Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996


From his conversation with the conservative William F. Buckley on PBS to his testimony at the Chicago Seven trial to his passionate riffs on Cezanne, Blake, Whitman, and Pound, the interviews collected in Spontaneous Mind, chronologically arranged and in some cases previously unpublished, were conducted throughout Allen Ginsberg's long career. From the late 1950s to the mid-1990s, Ginsberg speaks frankly about his life, his work, and major events, allowing us to hear once again the impassioned voice of one of the...

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From his conversation with the conservative William F. Buckley on PBS to his testimony at the Chicago Seven trial to his passionate riffs on Cezanne, Blake, Whitman, and Pound, the interviews collected in Spontaneous Mind, chronologically arranged and in some cases previously unpublished, were conducted throughout Allen Ginsberg's long career. From the late 1950s to the mid-1990s, Ginsberg speaks frankly about his life, his work, and major events, allowing us to hear once again the impassioned voice of one of the most influential literary and cultural figures of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Throughout his life, poet Allen Ginsberg adhered to Jack Kerouac's famous dictum, "First thought, best thought." These interviews, collected for the first time in one volume, bring to life one the most influential cultural figures of our time. They demonstrate the bard's deep and passionate engagement with the present moment and his devotion not only to the literary arts but to the more human art of conversation.
Michael Schumacher
" [A] comprehensive, essential volume ..[the] interviews are like keys to the many rooms of [Ginsberg's] expansive consciousness."
Creative Loafing
"Ginsberg's verbal dexterity is such that he never gets hemmed in by people who would rather have him easily pegged."
Charleston Post & Courier
"SPONTANEOUS MIND is an uncensored perspective on Allen Ginsberg's life, work and the events of his time."
New York Times Book Review
"Readers of this collection may find that they are no longer the same after having encountered [Ginsberg] in its pages."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Spontaneous Mind brings readers closer to Ginsberg the man ... both compelling and entertaining to read."
William Deresiewicz
Ginsberg's uniquely frank and vivid voice . . . seems to sound again in its deftly edited pages. . . . The stereotype of Ginsberg as a semiliterate primitive leaves one unprepared for his erudition and intellectual brilliance.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ginsberg apparently approached each interviewer "as a future Buddha"; open to any opportunity for conversation, he answered every question, no matter how rude or peculiar. An unpublished 1983 interview here with Steve Foehr consists of one query about the relationship between art and commerce and Ginsberg's seven-page answer ("I simply hung on and tried to get it all written down," says Foehr); others fill only half of a page. The Beat master reiterates that all of his thoughts and expressions emerge from his 1948 auditory hallucination of the voice of William Blake, whose poetic rhythms, childlike innocence, social vision and volatile emotionalism infused Ginsberg's every utterance thereafter. Taken together, these interviews read like an immense jazz oratorio, with rising and falling riffs on prosody, politics, sex, hallucinogens, ecology, jazz, psychoanalysis, Buddhism and his favorite authors Blake, of course, and also Whitman, Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Kerouac. Editor Carter, who worked with Ginsberg on one of the first gay cable television shows, provides helpful headnotes for all 30 interviews (culled from some 350), and a "Biographical List" identifies approximately 200 people mentioned in the text. If the 1972 Gay Sunshine interview is the most intimate of these pieces and the excerpt from Ginsberg's testimony in the 1969 Chicago Seven trial the funniest, the strangest entry is surely the 1988 Chronicles interview by John Lofton, who wanted "to confront [Ginsberg] with the Truth of God's Word." As Lofton tries to compel the self-described "excitable visionary Jewish Buddhist" to admit the error of his ways, Ginsberg demonstrates his essential sweet nature and his love of verbal Ping-Pong. Carter captures the best of his witty, generous chatter here. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
David Carter edits this compilation of selected interviews with Allen Ginsburg from 1958-96, providing a chronological arrangement of material which in some cases has not appeared elsewhere. The extensive interviews from decades of changing experience result in an excellent survey of Ginsberg's changing life, works and times, and provides a fine commentary on his social and literary life.
Kirkus Reviews
Ginsberg, voluble when not downright loquacious, gave hundreds of interviews over his 40-year career; Carter has chosen generously for this new gathering, including many previously uncollected. The late poet (1926-1997) saw the interview as "a way of teaching," and he discoursed on a kaleidoscopic catalogue of topics, from poetics to gay sex, Buddhism to politics. A firm believer in the dictum "first thought, best thought," he was famous (or notorious) for not editing his verse, and the spontaneity of the interview format was well-suited to his desire for undiluted self-expression, not to mention his free-wheeling, free-associating range of interests. The early interviews in this collection, which is graced with detailed and helpful introductions to each piece by the editor, have that loose-fitting, freefalling energy that makes the great poems of the 1950s such a revelation. But in an interview-often aided and abetted by the giddily foolish counter-cultural amateurism of his alternative-press interlocutor-Ginsberg's occasional wackiness dates badly, looking like mere eccentricity and all but obliterating the intelligence underneath. As his fame grows, he doesn't fare much better when interviewed by uncomprehending mainstream journalists (although a sparring match with William F. Buckley is amusing). The best material in the collection comes from interviews done for the Paris Review, the New York Quarterly (where he can expatiate on his aesthetics for sympathetic and thoughtful questioners) and, ironically, Playboy (where the sheer length and breadth of the dialogue gives him enough room to stretch out his riffing into full-length song). The interview format doesbringout his tendency to absurdly categorical statements and pronouncements with little relationship to reality (as in a spirited but idiotic defense of Ezra Pound's economic theories on the occasion of the older poet's death). But Ginsberg was someone who, although more than capable of being foolish, was incapable of being boring. As a result, this is a book that can be profitably mined for many gems, especially when the subject is poetry. A valuable and extensive collection, intelligently edited.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060930820
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 624
  • Sales rank: 808,476
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.41 (d)

