O — Do you believe in sort of spiritual auras, that sort of thing? Does a space like this absorb its inhabitants?
JG — I think it does. The people who were here, there’s a residue of their energy. But that’s like consciousness, when it dies it vanishes. So in these three lofts there’s very much the feeling of things that happened, but that’s very impermanent. It’s like a grave. Remembering is the function of mind, and you see things externally but the external does not have a mind, it is a projection of your mind. So it’s one of those oxymorons, everybody has this feeling sometimes of an aura or a residue, but there’s no consciousness, it’s unsolvable.
O — In one of your pieces about Burroughs, you speak about absorbing his consciousness as he died—as a poet, do you think that’s something that you’re especially inclined to do, absorb those around you, and maybe speak with their voices?
JG—As a poet, yes, but it was more to do with being a Tibetan Buddhist, it’s a meditation technique that is used to leave your body, ejecting your consciousness through your central nervous system out the top of your head. You can be assisted by a lama, and I’ve done that practice for years, so when he died I did it, as part of a longer meditation. When I did it I was really surprised, because it’s a physical thing, and you’re like “Oh my God!” But you don’t think about that for a second, because you’re doing something so special, you don’t get discursive about it.
O — At what age did your turn to Buddhism occur?
JG — I went to Columbia College, and I always had a propensity, I took some of those courses. Philosophy courses, and Buddhism—they called it oriental religion. But there was no place to meditate, the zen center on Park Avenue was not where it was going. Taking LSD in ’64 and ’65, when you have a good trip, it’s a good trip. When you have a bad trip, it’s your mind, it’s not the drug. So you follow that train of thought, and you turn to meditation, and it works a little bit, and then you realize that that’s a possibility. So that drew me towards Tibetan Buddhism, which was just appearing here. I met a few people over the years, and I didn’t get to go to India until ’71.
O — What was the scene like at Columbia at that time? You talk about experimenting with drugs, is that something that was happening on campus?
JG — Well I went to Columbia ’54 to ’58, so that was before drugs. Marijuana and Benzedrine, those were the only drugs we had.
O — But was school somewhat progressive, and culturally liberated?
JG — It’s a complicated question—I hated Columbia, because everyone going there just wanted to become doctors, lawyers, bankers or whatever, and then move out to the suburbs, to where my parents were living. I would say to myself, “Don’t they know?!” On the other side of it though, that was the generation of really great teachers Mark Van Doren, Eric Bentley, Lionel Trilling—so I had the greatest teachers in the world. That was a great moment for me there, as a poet. They all had a profound effect on me. I got there through a high school in Brooklyn called James Madison, where I had equally as brilliant teachers. I was taught everything in high school, up to ’54, up to Beckett or whatever it was. So the teachers were really great.
O — But was the focus of your studies around philosophy?
JG — No, it was English and creative writing.
O — So you graduate, and then what did the next couple months look like for you?
JG — I went to Iowa Writers Workshop for about four months, didn’t like it so came back here. It got a little too crazy so my parents insisted—or, suggested—that I get a job. I was out in Long Island at this house, it was beautiful, it was great, I was just sort of cocooning, so to speak. But I understood the problem, I couldn’t stay there, and it seemed easy to go to Wall Street. It was ’59, and I went down to a brokerage house called Fahnestock, worked there for a year and a half. It was really rough down there, but it was also a gentlemen’s club, so it was easy. I faked it for a year, and I could’ve gone on, but I wasn’t good at it because I didn’t like it. So I quit, and my parents gave me back my allowance. Their allowance paid the rent here, it was very cheap in 1966.
O — So, a brokerage house is no place for a poet—who were the first people that gave you the sense of an artistic community?
JG — Well even at Columbia, there was the West End Bar, which was a bunch of outcasts who went to Columbia College, Vietnam vets and alcoholics like I was, so we drank there, and then I turned a little bit to going downtown, Cedar Bar and the White Horse. It sort of started in ’61, by ’62 I was in this art world. By ’62 I went to every show, because they were all friends. I didn’t meet Andy until November of ’62, but I saw him at all these openings, because everyone was having their first show, Jim Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, part of this scene that was very much connected to St. Mark’s Church, this scene around the second generation New York school of poets. Ted Berrigan, and that group of poets were my peer group.
O — So that scene provided an education beyond your formal education—to what extent did romances and friendships in that scene nurture you or develop you as an artist?
JG — The people that interested [me] more were the artists, as friends. I mean Andy was one, and later in ’66 Bob Rauschenberg, and later Jasper Johns. I knew them during all of this, so there were these two worlds that were sort of together. The poets are very old fashioned, even though the New York School was modernism—they all liked me so I liked them, so they’d include me in their magazines, and we’d perform together—but they were very conservative. And then you had the beats, who also, nobody realizes, were also very conservative, they were lyrical poets, like 19th century lyrical poets taken up to date, like Allen Ginsberg, using the vocabulary of the 1960s but there was still the formality. And I’m not a lyrical poet, nor am I a modernist. So then on the other side there were all these artist friends, and they were all an enormous influence. You just watched what they did, be it Bob Rauschenberg, or Andy, or whoever—they just work all the time, and they do these things, whatever comes to mind, they follow that thought to completion. If it’s good, then suddenly they have this thing, and if it’s bad, they let go of it. So I did the same, and that’s what gave rise to my life. That’s how Dial-A-Poem started in ’68, or the performances in ’65 with the LP records. I just did what the artists did, if it seems like a good idea—and it’s not easy—go with it. Whereas the poets don’t like doing that, so then my path sort of went a slightly different way. And William Burroughs, who stayed a very good friend until he died, he was living downstairs so I was very much a part of the literary world also, performing with him, and then performing in the poetry world.
O — It sounds like it benefited you greatly to be able to straddle these different facets of art. So you’re writing down your poems, you’re performing them vocally, maybe recording them to records. At what point did you have the inspiration to commit phrases and words to canvas or silkscreen, and make more of an art object?
JG — Well the first ones I did were in in ’68, and that had to do with the influence of these guys. One day, it was during the anti-Vietnam protests. Peter Orlovsky came here, we were silkscreening T-shirts of my anti-war poems, on white T-shirts. We did hundreds here, out the door, hanging them on the staircase, going all the way down. And there were those fumes, we got incredibly high just breathing, and I said “I know how to do this now!” So I started with black-on-black rectangles, I did a couple that year, and I continued every year doing something, as a part of the concept that I had in 1965, and the beginning of Giorno Poetry Systems. It was working with many venues that come out of being a poet— performance being one of the venues, and Dial-A-Poem being another of the venues, and LP records being a venue.