Vincent Katz: David Meltzer, 1937-2016

  Vincent Katz

  David Meltzer

  among Poet-Prophets

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David Meltzer, poet, musician, critic, fiction writer, interviewer, editor, historian, archivist, activist, renegade — and beautiful soul — left this planet on December 31, 2016. He would have been disturbed but not surprised by the violent attacks on reality and human rights currently taking place in the upper echelons of power — and he would have had a response. For, as much as David lived in the imagination, he was also a committed warrior against injustice in any place it might appear.

Photo: David and Tina Meltzer, photo by Harry Redl.


He valued and nurtured, and considered sacrosanct, the right of the individual mind to fly free from convention, and having arrived at such an exalted freedom, there to encounter like minds and bodies, to live in a world made by mind and desire. But he called out perpetrators of horrors and worked and called others to organize against them.


His poems were included in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (Grove Press, 1960). His books of poetry include The Clown (Semina, 1960), The Process (Oyez, 1965), The Dark Continent (Oyez, 1967), Yesod (Trigram, 1969), Arrows: Selected Poetry 1957-1992 (Black Sparrow, 1994), No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow, 2000), Beat Thing (La Alameda, 2004), David’s Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer (Penguin, 2005), and When I Was A Poet (City Lights, 2011). In addition, he published the following books of fiction: The Agency Trilogy (Brandon House, 1968), Orf (Brandon House, 1969), and Under (Rhinoceros, 1997).

David Meltzer by Les Gottesman.


His book on poetry and teaching, Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook, was published Oyez in 1977 and reprinted by City Lights in 2015. He edited several anthologies‘of Kabbalah, and ancient prayers and charms regarding birth and death — and Reading Jazz (Mercury House, 1996) and Writing Jazz (Mercury House, 1999).


When David was born, his father was a cellist in the Rochester, N.Y., Philharmonic. The family moved to Brooklyn when David was three. At camp in Maine one summer, he heard an incredible sound coming over the loudspeakers — one of the cooks had decided to play a record by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie! Thereafter, young David would skip swimming time to listen to records with the staff in the kitchen.


Later, he and his Dad lived on the West Side of Manhattan, and they would go together to hear Bebop artists performing in clubs: Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, among others. When David was 16, he and his Dad moved to Los Angeles. His father was in search of employment, and David landed in the right place at the right time for his initiation into the world of West Coast hipness.


‘L.A. in the 1950s was really nothing, compared to the New York that I had left,’ Meltzer explained in an interview he gave to me and my son, Oliver, in July of 2015. But after a short while, ‘on a year and a half sabbatical from high school,’ the action found him.


He would go with his girlfriend to see movies at ‘The Coronet Louvre Theatre’ — Buster Keaton, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Eisenstein, serious programming. ‘I would see this unusual-looking couple,’ Meltzer remembered, ‘and they were surrounded by an entourage.’ It turned out to be Wallace Berman, who epitomized the era’s avant-garde anomie, with his equally elegant and mysterious wife, Shirley.


One night, Meltzer saw them go across the street to a bookstore that sold interesting small press books and first editions. Meltzer quickly learned that Berman knew everything about everything — where to hear the coolest jazz, where to score the best reefer. The two finally met at a shed in Santa Monica that Meltzer’s girlfriend used as a studio. After she left, Ed Kienholz, later famous for his large-scale assemblages, took over the space.


David hung out in the shed, where he met, in addition to the Bermans, George Herms, Robert Alexander, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, and others who would play significant roles in the California poetry and art worlds. The painter John Altoon invited Meltzer to his studio. He’d been to Mallorca and showed Meltzer carbon copies of Robert Creeley’s poems and issues of the Black Mountain Review.

Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Jonathan Weiners, David Meltzer


Moving from L.A. to S.F. in 1957, Meltzer hunkered down in the outrider art movements that were percolating. In North Beach, he frequented ‘The Place’, run by two former Black Mountain College students, Leo Krikorian and Knute Stiles. Meltzer met Joanne Kyger there; he knew her longer than any other San Francisco poet.


