The Argotist Online
Post-tour Interview with David Meltzer by Daniel Godston
David Meltzer: Alter kaker. Born in 1937. Raised in Brooklyn during the war years w/ commies, anarchists, socialists, & eccentrics from all over Europa. Responsible for too many trees dying to become paper for too many books of poetry, agit-smut, anthologies, & blurbs. Last book: David's Copy: Selected Poems, edited by Michael Rothenberg (Penguin Poets). Forthcoming: When I Was a Poet (City Lights).
Daniel Godston’s writings have appeared in Chase Park, After Hours, BlazeVOX, Versal, Beard of Bees, Drunken Boat, 580 Split, The Smoking Poet, Horse Less Review, Apparatus Magazine, EOAGH, Requited Journal, Sentinel Poetry, and other publications. He also composes and performs music, and he works with the Borderbend Arts Collective to organize the annual Chicago Calling Arts Festival.
DG: What are some impressions and recollections that you have of last year’s Rockpile Tour?
DM: It was a surfeit of highs. Amazing. I've mentioned it before, but seeing Terri blossom as a delightful and sure performer was a joy. Michael was sensational in D. C. Our Rochester gig was a surprise to me. Unexpectedly good.
DG: How did you and Michael Rothenberg first meet, and how would you describe the nature of your ongoing collaboration with him?
DM: Michael was a returning student in the New College MA program in Poetics. We quickly became friends and peers, and we have been collaborating on projects together for at least a decade. Our collaboration is very circular. We learn from each, and since Terri began performing with us, a bright new dimension has been added.
DG: How long did it take to prepare for Rockpile?
DM: Almost a year. The grant writing was done by Terri; much of the nailing down of gigs was done by Michael on an overtime basis. Once on the road, the Blog was maintained by Terri, as well as much of the videography. While Michael & I were downstairs, eating breakfast, Terri would be upstairs at the computer, downloading video.
DG: How did you, Michael, and Terri used the blog, as a way to document the tour, and as part of the creative process?
DM: The blog was really Michael and Terri. I did what I could, but was resistant to it all. “Blog” sounds like "blahg" to this ancient, a pre-hurl gargle.
DG: What were some of your memories of being on the road during the tour?
DM: It was immense, exciting, and boring, crossing the country as we did. So much of the landscape was both beautiful and sad, passing by these towns that were literally now ghost towns being shut down by the economy, and driving through a lot of cities where there was the same kinds of feelings—parts for sale or boarded up, but there was also the beauty of the landscape, and the wondrousness of the people we encountered in each of the cities that we performed in, so I guess it was joy, sadness, people, and pain.
DG: Something you just mentioned reminded me of Robert Frank’s The Americans.
DM: That’s a great book. I remember when that first came out, because I’m old. It was a great commentary that has lasted up to now. I knew all those kinds of faces there, as Frank did. It’s quite an extraordinary book, and the Kerouac introduction is quite beautiful and lucid, in a Kerouacian way.
DG: Can you comment on the idea of space in America—as you, Michael, and Terri experienced it on the Rockpile tour—for instance, in terms of geo-poetics, how the Beats addressed that. Other American writers such as Mark Twain and Charles Olson have portrayed American geography and spaciousness of our country. Olson said, “I take space to be the central fact to man born in America.”
DM: Olson of course wrote that interesting book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael, where he often talks not only about the space of the land, but about the sea that surrounds the land. The concept of space and the traversing of it, getting into a vehicle. We didn’t fly, we drove, and that sometimes being six hours in a van on the road. I don’t drive, so it was Terri and/or Michael that would be driving, and I’d be the designated listener. That was an interesting dialogue too, how each person perceived what we were passing through, and what they saw and what they felt about it.
Our first gig was in L.A., and the next gig was going to be in Albuquerque, so there was a lot of driving, and we ended up in a hotel in Texas. Our routing was very strange, because of the nature of where the gigs were. We just didn’t do a straight line across the country, we sort of went up and down. Our map was weird, going to Arizona and New Mexico, and both are such powerful presences—the red rock, the canyon, the cactuses, and the light was so powerful. You see these beautiful rocks with graffiti sprayed on them. The mark of the retreating civilization is all over the place, or just the enormity of these encounters makes the human feel so small and make their little pipsqueak statement with their spray paint can. “I was here, whoever I am. I’m making my mark, like a dog. I’m pissing around, pissing my spot.”
