Fall 2003, Volume 21.1
A Conversation with Michael Schumacher
Carl James Porter is the Executive Director of Academic Support Services and Programs at Weber State University. He also teaches in the English and Honors departments at WSU. He has published essays about the history of newspapers as well as the literature and culture of the Beat Generation. He co-edited a collection of literature, The Peregrine Reader, associated with the National Undergraduate Literature Conference (NULC). He is the co-director of NULC.
Michael Schumacher is the author of Dharma Lion (1992), the acclaimed biography of Allen Ginsberg, as well as the author of the biographies, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's life (1999), There but for Fortune: the Life of Phil Ochs (1996), and Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton (1995). Schumacher is also the author of a book about the interview process, Creative Conversations (1990) and an anthology of profiles in contemporary American fiction, Reasons to Believe: New Voice in American Fiction (1988). Most recently Schumacher has edited a collection of letters between Allen and Louis Ginsberg, Family Business: Selected Letters between a Father and Son / Allen and Louis Ginsberg (2001) which he began researching in 1994 when Allen Ginsberg agreed to the project. Allen Ginsberg died August 1998. Family Business was published in paperback just prior to this interview. I had the opportunity to interview Michael Schumacher when he was speaking at Weber State University (February 20, 2003). We spoke about writing biography and, as it seemed fitting in the year City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco celebrates its 50th anniversary, the life of Allen Ginsberg.
My father was a writer, and by that he wrote two children's books, and he wrote a young adult biography about Roger Taney, second Supreme Court justice. I thought this was kind of interesting because Taney isn't someone who would leap to your mind as being an interesting biography subject, even though he rendered the Dred Scott decision. My father was only interested in Taney because my father was Catholic, and this was a new conflict for him; the Dred Scott decision was very difficult for him—the moral versus the spiritual side of it. I remember growing up watching my father research, so writing was always around my house. When I was very young, I would do these little booklets that my father encouraged me to write, so writing was important to me. Later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote my first little tiny novel. When I say little tiny novel, I think it was about sixty pages or something. But it was something that I did, and I always wanted to be a writer.
Did you seek writing as an educational pursuit?
Well, as you can see, I was prepared for writing when I went to high school and college. In high school I wrote for the school paper. I was editor of the sports page because I always loved sports. In college I wrote for the college paper. The most important teacher I had was my high school journalist teacher my senior year—Virginia. She took a stand, was very exact and was very tough, the toughest teacher I ever had, but she made you believe that you had to earn every word you put on the page and had to be ready to defend that word that you put on the page—whether fiction or poetry or nonfiction. We did all of it with her, creative writing and then, with her being a journalist, journalism. In college [University of Wisconsin—Madison], I took the usual curriculum. Even though they did not have a writing program, they had creative writing classes, including a class taught by a guy named Herbert who won a National Book award back in the 50s for a book he had written about fishing. I didn't think that he was particularly a great teacher, but it was good to be around another writer who had succeeded. When I got to college, I knew that writing was all that I wanted to do. I wanted to write, and I hoped that I could make that my livelihood. And I took all the writing courses offered in college.
During this time, you wrote for an underground newspaper, right?
Right, right. This was at a time when the underground newspapers where big, late 60s early 70s. The thing that was beautiful about underground newspapers was that they were always looking for somebody who could write. I worked at a wonderful little paper called The Bugle-American, and when you look back at the staff of that paper and the contributors to that paper, a lot of them went on to do very, very well as writers. We were all very serious. You weren't making any money doing it, but the beauty of it was that they were publishing your stuff regularly, so I broke in that way, and for years I just contributed to whoever would buy my work. It was very difficult if you didn't have an extensive resume to show people. You were generally writing for small publications and weekly publications, and once in a while I would write a book review for one of the newspapers or whatever. Then I caught my big break in 1979 after doing a fair amount of writing for all these little publications or newspapers. I interviewed Tom Waits for Playboy, and when you can put Playboy on your resume, other magazines listen. That was then…. I believe Playboy still is considered to be a really good place, from the writing aspect, to publish good writing. So I was respected, and all of a sudden the flood gates opened. I started sending out to magazines, and they listened to me seriously. They asked me to contribute. At that time Writer's Digest and I established quite a relationship. I wrote a column for them on books, and I was interviewing all these writers for them, which was for me a double blessing. I was getting paid to interview people like Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Joyce Carol Oates and Studs Terkel, and a number of people who I had always admired. They were paying me to talk to them, getting to meet them and talk to them about what really mattered to me. Now I should say that when I was younger I hoped that I would be a fiction writer. At that point, I truly believed, and it was pointed out and confirmed to me by my wife and others, that I was better writing nonfiction. Frankly, nonfiction was easier to market, and when I got married and started having kids, I had to bring in money. I couldn't wait around with the hope that some magazine was going to buy fiction when the odds were so slight that they would. After a point, certainly the early to mid 80s, I was selling virtually anything I proposed to magazines in nonfiction. Then it was a matter of choosing what I wanted to write about, which is the nice part about free lancing. You choose what you want to write about—so it was a nice situation.
It's about this time you first meet Allen Ginsberg, isn't it?
Yes. I met Allen Ginsberg in 1981 in connection with a magazine article that I was writing. The interview went well, and he was happy with it. I was always interested in the beat generation writers, and so meeting Allen was very positive for me. It was something that I was glad about, and he was happy with some of the things I had written, not only about him but about other members of the beat generation.
When does the idea of doing a biography of Ginsberg first come to you? Or was it his idea?
Now, this is going to seem like something that is almost myth-like, but the idea of doing a biography of Allen Ginsberg was quite accidental. I was reading one of his books of poems that had come out, and I was sitting in a little drive-in restaurant and was looking for a book project. I wanted to move up from writing magazine articles to book projects. Here I was sitting in this little drive-in restaurant in the middle of a tremendous, tremendous storm one night. There is thunder and lightning, and everything is going on around me and I didn't have the nerve to ask this car hop to come out in the middle of that to get my tray. So I was eating burgers and doodling, and I was thinking what to do about Allen Ginsberg. I started writing and literally and truthfully that became the outline of my book. I knew enough at that point about Allen that I could actually map out his life in an outline, and I thought, "Well, why not try that?" Now, having stated that, you have to have a certain amount of hope to even think that here you are in the Midwest, you've met Allen Ginsberg, and now you can actually do a book about him—that you could actually approach him about it. It took a lot of nerve, and when I look back on it, and all my other biographies, I find myself asking what I was doing writing these books. I'm always amazed by this. Here I am, just an ordinary Joe, and all of a sudden I'm meeting people who were and are heroes of mine from since I was young—and they trust me.
Thinking of your biographies, Clapton and Ginsberg are big figures who everyone knows, and then Phil Ochs seems a little different—he is little more obscure. Is the approach different when writing a biography about an obscure figure as opposed to writing a biography about a more public figure?
