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S.A. Griffin: California Poets Part 4, Three Poems

S.A. Griffin (photo by John Tostado)

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

S.A. Griffin

Three Poems

What Does Not Kill You It’s an afraid new world in Covid Town. Sitting in the digital waiting room sipping a cup of Green Tea. Queued up for a virtual callback on Zoom. Just like the military hurry up and wait. Twenty minutes in, my screen comes alive. Casting director introduces himself, We would like for you to talk to us. Tell us something bad that happened to you. You guys want it real, right? Yes, we know it’s Monday… Just another day of the week that ends in ‘why’. Whenever you’re ready. My head spins. Out pops a short order classic from the stepfather files: The Monster Behind the Charming Mask. The abuse was never a matter of if, but when, and it was always, when. And after so many beatings, over so many years, you really don’t feel the blows or the whip just the pain inside glowing like a hot red sun. And as this story goes I was dressing down for P.E. Just me and this other guy in the locker room who stabs the stainless air with a tortured scream, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU??!! I have no idea what he’s talking about. I stand in front of the full-length mirror and turn to see a latticework of black and blue welts covering my back. In that viral moment I made a silent promise to myself that this would never happen again. It wasn’t too long after that the Monster came at me barking orders. I told him to shut up. What did you say? I told you to shut up. How he glared at me that one last time looking at the young mad dog looking back. The game is on. I’m in the zone. No spit on the ball, pitching the story right over the plate as real tears come falling. Quietly, like timid pearls from an ancient sea. I choke out a few last words… and he never touched me again. Silence. The director pops up in a corner of my computer screen. Thank you, he says, that was great. Just another tale from the dark side, I say, plenty more where that came from. You available for the shoot? Yeah, I’m here. Thanks, and goodbye. Click / leave. Over, and out. A few minutes later an unexpected trembling rolls thru me with a quickening jolt. Tears erupt. Big tears, as childhood and old age push up against one another into a range of jagged memory. What does not kill you. The red sun burns.

Sangre River for Bibiana Padilla Maltos the world is a river a dance the thin blue sky dances above the river and together the sky and the river are another dance time is the song beating in our hearts as we build bridges to the stars can we hear ourselves? can we hear one another? our body hears the wind in the trees the flight of time that speaks to us all in our bones the whiteness that inhabits progress is the madness imprisoned in our stories that destroys nature that writes and rewrites the deep river we inhabit question the narratives sickened by the virus of progress escape the affliction inside that destroys our dance our world weeps can you hear the edges of our world crying out to us? listen to the voices from the ends of our world where the common struggle can be found a never ending wound of love

They Say they say that life begins at 30 or that 50 is the new 40 or any number of confusing combinations to throw you off your mark life can't help itself it just keeps beginning even tho according to most it never began because they are so damn busy waiting for 30 or 40 or 50 for life to begin never stop beginning it ain't over 'til it's over that's what they say and they ought to know


February 5th, 2022

California Poets Interview Series:

S.A. Griffin, Poet, Actor, and Performance Artist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: The poetry you compose remains eloquent on the page, but your dynamic reading style brings an extra dimension of power to your work. How has your background in acting influenced not only what you write, but also how you present it to an audience?

S.A. Griffin: That’s very kind of you, thanks. Does my experience as an actor influence my work as a poet and performer? How could it not? One always informs the other. As to what comes first, it is the chicken or the egg. In truth, I’ve probably learned more about acting banging around in cafes, clubs, bookstores and libraries than I have in most any acting class as these forums tend to be more liberating. The poets’ voices are often unfiltered, the structure being whatever the individuals bring to it, or what the crowd allows. As a general rule, readings and performances are an arena with few, if any, rules. No one knows what to expect as they all hope for the unexpected, and often get it. Aside from the few times I actually write about acting or my experiences in the entertainment business, acting has little influence on what I write or what I do as a poet except that I have been fortunate enough as a professional actor to patronize myself.

The very first place I ever read poetry in public outside of school was at the Water Espresso Gallery’s Wednesday night open readings in Hollywood about 1981-82. The Water was part of a complex of creative spaces in a building that rested at the corner of Santa Monica and Hudson owned by artist and entrepreneur Frederick Sauls, who claimed the entire top floor as his residence. The building also housed the Figtree Theatre next door to the Water, and the Lhasa Club in back, with its entrance on Hudson. Three vital venues. During that first year, I deliberately read everything very flat so that the words had to kick on their own merit. I worked at not acting, just reading. I suppose you could call that acting. Ironically, I found out about the Water through an ad in Dramalogue, which was the periodical of note for stage actors at the time. Those open readings at the Water were small gatherings that first year, really geeky. It wouldn’t take long for it to really take off as there were scant few places to read or perform back then in the Hollywood zone. Johnny Forever, Ben Downing, Salmon Murphy, Doug Knott, Michael Lane Bruner, Mike M Mollett, Peter Coca, Johnny Cool, Rod Smear, Sally Thielen, Allen J. Freedman, Fernando Castro, Steve Clark, Mike Maggio, Bobbo Staron, Jimmy Townes, Lynn Rosen, Leah Really, Steve Wolfe, Linda Sibio, and Alan Pulner were some of regulars. Bill Murphy ran the place. After the readings were over, the fun began. Murph would lock the doors and we’d all hang with him long into the night, drinking, smoking and talking crazy creative shit. The Water became our poetic home until it closed sometime in 1985. After the Water closed, the Lhasa Club became our ground zero.

DG: You were a founding member of The Lost Tribe, and the founding member of The Carma Bums, two poetry performance groups which were remarkably active in touring the U.S. Can you talk about how it all started and some of the fondest memories you have of those years?

