Allen Ginsberg – 1996 Sarasota tv Interview

Allen’s (87th) birthday tomorrow, but we figured to get a little into the spirit of things today.

Here’s a gem, recently uploaded to You Tube – Allen, interviewed by Patricia Caswell, in 1996, in Sarasota, Florida (on local television – “Sarasota Arts Today”). The occasion is the publication of his Selected Poems (“Actually”, Allen quietly confesses, ” I just received the very first copy in the mail today”)

Allen (who may, perhaps, be forgiven for just a tiny bit of name-dropping!) patiently explains himself to, and for, a presumed ignorant but sympathetic audience (and makes a righteous castigation of global inequality and ecological foolhardiness, there at the end).

Here is a transcript

part one

PC: Hello. I’m Patricia Caswell and this is “Sarasota Today – The Arts”. We’re here with poet Allen Ginsberg, and he’s more than a poet, as I have been learning, he’s a musician, a film-maker, a writer, a teacher…

AG: Photographer

PC: ..photographer, college-founder – and probably numerous other things. Allen, for people who may not know about Allen Ginsberg, can you summarize who.. how would you introduce yourself if you were doing the introductions?

AG: Well, I’m a poet, and poetry is my family business as my father was a poet..

PC: That’s right

AG: .. grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, went to Columbia College, and there I met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and other poets and we formed a kind of a commune friendly society that catalyzed what was called literary.. literally.. “Beat Generation” literary movement which had some social impact in the mid ’50’s (tho’ the ideas were gestated among us in the mid ’40’s), and then later I went to..went around the world and spent a year or so, longer, in India, was interested in, as Kerouac was, in Buddhism, and now.. so now I’m practicing Buddhist meditation with a teacher, and I’ve been interested in William Blake, particularly and so I set Blake’s.. Songs of Innocence and Experience, the sequence of poems, that the 18th century-19th century poet wrote, to music.

PC: Recently?

AG: I did way back in the ’60s and I’m still working on it and I worked with some musicians, like Don Cherry, who’s here, whose photo is here..and I worked with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, recording Blake and other things.

PC: I should tell our viewers that we are..when he says “here”, we are at the Selby Gallery at the Ringling School of Art and Design and there is a photographic exhibition here including the photo that we’re sitting in front of..which is Allen Ginsberg. We can get a clear picture of that

AG: Kind of a doctored photo.

PC: Yes it is. Indeed it is. It doesn’t look too much like you but you can tell that it’s you – and we notice that he’s wearing the same tie!

AG:.. tie.. yeah.. it’s my favorite tie. It’s getting a little frayed at this point…

PC: Well, maybe we can..

AG: …but it fits with this shirt

PC: Listen, we can run down to the Goodwill right after this I bet we can get a better one.

AG: No this particular color of blue is hard

PC: Is it?

AG: You can get a deeper blue but not this light..

PC: I’ll keep my eyes open

AG: Yeah

PC: I wanted you, in our first segment, Allen, to read a poem, that may take us to the end of the segment – but you have one that’s coming out in a rock n roll album, right?

AG: Yep..I’ll explain that later, but I’ll read “The Ballad of The Skeletons

[Allen gives a spirited reading of “The Ballad of The Skeletons”, concluding with the line “Said the Newscaster Skeleton, “That’s all. Goodnight”]

PC: What a good ending, since we’re a newscast.

AG: Right

PC: Fabulous. Good choice.

AG: So this is a rock n’ roll record lyric

PC: I can almost hear..I can hear the rhythm. It’d be interesting to hear the backing

AG: So the personnel is…

PC: Paul McCartney..

AG: Paul McCartney playing maracas, drums, organ and guitar, Philip Glass, classical musican, playing piano, Lenny Kaye, bass, and then an advanced jazz artist, Marc Ribot, kind of electric guitar, and David Mansfield (who played with me a lot, and with Dylan), regular guitar

PC: And what do you.. and you read?

AG: I’m reading it, but much slower than that, and with lots of musical interludes and riffs, So that’ll be out in two weeks.

PC: And who would be the audience for that? Who is your audience these days?

AG: Oh, I’m thinking college radio. There’s a dirty version, that is, with a few words – like “Said the talk-show skeleton “Muck you in the face!”…

PC: Right..

AG: There’s different versions..

PC: Thank you for not using that one on our family-hour show.

AG: No, we have two versions – the clean and the dirty ones …seven minutes…

PC: That’s great, that’s smart.

AG: … and then we have a four-minute version. So it’s going to come out from Mercury Records, and it’ll be out in a couple of weeks actually.