He met Michael McClure at a record store on Grant Avenue. ‘Mike was an instructor at a gym,’ Meltzer recalled, ‘so he was really buff and handsome as a fox!’ There was the group around Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and across the street was ‘The Coexistence Bagel Shop’, where the counter man was Robert Stock, who identified with more formalist poetry.


It was the Duncan-Spicer meetings, though, that were catalytic for Meltzer, as they were for Kyger and many other aspiring poets. In Meltzer’s words, ‘It was remarkable having these people at the Sunday salons at Joe Dunn’s house in the Polk Street area. Robert and Jack would be there, and we’d bring our stuff with trembling hands and listen to their responses, which were similar but radically different, as their styles were. Jack was very lean, and Robert was expansive.’


Meltzer was already reading poetry with jazz at ‘The Jazz Cellar’ by that point. Realizing that reading with jazz was different from reading without musical accompaniment, Meltzer evoked jazz methodology. “I would write ‘head arrangements’ of poems,” he said. ‘I’d have a skeleton of a poem and then improvise with little hints throughout. I knew where the poem was going. We’d divide solos up. And we’d do fours.’


I asked him about the impact of jazz on his poetry writing. He replied, ‘Well, so much of writing anything on a good day is improvisation within a form. The music has always been there, ever since I started. Jazz was always a revelation of what was possible within the poem and had a great impact on a lot of poets of those generations. And also, it was a forbidden subculture, going into the neon jungle. But the music was very powerful.’


We talked about visual artists, and he recalled vivid times with Herms, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Manuel Neri, and others.


When I probed deeper, into the meaning of San Francisco itself in the poetry of the time, the role of poetry in all that was fermenting and actualizing in the culture, Meltzer bristled just a little. ‘All art movements are resistance movements!’ he exclaimed. ‘Their struggle is about saying ‘No!’ as much as saying ‘Yes!’ I remember Philip Lamantia, Lew Welch, and I were walking Philip to his apartment, and Lew had this idea, ‘Let’s put out a magazine and call it Bread, and poets will be honest and talk about what they do to get their bread! What is it to be a poet? It’s a shape-shifting question. It’s a practice, the results are what it yields over time. It’s not fixed, it’s fluid. There are ups, there are downs. There is laughter! There’s weeping!’


Or, as Meltzer has written, ‘The poem is a two-way mirror concealing a page.’

David Meltzer: Poet Song Album cover.


Meltzer’s book-length poem Beat Thing is an amazing amalgam of set and setting, alchemizing pop culture, counterculture, television, jazz, rock’n’roll, within the recent, unavoidable, but generally, at the time, unspoken history of the Nazis’ brutal destruction of Europe’s Jewish population, the United States’ implementation of the atomic bomb, its fearsome beauty invoked, just as colleague Bruce Conner evoked it in film, and underlying all, the beat, the African-American odyssey within white America, the suffering, but also the visionary knowledge that accrues to the outsider. Here’s a selection from the middle of the poem:


‘Cool Blues’ Boston’s Hi-Hat 1953
Bird’s dry incisive tone
the Georgian dies & Kenyatta convicted
Heidegger’s new book Julius & Ethel fry
‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window’
‘aliens to community’
they makes us just & righteous
‘resentful hair’
marbleized suet lard weave
good life goad Blimp toad
Parker clams so quick shame don’t last
he’s onto the next extensive scroll
locals try to keep up w/
‘every animal mates only w/
a member of the same species:
the titmouse seeks the titmouse
finch the finch
stork the stork
field mouse the field mouse
dormouse the dormouse
wolf the she-wolf’
‘one of the great modernists of all times’
‘a great gentleman of jazz’
‘spongers parasites poisonous mushrooms
rats leeches bacilli TB syphilis’


Meltzer was a regular contributor to Berman’s ultra-hip and elegant mail-only journal, Semina. You couldn’t subscribe — you only got it if Berman decided you were real enough. Then he’d send it to you.


It came as a box with diverse pieces of paper, unbound — poems by Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, Ray Bremser, Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Kaufman, Lamantia, McClure, John Wieners, et al, printed on a hand press. Visual artists Altoon and Jess were also part of the mix, the visual arts playing a significant role in this poets’ world, as evidenced in the extensively illustrated exhibition catalogue Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle (Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2005), edited by Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna.


