Steve Silberman: One of the things that I’ve always respected and been inspired by in you, Raymond, is how professional you are. You absolutely have your trip together, whether you’re working with an artist, a writer, a poet, or whatever – you do the necessary diligence so that the thing you produce is really solid and important, and you’ve given a lot of things to the world that no one even attributes to you because you like to be a behind-the-scenes person. But by having your trip together behind the scenes, you’ve made so many great things happen.
Raymond Foye: Well, thank you. I’m more comfortable being a behind-the-scenes person. When you mentioned ‘What did I learn from Allen,’ the filing system is really the first thing that came to mind. A lot of great books like Acid Dreams were based on Allen’s filing system. Another thing I thought of was that class at Naropa, “Beginning Poetics”, where Allen came in and said, “OK, first rule: brush your teeth twice a day and floss your teeth” — and he took out dental floss and starts demonstrating how to how to floss your teeth! He’d seen so many poets who, later in life, lost their teeth, and it was a problem. You could just see these poor kids in his poetics class getting really deflated with this information.
There was such a practical side to him. A more interesting question is what did I learn not to do from him. Maybe he made himself too available to people. Rene Ricard once said to me, “You don’t have to do everything that everybody wants you to do.” So that thing about not suffering fools gladly and protecting yourself a little bit from the world — maybe I learned that from Allen, in a negative way.
Two questions came up when you were speaking. One of them is about your early teachers. There was Chögyam Trungpa, there was Maezumi-roshi, there was Richard Baker-roshi, and all of them turned out to be rather imperfect and problematic individuals in certain ways.
Steve Silberman: So did Allen.
Raymond Foye: Yes. So what do you make of that, and how do you how do you deal with it? Then another teacher you had a very close relationship with was Philip Whalen. You recently sent me this incredible interview you happened to find sitting in a drawer, a tape you never transcribed, about the famous Gallery Six reading where Allen read “Howl” for the first time, and Philip Lamantia read the poems of John Hoffman. Also present was Michael McClure, and let us just pause at this moment so we can acknowledge his passing a few days ago. He was a great figure, a great friend, a marvelous poet, and a very important playwright. Some of the most profound artistic experiences I’ve had in my life were sitting in Michael McClure’s plays. So let’s just say farewell and thank you to Michael McClure.
Steve Silberman: Farewell and thanks, Michael.
Raymond Foye: Do you want to talk about your early teachers?
Steve Silberman: As you mentioned, a lot of my early teachers turned out to be imperfect. Allen was… well, you know. I’ll tell you an embarrassing story. I wasn’t attracted to Allen physically, but I loved him very much, and if he had wanted to have sex with me, I probably would have done it. But the closest we ever came to that was at a party at Naropa, smoking one of Gregory Corso‘s truly epic joints that devastated the party, when Allen came up to me, kissed me on the lips, and said, “Why don’t we get together and fuck sometime?” I was very shy, and probably blushing furiously, I said, “Sure, Allen, any time.” Then he looked away and said, “But there’s so little time.” I mean – really, Allen! I guess I was in the right demographic or something; I was a teenager, and he wanted me to be available to him. But he didn’t necessarily want to be committed to even his own sloppy pass at me. So I actually learned a lesson: don’t treat people like that! And I don’t.
Raymond Foye: But I do love the Beats’ political incorrectness and what they got away with in those days. I remember being Gregory Corso’s teaching assistant at Naropa. He walked in the first day, threw down a big bag of marijuana, and said, “You’re the T.A., roll me a joint.” If these people were around today, they’d all be locked up.
Steve Silberman: Indeed.
Raymond Foye: I really miss the Beats. Allen and Bill died just before the turn of the millennium, which Gregory was so looking forward to. Then he died just after that. But they were all gone by the time of 9/11. I really miss what their commentary would have been on that moment.
Steve Silberman: Particularly since Allen lived in the so-called Frozen Zone, below 14th Street. He could have walked down to where the towers had been. Can you imagine the poem he would have written about that?
Raymond Foye: Burroughs’ film Towers Open Fire was restored, and was going to be shown in a screening room in the World Trade Center on the evening of the bombing.
Steve Silberman: My God.
Raymond Foye: That’s a film he made with Antony Balch about holy war between the U.S. and Islam. And what do you do in a holy war? You knock down the temple. What’s the temple today? It’s capitalism.
Steve Silberman: It’s the Moloch temple.
Raymond Foye: Yes. The coincidence is incredible and there’s actually an ad for that premiere. When Allen and Gregory and Bill died, suddenly it was like the whole continent just wasn’t there anymore. Times have changed, and you cannot judge those figures by the standards of today, that’s completely unfair. If you’re going to do that, essentially it’s the end of history. We may be hipper to some of these issues, and know more about the correct way to treat people, the proper vocabulary, and all that, but doesn’t make us any better than these people.
Steve Silberman: Yes. But we can learn from them. Maezumi-roshi, who taught me how to meditate, had problems with alcohol, eventually had to go into a 12-step program, and then died when he had a backslide. He went to Japan and drowned in a hot tub after a night of drinking with his brothers. Richard Baker, my teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, had to step down because he had an affair with a married woman who was married to one of the big donors for the Zen Center, so that was a problem. Chögyam Trungpa had a terrible drinking problem that eventually killed him. He had been an absolutely brilliant lecturer in the ‘70s, and you could see his decline on videos over the years, though some people claimed he wasn’t declining. I grew up in a family with problems with alcohol and drugs in my parents’ lives, so I saw the kind of denial that could excuse behaviors that were just not tolerable. But eventually what I learned was to stop looking for perfect teachers. That’s just a projection. All of these people are on the path with us at the same time, working stuff out. So I stopped looking for perfect enlightenment. I stopped looking for human beings who had no flaws, or who were always awake continuously. I stopped looking for that, and just accepted people with all of their imperfections. A Zen master once described his life as “one continuous mistake.” There’s nobody here but us chickens. So I started to understand that people could be very inspiring and really fucked up at the same time. I feel like you probably came to that realization as well, working with older artists.
