Edward Sanders: Not Enough Night Interview

Fall '05 TOC

Interviewed by Junior Burke

NOT ENOUGH NIGHT: July 8, 2005. We're at Naropa University being recorded by the Naropa Archives and we're speaking with Edward Sanders. . . . Monday night, the opening night of the Summer Writing Program, you and Steven Taylor performed new verses from "America the Beautiful" at Penny Lane. Some of them [seemed to come] from a sense that patriotism these days is being appropriated and you want to reclaim it.

EDWARD SANDERS: Absolutely. Songs like "America the Beautiful" had their origins in a more liberal and progressive sense of the United States. I was asked to join a songwriting project by friend Tuli Kupferberg. He calls them parasongs, where you write new lyrics to established tunes. It goes back to Martin Luther, who wrote Christian hymns to tavern songs. Woody Guthrie appropriated tunes for some of his radical songs. So I agreed to write some words to a song, to take part in a book that Tuli had prepared called Parasongs. I thought I would take "America the Beautiful"; I really worked hard. This was a year ago in the summertime. I wanted to celebrate the promise of America and things like healthcare and clean water and flying across the United States from coast to coast where you have the beautiful eastern hardwoods, farmlands of the Midwest, the Mississippi, the beautiful high country desert of Nebraska, Kansas and then Colorado and the mountains. How can you fly across the United States and not recognize its enormous physical beauty? So then I urged America to be peaceful in outer space when they go out on the tall ships toward Mars, to do it in a peaceful way. And then I call for the end to class and an end to strife. It speaks to the best aspects of America and the kind of patriotism most people, even radicals, or progressives, could support; the best aspects of a democracy. There's a lot of freedom in the United States. We forget often, those of us who are dissidents, how much we have to thank our founding people: Jefferson, Adams and Benjamin Franklin; Abigail Adams and all the people that came here and founded the Republic. And, as I pointed out the other night, any nation that can invent the wah-wah pedal cannot be a totally bad place.

NEN: It seems like America is very much a theme for you; you're doing a history of America in verse. How did that come about?

ES: Well, in Naropa, 1975. . . . I thought of a lecture and called it "Investigative Poetry" because when I had written my book on the Manson Family in 1970–71, I found myself writing some of the text with line breaks although I had a typist who took my line break text and typed it into regular paragraphs. Many of the techniques I used in writing my book on the Manson Family could apply to something I called investigative poetry. How to work with people, how to prepare question lists, how to be very methodical, how to take notes under really stressful circumstances, how to stay calm under any circumstances. So, I wrote this manifesto [Investigative Poetry] and Ferlinghetti printed it. A few years went by and I did lectures and people would ask me, 'Who's been writing investigative poems?' So I decided, time to start writing in the Investigative Poetry genre. I wrote a verse biography on Anton Chekhov. I wrote a book called 1968: A History in Verse. I wrote a long book called The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg, in poetry form. I was reading William Blake's America: A Prophecy and decided to write about American history in verse. And John Martin, who ran Black Sparrow Press, very graciously agreed to publish it. Three volumes have been printed. I started out with the twentieth century and now I'm almost at the end of the twentieth century and then I'll work back through the nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth and sixteenth. I'm working on all six volumes at the same time right now. The next will cover the Nixon years and Carter years and some of the Reagan years and will be published in 2006. The final volume of the twentieth century will include Clinton and the first George Bush. The others will march back through time. I thought I'd write about the century I'd lived through first 'cause I knew most about it. I've been working on it since 1998.

NEN: It's so thoroughly researched; what's the method?

ES: I read relentlessly. Sometimes I pick up assistants who will help, but basically I do the research myself. My golden rule for this kind of thing is to immediately break the material you encounter in books and in printed sources—immediately start breaking them up into lines and try to get a sense of the text that you're going to use as an open field, charged poetry surface. And so I create big long chronologies. Only five percent can I use in the book. The stuff I say "no" to is at least twenty times more than what I say "yes" to. Each thing has a page number and source. Let's say I read something I know I want to use, I try to transform it. If I don't, I put it in quotation marks to avoid any sense of borrowing somebody else's writing. But my advice is to immediately transform it. Change the word order. I have a computer file for every one of my investigative books; all the sources for every sentence are sequentially followed by the book with the page number, the author, publication, this and that, so that I can immediately fast click it. Inaccuracy is difficult if you take that level of care.

