Bob Rosenthal on The Magic of Allen Ginsberg

Back in August, 2019, Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s long-time secretary, and invaluable memoirist, was interviewed in Allen’s 13th Street office space by John Bredin for Public Voice Salon, the Manhattan cable tv show he hosts in conjunction with his wife Claudia Canasto. Of necessity, there was a lot of East Village/New York banter but the interview also included a tour around the office space (annotated by Bob), anecdotes, memories – in Bredin’s words, “a treasure trove of stories, musings, and reflections”.  We’ll be running a transcription of this interview here on The Allen Ginsberg Project in its entirety. The first segment begins here.  

JB: Welcome to the Public Voice Salon.  We dialogue on culture and the arts and social change, with a particular focus on education. And today, we’re in the heart of the East Village on East 13th Street in the former office and home of the poet Allen Ginsberg, one of the great Beat Poets, one of the great cultural figures of our time. And we are with Mr. Bob Rosenthal, who was Allen Ginsberg’s dear friend and private secretary, and he has a book out called Straight Around Allen: On the Business of Being Allen Ginsberg
We are so delighted to welcome you to our show today, Bob.  At a time when we are, with our tv show, concerned about what we call “the dumbing-down of America”, we look and see who the President of the United States is [it was Trump!]  And I myself am an English Professor and a writer. So having you on is like having a kid in a candy store because we love literature and you are a literary man, so this is going to be a rambling literary discourse and we will see where it leads, and you have taught also.

BR: Wonderful.   I found that after Allen died, teaching was the closest analogy to working with Allen because it’s about sharing. It is about encouraging others to grow, and it is nurturing.  And, as you know, kids today need help thinking, reading, [laughter] everything. It goes back to not reading much and not knowing how to think, not trusting their own thoughts.

JB:  You know last night on channel 13 (PBS) there was a show on Woodstock . And we saw all these young people gathered up in the woods there, four hundred thousand of them, peace and love. One of the statistics we like to talk about on our show is that back in the ‘60’s one-in-five young people studied the humanities in college,  you know, Philosophy,  Literature, History.  Now that number is one-in-twenty. The most popular major is Business.  So think about Allen Ginsberg, who he was, what he represented in term of that countercultural energy, and why do you think he matters so much?  Why has he emerged as a popular figure even today?

BR:  I have one word –  “Candor”.  Allen’s whole life is built up on candor, and in the ‘50’s when there was a miasma of false images – there was Leave It To Beaver or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (the prototype beatnik) – and later we learned what was really happening in society, what’s happening on the West Side of Chicago, what’s happening in Bed-Stuy,  what’s happening in the South. And all of that is going to come out in the ‘60’s, of course, but in the ‘50’s, President Eisenhower had deliberately confused people about the difference between “fission” and “fusion”. It was a time of disinformation. Allen writes the poetry that he thinks he is not allowed to write. That’s what “Howl” is. In “Howl” he gives himself permission to write.  He said to himself, “I’m not going to show this to anybody” (not going to show Daddy, New Jersey lyric poet Louis Ginsberg). He writes this poem about all of his friends – their community and their suffering.  When he is done, he realizes that maybe he has something and does start to show it. But the permission allowed him to write without needing to have precedence.  Also he has just met his life’s love, Peter Orlovsky.  So he is in the throes of his first full-blown adult love affair. And that makes him powerful in that time period . He writes “Howl”,  he writes “A Supermarket in California” “America”,“Sunflower Sutra”, all these often-anthologized, amazing poems. It is like the flood waters had opened up.

JB:  When was this ?

