Reprinted in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics by permission of the author.
This interview originally appeared in Poetry Flash, December, 1992. (Editor: Joyce Jenkins, PO Box 4172, Berkeley, CA 94704)
I spoke with Robert Hunter at "the Office," the Grateful Dead's Victorian headquarters in San Rafael, sitting under the six original charcoal sketches for the back cover of Workingman's Dead. It was Hunter's lyrics on that album for "Uncle John's Band," "Easy Wind" and "Cumberland Blues" that first drew me to his work: His narratives of miners and pioneers, gamblers and jackballers, were California to me before I ever saw California, an imagination of the American West that alloyed the live Dead's jazz-inspired sea journeys with song traditions of ballads and blues.
If the Dead pried open doors to new musical domains with their "blues with progressions/ modeled on the tesseract" (as Hunter put it), it was Hunter who put people in them, in the characters of August West, Delia DeLyon, the Candyman, and the nameless sailor from Carlisle who braved a lion's den to retrieve a fan tossed by his beloved. Hunter mined a vein struck by Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson of rock and roll as social history, and Hunter's people are mortal, fallible, caught by the storyteller's lamp just at the moment of decision. His portrayals are redemptive, in the sense of Nelson Algren's statement that one calling of the American writer is to "stand with the accused.
Hunter's debut as a poet was the publication of his translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies in 1987. Since then, he has published Night Cadre, a collection of poems distinguished by their self-effacing wit and fractal- faceted philosophical inquiry, and Idiot's Delight, written for Raymond Foye's Hanuman series, a beguiling meditation on appetite that reads like an improvised sutra. Next year, Viking will release The Bride of Entropy, a series of three long poems including "An American Adventure," a very funny metaphoric recollection of the Dead's haphazard mission written from the deep inside, and the sharpest x-ray of the ambitions of Hunter's generation that I've read. His collected lyrics is called Box of Rain .
Hunter has spent his adult life just out of view of the magnifying glass of fame. He is forthcoming about what he feels comfortable talking about, and glides easily into warm husky baritone song. The poet's road of small-press submissions and readings is still new to him, as he explains here, and he has put himself out on that road with the enthusiasm of a beginner and the honed tools of a passionate and meticulous craftsman. He is plainly honored to be giving readings in the company of those he admires.
In Box of Rain, Hunter recounts the best compliment he ever got for a lyric, from a miner who had worked the Cumberland lode. Hearing "Cumberland Blues," the old miner said, "I wonder what the guy who wrote this song would've thought if he'd ever known something like the Grateful Dead was gonna do it?"
SILBERMAN: You've put yourself into the public view a lot more as a poet in the last few months than you have for years when you were more reclusive or more exclusively a performer of songs. How does that feel?
HUNTER: I've been writing poetry more or less exclusively, with some breaks for lyrics, for about five years now. I'm just beginning to feel I've got the knack. I've done a bunch of cautious readings over the last year or two, and flopped on some of them, and learned from them, and am starting to feel that I'm getting a style of my own. My first reading, the lines I would love to have said were not written on the paper. So I'd go back and write those lines, and I'm beginning to understand how much poetry is a spoken art. What goes on the paper ought to be able to come out of your mouth also, with ease and fluidity. I'm feeling comfortable with it now, so it's time to let it rip.
SILBERMAN: What were the first books of poems you read, that started you out?
HUNTER: About 25 years ago I was visiting a girlfriend in the City, and there was this little orange book in her bookcase that I pulled out. It was On Out, by Lew Welch, and I thought, "How long has this been going on?" Before the Poetry Flash benefit the other night there was who I thought was a street performer out there, entertaining the crowd outside. It was like hearing bits of old jokes, the lines were so familiar. All of a sudden I realized, "My God, that's Lew Welch!" It was Kush, doing Lew Welch. I presume he was doing it as Lew Welch would, 'cause Kush would have the tapes, if there were any.
SILBERMAN: What was the quality of Lew Welch's poems that spoke to you?
HUNTER: There was a beautiful line in one of them, "Trails go nowhere, they end exactly/ where you stop." There was a lot of wisdom in it, and an easiness, and a fluidity of language. Very, very appealing. I would say that was my beginning turn-on. I was ready to get bonked over the head with something, and that book was there for it.
