Allen Ginsberg Interview

I met with Allen Ginsberg on his book tour for Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992 (HarperCollins). I was accompanied by George Scrivani who was an editor, who created Hanuman Books with Raymond Foye and Francesco Clemente. I didn't get along so well with Allen Ginsberg \as is evident in the following.

I interrupted him every time he launched into a soundbite about the importance of theBeats.
He often questioned me about my questions. In
the interview, I stressed
the importance of obscure Beats including Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Bob Kaufman, Ray Bremser, and Irving Rosenthal.
Alexander Laurence with Allen Ginsberg

In fact,
my mention of Sheeper being the best work of the Beat Generation, seemed to annoy Ginsberg. Later that day, Ginsberg read "Hum Bom!" at Candlestick Park and was booed by the apolitical and conservative baseball fans.

Ginsberg died in 1997.

Alexander Laurence: Cosmopolitan Greetings is your new book of poems which collects your most recent work: 1986-1992. Your poetry seems to have changed stylistically, especially in your delicate attention to language; I think of your earliest poems, such as Howl, possessing a complex use of language, utilizing many adjectives, and being influenced by Surrealism, yet the new writing is much more transparent, direct and simplified.
Allen Ginsberg: More or less, with the occasional touches of a surreal sequence of images. There are a number of poems in here and in White Shroud which are examples of complicated language or complicated dream situations. Within some simple poems are some surreal word chains, particularly "I Went To The Movie of Life," "Grandma Earth's Song," and in the Jacob Rabinowitz poem:

"Put me down now for not hearing your teenage heartbeat, / think back were you serious offering to kidnap me / to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, Miami, God / knows, rescued from boring fame & Academic fortune, / Rimbaud Verlaine lovers starved together in boondocks houseflat / stockyard furnished rooms eating pea soup reading E. A. Poe?"

I want to have lucid clear pictures in my poetry rather than jump-cut, cut-up, chaotic flashes. I want my poetry to be like a cinematic movie. The magic comes not from the speed up of the words, but the magic comes from the fact that it's an imaginary dream vision. The prototype of that is Shelley's "Triumph of Life."

AL: But has your use of language become more simplified?
AG: It's become more lucid. Yeah. I've become interested in very clear one sentence poems. Like a snapshot. "I can still see Neal's 23-year-old corpse when I come in my hand." (American Sentences).
AL: You grew up in a Marxist, Jewish, leftist background. How did this influence your sexuality and politics?
AG: I wasn't bar mitzvahed. I lived across the street from a synagogue. My family was Jewish but they were all communists and socialists and atheists. They hated the orthodox rabbis. My great grandfather was an orthodox. There a poem called "Yiddishe Kopf" that directly answers the question about politics. How it influenced my sexuality I don't know, but coming from a bohemian Jewish background, that including free thinking, free love,
1920s modernist idealism; those were the ideas circulating at the time.

AL: How do feel about the idea that sexuality is related to writing?
AG: A lot of my writing is to attract lovers, like in "Personals Ad." There are a number of poems in here that are directly intended to make a homunculus picture of a young boy that I want to make out with. It rarely works out, but eventually the whole body of my work is a big personals ad. That's a big motivation, to make myself open and candid.
AL: Do you prefer pre-Stonewall homosexuality, repressed and closeted or ....
AG: No way!
AL: Is the gay revolution of the 1970s the best thing that happened?
AG: No. It was a good thing that happened. But the best thing that happened? Come on! Why do you treat it as a stereotype?
AL: I just wanted you to talk about pre-Stonewall activity.
AG: There were a large mass of people who were gay and who knew each other, and then there was police repression. The clubs and the gay bars were owned by the Mafia who paid off the police. Stonewall didn't pay off the police. Police corruption was really at the bottom of it all. For the mass of people it was a gay riot. It was a political action lead by the transvestites, they were the pioneers who fought the police. I don't think that there was that much psychological difference before and after Stonewall. Burroughs, Genet, Christopher Isherwood, and Gore Vidal had all written gay novels before then.

There was a lot of gay literature. It wasn't the internalization of homosexuality but the official repression by the police and the Mafia, who had a vested interested in it staying black market.

