by Peter Werbe
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Interview with Allen Ginsberg
In October 1991, Detroit-area talk show host Peter Werbe interviewed poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was in Ann Arbor for the performance of his opera, Hydrogen Jukebox, a collaboration with composer and pianist Philip Glass. As were so many of Ginsberg's Michigan appearances, the opening was a benefit for Jewel Heart, an international organization of Tibetan Buddhist and cultural centers.
Ginsberg's Selected Poems, 1947-1995 (Harper Collins) and a CD from one of its selections, The Ballad of the Skeletons, recorded with Paul McCartney, Philip Glass, and Lenny Kaye, was released shortly before the poet's death in April of this year.
The following is a transcript of the interview.
Peter Werbe: At an earlier Ann Arbor appearance, you shared the stage with Gelek Rinpoche, spiritual director of Jewel Heart, and discussed the importance of the last breath before death. What's its importance?
Allen Ginsberg: I recently became a senior citizen; I just turned 65 and my mind is turning to what Shakespeare said at the end of The Tempest when Prospero goes home having solved his problems: To Genoa then where every third thought shall be my grave. When you get to a certain age, you like to prepare for what's to come; you make your will, you straighten out your affairs so you don't leave a mess for other people to worry about and you straighten out your mind so you don't leave a mess for yourself on the death bed, and don't panic.
PW: People in our culture usually see impending death as something quite fearful.
AG: It's nonsensical to fear death because everyone is going to die, so you might as well relate to it in a way that's not so scary.
PW: Were you ever afraid of death?
AG: Yeah, sure, when I was younger. But now that I realize it's really inevitable I want to come to some terms with it that aren't negative. I would like to come to some positive terms, which is an old American tradition in Walt Whitman. Remember, he said, Come lovely death, undulate around the world serenely, arriving, arriving sooner or later in the night, in the day, to each, to all, delicate death.
PW: Is this reflected in your recent writing?
AG: Yeah, I think one of the best poems I wrotesong I sang [at my last Ann Arbor appearance], is called Father Death Blues, on the death of my own father. It's a good solid, late work by myself as poet. I'm very pleased to produce something that ripened out of meditation and out of experience.
PW: You also sang another song there, Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Dont Smoke).
AG: Oh, yeah, (sings) Dont smoke dont smoke dont smoke, Dont smoke, It's a nine billion dollar, Capitalist communist joke, Dont smoke the official dope dope dope dope.
PW: I'd like to have you sing the oral alternatives you pose to smoking but we can't do it on the radio. [Note: The text reads, Put something in your mouth, Like skin not cigarette filth, Suck tit suck tit suck cock suck cock, suck clit suck prick suck it. . .But dont smoke shit nope, nope nope nope Dope Dope Dope Dope, the official dope Dont Smoke.]
AG: It's saying make love with your mouth. Touching skin with your mouth whether kissing or anything else is more healthy than the official dirty nicotine. But also I pointed out that U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who has set himself up as the moral arbiter of the country recently with a new law trying to restrict National Endowment for the Arts grants (attacking homosexuals actually) is himself an important lobbyist for this death-dealing legal drug, nicotine. And, spending taxpayer money to subsidize the agriculture of it. A really interesting contradiction.
PW: What does it mean to you to be a senior citizen other than to get into movies at reduced rates?
AG: And half-fare on the subways. But as a senior citizen I have the right to speak my mind; I've been obeying the rules long enough and I still obey the rules, but the true rules are the rules of candor and truthfulness and frankness; that's what Walt Whitman asked for from poets. So, in a poetry reading there would naturally be a candid, frank and truthful account of what goes through my body and my mind, what rouses me erotically.
PW: So, at 65 you still have sexual thoughts?
AG: Sure, sex, death and also life and also food and also health and also your liver and also Buddhism and also Jewishness and also the Middle East and also marijuana and also psychedelics and also meditation and also the Tibetan Lamas; hundreds of thousands of thoughts run through your mind in a couple days.
PW: Every time I've seen you read you have at least one explicitly sexual poem which shocks at least a small percentage of your audience.
AAG: I try to write my mind; to give a picture of the actual operation of my mind. It's like meditation. You notice what goes through your mind. I give in a reading, a sufficient proportion to explicitly erotic matter that you would in the normal course of your daytime reveries whether you're a fundamentalist Christian or not. That's why they're always talking about temptation; something rises in their minds. I'm trying to make an accurate picture and take the windbag out of it all and take the fear out of it and take the anxiety out of it and make it ordinary, because it is ordinary.
PW: Has there been a recent upsurge in interest in poetry?
AG: I think it's been happening all along. As the government gets more full of lies and confusion and double-talk, nobody believes anyone anymore And, as the public consciousnessmediagets more obscure and furtive and prejudiced and owned by the Republicans or multi-nationals, the only place you can get any news that stays news or candid, truthful, personal opinion is in poetry. That's the old tradition of poetry; that's what it was for. It's not the state's; it's not the official propaganda.
PW: Do you read Howl in public any more?
