Jack Micheline and A.D.Winans, San Francisco, 1996.
Jack Micheline lived in San Francisco. He authored several books, including I Kiss Angels, Skinny Dynamite, Letter to Jack Kerouac in Heaven and A Man Obsessed who does Not Sleep Who Wanders About the Night Mumbling to Himself Counting Empty Beer Cans. In 1957, Nat Hentoff, Jean Shepard and Charles Mingus awarded him the Revolt in Literature Award at the Half-Note Club in New York City. That same year his first book, River of Red Wine was introduced by Jack Kerouac. This interview was conducted September 23, 1997, in San Francisco and published shortly after his death in 1998.
A.D. WINANS: You have often said that you’re not a poet. What do you mean by that statement? If you’re not a poet what is a poem?
What is a poem? I don’t know, but when I feel high, when I feel intuitive, when I feel good, I write very quickly. My pen or pencil moves on the pages of my notebooks. I feel like I’m tuned into a higher space. A connection to a higher spirit. I really don’t know what a poem is. I don’t concern myself with definitions, so I’m not really interested in what a poem is.
A.W.: In your latest collection of poems, I was moved by a poem you wrote for your grandfather. What is your fondest memory of your grandfather?
Louie Lipinsky was his name. He was a poor guy, who got kicked out of his wife’s house, and went out on his own, later in life. He used to look in garbage cans and bring me the funnies. He would always find clean funnies to bring me. He would tell me: “Son, learn to laugh. Life is very cruel. The most spiritual people in America were Indians and we wiped them out.” His advice to me was to learn to laugh. That was the message my grandfather gave me.
A.W.: Jack Kerouac wrote a foreword for your first book of poems. How did you meet Kerouac and what was your relationship with him?
I was living on Cornelia Street in the Village, and I knew this guy named Bob Cass, who edited Climax magazine. Cass had earlier met Kerouac at a bar on Sheridan Square. When I met Cass, he gave me the address of Kerouac, who was living in Florida. I mailed Kerouac a copy of my first book of poems (River of Red Wine) because the small press publisher agreed to publish the book if I could get a famous man to write an introduction to the book. Kerouac received the book, read it, got drunk and wrote an introduction. I became famous because Kerouac wrote a drunk introduction, and because it was reviewed by Dorothy Parker in Esquire Magazine.
A.W.: Could you elaborate a bit more on your personal relationship with Kerouac, after he wrote the introduction to your book.
I saw him 13 times, and he was drunk out of his mind 12 of those times. The reason is that once he got off the typewriter, once he got off the act of creation, who could he relate to? The man was on top of a mountain. He comes down off the mountain, and goes into the city, and finds a lot of sad people in those bar rooms. So the poor guy drank himself to death. Not that he should have been sober. He loved to drink and like most geniuses, he drank himself to death. Just like Franz Kline and so many others. Kerouac was a high being. A great spirit. A man with a heart. He also had a great sense of humor. Bit it was a great time when I met him. Jazz musicians, poets, writers, dancers, actors and painters, all doing their own thing.
A.W.: Do you think the Beat era was an explosion just waiting to happen?
The beat era came out of a very sterile time in America. It was right after the McCarthy period, and there was no rebellion in the country. The publication of Howl brought a message that maybe we could become a more free nation, but it didn’t turn out that way. Everyone has to fight for their own creative edge. In other words, just because Howl was published doesn’t mean the country became any better. I mean it’s good Ginsberg got published and recognized, but each writer has to fight his individual battle against censorship. Censorship still exists, even after Howl. The main thing is that with the publication of Howl, it opened up a lot of peoples’ minds and gave a lot of people the courage to be themselves, so it was a very significant thing. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti deserves credit for publishing Howl. Howl was the spark that set things off.
A.W.: A spark that had to be fought in the courts in order to be heard. Even today we face the battle against censorship.
Most politicians are censors. The talk about freedom in America is just that, talk. Freedom is not practical in America. Censorship sucks forever. Censorship has not only to do with politics, but with a person’s attitude toward life and other people. It’s a local neighborhood thing, because it begins there. Someone is refused a job or kicked out of school because of narrow-minded prejudice. Where did prejudice begin? I don’t have the answer. We know about the Hollywood Ten, but there were a lot of other people during that period of time who couldn’t find jobs and who weren’t part of the Hollywood Ten. If I want to be a degenerate, then that’s my right, I don’t want anyone taking that away from me. America has always been narrow minded. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
A.W.: You spent time both in Greenwich Village and North Beach during their height of their creativity. What differences were there between the Village and North Beach?
