I first became aware of Gordon Ball’s work through his explorations of the great reservoir of growing consciousness in Allen Ginsberg’s career, as found in Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness, as well as his editing Allen’s early journals: Journals Early Fifties Early Sixties and Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958. While these books opened me to the mother lode of a great poet’s work and life, I would gradually come to understand Mr. Ball’s multi-genre talent and his importance in showing readers a wide variety of writings, all exhibiting mastery as well as a skill for revealing poignant activism on the part of others.
His East Hill Farm is, along with The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg & Gary Snyder, the finest work on their two intentional communities—the difficulties and high points of communal living—our time's version of the transcendentalist Brook Farm immortalized in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. Gordon's a first-class prose poet and memoirist, too, and continues to shine as a terrific college professor even in his 70s. His life has four major phases—the childhood and teen years spent in postwar Japan (see his On Tokyo's Edge: Gaijin Tales from Postwar Japan); the enormous growth and awakening of his twenties and beyond, with his film work and photography, his integration into the whole 60s-70s arts scene and the many major figures from Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol to Allen, Timothy Leary and others (see ‘66 Frames); the years at East Hill Farm; and this later period in which his work has taken off in a variety of directions, including dark music’s dreamlike prose poems exploring “the nature of consciousness” in what Lawrence Ferlinghetti describes as the “transmission of dharma” which “graces us.”
It should be noted that he nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize 13 years in a row, too, and he has done academic studies and reviews of Allen, the great Charles Reznikoff, and Dylan, in addition to giving the keynote address at a 2004 Chinese-sponsored “Beat Meets East” poetry conference emphasizing the influence of Allen and Kerouac via translations. That conference also introduced Vernon Frazer and the first postbeat poets to scholars such as Wen Chu’an and, later, Zhang Ziqing. The flower of that speech and conference may be found in Professor Zhang Ziqing’s three volume masterpiece, A History of 20th Century of American Poetry, which continues to awaken Chinese poets and readers to American poetry even today. Gordon has exhibited his “Ginsberg & Beat Photos” photographs and shown his experimental films widely—and he continues to shoot stills and video clips daily. He is working on “an endless volume of family history of 40+ years, from Ohio River Valley farm to Shanghai in the 1920s to World War II prison camp.” He is also searching for a publisher for his recently completed chapbook, "My San Francisco," which explores his experiences there over the years, and is a tribute to the legendary City Lights Bookstore clerk Shig Murao. I am honored to count Gordon Ball as a friend, and to present this interview that others might see his great and invaluable contributions to American letters.
DC: My first introduction to your work was through Allen Verbatim, Journals Early Fifties Early Sixties, and Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958. These three books provided a deeper look into Allen’s struggles with himself and, after Howl, with his newfound fame and notoriety, but they also display the depth of his commitment to learning everything he could about poetry and its many cultures, technique, and the development of one’s own personal approach to poetics. The first two of these books came to me as I was getting to know Allen personally (we met briefly in 1973 and began corresponding in 1976), and they gave me a platform to transcend the image of the “famous man” which interferes with the growth of a true working and appreciative relationship. I sensed some awe of Allen in your descriptions of the first times meeting him (in ‘66 Frames), and I wonder if you went through such phases of finding your way to him as a true friend and confidant. Please comment on this problem in moving beyond the images we humans are given to constructing of others, and of reaching the point of true contact.
GB: We didn’t get to know each other that first meeting at arts patron Panna Grady’s (depicted in ’66 Frames), largely because I was too drunk and left the room, went to lie down (I didn’t usually drink much but had been taking advantage of our hostess’s opulent generosity.). There were one or two later encounters during that year in New York (most significantly the New Year’s Eve gathering at Shirley Clarke’s), but we didn’t really begin to know each other until we were on the farm together. The workaday situation there did much to dispense with the stumbling block of fame. Nevertheless, I must say Allen did little to shatter the image I had of him as profoundly spiritual, selfless, gifted—and much to intensify it far more than I imagined. There were occasional disappointments (e.g., when I asked how he knew, as “Capitol Air” claims, that the CIA killed Kennedy), misunderstandings (I was slow to get some material together for his defense of the Living Theatre, imprisoned in Brazil 1971—I hadn’t known when he needed it.). He could display a real temper, often to the good (as when, he once told me, Gregory made him so angry he threw a table at him) but sometimes not. Working together on books, he could be as “only human” as anyone, sometimes delaying focus on what was in front of us. But far more commonly, he was a workhorse nonpareil for great lengths of time—an attentive, thoughtful, generous one. Extraordinarily energetic in so many endeavors: long before his death and even continuing till his last year or so, I had a saying about this man eighteen years my senior: “Allen Ginsberg, I can’t keep up with him.”
As to the images—idealistic ones—of him, or even of things he was associated with, he did so often undercut them—for example, his argument (in Dark Music) that the Peace Movement prolonged the war. Also, let me hazard the question: Is there such a thing as “true contact”? Even Allen Ginsberg, I once thought to myself, isn’t Allen Ginsberg.
Though he created—mythologized—his “gang of souls,” he was also his own iconoclast.
DC: Those first three books were also moments of heavy note taking (particularly Journals Mid-Fifties) and of noting his lists of books read, sketches of others (Williams, Snyder) or poetic techniques. I have always practiced the same kind of heavy background work and documenting one’s own development, and it sometimes has bothered me when gifted younger writers do not practice to learn the “toolbox” available from others and from past masters—so often burning their candles brightly for a few years and then disappearing. Do you have observations on this?
GB: I’m afraid I may be disappointing you. I guess I haven’t followed the careers of others as closely as I might. However, I’ve often seen myself in relation to the pattern you’ve conveyed—e.g., making a short film acclaimed by Jonas and some others, then not being sure what to do with myself (though I did make a few ventures), and not returning to filmmaking for seven years, then producing work that won greater attention.
