An Interview with Charles Plymell, early beat generation poet, author: Good poets are full of experiences

"A deeper emotion might be eliminated. We could do away with guilt or any of the "bad." It might be a 'good thing' But alas!"

Charles Plymell: Matter, Void, Energy, Spirit

Charles Plymell was born on the high plains in Finney County, Kansas in 1935 in a converted chicken coop during one of the blackest dust storms of that period. His father was a cowboy born in the Oklahoma Territory, his mother of Plains Indian descent. He completed his freshman year in high school and dropped out. After working in most all the western states at many types of laboring jobs, he drifted between Los Angeles and Kansas City during his hipster years, steeped in jazz, race music, and country. He later attended Wichita State for a few years, not obtaining a degree.     Photo by Florien Thiele 

While working on the docks in San Francisco, he was recruited by students and the founder of The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars to earn a Masters in Writing. He then settled in Upstate New York with his wife and children teaching and tutoring courses in institutions where he could apply his knowledge and experiences. Many of them were courses in prisons until their population, increasingly victimized, due to the unconstitutional mandatory sentencing and the terrorizing political war on drugs made the experience too overwhelmingly emotive. His master's thesis at Hopkins was quickly published by City Lights titled Last of the Moccasins and then by Europa Verlag in Austria. After it went out of print, it was reissued with the Los Angeles' artist Robert Williams' painting on the cover. Williams went against his own policy of never doing covers only because Plymell was the first printer of Robert Crumb's Zap Comix. A few copies remain in print and are available from Water Row Books in Sudbury, MA, which has published a Plymell Reader titled Hand on the Doorknob.

Plymell was cited by Governor Finney of Kansas for his contribution to the people as well as the World Book for being the most promising poet of 1976. He opposes the National Endowment for the Arts and has criticized it in print. He claims it became a politicized unjust system feeding on its own mediocrity and self-contradiction. He views were mentioned in the New York Times in "Notes on People" and again in "Washington Talk". He was subsequently blacklisted and has never received any funding from any federal, state, or academic agency to pursue his creativity.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Florien Thiele, A.D. Winans, Gerard Malanga, Charles Plymell, & Phil Scalia

Since 50's & 60's---what has changed towards the best--for civilization and culture and what has gone wrong?

WOW! O.K. I got to make them brief. Just the highlights or else a history. I'll try to answer the first one fresh, so I won't have to drag your readers over the obvious somewhere between the cosmos and the street. I'll think about it tonight.

In the 50's a couple events for destiny of civilization & culture. I had come from hipster Jr. gangster street with friend, Bob Branaman who decided as high school drop outs, we should go to college. In the halls of the academe I heard whispers of the names: Crick & Watson. It was the right time for the period after the turn of the century after many incredible minds contributed their discoveries and thinking. We came off the street as thinkers, artist, talkers (due to Benzedrine) and had no formal education though we had smoked & talked with great names in Blues & Jazz across the tracks who were unknown to white audience in the 50's. We had Boo and knew musicians too. That would gain entry in all-night clubs here racism was put on hold.

It was time for the discovery of the double helix hidden in the morphic resonance of the universe, though now DNA is associated with a cotton swab of saliva... The double helix spiral of DNA formulaic wonders was hiding in nature like the spiral vortex which occurs frequently in natural forms, a curve eternally returning to its beginning and at the same time forever changes in space-time. The DNA, like music, like mathematics and stuff found in Descartes' Sacred Notebook is a formulaic wonder more Pythagorean in scope and curve, more geometrical in philosophy like the extension of the Throne in the Orisian principle. The old Cliché, the more things change, the more the same. If one could dissect the image of the vertical double helix, a cross section view would bring the yin-yang image, again prominent in all things from micro-biology to the galaxies, demonstrating the constant forms in chaos theory the atomists thinkers and poets like Lucretius foresaw a hundred years before Christianity by hanging out with the Greeks.

The second happening in the 50's I remember driving with my father, who picked up a G.I. hitching and we talked about the mushroom cloud that was in the news. The splitting of the atom or the thinnest possible matter as poet Lucretius would say was the other "period image" to change history. It was cooked up at the boys school, a private schools on an old ranch in Alamogordo, New Mexico where we could find none other than William Burroughs as a lad in shorts probably chasing lizards. That geography changed enormously in one lifetime and mushroomed into alien "Area 51" now top secret. This was in the making when the hip Einie, as Lord Buckley (recommended for youngsters) called him, got Bornn or some math head to cook up his formula of relativity that sent the numbers way on out in space and out of Lord Buckley's head. Albert made time with light, though in a tube, was not quite where he was coming from in the Void; again, from the poet Lucretius. Einstein died in uncertainty, Heidelberg's principle still haunting him, not knowing for sure whether he was coming or going.

