Poet Andy Clausen talks about the Home of the Blues, Sixties, Beat Generation, and the Global Culture

"You’ve got to understand a culture quickly to get what you want or need. The earth is in a terrible fix. Water to drink is a Huge issue. There are saints and assholes everywhere."

Andy Clausen: President at Home of the Blues

Andy Clausen was born Andre Laloux in a Belgian bomb shelter in 1943. He was raised in Oakland, California. USA. After graduating from high school, he became a Golden Gloves boxer and, for a brief time, joined the Marines, which he left in 1966 after watching Allen Ginsberg on TV read his anti-Vietnam War poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra." After Andy began devoting himself to writing, Allen Ginsberg would consistently cite him as one of the most important poets of the next generation. 

An ex-marine, he is the author of 14 books of poetry, including 40th Century Man: Selected Verse 1996-1966 (1997), Without Doubt (1991, introduction by Allen Ginsberg) and was coeditor of Poems for the Nation (2000), a collection of contemporary political poems compiled by the late poet Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg called Andy the "Future of American Poetry" Photo © Dan Wilcox

In 1968, he signalled the intensity of his energetic spoken word recital for which he would become known and would affect the generation of latter-day beats as well as many writers of Generation X when he performed naked save for an American flag tie at the Conference Of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers in Berkeley. The following month, when Allen Ginsberg caught a glimpse of Clausen at the Rolling Renaissance readings in San Francisco, he thought he was seeing the young Neal Cassady. Allen Ginsberg not only called him the "Future of American Poetry" but in the introduction to Without Doubt, said he would take a chance on a "President Clausen."

Clausen has taught at Naropa University and given readings and lectures at many universities, prisons, poetry conferences, and cafes at home and around the world. He has worked for poetry in the schools agencies in California, New Jersey, Colorado and New York. He is presently working on memoirs of his friendship and adventures with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and many others of the Beat Generation.

"Home of the Blues", Andy's second volume of selected poems following 40th Century Man, covers over five decades of his prolific work: from the counterculture and antiwar years of the 1960s right up to the years of progressive promise and frequent disappointment following the historic election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Since 60s – what has changed towards the best – for our civilization and culture and what has gone wrong?

In the USA, at least, women have more opportunity and say over their bodies and destinies. But as we know, freedom begets more thirst for it. We realize that traditional economic, social and religious injustice towards women has not been eradicated. Racial intermingling has brought friendship and music, dance and language, yet wars, minute and macro, are fought over race, religion and money.

I think that the widespread use of cannabis has been mostly beneficial. It’s no longer the vogue to beat your wife and children. Many more gay folk are out in the open and proud. Psychedelics were the door into the minds that created the computer universe. People became conscious of pollution, of the benefits of organic foods, of religions and philosophies foreign to Middle America. There was a treasuring of the environment.

Yet in all the gains I’ve mentioned, there are conflicts of drastic consequence at this very moment.

Why? I can speculate. Economics can change one’s ethics, dampen Idealism. The battle is materialism vs. spirit. We’ve all had to compromise to live in this world. The culture of the Sixties was unifying, inclusive, welcoming. This has devolved into exclusionary self seekers claiming to be “hipsters”.

                                       Andy at Berkeley in the 60's. Photo © Harold Adler

In your opinion what was the reasons that made 60s to be the center of the political and social conquests?

The Sixties had the Beat Generation to build on. Kerouac & Cassady, the adventurers, the seeker-pilgrims, the new post-war energy, the spontaneous, Ginsberg, all religions, political concern, militant gays, marijuana advocacy, gay pride, compassion for the suffering of the world, Corso, genius philosopher and eloquent goof, Snyder, Eastern religions, the environment, Burroughs, the Way Out and Low Down.

The sixties had Acid. It had music, a music that swept into every venue and style. A music that brought poetry to the masses.  An eclectic new literature. The art world exploded. Electric colors. An openness of sexuality. I don’t know about the Islamic world, but for better or worse, the West is not going back to only allowing “one man, one wife, for Life.”

This infusion of non-establishment-approved or-understood culture into the mainstream was, as we say nowadays, viral. It was powerful. There was this wave of Youth, tired, bored with the prevailing hypocrisy. Yet materialism is resiliently strong and has slowly eaten away at the humanitarian gains, till we have worship of mediocrity, like American Idol, for example.

What was the relation between music, poetry and activism? Can the Art confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?

My friend, Eliot Katz, believes there must be institutions that organize and disseminate information, that they are primary to social change. I think they are important, but from what I’ve seen, nothing touches and changes minds and hearts like songs, poems, paintings, movies and vibrations at gatherings. Many activists are also artists.

What first attracted you to the Beat poetry and how has changed your life?

First, I read Kerouac’s “Big Sur”. I thought his alcohol come-down was like an acid trip! Then I read “Desolation Angels” and Seymour Krim (with whom I read many years later) who in his Intro, revealed the real names of the characters. I immediately bought “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, “The Happy Birthday of Death” by Gregory Corso and “Abomunist Manifesto” by Bob Kaufman. I was hooked. I would get drunk and take bennies and read “Howl” to my wide-eyed buddies. We’d go to a graveyard and read Corso and laugh, spilling our wine. I told my roommate that Beatnik poetry was the next big thing. It would be bigger than baseball. He said that IBM had opened a school in Almaden and he was going to learn computers. I said it was a waste of time. “What add and subtract? What’s it going to compute? Give me some numbers and I’ll add them up.” I quoted Corso to prove my point, “Penguin dust, bring me Penguin dust!” How did Beat poetry change my life? Well, it became my primary concern. I care about it more than anything, save love. I probably made a lot less money than I should have, but I sure slept with some brilliant, beautiful women, that I’d never have had a chance with otherwise. Ray Bremser would say “We’re jazz & blues poets. We may not get paid, but we get laid.”

I gave up a lot to be a Beat poet, luxury, the Marine Corps, a steady job, living in one place. But no, I would sure change some things I regret, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for a life of wealth or brainwashed subservience.      (Andy reading from Long Shot magazine. Photo © Eliot Katz)

What characterize Andy Clause poetry? How do you describe Andy’s philosophy of life?

Andy Clausen is a Free Thinker. The Andy Clausen in Andy Clausen’s verse is a much better person than the carnal Andy Clausen, who has been a victim of his flesh too often. He admires the philosophies of Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Buddha, Jesus, Lao-Tse, Peter Kropotkin, John Stuart Mill, H.G. Wells, Nikos Kazantzakis. In general terms, he is for both individual freedom & collective action. He believes that honest work should have honest pay and that work and the resources of the world have to be re-valued. Too many people garner the wealth of the world by doing nothing but manipulating that wealth. I think that part of Capitalism has to be eliminated or greed will eat or starve the planet. I am essentially a deist. Some thing or being might have created all this but I do not believe our truck is with that deity, but with each other. If I hurt you, I’m not sorry because I hurt God, but because I hurt you, and therefore myself. I ask forgiveness of you and myself, not God. I love the celebration, just not on the backs of others. My poetry is concerned with all subjects. I tend to concentrate on the big ones. My main models have been Walt Whitman, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Gregory Corso, Elana Guro, Sergei Essenin, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Micheline, Diane di Prima, John Donne, Nicanor Parra, Rimbaud and my contemporaries. I would say my work is mostly Free Verse, some Zaum, a pinch of surrealism, a dash of realism, the blues, jazz, folk, country, often long pieces.

Andy at Peter Orlovsky's memorial in Vaselka's 2010. Photo © Jacqueline Gens

Why did you think that the Beat literary continued to generate such a devoted following?

People realize the Beat Generation was a harbinger of vast cultural change. But I think it has a long life because most of it was great, interesting, controversial, heart-felt, inventive, intelligent, exalting ancient traditions. Inclusive, not elitist.

Do you know why the Blues /Jazz are connected to the Beat culture & what characterize the sound of Beat generation?

At the time of the Beats, after the war sanctioned racial intermingling, a joyous phase of jazz, be-bop, infused avant garde life with its wild rhythms and revolutionary syntax. Be-bop and Beat inspired each other. The Blues fit thematically with the eclectic Beat position. The Beat Generation was more an embracing of an attitude than a certain sound or style. The works of Ray Bremser and Gary Snyder have little in common, other than an open frankness. Allen Ginsberg tried just about every kind of poetry. Kerouac’s stream of consciousness is antithetical to Burrough’s cut-up method. Unifying factors: exaltation of sex, use of mind drugs and an energetic drive to squeeze the peaches and lemons of existence.

The Blues brought a tremendous innovation to Euro-music, dominant back to sub-dominant, before tonic chord, also bending notes. I’ve heard Blues-like music in India and Thailand. I’ve heard it in Roma and Celtic music. It’s the plaintiveness, the sound of unfulfillment and protest. The Blues are used to transcend the actual physical pains of the no rent money, my baby left me, she won’t put out, my job sucks, and my people are dying causes of the blues.

There are happy Blues, which are usually braggadocios, laughing and partying to keep from crying. Those sounds hit deep in the body. Someday, a biologist will figure out specifically what it does to the body, the blood, the lymph, the liver, the heart, the brain.

The Blues are a progenitor of jazz, country & western, and rock & roll. Acid rock was also propelled by the Blues.

 

You have on progress an interesting book of your friendship and adventures with the Beat Generation. Would you mind telling me your most vivid memories?

Yes, I would mind telling you my most vivid memories, as they are in the book and you will be able to read them there… but here’s one: Gregory Corso and his son, Max, staying with my family in Oakland, CA. Allen Ginsberg’s been to an LSD seminar in Santa Cruz, at UCSC and dropped some Owsley; he’s with Neely Cherkovski. Gregory’s hitting him up for money I think and they argue. Gregory gets louder. Allen stands up and says, “I’m not afraid of you.” Gregory squares off but backs up and then says, “I can’t hit a man who’s tripping on acid.”

I remember Allen’s eyes on TV, when he recited “Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?” and deciding to abandon the Marine Corps. That’s another one.

What's the legacy of all these legendary Beat adventures? The Beats was more “ghosts” or humans?

They may be ghosts to other people. But, to me, they were people, yes, magical by their talent and attitude, but they cried, worried, got jealous, lost their tempers, made bad choices in love, weren’t always the best parents, abused their bodies, in short, were human. But they were lovers and had style and many of them were my friends.

Which memory from Charles Plymell, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Micheline makes you smile?

Charlie Plymell: listening to his stories about Neal (Cassady) and the old days in Wichita and describing Ray Bremser’s last days

Allen, when he wept, returning to Prague after being expelled in the Sixties, the last King of the May, to give away his crown. Whenever Allen wept, I felt it was a sacred moment. He really meant it.

Gregory at USF (University of San Francisco) onstage, telling the audience that the cause of all the grief, miscommunication, evil and malfunction in the world was “One Man, in the back of the room, right here, right now, Michael Wojczuk!” standing next to me. Michael Wojczuk is one of the most Righteous guys I know. Everybody turned around, looking at him. He just smiled. Wojczuk is a great artist. He painted a brilliant, awesome cover for my new book, “Home of the Blues”, released in January.

Jack Micheline, I saw him at the horse race track often, he bet long shots. He’d go on a full moon and look into the eyes of the steeds with poetic names and look for the Fire. There’s this book “Poems for Downtrodden Saints” with Jack on the cover, counting out $5000 he hit on a trifecta, on Janine Pommy Vega’s kitchen table. Janine gasped when she saw the book and shook her head because, unbeknownst to Janine of that score, he had tried to bum $25 from her the next morning. We performed on the same bill, Jack and I, over 30 times. I must have also read with Janine close to that.

Cherry Valley Arts Festival 1998. Andy with Catfish Mcdaris, Charles and Pam Plymell, Mary Beach, Ray Bremser, Claude Pelieu. Photo © Pam Plymell

From the way of life of view is there any difference and similarities between the original Beat era & todays?

Today, people are less ready to gamble and gambol. Materialistic reality and survival dominate these times. Now people downplay the adventures of their youth. But all these years of my life are full of contradictions.

Are there any memories from the Conference of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers in Berkeley?

Of course, I took my clothes off while I was reading; except for an American flag necktie I wore like a priest’s stole. Other people, including my girlfriend, also took their clothes off. Otherwise, I didn’t understand most of the poetry, but it was quite an introduction to the small press world.

How you would spend a day with Jack Kerouac and Mayakovski?

Well, Jack Kerouac, I loved him, but at the time of his late forties, we might not have got along. In my later years, we would have. When I was young, I was overeager about everything, though the working-class, fellaheen connection would have been there. Maybe drinking, maybe hiking a mountain trail.

Now, Mayakovsky was heavy, serious, large themed. He’d brood, I’d try to make him laugh. We’d go looking for interesting, intelligent women who love poets. Maybe do a little gambling. We’d be betting on things like “will anything spill when that box falls?” “will the next person without a hat be a man or a woman?”… all day long.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

In a heroic pose, with my hod (look it up) on my shoulder. Or pushing a wheelbarrow of soil, gravel or rubble, with my notebook in my back pocket. Michael Wojczuk’s portrait of me in action on the cover of “Home of the Blues” is a good as it gets.

You have been traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions? What are some of the most travels you've had?

Most people want to do good. You’ve got to understand a culture quickly to get what you want or need. The earth is in a terrible fix. Water to drink is a Huge issue. There are saints and assholes everywhere. Thailand, Nepal, India, Poland, Greece, Agamemnon’s Tomb, Patmos, Corfu, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Budapest, Prague, Poland, Tashkent, Amsterdam, Belgium, back to the house I was born in, my biological father’s grave. All over North America, Alaska twice, down into Mexico, Oakland, Oregon, Taos, San Jose, Texas, NYC, Chicago, Denver, Nashville, New Jersey, Alaska, Canada, Woodstock… the story continues…

Andy Clausens @ Museum of American Poetics

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