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Clive Matson: California Poets Part 4, Three Poems


Clive Matson (Vic Owens)


December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Clive Matson

Three Poems



Courage Off the Charts


On the seaside bluff a cement bunker

angles into frozen agate sky.

Touch your nape

and past nights flutter around my fingertips.

Touch lips

and intricate webs guide us toward

night's unopened doors.

Which one will unleash

its ethereal stuff and clothe us

in mythic skin

but we won't get to choose.

Swept cross current by some tide

or circling loose in an eddy.


Courage off the charts. Courage

to feel what you feel. Courage to follow

what you feel as it changes.


Three hundred miles from home the bunker

rocks.

Have we ever walked steady

ground, the fault system never

stops

shaking. What Richter is the Richter on?


Tick, tick the engine turns over.

What pleases you, pleases me.

What pleases me, pleases you.


Rounding coyote bush at the bunker,

rounding the Horn in Magellan's galleon

we tilt and slide into forty-foot troughs

with stone crags

to the sides and a sea-wall

dead ahead. Coming straight at this frail ship


and when the wave hits

everything shifts.

The wheel spins in your hands and some

larger hand turns the rudder.


Through the straits a new world opens

and there's no going back.


The tides have turned.

No other place exists.


You think I'm exaggerating? You think

the world is less dangerous?

Less romantic?


Tick-tick the infinite second

when your footfall sounds

at the doorway.

Sky and ocean through concrete window

and Rorschach pines hug the cliff edge.


"I finger earth's rivers in my hair,

blue ribbons through the brown.

You unbuckle the belt Orion

draped around our waists."


Three seconds before the trance changes.

Three minutes later only trances.

Three days the lovers stilled

in bluish ice with no exchange,

Amundsen and Scott on the polar cap

at 70 below. Your eyelid flicks away the wind chill.


Can that tickle across cranium

be a swarm of cosmic rays?

Can that pavement

crack be a rift chasm grinding through

geologic time and just now surfacing?


On the beach Einstein dreams

the one all-encompassing note.

While everything swirls around us.


You don't know what 's coming next,

how could you?

Unascertainable like quantums

the next event as Heisenberg shows.


Tick, tick one second per second into the future.

What pleases me, pleases you.

What pleases you, pleases me.


Before night lowers like a boom,

Dr. Livingston, I presume? Through the hydrocarbon

sky one last

sunbeam flashes

fusion light across your face.



Show Your Love


Gold dust in a whirlwind

spins through your body

and pulls windstorms of pixel sapphires

from ceiling and walls and suctions

from hearts silver palladium in mote

cyclones so bright

your sight goes astral.

So bright your eye

clears a view through tin-clad doors

and rough planks of our ramshackle house.

So bright opaqued out lenses go lucid.


Your soul knows the wattage

trundling through teeming forests,

blossoms, animal eyes, twigs, crystals

amucking up and down our bodies’ dendrites.

.

It's not the attraction of likes.

It's the attraction of loves.


These stones, these plants, these animals

bond one to one across air canyons

and bloom in chest-filling flowers.


We stand in a rainbow, feet immersed

in jewels and noble metals.

Wriggle toes

and cut stones tinkle, coins jingle

and under rayon skin lilting currents

tingle every tendon joint.


Who could not notice!

Who would not feel the skull’s roof open?

Who would not feel bones go transparent

and organs move in close fluidity?


Who could turn wall eyes around this

sweet turmoil,

pull shutters tight and shut windows?


Ah yes, what are those footprints


sprinting away from the light?

Crowding trails with the record of their flight?


Footprints receding, running, receding, running,

running, running.

Running away

and layering on patinas of soles

outlined with smears of lost gold.


Each print marks an argument not to feel.

Each print marks a moment of failed life.


Love, find your courage!

Find the purple muscle that twitches

when rich music surrounds. Find the unbidden

lobe that swells and glows when warmth

infuses your veins.

Find the simple bravery

to show your love.


The three-inch sparrow hasn’t got more spunk than you!

Stand on a naked branch and sing out!

Put your mouth where your money is!


The Colorado River's drawn to the ocean

and by any means gets there,

colliding plates under Asia

push the Himalayas toward heaven.

Trinity redwoods fling new sprouts

above the canopy, loving the sun.


Let others pretend it's not happening.

Let others haphazard away from what’s inside their skin,

let others keep their chaos of windows

sealed with reddening shellac.

Let others march into the sorrow of God.


The sigh after you finish that sentence.

The long silence of no reply.

The slow violence of childhood templates

projecting ‘busing parents

on my clean face in living color.



Warmth suffuses flesh for a season.

Blood stretches our veins for a reason.


Love’s not a choice. Love’s presented.

I accept.

I accept

what the universe calls me to do.


Run straight at my love and engage it.

Run straight at my love and embrace it.

Run straight at my love and enhance it.

Run straight at my love and blow it up.


Show your love. Wink it, flash it, sigh it, admit it, taste it, touch it, whisper it, like it, enjoy it, speak it, savor it, beam it, relish it, flaunt it, ingest it, slake it, digest it, say it, sign it, slam it, fake it, shout it, walk it, push it, talk it, mack it, mock it, undress it, kiss it, caress it, hug it, rake it, slap it, play it, shake it, stumble it, drown it, clown it, suck it, frown it, flood it, make it, fuck it, blow it, snort it, yell it, shoot it, hawk it, bell it, sell it, embrace it, shower it, unleash it, ignite it, flower it, fire it, impose it, flame it, sneak it, spy it, stalk it, risk it, empower it, chance it, follow it, honor it, promote it, sing it, strut it, loom it, become it, bloom it, live it. Live it. Live it. Show your love. Put your mouth where your money is.



Be a Beginner


Tilt hips toward me

and think I'll soften? Lean on the doorjamb

sleeves turned-up all edgy rebel

and you think

I'll open my flower?

Think your hacksaw jaw

generates omega magnetism?


Sure I want confidence strong as lodestones

aligning north south north south

but you have to be a beginner.


You have to scope the paused ambiance

how shoulders and eyebrow tender

an invitation.

How they open

a dozen or six or one-half option

in the unchoreographed dance.

Moving or not. Twitching or not.


Touch the wild mare's nose

with too much surety

and she'll kick hooves

and whinny the whole way out the pasture.

Rake her mane with wise fingers and that

muscular frame will offer a two-dollar

roll in the hay and you'll be snorting

straw the next three days.

No, no,

you have to be a beginner.

Fearful beginner in full

awe of her eyes' ocean grotto and how

her red mane whips and the rough lick

of her tongue rasps inside your spine

and sends you pin-

wheeling among treetops!


You must come to me shyly.

You must wince at my head's shake.

You must bend to the slant of my eye.




You think you're dealing with a person?

A body? A present? A past? A personality?


I’m not so simple. I’m simpler.

I’m a menagerie.

Measure the ground where I walk and read

tracks as myriad as yours. Mirror glints and flashes

in my eyes and infer

the fur preened and bristled

around jaw and forehead and how animals

want to speak. Or not.


The key is turning. Ask,“What are you saying?”

The key is turning.


Did the mare's eye swivel?

A cue to mount her saddle?


The sky streams and Joseph announces your presence

with his polished horn and the gods' charism


unravels Scheharazade’s fan

horizon to horizon in sine curve ripples

that tug at the yearning in your chest

and now, now!

You no longer have to think.

The next thing is the right thing.


This is the secret place.

This is the sacred place.

This is the silent place


where unbearable music weaves

your cyclone ribs and counterpoints

our hummingbird marrow and we give

all.

All.

All strength to ride the wild mare

with faith we won't end bones broken

red and gray corrugations in meadow grass.


Is that truck spewing gravel

on a runaway ramp our approach?

A plane bounding over tarmac

much too fast? The stallion kicking

pebbles along the cliff?


But we aren't landing.

That three-G dip times-tens the ride

and you,

you have such untuttored grace

your ears flatten orange against temples


and we need only find balance.

Which way up? Which way down?

Or do we care?

Oh dark! Oh light! Oh dissolving!



Interview


August 2nd, 2022

California Poets Interview Series:

Clive Matson, Beat Generation Poet, Creative Writing Teacher

interviewed by David Garyan


in collaboration with Pace University*


“This project is the result of a Pace University interviewer’s questions and those of David Garyan. The choice of whose words to use was largely guided by the flow of the narration rather than by more traditional parameters. The interviewers, in their individual ways, showed a keen sense of how to bring out meaningful aspects of the Beat Aesthetic. I am grateful to them both.” —Clive Matson


Instinct, Be My Guide

Pre-modern life within life

If you were reading books in the late 1950s, you would know about Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and the adventures of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise and their penniless friends, all “in love with life, beauty, jazz, sex, drugs, speed, and mysticism.” And they were in full revolt against mainstream society. They treated life as an adventure. They honored impulsivity and partying and fostered a devil-may-care attitude toward the hard-working Puritan ethic of their time. They became emblems of the “Beat Generation.”


The prevailing conformity of the late 1940s and 50s, an outgrowth of the rigors of World War II, was the social backdrop for the Beats. How quickly they made a strong impression on the literary world was a reflection of how urgently the culture at large wanted some release from restrictive mores. The people honoring the white picket fence and safe, respectful performances at their jobs and in their relationships were “Squares,” and the Beats displayed a much healthier version, at least at its foundation, of what a human being really is. A refreshing, lively, and freedom-loving version. The marketing prowess of Allen Ginsberg helped immensely in spreading the message and the image of the Beats.


Along with Kerouac and Ginsberg were poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Diane di Prima, surreal writer William Burroughs and story-teller Herbert Huncke, all progenitors of the movement and all advancing a similar rebelliousness. Younger aspiring writers, as myself, discovered a host of other interesting writers in the same group, including Lenore Kandel, Alden Van Buskirk, Amiri Baraka, Michael McClure, and John Wieners, all of whom Jack Hirschman called the “lyrical heart of the Beat Generation.”


The Beats showed us a positive direction toward freedom and away from repressive conformity. Poet Sharon Doubiago said, “The Beats saved my life,” and that’s probably not an exaggeration. She grew up in a small town in Southern California near where I grew up, and the conformity was stultifying. The Beats gave Doubiago hope. How I survived the same conformity I don’t really know! My guess is that luck played a part. Mostly I did my best to look good and to fit in, and privately I stayed as honest as possible within myself, painfully ignoring many of the signals of how I should behave.


Doubiago was more conscious than I was of the issues of the times, and she came along later, so she was in high school, where conformity was the worst, when the Beats exploded on the literary scene. I had already left and was finding my way through the college thickets, when word of the Beats arrived at the University of Chicago. I was captivated by riptides of the movement a year or two after the Beats had earned some attention.


My journey into poetry had begun a few years earlier. I grew up on an avocado farm in Southern California and there were special places in the chaparral hills behind the orchard, intriguing and exotic locales. I was the middle child of five and we were delighted, every now and then, to abandon our farm chores and explore the world around us. Nature supplied some magical places that, not surprisingly, aroused my emotions to something like poetry.


I had a favorite spot along a shallow creek. A path climbed over a nearby ridge to what we called “The Big Valley,” and at its beginning the path crossed the creek which, every few years, had a trickle of water. A large manzanita bush grew on its banks. You usually can’t get under a coastal manzanita, with its sharp, angular branches growing close to the ground.


I could slide under this bush, though, because it was rooted high on the bank. Its branches grew out over the creek and the area under the manzanita was pleasant, shaded by smooth, reddish, four-foot limbs with waxy leaves and dotted with tiny white flowers and pea-size, shiny red-brown berries. The area was moist and dark and replete with mystery. There were insects. There were spiders. I was sure a rattlesnake enjoyed the shade when I wasn’t there. I was a voyager in a beautiful, and eerie, natural place.


Interviewer: Can you recall the first poem you wrote and the first one you published? Along with touching upon the themes and structures of these works, it would be interesting to know: Were the differences in quality huge, or do you find that writing came naturally?


Matson: My first poem was about the wind and not, directly, about the manzanita. I didn’t have the tools or the awareness, at age fourteen, to articulate the intricacy of feeling and observation around the manzanita. The wind seemed simpler and I could handle the wind. The wind rustled the waxy leaves; the wind was portal to adventure, to the exotic intrigue of the manzanita and to the wide world beyond. My heart was involved. The wind was freedom and excitement. It conveyed a pure, primal feeling of being.

