Thirsting For Peace

An Interview With Ed Sanders

By Kevin Ring

Kevin Ring is Editor of BEAT SCENE, 27 Court Leet, Binley Woods, Near Coventry CV3 2JQ, England. Tel 0201-543604

This interview originally ran in BEAT SCENE Number 17, Autumn 1993
He's one of America's bravest and most outspoken writers. He crosses into so many areas of living it's hard to keep pace. Environmental concerns, Charles Manson, investigative journalism, classic poetry, raging novels and also the life of a musician in The Fugs. A direct descendant of the Beats, he teaches at Naropa in Colorado and continues the same hectic pace as ever. A new book of poems and the reissuing of those outrageous Fugs albums on compact disc has brought Ed Sanders out from the seclusion of rural life in New York state. Through the post, where he wrote answers at Gary Snyder's home in Northern California, and on the phone, Ed Sanders spoke to Beat Scene recently.

Did you get my letter? I did it at Gary Snyder's. Is that where I sent it from? I finally had a moment, it was right in the middle of eighty acres of forest, it was really beautiful to sit there on a rainy day. Me and my wife had just spent three days with Carol and Gary at their house, it was quite beautiful. It's outside of Nevada City. There's a big environmental fight there over a huge goldmine they're trying to revive from a hundred years ago, where they're trying to scoop a million gallons of water a day to blast this gold out of the ground. They're fighting it. Otherwise it's a beautiful Ponderosa Pine and Black Oak forest. Manzanita bushes, dark, wine coloured bush. Very beautiful, just paradise. He makes his electricity with solar panels, quite rural. He's been there about twenty years. It's a whole complex, outbuildings, he's got an old barn. He and his wife use it as their studio. They have a beautiful rounded house with all the accoutrements of modern civilization. All solar powered. And then various outbuildings, pond, wash house. It's quite lovely. Nevada City, it's northwest of Sacramento San Francisco couple of hundred miles. Gold country, nuggets washed down in the creek beds, stuff like that. But there's the spirit of greed there, that's always a problem. You're supposed to leave the gold in Mother Gaia.

Apparently there's no phone there?

Yeah, he has a phone. He has a phone, fax, modems. He's high tech. He's got a Macintosh computer. He's got all the accoutrements. I'm sure you can reach him automatically, because he's quite internationally renowned, as you know. In order to write and be part of your, what you call your bioregion, or your drainage area, you need to have solitude in order to be there with it. But he's in good spirits. He's sharp as ever, witty and full of life. It's always a thrill to be around him.

You've been friends for a long time?

Oh Yes. Since around the Berkeley Poetry Festival in 1965. We've corresponded, I guess, since the early sixties. I used to print stuff of his, poems. He was always a friend. He sent me, from Japan, very early in the sixties, an Egyptian eye, carved in one of those Japanese stamps. He's been a friend a long time.

Apparently you're working on a screenplay?

No, a play. I was working this spring right up until when we left for California, every day for ten hours a day, on CASSANDRA, which is a musical drama I wrote, tracing the life of the Trojan prophetess and princess Cassandra, from ancient sources - so I was working very hard all year getting that ready. There's a full professional production. The other thing is there's a movie of TALES OF BEATNIK GLORY, which is supposed to start filming this month, in New York City. I don't have anything to do with it. I did not write the screenplay. Philip Hartman and Mark Jacobsen wrote the screenplay. I guess I'm not allowed to say who's in it. Quite a prestigious lineup of people apparently in the film. I have nothing to do with it. I hope they'll let me on the set, I think they will. But they often don't let the author of the book on the set, so they don't go jumping up and down.

I heard a rumour that Willem Defoe is in it.

I have no idea, that's a rumour I heard too. Defoe has got a . . . he'll be in Europe in August. He may be in it. It's what the producer told me, that Defoe was gonna be in it. I have no idea. I'm only relying on what I'm told from the producer and the director.

What are your feelings on this?

I'm honoured. I never thought a book of mine would be made into a movie. I think it's perfectly adaptable to a film, TALES OF BEATNIK GLORY. They used stories from volume one and volume two. They've woven together a very interesting storyline, it combines some of the women characters and other characters . . . which is alright. So I think they came up with a good storyline, they use the kid, On the Road Mulligan . . . a character. They use various stories. I think the weave is pretty good.

Are you optimistic they'll do a reasonable version?

I don't know. Yes, of course I am. I'm optimistic and I'm sure it'll be an interesting film. I think some of it has to do with the kind of music they put together for it. I think they're gonna kind of put together a kind of allstar neo beatnik band maybe for the music, which would be a smart move. I think it'll get general release, I have no idea. I don't know how much that I know is secret or how much I can say. Basically they have a good distribution deal with it, fairly large distributor. I expect it to be released. I'd like to go over to Cannes and hang out there and drink coffee at dawn. (Laughs)

The play is being put on by the Woodstock Guild. Tell us a little about that.

