Allen Ginsberg Didn’t Say That

A Conversation on the Film 'Howl'

by C.E. McAuley

3 May 2011


C.E. McAuley: How did the film differ from your analysis in your book? In terms of how everything was presented, or how was it similar?

Jonah Raskin: Well, some of my book is about, there is a poem about somebody who grew up in New York and went to school in New York and met all these people in New York. But he could only really write about that whole scene and that whole picture until he came to San Francisco.

C.E. McAuley: Why do you think that was?

Jonah Raskin: Because he needed to get away from his parents, his professors, his whole sort of New York— the way he conceived of himself in New York. So he had to have the geographical distance, the sort of emotional detachment from all of that in order to look back at it.

C.E. McAuley: And you have this Six Gallery
reading in 1955 as this seminal event that’s reflected in a number of different works, for instance in Dharma Bums. You hear about it from Kerouac’s point of view and he goes on to describe, you know staying with Allen Ginsberg or that his character Alvah, I forget the last name, but Alvah in Berkeley. And so, you get to see Ginsberg from a different point of view.

Jonah Raskin: Well, they could have done the whole movie just around the Six Gallery reading.

C.E. McAuley: Right.

Jonah Raskin: Because he was asked to put together a reading at the gallery.

C.E. McAuley: Right.

Jonah Raskin: And he hadn’t written the poem by then. And that was like a month beforehand. So it could have done— like just focused on August, September, October 1955 and, because Kerouac was there, and Snyder was there.

C.E. McAuley: Having a film of American Scream, or going straight with the facts instead of interpreting them with an artistic license, I always think that the raw story of the Beats is so much more interesting than some of what people tried to do with, for instance the film Naked Lunch, even though it has some great performances in it or with this film. And we have some contemporary issues like this connection of Ginsberg and Howl and the tea bagger movement. So maybe you can talk a little bit about that because I was very surprised when I first heard about that.

Jonah Raskin: Well, yeah there was somebody in the New York Times named Lee Seagull who like a week ago wrote these pieces on how the Beats and the tea baggers are the same.

C.E. McAuley: Really?

Jonah Raskin: Yeah.

C.E. McAuley: So the same but opposite?

Jonah Raskin: No, they’re both like… so, American freedom, speaking for freedom and individual freedom.

C.E. McAuley: I always was concerned that the tea baggers were actually just veiled racists. But that’s just my point of view.

Jonah Raskin: Well, I believe there’s a lot of millionaire money behind the tea baggers.

C.E. McAuley: I get confused with them and the birthers and I always get the feel that they’re all part of the same thing.

Jonah Raskin: Well there was no big bucks behind the Beats.

C.E. McAuley: So I don’t know, so what do you, how do you feel about that argument that the tea— what do they call it the tea party we call them the tea baggers here in California— but how do you feel about that comparison of the tea party to the Beat generation and are their values similar or different; in what way?

Jonah Raskin: It does seem like people who write about the Beats are always trying to figure out who they’re like, right? And a couple years ago there were people who wrote about the Beats and said they were like the rat pack. Like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr.

C.E. McAuley: They were swingers.

Jonah Raskin: So, I would say it’s meaningless. I mean it’s trying to take something that’s happening… a contemporary phenomenon… and try to understand it by connecting it to the Beats, it’s like…  it’s dumb.

C.E. McAuley: Yeah I would agree. I would say that it’s almost offensive to equate the Beats with the tea party movement which appears to me, at least, to restrict certain peoples’ lifestyles and have unrestricted lifestyles for other people. Maybe I’ve mis—analyzed it.

Jonah Raskin: One thing that’s completely missing from this movie is that the Beats were global. I mean, that by the time Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, he’d already been to Africa, he’d been to Mexico, he’d been to Cuba, the Caribbean. And the Beats traveled all over the world they were absolutely global, they went to Japan, India, they were exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, different religions and very American, but also connected to different cultures. Kerouac connected to his French ancestors and Ginsberg, his ancestors came from Russia, he always had his link to some Russian Jewish ancestry and after Howl was published, he went to the Soviet Union, Moscow, he wanted to see what was happening there.

C.E. McAuley: So we don’t see anything, you said it was dumb, the tea party comparison and we still, what we’re left with ultimately is a film that was made about Howl about the obscenity trial and about Ginsberg to a certain extent. If you think of Ginsberg’s notebooks, I mean they go into so much depth, I don’t even know if he’s somebody who can be captured on film. I mean do you feel there could be a film about, really about Allen Ginsberg, but was in the spirit of really telling the true story of Ginsberg, what would that be like?

Jonah Raskin: I think, if there’s a real historic figure, that people who stick to the literal truth pretty much, they want to respect the facts, usually don’t make a good movie.

C.E. McAuley: Oh, that’s interesting.

Jonah Raskin: I think you just have to start from scratch, you just have to be inspired ‘what’s the essence of this person’ and not be bound or prisoner of ‘that there was a sixth gallery reading, that there was this guy who published it’ but more inventive, more free wheeling.

C.E. McAuley: So, in what way did this film capture or not capture that free wheeling feeling, that essential nature of the man and the poem?

Jonah Raskin: Well, you don’t really see Allen Ginsberg, like the traveling thing—you don’t’ really see; Allen Ginsberg traveled way more than Neil Cassidy, or Jack Kerouac. You don’t see him getting on a bus, you don’t see him going to Cuba by himself, I mean the guy went to… 

Aimee Drew: Just New York and San Francisco and that’s it.

Jonah Raskin: How old he was and you know, how old was he? He was 23 he went by himself, he went to West Africa. He went on a ship, he was a sailor. He was a student.

C.E. McAuley: So if you could remake this film what would you do beyond just the travel? How would you retell the story? How would you remake the movie?

Jonah Raskin: Like how I would do it? I would do it more as a mystery story I think. I mean I like mysteries, you know. I might do it like a remake of Citizen Kane, you know, where you actually see the editor and the interviewer, sort of like the, the editor says ‘everybody knew this public figure Allen Ginsberg, but we need some new angle.’ Like he’s just died, I would start with Allen Ginsberg’s death. The editor says, you know, it’s like CNN. ‘We want to find out, we’re working on a story to find out who is the true Allen Ginsberg.’ Get below, behind all of this PR crap, bullshit that he was putting out and I mean, Allen Ginsberg was this total publicist, I mean. And totally, he was like, as well as being this great poet, I would say he was a great poet, I would say he was also this great PR character. He was always promoting himself and sort of creating a persona. You never really see that he’s like manufacturing this whole image of himself, so I’d have it as the reporters, you know being the kind of role as a detective where he goes around and he talks to all these people, you know so you get different, like a Cubist portrait, different points of view and so, in a way there’s never any definitive answer, there’s always different people who see him form different ways.

* * *

After dinner ended and we made our way down the stairs to the first floor of the restaurant, Raskin made one final observation that captured a major difference between the focus of the film and his interpretation of the poem.

“The main focus of Ginsberg was not on the section of the poem which they focused on in the film about about the line ‘who were fucked in the ass by saintly truck drivers and screamed with joy.’ It was all about ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.’ All the rest was there, but that was a main focus. Allen Ginsberg didn’t stand around in interviews just talking about people getting fucked in the ass by saintly truck drivers and screaming with joy as his main point. Allen Ginsberg didn’t say that.”

Q&A Transcription by Josette Canilao.

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