Peter Barry Chowka: Allen, since we're in this automobile setting, I want to ask you: much of your poetry, especially in The Fall of America, was composed in cars on your various travels. In so many of the poems which came out of automobiles in the sixties you really captured the essence of the times, the Vietnam war reports on the radio, the lyrics of the rock music happening then. I wonder if, lately, you're writing poetry while on the road in automobiles?
Allen Ginsberg: Not so much. Occasionally, I still write travel poems in airplanes, but not as often. It might be that the times have changed. Also, we were doing a lot of cross country traveling in cars in the early and mid-sixties. More than now.
PBC: A lot of your most recent poetry, especially some that you read last night (Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.) contains very spiritual, and specifically Buddhist, imagery.
AG: Not so spiritual; it's more practical observations during the course of meditation or after.
PBC: "Down-to-earth" spiritual, then. You don't like the word "spiritual?"
AG: Yeah, I'm not even sure if the word is helpful because it gets people all distracted with the idea of voices and ghosts and visions. I used to get distracted that way.
PBC: How do you select which poems you're going to present at a reading? Do you consider what type of audience you feel will be there?
AG: Well, I read there years before with my father in a celebrated moment, for a Washington society lady who invited us. I met Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, at the last reading . . .
PBC: Helms was at the last reading?
AG: Yes. And so this time I was all hyped up, 'cause [William] Burroughs was coming along, too: Burroughs, who's the great destroyer of the CIA, with his prose.
PBC: Were you able to sense any reaction from the audience last night to the kinds of things that were being read?
AG: I don't think there were any CIA people there this time, (laughs) I was a little disappointed: there were only secret agents -- no big fish. I prepared poems that I hadn't read in Washington before, or poems that were extremely solid; I wanted a solid, good reading of high-quality poems rather than just sort-of random poems, daily journal poems. So I picked "pieces" that were complete in themselves. For me the high point was a long, ranting, aggressive, wild poem ("Hadda be Playing on the Juke Box") linking the CIA and the Mafia and the FBI and the NKVD and the KGB and the multinational cash registers.
PBC: One line I especially liked was "Poetry useful if it leaves its own skeleton hanging in the air like Buddha, Shakespeare and Rimbaud." Would it be correct to say, from this line and from some of the other poetry you read, that your sadhana now is the spreading of the dharma through poetry?
AG: Well, I've been working in that direction with Chogyam Trungpa, especially influenced by staying all summer at Naropa Institute at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which is ideationally modeled on Kerouac's practice of spontaneous utterance and Milarepa's similar, or original, practice.
PBC: It was Kerouac who originally turned you on to Buddhism, wasn't it?
AG: Yeah, he was the first one I heard chanting the "Three Refuges" in Sanskrit, with a voice like Frank Sinatra.
PBC: And he wrote that as-yet unpublished volume Some of the Dharma, which, I think, consisted of letters he wrote to you about Buddhism?
AG: Yeah, and he also, in the mid-fifties, wrote Mexico City Blues, which is a great exposition of Mind -- according to Trungpa. I read aloud to Trungpa halfway through Mexico City Blues on a four-hour trip from Karme-Choling, Vermont, down to New York, and he laughed all the way. And I said, "What do you think of it?" And he answered, "It's a perfect exposition of Mind."
PBC: Trungpa is a recognized poet in his own right. Do you think you've become so close to Trungpa because you're both poets?
AG: Oh, yeah, that's a big influence. He encouraged me originally to abandon dependence on a manuscript and to practice improvisational poetry. He said, "Why don't you do like the great poets do, like Milarepa; trust your own mind."
PBC: Compose it and then forget it; not necessarily write it down?
AG: It's unforgettable in the sense that it gets on tape. The best thing I ever did was a long "Dharma/Chakra Blues" in Chicago last year, but the tape is completely incomprehensible and I can't transcribe it. That is an old tradition, like Li Po writing poems and leaving them on trees, or Milarepa singing to the wind with his right hand at his ear to listen to the sound, shabd.
PBC: How long have you known Trungpa now? He seems to have become a great influence in your life.
