Allen Ginsberg in Austin – Interview – 1978

Interviewer: So we want to figure out what’s best, you know, what will be most comfortable for you. What I want to do is an oral history of the ‘Sixties and Austin’s an interesting area because there’s a major university with a lot of anti-war… There was a segregtion case, a very famous law case here in 1959. There’s been an awful lot of work with the valley farm workers and Chicanos, plus we”ve got the Rothschilds here [sic], we’ve got all of LBJ‘s legacy. Basically, Austin’s sort of conservative but with the university and the State Capitol here, it’s pretty much a microcosm of the ‘Sixties (almost everything that happened elsewhere, happened here – including some very good writers, very good music (of course, Janis Joplin came from here, Steve Miller Band [editorial note – really?], and things like that. Now, what I want to do for this oral history, we don’t just want to take one half, we want to take it over all levels, and so the chances are when we put this program together…

AG: (And so what’s your name?)

Interviewer: Brian

AG: Brian

Interviewer: Brian Owens – Now if you ever have need for this tape or anything, we’ll keep it in our archives. And, see, if anyone’s spoken to you about this, we’re Austin cable television, and we have a public access channel, much like the one in New York, where we program from seven to ten every night, and where we do, not just alternative television but everything from tenth-grade..I mean eighth-grade.. sixth-graders football to League of Women Voters to.. . In fact,  the greatest program I’d ever like to do.. I’d like to show you singing with a country “n’ western band, that would be a…

AG:  If I get some musicians..

Interviewer; Yeah. Well,we’ll talk about that in a bit.  Okay, the first question I have is – As a writer, as a poet, in the ‘Sixties, you responded differently, from 1960 to 1969. There was a whole evolution as a writer in your poetry, in your response. You started off… we know your late (19)50’s poetry was actually a preface to the whole ‘Sixties. You very early recognized that there was a lot of problems, you know. In your poetry,  you make a political statement…

AG: Oh, it was a very personal statement.

Interviewer: A personal statement, but it was a personal gut-reaction.

AG: Well, yes, but I think that the personal statement made by (Jack) Kerouac) and (William) Burroughs or Gregory Corso or myself in the (19)50’s were different from official political statements and that’s why we were considered somewhat social or political because we were expressing our individual opinions rather than the official opinions.

Interviewer:  But when the…

AG: And I guess that was a message – that there were people who had individual opinions and lived in individual universes, and their experience was different from the mass consciousness of the media.

Interviewer: When the ‘Sixties came, though, and John F Kennedy was elected, did you discern any difference in your own personal reaction to the depraved minds of society that…

AG:  Depraved? [laughs]. My mind was depraved, that was my present reaction – that I  was deoraved, and everybody else was just going round as if they..had just.. swallowed a canary, or something, everybody else was making-believe they weren’t depraved.

Interviewer: And your poetry was a recognition of.. your condition?

AG:  The Eisenhower era was like  an announcement of some kind of wedding-cake reality, that didn’t really exist. That is to say everybody sucked cock, or made love with their eyes open, or smoked grass (or at lesat the people in my world) and had all sorts of odd premonitions about the… (that) the CIA was behind LSD, or.  (That) the CIA was over-throwing Mosaddegh in Iran and putting in some dictator, or the FBI was beating up on blacks and causing problems, persecuting black leaders. So there was a large social paranoia, which at first was considered, on our part, to be nutty, fruit-cake, rather than just sort of a direct perception of what was going on.

Interviewer: Your reaction wasn’t necessarily so political because it wasn’t so conscious that, you know, “this is wrong”, as “we’re going to act..”

AG: Well, I  never..  I still don’t think in terms of  right or wrong, exactly.  I think it was in terms of “What do I.. what do I actually feel?”, and then,” what is it that the government and the media, or the all-right-niks are telling me to feel”, and the big.. [Allen indicates a gap]       (as with the Beat liberation). But, see, I was in India at the beginning  of the (19)60’s, exploring Hindu and Buddhist meditation, and my main interest in the (19)50’s (and (19)40’s –  I mean, my poetry begins in the (19)40’s) – my main interest was in awareness, or enlarging the area of my own awareness. “Widening the area of consciousness”  was the tag that I put on the end of a book, Kaddish, that I published in the early ‘Sixties –  The message is – quote – “widen the area of consciousness”  It’s a little vague! – I would define it now as a… I would give a tool for doing it now  by saying simple, simple, slow-down meditation.

Interviewer; There was a tremendous amount of energy, as I remember, in the beginning of Dharma Bums, and later in Big Sur, about the India-quest, that consciousness, but it was also..