S.A. Griffin: The Lost Tribe sprang out of the aforementioned Wednesday night open readings at the Water Espresso Gallery in Hollywood. That is where I met Michael Lane Bruner, Doug Knott and Mike M Mollett. We all wanted to break out of the reading scene that we were experiencing and do something more with our words. Leap off of the page, make what we were doing more accessible. Transform our poetry into something like a band, making ourselves the instruments. At the time, punk was everywhere, not just in music, but in everything, everywhere. It was a deeply symbiotic time, exciting as hell to be alive—everyone skinny-dipping in an amazing, swirling, counterculture miasma. The post Vietnam energy of the time was bold, urgent and electric, pushing everyone to go beyond where they were politically and creatively. Techno, Ska, Reggae, New Wave and performance art were all raging white hot. Rap and hip hop were on the rise.

We came up with the name, the four of us squatting in the back of Mollett’s 1964 VW Dada bus (no seats in the back), one of those super rare buses with 23 windows that sported “Questions of the Month” on its side panels. Questions like, “Is there life on earth?” or “Whose karma am I hearing?” He had sold the bus to his friend Hermine, a fellow Dadaist. Hermine lived in Orange County and was kind enough to shuttle us back to L.A. after our reading that night. A truly wonderful human being. Head shaved, tattooed, scores of piercings with a heart of art, a punk soul and a beautiful mind. We cooked up the name on our way home that night in the infamous bus. A group effort all the way.

On our road trips, I was always the driver because it was always my car. It sounds a bit corny, but I also considered driving a big part of my performance. For this maiden adventure, I needed to get my ride road worthy, a 1971 Mercury Capri that had been in an accident. I’d purchased a 1972 Capri in perfect shape that needed an engine. The morning we lifted off, my neighbor and I literally pulled out the good engine, stuck it into the new body, bolted it down, loaded up the guys and all their gear and we headed off. Four adult whack jobs and all their stuff shoved into that little car, pure trust and instant insanity.

April Fool’s weekend, 1985. San Francisco, our first Lost Tribe gigs anywhere, and our first road trip beyond the gravity of Los Angeles. That weekend San Francisco was experiencing 80-degree weather and blue skies, picture perfect postcard weather, rare for San Francisco. We had three gigs booked, but only one panned out, the San Francisco Intersection of the Arts, which quite appropriately fell on April Fool’s Day. About a dozen people were at that first Intersection gig. We could not have had a more auspicious beginning. One of the venues that bailed on us had actually put a sign on their door that said, “Gone Fishing.” Don’t blame them.

DG: One of your most thought-provoking accomplishments came with The Lost Tribe, which ran for President of the United States as a collective candidate. Naturally, the prospect of winning was slim, but the campaign nevertheless helped further the cause of poetry. What are some of the things you did in this respect, and do you think we’ll ever have a poet-president?

S.A. Griffin: Jimmy Carter wrote and published poetry. Abraham Lincoln wrote poetry. Barack Obama is a published poet and a great orator who quite often uses uplifting poetic language. If our democratic experiment can survive our present turmoil and widening divisions to achieve some balance, then maybe we’ll be ready for a poet president. Czechoslovakia did it, why can’t we? Amanda Gorman has already publicly stated that she aspires to be president someday, and she seems rather unstoppable. So, maybe in the next quarter century we’ll have President Amanda Gorman. More than anything else, we need more humans in public office. We need that which can be argued drives and divines the poetic: candor. However, our culture has a bad habit of clearing the forest in order to see the truth of one tree. And what good is a tree alone?

When we collectively ran for president in The Tribe Must Be President Out of Historical Necessity at the Boyd Street Theatre directed by the late, great Scott Kelman in January 1988, I doubt we moved any needles or changed any minds with our absurd poetic slapstick, but we sure as hell had a good laugh. And judging by our audiences, so did they. If we did have any positive affect on our audiences, maybe we got a few apathetic intellectuals to get off their smart asses and vote.

I ran on the merits of my prominent proboscis suggesting that voters “pick my nose” because I obviously had a “good nose” for the office. Bruner was the good neighbor, the “human” candidate for president who wanted everyone to march to his goose-stepping rhetoric, or else! Doug was running on a love platform, because he really loved everyone, especially since he was running for president. Mollett was probably the most qualified having literally, “nothing to say.” He just stood on stage, shrugging his shoulders and looking at the audience with a dumb “Who me?” Alfred E. Newman look repeating, “I have nothing to say,” as we all began to attack one another until we were all “dead” on the floor. A fitting end as we all bid a fond farewell to the slamming punk ‘80s and the Reagan-Bush era. This would also be the end of the Lost Tribe, our last gig until being briefly resurrected for The Carma Bums 1992 Lost Tour of Words where we opened our shows as The Lost Tribe, took a break, and then returned to do another full set as The Carma Bums. The only time we toured with all six of the Bums since Mollett didn’t go on the first tour, and Bobbo Staron was only along for the ride in ’89, ’91, and ’92.

DG: To what extent was the approach and style different when comparing Lost Tribe and Carma Bums, and in which troupe did you feel your creative powers to be at their highest? S.A. Griffin: Apples and oranges, equal parts sweet and sour. By design, the Lost Tribe was a very well-rehearsed, choreographed poetry-performance ensemble with costumes, props, wigs, fake beards and occasional asides. The one unnegotiable rule for the Tribe was that we never wrote anything for performance. Never. We only used material deliberately written as poetry for the page, then we’d tear it apart as a group and reassemble it. Each poem became a separate little play, or song. Our goal was to take something that was meant to be read and make it readable as performance. There was always someone on lead, the person who wrote the poem, with the other guys generally functioning as chorus. Not too far removed from what the Greeks were doing centuries ago. The Lost Tribe memorized everything, all very well-rehearsed and polished. The only things that the Bums had in common with the Tribe were a few memorized poems and common members. As The Lost Tribe we had a blast performing, but working together could be hell. People who sat in on our rehearsals would often comment that we were just like a band, always arguing. We were, and are, bad brothers to the bone. We were gigging all over the southland, and people we digging what we were doing. At one point we were scouted by the Tonight Show, but didn’t get the booking. However, we did book The Gong Show as “Slobs in Suits” and won with the lowest score ever recorded: 8. I think that we are all rather proud of that stat, I know I am. It was our experience at the time that nobody else was doing anything like what it was we were doing as a group. Remember, this was before performance poetry really took off. Before slams came roaring in and took over the top of the pops as Spoken Word. Also, before the internet, so whatever was happening on one end of the country, or even in another part of the state or county, wasn’t necessarily being heard beyond regional borders. Punk and performance art was happening everywhere with separate, unique scenes in Hollywood, downtown, south bay, Orange County, etc. We were working our butts off playing everywhere we could. The other thing that the Tribe and Bums have in common, is that it was always the very highest of highs, and lowest of lows. But man, when it clicked, it was free as a bird. A thing of pure joy and beauty.

