Watch John Giorno’s video performance of Everyone Gets Lighter from Antonello Faretta’s poetry film Nine Poems in Basilicata!
I met John Giorno at his home on the Bowery in downtown New York, on the third floor of a former YMCA where he has lived since the mid-1960s, when he started publishing his explosive poems using sound images, collage, and, later, sound compositions. Beat godfather William S. Burroughs, Giorno’s friend and collaborator, lived on the mezzanine floor, which housed the Y’s locker room and back in the ’70s was known as The Bunker. Today the space contains a Tibetan Buddhist shrine where Giorno hosts teachings in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism which he has practiced since meeting his own teacher, H. H. Dudjom Rinpoche, in 1971. This interview took place in one of the mezzanine’s rooms; it has a large fireplace where Tibetan Lamas conduct fire rituals. On one side of the fireplace is a complete set of the Buddha’s teachings translated into Tibetan. On the other side is a large collection of reel-to-reel tapes containing the recordings for Giorno’s celebrated Dial-a-Poem series. Having debuted in 1968 at the Museum of Modern Art, it is a Who’s Who of late 20th-century American poetry that became a series of LPs issued by his multimedia poetry company Giorno Poetry Systems. Giorno’s poetry burns with the ferocity you’d expect to come from the friction between two such remarkable archives.
Giorno is truly a “poet among painters,” to use Frank O’Hara’s phrase. His early poems were written in response to the work of a series of illustrious lovers including Andy Warhol (Giorno starred in Warhol’s film Sleep), Robert Rauschenberg (who provided the cover for his first poetry book), and Jasper Johns. Following in these artists’ footsteps, Giorno helped bring poetry into the age of multimedia by working with appropriated mass media images and montage techniques. Today, looking out his loft window, you can see the shiny New Museum of Contemporary Art, whose exterior is adorned with a rainbow-colored “Hell Yes!” neon sign made by artist Ugo Rondinone, Giorno’s partner. On various walls in Giorno’s space are the poem-prints he has been making for several decades—they feature slogans like “Life is a Killer” which, so far, has proven inaccurate in his case. Now in his seventies, Giorno still writes and performs his work at poetry festivals around the world, fueled by a renewed interest in his work that will surely grow with the publication of his Subduing Demons in America: Selected Poems 1962–2007, which I had the good fortune to edit. Giorno and I met on a Sunday morning in May, my birthday as it happened, and as we talked, we drank coffee and then champagne, to loosen up our “conceptual thinking” a little.
Marcus Boon When you perform your latest poem “Thanx 4 Nothing” live it brings the house down. In it you talk about aging, and other things too, that we still don’t talk about much publicly. Is that something you think about when you’re writing a poem?
John Giorno When a poem works the way that poem works, it becomes the reflection of the mind of each person in the audience. If there are 500 people in the audience, it’s like 500 mirrors looking at themselves. People think that when a poem works, it’s because of the lines of a great poet—Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, Whitman, or whoever—but it’s not so. The lines, when they magically work, are the reflection of your mind. It’s almost like the poet is making a mirror that nobody can see. When the audience hears that particular poem, which has lots of funny moments—I didn’t intend it to be a funny poem, it just happened that way—and especially the beginning, as it goes down in a downward spiral, you can sense the energy of people appreciating all these negative thoughts in an extremely positive way, because they’ve seen that face of life.
MB That’s a basic strategy of yours. And “Suicide Sutra” is its most extreme version. You go down to the darkest place, and yet that has a kind of positive effect.
JG That poem’s the most obvious because it contains physical instructions directing the audience to tighten their muscles and become uptight; it works with body and mind. What we were saying about a poem being a reflection of the audience’s mind, collectively and individually, is true for all poetry. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is a great poem: it mirrors the true nature of people’s minds. It’s a museum piece now, and it’s a bit archaic, but when you study that it was written in the aftermath of World War I, in 1919, then you understand its cultural importance. Take Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” for instance: it’s not that it’s such a great poem—it’s that it miraculously mirrored the moment in 1956, and the late ’50s and early ’60s, and that it resonated through the world in an extraordinary way.
MB Is the poet the person articulating that mirroring?
JG What does being a mirror mean? A mirror is wisdom. The concept is that from emptiness comes sound. When poets write a poem, they don’t really see words first. Even though a split second later they see words, they first hear a word in their mind; they experience it as sound and feel something. This is the moment wisdom arises—the sound becomes a word when it gets written down on the page, and then it becomes a poem.
