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Michael C. Ford: California Poets Part 4, Three Poems

Michael C. Ford (photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Michael C. Ford

Three Poems

Treadmille to Armageddon Borrowing a pop music allusion, Donovan is encouraging us to think of this as the season of the witch All right but this day in March 2020 finds us walking Spanish along the traditional path of most resistance We are being braced by the usual stiffening vile wind usually accompanied by other cool aspects of the 3rd month There is little hospitable solace in a thought that only the starch of March could bring us to this birth of oblivion

Improvised B R O K E N Typewriter Poem Thanksgiving Day doldrums on Long Island and we witness the usual stripping from suicidal broiled turkeys leaving the usual holiday carnage and see great galaxies rising out of ordinary mist on the gray November water span spinning us all over the Sound. Fishing craft roll and loll and loiter on top of the long rolling rush of ocean towards Flushing. Storm clouds are getting ready to eclipse transcriptions in the gradebook blur of our past academic applications and literary journals that have no need for penciling or crinkled ink. The beat majesty of shoreline comic-book poetics will until further notice replace the hot typewriter ribbon and the return gear will be getting us back into words as black as North Atlantic

Patriotism at the Motel Cafe Truth is a metaphor that we forgot was a metaphor - Nietzshe Patriotism is a star-spangled breakfast Patriotism is out to lunch Patriotism is a parking lot full of pickup trucks with gunracks & axe-handles Patriotism is police beating up people too poor to be protected by lawyers Patriotism is corporate criminals diverting millions of dollars which could have been used to house the homeless Patriotism is killing nuns and priests and Communist peasants in Central America, in order to promote a neo-Fascist regime Patriotism is a conspiracy of racist hatred in the Southern faction of Africa Patriotism is getting your mitts on a gun and getting yourself killed in an already victimized foreign country Patriotism is cinema with a star-power movie hero commercializing patriotic murder Patriotism is being persecuted by American government greed-Capitalist social injustice


December 13th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Michael C. Ford, Poet, Performer, and Recording Artist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You’ve had the privilege of working with some of the biggest names in literature and music. In 1969, along with Jim Morrison, Jack Hirschman, and Michael McClure, you performed at the Cinematheque Theater to help raise funds for Norman Mailer’s mayoral run, quite the colorful campaign not only in terms of language but also antics. Can you talk about what you remember of this time, what it was like performing with Morrison, Hirschman, and McClure, and was this really your first reading?

MCF: Yes, David, it was Morrison who introduced me to Michael McClure, when these two weekend concert readings took place early summer of 1969 at the Cinematheque on Sunset Blvd. The evening was arranged by a troupe of Andy Warhol’s Factory workers as a Hollywood version of Warhol’s New York City fundraiser for the novelist Norman Mailer who needed campaign dollars to fund his run for the Mayor of Manhattan. When Warhol sent Morrison a message encouraging him to appear, he added that one of Mailer’s campaign promises was that he would force New York to secede from the union and become another Country. Morrison straightaway admired the lunacy of that saying to me: “Oh yeah, we gotta help this guy.” It was then he asked me if I had ever read my work out loud in front of a mass audience, and I admitted that I had not. He said he wanted to read the complete stanzas of his “American Prayer”—not just the pages he privately published.

That’s when he accommodatingly suggested I join him in taking this trip. He invited McClure down from the Bay Area and in a serendipitous moment invited our august UCLA poetry teacher Jack Hirschman to join the party. And you were correct to believe this was the way it was—not only the 1st time I read alongside these amazing voices, but my 1st foray into public address.

More full coverage of that fundraiser weekend may be found in the only journalism review of the event, with a by-line credited to Anne Moore. It was in the June 19th 1969 issue of a music tabloid called The World Countdown.

DG: Jonas Mekas, the Lithuanian-American filmmaker and poet, once said the following: “In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets,” but is it ever a good idea for writers to actually enter politics, and do you think New York would’ve changed much had Mailer actually won?

MCF: Your question about cultural politics becomes a double-edged sword which might be more effective in the swashbuckling hand of Erroll Flynn. But let’s just see how much trouble I can get myself into. I get it that there were so many poets, painters, filmmakers, and musicians during that period of our cultural revelations, simply due to the artistry involved in their acts of defiance and who were diametrically opposed to any literary establishment prejudice, censorship, and oppression, and who were, indeed, by their very nature culturally political. It’s sad to relay that in the intervening years up to now those revered sensibilities of all our long-ago heroes seem to have been egregiously degenerated and dissipated.

