Allen Ginsberg & Steven Taylor at Texas State 1996 – Q & A – 2

Q: So, you read “Sphincter” last night..

A: Yeah

Q: And that recalled.. I read a (W.B.) Yeats poem about “love pitches his mansion in a place next to excrement”.

A: Yes, “Crazy Jane and the Bishop”  Does anybody know that poem? A couple? – Shall we recite it? Do you know it?

Q:  Just that line.. “the first line, best line!”

AG: Well, Crazy Jane, his character, meets a Bishop on the road, so “I met the Bishop on the road” – (she’s talking) –  “And much said he and I” –  [Allen recites the penultimate section of the poem -“Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop”] – “These veins are flat..”, no, “Those breasts are flat and fallen now/Those veins must soon be dry/Live in a heavenly mansion,/Not in some foul sty.” – And then he answers – “”Fair and foul are near of kin/And fair needs foul”, I cried/My friends are gone, but that’s a truth/Nor grave nor bed denied,/Learned in bodily lowliness/And in the heart’s pride./ “A woman can be proud and stiff/When on love intent/ But Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement/And nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent” – or “for rent” or “rent open” or “maidenhead broken” – that’s a great line, along with “And she put a skin on everything she said” – “But love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement”  – it’s a great line. Yeah, I had that in mind. That’s such, you know, a famous and powerful – almost Blakean power – statement at the end of the century. Yeats is an amazing great poet. I don’t know how much he’s taught, but he was certainly part of my basic education and I can remember yards of Yeats like that.

Q: Also you made an allusion to Ma Rainey?


Q: Is that Rilke?

A: No, No

Q: Who was Ma Rainey?

ST: She was an African-American singer. She was the sort of mother of the kind of women’s blues solo singers, traveled in tent shows early in the century and made some recordings up until the (19)20’s made some recordings, I guess, and died, you know, drunken and abandoned in an ambulance, right? but, you know, sort of the model for…

AG: Was that Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith died in the ambulance? It might be..

Student: Bessie

AG: Bessie was it? – Yeah, I mixed it..

ST: Well, Ma, she had.. she had alcohol problems, right?

Student: Yeah

AG: Ma Rainey actually,  was the tutor, or instructress for Bessie Smith and Bessie Smith took on Billie Holiday – so there’s a lineage. But she was also, not only the father (sic) of women’s blues, she’s the father.. mother of all blues, because she’s the first blues singer. She’s the first one that did,,   that is reported to have done blues actually, full-scale blues from some funny music she heard in these tent shows that she was travelling in. So she’s the origin of the greatest lyric form in America. In her..  Anybody know her work?

Student: She was still in Memphis in 1978 and…

AG: Ma Rainey?

Student : Yeah she was old and trying to get up to the stage.

AG: Ma Rainey? In the (19)70’s?  I don’t think so

Student: Yeah I was there!

ST: Wow!

AG: But I’m not so sure she was! I was in Memphis in the (19)70’s.But I think she died back in the (19)40’s or (19)30’s. There was.. there’s Memphis Minnie – and there’s Ida Cox – and there are a lot of great women blues singers that might have survived on, but I don’t think that Ma Rainey was one of them. You’re sure?

Student: Yeah [editorial note/clarification – Ma Rainey died in 1939]. I saw her there. I saw her there too.

AG: It wasn’t a personage?

Student:  She was the Queen, the absolute Queen,

AG: Well, she should be!

Student: It was wonderful.

Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

AG: Yeah, so, anyway,  Ma Rainey was this great blues singer who wrote [Allen begins singing]  – “I’m gonna sit right here and dream about a thousand miles away/I won’t be back until you change your ways..” I’m gonna buy me a pistol/ Just as long as I am tall Lord lord lord,/ Kill my man and hit the cannonball/ If he won’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all” – [“I’m gonna sit right here and dream about a thousand miles away/I won’t be back until you change your ways”..”I’m gonna buy me a pistol just as long as I am tall. Lord Lord Lord/Shoot my man and catch a cannonball/If he won’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all.’]. Go on.

Q: What do you think of the state that poetry is in today and what direction do you think it’s heading in into the next century?

