Thursday, June 11th, 2010.
I met George on 10th Street outside of Smalls when we shot over next door to the a cafe for Americano’s and chit-chat. We had been conversing for over 6 months now, and he I can credit as the single most helpful cat in my summer’s networking. Providing me with over 10 emails in January 2010, I have George to thank for putting me in touch with some of NYC’s most interesting jazz-poets. We spoke about a number of topics, some of which I disregard from this transcription for the sake of relevance. What you’ll find here however, is an inside look into his education with Alan Ginsberg and George’s perspective as a New York native and poet academic. Here we go:
G: Even though I studied with Ginsberg, I don’t think of myself as having been heavily influenced by the beats.
A: What was that like?
G: [Laughs] Interesting, Ginsberg was actually the sanest out of all those guys. He was always seemed to be, throughout his life, in control of what he was doing, he knew what he was doing and by the time I had him he was 60 years old. He was very set in his ways. He wasn’t too forthcoming. He brought in his friends, Gary Snyder, Peter Olofsky and Gregory Corso. He would have us over at his apartment. When I was 24, I once brought him one of my works he looked at me and asked: “what do you want me to do with this?” Which is a great question! He was a generous guy, but could be tough-minded.
A: Did he shape the way you treat your students?
G: Not at all. By that time I was already teaching so I already had most of my influences. He did lead me toward yoga. He had us meditate in class. He followed his life spontaneously too. He was much more of a technician than he would ever admit himself.
A: Did he try to instill on you any of the beliefs associated with the “beats”?
G: That was the practice. He believed most in spontaneous compositions. Releasing subconscious flow of thought and that being the most important form that poem can take rather than a conventional form. Even thought he knew conventional forms very well. If you read “Howel” you can see Whitman, even though Whitman is not conventional form he’s there. He studied Blake. He studied Williams.
A: What I thought was interesting about “Howel” is that it reads like a Jewish prayer, mourners kaddish or something like that.
G: Absoulty, absolulty. He was very conscious of his Jewish background and his roots. His father was a poet. It was all there. For me, he was more of a typical writer than anyone made him out to be. He was very concerned with being a writer. I feel that he also didn’t care about making a fool of himself and that was an inspiration. I remember at a faculty/student party once in the graduate center. A huge building in mid-town. Everyone’s mingling with their wine and cheese and he was standing on top of the radiator with his face pressed up against the glass staring at the statue of liberty. I don’t think he cared about being a spectacle. That teaches you a lot when you’re 25.
A: What can you tell me about Smalls Books?
G: In 2007, Lee and Spike re-opened Smalls. Lee had the intentions of creating somewhat of a “beat” scene, a place where people could gather in that spirit and also an outlet to get published in that spirit. The beat poets defiantly influence Lee but I am a little less influenced even though I studied with Ginsberg. In was sometime in 2007 that we started to talk about Smalls Books. The first book was Lee’s. I edited that book with a lot of consultation with Lee. In 2008 we produced Lee’s “Why Pat Cooks” and my “New York and Other Lovers”. Lee had written so much that he was eager to get his stuff out and I told him quite frankly: I think that the best thing is to not do that and to start publishing other writers. Then we started thinking, what would the next books be and we got to Christine Timme who is also very “beat” inspired. She has a work called the “Sleeping With Series” where every poem is about sleeping with a different famous writer. So I’m editing that now.
A: That must be a blast!
G: It is, it’s a blast. Its little it’s going to be a City Lights size book, 5.5×6.of 48 pages. And we just did a contest. The winner of the 2009 contest is JR Baillen, so we’ll bring that out in the Fall. Jerry is also talking to us about doing a Punk Rock Anthology
A: What would you say is your relationship with jazz music?
G: I love jazz. I went to school at Columbia where there was a great jazz scene. I felt a great connection with the clubs in the area and the students studying jazz. I would come down to the Vangaurd and seeing great jazz musicians. I was never a student of jazz and I certainly never wrote with jazz particularly in mind. I never worked it into my program. It’s not really my concern to mingle the two, I’m glad that I help do it. What are you hoping I can give you from my perspective, what can I provide?
