Politics, Poetry and Inspiration
"Language joiins heaven and earth and
joins the mind and the body."
Alien Ginsberg's poem "Howl, " published in 1956, caused such a
controversy that it was the subject of an obscenity trial. Having received
the court 's "approval, " it went on to become one of the most widely read
and translated poems of the century. He is an extraordinarily prolific
artist, having had over forty books published and eleven albums produced.
Alien's friendship and literary experimentation with Jack
Kerouac and William Burroughs began in 1945, and a decade later as this
core group expanded to include other poets and writers, it came to be
known as the "Beat Generation. " He has received numerous honors,
including the National Book Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Foundation
Fellowship, National Arts Club Medal, 1986 Struga Festival Golden Wreath,
and the Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins Medal of Honor for
Literary Excellence 1 989.
A potent figure in the cultural revolution of the sixties, he has
been arrested with Dr. Benjamin Spock for blocking the Whitehall Draft
Board steps, has testified at the U.S. Senate hearings for the
legalization of psychedelics and been teargassed for chanting "Om" at the
Lincoln Park Yippie Life Festival at the 1968 Presidential convention in
His Collected Poems 1947-1980, were published in 1984 with
White Shroud and the 30th Anniversary Howl annotated issue
in 1 986. Several books of his photographs and a recordlCD of his
poetry-jazz album, The Lion for Real, appeared in 1989. He is a
member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and is a
Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College and a member of the Executive
Board of PEN American Center. A practicing Buddhist, Alien cofounded
Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder,
We talked with Allen at the house of his cousin, Oscar Janiger, in
Santa Monica. He presents a very dignified and unassuming figure, his
non-conforming and wildly creative persona loosely disguised in a
professorial suit and tie. We asked Allen about his relationship with
Burroughs and Kerouac, his thoughts on madness and creativity, and the
nature of politics and revolution. This interview took place on April 23,
1992, six days before the Los Angeles uprising.
DJB: What was is that originally inspired you to start writing
Allen: Itís a family business. My father was a poet, his
Collected Poems were posthumously published - they just came out
recently, in fact, from the Northern Lights Press in Maine. My father was
in the 1930-50 Untermeyer anthologies, a standard poet of that genre,
lyric poetry, that included Eleanor Wiley and Lisette Woodsworth Reece.
DJB: Was it something that you always knew you were going to do?
Allen: No, but I always wrote poetry; since I was a kid I knew
poetry. My father taught high school and college, so I knew a lot of
Blake when I was five, six, seven years old. And I memorized it, or it
just sort of stuck in my head. I started writing when I was maybe fifteen,
or younger, but I never thought of myself as a poet. I just thought that
it was something you did on the side, like my father had done. But then,
when I met Jack Kerouac at the age of seventeen, I realized that he was
the first person I had met who saw being a writer as a sacramental
vocation. Rather than being a sailor who wrote, he was a writer who also
went out on ships. That changed my attitude towards writing, because now I
saw it as a sacred vocation.
DJB: How did you motherís struggle with mental illness affect
Allen: Iíve written a great deal about that in the poem "Kaddish,"
White Shroud. I developed a tremendous tolerance for chaos;
other peopleís illness, irrationality and contradictory behavior. I tend
to throw it off like water off a duckís back, but it also dulls me to
hearing what people are saying when theyíre complaining about their
troubles. I sometimes just shut off and give them a bowl of chicken soup
instead of listening carefully. I tend to be more concerned with peopleís
comfort and welfare - like a Jewish mother - rather than trying to solve a
mental problem, a financial problem or whatever. So I sometimes miss the
boat. Quite often thereís a tragedy happening and somebodyís sinking right
in front of me, but I donít see it. On the other hand I have a lot of
tolerance for people who use drugs or are half mad. Sort of like how the
children of alcoholics, in order to develop a kind of balance, clean up
after everybody else and have a more neat and orderly life because theyíve
seen the chaos and have reacted against it.
DJB: It seems that you would go one way or another. Whenever
people are confronted at an early age with overwhelming circumstances,
they either come out as a total mess or so strong that they can deal with
most anything. Either you learn to become comfortable with chaos or you
become overwhelmed by it.
