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Interview conducted by Patt McRae
I couldn’t imagine what Michael McClure, member of the Beat Generation, and I could possibly have to talk about. Never having been a fan of the Beat Generation, I resented having to do an interview with someone I considered a middle-aged dilettante.
“Come in, honey,” the mellow voice responded to my knock on the door of his room at the Helena Motel. He had just returned from giving a lecture on the Beat Generation at the University of Houston and seemed in an expansive mood. Sitting on the edge of the bed, puckish grin spreading over his features, he asked, “Well, honey, what do you think about the Beat Generation?”
Taking a deep breath and figuring I would wind up blowing this off since, for one thing, I had refused to tolerate the address of “honey” for about ten years and, for another thing, I really couldn’t begin to imagine how to start the interview, I replied, “I think the Beat Generation is a bunch of decadent middle-aged degenerates sitting around playing with themselves, never having got past the psycho-social level of age six.”
Reaching into his knapsack, McClure pulled out a pint of Jack Daniels and said, “Sit down, Patt. We’re going to do just fine.”
And, in fact, we did, and the resulting interview became a fascinating study of a gentleman who refuses to accept surface words as explanations and who possesses a relentless pursuit of communicative exploration within and without. Michael McClure, more than any other poet I know, understands and has the marvelous ability to articulate that difficult connection between print and sound patterns, insisting on that experience as part of our everyday lives.
Like the windows of Machu Picchu, McClure’s “Beast Language” recreates a gorgeous and incredible view into the sound that is a constant vibration in our bodies and in our lives.
Dialog: When did you first write in Beast Language?
McClure: I think it was in 1959. I had a vision of thirteen bearded men seated at a long table facing an audience, and the man in the middle had lion paws, and they all were drinking black wine and eating black plums and eating loaves of french bread, and they were holding a long beatific ritual, philosophical conversations with one another as a kind of dramatic rite. And what surprised me about it was that it went off as a kind of flash over my head that they were not speaking in English. I started writing a play out in the language that I heard. It sort of went off in my head all in one flash, and I started writing out the language. That surprised me. I thought, how do I write this out when they were saying things like, “graar, greer, retack, goor, nah.” I just spelled it out as they were saying it; base of “goor” would be capital G, four capital Os, and R; “goohr” would have an H before the R, perhaps. GOOOOR, GOOOOHR.
I worked that play out, and we performed it in San Francisco as a kind of a happening in 1960. There were some really brilliant artists taking the roles, people like electronic composer Morton Subotnick, poet Philip Whalen, gallery owner Billy Armand, Richard Duerden, David Meltzer, and people who probably many people have read or heard works by.
Then I didn’t write anything in that language again until 1962, when I was studying kundalini yoga, and I began to realize that there was a ball of silence within myself, and inside that ball of silence there was a whirl of poems, tantras of poems (tantras being rituals, short, brief rituals to change the nature of the universe) going on inside of that ball. I realized that I was going to write a book of ninety-nine poems in Beast Language, and I began writing them. But in the middle of this book—or not even in the middle, about one-third of the way through this book—it turned out that I had to go to Mexico to bring back cultures of psychedelic mushrooms, the sacred mushrooms, because I was involved in a legitimate scientific experiment for the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California under the auspices of Frank Baron, a great early experimenter in the field of creativity to give mushrooms to creative individuals and do films of them while they were on mushrooms. But the Argyle Laboratories in Toronto, who created psylocybin sulfate, I think it was, had all they could manufacture bought by the United States Army. I couldn’t put my hands on the drug, on the chemical form of the drug, so to continue our experiments, a biologist friend of mine and I had to go to the mountains of Oaxaca and bring back cultures of the mushrooms. I believe we were the first westerners in there after Wasson. As a matter of fact, when we went in there, it was the middle of the rainy season, and they didn’t have the four-wheel-drive Jeep truck they were supposed to have for us at the rent-a-car place in Mexico City, and the only thing they could give us was a Nash Rambler station wagon. So we went into the mountains of Oaxaca, where in those days there were no roads except ruts with the rain coming down at God knows how many inches a day, in a Nash Rambler.
