Allen Ginsberg made several visits to Vancouver, notably in November of 1978 when he headlined two evenings in support of his friend Warren Tallman's Vancouver Poetry Centre and its 'defence' of Talonbooks. The former advertising scribe and author of Howl in the 1950s asked for a 'good vibe' audience for "lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us." He appeared at the PNE Gardens Auditorium on November 25, 1978 to spearhead Tallman's vision of seven evenings of readings to be held in 1979. Also in 1979, Allen Ginsberg was accompanied by musician Mike Beddoes during a performance at the Italian Cultural Centre.

Ginsberg returned to British Columbia in 1985. At the invitation of Rex Weyler, he led a poetry and meditation retreat at Hollyhock Farm on Cortes Island for a handful of participants that included Trevor Carolan, who recorded his memories and impressions of accompanying his mentor to Cortes Island in Giving Up Poetry: With Allen Ginsberg at Hollyhock (Banff Centre Press, 2001). An excerpt was reprinted in the collection entitled Off Beat (Printed Matter Press, 2009), edited by Hillel Wright, who recorded an interview with Ginsberg at Hollyhock on May 5, 1985, using a portable, reel-to-reel tape recorder from Vancouver Co-op Radio.

Also in 1985, Ginsberg performed with guitarist Gary Cramer of the venerable Vancouver group Brain Damage at Kitsilano High School. The concert is available on YouTube, as recorded by Lenore Herb. [The address is:]

While in Vancouver Ginsberg expressed some dismay that his droning and simple harmonium playing was not met with a recording contract from Columbia Records.

Allen Ginsberg last read poetry in Vancouver at the Italian Cultural Centre in October of 1989.

Born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, Ginsberg received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1948. The reading of Howl resulted in the arrest of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books, on obscenity charges, leading to Ginsberg's notoriety as a voice of the counter-culture. He died in April of 1997.

PHOTO: Vancouver, 1969

[BCBW 2010] "Famous Visitor"


Georgia Straight, Vol. 12, Issue 575, December 1-8, 1978

"Interview with Allen Ginsberg"

by Alan Twigg


Allen Ginsberg - The Great Fraternalist.

Descendent of Milton, Blake and Whitman....Lover, Best Man, then Pallbearer of Kerouac....Pallbearer of Olson....Confidante of William S. Burroughs...Rider on Ken Kesey's Magic Bus....Deliverer of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to 82 year old Ezra Pound in Italy music maker with Dylan and Lennon....Elected King of the may in Prague, then expelled from Czechoslovakia ...Expelled from Cuba for criticizing Castro's anti-gay policies...Teacher at Jack Kerouac's School of Disembodied Poetics...Fund raiser for Georgia Straight on numerous occasions...Leader of anti-Vietnam War initiatives...Lover of Men...Leader of anti-Nuclear Madness initiatives...Lover of Man.

The following interview was recorded and conducted by Alan Twigg in Vancouver, November 25, 1978.


It seems Ronald McDonald has a firm grip on the consciousness of North America these days. And it's getting worse.

Ginsberg: That's what (William) Burroughs says: you take a bad situation and it only gets worse and worse. But on the other hand, I don't see any cause to be totally depressed about it. It's just a lot of illusions. It's better to acknowledge them and make use of them. To work with it. Instead of resisting or being optimistic or pessimistic, why not just accept the mind as it presents itself?

AT: Like in the title poem to Mind Breaths?

Ginsberg: Yeh. Most of the poems in that book were written as by-products of simply sitting. The mind is consciousness, the breath is the vocalization of that consciousness. The title poem was written in '73 when I was sitting ten hours a day for weeks at a time in Teton Village (Colorado) with a whole group of Tibetan-style meditators. It was a set of thought forms which I reproduced as a mind trip...imagining my breath going all around the world, passing through places I'd been to, coming over my father's head in Paterson, New Jersey and back into the meditation room.

AT: As you get deeper into meditation, are your feelings about the political influences of art changing?

