Lisa Meyer: interviewing Allen Ginsberg.
Last spring, I had approached Allen Ginsberg in a crowded lecture hall at Princeton University. He had just finished reading portions of "Howl" and "Kaddish" to an audience of more than seven hundred. They rose and applauded. Carefully, he stepped off the stage, and the crowd swarmed around him. I finally reached him standing just inside the door, greeting fans. I told him that I was compiling a collection of interviews with well-known writers.
He glanced at me. "What about the little-known writers?" he snapped.
I said that I was working on that. He looked straight at me. Behind his thick-lensed glasses, one eye was slightly squinted. A teary-eyed young woman stepped in front of me and asked if she could hold his hand. He let her. A couple of days later, I approached him again, after a classroom discussion at Princeton. I repeated my request for an interview. He coughed for several moments, uncontrollably, and then, as he turned away, he said, "Call my office."
The next day, I did and asked for his secretary, Bob Rosenthal, who told me to send some examples of my work and an interview contract. Allen was not well, he added. He was giving very few interviews. "But call back," he told me. "That's the only way you get to the top of our stack."
Over several months, the people who worked for Allen Ginsberg said that I should keep calling back. At first, I called every two weeks, then every month. He was going to Europe, then Colorado. They told me to call back at the beginning of fall and then again in a couple of weeks. One Thursday morning last October, they gave me a choice: next Monday or Tuesday. I picked Tuesday, and they gave me his new address. Allen Ginsberg had just moved out of his small walk up flat on the Lower East Side.
The door to his new apartment building in the East Village was a scuffed maroon metal panel that held a two-way mirror and a black sign that informed me in white letters that the entry was monitored by closed circuit TV. I rang him and, through his intercom, he told me his apartment number. Then he pressed a buzzer to unlock the metal door, and I walked down a long gray hallway to a large elevator. It took me up to the fifth floor. Its door slid open to a small foyer that held a varnished wooden bench. Under the bench were rows of cubby holes. Buddhists have them. In the holes, he put his shoes.
I found him barefoot at the far end of a spacious loft that was being built around him. Construction workers were scattered about, measuring, drilling, and hammering. He sat on the edge of a twin bed in a pair of worn light blue pants. He had brought the bed with him from his old flat. He also brought his tiny wooden desk. Like Allen Ginsberg, the furniture appeared out of place. The white brick walls were freshly painted. The wooden floor was newly lacquered. The ceiling was lined with gray painted pipes and ceiling fans. The kitchen looked as if it had been hardly used. The counters were bare and shiny.
He stood to greet me.
"So tell me," he said, "what is this about?"
Puzzled, I explained that his office had set up an interview.
"Yes. Yes," he said, agitated, looking down and shaking his head. "But what is it about?"
I told him that I wanted to investigate with him the various ways in which his work was subversive.
He thought about this for a moment, then nodded.
It was late afternoon and he had just awakened. He wanted breakfast. We set out for a nearby restaurant. At the second diner - the one with the wall socket - he marveled at my recorder, which uses digital audio tape. "How much did that cost?" he asked, with a touch of envy. "More than I have," I answered. He smiled and raised his hand, flagging a waitress. "Could you turn down the music?" he asked. Pop tunes were piped through ceiling speakers. "We are going to do an interview."
The waitress, who hardly spoke English, stared at him, deadpan, then walked off. The music did not soften. She brought his order: two fried eggs, sunny side up, toast, and a large glass of orange juice.
He did not like my first question. "You have been called the 'Sidewalk Bard of America,'" I said.
"I haven't heard that one before," he retorted.
"What do you think about the title?"
"I don't live on the sidewalk. It comes from street poetry, I believe and then the category has evolved to the sidewalk. But I rarely read poetry on the streets. So the title seems a little bit off center."
How did you change the role of poetry in America, moving it from the printed page to the reading halls to the picket lines?
"Well, you just answered it in the question, didn't you?" he said defiantly. "Besides, I didn't do all the things that you say. I was following a tradition that went from Walt Whitman to Ezra Pound to William Carlos Williams, proposing a poetry that was composed of the diction and syntax of ordinary speech, measuring the verse line by breath stop. including syllabic count or cadences or vernacular or idiomatic measure, rather than a metronomic measure. In other words, we prepared a mode of poetry that was identical with living language."