Dialog: But you had heard the Beast Language before any work with the mushrooms?
McClure: Yes, I just got carried away telling the story. I was just saying that I wrote this book of ninety-nine poems, but about one-third of the way though, I had to go to Mexico. Some of them are written in Mexico, some of them are written in bedrooms, some of them are written in airports. And in the middle of writing the ninety-ninth poem (the last poem, which was written, I think, in September of 1962. I had started in June) I had to get drunk on brandy to even write it. They had become so powerful and so magical, I couldn’t face giving them up. Stan Brakhage, the great experimental filmmaker, phoned me right in the middle of it and I said, “wait a minute, Stan. I’m writing a poem.” He was calling long distance from Colorado and I finished the poem and went back to the phone and read it to him; so he was the first person to hear these poems. At least, I read him the ninety-ninth one.
The language when you go from one to ninety-nine starts out in baby talk. They start out going “geer, gah, groooh, greer, graah,” and the last ones are hierophantic, magical. Fully hierophantic, fully magical poems; but in between there is a period where they work with both English and Beast Language, and they slide back and forth in an interesting way. Also, they were not separated from what was going on in the real world entirely. One was written the day after Marilyn Monroe died. And I didn’t say, “Well, now, I’m going to write a Beast Language poem about Marilyn Monroe.” It became part of the religious experience of the poem.
Dialog: My next question was going to be: Can anyone understand it?
McClure: How can anybody not understand them?
Dialog: Okay, my problem was I’ve never heard it before. Hearing it, it became clear, whereas visually on the page I had a little bit of a problem with it.
McClure: I think the poems visually on the page are extremely beautiful. I met the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, shortly before he died a number of years ago, and I felt that he was the only person who was capable of appreciating them on the page, just as fields of letters; because if you don’t read them aloud they resemble fields of letters and in that sense they are not entirely different from his great color fields of painting. Unfortunately, I lost his address and never got the book to him, but they exist on the page as patterns, and they exist in the air when you read them. The patterns, however, I think, are quite readable if you make the experiment of reading them.
When I first wrote them, before the book was published, we used to try to use them as a party game. I had manuscripts, and we would pass the manuscript around after dinner, and everybody would just read one or two. Everybody kind of had their own voice to do it, everybody sounded a little different.
Dialog: How do people react to it usually, when they first hear it?
McClure: Usually they like it when they hear it. Usually they are puzzled when they see it on the page. The book has been used by psychotherapists, and it’s been used in jails and in experimental projects. I got a lot of mail, or used to when Ghost Tantras was newer. I used to get a lot of mail about various uses the book was being put to. It was interesting to me. I’ve never intended for them to be useful in any way except to change the nature of reality. And certainly the nature of reality has been changed since 1962, so the book must have been a success.
Dialog: Are you aware that one of the primary reasons sometimes we can . . . the only way we can communicate with some schizophrenics is because of the sounds they are making like that? Though usually not in as mellifluous tones and laid back as you are, because it’s coming from their agony and, you know, whatever pain they are facing in their psyche.
McClure: Yes. I don’t have much trouble talking to schizophrenics. I can talk to them in English pretty well. I don’t find much difficulty speaking, I’m not that far from where they are. Also, you know, I grew up in Kansas, and I’ve heard people speaking in tongues. But I never heard anybody speak in tongues like this. This really comes out of my studies of kundalini yoga.
Dialog: This reminds me a little bit of Tolkien.
McClure: Ah yes. His work came out of, very much out of Old English and Middle English. And I did have models. Although these are religious poems, I did have models that were, oddly enough, Chaucer and Lorca. I could recite a couple of my models for you. For instance, a model was Chaucer’s “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales.
“Whan that Aprile with his showres soote
The droughth of Marche pierceth to the roote”
All those things were in my mind.
Dialog: It’s interesting that it came our of your studies of kundalini yoga. As you were quoting Chaucer, I was reminded of a reading I heard Neruda do of his “Machu Picchu” that sounded very much like an incantation. You almost could not understand it as Spanish, per se, but very much like the Beast Language. It was really interesting from that aspect.
