An Interview with Allen Ginsberg
by Steve Silberman
San Francisco, December 16, 1996.
Original intro: This has been a very prolific year for Allen Ginsberg, with the releases of his Selected Poems, Illuminated Poems, and The Ballad of the Skeletons. Allen joined HotWired's Steve Silberman to discuss these works, turning 70 years old, and the Beat-culture revival.
Interviewer's additional note: Following our conversation, I showed Allen the World Wide Web for the first time. I'd been telling him about the self-publishing samizdat aspect of the Web, knowing that he'd made a point of donating his work to small, labor-of-love zines even after he was the best known poet in America. I took Allen immediately to the page on his work at Levi Asher's Literary Kicks site, clicking through Jack Kerouac's and Neal Cassady's names to demonstrate hypertext to him. Allen didn't say much, and then I took him to a search engine, where a search on the phrase "allen ginsberg" called out 2,000 hits -- probably the maximum. He looked at all the pages built in his name. "Thank God I don't know how to work this," Allen sighed. --S.S.
Steve Silberman: Hello. I'm very, very happy to have Allen with us today. It's hard to imagine the last several decades of public life without Allen's work. The publication of "Howl" in the late fifties was a huge gesture towards honesty and openness and sincerity in public discourse, and his poetry has influenced many generations of artists and musicians. Welcome to HotWired, Allen.
Allen Ginsberg: Hi, Steve. As you know, or as you don't know - listeners, lookers - Steve Silberman and I are old friends, going back a decade or longer.
Steve Silberman: I was Allen's student when I was 19, and I'm now 39, so ...
Allen Ginsberg: It was out at Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado - the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. It's still going on. I'll be there this summer.
Steve Silberman: Yeah. A very magical, creative community there. So Allen is in San Francisco, and performed last night at the Live 105 benefit for the Wilderness Society. How was that, Allen?
Allen Ginsberg: Oh, that was a lot of fun. I haven't been in a big pop rock 'n' roll concert here in the United States before, as just another band, so to speak, or another act. I was right in the middle, at a good time, at around 9:08 I went on, so I was right in the middle of the show when everybody was in there, settled, and still not tired, because everybody was waiting for Beck who didn't get on till midnight.
I had a very good band - a pickup band here - Ralph Carney, that I'd worked with before, and one of Beck's guitarists sat in with me, and we had a drummer, and performed a version of "The Ballad of the Skeletons," which is now out on a CD from Mercury. A political poem, with very definite political statements about the far right, and the monotheist theocratic Stalinists. So, it was fun. And there were a lot of young kids there, lined up - there was an autograph thing, where you sit down and give out autographs. Eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-year-olds - it was fun. Some of them knew who I was, some of them just lined up for an autograph of what's supposed to be a star or something.
Steve Silberman: Yeah. It's a great band you have on that recording, Philip Glass, and Paul McCartney, and Mark Ribot, and Lenny Kaye. It's a band that spans a couple of generations of great music.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah. Well, I've worked with Mark Ribot, and in Musician magazine, I think, he's listed as one of the hundred best guitarists world-wide.
Steve Silberman: He's played with Elvis Costello. I think Carney has too, actually.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he's played with Tom Waits. Carney's played with all sorts of people, including me, and Beck, and I've been seeing McCartney on and off over the last few years, looking at his poetry. We were working on haikus. He's interested in that. Linda, his wife, was working with that.
Steve Silberman: Were you at the original recording session for "All You Need Is Love?"
Allen Ginsberg: No. That's the hotel room thing? I forgot.
Steve Silberman: No, I saw footage of the recording session for "All You Need Is Love," and I thought maybe you were there.
Allen Ginsberg: No. I was there for a very, very interesting one with Lennon and the guy from the Stones - Jagger. In the late '60s, "Butterfly Fly Away," at the Abbey Roads studios - sitting in with Miles, who's a friend, and a friend of theirs.
Steve Silberman: And biographer of you, right?
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he's editing my correspondence now. But I hadn't seen too much of McCartney, until he came to New York a couple years ago for Saturday Night Live on his world tour, and he remembered very clearly, because we had spent a few evenings together, and greeted me like a long, lost brother or friend. Invited me down to his place in England, and we got involved. I had written "The Ballad of the Skeletons," and I read it to him, and he had filmed me doing it, his daughter filmed me doing it, on a little 8 millimeter. And I had a concert with Anne Waldman and the British poet Tom Picard, and about 13 other poets, at the Royal Albert Hall a year ago. And I asked McCartney for advice for a young guitarist who's a quick pick-up - a quick study - and he gave me some names. They sounded like older guys, like Jeff Beck. And he said, "But as you're not fixed up with a guitarist, why don't you try me, I love the poem...." and I said, "Sure, it's a date."
So he showed up for the sound check. Actually, we rehearsed one night at his place. He showed up at 5 p.m. for the sound check, and he bought a box for his family. Got all his kids together, four of them, and his wife, and he sat through the whole evening of poetry, and we didn't say who my accompanist was going to be. We introduced him at the end of the evening, and then the roar went up on the floor of the Albert Hall, and we knocked out the song. He said if I ever got around to recording it, let him know. So he volunteered, and we made a basic track, and sent it to him, on 24 tracks, and he added maracas and drums, which it needed. It gave it a skeleton, gave it a shape. And also organ, he was trying to get that effect of Al Kooper on the early Dylan. And guitar, so he put a lot of work in on that. And then we got it back just in time for Philip Glass to fill in his arpeggios on piano.
