ALLEN GINSBERG INTERVIEW: 9-7-1996
Phone ringing on speaker.
Kevin Dean: (to me) … I’m not sure where his house was, I’ve never been by it. Did you look at the Nicosia biography?
Marty Fugate: Uh-uh, well, uh…
Somebody picks up.
Hello. Is …
Yes, this is Allen Ginsberg, apparently. Kevin Dean, right?
Yes, it’s … And I want to thank you very much for …
Please jump into it.
Sure. How long do you have for this?
Well, not too long. I have another call coming.
OK, uh … I had an idea. I’m trying to decide if this is something worth trying...
Why don’t you just do it?
Well, uh, what I was going to say is something like patterns in childhood and thinking, if you could just respond to it with a couple of lines, with a couple of images ... it’s hard, almost impossible, probably …
I’m not sure I’m understanding what you...
Marty: (shouting out) Free association!
You say a phrase and I respond — like a free association kind of thing.
The old library, huge pillars in Doctor Doolittle books, Dostoevsky’s Idiot, spillway behind red brick factories on the Passaic River where boys skinny dipped.
I’ve always been so interested in the way you answered questions. That’s what I’m trying to evoke here.
That’s true. Free association is now a hit.
The 1948 William Blake vision.
I was just telling it to some young fellow in bed last night. I’d say it was a hallucination and nothing more and the best advice is: If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it; if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it. That’s advice from an old Tibetan lama — Rimpoche.
Uh, America in the 1950s.
Well, comfortable, rich place. The beginning of the American Imperium with the overthrow of the elected government in Guatemala and the overthrow of Mosaddegh in Persia, which has caused us so much trouble ever since. We were getting an oil burner habit as Burroughs would say. The beginning of the wreckage of the sky or, as Blake said, the beggars’ rags fluttering in the air; thus to rags; the heavens tear.
The first time I saw people out on the street, homeless was in the ’50s — there’s a photo I took of one of them. But it was the beginning of a kind of desensitization of people — we’ve been torn apart from the heavens with the hole in the ozone layer. That started in 1950.
That was the year I was born.
My oldest memories are from ’53, but they’re strictly small town, always with father and mother type of thing.
Uh ... the “Beat Generation.” I’ve got “Beat Generation” in quotes.
Well, a bunch of individuals were doing, mmm ... some kind of project, looking for a new vision or some new consciousness, but uh ... Friends but not a gang — not a literary gang, but we didn’t have that name, that was a latter phrase from the media.
Mmm-hmm. Six poets at the Six Gallery, Oct 13, 1955.
Well, one of them was Philip Whalen, who is now Roshi Whalen, zen master. One of them was Gary Snyder who’d just finished a project poem melted suburbs without end; one of them was Allen Ginsberg, who’s turned 70 and just put together selected poems, selected photographs, selected drawings, selected music, trying to get it all in order before he kicks the bucket; one was Philip Rampapia [sp?] who won the [???] award; Andre Breton, the surrealist was one of them; Kenneth Rexroth, Among the Skeletons was his work — in defense of nature, the skeletons of nature; Michael Maclear, who’s now a great lyric poet, he learned a lot from Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues poetry.
City Lights Bookstore.
It’s bigger than ever. We just put out a 40th edition of Howl and there’s a huge list of very interesting books published there. It’s, uh, an interesting chameleon, sort of. All the workers collaborate on the order of the books, taking care of different sections of the store. They’ve moved some things upstairs, some things down to the basement.
Do you find going down to the basement is like going down into a deep museum?
No. It’s got this great collection of books — if you want to read. Science fiction is down in the basement; for poetry you’ve got to go upstairs.
The Ferlingheti “Howl” trial.
It’s getting repeated now, over radio and television, and Senator Helms, who must be some sort of closet pervert, has put in a law thing that all indecent matter must be banned by the FCC on radio and television and the Supreme Court refused to overthrow it, although they’ve limited it to from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. So they’ve driven the serious material off the airwaves with this censorship; so now we have censorship on radio and television just as we used to have for books; so now the main marketplace of ideas is no longer a free market — so you can’t, you would not be able to read classic poems by Catullus or prose by Petronius or Burroughs or my own nature poems that are in high school textbooks — public high schools, in order to protect the ears of high school kids — you can’t read ’em on the air; so we’ve got censorship now just as bad as before, maybe worse because television has become the main marketplace of ideas at this point rather than print. The marketplace of ideas is no longer a free market — there’s literal censorship. It’s about time more people consider that.
The death of Naomi.
Well that’s a long time ago and a much wept-over character. The poem Kaddish, I think, satisfactorily presents the emotions — the narration gives that feel.
Do you think that’s your finest piece?