The poem was assigned by our high-school teacher, Robert Olson. He was a World War II vet and, when we annoyed him, he threw chalk at us. And blackboard erasers. His praise, always verbal, was equally obvious, tangible and direct. When he asked us to write a poem, I knew it was all right to be real. I had a rich imaginative life which I mostly concealed from my family and, for this assignment, it was a joy to understand that I could write what I truly felt.


I thought about the poem for what seemed like two weeks. It may have been only two days. Words circled through my head and finding words that matched the wind and the feeling in my heart, both, was a wonderful challenge. I felt connected to body, heart, and mind and, through my senses, to the world. Writing the poem intensified the feeling.


My touchstone of “being real,” and its connection to poetry, comes from those early years. A few years ago I found that first poem and could see its music was natural, like the easy, common language of Spoken Word poetry. I use similar language here and there in current work, especially in Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye. While my present language might seem to arise smoothly, it’s evolved gradually over time. It comes from a long journey through hip and cool vernacular all the way to politically correct language and beyond, sometimes as an exciting experiment and sometimes earned painfully after treks through an aesthetic briar field.


Gradually the touchstone of “being real” became a mantra, which took its natural role as a guide to finding my own voice. What am I really thinking? What do I really feel about my topic? Later it would become a filter, identifying work I could learn from and separating that from work which, to my mind, didn’t merit attention. The filter works well for Beat Generation indulgences and equally well for elite, academic pretensions.


Interviewer: Growing up on an avocado ranch, you experienced life viscerally and directly. At the same time, there was a contradiction—something inauthentic began encroaching. Your father wanted you to become a scientist—to study the earth, rocks, and wind that you enjoyed but didn’t want to dissect in a systematic way.


Matson: Dad was born in 1904 to a lay preacher and he seemed to have transferred his father’s religious awe to science. That would have been natural. Kitty Hawk, when people began flying for the first time, took place in 1912, when Dad was a youngster of eight. There’s little doubt he was enthralled. His mother was partially invalided and Dad was raised by his sister, our Aunt Erma, who was ten years older. And her boyfriend was a pilot. The stars had aligned to bring up my father as a devotee to technology and to science.


Mom was a sweet, smart lady but quite retiring. She didn’t feel comfortable showing her deeper emotions; she was verbally abused as a child and as an adult. Grandma, when she was living with us, reported that her doctor thought Mom was the ugliest baby he’d ever seen. Every few days she made this pronouncement and let loose a big, delighted Irish laugh. Mom cringed. She didn’t stand up to her mother, she just flinched and continued her household tasks.


She’d put food on the table for her husband and five children and after dinner she’d organize us to clean up the kitchen. Then she’d disappear to her bedroom, where she read mysteries. There was very little nurturing from her. My younger sister said, later, that the only way she might have gotten attention from Mom would have been to press the point of a carving knife to her chest. Mom liked babies but, beyond that, kids were a problem.


Dad’s love was science and he was plenty smart. He went to Cal Tech and among his teachers was Linus Pauling, whom he admired. But the Depression interrupted his education. He dropped out and enrolled in drafting school and then worked in the aircraft industry, at Douglas, in Los Angeles County. During World War II the company moved to Oklahoma City, out of fear that the Japanese would bomb the West Coast.


Mom and Dad made friends with the Swiss family who ran the child care center in Oklahoma. The husband was a farmer. He bought land in Southern California, planning to start an avocado ranch, and he offered to include our family in the project. He planted trees on an adjacent property and that became our orchard.


After the war ended, we moved back to Los Angeles and Dad worked at Douglas for three more years. On weekends he built a house on the avocado property, and when I was seven Dad left Douglas and we moved to the ranch. But the house wasn’t finished, and the first year the whole family lived in a tent – quite an adventure.


At that time, four and a half acres of avocados was enough to support a family. We came home every day from school and worked on the farm, even as youngsters.


Dad entered the agricultural community and eventually became a local expert on the fungus that attacks the avocado trees. He modified a Jeep to include a tank for fungicide, along with a pump and a spray nozzle. He’d test for the fungus and then go to the ranches and fumigate the areas where there were infected trees. It was complicated to consult the growers, test and treat other orchards, while also keeping his own farm productive.


Around this time Dad chose me to become the scientist he wanted to be, to live his life for him. I had some interest in rocks and in geology; a neighborhood boy and I hiked through the undeveloped countryside and picked up pretty stones. Dad, as a young man, had been an amateur naturalist and studied butterflies. He took the family on outings into the backcountry, sometimes to the mountains and sometimes to the desert. Sometimes abandoned mines were a destination, too. Dad was as interested in nature as he was, as an engineer, in abandoned mining machinery.


While I liked rocks, writing about the wind was, for me, a greater excitement. And I found it expedient to keep that interest private. Dad was clear that art and dreaming were beyond the pale. When he expressed confidence that I could be a scientist, I took him to mean, nevertheless, that I could be a writer, too. But the underlying message was stark: I was alone and I had to write on my own. Without support.


My high school artist friend Marie Martin and I started a literary journal, Las Obras. [1] That gave me a place to express my passion and I happily wrote stories and poems. We made friends among classmates and I didn’t need to hide from teachers. My feeling of connection grew and I’ve been chasing that feeling my entire life. It’s a primitive feeling of soulful power – connecting body, heart, mind and the senses to nature, to people, and to the world.


My parents knew I spent time on Las Obras, but their silence was deafening. I continued to lowball my writing, or to hide it entirely. When the time came, I applied to the University of Chicago, though I knew little about the school. But Chicago did have glamour. It seemed energetic. It was a big Midwest city a long ways from the farm. I was fortunate to win a full scholarship and I felt I was coming into my own.


Interviewer: It seems that the greatest challenge writers face is paradoxically the ability to write like themselves, without fear or censorship, that is. How did the University of Chicago contribute to your growth?


Matson: I had grown up in a small, agricultural town and at the University of Chicago most students were better read than I. They enjoyed kicking around wild ideas and strutting up the intellectual ladder. It was a challenge and I was game. I was excited. I made friends with a classmate, Eliot, who knew Chicago well and guided me to museums, literary events, and to the symphony. We spent frequent Friday afternoons at dress rehearsals of the symphony – for a dollar fifty. Fritz Reiner was the conductor, and the music was an education. Mahler, Bruckner, Prokofiev, and Beethoven were my favorites, along with more modern composers, Bartok, Carter, Hindemith, and Messiaen.


The world was opening up and my interest in writing continued to grow. I kept a journal with many fragments of poems and stories. But the University, in contrast, seemed bent on suppressing my urge. I told my intake counselor I wanted to write and to study literature. He judged that I had a better background in science and advised, therefore, that I study literature only in my electives.


How had he made that decision? Did Las Obras not count? Did my desire not count? I was disheartened and, sadly, I went with his program.


My first paper for freshman English was a romantic piece on geology. I got a D minus. I went to the instructor and complained. He indicated I had written purple prose and, reconsidering, he acknowledged that it was good purple prose. He raised my grade to C plus. He was sure, though, that I had used a thesaurus to find the word “vug” – he didn’t believe I knew the word on my own. One wonders, does personal agency not exist? After that I treated the class more as a job than as a place to develop my passion.


The Hutchins’ Great Books liberal arts program at Chicago had placed me in an upper division literature course. We read books I’d never even touched: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars. I was a long ways from the small Southern California town where I had grown up and I loved these books. I was the earnest kid in the back of the room. This was a fascinating adventure. I didn’t talk much, but I got involved with Milton and I could feel the swirling energy in Paradise Lost.


The professor, a cheerful, caring sort of man, asked, “Why did Milton write this poem?” I raised my hand. I knew why I liked the poem and I was sure Milton wrote it for the same reason. I answered, “The conflict between good and evil is ongoing. It’s part of life and Milton was laying it out for us.” The professor smiled. “Well, that’s a good answer. But not the answer I’m looking for.” Milton was quarreling with the King of England, the professor explained, and the King becomes God in the poem, and Milton identified with Satan. Milton thereby gave the conflict somewhat equal antagonists and garnered sympathy for the devil.


I wasn’t comfortable with that thinking. It didn’t speak to my heart. The professor had shown me the specialist’s awareness one needs in order to “join the club” – the academic club. I liked my answer better than his and this was a turning point. I didn’t do anything with it, I just noticed it. And I felt sad. The perception that I was on my own was reinforced.


I read in Milton the honesty and passion of the verse itself. The passion seemed an extension of the primal feeling I had when lounging under the manzanita tree. It was one iteration of the magical world where we live. Academic literary society was teaching me, by negative example, to avoid it and to feel my way to places where I could find nurturance. Where I felt involved and where I felt inspired. I was on my own and instinct was my guide.


Interviewer: When did you decide to become a Beatnik—not in the superficial sense of joining a movement or meeting one specific individual, but having the courage to become the person and poet you always wanted to be?


Matson: My development wasn’t so much a decision as it was, over time, an accumulation of modest changes. I was following my sense of connection. The same feeling that had grown around writing my first poem, about the wind, had stayed primary. Reading Milton and the discussion of Milton, together, were a significant step. Equally significant was the book we were carrying around in our back pockets in 1959.


Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind was that book and the poem that intrigued me was “Christ Climbed Down.” [2] To come down from the cross and view the material world through a spiritual eye, as Christ does in the poem, was startling. To dare write with the awareness of a mythic figure, or simply with one’s personal awareness, either one, was a challenge. Nothing requires our minds to follow a prescribed path!


With a single poem, Ferlinghetti brought poetry out of the ivory tower and gave it to us as an everyday event. A magical event, true, but in ways we could fully imagine happening today. Presented in our own spoken language and with a recognizable sensibility. This path felt harmonious with my urge to be real and to be connected with primal feeling. And in the poem Christ, by turning a critical eye on a typical materialistic Christmas, also spoke plainly to a widespread, underlying unease in American society.

My schoolmates were studying T.S. Eliot. Together we read “Prufrock” and The Four Quartets. My friends Tony Berracoso and Phil Broemmel and I struggled over images in “The Wasteland”; Phil and Tony called the poet “Tough Shit Eliot.” I memorized much of “The Dry Salvages”: “I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong, brown god, sullen, untamed, intractable….” These words were parallel to my feelings under the manzanita bush. They showed an uncluttered mind looking fresh at the world, just as Jesus did in Ferlinghetti’s poem. Exploring the vision of The Four Quartets, also, was a delight.


The first stanza of “Prufrock,” however, is what stayed with me: “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.” These lines stirred my psyche with a dark insistence. Our conversations allowed that they show Eliot’s disenchantment with nineteenth-century poetry and with received wisdom on how poems should be written. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized their full import: the lines are a Modernist challenge to all who follow.


My friend Eliot knew something was brewing with the Chicago Review in early 1959. [3] There was a reading of Beat poets featured in Big Table at the North Dearborn Street music hall “Gate of Horn” and we attended. More than a hundred people were there and Allen Ginsberg orchestrated the show. The audience urged him to read his iconic Beat poem Howl and he kept us in suspense. He waited until the end of the event and read Howl as the finale.


Mostly what I felt, even when the Beat poems were dark and critical, was joy of life. This was not the academy. This was full engagement of body, heart, and mind. These were artists speaking their truth. They fit John Clellon Holmes’s formulation, “To be Beat is to be at the bottom of your personality looking up.” [4]

I stood at the back of the room where someone gave an analysis of the Beats. “They’re Communists. They found they couldn’t influence the political process, so they turned to poetry.” Really? Poetry was more effective than demonstrating or organizing or working with the Party? I loved this. I had no idea whether it were true, but the thought amused me. The quote is a crack-up even now, sixty-plus years later. Indeed poetry can influence our political process: by raising consciousness.


The audience asked questions and Beat poet Gregory Corso was quizzed about his influences. I was interested. His writing displayed a tone akin to my primal feelings. But Corso listed the canon and I thought, he’s lying. These aren’t personal influences, this is a recital of great literature. He started with Homer and Sappho and went through Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Keats, Shelley, Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Dostoyevsky – almost everyone well-known.


