b. April 26, 1935
Poet at the VortexCharles Plymell, a son of the open wind-swept plain, is one of our more meaningful and creative souls working in the culture today.
In a geographical sense Plymell started out as an outsider. He was born in Holcomb, Kansas (1,595 miles East of New York City and 1,607 miles West of San Francisco.) In the late 1940s his family moved to Wichita and by the age of fifteen Plymell had dropped out of high school and began his road adventures in a new 1951 Chevy outfitted with dual pipes and headers. He also became part of the Wichita bohemian scene, sometimes identified as the "Wichita Vortex."
Literary historians are likely to slot Plymell in the category of second generation Beats. The Dictionary of Literary Biography associates Plymell with the Beats because "he lived with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady in San Francisco in the early 1960s; he admired and was influenced by much of the Beat writing; his work was published in Beat journals and by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books. As an editor and publisher, he has, in turn, published many Beat figures, such as Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Herbert Huncke."
It is a classification Plymell rejects even though his underwear appears in Ginsberg's poetry and despite the fact that he was there the very last time Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg were physically together. Plymell has in fact become more critical of the politics and propaganda of the Beats, especially their former chief spokesman and publicist, Ginsberg. But Plymell still remains a primary source for the closing moments of that movement.
Plymell began writing poetry as a teenager, inspired by the open Kansas land.
Into the pathos of my environmental energies came historical words, symbols, and the logos of my deeds, which would mark the crude beginning of my creative expressions. It was no longer the childhood singing of a cowboy-song metaphor about herding the dark clouds out of the sky when I would stand in the middle of a field with no one or nothing as far as the eye could see and sing louder and louder... thinking that my voice was in the wind . . . could stay in time . . . or through time . . . a plaint of someone, like an imaginary Greek Islander who had sung to himself thousands of years ago to establish his own ethos, to say, in effect, I am here--but now, of the street in this life, the poetry became the idiom, the tempo, the time.
During the 1950s Plymell spent time travelling around and working at a variety of jobs, including work as a rodeo rider and a pipeline builder. He valued experience in the world over a classroom education. In true hobohemian (Plymell's word) fashion much of what Plymell learned he learned outside the groves of academe. There were, however, a couple of forays into those groves as a student.
In 1955 he started attending Wichita State University and studied philosophy, art and English. But, he writes, "I spent all my time involved with the arts and ignored my classes except for metaphysics and, subsequently, flunked most of them one by one." He submerged himself in the Wichita subculture. This "Wichita Vortex" spinning in the heartland also fertilized and energized other local artists including the poet Michael McClure and the sculptor/collagist/filmmaker Bruce Conner.
Like McClure and Conner, Plymell would be vectored from Wichita to San Francisco. He arrived there in 1963. The so-called "San Francisco Renaissance" had already occurred. The transition from subterranean Beat to countercultural Hippie was already underway. Interest in the graphic arts, influenced perhaps by the visual hallucinations inspired by the increasing use of psychedelic drugs, was resurgent. Plymell worked on collages and he had a successful show at the Batman Gallery. He describes these collages as experiments with "images on emulsion screens that when laid over a photo created an hallucinogenic effect."
Plymell directly experienced the transition from the Beats to the Hippies when Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg lived with him during the summer of 1963 at 1403 Gough Street in San Francisco. Over the next several years Plymell was a printer, publisher, editor and poet. He published a couple of magazines and newspapers. The Last Times was, like the better-known Oracle, an underground tabloid sold on the streets; it lasted only two issues.
Plymell was the first printer and publisher of Zap Comix that introduced the work of Robert Crumb in 1967 to the San Francisco subculture. Also in 1967, friend Dave Haselwood published Plymell's first book of poetry, Apocalypse Rose. Brown Miller in the Dictionary of Literary Biography writes, "The poems in this book are very skillful renderings of visionary insights into contemporary life. The Beat influence is present, but Plymell cannot be mistaken for an imitator of the Beat style. He moves toward precise, economical uses of language which are not normally associated with Beat writing. " Plymell also got married in the late 1960s to his beloved Pamela.
