Interview with Allen Ginsberg


by Suzanne Stefanac

August 1989

for the No More Censorship Fact Sheet


Do you remember when you first became aware of censorship?


I guess the first time was my father. I remember way, way, way back when I was about ten or so, my father had a copy of Fanny Hill - a really beautifully illustrated edition with arousing erotic color illustrations. It was in his desk and I remember I purloined it and took it to my room. He discovered that it was gone and he took it back from me. We didnÕt talk about it any more.


It was supposed to bean explosively pornographic book, but it was sure fun to read. It took another twenty years or so before I got another copy -- after it was legalized!


About the same time, I read about a book burning in Germany. After that, I had the impression that censorship and burning books was a sign of totalitarian invasion of the mind and that it could result in physical deformation and pain and blood and wounds. That the first step was the aggression, the suppressing of books.


When did censorship first affect your own work?


I guess it became a personal concern in 1950. There was a book by William Burroughs called Junkie which I had around in manuscript. I was the agent. We finally placed it with a paperback company under the pseudonym William Lee. The first edition wasÉ, I donÕt know if they took out any of the phrasing but they kept interpolating editorial remarks and footnotes saying that the author didnÕt know what he was talking about. They were so afraid to issue it that the only way they could do it was to issue it as a double paperback and, on the other side, upside down, was the autobiography of a drug agent. They sort of covered themselves that way.


As far as moral righteousness, they were afraid of some unknown, unspoken censorship. They never quite got what it was. I certainly never understood it. In those days, I do remember that even talking about drugs was considered immoral. You wouldnÕt have thought of talking about marijuana on the subway because you might be overheard and get arrested.


In 1955, the legal problems with Howl began. I just assumed that Howl would win. I was living in Tangier at the time working with Jack Keroac and William Burroughs on BurroughsÕ Naked Lunch, which was later to have its own legal trial.


It did seem strange that the police should seize Howl because it was a legitimate publication. Everybody knew it was. It seemed to me a fait accompli that the book would win one way or the other. Even if suppressed, I was convinced that it would become a great secret document that people would want to have and pass around. Of course, I was younger and more optimistic in those days (laughs).


You did win, but now Howl is once again the target of censors, correct?


It isnÕt that Howl has been labeled indecent or obscene, exactly. It started when Pacifica had trouble over George Carlin and the seven words and then they were cited for the play, Jerker. Pacifica ended up spending $100,000 on legal fees for the Jerker case and they fought the FCC to a standstill


Then early last year, the FCC decided there would be no ÒindecentÓ programming between 6am and midnight. This program channeling was a new gimmick, probably invented by the Heritage Foundation. It focused on indecency rather than obscenity, because the courts had ruled that obscenity is allowable if there are reasonable social issues involved.


I had originally read in one of Nat HentoffÕs columns in the Village Voice that Howl was now considered questionable material for broadcast. I began calling Pacifica, WBAI radio in New York, and lawyers trying to find out what the exact story was. I found out that it wasnÕt that they didnÕt want to broadcast it and it wasnÕt that they thought it was objectionable, but they were worried about the FCC.


Did you see this as a viable test case?


I thought of making it a test case because it would certainly win as literature because itÕs in all the anthologies. ItÕs taught in schools and itÕs a legitimate work of art. This seemed to be part of a large scale and deliberate attempt to shut down communication in America on many fronts.


I activated the situation when the 30th anniversary edition of Howl came out. Pacifica had broadcast Howl and my other poems on and off over the years. For thirty years my poetry had been broadcast quite freely. In fact, in 1971, there was a 16 hour broadcast on Pacifica in Berkeley followed by one in Los Angeles of my complete body of poetry vocalized, a project on which I had worked for several years. It included many poems that some might consider illegal, including Please, Master, an erotic poem.


The bottom line is that Pacifica, no matter how well-intentioned, could not afford another $100,000 case. And as other people pointed out to me, with radio, if they pull the license, itÕs a death sentence for the whole radio station. Whereas, if they pull a book from a publisher, well, youÕve got other books. You donÕt stop the whole publishing company from doing business -- although under the RICO laws they might try. That kind of censorship might extend its aggression to using RICO to bankrupt all the assets of a legitimate publisher, one of whose books is judged to be obscene.


We filed a friend of the court, an amicus curia, brief in a large scale appeal that I think the larger networks and publishing companies initiated. Then, sometime in August, I think it was, the court finally gave a decision rejecting the FCCÕs 6am to midnight ban saying that it was too broad an interpretation of the law. They did have the right to channel indecency to hours when children were not likely to listen, but that they had to have more scientific guidelines and criteria. They called it channeling. The channeling had to be more precise and that immediately threw it open to the question, when arenÕt people listening?


Further, I know of some parents who have younger children, twelve to fifteen, and they wanted their children to hear Howl on the air. So, in terms of channeling, we need to balance the interests of parents who donÕt want their childrenÕs ears sullied to those who think that childrenÕs ears are not sullied by that literature. We are anticipating a real constitutional appeal on the nature of indecency and censorship.


In the fall or late summer, Senator Jesse Helms gave a long prefatory diatribe about indecency. He then introduced a long letter from some legal expert in the heritage Foundation giving all the reasons for limiting indecency and he then proposed terminology for a new law. It would ban indecency twenty-four hours a day. Since the court ruling was that the FCC was being overbroad in channeling indecency between midnight and 6am, the tactic of the Heritage Foundation was to have a law passed banning it twenty-four hours! HelmsÕ contention and that of the Heritage Foundation was, ÒWhat? WeÕre licensing people to be indecent after midnight?Ó


So, thatÕs where the situation stood as of late fall. And then I was ill and couldnÕt do much. But sooner or later, a constitutional test of that will have to be made. But weÕd have to find a case and a situation and maybe a station willing to broadcast Howl.


In February, there was a large consortium of stations that decided to challenge the FCC. They had a week-long series of broadcasts about censorship organized out of the Pacifica station out of Atlanta. And I think it climaxed with some of the stations broadcasting Howl with impunity. Nobody ever moved against them.


Who do you think benefits from censorship?


The basic thing that Burroughs and Wilhelm Reich and others have pointed out is that censorship of sexual discourse or public communication about sex is one way of keeping the populace under control. If you can censor the seat of one of the greater emotions, then youÕve got the other varieties of communication and consciousness under control. So, in Russia and Nazi Germany and other authoritarian countries, one of the strongest taboos is free communications of that basic emotion, sex. The drug laws are another way of control, getting into the bloodstream and uring of the populace. Abbie Hoffman was good at that.


It may be that the very totalitarian nature of the nuclear bombs, the total force of them, will inevitably create a surveillance state. Robert Junck, a German author has proposed that idea -- the diea that hypertechnology proposes in itself, structurally, the need for a complete surveillance state so that terrorists donÕt blow up the earth.


I still have to live up to the legacy of the constitution. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Even if you get tired after awhile. I know I do.