John Bennett is the founder of Vagabond Press, the former editor of the seminal small press magazine, Vagabond, and the author of over 21 books of prose, poetry and “shards,” a high-octane, hybrid form of short prose pieces. He also edited Ragged Lion, A Tribute to Jack Micheline, and recently recorded a CD of his shards entitled Rug Burn.
A true iconoclast and die-hard individualist, Bennett has a strong aversion to all schools, movements, isms, etc, championing instead the voice of the socially dispossessed and the marginal outsider. Published on a hand-cranked 1917 A.B. Dick open-drum mimeo that was found in a garbage heap, Vagabond was one of a handful of magazines back in the Sixties such as Wormwood Review, Olé, The Outsider, December and New York Quarterly, where Charles Bukowski, Lyn Lifshin, d.a. levy, Doug Blazek, Anne Menebroker, Jack Micheline, Jerry Bumpus, Gerda Penfold and many other now-familiar names first appeared in the small press scene. The Vagabond Anthology, originally published in 1978, still serves as a monument and testament to both literary and individual integrity, two ardent strands that wind their way through all things Vagabond.
More than 35 years after the founding of Vagabond, Bennett is still going strong, now armed with a website (http://www.eburg.com/~vagabond/) instead of the hand-cranked mimeo, washing windows for a living, and churning out his shards like a man possessed. This interview was conducted by email in September-November 2001.
Mark Terrill: Your latest collection of shards, Fire in the Hole, just came out from The Argonne House Press. In the introduction, you say that “Shards are not prose poems, short stories or political persuasions. They’re not cattle prods of social awareness. Toss a term like “social awareness” into a shard and see what happens—it’s like tossing a chunk of red meat into a fish tank of piranhas.” Maybe you could tell me a little more about the genesis of the shard. Was there any particular catalytic event that led to the form? Any particular influences? They seem to be very spontaneous in nature, definitely more from the gut than from the mind.
John Bennett: The old body/mind conundrum. The either/or game. The gut/mind simple-Simon package. Duelality. Someone gets shot dead and then what? Loneliness sets in. (Please don’t put “sic” after duelality.)
Genesis? Listen, I don’t have long to live. My kind keeps getting culled from the herd. At 20 it seems we are legion (“We want the world and we want it now”), at 40 there’s Jackson Brown singing “Running Against the Wind,” and at my age—I think I can make out two or three other fleet-footed gazelles bounding far off across the tundra, but it’s hard to be sure, the place is cluttered with wolves. Critical mass is more like it. Fusion. A great meltdown. Think of lava snaking its liquid way down a mountain side on some Pacific island. One day four or five years ago it just happened. I woke up with the words “The Ghost of Tokyo Rose” going around in my head. I went straight to my typewriter and wrote those words down. All hell broke loose. Page after page. I thought I was into a novel, a hugely spontaneous novel. Okay, I thought, I can ride this bronco. After a month or so the thing was going in so many directions at once I began getting vertigo—it exploded into shards like a volcanic eruption. I gave up on the myth of continuity and a lot of other myths that we shackle ourselves with.
There wasn’t a catalyst that sparked shards into existence, shards are catalysts that drive fragile flowers straight up out of concrete, that spark chaos and mayhem and fear and disorientation—all the things necessary for breakthrough, for quantum leap, for a change of heart. I’m Henry Miller’s love child. Charles Bukowski’s arm-wrestling partner. I’m a shard serf. An indentured servant waiting on emancipation. No time to say hello good-bye. Read ’em and weep. Shards are the language of an improbable future.
MT: What’s the difference between a shard and a prose poem?
JB: A prose poem is a form. A shard is a prophecy.
MT: You’ve been involved in the alternative/small press scene for over 35 years now, having made the transition from a hand-cranked mimeo to cyberspace. How would you compare the small press scene of today with that of the mid-sixties?
JB: Guerrilla warfare vs. workshops.
MT: How do you see the current proliferation of workshops, seminars, MFA programs, poetry slams, etc.? You think it represents a bona fide increased interest in writing in general, or is it just another attempt to make a commodity out of art?
JB: I’m not sure I’d put poetry slams in the same boat with the other phenomena you mentioned. Poetry slams are more like Roman arenas full of gladiators; gladiators with plastic swords, perhaps, but definitely a step above an MFA program.
