Talking with David Meltzer

How did you meet and come to know Richard Brautigan?

The first time I met Richard was in the North Beach scene of the late '50s. I got to know his work in Sunday informal workshops at Joe Dunn's pad in the Polk Street ozone. Joe was the editor/publisher of White Rabbit Books. He worked for Greyhound Bus Line and on the weekends we'd "liberate" their mimeograph machines to run off booklets by Jack Spicer?, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov?, and others under his imprint.

A weird and wonderful range of younger poets would gather at Joe's apartment to present their poems of the week; people like Joanne Kyger?, Michael McClure?, Harold Dull, George Stanley, and others. The two maestros/hierophants were Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan -— they were
mentors and gate-keepers. Richard identified with Spicer's compact and hard-boiled mystic poetry and more than anything, I suspect, wanted Jack's blessing which never really happened. I have always thought that that refusal (happily or not) made Richard decide to go into prose/fiction. I don't want to get too easygoing about lost fathers but Jack was an ideal father figure, but, like Richard, equally narcissistic and self-loathing. They were too close to each other to help each other. They drank themselves to death. They were both isolated and in deep withdrawn despair.

What was your relationship with Brautigan?

We were peers, pretty much the same age, on different paths but still curious about each other and often talked writing, poetry, and novels at Vesuvio's and The Place?, or on the streets in between those two watering holes in late '50s. As contemporaries on that particular scene, I think we were inspired by the immediate middle aged elder poets like Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. I remember Richard talking about his admiration of Ernest Hemingway? and about Sherwood Anderson's? economy and complex simplicity. I tried pitching James Jones to him which he dodged, despite my eloquence.

Why did you decide to include Brautigan in your book, The San Francisco Poets?

I wanted to include Richard because we knew each other as young poets on the transitory scene and talked a lot of barroom blather about poetry and writing. I felt his interactive dialogue would've been helpful to others in the struggle.

Richard was included in the first gathering because we were friends and he was suddenly very visible and like all anthologists, I was stacking the deck. At the last minute, Brautigan decided to forego the interview process and instead invent his own, which, in the spirit, seemed fine. Obviously, Brautigan was voicing the zeitgeist not so much of his generation but of that younger one his readers and girl friends inhabited. Remember, Brautigan wasn't in any sense a documenter or creative realist like Kerouac but was, instead, a fabulist, beyond the moment.

Your book, The San Francisco Poets, included background information about each of the included poets drawn from interviews you conducted. But Brautigan's information was included in the form of a "self-interview." Why did you decide to introduce Brautigan, and his work, in this manner?

At the last minute, Richard said he didn't want to be interviewed and would instead submit a "self interview" which I said, under the circumstances and deadline, was okay. He was riding the first wave of literary and financial success and was acting accordingly.

Did Brautigan make any impression upon the evolving literary scene in San Francisco at that time?

One way or another, participants in any literary scene that surfaces into the mainstream has impact. Richard had already locked-down a certain style and attitude towards what writing was for him. His Emily Dickinson? chapbook, Lay the Marble Tea?, with its cover drawn by his artist friend Kenn Davis, expressed not only a sense of style but how writing could be packaged.

Brautigan is often referred to as the author who best expressed the culture and lifestyle of the 1960s, especially that in San Francisco during the so-called "Summer of Love." How was Brautigan, and his writing, influenced by the events of that time?

During the heyday of the '60s, with the Diggers breaking through the barricades, Richard was a comfortable outlaw, non-threatening in his demands, whimsical and latently nasty. For someone as frugal as Richard, the anti-capitalist, antimaterialist gesture had less to do with the confrontational theatrics of the Diggers then to his own deeply tangled abjection of childhood poverty and its humiliations.I remember a sociological book of that era called The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and while Richard never brought "class" into his work I suspect it was a deep subtext that his work wrote out of.

What do you think was the cause for Brautigan's fall from grace with both critics and readers?

The fickle finger(s) of fate. Like Jack Kerouac, Brautigan was elevated onto an impossible plateau which he managed as he could but, like Jack, couldn't handle the crushing embrace of success. Also other word heroes embraced by fame like Jack London, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway?, were on the road to self erasure. (I read where Sherwood Anderson? died due to a pimentoed-olive speared by a toothpick which peirced his intestine on a cruise ship martini.) Like Brautigan, Kerouac was immensely sensitive and introverted and really just wanted to write or hang out with his mates. They used booze to get out there, to be socially acceptable or outrageous. But in Richard's case, he'd zone into sourness and mean-spirited behaviour, which I can identify with my own class-consciousness and its permanent imprint on social relationships.

Yet Brautigan, and his work, still remains popular, for both scholars and readers who discover him for the first time each day. Why is this?

Richard will continue to sell books, at least those that are in print, and will, in the advent of fast-forward nostalgia, have the possibility of contacting an audience of Sorrows of Werther and Kurt Cobain's Hemingway style brain blast. But Richard was middle-aged when he suicided [sic] himself. The mystery of young death seems more haunting and inexplicable.

Scratch that.

Suicide, unless in extreme health situations will always have an aura of the inexplicable around it. Everyone tries to "figure out" the why of it. If you know someone you don't have to collect them, unless of course you're compulsive and lost in the mythos of loss.

What about Brautigan's writing stays with us? And why?

Was it the moment, its sizzle and razzle-dazzle? Nostalgia? Michael McClure? reads Richard as a fabulist, a bent fairytale author, just as he described my 10 agit-smut novels (written in 1969). Richard was a serious writer who sometimes drifted off into a Digger-Hippie-McKuenesque (not McCluhanesque) fey naivete deeply insinuated with dark weaves of rage. I don't want to presume anything, but I'll guess Richard's class consciousness underpins his work; and like his heroes Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he was devoured in that same life-suck embrace of fame and success.

With the 1960s now fertile ground for academic research, will Richard Brautigan come up on more and more radar screens? Will such investigation into the social and cultural (r)evolution of that era support the contention at the time that Brautigan was the writer/voice who best captured the zeitgeist of the time?

(R)evolution was not what Richard or the Diggers were about, in retrospect. The Black Panthers (also betrayed by charisma) were more proactive and active in communities of social and economic alienation. Mostly, Diggers were boys who dug the romance of it. Peter Coyote (nee Cohen), for example. Emmett Grogan, on the other hand, was the real deal proletariat. But if you've been doing your research you know that the boys' club got into the high life of bad boy celebrity with its perks of speed and guns and leather jackets and male posturing.

"Zeitgeist," yes, but for whose zeit?

So many of the burn-outs became "geists," ghosts of their former selves.

Was Brautigan's early work notable? What legacy should we take from his writing?

You express the difficulty of evaluating his work as writing undetachable from a time, a moment, a frisson. Richard was first and foremost a writer, even though he continually lost track of it in the haze and blaze of a kind of lethal public embrace. Kenneth Rexroth insisted that the true works are those that can't be assimilated.

Change: An occasional magazine dedicated to the memory of Richard Brautigan? 1 (Spring 2006): 4-5.
online source: http://www.brautigan.net/change1.pdf(external link)