Ginsberg in a car, circa 1988
Allen Ginsberg en route to San Jose, circa 1988, with Steve Silberman (far left), poet Marc Olmsted, and photographer Marc Geller.

No More Bagels: An Interview with Allen Ginsberg

from the Whole Earth Review, Sept. 1987
by Steve Silberman

So, I'm already having all these little deaths. -- AG

Author's preface, 1999

   In January of 1987, I interviewed poet Allen Ginsberg for the Whole Earth Review at his apartment on East 12th Street in New York City. I'd been a student of Allen's at Naropa Institute in 1977, and we'd seen each other off and on in the intervening years. The interview was difficult to set up -- there were so many demands on Allen's attention, and his secretary Bob Rosenthal would tell me to expect a call from Allen at a certain time, and it would never come. Finally, I rang Allen one morning at about ten, and he roared into the phone, "Do you know you got me out of BED? I was trying to write!" Such painful awkwardnesses were the tone of my interactions with Allen at the time, and were not exactly relieved by his remark when I walked into his office to do this interview. He looked me up and down with X-ray vision and said: "So it's been ten years, huh? You'll forgive me -- did we make it?" No, we hadn't, though I wasn't closed-minded to the idea when I was 19; but yes, I did forgive him, because I loved him and his work, and understood that I wasn't the only teenager on Earth who had wanted to be his special friend. Happily, our interview went well enough that it became a turning point in our friendship. After it came out in the Whole Earth Review, illustrated with Allen's photographs, he asked me if I was interested in serving as his teaching assistant the following summer at Naropa. And a new chapter began.
       -- San Francisco, December 2, 1999

 

Original introduction from Whole Earth Review

    My parents were young New Leftists during the sixties, and Allen Ginsberg's name was a household word. In muslin shmatte and finger cymbals, he personified the spiritual aspect of the vision of a new society. The public affection between Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky presented a model of gay relationship unfettered by the trivializing roles set aside for homosexual men.

    I saw Ginsberg give two poetry readings on the anniversary of Neal Cassady's death in 1977, and that summer I became one of his apprentices at Naropa Institute. I was 19 and too shy to show my hero but one poem, so my "apprenticeship" consisted of typing his journals. There was a small army of people like me.

    This past January I interviewed Ginsberg in his apartment on the Lower East Side. The walls had been freshly painted white, with crates and stacks of books everywhere, unanswered correspondence, and hundreds of manuscripts sent by poets seeking a blurb or advice. The electronic telephone burbled constantly. There was a portrait of Whitman in the kitchen, a Sunday-school upright piano in a room to the side, and a little shrine with an orange meditation cushion below the bedroom window.

    Ginsberg's right eye and cheek were paralyzed slightly, a vestige of Bell's palsy, but he was hardly frail. I told Ginsberg how important "Howl" had been to me as an adolescent, when I saw in its sincerity and spiritual hunger and homosexual fearlessness a reflection of my own inner life. It was too bad, he said, I hadn't stumbled on Gide or Genet.

 

 

Steve Silberman: Walt Whitman said he wished to be remembered as "the tenderest lover." He is remembered as a great heart, but also as one of the most significant formal innovators in 19th-century poetry. How do you wish to be remembered?

Allen Ginsberg: What a question! I don't really want to interfere with my karma. A question like this has a feedback in that it directs people's attention, and just at this moment I'm more interested in what other people respond to than what I respond to -- finding that out. Trying to check my subjectivity against the imagined world of others.

It would be nice to be remembered as an ecstatic poet, or a poet whose work could inspire or elevate others' minds; or a poet who spread some sense of expansion of awareness, or expansive consciousness. It would be nice to be remembered for generous energy -- patience and generosity in energetic thought. But that's sort of like a neurotic self-idealization. I'm really at this point less interested in my own projection than curious about what it really is on the outside of my head. So maybe I'd like to be remembered as somebody who was curious about what it was like outside of his head!

SS: Your career was established outside of the Establishment, printing in small presses and not teaching in the academy; not being taught in the academy until later. How does it feel to be teaching at Brooklyn College and to have Harper & Row as your publisher?

