Art & Design

Tea Time with John Giorno: Poet, Artist, Burroughs’ Roomie and Warhol’s Homie

Art & Design

Tea Time with John Giorno: Poet, Artist, Burroughs’ Roomie and Warhol’s Homie

John Giorno, GOD IS MAN MADE, 2015 Acrylic on canvas 40 x 40 inches 101.6 x 101.6 cm
John Giorno, LIFE IS A KILLER, 2015 Acrylic on canvas 40 x 40 inches 101.6 x 101.6 cm
John Giorno, SPACE FORGETS YOU, 2015 Acrylic on canvas 40 x 40 inches 101.6 x 101.6 cm

When I arrive at John Giorno’s Bowery loft at 11AM, it smells strongly of weed. “I like writing right when I get up – that’s when my mind is freshest,” he explains. “A joint and tea or coffee triggers me to work for a few hours.”

True to form, Giorno offers me some tea (from India, with a high caffeine content) before we head downstairs to his studio. Chez Giorno, which consists of three separate spaces, is a gorgeous piece of New York real estate that the poet-come-artist has inhabited since 1966. His pal William Burroughs moved into a section affectionately dubbed “The Bunker” in ’75. The Bunker makes my East Village apartment look like a crack den.

At 78, Giorno is still vibrant and handsome: an older, wiser version of the enchanting star of Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963). A poet by nature, he opted not to cross over into music to gain an audience and make a buck (see: Patti Smith), instead turning to art, using his words as the backbone. Exemplified by Giorno Poetry Systems, the artist’s not-for-profit organization that uses records, performance, installations and high-concept initiatives like Dial-a-Poem to connect poetry to a larger audience, John Giorno truly is the charismatic spokesman for what he dubs a “Golden Age of Poetry.”

Giorno’s latest exhibit, which opens at Elizabeth Dee this evening, showcases his most recent impactful text paintings. Entitled SPACE FORGETS YOU, the show consists of Technicolor works emblazoned with cheeky maxims like GOD IS MAN MADE – killer statements that seem custom created for an art world whose attention span is rapidly diminishing. Space may forget the rest of us, but the inimitable John Giorno will never be forgotten.

Where do you think poetry ends and art begins, or is it a fluid thing?

I’m a poet and in being a poet you develop other skills. You know when I perform? That thing? That’s not poetry. I’m using my voice like a singer, but I’m not doing it in a musical tradition, I’m simply using words. This is a skill that I’ve developed over these countless decades. I’m doing poetry, so it looks like a poetry reading.

Painting is the same thing – it’s completely different [from poetry]. But inside of that, I was able to make these paintings with my words and somehow connect them. I’ve developed skills – making drawings with pencil and paper, watercolor, silkscreen – by doing it over and over again. That’s a separate skill completely from poetry. In my case it’s joined because they’re my words.

It’s very “current” to be a multidisciplinary person, but with many people everything seems so disparate. For you, poetry is really the through line, correct?

It’s not as though I stopped being a poet to become a painter. My delusion is that it’s all about my poetry! But it’s just about building skills. Anyone can do it – skills are skills.

What is your schedule like in terms of making work? Is it when inspiration hits or do you work on a schedule?

I just work all the time. I like writing in the morning upstairs, when I get up. When I get tired of that after two or three hours I come down here, and then later go back and start writing again – maybe something different. And then the e-mails consume one’s life. But they’re all about poetry and the things that I do – tours and stuff like that.

I’ve heard that you’re a very warm and kind person, and meeting you that certainly seems to be true, yet so many of the phrases on these recent works are pessimistic. Why is that?

Because that’s life [laughs].

Well that’s true.

It’s a reflection of my mind, but if I’m lucky it’s a reflection of everyone’s mind. It’s a basic feeling and if you’re able to tune into it, it’s like a musical note.

How do you balance these sort of bleak, pessimistic ideas with your optimistic demeanor?

Well, I’m a Tibetan Buddhist. I’ve been doing meditation practice for 50 years – seeing the empty nature of mind.

