The Barry Farber 1976 interview that we featured last week continues. Audio for the interview can be heard here and here
BF: I’m Barry Farber, Peter Orlovsky is with us – I think that means “the son of the eagle”
AG: Right… Russian too.
BF: Allen Ginsberg, Jonathan Robbins, that’s the poetic part of the panel. The journalistic side, who can’t care if it rhymes or has soul just as long as it asks the desired questions, Robert Goodman, a new broadcast journalist and a good one, Bullets Durgin, just said goodbye, en route to the West Coast of the United States (not yet out of sight, Bullets, again, soon enough, and thanks very much for having come this way). Peter, I asked Allen to set up one of his poems a little bit earlier, and he did and he read it and I enjoyed it. It had that quality of a guy at the county fair being asked to wrestle Bozo the Bulgarian for five hundred dollars, and, sure enough, he gets up on the grandstand, takes off his coat and shirt, goes in there and they’re rolling around, and it’s a good thing, it’s an all-American number, and its unpredictable and its wild. No shirt-tails are tucked in. And I liked that poem Allen read about the King of the May. Let the CIA cross-examine me, my loyalties, ideologies and sensitivities and questions of taste haven’t changed but I.. I haven’t enjoyed a poem more within memory. Read me one of yours
PO: Sure. This is published in Beatitude in 1960,
BF: Set the scene, set the scene
PO: I wrote this poem in 1958, working at the Psychiatric Institute and living down on the Lower East Side in East 2nd Street,. I would take the A train up to 160.. 196th Street and I wrote this poem on the subway to work as a Psychiatric Attendant. ( At approximately thirty-seven minutes in, Peter Orlovsky reads his poem – “Let the subways be our Greek meeting place.” (“Let the subways be our Greek meeting place…”. …”Her toothbrush dream is the one she loves most”)
AG: That’s a good line – “Her toothbrush dream is the one she loves most”
BF: Powerful and conviction-marinated. How would you describe your poetry? Where does it fit?
PO: Well, I read William Carlos Williams. I read Sergei Esenin, a Russian poet, I read (Vladimir) Mayakovsky. I read.. I read..
BF: Do you read Russian?
PO: No, I don’t read Russian at all
BF: You read them in translation?
PO: Translations, I guess
BF: Once Allen Ginsberg said “(Andrei) Voznesensky glows in the dark”
AG: Oh, I got a postcard from Andrei Voznesensky. He’s a great Russian poet, old Russian poet, got a postcard and I answered tonight, wrote him. Yeah, I said “My manners are impeccable, I’ve gone completely mad. I eat air and soot and excrete gold and poetry” – We were just boasting to each other.
BF: Alright. Now what made you think that a Russian poet, who doesn’t write in a language that you can read, “glows in the dark”?
AG: Oh, I heard his voice. I went with Bob Dylan actually, years ago, to hear him, at Town Hall. And, by memory, he could recite, very powerful from his chest, the lines of a poem that begin KALAKALA! – with that kind of voice. with the bells of Moscow, with the sounds of the bells of Moscow – KALAKALA! – it was just.. really strong powerful declarative…
AG: Yes. Where does that voice come from? Somewhere between the breast and the throat. It’s not up in the head, it’s really in his body,
BF: You were explaining something to Bob Goodman and all I heard was one line that I’d like you to build a little trampoline on, upon which you may cavort. You said Bob Dylan went to Jack Kerouac’s grave and read poetry.
AG: Yeah. He was.. We were in Lowell, Massachusetts,, which is where Kerouac’s stamping ground was (which is the subject of a lot of his books, like Doctor Sax and Mexico City Blues and The Town and The City). A concert was going on there, and I suddenly realized – “Wow, we’re making a movie of.. – (we were making a movie, and I was acting in it), and so I told Bob we should go to Kerouac’s grave and..do something, honour him, and he said, “Absolutely” .So, when we got to Lowell, we all went out and met his brother-in-law, who took us out to a graveyard surrounded by two-story houses and churches on a flat land with trees, in autumn, with the leaves blowing, November, brown, in the wind. And we sat down on the grave, (first stood up on it), and I had a copy of Mexico City Blues, which is one of Kerouac’s beautiful books of poetry. So Dylan read one of his passages that he liked. And then I finished the poem. And then we sat down, and he took my harmonium and picked out a little tune, and then we traded improvising verses. He started off, I think, “Here we are on the grass over Kerouac’s bones”. And I said, something like, “Moaning November wind, our own autumnal tones”, or something, I don’t know, and went on to make a little ballad. Then he picked up his guitar and started playing a slow blues, so I started improvising a blues about Kerouac looking down from the clouds with an empty skull. And about.. in the middle of a verse, he put down his guitar and picked up a brown autumn leaf and put it in his breast pocket, while I continued singing, and then picked up his guitar and came down on the beat, just as I was finishing the verse and going on another. Then, then, we just took a walk through the graveyard and I said, “How come you were willing to come to Kerouac’s grave?” – And he said, “Well, when I was in Minneaopolis, somebody gave me a copy of Mexico City Blues and it blew my mind” (the first poetry that, that turned him on, apparently). He said, “I didn’t know what the words meant then, I know better now but it completely blew my mind”. So apparently that was.. so it was sort of an hommage to Kerouac’s influence as a sort of American genius poet.
