Ragged Lion Press out of London, England (in collaboration with Counter-Culture Chronicles) recently released poet Nina Zivancevic’s 1998 interview with Allen Ginsberg on limited-edition cassette. The audio is available – here . The interview took place in New York at Christine’s, the local Polish restaurant, around the corner from Allen’s home, on First Avenue over lunch and so there is (unavoidably) a significant amount of ambient sound. It was commissioned by, and appeared in, the Italian newspaper L’Unita. This is its first appearance in English.
NZ: Well, actually I wanted this whole conversation/interview to be about your relationship to words.
NZ: …and music – not words but music-and-words. And then, as it started with the memory of Bob Dylan…
AG: No, it starts for me with (Jack) Kerouac…
AG: …who was brilliantly spoken in his words, as far as awareness of vowels and the color and tone and pitch of the vowels and clarity of consonant, and I think that had a a big influence on Dylan, Kerouac did. It was Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which, according to Dylan, inspired him to poetry. That was the first American poetry that spoke in his language, according to Dylan, Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues.
NZ: So surely he was the product of the era, a product of an era.
AG: I didn’t say that. I said the specific poetics of Bob Dylan, the way he handles language, partly in relation to music and partly in relation to.. the idea of poetry comes from Kerouac, according to Dylan. Not the era but a specific line of poetry.
NZ: How did you two meet, you and Dylan?
AG: I came back from India, and San Francisco, 1963. And there was a party upstairs from the…East.. the Street.. Eighth Street Bookshop (it was a big literary bookshop in those days that Ted Wilentz ran and Ted.. We stayed at his house on McDougall Street and 8th Street
AG: Wilentz – W-i-l-e-n-t-z. –[conversation is interrupted by waiters serving food] – and Al Aronowitz, who was a journalist-friend who’d done a long series on the Beat Generation in 1959 and had met Michael McClure and Neal Cassady, and of course Kerouac and myself, and was somewhat of an expert, specialist, among journalists. And met Dylan at the party. And so we met
NZ: That was back in’ 62 you say?
AG: Er, no, “63. And on that day Dylan had just come from a meeting of an emergency civil liberties committee (I think it was his… his getting an award for social concern (as a singer). And he had given a speech saying that he did not have to.. feel or.. that an art did not have any social responsibility, that he didn’t want to be captive to any fixed idea of social responsibility and they were very shocked at the dinner…
NZ: It sounds controversial..
AG: ..because they were giving the award for the year for social action and he was saying that the artist should not be bound down by anybody else’s idea of social action. I think it’s a story that is told in many of his biographies, but it was that same day.
NZ: But he knew of you and of your work and everything at that time?
AG: Oh yes, he knew of my work and he had four years earlier been very much inspired by Kerouac’s work
NZ: Did you ever try to do something together Like.. in terms of poetry-and-music, words and music? Did you ever sing together?
AG: Various times..(and in) various ways.
NZ: How do you see him..(you know)…
AG: But, musically, many years later, we got together in a studio. He had come to hear a poetry reading with (me and) Peter (Orlovsky) and he liked our improvisations and said, ”Lets go into a studio” and improvise
AG: In 1971 – [further dinner conversation/distraction- AG: to dinner companions – “Give me some of that, I’ll give you some of this” – Sure! – NZ is asked, “Are you a vegetarian?” – NZ: “No I”m not”.]
NZ: So you were saying you recorded something together. When you did the recording was it some of your (poems)?
NZ: ’71 So that.. he was a big…
AG: We went in to improvise in a studio to see if we could improvise a song
NZ: And did it work out? how did it come through?
AG: We did a whole album-worth, which sometimes circulates as a pirate tape called “Holy Soul Jelly Roll”
NZ: Holy Soul Jelly Roll
AG: Three of the cuts were later brought out in an album called First Blues by me, put out by John Hammond who was the man who discovered Dylan or first recorded him for CBS..
NZ: I see
AG: …and also put out my albums (one album, a double-album). So that was called First Blues and the first three cuts are there and for the dedication I wrote a long poem/song – the first time, note for note, word for word, called “September on Jessore Road”. I don’t know if you know that poem?
NZ: I think I’ve heard it but I can’t recall the melody.