Steve Silberman: The last arpeggio is amazing.
Allen Ginsberg: So it's a very interesting record. And Mercury put it out with some new verses for "Amazing Grace" that Ed Sanders had ordered up, about the homeless. So we did a clean version, seven minutes. An original version with a few blue words, then a four minute version for radio play, and then three minute "Amazing Grace," and it's out on the CD.
Steve Silberman: And Gus Van Sant directed a video that's getting a lot of play on MTV.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, that was amazing. Van Sant and I had been down to Princeton in a limousine together, and when we got to our hotel he opened up the back of the car, and there was his guitar case, and I said, "Oh, do you play?" and he said, "Yeah, I have a band in Portland." And I said, "Well, I need an accompanist." So we ran through it in his room, and he was a little nervous about it, but pulled it off. He had his lecture on film, and I had a poetry reading, and I introduced him because he was staying over anyway, and he did a good performance. So he knew the thing inside out. Then when the MTV people requested a video, which was rare, Danny Goldberg and Mercury put out a little bit of money. I think 10 grand, which is nothing for videos. I don't know what Michael Jackson pays, or any normal band - US$70,000, 60, 50. So we pulled it in, I think, for 14. And they liked it so much on MTV, they started playing it on the Buzz Clips, and now it's going to be playing at that film festival in Utah....
Steve Silberman: Sundance?
Allen Ginsberg: The Sundance Festival. Yeah, I was invited. Because it's really good. Have you seen it at all?
Steve Silberman: No, I haven't.
Allen Ginsberg: It's a great collage. He went back to old Pathe, Satan skeletons, and mixed them up with Rush Limbaugh, and Dole, and the local politicians, Newt Gingrich, and the President. And mixed those up with the atom bomb, when I talk about the electric chair -"Hey, what's cookin?" - you got Satan setting off an atom bomb, and I'm trembling with a USA hat on, the Uncle Sam hat on. So it's quite a production, it's fun.
Steve Silberman: He's a great director. I remember when I saw his first commercial release, Mala Noche, it was the first film I had ever seen where people smoking joints looked really like just people smoking joints, not like actors smoking fake joints. And that first film, Mala Noche, was a very honest portrayal of a gay relationship without being a sort of gay ghetto stereotype.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, I like what he did with Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy, and he used him later. I went up there once for a reading, and I ran into him, and he showed me the town. He showed me his old sites, where boys hang out and what not, and where he filmed things - the old hotel he used for Drugstore Cowboy. But what knocked me out was River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. I thought that campfire scene between River Phoenix and Keanu Reaves, where the hustler shows his heart, was really amazing.
Steve Silberman: The dialogue in that scene was improvised by River Phoenix. It was not scripted.
Allen Ginsberg: Apparently yes. So everything went very nicely for the record that we were doing, and then Mercury asked me to prepare a whole album next year, so now I got some work ahead.
Steve Silberman: Great. Well, the great thing about that poem - you mentioned that it was a political poem, which of course it is - but it also reminded me of a traditional Buddhist meditation of visualizing yourself as a skeleton....
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah.
Steve Silberman: So it seemed to address the essential nature - shared nature - of humanity, at the same time that it highlighted the vanity of the Christian Coalition.
Allen Ginsberg: Also the vanity of human wishes to begin with. It's an old trick, to dress up archetypal characters as skeletons: the bishop, the Pope, the President, the police chief. There's a Mexican painter - Posada - who does exactly that....
Steve Silberman: Dia de los muertos.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah. Very very funny, when you get the bishop all dressed up - or the cardinal with his hat and staff with a skeleton head - or a skeleton president addressing mobs of skeleton heads....
Steve Silberman: Yeah, there's a whole genre. Like little dioramas of whorehouses where both the whore and the john are skeletons.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, it's an old, old - but it's also from the medieval days, too. I think probably the Spanish - when they came over to Mexico - brought that tradition with them, so it was an easy, easy ... maybe I should read that poem, I don't know.
Steve Silberman: Go for it.
Allen Ginsberg: Maybe it's just as well read as it is sung, and it has an interesting ending, too. It's called the "Ballad of the Skeletons."
Said the Presidential Skeleton
I won't sign the bill
Said the Speaker skeleton
Yes you will
Said the Representative Skeleton
Said the Supreme Court skeleton
Said the Miltary skeleton
Buy Star Bombs
Said the Upperclass Skeleton
Starve unmarried moms
Said the Yahoo Skeleton
Stop dirty art
Said the Right Wing skeleton
Forget about yr heart
Said the Gnostic Skeleton
The Human Form's divine
Said the Moral Majority skeleton
No it's not it's mine
Said the Buddha Skeleton
Compassion is wealth
Said the Corporate skeleton
It's bad for your health
Said the Old Christ skeleton
Care for the Poor
Said the Son of God skeleton
AIDS needs cure
Said the Homophobe skeleton
Gay folk suck
Said the Heritage Policy skeleton
Blacks're outa luck
Said the Macho skeleton
Women in their place
Said the Fundamentalist skeleton
Increase human race
Said the Right-to-Life skeleton
Foetus has a soul
Said Pro Choice skeleton
Shove it up your hole
Said the Downsized skeleton
Robots got my job
Said the Tough-on-Crime skeleton
Tear gas the mob
Said the Governor skeleton
Cut school lunch
Said the Mayor skeleton
Eat the budget crunch
Said the Neo Conservative skeleton
Homeless off the street!