Workshops, seminars and MFA programs are all lessons in political correctness. The best that can be said about them is that they are geared to the mechanics of writing. Mostly what they do, however, is sell formulas for pleasing editors and supposedly audiences, formulas for “making it.” They’re rooted in greed, fear and vanity. There simply aren’t that many true poets and creative writers with poetic depth. I think the ratio to the general population has been roughly the same throughout history. The so-called proliferation of poets that so many see as wonderful is actually a sign of advanced spiritual decay. There is no such proliferation, it’s all packaging. And what’s packaging but deceit, an attempt to make something look better than it is? Poetry is a bare-naked thing. It has nothing to do with image.
MT: What was your last contact with Bukowski? What do you think about his legacy? Do you see it as a boon or a curse?
JB: When was it Bukowski died? March of 94? Almost eight years ago. Our correspondence began thinning out in the late ’80s.
His legacy is a boon. What is being done with it by eager literary types is largely a disaster. A lot of people drinking themselves senseless and feigning a skid-row outlook on life. You can get all tangled up in the contradictions and complexities of Bukowski, but for my money the most important thing his writing does with enormous success is subliminally spotlight and verify the individual while flinging the whole corporate, institutionalized world into the shadows—I think this accounts for his enormous world-wide popularity more than anything. Hell, at one time Bukowski’s books held two of the top-ten best-seller spots in Brazil simultaneously! Brazil!
MT: What did you think about Howard Sounes’ biography of Bukowski?
JB: It doesn’t make sense to write biographies about people like Miller (Henry) and Bukowski. It smacks of necrophilia. Looking for love in all the wrong places.
MT: Are there any magazines, periodicals or small presses out there these days that seem to be carrying on in the “guerilla warfare” spirit?
JB: I know there are down-to-business, non-literary tabloids out there with a strong radical social orientation, similar to the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Good Times of the Sixties (Seattle’s Washington Free Press comes to mind), but I’m not aware of any literary presses with chops like Doug Blazek’s Open Skull Press, Jon and Gypsy Webb’s The Outsider, or the whole astounding and brutalized Cleveland scene with d.a. levy as residing guru.
MT: The life and death of d.a. levy has become a sort of legend in the interim. Did you actually know levy? What do you know about the circumstances of his death?
JB: Never met levy. It’s the work, you know, in the final analysis, that counts. I knew Joel Deutsch out in San Francisco, and Kent Taylor, both Cleveland poets from that era. And I’ve stayed in close touch with t.l. kryss over the years. kryss is about the purest poet I know. Another poet of great power that almost no one knows about because she just doesn’t give a rat’s ass about networking and publishing and what the hell anyone thinks about her is Maia Penfold. I don’t think she’s ever been to Cleveland, but she’s a Cleveland poet in spirit. People put way too much emphasis on eras and movements and geographical identity, and that creates a fictitious coherency and obscures the essence of poetry.
levy’s death—christ, people just don’t know when to let something go.
MT: I don’t have any problem with letting go, especially when it comes to death. I was just curious about levy in particular since there seems to be some controversy as to whether or not he actually committed suicide. Is Maia Penfold related to Gerda Penfold?
JB: The controversy is what I’m talking about letting go of. It’s turned all sorts of people against each other. I mean, did Christ really get crucified? Did he really ascend into heaven? Was it really Judas who dropped the dime on him? And off we march behind the banner of Christianity on our crusade to get seasoning for our meat… Is this too esoteric?
Maia Penfold is Gerda Penfold. She changed her name to Maia about 20 years ago. Didn’t seem to change her one iota, thank God…
MT: Any contemporary writers that you particularly enjoy reading or would recommend?
JB: Sure. Jesse Bernstein. Moritz Thomsen. Albert Huffstickler. Charles Bowden. Thomsen and Bernstein are dead, does that disqualify them? Albert Huffstickler is old but hard at it, a first-class poet, does he count?* Bowden has a great book out called Red Line. What’s contemporary in a world where everyone is famous for fifteen minutes? (*Note: Since this interview was conducted, Albert Huffstickler died. As did John Thomas who wasn’t listed above but should have been. As should have/could have a long list of other writers and poets—died and/or been listed…)
MT: I’m not familiar with Charles Bowden. What can you tell me about him?
