John Wisniewski: What research went into writing your book on Allen Ginsberg?
Bob Rosenthal: Straight Around Allen: On the Business of Being Allen Ginsberg does require some old fashioned research. I visit the archives at Stanford U. and study the checkbooks. In fact the checkbooks are off limits except to executors of the Ginsberg estate. I make a moving timeline of the office with detailed information on who works when and how long. There are a lot of details on expenses that trigger memories of specific events. The checkbooks provide me an authoritative grounding and add veracity to the entire account. I also obtain copies of all my letters to Allen, which are mainly business related but also contain emotive messages. I had saved all of Allen’s notes to me, I study them and make scans.
John Wisniewski: Did you have to Recall the time that you spent with Ginsberg?
Bob Rosenthal: After Allen dies, people ask me if I miss him. I realize that I don’t miss him because he is still with me. I don’t need to recall Allen; I need to tame him. I had the problem of having too much to say. After several drafts and several years, a poet friend, E. Claman, agreed to become my editor. Through my work with E., the information sorted itself into a main text with a running ancillary commentary to gather all my thoughts and answer questions they pose for future readers.
John Wisniewski: What was he really like? You knew him well.
Bob Rosenthal: Truly, it takes a book to answer this question. For me, working for Allen is a giant blessing. He is a great wise man of the kind rarely found in this world. His life needs to be treasured. My book lacks hubris; it is like what a “schlub like me” learns from Ginsberg. The book is subject organized to become as much a how to book as memoir: How to find the Bodhisattva in everybody. How to keep a writer alive in Ankara’s prisons. How to make an ironclad argument. In short, he fills me with awe.
John Wisniewski: how important a poem was Howl to a generation of poets and artists?
Bob Rosenthal: First, let’s refine this question. How does one measure the importance of Howl to succeeding generations of readers? Howl is a liberating poem. In the 1950’s, it shocks with simple words — who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy, — Joy insidiously frees the hearer. By transforming the expectation of pain, a little wiggle room of change is created in the brain. These are the seeds of liberation. Listen to the poem and you feel the chimes of freedom. Howl liberates one to become what they really want to become instead of what society’s expectations for them are. It is not about imitating Ginsberg. Going to LES. Renting a dump. Writing poems. Rather, the poem builds an ever-expanding community. I am with you. Howl is experienced in many high school classes. In a class of thirty or more students, one or two will be stirred up inside by the poem. Many weighty ideas over the last 60 years have been hatched this way!
Bob Rosenthal (b. 1950); Straight Around Allen: On the Business of Being Allen Ginsberg, Beatdom Books 2019, Cleaning Up New York, republished Little Book Room, 2016. Books of poetry: Morning Poems, Lies About the Flesh, Rude Awakenings, Viburnum, and Eleven Psalms; plays co-written with Bob Holman: The Cause of Gravity, The Whore of the Alpines, Bicentennial Suicide, Clear The Range.
Poet Activist: Publisher of Frontward Books. Organized eleven international poetry festivals. Urban homesteader in LES. Teacher at City Tech, CUNY. Retired faculty from Abraham Joshua Heschel High School.