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Online Interviews With Allen Ginsberg Essay, Research Paper
Peter Barry Chowka
Peter Barry Chowka: Allen, since we’re in this automobile setting, I want to ask
you: much of your poetry, especially in The Fall of America, was composed in cars
on your various travels. In so many of the poems which came out of automobiles in the
sixties you really captured the essence of the times, the Vietnam war reports on the
radio, the lyrics of the rock music happening then. I wonder if, lately, you’re writing
poetry while on the road in automobiles?
Allen Ginsberg: Not so much. Occasionally, I still write travel poems in
airplanes, but not as often. It might be that the times have changed. Also, we were doing
a lot of cross country traveling in cars in the early and mid-sixties. More than now.
PBC: A lot of your most recent poetry, especially some that you read last night
(Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.) contains very spiritual, and specifically Buddhist,
AG: Not so spiritual; it’s more practical observations during the course of
meditation or after.
PBC: "Down-to-earth" spiritual, then. You don’t like the word
AG: Yeah, I’m not even sure if the word is helpful because it gets people all
distracted with the idea of voices and ghosts and visions. I used to get distracted that
PBC: How do you select which poems you’re going to present at a reading? Do you
consider what type of audience you feel will be there?
AG: Well, I read there years before with my father in a celebrated moment, for a
Washington society lady who invited us. I met Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, at the
last reading . . .
PBC: Helms was at the last reading?
AG: Yes. And so this time I was all hyped up, ’cause [William] Burroughs was
coming along, too: Burroughs, who’s the great destroyer of the CIA, with his prose.
PBC: Were you able to sense any reaction from the audience last night to the
kinds of things that were being read?
AG: I don’t think there were any CIA people there this time, (laughs) I was a
little disappointed: there were only secret agents — no big fish. I prepared poems that I
hadn’t read in Washington before, or poems that were extremely solid; I wanted a solid,
good reading of high-quality poems rather than just sort-of random poems, daily journal
poems. So I picked "pieces" that were complete in themselves. For me the high
point was a long, ranting, aggressive, wild poem ("Hadda be Playing on the Juke
Box") linking the CIA and the Mafia and the FBI and the NKVD and the KGB and the
multinational cash registers.
PBC: One line I especially liked was "Poetry useful if it leaves its own
skeleton hanging in the air like Buddha, Shakespeare and Rimbaud." Would it be
correct to say, from this line and from some of the other poetry you read, that your
sadhana now is the spreading of the dharma through poetry?
AG: Well, I’ve been working in that direction with Chogyam Trungpa, especially
influenced by staying all summer at Naropa Institute at the Jack Kerouac School of
Disembodied Poetics, which is ideationally modeled on Kerouac’s practice of spontaneous
utterance and Milarepa’s similar, or original, practice.
PBC: It was Kerouac who originally turned you on to Buddhism, wasn’t it?
AG: Yeah, he was the first one I heard chanting the "Three Refuges" in
Sanskrit, with a voice like Frank Sinatra.
PBC: And he wrote that as-yet unpublished volume Some of the Dharma,
which, I think, consisted of letters he wrote to you about Buddhism?
AG: Yeah, and he also, in the mid-fifties, wrote Mexico City Blues, which
is a great exposition of Mind — according to Trungpa. I read aloud to Trungpa halfway
through Mexico City Blues on a four-hour trip from Karme-Choling, Vermont, down to New
York, and he laughed all the way. And I said, "What do you think of it?" And he
answered, "It’s a perfect exposition of Mind."
PBC: Trungpa is a recognized poet in his own right. Do you think you’ve become
so close to Trungpa because you’re both poets?
AG: Oh, yeah, that’s a big influence. He encouraged me originally to abandon
dependence on a manuscript and to practice improvisational poetry. He said, "Why
don’t you do like the great poets do, like Milarepa; trust your own mind."
PBC: Compose it and then forget it; not necessarily write it down?
