Beginning today, a transcription of an interview that took place in Hvidovre, (Copenhagen), Denmark, on January 21, 1983, with Ole Reitov. The transcription is courtesy Lars Movin. It begins in media res with discussion of Allen and his time in India among the Bengali poets
OR: ……you were basically talking about the syntax and I wonder, did they combine…all these new movements, like the Naxalites.. did they combine that with what they were doing at that period?
AG: Well, the Naxalites I don’t know. I didn’t meet very many of them…I read about them in the papers, and I knew friends that were involved with them, but the people I met..we.. as I said, Sunil Ganguly, among the younger poets, Sunil Ganguly who worked with Krittibas magazine, as well as the older poet Buddhadeva Bose…. I forgot the name of his magazine actually (Kavita)…and his son-in-law Jyoti Datta, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Tarapada Roy, and others from Calcutta. And I also saw a lot of swamis and spent a lot of time in the burning grounds, at Nimtala Burning Ghat.. I kept a journal which I published called Indian Journals (1970). Then in Benares, I talked to a lot of Hindi poets, and there were some very intelligent guys there who were connected with left wing and Communist movements. But there was also a slight element of paranoia since we had no reason to be there, except to be the CIA, they thought. And Peter (Orlovsky) had a girlfriend from Calcutta who came and lived with us openly, and the Communists were very puritanical…got something in Blitz newspaper saying that we were CIA agents. But we had a lot of friends there so we got over that. But one left-wing guy attacked me on the street one day…or in a bar, saying, “You Americans with your rotten airplanes and your rotten poetry coming here to our Indian purity” (said the Marxist, Maoist)..[laughter]. But the main discussion was not literary. It was literary, but it had a practical, political application or a social application. It was “how can a poet write in his native tongue in a way which is understood by people?, which means, “how do you write the way you talk when you are on the street or with friends or with your Mummy?, how do you really talk?”, instead of, “how do you talk literarily?”
OR: Right.. and that’s what you do actually.
AG: Yes, and that was my interest out of study with William Carlos Williams, and out of experience with Ezra Pound, and out of the whole tendency of America writing from…through the Beat writers and (Jack) Kerouac and Gary Snyder, and even. the Buddhist writers, who are all concerned with William Carlos Williams’ and Kerouac’s preoccupation with writing truthfully, the way we talk. So if you do develop a poetic syntax which is like the way you really think and talk, and use the worrds of common people, or your own real words, then the poetry will be effective personally and, as a by-product, socially.
OR: But then, of course, the problem comes in getting the poetry across not just to academics but to…
AG: I’m not sure you understand what I’m saying.. If you speak in a language which people understand there is no problem in getting it across.
OR: No, but what I mean.
AG: The problem of getting it across is when you talk in an academic language and nobody can understand.
OR: No, but what I mean is actually to get access to that audience. One thng is to write, another thing is to get things published, to get it across in media, and..
AG: It’s not really a problem.
OR: You don’t find that?
AG: No, most of Indian literature is oral anyway. The greatest Indian literature is the Baul, (or among the greatest is the Baul). And the ancient tradition among the Indians and among the Australian Aborigines, and all over the world… the largest population is in oral literature (including here in Scandinavia (sic) until a couple of hundred years ago). I think also if you develop a real oral literature, by its own strength it will break through. It may take time, in the sense that Lead Belly (who had a limited audience), years later (in a brief time, twenty years) becomes a national hero – or Ma Rainey, or Bessie Smith, or, Robert Johnson, say, finally, is heard through… his songs are heard through Mick Jagger – “Went down to the station to see my baby off…” – that’s Robert Johnson.. What might be considered an esoteric and primtive guitar-song, recorded in a cheap hotel room on a Wollensak in 1928 or something, is heard everywhere in the world, finally. I think language has power to make its own way. And tune and music has power. I think sincerity has power to break through the machine (or to use the machine, manipulate the. machine).
OR: You are talking about… that a lot of people are talking about writing in their own language….
AG: That’s the key.. to combating the mechanistic monopoly.
OR: …and obviously that’s the problem.. and the same in Africa with the local languages.