Why did you spend you life fighting censorship?
"The censorship of language is the censorship of consciousness," he replied.
What is the effect of the sexual explicitness of your work?
"My motive straightforwardly is to represent my mind, body or speech with the actuality of my life," he answered. "To be accurate and precise, the effect is a recognition on other people's part that that is like them or like life."
Why does your confessional poetry speak to so many people?
"Readers identify because they see me as more or less naked and transparent," he said. "They see things in me that are like things in them. It's not a breakdown of identity. It's absolutely an affirmation of identity, or an empowerment of the individual identities. Someone says, 'Oh, yeah, I get a hard-on too,' or, 'I saw that too,' or, 'My mother is crazy too,' or, 'I'm neurotic too,' or, 'I'm a coward too.'"
In your poem "Thoughts on a Breath" are you suggesting that there is a sadomasochistic quality to capitalist society?
"Capitalist shmafalist," he shot back. "If it's conscious play with both sides willing, then it's play. If it's not, conscious play but enforced slavery or torture, then it could be communist or capitalist."
Is the phrase "putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" in your poem "America" referring just to your sexuality or also to a sense of nonconformity?
"It's a pun," he said. "My unusual shoulder. My natural shoulder, my queer shoulder, my shoulder that would be considered queer by others but is my strong shoulder. It's also a mockery. It's a macho trait: put your shoulder to the wheel. I'm putting my faggoty shoulder to the wheel because America needs that."
Sometimes he did not like the words I used. He said that I should speak plainly - that I did not use language that ordinary people could understand. "Your perspective is making use of, at this point, Saussure and the deconstructionists and the French theoreticians, which I find a control system. They say it's their decontrol system, and I say it's a control system, because it begins to control the vocabulary of people, and they no longer talk like they talk when they're talking to each other."
He grew angry. He coughed frequently. When his orange juice was gone, I offered him mine so he could moisten his throat. He declined.
"That's yours," he said softly.
We discussed "Howl," a poem claiming that compassion is a powerful revolutionary force.
He told me that all he was trying to do was write his mind. Perhaps, he said, for lack of imagination, technique or talent, he could not do anything more than capture in fragments the peculiarities of his own thoughts. "I may not be very smart," he said, "but I am smart enough to stick to reality and to work from nature. It seems to work out for people. I'm amazed actually at how well my poetry is received. Because I always felt kind of stupid and unimaginative - having to store pictures of reality because I can't make up something that's more romantic. So, perhaps, I've made a virtue of my defects."
Most of his poetry, he said, was written without the intent of publishing it. "It seemed too personal," he said. "I was just writing for myself."
A friend interrupted to blow him a kiss.
Finally, he excused himself. His office had scheduled a photo shoot, and the photographer was waiting at his new loft. I took out my wallet, but he insisted on paying for his own breakfast and my orange juice. He lurched off, promising to continue the interview after the photographer was finished.
The construction workers were still milling about, measuring, drilling, and hammering. Allen Ginsberg walked into his new bathroom and peed with the door open.
He put on a blue blazer. "This jacket must be yours," he said to a handsome young man, who had come to the loft while we were gone. The young man smiled, blushed, and disappeared into a walk-in closet to put on a checked shirt over his T-shirt. Allen Ginsberg did not introduce him.
"Just tell me what to do," he said to the photographer in the same voice that had demanded that I simplify my language.
The photographer posed him in a wooden chair, then on his twin bed.
While waiting, I looked at his books. From his old flat, he brought his book cases. They held the works of William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, covered with sheets of clear plastic.
"There are more books in those boxes," he said, gesturing to stacks of them in front of the shelves. Then he pointed to a book case in a far corner by a window, far above the people walking on First Avenue below. "Filled with old manuscripts," he said.
Months later, the manuscript of my interview with him came back to me with his penciled corrections. He sent back the contract, altered but signed. He sent back not only my copy, but also his.
Lisa Meyer is currently working on a collection of interviews with writers, entitled Literary Mirrors. Her work has appeared in The Boston Review and The San Francisco Review, among others. An excerpt from the question and answer portion of her interview with Ginsberg will appear in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review.