Obviously that's the book [There but for Fortune] that I wanted to write the most. I have always said that in some respects that is still my favorite book. I was a big fan of Phil's music, and when he died, I picked up a book called Death of a Rebel by Marc Eliot. I thought this was a really amazing story, and that I'd like to write Phil's story only from a little different attack than Mark took, or a different point of view then Mark took. But the problem was exactly what you mentioned—Phil is such an obscure figure. He was very big in the early 60s. I mean he was considered second only to Dylan when it came to protest music, but he had been dead for awhile and now to try to propose a biography of Phil Ochs—nobody, nobody was going to take that book, so I gave up on it. Now, ironically, there is, again, another strange little story almost like the one I just told you.
The Ochs myth no doubt!
Yes! (Laughter) I was sitting in a coffee house in New York with two very close friends of mine, a production manager who was working on Dharma Lion and a copy editor who had worked on Dharma Lion. We were having coffee and dinner, and I had brought in the photographs that I was going to use for Dharma Lion. I was showing them these photos, and we got to talking. They were giving me this, "What do you want to do next?" and I said, "I'll tell you what I'd like to do next." I went into this rant about how I would love to do Phil Ochs but that it will never get done, and they both came back like, "You've got to be kidding me; you want to do Phil Ochs? We know who wants that book." And literally on the envelope that contained the photos for Dharma Lion, I wrote this guy's name and everything down, and they told me to call him, and he would call me back. It was with Hyperion, which is owned by Walt Disney, and sure enough, they wanted the book. Sometimes in the writing business it is blind luck.
In Phil Ochs' case, of course, he was dead already, so I was dealing with his family. It really wasn't a tough sell to do something on Phil because his family wanted to keep his name in play, and rightfully so. He is an important figure. In the case of Eric Clapton, it wasn't my idea to do a biography; it was my agent who approached me with something he knew I would be interested in. I knew that somebody would be interested in a book on Eric Clapton. I had been a fan of Clapton's dating back to the 60s. I first saw him perform when he was still with Cream, and I've seen him a number of times since then. While the biography was probably not the kind of book that was strong in my mind to want to write, a biography of Clapton was perfectly fine with me. I was happy with the project. When I tried to approach Clapton (He doesn't talk to the press; he's kind of an elusive figure.), his office wished me good luck: "We're not going to stand in your way, but Eric is not going to really be participating in this." At first Clapton said yes, and then he said no, and then he said yes, that he would participate.
Was the Francis Ford Coppola biography your idea? Did you approach him?
Yes. However, it worked out in a different way because I had written a book that was unauthorized, sort of speaking, and then Francis jumped on board at the end. The biography became authorized, and I ended up interviewing his entire family, his colleagues like Roger Corman and George Lucas, and a number of people who weren't available prior to Francis' involvement. One of the problems with writing unauthorized versus authorized biography is, in a closed community like Hollywood, if somebody isn't cooperating, nobody else cooperates either, except people with an axe to grind, and I didn't want to deal with that. I didn't want to trash his work. I admired his work, and I wanted to write a serious biography. So when he jumped on board, all of a sudden I was getting serious interviews not only with people who were related to family members, but with people who had worked with him and had really interesting things to contribute. My favorite interviews for that particular book were the technicians of his production company, for example Dean Tavoularis, who's been with him since the Godfather, and Berry Malkin, who's been one of his film editors off and on all the way through his career. These people were fascinating because they were telling me something about the act of creation. And if there's anything that means something to me as a biographer, that's it. I am moved almost as much by the actual process of creating something as by the end product. It's like, "How did this happen—to make the Godfather or Apocalypse Now?," or, "How did you write these songs or these poems?" I am endlessly fascinated with the process of how ideas happen. In some cases, oddly enough, it is as unlikely as sitting in a drive-in and having an idea come to you, and there it is. And you forsee it, and it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. But it's like Ginsberg said, you have been prepared for it; you just don't know it. You've been studying this your whole life; you have the right circumstance, the right frame of mind, the right information. All of a sudden it hits you—there it is, this is what you want to do. Then, if you're lucky, you get a chance to pursue it.
How does writing a biography work? As far as the people you interview, does the subject suggest who you should go see, or do you begin with an obvious person and go where it leads you?
Well, one of the things I try to do when I'm working on a biography, right up front, once I get the person's permission or the people's permission, is to get the "black book" of the highest stuff. I don't even want to get into Allen (laughs); he didn't have a black book, he had the world's largest rolodex, and the thing that was great about Allen was he was willing to share every single name on that rolodex. With Phil Ochs I remember meeting his brother Michael in New York. We were sitting in his hotel room, and Michael pulled out the black book. The beauty of having cooperation is that they give you all kinds of tips as well as the numbers: "This guy is a real sweetheart and you're going to have no problem with him, but this one is going to be tough, and here is how we would do this." They will say, "Interview them in this order because when they hear you have interviewed so and so and so, they will be more open to you and more open to the interview." If you get that kind of cooperation, and with the exception of Clapton I pretty much had that, it makes your work as a biographer much easier. Those who you interview will help you, and in some cases, like Francis says to me at one point, "Don't take my word on this, ask George Lucas." George Lucas is going to talk to me? He's busy; he's not going to want to talk to me; he's not known to be friendly with the press. But when I tell George Lucas that Francis told me to contact him, George Lucas does talk to me. These things are very helpful, but you also have to be very careful. The subject has to understand up front that I am going to be honest but I am going to be fair, and I guess I am the one who defines what fair is, but they have my word I will not go the cheap route. I am going to put this together to the very best of my ability, and although they're not going to like everything I write, when I am finished, they are going to be able to say it's true and it's fair. I want that if we look each other in the eye in the end, we can say that I have done my job.
Reminds me of Cameron Crowe's movie, Almost Famous. How not to lose objectivity with the subject, for better or worse.
Right, keeping objectivity when you really admire the subject is what I am talking about, when the subject has been so generous. Well, in Allen's case for example, he was involved in a very controversial incident in Colorado where his guru, Trungpa, his Buddhist teacher, had humiliated the poet Merwin and Merwin's girlfriend at the time. At a Halloween party Trungpa had stripped Merwin naked and humiliated him in front of a fairly good number of people. Trungpa had been drunk, and it had been a terrible, outrageous party. Allen wasn't there, but because this was his mentor, everybody wanted Allen's opinion, and when Allen defended Trungpa, all hell broke loose. This lasted for some years before they got it all worked out. In the meantime, the community, the literary community and so forth, had a huge split because of this party and Allen's siding with Trungpa, seemingly against Merwin. It was very difficult when I was writing about this. When I was interviewing Allen, he had a very difficult time talking about it, and then when the book actually came out, Allen could not bring himself to read that segment of the book. He asked his friend Ann Waldman, the poet, to read it for him and report back to him whether or not it was accurate and whether or not it was fair, and Waldman reported, apparently, that yes, it was accurate, and yes, it was fair, and that was good enough for Allen. It was too painful for him to read. Likewise, it was very difficult for Francis Coppola and his wife to talk about their son Giancarlo's death. Gio had been the apple of his eye. He was Francis's heir, and he was studying under his father to learn film making. They were like brothers, almost as much as father and son, and when Gio died, there was a tremendous rending of Francis's heart, and for him to talk about this was difficult. So when you are interviewing somebody along these lines—stuff that is extremely difficult—you have to get the information, but you have to do so in a way that is sensitive to who these people are. I'm just not from that school that believes all that matters is the project, that you can step all over everybody as long as you get to the bottom line. These are people, for God's sake; they're people who can be hurt, and they don't deserve to be hurt.