JB: Not much. He’s an ecologist, very much in the Edward Abbey vein. He understands that hawks kill and that it’s part of the natural order. He drinks hard and wanders off into the desert for long stretches of time. A couple of his other books are Blue Desert and Mezcal. Red Line is an undulating mix of personal dilemma, desert life, and drugs. I discovered the book because I’m involved in doing a book based on the life of a cocaine drug-cartel kingpin. This guy decided to let me write his book after talking with me for a couple of hours. At one point he asked me, “Did you ever have someone stick a gun in your face?” I told him yes. “Who?” he said. “Me and one other person.” “What did you do when it was your finger on the trigger?” “There was only one bullet in there somewhere,” I said, “so I pulled it.” “And the other time?” “I said, ‘Go ahead and do it, but you’re going to make a fucking mess out of the cab of your truck.’ ” I think that’s when he decided he wanted me to do the book. Way to-hell-and-gone outside the world of seminars and workshops.
MT: You were included in the anthology, The Outlaw Bible of Outlaw Poetry. How did that come about?
JB: Alan Kaufman, who edited Outlaw, contacted me, asked me to contribute something. I did. They butchered my work (whole stanzas left off), my name and my bio. When I pointed this out, I was told I should be glad to even be in there with all those names. Too many names, for my money. Too many celebrities and far too few outlaws. I managed to get Jesse Bernstein in there. Kaufman didn’t know who Bernstein was. Jesse was Seattle’s quintessential outlaw poet, he wrote a fine, fine line, and he took everything to the limit. He was the spirit of the Sixties toughened up for contemporary America. He was more outlaw than anyone else in that big thick book. It was not a good idea to fuck around with the skinny, pop-eyed little fucker. If you handed him a pistol with one bullet in it and said, “I dare you to put the barrel to your head and pull the trigger,” he’d do it without a moment’s hesitation and then hand the gun to you and say, “Your turn.” He offed himself, stabbed himself three times in the throat. The world was just too nasty and ugly for him. Bukowski wasn’t in there because Bukowski was dead and his estate wanted more than the $25 Thunder’s Mouth Press was paying each of the contributors.
MT: Your own Vagabond Anthology is an amazing collection. Why don’t people write like that anymore?
JB: Well, there are people mimicking “writing like that,” but it’s somehow not the same. It has something to do with the times. I no longer write like that. I write shards now (to the dismay of many) because they seem to shape words in a way that sheds light on the pulse of the times, down under the onslaught of technology and shrill speed, down under all the packaging. You have to listen to that inner voice in order to get beyond the packaging, down to the heart of the beast. Once you make contact at that level, it’s astonishing what sort of language comes into play, what concepts and juxtapositions…
The Vagabond Anthology is a clean, lean machine. It’s a monolith of its time. A good reference point to check your compass by… I’ve still got copies. $10 a pop for anyone who wants one.
MT: Vagabond was originally conceived by you and Grant Bunch in Washington D.C. back in ’64, but the first issue didn’t come out until a year later when you were living in Germany. Why the transition from D.C. to Munich?
JB: Grant and I got inspired to start our own mag in a bar called Brownley’s near George Washington University in D.C. Other than Marvin Malone’s Wormwood Review, we were unaware at the time of any small press activity, leave alone a “movement.” We just knew that what we needed wasn’t available in the university and big-name magazines.
We kicked the idea around for some time, and then I went to Munich with my wife and son to study at the University of Munich. That didn’t last long. I wound up washing dishes, and my wife at the time, a German citizen, got a job with the German post office. Grant showed up at our 5th floor one-room efficiency one day, and the idea for the magazine erupted again over a few bottles of good German white wine. We kicked names around, and my wife, said: “What about that poem you wrote called “Vagabond,” why not call the magazine Vagabond? It was appropriate. We were always moving from place to place, and the trend continued. So Vagabond it was.
Grant split on a Norwegian freighter and was never active in the mag again. He was our wandering emissary. We did five issues out of Munich, and then it was D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco and Ellensburg.
MT: What were you studying at the university, and why Munich?
