King of the Underground
an interview with Ron Whitehead
~ Part 1 & 2 ~
Celebrity News ~ May 15th & 22nd 2013 ~ By Shirley Pena.
As a poet and writer, Ron Whitehead has received numerous state, national, and international awards/prizes. In 2006, Dr. John Rocco (NYC) nominated Ron for The Nobel Prize in Literature.
“My life is a sand painting poem. Here gone, here gone gone gone, baby. Beautifully, meticulously, randomly, fractalledly, holistically forever. Right here, right now, presently nowheredly-gone. Sand in the sea poem poet.“-Ron Whitehead
Born on a farm in Kentucky, poet, author, orator, editor, teacher, lecturer Ron Whitehead possesses a command of the English language that is truly astounding. As a young man, Whitehead left the Kentucky farmlands in pursuit of higher learning, traveling to the University of Louisville, then later Oxford University. He quickly won renown for his gift with words, displaying dazzling talent as a poet, orator, author and editor. Whitehead has since extended his gift with words beyond writing poetry and editing literary works, spearheading the creation of a non-profit organization called the Global Literary Renaissance, whose aim is to help support literature worldwide by teaching and lecturing to students, and collaborating with musicians. Among his 28 literary works are Western Kentucky: Lost & Forgotten, Found & Remembered (with Sarah Elizabeth Burkey), The Third Testament: Three Gospels of Peace (with art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti & David Minton) and most recently, I REFUSE, I WILL NOT BOW DOWN, I WILL NEVER GIVE UP, which was just released by California’s Cook Creative. In addition this Summer, Ron Whitehead will release the double CD companion to the just mentioned book being brought out by California’s Cook Creative, which marks his 37th CD among his classics “Kentucky Roots”, “Kentucky: poems, stories, songs”, “Kentucky Blues”, “From Iceland to Kentucky & Beyond”, “The Shape of Water”, “The Viking Hillbilly Apocalypse Revue” and “The Storm Generation Manifesto & on parting, the wilderness poems.” A man of unlimited energy and possessing a true love of academia, Whitehead continues his active involvement in the academic world as an editor and a professor. Among the numerous authors whose work he has edited are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ron has also taught at many of the world’s most prestigious universities, among them: the University of Louisville, New York University, Trinity College Dublin, and The University of Iceland. Among Whitehead’s current collaborative projects is an upcoming documentary film on his life and work, titled “Outlaw Poet: a Documentary on Ron Whitehead.” This highly anticipated film is being directed by the exciting young director Nick Storm and will be released by Storm Generation Films. This month, Examiner had the honor of sitting down with “The King of the Underground” Mr. Ron Whitehead, as he graciously shared his memoirs of growing up in the Kentucky farmlands, his inborn love and understanding of poetry (“From as far back as I can remember, I heard the rhythms of life of poetry”) and more. Here is Part 1 of our two-part interview with the “Hillbilly Outlaw Poet” Ron Whitehead:
Ron, at what age did you first begin reading poetry and who was the first poet whose work you read? I started first grade when I was 5, and I was already reading. I was already working on farms, plus I started selling GRIT magazine door to door in Centertown (population 323) which was a mile and a half from our farm. I wandered through backwoods or rode my bicycle on dirt and gravel roads to get there. Through GRIT, I joined, at age 5, my first book clubs: history and biography. Although Daddy, a farmer and coal miner, dropped out of school in 9th grade, he loved poetry. He could recite all of Hiawatha and many other poems. He subscribed to Reader’s Digest magazine, which included Word Power. Whenever it arrived, Daddy would yell out “Ronnie, come here” and he’d ask me to spell and give the definition of each of the ten words. From as far back as I can remember, I heard the rhythms of life of poetry. The first poems I heard? The Book of Psalms, Old Testament, the Bible. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems titled “Kokopelli”, inspired by my longtime friend David Amram’s composition by the same name, my love of the legendary indigenous stories of Kokopelli and my love of The Book of Psalms. An independent press out of Calgary, Canada brought it out in a handmade edition of 250 copies. they ended up printing several editions. I gave all my copies away. I don’t even have one copy to read from. Mama taught me, through her actions rather than through her words, how to give without anticipation of reciprocation.
At what age did you decide to become a poet, and was there a particular person or event that influenced that decision? I was born a poet. I’ve been a poet in many lifetimes. It is my calling. Poetry is the main vehicle for me to communicate, for me to uplift, inspire comfort, heal, awaken, entertain myself and whoever else has the desire and the yearning for any of the above. The influences, the mentors from the beginning of my life till now and beyond, well they are legion. I was a blessed child. I’m a blessed man. I have no complaints, only thanks. I choose to be a mentor. I’ve mentored thousands of young people of all ages, round the world. It is a gift to me to be able to do so.