SILBERMAN: Were you living in the Haight at this point?
HUNTER: South of Market, in some alley or other I forget the name of. I lived over the corner of Fillmore and Fell, I lived over at 710 for a short space of time [the Dead's communal house at 710 Ashbury], and over in the Mission, and like that. I was in and around the area without specifically landing in the Haight that much. I'd go over to visit the Dead at 710.
SILBERMAN: Were you conscious of yourself as a poet at that point?
HUNTER: No. I've only been conscious of myself as a poet for about the last 4 years. I looked up to poets, I thought they were doing something that I couldn't do. There was an editor in England who was interested in having me write some poetry, so I wrote a book of poetry. She presented it to the readers without telling them who wrote it, many of whom she said were fans of my lyric work. They rejected it; they said it was all "too stiff." And indeed it was. I was living in England at the time, and I had some idea of poetry that harkened back about a century--which a person will do with no training whatsoever.
SILBERMAN: There's a certain level of self-conscious archaism in your lyrics, and in your translations. It's interesting to see how it works differently in songs and translations, and in open-form poetry. It 's less present in your open-form poetry, like in Night Cadre and Idiot's Delight.
HUNTER: That's a process of slowly vacuuming that stuff out, by having other models. One of the things that has cleaned my act up was falling in love with the Language poets.
SILBERMAN: How did that happen?
HUNTER: It was as simple as buying Doug Messerli's book, The Language Poets. I opened it in the store and said, "Whoo!--This is like the stuff I used to write 25 years ago at the depths of my madness." Then I got Ron Silliman's book, In the American Tree, and read all the way through that. This was speaking directly to me. I got interested in the individual poets, and started building a collection, and then I invited Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harriman to read with me. The freedom that Language poetry opened up helped to dust away the Victorian cobwebs from my own work.
SILBERMAN: One of the interesting tensions between your work and the work of the Language poets is that one of your particular gifts is in riffing off of rhythms of speech with extreme playfulness, so that in a lot of your lyric work, and also in Idiot's Delight, you're deconstructing vivid bits of spoken language by either slightly varying the rhythms, or making percussive jokes out of the rhythms, jamming with the inevitable quality of little jive phrases, like kids on a streetcorner "playing the dozens."
One of the projects of the Language poets, it seems to me, is moving away from a speech-based poetics that American poetry has been concerned with since Williams, Pound, on through Olson's projective verse, and Creeley, though Creeley starts to cut into different areas with the extreme acuity of his line breaks. I'm curious as how a speech-based lyric poet came up against this body of work that wants to get away from the limitations of speech-based poetics.
HUNTER: What's that I Ching phrase, "persistence in galling limitation." Eventually it will all take you somewhere else. It was probably translating Rilke that was the beginning of the breakthrough for me. Rilke matched, very much, my idea of where I thought English poetry should be, which will show how far out of date I was. It's a very fine archaic-laden German that he writes, that harks way back in nineteenth century forms. After doing the Rilke translation, living it, I was no longer totally satisfied with regular meter and rhyme. It was time to look elsewhere. I still love lyric writing, but I'd say, more and more, that my first love is the language in its freer forms.
SILBERMAN: How different does it feel to you working with a regular rhyme scheme, and to sit down and write in an open form?
HUNTER: For quite a while, I had to be doing one or the other. If I had a bunch of lyrics that I had to write, I would not write poetry during that time. I didn't believe that I could do the two things together, but now I'm getting the Bride of Entropy book together, and there's Grateful Dead stuff to be done, and I've been writing lyrics for [local band] Zero, and it's come to where I seem to be able to juggle with both hands, different objects.
I'm not someone who outlines, and knows what he's going to write to begin with. Which is why I'm also a rewriter. I just start and what happens next, happens next. It directs itself. Then I start seeing the flow of it. Like as not, if I'm working on a song, the first verse will go away. I get into it, then I throw off the top part and continue.
SILBERMAN: The song "Box of Rain" began as a rough vocal outline from Phil [Dead bassist Lesh]. How does that process work?