JB: Literature and philosophy. Why? Good question. It was my last attempt to somehow fit in with the system. I thought I would become a teacher, largely by osmosis. It all came crashing to an end one day after an altercation with an academic advisor. She said, “Herr Bennett, Sie sind ein Bauer! ” and I replied, “Fräulein Doktor Riegler, lieber ein Bauer als eine alte Jungfrau.” (“Herr Bennett, you are a peasant.” “Fräulein Doktor Riegler, better a peasant than an old virgin.”)
That’s when I began to cook. That’s when my writing took off and Vagabond became a reality. When I finally gave up the ghost. When I dared cut the rope and be free. I wrote Bukowski and he sent a book’s worth of poems and a sheaf of chalk drawings. He said my letter made his friend (unidentified) run howling into the night. I wrote my first true short story shortly after that, and it turned out to be my first published story—”The Night of the Great Butcher.” Curt Johnson of December Magazine accepted it with a letter in which he said, “Damn! The story that makes the issue always seems to come in just under the gun.” Raymond Carver had a story in that issue of December.
MT: And that was the end of your academic aspirations? How have you earned your living since then?
JB: That was it for academia and me. Bounced around after that doing construction grunt work, idiot-savant gardening, janitorial gigs, and working the bars and honky tonks in New Orleans and San Francisco as waiter, bartender and door man. Started cleaning windows over twenty years ago to give my son something to apply himself to one summer—he was heading in a bad direction. He kept going in a bad direction and I’ve been cleaning windows ever since. “Just a working man in my prime, cleaning windows.” Van Morrison.
MT: Part of my previous question didn’t get answered—why Munich, of all places?
JB: Good beer. I lived across the street from the Theresien Wiese, which is where the Oktoberfest takes place. I mean literally across the street! Step out the door in the morning, and it was like the aftermath of a war zone. Bodies strewn everywhere, puddles of vomit. Good old Gemütlichkeit.
MT: You moved to Germany to study literature and philosophy at the university in Munich because the beer was good?
JB: Best beer in the world. In the summer I’d disappear into the Augustinebräu beer garden for days on end, they’d have to send in a search party to find me. I lived in Munich’s West End, a tough little blue-collar neighborhood. Have you read my Munich stories? They’re in The Night of the Great Butcher and The Names We Go By. I was the resident Ami at the corner bar, a good old-fashioned Gasthaus. Americans never came in there. Alois, Siegi, Julius—my running mates. We raised a lot of hell.
Look, the handwriting was on the wall. I’d done my army time (that’s how I got a German wife), and I was bulling my way through George Washington University in D.C., working two jobs on the side to support the American Dream. It was terrifying. It was summer, and I snapped. I put on my Robert-Hall el-cheapo suit, picked up my empty attaché case, and started hustling. I was good at it back then, working the system. In one afternoon of cruising from office to office, and two months past the deadline, I’d talked my way into the University of Munich via one of those junior-year programs. I had to take a proficiency test and sit down and chat in German with some dude for ten or twenty minutes, and I was in. I sent my wife and son to Berlin for the rest of the summer and went wild. I got off my Icelandic flight in Luxembourg with a backpack, a portable typewriter, and about $200 in cash. I hitched to Munich.
I checked in with the junior-year people, then signed up for a lot of courses that were not affiliated with the program. I never went back except to pick up a financial aid check every month and to hook up with a couple of ex-army guys who were doing the G.I. Bill. I spent more and more time drinking and less and less time going to classes and finally I threw in the towel on the whole thing and—as I think I already said—began to write like there was no tomorrow.
MT: So you went to Munich under the pretense of getting an education and came back instead as a published writer and the editor of Vagabond. How did you go about soliciting material for the first issues of Vagabond? You said you wrote Bukowski—had you already known him previously?
