John Giorno is a poet and performance artist, and was a major feature of the New York underground scene of the 1960s. His poetry made extensive use of the cut-up method. In 1965, he founded Giorno Poetry Systems, a label that has issued around 40 albums. In 1968, he created Dial-A-Poem, a telephone poetry service offering audio poems. He is the subject of his partner Ugo Rondinone’s exhibition I ♥ JOHN GIORNO at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Interview: Christabel Stewart
Portrait: Sebastian Kim (John Giorno, New York, 2012)
Christabel Stewart Could you tell me a little more about I ♥ John Giorno, your retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo? It’s been put together by Ugo Rondinone like a love letter.
John Giorno It’s a creation of my life’s work. Ugo and I have been lovers and partners for 18 years, and I have this vast archive that Ugo has got to know over the years. So he decided to put this show together, of the archive and the 17 people I’ve done some amazing collaborations with. And then it became this miraculous creation by Ugo.
CS You’ve talked in the past about finding new venues for poetry, other than books and magazines. Then you found other avenues, such as the telephone. Your Dial-A-Poem work is included in the exhibition, isn’t it?
JG In the museum there are various installations that are archival Dial-A-Poem. We have six telephones, with 80 poets and 200 poems on a computer in the telephone. So when you pick it up it’s like you’re calling and you get one of the poems, but it’s all inside the telephone. That’s one installation. Another room is the Giorno Poetry System room, where 150 LPs and CDs can be accessed on iPads. You can listen to all those albums on earphones and sit in a bean chair.
CS Can you tell me more about the genesis of Dial-A-Poem?
JG I was this young poet who loved the book and the magazine, but it occurred to me in the early 1960s that there were lots of other possibilities using all the technology at the time. That was the genesis of doing these various projects, like LPs, because we listened to rock’n’roll records on LPs. And then I worked with various different kinds of electronics and media at the time, so I got the idea of doing Dial-A-Poem using the telephone as a venue.
CS And you had a good take-up for that?
JG Well, yes. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had the magic formula that nobody had ever realised: if you publicise a telephone number and you have the capability of receiving more than one telephone call, it becomes a gigantic venue. That started this “Dial-A-Something” industry, which ended up with phone sex. The idea that you can use the telephone as a venue to communicate with people. I discovered that, because when Dial-A-Poet first happened that kind of service didn’t exist. I started with 12 or 15 poets in New York in 1960 and then began recording more poets. When it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art two years later, I think there were about 200 poets then. And everyone appreciated it, yes.
CS Artists have long been an influence on your work and methodology. Can you tell me a bit about your beginnings in the 1960s and how your peer group affected you?
JG In the early 1960s I knew a lot of these poets, artists and painters who were a little bit older than me. I was 20 and they were 28, and they were a great influence. It was the energy of seeing: none of them were famous then, but they’re all enormously famous names now. Just seeing them work was a great inspiration. I said to myself, if they can do it for painting, why can’t I do it for poetry? Just whatever came into your mind that seemed like a good idea you did it, and doing it was the process.
CS Do you see the art world and your text pieces as another venue for poetry, or is it a separate endeavour entirely for you?
JG Everything I’ve done in my life I’ve done it as a poet; it has come from being a poet. So doing Dial-A-Poem and all those LPs and CDs was an extension of the way I thought poetry should be, just like performing. When you learn how to perform, using breath and the sound of your voice and all the subtleties, that has little to do with what people traditionally call poetry. And that doesn’t come easy. Every poet has to figure out how to do it and how to use their voice. So it’s a separate skill. The other things I do, like the paintings and the drawings, are a venue for my poetry, but it’s a work of art in another medium. So one develops skills as a painter or doing drawings in those other media and over the years when you work at things every day you get better. The paintings are not because I’ve shifted venues; the paintings are my poems, made manifest as visual objects.
CS Was there interest in the art world in showing your text poems in other venues?
JG The poetry world is sort of oblivious to the art world; it’s a separate realm. I think people were sort of amused that I did it. But it was more that I wanted to do it. In different parts of my life I’ve been in the art world, and in other parts I’ve been just in the literary world. So in the 1970s and 1980s, I was just in the purely literary world, living with William Burroughs and touring with him endlessly, but I did continue to do one print a year.
CS What was it like living with Burroughs?
JG Well, he was an ancient friend of mine; he was a really sweet man. We lived our lives together. In the Bowery I have three lofts; he lived in one and I lived in another, so we did our living together, our meals, and the shopping and touring. He was a sweet, gentle man. Today, I write in one loft and I paint in the loft below. I spend two hours in the morning upstairs, and then I take a break and go downstairs and work on a drawing or a painting. That is another part of the brain, so it’s relaxation. Then I go back to writing and then back downstairs to paint after that.
