Ginsberg Lehman College Interview, 1974 / Furry Lewis

We’ve spoken before about fugitive Ginsberg interviews and our intention to run more of them. Here’s one from March 1974 (courtesy “365 Days of Horror”) – a write-up in the student newspaper footnotes of his visit to Lehman College in the Bronx – “Rapping With Allen Ginsberg”

“Allen Ginsberg author of Howl and Kaddish and leader of the Beat movement read his poems here at Lehman College on March 3 1974. To say the least, it was a magnificent performance with the help of John, his guitarist and Allen’s harmonium, Ginsberg not only read poetry but sang blues variations too. After the reading and singing, the English Department members who were responsible for getting Allen here, invited him and some others to a reception where Ginsberg further entertained his audience by playing (William) Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. After the reception I was able to get an interview from him on his way home. The interview, though brief is important because it clarifies Ginsberg’s position as a poet, a politial person, and a private individual. Besides explaining himself a little, he also offers his definition of poetry, a definition that is anything but traditional and that should be thought about by all beginning poets as well as all stalwart Professors.

Allen Ginsberg at Lehman College, New York, March 1974

Interviewer: When you started your poetry reading today you began with a breath exercise. You also ended with one. What exactly is the point of this?

AG:  Poetic inspiration is founded on the inspiration of breath and being able to breathe freely. Expiration and inspiration are the frame of poetry. The mantras are based on observations of breath because breath is a physical measurement that connects vocalized poetry (underline the word “vocalized”). The poetry of the last fifty years, up until the1950’s was – Mind-Eye-Page. It wasn’t spoken. It took time to cultivate a culture understanding that poetry is vocalized, (Charles) Olson got it from (Ezra) Pound. Pound said that poetry should be as well-written as prose. Secondly he said to pay attention to the tone-leading of the vowels. Pound believed that the future of American prosody would evolve to an approximation of classical quantity, that is to say quantitative verse as distinct from accentual verse or stress count.

Interviewer: Could you qualify that ?

AG: You count the length of the vowels as if you were actually talking. You measure lines by the length of vowels rather than accents. There are half-length, full length, long and short vowels. The vowel time is built into the poem. With accented poetry, you know, iambic and tetrameter, the lines get bogged down to a regular metronomic bore. You fuck up your speech by using pattern accents.

Interviewer:  What else do you consider essential in writing poetry other than breath and vowel lengths?

AG:  Poetry has to be personal above all

Interviewer: How can you say that? Your poetry is so national, so international, so political, you’re writing for everyone!

AG: You aren’t fuckin’ listening! What I write are my own reflections. They are part of me and for me. I am writing for myself.

Interviewer: But what about the thousands who read your reflections, the thousands who you read then to?

AG: After I write my reflections it doesn’t matter what happens to them. They are outside me. I can publish, throw them in the ocean, give them to friends. It is no longer me. It is outside me, When you write your feelings they become an extension of you. They must be personal then

Interviewer: What poets would you recommend reading?

AG: There’s Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Whitman, R.H.Blythe’s Haiku, (Jack) Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, (Gregory) Corso, Don Allen’s anthology, Shakespeare, (Christopher) Smart, (William) Blake, (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, (William Carlos) Williams, (John) Keats, and (Ezra) Pound’s ABC of Reading 

Interviewer: How do things look to you in America. Do you really think (1974) that were headed for a fall?

AG: Yes, if people’s consciousness don’t change.

Interviewer: Do you think poets can change consciousness?

AG: Certainly

Interviewer: Who beside yourself has tried?

AG: (William) Blake did.  (Jack) Kerouac did.  (William) Burroughs did. And Gary Snyder

Interviewer: Have you seen your poems in Jerome Rothenberg‘s new anthology, America – A Prophecy?

AG: yes I have, Now I must be in thirty or forty anthologies. It’s hard to keep track of them all.

Interviewer: Have you been giving a lot of poetry readings?

AG: I go for months on end without reading and then I go for months on end without stopping reading. Now I think it’s the time for readings to start picking up again. Yesterday I read at Princeton with my father, Tonight, I’ll be reading at St Mark’s Church with Michael McClure and tomorrow I have a reading at a University in Connecticut.

Interviewer: How do you arrange all these readings?

AG: Sometimes through my agent and through friends

Interviewer: How much do you charge for a poetry reading?

AG: One-thousand to One-thousand-five-hundred dollars. The money goes into a foundation called. It’s tax-exempt. From there it is divided out to other poets who need money to survive. Gregory Corso just received four hundred dollars through it.

Interviewer: Do you make enough money to live through your poetry readings?

AG: As I said, most of the (money from COP) is divided. I do get some. I also get money from my publisher City Lights. They usually send me seven thousand to twelve thousand dollars a year. I live in this.

Interviewer: When we were talking before you said that you had just gotten back from Memphis, Tennessee.

AGL Yes I was speaking with Daniel Ellsberg at the Dilemma Forum. It’s put on every year by Southwestern University to discuss political problems. I also did a poetry reading there and I met Furry Lewis, an old blues singer. He’s eighty-one years old, ave you heard of him?

Interviewer: No I’m afraid not. Going to see an old blues poet for me is like going to see Ezra Pound.

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