The Maestro: David Meltzer, Part I
Michael McClure invited Andrew Joron and me to a reading in the Berkeley Hills, as we wanted to consult him in the course of editing the (forthcoming) Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia. Contact was made, a meeting was set up, and McClure would provide much valuable information regarding Lamantia’s activities in the late ’50s. His devotion to Philip is both inspiring and moving.
But something else would also happen that evening in the hills. Reading with McClure was David Meltzer, whom I’d previously met once when he read at City Lights with Andrew and Micah Ballard. Meltzer had done the cover collage for Ballard’s book Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Productions, 2009), so it seemed fitting to add him to the bill, and he read a new poem called “When I Was a Poet.” A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.
Ferlinghetti was out of town when Meltzer read at City Lights. But when I arrived at the reading in the hills, there was Lawrence! I say “!” because I’ve never just bumped into him at a reading before, in Berkeley to boot. At the time, besides editing for City Lights, I was also working as his assistant, so naturally I never knew where he’d be. The reading was actually an opening for a sculpture show by Amy Evans McClure, in a small art gallery attached to a large house whose owners are Lawrence’s friends, so he decided to make the scene. Clearly some stars aligned that night. Meltzer again ended his set with “When I Was a Poet,” wowing the packed audience. After the reading, I made my way over to Lawrence. He seemed excited.
“What’d you think?” I asked.
“That was an extraordinary poem!” Lawrence said with decision. “We should publish it!” He paused a moment, then almost sheepishly added: “Ask him if it’s available.” Though Meltzer was only a few yards away, Lawrence is actually a little shy—back in 1955, when he caught the first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery, he sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day asking to see the MS—so his reticence here was hardly surprising. As I slipped through the crowd over to Meltzer, two thoughts occupied me: 1) This is so fucking cool—it’s like “Howl”; 2) A big shot like Meltzer must have books in the works, so someone’s probably already claimed the poem. As it turned out, however, Meltzer and his poem were both available, and pleased to be asked. As it also turned out, the most recent volume in the Pocket Poets series was #59. Wouldn’t Meltzer make a good #60?
“Yes,” said Lawrence.
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...