Said the Free Market skeleton
Use 'em up for meat
Said the Think Tank skeleton
Free Market's the way
Said the Saving & Loan skeleton
Make the State pay
Said the Chrysler skeleton
Pay for you & me
Said the Nuke Power skeleton
& me & me & me
Said the Ecologic skeleton
Keep Skies blue
Said the Multinational skeleton
What's it worth to you?
Said the NAFTA skeleton
Get rich, Free Trade,
Said the Maquiladora skeleton
Sweat shops, low paid
Said the rich GATT skeleton
One world, high tech
Said the Underclass skeleton
Get it in the neck
Said the World Bank skeleton
Cut down your trees
Said the I.M.F. skeleton
Buy American cheese
Said the Underdeveloped skeleton
We want rice
Said Developed Nations' skeleton
Sell your bones for dice
Said the Ayatollah skeleton
Die writer die
Said Joe Stalin's skeleton
That's no lie
Said the Middle Kingdom skeleton
We swallowed Tibet
Said the Dalai Lama skeleton
Indigestion's whatcha get
Said the World Chorus skeleton
That's their fate
Said the U.S.A. skeleton
Gotta save Kuwait
Said the Petrochemical skeleton
Roar Bombers roar!
Said the Psychedelic skeleton
Smoke a dinosaur
Said Nancy's skeleton
Just say No
Said the Rasta skeleton
Blow Nancy Blow
Said Demagogue skeleton
Don't smoke Pot
Said Alcoholic skeleton
Let your liver rot
Said the Junkie skeleton
Can't we get a fix?
Said the Big Brother skeleton
Jail the dirty pricks
Said the Mirror skeleton
Hey good looking
Said the Electric Chair skeleton
Hey what's cooking?
Said the Talkshow skeleton
Fuck you in the face
Said the Family Values skeleton
My family values mace
Said the NY Times skeleton
That's not fit to print
Said the CIA skeleton
Cantcha take a hint?
Said the Network skeleton
Believe my lies
Said the Advertising skeleton
Don't get wise!
Said the Media skeleton
Believe you me
Said the Couch-potato skeleton
What me worry?
Said the TV skeleton
Eat sound bites
Said the Newscast skeleton
That's all Goodnight
Steve Silberman: Thank you, Allen.
Allen Ginsberg: The interesting line there, just in my mind right at the moment, is "Said the CIA skeleton/Cantcha take a hint?" referring back to the San Jose Mercury News revelations about CIA involvement with cocaine traffic, with the Contras selling coke in LA, and the sort of general denial you get in The Washington Post and The New York Times, trying to shift the analysis from what's going on, what went on, with the Contras and the CIA, to what goes on with the San Jose Mercury News and the reporters! Sort of like "Cantcha take a hint?" "You don't have to prove it, you don't have to make such a big deal about it," you know, "Why are you making such a big deal about this when you can't prove it was a CIA decision at the top." Although you can, really.
Steve Silberman: You were chronicling CIA involvement in hard-drug trafficking in the Vietnam era....
Allen Ginsberg: Since the '70s. Actually I wrote "CIA Dope Calypso" back in 1990, or "NSA Dope Calypso," back in 1990, which covered this story which is now current in the newspapers, but adds some stuff that you didn't find in the Times, and in Walter Pinkus' very restrained, "Cantcha take a hint?"-type of reporting in The Washington Post. So this is from January to February 1990. The information is from a very famous investigation by Senator Kerrey [and the] Subcommittee on Narcotics or International Trade, who nailed the CIA. Because nowadays they say, "Oh, but it was just stringers, you can't prove that the CIA had a deliberate policy." Oh, but you can prove. So this is the story:
Now Richard Secord and Oliver North
Hated Sandinistas whatever they were worth
They peddled for the Contras to ease their pain
They couln't sell Congress so the Contras sold cocaine
The discovered Noriega only yesterday
Nancy Reagan & the CIA
Now coke and grass were exchanged for guns
On a border airfield that John Hull runs
Or used to run till his Costa Rican bust
As a CIA spy trading Contra coke dust
They discovered Noriega only yesterday
Nancy Reagan & the CIA
Ramin Milina Rodriguez of Medellin Cartel
Laundered their dollars & he did it very well
Hundreds of millions through U.S. banks
Till he got busted and sang in the tank
It was buried in the papers only yesterday
When Bush was Drug Czar U.S.A
Milian told Congress $3,000,000 coke bucks
Went to Felix Rodriguez, CIA muck-a-muck
To give to the Contras only Hush Hush Hush
Except for Donald Gregg & his boss George Bush
Buried in the papers only yesterday
With Bush Vice President U.S.A.
Rodriguez met Bush in his office many times
They didn't talk business, they drank lemon & limes
Or maybe they drank coffee or they smoked a cigarette
But cocaine traffic they remembered to forget
Buried in the papers only yesterday
And Bush got in the White House of the U.S.A.