McClure: Machu Picchu is an interesting place. It can really get one into an entirely different way of feeling. One of the things I noticed in Machu Picchu is that it’s not the buildings that are interesting but where the windows look out to.
The people who built Machu Picchu were kind of like air fairies. They were living up on the edge of space, literally. This is a plateau; it’s not as high as you would think. It’s only nine- to ten-thousand feet, but it’s literally on the edge of space. I mean, it’s maybe a couple of thousand or one thousand foot drop to the Urubamba River, and there is nothing around it except peaks that are ever higher. Each window is based in such a place that it creates a gorgeous and incredible picture if you look out the window.
People got up there, and they spend all the time looking at the stonework in the walls. What I thought was fabulous was where the stones were not; where the windows were the most fabulous thing of all. I never heard anybody comment on that. There are little bridges up there with no reason for there being bridges. The only water to flow through them was utilitary water paths. They built little elaborate bridges over them so that these people were really always up in the air looking out into nothing.
There were several theories about what Machu Picchu was, but it’s a truly enchanted place. I wrote a poem about Machu Picchu; it was a villanelle for Gary Snyder, and I wrote it there . . . and I can’t remember a line of it. If I could remember one line, I could probably remember the whole thing.
Dialog: It is interesting how people react to things. I used to think people had to react favorably to everything in order for them to understand it, and I’ve come to learn that you can often accomplish as much through a negative reaction. At least, if they bother to be upset enough by it, you’ve set them to thinking.
McClure: Well, I grew up expecting negative reactions. My first reading was in 1955 when Ginsberg read Howl and, of course, we were all well received then—but we had our own audience. After that, we started reading in places . . . I mean, I think the worst reception I ever had was at Princeton about 1959. The audience was jeering at us.
Dialog: Did your behavior from that period lend itself to that kind of reaction?
McClure: Well, yes it did. I think we didn’t expect approval. We didn’t try for approval. I think some of us went out of our way to get negative acceptance, and probably, I went out of my way a certain bit to get negative acceptance since I was the youngest one of the bunch and probably the cockiest in a way.
I had the idea back then that there was no success but failure, and there is a certain amount of truth to that. If you succeed, you are pleasing at a social level. And if you are pleasing at a social level, I think you are locked in the universe of discourse. But my ideas have matured since then, and I think there is a way of pleasing on a biological level that is more important, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Charles Olson spoke of the universe of discourse, which is what people speak of today when they speak of semiotics. They are speaking of the universe of signs, that is the universe most of us exist in. And, in addition to that, it’s the universe of ideas of western civilization, of modern petroleum civilization, of technology and everything else that is happening right now. It’s what Marcuse called “one dimensional society.” It’s social society.
In addition to social society, we have a visceral mammal creature existence, and on that level, I think there really is a democracy of pleasurable meaningful interdependence. And I can see it and feel it. On the level of the other in that semiotic universe of discourse, I feel that it is very cold. We are cut off from one another, we’re alienated, we’re filled with bad faith, and we are not capable (congealed by one-dimensional society) of making a kind of radical conversional gesture and choices. We have no possibility of liberty.
When we stand on the meat of our own feet, of our own two feet—which we can’t do very often—we can sometimes make an important choice or an important recognition of our own liberty. Poetry, ideally, is that. Sometimes.
Dialog: The Soho News referred to you as “a mammal patriot,” and it was interesting because a few minutes ago, as you were reading, it reminded me of someone suckling. But when you think of suckling as a nurturing dependency kind of thing, it kind of brings you back full circle to what you were just talking about.
McClure: Yes. I was thinking more of “warm-blooded” as mammal. I hadn’t really thought about that, the breast thing, but I guess that is what mammal means, coming from the word mammary. That is in a poem of mine called “Antechamber.” The poem starts out like this and . . . it might give some idea of where I stand when I say “mammal patriot.” This is a long poem . . . it begins going down the page somewhat like a Japanese poem with calligrams, and then the lines lengthen, and then they are spaced in a phonic way:
What I do know
And I tumble
in the flashy silence
THAT I LIGHT WITH SELVES
and look for music.