HUNTER: Scat singing: "Dum-dum dum, da-da-da-da, bump-dum-dum-dum-dum, dee-dee-dee." I'm able to translate peoples' scat. I hear English in it, almost as though I write down what I hear underneath that. I hear the intention. It's a talent like the Rubik's Cube, or something like that, and it comes easily to me. Which might be why I like Language poetry. I can tell from the rhythms, or lack of rhythms, from the disjunctures and the end stoppages, what they're avoiding saying-- the meaning that they would like to not be stating there, comes rushing through to me. I understand dogs. I can talk to babies.
A cat dictated "China Cat Sunflower" to me. It was just sittin' on my stomach, purring away, and sayin' this stuff. I just write it down; I guess it's plagiarism. I've credited the cat, right? [laughing]
Before I was writing songs, I was a stoned James Joyce head, Finnegan's Wake head. I can still recite the first page and last couple of pages of that thing. There was something in the way those words socketed together, and the wonderful feel of reciting them, that very, very deeply influenced me.
SILBERMAN: Paul Simon says that when he sits down to write a song, he'll often scat sing to himself over a melody, and keep running through that until syllables find their way into the scatting, and eventually words find their way into the syllables.
HUNTER: If I'm under pressure, writing a song and the band wants something right away, I'll write whatever nonsense scans. Then once I've got the scan, seeing where the rhymes and accents are going to fall, it's a fairly simple matter to translate it into English. And leave some of it untranslated, too. It's interesting that way.
SILBERMAN: A lot of the motifs you use in your poetry are, in a sense, not English. There are so many names that you invent, that are pure syllabic music.
HUNTER: Like "Preserpie and Senti Yagoya" [unpublished]. I like the poem and its character, so I decided to lengthen it. Finally, the other day, after going through nine or ten drafts, quadrupling, quintupling it in length, there was only one thing that I had added that did it any service. I had to go right back to square one. It's got a line in it--[sings], "A thousand miles I came to hear a bear play violin. The bear played violin, not well, but better than you expect from a bear."
I've got a lot of things tucked away. I've got my Faust tucked away, that I've been working on for years and years. Idiot's Delight began in England, and it was all in Spenserian stanzas, which is a challenging way to work. All I kept from that for the book was a little bit of the feel, and the title. And the rest of it's just tucked away. I'm very pleased with it, but it is idiocy. Benign Spenserian idiocy.
SILBERMAN: I think there's a casual ease to that book that serves the different voices that come to terms with one another in it. It's breezy without being insubstantial.
HUNTER: When Raymond Foye asked me to write something for Hanuman, I said "Why don't you take my verse translations of the Sonnets to Orpheus?," and sent it off. And Raymond said there's no way that this could fit into the Hanuman format. I said, "What if you were to turn it sideways, or print it across the page?" He asked his printer; it couldn't be done. He said, "Maybe you could just write something for the format."
I did plan in advance to have 11 sections of 11 verses of 11 lines, and then I just went for it. That's why, as it gets to the end, it says that I'm gettin' a little tired of this piece now, but it requires an exact verse count, so I start talkin' about the home team and the weather. I didn't put a lot of importance on it at the time. And that's often the best way to work.
SILBERMAN: In that book it seems as if it's the small-page format that is the structural container, whereas with your lyrics it would be the melody, or the scan.
HUNTER: The song, its place on the record . . .
SILBERMAN: When you write lyrics, do you think of things like where the song will go on the record?
HUNTER: Yes. You want to vary the pace and the emotional feel. You definitely want a kicker to make somebody want to turn the record over at the end of side A, and then a grand statement to end side 2. But that's all changed with CD. Now it's one longer continuum. I like it. I always felt limited by that.
SILBERMAN: Can you give me an example of when thinking in that way might have influenced the scale of a song?
HUNTER: I have this short little piece, "Lady Simplicity." I didn't have a song that seemed to properly kick in and get Rum Runners [Hunter's first solo album] going. So I wrote this little chorale piece to start it off, and then I didn't have a piece that I felt ended the record satisfactorily, so I did "Boys in the Barroom." These were written to begin and end an album, because the other pieces all wanted to be in the middle somewhere, hanging onto each other for dear life.
