On Saturday June 14th there was a major
gathering of poets at Asia House on the Upper West
Side of New York City. The line-up included Gary Snyder,
Joanne Kyger, John Giorno, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders,
Stephen Tyler, Sunil Ganguly, Gita Mehta, Bill Morgan
and the often invoked ghost of Allen Ginsberg. These
poets are almost all included in a new book entitled
"The Blue Hand: The Beats in India" written
by Deborah Baker-Ghosh who also organized this event.
Surprisingly, the large auditorium was only half full.
As I entered I ran into fellow Woodstocker Sally Grossman
who said she is compiling a database of all the Bauls
of Bengal (an ancient caste of musicians).
The morning started off at 10am with an interview
of Snyder and Kyger who were at one time married,
but separated in the 60's. The interviewer was Eliot
Weinberger a conservative "delicatessen intellectual"
(to use a Ginsberg phrase). After mentioning that
they had met up with Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in
India in 1961, after a few years in Japan, Snyder
said "the Ginsberg journals were not much about
enlightenment…" to which he was asked "Do
you think Allen was looking for enlightenment in India?"
Snyder testily replied "I don't think so, I think
he was there looking for drugs and boys!" to
which Kyger responded "Well, Isn't that enlightenment?"
They then discussed Allen's interest in "mind
control", the mysterious character Hope Savage
(a lover of Gregory Corso who was also in India at
the time, but whom everyone thought was a spy and
eventually disappeared never to be heard from again),
how to say thank you in Japan, poverty, tolerance
and Christopher Isherwood who had studied with Vedantist
Swami Prabhavananda. Other authors who previously
visited India were discussed: Aldous Huxley in the
1920's and Mark Twain in 1896. The Walt Whitman poem
"Passage to India" was also mentioned (although
he never visited). Snyder and Kyger had come to India
prepared to camp anywhere with a small gas stove as
they had done in the mountains of the west coast of
the USA where "the Beats knew the streets".
The discussion then turned to Spiritual practices.
"Buddhism means at attention" Snyder said
and told a story: He told Ginsberg "when one
realizes that you have been all beings in countless
past lives why search for new experiences?" Ginsberg
said he still wanted as many new experiences as possible,
to which Snyder replied "You must be a very young
soul!" They explained that the haste of wandering
on Ginsberg's India itinerary was exhausting, they
met HH Dalai Lama, Dudjom Rinpoche and a teenage Trungpa
at a school for tulkus. Snyder was in a Vedanta study
group in high school and has been to India four times
since the first trip. Kyger said she had never been
back and instead decided to explore North America,
At the end of the discussion there were questions
from the audience. One person asked Snyder "If
they make a film of the Dharma Bums which movie star
would you like to play you?" He was somewhat
angered by the flippant question and said he was not
the composite character portrayed in Kerouac's novel
and he did not know any movie stars or care about
them! Joanne Kyger, ever the good sport, joked and
said George Clooney could play Ginsberg.
She followed with a great reading of humorous short
poems including one kidding about not being recognized
as one of the Beat poets and the one who took the
famous photo of the other three poets in the Himalayas
which graced the cover of the event program: "Who
do you think took the photo? The bear?"
After Joanne Kyger's reading, John Giorno gave a
very spirited energetic reading from memory jumping
around the stage and projecting like a master theater
actor. The first poem was about a poisonous tree which
was mysteriously beautiful and could not be destroyed
and finally some peaceful beings came and loved it.
The next long poem was one he wrote for his 70th birthday
last year thanking everyone for everything they ever
did to him, good and bad. By the end he was out of
breath, sweating and smiling.
The next panel discussion included Sunil Ganguly
(an Indian Poet who met Allen and Peter in Calcutta
in 1962), Anne Waldman (the poet who started the Jack
Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa with
Allen) and was moderated by Deborah Baker-Ghosh. Ganguly
explained what it was like to be a young iconoclast
atheist poet in Calcutta, how they had met in a coffee
shop and how he and the other Indian poets were shocked
that Allen introduced Peter as his "wife",
but accepted it. He then described that Allen had
once given him LSD (from Timothy Leary) and he liked
the trip which made him remember his childhood. Kerouac
had told him if you take four hits at once you will
remember being in your mother’s womb. His poet
friend Shakti, who also ate it, had a different trip
and thought that he was dying, telling another friend
to write down his last words. Ganguly also described
the time when he visited Allen and the Beats in Greenwich
Village while he was studying with Paul Engle from
the Iowa Writers Workshop (an American poet who had
been to India prior to Allen). Allen asked Ganguly
to have sex and Ganguly replied "Ok, you do to
me and then I will do to you." To which Allen
said "No! I am only active, not passive."
Ganguly said he then called it off. When Ganguly met
Corso Allen told him to never give him money. Of course,
Gregory later asked for $50 and Ganguly did feel inclined
to give it, and added that it was perhaps the first
time Gregory ever did repay a debt.
Anne Waldman then explained her introduction to Buddhism
and India was in 1963 through a gang of Leary followers,
including Robert Thurman, who were studying with Lama
Geshe Wangyal. She met Allen in 1965 and started the
St. Marks' Poetry Project in 1966. At this time she
studied with LaMonte Young and Pandit Prannath. She
went to India first with John Giorno in 1973. Allen
introduced her to the idea that mantra can be useful
for political activity when she saw him chanting at
the Chicago 8 Trial and she quoted the judge as saying
"There will be no OM-ing in my courtroom!"
She discussed the depth of the Dudjom Rinpoche quote
"if you see something bad don't cling to it,
if you see something good don't cling to it"
and the value of Ginsberg's India Journals as a guide
to Indian travels. She said she wished she could go
into the Jaganath Temple in Puri like Allen had, that
he wanted to "see everything and do everything",
that Indira Ghandi had seen him perform at Royal Albert
Hall and that Allen probably helped India financially
by popularizing hand woven khadi clothing. She explained
that she has been back to Mumbai recently for a Marathi
poetry festival and one of the last things she said
to Allen was "You will be a woman in your next
Deborah Baker-Ghosh ended the discussion (after Ganguly
told his story of almost having sex with Ginsberg)
by saying that she "is certain that Allen never
slept with anyone in India on this first trip except
Orlovsky, which cannot be said for many Westerners
who travel there."
This was followed by a work in progress short film
of Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Project in a white
kurta shirt visiting the Calcutta Poet's Café,
the ghat steps beside the Ganga River where Allen
sat with babas and discussing with Sunil Ganguly the
hotel where Allen and Peter stayed.
Then came the lunch break. Anne Waldman invited me,
and my poet friend Louise landes Levi (a Buddhist
student of Namkhai Norbu who translated the poems
of Mirabai and Rasa by Alain Danielou while in India),
up to the 8th floor for the free buffet for guests
of Asia House. All the featured poets were there and
others including Bob Holman, Eliot Katz, Gita Mehta,
Brenda Coultas, Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale of the
Ginsberg Trust, and the generous Indian sponsors of
the event. We sat with Miriam Sanders, the nature
writer and wife of Ed Sanders.
After lunch, poet Ed Sanders of the Fugs and Steven
Taylor, who performed music with Ginsberg for many
years, were featured. Ed sang some Blake interpretations
including his laughing song and then his homage to
Ginsberg: "He Was One of My Heroes". Steven
also sang Blake while playing Allen's harmonium.
The next panel was a point/counterpoint with John
Giorno and Gita Mehta (author of Karma Cola, Snakes
and Ladders, etc.). She discussed the climate of India
for young Indians in the early 1960's, they had heard
of new things, but "Allen Ginsberg, Alfred E,
Newman, Albert Camus - it was all the same to us."
She met Allen in 1963 at an upper class party in Bombay
where everyone was shocked by his "wife"
and beatnik lifestyle. He asked if anyone knew of
any gay ashrams in Vrindaban. She also explained at
an all girls convent school she attended there was
almost a social experiment where they wanted the students
to understand poetry by taking LSD and that the connection
between spirituality and drugs are deeply rooted in
Hindu tradition. "At many temples one can buy
holy golis of bhang [marijuana paste] or opium."
John Giorno gave his personal history: studied Buddhism
at Columbia University, took 34 trips with Brion Gysin
in room 34 of the Chelsea Hotel in 1965 and realized
that if he sat like Buddha and "meditated"
while tripping he felt better. In August 1969 he was
tripping while visiting Allen at his Cherry Valley
farm. In his kitchen John asked Allen "What is
the nature of mind?" Allen screamed in his face
"Stop asking me all these questions! Why don't
you go to India and find out for yourself!" This
deeply affected him and Giorno did finally go in 1971
at the height of the Bangladesh war. Although he was
studying with his guru Dudjom Rinpoche he decided
to meet up with Allen in Calcutta, visited the rented
home of Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan's manager) and
Sally Grossman and made a short film of Allen in the
refuge camps on Jessore Road. After Mehta made some
rather negative remarks about "the golden age
of spiritual materialism" and how the 1971 Bollywood
anti-hippie film "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna"
ruined Indian youth, they showed Giorno's 10 minute
film. The soundtrack is a bad recording of Allen reciting
his poem "Jessore Road" with Dylan and friends
playing music in the background.
Gary Snyder then gave a reading of his long poem
"An Offering for Tara", the Buddhist compassion
deity, which was inspired by his visit to Ladakh (a
remote Buddhist region of India). The lines included:
"blue sheep love the Himalaya
each one thinks it is theirs alone"
His reading was followed by a panel discussion on
"Westerners and Eastern Spirituality" with
Pankaj Mishra (an Indian essayist and novelist), Eliot
Weinberger and Bill Morgan (Ginsberg biographer and
archivist). Morgan raised the interesting point that
Snyder had done more to bring Buddhism to America
than Ginsberg because at first Ginsberg had been introducing
Hindu mantra to the hippie masses. It was also mentioned
several times that Allen mispronounced some of these
Anne Waldman followed this panel by reading some
of her poetry related to India and Buddhism.
Earlier Weinberger had asked the question "Why
do you think modern youth and poets are not making
this transformational trip to India?" Obviously,
he has no idea that there are many thousands of creative
American youth exploring India today in the same way
Allen, Peter, Joanne and Gary did forty years ago.
Hopefully they are writing about it and, perhaps,
For more information about these Beats in India please
Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals
Peter Orlovsky's Leper's Cry
Joanne Kyger's Strange Big Moon: Japan and India Journals
Gary Snyder's Passage Through India
Shiv Mirabito is a poet who travels
to India annually and has a publishing co-operative,
Shivastan, which publishes Beat and Neo-beat poetry
on handmade paper in Kathmandu, Nepal.