AG: It seems like a ripening -- that the culture has changed sufficiently that it will take me more or less on my own terms. Although some of my edges are smoothed down now. I don't insult people inadvertently or advertently -- I try and treat them with a kind of Buddhist gentility, gentleness, even if I feel that they're neurotic or incompetent I try not to pin them wriggling to the wall, but try and help 'em get out of that space, or make their situation workable rather than challenging them. Trying to enrich them rather than challenge them.

I have twelve years' experience at Naropa helping run the poetics department so I'm really an old-dog teacher now, and Naropa -- inasmuch as it's accredited -- is in a sense institutional too. So we actually built a new institution inside the shell of the old, successfully. That's one of the signal community commune meditation-oriented projects of the ethos of the sixties that survived through the eighties and is flourishing. So I feel kind of proud that I was part of that -- something real, in that sense, socially.

Brooklyn College in a way is anticlimactic. Courses in literary history of the Beat Generation that I developed at Naropa I'll be teaching at Brooklyn College. The students are less spiritual than at Naropa, so there's a question of now having to give them a spiritual infusion in the secular Brooklyn community scene.

SS: How large are your classes?

AG: Small -- so small that I asked for an undergraduate larger class to get at younger meat. Maybe meet something I could sleep with or relate to emotionally. 'Cause the MFA students are all jelled already -- fixated and solidified into their corsets and neuroses.

SS: Why do you think Naropa had the stability to maintain its integrity into the eighties?

AG: First of all they had a central organizing motor which was meditation. So they had a workable central thesis that was not based on the ego of the leader. Secondly, they didn't have a democratic baloney grounding -- they were in practice democratic, but in theory totally autocratic under the guru. If you have a sort of selfless guru who's not on a power trip -- or who's on a Vajrayana power trip rather than on a personal power trip -- you have a worth while basis for a community, based on devotion and meditation and actual awareness practice; rather than theory of getting high, or ecstatic, or...And the Buddhists after all have several thousand years' experience in organizing nontheistic intentional communities.

The Buddhist thing is bohemian, by its very nature. Or admits more bohemia. It's nonjudgemental let us say -- its practice is awareness rather than rule of law and judgement like Hebrew or Christian sharper aesthetically, like the artist's mind which is the same as the meditative mind: no matter what thought you have you're interested in it, rather than rejecting it.

President Trungpa would come up with really interesting ideas, like methods of teaching poetry, methods of holding classes, methods of having assemblies -- school assemblies to meditate rather than listen to a lot of yak. Methods of relating to but avoiding political animosity; relating to politics but not getting into the aggression of it.

They just knew how to solve a lot of problems that, say, Western hippie communes wouldn't conceive would arise -- like how to raise money. The traditional Buddhist thing is you ask a patron for money, and he doesn't give, you ask him again, he doesn't give, you ask him a third time -- if after the third time he gives or doesn't give you don't ask a fourth time. You just ask three times -- that's good manners! It communicates but it's not aggressive. You're inviting him, but not strong-arming him. Whereas a Western commune might hit somebody up for money too many times, not knowing the middle path.

SS: You came as close as any poet has since Frost to national celebrity.

AG: International, now. It's amazing.

SS: How has that helped or hindered your poetic practice?

AG: "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." This year I got a Golden Wreath from the International Poetry Evenings in Struga, Yugoslavia. A real wreath of gold -- 24 carat! "Howl" is now translated into Mainland Chinese, and a book of my poems has come out in Russia --

SS: Unexpurgated in China?

AG: No -- they translated "cocksuckers" as "suckers of corks," so something to do with alcohol probably.

SS: A million Chinese Ph.D students will be --

AG: Examining this translation for centuries to come, 'til they finally liberalize and get back to "cocksuckers," and have pederasts as their alcoholics. So -- it leaves it kinda wide open to do what I want and say what I want and this year, for the first time, the American academic community and the media are treating me like an elder statesman rather than a young upstart or a media creep. There was a Modern Language Association symposium on "Howl" and they invited me to read -- so I gave a reading of "Howl" on the thirtieth anniversary for an assemblage of something like 500 English professors from all over the country. That really is hitting a nerve center -- and it was a good reading, with Steven Taylor playing music.

