Interview with Charles Plymell
by Dave Sellitto
Q: In Robert Peter's book, Where the Bee Sucks, in which your writing is analyzed, he writes, "Poets are generally pretty self-obsessed and need to remove their work from the critical market-place and freeze, dissect, classify, and analyze. I caution though, against using any laser-beam technology. Our poet-science is unsophisticated. Rudimentary steps, first ". Is this something that could've come out of your mouth.
A: Well if that's where poetry comes from, then yes. If it comes from
high tech, I don't know, that's different. I think he's getting at
manipulation of mass media, communication and the poetry establishment
vs. someone working alone like Dr. Frankenstein. Charles Henri Ford just
sent me a big spread on himself from the October 31 edition of the New
York Times, picturing him as the last American Surrealist, in which he
said, "Surrealism is coming back even bigger that it was, in computer
graphics...but there is no genius, only manipulators who never heard of
Tanguy, Ernst, Breton or Lautreamont." I think what Robert means, as the
great scholar, critic, and poet that he is, is that he may be afraid, as
all of us may be, that we're short-cutting the creative process, cloning
poets without guts, without maw. We are cutting to a minimalist monster,
somewhat like the Futurism at the beginning of this century that didn't
grow. Of course technology now has been so overwhelming that we can
hardly compare it to Futurism. It is Futuristic though, and can eliminate
or short circuit the whole creative process we've known as art,
aesthetics, and literature. Any perceptive professor should sense that
we're losing something along the way in terms of historical consciousness
and referents. We also have new languages without vocabularies, so it's a
little frightening, these vast changes. Traditionally, poetry has
always been a private thing. You do it on your own in whatever
circumstances you can learn from, if you're a real poet. To make those
circumstances arbitrary always affects the work. And I suppose we should
prepare ourselves for the possibility of the end of art as we've known
I get a sense of this happening with the political process of rewarding poets and artists. Not only should a true artist feel a little squeamish when he accepts an award of $20,000 of our money, I mean given the fact that we have children starving and people and animals in need of shelter and care, but when the poet is also a professor making 60 to 90 grand a year, then his wife or friend, etc., is handed the same award, the whole process becomes sickening to some poets and artists. And the government justifies the awards on "quality." That's the same ad we see from Ford Motor Company. It's really shameful. Most poets I know would rather not talk about it. Then there's the issue of whether or not we should fund art that some regard as pornographic. But that's just a red herring, something that people can get upset about. They can't understand the real obscenity of the process; that is, using a poor slob's tax money to promote bad art and encourage bad artists to proliferate using a system of friends rewarding friends. I call it "Soft Fascism." Hitler could tell his cronies to remove the Chagall paintings, or other Jewish painters and leave the “good” representational Aryan paintings, etc. The process was very simple. With our National Endowment for the Arts, its much more subtle, but the 'removal' is there. Try to criticize the endowment and suggest its policies are unfair and you'll see what I mean. Sure, they toss just enough rewards to deserving artists to legitimatize the process, but meanwhile it operates in the typical insidious level of rewarding the mediocre or the hypocritical, those who play the game, those who then cut the deck for their friends. Rather harm-less baby Fascists, but everyone gets to crawl, even Ginsberg.
Then, if poetry is an intensely private enterprise, what privacies are left? What would Chagall do now? What would Artaud do? Say that the Endowment spokesperson doesn't have to explain the process? Or say what he said to his psychiatrist? "All I have to do is look at your face, you bastard." So it's much more preferable to play the game than go solo, easier to be phoney than real, and turning out fakery for suckers has always been more profitable, more secure. We can even make happy faces while doing so. We can take Prozac. We don't really have to make much of this at all, do we?
Q: Do you always see friends or family and people close to you as your primary inspiration to write?
A: Yeah, now and then, the problem for me was that the circle of Beats was my extended family for awhile. Then we drifted apart. I didn't buy the poster. I didn't buy into the whole scene, but having been associated with them, both for the good and bad of it, I became, perhaps ungrateful, and distanced. Not that I wanted to, entirely, because having been involved with the scene certainly provided some highlights in my life; whatever publicity and publishing came my way was mainly a result of my association, peripheral as it was. I was somewhat of a black sheep. I didn't go along with the party line and wasn't a big enough name not to let things bother me. But the tag stuck and eclipsed whatever I might do on my own.
