CHARACTERS, PART 2: Allen Ginsberg speaks up in West Virginia

“Characters” is a WestVirginiaVille series on people with a West Virginia connection — living and dead, past and present, not necessarily natives — worth knowing more about. We define ‘character’ as being one and having some.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part 1 of this WestVirginiaVille feature, hear the world premiere of the music video to “I Never Slept With Allen Ginsberg,” which resulted from my interviewing the poet at the 1983 West Virginia Writer’s Inc. Conference in Ripley, WV. Later that June night, a group of us gathered around a bonfire with him, concluding a notable day and night in the cultural history of West Virginia. Below is that interview, published in the June 19, 1983 Huntington Herald-Dispatch, titled: “ALLEN GINSBERG: Poetry, politics and ‘cantankerous individualism.” I remain impressed by the poet’s prescience: Reconstruction, he said, “could help West Virginia — solar energy, reinvestment in steel firms. And in employing people to undo the damage done by coal mining.” Ginsberg was born in 1926, in Newark, New Jersey and died April 5, 1`997 in New York City. NOTE: The original article only featured Boyd Carr’s illustrations. I added other photos for this re-publication. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno, editor, WestVirginiaVille

Allen Ginsberg at the 1983 West Virginia Inc. Writers Conference, at Cedar Lakes Resort in Ripley WV, as sketched by Boyd Carr.

By DOUGLAS IMBROGNO | The Huntington Herald-Dispatch | june19.1983

On the table in front of Allen Ginsberg sat one of two volumes from the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where he teaches. “Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” read its title.

Ginsberg was soon to give a workshop on meditation in relation to poetry. It was a final event of the sixth annual West Virginia’s Writers Conference held last weekend at Cedar Lakes resort near Ripley, WV.

Other tables in the Assembly Hall where Ginsberg sat were crowded with novels, volumes of poetry and other books by West Virginia authors. Regional publications like West Virginia Hillbilly and Grab a Nickel were stacked nearby along with “Catch the Crow,” an anthology of the 1982 winners of the annual writing contest held by West Virginia Writers Inc., which staged the conference.

Ginsberg lives in upstate New York on a farm in the northern reaches of the Catskill Mountains. West Virginia’s landscape is “not unfamiliar,” he said. “And the sense of independence from the central government is similar — cantankerous individualism.”

A young Allen Ginsberg, who was born in Newark, New Jersey.

West Virginia’s landscape is “not unfamiliar,” he said. “And the sense of independence from the central government is similar — cantankerous individualism.”

~ Allen Ginsberg

The phrase’s meaning might well be culled from Ginsberg’s life and his work. His poem “Howl,” published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1955, has been regarded as leading off the “Beat” movement in American poetry.

The entire first edition was confiscated, and obscenity charges that resulted were later dropped.

The headlong rush of Ginsberg’s poetry and of his energies have been often trained upon the most recent headlines. The day he finished his “Plutonian Ode” on July 14, 1978, Ginsberg meditated with friends outside the Rockwell Corp. nuclear facility’s plutonium bomb trigger factory in Colorado.

Ginsberg also performed with the English band The Clash on its recent “Combat Rock” album. He plans to release a single soon with Joe Strummer of that band based on Ginsberg’s 1980 poem that begins: “I don’t like the government where I live.”

The poem ends with these lines:

Breathe together with an ordinary mind
Armed with Humor Feed & Help
Enlighten Woe Mankind.”

Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac gave him “a lot of sound” for poetry and his “tender heart” did more, Ginsberg says. “He brought me out of the closet in a sense. The closet of my mind.”

Ginsberg says an event in the evolution of his own mind came when he met Jack Kerouac, who christened the Beat movement and set its frenetic pace. The book that made him a culture hero was “On the Road.” Kerouac died in 1969.

Kerouac gave him “a lot of sound” for poetry and his “tender heart” did more, Ginsberg says. “He brought me out of the closet in a sense. The closet of my mind.”

How was Ginsberg different before knowing Kerouac, along with the other poets and writers later to be made into a movement?

“Just parroting other people’s opinions. Family opinions. Nation’s opinions. Kind of virginal minded.

“I was in love with him,” adds Ginsberg.

His association with The Clash comes from shared concerns.

“They’re poets. Strummer is a poet. And they’re interested in their own language. They do want to educate the new wave public. And they do want to uplift the whole punk scene … to some kind of sacred consciousness.

“I like ’em because they weren’t afraid to explore with me. They knew who I was — and took a chance.”

Allen Ginsberg and Joe Strummer, backstage Pier 84,  New York, September 2, 1982 – photo c. Hank O’Neal.

Ginsberg pauses, looking out across his round eyeglasses. “What do we do about unemployment in West Virginia?” he says. “We could point out government expenditures for the military — especially for big nuclear machines which they don’t dare ever use — are exactly what the federal deficit is, exactly the same as what the federal deficit is each year.

“The government borrowing to make up the deficit drives the interest rates up and leaves less money in banks to invest. In West Virginia.”

Reconstruction, said Ginsberg, could help the state — solar energy, reinvestment in steel firms. “And in employing people to undo the damage done by coal mining.”

He turns his attention to coal and to the Rockefeller family. He recalls details of a discussion the previous evening with some West Virginians about the state’s governor, Jay Rockefeller.