So we actually presented the material in a way that people doing scholarly studies had not related to -- hearing the authentic sound of it, out loud with the right voice. I was all dressed up properly, for their point of view, so clothing wasn't interfering -- my haircut was short, so they just had the voice and the words, no distractions to bother them. That probably puts the nail in the coffin as far as respectability and acceptance.

So the question is what, how does it feel? A feeling of what's it all for, and if I'm famous, gee the world must be in a terrible place. If I gotta serve for being the most famous and prestigious poet, then the world is really bad off. (Laughing)

Now that I'm in the position of being a loudspeaker I don't know what to say. I don't have any aggressive intention, as I did when I was younger to some extent. It's more just trying to save my own skin -- straighten out my own karma. Relate to the alterations of my relations with Peter Orlovsky and growing old, and real subject: death of my family, father and mother and aunts and uncles.

I didn't get too angry and outrageous out front on the whole Reagan era -- thinking that aggression was not appropriate any longer. My own aggression. And in a way I'm glad because Reagan and his whole White House macho self-contradiction is auto-destructing -- like the traditional Buddhist image of the snake of conceptualization uncoiling in mid-air. I'm glad I didn't go off half-cocked in an angry rage, tilting at their windmill, but simply observed what was going on and let it happen and didn't feel obliged to become a Don Quixote. And waste a lot of time writing about ephemera -- as I did to some extent in the sixties.

SS: You have spent the last decade and a half publicly identified as "Buddhist student Allen Ginsberg," but you were once regarded as one of the most articulate exponents of psychedelics as a means of personal, if not global, transformation. How do you view the Reagan administration's attempts to police consciousness via urine tests and sobriety checkpoints?

AG: All scientific research on LSD has been stopped, except for very few projects done under the military, and that's a major catastrophe for human mind engineering and scientific advancement and psychology. The heroin problem stands as it always was: a conspiracy by heroin police, narcotics bureaus, their bureaucracies and budgets -- with their working relation with Cosa Nostra and organized crime in maintaining a black market and high prices and sales under the desk -- as well as regular organized crime dope laundry money, and that whole network extends from the White House to the Vatican. Contras -- White House -- Vatican. So the whole public approach by Reagan is just complete hypocrisy.

I've changed my mind about the relationship between acid and neurosis -- it seems to me that acid can lead to some kind of breakdowns maybe. So that people should be prepared with meditation, before they take acid. There should be an educational program to cultivate meditative practice and techniques, so that when people get high on acid and get into bum trips they can switch their minds, easily -- and there are ways of doing it, very simple. But nobody is doing mass training in that, and it might be interesting for high school kids. It's like -- give junkies needles, give kids condoms if they're gonna screw so they don't get AIDS. If they're gonna try acid -- which is probably good for an intelligent kid -- they should also be prepared with some techniques in meditation, so that they can switch their attention from bum trips back to their breath, and to the current space around them.

So I think in the sixties I wasn't prepared to deal with acid casualties from the point of view of a reliable technique for avoiding those casualties.

SS: AIDS is not mentioned in White Shroud.

AG: No. I've had a couple of tests for myself for AIDS, and apparently have come out negative. Maybe been saved by my preference for straight kids. And I haven't met too many people that've had direct AIDS horrorshow -- haven't avoided it exactly, it's just that I move in funny circles and I don't live in the Castro. But it's affected my sex life a lot.

I use condoms now and do safe sex, and I'm very hesitant to blow somebody and take their sperm unless I know them real well and know their history, and they've been tested. And even then -- even friends that I think are safe, I don't think I would fuck them without a condom or be screwed without a condom -- at the moment.

I've somewhat exhausted my aggressive grasping for constantly getting laid. I seem to lay off -- relax a little bit more, want a quiet night at home working, more than running around urgent. It's added another element of -- let's say discouragement of the idea of going out and trying to find new meat. Or more hesitant to try and put the make on students, simply because it's another barrier to go through -- to explain to them that I've been tested and I know how to do safe sex -- or, you know? Certainly there are a few people who I wanted to make out with who were worried about AIDS -- who otherwise, maybe in another generation, might've been willing to swing to see what it was like.

