1974 – Scottish International Interview

[Allen Ginsberg – Photograph(s) by Ian Dryden]

We’ve previously featured here footage from Allen’s 1973 visit to Scotland     ( a reading for the Center for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow). We also featured some grainy footage (and some transcription from his press conference). Here (with some duplication) is the interview that appeared in Scottish International, September 1973. Allen, as a note in the magazine reveals, had been visiting with Chogyam Trungpa (in exile then in Scotland)  and the Buddhist community at Samye Ling monastery at Eskdalemuir, near Dumfries, as well as giving readings and traveling around.  He had also taken time out to visit Hugh McDiarmid, on the occasion of the poet’s 81st birthday. The questions begin a bit hostile but then mellow out

Interviewer: Do you have any worries about the poems that you are going to read on this tour? That they might be taken by Scottish audiences as obscene?

AG: No, I’ve never really worried about that because I’ve always been right . Whatever I write is poetry so I have no problem if anybody questions it. It has been questioned several times in America, once in Italy, and once in England. I’ve always been borne out by the courts. My poetry is protected as art. And I’m getting now towards my fifties and I know where I am and I know my place. I’m a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. There’s no question any longer If anybody wants to attack my poetry, it’ll be like…spitting into the wind.

Interviewer: What are these new poems like? I mean, do they have plenty of four-letter words?

AG: All my poetry has plenty of four-letter words, and five-letter words, and six-letter words. The word “fuck” is in it. The word “cocksucker” is in it. I’m not sure actually. I haven’t taken a census, If you examine it you might find it to be relatively clean, but I wouldn’t guarantee it. I don’t think I’m making a particular point of that. What I am making a point of is that I had a broken leg earlier this year and I’ve written a number of poems about broken bones. In relation to life and death. In the course of meditating about broken bones I regret that I might not be able to find someone to fuck me in the ass lately – an old cripple wandering around with a cane. But that’s still within the realm of normal thoughts about broken bones, wouldn’t you say? – [Long pause, someone starts to ask another question] – I didn’t mean to be so.. your question in a sense asked for a response of some sort so I just laid it on. The poems are about broken bones more than sex

Interviewer: Did (Jack) Kerouac name “Howl” for you?

AG: It wasn’t quite so formal. I sent him the text and he sent me back a long letter about a lot of other matters. He also said, “I got your Howl today, and it was really beautiful and a nice poem” and he underlined it, sort of shrewdly.

Interviewer: You’ve talked a lot today about meditation. What do you think about the mass groupings around different gurus?

AG: I’ve been working with Chogyam Trungpa. He was the first I was able to get with in a steady meditation form. Swami Satchitananda – has he ever made any inroads here? In the United States he has one of the largest organizations of people training to sit and training others hatha yoga and sitting; so he’s among the best. Maharishi (Mahesh Yogi)  has apparently set a lot of people to musing by themselves for twenty minutes in the morning and evening, so maybe he’s turned on more than anyone. Maharaj Ji has apparently turned on a lot of shakti energy to a lot of people but I don’t know about him. My first reaction to him was negative because it sounded too purple. All the Cadillacs, and jewels through the border. But he seems to have raised a lot of shakti and that’s to the good. He’s got a lot of people interested in devotional practices and sitting, so that’s probably good. And since he doesn’t take a reactionary political stance, it might work out. Certainly it will waken consciousness rather than dull it . I think the more swamis the better. In every direction. High swamis, low swamis, different schools, psychedelic swamis, acid swamis, anti-acid swamis. The more the better.

Interviewer: How do you write. Are you a typer, or a longhand, or a machine man?

