Interview with David Meltzer
by Steve Luttrell & Timothy Gillis
May 14, 2014 via telephone
David Meltzer was born in Rochester, New York, & raised in Brooklyn. He began his literary career during the San Francisco Beat & Berkeley Renaissance period in North Beach, California, & his work was included in the anthology, “The New American Poetry 1945–1960.” At the age of 20, he recorded his poetry with jazz musicians in Los Angeles & also became a singer-songwriter & guitarist for several bands during the 1960s, including The Serpent Power. He is the author of more than 40 volumes of poetry, including Arrows: Selected Poetry 1957–1992, No Eyes: Lester Young (2000), Beat Thing (2004), & David’s Copy (2005).
TG: Do you write for the eye or the ear?
DM: That’s curious. I suppose both. You can’t really segment that process. I guess usually if it’s really happening, all senses are operating & no one (sense) overlaps the other. You’re depending on all the help you can get. Yes, sound is important, but also the shape of the poem. All these things you think about when you’re doing it.
SL: Your parents were musicians. To what degree is your love of music influenced by them?
DM: You’ve answered the question. When the first thing you hear, after your mother’s heartbeat, is the sound of somebody playing the piano or a cello or a string quartet in the living room, that’s kind of a present. Especially when you haven’t developed any categories or genre or opinions, you’re pretty open & receptive. My dad, who was a classical cellist, liked all kinds of music. Those were the days of the 78s. The bottom shelf of the living room bookcase was stuffed with single 78s in sleeves & clunky albums in no particular order or categories. I was given permission to use the Ainsley-Crosley console Victrola to play whatever I wanted. No ingrained perceptions or divisions, it was all music to me. At a certain point of puberty, you’re trying to create a certain selfhood — & music is something you glom on to. When I was 11 or 12, my music became bebop in the postwar gloom of Brooklyn.
SL: Discuss modal free jazz & spontaneous bop prosody. You seemingly were influenced quite a bit by that.
DM: Modal free jazz — outside of Lennie Tristano’s ’50s sessions for Capitol (notably “Intuition”) — didn’t really fully emerge until the ’60s. Kerouac’s concept came out of the ’50s & his inspiration was via bebop. As I said, I was a precocious kid from Brooklyn & started going to the bop clubs like The Royal Roost & Birdland — sometimes with my dad, other times by myself. Because of the licensing policies of the clubs in Manhattan, kids underage could go to these clubs as long as they sat in this isolated pen & drank overpricey Cokes. We could actually hear, be in the presence of, so many of these now legends, then just these guys.
SL: A lot of that comes out in “No Eyes,” the great poem for Lester Young.
DM: Young lived in the Arvin Hotel on Broadway. He could look across the street to the entrance of Birdland. I heard him there. But in the time frame of the book, Young is mostly inactive & drinking himself to death in his room listening to records on a portable phonograph, especially Jo Stafford. Very strange & poignant, haunted, beautiful man, the musician. As a kid, what do you know? It was all amazing. Charlie Parker was amazing. Bud Powell was amazing. Charles Mingus was amazing. Nobody wasn’t amazing. But that was because I was 11, 12 years old. That was my music. That was the point. & puberty is sort of attached to the music. & if anyone else doesn’t like it, they are outlawed from your little stain of ego.
SL: Tell us about your experience with Wallace Berman & Semina, when you first moved to Los Angeles. For those of us in small poetry, he had an amazing influence on us.
DM: I was maybe 15, & came with my father from the east coast. He was looking for work for the medium that was going to dominate — television. He had been a radio writer &, at a certain point in middle age, that whole thing was turned upside down by the new technology. & with the new technology, as today, young people are extremely comfortable in that framework. He was a person who wrote for you to hear, whereas with television you wrote for people to see. It cut down the potential for wordplay & literacy. I had already been a dissolute school-goer, being raised up in Brooklyn. I was put through these accelerated classes because I had a high IQ. I sort of drifted around, & did meet Wallace & a whole bunch of wonderful mentors & crazoids. When you’re living in the margins, it’s good to have friends.
TG: City Lights published “When I was a Poet” in 2011. Why the past tense in the title? Don’t you still think of yourself as a poet?
DM: Why not? You know how poets are. It’s really about the subjects: Age, Time, Mortality, Was, Is, & also making fun of the concept & at the same time taking it very seriously. I’m still writing.
