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Clive Matson Interview Page 2


Interviewer: How does the collection Equal in Desire (1982) come into the reckoning in these respects?


Matson: In the 1970s feminism was coming to the fore. Women’s issues had already been more than a token part of conversations in the sixties. Why were Denise Levertov, Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, and Barbara Guest the only women in Don Allen’s The NewAmerican Poetry anthology? [55] Were Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel and Joanne Kyger not visible when Beat work was collected? That seems like pure sexism. It’s understandable that younger women, Elise Cowen, Bonnie Bremser, and Janine Pommy Vega were not included, because they hadn’t emerged when the anthology was put together.

“Our women,” that is, hipsters’ women – note the possessive – needed to be cool. And we men needed to train them. How to use hip language, how to avoid the stigma of being seen as bourgeois or middle class, how to maneuver through the conversations and verbal banter of the times. “Follow the dharma,” was the unspoken, and spoken, demand. It had many variations on the same theme: follow the flow of what’s happening in this male-dominated world and don’t make waves!


Deborah C. Segal, in her drama Natalie’s Story: A Raincheck for Jack Kerouac, gives a true-pitch depiction of the Beat’s repressive sexism. Well-known Beats push Natalie to “follow the dharma” in contradiction to her own interest and in contradiction to her emotions. This after the Beats exploited her gender and clean-cut manners to procure a bank loan! Segal’s dialogue displays the men’s absolute, unwavering belief in the correctness of their demands. Which they voiced with supreme arrogance! The blind arrogance of a presumed enlightened position.


I tried at various times to coach Erin in her language and in her style. Why ever would I want her to be different? Somehow, if her bearing in the art world were more hip, that would give me more stature. It was about me! Erin had heard my dharma lectures in enough variations that she could see them coming. Finally she called me out.


“Stop that!” she said. “I’m a person.”


She spoke with some force. I was used to her, an older woman, commanding my respect. She needed only that one statement. She had a wealth of feeling and ways of thinking that were hers and, moreover, were correct for her. She expressed her sovereignty.


A loving relationship, including sex, had been an aspiration for me for a while. The feeling paralleled that sense of connection with the manzanita of my young years. You could, without argument, present this topic as part of the development of my muse. How was I to keep some of that loving feeling in my life? In the rightful presence of feminism? And in the rightful presence of our nation’s ideal, revised: “All [people] are created equal”?


How could I write about it? It seemed obvious that a relationship – one that was respectful and consensual – was a safe container for the primal, raw emotions that often arise in men. And that Beat men were expected to express forcefully.


I followed the conversations of friends, especially women, after moving back to the West Coast. And I read the feminists: Robin Morgan, Marge Piercy, Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Hite Report, Susan Griffin – “even the air is political.” I didn’t need gross behavior to feel the warmth and satisfaction of a good relationship.


But how to capture such respectful caring in a poem? In order to help myself feel and honor the mutuality of a loving relationship, I needed to use language that was not sexist – or was genderless or at least equally respectful of genders. Anything that smacked of cool language was tainted! The Beats had been sexist for too long.


Language was a challenge. I wanted to be real – there’s the mantra again – and use words avoiding the rasp of sexism. And our language is chock full of embedded sexism! The basis of Language Poetry shows its profound applicability here, in its firm strategy to avoid biases embedded, and hidden, in the language.


I had heard the term “Neo-Beat” and the label sounded attractive. Did it signal that others were revising the Beat social persona? And were on a journey similar to mine? I checked around and found the Café Barbar readings in San Francisco were called “Neo-Beat.” But the venue seemed mostly to celebrate writing that relished and amped the roughness and rebelliousness of the Beats. Not for me.


I moved further away from the Beat Generation. I started writing poems for the collection Equal in Desire (1982) which called for language that did not trigger sexual issues. Equally important was to discover and describe scenes that show the sacred mutuality of attraction and love. So much had been interpreted about – and argued about – men’s and women’s every gesture that it seemed an impossible task. This was underlined by a woman friend who knew my dating patterns. She said that I, in our discussions, “…sounded like an expert but, if you’re that good, why can’t you maintain a relationship with a steady girlfriend?”


The quest to be real entails, periodically, a portal that opens to unknown territory. My friend had nailed the personal issue. I needed to become an explorer, giving full respect to what’s observed – disregarding any injuries to my pride. Little by little I realized that, in looking at relationships, one’s stance toward commonplace events is pivotal.


Our habit of focusing on the ordinary, learned from Williams, comes into play. You could sometimes resolve a tilt in love-making by noticing what one’s partner is feeling. Of course! Mutuality may be present, or attainable – and sacred and equal – in the undercurrents. There are layers and layers of interaction in a relationship, as a matter of course. They are present and ordinary. The selection of what aspect of those layers to bring into focus becomes as important as “being real.”


Dealing with conflicts between feminist women and our early training as men was the intellectual – and psychological – ferment of the times. Discussions were everywhere, especially at work. I drove for Taxi Unlimited, a producers’ cooperative in Berkeley. The role of women needed equitable and concrete designation in the company. At the same time I was solidifying thoughts and images for On the Inside (1982). The poem was spread out on the desk of the little house on Sixth Street in Berkeley where I lived. I pored over the pages, revising, adding, and shifted the sheets around – for several years. A friend called it my “desk poem.” [56] During that same period I developed an interest in letterpress printing. I was given a hand-lever letterpress by Harold Adler, of the Art House in Berkeley. I printed issue number four of the Berkeley Poets Cooperative – I had joined the group in 1971. And there, too, the role of women, and male attitudes toward women, and the similar issues in On the Inside were kicked around quite a lot. How do you run a cooperative? How do we set up equal positions for all writers? Of whatever gender? It was a living laboratory. And it ran parallel to the thinking in the desk poem. Life was feeding poetry in a dynamic way – scary, exciting, and productive.


In printing I was coached by Clifford Burke. On weekends he opened his Cranium Press shop in San Francisco for people to learn the craft. Amazingly, at the same time as I looked for a larger press, Irving Rosenthal was switching to an offset press for his Kaliflower Commune in San Francisco. He was looking to give away his foot-treadle letterpress. I applied to him, and Irving gave me the press.


I started a small shop, “Neon Sun,” in the basement of the little Sixth Street house. I mostly printed letterheads and business cards, with occasional broadsides and poetry chapbooks. Along the way I developed a relationship with Paul Mariah. I produced letterpress editions for his ManRoot Press and printed camera-ready copy for his trade editions.


As a politically savvy man in the gay community, Paul was thoroughly aware of sexism in mainstream culture. He took on Equal in Desire as one of his list. It was an honor on par with being printed by Poets Press. He didn’t have the stature or the celebrity aura that Diane di Prima had but, in the gay community, he was a pillar. ManRoot was prominent. And, as if validating his choice, Equal in Desire became Mariah’s best-selling book.


I also published Heroin (1972) and John Ceely’s The Country is Not Frightening (1974). It was a gift to a friend and an honor for us both to have well-printed books. Ceely and I shared many experiences and had similar world views, having come up just after the Beats. What attracted us was the Beats’ passionate reality and their distrust of conventional wisdom. Both Heroin and The Country expanded on real visions. What more was needed? Ginsberg and McClure and di Prima and Wieners were real, and we paid attention.


But we had no sense of how the Beats were marketed, or how timing contributed to their success. The crucial ingredient is capturing the public imagination. And the Beats did this well! They played to a culture that had suppressed its sexuality and was hungry for freedom of expression. Ginsberg’s vision and energy was on point. We felt, on the other hand, that when something is real, it’s a magnet that gets people interested. With some reason, at least.


Interviewer: Hourglass (1987) alternates poetry and prose. The preface states, “I want to be free from responding to the world and its artifacts automatically, like a robot, and free from needing to follow or dispute my inner thoughts.” In the prose sections, like travelogues to the poems, there’s mention of meditative techniques, yoga, Zen, and psychotherapy, often as aids to awakening consciousness. And, along the way, poetry is identified as a vehicle for consciousness.


Matson: In 1978 a basketball friend, Jack Litewka, offered as a birthday present to me a session with a hypnotherapist. He could see I was stressing: I kept catching the same cold over and over, a surefire sign I was out of touch with my body! The therapist, Elaine Chernoff, taught me self-relaxation and self-hypnosis which, as I practiced them, evolved into vipassana meditation. I didn’t do more than glance at other disciplines mentioned in Hourglass (1987) – yoga, Zen, traditional Buddhism. But I was fascinated to watch thoughts come into consciousness and disappear. I’ve meditated every morning since then, more than forty years.


This morning I meditated for an hour and a half. It’s a way of feeling who I am, separate from the chatter in one’s mind. The ideal is to be free from responding “automatically, like a robot” and free from arguing with thoughts and free from rejecting them. Who we are is not that conversation in our heads! The spiritual being is underneath – and separate from – the machinations of our brains.


I had a girlfriend, Annie, [57] during that period. We would occasionally smoke marijuana, and the combination of meditation plus marijuana produced visual snapshots. These may have gained their vividness from the marijuana we used – powerful “Thai sticks,” imported from Thailand. The snapshots were signature moments in meditation. Some were wholly imaginary, others were places we had visited or things we had seen – a cave in Baja California Norte, a winged Hindi sculpture in a textbook – that, in some way, mirrored the meditation. This recalls both Eliot’s “objective correlative” and Williams “no ideas but in things.”


