JOHN GIORNO: ACTIVITY DEMON YESHE NORBUby Anne Waldman
I felt akin to John Giorno’s kinetics from the start. A generally calm person, John is a torrent of purpose, an “activity demon.” His unique style on stage as preacher/hipster, radical dharma-wit-yogin, and more increasingly the lone poet with cowboy-inflected voice, feels like vital transmission. His phases becoming slogans for our Kulchur, a kind of psycho-physical apparatus of big mind. And sound advice: “Just say no to family values and don’t quit your day job.”
John gave me something by example about the “Dakini principle,” about devotion, about the agency of poetry as trickster in the world. And he was clever on technology, inspired by Bob Rauschenberg’s and Billy Kluver’s E.A.T. We went about our own power. Our pleasures in the work of ourselves and compadres. Faith in the revolution of consciousness. The urgency of sexual and gender freedoms. Performance as political social act. We could meditate, we could be activists, could get high as “skillful means.” John as inscrutable, as disciplined cultural worker, as conduit, as “found” poet in zone of magpie poetics, as partner in transgression. The 1960s was our charnel ground; the interconnectivity was sizzling. How generative one day could be. How purposeful. The Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church In-The-Bowery was founded officially in 1966, after poets had been occupying the parish hall the previous year. John was a key player in much of the early action. We watched the moonwalk together with Jasper Johns in Nag’s Head. It was profound spectacle, a huge meditation on what future mind and world?
I worked on John’s Dial-A-Poem. The Architectural League later shut down one of our events after they saw the poster Les Levine had done: we’re with John Perreault nude in a steamy bathhouse. John broadcasted Dial-A-Poem from the St. Mark’s bell tower, bucking the official government-communications-censorship folks with their snarky truck right outside the church, attempting to jam the airwaves. We could broadcast for at least a five-mile radius. Secretaries had been dialing into the Dial-A-Poem hotline for weeks, hearing Allen Ginsberg’s pleas for anal penetration in “Please Master” and Jim Carroll’s naughty Basketball Diaries (1978).
We handed out and recited mantras together at the Chicago Seven Trial. We saw Bobby Seale gagged and bound in Judge Hoffman’s inquisitorial chambers. We felt the country afire. The sixties was our Place of Reckoning. The world was turning. Vietnam was a crucible for many, and tested a warring god realm appetite for empire and war. Long before Occupy, John laid out tacks on Wall Street to stop traffic during Street Works agit prop.
He had gone to India in 1971 and met his sawet (root) lama H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, head of the Nyingmapa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism who gave him the name Yeshe Norbu (“Wisdom Jewel”). He had, through tendrel or auspicious coincidence, found his teacher who could open further gates of bodhicitta and perception. He couldn’t wait to return to his guru. We travelled together with poet Michael Brownstein in 1973. Hot tickets through a friend and disciple of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba whose students were making a pilgrimage to Vrindavan after the Maharaj-ji’s death. We were on a different—although mutually sympathetic— spiritual path seeking out Tibetan lamas. I had already met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche whose vision of a creative arts Naropa University would be taking shape. We met in these years some of the greatest spiritual teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition: Kalu Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche, Jadral Rinpoche, Khyentse Rinpoche, H.H. Karmapa, and others. There was a seismic shift in the frequency, with dharma coming to the West. We were blessed to be part of that.
One might say the “rest is history” as in fact it is, but all this demon activity kept going with new manifestations and adventure. I have wanted to highlight the dharmic and karmic connection to this old friend (who kept feminist parity as well)—maybe our strongest link in Indra’s strange net of co-arising existence. And the intertwining of art and politics and dharma and community many years. At a conference in Tangiers on William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, a few years back, John with usual aplomb took the stage to list all the sacred items lowered into William Burroughs’s casket: a joint of weed in his Moroccan vest, his 38 sub-nose gun, his grey fedora, his red bandana, and his temptation to “bit off the tongue of a corpse,” old tantric practice. John was key in William’s return to NYC in the ‘70s and his historic reading at The Poetry Project, which launched a performance career, and William’s subsequent residency at Naropa with Allen Ginsberg and others.
A month ago John and I took a cab from Joan Jonas’s show in Harlem to the House Divided reading at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. John seemed transcendent as I ranted on about the current “syndicates of samsara” emanating from the toxic psychopaths in D.C. He smiled, indicating he felt less reactive now. I thought of “Everyone is a compete disappointment” and the almost vindictive Thanx 4 Nothing that quality of direct perception and exhaustion with “self” in the poems. No longer “grasping at emptiness,” perhaps, he was “meeting the face of the naked mind.” He gave a dynamic performance of “God is Man Made,” spry as ever. I am writing a poem for John entitled “The Marabout Smiles.”
Anne Waldman is the author of the forthcoming Trickster Feminine (from Penguin) Voice’s Daughter of A Heart Yet To Be Born (Coffee House Press) and Extinction Aria. (Pied Oxen). She is the Artistic Director of the Jack Kerouac School’s Summer Writing Program at Naropa Boulder, June 10-30, whose theme this year is The Capitalocene.