AG:  Really, a back-to-the-land and the rediscovery of America as an actual place, the Indian America… discovering.. (Jack) Kerouac’s phrase, “The earth is an Indian thing”nice phrase “The earth is an Indian thing” – meaning, there were people who lived here before who actually knew the names of the flowers (including the medicinal uses of the flowers), growing by what are now side-roads, and knew what the arrangement of the stars was, in the heavens, and knew which way the wind blew

Interviewer: But you mix this not only with Indian religion, but with Japanese, with the Zen Buddhism..

AG: Yeah, that was.. that was… like, looking around the world to see if other people had the same problems and how other people had explored their own minds, explored their own emotions and looked into themselves to see if there was… the problem was themselves and the world, or the universe, or whether they should get mad at themselves or the universe…

Interviewer: Did you also see…

AG: ….or not get mad at anyone.

Interviewer …when you were…

AG: You know, just trying to dig, what is going on here?

Interviewer: When you were reading.. In fact, when you were sort of…

AG: Then, you see,  as a result, see, if I smoked grass, and I realized grass isn’t so bad for you (not so good, not so bad, it’s nothing special), then, if you have a whole bunch of giant police agency and local cops going around busting people, [like Stoney Burns [sic] around here sometime back (well, that was in Dallas, but) ..] – Well, actually, I lived in Texas, in (1948), actually, in  New Waverly, with William Burroughs and we had a little marijuana plantation, a very small garden . We were looking out from a private world onto a public world that seemed somewhat hallucinated and foolish and bound to crash – the public world bound to crash because it’s built on self-deception and lies and…

Interviewer: How did…

AG: Greed, passion, you know, grabbing, ignorance. In this case, around here, I suppose, a heavy petroleum addiction, which was bound to lead to some kind of bring-down withdrawal symptoms

Interviewer: An awful lot of Burroughs, Kerouac and your poetry’s pretty much characterized by experience, going out, sort of doing (if anybody could “do” poetry, it was “done” poetry)… Kerouac did poetry. So did Burroughs

AG: Spoken poetry, for my case. Kerouac was also a great spoken poet

Interviewer: Spoken, and then it was later chronicled and that became..that would become the work..

AG: Yes

Interviewer: So you had a very different feeling that poetry was poetry. I would characterize (Jack)  Kerouac as more of a poet than a novelist.

AG: Yes, yes. I do. I think he’s a great poet. I learned my poetry from him. The idea was that..everyday speech could be full of great fruits and.. swimming-pools

Interviewer:  That action could be poetry too, though. There was a certain movement, a certain..

AG;  There was a certain action with theatre. In the sense that, we saw ourselves on earth for the one and only time as though, realized that we had no permanent essence or no permanent identity and we were like phantoms, taking care of each others’ ghosts, so that we spoke as ghosts

Interviewer; This was Kerouac’s ghost in On The Road, I guess…

AG:  Yes

Interviewer:  …the person that he was..in fact, throughout his works, there’s always a phantom

AG: Texas ghost actually. The ghost he sees outside of Laredo, or somewhere, and what the ghost had to say – “Wow!” – (I think that was his mantra – “Wow!” – amazement at being alive)

Interviewer; When the “Sixties came on and there was a large generation that sort of ..empathized with what you were doing

AG: That’s a nice word – “empathized”

Interviewer …and then soon glorified it. You, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac reacted in three different ways, if I’m not mistaken. Burroughs reacted to it in some ways the most radically, and he went into a form, (Jack) Kerouac, at some point, reassessed what was going on and was frightened by it, and you sort of got…

AG: Distressed

Interviewer: Distressed?

AG: Distressed by the aggression, by what he felt was maybe the nastiness and aggression that was parading itself as prophecy. So he had a very good.. Kerouac had a very good insight into what the…what my flaws of character were, I think, you know, had a very good criticism, which, you know, struck me in the heart at the time and has been a seed which I’ve nurtured and thought of since – to what extetnt is public behavior – carrying on,.you know, taking on private behavior, carrying it out ino the public.. to what extent is that a play of egotism and aggression and grasping,  or to what extent is that simply trying to rest in a calm center and  speak truthfully. So I’ve had to be mindful of that  (conservatism there). so I’ve had to be mindful not to come into excesses of self-righteousness

Interviewer; Does that mean when you go out to speak to campuses, you try to make it maybe a month or two months together and  so you can get try to get away from it  for four or five months at a time  and not become a public..

