A Conversation With John Giorno
JOHN GIORNO’S CONTRIBUTION to American literature has involved the attempt to link poetry with other media, getting it out of the perfect-bound closet and more into the communication mainstream. The pressure that his work exerts on written work raises the possibility of moving literature out of the armchair and onto the road, a travel through sound almost a la Vachel Linday.
Not only has Giorno emphasized aural poetry, but he has worked to package and promote his version of American literature. His principal medium has been the record LP, his Dial-A-Poet Poem series stereo journal which has been in existence since 1968. Writer-performers have included Gary Snyder, Ann Waldman, John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, William S. Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Andrei Vosnesensky, Patti Smith and Frank Zappa. The result is not a hushed voice of a speaker against a backdrop of generically soft music; it is the poem creating its own music, in its most fluid and immediate state, where the momentum of sound and channeling of phrase can present introspection or frenzy. Some of the LPs are: Biting Off the Tongue of a Corpse, Totally Corrupt, The Nova Convention, and, Sugar, Alcohol & Meat. His latest LP, You’re The Guy I Want To Spend My Money With, is reviewed later in the issue.
Although Giorno concentrates on poetry as heard, he has published several books, both praised and condemned for their rawness. John Perrault asserted concerning Girono’s first book, Poems: “Giorno’s deadpan shock tactics break down the distance between poetry and reader, poetry and life.” His other work has included Balling Buddha (Kulchur Press, 1970), Birds (Angel Hair Books, 1971) and Cancer In My Left Ball (Something Else Press, 1973). Certainly his work has the ability to set the reader or listener on edge, but there is more to Giorno’s work than just a reflection of cultural brutality, as in his poem “Johny Guitar” where he uses two simultaneous columns of interlooping stories and vantage points to lead the reader through a modern cultural inferno.
In his interview with AD, Giorno makes some blunt statements concerning the oral vs. written poetry question. he also gives his general perspectives on the cultural zoo around us, and the use of drugs and sex as poetic artifacts and motifs in his work. From his long poem “We Got Here Yesterday/We’re Here Today/And I Can’t Wait To Leave Tomorrow,” we can see how line breaks serve as a major phrasing mechanism, and the repetition of key sentences with altered phrasings each time adds a dynamic — tense and in motion — quality to the voice. In his recordings, Giorno uses multi-tracks of his voice, often keeping them in unison, or staggering them, to give the persona an at times strident, haunted, or self-dissonant note. Whether oral or written, Girono’s work strongly depicts the lack which is eating up the speaker. It is the clash of what I want and what I get. —Daniel Bourne
Charles Silver: I’m familiar with your recording Biting Off the Tongue of the Corpse, and also the fact that the title has its source in Tibetan Buddhist literature. Right off I’m wondering, what is your relationship to Buddhism?
John Giorno: Well, I’m a Buddhist and I have a Tibetan teacher. His name is Dujom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingmapa, the Red-Hat tradition. He’s been my teacher for 11 or 12 years.
CS: What are you trying to say about drug use in your work, how do you relate to it?
Giorno: Well, there’s two ways. One is I like drugs. And second is in the use of images — it’s not an acceptance or rejection of anything — all the drugs, booze, all the various forms are just like toothpaste, Crestota or something, so that when one is working with these images, one is just working with Karmic and cultural images.
CS: So, not acceptance or rejection, it’s more like a middle ground?
Giorno: I don’t know if it is necessarily in the middle. The point is you can’t just learn it or say it, it is the realization of emptiness in experience. meditation or awareness of mind is everyday business. But drugs don’t work too well with formal meditation practice. However, I like to have a few drinks and smoke a little grass when I work. It helps with delusion. Any of the other drugs interfere when I work. As far as cocaine, I hate it when I work. You just get all these dumb, stupid ideas. Somebody like William Burroughs, he’s an old junkie from way back and likes junk when he works. When he takes junk, instead of nodding out downstairs from me in New York, he just rat-a-tat-tats on the typewriter for 6 or 8 hours a day. Heroin is a pick me up for him. He works well with it.
CS: Does Burroughs consider himself a Buddhist?
Giorno: No, not at all. He has a thing about not begin a Buddhist and yet every one of his ideas in his work and everyday life is completely Buddhist. And on the highest level of Tibetan Buddhism — Vajrayana, with a few serious mistakes. The basic premise of the nature of Buddha-Mind is a description of the place that Bill partially occupies. But, he’s a cantankerous guy from the Midwest and he refuses to be a Buddhist or refuses realization. I think that’s a great mistake because no matter how high someone like Bill or anyone is, probably the one thing that would keep him or anyone else from becoming completely enlightened is some thought like that, or trace of conceptions remaining after he dies… and he’ll have to come back. He’ll make one final subtle mistake which may be the habit of being a junkies after the body and the heroin are gone.
