Writer Jim McCrary talks about Burroughs, S. Clay Wilson, Ginsberg, Plymell, Blues and Rock Chalk Cafe

"Music was all that was important before I began writing. Was what I did...and that was okay. This was years between beats and hippys...we were just college kids getting high and listening to jazz and blues and hillbilly stuff."

Jim McCrary: Lawrence Blues

Jim McCrary has been in and out of Lawrence, KS since 1965.  Mostly in and last 20 plus years with the painter Sue Ashline and their present companions Sara, Abby and Iris. Latest chapbooks Po Doom (Hank's Orginal), Es Verdad (Old Gringo) and Not Not (Hank's Orginal).  Poems in Jim Yeary's various titled newsletters, Ken Warren's House Organ and other obscure print and online publications. Rage on.

"Fear it will blow itself up and hope it don’t."

He worked as office manager and archivist at William Burroughs Communications in Lawrence, KS. home as well to late filmmaker Herk Harvey who made the cult favorite Carnival of Souls. Lawrence, plays a part in McCrary’s double-edged poems. Soon after his arrival in the early ’60s, McCrary fell in with the free-wheeling literati at the Abingdon Book Shop, forming lasting friendships with the likes of GRIST publisher John Fowler, and writers Charles Plymell and George Kimball, and later with William S. Burroughs, S. Clay Wilson and Allen Ginsberg.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the poetry and what characterize Jim McCrary’s poetry?

I suppose 1965 when I arrived in Lawrence, Kansas in mid-winter and discovered John Fowler’s Abington Bookstore and his Grist Magazine which he was doing on mimeo then. I wrote some very bad poetry at first and studied with David Ignatow who was a visiting writer at University of Kansas. I wrote a short story illustrating the life of proto-hippies in Lawrence which was published in Evergreen Review which was encouraging. Looking back it is a very, very embarrassing story…very sexist. But, back to Grist Magazine (pre Plymell) which was so simply put together and the writing was good too….so I thought I could do that too. I didn’t read much, if any, poetry prior to that. Don’t remember at all. David Ignatow brought The Fugs to Lawrence in late 60’s which was inspiring.  Today I think my poetry is based in a use of language that doesn’t follow any rules or trends. I want my poetics to create a response of surprise to the reader…even if they are not sure what cause that.

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

Certainly travel has triggered a response in very different ways over the years…to see and experience new things. Have written quite a bit after returning from Central America or SE Asia more recently.  Drugs thru the years have also influenced how I write.

"Most important music was what I heard live in Chicago in the 60-70’s. That ran the gamout from Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Muddy Waters,  Howling Wolf, Carl Perkins and Fats Domino." 

Has your poetry changed greatly over the years or have your themes and techniques remained basically the same?  Have you embarked on new directions recently? 

Yes it has and that is a good thing I think. Certainly I am less restricted by outside influence. I guess I am more confident in what I am writing will be interesting to the few people who read it. Am not so much concerned with being one of the group like when I was younger.  Especially, at times, influenced by Charles Olson and Gary Snyder et al. Which was okay I guess. More better influence was Ed Dorn and later David Bromige and Burroughs….those three tought me that humor was important and necessary especially dark humor.  Those guys were a good influence.

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

One thing for sure is that I am not as talented as I think I am sometimes. I try to not encourage my ego because I think that encourages bad writing. I am willing to go public with a not so good poem IF I think something better will come along. But I don’t believe everything I do or say or write is good. There are persons today who DO think everything they do is “special” and I dispise them.

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

For some time music has been the grounding. Brings me down to earth. Comfort too. And inspiration in the past. Not so much now that I don’t depend so much on being inspired. The writing comes anyway. Most important music was what I heard live in Chicago in the 60-70’s. That ran the gamout from Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Muddy Waters,  Howling Wolf, Carl Perkins and Fats Domino. Heard them all..north side, south side, west side. 

Poet Jim McCrary and Artist Lee Chapman, circa 1970, stand at the doorway of the Tansy Bookstore. The bookstore was a familiar hangout for poets and artists in those years.

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

Music was all that was important before I began writing. Was what I did…and that was okay.  This was years between beats and hippys….we were just college kids getting high and listening to jazz and blues and hillbilly stuff.  No rock then for me. Did take acid and go to Dylan concert and he was booed (not by me) when he plugged in a guitar. Heard blues guys like Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield then too. I hated the Beach Boys.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music and poetry?   