AG: An enormous influence. We first met on the street in 1971, in front of Town Hall (New York City). I stole his taxicab; my father was ill and I wanted to get my father off the street.
PBC: It was purely an accidental encounter?
AG: Yeah. I said "Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum" and gave him a "Namaste" when he was introduced. I asked him years later what he thought of my pronouncing the Padma Sambhava mantra to salute him, and he said, "Oh, I wondered if you knew what you were talking about." (laughs) He's been pushing me to improvise, to divest myself of ego eventually, kidding me about "Ginsberg resentment" as a national hippie characteristic, and warning me to prepare for death, as I registered in a poem called "What Would You Do If You Lost It?" published by the Lama Foundation.
PBC: As far as the "resentment" aspect, has he influenced you in that direction? For example, many of the poems you read last night seemed more contemplative, meditative.
AG: He has provided a situation in which I do sit, like at the Naropa seminaries or at the intensive sitting meditations where Peter [Orlovsky] and I have gone and sat for a week at a time in retreat cabins in the Rocky Mountains, or where I've sat weeks alone, and he's suggested that I not write during those weeks when I'm in retreat -- which has resulted in a lot of post-sitting, meditative, haiku-like writings. He's also made me more aware of the elements of resentment, aggression, and dead-end anger in my earlier poetry and behavior, which is useful to know and be mindful of. It doesn't necessarily curb it, but I'm able at least to handle it with more grace, maybe, as last night, where I read a whole series of meditative poems and then this outrageous attack on the CIA-Mafia-FBI connection. But it was put in a context where it was like the normal explosion of, maybe even, vajra-resentment, so that it doesn't become a dominant paranoia but is seen within the greater space -- the flow of Mind Consciousness while sitting -- of continuing mindfulness over the years. Trungpa's basic attitude toward that kind of political outrage is that things like gay liberation, women's liberation, peace mobilization, have an element -- a seed -- of value in them; but it depends on the attitude of mind of the participant as to whether it's a negative feedback and a karmic drug or a clear, healthy, wholesome action.
PBC: Often those political movements can become so mutually exclusive that they serve to isolate one from a lot of the potential . . .
AG: Or so filled with resentment that they become dead-ends. More and more, by hindsight, I think all of our activity in the late sixties may have prolonged the Vietnam war. As Jerry Rubin remarked after '68, he was so gleeful he had torpedoed the Democrats. Yet it may have been the refusal of the Left to vote for Humphrey that gave us Nixon. Humphrey and Johnson were trying to end the war to win the election, while Nixon was sending emissaries (Mme. Claire Chennault) to Thieu saying, "Hang on until I get elected and we'll continue the war." Though I voted for Humphrey in '68 I think a lot of people refused to vote, and Nixon squeaked in by just a couple of hundred thousand votes.
PBC: And now, eight years later, we might get Humphrey again anyway.
AG: So that might be the karma of the Left, because of their anger, their excessive hatred of their fathers and the liberals, their pride, their vanity . . .ourvanity, our pride, our excessive hatred. It may be that we have on our karma the continuation of the Vietnam war in its worst form with more killing than before. We may have to endure Humphrey so that we can take the ennui or boredom of examining what we've wrought when we got "exciting" Nixon. In a way it all balanced out; maybe it was better that Nixon got in because then we had Watergate and the destruction of the mythology of authority of a hypocrite government.
PBC: Since this is 1976, a year of inevitable increase in political discussion, I'd like to ask the following question. Your Buddhist practice seems not to have interfered with the acute politic concern, for the CIA and other issues, which you continue to display in recent poems like "Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox." How, if at all, has your work with Trungpa -- your extensive meditation practice -- changed your outlook on North American or world politics?
AG: It has changed it somewhat from a negative fix on the "fall of America" as a dead-end issue -- the creation of my resentment -- into an appreciation of the fatal karmic flaws in myself and the nation. Also with an attempt to make use of those flaws or work with them -- be aware of them -- without animosity or guilt: and find some basis for reconstruction of a humanly useful society, based mainly on a less attached, less apocalyptic view. In other words, I have to retract or swallow my apocalypse. (laughs)
PBC: That's a lot to swallow. Do you have any specific thoughts on the American political scene in this Presidential election year?