CS: I was really impressed by the element of genuineness in your reading, really taken in. It seemed to be very direct. I’m wondering how much of it is truly gut feeling, like when you said, “My meditation is a complete failure”?
Giorno: My meditation is a complete failure.
CS: Right. Do you really feel that way, is that an autobiographical statement?
Giorno: Successful meditation is like being a world class gymnast. It takes incredible amounts of discipline and many years of work and nobody ever puts in any homework. We’re in the high school gym. Great meditators are Olympic Gold Medal winners anonymous and completely effortless. Tibetan lamas are the only ones I know who’ve done it. Then you take it again down to a low level like the phenomena that’s happened in America in the last 10 years — the TM trip, Hindu trip, the born-again trip, EST, and the Tibetan trip. Everyone’s meditation is a complete failure, personally and generally. Everyone feels secretly completely disappointed and embarrassed. So this kind of line — “My meditation is a complete failure” — is deeply personal and culturally all-pervasive. So when I’m writing a poem, the line arises, and then is fixed later in a way it can be used.
Daniel Bourne: Something in your lines, “When you’re with a lot of people you gotta keep talking and when you’re by yourself you gotta keep your hands moving” seems to be painfully honest about the human condition. I was wondering about the aspect of sexuality and homosexuality in your writing and its impact upon the reader. Do you use this as a basic fund of imagery just like you use drug-related imagery?
Giorno: Yeah. It is like that line “I’m a tough old fag.” I have this theory that everyone’s an old fag in the same sense of the way that someone is embarrassed to say he’s a Buddhist. Everyone is at a complete disadvantage. The metaphor or the feeling of being a tough old fag, everyone feels it. Everyone in this world has something like that. I happen to be gay so I choose to use those images, but I try to use those images in a way that everyone feels them. Everybody has that neurotic embarrassment about some element in their life.
CS: It’s not that there’s an embarrassment —
Giorno: Though now in 1981, in New York everyone is so tough. One talks extremely less about Buddhism on the subway in the same way we’re talking about it. In the straight world outside, it’s embarrassing when anybody talks about anything spiritual — meditation, etc., no matter how great it is. It’s wrong for this moment. So there’s an element of being embarrassed. About homosexuality, I can almost say I have never seen any great or good gay poem yet, and I get sent all these things from Fag Rag or Gay Sunshine or whatever. Other than William Burroughs’ work. I love William’s work. But then he’s only gay on that level that he’s using it for metaphor.
DB: How do you think your reading went last night here in Hoosierland?
Giorno: I felt it was hot. The audience was great. I love when people laugh. Actually the same thing happened before, in Ann Arbor last November (1980), and I really love it. In L.A. or New York or San Francisco people know my work, and it’s a completely complicated or intellectual response. They’re thinking about it, relating it to other things. But last night, reading to an audience with no familiarity with my work, the response was fresh and hot.
DB: The response is more of surprise than recognition.
Giorno: Which is nice. I’d much rather surprise.
DB: Sometimes poetry is the poetry of allusion, drawing on the past. A lot of what you and Burroughs are doing is really a surprise to the average listener. Are you looking for the surprise rather than—?
Giorno: No, in terms of the actual work I’m not thinking of surprise at all. It just happened that way last night because of the audience. I’ve worked with this for many years and the audience and the audience and the surprise changes constantly. As far as poetry in relation to performance, let me say this. The problem with what most poets do in poetry readings is that a poem traditionally, in the tradition that you write it, is meant to be written down on a page and read by somebody by themselves, lying in bed or sitting in a chair. It’s a very personal and intellectual thing. It’s one to one. When that poet gets in front of an audience, he reads this page which was meant to be read to one’s self, and it’s very complex and intellectual. Most often it doesn’t work. What has happened with poets who’ve gotten into performance (myself, William and a number of others) is that you can’t forget the situation — that there’s a poet, there’s an audience of x number of people, 100-1000 people. Thus, there are audience dynamics to deal with. You’re talking to them, and it requires a whole other kind of process, a completely different type of poem than a poem meant to be read in a chair by yourself at home. And that’s what I think is starting to happen, that poets have begun to recognize this difference.