PC: What was it like working with Paul McCartney?

AG: Well, we got to be… we’d known each other since “65, but we got to be more friendly the last few years. He’s writing poetry and I was sort of looking over his poetry.

PC: You’re doing music and he’s writing poetry! – that’s great

AG: Yeah – and then.. he liked that poem a lot and he offered to be my accompanist at Albert Hall last November, and then, when I said I was recording it, he said, “Well, send me the tape”. So we sent him 24 tracks and he worked on it very hard and got it all together and gave it a structure, and then Philip Glass added piano

PC: .. and drums and maracas, that’s..

AG: Drums, maraca, Hammond organ..It’s really.. It sounds like early Dylan..curiously

PC: I cannot wait to hear it. I think we have to take a break now. More with Allen Ginsberg when we come back

part two

PC: [displaying Selected Poems] – ..there’s sort of a signing now, and the signing will have taken place for this viewing of the show

AG: The book’ll be around now

PC: The book is probably going to be at Kingsleys (Book Emporium) and probably many other places

AG: Actually, I just received the very first copy of it in the mail today.

PC: That’s fabulous! This is the very first copy?

AG: ..that I got.

PC: Oh my! Will you tell us about the book?

AG: Well, the cover is by a great.. very good artist, George Condo, who’s like a top-flight New York painter and a friend and we’ve done a lot of work together. And the back cover..

PC: ..back..

AG: …is a photograph by the great photographer Robert Frank, an old friend..

PC: It’s a wonderful photo..

AG:.. Frank and I and Kerouac and Gregory Corso made movies back in ’58, experimental improvised movies, so we’ve continued a relationship, but I’m also a photographer and he’s my mentor.

PC: Yes. I think this is a great thing because it’s ’47 through ’95, and you don’t have to go through four books if you want to get a quick shot of Allen Ginsberg

AG: And this is Selected Poems, where I went through and selected what I thought was the very best

PC: Oh good

AG: See, I have a big Collected and this is about half the size, or less, actually.

PC: Exactly, exactly, because reading the whole thing would be overwhelming, these are..

AG: Well, then you can browse in this, and at least you know that everything there is something I really like and read and am interested in.

PC: The best way to get a snapshot of you is to read this book.

AG: Yes

PC: I wish I’d had it before this interview!

AG: It has has a lot of early famous poems like “Howl”, that I’m probably best known for, and “Kaddish“, which is quite a well-known poem (and translated a lot around the world) but also has later work and some long poems of later years I’ve reduced to the purple passages and there’s really interesting wild rhetoric, so you can get a sampler, and there are poems up to this year, including “The Ballad of the Skeletons” which I finished this year, and which will be the.. a record coming out (that we just talked about) on Mercury Records, and that will be.. and that will be in October. They want to put it out before the election.

PC: Ha ha ha – it makes sense. It’s great. I think that poem is gonna capture everybody. There’s something in there for everybody.

AG: It’ll be on…It’ll be on a lot of college radio, and also, Gus Van Sant is making it for MTV, the MTV people asked for a four-minute version

PC: We’ll look for it. We talked about what Paul McCartney was like to work with, but how about Philip Glass?

AG: Philip and I have worked a lot together. He’s a Buddhist and I’m a Buddhist and we have the same teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama, and every year we go to retreat together and are room-mates for about a week and cook up all sorts of schemes..

PC: Oh wonderful!

AG: …for poetry, music. And we wrote an opera about four or five years ago which is out now on Nonesuch Records called Hydrogen Jukebox, which played in Spoleto, and here in America, and over in Italy.

PC: We’ll have to get our opera company here in Sarasota to look at doing it.

AG: Well, I think somewhere in Texas they’re doing it. It’s been done and we’re doing it again in Germany – but we do a lot of benefis together, raising money for Buddhist causes or for the The Kitchen, which is an experimental music project in New York.

PC: Tell me about your Institute, you’re…

AG: …and then I work..

PC: …emeritus professor at the Institute…

AG: Philip and I have done benefits also for Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. Within Naropa, I’m the Co-Director Emeritus of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics(“disembodied”, because Kerouac was dead when we formed it in his honor, so it was sort of a joke, instead of a “Jack Kerouac School of Poetry”, it was a little queer, so we put a fire-cracker in the middle of the..)

PC: Right. It’s one name that you don’t forget

AG: No, that’s the reason

PC: It worked!

AG: So my co-director is a great orator poet executor..executrix.. Anne Waldman, very good poet (she has a new book out, I think, from Scrib..from Viking?)