BF: Sometimes you can get a good grip on a historical phenomenon. Our target now is the so-called “Beat”, “Beatnik” era, and what came after it. Sometimes the best way to get a good grip is to learn the history of the name, and since I wonder how many Americans are aware that the “Great Depression” wasn’t called “The Great Depression” by anybody who was trying to give it a bad name. The term came when Herbert Hoover, who was President, was asked about the lousy state of the economy and he said,”No, this is not a panic, relax, this is not a panic we’re going through in America, it’s just a depression”
BF: It just turns the whole lens around. Now how did “The Beats” become “Beats”?, and Allen Ginsberg, you were always neck-and-neck with (Jack) Kerouac in the public mind and magazines and on television. How did it all get underway? And who called you “Beat”? your friends, or your enemies, or yourselves?
AG: Well “Beat” was a word, that’s sort of partly a carny word, partly a Times Square hipster lingo, circa 1944, 45 to 48, when Kerouac, myself, and William Burroughs and a writer, whose books have not been published yet, Herbert Huncke, were hanging around Bickford’s Cafeteria under the Apollo Theatre on Times Square in New York City. “Beat”, just meant the state of the junkies of the day, I think, mainly (well, not everybody, but the junkies, particularly, in that area, that were.. couldn’t go to a doctor to get medical treatment, were persecuted by a very corrupt police that was always busting and blackmailing them and trying to extort money from them, and finally were reduced to just wandering around on the streets, sick, not being able to get any relief – so I remember hearing Huncke say,”I’m beat”). And then, I think, in conversation with a novelist, John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac.. well, they were talking about generations, (Ernest) Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald – and Holmes said, “Well, what do you think our generation will be called?” – it was probably in 1948,49, and Jack, sort of denying there was any category for it, said “Ah, it’s the Beat Generation” (probably said “a Beat Generation, not ‘the’). And Holmes said, “Ah, that’s it, this is the Beat Generation!”. Then Holmes wrote an article for the New York Times magazine section in 1953, called ‘This is the Beat Generation” and it immediately… And Kerouac published one little piece of prose (in Paris Review, I think), that sort of, had that spirit of his own writing of improvisation, and looking down, looking up, at America from the bottom of the barrel, sort of, or from the river-bottom, or from the land itself, instead of from the top of a skyscraper, but from the bottom of the Bowery, or the bottom of the soul-Bowery, what I’m saying. And it caught on from there, but Kerouac didn’t publish his great prose (which he’d already written), On The Road, until 1957.
And then, I think, a columnist, Herb Caen in San Francisco, at the time of the Sputnik, thinking (that would be ’57), thinking that it would be a big gag conjoined the word “Beat” to “Sputnik”, and “nudnik”, coined the phrase “Beatnik”. From the point of view, thinking that, “Well, these guys are wandering around San Francisco, they’re so off the wall, they’re so out of it, they’re out of this world – Beatniks – Sputniks”. And then everybody picked that up because that was a good handle, like a good piece of salami, to hit everybody over the head with.
BF: Everybody had his own element of curiosity and opinion about that movement. I have just one over-riding question. I want to know how you pulled it off.I wantto know how four men with not the clout (among you, you didn’t have the clout of even the smallest oil company, no press agents, no clamoring media, at first, hungering for a word or two from you).I want to know how you four sat around a cafeteria
AG: And Gregory Corso in the middle of all that too
BF: Okay, fine. I want to know how you sat around a cafeteria (and I must have walked by that cafeteria in those days and looked in there)
AG: Remember that big fridge? It’s gone now, replaced by slot machines
BF: Uh-huh. We used to call it ‘The Loser’s Lounge”
AG: I worked there on the dish-washing machines in the ‘Forties
BF: Really. I want to know how you got together and overturned the media and had them scrambling for even the slightest contact with any of you, enshrined as you were as “the Beat,, (not just King of May for a day, but you were really the top of Mount Everest for a journalist, anybody who could get to you)
AG: Parnassus is probably better – Parnassus is the poet’s mountain.
BF: Okay, Parnassus, okay
AG: Well, I say, power of poetic imagination
BF: Now wait a minute, I want to know, technically,how you attracted that much attention?. I think your poetry…
AG: ..By being so funny, being so funny, in the language.
BG: When we reconvene, when we reconvene, testify as fully as you can. First.. [show pauses for commercial break]
to be continued