Greenwich Village was a poor, working class Italian neighborhood. Because the rent was cheap, the people poor, it was the center of artistic expression. It was an openness, a lot of activity. When I went from the Village to North Beach, I found that the rent there was cheap too, and there was a lot of creative activity. There was a lot of jazz places when I came to San Francisco and Lenny Bruce was a genius comic. Greenwich Village and North Beach were two separate realities, but I feel people related better in Greenwich Village. In North Beach, there were a lot of bars, but some of them, like Vesuvio’s, had too many tourists. But there was also an openness to create. Poetry was everywhere. We drank a lot. Every day Bob Kaufman and I read a poem. It isn’t part of history, but I was arrested for ‘pissing on top of a police car’ the same night that Bob Kaufman was arrested outside the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. We were taken down to the Kearney Street police station and thrown in the drunk tank, where they beat Kaufman up, and they beat me up too.
A.W.: Charles Bukowski spoke highly about your work in his many letters to me. How well did you know him?
I was friendly with Bukowski when he lived in Hollywood, on De Longpre Street, in the early days before he became famous. I used to go over to his place and drink with him. He was a kind hearted guy. John Martin used to come over to Hank’s apartment and leave Hank are supplies so that hank could create drawings, which he used to promote his books. Hank was already King of the Little Magazines, having flooded them with thousands of poems, most of them sent out without keeping carbon copies. Everyone was coming to his place, and begging him to do introductions for their books. I guess everyone wanted a piece of him. I mean he was really nice back then, before he left the post office, before he became famous. He was like a sincere, honest person. I liked him. We went to the track together a few times. He was very vulnerable, and he changed, like everyone does after they become famous. He had to protect himself, that’s understandable. He had a magic there, and it carried over to his short stories.
A.W.: How has music influenced your poetry?
I was born to a poor family in the Bronx, in an Irish potato neighborhood. If my family had been cultured people, they would have probably sent me to music school and I would have become a composer. I hear music all the time. I write the music first, before I write the poem. I hear the music, the rhythms; and so yes, music has influenced my all my life. I love Van Morrison. I like classical music, and the blues and jazz. I like good music, and music has definitely been a big influence in my life. And I’ve written 15 songs, which a group in Indiana is going to record as part of a CD. I can’t remember when music wasn’t an important part of my life. Without music there is no life.
A.W.: You read at the California Music Hall accompanied by the late great Charlie Mingus. Did you know Charlie Parker, Lester Young or any of the other great jazz musicians?
I met them all. The long the short and the tall. I knew Charlie Mingus very well because he was one of the judges who awarded me the Revolt in the Literature Award at the Half-Note Club in the 1957, in New York City. I had never won anything in my life, Mingus gave me $20 worth of records. He was one of my influences, on of my encouragers. I only met Charlie Parker one time, through the piano player, Freddy Redd. I met Lester Young briefly, just once. I read 22 times with Bob Feldman, my tenor player in New Your. I’ve read my poetry many times to the accompaniment of jazz musicians, but I don’t consider myself a true jazz poet. I’m a high spirit. Totally misunderstood.
A.W.: Who would you consider a true jazz poet?
Bob Kaufman was a true jazz poet. He was more musical. He figured in the rhapsody of bop and jazz. I’m a lyrical pert. I was born in a poor Irish neighborhood. The Irish are very lyrical people. The Irish were a very big influence in my life. So sure music has played a big influence in my life and the poems that I’ve written.
A.W.: There are a lot of poets who seem to value fame more than integrity. Poets who give up their personal identity and former beliefs to write whatever is popular at the time. Do you have an opinion on this?
The people are totally seduced in this nation. I’m looking for the rare human being. Most people give up everything just to stay alive. They work at jobs they don’t like. They kiss the boss’ ass, whom they despise. They compromise everything beautiful in life, just to stay alive. This is true capitalism. You can me mediocre and be a millionaire. This country is afraid of people who have their own mind. If you’re poor, you’re supposed to be a sheep or a clone. God bless the animals.
A.W.: It seems that some people, including poets, are greedy and want it all.
