Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Meet Lew Bear

Lew Bear is a folksinger (at least, that's what I'd call him) making albums and appearing live, when work allows, in and around Northamptonshire. He probably goes further afield, but in keeping with SP's usual commitment to high quality investigative journalism, I don't have that information for you. Have a look at Lew's website and I'm sure there'll be information on gigs.

Like all artists, I imagine Lew has been practising and refining his craft since he was old enough to pick up a guitar; I know I wrote my first novel, a revenge Western called 'Blood Lust', when I was 10 or 11. But the three albums he sent me, which cover 2011 to 2014, show that the process of critical self-appraisal necessary to the creation of good work in any medium, continues with Lew even though he has found the space in which he wants to work.

How is that evidenced? Not necessarily in quantum leaps of improvement, because the first album, 'Done in the Dark', is by no means a bad album; and it's certainly not as bad as Lew told me it was, before he admitted it wasn't wholly atrocious but might have been better as an ep. I like it. It lacks polish, perhaps--at times the songs sound like demos rather than finished recordings--but that's what Springsteen calls, 'not just the sound of music being played, but music being made', and it can be fascinating, like peering undetected through the window at a band rehearsal.

Elements that will feature in the two subsequent albums are already present on 'Done in the Dark', like an intelligent appreciation of the folk tradition, which is to say true folk, the old songs and stories;  tthe wonderful 'Mad Ole Girl' and 'All Roads Meet' lope along like horses loose in a field, and it's not hard to imagine Jack the Bastard getting drunk to either of them by a crackling fire after robbing a coach on the Daventry Road.

The congeniality of Lew's more mature style is present here too. His rich, round voice tells us just to enjoy life's journey on 'All Roads Meet'; and he advises us to greet the world with a friendly 'Hey Ja' on the song of the same name. This year's 'Ripples' opens with an eponymous track reminding us that if we give love we spread love; our actions are our only true heritage. He writes it better and sings it better in 'Ripples'--that song's exquisite--but the seed is there early. I can't think of anyone else who ploughs that sweet, generous, open-hearted furrow (can a furrow be open-hearted?) without sounding trite. But with Lew you can tell that the evenness of his spirit is hard won. 'Echoes of the Past' and 'No Return' on the 'Ripples' album are filled with sharp regret.

Politics shows itself in all three of the albums Lew's recorded since 2011, though you might say the version of Kipling's 'If' on 'Ripples', combined with the title song's call for love, gradually draws politics into something more existential. (What is it with Kipling by the way? That old imperialist seems really popular right now. The Scrumpy Bastards have set one of his to music as well.) 'Land of Hope and Glory' on 'Done in the Dark' is a recession-era call for collective resistance. 'My Son John', I suspect, is another version of the traditional anti-war song 'Mrs McGrath'. But don't quote me on that. Seeing Martin Carthy perform something similar was one of the high points of my gigging life.

If I could only take one of Lew Bear's three albums with me on a rocket ship out of the galaxy, I have to admit it would be the second, 'Down by the Riverside'. It's not necessarily any better than 'Ripples', but it was recorded, as the sleeve states, 'completely live, without overdubs or fx, by the rivers and in the forests and fields of Northamptonshire'. The opening track, 'Slow Lane', a hymn to unhurried, quiet living (that congenial vision again), has wild birds accompanying Lew's vocals, and rushing water for an intro and an outro. I would want that, in space, to remind me how much I loved the county I'd left behind.

Some of Lew's original compositions here appear on the first and third albums, demonstrating what I said before about how committed he is to refining his art.  And the choice of traditionals has clearly been made by an aesthete. 'Cancha Line Em Track' sounds like a very English version of an Alan Lomax field recording; and 'Wild Mountain Thyme' is restored to its original folk beauty after being transformed into a slice of psychedelic pop a few decades ago. Ken Nash has done 'In the Pines' live, or at least during his soundchecks, and everybody remembers the version by Nirvana from their MTV Unplugged. It remains one of the weirdest, greatest, most sinister songs I've ever heard. Strangely, an artist as gentle as Lew has no trouble making its strangeness convincing.

Perhaps there's something more twisted about the affable, extremely gifted Lew Bear than meets the eye.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kenneth J Nash & Friends at the Pomfret Arms

The Kenneth J Nash & Friends concert tour, which I'm proud to be a part of, landed at the Pomfret Arms in Northampton on Sunday. Playing out in the barn at the back of the building on a windy afternoon, several musicians , one band and two poets performed to a modest but approving audience--which included my friend Martyna's daughter, who can be seen running in and out of shot on at least one of the videos filmed at the show. This tour is growing in style and confidence already, and we've only done two gigs.

I can't single out star performers because I genuinely liked them all. Star moments? Ken Nash performing 'Like A River', the chorus dreamed Coleridge-like by his mother Carol. Jay Jones' song 'White Feathers', which all of us were impressed by. Jono Bell's beautiful ukulele song for lost friends. Chris Browne's exceptional guitar playing. Curtis E. Johnson generally. Sheila Mosley's self-penned song in defence of the NHS (she said she doesn't write many, but if that's any measure of her talent she should). And Bridged, the three-piece rock band from Thrapston. I cadged a free ep from them at the end of their set; I'll write about it here when I have time.

The only poet on the bill this time, other than yours truly, was the Bard of Northampton, Nathan Jones. I invited Nathan to top the bill when I curated the spoken word stage at Woodfest this year because he's a very good performer. His poems mix light and shade in a way that's perfect for performance, and he never strains for the laughs, even though he's funny. The judges at the Picnic made a good choice when he was awarded the big blue cape of Bardage.

Next stop on the tour is the Carpenter's Arms in Irchester on Saturday night. In a month this fabulous band of travelling musicians and poets return to the Pomfret, and between there's a gig at Market Harborough. The line-up varies from time to time so even if you've seen it once, come out again and have another look. Some of the greatest talent locally will be playing for you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Chris Browne BrowneProject

This is 'Silver Sun' by Chris Browne. He's from Rushden in Northamptonshire and usually he busks on the streets around the county (although lately he's played indoors a few times with the 'Kenneth J. Nash and Friends' travelling show).

Chris has an album out called 'Busker Rhyme', which you can get on iTunes (I think that's how you spell it). And next weekend he's auditioning for 'Britain's Got Talent'. I hope he does well. If there's any justice he should blow the competition out of the room--although he's far too nice a bloke to want to blow anybody anywhere.

Watch this for proof of what I'm saying. He's a hell of a guitar player. And he's singing this one at the audition.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Songs of Experience: 'the fall of Eden' by Kenneth J. Nash

There's not much that satisfies more than getting an album as good as Kenneth J. Nash's 'the fall of Eden' in the mail for review. His last, 'the brewer and the dealer' (I think that was in lower case too), was a sophisticated pleasure indeed; nothing I heard in 2013 surpassed it, although anyone who knows me will be aware of the enthusiasm I have for Dubvocaliza and the Scrumpy Bastards. But if anything, 'the fall of Eden' is an advance on Ken's last outing, with mesmerising production (by Mr. Nash himself) matching quietly dramatic songs of love, loss, memory, death and renewal. Here is an artist who has been through several circles of Hell and come out on the other side a better, because more humble, man.

Instrumentation is one of the keys to the beauty of this album. Mandolin, Irish whistle, cello and double bass give songs a full, luscious sound that recalls (to this poet) the aesthetic joys of the Island folk output of the early 70s, as well as nodding towards contemporary Americana; and to seduce you even further, Ken adds to these church bells and the sea. The waves, seemingly recorded at Brighton by Ken's cohort JM Jones (a considerable musician in his own right) come at the end of 'the way that she moved', a song in which Ken's gifts as a poet also show themselves. He describes an old lover (we presume) who 'just couldn't dance' but moved wonderfully anyway, guided by some inner grace. In the first verse she's listening to bad music, 'singing along out of tune with her long hair falling about'. How great is that? Then she's dancing under fairy lights in the night. I've had that image in my head all day now.

Lyrical marvels are everywhere, though, not least in 'Strong', probably the most naked song on the album musically, vocally and emotionally. We can guess at the story behind this from the dedications on the sleeve; no need to go into it too pruriently. But we all have loved ones who are 'sleeping on the other side', and some of them left in such a way that it's a fair question to ask, 'Would you be born again if you could?' Ken Nash reads William Blake and hangs out with poets as well as guitar players; but he can hold his own with the best of us.

The musicians playing on 'the fall of Eden' are too numerous to mention. Let it suffice that as a unit and individually there's no finer bunch on the circuit. One note should be added: Fran Taylor sings with Ken again and weaves her lovely voice around his in a way that she now owns completely. Busking these songs, the two of them might stop traffic on Abington Street--if the borough council ever finish the roadworks to make their benighted de-pedestrianisation something more than a massively unpopular dream.

'the fall of Eden' is available from or--I believe--at Ken's gigs. And you're bound to see him somewhere, sooner or later. This is an artist who works so hard he makes Bob Dylan's tour itinerary look positively lazy.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


The highlight of the first day of this year's Summer Retreat in Northampton was a great set by Dubvocaliza, from London. Returning for another appearance after storming the festival in 2013, they took to the stage (newly situated in the woods) late in the afternoon and played for what seemed like only ten or fifteen minutes--although it was really much longer than that. When Barrington and the band are at the mic, the vibes are so good you forget time, and yourself as well.

I love Dubvocaliza, if that's not obvious already. So does everybody else who sees them (everybody I've spoken to anyway). It's those classic reggae sounds, the interplay between vocalists, and the sheer stagecraft; Barrington doesn't stand still for a moment, and between songs he talks to the crowd, offering pithy inspirational messages connected to the music. Dubvocaliza are all about positivity, keeping the faith in a world ravaged by 'pirates and vultures' (the title of one of their songs); as another one says, 'the sun will shine again'--and who doesn't need to hear that with war raging all around the globe this year?

The area around the stage rapidly filled with festival goers when Dubvocaliza started their set, and despite the drop in temperature and the lack of booze, many of the audience danced all the way through the show. Even I moved a little bit, and I am the worst, most self-conscious dancer on Earth. I couldn't help it; the reggae spirit moved me. Three hours later, back at home in poetry headquarters, I'm still wondering how it's possible to have so much entertainment without even paying an entrance fee.

This is a good band, my friends. Very, very good. Find them online or go to a show when they visit your town. You'll see I'm not wrong.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

“We knew about the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and their hordes of squeaky-clean imitators, but we felt like that was a different world that had nothing to do with us. Most of those people couldn’t play worth a damn and were indifferent singers, and as far as material was concerned they were scraping the top of the barrel, singing songs that we had all learned and dropped already. It was Sing Along with Mitch and the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, performed by sophomores in paisley shirts, and it was a one hundred percent rip-off: they were ripping off the material, they were ripping off the authors, composers, collectors, and sources, and they were ripping off the public.”

“We had so much opportunity to try out our stuff in public, get clobbered, figure out what was wrong, and go back and try it again. It was brutally hard work, because these crowds of tourists usually started out at the bars and by the time they got around to us they were completely loaded. So we would be playing for audiences of fifty or a hundred drunken suburbanites who really could not have cared less about the music—they were there to see the freaks and raise some hell. In that kind of situation, you either learn how to handle yourself onstage or you go into some other line of work, and the people who stuck it out became thoroughly seasoned pros.”

Both quotes from Dave Van Ronk.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a melancholy minor masterpiece about a passing era, specifically the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the late 1950s-early 1960s. Loosely based on events in the life of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, it follows the eponymous hero (played by Oscar Isaac) through one turbulent week—a week in which beatings and setbacks force him to confront the reality of his life and the apparent futility of his convictions about the music he plays.

Davis sleeps on other people’s couches and lives from hand to mouth; he thinks that the ambition of his former lover Jean (played by Carey Mulligan) to make enough money from performing to move out to the suburbs is square. For Llewyn, at the beginning, there is a higher motive for his gigging. It’s the purity, the authenticity, Van Ronk refers to in the opening quote. America in the 1950s was, by all accounts I rely on, an oppressively conservative society. The few folksingers who made money did so by removing any element in their music that hinted at the rural or proletarian origins of the material. Listening to the commercial recording artists who claimed folk connections back then, you hear music so syrupy or parodic you wonder how it was ever considered to be anything more than pop.

Uninformed critics have suggested that the dullness and naivete of the music before Bob Dylan landed in the Village in 1961 is the fundamental problem of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” In a sense, so these people would have it, the movie is an elegy for something that didn’t deserve to be saved.

I’m appalled and mystified by that view. Anyone who reads my stuff will know Bob Dylan has been the most important artist of my life. But to suggest that his music is intrinsically valuable and the music of those who came before him has none makes two mistakes. One is ignoring the fact that Dylan’s music grew out of the stuff he heard around him; without the scene as it was prior to his arrival, there would have been no Bob. The second mistake is confusing the authentic folk with the commercial rubbish. Yes, the Kingston Trio look and sound ridiculous now, but I’d rather listen to the New Lost City Ramblers than almost all of the things I hear on my radio these days when I tune in to the wrong station by accident in the mornings. Their version of “Tom Dooley” is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.