Meet the Author

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, a son of Naomi and lyric poet Louis Ginsberg. As a student at Columbia College in the 1940s, he began a close friendship with William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac, and he later became associated with the Beat movement and the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s. After jobs as a laborer, sailor, and market researcher, Ginsberg published his first volume of poetry, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956. "Howl" defeated censorship trials to become one of the most widely read poems of the century, translated into more than twenty-two languages, from Macedonian to Chinese, a model for younger generations of poets from West to East.

Ginsberg was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was awarded the medal of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French minister of culture, was a winner of the National Book Award (for The Fall of America), and was a cofounder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western world. He died in New York City in 1997.

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Read an Excerpt

Marc D. Schleifer
New York City

"Allen Ginsberg: Here To Save Us, But Not Sure From What" Village Voice, October 15,1958

October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg steps in front of a San Francisco audience at the Six Gallery and reads his new poem, "Howl," and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Press, immediately offers to publish it. Ginsberg takes a job as a yeoman storekeeper on a ship traveling to the Arctic Circle to raise funds to go to Morroco to help William Burroughs edit Naked Lunch. While on board ship he edits the proofs of Howl and Other Poems. Between the Six Gallery reading and giving the following interview to the Village Voice Allen commences a hurdy-gurdy of travel: Ginsberg and colleague Gary Snyder hitchhike from San Francisco to Seattle; with fellow poet Gregory Corso he visits Neal Cassady in Los Gatos, California; Allen and Corso and Allen's lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Lafcadio, Peter's brother, visit Jack Kerouac in Mexico City; from there Ginsberg, Peter, and Kerouac join Burroughs in Tangier via New York; from Tangier Allen travels throughout Spain, France, and Italy before settling with Corso in Paris, where he hopes to persuade Olympia Press to publish Naked Lunch; from Paris, Ginsberg visits Amsterdam and England before returning to New York in 1958.

During these travels the United States Customs Service seized 520 copies of Howl based on their estimate of it as "obscene and indecent," but released the books when the United States Attorney at San Francisco refused to institute condemnation proceedings against the book. The local police then took over, and Captain William Hanrahan of the juvenile department arrested Shigeyoshi Murao--the bookstore clerk who had sold plainclothes officers a copy of the book--and filed charges against Ferlinghetti as the book's publisher, reporting that the books were not fit for children to read. The American Civil Liberties Union defended Ferlinghetti and Murao, who were found innocent because of the book's literary value. Ginsberg was out of the country during much of this period of massive publicity and would continue to travel extensively throughout the early to mid-sixties. It is both because of Ginsberg's frequent travels and that a large alternative press did not fully emerge until the mid- to late sixties that there are so few interviews with Allen in his early career, and most of the early interviews that do exist are brief. We first encounter Allen in this volume upon his return to New York from Paris.

-- DC

"Why have you come back, Allen," I said. "To save America," he answered. "I don't know what from."

Between the question-smile, answer-laugh, the first beer in the time and space between table and sawdust-covered floor, the order of an interview was lost: order that demands a stiffness one cannot long maintain when talking to Allen Ginsberg, digging Allen Ginsberg..