CS Your relationship with Ugo is both personal and artistic, and your life has been marked by such relationships – with Warhol and Burroughs – do you see a gap between the personal and the artistic?
JG It’s sort of all mixed together. When you live with someone or live your life with someone, you’re always thinking about what you work on and he’s always asking me questions. Actually, he’s not asking me a question, he’s saying the question to himself and to me. So our thing together has been a very collaborative experience. As well as being partners in life, he has had an influence on my art – I doubt I’ve been an influence on him – and he’s been a great art teacher. I’m a poet, so occasionally I make mistakes, but he’s very soft when he explains why it’s a mistake, and I get it. As a poet you often err in the direction of illustration.
CS You talk a lot about love and sex in your work, often in a direct, physical way. These works still seem to have the power to shock audiences. Do you like to shock them or do you not care about their reaction?
JG It was something I did. When I started doing it in the early and mid-1960s, the intention was just about using freedom of language as a mirror of my mind. In everybody’s mind is sexuality, what you have done or what you do or what you think about during the day. So it’s a part of the mind stream, and including sexuality seemed a part of the mind stream.
CS Could you tell us about filming Sleep with Andy Warhol?
JG Andy was just beginning to be a filmmaker and he was shooting everyday activities. One of them was a film of me sleeping, which is something that everybody does every day. It was something visual that is in everybody’s mind as an ordinary, everyday activity.
CS There’s been a lot of self-organisation in your career, often through necessity I imagine. Is that still continuing?
JG Well, I’ve had the great good fortune of living a life that I’ve been able to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do every day. I work all the time, but that’s because I want to. I’ve had the freedom not to be forced to do something else, to have some job to support a family or whatever. So I’ve been very lucky. Self-organised – everybody is self-organised, and I’ve been very fortunate.
CS Your loft on the Bowery has a Buddhist area in it. You’ve been a Buddhist for a long time now – do you think it’s influenced your work?
JG I think so. Being a Buddhist, what you do is meditation practice. Meditation is training the mind and seeing the empty nature of the thoughts that arise in the mind. You get a certain discipline of seeing thoughts if you want to. As a meditator you have the ability to see them clearly, maybe.
CS Do you know what you’ll be performing at the Palais de Tokyo, or is that a secret?
JG Some poems from the last 10 or 15 years. “God is Man-made” is my newest poem, so I’ll read that and a bunch of other poems.
CS Do you perform in a space with your paintings behind you?
JG Where I’m going to perform is this big central corridor where two staircases join each other. It’s sort of a hole. That’s where the wall paintings are permanently installed, just at the entrance to this gigantic room. My show is on the floor above.
CS And this is where you’ve collated all the archival material?
JG I created the archive just because, as a poet, I put things in boxes. My family had a house in Roslyn Heights, Long Island, so for 50 years I took boxes up there just because poets and artists save their work. Not with any intention, but now, 50 years later, one of the main rooms of the show is the archive – there are 12,500 scans of things I’ve written in different books and magazines.
CS In an interview with Marcus Boon you said, “Poetry is the same as art, the same as music and dance. That’s so enormously a part of our culture now; it never was this way in the history of the world.” Could you comment on that?
JG I’m not sure it’s never before in the history of the world! Maybe I meant it in the sense that with changes in communication over the last 50 or 100 years, art and poetry have become accessible to people on an enormous level. Not only through the internet, but through the availability of great museums in every city. And I think poetry, too, has been reborn through all the technologies, the internet and all the various modern media. And I don’t think this existed before. Certainly from the 19th century back, it was just for a few people who could read.
CS The Palais de Tokyo text for the show says, “Whether they are recorded on an album, painted on a canvas, delivered on stage or deconstructed in the pages of a book, Giorno considers poems as images that can be endlessly reproduced using different technologies.” Is that a good summation of how you view poetry?
JG I don’t disagree with it, but one doesn’t view it personally that way. Being a poet, words are often in your mind. Somehow you write them down on a computer and a poem forms. It takes me a long time – “God is Man-made” took me a year and a half to finish. After one has finished it one begins the process of rehearsing it and bringing out all the musical qualities. If I use some lines of it, then very short phrases work as paintings as somehow they have their own life. So it’s an evolution and the result becomes all these different things, but I just follow the words as they come to my mind and as they develop in a simple way. §
I ♥ John Giorno is at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, until January 10. Dial-A-Poem is available on +33 (0)800 106 106