Dylan didn’t make folk music great by mixing it with surreal poetry. He made great music by mixing surreal poetry with folk. Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Karen Dalton were better singers and musicians. He just had that extra something, including a whole heap of luck: what would have happened, after all, if Robert Shelton of the Times hadn’t turned up to see the show he was support act for on that famous New York night? Or if he’d been a year older, a year more tired, a year less hungry, when it happened and Shelton had seen just another jobbing folkie instead of an embryonic star? Would the call have come from Columbia and John Hammond then? Maybe not.

More intelligent detractors have said that if “Inside Llewyn Davis” misses something, it’s only that it doesn’t show explicitly the ideological grounding of the Greenwich Village scene. Traditional folk music was played and listened to by people on the Left before Dylan’s infamous “betrayal” of protest songs on “Another Side Of…” and “Bringing It All Back Home.” Intense political debate—often, according to Van Ronk, violent in nature—fuelled the ideas and ideals of the artists. Maybe a bit of that in the movie would have deepened the characterisations of Llewyn and those whose paths he crosses; and shown to those who didn’t get it that the world of the movie is a serious one, not just a laughably quaint moment of long-ago history which our hero trudges through being offensive to everyone and hitting on all comers for favours.

This is a work of fiction, though, not a documentary, and a Coen Brothers movie at that. Character is the focus and it’s through Llewyn that the truths of the piece are revealed. The sharp contrast between his working class trade union background and the comfort of his middle class admirers should tell us something about politics; and with the exception of one speech in the Café Reggio, when Llewyn outlines his ideas to Jean, integrity is barely discussed—instead, it’s marvellously symbolised in a ginger cat which Llewyn loses and then pursues around New York. If only the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave” had seen this before creating the careless exposition of the Brad Pitt scene in that movie.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has sent me not to my Dylan albums today, but back to the work of all the artists who were eclipsed by the brilliant light of his fame. I’ve had a wonderful time revisiting Van Ronk, the aforementioned Karen Dalton, Mark Spoelstra, Mimi and Richard Farina. Dylan’s success was artistic as well as material, but it made fame and money the goal rather than the love of the great tradition; and there’s a sadness to that, for me. It buried something that we needed to keep alive in this world, or risk abandoning everyone to the slowly spreading, culturally homogenising capitalist nightmare.

Yes, that’s right. The one we’re in now. Would Van Ronk, even if he’d been producing great work still, as Dylan is, have advertised cars at the Superbowl? I don’t think so somehow. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in that respect, remembers an age when we were not yet smart enough to stop resisting.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

What You Gonna Do When The Mail Runs Dry?

It’s World Book Day, and in answer to the question World Book Day naturally provokes, I’m reading the diaries of English actor Kenneth Williams. I’m also reading the journals of Betsy Sheridan and Soren Kierkegaard and the letters of William S. Burroughs. I move between them, usually using their proximity to the place I’m sitting as my criterion for selection.

I love reading the private documents and ephemera of public figures. I know that some insist creative work should be read and understood without reference to its creator; but something that excites my intellect or my imagination always provokes an extra curiosity in me. When I read “A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud the fabulousness of it made me want to know more about the person responsible for bringing it into the world. Not that Rimbaud was an easy man to locate.

Which has me wondering, today, how the arrival of the technological age will affect our future study of the arts. My poet friends and I used to send each other letters; I have an archive of handwritten or typed and hand-signed communication from many people who are gone now. Anybody who wanted to build a picture of Dave Church, Joe Speer and Norbert Blei, among others—a picture that is distinct from the surviving published work—can access my archive, and those accumulated by my friends, and the men behind the poetry and the prose live and breathe again.

These days, however, poets and writers send emails and use social media like everybody else. Do they print them for posterity? I used to, but the cost became prohibitive. So my exchanges with other artists are either preserved for however long Facebook survives, or they disappear immediately into the void. I keep a handwritten journal as well as a public blog . . . do others? Or am I just carrying on the furtive behaviour of the socially inadequate teenager I once was?

Educators (as opposed to tutors) will know more about where the study of literature is heading; and I’m sure postmodernists would have something to say about technology and the Self that would be completely brilliant and apropos, although I’m equally sure I wouldn’t understand it. I have never had much of a head for theory. I like to read the lives of my authors and historical personalities the way I read their works, and by putting man or woman and work together, attempt a deeper understanding of both. If anybody wants to do that in 50 years they will have a much harder time than I’ve had, thanks to email and Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg. Will the public interview become our portal to the private from now on? and how much is that going to hide?

Sunday, March 02, 2014

GUEST POST: Fear and Loathing at the Royal Mail (by Bartholomew Bundy)

2013 ended for me not in the blaze of literary awards shows and gala dinners, but in the hard slog of casual Christmas work for the Royal Mail. This is how it is for poets and artists in the underground, unless they get lucky, and no one complains about it. You start out believing it will give your work an edge, but then you realise that’s romantic drivel. Manual labour is as soul-destroying and spirit-flattening as any other kind of labour; usually after a day digging gardens or sorting in a warehouse all you want to do is get drunk, not write poetry. But while it’s no better than any other kind of work, for the poet, it’s no worse either, and even John Cooper Clarke spends half his life on tour. Unless you’re rich or dead you have to do something.

The Royal Mail job seemed like it would be okay. I needed the money, and we would only be doing 8 hours a day 5 days a week. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found at the freezing cold, leaky warehouse the Royal Mail had rented temporarily for the Christmas season. Some of it still echoes unpleasantly in my mind three months later.

At the warehouse most of the things being sorted and dispatched were parcels from Amazon and Kuehne-Nagel, and the workforce doing the sorting across early, late and night shifts were either all the Royal Mail’s own casual workers or people recruited from agencies. There were also two “workplace coaches” on hand to instruct workers in safe practice and give whatever other advice and support (work-related, in theory) that we needed. One flirted shamelessly with the younger females and took the piss out of a female line manager at every available opportunity; both slagged off their colleagues at the main sorting office across town and said that the union gave everyone there the excuse to work poorly and be obstructive.

Hatred for the union among the permanent Royal Mail staff at the warehouse was pathological. My line manager, who rightly or wrongly was described to me as a “man-eater,” kept stopping me in my work. When it wasn’t to show me texts from her son or a picture taken by a casual who had left the country, but whose number she had stored in her phone, it was to describe the petty, self-indulgent, immature behaviour of unionised workers who had “been there too long and thought the world owed them a living.” “Where else,” she said, “can you get paid what they do for an unskilled job?”

This line manager was ridiculed by everybody who worked in her section for her constant shouting. She would stop for fifteen minutes in an aisle to look at her phone or talk about everything except work to a casual, and then shout at someone else, usually a younger person, for taking a minute out to catch up with someone in a different section. I heard the same names over and over and over again. Most of the time, when something more than a name was being shouted, I couldn’t understand what she said because of the way her voice echoed around the high walls and roof of the warehouse. But when her nightly frenzy climaxed I could hear, “Sort don’t talk!” and “Work faster!” At one point she simply bellowed “WORK!” elongating the word in a way that’s impossible to describe.

Maybe this is common practice now, but I found it stupid, disrespectful and counter-productive. It’s bad enough that people should only be paid minimum wage to exhaust themselves daily; shouldn’t the compensation they receive for that be a recognition of their right to be treated in a dignified fashion? Or have we reached the point, in our hurtling journey back to the Victorian Era, where employees are expected to be grateful that they have any work at all?

One of the managers spoke to me towards the end of my contract about the things that had been achieved in the two months. Number one out of all the PSCs (parcel sorting centres) in the country since it opened (or nearly). He said “We wouldn’t have had that success if we followed the working model used in other places. This is the model we intend to move to. But that’s for the future.”

The model? Workers with no rights. More than one casual in my time there was fired on the spot because they were found, during one of the daily, and allegedly random, security checks, to have a mobile phone on the operational floor. Only the managers were allowed to carry phones, just as they were the only ones allowed to bring in water. You’d think it reasonably obvious that a manager might be able to steal, or arrange a theft via a mobile, as easily as a casual; but one of the managers explained the distinction to me while I was being checked: “Instances of theft among casuals are very high.” (Even if this is true, might a living wage rather than a subsistence wage go some way to solving the problem?)

Other people disappeared too, one after having two days off to look after her poorly child. If you’re a casual worker, of course, your manager can do that; he or she can flick you out of the building like balled-up KitKat paper from a desk. The most infamous of the departures was a guy who, when asked to come for a security check, told the manager to fuck off. After he was escorted from the building my line manager, who at the time I still thought—mistakenly—that I could talk to like an equal, came over to tell me about it. We agreed that he probably had something on him he didn’t want anybody to find. “But people do get upset about their human rights,” I said. “Maybe it was that.”

“It’s not an infringement of his human rights to be asked to turn out his pockets,” she bristled. “It’s in his contract.”

The Royal Mail hires now through an agency called Angard. At the end of the Christmas period every year the managers put forward names of suitable employees to Angard, who then, supposedly at their own discretion, take on those they like to fill in sickness and annual leave shifts at the mail centres. After long stints of working as an agency employee within the Royal Mail, you are then considered for permanent status. As our contract came to an end getting on the list was the talk of the workforce; nearly all of us, obviously, needed the money even if the work was boring us senseless. “It’s going to be a very small list,” one of the managers said to me, on the same day he talked about the model of work used at the PSC. He then went on to eulogise about the performance of one casual who’d stayed until four in the morning to help clear a backlog.

Which is fine; but not everybody can do that. And not just because they are old-fashioned, unhelpful jobsworths. The guy who did that was 25 years younger than me and 35 years younger than some of the others. People have families also. Is a labourer only worthy of his hire if, for minimum wage, he exists only to work?

I should have known then that my chances of getting on their exalted list and being put forward to work for Angard were fucked. I had done no overtime at all, primarily because I was scared that getting overly tired would affect my epilepsy. But my line manager had told me I would be on the list and I thought she was telling me the truth.

Then I really ruined it. On the last day the manager walked from person to person with feedback sheets. We were told to fill them in –“Be as honest as you like”—and sign them. While he waited to make sure that every person had completed one. Who ever heard of a feedback sheet that you sign your name to? Naively, I now realise, I wrote, “My only gripe is that we were not allowed to have water with us while we worked.” I could have written a hundred other things, but I was trying to be reasonable. The manager looked at it expressionlessly—he would make a good chess player—and slipped it into his pile of completed sheets.

A guy who had done nothing but bitch when we were in the canteen passed by. The manager stopped him and told him to fill out a form. He asked what he should write in the comments at the bottom. “Anything you want,” came the answer. “Be as honest as you like.” The guy shrugged insouciantly. “I have no complaints,” he said. “Everything is wonderful!” “Write that then,” said the manager, looking much more pleased with him than he was with me.

After the manager had moved on to tell the next victim to be as honest as they liked, I challenged the guy: “How could you say everything was wonderful? All you’ve done is slag everything off since you started here!” “Do you think those twats are gonna offer me any work after Christmas if I criticise them and put my name to it?” he asked. “Grow up.”

His words stung because I knew he was right, and the prediction turned out to be true. Several of the casuals I worked alongside at the PSC were invited by Angard to go to the mail centre in January; and despite my line manager’s promise that I was on the list, and her boss’ public declaration in the main entrance one day that I was doing a fine job on my station, I haven’t heard a word from Angard or the Royal Mail in three months. The price you pay in this country, it seems, for thinking you have a right to speak freely when you’re on the bottom of the economic ladder (a rung poets share with warehouse workers, cleaners and—bizarrely—care assistants) is social exclusion and penury.

And now the vacancies Angard advertise list, under requirements, “receptivity to change.” That’s that new model of work creeping slowly over the hill, the one that employees themselves will be forced to assist the managers in creating, by sheer economic necessity. It will be something like a strong cat putting itself to sleep, but what can you do? Food must be put on the table. It’s hard to take the longer view when your landlord is banging on the door for rent.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Virginia Cherrill

Virginia Cherrill with Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights"

There are two scenes in all the movies I've ever watched that I would run into a burning house to save if the last copy were inside. One is the final moment of Eric Rohmer's "Le Rayon Vert," where Marie Riviere sits on the cliffside with a new love as the sun goes down over the sea. The other is the scene in "City Lights" where Virginia Cherrill's flower girl, her sight restored, sees Charlie Chaplin's tramp for the first time. Both moments are so beautiful and so moving I cry every time they're on.

A week or so ago Michelle and I were in Kettering, touring the charity shops as we do in search of rare books, movies and things for the flat; and we heard a violin playing mournfully. Someone nearby was busking in the rain. "God, that music so reminds me of 'City Lights'," I said, and began talking, probably for the hundredth time, about the scene with the flower girl.