JB: I didn’t know anyone. Somehow The Wormwood Review got into my hands back in D.C.—my first poem was published in Wormwood. I hop scotched via Wormwood to some other small mags that were springing up. It was a 12th monkey sort of thing. These mags were springing up independently of each other and then finding each other after the fact. There was rapid escalation and then spontaneous combustion. It was a phenomenon endemic to the times, across the board. We were feeling our oats. A veritable magical mystery tour…
It was in Doug Blazek’s Olé that I first read Bukowski’s poems, and they set me on fire. I wrote him a long, crazy letter. I wrote everyone whose work I liked and asked for poems, stories, whatever they had. Good work came flooding in, but to be honest, it took me a while to hit my stride, to find my editorial chops, to scour out the last vestiges of conditioning that was there in spite of my loner, outsider existence. Simply slapping a bunch of good poems and big names between two covers doesn’t make for a good mag. Publications with that feel to them always make me uneasy. There has to be a cohesive quality, and that is editorial presence. Shit, with today’s technology, anyone can slam a bunch of words between two covers and call it a literary magazine. Back in the days of manual typewriters, stencils and mimeo machines, it was messy business and a labor of love.
MT: You mentioned that Raymond Carver had a story in the same issue of December where your first story appeared. What do you think of Carver? And what about Richard Brautigan? Not that they necessarily have anything in common, other than the fact that they were both establishing their careers at the same time that Vagabond was happening, and were two very unique and inimitable voices.
JB: I made a mistake. Carver had some poems in that issue, not a story. There was a lot of good stuff in that issue—early Blazek, Lifshin, Richard Hugo. Curt Johnson’s December was one of the better little mags around. December had it all—poetry, fiction, film, reviews, art, opinion, and that all-important editorial presence; hefty but without the pretense of its well-heeled cousins, the university mags. Johnson is a heavy. As tough as they come. The only person I ever ran into who could drink me under the table. And with one lung and all sorts of health problems, he’s still at it (drinking)—I quit.
What do I think of Carver? He’s a master storyteller. It’s embarrassing to see the way Tess Gallagher feeds off his name and his talent, years after his death. A little bit of trivia—Tess Gallagher’s ex-husband (pre-Carver) is my landlord. He was in here doing some repairs not too long ago. Ex-fighter pilot, sculptor. It’s his name Tess carries.
Brautigan? He was great to read back in the Sixties, sitting in the sand dunes along the Great Highway in San Francisco, stoned out of my head, but he’s a lightweight compared with Carver. I heard him read outdoors on the Berkeley campus on the same bill as Gary Snyder. He didn’t look so good up against Snyder, man of steel.
MT: I had the same impression of Brautigan for years until I recently stumbled across an excerpt of Trout Fishing in America somewhere, which prompted me to read it again. I wound up reading everything by him that’s still in print, and I would have to include In Watermelon Sugar in my top-ten list of all-time greatest books. I think his lightweight status was/is very deceptive. I think he was a genius. A confused, mixed-up genius, but a genius. His stuff reads even stronger today than it did back then, even when you’re not stoned out of your head.
Anyway, so Vagabond got on its feet in Munich and went for how many issues/years in total?
JB: “The genius is the one who plays most like himself.” Thelonius Monk.
I’ll have to circle back around and give Brautigan another read. Things change. Things Fall Apart. Have you read that book by Chinua Achebe? Did I spell his name right? Is my tie straight?
Everything is in a constant state of flux, including perceptions. Surfers have the right idea. You catch that wave just right, and you ride it in. Then you paddle back out and catch another one. I was a teenager when the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause came out. It blew me totally away. I saw it six times. I saw it again years later, when I was in my early 30s, and I was embarrassed. I saw it again, just last year, with my teenage adopted grandson, and it blew us both away, but for different reasons. So many facets. This is important to understand. If a person doesn’t understand this, they can put out literary magazines and accumulate kudos until the cows come home and all they’re doing is trashing an already battered psychic landscape.
The circumstances of my life kept things lean with Vagabond. Five issues out of Munich, six counting the one we did in German. When I returned stateside I eventually drifted down to New Orleans, found an A.B. Dick open-drum mimeo, 1917 vintage, in a garbage heap behind the American Legion, and cranked out a few issues on that. Also did a few books, like French Quarter Interviews, and a few issues of something called Mr. Clean Magazine which landed me and Glenn Miller, the art editor, in jail on pornography charges. I got the hell out of New Orleans after that. I wound up living on a roof in a converted pigeon coop in San Francisco’s Mission District and cranked out a few more issues. I was wifeless by this time and moving around with an old steamer trunk and the mimeo. I could slam that trunk shut and be gone with a half hour’s notice. And I was writing like a stallion, stories and poems and a novel, The Adventures of Achilles Jones, which two editors from Atheneum wanted to publish, but the thing got shot down by “The Committee,” meaning the sales people. Joe McCrindle of the now defunct Transatlantic Review took a shine to my writing, published three stories. He came to San Francisco, a well-mannered, nice little guy in a double-breasted suit, and I threw him in my VW van and raced all over the city drinking beer and smoking joints and checking out a Jackson Pollock retrospective. I terrified him. He never answered my mail after that. I was lost in the labyrinth of Blake’s palace of excess. I kept shooting myself in the toe.
