On Tuesday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, CA, I’ll have the pleasure of reading from my new book, Power Ballads (Wave Books, 2016), alongside legendary poet Michael McClure, who is celebrating the release of his new book, Mephistos & Other Poems (City Lights, 2016). I recently had the chance to interview Michael for the Poetry Foundation, where he spoke of Charles Olson and his own encounter with a beached whale in the town of Rockport, MA. Inevitably, the conversation generated way more material than I was able to use for that feature, so I’ve gathered here a handful of unused remarks he made on his youth in Wichita, KS, particularly in relation to his friends, the publisher/printer/Zen priest David Haselwood and the artist Bruce Conner, as well as his early days in San Francisco leading up to the Six Gallery reading in 1955. These remarks are all the more apropos in light of the current SFMOMA retrospective, Bruce Conner: It’s All True, up now through January 22. Please enjoy these glimpses into the Wichita Vortex!
Garrett Caples: Much like the NY School with its Tulsa, OK contingent—Joe Brainard, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, etc.—the NY- and SF-based Beat Generation had what Allen Ginsberg called its “Wichita Vortex,” referring to yourself, artist Bruce Conner, publisher David Haselwood, and so forth. What can you tell us about your Wichita, KS origins?
Michael McClure: Allen’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is, of course, not really about Wichita. There are a few references to Wichita. Mostly it’s about the international politics of the time. He wrote it while he was driving through Wichita. I was actually born in Marysville, in the northern part of the state. A very tiny town. It’s farmland but it’s pretty sophisticated. It’s the county seat.
When I was a boy I wanted to be a naturalist. I would go out and mow lawns, deliver newspapers, and then take the money and buy books about nature. In those days it was easy to make money; it was during the Second World War, and everybody was looking for a man. You’d come to the door and they’d say, “Can you mow lawns?” “Sure!”
GC: When did you first meet Bruce Conner?
MM: I saw Bruce around in junior high school. I didn’t really meet him then; I just saw him because he was such an interesting, unusual, extremely nervous, and quixotic person. It wasn’t until we were at Wichita High School East the next year that I actually met him. We stopped each other in the hall and started talking. We were interested in the same things, interested in the same kind of music, the same kind of jazz. We talked about that and we talked about painting and I realized, this guy is really interesting, has very interesting ideas about painting. Then he invited me over and showed me his earliest drawings, drawings of cowboys and Indians in a realistic style. Bruce was a confirmed artist. A couple of years later he was doing paintings that are much sought after now.
GC: What about meeting Dave Haselwood?
MM: I first met Dave Haselwood in 1951 or 2. I had just graduated from Wichita High School East. We met at the home of mutual friends and Dave had the most playful mind. The most experiential type of mind. I remember the first time I saw the word “zen.” Dave brought a book in called DT Suzuki on Zen, something like that. And we were busy being boy explorers, boy scientists, we looked at this DT Suzuki book on zen for quite a while and we decided we didn’t understand any of it. And then, of course, years later, Dave became a sensei, with his own flock.
As we grew up I came to appreciate Dave for his sense of the richness of things. If he had a shirt he would tell you what kind of shirt it was, where it was made. Madras shirts, he used to talk about Madras and he would talk about this kind of pattern or this kind of weave of linen. I remember his mother was a beautiful woman and his father was very grumpy. They’d moved in from the Flint Hills, because nobody could survive in the Flint Hills anymore. The Flint Hills of Kansas were being deserted. There was no yellow brick road there, though this is the setting for the Oz books.
We would go exploring there and capture animals, ring neck lizards, and we would send them to a place in Topeka, Kansas called Quivira Specialties, which dealt in selling live animals from all over the world. Sometimes we would trade them for African chameleons or mud turtles. Sometimes we would go to the rivers ourselves to see what kind of fish, what kind of turtles, were there. We had a lot of fun.
GC: So when did you make your way from Wichita to San Francisco?
MM: I did not make my way to San Francisco. I made my way to the University of Arizona in Tucson, where my stepfather and my mother had a home. I stayed with them for a couple of days then found a job washing dishes and cleaning a restaurant up. I got my food that way and a small income. And I started reading. I read everything by Artaud that I could find. Read everything about the great painters that I admired that I could find. And read everything about peyote that I could find.
I think I was probably under 20 still when I arrived in San Francisco, after the stay in Tucson. I wanted to study with Mark Rothko and with Clifford Still. Not because I wanted to paint but because I wanted to learn to use abstract expressionist technique in poetry. I got to the San Francisco Art Institute in time to find out that they had left years before. The catalog I had looked at was years old. But that’s the kind of mistake a teenager would make.
I knew friends from Wichita who were staying here, doing bodybuilding at Norman Marks’ gym. That was the center of their lives and they introduced me to bodybuilding. I stayed with a nice older woman who was very kind to her tenets. She would fry up abalone and give it to us. She’d bring it home from her work when the abalone looked like it wasn’t going to keep much longer. She’d bring the frozen abalone home and give it to her tenets. And up the street from that place, just on the corner of the block was the place where Kenneth Rexroth lived on the second floor.
GC: Not long after, in October 1955, you participate in the Six Gallery reading. What do you recall from that evening?