AG: Governor Jerry Brown.
PBC: Is the condition of the Left refusing to support Humphrey in '68 the main thing that comes to mind in talking of the mistakes of the sixties, or are there other things that you've realized, as well?
AG: Well, that's sort of a basic mistake you can refer to that everybody can remember in context, I think, so it's a good, solid thing. What was the point of the Left? It was saying, "End the war." What was the action of the Left? It refused to support Humphrey because he wasn't "pure" enough (laughs), so there was an apocalyptic purity desire which maybe was impractical, or "unskillful means."
PBC: Which seems to go along with what I know about Trungpa and his teachings, in general: that it should be a very down-to-earth, practical sadhana, which doesn't include requirements of stringent vegetarianism or giving up cigarette smoking.
AG: And which is mindful of that quality of resentment which he characterizes as "Ginsberg resentment" or "America Ha-Ha." I was resentful, at first, when he came on with that kind of line. Actually, I voted for Humphrey, so I wasn't dominated that much by resentment, but it seems to be a stereotype, maybe 'cause Trungpa reads too much Time magazine. He's entitled to his opinion, and I'm surely profiting psychologically from him because there's enough insight in that to make me halt in my tracks and think twice, thrice.
PBC: Do you see his movement in contemporary Buddhism as the most vital one in America at this point?
AG: Shakespeare has a very interesting line: "Comparisons are odious." So to say "the most vital" -- well, everybody's doing a different kind of work -- some quiet, some more flashy. I seem to be able to relate to Trungpa best, although I must say that it may be that the looseness and heartiness and charm of his approach is not necessarily the deepest for my case. I notice I'm very slow in getting into my prostration: of 100,000 prostrations, I've done only 10,000 and I'm way behind, maybe the last in the class. But I guess he's gotten a lot of people more deeply into foundation practices, perhaps on more of a mass scale than any other Tibetan lama, if that's any good count. I suppose it's the quality of the student that counts. Trungpa's movement is a very rational and classical approach to Buddhism, in his real serious attention to sitting: "Go sit, weeks and weeks and weeks, ten hours a day."
PBC: It's primarily silent meditation?
AG: His basic approach is to begin with shamatha, a Sanskrit word meaning peaceful mindedness, creating tranquillity of mind. It consists of paying attention to the breath coming out of the nostrils and dissolving in space, the outbreath only, and is a variety of vipassana practice, which begins with concentration on the breath passing in and out just at the tip of the nose, or Zen practice which involves following the breath to the bottom of the belly.
PBC: What is it about the Tibetan style of Buddhism that first attracted you?
AG: Originally it was the iconography: the mandalas, the Wheel of Life, and the Evans-Wentz books, some of which were recommended by Raymond Weaver, who was a professor of English at Columbia University in the '40s. Weaver gave Kerouac a list of books to read after he read an unpublished early novel of Kerouac's titled The Sea Is My Brother -- a list which included the early gnostic writers, The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Herukas -- the many-armed, fierce guardian deities -- reminded me of visions I'd had in 1948 relating to William Blake's poem, "The Sick Rose"; visions of terror -- of the universe devouring me, being conquered and eaten by the universe. I used The Tibetan Book of the Dead while ingesting ayahuasca in New York City in 1960-61. Later on, some contact with Dudjom Rinpoche in India reinforced this interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
PBC: How has your study of Tibetan Buddhism, and your work with Trungpa Rinpoche, altered or expanded your own awareness?
AG: The shamatha meditation which I've practiced for a number of years under Trungpa Rinpoche's auspices leads first to a calming of the mind, to a quieting of the mechanical production of fantasy and thought forms; it leads to sharpened awareness of them and to taking an inventory of them. It also leads to an appreciation of the empty space around into which you breathe, which is associated with dharmakaya. In the tradition of the vipassana practice, this leads to insight into detail in the space around you, which is exemplified in William Carlos Williams' brief poems noting detail in the space around him. I'll paraphrase his poem "Thursday" -- "I've had my dreams, like other men, but it has come to nothing. So that now I stand here feeling the weight of my coat on my shoulders, the weight of my body in my shoes, the breath pushing in and out at my nose -- and resolve to dream no more." In terms of external manifestation rather than just subjective awareness, an observer could see in me some results of that "widening of the area of consciousness," which is a term that I used at the end of Kaddish. For example, since 1971, I've come to improvise poetry or song on the stage, trusting my own mind rather than a manuscript. Also, I do a lot of sitting, which is, in itself, a self-sufficient activity.
