Point of Inspiration

Michael McClure on his 25th volume of poetry and more.

Michael McClure, newly 84, remains as intellectually curious and poetically productive as anyone I know. By rough count, he just published his 25th volume of poetry, Mephistos & Other Poems, which I edited over several months during the past year for City Lights. Yet even with me, his editor, McClure is a careful interview. He prefers to contemplate the questions in advance. His caution is understandable. 

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, he flirted at the edges of popular culture through association with such people as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, and Bob Dylan. There’s his own status as a member of the Beat Generation, forever cemented by sharing the bill with Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder the night at the Six Gallery in 1955 when Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl.” McClure’s prolific career as an Obie-winning playwright included The Beard, his 1965 succès de scandale whose leads were arrested at 14 consecutive performances for obscenity. He has given more interviews than most poets ever will, and he is alive to the peril of an unconsidered or misconstrued utterance. And alongside his fame and magnetism, McClure seems genuinely shy with a touch of Midwestern reserve. He was born in Kansas—Wichita, I thought, but he corrects me: “I would have been a city slicker if I was born in Wichita!”

This is not to suggest, however, that McClure isn’t forthcoming. Our conversation ranged widely, from the news story of the day of people stuck in a malfunctioning cable car suspended above Mont Blanc in the French Alps, which led to Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc” and its relationship to Kerouac’s “Desolation Peak.” But Charles Olson, more so than the Beat associations, looms largest for McClure, both over the interview and Mephistos itself. “What does not change is the will to change,” he says, quoting Olson. The following interview was edited and condensed. 

Mephistos is your 25th volume of poetry. You published your first 60 years ago. What’s changed and what’s remained the same in your practice as a poet?

I thought about the word practice a lot. When Terry Riley practices his North Indian vocal ragas or piano, he’s actually practicing because he’s increasing his skill with his voice or his instrument. But practice—I don’t know about. There’s some practice there, in that it’s been my habit since I was quite young to be ready and waiting with pencil in hand, pen in hand, typewriter, for the muse when she arrives. This is a kind of a practice. But more than practice, I would say my writing is for the sake of the experience. I’m looking to create an experiment and to have an experience at the same time. So that would be a practice, and the practice has been broadened, I believe, by many decades.

In the foreword to Mephistos, you invoke Charles Olson’s concept of projective verse and say that poems in that mode are “neither metrical nor free verse.” It’s a style that “gives swift access of the energy of inspiration to the Heart where it bounces through the syllable to the Breath and onto the field of composition.” Has this informed your poetry all along? Is all your poetry projective verse?

It’s not a mode for me; it’s become a highway. After all these years, it’s always what I do. I can’t help it. Whenever I write, it comes out in the form of projective verse. It is for the eye and the ear and the voice, as if it were happening in the form of ideational calligraphy on a screen.

The point of inspiration might either be a psychic or mental point, or it could be a physical object, like the sight of a kingfisher. The inspiration bounces from the heart, where it projects itself in syllables. A projective poem is not counted by any normal measure; it’s counted by music that syllables make in the line. There’s confusion because people criticize poets writing in projective verse for using standard techniques, such as adding a rhyming word. There’s nothing wrong with that; projective verse does not have limitations.

I want to make it clear that, at this point, I’m writing projective verse naturally because it’s become my nature to do so. But as with every form of writing, seldom does one find a poem. Projective verse is simply a way of writing, as Kerouac had ways of writing or Creeley had ways of writing, though of course Creeley’s were basically Olson’s.

When you write that “poetry is a muscular principle,” are you referring to the physicality of projective verse?

Yes. You’re dealing with breath and with the heart. You’re dealing with very physiological parts of the self as well as your most far-reaching ideational self.

You lectured on Olson last year at the Gloucester Writers Center. What impact did this trip have on your sense of Olson and projective verse?