NEN: You came to New York through reading Howl in shop class in high school in [Jackson City] Missouri. What was that like, reading that text at that time in that location, at that point in your life?

ES: Very mind opening or revolutionary life-changing experience. I purchased Howl at the University of Missouri bookstore. There was a fraternity weekend, where you go down there from your high school and stay at a fraternity. You might get to meet sorority girls, drink a little beer. But I did go to the University of Missouri bookstore in the context of that fraternity weekend and bought Howl. And why did I buy it? Because I knew William Carlos Williams. I was more interested in William Carlos Williams's introduction to Howl than I was in Allen Ginsberg. I bought other things. I bought Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; I bought some stuff. And I had been writing a lot of poetry. I was more interested in Edgar Allen Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier. And I was beginning to become slightly aware of something called Ezra Pound. I wasn't quite sure what the deal was, other than he was supposed to be a very good poet, but was also a traitor. Anyway, basically I memorized Howl; I had it all in my mind. I used to, on the weekends, drive around the town square with my drinking buddies. We'd be drinking Griesedick Brothers Beer or Falstaff. I'd be howling away reciting Howl. After a while, my friends would start a regular conversation while this crazy guy was reciting this strange poem in the back seat. That sort of made me realize I could possibly have a life as a poet. I also became roughly aware of Dylan Thomas around that time. So Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound and then Allen Ginsberg. . . . And I never thought I'd ever meet him. I came to New York to study rocket science at New York University and it happened that NYU was next to Greenwich Village, and voila! A year or so after coming to New York I saw Allen at poetry readings and Kerouac at poetry readings and Corso at poetry readings and Frank O'Hara and all these people, and slowly I decided to become a full-time poet.

NEN: Bob Dylan just released his Chronicles. Rather than telling a chronology of his life, he chose to take a few parts of it and just focus on them. One of the things that he [presented] very effectively was his first days in New York. I assume that you have similar impressions, some which you recounted in Tales of Beatnik Glory.

ES: They didn't have regional poetry networks then. They didn't have poetry coffee houses in every junior college in America. You couldn't stay in Pennsylvania and make it as a viable poet. You either had to go to San Francisco/Berkeley or you came to New York City. It so happened that I was accepted to New York University, so I borrowed my father's suitcase and hitchhiked with $35 to New York City in the summer of 1958 and I immediately read about the Gotham Bookmart. I had my Howl; I had my Samuel Beckett. I had already bought Being and Nothingness by John Paul Sartre and I had the Upanishads and I'd read the Beats were interested in Buddhism so I'd already got a couple of Buddhist texts from the Cokesbury Bookstore in Kansas City. So I came in with my books, but I went to the Gotham Bookmart and basically spent money, too much of my money. And that's how I came to New York. I hitchhiked in, took a bus from Newark to the Port Authority, then walked over to 47th street to the Gotham Bookmart. I had been in New York when I was a high school junior. My sister lived here in 1956 and stayed out in Queens. I had my first taste of New York City jazz, went to the Randall's Island Jazz Festival and to a lot of Broadway shows. I had been exposed to jazz a lot in Kansas City. 'Cause the jazz clubs would let kids, young kids, in for some reason, I don't know why. But we could get in all the 12th and Vine jazz clubs in Kansas City.

NEN: You mentioned the writing of the Manson book The Family. You managed to portray, or suggest, a very sinister subtext of what the climate was like in Los Angeles at that time. Does that resonate for you at all?

ES: Yeah, sure. I don't think it's so much there anymore. There [were] cadres of organized evil there. There were cults and people [who] believed in sacrifice of living things. There was a sense of organized evil. Evil for the sake of evil. The thing about evil, it often has to scurry underneath the cover of night. America is not into organized evil, unless you call the sequence of wars that it engages in, organized evil. But the general societal structure of America is not into organized evil in that sense. Most people want calm times of doing their laundry, watching television, just hanging out and having fun. So, there was that climate there. It's a complicated thing. I've written more about it in the subsequent editions of The Family. I put out an edition two years ago, three years ago with a bunch of new photographs and a hundred new pages. I've been collecting more material; I have a lot more material. I'm going to do a final edition to talk about, what was that Orson Wells movie, A Touch of Evil? It was kind of a touch of evil and Manson was affected by it.

NEN: At some point you went to Woodstock and made a commitment to that community and began a publication. When did that take place?

