Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs talk about their writing
BROADCAST: Mar. 11, 1975 | DURATION: 00:40:10
Writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs discuss life and their writing; passages from their writing are read by the authors and clip is played of interview with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Two of the most creative and vital spirits in the American literary scene today are Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. They represent to some people a certain epoch in our society, a certain era, and they represent a good deal that is now, too. They're in Chicago at the moment, both together, and Friday night, they're doing a reading of their works, the prose poems and poetry. William Burroughs and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Mr. Ginsberg, you know, won the National Book Award last year for "The Fall of America", and is known for his two powerful works, "Howl" and "Kaddish", among his many other works.
Studs Terkel It's at 8 p.m., better get that straight. That's Friday night. William Burroughs, known best for his very powerful and innovative novel, "The Naked Lunch", also known for "The Soft Machine" and "Nova Express" and we think of him both as a novelist and poet,
William Burroughs Yes.
Studs Terkel And after this message, we'll hear from our two guests, and there'll be a rather interesting introduction. In a moment. Un momento. [pause in recording] The occasion in which I last ran into Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs was an interesting one. It was Chicago 1968 August, immediately a memory and experience is evoked on the part of the listeners. It was the Democratic convention, and it was a very beautiful August evening, and it was in Lincoln Park, and when young people gathered to speak and young clergy were sponsoring it, and there were also, without my knowing it at the moment, Bill Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Suppose we recreate the scene through the words and memories, the day after the event is what you'll hear. James Cameron, British journalist and myself are scattered now. The tear gas came by 11 o'clock at night. The tear gas came. The police
Studs Terkel Had had carried a rude wooden cross and put it up, and the uniformed figures from the distance came, that is, the trucks came, and the canisters of tear gas. Everybody stumbled, and we found ourselves, and James Cameron and myself pick it up. [Different interview fades in] We found ourselves in the lobby of the Midland Hotel to escape the noxious gas that was, by the way, now by this time all over the street, and there were a great many, now here came this motley band in the lobby of a hotel Near North that, in which live oh, the Near-North-siders, the members of the half world, petty gamblers, wide variety of things, guys who live as best they can,
Studs Terkel In the lobby of course were also Allen Ginsberg, who had lost his voice singing mantras, and as one young guy says, "Tell him. That you'll be with him, since he lost his voice, just to say, 'Om,' and not 'ung' to save his voice," and there was Terry Southern and William Burroughs of "The Naked Lunch", and Jean Genet was there. And this was some lobby, all were there, and
Studs Terkel The interesting was Jean Genet, watching, not knowing English, with his interpreter, who was just watching it with the eyes of a child, almost. Noticed him there. I was furious 'cause I had just started to smoke my cigar when the -- I had this nice 15-cent cigar and I started to smo-- I thought the cigar could be my psychological weapon. Just hold a cigar. But, when the noxious fumes came nothing, and I lost that cigar. I'm furious. It was a good one, I just had a couple of good puffs out of it, but there we were in the lobby. Now, why don't you pick up the lobby scene?
James Cameron Well, it was as you say, a completely mixed-up sort of crowd, including these half-dozen really quite celebrated young writers of the left, and what I noticed particularly was across the lobby in the middle of all this extraordinary scene of confusion, with people retching and coughing and blowing their noses, a large tourist sign saying "Six Good Reasons for Visiting Chicago", and it seemed to
Allen Ginsberg Well, a poem I wrote the very next day, which was August 28th after getting tear-gassed again in Grant Park because what happened was David Dillinger had led that pacifist march, which was stopped by the police. And then tear gas came down after, after the march broke up. So I was sitting in Grant Park after the melee. [pause in recording] I wrote that in Grant Park, still coughing.