Growing up, was there a particular poet whose work you loved best, and why? Oh my. Well, I’ve mentioned some already. From my earliest memories I spent half my time in nature; I’m a natural born farmboy/outdoors poet.
I spent the other half rabid-dog reading. I refuse to place limits on my reading and my writing. I read what I want to read, regardless of what anyone says. I write, using as few words as possible, what I’m inspired to write in order to create a moving, living, breathing, filmic, tangible image of whatever experience I’m birthing. I come from a long line of farmers, coal miners, “holy roller” preachers, Native Americans, Irish gypsies, strong women and intuitives, water witches, psychic,s diviners and creatives.
Today as an adult, do you have a favorite poet? I have so many favorites that I don’t know where to begin. In many ways I realize, despite what anyone says, that I am or certainly strongly identify with Tiresias. I am drawn to the oracles and prophet poets: Homer and Sappho to William Blake and Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, W.B. Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Bob Dylan and Jinn Fuller. Yet there are so many many more inspired influences who I stand in direct lineage with.
How has growing up in Kentucky influenced your poetry? I grew up in the pioneer lands of Kentucky. I was born, not tabula rasa, with an ancient history of experience. Yet I have been and I am shaped by each lifetime. I chose to be born in Kentucky. Kentucky is a land, a place like no other. One has to be strong to even be from Kentucky. I was raised by a 10th degree badass, a 10th degree smartass: Daddy. Till I was 17, I was front and center black ops boot camp. I was a master marksman by age 2. Check out the photo of me, shooting. As a boy, I learned how to kill, skin and eat animals, each of whom I had the greatest respect for. I’ve always felt that I have an indigenous spirit. I love animals and animals love me. I learned to fight to kill by age 12. I’ve told many folks ‘bout this part of my upbringing. It was rough. Daddy believed and practiced “don’t spare the rod.” I was frequently bloodied. Thank God for Daddy, ‘cause he taught me how to be strong. My will power is fierce beyond measure. Thank God for Mama. Mama represents what true Christianity is. She is love: unconditional love. She always put ointment and bandages on my bleeding wounds. Ask other Kentuckians what influence growing up in Kentucky had on them. I guarantee you we share a great deal. Ask Abraham Lincoln, Bill Monroe, The Everly Brothers, Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, and so many others who have Kentucky roots and who have gone on to impact whatever arena they participate in.
What qualities about your work do you think make it unique from the work of other poets? For years I wrote out of my mind, literally and figuratively. Before I found my voice as a poet, as a writer and as a person, I, like most writers poets and people, practiced mental masturbation. Everything started and ended with my mind. When I left home at age 17, I hated Kentucky. I never wanted to return. All I felt was rage and pain. It wasn’t until I left home that I finally found the courage to come out of the closet and announce to anyone who asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, that I finally, proudly, boldly pronounced “I AM A POET!!!!!” So, in those next few liberating years-via waking and sleeping dreams-I recalled not only the pain but good memories. Interactions with nature and people began to return to me. I had an epiphany. I started journeying back to my earliest memories and recalling, even in fragments, the good experiences I had growing up in the pioneer lands of Kentucky. I started writing my experiences down; they inevitably arrived as poem gifts. Simultaneously, I recognized that my favorite poems, stories, songs and movies incorporate all of what it means to be fully human: the pain and the joy. All the senses: sex, birth, heart, soul, voice and mind. This includes the paranormal senses, which to me are as real as the physical sense. I got in touch with myself in every way. I found my voice as a poet, a writer and as a person. Oh my, this was a long journey and I’m barely touching the top of the iceberg, but at least I’m touching it. This is the period of my life- my mid 20s-when I finally began to become me. It still took years of healing, creative work. I’m still on the path of creative healing. I’m certain this journey will take forever, but there’s no other journey, no other path I’d rather be on. So to answer your question: I write all of me. I don’t allow anyone or anything, inside or outside of me, to place any limited boundaries on what the multitudinous muses bring to me. And they bring it. Oh my, they bring the gifts and I always thank them.
Photo courtesy of Lorena Wolfman. Copyright 2013.
“I am here to serve: to serve you my dear, sweet friend. To serve you: to uplift and inspire, to comfort and heal, to entertain and awaken. To serve you my dear, sweet enemy. I pray all our hearts be filled with forgiveness. The amazing grace of forgiveness washes karma away, away, away. Birthing us out of ignorance, we all be guilty of everything.”-Ron Whitehead
Ron, I LOVE your work as a orator every bit as much as your poetry! To me, your finest, most shining hour as an orator was the powerful and moving introduction you gave for poet Gregory Corso, when Corso made his very first presentation in Kentucky in the 1980s.
