Allen Ginsberg 1979 Leicester Student Interview

Last week, we featured transcription from a tape in the Stanford University Archives that featured an interview with Jack Kerouac’s childhood friend (and Allen’s friend) jazz aficiando, Seymour Wyse. This week, from the same tape, the conversation is followed by an interview with an earnest young English student (presumably an undergraduate at Leicester University, prior to the reading Allen gave there with Steven Taylor and Peter Orlovsky in the Fall of 1979 – at one point in the transcript, Allen breathlessly itemizes his itinerary)

Interviewer (Student):  Do you make recordings of all your work?

AG:  Not all, but I have this machine with me, so..

Interviewer: I guess you get used to it by now

AG:  Yeah, yeah – yeah. it’s always interesting, on account that it’s always a chance to talk, say what you think.

Interviewer: Good, right. Are you ready?

AG: Well, I thought we’d started.

Interviewer: During the 1960’s your poetry gained immense popularity as the expression of an era, the youth culture. Do you think that your message carries as much force today?

AG: Well, actually, my poetry was probably in its..  best-known,  earlier than that, in the late ‘Fifties, (and a lot of it was written in the ‘Forties).  What I’m writing now [sic] seems to be related to what’s going on at the moment, in that I’m interested in meditation practice and I write a lot of poems about that, and have also been involved with the anti-nuclear protests and been arrested for that, in America. I’ve written a long Miltonic oratory poem called “Plutonian Ode” , and that seems to be related with what people are concerned with  now. I just relate to what I’m interested in, naturally. Everybody’s the same.

Interviewer:  Do you feel that you were successful in putting your message across at the time?

AG: I wasn’t attempting to put a message across at the time, I was trying to write poems, without a message at all. The message is a by-product of my intelligence (and other people’s intelligence). The creation of a work of beauty, which is, frank expression of heart, is a thing which isn’t a message, it’s just an activity, (you know, like a fountain), which sends no messages.

Interviewer: So where did the driving force of the poetry come from? From your self or from the environment?

AG: From the realization that I have no self

Interviewer: From just that?

AG: Yes, sure, wouldn’t you be amazed if you had no self and were completely free?

Interviewer: Yes, true

AG: So that’s where the inspiration comes from. The inspiration actually means breath – spiritus– breath – inspiration. Inspiration in poetry is when you take a great deep breath like Shelley and say “O wild West Wind..”

Interviewer: And is your breath still as strong today as it was when you first gained your height as a poet?

AG: It’s a little stronger now because I’ve spent the last ten years doing meditation on the breath – Buddhist-style, samatha, as it’s called, paying attention to the out-breath mostly.

Interviewer; But when you started, did you know anything about this meditation (investment)  How has this helped your writing of poetry since ?

AG: Well, it’s made it more conscious, more  aware. But when I started I was a little bit into Buddhist..ideas (now I’m into Buddhist practice). like, (Jack) Kerouac in 1948 wrote a book called The Dharma Bums. Now I work at a school called Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, as a director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Our faculty is William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky, among others. So there’s always been this continuity of interests.

Interviewer: You’ve had quite an affect on the music of Bob Dylan. How would you describe your affect on him and his on yours?

AG: Well, I don’t think I had any affect on his music. I think – he has said – there has been some affect on his poetry. Also that (Jack) Kerouac had influenced his poetry a great deal (he said that someone gave him a copy of Kerouac’s book of poems, Mexico City Blues, in 1958, and, Dylan told me, that it blew his mind then.  We were   making a scene in the movie Renaldo and Clara, at Kerouac’s grave, and I asked him what he knew about Kerouac’s poetry and he said  that it “blew his mind” (as Kerouac’s poetry blew my mind also). The affect, I think has been to make him more conscious of vowels, more conscious of  the beauty of ordinary speech and vernacular in rhyme and run-on line and speedy stenographic Surrealists’ babble.

Interviewer: Is your work, as you wrote in one of your earlier poems, a “Holy prayer for knowledge of true fact.”  and do you see that still today as it was then?

AG: I don’t remember writing that but it sounds good.

No,  actually, not, I don’t see it that way now because I don’t like the holy-prayer-type stuff anymore. I believe that’s a little bit sentimental. I think it’s more like a reclaiming of awareness of fact rather than a holy prayer for it. I don’t have to pray holy any more! I’m a big grown-up boy now, I don’t have to worry about ol’ Nobodaddy in the sky giving me the facts.

Interviewer: Yeah. So you have, in fact, gained this sense, the presence, and a sense of Land, and Earth, since that time…

AG: Sense of what?

Interviewer: Earth and Land?

AG: Yeah, I would say so. I’ve had a farm for the last ten years –  to be literal about it. So there’s some grounding, yes  – due to.. I get older, I’m fifty-three – and, also, due to the meditation practice that I do.

Interviewer: And how’s your tour, so far, of Europe, gone?