It’s the most complete, though there are later things I like a lot. September on Jessore Road, 1972, and Father Death Blues from 1978 — about my father. A song which had the same depth as the song Kaddish, and then Wichita Vortex Sutra, from February ’66, which was done as an important opera by, uh, Philip Glass — Wichita Vortex Sutra declared the war to be over on my part. And uh, The Ballad of the Skeletons …
… The Ballad of the Skeletons attracted attention and interest. It’s a great poem.
Yeah. Uh, India...?
I haven’t been there for 22 years. I’m getting old — I don’t know if I can take it anymore, these arduous trips, but I have my own teacher here, Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Lama of the Dalai Lama lineage.
The King of May?
I got back to Prague in 1990 and got my crown back and passed it on after a 25 year hiatus — the May King ceremony had been forbidden — the Mayor of Prague had been forbidden until that time.
We did a show of his speech, his acceptance speech at the — I forget the title of the award — but it was something he was supposed to accept in Berlin, but he was under house arrest and he couldn’t go, and it was printed out on large-scale papers with collage work reproduced beside it. It was an interesting. . .
[Trails off, regroups with next question.]
Here’s a blast from the past — Flower Power.
Flower Power is nothing less than ecology — the substrate of our culture which is, after all, grass, trees air, green bushes, clean water, clean minds. Flower Power is a clear, clear, perception, clear mind, clear awareness of what you’re doing to the environment.
Does it still exist?
Well, ecology is a major matter — it’s Earth’s housekeeping.
That certainly does exist.
Has it evolved?
I don’t think you’ve heard what I said then.
I’m not talking about hippies wearing flowers in their hair. I said Flower Power represented the force of nature ...
... the power of nature
... and ecological sanity.
Yeah, yeah. I realized it was a stupid question as soon as I asked it.
Pause. Kevin regroups again.
Um, Chicago, August 1968.
I hear they’re going to have psychocorfancommeet [??] — they invited me out at the end of the month to go to Chicago for a celebration of what is it — 30 years?
Yeah. Just about...
David Dellinger is going and Abbie Hoffman’s children are going, and Jerry Rubin’s kid, other people. I’ll be working in New York working on a benefit so I can’t go out there.
Sounds great, though.
Yeah — this time it’s going to be a real festival of life. One of the reasons we planned — we had wanted to do a festival of life originally, back in the ’60s, we had talked about that when we were out on a Buddhist retreat in Ann Arbor. Dellinger wanted to do that.
That was a powerful time
Well, I have mixed feelings about it — can you hold on a second?
Yeah. I’ve got another interview going, so I told him to call in ten minutes.
OK. So we’ll try to wrap this up uh — the Naropa poetry wars?
Well, that seems to have settled down to a peaceful coexistence now.
Naropa is now accredited it — it’s a regular college, it can exchange credits with other schools, you can get a BA or MA in freshman poetry. We’ve had a lot of great poets come out of there over the years, a lot of painters now: Clemente — Francesco Clemente, David Hockney, others have been there. George Condo just retired this year as co-director assistant to devote himself to teaching, so the wars were never all that important. Teaching was more important.
I have “Father Death Blues” down — we’ve already mentioned that.
That was a distinct voice in the poem I heard back then ... back 23 years ago.
One of the questions I was going to ask you: You were writing that in the plane over Chicago — the way I read the story. Do you recall who was sitting next to you at the time?
No — when?
When you were on the plane.
The plane you were riding back on when you were writing “Father Death Blues.”
Oh no, I don’t. There weren’t that many people on the plane. I had my harmonium on my lap, picking out the tune in time with the words. I’ve only done that with one other poem where the melody and the words were identical, a long poem called September on Jessore Road.
I had seen some refugee camps in Cambodia where millions of people were marooned in the rain.
It was just a kind of compelling image of you writing that for such personal reasons on a plane. It’s such a public place.
Well, in a plane you’re pretty much by yourself — people are reading magazines, or working on their computers nowadays. I was doing the same thing, very quietly, with my harmonium on my lap.
When you get on a plane do a lot of people recognize you?
No. I have exactly the right modicum of fame. The people who recognize me are very literate, they’re polite.
You can still walk down the street.
Very literate and are polite, generally respectable. One of the advantages, one of the disadvantages. Remember, Dylan once told me fame was a curse with no redeeming characteristics.
Yeah. He went through a very rough period there when he was trying to live in New York.
I just celebrated my birthday in New York. Or “experienced” might be the better word.
That last one was your 70th birthday?
I just celebrated my birthday in New York. Or “experienced” might be the better word.
That last one was your 70th birthday?
Well, I hope to I get to be 83, like William Burroughs. Or 82, like Humbert Huncke.
Well, we hope you get older than that.