Raymond Foye: I’m fine with imperfections, I’m not fine with judgmentalism. Yes, there’s been damage done, there is in every life. Trungpa harmed the cause of Buddhism, at one point, no question. But it’s not something I’m interested in judging. What they offered were tools for disarming the psychic demons within, and I employ those every single day. I encourage people to get into some form of meditation practice, because if you’re not doing that, I think you’re really wasting your time in life. It’s a process that continues all your life. You may still be stuck in your own movie, but at least you know it’s a movie.
Steve Silberman: Allen’s biggest gift to me was probably the biggest gift I ever got from anybody, which was to learn how to meditate. But more than that, he clued me in as to what was going to be happening for the rest of my life, which is old age, sickness, and death — the suffering of samsara. It’s built-in. It’s not because you committed a sin, it’s not because Adam committed a sin, it’s not because somehow you have bad luck. This is what life is. I don’t expect it to be anything else. Allen was incredibly meticulous at mapping his own increasing physical ailments, but also his increasing exuberance. I got one of those famous phone calls in the week before he died, where he would just call people who had meant something to him and talk to them. He told me he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer — which I knew because Allen’s office had emailed me. I asked him how he felt and he said, “Exhilarated.” He talked about how “poetry’s final subject”, as he called it, was in sight. And that has been tremendously encouraging to me. Even after a terminal diagnosis, he could feel a sense of joy and anticipation of discovery, at the same time that he acknowledged that suffering was built into life, and that it wasn’t some extra thing that got added on if you were screwed. Everybody gets screwed!
Raymond Foye: Don’t you love his poem title right at the very end, “Sleeping With my Skeleton”?
Steve Silberman: For sure.
Raymond Foye: That says it all. I remember at the very end of his life, he was talking about aging and the body falling apart, and I said, “Yeah, it’s really mythic, isn’t it?” and he jumped up and yelled, ”Yes!” He got so excited.
Steve Silberman: Yes.
Raymond Foye: OK, we should start wrapping things up with before we get into the questions and answers. You have all these glorious obsessions. You probably know more about jazz than just about anybody I know, and I’ve gotten so many great recordings and tips from you. You recently wrote a really brilliant essay called “Broken Time” that I encourage people to go online and find, published by The Believer. It’s about Bill Evans and a song called “Nardis,” which is a song that Miles Davis wrote but only conveyed orally, as a set of changes, to Julian Adderley. Miles never performed it. Since there was no original, every musician was free to come up with his or her own version, and in time it became a measure by which musicians distinguished themselves.
Steve Silberman: Raymond, before we get to the questions, could I read a very short poem by Michael McClure?
Raymond Foye: Please.
Steve Silberman: It’s very short, but it’s lovely. It’s called “Fragment.” It was written for Baker-roshi, the Zen master who was my teacher. [Editorial note – McClure’s distinctive spatial design regrettably not reproduced here]
“AH/ YES,/ how perfect/ to be within a dream/ inside a body/ in a VISION!/ How REAL!/ HOW SOLID/ ! / I/ am/ the body/ ! / The dream/ is flesh!/ APPEARANCE/ is my breath/ !/ I/ AM/ THE/ HUMMINGBIRD/ OF/ CHANCE/ !”
Steve Silberman: One of the big inspirations for NeuroTribes was Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Kaddish,” the poem he wrote for his mother Naomi, who had schizophrenia. It was a very tragic story. When Allen was just a teenager, he was asked to sign a permission form for his mother to have a lobotomy, and the lobotomy eventually killed her. She died in an asylum. In Allen’s concern, not just for his mother, but for all the other “mad” people in asylums everywhere, Allen was very Christ-like, which is a phrase he would never have applied to himself. But he looked for the outsiders in society and included them in his vision. So, junkies, people in asylums, even his partner, Peter Orlovsky … I suspect that at least one of Peter’s brothers, Julius, was a non-speaking autistic and may even still be alive in an institution. Allen’s vision included people who had been not just left out of society, but forcibly excluded, and confined in an “armed madhouse” as he put it. That was very much an inspiration for NeuroTribes and for my centering of autistic people’s experience in the narrative.
Steve Silberman: Raymond, what are you working on?
Raymond Foye: As I mentioned in the intro, I’m working with George Scrivani on the last twenty years of Gregory Corso’s poetry, which he never published, in part because his work was changing so much, stylistically, and in part because he was dealing with early childhood trauma which he never addressed before in his work. He never got around to putting this book out. Gregory died in early 2001. So working on that, and on a collected poems of Rene Ricard, and on a monograph on the work of Jordan Belson, who was an extremely important experimental filmmaker and artist and left behind an important body of work when he died in 2011 at eighty-five. I think that’s something where my interests in Buddhism and meditation and yoga really have come into a play in my understanding of an artist like Belson, who was an extreme recluse. I wrote him a letter in 1976 asking if I could meet him, and he finally agreed to see me in 2001.
Reading NeuroTribes, I thought about how many friends of mine in the artistic community, if they were not dealing with autism, have dealt with bipolar problems and certainly with depression. They struggled with all of these things, and through them, found a way to give us visions that we can live our lives by. Aesthetics for me is not some kind of flighty, dilettante thing. It’s very much about living one’s life and getting through the next 24 hours, and having some encouraging things to get through these horrible times.
Steve Silberman: Absolutely.