Meltzer’s poetry felt hermetic to me when I first encountered it, in a reprint of Semina. But as I became more familiar with it, a blend defined itself as the typical motivation of Meltzer’s work, melding the erotic, the mystical, the unlocking of wisdom through the letter (which he shared with Berman), draped in the hipster’s vision of African-American rhythm, the only salvation from straight, white America.


Arose, he rose, his sore stem
bud pricked bush flower array
pointing to love’s floral glossary

stalks habit her blossom he roots for
again, arise love flower
making vocabulary

what’s left hive as mirrors to re-arrange light
unthinking blinking cock engorged divining
rod roots up its twitchy energy antenna
imagines love or God whatever we root for
                     — from ‘Arrows,’ published in Arrows: Selected Poetry 1957-1992


Meltzer’s musicality expressed itself in his poetry, in his writing about music, but also in his music, as he decided to form a band to perform his poems. His band, ‘Serpent Power’, put out an eponymous album on Vanguard Records in 1967. David’s wife, Tina, sings hauntingly on the album, especially on the track, ‘Flying Away.’


The other musicians on the album are Denny Ellis, rhythm guitar, David Stenson, bass, John Payne, organ — and fellow poet Clark Coolidge on drums! Meltzer plays guitar and sings. David and Tina’s softer, more poetry-based Poet Song came out from Vanguard in 1969. They played with some of future superstars of the era – Janis Joplin, Country Joe & The Fish, Jefferson Airplane. Eventually, though, as Meltzer has written, ‘Our stardom as folk rockers was minor and momentary. We were raising three young daughters and odd jobbing to keep it together.’


Meltzer edited The San Francisco Poets for Ballantine Books in 1971, featuring his interviews with Brother Antoninus, Richard Brautigan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and Welch. In 2001, City Lights put out an expanded edition, San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, including additional interviews with Diane di Prima, Jack Hirschman, Kyger, Lamantia, Jack Micheline, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

David Meltzer: The Serpent Power album cover, with Meltzer at center and drummer Clark Coolidge at top.


Meltzer’s was a significant voice in the countercultural movement of those years. In a chapbook entitled Isla Vista Notes: Fragmentary Apocalyptic Didactic Contradictions, published in 1970, Meltzer writes, ‘These are notes, thought-fragments, digests, deep & quick responses… Not many answers. These are mainly questions I asked myself.’ The meditations found therein primarily concern the meaning of revolution. ‘Garbage, like shit,’ he writes, ‘is a waste product of what we consume. When there’s more garbage & shit & less & less trees, rivers, food & peace, it is not hard to say that society is in profound trouble.’ The key idea is that revolution, like garbage, is not something to be passed on to someone else, but a problem to be dealt with by each individual, in conjunction with others.


Meltzer’s books on jazz are as authoritative and respectful as his interviews with poets. ‘Reading Jazz was more from the white perspective,’ Meltzer explained in our interview, ‘the colonization, and the owning, and the creation of jazz as a subject. Writing Jazz was more from the black diaspora, including the States. The books were in essence about racism and how jazz was appropriated culturally in the United States.’


Meltzer’s book-length work No Eyes: Lester Young channels the master tenor sax stylist’s final year, when, marooned by sickness, he would look down from a room in the Arvin Hotel at Birdland, where he could observe the comings and goings of other jazz musicians. Meltzer writes in that poem:


clear moon slice
what a night for death
streetlight eye pain
berserk neons down Broadway
they stand in doorways coffins
deal & hustle it’s all good
& done & I’m still chorusing
naming not blaming
no retreat merely returning


Meltzer was a revered teacher at New College in San Francisco for some thirty years and was loved by many in the poetry community, in the Bay Area, and beyond. His wit and classic with-it jazzman’s humor, his ability to keep it real, to be a real leader in the community, ultimately a mensch in a world without many, will be greatly missed.


Bird Lives! the hipsters used to say. In his poetry and all he left behind, Meltzer too lives on.

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