My poems are a reflection of mind in general. Starting in the mid ‘60s, I’ve been making short attention span poems – going from one thought to another. I can’t have more than two or three lines – occasionally I can get away with four – because people don’t read it. It has to be iconic. With “Thanks For Nothing,” you get it without reading it. Your mind just perceives it. That took me time, because poets are attached to longer things.

They’re very much like tweets.

The world’s consciousness changed. You see things so clearly you can say them in three or four words – it’s a great training of the mind. This is part of the golden age of poetry!

It’s a shame social media didn’t exist in the Warhol era. Do you think he would have used Instagram?

Andy and Pop Art culture gave rise to that. Talking on the telephone the way everybody did was the same idea as Instagram. You did anything that you wanted to do in front of the camera. One of the things that the speed of that time did is you didn’t see any boundary between bad and good. It all seems good. And this is a plus. This gave way to all sorts of things – look at reality shows today.

Kim Kardashian came from Andy Warhol! Speaking of your incredible friends, how did you meet William Burroughs?

I met him in ‘64. It was a tiny scene in New York, the whole thing was 60 or 70 people, and if you met one of them you met everybody. And nobody was famous. So William and I became great friends for the rest of our lives, until he died.

Tell me about the experience of watching your block change over the years.

I went to Columbia, ’54 to ‘58. There was an elevator train here – four tracks! Just here, on the other side of Stanton, there was something called Sammy’s Bowery Follies. There were all these women, who were in their eighties – so they were singers in the 1890s – and now they were huge. Really old and fat. They sang these Irish songs, drunk out of their heads. And this was a great scene. You’d see all sorts of fancy people coming to Sammy’s. So it changed from then. They took down the elevator about two or three years later.

You’re very active in the poetry community, but how much do you engage in the “art world?”

I have a partner, his name is Ugo Rondinone. He’s an artist, so he’s very much a part of this art world and I see it through his eyes. We’ve been together 17 years. Then I have my own thing going back decades, so I’m more in the art world than I am in the poetry world. But I perform all the time with poets – I’m endlessly performing at festivals.

How do you think the perception of poetry has changed over the past few decades?

I’m a part of the process. The last 60 years has been a golden age of poetry. It started out conservatively, with modernism in the 50s. Then there was 60s modernism with the New York school of poets and Allen Ginsberg’s 19th Century lyrical tradition. That got converted into the Beat Generation. So that’s what I inherited. Then I left those two things, and took what I wanted, and spent the next 50 years being the poet I am.

And meanwhile the world changed. Even those poetic forms – Modernism and Beat Poetry – are archaic in a sense. Countless friends of mine started out being poets and then they became rock stars or rock musicians. The more conservative people who don’t want to do that become a traditional poet and then get a job teaching. You can’t be a poet without teaching in school – it’s not possible. I didn’t want to teach in school. And I didn’t want to become a rock star.

I hear you’re also working on a memoir – when did you start?

I started when Andy died. When somebody dies you keep thinking about it. My years with Andy Warhol were 25 years before that, but everything was so clear. And I said, if you don’t write it now, it’s not going to last much longer. So that started me writing. My one quality with that is I can remember conversations. I’ve tested it when people were still alive. So the memoirs are remembered conversations and what I felt or what other people felt.

That’s an incredible skill. How did you test it?

One of the pieces I wrote was on William Burroughs, and he was still alive. It was about ‘68, and the Democratic Convention and Kerouac and all that. So we had breakfast and smoked a joint and I’d set up the conversation exactly as it was when we were together drinking vodka in 1968. I’d ask him the same questions and it was the same conversation, because he was remembering what he thought and felt then. And I got most of it right – 90%.

It seems as though you’re always going. How do you rest your brain?

Smoke a joint, take a nap.

SPACE FORGETS YOU is on view at Elizabeth Dee, New York April 2nd – May 9th

All images courtesy the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York. Photographer, Etienne Frossard.