By 1988, I was well into my second marriage, my son had arrived and the acting was really taking off. The biggest problem at the time with the Lost Tribe was the endless arguing, which had become toxic. We were also starting to come apart because as we got more popular, the devil started showing up in the fine print as ambitious goals and ideas began to invade. This wasn’t good. The other rule the Tribe had was that if one guy dropped out, the game was over. Nobody could be replaced. I dropped out and hit the top of everybody’s shit list as poetry public enemy number one. The Lost Tribe raged from April 1985—January 1988, and for the one brief Lost Tribe—Carma Bum tour, The Carma Bums 1992 Lost Tour of Words.

The Carma Bums began in a much different way, as the antithesis of the Tribe.

Whenever I go on location, I always seek out local poets and poetry readings to fill my down time. In April 1989 I was working on a Perry Mason movie of the week in mile high Denver as the guest star bad guy. It was a four-week gig, so I had plenty of down time. I hit all the opens I could, one night ending up at Muddy’s Café, a Denver club that closed in 1997. This open reading was a game changer in every way. I signed up and read, heckled when I hit the stage for being from Los Angeles, a predictable cliché. After the reading one of the poets introduced himself to me, Ed Ward. Ed was, and still is, one of the prime movers and shakers on the Denver scene. Through my association with Ed, I would learn how Denver and Venice West were directly connected, remaining so to this day. Ed and I hit it off and began spending a lot of time together, my new Beat buddy hipping me to the regional history and local legends, going out of his way to introduce me to the local poets, including Larry Lake (Bowery Press) who at one time, was an active member of the Venice West community before moving back to Denver. At the time, I was deeply vested in Beat lit and poetry, and although I knew of Neal Cassady and Larimer Street, I knew nothing of the Holy Barbarians of Venice West who had fled L.A. to reestablish themselves in Denver, where they blossomed and thrived.

Ed was going to a book fair at a junior college in Denver, inviting me to tag along, meet some of his pals. Leaving the parking lot, we made our way down a tight, winding path that felt like dropping down the rabbit hole in Wonderland, the path finally opening up to reveal a small grassy knoll in the center of a complex of buildings where this poetry reading was happening. I was immediately taken by what I saw. Everyone was actually listening to whoever was reading as if what was being said was actually being heard, or important. I was blown away. It felt like magic, like the kind of thing I had been looking for in Los Angeles. Lots of great readings in L.A., no doubt, but this one that we had stumbled upon this day seemed to possess an extra edge of something indefinable. I spied to see if there was a sign up, or who might be in charge. I quietly crawled over to the person who seemed to be the keeper of the names and whispered, “Where do I sign up?” Art Goodtimes whispered back with a broad Cheshire grin, “You already have!” That moment, this epiphany, was the true genesis of what would become The Carma Bums.

When I returned to L.A., I began making phone calls. The first poet I called was Scott Wannberg. I had been aware of Scott and his poetry while working as part of the editorial staff for Jim and April Burns’ poetry ‘zine Shattersheet. The ‘zine published a lot of great poetry, but more importantly it was the only poetry periodical in Southern California from that period that was publishing extensive lists of venues and readings. Michael Bruner and I had experienced Scott doing The Ed Meese Blues at the Anti-Club with Kevin Jacobs on guitar. It was completely improvised. As Scott was blowing language like a mad volcano, I turned to Bruner and said, “We have found the source of the river.” Scott remembers this as before we’d met, but I remember it as after. However things did or did not happen, I really connected with Scott at a backyard poetry shindig somewhere in the Valley produced by Vol. No. Magazine (Volume Number Magazine, 1983-2000 published by Richard J. Weekley). That day Scott and I became instant, inseparable friends. I then called Michael Lane Bruner and Doug Knott. We were also hanging out a lot with singer-songwriter Bobbo Staron, another person we’d met at the Water Espresso Gallery. Bobbo was not only a gifted singer-songwriter, but was a natural master of deliberation. We had met Giggling Goddess of Word Ellyn Maybe at a Midnight Special Bookstore open at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, that evening being her first-time reading poetry in Los Angeles. When Bruner and I went to sign up, Ellyn had just put her name down on the yellow legal pad as “Ellyn (maybe).” As she stood in front of us shuffling her feet and nervously twisting her hands we asked her, “Why ‘maybe’?” After an extended bout of nervous giggling, she finally said that it was because she was too shy and didn’t know if she’d be able to read in front of an audience. I looked at her and said, “You are Ellyn Maybe.” The last person I called was Laurel Ann Bogen, but she begged off saying that she had slept on enough floors in her time. Wise move, as the Bums slept on many a floor during our twenty years on-and-off the road together. Once I had the poets set, the real detective work of booking the shows began. Destination Denver was a given, we would perform at Ed and Marcia Ward’s Passion Place. I spent weeks on the phone scouting leads, cold calling venues, explaining who we were and what we were doing. If they didn’t bite, I’d ask if they knew of anyone who would be interested. And so it went, the first year’s crew being me, Bobbo, Bruner, Knott and Wannberg, with Ellyn Maybe as our opener.