AG: Well, it never really changes much from Sappho to the present. It’s still there and it’s still connected with some kind of tone, a voice, a music, and has got to do with the human voice, sometimes to do with the human voice singing. It’s lyric (meaning, with a stringed instrument – lyre). Right now, it’s in a period of great flourishing I think. You have a lot of the regular rhetorical poets like myself, (Jack) Kerouac, (William) Burroughs, Gregory Corso, the old school of Beat writers, and the “open form” poets like John Ashbery and Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Michael McClure, and any number of  real geniuses. Then you have a whole middle, another generation, that are very strong, like Ed Sanders, and Anne Waldman (who’s running the Naropa Institute) and the late Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, his widow – and Antler, who’s about the same age, a bit younger. And then there are a third generation (from my mind) of poets, Ron Padgett [Editorial note – Ron Padgett would actually be of the “second” generation] and.. my own secretary, Bob Rosenthalwho’s quite alert..but then you have that middle generation of the time of Anne Waldman of the poet-minstrels like (Bob) Dylan, who pick up from Kerouac (according to Dylan)  (he says he was)  inspired a good deal by Kerouac. He says it was what gave him the inspiration to be a poet! – Mexico City Blues , by the way. And then you have whole generations of folk singers and minstrels and musicians following that.

And then you have a further generation doing… reviving African “dirty dozens and “signifying monkey” forms in the form of rap. (So) after the total dryness of the Reagan years of disco, suddenly the human voice superimposed on the disco, rhyming, and speaking for the under-class, and carrying forth ancient African traditions of warrior boasts and toasts and griot constructions, and, like, classic stuff  that…you know, insult poetry (like the signifying monkey”, which is a game in which the guy who gets most insulted and gets angry loses – You know, you insult his mother and his father and if he gets angry he loses it.) You know that Signifying Monkey? You ever heard that? -“Said the monkey to the tiger one fine sunny day/your mother’s pussy stinking and I smell her every day” And you’re  supposed to reply, “And your father’s ass is hairy and his ass is turning grey”. And whoever gets mad, loses. So the whites in America have lost that already! They didn’t realize it was a joke on them. The “signifying monkey” is… [Allen turns to Steven Taylor] Can you define it, tell them what it is?

ST: It’s an’s a story-telling form, perpetuated in barbers shops, I guess, and there’s one recording out that you can get of it .. what is it?.. jump in the water, get in the water, and swim like…

AG: Get your ass in the water..

ST: Get your ass in the water and swim like me..  It’s rhyming stories, typically about a monkey and a lion. It’s brains versus brawn, with these allegories or these sort of fables about the monkey and the lion, who gets the upper hand. And they’re rhymed and their scatological and very musical. And it’s an old African-American form. And it’s (a) direct ancestor of  rap. When you hear it, it’s just like, you can’t believe it, you can’t believe how close it is.

Signifying Monkey (II)

AG: The book… there’s a record and there’s a book – Get Your Ass in the Water And Swim Like Me – about the sinking of the Titanic. You know, the black orchestras –“Get Your Ass in the Water And Swim Like Me!

ST: The book to look at is Henry Louis Gates Jr – Signifying Monkey, I think it’s called.

AG: Yes

ST: That’s a great book. The introduction to that book covers it all

AG:  Then there’s  (Roger) Abrahams’  Deep Down In the Jungle and then Get Your Ass in the Water And Swim Like Me is published by Harvard University Press (with that title, no less) by Bruce Jackson

ST: ..who did a lot of work in Texas

Q: Do you think that the supposed age of self-expression we’re in now is just another illusion created by the corporate oligarchy..

AG: That’s a good question..

Q: .. to make money, and that all this is just a lie, you know, that this really isn’t happening.

AG: Supposedly the  age of self-expression? (and) is this just another hallucination perpetuated perpetrated by a rich..?

Q: Oligarchy

A: Oligarchies, yes, continue the question.

Q: And is this all, the kind of self-expression of an age, just another trend, just another lie?, and are we an illusion of a lie? – expression – is it really not expression at all?, is it just conformity, and are we being sold the idea of expression?  – we’re being sold the idea of expression but what we’re really being sold is conformity..

