|McClure retrospective display arranged by City Lights Books, 18 Sept. 2021|
I was fortunate to have Michael McClure as one of my first poetry teachers. David Meltzer’s zestful book of interviews, The San Francisco Poets (1971) was a helpful guide for when I signed up for poetry workshops at Naropa, as I quickly checked Michael’s name on the list of offerings.
My first impression of this “prince of the San Francisco scene” was his jousting verbally with Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the opening ceremony of the 25th anniversary On The Road conference at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. It was affectionately dubbed by its participants “Camp Kerouac.”
Allen Ginsberg was at the podium, making introductions and setting the tone for the week ahead. “If you brought drugs or psychedelics, take them,” he urged us.
The message was: even in 1982, with Reagan President, we weren’t going to let it tie our spirits down or keep us from dreaming.
From the audience, Ferlinghetti touted the need for the artist to be engagé with the issues of their day, prompting McClure to counter that without a foregrounding of the environment, that human life, and politics, were doomed.
“Hundreds of known species became extinct in the last year, and thousands more will follow if we don’t act to protect the environment. Biology will have the last word; if we fail today, we may be gone tomorrow” was the gist of it (my notes are in my head).
Many are the times I subsequently encountered Michael. In the winter following Camp Kerouac, he gave a reading at the University of Chicago.
Spotting my Naropa t-shirt, he recalled the joys of that conference, and at a student after-party invited me to join his workshop the next day at the Art Institute of Chicago.
When I told him of my plan to move that summer to San Francisco, he encouraged me to contact him via City Lights. His reply to my arrival missive was an invitation to his reading at the Palace of Fine Arts in support of Nicaragua (with Ferlinghetti, Alice Walker, Ernesto Cardenal, and others) in opposition to Reagan’s U.S.-backed Contra insurgency.
“None of my poems is about Nicaragua,” he admitted, but on this day he stood against neo-colonial interventions in Central America.
My first San Francisco apartment was in the lower Haight; Michael lived on Downey St., not far from Haight-Ashbury, up the hill from me. I visited him there once, and he came to my apt tempted by the lure of books, which I have always surrounded myself with in abundance.
On an early weekend in January 1984, we tooled around the City in his car, careening over the Twin Peaks with the manuscript of his new play Vktms that he was ready to post to his agent. He did not trust the post office in the Haight which was rumored to be staffed by ’60s burnouts.
Besides seeing him at readings, we had a number of pleasant chance encounters over the years. At the Clarion Café on Mission St., I happened upon a joined a small group at his table as he shared his critiques of two then-popular theater personalities: Spaulding Gray (the monologist, whose minimal staging centered on the performer seated at a desk) and George Coates (whose multimedia shows were visually arresting, flashing light-enhanced spectacles).
Both were drawing appreciative audiences. After seeing a couple of Coates’ shows, I shared Michael’s view that they were a triumph of strobing form over substance.
Soon after I began work in the UC Berkeley Library, Michael sought my help obtaining early books on Custer. When he returned them, I saw, and gently chided him for leaving his light pencil marks annotating passages of interest. I wondered if he was going to give the Boy General a memorable stage treatment akin to his notorious play The Beard featuring Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in Hell, but if that seed germinated, I have not yet read it.
Michael’s second book of poems was For Artaud (1959). In this regard, he connected me with an avant garde performance documentarian named Kush, who I recalled seeing on the streets of Boulder during Camp Kerouac. With much spit flying, Kush acted out the death of Edgar Allan Poe.
According to Michael, Kush possessed a recording of Antonin Artaud’s suppressed radio performance To Have Done With The Judgment of God, which I was eager to listen to. I found Kush at a large anarchist commune called the Farm, and he agreeably shared this recording.
One of my Library colleagues, Richard Ogar, had the blessed good fortune to meet the love of his life, Leah, at one of Michael’s poetry readings in Berkeley, and their courtship was attended at various gatherings in Michael’s performative company.