SILBERMAN: One of the things that is really singular in terms of how your work is heard is that your lyrics comprise a narrative that is assembled by Garcia, or by the band, in the course of a Dead show, as the band builds a "set." Do you notice that when you go to shows, how your lyrics are being ordered by the shape of a set?
HUNTER: Well, I don't tend to hear it that way. Although certainly I have heard, on a specific night, when some event has happened that the gig might be said to relate to, that the songs will, just naturally, hit into a flow that'll cause them to be commenting on the World Series, or whatever natural disaster has happened. I don't believe that's a conscious thing, for the most part. This band is known for dense subconsciousness. A lot of it is the Muse.
I just started work on an essay last night, because I told Anne Waldman that I would go to Naropa, and I was informed that I had to give a 90 minute lecture. And I went, "Me? Lecture?" I've got no retentive memory at all. I don't remember the names of poets. I don't remember anything but the feel of them. So I've decided to write a lecture called "Courting the Muse." That's one thing I do know something about: Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!
SILBERMAN: The Muse is often envisioned as female in lyric tradition, and you have delineated her garments more deliberately and elaborately than many poets. There's a very interesting female presence in your work. Can you talk about that?
HUNTER: I saw my muses once. It was a very, very high time, many years back. There were three golden presences in the room. It was a visual. I don't say I was straight at the time, but I will say it had a lasting effect on me. I have a feeling that there's something that helps me, gives it to me, sometimes. "Terrapin" starts out with a shameless invocation to the Muse.
I know Muse is unfashionable now, but I think if people knew what it was, they couldn't throw it out. It's an informing joy in creation, in which one's verbal flow spills over the page with a great deal of ease and pleasure. That joy is there even in the communication of pain. The trick is to seek this out first, before anything else. William Burroughs has said something about, "A writer's business is to make his mind absolutely blank."
This is not literally so, but you could say something "comes into the ear," and moves around the head, and you know you're on. When you're on, you can do no wrong.
SILBERMAN: Kerouac said, "Don't think of words when you stop, but to see picture better." Thus an image-centered process. Do you feel more conscious of your writing being driven the language, or by a set of images, or feelings? What does your Muse feel like?
HUNTER: The language is little tricks that I play with my input, and if it delights the Muse, you hear a little bell [laughing]. Don't take this literally, 'cause we are talking about what can't be talked about. I'd say a lot of my poetry is about that, even. Milton found a very fine way to talk about it. Wallace Stevens is just chock-full of Muse. I feel that anything that doesn't have this central, singular focus is an exercise, and you wouldn't select it for your selected works. Which leads to the next question, why do poems that have been lifted from books and put into a selected works seem so orphaned? Have you ever noticed that?
SILBERMAN: Yeah, I have noticed that.
HUNTER: After reading Ashbery's selected works, I went and got all the individual books to read again. Those poems just jump forward, and they're full of juice. Last night I read, as I often do, "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror," which I think is one of the finest poems in the language. But I read it in the selected works--this was up at the river, it was all I had up there--and it's not the same poem as it was in that little Penguin paperback.
SILBERMAN: What is it about Ashbery that speaks to you?
HUNTER: There is an absolutely daunting intelligence there, and an impatience with anything as simple as straight communication. If you want straight communication, read a newspaper. I read Ashbery at a fast clip. I don't stop and wonder what he means about something. I let it roll, and collect, and flow, and when I come to the end, you know, here's the way the tomato hit the wall. And then on to the next. There are very few poets that I read slowly and with great care. I like to charge through them and get the whole bite at once.
SILBERMAN: I wonder if poems in selected poems seem "orphaned" because they lack the whole terrain of thought and feeling that the chosen poems were the peaks of. The poems, or songs for that matter, that the artist thinks are only half-realized and slightly embarrassing, often have more of the artist's struggle in them, than the completely realized works, dictated totally by the Other. You can taste the human struggle more in half- realized works.