Allen Ginsberg A few other things I remember. What I was doing, we were all sitting on a little knoll overlooking that cross, thinking, "Well, there's a certain strength and how marvelous, There's all these rabbis and priests out there raising up a cross against the violence," and all of a sudden, an unbelievable like [Burroughs'?] image of like a 1917 World War I movie with the tear gas moving across the field, slowly covering up the cross! And so remember Bill and I and Jean Genet held hands and slowly walked out of the park, and I think I was chanting in -- what I was chanting at the time was Om, which uh, since probably very few people at the time ever get to, got to hear it, and since Judge Hoffman wouldn't let me reproduce it properly in the courtroom trial
Allen Ginsberg Well, the situation was that I was a witness for the defense to say that we were trying to do some nice peaceful things, too, like organized community chanting rather than fighting back. So Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler, the defense lawyers, put me on the stand and asked me to chant "Hare Krishna" and to chant "Om" to Judge Hoffman and the jury to demonstrate exactly what the vibe was we were trying to send out. So Hoffman wouldn't let me play my little harmonium, which is a little pump organ. You can put -- sit on your lap with a pump in it and a keyboard, because he said that, "Well, you can only -- in American courtrooms you can only testify in English," forgetting that he was using Latin also. So what it was that I was trying to
Allen Ginsberg Well, it sets up a very definite vibe of a certain calming the scene, particularly if you can get a mob to be chanting, though I -- my great mistake that, that convention, which I corrected at the 1972 Miami tear gas convention, was shifting the mantra from "Om," which was relatively alien and foreign as a sound to something more American. A single word mantra, "Ah." So you can do, "Ahhhhh," or "Ah"
Allen Ginsberg "Ah" is a sort of a purification of speech and appreciation of the space. "Om" is too enclosed, you sort of close the eye and do mystical, "Ah" is open and sort of like open-eyed, and everybody can say, "Ah."
Studs Terkel Since Allen has brought up the subject of mantras and the harmonium, there's an early British and later American instrument -- The idea of many cultures are involved, the impact of the East upon Western technology has also had an impact on your writings, hasn't it, Bill? And Allen,
Studs Terkel Could I ask this question of Bill Burroughs? What is that led you? This is a tough one. Bill Burroughs of St. Louis, of a rather wealthy background, IBM, yourself, led you not somebody's writing but to that area, to the North African quote unquote exotic area, away from what could be a much more conventional life.
William Burroughs Well, the conventional life was actually not all that available to me. I graduated from Harvard during the Depression and when a Harvard degree meant very little. And while my grandfather was the inventor of the adding machine, my family got almost nothing out of it, so we were -- could never have been described as wealthy. And, um, by the time I went to North Africa, I'd already written this book "Junkie", and had the experiences that are described in there, and I was more or less should we -- can say, committed to writing. And I had read Paul Bowles' books about Tangier, and it sounded like a very fascinating place, and I must say it fully lived up to expectations when I got there.
Studs Terkel Wow. Aren't we talking now about the connection, remember the play of Jack Gelber -- we're talking about everybody has a connection. Nobody has an addiction with religion. When you say power. Power, of course, is the, perhaps the most powerful of all addictions.
William Burroughs Well, remember, the effect of opiates is to sort of encase you, to cover you, to protect you, and exactly the same power and money do exactly the same thing. And if that cover is withdrawn, then you're, you have the withdrawal symptoms, the extreme sensitivity.
Allen Ginsberg So I think more listening to Bill read at Northwestern University last night, I get more and more struck with a central metaphor of his work, which is that as he himself underwent the withdrawal symptoms from opium addiction and went through the psychological transformation to get clean, de-addicting himself, he also got a tremendous amount of insight into the very basic mechanisms of addiction in American society. And that's the central metaphor of most of his work through "Exterminator" and "Wild Boy" [sic]. Do you have any passages that you could read during the program, sometimes that could exemplify that at all?
Allen Ginsberg Uh, and then there's a further metaphor that the police, like the Drug Enforcement Agency, such as the people that are now attacking Hugh Hefner, are precisely addicted like junkies to power, and to their power over other people in their power to, to create paranoia in other people and to dominate other people. As like
William Burroughs And also it's true with power, that the more you exercise, power addiction there's the, the deeper you get into it, the more difficult it becomes to get out of it because you would be exposed to all the bad karma that you build up.
Studs Terkel In our very city, in our city at this moment, Richard J. Daley, perhaps is a, if there were a flesh and blood metaphor, is stroke, 72, but by God, he's gonna show 'em and of course he did, you see.
Studs Terkel No matter WHAT, you see, the city could be destroyed, doesn't matter. It's this addiction toward power is perhaps the most -- you said will it sell, of course selling, too. We think of a TV commercial of course, I guess the most pervasive single phenomenon visually of our life.