BR: ‘55 ’56   He already knows William Burroughs and knows Jack Kerouac. He knows these great writers. It’s not an art movement. It’s a candor and friendship movement. Burroughs’ style is different and Kerouac’s style is different, none of them are writing in the same vein, but they all use candor in a time when it is so lacking that people recognize how special it is. It is still appreciated in our day. No other art movement has equaled it, not academic deconstructionism – it hasn’t captured the heart of America like the Beats writers were able to. I’m not putting down the intellectual disassembling of writing. I think it is a very useful, but I think that, on a gut level, one needs to convey the understandable truth and that is what Allen did.  Most poets tell the truth all the time in their poetry, and it is great, but academic or esoteric candor isn’t going to be understood by as many people as Allen’s who is a plain-spoken outsider – gay at a time it is illegal. He is not frightened, (he purposely doesn’t work, so he can’t be fired for being gay).  In 1959, at a press conference for Big Table magazine in Chicago, after Allen had read “Howl”, a reporter asks Allen why there is so much homosexual imagery in his poetry?  He camps it up and answers, “Because I am a fairy, Madame!”  People are shocked.  “He’s gay?”  Not shocked that he is gay, but shocked that he plainly says that he is gay.  The world doesn’t open up and swallow him. This is why Norman Mailer calls Allen “the bravest man in America”. Fearless, with an unerring sense of candor and truth, in all the time I knew him (the last twenty years of his life). I certainly did not know him those exciting days, but one of my purposes in writing my memoir about working with Allen is to teach, to share, what he taught me – how to keep the writer alive in a jail in Ankara, how to find the bodhisattva in everybody, how to organize an argument. These are just some of the things he taught me over time. I wanted to share the things that he taught me with the evidence of his last twenty years, which were extremely busy. He was doing lots of social action; he was writing a lot of poetry.  I don’t subscribe to the thought that after “Kaddish” that his writing falls off. I think a lot of his poetry towards the end of life is excellent. At the very end, when his brain is a little addled from the liver cancer, he is writing nursery rhymes and he asks me to bring in my children’s copy of (Arthur) Rackham’s Fairy Tales. He goes through it and he asks me, “Tell me the story of the little pigs.”  I say, “Well, “This little piggy went to market, and this little piggy stayed home and this little piggy ate roast beef..”  Allen suddenly exclaims, “Aha! Something’s wrong! Pigs don’t eat meat.” So he changes it to “This little pig eats quiche”. But of course pigs do eat meat. But Allen doesn’t know that. So he says, “I have improved it!”  He is improving nursery rhymes and some of it is boyish, puerile…

JB:  I want to say that I do want to  become part of the conversation. This is not a lecture.
BR:  Sorry
JB:  No no  I want to be clear I am not an interviewer. I want to be clear with the audience too. This is a dialogue, a back-and-forth   I have a friend who watches the show who tells me, “John, you got to get in there. You have to be like Charlie Rose.” I am not Charlie Rose everybody.  This is a dialogue. I talk a lot about Martin Buber on the show, which is an “I and Thou” experience. So we are going to flow a little back and forth.  I love this stuff. I’ll show the book here

This is Straight Around Allen: On the Business of Being Allen Ginsberg by Bob Rosenthal, and certainly Bob, your passion and your enthusiasm for this stuff is amazing.  Talk a little about your teaching.  Are you on a lecture tour now?
BR:   I would like to visit colleges but I am just getting that going. I taught High School English for ten years at a private school in the City.
JB:  Which school?
BR:  Abraham Joshua Heschel High School, which was a great experience. And I had taught before in my life, but full time teaching was a challenge because although I had been teaching as an adjunct in CUNY
JB:  So have I, by the way
BR:  …I would have stayed down in the trenches with these kids because they need help. But I couldn’t retire or make enough money adjunct-ing so I got the full-time job at the High School.  I could get some Social Security going, and I also figured that the children of the wealthy also need help –  they’re going to be running this world in many ways and they need to know how to think. They need to know that it is possible to read The Scarlet Letter and like it, and possible to read all these classics and understand them.  They’re not mysteries.

JB:   What about it is (that it’s) possible to have a world that’s more kind, more loving, more peaceful, because, when I think of Ginsberg and the counterculture and Beats and the Woodstock Generation, that is what comes to mind.  I just noticed something today that I hadn’t noticed before just walking around Hoboken, these people with the Apple – these tiny eye.. – eye pods – ear pods!  And I said to someone on line at the bus stop, “It’s a conformist thing that everybody has these white things!”
BR:  It’s bluetooth.
JB:  They are white things. It’s almost like these people are being beamed down (to) from another planet
BR:  Maybe they are
JB:   All these computerized things are getting away from Literature.  Literature teaches complexity, it teaches compassion. How can we utilize Ginsberg to get people excited about Literature?

BR:  One of the great things about poetry, in particular, is that it is an aural art, it is of the ear, and kids do understand – listening to beats – to the hip-hop rhymes – so I say to kids let’s listen to Whitman.  Let’s hear it.  Are you hearing consonants?  hearing alliteration?  (Sorry about hitting your mic – I am not trying to beat you up,  but..) what I learned about reading is that it is physical. We don’t just read with our minds, we read with our whole bodies. Sometimes when I am reading I feel indigestion and I ask myself, “what’s going on?”.  I mark the passage to go back to it.  I won’t stop, but later I will look back to it and realize that there is a character-change or a narration-shift or change in the setting. There is always some analytical process you can use but it is indigestion that points me to it. Everyone is going to have a different way to tell, whether it is an eyebrow itching or jiggling knee. You have to read yourself as you read, then you know which parts of (the) book you can use as evidence in the essays you have to write. You have to come up with an original analysis using the tool-pack of character, or narration, or symbolism, or any of these tools – they are not the ends they are the means.

