Sunday, June 08, 2008
YOU ARE COMMONLY KNOWN AS A BEAT POET. IS THIS A FAIR CHARACTERIZATION?: INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES PLYMELL
INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES PLYMELL: A POET WHO REFUSES LABELS.
With Doug Holder
Recently I sent out an email asking poets what does it mean to be a “failed poet.” Poet A.D.Winans hooked me up with poet Charles Plymell who (tongue-in cheek) offered to teach a seminar in this arcane subject and requested a hefty paycheck, and or a stash of drugs in payment.
Charles Plymell is a poet and writer who is often overlooked for his involvement with the BEAT literary scene in the 50’s and 60’s. Plymell, originally from Wichita, Kansas, moved from New York City in the early 60’s, to San Francisco and shared a house with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady on Gough St in 1963. Plymell, although in the background to such BEAT figures as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, was very influential. Under his “Cherry Valley” small press he published such Beat writers as William Burroughs, Robert Peters, and Herbert Huncke. Ginsberg credited Plymell as the first person to introduce him to the music of Bob Dylan.
Plymell had a huge influence on the underground comic scene, and printed the first issue of ZAP COMIX on his printing press in San Francisco. Plymell said he worked feverishly over this interview with his wife, the avant-garde publisher, and cofounder of “Cherry Valley Editions”, Pamela Beach, on a scorching June day.
YOU ARE COMMONLY KNOWN AS A BEAT POET. IS THIS A FAIR CHARACTERIZATION?
It beats not being known at all, I guess; therein lies the rub. Tag fame when you can, or cast your mind about the shadows. Burroughs said he never thought of himself as beat. He always knew the literate way to say things. I never did, so I’m always stuck in the semantic swamp. It is “fair”? I suppose it is, in a historic literary sense where labels serve as quick designations when they take on broader connotations toward social history. For instance, I was reluctant to contribute to Kevin Ring’s Beat Scene all these years because I could never think of Bukowski, Fante and many others he publishes as beat; but the broader brush, however thinly, feathers the label purposely, so that’s that. To argue for my reluctance would seem silly. But no, personally I hate to be eclipsed by a scene. As a fervent outsider, it is always a signal that my work has remained around the edges of a group. That is by my own design as well, though, I was always reluctant to jump into another’s scene (for more than a night).
YOU HAVE SAID THAT KANSAS CITY IN THE ‘50'S WAS YOUR FAVORITE SCENE, EVEN OVER THE HAIGHT IN THE 60's. WHY?
For many reasons my youth was spent seeing all the greats of jazz, race music, rhythm and blues across the tracks, and traditional songs by the greats at the honky tonks for a dollar cover. The youth of the Haight didn’t have that cultural education. We were also able to get all the Peyote we wanted and had youthful rituals on the riverbanks. No one was aware of anything happening except us, so there wasn’t any trouble. When I write about my long-time friend, Rapid Ronnie, alias Barbitol Bob reading me Pound in Zip’s Club that was way before we had heard of the Beats. We were ignorant of the latest cultural phenomena of Life and Time, but we didn’t need it. Our nights were spent on Benzedrine and Boo, making the rounds of clubs with the band members and club entertainers like Mickey Shaughnessy, the actor, making the rounds talking, laughing, goofing until breakfast or driving across the tracks to see and visit and smoke and drink with the likes of Fats Domino in his 49 Caddy from New Orleans in a little club with a few people all night long. We had something peculiar to the Midwest that we got high on for days at a time, bought at the drugstore that was much stronger than the amphetamines that Kerouac used while writing. I have never heard it mentioned at all in other canons of drugs and literature. Bob and I were in the Wichita jail together as high school dropouts and petty pill head gangsters, but we always read great literature and had the famous names in music always available to hang with at Mrs. Dunbar’s Barbeque. There are some things that are meant for place and time, never to come that way again. We even studied Zen and the New fucking Age!
