Culture & Criticism Since 2003
San Francisco poet Garrett Caples was charged with the vital task of editing Michael McClure’s last book of poems (Mule Kick Blues), a job which required him to help stitch the Beat icon’s final musings into a seamless volume that would speak to that transcendental moment when spirit leaves body and leaps through the rumpled veils of eternity. Like any good editor, Caples sits back and steers the car without anyone knowing he’s there – his hand completely invisible throughout Mule Kick, never once getting in the way of the bright flame of McClure’s voice.
Caples was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He attended Rutgers University before moving to the Bay Area in 1994 to pursue a Ph.D. in English at the University of California. Once in San Francisco, he forged a friendship with the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, whose influence can be seen in Caples’ first book of poems (The Garrett Caples Reader – 1999).
Caples finished his Ph.D. in 2003, and in 2005, he began writing on hip-hop for the alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, continuing on the beat until that paper folded in 2014. He began working in the publishing office at City Lights Books in San Francisco in 2006, starting out as a proofreader and editorial assistant.
The period marked a true transitional phase for Ferlinghetti’s famed press, and the changes that ensued gave Caples his chance to become an editor in 2008. His first major project for City Lights was editing a series of contemporary American poets called the Spotlight Poetry Series. (The 21st volume of this series, D.S. Marriott’s Before Whiteness, releases in April 2022).
Caples’ other major editorial projects at City Lights include co-editing Frank Lima’s Incidents of Travel in Poetry (2016); co-editing Arcana: A Stephen Jonas Reader (2019); and editing McClure’s Mule Kick Blues and Last Poems (2021). Caples also worked as an editor on books by David Meltzer, Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, David Shapiro, John Hoffman, Charles Bukowski, and Bob Kaufman, among many others. Non-City Lights editorial projects have included co-editing The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (2013) for University of California Press and Richard O. Moore’s Particulars of Place (Omnidawn 2015), as well as editing a new edition of Samuel Greenberg’s Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts (2019) for New Directions.
Caples is also the author of Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (Wave Books 2010); a book of essays Retrievals (2014); Power Ballads (2016); and an edition of Philip Lamantia’s selected prose called Preserving Fire (2018). His latest book of poems, Lovers of Today, will be released in October by Wave Books. Meanwhile, Caples’ journalism has appeared in the New York Times; Paris Review; The Believer; Rain Taxi; Poetry; and poetryfoundation.org.
The Electric Review sat down with Garrett Caples on July 8th, 2021 in a wide-ranging interview that cuts to the core of Michael McClure’s last statement as a poet. Along the way, he delves into what it’s like to be carrying the torch for Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the rest of the Beat poets who have since passed from this earth.
I was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts originally. The city is north of Boston, right next Lowell. A lot of my mother’s family is from Lowell. In fact, my great uncle was on the same football team in high school as Jack Kerouac. I guess I was crossing into this Beat world since before I was born (laughing).
My dad was a lawyer. And mom did a variety of things, including being a pharmacist.
I guess it all started when I was 15 years old, after I read Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. At that moment, being a writer seemed like the most fun thing you could do on earth. I also knew that I was good at writing. And it seemed to me you could have an interesting life being a writer, which made me focus on it all the more.
No, I always knew I wanted to write. I moved west and came to Berkeley studying to be a professor. But I didn’t actually want that. I just kept taking classes, because I didn’t know how you became a writer. But when I got to the Bay Area I met other writers and found opportunities to write. Things just happened naturally from there.
I don’t know how to answer that. In one sense it happened early, and in another sense it’s still happening. I published my first book of poems in 1999, when I was 27. I had only been writing poems for about five years before that book was published. I came to poetry late – in graduate school. That’s when I finally discovered that the things I liked in literature were best addressed in poetry.
I met Philip through Will Alexander, a black surrealist poet from L.A. whom we’ve published at City Lights. Will had met both Philip and Bob Kaufman in 1978 and he and Philip really hit it off. Will eventually introduced me to Philip. I had read Bed of Sphinxes and I was excited by the chance to meet Philip. That meeting changed the course of my life. We just hit it off. I had grown up Catholic, and Philip was in a Catholic religious phase when I met him. He liked to talk about Catholicism and I understood that and could converse with him about religion. Our friendship was really easy. We liked hanging out together and kept doing it. And even after all these years, I still think of him daily.
By the time I got to know him, Philip had had a long life. I was aware that he had battled manic depression for many years, and could potentially be a volatile person. But he had mellowed by the time I met him. I never faced the brunt of his manic side. [When he was younger], you could say the wrong thing and he could go off. But he was in a better place when we met. He was really very sweet to me. And he had studied the church in tremendous depth. He wasn’t into mainstream Catholicism [but instead] was studying the mystical side of it. He was putting the same energy into it as he had put into alchemy or Egyptology or poetry. Philip could be very grandfatherly. And at other times he could be childlike. That was just him…
In an indirect way, Philip Lamantia led to my association with City Lights. After Philip died, I helped Nancy Peters [then-executive director of City Lights as well as Lamantia’s wife] assemble his papers. She knew I was unemployed and she gave me little jobs at City Lights to do – things like filing and proofreading. So she started giving me little things at City Lights to do. These then quickly mushroomed. Historically, Nancy and Lawrence had handled most of the poetry. And I think they thought it would be useful for the press to have a person from the poetry world at the press. But Philip was the conduit that brought me to City Lights.
