Poet and activist Eliot Katz talks about Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, music, poetry and activism

"As humans, we need insights and provocative questions in so many different areas of life, including desires, fears, dreams, loss, love, physical and psychological health, ..."

Eliot Katz: Howlin Soul

Eliot Katz is the author of five books of poetry: When the Skyline Crumbles: Poems for the Bush Years (2007); View from the Big Woods: Poems from North America's Skull (2007); Unlocking the Exits (1999); Les voleurs au travail/Thieves at Work (1992) and Space and Other Poems for Love, Laughs, and Social Transformation (1990). He is a coeditor of Poems for the Nation (2000), a collection of contemporary political poems compiled by the late poet Allen Ginsberg. A cofounder and former coeditor of Long Shot literary magazine, Katz guest-edited Long Shot's final issue, a "Beat Bush issue" released in Spring 2004.

                                                                              Photo by Vivian Demuth

His poems are included in the anthologies: Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets; Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, 2nd ed.; The World the 60s Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America; Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; Blue Stones and Salt Hay: An Anthology of Contemporary New Jersey Poets; Identity Lessons: Contemporary Writing About Learning to Be American; Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam; Nada Poems; Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement; and In Defense of Mumia. His essay, "Radical Eyes," is included in the prose collection, The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later. He is coeditor of a bilingual anthology published in France in 1997, entitled Changing America: Contemporary U.S. Poems of Protest, 1980-1995. Called “another classic New Jersey bard” by Allen Ginsberg, Katz worked for many years as a housing advocate for Central New Jersey homeless families. He currently lives in New York City and serves as poetry editor of the online politics quarterly, Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Since 60s & 70s – what has changed towards the best – for our civilization and culture – and what has gone wrong?

First, Michalis, let me say that it’s a pleasure to be able to have this conversation with you, and that I am honored to be among the international artists and activists that you have been interviewing. As a longtime democratic-leftist poet and activist, I usually look at historical events in terms of whether particular events have increased the levels of democracy, peace, freedom, equality, and ecological sustainability on the planet. In recent decades, I think we have seen tremendous progress in some areas, which shows that people working together can achieve tangible improvements in our living conditions. Evidence of clear improvement and forward movement can be seen in the end of apartheid in South Africa, the close of an oppressive era of “actually existing socialism” in the old Soviet Bloc, the election of progressive governments in a number of countries in South America, and more recently, the growing protests against austerity in Greece and Spain, the widespread Arab Spring protests, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S.  The end of the Cold War, over two decades ago, was, I think, an important step in the direction of creating a more peaceful world, a world with a vastly decreased danger that nuclear weapons might be used at some point, even if that danger has by no means disappeared completely.

In general, I believe that the trend of history, inspired by people’s movements and enhanced by new communication tools like the internet, has seen more people throughout the planet agreeing on the desirability of societies based on democratic and egalitarian values, including respect for social and economic human rights--societies in which more people have more of a democratic say in the decisions that affect their lives, and in which people have access to the basic needs of living, including food, housing, education, and health care . But, of course, as a species, we still have a long way to go to reach those utopian ideals. On the negative side, many who hold powerful government offices are still quite willing to use brutal methods to maintain their grip on power or to achieve arbitrary or oppressive objectives. So that recent decades have also seen far too many atrocities and unnecessary wars around the globe. Plus, there is the relatively new and fast-growing danger of climate change, which threatens the survival of life as we know it on the planet. For me, one of the pleasures of living is to try to do one’s small part, working with other people and with social movement groups, to help expand the positive aspects of our global politics and culture, and to try to change the repressive or destructive aspects.  

   Eliot at Occupy Wall Street movement NY 2011, Photo by Drew Gardner

What is the relation between music, poetry and activism?

I have been writing poetry and doing political activism for over 35 years now, so that I have been thinking for a long time about this question regarding the relationship between art and activism. Although most of my own poems deal in some way with political themes, I am not at all dogmatic about this subject, and I do not think that all poems or songs are political or should be. As humans, we need insights and provocative questions in so many different areas of life, including desires, fears, dreams, loss, love, physical and psychological health, family, plants, non-human animals, science, travel, etc. 

There is a philosophical concept called sphere-differentiation, where the borders between different disciplines are sometimes seen as drawn in dotted lines or semi-permeable membranes. This is the way that I have come to think about politics and poetry (or music): as different spheres that relate to each other in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, and in different moments in our own lives. Sometimes these two different spheres overlap just a little bit, and sometimes they overlap a lot. Sometimes they push against each other, and one or both of these spheres is moved. And sometimes these two spheres remain totally separate and apart, since significant aspects of our lives, like love and death, often exist beyond any political dynamics and will continue to exist as some of the most important areas of concern for music and poetry no matter what terrific or terrible political systems humans might eventually build in the future.