My background “study” for film was all the movies I’d seen in Tokyo and running the film program much of my college career--and making movies and learning from Jonas and others. Literarily, I did not study much in college. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerged as the major inspiration, though that happened out-of-class my senior year. I learned much from Allen, a good part of it delving into background for his spoken words (Allen Verbatim) and written work. Though I’d written “creatively” before college (winning the college prize with a story from high school), I didn’t write a lot for several years, sometimes resented it when people asked shortly after the prize what I’d written lately—I wanted recognition, but didn’t want to be typecast, but also wasn’t sure what to do and wasn’t reading much, either. I was depressed, the first couple years, coming from Tokyo to Davidson. But I did keep a diary on and off after college, and wrote occasionally, and read more. Finally in the last decades I’ve put out three memoirs and am working on this nearly endless volume of family history from turn-of-the-century Ohio Riverbank farm to Shanghai in the 1920s, to prison camp World War II. And am looking to publish a chapbook memoir/tribute, “My San Francisco.”
DC: On Tokyo’s Edge: Gaijin Tales from Postwar Japan and ‘66 Frames present a complex formative matrix for your life and its trajectory, and these books gave me pauses re my own life. Jim Cohn and I both come from terribly fractured family backgrounds (as did, of course, Allen Ginsberg), and we have spent decades—literally—discussing our formative years and spending enormous energy in coming to terms with often subconscious influences and difficulties/ struggles with the self in terms of becoming open and receptive to needed changes borne of those early influences and experiences. I feel some of that in these two books, of which this thread is only one of many going on in these books. Please comment.
GB: I’m flattered that some of my work may have connected with thoughts on your own life, David. Though they are fiction, the stories in On Tokyo’s Edge feature a protagonist modeled to a great degree after myself. They comprise the early life of an Ugly American, living from age five in a nation conquered and occupied by his own. He internalizes the dominant values of the Gaijin (foreigner, outsider) culture all around him, assuming for granted a generally shared cultural and moral superiority. At the same time, we see the uprooting effects of wars hot and cold on his own life and that of his family as he grows increasingly alienated from family, self, and environment.
I didn’t begin to conceive of myself as Ugly American until the final year or two of my stay in Japan. It was then, even in the face of the snake dancing anti-American Zengakuren students (whom I found visually appealing, with their broad white headbands and red kanji lettering over black hair) protesting the U.S.-Japan defense treaty renewal, that I became more interested in things Japanese, including Buddhism and other aspects of Japanese culture. (And, strangely, I’d had a sort of epiphany sitting under a tree on the grounds of a national shrine honoring Japanese war dead.) When a new program in Japan Studies was starting my senior year, I was eager to take part, but my parents ruled that I take World History instead. (An unfair choice, and though such things do happen, it didn’t occur to me or presumably my parents to ask if somehow an arrangement of some sort could be made.) As it turned out, I took World History from a nut, whom we once discovered in the classroom after school bent over a piece of paper on the floor, ironing it.
My alienation from my parents continued through the end of the academic year, as shown in the July 1962 photo in which my face harbors a stern unto-myself look as I grip my carry-on bag with both hands, eager to hurry up the ramp and onto the jet bound for the States, the first step toward college. My parents offer differing and different expressions (father wearied, mother seemingly pleased)—and I’m scarcely speaking to either of them at this point. The final story in On Tokyo’s Edge suggests a father-son relationship as one of strangers, not only to each other but to so much of what’s all around them in Tokyo. In later years I tried to close the gap between us, but just six years after the time of the photo Daisy Belle’s Alzheimer’s was diagnosed.
’66 Frames doesn’t have much of the historical perspective of the Gaijin tales; it’s more immediate, contemporaneous. It doesn’t involve the passage of time over a dozen years or so; it’s the jubilation of a repressed soul celebrating its release from confinement into a world that rewards it with psychic, aesthetic, and sexual voyages beyond any anticipation on its part. Family conflicts, for example, are less dwelt upon amidst the cascade of new experiences, and achieve somewhat fuller attention in East Hill Farm. ’66 Frames concludes with a search for further experience still, release from the confines of urban life, only to, as we know, lead from jungle to a taste of complete confinement behind bars, which in turn brings about discovery of the green world anew, on East Hill Farm.
DC: Given that your fascination with American films in Japan gave you a window to the culture of “home,” they also may have served as a nexus for the passage through your own films in college and the introduction to ground-breaking films, film makers, techniques and the cultural ferment that shaped so many in our generation. That ferment includes many major figures from Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol to Allen, Timothy Leary and others. Please comment on the continuing influence exercised on your life direction and work by these and other artists and social/cultural influencers.
GB: Jonas’s visit late spring 1962 to Davidson College, which my friends and I found parochially Presbyterian, brought great relief and inspiration. The effect Jonas had on me began before that visit, however, for thanks to one of those friends, George Williams, I was alerted to a New York Times article on Jonas, then began reading his weekly columns in the Village Voice.
And on my spring break I met him a few weeks before the visit: the two of us were taking the slow and creaky ancient elevator in the Dakota up to Panna Grady’s, but before we got there another passenger yelled furiously at the poor old machine, “Must you take all day!” before making his full-steam exit. Once he did, Jonas allowed “Patience. Ve need patience today.” This, as I wrote in ’66 Frames, “stopped me in my tracks.” For someone whom I already looked up to, to some degree, for the impact he seemed to be having in the art world, to speak of traditional, perdurable values in the face of the frantic materialism I was discovering in my homeland, made me think Jonas was about much more than I’d already imagined. When a couple of weeks later he stepped off the train at the Charlotte station and placed in my hand an 8mm Revere movie camera, worlds opened up; when in student union lounge room press conference he proposed that the artistic, literary, and cultural explosions then taking place in New York and elsewhere were more important than the Renaissance, I felt it was only confirmation of the new direction my life was just beginning to take—far from a relatively cloistered, culturally confined men’s school. Before the semester reached its end I had made a kind of diary film of life at Davidson, which included in its twenty-plus minutes a total of fifteen seconds of “obscene” shots. It didn’t get me fired from my position as College Union film committee chairman, but my use of the word “censor” in regard to a possible Union showing did. (Looking back, I feel that Director C. Shaw Smith, with whom I basically got along, may have had little choice.)