How do you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?
One of the cutting edges for me is that you weigh the information that you are getting against who is going to be affected by what you are publishing. Who somebody, for example, is sleeping with, or some of the crazy things that they might have done in their lives, if it doesn't affect their work or doesn't affect who they are as people, I'm not interested. We all make mistakes, or we all do crazy things, or whatever; and while it might be good literary gossip or good gossip for the magazines, or so forth, unless it says something defining about the person I am writing about or about that person's work, I'm not sure that it matters. And I have always, with all four of my biographies, placed the work front and center. I was interested in these people originally because I came across their work. I was interested in these people because on a personal level I am interested in the art of creation, so that is going to be front and center in my biographies. The work, and then the life and how that applies to work and so forth comes afterward.
The importance of the subject's work, the creation of the art, and finally the art, comes clear through emails that we did prior to this interview. You were happy to talk about Allen's work and to further Allen's work, and I was always impressed. I mean, certainly your books are out there and that's you of course, your work, your creation, your art, but you kept bringing the focus back to Allen's work. I don't know if every biographer really feels that strong sense of allegiance to the subject's work and art, but it struck me…
I feel in a way like an ambassador of sort, if that makes sense.
A lot of biographers come to really dislike the subject of their biographies as they are going through it. That was not the case with Allen. I can say, I think, truthfully, that I stayed objective throughout the writing of this book; however, I will also say that I do admire this man a great deal. I grew to understand his work better and admire him as a human being in the process of writing this book, and now that he is no longer here, if I have an opportunity to keep people interested in his work or shed any kind of light whatsoever on his work or him as a person, I'm happy to do that. I've never thought as a biographer; some biographers are very territorial about their work; I've never felt that. I don't stake a claim on the people that I write about. It's a wonderful thing if people respect you as an authority on, say, Allen Ginsberg. That's quite a compliment to me. But I don't make any claim to being anything other than somebody who was fortunate enough to have known Allen and to have been able to write his life story and now work on his book of letters.
This may not be fair—is Ginsberg your favorite subject? I mean, there are two books. Of course, there may be two books on Coppola one day.
That's an interesting and certainly a fair question. I don't know necessarily the answer to that in the respect that there is no question in my mind that Dharma Lion is the book that defines me as a biographer; that's the one I get the most calls about; that's the one people seem to take the most seriously. I'm certainly proud of that book and pleased with the way it turned out, and because I was such a big fan of the beat generation and of Allen, specifically, it's an honor, truly an honor, to be seen in that light. But the Phil Ochs story, for example, was so close to me, and it was such an intense story that I feel very strongly about that book. It's funny because each book was written a little differently—the style, the length, everything was different because the people were different, the audiences were different, and you kind of try to tailor what you are writing to the audience. Certainly, if you are writing to a mainstream publisher as opposed to an academic publisher, you will write with different standards. So I have different feelings about each book. As a biographer, it is a kind of an interesting thing when you can be sitting and watching a movie while taking notes—and you can make the same claim. There is a sense of discovery that you get as you go along. "Oh, gee, look at this; I didn't know this." With this discovery you're being taken into new areas that you didn't necessarily predict when you went into the project.
Since we are talking about Allen, what are some of your favorite discoveries as an Allen Ginsberg biographer?
One of the great discoveries for me, personally, while working on this book was this act of creation I that was talking about before—the art of creation.
Yes. One of my favorite parts of Dharma Lion is the account of when Ginsberg discovers his honest poetic voice, the uncensored voice—his vision of Blake.
Sure. I get really fired up talking about that, like earlier today at the college, where I find myself telling other people this is how this happened, this is how he evolves as a poet, and this is how individual poems evolved. As a biographer you are sort of this person between the artist and the reader. You really feel, or I do anyway, a responsibility to seeing that you are accurate, and that you give people this information, that it is the correct information, and that it is information that is good for them, that they can use, or that furthers the art. In Allen's case, because he worked with so many different phases and different types of poetry, I found myself studying other poets so that I could speak with at least a minimal authority about poetry. I'm call that work. Boy, I'll tell ya, it's interesting. And one of the things I've tried to do as a biographer is choose subjects that are a little different so that I don't get in the same groove over and over.
Yet, you do seem drawn to the 60s.
True. I am not ashamed of that, certainly, and I am not dissatisfied with it, but it was the period that I grew up in, so it makes sense. But maybe it is time to move on to a figure beyond that. I've always said I'd like to do an athlete, a baseball player from the 1930s, so I could address that time. As a biographer I am always interested in somebody who comes to symbolize their times. Allen certainly did, and Phil Ochs, to some extent, did. Eric Clapton did, with his music. He was right there when they were breaking through with a whole new type of music. Coppola was important during the golden era of film making, you know, in the late 60s through the 70s. Writing about someone who represents his or her time is nice because you are not just dealing with the person and the person's work, but you are putting them in a really interesting framework, and for me as a biographer that makes it all the more interesting.
And baseball in the 30s would offer that type of subject, absolutely.
Yeah, finding a whole new era—here and now. For me, that is the thing that is beautiful about biography, and maybe other nonfiction writers can sure that there are many, many people out there who could speak much better than I on a lot of these poets in terms of aligning these people to Allen's work and its influences. Still, I felt a strong obligation to learn as much as I could. So in the process of researching, I found myself widening, as it were, the shelves in my library. Allen would say, "Well, this guy was an influence," so I would go out and buy his stuff, and read his stuff, and then I would read some of the criticism about some of his work, and it was a real strong obligation for me, a real sense of obligation to see to it that Allen wasn't easily written off—in the past that has been a problem. It was too easy to say that Allen writes dirty poems, or he's just trying to get a rise out of people, or he's like the kid that screams fire in the theatre—all the clichés that you've heard. In the process of researching Allen, I saw this over and over and over, and it was driving me crazy. You realize this isn't so at all. It's convenient and easy for someone to write, but it isn't true. I felt very strongly that my job as Allen's biographer was to try, at least in my own little way, to correct that, and so I found myself studying the poets who influenced Allen, talking to some of his friends who influenced him, trying to get a clear picture of who this guy was as an artist.
So do you go into writing a biography with an idea of "who" you are writing about?
Actually, I prefer to not go into a biography with a lot of preconceived ideas. Let the story tell itself.
This must be difficult with a larger than life public figure such as Ginsberg.
