I was listening to, whether Jazz or Scarlatti. The poem "Dark Brown" remains as the best statement I could make at that time of freeing myself from what Marcuse calls one- dimensionality. Moshe Feldenkrais describes it as the family and social structures binding up one's motor nervous system. Reich saw it his way. This struggle for liberation is inherent in "Dark Brown" and it remains dear and important to me. "Rare Angel" is a huge patch, or series of patches, of deepening and expansion of my voice, feelings, and thinking--not only into what I was learning while travelling and doing field study with biologists, but what the assembling of these experiences/actions into a poem actually created under my fingers and in front of my eyes and ears. "Rare Angel" dips into Paleolithic hunting scenes and the near unbelievabilities of childhood. "Dark Brown" is a future-modern work that could only come out of the 1950s but now I see many other resemblances: to Haida tribal art and Tang Dynasty Chinese amalgams of Zen, and to what we could call "primitive" thinking. On the other hand "Rare Angel" seems to me to be like a big personal huggable bear. "Dolphin Skull" the third long poem, began with studying the psychoanalytic sketches of Jackson Pollock and using their field as the jumping off point for my own self-trust. Writing it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
Shivani: Your book that seems to me most relevant to the state of the world today is The New Book/A Book of Torture, reissued as part of Huge Dreams, with an introduction by Creeley. In "Mad Sonnet 11," you write: "I LOVE / Killer Whales, and the spiral galaxies, / and Keats, and viruses, and anti-particles, / and the dainty and dark perversity of lovely women / with hooked noses and black hair--or blonde and plump / with slim ankles--Brahms, / MELVILLE, AND MARX (Harpo), REICH, FREUD / and the juvenile delusions of Einstein. / I like fat and muscle, sweet and bitter, and all of the Comedy of Glory." You are countering war and madness with love. Is such a position possible today?
McClure: The New Book/A Book of Torture, from 1959, was scrawled and typed out when I believe I was having a dark night of the soul. I agree that The New Book/A Book of Torture might be the most relevant to this immediate present in the U.S.A. Rimbaud was searching for, and living in, what he called "an arranged derangement of the senses." He knew a derangement of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and all of the other senses brings about a condition of what might be called "voyancy." This is not anomie, deracination, vertigo, schizyness, depersonalization, or something resembling those. In fact, today it is the condition of overpopulation insanity, media obsession, gluttony, druggedness, genetic feedback [as Konrad Lorenz wrote of], and drinking from rivers polluted not only by pathogens, but as importantly, with synthetic hormones. Of course, there's climate disruption and worldwide food shortages everywhere except in the developed countries. That hardly covers it, but Calhoun's studies of overpopulation and social sinks, as well as Artaud's vision of post-World War II U.S.A., were things that I spoke of with Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia. We're living it now. Looking around we can feel the stressed and scrambled shapes and combinations in cars, airplanes, and burger shops.
Shivani: You took Jim Morrison very seriously as a poet. And you have had a rich collaboration with Ray Manzarek of the Doors. Tell us about these relationships.
McClure: When Jim and I were in London, in the late 1960s, working together on a screenplay from my novel The Adept, he showed me the manuscript of his first poems, The New Creatures. It is hard to believe that there was a better poet than Jim, at his age. The manuscript was perfectly edited by his wife, Pam. I urged Jim to publish it and when he demurred because of his concern that it would be read as rock-star poetry, I persuaded him to do a private publication, and helped him distribute it. Jim and I were close friends and we drank a lot. Often he visited San Francisco and stayed with my family and me, sometimes I stayed with Jim and Pam when I was in LA. Strange as it sounds, Jim had a fear of reading his poetry to an audience without a band backing him. We gave poetry readings together, hung out, drank, took drugs, and even performed with The Living Theater. When I wrote a hallucinatory comedy about our escapades, he flew up from LA to see the play. After their ovation, the actors came out and applauded us!
In 1986, Ray Manzarek and I began a collaboration of piano and voice, improvising in the manner of Jazz. We have given at least 170 performances. My goal was to continue what we had started at The Six Gallery with a new audience; through poetry to speak of nature, politics, and freedom. Ray wanted to continue what he had done early on with The Doors, to bring meaningful spiritual experience to people. We performed in coffee houses, beer bars, museums, colleges, rock clubs, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, jazz clubs, dance halls, night clubs--any place that would have us. Ray and I have two albums and are about to edit a double album, "Live from San Francisco," and there is a documentary about our work together, "Third Mind." Our next gig will be in Poland, when we fly to Krakow to perform in honor of Milosz at his centennial. Besides the States, we have performed together in Japan, Canada, and Mexico.
Shivani: Can we say that the fundamental problem with poetry today is that it is quotidian and pedestrian, rather than visionary in nature? Do you see any visionaries around? Are there many paths to the visionary? Is it possible that the most visionary is that which at first appears the least visionary?
McClure: There are many "visionaries" around but few William Blakes, or Meister Eckharts or Eihei Dogens. It is probable that much of the visionary begins with what appears to be ordinary. Haikus are like that too.
Shivani: Can the visionary become commoditized?
McClure: It is ceaselessly commoditized--both the true thing which is not harmed by commoditization, and the military-industrial "visionary" which becomes small wars and proud public scandals and entertainment devices to be held in one's hand.
Anis Shivani's debut book of criticism is Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (forthcoming, July 2011).