After a disastrous summer relationship with a girlfriend in Syracuse, New York, I left for the city, where I looked up Jonas—and went to work for him. Over the course of a year in New York I shot a fair amount but didn’t really make anything of significance following an early film en route north. Hitchhiking across the States and Mexico followed, then graduate school—and a kind of personal renaissance of filmmaking (triggered in part by teaching film, and visits with Stan Brakhage and Jonas). I still “film” today, keeping a daily journal digitally.
My debt to Jonas is primary and great, though I should say that there are influences from forbears as well. My grandfather was a portrait photographer, and at a certain period in my father’s life—his early days in China especially, going back nearly 100 years—he took many shots of what is now a vanished world. So I like to think family genes favored the visual image. I should also point out, lest it seem I demonize Davidson College, that it was there that (in lieu of a course in filmmaking) I was in charge of what was a frequently occurring event on a relatively isolated campus: the showing of movies! And it was Davidson, in response to a rather elaborately prepared request on my part, that granted the funds to make Jonas’s visit possible.
Not dissimilarly, it was through a Davidson art class that I became aware of Warhol’s work, watching color slides of him assembling Brillo boxes—and I thought how funny, how interesting. In New York I would see Andy off and on, and was his microphone man for a film on Bob Dylan (see ’66 Frames), at the end of which everyone else takes off their shirts and throws them at my feet. I admired works of his such as Empire, the eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building from dawn to dusk shot with a stationary camera (“A meditation film” said cameraman Jonas.). But such admiration didn’t translate to my making films that showed his influence. His basic iconoclasm, his demythologizing attitude, and his “codifying the familiar,” as Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator of Modern Art Henry Geldzahler said, have enriched my outlook and aesthetics. You know, some of his attentions are Zen-like, “Ordinary Mind.”
Brakhage, romantic polar opposite of Warhol, was angered by Andy’s approach to film, but was always encouraging towards me—as in the blurb he wrote for “Father Movie” and “Enthusiasm” (“Gordon Ball has accomplished something unique in the autobiographical genre of motion pictures.”) He called me up in the middle of the night to tell me how he enjoyed ’66 Frames—“a beautiful book” and “the best book on the 1960s.” When we at Davidson first learned of his work through Guy Davenport’s article proclaiming that “American art has had four great masterpieces: Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, and Brakhage’s Dog Star Man”—he seemed at the very least some sort of inspired and inspiring go-it-alone figure. Dog Star Man, when we finally saw it, more than bore that out—e.g., a concern with rhythm and form and motion and color in themselves, without the often (in Hollywood and commercials) patronizing presence of sound—and a sense that there was not necessarily one focal point above all others on the screen—“Look at the edges of the frame!” he once urged at a small conference in Cullowhee, Alabama, late 1970s. The camera’s an extension of the body, he proposed.
At the same time he knew he was a windbag and could, at times, laugh about it. But he turned angry again when news of the W. S. Merwin-Trungpa incident broke—we argued over it once at his home (“Tell Allen his friends are waiting for him!”) and he referred to Trungpa as “The Trungpa,” seeing Tibetan Buddhism as primitive, sinister, violent. When I was at Naropa a few years later I called up (his home was an hour or so away, 9,000 feet up in the Rockies) hoping to visit, and he was emphatic—he’d see no one in any way connected with Naropa. “If you know anything about the history of fascism in the twentieth century,” he began one charge. (Over time his perspective would modify.)
We did visit again, just a year or so later, for an evening in Kathy’s and my Richmond, Virginia hotel room, with our daughter Daisy, just emerging as a toddler. It was entirely pleasant, only the moments when Daisy got more attention seemed a bit problematic for Stan. And then, some years later came that generous late night phone call….
—To use the closing with which he often ended his letters.
And to go back briefly to the Trungpa issue, I was concerned when Allen informed me that he’d been told he could edit an interview he gave on the subject, but instead it was printed without any input from him. His criticism of Merwin’s lady companion was over the top, but the significant difference between Allen and so many others was his humor, especially perhaps his self-humor. As I reported in the Epilogue to East Hill Farm, when we discussed some of the charges being made against him, Allen offered “Now I know how Nixon felt!” How many others in the realm of Bohemia would identify with our disgraced President?
As for Allen’s work, of which so much can be said, let me be simple about it. By the end of the third line of Howl
Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night
the game’s all over. Never seen such power and vividness in a single line, the way this opens us up to the cosmos swelling above. One could go on about his power as reader, his role in helping restore poetry as primarily oral art, the surprise and memorability of his verse, the elision, the juxtaposition of “hydrogen jukebox” and much else. Allen and his work appear significantly in other answers here.
As for Timothy Leary, for whom Allen felt a great sympathy, even as in the 1967 San Francisco Oracle “Changes” interview he challenged him “Precisely what do you mean by drop out…for the millionth time?” and argued that Leary on account of his many activities and involvements hadn’t dropped out and couldn’t. As we see in East Hill Farm, Allen continued to provide him support into the early 1970s, telegramming a judge, contributing personal funds, performing at benefits….
I’d read Leary’s 1966 Playboy interview en route North (my traveling companion exclaimed “Just reading it makes me high!”); went to his presentation inspired by Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, "The Death of the Mind," at the Village Theater on Second Avenue early in the fall; then attended a session at his newly opened League for Spiritual Discovery on Hudson Street one late-winter early-spring afternoon. As he spoke before a few dozen young people in the LSD’s small central space (all of us--Leary included--seated on the floor), he counseled against getting involved in the antiwar effort which he seemed to think a distraction from a psychedelic focus (not that he supported the war). Afterwards Candy and I spoke to him, asking (and receiving) permission to spend a weekend at Millbrook (which we did, as recorded in ’66 Frames and my film “Millbrook”). Some years later, late 1970s, before he was making the rounds debating with G. Gordon Liddy, the convicted Watergate felon who’d busted him at Millbrook, he spoke at Chapel Hill, on space colonization. I spent some one-on-one time with him and was disappointed he seemed to consider Allen passé (a not uncommon attitude among some in those days). As I drove him to the airport he put down Bob Dylan for being “negative,” and when Stevie Wonder came on the radio it was to Leary’s immediate acclaim. I thought this was a bit simplistic, but didn’t argue. It was otherwise a good visit. I have from the beginning appreciated the soundness of his recommendations regarding set and setting before ingesting LSD—one should be in a good mind set, not troubled; in a familiar, comfortable environment, and someone experienced with acid should be there as guide. I was influenced by his “dropping out” in that I thought it appropriate given the context of a sick society. In time his cocksure optimism for whatever he was involved in wore a bit thin, but he had a far more salubrious effect on our culture than, say, Richard M. Nixon.