[“Antechamber,” p. 25]
So that’s the poem in which I bring up the idea.
Dialog: You also write plays and songs. Probably the one people might most identify with is the one Janis Joplin made popular, “Mercedes Benz.” But I also know that you are into some experimental music and electronic new wave music, and I was struck again by a connection I saw between what electronic music and your Beast Language and what you were saying about the “universe of discourse.” Here are people using these computers with their microchips and everything to move to almost that mammal kind of biological feeling.
McClure: Yes, there is some of that happening. I have been listening to things that many people are listening to. I have been listening to Phillip Glass and Brian Eno. I have been listening to Kraftwerk, and I have been listening to David Byrne’s music and things like “The Catherine Wheel,” and yet, as I listen to that music, I am pleased by it.
I like Brian Eno. I like the imagination that Eno has. When I listen to Glass, I hear a very traditionally tonal nineteenth century music and it doesn’t have emotional range, yet I keep listening to it over and over. It pleases me. It’s easy to listen to. But the other night I played Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder which is—God knows when it was written, it must have been about ’65, something like that—of the wholly electronic base. And when I say wholly electronic, I mean wholly, I didn’t mean that it was composed on the tape. And the emotional range of it is really significant.
I listened to Kraftwerk. It was in the computer world. I found that interesting, delightful. I play it a lot, but there is something infantile about it. So I miss the emotional range of things. Maybe we can’t afford the emotional range of things right now; maybe we’re in a lot of pain as a nation or as individuals, but I found myself looking back at things that Subotnick was doing in ’65. Really wild.
Not wild. Really emotionally powerful unknown electronic composers who will never be popular because they are really like Brahms or really like Beethoven. Chris Gainer is a good example. And I don’t think Chris pushes himself, and I don’t think we will ever hear Chris’s work in this century.
Dialog: Do you think, perhaps, back in the ’60s and part of the ’70s, rock music was undergoing such a change and was very emotional . . . that that just really kind of pulled everything out of everybody for awhile?
McClure: That’s very possible, although I don’t think rock ever pulled anything out of anybody. I think rock was an extension of what was going on. I don’t think rock did anything, but we may look back there (since we’re inclined to view things in terms of art, or music, or artifacts) and say, “Look, in the ’60s, all of our emotions—very deep emotions—were being pulled out of us.” Maybe it’s appropriate that we listen to Glass now, or we go look at Andy Warhol things which are portraits of Mickey Mouse and Dracula and not literal, but then I hear really superb composers like Chris. Chris’s music is so powerful, I can only listen to it once a month. I can listen to Phillip Glass’s work twice a day, no problem whatsoever. No challenge.
Dialog: You write plays. How hard is it for you to move back and forth between theater and poetry?
McClure: Well, they’re complementary aspects of my feeling area. Right now, I’m not writing plays but at least I announce that loudly, and as soon as I announce that . . . Right now, I’m sort of trying to write a play. I’m sort of developing an idea for a new one. My plays are not bourgeois realisms. Really, when a play of mine is done, it’s like seeing my own hallucinations. Acted on the stage, that’s probably the most ecstatic experience it’s possible to have outside of the writing of a poem. So it’s been an important part of my life the last fifteen or twenty years.
Dialog: I just had a thought. I saw a quote from Ben Franklin of all people: “I’m making myself up as I go.” And I just had that thought about you. What would you tell a young writer today, when maybe there isn’t the freedom to be really rebellious except maybe in punk rock. And maybe somebody doesn’t want to do that; maybe they realize they cannot pass their college courses if they turned in papers with typography or language . . . letting themselves go off, like you did with Beast Language?
McClure: I guess I don’t have any advice I’d give a young writer today except to make sure he or she wanted to write, which is the same advice I would have given twenty or thirty years ago.
I think there are a lot of people, there always have been, who are under the illusion that they want to write. As an illusion, that’s okay. But to waste time following the illusion if it’s not coming from a real deep center could be confusing. And those who are intensely centered don’t need any advice from me.
This interview originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.