ES: Oh, I had trouble after my Manson book came out. I had a few rough years. There's nothing like success to screw up your life. So, anyway, around 1974 we moved; my daughter was getting ready to go into junior high school, was still in elementary school. We looked around and Woodstock seemed okay. Art colony, rents were affordable, so we moved up there. I didn't move up there to be a part of the community. I just moved up there to have a kind of haven. Woodstock was known for just letting people live there. When I moved there, Philip Guston was there painting away, and Anton Refregier, painting away. And there were a lot of artists. Milton Glaser, the designer, was there, Milton Avery, the painter. . . . And a lot of jazz players. Jack Dejohnette was there and Cecil Taylor would come to teach. It seemed okay. It was a pretty, bluestone, Catskills town. Clean water, safe; you didn't have to lock your car at night. We moved into a farmhouse that had been there since the early nineteenth century, and I was looking for the locks. This old farmhouse we were living in had never had in one hundred seventy years. 'Cause I was used to police locks, a couple deadbolts, maybe a siren or something, in New York City. Went up there for a little safety. In those days, women could walk in the streets at night and never get touched. It was safe; it was a good place to move. And we slowly developed a sense of community and became involved more and more. As I said, I'm in the Whitman wing of the Democratic Party, so I've been very active in Democratic Party politics for about twenty years. I basically wrote my town's zoning laws. I wrote an aerial spraying law. I helped write the environmental quality law. Then, writing a lot of speeches for candidates while trying to keep the region more or less environmentally intact. We wrote our laws. We don't let big hotels come in. It's a tourist town, so Marriot, they would all love to build hotels there. We don't allow it. We figured out legal ways of restricting developments. I don't think a Wal-Mart or a Sears could come here.

NEN: Our country is at war right now and the sense is that this present administration has become very effective at neutralizing dissent. Any comments on that?

ES: I think it began in 2000, once the Democrats allowed them to steal the election. Then liberals say, "What's going on here?" So what they did was turn their back on it. Like Matisse during World War II, during the Vichy government, just painting away. Not that he should have been in the Resistance, but that's what people did after 2000. The election was clearly stolen. Right wing goons went down, like this guy Bolton, to whom they're gonna give the U.S. ambassadorship [to the United Nations], he's the one that led the goons. And who were the goons? They were Governor Pataki of New York, Christy Whitman of New Jersey; they acted like Yippies. It's like they were studying Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, reading the transcript of the Chicago Seven trial to see how they should disrupt the election in Florida, and it worked. Now I'm a Democrat and I'm active, but many Democrats are lame-o's. And Gore's the worst, he's just like, "Eh, can't do anything about it, so that's it." That mood went through to 2004, where the stolen election was much more complicated. It was like shaving CCNY basketball games. They had to shave the vote in a bunch of states, even states where Kerry clearly won, they could shave so he didn't win by so much. They needed a plurality of about three million votes in order for the Democrats to say, "Oh, fuck it." Even if we challenge Florida, where the basic theft was. Florida, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Clear places where [there was] vote theft. I mean, every computer in New Mexico—every district with a computer, even districts when it's like 80 percent Democrat—each computer in New Mexico went for Bush. I could talk on and on and on about it. I think what happens is, people want to get on with it. It's like with a car wreck. You have a terrible car wreck, you look around; you think, is everybody okay, is anybody hurt? And everybody says, "I'm okay. The car's totaled, but I'm okay." And that's sort of what happened. America, in a way, totaled in 2004. And they're really smart. If it was stolen again, it was stolen in a much more cunning way that what the goons did. The goons were spread out all over the country, in my opinion. So Democrats have got to get it together. Otherwise they can run the ghost of John Kennedy and they'd still lose. That's the horror. What we need is an open and transparent computer voting system, and they exist. Australia has a clearly understood coded voting system that's totally honest and transparent; there are no proprietary secrets. Brazil, they had a center-left candidate win in Brazil with computers. The same way in Venezuela. Venezuela had an honest computer voting system, so it is possible to have. But it's a terrible situation in America where the right wing controls all the computer voting systems. I mean it boggles the mind. They're really harsh. Some of them are fundamentalist Christians who believe that the laws of the United States should be based on the Old Testament—I think it's called dominionism, funded by ultra rich right-wing Christian reconstructionist types. The real ultra right wing are the ones that funded the original computer voting systems in the mid nineties. So it's not good for the United States.

NEN: You mentioned Hoffman and Rubin. Looking back, how do you see their place in history?