MB So the power of the sound isn’t in the cognitive idea that’s transmitted, it’s actually in pure resonance?
JG Both are the same. The wisdom of the word is inherent in the resonance. The sound of wisdom is like the first sound of a bell ringing. Then the words become intellectual and discursive?. As an example, take the found image. I started using found images in 1962; I was inspired by, as you know, Andy Warhol, Bob Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. They were friends of mine (in ’62 nobody was famous yet), and on a daily basis I saw what they did. The images contained an essence that, in their work, became wisdom. Warhol’s silver Elvises and Marilyn Monroes seem like clichés of popular culture, but they’re not so. They are miraculously occurring images that reflect the culture and the nature of the mind in a very complicated way. They’re not just dumb pop images; they’re miraculous images. Even something like this reflects somebody’s mind.
MB So what do you think “Thanx 4 Nothing” is reflecting? There are a lot of dark thoughts in this poem, and yet, people seem to love to hear those things. But it’s not a sadomasochistic love, is it? To actually hear the thoughts spoken or written down somehow frees them from their negativity:
America, thanks for the neglect,
I did it without you,
let us celebrate poetic justice,
you and I never were,
never tried to do anything,
and never succeeded,
I want to thank you for introducing me to
the face of the naked mind,
thanx 4 nothing.
JG By absolute dumb luck, “Thanx 4 Nothing” consists of a consensus.
Particularly in this poem, the words arise from and are cushioned in compassion. When I’m performing it, I make a great effort to temper my voice, in volume and force and subtlety of sound, clearly reflecting the feelings of anger and joy and whatever. So, the poem becomes a joyful recognition of resignation, an understanding of the emptiness and thoughts that everyone has about the negative phenomena arising in life. In the poem and in life negative images are juxtaposed with positive images, going back and forth. A dark image or a negative feeling or emotion is just as pure as some totally luminous, peaceful, and happy feeling.
MB When I think of some of the poems in Balling Buddha, which are ferocious and shocking in a certain way, it feels to me that the positive aspect you’re talking about has grown in your poetry over the years.
JG That’s true. It was rock and roll, and I’m rock hard in the ’70s and ’80s. The poems were completely wrathful! That’s also the nature of this world. Realizing that negative images are equal to positive images and experiencing ordinary feelings in the poem and life with some equanimity and joy came through practicing meditation—it’s been four decades now. In meditation you are working with your mind, training it, and all this becomes somewhat of a reality, as opposed to just reading about it in a book. Understanding these concepts intellectually and experiencing them in reality are two different things. It takes a very long time to accomplish things in meditation. First you have to go to school and learn all kinds of dumb information, and great knowledge too. Otherwise you’re just embedded in ignorance. But then you have to forget about it completely. It is then that everything comes to life. The true teachers are people in your life.
MB Let’s talk about that a little—you’re very upfront about the influence of the pop artists and various Buddhist masters on your work, but not at the level of content, right?
JG I’ve let content arise as it will, with one lifelong rule not to use Buddhist words, because that closes the door on the audience. More important is direct transmission. As a poet, I got it from the painters and sculptors and great writers I’ve known. When you’re standing next to someone and they reject six images and pick one, you don’t have to be told why. You intuitively know why. You and I are both Tibetan Buddhists, so we know that this is also true in Dharma practice. You receive teachings from great Lamas who give you oral and mind transmissions along with the explanation of the teaching. Without this it’s difficult to make progress.
MB I’m writing about copying now and, of course, learning is a form of copying. But if it’s not information that’s being transmitted then what is it?
JG What is being transmitted is wisdom—nonverbal and beyond concepts—from the mind of the teacher, the artist, the person. And it arises—this is sort of a Buddhist concept—from emptiness. To give you a practical example, in school I studied Dada and Duchamp, the Italian Futurists and the Russian Constructivists, but they were not the direct influence of my using the found image. In our world of Buddhism and great Lamas, indeed, there is the transmission of body, speech, and mind. The mind transmission, from their heart-minds, beyond subject and object, beyond dualistic concepts, is indescribable.
MB You’ve celebrated your lovers in your writing, and broken through so many barriers when it comes to talking about queer love and sex. Is there an erotic sort of wisdom?