I would endeavor to capture the snapshots with words. The snapshots, to my surprise, seemed suited to sonnet-length poems. The possibility of writing in forms had teased me for a long time and I was ready for the challenge. I indulged in a rigorous form – the Italian sonnet with eight-syllable lines. I would find some phrase, in my voice, that fit the subject and the form and I would design the poem around it. Often the scheme became sticky and I’d re-examine that first phrase. The metrics and rhythms – after I did some revising – would sometimes fall into place gracefully. As if the original phrase had devolved, after providing its valuable, initial stimulation, into a roadblock.


After many of the poems were written, I realized they were arcane. No one would understand them who didn’t also meditate as we did – and perhaps smoke the same marijuana. “Making the private world public,” and doing this clearly, was the challenge. It occurred to me that a prose travelogue for each poem would be useful for readers not on our exact journey. A map guiding them into the territory. They could join us, at least in imagination.


I felt satisfied with poetry as a “vehicle for consciousness.” For a while I believed it totally. These poems are, after all, about consciousness – or at least about the doors to consciousness. As they clatter back and forth! Now I think poetry is a vehicle for much more. Finding the “much more” may be a lengthy adventure. I do recognize that these poems are a step in growth – from hipster to psychedelic to recovering user to political thinker to pro-feminist to – hopefully – more clear awareness of self. The part of the psyche invested in growth is engaged. How well this process fits the poet’s journey, as described by di Prima in “Rant,” is uncanny.


How, too, one might wonder, did the Beat aesthetic help this enterprise? On the surface, not a whit. Closer examination, though, reveals several ways: first, Beat curiosity about Eastern religions and philosophy served to elevate meditation as a legitimate topic. And second, to use language designed to communicate to ordinary people, not to an elite class, fits the Beat sense of justice and democracy.

Far more important than either, though, is the Beat value of being present to the topic and present to one’s response. Was this learned from Whitman? It’s certainly expressed in his writing, and it also has a more recent, vigorous iteration in progressive jazz. The musician must be supremely present to hear a phrase evolving from a previous phrase. And to stay authentically in focus, without sidetracking. If a scholar were there in the 1960s, listening to the alert improvisations of Ornette Coleman or of John Coltrane, this strategy could be heard in their music, demonstrating itself with precision.


Catching images that meditation reveals asks for such alertness, too, and it’s akin to hyper-awareness. The subtle and fleeting images require instant, accurate photography by the poet’s eye. On one chasm to the side of the visuals are sloppy clichés and, on the other side, disbelief and disdain. “Wiping the lens clear of preconceptions” is thus key, too. One presumes scholars could expand, with fruitful results, on these aspects of the Beat aesthetic.


Was my understanding mitigated by my teaching? By appreciating the power of writing that comes from the unconscious? I thought myself an experienced writer who didn’t need the Crazy Child exercise. There I was, having taught for ten years and having meditated, in my personal life, about the same amount of time. And both practices cross and re-cross the border between the conscious and the unconscious. Meditating, I’m watching what comes up from the unconscious as evidence of the authentic self – or of the inauthentic self. Teaching, I’m watching how, in the Crazy Child exercise, when the unconscious moves into the writing as a dominant player, the writing is enlivened.


The exercise is simple: let the editorial and writerly voices take a walk while the Crazy Child expresses whatever it wants. Most people crack open a window to the creative unconscious and reach through, pulling in shards and stringers of Crazy Child energy. Once in a while, though, for some people – at mention of the moniker “Crazy Child” – the walls fall down. A torrent of images and scenes comes screaming through. The problem is not keeping up with one’s writing – no chance of that! The problem is keeping one’s balance. I did the exercise one day and, surprise, the walls fell down. I was one of those people.


I wrote volumes of the exercise. I had no idea what was coming through my psyche. It was so energetic I felt compelled to save the drafts and it was three years before I grasped what was happening. Three bewildering years! I was receiving unfamiliar material from childhood – as if the child had words, and the feelings and insights were a baby’s or an inarticulate boy’s. These rough drafts became raw material for Squish Boots (2002).


Interviewer: Squish Boots displays an immediacy of expression that comes out strongly in most of the poems. They seem to be first hand. They seem “on the pulse,” conveying raw experience, following the organic logic of the topic or event. There appears to be no containing or supporting structure, either, and no judgment or interpretation.


Matson: In my working life, in the same period that I was drafting Squish Boots, I could see the writing on the wall. My income had been augmented by teaching at Cal Extension but, since I did not have a degree, I would eventually be dropped from the roster. A Masters degree was preferred.

I applied to schools for an MFA and learned that, while many graduate schools do not require a BA, they prefer their students to have demonstrated the ability to be successful. That means they came close to graduating. And Columbia accepted me by accident!


My file had not gone to the education committee, who would have noticed I dropped out of Chicago after one year. Rather than reverse their decision, Columbia accepted me as a “special student.” I would do the normal course work and write a qualifying essay at the end of my first year. If, in their judgment, I acquitted myself well, I’d be accepted as a regular student and a legitimate degree candidate. That’s what happened.


I was happy with Columbia partly because I knew Sharon Olds would be there. But I was not comfortable with Columbia’s unspoken belief in poetry as an elite enterprise – which could best be understood by people with a special education. This became obvious in the first classes. Anything I had to contribute ran counter to that belief.


I didn’t want to be silent, though. I challenged myself to say one thing during every class. Often I designed my remarks to help the class and the teacher. By then, after all, I’d been teaching for ten years and I was familiar with classroom dynamics. Sometimes my remarks would be well-received, sometimes the students would mutter, “That’s so California!” I’d have done well to wear a t-shirt emblazoned “I’m so California.” But it might have been more accurate to proclaim, “That’s so Beat!” Except, by then, the Beat influence was not perceptible beyond some distant, well-worn bricks at my foundation. Maybe “That’s so pre-Modern!” would have been accurate, and I would understand this now. But not at that time, before I’d developed the thought.


Once, during a Robert Hass’ “Intensive,” discussion came to involve gender issues, and the atmosphere became tense. I thought it helpful to offer, “Received wisdom suggests women are more comfortable with emotion than men are.” And I got an inflamed response. “That’s not true!” Hass was shouting. “What about lust? What about anger?”


My jaw dropped. Had he not taken part in a conversation with a feminist? A respectful conversation? Strange how words of the patriarchy can slip into our mouths automatically and become proclamations. When we parse the words and understand their defensive agenda and their history, we begin a soulful process of learning about gender issues that’s vastly enrichening. Hass has plenty of fully aware women around him. I expect he’s done the good work since that time.


Early on I was astounded at how poorly Sharon Olds taught. She did recognize edgy lines similar to her own, which she praised. But she displayed no interest in what students were trying to achieve. None whatsoever. And I had enlisted her as my thesis advisor!


I showed her drafts of Squish Boots and interviewed her. As she fingered the poems, she gave a preamble about how pieces need a beginning, a middle, and an end. “These are all middle, middle, middle,” she proclaimed.


What the bleep? She had read these carefully evolved drafts and she didn’t respect the writing enough to engage her mind? I must have flinched or made a face. Olds looked contrite and said, “Oh, I see I’ve offended you.” As if the offense were my doing.


She was triggered by something in my work. And she’s far too intelligent to believe “Middle, middle, middle” was the problem. Triggering comes from unconscious sources and they’re elusive and much more difficult to grasp than, say, an irritated response from the patriarchy. But the patriarchy may relate, nonetheless. The patriarchy might be judging, on subliminal levels, that direct, vulnerable emotions are distasteful in the extreme.


Even worse was the professor who took issue with the preposition “across” in “Motion Grasshoppers” from my thesis draft of Squish Boots. I replied that the grasshoppers were “moving across my shoulders, right to left,” and that the preposition identified their path. With accuracy. This is one function of a preposition: to show the physical relations of actions in the sentence.


This did not satisfy the professor.


The discussion was laughable and so inappropriate it suggests that a different issue had been triggered. One that’s also not acknowledged. The professor wasn’t doing instruction of any kind. What he did seemed more like hazing, and his blunt tools were about on level with third grade. Though I see nothing obvious about the patriarchy here, it’s tempting to infer that academic culture is phobic about childlike emotion. About real emotion and radical honesty.


One friend laughed and dismissed the incident, saying the prof probably had some problem with his toddler that morning. And the conflict got mapped onto my poem. I took her words to mean I should downplay the incident. Then I remembered many similar reactions, without any observable basis. I could not resist adding, “If academic society hadn’t shown such evidence in abundance already, I couldn’t have made that statement about phobias.”


The institution is culpable, though, not so much the individuals. Institutions have frailties. To accept thought that might change their culture is threatening. Keeping the discourse going fluidly inside safe boundaries, boundaries which may be very strong, whether or not articulated, is more crucial than risking the influence of truth. Unfortunately.


We saw similar safety measures come into play with the first draft of this interview. Pace University declined to observe the Beat aesthetic as it evolved through my work; instead the editors chose to convey the beginnings of my journey in a twenty-page excerpt in Journal of Beat Studies #9 (2021). Those pages convey the excitement we young writers felt for the Beat aesthetic, and they enhance Pace’s identity as a singular authority on the Beat experiment in the mid-1960s. That seems to be their agenda.


