Douglas John Imbrogno – 1983 West Virginia Interview

Allen Ginsberg at the 1983 West Virginia Writers Conference – Sketches by Boyd Carr

The literally hundreds of interviews that Allen gave (that David Carter was able to digest for Spontaneous Mind – Selected Interviews 1958-1996. (2001), (subsequently augmented by Michael Schumacher’s First Thought – Conversations With Allen Ginsberg (2017) and David Stephen Calonne’s Conversations With Allen Ginsberg (2019), not to mention Paul Portugés’ On Tibetan Buddhism, Mantras and Drugs and Allan Young’s Gay Sunshine Interview) present an extraordinary, and extraordinarily consistent, body of thinking, and a rich body of information (and prescience!) over the years. Whether “major” or “minor” – a national, high-profile, interview, or some small-town, local, time-specific, regionally-specific talk, there were always “pearls of wisdom”. Allen was never simply talking for the sake of talking, it was always a serious, compassionate, communication and address, it was always, in that oft-quoted Ezra Pound phrase, “news that stays news.”

In this context, it is a pleasure to once again re-present (it has already been re-presented) Allen’s talk with Douglas John Imbrogno for The Huntington Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia, from back in 1983. (We’ll be hopefully featuring plenty more of these fugitive conversation and interviews with Allen in the coming years).

Although, now, nearly four decades on, Imbrogno still remembers the occasion well:

“I requested an interview with the famous poet after he was booked as the featured guest at the 1983 West Virginia Writer Conference at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, West Virginia. I was a cub reporter of three years ..still a greenhorn in West Virginia after arriving in its cascading hills as a transplant from Cincinnati and the pancake flats of the Ohio heartland.
I was certainly starstruck, meeting up with Ginsberg for a sit-down interview in a wood-hewn meeting room at the rural center. I was a lover of not just his poetry, but the work of godfather-to-the-Beat movement, plus the breathless avalanche of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which might as well have been a single run-on sentence, if a glorious one..
(W)hen we met in Ripley, alone in that meeting room, (there were) no arched eyebrows.. (or) “See-you-later?” glances passed between us during the course of our entertaining two hours together. Later that day, Allen went on to deliver his keynote address to the Writers’ Conference. [Editorial note – Allen’s appearance at the 1983 Conference seems not to have been recorded, though there is a recording of a subsequent appearance in 1987 among his Stanford archives – here]
But the day was not yet done with this “poet of his time.” Word went around that there would be a bonfire as the sun fell beyond the hills that ringed the center. And Allen would be there.I was part of a posse of  twenty or so folks who gravitated to the fire circle in a dell. Allen, looking bemused, took a seat as someone stoked the fire into a blaze. A joint began a circuit of the circle for those interested. I was.
The poet pulled out a small Indian squeeze-box, which is what he called the small accordion he began to play. He began to tell stories. We tossed him questions. We ended the night with him leading us in the chorus to a sung version of William Blake’s ‘The Nurses’ Song” (from “Songs of Innocence,)’ set to the music of that squeeze-box. We raised a raggedy chorus of voices into the cool mountain air – ‘‘And all the hills echo-ed… And all the hill echo-ed …”

Memories of this encounter would subsequently result in him composing a song – “I Never Slept With Allen Ginsberg” (he writes more about that here).  The song will follow the interview. But first, the interview/review, as it originally appeared in the newspaper:

“On the table in front of Allen Ginsberg sat one of two volumes from the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he teaches. Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” read its title. Ginsberg was soon to give a workshop on meditation in relation to poetry. It was a final event of the sixth annual West Virginia’s Writers Conference held last weekend (sic) at Cedar Lakes resort near Ripley, West Virginia. Other tables in the Assembly Hall where Ginsberg sat were crowded with novels, volumes of poetry and other books by West Virginia authors. Regional publications like West Virginia Hillbilly and Grab a Nickel were stacked nearby along with Catch the Crow, an anthology of the 1982 winners of the annual writing contest held by West Virginia Writers Inc., which staged the conference.
Ginsberg lives in upstate New York on a farm in the northern reaches of the Catskill Mountains. West Virginia’s landscape is “not unfamiliar,” he said. “And the sense of independence from the central government is similar – cantankerous individualism.”
The phrase’s meaning might well be culled from Ginsberg’s life and his work. His poem, “Howl,” published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1955, has been regarded as leading off the “Beat” movement in American poetry. The entire first edition was confiscated, and obscenity charges that resulted were later dropped.

The headlong rush of Ginsberg’s poetry and of his energies have been often trained upon the most recent headlines. The day he finished his “Plutonian Ode” on July 14, 1978, Ginsberg meditated with friends outside the Rockwell Corp. nuclear facility’s plutonium bomb trigger factory in Colorado.

Joe Strummer of The Clash – Dr REVOLT & Zephyr (2002 – repainted 2013) mural in New York’s East Village

Ginsberg also performed with the English band The Clash on its recent “Combat Rock” album. He plans to release a single soon with Joe Strummer of that band based on Ginsberg’s 1980 poem (“Capitol Air”), that begins – “I don’t like the government where I live.” The poem ends with these lines “Breathe together with an ordinary mind/Armed with Humor Feed & Help/ Enlighten Woe Mankind.”