PC: What does one go to the Institute to learn? to write poetry?

AG: Well, so it’s like people who don’t fit in in regular academic places, so, like either they’re too crazy or too inspired, or too smart, or too dumb (but, you know, they have, “dumb saint(s)”..,) you know, like, and we’re accredited, so we give a B.A and an M.F.A,
and we have a section Dance, Dance Therapy, Poetry, Business, Ecology, taking care of older folks, what do you call that? Geriatrics?

PC: Geriatrics

AG Geriatric Studies.. and..

PC: And is it based in Buddhism?

AG…and Buddhist Studies, the Sanskrit, Tibetan (usually there’s a Zen master there and one or two Tibetan lamas and its oriented in the direction of meditative contemplative arts and contemplative sciences. It was founded by a great Tibetan lama named Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who wrote many many books and invented the formula that has gotten quite famous now, “First thought, best thought”.

PC: Yes, yes, yes.

AG: That’s his phrase. He was a great poet and calligrapher and meditation teacher and he was my meditation teacher and sort of encourager in poetry from 1972 until his death in ’86

PC: Why did you start.. how.. what led you to Buddhism?

AG: Well, you know, we were..I was part of a larger group called “the Beat Generation”, literary movement, and you may remember Kerouac put out a book called “(The) Dharma Bums“, back in 1957, way back , it’s now what? forty years?

PC: Hard to remember that!

AG: Well, but The Dharma Bums is pretty well-known as a novel, much translated, and much read by young kids and it started what was called a kind of “rucksack revolution”, where kids got their knapsacks and took off across the country to climb mountains, get experience, hitch-hike, see the body of the land (instead of sitting on Wall Street, making money, shoveling abstractions across a desk). So there was always from 1950 on an interest in Buddhist thought and meditation practice. And in 1955, we ran into Gary Snyder, who was studying Chinese and Japanese at Berkeley, and Kerouac and he hit it off well because Kerouac had read a lot in the sutras and the Buddhist commentaries and Snyder who was first in that and in sitting, and Snyder was.. had a… We all gave big poetry readings together (which was called “the San Francisco Literary Renaissance“) with a lot of good poets (including Philip Whalen, who’s now a Zen master, Roshi Whalen). Gary was headed out to Japan to study at the first Zen Center there (at) (Nichi bei Dai ichi monastery) and things just grew, and then I spent a year and a half in India in the early ’60’s and met teachers. So it just accumulated and grew. So Eastern thought, actually, is a big influence now on American art (both painting and poetry, if you look at people like Francesco Clemente, or Brice Marden, or Tobey, Mark Tobey)

PC: And you believe that that was… that the Beats were the kind of the introduction to that in America?

AG: Well, in history books, talking… No, not the only introduction, it began in 1893, Suzuki,D.T. Suzuki came to the Parliament of Religions with the first Zen master who settled in American, Soyen Shaku, and married Ruth Sasaki, originally, who founded the first Zen Institute in America

PC: So it’s been coming but you certainly gave it a big push.

AG: I think we’re credited with having, sort of, suddenly, you know, made an explosion of interest in it, because of the artistic thing (because we were all artists). And also, Kerouac’s picture of Gary Snyder was kind of a heroic portrait of a very intelligent, athletic, competent, straight guy, who was also a meditator and a mountain-climber.

PC: And it became more popular

AG: Yep.

PC: And when we come back, we’ll hear more from Allen Ginsberg and maybe we’ll even get treated to another poem

part three

PC: We’re back on “Sarasota Today – The Arts” with me, Patricia Caswell and our guest Allen Ginsberg, the great American poet. And, Allen, what was the lasting influence on the American mainstream of The Beat Generation

AG: Well, I think the influence is so big, it’s like a mountain that’s too vast to be seen, but it can be described..

PC: And we have only seven minutes to describe it.

AG: So I would say, first of all, the introduction of notions of ecology into poetry or into general or mainstream thinking, which began a lot with Michael McClure, the poet and Gary Snyder and some of Kerouac, partly the interest in Eastern thought and meditation and slowing down and New Age and new diet (it’s on food, very strong), and on.. in sort of moderation in grasping and accumulation and a sort of aggression (kicking around aggression). There was an influence in the interior relation of African-American culture into American prose and poetry and high culture (the acceptance of be-bop, and the use of be-bop as a standard for rhythm in poetry, the change-over from poetry from academic high-faultin’ to vernacular idiomatic, (and so the rise of spoken poetry and rap arise out of that, according to the rap artists..who attribute to Kerouac and others (myself and (William) Burroughs) the whole notion of discontinuity of imagery, as you find in MTV or music videos, the things that U2 do, for their shows, they attribute directly to Burroughs, and of course Burroughs’ influence is enormous on all of culture including rock n roll and video culture and all that, and there was a sexual revolution (the emergence of Gay Lib) and a sense of candor and frankness in public discourse (as distinct, say, from the schizophrenic hidden, absurdity, you know, secret lives, being in the closet).

