I N T E R V I E W W I T H A L L E N G I N S B E R G
April 22, 1986
Sam Wallace and Nikki Stiller have picked up Mr. Ginsberg at his
apartment on the
Lower East Side, and are taking him to do a reading at the New Jersey
Institute of Technology.
NS: Mr. Ginsberg, when did you realize that you were a poet?
AG: Oh, I think after I read Jack Kerouac's manuscript of The
Town and the City in 1948 or so -- '47 -- it must have been -- '47-'48
-- and realized that since he had written this enormous novel that
was just like a big, classical novel, then we must be classical writers.
It was just realizing by his example that there was no mystery to
writing except you just write your mind.
NS: You had no premonitions before?
AG: Well, I was writing before, and I was devoted to it, and I had
some sense of it (I had been writing since I was 14), but by then I was
22 and was -- intuited -- now realized, that is to say, the fact we could
create works -- so Kerouac created something that was a great work,
just like other great workers. I mean I had read Magic Mountain and
then I read The Town and the City, and I saw that Kerouac's prose
was in a class with Mann or Melville or something.
NS: That was at Columbia?
AG: No. I was long out of Columbia. I had already graduated and
was actually probably working as a market researcher -- no, working
at Bickford's, mopping floors. It was hard to get jobs.
NS: Was it really?
AG: Yeah, yeah.... Or I found it difficult to get a regular job.
How do you go to -- where are we going -- Newark?
SW: Speaking of Newark, many of your poems give us intimations
of what Newark and Paterson were like. I'm thinking of "Aunt
Rose" and parts of "Kaddish."
AG: There's another poem called "Garden State."
NS: "Garden State," right.
AG: And then there's some description of the landscape around
Paterson in "Don't Grow Old," a poem from 1976. And the "Garden
State" poem is around 1977 or so -- '78, '79.
NS: Can you say a little more about growing up in Newark and
AG: Well, I did -- not enough of it actually comes into my poems.
For having lived there most of my early life, there isn't that much in
my poetry. There's some descriptions that charmed Williams in the
"Empty Mirror" section, about "Negroes climbing around rusted
iron on the river." And there's some reference in "Sunflower Sutra"
to the poem of the riverbank, "condoms and pots, steel knives,
nothing stainless," which actually is drawn from a walk by the Passaic
River that I took with William Carlos Williams, looking at the
riverbank. There are a number of mentions, but I don't know if
you've asked a very specific question. If you could ask a specific
question, I could give you an answer.
NS: How old were you when you left Newark, specifically?
AG: Well, I was born there, but we left when I was one year old.
NS: Oh, I see.
AG: So I grew up in Paterson, and left when I was 16 to go to Columbia.
So I was away from Paterson, as far as residence, from the
age of 16 on. But I go back all the time. My family is in Newark and
Paterson and I go visit all the time, so I have a lot of connections
there. Although they're slowly dissipating since my father's death.
My older uncles and aunts are in the old age home. I have lots of
cousins scattered around West Orange and Hillside. But I don't --
just my stepmother left right outside of Paterson, Elmwood Terrace,
right alongside the Passaic River. So I go there often. Spent
last weekend there.
NS: Then I imagine you have some feelings about the area, what's
happened to it and so on.
AG: Well, I'm not quite sure what you mean, actually. Sure I have
some -- I mean, I grew up there.
NS: Would you like to articulate your feelings?
AG: Would you like to articulate your question, what you're referring
to? You're so vague, I can only give you a vague answer. I'm
sick of answering vague questions. It's awful! I'm sorry, I keep getting
asked questions which are so vast, quote, Do you have some
feelings about what's happened there? unquote. Well what do you
mean what's happened there? I don't know. What do you mean?
You see, it's gone through 10 different stages since 1944 when I left.
And the whole section where I lived has now turned into a black
neighborhood and then the downtown section has gone through a total
degeneration. And then a gentrification and then another degeneration
and another gentrification.
NS: Did you expect that to happen? Is it surprising to you?
AG: Oh yeah!
NS: Do you feel mournful about it?
AG: No, they're all stereotypes, they're all stereotyped feelings.
No. Surprise really, surprise and wonder. I have a poem on the subject,
that I wrote in China, which is about leaving Paterson at the age
of 16 and then returning. It ends "None of my old houses are there
anymore. All the old stores along Broadway have disappeared, only
the Great Falls and the Passaic River flow noisy with mist and still
all the brick factory sides as they did before."
NS: OK. Well, we got somewhere with that.
SW: I was curious about your experience in Russia.
AG: What aspect of it? I spent a month there. What particularly interests you?
SW: Well, particularly the issue of being gay and the reaction of the
AG: Well, that's a big, long, complicated matter, but it's interesting.