AG: (seizing the harmonium and spontaneously singing) – “Well, man, years I used to write in journals and type down from that./ More recently I’ve been learning how to improvise whatever’s under my hat/ First thought is best thought as Chogyam Trungpa says about that/ First thought bst thought so if you can follow your own mind/Whatever you say, chant, or sing will be acceptable as it passes into wine / Lucky if you got a tape-machine so you can find what you thought you’d lost and get it all unwinded/ First thought is best thought so improvisation may follow true/It’s the ancient bardic method . Ya know it’s not at all something that’s new/ As Homer used to improvise with his formulae, so I/ Return back to my own first consciousness before I die./And inspiration comes if you let yourself go and breathe/Thus you can sing from the heart if that’s what you’ve got the need/To do, if you’re a poet who has written down and published too much/First thought is best thought, whether written or improvised as such.”

AG: I find myself more and more involved in Buddhist meditation and application of that meditation to poetics in terms of improvisation. Like older holy writing, Buddhist teaching, like Milarepa, who was a twelfth-century Tibetan poet who improvised and relied on spontaneous mind for the poetics. For a long time I used a tape-recorder, a small Uher, and transcribed from that. Lately I’ve been keeping journal and writing. And more lately, not even writing it down, but just letting it go in the room’

Interviewer: Do you have any feelings about the way things are going to go? I know you’re not a futurologist but do you have feelings at all about the future?

AG: I generally get my opinions from other people. I’ve been going to see (William) Burroughs and listening to what he’s got to say. He says the planet’s finished. The Venus Virus, the virus that came from Venus, that got started about the same time that Elohim created Adam, I take it. Similar to (William) Blake’s vision – being put in a body was a worm-like degredation. That’s Burroughs’ present view. Burroughs thought the way out was to get rid of all the women so they’d be nobody else born. Now he’s extended it to men too. The entire race, He thinks the squeeze is on. And there’s no place to hide. The entire planet is going to be overrun by people. Gnashing and eating each other. Destroying it. And that the crucial moment was the explosion of the Atom Bomb because at that point I think the Venus Virus needed some radiation to mutate in the direction that it wanted. It’s got a mixture of traditional Blakean Gnostic and symbolic science-fiction and post-Scientology conceptions about the fact that the game is up, and he would define it very specifically as the body game. The game of being restricted to a body. So he’s coming round to the Scottish Presbyterian view. That’s what it boils down to. I was asking him what the difference was and he said that the Puritans did not want to examine sex because they wanted to prolong it, that the whole result of church censorship was that they kept it a mystery so that they could keep it going, that once you really began examining sex, it would explode. Dissolve.Fall into the green goo-trap it really was. That if you really wanted to resolve sexual problems, resolve the whole question of evil associated with sex, just take a good look at it. As people are finding in America now [1973] the more porno films, the more nudity, the less interesting. It means that the whole business of Popes and the Catholic Church, and all that – they were trying to keep people running back and forth between guilt and desire for freedom, and guilt and confusion. It was a control mechanism – which everybody knows anyway. But specifically applied it means controlling by keeping this energy still stirred up and unresolved and unknown, unclarified and mystical. That’s Bill (Burroughs)’s view.

Interviewer: To change the subject. Your early poem is much concerned with death.

AG: It still is. My view is different. It’s a less melancholy view of it and it seems more of a yoga now, less of a disaster. It seems a situation to make use of or get on with. “Right on”, in a sense. Not “right on”, but “Come, lovely death and undulate all around the world, serenely arriving, arriving sooner or later in the night, in the day, that each to all delicate death” – Walt Whitman said (that).

Interviewer: Is there life after death?

AG: Again I take my opinions from other people because I don’t remember. The strongest opinion again is (William) Burroughs many years ago, and which he doesn’t agree with now. I said, “Bill, what happens when we die?”, and he said, “Wa, when yer dead, yer dead”. I think his objection to the Atom Bomb was that it was a destroyer of souls because souls couldn’t exist in that high heat. So I’m not so sure about death. I’m following a Buddhist meditation method, and actually the main text that I’m supposed to be studying in relation to the mantra, AH! that I use is The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which definitely describes stages of intermediate existence in between death and rebirth. So I’m in a confusing situation. Studying a subject but having no real information on it.

Interviewer: Do you think there is a nirvana?