I imagine in the next year I'd want to get into more contact with the actual AIDS clinics and people involve. At the moment I'm having hypertension from stress of doing too many things at once. So it's like taking on another activity. I'm sort of waiting for it to happen naturally. I've raised money for them but haven't had any real direct contact with people suffering.

SS: What is the state of your health currently?

AG: I have reactive hypoglycemia and arrhythmia of the heart, mainly due to overwork. Like I was up 'til seven this morning, eight-nine o'clock the night before trying to finish little projects. So, I've gotta change my life! Stop doing so may things. 'Cause right now I'm involved in poetry, photography, and music. And I've got this full-time job as a professor.

I've cut down on traveling and reading, and been hyperactive in publishing books: from Collected Poems to new White Shroud poems to "Howl" book, all in three years. It's actually broken my health a bit, and I have to start meditating more and do more t'ai chi. And control my diet. I have just this little office and one secretary -- too many things going on, too much paper going over my desk.

Now we've located all my old journals. They've been typed and they're going to be edited. Following that, Bob Rosenthal is editing selected essays. Then Barry Miles is doing a biography of me, and will then be editing selected correspondence, and there's another book of selected interviews. In a way it's kind of -- dismaying -- because I'm trapped with things I've already done. My time is taken up framing things. If I were really free, I'd have a much happier time. It's kind of a drag to be so well known because it's work.

The thing I enjoy most at the moment, aside from writing poems, just poems, is photography; and I always like to sing. Now for the first time I have complete opportunity to do all of them -- somebody will fund records, somebody will put out for the photography books -- a good publisher to put out big books, journals and anything I want to print-but the more opportunity there is the more things I can think of to do, and it gets really hyperactive, workaholic. So I'm coming up against my own karma that way -- what is the limit of what I want to do -- what do I most want to do before I kick the bucket.

About a month ago one doctor told me I had heart trouble, and should carry nitroglycerine around. Turned out he was wrong, but it was a good opportunity to review the time I have left to figure out what is it I find most essential. And the thing I found most essential was doing nothing. Waiting for the Muse. Maybe with a camera. With a Leica.

SS: How do you feel about death?

AG: Well, I don't know anything about it. I never died before that I can remember. The deepest feeling I have is of the poignancy of having to say goodbye to everything -- that I like so much. But I seem to be doing that inch-by-inch. I told you about the slight loosening of anxiety about sex-in addition to which I'm taking high blood pressure pills which cuts down sexual activity. Now, I've had to give up -- for hypoglycemia -- I have to say, bid farewell forever to matzo balls! To --

SS: Knishes?

AG: Challah! To knishes -- potato knishes, to potatoes boiled, mashed, fried -- borscht I can't take because I have gout and kidney stones and borscht has calcium oxalate. I can't eat pasta, and I can't eat good old black bread, rye bread or toast much, or English muffins, Danish pastry, pies, cakes --

SS: Onion rolls?

AG: Onion rolls, bagels, farewell! As well as I can't eat red meat any more so rare that I can sink my teeth into a big juicy pastrami sandwich or corned beef or roast beef -- I'm slowly gravitating towards celery and cucumbers and endives and lettuce and olive oil and lemon juice and maybe a lil' kasha which has less starch and complex carbohydrates. No more candy no more soda no more cranberry juice no more orange juice hardly, just oranges themselves. So, I'm already having all these little deaths.

But then you begin to explore the texture of what you eat -- the texture of your environment. For instance -- for forty years I always had salt with my soft-boiled eggs, and then I was told no more salt for high blood pressure; and I really developed a taste for soft-boiled eggs without salt. Then for five years, since a Tibetan doctor told me to drink a glass of lemon juice with hot water every morning, I've had that with honey. I had to give up honey a month ago, and I suddenly discovered the lemon juice is sweet in itself! Funny explorations that I've been making -- is death so bad? Is saying goodbye to matzo balls, is that so bad? Or bagels -- or sucking semen directly into my gut --

Today I got up and -- WHAT CAN I EAT? So what I did was I made a giant salad for breakfast. Crunching big juicy lettuce. So. What else we got?

