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Featured Poetry by Clebo Rainey:
the weeping willow tree

American Poets Interview Series
Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon Tour

Tour Log: June 19th, 1998

Interview with Clebo Rainey
by Jordan Green Clebo Rainey

Clebo has five books in print: A Poem for Her Flesh, BENT, Road Poems, City Nights & The Spiral Notebook. They are available from Magic Word Publishing, 434 W. 12th Street, Dallas, TX 75208.

A year-long subscription to The Word is $12.00. Send check to The Word, P.O. Box 835984, Richardson, TX 75083, 214/207-8727,

Clebo Rainey is an urban western howler, a sojourner from the Civil Rights era and the Beat movement filtered through his own psychedelic experience coming of age in the '60s. He is a bard in the wry fucked-up tradition of Johnny Cash, subjecting himself to a long journey to the end of the night, clear eyed and brutally honest, but without judgment. He has gained the reputation as "Father of the Dallas Poetry Scene"
Frederick Turner says, "Clebo Rainey is a uniquely Dallas version of the prophetic type. What he adds to the tradition is an intimate knowledge of and love of the Dallas urban landscape, an engaging sense of humor and self-mockery, a remarkable tolerance and affection for precisely the people that might fear and reject him, the luck of a strong constitution that can endure with gusto the lifestyle, and an intelligence and ironic insight that will not accept easy answers."

Jordan Green: All right, the first question is are your poems channeled directly from the holy spirit or are they an angry letter to God?

Clebo Rainey: Ha ha ha ha. Hmmm. I would say a mixture of both. Sometimes an angry letter at God when I'm ranting about things and sometimes thanking God for making things so great. It kinda depends on the moment. I believe that everything that rises converges, good and bad, so if you tell the truth and put some emotion into it: good, angry, praising, in-between, it's gonna all go to the same place.

Jordan: So you grew up in Texas out in the country?

Clebo: I grew up in Tyler, which is about a hundred miles from here, about 100,000 people and kind of a country boy. About twelve miles outside of Tyler in a place called Pine Springs. I was kind of like close to the city but still a country kid.

Jordan: So what did your folks do, or what did your dad do?

Clebo: My dad was an industrial graphic artist and my mom was just a housewife, never finished junior high. Kind of the boss in the family, but without much education, but she wore the pants in the family kinda. My dad was kind of like the strong, silent type. My dad was orphaned along with the rest of his brothers and sister. His mother put them in an orphanage during the Great Depression so she could follow her husband around the world. He was a wildcatter. I come from a long line of east Texas oil field white trash dirt farmers. My mom's side of the family were dirt farmers. My dad's side kinda wildcatters, oil field workers. The brothers all ran away from this orphan home when World War II came along, fought World War II, and put themselves through school on the GI Bill and became middle class Great Depression survivors.
My dad was like hard-core conservative. I was always kind of the black sheep, the devil-son gone bad. It kind of runs in the family.

Jordan: So did you ever come to terms before your dad died?

Clebo: No. My dad was always disowning me and we'd go for years without talking. He'd have me come back and visit again. I'd come back and visit again and I'd still be a weird artist. He'd disown me again. And that just kept happening over and over again. He finally had a massive stroke one day and just fell down dead. So I've got a poem about it called "My Dark Vision", this nightmare about my father.
My dad was kind of a racist. He supported the Vietnam War. Supported Reagan, Nixon. And I was kind of a hippie kid: you know, Martin Luther King and Civil Rights, anti-war. So the same kind of thing happened to my family that happened to a lot of families in the '60s.

Jordan: So Dallas was kind of a natural place for you to gravitate to?

Clebo: I went to SMU. I was a music major. I wanted to be a high school band director originally. I went to this real expensive school, Southern Methodist University. I was using scholarships because I come from a real lower -- I would say average middle class family. I went to this real expensive school, but I had scholarships for the marching band, the wind ensemble, and the jazz band. I was gonna be like a jazz musician at night and a high school band director, but the '60s came along and the whole sex, drugs, rock and roll kind of thing interrupted those plans.

Jordan: Well I wanted to ask you about some sources of vision and wisdom that I've seen in your poetry that I would trace back to the Civil Rights era and the Beat movement. Do you think that's accurate?

Clebo: Yeah, I grew up reading the Beats, and Black Like Me and going to civil rights demonstrations and anti-war demonstrations. Then I got into some Zen Buddhism stuff. Then I got Gurdjieff and Ouspenski, the Sufis. When I was about your age probably I got real heavy into this philosopher named Gurdjieff -- and Ouspenski. He's been like a big influence on me kind of. Kind of that and the Beats. And the surrealists and the dada movement. I studied a lot of art movements and philosophy movements. I took a lot of psychedelics. A combination of those things.

