Reviews

Conversations with Allen Ginsberg

In his recent book, Straight Around Allen, Bob Rosenthal begins a chapter with this statement:

Allen considers the interview to be his personal art form.

This is probably obvious to anyone who has done research on Ginsberg’s life and work. One could hardly begin to count the number of published interviews he gave, and it is not surprising that there have been two collections of these already: Spontaneous Minds (2002) and First Thought (2017). Then there are books like Don’t Hide the Madness, which present one long rambling interview-like conversation.

In looking at any of these, one can see that Bob Rosenthal’s point is true: For Allen Ginsberg, the interview was not a necessary annoyance. He was not being pinned down and forced to spout off a few ideas in order to promote a new publication. Rather, he took these as opportunities to spread his ideas, promote the work of his friends, and bring a little peace to the world. If an interviewer posed an intelligent question – or one that simply interested Ginsberg – he would speak at length on the topic, creating answers that were practically essays when transcribed.

And now, in 2019, we have a third collection: Conversation with Allen Ginsberg, edited by David Stephen Calonne.

What is the purpose of yet another collection of Allen Ginsberg interviews? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the vast number of interviews that he gave during his life, there was more than enough material available for Calonne to produce a collection of ones that most readers will not have previously encountered, yet which cover much of his career. The earliest interview is from 1962 and the final one took place not long before his death in 1997.

The first “interview” is a strange choice for opening the book. Rather than an actual interview with Ginsberg, the author, R. Parthasarathy, simply writes about having met the poet and includes a few quotes. It is a short piece that tells us little and, after a long, dull introduction by the book’s editor, it does not bode well for this collection.

Thankfully, the majority of the interviews included in Conversations are much more substantial. The next one in the collection, for example, sees Ginsberg talk at length about his deportation from Prague. He is in an expansive mood, generously sharing long stories and opinions with David Widgery, the interviewer. After talking about his experiences behind the Iron Curtain, he begins to attack American journalism, claiming that “in America… ninety-nine percent [of journalists] are not honorable, or just not smart enough to understand.” He then moves on to the police, for whom he has a surprising degree of sympathy:

The police in New York are all paranoid… they were so hateful for so long that everybody got to hate them, and that just accumulated and built up. The only answer to viciousness is kindness. Sooner or later everybody’s got to realize that.

Throughout the book, we are treated to the classic, opinionated but usually open-minded Allen Ginsberg. He talks about poetry a lot, as well as politics. Yet in one interview he claims, “I’m not interested in poetry, I’m not interested in art,” and in another he says “I’m not that political. I’m not that interested in politics.” These quotes, of course, are drowned out by nearly two hundred other pages filled with Allen’s thoughts on poetry and politics…

Naturally, he has a lot to say on the subject of meditation, or “sitting” as he preferred to view it. He recommends people sit for an hour each morning to reduce the political tensions of the world, and elsewhere he makes the dubious claim that “sitting was always a part of the whole beatnik heritage.” There were a lot of other dubious claims that, in those pre-Google days, clearly went without basic fact-checking, particularly in regards his personal research into politics and drugs. There is also a claim that the word “hipster” came from Chinese opium smokers who lay on their hips, which is fanciful at best.

Ginsberg talks about music a lot, particularly as that became more important to him during the 1970s. He name-drops his famous rock star friends, like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, and talks about Mick Jagger and Kurt Cobain, too. During the interviews from the 1970s and 80s, he talks about punk music, which very much interested him. I was surprised to read that he had met Jim Morrison, as I had never previously seen this mentioned. He doesn’t just say that he once met Morrison, but rather “I know Morrison,” implying a friendship.

Whilst Ginsberg is talkative and friendly throughout most of these interviews, it is rather amusing to see him getting irritated with certain interviewers. In a 1975 interview with Michael Andre, Ginsberg attempts to speak at length as per his usual interview style, but Andre keeps cutting him off. Eventually, Ginsberg says “you sound like some horrible German talking asshole.” Later, Andre says “You’ve written a lot about your mother’s illness,” to which Ginsberg flatly replies, “I wrote one poem.” Nonetheless, despite this and several other curt answers, he is still generous with his rude and ill-prepared interviewer.

In an interview from 1985, with Thomas Gladsyz, Ginsberg offers unusually short replies, refusing to expand on any of the ideas he normally liked to discuss. He comes off rather rude and his interviewer calls his ideas “crack-pot” in the preamble, but halfway through the interview Ginsberg explains: “the reason I am so testy is that I am trying to get off dope. I am going through withdrawal symptoms from nicotine.”

It is this sort of interview that is missing from the other collections, and it actually brings a roundness to Conversations with Allen Ginsberg. In this book, we see Ginsberg discussing the usual topics (poetry, politics, meditation, homosexuality, drugs) but there is little in the way of repetition, it is all in chronological order, and we see the many different aspects of Ginsberg’s complex and changing personality. He was a contradictory man, and this is abundantly clear from these interviews. The depth of material compiled into a rather slim volume is impressive, and David Calonne has done well to find interviews not in the other collections, but which are valuable by themselves and add up to a quite comprehensive gathering of Ginsberg’s ideas.

*

The book is available now from the University of Mississippi Press.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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