“His family is a member of Chase bank, which has extensive investments in South African coal mines — which is in direct competition with West Virginia coal. Has anybody ever raised the question? Is there some conflict of interest? Rockefeller coal and Chase Bank Investments. That’s what I’d check out.”

Reconstruction, said Ginsberg, could help West Virginia — solar energy, reinvestment in steel firms. “And in employing people to undo the damage done by coal mining.”

Ginsberg checked out one well known conflict when he traveled to Nicaragua for eight days in January 1982, along with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. There they met Ernesto Cardinal, the poet minister of culture for the revolutionary Sandinista government which overthrew the U.S.-supported Somoza regime. The Sandinista say the U.S. supports covert operations to topple the Marxist regime that President Reagan has said supplies Russian arms to leftists in El Salvador.

The three poets released a statement as part of a 100th meeting in Managua to celebrate Nicaraguan poet Reuben Dario‘s stand on cultural independence.

“We are three poets of very different countries … We don’t want to see Nicaragua become a puppet in anyone’s hands,” the statement read in part.

“The people there don’t want us,” says Ginsberg.

PARADIGM SHIFTING: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Life in the Trenches of Poetry: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s storied life came to a close Feb. 22, 2021, at the remarkable age of 101. I was blessed to interview him in 1995. What this “ageless radical and true bard” had to say — not to mention his poetry — remains timely and pertinent.

“Our government has been in there for 50 years — before the communists. So we have no excuse for the mess we’re in. We were running things all along. What we’re doing in Central America is more like what the Russians are doing in Afghanistan.

“It’s against the word of the Lord and it’s against the Constitution what we’re doing — if you believe in the word of the Lord or the Constitution.”

“The billion dollars we’re going to spend there we might as well give them in economic aid so they’re not dependent on the Russians. What we’re doing is driving them into the hands of the communists. And they don’t want to go.”

The Reagan administration is forcing the Nicaraguan government “to tie up with Cuba and Russia, even, because we refuse to have any relations with their government.

“Hypocrisy is the key to self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ginsberg says.

Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg sits on a bench in a small amphitheater holding a lap-sized wooden harmonium, like a cross between an accordion and a small organ. Night falls over the hills and grounds as a small bonfire is lit in the center of a ring of benches.

The awards dinner has just ended for the 1983 West Virginia Inc. writers contest, at which Ginsberg read poems old and new, wearing a Cedar Lakes baseball cap. Now he sing songs, exhorting the fire to catch.

“Burn, burn. Climb over that wood.
Oh, Jesus, smoke where you should …”

He bought the harmonium for a few dollars in India where schoolchildren learn to play music on it, he says.

Now he leads a handful of people who’ve filtered down for the bonfire in rounds of the original version of “Irene” — written by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, a blues singer who died in 1949 and who lived on the same New York City block where he used to live, Ginsberg says.

“Irene, good night, Irene — I’ll get you in my dreams.
“But if Irene, she don’t love me,
I’m gonna take morphine and die.”

Ginsberg improvises:

“Sometimes I sit and write poetry.
Sometimes I sit and write prose.
Sometime I sit and do nothing at all,
walk around and pick my nose.”

Allen Ginsberg, 1992 (Print Collector’s Newsletter)

He leads a chorus of poems by 19th century poet William Blake, put to harmonium music. “The refrain is ‘And all the hills echoed,’” Ginsberg says. “It’s for this hour of night.

“And all the hills echo-ed. And all the hills echo-ed,” sings the group.

Harmonies multiply as the refrain grows familiar.

The bonfire catches.

“And all the hills echo-ed …”


CHARACTERS, PART 1: A music video about how I never slept with Allen Ginsberg: nov4.2021: What do you get when you mix famous poet Allen Ginsberg, a bonfire deep in the West Virginia hills, an interview, and a recording studio. Well, 30 years later you get a music video.


CHARACTERS | Recalling Stick Artist-Poet-Philosopher-Shaman Boyd Carr: July 26, 2020| Boyd Carr, who died at age 88 in 2020, was many things. West Virginia poet Kirk Judd recalls a man he describes as “one of the few true geniuses I have known. He was brilliant in his use of language and in the art of storytelling.”

COVERSTORY: CHARACTERS: “When Earl Went to War”: april17.2021: American men of Earl Goodall’s generation are famously not forthcoming about their psychological states or what it’s like to go to war, people dying in front of and beside you. But this Korean War vet communicates all you need to know about that ‘Forgotten War.’

CHARACTERS: The West Virginia brain drain made one of the world’s greatest popstars: Dec18, 2020: In a new edition of our ‘Characters’ series, we reprint a John W. Miller piece on Lady Gaga’s West Virginia roots—and how her Northern Panhandle grandma lifted her up at a low moment, sending her packing back to New York with instructions to “kick some ass.”

CHARACTERS | The “Spark-eyed” Vision of WV Poet Bob Snyder: oct20, 2020: Influential West Virginia-native poet Bob Snyder died in 1995. But a new collection of his poetry exemplifies why, says a fellow poet: “Every West Virginia writer should know Bob. At least know about him. You may not ever get the whole story, but this book will help you understand some of it.”

CHARACTERS: A Portrait of the Artist in Her Garden: aug20.2020: Sassa Wilkes paints every day. Now, she is painting in a different fashion, using the Earth as a palette. A portrait of a West Virginia artist growing things in a big way for the first time, thanks to Covid-19.

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