PC: You know one of the things that I admire so about you is your honesty. And one of the things I was wondering is, do you have any personal “secret place”, or is it all just out there, because it seems to be… It seems like you don’t retain any secrets.

AG: Well, if you know.. if you get transparent, then the whole world is your “secret place”.

PC: That’s very good.

AG: You become transparent. The whole point is, Whitman said, in the 19th Century, “Preface to Leaves of Grass”, he hoped that American poets would specialize in candor, because, he said, without candor, or complete openness of feeling, there would be secrecy, and secrecy would lead to paranoia, and paranoia would lead to, like.. genocidal war, like you have between the Bosnians and the..what (Serbs), and so what you really need for democracy to function is openness and candor and affection (and you can only have candor if you have affection, you know if, if you feel affectionate towards your fellow citizens rather than competitive, secret and paranoid.

PC: And is much of that from the Buddhist teaching?

AG: A lot of that is from Buddhist teaching which will clear your head by sitting practice of meditation until you realize that everything is transitory, nothing is permanent, there is no secret that you can hold onto permanently, there’s no wealth you can hold onto permanently, you might as well give it all away, in the sense of non-attachment to whatever you have, so that you’re not stuck with it like a junkie with his habit or a drug cop stuck with a habit of persecuting drugs either way. Also, so we changed the attitude towards drugs, I think to opening up, realizing, doing real research into marijuana, and the whole psychedelic revolution which had quite an influence on advertising, mental thought and television. So there’s a lot of things, from sex, through ecology, through public candor, through Eastern thought, through meditation, through food, and many other little applications I would say.

PC: What do you..what do you see as the future of America? You’re such a big mind, I wanted to ask you

AG: I have a big mind, but the thing is.. someone was telling me the other day, when you look at Africa, and everyone denouncing Africa as, you know, “basket-case”, “do we have to support Africa? bla bla bla“. Actually we take something like 400 billion dollars worth of goods out of Africa every year, our surplus, well, you know – 400 more than we give them, 400 billion dollars more than we give them,

PC: And tie that to the future?

AG: Well, what I’m saying is that we are living a prosperous life here at the expense, labor and pain of the under-developed nations, particularly Africa which we particularly persecute (because we created all these nations which.. of warring tribes there by arbitrary boundaries – the West did). So the “basket-case” is our own “basket-case”, as it is in Central America and South America (because we ran those countries all those years). So we have a lot to be responsible for and we can’t.. like, with Haiti, we were.. we were.. everybody was saying “What’s American interest in Haiti?” – Well what was America’s interest in Haiti when we were arming the military all these years under the dictatorships, you know? so we’re responsible for a lot of the mess that we’re now blaming on other people, and the mess really, basically, is based on that we are, really, using them for raw materials and getting more out of them than we’re giving them, and trying to sell the manufactured raw materials back (as in Nigeria, where there’s coffee (beans), but we won’t give them money.. we’ll give them money to increase their coffee crop but not to manufacture their own coffee and package it. The World Bank will do that. So we’re responsible for a lot of the draining of the world economy and actually we are sooner or later going to have to pay for that by equalizing things.

PC: And maybe if the ideals of the Beat Generation would take hold even more in mainstream America that would happen.

AG: Well, one of the ideals was the.. less conspicuous consumption, less throw-away planet, less throw-away cans, maybe a more penurious way of life, less use of petro-chemicals that poison the atmosphere, ocean – earth, air, fire and water – wrong kind of energy, or fire, earth polluted, deforested, desert-ified, air polluted, oceans polluted, so..ideals..better treatment of the elements that support us

PC: It’s been fun to talk to you. It’s been interesting. I’m going to buy your book. I hope everybody joins me.

AG: Selected Poems! (and then the record will be called “The Ballad of The Skeletons”, on Mercury Records, and it’ll probably be out about the time of this broadcast)

PC: Okay. Very good. Maybe we’ll find a place to play it on the air. Thank you, Mr Ginsberg.

AG: You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the trouble to talk to me.

PC: This has been “Sarasota Today – The Arts”.

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