Michael McClure – The Beard and Beast Language

[Michael McClure at the Kiev Restaurant, New York City. Photograph by Allen Ginsberg (c) The Estate of Allen Ginsberg]  

Michael McClure celebrated his 85th birthday yesterday. In his honor, here follows another transcript from the extraordinary series of readings/discussions that took place in Novato California, in the mid 70’s (see here , here,  here and here)  –  [We apologize to Michael for the typo] – The interviewer is David Rollison

Interviewer: A whole number of you went to see The Beard. How many of you did get to see it?….just to get a sense of… [tape cuts off  on the opening question – “What sparked the writing of The Beard?”]

MM:  ….Ok –Well,. [long pause] – that’s a very intriguing question because the answer to it’s so long that we could spend most of the time just answering that one. I don’t know whether if anybody can hear or not but , I guess, if they can’t, they can arrange to.   The Beard,. for the sake (of)…  Does everybody know what The Beard is? – Did you talk about it in class? The Beard is a play, in which there are two characters, Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow and the setting is Eternity, and it’s all … and it’s blue velvet, and the only stage set is a table and two chairs and the table and two chairs are covered in fur and Billy the Kid is dressed in costume, from 1880, (an 1889 costume, Western), and Jean Harlow is wearing a blue dress and has a purse and the set is.. The stage is in darkness, and then an orange light comes on Jean Harlow and the Kid, who are sitting at the table, and Harlow looks up and she sees the Kid (she’s never seen him before, obviously, they’re from two different times and spaces), and she says, “Before you can pry any secrets from me, you must first find the real me. Which one will you pursue?”. And the Kid says, “What makes you think I want to pry any secrets out of you?. And she says, “Oh, because I’m so beautiful”. And the Kid says, “Yeah?” – You know, so it starts like that, and this little opening passage becomes a refrain that’s repeated several times there at the beginning, which, it’s, like, brings this vibration, this impossible vibration of these two people, together, into a more and more solid state. There are also.. the only other thing in the costume I didn’t tell you about – they’re all wearing little beards made out of torn white tissue-paper (just two little beards) and the question was? how I came…?

Interviewer: What sparked..?

MM: ..what sparked the writing of it – I was in an aeroplane on the way to Los Angeles and I was looking at a copy of The Ring magazine which was a boxing magazine in those days, and I looked at a poster reproduced in the magazine, a sort of classical’ 50’s and ‘60’s American boxing poster, and that boxing poster showed the two opponents, a photograph of each of the opponents on each side of the poster and it would say, like – “Ali versus Frazier – Big Fight – Madison Square Garden”, so on and so on – (a) very large poster like that, and, while I was looking at that poster on the airplane, I saw Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow on the poster, and I saw a whole new poster with Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow on it, and I saw the text of the poster in Beast language, or a language that I called Beast language, which was an invented language for writing sound poetry, which has sounds like “RRAR GRAA” in it and combinations of that language and a kind of imagistic language.

So it could say, “ROSE,,, ” So, instead of saying, like, “Big Fight – Madison Square Garden”,  it would say, like “GRAA SILVER SILVER GRAA”. And I.. when I flew back from Los Angeles, I still had that poster in my mind, and I was taking a cab back from the airport, and I saw a boxing poster in the window of a liquor store, and I asked the cab to stop, and I went in and looked on the boxing poster, and it said “Telegraph Press”. So the next morning, I phoned (that was at night), the next morning I phoned, first thing in the morning, I phoned Telegraph Press and I said, “I want you to make a poster for me”.  And they said, “What kind of a poster?” And I said, “A poem poster”. And a voice on the other end said, “Oh yeah, polo posters we make polo posters, bring it down “ – So I.. I..took.. I made a mock-up of the poster (apparently in the discussion he told me to make a mock-up), so I had the measurements of the poster and the size that the boxing poster would be, and I blocked in all the letters the right sizes (it has numerous type sizes on it) and I took out a picture of Billy the Kid and a picture of Jean Harlow that I wanted reproduced on the poster, and I took it down to him, and I handed it to him, and it was a pretty bizarre- (odd) looking item, and…(oh, the only posters that they made were boxing posters, by the way, (just) one other poster, which was a bumper-sticker for The Rolling Stones, which surprised me). And I handed it to him and the guy looked at it for a long time. – His name was..er.. Arthur Jelinski – he looked at it for a long time and said, “I’m not going to do it”. And I said, “Why?” ( this is 1965) – I said “Why?” and he said.. “Ah” (he was a pretty old guy). he said, “All you young guys think you know what Jean Harlow looked like, but you don’t really know, Look at that crummy photograph of her, it makes her neck look ugly. I’m not going to do the poster”.  I said, “I’ll get another picture of Jean Harlow, you’re right”.

