Interview with poet/playwright/recording artist Michael C Ford - a legendary voice on the LA poetry scene

"I believe the Blues relates to Poetry in a way that acknowledges structure: that is blues changes are inherent in 1-4-5 chord progressions and the lyric lines are in three structured phrases." 

Michael C Ford: Beatbop Words & Rhymes

Michael C Ford was born on the Illinois side of Lake Michigan. His debut spoken word vinyl LANGUAGE COMMANDO earned a Grammy nomination in 1986. His book of Selected Poems EMERGENCY EXITS was honored by a 1998 Pulitzer Prize nomination. His CD FIRE ESCAPES was bankrolled in 1995 by New Alliance: produced at Sonora by Michael Campagna who also composed and orchestrated most of the charts. He concluded a recording project: a verbal rhapsody video which pays an important tribute to both the art and the history of percussion; collaborating with DOORS co-founder John Densmore at the drum kit.

MCF has participated in keeping THE DOORS open by occasionally being in the company of keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Since their milestone appearances at McCabe’s (1986-1989) they’ve been collaborating on several voice and piano recording dates (the most recent being a specially conceived track titled EXTREME UNCTION FOR JAMES DOUGLAS MORRISON for Hen House Studios anthology Vol. 4).

Besides publishing music journalism, essays and assays on other aspects of American cultural history, he’s served as judge and panelist for literary arts organizations and publishers. Ford’s plays have been staged internationally, and a screenplay version of a West Coast production of BLONDES DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is currently in production.

He’s been called into service to teach in USA county area middle-schools and high-schools through the PEN in the Classroom program: also at many nationwide universities; and to recite at various venues: many times with musical accompaniment.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

MCF: More than any other personal creative ignition, has to have been geographic location: either the place I am right now or a long gone place I remember will, with respectful clarity, be the vortex of my poetic imagination. And allowing the environs to reveal themselves allows me to commit my words to paper then jigsaw puzzle pieces of narrative poetry together, evolving many times into much of what you might overhear on the LOOK EACH OTHER IN THE EARS recording project: so, much of it has to do with witnessing the cynical desecration of what I decided to be sacred landmarks.

What, also, immediately comes to mind is how, over the years, especially,  being attracted to the more complex chord changes and  digging into the musical density and beauty of  the blues, European classics or varied challenging motivations to write whatever American contemporary music will evoke during recreational listening.

I must, also, admit to being frequently attracted to cinematic images, particularly those I strip-mine out of American silver screen late 1940s, early1950s psycho dramas or crime dramas usually characterized by what has been classified as Film Noir, too, what the French filmmakers

a little less than two decades later declared to be Nouvelle Vague.

What have you learned about yourself from the poetry? How would you characterize Ford’s philosophy?

MCF: In order to avoid being even further disappointed by authoritative pronouncements regarding poetry and remembering too many occasions when I've seen literary artists who refuse to be compromised and vulgarized going crazy everyday watching their words being censored and ultimately dismissed by a poetry power structure, essentially, cruel, vicious, clueless and corrupt. So, I guess, in order to not be identified or even genetically connected to those without any sensibilities constantly referring to themselves as poets, I learned to distance myself from the "oh, don't we love poetry so" psychology.

Following the lamented loss of Wanda Coleman one of the most prestigious poets in Southern California, I take encouragement from

one of her 1990s cultural essays, referring to that aspect of  literary society  as "play poets"  viewing them as pretenders, as wearing the mask of the poet without any discernible face of genuine talent

behind it.

In truth, I would, probably, rather refer to myself as an American historian, an audio journalist; yeh, maybe as someone writing

reportage. It is inherent in my Philosophy then to be identifying

myself as an unregistered cultural reporter.

What has been the relationship between music, activism and poetry in your life and writing?

MCF: I believe there is a common thread winding its intricate way through, the body copy of my work:  mainly, relating to those who consider music, poetry and responsible activism three very necessary cultural weapons for their practitioners who work in the danger zone of protecting all of us against the juggernaut of humanist pride, or self-absorbed human aggression or greedy mindless ambition. Yes. These artists are our protection agency against the tyranny of those who hand themselves a blank check for playing it safe, sane and reserved.

Most people, at one time, sought their poetry fix from quietly turning pages and allowing words of the poet to resonate. Occasionally you heard vinyl recordings by poets who belong to the respectable canon doing recitations of selected work: most of it was 59 minutes of dry readings; virtually no music outside of a few exceptions like Langston Hughes recording with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop orchestra, Kenneth Rexroth recording with the Cellar Jazz Quartet or Kenneth Patchen recording with The Chamber Jazz Sextet.