AG: Can you all hear him?

Q: Is this a lie?

AG: Could you all hear? [to Steven Taylor] (You) wanna answer that? – [to Questioner] Yes!

ST: Both.

AG: – And no –Do I contradict myself/very well I contradict myself” – It’s perfectly true what you’re saying, and I think the notion of this being a democracy where everybody is free to express themselves and then there’s this… there’s a great wave of, you know, poetry-readings in… Barnes and Noble bookstores! (that have driven off the independent booksellers!)

Q:  ..(in) a surge of coffee-shop culture.

AG: Right. It is exploited and co-opted and used for commercial purposes, and also used to keep people quiet and prevent real political organization – or, not prevent, but forestall, it, in a sense and divert the energy, that’s one thing, and it does get funded and co-opted by,  co-opted, in that sense, by corporate energy

Q: So we’ve been given a bone..?

AG: Yeah, it’s  like if you’ve been given the vote, which is fine, you know, if you control.. like free speech. As they say (about) free speech – (a) free press is great if you own one!

ST: It goes both ways tho’, I think, to be optimistic. And if you take off, you know on Antonio Gramsci‘s notion of “hegemony” . It’s like, the deck is stacked against you, but there’s a spontaneous resistance always. Whatever new forms of co-optation come up, there’s always a new form of resistance to it. So it’s the creative imagination (it’s Blake’s creative imagination) (and) it keeps coming up. There’s always that tension.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

AG: Now listen, now, who makes the reverse, the reverse theory? Whenever there’s co-optation there’s a new invention that overcomes the co-optation, but then there’s also the other theory, whenever there’s new invention there’s co-optation.

ST: Well, it constantly goes (round and round)

AG: Well, who was responsible for.. do you know whose line of thinking these two are? – and are they seperate or are they the same?

ST;  They’re sort of.. I see them though, as extensions..

AG: No, but historically, do you know?

ST: Historically, I see…

AG: Who.. who pronounced the business, who formulated the idea (that) all bohemian, Beat, or all aesthetic, energy is going to be co-opted by the system?

ST: Probably the Marxists.

AG: The Marxists, basically.


Louis Althusser (1918-1990)

ST: Yeah. I mean you had (Louis) Althusser in the late (19)60’s publishing on the ideological state apparatus and saying, you know, that the individual is created by the state, as the apparatus by which the state reproduces itself.

AG: And then, who formulated  the theory that always to the individualistic response is co-optation, do you know?

ST: Not specifically, but the idea that’s posed against Althusser is actually an earlier idea from Antonio Gramsci which is that there is this constant… that the horizon of control is in constant fluctuation. It’s not just that you’re created by the State and that’s it and you have no choice. It goes both ways.

AG: I think someone like (Bob) Dylan proves there is some over.. surpassing control, even with Dylan or Burroughs or anyone like that being used or published by the corporate state, what they say seems to go beyond that and penetrate the consciousness in a way that permanently arms consciousness against mind control. And I would say that the single greatest examples of that are.. Edgar Allan Poe who, just.. no matter what (is) un-co-optable.. (to a point that, even now (1996), he’s being banned in Longview You know that? They took him off the public library – Someone was telling me – they took him off the public library shelves in Longview, as being satanic. Is that correct? – Is it Longview? – Yes? Yeah, you read about it somewhere ? I didn’t hear about it (via) print. Someone told me, and I just couldn’t believe it (and thought) good old Edgar Allan Poe! he’s still fighting there – and also (Walt) Whitman (both here and in the Socialist state, Whitman was, at one point or other, considered, like, a heroic, either American, or heroic pro-Democrat worker, but in China they begin to read Whitman for his poems of old age and his poems about being gay! (which is just absolutely the opposite of Mao Tse Tung‘s intention of enshrining Whitman), and here Whitman has the same subversive flavor though he’s official. And, anyway, if you read Whitman beginning-to-end, it changes your brain. Like, if you read Burroughs beginning-to-end something happens to your synapses. Yes?

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Q: When Professor Wilson introduced you last night, he said…
AG: You have to be loud enough to (be heard).

Q: When Professor Wilson introduced you last night.