Allen: I compensated by becoming more stable, probably because I
realized that if everybody began disagreeing with me all at once, there
was probably something wrong with my perception of the universe. So I took
a more pragmatic view rather than an absolute view.
DJB: How has all the traveling youíve done affected your
perception of the world?
Allen: Well, again itís the same thing; because Iíve seen so
much chaos, I donít really see everything. In a sense, I donít see a lot
of detail and have a tendency towards abstraction. Thatís why Iím so
concerned with it - itís the medicine for my own neurosis. I use it to
help create a sense of stability. I sort of turn off the chaotic aspect of
travel too and just continue in whatever work Iím doing like keeping a
journal or taking photographs. You might even say Iím sort of neurotically
untouched by interaction.
DJB: By whatís happening around you?
Allen: Yeah. Itís maybe part of the same process with which I
used to shield myself from the chaos, and itís made me sort of aloof. Iím
just guessing. I mean since we started talking about one thing, I just
transferred it over to the other - from my mother to travel. I might have
a different answer for a different context, but since we started out with
a very definite idea, I just transferred it to the other, because itís an
aspect of the other, but itís not the whole story. I mean, obviously I saw
a lot of anthropological blah blah. A lot of different views, a lot of
different folk ways, different ways of wiping your behind after going to
the bathroom, different ways of eating, talking, different kinds of
poetics, different religions, meditation practices, different primitive
rituals, different takes on the universe, different nationalisms,
different chauvinisms. Experiencing a lot of different things makes your
mind more wide-screened, or more tolerant. It makes you more sophisticated
- or maybe less sophisticated. One of the basic things thatís changed is
my habit of wiping my ass with toilet paper. Now I wash my behind
afterwards. I got that from North Africa and India. Kerouac has a whole
book about that.
DJB: Iím curious as to how important you think it is for writers
and artists to have a sense of community. How did your experience with
other writers like
Jack Kerouac and
William Burroughs affect the style of your own writing?
Allen: Oh, it affected it very much. Kerouac persuaded me to
stop writing rhyme poems and revising everything fifty thousand times; to
just lay it out on the page in the sequence of thought-forms that arise in
my mind during the time of composition. This is traditional with twentieth
century painting and calligraphy style.
blotted a line according to Ben Johnson. With Kerouac and Burroughs, it
wasnít so much their instruction as the whole ambiance - their directive
candor and informality. We were writing for our own amusement and the
amusement of our friends, rather than for money or for publication. We
assumed that nothing would be published from the very beginning . So the
private world of my friends became the center of our artistic activities,
rather than the public world of publishing, media, universities and
DJB: The collaboration lowered your inhibitions, in terms of the
way you expressed the creative urge?
Allen: Well, no. If youíre just writing for yourself and your
friends, then you donít have to develop inhibitions. People develop
inhibitions from the commercial or social situation, theyíre not born with
them. So in this case, since we didnít expect to succeed and we were just
having fun with each other, we just never developed those inhibitions. So
as a result, we never developed the manner or style of counterfeit
literariness that is characteristic of most university or academic poetry
or prose. You know that Burroughís scene, the routine about the talking
asshole in Naked Lunch? Well, it wasnít necessarily meant to be published.
I mean, at that time it was considered impossible, so it wasnít thought of
in that realm at all. It was thought of as being just intelligent humor
DJB: Speaking of Naked Lunch, what did you think of the way that
you, Burroughs and Kerouac were portrayed in the film adaptation?
Allen: Well, Kerouac was a good deal better looking than the
character in the movie. Martin was somewhat of a wimp. I donít mind that
because Iím a wimp, but I can read ĎThe Market Sectioní - which was what
he read over the couple fucking - much more vividly than the poet in the
film. Four days before I saw the film I was teaching a graduate course at
CUNY entitled, ĎLiterary History and the Beat Generation.í I didnít know
that scene was in the film, but I read ĎThe Market Sectioní to the
students when we were discussing Naked Lunch to give them a sense of
Burroughs as a panoramic poet. Itís one of the most beautiful passages in
Burroughs, and the seed of all of
Naked Lunch basically, as it intersects the past and future.
