An Interview with Garrett Caples
Garrett Caples, off the beaten path of many readers, is writing on subject material that itself is well beyond most pathways well-trodden. From an eclectic assortment of American Surrealist poets and painters to the unjustly debased original art historian Roger Fry and the Digital Underground hip hop mogul Shock-G, the recently-published Retrievals is a gathering of reviews, essays, and assorted notes attests to the originality of vision that grounds all of Caples's critical work.
On November 6, 2014, Caples will be delivering a talk on Surrealism at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. He'll cover some material found in Retrievals, as well as extend his scope beyond its parameters. As this interview in part demonstrates (see the discussion concerning Shock-G versus André Breton), Caples is a wealth of information on this subject. Anyone in the Chicago area should check out his talk.
In consultation with Caples, I asked two mutual associates to join us for the interview: painter, poet, and musician Brian Lucas has not only been a close friend of Caples's for nearly twenty years, but he also has direct connections to a number of the individuals covered in Retrievals; poet, editor, and publisher Micah Ballard is a compatriot of mine whose second poetry collection, Waifs and Strays, Caples smartly tapped for inclusion in the City Lights Spotlight series. I thought having this small "crew" on hand would keep things mellow yet informed and on target.
We met up at Caples's home in the Mission district of San Francisco on Labor Day 2014. The interview opens up as the digital sound recorder picks up with Caples mid-discussion of background details surrounding some pictures of retrieval subjects included in the book: poet Barbara Guest pictured on a black sofa cordless phone pressed to her ear deeply immersed in the call, a youthful Garrett Caples enjoying a cigarette with poet Philip Lamantia in a nondescript interior office area, and poets Rich Tagett and Richard Moore mutually enjoying a shared seat in a garden bower.
Caples: The photo of Barbara Guest is just funny because it's my old apartment in downtown Oakland where I lived with my ex-girlfriend. Andrew Joron and I had taken Barbara out to dinner at Spettro's in Oakland, and her purse got lifted at the restaurant! So she's actually on the phone with the police in that photo. I didn't want to be openly taking pictures of her when she was doing that, but we had a camera on a tripod just standing there, it even had a little plunger so I just pointed the camera at her and then hit the plunger.
Lucas: Did she ever see the photo?
No, no... It wasn't even aimed, it was just an automatic photo...
Dunagan: So some of the photos are kind of illicit in that way?
Well, they're just kind of random things and times...
Lucas: The one of you and Philip Lamantia smoking in the bathroom at Cal [U.C. Berkeley].
That's not the bathroom...
Dunagan: It's also the same one up on your shelf there [Garrett's sitting at his desk chair in the corner of his living room there's a set of shelves above his writing desk].
As a grad student I shared an office there at U.C. and you're supposed to go outside to smoke, but I didn't want to send Philip outside down a bunch of stairs; he was probably seventy-two or seventy-three and we're on the third floor of Wheeler Hall, so we just snuck into the grad student shared office -- there were like six or seven desks you know, one was mine -- and we smoked by a window.
At the time I was Thom Gunn's teaching assistant and he actually provided the only real education as a poet I received while at Berkeley, just listening to him in his undergrad class leading discussions on the likes of William Carlos Williams, or Basil Bunting; I doubt I would have checked out Bunting without hearing Gunn at that time. Even though I had never really read Gunn's work, what he knew and was talking about impressed me to an extreme degree. I still didn't ultimately care much for his Neo-Formalist work coming off of Yvor Winters, but he knew his shit. I could see that he was doing his thing but didn't have a narrow vision of what poetry should be. Like he was into Mina Loy. Though I never read him in depth, I consider Gunn to be a good poet. Anyway, Jeff Clark took that photo of me and Lamantia.
Dunagan: I thought Brian [Lucas] took it.
No, Brian wasn't there; he took the photo we used of Richard Moore and Rich Tagett, though.
Dunagan: Who you guys brought together? Each of you had previously befriended them separately?
Yeah. Brian met Rich a couple of years before I did.
Dunagan: And then some number of years later you guys had the idea of bringing them together? That's when you thought it a nice pairing for a write-up?
