Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

wtorek, 17 listopada 2015

My encounters with Allen Ginsberg. Interview with the poet Adam Lizakowski by Andrzej Pietrasz

(Translated by Adam Lizakowski, with Brian Mornar)

Pietrasz: Have you met Allen Ginsberg in person? If so, when and how often have you encountered him? What impression did you have?

Lizakowski: I met the poet several times but did not talk to him. I met Allen Ginsberg in person—I even have a picture with him—but I do not know what happened to it. The picture was published in Poetry Flash, a magazine issued free of charge on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay, in Berkeley. The magazine advertises local literary events, publishes poems, and features interviews with local poets and reviews of the latest poetry books. You could find Poetry Flash in bookstores and cafes across the Bay Area. An issue of the magazine announced my poem “American Poets,” which caused quite a stir among local poets.
I met Ginsberg during a poetry reading San Francisco in the late autumn of 1986 at City Lights Books. If I'm not mistaken, it was for the promotion of a book called White Shroud Poems. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the bookstore owner and publisher of City Lights Books, introduced me to him. Ferlinghetti knew my face because I submitted my manuscript to him during vacation once, and then every other week after that. The poems were eventually translated by my friend and employer Richard Rehl, a veteran of the Vietnam War who left Poland as a teenager in 1956 to live with his father in New York.
I talked to Ginsberg for two, maybe three minutes. I was introduced to him as “the Polish poet.” Ginsberg began a conversation in Russian. I do not know why, but I did not want to talk to him in that language. And so, I answered in French, pretending not to know Russian. I think he believed me, and I acted surprised. He was firmly convinced that every Pole must speak Russian. The conversation ended in English. He wished me good luck and success with my writing in America. When I told him I was waiting for a response from Ferlinghetti regarding my manuscript, he firmly shook my hand and again wished me good luck. His good luck unfortunately did not help me because a few weeks later I received a letter signed by Nancy Peters, and not by Ferlinghetti, which surprised me because I thought that he was responsible for the publication operation as the chief editor of the press and owner of the bookstore. In a form rejection letter, Peters informed me that she had read my poems with great interest, but due to financial difficulties and the fact that I had previously self-published these poems, she could not publish my work. Finally, in a very polite way, she thanked me for my interest in their press and wished me good luck elsewhere. At first, I wanted to destroy this letter as it symbolized my defeat. Those “stupid Americans” do not understand my poetry, and these letters are standard among publishers. But fortunately I kept the letter, and to this day I keep it as a nice souvenir of San Francisco.

Pietrasz: When did you first read Ginsberg's poetry, and what made him become so important for you?

Lizakowski: I encountered Ginsberg's poetry at random in the late 1970s. Where
was I reading it? Today I cannot tell you exactly, as I do not remember—it was almost 40 years ago. I remember when I read Literatura na Swiecie, Odra, Nowy Wyraz and others. [1] Ginsberg's poems appeared in a Polish magazine, but which I cannot say. The first poem I read that left a lasting impression was “America,” with its long and short lines. I can still remember a few lines of the poem: “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” Or this line: “I smoke marijuana every chance I get.” This made a big impression on a twenty-year-old boy brought up on the Polish Romanticism of the great Adam Mickiewicz, whose “The Great Improvisation,” 200 years old, can be compared with the poetry of Ginsberg. [2]
Anyway, I suspect that Ginsberg made an impression on not only me. At first, I could not understand why he wrote about himself in the first person so openly and honestly. For me, it was pure literary exhibitionism. I wrote poems, but I did not open my life to my readers. I was ashamed to write something bad about myself. Never would I say that I drink or have sex—I could not imagine doing so. His openness, blunt vocabulary, and occasional vulgarity left me very impressed. In short, I admired him.

Pietrasz: Why do you so often refer to Ginsberg’s poetry?

Lizakowski: I was fascinated by his honesty and openness, as well as the philosophy and culture of the hippie generation, which for me carried a number of associations--the Far East, Hinduism, long hair, thick beards, loud music. I liked their philosophy of life and understanding of the world, and I joined. I was wearing shoulder-length hair, which was seen in Poland as a sign of being pro-Western, and I thought of myself a pacifist. I was looking for my own place in the world, and I did not agree with Communism and I did not understand capitalism. This all came together in Ginsberg's poetry. The poet called for anarchy, religious and sexual freedom, and I loved it. I remember the slogan, “make love, not war.” I was born in a small town in the central Sudeten Mountains in the southwest corner of Poland, close to the Czech border, and it all seemed surreal. I loved it, and Salvador Dali was my favorite painter. I named my first book published in San Francisco, “Cannibalism Poetry,” after reading Dali's biography. Ginsberg borrowed from French surrealism, and it inspired him to work; but it was not only surrealism from which he drew influence.