Now when Bush was director of the CIA
Panama traffic in coke was gay
You never used to hear George Bush holler
When Noriega laundered lots of cocaine dollar
Bush paid Noriega, used to work together
They sat on a couch & talked about the weather
Then Noriega doublecrossed his Company pal
With a treaty taking back our Panama Canal
So when he got into the big White House
Bush said Noriega was a cocaine louse
The Cold War ended, East Europe found hope,
The U.S. got hooked in a war on dope
Glasnost came, East Europe got free
So Bush sent his army to Panama City
Bush's guns in Panama did their worst
Like coke fiends fighting on St. Marks & First
Does Noriega know Bush's Company crimes?
In 2000 A.D. read the New York Times.
Allen Ginsberg: And that's actually the prediction of what The New York Times' reaction is going to be when the news comes out in 2000 AD - three or four years.
Steve Silberman: And read it on the Web earlier than that.
Allen Ginsberg: Back in '71 I worked on a book called The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia - Harper & Row - by Al McCoy, which we conceived together actually, on May Day, 1970, at Yale, when Jean Genet was there. I went to Washington and did a lot of research at the Institute for Policy Studies, and talked to a lot of ex-CIA agents and actually got to challenge, Richard - what's the guy's name who was the head of the CIA then? The 1970 head of the CIA - actually got caught lying and threatened Ted Koppel, yelled at, cursed out Ted Koppel ... Kappel?
Steve Silberman: Koppel.
Allen Ginsberg: So I debriefed the head of the CIA, and made a bet with him, that if I was right - that the C.l.A. was dealing with dope - he'd lose the bet, and he'd have to sit and meditate an hour a day for the rest of his life. And if I was wrong, I'd give him my vajra, my diamond seal - a Tibetan ritual object. And he got to be in the newspapers, Flora Lewis's columns in Newsday, and Jack Anderson's columns - the political columnist that was syndicated. He had to go in front of the American society newspaper headlines and deny it all, and say that they had a clean bill of health from the Treasury Department Narcotics Bureau, which is what the CIA is claiming again!
But I had lunch with a guy named Walter Pinkus, and an old college roommate, Joseph Kraft, who was one of those pundits that wrote columns. Pinkus is the one who wrote the story - the denying story - the elder sort of CIA specialist for The Washington Post. I gave them all the information I had, thinking that this was quite scandalous, that the CIA was involved with dope trafficking from the Tan Son Nhut Airport and the Plain of Jars, and that various - Madame Nhu, and later, Marshall Ky, were involved. And he said, "Well, why are you worried about that? There isn't a matter of killing there? You're just worried about the drugs?" A very cynical attitude. And I said, "Well, I think if people knew what was going on, they would suspect the war even more." And he never did anything about it except make cynical remarks to me. He was the one that was assigned to negate the San Jose Mercury News. I wrote him about it the other day and asked him if he included the Kerrey Subcommittee information that I got to make this little "NSA Dope Calypso," and have not gotten an answer yet.
The Times - I brought the same story to them, '71, about heroin, and they were very lackadaisical. I had lunch with a guy named C. L. Salzburger, who was their foreign correspondent, of the Salzburger family who owned them, and he said that he thought I was full of beans. Then he retired in '78, or so, a few years later, and he sent me a strange letter, saying, "In going over my dispatches, I find that the information you gave me was accurate and real. I thought you were full of beans but I now apologize, and it was really true the story you had about CIA connections and opium trafficking." But the Times never did run a big story about it until, in an editorial about a year and a half ago, they mentioned that the CIA had been nailed for dope trafficking in Indochina, but they've never had a story. It was a casual reference, maybe 25 years later. So I said "In the year 2000 AD read The New York Times," and get the story updated.
Steve Silberman: Now even commentators like William Buckley talk about the legalization of drugs, which you proposed early on. California just passed a medical marijuana initiative so that people with AIDS and glaucoma can smoke marijuana. What do you think is driving the intense response against the use of marijuana, which even Clinton all but admitted to? I remember when I was a kid, I would hear people say, "Well you know, in 20 years, all these lawyers who are in law school now, turning on, will be judges and so marijuana will be legal."
Allen Ginsberg: Well, that's slowly happening, apparently. So, who's against it? Well, there is a vested interest in there being a drug problem. First in the drug bureaucracy. From the street level narc to the highest reaches of government, the C.I.A and even Donald Gregg, who was Vice-President Bush's foreign security advisor, and later, our ambassador to South Korea under Bush. There was corruption, and there has been continually all along from the top level, up to this new CIA-Contra business but back, all the way back, way back before that, it goes back to the '40s, during the war, when the OSS asked Thomas Dewey to let Lucky Luciano out of jail in New York to take over the Mafia in Sicily, in order to fight the partisan Communists in Italy who beat out Hitler and the Fascists. They didn't want the Commies to have an infrastructure in Sicily, so they'd rather have the Mafia. From then on, Luciano was the lord of the drug trade, from Corsicans - the Union Corse - in Indochina, through Marseilles, at a time when 80 percent of the world's illegal opium was coming from Indochina. Although the official story in America was that it was all coming from Turkey, but they only had one Treasury Department narc in Indochina, and about 20 or 30 in Turkey. The World Health Organization reported in 1971 that it was all coming from Indochina.