True. That's very true. You know a bit about them because you have been reading their work, or listening to it, in the case of Ochs or Clapton, or watching it, in Coppola's case, during a large portion of your life. You admire them. You know what you like and what you don't like, and you have some ideas about what he must have thought when he wrote this or that. It is one thing to know what you like, but it is another to try to keep that other part out. You should see if you can find out what he thought—don't guess at what he thought. In Allen's case everything is in his journals or his letters or his interviews, or his friends could tell you. It was easy. You just had to take the time to do it. But if you go into it with preconceived ideas, you would try, I believe, to mold it into something you believed. It doesn't matter what I believe; it doesn't matter what poems of Allen Ginsberg I believe are great, or not great. That's not my job. My job was to present Allen the best I could as a man and as a poet.
Speaking of Allen as a poet, can you talk a bit about how Allen developed as a poet?
Well, Allen, prior to his discovery of some of these poets who would influence him, was raised just like everybody else in those days. They were reading poets who wrote very, very measured rhythm and meter, like his father, who was a published poet. I remember Allen talking about the way his father would wander around the house doing household chores. Allen's mother was institutionalized a good portion of his life. He would read poetry the way some people hum the tunes of the day—or not read it, but cite it from memory. It was something that he was accustomed to, and when he studied poetry, it was always that kind of poetry. But when he was in high school, one of his teachers introduced him to Walt Whitman, and Allen found that extremely exciting because it was different—this was the kind of poetry that was outside of the line.
I've used Steven Watson's book Birth of the Beat Generation in a class I have taught on the Beat Generation writers, and one of the things I like about the book is that in the margins he provides lists of what books were on these writers' bookshelves. For example, at Columbia they were reading authors that weren't being taught but now would be, not contemporary writers but writers ignored to some extent because of the conservative nature of the times.
Yes. After being introduced to Whitman in high school, Allen went to Columbia University. He was extremely fortunate because of the formal teachers he had at Columbia—one had written a biography of Herman Melville which was highly respected—and he was fortunate to meet the people he did outside of class. Of course, he meets this brash, young brilliant student Lucien Carr whose hero was Rimbaud. Allen had never seen anything like this before, and they started talking about what is and is not acceptable as literature. Carr had a couple of friends who he wanted to introduce to Allen. One of them was a young writer named Jack Kerouac, who was absolutely devoted to writing. This was a guy who wrote and wrote, according to the legend a million words before he was at Columbia. He made time everyday to write, and that discipline was important to Allen, as it was to some of the other people around them. You didn't see people like this. One of the problems with academics, it seems to me, is that they have you read and read and read and read and read, and—well, yes, you need to know the antecedents, but you also need to know who's out there. Raymond Carver once told me that there comes a time when you're going to be a reader or you're going to be a writer. Well, here comes Allen meeting Jack Kerouac, who did both—he read and he wrote, you see. Kerouac, despite what people like Norman Podhoretz would like you to believe, was extremely well read and well versed in all kinds of literature. So Allen meets Kerouac, who is like the ultimate at that young age, and then he met another of Carr's friends, William Burroughs, who is much older and much more experienced and much more jaded. And they, not so much Burroughs, but more Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Carr begin putting together this idea of "new vision," as they called it—how to come up with a new form of literature because this form, this mannered sort of form, is not real, not in the sort of postnuclear, apocalyptic age that we live in now. The world can end in a minute—you'd better start focusing on the moment, not on something 200 years old.
A call for the flawed, subjective poet who is the poem, for better or worse, rather than the poet who stands up and oversees the wasteland and spouts wisdom but stays objective and out of the poem.
Right, yes, and the work is the stuff of everyday life as literature, what for Allen was, "noticing what I notice." That was one of Allen's expressions; notice what you notice because that could be the stuff of the poem. Well, they took this "noticing" in so many different ways. Bob Dylan gave Allen a gift of this big tape recorder, "to do some of that spontaneous poetry of yours." Allen took it on the road and was reciting wonderful observations that became his award winning "Fall of America"; which became "Wichita Vortex Sutra," the great anti-war poem he wrote where he had all these other things bleeding into it—radio broadcasts, newspaper headlines, and so forth. All of what I am talking about here is really the result of this "new vision" and what people added to it, like Burroughs shattering the normal linear way of thinking, or Kerouac and his Buddhism, which had a great effect on Allen. All of a sudden, these people who he was reading became important. Whitman, certainly, when you read Ginsberg's first collection, Howl and other poems, which had the long Whitmanic lines, from "Howl" down to "Sunflower Sutra."
Spontaneous listing and repetition.
Yeah, I saw the manuscript for "Sunflower Sutra," which was written in handwriting on typing paper while Kerouac was waiting and rushing Allen to go to a party. Allen scribbled this thing down, and I am here to tell you that there are only a couple of crossouts on that entire manuscript. What you read today is what was written, spontaneous composition at its absolute finest. All of these different ideas were sort of like boiling within them.
And it seems, also, that taking the art, if you will, out of the museums and off the bookshelves and into the coffee houses, and giving the right to the everyday person to create his/her own stuff was an immensely powerful result of this new vision. As well, this new vision included reading out loud, and it seemed to change their writings into living things that could change and add deeper value, unlike a fixed piece of art not to be changed for fear it would lose its value. I'm thinking of the two recorded readings of Ginsberg's poem "America." One reading is loud, boisterous, and almost playful, the other more solemn and sad. They almost seem like two different poems.
Sure. Well, circumstance would dictate quite often for Allen what he was going to read and how he was going to read it, and "America" is a great example. I saw him read that at a reading in Milwaukee. He was with William Burroughs, and he came out and started improvising off of "America." He started reading the poem, and then he started riffing off of this thing, and it became really wild—spontaneous and interesting commentary on the politics of the day. He always used "America" that way. It was almost like the jazz musician, and, of course, the jazz musician was an enormous influence to the beat generation writers. Well, you start with the framework. You know where you are going to start and where you are going to end—in the middle you improvise. Musicians have done that, and Allen did that. That's also one of the interesting things I found with Eric Clapton. When he was at his best was when he was performing live, where he was doing incredible solos, feeding off of a lot of things—how he felt at that moment, how the crowd was responding to him, the song itself. The beats were great at that, and Allen was a master at it.
And that's what attracted me to Grateful Dead, "live," that same thing: They would take it on the road and stop and try it here and then try it there, seeing what might happen, and sometimes it was pretty amazing and sometimes it wasn't—but even then, there is that next time.
Well, the Dead were certainly right there in that lineage. Cassady [Kerouac's "yang" and the person who Dean Moriarty from On the Road is based] moved from the beat generation to the hippies, and he was an influence on the Grateful Dead. And now you have Phish trying to do the same thing in the wake of [Jerry] Garcia's death and the Grateful Dead, the demise of that particular permutation of the band— I think this lineage is wonderful.
Because you never know what's going to come?
Right. You are playing without a net. You have to have a certain amount of courage to do that, and Allen certainly had that.
With his writing, absolutely.
