Tom Vitale Interview – (ASV #18)

[Allen Ginsberg]
ASV – Annotated Streaming Videos – additional notes on Ginsberg videos, continues with notes on Tom Vitale’s 1990 New York City PBS profile. [This video is no longer available via You Tube. We have, however, retained the notes and transcription below]
(Vitale’s 2006 NPR radio report,”Revisiting Allen Ginsberg’s Howl at 50″, can, incidentally, be read and/or listened to here).
The film begins with Allen reading from “White Shroud” (the poem) – “I am summoned from my bed/To the Great City of the Dead/Where I have no house or home/But in dreams may sometime roam”. This is followed by footage of his old Manhattan (East 12th Street) neighborhood and tenement apartment. Vitale then sketches (briefly) “Beat” history, noting the seminal publication of “Howl” and “Kaddish”. Allen then offers up some remarks on “Kaddish”, as follows:
AG: Behind that also there’s still, unresolved, a sort of guilt at having not being able to take care of her properly when she was alive and having, in fact, been the one to have had to sign the papers for a lobotomy, after the doctors at Pilgrim State Hospital warned me that she would have a stroke and perhaps perish unless something were done to cut the emotional torrent.
TV: So in this piece of writing (“Kaddish”) was that also (like “White Shroud”) a result of a visitation from your mother in a dream?

AG: No, not at all . It was the result of a night up listening to Ray Charles and reading the rhythms of the Kaddish in an old Hebrew book that a friend gave me, and a big shot of methamphetamine, and coming home from Hoboken at dawn, and sitting down at my desk full of energy and saying, “well I think I’ll write a little bit about my mother now”, and sitting down and continuing writing till noon, and through that afternoon, and all night long till the next afternoon, one big.., one big long session, with pen on typewriter-paper, and getting, like with amphetamine, getting a little disjointed at the end, like not knowing where all the parts were, but not going back, just going forward.

(Allen then reads from “Kaddish (part 3)” outside the famed St Marks Church)

AG: The section “O Mother what have I forgotten”? That was done in Paris. Then when I got home to New York, I realized I hadn’t written my mother’s story, and I might as well write it. But I was thinking of it as a story rather than a poem, but it came out so intense that it was a 25-35-page narrative-poem sort of like Rimbaud’s prose-poems

[Allen reads “O Mother…” section from “Kaddish”, this time, indoors at his desk. (“With your eyes”../”Full of flowers”)]

Tom Vitale provides more biography, leading up to him meeting Kerouac

AG: He was a writer, (which) I’d never met before, someone who was full-time writer, not like my father, a schoolteacher-and-writer, but Kerouac was old-fashioned sacred-heart dedicated artist

TV: So when did you commit yourself to becoming a writer. I imagine your parents were more pleased with your brother who became a lawyer?

AG: More or less but I committed myself internally when I met Kerouac and Burroughs in 1944 to 45. Because They made such a spiritual impression on me that I realized this was a quality that I had never met in my life before, except maybe in my mother’s madness (except theirs was sane, same intensity but sane and balanced, and dedicated to creation and humor and satire and perception and insight into politics, as well as insight into my particular virtues and intelligence and shyness

TV: And how did you break the traditions that we all start out with, the poetry you talked about reading and being immersed in this as a young person. I mean you really came out with your own voice, which was unique and apart?