JG Well, yes, there can be. I just had the good fortune of having great lovers in the ’60s who happened to be great artists—Andy, Bob, Jasper, Burroughs. And now, Ugo Rondinone and I have been together for ten years. Transmission, of course, happens in every person’s relationships. It doesn’t happen in the front part of the brain so you don’t really think or talk about it. It’s about being with a great person’s mind. Having sex, sleeping with a person, makes it better: there’s a flow between two minds that become one mind, a third mind, and two minds in great bliss resting together beyond all concepts. But you don’t have to sleep with people to become wise. It helps, but it’s not necessary. (laughter)
MB Some people are confused by your attitude toward the self. There is this battle that’s been going on for decades between experimental and lyric poets: the lyric poets are supposedly interested in a direct expression of the self, and the experimental poets reject that notion, arguing that poetry is about process and language as a self-constituting entity. Your work doesn’t seem to fit into either of those categories. People ask: Is he talking about himself? Is this actually self-expression? Or is it an experiment, in the sense that something formal is going on?
JG Everything is an expression of my mind: it’s arising in my mind and there’s a self there. I have an ego, and it’s all coming out of that. Modernism and lyric poetry are now both historical eras. T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is a miraculous poem, though it has all kinds of modernist principles. The idea that poetry has to be without feeling and self and anything personal in it is enough to kill you. When concepts such as these first arose—going back to the tradition of experiments from the Russians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Italian Futurists to Duchamp—they were filled with enormous feelings. For Duchamp, to make that transition from painting naked women in 1912, to doing what he did took enormous feeling and energy. To now have that be devoid of personal emotions is a trap that people who become bad artists hold onto.
MB It’s almost as if your work points to an entirely different way of thinking about the relationship between words and the self. You’re talking about a self arising . . . not-self and self seem to be exactly the same thing in a way.
JG The self is nonexistent and arises out of emptiness—it is empty and yet is, miraculously. It’s different than the fixed nature of the ego in our intellectual traditions. To me, the self is as much of an illusion as illusion is, or it’s delusion inside of delusion.
MB How much of a struggle has it been for you to recognize that? Because you talk about depression and suicide as being very intimate to you over a long period of time.
JG I’ve always understood that. Take these lines from a really old poem that I wrote in 1982: “Life is a killer. When I was 15 years old, I knew everything there was to know. And now that I’m old, it was true.” And that line is completely true! What I know now, I’ve always known. And life can be really difficult. I have a depression problem that is triggered by a chemical imbalance I’ve had all of my life. Sometimes it just gets triggered by good news! (laughter) Somehow I’ve survived.
MB So much of your work, the way it’s headed off into so many different media, it’s like you’ve needed to radically reconfigure what being a poet means.
JG Yes, it began as one thing and then became extremely radical. I went to Columbia University in ’58. While in college, I was poetry editor of the Columbia Review. By the fall of 1960 I disliked what I was doing, and I stopped writing for a year and a half. Then in ’62, seeing Andy and the pop artists on a daily basis and seeing how they worked encouraged me to make a new start with everything. The poems from ’62 are the beginning of my adult life as a poet, of a trajectory that has gone from then to now. In those years I realized that poetry was 75 years behind painting and sculpture, music and dance. There was a world of artists besides the pop artists: John Cage and Merce Cunningham, the Judson Dance Theater, the musicians Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and many others. Poetry was still back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both lyric poetry and modernism. It took me a few years to figure out what to do, but I said to myself, If they can do it for painting and sculpture and music and dance, why can’t I do it for poetry? It was like a child’s dream. So in 1965, I started Giorno Poetry Systems, and poetry became a focus in my life.
I just got this great positive influence in being with artists. The freedom of the minds of the artists and dancers and musicians was so great . . . the poetry world was hopeless, and a nightmare. There was Allen Ginsberg and the Beats—if you were a young boy and wrote like Allen, he liked your work. I didn’t. Then there was Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery—they were only interested in you if you wrote like the New York School of poets. I didn’t. Burroughs and Brion Gysin really liked my work. We were all friends, but the poets were disappointing. In the art world, everybody gets an idea and they do it and if it works, it’s brilliant, and if it doesn’t work, they go onto another idea. I rejected the poets and followed my mind and heart. That’s easy for me to say now, but it was not without a lot of suffering.
MB Was there a temptation to jump ship toward something like rock and roll? People who were thinking about becoming poets, like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna or Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, then met a poet who told them, “Go join a band, don’t become a poet.” Kathy Acker said that to Kathleen Hanna.