But to follow the evolution of the Beat aesthetic? Pace didn’t take one step in that direction. Was their hesitation that, after some evolution over the years, the aesthetic would appear weak? That it would become so watered down as to be unrecognizable? The reverse is true. Distillations of the Beat aesthetic, which I and other artists made, became essential for writers not living the Beat life. This speaks, instead, to the strength and resilience of the aesthetic. Many of us follow the Beat aesthetic today, and these times demand that we employ it to the fullest extent that we can. No other aesthetic, it appears, has the strength to stand up to what confronts us in the 2000s.


Ceely and I and other young poets were looking for an aesthetic that was durable. “Wiping the lens free of preconceptions and see what is before your eyes.” Though we didn’t use this pre-Modernist phrase, the concept was crucial to our investigations. “Being present to your material and present to your response” is an extension of the same precept. In the foreground was our requirement to be real and to be honest.


We knew about the wisdom of the body, too. Whitman started us in that direction and the idea was on the air and developed fully with psychedelics and meditation and alternative medicine and psychology. I carry the image, also, of the Gate of Horn reading, of the Beats’ full engagement of body, heart, and mind. You can’t work with these elements, “full engagement” and “wiping the lens free” and “wisdom of the body” without embracing a high level of honesty. Our nonprofit foundation WordSwell calls it “deep honesty” or “primal honesty” or “radical honesty.”


These precepts are so effective we can use them to escape the restrictions of the Beat aesthetic and the Beat social persona. And develop freely on our own. Radical honesty both confines and explodes what we do. Combine these precepts with the Beats’ disdain of conventional wisdom – and the rebelliousness that infers – and you have literary dynamite. Along with Pound’s imagist precepts and Williams’ “paying attention to the breath” and “no ideas but in things,” you can create a body of writing without showing much of its Beat origins. Even though logically – and ironically – these precepts come clearly into light in a vigorous exploration of the Beats’ foundation.


Emotion and passion influenced our evolution dramatically, and they are not safe. Especially when they course freely outside accepted boundaries. The academies might think these elements together undercut the Beat aesthetic but, again, close examination shows they do not. They stand in praise of that aesthetic. They show its immense power. They are what we need today, and need desperately, in order to deal with anything even remotely as devious and complicated as modern life.


The careful restraint of universities not only keeps truth away from students and scholars, it has the effect of creating a closed society. A closed society that, in this era, is very like the literary society the Beats reacted against seventy years ago. The academies seem most interested in maintaining their stature and their good image within an elite world. We must venture outside that world to learn. The original Beats faced a similar closed, incurious, and fearful academia.


You might complain, well, it’s literary society. It’s a fluid culture, not hard science. It’s nuanced thinking and fashion and opinion and intelligent conjecture from comparisons of texts. Issues that are large, highly charged, and barely recognizable come into conflict with each other. They are difficult to identify and they require careful discussion. What do you expect?

But to those of us involved in writing, it is science. Perhaps soft rather than hard science, but it’s science nonetheless.


We’re observing what’s happening. That’s science.


This issue gets more interesting when viewed through the lens of race. One early reviewer of Mainline was surprised when he learned that I’m not Black. I took that as praise. I had early on developed a love of Black culture: its songs, its jazz, its language. And since then, on the basketball courts, in the workplace, and living in Oakland in a racially mixed neighborhood, my love has grown. I’ve seen many incidents where Blacks are clearly more fluid and more comfortable with big emotions than Whites are. It’s become a truism. It’s indisputable.


The specter of a penalizing Puritanism is haunting Whites. Maybe every second, maybe every minute, maybe every hour. The Puritans toned down the fire and brimstone of gut-level religion, but that’s only on the surface. Carefully hidden, behind ironed robes and good grooming, is an orange-hot scepter that breeds in historical memory and flashes unseen through our psyches. It will singe your gonads and cut your neck precisely at the carotid artery.


No wonder we flinch! No wonder we have to think twice while holding our faces stiff and numb. No wonder we have to run every feeling through a brutal, multi-faceted assessment before we speak. I was happy to be identified as Black. Happy to be identified as someone who might not go through all the over-thinking, or double-thinking, that Whites do.


We don’t need to be attacked to reveal our “White fragility.” The source of the disease is already full-blown. It’s in our bones, our blood, our lymph system. It’s in our history. You’re damned to hell forever if you let some unruly feeling show, even a hint of one. But, well, I am all unruly emotions – or something like eighty-nine percent. I should expect exactly the response I am getting.


I had maintained my distance from the Beats for more than twenty years, and Columbia University was a turning point. I turned back toward the Beats. Nowhere in the poetry classes at Columbia was there anything of value. There were several other well-known poets – who offered nothing. I did find substance in Frank McShane’s nonfiction class, in Williams’ General Studies fiction workshop, and in George Montgomery’s playwriting class.


It dawned on me that the Beats, and my study of McClure, Wieners, di Prima, and Van Buskirk, had provided a solid foundation. One glace at the depth of my involvement proved the point: a less durable aesthetic would have found ways, on its own, to show ineptitude. Academic society has no way to contest or devalue the Beats or, certainly, no legitimate way. That gives them one choice. A student at Columbia identified the option when he remarked, “The academies are just waiting for the Beats to die.”


Later I realized that my foundation rested on the impulse behind Modernism: to see clearly what is before our eyes. However much I evolved away from the Beat social persona, I had developed an identity informed by the Beat aesthetic, an identity true to myself. Wipe the lens clear of preconceptions, and see what is before my eyes. My realization was not articulated then, however. I had only a vague feeling of unease and loss. I knew I was on my own – this was familiar. The unease stayed with me and fueled my desire to look more closely at what the Beats offer.


Modernism seemed in full contrast to what was available at Columbia; Modernism seemed not present at all. Are our institutions developing an aesthetic of puzzles with oblique physical scenes, a meditative voice, edgy or dissonant music, and a prideful flavor? Elegant puzzles that have a special history and a language all their own? One that invites essays and careful, nuanced discussion? That only a specialized education can prepare you for?


Do scholars think this is moving forward? It seems like their poetry is going backwards. And becoming remote. If it can, legitimately, even be called poetry.


The splurge of writing several years of Crazy Child exercises became, after much editing, my thesis: a first draft of Squish Boots. I kept one file for myself and a watered-down version for Columbia. There was no one I could trust to read my work with understanding. I enlisted an amiable basketball player who taught there and a Joyce scholar to be my advisors, finally, knowing they’d approve of what I was doing – without knowing what it was. I didn’t need to deal with whatever Olds and her colleagues might think.

I kept struggling with Squish Boots. The poems were difficult to organize, but over time I became familiar enough with them to recognize they offer internal clues to an organic order. One small realization adds to another and then to another, all stringing along on a learning curve. Together they build, eventually, a self with a very child-like interior.


I had no problem staying connected with my passion, my heart, and my history – disregarding judgments of the academy. The poems are emblems of vulnerability. What this might feel like, underneath conflicts with family, with society, and with fruitless dialogues with one’s intellect. Purely the experience of the childlike heart and of a young, uneducated mind.


Perhaps it could be called the primal psyche. “I’m your leftover primitive,” to paraphrase Sanchez again. Extend her statement one short stride into paganism and animism and we are, indeed, in primitive, childlike territory. That’s where small animals seem to invade the body. Grasshoppers are guiding one’s tendons across joints and bones, and molecules form a bridge one could fall through, at the splash of a single cosmic ray.


Interviewer: Wasn’t the anthology An Eye for an Eye put together during this period?


Matson: Yes, the anthology was a relief and strangely welcome. An Eye for an Eye was Alan Cohen’s project. He enlisted me to gather the poems and it was a pleasure, looking for engaged and insightful writing in a period of confusion.


The times immediately after 9/11 were so chaotic that any writing with awareness and honesty stood out in stark relief. And Cohen’s title is on target. It refers, naturally, to the Old Testament where “An eye for an eye” is justice. But, and we have this as an urban myth, Gandhi corrected that: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” [58] Exactly. Continuing this behavior brings us toward nuclear holocaust. Brings us autocrats like Trump and like Putin who brandish modern weapons as if it’s their job to put out as many eyes as they can. And brings us to pollution out the wa-zoo. Toxins at every level, filling the graveyards.


Interviewer: The “Chalcedony” poems were your next project, and you found it expedient to opt for a woman’s voice and a woman’s persona, in the poems and songs. Tell us how this came about? And how did you choose “Chalcedony” for the woman’s name? It’s a mineral name, and I presume it came from your interest in crystals.


Matson: The only explicit evidence of mineralogy in those poems is the name “Chalcedony.” I thought I’d chosen the name at random, or by feel only. When I finally looked it up, I saw that, spiritually, the word means the “clear, blue, feminine light of truth.”


If I’d searched for a good title it could have taken six months to find one as fitting as that. This speaks to the intuition that guardian angels work through the unconscious. Or perhaps the angels are part of the unconscious? Chalcedony (2007, 2009) came in a natural sequence, I think, after Squish Boots and Hourglass – as a step in the journey to feel and be who I am at root. This recalls the importance of one’s cosmogony, again, as delineated by di Prima in “Rant.”


I had the uncomfortable feeling that who I was in relationship did not invoke what I truly felt. The thought was aggravated by awareness that my marriage was more than fraying, and that at bottom were communication problems, probably by both parties. I thought to try seeing relationships from a woman’s point of view. That expanded my voice. I became aware of an arena I hadn’t known existed. Being male but speaking in a woman’s voice allowed access, little by little, to large, little-known parts of myself.


I can’t pretend to know a woman’s voice. But I can present what my psyche thinks I would feel in a woman’s position. That was my guiding strategy. Having some homosexual experience gave me daring in the enterprise – and it’s mostly a matter of daring. Trying to attain psychological accuracy gave me the drive to work. But to be accurate to another gender, truly?


John Ceely Paige, who has since passed, was my poetry buddy from 1962 on, a 50-plus year relationship. He asked repeatedly, “Where’s the man in these poems?” I didn’t have an answer. It’s one thing to say, for instance about George Sand, that writing as another gender can be done accurately. That’s not for me to judge about my own writing – or whether a male is needed.


I judged the lines by whether they felt authentic to me, as part of my psyche. That was attainable. Reading the poems aloud, repeatedly, helped the voice to feel gender-fluid and one-hundred-percent mine. They feel like human passion. That fit my wish.


Interviewer: Your discussion reminds one that developing a new voice is an art. And doing it well means the writing, in a way, enters the very persona that’s being assumed. We have many examples of how to use the monologue, which is what the Chalcedony poems are – dramatic monologues. The voice is clearly one that you take from a feminine perspective.


Matson: The Chalcedony poems definitely are dramatic monologues. I don’t recall having a model, though. I think first of “Prufrock,” certainly it’s a monologue, but Eliot’s tone is uniquely droll and despairing. This does not fit Chalcedony. What comes to mind, perhaps more aptly, is John Donne’s work – the absolute surety and range of his voice, and its engaging quality. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.” Perhaps his influence was working, unacknowledged, in the background.


Another source might be geology, again. The text I studied was Palache, Berman, and Frondel’s 1950s’ editions of Dana’s System of Mineralogy . The physical descriptions are models of accuracy, focusing on color, shape, texture, and luster. There’s no drama in the descriptions, and many of the mineral subjects are pedestrian. Driving the descriptions, nevertheless, is supreme confidence in close observation: that the results are invaluable. Even to the point of revealing internal atomic structure! That belief is one I adopted early on.


Nature and minerals enthralled me as a youngster. Any excursion in geology is an exercise in observing – both as a youngster and, now, as an experienced adult. What is before your eyes? Where are there seams, what signs are there of crystals – or not of crystals? When writing the Chalcedony poems, likewise, I’m in unknown territory. I can’t simply look at what’s before my eyes. I must engage in more adventurous and more nuanced ways of seeing. I need to become conversant with images and emotions in an arena where I have no conscious experience. Territory that is at first quite strange to me.

The influence of the Beat aesthetic in this enterprise may not be apparent. The lesson of Ferlinghetti’s “Christ came down,” though, does come into play, as I encountered images with mythic flavors. Small and large events that seem to be acted out by mythological beings. I needed to open my eyes wider and with more appreciation, seeing beyond boundaries I had assumed were real for me. This made the writing, for one used to dealing mostly with facts, an adventure into the imagination. Tuning the imagination to fit physical and emotionally-charged events in a relationship was an eye-opening challenge. At the pinnacle of the poems, perhaps their most rewarding achievement, is a joining of extreme passion and extreme vulnerability.


The practice of observing geology no doubt helped my ability to look and accept what I see. For many years, in New York City and involved with the Beats, I lost the inclination to study geology. The Natural History museum was appealing, though, and I made frequent visits. I may have kept my eye sharp by observing crystals under glass. But I didn’t fully recover my interest in minerals until the nineteen-seventies, after returning to the West Coast. At a flea market in Alameda an attractive rock was on sale for fifty cents and I had no idea what it was. I made the purchase.


There are fascinating crystals around the Bay Area. I started to look for them and Jack Litewka, the friend who connected me with the hypnotherapist, introduced me to a mineralogist, Dr. Francis Jones. I learned an immense amount from him, and from Bay Area Mineralogists, the organization Jones belonged to. The interest became an excellent complement to writing. I worked for a furniture mover, I worked with the printing press, I spent a lot of time in the classroom – and more time with a notebook and a pen, writing. It was a relief, a refreshing and energizing activity, to go to the seashore or along country roads or to the mountains with a bar and a hammer, looking for crystals. I started backpacking and bringing along my tools. I found I loved camping in the mountains.


One favorite place is the Dinkey Lakes area in the southern Sierra. There are crystals hidden high in the ridges. Behind me, as I sit at my desk, is a cabinet with a glass front. It’s a display case of crystals from a pocket in the Sierra. The specimens are from about ten thousand feet in elevation and I went there several years in a row.


On my journey to the area in 2015 the lakes were lower than usual and scum had accumulated around their edges. A lot of trees were dying – there’d been drought for several years and the trees were vulnerable to disease. The mountains up past ten thousand feet had no snow pack. There was brown haze on the horizon from a distant fire.


Probably this was the result of a few difficult years in the southern Sierra. But, if things were to continue as they had, in ten years the lakes might not be recognizable. And there I am, with thirty pounds of tools in my pack! Observing the deterioration. In my chest I felt the Western template that was despoiling nature. Let’s use the planet however we like, without awareness and without regard to consequences.

That first night I got out my notebook and pen. And I fell into an ocean of grief! Many phrases came to mind for easing the pain and managing grief. But no, no! I was going to express the grief in my body – and I was going to express it fully. Refrains were going through my mind, distortions of commonplace sayings, of ads, of quotes from literature, all applying to legitimate topics. I got busy bending and twisting the words to fit what was before my eyes. I had been following environmental thought and problems casually. I had the basic knowledge of what’s happening on the planet, in the sixth mass extinction, that most everyone has.


The outpouring did not surprise me. It fulfilled the Beat requirement to be honest, especially to one’s passion, of whatever kind. To be real. I spent most of that week writing – and not looking for crystals. The flow felt natural. I was connecting with emotions and with history and with the natural world. And with grief!


The images probably have their strength from my having gained freedom and insight in writing Chalcedony in a woman’s voice. And from writing Squish Boots in a child’s voice. Both enterprises brought me to frontiers of awareness that required observing with alertness and to expand the arena of my images. Required my being present to the material and present to my responses.


Is the voice in Hello, Paradise the full range I can have? I aspire to attain what I observed at the Beats’ Gate of Horn reading in 1959: full engagement of body, heart, and mind. The range of voice in this work does feel more vital and powerful than anything I’ve done before.



Matson: The foundation of the poem is grief – with a heavy dose of guilt. Grief and guilt over our destroyed future. Yes, it is a Jeremiad, but not from on high! I’m not above the criticism. I stand before you, bar and hammer in my hands, turning lustful eyes toward the geology, in the shadow of brown and dying trees. Wondering where on the lake I can pump water that won’t clog the water filter.

I’m an emblem of the Western culture that’s destroying the biosphere. And all evidence suggests the culture is not about to change. We seem bent on driving faster and faster toward disaster.


Interviewer: Well, that’s very palpable, not least because there are theories even now that say climate change and our degradation of the planet is intimately connected to this corona virus. That may well be right, who knows. What would be the Beats response to the virus?


Matson: I think the Beats would not have a more enlightened view of the virus than we do. The positions probably would be changed, though. Beats who took the vaccine would likely need to defend their actions, quite the opposite of the general disagreement now.


It’s certainly true we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to the virus. Not only with the poor overall response at the highest levels, but with flawed healthcare systems, degraded and polluted air and soil and food and water. We have weakened immune systems. We are vulnerable, since our bodies now carry an immense number of toxins – in our nervous system, in our bones, in our bloodstream, in our cells. There is plenty to grieve and plenty that warrants guilt.


I remember a conversation in the mid-1970s with Daniel Moore, the founder [59] of San Francisco’s Floating Lotus Opera Company. He mentioned guilt as a suspect emotion. Guilt could write a lot of poems, he said, but they would not be good ones. We can’t absolve guilt by writing about it.

I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot absolve guilt by writing. But I disagree that it’s a flawed drive. It’s crucial. At bottom the guilt is societal. And we carry the full load of guilt and grief in our bodies! Every one of us, with even a shred of Western civilization. I need to feel the grief and the guilt thoroughly, with rage in my voice and tears streaming down my cheeks. When those sensations overtake me, I’m in the authentic flow. I’m expressing our common grief – or some of it! And if we don’t bring grief and guilt fully into the light, these emotions may direct our behavior, either in a straightforward manner or in contrary reactions, from the shadows. Lew Welch perceives this emotion as litmus for how deeply he is taken in by the spirit of a poem. He calls it, “The gift of tears.”


My basic hope is to bring the emotions in our bodies to the surface and help them become part of the conversation. Yes, this will involve accepting how very far we’ve gone wrong. Most everywhere!

We’re wrong especially in the illusion of who we think we are. Including our emotions in the discourse, including the shape of our mindscape – and of the landscape – will suggest approaches for bringing our planet back to health. And our species forward toward health.


Interviewer: It’s hard to sustain a long narrative poem. We know that from the Cantos or Williams’ Paterson. Was it difficult to pull off Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye? Or do you have a special way of sustaining the poem’s interest, and also of sustaining the effort of doing the writing?


