Saturday, May 7, 2016
Allen Ginsberg and Ishmael Reed 1974 at The Library of Congress
We've already noted the video of Allen reading in 1988 at the Library of Congress (see here), but here's an earlier (audio) recording, from April 29, 1974, introduced by Daniel Hoffman, of Allen reading at the Library's Coolidge Auditorium, in front of a boisterous and enthusiastic crowd, alongside Ishmael Reed.
Allen reads second
Reed reads first, and Hoffman provides this introduction:
[sounds of laughter and applause] - ...that's just to soften up the audience.
"Welcome to this, the next-to-the-last program of the current season, provided by the Gertrude Clark Whitttal Fund for Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress. The first poet who'll read tonight is Ishmael Reed . Mr Reed's earlier books bear such titles as Conjure and Mumbo-Jumbo and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and The Free-Lance Pallbearers and this certainly leads one to think that here's a man who's doing something right and has a unique and individual way of exploring his own past and the past of his people. Mr Reed, Ishmael Reed is a poet of marvelous gifts. He is endeavoring to comprehend and render in contemporary terms the full richness of the black cultural heritage going back to slavery times, to African times, as well as to current times. He combines this material with a very sophisticated grasp of what art is and where poetry is today. Ishmael Reed is, I think, an extremely gifted writer, and I think the best way to introduce him is in his own words. I'd like to anticipate his reading by reading you one short poem of his from his latest book called Chattanooga - This one is called "Jacket Notes" - "Being a colored poet/ is like going over/ Niagara Falls in a/ Barrel/An eight-year-old can do what/ You do unaided/The barrel-maker doesn't/ think you can cut it / The gawkers on the bridge/ Hope you fall on your/ Face/The tourist bus full of/ Paying customers broke-down/ Just out of Buffalo/ Some would rather dig/ The postcards than/ Catch your act/ Amile from the drink/It begins to storm/But what really hurts is/ You're bigger than the/ Barrel." - It's a great pleasure to present to you , Ishmael Reed, a very big poet indeed."
IR: I want to begin by reading from a new collection of poetry called The Flight to Canada, and what I try to do in this book is to capture the form and the essence of the poetry and ballads created by the slaves in the 19th and 18th century. There is a tradition of writing in this country of..and each day we're finding earlier poets and one of the forms was a humorous satirical, what they would call in the classroom, a letter, tongue-in-cheek letter that the fugitive slave would write back to his master, after he had left the plantation for Canada and the title..it's the title poem, it's called "Flight to Canada" ("Dear Massa Swille:/What it was?/I have done my Liza Leap/ & am safe in the arms of Canada…"…"That was rat poison I left/In your Old Crow/ Your boy/John"
"Old Sam" was what the slaves called the devil and they also Sam Grant as a devil to the South , and he tried to trace it back and it couldn't be Samuel from the Bible because Samuel doesn't do what the devil does so, most likely is Baron Samedi, because there were slaves imported up here from Santa Domingo and Haiti and they brought their religion up here, and so "Sam" was probably short for Baron Samedi, as in Afro-American language you abbreviate, for example, blacks refer to Vietnam is 'Nam and Baron Samedi is represented by three hoes and three spades in Haitain religion.
"Skydiving" - ("It's a good way to live and/ a good way to die.."…"You can't always count on/ things opening for you/Know when to let go/learn how to fall")
The next poem is called "The Reactionary Poet" - ("If you are a revolutionary/ Then I must be a reactionary.."…."Make it by steamboat/I likes to take it real slow….")