DC: Related to that (though perhaps somewhat more technical) please share your current perceptions of the role that film and filmmaking have had in the development of your career.
GB: Film has been so intrinsic it’s hard to think of it as apart from the rest of my career, though I don’t actually think of myself as having a “career” (I just sort of stumble through life.). But one of the reasons I appreciate the opportunity to have this interview is that it covers my work as a whole—often I seem to fall between the cracks, and the filmmaker (if known at all) is one person, the writer another, photographer another still (so to speak). But my preoccupation with it has been there ever since seeing The Wizard of Oz (with its terrifying green profile of the Wicked Witch of the West) at maybe age three or four at the Smoot Theatre in Parkersburg, West Virginia, followed by other Hollywood features at Grant Heights United States Army housing compound in Tokyo, age five. And soon after that in elegant Tokyo theatres where you were conducted to seats by a young woman usher (wielding a flashlight if you arrived late). Recent releases from the U.S. would take several months to get there, but they’d get there, and my mother and father and I (after sister and brother left for stateside prep schools) would typically see them together, or I’d go Saturday mornings with my mother. I write of this in ‘66 Frames, including my first child’s question about the technique of film (and film viewing, as well)—whether the short overlap of one image on another was actually taking place or was a sort of retinal residue (to use latter day terminology). A “dissolve” it’s called, of course. But my interest in superimposition will show up in the first film I released, “Georgia,” where you see several images of the same subject at once.
Shortly before turning nine I became captivated by Shane, the heroic mysterious figure played by Alan Ladd (and decades later in Dark Music would discover its connection, for me, with Allen). I saw the film four times in the space of a year or so, not only in elegant first-run theatres but in a small, packed movie house where admission was the equivalent of ten cents.
I continued seeing movies throughout my Tokyo years, only much to my later regret it was with almost wholesale ignorance of the trailblazing forays into world cinema that had been and were being made by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu. I knew of Rashomon’s winning at Venice—my father mentioned “a Japanese film has won”—but I never saw it until I was back in the States for good.
I continued seeing films. Running the college union program my last two and a half years at Davidson probably saved me (as did making friends with fellow mavericks) from utter depression in the face of a culture vastly different from what I was used to in the foreign community of cosmopolitan postwar Tokyo. And then at the end of my senior year that magic box extended in Jonas’s large peasant hand—as well as his entire visit—propelled me into making films. Six months later in a very brief Sunday New York Times interview with Elenore Lester I—age twenty-one—was so exuberant about film (and newly discovered psychedelics) I put down words as passé.
An obviously arbitrary distinction, but it took a good while for my own work to recognize it as I did in my fourth film, “Enthusiasm” (1978), combining family still photos with a narrative of the deterioration and death of my mother from Alzheimer’s. I wrote the narrative in one setting with only a final change later (in the last sentence) and then it took a while to gather the stills—nearly all of them fortunately saved over the decades by my sister. I wasn’t interested in a literal relationship between word and image (e.g., as if portions of the narrative were captions for the photos) but for the mind to work, to rove and roam, to establish possible relationships itself.
On reflection—I haven’t thought of this till now--it’s possible that however subtly or subconsciously, two major narrative films I’d seen in the past year or so may have influenced my making of “Enthusiasm.” Charlie Chaplin movies had played from time to time in Tokyo, and I recall that when his Limelight was released it was advertised in our school yearbook. But my parents said we weren’t going to see it, because—I figured out later from the vague or veiled explanation I was given—they thought of him in terms of Communism. (Chaplin was a victim of the Red Scare in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.) In later days, including when I taught at the University of North Carolina, I saw only short works such as “The Tramp,” “The Immigrant” and “Shoulder Arms.” Then, one late spring or early summer night after taking a lady friend to my sister and parents (my mother was still alive then) in Winston-Salem, we stopped off (my friend was driving) in Greensboro to see Chaplin’s City Lights. I was so profoundly moved by the pathos of the final scene I wept all the way back to Chapel Hill, fifty miles “over interstate under mercury vapor, past interlocking power lines, shopping malls, trucking stations, carlights and roar,” as I wrote in Dark Music.
It’s possible also, if maybe to a lesser degree, that Ozu’s Tokyo Story dealing with the dejection of an elderly couple influenced “Enthusiasm” as well. (As Dylan said in his 1966 Playboy interview, “The purpose of art is inspiration.”)
In any case, Chaplin’s film gives us an ethos as to how to treat each other, just as Whitman’s Song of Myself gives us one on existence on a much larger scale. When I arrived back in the U.S. after jail and deportation from Mexico I had five dollars and several rolls of movie footage (much of it shot within jail). After a year or two I wrote a “true-life” short story that very directly depicted experiences within the Puerto Vallarta carcel. It sat there maybe another year or two and was rejected by the Carolina Quarterly, an editor of which told me “I didn’t like the people.” But then Kathy suggested I combine story and footage. I should at this point say there hasn’t been a greater influence on my life and work than Kathy—from not only tirelessly evaluating and encouraging my writing, film work, and photography, to educating me in all directions including art history and in general to seeing the aesthetics in all phenomena. And to giving me time and space to do my work. I could go on….
In shooting “Mexican Jail Footage” I was of course doing so under paranoid conditions; one guard threatened that if he saw me with my camera again he’d break it. I was so nervous about it I more than once feared the film wasn’t advancing and hastily opened the camera to make sure it was—which of course washed out brief portions of the film with daylight. In editing it I decided to leave those “washes” in, for I now saw the movie as archeology, so to speak—and thus the “footage” in its title. I felt so fortunate just to have the images as they came, as they were, reflecting conditions under which they were shot. When the film won one of several festival prizes a judge acclaimed it for its writing.