"In expeditions arrived from unknown places, leave for unknown places with
unknown purpose. Followers of obsolete trades....Carriers of viruses not
yet born." This is the interplanetary time-zone market. The guy who played
Burroughs did well, except when it came to doing the routines like the
talking asshole or the "Hespano Suiza" auto blowout. Burroughs always did
that much more uproariously and with fascinating vigor that youíd roll
around on the floor laughing. The guy in the movie did it in a relatively
dignified monotone, so that you donít get any of the gregarious wildness.
RMN: Did you like the movie otherwise?
Allen: I thought that Burroughsí plot was better than the movie
plot. The movie plot begins with the
Kafka figure being
assassinated by two detectives who come to hassle him. Then, in the book,
when he rebels against the authority figures, the whole long novel scene
turns out to have been an hallucination. So it paralleled many mystical
experiences, where you suddenly realize that everything before was maya or
samsaric delusion. Burroughs empowered himself, so to speak, by rebelling
against Law. It was a very important point that Burroughs was making, but
that point is not made in the movie. On the other hand, Burroughs approves
of cut-ups, thatís his genre. So he enjoyed it, because itís an
improvisation on his work, in his own style, that he might well have done
himself. The bug powder comes from a book called
The Exterminator, so they made combinations of Naked
Lunch and this other work plus
Queer. Burroughs says a very funny thing. He quotes John
Steinbeck when asked, "What do you think of what theyíve done to your
book?" and he says, "They didnít do anything to my book. My book is up
there on the shelf." (laughter) So I think he liked the idea of them
cutting up and improvising on his texts. I went to visit Burroughs about
three weeks ago. We made thirteen 90-minute tapes, which are being
transcribed for an interview for a Japanese magazine, so we went to the
movies and saw the picture.
DJB: That was the first time either of you had seen it?
Allen: It was only the second time heíd seen it and it was the
third time Iíd seen it. I liked it more watching it with him because I
began to see that the hooks which interpolate the movie make a little more
sense than Iíd thought. It may make complete sense, but I havenít been
able to figure out the very end. Is that reality, or is that unreality?
RMN: That was left unanswered.
DJB: Maybe intentionally. Tell me, how do you see the beat
movement of the fifties having influenced the hippy movement of the
sixties - and how do you see these cultural movements influencing events
Allen: There are a lot of different themes that were either
catalyzed, adapted, inaugurated, transformed or initiated by the literary
movement of the fifties and a community of friends from the forties. The
central theme was a transformation of consciousness, and as time unrolled,
experiences that Kerouac, Burroughs and I had, related to this notion - at
least to "widening the arena of consciousness." For example, this world is
absolutely real and final and ultimate and at the same time, absolutely
unreal and transitory and of the nature of dream-stuff, without
contradiction. I think Kerouac had the most insightful grasp of that
already by 1958. So that one spiritual insight - which is permanently
universal - led to the exploration of mind or consciousness in any way
shape or form. Whether it was Burroughs through his exploration of the
criminal world, or Kerouac through his exploration of Buddhism, or
Snyderís zen meditation practices, or myself who worked with the
Naropa Institute under Tibetan Buddhist auspices. Spiritual liberation is
the center, and from spiritual liberation comes candor or frankness. So
from 1948 on, Burroughs was writing on the Mind, and this somehow moved on
to gay liberation, although at the time it wasnít called that. You simply
called it Ďexplicitnessí and Ďopenness.í In 1952 Burroughs presents his
manuscript and itís totally overt, 100% out front and out of the closet -
not even thinking heís being out front, itís just there because there
never was a closet. So that would take us to Ď55 with Gary Snyder and
Michael McClure. The latterís major theme is in biology and he had
insights regarding the reclamation of consciousness, ecological themes.
Itís not your traditional poetry. Itís modern American folklore, and it
influenced everybody. By 1950, Kerouac had already written On the Road
which included the sentence, ĎThe Earth is an Indian thing.í A very
DJB: Iím not sure I understand.
Allen: Well, it ainít an Empire State thing! Local knowledge of
plants, geography and geology, comes to the people who live a long, long,
time in one place without a lot of mechanical aids and who relate to the
land itself. Itís like bioregionalism, which comes out of a sort of
DJB: So then do indigenous and Indian come from the same root?
