This interview appeared in ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum, Summer, 1996. This page was featured as a background link on CNN on the Web in their news stories on Allen on April 4th and 5th. For links to external sites with comprehensive resources on Allen, Click Here.
Mystical, profound, prophetic, obscene, humane--these words describe both Allen Ginsberg and his work. Widely acknowledged as one of America's greatest living poets, Ginsberg was born in Newark in 1926, and raised in Paterson, New Jersey. It was there that Ginsberg met and soon became the literary protege of William Carlos Williams, a leading Modernist poet and author of Paterson. As a college student at Columbia University, Ginsberg forged another momentous literary alliance when he was befriended by novelist William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch.
In the 1960s, Ginsberg became a chief figure of the Beat Generation, a profligate and restless group whose luminaries include Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Favoring spontaneity and frank language over metered verse and measured speech, Beat poetry fuses anti- establishmentarian political rhetoric with drug-inspired visions, hedonistic sex, and Eastern religion. In the process of re- inventing themselves, the Beats invented a new and distinctly American poetic diction.
Borrowing his broad narrative style from Walt Whitman, his improvisational technique from Rimbaud, and mystically connected to the living spirit of William Blake, Ginsberg has, like these earlier greats, made himself both subject and object of his verse. Ginsberg's work is a poetry without intellectual boundaries, where internal landscape and worldly concerns are metaphysically united. His spiritual quests, his socio-political convictions, and his homoerotic passions are candidly and exuberantly explored.
Ginsberg's expansive, free-verse style has generated as much controversy among academics as his profanity has outraged police authorities. But, like Ginsberg himself, the work has endured the dark side of American politics. Though his masterpiece, "Howl," has been widely censored and banned from radio broadcast, it has become required reading on campuses throughout the United States. And despite persistent harassment by Federal authorities, Ginsberg remains unapologetic and unashamed, as visionary now in his 60th year as he was in his youth.
In this interview, Ginsberg discusses his rage and disappointment with the injustices of American government, the hypocrisy of its war on drugs, the dishonesty of its foreign policies, and the unconstitutionality of its censorship efforts. He sees poetry as a source of hope for the future. -- GGB
GGB: You've always been so controversial, one has to wonder: have you been controversial because you crave controversy, or is it your poetic vision that has made you controversial?
AG: I don't know. I'm nowhere near as smart as someone like Sakharov, but if you asked him that question...well, it's like asking, "Are you neurotic or not?" Was he neurotic?
GGB: You're asking me? I'm just the interviewer!
AG: I'm sorry. There is no objective interviewer around anymore in the world. As Einstein says, the appearance of the phenomenally odd is attributable to the observer. The scientific notion is that it takes three to make scientific observation. It takes the, uh, one molecule clinging against the other, then an observer. And the subjective observer is part of the transaction. As the interviewer is.
GGB: I would say that we're all neurotic. But perhaps some people can still perceive truth.
AG: I don't think there is any truth. I think there are only points of view. I have a point of view which seems to me to be practical: I'm not looking for trouble. I avoid it. But the government actually...both communist governments and capitalist governments alike, have given me trouble by stepping on my toes illegally. I can enumerate the specifics of American and socialist abuses of my liberties and citizenry prerogatives. Namely, that I was put on a dangerous security list by J. Edgar Hoover from 1965 on, and for a number of years, I was strip searched every time I came back into the country.
There were also several attempts to set me up for a dope bust by the narcotics bureau. That was because, in 1960, I went on television with Norman Mailer and said I thought we ought to decriminalize grass. From that moment on the narcotics bureau began making a file on me.
GGB: I once heard you give a speech at Hofstra in which you said that people today do not look at the world with clarity, or see that it is headed for doom.
AG: I think we face an unworkable world, speaking in terms of survival. I think there are a lot of people who've got the Bomb and bacteriological warfare they will unleash if they feel they've been pushed too far politically. Or some nut might do it.
GGB: What about the general clamp-down we're seeing on the arts in America? The censorship issues, the new laws.