My next film was “Millbrook,” for which I had the idea of using a single image—fire in fireplace as it deteriorates while time passes: an analogy for loss of life, and for loss of ego that occurs on an LSD trip. For me this was the “bad trip” that Candy and I experienced at Leary’s place, though it ultimately ended well, utterly unpredictably and almost sort of deus ex machina. I wrote the narrative as a nonfiction story for the film—and later incorporated it into the larger narrative of ’66 Frames. I love this film especially because of its confining power, starting with the opening intimate “madman’s” voice with which I narrate, its Poe-like quality, utterly sincere.
Do Poznania: Conversations in Poland, completed six years later, is a less experimental film than the two or three before it. It offers images of Occupied Poland in its last years as I was there to teach American Literature and Culture in two month-long seminars. My shooting was not unrelated to that of “Mexican Jail Footage,” for I had to be surreptitious a good part of the time—we weren’t allowed to film in government buildings (which I did) or railroad stations (which I did) or airports (which I didn’t), but I also didn’t feel as free as I might’ve just in shooting daily street scenes, the Cold War hanging over all. The soundtrack is my narrative of events and conversations, some of which involve speculations about the Soviets and for that matter the West and their intentions. So it’s in that way “experimental,” in its incorporation of rumor and street-talk.
So just as in some of the instances above there’s a symbiotic relationship between film images and written work, and as my “movie” images are sometimes “still,” I sometimes like to think of myself (maybe of all of our selves) as not just one thing.
DC: Your East Hill Farm is, along with The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg & Gary Snyder (ed. Bill Morgan), the finest work on their two intentional communities—the difficulties and high points of communal living—our time's version of the transcendentalist Brook Farm immor-talized in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. I wonder if you have latter-day perceptions on the both the beauties and difficulties of maintaining experimental communities such as these.
GB: East Hill wasn’t a commune. It wouldn’t have lasted a day without Allen’s pouring funds into it. Most of us were not contributing at all financially, and many of the guests were just that—guests, and often supposedly on the mend. When Maretta was about to return a second time in summer 1970 Peter insisted that she work two hours a day. Huncke put in a great day of labor building the woodshed, when we all shared some speed. Other times he’d sit—kicking—at the dining room table before a mournful bowl of soup, cuddling mournful Malcolm, his doppelganger kitty cat who, it was said, had been traumatized by a mean group of Lower East Side dogs (But much of the time—when not arguing heatedly with Allen over needle drugs—he was a pleasant, fun presence.). Ray Bremser seldom worked and while he did sometimes make an effort, he often had to cut it short because of bursitis in an injured shoulder. Barbara—gone after four months towards an Orthodox life raising children, after finally giving up on marrying Allen—didn’t typically get her hands dirty, but instead directed, instructed (and sometimes scolded). She had cared for Julius for some months before the farm—an extraordinary taskand looked after the Aronowitz kids when they were up for the summer.
Because it was so primitive and in poor repair, visiting architect David Savage (Allen’s schoolmate from Columbia) counseled that he’d tear the house down. Allen feared the farm would become his white elephant, and it did—from the start he let Barbara do the search for a country place, because, he said, he didn’t have time or energy for it. Then came the big argument between the two of them with Barbara’s insisting “It’s a mystical place!” (It was close to Sharon Springs, an orthodox retreat center known to some of Allen’s family; a place Barbara was discovering.) Nonetheless, Allen made the commitment.
So in terms of material funding and manual labor shared among those who were there, East Hill Farm wasn’t really communal. Perhaps putting in the water system (centered on a nineteenth century device, the hydraulic ram) was the major communal accomplishment, involving over a number of weeks Peter, Julius, Stephen Bornstein and his brother Peter and myself, getting down in the mud, hauling water, applying cement…. Bonnie and I took considerable pleasure in working on the pond we were installing, but that was just the two of us, apart from the others. After Peter fought with Allen over his amphetamine use (often the cause of violent activities), he set up his own special garden space beyond our main one. And the over-indulgence in alcohol and forbidden needle drugs (unlike at Brook Farm!) was a source of antagonism which could overshadow the pleasant or even joyous experience of taking in a sunset, observing the Northern Lights, making love—rather, there was the problem as I put it in the book of “separate egos all fighting for their moment in Allen’s sun.”
Nor did we spend considerable time engaged in philosophical and idealistic logical discussion, as I recall from my reading of The Blithedale Romance countless decades ago (though admittedly other complications were at work there too). But though we were secluded, as I recall Brook Farm was, we were fortunate in having good neighbors—Ed the Hermit, who lived in a tar paper shack forty yards up the hill, was virtually a guardian angel; the Graham family who ran a large dairy farm nearby were down-to-earth friendly (Daughter Charleen was a frequent visitor and became a correspondent upon going away to college.). And we seemed to be able to get along with the townspeople, the latter a concern that worried me given the great divide not only between generations but between urban centers and the provinces—all over issues such as our horrendous war and drug use among “wayward” young people. While (early on) a rich person in nearby Cooperstown was said to have circulated a petition aimed at preventing Allen from settling in the area, we felt generally welcomed by the people we came into contact with in town (at the Glensfoot dairy, an “old” family, one of whose members wrote for the New Yorker; the gas station-garage where we often brought broken-down vehicles, or called for help with one (ours or guests’) stuck in snow; or the drug store where the Greyhound stopped twice daily). Druggist Burt Crain was a quiet and seemingly amused man who maintained a considerable degree of tact in the face of outlandish behavior by Gregory and others. Out of the blue he once asked me as I sat at his counter drinking an ice cream soda, “Herbert Huncke is a drug addict, isn’t he?” It took me a split second to realize I trusted Crain: “Yes. How’d you know?” “Every time I see him get off the bus it looks like he doesn’t know how he’ll put his feet down.”
DC: Your academic career has given your life a center, and no doubt enabled many rewarding experiences in your life as an adventurous intellectual, but many feel that the academic life can also be a constraining influence on full pursuit of one’s true career interests. Please comment.