Slowly, you become aware that right in present-day history the majority of films look like video games, the bulk of music distribution has been composed and recorded to be consumed by a mass mess of tin-ears in the ignorant contemporary marketplace. Most visual art being hung on nails in art gallery frames resembles nothing more than extremely expensive wallpaper. The art form of poetry has been appropriated by college English departments in a totally insidious way and controlled by academic Fascists in Poetry Societies. A poet friend of mine teaching in the Bay Area calls them out as monsters—resident evil conspiring the persecution of any writer who by continuing to maintain an unbridled imagination and a moral outrage justifiably opposes their anemic exotic boredom.

Charlie Parker and his satellites are ascended royalty; along with Jack Kerouac and his satellites gone into the graves of the seldom remembered. The films of Orson Welles are viewed unceremoniously in darkened alcoves in schools of cinema arts. Salvador Dali avoided the negativity of drug addiction because he advertised himself to be one of the positive reactions to drugs. Face it folks: in this new age, mediocrity rules with a congenital vengeance.

The composer Erik Satie once said: “To be great is not to deliberately refuse the Nobel Prize—to be great is not to have been chosen to receive it at all.” The same may be observed regarding the National Book Award, or the Academy Award, or the do-something-crude-and-derivative-and-get-an-award-for-it-Award. Any organization which glorifies narcissism by escorting an artist into the arena of desperation, competition, embarrassing behavior, false adulation, saccharine responses, and sanctimonious rhetoric can’t be all bad. Just my opinion: I could be wrong.

DG: In 1964, you met Jim Morrison, a fellow student at UCLA. Can you talk about that meeting, and was it already apparent to you, at least in those early days, that Morrison would become a cultural icon? In other words, what set him apart from everyone else you had met at that point?

MCF: It was during a time I was a non-registered student at UCLA, illegally attending incredible classes I chose to attend between 1964 and 1966—classes of which I never would have been aware if dissuaded by the rote-system of university scholarship.

That was when my recently acquired film school friends Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison along with me insinuated ourselves into Jack Hirschman’s poetry class. It didn’t take me long to realize what a truly inspiring teacher should sound like in a classroom. Jack named his sessions UTOPIA after an earlier concept that poetry should be thought of as utopian dream imagery.

What I basically learned from Hirschman’s lectures were the fundamentals of that which comprised my curious search for an alternative creative process. I decided to cultivate an idealistic field of literary endeavor, creating a cultural vaccine designed to immunize all students of the university of the street. Again, a more conclusive overview of those years will be found in my essays entitled “Cultivating our own Wasteland” and “Doors Open and Closed.”

Over the years there were five occasions when Hirschman and I shared the podium: the last one being in April 2021. A big thanks to film actor and poet Harry E. Northup for inviting Jack and myself to recite from our work on-line for an invited audience of residents at the Motion Picture Home located in California’s West Valley. Four months following that reading, Hirschman merged with my other ascended teachers: Rexroth and Patchen, and it’s the realization that after learning from Jack in the middle 1960s, he shared with me his last public reading 56 years later. This has to be one of the most remarkable moments anyone could have experienced.

DG: How did those early years influence the work you’re doing today?

MCF: Okay, David, at the outset it would have been impossible to encounter my more or less informal personal mentoring if I had not been able to experience the genesis of self-education during the earlier 1950’s; then doing a trampoline bounce into the 1960’s.

I was on the ground floor of unarguably the zenith of the most culturally illuminating times in modern history. There will never be filmmaking again with the revolutionary energy of what I witnessed viewing cinema between 1951 and 1970. There will never be music again cultivating the soundtrack of our lives with the same luminous decibel levels. I’ll try to not urge the point.

As far as my literary epiphany would be concerned, it had to be my 1958 encounter with Kenneth Rexroth who I immediately discovered was being referred to in Beat Generation history as the godfather of the San Francisco Renaissance: an epithet with which Kenneth himself never grew to be entirely comfortable.

It was an association I was grateful to have continued through the ’60s, the ’70s, during his tenure as a writing instructor at UCSB, and into the early ’80s, until our visit, during his last illness at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. I began my informal studies with KR backstage at a Central LA movie theatre transformed into the LA Jazz Concert Hall by a Beverly Hills booking agent, along with one of his clients—the legendary jazz altoist Benny Carter. I would witness Rexroth reading his work with a musical backdrop provided by Shorty Rogers and eight of his West Coast jazz giants: and in turn, Kenneth would later be backstage sharing with me the wealth of his knowledge. And I must remind you that it was Rexroth who introduced me to Kenneth Patchen when he arrived to fulfill yet another solo poetry and jazz concertizing at Hampton’s emporium and began mentoring me between 1959 and early 1962. Following my dismal last year of high school, it was both KR’s and KP’s suggested reading list of books which enlightened me as to what the word “education” really means.

Further explorations into that period of time for me may be unearthed in my memoir-assay: “How I was Stillborn and Consigned to a Memorial for the Birth and Euthanasia of California Language Art” plus my cultural essay titled “Kenneth Rexroth and All that Jazz.”

DG: How did cinema, poetry, and politics influence The Doors, and in what way does the general surface perception of their music today differ from how you actually saw them back then?

MCF: Being enamored with German expressionist film, Morrison, Manzarek, and myself would habitually attend the film screenings of Carl Theodore Dreyer: the dire images of Vampyr, the luminous presence of Melle Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, not to mention the mind-bending films of Fritz Lang.

Another thing in common with Morrison was when I observed that we both carried vest-pocket notepads, copying down striking images. They might have been snatches of conversation, bits of syntax from novels, lines from philosophical and psychological essays or paperback noir detective mysteries, even transitions of dialogue from scenes in all manner of movies.

With respect to the evolution of The Doors, I saw them, once at the London Fog, and twice when they went next-door to become the house band at The Whisky. A few months later, returning to Los Angeles—this time from being invited by poet friends to be an interim adjunct instructor at Weber College in Utah, and Boise State College in Idaho—I was looking up at a billboard on the Sunset Strip when I saw this in block letters: THE DOORS BREAK ON THROUGH WITH AN ELECTRIFYING ALBUM with 4 familiar faces emblazoned on the sign. And I do remember thinking, with a mote of sentimentality in my eyes: Waitaminute, I know those guys.

Also, I recall being in an Elektra recording booth with Jim, during one of the last of the Soft Parade sessions. I was eyeballing this enlarged studio space with streamlined state-of-the-art sound equipment which looked (in retrospect) like something seen on a Star Wars dashboard. Mentioning this vastly enlarged version of earlier remembered Elektra studio surroundings, Morrison responded: “Yeah, twelve acid trips built this room!” Well sure, it’s easy to imagine that LSD ingestion might have fueled his lyric writing, but it’s also very important to realize that it might have simply amp’d up a literary sensibility he’d already been courting in previous years of self-education.

Let’s be quick to point-out too the many instances of clueless rockers who dropped copious amounts of acid yet were incapable of writing anything but new age hack and contrived gibberish. To further answer your initial question: I really can’t remember any incident where Ray’s and Jim’s individualism, more aptly their unique contributions to a modern American musicology—which over time did transmogrify into a blueprint for political rebellion—ever being overshadowed by their exterior glitter of global popularity.

DG: You’ve collaborated with Robbie Krieger, John Densmore, and the late Ray Manzarek of The Doors, and these efforts resulted in an album, Look Each Other in the Ears, which was the last recording all three members did together. In the track, “Mars is America,” you say the following: “There’s treachery in every tree they climb. / It’s a question of how much hostility / I can stand in one sitting. / I lock my door from the inside / of a Galaxy 6 Motel, / then boost myself over the sill / of a chinked window.” Can you talk about the inspiration behind not only these lines, but also the piece in general, and how timely might it also be to record another, yet very similar track, “America is Mars.” In other words, to what extent, in your view, are we isolating ourselves from the world and have we crossed the point of no return?

MCF: Wow, David, the way you frame this final question nudges me into feeling you already guessed the answer. If living in any city in America is like living on Mars, there’s a chance it could be like being trapped in the living nightmare middle chapters of a Philip K. Dick novel. This might be amplified by trying to survive on dangerous perimeters of a climate where curiosity has been replaced by indifference, creative originality has been replaced by the predictable. Peace has been replaced by war because members of the executive branch who truly wanted to protect this country have been sadistically replaced by an elite cadre of alleged money-laundering, war-mongering gangsters. One’s only individualistic protection might be characterized as suspicion, caution, and a wary, weary paranoia.

DG: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MCF: To put a capper on your initial statement, David, you wrote some really flattering syntax with enormous respect for Harlan Steinberger who was engineering and executive producing that infamous recording project: Look Each Other in the Ears and reflecting on landmark marketing of it in two formats: both vinyl and compact disc.

Let me bottom line you. If nothing else, this document proves that I think of myself more of a participator than an innovator. And much obliged to you for your acknowledgements and recognitions.

MCF signing off!

Author Bio:

Michael C. Ford’s first CD entitled Fire Escapes; was a 1995 entry from New Alliance Records & Tapes. Hen House Studios has been promoting and marketing Look Each Other in the Ears (2014). That document (both vinyl and CD) features a stellar band of musicians not the least of which were surviving members of a 1960s theatre rock quartet that most of you may recall as The Doors. In 2015, a chapbook length poem The Driftwood Crucifix was published by Los Ranchos Press. In 2017 Women under the Influence was published on the Central Coast by Word Palace Press. Foothills Publishing in New York State offers a book-length collection entitled The War Chamber Ministry His debut 12-inch-vinyl recording Language Commando earned a Grammy nomination on the 1st ballot in 1986 and his book of selected work: Emergency Exits earned initial nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1998. Populated Wilderness is being published this year in chapbook format as a fundraiser for Lockwood Animal Rescue Foundation.


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