Magazine article The Progressive

Allen Ginsberg: 'I'm Banned from the Main Marketplace of Ideas in My Own Country.' (Interview)

Magazine article The Progressive

Allen Ginsberg: 'I'm Banned from the Main Marketplace of Ideas in My Own Country.' (Interview)

Article excerpt

I arrived at Allen Ginsberg's apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan at noon on April 15, two months before his sixty-eighth birthday. The Beat poet, icon of the 1960s counterculture, gay pioneer, had just published a new book of poetry, Cosmopolitan Greetings, almost forty years since he shattered the poetry scene with "Howl." I wanted to talk to him about his latest work and his current political views.

The narrow passageway leading into Ginsberg's small living room was clogged with equipment from a WGBH/BBC crew that was there to interview Ginsberg for a film on the history of rock-'n'-roll. I'd been told ahead of time that he'd be doing other interviews that afternoon, so I sat on a small squishy futon under the sole window and looked around. A framed and illustrated copy of Blake's "The Tyger" was at the entranceway. A large bookshelf stood against one wall, with an oversized volume about Lenin lurking on top. Poetry filled the top two shelves, and then nonfiction, including Citizen Cohn, and J. Edgar Hoover, and Edward Herman's and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Tapes of Bob Dylan and CDs of John Trudell, along with videos (The Panama Deception) gathered on another bookshelf.

After about half an hour, Ginsberg came out of his tiny bedroom. He was dressed in a deep blue shirt, gray slacks, black slip-on shoes, and a red-and-black tie. He introduced himself to me, and then engaged the filmmakers. They wanted his recollections of meeting Bob Dylan and John Lennon, so he dutifully performed in his kitchen through numerous takes as the film crew fidgeted with the sound and the light--a process that took about two hours. A framed, if slipping, portrait of Walt Whitman hung on one wall, along with a print of St. Francis in Ecstasy. On the refrigerator, next to low-fat food lists and Buddhist chants, was a leaflet: Teenagers! Tired of Being Harassed by Your Stupid Parents? Act Now. Move Out, Get a Job, Pay Your Own Bills . . . While You Still Know Everything.

As the film crew was cleaning up, Ginsberg and I retreated to his bedroom for the interview, Buddhist shrine next to the bed, writing table nearby, and bookshelf of poetry at the front. Ginsberg was alternately impassioned and professorial, even occasionally disputatious as he resisted being labeled a political poet. There was one magical moment when he took down an old hardback copy of Whitman and started to read passages he had marked up. Halfway through the interview, Ginsberg broke to go upstairs in his building to Philip Glass's apartment to work with the composer on a memorial for a mutual friend who had died of AIDS. When Ginsberg returned, we talked for two more hours, and I left exhausted at 6:30 in the evening.

Q: In Cosmopolitan Greetings, you have a phrase, "radioactive anticommunism." What do you mean by that?

Allen Ginsberg: Well, the bomb was built up beyond the Japanese war as a bulwark against communism. The extremist anticommunism went in for mass murder in El Salvador and assassination in the Congo, when we killed Lumumba and put in Mobutu. The military extremism was not much help in overthrowing communism, except maybe in bankrupting both sides, but that only left the communist countries helpless when they switched over to the free market.

But beyond that I think as much was done to subvert Marxist authoritarian rule by Edgar Allan Poe, blue jeans, rock-'n'-roll, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, modern American poetry, and Kerouac's On the Road--that was more effective in subverting the dictatorship and the brainwash there than all the military hoopla that cost us the nation, actually.

Q: Why did these works undermine communism?

Ginsberg: The authoritarian mind--Maoist, Hitler, Stalinist, monotheist, Ayatollahist, fundamentalist--shares a fear and hatred of sexual libertarianism, fear of free-association spontaneity, rigid control over thought forms and propaganda, fear of avant-garde and experimental art. …

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