JG I have a theory that from the ’50s on, countless kids who were poets by nature were given electric guitars for Christmas. They fiddled around with the chords, and words arose in their minds—they experimented with words and music and the great ones became rock stars. It’s only die-hard poets, like me, who stayed true to the music inherent in the word.
MB Was it a temptation for you?
JG No, because I started performing too old; you have to be 15 for that to happen. And I can’t sing. I’ve worked with my voice and music for 45 years, but I don’t sing in the traditional sense. I had a rock and roll band for eight years in the ’80s, and we made rock songs of my poems: hardcore, pop, industrial, but not rock songs made for dancing. It’s really difficult to become a rock star. Patti Smith did so miraculously. Jim Carroll did briefly; he had one great song, “People Who Died.” Jim’s a great poet; he’s not a great singer or musician, so that’s that. And somebody like Lou Reed became a great musician. Often, when poets go over to rock, the focus is on the rock song, not on the poetry.
MB You’ve had a huge effect on the so-called industrial scene, going back to bands like Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire. They were attracted to the experiments in sound that you’ve been doing.
JG That was because when they were young, a long time ago, they heard the LPs and saw me perform. As the years passed we became friends and performed together at festivals. People recognize their mind in other people—so do artists. There is also the larger literary context, which is that they were all very devoted to Burroughs. Cabaret Voltaire used the cut-up technique in their songs. It was a literary, drug, and cultural connection.
MB Do you still see any life in the cut-up as a technique? It feels like advertising has totally appropriated it. Even the Internet seems like a manifestation of the cut-up.
JG I know. As a great idea it seems to have had its day. It can be done too easily now with a computer, with random selection programs. Spam and Viagra junk mail use cut-up words as hooks to attract people . . . . The cut-up was a surrealist concept. Gysin adapted it and invented what we think of now as the literary cut-up. But he never used it. He gave it to Burroughs, who used it in his early books: The Ticket that Exploded, among others. He’d cut up his text, mine it for great images which he would then put back in the text. Many writers have used chance and the I Ching. John Cage did cut-ups his way. One thing is clear, when Cage, Dada, and Duchamp did chance, it had an enormous amount of feeling and mind in it. Now maybe that’s done for us, with the rapid transmission of information. Happily, though, people’s short attention now moves like my poems.
MB You think about poetry in general that way, right? It is a cut-up of cognitive processes as they arise in the mind. Isn’t consciousness a kind of cut-up, in a sense?
JG Indeed. When I write a poem, I don’t start with a concept but with something that arises in my mind. From the very beginning, in 1962, and when I first used collage, in 1965, my effort was to mirror the endless thoughts constantly changing in my mind, in everybody’s mind. As metaphors I used images from outside of my mind: found images. You could call that cut-up—the way the mind actually works. The mind is a bit identical to a motion picture, where you have one frame going one after another, making an illusion of something moving. Everything that’s arising actually vanishes before the next thing comes.
MB How important have drugs been in those terms? I think of drugs and the cut-up as somehow related. Either they both reveal consciousness and what already is happening there, or they introduce new tools allowing you to approach consciousness differently.
JG Drugs can help break through concepts, allow great clarity, and relax the mind.
MB What do you mean by break through concepts?
JG We fill our minds with endless information; we’re prisoners of conception. And somehow drugs short-circuit, or trick, the nerves, cutting through concepts, allowing the natural vastness of the mind to flow free . . . I happen to come from that generation for whom drugs were very important. I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. Nobody can imagine what it was like . . . it was the Dark Ages. I first took LSD in 1965, and it had a great liberating effect on my mind. I had spent my whole life doing nothing but reading books; everything was an intellectual concept, endless philosophy. On my first LSD trips, I would experience the nature of the mind, the countless realms of being. I wasn’t enlightened, but this gave me a real indication that there was such a thing.
Grass is a very good writers’ drug but it isn’t a painters’ or sculptors’ drug. Andy Warhol’s drug of choice was speed. He did his greatest work, from ’60 through ’67, on speed. I was there, seeing him pop pills, and did so too. Every day he did some miraculously great work. The proof was in the pudding. Without speed, there would be no Andy Warhol. When he was shot in 1968, the inside of his body was ripped up by the ricocheting bullet. The doctors told him, “One more pill and you’re dead.” He was terrified and never took speed again. He went on to more great things, but he had accomplished the breakthroughs. We know that speed kills. It’s a terrible drug. But it can be extraordinarily useful to artists at the right time in their lives.