Later I realized that, in the context of the times, Corso was providing a crucial insight. The Beats were listening to the pulse of literature. What makes it strong, what makes it speak to us, what makes it relevant. The professor, who said Milton’s quarrel with the King was the poem’s pivotal strategy, had revealed the motivation that prompted Milton’s full engagement. But full engagement is the point, full engagement of body, heart, and mind. Not the royal quarrel that brought Milton there. Corso had answered well for the Beats as a whole.


I gathered the Chicago Review had been thrown off campus by the University because of its Beat content. The editor, Irving Rosenthal, had launched Big Table [5] with the writing he’d collected, with help and prodding from Allen Ginsberg. I had no connection with Rosenthal or his staff. But the Gate of Horn reading impressed me deeply. I carried the range of personal, radical honesty of those writers – sensitive, crude, sexy, joyful, angry – as an ideal.


After a year at Chicago I dropped out and went home to the avocado ranch in Vista, San Diego County. My folks were unhappy and insisted I enroll in University of California at Riverside. The school seemed like child’s play compared to Chicago. I took a geology class because I liked minerals and had collected rocks as a youngster.


But the professor described the seasons inaccurately: He said the earth’s orbit is elliptical and when our planet is closer to the sun it’s summer, and when it’s farther away it’s winter. A student at the back of the class said no, it’s because the axis of the earth is tilted. The professor didn’t understand. He held up a piece of chalk and said, to his credit, “Come to the blackboard and explain.”

Gary Jurberg did just that. We became friends.


There was a group of student writers and I visited their meeting. It seemed banal. Someone did know contemporary writing and mentioned poets were using lines like “gray ashtray room.” I liked that line, though it wasn’t close to what I heard at Gate of Horn. It wasn’t anything like Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness….” It didn’t reveal much of body, heart, or mind. My instincts measured what I was feeling. “Gray ashtray room” was strong, but cerebral and dry. It didn’t connect with what I felt, not with my yearning nor with my sense of a larger, magical world. I dropped out and returned to the ranch.


My father made a deal: I could work four hours a day for my room and board; the rest of the time was mine. Mom was working at the local library and I began catching up on my reading. I wanted at least to equal the students at Chicago. The local library was integrated with the San Diego County system and I could check out a wide variety of books. Every week I came home with another five volumes – the limit for one person.


It’s no accident that Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist attracted me. And it’s no accident that the opening – with “moo-cow” and the smell of urine – stayed vivid for me, even more than Molly’s soliloquy. Why obsess with society’s madness, and with relatives’ and with teachers’ madness? The connection, the child-like, pure, lyrical connection, is guileless and obvious on the first page.


Much later, at Ginsberg’s memorial in 1996 in San Francisco, Robert Hass made a similar, extravagant assessment of the first lines of Howl. I’d been making judgments like that for years, and to hear an accomplished writer – even if one in a limiting tradition – do the same thing made it seem legitimate. The first lines of a piece do reveal its soul or, at least, point to its core. I had meandered for a long while, in my reading, to find first lines that spoke to me. Now I see that poets, generally, aim to climb into a literary elite, and the impulse is usually displayed in the first lines. You couldn’t turn me off faster by pulling the pin on a hand grenade.


I worked all spring at the ranch and read books and wrote. I got a call from Bob Gonzales, a smart, sensitive drifter who hung out with students in Chicago. He had come to the West Coast and wanted to travel together. The world was calling and I answered. I was tired of working on the farm. Bob stayed with my family one night and early the next morning we took half a ham Mom had prepared and hit the road. We spent a week in Northern California and I truly enjoyed the traveling and exploring.


When I returned to the farm my parents, again, were not happy. Dad threw a rare tantrum. Mostly he kept control and only occasional grunts and mutterings and sneers indicated that, inside, he was frequently raging. He said, if I wanted to be a writer, “What are you working on? Where are your notebooks?” He predicted, “You’ll be in the snake pit within a year” – his sobriquet for a mental institution.


I was living in the guest room and I’d filled the bottom drawer of the dresser with notebooks and sheets of paper. Covered mostly by one paragraph that I was trying to perfect, the same paragraph, over and over! This helped me, eventually, to become wary of my own wish for perfection. But I wasn’t going to show this writing to my father. He might read it and take the repetitions as evidence that something was seriously wrong.


I did reveal I wanted to go to Northern California and get a job. Dad allowed me that freedom, provided I consented to psychological testing. The thought, at the time, was if you didn’t conform to society or to your parent’s wishes, you might be schizophrenic. Indeed, that’s what the tests showed. This was a gift in disguise. Several years later, in 1963 when the draft for the Vietnam War was ramping up, I referred to the tests and received the designation “4-F.”This saved me from going to war.


I came to Northern California and stayed with Gary Jurberg, the student in geology class who had explained the seasons. I drove a truck for an electrical contracting company and continued my reading and writing. I was becoming a guy who hangs around universities and makes friends with students. One was Roberto Epperson, who would smoke marijuana with me and we experimented getting drunk on bromide cough syrup. I remember tossing a can of soda up high and delightedly watching it spin and spin, in slow motion, as it fell.


Interviewer: I mentioned the development of your own authenticity came from the nature which surrounded you. But clearly it also came from your relationships.


Matson: Yes, one evening I started ragging on other writers, complaining about their work, and Roberto looked me in the eye and handed me a pen. “Time to get writing,” he said. How likely is it that a casual friend would make a gesture with such insight? I’ve never felt special. Any gifts I have are well-contested by my challenges. Roberto’s thought directed me in a simple direction: get working.


A reviewer recently criticized the reissued Mainline to the Heart (1966) because “everything worked out too well.” [6] The reviewer thus implied that this made the book suspect. It’s not easy to accept that legitimate forces may be at play here. Everyone must have buoyant moments when an event shows there’s more intelligent caring in the universe than we realize. It could even be divine dispensation simply to notice when our guides do appear.


I met Erin Black, who was a painter and four years my senior. She was friends with Gary Jurberg’s roommate and the buzz between us was intense. Erin saw me as an attractive bad boy and I was along for the ride. We planned a tour of Europe; she had enough money to make that happen. I’d heard you could ship out from the East Coast on freighters and earn passage to Europe. I hitchhiked to New York and found that such jobs were available in Montreal.


I started hitchhiking north and Fred Helmers picked me up. He taught at Briarcliff College and his sister was married to Beat poet Ed Dorn. [7] Fred offered me a place for a few days and invited me to attend a reading of Dorn’s that weekend. It must have been early spring 1961 and his brother-in-law was coming to the 12th Street Coffeehouse in New York City. How likely was that? Those guardian angels were helping me continue to find the Beats – they weren’t going to let me escape.


I met Ginsberg, James Warring the dancer, Irving Rosenthal, and Diane di Prima at the reading and got their phone numbers. I tried to be interested in Dorn. I liked some of his lines: “I know that peace is soon coming, and love of common object, and of woman and all the natural things I groom …” and his poem “Rick of Green Wood.” [8] But mostly his poetry didn’t take hold with me. He was, nevertheless, part of this group. These were the people who had the honest energy, passion and joy of life on display at the Gate of Horn. I planned, after traveling in Europe, to return to the City and look them up.


Europe was eye-opening and Erin was an enlightening and valuable companion. She appreciated my adventurousness and my openness in exploring Europe and its art with her. We visited churches and museums. She loved going to cathedrals and I absorbed their beauty and learned something of their history. She was thinking about her own painting as we went along and we had many discussions about art. And, as Erin was older and moved more easily among people, I saw how she did this and I gained some confidence. We spent time in Greece with the family of the ship’s captain who had brought me to Europe. We also visited Morocco.


I came back from Europe and stayed with Irving Rosenthal in New York City. He honored me by taking me under his wing and introducing me to the Beat writing he admired. He was especially effective when reading John Wieners. It’s easy for a young person to slide over the surface, not noticing Wieners’ depth. It may be that we see through a personal lens and, having expectations already too well-defined, we miss what’s in the words. Irving would read from Hotel Wentley (1958) [9] and repeat the lines slowly. He insisted I take in the words and he’d roll his eyes, appreciating their layers and their intensity. I had been gliding by Wieners’ conversational words too smoothly and Irving, in essence, showed me how to read contemporary poetry. He taught me to slow down and pay close attention. That was a gift.

But it was a mixed gift. A month or so afterwards I wrote a poem, showing my background and my passion, giving the ocean the mystique the wind held in my first poem. “The sea is alive” was a repeated refrain and Irving said the poem was a failure. When I said McClure had inspired me, he said, “No. It’s Wieners.” He spoke with a hurt intensity, as if I’d betrayed him.


I was friends with Marian Zazeela, one of underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s [10] actresses who was close to Ira Cohen. She read the poem. She liked it and asked, deferring to Irving, what he had said and I told her. She commented that he was probably correct, and added, “But don’t feel you can’t write about mythic figures!”


Zazeela lent an encouraging note. What Irving did was not teaching, it was something else. It was dictating. And I had a healthy response to Irving: I discounted him. I continued to develop my writing and to accept McClure’s influence. To Wieners’ credit, and also to Rosenthal’s, Wieners did eventually become a primary influence. The writing in The Hotel Wentley Poems was, for a while, my highest ideal.

What Irving did was eerily familiar. My father maintained a similar passive abuse. If I wouldn’t be a scientist, I was not his son. And if I couldn’t love Wieners the way Irving did, on the spot, I was beyond hope.


That year the young poet Elise Cowen committed suicide. Irving was deeply upset; he loved Elise. And he warned me severely, around the same time, against Herbert Huncke. [11] One might suspect he was letting grief exaggerate his opinion of Huncke’s danger. He was nevertheless consistent in his warning. “There are some people on the scene who are bad news. Huncke is one of them. Stay away from Huncke.” He listed people who had become addicts, or were in jail, or had their lives otherwise ruined – because of Huncke.


Still, Irving was inspiring. He repeated, in various ways, that great art “often contains something childlike.” [12] An excellent litmus for a young writer! Especially since we’re prone to inflate ourselves. And especially when viewed as a marker for when we’re “present to what is.” [13] A complete human being includes an abundance of the child. Irving’s remark echoes Carl Jung’s pronouncement: “The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.” [14] Once, when we were out walking, Irving noticed someone a half block away and said, “Look, there’s one of us!” Something about their hair and outfit stood out from the gray, uniform streets. They weren’t following the given pattern of conformity. They were living counter to the culture.


Erin went back to her family on the West Coast, with plans to return to New York City. Three months later she came to the Lower East Side, where she and I lived through the 1960s. Rosenthal had helped find our apartment; he knew the landlord. It was 48 dollars a month at St. Mark’s Place and Avenue A, now gentrified.


My evolving appreciation of literature came into play when I read pages from Naked Lunch to Erin. Irving had edited the book for Grove Press and was proud of his work. I laughed at the bizarre humor and surreal twists in Burroughs’ writing and Erin was aghast. But she was also curious. She kept coming back to the writing and listening to me talk. In a few weeks she was there, too, appreciating Burroughs as a rebel with immense power, working outside traditional story-telling.


Erin was, for me, comfort and stability and sanity. She was sociable and talked companionably with people. And she painted well. She used oils with a quirky flare for colors and shapes, as if bringing a hidden story to the surface. Her website erinmatsonart.com and a Facebook page display her work, considerably influenced by Chagall, whimsical fantasies and surreal landscapes and several gorgeous portraits. One of me, which I love, one of herself as an innocent, which I also love, and one of “Bear,” not so innocent, the man she left me for.


My favorites are clouds behind the side view of a house with a curving porch; trees with white blossoms and curling, dancing limbs; mythic faces with flames for hair mashing cheeks in the sky; a tumbling melee of flowers and cats and fabrics; a simple, repetitive portrayal of flowers on a windowsill. Her deliberately gauche style has, at the same time, a flamboyant, uniquely expressionist feel.


Interviewer: You had the privilege of knowing and studying with Allen Ginsberg. You met and worked with many other writers from that period, too. Who was one person you really admire?