Yes. Cassandra was the daughter of the King and Queen of Troy. It's set at the time of the Trojan War, which is around 1184 BC. I take material from Eurypedes, from Trojan women and from The Odyssey, books ten and eleven. That's the major amount of ancient material on Cassandra. There's also material on Cassandra in Virgil and Ovid (mentions other ancient sources here). So I take all this information and I stitched it all together in a kind of rhapsody storyline and left some of the Greek choruses from Eurypedes and Homer, not much, but a little bit. Then wrote a kind of poetic treatment to her life. No one has ever done it. It's a kind of modern thing. It's as old as the Bosnian Croatian Serbian battle, or the Trojan battle. The ancient struggle between Asia Minor and Greece is reflected forward into the Greek/Turkish struggles now, or the Bosnian situation. It's very ancient, this idea of cyclical violence, multi-generational vengeance. Multi-century ire and anger is a continuing problem. It's also about the plight of women in ancient times, as reflected in the modern era. Cassandra nowadays would be a woman who is very intelligent, has a lot of energy, a certain amount of aggression. Demanding to have her place in society. So I interpret Cassandra as being a Princess of a royal family, privy to state secrets, always demanding to know things, pushy, aggressive and very witty. She's fluent with words and she gets into trouble. That's her psychological situation. In the spiritual or religious areas she offends the god Apollo. A kind of schizophrenic god. Apollo, the god of mathematics, beauty, statues, pleasing paintings, order, form, healing - but he's also the god of male rage, of violence, of violence of men. He's the god of plagues, tuberculosis and AIDS. He has a down side to him. He offers her a deal, that if she will make love with him he will give her the gift of prophecy and she takes the gift of prophecy and tells him to come back later for the love and when he comes . . . she . . . like many a young girl . . . changes her mind, and he curses her. That's the spiritual side of it. So when she wants her parents not to let the Trojan horse into Troy they laugh at her. Or when she wants her country to send Helen back to the Greeks . . . You see this Trojan War thing, it's as if Boris Yeltsin ran off with Margaret Thatcher when Margaret Thatcher was head of England. Then the English would bomb Moscow and send over cruise missiles or whatever, nuclear weapons. It was that level of conflict. Cassandra warned against it. Her tragedy is that she's the woman to whom no one will listen. So basically that's the whole plotline. It traces it from ancient sources and then she's murdered by Clytemnestra. Cassandra is also raped in the fall of Troy by a surly Greek soldier named Ajax, which is a modern paradigm for all the rape and plunder which goes on during any war. So we have that in there. So I think it's an interesting story. Little bit of a modern twist at the ending. I have Cassandra and Hades join forces with Persephone. I add a little Sanders fillip at the end.

Does Tolstoy know about this, it sounds like one heck of a play?

Maybe on the astral plane. It tells a good story. It has thirty-ne musical sections. The Cassandra role is very demanding, it's a soprano role, the songs are fairly demanding. We have a very good Cassandra named Amy Fraden, she's quite skilled. Leslie Ritter sings the play of Persephone. Those two voices are just terrific, very beautiful voices and they sing very well together. So it's going to be real good. It's in Woodstock, New York, at the Woodstock Guild, from August 24th through September 5th.

What sort of place is Woodstock?

It's 6,000 people when it's ten below zero and in the summertime it swells up to 20,000 people. It's beautiful. The mountains are up to thirty-eight hundred feet, it's very hilly and quite beautiful. We keep it quite rural, we don't let McDonalds in there, don't let Malls in and we keep it pretty. We had a production last summer which sold out, there were huge waiting lines. We feel that probably, though you never know, it will do well. Our goal is to take it to Broadway if we can. Or to make a movie out of it, that's my real goal. If there are any readers of your magazine want to produce a movie of Cassandra I'm in the Woodstock telephone directory. Woodstock is extremely beautiful in August! We don't want to see a house every three feet in Woodstock, the animals have a right to live there too. These deer and these chipmunks, raccoons and groundhogs have been here millions of years, they have a right to live here too. There's a whole group of jazz musicians and experimental composers, a whole variety of different . . . Carla Bley lives here, Jack Dejohnette lives there, lots of musicians. I've been there since '74. We moved up there to get clean air. A woman can walk in the streets in the middle of the night in Woodstock and nothing will happen. There's never been a woman attacked in twenty years, that I know of. Safety, that's good. A woman has a right, if she wants to go walk out and look at the moon at three in the morning. She should be allowed. There's that kind of safety and that's good.