Well, it was because they both had their first "book" published late in life. Rich was seventy-five when his first full-length poetry book [Demodulating Angel] finally came out. This after he was involved in the poetry world most of his life, having published the groundbreaking, largely gay little magazine, Manroot, and then Richard, the same thing, he was like ninety when his first book came out [Writing the Silences], while he too had been involved in and around poetry for decades, having made all those NET films of O'Hara, Olson, et al. and also working at KPFA and KQED here in the Bay Area. So I brought them together to thematize this idea and also explore the question, of how do you approach the work critically in such a situation? Basically you're trying to "sell them" to a wider audience, so you kind of have to identify Richard Moore with Kenneth Rexroth and you have to identify Rich Tagett with Jack Spicer, at least to some degree, you know... but of course at the same time neither of them want anything to do with this kind of approach! [Laughter]
Dunagan: How long did the visit last when you guys brought them together?
It was a couple of hours. We went to lunch, came back to Richard [Moore]'s place, hung out. They took turns reading some of their own poetry out loud in Richard's room and then we went out to this arbor or whatever where that photo was taken. So at least a couple of hours and they really hit it off well.
Lucas: It was really kind of an amazing thing to behold: it usually takes Rich [Tagett] a little while to get friendly, he's got to sense you out or whatever. It doesn't seem conscious on his part. But they both were really happy with the visit.
Yeah, they just had a great time. They have so much in common from over the years even though they'd never met. They were both at certain events, such as Spicer's 1965 lecture in Berkeley. We took video of both of them reading during that visit.
Dunagan: It seems that there's a lot of worthwhile follow up to these writings... Do you ever think of that, how there's more to cover?
Well, most of what's in the book has been expanded upon. With the Tagett-Moore piece, after it first came out there was additional info which came to light regarding the fact that Richard and Robert Duncan had had a brief romantic relationship, and I had wanted to get information in about how Brian had originally been responsible for reengaging Rich with the Poetry World. Literally, getting him to write poetry again after a decade or more of silence. (This is unlike Richard Moore who continually was writing poetry just not pursuing publication.) Brian met him by chance while working at the Mechanic's Institute Library in San Francisco. Rich didn't have any idea of what was happening in poetry and knew nothing of the surge of interest in Spicer, et cetera, but he enjoyed having people who were really interested in his old poet friends. It really blew his mind, I think, at the time.
Dunagan: Sounds like Brian really brought Rich out into like a social realm of poetry again. So you met Tagett through Brian?
Yes. Not too long after I met Brian, I met Rich. Probably at a party or we went out to a reading together. I've known him a long time, not too closely because he can at times be hard to deal with... Haha... but I've known him probably since like 1997. And he's a hard guy to write about in the sense that you need to put the Spicer thing front and center, especially in this day and age when nobody's going to just be reading a seventy-five-year-old guy they've never heard of otherwise. Like here's this guy's very first book of poems; nobody cares unless there's a backstory. So that was kind of a delicate situation with my writing on Rich, getting him to go along with the Spicer angle I was pushing; he rather fought it the whole way. But, you know, he wants his poems out there. He would like people to read the poems, so this is how we do it. [Laughter]
Dunagan: Yeah, it is. With the "Theory of Retrieval" piece in back of your book, do you think of that as an afterword or something other?
Or an epilogue or something... On the one hand, it's a joke in a way, as I don't consider myself a "Theory" person at all. It's like I don't have any theories. But people are going to want to read that at the end. I knew it had its place there and that [publisher] Wave would be interested in it too because they wanted a whole book on this theme. So the question for me became, how do I write a "Theory of Retrievals" that isn't really a theory since I don't have any of those theories in me? It became almost a quasi-memoir of tracing how I got to where I am.
Lucas: Did you realize that so many of the articles you'd been writing over time had dealt with kind of "fringe" and neglected people? Did you realize there was this common thread running through?
I only realized that there was any sort of common theme like that after I had finished the Alden Van Buskirk piece. And [Wave Books editor] Joshua Beckman and I were talking about what sort of book he'd be interested in for Wave. He didn't want just a random "selected essays" book, as he's a good editor and knows what he's doing. I wrote some great prose that isn't in there because it just doesn't fit the theme. We both recognized that we could have just taken all the top-shelf writing and put it together but that without this common theme tying it all together the book wouldn't pack the punch that it does. Beckman wanted there to be some kind of rationale for putting out the book, and I was thinking about that as we started bringing these different things together and my writing life just kept going obviously so when I had finished the Van Buskirk thing, I added it to the list of things I had and that's when I saw I had a number of things where I had fixated on someone who was to the left or just off the map somewhere. Finishing that piece brought on the realization of the retrievals theme.