Pietrasz: Let me mention a few poems of yours where the name Ginsberg appears: “Visit Mr. and Mrs. Apollinaire,” “Allen Ginsberg,” “The Fall of America,” “The Thirty-Fifth Letter,” and “Write, if America is Still a Haven for Immigrants.” In your diary “Notes from the San Francisco Bay” you write that Ginsberg is your favorite poet. For a time he was probably one of the major poets who exerted influence on you.

Lizakowski: I have many more poems in Polish and in English about him and San Francisco. One of the poems where I mention both his name and San Francisco appears in my latest book, Pieszyckie Meadows, published in 2010. The poem is titled “Conversation over a bowl of pierogi.” I have many Beat-inspired poems written in San Francisco, which I brought to Chicago and published (50 copies) as a chapbook titled, “On the Californian Coast,” in 1996. Some of these poems were published in the Polish edition of Cherry Bandits, in 2000, issued by Adam Marszalek, a publisher in Torun. However, I did not include all of these poems in that book, as well as those describing the Italian North Beach neighborhood, the home of many Beat Generation poets in San Francisco. They did not fit the theme of the volume.
Those poems that deal with the important places where Beat poets socialized in the second half of the twentieth century are still in my drawer awaiting publication. Poems such as “Cafe Triest,” “Cafe Greco,” “Bar Vesuvio” (which was located literally five steps away from City Lights Books) are waiting for the right moment to see the light of day. In Vesuvio, I drank only local beer (which was delicious) in barrel-shaped bottles, from a San Franciscan brewery called Anchor, with a label depicting an anchor. I remember when these labels gently peeled off, and I sent them along with letters to Poland to friends who collect beer labels from around the world. Perhaps as a curiosity it is worth noting that the founder of Cafe Trieste was an Italian, Papa "Giotto" Gianni, who came from Rovigo, which is also the name of a Zbigniew Herbert book. [3]
These cafes as well as many others, which remain vital today, played a huge role in promoting not only poetry but also jazz during the 1950s and 60s. There, one could find good coffee, beer, wine, and Italian sandwiches with salami, cheese, and tomato, and pastas. American bread for the Pole is inedible. This “cotton” cannot be eaten, and nor can one spread anything on it, except for coconut butter--nothing else.
That I return to these memories of the Ginsberg and the Beat Generation shows that I was really under their spell for a very long period of my life. The first ten years I spent in America in San Francisco are unforgettable and always come back to me. In addition to being a poet in San Francisco who could not help but be influenced by Beat poetry, I found other forms of culture and major tourist attractions, some of which featured Beat-era places.
In Chicago, I did not forget or break from the Beat poets and Ginsberg. Many years later, I enrolled at Columbia College and took a course called "Contemporary American Poetry" with Jaswinder Bolina, and I worked with my advisor, Professor Tony Trigilio, who is a Buddhist and Zen practitioner. He studies the philosophy of the Beat Generation, and his scholarly work is devoted to the work of Ginsberg. He wrote two books, Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007) and Strange Prophecies Anew: Rereading the Apocalypse in Blake, H.D., and Ginsberg (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001). I studied Creative Writing-Poetry, so it was not possible to rediscover the Beats and Ginsberg. During a course that Trigilio offered devoted to American and British poetry (“Modern British and American Poetry”), I wrote a poem about Ginsberg, which you can find below (it can also be found among my English language poems at So it appears that Ginsberg's influence remained with me. However, this influence lost its power as I got older.

A poem about Allen Ginsberg

bald, unshaven revolutionist of ink
slightly stooped, nervously reading
his poems to the avid few
who were thirsty for his words
listening with open mouths, eyes, hearts
The sound is a word even in a dream
Allen Ginsberg, the petulant child
of immigrants raised by wolves
The maniac who insisted
he threw stones of accusation
into the cultivated garden of American poetry
The phenomenal poet of reality,
chanting his poetry -
useful as a phone book which list only
disconnected numbers -
genuine cursing of life and America
an angel clinging black phoenix feathers
in his hand howling about oppressors,
Buddhism, Zen, the FBI,
The Dust that covers books in libraries
and about you and me.