Allen: I donít know. Kerouac also in
On the Road, reflected Oswald Speaglerís view of the
"Fellaheen" people living on the land near the Nile, tilling the soil and
sailing their boats up and down, who were not affected by the changes of
the Egyptian empire. They just stuck there, century after century, putting
in whatever crop they were putting in, gathering it and pounding rice. So,
"the earth is an Indian thing."
DJB: Do you see the earth as being like an organism?
Allen: No, no, no, absolutely not. None of that bullshit! No
Gaia hypothesis. (laughter)
No theism need sneak in here. No monotheistic hallucinations needed in
this. Not another fascist central authority.
DJB: Thatís interesting, that you see the Gaia hypothesis as
monotheistic and fascist whereas other see it as liberating.
Allen: Well, youíve got this one big thing. Who says itís got to
be one? Why does everything have to be one? I think thereís no such thing
as one - only many eyes looking out in all directions. The center is
everywhere, not in any one spot. Does it have to be one organism, in the
sense of one brain, or one consciousness?
DJB: Well, it could be like you said earlier, about how reality
is simultaneously real and a dream. Maybe the earth or the universe is
many and one at the same time.
Allen: Well, yeah, but the tendency is to sentimentalize it into
another godhead and to re-inaugurate the whole Judeo-Christian-Islamic
RMN: What do you think about the New Age movement?
Allen: I donít think all this crystal beads and channeling is
spiritual. I donít want to put down the New Age, but only an aspect that
seems like "spiritual materialism."
RMN: Do you see it as a less valid phenomenon than say, the
Allen: No. I think the New Age movement is basically a very good
thing. Healthy foods, ecological understanding - thatís all fine. Itís
just very specific spiritual materialism that seems to me to be the
problem; accumulating experiences as credentials for the ego.
RMN: In the fifties, did you anticipate that a cultural
revolution was in the making?
Allen: Not in the fifties, no. But I think that the sixties were
politically awry because of animosity. You know, the notions of rising up
and getting angry, i.e., using anger a a motif.
RMN: Didnít that anger lead to a lot of positive social change
though, like in the area of human rights?
Allen: No, no. Things started fucking up when people got angry
because they started action from that angry pride. By 1968, 52% of the
American people thought the war over in Vietnam was a big mistake, but
instead of leading people out of the war, seducing them out, people got
out onto the streets and got angry.
RMN: Just because half the people in America thought the war was
a bad idea doesnít mean that would translate into political action. It was
the anti-war movement which vocalized those concerns and effectively
changed government policy--whether they were angry or not.
Allen: No, if you do it that way you get it all wrong. You
immediately open the door for crazies and the double agents to come in and
fuck everything up. You need absolute discipline and for everything to be
calm, otherwise where do you get to? You know that if you get excited
while youíre doing martial arts, you lose. You have to be stabilized,
balanced and centered. The guy who gets excited becomes off-center,
off-balance, and falls on his own weight. So there was this idea that if
you set one blade of grass alight, the whole nation will follow suit,
"prairie file". All we have to do is to get together and physically attack
the police and then all the negroes and hippies in America will rise up
and abracadabra! (laughter) Oh God! Lunatics! A bunch of lunatics! And it
prolonged the war.
RMN: In the present situation, growing unrest and
dissatisfaction has spread from farmers in the mid-west to the unemployed
in inner cities to middle-class suburbia. Keeping in mind what weíve seen
in Eastern Europe, do you believe that an American revolution is possible?
Allen: Well, what do you mean by revolution? No, I donít think
so, because if you mean violence, I donít want to be around - and it
wouldnít be interesting. It would be just another group of jerks getting
up there with their fucking gun, thinking they have this power. It happens
every time. It happens endlessly. If we ever get into one of those
left-wing, right-wing revolutions, it could be worse than any country on
earth. The Americans are the most stupid and heartless....
RMN: And the best armed.
Allen: Yeah. It would be worse than Cambodia. Theyíll be sending
junkies off to concentration camps.
RMN: With social attitudes tending to swing from openness and
tolerance to discrimination and fear, do you feel there can ever be any
real collective advance towards enlightenment?