I want to read from Conjure and I'll close the reading from Chattanooga -
"The Feral Pioneers" - And if you're on the West Coast you get into West Coast mythology and one of the memories out there is the.. (not really, a historical incident which became mythology), the Donner Pass, where the people were trapped in the Donner Pass and were snowed in and starved there, and I call this "The Feral Pioneers" - ("I rise at two a.m. these mornings, to/ polish my horns to see if the killing/ has stopped…"…. "In the window, an apparition, Charles Ives;/tears have pressed white hair/ to face/")
I want to read "I Am A Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" which fuses ideas from Egyptian mythology with the American West, because, as you know, they were both cattle-herders, the Egyptians and cowboys, and what I do, I make a confrontation between two opposite Gods in Egyptian mythology into, like a gun-fighting OK Corral-type situation - ("I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra/sidewinders in the saloons of fools/bit my forehead…"…."..party pooper O hater of dance/vampire outlaw of the milky way")
I want read a blues. I did a record of blues, which you can hear us, which we did the singing.. I did the singing, because I couldn't get anyone else to do the singing. I'm a disgruntled lyricist who must sing his own songs. Anyway, if you want to buy them, there's a record called…The Black Box magazine, it's a cassette magazine that comes out of Washington here, and we have Ortiz Walton, who was the first black to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, impressive, and also Marcus Gordon, who's a voodoo drummer and who has performred in ceremonies in South America). So I'll just…I'll read one of them - "Betty's Ball Blues" ("Betty took the ring from her fabled jelly-roll..".."The calmest man in Sing-Sing is happy in his cell")
"Man or Butterfly?" - ("It's like Lao Tse's dream/my stange affair with cities.."… "I am the lead-off witness"
I'd like to read a list called "Monsters of the Ozarks", which I wrote about three or four years ago, 1969 ("The Golligog, the Binghuffer…".."the Spiro, the Agnew")
"Dualism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man" - (" i am outside of/ history./ i wish i/ had some peanuts/ it looks hungry there in/ its cage/i'm inside of history/it's hungrier than I thought")
This one's a reply to a critic. I get real mad. I don't have the patience Allen has - guys who want to fight him, you know. So the title of this poem's called "Dragon's Blood" (which is also an incense used in Voodoo ceremonies, that you can buy in the drugstore) - ("just because you/ can't see d stones/don't mean i'm not building/you ain't no mason, how/d fuck would you know").
"in san francisco, they are/ taking up a collection. if/ the earthquake won't come/ they'll send for it"
It's appropriate that, since we're in the capital of the United States that I would read a poem about a historical event which happened, a very august and pompous event, which happened here in this capital and concerning one of the Presidents wives. The President himself was a matinee idol, he's considered the handsomest President in history, his wife was a recluse. So I call this "Mystery 1st Lady" ("franklin pierce's wife never came downstairs/she never came upstairs either")
Here's a poem, dedicated to everybody who's 35, you know, and it's called "The Author Reflects On His 35th Birthday" - ("35, I have been looking forward to you for so many years now…"…"And 35?/Don't let me trust anybody/Over Reed but/ Just in case/Put a tail on that/Negro too")
"The Catskills Kiss Romance Goodbye" - ("After 20 years of nods he enters the new regime.."…"dreaming is still on the house") - It's like playing tennis, you know that?, or something…
I'll read two more - (responding to Allen's muttered remarks) - No instructions from ring-side, please! - No, I'm going to find something. I'm going to read "Loup Garou Means Change Into", and you know "Loup Garou" is a werewolf in Haitian history and what he does he comes into the settlements at night and he drags off chickens and children, or whatever's around, so he's really a nuisance. And you also find, in my research in New Orleans, they also have a Loup Garou in New Orleans, but the Haitian Loup Garou is female, and in New Orleans Loup Garou is male. And, being, in modern times, more sophisticated than our country cousins, we try to see it another way. I see Loup Garou as a psychic presence that wears you down, (and I'm sure you know a lot of people like that). And the way you get rid of Loup Garou is you take ninety-nine beans and you put them in a plate and you put them outside your door and the Loup Garou coming for your energy will count the ninety-nine beans and will look all over all night for the hundredth bean, and he dissipates with the dawn - ("If Loup Garou means change into/When will I banish mine?"..."...I put out the beans that evening, next morning I was free.")