AG: No,  I  only (do it)  intermittently. My life is all upside-down  in different ways. But one thing, it’s let me more and more to meditation, and to a practice of meditation – Chogyam Trungpa and Tibetan-style, samatha, just to increase mindfulness, just to carry out in really practical fashion what was originally ambitioned,  which was “widen the area of consciousness”.   Well, if you actually do practice some kind of sitting, Buddhist-style, in this sense, you actually do have time to look around you and smell your own breath, so to speak.

Interviewer: You also, rather than just sitting and meditating, you had a more active…

AG:   Yeah, but when I went out,  I said what I thought I  had in my mind, the first things that came into my head.. I didn’t have a particular program. It was just that I thought it was necessary, (it was necessary for me, obviously, as a poet),  to just to try to be uttterly frank about what was going on in my head. I didn’t have to be right or wrong, just simply represent what I was actually thinking as distinct from what I think I might have thought I should be thinking or somebody might think  I might be thinking. So the question was always to return to ordinary mind, or to represent ordinary mind, or actually speak frankly,, truthfulness of a kind (that’s a little bit boastful )- well at least to attempt to stick to the facts rather than make a theory or make a grand plan, or alibi, or hide. So that led to a lot of frank speech about, say, in my case, homosexual loves, (or drugs, of course, use of drugs and personal reactions to it) much more informing and charming than the official phillippics issuing from the offices of the local narcs who were working with the mafia).

(Then)  there was the War. .I was in India, and I went through Saigon in the early 1960’s, in 1962, and I got a good look and saw David Halberstam, met a lot of the reporters there, and realized that what was being sprayed out in on tv across America was totally different from what those reporters thought right on the  scene. that they knew thatit was a loser – a moral loser and a physical loser all along But my father, who was living in Paterson, New Jersey in 1965. still thought that the Vietnamese wanted us there to protect them from the Communists – which was a big mistake, because they didn’t want us there at all.

Interviewer: When you came to Boston in .19…  I believe it was the Fall of 1967..you were coming basically to.. this is Lyndon Johnson’s backyard.

AG: Yeah. I wrote a long poem saying that I here declare the end of the war, that Lyndon Johndson could escalate it but I hereby declare the end of it, just simply opposing my own imagination against his. Ah,. there’s a funny line by Abbie Hoffman – “We have the right to shout theatre at a crowded fire” – that they had a crowded fire there and they didn’t know it, (the fire of their own egos, probably)  _ Rothschild’s ego, aggression.

Interviewer: I wonder, when you came here (to Austin)  in 1967, you met Roger Shattuck and you talked quite  extensively with Roger Shattuck, and that evening you met a lot of students, not just at the law forum but outside..

AG: Yeah

Interviewer:  ..and there must have been a thousand  students in Austin – (and) around the campus, non-students. As I remember there were torches, people carryng torches and..

AG: I don’t remember that! – I remember giving a long speech on LSD legislation to the law forum and also giving them a history of te malevolence and the illegality of the manipulations of the narcotics bureaus from 1918 on, and pointing out that that the narcotics agencies were themselves corrupt and were just a lobby, basically a lobby for organized crime, in a sense…

Interviewer; Also you gave a long chant  (in fact, gave several chants)

AG:  Yeah   Buddhist  or a Hindu  (It’s really hard to say).  See, I had a very complicated intellectual issue to discuss. Also I was nervous, you know – what am I doing in the middle of all these people? – I’ve got to  open my mouth and yatter? –  and having Kerouac in the back of my mind saying, “What are you trying…  (a) dirty Jew trying to show his teeth in public?” – So I thought first rest my head (rest anybody else’s head) by localizing and particularizing our attention in one spot, maybe breath, or observing the breath, breath for the chanting, lowering the voice to some area  in the center of the body, (rather than screaming hysterically), and trying to, like, create a little space where thought-forms could  be examined.

Interviewer; When you travelled to a place like Austin and you gave a speech, like you are here right now to give a speech…

AG:  To give a poetry-reading

Interviewer: ..to give a poetry reading, I’m sorry…

AG: To get laid, maybe!

Interviewer: … (how) does the character or environment…, can you relate to this place as being Austin, Texas? Can you relate to some place as being Lubbock, Texas?