Allen: Maybe not. Maybe the very nature of high technology
imposes centralized authority. The nature of the bomb is such that once
you have created it you need to have some kind of omnipresent surveillance
to monitor itís use. You canít be open to people in other countries very
much because you are constantly suspicious of their activities, maybe
theyíre making H-bombs just like you did.
RMN: Do you feel hopeful that someday the spirit of cooperation
will overcome humanityís competitive and territorial urges?
Allen: I donít think that hope is useful at all here. I donít
think in terms of progress, particularly in the face of the
hyperindustrialization because it carries too many connotations. It is
technology which imposes more and more goals. "Science is a lie," said
RMN: Do you see the current hostility towards gays as a minor
hiccup or as a serious regressive trend?
Allen: Yeah, itís a minor hiccup, but itísa classic political
thing - a lot of Republicans are cocksuckers.
RMN: Looking at the general rise in fundamentalism, Iím left
wondering, what went wrong? Why has it happened again?
Allen: Well, I think the left fumbled the ball by allowing
right-wing style closed-minded aggression to be part of their policy. Itís
a fuck up, but it should be seen as a fuck up rather than something to be
penalized for. Unless people get the idea, theyíll just repeat it over and
over again, rising up angry, and then wondering why no permanent change
has occurred. Thereís a small band of thieves, right and left, taking it
upon themselves to be dictators and leading everybody astray. On the left,
theyíre painting "Die Yuppie Scum!" all over the Lower East Side, but
nobody knows who is a yuppie - do they mean me? Everybody thinks it means
RMN: We have witnessed the failure of communism and the
inadequacies of capitalism. Do you think there is a political system
which, if diligently applied by good people, could work?
Allen: Well, I donít think weíve seen any real communism or
RMN: Do you think there are just too many people with too many
special interests to be successfully governed?
Allen: Well, no, itís not that. One - itís technological. ĎThe
hyper-technology fuels the non-human within me.í Burroughs said that.
DJB: Are you sure that itís science and technology thatís the
problem, or is it the way that the technology is applied?
Allen: I think itís science and technology. Once youíve got an
absolute weapon, then you have to have absolute control.
DJB: Technology doesnít have to be used for weapons.
Allen: What has most of it been used for so far?
RMN: To blow people to smithereens. But still, the availability
of technology on a local, private level has vastly increased peopleís
access to information and has encouraged a decentralization of control.
People are making their own TV programs, creating their own entertainment.
Allen: Okay, so everyone can be a communicator, electronically
hooked up with one another. Still, the central intelligence agency type
human eye is the very nature of the machine. I wouldnít want to absolute
about it, but there is definitely two sides to the story that the solution
for the worldís problems lies in the advancement of technology.
RMN: What do you think are some of the biggest practical and
perceptual errors that the government has made in itís policy towards
Allen: Well, obviously lumping all of the drugs together in one
category but regarding the use of nicotine and alcohol as something apart.
My proposition for drugs is: have marijuana as a cash crop for the
otherwise ailing family farm. For junkies, well it would probably be
better to get off the methadone - apparently itís more addictive than
heroin. Then once youíve separated grass and psychedelics from "the drug
problem" public consciousness, as Oscar Janiger is trying to do in his
work with the Albert Hofmann Foundation, then you have to deal with
cocaine and crack. So the consequences of the present drug policies have
been further criminalization, further prohibition, more and more police
and more and more surveillance. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the war
on drugs has created a niche for military-minded demigods to prosper in.
RMN: As history shows that prohibition does nothing to decrease demand,
and as most of the money in the drug-war is being used to fight off the
criminal element, why is it that so few politicians are willing to voice
their support for legalization?
Allen: We have this vanguard of fundamentalism that donít want
abortions, that donít want drugs - and theyíre very powerful. Thereís a
hard nut, a residue of energetic, active, organized, networked,
technologically sophisticated censors - the neo-conservatives and the
born-agains. Itís a composite of religious fanaticism and economic
interest. The pharmaceutical companies are among the people opposing
decriminaliztion because they make a lot of money in the drug business.