Ginsberg says an event in the evolution of his own mind came when he met Jack Kerouac, who christened the Beat movement and set its frenetic pace. The book that made him a culture hero was On the RoadKerouac died in 1969.
Kerouac gave him “a lot of sound” for poetry and his “tender heart” did more, Ginsberg says. “He brought me out of the closet in a sense. The closet of my mind.”
How was Ginsberg different before knowing Kerouac, along with the other poets and writers later to be made into a movement?
“Just parroting other people’s opinions. Family opinions. Nation’s opinions. Kind of virginal minded.
“I was in love with him,” adds Ginsberg.

His association with The Clash comes from shared concerns
“They’re poets.  (Joe) Strummer is a poet. And they’re interested in their own language. They do want to educate the new wave public. And they do want to uplift the whole punk scene … to some kind of sacred consciousness.
“I like ’em because they weren’t afraid to explore with me. They knew who I was – and took a chance.”

Ginsberg pauses, looking out across his round eyeglasses. “What do we do about unemployment in West Virginia?” he says. “We could point out government expenditures for the military – especially for big nuclear machines which they don’t dare ever use – are exactly what the federal deficit is, exactly the same as what the federal deficit is each year.
“The government borrowing to make up the deficit drives the interest rates up and leaves less money in banks to invest. In West Virginia.”
Reconstruction, said Ginsberg, could help the state – solar energy, reinvestment in steel firms. “And in employing people to undo the damage done by coal mining.”
He turns his attention to coal and to the Rockefeller family. He recalls details of a discussion the previous evening with some West Virginians about the state’s governor, Jay Rockefeller.
investments in South African coal mines – which is in direct competition with West Virginia coal. Has anybody ever raised the question? Is there some conflict of interest? Rockefeller coal and Chase Bank Investments. That’s what I’d check out.”

Ernesto Cardenal and Allen Ginsberg, 1986, Managua – photo: Patrick Warner

Ginsberg checked out one well known conflict when he traveled to Nicaragua for eight days in January 1982, along with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. There they met Ernesto Cardenal, the poet minister of culture for the revolutionary Sandinista government which overthrew the U.S.-supported Somoza regime. The Sandinista say the U.S. supports covert operations to topple the Marxist regime that President Reagan has said supplies Russian arms to leftists in El Salvador.
The three poets released a statement as part of a 100th meeting in Managua to celebrate Nicaraguan poet ‘s stand on cultural independence.
“We are three poets of very different countries … We don’t want to see Nicaragua become a puppet in anyone’s hands,” the statement read in part.
“The people there don’t want us,” says Ginsberg.
“Our government has been in there for 50 years — before the communists. So we have no excuse for the mess we’re in. We were running things all along. What we’re doing in Central America is more like what the Russians are doing in Afghanistan.
“It’s against the word of the Lord and it’s against the Constitution what we’re doing — if you believe in the word of the Lord or the Constitution.”
“The billion dollars we’re going to spend there we might as well give them in economic aid so they’re not dependent on the Russians. What we’re doing is driving them into the hands of the communists. And they don’t want to go
The Reagan administration is forcing the Nicaraguan government “to tie up with Cuba and Russia, even, because we refuse to have any relations with their government.
Hypocrisy is the key to self-fulfilling prophecy,”  Ginsberg says

Allen Ginsberg sits on a bench in a small amphitheater holding a lap-sized wooden harmonium, like a cross between an accordion and a small organ. Night falls over the hills and grounds as a small bonfire is lit in the center of a ring of benches.
The awards dinner has just ended for the 1983 West Virginia Inc. writers contest, at which Ginsberg read poems old and new, wearing a Cedar Lakes baseball cap. Now he sing songs, exhorting the fire to catch.
“Burn, burn. Climb over that wood/ Oh, Jesus, smoke where you should …”
He bought the harmonium for a few dollars in India where schoolchildren learn to play music on it, he says.

Now he leads a handful of people who’ve filtered down for the bonfire in rounds of the original version of “Irene” – written by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, a blues singer who died in 1949 and who lived on the same New York City block where he used to live, Ginsberg says – “Irene, good night, Irene, I’ll get you in my dreams” – “But if Irene, she don’t love me,/I’m gonna take morphine and die.”  – Ginsberg improvises – ““Sometimes I sit and write poetry/ Sometimes I sit and write prose/ Sometime I sit and do nothing at all,/walk around and pick my nose.”  

He leads a chorus of poems by 19th century poet William Blake, put to harmonium music. “The refrain is ‘And all the hills echoed,’” Ginsberg says. “It’s for this hour of night.
“And all the hills echo-ed. And all the hills echo-ed,” sings the group. Harmonies multiply as the refrain grows familiar. The bonfire catches.  “And all the hills echo-ed …”

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