TG: Discuss your writing process (morning or night? each day or when the inspiration hits? music while you write? what music?) How do you know when a poem is finished? Is it ever?
DM: I have no plan, after all of these decades, unless I’m onto something. No kind of aerobics poetry writing. I admire, & know, many poets who get up & write poems for a couple of hours & go out & feed the dogs. I stopped doing that when I was in my 30’s or 40’s. I started (writing) when I was a kid. I’m not book-driven unless I am. I’m more interested in an idea, & then try to run with it & play it out as much as I can.
SL: Do you feel that the “Beat” label has been good or limiting for you?
DM: Early on, I’d say, “I’m too young to be officially in these ranks.” & I’m too old to be a hippie. What is going to happen to me? I’m doomed.
SL: The word “poet” works real well.
TG: You wrote last year for Harriet (Poetry magazine’s blog), & you’re teaching a poetry course online. Can you tell us more about that, & how technology has changed writing?
DM: As soon as I figure it out. (laughs) Based on my prior teaching experience, a course would be 15 weeks, & it would be three hours, & it would be both talking & discussing. It gave everyone a lot of room in class. This (new course) is something that’s not interactive. I’ve outlined 10 classes, a basic intro to poetry & poetics. I’m working through — apparently it’s the oldest online site for writers. Each successive cadre of kids who come in is even more frivolous. They don’t read. They specialize in distraction, in the fragmentary contact. Don’t get me started.
TG: Has technology changed for the good, in some ways?
DM: My first great defeat was having to give up my manual Olympia office typewriter, because of arthritis, & from then on it was downhill. But I do see technology’s advantages as a form of personal expression.
SL: Who was Donald Schenker? & how did you come to collaborate with him on one of your first books?
DM: I was maybe 19 or 20. Don was one of the people who worked at the bagel shop, the counter man, & we started talking. We both self-identified as poets. He & his wife who lived up in this area had inherited Weldon Kees’ press. & it was one of these, “Let’s do a book.” It was my first half-book.
TG: How important is humor to you, in your life & poetry.
DM: It’s a stabilizing factor. It’s like a hiccup or a burp or a fart. The moment you experience it, you’re not there. Just for the moment. All the complex mental working, to “get it” & when you get it, you’re not there.
SL: You’ve said Lew Welch taught you about “Poetry & Torment.”
DM: He would know.
SL: Do you think he had a sense of humor?
DM: Are you kidding? Reading with Lew, being on a platform with Lew, just watching him go, for me anyway, was just a great joy. He’d amble on stage like some minor league pitcher, & he would bring in the audience immediately.
SL: I remember Charles Olson telling him “You’ve got a few good poems, here, Lew, but you really need to read more.”
DM: I was there that night, a couple blocks away, preparing for the after-party.
SL: Do you think we write one poem in our lifetime & that all of our poems are fragments of that one poem?
DM: Well, it’s all one life. How many poems are there? That’s always been a good question. Why are poems made? Why are canons foddered?
TG: Wayne Atherton, from The Café Review, said folk singer-songwriter Eric Andersen references you to some degree in his spoken word piece on the “Beat Avenue” CD, in the context of walking the streets in a daze on the day JFK was assassinated. Can you talk about those days? Are you still political? Who will you support in the next presidential election?
DM: I’ve always believed all art practices resist domination. To me, every notable arts movement could be called a resistance
movement. The fine line between resistance & acceptance intrigues me. But you’d have to pay me for endorsements. (laughs)
SL: I wanted to compliment you & your wife, Julie, on the way you each work & then collaborate so well.
DM: Thank you. It’s good for both of us.
TG: What are you up to next, in the world of readings?
DM: You’d think at this advanced age, it would be a piece of cake. I taught at New College for over 30 years. The administration tanked, & one of the things they forgot was to give us guys pensions.
TG: That’s not a good way to retire from teaching.
DM: I’m not retired. There’s social security, but it doesn’t cover rent. We’re always working on something. If we were to wake up one morning & say, “I’ve got nothing left to do,” you’d start hearing funereal music. It would be like a bad movie.
TG: You’ve done a book of interviews called San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets. Are you more comfortable doing the interview or being interviewed yourself?
DM: I didn’t even want to be in it (as an interview subject), but a student pulled me in. That book covers a lot of time. Part of it was published in the 60’s. The rest of it is in the 90’s. But I was there for all of it.
SL: It seems like you’re always in charge of the after-party.
DM: Keep the poetry going & the wine flowing.