AG: But you see, African rhythms are actually world-wide now. African manners, African vocal customs, through reggae people like Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and others, reach a world audience. You hear more Linton Johnson in Amsterdam than you hear The Beatles (and this is a migration of African rhythms, mixed with local provincial Jamaican rhythms.. from Trinidad, or wherever).
OR: But when it comes to the marketing of that kind of culture, then obviously Jamaica didn’t make much of it. It was basically companies and estates and….
AG: You’re thinking about the financial profits?
AG: I thought you were speaking about the spread of the art.
OR: Well I was speaking about both
AG: Well, one at a time. I’m more interested in the spead of the art than the money.
OR: But if we speak of the practical distribution of, like, books, records, and so on, obviously we are up against four or five multi-national companies.
AG: Which ones?
OR: Well, when it comes to records, like CBS (Columbia) , obviously and WEA (Warner, Elektra and Atlantic)..and those companies.. EMI. And what more have we got? We’ve got Polygram, of course…
AG: I’ve had a lot of experience with them, actually.
OR: What kind of experiences are that?
AG: Well, I haven’t been able to get any records out! (laughter) and god knows I tried! But in the long run I don’t worry about it, ’cause it’s like in all art… my favorite poet is Christopher Smart, who provided me with the line for “Howl”, and he wrote in the seventeenth, eighteenth century, three lines a day in a Bedlam mental hospital, in the manuscript of Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb)…(it) was not assembled and published until 1920, and influenced Kerouac and me, and then influenced The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and then influenced something else. So, if you’re interested in the art part then I think everything is okay. If you’re interested in the money, that’s business, and I’m not that interested in the money. But my interest in the multi-nationals is as follows… that first record that I did (inspired by the Chicago riots) was Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake..what I did was, I went out on a poetry reading tour and got together about five thousand dollars, and hired Don Cherry, and Elvin Jones, and some friends, and recorded it myself and produced it myself. And then it was supposed to be put out by Apple, but then there were problems with Apple so it was put out by MGM, by Peter Asher, who had been associated with The Beatles, who then got fired by Mike Curb representing Las Vegas Mafia money, I think, who bought out MGM and went on a hypocritical campaign against everybody who was interested in dope..and censored..dropped (it) from his list, he announced (he went on to be a politician and then ran for lieutenant-governer of California and won, and then opposed Jerry Brown in one of the governor contests.
OR: Was that this movement that they tried to create in Boston as a sort of anti-drug… was that connected with that?
AG: Yes, probably
OR: I remember that MGM was trying to put up some groups that were clean and…
AG: Well what happened was they got. great art which lost them a lot of money. My record sold out and then they didn’t reprint it and they didn’t work with it at all (although with Asher we had a really interesting campaign to send out notice to all the English teachers so it could be used as a teaching aid for studying Blake’s poems. That never took place ’cause they fired all the secretaries and all the friends. And then re-issued it a coule of years later as a part of an Archive series, (with an old Billie Holiday and a few other jazz things) with a horrible cover (’cause I’d made a very beautiful cover with color plates from Blake’s illuminations and pictures…)
OR: They didn’t find it commercial enough!
AG No, it was much more commercial.. They don’t know their own business!
OR: I know, but in their terms.
AG: No, even in their terms it was a terrible mistake. Well that sold out, finally (they only printed a few thousand). And they still have the master and I can’t get it back (1983- sic) unless I pay them seven thousand dollars, which I will if I ever get rich. Then the next record I made was with Apple again. I produced a second album of (William) Blake and sold (it) to Fantasy Records in 1971, along with sixteen albums (or sixteen hours of complete assembled vocalized poetry from 1948…voices from 1948 to 1970, that I’d spent about ten thousand dollars compiling with a friend, (Barry) Miles, from London, who had the Indica Bookstore and had introduced John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and who was (William) Burroughs’ bibliographer). So Miles came and stayed with me for three years and we put it all together, all the tapes I’d saved. So I sold that to Fantasy, in Berkeley, who at that time had some big band that they were making money on (’cause the lawyer for that, I think, was the lawyer for “Howl” in the trial…he was an American Civil Liberties lawyer, and he was interested, and his kids liked the record). But they never put any of it out, so I have this twelve-year-old record (this is pre Holy Soul Jelly Roll – sic ) lying in a vault, and I can’t get them to put that out unless I get them another seven grand. Then the next thing I did was a recording in a hotel room with Harry Smith, who was a great discographer and anthropologist, who’s recording “Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side of New York in the early ’70’s”..