AG: It's all part of the same thing. There are a lot of laws you don't know about that were put in place by the sleazy Meese Commission. Plus the Helms attack on the NEA is having a fallout far beyond the intended repression of sexual material. It has entered into the cultural arena as a critique of the culture and of free political expression.
My work is consistently censored. If it's happening to me, imagine what's happening to a lot of others. I'm supposed to be, you know, classic. I'm a member of the American Academy of Poets and the Institute of Arts and Letters. I'm a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, I'm world-famous as a poet, and I'm supposedly invulnerable to the depredations of snoopy censors and jerks like Helms. But it affects the environment I have to work in, and I think it affects every artist.
Once you look carefully at those specters, like Helms, you realize the reason they're so loudmouthed is they're feeling guilty about their own activities, which are much more dangerous and death-dealing than anything the people who they criticize are doing. Namely, Helms is peddling tobacco. He complains about artists, but is not above using government funds to subsidize tobacco agriculture to obtain money from the tobacco lobby.
GGB: Can you tell me about some of your experiences with censorship?
AG: In 1988, I brought suit in Federal court with the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of PEN Club and myself to contest an FCC regulation that "indecent" language not be broadcast on the air from 6:00 AM to midnight. The court ruled in our favor, saying that if the FCC wanted to channel such language away from children's ears they had to have some sort of scientific evidence as to which hours were okay and which were not, because you couldn't reduce the entire adult population to the level of minors for the bulk of the listening time. But Senator Helms introduced a bill in October that same year directing the FCC to ban "indecency" 24 hours a day. There was hardly anybody in the Senate so it went through. Reagan signed it, and it became the law.
Pacifica Radio had been broadcasting my poetry, anthology pieces like "Howl," "Kaddish," "Sunflowers," which have words that can be contested. After the law went into effect, Pacifica wrote me to say that they couldn't broadcast them anymore. They thought they would win a court case, but the law had a chilling effect, because the court case would cost too much money. They might lose $100,000 in legal fees, and they just couldn't afford it. They stopped broadcasting my work the same year that the annotated "Howl"--the big book--came out.
Now, these poems are all in anthologies studied in school. And by "indecency," of course, they mean obscenity. But obscenity, if it has aesthetic beauty or significance as social critique, cannot be banned according to the free speech tenets of the Constitution. For the FCC to set a standard of artistic and literary social implications is outside of their prerogative. It makes them into censors. If something really criminal is being broadcast, it should be for the Justice Department, not the FCC, to decide.
GGB: Is it the right to use obscenity you wish to preserve?
AG: I'm simply trying to write according to the directions of Walt Whitman, who said he hoped the poets of the future would specialize in CANDOR. I'm trying to record my experiences candidly, and that right must be protected, because my experiences are more or less parallel with other people's.
GGB:Who do you think are the heroes in the struggle against censorship... aside from Allen Ginsberg?
AG: I'm a hero? I'm working hard! I would say a lot of lawyers, like the ACLU and the Emergency Civil Liberties people. The PEN Club has been doing good with its anti-censorship committee. I would say also the artists themselves who are unselfconsciously producing controversial work-- as Robert Mapplethorpe did, or like Vonnegut, or any number of people. Vonnegut is endlessly censored.
GGB: What other authors are regularly censored?
AG: I have a whole list of works containing indecent language compiled by the Stanford Pan-American Center. There's Aristophane's "Lysistrata," Brautigan's "Hawkline Monster," Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Cleaver's "Soul on Ice, Doctorow's "Ragtime," Dickey's "Deliverance" (because it has a rape scene), James Joyce's "Ulysses," Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road," Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover," Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Mark Twain's "Letters From the Earth." Many of those were celebrated censorship cases, some of them before you were born.
GGB:What inflammatory ideas did the censors cite?
AG: Just sex. In those days, that was enough. It sounds like a list of decadent works that Hitler burned. It really IS book burning. The American Library Association has been pretty heroic in compiling information on banned books. They have a list of about a hundred books that go everywhere from Adam Bede to "Huckleberry Finn." The moral of this story is that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
I've always been interested in notions of censorship and the question, "How do you liberate a society from people who want to maintain thought control? Censorship involves thought control. The purpose of it is usually to maintain some sort of militaristic status quo which becomes tighter and tighter.