George Scrivani: Are you going to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of Stonewall in New York?
AG: I don't know where I'm going to be. If I'm in New York, I will be marching with NAMBLA.
AL: I wanted you to talk about political activism. My feeling is that it is based around single issue politics. This sort of activism is usually a reaction of "a society of the spectacle" scenario...
AG: I don't know what all this language and references mean. I don't know the relationship between single issue activism and spectacle. That is the language of the Situationists. I don't understand what logical link you are making.
AL: How has you view of Walt Whitman changed over the years?
AG: Is that the same question?
AL: No I changed it. I skipped that question.
AG: Why don't you clarify. Can you give me a clear idea of what you mean?
AL: Definitely!
AG: So can you say it in more simple language? I don't mind answering the question if I can understand it, but I can't.
AL: First, there is an activity called "Political Activism." This is a very popular activity in San Francisco. All over.
AG: Gay activism?
AL: That as well. It seems that...
AG: Which type are you talking about?
AL: Activism surrounding the Rodney King Trial, The Iraq War, and Act-Up for instance.
AG: There were anti-Iraq War demonstrations here in San Francisco?
GS: Yeah, it was big. But television distorted it.
AL: Yeah. The way media is structured now, most debates focus on single issue politics while ignoring the larger picture, which resembles a model set up by the Situationists, in Guy Debord's The Society of The Spectacle. Debord criticizes the fascination of the spectacle.
AG: The critique was that everything was reduced to unrelated theater. I don't know if the left or anyone has a unified field of activism. I'm not sure if the situation is so far out of control that there is any solution. One problem is over-population and another is hyper-technology, which are ruining the planet. Technology is ruining the planet, so the answer is "less power" but that's unlikely to happen. Does anybody disagree with a dark vision of the future? All pop culture is based on it.
AL: Everyone my age believes that they are inheriting several of these problems such as toxicity....
AG: And overpopulation. We have this privilege. We're all dependent on technology because we use electricity, even a cute magazine like Cups is dependent. Everyone in the West is complicit.
AL: There's not much cynicism in your work. You don't value that position about the world?
AG: That's a stupid young person's reaction towards the world. That's a person who doesn't sense their own value or worth. Given a situation like this, the most practical approach is creating some relationship to mass suffering. It's the difference between living with AIDS and dying with AIDS.
AL: How do you feel that the poets associated with The Berkeley Renaissance, such as Spicer and Duncan, and poets now referred to as The New York School of Poets, Ashbery, Koch, and O'Hara, differed from the Beat poets?
AG: The Beat Poets were close stylistically to The Berkeley Renaissance, but the Berkeley people were a little more literary, in a sense that they drew on a more elite literary tradition and language, derived from Neo-Platonic studies of the renaissance. As far as The New York Poets: we all went to bed together.

O'Hara was a close friend. We wrote poems to each other. O'Hara put the stamp of approval in New York, which was very important in those days, on John Wieners, and on Gregory Corso. Spicer and Duncan didn't care for some of the Beat Poets, but they respected Kerouac. Duncan had been a gay pioneer when writing an essay in the 1940s about being gay as a political act.

They thought that the Beat Poets took away some of the praise. We had certainly
gotten a lot of publicity. I wrote to Duncan "In unity there is strength." But he never joined us for any readings. Spicer always thought that there was some vulgarity involved, that Gary Snyder's work was too intentional, and that I wasn't sufficiently learned.

AL: In what I've read, you painted the history of poetry as cyclical and continuous, but a poet like Jack Spicer doesn't seem to fit in to the traditions that you talk about.
AG: He fits in. He wanted to be totally individual. He even fought with Duncan: certain metaphysical arguments.
AL: What do you think of the poets on MTV and performance poetry in

AG: Poetry since Homer and Sappho has been performed. The minstrels. Pound and Yeats always stressed reading poetry aloud. They thought it was important. Pound's daughter said that her father always thought that the proper way to present poetry was through performance. It all depends on how sophisticated the is text on the page. If it looks good on the page it should sound good in the air. A lot of it is shit on the page and good in the air. A lot of it is shit on the page and shit in the air. And some of it is great on the page and great in the air.
AL: Speaking of shit, there seems to be a lot of preoccupation with the anus?
AG: Are you speaking about shit or playing with the anus? Doesn't everybody play around with the anus. I would say that a majority of people in America, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, like to have their anus diddled with during copulation. Does that seem inaccurate?
AL: That's perfectly acceptable.
AG: Is that an accurate statement? Do the girls that you make out with like to have their anus diddled with? Not fucked in the ass, but...
AL: You have this poem "Sphincter" which reminds me of a Rimbaud/Verlaine poem. There is a tradition of anus poems.
AG: It's a universal theme. I wrote a poem after that which goes: "I got old and shit in my pants, shit in my pants....."
AL: How do you feel the gay homosexual imagination has contributed to 20th century poetry and how much have you contributed to this?
AG: My part has been minor. What I have done is to take gay, homosexual love and give it a dimension of ordinariness. So it's not a big deal. Are you gay?
AL: Um, well let me ask you another question.
AG: I don't understand. Is this a gay magazine?
AL: No. I interviewed Dennis Cooper in the last one, but it's not a focus.
Alexander Laurence is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. He has interviewed over 100 novelists, many of which are accessible through the Internet. His book reviews have appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, American Book Review, East Bay Express, LA Reader, Bay Guardian, and American Book Jam.


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