Jordan: Do you think that Beat vision and Civil Rights vision -- like the "beloved community" and compassion -- is a lasting vision that will outlast the meanness of the '90s?

Clebo: I hope so. My wife's not really from that era, but she's certainly been influenced by that era. She's a civil rights attorney. People say all this bad stuff about America and everything, but I think we do represent freedom and the pursuit of happiness and everyone do their own thing. If we can just get past all the anal assholes in the world that are trying to keep the screws down on everything, survive all the Nostrodamus bullshit that's probably fixing to happen. Because I think there's probably gonna be a lot of weird shit Arabs popping off nuclear weapons in downtown New York City and shit. We're probably gonna live through that. If we can kind of road warrior our way through that ...

Jordan: Millennial craziness ...

Clebo: ... yeah, I think we'll come to some kind of golden age where people'll finally start to get their shit together. I think the whole thing that started in the '60s is definitely still going on.

Jordan: When did you get your passion to write, to put your words out there?

Clebo: It's pretty funny the way I became a poet. I ran a record shop in Dallas for 15 years and played in bands for nine years. I thought I was a musician. I thought I was a good musician, but I always had to work at it. I never had that Jimi Hendrix close-your-eyes and off into it.
I had this kind of mid-life crisis. I'd had my record shop for about 15 years and been married for 15 years, and played in local bars with my ex-wife Babs. I think we were just tired of the whole retail business, rock and roll, trying to be a star, the whole sex, drugs, and rock and roll disco thing we went through. That's how I eventually met this girl Laura that I eventually left my wife for. And then the same night I met her I also went to this big jazz club in Fort Worth called the Caravan of Dreams and met this theater company called the Theater of All Possibilities, this kind of internationally-connected theater cult.
I wound up riding my motorcycle out to the West Coast and back with this theater company and visited the people at the Biosphere. Remember the Biosphere?

Jordan: Oh, yeah.

Clebo: The same people had the idea to do that and they were kind of Buckminster Fuller, Sufi, culty ... an internationally-connected art gang. With them I met Ferlinghetti, and Burroughs, and Timothy Leary, and Ginsberg. I went on this kind of romantic adventure when I went riding my motorcycle to the West Coast and back. And I started writing poetry. My first poem I wrote, "LA Stretched Out" it was just like wow, I'm fuckin' good at this, you know? I really knew that I had something special. I could just kind of close my eyes and go with it. By then I'd had some experience with music and theater, so when I started writing I was just a natural born performance poet I think.
So I eventually kind of left this girl. This was also in my bad cocaine days: blond hair, motorcycle, cocaine, young girls. I was having a mid-life crisis, 38 years old trying to pretend I was 18. After I kind of survived that, I moved back from Fort Worth to Dallas, moved into this garage apartment by the lake and just kind of reinvented myself. Gave up the hard drugs, gave up the 16 year old girls, kind of got off the bike for awhile, and started writing poetry and becoming a writer.
Now, I'm like the father of the Dallas poetry scene. I live in this nice house in Oak Cliff and have a beautiful wife that's an attorney. Things work out weird, but somehow they worked out.

Jordan: So you kind of developed your voice in the middle of your life.

Clebo: Yeah. That's why when I do workshops I encourage any artist ... like if you're a painter, do a play. If you're an actor, learn to paint. If you're a dancer, learn to play an instrument. Because you might think you're a dancer and you might really be a harmonica player. You need to try a lot of different things.
The whole beauty for me with spoken word is that a poet can dance, can act -- you can bring all those elements and you can paint a picture with a poem. I think you go through several processes when you start being really serious about being an artist. First, you have to find out what it is you really do. Then you have to repeat and simplify. You have to get out all the clack and clutter in your life and get down to what it is you want to do. Then once you get down to what it is you're good at, you can go back and bring all these other things into it.

Jordan: Do you think there's a certain part of being a poet where you subject yourself to some extra suffering?

Clebo: You know, when I met Ginsberg what he said to me was, "Don't get too beat up." It's real easy to wind up being a beat up poet. I always strived even though I'm a poet to have a nice home and a good life and people that I love around me. Even so, I've got a bad leg from breaking my leg roller skating. I didn't really have the money to go to the doctor and get it fixed. And I don't have any health insurance. I'm working on that. I'm still semi-beat up, but I'm not real bad liver damaged, drinking all the time. I probably drink way too much Dr. Pepper and eat way too much salt and beef and stuff, but I really don't drink at home. I really don't do hard drugs and I don't stay out all night nights in a row. I really believe in that golden rule of everything in moderation. I believe in trying everything, but nothing where it dominates your life.
So this is my routine: I usually get in this time of night and Noemi goes to sleep around ten. I come in and I'm cooking until about four, five in the morning, I watch TV 'til about six or seven, then I sleep till three. When Noemi is finishing her day, I start to get up and do the poetry thing and it works out real good that way. Our lives are real worked out that way.