AG: Can you hear her? – ok

Q: ..he said that you changed poetry, the fact that not only everyone could read it but also everyone could write it. Do you feel that the present generation, the new generation of writers, are abusing that freedom that you’ve created, that they’re not wanting to learn?

AG:  It’s a mixed… it’s a mixed theory. Anyone can write it in the sense that by accurate use of idiom, normal spoken idiom, and the accurate observation of intense moments of that idiom, anyone can find.. poetry will be accessible, and can even be written by anybody who has a taste for it, as say, almost any African-American has some taste for blues or rap and can compose in that form, or could up to maybe ten years ago. It isn’t that high poetic forms have to be the province of an elite. Remember, the greatest lyric poetry in America is blues. Some day it will be a huge bulk in the Norton Anthology – blues lyrics, and they were written by.. anybody could write them, people that didn’t..that never got out of high school or.. Texas Alexander – “They accused me of murder but I never killed anybody/they accused me of forgery and I can’t even write my name” – that’s one of the best lyrics in America – “They accused me of forgery and I can’t even write my own name” [editorial note – Allen misremembers the artist, (probably on account of Alexander’s biography), the song he is referring to here was written by Eddie Boyd and Willie Dixon  – “Got me accused of murder, I ain’t harmed a man/Got me accused of forgery, I can’t even write my name – “Third Degree” ] – So anybody can write, in that sense, that democratization of the language, rather than using a language that..which is strictly a university-educated hand-me-down stale-dishwater-of-an-old style of poetry. 

Probably the Beatniks did some harm, indirectly, by the parody notion that you could say “fuck” all you want and you can write as aggressively, all you want, and that’ll stand for good poetry if you’re in a poetry slam in the middle of urban wastelands. So that people are licensed to bullshit. But, you know, who’s going to issue licenses?. I’m not. Well, ok, I can issue licenses as a teacher and I can write a preface to somebody’s work I like, but I think that notion of poetry-as-bullshit, aggressive, you know, aggressive bullshit, was cultivated more or less by, co-opted by, the media, by parodies of Beatnik poetry on television twenty years ago that still last to this day

Q: So you don’t think the new generation of writers is abusing that freedom?

AG: Well, any such generalization, do I think that the new generation is abusing.. who is this new generation of writers?

Q: Well the people in the universities. Now we’re…

AG: Oh, university people! – I didn’t even think you were talking about that!

Q: Oh I’m sorry.

AG: You’re talking some kind of local news. I thought you meant just kids out on there the street there with rap, or..

Q: No.. no..last night at dinner, you were..

AG: …or poetry slams

Q: Yesterday you were speaking about.. you would write on people’s papers, you know, why don’t you think about changing this and they just wouldn’t pay attention to it, that was what I was asking about..

ST: The students not responding, you know.. you can’t workshop someone’s poetry for three years – because they don’t get it, they’re not going to get it..

Q: That’s what I’m asking about

AG: Well, that’s the way it’s always been. That’s nothing new. Oh that’s nothing new. Years ago.. You should have seen some of the poetry workshops they had forty years ago. People would like…You couldn’t even tell them you don’t have to rhyme. They thought all poetry had to rhyme. This is fifty years after Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. They still thought poetry had to be Edna St Vincent Millay or..A.E.Housman..people you don’t know about anymore. Anybody ever read any of A.E Housman here? – The standard for poetry, thirty-five, forty years, ago – “With rue my heart is laden/ For golden friends I had,/For many a rose-lilt maiden/And many a lightfoot lad./ By brooks too broad for leaping/The lightfoot boys are laid/The rose-lipt girls are sleeping/In fields where roses fade”.. A.E.Housman, a classicist from Oxford, Cambridge, the most popular poet of 1910, and a good poet, actually, yes?

A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

Q: One of the things that I most admire about you is that you manage to combine a mystical philosophy with advocacy of  left-wing causes without any apparent contradiction  and I wonder if you could speak a little about that?