Studs Terkel Well, just as Bill Burroughs is haunted and is so eloquent and creative in describing addiction and power, before that, you, yourself and on your case, similar [row?] and yet from Patterson to different parts of the world and listening to the harmonium and Om, I suppose am I assuming your attempt to overlay it with a certain peaceful -- that is, to make it non-aggressive, to make life
Allen Ginsberg You know, Bill and I have known each other 30 years or more. Bill was my first guru, so to speak, or one of my first teachers, both literarily and psychologically. We met in 1944, Christmas in New York, and my intellectual development was really supervised by him when I was in school. And then he was in, so to speak, exile for many years in Europe. And I was holding forth here in Chicago but bearing a good deal of his basic ideas in mind because he influenced my development, and one of the first things he taught me was to de-addict myself from language, that language itself was an addiction, and that we were all addicted to a ticker-tape repetition of conditioned concepts and words running through our heads, determining our thoughts, feelings and apparent sensory impressions even, so that I branched out into the study of Buddhism and mantra as sort of applications of examination of my own consciousness and clarification and cleaning up of my unconsciousness. So I practice silence or practice mantra as a way of blanking out, like "Om" sort of or "Ah" purifies the speech, because it's like a white sound that turns off all the other chattering and leaves an empty space to appreciate.
William Burroughs Well, it's to be remembered that, um, sound, words are actual painkillers, that they can, dentists can operate, and even minor surgery can be performed just with music through headphones.
Allen Ginsberg Right.
William Burroughs When
Allen Ginsberg I remember "The Selling of the President", the selling of the concepts and images say of Nixon, or the role of the mass media in selling images and words to the public but that's Bill's [unintelligible]
Studs Terkel So that's interesting -- who, who sells the language, who conditions you to think or use a certain phrase? And so this is interesting, language as junk. And so, in a way, Bill Burroughs played a role in de-addicting you from the use of what might be considered banal language or the accepted traditional language which is junk.
Studs Terkel Conditioned,
Studs Terkel I was thinking, since you two speak of, you speak of early meeting, when Allen Ginsberg was here for "The Big Table", Paul Carroll's "Big Table" under attack by the, by the Comstocks of our day.
Allen Ginsberg Precisely.
Allen Ginsberg Right.
Allen Ginsberg Peter
Allen Ginsberg Or
Studs Terkel Oh,
William Burroughs And that led, that led directly to the publication of the, of the novel in, by Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press in Paris in 1959. That is, he heard about this case, and that aroused
Allen Ginsberg Immense.
Allen Ginsberg And the reason that Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso and myself came here was to give a big reading to raise money to publish the work under the title "Big Table" magazine when "Chicago Review" wouldn't publish
Allen Ginsberg Completely part of an old continuity that goes back from '59, it goes up to '68 to a tear gas-filled lobby in Lincoln Park when we were still chanting "Om" and trying to get our language across.
Studs Terkel Fifty-nine, this was the phrase, we'll ask about Bill Burroughs' contribution to this movement. Beat Generation was just new at the time, it had come into being, and we're hear Allen describing it in contrast to the previous so called "Lost Generation." We hear this, this is
Allen Ginsberg Let's hear what I said. [pause in recording] Saying, well, if the other generation was a lost generation, what would people be naming this generation? But it was just like a goofy conversation. It wasn't a big, serious, formal, let us now give a formal name to a generation as if there is such a thing as a generation.
Allen Ginsberg Well, it's a label that's been picked up, but it is, it's a, it's actually quite a beautiful label. In a way. It's poetically interesting. The remark is interesting. Kerouac said, "Well, this then would be a beat generation, let's say I, everybody's beat. everybody's sort of worn down to a point where they'll be able to receive God.
Allen Ginsberg Naked?
Studs Terkel Peter.
Studs Terkel And then it became a rather wild and very, very funny conversation. And the poetry came in, and Allen ended by saying, we asked about definitions of various things, and you were saying "Death is a letter that was never sent."
