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

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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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