I mean, how do you trust your mind? One of the big things Allen preached his whole life was to trust your mind—his Buddhist teacher would ask him, "What's the matter; don't you trust your mind?" That was one of the things that really hit him. One time Allen was doing a reading, and his teacher, Trungpa, was there. Allen was at the end of his reading, and Trungpa was giving him a hard time about it, "Why don't you just improvise; don't you trust your own mind?" So Allen said he went out the next night, and he did a reading of nothing but improvised stuff. He had an idea, and he just sort of riffed off of that idea, and he said some of it was good and some of it wasn't good, but it brought him back to a lot of things Kerouac taught him, or proposed, about spontaneous composition and some of the things that he had done but, in time, had grown away from. He ended up appreciating it after Trungpa challenged him, so he started doing more of that. Poetry is something that can be enjoyed from a number of different levels. Also, there is the idea of how the word looks on the printed page. There is Michael McClure, who is a painter also, who was very interested in how words look. Getty, another painter, was interested in how words get arranged in an interesting way, visually, on a page. You have people who are bound by the page—William Carlos Williams writing on prescription pads so the line was as long as the prescription pad. And you have people like Ginsberg talking about the line of poetry being as long as your breath would allow if you were going to read it out loud. There were a lot of different ways to structure poetry.
Kerouac—not so much with his poetry, but more with his prose—sometimes wrote on telegraph paper so he could just write without having to stop for a page, no thought of punctuation other than "measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech."
Well, I think the world was lucky that Kerouac was such a great typer, to disagree with Truman Capote's sarcastic, smarmy remark he made about Kerouac's writing being typing and not writing. What it was was a guy who was a lightning fast typer who could somehow type as fast as he could think, which most of us cannot do. With that particular style, where he was using those big rolls of paper, where he could go full bore, especially aided by Benzedrine, he had the actually physical ability to match, largely, what he was thinking. Certainly it paid off, in the long run, in some of his best work. Speaking of the legendary roll of telegraph paper, one of the joys of discovery in biography, on a personal level was the thrill I got from actually seeing those artifacts—going into a library and actually holding a manuscript of Kaddish, written on onion skin paper, with different ink at the point where he ran out of ink and changed pens, seeing where he was excited—the writing, when he was really going, would be a little sloppier. There were tear stains where he was writing about his mother—literally, the paper is distorted from tear drops. I mean, I am in this library at NYU, which has the Kaddish manuscript, and I'm holding this thing, and reading this thing, and it's a pretty intense experience.
I imagine you could see Kaddish develop.
Yes, looking at it long-term when you're researching as opposed to, you know, maybe seeing one manuscript here or there. Over the years, I'd see some of Allen's manuscripts, something that Allen was working on, or they would be on his desk or something, but the long-term thing was pretty amazing—to not look at it in its finished form, but to look at how he labored over that poem. He must have had twenty different versions of "Plutonian Ode," and he just kept laboring and laboring, hoping somehow he would make this big poem out of it, and it never really happened, frankly. It's not a bad poem, but it wasn't what he wanted it to be—just never could quite get it to where he wanted it. But to see these artifacts in their original with his little scribbled notes on them and his corrections and his crossouts and his marginalia…
Yes! Access to these types of artifacts must be a great help to a biographer.
Absolutely, and I don't always have this, but again Allen was so generous. Allen and I, at one point, met in Chicago, and we were talking about a copy of collected poems We had the hard copy, the first edition, that whole thing. By the end of our conversation, Allen inscribed the collection, and he drew a nice drawing in it with all this other stuff. Well, I decided to use that book as my workbook, and I split the spine on it; it was just beat to bloody hell by the time I was done with it, and when I went in to examine his poems, I doodled all these little notes right on the page of my book so that I knew what he had changed—what was going on. One of the things I did that was kind of interesting was the way I got the actual dates of some of the poems. Some of the dates on the collected poems are not the real dates; they are not true. They were the best they had, but I was able to give them the exact dates. There were a number of occasions where Allen had his poems dated very carefully. When he was done writing the poem, he put the date on the poem, or draft. But up until, say, the mid 50s, he didn't do that. So I went through the journals, and there would be dates in the journals. I would find them, and then date the poems. It's funny how some of the myths get exploded. "Howl," for example. Ginsberg has said, "Oh that wasn't my title; that was Kerouac's title." Well, no, it was Allen's title. He had started writing a poem called "Howl for Carl Solomon" months before he actually sat down and wrote "Howl." So in my research all of a sudden I ran across this manuscript, and imagine my surprise after Allen had been going through his life saying Kerouac gave title to the poem "Howl." I mean, really, that was the poem or the title of the poem he wanted. Of course it was an entirely different poem than he had in the notebook. See, if he had started something and didn't like it—he did this throughout his career—he wrote addendum. There are several different addendums to "Howl," and new riffs, with the thought that maybe someday he could add to this poem.
Kaddish is another good example of this.
Allen labored like crazy to write Kaddish. There were so many false starts to that poem and so many different permutations before he actually sat down and wrote it. When I was asking him how he did it, how he wrote a poem of this nature, he said that you have to have the right information, you have to have the right presence of mind, everything has to fall into place. So when he did sit down and write the first portion of Kaddish, the big heavy duty portion, in one sitting, he was ready. He had written the last portion of it in Paris, substantially earlier. It was like a year earlier than the main body of it, but he just wasn't ready; he didn't have the right inspiration, or he didn't have the right circumstances or whatever. He would even listen to Ray Charles, and he'd have some ideas about Charles—jazz singing, blues singing. He had his friend reading him the Hebrew Kaddish, and he had gotten into the rhythms of the Kaddish, and when he went home that night, he decided to start.
And he writes Kaddish because a rabbi had refused to say Kaddish for his mother.
He couldn't because there were not enough people there to say Kaddish. Ironically, Allen, who always jokingly referred to himself as a Buddhist-Jew, had Kaddish read at his funeral.
Oh, he did?
Yes. Anyway, there weren't enough people at his mother's funeral. I remember Eugene, Allen's brother, saying that it was the saddest funeral ever. Nobody was there for Naomi, and Allen felt very badly about that. Here was somebody who had lived this life, and it was a tormented, difficult life, but it was his mother, for God's sake, and somebody had to immortalize that. It fell right into—and it's something a lot of the critics had missed—the point of it fell right into what he and Kerouac and others were talking about—this was a real person, this was a person whose life meant something, even if it didn't mean anything to the rest of the world. This was her shot, by God, and she deserved better then she got. And Allen was going to write a Kaddish for his mother, come hell or high water, and it took him a while to do it. It took him a while to get it all together, but the stuff of everyday life was dramatic; it was the stuff of poetry, and when he was finally able to write that, what an astonishing creation that was. We're very lucky that he took just a person who happened to be his mother, who happened to have struggled with mental illness in life, and showed how this person was, you know, worthy of this memorial. To me Kaddish is his masterwork.
Yes. What you were just saying reminded me how "Howl," which is subtitled "for Carl
Solomon," is Allen's howl and Naomi's howl as well.
