Interview with Charles Plymell by Julien Poirier

Ann Buchanan, Philip Whalen, Charles Plymell, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Charles Plymell’s “Apocalypse Rose” is one of the great poems of the 1960s, and his novel-memoir Last of the Moccasins is a masterpiece. First published by City Lights in 1971, Moccasins charts the poet’s rural Kansas childhood, his early hipster days on the streets of Wichita and Kansas City straight on through to California where Plymell was a catalyst (the first to play a Dylan record for Ginsberg) and a blue-collar gem setter—literally printing the first run of R. Crumb’s Zap Comix No. 1 in the Haight—for the bohemian zeitgeist of ’60s San Francisco. He was close to Neal Cassady, exhibited art at the Batman Gallery, hung out with the Band at Big Pink, taught poetry in the public schools, hosted William S. Burroughs at home—and still found a minute to be photographed with Rod McKuen at Poe’s grave.

For the last forty-plus years, Charles and his wife Pam Plymell have been editing Cherry Valley Editions out of their home in Cherry Valley, New York. Born in 1935, the poet turned 82 on April 26. An LP of him reading “Apocalypse Rose” in its entirety, with music by guitarist Bill Nace on the B-side, is just out from Open Mouth Records. I interviewed him via email, with Pam in the thread.

Julien Poirier: Did Kerouac’s On the Road change your life?

Charles Plymell: I never read On The Road, just parts Neal would read me about himself.

Neal Cassady (left) and Charles Plymell, San Francisco, 1963

JP: Who are your favorite prose writers?

CP: Loren Eiseley; Herodotus; Fabre; Lyell; Burroughs; Gould—most all science and biography, history. I don’t read fiction. Pam reads ten fiction books a day! I did read some short stories once because I had to teach a Short Story course as adjunct professor along with my junior-level Professional Writing course to make some more bread. I tricked myself into jobs when the president of University of Maryland heard about me having a personal anecdote about Katharine Anne Porter to share at her posthumous birthday party at the president’s house: She left her archives there on the condition they have a birthday party for her every year. The class filled up so big they had to move it over to Science-Engineering Building. I made friend with the Dean of Science over there, an Indian cosmos-head guy, and met the course. An international student came walking by and did a double-take because it happened to fill up with women! He asked me in broken English what course I was teaching and I said “Women’s Studies.” He was puzzled!

I could never read fiction. It numbed me and I couldn’t keep track of characters, let alone plot; like plays I’d try to watch (other than Eugene O’Neal or Shakespeare’s soliloquies)—they grated on my ears! They always say of movies: “You must read the book.” No, I’d rather see the movie. Like Hank Williams, I read the classics in comic books. I tried to read Joyce in the ’50s. I guess that turned me off, though I liked his poetic/literary lines. Loren Eiseley also was a poet in his prose. I told him that. His words about NOW [the collaged mimeo magazine published by Plymell in the ’60s] are in his Lost Notebooks. The first thing Ginsberg did to educate me (yeah, a provincial NYC Times education) was buy me a Celine book. I never did read it, but do read lines and phrases like in Koestler’s prose. I remember reading Boxcar Children and paragraphs in Zane Gray and Sorrows of Young Werther, though. That’s about it.

JP: Still, The Last of the Moccasins has all the rhythms of a cracking good yarn. City Lights published that book in 1971. Where were you and who were you hanging out with at the time?

CP: Unfortunately, I was teaching and getting a free M.A. at Hopkins. I wrote Last of the Moccasins as my master’s thesis. I had been working on docks in San Francisco and two different people from the writing seminar came out to recruit me. Ginsberg came to read and I was asked to introduce him. I said, “Drop your socks and grab your cocks . . . here’s Allen Ginsberg.” He looked embarrassed. I’d finally out-shocked him! I was going to take a poetry job at Carnegie-Mellon but a classmate “cried over the job,” so I let him take it. I didn’t know where Pittsburgh was anyway. He’s still there as poetry chair professor grinding out workshop poetry chapbooks, a job I wouldn’t want anyway. I was going to go back to S.F. but we landed on Bowery then took Ginsy to the William F. Buckley show where I almost got in a fight with Kerouac. We took Allen on to Cherry Valley via the Big Pink house in Saugerties and we stayed in Cherry Valley instead of returning to S.F. docks. I never since had as good a job as I had on the docks. I’m reminded of what is on Bukowski’s tombstone: DON’T TRY.