Q: Are there any differences for you in being inspired to write poetry or prose? When does that idea click in your head that you will write a poem and not a story? A: That just sort of circulates for awhile and comes out however it may without any pre-determined notion. I'm an undisciplined writer. I don't take myself that seriously. If I did, I'd make something of myself. But at my age, that's hardly an option. Besides I have to concentrate on making a living. One has to be able to afford to write, not worry how to survive the next year. As you know, people are prejudiced against the poor. Something is wrong with you if you're poor in this great country. Never mind that it has always set out to bleed the poor and that we are rapidly becoming a third world, those of us without holdings or investments. I thankfully was hired as a part-time tutor here at Oneonta, which gave me an hourly wage and benefits, and I tried to do my job as best I could ignoring, not even asking for regular jobs teaching poetry or literature because as an old white male I felt discriminated against. I kept my status as a poet somewhat secret, a closet poet, someone who has his little notebook tucked away somewhere. Then one day I saw the posters for the Nobel Prize winning poets reading at Hartwick College. I came out of my little poetry closet thinking that I must attend such an event to see what was taking place in poetry. There I was, suckered again by these prize winning big honorarium event poets. Both of them were boring as hell, I mean, they never even had a good moment, one had warmed over Pound imagery, the other's big thing was his native island rhythms and that sort of thing. Nathan Shakin' as Lord Buckley used to say. He had more poetry in his little finger. I've read with Huncke (Herbert) in rotten bars in Baltimore and have moved drunken people to be quiet and listen at three o'clock in the morning; Where they say, 'Yeah, Yeah', you know, something happens. Even at its worst, that happens. That's the test. Shakespeare could do it. He played to all classes and had a language that touched them all. And if it can't happen with a Nobel Prize winning poet because they're so mediocre that nothing transpires, nothing gets to even a low level of immediacy, then its all a scam. Mediocre poets rise to the top and receive awards. The worst of the Beat generation poets has more to say than these Nobel Prize winners, believe me.
Q: Specifically about your poetry, you write about technology and how it's changing the world. Would you describe your thought on technology as a fear or a curiosity that leads to fear?
A: Not really, except; Well, It will have to be unfortunately - Allen
out of the picture because he's part of the system - There's not many
left who can detect at what point technology becomes propaganda and at
what point it's making everyone brain dead or controlling everyone. Even
Allen, at this point wouldn't protest because the times have tainted all
of us, consciously or unconsciously. The change is too huge for him, or
even Orwell if he were alive, and it's too hard to identify. I did not
fear the cold war because I knew it was essentially a hoax. It may have
caused psychological damage to generations, but it didn't effect me. But
as this country becomes more complex, I fear that even our Constitution,
though divine in its language and perhaps intent, may prove to belong to
another time. Change scares me sometimes. Overpopulation. Can we survive?
I feared more the leaders of my own country, who help put the "world
fear" in place. I fear a totalitarian state whose shots are called by
special interest and big money. The logical direction for more control is
totalitarianism. Then there has to be someone who will stand up and say,
'Hey wait a minute, isn't this Orwell revisited or A Brave New World?'
Yes, it is, but it's so subtle that even Orwell wouldn't recognize it.
There will have to be someone to speak against it. I used to join protest
marches. But that might not even be necessary again, or it may not work.
It was nice to have a sense of solidarity in the '60s, but today, that is
seen by the neo-born-conservatives as tyrannical, while they cannot see
the tyrant, Ollie North. Watch out. There may be someone who will have to
speak out, but it won't be Allen. He's too old. He'll go with the safe
public things. He'll protest nuclear power. Whatever is faddish to
protest, he'll be there and he'll be the poster again. And that's
alright because he's raking in a lot of converts to his NAROPA, which is
indebted to the CIA.