GB: Yes, like so many things it works both (or multiple) ways. In my introduction to Dark Music I right off refer to “a sudden change from the academic grind”—a few days at the Eastern Shore—as opening up new experiences internal and external that led to that small book, Kathleen’s favorite. I like the stimulation of teaching, the daily surprises that are part of it, the mixing-it-up with others. At VMI I enjoyed the cadets, who could sometimes astonish me. And for much of my work (scholarly and creative) for over two dozen years I’m indebted to the Institute’s research funding which made it possible to carry it out and present it—and that often involved travel and its expenses. Moreover, whenever I go on such trips I’m typically up to something else as well—recording thoughts and events in written diary, bopping down the streets, foreign or domestic, small camera in hand or sport coat pocket. These “something elses” become the seedbed for further material that goes into books or photography exhibits or films. And I don’t need to limit my discussion to getting away from academia: “Cadets Read Howl” was shot not in Athens, Topeka, or Duluth—but at the Institute, which made it possible for Allen to be there.
Be there for close to a whole week, 1991! And there were numerous other speakers I was able to bring to the “post” (not properly a “campus”)—Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Lesley Wheeler, Bill Morgan, Hilary Holladay, Claudia Emerson, William R. Trotter, Bill Ferris, Rod Smith, John Leland, William R. Trotter, Sarah Kennedy, Tom Whiteside, Anne Waldman, others—many of them for a Poetry Symposium I ran, with dozens of students from around the state joining cadets to read and discuss poetry.
Of course, to fully answer the question I have to deal with the other part of “both ways.” At the celebration of Allen at Naropa 1994, several of us were relaxing between sessions at his apartment when Antler asked me “How can you possibly teach at a military school?” Whereupon Allen interjected, “Oh ho! Wait till you grow up and have to get a job!” It’s true that I entered graduate school because at a certain point in life I didn’t know what else to do, and I think I thought I could make my own way through the profession. But in early experiences as a professor I discovered there can be as much venality in higher education as in other walks of life. I suppose there may actually be some ivory tower places where one is protected from the mundane and worse realities of life, but I’ve never come close to haunting the halls of such institutions. The common “grind,” I would presume at many schools can involve a large number of courses, students, committee assignments, etc., and the perpetual bugaboo of too little time. But of course, VMI has its own peculiarities: twice I watched its Superintendent (equivalent to President) tell incoming faculty “We are not a college; we are a military institute”—and yet would see the Institute boast of its rankings in annual national surveys of colleges, and prepare for reaccreditation by college accreditation agencies. There was a hierarchy that became more clearly defined in my 26 years there—I’d gone from initially seeing VMI as a sort of military theme park school, to one which, especially after 9/11, became militarily intensified. There were many good programs at VMI, but in terms of a number of us in the liberal arts, at least, the hierarchy favored the military and athletics over academics. One proof in the pudding was the occasion in which it was suddenly announced that the entire corps of cadets would be required to attend a given sports event the next day—at precisely the same time as one of our Poetry Symposium events.
Of course, the most obvious manifestation of this hierarchy—visually speaking, at least—was the requirement that all fulltime faculty teach in uniform. Since before getting my teaching position I’d had an interview visit to VMI and recognized the environment (the architecture) as similar to that of US armed forces compounds in Occupied Tokyo I knew as a child, and had seen faculty that included a couple of friends whom I knew at Chapel Hill, I didn’t consider my new choiceless clothing an impossible obstacle. Much of the time I didn’t give it that much thought, and after all there were countless such quiddities that contributed to the camaraderie my colleagues and I could “enjoy” through laughter. But there were moments when the wearing of the uniform struck home—for example: Once during W. Bush’s Iraq War I was out somewhere in public, in uniform, and someone came up to me and said very earnestly, “I want to thank you for all you’re doing over there.”
In any case, over time, increasingly for some of us, academic edicts tended to come top-down. I taught one more year, retired, and was grateful that such a distinguished school as Washington and Lee could take me on part-time.
One of the joys of teaching is of course watching young people think, imagine, grow. And seeing it happen at VMI, where cadets are told what to do day in and day out by loud speakers in the barracks where they must live—can be especially rewarding for their instructor. (When asked what teaching at VMI was like, I’d sometimes quote Trungpa’s characterization of enlightenment, “Honey on a razor.”) Studying The Dharma Bums in my Literature of the Beat Generation class, we would (as now at W&L) spend a few minutes meditating together, so cadets could have some first-hand experience, however slight, of one of the things they’re reading about. Student written comments that followed, such as these two, suggest the intellectual and imaginative activity triggered in their minds:
Meditation, if taken seriously, brings immense relaxation and a heightened sense of awareness about one's surroundings. I was aware of cars traveling across the wet road behind me, the buzzing of the lights, people talking in the distance; muted by the closed door. The room became unnaturally quiet and it felt strange just to hear mostly nothingness—kind of like the empty space in a Japanese picture.
As I meditated I was made aware of the countless things occurring around the world at the same time. When cars passed by, I was in the back seat, when the phone rang I saw it, when I heard a crow crow I saw it flying. I heard pounding, I saw men in dusty work clothes doing construction on a roof; when I heard voices outside, I saw the source. I was simply made aware of the distant march of time and existence, that it is rhythmic and forever; I am a part of a long line of existence, of eternity. I thought of how I am small, short, fragment, tiny, unknown, and in the future, forgotten. Like the pounding, the ringing, the crowing, the talking, the driving, I too will cease.
For the last four and a half years I’ve had the privilege of being at W&L. In so doing,
I’ve found remarkably intelligent students and virtually none of the hierarchical
dissonance I knew at VMI.The Special Collections of W&L’s Leyburn library is
digitizing 2,500 photographs which I’m presently cataloging: not only my Ginsberg
& Beat Fellows but a great many more by my father and grandfather going back over
a hundred years—from the banks of the Ohio to Shanghai to Peking (Beijing) to
Canton (Guangzhou) —all the way up to World War II prison camp.
Here in Lexington the two schools are cheek by jowl. I sometimes think of Athens and
DC: Your keynote address, “Beat Meets East,” for the “International Conference on Literature in the Age of Spontaneity” via the good offices of Sichuan University in Chengdu (June 4, 2004) involved a key moment of clarifying the influence of China and the east in the growth of poetic traditions in the west. Eventually, some of the Chinese scholars who made connections at that conference would be influential in the translation of the “postbeat” poets of our generation, though the initial project was making translations of Kerouac and Ginsberg available to Chinese poets. One comment from your speech which really stood out was the thought that Allen Ginsberg’s contact with the work of Bai Juyi “suggests that the Western ‘discovery’ of the wealth of one of the oldest civilizations is not confined to history, but remains ongoing.” Your analysis of how Bai’s work influenced and contributed to the perceptiveness of Allen’s late masterpiece, “Reading Bai Juyi,” show this in detail. Please comment on Allen’s open fascination with other cultures, other poetries, and the importance of this sort of “roots building” and “cross-cultural pollination” in the development of a broader cultural sensitivity and growth in a poet’s work.