All of us that were members of the Lost Tribe had been studying performance with Scott Kelman in downtown Los Angeles. Deliberation and empathy. Where the creative nervous system was always, and is only, process. I knew that the guys really wanted to do something, so did I. The itch to perform our poetry as a group was still there, but I really didn’t want to argue anymore. Not fun. In order to avoid any arguments, I told everyone that it was my car, my money, and my idea, all they had to do was say yes and come along for the ride. I would pay for all the gas and hotels; they were responsible for feeding themselves. I also told them that we were going to be called The Carma Bums, the name coming from three sources: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, karma, and Cadillac, King of Cars: The Carma Bums. I figured that funding all the fun might preclude most all of the struggle and pain, and for those first years, it worked. I had recently bought a somewhat broke-down 1959 Cadillac Sedan De Ville for $2,500 and dropped a few grand into it, making sure it would be road worthy.

The first trip was August of 1989, to Denver and back, the scene of the poetic crime: The Carma Bums 1989 No Seat Belts Tour of Words. Our first show was at BeBop Records and Fine Arts in Reseda (1982-1990), owned and operated by Richard Bruland and Rene Engel. Across the street from the world-famous Country Club, BeBop was the place to read or perform in the Valley and regularly held one of the best opens anywhere. Los Lobos, Henry Rollins, Victor Banana, Holy Sisters of the Gaga Dada, Beatle John the King of Reseda, Linda Albertano, Jane’s Addiction, Michael C Ford, The Minutemen, Dave Alvin and Jack Brewer are just a few of the incredible acts that came through there. The night of our first show was packed. Our opener, Ellyn Maybe, killed. It was a great gig. After the show, Mollett spray painted red polka dots on the front hood of the Caddy and the word “FARTHER” on the trunk, and with that the Carmamobile was born. Having been built years before Ralph Nader blew the lid off the auto industry with Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, the 1959 Caddy didn’t have any seat belts. This feature also figured into the Bums’ open structure and our tour name, No Seat Belts, indicating that anything goes. In theory, the new rule was, no rules. In practice and performance there was no rehearsal, no choreography, no costumes or props, no predetermined ideas, no plan; all poetic improv and process. Any poems were to be seamlessly included as they spontaneously flowed out of the improvs. Free and easy, including reading off the page if one so desired. Tear down those walls! Everything that happened from the moment we were together on our two-week tour of words until the moment we returned to our homes was the rehearsal and the performance, which was always on, and literally, on the road. No holds barred; everything was up for grabs and gabs. The second year Mollett would join the group and Bobbo would drop out for The Carma Bums 1990 No Seat Belts Tour of Words. The brilliant and beautiful Ellyn continued to open for us off and on into the mid 1990s.

The Tribe was all practiced moves and memory, the Bums all group grope, or as Doug Knott would later describe us, “mortification theory in practice.”

Aside from the bookings themselves, not much else was thought out or planned. Once on the road, all direction was by sense, or if necessary, folding map. As a result, we ended up in some pretty strange and fascinating places, like the edge of a high cliff at the end of a silent meadow thousands of feet in the air somewhere in New Mexico, or the entire group crashing in a single room at some whorehouse motel next door to a carwash in Seattle on our 1990 tour. That first trip in ‘89, the alternator went out along the Continental Divide in Frisco, just beyond the Eisenhower Tunnel. Trying to find an alternator for a ’59 Cadillac in a small town of about 1,600 at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon was pretty exciting, but I managed to find one and got us back on the road. Somehow luck was always with us, making it to each gig with enough time to check out where we were, get something to eat and perform. Sometimes we’d leave for the next destination right after performing, but usually we’d leave the next day, giving us time to hang out with whoever was hosting us.

In concept, The Carma Bums were meant to only exist on the road. I deliberately never fixed the Caddy’s speedometer so that we never knew how fast we were going, which never stopped one of the guys bitching at me for putting the metal to pedal, but I sure as hell got us to where we were going on time. I also never fixed or replaced the broken radio, so that we were forced to interact with one another. Nobody could really focus on speed or distance, or be distracted by canned or digital music coming out of the dashboard, just one another and whatever was going on in that great big beautiful car floating effortlessly on its way, suspended in time rolling across empty stretches of lost two-lane highways and byways disappearing into the horizon. As suggested previously, everything that happened the entire time we were together was part of one single ongoing performance, process. On that first road trip in Taos, New Mexico, without knowing what the others were thinking or doing, we all simultaneously reached up and unscrewed the light bulbs hanging overhead at the exact same moment to indicate that the show was over. Doesn’t sound like much when you read it, but it was quite surreal in action. Later, we would all wander into the dark New Mexico night led by our host Peter Rabbit, who took us down the Penitente trail, where we all took turns hugging the old rugged cross at the trail’s end, swaying back and forth under the weight of it as we spontaneously offered poetry to the milky stars. In Boulder, Colorado, we parked outside the big glass façade to Penny Lane so that everyone could see us partying and ranting inside the car, wondering what the hell we were doing, and when were these freaks coming in? But they had no idea that the show was already on, that we had deliberately seized their undivided attention. As we exited the car and entered, we carried whatever conversation we were having with us into the venue as the show flowed interior.