(At this point a brief discussion ensues concerning an article from the N.Y.Times about Ginsberg as a Millionaire, Gap and Nike ads that Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs advertised, etc. )
The point is, I think Burroughs influenced Allen in this matter because Burroughs doesn't give a shit about the business of trying to be true to oneself, or a religious cause, or whatever all that entails. He once characterized it (the Guru patch) (to my glee) as the "metaphysical slop bucket." All Burroughs gives a shit about (abstractly) is the money and how to get it on the table and spend it. Burroughs is from the old wealth class anyway, and he makes no bones about it, but I suspect he was a role model for Allen in such matters. ( Imitating Ginsberg ) 'Well, I think if Bill Burroughs can do it, shit, so can I'. What are they gonna' say? 'Well maybe I better ask my shrink first. Well, as long as I'm in the public image, I don't give a shit. Let them say what they want. I'll think up something-- just crazy Zen Buddhism.'
When asked about whether or not Allen Ginsberg has "sold out" by making Gap ads, earning a giant salary, selling his archives for over a million, or whatever he's doing now to keep in the press, I have but one answer: "We're still talking about him, aren't we?" The role of sending me his press clippings used to belong to my dear mother whom Allen and I once picked up from her factory job in Kansas long ago when we were using her car. That proletariat day is movingly remembered, and for years my mother's task became one of sending me Allen Ginsberg news clippings. This has long since been taken over by my sisters, and sometimes by other poets who write me. To ask if he has sold out is not the point. The point is that the questions are self-sustaining. No matter what Allen Ginsberg does or says, his prophesy is his prophylactic. It makes no difference how much money he makes, or how much he was influenced by Marxist literature, or whether or not he is true to some myth or fantasy of what his critics, readers, or students think is "Beat"-- to keep talking about him needs no defense. He can accept the worst of his adversaries or the worst of poets. He can invite them to his school where they too will be blessed. It is all for the better. The academic will gain immediacy; youth will sit crosslegged in front of the fetish; and all will be forgiven for the art of it.
But even in the egalitarian magic kingdom there will always be inequities, rich or poor, there will always be unfairness (we have given him and his friends thousands of our tax dollars to continue to create, under the government's definition of deserving poet, quality, and all that crap); while historically, the rewarding of art has rarely been fair. Once when reading with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in Kansas in the '60's, I had little concern that they read their poetry designed to shock the homefolks, and when the cops were called, ironically, members of the John Birch Society defended the poetry readings. I, myself, didn't apply much aesthetic value to the poets' graphic descriptions about jerking off each other. It seemed to have little enduring quality. Perhaps I was wrong; these descriptive poems are still included in Ginsberg's major collections. But shock is controversy--is name recognition, publicity--is money in the bank, and, the poet, unlike the politician, has no risk. In this case he was protected by that same government he damned and accepted money from. Would I do the same? Yes. But public funds and honesty rarely coincide, so I am spared the choice.
The poetry he read then was explicit. But Allen Ginsberg is still jerking off, or still jerking his audience off, I might say figuratively, now, every time he manages to stay in the press. So the question isn't one of his being phoney to the lifestyle that his audience wants him to have--it is the endurance of the questions themselves.
Most of us are no longer shocked, having been numbed by our environments, but we're still talking about him, aren't we? He once told me that his first job, fresh out of Columbia was in market research. What better training for a career in managing oneself in the public eye? Liberace and other great publicity queens learned long ago, how great it is to laugh and be gay all the way to the bank. In a capitalistic society, how much money one makes or how one makes it is still one's own business.
Q: What were the coastal differences of the times, when the beat movement was flourishing?
A: Well, I can't say about the east coast, that has always been a different pattern entirely. But, if you go back to the fifties in the Midwest, we could go down to "colored town” because it was separate; All I had to do was go with a musician. All we had to do was go down to these little clubs which weren't even as big as this room. I remember Fats Domino dragging his bass player from his old Caddy saying, 'Hey man, play'. And Sonny Rollins. It was all little scenes that you didn't even really have to pay to see.
Q: What was going on in New York?