A: I wanted to talk to you about Ginsberg and Smalls Books. Also, do you have anything to mention about the jazz scene in the city and what the “beat” poets possessed.
G: Well, unfortunately my favorite beat writer, Kerouac, was dead. I think that when he’s good, that’s exactly what jazz and poetry can do together. That’s exactly what it can be but it takes chops. One thing that I’m realizing about Kerouac now is that he had to have chops. He had to have the vocabulary, the facility, the syntax. When he was on, he was great. When he was off it was puerile, really juvenile. I think that that’s probably one of the dangers as a writer and using jazz as an inspiration. You’re going to go off on a lot of tangents, which won’t necessarily break any ground. You may repeat ideas that are obvious and use language that’s not particularly centilating. You get away with it more as a jazz musician because its music. People are willing to go along with it, to enjoy the music it doesn’t take as much effort. To read three pages of mediocre work takes a lot of effort.
A: That can be challenging for an audience to sit through. While as a soloist can keep repeating ideas and get away with it.
G: Totally. That’s fine! That’s the way our minds work, we’re hardwired that way. We’re more mathematical. I hadn’t really thought of that before. I myself, there are many nights when it’s hard to get through an entire reading without wanting to jump out of a window if we had a window at Smalls. When people experiment and it doesn’t go well, its like flatulation. That said, I think part of our job at Smalls is to provide a supportive environment for meeting, we’re paying attention even when the works not great. We’re telling you that you should work at it and we’re telling you: “we don’t know what will happen but we could feature you here may-be and if your work is tremendous maybe we want to publish”.
A: It’s almost like a school or training ground for you guys to see what’s happening.
G: I think it’s a laboratory. And it is like a school in that people can come in and they can mess up and feel supported
A: Have you seen any particularly performance with music during a poetry reading that was particularly memorable.
G: I saw when Bob Holman did his performance series, I thought that he did a really good job. And getting into the spirit of it in a very “Ginsberg” way. There is a great affinity to Bob Holman and Ginsberg. Bob has followed in Ginsberg’s spirit, they knew each other. A lot of chanting, a lot of his stuff has the celebratory quality. Ginsberg celebrated things. Poetry critics these days don’t take kindly to poetry that is strictly celebratory, you’re expected to be someone cynical, you’re expected to be ironic, and you’re expected not to close circles. I admit that a lot of what I write is influenced by those demands. I want to appear in journals.. We have a lot of poets who have works published in magazine, and we have the people who are totally raw. I hope that they’re learning from each other. The stage/page conflict is something that comes to mind.
A: I learned those terms here in NY. And then when I went to meet with Pinksy two weeks ago, he told me to throw them out the window.
G: I agree with Pinksy. I would say at this point there isn’t a great divide. Twenty years ago there was. Now there are not, Bob does this competition at Bowery “Stage Vs. Page” where he has a competition of a stage poet versus a page poet. Some journals release material with the influence of spoken word.
A: How would you define spoken word?
G: Performed poetry that has been written with an eye towards the stage or performance on the stage. Especially as a poet it influences the way that you compose, when you think about the stage. For better or worse I have always thought about the stage because that was my introduction to the public life of the poet. There are spoken word poets who are getting their MF and about to get published and go into an MFA programs who are really invested in the study and the forms. It’s becoming increasingly common. Part of it is that the study of poetry, literature and creative writing has become an industry. Total industry.
A: That can be said about all art.
G: It’s a trap sometimes for people like me who are poets and clinicians. We start to think more about what’s going to get me my next publication or gig instead of taking chances Again, that would be why for me why jazz/poetry intersection and is important for big establishing poets to step into. Billy Collins, who’s very happy to come to be associated with Smalls and read. He wants to read back here in New York.
A: I see him as both, stage and page
G: Oh he’s great, he’s awesome. But reading his work, it completely holds up on the page. Its lyrical, its studied, he’s perfected his voice.
