An Interview with Ron Whitehead


Foster Dickson

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.

Seeing Ron Whitehead for the first time, he immediately gives the impression that he is either an old hippie or someone you really wouldn't want to mess with. Standing well over six feet tall, he wears his hair long, with its mix of blond and gray, and a beard that is wispy and gray that extends about a foot down his chest. He usually dulls his intense blue eyes behind rimless, round glasses, giving him the feel of someone who is older than his fifty-five years. Typically, Ron wears long-sleeved button-down shirts, which hide his numerous, colorful tattoos. Ron Whitehead looks like your wise old grandpa gone awry.

I rode up from Montgomery to Louisville to see Ron and his wife Sarah in late March, as the trees and fields of Tennessee and Kentucky were only beginning to peek through with green. I met Ron a few years earlier working on a poetry book of another non-mainstream poet, and then invited Ron down to Montgomery to read his own poems at the bookstore that I was also working in at the time. That was the first time that I also met Sarah Elizabeth, then not yet his wife, a twenty-something Kentucky singer-songwriter with long brown hair reminiscent of a 1970s Emmylou Harris and with a vocal style to match. What began as Ron alone turned into Ron and Sarah, then quickly escalated into a performance by his on-again/off-again group, The Viking Hillbilly Apocalypse Revue. The group is a hodge-podge of country and bluegrass music, Beat poetry, world rhythms, and a politically conscious sing-along.

Arriving in Louisville, a thriving city of about one million people, I headed for The Highlands, the old neighborhood where the Whiteheads live. The Highlands is an old neighborhood of tall, old trees and tall, old houses that has become an intermingling of bourgeois nostalgia for the past, wealthy families, and a neo-hippie element that congregates in a shopping and restaurant district that is centered around Bardstown Road. Passing by a status of Daniel Boone that is a central feature of nearby Cherokee Park, I found their small apartment building not far off the main drag. Ron answered the door with my glass of red wine, already poured, in his hand. After a catching up over those glasses of wine during the afternoon, we grabbed some dinner at a nearby restaurant. After we had eaten and Ron and I had a couple of glasses more each, Sarah proclaimed that we seemed riled up enough to go home and get started.


FD: Since you don't really consider yourself a Southern writer, it seems to me that the Beats play pretty big role for you. When did you discover the Beats, or if not that, what led you to them?

Ron: Well, you know, I've had many major influences in my life. I've had mentors. I've had a lot of good English teachers, the earliest being my preacher's wife who took me under her wing as a boy; she saw something in me. . . But my grandfather, the holy roller preacher, he inspired me. My granddad, the musician, inspired me. My parents, as I said, inspired me in their own ways. The first time I heard a gospel quartet in my church, man, I was lifted off the ground . . . And when I heard Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show, that lit a fire under my ass. I got goosebumps all over me. When I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, then started listening to WLS radio, 890 AM, out of Chicago every night. . . . and WLS played all the latest cutting edge rock songs in the early sixties, so that inspired me and that was a big impact on me. Bob Dylan was, early Bob Dylan. And then I was turned on to poetry, to Rumi, the 12th century Sufi mystic poet, who I love to this day. He was a radical in every way. To Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. When I was 16, a friend gave it to me, and said, you have got to read this, because I had gone to him with several questions about the New Testament. What about this? Can you answer this? And he couldn't answer any of the questions. He just always said, "Now, Ronnie, there are some things we don't need to ask, we just need to accept 'em." When he gave me The Prophet by Gibran, he said, this is dangerous. One thing led to another . . . And then I'd drive to Louisville. And there was a bookstore in downtown Louisville, W. K. Stuart's. And I would go there on my visits, and I'd buy fifteen or twenty books, depending on how much money I had, all paperbacks of course . . . I started reading avidly, which I've done all my life. So somewhere in my teens I just came across Jack Kerouac. And it was about that the time the whole hippie thing was going on, San Francisco was going on, the Vietnam War was going on. Lots of books and photos and literature was coming out about the Holocaust. I had already been going through, and in school they had been showing films of the atomic, and the nuclear thing that was going on . . . I just couldn't believe that it was possible for humanity to do this sort of thing to each other. And so from the age of thirteen - I think, all my life but thirteen is when I really started - diving into this other world that I dwelt in. I started reading other kinds of literature, and Kerouac touched a chord in me, as did J. D. Salinger, as did John Steinbeck. I read Grapes of Wrath when I was in high school. It tore me completely up. . . I consider Kerouac and Steinbeck to be two of the greatest- maybe the two greatest writers in America, both. They wrote about the downtrodden, the down-and-out, the people who struggled, who suffered, who put it all on the line and didn't always make it. And I love those writers. So you combine that with the kind of upbringing that I had, I mean, that was my experience. My dad was a union coal miner - and let me tell you something . . . The fights, the deaths in the working class, the ones who sacrificed their lives in order to get better working conditions for millions of people- I mean, the U.S. Army was called out to bomb work camps in eastern Kentucky during the formation of coal miners unions, so it was literally a war. . . Where I grew up people were shot and killed. So when I read these stories, about the people, about the Okies, because of the Dust Bowl, they had to leave their homes in Oklahoma and go to California, . . . you know man, I'm right there with 'em, because I saw it happening, in my own world. And with Kerouac, I read about the hoboes, the downtrodden, the down-and-out, I understood why people turned away from big government, big corporations, plantation owners . . . Just get in a car and travel and leave it all behind. Yeah, I understood, and I understand it to this day. I can't stand injustice, people hurting other people. I understand people treating people fairly . . . That's what I understand. These writers - the Beats and others who are, I think, spiritually connected, who inspired the Beats - well, I'm on the same page with them. And I want to carry on that tradition of telling the stories, writing the poems, of the downtrodden, the down-and-out class. Those who are struggling . . . I'm for those people. But those who have need to share with those who have-not. So that's why I'm drawn to the Beats. The Beatitudes. Beat means not only downtrodden, beat down by the system and society, but as Kerouac pointed out- he said to be beat is to be spiritual, when Jesus gave the sermon about the beatitudes.


