On November 5, 1994 I had the opportunity to record an interview with the legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He was there as part of the annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival which was showing the very compelling documentary “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.” He also gave an enthusiastic and well-received live performance, which he allowed me to tape and broadcast, along with the interview on Little Rock community radio station KABF-FM 88.3. But because of potential copyright conflicts, I’m only including sound from the interview here.
At the time, in addition to hosting an alternative rock show on KABF, I was doing a weekly spoken word program, which leaned heavily on recordings of the Beat greats. I had read most of Jack Kerouac’s books by that point and was just starting to expand into other Beat writers. When I saw that Ginsberg would be performing in Hot Springs, I got a number for his manager in New York, called and was able to set it up. Joining me for the interview was Sam Caplan, host of The Poetry Show on KABF. He too had been interested in talking with Ginsberg and I thought it would be good to do the interview together because we both had different subjects we wanted to talk about and together would be able to hit on a broad range of topics. I also felt that since Sam knew more about formal poetry than I that he would be good to have with me.
We recorded the interview in Ginsberg’s room at the Arlington Hotel that afternoon. He had just finished a poetry workshop and talked with us before doing his performance that evening. We had been promised a half-hour, but Ginsberg was in no rush, seeming to enjoy giving his opinions and talking about the past. At one point he seemed to become agitated when my then-girlfriend Yukiyo Yoshida, who took the black and white photos included here, turned away someone who had knocked on the door during the interview. You’ll hear that in one of the cuts. Otherwise he seemed to be in a great mood, talking with us for about an hour on any subject we brought up. Below is the entire interview, divided into five segments.
AUDIO: Allen Ginsberg discusses the resurgence in popularity and the values of the Beat Generation, including many of the writers, artists and poets who were involved.
GINSBERG ON THE VALUES OF THE BEAT GENERATION: “As someone who was there I would say first of all that the notion of spiritual liberation; liberation from brainwash and a false conditioning that’s repressive and stingy and also hypocritical like we found with (President George H. W.) Bush or Oliver North or (Pat) Robertson or all these other right-wing fanatics that imitate the Ayatollah or imitate Stalin. Spiritual lib, leading to inquiry into what is really our own nature, leading to interest in eastern thought, meditation, leading also to liberation and frankness and candor. Gay lib, leading also to experiments with consciousness, marijuana, LSD and the psychedelics.”
AUDIO: Ginsberg talks about his relationships with fellow beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. He was only 17 when he met them and discribes their influence on him.
GINSBERG ON JACK KEROUAC: “He was very tender, very smart, smarter than me and a little bit older and I was kind of a naive college boy and thought I wanted to be a labor lawyer. But he pointed out to me that I’d never had a job in my life and I didn’t know anything about factories and labor and it was just some adolescent pipe dream, but that I was interesting as a poet because I was so curious-minded and I should actually write down my thoughts as they were without trying to make them look good by rhyme. Also, he was not gay, he was straight and I was gay and I was in love with him and he let me sleep with him a few times just out of kindness. Sort of a macho gentility.”
AUDIO: Allen Ginsberg, whose landmark 1950s poem “Howl” was the focus of an obscenity trial, discusses censorship and the importance of free and open speech.
GINSBERG ON “HOWL” TRIAL: “It was declared not obscene a long, long time ago, 1957. Police made the mistake of advertising the book by trying to seize it and therefore what would have been just a sort of esoteric, charming, lavender volume of poetry printed in a couple hundred copies then began selling like hotcakes. So I have to thank the police for advertising the book.”
AUDIO: Allen Ginsberg discusses politics, his modern poetry (as of that day in 1994) and reads a poem he had written the night before which includes phrases he heard after arriving in Arkansas for the performance.
GINSBERG ON THE DIRECTION HIS POETRY: “All different directions at once: rhyme, non-rhyme, open forum, irregular broken page, column, 14 or 15 syllable versed line, three of four syllable versed lines balanced against each other like William Carlos Williams. I try everything I can. Like Bob Dylan once told me, if I hear any kind of music, try and imitate it. Calypso, blues, bluegrass, anything. Steal what you can get.”
AUDIO: Ginsberg talks about “Holy Soul Jelly Roll,” a retrospective boxed set of recordings that had just been released. He also discusses his experiences with punk rock.
GINSBERG ON BOXED SET: “That Rhino set includes the very first public reading of “Howl,” complete, and the very first reading of “Sunflower Sutra” and “America” and those are sort of standard classic anthology texts. But what’s odd is that historically we have the very first reading on the first CD of the four CDs of that Holy Soul Jelly Roll boxed set that Rhino put out.”
Two and a half years after the interview, Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997. He was 70. I feel greatly privileged to have spent a little time talking with someone of his caliber. If you don’t know a lot about him, I strongly recommend seeing Jerry Aronson’s excellent documentary film The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.
I ran into Jerry, who was also appearing at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in 1994, as we were coming down from Ginsberg’s room. I told him it had been a somewhat intimidating interview, but he tapped the tape recorder I had in my hand and said the important thing was that I had an hour with a legend and to cherish the recordings, which I do. I’m especially happy to make these available to anyone interested in Ginsberg. I’ve had the audio from this interview on my website since I started it in 2002, but the quality wasn’t as good as it could have been. So in July 2011 I went back to the original cassette tapes, redubbed them at the highest quality possible and remixed the audio from the two mics to make the audio as good as possible.
AUDIO: After we finished recording the interview, I asked if Mr. Ginsberg would mind voicing a promo for KABF and without further prompting he belted out this incredible plug.
Twice in the years after the interview I used material from it in newspaper pieces that I wrote concerning Allen Ginsberg. Below to the left is an article I wrote for the Little Rock Free Press after his death. To the right is a feature I wrote for the Miami Herald when Jerry Aronson’s documentary was finally released on DVD in 2007. You can read either article as a PDF by clicking on the image.