So, a kind of strange thing going on within the government, down to, as you know, the street narcs who are on the take for their own reasons, corruption. We get that in New York, scandals like that every 20 years. Last one was in '71 when they had the Knapp Commission Report, saying that most of the corruption was endemic in the Narcotics Bureau in New York City, the largest in the world, especially in the Special Intelligence Unit, three heads of which were appointed by the Mafia. So you have at this point a $15 billion budget bureaucracy addicted to having an addiction problem. Simple as that. If the addiction problem was wiped out one way or another, then they all lose their jobs, and like everybody else have to go to work. No side money. There are the tobacco companies that don't want any kind of competition, and the indication of that - rather general theory - was that when there was a unified, single treaty around the world not to legalize marijuana, the head of the UN single Narcotics Committee was the head of the international tobacco trading board, a guy named Goldsmith or something like that. Of course they would have their motives also.
My suggestion, rather than have all this critique, is that marijuana be legalized for a family farm unadvertiseable cash crop, to rehabitate the countryside. I remember when I was living up in Nevada City, there were lots of very intelligent, Harvard-trained people who wanted to rusticate, get back to the country, who were able to support their local activities, school boards, with small cash crops of marijuana. Then, the state helicopters came in, because the local sheriffs didn't care, knew it was all right - so it's a Big Brother thing too.
Steve Silberman: Totally. There was a raid of many gardening supply shops called "Operation Green Merchant," where they took everyone's credit card numbers and names, and raided their households.
Allen Ginsberg: Burroughs says the whole drug thing is an excuse for surveillance, international surveillance. So I think marijuana's a simple matter. Then LSD I would give back to psychiatrists, and take it away from the Army, which has power over LSD at the moment. You can only do experiments in hospitals under Army auspices. Junk I would send back to the doctors, as an illness rather than a crime. Like I have to shoot insulin every day. If somebody took away the insulin, I'd be in convulsions. Junkies can be cured, and if they can't be cured, you can't punish them, you can't torture them - yet that's what's going on.
I think that once you took the cash nexus out of the whole junk problem syndrome, the black market would collapse, the Mafia involvement would collapse, and you'd get it back to a minor medical problem, which, as Burroughs says, was what it was before World War I. So that leaves what? Cocaine. Certainly get the government out of the cocaine business to begin with. Get the drug companies out of the amphetamine business, 'cause they've been dumping amphetamines in Mexico for re-import into the United States. So there would be ways of ameliorating the problem that are sensible, that the neoconservative Big Brother off our back people would agree would be better - that Chicago economist, big Nobel prize winner - the one who advised Chile - I forgot his name. Buckley, Bush ...
Steve Silberman: A lot of the conservatives, actually.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, the libertarian conservatives. That's the libertarian understanding. Then there's the right wing Stalinoid conservatives who really want to impose a police state, basically. A monotheistic police state, with just one thought. That edges over to the monotheist Bible-thumping, right-wing-fundamentalist politician fund-raisers, and their various politics, which are quite ratty, when you're lookin' at 'em. You know the history of the massacres in Guatemala? Our CIA-subsidized colonels and military - trained in the US - were responsible for the murder of maybe 200,000 Guatemalan Indians, especially under the reign of a guy named Rios Mont, back in the '80s. And Rios Mont's guru was none other than Pat Robertson. So that Bible-thumper's got a lot of mass murder on his conscience, actually.
And Jesse Helms was always trying to justify Daubisson, the head of the hit squads in Salvador, and bring him to a kind of polite position in Washington, and whoever it was in the CIA or the State Department was trying to rehabilitate Colonel Francois, and get the new presidents of Haiti to employ him, when, in a story in The New York Times in the same day, you read that he had shipped tons of cocaine to America. A Colonel Francois who we're sheltering at this point. And there was a new scandal of the CIA anti-drug military head of Venezuela, who was actually shipping tons of cocaine to America. And you have all this Contra cocaine mess, so it's an old story. If the government would actually get out of it - get out of it in every way - the pushing, stealing, robbing, and sucking off the budget - we might have a chance of calming the city streets, and also emptying out the prisons, and ameliorating all the racist application of the drug laws. So it's a big, big problem. And you might think, "It's just a minor thing the hippies are interested in," but remember - crime in the streets, safety in the streets, drug problems - every time there's an election, that's the second biggest consideration, demagogic talking-point, particularly with the right wing. So it's not just a Ginsberg preoccupation - which it is, definitely, but it's a national issue that people keep jawboning whenever it gets to be time to become demagogues to get votes.
Steve Silberman: One thing that I appreciate in some poems in your last two books is - there's a passage in Kerouac, where he talks about how something that's changed in the behavior of people on the street is that they don't look in each other's eyes anymore, because they're afraid they'll be thought queer...
Allen Ginsberg: Or dope fiends, or muggers.
Steve Silberman: Right. In poems like "The Charnel Ground," and another poem called "May Day," you talk about the particulars of behavior in your neighborhood, being a good citizen of your block. How did "The Charnel Ground" get written?
Allen Ginsberg: I read a little thing about - my ex-, or my late guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who founded Naropa Institute, that we mentioned before, and he said that the world is a charnel ground. Things die, and out of it flowers grow, animals feed, worms feed, new things arise, old things fall. It's an impermanent condition, like in a charnel ground - and that we should look on it, but not be afraid of it, appreciate the place where we are with all the facts. And I thought, well that's kinda interesting, I never have really written about my neighborhood. You know, what I do when I go out, take a right hand turn out of my front door and walk to First Avenue in New York, what do I see? What's going on with the bus system - tearing up the roadway to put in new pipes - there's a guy that I saw over and over again, with a reddened face, in and out of mental hospitals Peter Orlovsky told me, lived with his mother, he's out there shaking coins in a tin cup to get more money for wine, by a church door, every other day I'd see him there. So, all the icons. There was a dry cleaner's, with the door open, and there'd be a couple of old Puerto Rican winos lying there with the fumes of the dry cleaning place coming out. They were there pretty regularly, looking sick. They'd probably go home sometimes at night. So what were the specifics of my own neighborhood - seeing it as a charnel ground, both good and bad. It's interesting.