All of a sudden in the middle 1980s Harvey Kubernik's Freeway Records projects were putting the voices of poets surfing the radio air waves.

I was in studio at Radio Tokyo in Venice West with a lot of these voices and it wasn't limited to self-indulgent journal writers, but musicians and interesting street creatures: alternative voices reading many times with melodic or rhythm backdrops.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

MCF: Quite simply, if you can make the allowance, music could be the soundtrack of our lives.

The bebop progenitor and trumpet artist Dizzy Gillespie once sd in an interview; that there were two kinds of music: good music and the other kinds.

Practically from the onset of my career as a writer I was identifying with jazz musicians who take standard melodies or a set of chord changes and begin making up their own series of original melodic lines.  I began to sense the possibility that my juxtaposition of syllables and line breaks and stanza breaks could collectively be  punctuations on rhythm changes and note clusters. It, also, has to do with personal cadence: the way a poet (just like as musician) is able to  accelerate or slow down the internal metronome.  

This is the way so many tracks on what is available, not just on my recording, but on all Hen House Studios record releases, show up as evidence, because of Harlan Steinberger's deep respect for World Music artists who are disseminating their talent as an almost verbal music that I hear all the time in my own creative imagination.

I have been continuously fascinated by the idea of creating, within the framework of a musician's non-verbal poetry, my own poetic premise

for dialogue in a play or phrases in narrative poems and using figurative language to informally improvise my way through it.

So let me bottom line you. Anything which might be boiling out of a John Coltrane soprano saxophone bell or from any musician's improvisational imagination has a positive capability of formalizing my own fantasy life, enhancing a series of reflective moods and enriching whatever imagery my metaphoric imagination is in the creative process of dictating.

Inspiration is yet another word not part of my personal dictionary.

I could list at least 100 charts by jazz musicians my spirit acknowledges as inspiring, but I would probably avoid any invitation to go on a quest seeking the validity of  somebody else's concept of cosmic inspiration.

What do you think was/is the relationship of Blues & Jazz music and culture to the poetry?

MCF: Let me say, first of all that I have been very discriminating in my ready acceptance of any wide range of contemporary music.

I have faith in my judgment to appreciate any kinds of music genre, as long as it is honest and isn't blatantly striving for wanton commercial appeal.

I believe the Blues relates to Poetry in a way that acknowledges structure: that is blues changes are inherent in 1-4-5 chord progressions

and the lyric lines are in three structured phrases.  

It's like when you listen to Billie Holiday sing her original Fine & Mellow,

she composes the lyric line Love is gonna make you drink and gamble gonna make you stay out all night long for the one chord: following the Blues tradition, she repeats the line for the four chord. The lyric on the five chord has usually an ironic, sometimes dark, rhymed revelation: like

when Lady Day finishes the chorus with  Love is gonna make you do things that y'know is wrong. And this is what the poet applies to sets of lines, stanzas and strophes in a ragged vertical (formatting in a typical flush left, uneven right margin).

Allow me to site three (3) #s of my own work titled The Back To Big Sur Blues, Pinky's Blues and The Lavender Lady is Blue although containing the usual blues oriented degrees of  emotional meditation, are not at all composed in legitimate Blues format. Even though another poet might be using the blues technique of repetition, he will not  be thinking about how his poem is going to sound as a vocal set of rhymed blues changes. 

Unless, of course, in imitation of Langston Hughes, his poetry is being formatted to be a recited Blues lyric.

Associating this with the confluent nature of language and music, it is absolutely composer proof. Remember, if you have any poetic sensibilities at all and are using the 1-4-5 measures, it will be difficult to stray very far from the basic melodic structuring of blues verses.    

So much of my association with music, now, is an ongoing demonstration of culture shock. I've guested on radio programming where I double play a cut from a Greg Ginn Black Flag session and a Mal Waldron original by the Prestige Jazz Quartet from 1958. I'm not saying whether or not, following my appearance I've ever been invited back to the radio station, but who's asking.

Are there any memories from Bukowski, The Doors and Michael McClure which you’d like to share with us?                         (Photo: Michael C Ford & Charles Bukowski)

MCF: Buk? I met Hank in 1968. We were both writing for an underground tabloid named Open City.