AG: Yes. When I go to a new state or new country or when there's some occasion that dignifies it so it's not just an act, like the first or second reading I gave for Gelek Rinpoche [spiritual director of Ann Arbor's Jewel Heart] as a benefit. I wanted him to hear that American sound of Howl, that barbaric yawp, so to speak, to use Whitman's phrase. I wanted him to hear the phrasing, Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!, then the follow-up about demonic industries! monstrous bombs! I wanted him to hear that analysis which winds up Moloch whose name is the Mind!, which is basically a Buddhist view of the hyper-industrialized catastrophe that's coming to the planet.
PW: Is Howl your best effort? It's certainly a dramatic portrayal of America with its myths stripped away.
AG: Well, it's a good one, but a superior poem is a longer one written four years later called Kaddish. It has a lot more concrete detail and is at the same time a visionary, romantic, bold dream of America and also a narrative account of my mother. I think every couple of years I get into some kind of peak experience with poetry. Before Howl there's a poem called The Green Auto, then Howl and Sunflower Sutra around 1955. Then Kaddish in 1960, Wichita Vortex Sutra in 1965, part of which is the climax of Act I of Hydrogen Juke Box. Philip Glass liked it and it was the first thing he and I did together as a duet. He knew the poem when it was originally published in the mid-'60s in the Village Voice in which I say, I here declare the end of the war! Let the State tremble, let the Nation weep, let Congress legislate its own delight, (laughs) let the President execute his own desire, for I hereby declare the end of the war.
So, that was a moment of self-recognition, self-empowerment, courage, consistent sparkiness. It was meekobviously, I can't stop the warbut at the same time lively, at the same time surprising, at the same time it was almost inscrutable. How could anybody declare the end of the war? But just the same, how could the President declare it? The same dragon-like inscrutability or outrageousness, actually.
PW: You've always had the capacity to emanate peace. I'm reminded of the time in 1965 when you confronted the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang in Oakland, Calif. who had sworn to attack and disrupt a peace demonstration.
AG: Yes, at an early anti-Vietnam war march which prophesied the whole nation turning against the war by 1968.
PW:The Hells Angels were probably the most frightening looking human beings this side of a Salvadoran death squad, and probably just as mean.
AG: They had a funny kind of code of honor of their own and a Buddha nature of their own, but very deeply hidden, so it was a question of appealing to that. Almost anybody, even the Supreme Court, has a Buddha nature somewhere buried real deep, so it's a matter of calling on that wakened mind or sense of compassion or gentleness or vulnerability or suffering ultimately. The Supreme Court suffers, Bush suffers, everybody is suffering. You have to put your finger on the suffering, name it, point it out so everybody's in the same boat.
[FE Note: In the above mentioned incident, the Vietnam Day Committee, led by activists like Jerry Rubin with Ginsberg in the front ranks, planned to march from the University of California Berkeley campus to an Oakland army base where recruits were shipped to the war zone. The demonstrators were stopped at the city border by the police and attacked by the motorcycle gang. Later, Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and others chilled out the head of the Angels with LSD and chanting following a heated political discussion about the war.]
PW: When ferocious men come to stop you, to hurt you, what does it take?
AG: Maybe I was too stupid in those days to realize the trouble I was in. I've never been in a situation where it was that dangerous, I don't think. In Eastern Europe a couple of times and in Cuba when I was arrested by the communist police for criticizing their governments it was a little more dangerous than anywhere other than maybe Chicago in 1968 with the police there. And, occasionally there have been attempts to set me up by the American police on phony drug charges by threatening friends they'll send them to jail if they don't plant grass in my house. But that was long ago and it never amounted to anything, so I've never been paranoid. At the same time, maybe as coward, I've avoided any really confrontational situation. Certainly I'm a coward. I wouldn't want to be in a really dangerous place.
PW: It sure sounds like you've been in a number of them.
PW: The October 1969 (FACT CHECK) Fifth Estate had an interview with you (Note: See p. 10) where you said the trees are our allies and that we have to speak for them in their defense.
AG: It was an idea of Gary Snyder's, talking about the Northwest trees and pointing out that the exploiters on the planet were the human race, in a kind of race or species chauvinism, and the workers were actually the trees and the forest and the plants. And somebody, some Senator, ought to speak up for all those hundreds of thousands of miles of trees who have no representation, who have no representation in Congress although they're all sentient beings.
PW: The Senators are representing the logging companies.
AG: People have been living with the forest and relating to it, and you could say communicating with it, and being communicated to in the form of shade, food, company, meditative comfort, inspiration as long as the human race has been around.
PW: Tomorrow is the twenty-second anniversary of Kerouac's death.
AG: Yes, old October. His favorite month of reddening leaves and falling leaves and change of the seasons and autumn of fruitfulness. He was very fond of that, maybe out of Thomas Wolff's long prose elegy of October. I remember Kerouac had a lot of octobral word music. I think he liked the word October; it was sort of Beethovenian.
PW: It was said toward the end of his life he became a misanthrope, almost a racist and right-winger. Was this the Jack Kerouac you knew?