So I went out and I spent about three days getting a picture of Jean Harlow (one that would go with the Kid because there’s only two extant photos of the Kid that are in public domain, even today), So I had the photo of the Kid I wanted, lots of photos of Harlow, I found the photo of Harlow I wanted to use, I took it back down, he said “Okay”, he said, “I’ll call you in a few days”.

These posters are very interesting because they use old wooden-block types that are almost like circus-types and..almost all of this type was a variation of Cooper typeface (so you had Cooper typeface running from this size down to little tiny letters like that, and the lead on this said “LOVE LION, comma LIONESS” – like, big battle between “Love Lion” and “Love Lioness” would be the way you would read this if this was a poster. That was one of the few parts of the text that was in English. And his assistant phoned me about three days later (and) said, “Come on down. Check the poster before we run it”. I went down and I checked it. It was beautiful. I said, “Run it. It’s fantastic”.  And we checked out where the red was… (it’s a two-color, red on white, red and blue letters on white), and we said,  “Perfect”.  We checked out where the red was going to be, where the blue was going to be. “Perfect, just…”  “I’ll come down tomorrow to get it. We’ll…” I think I asked him to run about two hundred, maybe three hundred,, and I went home, and, about an hour later, Jelinski called me again, and he said, “You’ve got to come down here” – I said, “I was just down there, I’m very busy, I love it, it’s great, would you just run it, it’s perfect”. He said, “No, you’ve got to come down. I won’t run it if you don’t come down and ok it while I’m here”.

So I went down and he started reading it out loud to me. He said ““LOVE LION, comma LIONESS”, right?” – I said, “Right” – He says “GRAHHHH GAHOO GRAHEER?? right?” – “Right”- RUUR? right GRAHHHH with four H’s right? Right – And he read this thing all the way through and there are lots of H’s and letters and at one point he was reading the word “GRAHHHH” which had about four “H’s in it and he says,”Grahhhh – h-h-h-h, right?” and I said “Yeah” . And he turned to me and he said, What is this shit anyway?” – Then I explained to him that it was a language I’d invented to write poetry in, it was a kind of… there wasn’t any conceptual art at this time but I described it, I said it was a poster for an event that takes place in eternity. There isn’t really,  isn’t any event, because it’s happening in eternity, so the poster is kind of the event. And the text is a poem in an invented language. And he said, “I have a friend in the WPA who wrote poetry and I…”. he said, ”I can really understand it now”.  Actually, we got to be pretty good friends too. Over a period of time he did a lot of work for me, and we talked more about his friend who wrote poetry, and over a period of time I brought in other poems of mine in beast language, and he used to keep them on his desk as a conversation piece, when people would come in that..  I think, when he wanted to toy with their minds, he’d throw my book out, you know, very straight, working-class people, he’d show them this and say “I’m doing some work for this guy”, and watch them go through the changes (at least that’s what I suspect) – So he ran the poster, and I picked up the poster, and then I took it to the liquor store where I’d seen the original poster, and I said, “May I.. Can I put this in your window?” – And the guy just looked up and said, “No” – I said, ”Why not?” – He said, “I should get some comps if I’m going to put this in the window”, I said, “Okay” – So I went back down to Jalinski and I said, “Show me a boxing ticket will you?” (and he prints boxing tickets down there too). So he gave me a boxing ticket (or else, maybe I had a boxing ticket at home – yes, I did – I had a boxing ticket at home), and I wrote a boxing ticket in beast language, then I had Jalinski print two comps to go with every poster that was printed and I went back and I said, “Here’s your two tickets. Can I put this in the window now?   And the guy said  “Yeah”.

