Allen Ginsberg’s poetry has been very important to me since I first read Howl and Other Poems (I put it on my list of Ten Most Influential Books last fall), and I have always loved the Beat writers in general (particularly the often forgotten women) so I was really looking forward to digging into this collection of Ginsberg’s interviews. What I didn’t know was that, as editor David Carter says in his afterword, “Allen regarded the interview as part of his art,” and therefore had a history of being remarkably candid and giving with interviewers in a way that was rare in his lifetime, and probably even more rare now in the soundbite, gotcha media culture we have created for ourselves.
I don’t always agree with everything Ginsberg proposes (especially when it comes to drugs and the physical power of chanting) but I was repeatedly, deeply moved by his humane approach to the problems he faced. Not only personal but also political and ecological. (He has a great stance on the term ‘flower power’ not being a stupid hippie cliche but a turn towards environmentalism that we would probably now call an attempt at rebranding, but reads as really sincere in context.) Although I enjoyed the glimpses into the Beat community, and his unwavering support of Jack Kerouac as a poet and artist and man, I was particularly taken with the later interviews (the book goes up to 100 days before his death in 1997). He shares an all too rare perspective on world events and personal conflict that was rooted in a remarkable empathy and sense of the shared humanity of all people, even – maybe especially – those he disagreed with. It was truly inspiring to read.
And, on a completely different note, he was able to synthesize a lot of literary theory into practical writing advice. My only complaint with the book is that there wasn’t a full bibliography at the back because I feel like I ended it with about 100 book recommendations from one of the great artists of recent times. (That was another thing that was sort of thrilling; I always think of Ginsberg as he was in On the Road, and the Kill Your Darlings and James Franco’s Howl, but he lived into my lifetime, which means that his ideas – the less LCD based ones anyway – may not be as out of date as I have feared them to be in the past.)