Matson: I enjoy writing the poem. Even as I’m weeping – I require those tears! It’s the sign of full engagement. At the same time, it’s fun to rhyme words like “faster” and “disaster,” no matter the tragic meaning. And it’s exultant, righteous play to create rhymes that are neither traditional nor lyrical nor poetic, rhymes with names of radioactive ions and names of chemicals in dyes and names of psychoactive drugs. That stuff is a riot to put together.


A friend [60] pointed out that the poem similar to Charles Ives’ music: he took clichés from all around the culture and stacked them together. That’s what I’m doing. It’s all nonfiction, too, it’s a “nonfiction poem.” I’m pulling in stuff from everywhere, all the way from hard science to casual clichés, hammering and sawing and chopping till the words fit the problem.


What sustains the poem are the refrains. This is my strategy and I trust it works. The refrains pop up here and there in a rhythm and then they change, and change back again, as the poem proceeds.


Wheelbarrows full of glorious phrases that show the beauty of our planet or exult our power or relish our self-fulfillment or have zero positive effect on the current crises, and phrases that embody the destruction. The whole range of our beauty and of our disaster. The phrases keep drawing the reader in, hopefully, and the reader won’t know the tone of the next refrain until it arrives.


I don’t want the reader gloss over the topic. One refrain is “Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. None chance.” Pointing to some underlying structures that don’t contribute to our health. Or to strategies, or to grief, or to the feeling in our bodies, or to the sense of coming disaster. Coming faster. That we’re doing our fruitless best to avoid.


I got into many quarrels with John Paige, my poetry buddy. He quoted lines and showed me how they failed. He said I had too many swear words and he was right. I pulled a lot of swear words out and then put a few back in. Some were crucial. Another friend said it would be obscene not to include swear words. The discussion was ongoing – and continues in my mind today.


John loved nursery rhymes and he showed me their value. I found many that fit the poem and add humor and pathos. Many jump-rope songs, too, and many pithy youthful and adolescent sayings as well, like “Roll over, Red rover …” and “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” These bring delight in their music and playfulness and, at the same time, turn my core inside out, at a child’s level, with grief and rage. Rage at our species destroying the planet’s birthright. Yes, yes, our planet has a destiny, too, and a birthright. A birthright that is circling the drain.


And our conversations covered other ground. One item was the lines “Stand in the hurricane and stare it in the eye. / Contrails write our obituary across the sky.” John wanted “an” obituary, not “our” obituary. What needs be said here? What fits what’s happening, what fits the trauma we feel? Is the obituary for all of us? And could John’s version be too hopeful? Indicating that many more positive alternatives exist, ones that should be investigated?


This planet is an amazing and beautiful and spectacular and nurturing place. It’s paradise for us. We evolved with it. This world speaks to us in many ways – many more ways than we can imagine. I want lines expressing such beauty and intricacy throughout and scattered about in rhythms. The poem goes back and forth, from glorious appreciation to ugly pessimism. From grim decay to hopeful insight. Seeing paradise and seeing destruction! They’re both here, in aces.


Paige’s son Michael Ceely tells me the poem will never end. It does have an ending, though, which I wrote that first week in the mountains. A mourning. A full-on dirge. Michael notices, however, the flood of new material coming in every day. A constant avalanche. And it’s on topic! Dorothy Parker asks, when the phone rings, “What fresh hell is this?” Whatever variety it might be will likely point to our self-created mess. We cannot go back to normal. “Normal” was a disaster waiting to happen. And it did.

If we go back, we’d be going back to abnormal. [61] And that would be, well, yet another disaster waiting to happen.


Interviewer: Teaching has been a large part of your life, which is obvious in the insight and thoroughness of your tutorial Let the Crazy Child Write! How have you squared that vocation with the time and effort needed to be a practicing poet?


Matson: The blessing of teaching is that students teach the teacher. And the foundation of my teaching is appreciation. I recognize and appreciate students’ writing that has power and brings in deep, raw honesty from the creative unconscious. I have enough experience in the several fashions of contemporary literature not to judge one over another. Any judging would skew the adventure of finding a student’s honesty and skew the clarity of mirroring or showing that talent to the student. I need to keep my mind clear as I read what my students are writing.


I now easily recognize the honesty of the creative unconscious. I appreciate such honesty. And students challenge me to honor the same in my own writing. Encourage me, really by natural course, whether they’re aware of it or not. By natural course they demonstrate the value of radical honesty, since it gives their work power.


I especially need to heed this advice as I work on Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye. I need, as has been pointed out, to be present to my material and present to my personal response. I don’t have much corona virus in the poem. I need more, but not so much that attention is deflected. The pandemic has brought the failings of Western culture into stark focus. That focus needs to stay on the failings and not shift to the virus.


I often remember Trungpa Rinpoche’s mantra, as I’m examining stanzas that need work: “First thought, best thought.” We heard it in the 1960s, frequently from Ginsberg, and we repeated it among ourselves. I say it to my classes today, as well! It’s wrong, of course – first thought is not best thought. But it is a highly effective prompt. “First thought” is a door opening to the creative unconscious. It pitches us hip-deep into honest, native, primitive thought.


Frequently, while writing the poem, I’m captivated by a flurry of images. Is this part of our classist apparatus? Maybe, maybe not. I might ask, what do I really want here? The more productive question might be, what was my first thought? I hear myself saying it to my students – and I prod myself to hear it as well. It’s another case of students teaching the teacher: keeping the teacher alert on how best to write.


Of course, I can’t teach a simple, strategic plan to students! All I can do is point in the general direction, point to where the student’s energy seems to be strongest. The student’s internal world, their cosmogony, will teach them how to proceed. And I repeat this often, meaning to follow it myself. The poem teaches the poet how to write.


One day I discovered that Let the Crazy Child Write! fits what Ginsberg did and what Kerouac and Burroughs did often: automatic writing. What a surprise! There I was, thirty years away from the Beats in what I imagined was full rebellion – a rebellion against the rebels – and for the last few years I’d wholeheartedly embraced their aesthetic, without knowing I had done so. I’d been playing in their playpen!


Their “automatic writing” came into the literary world through Yeats and his wife. Automatic writing was – and is – the spiritualists’ way of being in touch with the dead. You write, automatically, whatever the dead say. This requires ignoring one’s agenda and one’s thoughts and getting rid of any analysis, then going into a semi-trance or a full-on trance that appears to connect with the spirit world. Then you simply write what the spirits say.


The Crazy Child is dead center in this tradition. We even use similar language: ignore the critical and writerly thoughts and write only what comes up from the darkness, from the unknown – from the creative unconscious. For the Beats, Kerouac gave the process its name “automatic writing” and showed its efficacy by typing On the Road on a continuous scroll of butcher paper that was trimmed to fit his typewriter. He didn’t have to stop and insert fresh pieces of paper! He could keep typing, following his spontaneous thought. The paper would continue rolling through his machine.


That this process is followed by very different writers doesn’t imply that the quality of their writing is comparable. The Yeats version in Vision, so our scholars report, was mostly done by his wife Georgiana, who drew Yeats into their seances. But Yeats put his name on the book and didn’t give her credit! Similar pieces of misogyny have happened so frequently in the literary world it’s become an ugly cliché.


Interviewer: We’ve covered much of the span of your career. What are you looking to do now? What is captivating your attention in this strange COVID period? Do you have a project in mind?


Matson: This interview is an honor and a challenge. It’s thoroughly absorbing. How to describe my journey with poetry? What were my influences? And what events were transformative?


As I came to the finale of Hello, Paradise, I thought to write one-page or two-page poems from the same mind. I wrote one about walking to the polling place and voting. Another on driving the I-80 corridor on a sunny day in the sixth mass extinction. Another on going to market in the first days of corona virus. My videographer friend, Vic Owens, made videos of two of the poems.



These poems are interesting to write. I look for what’s in our hearts in this current decade. “Occupy” and the “Me, Too” movements were raging and, about when they eased, our society was shocked by the murder of George Floyd. “Black Lives Matter” came to the fore and tension skyrocketed. Then more spikes of COVID-19! Vic asked me to write about these new times. Everything appears to be collapsing. And collapsing rapidly. Some friends were astonished that “Black Lives Matter” developed so fast and became so widespread and so deep.


No issue! It must be because, in combination with “Occupy” and “Me, Too,” and now with gun violence, the reversal of Roe versus Wade, and the effort to limit and distort voting, the Black Lives Matter movement echoes through all society and all history – straight from historical foundations of racism, slavery, misogyny, and murder. The tide of these systemic atrocities is running under the surface of American life and is ready to erupt. Has already erupted, really, in Donald Trump’s presidency and – note the court’s ease in overturning Roe versus Wade – continues to develop in political rip tides since. One commentator suggests that Trump did not change the Republican Party, he revealed its core. The Civil War has not ended. And the Republican Party is on wrong side.


The system is due for revision. Complete revision.


Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And the specter of nuclear destruction and World War III, along with a milder designation, a “Soft World War III,” which has become a war of information and a war of finance. Our media may be much more accurate than Russia’s in depicting destruction in Ukraine, but it’s equally obfuscating about the real issues. Issues and broken agreements involving NATO. How Biden has been fighting the Russians and avoiding the diplomacy previously set up for Ukraine to become neutral. And for civil unrest in Eastern Ukraine to be brought to the negotiating table.