A: Robert Pinksy mentioned that he often vocalizes his lines before he writes them. I thought that was interesting.
G: I read his book on poetry. Its more about poetry appreciation. He is interesting. Pinsky has stepped into that Internet space by editing for Slate, the online journal. I don’t know if it’s the future but most poetry that is being written today exists online. Very good and bad in that many more people are interested in poetry and there is much more bad poetry than there ever has been. Smalls is in that too, everything we do is webcast. That’s another element. I don’t know what the effect of that element is. I don’t know who watches. I don’t know who checks out our archives? What influence does that really have? The importance of the local scene, its important to know that if you’re talking about the history of jazz and poetry. Poetry is predominantly a local art. When you think about the number of people who read the national journals it’s a miniscule amount versus how many people go to poetry readings or make a circuit of poetry in a general area. Poetry is a local art. Jazz has had that history to a degree. Jazz musicians tended to be based in one city or a few cities although they did travel a lot from city to city. Most of the people who play here play here are regular gigs.
A: New York is an exception to the jazz rule in that they can stay in New York and really do well. When it comes to jazz music it’s really had to do that in one city.
G: I’m sure that even in New Orleans I would imagine it’s relatively hard to do that.
A: What’s interesting about Sam Sadigursky is that he’s been a successful jazz musician at young age and he chose to go the more avant, artistic and beaten path of poetry. He could have gone any route in the music, be-bop or modern or any range of “jazz” styles.
G: I have to say I am curious I know why poets are attracted to performing with jazz musicians: spontaneity, the rhythms, the kind of freedom that they are looking for, the origins and the atmosphere that poets see as inspirations. I don’t see why jazz musicians are into it.
A: I didn’t either man. That’s what I intend on asking. Why? Why do you dig this? I’m a musician man and jazz music, to me is infinite to me. These cats who are going the poetry route, are they just poetry fans and they’re trying to sink it into their musical resumes or are they really passionate about it.
G: I would love to find that
A: I think, that they think that it is important. I think that they see the parallels in the American history.
G: I would love to find out if they themselves as toiling with relative obscurity compared to poets or compared to people who work in language. I know there are some studies with music as poetry or the poetic mode of expression is so conscious. Even the free-est, even Kerouac. You can say its free expression of a stream of consciousness but it’s highly mediated. I think that music is less mediated.
A: It’s easier to think about that in Jazz, a solo coming right off the top. But it’s not.
G: Of course it’s not.
A: It’s a combination of a lot of things.
G: I’ve been listening to a lot of my father in law, who’s a jazz flutist/soprano sax player. He’s been walking around my house all week playing for 3 hours a day, walkin’ around my house playing is his flute. He loves to improv, but I know he is improv-ing off a hell of a lot of work.
A: Have you ever seen an improvised poetry?
G: Well yeah. I’ve seen a lot of hip-hop poetry and free style is a part of the whole free style scene. It’s rarely good. Hip-hop artists are good. They can, most of the time do something that’ passively entertaining and profound. I rarely see that among poets. There used to be a guy at the Bowery, a one-minute novelist. He would sit with a typewriter and a stopwatch. That was better. A lot of people have come out of The Bowery and Nuyorican scene. That’s another interesting aspect of this is the people who have emerged from this kind of scene. Sapphire, Patricia Smith who is now a well-respected poet who does usual teaching rounds such as workshops but she was a hard-core Nuyorican poet, spoken word. Her craft at the beginning was not all that great.
A: I am having a hard time diving into spoken word because it seems to be an entity all unto itself. It seems as thought it has deviated from the “beats” or is it an extension. I feel like I might be opening up a mushroom cloud.
