Poet & musician Steven Gray talks about the Beats, Bukowski, Valaoritis, Ferlinghetti and ruth weiss

"Jazz had a liberating momentum for the Beat writers, with its long-winded improvisation."

Steven Gray: The Barrio of Pagan Socialist

Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 (!) and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011). In his own words: As a writer and musician I’ve been under the influence of a lot of people, probably too many to mention. In high school in the late 1960’s I was preoccupied with Bob Dylan and reading the beat writers, along with a French poet from the 1800’s - Rimbaud. I was in Los Angeles at the time, which had its downside, but there were bands passing through like Cream and Hendrix.

I had a Navajo friend who played bass during our wine-soaked music sessions in his liberated garage. We were going to be the next Hot Tuna. He would go to the reservation in New Mexico and bring back peyote. We had some before going to a drive-in movie in an old pickup to watch “2001.” While living in an old Victorian mansion in San Pedro during my second year of college I went to see Captain Beefheart in a small theater. I moved to San Francisco when I was 20 for two more years of college, studying with the Greek surrealist poet Nanos Valaoritis and the novelist Kay Boyle. I was reading my poems at Minnie’s Can-Do Club in the Fillmore and the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach while living in the Haight. During my last year of college I had an enormous studio in a converted factory in the Mission District called Project Artaud. I was on the corridor known as “Alchemical Rhetoric,” living next door to a clown troupe who would come home late at night blowing trombones. The place had thin walls and open minds - there were performers, artists, acid heads, etc.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently and how would you characterize the philosophy of Steven Gray’s?

If you’re talking about ideas for poems or songs, those could come from anywhere. My brain is like a furnace - I feed it books and newspapers, music, conversation, wine, the company of women, the pressures of living in a city, long walks on the edge of a cliff - so when the occasional phrase or opening line of a poem floats up out of the darkness I may not know what inspired it. Sometimes it is more obvious, like when I witness the riot squad or a woman running from her ex-boyfriend as he smashes his fist on the bus door, or someone tells me about a military veteran jumping out the window, and I write about it.   

As for my philosophy:  I’m in the neighborhood of a pagan socialist.

Why your standard bio profile insists on saying that you’ve been living in San Francisco since 1849?

It's a slight exaggeration, meant to emphasize how long I've been here (since the 1970's), and how important rent control is in this town.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I have been writing and playing guitar since early high school. I often accompany poets on the guitar. I know the guitar is a great relief when I pick it up after reading and writing for hours. It is an immediate vacation from words. At the same time, there is a rhythm in my writing which I am not always aware of. It is more apparent when I write poems with a rhyming beat, like a rap. 

As for mood and inspiration, I have written about the transports of a sonic immersion, trying to convey what comes over someone on a guitar for an hour or two, the trance he goes into, as if his fingers are connected to his intuition. However, being sensitized to music and its moody directions has a downside. It bothers me when I hear bad music. I don’t know how people can stand it, working with obnoxious songs on the radio all day long. Sometimes at home I find myself slipping into a slight depression, until I realize it is the music in the background - something on the jazz or classical station which has been filling the room with a mediocre mood. I get up and change the station and feel better.

Here are a few stanzas from an older piece called “Music for a Non-Musician”:

If a non-musician doesn’t know

what he is missing, would he ever miss it?

Visiting a legendary note

in unison, the strangers are emoting,

a collaboration, you can kiss it,

a kinetic instrumental.

Men and women are androgynous

on stage, their kindness is experimental,

but the instinct is indigenous, 

it doesn’t make you mental.

A musician can be kind of slow,

 

and a non-musician doesn’t go

into a manual delivered trance.

He’s not familiar with the fingering,

the way a noted mood is lingering.

The musicians want to take a chance,

the intricate is intersecting

with the cat-gut, and a moment sings.

A woman there, appearing disconnected, like her nerves are better than guitar strings,

are they more select,

the very soul is everybody’s solo.

 

Some don’t need an instrument to feel it,

they’re communing with their fellow man,

communicating with the sound effects

evaporating.  Some are having sex

and never play a note, they have a plan, it's very quiet in their brain.

