Charles Plymell: The Rusty Truck Interview
Introduction to Charles Plymell by A.D. Winans
I met Charles Plymell at a small press convention back in 1976. We have been corresponding on and off for over thirty years. Plymell is often associated with the Beats, but he can’t be pigeon-holed into any label, be it “Beat or: Hip.” Much has been written about Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, but Plymell was putting his foot to the pedal while Kerouac was still trying out for the football team at Princeton University. He was born on the plains of Kansas, and his family moved a lot, so there was no real long-term place to call home. He didn’t attend high school except for one year in a military school in San Antonio, Texas. By 1950 he was in his own words “driving more miles with four on the floor than Kerouac ever did or could.” I should point out at this time that Plymell does not wish to be identified with Kerouac. He feels they shared nothing in common, unlike Neal Cassady, whom he was able to identify with.
I have known too damn many poets who rail against the system while at the same time living at the public trough. Plymel isn’t one of them. During his travels, he worked at a variety of jobs which includes riding in rodeos, working on a pipeline, working with his mother at daredevil car shows in Oklahoma, working as an extra in Hollywood, working on a dynamite crew on the Columbia River, and later as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks, a job he took personal pride in.
In 1951 he drove his new Chevy from San Antonio to Blythe, California, where his father had a farm. The family also farmed in South Dakota, during which time Plymell took pride in owning a hot rod. He moved to San Francisco in late 1961 and stayed with friends from Wichita in an apartment on Ashbury, a half-block from the Haight, where I grew up as a child and teenager. In 1962 he shared a flat on Gough Street with Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. He later moved to an apartment on Post Street, where he had a multilith press that printed the first issue of Zap Comics, with artwork by Robert Crumb. He later became friends with poets like Lew Welch and David Meltzer, and early on frequented meetings at the apartment of Kenneth Rexroth who would later be dubbed the father of the Beats. In 1971 City Lights published his book The Last Of The Moccasins, a delightful fast paced novel based on his road trips from Kansas to the West Coast.
Of all the poets I have met and associated with over the last 45 years, Plymell not only walks the walk but also talks the talk. As a poet, writer and publisher, he has published and performed his work around the world. . Plymell and I joined forces in the seventies to protest the corrupt policies of the National Endowment For the Arts (NEA) Literature Program under the stewardship of Leonard Randolph where grants were routinely given to friends of friends, and on some occasions to husband and wife, father and daughter, and poets and their lovers. You fight the NEA and cause them embarrassment and you wind up on their blacklist, although they will deny maintaining one. Randolph himself told me at a conference in North Dakota, “You will never get a writing grant from the NEA as long as I have anything to say.” Randolph is gone now, but his words remain.
If anyone deserves a State or Federal Grant, it’s Plymell. But he has never played the game, so the awards go to academic poets who could never fill his shoes, and, of course, the poetry “biz boys” who regularly kiss ass and trade favors.
I don’t want to take up further space here. If you don’t already know Plymell’s work, do yourself a favor and take the time to Google his name. What you won’t find in a Google search are the human traits of “honesty,” “humility,” and “integrity.” Plymell possesses all three traits and you have to meet him at least once to know he is the definition of what a poet is and should be. The only two other poets I have been privileged to meet who possess the same characteristics are the late Jack Micheline and Bob Kaufman.
Scot Young: Your book, The Last of the Moccasins, was published by City Lights; what is your relationship with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights?
Charles Plymell: I haven’t kept in touch with Larry. He was a friend of my relatives Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu who came from Paris to S.F. at his suggestion. I saw him not too many years ago at his reading at a nearby college. I took my big Lab, Bebop, to the reading and he yawned, so we waited outside. Grant Hart was with me and later at the host’s party Grant sniffed Larry’s ass and Larry turned around startled. Grant said that was the way dogs got acquainted, so he wanted to try it. I never got royalties after a small advance off the City Lights edition and also had to split my advance with Larry from Europa Verlag, who published it in German. After that Larry surrendered the rights and Motherroad published it with that great cover by Robert Williams, who only did it for me because of my role in getting comix started. That edition was mostly lost, too because the publisher fell into trouble. My epic poem, Apocalypse Rose, was first published by City Lights in the issue with the group photo. I didn’t go to the photo shoot. I saw Larry off and on at various occasions. He took Pam and me, Mary’s daughter, into nearby Mike’s Pool Hall for lunch sometimes. She was under age but of course the owners knew Larry. The book remained seminal. I don’t know how much was due to being boxed in City Lights basement until the rights were reverted, or whether it was just too different to sell. I called it THE FIRST COLLAGE NOVEL because it didn’t conform to literary standards. It was praised by individuals who would find copies passed from hand to hand, but it never made the mainstream. Oddly after the rights were reverted I saw many City Lights editions on the collector bookseller markets. I never talked to Ferlinghetti about it. I have trouble getting on with millionaire beatniks.