It was strange to hear the professor lecture on the work of the Beat poets, who I personally had the pleasure to meet in bars, cafes, bookstores, and during evenings and poetry readings in San Francisco. Then the indescribable feeling of longing returned, and I wanted to fly to San Francisco to once again meet Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Allen Ginsberg, many of whom by this time had grown quite old or had died. I remembered that I stood next to them not long before, I talked to them, asked “How are you?” I saw their eyes, I saw unshaved faces and listened to their poems, I watched their mouths move as they drank beer, wine and smoked cigarettes, and excitedly talked with friends about poetry, art, and what to eat for dinner in the evening, and the drunks that demanded signatures on paper napkins. They dressed like Americans, except for Robert Duncan, who always wore a suit and polished shoes. He dressed like an English gentleman.

Pietrasz: What kind of poems by Ginsberg and other Beat poets influenced you? What was the influence on your poetry and poetics, and your view of the world? How would you assess this influence?

Lizakowski: All the poems from Ginsberg's first book, which was the most popular at that time in Poland, influenced me greatly. American poetry has had a much greater impact on my work than Polish poetry. During my youth, I read Edward Stachura, Rafal Wojaczek, Andrzej Bursa, Richard Milczewski-Bruno. [4] I was 23 years old when the legendary bard Stachura took his life. Where I lived, this was a shock. Boys and girls cried while reciting his poetry at bonfires in the mountains. They read in rounds and sung his songs with guitar accompaniment. The libraries queued his book. In Poland, many friends were younger than me, 15, 16, 17 year old kids. Neither Stachura nor the other poets I mentioned appeal to me as Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, or the Beat Generation poets. (The New York School poets were hardly known in Poland at that time.)
My first book of poems in Polish and English, published in exile in San Francisco, was titled “Cannibalism Poetry,” as it was inspired by a painting by Salvador Dali. A portrait of his wife Gala is on the cover. It was released in 1984. In the same year, Krakow Literary Publishers released a book of Ginsberg's poems. It was a bilingual edition, translated by Bogdan Baran. It was then that many of my friends copied Ginsberg's poetry and sent individual lines from these poems in letters. It was nice.
To be fair, I was also very much impressed by Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish, which were unlike any European poems that I had read up to that point. I did not know that these long poems, more prose than poetry, were hugely influenced by Walt Whitman. Ginsberg, a student of Whitman, is a neo-Romantic poet who also informed postmodernism. Like any good student, I at first imitated Ginsberg's poems, and for many years he was a model for me. But after a while I realized that this was not the way to go. Today, Allen Ginsberg and his poetry, as well as my other favorite poets from that generation, are a closed book for me. But I cannot say that the work is entirely irrelevant to me, since I still think about them today. This can be clearly seen in my chapbook “Modern Primitivism,” published in 1992, in Chicago.
Ginsberg cast a big shadow on my work. But his way of writing, which was called a stream of consciousness, or, as others often say, interior monologue, does not appeal to me. I was impressed, but this style worked for Ginsberg—the long firstperson narrative, written in long lines that conveyed extended thoughts, feelings, memories, reminiscences, etc. Today it seems that this isn't the best poetry. Ginsberg wrote freely, published early, and his debut gave him fame and made him a legend. Crafty publishers could always count on profits from the sales of his new works, but many of his later poems were overshadowed by his earlier work. I have translated many of Ginsberg's poems into Polish and published these translations, and I have written poems devoted to Ginsberg. But, as I said, this is a closed book for me.
Ginsberg died in 1997, and his death ended a large chapter in American literary history. As the Beat Generation’s writers fade away, so do its readers. Ginsberg's work was largely based on his own life experiences, and this is his great merit—that he was able to turn his life into poetry, literature. Since it is so difficult to separate his life from his work, Ginsberg's death is definitely the end of the Beat Generation.

Pietrasz: Did you ever think that you would personally meet Ginsberg and like his “America”?