Of course ATOMIC POWER of the time was the big thing. "It was given by the mighty hand of God," the Louvin Brothers sang (recommended even by this Agnostic). And for further agony of the sort read "Voices From Chernobyl."  As the shit hits the fan, we will become "Planet Chernobyl". (What are those things floating into Pedro Harbor, Mike Watt?)  Oh, islands of rubble from the Tsunami. I am at the age I see not only the agents of change but what change itself leaves forevermore. Joe Turner, home from the war, sang: "My ship landed in Pedro, but my wife is in old New York." An aside for the jazz heads, he joined Norman Granz at the old theater down on 5th & El Segundo (?).

I used to drive my brand new '51 Chevy down Central Ave in L.A. and listen to music coming out of the clubs onto the street like in Kansas City. Rt.66 (Benzedrine Highway) was my "commute" from K.C. to L.A. many years before Neal read me his parts as protagonist in "On The Road." Anyway, this sidetrack is important in that uneducated hipsters like Bob & I was swinging with the music of the great tour Norman Granz put together. You might say it all began in L.A. after the war. He got Oscar Peterson to come from Canada; Charlie Parker from K.C.; the whole works, man. That important music scene has gone unnoticed. Wally Berman with his "Seminal" magazine was in the Hollywood/Venice/L.A. since with hip actors Dean Stockwell, Bobby Driscoll, Dennis Hopper. I joined up with Bob Branaman again in San Francisco 1962-63 to usher in psychedelic years, which had a cultural influence especially in music. Bob and his paintings appeared later in "The Doors" movie. The S.F. scene has been documented a lot. The grooviest people, from the "cool age" of the 50's were always in the background. Some things just weren't "cool" to do, but that changed after the 60's. A little breeze in the scene blowing  in the wind.

I've sketched the biggest changes from a personal perspective, having lived it.  As for the good or bad of them from a philosophical point of view, I'd have to get into an emotive aspect of these major forces in my lifetime. The short cut language today is "good thing/bad thing" construction mostly to feel "belonging" as always. A complete answer would be more a book length, so I'll complete the first question here. Generally, it looks as if it's much too big for mortals. All we have different from...say the intellect sea creatures...are our hands. Our knowledge in technology and our hands have given us an odd program. We might even be allowed to duplicate ourselves. In eternal time, this might even stop the eternal wars we've created with our hands and technology since written history. There must be a remote cause for these run of thousands of wars that we are unable to see. It might be the simple question of existence. To re-create ourselves might obliterate the nagging philosophical question of existence. We might yet indeed have pleasure like Lucretius and the Hedonist and do away with the pain and suffering and wars of religion. We might be allowed to rewire ourselves with our technical knowledge and our dexterity. Sometime I think I see the un-wired living on one level. Other species don't seem to manifest this problem as much. It might be that the question existence itself involves a psychology of human kind that instinctively kills innocence, conveniently masked by "causes" such as politics, greed in the sales of arms, geography, power, etc., attributes of the human psyche.  A deeper emotion might be eliminated. We could do away with guilt or any of the "bad." It might be a "good thing" But alas! It would be much like a wrong so severe that it can only belong to the Self.

"Cool, being cool, no such thing now. Of course Rock n' roll is here to stay, but it was called R&B & race music when I was growing up. That name by disc jockey hadn't been coined yet. I some cases I found the beats a bit square." Photo by A.D. Winans (Charles in Gino & Carlo, S.F)

Poetry and music…how can these two arts confront the “prison” of the human spirit and mind?

The second one is a WOWSER too. I'll have to reach way back to S.F. on Sandoz listening to Hayden's "Ode To St., Cecilia 1962. Of course I couldn't understand the words, so I sang my own ode to a Dandelion: OH! OH! OH! Joyous supernal it sits on a weed. I'll try tomorrow, tomorrow...Burroughs all time favorite line in Literature. I didn't know why as we sat at his dinner table with Ginsberg the last time they saw each other. Fast forward to Burroughs's cottage in Lawrence, Kansas late 90's…to paraphrase King Lear... (The Queen you know she's dead...too bad, the bitch could have been here talking with us now or tomorrow…etc. Ginsberg's favorite line was "In black ink my love may still shine bright." He tried to remember the preceding lines but couldn't. I told him he had to start at the beginning of the sonnet and showed off reciting the whole thing. Burroughs became fidgety with his .38 Special in his pocket & my mind flashed to funny scene in old cowboy movie where a gunslinger shot at the Shakespearian actor's feet while upon the Opry House Bar-room stage. James put his hand on Bill's shoulder and said quietly, "Let him finish." Burroughs never liked people goin' around reciting poetry Ha!

