AN INTERVIEW WITH ALLEN GINSBERG
The photographs fix the moment. Pen and ink record the context. Most are casual portraits of personal friends. Yet, in shot after shot, they vividly document some of the more important figures and moments in American thought and literature, casting a national psyche in Beat black and white. Kerouac, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Cassidy, Corso, Snyder. And, whether looking at, or through, the camera's lens, the photographs reveal the unmistakeable presence and eternal perceptions of Allen Ginsberg.
I first met Ginsberg in the company of William S. Burroughs. The two were making their way through two local exhibitions of Burrough's artwork. Although known for his tremendous loyalty to his fellow Beats and friends, Ginsberg was here for his own purposes as well - a book signing at the extensive exhibition of his photographs at Fahey/Klein Gallery and long, feverish sessions to complete a series of lithographs at Gemini G.E.L.
The interview evolved over the course of a couple of days, during which I was able to get a sense of the impressive range and scope of one of America's most gifted and engaging minds, Ginsberg at 70. As we sped top down along the Santa Monica freeway heading west for a late dinner in Venice, Ginsberg discussed structures for free verse, Burroughs' cut-ups, new photo projects, police abuses and censorship. Ginsberg is as passionate as ever and his spirit and voice still resonate clearly. The previous evening Ginsberg had played a new mix of "Ballad of the Skeletons" , a humorous piece written and recited by him which will undoubtedly piss off the usual factions. Paul McCartney, among others, accompanied him on several instruments.
Did you have any collaborations early on with the Beatles. Were they aware of the Beats then ?
They were aware of it, McCartney probably more than most, from a literary point of view. Lennon many years later told me that he'd been listening to me do a reading on the radio, and said "I've known you all these years, hanging around and all that, but I never knew what you did !" But McCartney I had met in '65 or '66 and had been to his house. He painted up a velvet shirt and gave it to me. He was aware of the lineage.
And Dylan was aware of your writing ?
Oh Dylan said that On The Road by Kerouac is what inspired him to be a poet.
Did you have sense when you first met Kerouac and Burroughs that there would be such a synergy between you all ?
I had a feeling of sacramental relations with them but in the beginning all their books were published in Heaven, not here. (ed. note: Ginsberg elaborates in the introduction to SNAPSHOT POETICS: "Not that I thought we would be famous writers together, later on-that didn't occur to me in 1953. By then we'd known each other and we were sort of cemented together for life already and had just written our first major works, published in heaven, not on earth....By this I meant that Kerouac, for example was willing to write fifteen books, without having them published, for the holy purpose of confessing his soul to God, because there was no public for them here on earth.")
You have you just completed six prints for Gemini G.E.L., I don't recall having seen any graphic work before. Is this a new endeavor for you ?
I have done prints twice before. A portfolio with Nam June Paik, John Cage and two others, a portfolio to raise money for Nam June Paik's world broadcast of 1984 . and I did another through Nam June again, just one, with many artists. Nam June introduced me to someone in Paris who liked my little Buddha sketches, so I did one.
Here I began getting a little more technical with collage etc. The next thing I might do would be to make a photo-collage like Rauschenberg's, using my own photos. Maybe making a big assemblage of everybody connected and semi-connected with the various generations of the Beat generation, using my own photos, collaging them together. I've seen a lot of assemblages like that, though usually they've got a lot of bad poets and they're not accurate. Sid (Sidney Felsen, director of Gemini ) mentioned that he has been making some prints with Rauschenberg now composed only of photographs. I've done some collages before but always overly orderly things with Burroughs popping up large.
You obviously love to draw as well, and were intensely focused on your printmaking at Gemini, is another artistic career blossoming ?
I like writing better. It got a bit much between photography and music and operas and rock and roll, its like a vacation. I can do it and not have to be around New York.
Let's talk about your writing for a moment. Was it difficult for you, having your father be a fairly well known poet, when you first started to write ?
No, no. Because I was very much imitative of his work. He gave me good traditional-I learned a lot-traditional lyric verse, rhyme and structure. When I began straying from that and following William Carlos Williams and trying to write free verse, my father didn't understand that. He kept quoting Robert Frost, "its like playing tennis without a net." Which is a really absurd remark. There are considerations for the arrangement of open form verse on the page which many people have talked about, not just random, but diagramming your thoughts, laying it out on the page as it occurred to you.
What are some of the considerations ?
Well first of all, the position of the original notations, how you've laid it out on the page when you're writing it down. Second, position by ideas, or division by subject or visual ideas or counting syllables. Basically, you start on the left hand margin with a thought, whatever you first propose as a thought, then you have an additional sub-thought and you drop that down and indent further, and there may be a sub thought and a sub thought, or a qualification or an adjective, or a phrase that goes with it, like "the other day."