Cover of the original City Lights edition (1971)

JP: You and Kerouac almost got into a fight?

CP: Yeah, we were driving back upstate via Buckley’s Firing Line show. I’d always liked his rhetorical flourishes and we tagged along to see what these two Republicans, Kerouac & Buckley, had to say. We stayed in corner of audience, “surveillance shy” so can’t be seen on the video footage of the show—but the cameraman missed the best part, as we were all leaving with Ginsberg and Kerouac leading the way. We went past Capote’s dressing room as he was getting ready for TV, “trolling” with his door ajar. I said, “Hey, there’s Truman Capote,” when Kerouac whirled around and said, “Where is that little queer. I’ve been wanting to . . . .” That’s all I remember verbatim, but it had something to do with that he had never met him, but of course had heard Capote call him a typist not a writer. So we all crowded into his room, Pam and I hung back just enough to see what was going on. Allen was in his element, about to witness fame embroiled in conflict and he put his Buddha OHM to work happily resolving the crisis. Then we headed down the wide cement stairs edged in steel when Kerouac, standing on stair above me, grabbed me by the collar and said something like “and who are you?” I said that I was there with Allen and never read his damn books. He was on stair above me off balance with one of his feet near the edge and I was aware of everything around me and thought quickly of a move grabbing his arms pulling him toward me and stepping aside while he plummeted to his peril. The headlines “Unknown Poet Kills Jack Kerouac” flashed through my mind as I leaned against the wall. Allen turned back up the stairs toward us to stop the altercation and called out the name of the bar we were going to drink at. I hate bars and bar talk but we spent a couple hours at least, Allen and Kerouac and Pam on a bench one side of booth with me and the Sampas, I guess they were, sitting on bench across from them. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. It sounded serious—this was probably about the time his will and money were being resolved. I made small talk for a couple of hours and all parties headed home. We stopped by Big Pink for drinks, smoke and eats while they were setting up to practice. Levon Helm drove in from Arkansas or somewhere in his Hudson Hornet, which was high point for me to talk about cars that I had had in the day. We left later that evening for Cherry Valley.

JP: Amazing! But somehow, not surprising: Every time we catch up you seem to be busy with roadtrips, recordings and performances. What’s going on these days? I hear you just perfomed in Montreal. Who have you been collaborating with?

CP: I went up for a two day art show by Pam’s mother, Mary Beach, and by her husband Claude Pelieu (old friends of Larry [Felinghetti’s] . . . Mary used to work at City Lights) and for a performance with Bill Nace, who recorded “Apocalypse Rose” and put it to music on an LP. Also on the program was Norton Records Rockabilly star Bloodshot Bill, performing two of my poems that are out on the record Bloodshot Bill Sings Charley Plymell: “Really, Really Neal” about Cassady when he moved in with me in S.F. in 1963; and “Rapid Ronnie Rannamuck Rapback Jive, 1955” about Bob Branaman, my hipster friend from Wichita in 1955 and later S.F. and Big Sur. We were in Wichita jail together.

JP: Your poem “Apocalypse Rose” seems to me to be an almost magical achievement, a time machine in stanzas transporting the reader back to the moment of contact between the needle and the 45 in a diner jukebox, with its “futuristic mirage blossoms” and “dimensions of accelerated fortune tellers.” I find the the physical immediacy here almost overwhelmingly beautiful—probably why I’ve re-read the poem so many times. At seven pages, it is a fairly long piece capped off with an exquisite sonnet. I would never want you to paraphrase the stories or conditions illuminated, and set down by you more than fifty years ago . . . but would it be possible to describe something about your day-to-day life then, the things that were happening around you when this poem tapped you on the shoulder?  