PBC: Before you began to study with Trungpa, you'd never associated yourself with a spiritual master?
AG: I had worked with Swami Muktananda -- "Kundalini Swami," as Gary Snyder calls him, and sat for a year and a half with a mantra that he had given me.
PBC: You knew Swami Bhaktivedanta (leader of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness) as well.
AG: Since '66 I had known Swami Bhaktivedanta and was somewhat guided by him, although not formally -- spiritual friend. I practiced the hare krishna chant, practiced it with him, sometimes in mass auditoriums and parks in the Lower East Side of New York.
PBC: You really did a lot to popularize that chant. Probably the first place I heard it was when I saw you read in '68.
AG: Actually, I'd been chanting it since '63, after coming back from India. I began chanting it, in Vancouver at a great poetry conference, for the first time in '63, with Duncan and Olson and everybody around, and then continued. When Bhaktivedanta arrived on the Lower East Side in '66 it was reinforcement for me, like "the reinforcements had arrived" from India.
PBC: You mentioned your trip to India in the early sixties. Do you consider that to be very significant in your orientation afterwards toward your present spiritual goals?
AG: My trip wasn't very spiritual, as anybody can see if they read Indian Journals. Most of it was spent horsing around, sightseeing and trying the local drugs. But I did visit all of the holy men I could find and I did encounter some teachers who gave me little teachings then that were useful then and now. Some of the contacts were prophetic of what I arrived at later here in America, because I met the head of the Kagyu order, Gyalwa Karmapa there, and saw the black crown ceremony in Sikkim in '62 or '63. He subsequently visited the U.S. with Trungpa as host. I went to see Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma sect and got one very beautiful suggestion from him about the bum LSD trips I was having at the time, which I'll quote again: "If you see something horrible, don't cling to it; and if you see something beautiful, don't cling to it."
PBC: Has LSD been less of a factor in your life lately?
AG: Less, though it was a strong influence and I think basically a good influence. I went through a lot of horror scenes with it. Finally, through poetic and meditation practice I found the key to see through the horror and come to a quiet place while tripping.
PBC: Do you ever find it possible to do serious meditation while under the influence of drugs, or do you find the two exclusive?
AG: I haven't tried since I've been more deeply involved in meditation. The last time I took acid, I went up into the Teton Mountains, to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and made a little sitting place on the rocks, near the snow. Just sat there all day, unmoved, unmoving, watching my breath, while white clouds pushed casting shadows on the stillness of the white snow. It was like sitting up in the corner of a great mandala of the god-worlds thinking of the hells -- bombing Cambodia -- going on down the other side of the mandala, the other side of the round earth; and then breathing, and the thought dissolving, and the physical presence of the place where I was resuming, sitting in a white snowy place in the middle of the whole "empty" vast full universe.
PBC: The reason I asked is that most teachers I've heard of have counseled against using drugs or have said they're an impediment on the path, although many people have reported experiencing profound mystical meditative states while under the influence of certain drugs, and that drugs have opened them to a more expansive consciousness.
AG: I think that even those teachers who disapprove of the use of drugs by their students do credit the LSD wave with opening up people's awareness to the possibility of alternative modes of consciousness, or at least a search for some stable place, or perhaps leaving their imaginations open to understand some of the imagery, such as the wheels of life. Trungpa's position is that "psychedelics" are too trippy, whereas people need to be grounded; everything is uncertain enough as it is. The world, societies, mind are uncertain. What's needed is some non-apocalyptic, non-ambitious, non-spiritually materialistic, grounded sanity, for which he proposes shamatha meditation and discourages grass and acid, which is logically sensible. I think he may have some more ample ideas about that for specific situations.