GGB:Do you feel it's getting tighter and tighter in the United States?
AG: Very much so! Under Reagan--who was supposed to get the government off my our backs--the government got on peoples' backs more than ever. It's a severe contradiction. In many areas, there was an administrative decision forbidding government employees to write books about their experiences with the government without submitting the books and writings to their bosses. That was totally new in American history.
GGB:Do you see other areas where the government is violating our Constitutional rights?
AG: Yes, of course. The government invades your body. "The bladder police," as Abbie Hoffman once called it. And they can go into your veins, as well as your DNA, if they want to see if you smoke a little pot. The war on drugs extended surveillance by the CIA which never before had gone into the civilian sector. The CIA was forbidden by law to do any domestic spying until the war on drugs. There has been a mobilization of the entire secret police apparatus.
The more you build up the anti-drug bureaucracy, the more corruption there is within because it's so lucrative. The kind of people who would be drug agents would just as well be drug peddlers. They're mirror images.
GGB:I gather you don't care for the "just say no" campaign which Republicans are now trying to revive?
AG: I'll say it very straightforwardly: yes, absolutely, I think the war on drugs is a fake, it's a hype, I think it's intended to increase the number of druggies, I think it's intended to increase police presence in America, and I think its purpose is a cynical political manipulation. It's not intended to solve any problems with drugs particularly, it's only intended to increase control over the lower classes who are becoming increasingly restive with inflation, housing problems, and the decline of American industrial jobs and power.
If they wanted to solve the drug problem, they would have to use a solution which "will not fly politically"--to LEGALIZE. You assign marijuana as a small cash crop to save family farms from omnipotent agribusiness farming. Addicts would be sent to doctors, as they are in most countries.
GGB:You mean that drug addiction should be treated as a disease, like alcoholism?
AG: Yes, like an illness, rather than hounding and accusing addicts of being fiends--which is already a trespass on human dignity, the notion of the dope fiend. By definition, the addict is viewed as psychopathic. I think that is a vicious semiotic trick to reduce people to things. Junkies in America are treated like Jews in Nazi Germany, chased with guns and dogs. Put into camps and made to suffer withdrawal without medical help. If they can be cured, let's cure them. Other drugs, such as LSD, have already been legalized elsewhere--in Switzerland, for example, so doctors can experiment with it. Scientific research shouldn't be suppressed.
GGB:Who should have access to such drugs as LSD?
AG: Doctors, psychiatrists, physicians, whoever medicines are available to. Why not? I would make it available to rabbis or swamis too!
GGB:Are you suggesting that pot should be something all of us could have access while the harder drugs remain controlled substances?
AG: I don't like the term controlled substances, because it's a euphemism for police control. I would say ease up on the controls completely and give it into responsible hands. Or maybe even a total free market, as Milton Friedman says. We're shortsighted about drugs, as William Buckley says. Once you remove that substrata which was the basis of the drug problem all along, and the basis of the drug bureaucracies, then you might be able to look more straightforwardly at speed, coke, and crack, and figure out what to do with them.
But don't confuse all the drugs, because they're all totally different. You've got to separate them, just as you remove nicotine and alcohol, you could remove marijuana, and could remove junk, heroin, and opiates, and you could remove psychedelics from the whole confused realm...then you could isolate the problem, then you could look at it and figure out what to do with coke. But nobody's willing to do that, and the reason they're not willing is NOT that it won't solve the problem, but because "there's no popular push towards that" or that "it won't fly politically."
All the moralistic, pompous trumpeting from the police agencies and the politicians that it's immoral to allow people to have drugs has nothing to do with their real reasons: they're addicts to their political power. Their behavior is totally irresponsible, immoral, and unconstitutional. It's a hoax at the expense of people's suffering, and it's a hoax that perpetuates crime in the streets. I'm just amazed that the American public and the media haven't seen through it. The real sad thing is that over half the people who could vote here don't even vote, they're so alienated by the obvious irrelevance of the political system toward any real problem solving.
There's more serious political discussion now in the socialist countries than we have here in America. Here in America, the parties are Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. If drugs are such an important problem, why is there no real debate about it?