AG: No, I don't think he was. When you look back at his comments at that time, he was quite prophetic. He was putting down that aspect of the left that was angry and waving pictures of Mao Tse-Tung and Castro and calling for bringing the war home and waving the Viet Cong flag which offended the majority of the American people who already were sick of the war. For Kerouac, it was taking a kind of middle position; he didn't like the right wing conservatives and he didn't like the left wing. He liked William Buckley because he had kind of an interesting language. But when he got on Buckley's [TV] program a year before he died, he put down the Vietnam war in a way that embarrassed Buckley.
Buckley asked what he thought and Kerouac said, The war is just a way for the South Vietnamese to get our jeeps, which is a real redneck, anti-war remark. And, Buckley said, Oh, you can't really mean that, and Kerouac looked at him with this very strange leer and said, Well, they got a lot of them, didn't they? Buckley was just reduced to silence.
Teaching Kerouac's work now and rereading Tristessa and Dharma Bums and Big Sur, I'm amazed by his insight into basic Buddhist thoughts of the nature of the universe, the sort of transitory nature and the lack of permanence in the universe, the dream-like nature of the universe, like the moon in a dew drop or a dream itself. He had very good insight. Listening during the last few weeks to the Dali Lama and other teachers, I'm amazed at Kerouac's early American ken.
PW: You wrote a lot in your early years when you were quite anguished.
AG: Yes, anguished, but I wasn't quite angry. Even in anguish there was always a sort of double humor. The most anguished poem is certainly on my mother [Kaddish] and her madness and mental hospitals and yet there's kind of a hyperbolic exaggeration that's a little bit like Charlie Chaplin's bittersweet in City Lights.
PW: What capacity does poetry have that it can strike so deeply into the human psyche often more so than prose?
AG: Well, we think all the time in words or most of the time or often we think in words. We conduct the government in words. We conduct our legal affairs, our family affairsit's all words and language. So, here's the quintessence of language, the deepest language, the permanent and memorable language which goes to the pith experiences that we have and formulates the exact insights and attitudes that you learn from the age of ten to 65 or 95. For instance, Kerouac has a very interesting line in a poem, Anger doesn't like to be reminded of fits, which puts into one line a whole paragraph I used to describe anger.
In Ann Arbor, we were using the phrase of another Lama, First thought; best thought. And it was natural thought, the first raw thought you have is the best form if you can remember it. So, the question is remembering your own mind. Poetry remembers your mind.
PW: You're going to be in Ann Arbor for two performances of Hydrogen Jukebox. How was it assembled?
AG: We all sat down and decided what are the themes we want to cover? Rock and roll, meditation, death, poetry, music, politics, drugs, travel, the Far East, Buddhism, electricity, ecology, the planet, the death of the planet, the end of the millennium, the fall of America, American empire, war, all of those themes. Then we rummaged though my work and found poems fitted exactly to those themes. Then we made a whole scheme which ends with me declaring the end of the war at the end of Act I with a tape of Philip playing and me orating. Then it begins in the second part with a vision of a hyper-civilizationMolochand goes off to the end with Father Death.
PW: You mention meditation as important activity, but people often think of it as esoteric or exotic, practiced only by people like Allen Ginsberg.
AG: Half the world does it, actually. The whole eastern portionIndia, China, Japan; at least it's traditional in their cultures and it's also traditional in native cultures and basic cultures. American Indians have to sit very patiently during long dances or while hunting. It's a by-product of the activity of the world in a sense. In the case of Americans, it's good medicine for all the animosity and anxiety and freakout and worry and hyer-activity and hyper-intellecuality and hyper-civilization we're constantly subjected to with a barrage of planetary bad news.
PW: Most people conceive of meditation as sitting and doing nothing which is so inimical to the American psyche.
AG: It would be great if you could sit there and do nothing. The tendency of most minds is to move around and to think and to plan and to gossip and to babble and to constantly be fixating on something and grabbing onto something for entertainment. If you could actually take a vacation from all that activity, it'd be a miracle. That's the purpose of meditation, to see if you can vacate your mind.
In most meditations you pay attention to your breath. You add that awareness to the already ongoing process of breathing. It's hard to focus your mind and concentrate on one thing or rest your mind or abide relaxation in one spot. You notice there's an automatic nervousness and thinking and planning and memory; you talk to yourself, What do I have to do next, instead of enjoying the moment. So, you take a friendly attitude to your thoughts, not push them away, not try and stop thinking because that's inevitable, but not to invite your thoughts into tea either. Let them worry about themselves and just observe them, observe your mind moving.
PW: Are there things you know now you wish you had known earlier in life?
AG: Yes. If you act out fits of anger, they don't do you much good and you always have to pay for it. Although anger is natural, if you notice you're angry, most of the anger disappears, at least 80 percent of it according to the Tibetan teacher in Ann Arbor, Gelek Rimpoche. He says if you get angry, just notice it; you don't have to stop it, just notice it and it tends to dissolve like a soap bubble. I wish I'd noticed that a long time ago.
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Last modified: October 21, 1997