Well, some people might want it all. That’s their problem. They never get it all. I don’t use poetry as a way to get any prizes. Actually poetry saved my life. It saved my life because it enriched my life. Before I wrote poems, I used to be a wild crazy man. I still am in a way. I used poetry as a catharsis, as a means of opening myself up, as a way of enriching my life. To be a better person, I hope. Poetry is the life you want to live. Therefore I believe my work has morally redeeming qualities. My work liberates me. If it liberates me, it might be able to liberate someone else. That’s why someday I hope my work will be read out loud by the masses. I don’t care if it happens after I die. I worked as a union organizer. I walked the streets out of my mind. If my poetry relates to my life as a person then I have succeeded. I pushed a hand truck in the garment center. I worked as a messenger boy. If I can relate to people and in some way enrich their life, then that’s why my work is important. That’s why I believe I’m different than most other poets. Poetry gave me a reason for living. It made me grow as a person. Maybe it has helped some other person out. People in a mad house. People down on themselves. Maybe it helped people to look inside of themselves, to liberate themselves. All great things happen in the unknown. That’s the greatest thing about creativity, it comes from the unknown. God bless the unknown.
A.W.: What about the politics that goes on in poetry?
All kinds of people make up the poetry world. A lot of them are small minded people, who play politics. They’re not poets. These are the people who make the world a cruel, rotten place. You have to give them a favor before you can get something back from them. That’s politics. Fuck politics.
A.W.: I’ve noticed you don’t send your work out as much as a lot of other poets in the small press scene. Poets like Lyn Lifshin and Gerald Locklin on the other hand, have appeared in hundreds of little magazines. How do you feel about this?
There are thousands of little magazines out there. A large number are edited by small, obscure people who play political games. Anybody can put out a small magazine. Where are the Marvin Malones? These poetry politicians come and go. People hungry and dying for recognition. They come and go. They disappear into obscurity.
A.W.: One of the biggest problems with the ‘zines is distribution. Only a handful of small magazines have a decent distribution system. Do you have any suggestions on how a poet can get his or her work out there to be read by a larger audience?
Get actively involved with your own work. Make a broadside of your favorite poems. Hand it out on buses and subways. Give it to the people who helped create your poetry. Give it back to the people, from where it came. Be a true revolutionary.
A.W.: That’s a good idea. When I put out Second Coming, I used to drop off copies at dentist and doctor offices. But mostly I gave the issues away, to people on the street, in prisons and in bars. It was never about making money. That was never a reality. I just wanted to get the work out there and read. How about the poet? Who is to judge a poet? Just because you write a poem or paint a painting doesn’t make you a poet or painter.
It doesn’t make you shit! There are only a few real poets and painters in the world. Just because millions of people are writing poems doesn’t mean they are poets. The people decide if you’re a poet or not. Time will tell if your poem lives forever in the eternity. My feeling is that there are but a few poets or painters living on this planet. Many people who claim they are poets, are frauds. Their poems at best are mediocre. Their work relates to no one. These poets and painters represent the mediocrity of out time. Everyone wants to be a poet, but there are few Bob Dylans and only one Picasso.
A.W.: Okay, but how about those who aren’t frauds? Who are some of your favorite poets and writers?
I loved Kerouac and Bukowski. I liked George Montgomery. He wrote a lot of beautiful things and died unknown. I like A.D. Winans. I like a lot of the relatively unknowns: Kell Robertson, Major Ragain from Kent, Ohio, and Lonnie Sherman from Erie, Pennsylvania. I love these poor poets in L.A.: Frank Rios, John Thomas, just to name two. I read with them and two others (I forget their names) in Los Angeles not long ago. There must be a hundred poets across the country with 20 or 30 or more books out, all by small presses, and no one knows their names. Who is going to write this down? Who is going to write the catalog? Someone needs to find a patron to do a catalog on underground poets. Someone has to keep track. Okay, give me the last question.
A.W.: What advice would you give a young poet who is just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to go into the unknown. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Try to relate openly with people. Don’t be afraid to take a mis-step. It’s okay to take a mis-step. In other words, you might succeed. Kiss a fat girl on the bus. Do something courageous. Play number 11 in a 12 horse race. I remember one time nailing a poetry flyer on the door of a Catholic church. Give back the love to the people. Find out who you are and be yourself. Don’t be ashamed to walk with your fly open, or eat a sandwich on the fly. Keep your blazing eye alive. Don’t get caught in the buddy-buddy mold. For god’s sake do something different. Take that trip down that long dusty road, sing a song to the moon and stars.
A.W.: Just one more question. Where does Jack Micheline’s work belong in the total scheme of things?
My work belongs in the libraries of America. In the prisons. In the mad houses. On the street corners. On the radio. My work belongs to all the people. To those who seek the unknown I send you love and the rivers. Adios!
This interview first appeared in 1998 by the author A.D. Winans and Michael Hathaway, editor of the Chiron Review Literary Journal.
A.D. Winans & Jack Micheline | 1976, outside Books Plus, at reading for Second Coming Bicentennial Poets Anthology | Photo by Joel Deutch