I realized it was the basis of an epic poem. I could go throughout New York City, all over, with memories that go back to 1944. But I just kept it to my block - lost the energy after that. Might go back to it. That was in a book called Cosmopolitan Greetings, from Harper and Row, and it's reprinted in this new book, Selected Poems. I was reading "The Ballad of the Skeletons" from Selected Poems. And the "NSA Dope Calypso" from Cosmopolitan Greetings, which covers 1986 to 1992.
Steve Silberman: Going over 50 years of your work to create Selected Poems, were there any surprises that you didn't notice before about the development of your work?
Allen Ginsberg: No, but what I tried to do - there were a couple of big long poems, like a big load, that were too long to include - but I liked a lot of them, so I cut them down to the purple passages.
Steve Silberman: Like "Contest of Bards?" I noticed that poem had some passages that were cut out. I think it's a great poem.
Allen Ginsberg: It has some really pretty passages, and sort of baroque Shakesperian elegancies - well, I just wanted to include some of it, rather than - I think it's 1978. Maybe I can read a passage or two - not the whole thing.
Steve Silberman: You had just written that poem when I was your student in '78.
Allen Ginsberg: I think I performed it - it's a traditional contest of bards, the old bard, and the young poet who's come to displace him and push him off the cliff.
The boy looked in his elder's eyes, which gazed in his while bare branches on the hillside stood trembling in the sky
blue dawn light. Honeybees woke under heaven inland and sought the lilac, Honeysuckle, rose,
Pale dew dript from day-lily leaf to leaf, green lamps went out on windows on Minneapolis avenues,
Lovers rose to work in subways, buses ground down empty streets in early light, the country
robin lit from the maple leaf whistling, cat scratched on the farmhouse door
bulls groaned in barns, the aluminum pail clanked on cement by wooden stools in steaming flop
& stainless steel mouths sucked milk from millions of cows into shining vats,
Black nannygoats whinnied nubian complaints to the stinking spotted dog
whose clump'd hair hung from his body tangled with thistle, Church organs sang,
Radios Chattered the nasal weather from barn to barn, the last snow patch slipped from the tar paper roof of the tractor lean-to,
Ice melted it in the willow bog, stars vanished from the sky over gravestones stained with water melt,
The White House shined near pillared courts on electric-lit avenues wide roaring with cars...
This is one of the purple passages, so to speak. You go off into cadenza after cadenza of imaginative recollection of detail.
Steve Silberman: It reminded me of that passage of Visions of Cody where Kerouac is talking about the reflection in the fender, where he exfoliates detail after detail until he has a panoramic awareness of ...
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, that was a big imprint on Robert Duncan. He had read the original manuscript that I brought from New York of Visions of Cody and lent to Kenneth Rexroth here in San Francisco, and he couldn't get over the fact that Kerouac could go on for pages and pages on the reflection of what was in the fender of a car.
Steve Silberman: The more that I live with Kerouac's work, I see the huge influence he had on your poems actually.
Allen Ginsberg: Oh, very much. I'm his student. The interesting thing is, I'm an imitator of Kerouac, really, turned on by him, as many are, like Dylan said Kerouac was his inspiration to be a poet, and I think you mentioned before in your conversations with Beck, Beck was very much taken with Kerouac's writing. He got Burroughs writing. That's a gigantic influence, as well as Dylan's influence on poetry. And yet although all those poets - including Creeley and Michael McClure, and other poets who have been slightly influenced or larger influenced, turned on - all those poets are in the standard academic anthologies, and Kerouac is nowhere to be found. 'Cause they haven't got it yet.
I just finished recording and they just put out the entire Mexico City Blues, 242 poems from Shambhala Press, I guess, in Boston, Shambhala audio. So that's, for the first time, available, complete in audio version - two cassettes. Just came in about a month ago.
Steve Silberman: Yeah, and that poem was very much influenced by Charlie Parker who you knew, or saw.
Allen Ginsberg: I saw him a number of times, yeah. In those days - meaning the early '50s and early '60s - the musicians, though they were barred from playing in the clubs under the cabaret licensing laws, which were quite fascist. Anybody who had been busted couldn't play in a cabaret, and if you couldn't play in a cabaret, you couldn't make money in New York, simple as that. So they had to play wherever they could - in lofts, in scenes. There was a place on Sunday, the Open Door, some impresario - no alcohol. You'd contribute what you could, and Charlie Parker played. I used to go Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Then in the early '60s, Thelonious Monk spent maybe half a year at the Five Spot. I used to go as often as I could. He'd play four or five nights a week and I'd go.
Steve Silberman: I think that was after he wasn't allowed to play because of the cabaret card problem and then once he got back in, he played a lot.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he was great. Then I saw Lester Young play at the Five Spot. I remember, I went in to say hello to him in the kitchen, and I got down on my knees, and recited the really musical language of Hart Crane's "Atlantis," the last poem of The Bridge, his epic. And Lester said, "What was that guy on?" And I asked him what he'd do if an atom bomb blew up and he said, "Well, I'd rush uptown to Fifth Avenue, to Cartier's, and I'd smash into a window and I'd grab all the jewels I could and run away."
