John Giorno is an important and vital poet, pop artist, and Buddhist — though his life and work have always transcended labeling. In the midst of New York City’s celebration of Giorno, Lauria Galbraith speaks with him about his art and inspirations.
John Giorno is a poet of spontaneity – he labors over his art for years, but in the moment of performance, the words sound like clear, unconscious arising. This is one of the many reasons why New York City is currently celebrating the life of Giorno with I ♥ JOHN GIORNO, a sprawling multi-venue exhibition of his artistic archive; he is also a contributing artist at the Rubin Museum’s The World is Sound exhibit. I interviewed Giorno about his Buddhist practice, the early days of Tibetan Buddhism in America, and poetry as a mirror of mind.
Lauria Galbraith: Given that there’s a citywide retrospective of your work happening right now, how does it feel — as someone who is clued into impermanence — to have all of New York reflecting upon you?
John Giorno: It’s also very impermanent! It’s about to leave. The retrospective was in Paris two or three years ago, and started five years before that, so it’s something that has been continuous, changing and evolving, and miraculously happening; all of the different venues came together in spontaneous ways. It was created by Ugo Rondinone, my partner. I’m eighty years old, so I’m a very passive witness of all of this taking place.
It’s quite the labor of love from him.
Is it strange to see all this through the eyes of somebody else?
No, because he’s an artist and a sculptor and he has perfect eye for that. The whole concept of it was put together by Ugo as a bigger work of art.
There’s a lot of Buddhist imagery in your art and writing. How did you come to Buddhism?
I formally became a Buddhist when I went to India and met Dudjom Rinpoche in 1970, and before that I started sort of doing Tibetan Buddhist practice, through a friend of Allen Ginsberg up in his farm. Simple early mantras. But I went to school at Columbia, and I studied what they called Oriental philosophy in those days, which was Asian humanities and Asian philosophy. In the middle of the 1960s, I started practicing and subsequently met Dudjom Rinpoche.
Watching your mind and doing practice [is] most important, then and now.
Then I came back to New York and I met Trungpa Rinpoche almost immediately, and even more interesting than that, there was someone call Kunga Dawa who I saw and met in New York. He was a friend of mine before I went to India, who was sent by Trungpa from Scotland to go to Vermont when Tail of the Tiger [now known as Karme Choling Shambhala Meditation Center] was founded. After I came back, I took it very seriously. I did three one-month Tail of the Tiger retreats in three years, doing Trungpa Rinpoche’s practice under the blessing of Kunga.
Speaking of the early days of Buddhism in America, how do you think things have changed since then?
Well, it was a very rare moment starting in ‘71, because there were all these great lamas in India, who I met when I went there, and who came eventually to New York almost immediately after I got back. They were the generation of Trungpa Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche, many other rinpoches, and they were very accessible to everybody. Even though they had lots of disciples, we had very easy access.
It was an enormous benefit to our meditation practice; being with them, studying with them, doing retreat practice, and to be with their minds. Trungpa Rinpoche, in particular. I went to Trungpa’s early teachings and it was so pure and innocent, the community was so loose. It was just beginning, and we all received wonderful teachings from Trungpa Rinpoche.
All of them are long dead, as you know. People my age are dead and the younger ones are dead and something else has happened in America. All these different lineages have come to America, and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism has a different form. People get it differently these days, because it’s already here, rather than the struggle we had. But the struggle we had was with these amazingly great lamas.
A very personal connection, it seems.
Yes, but it’s all about the mind and watching your mind and doing practice. That’s what is most important, then and now.
I want to turn to your art a bit more. Your writing has been long noted for how it reckons the sacred Buddhist imagery with the profane and the pornographic. Do you think nowadays, the audience has finally caught up to you in appreciating this kind of dialectic in your work?
Well, I’m not sure. It’s more that the mind is pure, and whatever arises in the mind is pure, and it arises in everybody’s mind when they work with emotions, dealing with that. So do they get it more? I’m not sure.
There seems to be a certain development of Buddhist awareness in the poetry that you wrote before you went to India, compared to what you wrote after you went to India.
It’s the progression of practice! Your meditation practice secures progress, and I’ve been doing it for 50 years now.
Your pop art is very striking. I think it really resonates with the short attention span of my generation; it has a sort of jarring “meme wisdom.” But on the other hand, I can really relate it to the ancient dohas, songs of realization, by Naropa and Milarepa. Do you consider yourself situated within that tradition?
I do, because those paintings are just three lines, and you don’t read it. You see the whole thing and you get it – it’s beyond reading. It becomes non-verbal; you just see it and understand it. And if the words are meaningful, it will become an indication of mind to the viewer, which, if it works, has a profound effect.
Your performances have a very similar aspect of direct and genuine awareness, because you don’t read from your poems, you memorize and recite them.