The Coors beer people support the right-wing Heritage Foundation and then
you have Jesse Helms representing tobacco. So thereís that combination of
economic interest. Then the national and state drug bureaucracies have one
of the most protective lobbies in the nation, with a 12 billion dollar
budget monopoly, hundreds of thousands of telephones, FAX machines, PR
people, resources and files. So how do we get out of that? I donít know,
itís always been a source of confusion.
DJB: Iím curious about how your experiences with psychedelics
affected your writing and your life in general.
Allen: Well, I wrote a couple of good poems on them - with
mescaline, acid, nitrous oxide, marijuana and amphetamines. So those are
direct influences on my writing. But aside from 60 or so pages, the
spiritual effect of drugs was not extensive in creation of texts.
DJB: What kind of relationship do you see between madness and
Allen: I donít really know, itís an old stereotype. When we talk
about certain states of madness, what are we talking about exactly?
Somebody on a roll, whoís very active and talking to himself, dominating
his space and people working around him, like Picasso? Or someone in a
manic phase of manic depression, which is often very creative? Or how
about full-blown schizophrenia? In a lot of those states, youíre cut off
from the surrounding environment so it would be impossible to produce
DJB: Have you ever experienced the fear of going mad?
Allen: A couple of times, on psychedelics. I remember in 1948 I
had a hell of an experience; an ominous, threatening universe. Iím sure
that madness, paranoia or megalomania came in then.
RMN: I read something you once said in reference to language
which was, Ďmanís power of abstraction dooms us to lose touch with
detail.í What did you mean by this? Isnít that what poets do?
Allen: Well, when did I say it and under what circumstances? How
do I know what I said? (laughter) Thatís a very common, almost trite,
stereotypical thought. Iím sure itís, in general true, but I probably
never said it in those words. I probably said some general thing like
that, but Ďmanís power of abstractioní - bullshit!
RMN: I take it you donít agree with the statement.
Allen: Well, Iím struck just now by the vulgarity of the
expression, the phrasing.
RMN: (laughter) I have a problem with the first word, actually.
Allen: Well, so do I. "Womanís power of abstraction?..."
Actually, I donít think thatís true. I think itís a temptation to think
that. I think itís civilizationís power of abstraction, or the development
of abstracted power that could lead to a loss of contact with detail.
Hypertechnology so to speak.
RMN: And language, in that context, plays a part in the process?
Allen: No. Thatís the semiotic, deconstructionist, Burroughsian
view. Thatís not my view at all. Itís the opposite, in fact. I think itís
a fascist statement, frankly. It attacks language and it attacks people
talking. Itís an attack on communication, actually. I would say that
language joins heaven and earth and joins mind with body. It synchronizes
them through speech, poetry, language and words which connect abstraction
with the ground. It is also obvious that continuous generalization and
abstraction lead to mixed judgment and manipulation of phenomena in an
inappropriate way; but to make a general statement as blanket as that
discourages the attempt at sincere communication, or description of what
you are experiencing. By using that kind of generalization like Ďmanís
power of abstractioní, the Marxists had to convince writers that they are
not worthy of writing because they donít really represent the proletariat
- only the abstract interests of the upper-middle-class or the
bourgeoisie. The Catholics have convinced people to burn books and burn
people because they or their work doesnít represent the true word of God.
And deconstructionist, semiotic poets have used it as a way of avoiding
interacting with phenomena, of interacting on a heart-felt level with
their own experience of living. That generalization has always been an
excuse to hard-nosed students of their own perceptions to be cool, you
know, to play it cool. That is to say, that words donít count, that this
is abstract, therefore I donít want to make any comment. Itís been a way
of diminishing expression. In Blakeís description of the Urizen quality -
"boundedness" arises. Your-Reason, the figurative reason of the symbolic
description, creates a hyper-abstraction, a hyper-rationalization.
RMN: What do you think was so special about Blake as a poet?
Allen: He had a good mind. From Blakeís point of view,
hyper-rationality, hyper-abstraction leads to the nuclear bomb, from the
point of view of reason, trying to assert power over feeling, imagination
and the body. If any one of them tries to take over, then it disrupts the
whole balance of nature.