Since I think of poetry and politics as different (even though often overlapping) spheres, I don’t think that writing political poetry or songs can serve as a substitute for building political movements, which is one reason that I think artists who want to help create social change often spend time doing political organizing work on top of their lives as artists. But I also don’t believe that poetry makes nothing happen politically, because of the different ways in which the spheres of art and politics can interact and affect each other. So I do think that poetry and music (and also films, theater, painting, and other art forms) can play important roles in helping to strengthen social movements: by urging a questioning of prevailing political ideas; by helping people to envision healthier social possibilities; by creating alternative public spaces (both actual and on the internet) that might not otherwise exist for people, especially young people, to get together and talk with each other; and by helping to raise public awareness about progressive ideas and progressive groups.

I have been honored in my life to have worked with some amazing artists and activists, from whom I have learned a lot about trying to help build connections between politics and culture. Two that I think are known by many writers and activists in Greece would include the Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg, who was a one-time teacher and longtime friend, and whose mid-1950s poem, “Howl,” changed the landscape of international poetry; and the activist, Abbie Hoffman, who became very well known in the 1960s for using theatrical tactics to advance progressive political causes, including to work against the Vietnam War, and who continued to be a terrific activist until his death in 1989. About art and politics, Abbie Hoffman used to say that trying to create social change without a counterculture is like trying to ski without snow!

How do you characterize Eliot Katz’s poetry and philosophy of life?

As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I was always somewhat interested in politics, even as a child. Then I became even more interested in becoming a political activist, and also in becoming a poet, when I was about 18 years old in 1975, during my first year as a college student at Rutgers University, the state public university of New Jersey. This was soon after I had read the poetry of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg for the first time.

In poetry, I have always been interested in, and influenced by, political poets—Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and many other political poets including William Blake, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Nicanor Parra, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, and many others.  And there are poets that I continually go back to re-read that aren’t primarily political poets, including John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams. And since I do write a lot of political poems, I have spent decades practicing trying to write political poems that are lively and interesting as literature, and that address many of the key events that have taken place during my adult life—in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In politics, I call myself a democratic socialist, a democratic leftist, or a progressive, depending on who I’m talking with, and in what context I’m talking or writing. I’ve never been very concerned with ideological labels, except for the ways in which they sometimes help to make it easier to communicate ideas.  And I have worked as a political activist on many different issues, including working in the peace movement, working against apartheid in South Africa, advocating for the rights of homeless individuals and families, and advocating for civil liberties and other human rights. In the U.S., unlike in many other countries, including Greece I think, because of the experience of the Cold War and the narrow way in which history is often taught in American high schools, sometimes it makes things more difficult to talk to people if one uses the word “socialism,” even in its democratic meaning. Because of the political history of the 20th century, the language that works for progressives in France, Sweden, Brazil, Greece, or Venezuela may not work for progressives in Poland or the Czech Republic. Similarly, what works to communicate a political message in the New York City area, where I live, might not work in some other,  more conservative parts of the United States. But, in politics, the main thing is that I believe that our public institutions should be more accountable to the public; that people should have more of a democratic say in the decisions that affect their daily lives; that people should have access to basic human needs like food, housing, education, and health care; that we should develop stronger policies to preserve peace and the environment; and that people’s civil liberties and other human rights should be protected, including the right to be free of discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. And I believe we need to get from here to there as nonviolently as possible, by creating larger and more effective nonviolent social movements and by electing more progressive candidates to public office.

In your opinion what was the reasons that made 60s to be the center of the political and social conquests?

Since I was born in 1957, I was too young to have been a participant in 1960s political movements. But I have certainly spent a lot of time in my life studying that era’s social movements, and working with writers and political organizers who were key participants. I think that studying the history of movement groups from the 1960s--like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) here in the U.S.—should enable our contemporary movements to do a better job at figuring out how to employ and expand on the strategies that worked in the 1960s, and to avoid the strategies that proved to be more harmful than helpful.

It’s difficult to say why so many interesting political movements, and so much interesting art, erupted all throughout the world in the 1960s, but it does seem like every few decades people decide that it’s time once again to spend their enormous energies working to improve the quality of life on the planet. And once things start happening in a couple of countries, then that utopian spirit or spark, especially among young people, seems contagious and people in other countries begin to get active, too. We saw this recently in the way that the Arab Spring protests helped to inspire so many other activists all around the world, even if the end results of many of these recently built movements are not yet clear. And I think it’s also fair to say that, when there are a lot of interesting social movements taking place, in that kind of environment brimming with energy and excitement, there is usually a lot of interesting music and poetry being written—art which is inspired by ongoing political movements and which, in turn, then helps to inspire these movements to keep growing.                                                  (Photo by Deborah Pohl)

Do you believe that nowadays there’re things to change in any level?