"Le Rayon Vert" has an underlying theme about personal signs and symbols; how one needs to read them to live life freely. Two minutes after we'd heard the violin player we went into another charity shop and Michelle found "Chaplin's Girl: The Life and Loves of Virginia Cherrill" by Miranda Seymour (2009). How strange is that? I wasn't sure whether it would be my sort of book, but because of my love for that movie I bought it.

I'm happy to report that it's wonderful. It's not academic by any means, nor is it particularly incisive, and sometimes it's poorly written, or edited ( two paragraphs begin "confirmation of this..." on consecutive pages); but Virginia Cherrill's life in the ten years that the book broadly covers is so amazing the reader can't wait to find out what happens next.

Every film enthusiast has seen "City Lights" and knows about "the flower girl." Who knew that she married and divorced Cary Grant, had a non-committal affair with David Niven? (Consequently she loved watching "The Bishop's Wife" in later years.) Who knew that the same woman, bored by movies, went to England? was courted by a maharajah? rejected him because of the misogyny of Indian traditions and their brutality towards animals? Who knew she married a lord, and became "Mother" during WWII to a squadron of Polish fighter pilots?

Like every good biographer Seymour is a little bit in love with her subject. When you read the book you can't help liking Virginia Cherrill quite a bit yourself. It takes style to find fame and fortune in the palm of your hand and throw them both away. But Cherrill had a life of such adventure afterwards, and found riches again so quickly, it would be surprising if she missed Hollywood at all.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Technicolour Dreams

Life in Technicolour by Tegaki. Not in exhibition.
Today started in a really dull way for me: a letter through my door telling me I hadn't got the job I went for on Friday. Community support worker. Christ! I thought. What sort of body odour or invisible-only-to-me skin condition must I have? I'm being turned down for jobs I walked into ten years ago. "The quality of the candidates was very high," said the letter, as if this were some sort of consolation. Ta very much!

But then I sparked up the capricious, prehistoric laptop someone gave me at uni three years ago and my mood improved. I had an invitation from artist/singer-songwriter Helen Verrill to go and read some poems at the Technicolour Dreams Art Exhibition in Northampton in March (the exhibition runs to the end of April). I thought about it for a while and then said yes. I need something nice to happen right now, and some practice before Woodfest in August wouldn't hurt.

Technicolour Dreams will be a showcase for the work of Helen and some of her artist friends. When I report on it again I'll share their names. It's being held in the old cinema, which I've written about here twice before--yes, the site of P.J. Proby's infamous trouser-splitting episode, and the show by the Beatles. I've always wanted to go inside and walk along the same corridors (possibly) that John Lennon walked.

The only problem with me reading there (I will be doing an evening show on March 14th) is that it's now owned by the Jesus Army. Which means that a large number of my poems, including "Jack the Bastard" and "Racist," probably aren't appropriate. Even if the Jesus Army wouldn't mind I wouldn't feel quite right, doing my usual potty-mouthed act in their place of worship. I'm sure I've got something good enough in the locker, though, that isn't liberally peppered with swear words. I'll have to start digging and see what I come up with.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pussy Riot

The shameful treatment of Pussy Riot at the Winter Olympics was noticeably under-reported by Western media this week. We saw the pictures, but all of the debates about our responsibilities towards those feeling the whip hand of repressive Russian government were exhausted before the tournament had even started. Most of us would agree that the public flogging of a musical group engaged in a funny demonstration is ugly and excessive, but we would prefer to be able to focus on the curling thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin and his thugs know nothing about the true nature of rock and roll anyway. If they really want to neutralise whatever threat Pussy Riot pose to their nasty bigoted criminal rule, they should give the band a multi-million pound contract with a major label; and then let them headline big shows in Moscow and St Petersburg. Nothing sucks the juice out of rebellion like success.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My Desert Island Movies

Guy Pearce in "The Proposition," written by Nick Cave. A brutal, occasionally surreal Australian Western in which Pearce has to track down his own brother and kill him. How weird that the kid next door from "Neighbours" became such a wonderful actor.
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis of Joy Division in "Control." This movie's very close to me, for obvious reasons, and hard to watch too. It's tough to see your own experience portrayed so accurately and honestly. The music, if it needs to be said, is thrilling.
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise." I'm told some people find this trilogy of films infuriatingly self-indulgent. Some people are wrong. They're beautifully acted and directed vignettes of love between a man and a woman capable of talking.

Cary Grant in "The Bishop's Wife." Forget the ridiculous remake. Grant is an angel who hasn't earned his wings yet. He comes into the life of a jaded bishop to help restore his faith and (uh-oh) falls in love with the Bishop's wife. Magical, and not in a phoney way.
Marie Riviere in Eric Rohmer's "Le Rayon Vert," which was released in the UK, I believe, under the title "Summer." (Why?) Rohmer made many beautiful films but this one is singular because of its really exquisite ending. If you are human, you will cry.
Clint Eastwood ordering a gang of gunslingers to apologise to his mule in "A Fistful of Dollars," my favourite Eastwood pic even though there are better ones. My mate Salvatore used to do a great Italian-accented impersonation of this speech.
David Thewliss in Mike Leigh's intense, harrowing "Naked." Lesley Sharp turns in a wicked performance in this too. My friend Lee saw "Naked" first and said I reminded him of the central character Johnny (Thewliss). When I saw the film I wasn't flattered.
Al Pacino in "Serpico." I first saw this in '81 or '82 and something in it chimed with me immediately. Perhaps it was Serpico's rather unbending morality; or maybe just his loneliness. I didn't feel I fitted in with the crowd either.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

They Were Never Lovelier

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night"

George Clooney said something I liked to Matt Damon when they were discussing the new, but deliberately atavistic, war movie Clooney has written and directed, "The Monuments Men." It went something like, “People aren’t as cynical as their movies.” I don’t see many war movies, but the best of them portray war as a bloody horror; and yet the number of wars around the world seems to multiply with gay abandon. Could it be, possibly, that the folks back home (safely back home) who vociferously support conflict after conflict think war is really a bit more like “Kelly’s Heroes” than “Apocalypse Now”? Of course it could. If they believed the latter had any truth to it they would never vote for another hawk president or prime minister again.

As we get older and we have less time to fool ourselves about our vanishing life, and less desire to posture for others, we find we no longer like the films we were once so enthusiastic about, or even the films we know we’re supposed to like. My favourite movie so far this year isn’t “12 Years a Slave,” as much as that has been lauded by everybody around the world; it’s “Philomena,” in which Steve Coogan’s jaded journalist helps Judi Dench’s cheated mum trace a child sold for adoption by the Catholic church in Ireland 50 years before. It would be hard to argue against the huge importance of “12 Years a Slave,” and the potential good it could do in terms of correcting false notions about black history, but for some reason I thought it was arch and emotionally disconnected. “Philomena,” though, made me cry buckets.

I also find, more and more, that I like the old Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s (but especially the 30s). The romantic comedies of the time, which I love the most, are nearly always made according to the same formula; but it is such a rich one each time you see it the experience is new: handsome male leads like Cary Grant and beautiful, but always intelligent, females like Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert; clothes by the top designers; humour that sometimes borders on anarchy—people chasing in and out of rooms talking at 90 miles an hour, frequently over one another, and using the richest of language, with puns and Hollywood in-jokes that stray onto postmodern turf before the idea had even been identified (like when Cary Grant orders a character played by Ralph Bellamy in "His Girl Friday" to be dealt with to stop him interfering with the course of true love and says, “You know who I mean, he looks like that actor Ralph Bellamy.”)

The culmination of almost every story made according to this formula is marriage between the male and female but that doesn’t matter; back then marriage was the signifier of romantic union, so all that marriage really needs to say to us as modern viewers, if we object to the institution itself, is love found, love achieved, love consummated—and however sophisticated we think we are, we all need love. Women in movies from the 30s—the better movies anyway—invariably marry on their own terms too. You don’t imagine Katherine Hepburn heading out through the door in the last scene of a film and then taking up a life of meek domestic servitude.

The best, most ambitious, romantic comedy from the 30s is probably “It Happened One Night,” in which Claudette Colbert’s heiress (there is always money) goes on the run to escape marriage to a man she doesn’t love and meets, on a journey across America, Clark Gable’s journalist, who’s looking for a scoop; obviously, Clark falls in love with her. That movie is shot with an exceptionally poetic eye by master director Frank Capra. It also does something that the feeble, diluted modern imitations of the rom-com style never do, which is offer a stark sudden glimpse of real life in the midst of the wonderful dream it weaves. On a bus ride through the night which has always looked to me like a visual rendering of the concept of Beatness, the travellers are singing together when someone collapses from hunger. This is, after all, the Depression. When we go back to the love story, the importance of love as a rescuer and ennobler of the spirit is somehow enhanced.

And that’s why I like the movies of that period, I think. Not because, as people often assume, they offer an innocent refuge from the world as it really is. Hollywood doesn’t show you the world as it really is these days; with a few notable exceptions mainstream American cinema (and I distinguish that emphatically from the indies) hasn’t said anything worth a shit for decades. I love old Hollywood movies because they have more of a habit of talking honestly to us, albeit in formulaic ways, about things that matter; and those formulae, fundamental to which are a style and panache we don't have anymore, embody something else that is vitally important to the survival of civilisation—the existence of dreams. When I dream, not being twenty years old anymore, I don’t dream about being a muscle-bound soldier mowing down Taliban in a Call of Duty game. My favourite is the one where I am a handsome singer in a night club and everybody thinks I’m terribly funny and charming. Now that is something Cary Grant could have made a good movie about.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Looking for Pascale

Pascale Ogier was the actress I most liked to watch in my late teens. She was in three movies I saw in those days: “Le Pont du Nord,” in which she appeared with her mother Bulle, “Ghost Dance,” with Robbie Coltrane and Jacques Derrida and “Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune,” directed by Eric Rohmer. All of them were shown, at one time or another, on English television, although “Full Moon in Paris,” to give the last of the three films its English title, didn’t appear until after Pascale had died.

I didn’t know that when I saw it on tv, although somehow I found out before I bought the film on VHS. All I knew, watching each movie in turn, was that I was captivated. She was beautiful, with a turn on the style of the best young women of our generation that was very individualistic and very French. (The measure of her individualism is that she designed her own [and other] costumes in “Full Moon in Paris,” as well as having credits for production design.) And, in the films,she was working with Jacques Rivette and Rohmer and talking about ghosts with Derrida, who mystified me. I had just dropped out of formal education and discovered the life of the mind. I loved anything that was clever and stimulating, even if I didn't understand it.

How Pascale passed away soon after “Full Moon in Paris” isn’t a matter for “Suffolk Punch.” Anyone who needs to know already does and serious students will be able to discover the facts of her life elsewhere. Even a short career shouldn’t be interpreted in the light of its brevity. What interests me, thinking about Pascale, is what the scarcity of information about her on the internet tells us. There are many online journals / magazines / blogs about counter-culture heroes, music and movie icons; but all I could find about Pascale is incomplete biographies with conflicting birth dates, hundreds of photos and sleazy blown-up stills of her naked taken from films. (Some people are real scumbags.) We seem to prefer our icons to be, on the whole, English-speaking. And men.

When I found out that Pascale was gone I was really sad, and embarked on a lifetime of French film-watching (when I could find them, or afford them), probably searching for a repeat of the lovely infatuation I had with her. “Le Rayon Vert,” the movie Rohmer made after “Full Moon,” or the next one after that, became one of my favourite films ever; and I adore the half-French “Before Sunrise / Sunset” movies even though everyone I’ve ever spoken to finds them tedious and self-indulgent. It’s that feeling they have, a certain feeling sometimes found in European movies, which English and American movies are rarely able to create.

In a sense I have been looking for Pascale in all of these films and I’ve never found her. Many of the experiences I’ve had, usually at home in front of the tv because French films are rarely deemed worth a wide release in the UK, have been moving, stimulating, inspiring—I’ve had every response you can imagine, though rarely boredom, which I’ve frequently done from Hollywood product. But you can never quite replicate the thrill of a first love, even a movie one. When I see a rare clip from one of Pascale’s movies I’m suddenly a skinny lost 19 year old again, living on movies, music and books and bursting with ideas about how to turn the world on its ass. Which is pretty much the person I am today, if you take out the “skinny lost 19 […]” part.

A few years after Pascale passed away I was in Paris and decided to spend my birthday in Pere Lachaise, the cemetery there where the French bury their great men and women of the arts. My primary purpose was to visit the grave of Jim Morrison of The Doors, but I’d forgotten that my birthday was also his birthday—which meant that his grave was inaccessible because of the number of tourists and scary Parisian cops clustered around it. Wandering away in the rain, pissed off, thinking I’d wasted my journey, I stopped on a certain path to light a cigarette and found myself looking at Pascale Ogier’s grave. A strange, almost unbelievable coincidence. I’d had no idea that she was here, although it made sense.