Ballard: You've been doing that all along. To become a poet one is retrieving one's childhood, one's naiveté, in order to break down social constructions to really have the freedom of the imagination. And that's "retrieval" in itself... excuse the non-sequitur but you've been also doing that with the Bay Area rap reviews. Throughout all your writing over the last several years you've been retrieving all these local artists who don't have recognition, whether it's in music or visual arts or whatever medium you're given to write upon... you talk about this in the "Theory of Retrieval," how you were drawn into the local rap movement, and then Hyphy came along and you were drawn to write about that scene, which then is an entire whole other book you'd be able to do, whereas Retrievals is great because it covers all different mediums. So in effect I feel you've just always already had this theory and been practicing it pulled by your love of literature, music, and visual art in many different forms.
I hadn't really connected the hip hop stuff to all the other essays until late in the game of putting this book together. And it was only then that I decided to put the Hyphy piece ["The Hyphy Hump"] in there which is the only music piece I included, because Shock was a real retrieval in the sense that, while people know who he is, they don't understand him with the commensurate detail that he deserves. But I decided to keep it only to him because, out of all the rap people I've met, he's the dude who's transcended from being a pop artist to being an artist... Shock's the only one who ranks beyond a pop artist and as a Surrealist person, you know, in the way he lives and leads a crew and tries to influence his crew; he's a very amazing guy.
Dunagan: I'm fascinated by the how there's this sense of you always writing as an outsider no matter who you're covering and how close you feel to them, whether they're friends, or poets and painters with who you identify as a Surrealist or not. And what's interesting about the "Hyphy Hump" piece, along with other San Francisco Bay Guardian pieces you've written covering Bay Area rap and hip hop, is how, while you're this outsider with a critically informed perspective, you're also still writing from the standpoint of deeply appreciating it -- at the level of being a fan -- for what it is, nothing more or less. And in the "Theory of Retrieval," when you talk about going to the rap shows, for instance, it's not as if they didn't know or couldn't tell that you kind of stood out, [Laughter] you make this pretty clear, referring to yourself as the "idiot white guy" I think it is. [Laughter] You're really honest about it, and I think that then is very useful to see in relation to the other essays, that it's all a part of the same work for you, at the level of respect with which you approach the writing, while remaining to some extent, as I say, critically informed.
To me it's all being a poet. When I began to think of myself as a poet, that was when I started to realize I had a license to just write about anything. In the role of the poet, you give yourself a freedom to pursue whatever, you know, so it sanctioned any interest. It all feels pretty holistic to me: granted, they're different sides of my life; I've got a lot of hip hop friends who are very different from my poetry friends. The various relationships I share with them are all different but still to me it's all one.
Dunagan: The vocabulary, the way you talk doesn't change...
Well, I'm always me.
Dunagan: Yeah, that's most interesting and admirable, how you are always you. Entering these divergent atmospheres but carrying a perspective which proves trustworthy across this broad range of material you bring together, offering what you've discovered most useful about each. You might say that everyone or almost everyone in the book shares a Surrealist bent, like you were just saying in regards to Shock-G... Yet there's a larger argument waged throughout the book, say, with the Roger Fry piece where you are presenting a direct lack and absence of familiarity with the given subject (or simply a case of, willful or not, misreading of the subject on the part of the academic art history theory world). In effect, you present a series of case studies where there are these gaps in wider understanding and knowledge of the individual subject being treated. And it clearly is not just the case that as you mention in Retrievals, a young poet said to you, "Well, you just like old people." [Laughter] You're pointing to a far wider cultural loss in all these cases, challenging the misrepresentation of art movements and individuals.
Ballard [Picks up Duncan McNaughton's Tiny Windows and reads from it]: "I picked a career in poetry because poetry told me it was the sole means by which I could educate myself" [Laughter] which is what you also say in "Theory of Retrieval" in regard to academia, like, fuck this, everything is open and I'm going to explore and write about what draws itself to me. Whether in music or whatever...
But it is hard, you know, to write in all these different venues and still hang onto yourself. Often with the newspapers especially you're up against a word count and your back is against the wall and what are you going to do, so you start cutting ruthlessly. You have to think, what's the main thing I have to say. At the same time, a piece like "Surrealism and the Abstract Truth" started off in the Guardian, just the first section of that was in the Guardian and then the rest I wrote for the book. It enlarges like a bouillon cube dropped into boiling water. At the same time, it's fascinating to do the newspaper pieces, to say I have 900 words and have to cover this real interesting Surrealist exhibit, and to be able to gesture at all these really big issues in this really small space. It helps you as a writer to have to make those kinds of decisions, to write to a general audience in a general situation.