Steve Silberman: Allen, I want to ask you, I have some questions from the Net.
Allen Ginsberg: Oh great. There's somebody out there - good for you.
Steve Silberman: "Mr, Ginsberg, what projects are you working on these days?"
Allen Ginsberg: Mercury asked me to do a big album for next year, which might be a double album. Two projects musically. One is a complete recording of all of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I have about 30 of them in the can now, ready, and 15 to go to complete it, or 14 more. And, also, several evenings of music at St. Marks Church with 20-30 musicians, including Lee Renaldo, a drummer from Sonic Youth, and Lenny Kaye, and Mark Baron who plays digeridoo and horn, and Lenny Pickett, and a lot of great musicians, Steven Taylor, Ed Sanders.
On two occasions, Hal Wilner has organized these big musical fiestas with "Witchita Vortex Sutra" as the center of one, a 45-minute musical thing. And then when the "Ballad of the Skeletons" came out, and my Selected Poems, we had another big evening, similar personnel. So those only need a couple of days in the studio to fix up and put out. So those two projects, and the possibility of doing an album of all my songs to come out fragmentarily. I have, on my desk, completed selected literary essays - a gigantic manuscript covering 40 years, at least from '59 to '96, huge document. Cause I've written a lot of prefaces, critiques, reviews, expostulations, blurbs, anything.
Steve Silberman: There are great essays in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, some of the essays are there. There are also essays on politics, essays on drugs, essays on literature, essays on Buddhism, a lot of essays on Kerouac, lil' prefaces to Burroughs. So that's waiting for me to finish reviewing. It's all edited. And simultaneously, I have also edited and on my desk a quite large book of selected interviews over a long period of time. Interviews with Burroughs to Beck. It's all edited, but I have to go over it, read it. Miles, who I mentioned before, in London, is working on my selected letters. So for written projects, that's that. And also I have a huge mass of poetry I've accumulated since Selected Poems, but I think I'll wait on that and have a big, thick book of poems when I'm finished with the other three projects and the two recording projects.
Also, I've been working on a lot of photography. So I have a book of photographs that I think Bulfinch or Aperture has requested for several years. This time I'll take my own time, and arrange it myself, consulting Robert Frank, who's my mentor there. And a series of lithographs I did at the Gemini GEL - a great, very elegant printing establishment in Los Angeles. I was there in residence for about a month and a half this year, and produced six images which they'll make into a portfolio. One of them was an illustrated "Ballad of the Skeletons," which they made a special edition of 100. They cost $1,500 each, on this really good paper, with a signed edition and what not. So those are out, and there are five other images. Some collaboration with George Condo, the painter. He did the cover of the selected poems, and he's a pal, and also helped Hiri Yamagata, a Japanese guy whose skeleton skull, Japanese style, is on the center of the "Ballad of the Skeletons" record. So I've had a lot of good luck, and a lot of work - exhausting, actually. Then recently this work with Eric Drooker came out this year, I think it was.
Steve Silberman: Illuminated Poems.
Allen Ginsberg: Illuminated Poems. A comic - not a comic book exactly - but some of them are arranged as comic strips. Many of them were covers in The New Yorker, or illustrations of poems that were in The Nation, or things that he cooked up as posters for the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York, my neighborhood club.
So there's a great deal of material around, Collected Poems, Selected Poems, Cosmopolitan Greetings, "Ballad of the Skeletons," a four-CD box set - Holy Soul Jelly Roll 1949-1993 - poems and songs from Rhino. There's a new "Howl" this year, with the Kronos Quartet, a really great reading, a new reading, done this last year. All the experience that I've had reading that particular poem was just put into one sort of perfect, triumphant chant, with classical music performed by the Kronos Quartet. There's also an opera, Hydrogen Jukebox, that came out last year or the year before, with Phillip Glass. We just cooked up some new work. I was thinking of doing "White Shroud," a poem, with David Mansfield, who wanted to do some work together.
Steve Silberman: Who's David Mansfield?
Allen Ginsberg: He is on this "Skeletons" record. He was one of the touring steady musicians 20 years ago for the Rolling Thunder. He and I have got together since and have played on stages and he's recorded for me. I like him a lot. He's a really good all around vibraphone, guitar, fiddle, dobro, pedal steel. He knows everything. He can play almost anything - the mandolin - exquisite. He was part of these two big nights at St. Marks that we recorded for Hal Wilner.
Then also, I'd like to do Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," and his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and Hart Crane's "Atlantis" - which I'd read to Lester Young, I mentioned - with Phillip Glass. Be the vocalist. Because they are great poems, and they're great vocalizations. And it's the kind of an ecstatic thing that gets Phillip going. And me too. So those are what I've got in mind right now.
Steve Silberman: Speaking of getting you going, I wanted to ask you - I know you have a lot of health problems and congestive heart failure -
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, right now. That's why I'm coughing.
Steve Silberman: Right. What brings you joy right now?
Allen Ginsberg: Making love to younger fellows, and I seem to be able to still - I can't get it up so easily - but certainly heart to heart naked is great. And I seem to have some sort of good karma that way.
Steve Silberman: Well, you're famous. But you're also sweet.