I moved in front of the grave, crouched down (with rain falling on my back and soaking me through my thin coat), and I read the inscription. What’s written there, again, is for other sites. As I crouched in front of the grave, though, musing on Pascale, and the person I was when I first saw those great movies, a man came up and asked if he could take my picture. He was French, but he spoke in heavily-accented English. Perhaps my complete lack of personal style gave away my nationality. I nervously said, “Yeah, okay,” and he asked me to look back at the grave. I don’t know what he wanted because before I could question him about his motives he’d taken the picture and walked away. I wish I had that picture now.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gertrude Stein: Would You Ask This Woman For Tea?

Gertrude Stein painted by Pablo Picasso
I have been reading, with some difficulty, “Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein. I say with some difficulty not because of her well-known and much-debated prose experiments, but because of her boring and offensive characterisations of different races, and her generalisations about class.

Ann Charters explains in her introduction that the constant repetition of names and phrases Stein indulges in has something to do with an attempt to create a written equivalent of the paintings of Cezanne. I’ll buy that, although to my eye/ear at least it doesn’t work, not here anyway.

Charters also says “a feminist reading of the book as a literary satire, […] could argue that each of the three heroines exemplifies different aspects of the way society trapped underclass women […] in stereotypical roles.” I’ll also buy that, cautiously, although it’s a tough one at times given that the author is a rich woman looking down on everyone.

Take this sentence I read yesterday on the bus after deciding to give the book a second chance (I had put it aside in exasperation two weeks before):

“In the days when he had been young and free and open, he had never had the wide abandoned laughter that gives the broad glow to negro sunshine.” (Stein, “Melanctha.”)

I put the book down again when I read that. I don’t intend to pick it up again. Stein, when she finished “Three Lives,” wrote to her friend Mabel Weeks, “I don’t know how to sell on a margin […], so I have to content myself with niggers and servant girls and the foreign population generally. . . . Dey is very simple and very vulgar and I don’t think they will interest the great American public.”

(Note the highly amusing use of “dey.”)

Now, it could be that I am underestimating Stein’s gift as a writer, or not understanding it because of what she would undoubtedly call my German pedantry. You could even argue that in her views about race and class she was a product of her time, and therefore she cannot be judged by contemporary standards.

But I’m not judging her. I just don’t want to spend any of my own time in company I find narrow-minded and boring; and for that reason I will be taking “Three Lives” to a charity shop at the earliest available opportunity. Maybe Nick Griffin or Godfrey Bloom could use something to read on those long nights in the political wilderness.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Luke, Mike and John Storm the Royal & Derngate

Johnny's in the basement
 I saw John Cooper Clarke at the Derngate last night. The Royal & Derngate, as two people in front of me insisted on calling it. Two drunken patriots in velvet hats.

I'd been looking forward to this show for months and I wasn't disappointed. John was supported by two poets: first Luke Wright, then Mike Garry. I hadn't heard of either of them before the show, but apparently they're quite well known. Shows you how much I get around.

Luke, who has a quiff that makes Morrissey's early 80s barnet look timid, performed a bunch of rhymers about himself, the honours list and the decline of the English community. (Etc.) It was heavy, insightful (and inciteful) stuff couched in humour. He charmed the hell out of those people in the hats.

Mike Garry's set was more serious. He joked that he was positioned between Luke and John in the running order to provide emotional balance. One of his poems was a half-sung, half-spoken thing about Tony Wilson. It was gripping; and later in the year it's coming out with musical accompaniment to raise money for cancer research. ("That motherfucking disease," he said.) I'll boost it here, when the time comes, if I know.

Mike ended his set with a poem about his mum. I expected a lot when I left for the show last night, but I didn't expect to be reminded so movingly of my own mum's passing in a poem I would kill (almost) to have written myself. He is a good bloody poet. Wish I could get him for Irchester.

John was brilliant. He performed many poems I hadn't heard, including the marvellously-titled "Get Back On Drugs, You Fat Fuck," as well as some of the classics. My favourite JCC poem has always been "Beasley Street," and he coupled that one with "Beasley Boulevard," which describes the same place after it has been given a makeover by the BBC. I don't think I'm giving much away by saying he closed with "Evidently Chicken Town." It's his "Like a Rolling Stone." If old Bob didn't do that every night he'd probably be hung upside down from a lamp post, and John's fans are equally insistent.

In his set there was also a lot of riffing and free association. John's one of the best stand-up comics in the business, even if it's a bit hard to follow sometimes when he starts developing an idea. Last night we were treated to lengthy ruminations on "Grocer Jack" and John's exclusion from that mighty vehicle of the spoken word "Poetry Please." He also briefly morphed into Elvis when he was brought libation. "Charlie Hodge," he said, in a hybrid Mancunian-American accent. "Charlie Hodge."

I came out of the theatre thinking what a fantastic job we all have as poets. Practised at this level, with this kind of intelligence and wit ("what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed," as Pope says), it's a beautiful thing to behold. I could hardly wait to sit down with pen and paper and write something new of my own. Cheers chaps. Come back to Shoe Town the next time you're on your travels.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Bob Dylan at the Superbowl

I was disappointed when I heard Bob Dylan had done an advert for Chrysler at the Superbowl. I knew he’d advertised other things, and his songs pop up everywhere these days; I regularly hear “Like a Rolling Stone” playing in the shopping centre in Northampton. But somehow Bob and the gigantic mainstream consumerist orgy of the Superbowl still seemed strange bedfellows.

“Variety” said with a weird mixture of glee and sadness “Bob Dylan is for sale.” They pointed out that Bruce Springsteen had resisted corporate advertising. But hang on a minute, Springsteen sang at the inauguration of a president who bombed innocent people in drone strikes, refused to close Guantanamo Bay, tapped the communications of everybody in America, was complicit in the persecution of Chelsea Manning and chased Edward Snowden to Russia for patriotic whistleblowing. Bob and Joan Baez have sung for Obama too, but Bruce is no paragon of virtue

However unedifying I find the spectacle of the guy who sang “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” doing adverts, Bob never claimed to propound the counter-culture principles (whatever they are) that critics now accuse him of betraying for money. Even if at one point he did join Neil Young in knocking artists who advertised.

You could argue that he first sold out when he signed for Columbia. But as Dave Van Ronk points out in “No Direction Home,” Bob had no interest in the left wing versus lefter wing debates that fuelled the Greenwich Village scene back then.

When “Bringing It All Back Home” came out, folk fans were outraged and considered the very electric rock we lionise as pure music now a kind of mindless, morally corrupted noise pollution. At a press conference Bob was asked by one of the square journalists of the day if he had any comments or arguments about the accusation that he’d “sold out to commercial interests.” Bob replied:

“Well, no comments, no arguments. I certainly don’t feel guilty.”

He was then asked, “If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest which would it be?”

“Ladies garments,” Bob quipped, in a spookily accurate prophecy of what was to come decades later.

We project our best hopes for ourselves on cultural figures (as opposed to artists), and Bob—who has a foot in both camps—has suffered more from that than most. If he doesn’t compromise, then in some way I don’t understand—perhaps by attaching ourselves to him, in our imagination—we don’t have to feel quite so bad about our own compromises. And we all compromise more times than we would like, often to the extent that we feel we no longer know ourselves. Can anybody be said to have compromised, though, when they didn’t actually promise anything in the first place? “I’m just a guitar player”—that was as definitive as Bob ever got. The few statements he ever made about politics, allowing for an apparent lifelong habit of playfulness and dissimulation, suggest that he stands somewhere on the liberal side of the right anyway.

Perhaps I’m making ludicrous allowances for an old hero, but I think Bob had a sort of vague ideological sympathy with the Chrysler ad. He has been talking about the destructive effects of outsourcing jobs to cheap labour in foreign countries since “North Country Blues,” recorded before even I was born. In “Union Sundown” from 1983’s “Infidels” album he sings:

Lots of people complaining that there is no work
I say, ‘What do you say that for?’
When nothing you got is U.S. made
They don’t make nothing here no more.

I believe, although I’m not sure, that there’s even a reference to outsourcing in “Chronicles.”

So, could it possibly be that Bob thought he might do something patriotic, something for the ordinary people of America, when he agreed to do the ad? Yes, I’m sure he trousered a big wad of cash; but might he just conceivably have believed in what he was doing? Do we have to be so cynical?

I still find the whole idea of my first and greatest hero doing Superbowl ads utterly depressing; but I’m not sure I have a right to.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Back at the Typer with the Care Work Book

Alan Moore, well-known Bruce Hodder impersonator.
I found my care work novel today, hidden away in one of the boxes we haven't unpacked in the two months since our house move. And as I've been really keen to get going on it again, I started this afternoon, at chapter 21. Chapter 1 is normally the starting place, in my experience, but writing these things the normal way has never quite worked for me; so I'm trying something different. It's fun.

The novel is about a miserable, failed poet (see if you can guess where I got him from) who's trying to hold onto his soul and his sanity in a care work job he hates. His relationship has broken down, he can't write, he's being persecuted by the vengeful ignoramus who manages his care home, and his only friends are an insane Christian who delights in fucking with his mind, and a poster of Alan Moore that talks to him from the wall over his bed.

I haven't got a decent title for the book yet. I'm enjoying myself too much with the manuscript to think of one. Laughter, wanton weirdness and the occasional poignant bit have to come first. Somewhere along the line I think I forgot that pleasing yourself was what writing was all about.


Poll results are in. The favourite William S. Burroughs novel of "Suffolk Punch" readers is his first novel, "Junkie," luridly subtitled "Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict" in the first edition, and published in 1953 under Burroughs' pseudonym William Lee.

Beat enthusiasts will know that Allen Ginsberg acted as Burroughs' literary agent for "Junkie" (English spelling "Junky"). The subject matter being rather dangerous in 1950s America, Ginsberg could only find a home for the manuscript at Ace Books, run by Carl Solomon's uncle A.A. Wyn. Burroughs took an $800 advance.

To soften the impact of "Junkie" on readers--or perhaps to deflect the inevitable criticism of Ace that would come from the moral watchdogs of pre-"Howl" America--Wyn published the book in conjunction with a forgettable(and forgotten) 1941 text by a former FBI agent, Maurice Helbrandt. This was called "Narcotic Agent" and subtitled, fabulously, "Gripping True Adventures of a T-Man's War Against the Dope Menace."

Burroughs, before the publication of the book, called the "sandwiching" of the two works "an appalling idea," but since he needed the money, he didn't interfere. Later, in a letter to Ginsberg, he admitted, "'Narcotic Agent' not so bad as I expected it would be. He does not sound like an overly obnoxious character."

"Junkie" was written in a conventional narrative style. It wasn't until much later in the decade that Burroughs began the really radical experiments with form and content that made him an avant-garde legend. (I don't think his rep is entirely based on the murder of his wife.)

Those books, from "Naked Lunch" on, aren't really for reading, not in the same way that "Junkie" is. Some of them, in fact, are exasperating, and hard to finish. When you encounter page after page of apparently nonsensical, disrupted narrative, as you do with some of the Burroughs works, the natural impulse is to throw the book at the wall.

I have been through that. It's why I have almost everything by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on my shelves and barely a third of the William Burroughs ouevre. But I feel, reading interviews with him and thinking about the books I have read, that Burroughs is the one from whom, perhaps, there has always been most to learn.

As William himself might say, I shall investigate further, and then file my report.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Joan (2)

Today is the anniversary of Neal Cassady's mysterious death in Mexico. It's also the anniversary of the birth of Joan Vollmer, who became William Burroughs' wife and went down in twentieth century cultural history as the woman who died from a bullet wound to the head in a game of William Tell that went tragically wrong

Joan was, of course, worth more than being a ghastly footnote in someone else's biography, even someone as considerable as William Burroughs. By all accounts she was more intelligent than her famously brilliant husband and eventual slayer. But the process of re-integrating all the significant women into the cultural stories from which they have been excluded is a slow one. We wake up from the past with all the verve of blind oxen.

In a post from the Nineties on his excellent "Literary Kicks" page, Levi Asher writes that Joan's death has caused some people to dismiss William Burroughs without reading his work, and others to regard him as an admirable icon of the Underground. Condemnation is a more understandable response than congratulation for such a horrific act,as far as I'm concerned; but anyone who thinks Burroughs didn't suffer terribly as a result of the shooting must lack a little something in the area of common humanity.

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out ~ William S. Burroughs

Ladies & Gentlemen, Your Host Is... . . .

I've been talking on Twitter tonight to singer/songwriter and friend of "Suffolk Punch" Kenneth J. Nash. Ken is organising the acts for this summer's Irchester Woodfest, which I've written about at the blog before. You know the deal: bands, chainsaw carvers, stalls, historical re-enactments and wasps on the candy floss. It's a brilliant show, set against the backdrop of my favourite green hideaway in the whole of the county.