I can remember the years and what I was doing by the cars I had. In 49 though I was up in the Dakotas operating a caterpillar (Neal (Cassady) later claimed part of that story for a riff) near the reservation and borrowed a ‘48 Dodge from a friend of my father’s that had to got back to Texas. There was no such thing as a driver’s license at that time in that state so I drove it down to Oklahoma and joined my mother who was working on an auto daredevil thrill show ramping over a row of cars and driving through a board wall of fire...that sort of thing. I had a new ‘51 Chevy in San Antonio that I drove to Southern California to stay for a while. Then back to Kansas and down to Guadalajara and back and a trip to Baja for Bennies and Boo packing my 38 special and then followed the rodeo and rode Brahma Bulls and bareback broncs. Worked on the pipeline, then to Hollywood for a while and bought my ‘53 Roadmaster Buick there and went up to Oregon to work on a dynamite crew building a dam on the Columbia River. I bought a tugboat to live on and named it “Little Toot.” Then traveled Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming with my sister who worked the towns as a prostitute. Then to Kansas City, and Wichita for Peyote rituals and worked for the Santa Fe then back through Denver over the pass I had driven as a kid in my Mom’s ‘39 Buick, and back to San Francisco. Those are but a few highlights of the years when I had new or fairly new cars that corresponded to my travels in those years. I met Neal in ‘62 and that’s when he read me some of his highlights from the book. Understandably, I wasn’t that enthralled, so he only read two or three passages. I liked to drive with him and take him to work on my motorcycle.
So, by the time I went back to San Francisco again (right turn north off the Benzedrine Highway, Rt 66, my commute and Kerouac’s discovery, in 1962; I was living on the first block up Ashbury off Haight St. A couple other friends from Wichita and those they knew were there. Conner had a show at the Batman Gallery, and Rapid Ronnie was living with his family in a ‘52 Chevy, I worked as a printer and printed some stuff on the side. I made collages and had a show at the Batman and made a couple of 16mm films, which were all the rage. They were in Ann Arbor Film Festival, through my Wichita friends, we had Sandoz LSD and later, Owsley. “Acid” hadn’t been coined. We also had pure Mescaline from a laboratory in England. Brautigan and I sat in a café and watched the neighborhood change. It had been an old Russian neighborhood with great cafes serving pirogues and good food…unfortunately that all was to be trashed, I reflected that the new comers didn’t have much street smarts and most of them didn’t have formal education as did the beats who had made an earlier scene centered around City Lights and national attention over “fuck.” So I asked Brautigan what would become of them. He got right into their trappings. Neal reminded me of the people I hung with in the 50's from Denver to K.C. I got along with him well, and later when Ginsberg returned from India in ‘63, he and Neal shared the Gough St. flat with me. I think Ginsberg knew Neal’s wild side and saw me as a stabilizing force. So I’d take Neal to work at a Goodyear tire shop on Van Ness on my motorcycle and go on to my job at the print shop like the squares of the 50's the young people now talk about. Well, with the circus in town, that didn’t last long!
Someone just sent a notice that Bo Diddley died. He was from the old rhythm and blues and race music I listened to in the 50's. He was one of many originals who didn’t get his due, at least to the fullest. A snapshot apropos: We were living a block or two from the Avalon Ballroom in a pad where we printed Zap and had nude parties and someone came to visit who said to come over and meet the band he’s managing. A strange name: Pink Floyd. Another “strange name” was playing the Avalon during that era where the usual band had sell out crowds of hippies with psychedelic music blasting and strobe lights flashing. One night the lights were down and there was a dozen or so in the crowd. Bo Diddley took a place off stage towards the front of the ballroom and began by saying: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, and here I am now, playing for YOU as if to punctuate the lack of cultural, educational, and streetwise heritage of the youthful arrivals. Of course, while living at that same place, we had complimentary tickets left at City Lights to attend Janis Joplin and Big Brother at the Filmore a few blocks in the other direction. After going up to City Lights to pick up the tickets, the night grew larger with more places to stop, get high and eventually miss a historically important performance where the like of Joplin, Doors, Dylan, Rolling Stones, Beatles would soon re-introduce the great traditional music that had been forgotten.
Though San Francisco was going to be the town built on Rock’n’Roll in the 60's, it would eventually have to pay tribute to the Jazz and blues from Kansas City from the 50's to achieve its greatness. My nostalgia lay in both decades.
ACCORDING TO THE INTERVIEWS I READ, YOU HAVE BEEN HEAVILY INVOLVED WITH DRUGS. GUYS LIKE BUKOWSKI SWORE THAT BOOZE, ETC...WAS ESSENTIAL FOR THEIR CREATIVE PROCESS. IN RETROSPECT WAS ALL THE LSD, ETC...MORE OF A HINDRANCE OR HELP?
That’s the old question “on many levels” as we used to say so much during that period. Someone remarked that he thought we were eternally on an elevator! It’s difficult to answer. Brain chemistry is still endless in new territories. Certainly spontaneity and improvisation in the frontal lobe are stimulated by holding all that Cannabis smoke in. The associations seem favorable and helpful for jazz musicians, for example, and probably proved through anecdotal experience and empiricism. Cannabis in other arts that demand simultaneous critical and symbolic motifs of the eye instead of the ear, and the whole language/brain involvement seems more problematic. It is essential for creative people to travel that road of excess unless they are by chance the Innocent or Idiot. It would be impossible for me to weigh those imports into such an elusive study of so many variables such as a personality overlay on a biochemical mass. The most concrete case study would probably remain in Kubla Khan. It is odd that two of the most motivating forces for modern man surface to the top of the paradigm in drugs and money. In the “B” column, Sex and Rock’n’Roll. Or maybe Sex on top.