Matson: Huncke was a surprise, the more so since Irving had judged him with such severity. That judgment, though, could have served to make Huncke attractive. Who was this calm older man, showing me the favor of his eyes, and treating me with understanding and kindness? I have a vague memory of my new friend and poet Ceely – John (nee Ceely) Paige [15] – introducing me to Huncke on the street.

But my soon-to-be wife Erin Black [16] may have established the connection that worked. I wish I could remember and there’s no one I can ask. These people have passed on. Remember, I was still a shy kid from the avocado farm. I was experiencing a rich tumble of thoughts and imagination but I hadn’t learned how to talk easily with people.


Huncke, however it came about, became a regular at our apartment on St. Mark’s Place. And Huncke and I had an arrangement: I liked sandwiches and so did he. When Huncke came over, out came the sandwich makings. We’d enjoy a meal of rye bread and cheese and sliced meat sandwiches and he’d start talking. He could see I needed tutoring and he’d supply some, discretely, here and there.

Huncke shined for Erin. She was fascinated with him and with his stories, and he would wait for her to join us, mulling over what story he would tell. She was his adoring audience. They’d smoke a joint and Huncke would drape a scarf over the lamp, casting a warm, welcoming glow throughout the room. He’d begin to talk. I heard, first hand, most of the stories that were later printed. I listened, enthralled.


One afternoon Huncke dropped by after a visit from John Wieners, who often stayed with Huncke on his sojourns from Boston. Huncke read, with an amused twinkle in his eye, a short poem John had composed the day before: “Huncke in the kitchen making a sandwich. / I hate him and he hates me.”

I was delighted. There was general excitement around this time about haiku, and I hadn’t joined. The form seemed too finicky. And few writers seemed able to wed an American sensibility with haiku’s traditional elements – nature, humanity, and time. But Wieners’ poem grabbed me. He showed how much can be done with a simple couplet. I began writing poems like his, which I called “Shorts.” And I noticed, along the way, that much of Wieners’ work is composed of couplets.


I heard that Ginsberg was writing “American sentences.” I imagined he reacted to the overly refined allure of haiku, as I had, and was doing take-offs in English. I felt the warmth for Ginsberg one feels for a common mind. The magic of poetry displays itself in surprising ways! I learned later that Ginsberg composed his sentences with the same number of syllables that haiku uses: seventeen. [17] This conflicted with my studies, as if magic relied on the number of syllables, not on the images! Did he imagine poetry requires a specific number? That was a disappointment.


After a while Huncke and I started walking the streets. Huncke would run into someone he knew, or someone he’d heard of, or someone he’d never seen before, and in a minute or so he would establish some intimacy. He’d move on to a cup of coffee, a meal, a score of drugs, a place to stay overnight, or a meeting the next day. Watching and listening to Huncke was an education.


At bottom his success was simply that he loved people. And he appreciated people. He was curious what they do – religion, work, meditation, art, relationships, drugs, whatever – to make their way through the day. He had seen most all variations and he made almost no negative judgments.


Interviewer: Herbert Huncke, of course, was well known in bohemian literary circles in the 1960s. And his life was celebrated, or mythologized, in Kerouac’s, Burroughs’, and John Clellon Holmes’ writing. Was Herbert Huncke really the reason you began using heroin, or was it someone/something else?


Matson: I wake up most mornings with an immense yearning, coupled with a penetrating helplessness or powerlessness. At bottom is an ocean of sadness. These emotions are acute now, and more so when I was young. I wanted that feeling under the manzanita to endure and merge with a sense of belonging. My family offered none of that – they supplied shame and critical disappointment. But the Beats frequently displayed a passion I connected with, as if I had returned to the manzanita.


Huncke was not interested in my taking drugs. I got into drugs through David Rattray and Ceely. Drugs were plentiful on the Lower East Side and so was the abuse of drugs. I had sniffed cocaine and liked it, and Rattray offered me a shot. I accepted. But I couldn’t find the sensation – perhaps because it wasn’t cocaine! It was heroin.


Are you kidding me? Just because the Beats ignored conventional mores, is this how you treat people? Behavior like this I never saw even a hint of in Huncke. But many indulged. The saving grace was that Rattray’s shot was so small I didn’t feel anything. True, I was expecting a different sensation, and perhaps Rattray’s conscience limited the quantity he prepared. Or he wanted the remainder of the bag for himself.


A while later I went with Rattray to his connection in Harlem and sniffed some of the drug. It worked. I was stoned all night.


Heroin makes you feel loved. That’s the simple, unacknowledged gift of the drug. Heroin takes away anxiety and paranoia and you can be yourself. It’s safe [18] and comfortable. One young addict attests, with authority, that heroin is “like a warm bath. [19] Heroin supplies the feeling of being accepted by your lover, by your family, and embraced by the community.


Every child comes into this world with a gift. Having that gift accepted is a birthright, but acceptance very rarely happens. It’s very rarely even moderately respected. Even more rarely nurtured! The poet’s job may be to uncover the gift and to develop it. Show it to the culture and show the path to its discovery. No matter how difficult the path might be.


Huncke knew that some people were convinced he turned youngsters into addicts and, from there, into derelicts. He didn’t want to be seen as that person. He also knew, of course, that the drug is a mixed challenge. He didn’t like my taking the drug. I used heroin for four years, and after the first few months we started shooting up together. He was extremely careful. He’d taste the drug with his tongue or put a smear on his gum and then he’d inject the tiniest amount in his vein. All this to check its purity and strength. If it passed these tests, then, and only then, would he proceed to shoot up.


Interviewer: If you could take any drug, without it being dangerous, addictive, or against the law, which, out of the ones you’ve tried, would best complement your writing and which the least?

Matson: For me psychedelics were most important, and are so today, in my writing. Their influence is direct. I do feel heroin is equally valuable, though heroin is in no way psychedelic. It’s very different. I aspire to recreate its feeling in psyche and body in how I live every day.


People do assume that I, like some others, were seduced into taking heroin by Herb Huncke. I recall having a discussion to this point while sitting behind Allen Ginsberg in court in lower Manhattan at a parole hearing for Beat poet Ray Bremser. We were supporting an artist in our community. The topic of Bremser’s addiction came to the court’s attention, and how he had gotten involved in heroin.

Under my breath I said, “Every addict is a pusher.” And Ginsberg was quick to admonish me. “Not literally,” he said firmly. Of course he was correct.


But Huncke did make the drug seem attractive, without his being a pusher himself. My friends and I would discuss if the drug helped Huncke become the beautiful man he was, or whether it spoiled him some way. The issue was never decided. He did show, in his caring and in his interactions, that the drug does not take away one’s humanity. When, under the eerie guidance of David Rattray, I started taking heroin, Huncke was disappointed. He may have been fearful that he would be thought responsible.


I discovered the many benefits of the drug. Heroin doesn’t need pushers. On its own it does a good job, making one feel loved. All paranoia and self-doubt disappears. You become yourself, if a quiet, slow-moving self. The relief and inspiration is palpable. It becomes another tool, whether used at the time or remembered, in staying healthy and optimistic as we go forward. And health of body and mind is much needed.


How valuable was Huncke’s mentoring? In this era of hysteria around drugs and the availability of much more dangerous drugs, fentanyl and carfentanil among them, I pass the information on to my son and to his friends who take drugs. They should know the precautions that Huncke took and that generations of addicts who survive would often take. There are fentanyl detection sticks available now that test for the drug and that’s a help. Still, we must make those precautions known. To everyone.


My other main love was psychedelics. “Expand your consciousness” was the call throughout the1960s. Drugs did provoke and enhance that effort! The intricate layers that LSD and other psychedelics revealed, and the activity of those layers, fits the world we’re in now. As well as the world when I first took acid. Psychedelics let vastly more material into the brain than we’re used to. We felt that we were seeing the world as it actually is. In its fullest. This is the primary effect of the drug.


Of course, psychedelics are not for everyone. For those who are sympathetic, in body and psyche and mind, it’s hard not to recommend them. For writing and for thinking and for living. I think of acid almost every day. Every day something shows a hint of the intricacies and interrelatedness of things, all of which is tangible and visible on acid. Acid informs how I live, even if I haven’t taken it in forty years. Insights gained from its expanded view can be valuable for anyone trying to navigate today’s world.


Interviewer: In 1966, Diane di Prima’s Poets Press published your collection Mainline to the Heart, and the very first lines of this collection are the following: “Fuck you, Huncke / Leave me / hung up for junk, waiting.” You’ve also gone on record saying that “Fuck you, Huncke” were the very first words you uttered at your debut poetry reading.


Matson: I wrote the opening poem in Mainline, “Teardrop in My Eye,” in 1963. The next year I read it at my first public reading, at Le Metro on Second Avenue in lower New York. My hands were shaking so much it was fortunate I had rehearsed with Ceely, and rehearsed more than once. We had challenged each other to sign up and read before an audience – firsts for both of us. I knew what my words were, even when I couldn’t make them out on the trembling page.


It’s difficult to conceive, if you weren’t there, how wild and boundary-less and bizarre was the freedom of those times for a writer. The Beats had blown down the barriers. An immense new territory was open. And our own selves, authentic or not, were prominent in that territory! We could write about ourselves and it was news. We felt seen and welcomed. Even the funkiest parts of ourselves were welcomed. When else, in history, has a rebellious segment of the writing community been given such deep and thorough appreciation?


The culture at large was hungry for freedom like ours. Hungry for our honesty, our partying impulse, our unabashed sexuality, even for our swear words. And ephemeral magazines, along with established counter-culture publications, were flooded with writing that catered to that hunger. I, too, appealed directly to the hunger with the first words of Mainline. The audience wanted honesty and, when they heard the words “Fuck you,” they responded with spontaneous applause.


Life without one’s birthright is an aching. Life is an aching anyway, of course, but the aching is amplified without some hint of a birthright. I was writing by instinct. I was writing a lot and I read with appreciation writers who showed a similar connection – a primitive, innocent, complete connection – to one’s own feelings and to people and to nature. And to the streets. Ginsberg, once in a while, writes a wonderful line from a like mentality. I was more drawn, though, to Wiener’s “When green was the bed my love / and I laid down upon” [20] and Michael McClure’s “Oh awkward Love awkward” [21] and Diane di Prima’s “The sidewalk is crumbling into diamonds” [22] – early lines from these poets. And to the frequent extreme honesty in Van Buskirk, as “What does she mean to me?”


My model for Mainline was Alden Van Buskirk’s LAMI (1965), [23] a manuscript I typed from raw notes. Van Buskirk had been tight with Ceely, Rattray, and Martha Muhs and, after Van Buskirk’s death in 1961, Rattray became custodian of his writing. He knew I’d been typing Huncke’s stories from hand-written notebooks and in 1963 he recruited me to do the same for Van Buskirk. I read his work on scraps of paper and notebooks that Rattray brought me. We puzzled out Van Buskirk’s writing and I typed the poems.


The power of LAMI comes from Van Buskirk’s vision. He saw the world that Huncke saw, the world that I saw and that Ceely saw. And he articulated it with insight and precision. He created a mythic friend, “Lami,” a savvy, intuitive hustler and street person, and followed him day and night through East St Louis. By the time I arrived in New York City, Ceely, Muhs, and Rattray had already established themselves. Van Buskirk had been and left and had died. The Beats, from our vantage, were caught up in celebrity-hood and we contributed our admiration. They were new celebrities, true, but celebrities nonetheless. They were living in the sky. [24]

The Beats had moved emphatically away from conformity. They ignored conventional boundaries and opened up a world suddenly without fences. This was wildly exciting. Our acclaimed Beat writers seemed swept away by the feeling and why not? A breeze of exhilaration was still blowing through the Lower East Side in the early 1960s. It was stimulating. It was life-affirming. The Beats envisioned and celebrated a world that was wonderful, many-layered, and glamorous.


In contrast, Van Buskirk and Ceely and I recognized the streets as they are: painful. Not pretty. There are interesting aspects – even intriguing aspects – but they are not glamorous. Or when they appear glamorous, it’s a reverse, gritty sort of glamour. And that glamour is fleeting, or a gloss on the surface.