Many who saw our shows over the years said that the Carma Bums was more of a happening than anything else. From the beginning, we had people following us from gig to gig: the First Amendment Hallelujah Chorus. In 1989 it was actor Eb Lottimer in his big red 1975 Cadillac convertible, and poet Uncle Don Fanning in his Toyota pickup. At our peak on the Carma Bums 1991 Start from Zero Secret Tour of Words we had about thirty or so friends and poets on the road with us. It was pretty amazing. During that weekend in Ocean Beach and San Diego, we ate carpet, walked on our knees on the Ocean Beach Pier, and created the Vortex within which Bobbo performed a spontaneous wedding for Michael Perrick and his girlfriend Rachel. The weekend culminating with a spontaneous “secret tour,” our cars slowly parading through Ocean Beach, all of us waving at people waving back wondering who in the hell we were. On this secret tour we met a homeless man at a Burger King who interacted with us that we decided to call “Dave.” Whatever he said, we responded with “Dave.” After a few minutes of this, he kept anxiously repeating, “My name’s not Dave!!” And we’d say, “Of course not, Dave, we know that!”

DG: Antics and improvisation featured heavily in your shows—there are two in particular worth mentioning: With the Lost Tribe you once stormed Gorky’s, a downtown restaurant in LA, and in a Vancouver Carma Bums performance you were bitten so badly in the chest by a drunk girl that you began bleeding; with regard to the former, although such “takeover” shows were unpredictable, presenting potential liabilities, they were nevertheless precisely coordinated, while something like the latter incident is unforeseeable in the best circumstances and infectious in the worst. Can you talk about how these “takeover” shows were planned, and if stuff, in most cases, actually went according to plan, and what about that incident in Vancouver—did you feel things were getting out of hand at that point, even by Carma Bums standards?

S.A. Griffin: The Gorky’s show is one of my all-time favorite performances by either group, something we couldn’t possibly get away with today, we’d be shot. We never planned any of this stuff, it all came out of each unique environment. Usually, the Tribe would be booked at places with stages, or in small galleries. However, Gorky’s was a restaurant right off 9th and San Julian in downtown, and always playing the cosmic ball where it lies, this was our stage, our moment. As the Tribe, even though we were well rehearsed, asides and improv were still always part of the equation. Easy to surmise that the Gorky’s audience really knew nothing of who we were or what we were doing, just that there were was going to be a poetry reading. I don’t recall how we acquired them on the spot, but we all decided to wear pantyhose over our heads and bust through the door as if it were a robbery. As we flung open the doors and rushed into the place, I had my arm around Mike Bruner’s neck as if he was my hostage. With my free hand, I picked up a fork and stabbed a baked potato (stealing it from some innocent patron’s plate), as I held the stuffed spud to Bruner’s neck I shouted out to the patrons, “Nobody move, or the potato gets it!! Everyone just relax and behave as if you are all at a poetry reading and no one will get hurt!!” Bruner was great as the hostage cowering before the threat of the baked potato begging, “Save me!” At the same time that I was barking orders and Bruner was begging, Doug Knott and Mike Mollett were calmly, but urgently telling everyone to, “Just relax, pretend like it’s a poetry reading.” The potato lived. We had a blast. Like I said, if it were today, somebody would have probably shot one or all of us, including the innocent baked potato, and we would’ve made the nightly news for all the wrong reasons.

For the Carma Bums, as primarily an improvisational troupe, this was always our prime goal, inhabit the space, find it. At our gig at the Black Bart Playhouse in Murphys, CA (an old gold mining town about 27 miles from Sonora) we stood outside arguing over whether or not we could use four letter words for almost an hour. The audience was primarily older people, and there was fear within our ranks that we’d offend them. In time, free speech won, as once again the poem ruled the day. The Black Bart was an old theatre with a proscenium arch and elevated stage for an orchestra pit which rose about five feet high. The place had a house that would hold about 3-400. Our audience of 30-50 were scattered throughout the middle seats. Our mission as a group (besides having a good time) was to break through any preconceived notions or ideas. So, we decided that the five of us would start at the back of the house (where we could not be seen) and as we entered, introduce ourselves to every single member of the audience as we worked our way up to the front of the stage. It was quite a wonderful thing to see all their faces light up as we took our time to introduce ourselves to every one of them, working our way to the front, where we never stepped foot on the stage, doing our entire show from the floor in front of it. Everyone had a good time, and nobody said one word about any words, dirty, or otherwise.

Another truly memorable Carma Bum show was in Big Sur at the Henry Miller Library where we led everyone into a redwood forest after they thought the show was over. We had scouted the location, as we always do, first thing. We discovered that about 50 feet or so from the appointed performance location, there was a beautiful redwood forest just out of sight. This too we argued over, for about half an hour, some of the guys worried that nobody would follow us down. But in time, process and creative fun won. We did our regular set up top as expected, then slowly, as a group, when everyone thought the show was over, we began to move toward the path that led down into the redwoods as we continued performing. As we wandered into the giant trees, the show had only just begun. Only one person didn’t follow us down. I cannot tell you how truly magical it was to be shouting poetry and song into the branches of those sacred ancient redwoods as the audience followed along. There many are other examples too, again, each show unique.

As the Carma Bums, nothing was ever rehearsed or planned. What happened at the Smash Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. as part of our 1990 No Seat Belts Tour of Words was a wild and crazy spectacle that nobody could have seen.