FD: In the poem, "Sex Education," the father refers to the speaker, who is presumably you, as "Bone". As well, this figure composed of a stacked circle, triangle and square. What do you mean when you talk about "Bone" or the "Bone Man"?

Ron: Okay, well, I happen to take after my granddad Render, my mom's dad, and he's built like me. Tall, thin, muscular. . . And I was always wanting to be the leader, never wanting to be told what to do, I had to compete and stay up with them. And with anybody else who was attempting to lead the way. So it was something that just came to me. I didn't really have the confidence to come out of the closet as a poet at seventeen, because I was already getting enough ass-beatings as it was. And just chose not to say anything about it. So what happened was I chose to develop - I had to develop - a whole other world inside myself. So I created some characters and decided to call myself the "Bone Man." And my brother, the "Muscle Man". And my invisible older brother, the "Brain Man". . . and so in my studies, I've gone through periods in my life when I've read as many as three book a day . . . And I studied Zoroastrianism, and I came across this symbol. The circle under which is the square under which is the triangle, and I decided to start signing that figure after my name, and it is the ancient Zoroastrian symbol for a human being. The circle represents love, the square power, and the triangle wisdom. It's those three in balance that creates the ideal human. It's a state toward which we continually strive, hopefully, if we're awake enough, and want to fulfill our potential, then we're striving toward the balance of love, power and wisdom. If one overrides too much, you're out of balance. But that's what that symbol means to me. And I am the Bone Man. . . . I want to find happiness, but this is a strange world we live in, and I like Jonathon Swift's saying, "Vex the world." So I think it's good to constant pull the rug out from under ourselves. Not just the world, but ourselves. One of my goals in life is to move beyond all fear. And part of that process is facing, embracing, and therefore being able to move beyond fear, is to be able to go where there is no ground. So I choose to walk on groundlessness, in openness.

FD: Okay, I want to talk a little more about your work now. Tell me about the poem "Tapping My Own Phone".