This year Ken's adding a Spoken Word stage to the show, and tonight he asked me to host it, announcing the poets and all that. If it's possible to gush in a tweet I gushed in my reply. What a fantastic offer! So now you're reading the ramblings of the Spoken Word stage host at Woodfest 14. I'm also going to read a few ditties of my own. I'm excited already and I've got another seven months to wait!

There was a time when I was dubious about standing up in front of people. It made me nervous. But I got over that self-doubt by doing a complex presentation on postmodernism in front of two frighteningly brilliant academics as one of the final parts of my degree. I kicked ass that day, getting the first A for a presentation that I'd got in three years of university; and when Woodfest comes I will shine again.

Now all I have to do is find a job so that I can afford to eat between now and August.

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Message From Suffolk Punch To Our Hacker

Queen Liz says it all. Fuck off, you sleazy back-sliding thief in the night, and take up a different profession. You're not even smart enough to be a hacker. Don't you know PayPal have security measures that stop robbing bastards like you profiting from the labours of people with more talent and intelligence? Which, by the way, is almost everybody?

William Is Expecting You

Have you voted in our friendly poll of favourite Burroughs novels yet? What's the matter? DON'T YOU LIKE ME???

Sunday, February 02, 2014

How The Dad Of A D.J. Did For P.J.

Stories about Northampton's part in cultural history always grab my imagination. This one is so indicative of its time it's great. I first heard about it from my mother years ago, who liked rock and roll even if she was never convinced by P.J. Proby; then Whispering Bob Harris talked about it on "Desert Island Discs" this morning.

Harris, who for a d.j. chose a really boring list of records by the way, grew up in Northampton. His dad was a policeman here, one of the blue boys sent out to watch the performance of P.J. Proby at the ABC (yes, the cinema that The Beatles played). Improbably, Proby had become a figure of controversy because his trousers had split when he was performing in another town somewhere. The young American star was under strict orders not to cause a repeat of this wardrobe malfunction with his onstage movements.

But in Northampton his trousers split again. This was too much for the custodians of the uptight morality of the times and the show was stopped by Whispering Bob's dad. Proby released a single afterwards called "I Apologise" which made the Top Ten, but by all accounts his career was never quite the same again. Who would want to book an artist so obviously intent on corrupting the youth of the nation?

Incidentally, a little background research on Proby's later career reveals that he has recorded not only T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," but also The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK." I have to find a copy of them both. William Shatner's version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" was a treat for lovers of a good piss take; but P.J. Proby doing The Pistols? I can't even imagine what that sounds like.

Another cover from the Norton Records catalogue. Norton's co-founder Miriam Linna used to be the drummer for The Cramps. She now plays with these fine fellows.

Go to for more album / poster art and to order some hot wax.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Mugwumps

The Meet Cafe occupies one side of the Plaza, a maze of kitchens, restaurants, sleeping cubicles, perilous iron balconies and basements opening into the underground baths. On stools covered in white satin sit naked Mugwumps sucking translucent, colored syrups through alabaster straws. Mugwumps have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets. Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients. These creatures secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism. (In fact all longevity agents have proved addicting in exact ratio to their effectiveness in prolonging life. ) Addicts of Mugwump fluid are known as Reptiles. A number of these flow over chairs with their flexible bones and black-pink flesh. A fan of green cartilage covered with hollow, erectile hairs through which the Reptiles absorb the fluid sprouts from behind each ear. The fans, which move from time to time touched by invisible currents, serve also same form of communication known only to Reptiles.

William S. Burroughs, from "Naked Lunch."

Naked Lunch

Friday, January 31, 2014

Charles Plymell Interviewed By Catfish McDaris 1996

Catfish McDaris Interviews Charles Plymell

"By 1964 a new generation had arrived in San Francisco and made City Lights their rendezvous. Claude Pelieu, a young Frenchman with a thorough understanding of surrealism, had arrived with Mary Beach, the distant cousin of Joyce's publisher . . . and Charles Plymell, a jazzy poet from Kansas, onetime editor of Now, who did sadistic collages. The two Bulletins from Nothing and Grist from Wichita give the prevailing mood. ... Funk in San Francisco, rather different from Ed Sanders's blithe scatology and the total sexual gluttony of Tangier, has at least something to do with the tough spirit that Kansas gives to the West Coast." (Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture. [New York: Delacorte Press, 1968], 194.)

CATFISH: With the republication of The Last of the Moccasins by Atom Mind, do you have any plans for a reading tour?

CHARLES: My plans never work.

CATFISH: How has the poetry scene changed since the beat days in San Francisco?
CHARLES: Like everything else, I suppose; it seems (somewhat eerily, let me add), we have gone past the mark. Is there poetry and scene beyond 2000? The appreciation of durability in the artifact is on the wane. It has been replaced with contingency, instant gratification, monetary value. Remember how artists used to establish artistic value as powerful? The only power now is monetary reward. Art is not long (through history) anymore, but immediately imitative, broader, more isolated, more contingent. Money is the element that can make it cohere for an instant. Ginsberg called me a while back and read a little poem he had written, about two punks. It was late at night, and I had to get up for work the next day, but as nearly as I could tell, it was no more distinctive than any other poems that are in the magazines I receive. It sounded like Mark Strand on marijuana. Your poems are as good as Ginsberg's. Dave Reeve's are as good as Bukowski's. Adrian Louis' are as good as Ferlinghetti's. You're just not famous. So the New Yorker doesn't publish you alongside a ghastly illustration of you.
The scene has changed; Bill Moyers claims that there are more readers, or people who think they're interested in poetry, never mind that we still largely think of poetry as a message in rhymes. It is mostly didactic and dull, solipsistic and very dull. Those on his Public Television special will receive another grant. Maya Angelou is on the cover of Forbes as earning $4.3 million a year with a life appointment at $100,000 as professor of American Studies. She has turned it around. The article fails to mentioned that direct tax monies put her there. She had an office at George Washington U., when this old white man was scraping by on a part-time composition course. She attracted a great and huge audience, who with the help of our tax money, turned it all around. But I had always known how it feels to be on the bottom. The government has created an odd situation for poets and artists. It is much different that in the poem about Akron, Ohio by Harte Crane, where they paid the violin player from their pockets because they felt like it. That is, they were moved.
The point here is not to complain that Maya Angelou is a multi-millionaire, but to present a case where the federal government ironically had a paternal role in putting this once brothel madam to the top of ruthless capitalistic heap. A success story, but would it work again for a cowardly feeble little old white fairy, even if he was Shakespeare? No. At best, he could keep selling his ass until he was pitched in the street to be hauled off in a Ford dump truck to be buried at Rikers' Island in a hole convicts dug. That's the reality. But that picture won't help you get a lifetime appointment at a university, or even on the over of Forbes magazine, now will it? The truth is, we have to pay a system to rape and reward whom it pleases.
However, with the Internet helping to make all words more democratic, somewhat like John Cage's notes, it's very difficult to find stuff that knocks your socks off, and it may be the end to poetry as we've known it; yet, people think that there must be a reason to read famous poets, because if they don't, then they may not be hip, and so on. In other words, the audience is made before the work. I watched the audience on the Bill Moyers special. I think it would be difficult to know with all that was going on, if I was moved, or was I supposed to be moved. I wouldn't want to be the fool. It's much better that I go along with everyone else. You must understand how difficult it is to answer you honestly. But it seems a poet must have a gimmick, or be a publicist and politician to get anywhere in poetry. You must tell the audience what it wants to hear. Recreated lines by the poet from the supermarket tabloids will always get appreciation. I learned that by reading with Ginsberg. And believe me, it's no fun not to speak to an audience. It seems, sometimes, that an audience is shaped for us, to be politically, socially, and artistically correct. And poetry is used so much as a filler now, so magazines like the New Yorker can retain a perception of quality between the parlor humor, or whatever they need for their audience. Or you can use poetry as an ointment like in a new age publication I received recently from Woodstock. Any normal poet would "go with the flow," and apply for a grant to write my poetry. Why don't I apply for your money? That's a good question.
Getting back to your question, if you mean the "first" beat days (pre 1963), that was poetry with the old social revolutionary flavor, and literary, from the canons of the expatriates, and political, with the fart of old Marxism wafting through it. For example, the famous trial over Howl and obscenity was about the word "fuck." That set in motion the publicity for an half century to come. Now ask yourself, how many times you hear the word, "fuck." Can you imagine having a trial over it? Of course, I guess the beats can take credit for revolutionizing the word "fuck." They were ready to go to court over it, which is commendable; but it was a little like Reagan-Bush taking credit for ending Communism (the other profane word of the day). Would its downfall have happened anyway? I'm sure. Would we hear "fuck" as our daily word if they hadn't have gone to court? I'm sure. But they were the garde. You have to give them credit for that. Like many things concerning the beats, it seemed to me somewhat anachronistic to have Ferlinghetti show up as the quintessential bohemian to defend the word. Lucky that he probably had good coaching from his attorney brother, so he wasn't really a poor beat poet, he knew what was happening, but why didn't he just go in the courtroom and say he was Lt. Commander Ferlinghetti in WWII, who had just fought for this country's freedoms, and besides, that's how sailors talk all the time. It was still close enough to WWII that the judge would have dismissed instantly. But no, they had to drag out the old hype, the old Ellis Island poetry emigré pathos, in this case the old downtrodden intellectual class millionaires tromped on by society. It sold a hell of a lot of books, this thinly disguised capitalistic marketing approach, by the ex-market researcher cum poet and the ex Navy officer cum bohemian proprietor; P.T. Barnum couldn't have done better. It was like the famous hyperbole, "I saw the best minds..." Actually if he was really looking at reality, he would have seen the best minds of his generation at Almagordo, NM, playing out the old Faustian myth of power, changing the world forever. Chernobyl leaks.
But I see it as another instance of elitist capitalistic intellect at work, screaming at the press for publicity, building a lasting enterprise on old bohemian sympathies. I look at political poetry politically. I can't experience the necessary catharsis; for me, the vision is off. Now the poet who cried MOLOCH has received hundreds of thousands of our tax money to keep that old well pumping, and the officer always a had piece of the most valuable real estate in the world. What do you think a building at the corner of Grant and Columbus is worth anyway? And homes in S.F. Big Sur, Florida (by the last count.) He didn't need the money anyway. If I had that money, I would probably publish everyone. The thought of being a poet with a great deal of money, or asking others who may be already taxed to their limit to give money to our government, to in turn give me $20,000 to write my poems has always bothered me. I don't know why. I should just apply like everyone else. I read in our local paper that Mr. & Mrs. Frost, who both received a $20,000 grant to write poetry, are traveling this summer. Another beginning poet in their department was on the list of recipients this year. They also run a poetry workshop in the Catskills which invites the mainstream poets who sit on the grants panels that give the grants, but I suppose that pattern is not apparent to the Daily Star readers. I shouldn't bother with it either because I have to find a job this summer to pay the dentist and my taxes. Both of the Frosts, by the way, get a large professorial salary and benefits and sabbaticals from the local universities. They sent me their workshop program this summer they will teach when they return. I thought it was very pricey. Should I go and learn how to write a workshop poem? If you're a poet without an audience, patron, or connection to the academe or government funding, and without some travel plans, you might as well be on the information highway, not on the road.
And the poetry? Is it better than what I receive from poets almost daily? No. It's difficult to analyze critically. It all sounds like workshop poetry, but think how difficult it would be if you were famous. You'd really have to take your poetry seriously. I'm not famous, I'm just jealous; I sound like Taylor Mead, one of my favorite beat poets. Is he beat, too? But even Ginsberg told me one time that Ferlinghetti wasn't that great a poet. I like some of his work, but it's dated. Quien sabe? I don't. But I can see why they would try to keep my fame down. I'm not only a loose cannon, I refuse to canonize any of it. You can say any truth as long as it fits the party line. All I'm doing is offering an analysis from a larger point of view. And of course, I have had to pay for it. Sycophancy is necessary to any poetry scene.
Now, if you mean beat days in S.F. the second time around, which younger people lump historically into the 1963-1967 scene.... that was quite different. Billy Batman had the Batman Gallery going from the late '50s to '63. It was the transitional seminal scene that wasn't beat. The kids on the (Haight Ashbury) block began late '62 and bloomed in '63. I was living there when it was still a Russian neighborhood. The new heads had it up and running before the old line beats had gotten their antennae up. Of course Ginsberg, scene zapper of all time, booked the first flight from India where he had been sitting for four years, when he heard the news." Ferlinghetti was always a bit stiff from sitting in Mike's Pool Hall and had to wait to see how big the play was, and for his marketing man to make the scene. The establishment Time and Life was at stake. An old beat, who used to dress like Cyrano De Kerouac, asked me... Hey, man which way is the Haight Ashbury? Ginsberg joked that he was afraid word would get back to the poet, John Ashbury, in N.Y. that he was joining a "hate Ashbury" movement. Things were happening very fast, the old garde was established, therefore, cautious, and few in the forward garde of that scene had much knowledge of the beats.
The two guys who opened the head shop in the Haight, where I first saw Garcia and the gang (being a little impolite to the old Russian ladies of the neighborhood who probably saw them as real baddies) were just two good capitalist kids who had sold their parking lot in Reno and happened to hit town at the right moment. This was not a scene started by old Intellectual Class Bohemians, Navy Officers or Elitist Dilettantes sitting at the feet of S. I. Hayakawa eating semantic salami or fifties fishcakes with Alan Watts at Gate 5 in Sausalito's Za Zen; this was a scene for Everykid, burning bridges fast. Of course it was a Ripe Plum for the beats, who could bring their baggage of Eastern Mysticism (which, by the way, had been popular in the soirees since the Industrial Age, and 'er more so by the 50's), and Reefer Madness, and "Fuck" and All That Jazz that Patchen, Kerouac, Rexroth had read to...this was one Big Event. Even McClure, the Great Lion Tamer, Showman Extraordinaire, Kansas Opportunist, and Authority on drugs he hadn't taken, offered, on Public Television, tours of the Haight. I felt that the beats as well as others who were taking notice were a bit overwhelmed at just how they could "set up shop" and stake their claims.
Remember that this (Acapulco) gold rush was drawing Everykid, most of whom were uneducated formally (a big contrast from the beats) and who were not really that worldly...quite innocent, really, henceforth the flower children. And that innocence was usually expressed in poetry and graphics, the only expressions they could muster, mainly old Judaic patterns and words with religious symbolisms (historically, the uneducated, or lower classes did not easily absorb objective literature). I never made an effort to publish anything in the underground ORACLE, though it was successful as the paper of the scene and was hawked in huge quantities by street hippies; I thought its contents were ghastly.
If true Paganism did arise to translate the new alchemistry, it was through the art form of music, a medium that could use its purity of form to capture the moment. Of course, it had its influences, even Ravi Shankar, who I was told by an insider was really the "Lawrence Welk of India." I don't know. We had listened to him at the university in the 50's. But music defined the scene and took it "to the other side" and used the Word and Graphix for its promotion. Later, the Underground Comix was ushered in. I had a hand in this. The 8mm and 16mm experimental films too, were happening, but poetry and painting... well the two most famous beat poets were sometimes it seemed a little tone deaf, but interested in the scene...especially if they could usurp it for profit, being such old capitalists at heart. Even the old coffee house folksinging scene got on the bandwagon, from the protests songs of Dylan and Baez to pop mainstream like the Mammas and Papas and Peter Paul and Mary, who popularized the anthem "Blowing in the Wind." As I mentioned, when I played it to Allen the first time, he acted a bit reticent; whereas, my friends who brought the album by was digging it as the times. Dylan had just been booed in Hollywood. It was kind of risky for a middle-class Jewish kid from Minneapolis to try to imitate the Okie twang of Woody Guthrie even though he was sincere. As I write this, I catch Ginsberg on a documentary talking about his hearing Dylan and wanting to cry. He said it was as if the torch was being passed from Kerouac to Dylan. I can't imagine what torch he meant, unless it was his own. Ginsberg was never keen at the bigger picture. He always seemed to see the world in terms of his own self snapshot.
There's a very useful prefix from Greek that we've used as a word in English to describe this very peculiarity, but anyway, maybe a torch from Guthrie; and what was passed? Song, poetry, social consciousness? If so, he left out a great deal of the picture. It was the humble, myopic, Americazenish professor, again, not seeing beyond his own specialty.
So, there you have it! Wheh! The old marketeer Ginsberg called me not long ago wanting to know if I had anything from that period for the Whitney Museum. I had a collage show which had sold out at the Batman Gallery where Bruce Connors had shown, and I did two films which Jonas Mekas preserved for many years, and a few little mags, one called NOW, which I just received a letter from Lawrence Welsh, who said he read somewhere that it was the cutting-edge mag of the time. I told Ginsberg that I could probably get a hold of a copy if he was really interested, but I told I didn't have anything left for the Whitney Museum's travel show, which had shown a big beat retrospective in N.Y.C. and according to him, was heading to the Midwest somewhere (Minneapolis?) and then to San Francisco. He called me perhaps out of his good guilt, or his shrink's guilt (I never know which I'm talking to; being poor, I can't do what one is SUPPOSED to do in N.Y.C., and just have to stay crazy), telling me I should be included (after the N.Y.C. show of course). Well I'm more Midwest and San Francisco, anyway, I fell for his pitch and gave him the name of someone in S.F. who might have some of my artifacts; (thinking that he would tend to it). He gave me the old big apple and said he would pass along the information to the Whitney Museum in case they were interested. That's how it goes. I was dealing with the millionaire manager of marketing now, but what the hell, some of us know we're still selling day-old bagels too!