My visionary ideal was Van Buskirk, with Wieners’, di Prima’s, and McClure’s emotional acuity and clarity in the background. I’d already finished most of the poems in Mainline to the Heart. I organized the poems and wrote a few more.


I wanted to convey as authentic a vision as had Van Buskirk. Did I write some to fit? Yes. Most, though, were already written. They affirmed my connection with life and with people and with the streets. Not the same as the Beats’ connection! Very little of the glamorizing we read in Kerouac and in Ginsberg. “We know so much more than they do,” was poet Andrew Heath’s summary, as he observed the Beats from the sidelines.


Diane di Prima knew me as the typist for Huncke’s journals a year or two in advance of her offer to print my work. Eila Kokkinen had recruited me to type those journals; she had been art director for the Chicago Review in the crisis years and I met her through Irving. Huncke himself would never have asked me to type his journals. He didn’t think of himself as an established, professional writer, and he likely assumed that to ask for help would be an imposition.


I spent many hours on his writing. The manuscripts were hand-written, in Huncke’s looping, slanted script, across pages of a variety of notebooks. Often his choice was a miniscule spiral notebook, one that would fit in a shirt pocket. There’s nothing cool about Huncke’s style. About the material, yes. The people he writes about, the curiosity, the intelligence, and the encompassing love he has for them, the compassion and the vision of humanity behind his relationships – these are hip in the best sense. They’re inspiring. But his writing was careful, leisurely, even Victorian, and typing the journals taught me about language. I learned what can be accomplished in a style that’s not written through a hip lens. Writing that’s not cool.


If I could articulate the core of Huncke’s writing, I’d offer that his words open us to our shared love for each other, whoever we are. The learning is subtle. We begin to appreciate and love people with backgrounds and creative impulses very different from ours. He inspires what has become known as “radical acceptance.” How we get there is intangible, but the journey is enriched by the vividness and accuracy of Huncke’s portraits. The typescripts became the Poets Press Huncke’s Journal (1964) and, eventually, The Herbert Huncke Reader (1997). [25]

When Diane asked me for a manuscript, I was thrilled. She and Alan Marlow were Poets Press. They had printed A.B. Spellman’s The Beautiful Days (1965) and I appreciated the grounded, everyday expressions and observations in his writing. “Love doesn’t grow on trees,” he proclaimed one day in the basement bookstore where we both worked. And we celebrated everything Poets Press did of Huncke’s. We all knew that Huncke was a superb storyteller and Diane had the foresight to publish him.


We found inspiration—new, exciting Beat writing—in Yugen, [26] the magazine edited by LeRoi Jones, later Imamu Amiri Baraka, and his wife Hettie Jones during the early 1960s. The Floating Bear, a casual newsletter, edited by both LeRoi Jones and di Prima, also attracted interesting and magical work. We read other Poets Press selections with interest, but I wasn’t much drawn to them. The holy grail for us was The Auerhahn Press in San Francisco. Auerhahn had printed Wieners and early McClure, and they printed Van Biuskirk’s LAMI (1965). They were the press we watched.


Writers postured, taking on Beat attitudes, showing their funkiness, and they were more than accepted. They were praised along with authentic examples of many developing movements, as the New York School poets, the surrealists, the Language poets, concrete poets, minimalists, even the objectivists. Di Prima did have an eye for emerging writers from the various schools, and some appeared as Poets Press volumes. Her roster provides a broad view of 1960s counterculture writing.


Some of us were looking for writing that felt authentic. Were the people we loved not posturing? Yes, to an extent, they were posturing: Wieners was the tragic gay lover, McClure the obsessed emotional male, Van Buskirk the ultimate cool hipster, di Prima the free-thinking, feminist alchemist. But these postures served their visions. What a relief to read, scribbled on notepaper, Van Buskirk’s assessment: “Fuck Olson and the crowd. For me only Ginsb., McClure, and Wieners.”


Diane was not at the Le Metro café when Ceely and I read. Did Huncke tell her what I was writing? Probably not. I think we have to credit di Prima’s intuition for soliciting a manuscript. We knew each other, I had visited her several times and talked about Wieners and Huncke and about what I was writing. A.B. Spellman, my boss when I worked downstairs at the Eighth Street Bookstore, had looked at me and said, “Diane makes a good mother.” [27]. But I hadn’t shown her any of my poems.

I was honored and flattered when Diane offered to print my book. I had not thought of a career. I was simply writing by instinct, influenced by an uneducated, sensory vision of the world. “I’m a leftover primitive” states one of our poets, Carol Lee Sanchez, [28] brilliantly, referring to her indigenous background. All humans have a Paleolithic core we may hardly be aware of, especially those of us who share nothing of the culture and the struggles of indigenous people.


Was I writing from this core? Not likely. I was listening, though, in that direction. The axis of Mainline contains the lines, “I’ve a dis-ease called life / and its aching, what to / do with it.” You don’t have to reach far to realize that’s the question Huncke saw in the back of everyone’s mind. No doubt it was on Huncke’s mind, too. Answering that question informs the path we take, and my hearing the question as fundamental speaks to how open Huncke was. I don’t remember his using those exact words, ever, but the question was on the air. Huncke sought to answer it for himself, probably constantly. And to hear how others answer it.


What was most flattering about Mainline was that Diane knew my love of John Wieners. She knew I was close to John, too, and she invited John to write the introduction. I was on a cloud. I felt as I had on earning the scholarship to University of Chicago. I had put in seven or eight years in earnest as a writer, reading the Beats and classics and writing almost every day. With Diane’s offer I felt in my element. I was getting what I had earned. I remember thinking, this is how it’s supposed to be! My gift is being honored.


After Diane gave John the manuscript, he came to my apartment and sat down at the same modest kitchen table where Huncke would sit. He started leafing through the pages. This was in 1965 and, through my relationships with Erin, Ceely, Huncke, and Eila Kokkinen, I was no longer so shy. I had become knowledgeable in the ways of the world and of how people treat each other – especially in the counterculture. Wieners focused on an early poem that ends with “creep away from the slinking hand.” I was twenty-three years old when I wrote those words and I’d sweated blood to come up with an image that emphatic. Wieners read the line and said, “I wonder how we can make this more dramatic.”

I took the manuscript and slid it across the table away from him. I knew, by then, that there are people who – I’d watched them operate – have an unerring sense for your most tender spot and want to play with it. Or to squash it! And that’s who John showed himself to be. I was not letting him tell me how to write – much as I loved his work.


Wieners’ introduction is not flattering. But one can feel in Wiener’s words his struggle with the power of Mainline. Not that he acknowledged it – he didn’t – but the reader can sense John grappling. He states baldly that he still carries “the wand and the fleece,” implying that I may not. Is he thinking Mainline might be of another genre? Or is a debased version of poetry? Or of Beat poetry? He writes, “One wonders about the nature of love in these poems. Are they vicious or not? … Human vermin inhabit the world … The ‘angel headed hipster’ … That dream is lost, as these poems testify.”


John was way ahead of me. I had no idea such an ideal existed or that my writing could indicate its demise. I was interested in being honest. “Angel-headed hipster,” while Kerouac’s writing and Ginsberg’s Howl had placed it firmly in the literature, [29] was not a familiar icon for me until later, with the advent of the Hippies. For us, for Ross Perez who drew the cover for Mainline, and for my friends, a “hipster” was someone who could successfully navigate relationships and the streets and the drug world. Huncke was a hipster – though the moniker usually applied to younger people. The “angel-headed hipster,” the visionary and all-loving Hippie, had not entered my consciousness. I’m not sure it entered the general conversation until a little later, when Hippies filled in the image.


Wieners also mentions that, in Mainline, “There’s breath and the practice of it. Form is not of the question here.” When I turn his statement one way, Wieners seems oblivious to how much attention we, including younger poets Rattray, Ceely, Goldenberg, and Richkin, were giving to the structure of Wieners’ poems. We were looking for clues on how to improve our own work. Turning his phrase another way, Wieners seems psychic. We would often end our analysis of – and our quandary with – structural intricacies by simply listening to our own breath. Our breath, as taught and referred to by Ginsberg, often gave us the road signs.


John is correct, of course, to say “Form is not of the question,” especially if he means not the single, primary question. We were following Robert Creeley’s dictum, “Form is never more than an extension of content.” [30] The question is whether the words convey the impulse of the poem, whether they capture its reality. This follows the original mantra of “being real.” And this also guides the structuring of the poem. Some lines are breathed, some enjambed, some are paused at the end, some end-stopped, and some words are placed on the page for visual effect.


The poem chooses its structure. Attention to reality comes from the poem itself! As well as from the revising mind. The poem’s impulse is best honored if a range of forms and techniques is available. The origins of voice are instinctive, but they have external influences, of course. I wanted to write like Wieners.


I went to book stalls on 4th Avenue in the City and picked up ephemera – mimeographed journals that published Wieners – and memorized his poems. Each one seemed to have special magic. I memorized most of The Hotel Wentley Poems, too. I tried to write poems like these. Imitating John gave me an ideal I could not attain, though I tried and tried. The template succeeded in showing how different my voice is from John’s. My efforts, deny it as I might, allowed another voice to come through the cracks. The template, in failing, gave me a sense of what was my own.


Interviewer: In 1966, Diane di Prima’s Poets Press published your collection Mainline to the Heart. It's a book full of personal details and has a raw edge to it. In terms terms of content, it's all you. In terms of style, who were you channeling?


Matson: Concrete guidance on how to write, a plethora of guidance, really, came from Ginsberg. We were wondering, Paul Greenough, Noah Goldenberg, Ceely, myself and other young writers, where do you end the line? Where to start the next line? And why? “The line is an expression of your breath” [31] was Ginsberg’s reply, which he took from Williams and Olson. We puzzled over this and repeated it endlessly.


And the requirement to be honest was at the foundation of all our conversations. Much later Ginsberg made the formulation, “Make the private world public” [32] and this simple, brilliant statement expressed our need exactly. The impulse was ubiquitous.


Ginsberg was tireless in passing on what he’d learned from Pound and Williams. And, by osmosis, from Eliot. It was Modernism – or, rather, it was the impulse behind Modernism. It was not the school of Modernism, which became overly articulated and fragmented and which, eventually, many artists found oppressive.


But the impulse behind Modernism is inspiring: wipe the lens clear of preconceptions and see what is. The Beats added their strong belief in the physical body and an indulgence in the self as legitimate sources of inspiration. We were familiar with both! They were the legacy of Walt Whitman. The acknowledged precursor to the Beats was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and, without it being said, the book was required reading.


I’ve always had a stream of words flowing inside, as McClure’s early poems demonstrate in Dark Brown (1958), with their twenty-four-carat honesty and tight focus. But I’ve rarely dipped into that flow very precisely. Listening inward did inform me what was authentic. I’d match, if I could, the accuracy of what I wrote to the internal flow.


This is part of an ongoing dialogue between the poem’s impulse and the assessing mind. Later I wrote many pages of “Crazy Child” exercises – similar, spontaneous words – which became raw material for Squish Boots (2002).


I do edit to fit. I listen to the music of the vowels and consonants and rhythms and accents, and ask whether they’re apt. Is the music consistent? Does this phrasing suit the purpose of the poem? Yes, at times, I do count syllables and bring out rhymes, especially rhymes otherwise hidden. In Hello, Paradise I relish rhyming, or rhyming on a slant, a word at the end of a line with a word at the beginning of the same line.


When he visited our workshops, San Francisco poet and publisher Paul Mariah [33] showed us how he examined his drafts and found a line or two with energy that expressed the poem’s intent. He’d modify the other lines to fit – or reflect or incorporate or build to or match – that energy. I realized I was doing similar revising by instinct and I adopted his strategy. Parts of a rough draft feel right and I’ll work to arrange other parts to support or augment their effect.


I read a lot of Williams along the way and wondered about his “variable foot,” the scheme of line lengths and rhythms that he said determined the shape of his poems. It seemed, though, like rhythms of speech to me and not much more. I didn’t notice anything precise. I couldn’t extract a system that would apply to my voice. That would probably have felt like a forced fit, or a distortion, in any case. It did make sense to listen, openly, to speech – internal and external speech.