DJB: What do you think happens to human consciousness after
Allen: I donít know. The Tibetans say that some kind of aetheric
electricity or some kind of impulse moves on. I think itís a good idea to
cultivate an openness to the possibilities that might occur. When youíre
drowning, once youíve stopped breathing, thereís still about eight minutes
of consciousness before brain death, and there have been people who have
been resuscitated, so something is there. In that eight minutes, what
should you prepare for? My meditation practices are on the breath, so then
what happens after I stop breathing? (laughter) I asked my guru this
question and he started laughing. He said that was the purpose of the
advanced meditation practices, the visualization, the mantra, the mandala,
all that stuff. He said, "If I were you, I wouldnít pretend this or that,
openness or emptiness, I would go along with whatever made the process
more comfortable." As for what happens after death, Iíve always been a
little skeptical about anything persevering. I think the process of dying
takes over, whatever you think, and goes on automatic. What you think may
be harmonious with what happens, but what happens is going to happen in
any case. Sometimes I think that you enter open space and become open
space. In the last moment you donít want to be pissed off, even if thereís
no re-birth. So itís a good idea to get into the frequency of some kind of
meditative practice, in case thereís no after-life. In case there is, itís
also a good idea. It prepare you for whatever situation. "Do not go gently
into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light." You know
that poem? It seems the worst advice possible.
RMN: Do you see death as an adventure, or are you afraid?
Allen: Iím a little scared, yeah, but Iím not afraid to admit
DJB: What do you think it is about death that youíre afraid of?
Allen: How about entering a realm where thereís twenty-nine
devils sticking red hot pokers up my behind and into my feet. (laughter)
Maybe Iíll turn into a big prick with this little tiny asshole.
DJB: Do you think that the fear of death could be the fear of
Allen: Well, no, that wouldnít be so bad. It would be the fear
of existing again, in another life. Popping up again, like pop goes the
weasel, and being stuck with whatever hard-on you started out with. You
could have an obsession and think, oh, I should have cut that out long
ago! I should have stopped lusting after pretty boys long ago! (laughter)
Youíre born into a universe with nothing but pretty boys and you get stuck
there for another 100 years until you realize, uh oh, youíre going to die.
Something like that. Iím not quite up to the adventure yet (laughter) but
on the other hand.......
DJB: Do you have a personal understanding of God?
Allen: Yes. There is no God.
DJB: Thereís no question about it?
Allen: No. Itís a big mistake. It means "6,000 years of sleep"
as Blake said. It means a Judeo-Christian-Islamic control system. It means
war and centralization.
DJB: What about the concept of God as a state of consciousness?
Allen: Too easy. Why do you need a concept of God when youíve
already got a concept of a state of consciousness? Why do you have to add
God onto it? Itís sneaking in a centralized state of consciousness, itís
sneaking in a metaphysical CIA. In an open universe, nothing is closed in,
no judgment of beliefs, just infinite possibilities of roles to role-play.
If God made everything the way it is, then itís already done and itís
pre-ordained all the way, so thereís no movement. God means stasis, as
Burroughs points out. When you consider the whole notion of God, thatís
what it comes to, unless you redefine God so that it doesnít mean God
DJB: Well, what if you define God as being the notion of a
greater organism of which weíre all tiny cells or parts?
Allen: You still have this one greater organism that started
everything and knows where itís all going.
DJB: Not necessarily. It could be evolving itself, just as we
Allen: Then it ainít God, the omniscient, omnipotent etc...
RMN: If you donít believe in God, do you believe in love?
Allen: Perhaps itís a uselessly out-worn four letter word that
substitutes for awareness to cover all cruel facts. But you have to first
agree with people how you want to use the word. You know, a word doesnít
mean anything by itself, thereís no built-in intrinsic meaning, itís just
how you want to use it. Itís an abstraction like, "What is the truth?"