In October 2014, I hosted a Litquake/Bancroft Library event marking 30 years from the approximate death of Richard Brautigan by his own hand in Bolinas. McClure was a close friend of Brautigan, and was joined in this discussion by daughter Ianthe, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, Robert Hass, Ishmael Reed, Herbert Gold, V. Vale, and others.
When someone leaves before their time—and for poets, musicians, and storytellers, it’s almost always too soon—those who remain have to fill in the gaps.
My first meeting with Amy was an evening that Michael took her and some of his students to a show at one of Berkeley’s fine theatres, either Berkeley Rep or the Aurora Theatre, in the early ots (00-s).
After Bancroft Library acquired Michael’s literary archive, the Library commissioned Amy to make a homuncular sculpture of Menches the village scribe or komogrammateus.
This ca. 119 BCE figure greets visitors to the suite of offices for the Center For Tebtunis Papyri where Egyptian text fragments are studied by scholars from around the world.
The source of these papyri was in large measure mummified crocodiles, domestic pets, and people—all revered enough by the living to be wrapped in these lineaments of desire for eternity, which are now enjoying a text-centric afterlife elucidated by scholars.
In describing the vast and varied holdings of The Bancroft Library, its late curator of Rare Books and Literary Manuscripts, Anthony Bliss, liked to remark that it ranges from Pharaohs to Beat poets.
He might almost have been talking about Amy’s and Michael’s works in plotting that continuum.
Menches Komogrammateus [village scribe] of Tebtunis, circa 119 BC, conceived and sculpted by Amy Evans McClure, 2008
People who wear black are in mourning for themselves.
—Michael McClure (October 20, 1932 – May 4, 2020)
Michael provided many quotable sayings (above his paraphrasing Chekhov) that were repeated at the in-person memorial in September 2021. Even after three bicoastal memorials over Zoom marking the anniversary of his passing in May 2020, Amy McClure recognized that Michael’s many friends would not be satisfied until there was an in-person gathering.
A strict proof of vaccination requirement, masking, social distancing at the outdoor CalShakes Theatre in Orinda provided the relatively safe space for that to happen. 250 or more people attended, and many stories, tears, songs, poems and laughter were shared.
One story I’ll propagate came from Juvenal Acosta, who was Michael’s department chair at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Michael had told him of an early visit to Big Sur, in which he had visited Henry Miller around the time described in Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957).
On meeting Miller’s wife, Eve McClure (married to Miller 1953-1960), Michael chatted her up over their shared McClure ancestry.
She was 4 years older than Michael and 37 years younger than Henry. It wasn’t long before Henry Miller was ready to boot out the dashing and beautiful upstart he believed was making moves on his wife.
“You are a supercilious young man,” he pointed an angry finger in the young poet’s face.
Michael was perplexed, having never before heard that word applied to him, and not knowing exactly what it meant.
Ferlinghetti, also present, and hosting McClure at his cabin just up the road, was quick to reassure the elder bohemian that it was all a misunderstanding, and thus Michael was saved from being thrown out into the night.
As my literary perambulations recently took me south of Monterey/Carmel, my research fixed upon a sound recording Allen Ginsberg made with Michael on one of their later trips to Big Sur. This recording is in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s papers, also at The Bancroft Library.
The year was 1966. The three poets had taken acid, Michael played autoharp, with Allen chanting ommmm in Ferlinghetti’s Bixby Canyon cabin.
The sound quality is poor, but I manage to make out Michael’s quip: “sounds like anger, wisdom, joy, nature. And nature was a one-line poem.” After an artful pause, he adds: “It sure doesn’t lack stature.”
They all laugh. A child then approaches—it might have been Ferlinghetti’s or McClure’s—the recording includes many sounds of family, the rituals of domestic life, going on in the background.
In this moment, captured for eternity: a child offering enchiladas.
D.S. Black is an archives whisperer by day, and somnobiographer of night. His first major collection of poems, Red Shift Blues, awaits a publisher. He was born in Toronto, raised there and in Manitoba, and for much of his adult life has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.