In this Williams is a fine guide. He uses conversational language, period. Cummings does too, but cummings employs such cleverness, his language doesn’t feel conversational. It feels artful. Williams would use words you’d hear in conversation and they become his exact building blocks. John Wieners was masterful at this, too. In addition, Wieners often places in the underpinning a double meaning or a pun or a metaphor – developing right along with the flow of common speech. And perfectly disguised – though when you read closely you can feel his thought and energy shaping the poem. He raised making poetry from spoken word into high art.


Williams’ greatest gift is seeing magic in commonplace events. That’s priceless. That’s what I got from Williams, and it’s not basic Modernism – though perhaps it’s a sub-species. Modernism asks us to see what’s before our eyes, and commonplace events qualify. The Beat aesthetic develops this further and asks us to look in particular at the commonplace. At the commonplace and, in line with Beat rebelliousness, at the despised. Trash in a gutter, a leaf blowing across the sidewalk, the hum of the refrigerator, spiritual glints in a drunk’s eye. Modernism makes no such demand.


Breath was always the issue. We’d look to postmodern Beat scholar Charles Olson, who taught poetics at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the 1950s – and “we” were a changing group, Rattray, Ceely, Erin, Martha Muhs, myself and earlier, before he died, Van Buskirk. The Olson poem we passed around was “The Kingfishers.” [34] It seemed like a good poem, though it was difficult to understand how reading each line as a breath contributed. Poet Robert Creeley, in his writing, did this unerringly. He read each short line in one breath, which created a sort of hyperventilation that suits his material well. [35] It’s an effective writing and performance technique.


I change positions of words in the line, and breaks in the line, to give visual emphasis to the meaning. Is this projective? Not exactly, for breath is not a strict determinant. But the writing can be a loose projection; “casual projective verse” might be a label that fits. The page is a score and I’m making visual projections that are guides to reading the lines. An example is the final sentence of Mainline where I divide the phrase “… words, / words ...” so that the second word is on a line of its own. This is a simple visual alteration, not indicating breath, probably more in the manner of Los Angeles poet Stuart Perkoff. [36] It gives emphasis to the final “words.”


Conflating metrics with voice, though, other than in the special cases of Creeley and a few others, seemed indulgent. Years later my friend Noel Sack and I listened to tapes of Olson reading and, at the same time, we followed his words on the page. Olson did indeed use the page as a musical score. And he did this precisely! One word on a line was read in one breath. Twenty on a line, too, was read in one breath. It’s an absorbing enterprise. Noel spent much time observing the nuances and reading analyses of Creeley and Olson on this strategy. But all that seems a cerebral bypass. Ultimately, I’m not sure we can make a scheme that fits our voice. Or if we could, how would it be useful?


We listen to our heart for our voice. Listen and practice. Practice and listen. Start anew with a new poem. We learn nothing cognitive that we can bring forward. It’s ineffable. Wieners plunges into the depths and comes back with “answers? No. Poems.” [37] We can use statistics to analyze use of words and this might serve to identify authors by style and word choice. But voice? We won’t identify it with surety. We can’t tame it. We cannot make voice comfortable. We won’t make it safe.


Van Buskirk expressed our sentiment, again, with his declaration [38] “Fuck Olson & the crowd. Only Ginsb., McClure, and Wieners for me.” Western culture teaches us to listen to our minds and reap what rewards. Olson, along with others, indulges in a complicated cerebral endeavor that only initiates can follow. That’s a violation of the heart.


A further violation is to quantify voice. Voice comes from somewhere else. Being present to your material requires you to sense what voice and what metrics are fitting. You won’t find options by paging through a book. Or you might! But those pages are jiggering the surface while below, in the depths, the heart makes its choice.


“I’m your leftover primitive,” from Sanchez, comes to mind again! Your cosmogony does the choosing. Listening helps. Van Buskirk says, “Poetry now – 1961 / indolence….” [39] When you’re doing nothing, you are capable of hearing.


Interviewer: In ’69 Croton Press published Space Age (1969). There your style changes, seeming more open and ranging and doesn’t sound quite so street-wise, not so hard-core vernacular. The lines sound more like the ordinary speech of William Carlos Williams, like “The poet carrying his own air around everywhere.”

Matson: Space Age was inspired by psychedelics and by Bob Dylan. Dylan’s confidence seemed to enable him to carry “his own air around.” As if he’s independent and invulnerable! And he shows how our topics may be as big as the culture. Better if they are! He opened the field. When I embraced the Beat aesthetic, I was not aware of its implicit boundaries. Dylan blew them away.


Lately scholars have noticed that Dylan’s early images are taken from – and probably inspired by – Kerouac’s On the Road. Could Kerouac’s free-wheeling, devil-may-care attitude have inspired Dylan? Or fit his temperament so well that Dylan extended it freely? While my friends and I were reading poetry, we barely noticed Kerouac. Perhaps we thought prose was a lesser art. Interesting that Kerouac’s adventurous spirit may have transmitted to Dylan and then circled back through Dylan’s work to inspire us. Adding magic to the saying, “What goes around, comes around.”


“Seeing” itself was expanded immensely by psychedelics. We started tripping in 1963, when peyote was available by mail from Texas. We’d heard of Gnosticism, the direct perception of God, and some Gnostic texts were passed around. I didn’t understand them fully, but high on peyote I could understand touching and feeling divinity. It’s everywhere.


This receptive mind was amplified by Ginsberg with many images in Howl. And by his love of Blake, who would lie with his wife under the trees in their back yard and talk to God. [40] The power and teaching of this story – this simple scene – was great. Far greater than any exposition! We could imagine doing it and could easily imagine its rewards. Best, of course, if one were high on acid. We took courage and recreated the Blakean scene many times in our apartments on the Lower East Side, with trees integrated with classical art and sounds of the City blending with progressive jazz.


Psychedelics, plus the model of Dylan, gave me artistic freedom. I could name whatever was in view. All the energy I had committed to being a cool hipster was released. I could look out more broadly and write with accuracy whatever I was seeing. No analysis necessary! I was floating, buoyed by psychedelics and buoyed by a feeling of confidence I imagined was like Dylan’s. And buoyed by a young person’s sexual energy and a sexual vision of the world, seeing sexual buzzing everywhere. Not judging the verse! “High on life,” the perennial ideal aided by psychedelics, egotistical to the fullest, naming the things around me.


Reading those poems seems like a journey back in time. It’s both exciting and scary to revisit that frame of mind. Further, as research into psychedelics has recently re-opened, it’s revelatory that science shows psychedelics disable the filtering activity of the brain. We let much more in when we’re tripping – precisely what we experienced in the early 1960s. Research also determines that meditation has a similar effect. Aside from some visionaries in spiritual traditions, we may have been seeing what’s real for the first time.


The signature moment was a free concert by the Grateful Dead at Tompkins Park on the Lower East Side in 1966. They were showcasing their first album and it was mind-blowing. We were dancing in the sunlight, and I took to wearing an ankle bracelet and walking barefoot. A challenge in New York City, but doable. The next year the Hippies were fully in the eye of the mainstream, and a movie producer was searching for actors to portray the Summer of Love – at its advent. I went for an interview and did well. It became clear, though, that the interviewer wanted an innocent, non-thinking, “angel-headed hipster.” I was too much an intellectual.


I kept the vision of LSD alive, nevertheless, and keep it alive today. Through most of the 1970s I took acid once a year, at various spots in the Oakland Hills. Life on the planet is that interesting, that layered, that magical, fully as entrancing as what psychedelics present. I came back from each trip refreshed and reconnected. “Expand your consciousness!” [41] Later I augmented the vision with a meditation practice. I revisit the buzzing in my body and in my psyche – my non-cerebral connection to the planet – for an hour or two every day.


And Dylan cries out for change. Yes, we have Beats railing against the system, [42] Bremser and Ginsberg and Corso waving their Beat creds at the cops. Dylan, by contrast, took on icons and politicians and generals as if face to face. Like an angry youngster! He confronts our adversaries and calls them out: “You!! You masters of war!!” He’s as uppity as he likes and as sarcastic as he wants – and he’s very smart.


Dylan probably had Woodie Guthrie as a guide for language. We had Williams’ wisdom of the body – “The line is an expression of your breath” [43] – extrapolated from Patterson by Ginsberg and Olson. And Williams’ “No ideas but in things,” [44] also extrapolated by Ginsberg. This runs parallel to Eliot’s “objective correlative”: [45] items in the physical world that echo or mirror one’s internal feeling.

For tangible guidance we had Pound’s ABC of Reading, where he presents the three Imagist dictums. [46] The first is “Direct treatment of the topic, whether subjective or objective.” And “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” This one may be prevalent in about every writing class on the globe. Also: “Compose by the music of the phrase, not the metronome.” That fit most everyone in the counter-culture writing community, Williams, all the Beats – until the advent of Rap, HipHop, and Spoken Word.


Those dictums matched my sensibility at the time, too, and the first dictum still does – emphatically. They were part of our conversation. We repeated those ideas to each other while reading our poems. I applied them as best I could in Space Age.


Ezra Pound’s Cantos may require scholarly study, but his madrigal imitations have a song-like beauty and innocence that appeal to primitive instincts. They’re pure song. “Now if no fayre creature followeth me, it is on account of Pity….” [47] Whew! The meaning is horrible and the song is to be adored. I’ve sung and enjoyed and revised those lines for sixty years.


The expanded consciousness in Space Age shows itself in the line “I’m watching the twentieth century on my outside skin.” This was the mode of observation and response throughout the book. It fits the insight Diane di Prima presents in “Rant,” [48] where she observes that we’re born with a cosmogony and the journey of a poet may be to find that cosmogony and to develop it. Superb! An astute conception of the poet’s passage.


Not only of the passage but also of what the passage feels like. You carry your personal vision around – somewhere at the base of your psyche, discovered or not – your whole life. “Rant” opens this territory. To my knowledge, it’s never been opened so clearly before.


“Watching the twentieth century on my outside skin” is, for me, the observing part of this cosmogony – amplified by LSD. “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” [49] Acid separates the user from consensual reality and this may give the tripper true sight. This relates to Eliot’s challenge, of course: what is truly before your eyes? This, in turn, is the impulse behind Modernism.


The line from Space Age is a lighthearted, optimistic summary of the book. As if viewing the century “on [our] outside skin” is an exercise available to everyone. And is informative and enlightening. There’s little sense of being distant from the world. I sometimes bring early lines into my present writing, and I think this one deserves to make that journey.


Today the line would have a sense of despair. Of noticing how our own culture holds us in thrall. And that our own lives – the meaningful parts – are very separate from what this new century manifests. Separate from destroying the forests and oceans and deserts and ice lands, aggravating class and race inequities, eliminating songbirds and animals and insects, and poisoning ourselves and our children.

That di Prima named the poet’s role so clearly speaks to how robust and far-reaching the Beat aesthetic is. And it speaks to di Prima’s brilliance. Her vision fits the impulse behind Modernism, seen with pagan, magical, spiritual, and perhaps psychedelicized eyes. I doubt if she could have developed her insight without Whitman’s belief in the self, either, as augmented by the Beats. She shows us that cosmogony – the origins of the human universe – is a personal prerogative.


“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky...” That’s an imitation of the template from the previous century and Eliot begins it perfectly. We expect colorful parrots in lush trees and dancing nymphs and Scheherazade’s veils rippling in the breeze and – whatever is lyrical and lovely. We get, instead, “like a patient etherized upon a table.”


What is on the table? What is in the field of the poem? Is the etherized patient the objective correlative, too? The external object that mirrors the sense in the solar plexus? Or the feeling in the heart of the poet? This thinking thrives alongside Ginsberg’s “making the private world public.” That etherized patient couldn’t be more private.


The meta-message is a challenge to everyone who follows. What do you see with your own eyes? What is spread out across your view? Wonderful to hear an echo of Eliot in Burroughs’ title Naked Lunch: when you pause and see what’s on the end of your fork! The fork you’re bringing up to your mouth at lunch. This confirms that the original impulse of Modernism is at the Beats’ foundation. But the Beats may have been spoiled by the success of their social persona! Did their attractive, unruly locks block sight – and memory – of the need to wipe the lens clear?