We moved to Woodstock in 1974, in part to escape the geeky, confusion rife, quasi-violent world of 1970s New York leftist factionalism. Plus there was more and more street hostility from muggers. Miriam was held up by a young addict brandishing a butcher's knife, so we "headed for the hills" 100 mile north of NYC. Living in the country is not that much less hectic. "There are no weekends for poets." It's the era of faxes at midnight, crickets at dawn.

What's happened to the other guys in The Fugs?

Well, Tuli Kupferberg and I founded the band, we continue the legacy. We own the mastertapes and we are making arrangements to have them put out. We have hundreds of hours of performances and stuff. Tuli's ok, he lives in New York. He's doing quite well, he has a son that has just graduated from Harvard, which is unusual for an anarcho-syndicalist! He raised a couple of wonderful children, he and his wife Sylvia. Ken Weaver is in Tucson, I talked to him a couple of weeks ago, he's ok. Steve Weber, he's in Portland. Quite a folk hero and still having fun I heard, playing music. Peter Stampfel, I met a couple of weeks ago at a Poets Cafe down on the Lower East Side, I went down there for a reading. He's doing quite well. I think he does gigs, still writing his razor sharp witty tunes I believe. Jake Jacobs, he's ok and doing a record I understand. Danny Kootch, is of course Don Henley's co-songwriter and plays in Don Henley's band. Charlie Larkie, I dunno, he married Carol King. Carol King came to a Fugs concert and squirreled off our bass player! He left the band soon thereafter. Should never have gone to L. A. I guess! I don't know, they trickle on. There's one or two Fugs, I think, are dead. Lee Crabtree died in the early 70s and I believe Pete Carney, who was on our second record may be dead. John Anderson, who played bass on our first two albums, is now a lawyer in Portland, Oregon. He's done quite well, he went to Harvard Law School I guess. He lives on an Island off Portland. Bob Mason, one of our drummers, was out in Venice, California. I think he's a session man. I know where they are. All that is from basically keeping in touch. Not close, but enough to cover a certain amount of cordiality. Certainly with Tuli, Tuli's my brother. We work very close together. We're gonna do one more rock and roll record by the way. We're gonna do our final rock album. It's our last one. Tuli's 69 and we decided to do one more and then fade it. One more rock record. That's no sentimental throb tunes, no ballads, just rock. We'll do that this fall. Then cap our career. I wanted to do a career that lasted a little. Actually, a career should be like fifty years. Our career, beginning with our first jumping up and down and screaming studio thing in '65 will now have its final moments twenty-eight years later in a high tech environment. We'll use the latest recording techniques, do it on a big Mac with a 5,000 meg hard disc. We're there.

You've lasted longer than The Beatles, The Who . . .

That's right! I wouldn't call us The Who or The Beatles! We're The Fugs. We're bards. We're in the tradition of Coleridge singing "Christabel" to Wordsworth. William Blake intoning and singing from The Songs of Experience or the tradition of Walt Whitman singsonging "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" to a large crowd in New York City after the Civil War. Or in the tradition of Sappho on a Greek island singing to her students. We're in that tradition, singing poets. Not singers who use poetry.

Besides all the noise The Fugs made, you are obviously people who are concerned. Do you feel your generation and the prevailing spirit of the '60s has been allowed to slip, as regards the environment and a generally better society?

I think there's a lot more work now on the environment. Nobody really knew . . . We didn't ask questions. Where does our water come from? Where does our waste go? Everybody I know now looks into that, even casually. So I think things are a little better in the environment. There's more personal freedom now. I think some battles have been won, there's a better deal for women. So I think it's a little better for that struggle. It's true, you gotta try and reach every young generation and get them to pay attention to some of the good things of the past. Don't just totally ignore the past. Some good things that we did then and the young people now should be made aware of, so that they can use some of those things and do their own things. They have to mix a little bit of the past with a lot of the present. That's exactly what my generation did, we mixed in some stuff we learned when we were kids with a sense of newness, That's what this generation has to do. I'm sure it'll do ok.

Your early years . . . you talk about your literary influences, your parents.

Oh yeah. My dad making up spontaneous poem songs. My mother read us Charles Dickens for bedside reading. There was a certain exposure to literature. I had a good school, English teacher, who encouraged me to write poetry. Her name was Mrs. Hall, she encouraged me to write anything I wanted. In the Midwest I was allowed to write weird Poelike threnodies and she didn't try to censor them. This was in Missouri, Blue Springs High School. She's still alive. She uses some of my early religious poetry for her Sunday School classes. She sort of ignores some of my more randy . . .

How do you know this?

I always go visit her. I go clip the hedges on my parents' grave every summer, when I go to Naropa. I often stop off and tidy up my parents' grave. My English teacher lives about a mile away, so I always stop by and say hello to her. So she forgives me for some of my weird books. She has them all. I send her all my books, she just glides over some of the more randy sections!