I do it, but every poet should do it! When you read, you read. Did you ever see a singer reading their song? Songs are music and so is poetry.
It’s a bit difficult, but you have to train the mind. When you’re reading from a page, you’re just reading from the page, but when you perform, like a singer when they perform, it’s somehow on the breath in a very powerful way, our internal breath. It has a spontaneity of now. The audience sees it as coming freshly from the mind, so it’s very direct.
The easiest thing is to be clear and simple.
And further, because I’ve performed for so many countless years, when you’re performing, you get very hyperventilated and in an empty mind state, and you see the audience there, and you see that each one of them is deeply moved by what they’re hearing and then they think that I’m telling them something, but what is really happening, which is so clear, is that I’m just a mirror. These words are just a mirror. These feelings they’re having are things they already know. They’re just recognizing them in their mind. They think they’re hearing it from me, but they’re not, they’re hearing it for themselves, because they’re recognizing the wisdom or whatever it is. It’s something that I see over and over again when you perform; it’s not some stupid conceptual words, it’s something else happening.
That spontaneous arising really destroys this feeling of self and other; you’re performing it but I’m having this arising of thought, which is really beautiful.
Well thank you. People come up to me after I perform, and they’ll say, “Oh, you make me so happy!” But they made themselves happy!
You have given out poetry in many different ways; you’ve had the synthesized recordings, the written poetry, the unaccompanied performance…
Yes, in those sound compositions I did until 1980, I did what was possible with the technology at the time, trying to create a connection with the audience that had to do with sound, with complicated sound composition. And I stopped in 1980 completely, and then I had a rock and roll band for 8 or 9 years, and then after I stopped doing that in 1989. Now the only thing I do is perform with my voice and the breath. Best of all, even though I knew how to do that, as I got older, I learned how to perfect it even more. So for the last 25 years, I’ve just used my voice to perform.
Do you find that it’s more direct in that way, just the voice without any accompanied sound?
It’s just so easy. Everything began as obscuration; it’s hard to hear through synth, through rock and roll. The technology becomes this great dense thing, destroying the words and having them arise behind it. Basically, at the end of the day, I’m a poet and I’m performing to an audience, and the easiest thing is to be clear and simple. And being clear and simple, words arise that have musical qualities, and I perform them.
I was thinking a lot about compassion when I was researching you and your life, because you ran the AIDS Treatment Project in the 80s and 90s, and you’ve hosted a lot of Tibetan teachers, and you helped open a Buddhist center in New York – all of these compassionate actions. Do you find this compassion in your work, when you’re performing and writing? Is it something that transfers?
As you know, when you do meditation and practice, if you do it right, compassion automatically arises. Compassion is one of the results. It arises first in your work nonverbally, in one’s mind, and then it manifests in different ways in my poems and the projects I do.
Dial-A-Poem also seems to me like a very compassionate project, as a way to transmit art that people couldn’t access. In a lot of ways, it seems like a precursor to our modern instant media of the internet and YouTube.
I didn’t know it, but it seems like that.
In their introduction to this New York exhibition, Laura Hoptman and Mónica de la Torre call you an “anticipatory plagiarist”, because there are contemporary artists practically plagiarizing your work because you were so ahead of the times.
There is generally copying; when you do something first, you don’t do it very perfectly because you’re struggling with the moment; it’s arising and hasn’t been done before. But then people who had seen what I did, and see the one or two places where I made a little mistake and then redo it more perfectly and get the credit for it.
Does that bother you at all?
No, because I spent my life doing everything I wanted to do, in terms of being a poet and every [other] activity. And because I did it, I felt satisfied, and I always knew that, at the end of the day, it probably would work out. And anger, it doesn’t do anything for you. Because many people copy others in this world, and if you get angry or bitter about it, it’s the poison that destroys everything. But I knew intuitively not to get angry, which arises through practice.
How frequently are you creating?
I write everyday, something with words everyday. And then you can’t do that all day long, so I do the paintings and drawing.
Do you ever feel like you’ve run out of creative spirit?
It’s never happened! I just finished this poem that I’ve been working on for two years called “Wish Fulfilling Jewels.” It’s a long, complicated poem, and I even have another idea for another poem I want to do, and I’m writing a memoir, and the endless shows – I have another art show in September for which the paintings are being made now. It all just keeps happening. And the reason that it keeps happening is that I never stop, it’s part of a continual flow of doing practice and working.
I’ve heard about this memoir! It’s going to be like 600 pages long, right?
Yes, it’s 670 pages now, and it’s more or less finished, I just have to do a bit at the end.
One of your more recent poems has gotten a lot of attention: “Thanx 4 nothing”, which is also reflection back on your life. Some seem to think that it’s a bit bitter, but I disagree. It seems like a very joyous poem to me.
Everything is both! Everything is everything. Indeed, of course, it’s joyous.