I have no idea how to handle the current material. It’s happening so fast, echoing through such depths of history and illusion. Where do we find tools to grasp this? We have little accurate idea what is happening. And no idea what will happen next. Has our species ever – outside of the biblical flood – been in a position so dire? Or so pervasive? Or so persuasive!


We don’t have a vocabulary for this, and neither do we have a set of images. Not outside of apocalyptic religions – but these are themselves destructive forces. We need a story that is fresh, comprehensive, loving, and effective.


We know, in our hearts, that life is sacred. The sanctity of all life! How do we combine this with images that fit what’s happening today? How do we make this knowledge operative? That’s a tall order. The Crazy Child allows unknown material to appear, and what’s effective might be unknown. Give the unknown a chance to appear, I will say in class. I need to tell myself what I tell my students. Take the freedom to be wild, to reach into strange, unlit territory, and pull words into the flow. The freedom and courage to hear what our own hearts are saying.


The trance we’re in is supported by a general mindset that is attractive and difficult to resist. “Are even my personal motivations commodities?” Kaira Loving laments, and adds, “This internal propaganda is exhausting.” [62] That many young students have the propaganda fully developed is disheartening. They came to my class “The Beat Aesthetic and Why We Need it Today” with a sophisticated apparatus in their minds on how to decipher poetry. “Wrong from the start.” [63] Poetry doesn’t need deciphering. Good writing is obvious. Stuff that needs deciphering is probably not poetry.


Carol Lee Sanchez acknowledged, “I’m a leftover primitive.” At the level of our primitive heart, the Paleolithic heart, we are all leftover primitives. And poetry speaks from, and speaks to, this bottom, primal level. We understand it by instinct. The educated apparatus students learn was created and is sustained by the pressure, or the urge, to rise in class. Marx was right. Poets want to rise into the upper-middle class intelligentsia.


That impulse needs to get flushed. So does the apparatus. I need, as well, to flush the apparatus from myself! Can the impulse to rise in stature be a sticky, limiting sort of glue? Yes. Our first effort should be to get that junk out of our minds and clear the way for language and impulse that’s honest and real. Clear the way for deep, primal honesty.


“Make the private world public” is key. But Ginsberg’s mantra is demanding. It has two arms: one, to bring awareness to the private world, so we’re cognizant of what exactly is in our hearts and on our minds. Two, to write so well that our private world is clear to the outside world, to the public. This clarity makes real connections possible.


What we’re seeing is the intersection of many worlds. “Black Lives Matter” added to the “Me, Too” movement added to “Occupy” added to the attack on Roe versus Wade and gun violence added to the general fight to preserve and extend voting rights gives our social unrest huge energy. All six issues shine light on inequities of race and gender and class. These plus the climate crisis and reactive trends toward authoritarian governments – if not fascism – require us to examine the entire structure.

Gaps in society link to race link to gender link to class link to production methods link to planetary destruction link to species extinction. This is not a surprise! Everyone knows this.


We can’t address these issues if our goal is to rise in class. Or to rise in affluence! We need cooperative effort, instead. Across all boundaries. We need to pull together. The current unrest has energy vast enough for a general strike and plenty enough to set up a coordinated approach to our looming destruction. A single, broad platform is necessary. Involving both political parties and involving a full spectrum of the general population.


But our political system may have betrayed us. Democrats chose a candidate who was good for ousting Trump and has already ushered in significant change, with support for those troubled by the pandemic and by bringing Ketanji Brown Jackson firmly into the Supreme Court. The enduring issues, though, need to be addressed clearly and energetically. The tides of racism and white supremacy from the Civil War are still running strong. Can one party muster sufficient energy and strength of vision to make systemic change? To make systemic change possible? Bernie Sanders is speaking truth, and he’s put his effort into supporting individual candidates with progressive agendas – which is fine.


But the larger issues? We seem not to have a forum.


Our fledgling organization, WordSwell, seeks to affirm the joy of writing and to restore honesty to writing – following the precepts of Let the Crazy Child Write! The presumption is that only radical honesty can be successful in addressing what confronts us. The difficulties of setting up WordSwell became obvious early on. The initial group agreed we wanted plurality and youth and the tide of insight and inspiration coming up through the generations.


But when we included people outside our small group, the white elders in our community quailed. They wanted the organization to suit themselves – and not be influenced or overtaken by emerging culture. More, they displayed how fractious our community is and how incapable of cooperating. Cooperating is difficult even in a community of poets! Who appear to be enlightened, but are not.


Today’s complexity could shake down to a few images. Images containing our grief, our horror, our love, our challenges. As an example, we might look over the Sierra landscape, or follow the curve of a Pacific beach at low tide, and proclaim “How beautiful!” Then take a photo, pleased with the photo and with ourselves. Good enough!


But how different to look at the same landscape, invite the earth’s energy and the biosphere’s energy into our bodies and affirm, “This is part of me. I come from this. I’m subservient to this. I am beholden to this.” And from this foundation, “What are my thoughts now? What am I required to do now?”

Does this same insight apply to the blatant inequity all around us? Of course it does. As a luxury car drives up from the beach toward a summer home over the next ridge, supported by – who knows what – disasters and exploitation. Environmental problems and social problems link inextricably. The car runs on tires made from rubber, dollars, cheap labor, sweat, and the destruction of jungles.


We need stark simplicity in order to foster a rise in global consciousness. The human soul is crying out for such effort, everywhere. Sound familiar? It’s our old friend speaking: the impulse behind Modernism – in new dress. Or in no dress! Just what is before our eyes? What patient is etherized upon the table? Does radical honesty provide a response? A response of any kind?


And how do we start a productive conversation? We need what we saw blossoming at Gate of Horn in 1959: full engagement of body, heart, and mind.


Of course we know, in our hearts, that all life is sacred. The sanctity of all life is the understanding that needs to be operative. The conversation leading in this direction needs to be discovered, ignited, and pursued so vigorously that it produces change.


The primitive heart still believes that a few words thrown into the mix, like Vonnegut’s “ice nine,” will crystallize all thinking, globally, in an instant. Or in two instants! And our consciousness will change. Astrology sees the current cataclysm in the stars, and predicts that consciousness will rise to the challenge. And, in rising to the challenge, we will change. We will change completely as we deal with our disaster. Many of our enlightened, encouraging New Age thinkers speak from the same template. Our minds and hearts will change focus as we confront the disaster that is taking over our planet.

But we might need to grow by slow accretion of insight. Or through the abrasion of falsehoods, until generation by generation the illusions are worn away, and we see the truth. And then we’ll see what we must do? We’re captivated by the allure of our own culture. But, hidden beneath current obsessions and impractical, destructive drives, like rising in class or making money or becoming an adored hipster, are positives. Our species has wisdom and god-like capabilities.


We need stark simplicity in general. I need stark simplicity, personally, for my videographer. Images so clear he’ll know what photos to employ. To take our thought a step further, to become a help in the rise of global consciousness. The human soul is crying out for such general effort, everywhere.


What’s happened with Marcuse’s prediction, made decades ago: “Now begins a long march through the institutions”? Many marches have begun and results are not generally conclusive. Things may have even become more slippery than they were, when Marcuse’s insight had force. Institutions are now adept at sliding around crucial, system-changing questions and continuing on, with their images refined and polished. They look more attractive and more political. But their foundations may remain intact. Are they as exploitative and destructive as ever? And they’re strengthening? Probably. They have more tools. And it’s their job to create profit.


Jonathan Haidt posits in a recent Atlantic that social media have “made America stupid.” Trust, respect, and sense of decency have been eroded from the social fabric. Haidt calls these the social “mortar” and his argument is convincing. The media are more than forgiving when their users express negative thoughts.


They’re paired with what a political friend calls the general “Conscience-ectomy.”The media don’t mind and won’t care. Capitalism thrives on a population devoid of conscience. As with institutions, capitalism has a job: to accumulate users and consumers. The attention of users is their commodity, and nothing else matters. That’s short-term profit.


The effects of this strategy are probably not intended. They’re a natural outgrowth of free marketing in open ground with no restrictions, ground kept open with the lever of free speech. The decay we feel is widespread and operates at a level deeper than where money is exchanged. At a level more fundamental than Haidt, or almost anyone, considers.


Media and email leave out nonverbal communication. And science informs us that seventy-percent or so of communication is nonverbal. None of the honest material we consider in our writing workshops, in WordSwell, comes through in digital media. It’s invisible to media.


Has the macrocosm of our national “stupidity” infiltrated the microcosm? “As above, so below”? If this is so, then the deep, primal honesty in our workshops reveals itself as three or four of the unnamed and unacknowledged cornerstones in the equation for survival. And they’re under attack.


Or, conversely, has our deteriorated microcosm infiltrated the macrocosm? “As below, so above”? Perhaps the decay in personal relations has spread outward and upward and become universal. And holds us now on the blunt edge of extinction.


We are so used to lying and misinformation we don’t even recognize they’re unusual. Even though we’re dealing with such distortions every day. What else is new? We know politicians stretch the truth, sure. So does marketing. So do performers. So do hipsters. So do clerks. Whenever we enter a store, we adjust to the lies. Automatically. Adjust and re-adjust.