CATFISH: Do you think the poetry freedom survives today or are poets knuckling under to grant money and academic parameters?

CHARLES: The academe and local governments have claimed all this phony baloney. Poetry is their "tool," as they say, when it should be the other way around. It's dead in the academe and with prizes. A few years ago, I saw two Nobel poets read at a nearby university. Get one prize and you get them all, a tie-in with the federal NEA grants given to those poets who are doing such marvelous workshops. The prize, of course, is a thing in itself controlled by the other players who cop the big one plus several $20,000 federals while they fix the MacArthur whopper. The genius tag goes along with the half a million or so bucks. Does this give you an incentive to write more poetry? Well you shouldn't be interviewing me if you apply for grants! One was a Russian poet who read with a Caribbean fellow, grooming him for the prize next time. I forget their names. Alzheimer's is very useful when it's not worth remembering. Anyway, before political correctness, I used to work on the docks, where the guys had a name for everyone. A lot of times the name was associated with something about the geographical origin of the person or what he was like. These associations were childlike; children tend to be mean in this respect, too. We always want to change them. They are kind of like how the Indians name; the guy from Hawaii was called the "pineapple." This would be illegal now, and in my role as tutor at the afore-mentioned university where Professor Frost sends his poetry students to me to correct their comma splices, I could get fired for such talk. Anyway, allow me to say that the "cabbage" had at best had a few warmed over Pound images, and the "coconut" (both in prize breeding and grooming for the McArthur genius award in addition to the Nobel), didn't, to me, have anything to his poetry but his Carribbeanus. Maybe there should be fruit poetry and vegetable poetry. It's so hard to categorize something without sounding silly, but like Professor Ginsberg, we must earn our salary. I asked a woman poet what she thought about the Caribbean poet. Oh! it's his marvelous rhythm. Oh. I saw him later on public T.V. doing a thing on Harte Crane, because of Crane's "Carib Isle" poem I guess, or he had to do something since he was Nobel Laureate. He missed Crane, though. The aged librarian from Crane's hometown out in the Midwest knew a lot more about Crane's poetry that this genius did, and she spoke about it wisely. Maybe she was a genius. Then I read in my alumni magazine that Mark Strand, who probably has the longest strand of money awards, including the genius, had taken over the writing program I attended. I read his dead lines and quickly got the small sheaf of poems of Elliott Coleman's (the founder of the program) to read a few lines of his to see if I wasn't going mad. Yes. Elliott had poetry. Strand did not. It looked like poetry, but in my opinion, it was not. Another phony, or mediocre poet, or I don't know what they are. Then a few years, back I attended a ceremony at the capital when Cuomo was awarding the State of New York Poet (thing), whatever; Creeley was there, hugged me, Why? Give me money! I make less than 15 grand a year. I read some lines of Richard Howard, who was the State Poet, receiving 10 grand of my tax again. I thought he was autistic. No, I'm not making fun of the disabled, there should be an audience for them as well. Maybe there is. Maybe that is the future of poetry. I mean it would make sense if it was the farm program and they paid them not to grow crops, but to subsidize this highly polluted industry of fakery? I've seen the two Frosts in action. They're shameful, and as usual, quite well off while milking the system for all it's worth. They're such sycophants.... one of them shook my hand. Ugh! Dead fish. But I'm not supposed to talk about money.
So, here's how it operates. I get these programs that feature so and so to their fancy little workshop in the hills of academe. So and so is on the next NEA Fellowship panel and knows their dead lines. It is all political. They pass it among themselves. And if you say something, you're out. It's a class thing not to talk about public monies for artistic endeavors, though Rimbaud said, "While public funds evaporate in feasts of fraternity, a bell of rosey fire rings in the sky." That's why, when I did apply for grants, I never received a penny to write my poems. Their defense? Quality! That's the Ford Motor Company's line. Couldn't they have at least co-opted Rimbaud? No. They're all Edsels. But you would think the NEA could come up with something original. And believe it or not, this dying civilization is stuck paying these Edsels to write because of the sanctity and protection of the word, historically, in our system. This funding fraud has become the paradigm imitated all the way down the line, in state and local agencies. At my level of poetry politics, neophytes in the business insist that I read at their workshop for nothing and their pitch is that when they receive funding, they'll ask me again. I say no. They put my name on the program anyway because that helps gets funds (to show they're having lots of poets read). They get funding. They want me to read for a hundred bucks and with that comes a flyer urging me to write my Congress to save the arts. I don't want to be in their "we" business, so I say I will only read for $500. They say their funding has been cut, so they can't give me that much. I think, good. I'm out of that. They put my name on the program again. Next year they get some poets from N.Y.C. who happen to sit on a panels. They get $500. Then they have enough to pull in bigger poets and they pay even more to them. Now the academe kicks in, giving the local art agency enough to bring in a famous poet like Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti (because now they've finally caught up to 50 years behind scene). It's like the government giving bigger grants to those guys holed up out in Montana. They got bigger by taking government money and then howled MOLOCH! It works the same way in other government programs. Because poetry is undefinable, it's a soft hustle with established sycophancies, ironies and subtleties. It is a Soft Fascism paradigm that probably won't fully be understood until the next century. But meanwhile, let's get the NEA $20-grand fellowship the next time around. I don't apply because they would not give it to me. Ginsberg said, with his little humble shrug that maybe my poetry was not that good. He and Peter O and all the St. Marks' poets got fellowships, so I guess they're better poets than I. Even an old Marxist can win under this system if he's willing to live a lie. I am a loser because I know how it operates. Play the game. Take the money. But it seldom helps the little grass roots poet-farmer, the one who is used to make the whole thing sound credible. Any scam needs the illusion of credibility; in these cases it's the poor artist, the poor farmer. The millionaire farmers have always been on the dole. They are an essential part of the political system, yet on the surface, we don't see the personality trait that would ever link Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dole. You know what they say about politics and bedfellows. They may have more in common than the way the hold their pen(is)... subsidized seeds! So, in the poetry funding paradigm, a big name is pulled in now and then, just like the prizes, to show credibility. It is "togetherness" at the funding consortiums. "We" are all one and "they" are trying to cut our funding. I'm on all the mailing lists, instructing me to write my representative. If I did so, it would be to abolish the NEA! It's the same on the state level in the arts and music; for every one recognizable name there are a hundred phonies who play the game. And when the funding controversy hits the news, it is either red-herringed to pornography or to some pathetic little arts community in Georgia or somewhere that begged for 10 grand for its community fiddler dance, etc. But meanwhile the untouchables are the phonies hiding behind the word and raking off the funds. And then there is always the actor making a big pitch. Well you know what Capote said about actors; anyway, I can imagine them reading their Kahil Gibran every night. Like they really know poetry! Look at the poets on the recent Public Television's Bill Moyer's GEE, GOSH, OH GOLLY SCHOOL; aren't we all politically correct. Step right up and get your award next year. And as always, a couple of legitimate names in poetry, even Gary Snyder in line for his umpteenth grant and his Boy Scout Zen didactic ribbons, a few big names, even the hag poet, Adrienne Rich, but look at the rest of them. The audience of course was under the delusion that since it was called poetry, they should experience it. Look about you. Is there something you would rather see your tax dollars go to rather than this? I don't mean the T.V. special necessarily, I mean the $20,000 awards that will certainly be given (again) to the participants. Then the argument turns comparative. Well what about the military? One would think that the scholarship branch, the NEH should get it straight, and tells us what poetry is. Not at all. The real premise is that poetry is undefinable as it happens. Let it be. How can you say that it is fair to reward some and deny others when you can't even say what it is?

CATFISH: What effect if any has drugs and alcohol had on poetry?

CHARLES: Shakespeare probably had peculiar brain chemistry that allowed him greater language facilities, presumably Mr. Natural, but who knows? Some would call that genius. I suppose chemicals, in that they effect the brain, do effect the language. The most direct evidence of the effect of drug chemistry is "Kubla Khan," but would that apply to everyone? Doubtful. To most, chemicals would probably make language more difficult. Poetry can easily be a privacy of language in its making, therefore more conducive to the accidental, the linguistic evolutionary grammars, which in other more technical skill-oriented art forms, might be seen as a mistake. Though the idea of mistakes "working" probably precedes Jackson Pollack or other associates of Post-Modernist Impressionism.