According to Abraham Rothberg, [50] Snyder posits that any time sapiens are able to be less reliant on hunting and gathering and start a civilization, there are complications. Like at the Tigris and Euphrates, where some of the various vegetation are always fruiting or flowering. In any season there’s some plant that is edible. And the animals come to the rivers for water. You don’t have to go hunting, you can ambush or trap the animals. And sapiens have the leisure to establish a hierarchy and perform collective socialization. Some of the tide of humanity – at the bottom of the social order – are not pleased with this.


The Beats added a discontent, as indicated by Snyder, to the cerebral vision of Modernism. A rebelliousness. Plus a belief in the person and the body and in mind-altering substances, all of which have been obvious over the years. And further emphasis on impulse, emotion, sexuality, adventurousness, and on youth and vitality.


Interviewer: Heroin (1972) brings in other aspects of Beat life. The poem “Lotus Glow” proclaims, about the drug heroin, that there’s nothing like it: “Each day through a pleasure garden and on brambled ways back through purgatory….” Did the drug help you in your overall evolution as a poet?


Matson: Heroin’s feeling of love suggested that I no longer need to quarrel with whatever I’m thinking. Or whatever I’m feeling. It’s okay the way it is, and that’s huge. I’d had the exhilaration of being published by Poets Press and then I stepped into the freedom and elevated consciousness of Space Age.


Time to come to earth and be grounded! To land on my feet and develop who I am, to take a compass reading on what to do next. My urge was to leave bohemian culture. To run from the Beats. To run from their arrogance and sexual predation and drugs and the social rigidity and be myself – outside the hip world.


I could have relaxed if I had understood “maturing out.” It’s an identified dynamic. [51] The appeal of heroin diminishes when you finally learn what you need to, under the helpful, protective umbrella of the drug. It helps you relax and feel who you are and gives you the time to grow. You don’t need the drug so much anymore. The threat and fear of addiction diminishes. You’ve learned better how to be yourself. You’ve “matured out.”


My early learning let me know I was on my own. I had a sense of how to write, with lounging under the manzanita as the driving metaphor. And I knew well that few would support me. I had to keep the instinct alive by myself.


In New York, even with Erin’s help, I would wake up each day with that same yearning and powerlessness and an ocean of sadness and lethargy. By doing nothing, we let the creative unconscious present itself. Van Buskirk’s “indolence” is likewise a portal to the creative unconscious. Being quiet unlocks the door to a vast, energetic realm.


I would navigate through the day, through the yearning and the powerlessness. The yearning asks for something approximating a birthright. To feel part of family and community and nature. To feel honored – not more than others, but as well as most people – in bringing one’s gift into the world. I could work on poems. Heroin didn’t lessen the helplessness much or lessen my yearning, but it did make those feelings okay. Heroin says you are loved and you have your birthright. You can do what you’re able to do. You don’t have to strive for something extraordinary.


Heroin is a clear window outside societal pressures. I didn’t solve any issues with heroin, but heroin helped me accept my helplessness and write at the same time. At the foundation is love. Love as a tangible force in the community, love as a sensation high on heroin – why not map one onto the other? Transfer the tangible sensation of the drug onto its lack in the community. I had something, connected with others at least on the surface, that I could do. I could write.


This fits well with having a natural voice or a cosmogony at birth. There’s much in the culture – it’s worse now – about how you have to present yourself. You have to be witty, you have to be smart, you have to look good. You have to be fit. Probably there’s so much pressure that those who are immersed aren’t able even to perceive it, let alone respect its immense, subtle power. You have to do all these things today in every corner of society, gangsta language, surfer language, hipster language, all these things in order to be a viable human being. And heroin just says yes. You already are viable.


Sometime in the sixties Phillip Lamantia came to New York, with significant personal caché. He was a surreal poet and talked style and drugs in cool language. Huncke spent some time with him and reported, later, that he was “bogus.” He was a “poser.” He spoke the language but he didn’t walk the walk. He didn’t have the experience he seemed to claim.


Huncke may not have been accurate about Lamantia, who was, among other things, instrumental in bringing City Lights Books into prominence. But Huncke’s summary was the judgment we feared. We wanted to be real – there’s the mantra again. Martha Muhs, who knew the poet David Rattray well, commented on the competitiveness and arrogance of our youthful circle. Rattray made himself into a surreal avatar, and he backed up this image with extensive knowledge of the arcane. Huncke noticed how little heroin I took and called mine a “chippie” habit.


He was correct. I took careful amounts over those years and I had no desire to be a heavy. Some placed me on a pedestal because I was comfortable with heroin and spoke well of the drug. Others put me below the lowest rungs of society for the same reasons. The topic is charged enough to tilt people out of rationality.


We wanted to be authentic. Our models were already so acclaimed that imitating them with veracity was beyond reach. And our admiration pushed them further away. How could we equal the years they’d already put in? Or the special status they had taken in society? We could jostle for position in the lower ranks. But we couldn’t easily become hipster kingpins.


We’d practice our walk and our talk. We’d amp the hip vibes in our writing. Amp up our smoothness in the sexual world – the guys were supposed to be cocksmen and the women cool and unflappable – maybe, I don’t really know. Certainly our astuteness was important when we talked about Beat figures and their writing.


The long poem “Junk Knot Untied” in Heroin (1972) identifies and reviews habits of mind that could hook me back into the drug life. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to affirm my ability to become my own person and grow, outside of heroin’s aura. The larger issues in the poem are with drug culture. I wanted away from the pressure to be cool and from the need to rise in the Beat hierarchy. And especially I wanted away from the single barometer of getting “high” as life’s pinnacle.


It’s natural that poetry and sensation are linked. And the link is emphasized in much Beat poetry. But this link doesn’t require taking drugs. Being in touch with poetic magic means being in touch with entities beneath or beyond the mind, where our perceptions are not fully sensed. They’re a stirring underneath, or a stirring far above. We know they’re present because they ripple into consciousness every now and then. Not what one might think of as a high or a precise sensation, more like a meditation or a rumbling. Awareness of sensation opens doors so that we can feel the range of what’s going on. Letting in some of its subtlety and some of its many variations.


Heroin did help me be more real. To inquire more thoroughly and more calmly into who I am – and with greater awareness.


Mainline to the Heart showed I was cool and could navigate the same streets that Van Buskirk and Ceely did. Mainline was my credential in the hip world. With Space Age I stepped into a larger arena. I opened to a full range of society and viewed its many characters with their pluses and minuses, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with scorn, often with amusement. With Heroin came a measure of self-reflection, clearing the way for what I might now bring into the world.


The shared element is awareness of personal growth. And of the need for growth. I think it’s commonplace that artists, in their writing, trace their development as people – directly or by implication. Their writing changes over time. Some writers do this fluidly, others not. And there may be no correlation to the quality of the writing. McClure was a high ideal and, at Woodstock in the 1980s, he read some of the early poems I loved. He said they were his “dark night of the soul.” He dissed them himself. He didn’t need a critic.


The finale of Mainline reads “words, / words / someone will take as drug and discover / a friend inside.” There’s daring here – with a tinge of defiance – implying that taking in words is akin to taking drugs. And what the “friend” could be is not specified. But there’s some hope that the idea has validity. In hindsight, I’d say the “friend” is the part of the psyche aware of who we are at bottom and – possibly – that part that’s invested in growth and appreciative of the value of growing.


I probably had a sense that this friend might exist. If the friend is present enough in the words, the reader may relate. Not highly likely, but it’s possible! And there’s some blind faith that this friend could be my guide and protector. Interesting to realize, fifty years later, how well this thinking fits the journey di Prima describes in “Rant.”


The “dark night” McClure identifies goes on our entire lives, to a significant degree. His writing got more cerebral and more elemental over time. While there are occasional resonant and beautiful lines – “We are dancing / in the roar of the car / in the acid rain. No fear” – but overall he turned away from his early work. His writing seemed to apply for entry into the academy as a challenge for scholars to decipher. That’s an avoidance of the heart.


In 1978 I traveled with the emerging poet Michael Daley to Port Townsend in Washington State to give readings. Daley had connections there and we read at coffeehouses. Jack Estes taught at Peninsula State College in the neighboring town, Port Angeles, and he kept tabs on who was reading in the area. He asked me to visit and teach a workshop. I told Jack I had no classroom experience and wouldn’t know how to lead a workshop.


“Oh, it’s easy,” Jack said. “You just do what David Waggoner did last month. You divide the psyche into the same three parts that Transactional Analysis does and give them different names.”


During the late seventies Transactional Analysis was part of the public conversation. The discipline presented the same three parts of the psyche that Freud described and gave them familial names: Parent, Adult, and Child. Waggoner changed these labels to fit the writer’s psyche: Editor, Writer, and Child.


Jack continued, “Waggoner tells his students to have the Editor and Writer go for a walk and let the Child write whatever it wants.”


I was game and led a class, though with some trepidation. The workshop went surprisingly well and everything that was said fit the scheme. If it was critical or analytical, that’s the Editor; if it showed understanding of the process, that’s the Writer; if it was elemental or emotional, that’s the Child.

Teaching that one workshop was a great surprise. In one session I felt myself become the custodian of everyone’s creativity. It’s clear from the scheme that the source of writing, the primal and uneducated source, is the Child. Or, using Freudian nomenclature, the id – the unconscious mind. All the writing done that day was free and energetic. The topics were birthday parties, cotton candy, balloons, and candles on birthday cakes.


I came back to the Bay Area and supplemented my income with teaching workshops. I took over John Oliver Simon’s workshop and, using the same exercise, got the same cotton-candy results. Eventually we revised the scheme. After much experimentation, the Child became the “Crazy Child.” This designation produced the most honest, spontaneous, and energetic writing. The “Crazy Person” produced even stronger writing – when it worked! But often, probably because the phrase evokes serious problems, it stopped any creative activity.


At the same time I started private classes. I had two students for my first year, and then the classes started expanding. I found I had a knack for teaching. And I enjoyed it. Some people in my workshops knew Susan Smith, who was running the writing program at University of California at Berkeley Extension. A short while later she arranged for me to teach a beginning writing class, “Discovering Your Creative Writing Style.”


Interviewer: On the Inside (1982) moved in an explicitly political direction. Economics are brought in, so is the Vietnam War, so are city riots. Friends are named, people who were part of your life and part of the counterculture. You were also teaching at the Bay Area Socialist School. What motivated you to make these changes?


Matson: When I was interviewed for the Summer of Love cinema in 1966, I didn’t disagree with the producer. Perhaps the Hippies were harbingers of a sensitive, natural mind that would bring significant change to people’s consciousness. And, as a person, I didn’t represent that image of Hippies very well. Later, as the Hippies and the culture’s response became clear, I saw what had happened.

The dissing of the Hippies started before they blossomed! Were they too high to develop a political presence? Or a political arm? Too disorganized? Too innocent? Or did the media penetrate our minds so well everyone believed that, for the Hippies, such focus was not possible? The media told us what we thought, and we agreed? [52] Nixon’s “War on Drugs” was implemented in the same period and that, too, probably cast a pall over the Hippies.


Hippies became titillating entertainment and not much more. Their spokes-people, as reported by the media, made zany fun of the media – they, Tom Hayden and others, were plenty sharp and amusing. But the media presented them in a way that reinforced the idea that Hippies were neither serious nor focused.


I felt more comfortable with Hippies than with Beats. I had more political and social empathy with the Hippies. They fit the training I received from my parents – and especially from my grandmother, who was a Communist. If I had been younger, joining the Hippies would have been a greater temptation.

What drove me – and the writing of On The Inside (1982) – was the unfair treatment of Hippies. They were belittled in the media in a much more sophisticated and brutal way than the Beats were. The Beats were made fun of, yes, but they were also given respect. They expressed a raw sexuality and adventurousness that the overall culture had pushed underground for much too long. A powerful, positive response from the culture was ready to erupt. And it did erupt: into fashion, into entertainment, into advertising, into mainstream culture.


To extend the Beats’ passion, as the Hippies did, into more general love and caring for each other and for the planet might seem natural – today. But when the Hippies emerged, the mainstream media reacted as if they’d had enough of rebels. There’d been enough rebellious change with the Beats and more would not be tolerated. Hippies were not to be taken seriously.


