Elazar Larry Freifeld Tel Aviv 1988 Interview

Allen Ginsberg in Jerusalem, 1988, praying by the Western Wall.  Photograph by Steven Taylor

Allen Ginsberg in Israel.

This interview with Elazar Larry Freifeld was conducted at Tel Aviv University in 1988, and published in Moznaim (in Hebrew). It appeared a year later (In English) in The Tel Aviv Review, and most recently in the Jerusalism Review.

LF: Welcome to Israel, Allen. You come at a very troublesome time [civil war in Lebanon].

AG: Ah, it’s the same all over the world. Everyone has their own tsurus [“trouble”, in Yiddish]. In Nicaragua, the CIA is fomenting trouble, in Columbia there are the drug dealers; think of Iran and the Iraqis. What could be worse?

LF: I know. Hundreds of thousands killed. What happened in Jerusalem? I heard you got mugged.

AG: Oh, it was nothing. I got knocked down by a drunk, a guy who was drunk.

LF: That’s unusual in Israel. Made me paranoid when I first heard about it. I thought it might have been a deliberate provocation.

AG: No, no. It was just a drunk. But my bag got knocked down the street or something. He knocked me on the ground. The police came. And then the mayor Teddy Kollek came:  ‘”Oh, oh, this is terrible. I am sorry. Who’s responsible for this?” He was so upset…  Did you bring a tape recorder?

LF: No. But first let me tell you I’ve dissociated myself from the Jerusalem Post, they censored the last piece I wrote about you. I will interview you as poet to poet.

AG: O.K., but you must be careful not to misquote me. I have a biographer – really, he gets upset. [laughs]

LF: In your interview on TV this week with Ram Evron, you seemed a bit aggressive.

AG: No, not at all.

LF: I thought your taking a picture of him was quite provocative, I mean disconcerting.

AG: No, it wasn’t meant to be. He knew I was going to take his picture – it was prearranged. However, we were told at first, we would have 20 minutes. Then when we got to the studio, they said we would only have 12 minutes. We had to get a lot more in, in less time. We had some Arabic newspapers that had been banned, and we wanted to show them but they wouldn’t let us.

LF: You know, I asked other Israelis what they thought about you. One said:”A flower child…” Another said that you “never grew up” and that you are “still a child.”

AG: Hmm, yes that’s true. I am still a child.

LF: On TV you said, quoting a Lama you had met in India, (Dudjom Rinpoche), ‘If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it. If you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it.”. You know, for an Israeli, for a Jew, this is an especially hard concept to swallow. Particularly on the heels, in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Allen, we are talking about people, children, families, the land, a place to live.

AG: Jews certainly need a place to live – stupid for me to say how people should live. But Hitler and Stalin also refused to give up, refused to let go.

LF: I don’t think that’s a fair analogy, Allen. What do you think about giving up the West Bank?

AG: Certainly many people think so. I don’t know. Many people have many conceptions. Some people conceive of winning at any cost. Listen, the Arabs are just as bad. I have some cousins in Gush Etzion. I hope I have time to visit them.

LF: Both Jews and Arabs are victims. I can cite a long list of slaughtered Jews.

AG: The thing is to start talking. Think for your enemy. Most Israeli politicians are shouting, bullying all the time. Have you noticed? It’s in the voice. The only resolution is gentleness…measure politics by the quality of feeling and voice…awareness of other people’s and your own pain. We see through our own pain, it’s universal. Everyone is in pain.

LF: Allen, you know, I came here today with a lot of questions but your answers are much better. I too have a few ‘conceptual knots’ like those you described on TV. Anyway, to continue, when you were last in Israel 27 years ago and visited Gershom Scholem I read somewhere that when he asked you why you didn’t come to live in Israel, you said that since you were a boy, you have been running away from the Bronx.

AG: No, I don’t remember… Wait, yes I recall; I said many people in Israel remind me of my relatives in the Bronx. I like my relatives in the Bronx. But let’s talk about something else, let’s talk about literary things.

LF: Good idea. I meant to ask you, are you still involved in the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado?

AG: Yes, well, I was co-director of the Institute from 1974 to 1983. I will be teaching there this summer, but I am no longer a co-director.

LF: Can you tell us more about it, and the (Jack) Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?

AG: Yes. Naropa is based on Buddhist meditation – a contemplative college. The background emphasis is non-theistic, Buddhist style.

LF: Are you still involved with Rinpoche?

AG: Rinpoche? You mean Chogyam Trungpa. Yes, he…you know, died this year. Chogyam Trungpa was my teacher in meditation; he believed in aesthetic appreciation of the world as it is, united through Heaven and Earth.

LF: You know, when you spoke of ‘clinging’ to things, I couldn’t help thinking of those marvelous lines of (William) Blake: (“Eternity’) –  “He who binds himself to a joy, doth the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies…..

AG: …lives in eternity’s sunrise’”  Yes, that’s an excellent description of Buddhist meditation method.

LF: How has your own poetry changed in the last 15 years?

AG: Not much change in my poetry really, only more meditation – greater realization of my own worthlessness – low self-esteem.