AG: Well, we (meaning me and Peter Orlovsky, poet-author of a recent book, Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs) and Steven Taylor, a musician, born in Manchester). We’re in England and Italy and France in the Spring and.. it’s fun (I haven’t been here in five years (and) I’ve never done actual poetry readings on an extensive scale, but now I’ve got (William) Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience tuned to music which I sing, and my own rags and blues and ballads, and lots of old poems and a lot of new poems including powerful pieces like a poem called “Don’t Grow Old, on the death of my father, and the “Plutonian Ode”  as well as “Howl”, and “Kaddish”, and a lot of intermediary poems. So there’s enough for about twenty different programs, poetry and singing – and Peter Orlovsky has his whole book and a lot of songs.

So, I’ve just been going from place to place, reading different things each time in… So we’ll go on.. (We did about fifteen readings in England – and are going to Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, benefits for Buddhist meditation groups in Bristol and at the Roundhouse in London – we’ve been to Plymouth, we’re here in Leicester,  Cheltenham,  Guy Fawkes Night at the Stardust Club in Stroud, Warwick University reading with Tom Pickard, and London reading with Tom Pickard, (who’s a great young English poet – and read a few times at Stroud and Cheltenham with Michael Horovitz). From here we’ll go on to Amsterdam for a week, and then Bussels, then join Gregory Corso and some members of the Living Theater, a great avant-garde theater group, in northern Italy, and then go on a couple of weeks to Dusseldorf and Heidelberg and Munich in Germany, then go home by Christmas! – All for fun!

Interviewer; Are your audiences mainly students?

AG:  No, it’s a mixture of, like, young.. young kids, young kids going through adolescence and old folks on the edge of death. Then a lot of students and a lot of hippies and a lot of beards, and a lot of scholars. Like here today, Geoffrey Moore, who’s a don at Hull University, who is the editor of the Oxford.. or the Penguin Book of American Verse, is here. We haven’t met since 1969, almost  ten years ago in Canada

Interviewer: Who do you find you relate to best? – the students? the (faculty)? the people?

AG: Good-looking young boys. I like good-looking young boys and I find I relate to them emotionally the best.

Interviewer: Really?

AG: Yeah, sometimes intelligent old bohemians too – or magnificent old ladies, sometimes.

Interviewer; Would you describe yourself as a “magnificent old bohemian”?

AG: No, I’d describe myself as a “majestic child”!

Interviewer: Majestic child?

AG: Yes! – Majestic kid!  (laughs)  – a bald majestic kid! – with a palsied face!

Interviewer: (So)  From here to where?

AG: (We) go back to London, and tomorrow night, go to.. .on the twenty-third, go to Amsterdam and play in a place called the Milky Way, which is a hippie bar full of hashish smoke, where I’ll read a lot of poems and sing a lot of filthy blues and sex-lonely-bed blues.

Interviewer; Who do you see is going to be the new leading light on the poetry circles in the next decade?

AG: Well, I’m editing a book for City Lights, my publisher, of some younger poets. I’ve edited a few little mini-anthologies for some publishers and I do like the work of a young poet named David Cope, who is working in the tradition of William Carlos Williams and Charles Reznikoff (unknown names here maybe? – Objective, absolute factual, tender photographs in poetry) , a guy named Antler, single name,  has written this huge epic about working in the Continental Can Company in Milwaukee in America, a poem called “Factory”, and Andy Clausen, a hod-carrying, laboring, taxi-driving poet, family-man, who lives in Texas, who’s a friend of Neal Cassady, (who’s a friend of mine and Kerouac’s and Ken Keseys) , who seems to have inherited Kesey’s poetic energy but he writes. So there’s three names of young people who are younger than me, in their twenties and thirties, and then there’s Bobby Myers, a little angelic blonde-haired kid that lives in the wilderness of Southern Colorado who writes extremely beautiful lyric poetry.

Interviewer: Do you still enjoy your work?

AG: Well, no, I never enjoyed it or didn’t enjoy it. It’s just  like breathing – no choice. I enjoy breathing! I mean – “Do you still enjoy breathing?”  “Do you still enjoy breathing?” It’s a question like that. I never thought of it in terms of enjoyment or not.

Interviewer; It is as much part of you as breathing.. It functions..

AG: That was what I was just saying, yes. Well, actually, making poetry is part of everybody, whether you write for newspapers or if you’re Margaret Thatcher, all your doing is making up words, and giving speeches, you know, behind podiums, or in front of television sets, in front of,  classes, or to your wife, or to your children, or your mistress. Everybody’s giving speeches and projecting their   images all the time . This is just doing it consciously and attempting to avoid damaging people while doing it, attempting to avoid manipulating people while doing it, tipping them off in advance that a projection is being laid on them – and they might enjoy the projection but not cling to it.  So I’m enjoying my projections but don’t cling to them   Playful, in other words. So I enjoy playfulness.

Interviewer: Thank you very much indeed


[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginnings at approximately six-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately seventeen-and-a-half minutes in – the rest of the tape is a somewhat poor quality audio tape of the Leicester University reading/performance] 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *