In 1977, Michael Rectenwald was a disenchanted pre-med student with a secret passion for poetry—Allen Ginsberg and his influences in particular. After a couple of years of covertly consuming, studying and writing poems, he found his interest in medical school had entirely evaporated, so he left school and dove further into writing, eventually sending a letter and some of his poems to Ginsberg himself. Not only did Ginsberg write back, he invited Rectenwald to apprentice him at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Describing his fellow classmates as “a hodgepodge of Buddhists, failed and former beatniks, wannabe poets, acid trippers, mushroom poppers, Carlos Castaneda aficionados who thought they could fly, and many stripes of New Ager,” Rectenwald was thrown into an erratic world of “creatives” head first. He thrived, developing both a meaningful relationship with his mentor and practicing his craft, despite the frequently turbulent environment.
For example, one of Rectenwald’s “tasks” was watching over Billy Burroughs, Jr., son of William S. Burroughs. Traumatized by an unstable childhood and the death of his mother at the hands of his father, Billy’s mental and physical health had deteriorated exacerbated by alcoholism and a speed addiction his father had encouraged him to cultivate—the senior Burroughs saw drugs as a creative muse. Eventually Billy fled to Florida and died of cirrhosis shortly thereafter, though not before leaving a suicide note, which Rectenwald still possesses.
Eventually Rectenwald went back home and returned to school, this time for a B.A. in English from the University of Pittsburgh. His experience with Ginsberg, while formative, had been disorienting. In 1994, Rectenwald and Ginsberg met again for an interview, which you can read below. This is the first time it has run in print, and the warmth and the familiarity of their interaction is apparent as they meander from politics to the drug war to Buddhism to William S Burroughs.
Michael Rectenwald has since gone on to publish his own poetry and fiction. He has also taught, and produced scholarly work on academic writing, and the history of science and secularism (guess pre-med really did end up coming in handy). He hopes to complete his next book—on his experience with Ginsberg—soon.
M: Hello Allen.
A: Hi, Hello.
M: How are you doing?
A: Well, I just came back from a Chinese restaurant with an old painter friend whom I haven’t seen in New York in thirty years. Robert LaVigne who was a court painter for all the Beat generation and San Francisco renaissance poets like Kerouac and Gary Snyder and John Wieners. So he just arrived in New York for the big Beat generation festival at NYU and him and I went out to supper tonight.
M: and you hadn’t seen him in how long?
A: Well we’d seen each other in Seattle where he was, but I hadn’t seen him in New York, I guess for I guess thirty years or so, since the 60s.
M: Wow, and the Beat generation and legacy and celebration is taking place, actually as this interview is airing. I’ve got the schedule here in front of me and it looks like it’s quite of an array… everything from academic presentations to…
A: Art shows, particularly. There will be a reading at town hall with Gregory Corso and Anne Waldman and myself, Dave Amram, Michael McClure…
M: Ferlinghetti with paintings?
A: Ferlinghetti is both poetry and paintings. Almost everybody. It’s a show of… it began in the school of education and art. It began as an art show to show paintings by Ferlinghetti and Burroughs and water colors by Gregory Corso and photographs by me and Robert Frank and others.
M: Yeah, you’re quite photographer too. I don’t think everybody knows that.
A: There is a new big book out by Chronicle Books that is [inaudible]. It is back on the stands now.
M: I myself have been an admirer of your musical works. You putting Blake to music and you have several musical scores that you have done.
A: We have a lot of albums out now. It’s basically a libretto that I did with Philip Glass, Hydrogen Jukebox that came out on [inaudible] Records a couple months ago. A couple years ago, I had on Island Records what was called The Lion For Real with spoken poems with jazz backgrounds by a lot of very interesting musicians, the same guys that play with Tom Waits and sometimes with Leonard Cohen, [inaudible], Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and others. So now I’m working on a fourth CD set of highlights of all my recorded stuff that has been put out over a thirty-year period.
M: That’s excellent
A: We have a lot of Blake, that you like, plus some things you haven’t heard.
A: That I recorded with Dylan.
M: Oh really?
A: It’s about a half hour of work with Dylan, my own songs with Blake or compositions we did together, improvisations. Then there is a live cut with The Clash. A piece of an opera I did with Philip Glass, a duet between me and Glass. There is a duet with…oh, let’s see, who is the drummer for “A Love Supreme”?
M: Oh, you mean from the Santana album?
A: Elvin Jones, the drummer.
M: Is the cut from Combat Rock is that The Clash or is that another?
A; Oh that is a live thing we did, it’s one of my songs. We had Combat Rock, actually with the album I sing on with their words, but this was my own. Someone did it at a club in New York, improvised, years ago when I first met him.
M: I think is one of the things, well all of the things that amaze people or confuses people about you is that, in fact recently having a conversation with someone here, you know, Allen Ginsberg, what is he? He’s a gay poet. He writes poetry about the gay experience, political poetry, why doesn’t he separate it out? How have you managed to eschew ideology so well in your writing and why?
A: Well, I don’t quite understand that question. Why don’t I separate them out?
M: Well I guess people are looking for programs.
A: I got programs. I got programs comin’ out of my ears.
A: I wouldn’t want to force them on people.
A: The basic program is candor or honesty or frankness. So if it comes to sexual revolution or gay speech or gay liberation, you just be candid with what your experiences are, what your feelings are, so there are a lot of clear or gay poetry, some of it quite frank. I’ve always been interested in drugs. Mainly for artistic purposes, rather than for being hung-up. And so there are a number of poems either written on psychedelic or written on a little grass, and then there’s are a lot of political aspects to the whole drug thing because the drug thing is primarily political problem rather than a medical problem. It should be a medical problem. But they made it criminal and political. And so now that America has a drug crisis because of the extreme drug prohibition that keeps addicts from medical treatment, basically.
M: Well, do you ever subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the drugs have been seemingly planted on such socio-graphic population basis, in order to at least, if not enslave them, get them to do something so that they can justify more repression?
A: Well there is that element. I there’s think the element of political demagoguery that uses the drug problem to whip up votes and money and anger. I don’t want to get too much into it cause it’s too complicated, but to make a long story short, I think it is pretty well known that the CIA and the National Security Agency have been involved with drug trafficking and pedaling in order to subsidize off-the-shelf secret operations.
A: Both in Vietnam and in Nicaragua, and then I think it pretty well known that most of the narcotics police over long period of many, many, many decades have been involved in corruption and reselling the drugs that they seize or shaking down drug dealers. So from the streets all the way up to highest branch of government, including Bush, there is this double-dealing and hypocrisy in all the drug stuff. And I think it is pretty well known that if you are a junkie and you want to get medical treatment it will cost you maybe seven or eight thousand dollars a month in the hospital. So they’d rather pay $20,000 a month and put you in prison. So, everything is upside down and I think everybody who smokes marijuana knows it’s pretty—maybe it should be a cash crop for the failing family farm. And everybody who knows psychedelics knows they probably should be sent back to the doctors and rabbis rather than the military, who control it, since the CIA since first introduced it. So that’s the whole drug problem.
A: Things like that, any demagogue who is trying to make more capital punishment and more tough on drug crime law is only going to fill up the jails and waste a lot of money, and it won’t pick up the drugs anymore than prohibition stopped alcohol. So that disposes of that. However, that does intersect with politics quite a bit.
M: Yeah, we have sort of already gone on to the political.
A: Then there is the more important question of sexual politics. Sort of, the macho repression of the feminine in women. The unbalance in the military and civilian life in that way. And then there is the question of the ecological disaster that hyper-technology has visited on the planet, especially the military hyper-technology. The use of fossil fuels and the use of plastics, the use of chemicals as a source of energy.
M: That is ironic that you mention that, there was a debate recently here between Senator Steve Symms and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in during which Senator Symms says it costs us virtually peanuts to get oil out of the ground. And I think he discounted the 2,000-plus lives in Iraq [the first Iraqi War].
A: Well, he also discounted all the acid rain that the oil, the burn of gasoline creates, the heavy nitrates which screws up the soil, the suction of the ozone layer, which is related to the use of plastics and chemicals. Some petrochemical base. The fact that we have to subsidize the whole oil industry and that if you could have no government subsidy at all, including military for oil, then clean other forms, like solar and other powers, would be economically competitive. But people have the idea that they are not economically competitive because there are all these hidden subsidies, for roads for the gasoline industries, for highways, for cleaning up the pollution, which the public is stuck with and the smog over the cities is primarily automobile’s giving off gas.
M: And the dependence on oil companies as well, right?
A: Right, and the oil tax depletion and the depletion of allowances for the taxes, so in the long run, we are paying a good deal more for oil than we realize. Clean energy and renewal for us might be more at this point, more reliable. Same thing as with the heavily government subsidized nuclear industry which is a huge mistake since they don’t know how to get rid of the nuclear waste. So it’s a kind of half-assed science anyway.
A: So this is a nation’s problem that arises for anybody who’s living in the modern world. But I don’t know what we were talking about. I don’t keep my subject matters. They are all mixed up. For one thing, the political left was destroyed by the FBI years ago. In the McCarthy age, and after all who was doing it but the old faggot, J. Edgar Hoover? He was running the FBI—that came out about a year and a half ago anyway that he was a transvestite. So there was an enormous mixture of sex and politics in that particular issue too.
M: Yeah, it seems that reality keeps mixing things up.
A: Right, which is why they get mixed up in the surrealist way in my poetry.
M: Right. Okay, that’s fair I guess. We have sort of reconnected back with poetry.
A: Right, so the poetry just what comes to my head. Some of it paranoia and political, some of it Eros, some of it family material, some of it realization of death, some of it on the subject on meditation and practice, some of it on the subject of human tenderness, some of it on Buddhist and Eastern thought
M: Yes, speaking of death. I recall rather vividly your song, “Father Death Blues.”
A: Yeah, it’s a good piece of music.
M: Beautiful piece of music. And I had the pleasure with my own brother to perform that with you. 1981 at The Three Rivers Arts Festival in the Westinghouse building lobby.
A: [inaudible] Philip Glass took my melody and wrote it into six-part harmony for six singers. And done a capella and it was a very nice ending to the opera.
M: Well it has to be, because I remember having you perform these pieces, the tenderness that is involved that you reach, especially with your own work as well as with Blake’s.
A: But I think that “Father Death Blues” song is what do you call it—the reference point or the North Star for that element of quiet wisdom, tenderness and feeling. It seems to be universally accepted at poetry readings as the one poem that intersects everyone at ever every age, very emotionally packed.
M: It’s a very strong poem and we would have to have a lot of panache to pull that one off tonight.
A: It’s on a record.
M: Oh really?
A: Yeah in 1984, John Hammond, the great old producer put out an album of mine called First Blues, and “Father Death Blues” is on that with a very good French horn with David Amram and guitar with Steven Taylor who is my accompanist since 1975.
M: There’s the musical aspect obviously, and I wanted to talk a little about your own aspirations towards the oral traditions of poetry. And I would like to see in the words of Michel de Certeau. He’s a French theorist; he says the oral brings us back to the magical world of voices and traditions; the scripts that are written are connected to progress. Can you talk a little about that?
A: Well the first poetry we know, and the most powerful and classic, which was always oral, which was Homer or even before that, Gilgamesh or even before that, the Australian aborigines epics that go back 12,000 years. So the oral tradition has been the longest and most available tradition. Then things started getting written down around the 8th century or so, Sappho, but that was still words for music, she was writing lyrics for sapphic stanzas and she played a five string tortoise shell according to Ed Sanders who studied classic Greek. And all the way up to our own era, the most poignant and powerful of poetry in America has been the great blues tradition from Ma Rainey to Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday all the way to the present. Ray Charles and even [inaudible] singing a heart-rending version of a Leadbelly song, “Black Girl,” which I heard the other night. Those are exquisite poetry lyrics. It is a great treasure of lyric poetry in America; it’s probably the black blues of Robert Johnson and others. You can read it on the page and it’s brilliant and then you can hear it and it’s doubly beautiful. So, the oral tradition as maintained all the way from Homer’s time to our own. And I guess with the reproduction and the mechanical multiples of [inaudible] the printing press, poetry and voice slowly being to separate out, because then people can take the book home and read it by their fireside. They can make a hundred or a thousand or a million copies after awhile.
M: Presumably, with the printing press as well, the idea of authorship itself becomes much more highlighted than it had been previous.
A: Someone is going to sign their transcription over anonymous, once you print it, the editor gets the credit.
M: Right, haha.
A: But what’s interesting, in our generation or generations, the last say 50 years. There’s been a picking up on that thread of spoken, vernacular, idiomatic poetry through Pound and Williams, also Kerouac and others. And finally in the 90s, there seems to be an enormous renaissance of poetry readings all over the country.
A: In coffee houses, and sometimes with music, sometimes in the form of rap, sometimes in the form of interesting grunge lyrics. And sometimes just spoken word as they call it now a days. It’s even getting onto MTV.
M: Yeah, speaking of MTV and pop-culture. I’d like to steer the interview a little bit towards a Barbara Walters-style…no, just kidding.
A: You’re the host.
M: To personalize the interview, I’d like to know what you’ve been doing since 1980 since I studied under you. You left Naropa, and I’m kind of foggy on the details.
A: I was in-house there seven months of the year, year round basically, running the poetics department called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at Naropa institute in Boulder, Colorado. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist College. And we started a poetics program in 1974, and you came in a little before it was ten years old. And this year will be the 20th year; we’re having our 20th anniversary celebration this year. Have you heard about that?
M: I have heard about it, yes.
A: It’s going to be a big blowout. Gary Snyder is coming, Ferlinghetti is coming, Ken Kesey, Marianne Faithfull. Phillip Glass, [inaudible] Taylor, Ornette Coleman?
M: What is the date of that?
A: That will be July 1st to the end of the month. The first week will be a big anniversary celebration and they are going to name the library “The Allen Ginsberg Library” so a lot of friends are coming, a lot of poets.
A: When you came, I was running the department, from 1978 to 1983, I was directing it, and Anne Waldman, the co-director was wandering and giving readings around the country, so I was holding the chair. Then about 1983, I talked to the Tibetan Lama, my teacher, who had organized the school and was the president.
M: That was Chogyam Trungpa?
A: Chogyam Trungpa, the author of a number of books on poetry and Buddhist lectures. He wrote directions for Buddhist meditation, called Meditation in Action.
M: And there was Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism?
A: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and now he died but his lectures were transcribed and he has a series of 108 books coming out. About eight of them already out. Wild and Crazy Wisdom, one is Shambhala, one is Lions Roar of Dharma—a number of books. I have them all lined up here now actually. Tibetan Book of the Dead, Fresh Start, his poetry book, and he was around there and I was around and you were there, you saw him lecture.
M: Yeah I did. Speaking of people who were there, I was very saddened by the death of Ted Berrigan, and I had the honor of being taught by Ted.
A: Did you find him useful as a teacher?
M: Yes, very much so.
A: Now what did he teach you?
M: It was a workshop really.
A: What was your insight that you got from him?
M: Well, I don’t know if I could give you that in one phrase.
A: Well, two phrases.
M: Well, I would say that the great insight that I got from Ted Berrigan, that eventually the light will come on. He would see the light come on and suddenly he would catch the magic thread and everything would start to pop and he taught me that’s what can happen. If you sit there long enough or if you pay attention deeply enough, or if you let go for long enough. He was, you know, obviously a large presence [laughter].
A: I didn’t know that you knew him that well or had been influenced by him.
M: Yeha, I mean not entirely, I think his poetry is a little lighter than what I’m interested in. For instance, you were my very first mentor.
A: Well you had a very thick soup in your poetry, I remember.
M: A very thick soup?
M: Ted said it was nitty-gritty. I don’t know what that means. You called me “the mad mystic from Pittsburgh.”
A: I was there full-time, and after 1983 I began running out of money because I was teaching practically free because we had no money.
M: No kidding?
A: Well, maybe $3,000 a year or something.
M: My goodness.
A: So I was supporting myself by running around the country getting poetry readings or going to Europe to read on the off-seasons. So at a certain point I got sentenced to death and a it was suggesting I take my space for myself. Now I have my apartment, I’ve always kept my apartment in New York from 1975 on, so I just went back to New York. And strangely enough a job opened up two years later at Brooklyn College, a big professorship, John Ashbery’s post-chair and he asked me to take over for him because he got a McArthur. So I would up stepping into this slot called Distinguished Professor of English with a full tenure and professor salary. Plus ten grand.
M: Plus ten grand?
A: Advanced professor salary plus ten grand and that enabled me to clean up my act here and pay my debts back.
M: That must be nice to stay in New York a large point of the time, because I know that you…
A: Now I go back to Naropa in the summers, and this July as per usual, every July. For a number of years I’d go back summers and also spring for a couple weeks. But I’m getting older and I can’t travel as much.
Ginsberg with partner, poet Peter Orlovsky.
M: I must say you maintain a rather ascetic apartment in New York.
M: I like it.
A: I have a lot of books there.
M: Still bohemian all the way.
A: But it’s in the Lower East Side, which is a very bohemian neighborhood, or a grunge neighborhood, or a punk neighborhood or a Mohawk neighborhood.
M: I had stones thrown at me outside one time…
A: Really? Well not now, it’s more gentrified. Who threw stones?
M: I don’t know, I couldn’t see; it was dark.