ALBERT HOFMANN DISAPPROVED OF THE RECREATIONAL USE OF LSD. HE FELT YOUNG PEOPLE SHOULD USE IT MORE RITUALISTICALLY. YOUR TAKE?
Yeah, I saw his recent obit and said that was the guy who used rye bread for his toast and tea. Yes, there was intelligent advice in the obit. The Golden Mean is always good advice. I was more heavily involved in the variety instead of the quantity. Even with Benzedrine in the 50's, I would take breaks for my body to recuperate instead of maxing it out, which seem to be a universal approach for many in a kind of competitive way rather than what common sense would dictate. There was a certain excitement riding with Neal on the Amphetamine Trail, but in reality the more he used it, the more symptoms of overuse came into play, and his preoccupation with defending his title of fastest word in the west would became more tiring. So there is always an apex where force recedes to entropic realities.
There was always an implicit demand in opening doors to the interior universe, I remember just before the Haight explosion a bunch of us were tripping in a pad down the street below McClure’s. We had locked the doors and would express a kind of anguish about going there again. There were terrors along the way. The mirrors would change your face into others. Of course it was Sandoz vials at that time, or maybe Owsley had come on the scene by then. Either was the pure stuff and only fools would not have a personal trepidation of a contraindication. McClure came to the door about the time we were dissolving into the trip and we didn’t let him in . He was sort of joking about tripping and it was very alarming to us because we had definitely left the road of known landscapes. I don’t know whether or not he had the experience by then, but I’m sure he would have taken it with his doctor friends or under very trusted circumstances. It was not to play with in the normal environments of society. I shudder to think how the young would take it in such cavalier ways. Of course I don’t know how much the doses were diluted or contaminated since the first days of it. Even a decade earlier in the 50's with Peyote, we would naturally gravitate to ritualistic behavior down on the river banks. The experience itself seemed to demand the ceremony of at least twisting in the wind of a higher force. I just saw a rather stupid program on TV of Peyote to something or other flashing from early investigators to Leary and the Haight.. My God! Well it shows that culture is the worst contaminate. And I began to think of all the cool, hip distinctions surrounding the reefer of my early years and then tried to picture Laura Bush and her sorority friends smoking Marijuana. Ha! The devaluation and deflation dissolves the mythical. The tincture of spirit no longer has purpose while ground into toxic trash crawling alongside the sanctioned public expressway of technology. God will give us only what our hands can make, what our brains can discover in science. Our spirit has not busted out of our upright poster. Drug chemistry just stirs the maw. Some like to throw off social safety nets, hate controls, and chant for freedom to take the cosmic plunge. Hart Crane said that the bottom of the sea is cruel.
A LOT OF US SMALL PRESS FOLKS HAVE GRIPES WITH THE “ACADEMY.” YOU HAD A SMALL PRESS, AND THERE IS NO GREAT LOVE BETWEEN YOU AND ACADEMIA.
I’m no longer involved with either. Publishing has changed a great deal since I was active in it. Somehow I was one who had to be written off the money list for a personal grant/fellowship. Any institutional activity always needs a fall guy. Ironically, it’s always the person who could have benefited the most. After a lifetime of involvement, I just read my poetry when friends put together an interesting venue, or a cultural wealthy country invites me to their forum. I’m probably one of the few poets who needs the honorarium for livelihood rather than resume/curricula/vita. If I can add to my almost 700 a month social security check, I will. In publishing, I no longer know poetry and mainly read physics and sleep the longs nights thinking about what I do not understand and sometimes read what my comix friends send. If I do want to preserve thoughts in word combinations that I’d like to see again, or have something to give guests, etc. I print them privately. It’s much simpler that way and very inexpensive online printing with no storage costs, etc. I’ve had nothing to do with funding for publishing since the 70s. It took a long time for me to realize that any funding, private or public would have nothing to do with me. My wife told me that long ago. People still send me books inscribed to their first teacher and blah, blah listing several grants and awards they have received. I see the names that used to reappear connected with funding when little publications came in the mail; it’s pretty easy to see the corruption and who was whose friend. I toss them. Gradually, I receive fewer. I used the analogy of the farm bureau that wanted to help the small farmer by subsidies. They kept the administration to themselves until bureaucracies out numbered the small farmer. Where’s the small farmer now? Maybe Willie Nelson knows! All the rest are speculators who have manipulated the subsidies. The academe and mainstream politicos will always reward themselves first and create their legions to prop up their own organizations. In the name of milk or in the name of art, all the little towns have subsidized- homogenized products in the vinyl era.