Ron: (laughing) Well, you're gonna get some insight. . . . I published about 500 titles and I decided early on I wanted to call them "Published in Heaven", because in William Carlos Williams' foreword or the introduction to "Howl". . . he said all these books are published in heaven. I loved that. I loved it. So I talked with him one time - I worked with Ginsberg the last five years of this life - and we had a real dynamic working relationship . . . but I published about 500 titles: books, posters, chapbooks, CDs, and I produced two posters of poems by and photos of President Jimmy Carter. After Lincoln, Carter is my next favorite president . . . And so I knew he was a poet, and I wanted to publish him. I wanted to include him in the [poster] series. The only two people that I haven't included that I want to include in the series are Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali. But I got the Dalai Lama, and I thought, I want to include Jimmy Carter. So I met Doug Brinkley. . . So Doug got the assignment to write the new biography of President Jimmy Carter. Now, I'm getting to "Tapping My Own Phone". I had to tell you that about Doug, it's important. . . so Doug liked my idea, and he had opened the doors for me to get these two poems and photos for two posters by President Jimmy Carter. So I produce, and believe me, and when I move on something, I move! . . . Most of the people I publish I deal directly with the people, but not all of 'em. So I sometimes need an intermediary and in this case I have one. Now, I'm teaching at U[niversity] of L[ouisville] . . . in 1995. One more morning, I'm cleaning up getting ready to head out the door to go teach, and the phone rings. And it's Doug Brinkley. . . He says, Ron . . . you have got to call this number RIGHT NOW! There are going to be the Secret Service, there are going to be helicopters landing on your house in a matter of minutes if you don't get this cleared up RIGHT NOW! The posters have arrived at Carter's- presidents have this public office and people working there, and they got a private office and people working there- Doug had given me the address and the name of the private secretary and office, and that's where I shipped President Carter's posters to. The posters have arrived . . . they didn't know me from anybody. They didn't know these packages were comin'. . . They just went right to this secret, magical destination. Well, Secret Service agents are on the phone immediately. They got the bomb team out. They're circling, holding all the equipment over the boxes. They finally, with their gloves on and everything, open the boxes, slice the end open - everybody's got all the equipment on . . . and they slide out one of the posters, and thank God they see Doug's name on there with my name! They know Doug and they call him first. And Doug says, you wouldn't believe what I've had to go through, and he tell me the whole story FAST! . . . And I said okay, and while Doug's on the phone I hear helicopters. And not just one, there are three or four helicopters flying over my house! . . . And so I called this number, and I told them who I was, and I explained the situation, and I apologized. And she said, I don't have ANY record of this! Who gave you authorization to do this? . . . Finally, months later . . . the secretary told me, you're gonna go to court, and you're gonna have problems, and you got a lot of explaining to do! . . . the word that I finally got was that he absolutely loves the posters. So, out of that was born the poem, "Tapping My Own Phone". It was a horrifying experience. (And with that, he begins to laugh, again.) I thought it was all over . . .

FD: Alright, another of your signature works is "I will Not Bow Down". Tell me about that one.

Ron: Well, I consider myself to be on a spiritual journey. I'm here. I believe in reincarnation. I believe that I'm here to grow my soul. And I have chosen the bodhisattva path. In other words, I've taken a vow to myself. I'm not a member of any religion. My only religion is love. That's it. And I'm a spiritual person, not a religious person. The bodhisattva path is one that you make the choice to reincarnate until all beings have achieved enlightenment, are awake, are happy, and so that's the path I'm on. I want to uplift and inspire through my life and my work, anybody and everybody I can. One thing my parents taught me was never to look up to or down at anybody. Look everybody eyeball to eyeball, shoulder to shoulder, we're all in this together. And I've studied all the world religions in my life, and I feel most drawn to Native American and Tibetan Buddhist spiritualities. In my studies of the Bible, I have been most deeply inspired in the Old Testament the book of Daniel and in the New Testament the book of John. I taught the book of Daniel and it was after many close readings of that book, and in my politics, that "I Will Not Bow Down" was born. It's one of those poems that was a long time comin' . . . But "I Will Not Bow Down" by the book of Daniel and my deep anti-authoritarian sentiments and my deep yearning to heal the Earth - and I consider that all of us are part of Mother Earth . . . I think, if you live that way, that's love, that's the path of love. And honor all beings. That's what that poem's about. It's about resistance, dissent against injustice. The poem is all about America. America was born out of dissent. America is based on the principle that all beings have equal rights. That poem is about healing. That's it.

FD: Alright, then, what's your favorite poem that you've written?

Ron: I have so many favorite writers and poets. I have- I can't name a favorite.

FD: A couple of favorites?