AG: “Do I contradict myself, Very well I contradict myself”! – Not mystical. Remember, Buddhism is not necessarily mystical, it’s awareness-practice, but not crystal-gazing, (at least that portion of it that I practice is awareness-practice, sitting meditation). It makes you maybe more sensitive to the environment around you, it makes you more involved with the environment (just like acid might) therefore more interested in environmental issues, therefore more interested in conservatism, therefore more aghast at what passes for neo-conservatism – meaning  “It’s Armageddon, we’re all going to go up in the Rapture, so why don’t we burn down all the forests now and eat up all the pork and kill all the fish, so that we can have our last moments of righteous life before God takes all those other sinners away”.. which was the official…  Watt, the recently-criminalized James Watt, Interior Secretary for (Ronald) Reagan, that was his vision. Reagan himself believed in Armageddon, apparently. So, naturally, anybody who has any sense of the environment, or their own sexuality (since I’m gay), or to minority rights (since I’m Jewish – or “Beatnik” or “New Yorker”, or I don’t know what minority I am anymore…”Beatnik”…) naturally, gets involved in civil liberties issues, you know, resisting the assault of right-wing monotheist demagogues – USA fundamentalist Ayatollahs, like Pat Robertson, American Family Association people, who are trying to control everybody’s mind. That’s like really interesting (and) it’s fun! – it’s fun to be able to confront such stupidity and ignorance and density, to find the “skillful means” to penetrate through. You’ll find that there’s always a human response somewhere, particularly among the young who recognize it instantly, who recognize (a touch of) humor – that’s (a) pleasure.
>But meditation does not at all contradict action.

Q:  Are you more concerned with the awareness and focus rather than getting tied up in some Buddhist cosmology or something?

AG: Nyah, you aint got no idea what Buddhist cosmology is.  You’ve got some kind of five-and-ten-cents store idea that was laid on you by television or something. Have you ever just sat and meditated?

Q: Yes.

AG: Buddhist style?

Q: I’ve done a little bit of reading.

AG: No, no, have you sat down on your ass and meditated.

Q: Yes yes, but not in..

AG: Have you ever had a teacher?

Q: I had one in St Louis. I remember during a dharma talk (he was a Zen master)

AG; Oh, okay

Q: ..and he specifically talked about how, I mean, we should avoid looking for political solutions to problems, because that’s something that requires a change of consciousness, I mean, that contradicts political action.

AG:  Well, I don’t see how it contradicts political action necessarily,  except if he makes an extremist point of it – avoid all political action, which, you know.. – “Right labor”, (which is one of the Buddhist ideas), “Right livelihood”, (which means you’ve got to find some way of making a living that doesn’t do harm to others) and that’s already a political decision and a political choice. Some Buddhist teachers, I think, are may be extreme on that. My own wasn’t. My own teacher was interested in social action.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s a very famous Buddhist, feels that it’s social action, and there’s a great roshi, or Zen master, in Yonkers [Bernie Glassman] who began organizing jobs for the homeless and sent to Tassajara, (the Zen Center which is on the West Coast), to learn their baking procedure (which was successful), and opened up a bakery in New York, which employs homeless people in Yonkers – and then found that that was no use because they didn’t have any place to live, so then he got a housing project going for the homeless – and he found out that that wasn’t sufficient because they all had kids – where are they going to put the babies? – so they needed a homeless kindergarten – and then there were a lot of people who were sick and some that had AIDS, so now they have a homeless AIDS hospice, and they’re a center for social action.

Tetsugen Bernard Glassman (Bernie Glassman)

And he feels that dharma is social action, that meditation involves social action (because of the bodhisattva vow – and the bodhisattva vow is – “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to liberate all. My own passions are endless. I vow to cut through them, (my own neuroses  are inexhaustible. I vow to cut through them). Situations for intelligent wakeful action are infinite, I vow to go through every gate, (or, not boycott any situation – including social action and politics – but with some mindful participation there), and the path of awakened mind is endless, I vow to follow through all the way”. So that’s the bodhisattva‘s vow for any Mahayana (Zen) future. So avoidance of social action wouldn’t… Depending on the student and the teacher, and what’s going on at the moment, (I mean,you’ve either got some crazed social actionist, like that guy up in the hills who’s supposed to be the Unibomber, (but who’s general theories I agree (with) by the way – not the bombing part – I mean, we were just talking about co-option, individual thought), he, obviously, needed a meditative solution rather than social action (because he had the wrong idea of social action), and, in that sense, your Buddhist teacher’s remarks might have been appropriate

Steven WilsonUnfortunately I have to (now) set you free.. thank you very much

AG: Well, if anybody else is free, I’m still.. I mean I’m not rushing away, so.. it’s alright.. another couple more questions, yes

Q: What influence has any diaspora.. had on your poetry?