I don’t know how they do it, no guitar

and I am in withdrawal, I’m in pain,

though I may be closer to the gutter

than to “Sketches of Spain.”

A boring life, the music wants to heal it.

"I miss having a good record player. I also miss coffee and cigarettes, which is how I would stay up writing until 4 or 5 in the morning.  Now I have green tea in the morning, and a glass of red wine at night. As for the future: I fear the signs of encroaching fascism in this country, and I hope the population puts up some resistance."

What do you think was the relationship of Blues & Jazz music to the poetry of Beat generation?

Jazz had a liberating momentum for the Beat writers, with its long-winded improvisation. It was less bound by structures, which was good for writers who wanted to stretch out with a stream of consciousness, throwing the language into a cauldron of happy accidents and stimulating cross-currents. The music has a momentum without words, but the current can also carry words. There is a monthly open mic in San Francisco called Word Party, where we read our poems with a sax, stand-up bass, and conga drums on stage. You can ask the musicians for a particular mood, or take your chances on what they come up with.

What's the legacy of Beats? If Bukowski speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us?

On the legacy of the Beats: that is a hard question, partly because they were such a varied group of writers. It is like going from Gary Snyder, a Zen Buddhist, to William Burroughs, whose meditation tended to involve heroin. That said, a good illustration of what they brought to this culture in terms of a freewheeling intelligence and speaking truth to power poles and hour hands and each other, is to compare the writing of Walt Whitman (who was highly respected by Allen Ginsberg) with whatever verse was popular at the time. The difference is devastating. The popular writing tends to be so constricted there is a barely a pulse, whereas Whitman’s voice is leaping off the page with open-minded observation. It is similar to what Kerouac meant by the phrase “naked lunch” - where you focus on what is on the end of your fork - sensory and uncensored. 

When I was in my last year of college in San Francisco, in the 1970’s, I was invited to a small meeting of Trotskyists. It was not very interesting. I left and went to North Beach where Bukowski was giving a reading in a large room full of people. He was onstage with a small refrigerator full of beer which he kept referring to. If he was around today, I’m not sure what he would tell us. He might complain about the lack of typewriter repair shops, but as long as he could find some classical music on the radio and had a few beers, he was ok. If he was speaking to us about the power struggles and corruption in this country, I think he would say it is business as usual.

"The music has a momentum without words, but the current can also carry words."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you and which has been the most interesting period in your life?

I’m not sure how one determines “the most interesting period” in one’s life. We function on several levels at once. I could be living a sedate life, but writing a lot, or I could be traveling in other countries, but not writing very much. When I was 22 in 1974, I met an older French-speaking woman in Los Angeles. We fell in love and the following year went to Europe, meeting her family in Belgium. Her father was a retired diplomat. We ended up drifting around Europe for a year. The people I met ranged from a poor old Finnish count who was given a diamond-studded pistol by Hitler for fighting the communists, to a flamenco dancer in Grenada, Spain. We were staying in an old hotel near the Alhambra, and she lived in the hotel.  I gave her a yellow rose. My Spanish wasn’t very good, so I used a flower to speak for me and she understood. 

During that time in Europe, I met up with one of my old professors, Nanos Valaoritis, a Greek surrealist poet. He was on a sabbatical in Paris, taking a year off. He introduced me to Gregory Corso, one of my favorite Beat poets at the time. There was a dinner at La Coupole with the actress Jean Seberg at the head of the table, along with Nanos, Corso, a French intellectual named Alain Jouffroy, the filmmaker Garrell, my girlfriend, and myself. This meeting of different people around a table was also significant in that it was - according to Nanos - a dying custom. A person who could afford it would invite writers, intellectuals, and artists of various types, who didn’t necessarily know each other, or operate in the same milieu, but could make for a lively evening.  

Speaking of significant meetings:  on 9/09/09 I was getting off the stage in a small theater, having read a few poems. A tall blonde walked up to me and said my writing resonated with her. I don’t hear that very often, and figured I should get to know her. We were married a year later in a redwood grove while it rained.