SS: One of the revelations of the annotated "Howl," for me, was the amount of material that was eventually rejected. It is contrary to the public image of you as not revising to realize that "Howl" was the product of a rigorous selection process. Did you use such a process in subsequent compositions, or change habits or strategy?

AG: "Howl" was a special case, of a structure that was so good it needed perfection. It looks like a lot of revision and a lot of revision it is, of little details and some addition and all that -- nonetheless the main structure of "Howl" is right there in the first draft, and the most interesting phrasing. Like, I think "hydrogen jukebox" is there to begin with, and "Moloch whose name is the Mind" -- maybe it came in somewhere early -- "smokestacks and antennae crown the cities."

So, it's just a question of cleaning it up and pushing it into shape. The reason I kept insisting that "Howl" was spontaneous -- though it's not at all -- is that the original impulse of the original writing was a spontaneous momentary burst. And I think that has to be respected. Though I perhaps over-emphasized the nonrevised aspect of it -- lied about it outright and bald-faced to John Ciardi when he called me up in Paterson in 1958 and said did I revise it and I said, "No -- not at all." It certainly was cleaned up a lot.

The most interesting compositional is the four pages of improvisation in the Moloch thing. That's actually pretty good and funny. You know, like jamming-

SS: "Moloch whose cock is the Washington Monument."

AG: Yes. Now, "Moloch whose cock is the Washington Monument" as an image is not so good -- as a sound there's a very good DA dat da Dat da da DA-DA-DA, DA-DA-DA! It's got good syncopation. The reason I kept that through many drafts was it was just -- good sound. And also maybe the possibility of a kind of national image. But it's too garish. It's too obvious a trip. Also, why insult the Washington Monument?

But that section of improvisations really would be good study for a young poet to see how BAD you can get, but how loose you can get, and how GOOD it is to get bad and loose and genius-like. You could get something out of it.

I think I just needed to allow any thought to come through -- any embarassing thing -- and not worry about writing down things that were stupid. Allow that -- because you can never tell what's gonna be stupid later on. I couldn't satisfy Kerouac's very strict freestyle non-revision. And he's given a great example -- of his prose and "Mexico City Blues" -- of doing it.

SS: Not stepping backwards.

AG: Yeah -- not changing anything. The mind got accustomed to his work, right away. It was perfect -- as is. I didn't think mine was perfect as is.

It's a how-to book. How to write "Howl." Or how to go about this style of poetry. I always wanted to explain that, and never had the chance. 'Cause a lot of people are interested in the poem and a lot of people write in that style or learn something from it -- so this is a chance to really, really explain in a way that other people can make use of the methods that I inherited and developed.

SS: That wouldn't necessarily result in a Ginsbergian --

AG: No, it would result in a genre of poetry that's common 20th-century heroic international style from Whitman, Apollinaire, and others. But it would be applied individually. The method is simply liberation of the imagination, and a certain intelligence and choice of what you want to include.

I guess the best lesson is seeing the quality of the things that I included and the vulgarity of the things that I excluded -- 'cause a lot of people write vulgar "Howls." There's not enough refinement. Thinking that the freedom is the whole point and not the refinement part also.

SS: You have said all along that the personal -- if expressed with particularity -- is archetypal. However, in many other poets' work, the personal remains personal and does not become archetypal.

AG: I think you'll find that it isn't personal, it's generic -- that people do generalizations and don't get down to specific observation of detail which would then make it interesting. Anything that somebody really sees, is able to notate precisely, of course it's interesting.

It's when they don't see something, but just make a general curse a la Bukowski, or what they think I'm doing -- you know, "Fled from the demands of the middle class down the alleyways of high-cost supermarkets..." That's not interesting. What are the ways of the middle class you're talking about? Can you particularize and specify what it is you're referring to -- then somebody else can find it. Offer me a glimpse of somebody else's life.

 

Afterword

   Before I left Allen's apartment, I asked him to sign my copy of White Shroud. -- SS

 

Ginsberg's signature and drawing

 

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