A little of both I guess. When I started at City Lights he still came in every day. He was in his late 80s at that time. But certainly Lawrence had a lot to do with things in an indirect sense. He was always a factor in what went on at the press and the store. He could be painfully shy, but Lawrence liked me; for whatever reason he felt comfortable around me. He was comfortable with me probably because I didn’t have any demands on him.
After his death, I became very aware of how much City Lights benefited from his influence. People really loved him and he generated a lot of good will. He always deflected that to City Lights. His death made me realize we enjoyed a certain amount of protection from him. And now we’re on our own carrying on with his work. It’s hard keeping a publishing house going. People had an automatic love for Lawrence. And when you lose somebody like that it becomes more difficult to keep things going…
I had met Michael in the poetry world a couple of times but didn’t really know him. And then when I worked on Lamantia’s Collected Poems for UC Press, Andrew Joron and I went to Michael’s house to interview him for the introduction to the book. Michael was so generous. I was struck by his generosity toward Philip. I recall that he talked about how important a poet Lamantia was to the movement. Philip was the senior poet in this area – he was publishing in New York avant-garde magazines way before Ginsberg and Snyder and McClure and the rest of the Beats. Michael painted a vivid portrait of the San Francisco poetry scene in the 1950s. He gave Philip the credit he deserved. That interview turned me onto who Michael was as a person. Sometime after that, City Lights put out a new edition of Ghost Tantras. It wasn’t my project but I was writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian at the time and I interviewed Michael. That’s when Michael drew me into his orbit. He also recognized my work and started to allow me to help on projects he was doing. Eventually I came to work on a collection of his City Lights published in 2016 called Mephistos & Other Poems. After it was released, he wanted to do a follow-up to that collection – Mule Kick Blues. We began working on Mule Kick early in 2018 and even finished it by the end of that year. Then City Lights waited to release it, waiting for the right time on the publication schedule.
As I’ve said, we actually completed the book in 2018, and he had a stroke shortly afterward, in 2019. There was a year-long decline that followed, before he died in May 2020. This was around the height of the covid pandemic. You know City Lights took a huge financial hit during the pandemic. This past spring was our first publishing season launched after the pandemic started. We spent most of the last year just keeping the place alive. I’ve really been struck how connected people are to City Lights. That really came out during the fundraiser last spring.
There’s an interesting story on how this book came to be constructed. It was my second go-around doing a book with Michael, and this time he allowed me to give a lot more input. First he gave me an earlier version of the manuscript, which he had been working on for several years. And I felt comfortable to make forceful suggestions. I also rearranged it, changing the order of some poems. Michael had written this profound poetry on the subject of death, but it was buried in the back of the book. And I rearranged this part of the manuscript, bringing it to the front of the book. Once he saw how I arranged it, he gave me some other newer pieces he had written that fit the section. It was a wonderfully collaborative and fun process.
I wouldn’t say he set out to do it. I don’t think he saw it as his ‘last book.’ But at that age, death is certainly in your mind. Some accidental poetry magic just happened along the way I guess…
I personally took it as a homage to Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. That was Michael’s favorite Kerouac book. Michael thought it was Kerouac’s best book of poems and that it was greatly under-appreciated. I think some of the title came from Kerouac and some of it came from the stage collaborations he did with pianist Ray Manzarek in the 1990s. But I don’t definitively know the answer. The title connotes the stubborn endurance of the mule kick which certainly was a part of Michael’s personality.
We got through most of it before his health started to fail. That was the lucky part of it. If we had waited for the City Lights schedule to sort itself out, Michael would not have been in any shape to pursue this book. At the time he was facing the challenges typical of old age; for example, his eye-sight was bad. He was blind in one eye. And he simply needed more help to get things done.
Absolutely! Ultimately, it shows that Michael was doing new stuff right up to the end of his life. He was making very profound statements. But Michael was one of those poets who I don’t think necessarily knew what his strongest work was. And that’s where I stepped in to help. The introduction I wrote for the collection is very intense. I started it the week of his death. I think it was the way I processed his death…
That varies from book to book and from editor to editor. I am a poet myself and that makes me a certain type of editor. I would never do a line edit on a poem. I am more the type of editor who sets out to find the best poems in a collection. Sometimes, I’m more of a sounding board for the writer – someone to bounce ideas off of. I also do the nuts-and-bolts jobs that come with publishing, things like writing marketing copy. Different editors do things in different ways, but in the end, either a poem works or it doesn’t. I try to find the pieces that work. With Mule Kick, I helped steer Michael in a certain direction that he might not have found on his own.
I would say Philip Lamantia has had the biggest influence on me as a poet. I don’t write like him, but Philip taught me how to be a poet in an existential sense. Different poets perceive in different ways. Philip gave me the courage to let the poems come and not force them. He always made sure to stay true to himself and not publish any bullshit. Philip had very high standards for his work. He was a famous poet for 60 years, and only published 7 or 8 books. But that’s enough…
Of course, after working in this universe with Ferlinghetti I feel a certain responsibility to want to help to keep the place going. The pandemic was truly awful, but it also showed the resiliency of City Lights. This place was threatened and could have gone under. But it survived. The fact that we got through this gives me lots of optimism for the future. If we could get through covid, we can get through anything. The idea of the press has always been the same: to remain a serious force for serious left-wing thought [and to promote] progressive poetry and politics. When Lawrence passed, it was breaking news on the front page of the New York Times. I realized then that he was equally important as a poet and as a beacon of left-wing resistance in America. And after 70 years, City Lights is still here to remind people that poetry is a force for liberation….