HUNTER: There's a vulnerability to 'em. There's no vulnerability to "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror." But you take some of Ashbery's attempts to rhyme--when Ashbery stoops to rhyme, he's just another cheesy lyricist. I think of lyric ability as a gift, you're born with it. I don't like to see a great poet stoop to rhyme, for some idea of being more accessible. James Merrill can go ahead and rhyme; I've just finished reading his wonderful "The Changing Light at Sandover." I'm absolutely in awe of it.
SILBERMAN: Merrill's another poet who's come up with an elaborate--I don't want to say "explanation"--of the Muse.
HUNTER: Indeed he has. I think that's why I feel very sympatico with him. He's like an elder in the field I've chosen for myself.
It takes a good deal of reading before you suddenly engage Ashbery's surfaces enough that, all of a sudden, you see what's there. It's like putting your head down into a pond with the right kind of goggles on so you can see the stones on the bottom. The unaccustomed surface.
SILBERMAN: Likewise, the syllabic textures of your own lyrics are often so wrought that the lyrics don't just go down, you have to chew them. Which might contribute to all the infamous mishearings of your lyrics you mention in your preface to Box of Rain.
HUNTER: That was the turn-on of Finnegan's Wake: Words as sounds, and significance as an integral but almost secondary part. If it doesn't sound right, let's find another way to say it, or something else to say. I try to have a message, folks--sometimes, anyway. Where does a great line come from? It just comes. Maybe you don't have to look at it in terms of cause and effect.
SILBERMAN: In the postscript to "Entropy," it seems like you're, in a very deliberate way, attempting to strip, or dissect, the process of consciousness and memory itself, to reach into what Buddhists call "mind- only": contentless consciousness.
HUNTER: But you notice, at the end of it, that it's all rejected in my final statement. I'm building this crystalline structure up to walk away from it. I felt that I had examined a certain phenomenological aspect of consciousness about as thoroughly as I felt capable.
I've since moved on to my next approach, which is breath groups, rhythmic repetitions, what I call "mouth music." It's just a slightly different tuning of the mental apparatus to favor the breath, and to favor spontaneity. The "Bride of Entropy" stuff is anything but spontaneous. That's worked-over stuff--starting with "An American Adventure," right on through to the end, one long experiment. Now I'm done with that. What I'll be working on now is more heavily rhythmated--I don't want to say "rhythmic," because I'm not talking about regular rhythm. I'm talking about rhythms that are right from my heart, speech, and state of mind; rhythms that roll, and socket into each other, and explode in places.
SILBERMAN: I like "American Adventure" for, among other reasons, the fact that you generate a set of very funny metaphors for dealing with the Sixties that get to something that hardly anyone's been able to talk about. America has been so haunted by that time, even unto now. I've lived in the Haight for 12 years, and I'm very aware that my neighborhood, the blocks that I walk every day, are still living in the shadow of that "beckoning beam" you talk about in "American Adventure."
You were right at the center of what that was about, or as close to the center as any human being could be, in terms of the particular people you knew, who you were working with. Yet you have always been somewhat of an outsider. You've chosen to be an outsider, at the center of things.
HUNTER: That poem began as the Grateful Dead was going to release a set of CD's of everything that they'd done. Some new stuff, and vault tapes, plus all the old records, in a 3 CD set, which is something that didn't happen in the end. I was asked if I would write liner notes for each of the three sections. I just hit the page, and wrote in a really free manner, and I liked very much what I had come up with. Then when the CD set didn't go, a year or two later I took out the things that were album-specific and kept the sociological stuff--the adventure. It's recognizably the band I'm talking about, being interchangeable for our generation.
I was telling myself something there, about how if it's not all said in a breath, it might as well not be said at all. I tend to have a long breath-line, because I was trained in the trumpet and the Highland bagpipes.
It's time to be true to what I feel is a strong positive thing about my own ability to speak as I'm inspired, and get that down in a way that is not going to require a lot of rewriting. For the time being, I'm intending to fly with the speed of light through stuff.
SILBERMAN: Was that one of the things that attracted you to Rilke, the long lines?