Ginsberg: No. I don't think art has anything to do with politics in its motive. The art that I practice is just intended to record my mind which might include politics. So there's gay material, or political material, or meditative material or autobiographical material, or spontaneous funk material. Whatever comes up. Politics just naturally comes up when you're living in the industrial revolution- degeneration of the United States.

AT: How would you approach writing a Howl for 1978?

Ginsberg: As a matter of fact, I started writing another little Howl last night. I've been ill with Bell's palsy and herpes and that depression has given a lot of insight. I realized I was suffering and everybody else was. Today there's an enormous amount of unrelieved suffering. There's inflation, deprivation of private relations... constant frustrations of machinery...the constant threat of plutonium poisoning. But you can work with that depression. You can work with that hopelessness. It can all lead to compassion.

AT: The way you talk, I get the impression you're becoming more of a teacher than a poet. Does that instructive role ever get in the way of your writing?

Ginsberg: Naw. That kind of material is too transitory and it isn't intense enough. If I've had a transition at all, it's been more into music.

AT: What happened to those songs you recorded with Dylan?

Ginsberg: I have them at home. I did another album in 1975 with David Mansfield who's with Dylan's orchestra now. But Columbia records wouldn't put it out because it was too dirty. Also it had CIA Dope Calypso on it. Carl Bernstein, in the Rolling Stone article on CIA penetration into the media, pointed out that William Paley, the head of CBS, had CIA associations. So the merchandizing people said they were afraid to play the record for Paley, lest they lose their jobs.

AT: How long have you known Dylan?

Ginsberg: Since 1963. He's the greatest orator I've ever heard. Like Milton or Blake. I say his new tour in Buffalo and I was astounded.

AT: And John Lennon? Do you still see him much?

Ginsberg: Yeh. I spoke to Yoko Ono about two weeks ago. They've been living in Japan. I've known him (Lennon) since '65. Dylan introduced us in London during the Don't Look Back period. Then about 1975 I saw him in New York and we were jamming together. He said he'd been lying around in bed with his earphones on, listening to the radio. He'd heard this guy reciting a poem and he thought it sounded like Dylan. Then they announced it was me reading Howl. ...He told me he always wondered what I did. So this recognition was charming because he had been so open and listening to me even though he hadn't known who I was.

AT: Do you see the current punk trend as an evolution out of the beatnik/hippie things?

Ginsberg: Yeh. I see punk as more or less a kind of 'kabuki'. (Japanese semi-illusionist theatre). That is, I don't think the punk people are as obsessed with their images as the press would say. There's a certain distance and art form involved in displaying punk aggression. There's a sort of playfulness in their S & M. It's healthy to acknowledge that area and the hopelessness. Like the Sex Pistols saying, 'No future for me, no future for you.'

AT: Are there punk artists you know or feel are important?

Ginsberg: Elvis Costello. And in the apartment I live in, there's Richard Hell who runs The Voidoids, a big punk band in New York. And Denise Mercedes-who's Peter Orlovsky's girlfriend-she lives with me. She has a heavy metal rock band of half girls and half boys called The Simulators.

There's a sort of funny cultural interchange happening now. We just had this big poetry benefit for the St Mark's Poetry Project. One night Patti Smith played. On the other three nights we had myself, Richard Hell and Elvis Costello. Plus there was Andre Vosnosensky, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman and John Giorno. Coming up there's a big Burroughs festival in New York at the end of the month. One evening we'll have me and John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ed Sanders, and Anne Waldman. Another evening we'll have Burroughs, Keith Richards, Patti Smith and Phillip Glass, Brion Gysin and John Giorno. And there's an afternoon conference with Susan Sontag, Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. Plus a lot of punk bands and plays.

AT: How's Burroughs holding up these days?

Ginsberg: He's at his peak. He's just finished his magnum opus of the 70's, a novel called Cities of the Red Night. It's about five hundred pages with a regular plot people can follow. It's taken him five years to do.

AT: You once said that when Burroughs kicked his habit, he kicked his identity habit. You wanna explain that?