A: Well I didn't know about New York at that time. I was in L.A. and S.F. In San Francisco, every thing was pretty cool; it had the tradition of being a laid back town, but ready for change. One could go down to Fillmore St. when the 60's started happening. We (referring to his wife, Pam) had complimentary tickets to Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company who were performing at the Filmore. Michael McClure had just written her song about the Mercedes Benz, and we wanted to hear it, but we were so stoned, we lived a couple of blocks away never made it there in time. Too much was happening at once. We lived right at the edge of the Filmore district which was black. After Watts in L.A., on the west coast, that all changed radically. I think even O.J. Simpson hit me once; he came over from the ghettos at Candlestick Park. (laughs) That whole scene was disturbed on the west coast. What I was talking about in that poem ("IN N.Y.C."?); New York City has always been mixed differently than other parts of the country. We went directly from S.F. to Baltimore. Baltimore's a real city where there's still ethnic neighborhoods. It was all cool. We could go down and see Dizzy Gillespie for a couple of bucks. Baltimore was still old-time cool when things had already been fucked up in S.F. and L.A. because of Watts riots and the whole Black Power movement and anti-white sentiment, which was remotely caused by the whites, of course, but precipitated by the times. We traveled all over the world in '68. We were in Paris during riots; in Amsterdam; in Italy. Every city was rioting. What I felt in Baltimore was a sense of being back in an old neighborhood. Because of the Governor, everything was cooled down. It was another kind of city anyway. The blacks in Baltimore were sort of laid back. I could walk into a Gospel meeting and see black ladies 'whoopin' it up out on the street, rockin' and rollin', you know, nobody cared. That's the way I remember my youth prior to racism as it is now-- separate in other ways. It was different then. If you were cool.
Q: I've heard you talk about 'morphic resonance'. Do you think that it was the underlying cause of the whole nation being involved in this movement?
A: Yeah, O.K. Morphic Resonance is a term from the British Physicist, Sheldrake. He did experiments with rats that were trained to do something in London. Pretty soon, the rats in Australia would do the same thing. The rats in New York would do the same thing even though there was no direct connection. So, he felt that there must be a resonating factor throughout the universe that brings things up at certain times, simultaneously, throughout the world. That explains a lot of movements and inventions in history that sort of happen at the same time through different parties. The radio, for example.
Q: Do you see a direct parallel to the '50's?
A: Yeah, Pam's father-in-law was doing cut-ups at the same time Burroughs was, even though they didn't know each other. And in art, in music, those things seem to happen as a kind of wave that is not necessarily connected by the people who are doing it, who usually meet at some point. (Dr. Livingston, I presume) It's something in the timing that sort of happens and goes on. Certainly, there was something that resonated in the universe in 1963 which, whatever - the planetary moon, sun situation - whatever it was, it was a little 'click' (here Plymell contorts his face, he makes a clicking sound and his hands clench and twist an invisible small sphere). Ratcheted, is the term they like to use now. Things sped up a little bit. I knew that. At the time I read an article in the S.F. Chronicle where they had to set the official Big Ben clock in London ahead a little bit. Physicists were there and they had to 'click' (again) it ahead a little bit to adjust the time because that's where the time for other clocks are set. In ancient history, the guys with the funny hats, astrologers, etc., would sit around the Kings and say, 'Well maybe we better get a calendar together. Maybe we better call this a day. And this is time, time to do this and that'. But certainly, something happened in the universe - a blip in the cosmic atmosphere that reverberated to earth. And then, it went into an evolution of the darker side of it, probably, and then dispersed. The counter-force came up with conformity, regulation, and money again to set it back; to adjust the time or adjust the species to the time. It went through its evolutionary process. However, there will be times in the future, especially when we approach 2000 where there'll be other shifts ('click' again.) All of a sudden that resonating morphic thing will blip again. All of a sudden, you're looking around here and everything's different. It'll be that fast. You know, periods of history do that.
Q: Do you think that's coming soon?
A: Around 2000. That's what all the ancient, conventional, and prophetic wisdom says. No one knows exactly, but it's around the changing millennium. All changes in our technology approach that time. On every level - political - All spectrums are converging to a great shift. Even people are mutating slightly. Altruism is receding to a vestigial relic of the subconscious. In economics, of course, it's already happening. No one really knows what to do with that European block or the Asian block or the American block. No one really knows how that's going to come out. We don't know economically whether we're sitting here in the third world, sinking or not. Take a ride out the highway a look at the landscape. What do you see along side the majestic relics of yesteryear? Decay, poison, and flimsy new products trying to patch it all together.