ES: I usually don't talk about the Yippies. You know they say politics make strange bedfellows. Anti-war movements make strange bedfellows. I didn't like to be in anti-war demonstrations with people carrying the Viet Cong flag, 'cause I'm a pacifist. I didn't think the Viet Cong should blow up people or whatever. The Yippies were useful in the sense that they brought some of the principles of guerrilla theatre that emanated from the Living Theatre and from certain radical-like malice theatre groups. Street theatre, the concept of guerilla theatre. They picked up on that. I had my quarrels with both of them. But I wrote a book with them and I was one of the founders of the Youth International Party and knew them very intimately. Jerry Rubin dressed up in Viet Cong black trousers, a toy submachine gun and wore Indian war paint on his face, showing up to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee. That was a historic event. That picture of him will probably last more than anything he ever did. Abbie was the Jim Thorpe of the radicals. He was incredibly talented; he was very brilliant. He just didn't believe in himself as an artist. And so he didn't take seriously his writing. He was very charismatic, had a lot of energy. In the years before he became a real manic depressive, he had unbelievable energy. Unfortunately though, he couldn't ever slow down enough to pay attention to art, [to] creative writing. He could've been like a number of radical writers, W.E.B. Du Bois, for instance, or any writer who took on long-term radical issues and wrote about them. He had the mind to do it, but squandered his enormous talents. None of us are perfect, and I hope he's resting wherever he is.

NEN: I would like to ask you about the Fugs, but I'd also like to say the last Fugs album was just terrific, contemporary and with it.

ES: It's like an art project. It's something we began in 1964, but a career's a long thing. A career is fifty, sixty years; seventy years depending on how long the artist lives. So I wanted to keep a band together. By luck we put together a group in 1985 that stayed together. They all have careers like Steve Taylor, a professor here at Naropa, but also a beautiful singer and excellent guitar player and arranger. My co-founder, Tuli Kupferberg, [will] be eighty-two in the fall. I think the one you saw was probably The Fugs Final CD (Part 1). So we're probably going to do Part 2, we're going to record Tuli's new songs.

NEN: Because some of the songs were celebrating freedom of speech and stuff like that, there was an impression early on that it [The Fugs] was more of a novelty or something. "Homemade Shit," songs like that. But when people got into it, they saw it was coming from a poetic base.

ES: All those New York intellectuals like Elizabeth Hardwick, that was her favorite song. And Philip Roth got the idea for Portnoy's Complaint, watching Tuli Kupferberg sing "Jackoff Blues." It's a tradition of Brecht. Where I grew up in Missouri there was a whole heritage of risqué songs. I learned them often in the context of religious retreats. I came from a very religious background. You learn these songs at Christian Camp. You might learn "My First Trip Up the Mackinaw River" or a bunch of erotic tunes, so it was a tradition I already knew. We were testosterone-crazed young men; we blundered a little bit. Some are not what you'd call politically correct, like "Supergirl," and I guess "Coca Cola Douche" might not have been the most proper song to write.

NEN: But that's what I'm saying. People who didn't get into the nuances. . .

ES: Well, we did Swinburne and Blake stuff. And Shakespeare. . .

NEN: Greek references. . .

ES: Yeah, so it's no easy answer. People criticized Brecht for bringing these kind of risqué elements to his tunes. Singing is much more conservative than writing; imagine at the Metropolitan Opera, say Philip Glass did an opera using the dialogue of one of the Soprano's episodes; I mean he'd get put in jail. [Sings] "Motherfucker, take that!!" They'd get blown off stage.

NEN: It was ironic that, for a time you were on Reprise Records, which was Frank Sinatra's label.

ES: Well, I had to thank Frank for letting us on the label because they played our first album on Reprise for him, Tenderness Junction. Mo Ostin had to play it for him, the head of Reprise during '67, when we signed with Reprise. And Frank said, according to Mo, "I guess you know what you're doing." So, voila! We were on. I always felt grateful to Old Blue Eyes for that. He basically was a working class liberal from New Jersey no matter what he was. He was like a poet, mean and nice and rough and soft.

NEN: This is the Kerouac School. One of the pieces I've seen archived is his final television appearance which was on, I believe, the William Buckley program which you were on as well. Would you care to elaborate on that experience?