Ginsberg: Yeh, most people have an identity habit they have to relate to. We all have a fixed sense of who we are which constantly gets interrupted by broken legs or divorces or car crashes or orgasms. (laughter) Extremes of pain or pleasure make you break through and realize you're not as solidified as permanent as you might have thought.

AT: What do you think of Burroughs' idea that sex is a form of junk, the consumption of which is encouraged by the state to keep people enslaved to their bodies?

Ginsberg: Right. That's a real interesting theory. It fits into Buddhist theory in that any attachment where there's grasping is an addiction. It's a question of how you relate to passion. Sexuality where there's no attachment is a lot more liberated and liberating. Blake said, "He who binds to himself a joy, does the winged quality destroy. He who kisses the joy that flies, lives in eternity's sunrise.";

You can learn that from meditation practice, watching passions rise and dissipate. Recognizing that thought forms are discontinuous. Watching the gaps in between. The ego is not solid. It breaks all the time. Like in a movie where there are film frames and then there are gaps in between those frames. Some people think it's continuous and they try to get into the moving.

AT: Do you differentiate between Western thought and Eastern thought?

Ginsberg: No. Oriental wisdom is simply universal psychology. The key idea is that ego or thought is discontinuous. That's implicit is some Western thought, too. Pythagoras said, "Everything we look upon when awake is death."; That means everything we look upon when awake is dying, is changing, is transitory. And Heraclitus said, "You can't step in the same river twice.";

This all comes from the Prajnaparamita sutra presumably authored by Nagarjuna in the second century, A.D. It says form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Things are real; but because of transitoriness, at the same time, they're empty. If you get stuck on the real side, you're stuck. If you get stuck on the empty side, you're stuck.

AT: So, you have to be able always to go back and forth?

Ginsberg: As we naturally do. If you're walking down the street and you fart, your thought disappears. Then off you go on another daydream and you stumble and your thought disappears again. I first heard this from Kerouac in 1953. Your thought is discontinuous.

AT: Jack Kerouac seems to be getting more popular again.

Ginsberg: Yes, everybody thought he had declined but now everything is in print so people can see the extent of what he did in the 50's and the 60's. Now they're making movies about him. He's become somewhat mythologized.

AT: Somebody once said that Kerouac was America's singer, and when his America died he had to die with it.

Ginsberg: That's from a great poem by Gregory Corso called "Elegiac Feelings American."; It's what happens to a nation's singer when the nation fails him.

AT: How did it fail him?

Ginsberg: By a solidification of paranoic egotism. There was an attempt to project an American century, a CIA-Henry Luce vision of military and industrial dominance over the world, to penetrate the very ices of the North Pole with their DDT, to leave no part of the world untouched by their satanic industrialization.

AT: Do you think that kind of CIA repression has eased since the 60s?

Ginsberg: Probably under Carter there has been some improvement. Since the Freedom of Information Act, and since some of the FBI people have been indicted around '75 or '76, the wings have been clipped. But a lot of these goons from FBI and CIA and Army intelligence have moved over to private intelligence agencies. Or private industries like Rockwell and ITT have hired them. So I think we're going to have somewhat the same situation again with the same tactics in the disputes ahead over nuclear energy.

This week, as a matter of fact, there's a big trial in Jefferson County relating to the Rocky Falls Rockwell Corporation plutonium bomb trigger plant. I was arrested there a couple of times this summer with Daniel Ellsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman and a hundred others. Our argument there is that Colorado has this law which says you can commit a misdemeanor to prevent a larger catastrophe. We were alerting the public to the dangers of plutonium.

AT: So, energy is the new frontier to replace the Vietnam War?

Ginsberg: Yes. It's going to be the big psychological battle of the coming decade. The security men from Rockwell Corporation are already out taking everyone's pictures. The counter-intelligence, dirty tricks activity will shift to the nuclear protests. As with Karen Silkwood.

AT: How much do you think counter-intelligence was responsible for the dissipation of the counter-culture? Or was it mostly economics?

