David Menconi's 1987 Interview with Allen Ginsberg (featured here last week) continues:
AG: (So) I was working here at Naropa from 1978 to 1983, getting a small salary, but also contributing money to keep the place going until we became accredited, like now. Teaching here seven months a year, I didn't have much income except by going out and doing poetry readings. In 1982, I signed a contract with Harper and got a little more money (not a lot - about as much as the average high-school teacher's salary). Last year  I got a job at Brooklyn College to replace John Ashbery, who had gotten a MacArthur grant (which is a quarter million dollars for five years). I have a good salary there and I only have to go in for a day-and-a-half a week. Between that and what I make from photography and books, it's a pretty good sum (although my expenses for secretaries, photographic printing & musicians' fees about eats it all up). So I live in this narrow margin.
DM: (What's the value of Naropa's accreditation?)
AG: It means mommies can send their children here & realize they're on a career track. It might corrupt the place, for all I know, and make Naropa as bureaucratic and square as anyother place, but its meditative nature will probably keep it safe. I think it's a great meeting of East and West, in the sense that there's this intersection between Walt Whitman and Buddhism, where the Himalyas and the Rocky Mountains come together. Naropa isn't just an off-the-wall spiritual indulgence, but an actual practical grounded American school with a unique twist - in that it teaches wisdom & meditation & how to train your mind in personal and mental aesthetics. It teaches how to clarify your head and see clearly. The key is the anarchy of wild mind (which almost did in experimental schools like Bard). Here, that's disciplined by mind training, so you have both the looseness of wild mind and the toughness of sitting practice, patience & perception. It's a combination that seems stable. (Chogyam) Trungpa (Rinpoche) said, thirteen years ago, that it's putting in roots, but it may take one hundred years to really put in roots here in America. It's a long-range project, a very sow acculturation project - how to express, in American terms, insights into the nature of the mind that are far older than America. Notions like the emptiness that I was talking about earlier are not so familiar as an American concept, (except maybe in Kansas, or Texas - that would be a funny Buddhist question - how does Texas emptiness differ from Kansas emptiness - or Manhattan emptiness?) . There are some structural similarities. At the heart of Hebrew mysticism is absolute emptiness, or non-theism, similar to Buddhism. A lot of Orthodox Jewish practice involves reading books, interpreting them and telling stories about them, figuring out fine points of law and metaphysics. There's a sort of eye-glass intellectual aspect of Buddhism that's similar. The Jews practice some form of meditation too, rocking back & forth and chanting. The sense of the enlightened, or chosen (sect) may be parallel. It may be that much of Judaism is transmitted from Wise Man Elder Rabbi to Wise Man Elder Rabbi & you don't find manyof those around. Or it may be the disgraceful quasi-Fascist governmentin Israel has turned people away from such a cultural identification. Another aspect of Judaism has always been its rootless intellectual cosmopolitanism, and many Buddhist practitioners, like myself, are rootless cosmpolitan intellectuals (the kind of people Stalin and Hitler hated).
DM: (What of the criticism of “selling-out”?)
AG: They always like to put the tinge of “selling-out”, when they’re not putting the tinge of “Oh-the-culture’s-changed-and-he’s-done-it-his-own-way”. Those are the two stereotypical buzz-words that appeal to drunkenly cynical macho newspaper reporters – “I did it my way” (the Frank Sinatra-type stuff) or “They sold out”. They’re meaningless stereotypes, useful to irritate the person being interviewed and to reassure the reader that, even if the United States is full of shit & committing mass murder, everything is fine, & there is really nothing to rebel about, it’s immature to complain, you should be a good ol’ boy American & wrap yourself in the flag & gobble up all the money you can, like Walt Whitman said, it’s just a way of taking advantage of people’s gullibility.
Since you can’t print what people really think in private, there’s no way of answering it in a newspaper. You can’t say “shit”. Until you can print vernacular American in a newspaper, you can’t really answer that kind of stereotype.
I always thought of myself as mainstream, while most of the rest of America was sort of…kinky (that’s to say, (Richard) Nixon, General MacArthur). Ronald Reagan, that old faker and simpleton, has certainly been absorbed by the mainstream. He’s cute, I must admit I had a crush on Ronald Reagan in (1942), when he got his leg cut off in Kings Row (over forty years ago), he was considered this fringe weirdo, and then the rest of America became the same way (or enough of America did for the out-and-out fringe weirdos to take over and occupy a lot more space than they deserve by calling themselves a majority). That’s nonsense. The “Moral Majority” isn’t any kind of majority, they’re a bunch of poseurs and loud-mouths.
