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Abstract Alchemist of Flesh

On February 11, SFU hosted Michael McClure in two separate events: a documentary screening/Q&A session and a reading. McClure is a member of the beat generation – although he’s never sure that he deserves that classification and cites it as “just being there.” He was at the famous reading where Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl,” and is frequently referred to in the works of Jack Kerouac. The documentary, Abstract Alchemist of Flesh, was filmed by Colin Still. It provides a provocative assembly of McClure’s life and work, while McClure’s commentary afterwards presented a deeper level of understanding of both artist and art.

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New documentary exposes McClure’s life and work

By Karen Aney (Contributer) – Email

On February 11, SFU hosted Michael McClure in two separate events: a documentary screening/Q&A session and a reading. McClure is a member of the beat generation – although he’s never sure that he deserves that classification and cites it as “just being there.” He was at the famous reading where Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl,” and is frequently referred to in the works of Jack Kerouac. The documentary, Abstract Alchemist of Flesh, was filmed by Colin Still. It provides a provocative assembly of McClure’s life and work, while McClure’s commentary afterwards presented a deeper level of understanding of both artist and art.

The film was inspirational to say the least. Rather than simply outlining McClure’s escapades (which would have made for some great viewing, I assure you), it delved into some of the artistically relevant aspects of his work. As an example, the documentary began with a recitation of his poem “For the Death of 100 Whales.” The poem itself is rather Call of the Wild-esque in its detail, and is inspired by an article from the April 1954 issue of Time magazine. The article described the tragic tale of bored American soldiers stationed in Iceland who took it upon themselves to murder a pod of killer whales with their military weapons. Rather than simply depict a reading of the poem, though, the documentary discusses the form of the poem itself: McClure failed to understand the obsession with left-aligned poetry, and decided instead to center his work on the page. This, he says, directs the “transfer of energy to the core”: the core of the words, the core of the reader, the core of the poem. This alignment made the poem not simply poetically stimulating, but also “visually, physiologically, and intellectually” invigorating.

McClure’s dedication to the creation of multi-faceted work is apparent in some of the unique readings he has performed. One such reading is that which was performed for some caged lions at the San Francisco zoo. The poems he read came from his Ghost Tantras – 99 poems in a language more primal than English. The language he speaks is often referred to as ‘beast’ – guttural, primal sounds that seem to be the pure origins of the words our language employs. McClure described how the reading came about during the post-documentary discussion: he was at the zoo one morning recording snow leopards for a music track he was working on. He ran into a lion keeper who was a fellow poet. The lion keeper then invited him to read for the lions, knowing of his work from the Ghost Tantras. This is where the video of his reading to the lions was born. The footage is inspiring – McClure, passionately reading poetry to lions who are growling, hissing, and generally going apoplectic in their cages. The image is a visceral representation of the primal beauty in so much of McClure’s work.

An aspect of the documentary and discussion that I particularly enjoyed was the depiction of his work with music and poetry. Aside from the compositions he did with Morrison and Joplin, he has spent much time incorporating music into his poetry. In the documentary, Terry Riley (an American musician belonging to the ‘minimalist’ school of composition) described his working relationship with McClure: the poet would send the composer both a hard copy of the poem, and a recording of a reading of it. From that, the composition was born – thus, the music reflects the words. The music itself is ethereal and complimentary; chord changes and leitmotifs add depth and body to the words of the poems.

When asked to elaborate on the composition process, McClure explained that the songs are never the same from performance to performance. He said that a poetic reading – with or without music – is greatly influenced by the “tenor of the audience”. Their emotions, he says, give body to the poems. This truth extends to musical readings as well. A particularly well-received line may call for an extended arpeggio or extra cadence – or it may change the bones of the song itself. One particular memory that McClure described was of a performance with Doors alumni Ray Manzarek. During this performance, one poem was so well received that Manzarek morphed the melody into one from Beethoven’s 9 Symphony – the choral portion, where the melody of the well-known song “Ode to Joy” comes from. McClure loved its grandiose effect, and asked Manzarek if he could replicate it during future performances. However, the keyboardist didn’t realize what he was doing – “I was playing Beethoven?” – demonstrating how fully the artists allowed themselves to be controlled by their instinct and emotion.

To make a long article short – this event was amazing, inspiring, informative, and definitely worth the trek up Burnaby mountain. If you’re interested in learning more about this revolutionary artist, check out his newest publication: Of Indigo and Saffron. This is a great book to pick up if you’re new to McClure; it includes selections from his body of work as well as new poems. In the words of McClure: “the point is to play with words. Words on the page, words spoken. They play with me, too. Isn’t that the point?”

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