A: I once got a bb shot in my arm in London in my doorway. But now I think they’re a little more straight. Then I started working with Jon Hammond, and produced his double album in ’84, and put together my collected poems in 84 to 85. Went to China, spent a couple months there. Went to Russia, spent a month and a half there. And then came back and put together an annotated book of Howl. Then, another book of poems in 1986 called White Shroud, it covered the years ’80 to ’86. Then just this week a new book of poems came out from 1986 to 1992 called Cosmopolitan Greetings, it’s my newest book, plus a big book of photographs, I think, in ’89 called Allen Ginsberg Photographs from Twelvetrees Press, plus another of photographs this year from Chronicle Books, which is an adaptation of a book put together for Nishen Company in Berlin, so that is now my 4th photograph book: one from Denmark, one from Germany, one from Twelvetrees Press and one from Chronicle Books. Worked on an opera a couple years back that was presented in Hamburg with Robert Wilson. That just came out on CD in Europe, and then worked on an opera with Philip Glass, and went back to Naropa, and I’ve been teaching in Brooklyn all this time.
M: Great. And you’re with Harper and Row now.
A: Yea since 1984, it’s my fourth book with them. As well as City Lights. City Lights continues to print the old pamphlets, Howl, Kaddish, Reality Sandwiches, Planet News, Mind Breaths and Plutonian Ode.
M: Speaking of Ted Berrigan, Ted Berrigan died what, eight years ago, a little bit more than recently, Charles Bukowski has passed away. I was wondering if you could talk about how you deal with the death of other poets.
A: We’re getting so old that I’m expecting we’re going to die, including me. So, it’s no big deal.
M: No big deal…
A: No, not such a big deal. Every third thought should be my grave. Then somebody else dies… Gregory Corso says “I’ll never die because I won’t know it when I’m dead.” You know, he says, “As long as I’m alive, movie stars will die.” But lately he says he’s got an enlarged heart, we had lunch, and he said he just came back from an x-ray and I’ve got an enlarged heart. And I said, “You’ve always had a big heart Gregory.” But now he says, “Now I have to take care of myself.” But Bukowski I didn’t know very well.
M: Right, he wouldn’t come to Naropa as I remember.
A: No, we invited him. But I gave a reading with him, a number of years ago. About ten, I think, with Gary Snyder and Ferlinghetti, It was in Santa Cruz, to raise money for Americans who were busted in Mexico and who were being held for ransom in Mexican jails, the corrupt system. It was a big issue sometime back then, that they were being so tormented and blackmailed for money from their parents. So we did a benefit in Santa Cruz and someone made a bomb threat in the middle of the reading when I was on the stage. And I was singing the blues so I started improvising that it was time for everybody to leave the hall because of the bomb threat, and since we didn’t want to wind up dead we might as well get up and get out into the open air and we could all congregate there, and then we could come back in from the open air whenever they decided there was nothing there. So, it was in a sort of blues form, and Bukowski read, he had just read. And for every poem he drank a shot, so after he had read eight poems, he was really out of it. Then we had a big party afterward and he was so drunk that his pants started falling down, while he was on the dance floor. But he came over to me and said, “Ginsberg, you’re a good man.” He was such a grumpy old man.
M: Very grumpy, and wasn’t very kind to many of the Beat writers.
A: He was to me, in person at any rate. I think earlier, before he got cured, his brothers would say, i.e., before he got much richer than me or any of the Beat writers, because he was very famous in Italy and Germany, and they made movies of his work. Before that, he was wondering why we were so popular and why he was not. And therefore, he was a little bit grumpy about it. But he did meet Neal Cassady and admired him and wrote a very nice story about him.
A: And then we worked together; I meant well, at any rate. I wasn’t entirely an evil creep.
M: I was wondering if there was any chance you might read something of your recent work?
A: Yea, well my book is called Cosmopolitan Greetings. And there’s a lot of sort of interesting poems. But when I had a Russian translator here and we were looking at a short one called “Autumn Leaves.”
At 66, just learning how to take care of my body
Wake cheerful 8 a.m. & write in a notebook
rising from my bed side naked leaving a naked boy asleep by the wall
mix miso mushroom leeks & winter squash breakfast,
Check bloodsugar, clean teeth exactly, brush, toothpick, floss, mouthwash
oil my feet, put on white shirt white pants white sox
sit solitary by the sink
a moment before brushing my hair, happy not yet
to be a corpse.
M: Speaking of death…
A: Yea, it’s a nice way of saying “happy not yet to be a corpse.”
A: It was interesting, how to translate that in Russian, they have a different syntax for that. Want to hear another poem? [missing]
M: Very good. Research has shown that Allen Ginsberg will be remembered for as long as there is the written word. And I really appreciate your time, Allen. It’s very good to have spoken with you, and my working with you has had a tremendous impact on my life.
A: Well I hope I haven’t done any brain damage.
M: Well I guess not, I don’t think so. We will have to find that out yet.
A: Okay, research will show in due time. [Laughter].
M: Well it’s about midnight in the Eastern Standard time, so we’ll have to get going.