I read the paper every day. I don’t watch much television, except for the news. Most of it is pretty boring. I read a lot of odd leaflets and pamphlets I get from various peace organizations or war organizations (I get the Republican party funding appeals, with their cries of “liberal pinkos”! – I think I’ve even got one of their membership-cards somewhere, although I’m a registered Democrat. I sent them three dollars once, because I thought it might be interesting to get in on the Republican line & find out what they’re all about). I get the Dartmouth Review, the neo-Coors Heritage Foundation offshoot. I know (William) Buckley & those people too, and I get all sorts of junk mail too. There’s one called the National Man-Boy Love Association Bulletin, talking about the FBI actually trying to seduce them by sending out these young provocateurs. I’m also Vice-President of the American P.E.N. Club (Poets, Essayists & Novelists), a freedom-to-write group.
I did a lot of work with the Rocky Flats Truth Force when they were popping (I think many of their people grew older burned out & felt (that) they had succeeded in pointing sufficient attention to Rocky Flats, so that the common opinion is that the place is a menace. Everybody knows it now, & they didn’t when the Truth Force started.
I still remember when the head of Rocky Flats lied to us. I asked if there was any way to dispose of plutonium waste-products and he said, “Oh yes, we have the technology to do that. We can reduce a football field of it to the size of a small glass”. And they’re still trying to dig a hole in New Mexico & dump it into the bowels of the earth. So they never did find a way of getting rid of it . It’s real half-assed science, in that they can make this hyper-industrial heavy-metal excrement, but they don’t know how to get rid of it.
It’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You know that story? He knows how to make the broom carry the water, but not how to stop it. There’s this arrogance & vanity of industrial scientists as they practice it now. They’re willing to create this heavy-metal poison, & they don’t even know how to get rid of it. They can’t clean up their own excrement. They don’t know how to wipe heir own behinds.
They’re still doing it, because everybody depends on ‘em for money. Everybody’s hooked on this three hundred billion dollar military budget, it’s no different from a junk habit. The whole nation is locked into it, the sense of identity and coherence would fall out of the bottom of the United States without it. Nobody’s had any idea what it feels like to be normal and in tune with nature for so long. We’ve violated it for so long, killing species and poisoning ourselves.
So…it’s very easy for a journalist to say, “Oh, you’ve gotten mellow, haven’t you? You’ve got some money and a Republican card”. It’s meaningless, though, because it’s not following the complicated thread of discourse over decades & decades. It’s a favorite Time magazine buzz-word – “mellowed” – Everybody does & should mellow, because if you don’t, by the time you get to be old, you haven’t lived. But they mean “mellow” in the sense of no longer disagreeing with Ronald Reagan, no longer feeling paranoid about the CIA, no longer interested in dropping LSD, no longer interested in copulating with your eyes open with strange creatures and people. They imply that you’re no longer interested in sex, in being gay, in radical social change, in going to the moon in your imagination, in spiritual matters, in truth. Or, like them, no longer interested in your own prose but willing to write and have it edited any way they feel like because you’ve got a wife & a kid. (That’s exactly what the next-to-last reporter I talked to said, from People magazine – “I used to be proud of my writing, but I’ve got a wife and kid now, so I don’t care what they do to it”. So that’s their notion of “mellowed” & they like to lay it on other people. There’s no point in getting hung up on their neuroses.
DM: (How old were you when you realized you were gay?)
AG: I must have been eight or nine. It wouldn’t be “gay”, it was “homosexual”, or “queer”, in the (19)30’s. I always had crushes on young boys, since I was sixor seven, but I didn’t get sexually aroused by reading about boys until I read Krafft-Ebing. My uncle was a doctor and had a copy and I used to lie around in the front hall while my parents were inside, sneaking looks at the case-histories. I had some crushes on friends in high school & grammar school too, so it’s from as far back as I can remember.
Ultimately, I think it may have to do with conditioning, because I’ve been going to a psychiatrist for the last few years, I’ve been going back and recycling my insights, & it probably has a lot to do with the completely chaotic experience I had with my mother, who was in and out of mental hospitals. At a very sensitive time for me, when I was just forming, I had to take care of her. So instead of getting some sort of stable, comforting softness from that exquisite mother-love, I had continued fear & terror. Unfortunately, my father was teaching in school and would leave me at home to take care of her when I was really young. It wasn’t anything I could actually do with any competence, so I think that somewhat conditioned me
Otherwise, it’s something genetic, I’m sure, because it’s very deep. I’ve lived with women and had good sexual relations with them when I was younger, but I think my bent has always been very naturally toward younger men. I’m still involved quite a bit with Peter Orlovsky. Not sexually, but as a life-time friend (he has very close girlfriends, always has).