By the time I arrived in Gloucester, I decided that I wanted to title the lecture “Greatness of Olson.” I saw immediately Sung dynasty landscape paintings, from the 10th and 11th and 12th centuries AD by painters like Mi Fu. I first saw those paintings in 1956, 1957, when I strayed by accident into a show of Chinese landscape painting. I think it was at the de Young Museum. I was breathless at the beauty of it. That’s what I think of when I think “Greatness of Olson.”

I determined when I gave the lecture that I’d have some of those paintings projected on the wall beside me. They blew up the paintings to human size. They did a nice job of it. It was not only the handsomeness of the works but also the amazing newness, as if such a thing had never been seen before, as though sight had been made new and must reorganize with the other senses. That is part of what has to happen with projective verse. It challenges people to write. This quality is the muscles of “The Kingfishers”—“What does not change / is the will to change”—and “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs.” New things with much truth in them are being brought about and continue to come into being.

You’ve identified your first projective verse poem as “For the Death of 100 Whales,” which you famously read at the Six Gallery in 1955. You told me that on your trip to Gloucester to deliver your Olson lecture 60 years later, you witnessed a pilot whale beach itself in nearby Rockport, an experience that inspired the final poem in Mephistos, “Song Heavy.” What can you tell us about the experience and the poem?

We went to Rockport, and that’s where we saw the beached pilot whale. We were walking up the street; people were beginning to gather to look over the edge. We walked closer, right to the lip of the cliff, and it was right below.

In the introduction to Mephistos, I say, “Some poems here are written spontaneously and without changes and others are lengthily studied.” “Song Heavy” is a poem that’s very, very worked over.

It looks spontaneous.

It’s anything but spontaneous. It was one of those labored poems. I wanted to get it as right as I possibly could, to honor the whale. I figured the whale might have been driven in there by killer whales. It was frightened to death and did not want to go back out there ever again. Suicide is much preferable to being torn apart alive.

People had been trying to get the whale back into the water?

Yes, people were rolling up their pants and taking off their shoes and walking out deep into the water to steer the pilot whale away from the shore. And every time they tried, it would switch back and go into shore and beach itself again. It was an amazing thing to see in terms of a mammal’s determination. I felt a great empathy for it.

The title sequence in Mephistos is the latest in a series of experiments you’ve undertaken going back to your book Rain Mirror (New Directions, 1999) and continued in the “Dear Being” section of Mysteriosos (New Directions, 2010), in which you generate new poems beginning with the same set of lines drawn from earlier poems. Can you describe this experiment for us?

“Mephistos” is a medicine bundle of poems, 37 individual bundles that relate to one another, time diving like dolphins through the possibilities of poetry and expanding. Each time another series is written, it changes its name. The first group was called “Graftings”; the first line of the poems came from already existing poems. After that, I added songs that seemed to want to be a part of it. 

I’ve been through three series of medicine bundles. Medicine bundles are personal, sometimes mystical, sometimes visionary, sometimes perfectly ordinary, sometimes haiku-like, contrasting one image with another. The process grew. I gave it up finally because I began to think it was really done. I started another set, and then I said, “No, no, no.” This process has completed itself. I finally faced my aging through the decades and the fact that I had accomplished what I wanted to do with them.

The section of Mephistos called “Rose Breaths” is subheaded “after sitting on the black cushion,” referring to your practice of Buddhist meditation. Buddhism has clearly inflected your poetics, as it did Kerouac’s. But you once said to me you weren’t sure if you were a Buddhist anymore or if you were continuing with meditation. Was that a firm decision or a momentary feeling?

It was how I was feeling that day. I had decided to meditate until I explored a field of meditation. I was meditating in the Hua-yen or “Flower Garland” style. I have not given up meditation, but now I’m presently more involved with doing physical exercises because of some damage I’ve done to myself from a fall. But I still consider myself a Buddhist, of a most unusual school of Buddhism. The kind that allows one to re-experience personally the enlightenment experience and go where that takes you.

Originally Published: November 15th, 2016

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...

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