CP: “Apocalypse Rose” was first published in City Lights Journal #3, then by Dave Haselwood in a chapbook and later in Germany, France, etc. It was mainly written when I was living in a hotel in the Tenderloin. My sister, Betty and her old man, Frank, winos; he the offspring of Black madam and Irish sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, also lived there. Betty died on streets of S.F., her hangout was Indian bars in the Mission. She looked more Indian than me and passed for blood, she is mentioned in the poem. Allen, Peter Orlovsky and his brother Julius and I drove up to Joan Baez’s ranch in Carmel in Orlovsky’s Ford. “Tonight I ride . . .”

in the

beautiful mountains

in a ragged chartreuse Ford,

under the moon with heaven close

to earth of winding road and sounds of

cymbals and chants and songs like

Wildflower and Moon Over Alabama . . . .

Julius is mentioned in poem [as “Julio”]. Of course I fell in love with Joan Baez, but she married someone from Canada who didn’t even have to burn his draft card. I got pissed and asked her to move her Jaguar so Orlvosky could take me back to the bus station to get back to the Tenderloin and Market St. where I walked with Justin Heine from Wichita who lived with Glenn Todd who’d just published Book of Friends about my party that the McClures, Whalen, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Leary et al. came to in 1963, where the “Beats met the Hippies,” and about life at the Gough St. flat after me and Neal and Allen split the scene when Neal came running into the front room—“Turn on the TV, Charley, the President has been shot!” We had Thanksgiving dinner there, and Allen wrote his “Alone” poem that mentions me, Glenn, Neal, Justin, Maggie and the rest who lived and visited.

JP: You say your sister Betty looked “more Indian” than you. Are you part Native American? Did I somehow miss or forget this crux of your identity?    

CP: My great-great-grandmother was on the Trail of Tears and got off to marry a white man in Arkansas, so she wasn’t on the Cherokee rolls. Her father went to Indian Territory. My father was born in Indian Territory before it became the state of Oklahoma and married my mother to live in the panhandle in the soddy they built.

JP: So when was it you moved to Cherry Valley with Pam, and how soon after did you start Cherry Valley Editions? How and where did you and Pam meet?

Pam Plymell: We started Cherry Valley Editions in ’74. We leased a big Xerox machine and printed the first chapbooks and issues of Coldspring on it over two months and then told Xerox to come and get it; we couldn’t afford to keep it. Ha! Then we bought the offset press. Josh Norton helped us start it all. Then we took the press and everything to Baltimore where we lived with Josh in a big townhouse for a year and half. That’s where we published the first perfect-bound books we did, including Cobble Stone Gardens among others. Also began Northeast Rising Sun.

Charles Plymell: Pam Beach came to the states with her mother, Mary Beach, and the artist Claude Pelieu at Ferlinghetti’s invitation after he met them in Paris. They brought Pam to Gough St. when they came over with Larry to meet Allen. Mary went to work in the City Lights basement translating the Beats and publishing little mags, some of which I printed, like Bulletin From Nothing. She translated and had published in French, dozens of books by Bob Kaufman, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al. They remained friends with Larry, who came here to visit them years later when they moved upstate. Pam was 18 when we met. We’d visit Larry at City Lights and go over to Mike’s pool hall for lunch. He went with us because she was under age. At that time old Italian men watched the pool tables and played Caruso on the juke box.

JP: San Francisco clearly energized “Apocalypse Rose” and the other poems in the Haselwood book. There’s a big difference between those poems and the ones in Are You a Kid?, published eleven years later. In the preface to that book you mention that you were teaching elementary and high school at the time. Can you talk a little bit about the shift from your life in San Francisco to the one in upstate New York?

