Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #22: Allen Ginsberg (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts 
One area of the book concerned the legacy of the sixties. My thinking was (and still is) that it’s difficult taking into consideration the political landscape of the eighties without examining aspects of the sixties. Many ghosts from that period (i.e. Vietnam, the Cold War, civil rights) continued to linger as unresolved arguments that underscored political and cultural actions in the eighties. If cynicism became more the common coin twenty years after the idealism sparked by JFK’s 1960 Inaugural address, the voices included in this chapter of Talking Out of Turn set out to uncover what the political lessons of the sixties were.

Allen Ginsberg
One of those key figures in the sixties was poet Allen Ginsberg. While historically Ginsberg had emerged as part of a group of writers and artists in the early fifties tagged by the media as The Beat Generation, his voice continued to be a large part of the sixties counter-culture (a voice that continued to loom large until his death in 1997). As part of this collection of American post-World War Two non-conformists, such as William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and Gregory Corso (The Vestal Lady on Brattle), Ginsberg rejected materialism and embraced new forms of expression partly inspired by William Blake and Walt Whitman. This involved an interest in Eastern religion, alternate forms of sexuality, and experimentation with drugs. Most famously known for his epic 1955 poem "Howl" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.") in which he celebrated the hedonism of his generation while denouncing the destructive forces of American capitalism, Ginsberg also became a champion of anti-censorship after "Howl" became part of a famous obscenity trial in 1957 (documented in the 2010 film Howl).  Eventually, Judge Clayton W. Horn declared that "Howl" was not obscene while adding, "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?"

Throughout the sixties, Ginsberg (who was a practicing Buddhist) continued to write and perform and was highly active in the political unrest of the period. When I met him in 1982, he was in Toronto to give a reading and perform some songs he wrote with the local punk band, The Diodes. He was also promoting a book that addressed the demise of the underground press, once again speaking out against censorship. As he walked into the studio, dressed sharply in a custom made suit and tie, he didn't look like the bearded, long-haired bard who once confronted an army troop train of soldiers bound for Vietnam with chants of "Hare Krishna!" At which point, with cultural change in mind, the interview began.

kc: Some of the key figures of the sixties in recent years have either died, faded away, or been born again like Bob Dylan, or...

ag: Many of the pop figures have. But not the literary figures! The literary figures, in fact, have grown in power. William Burroughs has just finished a best seller called Cities of the Red Night which I think is one of his best books. Gregory Corso, another of the so-called Beat Generation, has just published a fascinating new book of poetry.

kc: So you're saying people haven't disappeared at all.

ag: Oh no. That's just cornball mythology. Kerouac is dead. Neal Cassady is dead. Yet there are endless numbers of great poets still teaching, writing and becoming more mature and powerful. That's how it should be. Most artists ripen and get stronger if they're real artists and have a true fix on life and death in eternity.

kc: Most people today though continue to believe that the counter-culture of the sixties died out by the seventies.

ag: Yeah. But you could equally say that the United States died out as well. It's still in its death throes, too, with the current war in El Salvador and the paranoiac Cold War policies of Reagan which are ruining the nation and bankrupting it.  

kc: But why do you think those policies have grown more popular today?

ag: I don't think they have. Those views are very much bought and paid for by the multi-nationals. There was a story in the New York Times in 1979 by David Burnham accounting for the PR campaign of the nuclear industry. He said that nuclear groups like Exxon spent $470 million for public relations and propaganda, advertising and brain-washing, while only $4 million was spent by anti-nuclear activists Ralph Nader and Helen Caldicott. So it's a bought consciousness that the media has unfortunately co-operated with. 

kc: How do you account for this kind of national sleepwalking then?

ag: America is so egotistic. It's so insistent on being Number One. I mean, if a guy in a bar went around saying that he was Number One, he could beat up anyone, he was stronger than anybody, more important than anybody, and wanted to run the bar, everybody would shrink away realizing that they were dealing with a big neurotic. It's even worse when he's drunk on a $170 billion budget.

kc: If American culture has changed so dramatically since the sixties, what kind of view does the media today have of the literary movement you were part of?

ag: There's a certain stereotyping in newspapers. I don't know whether it's dumbness or the lowest common denominator, but they're not so interested in good news. They're certainly no longer interested in the continuity of art. They're now interested in the superficial giggle. I just went to a radio program where the fellow interviewing me asked how I'd changed and why I was wearing a suit and tie - as if it were some awful betrayal of beatnik beard! There was no inquiry as to the gentleness at the base of the literary movement that was called the Beat Generation.

kc: But does the Beat Generation still even exist?

ag: It still exists - nameless - but probably more influential than before.

kc: Is it really important that it has a name?

ag: No. It was invented by newspapers to begin with. So it was their poem and nobody wants to write their poem necessarily. We all did our best to make sure their poem was a good one though.

kc: Besides the perceived disappearance of many sixties figures into obscurity, one thing that did literally disappear was the underground press. When did you begin to get concerned for its survival?

ag: I was very much concerned in the late sixties and early seventies with the future of the underground press. That's a big part of why I'm now visiting Toronto. I'm attending the Amnesty International convocation where I'm presenting a report from PEN (ed. an independent, non-profit organization that is committed to defending freedom of opinion). We found that there was a concerted attack on the underground press in the United States by the FBI, in co-operation with the CIA. The attack took the form of the burning and bombings of underground newspaper offices. There was constant harassment of vendors, distributors, and printers, and banning from college campuses. There were also phony drug busts by agents planting marijuana as a way to bust the office and seize all the records and mailing lists, and smashing the typewriters and typesetting machinery.

kc: How deeply entrenched were the police in this sabotage?

ag: There were police spies constantly. They were always spreading disinformation. If there was going to be a peace march, the spy would call in and report that it was happening at a different time, and in a different place. There were anonymous letters sent from a "concerned taxpayer," or a "concerned citizen" - or even better - a "concerned student." The Great Speckled Bird, an underground newspaper in Atlanta, was put on trial for obscenity. They won the case but it drained the paper of money because they were operating on a shoestring. The FBI also had landlords raise the rent for these places by telling them that subversives lived and worked there. It was a great network of conspiracy which reduced the number of underground publications from 400 in 1968 to 60 in 1975.

kc: How long did it take you to accumulate all of this information?

ag: Twelve years. All of this information comes from the files of the FBI and your own RCMP who was doing the same things here as in the States. When I started investigating this, as I said, back in 1968, the mainstream media said I was paranoid because that sort of thing didn't happen in America. And they kept that line until they started getting harassed by Spiro Agnew. The underground press was more vulnerable though. So all of this information was collected and, with the help of PEN, put into a book called Un-American Activities: The Campaign Against the Underground Press.

kc: Besides the obvious reason for having this knowledge available, what do you think this book could do for those wishing to understand the counter-culture that was at work during the sixties?

ag: It would be very useful for younger people of this new wave generation who wonder why the sixties radical consciousness movement seemed to diminish as you suggested earlier. It would be important for them to realize that it was a concerted effort of the government to squash the movement because the government found the counter-culture interesting and important. It was so important that they spent millions of dollars to sabotage the counter-culture intellectual news organs. This book is for those who have yet to realize that if you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, concludes at the Revue Cinema on Monday, August 22nd with a discussion of Vertigo and Casualties of War. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

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