GB: I’m grateful for your extremely generous comments on my “Beat Meets East.” In another presentation I made at New York University’s Beat Legacy conference, May 1994 on Howl and its influences—“Allen Ginsberg: A One-Man Generation,”* I spoke of the ability of the Beats “to absorb the form and vitality of many different literary and aesthetic traditions, and cited Henry James’s “Be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” in relation to it. I discussed a representative (I hope) range of influences (or, the great variety of “presences”) in this densely populated poem that includes Kerouac, haiku (the wonderful four-volume anthology of R. H. Blyth), Cezanne, Blake, Smart, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Mayakovsky, Herbert Huncke, Whitman, and Herman Melville. All of them seem to be wishing their speaker well, as he gives them voice anew—his “lost battalion of platonic conversationalists” is cheering him on! What we call “The Annotated Howl” (Howl: Original Draft Facsimile…) elaborates on such influences and others, including Apollinaire, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane. And in the poem’s first six lines alone, we encounter, following the introduction of the “best minds of
my generation,” references to African-Americans, drugs, jazz, Islam, Arkansas, Blake, and the Cold War.
Such richness of influence and reference is something we might associate with the rise of Modernism, with Eliot and Pound. Eliot’s “cross-pollination” or borrowing was such that, as one critic asserted, he couldn’t write three straight lines of his own. More importantly, The Waste Land (in certain ways analogous to its offspring jeremiad Howl) draws on traditions, works, and authors as rich as Greek and Roman classics, the Old Testament, Shakespeare, Milton, Tarot cards, Buddhism, Oliver Goldsmith, Saint Augustine, the Upanishads, King Arthur, Andrew Marvell, and Hermann Hesse. Didn’t Pound, who would mix American vernacular with ancient elegance (e.g., old English, Chinese, Homer) propose that to be a poet one must know seven languages?
*Footnote: Published in 2006 as “Wopbopgooglemop: `Howl’ and Its Influences” in The Poem that Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later, edited by Jason Shinder.
During Allen’s stay in Australia 1972, he invited Aborigine song men, poets, onstage to participate in his reading, and they did so keeping time with their Yerkallah song sticks. Back in the U.S. he would introduce the song sticks as “the oldest form of human poetics” and perform his “Ayers Rock/Uluru Song” and other pieces using them. He seemed captivated by his understanding of the Aborigines’ “Eternal Dream Time”—the entire encyclopedic body of knowledge contained in poetry. And in appreciating Aborigines in 1972—they were looked down upon—he was crossing barriers or resolving differences, as he does (to pick one of innumerable examples) in the next-to-last line of the first part of Howl, which unifies African-American, Jewish, and Christian traditions. Finally, we might note the significance of his peers as literary “sacred companions” to Ginsberg, who once said, “my measure at the time was the sense of personal genius and acceptance of all strangeness in people as their nobility.” Consider Neal Cassady, conman and hustler with little formal education: can you imagine the Beats’ counterparts in those early days, the Confessional poets, granting him their cachet? Being sparked by him, taking him into their fold, their psyche, their genius?
DC: It should be noted that your scholarly connection to the arts has resulted in some deeply pointed and carefully conceived advocacy and studies. For example, you nominated Dylan for Nobel Prize 13 different times, and you have done academic studies and reviews of Allen, Reznikoff, and Dylan, among others. Feel free to speak of your way of focusing essays and studies on any or all of these. I of course am quite particular to the work of Charles Reznikoff, and would very much appreciate your perceptions of what attracted you to him what roles he may serve in your personal sense of poetics.
GB: David, I’m not nearly as well-versed in Reznikoff (or, possibly, Williams too) as you—so with that major qualification, here goes. And let me first say how I appreciate all you’ve done regarding Reznikoff.
Perhaps Allen has said it best; he once called Reznikoff “the least `poetic’” of poets; his work, like Whitman urged, conforms to, spiritually or materially, the “perfect facts of the open air.” In a way, its humbleness of imagery and method is a supreme demonstration of the imagination: we all know poetry can call upon an almost unlimited number of rhetorical devices, of what Whitman may have had in mind with his phrase “gaggery and gilt,” but can it have effect when denuded of them? Reznikoff’s humble treatment of humble subjects has nothing to lose: it functions like Williams’s
in which shine
pieces of a green
Williams and Reznikoff alike depicted the lives of urban immigrants, though Reznikoff can seem to have a greater presence within such lives. Allen, I want to think under the influence in part of Reznikoff, is unmatched in his magnificent “White Shroud” depictions, but for Ginsberg subject and execution in many other works can be considerably more diverse. Finally, for me, it (Reznikoff’s “understated poetics,” let’s say) is, if I may use a personal example, as Reynolds Price said generously of an early piece of mine, “close to the marrow of human experience.”
In nominating Dylan for the Nobel I was eager that he win it because, studying Nobel statutes and practices, and the nature of poetry, I was convinced that he deserved it. Also, I wanted to expand the general sense of what poetry is. Poetry is fundamentally an oral art, having been around much longer than movable type or virtually any kind of writing; and poetry and music have been historically linked, with the line between them sometimes tenuous at best (as Dylan’s own contradictory statements on whether his words/poetry or music/melody are more important suggest). Some scholars propose that Homer may have composed his work orally, and may have accompanied himself on the lyre as he intoned or sang. I adopted this perspective in letters to the Nobel Committee (The one time I received a response it was “Thank you for your letter.”) and was pleased that in her interview following her announcement of the prize, Nobel’s Permanent Secretary Sara Danius made reference to Homer (and Sappho, as well). Certainly the content of Dylan’s work demonstrates, to use one of many pertinent historic criteria of the Nobel, “uncompromising integrity in the description of the human predicament.” My essay “A Nobel for Dylan?” in The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (edited by Charlotte Pence) delves into the course that my nomination took.
