Legendary queer poet and experimental artist John Giorno has worked with the likes of Patti Smith, Jasper Johns and William S Burroughs. A former lover of Andy Warhol (he was the subject of Warhol’s film Sleep and has said the pop art provocateur had a “great dick"), Giorno rose to fame in the art world for his punchy prose and innovative installations. Giorno spoke to Xtrapolate in advance of his Nov 7 show at the NAC.
Xtrapolate: I’ve read you were a stockbroker before you discovered poetry. What was it about the written and spoken word that drew you in?
John Giorno: That’s one of those myths. I was a poet since I was 13 years old. I went to Columbia College in New York and I was a poet. I had to get a job at some point. It was very easy in those years. This thing has haunted me. I wasn’t very good at it. It’s a great story because everybody likes to think it.
X: Can you tell me about the inception of Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments?
JG: This was in the ‘60s when I was beginning all these things. My good fortune was I knew a lot of artists back then and they were all working with new media. The pop artists were doing that and various composers, like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, were all doing something. Those were the ones who really influenced me. I started incorporating those ideas. If they can do it, why can’t I do it. Nobody was famous yet, and that’s what started all these things that became Dial-A-Poem on the telephone. The concept was you didn’t have to be the victim of the book nobody published or the magazine you never got. You just did it. You used new venues to get to the audience. Dial-A-Poem was that and performing. In later years they would be called installations. I had made these sound compositions that were on speakers in the gallery. Each one had something that involved the senses: smell, touch and lights, obviously. I got connected to Experiments in Audio Technology and Bell Labs and they were inventing a machine that analyzed the light content of sound, volume and pitch. They made a little box for me that analyzed the sound of these poems. This went on to become disco lights.
X: How did you initially conceive Dial-A-Poem?
JG: I was working with the concept of how you connect with people. One day I was cranky and I remember it was in the morning. I was talking to somebody and they were being boring. They were irritating me and I said to myself, “Why does it have to be so boring?” These are just words I am hearing; why can’t these words be a poem? In 1968 there was an exhibition space that was looking for projects and I said, “I guess I do have an idea.” That’s where Dial-A-Poem started.
X: Do you have a favourite poem from the Dial-A-Poem sessions?
JG: In the ‘60s they were very sexual and full of liberation and flower power. That was the world of poetry I was in. When it was at the Museum of Modern Art in the ‘70s, it became very political because of the Vietnam War. There was a retrospective this year at MOMA as part of a show called Ecstatic Alphabet. I put it together again by taking 200 of the best selections of 80 poets and some of the ones that came in the early ‘70s. Like Patti Smith came in ‘71. She wasn’t there when Dial-A-Poem happened, so I included her in another version of it now.
X: You’ve previously talked about how your contemporaries Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns were never comfortable with their homosexuality. Were you always, and why do you think they weren’t?
JG: I think so [about his own homosexuality]. Probably their backgrounds. Andy comes from a Slovakian family in Pittsburgh, and no doubt they were homophobic. He was a certain type of person. Jasper comes from the South. I was born in New York. I came out when I was quite young. I’m 75, going to be 76 on Dec 4. When I was 12 or 13 in the 1940s, people would call fag; I didn’t even know what the words meant. When I realized what they meant, I got furious. There’s nothing wrong with a man loving another man. This came when there was no point of reference. This was spontaneously arising. It was at that moment that there was a little bit of pain, and from then on, I decided I was gay.
X: Can you describe the queer scene in New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
JG: New York was always a very sexual city. The ‘60s was the moment of sexual liberation. The ‘70s were more so. The sexual liberation in the ‘70s was more complete. In the ‘60s it was brand new, and by the ‘70s it was one or two generations. Just as an example, and I don’t mean this in a funny way, there were enormous numbers of men who were bisexual. Today they would just be called straight. It was so easy. There was no taboo. There had been a cultural change in the ‘60s and ‘70s around being gay and gay sex. Everyone was young enough to be horny all the time. To get a blowjob or have sex, you could make it with anybody. This was all over Europe and America. In my mind it came to a gigantic and tragic end with the coming of AIDS in the early ‘80s. I have many things in my head that I can remember. In Paris, just picking up guys in those urinals that were out in Notre Dame or in New York. You know they’re married; you know they have kids. They were great; they loved their wives. They loved women, but they also loved making it with men. There were countless numbers of these guys who were sexually liberated, but hundreds of thousands more died from AIDS. It was so depressing for me because this great achievement that we all accomplished came down as a disaster.
X: Your AIDS Treatment Project began in 1984. Why was it important for you to start this foundation?
JG: I’m a Tibetan Buddhist. Everyone has a compassionate feeling to do something. After the ‘60s and ‘70s — to have AIDS come. It was so catastrophic in my life. It was like the failure of every aspiration. When it started, nobody knew what it was, and the next thing you know, you’ve lost your job and you’re out on the street. It was an emergency fund within the community in New York City. Then the AIDS epidemic changed. Now [the foundation is] something else. We do things for people who need help through the foundation.
X: Getting back to poetry, how do you view the state of spoken and written art today?
JG: For me the last 50 years has been the golden age of poetry. That never existed in the history of the world. Since the 1950s to now, so much has happened in the world of poetry. It’s so all over the place. Like everything, most of it is bad, but that’s the way life is. Most paintings are bad. There are millions of bad paintings made every year. People often say poetry is dead. It’s not dead at all. You can’t kill poetry like you can’t kill human nature. Poetry comes up like weeds. You can’t stop poetry. The only thing that has changed is forms that have become invalid because they are antiquated. Modernism is done, but kids reinvent poetry every second.
X: One of your most famous poems, “Thanks for Nothing," is honest and poignant. What I take away from that poem is you are thankful for the career you have had and continue to have.
JG: I am, very much. I don’t think of it as a career. I think of it as a life. I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted to do while working all the time. That’s really rare because life is really hard and tough. Life is often horrible.
The A B Series presents John Giorno
Wed, Nov 7
National Arts Centre