Allen Ginsberg Yes. Actually, I was quoting a line of a poem that I'd written, saying, "Death is a letter that was never sent." And I think Gregory said "Fried Shoes" as a definition of poetry, and, you know, very odd thing, that was, this conversation and other conversations of that time was picked up by the, by "Time" magazine and sprayed around America, what was somewhat ugly version of the conversations, which was actually quite charming, as we hear it now, but unconsciously, it penetrated to a lot of young people, and 10 years later, in a conversation with Bob Dylan, he told me that reports of these conversations that he'd read turned him on when in and where he was in his little home
Studs Terkel Come again, don't we, to something here, Bill, I get, I said, I use the word continuity earlier, that, a flow, that is, there is a flow, whether some trying to stem it or not, it continues. It goes on.
William Burroughs Yes, even by trying to stem it they often, particularly of course the media is very double-edged. That is "Time" was allegedly very opposed to us, but certainly they did a lot to, uh, to spread these concepts.
Allen Ginsberg I said in that conversation, uh, beat down in the sense of dark night of the soul, but then also opening the soul to receive God, which was my sort of crude terminology of those days. I would probably say now, leaving the soul open to the great spacious, uh, emptiness that we share.
Allen Ginsberg Fifty-four?
William Burroughs That, I was here for about -- or rather in New York for several months at that time, and then I was out of the country while all this was going on while the reading started in the Village in New York.
Studs Terkel That was in all, that was again 1959. By the way, the influence of Allen Ginsberg and Bill Burroughs is not simply American. It's because there you were in different countries and there were tremendous events in which you took part in other countries.
Allen Ginsberg Occasionally, yeah, that I was involved with -- in Prague in 1965 on May Day, with a, during a time of thaw before the Russian tanks rolled in, simultaneous with the tear gas in Chicago in '68. There was a thaw in Chicago -- in Chicago? In Prague.
Allen Ginsberg Well, the same things happening, like the student rebellions and the tanks rolling in. But I was part of like a student demonstration on May Day 1965 in Prague where I was elected the May King. They hadn't had those May King central European elections, which is an old traditional thing, since the Nazi times, and then since the Communist times, and it was a thaw, and I was in Prague and so got elected, and got involved with several rock 'n' roll spiritual empire and then expelled from Prague by the Communists, as I'd just been expelled from Cuba several months earlier, um, and then wound up in London seeing Bill, at big Parties with Bill and Mick Jagger and the Beatles in the mid-sixties in London.
William Burroughs Well,
Studs Terkel Before that, let's take a slight pause here for what is known as the message and then we'll return with a -- and also perhaps asking Allen, or Bill, particularly Allen, about art is work and life itself, and indeed politics, too. So we'll return in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, who are participating this Friday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art in a reading. They've been here for several days, and I'm sure [unintelligible].
Allen Ginsberg Right.
William Burroughs Yes.
Studs Terkel It'll be -- I know what an exhilarating evening, it has to be that. You were saying about readings. Bill, is there something, Allen was saying something earlier that there was something in "Naked Lunch" or another of your writings that appropriate for [lunchtime?] really.
Allen Ginsberg When I first met Bill in New York, he'd just come from Chicago where -- I'd never met a literary person who had actually been working, you know, like anonymously in some far city suffering the pangs of unrecognized ego working in like a trade like extermination. It was sort of almost a Shakespearean notion. We were all reading Jean Genet, or "Celine", [unintelligible] "Celine" "Journey"
William Burroughs Exactly.
Allen Ginsberg We're gonna settle the wars, so [don't tell 'em?] protest." So I was flying to Chicago to sort of meet Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis and look over the things and talk with City Hall and see if we could get a permit to go to Lincoln Park.
Studs Terkel Because you, I guess you have the possibility of horror, there's always the antic aspect, there's always a comic aspect. This is also one of the -- attributes of Allen Ginsburg's writing, isn't it, Bill?
Allen Ginsberg What I was thinking was, Senator's -- Jackson's recent investigation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in which he said that the Drug Enforcement Agency itself was so involved in corruption that they had blocked an investigation into Robert Vesco's heroin operations, as were alleged.
Allen Ginsberg Exactly.
Allen Ginsberg Yes.
Studs Terkel And
Allen Ginsberg That, see the point is that the Drug Enforcement Administration now has swollen its addiction to power and money to $110 million budget a year. Is this vast bureaucracy now dependent on junk.