AG: Yeah, it’s a long poem about the.. about refugees who lived in West Pakistan, Bengal moving towards Bangladesh
NZ: It seems that…
AG: …and I’ve been singing it lately, (and it seems to apply), about visiting slaughtered refugee camps between Calcutta and West Pakistan?.. East Pakistan? – East Pakistan – Bangladesh
NZ: That’s right. And.. so I would say that both….. No, go ahead…
AG: Before that, when he was ill, I gave him many.. a lot of books to read, when he was recuperating – Blake, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud, Sappho.
NZ It feels like it answers one of the questions that the editors asked me to ask you – what would you give Bob Dylan for a birthday if you ever…
AG: One of those books.
NZ: What of those books?
AG: Many of those books. I did, There was a whole pile of those books, about forty books, back in..? – whenever it was he had his accident.
NZ: It seems that both of you were.. had similar concern about social issues and everything. It‘s just you were more concerned with words and he was more concerned with.. with the songs.
AG: I think he sees himself as poet
NZ: Yes, that was what I was thinking of when I said, at Naropa, a long time ago.. (Once you mentioned, Allen mentioned to his students – and, although it’s out of the context), when he said that he felt (Bob) Dylan was one of the best, if not the best poet of the twentieth century, because that was part of the intelligence. I was reminded, that when you were putting together the anthology of the 20th Century verse, and that you had Bob Dylan, and I think some students even mentioned with sneer, you know – sneered, like, “What is Bob Dylan doing in here?”
AG: Oh I don’t think they really sneered . I think they were surprised.
NZ: Yeah, they were surprised.
AG: Surprised that I included it, but sneering? No, I think they liked the idea. As far as I know I think they liked the idea.
NZ: That was the opening of a new field, I mean, it was, like, the beginning of performance poetry, because no-one really.. I think it was extremely popular in the early ’80s, late ’70s, when John Giorno, Laurie Anderson, people like that, started doing performing, but I think you and (Bob) Dylan started the whole trend, so to speak, very early, when was that? the ’60s?
AG: Well I’d put that down to poetry-reading. That would begin in the ’50s
NZ: Beginning In the 50s?
NZ: Mid-‘Fifties. And how did it look like? Would one just climb (onto) the stage and try.. What were the readings like at that time?
AG: It wasn’t a stage…
NZ: It wasn’t a stage?
AG: …private houses, art galleries, coffee shops…
NZ: Nothing like these clubs today…no..
AG: ….non-commercial…didn’t charge money..
NZ: That’s great. It doesn’t exist today. It doesn’t exist today. Everybody wants to charge
AG: It does. I don’t agree with you. There are hundreds of poetry readings that take place in the city that nobody gets paid.
NZ: Well, one could get paid a little bit. I’m not against.. but just a little bit, even in..Dixon Place (in NYC) and places like that..
AG: But there is.. there’s a lot of poets – more than could ever get paid!
NZ: Could they… It wasn’t like that before?
NZ: You mean not everyone could call himself (herself) a poet?
AG: No I don’t mean that. Not everyone considered setting up a reading They had an older-fashioned reading of rhymed prose verse which had gotten very histrionic and worn-down and trite. And then there was the influence of (Walt) Whitman, (William Carlos) Williams and others through vernacular – intimate vernacular – which Kerouac was very good at, the rhythms of idiomatic speech as a big development in American poetry, (and) some European sources, like the Surrealists and the Dadaists and the 19th century Romantic poets.. and that existed in San Francisco with Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance before the Beat Generation came along.
AG: So it was an extension of the San Francisco Renaissance (which is mostly (a) Buddhist-Anarchist tendency) – Kenneth Rexroth…
NZ: So how did Bill (Burroughs) fit into all of that?
AG: ….(and) another layer of readings in the mid ’50s with Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and myself, and Kerouac. And then, the movement toward music-and-poetry, jazz and poetry, in the late’50s with Kerouac, (Kenneth) Rexroth, (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Patchen (who) practiced poetry-jazz. Then that merged with the tradition of American black blues (which is our greatest body of lyric poetry) and folk music, with Woody Guthrie, (left-wing radical social-justice peace-protest, sometimes anti-Capitalist, sometimes anti-Communist, left-wing). And that’s where (Bob) Dylan came in – with the folk music.
NZ: Joan Baez, right? also
AG: Yes, American folk music, inspired somewhat by the recordings of Harry Smith, who made an Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 that influenced all the folk poets including Dylan. So if you add that early folk interest to the later psychedelic beat, (purely literary), you get a combination that influenced Dylan, the background from which he came – Black blues and Beat poetry. Spontaneous improvisation is the key. “First thought best thought.”
to be continued tomorrow