CATFISH: What do you think about the separate movements in poetry--gay, women's, black, Asian, Latino, Native American
CHARLES: These categories have nothing to do with pure art forms, and those who think they do aren't artists, but dilettantes. It is probably true that identification with the other sex, hormonally, chemically, or empathy, but this doesn't always guarantee validity to the artifact. But, again, government control (for or against) is applied both discretely and obviously, with these categories in mind. In the convoluted case of Maplethorpe, all control was switched to "bad." But more often it is "good" control, soft, correct Fascism that we mustn't compare to the Totalitarian state art control those evil empires used to regulate, but it can achieve the same effect. Or else there would be no problems with Maplethorpe. Hitler could put all the "bad" Jewish abstractionists like Chagall in one room (to hold as bounty) and display the good Aryans in Speer's hallways. The soft political effect is felt in Democracy's art today, though of course, not along Party lines, but along "party lines." Orwell's doublethink and doublespeak is probably thriving in all manner of codes in all systems, and the NEA has enough elasticity to soften any argument. It's whorishly supple. Remember "need" can't be a factor. That could subvert the process. But in the example of the little farmers, not much helps them anyway; they should move up to the bigger systems.
You have to read Robert Peters, who has approached the problems of poetry today in an objective, scholarly way. I can hear him bitching about his sitting on a grants panel in California complaining that if hears one more squaw... It is a fact that we have given public funds to reward minority artists with little substance, but we do not say this. We have also done the same to WASP establishment academics, who do not need the money in order to find time to write, and who also have no substance, yet someone who knows nothing about poetry scenes often turns up with exciting, original verse. We all know this, yet we insist that one or the other should be awarded government monies. Yet who can say what it is that is created, and who is worthy of reward? Pound said at the end of his Cantos that his errors and wrecks lie about him and he cannot make it cohere. Of course, I paraphrased some of the world's greatest lines of poetry, but who agrees? Could a grants panel see the greatness of the lines? Any racial remarks are out, even if they are used to reflect reality. On the flip side, I had a white male friend who wrote poetry in black dialect and got a grant, presumably because a quota was needed. Do you think this mess is any different than any other government mess? It is art, therefore it is good? And how can we pretend that this is a good use of tax money? One defense is that the peer system decides. Yeah, politics as usual. Never mind that art, and poetry especially has always been unfair, even the artists were backstabbers. To say that your peers in poetry judge you is obviously NOT A POSITIVE (as they say in Long Island) and it is not necessarily good for art in the long run, but it's an easy token for government policies and perhaps reward those who point out the wrongs of society, or even lover's quarrels, but in the long run, I don't know how this changes anything. The rappers claim they make their fame and money by telling it like it is, and then the mainstream artists work at saying how it should be better and meanwhile society goes to hell faster that ever before. You tell me what poetry can do.
Race and gender. I guess one could say that all of poetry is a backward look of almost 400 years to an Englishman fairy, or over 2,000 years to a Greek Lesbian. Generally, poetry is seen as a transvestite art in that great writers are hormonally adept. I am part Indian, but I don't think Indians are generally good at poetry. Poetry as an art form was limited throughout history to an elitist conceit. The New Yorker magazine is in that tradition. One could also argue that seeding art would culturally benefit humankind, but that remains to be seen. As you know, many great poets have always gone against the grain, regardless of their ethnicity. It is unlikely that there is a system now which could spot them and reward them....and for what? If they have something to say, you can't stop them anyway. Most of the Indians have a unique natural purity that supersedes words, and to me, the white word medium doesn't work well for them too many times. There is a reason that some of my plains tribal brothers won't let me take their picture. And you know that reason. Of course any of them could produce better Native American poetry than Robert Penn Warren's attempt to mimic them. Robert Peters called his book "UGH Poetry."
Latinos have a poorer language, simpler, so it doesn't have to untangle as many ambiguities as does English. They can dramatically and more easily compensate with metaphor and pathos. I have always noted a special sense of expression from Latinos in my college composition courses. I may be biased because I am lucky in that I can fully appreciate Latino music of all flavors, to the point I can almost cry in "happy pathos," even if the words become silly Mariachi. Most all Latino music moves me to an ecstatic plane (I still have some old pre-Castro Cuban records). You know what I mean, but this allows me to also appreciate more fully their poetry.
Asian, well that's, a different story too. Pound found that subtlety, clarity, and economy in the ideographic language worked well for the image. I can see its lesson in my Japanese student papers in college. Remarkable, compared to some of our more cumbersome innate English grammars. You can't take that away from that old coot. The River Merchant's Wife, and those basic Taoist subtleties, and economy of word and image; it belongs to that pure environment I think of when I imagine the Greek Island poets, before Aristotle and Plato put their nasty linear fingers over it, named it, and posted it for social order. Pound found it all, even the didactic lessons of Egyptian poetry, as fresh as any school kid's. That why his last Cantos have some of the greatest lines in all poetry. Of course it isn't politically correct to teach Pound.
Blacks....again if it weren't for their soul music, I'd happily be a racist, but I am humble to any race that produces such beautiful feeling. It's in their jeans and Blacks are easy adapters. Indians can never adapt to white man's ways, but Blacks are a natural. They've done so much, and they are much like whites in many ways. They have great humor too, they can lay on the heavy guilt trip even though they have done slavery just as much as the Portuguese, Dutch or any white scoundrels. Even with their early slave trading to this country. They still practice it, and I don't like it when they use the slave thing against whites as did Shange whatever her name (The Woman who walks like a lion) and Ishmael Reed. I've sat on panels with him. They're politicians again, mainly making sure the awards go where they want them. I was in an audience recently where Shange cut off a student's question saying you mean there was no SLAVERY in this country. Sure there was. There was also a terrible civil war. I wish some of those veterans could have been in the audience. She was shameful, and a lousy poet, in my opinion. Even the title of her famous play was a stretch for idiom. Don't people understand bathos anymore? It's like Clinton saying he would date that 15 year old mummified girl. Are we crazy yet? Who's deciding the fellowships next year on the literature panel? Who wants to tally the hurt of slavery or the Civil War? I have no use for those pouty Blacks with an attitude, and there are plenty in the literary/academic/national endowment hierarchy. As with whites there are those Blacks who do receive awards and who are truly admirable writers, like Wanda Coleman, Langston Hughes, and the multi-millionaire Maya Angelou, who were certainly not academic in their formative years. And don't forget poor millionaire Rod McKuen, who had to find his audience without any government funding. As with whites, for every good poet there are hundreds of pretentious phonies. If they do play the race card, it doesn't help their work. Is Farakan honest? I can't say, but for me there is no question of honesty when it comes to Little Richard, Richard Prior, Otis Redding, Ray Charles; I could go on and on; I have a lot of old LP's. I used to teach Black Literature. I used Malcolm X's work. I think many rappers have good poetry. Some have a monotonous message, but you really have to be skilled in prosody to make rap work. Some of the newer toned-down groups sound like the old scat of King Pleasure. In that respect, they deserve more credit than pretentious poetry piranhas. I grew up on Gospel too, so I can't be a racist.

CATFISH: What's it like knowing and/or living with Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ed Sanders, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure?

CHARLES: Well they were all beatniks! I think Ed Sanders turned out to be a bore. Pelieu said he saw him in Albany recently looking like an Irish politician. You'd only appreciate that if you watched the Albany political news, as we do. I liked him when he was with the Fugs. He had a good rap. He did write and exposé about the police state and CIA influences of Naropa. That book was off the shelves as soon as he got his NEA and Guggenheim. I would imagine Ginsberg was helpful in that. It sounds just like all those shady political deals. I never got on with Ferlinghetti; he used to publish me a lot until I repeated that Ginsberg said he wasn't all that great a poet. I like some of his poetry. I think it's every bit as good as Ginsberg's, but I don't think Ferlinghetti considered me to be one of his best poets. He used to come to these soirees in San Francisco and he liked some of the performance types, who I thought were real bores. He had odd tastes. The poets he found and published were mostly bores, I think. For a short time, I was very close to McClure and his wife, Joanne; (ex-, I now hear). They were charming and sweet. I was very close as well to Allen, but there was distancing too, especially with Allen, who'd take up with anything. There was some poetry paranoia. Neal was a pal sometimes in a good-buddy way, alluding (not quite seriously) to those "queers." He indicated that he sometimes felt like an errand boy for those elitist writers, hell, he had a yarn too, and I sometimes felt sorry for him having to do hard time for nothing and having been ratted out by his own wife and Kerouac's lay! I would have expected a little more solidarity. He was sometimes defensive to maintain his title, the fastest word in the west, and on amphetamines that could sometimes be tiresome, but not for long. Phil Whalen forced me to look at a flower outside his window one time when I was tripping. He was always the good monk, breaking up paranoia battles.

CATFISH: You once wrote a poem in Gary Snyder's bathroom--would you describe the situation?

CHARLES: I can't quite remember this. I don't remember him that well. I think it was when we were all in Bolinas digging for mussels? I don't think it was at his house. It probably was a haiku Boy Scout Zen poem I scratch on a public wall. He had just returned from Japan.

CATFISH: You once met Thelonius Monk at Monterey Jazz Festival with Allen Ginsberg, what was that like?

CHARLES: We had a lovely ride down to Monterey on my motorcycle. Allen was chanting, practicing poetry, lines taken from signs off stores and the road. A lovely trip. He was being recognized a little bit because he had just been in Life magazine about his stay in India. It was my first experience being around a famous person. He could always connect with other famous people, and he said he would introduce me to Monk. Monk seemed on many levels at once and just finished a set, which was, I guess, ordinary for him, but he had trouble remembering Allen. Allen helped him by saying something like you remember in N.Y.C., I gave you my book, Howl. Still not quite. Then Allen said. You remember. I gave you the L.S.D. (still called so in those days). Monk lit up. Oh-yeah-man, now I remember... Hey, man, you got anything stronger? Allen graciously introduced him to me. It was if I shook hand with someone wearing a baseball glove, and I have big hands! Not much more to it than that. But I did have the experience of shaking hands with a genius.

CATFISH: You went to Joan Baez's ranch in Peter Orlovsky's car--what happened?

CHARLES: I don't know how Peter managed to have a '49 or '50 chartreuse Ford convertible. I was a thrill to me because those used to be a hot number. Peter changed all the time. He was in his driving and cleaning modes then, washing the car and acting surprisingly like Neal. His brother Julius was along. When we got to Joan Baez's ranch in Carmel, she was sitting on her wall in the sun, with her long black hair and nice legs crossed, her pores just hot enough that the Carmel sun glistened slightly on a moist sheen up her shinbones into her short skirt. I was dazzled by her beauty, and thought, Oh God, please, what should I do? She was kind of snooty like a New England prep schooler who had just inherited the world, and she referred to us as Ginsberg's entourage. That kind of put me off; hell I had shook hands with genius! She didn't offer hers. To me, the whole meeting was awkwardly formal. It seems her mother was there. A lot of introductions; I'm always slightly uncomfortable with white society's introductions. I don't like eye contact like they teach in college communication courses. To me, eyes are the opening to souls, that I don't like to feel obligated to enter right away, or at all. I've always had this problem in meeting. Before I ate, I washed up in her hammered copper sink. I was living in a skid row hotel on Turk St. at the time. This was my first up-scale experience. She had other guests and had the afternoon planned. We were to discuss peace. We had to sit for 30 minutes in meditation and then lunch was served. We had nice sandwiches, but she wanted all of us to pay 60 cents for them. I would hope it was for some peace cause, but I wasn't sure what he hell was going on. Meanwhile Julius, who was usually somewhat catatonic, had broken one of her windows. Allen, who is easily embarrassed when he's not in control of the scene, and seemed to always be put in a situation where he was responsible for everyone (that should send anyone to a shrink) either paid or offered to pay. I went outside to get away from everything and was looking over her Jaguar. They decided to come out to me, since in those days, everything was sort of inclusive, and if someone was out of the "group" he or she was to be shepherded. It was thought awkward to do things out of the group. Don't ask me. It was just the way it was. Then, for lack of any other directions, things focused on my waywardness. I can't remember if L.S.D. played a part in all of this, but it had traces. So then, (perhaps) in order to include me, Joan and her shrinks (as I thought, perhaps correctly) one on each arm, decided we should go for a walk down the trail to see her horses. For some reason, I rebelled. It was probably because even then thought of getting next to her would be impossible because I'd have to get past her two shrinks. To even presume this was of course my fantasy, but I couldn't act any other way. Why should I think she would have anything to do with me at all? So they went for a walk and came back and she came up to me and talked a little bit, probably asking if everything was O.K. I said I had to get back to my hotel on Turk St. and would she move her car so Peter could drive me to the bus station. She became more concerned as to why I didn't go on the walk and wanted to move her Jaguar so Peter could drive me to town. If you can recall a Richard Prior scene where he gets overwhelmed and gets that look on his face and says and does something stupid, well that was it. I had on shiny black boots, and I said I didn't want to get my boots dusty, and then turning into a driver guy, I said I'd move her car if she didn't want to. She then had someone move it and I forget how it ended. I think we all left together soon thereafter. I probably ruined the whole peace scene. I don't know why, but I know how little kids feel when they can't accept too much of another bigger lifestyle all at once. I guess I was being a little kid overwhelmed by it all, especially her beauty. I was shuffling my feet in the dirt. Maybe I was on drugs. Maybe I wanted her attention. Maybe I was as crazy as the rest of them. Maybe I wanted to flip back to the 50's and be Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Maybe I wanted her to be Natalie Wood. I don't know what the hell happened. I did stand outside one of her concerts after that because I couldn't buy a ticket. I could hear her voice and had a vicarious thrill and watched all the people and thought to myself, hell, I probably could have walked down her path with her hand in mine, if I wasn't so stupid. Or could I have? One of those mysteries. Bobby Dylan you little sleezeball! I never did like that kid. Ever since I played Allen his record, "Blowing in the Wind." That was the first time Allen had heard of him. (Before the Joan Baez trip).

CATFISH: How did you meet Rod McKuen and get your picture taken with him at Poe's grave?

CHARLES: This was another thing that ruined my career. I, and Aram Saroyan, thought Rod had a lyric gift. I think Aram was also banned from poetry for this opinion. You'd have to read Robert Peter's work in Hunting the Snark and in Where the Bee Sucks, there's an excellent quiz (my idea, he won't credit me for) just as well. Peters puts together some famous poets' stanzas. You'd be surprised. What it shows is that there is a lot of hokum to spread around. Rod admits to his. Here's an orphaned kid, gives a lot of money to animal shelters, came up the hard way playing clubs, always wanted literary recognition, not willing to give me money but willing to read with me in Baltimore where we lived after attending Hopkins. I was in Coleman's course with P.J. O'Rourke. Before that time, Rod had invited me to his show at Lincoln Center, which was full! I had been in N.Y.C. giving a poetry reading at Fordham University right next door. There was the usually poetry crowd at my reading that took place in an area right off the elevators. Every time one stopped, I thought the people on it were coming to my reading. At the end, I quipped that we could all leave together if someone would press the down button. Anyway, I wanted to see how Rod did it. I wanted an audience too! I had just had my Kulchur book come out and I was honored by a big party at the Gotham bookstore, just like the famous expatriates of the twenties. It was crowded too. Few people knew me. I saw some poetry hucksters just come in to count people. Now I wanted to be a poetry huckster too! I couldn't asses Rod's show because it had a lot of other things going on, but he said he'd come down to Baltimore to read with me, even though he said he always bombed in Baltimore. Well, if you know Baltimore, the cultural elite draws from D.C. and N.Y.C. Same issue of The New Yorker and all that. Again, it's like the still life painting reproductions WASPS send invitations on. It like the academic poetry, describing the baskets, bowls and bottles and the prints left in the sand, that sort of thing, much like McKuen's songs but not as lyrical and much more "serious." That's another NEA code word, by the way. So the poetry geeks of Baltimore, who later became mastered by Andre Codrescu, made fun of the whole thing of course. It was for my benefit, since I wouldn't get an NEA fellowship, other poets offered help. Ironically, the photo was taken by Len Randolph, head of the NEA literature program, who came over to thank Rod for his contributions to the arts (and indignant poets). I told Rod he would be there, and afterwards Rod asked me where that official from Washington was. I said he's the one in jeans who was going everywhere with us and talking to you and he took our picture. I guess Rod, coming from Hollywood area, was waiting for the man in the pin-striped suit. I asked Allen to do a benefit for our press and read with Rod over in D.C., but Allen didn't think that would be politically appropriate. Maybe sometime in Kansas, he said. I guess you do have to be aware of your constituencies. I was naive. I thought a poetry reading was just that, but there's a lot more to it if you want to merchandise yourself, even though it seems a little awkward for a poet, but it's necessary today more than ever. No one is going to create fame for you, and I've often wished I had this talent. I have had my share of help from famous poets.

CATFISH: Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?

CHARLES: No, I was spared Any Warhol. I drove to New York with my girlfriend Ann (in photo in front of City Lights). She ran off to Andy's factory and later took up with Miles (the official Ginsberg biographer). Gerard Malanga used to come to Cherry Valley and visit. From him, I got the feeling that Warhol was another cheapskate in terms of sharing with artists. It's understandable when people who come from the poorer class think that you ought to make it on your own and that they are under no obligation to help you. Which they aren't. But there's a strong message that you have to make it yourself, and we all know that art doesn't always work that way. There are always many deserving artist who suffer monetarily, and I guess there always will be, NEA, famous friends, or not. If there was ever a personification of the protagonist in Willa Cather's Paul's Case, Andy Warhol was it. Geographically, socially, artistically.

CATFISH: Did your wife, Pam, ever catch a ride from Jimi Hendrix while hitch hiking in San Francisco.

CHARLES: That was before I knew her...I have to ask her about that.

CATFISH: How would you describe William S. Burroughs?

CHARLES: A straight shooter. Naw, I'm sorry. I meant that figuratively. I've always had the utmost respect for Burroughs and great sympathy for his family tragedies. Bill Burroughs I think is a genius. I share his Midwesternness. He has real class. He's always helped me. There is no reason he should. I'm sure my letters to him sound naive because I don't know what I could say that he is not already aware of. I've always felt a little foolish in his presence, thought he has always been cordial, generous and hospitable to me. He even let us stay in his loft in the city for a while. I remember Patti Smith would call him all the time. I was afraid of her and answering his phone, so she left messages. She really dug him too. When he stayed with us here in Cherry Valley, he explored the house as a cat would, choosing where to sleep. Peter Orlovsky came by and asked Bill if he had heard about Guru so-and-so, who he said was ailing. Burroughs said in his flat Midwestern acidic voice I don't give a shit if he lives or dies." In Lawrence he was always very hospitable and entertained my son with his collection of knives, guns, and poisoned blow darts which he aimed and stuck in the front door so hard we had to pull it out with the pliers. I had told my son Billy, who was 14 or so to stand away from the door. I remember Burroughs asking in a totally flat matter of factly way, "How old's the kid?" After a great Kansas steak dinner some of his friends had prepared (Bill drank Vodka and just nibbled at the food), James Grauerholz brought out a big bowl of gumdrops, apparently his favorite, and much to the entertainment of Billy, he grabbed a big handful and crammed them into his mouth and chewed them for a long time before washing them down with Vodka. Burroughs was influenced by magic when he was a child. I get the impression he doesn't know how this influenced him. He's a great artist; he showed us a carnival-like painting mobile he did which was illusionary. Like all good artists, he could also have been a good medicine man, a carny, a magician. His contribution to the word is highly experimental, needed for the time to gain the juxtaposed speed of meanings to word, as important as what Jackson Pollack did kinetically in painting; he is also a great humorist, as good as Mark Twain. I have written a critique of his artwork--I think it was published somewhere.

CATFISH: When you moved to Cherry Valley and bought the building used by inventor Samuel Morse, did you ever try doing any poems in mores code?

CHARLES: The thought never occurred to me. We bought the two buildings for $3,500, yeah that's what I said, and sold the buildings to the keyboard artist/composer, Paul Bley, who just received a N.Y. State grant, for $7,000. He sold one of the buildings in the 80's for 30 or so thousand. Maybe I'm doing something wrong? Maybe he can do an atonal composition in code. I'm trying to sell our house to go to Russia and write an opera called "Chernobyl."

CATFISH: Where and when were some of your most memorable reads?

CHARLES: I guess the one in Montreal with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Waldman et. al. There was some Quebecois hippie by the name of Buffalo something. I learned he was from Berkeley and called him a fucked buffalo. The press quoted me the next day as saying he was a fucking buffalo. They didn't like me. Thought I was a right winger, and as you know it's still the left vs. right with Ginsberg, the old 50's mainframe, as if all that means shit in the contingency of electronic immediacy. It's whatever hype works. Always has been. Another reading, my last, I think, was when my son Billy and I were in Kansas. I had a book contract with Random House that I never completed (another story). I read to a good crowd in the old Hotel Eaton, a beautiful derelict hotel owned by Senator Nancy Kassenbaum, where Cary Nation had chopped up the bar. In the '60s, I had taken the photographer Robert Frank there and to Okie's Bar next door to take pictures. He and I and Allen and others used to eat wee hours big breakfasts in the hotel's dining room. It was in the same area of Moody's Skidrow Beanery, where I coined the term "Hobohemian" writing. I liked the reading because it was the first time Billy had seen me in action. I think he was impressed at the turnout of people.

CATFISH: You told me of breaking up a fight between Kerouac and Capote--what were they like?

CHARLES: That was in New York on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line". He wanted another Republican, Jack Kerouac, on the show; Ginsberg, Sanders were there. I was tagging along with Allen because the next day I think we were driving Upstate to visit the Big Pink's house. When the show finished, Truman Capote was in his dressing room prepping to go on the next show. His door was open, and as we walked by, I mentioned Capote. Kerouac said, "Where is that little queer." And something like I've been wanting to get even with him for years. I pulled him from the dressing room door and down the stairs. He said, Who do you think you are? or something like that. Nothing really happened and we went to the bar later to drink. He was with one or two of his relatives. I thought they were all jerks, with their Jack Daniels, Budweisers, and bar talk. He had no class. A typical momma's lush. Capote would have scratched his eyes out.

CATFISH: Do you have any favorite poems you've written?

CHARLES: Some are better than others.

CATFISH: Is there anything you would have done different?

CHARLES: Joined the Air Force at 18, so I would have had a pension at 37. Stayed on the docks and not gotten an education. Stayed with the only full-time teaching job I ever had. Accepted the tenure-track poetry professor position I could have had at Carnegie Mellon. Not sold the 1952 MGTD Classic Billy Batman gave us in San Francisco. Not sold my '48 Caddy. Not sold our '66 Mustang convertible. Not sold my '52 Buick Roadmaster Riviera. Not sold my '51 Chevy my dad bought me new. Been more receptive to Anne Waldman and tried to keep her from being brainwashed by the Gurus. Stayed away from famous people, especially poets and the filthy rich. Not called Ginsberg a "kike" at Lita Hornick's dinner party in my honor. Even though Ginsberg helped me get published through his fame, and I enjoyed being around famous poets and writers, I would not do it again. I don't have the correct showmanship and can't accept a leadership role. For example, when Reagan got elected, for a joke, I said I was forming a group called "Poets for Reagan." I expect a "situationist" if any political fall out from it, but it made the "Notes on People" section of The New York Times, and you know many of its readers are very N.Y.C. provincial and intellectually serious, even more so than the "Wichita Kid", so all the Lower Eastside poets like Waldman and Ginsberg took it seriously and ex-communicated me from any further activities like ever being asked to come to Naropa or receive any N.Y. State funds, which, as culture politicians, they all had a say. Ironically, my publisher Lita Hornick relied on her grantswomanship from the Fed and state during the Reagan years and gave it to her stable of poets, who would read at the Museum of Modern Art, where she provided as one of their benefactors a poetry reading series. Never mind the finer political analyses that Nixon and Reagan gave more to the arts than other presidents, or that Carter let the Contras behead children and serve them on plates as a warning to the peasants, etc. She is filthy rich, a kulcher broker, publishes who Ginsberg says. Me. Thank you. Kept the collage I did. No, send it back. It's worth more than the sloppily printed book. She used to invite me to her parties, had her portrait done by Warhol, etc. But in the end, she published a horrible book, where she wrote combination Yenta poem combinations with St. Mark's Lower Eastside push poets. I would have liked to become a pretentious academic prick, so I could go on a sabbatical, get a grant, paint a still life, have a pension. The academic world has always been a half century behind with their old still lives, so it's no wonder Ginsberg is milking that scene now.

CATFISH: When you leave, how would you like to be remembered.

CHARLES: I just ordered a new cassette from Down Home Music of Merle Haggard's tribute to Jimmy Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman." New Yorkers have recently accepted country; Johnny Cash is acceptable to them as their country singer, and the Nashville Network, Garth Brooks et. al. They wouldn't dig the old music I grew up on, or wouldn't realize how songs like "A Picture Without You" by George Jones or "Honky Tonk Angel" by Patsy Cline evokes the real country pathos. Anyway, having kept my old LP's of Jimmy Rodgers, I hadn't realized how great an audience he had in his time. I knew he was the father of country, but on the tape Haggert tells about the train bringing Rodger's body back from a New York recording studio to Meridian, Mississippi, and how the engineer pulled the whistle's quill down to a low moan for the whole distance while people gathered along the tracks. It's a very moving story. I think in the Jack Black's book that Burroughs turned me on to, or in some hobo lore, the expression they used when someone passed on was that he "caught the westbound."

© 1996 by Charles Plymell and Catfish McDaris GRIST On-Line. June 1996. This page edited by Robert Bové

Used with permission