I was there first of all as a delegate to the Soviet Writers' Union
(with a delegation to the Soviet Writers' Union). So it was a group
from the Writers' Union and a group of Americans, Arthur Miller
and others who had been involved in civil liberties matters with
them. And so my speech was -- I was trying to figure out how do you
deal with that issue in Russia when there's so much resistance. So
what I did is I got up and made a speech (we each had to give a
speech), and so when it was my turn to speak, I said first of all that
my speech would have to be all lies, that I felt it was incumbent on
all of us to lie to each other because otherwise we would have to talk
about what we were really interested in and since I was really interested
in writers in prison, gay liberation, drugs, sexual literature,
anti-state activity, I really couldn't discuss those. So if they would
all excuse me my whole speech would be a big lie. But in the course
of it I gave a catalog of everything I was interested in. So it was a
funny way of doing it.
SW: Act of preteritio?
AG: What do you call that? What is that?
SW: You got it in, pretending to bypass it.
AG: Yes, right. What's the phrase?
SW: Preteritio [spells it].
AG: It's an interesting phrase. I never heard that. That's a good
one. Then, also I said that as everybody loved Walt Whitman, and
Walt Whitman had been proposing candor as a characteristic of poets
in orders to come, that I thought that was like a good thing for all
of us to remember, and that the basis of the whole Beat Generation
(which they were interested in knowing about) was an extension of
Walt Whitman's candor into writing, so that we had liberation of the
word. But it began with spiritual liberation for the candor, and then
the spiritual liberation had as its fallout literary liberation, as with
the legal trials to liberate Lady Chatterley's Lover and Jean Genet
and Henry Miller, and that also had led to Black Liberation (and
everybody applauded) and Women's Liberation (and everybody applauded
politely) and Gay Liberation. And everybody froze! And I
gave a list of all the liberations, like Gray Panthers' Lib, and whatever
else was necessary. So I just put it in the context of candor.
Well, you may have read about it in the Times, which had a report on
the meeting, in which they spent seven paragraphs talking about homosexuality,
out of the fifteen reporting the whole meeting, with no
mention of Whitman, candor, Women's Lib, Black Lib, Gay Lib.
There was no accounting of the context that I put it in, which was the
key. Because that was really a plea for candor in Whitman rather
than for homosexuality. And so I found the Soviet press, with its refusal
to even mention the subject, and the American press, with its
contentious and -- what do you call it? -- provocative hyperemphasis
on the subject, to be equally totalitarian, or whatever you call it,
AG: Distorting and brainwashing. Brainwashing is the word.
Equally involved in brainwashing. Particularly The New York
Times, which seized every opportunity it could to distort the situation
as an anti-Soviet dig, rather than to work with us to undermine
both the Soviet and the American conditioning. Like if the Times
had reported "Whitman, Women's Lib, Black Lib, Gay Lib" and
then reported the Soviet consternation, that would have been a lesson
to the Soviets and the Americans, but they were only interested
in sticking a needle into the Soviets, so they isolated the homosexuality
(which is a word I didn't use), used that word, and made seven
out of fifteen paragraphs on that. Plus four more paragraphs about
political prisoners. So that was what I found interesting. The mirror-image
brainwashing indulged in by the Zionist-oriented Times
and the anti-Zionist, Stalinist-oriented Russian press. With everybody
else, including poetry, caught in the middle of their battle of
vomit. Then outside of the conference -- well, so that provoked the
Russians to deny me a visa, The Times article, I think.
See, rather than writing it up in a way which would have given
me power to go on and sabotage more, they wrote it up in a way
which robbed me of any power or credibility. Which is what they do
to Yevtushenko, too -- which he complains about. That they write
him up here in a way which destroys any left-wing, liberal, bohemian
power he has in Russia. What the American press does is continually
strengthen the Moral Majority here, or the conservatives, by
undermining in those cases what it would otherwise feel a sort of
liberal sympathy for. But as soon as it comes in the context of the
Cold War, they use it as a needle. So, anyway, it also provoked one
of the Russians to say on the side that Henry Miller will never be
published in the Soviet Union. One of the secretaries of the Writers'
Union, and one of the worst. Sort of a mirror-image of the Moral
The Stalinists and the Moral Majority are kind of mirror-images
of each other, and they share a lot in common. For one thing,
homophobia; the second, sexophobia; wanting to censor sort of
bohemian attitudes (anti-bohemian attitudes, basically); interest in
censorship; political extremism; extremism in the Cold War; encouragement
of secret police; encouragement of lie-detector-inquisition
matters; party line; monotheism of one kind or another, whether
it's Stalinism or Jehovah or Christ; hypermilitarization; nationalist
chauvinism; wrapping themselves in the flag. The whole
syndrome is the same. It all winds up, on the American side, more
money for the Pentagon; and on the Russian side, more power to the
army and the military. Same thing. So the basic things are: interest
in censorship; backing of the secret police; moralistic, anti-sex,
NS: Do you see any hope of this state of mind and state of society
changing? Do you feel any hope of a radical change?