Dunagan: Yet it's about what you really love and have a genuine concern for, having to then make difficult decisions of what to leave in and what take out. What's so nice about reading them all gathered together here where you've been able to revisit them and at times expand them, it makes it a whole different thing then reading them where they first appeared at the Guardian or elsewhere and you were under a certain word count or intruding editorial interest.
With "Surrealism and the Abstract Truth" I felt like I was already so comfortable working within the limits of the 900 word count that I was able to get a lot of material in the first initial piece. Even if it is somewhat opaque, it's there and then the rest of this expanded version is just the unpacking of all those first points I was able to make in the compressed version. Even under the restraints at the Guardian I always felt I was able to retain a certain style. I'm a voice-heavy writer and I feel that has always been able to come through. And that's important to me; that no matter how restricted by the word count or house style, my pieces retain my own style of voice, or whatever you want to call it.
Dunagan: Wave it seems was very supportive of that. After Beckman suggested how he wanted there to be a theme of some sort, you were left alone to shape the writing to your own interest, without very much hands-on editing?
No, there wasn't much editing at all. I mean, Wave did a lot of work, which was all editorial work, but there was never anything where they said this is weird or you should take that out. And there was some fact-checking, which was nice as well. All these things were in various publication formats and there are extensive notes which all had to be formatted and arranged, which they preferred having formatted as endnotes. This was really a tremendous amount of work on Wave's part. It came from so many disparate original materials; the Roger Fry piece, for example, is the only one that came from a straight up academic piece coming in an academic fashion, a festschrift.
Dunagan: Yeah, what was Phantom Sentences, where the Fry appeared?
That was festschrift for my dissertation advisor at Berkeley, Ann Banfield, and it was she who turned me onto Fry. I got into Fry really hard, but at the time he just had no reputation, largely because of what I say in the book: there was a critical theory hatchet job on him in 1990, when Marianna Torgovnick did this post-colonialist takedown of him that was such bullshit. It was not well reasoned. It didn't take into consideration things like how you feel in 1990 is not how one would have felt in like 1920. It was just childish; the more I dug into it, the more fatuous her errors became. This is one of the pieces, there are a few of them, where I'm getting at some critic -- or in Alfred Barr's case, a curator -- but where the subject is somebody who is unnaturally or unreasonably hated.
Dunagan: Which comes from that same impulse as the younger poet saying, "you just like old people." It's that same impulse that whatever's current or most popular is therefore what's of most interest and worthwhile, but also like more accurate somehow. It disregards and ignores any possible gaps which may be occurring in favor of what is most talked about in the immediate now. That somehow popularity corrects the record.
Whereas popularity fucks up the record. Yeah.
Ballard: Okay, quick question: Shock-G in comparison to André Breton. Quick as you can, bring those two together.
I have had those thoughts. You hang out in the Digital Underground world and Shock is a leader of some kind of a semi-organized collection of artists. Of course, he exerts much less direct control than that exercised by Breton. Shock is much more mellow, letting people do their thing. But there is a certain ethos that comes from Shock and connects to all these other artists. And if you want to talk about Surrealism, there is a type of irrational behavior you deal with when hanging with a crew of rappers that couldn't have been any easier than dealing with Benjamin Peret or Yves Tanguy, whatever's going on with your crew at any given time. It did occur to me because you do become leader of people and you become responsible for them also, you know. With Breton, that's something that people don't think about. He's seen as too much of boss but he was responsible for the whole thing. And I saw that kind of thing a lot where Shock was responsible for the whole crew. Dealing with whatever completely stupid and fucked up things somebody on the crew might do. Whether it's with a club owner or the police, he's answerable for his group.
Dunagan: So to maybe attack Breton a bit... it does seem that he comes off as approaching his role from a rather militaristic point of view sometimes. Like to just take the root of avant-garde and to pursue that line, it does seem to be Breton's m.o. at times... and I don't know if the same is true with rappers, I mean does Shock do that kind of thing, bring in that aspect of being a leader? I mean even a Black Panther-type ethos say, do you get that from Shock-G? I can see Breton tying into a fascist-like approach. Not to say I agree with this reading of him, but it is out there, even if I wouldn't care to lay that on him myself, which I don't. But what do you think about that?
Can it appear autocratic at times with Breton? Sure. I mean it's hard to really judge him from here. The Surrealists were trying to achieve something that had real implications for society and because they failed, or society failed, we tend not to have that sense with our own movements today. I mean for lack of a better word, Breton was a public figure. He had to flee Paris. He was under a real threat. He was a leader of a semi-organized group and he was absolutely anti-Nazi. And they're putting out leaflets and are staunch leftists, but then they're realizing what's happening under Stalin in Russia as well. So the French Communist party was like fuck Surrealism and that shit got dangerous. Breton was hardcore but I feel like in order to accomplish what he was trying to get accomplished, to change the world by the work of a group of artists, he had to be. It was all in the service of keeping the movement together. To keep it real and also get it all done. There's a cult of personality to it, sure, but I don't think that's necessarily fascist.