Which memory from ruth weiss, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Nanos Valaoritis makes you smile?

In the early 1970’s I was a student in San Francisco, living in the Haight and going to open mic readings at Minnie’s Can-Do Bar in the Fillmore. The readings were run by ruth weiss. I had written a satirical poem about Carol Doda (who started topless dancing in San Francisco) and ruth said I should give it to her (the two of them were friends). One night after a reading in North Beach at the Old Spaghetti Factory, I walked to the Condor Club with a few friends and gave the doorman the poem. He was suspicious, but returned in a few minutes, saying I could have a free show, but not my friends. I stayed for the show, and met up with her later.

With respect to Ferlinghetti (photo), I have not had many interactions with him, though I would see him now and then in North Beach.  However, last year there was an exhibit at Focus Gallery of some of his work and he was at the opening. We were sitting next to each other, having some wine, and got into a discussion. He mentioned how there used to be anarchists and pro-fascists in North Beach, sometimes getting into arguments and fights. While we were talking a young woman walked up and kissed him. He took a moment to remove the lipstick from his cheek. 

I also like this quote from an article in The Guardian, 2006:

"My poetics are totally different to something like the Ginsberg school, which is  based on the idea of 'first thought, best thought'. It is a solid concept to get the most direct transcription of your consciousness, especially if the person doing it has an original mind. Allen Ginsberg had a fascinating and genius mind and so the poetry is fascinating and genius. But when this method is laid on to thousands of  students, many of whom don't have original minds, you get acres of boring poetry." He also notes, as Ginsberg's editor from 1955-85, that "Howl", and much  else of Ginsberg's work, was painstakingly revised before publication.

Nanos Valaoritis: I mentioned our encounters in Paris in the 1970’s, but before then he was one of my professors in San Francisco, introducing me to the work of Lautreamont. I remember he showed a light-hearted erotic film involving fruits and vegetables, and on another occasion a few of us were doing a Greek dance in front of the class. He was also fond of puns, and told me once, “A man’s zipper is a zip code.” “And the zip code moves the male,” I said and he laughed.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

I had some good advice from Kay Boyle, one of my professors at San Francisco State, about doing constant rewrites. And there is a line from Burroughs about there being no short cuts for a writer - you can’t fool the muse, so that’s good to remember. As for advice to a younger generation, here are a few lines from a piece I wrote called “Broken Field Runner”:

            The cognizance, it never quits,

            don’t blow your mind you need the circuits,

            you don’t want to be uncouth,

            I’ve seen the moonlight in vermouth...

 

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I miss having a good record player. I also miss coffee and cigarettes, which is how I would stay up writing until 4 or 5 in the morning.  Now I have green tea in the morning, and a glass of red wine at night. 

As for the future: I fear the signs of encroaching fascism in this country, and I hope the population puts up some resistance.

"My brain is like a furnace - I feed it books and newspapers, music, conversation, wine, the company of women, the pressures of living in a city, long walks on the edge of a cliff - so when the occasional phrase or opening line of a poem floats up out of the darkness I may not know what inspired it."

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If you’re talking about something plausible, rather than say, putting the Bush family in prison, I would say: allow the use of industrial hemp.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

I had a spontaneous jam with two friends from New Orleans recently, with Loren Pickford on piano, me on guitar, and Dave Brinks throwing in some words off the top of his skull. We were in a small theater that looked like a psychedelic opium den, and the whole thing was rather moving. 

What made me laugh recently: an article in the New York Times about a sculptor who put a few blocks of wood on the floor. The article compared his work to Stonehenge. 

What from your memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I suppose my cd, Three-Legged Woman, and a book of poems - either Shadow on the Rocks or Jet Shock and Culture Lag. I have too many photos to choose from my website.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That’s a hard one. Would I be able to change anything or would I just be there as an observer? If the former: Dallas in 1963 with Kennedy’s motorcade. If the latter: hanging out with Leonardo da Vinci.

Steven Gray - official website

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