AG: It’s unforgettable in the sense that it gets on tape. The best thing I ever
did was a long "Dharma/Chakra Blues" in Chicago last year, but the tape is
completely incomprehensible and I can’t transcribe it. That is an old tradition, like Li
Po writing poems and leaving them on trees, or Milarepa singing to the wind with his right
hand at his ear to listen to the sound, shabd.
PBC: How long have you known Trungpa now? He seems to have become a great
influence in your life.
AG: An enormous influence. We first met on the street in 1971, in front of Town
Hall (New York City). I stole his taxicab; my father was ill and I wanted to get my father
off the street.
PBC: It was purely an accidental encounter?
AG: Yeah. I said "Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum" and
gave him a "Namaste" when he was introduced. I asked him years later what
he thought of my pronouncing the Padma Sambhava mantra to salute him, and he said,
"Oh, I wondered if you knew what you were talking about." (laughs) He’s been
pushing me to improvise, to divest myself of ego eventually, kidding me about
"Ginsberg resentment" as a national hippie characteristic, and warning me to
prepare for death, as I registered in a poem called "What Would You Do If You Lost
It?" published by the Lama Foundation.
PBC: As far as the "resentment" aspect, has he influenced you in that
direction? For example, many of the poems you read last night seemed more contemplative,
AG: He has provided a situation in which I do sit, like at the Naropa seminaries
or at the intensive sitting meditations where Peter [Orlovsky] and I have gone and sat for
a week at a time in retreat cabins in the Rocky Mountains, or where I’ve sat weeks alone,
and he’s suggested that I not write during those weeks when I’m in retreat — which has
resulted in a lot of post-sitting, meditative, haiku-like writings. He’s also made me more
aware of the elements of resentment, aggression, and dead-end anger in my earlier poetry
and behavior, which is useful to know and be mindful of. It doesn’t necessarily curb it,
but I’m able at least to handle it with more grace, maybe, as last night, where I read a
whole series of meditative poems and then this outrageous attack on the CIA-Mafia-FBI
connection. But it was put in a context where it was like the normal explosion of, maybe
even, vajra-resentment, so that it doesn’t become a dominant paranoia but is seen within
the greater space — the flow of Mind Consciousness while sitting — of continuing
mindfulness over the years. Trungpa’s basic attitude toward that kind of political outrage
is that things like gay liberation, women’s liberation, peace mobilization, have an
element — a seed — of value in them; but it depends on the attitude of mind of the
participant as to whether it’s a negative feedback and a karmic drug or a clear, healthy,
PBC: Often those political movements can become so mutually exclusive that they
serve to isolate one from a lot of the potential . . .
AG: Or so filled with resentment that they become dead-ends. More and more, by
hindsight, I think all of our activity in the late sixties may have prolonged the Vietnam
war. As Jerry Rubin remarked after ‘68, he was so gleeful he had torpedoed the Democrats.
Yet it may have been the refusal of the Left to vote for Humphrey that gave us Nixon.
Humphrey and Johnson were trying to end the war to win the election, while Nixon was
sending emissaries (Mme. Claire Chennault) to Thieu saying, "Hang on until I get
elected and we’ll continue the war." Though I voted for Humphrey in ‘68 I think a lot
of people refused to vote, and Nixon squeaked in by just a couple of hundred thousand
PBC: And now, eight years later, we might get Humphrey again anyway.
AG: So that might be the karma of the Left, because of their anger, their
excessive hatred of their fathers and the liberals, their pride, their vanity
. . .ourvanity, our pride, our excessive hatred. It may be
that we have on our karma the continuation of the Vietnam war in its worst form with more
killing than before. We may have to endure Humphrey so that we can take the ennui or
boredom of examining what we’ve wrought when we got "exciting" Nixon. In a way
it all balanced out; maybe it was better that Nixon got in because then we had Watergate
and the destruction of the mythology of authority of a hypocrite government.
PBC: Since this is 1976, a year of inevitable increase in political discussion,
I’d like to ask the following question. Your Buddhist practice seems not to have
interfered with the acute politic concern, for the CIA and other issues, which you
continue to display in recent poems like "Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox." How,
if at all, has your work with Trungpa — your extensive meditation practice — changed
your outlook on North American or world politics?