Allen Ginsberg: I'm told that I'm good in bed - a good lover. Also, writing poems, finishing poems and seeing it come to conclusion. Working on new songs. I have a new song, "Gone, Gone, Gone," and I got up in the middle of the night and recorded it. You know, just vocal. And I've got to go back and transcribe now. "Grey hair's all gone, everywhere's all gone." It's like old blues. That gives pleasure.
Finishing an artwork, seeing a new photograph that I've done, well printed. I still have about eight years of contact prints to scour through and refine. I've just skimmed the surface, but I have lots and lots of photos for this next book. I need a couple months of just looking at photos. Those are always a pleasure. That's a lot of fun - it's easy. Just look at something pretty, and decide what's clear, and ask my print maker if that really is clear and sharp enough to print up, 11 by 14 or even 16 by 20. I have a great printmaker. Though photography is a financially losing proposition. It's an expensive hobby, but I love it, as a distraction from other things.
Finishing a new drawing. I have a lot of pleasures. Some physical - I like to cook. Some artistic. Some spiritual. Seeing my present lama advisor who'll be here in San Francisco this Thursday night actually, lecturing - Gelek Rinpoche, who has a center in Ann Arbor. He does some advising for me, meditation advice, and for Phil Glass. Twice a year, Phil and I go off on a retreat with him and another 150 people. Phil and I are roommates, so we cook up more mischief. Last time I think we cooked up music for "The Weight of the World is Love," and for "The Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa," as a pair of things, pretty good.
But I want to get onto that Shelley, because it would be kind of interesting. "Ode to the West Wind." If you folks out there haven't had it in grammar school or high school, try it out. The key thing is to read it aloud, paying attention to the punctuation for your breathing instructions. Every bit of punctuation means a breath, whether it's a parenthesis, a comma, or a period. And you'll find it's easy to do. It's not like you, "Oh, take me away." It's "Oh, take me away." That's not the actual text. But you notice that you have an "Oh," which is a big "Oh, take me away," and you have a breath in between, so you're not losing your breath. Shelley was really sharp on that, measuring the breath itself. Which is what poetry does. Read it aloud, you get a buzz. What do you call it? Hyperventilating? It's amazing. If you do it as a mass thing in a classroom, everybody winds up dazzled and high.
Steve Silberman: That's great. In the Cantos, Pound said, "What thou lov'st well remains, the rest is dross." What has remained for you, now at age 70?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, a big pile of books, a big pile of records, a big pile of photographs, a big pile of drawings, a big pile of memories, of friends, imprints of their spirit on my own, imprints of their breathing and of their minds, like Kerouac. You know, you get an imprint from your family You know what I mean by imprint? You're conditioned by growing up with them, and looking through their eyes at yourself, and at other things. So I had the advantage, from the age of 16, of looking at myself through Burroughs' eyes, and Kerouac's, and soon after Gregory Corso, and soon after Peter Orlovsky, and soon after Gary Snyder, and Phillip Whalen - now a roshi here, a Zen master in San Francisco, at the Hartford Street Zen Center.
So I had the real intellectual and emotional pleasure of having an intimate life with a lot of great artists - and still do - like Phillip Glass or Francesco Clemente, the painter, or Robert Frank, the photographer. I even wound up on stage withYehudi Menuhin the other day. Phillip had assigned me to read the "Sunflower Sutra" to music, to be conducted by Menuhin, and a string orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. It blew my mind, because I had remembered him as an unapproachable titan when I was young. Turned out to be a nice old Jewish guy, very sensitive and very elegant-handed, you know - his gestures. Very sharp and exquisitely gentle. And his manners were very beautiful. He's 80, and he's lost a lot of his hearing, and doesn't play anymore, but he conducted quite a bit.
I had a lot of good encounters with people like Tristan Tzara the Dadaist, Man Ray in Paris, Marcel Duchamp in Paris, Jean Genêt in America. Here in San Francisco, we went to Wooey Gooey Louie's restaurant, and in Chicago, I took him to the Chicago bus terminal to see where all the boys hung out, all the hustlers. And Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the great French novelist, went to visit with Burroughs in 1961 or '60. So, I've had a very good life, especially great luck with teachers - particularly Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and now Gelek Rinpoche. Both have great hearts. So there's a basic security to all that.
Steve Silberman: Allen, I'd like to give you a chance to rest in between this and your next obligation. Do you have a short poem you'd like to read to close?
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, my next obligation, in case anybody's alive and livin', is a booksigning up at the Booksmith.
Steve Silberman: The Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, I do have one short, short poem. A kind of interesting one, but I've got to find it. Here it is, called "Autumn Leaves." This is four years ago.
At 66, just learning how to take care of my body
Wake cheerful 8 a.m. & write in a notebook
rising from my bed side naked leaving a naked boy asleep by the wall
mix miso mushroom leeks & winter squash breakfast,
Check bloodsugar, clean teeth exactly, brush, toothpick, floss, mouthwash
oil my feet, put on white shirt white pants white sox
sit solitary by the sink
a moment before brushing my hair, happy not yet
to be a corpse.
Steve Silberman: Thank you very much Allen, and thank you all for listening. It's been our pleasure to have poet Allen Ginsberg on the HotWired network today. Be well. Thanks.
Allen Ginsberg: Ah.
Allen Ginsberg sees the World Wide Web for the first time, December 16, 1996.
This interview was reprinted in Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996, edited by David Carter.
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