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An Interview with John Giorno

First published in Terminal! magazine, No. 14 (Philadelphia, ca. 1982)

Conducted in Giorno’s home, in the building on the Bowery, Manhattan, where William S. Burroughs had his Bunker, by Thaddeus Rutkowski.

TR: To an ordinary listener, your work sounds unusual, even strange, because of the voice and sound overlays, the echoes and other engineered effects. Why does it sound that way?

JG: You know, there are two ways to approach making records. One is to make a certain kind of totally commercial product: songs, things that you and I listen to all the time on the radio. These are a certain kind of product that is totally wonderful and totally satisfying. I, on the other hand, happen to be a poet, and I’ve been in the world of poets and artists and performers. So to me it’s natural that when people hear my work for the first time, it seems totally weird. With my work, as with most people’s work, you have to figure it out and gotten used to experiencing it. Then it works. When you hear it for the first time, you get frightened.

John Giorno

TR: So you ask a lot from the person who’s listening.

JG: Well, yeah. Recently, for the past year and a half, I’ve been working with music and approaching it in a very pragmatic way. Right now I’m working with Lenny Kaye, and we have this great song.

TR: What kind of song is it?

JG: Very danceable, and it’s really sweet.

TR: Would you like it to be a hit?

JG: I don’t think of it in that way. But, yeah, a hit would be great. The thing is, I’m not a singer and I’m not a musician. I’m a poet, and I approach things from that point of view. Not a hit, but we’re dealing with radio and with people listening to it, people in their living rooms.

I just got back from a European tour, and I’ve just finished this new poem, which I’ve performed a hundred times. It’s completely rehearsed, and now I’m working with the musicians. I would love to have a hit, but I’m not doing any kind of formula thing.

TR: Where will this song appear?

JG: It’s for a new album, an LP for the 15th anniversary of Dial-A-Poem. The album is called You’re a Hook, and there are ten people on it, including Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. This one will have the best selections from the Dial-A-Poem albums that are out of print. And there are a few new things on it. Mine is that new piece with Lenny. Lenny is also on a song with Patti Smith, “White Christmas.” This record, like Life Is a Killer, is mostly all music. It’s poets who work with music. I’m doing another album after this, with that same concept.

TR: Could you give us some background on Dial-A-Poem?

JG: Fifteen years ago I started Dial-A-Poem. It was the original dial-a-something. Now, for instance, the telephone company has developed all these things like Dial-A-Joke and Dial-A-Recipe and Dial-A-Horoscope. They place an ad on TV and make $250,000 in the next hour and a half. But we could never make any money on Dial-A-Poem because, when it was successful, the telephone company made all the money.

TR: It seems that Dial-A-Poem could never be as successful as the phone fantasy numbers in men’s magazines.

JG: Well, I got into that a little bit, you know. There were Allen Ginsberg’s pornographic poems. Or there was Jim Carroll, for instance, reading The Basketball Diaries. They’re incredibly sexy, those basketball diaries. So in 1968, putting those on the telephone was a hook. Besides having Gary Snyder and John Ashbery and Denise Levertov, you had Jim Carroll. And people got totally hooked on that. It was a really interesting phenomenon in ’68, because the middle ‘60s were kind of naïve. The culture hadn’t changed yet. It was really fascinating to play with the media in terms of putting pornographic things on, and then getting in trouble, of course.

One interesting story, actually, was that we got a lot of publicity from everywhere—Time, Newsweek—endlessly, month after month. And we got printed up in Junior Scholastic. Apparently, some twelve-year-olds telephoned—three boys telephoned—and they got one of those “pornographic” pieces. Their mother took the phone out of their hands and started this elaborate lawsuit. At that point the New York State Council on the Arts, which was one of our sponsors, got onto the idea that you cannot censor William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg or Jim Carroll just because it’s slightly pornographic. But it became a deadlock between the New York State Council lawyers and the telephone company lawyers. And Dial-A-Poem was dissolved. They decided to let it go.

TR: Was Dial-A-Poem ever revived?

JG: Yes, it was. At the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. That time, interspersed with poets like Denise Levertov and John Ashbery, there were the Weathermen and Bernardine Dohrn. When you called, you could get “How to Make a Molotov Cocktail” or “How to Make a Bomb.” On one of the days these poems were on, by chance, the IBM building blew up. The Weathermen were really working. The New York Post wrote something like “Dial-A-Poem at Rockefeller’s museum and learn how to build a bomb to blow up the IBM building.” Again, they wanted to shut Dial-A-Poem down. But because Dial-A-Poem was part of a show that ran for three months, they could not shut it off until the three months had passed. And I didn’t care. It’s so thankless, you know. I didn’t get paid anything for that project. The Museum of Modern Art sponsored it, and they spent untold thousands of dollars on installation, running it, having people there to put the tapes on. It was so much work that when it ended, it was a relief that it was over.

TR: Can you call Dial-A-Poem today?

JG: Not in New York, but in other cities around the world.

TR: Where is it operating?

JG: It’s available in Europe. About two years ago it opened in twelve German cities. On Dial-A-Poem in Munich or Stuttgart, they tend to have Thomas Mann reading from his novels. They play old recordings. No doubt they also have new German poets, whoever they are.