I think most of the many, many things in our current world that need urgent change are becoming fairly obvious to most people on the planet—including war, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, nuclear proliferation, undemocratic governance, and perhaps most urgently at this point, climate change. But we still have a long way to go in figuring out new and more effective ways of addressing these problems in order to create real and deep-rooted change on the scales that are needed.

How did you first meet and would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Allen Ginsberg?

I first met Allen Ginsberg quickly in 1976 after he came to Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I was living and studying, to do a poetry reading. But I think Allen would have remembered me from the summer of 1980, when I did a one-month poetry apprenticeship with him at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. For that apprenticeship, I typed his difficult-to-read manuscripts and journals, and helped him with various literary-related projects; and, in turn, he gave me really helpful advice about my early poems. One thing that Allen used to teach about poetry was that each line in a poem should have a clear image, a distinctive observation, a surprising thought, humor, a double-meaning, an interesting sound, or Poetry in it--and not just be flat prose.

Those early poems of mine were not very good, but I think that Allen appreciated that I was a New Jersey poet, as he was; that I was a young political activist; and that I had studied the poetry of William Blake with Alicia Ostriker, a professor at Rutgers whose edited version of Blake’s complete poems Allen was using at the time to teach his classes on William Blake at Naropa. A few years later, when my poems began to improve, Allen grew very supportive of my work, and we remained friends and kept in touch with each other about poetry and activism through the rest of his life, until his death in 1997. During those years, Allen generously helped my friend, Danny Shot, and I start a literary journal called Long Shot, he recommended my poems to editors of literary journals, he invited me to open up for him at some large readings, he helped me get several books of poetry published, and he continued to answer whatever questions I might have for him about poetry or politics. So what I would say that I remember most about Allen, in addition to his great poems and intelligence, was his extraordinary generosity, including generosity with his time, which I always appreciated because I knew how busy Allen was, as one of the most well-known and influential poets of our era. In addition to being helpful with literary projects, Allen was always really helpful with activist projects, whether by participating in events that I helped to organize (which always helped to bring hundreds of more people to these events) or by opening up his rolodex to help younger organizers like me find contact names and addresses. I always like to say that, long before the internet, Allen helped to coordinate his own World Wide Web of artists, activists, and progressive journalists that was incredibly helpful for those of us trying to find contact names and phone numbers in order to organize public discussions, poetry readings, or political rallies. Allen was also always a curious student of life, always wanting to hear about what his younger poet and activist friends were reading, writing, and working on.

I have written a number of poetry and prose pieces about Allen Ginsberg, several of which your readers can find, if they would like, on my webpage on Jim Cohn’s terrific “Museum of American Poetics” 

"Allen was also always a curious student of life"   Portait by Alex M. Bustillo

How did you first meet and are there any memories from Abbie Hoffman, which you’d like to share with us?

Abbie Hoffman was a great American activist, who is mostly remembered for his unique political organizing work in the 1960s, including helping to found the creative activist group, the Yippies, and also for being part of an historic political trial called The Chicago 8, in which eight activists were put on trial for helping to organize antiwar demonstrations in 1968 outside of the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago. Fewer people, even here in the U.S., know that Abbie continued to do important political organizing work, and to evolve in his progressive ideas, right up until his death in 1989. Sadly, in his later year, Abbie had developed manic-depression, and his death was a result of suicide.

I met Abbie Hoffman initially very quickly at Rutgers University in the early 1980s. And then I got to know him better when he served as an adviser to a national student activist project that I was helping to work on at Rutgers in 1987 and 1988. At the time, my partner, Christine, was Abbie Hoffman’s favorite student organizer in the country, and Abbie was a very dedicated adviser to this project in which we were trying to build a new national student activist group modeled loosely on the 1960s organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Abbie was one of the smartest political thinkers and organizers that I have ever met, and, in his later years, he was very committed to passing along lessons he had learned from his many years of organizing to younger generations, including the need to build long-lasting and democratically structured progressive movement groups. Abbie also had the quickest political wit that I have ever seen, both in private conversations and in public forums, a really unique combination of political intelligence and humor.

What are you missing most nowadays from Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg?

I do very much miss Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman, both as personal friends and as incredibly intelligent political and cultural thinkers. And if either, or both, were alive today, they would surely have important ideas to contribute towards the well-being of our planet.