There was a beer hall next door to the Smash Gallery. About four or five young punkers, 86’d from the place, had discovered the gallery and were swilling down all the free beer. As we attempted to launch into our set, the small gang of young punkers were now an obnoxious gang of very drunk young punkers with no beer who decided that they weren’t going to allow us to do our show. But as we used to say in the Lost Tribe, “Fakers who fake fine art have met their match.” Long story short, we struggled through, with the drunk punks inserting themselves into our show as part of an out-of-control improvisation that we were attempting to ride like rodeo cowboys on a wild bronc. Their attempts at improv weren’t wearing well as the battle for the Smash Gallery stumbled along, the sloshed invaders upstaging the hell out of us, a gig that we had travelled all the way from Los Angeles for. The only woman in their ranks, completely blotto, kept following me wherever I went, shoving her Doc Martens directly up my ass. Her boyfriend, who was about my size and many years younger, as part of his unwelcome performance had been repeatedly calling her “Death.” Finally, she had kicked me in the ass one too many times, so I turned around, took her by her shoulders and shouted, “I am tired of death in my life, I want love!” and wrapped my arms around her in a sincere effort to stop her from putting her boot up my aching butt, and to offer what I thought would be a loving embrace of peace. That, as they say, was my first mistake. She wrapped her arms around me, buried her face into my chest and dug her teeth into me. She went primordial, clamping down on my chest like a starving animal. I immediately tried to pull her off, but the more I pushed and pulled, the tighter and tighter she clenched. I pulled at her hair, she bit harder! I pulled again, she clamped down even harder!! As the intense pain increased exponentially, I was becoming more than a little concerned about what was going to be left of my chest. So, after multiple failed attempts to disengage, I did the only thing that I could do before this rabid weasel actually ripped my flesh and slapped her once hard enough that she finally let go. She was stunned, so was the dumbstruck boyfriend who thought he was too cool for school. Improv, over. The gallery went silent waiting for someone to make a move as the boyfriend and his entourage stood there in complete disbelief. “You’d better get out of here before somebody gets hurt,” I said. And with that they turned and disappeared into the night. We went on a bit longer with some more improv and poetry, which was all kind of anti-climactic. Some incredibly excited guy that ran a local club came up to us after the show and started offering us drugs, money and even women if we could do it all over again at his place. We kept telling him that we were lovers, not fighters, that this was all unplanned, trying to convince him that violence wasn’t our thing. That our gig was to go with whatever was happening, and at that place and time, that was what happened. The next morning, the entire left side of my chest was swollen and completely black. If I hadn’t been wearing two layers of clothes that night, it might’ve been the emergency room, rabies shots and the jaws of life to get her unclenched. This poetry stuff is sometimes a dangerous business.

DG: At that time, did you ever feel there was a disconnect with the so-called “high art” you were doing as a published poet/Hollywood actor and your work on the road, and how has your view changed, if at all, with regard to your live performance years?

S.A. Griffin: I don’t know if I’d call anything that I was ever doing, or that we were doing, then or now, high art, except maybe we were stoned at times. I don’t really think of things as being high or low, only creative. When it works, it’s high, when it doesn’t, it’s low. Regardless of form or forum, the goal is the same: get there. It is all, process.

During my Poetry Bomb tour at Progress Coffee in Austin, Texas, I had an audience of five people. That included my brother Charles, two friends that drove up from Corpus Christi and the barista, who was very nice to us. So, the one person that was there for free, worried I wasn’t going to deliver the goods because the small audience blurted out, “Hey, are you going to give us the same show you give everybody else?!” Shooting from the hip I fired back, “Whether it’s five people or five thousand, everyone gets the same five dollar show for free.”

In general, you can suggest that as poets, we have been, and are, outsiders. Not a bad place to be, you can be high and low at the same time. I’ve been called a rock poet, punk poet, street poet, performance poet, page poet, outlaw poet, Meat poet and Beat poet. I would suggest that I am somewhere in the middle of all of these things. I’m just lucky and grateful to be recognized by anyone as “poet.” And even luckier to have made my living as a professional actor since landing here in 1978.

Michael Lane Bruner (now a professor of persuasion and politics at UNLV) and I talk all the time about how we can bring the all these worlds together, but it remains rather impossible since the demands of the academy are so rigid. One could argue the same about the alternative, or underground scene as well, that they too can be just as rigid in their assumptions. The prejudices and jealousies often go both directions at once, with guilty parties on all sides. I just published a third book with Bruner, a collaboration between Bruner and Mollett on my Rose of Sharon imprint, Hard to Say in a Way that Might Be Heard. In this book especially, poetic language is really being tested, or “unreadable” in some circles. It’s a beautiful thing. Presently working on another book with the two Mikes, Windows to Talk Through, for which I’ll be on board as a writer as well. Ironically these books that my friends and I are writing, that I am sometimes publishing, that nobody really reads, and the true majority of what most all of us in the small press world create, are more than likely what academics may be studying in the future.

DG: Lost Tribe and Carma Bums proved that poetry can be appealing to people who aren’t academics—it can be fun, entertaining, and may I dare say also relevant. In many ways, your work as a performance poet came at the expense of being shunned by academia and the mainstream literary industrial complex, but that’s a small price to pay. Many have gone even further to say that the study of creative writing should be discontinued altogether and that writers should really live like writers, instead of merely “learning” how to live like one. What’s your take on these matters and why is there such a disconnect between writing that’s taught and writing that’s lived?

S.A. Griffin: I have heard that some schools aren’t even teaching English anymore, much less creative writing. Cursive is out, civics too. From what I understand about this rumor regarding English, seems that the assumption is that computers will teach children how to read and write. Critical thinking for dummies. I hope that this isn’t true, but I fear that there may be some truth in it. We just keep dividing and separating, dumbing ourselves down to the point of neo-feudalism. It seems to me that this is all a part of an orchestrated apathy. A political and cultural cancer that rots from the head.

Who knows how a writer lives? Writers survive. You live, you have a life. You read. You listen, with your ears, your heart. You learn, keep learning. You remember, you forget. You let it all go and it all comes back to you on the page, or in performance. As Jack Micheline said, “This cat eats everything.” I find that I am most comfortable among creative people, especially poets, because they live openly, some by choice, but most as a matter of emotional and creative survival. Poets don’t hide well; they don’t know how.

