"In terms of racial issues, the Beats were especially fond of blues and jazz—Ginsberg’s last hours were spent listening the blues, when he was in a coma—their writings addressed issues important to the Black and Latino people. The Beats were extremely important to socio-political movements such as sexual and gay liberation, the ecology, and others."
Michael Schumacher: Rebellion Blues
Michael Schumacher has written extensively about Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. His articles, reviews, and essays have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. He is editor of Family Business, a collection of letters between Allen and Louis Ginsberg, and The Essential Ginsberg, a volume of the best of Ginsberg’s poems, essays, songs, letters, journal entries, interviews, and photographs. Allen Ginsberg: The Fall of America Journals (1965-1971), is the third and final volume of Michael Schumacher‘s three-volume selection for the University of Minnesota (November 2020). Published in 1974, The Fall of America was Allen Ginsberg's magnum opus, a poetic account of his experiences in a nation in turmoil. What his National Book Award-winning volume documented he had also recorded, playing a reel-to-reel tape machine given to him by Bob Dylan as he traveled the nation's byways and visited its cities, finding himself again and again in the midst of history in the making--or unmaking. Through a wealth of autopoesy (transcriptions of these recorded poems) published here for the first time in the poet's journals of this period, Ginsberg can be overheard collecting the observations, events, reflections and conversations that would become his most extraordinary work as he witnessed America at a time of historic upheaval and gave voice to the troubled soul at its crossroads.
The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971 contains some of Ginsberg's finest spontaneous writing, accomplished as he pondered the best and worst his country had to offer. He speaks of his anger over the war in Vietnam, the continuing oppression of dissidents, intractable struggles, and experiments with drugs and sexuality. He mourns the deaths of his friends Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, parses the intricacies of the presidential politics of 1968, and grapples with personal and professional challenges in his daily life. An essential backstory to his monumental work, the journals from these years also reveal drafts of some of his most highly regarded poems, including "Wichita Vortex Sutra," "Wales Visitation," "On Neal's Ashes," and "Memory Gardens," as well as poetry published here for the first time and his notes on many of his vivid and detailed dreams. Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Michael Schumacher, a writer closely associated with Ginsberg's life and work, these journals are nothing less than a first draft of the poet's journey to the heart of twentieth-century America.
How has Ginsberg, the Beats and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
I was a rebellious kid, so I was prepared to read the Beats when I first saw their books. The Beats were reassuring, in their own way: it was okay to be different or rebellious. My reading of Ginsberg was an act of rebellion. My English teacher told the class that his writing was unacceptable because of content and the words he used; I went to the bookstore after school and bought Howl and Other poems. Things were never the same. It’s also noteworthy that I was heavily into the blues and folk music at the time, these singers and songwriters were going against the grain. So, to speak, and I was happy to listen.
Where does your creative drive come from? Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish?
I have always had the urge to create, and I was always encouraged to do so, dating back to when I was a little boy, My father wrote two children’s book and one young adult biography, so I had him as an at-home example. I remember one time, when I was in second grade, when I wanted to write a children’s book like my father. He probably wanted me to get out of his office, and he suggested an outlandish idea: “Write a book about the little tractor that went to church,” he said. And I did! It was always like that. I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. For me, it was great to read about Kerouac’s early devotion to writing. That seemed about right to me.
What project would I like to do? Tough question. I believe I’m finished writing about or editing Allen Ginsberg, there have been seven books total, and that’s probably enough. I’d love to see an oral biography of Bob Dylan, but I won’t do it. Otherwise, I’m happy with most of what I’ve written. I’ve written more than a thousand articles, profiles, interviews, essays, and reviews. I’ve written 24 books. If I died tomorrow, I would be content. Cut who knows? There is probably a book in the future.
"First of all, Ginsberg was an exceptional poet. His father was a published poet, and Allen grew up in a house where poetry was always being read out loud. Allen was aware of the great poets of the past, and he could recite their work from memory. In my opinion, Ginsberg was the best poet of the Beat Generation writers. Ginsberg’s work as a critic and agent was crucial." (Photo: Schumacher's Books cover)
How started the thought of Allen’s journals: The Fall of America; The Iron Curtain; and the South American?
This is an easy question to answer. When I was researching Dharma Lion, my 1992 biography of Ginsberg, I read all of the poet’s journals, dating baci to his youth. I found them very compelling reading. Three volumes of Ginsberg’s journals had been published at that point, and I felt that the three that you mentioned were definitely worth publishing. Allen and I discussed the journals, and he was very enthusiastic about the ones that he kept in South America and the Iron Curtain countries. But he died before we worked on them together. I talked to his literary representatives, Peter Hale and Jeff Posternak about my interests in editing the journals, and they were very supportive. The rest is history. In my opinion, The Fall of America Journals is nothing less than a Ginsberg masterwork.
What would you say characterizes Allen Ginsberg in comparison to other Beat writers and poets?
First of all, Ginsberg was an exceptional poet. His father was a published poet, and Allen grew up in a house where poetry was always being read out loud. Allen was aware of the great poets of the past, and he could recite their work from memory. In my opinion, Ginsberg was the best poet of the Beat Generation writers. Ginsberg’s work as a critic and agent was crucial. It’s possible that a number of the Beats, including Burroughs and Kerouac, might not have been published—or at least not so much—if Allen hadn’t worked tirelessly in promoting their work to publishers and the public. Kerouac has often been portrayed as the “King of the Beats” and while I’m not disputing his position the a figurehead, Ginsberg’s work behind the scenes was essential in promoting the books of his Beat Generation friends.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat literature?
I loved Ginsberg’s saying, “Notice what you notice”—an expression I’m acutely aware of in my life and work. Kerouac certainly understood this dictum, as did Burroughs, Corso, Snyder, Creeley, McClure, di Prima, Waldman, and many others. Blake talked of the “minute particulars.” Ginsberg’s Buddhist meditation practices helped him stay focused. All of this taught me important lessons. (Photo: Schumacher & Ginsberg, Chicago 1985)
"I was a rebellious kid, so I was prepared to read the Beats when I first saw their books. The Beats were reassuring, in their own way: it was okay to be different or rebellious. My reading of Ginsberg was an act of rebellion. My English teacher told the class that his writing was unacceptable because of content and the words he used; I went to the bookstore after school and bought Howl and Other poems."
What is the impact of Beat movement on the racial, political, spiritual and socio-cultural implications?
The main members—the core, perhaps—of the Beat Generation writers weren’t especially political. Kerouac and Burroughs were almost anti-political. Still, their writings affected political movement, especially in the movement against the Vietnam War. In terms of racial issues, the Beats were especially fond of blues and jazz—Ginsberg’s last hours were spent listening the blues, when he was in a coma—their writings addressed issues important to the Black and Latino people. The Beats were extremely important to socio-political movements such as sexual and gay liberation, the ecology, and others. Their interests in studying and practicing Buddhist teachings had great influence on the developing and continuing spiritualty in the world.
Do you consider the "Beat Movement" a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?
This goes back to your first question. I think you have to be of a certain state of mind to seek out and pursue Beat writings. This was the case with ne personally. As a child, I attended strict Catholic schools, but I was of the disposition to explore on my own, despite the ideas of the nuns who taught me. On the other hand, there has always been a dispute over whether the Beat was a literary or social phenomenon. I believe it was both. In the beginning, the Beat Generation was composed of friends and similar literary spirits. They spent a great deal of time discussing and arguing social issues, and it seeped into their work.
(Photo: Michael Schumacher)
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