It was written for his mother as much as for Carl. He admitted that. He kept certain people out of the poem. If you read "Howl" and know the Ginsberg background, you almost identify who this line was for or who that line was for, they were about real people in that poem. But he kept Kerouac out; he kept Burroughs out, and he kept his mother out. He was looking for a certain type, and his mother wasn't his generation, for example. But his mother's mental illness—if he hadn't dealt with his mother, he might not have been as sympathetic to Carl Solomon as he was when he met him at the psychiatric institute in 1949. When Allen was young, he was often kept home from school to watch his mother. I remember talking to Allen about that—that it had to have been difficult. I asked both Allen and Gene about that, and they both said, "It really wasn't—it was our mother—this is what we did." They never made it sound like it was that difficult. But I think if it were me when I was a young boy, watching my mother losing her mind—well, it must have been difficult.
Especially then, because the judgment on mental illness, madness, was so different from what it is now. Not like mental illness necessarily receives the best of society's attention, but we sort of define it in different ways, and what constituted madness, homosexuality, criminality, all these things, were so different. So here's this mother who is truly mad, and all these things which society says is attributed to madness—it must have been hard.
It was an issue that Allen never totally resolved. He said he resolved it with "White Shroud" and then again with "Black Shroud," but he never did. In my book, these are two of the most powerful poems he ever wrote, where he addressed, once and for all, the issue that he had authorized his mother's lobotomy—and he had to. This was the thing, too, that people didn't quite understand. I tried to get through it in the book. His father was divorced from Naomi, so he couldn't authorize it. His brother would not authorize it. The hospital is telling him she has to have this or she's going to hurt herself. So against everything he thought was sacred—because he did sympathize with people in this position—he had great, great empathy for them—he authorized his mother's lobotomy, nonetheless. And Allen, for the rest of his life, paid the price of authorizing that lobotomy. "White Shroud" was a wonderful dream that he had, and "Black Shroud" was a horrible dream that he had, and to have written those poems so many years after Kaddish—it does kind of create this cycle. But I know that up until the end Allen still struggled with who his mother was and what he might have done to her in authorizing that lobotomy. He never could forgive himself for doing that, and we, as a society or literary community, benefit from those doubts because he wrote some of his most effective poetry about them.
It is interesting to examine the backgrounds of these Beat Generation writers, or those individuals closely associated with these writers. There were so many common elements between them, for example, madness or criminal elements.
They all came from strange backgrounds. To a large extent, their backgrounds—not so much by their biographers as by people who wrote about them in the papers and the magazines where there was limited space—tended to be glossed over or snickered at or whatever, but actually their backgrounds weigh very heavily in their art. And their backgrounds weighed heavily on how they chose to pursue their art. The idea that they could be sympathetic with the criminal elements of society—the junkies and geniuses as Allen liked to call them—came from the idea, in Allen's case, that he had come from a family where it was torn apart by a mother who suffered from mental illness and a poet-teacher-father who, while being very liberal in his politics, also tried to bring sensibility into this vortex of madness. Kerouac was brought up in a working class family where the father was never happy. There was a lost son and brother who was idolized by the family and to whom he was always held up to—and what does that mean? Or Burroughs being brought up in his background. Or Lucien Carr. Or any of these people who have all had these different sorts of backgrounds that affected who they became. And then, when all these individuals converged, can you imagine what the odds are that all of these sorts of minds would converge at one time and, really, in one place?
And the circumstances that brought them there: football, following your father, following an obsession for young men. All of these things that brought them to that place is just absolutely…
It's amazing. You start to wonder about fate, don't you? As I spoke earlier, talking about how luck is involved or just the unpredictable nature of things, you have to have a certain belief that that is part of what affects literature as we know it— just that it all came together almost miracously at one time.
So, does time make the person or does the person, or persons, make the time. In this case did the time create the Beat Generation or did the Beat Generation create the time?
I think it's a little of both. I remember asking John Clellon Holmes [author of the Beat inspired novel GO] about that, lifestyles and literature, and he said that was a good part of it. Beats believed very strongly that they were living in a unique time, and there were things that were important to their time, and they were going to write about it.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter Thompson writes about living in San Francisco in the 60s and knowing that he was a part of something.
Right. Allen took it a step further. He got into that whole sort of prophetic voice, and by that I mean the witness to his times as it might apply to something on a larger scale. In the 60s, Kerouac had very little interest in politics, and Burroughs had absolutely no interest in politics. This is where these letters [the subject of Family Business] became interesting to me because Allen would use his father to work on that sort of prophetic voice. Much of what they were discussing—thirty, forty years ago—becomes relevant or is still relevant today. The arguments about the goings on in the Middle East—there are arguments in those letters that could have been written yesterday. Allen's poem "Yahweh in Alabama" could have been written yesterday. Maybe that's what the prophetic voice is. People think of a prophet in terms of always predicting the future. No, the prophet doesn't predict the future; the prophet sees the present and reports the present and addresses the present in a way that somehow does manage to apply in the future.
So, maybe if we listen to begin with, maybe we wouldn't have to…
Well, that's one of the things—the prophet is a sad person who realizes that history will repeat itself no matter what is said.
I'm reminded a line of lyric from the Kris Kristofferson song, "To Beat the Devil." It goes something like, "And you still can hear me singing to the people who don't listen to the things that I am saying, praying someone's going to hear."
Right, it's like, whatever happens is going to happen anyway, but I've got to say it nonetheless. You see this all the way through—certainly the great artists have done it. I remember asking someone whether Phil Ochs' song "Cops of the World" has ever applied more than it does at this time. Has Dylan's "Hard Rain" ever applied more?
These people had a sort of prophetic vision, even though they would have shrugged it off. Allen was always battling that thing. That's why that poem "Ego Confession" is so much fun. He finally decided, "Oh, I am just going to let all of it hang out." and "Ego Confession" became his concession to the fact that, "Yeah, I do think these things. It's a life-long battle not to think these things, but, yeah, I want to be known as the world's greatest poet."
When Gary Snyder read last Saturday at the new Salt Lake City public library, he mentioned a time when he was sitting around a campfire, and this poet, I can't recall the poet's name, but this poet leans over to Allen, and he says, "Allen why do they all love you?" Why is it people who know Allen love him?
I think there are a number of reasons people loved Allen—and continue to love him. First of all he was always accessible. He would allow himself to be accessible where others would not. Others were, for whatever reasons, uncomfortable with celebrity.
Right. Ferlinghetti to a large extent was never comfortable with that huge celebrity that was his lot. Some weren't as easy to connect with as others. Allen was one of those people who was always so human. He was a very tactile person. For example, he'd touch you on the hand or he'd kiss you when he greeted you. When he laughed, he had a habit of thumping you on the chest. He was very tactile. Allen was not at all threatening, even to his enemies. I remember talking to Norman Podhoretz about this. He said no matter how mad he got at Allen, he couldn't dislike this guy because he was so human in so many respects. No matter what Allen said, you saw him and connected with him differently than you might with someone else. That piece of Vonnegut's where he talks about how, unbelievably, Allen would have embraced these sick, dying people in Africa where other people would have been repelled by them, that was Allen. He connected with everybody at their level. I remember Bob Rosenthal [Allen's business secretary for over twenty years]once saying that Allen would prefer reading his mail from some person who had written him from some insane asylum rather than read something that somebody had written him from an academy. He just connected with people. I think people saw him as real; he was not afraid, literally and figuratively to be naked in front of the public. God knows he would take off his clothes given the opportunity. (Laughter.)