JB:  Now there is that, but there is also Reader Response Theory .  I went to NYU and it had one of the best programs of this kind it was founded by Louise Rosenblatt who very few people know of.   She was a roommate of Margaret Mead’s at Barnard. She studied anthropology and then went to Paris to the Sorbonne and got a doctorate in Comparative Literature.  She hung around with people like Andre Gide and Marcel Duchamp, came back to New York, and wrote a book Literature as Exploration, which links the study of literature Peter to democracy.  She is the only person who has ever made that link. She has been both lionized and marginalized. She founded this program at NYU in 1947, which I attended in the mid ‘90’s..So I inculcate my students in this democratic pedagogy, the conversations we have in Literature class strengthen our democracy because it allows us to agree to disagree, to look at the nuances, to look at the different shades of meaning.

BR:  That they are competing forms of correct.

JB:  Yes, it is not right or wrong, so let’s liberate the classroom.  So my classrooms are very liberating. I grow and change by my teaching. I walk out of the classroom on a cloud

BR    Yes if you are not learning, you are not teaching. This is in the nature of teaching that in every class you have to learn something and even if you teach the same book every year it is not the same experience.

JB:  I would tell my students that I would pay to do this. First of all, I am not getting paid – they are giving me ungatz (nothing), as the Italians say –  they throw you a few shekels and you teach because it is (a) craft. It’s a profession and you believe in it. It’s humanizing for the students and for you. It’s transformative, and if I was independently wealthy, I would pay for the privilege.

BR:  Thank you for saying that for I find that teachers are kind of maligned in our society. Teachers at a party will respond to the question, “What do you do?” – “I am a plumber”, because it is about making money – the plumber makes more than the teacher. But I know some literate plumbers too. But I agree with you that teaching has nobility.  Allen was a gifted teacher. He had the ability to talk to your inner bodhisattva – deep in there, so when he’s talking to you, you are feeling it.  Not so much me. I am not a tzadik like Allen was a tzadik, (a wise man, a powerful man). He could get into a person and open them up. He did this in teaching and he used Chogyam Trunga’s Rinpoche’s axiom  “First Thought Best Thought”.  (A) Student asked, “Do you mean don’t revise?”  Allen said “No – go back to the first thought” (which is the ur-thought that comes before the original writing). You write something then work it back to its beginnings. Revise back to the source of the word itself and it accumulates all those associated possibilities that makes it special.  That is a Ginsberg-ian teaching. He was an encouraging teacher, humble and not humble. He understood how smart he was, but he didn’t make you suffer that. He looked for whatever wisdom you have and he was good at sucking it out of you. And he would make use of it. When my younger son Isaac was a pre-teen listening to hip-hop, Allen asked him rap the lyrics for him. Allen picked up five or six new slang words that went right into his poetry, accurately too – he had such a good ear. Anyways, that is why I think for me to go from working with Allen to teaching was a natural progression.

JB:  What do you think happened to the ‘60’s ? We had this great time in our history where we were going to do great things.  We went to the moon!  There were dreams of peace and love, the war is over if you want it.  All of a sudden 1980 comes, Reagan gets in.  Everybody goes back to work, puts on the red power tie. The hippies become yuppies.
BR:  Do you remember Hippies?
JB:  No  I was born 1963. I was too young.

BR:  The thing about the ‘60’s is that most people forget that it was terrifying. It was pure terror.  I was afraid of going to the Vietnam War.  I had a very low draft number. I was number 1 after college.  All the leaders I admired in this country were killed. not just the Kennedys but Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King.  There is not another period in our history where so many leaders are killed as the ‘60’s, so, yeah, smoke dope and invent rock n roll, because it is a lot better than being worried about dying in Vietnam.  Also, the other thing is all the kids were in colleges for the draft deferment, which bolstered the student activities money, and that’s why rock n roll became big, because all the universities had the money to support the bands. So it was a great flourishing of this fear and the feeling of camaraderie.   I think I met some hippies once, but only once – they were giving out free food at a concert in Iowa, 1969.  But after that everybody were freaks, they were a “speed freak”, or a “dope freak”.