GGB: The vision of America that you present, a land of book burning and political brainwashing, widespread corruption and increased police control....
AG: Don't forget the invasion of other countries, in violation of international law, and the flouting of the World Court.
GGB: And the disruption of privacy, even within our own homes...it's a rather dark view of our country.
AG: America is going through a dark period as our industrial might and power founders. We entered it with Reagan, the impotent. Rather than apologizing for Vietnam, as the Russians did about Afghanistan, we tried to make a fake movie history out of it and showed it in the White House...that John Wayne movie, "True Grit," or "Rambo"! Everybody thought Rambo was a real smart thing, cool and realistic! But it was blatant dishonesty. Denial with a capital D. You know the notion of Denial in Alcoholics Anonymous? The alcoholic denies that he's an alcoholic. And he reasons that since he's not, he can stop anytime he wants.
GGB:If you were twenty in this dark age in America, would you be writing poetry? If so what would you be writing?
AG: I'd write another Howl. I wish I could write a Howl II, covering the present. Still, there may be some good out of this whole situation in that America's power to screw up the world may be curbed just as Russian power to screw up the world is now curbed. Maybe that'll leave it for some other European culture to screw up the world, but maybe another culture will do a little bit better. As Europe gets itself back together, maybe the center of power will shift back to Europe.
GGB: Going back to poetry--will you write another "Howl"?
AG: Well, it would be impossible. But I'd like to write something that addressed the increasing strangulation of liberty in America, and the corruptions of the government in violating the soul.
GGB:By violating individual rights?
AG: There's the national soul, the national spirit. It has been violated by our government's actions. I think we, as a nation, need to apologize. One of the things we would have to apologize for, which would be included in such a poem, would be the overthrow in Iran, which led to the Shah and then the Ayatollah. That's CIA business. Or the destabilization of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, which led to the killing fields. There's the destabilization of Chile, in the early Seventies. We have to apologize for not signing the Geneva Treaty ending the French Indochina War. We have to apologize for maintaining the death squads military in Salvador. We have to apologize for violating international law in mining the harbors of Nicaragua, which was judged by the World Court to be in violation of law. We have to apologize for loosing hyper-industrialization on the world, which is destroying the environment. We have to apologize for the murder of the Native Americans. We have to apologize for maintaining slavery for several hundred years, then denying African-Americans the vote until my lifetime, a hundred years after the Civil War, and for still maintaining a racist outlook and laws. There is a lot we have to apologize for.
GGB: You wish to make those apologies in your poem?
AG: That's a good way of beginning it. "I, America, hereby apologize for..." You gave me a great idea! It would have to be a poem that was full of grief, because I think that's the heart of America at the moment. Not the bravado, and the chauvinism, and the violence--these things are the mask of grief for what we've done to ourselves and to the world.
GGB:Which younger poets do you believe are doing the most promising work? Are there any with whom you feel a strong literary kinship?
AG: There are quite a few whom I like and with whom I feel a great deal of empathy. All of these poets at one time or another passed through Naropa. Since I'm 69 now, I'll list them, ranging in descending order of age. First Antler, who is in his 40s. He has published FACTORY (City Lights) and LAST WORDS (Available Press/Ballantine). Antler lives in Milwaukee. His specialty is ecology and nature, and he goes up into the Wisconsin woods alone for weeks at a time.
There's a working man poet named Andy Clausen who has a couple of pamphlets from Zeitgeist Press (Berkeley). He met Neal Cassidy before he died and has some of his energy. Clausen's a Kerouac fan and has that same love of language. I've read with him a number of times. He worked as a hod carrier for a construction company: he was injured and rather than pay his compensation purposely went bankrupt. Now he's living with relatives and trying to deal with medical bills. He writes from a working man's point of view, with realism about the disempowerment of the underclass.
There's a poet called Eliot Katz who lives in New Brunswick, NJ. He is a social worker and also has a lot of experience with the disempowerment of the working class. His family comes from Germany and most of them were wiped out in the concentration camps. He's working on a long poem about that now, and making parallels between that and the impoverishment of his clients. A young student of his, David Greenberg, who's done illustrations for Katz's pamphlet and has a rock and roll band called Penpals, is also promising.