Peter Barry Chowka: I want to talk a little about the concept of "egolessness," which is something a lot of us have trouble defining and practicing. Last night you mentioned the three marks of existence are "change, suffering and egolessness."
Allen Ginsberg: Trungpa lectured on that at Naropa last year, very beautifully, and I turned it into a stanza:
Born in this world you got to suffer everything changes you got no soul
representing suffering, change/transiency, and anatma or no permanent essential identity, meaning, in a sense, non-theism, or nonselfism. It's a description of the nature of things, by their very nature. It might knock out Krishna and Joya and God and some notions of Christ and some notions of Buddha. It may not necessarily knock out devotion or the quality of devotion, though.
PBC: How long ago was your poem "Ego Confession" written? I'm curious, because the line in it that I picked up on was the first one: "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America."
AG: Yeah, it's obviously a great burlesque, a take-off on myself, shameful, shocking. (laughs) I wrote it in October '74, listening to Cecil Taylor play in a nightclub in San Francisco, sitting next to Anne Waldman, who is the co-director of the Kerouac School of Poetics at Naropa. And I was so ashamed of what I wrote down that I wouldn't let her see it, I hid my notebook from her with my hand. Within a month I realized that the poem was funny.
PBC: Do you have any new poems in your notebook that you'd care to read for us while we're on this trip to Baltimore?
AG: I think the text of the "Gospel of Noble Truths" hasn't been printed anywhere. It's a gospel style song, for blues chord changes one/four/one/five/ and next stanza return to one. There's another reflection of that theme in a poem I wrote along on the Rolling Thunder Review.
Lay down Lay down yr Mountain Lay down God Lay down Lay down yr music Love Lay down Lay down Lay down yr hatred Lay yrself down Lay down Lay down yr Nation Lay yr foot on the Rock Lay down yr whole Creation Lay yr Mind down Lay down Lay down yr Magic Hey Alchemist Lay it down Clear Lay down yr Practice precisely Lay down yr Wisdom dear Lay down Lay down yr Camera Lay down yr Image right Yea Lay down yr Image Lay down Light. Nov. 1, 1975
PBC: Is Dylan the "Alchemist" in those lines?
AG: Yeah, the poem is directed to him, because we were considering the nature of the movie we were making, which will be a nice thing, a sort of "dharma movie," hopefully, depending on how it's edited. The movie made along the Rolling Thunder tour (120 hours of film which will have to be reduced to three) has many "dharma" scenes. It was like a Buddhist conspiracy on the part of some of the directors and film cameramen; the director Mel Howard was out at Naropa last year. In every scene that I played I used the Milarepa mantra "Ah" and kept trying to lay it on Dylan or the audience or the film men.
PBC: Much of Dylan's music, even from the middle, electric period of his career, has impressed me as being very Zen-like in a lot of its imagery. Knowing him well as you do, do you think he has been influenced by Zen or Buddhism?
AG: I don't know him because I don't think there is any him, I don't think he's got a self!
PBC: He's ever-changing.
AG: Yeah. He's said some very beautiful, Buddha-like things. One thing, very important, was I asked him whether he was having pleasure on the tour, and he said, "Pleasure, Pleasure, what's that? I never touch the stuff." And then he went on to explain that at one time he had had a lot of pain and sought a lot of pleasure, but found that there was a subtle relationship between pleasure and pain. His words were, "They're in the same framework." So now, as in the Bhagavad Gita, he does what it is necessary to do without consideration of "pleasure," not being a pleasure junkie, which is good advice for anyone coming from the top-most pleasure-possible man in the world. He also said he believed in God. That's why I wrote "Lay down yr Mountain Lay down God." Dylan said that where he was, "on top of the Mountain," he had a choice whether to stay or to come down. He said, God told him, "All right, you've been on the Mountain, I'm busy, go down, you're on your own. Check in later." (laughs) And then Dylan said, "Anybody that's busy making elephants and putting camels through needles' eyes is too busy to answer my questions, so I came down the Mountain."
PBC: Several of his albums have shown his interest in God, especially New Morning.