AG: I’m not sure I would want that. I’ve taken Buddhist refuges, the bodhisattva vows. And the bodhisattva vow specifically abjures nirvana, because it would be like you were on junk. Who wants to be a nirvana junkie? Who wants to be dependent on nirvana? In other words, you wouldn’t be free if you really needed to get to nirvana. The nirvana understanding is that the situation we are in is infinitely spacious – in the sense that I’m facing a window so I see endless space outside. We’re in an infinite spacious place, and in a sense, in that sense, a completely empty place. In other words we are looking in each others eyes but basically our heads are empty unless we’re trying to send a message, but I wouldn’t do that to you. You don’t do that to me. So just looking in each others eyes is empty.As empty as the sky outside. So the entire situation is empty. Nirvana. Ok? – Also there’s the problem of getting the microphone straight or getting the nirvana straight. Feeding nirvana, feeding all the empty bodies.

Interviewer: You wouldn’t like to have a guess at where you are on the rebirth ladder?

AG: I terms of Buddhist schemes? Ok, I would propose, where I take my opinions from others, from teachers, my heart chakra is relatively open. Or is available for openness. Which is why I rely on chanting and poetry and vocalization – “AH!”, the mantra “AH!”, it is pronounced so that the vibe is there. Without it being a mystical matter, the chakra business, it’s simply the relaxation and freedom and looseness. “AH!”, the emptiness there. No pressure. So that the ladder of say, chakras, my heart chakra is relatively open. At least while I’m practicing art, or in art. Other places I’m completely confused and don’t know what is going on. Except now I’m getting older I have a lot of experience in situations.

Interviewer: Aren’t you practicing your art all the time?

AG: Last month I spent a whole month smoking cigarettes, just out of the old habitual yen. To a point where I couldn’t hardly sing anymore. I couldn’t go “AH!” – I was going AH (– coughs) , you know, with an inch of liquid soup in the lungs.

Interviewer: So do you have vices then?

AG: Yeah, I wank off a lot, smoke, and eat meat

Interviewer: Not very healthy.

AG: I’ve been seeing it for myself in that situation. I find if I really don’t smoke, stay on a good diet, don’t wank off, I get laid more! – I also have a feeling of general lightness of body, lightness of mind, lightness of temperament. I just feel lighter. In London for a couple of weeks I went through this really heavy period of meat and London and smoking. It produced a lot of anxiety I noticed.

Interviewer: If you could do all those things and could still get laid what would you do?

AG: I wouldn’t worry about it so much. No, it’s not just getting laid, it’s the sense of lightness. The lightness of temperament. Sex is a little bit like an itch. When meditating your skin itches like a mosquito . If you scratch it itches more and more. If you don’t scratch it goes within thirty seconds. It’s the same with , I find. My earlier romantic reaction to it got to be so much of a habit. It would be interesting to look at it again inside-out. Without being colored by fear of priests or fear of Freud or fear of anybody, but just actually see what the practical thing is in relation to lightness and temperament.

Interviewer: What are your fears?

AG: Ultimately not too much, At this point there’s nothing much I have to lose.   Pain, I think, more than anything else, is what bothers me now.I’ve had a great deal of that this year because I had a hernia operation in the last twelve months, and then a very bad broken with four months in a cast. So pain was the most difficult situation. Unrelieved physical pain. I’ve had other experiences but it was more than I was ever able to resolve easily. This time I got into it a little more by going into the pain and getting into prayer. In moments of pain.. moving my attention from the pain in the leg to the heart area. Breathing lightly in the heart area and singing to myself .Doing mantra to myself. Finally winding up praying to everything I could figure out to pray to. From human beings to gods, to teachers, to swamis, to yogis, to my own image, to paintings. And the out breathing – “AH! – please take the pain away” – I found it relieving either as an auto-hypnotic thing or as a.. there were very few moments when it felt like it was issuing from my breasts and getting out of the trap. The trap of either the body or the attention paid to specific pain-parts of the body”

[Our thanks for the discovery and provision of this article to Archie Duncan]

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