Then there's a 19 year old poet from Chapel Hill, NC, named Geoffrey Manough. He sent me a couple of pamphlets of his and turns out to be really brilliant. I sent him out to various poets, including Snyder and Ferlinghetti--and Ferlinghetti asked him for a manuscript.
Beck--a young blues singer, just 23 years old--has a great command of blues rhyme, the best I've heard since Dylan. Sapphire, a young student of mine at Brooklyn college, just received half a million dollars for a novel in progress. She's a black lesbian. Paul Beatty is another former student of mine: he is a rapper with a literary, be-bop sound. He was a winner of the Nuyorican Poetry slam and got a book out of it. And, finally, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Eileen Myles are more established poets with whom I feel an affinity.
GGB:What do you think about the new directions of aspiring young poets--poetry slams, poetry in cyberspace, and so on? Are we witnessing a democratization of poetry?
AG: One thing that's obvious is that since the government's going into a tailspin, morally and economically, with the elimination of the safety net for the poor in health, money and housing, the majority of people are restless and their restlessness isn't lucidly communicated through the government or media; but it is lucidly communicated through the poetry. Poets are presenting their restlessness, their sense of justice and injustice, their sense of beauty and their sense of environmental ugliness. And that ugly environment includes mass media and the government.
Poetry is the one medium for the democratic individual to express himself because every other medium is blocked up with plastic or legally censored by Senator Helms' law directing the FCC to forbid all so-called indecent language on the air between 6 a.m. and midnight. It was originally 24 hours a day until the courts opened up six hours of "safe harbor." Now they're trying to extend this censorship to the Internet.
We have a constitutional case questioning this censorship which has wound through the courts for the last 6 years. It is just now approaching the Supreme Court on behalf of PEN club. The petitioners are the Pacifica Foundation, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Public Radio International, the National Association of College Broadcasters, the Intercollegiate Broadcast system, PEN American Center and Allen Ginsberg vs. FCC and USA.
Basically, the argument is whether the censorship of radio and TV is constitutional using the key word "indecency" (which has never been defined). Although people have noticed the censorship case on the Internet much more than this one, the outcome here will have an enormous impact on the Internet and its possible censorship. So it's quite important.
The decency regulation is supposed to protect minors, now defined under 18 years old. "Howl," "Kaddish," "Sunflower Sutra"--many of my earlier poems are in high school anthologies even though these works are banned from broadcast on the air. But I notice when giving readings, about a fifth the audience are high school students, 15, 16 years old.
GGB: Do you have a vision for what the future of poetry will be?
AG: To the extent that there is government failure and media plastic, there's a failure of reality on many subjects--particularly sex, which is not being death with properly, and violence. There is no beautiful sex on tv, but there is lots of ugly violence.
Government is manipulative and full of hypocrites who are avoiding the real issues of ecology, overpopulation, underclass suffering, medical bankruptcy, homelessness, malnutrition, race divisions, the issue of drugs. With all the demagoguery (from Bill Clinton and particularly Janet Reno) and confusion, poetry can stand out as the one beacon of sanity: a beacon of individual clarity, and lucidity in every direction--whether on the Internet or in coffee houses or university forums or classrooms. Poetry, along with its old companion, music, becomes one mean of communication that is not controlled by the establishment.
A MUST for Ginsberg fans. Excellent resources.
Allen Ginsberg: Shadow Changes into Bone
Allen Ginsberg--Cosmic Baseball Association
Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
Asher Lev's first-rate site.
Literary Kicks: The Beat Poets
This interview was originally published in ELF: ECLECTIC LITERARY FORUM "an international quarterly of significant contemporary literature. " ELF publishes poetry, short fiction, essays, literary book reviews, interviews, photography, humor, and ethnic lore. Gloria is an advisory editor for the magazine.
For subscription information, submission guidelines, back-issue archives, literary links, and much more,
This interview will appear in translation in the Italian literary magazine, Americana Cultural Monthly, edited by Romano Giachetti, in 1997.
copyright © 1996 Gloria G. Brame
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