John Giorno about poetry (and the Williams S. Burroughs commercials for Nike)

From a wonderful new interview with John Giorno in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine:

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PRUITT: What about poetry these days? Is it hard for you to see where poetry stands? Most of your adult life has been devoted to poetry. Can you evaluate its place in society? Do you ever think, “Oh, I wish I were doing something that people cared more about, like a crappy television show”? Obviously, words are still critical to culture, but poetry is seldom a best seller or at the front of a bookstore.

GIORNO: I have a different view. I just cannot do enough in my life. I perform endlessly. So what you’re saying about its lack of popularity is not a personal problem for me. But generally speaking, I think that the last 60 years have been a golden age of poetry that never existed before in the history of the world. So there. It’s really true. Before the ’50s, think of T.S. Eliot in the early ’20s, or Baudelaire and Rimbaud before him. They sold a hundred copies of a book. It was enormously powerful work, difficult and effective, but it took awhile to get out. Think about all of this technology now. More people are playing around with words in their own way. That’s poetry, more than ever before. Even tweeting and texting—texting is all about minimal words. It may seem mundane, but it is still the act of thinking about words. You seem to be saying that poetry is dead, Rob. Yes, a few traditions and forms have died—like the sonnet. But in general there is more poetry than ever. Rap is a poetic form. Most of it may be horrible, but a great rap performance is a great poetic form.

PRUITT: I may have been trying to say that poetry is dead, but what I was thinking about is a little more particular. I was thinking that it had no value as a commodity.

GIORNO: That’s something else. Poets never make money. It’s a phenomenon going back millennia. Poets are never paid in any culture. Just like they aren’t in ours. It’s not as though they aren’t famous. People like Allen Ginsberg—he was an enormously famous poet, right? But he made a very modest amount of money. He toured all the time and he got paid a thousand dollars a reading, so at the end of the year, he’d maybe make $200,000. But his peers in any other profession would be making $20 million.

PRUITT: Exactly.

GIORNO: And William S. Burroughs made even less, because he never toured and his books are difficult reading, so he didn’t sell a bunch of copies. So he was forced, on occasion every few years, to do something like a Nike commercial. At the end of his life, he did a Nike commercial and got, I think, a lousy $250,000.

PRUITT: Wait, Burroughs did a commercial?

GIORNO: A Nike sneaker commercial in 1994. He hit the jackpot—$250,000! But poets in every culture aren’t paid. Even the Chinese or the Tibetan Buddhists. If you’re a great lama, you get paid. But if you’re a poet, a crazy wisdom poet, you don’t. You end up with me, someone with a lot of fans. And that’s enough for me.


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