(Chogyam) Trungpa (Rinpoche) was a sort of roly-poly cheerful Tibetan. He was my guru for many years, from 1972 on, I met him about two years after he came to America, on the street in New York (I was hailing the same cab he was), with my father, no less. My father came out here [to Naropa] & met him again, & taught in my class. One of the things I loved Trungpa for was resolving the problems I had when my father died in 1976. I was so confused, you know, how do I relate to it? Do I cherish his memory, build a monument to him, write him a poem, go back home and hang around?
(What do you do with the spirit and memories?)
(What do you do with the spirit and memories?)
Trungpa sent me a telegram, (which I didn’t get at first, so I called him). He said, “I extend my thought so that your father entered Dharmakaya (meaning the big sky, the emptiness). Please let him go, and continue your celebration” - That was so sharp, such a good attitude – Just let him go, don’t hold him back with your Jewish guilt, & don’t hold yourself up with a bunch of sentimental feelings of what you think you’re supposed to do. Don’t give him more trouble, just let go. It was such a wise thing, and it applies now (1987) to Trungpa’s death.
I remember him for one-liners that changed my perspective on simple things. After Trungpa died, William Burroughs told me about the time his son, William (Burroughs) Jr, had been hovering between life and death in Boulder Community Hospital, awaiting a liver transplant the next day He was hemorrhaging, with an ice-pack in his throat, laid out on a stretcher, Burroughs on one side & Trungpa on the other, Trungpa said to him, “You may live or you may die. Both are good”. It resolved so much & it was so obvious & so simple, because I think he was worried about dying guilty from burning out his liver from too much speed, and would go to hell or something. But, “Both are good”. No fear. It was really an exquisite balance that very few people have. For me to hear something like that, it sets your mind in focus.
I’ve written a few simple little poems for him, but no big work yet . That’ll come sooner or later. I’ve had a number of real interesting dreams. The night after he died, I dreamt I saw him again, as I met him in Fourmile Canyon [in Boulder, Colorado] in 1972. He had his sleeves rolled up and a neat shirt, looking very good. I’d seen him the week before he died, in the hospital in Halifax (Nova Scotia) & he had a blackened skull. But in this dream, I saw him younger, in a kitchen in Four Mile Canyon, cooking up his supper of hamburger. I described to him what I’d been doing recently, & I asked him how he thought I was doing – “Am I on the right path?”. He said, “No”. He was right, too. I hadn’t been doing much meditating. I’d become too entangled in Brooklyn College, rock ‘n roll, poetry, Naropa & running around Eastern Europe being a minor notable rock star.
(DM (What about your poetry’s self-absorption?)
AG: Well, that’s true, but some of that comes out of (Walt) Whitman – “I celebrate myself and sing myself”. The reason for that is it’s the only thing I really know. I don’t know other people like I know inside my own head. I know other people & the world from the outside, but I have access to my inner self, like you have access to yourself.
It’s probably true that I jack off too much, & it affects my world view. But, at my age, whaddaya want? (especially if you like young boys, it’s pretty hard to score). So, from that point of view, I’m probably vulnerable & somewhat self-enclosed. Not that I don’t make out (probably as much as anyone else). The one problem with sex after sixty is, if you have high blood-pressure, and take pills for it, that inhibits the engorgement of the organ with blood, & it’s hard to get a full erection. That’s a conflict, between lowering blood pressure and erotic potency.
I’d like to do what Whitman was talking about with perfect personal candor, break down that barrier between public & private speech. In private, people are more candid and open, but public speech tends to be more bureaucratic, with buzz-words & glossing over things & evading the point. Like Elliott Abrams testifying in Congress. [sic] Like (William) Blake said –“A truth told with bad intent/beats all the lies you can invent”.
The PMRC [sic] are the ones saying how great it was that the L(os) A(ngeles) D(istrict) A(ttorney) was for busting Jello Biafra, who is, after all, a poet. That’s only one instance of a seamless web of restriction of communication, that runs in every direction & comes from the Neo-Conservatives. There’s this kind of retrograde legislation everywhere. It’s harder to get files under the Freedom of Information Act now. The CIA has started its dirty tricks again, with secret manipulations of secret wars. The government is now trying to make non-governmental scientists submit their research papers to government censorship before publishing . They’ve extended the FCC’s (sic) seven-word doctrine up to Ulysses. You can’t broadcast “Howl” on the radio anymore, either. They’re trying to roll the clock back & I don’t think they can get away with it – [at this moment, a dog starts yelping outside]
They’re forcing people to testify against themselves & getting kids to fink on their parents, like they used to in Stalinist Russia, (and the Republicans want them to be proud of being patriotic Americans), like the kids in Maoist China, when they denounced their parents. Then there’s the destruction of the individual family farm, which used to be the symbol of rock-ribbed Republican virtue.