Data: Allen Ginsberg, 32, Paterson, N.J., Columbia College, Merchant Marine, Texas, Denver, Times Square, Mexico City, Harlem, Yucatan, Chiapas, San Francisco, "Howl," Rue Git-le-Coeur, Lower East Side.

Ginsberg sat at the table in a Village bar wearing a colored T-shirt and faded wash pants. Also remember the breaks into time when I got the beer or he borrowed matches from three girls nearby. Sometimes I took notes and sometimes I didn't, and this is no New Yorker profile but a series of responses, thoughts, and phrases. If I were to write of Ginsberg instead of Ginsberg's sayings, this would not be an interview it would be a litany.

Paris: "Eight months in Paris living with (William) Burroughs and Gregory Corso. Corso's poetry is really flowing now, he and Burroughs ('author of "Naked Lunch," an endless novel which will drive everybody mad'--Howl) are still living there, he's writing great perfect rich poems. Corso has extended the area poetry covers since 'Gasoline.' I'm too literary, you know, but Corso can write about moth balls or atom bombs ... We went to visit (Louis-Ferdinand) Celine, you don't read anything about him anymore in Europe because of politics. He's an old gnarled man dressed in black, mad and beautiful and he thought we were newspapermen--'Ah, the press!'--until we told him we were poets."

Instinctive Style

Kerouac: "Jack is the greatest craftsman writing today. He writes continuously, can write a hundred words a minute, and gets better each time, reducing the grey- mush percentage that bugs every writer, with each effort ... I dig your comparison of his spontaneous writing and Zen archery, but Jack's style was discovered--arrived upon instinctively, not copied theoretical-like from a theology."

Norman Podhoretz: (in the Spring 1958 issue of Partisan Review, Norman Podhoretz attacked Beat Generation writers, primarily Kerouac and Ginsberg, as "Know-Nothing Bohemians." Podhoretz charged that K. & G. were violent anti-intellectuals and that their cultivation of spontaneity destroyed "the distinction between life and literature.") "The novel is not an imaginary situation of imaginary truths-it is an expression of what one feels. Podhoretz doesn't write prose, he doesn't know how to write prose, and he isn't interested in the technical problems of prose or poetry. His criticism of Jack's spontaneous bop prosody shows that he can't tell the difference between words as rhythm and words as in diction ... The bit about anti-intellectualism is a piece of vanity, we had the same education, went to the same school, you know there are 'Intellectuals' and there are intellectuals. Podhoretz is just out of touch with twentieth-century literature, he's writing for the eighteenth-century mind. We have a personal literature now-Proust, Wolfe, Faulkner, Joyce. The trouble is that Podhoretz has a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often."

Norman Mailer: "I read his 'White Negro' piece, it had a real grasp and kind of apocalyptic flip reality and is the only good definitive article I've run into. I'd love to talk to him...

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Introduction xi
Editor's Note xix
1950s Interview
Marc D. Schleifer, Village Voice 3
1960s Interviews
Ernie Barry, City Lights Journal 9
Tom Clark, The Paris Review 17
Barry Farrell 54
Bob Elliott, Freelance 67
William F. Buckley, Jr., Firing Line 76
Fernanda Pivano 103
Michael Aldrich, Edward Kissam, and Nancy Blecker, "Improvised Poetics" 124
Paul Carroll, Playboy 159
Bill Prescott, (untitled) 197
Chicago Seven Trial Testimony 200
1970s Interviews
Mary Jane Fortunato, Lucille Medwick, and Susan Rowe, New York Quarterly 245
Alison Colbert, Partisan Review 259
Yves Le Pellec, "The New Consciousness" 273
Allen Young, Gay Sunshine Interview 303
John Durham, "The Death of Ezra Pound" 343
Ekbert Faas, from Towards a New American Poetics 355
Michael Goodwin, Richard Hyatt, and Ed Ward, "Squawks Mid-Afternoon" 363
Peter Barry Chowka, New Age Journal 377
Paul Portuges and Guy Amirthanayagam, "Buddhist Meditation and Poetic Spontaneity" 398
1980s Interviews
Nancy Bunge, from Finding the Words 421
Helen, Flipside Fanzine 433
Michael Schumacher, Oui 434
Steve Foehr 444
Simon Albury 452
John Lofton, Chronicles 469
Josef Jarab 499
1990s Interviews
Thomas Gladysz, Photo Metro 523
Clint Frakes 532
Steve Silberman, www.HotWired.com 546
Afterword 571
Acknowledgments 577
Biographical List 583
Permissions 596
Index 597
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