MB Wasn’t it Sartre who said that if he had a jar of speed pills he’d know that within three days a block of his thinking would unravel onto paper?
JG I loved speed in the ’60s and very early ’70s, but when I stopped liking my work, I stopped taking speed. I went on to ginseng—a lighter version. But I’m so susceptible; a little bit was quite strong for me. I haven’t taken those kinds of drugs in 30 years. Once your mind is open, you don’t need it to be opened any more. Another great example is Jack Kerouac. When they teach Jack’s books in these stupid English classes, they say he wrote for 36 hours straight. They never mention drugs or say, “Now, for homework I want you go to home, take some Benzedrine, and write for 36 hours.” Nobody can write nonstop like that and have it all be still relatively coherent. Speed gives you this extra burst of clarity to work with.
Drugs should be mandatory in school, a required subject. What they do and how to take them should be taught, with a guide — drugs are most beneficial when you’re young. (1)
MB That’d also break through the mystique of transgression around them.
JG It’d be just like a gym class! (laughter)
MB You’d have the drug teacher, who would come in with the class assignment . . . (laughter) But then probably no one would be interested in drugs any more.
JG It’d help people who wanted to work with the mind to realize its nature, and liberate it.
MB And that enterprise would become worthwhile. Do you think things are getting better in that way, or getting worse? There’s an enormous surge of energies, or there has been at least since World War II, toward the thought of the liberation of consciousness. We forget how much progress has actually been made . . .
JG The past 50 years have been a golden age of poetry and spiritual accomplishment. The profound availability of poetry now had never existed before. Back in the 19th century, they printed 100 copies of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, and it was a great hit in Paris! Back in the 18th-century, a few noblemen in the Age of Enlightenment read books and a bit of poetry; in medieval times there were a few monks who read poems; and going back to the Romans, only a few aristocrats. Now in every city and town in America, France, Europe, and around the world there are cultural centers hosting poetry reading series and festivals big and small—and there’s slam, rap, hip hop, which collectively connect to so many people.
On the other hand, this is a golden age in terms of spiritual accomplishment. Zen Buddhism came earlier; it was in the ’20s and ’30s when people began practicing. From the ’60s to now, the Tibetan Buddhist traditions have spawned several generations of realized meditators, and there are Vipassana practioners, Hindus, and Sufis. Every small town in America has yoga and meditation centers, and so does Europe, Australia, and Asia. This is unique because people are allowed to find their spiritual preference, whatever that is. What’s happened in the last 50 years, with so many people free to work with their minds, is extraordinary in the history of the world. Our era may seem gloomy, but it’s not so.
MB Yeah. There’s a transformation of everyday life, or social life, that one would expect to find with these very powerful ideas that have spread through the culture. What I find hard to measure is whether or not that’s actually happening. Or is it just something where poetry stays poetry, this activity that happens at certain moments, and its ripples in the larger society are somewhat limited?
JG Poetry’s never going to be as popular as Disney. One would love everybody to be able to understand profundity and have it transform their lives, but poetry is not Disney.
MB That’s what I’m talking about: the struggle between a kind of corporate military-industrial culture, a ubiquitous bland culture, and the multiplicity of poetry and different spiritual forms manifesting. There seems to be an impasse . . .
JG In every country, the obstacle right at this moment in our lives is the government. Bush, for the past eight years, has made a catastrophe of the world. Think of how different it would have been if Kerry or Gore had won. It’d be so radically different it’s mind-boggling. But that’s the world. Now it’s Bush, and probably McCain next. And then if you take Europe, there you have Berlusconi. Is it possible that this guy is the hero of Italy? He’s like Mussolini reincarnated. Fortunately there’s no Hitler there for Mussolini to ape. That thought is so depressing. And France has Sarkozy . . . . So it’s inside of that basic ignorance that permeates our world that miraculous things occur, that people appreciate poetry as the metaphor for working at liberating the mind. Poetry is the same as art, the same as music and dance. That’s so enormously a part of our culture now; it never was this way in the history of the world.
(1) Editor’s note: Giorno is being facetious. Drugs are dangerous and are not to be used for recreational purposes or the creation of art without a shaman/guide or a doctor’s prescription.