Or my stepmother. My stepmother’s 90 — she just had a double bypass.
She had to have the valves replaced.
They replaced one with a pig valve and she said, well I’m not kosher anymore.
(laughs) I looked at the video “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.”
Ah yes, she was in that. She was very charming and, at times, bossy.
It seems to me there was one other thing that uh — lemme look at my notes here.
[Discussion of arrangements, etc. Ginsberg says something to the effect that he’ll be reading both old and new poems.]
Yeah. I was at a Joan Baez concert and she was singing new material and the people kept shouting, “Do ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’” or some other early stuff and she said …
I don’t have that problem too much. I try to establish a familiarity with one or two earlier poems — the Sunflower Sutra, something from my prime, Father Death Blues which was something of the ’60s something of the ’70s, but most of the time, Father Death Blues, new work, I find people’s attention remains clear and friendly.
She got very annoyed and said you people have to get into the ’90s here
I don’t know. That seems to be too extreme a reaction to tell people what to do. I’m just here to present what my mind is, to present my mind, and people begin to understand it.
Besides which, I notice my audiences are filled with young people who are not familiar with the older poetry anyway. They don’t look at me as some kind of icon — so if I read a poem from now, they're just as blasted out as if read something from before. Nowadays, a quarter of the audience is under 18. Many of them are 14 -15 -16 years olds — high school kids
There seems to be a strong resurgence of interest in the young in your generation of writers. Does that surprise you any?
No. Because we stuck to our guns, we stuck to our subject matter — which was basically the expansion of consciousness and the quality of consciousness through meditation practice and, uh, drugs to the extent that they were useful and educational.
You’re not denying that there were some positive benefits. Despite today’s war on drugs...
The drug war is a phony war anyway — but nobody in the mainstream press is getting around to saying so. But the politicians are lying through their teeth, Gingrich smoked pot — but, apparently, the drug wars are an excuse to create a Police Surveillance State and keep the blacks in misery — so it’s about time we blew the cover off that bullshit. And, as far as early distrust of politicians — more and more we’re finding out that they’re getting more control. There’s literal censorship, which most people don’t know about because of the censorship — and what they don’t know is: the mass media are artificially controlled by the giant combines; Westinghouse, General Electric — which makes the individual voice becomes more and more important.
I found it so strange when all the stories came out about the CIA smuggling in cocaine to pay for the secret war in Nicaragua — nobody seems to get upset about it.
I beg your pardon?
Nobody seemed to get upset about it.
Well I think it’s the problem of the media — they bury it on page 3. But that’s an old policy of intelligence agencies — French intelligence used the proceeds from Indochinese drug traffic to maintain their war there. And the Western powers introduced opium into Indochina, after all — it’s an old business: opium wars, drug wars. The West tried to force China to take their opium in exchange for silk in the 19th century. It’s an old, old, old story, very old —
It’s a kind of business mentality. Drugs, the ultimate cash crop ...
And right now we’re doing it with tobacco. Senator Helms, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is threatening to withdraw favored nation trade status from Southeast Asian countries unless they accept the American addiction to cigarettes. Tobacco, narcotics. I don’t see any difference.
Yeah, it’s just a...
Now it’s cocaine wars. It’s really astounding that the CIA’s never been busted for the traffic in Southeast Asia, the Contras ...
Well, when I was involved with the American anti-war movement...
It’s really astounding that the CIA has never been busted.
I went through five years with the anti-war movement and some civil rights things — just to see it all seemingly melt away, it’s very disturbing.
Well, it comes back — there’s no need to be things get the distaff.
You sound like you’re hopeful for the future that uh...
No, I don’t think it’s hope or fear. You do what’s in front of you. Whatever you can do to relieve the mass of human suffering any suffering — that’s a good compass for direction.
Was Barry Miles’ book fairly accurate on you? How’d you feel about that?
Well he changed his mind about Buddhism. Originally he was really very anti-Buddhist in his view, but he’s coming around, changing his mind.
The other book — there’s a book called Down the Line it’s much more sympathetic but Miles, you see, was somewhat at that the time, somewhat a Maoist, so from a political point of view he’s thinking meditation practices are an opiate for the masses, but now that he has a child, he’s more gentle now. Much less fiery; he sees the need for calm, for tranquility.
We’re about running out of time — the last question I had on my list of this list of I was hoping to talk about while you were here.
Why did Kabir say “fantastic” …?
Why did Kabir say “fantastic” …?
Said “fantastic” …?
I don’t believe you. I’ve never read him use that word — was that the Robert Bly translation?
That’s the Robert Bly translation.
That’s the least, no — the other translations are a little more… OK, that’s the other one coming through.
OK — see you.
So we’ll see you later.