Anyway, I hooked up with an intense little number while working the Christmas rush at the post office, I thought she was a speed freak but she was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, and the next thing I know we’re married and heading for Ellensburg, Washington, where she had a teaching position. I’ve been here ever since, with numerous forays out into the world. The marriage didn’t last, I’m very unhappy anywhere near academia. I wound up cleaning windows, a gig I do to this day to pay the rent.
Ran up a total of 30 issues of Vagabond over the years (seemed appropriate, the telegraphers—30—signifying the end of a transmission) and a good number of books. But I can’t keep my hand out. Within a year after the last issue of Vagabond I did something called Once More with Feeling, which was touted as an anthology but in reality it was just more of the magazine. I’m like some prehistoric beast that’s been snare-trapped and staked down. Every now and then someone pokes me with a stick to see if I’m still alive, and I raise my head, let out a roar, rip an arm free and swipe a half dozen Twinkie-eating smocks right off the face of the earth. It is—ha-ha—the nature of the beast.
No one’s going to print this. It’s too long. But we’re having fun, aren’t we? I like the thing you did on Paul Bowles, by the way. That should be put out in book form. If I wasn’t so overwhelmed with things I’d do it myself. But some young blood should take it on… We need to recognize truly worthy things in each other and support those things. “If we could only get enough good men to walk together,” Bukowski wrote in an early poem. “But we won’t.”
MT: 30 issues is a long haul, especially under those circumstances. That’s a great image—the steamer trunk, the mimeo, and a magazine named Vagabond. Like, “Who was that masked man?” And I know what you mean about changing perceptions. The same thing happened to me with Henry Miller. First time I read Tropic of Cancer, I thought I’d seen the light. Read it again years later and thought it was crap. Read it again recently and realized again how great it actually is.
So being on top of those changing perceptions is definitely crucial to achieving that sort of “editorial presence” that you were talking about earlier. That and having the luck to hook up with poets and writers with “poetic depth.” What are the other necessary ingredients for putting out a good, solid literary magazine, besides the basic finances and a sort of psychic stamina? What advice would you give to someone starting up a small mag today?
JB: I think you’ve about covered it. That’s all you need! You might take out the word solid. You don’t want to be solid. You want to be mercurial. You want to flow with all those oscillating perceptions. You really have to be driven. The last thing you need is an agenda. It’s all attitude, longing. It’s an attempt to live your longings. That is liberating, and it helps liberate others who down in their marrow long for liberation, deep-down psychic and spiritual liberation, down under all the crap—and there is a lot of crap. If you’re not doing that, if you’re not tending in that direction, you’re wasting everyone’s time, as far as I’m concerned.
There are a zillion (allow me some hyperbole) “literary” magazines coming and going all the time that are deadly boring and predictable and anchored in some form of largess or another. I got voted onto a CCLM grants committee once, back in the late 70s, along with Harry Smith and Diane Kruchkow. We wound up with controlling votes. We gave everyone who applied exactly the same amount of money—$812.76, I think it came out to. This put mags like Partisan Review who were asking for $20,000 into a financial crisis, while other mags with names like Butchered Pigs threw blowout parties because they got four times what they asked for. This was in Seattle. When CCLM saw what we were doing, they flew in lawyers and big-name writers and publishers and tried making us an offer we couldn’t refuse to change our minds. We stood fast. I’m despised in a lot of circles.
MT: Maybe that’s one necessary ingredient we overlooked—the willingness to risk your ass in the face of the accepted norms, to go against the grain and be a real trouble-maker. No risk, no gain, right? And by gain I don’t mean subscriptions, grants, etc., but rather a broadening of the literary landscape, from which all of us stand to benefit.