MM: It was a dark cool slightly damp October night in the mid-1950s at an art gallery that was previously an automobile repair garage. Standing on a stage knocked together out of scrap wood, I saw Jack Kerouac in the audience for the first time. I’m 22 years old, this is my first poetry reading, and Allen Ginsberg is reading “Howl” for the first time, Gary Snyder is reading for the first time; the young surrealist Philip Lamantia and Philip Whalen, who will become a Zen master in decades to come, are reading also. The audience varied from an elderly woman college professor to anarchist painters and artists returned, as Rexroth pointed out, from the conscientious objectors camps up the coast or on the GI Bill. Many young workers were also there from the workers circles of the time.
I read my poem against the navy-sponsored slaughter of killer whales, Allen is proclaiming “Howl,” Jack Kerouac is in the audience drunk and cheering us on. He collects dimes and quarters and gets enough to go two blocks away and buy jugs of Dago red. And the jugs pass through the audience. Allen reads “Howl” and Jack begins to repeat “Go-Go-Go—yeah—Go-Go,” as we did at jam sessions.
Next afternoon, Allen and Jack drop in on me with a matchbox of grass and we smoke it and talk about poetry and the audience from the night before. Earlier Ginsberg had read me some stanzas, Jack calls them choruses, of his then-newly finished Mexico City Blues. The choruses stuck in my thoughts; they were a new way to write. Jack had been taking notes in his hip pocket spiral notebook and each stanza filled a lined page in the book. And that was a chorus. He avoided all big gloomy serious literaryisms and only scribbled what came through his sentience. What a musical ear he wrote from!
When Jack met Gary at the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco they became close friends. Jack, never wanting to lose a spiritual occasion or possibility, soon followed in Gary’s footsteps in accepting a job as a solo fire watch on Mt. Desolation. Totally isolated. And it was there he wrote his great “Desolation Blues,” 12 stanzas. Reading the first three stanzas, it sounds so much like Shelley’s “Mount Blanc” it takes my breath away to hear it. It would be a great treatise for someone to pick up and look into more definitively.
GC: The next year City Lights publishes Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, but 1956 is also the year of your own first book, as well as your first editorial project, Ark II/Moby I, a follow-up to The Ark (1947), a one-off journal from the Rexroth circle edited by Lamantia, along with Robert Stock and Sanders Russell. What can you tell us about these early projects?
MM: First of all, my first book was only about a six-poem book, a pamphlet that was published by Jonathan Williams at Jargon Press in 1956, beautifully done. That was called Passage. But Ark II/Moby I was an outgrowth of the anarchist circles in San Francisco; it was my decision to make a kind of anthology of the significant poetry of 1956. I printed Charles Olson alongside Oppen, Patchen, Zukofsky, Kerouac and Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ginsberg and all the poets we were reading at the time. Charles sent me “The Librarian,” which I came across again last year when I was in Gloucester, and of course I accepted and printed it. I wondered at it, watching the shape, structure, and energy of a complex dream becoming a calligramme of itself and still kicking with neurons of life. Something like the elucidation of the DNA molecule by Francis Crick and James Watson and Rosalind Franklin in the same decade. Seeing the life in a thing.
At that time, after the publication of Ark II/Moby I, I moved up the street to, I think, 250 Scott Street. There we were living communally with George Herms, and Ronnie Bladen, and with a painter who designed and fronted much of the money for Ark II/Moby I. And we decided we were going to print our own books, which did not happen.
GC: Was this idea superseded by the advent of Dave Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press?
MM: Haselwood and another Wichita friend Chuck Daisy had enlisted in the army together thinking they’d be stationed in the same place, but they got in the signal core and got separated out into different cities. It was while Dave was stationed in Germany that he asked me if I had something I wanted printed. And I said, “Not yet.” I was working on it but I didn’t have it yet. He said, no matter, he would be there. He was going to start publishing.
So, in San Francisco, he published his first book, which was a book of John Wieners, The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), and he was so dismayed at the results of having the book printed by someone else. They left out the word “cock” out of “cocksuckers”; John would get his hands on the book and fill in the word himself. Then Dave got his own printing press and began to print. The first printing he did was Philip Whalen, Self Portrait from Another Direction (1959).
Then the next book that he printed was Philip Lamantia’s book, Ekstasis (1959). In printing Lamantia’s book, they mis-trimmed it and nearly cut off the bottom of the poems. So Dave said, “OK, I’m going to get my own papercutter,” so he could trim them himself. He kept going from one thing to another and people would always show up to help him. So he had apprentices. And his skill in design increased throughout. He named the press Auerhahn Press, because you only see one auerhahn in your entire life. One grouse.
GC: In many ways, Haselwood is an unacknowledged genius of American publishing in the latter half of the twentieth century; certainly he printed poets like yourself, Lamantia, di Prima, and Wieners even before City Lights did. At the same time, Conner is suddenly receiving acknowledgment as a central figure of twentieth century art through his retrospective, It’s All True, which opened at MoMA. What do you think Bruce would think of this?
MM: He’d like it. Except he would want part of the gate. Bruce was very sensitive about finances. He’d turn down shows because they’d charge to see the show and they wouldn’t give him part of the gate. He’d say, “It’s my work you’re charging to see; you should pay me.”
Event: Michael McClure and Garrett Caples
Where: Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley, CA
When: Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Time: 7:30 p.m.
(Photo of Michael McClure at Moe’s Books, 2013, by Suzanne Kleid)