Ron: I have so many favorites, and, you know, the whole Zen prayer-meditation series of poems that I did, like "Shape of Water" and "Listen" and "Plowed Earth", those are so meaningful to me. My poems- I believe in the power of going beyond, keep going beyond 'til you break through to the other side, and sometimes sensory deprivation helps in that process. In the Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon where I stayed up and rocked in rocking chair for eighty-nine hours and fifty-five minutes, Wednesday morning was one of those breakthrough periods. I've discovered there are different times in my life when I have reached about when I'm near breakdown that the veil between worlds disappears. Things come to me. Like when I met the Dalai Lama, and I've met him several times, in both waking moments and in lucid waking dreams. When I received the poem, "Never Give Up," when the Dalai Lama was giving me the message . . . If I don't do anything but share that poem, "Never Give Up", with people the rest of my life it would have been worth it . . . But "I Will Not Bow Down", "Tapping My Own Phone", "Mama", "Sex Education", "Gimme Back My Wig: The Hound Dog Taylor Blues", those are important poems to me. Some of my most requested, and some of my most often published poems.


FD: We've talked about religion a fair bit. We've talked about the path of the bodhisattva and that you don't subscribe to any particular religion. On your website, you have several pictures of yourself at Thomas Merton's grave, who is a particularly religious poet. Tell me about that.

Ron Catholic . . . The spiritual path that I have chosen, I'm more of a yogi, a wild man, and by choice. I can't comply with -I don't want to comply with - any system, any rigid system or practice. I will take from many practices what works best for me in my own life and change it as I feel the need to change it . . . Thomas Merton, I came to Catholicism through Irish literature. Years ago, Gene Williams and I owned and operated an underground bookstore I named For Madmen Only after a magic theater in Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf. and right next door we had The Store, which was a head shop. And we sold books by the Beat Generation, we sold Dostoevsky, we sold Thomas Merton. I consider Thomas Mertion and Mother Teresa, within the Catholic Church, to best exemplify what it means to be a Christian. Because Merton, like Jesus, was a radical and he wanted change in the Church. All churches need change, as far as I'm concerned. I wouldn't bat an eye if all formal religions ended in this instant. There would be no tears shed here. Mother Teresa fed and clothed the poor. Thomas Merton questioned everything and in his three meetings with the Dalai Lama, he inspired the Dalai Lama to become more ecumenical in his view, embracing and being more open to all the world religions. Merton was one of the most brilliant writers and thinkers in history, I think. There were the seven or eight volumes of his journals published in the last handful of years . . . you'll that the man sat down at night and wrote, and master writers work for years to write the way he wrote . . . Full of life. He loved to drink. Loved jazz! I was fortunate enough to published Merton, a poster and a chapbook. It was James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, who gave me the poem to publish, and it was Ron Seitz who wrote "Song for Nobody" about his friendship with Merton who gave me the photo. He had many stories about things he and Merton did.

FD: As a poet you seem to fall into the Beat generation in terms of style, but your age would you put into what most Americans would call the hippie generation. However, you seem to have accepted modern technology and its uses with a more youthful vigor than many older artists and writers. In terms of a generation, how do you see yourself?

Ron: You know, I've studied that, and I'm between generations. I've always accepted all generations because of the way I grew up in Kentucky. I grew up around an eccentric array of people all ages, all particular dynamic personalities. And so I've always felt ageless. I've always felt youthful and ancient at the same time. So I embrace the Beats, I embrace the hippies. I continue to feel the closest kinship with the hippies . . . I've just been attracted and drawn to those people all my life. . . . And as to the technology thing, I have believed all my life that we can have the best of both worlds, that we can use technology, that we don't have to live as primitives. We can live in harmony with nature, utilizing modern technology in a harmonious way . . . I used to be one of those - I forget what they're called - anti-machine. I hated computers. Then in '94, NYU asked me to produced a 48-hour, non-stop music and poetry Insomniacathon to kick off NYU's fifty-year celebration of the Beat Generation . . . it takes so much time and effort, months in advance, to produce an event, and so the phone bills were four thousand dollars a month! And Lee Ranaldo [ of the band Sonic Youth] said, Ron, you have got to use e-mail. And I said, Aw I hate computers, and so I asked Ferlinghetti about it, and he said, Fuck computers, man. But after that New York Insomniacathon when my power was off for six months because I said, I'm going to check out this e-mail thing when I come out of all this, and it has saved me thousands of dollars a month!