I don’t really think that what we did really reached enough people to say that it was much of a success in any way that would actually effect much change. Individuals, yes. Based on response and immediate feedback from many of our audiences over the past forty years, we certainly succeeded with many of them. It is unfair to suggest that academics are really against us, or can’t be reached, although it can be quite a high and rather impenetrable tower. There is also some truth that the small press doesn’t register with the star fucking machinery of New York and beyond, no money in it. But honestly, so what? We do what we do and will continue to do, regardless; whether it is academic, coming from a big publishing house or in some small café. Over the years, that was always our goal, my goal, Michael Bruner’s goal as both an academic and a small press operator, to break down these barriers and talk to one another. The theme that has been running through most all of this interview. A theme that is found in most everything we do—break down the walls, scale the walls, splash paint the walls, graffiti the walls or simply ignore the walls and wander freely beyond, singing to the empty mirrors that will inhabit you. It really is hard to say in a way that might be heard when you are stepping out of familiar bounds. Fear is the ghost in most every machine. The fear of not being accepted, of not being good enough, smart enough, talented enough, of being found out as a fraud. Granted, some are simply lost in their own wonderland of wonderful, never to be found. More power to them. I try to sidestep those trains as they come charging down the tracks. There are many fine examples of academics with the common touch, some sadly no longer with us. I know of quite a few amazing poets teaching in colleges and universities.

DG: Who are some of the poets writing today that you particularly admire in terms of their fearless and commitment to the craft?

S.A. Griffin: I am very fortunate that many of those that influence me the most profoundly are those closest to me, my friends and colleagues. And they are all, deeply committed to their craft. Venice West poet Tony Scibella died with his boots on, so did Scott Wannberg. They were both creating until the very last. One of Scott’s best poems, his last, The Cleaning Women Will Tell You What You Need to Know to Get By, was penned within a few hours of his passing.

DG: We have to talk about The Poetry Bomb, one of the most fascinating, original poetry projects. Can you talk about how you first got the idea for the project and how you managed to get a bomb in the first place?

S.A. Griffin: I still don’t have any idea where the idea came from. It was like a field of dreams sort of thing; I just had to find an old bomb and fill it with poetry. Everything reveals itself in the process. I had been looking for some years before I actually found an inert bomb. They just don’t exist anymore. The hippies smoked them all in an effort to end the Vietnam War, or they were turned into coffee tables. Who knows? I was looking everywhere, eBay, Craigslist, called old junkyards, went looking on military sites, nothing. I had kind of given up. Then late one night, it just hit me to do a search on Craigslist and there it was, a bomb, for $100!! I immediately hit the link and got it. The guy that I bought it from said that he had just posted it at midnight, and seconds later, I was the first hit. He even delivered it to me. Serendipity. Meant to be.

DG: In a 2013 KCET article written by Mike Sonksen, you state the following: “War, the art, artifact and artifice of war were created to invent and enforce agreements. Hopefully by transforming this piece I have created something that will inspire disagreements. The democratic process depends upon disagreement in order to function. By definition all agreement can only happen as a result of disagreement. As a nation, as a people and as a government, if we do not learn to disagree immediately, we are lost.” Given how the tendency to disagree with anything mainstream these days is a recipe for being cancelled, have you felt the urge to revive this project you’ve called a “weapon of mass discussion?”

S.A. Griffin: It saddens me to say that the project is much more relevant today than it was when I went on the road with it in 2010. Seriously, who woulda thunk? I would love to go on the road with it again, but that takes money, which I don’t really have right now, and I honestly don’t much like asking anyone for money. It is something I really don’t do very well at all. The van that I had bought just for the bomb, a 1995 Ford Econoline van conversion, I sold to a friend who needed it to live in years ago. One of the best vehicles I have ever owned, a real workhorse of a vehicle. The bomb fit perfectly resting on the hideaway bed, strapped down tight with her nose snug between the back seats. And gas today is extraordinarily expensive. Trust me, I was taking a big chance rolling around the country with a bomb in a van then, and it would be an even bigger risk today. The night before I pulled out of town in 2010, there was an event with a bomb in New York City. All somebody would have to do is pick up a phone and say, “Hey, there’s a crazy old bald guy in a van, and he’s got a bomb in the back of it!” And that, my friend, would be all she wrote. But if I could get the dough together and book a decent tour, I think that the time is more than ripe to shake a few apples from that tree.

The Poetry Bomb 2010 Couch Surfing Across America Tour of Words was a five-week, 11,000 mile journey around the continental United States. The bomb’s name is Elsie, after my paternal grandmother. I grew up with world class dysfunction and abuse, my grandmother really kind of loved me into being. Elsie is just over seven feet tall. A one-hundred-pound MK 240, Vietnam era 1970 U.S. Navy practice bomb that shows the scars of use. It took the effort and input of about half a dozen friends, fabricators and artists and six months to create her. I had my hands in it every step of the way. She has about 1,000 poems and art from all walks of life and from all four corners of the globe stashed safely inside of her. There are also the ashes of beloved pets, family and friends inside. Elsie has a Mobius hatch and was painted a beautiful blue by One Day Auto Body. The exquisite pinstriping is by Skratch, a gifted pinstripe artist and metal fabricator best known for his work on TV’s Overhaulin’. Skratch freehanded the entire piece in one day as we sat and rapped while jazz played in the background. Incredible!

At every venue I would reach inside Elsie and pull-out poems to read aloud. Then at some point, I would point to the bomb and say that all of these poets collected inside of her have tacitly agreed to be in there together. That war, the art, artifact and artifice of war were created to invent and enforce, agreements. That hopefully, I have invented something that will inspire disagreements. That all civil discourse, all democratic process depends upon disagreements, and if we don’t find a way to disagree, right now, we’re fucked. And that, was the sole reason for creating Elsie and touring the country with her, to tell everyone that would listen, we must learn to disagree, to agree to disagree, before it is too late. What is happening is more than just cancel culture, it is the end of civility and quite possibly the end of our republic if we don’t get our heads out. It’s a toxic pushmepullyou, and nobody wins. We have devolved into a world into a world of willful ignorance where science and reason are no longer relevant. Algorithms ‘R Us in this, the United States of Reality Show. When I was a kid, the future was supposed to be flying cars, not flying monkeys. To quote the incredibly amazing future President of the World Greta Thunberg, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah ….”