AG: "Father of Night," yeah. I think that is, in a sense, a penultimate stage. It's not his final stage of awareness. I was kidding him on the tour, I said, "I used to believe in God." So he said, "Well, I used to believe in God, too." (laughs) And then he said, "You'd write better poetry if you believed in God."
PBC: You've been fairly close to Dylan for a number of years now . . .
AG: No, I didn't see him for four years. He just called me up at 4 a.m. and said "What are you writing, sing it to me on the telephone." And then said, "O.K., let's go out on the road."
PBC: He was encouraged by a letter you'd written him about your appreciation of his song "Idiot Wind?"
AG: Denise Mercedes, a guitarist whom Dylan admires, was talking to Dylan, and he mentioned to her that he was tickled. I had written a long letter to him demanding $200,000 for Naropa Institute, to sustain the whole Trungpa scene, just a big long kidding letter, hoping that he'd respond. He liked the letter, he just skipped over the part about money. (He doesn't read anything like that, I knew, anyway.) But then I also explained what was going on at Naropa with all the poets. I said also that I had dug the great line in the song "Idiot Wind," which I thought was one of Dylan's great great prophetic national songs, with one rhyme that took in the whole nation, I said it was a "national rhyme."
Idiot wind Blowing like a circle around my skull From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Dylan told Denise that nobody else had noticed it or mentioned it to him; that the line had knocked him out, too. He thought it was an interesting creation, however he had arrived at it. And I thought it was absolutely a height of Hart Crane-type poetics. I was talking earlier about resentment. "Idiot Wind" is like Dylan acknowledging the vast resentments, angers and ill-temper on the Left and the Right all through America during the sixties, calling it an "idiot wind" and saying "it's a wonder we can even breathe" or "it's a wonder we can even eat!"
PBC: Right, and directing it at himself, as well.
AG: Yeah, talking about it within himself, but also declaring his independence from it. There's a great line in which he says, "I've been double-crossed now for the very last time, and now I'm finally free," recognizing and exorcising the monster "on the borderline between you and me."
PBC: You've obviously been impressed by Dylan and his music during the last decade.
AG: He's a great poet.
PBC: Is it possible for you to verbalize what kinds of influence he's had on your own style of poetry?
AG: I've done that at great length in the preface to a new book, First Blues, which has just been published in only 1,500 copies, so it's relatively rare. I wrote a long preface tracing all the musical influences I've had, including Dylan's, because I dedicated the book to him. He taught me three chords so I got down to blues. Right after Trungpa suggested I begin improvising, I began improvising and Dylan heard it, and encouraged it even more. We went into a studio in '71 and improvised a whole album.
PBC: Which has never been released. Do you think it ever will be?
AG: Oh, on Folkways, or something.
PBC: Back to the Rolling Thunder Tour. Perhaps you can place it in the context of the Beat movement of the fifties and the consciousness expansion of the sixties. Something you said while on the tour indicated that you saw it as being perhaps that important; you said that "the Rolling Thunder Revue will be one of the signal gestures characterizing the working cultural community that will make the seventies."
AG: Wishful thinking, probably, but at the same time wishful thinking is also prophesy. It seemed to me like the first bud of spring. I thought that the gesture toward communalism -- almost like a traveling rock-family-commune that Dylan organized, with poets and musicians all traveling together, with the musicians all calling each other "poet" -- "sing me a song, poet" -- was a good sign. The fact that he brought his mother along -- the "mysterious" Dylan had a chicken-soup, Yiddish Mama, who even got on stage at one point . . .
PBC: Not to mention bringing his wife Sara and Joan Baez.
AG: Sara came, and his children came. And Sara met Joan Baez and they all acted in the movie together, and Joan Baez brought her mother and her children, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot had his daughter. So there was a lot of jumping family.
PBC: Sounds like Dylan tying up a lot of loose karmic ends.
AG: Right. As he says in the jacket notes to the Desire album, "We've got a lot of karma to burn." To deal with or get rid of, I think he means.
PBC: It was really a unique tour, bringing you primarily to small towns and colleges in New England . . .