LF: Really! That’s funny. One would think you had accomplished a great deal, your work, your fame as a poet. Why do you feel like that?

AG: I don’t know – that’s why I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist the past two years. You know the feeling – not up to what was expected of me. Haven’t you ever felt that way?

LF: Yes, I know what you mean…Anyway, I’ve been away from the States for five years, what’s happening now on the literary/poetry scene. Whatever happened to Gregory Corso?

AG: Corso…Oh, he’s the most brilliant of them all. He’s been living in Italy, the past few years. He has a new book out with New Directions – Herald of Autochthonic Spirit a great book! Who else from the 50s generation? Gary Snyder is still very active. Phillip Whalen…also  (Robert) Creeley.

LF: I’ve always liked Whalen.

AG: Whalen is now a full Zen master. Really, he’s the only one of us who’s really become a Zen master; you know, gone through the whole training.

LF: And Bremser? Ray Bremser, he was great! I always remember him – he was so funny – taking out his false teeth at poetry readings.

AG: Bremser? He’s still around. He taught a class of mine about a month ago. Bobby Dylan also likes him. He says he has the best ear of all the poets. He has a new book out called: Blowing Mouth.

LF: Incidentally, when Dylan was here recently he acted very strangely…sort of weird.

AG: He just didn’t want to hack all the bullshit!

LF: He never did like concert tours.

AG: That’s not true. Friends of mine who saw him here said he really sang his heart out.

LF: Any other poets in the States you think we should know about?

AG: Well, there’s Ed Sanders, a great poet; and Anne Waldman, they’re both stars. Another poet, Antler (single name) is excellent. He has a book out called Factory/Last Words. There’s also Andy Clausen, and another new young poet, David Cope. And John Wieners, you remember John Wieners?

LF: Yes, The Hotel Wentley poems.

AG: Black Sparrow has just come out with (two volumes of)  his collected works. Charles Reznikoff’’s collected works is also out with Black Sparrow. He also wrote in the vernacular; he was an imagist. You should see it – your work reminds me of him a little. He and William Carlos Williams were both my teachers. Williams taught: (that) there are “no ideas except in things

LF: Jonathan Swift said that everything is a noun.

AG: Williams taught me to write poetry as ‘reconstruction of vernacular,’ and not to focus on ‘imitation of the literary’.

LF: You mean like Kingsley Amis?

AG: Amis never recognized the revolution in the line…Williams [Editorial note – Williams? – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche surely? ] – taught me: “‘first thought, best thought.’  And (Walt) Whitman influenced me so very much in referring directly to things, but Whitman was of course biblical.  (Jack) Kerouac, who was a very great influence on me, never wanted a single word changed, but to have it just as it came immediately out of the mind.

LF: Well you know, a lot of what these guys were saying can also be found earlier in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  Also in F.J. Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

AG: Yes… yes, that’s true, in the Ballads.

LF: Anyway, my own best work is in flashes and series.

AG: Yes, that’s it. That’s the best. What Charles Reznikoff did with images, Ezra Pound did with verbs. For him, everything was moving, changing all the time.

LF: On TV you said: Speech is sacred. Can you explain what you mean? Sometimes it seems to me that speech is more often profane, judging from the way people talk to one another.

AG: Well, I mean it this way. There is the mind from which come thoughts and words, which is heaven. From the body and earth comes breath. And speech is sacred because it synchronizes heaven and earth…when it synchronizes and harmonizes and harmonizes the heaven of the mind, with the body and breath of the earth. Speech unites, as long as you speak with your own voice.

LF: Sometimes I wonder, Allen, at the violence in some of my own work.

AG: As long as you speak with your own voice, it’s O.K. Everything is O.K. in the poem. [whispers] Most poets never do find their own voice. Just be honest without fear. I wonder though, if the Israeli writers are working enough in the idiom… the vernacular?

LF: I don’t know. But there are a lot of excellent writers here. Now, returning to your poetry, what role do you see yourself playing as poet?

AG: Not a role, no role. I just express my own pain.

LF: Or pleasure? Once you spoke of your poems as celebrations of life.

AG: Yes, pleasure too, and celebration of life – existence.

LF: (pause) ..I understand you were in China. You mentioned it during your reading.

AG: Yes, I was for ten weeks traveling in China. I wrote a lot of poems. Imitations of Po-Chu-I, or Bai Juyi – in my White Shroud  book.. Lately, I have been writing narrative poems from dreams: First thought, best thought.

LF: Allen, I must tell you some of your ideas are like pollen, they propagate and inspire. I love what you said in one of your poems you read at (the) Tzavta (night) club: what was it? – “I am looking for someone who is wrong’ and ‘if only everyone around me wasn’t so great.”  I wrote a poem about it.

AG: No, the correct verse was… no, let me see… oh yes: “A world of conscious mercy / a world we could create, / if we all sat down / and decided not to be great.” And the other line was: “if only I could find someone / who has the courage to be wrong.” Sounds like good advice for  (Yitzhak) Shamir,  (Shimon) Peres and the Palestinians. Especially at this time [1988]….{Editorial note – and 2018!]

LF: Allen, can you think of anything else you want to say?

AG: No, I’ve told you everything I know.

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