I understand that there was a wonderful story behind that! Would you be so kind as to share that with our readers? Thank you. I put every ounce of my entire being into everything I do, including giving introductions to luminaries such as Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Robert Hunter, David Amram, Frank Messina, Bob Holman, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, The Dalai Lama, Robert Creeley, Sigur Ros, My Morning Jacket, Blaak Heat Shujaa, Warren Zevon, Wendell Berry, Lee Ranaldo, Richard Hell, George McGovern, Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp and well good Lord, this is a long-ass list, so that’s enough! Onto Gregory Corso! I was driving 110 miles per hour up Bardstown Road through The Highlands: Louisville Kentucky’s arts district. Allen (Ginsberg) and I had just had breakfast at Twice Told Coffee House. We stopped into Guitar Emporium to see if they had a left-handed guitar, which Allen was hoping to buy as a gift for Peter Orlovsky. I’d picked Allen up that morning at The Seelbach Hotel, where F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others have visited, then drove Allen to the spot on the banks of the Ohio River where Walt Whitman had stood, then on East Broadway passing Goodwill, Allen yelled, “Stop! Stop! I ripped my pants and I’ve got to get a new pair and I always shop at Goodwill!” So Allen had been telling me ’bout his love for Bob Dylan, which he knew he’d never be able to fulfill, so I slammed on my brakes so Allen could get some new pants, which I got him for $2.50. So as we came out of Guitar Emporium, I asked Allen to please check his airline lift-off time; asking him for the 3rd time that morning. He finally checked it: we had ten minutes till liftoff. That’s why I was employing all my white electric lightning, protective light powers to guard us as we flew to the airport, passing Louisville’s Mayor Jerry Abramson in limo. On the way to the airport, I was telling Allen ’bout bringing Amiri Baraka and Gregory Corso to Louisville for readings and Allen was on fire; he and David Amram being the most eloquent conversationalists I’ve ever been honored to practice hangoutologies with. Allen warns me, “No matter what you do, do not get Gregory heroin, because I have just managed to get Gregory cleaned up!” So we make to the airport with 3 minutes to run through the terminal, with Allen racing ahead twice to quickly stop, turn and take photos. We make it to his gate, just as they’re pulling it. We yell “WAIT! WAIT!” and they hear us, holding it open for us. Allen gives me a big hug, a kiss on the cheek and is gone onto the “LOWELL CELEBRATES KEROUAC FESTIVAL” where he tells an audience of 300 (1,500 came to his Louisville reading, which was the largest poetry audience in Kentucky history) “Check out Ron Whitehead and what he’s doing!” Oh my, word of mouth is still far and away the best advertising! I ended up working with BONO (who introduced Allen on his Ireland Tour) and thousands of others, because of Allen’s preaching “The Ron Whitehead Gospel.” So now back to Gregory: he wrote three new poems on his flight to Louisville, which was only the 2nd time he’d been in the south, having come 25 years earlier to Duke University. When he got off the plane we exchanged hugs, then Gregory whispered into my ear, “Ron, you’ll be my hero forever if you’ll line me up some heroin; but I only want the best!” Instantly, I heard Allen’s earlier message play in my mind, as I mentally saw the Headlines in The Courier Journal: “Gregory Corso dies of heroin overdose! Poet Ron Whitehead provided the heroin for him!” I thought, “Oh, the shit has hit the fan!” So no, despite Gregory’s growing anger at me, I didn’t provide him with heroin, but I did arrange for him to have cocaine and marijuana and other pills, plus any and all alcohol he demanded. So four nights later, at the University of Louisville’s Strickler Hall, to a packed audience that was listening to a young lady singing folk songs (as the opening act for Gregory) the door in the back of the hall slammed open and the screaming began! It was Gregory, as he came marching through the hall, calling me every evil name known to the human race! All mouths in the auditorium dropped wide open, as did all eyes! The poor young lady raced off the stage to hide, and I said to myself, “Oh God, oh shit! What the hell?!” But being a fierce farmboy, badass warrior, I didn’t bat an eye. I walked to the microphone just as Gregory mounted the stage; his cursing me with wild eyes. Foaming at the mouth, he circled me, then right before I began to introduce him he got behind my back. I knew he was gonna jump on me, so I quickly turned and forcefully grabbed his shoulders, staring hard into his wild eyes as I said: “Gregory, most of these people don’t even know who the fuck you are, and they wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t asked them to come: telling them so many things about how great you are. So shut the fuck up, and go stand over to the side while I introduce you.” Well, Gregory slowly shuffled, while still lingering and bristling toward me, as I then finally, thank God, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition gave the introduction for Gregory you mention. Gregory was so blown away by my introduction that he was flabbergasted! He came out bounding like a ballerina, and proceeded to give-and David Amram agrees with this-the best reading ever filmed of Gregory. After years of the film, along with films of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, the Official Hunter S. Thompson Tribute and and many more i produced, I’m happy and thankful to say that Nick Storm, with his Storm Generation Films, has gained access to those films and excerpts from them will be included in the Outlaw Poet Ron Whitehead documentary that Nick is currently producing on me. Whew. Yow! Yikes. Thanks!