IN AN INTERVIEW WITH JON RANDALL YOU SAID GINSBERG ENDORSES ANYTHING THAT IS POLITICALLY CORRECT AND PROFITABLY CORRECT.
GINSBERG AT ONE TIME WAS IN ADVERTISING, RIGHT?
I always thought that was apparent. I remember taking him to a national endowment meeting where he turned it all around immediately got grants for him and Peter and all his Lower East Side friends, some of them who had asked me to write about them. About that time, my friend Rod McKuen was in town and asked if he could do anything to help Cherry Valley Editions and I asked Allen to read with him for a benefit, but Allen said it would have to be out in Kansas. He didn’t want to offend any of his constituency. This after I introduced him at his big reading at the Folger Shakespeare library. He told me when we first met that he had worked as a market researcher. If so, I thought he put all those traits to good use managing his career. He did excel in that sort of thing. I thought it was a good thing to have, but a lot of work. He was on the phone all the time. I don’t think Burroughs was hype but he enjoyed others hyping him. As he used to say, wouldn’t you? Bremser was no hype. Neal, well hype was his might.
WE HAVE A MUTUAL FRIEND HUGH FOX. FOX IS AN ICON OF THE SMALL PRESS SCENE. RECENTLY THE IBBETSON STREET PRESS PUBLISHED HIS CONTROVERSIAL MEMOIR: “WAY, WAY OFF THE ROAD.” HOW DID YOU GUYS HOOK UP BACK IN THE DAY?
I knew Hugh mainly in the publishing days of the 70's. We published his book and he was friends with Pam’s mother, Mary Beach and her husband Claude Pelieu. He was always going off to Kansas City or Rio with outlandish stories of great interest. All he needed was a market researcher! Well, we were out in New Mexico on a literature panel 30-40 years ago and I sat down in a theater sort of place where there were presentations and along side me came a lady dressed to the nines. It was Hugh! Later we went to a party at a Mexican’s house in the country. He was a writer whose name I forget, but I saw it everywhere those days. Obviously he had ties to the director of programs who got drunk and started feeling me up. Later at the hotel, the director had a room across from mine and he opened his door and pulled out his dick and wanted me to suck it. It was small, dark and crooked, very unappealing, so I declined. I never knew whether this was the grant application or not. It frustrated me because I had heard stories of people with government power trading their influence for sex and the like, but I didn’t know the protocol. (No wonder they called them fellowships) I guess it continues for many today, like the foot taper. It was so unromantic, but sex in the Beat scene was like that, too. Most of it was a service type industry, almost clinical. I needed more research in this area. In Kansas all that was taken for granted, but it wasn’t tied to power, so I felt like the ignorant hippies, no street smarts, no educations, no grants!
A FRIEND OF MINE JACK POWERS, WHO FOUNDED STONE SOUP POETS IN BOSTON, SAID KEROUAC’S “ON THE ROAD” FREED HIM FROM THE CONSTRAINTS OF HIS BOSTON IRISH CATHOLIC BACKGROUND. HOW DID IT AFFECT YOU? YOU WROTE A BOOK OF SIMILAR THEME: “Last of the Moccasins”
Yeah, I remember Jack. He played me Willie Nelson’s “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” at the Stone Soup. I guess the Austin rebels were coming to fame at the time. Willie did a real version, of course. Jack looked kind of blank when I told him that my mother used to sing it to me. She had learned it from Roy Acuff on the radio. Kerouac’s book was a catharsis for many youngsters all over the world. I never read it. Neal used to read me passages from it, and I would see passages in literary anthologies. My catharsis probably cannot be related to an event. It was probably on the road. I’m not sure of the time line when he wrote his book, but I had definitely camped in the back of an old International (about the same year as the original Further bus) and had driven a ‘39 Buick over the Rockies. I was probably in the Dakotas at that time sleeping on the prairie. And by ‘52 was goin’ to Kansas City to hear Jay McShann and later Charley Parker. He was older and had a good ear for jazz and one of the only poets who could put poetry with it. Allen used to read me his Mexico City poems. But I was never into his prose. Except for his jazz, I wasn’t impressed with him and thought most of the Beats were pretty square early on. I thought Huncke was a true hipster and Neal was a phenomena and Burroughs superceded labels. My youth was far removed from the ward-head mentalities of east coast cities. The cultural geography was different. My geography was from the Mississippi to California. The expansive geographical freedom was a continuous catharsis for me, with maybe some peyote thrown in the medical definition! City Lights published my book and about the same time refused a book by both Kerouac and Burroughs, so I don’t know what the publishing situation was. My book was pretty well shelved with no royalties paid. Europa Verlag in Austria published it and I had to split the advance with City Lights. Later my rights were reassigned and it came out with Mother Road with the fabulous cover by the famed artist Robert Williams who said he wasn’t a cover artist but that he’d do one for me because of my history with the Comix, first publisher of Zap and first brought S. Clay Wilson into print when we lived in Lawrence, Kansas. Meanwhile I just gave my last copy of the one with the Robert Williams cover to a collector, a deaf guy who popped in, who I had met at a Robert Williams signing in NYC years ago. So that publication became very rare quickly, but someone (I wonder who) finally pulled the City Lights version from the cellars and the booksellers and collectors have the City Lights first edition for sale all over the place. I found it hard to deal with millionaire beatniks.