HUNTER: I had just always liked Rilke, and I had never seen a translation that I cared a whole lot for. My wife went out one evening, and I felt drawn to reading the Duino Elegies, which I did from time to time, and I'd be saying, "That's not right. That's not right. The flow isn't right. This is too translational." I just took a pencil and looked over the German, and started making it sound the way I wanted to, with no intention whatsoever of translating Rilke. I worked on it a little more until I had what I thought was a pretty fair translation of the first elegy. Then just for kicks I continued, and did a little bit more, and I would say that I probably translated about half of the Duino Elegies before I realized that I was making a translation of the Duino Elegies. Then I got hot. I was sittin' up until 3:00 in the morning with good cognac, which I would put in the microwave every time it cooled off. I would sit there until Rilke would come and look over my shoulder and say, "No, it's not just like that. It's a bit more like this. Okay, now you got it," and like that. --See the hair stand up on my arm?
SILBERMAN: [Laughing] Definitely!
HUNTER: This is quite an experience, because two or three in the morning Rilke would often visit me on this, you know--I'd get that far out, that I really felt that. I thought to myself, "If there's any such thing as spirits, and if somebody were working on a translation of Rilke--doing it dutifully and working late hours--where else would he be?"
SILBERMAN: One of the things I admire about Rilke is his ability to sustain a tremendous amount of abstraction in a poem,without disrupting the reader's ability to envision the landscape.
HUNTER: I think that can be done by the introduction of characters. I guess it's the last Elegy where he goes off pursuing the Muse through the carnival and then out behind it, pursuing the grief and sorrow, the "Lament." This is a wonderful trick. Rather than talk abstract, make a character that is that; chunk it full of the archetypes, and follow it around and see what it does. Personalize it.
SILBERMAN: Melville has a great little poem called "On Greek Architecture" that goes,
"Not magnitude, not lavishness,I think that's probably why so many people have found your work to be of personal usefulness, because by your investing the characters in your lyrics with the archetypes, people are able to then recognize those archetypes in the characters of their own lives.
But Form--the Site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype."
HUNTER: I've often had people tell me that I've been writing about them in an uncanny fashion. In fact, I've had people come up to me in a restaurant and tell me to stop writing about their lives, and get nasty about it!
SILBERMAN: One of the unusual things about the way your work is received is that people are often tripping when they hear your lyrics. Psychedelic experience brings one closer to the archetypal level of experience--
HUNTER: You betcha!
SILBERMAN: --and a large part of your audience out there is using your characters and narratives as signs in mapless terrain.
HUNTER: The Ninth Elegy, which I had printed broadside, is pinned above the crapper in Kesey's bathroom. Anybody who sits down gets into the Ninth Elegy: "Exalt no inevitable!" [laughing]
I have had some odd uses of my work, such as that Divine Light Maharishi thing--I remember they were playing "Uncle John's Band" at their big convention. Some of this feels a bit funny to me. People sometimes write and wonder which side I'm on--God or the Devil's--and things like that. And I get nasty letters from Fundamentalists. I don't know what to make of it. I'm not preaching any religion. I'm a secularist, obviously.
SILBERMAN: Right--although a secularist concerned with certain forms of the sacred that are not, perhaps, recognized by the established church.
HUNTER: I'm not exactly a pantheist, but I wouldn't stop one on the street and start an argument. I have a very, very strong religious impulse, and I have not found a religion that goes one-to-one with it. I can see a bit of that calling, whatever it is, in almost any religion you want to plunk at me, but there's none that I subscribe to--either religious or poetic. It's terrain where you map your own territory, and what feels spiritually right for you because it fires for you, is the truth for the moment. I write a lot about the soul.
SILBERMAN: The soul, like the muses, has been unfashionable, though there's been a considerable surge of interest lately in what is meant by soul. I just read a very good book called Care of the Soul, by a Jungian therapist, Robert Moore. People are realizing that even though you might not be able to nail the term "soul" to a specific entity, you'll make more sense in talking about our inner being if you talk about the soul, and use it as an assumption, than if you claim it doesn't exist.
HUNTER: Hey, listen, if you have not spent a certain amount of time standing in your soul, being that soul, and going where that soul goes, into the abstract realms and the poetries and the music which is the domain of that place, of course you would think that the soul didn't exist.