I've seen change and I've seen rain. I guess it's for the young, but the insidious creeper is over population. The planet can't carry the load. As the old cowboy said of his grassland...It' can carry three cows per acre. I'm afraid the chance isn't in our hands anymore. We are past the tipping point, but it’s a question for youth. I remember Pound's words when he was old. His daughter sent me her book but nothing like his words! To paraphrase: "I have dragged home the great ball of crystal /who can lift it/.the acorn of light??? Though my errors and wrecks lie about me/ I cannot make then cohere/ If love not been the house/nothing." I can't remember exact words but it's all we have when old.., memories our errors. Wouldas, couldas, shouldas. Nature will make the changes now, I'm afraid. 9,000 pregnancies a month in Haiti. A wasteland of humans even T.S. Elliot couldn't evoke. Yet a movie star or two  there trying to help. Mopping up the tide with a 50 sponge or something. The planet is in trouble.

"The DNA, like music, like mathematics and stuff found in Descartes' Sacred Notebook is a formulaic wonder more Pythagorean in scope and curve, more geometrical in philosophy like the extension of the Throne in the Orisian principle." (Photo: Charles, Pam Plymell & Tibetan monks)

Do you believe that nowadays there’re things to change in any level?

Tough question. Elementary. There might be some changes left but don't see much higher level other than technology. Reminds me in '63 loaded with Sandoz & Owlsley going with Ginsberg to all the group; guru sessions that hit S.F. Scientology wasn't very advanced then Two tin cans & a string. Allen sat humbly waiting for one org. before he could enter & "let go." It was all bullshit to me & Glenn who might have been the one who said, “I hear things about on so many levels I think I'm on an elevator" or something like that.

 

What first attracted you to the Blues & how has the blues and jazz music changed your life?

Ha! I think I'm a bit mature for that. It would get into too many names. Besides, I never noticed the blues & jazz as having changed my life.

 

Who from THE BEATS had the most passion for the Blues & Jazz?

The Republican Mommy's boy Kerouac had good ear for jazz. Ray Bremser probably best for jazz, Ginsberg pretty good for old Ma Rainy type blues & Burroughs appreciated Bessie Smith. In the 50's jazzheads were pretty serious, so I wasn't that aware of Bremser & Kerouac's passion for blues because I didn't know of them until later, but I'm sure it was there. The junky blues respect/appreciation more present in Huncke / Burroughs. It was evendent to me in retrospect & intimate associations later, that Beats were just discovering and didn't have the full repitore of all kinds of music early on...save for Bremser.... as we did in K.C. years before I heard of the Beats, so I don't know if you know how that  goes...yeah…c'mon...middle class kids...watching them get hip to music...from my personal vantage point as an early street hipster steeped, for example, in Parker/ Jay McShan...his influence now in Jimmy McGriff, et.al. I never heard the Beats listen to all the music I knew...so it's hard to say...how much they were into "Go, man, go" and "work, work" combos in all nite clubs across country where many jazz & blues made their living before they went to NYC. Same with first country singer, brakeman Jimmie Rogers...NYC was the last stop on the "night train"...not the first...for many...in early 50's Norman Granz in L.A/K.C did more for contemporary jazz than anyone I know. It's difficult to say from my perspective because music was taken very seriously then. I covered the waterfront , so to speak  and singing Hank Williams in an open field in Kansas, 1940's...smoking boo with the Fat Man in 1950, etc. etc.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I've yet to have my first period.

"Words are the late comers but sometimes their ambiguities make the language live on."

 

What experiences in your life make you a good poet?

Good poets are full of experiences. I'm not.

 

Are there any memories from 1403 Gough Street, which you’d like to share with us?

Yes, it was full of memories. Some are in LAST OF MOCASSINS History was made there. It would take a book and Glenn Todd has written one that should be published about the Gough St. Scene. He was there until it became the end pad. Souvenir hunters stole the front door.

 

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Shig Murao?

His wisdom brought good vibes enough for me to go to into store, and had real honesty & knew how to handle mail & connections that mattered. He made sure to hold Janis & Big Brother Fillmore comps at store until I picked them up (which I never did unfortunately.) Otherwise the store always felt pretentious for me. I always suspected Ferlinghetti would have used him to take the fall in Howl Trial if necessary. (Since F. was respected Navy officer & shig was kid from Internment Camp). Was pretty much bullshit anyway. It paved the way for nothing. I had copies of Olympic Press Henry Miller in my pocket in 1950 in conservative Kansas before I heard of Beats. The beat intellengsia wore Buddhism on their sleeve...a fad inherited from ex-patriot American authors generations earlier. Same as fundamentalist in Kansas wearing religion as a badge. Shig didn't have to do that.