There is something to be said about that. He was not afraid to lay himself completely and honestly open to the public, and I think people respond to that. You never questioned what Allen's motives were; they were right there, and they were very plain. I've met a lot of people who disagreed with Allen, and I met a lot of people who didn't like certain poems, or even his poetry in general, but I never met anybody who said he couldn't stand the guy. People were always telling me—they'd rain stories on me—about what an incredibly decent human being Allen was.
Generosity, certainly, but he also had this reputation for a temper.
Generosity came natural to Allen—patience did not. Patience was something he had to work at. He could have a wrathful temper. I mean he spent his whole life fighting that. I had a long conversation with him about anger. Controlling his anger wasn't easy for him, but it was something he thought was necessary, and he worked his entire life to try to keep certain things—his ego—in check. Of course he had an ego. You have to have an ego to be an artist, otherwise why would you think that your work is so valuable that you should share it with somebody else.
So you have to have an ego. But to have an ego that exceeds your talent or an ego that exceeds your place, that's what you try to avoid. Allen always tried to keep certain things in a certain context, and I think, by in large, he succeeded.
So how did the collection of letters come about? I imagine you had come across or had access to the letters while researching Dharma Lion. I would also imagine that the content of the letters provided information for the biography, so why a book of the collected letters? What does the collection provide that is not in the biography?
Sure, what happened with the letters was pretty simple, actually. In doing the biography I was lucky enough to read all these letters, and it occurred to me, at one point, Allen's relationship with his mother had been explored really in depth, but not much had been done about his father, and his father was a tremendous influence to him, and he to his father. It was a very special correspondence, and you couldn't read this and not be moved by it. When the book came out, I thought it would be kind of nice to explore that relationship more than I could in the biography. There are many facets of Allen's life that could become books. I thought the letters would be an interesting literary correspondence. When I proposed it to Allen, at first he wasn't sure. Once he started looking at the letters, he thought maybe these would be useful. That was his way of putting it: "Maybe these would be useful." For me it was interesting because it was another way of adding to the Beat canon, as it were. It's autobiographical: the writings are directly from him, very immediate, as opposed to biographical where I am looking back, and it's all being filtered through me and my perspective. In the letters it is straight forward—Allen and his father with very little commentary from me. All I tried to comment on was circumstance so that you know this had happened or that had happened. Other than that, I wanted to stay out of the picture. I just wanted the letters to do their own talking, and I believe that given what the Beat Generation writers were trying to do with their art, this was another form of art for Allen—letter writing. He was an incredible letter writer. He wrote many, many volumes, and so this was another way to add to his writings. I think it is a perfectly ligament one, and I think it is very interesting to people who are curious about how things happened, works came into being, or whatever. It's one thing for me to say here is how this poem was written, how this poem was reacted to, and so forth. Its another thing to say here are the letters, here's Allen explaining how this poem was written [to his father], and here's his father reacting to it. So it became a different kind of literature.
It seems to me that it also might be a form which will no longer exists, or might at least be endangered. I mean I don't know how many writers write letters for correspondence.
Yes, it's email, telephone calls. When I was a kid and a phone call came from the East coast or something, you knew that it was either a funeral or a wedding. Everybody got quiet and you listened. A long distance call now might come on a cell phone while you are driving down the road or sitting in a football stadium. It gets no more attention than a local call. Correspondence of the most important matters seem so much more temporal.
I don't know—I really don't know. They gave Allen a computer for his 60th birthday, and he never ever was able quite to master it. I wondered what would happen to his poetry once he started writing it on a computer, or transcribing what he had in his journals on to his computer. Allen saved every permutation anyway, so it wouldn't matter. He'd print out every different versions of the poem for his archives. Whether or not others will do that is questionable. We are losing that letter writing thing. Whether not that is a good or bad thing, I don't know. Letters took forever to go from one part of the country to another—email takes seconds. So when you talk about immediacy, it's there, warts and all. How many people have sent something and wish they had never clicked that send button? However, yes, a lot of that is lost now. I can speak truthfully in my own case with some of this kind of correspondence that I had with editors, agents, and so forth. I usually print out the email and put it in a folder because I might have to refer to them later. Maybe you can see writers doing that—who knows? It is another form of communication. When it's all over, literature will, maybe, be more temporary. Writers put it up on there website for a couple of months, a few poems or new poems or whatever, and then it disappears. Poetry has always been difficult to publish. Maybe poetry will become something else, more of a momentary thing where people read poetry, they absorbed whatever it is the poet is writing about, and they move on.
I don't mean to fret about this problem of digital loss; certainly great works of art have been lost previous to the technology age. But let me fret just a minute longer. (Laughter.) Paper is still around and something committed to paper can be read, such as the letters between Allen and Louis. I am sure different inks fade at different time spans and certainly paper can be destroyed. The medium in which we store things now, whether it's a floppy disk or a CD or an mp3 file, can be stored and secured from the ravages of the world, but what if the ability to extract the contents no longer exists, how will we solve that? John Sillito, the University's archivist, once told me that in the library archives there are laser disks of movies, and such, but it is difficult getting access to the contents because the machine—the laser disk player—is no longer produced. I have a cupboard full of Beta tapes. (Laughter.)
That is very interesting; it's an interesting proposition to try to forecast or guess where something's going, and whether or not it is good or bad. Obviously for people who are interested in some of this stuff that we have been talking about, the loss of information or the inability to get at it will be a tremendous loss, but, again, we'll be seeing what others do with it. I've always wondered out loud, speculated, what Phil Ochs, who was the ultimate news junkie, would have done if he had lived to see CNN, or what Allen Ginsberg, who was the ultimate communications guy, would have done if he had email to the extent that we have email today. Would Ginsberg have been emailing Kerouac and Burroughs and company like he wrote to them? And if he would have, how would they have communicated—would any of that been safe? Maybe that's why with some of these letters and so forth we're lucky they are here now. You know, we might not have some of that with our future writers. So maybe the act or art of creation is being documented and preserved now as well as it ever will be in the future—who knows?
Speaking of the future, what are you working on now?