In 1971 City Lights Books published Plymell's first prose work, The Last of the Moccasins. The critic Hugh Fox wrote that Plymell's book was a "case-book/textbook model of contemporary style that Americanizes Joyce, Genet, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet and even stylistically explicates the whole dizzying language-state of Naked Lunch Burroughs. The only 'Beat' novels that even approach the stylistic stature of The Last of the Moccasins are, in fact, Naked Lunch and (to a much lesser degree), Kerouac's Doctor Sax." William Burroughs called it a "manifesto of ashes. A very readable manifesto." On one level the book is the story of Plymell's experiences in and around San Francisco in the 1960s.
The 1970s and '80s brought more travel, this time in the other direction, East to Baltimore, New York, Washington D.C. In Baltimore he attended Elliot Coleman's writing seminars at John Hopkins University. After a move to Cherry Valley, New York Plymell and his wife founded Cherry Valley Editions and published work by Burroughs among others. By the end of the 1970s Plymell and his wife had two children (Plymell makes reference to a daughter born in the 1960s out of wedlock whom he saw only twice.) Financial difficulties were the rule. From Cherry Valley the Plymell family moved to Washington, D.C. where Charles did part-time teaching and Pamela worked for the Wall Street Journal. From Washington it was back to Cherry Valley.
In 1990 Plymell would write,
I am a whitebearded old man reading the want ads, seeking jobs, usually part-time, to help support my family, and still finding very little time to write in not a very wellplanned career. Even with the earnings of my wife contributing to the income, I still had a lifelong conflict with what I did, opposed to what I should do to earn a good living. This lack of middle-class progress was many times problematical and difficult for me to explain to my children. My life's work was the unemployment line, unskilled labor, or part-time teaching.
Plymell continues to write poetry and stories and express provocative thoughts on a wide range of topics including the future of poetry and the hypocrisy of our drug laws.
Plymell On Poetry
[W]ith the Internet helping to make all words more democratic, somewhat like John Cage's notes, it's very difficult to find stuff that knocks your socks off, and it may be the end to poetry as we've known it; yet, people think that there must be a reason to read famous poets, because if they don't, then they may not be hip, and so on. In other words, the audience is made before the work. [Plymell, 1996].
Of course reading famous poets can be inspiring but it is wise to look to the outsider poets for fresh and original thinking. The outsiders looking in often have a clearer vision of the culture and Plymell may be a perfect case in point.
Plymell On Drugs
[The drug] war too is about politics, ideals, morals, but corruption provides the fuel. Prohibition breeds corruption as we have learned in history. It also creates profits that have built nations and governments at the expense of its citizens. Now, while we build more prisons, we release violent murderers and rapists to make room for non-violent deadheads who use LSD and pot. Under mandatory sentencing, the drug user often does more time than the murderers...Perhaps we are not civilized. Perhaps we have been so nurtured on aggressiveness, greed, competitiveness, psychological wars and power, that as a country dealing with the drug problem, we have become insane. [Plymell, 1997]
Plymell is adept at sniffing out hypocrisy and pretension. This talent was developed in childhood. In an autobiographical sketch Plymell writes, "Having grown up in the Bible Belt and seen an appreciable amount of powerful bible-thumping hypocrisies, I grew disdainful of dogmatism." This is exactly what we want our poets to do. Of course we don't pay them much to watch out for hypocrites and dogmatists but who else is going to separate the trash from the truth?
Plymell's distinctively outsider status may be about to change. On February 7, 2000 Wichita State University announced it will "develop and house a special archive of the work of Beat writer, poet, and artist, Charles Plymell" The announcement went on to say that the University[W]ill establish a Plymell special collections library, an archive of letters and other written documents, a selection of photographs (including some rare early examples) and a collection of collages and other artwork by Plymell. In addition the university will acquire an outstanding selection of works published by Cherry Valley Press. The books include outstanding historic examples of the work of William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Janine Pomy Vega and many other important writers of the first and second Beat generations.Of course this is good news for Plymell, although the emphasis on his relationship to the "Beat Generation" might miss the mark. We believe that as more people become familiar with Plymell's work, he will transcend that affiliation.
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NOTE: The Cosmic Baseball Association would like to thank the Buchenroth Publishing Company which maintains an excellent website with a large amonut of information on Charles Plymell.