JB: I don’t like the word literature any more than I like the word poetry, because the words have been co-opted, become flimsy. I’m into divination, the rest is claptrap. If you’ve got divination in your bones, you get labeled a trouble maker. There’s nothing to be gained, only unearthed. The Big Lie beats just under the skin like a bestial black heart. Ka-thum. Ka-thum. If you stand perfectly still long enough, you hear it. Come on, Mark—broaden the literary landscape? What the hell is that supposed to mean? It’s so Orwellian it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
MT: Another false step in the semantic minefield. I think it goes without saying that the terms “literature” and “poetry” have both been co-opted (or recuperated, as the Situationists say), but for the sake of this interchange, we need to call them something. And by “broadening the literary landscape,” I merely meant opening it up (or ripping it open, or whatever) to include all the Huffsticklers, levys, Bernsteins, etc., instead of having our aesthetic tastes hammered into shape by the Corporate Combine, with their marketing strategies, trends, chain-stores, “political correctness,” etc. That, to me, is the truly Orwellian part.
Or do you see it as a sort of ongoing Them vs. Us continuum, the establishment and the underground locked in some kind of perpetual, yin-yang, symbiotic tangle? The one constantly being challenged by the other? Maybe that’s actually necessary to keep the whole thing healthy and alive, to keep it from becoming just one big moribund homogenous mass, producing the kind of McLiterature that I think we’re both leery of.
JB: Now we’re talking. You got a little pissed, a little miffed, and your language honed up. “Broadening the literary landscape” has a euphemistic ring to it. It’s gelded language. The words do the opposite of what they advocate, which is very Orwellian. Smash assumptions, smash preconceptions, like smashing egg shells so the little chickies can come out and play. Not in others, in ourselves. Over and over and over again. By any means possible. Raze high the roof beams, carpenters. Yes, “sic” on raze. Salinger, there’s someone did a lot for me years ago. Put a footnote in here if you have to.
All hell breaks loose when you dare cut the rope and be free, when you don’t stand still long enough to have a saddle thrown over your back. Them/Us? We are the walrus—all of us. Ku-ku-ka-choo. Give me your givens, your downtrodden, your nubile young daughters…
MT: Another writer who dared to cut the rope was Jack Micheline. Your tribute, Ragged Lion, was obviously a labor of love in the truest sense. Why Jack Micheline?
JB: Micheline was the quintessential outsider. He lived more or less on the streets for over 40 years, and he never knuckled under. He was an outsider in his own clan, the Beats. He was cantankerous, a curmudgeon, an iconoclast, always turning over apple carts and ruining people’s plans. If he’d been Native American in another century he would have been a Contrary. The literati would gather to congratulate each other on being such high-level sentient beings, and Micheline would come crashing in, reciting his poems in a loud voice and smelling bad. So, I was moved to do a tribute. I had in mind something much less extravagant than what I wound up with. I had in mind ten or twenty pages, something photocopied, a press run of 100. But, the thing got out of hand, and over a year later I wound up with 210 pages, scores of contributors, art, photos, poems, stories and reminiscences galore. Cloth and paper editions. Harry Smith of Smith Publications helped bankroll it.
MT: All that response just shows what a huge impact Micheline actually had. Now someone just needs to come along and put together his collected works.
Previously you mentioned Salinger. It seems like he’s holding up pretty well amidst all the oscillating perceptions. The Catcher in the Rye just keeps selling and selling. Not that sales are any criterion, but he obviously hit a nerve that’s still twitching after all these years.
JB: Matt Gonzales brought out Micheline’s Sixty-seven Poems for Downtrodden Saints shortly before Micheline died. It was also a labor of love. Gonzales is a lawyer, not a publisher. The book went into a second edition. Micheline’s son, Vince Silvaer, also a non-literary type, has set up the Micheline Foundation, replete with a website. Yes, a complete collected works would be nice. Micheline was the poet of the streets that Henry Miller was always talking about.
Salinger—his stories got me as much as Catcher. Back in a long-ago perception matrix, “For Esmé, with Love and Squalor” just blew me away. There are some pirated editions of his uncollected stories floating around—have you seen any of those?