AS A SMALL PUBLISHER I AM INTERESTED TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR SMALL PRESS YOU FOUNDED “CHERRY VALLEY.”
It would be impossible to list the publications. Part of it began with Josh Norton here in Cherry Valley, where we received a couple of small publishing grants and famous poets and writers gave work and donations. Pam Beach Plymell knows more about that. She is also over her mother, the late Mary Beach and her husband Claude Pélieu’s voluminous work of beat book translations, their own publications and the visual art archive. Fame is what sells Independents. And one has to kind of be in a movement or tied to performance to sell original work these days. There is very little literature from larger presses. Most of it is reserved for the people who are known on television to have a hard copy of their thoughts. The book has become more archival and more of an artifact itself for lesser-known artists these days. We do not have an archive for Cherry Valley. We sold it for living needs. Wichita State has a complete one, I think and Byron Coley and Thurston Moore have put together a complete one at their Yod Space in Florence. They met the only remaining artist/poet; they didn’t have, who we published, Paul Grillo, at Claude and Mary’s show in NYC curated by John McWhinnie last fall.
WHICH POETS LIVING OR DEAD ARE IN YOUR PERSONAL CANON?
I don’t have any new influences because I read mainly physics and science and things I can’t understand. I think this country’s greatest poetic mind was Loren Eiseley. His brush was as broad as Shakespeare’s I thought that he didn’t have a vehicle in formal prosody and genre as did Shakespeare to use poetry and that his prose in books, like The Star Thrower, was more poetic than most poetry. Like a fool, I tried to suggest this to him and he humbly answered that he spent a lot of effort trying to place his words to suit him, or something like that. When I went to meet him at his museum office at the University of Pennsylvania, I was frozen in place as he came from his office. A glimpse of his even diminutive presence made me scurry out of the museum like a rat unnoticed. I don’t know why. His mind on the Platte and mine on the Cimarron must have fused at the Cathedral Rocks on the north/south trail where the voice from “the shaken tent” was heard, a catharsis on the trail, indeed. Hart Crane, out in Akron, before the literary moneyed industry, when we knew what a real bottle of milk cost, wrote: “Played ragtime and dances before the door/and we overpaid them because we felt like it.” A few meat scraps from Pound, his wonderful translations with Noel Stock from the days of Cleopatra taken from the hieroglyphs of broken pottery have didactic phrases from everyday life much like what poets send me now. The Island poets, any historical glimpses by Herodotus. I don’t like the fascist Greek plays. Plays always bore me anyway, except for “The Iceman Cometh” and some “movie plays of Tennessee Williams. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and poetry in his plays. Gore Vidal and Burroughs always remain current. J. H. Fabre, the French poet of science, Wilson’s Insect societies. Last winter I read at (I don’t read through difficult works) but pick them up and read at them to reflect or guide my dreams: Radin’s “Entangled Minds”, David Bohm’s “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” though he began to babble and rescued himself in Za Zen like Gary Snyder or someone; Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; Nadeau and Kafatos’ The Non-Local Universe; and Becker and Seldon’s Body Electric, which has to do with reasons that might be shattering or retarding the national intellect. It also explains some of my own “road to Catharsis” by re-enlightening me to the fact that my younger years were spent only with the earth’s electricity that is open ended rather than the closed circuit man-made electricity. The other books and readings were to help me substantiate a theory I’ve been thinking about for a long time; places gravity’s weaker force as a tiny measurement of the larger magnetic force.
---- Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update/ June 2008/Somerville, Mass.