CP: We stayed here at Allen’s farm briefly instead of returning to S.F. and bought two little store buildings downtown for $3500. Allen was paranoid that another hippie scene would follow. (Like what happened in S.F.: In 1962 I lived in a quaint Russian neighborhood—two doors up Ashbury off Haight.) But he had to stay with us in the store buildings when the snowplow couldn’t get to his farm. We sold the buildings to jazz keyboard great Paul Bley, who moved here from Montreal and commuted to Europe for gigs. We bought another place up the street where Burroughs came to stay and New York artists/poets visited. I taught through “Poets in the Schools,” a program that began with good intentions and got politicized as all programs do. I got into the Pennsylvania program by implying I knew the woman who balled the director. I worked in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, usually two-week residencies. I saw a wide variation of students from 1st grade to high school and saw the hopeless Prussian education system that delivered us Trump. I found some good poems from kids, written mainly at the age before they got suppressed. I wrote a treatise about our Prussian system in Curricula Me Vita published by Ecstatic Peace, along with Eat Not Thy Mind. I did Are You a Kid? mainly to reflect what I learned from grade-school kids. Being from the plains and dropping out of high school my first year and going to California (actually, my first trip there was in back of our International truck when I recited my first poem) I’ve never felt right in these boonies. I lived in the L.A. basin in 1939 when it was still paradise. I have vague memories of it as pure as a Mescal high.

JP: I’ve been reading a book called Stolen Continents by the Canadian historian Ronald Wright, and one of his key points is that Cortés and the other Conquistadores were coming out of a society that had been at war for seven hundred years. Their cynicism and brutality were byproducts of endless war. Would you agree that North American culture has been undergoing its own version of that disfigurement since 2001? Or do you disagree? Or does it go much further back than that?

CP: The “disfigurement” is old as the human genome of sadness when the first human form picked up a dead leaf or skull. The psychological trauma of the unknown has manifested itself through history and religions to our modern times. Our politics are much the same as when Mormons rode out to the Oregon Trail Party and told them they could come over to Mormon lands for safety from Indians, then killed them all while they slept. The movie version of this [“The Oregon Trail,” 1939] has a handsome man, Hollywood casting looking like one of Romney’s sons. Our history is made up of fairly recent terrible things like the Black heroes in World War One being rounded up in back of a pickup and murdered. Seems like they’d observe that as well on Martin Luther King day? Killing buffalo for sport, as well as the Indians, for example the raid at Sand Creek near where I was born of Black Kettle’s band who had gotten a flag from the President who said it would protect them. The Methodist minister and mob rode through killing women and children when the men were hunting. They trampled babies’ skulls with horse hooves, cut out the women’s vaginas for saddle horn decoration and cut off their tits to sew together and sell as purses—souvenirs on Turk St. in S.F.

Wherever you look, humans didn’t work out. My mother was made fun of by little Aryans of the land. My grandfather was deeded land in Palo Apache country by Grover Cleveland to run his stage lines that began in Plymell, Kansas. If you google “Plymell, Kansas” you’ll see the vast wealth of the plains. A farmer my dad drove truck with during the Depression got around three hundred grand from government to let his land lay idle. On Plymell Road they buy $100,000 John Deeres for lawn ornaments. All subsidized corn production like Mars landscape that once was prairie. They keep their Cessnas & Lears & beach planes out back in garage. I went to “Plymell School News” at Plymell Elementary School on youtube the other day and saw the grade school kids interviewing each other about where they’d go on school vacations: The Islands, Barbados, Puerto Rico . . . scenic river cruises in Europe, etc. I guess I’m the only one who knows this shit? It runs deep from poetry to wheat. The CIA started the poetry workshops like Iowa, where I read once. Allen told me the CIA set up Naropa. Crime is pervasive, anywhere you look. We now have mobster mental case and most ignorant Prussian educated person there is for president. My folks only had eighth-grade education and could spot a phony. Go figure! Foreign policy is the same as herding Indians to containment land, and government Indian Affairs crooks stealing their government supplies, staples of flour and food, and giving them obsolete rifles so they will starve and raid the U.S. Army who can then cut them down with Gatling guns. Same policy today? Why did you say we were in Afghanistan? Anyone know? They used to bring home heroin in body bags during Vietnam and Allen sat up at his farm cutting out clippings from the NY Times. Now the contractors, Halliburton etc., can fly the opium out in their own planes while burning the poppy farms—the same old ruse as giving Indians faulty guns and starving them when they attacked. Hasn’t changed much. Oprah was “hurt” by name calling. Switch channel to Syria. No more hurt there? Keep your remote handy. Oh, I have to go watch the news. Those two world leaders with the wacky haircuts are going to nuke us all!

 

 

 

 

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