Allen, I might add, also nominated Dylan for the Nobel, and it was thanks to him that the orality of poetry came alive for me. Not until I was with him on the farm did that happen. I was not an astute (and am not still) reader of/listener to poetry. My college experience with it had been largely responding verbally to verbalisms resting flat on a page. (A significant exception came, on my own, as I read Leaves of Grass as Whitman suggested, outside in the open air.) With Allen’s declamatory delivery, poetry drew breath right in front of me; even Howl, which initially I hadn’t been sure how to respond to, came suddenly to full-bodied life. And I had the privilege of watching him compose, over nearly three years, music to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, and create songs of his own. His timeless “September on Jessore Road” came shortly after I left the farm, but while there I could witness how poetry can respond to an apocalyptic historic event (the Democratic convention of 1968). And, as I wrote in East Hill Farm, “one could hear his baritone tremolo intone the `Introduction’ to Songs of Experience” and “be shaken by the recognition that ‘Bard’ was equally Blake and Ginsberg:
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees.
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew...
Or, perhaps Kerouac said it best in The Dharma Bums, as he depicted how Allen (Alvah Goldbook) “wailed” the first part of Howl, “drunk with arms outspread” as “everybody was yelling `Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session)….”
DC: Jim Cohn mentioned your postcard of cadets reading Howl as inspiration, keeping it in his office at CU Disability Services “for my own motivation & perseverance” as well as to show students how a poem can influence those one would think would never be influenced by poetry. This gave me pause, considering the current controversy in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where the school board had to apologize for a teacher’s decision to teach it in high school classes, where some students saw it as “pornography” and, according to Jeremy Dys, an attorney for First Liberty, inappropriate in the age of “Me too. ”Please give your perspective on how such art might influence those in the military, as well as those trapped in sexually repressive cultures. Might Howl open doors for students in this age?
Side note: link to story on Howl at Steamboat Springs that Peter Hale posted in Our Allen Facebook page: https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/northwestern-colorado/steamboat-springs-school-district-apologizes-for-teaching-sexually-graphic-poem-to-teens?fbclid=IwAR1CgwZ_N-chEMntQgOQfn1ZONpFYRwlw5mY2fjO1nYriuwGp89oeEbqXls
GB: I’m honored by Jim’s regard for my photo and wish I could testify as to its influence on the group of “Rats” (first-year cadets not yet part of the corps) enrolled in a composition course where they were required to read it. Actually, Allen was teaching the poem, down at the end of the seminar table, as part of his 1991 VMI visit. I’ve been amazed by the range of reactions to the shot, which seem like those elicited by a Rorschach.
Ironically, in The Annotated Howl Allen wrote that with the publication of the poem, in addition to its serving as “an emotional time bomb” “in case our military-industrial- nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy,” he “thought to disseminate a poem so strong that a clean Saxon four-letter word might enter high school anthologies permanently and deflate tendencies toward authoritarian strong-arming….”
In the Steamboat Springs high school case, if my understanding’s accurate, students were not given any sort of effective introduction to the poem, and used a version (in a high school text book?) in which the “obscene” terms (in a poem judged legally “not obscene”), astonishingly, appeared as blanks. The instructor read aloud the whole poem (or a portion of it?), then made his students fill in the blanks. (Again, this is according to my limited understanding.)
The first sentence of my current syllabus for the Literature of the Beat Generation at Washington and Lee reads that it is “A study of a revolutionary literary movement, focusing on the ways in which cultural and historical context have influenced the composition of and response to literature in the United States.”
When we study the poem, we also read a variety of pertinent documents, including Allen’s “Notes for Howl,” explaining his writing of it; a copy of his notes for the Moloch section identifying personal, historic, and literary backgrounds to specific words and phrases, accompanied by an excerpt from Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech in which he introduces the term “Military Industrial Complex” and warns about the circumstances to which it refers; and the “Legal History of Howl” from
Because poetry’s fundamentally an oral art, and also because so much of this extraordinary poem especially depends upon its auditory impact, we read it (including, of course the “Footnote”) out loud, three lines apiece, with each reader encouraged to raise any questions, make any comments. As is a given whenever we read aloud from any works, no one has to read any words or phrases they don’t want to. I began teaching Howl in college classrooms forty years ago, and as I recall no one has opted out of a word or phrase—whether at the University of North Carolina, Old Dominion University, VMI, or Washington and Lee. Then we listen to Allen—such a powerful reader, needless to say, declaiming it as recorded at Chicago 1959 (with “Footnote,” the poem’s benediction, recorded later in a studio). This is available on the Fantasy CD, Howl and Other Poems, and is a more effective reading on Allen’s part than the March 1956 one on his Rhino CD, Holy Soul Jelly Roll.
It would be my hope that some of the above might be helpful in teaching the poem in high school. Blanking out words eviscerates; insults poem, poetry, poet, and reader; and arouses undue attention to censored words and phrases.
As for teaching the poem in a military environment, I can’t report any Road to Damascus illuminations, though I’ve known of graduates who served in the Peace Corps (and may well have been affected by the poem). And one former cadet—Professor Bradley Coleman, a graduate of the course, later became Director of VMI’s John A. Adams Center for Military and Strategic Analysis and in my last year there invited me to give a lecture on the Beat Generation and the Cold War at the George Marshall Museum. (I was gratified by the invitation and considered the presentation my Valedictory.) Around the time of H. W. Bush’s ground war in Iraq, a cadet who’d taken the class told me “I don’t know whether I want to be Norman Schwarzkopf or Jack Kerouac.” As for the poem’s effectiveness in repressive cultures, I believe that the King of May and his works may have given needed hope for change in East Europe. In my essay in Jason Shinder’s valuable anthology, I cite a Polish student who wrote that Ginsberg’s poetry “created a little world of freedom for me.”
So finally, in regard to teaching Howl, let me quote from Schindler in Schindler’s List: “Presentation is all.” It’s built for the centuries, but sometimes it sure can make a difference as to how it’s offered.