This interview was conducted on 22nd May, 1988 at the Caffé Trieste in San Francisco.
Am I a marked man, my life to be a lesson/ or experience to those young who would trod/ the same path, without GodJohn Wieners (“The Acts of Youth”)
This is 1988. The age of creativity. Most everyone you talk to expresses the desire to create “art.” Most everyone wants to wield the title of “artist” the way a butcher wields his cleaver: with both abandon and precision – commanding respect.
Artists are looked up to. Their work glorified. Their faces remembered. Clouded by such illusion, we often forget to look at the lives these people lead and the daily horrors of solitude which they endure. A closer glance and one begins to see that it’s far from all glory and creative fire for these driven souls.
Last year, I was fortunate to meet up with Allen Ginsberg (in town for a series of readings) at the Caffé Trieste on Grant Street in San Francisco’s North Beach – long famous as a literary hub. We were doing an informal interview, a scattered question and answer conversation with the poet taking the lead, talking mostly about things that he wanted to clarify and make public.
Ginsberg and the rest of his Beat Generation counterparts had always been great influences on me, just as they were for countless other confused anonymous kids. I had, since my early adulthood, also entertained Arthur Rimbaud’s grandiose dream of being poet-supreme: one with enough vision to perhaps even change the molecular structure of the universe through poetry – an “alchemy of the word” as Rimbaud phrased it. The Beats were there through it all to give my feet direction and my heart some lasting crumbs of hope.
However, when I looked at Ginsberg up close, over a cup of coffee among the Sunday morning espresso regulars, I saw the weariness and the strain and the pain of too many years lost on the road. As R.Z. Sheppard also observed in his 1985 Time article, “Mainstreaming Allen Ginsberg,” the poet’s eyes are the most fascinating and haunting thing about him: the right is narrow, brooding, ghostly, dark, skeptical. The left wide open and wondrous – allowing the whispers and diamonds of light to flow through. His eyes: they tell his story and the stories of one thousand other poets who’ve come and gone like the howling midnight winds they worshipped so…
Our conversation bounced and swayed. I brought up his friend and poet-mentor, Jack Kerouac, whose books sliced deep into the history, heart, and myth of a forgotten America. “Kerouac did more than any of us,” Ginsberg said gruffly. “He wrote more, thought more. Bob Dylan claims that Kerouac was the first poet whoever spoke directly to him. Dylan said that Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues blew his mind because it was the first poetry that talked in American. And still he was crucified and battered by his critics… [Kerouac’s life] was the ultimate tender heart of the Buddha… [His] was a heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, realizing the suffering of existence… unshielded… accepting the suffering of existence…”
If one fact is certain, it’s that Kerouac was born to write. He was compelled to create and he did so with a brilliant, holy vigor. Kerouac poured his whole heart into his craft (tearing away layer after layer of his identity) and he always accepted what he found – be it joy or profound and terminal sorrow, accepting the process of pain that ended in the shape of words on paper.
And, just as some are born to make art, others are not.
Neal Cassady, Ginsberg’s long-time friend and the renegade-freedom hero of many of Kerouac’s stories, including On the Road, wanted to write like his friends, too. However, he could never slow down long enough to corral the inspiration. Somewhat lost among the dancing shadows of Kerouac and Ginsberg and the beauty they were immortalizing, Cassady never could quite hurdle the depression of not being able to write as naturally or prolifically as his buddies. It was simply impossible for him to accept his role.
“[Cassady] had a low self-esteem,” Ginsberg remembered – shooting a cold stare at the smoky shadow of the door. “He suffered from a fear of failure… his fear of not being able to live up to what he dreamt about. But he had a much more successful life in terms of a family and children [than we did]… He was a better driver, auto-mechanic, and railroad brakeman. We were better at scribbling things on paper.”
At this point, broken down and moving slowly, an old acquaintance of Ginsberg’s tapped him on the shoulder: “Allen, can I have some money?” “I’ve only got six dollars.” “Just for coffee. Please, Allen?” “Ok, I’ll give you half of what I have.”
I asked Ginsberg how he kept doing it. How, after forty years, does he find the motivation to write and give readings and be at the constant service of his fellow human beings? “It’s the ambition to save the world,” he said laughing softly – his voice raw with passion and spirit. “A natural thing. The inspiration of saying some word or phrase that will penetrate the consciousness and liberate people from mental slavery…”
I found out something valuable from talking to Allen Ginsberg. I found that we all cannot be artists. Some of us create; others learn, absorb, and appreciate. There is no tortured guilt that need validate such a confession. There can only be satisfaction in knowing that everyone plays a role and everything acts in perfect balance.
Illusion is dangerous, ultimately poisonous. The blank infinity of dreams forever to be tempered with reality.
Allen Ginsberg’s left eye is wide open. The light flows in and there are poems. Still, his right eye remains narrow, wary, watchful – knowledgeable of its limits, stressing survival, a coming to terms with unbeatable conditions.
Art is precious. Its creators mysterious, magical, and rare. And, in the hollowness of the end, there isn’t any other choice: we play only the cards that were dealt. As it’s been said, we must make our very lives works of art.
(Remembering Allen Ginsberg)
The moon blind
Torn into blue
Twisted velvet stew
Down empty roads
The neon layers
Of his soul
This essay originally appeared in the America Muse – Issue #5; Spring 2002.