Ferlinghetti is an elitist. Came from a family of lawyers /professionals/ went to Sorbonne after commissioned officer in Navy. Mostly "clean up" action at that time, but I have to salute him for that. Uneven poet. Worse publisher, but he was first to bring out my Apocalypse Rose in City Lights Journal and published my novel with no royalties until after he reverted rights and I had to split my foreign advance. I guess I would call him an academic poet not risking anything that wasn't acceptable to cutsie artsy fartsy literati in the workshops that honor him. The academe pays him large sums to hear what was hip, but he was no Lord Buckley. He seemed to gravitate toward the business/ mainstream/ academe to insure his place in history as a poet.

"The cells of our bodies are mostly plasmic liquid in particle suspensions (thinnest of matter as Lucretius would have it) Living tissue organizes powered of sound with basis in sacred geometry" Photo by Charles Plymell (Beats outside City Lights, San Francisco)

An artist he is not, so I always had mixed feelings about him and awkward to be around. It was if he expected me to present him with a business idea. Unfortunately, I wasn't good at that, so we "visited silently" for the most part. I didn't "fly business class" and apparently Shig didn't either, ha! I never talked with Shig much either but felt more comfortable around him, though we never discussed poetry. I never knew what he thought of me hanging with the two main players Allen & Larry and other "Beat -Era poets Ferlinghett seemed uncomfortable too, mainly because he dreaded picking up the check when dining! I never felt sorry for millionaire beatniks though. I guess it was class/status? Whatever. For me, each day was a hustle like Bremser & Neal & Micheline. The only real bucks came from Evergreen for poems. Come to think of it F. didn't pay anything for my Apoc. Rose in the launchings of that City Lights Journal with Shig & everyone on cover. He certainly was no comrade in that area! Funny situation. Most poets except for Saroyan, who admired his lyric gift & I denounced McKuen & thought he was illegitimate for making money with his poetry.  He certainly wouldn't fit comrade Hirshman's idealism! I think he is better poet than Ferlinghetti. I don't hold hands & share in the drum circle. No government grants given to me or Cochise by God! Ha!

 

What is your  DREAM... and your nightmare?

(dream)...to eat any pussy I want...

(nightmare)... politicians / religon

"...reversal of sexual desires of male & female/reversal of fear of death!" Photo by Phil Scalia

Happiness is……

...pussy & animal kingdom!

 

What MOTTO of yours you would like to stay forever?

I’d have to defer to Bukowski for that, I'm not even going to try to come up with the words on his tombstone.

What do you miss nowadays from the past?

Cool, being cool, no such thing now. Of course Rock n' roll is here to stay, but it was called R&B & race music when I was growing up. That name by disc jockey hadn't been coined yet. I some cases I found the beats a bit square.

 

How you would spend a day with Robert Johnson?

Not picking cotton. I tried that. Enough to make one put a sting on a board and play his heart out.

 

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?

...Lucretius, Descartes, Heroditus, Geronimo, Audrey Hepburn, Paris Hilton

 

Can music have words and colors and the words to have notes and colors?

As far as I understand the question, the cells of our bodies are mostly plasmic liquid in particle suspensions (thinnest of matter as Lucretius would have it) Living tissue organizes powered of sound with basis in sacred geometry. The tin matter collides and swerves like protons from the sun waiting for the age of the universe but so many the collide every spit second like the auditory tones that inuce randomly scattered particles meshin into specific geometric patterns in lattices and phyllotactic packing  of notes in nature’s harmony vibrating bodies, In ancient Egypt just three deminsions were necessary to embrace volumetric spheres of consciousness for the sensitive state taing on embodiment achieve like harmonies chanting activating the body’s chakras to feed the very cells. Ray Charles feed them poppy flowers in his early days. Words are the late comers but sometimes their ambiguities make the language live on.

 

What would you say to Albert Hoffman?

Fuck Off

"Good poets are full of experiences. I'm not." Photo by Gerard Malanga

What advice would you give to Christopher Colombo?

Re- name  Amerika

 

What characterize the philosophy of Charles Plymell?

MATTER, VOID, ENEGRY, SPIRIT

 

Are any advices that can make our life easier?

...reversal of sexual desires of male & female/reversal of fear of death!

 

Photo Credits: Florien Thiele (Charles read / Austria), A.D. Winans (Charles in Gino & Carlo, S.F), Charles Plymell (Beats outside City Lights), Phil Scalia, Gerard Malanga (Charles on Tree)

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