Dial-A-Poem is just too difficult to do right now in New York, because of the cost. Anyway, that was one idea, Dial-A-Poem. It’s the idea of getting at that point where there’s the possibility to meet an audience. Another idea has to do with performing. There’s an audience out there listening to you, and you’re talking to them the way I’m talking to you. It’s where the poet and the audience come together, where the communication takes place, that’s the interesting point to work with, the interesting area. There are myriad ways of developing that idea, with music or with LP phonograph records.

TR: A couple of years ago you recorded an album with Laurie Anderson and William Burroughs called You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With. You also performed with Anderson at the Ritz in New York. How did all of this come about?

JG: William Burroughs and Laurie Anderson are old friends of mine, and we got this idea to do a record that the three of us were on. This happened long before Laurie signed her Warner Bros. contract. William Burroughs and I had been doing a tour that year for his novel Cities of the Red Night; it was called the Red Night Tour. When the record came out, it was arranged that we do performances in Los Angeles at the Roxy, then in San Francisco and New York. The Ritz was a place that was booked, which was a great idea. Why not the Ritz, you know?

TR: How did the audience react that night?

JG: The place was packed, with 1,200 people. In terms of our work, Laurie and I are so different. Each of us worked in their own way, and it was a great night.

TR: Speaking of differences, why are you and Glenn Branca on the same album, Who You Staring At? Your work does not seem at all like Branca’s.

JG: Yeah, that was very different. Again, Glenn is a friend of mine, and that idea arose after the album with Laurie. Twyla Tharp had commissioned Glenn to do a piece for her dance Bad Smells. She spent $15,000 in the studio recording it, and she only wanted the performance rights. I’m glad we held the recording rights. So, suddenly, it was this totally natural thing. This great side was done, with Glenn’s piece on it, and it was available in record stores. And that’s how that one happened.

TR: You say that you work with your friends. Were they your friends before you worked with them, or vice versa?

JG: They’re all friend because we work in the same world. I love the people I work with, and those are the people I mostly want to see. Spending time with people I don’t work with really gets to be work. It’s work to be with them because I’m not that interested in being there.

TR: Let’s go back in time a bit. How did you begin working with electronics?

JG: Actually, it was very interesting. In 1965, Robert Rauschenberg and I were very close friends. And it was during this time that he did the E.A.T.—Experiments in Art and Technology. it was the first time any formal approach was originated by Bob. Artists worked with music and technology in a real way. It was a failure at the time, because the artists, mostly visual artists or sculptors, never used technology right. But it was a great moment in history because it was then the idea of trying to make engineers and artists come together and work.

During that time I met Robert Moog, who had just invented the Moog Synthesizer and was living in Trumansburg in upstate New York. This was before the rock and roll groups discovered the synthesizer. I went up there about ten times, twice a year for about three years—’66, ’67, and ’68. After that, Moog became really famous, like a rock and roll star. What I was doing was what you heard on the album with Laurie, but very primitive, something completely different. I was working with concepts of how you manipulate sound and voice and construct a sound piece.

TR: What was it like working with Moog?

JG: He had these two tiny buildings in Trumansburg on Main Street. They were like three-story storefronts where he made those little machines. I either drove up or took the bus, and I would arrive in this tiny little town. The bus stop was just across the street from his two storefronts. It was so sweet, you know. We’d work for two days. I’d stay with his family, with his wife and kids. He was totally a straight guy; he had no idea what I was doing.

TR: OK, back to the present. In one of your poems, there’s a line that goes, “When I meet someone for the first time, I ask myself two questions: What is your sexual preference and how much money do you have?” How would you answer those two questions?

JG: I don’t have any money. As you can see, I’m a poet living on the Bowery. And I’m a fag.

TR: That’s it?

JG: That’s it. That’s a broad generality. Actually, I’m relatively successful in my own little way. Being a poet, that’s not so great. But what is totally great, let me tell you, is that I support myself with poetry. I perform a lot; I tour a lot. I support myself through performing, basically. And our records are quite successful, even though they’re on a small independent label, Giorno Poetry Systems. They produce money to make more records. I find that I don’t make very much money. But these projects happen, and I think that’s totally great. I have no ax to grind.

TR: Would you advise someone else, an aspiring writer, say, to do what you do?

JG: I’ve been doing it so long, see, and I have so many little skills that I’ve developed, that it’s a great pleasure to me. I’ve been a poet since I’m fourteen. That was in New York. I was born here. I love doing what I do. But it’s very difficult, you know. And thankless. Listen, man, I wrote this little essay that goes, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be poets.”

–Thaddeus Rutkowski


4 thoughts on “An Interview with John Giorno

  1. Love this. He was a jewel of a poet, a great performer and an exceptional man of deep spirit. He had a sweetness that permeated everything he did. He will be sorely missed.

  2. So great to read this. I bought “You’re a Hook” very close to when it came out, and that was the first time I heard Giorno. It was revelation. It is so great to read him talking about it here. Great interview. Amazing. Thanks, Thaddeus. RIP John

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