Scot: So, what did you think about Ferlinghetti’s cover shot and interview in Poets and Writers?
Charles: I never look at that publication. Mr. Coleman, who started the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, had an aversion to that publication. I thought it was probably a pretentious propagation for small talents to prop up literary industry, so I avoided it in respect for him. It is probably analogous to the derivatives that wrecked our economics. Something wrecked our literature. The people who give out the Nobel Prize says our literature became too provincial. They might mean it speaks only to its own audience.
Scot : I understand you worked as a longshoreman on the docks in San Francisco in the sixties. What was that experience like?
Charles : Actually, I ended up a Teamster, which was stronger than the longshoreman in S.F. at that time. They wanted to join us and we handled land cargo and loaded ship containers for them. I loved that job. I worked 6 hrs on graveyard and got paid for 8. Didn’t worked on my birthday and got paid for it. I made so much it was typical not to work all the time. The rule was call in if I’m coming to work and same if not. All eye care, dental. Health, prescriptions were paid in full. Zero on statements. That was the Great American Dream for me. It was just enough exercise and one could only get fired for fighting or stealing. The crew boss checked me out and asked if I knew that the mob owned the company and the mob owned the union. I said yes sir. They were Hoffa loyalists from the origin of Teamsters when they called the mob in to fight company goons, so they wanted to make sure I wasn’t undercover. All night I got just the right exercise and mixed with all different backgrounds and races. I had to be sociable. I’d go in one boxcar and the Mexicans would offer me some reefer; the next, ex cons and Italians would offer me a drink of hard liquor, the next, young winos to tip the bottle with. I took Percodan all night, too and never missed a beat. It kept me “up” with no pain. There was one big Sioux whom everyone knew to stay away from if he was drinking. He would warn everyone by saying and pointing. “You. Asshole; You. Asshole. A guy from Ireland with a green card hired on and wanted to work fast and hard disrupting the flow. The Mexicans in his boxcar would let him lift all he wanted and smoked reefer and lay on the boxes betting on how much he could lift and how fast he could go. So everything evened out even with the featherbedding the freight got moved smooth as a machine.
Scot: I had a union job very much like that in K.C. I know why I left it. Why did you give it up?
Charles: Unions vary entirely on the local. I left because Mr. Coleman sent for me for free M.A, and small stipend. After I left Hopkins I could have had the poetry chair at Carnegie-Mellon, but I went to live on the Bowery in NYC. So it must be my nature to give things up.
Scot: While you were in the Bay Area, It’s my understanding you lived with Neal Cassidy and some other of the Beats. How did this come about and how did it affect your own writing?
Charles: Neal moved into the famous Gough St. Flat with his girlfriend, Anne and his tenacious suitor, Allen Ginsberg ostensibly so that Allen could help him write his own novel. Neal was of the “oral tradition” as they say now and just started the day free-associating on speed and pot. I told Allen and Larry to just record him and transcribe, but they were of the literary traditions and approached it academically for the most part.
Scot: I read somewhere that Neal may have been a stronger influence on the beats than Kerouac? Any truth to that?
Charles: I’m sure he was the “role model” as they say now. I liked him immediately because he reminded me of the pill heads I used to drive with from K.C. to L.A. via Denver and the West when we were hipsters and hustlers in the 50’s on Bennies. Kerouac couldn’t drive a stick shift, so that was one thing. Neal didn’t like to sit in bars and drink, and I didn’t either, so that was another. He confessed one time that he didn’t like to be the errand boy fetching beer, etc. and not having any literary rewards, which meant money that he’d have to tap them for. They didn’t try to help keep him from doing hard time, and being an ex-con it was hard to find work.
Scot: So how much of the First THIRD was written Neal and how much was Allen?
