In 1955 Allen Ginsberg’s therapist encouraged him to quit his day job and devote more of his time to poetry. Experimentations (of all kinds) later, in 1956 he published HOWL, a poem in three parts and a footnote, which caused an unspeakable stir at the time (“so obscene”) and often referred to “as the poem that helped change the world”, a tall order for sure, and is considered one of the benchmarks of Beat Generation’s opus. Many of you have read it, many of you feel like you have heard enough about it that you don’t have to read it but this weekend 55 years later DC gets to experience firsthand this piece as it was intented to be experienced: as a performance piece.
On Friday and Saturday (at 8 and 10pm), at the 5th and K Busboys and Poets, Split this Rock will present “Howl” in the City, a music and poetry event to celebrate National Gallery of Art’s Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg show.
The poem will be read by Anne Waldman, one of Allen Ginsberg’s close friends and collaborators, accompanied by musical improvisations by a string quartet comprised of Matthew Hemerlein, violin; Matvei Sigalov, violin; Katie Chambers, cello; and Karin Kilper, viola; and will conclude with a free show on Saturday at 10 pm featuring Kyp Malone of TV on The Radio.
Needless to say, it is going to be a special weekend.
To mark the occasion, we took some photos of the string quartet in question at the National Gallery of Art and Matthew Hemerlein interviewed both Anne Waldman and Kyp Malone about: the event, the history of the work in question, and their creative process.
Matthew Hemerlein interviews Anne Waldman-
Photo with Allen Ginsberg by Rachel Homer, Naropa Institute 1975. Dancers: Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn
BYT: What was the first piece of poetry that really awakened something inside of you? Do you know how old were you when that occurred?
Anne Waldman: Well, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly because I grew up in a household of people reading poetry and my mother was married to the son of a very well known Greek poet who was translating works from the Greeks. I think it was in probably junior high. I had a wonderful teacher who read Wallace Stevens’s poem the Idea of Order at Key West. There was something about hearing it read aloud, rather than reading it in a book. And then, you know, we had Howl in the house – that was the late 50’s. I wasn’t studying poetry in that way, but I was already attuned, I’d say.
How was it that you came meet Allen Ginsberg?
Probably first officially in Berkley in 1965, at the Berkley Poetry Conference, although I had an early phone call with him probably in ‘64 or ‘63, I was looking into the possibility of him coming to Bennington College for a reading. He was out of the country in the early 60s, so he was traveling at that time. So yes, Berkley. And then after that, New York. He was around the Poetry Project and I lived in his farm, the Committee on Poetry – that was the early ‘70s. My brother had been caretaking his house in Tree Valley, New York. He bought a wonderful farm there and it was the Committee on Poetry Farm where he would take in stray poets who needed some time out of the city. We travelled together out to Boulder, Colorado in 1974 where we were both invited to participate in the summer festival conference at Naropa, which was just beginning. We were invited to create a poetic program which became the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I had also seen Allen in Europe in ’67 in London. There was a very famous reading with Lungaretti, the Italian poet, Michael X, the Rolling Stones were there, quite an array of folk at a party given by a notorious hostess, Panna Grady, who lived in what was formerly the Chinese Embassy in London. It was an amazing party. I remember leaving at dawn and hearing Allen chanting Hare Krishna with finger cymbals from the balcony. And we were on the Rolling Thunder Review together in ’76. We became closer in the ‘70s. We were at the Chicago trial together demonstrating. So we were caught up in the amazing historical events of the time, seeing in the news very intense occasions of activity and we traveled to various places in the 70s, through the 80’s – to France, Prague right after the Velvet Revolution. We were in a Buddhist seminary together in 1980; we were both students of a Tibetan teacher; we were founding a school. But the initial contact was in Berkley, and that was a very radical summer for me, you know, going out to Berkley from New York not having been there before, and with all the incredible paradigm shifts going on. This conference was a very wonderful convening of the fans of the more experimental American poetry going on. That’s when I felt an allegiance and a connection.
Sounds like you’ve had a lot of shared experiences over the years. They all sound pretty remarkable.
Tell me a little about your experience writing, and the genesis behind, your book Manatee/Humanity.
Okay, well lately I’ve been working on longer projects. The Manatee project was probably 3 years in the making, and I see it as an investigative hybrid project combining elements of prose, narrative, and then it breaks into song, it has information, it’s an investigation into revolution, neurons, the genus of the manatee, a creature that is so endangered. The initial idea came when Jeb Bush down in Florida took the manatee off the endangered list. I had been through Florida and encountered a manatee at the aquarium, and then I sought out a little investigation on their life form. They were land mammals 40 million years ago, related to the elephant, their closest relative. Both have that sense of the deep, archaic, primordial consciousness. The manatee I encountered was a female manatee, very old, very scarred, very wise – I mean, one is projecting somewhat, but they are very intelligent animals. They have no use in our contemporary reality. We don’t have an industry around the manatees like we have one around the whales. They have a wonderful song. The word comes from manatí, a Caribbean word for breast. I feel that they think archivally, deeper than man. So the play was on this man and manatee and humanity and a mediation about what is our humanity? It has only become more clear with this oil spill and I just did a new piece called Letting the Air Out, which focuses on fish, fish, fish, and so on.
What is it that you take away from Howl or that you wish to communicate to people through your reading of it?