I received a "regular" high school education in poetry, the romantics, a dash of Shakespeare, Poe, Tennyson, Longfellow, Sandburg, Frost, and as a teenager in the '50s discovered by chance Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, Sappho, Charles Olson, the Beats - it wasn't easy. I had to travel hundreds of miles sometimes to encounter in the Midwest "Howl" and William Carlos Williams. It was studying Greek, Latin and languages that truly opened the world of poetry for me. My mother and father helped. My mother by reading to us at night.

You teach at Naropa?

Often. Every year I teach there, I'm on the guest faculty. It's a wonderful place. It brings a confluence of American poetics into the same place. It's not just beatnik stuff, it's a wide variety of poets and thinkers who go there. Of course Colorado is extremely beautiful in July, it's when all the Rocky Mountain flowers are out. You can drive up to about ten thousand feet above sea level, see ten miles off columbines and Indian paintbrushes, Colorado flowers up to the glaciers. Beautiful visually, the air is very nice. It has a kind of sense of the ancient academy. All the poets and students are housed in these complexes with courtyards, it encourages communication. Then there's always a lot of partying. So there's partying, teaching, intermingling of faculty and students, in a way that allows for direct transmission of mind, It'[s pretty good, They're not parochial, in the sense they don't . . . the type of poetry that's taught . . . they bring in every kind of American and international strain of verse, from performance poetry to rhymed poetry, to story poetry, to beatnik poetry, to language school poetry, to Black Mountain poetry, to the tradition of George Oppen and Chinese and Japanese poetry, French poetry. Many different streams that run together in one nice tributary there.

Do you still feel the same way about things you had strong convictions about in the 1960s?

There were many good things about the 1960s and some bad. I liked the twin paths of partying, aimless frenzy, good times and wildness, mixed with the demand for a more sharing world. There was too much male chauvinism and we did not factor in enough . . . the impact of jealousy, envy, greed, obsession, fanaticism, lying. All in all the era was good to me.

What are you doing now?

My career's over baby! (Laughs). We're gonna do one more rock album. I've got a television show called The Sanders Report. I'm going to experiment in song and chanted news stories, using the latest musical equipment. Singing news stories. I've done two, one with Gary Snyder in California and I just did one from Sweden. Analysing the Swedish methods of supporting artists and the arts. Just overwhelmingly amazing.

Where do they broadcast?

In Woodstock and stations in California I'm sending them out to. I just began, this is my fifth show. In the fall I'll begin the song and chanted news shows. I have a book I've been working on for about three and a half years on organized crime, or the Mafia and illegal waste dumping in New York State. I've been working on that for three or four years.

Does that worry you?

Nah . . . after Manson. Once you've been threatened by Manson everything else seems pretty easy to take. And I'm very happy with my new book Hymn to the Rebel Cafe that Black Sparrow has just put out. I've been out on the road doing book parties around California and the East Coast. It represents about all my most complete statement, my social and economic philosophies mixed in with my storytelling ability, my researches into ancient civilizations and my environmental concerns. It contains the best poems I had written from 1986 through 1991, following Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Poems 1961-1985, which came out in '87. Hymn has my work in site specific nature poetry and environmental concerns ( "Some Poems from Mead's Mountain Road," "At Century's End," and "For the Waterworkers," politics and economics; plus a long humorous poem in the tradition of Cowper's "John Gilpin" called "An East Village Hippie in King Arthur's Court."

How did Black Sparrow come to publish the book? Black Sparrow is one of America's premier publishers and the poet Tom Clark facilitated the placing of the manuscript of Hymn to the Rebel Cafe in the hands of John Martin, who, to my gratitude wanted to publish it.

You've always been recognised as a writer who has shown ecological and political concern and expressed that in your writing, where does this spring from? I was very much part of the "rising tide of expectation" in the late 1950s and 1960s into the 1970s, when we wanted a sharing, war free society that promoted freedom and at the same time restructured the banking and money system to banish poverty. I grew up feeling close to the wilderness of the American outdoors. Some of the perfect haunts of my youth, ice skating ponds, meadows, farmland, river banks, have long been seized by malls, tract housing and the bulldozer. So I have vowed to "go out in a blaze of leaflets" and to my last breath speak up for Gaia's wild ways and a democratic socialist economy.

Your writing has crossed from poetry, to journalism, investigative journalism, political writing, fiction, novels, a very broad span. Do you think this stops you reaching a wider audience?

If you write in one field you tend to be able to focus on others. I don't believe that working in a number of fields limits the results, but it might in some cases limit public renown, but so what? The examples of William Blake, Yeats and others are too strong not to be indifferent to the same wave of renown and fame-lack.

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Contributed by Kevin Ring