Jordan: Oh, good deal.

Clebo: Then once you guys leave tomorrow, I get my day off. Then the next day I do my once-a-month cleaning where I get everything off the floor and I sweep, and vacuum, and wipe, and mop. It takes me about twelve hours. That's kind of mine and Noemi's deal. I do the cooking. I do everything and she does nothing but make money. So I'm a house husband and a full-time poet

Jordan: Tell me a little bit about the Dallas poetry scene that you've been nurturing.

Clebo: It's come a long way. There used to be a place called Chumley's which is a furniture store now. This guy Chumley would take old cars and fix 'em up for people. It was actually a pawn shop for awhile. It was called Chumley's Art & Pawn. It was a pawn shop and an art gallery with a poetry reading. That was the really big poetry reading in Dallas and then in Fort Worth there was a place called the Hop.
Now, we've got our local poetry magazine, The Word. Now, there's poetry reading every day of the week almost. And I started the poetry slam at Club Clearview four years ago. We got Insomnia now. There's the strip mall poets, and the Deep Ellum poets, and the slam poets -- different little fractured little communities. We have the slam packed out every week and we have features every Friday that pays sixty dollars.

Jordan: Tell me a little bit about the history of Deep Ellum.

Clebo: Back in the '30s, it was kind of the speakeasy, red light district. And also Black juke joints. The Blacks would say "Ellum" instead of "Elm" and so it became Deep Ellum. Now there's a famous song, "Deep Ellum Blues", and supposedly Dizzy Gillespie wrote "A Night In Tunisia", one of the most famous jazz songs ever -- he told me he wrote it sitting in an alley on a trash can drinking whiskey. So it's had a long kind of jazz red light district underground kind of scene. Then when the whole punk thing happened, it started in Deep Ellum. It started there and in the Turtle Creek area. That had kind of developed into the hippie of part of town. So both those places, at Club Dada, Club Clearview, the Video Bar, and another place that's not open anymore, the Twilight Room. Those were just big garage, concrete floor punk hang-outs. Then over the years they've put in the parking meters, the furniture stores and all the restaurants. They've gentrified it and fucked it up. It's not anything like it used to be. If you went down there on a Friday night, you'd just see thousands of people packed out like Sixth Street in Austin.
That's where the edgy poetry kind of goes on. There's a lot of bookstore poets that would be in horror to go to Deep Ellum and read their poetry. And I kind of float between both worlds. I go into colleges and do workshops. I also teach with a program called Young Audiences in Greater Dallas. I do like workshops on performance poetry and give away dictionaries and thesauruses and stuff. Then, this year I'm trying to start a city-wide high school poetry slam.

Jordan: Do you do poetry in prisons?

Clebo: For the past three years, I have doing poetry in reform schools. I just had to quit this summer because it got too crazy for me.

Jordan: What's it like trying to relate to kids ...

Clebo: Kind of hopeless. You're talking to kids that have like a third grade education. Their mothers are whores. Their dads are crack heads. They're raised around guns and gangs. All they want to do is steal a car and smoke some crack. They think that's cool.

Jordan: So it's just real hard to connect.

Clebo: Every now and then you do, but for the most part it just feels like you're banging your head against the wall. I was one of the few poets that was willing to go in and do that. I've been doing it for the past three years. Lately it was just getting to me. I have this whole thing in life which is if it's not fun I don't want to do it. I just got to where it wasn't fun anymore. I would just dread going down there. A lot of these places they don't have teachers there. They just have supervisors in these over-crowded prisons with no windows. They're frustrated and angry to begin with and you get 'em in there and nobody gives a shit what they're saying.

Jordan: Well let me ask you a question just in general about poetry in the '90s. I notice that there's a real emphasis on the spoken word, like poets are coming out that haven't been published yet. Do you think we're in a poetry renaissance where a lot of different voices are coming out?

Clebo: Yeah, I think with the slam scene and the spoken word scene, just like the way you're out traveling around the country -- yeah, I think people are a little bit bored with a lot of the music that's out. People aren't going to plays. So yeah, spoken word, people are into it. People are ready to listen and hear people talk to them and tell them something worth listening to.
There's more poetry books published every year in America than there are poetry books bought.

Jordan: Are there a lot of people out traveling doing poetry tours.

Clebo: I think there's more and more. Especially when you go to the National Slam. There's this whole network of people right there. And now with e-mail -- I bought this computer with poetry money. You can get on the computer and set up an entire tour.

Jordan: Yeah, that's what I did, actually.
So you think there's a real hunger for poetry right now?

Clebo: I do. I think more and more people -- like tonight, look at all the nice-looking, average kids that were down there ready to set and listen to some words!
We gotta keep it going, make it better.

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