Interview with David Meltzer

March 2010

Conducted by David Hadbawnik

DH—How did you first meet diane?

DM—I think the first time she came to San Francisco, and she was staying with the McClures. I met her through them. And then, we’d been in touch for many years, through the magazine Floating Bear, and mutual friends and so on. But the first time I met her in the flesh, so to speak, was the first time she came to San Francisco, testing the waters. So I don’t know what year that was….

DH—I’m guessing early 60s?

DM—Yeah… And then when she came back, that’s when she really became very significant in a lot of the political activities, especially around the Diggers, and so forth. A lot of that material is going be in her next book, the next autobiography. The late 60s…. the idea of revolution and total transformation of a moribund society. It didn’t happen. It sounded great, but it didn’t happen. And in fact the past 40 years or so has been payback time for all the people who were so threatened by this movement. I think a lot of it was the result of the 60s, that possibility, that there was another force in the states, in the world actually.

DH—What about as a poet, your relationship with Diane?

DM—I’ve always admired her work, from the outset, from the first book, This kind of bird flies backwards. I remember getting a copy of that from City Lights, back in the basement, where they had their poetry books. I’d heard of the name, and one time, I almost was going go to work for the Olympia Press … as was Diane, those famous Memoirs of a Beatnik, but I was writing agit-smut for an L.A.-based company run by Jewish gangsters, and they gave me complete freedom, they didn’t care, the editor would just take the words and publish them. But I remember [Olympia publisher Maurice] Girodias coming over to our apartment in North Beach, he had too many restrictions, a specific formula he wanted his writers to adhere to. It paid more, but I didn’t want to be told what to write. But anyway, from the beginning, and over the years, in fact just recently, Tisa Walden and I were editing an issue of Beatitude. And Diane, I asked her to send me a poem, and it surprised her, and she sent this work from the early 90s called “Tryst,” and she wanted criticism, she wanted to know if it was OK, and I found that, “Geez, here’s someone at it for so long, and still unsure…” She was unsure because this was something she wasn’t expecting, it just came through, and it’s written in a kind of diction that’s very unlike her work, and so it was a kind of surprise to her. Anyway, it’s been decades. I was there for her inauguration as poet laureate and she delivered a very moving elegy for the absences and the revolution that didn’t happen, looking around at so many of these old geezers, these survivors, people on walkers and oxygen tanks and all that; very interesting. Her  Loba is her masterpiece, and it is so much different than her other masterpiece, which is her Revolutionary Letters. But they’re both of a whole.

DH—It’s interesting that you’ve brought up Memoirs, because I feel that that’s the book she’s known for, and it’s a very interesting book, but I think it’s done as much to box her in in people’s minds as a Beat, whereas I feel like Loba, the Revolutionary Letters, I could even mention some other work she’s done that’s also really different. So, I’m interested in how the Beats get frozen in time, and Diane has done such different work than that.

DM—Absolutely. It’s this tendency to one-dimensionalize anything that might seem problematic. I’ve always considered the Beat Generation as a dissident movement, a kind of resistance movement, anti-materialist, pro-civil rights, early poetic ecology, a whole bunch of things, and that it came out of a very complex postwar American culture … I mean, I just got this graphic novel on the Beats that’s just so repellant… What next? A little three minute thing on youtube, “This is the Beat Generation.” It’s too bad, and there’s so many reasons why that happened. One of them, I believe, is the implantation of television on the American psyche. Television has a way of taking what’s disturbing and one-dimensionalizing it to some extent. When you think of Beats you think of Maynard G. Krebs, the Dobie Gillis show. a goatee, a bongo, the ballet, and shirking work, and like that. Even during the Civil Rights movement, TV reduced that to the Mod Squad and things like that.

DH—You taught at New College – maybe you could talk about the Poetics Program.

DM—Yeah, Diane and I, Robert Duncan, Duncan McNaughton … we were the core faculty of that program.

DH—Could you talk a little about that? I’d like to situate Diane as a teacher, that part of her life.

DM—Well, she’d always been doing teaching of one kind or another … She seems to me very comfortable and natural in the role of a teacher. And she’s taught both privately and at New College, and then guest teaches at different colleges. What’s interesting about that too, is the element of spirituality, and her absorption both in the Western hermetical traditions, and then Buddhism.

DH—Maybe you could talk about why you founded the Poetics Program at New College; what was different about it than other programs?

DM—The idea was to have a program that dealt with poetics, that had nothing to do with writing workshops, worskshopping, nothing like that. The idea was to teach the multiple histories of poetry and its concerns and vocabulary and its tools. Having Michael Palmer teaching prosody, just like Ginsberg was … So with Robert Duncan, he was such an amazing person, and such an amazing, expansive mind, he in a sense was the heart of the program, and Diane worshipped him. I remember she said, the only two men in her life that she really loved completely were Robert Duncan and Suzuki Roshi, the Zen Center teacher. And I thought, I could understand. Diane’s relationship to Robert was very close. Because they shared a lot of interested, hermetic traditions, and modernism, literary modernism, music and so forth.

… She taught what she called the hidden roots of poetry, which again dealt with the mystical, the magical, and so on. And she taught sometimes two or three semesters on these subjects, and each semester would be a further and further unfolding. And Robert – ultimately it turned out we had all these poets teaching themselves, and learning from each other. It was an immensely interesting synthesis of poets and really gifted students. So many of them came to study with Robert, who was with the program five years before he died. But I’m convinced, and I think Diane is too, the program kept him alive for five years. It was just the interchange with the students, and the energy. I remember the whole program would meet on a weekly basis, and each week would be devoted to a topic, and both students and a professor would give presentations on the topic, and then discussions. and Robert was dealing with this kidney problem, and he had to be in dialysis, and he had a bag attached. And so right in the middle, Robert would be chattering away about all these things, and he would notice that the bag was full, pull up his shirt, flop the bag on the table, keeping talking all the time, unplug, and then put in the new bag, without breaking a beat in what he was talking about. And so he taught us how to live, but also how to die. It was a gift, and a profound presence.

DH—If you could just say what, if somebody were to ask you about Diane’s poetry, what would be the most surprising thing to you about it?

DM—Its richness. Its richness, and yet its consistent richness, and really impressive embrace of so many disparate practices, into a seamlessness, like her Selected Poems. She touches on so many areas. And they all seem to be right. I think she’s very undervalued, underrated in a sense, because she is so prolific, and she covers so many different zones. To me, that’s the best thing to do. I couldn’t think of just sitting at home, coming up with haiku on my kneecap, and that’s where I’ll stay… And she’s so incredibly interested in poetic form, too. She sends out these little home-produced, Xeroxed manuscripts of things she’s working on to a list of peers, and in a way that’s very much like Robert Duncan. Robert got into a head-on collision with New Directions – or no, it was Grove Press – because of how they botched up a book of his, and decided to hell with publishing, and when I get enough of it together I’ll Xerox a bunch of it, and send it out to maybe 10 people. Because he thought there were 10 people he trusted, and who seemed to know and care about his work. Here’s another undervalued American poet who boils it down to 10 people… But it amazes me, like this encounter I had with Diane over this poem – wanting to know, wanting a response, such a key word with so many of my mentors, is to respond, not just to say, hey, that’s cool… Engage, I don’t want thumbs up, thumbs down. I don’t want tortuous language poet discourse on the first line of my haiku on the kneecap…