Ron, you have countless, high profile friends all around the world, among them the Dalai Lama. Would you please tell our readers the amazing story behind your work with the Dalai Lama? It’s utterly fascinating! Ok. I now need a hit of speed. Yes! Well, I’m excited to say that I’m gonna see His Holiness The Dalai Lama this weekend, May 19-21, here in Louisville, Kentucky, which is one of his only 5 visits on his 2013 USA Tour. Well oh my, this is a long story, so I’m gonna be brief. It took me a year to convince Lawrence Ferlinghetti (longtime friend I just called and sang Happy 94th Birthday to) to come give readings, talks and visit Kentucky for a week. I’m relentless. He finally said, via a phone conversation, “You aren’t gonna give up, are you?” I said “No.” We both laughed. He said, “Ok, if you’ll take me to Thomas Merton’s grave, I’ll come.” I said “Done!” Ferlinghetti told me something I hadn’t know. Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the most prolific writers and spiritual leaders of the 20th Century (and of all-time) had spent the last night of his life in the USA with Ferlinghetti at City Light, North Beach, San Francisco. Then Merton flew on to Asia where he attended an international ecumencial religious conference during which Merton and The Dalai Lama had three conversations that The Dalai Lama told me, and others, inspired him to become ecumenical: to accept and embrace all people of all faiths, of all beliefs. Merton was electrocuted and died after their third talk. After Ferlinghetti and I received the grand tour of The Abbey of Gethsemane an hour south of Louisville, which my longtime friend Brother Patrick Hart, who had been Merton’s assistant, gave us, well on the way back to Louisville Ferlinghetti and I had a long talk (we’ve had many) and he encouraged me to bring The Dalai Lama to visit Merton’s grave. I worked assiduously for a year to bring him. Well that’s a long story, so I’ll just say he came in April 1994. New York University had asked me and I’d agreed, to produce a 48-hour non-stop music and poetry Insomniacathon to kick off NYU’s week long 50th year celebration of The Beat Generation which took place in May 1994. Oh my, what an incredible time that was! So when I had the blessed, gifted opportunity to finally meet His Holiness The Dalai Lama I told him about the event and that I had lined up over 300 young people of all ages, to perform at the event, plus I was gonna caravan up from Kentucky to New York, over 150 young people to perform, participate in and to practice “hangoutology.” So I asked The Dalai Lama if he would please share with me a message I could then share with young people of all ages. He closed his eyes and smiled real big, as only The Dalai Lama can smile, then he opened his eyes and gave me a longish message. But the strangest thing was…well, if you listen to the recording of his message all I heard while he was speaking was the words for the “Never Give Up” poem I wrote. So I consider that he and I wrote the poem together, and he feels the same way. At the end of his message, he came over and stood before me. I was sitting in a chair, and I could feel his tangibly powerful, positive energies radiating from him. I felt like a child. I was a child. I am a child. We looked deep into each other’s eyes. I held my right hand up to him and he held it in both his hands. He bowed, then turned and left. In 1994 I sent him in Dharmsala India, a handwritten copy of Never Give Up, and asked for him to bless it and asked for his permission to publish it, all of which he granted. The letter is in my archives at the University of Louisville. “Never Give Up” is now all over the world. The Dalai Lama has a framed poster of it hanging in his office in Dharmsala, India. He’s included it in his books. It’s been in National Geographic and publications around the world. I’ve received thousands of letters from people ’round the world, thanking me for saving their lives. I had no idea that the poem would be a daily mantra for me, saving my life many times. More often than not these days, my name is not included on the poem. My attorney has told me for years that I should trademark it; that I could be a millionaire if I did. I’ve always refused, saying that the poem was one of the most life changing and precious gifts I’ve ever been granted. It makes me feel like Johnny Appleseed. I don’t care if my name is included. All I care about is that people receive the life-changing life, saving message. If I do nothing else in my life, my life will have been worth it. I’m way beyond thankful for “Never Give Up.”
Never give up No matter what is going on Never give up
Develop the heart Too much energy in your country Is spent developing the mind Instead of the heart Develop the heart
Be compassionate Not just with your friends But with everyone Be compassionate
Work for peace In your heart And in the world Work for peace
And I say again Never give up No matter what is going on around you Never give up…