Well I think ultimately it’s a language manifestation, which is also an intervention, which is what poems should do. They should come into consciousness, come into the world as what they are. You don’t have to say this is like this or like that or like a symphony, it’s what it is. It’s that amazing surrealist condensation of minute particulars, which is a phrase Allen loves, which comes from William Blake, who says, “look to the little ones, look to the minute particulars.” So that sense of trying to capture – Allen called it snap shot poetics. I think this poem has all these qualities and it has this way that it’s a time machine back to the time Allen wrote it, you feel his consciousness, his discovery, his exaltation, and then he’s including his world and the suffering of individual people. The sense of it being a time capsule, but also a time bomb because it’s written after the atomic bomb, so we’re living still in the shadow of the bomb, and the Holocaust, and the question is always, “Can you have beauty after Auschwitz?” Can you have beauty after these horrible things that have unfolded in the name of civilization? That sense of it being a time bomb is the continuing relevance of the poem with the litany of sobbing armies, the sorrows of the Congress, the oil spill, this power mindset which is very hard to penetrate. The poem continues to resonate with all of these continuing issues of our time, whether it’s AIDS, nuclear war, the endless war, the control mechanisms of corporations, and so on. From that point of view it’s still relevant. It’s a time piece, in his invocations of the “angel-headed hipsters”, and people going to their death, Carl Solomon being locked in an insane asylum – and of course Allen was in there with him, so he’s writing from within this kind of consciousness of suffering this madness of our reality, of our world. You think of all of these people in prisons, torture chambers, the line about jumping off the building does invoke 9/11 for me. I miss Allen, a lot, in these times and I’m sure he’d have some very interesting commentary, and some very interesting work. So you can plug in this poem and the whole world comes into being that’s still true, I guess. And it’s still the individual’s, Allen Ginsberg’s, consciousness and his sense of empathy. I think the poem has great empathy, which is something we all continue to need. There’s a talk that Allen gave at Naropa where he talks about breaking through: [reading from an anthology of the Kerouac School of Lectures and Essays] “I experienced that with Howl, a break through, not of universal consciousness, or the social consciousness, but the discovery of my own consciousness and then a proclamation of that. I’m trying to lay it out on the page: What is it I really desire, instead of what I’m told I should know or desire?” And then he’s saying to his students, “Can you name what you desire? I took one key from one line in William Carlos Williams’s ‘unworldly love, it has no hope of the world and cannot change the world to its delight.’” And then out of that, which is a kind of Buddhist view, out of that we’re still trying for that hope of the world. You have to say what it is you truly desire. You want to keep trying to change the world to your delight. So that’s a little taste of how Allen’s thinking, and it’s a big vision. Out of the heartbreak comes the inspiration.
Matthew Hemerlein interviews Kyp Malone of TV on The Radio
Photo via Electronic Beats
BYT:How long have you been playing music for?
Kyp:I started playing when I was a kid, I played violin and viola.
Was it through school that you started playing or through the suggestion of a parent? What exactly prompted you? Did you play classical music initially?
Initially, yeah, although it never really took. Although I did enjoy playing, I was more interested in rock n’ roll and other forms of music.
When did you start writing songs?
It started when I was a little kid, like seven or eight, and then I did a little bit in high school. When I moved to California when I was 21 I started writing again.
What have you been focusing your writing on lately? How often do you write songs and what’s been popping into your mind when you’ve been writing?
It’s kind of hard to define the space of when I write. I don’t have a lot of space in my life if I don’t dedicate a time. Right now I’m writing every day. It’s hard to write about one thing, to focus on one thing to write about. For me, I just write about what comes up and what comes out. I’m reading a lot about writers and poets in regards to how people have approached Ecological topics. It’s not coming out so much yet, I’m just thinking about it and I have to figure out what I have to say about the natural world.
There’s a lot of material there, and it’s obviously very important as an artist to get in touch with that and vocalize that. If there was another medium that you were to be involved with, what would it be if it weren’t music?
I think video or film. I also feel that healing modalities is the next interest for me. I’ve read a lot trying to find out information about people. That could be the thing that’s not focused so much on traditional creative work like art.
Which healing modalities in particular are fascinating to you?
I like to cook. There’s so much people have to say about nutrition and healing through food. I have a lot of friends in New York who are studying the use of herbs and other sorts of body works of all kinds, i like to touch people.
One of our close family friends started the first acupuncture university in America and wrote a bunch of books so I’ve been involved in “alternative medicine” since I was born. I wasn’t born in a hospital or anything, so all that was a huge part of my upbringing. I think in a lot of ways they’re very interconnected, music and healing. In my opinion, music is like a drug: it makes you feel good. From a Chinese medicine perspective, it’s like changing your meridian system and clearing energy and so on. It just depends on if you’re doing it in a more individual way or in a more universal way. With music, you can reach a lot of people. In the span of an hour, you can reach 20,000 people if it’s the right venue.
What is the creative process? Getting ready for shows, practicing, recording, etc. How is it different with TV on the Radio versus your solo project Rain Machine?
I did Rain Machine for a number of years as a performance with just me on stage but for the past year I toured with between four and five other people. In some ways, there’s a lot of similarities. Rain Machine rehearsed more as a band than TV on the Radio ever has as a band in years. Part of playing music outside by myself was that I wanted to keep playing music in other ways it was hard to maintain a respectful relationship with other people because of time constraints. The easiest way to continue working outside of TV on the Radio was on my own schedule when I had the free time. In a lot of way they’re different but in a lot of other way’s It’s music and it’s performance.
What is it about Allen Ginsberg’s life and work that resonates with you?
I am deeply appreciative of the cultural contribution and the cultural space that, that man occupied and occupies. The way I read his stuff, and hear his stuff, and see his stuff has changed over the years as I’ve gotten older. But even as my orientation changes I’m still able to love the work and appreciate it.