AG: The Beat moment was arriving at Jack Kerouac's natal place, Lowell, Massachusetts, and going to Kerouac's grave.
PBC: Was Dylan moved during that experience?
AG: He was very open and very tender, he gave a lot of himself there. We stood at Kerouac's grave and read a little section on the nature of self-selflessness, from Mexico City Blues. Then we sat down on the grave and Dylan took up my harmonium and made up a little tune. Then he picked up his guitar and started a slow blues, so I improvised into a sort of exalted style, images about Kerouac's empty skull looking down at us over the trees and clouds while we sat there, empty-mouthed, chanting the blues. Suddenly, Dylan interrupted the guitar while I continued singing the verses (making them up as I went along so it was like the triumph of the Milarepa style) and he picked up a Kerouac-ian October-brown autumn leaf from the grass above his grave and stuck it in his breast pocket and then picked up the guitar again and came down at the beat just as I did, too, and we continued for another couple of verses before ending. So it was very detached and surrendered; it didn't even make a difference if he played the guitar or not. It was like the old blues guitarists who sing a cappella for a couple of bars.
PBC: Has Dylan ever acknowledged to you that Kerouac was an influence on him or that he's familiar with his work?
AG: Yes, oddly! I asked him if he had ever read any Kerouac. He answered, "Yeah, when I was young in Minneapolis." Someone had given him Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. He said, "I didn't understand the words then, I understand it better now, but it blew my mind." So apparently Kerouac was more of an influence on him than I had realized. I think it was a nice influence on him.
PBC: Which poem was he reading from Kerouac's Mexico City Blues?
AG: It's one toward the end of the book, which he picked out at random. I had picked out something for him to read and, typical Dylan, he turned the page and read the other one on the opposite side of the page. (laughs)
PBC: Which one did you pick out for him to read?
AG: "The wheel of the quivering meat conception turns in the void," the one that, I think, ends, "Poor! I wish I were out of this slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven, dead." There was another one I picked which lists all the sufferings of existence and ends, "like kissing my kitten in the belly, the softness of our reward."
PBC: Was it your suggestion that Rolling Thunder include Lowell on the tour?
AG: No, Dylan had chosen it himself. We did a lot of beautiful filming in Lowell -- one of the scenes described by Kerouac is a grotto near an orphanage in the center of red brick Catholic Lowell near the Merrimac River. So we went there and spent part of the afternoon. There's a giant statue of Christ described by Kerouac. Dylan got up near where the Christ statue was on top of an artificial hill-mound, and all of a sudden he got into this funny monologue, asking the man on the cross, "How does it feel to be up there?" There's a possibility . . . everyone sees Dylan as a Christ-figure, too, but he doesn't want to get crucified. He's too smart, in a way. Talking to "the star" who made it up and then got crucified Dylan was almost mocking, like a good Jew might be to someone who insisted on being the messiah, against the wisdom of the rabbis, and getting himself nailed up for it. He turned to me and said, "What can you do for somebody in that situation?" I think he quoted Christ, "suffer the little children," and I quoted "and always do for others and let others do for you," which is Dylan's hip, American-ese paraphrase of Christ's "Do unto others . . .," in "Forever Young."
So there was this brilliant, funny situation of Dylan talking to Christ, addressing this life-size statue of Christ, and allowing himself to be photographed with Christ. It was like Dylan humorously playing with the dreadful potential of his own mythological imagery, unafraid and confronting it, trying to deal with it in a sensible way. That seemed to be the characteristic of the tour: that Dylan was willing to shoulder the burden of the myth laid on him, or that he himself created, or the composite creation of himself and the nation, and use it as a workable situation; as Trungpa would say, "alchemize" it.