I am presently working on a biography of Timothy Leary, and I have been for some time. It has been rough going. The big problem with the book is that I haven't found the voice for it. I started writing, didn't like what I did, and so I threw it all away and started all over, from scratch. It's been a rough one, partly because by nature Leary is very elusive. You don't know what of his to take seriously, and he's not around to tell you. Leary would customize his interviews for the publication he was writing. He made outrageous statements just for the sake of making outrageous statements, and to try to weed through all this has been very difficult. It's by far the toughest book I have ever written, and I'm hoping to be done with it sometime within this year But, again, he's a very elusive subject—as he was in real life. To write about him is just as difficult as it was to understand him because here was one of the great minds of his time. What he knew about psychology was amazing—what he knew about the human mind. But he was always contradicting himself. He would try to make you believe that he was serious with some of these experiments he was doing with LSD, or suicide, and then technology, with the computer; and then he would turn around and do something that was so outrageous, that was so contradictory—you are wondering, "What is this guy's story?" I love his last book. His last book, about the art of dying, was wonderful, but it was so Leary. You wonder how much of his life was performance and how much of it was real, and as a biographer those are difficult questions that you have to try to answer—and that poses quite a problem. I mean, you have to find the "real" person and present that person to the reader. We talked before about what's filtered through you, going in with preconceptions, and so forth—well this is difficult from those perspectives.
It would be much easier if he were still here, maybe—unless you got another of his performances.
Yeah. Oddly enough, Leary was another one of those guys who when you talk to people who knew him or met him, they liked him. He was a really likeable sort of guy. He drove people crazy with what he said. He was like the perennial bad boy; he loved misbehaving, or so it seemed. His whole life was marked with confrontations with figures of authority. From the time he was in high school and got into all kinds of trouble because he wrote an editorial about why students should reject the school motto, to when he was caught giving, or selling, alcohol to underclassmen, to when he got thrown out of the University of Alabama for being caught sleeping in a women's dormitory, to his experiments with LSD, to when he is thrown out of Harvard. He was always ratcheting up the situation where he was confronting powers he could not defeat and powers he really wasn't going to influence. So who was he trying to influence, and what was his goal, and what was he really trying to do with his life? That's been a difficult question to answer, and it's been difficult writing for this biography.
How long are you into this project?
About two and a half years. I went out, and I got all the books and articles and interviews. It's been so difficult because I wanted, going in, to write something serious. I thought very seriously that Leary was a product of his times, and that if the government, for example, and society hadn't lied as much as they did about drugs, he wouldn't have been as outrageous of a figure as he was. He was sort of the product of these misconceptions, untruths, outright lies, the nastiness, and—I'm speaking just of the drug level—the incredible history. In researching this book, I went out and got everything, from the LaGuardia report on marijuana, to all these books, scholarly books written about drug legislation and enforcement, and I realized that in this country—think what you will one way or the other about drugs and their affects on individuals or collectively and even whether you're for or against or you're neutral, whatever—one thing is absolutely without question and that is that everything we know about drugs has been largely based on untruth. We will not accept the truth, and as a result, when somebody does tell you the truth, if you're skeptical, you're not going to buy it. And it was the deceit that made it so that somebody like Leary had to happen. Just like politics made someone like Abbie Hoffman have to happen. We will always have these figures who rise up and take on these forces, and that's one of the things that I was conscious of in writing about Ginsberg, in writing about Phil Ochs, and in trying to write about Timothy Leary.
Another Allen Ginsberg book anywhere along the line?
I don't see it happening, but that doesn't mean it won't. I loved being connected to that, but whether or not any kind of project well come up in the future—time will tell. I have nothing really in mind right now. I do know what is being worked on. Right now, some very important books are being worked on by other people in the Ginsberg group. Maybe I'll be part of something in journals, or something, who knows, somewhere up the road, but right now I can tell you that if I die tomorrow, I'd be very happy with the two books with which I have been lucky enough to be associated.
God forbid. Michael, thanks, and much luck with the Leary book.
Allen Ginsberg to Louis Ginsberg
n.d. (ca. late March 1956)
…W. C. Williams read "Howl" and liked it and wrote an introduction for the book; and meanwhile there is the possibility of expanding and making a whole book of poems. We put on another reading in a theatre here in Berkeley, I read some other poems, "Whitman," "The Sunflower," and a new poem called "America"—a sort of surrealist anarchist tract—all of which came off very well, so the publisher is now interested in a bookful of representative work not just the one poem. The reading was pretty great, we had traveling photographers, who appeared on the scene from Vancouver to photograph it, a couple of amateur electronics experts who appeared with tape machines to record, request from State college for a complete recording for the night, requests for copies of the recordings, even finally organizations of bop musicians who want to write music and give big west coast traveling tours of "Howl" as a sort of Jazz Mass, recorded for a west coast company called Fantasy Records that issues a lot of national bop, etc. No kidding. You have no idea what a storm of lunatic-fringe activity I have stirred up.
English publishers want [sic] handle Howl, that is English Printers (Villiers) and so there is now difficulty in getting it through unexpurgated. I revised it and it is now worse that it ever was, too. We're now investigating Mexico, if necessary will spend extra cost and have it done here tho. Civil Liberties Union here was consulted and said they'd defend it if it gets into trouble, which I almost hope it does. I am almost ready to tackle the U.S. Govt out of sheer self delight. There is really a great stupid conspiracy of unconscious negative inertia to keep people from "expressing" themselves. I was reading Henry Miller's banned book Tropic of Cancer, which actually is a great classic—I never heard of it at Columbia with anything but deprecatory dismissal comments—he and Genet are such frank hip writers that the open expression of their perceptions and real beliefs are a threat to society. The wonder is that literature does have such power.
From Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son.
Louis Ginsberg to Allen Ginsberg
May 27, 1956
I saw your mimeographed book of poems [Howl] and wish it luck in the world! I'm too near it to appraise it fully. My expression, at first blush, is that it is a weird, volcanic, troubled, extravagant, turbulent, boisterous, unbridled outpouring, intermingling genius and flashes of picturesque insight with slag and debris of scoraic matter. It has violence; it has life; it has vitality. In my opinion, it is a one-sided, neurotic view of life; it has not enough glad, Whitmanian affirmations. (The fact that you write in such an energetic glow of poetry is one affirmation.) The poem should attract attention and perhaps be a sensation; one will hear defenders and detractors. But it should give you a name.
The poem I liked next was the fine and vivid one called "Sunflower Sutra." You should do more of this style.
I'm keeping the poems by my side in order to get more into them.
Concerning my poem about the grains of sand and necessity, I feel that, no matter how you thrash about, you must, more or less, as a inescapable condition of our predicament of living on the earth, give in in some way to necessity. That last word is an ambiguous one, and there are many ways of yielding. When one makes a truce with necessity according to the most harmonious nature of his being, then there is a minimum of eternal friction. However, I realize no words of mine will fall on your heart as will those of your cronies; so that I must perforce, despite all my love for you, let time tutor you.
Meanwhile I am glad that you are finding happiness and perhaps some purgative cleansing in your writing poetry. I fervent[ly] hope fame and success will come your way.
We saw Connie, Eugene, and little Alan yesterday. They are all well. Till their home will be ready, they are living now at Hotel Regent, 104 St. and Broadway Ave. NYC.
Grandma is still in the hospital. Have you written her? (Irvington General Hospital, Irvington, N.J.)
p.s. Send me a copy or two of the book, published in England, with W. C. W.'s introduction.
From Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son.