Catfish McDaris: If you could have dinner with any three people from history, who would they be?
Charles Plymell: Descartes, Sappho, and Judas.
CMD: You knew Ginsberg and Burroughs from the early days in San Francisco, New York, and Kansas. How did their writing change as they grew older?
CP: There is tons written about them from scholars and sycophants. I can't add much. I'm not versed in their works, anyway. After Allen took me to Ferlinghetti's house, he confided in me that Larry wasn't really that great a poet. I didn't think Allen was either. He was studious and a bonafide literary scholar though. He believed in that principal of his and Kerouac's, the first thought the best thing, which is a good dictum. It worked for him with his famous lines in Howl. His scholarly side would have changed it knowing it was bathos, over the top hyperbole, but he let it stand and it worked to become his visionary of the "best mind." So there is that, too in poetry. He nagged me to edit his TV Baby. I thought it was a pile of shit and would have tossed the whole thing. After months I chopped it up for him and I think he put it back together and had someone publish it. We never discussed poetry much after that. In his later years I thought he wrote shit. I was with him when he recorded the Vortex Sutra in his Uher Tape Dylan had given him in his VW Guggenheim bought him, etc. So I think he always felt the need to produce. I filled him in on local words of the scenery he wasn't familiar with. I thought he was just recording it as notes to work on, but no, that was the poem! So I was wrong. They say that was one of his best. I just didn't understand lines like, "How big a prick has the President" and I thought to myself, well how big a prick has your guru? I bet not as big as Lyndon Johnson's judging by his ears, but anyway lines like that thrilled his juvenile followers I guess. I never read his later work but heard a record or tape or something that was recorded. I thought it was psychopathic shit. He did bring a bunch of his poems over to the bowling alley coffee shop to go through to publish. We did that having lunch with his stepmother. The book was called Poems All Over The Place. I can't recall any of them and don't have the book. Burroughs on the other hand found a technique that suited the quickness of language for the times. In other words, one could fox trot around all day like in the 19th Century to make a point or create an image. We exchanged a dream and cut-up when I was printing the NOW magazines. There's a bit of the text in one of them, so I collaborated with him briefly, but it isn't documented by Burroughs scholars. I had an affinity with his writing. He "borrowed" a lot from others using Pound's dictum that if you are going to steal it do it well, so it can't be noticed. He had a lot of other elements to his writing though and became a master, I thought, but said it was hard work. He'd much rather shoot some boards and sell that as great art than write. I thought his art was great too, but that would demand an in-depth study and analysis to make my point.
CMD: How has your writing changed as you've grown older?
CP: Oh I don't know. I just fool around with lines and try to write an essay sometimes to frame something I'm thinking about. I don't know if there is a "literature" any more as we used to know it in its various forms and genres. The academe had tried to pretend and keep it going in its historical sense, but most of it is fraudulent. Books are mainly the hard copy of some fool on T V, many politicians. There are very few new ideas or thinking. Poetry and the arts, "Spoken Word," performance etc. have been labeled by art organizations and the academe to the point where kids now think that's where poetry has always come from. Labels are needed to replace talent and invention, to keep things in check. You have to enroll in it, or join the church, etc. There are many scams and rewards and creativity by proxy. It's somewhat mad compared to how I grew up. So I mainly observe how writing as culture has deteriorated along with the species.
CMD: Why do you think Kerouac's words had such an effect on America?
CP: After the war, there were a lot of stupid kids who never got out of their houses and neighborhoods.
CMD: What do you think about Bukowski and his influence?
CP: He was a loner and a loser and had enormous influence. Honest as a lush and knew the truth as much as one can.
CMD: Could you describe Ginsberg's commune outside of Cherry Valley, New York? Who hung out there and what was it like back in the day?
CP: Of course that would fill a book and I think Gordon Ball has written about those days. He came by one time for material. We didn't live there that long and moved into the village. It flourished for a while but ended in failure of purpose. The last inhabitant I saw there was some Nazi creep who trashed the place and painted swastikas inside. I think Allen liked the Aryan types, but I tried to stay away from it towards its last days.
CMD: It's been twelve years since the Beatnik read you organized in Cherry Valley and invited me to. Just to name a few of the great poets: Janine Pommy-Vega, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, David Amram, M.J. Laki, Tommy Tucker, Pam Plymell, Breath Cox, Grant Hart, Linda Lerner, Tony Moffeit, and the late great Ray Bremser, Dave Church, and Mary and Claude Pelieu. Do you think another unforgettable read like that will ever happen?
CP: No. Like Woodstock one flame lights all once. Actually, Breath put that together. She still lives here and is a Beat aficionado. She did a splendid job and I told her I would put the Plymell Machine behind her. Ha! There has been talk of other beat celebrations but nothing has ever materialized. A professor brought his class last year and I got Carl Waldman to open the farm house for them. He teaches a beat course in Oswego.
CMD: You've read with and known some of the greatest poets of our time. Could you extrapolate on a few memorable experiences?
CP: Montreal has been good to me. I was there with Burroughs, Ginsberg, Waldman, Giomo, Mary and Claude Pelieu at the Bibliotec National, in the 70's. Before we went on stage we were having dinner—Ginsberg ordered milk! Burroughs reprimanded him like he didn't have any sense, saying he didn't know what milk would do to his throat, etc. Burroughs angrily ordered his vodka. Then a few years ago in Montreal, Thurston Moore and Byron Coley invited me to read and share the stage with them. Thurston had just come off one of his world tours with Sonic Youth. It was at the Spanish Social Club which was real cool and they brought great food in the lavish dining area and had a big enthusiastic crowd in their hall. I was embarrassed that I only read in English, but people received me very well and came around to talk to me and sign autographs etc. So I was treated as an equal star in Montreal. Quite in contrast to reading with Allen one time at Franklin-Marshall College in Pennsylvania. The professor there was only interested in Ginsberg, as well as the students. I was puzzled, not that I had anything that great to say, but I wondered why they were so enthusiastic about that tabloid shit he was laying down, that anyone could do. I thought about it many times, being the loser on the stage and all I could come up with is that his audience lived such pretentious professional restrained sheltered lives that when they see someone get on stage and speak for them, they go ape shit. It certainly wasn't good, I thought. I could cut up any tabloid lines about war, sex, politics, and religion and keep them entertained. I still don't know. I guess I didn't know how to entertain. I liked it one time Rod McKuen invited me to B.B. King's club in Times Square. There were a few famous people in the audience and after the reading Rod wouldn't visit with them until he spent some time with me in his dressing room and gave me a poem he wrote for me. I had a good and very well paid reading last year in the literary festival in Austria. They paid well and paid for everything, for me and my son to accompany me. It was great. The festival people were fine and will come to see me when they visit New York soon. I loved the Alps and would love to live there.
CMD: What is the most important advice you could give a poet that's just starting out?
CP: I don't know if there is poetry as we once knew it anymore or even if there is that "great audience" that poetry organizations like to taut. The best advice is to suck ass or cock and get on tenure track at some English Department and practice line-breaks—descriptions-like workshop poetry. I just looked at a poem today of C.K. Williams in the New Yorker. He is a tenured poet at Princeton. Someone bought a house across the street here and brought his father to visit who told me he was on the board of Poetry Foundation that just gave C. K. Williams a hundred grand! That's just one of the awards and grants he has gotten for knowing the right people I guess or whatever is necessary for those skills. It doesn't have anything to do with poetry as I knew it, but it certainly beats my 700 bucks a month social security. One could try to be famous but there is no Time/Life to help like has worked in the past. Maybe a Reality Show? There isn't much else in words and poetry that hasn't become meaningless. Wasn't it Buk who said poetry is what poets write. So there you go. The rest is a con, a legal fraud but necessary for success.
CMD: Please name the three poets you consider the greatest of all time and explain why?
CP: Willy The Shake of course because he spoke so everyone could hear. Pound because he had a singular vision that rendered him mad. Sappho because she liked pussy and cried because her bird died.
CMD: If a classic car genie came out of a magic lamp and gave you three wishes of any car you wanted, what cars would you choose and why?
CP: A Bently because of quality. Or a 1950 Roadmaster Buick convertible because of leather seat smell and chrome. Or a 1952 Caddy convertible with Continental kit because it was the one Hank Williams died in the backseat. Or a Mustang because of Sally.
CMD: When I called you out of the blue to do this interview, you said, "Catfish, I've always got your back." That to me, means my writing hasn't been meaningless. As they say in Spanish, "Mil gracias mi buen amigo."
This interview was between Charles Plymell and Catfish McDaris in January of 2010 and was previously published by the Outsider Writers Collective and Press. Their last interview was published in Chiron Review in 1997.
Catfish McDaris been around the small press scene for twenty years. He's had nineteen chapbooks out, one with Charles Bukowski and Jack Micheline. He's been in the New York Quarterly, Slipstream, Louisiana Review, and on the cover of the Chiron Review. He's from New Mexico, but migrated to Milwaukee thirty years ago. He's about to retire from the Post Office.
David S. Pointer
Hello. I enjoyed this interview very much. Thanks for publishing it. All the best.