So – and actually that stayed in that window longer than any of the other posters I put up. That poster stayed there for months. That was on the corner of Haight and Masonic, as a matter of fact. I used to stand across the street and watch people go by and come back and look at the poster, go by and not look at the poster, and various people’s’ reactions to that poster. It was an interesting place to have it because there was so much traffic there. Then I went around and I put the.. I remember I stapled one over Kenneth Rexroths front door and I tacked another one to Kenneth Anger’s front door and then I put up a bunch of them at Third and Mission, and I put up a lot of them in the Western Edition, and I folded them in half and stapled tickets to them, wrote friends’ addresses on them and mailed a lot of them out. And I put one on my wall. At that time my typewriter was..  I sat at my typewriter in such a way that I faced west into the sun when it was setting. So, on the east wall, behind my head, I put up one of the “LOVE LION LIONESS” posters, and I’d sit there typing. And, as I was typing one day, I discovered that Billy The Kid and Jean Harlow… maybe the reflection, maybe the setting sun had reflected in their photos, and then it focused into my consciousness, because I had Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in my head, in three dimensions, beginning to act out these rites. And so I became the typist for their rite. And I guess that’s what sparked it. It was a good spark,

Interviewer: What was the beard?

MM: Well, I, at the time.. well, the beard would be like the wings of an angel, something to set you off. I mean, even in eternity, I guess

Interviewer: Something to set you off as immortal?

MM: Something to set you off as even further immortal. And then one day, Robert Duncan, another Bay Area writer called my attention to the fact that lady Pharoahs wore false beards in Egypt, as a divine attribute, I suppose, or to show their divinity, and I wasn’t aware of that at the time. But perhaps unconsciously, or from some other direction, that was a part of it.

Interviewer: Interesting.

MM: Thank you  

Student: It took me a heck of a long time to understand it. Finally I’m getting through it inch by inch.

MM: My daughter just told me that they’re doing it in an acting class at San Francisco State right now and that a brother of one of her girlfriends is playing Billy the Kid, and I believe it’s being done in New York now at the New York Theatre Ensemble (at least it was a few weeks ago)

Student:  (Is it precisely the same as the original production?)

MM: I don’t know

Student: Well they had a little different from what you’re describing….

MM: Uh-huh – well I’m not. There’s a lot of variation.  There’s a lot of individuality and a lot of sets. I’ve seen it done everywhere from two chairs and a table to pretty elaborate sets, where people got involved in it. Then another time it was done in a boxing ring, which I thought was nice.

Student: (Was it open-air?)

MM: I don’t think so.

Student:Did you see it  when it was  (up at San Francisco State….)

MM: No, I didn’t. My wife and daughter went up to see it.

Student: Were they pleased with the production?

MM: They told me it was good. They told me they liked it. I was out of town.

Student:  I remember seeing it originally..

MM: Where? at downtown? at the Encoreor down in the wharf at the Wharf or in California Hall on Polk Street? – And you know, we also did it in the Fillmore Auditorium.

Interviewer: Oh did you now

MM: Yeah – with a light show. It was very beautiful. He used hand-held microphones and the entire sound system. And, of course, the play was considered pretty obscene, verbally, in those days, to say the least. And here the… like… all the kind of divine scatology coming out of the Fillmore sound-system was great. and Tony Martin did a light show, that must have been about 30 by 70 feet, behind it, incorporating films in the light show (that was the first time I’d seen that done). That was a great performance too.

Interviewer: I think it would have been 1966, I’ve been trying to remember..

MM: Well, probably, it was 1966. We first did it, I think, in December 19th, 1965, or December 21st ,1965, and then we did it until we were arrested. And then the ACLU protected us and they advised us not to perform it for a while (I guess that was after we’d been arrested a couple of times,they advised us not to perform it for a while) So probably you did see it in 1966…

(Interviewer: When did you first write in beast language?)

MM: Well, I first wrote a play in beast language. Before I wrote any poems in beast language, I wrote a play for thirteen characters, seated at a long table, with the character in the middle having lion’s paws, sort of like a Last.. (it) looked like The Last Supper. All of them were bearded also. As a matter of fact , in performance, it was performed, I think, in 1959 or 1960, and..(must have been 1961), and all of the characters in it made themselves big beards out of torn white tissue-paper because we didn’t have any budget. So that was the first torn white tissue-paper beards. They were supposed to be dressed in golden or cerulean robes so we all rounded up Indian blankets, and they were all supposed to be bearded so everybody tore different beard shapes, their own style of beard. And, on the ends of the thirteen, the first and thirteenth person were bearded women and the second and twelfth persons were negro titans, (and..er.. we didn’t know any black actors at the time,, and that was before the big black theatre movement, so a couple of my friends did that in blackface). And so here we were, like, bearded women in tissue-paper beards and guys in blackface, and the a guy with lion’s paws in the middle. It’s quite a beautiful play. It was very successful. “Very successful!” (laughs). We invited a hundred people we knew who were our friends to come see us and we thought we were great, That’s what I mean by “very successful”.