Lizakowski: In the summer of 1981 I was living in Vienna, Austria, and the December declaration of martial law in Poland closed to door to me in Poland. But as that door closed, another opened, as I received political asylum from the United States and was able to move to San Francisco, California. While in Poland, I never in my life could have imagined that I would be walking the same streets that Ginsberg walked, and that I would visit the same bars he frequented and be served the same beer by the same bartenders that Ginsberg liked. I saw his pictures on the wall of the pub along with the local celebrities and his poetry friends. I shook hands with the same people who greeted him. It was hard to believe all this, but these experiences did not make as big of an impression on me as when I first read Ginsberg in Poland. I drank beer in Golden Gate Park and kissed girls on the benches, smoked grass, but like President Bill Clinton, I did not inhale. In the second hand stores at Haight and Ashbury Street or along Golden Gate Park, $1.99 records, which were at a premium in Poland, could be purchased: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Nazareth, Led Zepplin, Frank Zappa, The Doors, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Jones. I found books by poets who I dearly admired scattered in 99 cent boxes. Some were even autographed copies: Ginsberg, Cassady, Burroughs, Joyce, Kerouac, Corso, poems about Vietnam, Zen Buddhism, the great mystics Rumi and Hafiz. Finding all of these discarded and resold items symbolized the mobility of American culture. At the time, it surprised me that people would just move and leave behind their books.
The district, which became famous throughout the world as a sacred place for hippies during the Vietnam years, had become a tourist attraction with a million coffee shops, pubs and stores with secondhand clothes, shoes, records, books, hippie jewelry. Flower children had become businessmen, and instead of putting the flowers in their hair, they started savings accounts at the Bank of America. “San Francisco,” the hippie anthem by Scott McKenzie, beginning, “If you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” was out of date by then. Beats and hippies had disappeared from the face of the earth, and San Francisco became one of the most expensive cities to live in in America and also in the world.
The word “beat” has several meanings in English, so it can be variously translated into Polish. For me, the Beat Generation is a group of poets whose lives weren't easy, who were off the beaten track, or who had been troubled throughout life by their families, parents, alcoholic fathers, the law, and society in general. None of the poets of the Beat Generation had a happy youth, and this is another way of understanding the “beat” in the Beat Generation. Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg are people who had nothing to lose. They were hedonists who rejected materialism and lived a life among post-World War II American bohemia. Their voice is the voice of a generation that was born during the economic crisis of the Depression. They entered adulthood after World War II, when America was richer than ever before. Their voice is important because they not only advocated the freedom of drugs and sex, in particular for homosexuals, but also for equal rights for blacks, social equality in general, and they protested against the American aggression in Vietnam. The Beat Generation poets were looking for their own God, religion, a better life, one's own place on earth, happiness, and eternity. Their work pointed to many of the wrongs in the world and opened the eyes of many readers. The poetry of the Beat Generation was much needed as it challenged the poetry of the great Modernists of America, who for two or three decades had dominated American literature. Williams Carlos Williams, the father of American Modernism, wrote the forward to Ginsberg's neoromantic work. This might seem odd, since William's aesthetic is so different that Ginsberg's. Many people believe that the common place where they both grew up, Paterson, a hole for emigrant workers in New Jersey on the outskirts of New York, unites these two different though revolutionary American poets. Ginsberg's Howl showed that one can write a different kind of poetry than Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Williams, ee cummings, Wallace Stevens, and also Robert Frost. Thanks to Ginsberg, ideas about American poetry changed during the second half of the twentieth century. America had changed. He proved that anyone can write, those who had good sides but also those who had bad sides. Though he opened the gates for the talentless, he increased the possibilities for poetry as well. When he explained that his long lines were inspired by Walt Whitman and Williams, the critics did not believe him. He explained that the long lines are based on the length of the breath, so that he could fit many words in a line. When critics challenged his theory, he explained that he speaks quickly and can say so many words in a line. Ginsberg rejected the impersonal and cold intellectualism of Modernist poetry, but he also drew from it a lot, putting feeling and heart into his neoromantic poems.

1. These literary magazines were popular in Poland in the 1960s and 70s. Some of them survived the Communist era and still are published today.

2. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is the father of Polish Romanticism. "The Great Improvisation" is part of his poetic drama Dziady (1834) in which he compares God to the Russian Tsar and blames God for Poland's loss of independence. Mickiewicz's address to God was considered blasphemous and this controversy can be compared to that spurred by the publication of Howl.

3. Zbigniew Herbert (1924-98), the best known Polish poet in the second half of the twentieth century, wrote poetry, essays, and plays.

4. Edward Stachura (1937-79) was a Polish poet and writer; Rafal Wojaczek (1945-71) was also a Polish poet who wrote during the turbulent post-war years; Andrzej Bursa (1932-57) was a poet and journalist; and Richard Milczewski-Bruno (1940-79) was a poet and writer. Each of these poets, popular in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, committed suicide and became iconic after their death.