AG: The horror is deeper in Russia. You know, the control system
is deeper. But on the other hand, what's happening in America is
more horrifying, as I don't see any way of America at the moment
getting out from under the hypermilitarization, from the dominance
of the military-industrial-CIA-secret police complex, because
there's so much money invested in it and everybody's paid off -- including,
I'm sure, New Jersey Technological Institute. Just like every
university is now running like pigs to the trough of the Star Wars
money, science is being abandoned in favor of military technology,
pure science is now suffering. The actual study of pure science and
the number of students have gone down, so that it's expected in the
future it'll be total incompetence. Humanities have suffered, and
there's been a seamless web of attack on the First Amendment.
From the notion of self-incrimination with your blood or your
urine or your polygraph tests, to trying to get lawyers to testify
against clients, to unleashing the CIA on the domestic populace --
which was considered bad before -- to closing down the facility of
the Freedom of Information Act, to limiting the power of the states
to tax by this new proposition to not take state income tax off your
federal, which means centralization of the government, centralization
of police activities. Just simply the gigantical [sic] budgets, military
budgets, with cuts in civilian -- for the very purpose of cutting
civilian facilities, according to David Stockman. That puffing up the
military budget, and the debts incurred, were directly intended to
give an excuse to cut welfare and social services and legal services
and poetry monies for the St. Mark's Church or for poetry programs
like at New Jersey Institute. Plus the attack on the Miranda,
So there's a seamless web of attack on the First Amendment.
Texas schoolbook censorship. Attempts to get money for Catholics
-- Christians -- in their schools, out of the federal budget. More and
more draconian laws on dope, more interference with private recreation,
an escalation of the number of junkies, an escalation of the
number of cokeheads, and a diminution of the number of psychedelics
and mental explorers. So the whole scene seems -- pus, attacks
on the press, with all these Sharon and Westmoreland suits, so that
investigative reporting is now at a minimum, compared with the
Watergate era. Threats by the CIA to radio stations and television
stations, with appeals to the FCC to deny licenses to TV stations that
combat the national interests according to the light of the CIA
(which actually was a paper they put in for one station, I think in St.
Louis). Increased intrusion of the police network, the police bureaucracy
on the civilian sector. And the new regulations interposing government
censorship on scientific information exchange between international
scientists, which the Vice President of Harvard has written a long paper
describing, saying that the First Amendment rights in that area of exchange
of information among scholars is now under sharp attack.
So all up and down the line under the Reagan conservative
reign, which was supposed to get the government off our backs,
they've done exactly the opposite. That is, swollen the federal bureaucracy,
increased national socialism in the military area, completely quintupled
the national debt, which they promised to get off our backs, unbalanced
the budget worse than any of the liberals -- socialists -- that they used to accuse,
done everything possible contrary to their original proposition. Period. So that doesn't
look very hopeful. Whereas Russia, if anything, is slowly beginning to relax,
we're slowly beginning to constrict.
NS: How do you feel that Russia is beginning to relax?
AG: Under Gorbachev. Everybody there, including Vozhnisensky,
says if he doesn't get assassinated or killed or shot, things will
loosen up. How much it will loosen up, nobody knows; how much it
can, nobody knows. Cause they've got so much blood on their
hands and all those guys are in their chairs. And the very nature of
the Socialist bureaucracy is to keep things from happening. In fact,
that's what I heard in Russia: "The nature of a bureaucrat is to make
sure that nothing happens." So that they can cover their ass. You
know that, unless somebody else above approves it, they don't want
to approve anything. That's why I couldn't get my visa renewed at
first: everybody was scared. Maybe I'll make trouble. Maybe I'll
suck a cock in Moscow!
So, but to continue on the subject of Gay Lib, I went down to
Tbilisi on the recommendation of a poet, to visit a great, gay film director
and an old-time bohemian who had spent fourteen years in
jail for making it with young boys. And he turned out to be the funniest
guy in Russia. Like wide open, like good old 1920's Greenwich
Village. And he was considered a great film directorial genius.
A big fellow. I walked in about eleven at night and he had about 20
people around his table. Communist Party of Georgia Central Committee
members, all dressed in red, getting drunk. And he said, "I
fucked 185 out of the 220 members of the Georgia Central Committee
of the Communist Party, and I'm safe now."
And then I met an old, very fine literary guy, an old-fashioned
bibliophile, like you might find around New York. You know,
someone who -- old-fashioned -- appreciated excellent books and
poetry, you know, one of those art lovers. So I managed to escape
my interpreters and have coffee with him and asked him, "Well,
what is the emotional relationship between men?" And he said,
"Well, no sex, but deep loves, in Russia." "But no sex at all?" He
said, "Well, the toilets." I said, "How do you know?" He said,
"Look at the grafitti." And I said, "What about you?" And he said,
"Well, you know, I live alone, and I have no women. It's against the
law. Nothing I could do." So then he said, "Do you think there's
anything left after life -- after you die? Is this all?" I said, "Well,
there's breath, in whatever language you put out on the air." He
said, "But what if it's bad breath?" And I said, "Well, it might be
Mayakovsky's breath or yours." And he said, "Even a fart." So after
60 years of revolutionary puritanism and homophobia, the poor
guy was willing to settle for a fart as some sign of the breath of life.