[The following is the text of the interview I gave John Thomas Menesini for the Pittsburgh mag Encyclopedia Destructica, issue 1 of the 2nd (“Bumba”) edition, published May 2006.]
Age of Quarrel: An Interview with Poet Michael S. Begnal
JTM: How did Mercury, the Dime come to be? Did you study Native American History in university?
MSB: Mercury, the Dime is still something of a youthful work, written in 1992-93, in my mid-twenties. What I’m doing now is much different in form. But Mercury came about unconsciously at first — simply writing about the things I saw when I was living in L.A., and then when I moved to San Francisco. It began to cohere as a single long work when I brought that historical underpinning to it, the Indian stuff, the Route 66 stuff, the Elvis stuff, the baseball stuff, etc. This gave me an historical platform over which individual experience could be elaborated, and manipulated. It is concerned with the nostalgia of American Mythology, simultaneously revels in it and subverts it. At least, that is the idea. Like, there’s this great nostalgia attached to American Indians among a lot of white people. At the same time, this country was founded on genocide. But no, I didn’t specifically study Native American History. Whatever wasn’t common knowledge came from books. At one point I had a job at [a well-known commercial book publisher] in San Francisco, and we would occasionally get awarded free books. I usually chose the ones about ancient cultures. They were more interesting than, say, the ones about gardening.
JTM: This is something we’ve talked about before, the role of the poet in the ancient sense — do you think that role is the same even if their place in society is not?
MSB: In certain societies throughout history, poets have had a much more central, even public, position, as in Gaelic culture in Ireland. But when material circumstances change and that almost institutional role is destroyed, there are still going to be people who are drawn to language as a medium, who feel compelled to put something forward through poetry which can’t simply be expressed through prose. It seems like in contemporary Western society the poet has become fairly marginalized, or interacts in small groups of other writers, or in universities. This has its downside for sure. But it might also allow for a larger degree of artistic freedom. You don’t necessarily have to play to the lowest common denominator.
JTM: We have a country that pumps democracy through the loudspeakers, yet the foundation is built on treachery and thievery. How do you think this and where we are at in the world right now weighs on the everymind? It’s naïve sure, but how do you get through the day knowing that awful things happen, and will continue to?
MSB: It is impossible to escape the realities of our age, the “War on Terror” etc., and for a writer this raises certain questions. Most specifically, how to deal with this in one’s poems without coming off as political-propagandist, without lapsing into what used to be called Socialist Realism. For me, I think the anxieties of our current political situation and so forth manifest themselves organically in my writing. And as my writing is inevitably bound up with my view of the world, it would be ridiculous to censor this aspect. On a personal level, you still have to do whatever you have to do to get through the day, not think about it sometimes, not allow it to obsess you.
JTM: There was an ongoing argument between you and another writer a few years back. The argument, if my memory serves correct, was over the content of poetry; he claiming if it did not serve a higher purpose (in this case political) it was “art for art’s sake” whereas your angle was regardless of the “righteous” intentions, a bad poem is still a bad poem. Could you elaborate on this, and where is the line drawn between social observation and all-out political tirade?
MSB: You’re referring to the Irish poet Kevin Higgins, who I worked with for a time on The Burning Bush literary magazine. I wouldn’t initially have labeled it as an argument, since I didn’t even have the slightest idea there was a rift between us when he left the magazine — he never verbalized this. But you could say that we did later find ourselves at odds over some of the issues you just raised. In reality, we were probably not quite as far apart politically as Higgins contended. But I did for a brief time feel that he was letting his obvious gifts go to waste in the service of propaganda (for lack of a better word), even though I might have agreed with what he was saying on a given issue. Still, it’s all a process of evolution, and I imagine Kevin had to go through that to become the writer he is today; and he is incidentally very good, one of the best contemporary Irish poets. To answer the other part of the question, politics is an obvious major part of life, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think ideologically all the time.
JTM: You grew up in the 80’s with Thatcher in England and Reagan in the White House; the same fears of those under the H-Bomb became those under the Nuclear Bomb. The reaction to this was hardcore, yes? Would you agree that though not overly political, bands such as Minor Threat and Black Flag attempted to make sense of the mess they saw around them? What was the feeling in the 80’s with the Cold War? Did you think the bomb could drop at anytime, that the USSR or we could snap and push that damn button, and did the music of the time do anxiety justice, did the uncertainty translate, did it unite?
MSB: Well, of course hardcore was trying to make sense of the world at the time, but on more of an immediate personal level. Despite the political lyrics of many of the bands, you’ll notice that most of the quintessential hardcore bands (like Minor Threat and Black Flag) were not really concerned with that. The politics was there, though, of course it was. But hardcore can’t really be reduced to a Cold War reaction. Mostly it was a bunch of kids who were alienated from mainstream society, who had noted the failures of the 60’s generation, and who somehow briefly managed to create a scene of their own, which existed underground, virtually unrecognized, and was completely and utterly separate from the commercial music scene. So yes, it did unite some people in a very real way, through a specific type of music, for a brief time in the early 80’s. But very few people knew about it at the time, relatively speaking. I was a teenager then, and was lucky to be in a position to get into the hardcore scene. I don’t remember ever really being afraid of a nuclear bomb dropping. Some people probably were, and there are more than a couple hardcore songs on the subject. What was a bigger concern for me, approaching draft age, was that Reagan would invade Nicaragua or El Salvador and we’d end up in another Vietnam. That never happened, although all the fears there were of war and fascism under Reagan would now seem to be realized under the Bush regime.