It was on a very auspicious day, when Abby Hoffman people, were using the news-room for an afternoon  meeting to plan the Yippie invasion of the Demo-Convention in Chicago. If you remember your modern American history, you know the upheaval of events which aren't necessary to be enumerated, here.

For any maverick interest, an accounting of that occasion may be located in my 2013 print document Crosswalk Casserole.

Of all the many visitations to Bukowski's court apartment on DeLongpre

one vivid memory of knocking on his front door which looked all caved in and free-hanging. Hank called out from inside: "A mad woman broke my door, kid, you're gonna have to come in through the window!"

There are so many similar Buk stories not necessarily part of his prose catalogue, but highlighting in our dialogues, his survey of urban anxiety and observations on the foibles and failures of "civilized" society.

Well, The Doors: pretty much done my share of DOORS memories to the point whereon you might have already eavesdropped.

One instance I haven't given too much airplay was when Manzarek and I made a UCLA campus 1985 appearance at a presentation celebrating our personal Film Dept's 20th anniversary. We spent a lot of voluntary time reminiscing with ourselves and current students about the co-founding of the DOORS in front of the Gypsy Wagon (a portable lunch truck between McGowan Hall and the then extant army barracks which made up the classroom/editing rooms identifying the UCLA School of Cinema Arts). Also, we found time to answer a request for me to, alongside of Ray's Roland 88 keyboard, recite some indicative 1960s images from those colorful and compelling times:  the war against the war, the People's Park in Berkeley which the police turned into a giant outdoor waste basket. A police chopper hovering over very visible campus unrest randomly strafed an area of the park where a student James B, Rector was shot down dead. This disgraceful incident was never prosecuted but was extolled by Michael McClure on a 1969 gloss broadside with color shadings of Red White & Blue and reprinted in his book September Blackberries a volume of poetry reviewed with my by-line in a July 1974 # of The Los Angeles Free Press.

The very 1st time I read out loud in front of a live audience was a fundraiser for Norman Mailer's Mayoral campaign in June of 1969 at the Cinematheque Theatre on Sunset Bv.  And reciting my fledgling work alongside of McClure, Jack Hirschman, 3 or 4 Andy Warhol experimental film luminaries, Jim Morrison with Robby chording and single string improvising on a Stratocaster. That was the night when Morrison recited the ENTIRE text of American Prayer.

Over the next 4 decades Michael McClure (photo) and I have shared the podium at least a quartet of times. And it has always been like an informal classroom for me. Each recital I can honestly say I have learned about someone or something or some historical event about which I had never before been aware. 

McClure, at his most political, may rage against landscape and seascape contamination, along the way exposing cultural pollution or tyranny of industrial corruption, but as a poet of contemplation, his best poems speak to an awareness that all industrial military corporate criminal damage to Nations and to non-human Nature oppresses, in an insidious way, the fulfillment of fertility within the deepest of our moral sensibilities. He writes in The Divine Is Practical: Study MIND-BODY / to be beauty / to cancel / misdirections / is thy duty.

What's the legacy of Beat generation? If Kerouac was speaking to us, what do you think he would tell us?

MCF: First of all he would repeat what he was hoping we had heard the first time around in 1959.

 Jack Kerouac stated in his essay Jazz & The Beat Generation that each of us have our own special internal rhythms (or beats). It is the manner in which we are perceived walking, even, talking: we all do it with a personally different cadence.

I have a very nagging feeling that if Jack Kerouac could return and perceive the condition of his progeny of that generation, he would say: This isn't what I meant; this isn't what I meant at all! Then, he would keel over with yet another liquor-soaked liver breakdown.

One of the main legacies from Jack and his literary satellites is the genuine regard and profound respect they treated universal jazz legends: quality improvisers from the '40s/50s incubator honoring  

names like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig, George Shearing, 

Red Rodney, Zoot Sims, Dodo Marmarosa, Al Cohn, Denzil Best, Bud Powell, Candido Camero, &c. And totally sending radiations of their contributions into the high skies of the American musical firmament forever.

Sadly, there are too many today who have no knowledge of the history

of these contributions.

This observation goes along with the evolution of motion picture soundtrack music. If you were allowed to listen to mid 20th-Century movie composers like Alex North, Bernard Herman, David Raksin,

Pete Rugolo, Gil Melle, Shorty Rogers and Leith Stevens: real excursions into modern concert jazz and then do a broad jump into 21st Century movie music you would discover 90% of today's ST music is automated MOR pop garbage. That leaves, maybe, 10% really tasteful talented composers out there working studio gigs.