Lucas: Surrealism was ultimately out of Breton's control.
It was. And that speaks to the nature of Surrealism. Even the guy that headed it couldn't hope to control it. Shock-G, of course, never sought that kind of control. But Breton was aware of his mistakes. After the war, he disavowed his disavowal of [Robert] Desnos, for instance. And he supported Artaud after the war as well. I think the Second World War had a real effect on Surrealism but people don't think about post-war Surrealism. Take Bataille, for example; at a certain point around the Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929), Breton is clearly disgusted by him. Breton could be squeamish. But after the war he acknowledges Bataille as Surrealist and in doing so is acknowledging that there are Surrealist groups that he can't control.
Dunagan: By that point Surrealism was just going to explode all over the globe.
And post-war Breton knows this. Everybody just takes a narrow sliced view of him, like 1919-1939, and nobody's thinking of 1939-59 or even up to '66 when he dies. Post-war Surrealism is an important period, and hardly anybody in this country or even France knows anything about it.
Dunagan: Well, in large part Retrievals represents a sort of beginning to take that into account. To look around and take these numerous sprouts of creativity into account throughout the world artistically. Evidence of Surrealism is behind so much of what's out there when you take a look.
And whatever anybody wants to say, the fact that there are dissident Surrealists is proof that Surrealism is very much a real thing. That's why it's still possible to do Surrealism and be Surrealist. Everything else is something different. Futurism is an ideology it's not a real thing. Cubism is a way of seeing but it's not a thing. Surrealism is identifying something. It's saying this is a thing connected to all of human consciousness. Period. Conversations get distorted because Surrealism is always talked about in an artistic context but the original group was a social movement. And this is why I'm not all that interested in contemporary Surrealist groups because it's no longer a movement. This is something that at one point was clearly attracting all the best poets and painters in Paris. Everybody was involved. Surrealist groups now are more like Civil War re-enactors. It's interesting because Breton was always arguing that Surrealism does change. It moves in relative perspective to the culture. Surrealism changes because the culture changes. Things Surrealist in one time won't be at a later time. Absurdism, for instance, became a mainstream advertising technique. Old Spice commercials, for instance.
Lucas: Breton was well aware of Surrealist tendencies in the Caribbean. Does Shock-G know Cesaire? Who knows, but that makes for an interesting connection. Breton has a non-colonial approach to his interest in the global spread of Surrealism.
Definitely. For the immediate circle Breton wanted to set the agenda. This is right and this is wrong. But he was accepting of those who came to Surrealism on their own or not through him. He knew it was beyond his control.
Dunagan: One interesting additional note worth making: Probably fifty percent of the material in Retrievals you were paid to write.
Dunagan: And do you think that'd be possible today? Given the rapid decline of paying venues that existed? As it is, you now make your living from proofreading? And make the rest up with City Lights?
Well I'm a legal proofreader, for a large part of my income, but yeah at one time while I was writing some of these pieces I was making a third of my income from being a writer from alt weeklies but that small pool of income for writing has really dried up. Editing for City Lights has become more of a financial pillar for me. But at the same time I wanted to get paid to write, I always tried to balance between doing things I wanted to do and not just writing under any circumstances in order to be paid.
Ballard: Was there a particular piece that you found the toughest, in an encrypted fashion?
Definitely Marie Wilson, because there's not much information about her out there and she's difficult to reach, given her physical location in Greece as well as her age. I have a line to her through Peter Maravelis at City Lights, who heads to Greece every now and then, but it is rather tenuous, but I have been able to get through to her, happily. I used her artwork for the cover of Will Alexander's Spotlight volume [Compression & Purity] and then I was pleased to get to have her work on the cover of my own chapbook that Micah's Auguste Press put out, Invisible Sleep.
Dunagan: With all the personal details you at times become privy to, how do you balance not telling too much?
Well, I genuinely like all these people I'm writing about and if there's something they won't appreciate me sharing then I won't share it generally. Somebody like Philip or Barbara, I might now share some details I know of now that they're gone but those would just be more like personality quirks. Nothing very serious. I think since I've never really pursued writing about anybody or anything I'm not already interested in that this isn't much of a problem.