AG: It has changed it somewhat from a negative fix on the "fall of
America" as a dead-end issue — the creation of my resentment — into an appreciation
of the fatal karmic flaws in myself and the nation. Also with an attempt to make use of
those flaws or work with them — be aware of them — without animosity or guilt: and find
some basis for reconstruction of a humanly useful society, based mainly on a less
attached, less apocalyptic view. In other words, I have to retract or swallow my
PBC: That’s a lot to swallow. Do you have any specific thoughts on the American
political scene in this Presidential election year?
AG: Governor Jerry Brown.
PBC: Is the condition of the Left refusing to support Humphrey in ‘68 the main
thing that comes to mind in talking of the mistakes of the sixties, or are there other
things that you’ve realized, as well?
AG: Well, that’s sort of a basic mistake you can refer to that everybody can
remember in context, I think, so it’s a good, solid thing. What was the point of the Left?
It was saying, "End the war." What was the action of the Left? It refused to
support Humphrey because he wasn’t "pure" enough (laughs), so there was an
apocalyptic purity desire which maybe was impractical, or "unskillful means."
PBC: Which seems to go along with what I know about Trungpa and his teachings,
in general: that it should be a very down-to-earth, practical sadhana, which doesn’t
include requirements of stringent vegetarianism or giving up cigarette smoking.
AG: And which is mindful of that quality of resentment which he characterizes as
"Ginsberg resentment" or "America Ha-Ha." I was resentful, at first,
when he came on with that kind of line. Actually, I voted for Humphrey, so I wasn’t
dominated that much by resentment, but it seems to be a stereotype, maybe ’cause Trungpa
reads too much Time magazine. He’s entitled to his opinion, and I’m surely
profiting psychologically from him because there’s enough insight in that to make me halt
in my tracks and think twice, thrice.
PBC: Do you see his movement in contemporary Buddhism as the most vital one in
America at this point?
AG: Shakespeare has a very interesting line: "Comparisons are odious."
So to say "the most vital" — well, everybody’s doing a different kind of work
– some quiet, some more flashy. I seem to be able to relate to Trungpa best, although I
must say that it may be that the looseness and heartiness and charm of his approach is not
necessarily the deepest for my case. I notice I’m very slow in getting into my
prostration: of 100,000 prostrations, I’ve done only 10,000 and I’m way behind, maybe the
last in the class. But I guess he’s gotten a lot of people more deeply into foundation
practices, perhaps on more of a mass scale than any other Tibetan lama, if that’s any good
count. I suppose it’s the quality of the student that counts. Trungpa’s movement is a very
rational and classical approach to Buddhism, in his real serious attention to sitting:
"Go sit, weeks and weeks and weeks, ten hours a day."
PBC: It’s primarily silent meditation?
AG: His basic approach is to begin with shamatha, a Sanskrit word meaning
peaceful mindedness, creating tranquillity of mind. It consists of paying attention to the
breath coming out of the nostrils and dissolving in space, the outbreath only, and is a
variety of vipassana practice, which begins with concentration on the breath passing in
and out just at the tip of the nose, or Zen practice which involves following the breath
to the bottom of the belly.
PBC: What is it about the Tibetan style of Buddhism that first attracted you?
AG: Originally it was the iconography: the mandalas, the Wheel of Life,
and the Evans-Wentz books, some of which were recommended by Raymond Weaver, who was a
professor of English at Columbia University in the ’40s. Weaver gave Kerouac a list of
books to read after he read an unpublished early novel of Kerouac’s titled The Sea Is
My Brother — a list which included the early gnostic writers, The Egyptian Book of
the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Herukas — the
many-armed, fierce guardian deities — reminded me of visions I’d had in 1948 relating to
William Blake’s poem, "The Sick Rose"; visions of terror — of the universe
devouring me, being conquered and eaten by the universe. I used The Tibetan Book of the
Dead while ingesting ayahuasca in New York City in 1960-61. Later on, some
contact with Dudjom Rinpoche in India reinforced this interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
PBC: How has your study of Tibetan Buddhism, and your work with Trungpa
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