Interviewer: Is there a definite connection between “turn on, tune in, drop out” and the fact that you were getting more political? I mean, in one sense, the Hippies were not political. They disavowed political structures, political programs, and there was no discussion of unemployment, racism, or proper housing for the poor. The harsher critics accused them of narcissism. How do you square these contrasting perceptions?


Matson: It’s a good question. And I think it asks us to revise our traditional assumptions. Much of the Hippies’ politics played out on interpersonal levels. At their foundation is idealistic anarchy – belief in the goodness of the human spirit. In the late 1960s, when Ginsberg started his farm in upstate New York, many of us wanted to join and many of us, also, wanted to start our own communities.

When I talked with friends, I found very few who had a clue about what’s required to keep a farm going. I didn’t want to go along and be the only one getting up at 5 a.m. to feed the animals! And I didn’t have the power – or the commitment – to school others.


With the right people, a community in the country is an ideal. Taking care of children, race, gender, employment, the poor, the disabled, animal rights, would be done within the community. From the natural compassion of our hearts. And the community would be off the grid and out of the reach of invasive capitalism.


The traditional mind might not think that’s political. To the contrary, the political issues are starkly present and to be worked out, up close and personal. It’s extremely political.


My father was a frontier Republican. When he fell in love with Mom, she made it her job to straighten him out. She was a red diaper baby. She had become a good liberal and she converted him. Grandma would speak a harder line, but she was good natured and ironic. She told us, her grandchildren, “Oh, don’t worry. Just have fun. Capitalism will fall of its own weight.”


She didn’t seem to be correct, but maybe that’s what’s happening now. The problem may be that capitalism, which has gained immense power and is more pervasive than ever, when it falls it may take the planet down and all the animals and plants – and us – down with it.


Whatever else the climate of my family’s home, the political foundation was caring for people and caring for the planet. I found nothing to criticize in the Hippies’ stance. All my buried political thought and idealism came burbling to the surface. The Hippies were my cause. On the Inside meant inside of prison. The book is a delineation of righteous political actions being taken at the time, right then. Actions generally dismissed or not reported. To list them in one place, and show their compassionate foundation, was giving them credit. To show the rest of us their power and their usefulness.


Can poetry influence how we think? That was my presumption. From today’s perspective, having written Hello Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye, it’s obvious that the Hippies were correct. They had the substance to become a prominent voice in our culture. They seem to have gotten lost in a not-very-productive dance, a dance between how forcefully they presented their views and the belittling lens of the media. A non-productive dance? More like a war between different ways of being. A winnable war if the transformative power of Hippie ideals were generally appreciated.


Interviewer: The charge has gone up that for all of their “realness,” the Hippies and the Beats were very white middle-class. None of it was as real as the black streets or the Latino barrio. In the 60s you met Amiri Baraka, who, at least in my view, was neither a Beatnik nor Hippie. In Issue #22 of the Progressive Librarian, released in the Summer of 2003, there is an article “Poetry Matters! On the Media Persecution of Amiri Baraka,” defending the publication of his controversial poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” It is a statement which you and many other reputable writers and scholars signed. What were things you admired about Baraka, and do you think his voice remains relevant today?


Matson: It’s a cliché, it’s happened so often in history. Our revolutionaries are middle class or upper middle class and often white – Lenin, Marx, Che Guevara, Fidel, Mao, Marcuse, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and most of the rest. It may be that no one else has the time or energy or freedom to develop political thought. And perhaps no one else is free enough – from immediate oppression – to see clearly.


Amiri Baraka has my respect. Through the sixties, regarding politics, we all talked a good line. And we went to demonstrations. But work in a community? Baraka went to Cuba, [53] saw what was happening, and heard the criticism that he needed to come back to the States and work in his own community. And he did just that. No one else had the balls. And no one else had a defined community.

I faced a parallel problem in writing On the Inside. The work felt like personal indulgence when compared to direct action. I had no community, other than a few writers, and few people knew me on the West Coast. I was writing in a near vacuum. I justified my choice to continue writing as developing and playing to my strengths. No one else was taking my position supporting the Hippies, and this needed to be part of the conversation. On the dedication page I wrote, “This book is to be used.” It may never have garnered enough attention to be noticed, let alone used productively!

Amiri Baraka had our attention, however. He already had a track record. When I scanned the people who signed their names in support of Baraka and his poem Somebody Blew Up America, I found Diane di Prima and Gary Snyder from Beat circles, David Meltzer and Adrienne Rich among the politically-aware, and Archie Shepp from the jazz world.


Recognizing so few names does not signify that few people supported Baraka. It may signify, instead, how thoroughly the media discredited Baraka and how deeply they buried the controversy. Baraka’s friends may not have been generally aware that a platform existed where they could express support.

Somebody Blew Up America is a fine poem. It’s complete and vigorous. And it’s brilliant that Baraka doesn’t answer his own question, “Who blew up America?” He asks, “Who? Who? Who?” in the poem and recites these words as a refrain, as recorded on YouTube, in rhythm with saxophone accompaniment. He lets the answers percolate up as the poem proceeds. And he gives plenty of examples of American ideals being blown up. And destroyed quietly, too. Plenty of examples that beg the question.


That he did his research is obvious, and he should be honored for that. I have no doubt he followed political oppression all his life, and I’ll wager he’d done the study in the flow of his life, as a politically aware Black, long before he wrote the poem. I know a fifth, more or less, of the incidents he lists.

The poem was widely read and Baraka performed many times to enthusiastic audiences across the country. It’s in the established tradition of much of Langston Hughes’ work, especially “Let America Be America Again,” and its influence is in the background of my “Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye.”

But the media persecuted Baraka? Let it not be a surprise, the media have their agenda. The media are not much in touch with “we the people” in any respectful or viable way. The media know we like the poem but chose to deny its value, probably in direct proportion to how much we like it.

Baraka could add so many names and incidents today. Besides George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Ferguson and Julian Assange and the CIA operative who on his deathbed confessed planting thermite explosives in the Twin Towers and Building Seven the week before 9/11. The heartbeat of the past, basketball avatar Bill Russell notes, “beats on into the present.” Of course, and that’s no longer news.

What’s news is that the veils are down. The curtain has dropped. Not only is the heartbeat palpable, a myriad of institutions have revealed their classist, racist, and privileged basis and intent. We know who destroyed America. And who perpetuates that destruction today.


The curtain’s dropped

and everything’s bare.

There’s nothing in the closet,

there’s nothing on the stair.

The wind whispers words

and nothing’s blurred.

Black smoke hanging in air

shows us nothing’s fair.

America, look at yourself from the grave

Look at yourself from the lynching tree.

Look at yourself from the bottom

rung of the marketplace.

From the garbage. From the dirt.

America, look at yourself.

Guilty of murder verdict for Chauvin

could polish the brass plaque

of a just and fair country.

But that burnishing rag’s stained

with old blood, plantation

bones, despise and fear of slaves.

Shake out that rag

over the forgiving grass.

High rise steel and glass

built on profit, white privilege, class,

race, slavery, misogyny, homophobia,

gender-phobia, genocide, murder.

You ask, was Amiri Baraka a Beat? That question needs parsing. Amiri never, to my knowledge, adopted Beat manners and social ethics. Was he a typical Beatnik, with a joint in his hand or a bottle of cheap wine in his back pocket and ready to party? No. Nothing about him hinted of the Beat social persona.

LeRoi Jones, as I knew him, was carefully present, soft-spoken, empathic, and intelligent. Was he of like mind as the Beats, intellectually? Yes. His summary of the Beats shows how thoroughly: “The Beats,” and I paraphrase, “are a collection of people of all classes and races and positions in life who agree that society sucks.”


Baraka spoke to the rebelliousness that the Beats expressed passionately, even vehemently. They were “anti-establishment.” Was Baraka sympathetic to their rebelliousness? Obviously. He proclaimed, “I love America, I hate the system.”


What we’ve found in setting up our writers’ foundation, the nonprofit WordSwell, is that a declaration of, or wish for, diversity isn’t enough. We need to learn the language, go into diverse communities, and propose what we might do together. Hippie ideals won’t be transmitted by themselves. We need to put them on the table – and on everyone else’s table.


We’re in a place similar to where the Hippies were. There’s plenty of energy for a general strike and for real change. But our political system has stymied us. There’s nowhere we can vote to support our ideas, other than on comparatively minor propositions. There’s no single, effective platform. Major platforms are taken away. The “Black Lives Matter” movement needs a powerful arm. It needs a coherent plan – along with a political identity – that promotes the ideas that so inflame us. That President Biden is doing as well as he has, is a blessing.


But Biden has entrenched, vicious opposition in the more conservative party. Preserving voting rights and the right to abortion, and curtailing assault weapon violence require every bit of energy we have, but these are defensive battles. We are defending rights against hostile attacks. There is so much more that needs direct, aggressive, positive, cooperative change.


The root problem may be classism. It seems similar to Herbert Huncke’s lack of recognition among Beat scholars. How can a street person, with no formal education, contribute to the sophisticated strategies set out by Ginsberg? But without Huncke, Ginsberg may have had no strategy whatsoever. [54] To acknowledge this would be to acknowledge that sometimes, just sometimes, street wisdom may be utterly crucial to effective action.


How could the Hippies, already labeled as non-thinkers – partying in the streets and on farms, albeit ecologically sound ones, in the country – without regard to position or ascension into intellectual circles – possibly have something to contribute? They’re not high enough in society. Could this be a similar problem for Black Lives Matter? Even though Black scholars and activists vigorously support the movement.


Snyder’s essay is a dynamic one: people on lower rungs of the culture don’t like the hierarchy. And people on top don’t like the people underneath – they’re disrupting things. Though of course entrepreneurs found ways to co-opt attractive Hippie styles into their products and make profits! Weren’t corn row hair styles in Whites a celebration of a Black style? Or were they a colonial annexation? Or both?


I know only that there was – and is – general validity in what the Hippies were doing. I resonated with them. Look, there’s good stuff happening and we’re not getting it together. My job was to lay out what I saw happening. From the inside, as from the inside of prison.



Author Bio: Clive Matson

As a young poet I hung in New York City in the 1960s with Beat Generation writers. My second father was Herb Huncke, who taught me how to buy a pair of pants and how to talk to people. My love of John Wieners and Alden Van Buskirk immersed me in streams of passionate intensity that run through us all. I write from the itch in my body and, as best I can, with full engagement of body, heart, and mind. I bow to the creative unconscious, as defined in the tutorial Let the Crazy Child Write! (1998) and presented in our web site WordSwell, currently under construction.


That itch is a ceanothus bush on the banks of the creative unconscious, whose torrential flow and unpredictability is hardly contained anywhere. I returned to school in 1987 to earn an MFA at Columbia University, which offered two priceless gifts. One, irrefutable evidence that poetry has lost its moorings in the labyrinths of elite, intellectual fashion. And two, that my background in pre-Modernism, as taught by di Prima and Ginsberg, is more than enough: wipe the lens clear and begin from there.


I taught creative writing at U.C. Berkeley Extension from 1985 to 2018 and, over time, I’ve given more than 3,000 workshops in the States and internationally. I was honored with the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles National Literary Award in 2003, the City of Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry in 2012, and a Lifetime Beat Poet Laureate award in 2021 by the National Beat Poetry Foundation. Of nine volumes of poetry, amazingly my seventh, Squish Boots (2002), was placed in John Wieners’ coffin.

A 2015 backpacking trip into the southern Sierra plunged me into grief and guilt over the dying of our planet – scum-rimmed lakes, drought-stricken trees, a layer of wildfire smoke on the horizon, and no snow pack even at thirteen thousand feet. I began writing Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye, a record of what attitudes further destruction and a tearful, gritty litany of what, in Paradise, we must do.

Today I aspire to find images that identify and convey what we, as a people, are experiencing. I am challenged to read the climate of our corroding times, challenged by my own writing and by a revisioning of di Prima’s “The only war that matters is the war to [reclaim] our imagination.” And to reclaim our honor as human beings.


Visit Clive at www.matsonpoet.com and Wikipedia.



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