SILBERMAN: One of the interesting things in "American Adventure" is you talk about a "beckoning beam," towards which your generation is journeying in the part of the poem that corresponds with the Haight-Ashbury era. In the first part of the poem, there's something slightly passive about the way your generation was receiving that light. But then, it's as if you say later in the poem that through an act of imagination and creation you can become conversant with that light again.
HUNTER: In the particular group of people that I'm most involved with, of course, that's what we're up to, at our best. At our normal and worst we're as lame as any other pack of lame-o's around. But there is something we've stayed true to. We've wavered, but we're helping to image this thing, and keep it happening.
SILBERMAN: Image this thing that's always ahead of the images. I've been going to Dead shows since I was 17, and one of the beautiful things about that has been the ongoing moving forward into new terrain, as new technology gets invented and new sounds can be made to come out of the stage, and the band and the audience grow up together. The Dead have never ceased to be relevant for me because the nature of the band's process-- improvisation--is to move forward.
HUNTER: It's a swamp, with high technology: Techno-swamp! [laughing]
SILBERMAN: Did the success of the Dead's single "Touch of Gray" change your experience of the band or your feeling about your own place in it?
HUNTER: I had a terrible change of life experience that happened right at that time. My son died, and it all turned to ashes in my mouth. The "Touch of Gray" single was out there doing its number, and Dylan had just recorded "Silvio" for a single backed with "Ugliest Girl in the World"--here's Dylan doing my stuff, and I was healthy and oriented, it looked like everything was happening--and then the rug was yanked out. Also the Duino Elegies had just come out that week, and things were as good as they had ever been for me. I got a good, big lesson in how this stuff passes away, and how relative everything is. That was the specific instance that turned me to poetry.
The other stuff was too big, it was just too out there. I needed to withdraw severely, examine everything, and poetry was my tool for doing this. I was writing out of the depths of grief. When tragedy hits, you find yourself doing what you do. And it just saw me through. All I wanted to do was put as many years as possible between me and that event. Been five years now.
It's like the "Dire Wolf" song, where I put somebody out in a totally white space, you know, which is nothin' but snow, and a wolf at the door. You get right down to very basic situations. "Dire Wolf" is just a plea for life itself. And "Standing on the Moon" is understanding that, whatever the basic human impulses are, they do not like existing in isolation. We are interconnected. We need to be back there with the folks.
And I do get isolated that way. Less now. I've got a daughter who's four now, Katie, who has helped the other thing heal over, real well. So I don't have that much isolation anymore.
SILBERMAN: Both "Standing on the Moon" and "Black Muddy River" came into the repertoire after Garcia's coma, and both seem to be uncannily appropriate for what he had been through. Were you conscious of that at all when you were writing those tunes?
HUNTER: Not specifically, but Jerry and I have been hanging out since we were 18 and 19 respectively, and I know him as well as I know any other human being. We were folk singers together, and I know what kind of song he loves. So when I give him something I'll give him something that I have a high degree of suspicion that he will love--and sometimes I'm right. "Standing On the Moon" was one of those neat, sweet, quick things, like "It Must Have Been the Roses," where the whole picture just came to me, and I grabbed a piece of paper and got it down. No changes, no nothin'. Out of the head of Zeus, full-born, and clad in armor.
SILBERMAN: There's a great poem by William Carlos Williams that I thought of when I heard "Black Muddy River"--it's the first poem in his selected poems--called "The Wanderer." He talks about being anointed as a young man by the Passaic River, as a kind of initiation, or permission, to be a poet. Did you ever read that poem? And it's not the clean, pristine Passaic, it's full of muck and mire and . . .
HUNTER: The "filthy Passaic."
SILBERMAN: Exactly. It seems as if you guys have walked along the banks of similar rivers.
HUNTER: The black muddy river is a dream that I've had maybe three or four times over my life, and it is one of the most chilling experiences that I've had. It's enough to turn you religious. I've burrowed under this incredible mansion, gone down into the cellars, and I find myself down at this black, lusterless, slow-flowing Stygian river. There are marble columns around, and cobwebs. It's vast and it's hopeless. It's death, it's death, with the absence of the soul. It's my horror vision, and when I come out of that dream I do anything I can to counter it.