Another writer from that era who impacted me was Alan Silliltoe with his Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Also, a very good movie was made from the book.
MT: What about Ken Kesey? There’s another outsider who came in the Sixties window and who had his own ideas about what writing should be.
JB: For me there are two Keseys. The one Tom Wolfe mythologized in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the one who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Somewhere along the line, Kesey got trapped in the messiah box. I saw him and his troupe of not-so-merry pranksters perform a bizarre Wizard of Oz spin-off in Seattle four or five years ago, and it was a dreary affair, drenched in political statements, psychedelic spasms, and societal finger waggings. Having his picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone probably robbed him of his thunder more than all the LSD he ate. His first two books hold up better than he does, especially Cuckoo’s Nest.
MT: I guess that’s always one of the dangers of getting caught up in or associated with any particular movement or cultural phase, be it the Beats or the Sixties or whatever. Look what happened to Kerouac. An exception is Burroughs, who transcended all the sideshows and retained his integrity while remaining hip from the beginning to the end. Bowles is another one.
What about your CD, Rug Burn? How did that come into being?
JB: Rug Burn? The Hip-Hop group LogHog ran into a book of my shards—Domestic Violence, I think it was. It touched a nerve. They came knocking at my door. They have a recording studio, they call it the Bomb Shelter. They got me down there, night after night, reading shards into a microphone. Later they put the beats and the licks, the music behind what I read. Presto—a CD.
MT: What about present and future plans? How much can you tell me about your book about the drug cartel without revealing too much? Are we talking about fiction or nonfiction or creative nonfiction or something else altogether?
JB: Can’t say anything about the drug book, except if I pull it off, it will be epic, reaching back into the smuggling world in the late 1800s (opium, whiskey and human cargo) and lunging ahead through Prohibition and straight into the present. Epic, ambitious, different—it will go beyond Blow and Traffic. I’m dealing with people on both sides of the fence who are active in this world. There’s a mild degree of danger involved, which will increase once I start making trips to some out-of-the-way places …
Future plans? Is this the end of the interview? That’s the question that always comes at the end. I don’t make plans. Doors open, I walk through them—after checking for trip wires and Bouncing Betties. I’ve always lived on the outside, and I’m more there than ever. I’m more at ease there than ever. Prolonged illness is my biggest fear. But it’s astonishing how good my health is considering how I’ve lived my life. Good genes, I guess. Hoka-hey, say the Sioux and the Cheyenne. A good day to die. The only mindset that leads to freedom.
MT: One more question. What was the context in which Bukowski said to you, “You’ve fought a harder, cleaner fight than anyone I know.” What kind of fight are we talking about?
JB: It was in a letter written in the winter of 84/85. Our correspondence had picked up again after a long lull. I was living in a one-room shack north of town with my dog Sundance, a bucket and a squeegee, and a 63 Ford Econo Van that wouldn’t start—winters get cold east of the Cascades, 20 below is not uncommon. I was out there in that shack sobering up from 25 years of non-stop drinking, going through a divorce, my son in prison, no money, 46 years old. I was cranking out my trilogy Survival Song on the old mimeo and living out of my steamer trunk again. Those were the circumstances, a letter was the context.
What kind of fight? I think he was referring to my entire life. Also, I’m not much for ass kissing, and I think he appreciated that. I don’t network and cluster, and I didn’t publish what I didn’t like in Vagabond, as Bukowski well knew—I sent back a lot of his poems.
I ran Survival Song in an edition of 500 copies. It was the final installment in a series of books that broke me out of the standard poetry/short story/novel mode and set me up for shards a few years down the line. Last week a Korean publisher contacted me about translation rights—a Korean publisher, 17 years later! How the hell did they ever get hold of it? And why the hell are they interested in publishing it?
It’s amazing how organic life and writing are if you hang in there, don’t force things, and “follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell used to say. Bliss is a little too bland a word for my money, but things evolve as they’re meant to if you’re willing to free fall off the edge of the cliff. I had someone e-mail me recently and say, “I think I’m going to start writing shards.” Just like that. I wrote back and asked, “Have you paid your dues?” He didn’t know what I was talking about. — by Mark Terrill