Along those southwest roads, beautiful stuff, and curious sad stuff, like those trailer communities with maybe one store, and you wonder, “Who’s inside those trailers, and what do they do there? Do they work? Where do they work, in this particular landscape, that’s so much larger than they are?” All of these things cross your mind, this sense of space and proportion, isolation and loneliness, at least that’s what I received. I’m just wondering who are these people who live in these little pockets beneath huge canyon walls, this sort of thing.
We got plenty of that, but whenever we entered into urban spaces, of course that was a whole other thing. Chicago, for instance, now that’s a city. I mean, those buildings, they’re intimidating. It’s not like New York, because New York is all buildings, so you’re enclosed by all of this verticular stuff, whereas in Chicago, you’ve got some immensely huge buildings and small buildings and 19th Century buildings and Postmodern glass things. Cities are different, how they express their citiness, was always interesting to me.
DG: It was great seeing you, Terri, and Michael when you all were in Chicago. How did that go?
DM: We had that panel discussion at Columbia College, and the performance event at the Hideout. It was great meeting Art Lange, who inspired Steve Dickison and me to do Shuffle Boil. His earlier journal, Brilliant Corners, was the template. The event at the Hideout was certainly the most musically charged of all our encounters.
DG: How did everything go in Buffalo?
DM: Buffalo was deeply satisfying and unexpected. Worked with a trio -- tenor, bass, and drums -- who were incredibly sensitive to our words.
DG: New Orleans was part of the Rockpile tour, right?
DM: We spent six days in New Orleans, staying in a hotel in the French Quarter, which you know is awash with polyester, and people walking down the streets drinking out of cardboard beer glasses, and the music blasting out of all the clubs, and the music, it’s a musician’s town. It’s a magnet, and I can understand why. There’s music in clubs, there’s music in doorways, there’s music on the streets. It’s all over, almost 24-7, all these musicians playing various kinds of music, not just one kind of music. We met a reed player, and we saw him in three contexts—a clarinet in a Dixieland band on the street, and then we saw him in a jazz club playing far out postmodern saxophone à la Eric Dolphy or something like that, and the next time we saw him he was playing an wooden Indian flute, within that kind of tonality and scales, behind a poet reading metaphysical murmurings. He was just one guy, and he was just one of the musicians.
DG: You all did a Rockpile event at Zeitgeist in New Orleans, right? I love that place. Rene Broussard does a great job of running that venue, and he’s open to experimental presentations.
DM: Zeitgeist a nice space acoustically that’s used for a film series, and concerts. It’s in a different area of New Orleans, and it gave us a taste of post-Katrina, one of those hardcore post-Katrina places that’s still around so many years after Katrina. There’s still so much ruin, and the population is being pushed out, and they’re building condos for yuppies. In New Orleans you get a real sense of community, and it’s a very unique place. I’d like to spend more time there, puttering about, to get a better sense of the tremendously vital musical culture, the rich tradition that the musicians really take seriously.
If there was anything from that trip that I got the most from it was the contact from musicians, and to realize they’re all over the place, and most of them were pretty good. This poet really identifies with musicians, and it’s always great to run into musicians who identify with poetry. The drummer we had in New York was a poet himself. These are just wonderful encounters you have. In New Orleans we played with half of the dozen of the Dirty Dozens Brass Band, and we found out has been around for 30 years, and is pretty much a stable unit. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them.
DG: Oh yeah, they’re amazing. I heard an interview with several members of the Dirty Dozens Brass Band at last year’s New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Festival, and they mentioned how they’ve collaborated with a lot of artists over the years. I find it fascinating how an artist who has a unique style can work with other artists—while being open to new processes that are introduced by the collaborators and might evolve organically through the collaborative process itself—to create, as Burroughs said, “the third mind.”