Lies are all around us. Beautiful images on the packages do not much resemble the contents. If at all! Though, maybe, when you spend twenty thousand dollars and six months in gourmet cooking school and add the ingredients just right, you can create something like the picture.


Even the names are distortions! In the interest of having allure. “Safeway” must mean safe. But safe from what? Everything unsafe? There’s no tangible content in the word and likewise none in its use as a brand. Only an appeal to emotion. “Continual intrusive mistrust” fueled by ads and lies and misinformation from all sides. Maybe that’s the psychological diagnosis of our dysfunction! Code CIM.


No wonder our difficulty, in understanding what we see, is ingrained. There’s a Puritan history of four hundred years pushing up the pressure of our culture. Even the Beats, who usually embrace impulse and passion, have a scholarly arm that stays sequestered in their minds. As we stated, “Western culture teaches us to listen to our minds and reap what rewards.”


This leaves out the nonverbal stuff. What’s in the creative unconscious is love and compassion. They’re not in social media or in email, or it takes great awareness and insight to find them. We’re brought into the conversation without agreeing that human discourse is founded on cooperation and compassion.

If global change is about to happen, leaving it to governments might mean, fearfully, leaving it to laws imposing change. That’s frightening. That seems a lose/lose proposition. That brings to mind propositions that would necessarily spread and strengthen the swing to autocracies across the globe. Difficult to envision such autocracies enhancing social justice or bringing on real environmental solutions to the crisis.


What else could we have? There are hopeful proposals by astrology, by new Age readings of Tarot decks, by spiritual leaders, in whatever predictive traditions we have. We’ve mentioned the template earlier, that humans will change in response to what confronts us. The lure of this thought is that the change happens automatically.


But would it truly be automatic? History doesn’t provide many examples. The horror of Hitler, instead of changing our consciousness, finds itself repeated to a frightening extent by Putin and in the treatment of Palestinians and Somalians and Yemenis. The U.S government is worsening the mess in these last three countries, in case you’re of a mind to believe our government’s promotion of itself as a proponent of democracy. Is there any time in history where our consciousness changed and that in itself solved a difficult problem?


I think our eyes are veiled in a way that doesn’t let us see these simple truths. My awareness is mostly inchoate but, nevertheless, I sense there are strict, unacknowledged boundaries on how to live. We’re in a trance. And it’s an artificial trance, with very little understanding of what a healthy human being might be. When writing Hello, Paradise I bumped into boundaries so many times the message indicates the trance is universal. We’re living a lie. And spreading the lie across the planet.


What we’re facing is a huge challenge. Humanity is continuing a destructive trance and, once you see it, it’s obvious. The terror of 9/11 established a foundation for conformity and oppression worse than what prevailed in the 1940s and 1950s. We think we’re more aware now and the trance should be easy to see and to slough off.


But it’s not.


What’s missing in our conversation is compassion. Marcuse, again, noticed that compassion is the foundation of social justice. We do not have to look further. But we should look far enough to see it. Far enough to see it in each other’s eyes. Compassion is in my eyes, and in yours, whenever we see each other. It’s born from the understanding that we are on this planet together and we share a common fate.


We will leave the planet.


My pet cat, your pet dog, has the same understanding. Look into their eyes! Look into the eyes of a bird, of a possum, of a coyote, into the eyes of a cow or of a horse. The same fate and the same understanding. Your neighbor has the same understanding. So does the family across the street. So does the family whose skin is a different color from mine or yours. So does your child.


Compassion is at the root of our conversations. Deny it however you like and next morning you wake up and look into the eyes of your partner or your child or into the eyes of your pet and it’s there. You don’t need to impose anything or do some special magic to see it. It’s there. On its own.


And it’s what email and social media leave out. Compassion is in the unconscious and that’s seventy or ninety-some percent of the brain’s activity. We need to acknowledge compassion. We need to nurture it and to acknowledge its power. It needs to rise up from where it’s been simmering, without words, all this while. In our unconscious.


We don’t know what will happen. We’re in unknown territory and we’ve been improvising. We don’t know what tide is streaming toward us and what tide will come crashing around the corner in the next few hours. Spraying memes and slogans onto the walls and sound bites into our minds. We don’t know how the conversation about compassion will serve us. Or whether it can be successful. There’s no way to tell in advance.


We do know nothing else will work.


We’ve considered the other stuff. The new age hypothesis that consciousness will change globally in a short time is tempting. It’s obvious it should happen. The need cannot be denied. The microcosm confirms the need. The walk by our local underpass homeless shelter confirms the need. Scammers and hackers confirm the need. Cold calls confirm the need. The worn-down welcome mat on my porch confirms the need. And the macrocosm presents a huge obstacle.


We don’t know what awaits us. If we continue in the same way, we’ll face familiar problems. Build sea walls. Flee to the interior. Cut your losses. On alert. On alert. No way to live. No way to die.


We are walking the planet in worn-out shoes. They’re designed for striding through paradise. The moon still shines on us like a loving mother. Trees still bear fruit, flowers blossom, butterflies still find their host plants. And it’s all sliding toward oblivion. Quickly. Along with bees and insects. Along with ice at the poles and in the glaciers. Along with us.


We need to search for a conversation. We don’t know where it is! The news, week to week, searches, too. The conversation needs to be discovered, started, and participated in generally. And pursued so vigorously that it produces change. Pursued so vigorously and kindly that it involves everyone.


Interviewer: You've already said much about Allen Ginsberg, but do you think he would have been a good leader for this generation?


Matson: Marx himself said that history is not driven by dominant personalities. Social movements already exist and have their engines running. Rebecca Slotnik echoes this thought in saying that solutions will come out of darkness or from the margins of society. And any movement will pick its own leaders. Notice who has agency here! The movement will do the choosing.


The situation that faced Ginsberg seems, in retrospect, very simple. The urge to be free of a restrictive conformity, established during World War II, was ubiquitous. That was the engine running the general discontent. It may have taken very little for Ginsberg to give literary society a push in the direction of the freewheeling, partying Beats.


What we have now is immensely more complicated. Though our strict conformity, if we could boil it down to components, might explain the complications. Assuming the components are simple! They aren’t easy to grasp, since the engines are covered by layers and layers of misinformation and seductive social media. On top of which layers and layers of society have either co-opted, or have conspired to join, the conformity. Largely without knowing that’s what we’re doing.


Yes, we’re living in prison. And it’s a self-made prison: we’ve been complicit in constructing it. The song “Hotel California” puts it well: “We are all prisoners here, of our own device.”


We can’t say, “You’re a square,” to our neighbors and be persuasive. The moniker won’t prompt a productive conversation. “You’re a hipster” might be a phrase that fits our time. But it means something different from what it meant to young artists in New York City. Then, it was high praise. And spoken with admiration.


Now it’s said with envy, irony, and suspicion. Even though there’s nothing wrong with hipsters! Though we could complain the lifestyle is expensive and doesn’t lend itself easily to compassion.


It’s counter-intuitive to ask a writing teacher, today, whether we need a leader like Allen Ginsberg. How could our workshops inform us on this issue, one way or another? On second thought, we may have something to offer. Our writing workshops do not show people how to write so well they rise in the literary community. Instead we teach accurate, soulful communication, “radical honesty.” Without such honesty it’s difficult to imagine any productive conversation. It’s difficult to imagine any change, or any negotiation for change. Difficult to imagine any change to be successful.


The best we might do is bring the conversation into the foreground. And, with the conversation, bring along compassion as the one single, necessary, vital component. We aren’t solving a problem by doing this. We are building the foundation for a movement of compassion. We know the movement will choose its own leaders.


The movement needs a broad foundation. It needs to include everyone or, if not to include everyone, to appeal to everyone. We’re not trying to start a war. We’re working to eliminate war.


Our feet are grounded in compassion. Know it or not! We are capable of carrying light into an increasingly dark world. We can make the conversation public. We can help the conversation become vigorous and visible. We can start spreading the conversation and refining it and at the same time we spread awareness of the need for compassion. Any conversation with anyone in any venue is an opportunity. “As below, so above” applies. We are the “below” and anything we say has nowhere to go except to spread upward.


Start the conversation. Start the conversation and keep it going. Keep it going.


References

[1] Started at Vista High School, Vista, San Diego County circa 1956 and continued for two years.


[2] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Christ Climbed Down.” Coney Island of the Mind. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1958.


[3] February 1, 1959, at the Gate of Horn, a folk music club in the basement of the Rice Hotel at 755 N. Dearborn Street, corner of Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.


[4] The New York Times, Nov. 16, 1952. Section SM, p. 10.



[6] Ring, Kevin. Jacket Magazine, No. 37, early 2009, http://jacketmagazine.com/37/r-matson-rb-ring.shtml


[7] Edward Dorn, 1929-1999, Black Mountain poet, author of Gunslinger and numerous other collections, taught at a variety of schools and eventually became director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


[8] Dorn, Edward. “Rick of Green Wood.” The New American Poetry 1945-1960, ed. Donald Allen. New York, Grove Press, 1960.


[9] Wieners, John. The Hotel Wentley Poems. San Francisco, Auerhahn Press, 1958.


[10] Jack Smith was an independent filmmaker who produced the avant-garde Flaming Creatures in 1963. He used Ira Cohen’s loft as a studio for the film and invited many artists from the Lower East Side to participate as impromptu actors.