So that can all be laid out on the page in an orderly way so the reader can see how to read it, how to vocalize it. And also how it arrives on the page in your mind, how it arrived in your mind. It's very logical, really. But it means you have to be aware of your mind, you've got to notice how the thought rose, how it modified and concluded and the gap in between.
Before you get onto the next, the left hand margin. That's not for long verse poetry, that's for open form. Another consideration is typographical typography-i.e.how it looks.
When Burroughs was first experimenting with his cut-ups, did you experiment at all with them yourself, can it be done as successfully with poetry as with prose ?
More for prose. During the Cuban missile crisis I cut up Kruschev's speech with Kennedy's and I got the final line, "The purpose of these maneuvers is potential weapons". It's Bill's theory that cut-ups unconsciously invented or consciously manipulated show up like a sore thumb.
We seem to have a basic need, conceptually, to make connections...
The cut-ups seem to expose that process and be assisted by it.
No need, the basic system doesn't have a need, you call it a need, ...
Automatic tendencies to make connections conceptually.
If the conditions of the creations are grammatically distorted, it's possible to rerun your mind over and over again, cut it up, and by seeing what the connection is, to see what the hang-up is.
You mentioned that when you first started doing photography, as with your first books that they were published in heaven, that it wasn't something that you thought would be seen by an audience here on earth.
Yeah, when I wrote "Howl" I didn't think I'd publish it. It seemed too far out for my family, didn't want to get them upset. Which is a universal problem, because almost all writers who are serious wind up laying out some kind of personal reality. Then the conflict with friends and family comes up a bit. You have a right to fink on yourself but not on your family or your friends, and they don't understand it , necessarily.
With the Beat writers, you all seemed to use each other as source material.
I think you'll find most writers do, like Zola's novel, The Unfinished Masterpiece , about his old friend Cezanne, Dostoyevsky drew from life, of course we'd change the names.
It was curious to me that one of the published reasons Kerouac changed the character's names in On the Road was to avoid libel suits, and yet the characters whose names were changed were all of you, his friends, from whom libel actions would seem unlikely-
It was the publishers. There was one lady, who was a prototype for a character and she objected to the book in reference to the way she was portrayed and didn't want anything to do with it. She insisted on that. Of course, he wasn't writing portraits, he was writing fiction, he took the characters but enlarged, modified, made up dialogue on the basis of what he could remember, because in any of his books nobody said exactly what was written. It actually is fiction if you go detail by detail, it's a construction.
When you first read "Howl", did you have any idea of the impact that it would have ?
No. I knew it was a good poem. It was interesting and it came from a classical tradition.....The reception was so enthusiastic, I said, 'Well this'll make me famous in San Francisco', I said that to Rexroth, [Kenneth Rexroth, another San Francisco poet who served as M.C. that evening] and he said it'll make you famous from bridge to bridge, and we laughed. The first edition published by City Lights books was only 500 or a thousand. In those days Marianne Moore only sold three or four thousand. So I thought of it as a small violet bound book, intelligentsia versed and I didn't think it was a "popular" book.
How did the impact of it first spread beyond San Francisco, was it through the censorship trial, which followed its publication ?
I think that was it. I wasn't actually there. Well, I was there for the first couple months before the bust, before Ferlinghetti got arrested. By then I had gone down to Mexico with Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky and his brother Lafcadio. Kerouac was writing Mexico City Blues and Tristessa .. We sort of hitchhiked and bused down. Stopped here in Los Angeles to give a reading. Lawrence Lipton organized it, with Anais Nin there, whom I had known in New York, briefly. [ Ginsberg's biographer Michael Schumacher relates a legendary incident from this LA reading in Dharma Lion ; "One particular heckler harassed Ginsberg throughout his reading....He taunted the poets, calling them cowards, insisting they explain what they were trying to prove on-stage. 'Nakedness', Ginsberg replied.... As he walked toward the drunk, Allen stripped off all his own clothing, hurling his pants and shirt at the now retreating heckler. 'Stand naked before the people', Allen said. 'The poet always stands naked before the world'. Defeated the man backed into the other room." ] Then I came back and Gregory went to Europe and I went to Europe and I went carrying the manuscripts that I had to Naked Lunch , to rendezvous with Burrows and Kerouac to get to work on getting it organized and typing it. Some of it was hand written, some of it typed. There were typos and Burrows hadn't organized it as a single structure, we were all puzzling how to do that and then I got a wire or something from Ferlinghetti about the bust. He said he was defending it and that I didn't really need to come back. Putting together Naked Lunch , I thought, was bigger fish than defending [ Howl and Other Poems ] against the San Francisco juvenile vice squad. 'Cause I figured I can't lose either way. If they ban the book, then I'll be famous and they'll sell the book underground. If they let it go, then it gets all the publicity. They did me a favor.