We had another funny little scene -- I don't know if these will ever be shown in the film, that's why I'm describing them -- with Dylan playing the Alchemist and me playing the Emperor, filmed in a diner outside of Falmouth, Massachusetts. I enter the diner and say, "I'm the emperor, I just woke up this morning and found out I inherited an empire, and it's bankrupt. I hear from the apothecary across the street that you're an alchemist. I need some help to straighten out karmic problems with my empire . . . I just sent for a shipload of tears from Indo-China but it didn't seem to do any good. Can you help, do you have any magic formulae for alchemizing the situation?" Dylan kept denying that he was an alchemist. "I can't help, what're you asking me for? I don't know anything about it." I said, "You've got to, you've got to be a bodhisattva, you've got to take on the responsibility, you're the alchemist, you know the secrets.'' So he asked the counterman, who was a regular counterman at a regular diner, to bring him some graham crackers and some Ritz crackers, ketchup, salt, pepper, sugar, milk, coffee, yogurt, and apple pie. He dumped them all in a big aluminum pot. Earlier, I had come in and lay down my calling card, which was an autumn leaf, just like the one Dylan pocketed in the graveyard -- the leaf which runs through many of the scenes in the movie, representing, like in Kerouac's work, transiency, poignancy, regret, acknowledgement of change, death. So I threw my calling card leaf in the pot and Dylan threw in a piece of cardboard, and then he fished out the leaf, all muddy, and slapped it down on the counter on top of my notebook, where I was taking down all the magical ingredients of his alchemical mixture. Then I said, "Oh, I see the secret of your alchemy: ordinary objects." "Yes," he said, "ordinary mind." So that was the point of that. Next I said, "Come on, look at my kingdom," and he said, "No, I don't want anything to do with it" and he rushed out of the diner. I followed him out, like in a Groucho Marx movie, and stopped: turned to the camera, lifted my finger, and said, "I'll find out the secret." Then we redid the scene and, coyote magician that he is, with no consistency, he suggested towards the end of the scene, "Well, why don't we go look at your kingdom?" So he led the way out and we went to see the "empire." He was completely unpredictable in the way he would improvise scenes. All the scenes were improvised.
PBC: During the Rolling Thunder tour some of the participants expressed the hope that it might continue as some sort of functioning community. Are there any indications now, several months later, that that may come to pass, either through the film or another tour of the Midwest?
AG: I don't think it was intended to be a continuously functioning community in any formal way, like people living together. I don't think the energy would depend on that group of people continuing any more than, say, all the San Francisco poets living together. I think it might be necessary for those people to disperse and de-centralize, and also for Dylan to try something new -- not do just one thing, but continue open-hearted experimenting.
PBC: With (by now) ten years added perspective to your heralding a "new age" in The Fall of America, what are your present views on what the artist and the poet can do to hasten the advent of that "new age?"
AG: To paraphrase the poem: "make laughing Blessing." That particular quotation (which begins this interview), is probably the happiest and most optimistic, and at the same time the most egotistically righteous, lyric in The Fall of America. It invokes the spirit of both Hart Crane, who committed suicide, and Whitman, who didn't commit suicide, in building an American bridge to the future. I don't know, though. I don't have any simple answer to what the poet can do or should do.
PBC: Theodore Roszak's chapter on your work, in The Making of a Counter Culture, quotes Wordsworth:
We poets in our youth begin in gladness; But thereof in the end come despondency and madness.
As you approach your 50th birthday, your life outwardly seems to be the opposite of Wordsworth's dictum. Would you credit your Buddhist viewpoint and practice with having made the difference?
AG: My own common sense, and my experience of my mother's madness as a kind of preventive antitoxin, as well as the ripening of my own awareness and peaceableness through shamatha meditation.
PBC: Prior to your vision of Blake in 1948, had you ever gone through an agnostic, or questioning, period concerning religion, spirituality, God . . . and, if so, did that vision bring you back to the realization of the imminent transcendence of God within everyday reality?
AG: I had absolutely no interest in religion, God or spirituality before the vision, although Kerouac and I had concocted a search for a "New Vision" back in 1944-45.
PBC: An aspiritual "New Vision?"
AG: Yes. We didn't have any idea what we were looking for.
PBC: Your experience seems to parallel what many young people underwent in the sixties and seventies. First, de-programming themselves from heavy religious conditioning they had undergone as children, and then coming back to a spiritual sensibility, either through drugs or . . .
AG: I never had any religious conditioning and I never came back to any.
PBC: You're fortunate in that case.
AG: Yeah, thank God!