I learned everything about music listening to John Coltrane quartet.  I think Ed Dorn tought me not to pull any punches…and always be funny.

Would you mind telling me most vivid memories from William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg?

Sure. I was lucky enough to be around WSB when he lived in Lawrence. Saw him just about every day for many years. Hung out, cooked meals, rolled joints, fixed vodka/cokes, took him shooting and took him shopping. Best memories for me when Allen visited before he got sick and the two of them just fucked around. Drank tea, joked, told stories, drank and smoked. William seemed to enjoy listening to Allen talk about his lastest exploits. And Allen liked listenting to William talk about blue octopus’s and crop circles and Lawrence and Kansas history. My favorite time was going with William when he went to New York to visit his old friend Paul Bowles who was in town for a hip operation. That was the best ever. We went to the hotel where Paul was staying and  sat with them while they had lunch. There were several others around…but it seemed as if the two of them were alone. I didn’t know what they would talk about…but like any old, old friends, dear friends, the asked each other about health and then caught each other up on other friends and what they were doing. I think it was a really high point in my life to have been there. To see two men I so admired.

"My favorite time was going with William when he went to New York to visit his old friend Paul Bowles who was in town for a hip operation. That was the best ever." (Photo: William S. Burroughs and Jim McCrary)

Are there any memories from the Rock Chalk Cafe which you’d like to share with us? 

Ahh...the Chalk....we used to call it. Was certainly a very important spot in Lawrence for a few years.  At the end of a block on top of a hill looking over the Kansas River valley. At the other end of block was the Gaslight Tavern which was another beer and hamburger joint where college professors and college football players and hippies all hung out together. Next door to that was the Abington Bookstore run by John Fowler and his wife Bunny. It was fowler published Grist magazine and which Charlie Plymell and Kimball guest edited a couple issues.  Fowler did a lot of issues before and after Charlie was there.  In fact Grist was one of the first online magazines in the 1980's in US. The highlights of Rock Chalk Cafe probably during the riots and burning of university buildings in 1970's. It was the headquarters for the rebels.

There was also a bookshop which opened after fowler left town. It was upstairs. Run by John Moritz for a while and then Lee Chapman.  Bukowski, Dorn and others read up there. Was always a party. The Rock Chalk turned into the Catfish Bar and Grill and then a few other names. Never sold alcohol only cheap and watery beer and in the end was sort of a fraternity bar called the Crossing. Now a giant upscale hotel stands over the place.

Mostly, in the beginning it was a place to go for folks who didnet fit in at the downtown college or farmer bars. Was before the summer of love, 1965 or so when Charlie Plymell came around. People called each other "freaks" then...not hippies or beats. We discovered LSD...in fact me and a guy named Tad Hoff went to Chicago and bought a big bag of purple acid and brought it back and distributed it around town.  Later the hippy thing came and the chalk was the place to go.  Different owners and such. There was a literary scene too.  In the old days...no live music at Chalk. The place to go was the Red Dog Inn downtown...where Tina Turner and others like that played in 60's.  There was little places for hippies to work in Lawrence...the bean factory where Charlie worked or the box factory down on the river where I worked. I also drove a cab back then. A few black bars....the greengables were somewhere you could sometimes hear jazz.

The chalk I the 60s had a u shaped bar with marble top and booths around the edge of room. 4 or 5 people could squeeze in the booth and drink pitchers of 3.2% Coors beer. It was crap. But what else was there. We talked and laughed a lot. Telling stories etc. Was always fun.  Later I actually worked in there...at 70's I guess. The owner was a coke freak and we stayed pretty high all day. Got kind of rough in the end of that time. Bikers came around to fight with hippies. For a while the big business in town was the hippies harvesting the local hemp and selling it on the east and west coast. Lots of folks made some money off of that. It was all sort of a big joke. Kimball and I once sold a suitcase o the stuff out of the backroom of the Red Lion Tavern in the village of NYC. had to leave town in a hurry before people found out how bad the dope was.