AG:    Yeah, I have friends here like Doug Sahm and Kinky Friedman and others, and so I’m sort of interested in their kocal scene. I was on the phone to Kinky Friedman’s mother just now!  . I…  First of all, since it’s the capital of Texas and LBJ and John Connally (his ghost is around) , there is..there’s the assembled ghosts of all the petrochemical wizards, and the wheelers and dealers. It’s sort of… that’s very impressive, (in the sense that  there is that ironic realization that this is a doomed civilization, in the sense that when the petroleum runs out, what are they going to do? – they’re going to replace it with some uranium, which is poison). But  that it’s, like, a centralized energy-producing state, you know. It’s like a civilization of energy, all that fossil-fuel, which accumulates for billions of years, which is being spent  [snaps fingers]  in a century, to soup up everybody, like amphetamine. And there is a realization of the amphetamine meth-head nature of all this progress around – the meth-freak meth-head nervous buildimg that’s going on (you know, among the meth-addicts building their buildings, pasting together all their pieces of paper and making their collages at the LBJ Library) – a very slow meth-head thing – at least that’s the vision I get here.

Interviewer: Well, I was curious about the..1968, when you came here, when you had a very similar feeling, because that;s Austin is characterized by. It was, I guess, your first visit to Austin, probably, in the “Sixties, and yet you…

AG: Yes, and what was amazing was, actually, the local culture. I mean, the down- home local culture…

Interviewer; Well that’s what I was going to say, you had an awful lot of response.

AG: Yeah

Interviewer: Now I was curious in terms of what you thought it was going to be like and what happened. Did that ,in any way..  Was that telling as to your status in the ‘Sixties counter-culture, or….?

AG: I wasn’t thinking about that for a minute!

Interviewer: No, no, no, but, I mean  in terms of reacting to you?

AG: It never entered my mind..     What’s the actual… What thought did I have a few seconds ago . I mean, is that something I could say aloud?  (I was) trying to remember myself.

Interviewer: With all the.. when you had to interact with..

AG:   Well, (I’m in the) now..  I’m talking so what am I thinking now?. I’m saying what I’m thinking.  I mean how close am I to an accurate representation of  (what). I’m actually feeling? – . But what I was finding was there were a lot of people that were quite open-minded and were quite close to themselves to what they were actually feeling and had built a local culture with a lot of music and a lot of great, great, you know beginnings, actually, of a somewhat altered awareness, as grew up here, (the Austin Sun, with Jeff Nightbyrd, who was a friend later). I was amazed by the openness of the actual musicians and students.

Interviewer: There’s also an awful lot of ..

AG: The funk, you know..

Interviewer: funk?

AG:  The harsh funk…

Interviewer: People often tend to celebrate Austin too in…

AG:   (Ah, why shouldn’t  people )  celebrate their own homes, home-ground but that was actually the home of the American Indian – “the earth is an Indian thing”.  In other words, this earth actually belongs to us, in the sense that this is the place we know best, and so your own town is your own holy land….

Interviewer: Has that been true in all of the places you’ve gone?. Do you think that there’s..

AG: Austin is  the center of the universe.

Interviewer: No, well…

AG: That’sthe whole point of the interview…..

Interviewer: Well, in terms of the people there in those different cities and towns, and New York City itself?

AG: Everybody  has his own character.

Student: Do they recognize the character around them?

AG: Well, I think that was one of the results of Kerouac’s illumination – that people began seeing through his eyes and recognizingthe nature of the place around them with their own…with their own self-nature – and appreciating it. You know, like, it redeems themselves, and their friends, for their own weird character of being on earth, right now, thinking and talking, making love, and aware of the fact that nobody’s going to be here forever.

Interviewer: It seems essential to Kerouac in his novels that ..this interaction…He gives you so much conversation, so much interaction, and I think one of the chief attractions of Kerouac to young people, and to me and friends, is that interaction, that idea of friendship, or that we’re going to.. that our interaction is somehow much  more interesting and important than.. than…

AG: ..than the stars!

Interviewer: than the stars.

AG: Yes, and to us ,it is – and the stars are only stars. The real stars are…  And their interactions  are mellow and self-recognizeable and show some sign of recognition, of that nature that we all share. which is the awareness of ..the accomodating awareness of self, the accomodating awareness of the peculiarity and charm of our own heroism – or folly – or forgiveness of our own folly.

Interviewer: Well, just centering… I guess, partially, what you’re saying is that centetring on our own experience and our own life-field  and our own…

AG: No,  observing it, at any rate, instead of, you know, trying to escape it, wanting to go to Paris and be a big fairy or somethin’  ( a big fairy in Boston instead!)

Interviewer: His dialogue also shows an awful lot of play..

AG: Yes.

Interviewer: ..between people. And it’s that way in life.

AG: Yes, it is…. I guess that was characteristic of the ‘Sixties – that recognition that gangs of people are like, you know, gangs of people with tremendous amounts of …..

[tape ends in media res –  this is tape one from the Austin History Archive. We hope to feature subsequent tapes on upcoming Allen Ginsberg Project posts]

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