So when you look all the way down the line, instead of getting government off our backs like they promised to do, they’ve gotten government on our backs in the most literal way imaginable, spying on your private acts of sex & declaring sodomy illegal. There couldn’t be anything more restrictive on the freedom of communication than that.
This is all in addition to escalating the national debt beyond anyone’s wildest imagination with this hyper-militarization, after coming in on a platform of balancing the budget. It’s a cancer on our nation. Now they’re packing the Supreme Court with these odd-balls who really don’t believe in the First Amendment and think the Bill of Rights is wimpy, “not strong enough to control the niggers”, or something. It’s a black-out on communication, up to and including censorship of literature. This from the people promising libertarianism and a free market.
It’s so obviously paradoxical & contrary, like the Mad Hatter scenes from Alice in Wonderland that nobody notices it. Finally, it starts falling apart on its own because it is so contradictory. Like telling everybody not to send arms to Iran, while they’re secretly doing it all along. Then they ignore the World Court’s decision on Nicaragua, while yakking about how we’ve got to live in a world of law and order. They’re breaking the law everywhere.
So there’s not only a black-out of communication, but confusion of actual communication by double-talk. There are “Peace-keeper” missiles now, the Contras are “Freedom-fighters”. It’s just an abusive distortion of language for a sly P(ublic) R(elations) gimmick to hypnotize gullible citizens with no historical memory.
The great thing about rock ‘n roll was that it was an expression of personal opinion that could alter the culture. Then it got absorbed by the mainstream, so now you have your bubblegum music again. The Washington wives (of the PMRC) aren’t attacking the industry itself which is dominated by local promotion men using cocaine and money to pay off dee-jays. They’re attacking the last bastion of marginal, alternative, non-monolithic, expression, these bands on the fringes like the Dead Kennedys, they’re not attacking the big companies, they’re attacking these little independents that can’t fight back.
It’s an interesting pass in American history. I think it’s coming to an end with the destruction of Reagan’s schemes – this Contra-diction (the Buddhist image of that is of a serpent uncoiling in mid-air). It’s all self-destructing, Nobody attacked Reagan, but it was just so bold-face contradictory that it would have to come out sooner or later. Same thing with The Bakkers (sic – Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s evangelical scandal), the sort of hypocrites Sinclair Lewis denounced back in 1929, in his novel Elmer Gantry, about a rapacious born-again evangelist on the make for money. That sort of stuff was passé back in the (19)30’s, & how it came back, like some weird form of syphilis, I don’t know,
I never had any difficult dependencies on alcohol like he did, & he died at forty-seven. Also, I never had as much denunciation & poison poured on my work as (Jack) Kerouac did. When his first books came out, he was denounced as “un-American” and a jerk. People said it wasn’t writing, it was typing, because he was altering the tender American heart. He realized that what he had to offer was put down so viciously because of some really great pain in America & in the world. As Gregory Corso said, when the nation sickens, what happens to the singer of the nation?
But most of the poets and writers from that period have held up rather well, like Gary Snyder and William Burroughs, who continue to have a huge technical & linguistic influence on punk & new wave bands. So I would say (that) the life-expectancy for Beat poets is probably better than for most insurance salesmen. There’s always a few who burn out young and gloriously (or ingloriously).
My old works are still relevant , and they’re more popular than ever. As far as I’m concerned, the newer works are ripened . That’s why I’ve been able to work with (Bob) Dylan and The Clash. Poetry is always relevant to the extent that it’s intelligence of language. This overlay of Buddhist meditation classicism makes it twice as rich, maybe more permanently relevant than the spontaneous naïve lyricism. Now I’m a wise old lyricist, an old dog lyricist, & that’s very hard to get.
(DM (How would you like to be remembered?)
AG: I keep getting asked that. I’d like my poems to be remembered. My ambition is to write something so memorable people will remember them like I remember lines of Whitman or (W.B.) Yeats. I haven’t done it yet with any complete poems. Maybe a line, like the opening of “Howl”, or some fragments from “Kaddish”. (Bob) Dylan has written whole verses and songs that people remember. That’s really important, because books fade and paper turns to dust, but memory stays & is transmitted from generation to generation. ”Sticks and stones may break my bones/ but words will never hurt me”.You don’t need a book to get that one. People remember it from generation to generation, without a book.
It’s about getting something that sticks in the mind because it’s so pithy & rhythmic & full of suggestion. That’s what I’d like to be remembered through. Maybe for a photograph or two? – and the lyrics for “Father Death Blues”? - In Hungary, there may be a hundred thousand kids who know the words to that song in Hungarian!