Charles: As nearly as I can remember reading it, it was Neal’s voice. I think Allen helped in organizing it as an English professor would. It seems Neal had more parts to it. I don’t remember the spontaneity of his riff or word association as was in his speech.
Scot: Would the whole beat poetry scene have flourished without Ginsberg marketing it?
Charles: He told me his first job was as a market researcher. I don’t know if he was lying but that training was surely part of his life. He pressed the circumstances that surrounded him and his peers and it became a vocation like with any businessman. He worked hard at it. Some luck and timing helped. There was Time and Life and everything in between that he manipulated keenly even down to the fuck trial, so the market research that defined him was pretty obvious to professionals in that field like George Will who commented on it. As with many things, the timing was right, too. Things came together. Barry Farrell, of Life was a good friend and Kerouac’s book had been lauded by a substitute editor at the New York Times. There weren’t everyday best sellers then.
Scot: You knew Allen Ginsberg well. What influence if any did he have on your own writing?
Charles: He bought me Céline, which I never read, read me Kerouac’s Mexico City poems, which were fine, tried to get me to join his “church” of Blake and Whitman’s children, and tried to teach me the breathing. It was all good, and he nagged me to edit his poetry mss. (TV Baby poem)I shocked him by tossing about half of it I thought was crap. When we rode down to Monterey on my motorcycle to meet Monk, we yelled lines from signs on the road through towns and worked them into poems, which was fun, but not entirely new to me as was lots of things. He was a natural teacher. He wasn’t that much older and was leading a pretty square, middle class life, about the same time I was on my own and on the road, so to speak. Also, I was involved in a lot of new emerging scenes in S.F. that he hadn’t known about while living in India. So I didn’t get involved that much by choice in his writing and the emerging lifestyles he was into, which of course was his poetry, too. Like Neal, who I took to work at the tire place on Van Ness after he got out of the joint, I had to work jobs and live fast on the side. Allen was living on large grants and fellowships and the earnings from Howl, etc. which gave him more leisure time to create and study. He had a social and academic thing, too, that he cultivated seriously. Neal nor I could give a shit about hustling the academic mainstream and media. Walking with him one time in North Beach, right after his spread in Life magazine some one pointed and yelled: there’s Allen Ginsberg. I would have felt uncomfortable by having strangers identify me.
Scot: Then does this Ginsberg cultivation equal selling out or is it just good business sense?
Charles: It was mostly business with Allen. Selling is selling. i don’t see him escaping that, which concern me much. The image of howling to Mulloch while stuffing his asshole with public funds and proselytizing his religion like a Jim Baker doesn’t leave me with a Whitmanesque vision.
Scot: You have performed with musicians on stage and you share with me a love of the music of Hank Williams Sr. What part has music played in your writing life, in your poetry?
Charles: Technically it’s Hank Williams, Hank Williams, Jr. and Hank III (or Shelton) who is very particular about the designation. One can see why. He’s against commercial country for one thing, and has inherited Hank William’s genius. (Try Blue Devil on the CD Hank III) but he’s heavy metal/punk too. My authority rests on the fact that I grew up in the cab of an International Truck in the fields of Kansas singing from Hank William’s radio show I learned: I’m just a happy roving cowboy/herding the dark clouds out of the sky/deep in the heavens blue” c1939, then 40’s and the war and big bands that still stir nostalgia. Then cruised Central Avenue, L.A. in my new 51 Chevy where Norman Granz got all the greats together. Back and forth on the Benzedrine Highway (Rt. 66) to K.C. sneaking in clubs where Jay McShann and Bird played and back to Wichita across the tracks to hear the great Race Music that would form Rhythm & Blues, Fats Domino, Hank Ballard on to Denver up the grade in our 39 Buick 8 with gears on the floor, and down to San Antone, along the Mexican border XELO that would play everything all night long, Bob Wills, Jimmy Rogers, Roy Acuff back to Oklahoma to join my mother driving in a daredevil show jumping over cars and driving through a board wall of fire. It was all under the generic “traditional music”. I still have the songs on old LP’s all of it I danced to, and I rode the prairies in the backseat with the jukebox minimized in the green lit dashboard.