ES: I'd see him [Kerouac] walk by my bookstore on East 10th Street, headed for Allen's pad just down the street and then he would call me now and then and somewhere in my archives are a couple a little poems he dictated. He wasn't totally friendly. He became a curmudgeon a little too early in life, I'm not sure why. Maybe through the influence of his mother, who was very conservative; you might even call her right-wing and certainly anti-Semitic. Anyway, he was a very torn guy by the time I came to know him in 1965 when I first had conversations with him on the phone. And I became pretty close with Allen, so Allen would tell me a lot of things about Jack, some of which I wouldn't care to repeat. . . . I think Burroughs was in the Delmonico writing his piece for Esquire after the Chicago riots, the Chicago demonstrations, and Jack may have stopped off there before going to the Buckley show. We had to go up in advance and check in and speak to Buckley and figure out what we were gonna do. Jack was in that checked jacket he was buried in about a year later, and we both were on the same elevator and I didn't recognize him, because the drinking had transformed him. He looked kind of like a state trooper; he was getting a little heavy, his hair was slicked back. Anyway, we had a discussion. It wasn't that friendly and he was drunk and had been driven down from Lowell by one or more of his close friends there. I've met one of them since then and I forget his name; he viewed it as a sacred journey. He got to go down with Kerouac to this fancy hotel and meet the great William Burroughs and then come to the right-wing hero's television show. Allen's in the audience, so Allen and I discuss what to do. Kerouac had, I'm not going to repeat what he said to me in the elevator, but he was not friendly and he basically accused me of trying to copy Allen, which in a way was true. But I certainly, by then, had my own books out. I had the Fuck You/ Press and had published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. I had the Fugs. I had been on the cover of Life magazine. I had been on a lot of television shows, had fans that sometimes camped outside my house. I was almost as famous as Jack Kerouac. He was kind of in a decline and was writing for girly mags at that stage in his career and living an insular life. I didn't feel the comparison was just, so I talked it over with Allen. He [Kerouac] helped me get out of the Midwest and just his Mexico City Blues alone and Subterraneans and Dharma Bums were a big influence on me. I said, "I'm not gonna fight with him no matter what he says to me." So the show began. We were sitting up on fairly large individual cubes, but as I remember, Kerouac fell off his, during a break. He was smoking little cigarillos, Muriel Coronellas, thirty-five cents a pack. His chair fell off the thing and he went to the floor and Buckley said, "That's it!" They wanted to throw Kerouac off and bring Allen on, and I said, "No, no, no, no! He'll be all right, he'll be fine." So we finished the show. We were very friendly afterwards. With Kerouac and Allen and others, we went to a nearby Times Square bar and drank and I never saw him again. Another guy who should have lived onward. The Catholic-Buddhist synthesis should have been interesting to explore, but he didn't live to do it. I think he might not have been such a right-wing nut. He voted for Nixon; he voted for Eisenhower. He voted for Nixon in 1960. That was the beatnik split. Ginsberg voted for John Kennedy; Kerouac voted for Nixon. And then, you couldn't imagine Kerouac in a necklace. That was the stage, the shift. All of a sudden there were no more beatniks and you were a hippie. So this idea of wearing pantaloons and Merlin-curved toed shoes and runic thumb rings and weird granny glasses with rose quartz lenses and headdresses and caftans. And Kerouac, it was too much for him. He had a weird sense of patriotism. He was raised to viscerally hate communists, but like many anti-communists, lumped too many things under the rubric of communism. Too many cultural things that were quite separate from what he called, thought of, as authoritarian or totalitarian communism. So it was a tragedy.

NEN: In terms of now and the future, do you feel hopeful?

ES: I have a lot of Irish blood in my blood veins and was raised to be hopeful. I come from, on my father's side, a long line of farmers. And a farmer is always moaning and groaning about "Oh, is this really gonna work?" as he plows and puts in seeds. I view myself as a nonviolent socialist revolutionary. By that I mean a civilization where everybody has six weeks paid vacation. Everybody has cradle-to-grave healthcare; everyone's given access to travel and fun. An inalienable right to fun and thrills. That all philosophies as to lifestyle, say transgender and regular old hetero, are equally respected by the culture. Where the food supply is organic and the energy is as clean as possible. People, border disputes are immediately taken care of. So I'm hopeful. I think every forty or fifty years there's a big revolutionary upsurge. The child labor laws and Social Security of the thirties. The sixties, some of the good things that happened in Paris and in the United States. It's time again, about time, for another surge.

:: Next ::

Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
© 2012 Naropa University