AG: Well a great deal has been written (about this) – The English translation of the Bible had a lot of influence on the rhythms of my poetry, which are both Hebrew sound through English-language translation and through adaptation by other poets like Christopher Smart, who translated a lot of the Old Testament and the Psalms. They had a lot of influence on me for basic governing rhythms of – “With your eyes.. with your eyes..” (from “Kaddish“, particularly). And that long line is a kind of Hebrew Biblical line. I didn’t grow up bar mitzvahed and I didn’t study Hebrew because my mother was a Communist and my father was a Socialist, so it was in a whole different kind of Jewish delicatessen intellectual, as I said, but it was a very definite, Jewish tradition – but not the monotheist .. it’s more like a kind of MarxFreudEinsteinKurt WeilBertholt Brecht – the international cosmo.. “rootless cosmopolitans”, (as Stalin used to denounce the Jews), “the rootless cosmopolitans” (and that’s why I titled my last book, Cosmopolitan Greetings, as an inside joke inside the Socialist curtain. Yeah, anything else?

Q: It seems to me that you’ve had an interesting relationship with academia over the years

AG: Are you..  can everybody hear?

Students: No

AG: One of the teachings in poetics is space-awareness, that when you’re in a space addressing a large group of people, you’re aware of the extent of the space (you know, the space around your head) and the last person, farthest away from you, and you’re generous to them to include them in your discourse. So?

Q: Mr Ginsberg has had an interesting relationship to academia over the course of the years. He said his father was a teacher, and I read something about you being in Columbia  and then you later became a teacher yourself (teaching at Naropa University).
I guess I wanted to know, as a student of writing, how valuable is higher education..?

AG: Well (Arthur) Rimbaud never had a higher education.

ST: Yeah, but he was composing poetry in Latin at the age of fourteen! – and that’s a pretty good education.

AG: Yeah, he had a good Catholic education. But he didn’t get a higher education. He didn’t go to the Sorbonne or anything like that. I don’t know. (Jack) Kerouac didn’t get through college and yet was one of the most widely-read people that I know. Burroughs had a fine college educaton and a masters in archaeology and was also exquisitely well-educated. Gary Snyder..

ST: ..has a PhD in anthropology

AG: A doctorate? …Philip Whalen has a B.A, and is a Zen master. (Michael) McClure teaches. Diane di Prima‘s a very great poet. She makes her living doing tarot (I don’t know if she got through college). Amiri Baraka, I don’t think got a further degree beside a B.A. but he’s head of Black Studies at Stony Brook. I never got beyond my B.A. (and so) I’m not really much of a scholar (though a lot sticks in my head, (it’s) the nature of my interest, and that I.. magnetize certain verses.. can remember a lot..of that, but that’s about all). So I wouldn’t make any great pronouncement one way or the other.It really depends on the spirit of the individual and the particular quiddity of genius
<Well, I think we’ve just about exhausted all but the last question.

Q: It’s kind of really simple, going all the way back to when you were talking about your thought, first thought, best thought. I was just wondering, when you write something, you just pound it out and let it stand, or do you go back and revise, or edit, or..?

AG: I go back and revise and edit but I depend upon the original structure and the inspiration, of the picture at the very beginning, and if it’s not there or it’s lost on me, I’m hopeless. But I would revise, (like putting in the “collard greens” instead of “greens”), or if my mind lapses and I fall to an abstraction, filling in the blank. Or if I go on too long – bla bla bla – I might cut. But, basically, the skeleton is there, or if it’s not there, it’s not there, and on to the next poem. Don’t try and make it a..  Don’t try and fix up something that doesn’t have the bones to begin with  – OK – thank you

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