[11] Herbert Huncke (1915-1996) was a brilliant storyteller and accomplished writer, “the charismatic street hustler, petty thief and perennial drug addict who enthralled and inspired a galaxy of acclaimed writers and gave the Beat generation its name.” From his obituary in The New York Times, August 9, 1996.


[12] Rosenthal, Irving. Personal communication. New York, circa 1961.


[13] Matson, Clive. “The Beat Aesthetic and Why We Need It Today.” Caveat Lector, Spring 2020, Vol. 30, No. 2. https://www.caveat-lector.org/3002/pdf/3002_essay_matson.pdf


[14] Jung, Carl. “Without … playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.” Psychological Types, Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Volume 6. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 63.


[15] We often called John by his last name, Ceely. He changed his name later, after coming to the West Coast in the 1980s, to John Paige, honoring his mother’s lineage.


[16] Erin and Clive married in 1963 in a Buddhist church in San Diego, during a visit to the Matson family.


[17] At a reading of very short poems at the Belvedere Social Club in downtown Oakland, in 2012, I went over the history of these poems with Jack Foley, a Ginsberg aficionado. He was familiar with Ginsberg’s “American Sentences” and informed me that Ginsberg designed his sentences to have exactly seventeen syllables. The kinship I felt with Ginsberg vanished. His process suggests that the number of syllables were the source of magic. He was fitting his sensibility into a restrictive form, rather than allowing the poem to choose. How is that different from my interest in sonnets? It may not be different. The sonnet is larger, has flexibility, and demonstrated early in my drafts how well they frame the meditative visions that make up Hourglass. A brief study of “American Sentences” should reveal how well Ginsberg’s sensibility fits those seventeen syllables.


[18] This image was supplied by poet Lori Lynne Armstrong, p.c., May 2020.


[19] Lyon, Banning. Jennifer in The Stolen Year, manuscript copyright 2020, p. 178.


[20] Wieners, John. Op. cit. “A Poem for Painters,”p. 11.


[21] McClure, Michael. “OH WHY OH WHY THE BLASTED LOVE.” Dark Brown. San Francisco, The Auerhahn Press, 1961, p. 7.


[22] From a short lyric in The Floating Bear, a poetry newsletter edited by Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones in New York City, circa 1963.


[23] Van Buskirk, Alden. LAMI. San Francisco, The Auerhahn Society, 1965.


[24] Kokkinen, Eila. P.c. Fall 2019, commenting on McClure’s, Snyder’s and Ferlinghetti’s inability to supply a political line, when asked for a quote to augment my essay, “The Beat Aesthetic and Why We Need It Today,” presented at the 2019 European Beat Studies Network Conference in Cyprus, October 2019.


[25] Huncke, Herbert. The Herbert Huncke Reader. Schafer, Benjamin, ed. New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997.


[26] Yugen ran for eight issues from 1958-1962, co-edited with Jones’s wife, Hettie Cohen Jones.


[27] Spellman, A.B. P.c. circa 1963. A.B. Spellman ran the paperback section in the basement of the bookstore. He was six years older than I and treated me with respect but, at the same time, like the young person I was. Spellman is a master of pithy statements. He became an active member of the Black Arts movement and later held several positions with National Endowment for the Arts.


[28] Sanchez, Carol Lee. Conversations from the Nightmare. San Francisco, Casa Editorial, 1974, reprinted in From Spirit to Matter: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1996. San Francisco, Taurean Horn Press, 1997, pp. 24-25. “They have disappeared me as they have done to all my ancestors before me.” She describes the ceremonial costume which may appear, to uneducated eyes, as if it’s from another century. “But it is real! Look close. I may vanish before your eyes.” Then a closer look at how the costume is put together. “Are you watching? I may be disappearing right now …. I’m a left over primitive and you’re supposed to feel sorry for me …. You see how it happens? … You disappear us every day!”


[29] “Angel-headed hipster” was linked so often with Jack Kerouac and On the Road that his biographer, Steve Turner, used that phrase in the title of his book. Turner, Steve. Jack Kerouac, Angelheaded Hipster. New York, Viking Adult, 1996. The phrase also appears in Ginsberg’s Howl (1956): “Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”


[30] Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Poetry New York. Vol. 3, 1950.


[31] Allen, Donald M., ed. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. New York, Grove Press, 1960, p. 386.

[32] Ginsberg, Allen. “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.”


[33] Paul Mariah was a pioneer of the gay literary scene in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. He founded ManRoot press, and was the author of Personae Non Gratae (ManRoot, 1971) and This Light Will Spread (ManRoot, 1978).


[34] Olson, Charles. “The Kingfishers.” In Cold Hell, in Thicket. San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation, 1967.


[35] For examples of Creeley reading, a wide selection is available at the Penn State archives. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Creeley.php


[36] A Los Angeles poet, Stuart Perkoff earned admiration and intrigue for spewing his words all over the page – which then becomes a record of intense thoughts and emotions, words sent out like a shotgun blast. These were poems we saw in small journals out of Los Angeles. The Perkoff poems in Donald Allen’s anthology op. cit. are earlier and more nearly conventional in form.


[37] A journal entry quoted in the appendix of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 op. cit., page 425. “… [B]ecause it has been given me the means to plunge into the depths and come up with answers? No. Poems.”


[38] Van Buskirk. Op. cit., p. 38.


[39] Ibid.


[40] Ginsberg, Allen. Personal communication, circa 1965.


[41] “Expand your consciousness” was commonly used to describe many activities, including taking psychedelics. The phrase may first have been used by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard while researching LSD, as reported by Ralph Metzner in his essay “Consciousness Expansion and Counterculture in the 1960s and Beyond.” Maps Bulletin, Vol. xix, No. 1, p. 16.


[42] Allen, op. cit. A quintessential example of political confrontation is Ray Bremser’s “Poem of Holy Madness, Part IV,” p. 352.


[43] “Projective Verse,” Allen, op. cit., p. 386. The line is also referred to by Ginsberg as “ONE SPEECH BREATH” in a letter to John Hollander. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Morgan, Bill, ed. Philadelphia, Da Capo Press, p. 208.


[44] Williams, William Carlos. “Paterson.” The Dial, Vol. 80, No. 2, 1927. First usage by Williams of a phrase that he used multiple times: The Wedge, 1944, and in various versions of his later epic poem Paterson 1946-1958.


[45] Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” The Sacred Wood. London, Methuen & Co., 1921.


[46] Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. London, George Routledge, 1934.


[47] Pound, Ezra. The Pisan Cantos. From Canto XXX.


[48] Di Prima, Diane. "Rant" in Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems, City Lights, San Francisco, 2001.


[49] Spoken by Leary in 1967 at the Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.


[50] Rothberg, Abraham. “A Passage to More Than India.” Southwest Review. Vol. 61, No. 1, Early Winter, 1968.


[51] Maddux, J.F. and D.P. Desmond. “New light on the maturing out hypothesis in opioid dependence.” Bulletin on Narcotics. New York, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, January 1, 1980, p. 18. The authors paraphrase the original researcher, C. Winick, writing that he “speculated that the addicts begin taking heroin as a method of coping with the challenges and problems of early adulthood. Then, some years later, as a result of some process of emotional homeostasis, the stresses and strains of life become sufficiently stabilized so that the addict can face them without the support provided by narcotics.” See also C. Winick. "Maturing out of narcotic addiction." Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. 14, No. 1, 01-01-1962, pp. 1-7.


[52] Idea ascribed to George Orwell as “The people will believe what the media tells them they believe.” There is, however, no evidence that Orwell ever expressed this sentiment. The use of the word “media” is a clue, since it was not in use during Orwell’s lifetime. See the Powell’s Books’ blog, “The Ministry of Truth” by Dorian Lynskey, June 5, 2019. https://www.powells.com/post/original-essays/the-ministry-of-truth


[53] Holiday, Harmony. “The Last Black Radical: How Cuba Turned LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka.” Chicago, Poetry Foundation, Dec. 10, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2018/12/the-last-black-radical


[54] Holladay, Hilary. Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. New York, Schaffner Press, 2015, p.305. “… [W]ithout Huncke there in the beginning to push him out of his middle-class myopia, prod his conscience, and puncture his ego, Ginsberg would have lacked the impetus to craft a movement.”


[55] Allen. Op. cit.


[56] Weissman, Peter, p.c., circa 1973.


[57] In the poems “Annie” is code for all the people who provided input, whether intentional or not, as if they are one person. The inspiration for the process and the poems came largely from Judy Quinlisk, p.c. circa 1983 to 1985.


[58] The quote should more accurately read “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” While attributed to M.K. Gandhi, the Indian independence leader and pacifist, there has been no documented evidence that Gandhi ever said or wrote it. Quartz https://qz.com/



[60] Novelist Deborah Janke of Lafayette, California.


[61] Mattis, Kristine. P.c.i, January 2020. Mattis repeatedly points out that twentieth century life in Western cultures had gone far beyond what should be considered “normal,” or healthy, or viable – or respectful of the biosphere.


[62] Loving, Kaira. “Lady Moth.” Dogma of the Inflorescence. Arcata, California, Bag Lady Books, 2018, p. 18.


[63] Pound, Ezra. “Ode pour l'election de son sepulchre.” Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. London, Ovid Press, 1920.

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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