As they did with Mappelthorpe when they canceled the show at the Corchoran and arrested the director of the Cincinnati Museum.
They always do, it just advertises the book. Would Ulysses be so well read and well known if it weren't for the censorship trials. I don't know.
You've been to Russia a number of times-
I went in '65 and in the late eighties. The first time I went on my own as a tourist and then when I got there they paid for my way for the two weeks prior. They published some of my poetry in an anthology and I had been visited by a lot of the Russian literary dignitaries cause I lived on the lower east side in a very cheap apartment. For them I was obviously a real poet and the nomenclatura, I was living in relative pov... penury, not poverty but.... they paid for two weeks, I paid the first five days, from money I had made in Prague.
What struck me when I first went there-
Did you go under their auspices ?
Yes. There was an artist I worked with who was exhibiting in Moscow. I was amazed at how, under the repressed conditions which still existed, the poets were the strongest voice in the hierarchy of the arts, if there was such a thing. I'll never forget the image of a bookstore where one of the unofficial poets had just taped a poem up on a column outside and everyone had crowded around to read this latest poem.
Well it was the only news that was fit to read.
And that's what I was curious about. During the time you published " HOWL ", which created such a stir, was there a similar sense of greater artistic restriction-
I think it was like it is now. At the readings you'll notice a lot of young people because basically nobody trusts the media. The media is controlled. Censored and controlled. It's like we are all "spinned", so to speak. And I think everybody feels that way, even the media. So that when you get a personal voice saying what we actually feel, think in the actual language of common speech-you don't get it in newspeech-you do get it in poetry if it's good poetry. I don't think anything can ever replace direct human communication-the pseudo electronic thing or television or any of the newspapers-in a way that is not presented in the media, like hearing someone talk. Like the " Ballad of the Skeletons ", where I'm saying something that everybody knows, and everybody semi-agrees, at least the majority, yet there are opinions stated very outspokenly, that are not outspokenly presented in the media. With the talk shows you get something from middle right to extreme right wing.
So I think that exists now and it existed then. I'm happy to be able to talk and have an audience. They trust my poetry and the Beat poetry more than they trust the official pronouncements, that Burroughs says to "cut-up". That's why Burroughs is so popular with the young.
You have been making photographs nearly as long as you have been writing. Do the two ever intersect for you ?
There are a couple of poems that coincide with photographs. Like in Cosmopolitan Greetings, there is a poem called "May Day" and there's a photograph of the garden outside my kitchen window, the back yards and adjacent courtyards, and of those stinkweed trees that are mentioned in the poem on the adjacent page. Actually the most ambitious piece of drawing I've done, there is a really good line at the end, on my tombstone, Allen Ginsberg, "Immortality Comes Later". It's so funny, with a lightening bolt and a bunch of eyes on it. It's like a tautology because naturally when you're mortal you're not immortal. Immortality has to come later. It's such a funny idea, but it's mostly about having so much to do I couldn't get it all done. I was behind schedule, I hadn't answered the mail, the boyfriends were calling and I hadn't answered them, my book was overdo for Harpers .
Your exhibition at Fahey/Klein Gallery consists of very intimate portraits of some of your closest friends, who also just happen to have become icons of American literature. Did you have any particular emotions seeing all the work together ?
This was a show that was prepared for the Venice Biennnale. I was really amazed because I'd never had a show with 108 photographs. It's sort of a Buddhist number, like a mandala, with 108 beads, you count to 100 but you might make a mistake so they throw in an extra eight, so you've got a slight surplus no matter what happens.
So I never had seen them all-but also some recent prints, photos of Burroughs, Corso and Frank, people whose photographs I'd been taking for many, many years, up to '95. There's one really nice one of Burroughs reposing in his garden on an old broken down couch, looking up. I also sat down next to him and pointed the camera up to see what he was looking at, it was all the leaves of the trees coming together, circling. Sometimes I've exhibited the two together, that is, on one print.
Looking at the show, seeing people instantly age thirty to fifty years, within the space of several steps, was a strange feeling. It accentuated how fleeting the moment is.
It's a sense I've always had, that the moment is fleeting, and Kerouac looks so good right now, click. Before it all ends.