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Ginsberg and Me

Ginsberg and Me


In their moving, feature-length ode to Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Oscar-winning filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein move between several approaches to the landmark poem. Some of the film features animated interpretations of the 1956 poem; then there are images of James Franco (who plays Ginsberg) passionately reading the poem. Another approach has Franco as Ginsberg being interviewed by a reporter from Time magazine. This last idea was speculative fiction -- with the filmmakers taking an educated guess at how Ginsberg would have responded in such an exchange.

And it amused me when I saw the thoroughly engaging Howl. In 1994, I interviewed Ginsberg when he was giving a reading at Montreal's Concordia University. Then a graduate student and queer poetry geek, I was keen to meet Ginsberg and to ask him a series of questions about his life, work, and opinions.

One of the first things he took aim at was Time magazine. And he didn't just trash it for being inaccurate or too conservative; his attack was in direct response to Ginsberg's membership in the ultracontroversial organization North American Man/Boy Love Association. "I joined when I read in Time magazine that NAMBLA was an organization in which people of authority were manipulating people of weaker sensibilities," he said. "That reminded me of Time magazine itself."

Ginsberg went on, defiant about NAMBLA. "It's just a discussion group; it is an innocent little organization about people who want to talk about their inclinations, their Eros, which happens to center on younger people. It's not always sexual. It's quite harmless.

Then 67, Ginsberg was captivating when he spoke. He was dealing with some health issues, including high blood pressure, which meant he had a restricted diet. He also said he was having trouble getting it up. But there was still something resoundingly sexual about the man who penned Howl, one of the frankest, queerest books ever put to paper.

I asked him if Howl was still relevant in the age of AIDS. "I think it's just as important to be open and candid. What I was interested in was candor -- which would actually be very useful in the age of AIDS so that people could actually discuss what it is they do to each other sexually and what their status is ... besides, as [William S. Burroughs] says, we still don't know if AIDS is a laboratory virus. I wouldn't put it past them -- you know, some fundamentalist saying we've got to get rid of these cocksucking double agents."

Ginsberg also took aim at pro-censorship feminists, in particular Andrea Dworkin, who famously declared that any act of penetration was tantamount to rape. "I've known Andrea since she was a student. I had a conversation with her when I said I've had many young affairs, [with men who were] 16, 17, or 18. I said, 'What are you going to do, send me to jail?' And she said, 'You should be shot.' The problem is, she was molested when she was young, and she hasn't recovered from the trauma, and she's taking it out on ordinary lovers."

But Ginsberg himself had just been slammed with the charge of being a sellout, as he'd recently appeared in a series of Gap ads helping the chain hock khakis in various glossy magazines. Ginsberg bristled at the suggestion that this crass commercialism was in opposition to his Buddhist ideals. "I don't know if you noticed what the logo on that was, but there was an announcement in the upper left-hand corner of the ad. It said all fees for Mr. Ginsberg's image go to the Jack Kerouac School of Poets and Poetry in Boulder, Colo. So that was fine. So what's the question?"

But what, Mr. Ginsberg, does the image mean? "Well, if he's a Buddhist, it could mean increased possibility of turning the wheel of dharma. If he's a cocaine addict, I suppose it could mean the possibility of more cocaine. But you know, there are a lot of poets who are more famous than me, like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, who would certainly have their names on Gap ads if they could be signed up."

Then Ginsberg paused. "Now I'm not so sure it was such a good idea, but I think the karma will be all right."

As our conversation came to a close, I told Ginsberg how much his work had meant to me. He could see my face redden as I grew more self-conscious. He raised his hand to my face and caressed it gently. I had no idea at the time, but the photographer captured the moment. Though I regard myself as agnostic, it certainly felt like a religious moment for me -- one of those things you never forget.

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Matthew Hays