SILBERMAN: And yet, in "Black Muddy River" you're not saying flee the banks of this dark place. You're saying walk along the banks, and sing a song of your own making.
HUNTER: Right. And what's on the other side of it is . . . whatever it is. It's a bit of whistling in the dark. I'll face whatever it is, because I wouldn't have any choice, would I? So, you might as well go for it.
SILBERMAN: Who do you feel you're writing for?
HUNTER: If you can get that one straight you could probably write anything, if you knew. Write to your own best lights. Sometimes I'm writing to my wife . . . whoever I know is going to read this next, I would like to delight them with it. If I'm writing a song, I would like to delight the person I'm writing it for. For poetry, sometimes I'm writing for Harold Bloom [laughing].
SILBERMAN: I saw Robert Duncan lecture on Pound and Williams right before he died, teaching his class at New College with a bottle of intravenous fluid dripping into his arm. He was reading from the Cantos, and he was crying as he spoke about Pound's sense that his life's work had failed. Duncan admonished his students, "If Dante reaches you, reach Dante!"
HUNTER: Robert Duncan was important to me. I met him and Diane diPrima the same night. Diane's daughter had a little get-together for us, and we drank lots of red wine. He saw how unhappy I was--it was at the time when everybody was slashing the Dead. I was pretty distraught about all this, I took it personally, and Duncan talked me out of it forever, for ever responding to critics and letting 'em get a needle into my heart, for which I thank him very much.
SILBERMAN: He's such a singular poet for, among other reasons, his standing up for the lyric in his work, beyond considerations of fashion.
HUNTER: There are very few poets that I don't love. Because every poem is somebody's heart and ambitions, trying to get out there. I see myself as somebody who's desperately struggling to get one literate line out. I keep writing from the feeling that I desperately missaid everything I want to say, writing from the feeling that I desperately missaid everything I want to say, or I've been in the wrong territory. You never can quite get it right.
When I was assembling Box of Rain, I was able to look back on something I wrote 15 or 20 years ago and say, "This is the poetry or lyric of a young man with a lot of dreams, a lot of surprises in store for him," and feel, "Okay, that was well done." It's almost as though you were someone else . . .
SILBERMAN: And in a sense you are.
HUNTER: I've only read Kerouac rather recently, in the last three or four years, because when I made my early stabs at reading Kerouac, he was too much like me. I thought, you know, "This is adolescent garbage!" And now when I read Kerouac there's a young man in his full idiocy in bloom, and it's so sweet, and it takes you back. A young person could maybe look up to him as a hero and try and live that same kind of confused pattern, without the talent Kerouac had of turning it into words, and would be seriously mistaken to do so, I feel. I love his work. I just read Pomes All Sizes.
SILBERMAN: "Flowers aim crookedly for the straight death."
HUNTER: Right off the back burner, and into your ear! I would say I was real good friends with Neal Cassady, so I did get a lot of horse's mouth stuff. But I was too young for that scene, and although Jerry and I and the guys all considered ourselves Beatniks back in the old days, I mean, Christ, we were eighteen or nineteen--we couldn't have been real Beatniks. There weren't any hippies yet. We were in that in-between state. We had little beards. We were doing what we could.
SILBERMAN: Did Neal ever talk to you about how he felt about being a character in Jack's books?
HUNTER: Yeah, he hated it! When I knew him best was at a time when I think he and Jack were pretty much at odds. It was a kind of younger brother-older brother scene, and he didn't have a lot good to say about Jack at that point. He'd just gotten out of San Quentin, and I think he felt at the time that Jack had taken his persona, and was maybe even responsible for that bust by making Neal famous enough that someone would want to go out and pop him for two joints. I think a lot of that was his bitterness at the wasted years in San Quentin. And yet at the same time he was out there being Neal Cassady in spades, you know, and riding the surf that Kerouac had whipped up. . . .
SILBERMAN: And Jack loved him.
HUNTER: Oh, yeah! Well, he loved Jack, too, and you don't say some of the stuff, some of the bitter stuff that I heard him say about Jack, without love. It hurts somehow.