There were a lot of folks who came up from Wichita to Lawrence.  Artists, writers and just plain strange like Tad Hoff who was a kind of crazy but smart guy who took a lot of drugs and was kind of a shaman. Chloe and Ike Parkey were wild pair from down there came thru Lawrence and I got to know them for a while. Ike like me to drive him out to the little country towns where he would go in drug store and by amphetamine and cough syrup.

Charlie was a very funny guy back then...still is. He had a lot of energy too. I think he got a lot more famous out in San Francisco when he printed zap and then of course in Cherry Valley. I worked with William Burroughs when he lived here. Charlie came to visit a couple times. There was a thing called the river city reunion at end of 80's but I don’t know why Charlie didn’t come to that.

Photo: Jim McCrary with William S. Burroughs and central figure in the underground comix movement S. Clay Wilson in Lawrence, KS

Which memory from Charles Plymell and S. Clay Wilson makes you smile?

So many memories of Charlie. Once we (wife and I) woke up early morning in our house in Lawrence (1968-9) and Charlie and Pam (Plymell) were standing at the end of the bed. No idea how they got in house….well that was then.

Everything about remembering time with Wilson, before his accident, makes me laugh eventually.  It was almost always drug and booze fueled fast paced talk and story telling. Always funny. Once we drove to Oakland to see his old buddy Charlie Musslewhite play in some dive club.  It was amazing and we ended up backstage with Musslewhite drinking until the club owner tossed us out. If memory serves.  How we got back to San Francisco I don’t know.

Are there any memories from John Fowler and George Kimball, which you’d like to share with us? 

John Fowler and his wife Bunny were intellectuals but not academics.  They were New York that way. They showed me that there could be a an artistic life made. They liked to drink and talk….and wanted people to use their bookstore for there education too. They were very political in what they put in the store. George Kimball was an old friend and we spent so much time together it would be hard to single out memories. Oh he would show up in a town I was living in and have a ticket to come out and watch a baseball game or a boxing match. We drank and did drugs and lived together for years.  Best times probably when we sub-rented Paul Blackburns apartment in New York City which was over McSorleys Tavern.  Those were the days. The last time I saw George, before he died, he came to my house in Lawrnece and said he was going back to NYC (2 years ago).  He was quite sick.  He said: “You should come to NYC.” I said: “George, I cant now.”  He looked right at me and said: “That’s okay.” Blew me away.

"Certainly travel has triggered a response in very different ways over the years…to see and experience new things. Have written quite a bit after returning from Central America or SE Asia more recently." (Photo: Jim and Susan Ashline in Thailand, 2012)

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

Thought about that for quite a while and really can’t answer directly.  And still got a bit to go in this life as we. In some ways now is most interesting due to time available to travel and reflect.

What are your hopes and fears on the future of world?

Fear it will blow itself up and hope it don’t.

What made you laugh lately and what touched (emotion) you? 

Watching a stand off between a fox and a cat in our backyard.  The joy of wildness.  Hard to beat.

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

The instant I realized I was high on LSD…it was the music of Ravi Shanker coming around a corner…so to speak.

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

So many books…certainly Charlie's Last of the Moccasions, Lenore Kandell's Love Book,  William S. Burroughs'  Junky,  Ed Dorn's Gunslinger and Chemo Sabi.  Anything by Joanne Kyger.

Jim's poster: Artwork by Lee Chapman who ran Tansy Bookstore up above the Rock Chalk cafe in the 70's.

Let’s take a trip (!) with a time machine for the next 24 hours, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..? Past or future really..?  

Maybe a day in 1965 in Chess Record Studios when Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Koko Taylor were all in the studio jamming.  And a little weed and some cold Black Label beers to share…

As epilogue a poem by Jim McCrary

is a real oh is a real

you better open up and see
you  can bet  in ti fada fada
gonna stand  up over the big
fence you got

you can bet the street will swell
with that mass you cannot pre dict

you gonna as sar miss yas ar for sure when
the next round bells

net a yahoo or not it dont matter to some
some say
and isnt it  true by count
on both sides that fence you got
that  folk
cry peace now...
there is a lot of 
GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE Wgoing on just now
some here some there some where now
where you are
hear some advice from the humid 
mid west

you might want to re con side r

er  all that settle de ment

nonsense and try a little harder

do dah do dah de.

                                   © Jim McCrary  


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