JB: What about Wavy Gravy or the Kesey bus?
BR: Yes, that that bus is now in a museum of the ‘60’s; Woodstock is a movie now.
JB:  Tom Wolfe’s  Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
BR:  Right and that’s important in terms of writing. New Journalism affects me most. When I moved to New York City in the early ‘70’s , I was cleaning houses and wrote Cleaning Up New York in a New Journalistic style.  When I realized that I wanted to be a poet, it liberated me from having to have a career, so I could work any job just to be able to write – walking messenger, or working in a bar. . .

JB: Let’s do a Bob Rosenthal 101 course in terms of your upbringing and what brought you to literature and to Allen.
BR: OK   In Iowa, I met poets for the first time.
JB: You grew up in Iowa  born in Iowa ?
BR  Born in the wealthy North Shore suburbs of Chicago.  Went to New Trier High School [The Breakfast Club setting]. I met poets at Iowa 1968. I was rejected from my safe school University of Illinois so I applied to University of Iowa only knowing it had a famous writer’s school and was a center of student radicalism. The head of SDS was the American poet, Michael Lally. I remember him from then.  So I met and heard poets there and when I was twenty one,  I went to a cottage my grandfather built on a lake in Northern Wisconsin. My poet friend, Steve Toth, came up to visit. I had a low level spiritual revelation of understanding that I could be a writer and if I’m a writer, I would not have to have a career.
JB: A real job as they say  – something boring.

BR:  It allowed me to move in with my girlfriend who I am still married to.  It allowed me to become relaxed about who I am. Then I transferred to the University of Illinois, Chicago circle, where again I met poets. They knew about the New York School poets and that the poet Ted Berrigan was moving to Chicago. They said, “We are going to meet him.” Ted was married to the poet Alice Notley who was also a terrific poet. I became his friend and he said, “You have to come to New York!”

JB:  Ginsberg and the Beats were far from your consciousness at that time?

BR:  I had not yet read Allen.  I saw him on tv in Chicago on the Irv Kupcinet Show during the Chicago 1968 Convention.  It was early color tv and he was chartreuse!  So I knew of him as a cultural figure.  I had his Personality Poster on my wall in my freshman dorm, Iowa City.  I cut out his head and pasted it on the body of Raquel Welch. I asked my journal, if Allen Ginsberg would like the body of Raquel Welch? I was reading the New York School poets, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch.  So 1973, my wife Shelley and I moved to the East Village, which was a collection of cheap apartments.  Mid ‘70’s, New York City was near default.
JB:  Jerry Ford –  “FORD TO CITY DROP DEAD” was the headline on the Daily News 
BR:  The Daily News  yes, New York City was crime-ridden, dirty, and a great place to live, rents and food was cheap. Now there’s not even a fruit stand left on First Avenue. There used to be one on every block – you didn’t need a refrigerator because you could just go out and buy the food you need and make it. So you didn’t even have to buy Ronzoni spaghetti,  you could buy fresh pasta and homemade mozzarella.  The East Village was a human garden.
JB:  Bookstores
BR:  So many bookstores.
JB:  Very different today  Now the East Village and the Village have become gentrified to where we don’t even recognize it.  They have those things coming out of their ears and they’re not talking about poetry in the cafes, they’re talking hedge funds, real estate, these kinds of things..
BR  Dogs
JB Yes correct.   I think this may be the last bastion of Bohemia right here in this office.

BR:  I am of two minds. I think how lucky I was to be here in New York in the ‘70’s. There were thirty to forty young poets all living in the same neighborhood.  We made mimeograph books together.  We wrote and performed plays together.  People worked at the Strand Bookstore, or read books for the blind – everybody has a crummy job.  We were publishing each other.  The major publishing houses stopped publishing the young downtown poets in the ‘70’s, so we had to turn to mimeography.  We published the books to give them away and now they are valuable artifacts. But only a couple of us were picked up by the big publishers.  But I stayed with the traditions of the East Village – small poetry publications and reading poetry at The Poetry Project in St Marks Church. I came to East Village hoping to be the next Frank O’Hara  That is who I wanted to be.

JB: What was it about Frank O’Hara?

BR  I just love his ease – the colloquial urbanity – the facility with which he can throw in all these loosely related items and then have it all back sense in the last line.  It is just a very difficult thing to do   (Ted) Berrigan can do it too. Look at Frank’s “The Day Lady Died”, the famous poem about the death of Billie Holiday. It is unbelievably moving, and it is all those little facts, those little things that fall into place. Poems are like machines, they have all these moving parts, and they have to come together if it’s going to be a good poem, it has to come together at some point.