DB: Within your own work, from where have you drawn this tendency towards oral poetry, towards delivery rather than the printed page? What are your influences?
Giorno: There really haven’t been any in poetry. I’ve actually gone to school like everyone else and read all that stuff. But there’s no influence right now. I hate reading poetry. I get all these things in the mail, books of poems and magazines, and I read it because I do these other things like Dial-a-Poem and Dial-a-Poem LP records. I sort of have to hear and see it. And it’s all horrible. Almost never in your life do you see a poem that anyone likes. Performance poetry has more to do with a singing voice, like with any concert, like rock & roll, or just a song, and aesthetically, again, there’s an audience relationship. One thing I’ve tried to do and wanted to do, but which has never worked out for me, is what several other poets have done, like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, old friends from St. Mark’s Church. They were just these ordinary kids that were poets, and they made that step into rock & roll. They brought their poetry into rock & roll and it was either bad rock music or good music or whatever. While I’ve worked with the idea of keeping it in poetry, like there’s this poet solo. I’m keeping the poem in that range because there’s no alternative for me at this time.
DB: What are your attitudes towards new wave. Do you see any artistic development in it?
Giorno: Oh yes, it’s constantly changing. It’s hot, it’s music as opposed to L.A. sound productions.
DB: What do you think of the persona of punk rock as opposed to the more, almost painfully self-aware and sensitive music of early 1970s Neil Young or Joni Mitchell — which works more?
Giorno: Well, the new wave does. It’s that thing of surprise, fresh energy. It’s there and it’s hot; so new wave is what’s happening. I’ve been around for so long; every 3 or 4 years and the surprise changes. Joni Mitchell is great too, but that’s that other sound. The highly produced L.A./New York/big money marketing. But I must say I’m seduced by them because money and the availability of an audience makes it attractive. And you always fuck them while they’re fucking you.
DB: Gwendolyn Brooks commented about the oral poetry vs. written poetry dilemma: “You might be surprised to know that I have a visual appreciation for poetry myself. I’d rather read anybody’s worth rather than listen to it, I can get something out of listening, but you can’t pick up everything. But what I try to do in reciting is to give whoever is listening an impression of how I felt when I wrote the piece, I try to paint the poem on the air” (from Artful Dodge Interview, Vol. 1, no. 3). Any comments?
Giorno: Well, she’s a really great poet and she’s also more of a traditional poet. We’re talking about how the poem was meant to be read. 100 years ago when there was no TV and radio, I would imagine that when people were by themselves at night with not very much to do, after the dishes were done, you went to your bedroom to read a poem or a novel. That was the function of those works then. And nowadays, when I have nothing to do at night, the last thing I think of doing is reading a poem. I turn on the TV and listen to the media-created events of the day, I languish in Middle East oil, or do any one of a number of things. So for me, the basic presentation of the poem is not to read in your house as she claims. She’s talking from a conservative point of view. But then, there’s that whole group of “sound poets” who actually think poetry should not be written at all. It’s meant only to be oral. They disdain anybody that makes anything that is linear, syntactical, or contains content. With me, I could never read my poems if they weren’t written down. It takes me months to construct my poems on a page.
DB: I remember last night your comment was “here’s a poem I’ve been working with for several months and it’s still not finished.”
Giorno: It’s still not finished. There is always one line that gets added to it or changed, and what happens is that it’s finished while it’s still being written. As the tour goes on I read it every night and by the time I get back home it will be completely rehearsed and I’ll go into a recording studio and make a performance tape of it. So then I have a performance tape to work with on the road. And then wen we’re ready for the next LP record, I’ll go into the studio again and the finished sound piece gets made.
DB: What will you be doing in the near future?
Giorno: I certainly won’t curl up in a chair with a book of poetry. I’m doing now a new LP album with Glenn Branca. Him on one side, me on the other.
DB: Do you have any misgivings about seeing your work in print, especially if it is an excerpt because of length?
Giorno: Actually I hate doing that! Everything I write is really long, 10 or 20 pages. I hate taking an excerpt from its context. In 2 pages or so you get two or three sets of images which is a narrow range. But then it doesn’t matter, my poems are just song lyrics, and when they’re performed with a lot of energy from my gut, then they work.
DB: And when you select an excerpt, is it on the basis of how it will be encountered by that traditional reader who has just done the dishes and is sitting down look at a poetry magazine or are you giving them what you think is your best stuff?
Giorno: I never think of that person.
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