And last, the last poem is called "A Nickel" ("If I had a nickel/ For all the women who've/ Rejected me in my life/I would be head of the World Bank…".."..all I'd think about would be going home")
[At approximately twenty-nine-and-a-quarter minutes in, Daniel Hoffman introduces Allen Ginsberg]:
"Ishmael Reed has shared with us the wonderful energy and inventiveness and joie de vivre of his poetry and it was for these qualities that his last book before the current one, that is to say Conjurer, was nominated last year for the National Book Award in poetry at the same time that his novel Mumbo Jumbo was nominated for the National Book Award in fiction. That's a very rare thing to get two nominations in two different art forms the same year. Some of the qualities that we've already enjoyed in Ishmael Reed's poems, we're going to hear in a different transmogrified form in Allen Ginsberg's. Both of these poets share a commitment to primitive sources of joy and energy that go deep within ourselves, both of them have stepped around the conventions of literature and have found and have made for themselves other conventions and have thereby enriched literature by enlarging our definition of poetry so that it includes the wonderful things that they do. I've known Allen Ginsberg for a long time. We were both classmates together at Columbia College many years ago, and in those days, Allen, well, he wore glasses. I remember when Allen wrote poems that the careless reader might have thought were by (Percy Bysshe) Shelley and then the following year he'd taken some more courses and you might have thought that maybe John Donne had come back, but shortly after that he developed a whole new curriculum, a curriculum that goes back to Christopher Smart and William Blake..and Walt Whitman, and includes the gifted mad underground poets of the Romantic movement in every country, (Antonin) Artaud and (Vladimir) Mayakovsky and (Guillaume) Apollinaire and Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Allan Poe, and he's put all these together in a marvellous mix of the Hebrew prophets and mantric chants from all over the world that he gone around in his many travels, and like Ishmael Reed, he too is a voice of conscience, speaking out against oppression wherever he feels it, finds it and sees it and he has become the conscience of a whole generation. It's a great pleasure to welcome Allen Ginsberg to the Library of Congress and ask him to read to you now."
[At approximately thirty-two minutes in, Allen begins reading]
AG: What I'll be doing is a variety of different poems and different forms, beginning with two very brief poems from the book, The Fall of America - "On Neal Cassady's Ashes" ("Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash.."…"..all ashes, all ashes again")
Washington DC Peace Mobilization, May 1970 - ("White sunshine on sweating skulls..".…… "...from the Paranoia Smog Factory's East Wing")
Ballad form - Since I.. I owe Ishmael Reed a debt. I wrote a little blurb for a mutual friend, Cruz, poet, …Victor Hernandez Cruz, saying that I thought his use of Puerto-Rican New York lingo tongue was great satisfactory to William Carlos Williams, who was, I thought, like, one of the great teachers of demotic speech and American-ese, and Ishmael in an essay reminded me that, really, like the teacher there, or the debt was owed to Bessie Smith and to the great black poets and poetesses, the actual blues singers, who were speaking an actual American more street-like and real than the literary white Americans, and so I thought more and more about that, actually, and got more into music and ballads and later into blues, and so what I'll be doing now is some ballads and some blues and mixing that with regular spoken poetry
This, a Bus Ride Ballad (on the) Road to Suva, which is in Fiji. So, a record of a bus-trip in Fiji [Allen accompanies himself here on harmonium) - ("O ho for the bus that rolls down the dirt road"…. "Down there the white houses of Suva at last!")
(Next, sections from) "Returning to the Country For A Brief Visit" ("Reading Sung poems, I think of my poems to Neal.."... "..I lift the book and blow you into the dazzling void") - "You Live Apart On Rivers and Seas..." - "You live in apartments by rivers and seas, Spring comes.. When all these millions of people die, will they recognize the Great Father?")
(and) "Night Gleam" - ("Over and over through the dull material world the call is made.")
"I spent three months last Fall, studying meditation with Chogyam Trungpa, lama, Tibetan Buddhist mindfulness, vipassana practice, watching breath leave nostrils, dissolving into space, mixing breath with space, mixing mind with breath, mixing mind with space, thus interrupting mechanical thought-forms rising, taking account, inventory and profile of repetitive recurrent daydream, fantasy, thought-form, discursive babble, always returning to the breath. The place - Jackson Hole, Wyoming - Teton Village ski area in a cafeteria, made over by the sangha, or a group of meditators, into a sitting hall."
(Allen next reads his long poem), "Mind Breaths" - ("Thus, crosslegged on round pillow sat in Teton Space…" a calm breath, a silent breath, a slow breath breathes outward from the nostrils.")
(and, with harmonium) - "Stay Away From The White House Blues" - ("Stay Away From The White House, I wish you well.." (including, (naturally), improvisation))
"Last poem. We have time. Last poem". - "Jaweh and Allah Battle" ("Jaweh with Atom Bomb/Allah cuts throats of Infidels.."…."Shema Yisroel Adonoi Eluhenu Adonoi Echad!/La ilha illa' Allah hu!/OY! AH! HU!"
[Daniel Hoffman thanks Allen, make some brief scheduling announcements and the evening concludes]
Ishmael Reed on Allen Ginsberg's unswerving political commitment - on the Allen Ginsberg Project - see here