First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher, is not the first collection of interviews with Allen Ginsberg, but it is in some respect the best. It is a slim edition, carefully selected from the inconceivably vast archive of interviews, to show Allen at his very best. As Schumacher points out in his introduction (and as a great many others have observed) Allen viewed the interview as an art form, just like his poems. He was generous with his interviewers, yet firm. He pushed them to give their best, and he always gave his. (Throughout the book, there are weak interviewers but Ginsberg is never off-form.) Mistakes rankled him, and he made efforts to ensure every interview he gave went to print without misrepresenting his ideas.  

Schumacher has successfully gathered a series of interviews which, compiled chronologically, more or less cover Ginsberg’s interests without too much repetition. A previous collection, Spontaneous Mind, edited by David Carter, is far more comprehensive, but grows tedious for casual reading due to its repetitive nature. First Thought works far better as a readable, enjoyable guide to Ginsberg’s world. He covers the meaning and history of the Beat Generation in depth and gets into deep explanations of his own poetry, while also talking about politics, travel, and drugs. There is little that mattered to Ginsberg which doesn’t make its way into these collected interviews.

The collection includes not just straight-forward interviews with Allen, but also his own grilling of Ezra Pound, a joint interview with his father, Louis, and a class discussion at Naropa that was interrupted by William S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer. A particular highlight is an interview Ginsberg gave to the book’s editor several decades ago, in which he discusses his dreams – something that was of importance to his Beat contemporaries, Burroughs and Kerouac.

First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg is an essential part of any good Beat book collection, and will certainly be invaluable to anyone conducting research on Ginsberg.