AG: No, that was more or less of an accident. I didn’t..I wasn’t looking for a voice. The verse that I’d known through my father.. (though Kerouac’s prose, at that time, even when he published The Town and the City, his first novel, was beginning to accumulate and had a great power and melody – and he turned me on to Thomas Wolfe and we both read Dostoyevsky, so we had that kind of vision of the spiritual world, and read Whitman (for spiritual world), and Blake. Burroughs educated me quite a bit, and Kerouac too, but it was mostly their character that I began understanding and sympathizing with, and empathizing with, and wanting to be like, which was total dedication to sacred world and interest in the nature of consciousness itself, interest in some kind of new vision , or “Supreme Reality” (which is what we called it in 1945 – Kerouac’s word was “New Vision”, which I think he got out of Rimbaud – I think there’s a line in Rimbaud’s Season In Hell that says “When shall we arrive at last to be the first to greet Christmas on Earth” – new world, or somethin’ – So we had some kind of spiritual desire, which was not very well defined, but Kerouac was beginning to write much more spontaneously than me, and I was just writing these rigid little imitative forms (tho’ were sophisticated, because in college I’d been reading Wyatt, Marvell, Donne, Milton, Shakespeare, Lord Brooke Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney and Campion, so I was getting more…a better ear, and imitating their work, imitating the Elizabethan and Metaphysical 17th Century poetry – and Christopher Smart, who wrote long lines like Whitman was a great big influence). But Kerouac was forging ahead on his own into a whole new area of spontaneous writing, burning his bridges behind him and notating the procession of thought in his mind directly on the paper without the idea of going back over the bridge and revising it, but burning his bridge, and saying, “Here I am on the other shore. Whatever I write was what I thought when I was writing and I can’t change what I thought while I was writing. So how can I change the writing?”. If.. I think he was interested in the flow of consciousness, in the flow of feeling, and the accuracy of instant-by-instant recording of what was flashing through his mind. And he had very great techniques for doing it, because he was a 120-word-a-minute speed-typist, so he could write as fast as think. Also he had..somehow, he made self-made discoveries, like “Don’t stop to think of the words, but to see the picture better” (which is a line from his instructions for modern prose (“Belief & Technique For Modern Prose”)). So I began learning from him, but I kept journals because he kept journals and other friends kept journals. Then when I went to visit (William Carlos) Williams after that, I sent him some poems, and (but) they weren’t very good..I sent him the old-style poems, and he wrote back, “Well, in this mode, perfection is basic. These aren’t basic”. So then I went back through my journals, like these (points to current journals), where I wrote little things down, and I found a few phrases or sentences, or maybe (a) whole paragraph, that made common sense from New Jersey. So I broke those up into lines, like Williams, experimenting with measuring the lines out and balancing them, and the relative weight and relative measure of the lines, just taking the prose and chopping it up into verse lines. A couple of little things like – “I feel like I am at a dead end and so finished. All spiritual facts I realize are true but right now..I have no hope and I’m tired” – or – “The alleys that I work, Mill Street and the smoke, negros climbing by rusted iron by the river. All the pictures we carry in our head, depression and class-consciousness of the ‘thirties” , So I just broke that up into little lines and sent it to him, about 6 or 7 poems He wrote me back a letter saying “This is it (these are it!) do you have any more of these? I shall see that you get a book!” And I realized that, simply by paying attention to his style, the natural stuff I wrote was more important, and interesting, and real, than the poetry I wrote, and I was trying to get it all arty and poetic (and) it was just sort of all uninteresting (bullshit, basically). Whereas when I wrote down just thoughts in my head from things I’d seen, native thoughts, or primordial thoughts, or just what I thought ordinarily, those were my original things, those were my original writings, not the imitations of poetry. And Kerouac was saying “Well of course! Everybody’s interested in what you’re really interested in, not when you’re just trying to artificially create a poem”. I mean just creating a poem artificially is like egotism (compared to just reflecting what you’re really thinking). So I sort of discovered my own nature that way, encouraged by Williams, and encouraged by Kerouac, but basically my poetry is just an extension of Kerouac’s.

TV: Tell me about the so-called “Beat Generation” in the late 40’s and early 50’s. What sort of life were you living then?

AG: There was no Beat Generation , it was just friends. We were living together on and off, or seeing each other often. There was this sense of sacred comradeship in art. We wrote about each other. I wrote a lot about Neal Cassady (as did Kerouac, and he.. we used.. he wrote many novels in which he described the ordinary events, adventures and misalliances, and sorrows, and odd ephinanies of the day, of the days, of the months, of the year, of that time. I was much less productive than he and more tight-assed about writing, and much more uncertain (and) carried a camera also, and had this sense of sacred company, and so took photographs of Kerouac and Burroughs (and later, Gregory Corso, and later, Peter Orlovsky), just kept a kind of household-snapshot record, without any particular motive, or intention (except I knew they were immortal and so I thought I’d better take pictures of the immortals while they were still mortal).