So I wanted to be Frank O’Hara but one is who one is. I am blessed that I got to have a life associated with poetry. I am a poet in my own neighborhood, a minor wise-guy poet.  I got to work with Allen Ginsberg who was not my idol but became my idol on many levels of poetry. Allen needed a new secretary and Ted Berrigan recommended me to Allen. I came to admire Allen so much as a bardic poet who lived his life as a true person of penury and generosity.  I was hired to write his letters.  If I wrote a letter to Governor Mario Cuomo (sic), he would write back. Of course, he was writing to Allen but Allen can send a lot more letters if I am helping to write them.  So I learnt a few Buddhist buzz-words –  “grounded’, mindful”. I slipped those in. Allen would correct it a little, and I would retype it. Allen would sign it.  So I felt powerful that we could address so many social issues.

JB:  So in terms of Allen Ginsberg embracing a life of dignified poverty. Let me look into the camera and say that Allen would not become a Business major, or do something like that. Today, we look at the young people, we look at the selling-out, studying marketing that becomes the number one major (concern) and where is that leading us as a country?  Well I think it got us Donald Trump in the White House.

BR:  Although Know-Nothing-ism, like you say, is a very old American tradition (and I don’t know if the Know-Nothings are greater or lesser today,  but they have always been here). I think you are right that when we were in college to learn because we did not want to go to war we were into Humanities, and the Humanities then was the gateway into Advertising or the Law, a gateway even into Medicine – be the better person before you become the doctor  (so you’re a better doctor in the end).  This is why so many lawyers and doctors are authors.  But later everyone got the bug to only make money.  1977, the real estate prices started to go up and up –  you can’t move to New York anymore, you can’t be a part of an art community here.  And now (2021) there’s not much art community left in the East Village.

JB:  There is a movie out now called The Lost Village  I want people to know this documentary film made by Roger Paradiso. He is a friend of mine and I worked on the film as the story editor.  And I think it is the first movie that names the problem of the death of the Village as a Bohemia, which you need to do if you are going to go forward to claim it and revive it. We have already had a show called Bohemian Revival, where we had two writers (and this was in Penn South, which is another one these redoubts of downtown culture – a housing project for the Labor movement and full of intellectual energy and Marxists and stuff like that).  Here we are in another repository of that lost age of Bohemia.  Bob, I just want to walk around this wonderful room (Allen’s office on 13th Street) and show things so our audience can see what a Bohemian space looks like.

BR:  Before we get up  I like to say something about the building we are in is a famous arts building.  The entire sixth floor was owned by the painter Larry Rivers who ended up owning the entire building.  The apartment we are in now was once lived in by Claes Oldenburg.  Yes,  405 East 13th Street  well-known artist, Fred Wilson, lives downstairs (shown in the Venice Biennale ) Tom Burckhardt, son of Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette, lives here. A well-know film director lives here.  I remember coming to incredible parties here in this very apartment in the 1970’s, I can’t tell you about that..

JB: We will do another show on parties.   But when you mentioned Claus Oldenburg that connects to my biography because when I discovered Judson Memorial Church in 1999 that was a significant moment for my evolution intellectually, spiritually, culturally and socially, because (Daniel) Ellsberg used to go there with Yoko Ono and (Robert) Rauschenberg – that was a hotbed of that downtown culture
BR:  Political Radicalism
BJ:  Allen would have loved it I am sure he was there earlier.
BR:  Allen was often there.  If you needed a hall that hall was available. With Allen, there is always the need to take action. Ernesto Cardenal is banned from visiting the USA but is in New York to address the United Nations.   Let’s get him a poetry reading. Allen knows Dore Ashton at the Cooper Union.  I call her for Allen and I get the Great Hall with nine hundred twenty seats filled, with Sandinistas doing security. People encircled the entire building trying to get in. Afterwards the politicals took me to dinner. They said they wanted to thank me for my work.  I replied that I was happy to do it. They repeated that they were thanking me for my work. I demurred again that I was happy to help and then they sternly replied, “No, we are thanking you for your work!” –  Then I got it. Communists!

to be continued. (tomorrow)

One comment

  1. Thank you for this great talk with Bob Rosenthal…
    I really loved his book…
    I was very lucky to meet Allen in NYC when signing copies of Collected Poems in the mid-80’s and we exchanged a couple of letters which I still cherish…

    Thank you for this wonderful, ongoing project…

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