Ginsberg: All sorts of things contributed. But in the mass subconscious, I would say the trauma inflicted by counter-intelligence, dirty tricks and illegalities by the government is much more vast than anybody realizes. It dismayed and disrupted the formation of a permanent phalanx of radical thinkers and activists. The split between blacks and whites in the 60's was cultivated by the FBI. They churned out a tremendous amount of propaganda and secret letters to make trouble between blacks and whites.

AT: Do you have any sympathies with groups that advocate aggression?

Ginsberg: Naw. They just create more problems. The whole problem is aggression to begin with. Military aggression, capitalist aggression, industrial aggression. Ultimately it's ego solidification, defense of territory. It's everybody coming on paranoid. "Give us the weapons we need to defend ourselves."; That's the mantra of the people who make plutonium.

AT: Have you learned to control that solidification of ego in yourself?

Ginsberg: Not always. A good example is that once I got really outraged and pissed off with Tom Forcade in a long interview with the Georgia Straight. I denounced him and said maybe he was a cop. It was really unjust for me to lay it on him so heavy. He was actually influenced by secret agents in Miami in 1972. Now I just heard he committed suicide, two days ago. My own aggression made me jump the gun on him.

AT: Something in Mind Breaths that struck me was when you said it's become a lot easier to get love when you learn not to go after it.

Ginsberg: Right. That's the by-product of a meditative mind. Gary Snyder's favorite image on this is an Indian hunting. The way the American Indian hunted was by sitting in one place and becoming part of the landscape. Rather than run around in a hysterical frenzy and frighten the animals away, the animals simply came to them. The anxiety to get laid, as any kid knows, interposes a self-consciousness and a frigidity and an awkwardness. That prevents a natural flow of erotic energy. Again there's Blake's line, "He who binds himself a joy, does the winged life destroy. He who kisses the joy that flies, lives in eternity's sunrise.";

AT: As you get older, you seem to believe more strongly into purely platonic love.

Ginsberg: As you get older, you're willing to settle for what you can get! (Laughter) Like if somebody doesn't want to suck your cock, you can play music with him.

AT: You mean your music is like a sort of spiritual "carezza";?

Ginsberg: Sure. With that little element of eros. Sometimes you find among musicians a tremendous erotic or sentimental and emotional relationship. The discourse and community and playfulness makes for an ecstatic intimacy in music. If it works, it's blissful.

AT: You've said the gay movement will have to come to terms sooner or later with the limitations of sex. Do you mean people shouldn't define themselves in terms of their sexuality?

Ginsberg: To the extent they define themselves in terms of genital sexuality. Like about a week ago I was trying to jack off. I couldn't come for the first time in my life. For a whole hour! "Wow!"; I said to myself. "This is interesting.";

It reminded me of a scene that make Kerouac shudder. Back in 1954, he was in the merchant marine staying at the Mills Hotel on MacDougall Street. It was a flophouse and there was an old guy across the atrium. He was old, old, old. But he was jacking off for hours and hours. The hopelessness of it made Kerouac shudder. But I find it pretty interesting to think you can keep an erotic fantasy going so long.

AT: Have you returned to Kent State recently?

Ginsberg: No, but I've been in touch with Kent State people. They've come up with a document to Ehrlichman about it. (He reads the White House memo advocating a stonewall on any Kent State investigation). Ken State made everyone scared to get together for their constitutionally protected right of mass assembly. You could get killed. Nobody wanted to lead a bunch of kids to that. Certainly not David Dellinger or myself.

So the Kent State killings were like the body blows to people having trustful, free associations. Until that stuff is raised up from the subconscious and clarified, there's going to be this hangover of fear. That's why I want to do this book with Ed Sanders tentatively titled Smoking Typewriters. It's a compilation of memos and orders from the FBI.

The 60's generation never knew how extensive the surveillance was. The 70's people didn't know the whole scene. So by the 80's, nobody will know what happened at all. Everyone will think the 60's was just a lot of people shitting on themselves in the street.