TV: And Kerouac in On The Road describes a fast-paced burning life

AG: Well that‘s his lyricism. The life itself was not that fast-paced and burning. It was his attitude and appreciation of it that was fast-paced and burning. The life we lived was, I suppose, the same as anyone living now, [1990], any of the punk and new-wave kids, traveling and having friends, going out, staying out late at night, and doing whatever..”grass” they do, experimenting, sexually, or socially. It was simply that Kerouac had appreciation of the drama of that, and a respect for the people that were..that he loved and dealt with, Neal Cassady was sort of remarkable for his energy, and his wisdom, and his humor, and his sexual ambience, and prowess, and generosity. Kerouac was not particularly a.. speedy, candle, Roman candle, himself (internally, spiritually he was, but he was just a very handsome, beautiful-looking, intelligent faced, very intelligent and wise young man, totally dedicated to his art, and with a sacred sense of “this is the one mortal world we’re in and this is the one and only chance to write it like a Bible”

Allen shown at his desk again

AG: I would say of this book, which is Collected Poems, probably two-thirds is written late in the evening, early morning, before going to bed, or on waking up, or in the middle of the night. The key there is “When the Muse calls, Answer. Even if you have to wake up in the middle of the night with some image in your head (like that “red hosed snake” – “computer intelligence terminal”). Probably it’s the persistence, and continuity, and stubbon-ness, of persisting year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year, in keeping a record of my mentality, or mental images, or epiphanous experiences, or odd ordinary-mind day to day facts or pictures. Whenever I wake up in the middle of my life and am aware of – oh, yeah, I noticed I noticed something, I noticed that dream, or I noticed that it’s snowing out, or I noticed that there’s snow on the fire-escape, or I noticed that there’s a half-moon above the St Mark’s churchyard steeple. Whenever I notice something, and notice that I notice it, and also notice it strongly enough to write it down, that.. that’s my art life, or that’s my poetry life. It’s a very simple process, basically. And my day revolves around making free space so that I can get to the camera, or a notebook (or a piano!) when I have an idea, or maybe (even) a tape-machine [Allen displays his tape-recorder] that I always have some way if I have a melody in the middle of the night, I can get at this tape-machine and turn it on and.. da-da-da-da da-da-da-da-da-da.. (mock-melody).. so I don’t forget it by the morning. Because with dreams, and also with waking moment-noticings, waking-mind, daily-noticings, very often that material is ephemeral (tho’ very strong at the instant), but’ the impressions, tho’ very strong and vivid at the instant, might fade, or get buried under doing your taxes, if it’s early April, or get buried under making love, or get buried under cooking spaghetti, get buried under studying for an exam, or getting busted, something. So the question is, can you be consistently aware of the fact that the main task is to record your consciousness.

TV: So what part of your notebooks and journals do we see published in your books of poetry?

AG: Er..something that looks hot.

TV: What percentage would that be?

AG: Oh, one percent.

TV: Uh-huh

AG: Half percent. I write, you know, every day, something or other, and maybe something’s useful, and something.. It’s like a sketch. He (the artist) does a sketch and maybe once a week he gets something good.

TV: So how do you..

AG: It’s very relaxed. It isn’t like a big thing of, you know, you gotta take a thunderbolt and throw it at Zeus – except once in a while, but that comes on its own, Zeusian thunderbolts come on their own, you can’t call them up, they’re a product of circumstance and time and history and yourself and your metabolism and your love affairs and your money and your lack of money and your food and your drugs and your shoes and your Brooks Brothers and your Empire State Building and the winter snow and your mother’s living death, or something. So you can’t combine all those things by (on) your own, you have to wait for Nature to throw up a great wave.

TV: And do you know when you’ve been hit by a thunderbolt?

AG: Yeah, you can tell almost instantly It’s a sort of subtle matter, it’s a slow thunderbolt.

TV: I mean, do you finish a poem and say, “This poem is a good one”?

AG: Yes, I finished “White Shroud” and thought, “Yes, this is obviously a gift from the god, Hades”

TV: Why the God Hades?

AG: Well, it was about seeing a shadow of my mother in Hades. It was a long conversation with my long-dead mother.

TW: And how did you go about writing White Shroud?

AG: Oh, I just woke up from a dream, and realized it was an extraordinary dream, because of the feeling in my body of joy and bliss and illumination and relief at having seen my mother again, and having finally had a chance to talk to her, and reconcile with her, and her in such funny shape as an old bag-lady in the West Bronx.

(Allen then reads (from) White Shroud – the tape concludes with this reading)

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