DM: The nature of jazz is collaborative; in a sense, it’s the embodiment of utopia. You have a group of men playing together, soloing and being supported by the group in this creative interaction, and hating each other offstage. But when they’re onstage, something else happens when this creative interaction happens. I’ve been doing this since 1958. I used to work every week at the Jazz Cellar in San Francisco. There was a house band, and a lot of musicians were in town to come and sit in, so I had the advantage. I served the musicians myself, and in the 50s when I was doing this work, I felt that I wanted to get off the page. The silence of the page is one thing, but when you start opening up your voice and using it as an instrument with other people as other instrumentalists, that’s another thing. I would write specifically to perform, not for the page, and I would come in with a head arrangement of the poem. There would be a beginning, and a middle and an end, and then everything in between was to be improvised on the spot. I would take my solos, and the musicians would all take their solos, and we’d go back and forth, and then we’d trade fours, exchanging riffs, and that’s how it started out. I don’t know if it’s interesting, but it is history.
DG: It’s fascinating to think about the relationship between what’s on the page, and what’s off the page. In jazz, it’s not like the classical European musical approach, which is you have a note, and you play it. In jazz, the musicians interpret the notes in different ways, and then you have solos and group improvisation, other ways to creatively perform variations on the theme.
DM: And the musicians are supported by each other, in the group context. It’s a utopia, the idealized democracy in action. In Albuquerque, we worked with a freeform orchestra called the Thunderbird Poetry Orchestra. One of the musicians was a professional cornet player, and another was a poet, publisher, and painter who played the alto saxophone. Then the other members played all kinds of odd percussion instruments. One really interesting guy named Mark Weber, played what he called Hubcap o Phone. He had like four hubcaps in some kind of container, and he had mallets, and each hubcap had a different tone. Someone else was playing a didgeridoo. It was fun working with them. That was the second show, after LA.
LA was very interesting. Band of musicians, half of them were blues musicians, two of them had just come off the road with Bonne Raitt. Then there were two jazz guys, Theo Sanders, really good pianist, and John B. Williams, a legendary bassist who played with Herbie Hancock. Here you have these blues guys and these jazz guys, and t was beautiful to see how things interwove, and how they worked things out. We did a performance in the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. The key to any of this is listening. The musicians who work best are the ones that listen, they’re always listening. They know where to go in, and where to stay out. As a poet, to be performing, not just a poetry reading, it’s a performance, you can tell the difference, it’s not just a straight poetry reading—that’s a whole other thing. When you’re working with musicians and improvising too, that wonderful concept of just me in the moment. We know this when we’re creating, when we’re pounding away, trying to catch a poem. You’re in a kind of marvelous moment, and you suddenly realize you are, and then the whole thing crashes. That’s what I’ve learned in these decades of this stuff, to listen and pay attention.
DG: Can you comment on the connection between what is a performance, and what is “not” performance, as that relates to the flow of the Rockpile tour? (I guess as that relates to a jazz musician, for example, what happens in performance is just a sliver of what happens in the whole creative process – including rehearsals, times when the musician is just listening to music in solitude, and so on.
DM: It definitely gets gnarly, and that's what I'm trying to understand. I learned a lot from Kurt Elling when I performed at the Walt Disney Hall (Los Angeles Philharmonic) with Christian McBride, Peter Erskine, Alan Broadbent, John Handy, and Joshua Redman. You know, as a musician and poet, the enigmas. The deep work of absorbing the tradition, the changes, the openings. Finding on the page or in the air your voice.
DG: David, thanks for your time with this interview. It was great seeing you and Michael and Terri when you all were in Chicago, and to be part of the Rockpile panel discussion at Columbia College, and the Rockpile performance event at the Hideout. When do you think the next Rockpile tour will be happening?
DM: We're hoping for 2011. Aiming for a Euro tour. Amsterdam is nailed down. This September we're going to do some gigs in upstate NY (Rochester, Buffalo, maybe Albany), and hopefully Toronto.
© David Meltzer & Daniel Godston