But we are all human, and nobody lives forever, so that I think the best we can do with those, including our friends, who have influenced us is to try our imperfect bests to help carry on their work and to help try to keep their legacies alive. I try my own imperfect best to do that, both through my poetry and activism (which also, of course, have many other influences in addition to Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman), and also through continuing to help out with some specific projects in conjunction with the Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman estates. For just one example, with another poet friend, Andy Clausen, I helped to co-edit and to complete a political-poetry anthology project, called Poems for the Nation, which Allen Ginsberg was working on during the last 18 months of his life, but which he never had the chance to finish. And I continue to work on various projects with Abbie’s wife, Johanna Lawrenson, who, after Abbie’s death, created The Abbie Hoffman Activist Foundation.

"About art and politics, Abbie Hoffman (photo) used to say that trying to create social change without a counterculture is like trying to ski without snow!"

What are the reasons to become the “Beats”, a generation that left it mark through the years until now?

I think there were many differences, including different political philosophies, among the various writers who are known today as the Beat Generation, so that I think different readers draw different lessons from their work. But I think two things that all of these writers had in common, which help to make their work continually attractive to new generations, include an energetic dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a deeply held belief that people could use their creative energies to help improve the quality of life on the planet. I think that’s why new generations of young people continually look to read the writings of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder, Hettie Jones, Andy Clausen, Janine Pommy Vega, and more. And one interesting development in recent years has been the creation of a Beat Studies Association here in the U.S., within the larger Modern Language Association, so that university professors will be teaching the work of Beat Generation writers for many years to come.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues and jazz is always with us. Why do think that is?

I think that the artistic styles that seem to last—whether blues and jazz, or folk music, or certain styles of painting, poetry, and film—seem to offer engaging and very flexible aesthetic frameworks, into which new generations of young people can continually put their own contemporary thoughts and concerns. At the same time, there is also always a drive by artists to invent new art forms, and occasionally—like with rap or hip-hop—these new art forms take root and become international and long-lasting, adding to the toolbox of available artistic forms and styles that future generations can always choose to use as part of their work.

What motto of yours you would like to stay forever? 

As someone who has done my best to study the history of the universe, I know that nothing lasts forever, and so I don’t have any illusions about my own work lasting forever. And with a very few exceptions, there aren’t all that many well-known poets, so that it seems especially easy for a poet to let go of these kinds of illusions. But I can tell you what I think are some of my better poems, including “Liberation Recalled,” a long poem that deals both with my mother’s Holocaust experiences and with contemporary political and aesthetic issues; “Dinosaur Love,” a short poem in which I have a funny conversation with the bones of T-Rex at New York City’s Museum of Natural History; “Elegy for Allen,” an elegy for Allen Ginsberg written right after his death in 1997; some poems written during my years as an advocate for homeless people in my book, Unlocking the Exits; a number of poems that I wrote against U.S.-initiated wars in my most recent book—Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull; and also some love poems in that same book written for my current partner, Vivian Demuth, a writer and visual artist who works summers as a fire lookout on a mountaintop in northwest Canada, a mountain which, from above, looks to have the shape of a skull. (Many of these poems can be found on the webpage I mentioned earlier) If I am remembered at all as a writer, I hope it will at least partly be for trying to put democratic-left political ideas and observations into lively and interesting poetry, and for addressing and exploring some of the key issues of our times.

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet? How you would spend a day with Woody Guthrie and Che? What would you like to ask Pablo Neruda?  

Although I try to put a fair amount of imagination into my poetry--including having poetic conversations with dinosaurs, UFO aliens, and historical activists like Rosa Luxemberg--I am also enough of a realist to avoid having any actual real-life wishes about meeting people who have long since died and who I never had the chance to meet. As I think you may know from some of my recent writings and interviews, for the last few years, I have been dealing with some health difficulties related to chronic Lyme disease, which can be much more difficult to diagnose and treat than many people realize, if it isn’t caught early because one doesn’t see a tick or bulls-eye rash--so that I have had the much smaller goal of simply trying to regain my health. And lately, my health is thankfully slowly and gradually beginning to improve. If my health keeps improving, one of my wishes would be to begin to travel more once again, and to see places that I have not yet been able to visit, including Athens and other parts of Greece. Perhaps one of your readers who works with an international poetry festival in Greece will invite me to participate in a poetry festival there in the coming years?

Does that seem like a more realistic possibility than meeting Pablo Neruda? So I hope that our paths will cross in person, in addition to the internet, in the years ahead.

(Eliot at Poetry Project, Valentine's Day 1993. Photo by Chris & Amy Funkhouser)

 

 

 

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