G: If I could answer you this on that questions: It is an extension of the beats it is an attempt at expression that is less mediated by conventional structures and that’s fine, BUT if you read “Howel” and read a line like “who lept on negroes in time square” now we’ve got a problem. Because spoken word is among other things from a political perspective is about multiculturalism, it has a hip-hop sensibility often, which is from a Caribbean African perspective. Ginsberg, god-bless him. as much as he may have been trying there was still a sense of exoticism in him and Kerouac and everyone else. So that’s the difference. An interesting cat to talk to is Michael Cirelli. Mike is an Italian guy who grew up in the projects and now runs something called “Urban Word, NYC” a spoken word program for New York City high school students. From that, he’s got two books with the well-respected Hanging Loose Press out of Brooklyn. So Mike has gone the other way. His first book was called “Lobster With Old Dirty Bastard”. He has defiantly come into his place and it’s not a jazz sensibility it’s a hip-hop sensibility and it also makes a difference because of what jazz has become. I think jazz to the beats is what hip-hop is to young white suburban kids now. Trying to be hip, trying to go beyond the consciousness of their mind or something like that. Or may-be at best Alliterative music of some kind. Jazz now to me is not, sorry to say, the kind of democratic music anymore. Its become an institution. You have to have some degree of awareness of the history of jazz to fully appreciate someone who plays it and I don’t know how widespread that is.
A: And when people go to hear a poet read at Nuyorican they don’t have to have a widespread knowledge of anything. It’s entertainment.
G: It’s largely entertainment. That may be another difference, spoken word is a bit more concerned with entertainment and politics than most printed poetry which is really concerned with aesthetics, structuralism, the flow of thought, the turn of the poem.
A: That’s what jazz is.
G: Yes, and maybe that’s why they work together. Written poetry and jazz move closer together in terms of their demographic.
A: What can you tell me about Jane Omderod.
G: Well, she’s not a close friend we’ve only worked on a professional level. She’s very fierce on stage, she’s good technically, she’s an excellent performer. She sees it as a profession and takes her work very seriously. She sees the connection between jazz and poetry. She’s also British. I met Jane at an open reading and thought wow she would be great. She is very experimental, perfect for this thing.
A: Do you know anything about the San Francisco scene.
G: Oh they’re still publishing. Ferlinghetti is still alive.
A: From what I’m reading, the San Francisco scene was the first to premier these poets: Ferlinghetti, Rexroth and Patchen. It didn’t start here. Those guys read over there then New York caught on.
G: Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howel” was in San Francisco. New York has and has always had such a literary establishment; it was fierce resistance to this. Kerouac finished on the road in 1950, and it didn’t get published till 1957 and only then by the skin of his teeth and only then by the intervention of Columbia. San Francisco is not as much of a literary and publishing community so there’s room yet a lot of writers.
A: Clubs used to have set up readings, signs outside of places like the Five Spot that said “poets wanted”, almost as if it was set up. And what you guys at Smalls are not doing is just that, you’re not setting it up. You don’t see it anymore.
G: Jazz is woven into the fabric of New York City. If you’re an artist its impossible to avoid it. You mentioned on the Five Spot, “The Day Lady Died”, the Five Spot and Billie Holiday are obviously in that poem. And O’Hara was an areodetic guy.
A: Love O’Hara!
G: Do you? He’s my favorite. Ginsberg liked him too. What’s the jazz poetry scene like in Florida?
A: In Tallahassee, there’s a spoken word and more of a hip-hop poetry scene. I’ve put on my jazz-poetry events.
G: I assume its happening elsewhere. In New Orleans, I go to Faulkner House. They have Tennessee Williams festival there which is almost an excuse to have music and poetry married. It was there that I saw poetry read with Irish drums. I know there’s a bit of a scene in Chicago. Are you dealing with blues-poetry?
A: I’m trying not to get too over my head. It’s real easy to do. With hip-hop, that could be an entire work in itself, a dissertation, a documentary…it probably has been one of these. What I’m trying to do is take the word “jazz” and the concept of jazz-poetry and see how people seem to define these terms and their art.
G: The key element to me would be improvisation and playing with themes. It would be one thing if you were talking about blues, but jazz to me has so many forms. When jazz players play with a poet, it’s mostly jazz players responding to the poet.