Indeed, the Beat Generation left a legacy, then, for all of us who'd be inclined to gather together among the anarcho-pacifist writers and sculptors and painters and musicians trying to distance themselves

from current  charter members of the narrow-minded, middle brow, goal-oriented media hustlers making films for 14-yearold mentality, theatre with TV- sitcom dialogue and an American music culture that took a left turn, drove into an abyss and disappeared forever.

Why the Beats are connected with underground and counter culture? What is your favorite motto of life?

MCF: They were connected on so many artistic and political levels; the task of enumerating them in large exemplary numbers seems almost like plowing through the clutter of an attic full of lost arcane artifacts.

Many were referred to as "poets of Protest" which is a misleading epithet. It isn't like they were damning something all the time.

Most of the peripheral non-artist beats seemed to be more like creating unruly behavior and chaotic mischief and just flipping the casual bone in the face of authority. And the artists were creating their sullen art.

I think we have a tendency to forget that the political definition of protest is CHANGE.

Also, I really don't believe there is an "underground" anymore. I think the majority of any current activist artistic community is pretty much operating out in the open.

Think what you're referring to is, quite probably, the subculture of poets, painters, jazz musicians and theatre artists associating themselves with the very visible modern versions of Artists For Change.

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

MCF: You could characterize it as advice but to me it was more like a pre-ordained alternative When I was 19: right in the midst of studying with the iconoclastic poet Kenneth Patchen, he said something I remember to this day: he sd: If you cultivate an original approach to the art form of Poetry and you have a uniquely orchestrated creative imagination and you have artistic integrity, you will have three strikes against you.  In order to live with yourself, this is the path designed for you. Because there is the feeling that it's already your path of choice.

 In 1975 at the Foothill Writers Conference in Los Altos Hills, Kenneth's widow Miriam Patchen conspiratorially sd to me: "You will continue to carry Kenneth's torch." And with several economic impediments as proof, I guess, Mr. and Mrs. Patchen appear to be the wiser prophets.

Not really sure if I have the empathetic responsibility to pass on that particular "advice" to the youth market.

But. Try this. As I am working towards the final draft of my new ms for a 2015 publication with Word Palace Press the title of which is Women Under The Influence I found myself developing and paraphrasing a line which might explain the core of "influence" one might discover in the text and, therefore be inclined to pass this document on to the next 200 generations. Instead of spending their time trying to love the most beautiful girl in the world, more men should spend their time trying to love a girl who is in the process of making the world more beautiful.

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

Believe I've already made a list of primary musical and movie elements that have been bulldozed out of existence. So, don't get me cranked-up, again about that.  

Music producers, Film producers, Television and Radio producers, Theatre producers, just the entire batterie of Media entrepreneurs need to follow an alternative moral compass, employing writers and composers of conscience so we can after a long agonizing cultural drought finally find some semblance of catharsis. Somehow Universities need to turn a corner and be suddenly enlightened enough to employ a brave cadre of language artists as educators whose mission in life is to motivate future generations of students who will, theoretically anyhow, correct the damage.

My biggest fear is that the elite cadre of Academy of American Poets mentality will find my suggestions unnecessary and unfashionable.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched your emotions from the world news?

Since the rare satiric early radio and television innovations of the great Steve Allen, the wide-range visionary intelligence of Lenny Bruce and the experimental comedic brilliance of Ernie Kovacs, the stentorian bombast of Lord Buckley or the eccentric songs of Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, all over half a century ago, there hasn't been much I can easily recall that initiated any response of personal original genuine laughter.

The only personal emotional experience from incidents in World News is extreme paranoia.

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

MCF: Okay, now you are getting really personal, here. Where do I begin or, more to the point, where would I end.

Let's just accumulate a reasonable clutch of quality stuff. How about my empty 1946 tin can container of Log Cabin maple syrup, my 1949 Dick Tracy cap pistol, my Atlantic Records black label 1959 vinyl of Charles Mingus with radio poet Jean Shepard reciting The Clown.  How about 103 vintage paperback mysteries from 1939 (the genesis of  paperback novels) to 1962 (their lurid cover art used so many times as prompters for my writer's catalog) a few examples of signed 1st editions: Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby Jr. and, sort of predictably, The Doors catalogue of original vinyl  and print documents. And since you are sort of associating me with the Hen House Studios recorded package with my name on it plus the appearance of surviving members of that very band, we should quietly and with incredible reverence to speak...the doors?

Michael C Ford - official website

Photo by Jill Jarrett


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