Studs Terkel But what's so funny [you've got?] the great [humor?] drug addiction, you watch the TV commercials, and you're watching all those patent medicines, and you're watching all those drugs that are illegal, you know, [compose you know?] that just, to take care of colds and headaches and constipation
William Burroughs Yes.
Allen Ginsberg Well drugs, but then also alcohol, then also cigarettes, but then also automobiles and also oil and also energy consumption, the whole addiction to the material growth economy. In fact, you could even finally see capitalists growth economy notions as a sign of a oil burner habit.
William Burroughs Yeah, I was coming way back to the beginning of this conversation. About an hour ago, almost, the matter of Bill's metaphor of the addiction, every aspect of our lives. Power addiction. Even as you were think, I'm thinking of one more you could add there, sports watching addiction primarily by the males of the American population.
Allen Ginsberg The
William Burroughs Empty.
Allen Ginsberg Willingness to observe the vastness, the spaciousness and the emptiness of the place where we all are together. Uh, with our habits, which fill up this emptiness with microphones, radios, complaints, voices screaming, voices demanding, voices wanting, voices
Studs Terkel Rejecting.
Allen Ginsberg Rejecting, uh, voices babbling and insisting, aggression. Uh, aggression materialize into automobiles. Aggression materialized into billions of dollars, $100 billion worth of Pentagon hardware heavy metal. So it's the willingness to like empty out the mind and to exist without a matter habit, so to speak, just short putting it in short form.
Allen Ginsberg With
Studs Terkel With meditation, with also participation. Was there are you, Allen Ginsberg taking part, there you were, not accidentally, with Bill Burroughs, even though you weren't on assignment from "Esquire", you'd have been there anyway in Lincoln Park, '68, or in Prague that day.
William Burroughs Well, I think it's very much the same as yours, Allen, is the emptying, emptying of the mind, the ability to look at the whole situation without saying anything about it, compulsively, either in protest or in agreement. And this, as we know it is very difficult to do. And ah, Buddhism, meditation is one way of achieving this.
Studs Terkel That's
William Burroughs That it is useful to use scientific discoveries since we have them. There's biofeedback, which enables you to know when you are, when there are alpha waves, the waves of relaxation, and and, um, alert receptiveness are in your mind. And then then when you learn this, you can achieve it at will. That's one I think, very useful adjunct to achieving
Studs Terkel There was a practice that you were talking about in London a couple of years ago, when I visited, which was, um, imagining alternative opposite states of emotion, using words. Can you describe that
William Burroughs Well, I think that exercise is very much a yogic exercise, it's known as the opposites. That is, you imagine, um, say you imagine failure. Let yourself, let yourself experience failure. And then you imagine success, so that in a sense, failure then will tune in success. Or fear will tune in courage. If you really let the fear come in, and let it flow through you and out the other side, that is the beginning of courage, it's not trying to suppress fear that you have.
Studs Terkel You know, it's interesting. Allen asked you a moment ago, is there an American equivalent, an indigenous United States equivalent to what, to Buddhism or the, and you just did it. You see? He said we are addicted to the other dict-- success number one! And somehow, if you're not number one, you're through. You're incompetent. You're impotent, you're not number
Studs Terkel So now what, what, I, if I follow Bill using the opposite is, "Hey, wait a minute. Maybe if you fail in something, it does not mean you're dead. It merely means you're human." We may find that perhaps this may be what
Allen Ginsberg But what Bill was proposing was that we not be afraid to experience the sensation of being a failure, a total failure. Of being beat. Or and then and then also experience the sensation of total victory and go through a whole series of emotional oppositions, experiencing them both as objective experiences rather than being afraid of them.
Studs Terkel You know, after I tell the audience about again, reminding them of the Poetry Center, Museum of Contemporary Art where Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs will be reading and offering and indeed performing and participating. That's this Friday, eight o'clock and it's quite an experience, by the way, it'll be a very salubrious one for everybody, 237 East Ontario Street. You know, music is always good, and to end our conversation with -- you said instead of "Om" something like "Ah." So Bill Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Thank you very much.
Studs Terkel Ahhh-men.