And then…maybe (19)59.. Then in 1962 I began to hear those same sounds, that were more or less born in the play, in a ball of silence that was within myself. It’s as if poem beast language sounds were inhabiting this ball of silence, And I intuited that I was going to write one hundred poems in that language, and that probably I wouldn’t make any changes in the poems as I wrote them, that they would be spontaneous, and that I… as in The Beard,,  I would be recording (although I hadn’t written The Beard yet),  I would be recording sounds that were there.

And, again, with the beast language, there’s an interesting organic side-light for me. I… (This can’t be very interesting for you if you don’t have the book to look at) – but the first… there are 99, actually 100, of these beast language poems and the first ones start out like baby-talk. They start out like “GRI-GRA-GEE -GEER GWI GW- GOOOOOOR! GOOOOOOOOOO!/GOOOOOOOOOR!/GRAHHH! GRAHH! GRAHH!/ Grah gooooor! Ghahh! Graaarr! Greeeeer! Grayowhr!/Greeeeee” – That type of like baby-talk beast language sounds. And the language matures as it develops, and develops as an organism might develop into maturity, and into a kind of blossoming, the language in the long series of poems develops as an organism would develop and then reaches a maturity and then blossoms. So that around the middle…  And also English goes in and out of these poems. For instance, like, the 51st Poem starts in English, probably has more English in it than any of the other beast language poems ..I can think of one right in the middle, in the kind of, like, full maturity of this language, English comes back in briefly and it’s kind of a night poem.It goes something like –I LOVE TO THINK OF THE RED PURPLE ROSE/IN THE DARKNESS COOLED BY THE NIGHT/We are served by machines making satins/of sounds/Each blot of sound is a bud or a stahr/Body eats bouquets of the ear’s vista/Gahhhrrr boody eers noze eyes deem thou/NOH. NAH-OHH/.hrooor. VOOOR-NAH! GAHROOOOO ME/Nah droooooh seerch. NAH THEE!/The machines are too dull when we/are lion-poems that move & breathe/WHAN WE GROOOOOOOOOOOOOOR/hann dree myketoth sharoo sreee thah noh deeeeeemed ez/Whan eecethoooze hrohh.”  And, you know, it’s not impossibly far from “When that Aprille with his shoure soote/The drougth of March has perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour/Of which vertu engendred is the flour..” – You know that? – That was written about 1380? – 1380? – That’s part of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.. So that’s Middle English, which sounds exotic to us nowadays (of course, it’s got a nice rhyme-scheme).

Interviewer: There’s a lot of language coming into the beast poems, like Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and all that.

MM: Yeah

Interviewer: Were you… were you…was that going on with you..or..?

MM: Not consciously, I wasn’t exerting conscious control. It’s a kind of tantric language, and I think that anything that..anything that would create the tantras flew right into its being. And then, when many people..   somebody would pick them up and read them as if they were.. some very Caucasian-looking individual will pick up Ghost Tantras, the beast-language poems, and read them and (they) sound like they’re Japanese (and it’s like some Japanese sub-being of theirs suddenly decided to speak to them), or perhaps somebody will be Dutch and pick them up and they will sound Dutch. They are interesting to read. If you see a copy of it, try reading them out loud yourself and see what they..see what your voice sounds like when you read them….

MM: Yeah – When I first wrote them, before they were even published in a book, we used to take them out at dinner time and pass the manuscript around, after dinner and everybody would take turns reading them. It got to be kind of a party game. See, you know, which ones you’d open to spontaneously, and if you sounded like a Dutchman, or if you sounded Japanese, or if you sounded like an elf, or….  Yeah.

Interviewer:  (You have a lot of lions and lion themes in your poems)

MM: I did then. I did indeed then.

Interviewer: (Does it have any more an attraction?   What’s your relationship to lions these days?)

MM: I think I had some then, I was interested in that time in the way I saw lions looking at things. I felt that there was a particular consciousness there. I think what I was seeing was the consciousness in a complete carnivore. I saw several times in lions a kind of lucidity of consciousness that up until that time I’d not seen in any other being.

continued tomorrow

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