Itís a semantic blind-alley. It doesnít have a meaning except that which
you assign to it, and if people donít agree on the meaning then youíre
going to have endless feuds over nothing, which is what happens all the
time. A student and I spent time with Burroughs in 1944. We got into an
argument about what is art? If we carved a walking-stick and put in on the
moon, where nobody saw it, is that art? Or does art have to be social? So
we took the argument to Burroughs and he said, "Art is a three-letter
word. If you guys will agree on what you mean and how you want to use it,
then you can use it. But to say that it has an absolute inherent meaning
one way or an absolute inherent meaning the other way, thatís a semantic
problem and Ďtis too too starved an argument for my sword." You ask a
large question using a large word which can mean anything, and then expect
somebody to give you a sensible answer. Now, if you had said, what do you
think of love? or how do you see using the word "love" for the experience
of wonder at the sight of a sunset? Then I might be able to find an
instance where it was used well, or I might not and Iíd have to invent
one. If I couldnít invent an instance and I couldnít remember any instance
where the word was used will, I would say itís probably not the right
RMN: Well, Iím glad I disappointed you and got such an answer!
(laughter) Talking about the nature of wordplay, I read in a lecture you
gave that you believe itís possible to teach inspiration. How do you do
Allen: Inspiration means breathing in. The process of breathing
is or course, central to meditation practice, but itís also central to
poetry. You have thoughts which are mental and impalpable, like heaven and
then you have body, which is ground or earth. So when you speak, the
breath comes out as a physiological body thing but itís also a vehicle for
the impalpable thoughts of the mind. So, you could say that speech joins
heaven and earth, or synchronizes mind and body. Exhalation or expiration
- as in "he expired" - is the vehicle on which poetry comes out whereas
inhalation or inspiration, takes in. So, you can say that certain kinds of
poetry like Shelleyís famous romantic poem, "Ode
to the West Wind" has a certain elevated unobstructed breath about it;
unobstructed intelligence, unobstructed production of images, unobstructed
self-confidence, unobstructed majestic proclamation.
RMN: So youíre saying that if people can learn to first breathe
properly, they can then stimulate their imaginations?
Allen: To be a good example of what they call Ďpoetic
inspirationí, is to be alive with this physiological (exhales breath)
attitude. A sense of a proclamation echoing to the outside space with no
difference between the outside space and the inside space. So you teach
inspiration by teaching people both meditation and spontaneous
improvisation, a sense of self-confidence, the notion of unobstructed
breath and also how to allow their minds to speak out loud without
thinking in advance. Thatís the way poetry is taught at the Naropa
Institute. You can also cultivate or point out the notion of the space in
the room so that somebody can talk loud enough so that the furthest person
in the room can hear. You need a panoramic awareness of the space around
you, rather than looking inward and mumbling. So, itís maybe hyperbole to
say you could teach inspiration. You can teach the physiological posture
of it, but thatís only half the battle. One of the teachings is about
proclamation - to mouth the syllables in an interesting way. If you listen
to Dylan records
or Kerouacís recordings, youíll hear an intelligence in the actual
pronunciation which is the difference between a mumbling poet and a poet
who actually enjoys the language in his own mouth. If you listen to the
recordings of Ezra Pound youíll hear that sense of elegant imperial mouth.
RMN: William Blake actually sang a lot of his poetry.
Allen: Yeah, he actually sang "Songs of Innocence."
RMN: You put that to music didnít you?
Allen: Yeah. There was a record in 1969 called, "Songs of
Innocence and Of Experience." Itís out of print now, but itís going to be
re-issued next year.
DJB: Cool. What else have you been doing?
Allen: Well I collaborated with Philip Glass on an opera, Hydrogen
Jukebox, putting together poetry and music. Iím working on a record with
Hal Wilner and with Fransesco Clemente on a series of books. Iím teaching
at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado and at Brooklyn College, and
Iím writing a lot of poems. Iíve just about got another book ready and am
also coalescing my journals from the Ď50ís. Another project called History
of the Beat Generation drawn from my lectures over the years. Iím also
trying to raise money for the Naropa Institute, the Buddhist school formed
by Chogyam Trungpa in 1974. Within it is the school of poetry. We asked
Trungpa if we could call it the Jack Kerouac School of Poetry, but it
sounded a little boring. So then June Waldman said, well, heís dead, so
heís disembodied. So now itís The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied
Poetics. And then will people misunderstand? Yes, well, thatís
permissible. (laughter) Theyíll just have to ask what it means.
DJB: Do you still feel guilty about not doing enough?
Allen: Always. Itís a workaholic problem. (laughter)