End of story, lights out. Humans: Zero.

DG: Let’s talk about Scott Wannberg, your close friend with whom you had the great fortune of collaborating on many endeavors, including Carma Bums, and your short film, Tumbleweed in a Box. Along with a discussion of the movie, can you talk about the influence Scott Wannberg had on your work, your fondest memories of him, and what it meant to have that rare friend who never drove but “always rode shotgun… spiritually and physically,” as you said?

S.A. Griffin: Scott was my best pal, a human’s human and poet’s poet. A big man with beautiful mind and a beautiful heart. As I said before, he was the source of the river, the radio. We had a deeply symbiotic relationship and would spend hours in free association, riffing nonsense, rapping, talking endlessly about film, or rattling off political satire with wild names for all involved. We would come up with some nutty scenario, plot it out and then sure hell, Scott would write it. We performed a few of them at readings, and on radio shows. The first one we freaked into being was Max Roach and the Case of the Missing Dead Nude Models. I was always intrigued by the signage on that giant strip club just outside of LAX that reads, “LIVE NUDE MODELS.” Why would anyone want to see a dead model? Our hero detective was Max Roach. At the time, we weren’t hip to the famous jazz drummer Max Roach, we were just going for what we thought was the obvious stoner reference. Max was out to solve the mystery of the dead nude models that kept popping up all over the city. In the end, it was the evil Ed Meese, the Reagan era U.S. Attorney General, Mr. Meese Report, that was the bad guy. Most of the plays Scott wrote were hilarious satirical things that included everyone around him, things that he created on his own although sometimes I’d generate a wacky name or two that would show up like Kinda Sleazy Nice, or Dick Chainlink. Scott loved the absurd, he had an incredibly inventive mind and super smart sense of humor, which was always evident in his work. He almost always worked stream of consciousness while listening to music: roots, blues or some fine bluegrass like Hazel Dickens, Norman and Nancy Blake, a movie soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith or his uncle Ken Wannberg, the Grateful Dead, John Prine, Lucinda Williams or Dave Alvin. He rarely edited any of his work as his hands flowed virtuoso across the qwerty keyboard with a blurring speed and grace. Music was incredibly important to Scott and his process. Scott was a true Dead Head, he and I attending many of their concerts together. Scott would spend the entire time dancing full tilt boogie hands dancing and feet shuffling like they were on fire. Hand dancing was something we did a lot together. We would extend our arms toward one another and just let the electricity express itself through our frantic hand and arm movements. Lots of fun, you should give it a shot. Scott was also a huge fan and good friend of Dave Alvin, and according to Dave, whenever he had a gig in town, Scott always had a fresh poem waiting for him in his dressing room or stuck inside his guitar case, whether Scott was able to make Dave’s show or not. One of the most unique things about Scott was that he often wrote spontaneous poems for anyone he had just met, writing them on napkins, paper plates, pieces of cardboard or whatever was available to him that he could write on. I must’ve seen him pen hundreds of such poems. He would jot them down at warp speed and then hand them to the stunned person lucky enough to be in his sites. I would love to find and collect enough of them for a book, scanned images on one side, deciphered poetry on the facing page.

Scott was a voracious reader, an avid student of American history and a political junkie. Much like Jack Kerouac, Scott had a driver’s license but never owned or drove a car. He was dog’s best friend, cats too. Born in Santa Monica, he spent the majority of his young life in the San Fernando Valley but did attend and graduate from Venice High School. Scott received his Masters in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University where he studied with Stan Rice and was mentored by Daniel Langton with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence. A book of poetry, Salesmen of Mourning (1977), was his thesis. His oral exam was on Walt Whitman. Another poet who really turned his head was Charles Bukowski. As Scott wrote in his poem People Just Aren’t—

Bukowski taught me a very important thing when I was beginning You can write what you see and you can see what you write and you can write anything There is no taboo subject matter

However, his most profound influence was William Carlos Williams and his search for the American idiom in writing. Scott spent much of his creative and intellectual energy in search of the same as evidenced in his poem The Dancer Steps Forward.

Scott was a world class cinephile. Before there was IMDB or the internet, there was Scott Wannberg, typing up endless reams of lists—film and television shows with entire casts. His favorite film was The Wild Bunch, his favorite actor, Strother Martin. Other favorite actors were Frank Faylen and Whit Bissell. His favorite directors included Sam Peckinpah, Sam Fuller and Budd Boetticher.

When he was in high school, Scott and a few friends found out where Strother lived and decided to pay him a visit, crawling over the fence into Strother’s backyard where he was relaxing poolside. Strother asked Scott who he was and what he was doing there, “I am the president of the Strother Martin fan club,” Scott happily replied. Completely taken by Scott’s contagious enthusiasm and genial charm, Strother invited them in. Scott was in heaven as Strother and his wife spent the afternoon entertaining the “Strother Martin Fan Club” poolside, Strother regaling them with stories of his life as an actor and champion swimmer.

I very happily carry on for Scott as his estate, keeping his work in print. Scott was the true genius of our crowd, we shall never encounter his like again in this dream of life. I miss my pal every day.

DG: Although you’ve traveled extensively over the years, LA is the place you’ve lived for the past forty-four years. What makes this city unique and what are some poems written about it that you particularly enjoy?

S.A. Griffin: Los Angeles is the mother of reinvention.

Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, Harry Northup and Iris Berry have all written some great poems about L.A. Doug Knott’s Sunset Strip Self Improvement Affirmations is one of the best poems about L.A. I’ve ever experienced.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

S.A. Griffin: How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter.

Author Bio:

S.A. Griffin lives, loves and works in Los Angeles.


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