OR: he got a stipend, or…
AG: No, he was a great drunk and interesting genius who was also a filmmaker and who had compiled a great anthology of old blues put out by Folkways Records, which had influence on all modern rock ‘n roll, including (Bob) Dylan. (It’s the Folkways Archive or Folklore series, three records or three boxes with six records of blues)…that’s where I learned blues. Then the next record I made was with (Bob) Dylan in 1971 (which I paid for myself, which cost me fifteen thousand, Dylan playing guitar with Happy Traum and David Amram), and we got about five interesting songs out of three days work, but nobody would put that out, except, ten years later, one of the songs (was included) on Giorno Poetry Systems (which is a completely independent little poetry commune, run by a fellow named John Giorno , who invented Dial-a-Poem records for the Museum of Modern Art (editoral note – not exactly – but the records now are, and have been, featured at the Museum of Modern Art). He put it on a record, and he put “Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)” on that, with Dylan playing and me improvising a song. And the next thing. did was (for) John Hammond. Do you know him?
AG: Hammond is an old radical and a very great produce… produced Dylan, and Bessie Smith..everybody – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and, up into the ’60s, Dylan, and then later, in the ’70’s, Bruce Springsteen. So he produced a record for me (paid for, finally, by Columbia), which he thought was “brilliant” as singing and as words (and I had good musicians, some of Dylan’s musicians from the Rolling Thunder tour, Steven Taylor and David Mansfield from tonight (sic). And what happened with that was Columbia’s Don DeVito (who was Dylan’s A&R man) told me that a corporate decision was made not to put it out, against Hammond’s wishes. And I couldn’t find out why, until one of the merchandising younger salesman got drunk at aparty and told me, “We’ve listened to your record a lot, it’s great, except “you’re shaking your cock around too much””. And also he said, “We’re afraid to show it to William S Paley, head of CBS, ’cause there’s also a “CIA Dope Calypso”, giving an account of the CIA involvement with opium trafficking in Indochina. And “Everybody Sing” that I played tonight (sic) – “Everybody’s just a little bit homosexual..” and some really filthy lyrics..(laughter)…So that lay in Columbia’s vaults from “(19)76 on. And the next thing I did was…
OR: But you were never tied up contractually?
OR: So you could do other things?
AG: Yes… I didn’t know enough law then.. I didn’t know enough law to sign a contract with the first records saying that if they don’t put them out I get them back..
OR: The master tapes?
AG: Yes, the obvious thing that I do now
OR: And you would be able to put it out yourself.
AG: Yes. And then the next thing I did was a little bit of work with… I knew Phil Spector from (19)65 through (Bob) Dylan.. (In) Christmas (19)65, I spent time with him and taught him Hare Krishna (which he later used with..“My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison
OR: Let’s put him in court!
AG: No, I was delighted that they were able to use it (Harrison had his own approacht oit anyway). Next thing was (19)78 with Leonard Cohen and Dylan singing back-up vocal on one track on one of Cohen’s albums –“Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” was the song.
OR: Before you move on…because I would like to get some consequences of this. The. way that we get access to these things is obviously through commerce, through Columbia (CBS) and.. if you look at the American society today, a lot of the news that Americans get access to is through companies like Columbia, and..what kind of consequences do you think that that has to a nation…
AG: I’m not interested in philosophy, I’m interested in facts.
OR: I mean, your daily life in the (United) States, what sort of consequences does it have that…
AG: That’s philosophy and I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in facts. Generalizations are not generally very useful and facts speak for themselves. “The natural object is always the adequate symbol” (Ezra Pound), or, as my teacher William Carlos Williams (has it) “No ideas but in things”, or (Jack) Kerouac – “Details are the life of prose…or conversation”. So the next engagement I had with commerce was (in) 1981, when I got a scholarship to produce another album..
OR: But, you see, I’m not so interested in those kinds of facts
AG: Well, I know, I’m sorry, but I can only talk about what I know, not about what I don’t know
OR: Well, I think you know a lot more than that
AG: Well, perhaps if you’d listen, you’d find out what I know.