Shelton invited me to a 4by4 rally down in Mississippi. I told him I don’t need no 4by4/all I need is four on the floor! I love all great traditional music and classics too. I put my own words to Handel’s “Ode to St. Cecilia” while on Sandoz in S.F. and shooting up at Branaman’s listening to Schubert, I played that one too for Allen. I wrote a tribute to we jam econo for my friend Mike Watt that’s on his website somewhere and which covers some of my music history. I don’t know what the Beats listened too, at least until I played Allen the Dylan album for the first time. Then I think that’s all he listened to! Lately I’ve been hanging with the famous punkers of the time. (See my tribute to we jam econo).
Scot: It’s my understanding that you and A. D. Winans battled the corruption within the NEA during the seventies. What was this experience like, and were you and Winans able to accomplish any meaningful changes?
Charles: No. I can’t speak for Al, but I was blacklisted. I saw the sickness that pervades all government funding to poets. It produced a body of frauds mainly in the academic creative fields that had the reverse effect and destroyed art and culture in the sense that it became like most government programs, a monster in itself. The Kennedy’s thought they would do right by it and had Robert Frost read for their inauguration. Who read for Obama’s? Well that illustrates one aspect of it. There may be justification for public money in some public art projects, but I could point out the horror stories that art orgs have produced over the years. Poetry is/was such a personal thing and it effected me to see everyone else get some dough to write poetry. Allen said that maybe they didn’t give me an award because I’m not that good a poet. That was after I trashed him in my book, Trashing of America! Ha! Hart Crane never got a dime either. In his poem, “kron” he speaks of giving the guy playing violin on the corner something because he felt like it. Moved in other words. But it seems like a good way to find talent, it’s another thing to give millions to those who will never move you and have no talent, just pretense. Posers as the skateboards would say. But who would know the difference? The “great audience” of workshop poets?
Scot: Poetry Politics and Poetry Politicians have existed since the beginning. Do you find it worse today than when you were publishing in the old days?
Charles: Oh Yes. Since the dead Kennedys, I could chart the decadence. It’s too bad, too, because they thought they were doing such a marvelous thing with the arts endowments. But it didn’t work out in all the arts. I could write a book on it and have been included in some books on the subject. For the most part it made untalented people go after the awards. Quite a natural thing to do, but ask Willie Nelson why he plays for farm programs when the Agriculture Department is one of the biggest agencies that has given large subsidies since the early 1920’s. If you can answer that, you can understand poetry subsidies.
Scot: You were not only there in the heyday of the San Francisco poetry scene but part of it. What relationship (if any) did you have with Jack Micheline and Bob Kaufman?
Charles: Jack would come by our house in S.F and try to get me to read with him and bust it wide open. He was always so enthusiastic and I would tell him, hell the munchkins aren’t about to come and hear me read. I won’t be of any help to you. He expected the crowds like Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg. I told him that won’t happen. He’s too good. Then he’d leave me alone and I’d see him in NYC and we would ride the subway to his mother’s and he would rap all the way. Real stuff. He deserved the bandwagon, but I never jumped on any of them. He was always ready to celebrate. Bob was a little different. I saw him in his quite period and I was pretty much quiet, too, so we didn’t have much to say to each other. Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach became friends with him and they translated and published him and I think got Ferlinghetti to publish him.
Scot: I especially like your poem From Ancient Lands (Vernal Equinox Dream) Washington, D.C. 1984. Do you write many poems about your dreams? Talk a minute on this?
Charles: That is of scholarly interest in that it was dreamt at the very same time Allen had a dream about his mother. I went to his big reading at American University and afterwards we went to his hotel in Georgetown and he gave me some medicine and I showed him the poem and he told me about his poem. We went out to eat and he edited my poem a little bit. His poem to his mother was published in the NY Times the next weekend. I told him that the dream was an extension of the poem I wrote when my father died and he told Pam that poem was one of the greatest elegies in the English language, so it was kind of a literary highlight in that dark street at night. There wasn’t a party after his reading at American U.
Scot: Tell me about the anthology Hand On The Doorknob?
Charles: That was put together by Jeff Weinberg at Water Row and is still available. He wanted to do a reader of my selected poetry and prose. That’s the only book of mine available other than collectors on abebooks. I do have one my daughter put together for me with photos of friends and poems. Just as a sampler titled “Some Mother’s Son” a line from the song, “Tramp on The Street” by Molly O’Day that I remember my mother singing.
Scot: You published the first Zap Comix. Tell me a little about that. Do you still have a copy?
No. I sold mine long ago. It’s the only one signed by me next to my name printed on the back cover and Crumb’s signature beside that. The other “Plymell” Zaps or the first Zaps as they are sometimes called have been reported to sell for the highest price of any comix ever. There is the story of its printing “Curled in Character” in the book, Hand on The Doorknob. It is also in the coffee table book, “Rebel Visions” by Rosenkrantz that is the history of underground comix. It has great artwork all the way though it of all the comix artists and all the histories including photos and entries on me and a repro of the first Zap. It is on Amazon for a few bucks.
Scot: I was told you were being filmed for a project the other day. Tell me about that?
Charles: I’ve been asked to be in films and a screenplay for Last of Moccasins, but I don’t know how to write a screenplay. I was the first one to be interviewed and helped launch a Burroughs film that celebrates Naked Lunch that is at the junior festival at Sundance now. I forget what they call it. I’ve had other propositions and some videos, but mainly I work with my friend Laki who works with Grant Hart a lot and both of us when we are all together. He did one of me at St. Marks’ reading for Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s Ecstatic Peace. He’s done some video of Mike Watt and me, and some at Byron and Thurston’s Yod Space in Northampton.
Scot: Can you point to one specific experience growing up in Kansas or during your time in Kansas City that influenced your writing?
Charles: One that stopped me from writing a book about Kansas that Random House gave me a big advance for was when my sister took my son and me to the Monument Rocks in Grove County Kansas to write about a sacred site and the live rocks from outer space I dreamt about around the physical arrival of their carrier as a kid. I still have one of the live rocks on a sculpture I made. The rocks were later discovered and called “Bojie Stones” A great photo of monument rock is in the book of photographs Daniel Dancer sent me that he did of Kansas with text by Least Heat Moon. Anyway my son and I heard the ‘voice’ and I dropped the project immediately knowing that things that happened in that space were not to be written about. It was only later after much searching and corresponding with the late Loren Eiseley, (one of my main influences I read way before the beats) who knew the spirits of that area that I found where the voice came from. It is from the “tent ritual” explained in his essay, “The Dance of Frogs” in his book, The Star Thrower. Random House was good enough to let me keep the several thousand advance and the spirits of the space are still there.
Scot: What book that you have authored do you consider your best?
Charles: Some critics compare Last of the Moccasins to Algren, Céline, Burroughs, but I like the handset type of Apocalypse Rose that Dave Haselwood did as the last book on his turn of the century platen press at his former Auerhahn Press. He never circulated them though other than taking a few to bookstores in S.F.
Scot: It is obvious things have changed. A publisher told me the other day that poetry is in sad shape. If that is true, any thoughts on the subject?
Charles: Yes, I’m trying to write some essays that involve linguistics and the demise of poetry, English Departments, and the next era of electronic writing in the history of language and rhetoric. But that will take some time.
Scot: Do you see anybody out there that could spark a renaissance in poetry?
Charles: The safe academic institutional state poetry has successfully redefined it. Anything upsetting the status quo would be labeled sad and delusional by “anonymous”. That happened to me with the Doug Holder interview when it was published in a respected academic journal.
Scot: Were you given any advice when you started writing and what advice could you give to someone beginning to write?
Charles: I’ve never taken advice and would only give it upon impending doom, and we have until 2012, so I always procrastinate.
Scot: Name one thing you wished you had done?
Charles: Kept my job on the docks and stayed at Gough St, and by so doing gotten a nice Victorian through redevelopment. Or there was that three story building for 30 grand on the Bowery in NYC we were living next to in the 70’s I was trying to scrape up 3 grand down payment for when Richard Hell came over for a poem for his mag…or.. or..
Scot: Last Question. If you could speak to any of your old friends that have passed on, who would it be and what would you say?
Charles: I’d like to ask Burroughs just what the hell he’s doing.
Scot: And what would Burroughs have to say?
Charles: “Take it back to Walgreen’s?” I think he cut out somewhere and found a more interesting place in vast space. Or maybe Huncke found it and came to get him. The odd thing to me was after his services in Lawrence I wrote that tribute stanza that is on my Kansas beat site and came home and was “up” for about three weeks dancing and moving about like Neal as if I felt his creative presence, then PPFFT, he was gone and I stopped feeling it.