John Giorno, Guest of Honour

John Giorno, icon of the Beat Generation and physical poet

a flat sea of white clouds below
and vast dome of blue sky above
and your mind is an iron nail in-between

Born in 1936 in New York, John Giorno truly is one of the last remaining sons of the famous Beat Generation that shook up American culture with the powerful voices of William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac. He was a friend of Burroughs and of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, those “flaming creatures” who revolutionized American artistic life at the end of the 1950s. He was an integral part of the group that included Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Susan Sontag, whom Burroughs brought together in what he called “The Bunker”. Giorno was also very close to Keith Haring. Andy Warhol was crazy about him, to the point of featuring him as the only character in his film Sleep, in which we see Giorno sleeping for eight hours.

All very impressive, no doubt. But if we are honouring John Giorno, it’s because he has been a tireless advocate for performance poetry, poetry delivered to the public, democratized, released on disc, cassette, videopak, and over the phone! Because Giorno has always looked for ways to make poetry accessible to popular culture.

In 1965, he founded Giorno Poetry Systems, an innovative use of technology, electronics and multimedia in poetry that created new venues and brought poetry to new audiences. You have to understand the context of the times to grasp how visionary Giorno’s project really was.

In 1961, I was a young poet who hung out with young artists like Andy Warhol, Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as well as with members of the Judson Dance Theatre. The use of modern mass media and technologies by these artists made me realize that poetry was 75 years behind painting and sculpture, dance and music. And I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I do it for poetry? Why not try to connect with an audience using all the entertainments of ordinary life: television, the telephone, record albums, etc? It was the poet’s job to invent new venues and make fresh contact with the audience.

Giorno Poetry Systems would publish more than 40 vinyl records and CDs of poets and musician-performers including John Cage, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Laurie Anderson. Pursuing his vision, in 1968 he created Dial-A-Poem, making poetry available by phone as a way of getting poetry out to a broader audience. The enormous success of Dial-A-Poem, which handled millions of calls, gave birth to the “dial-a-” industry, from Dial-A-Joke to phone sex!

John Giorno continues to perform around the world. He also produces poetry on lithographs and silk prints. For nearly thirty years, he has been practicing meditation in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Giorno hosts leading Tibetan lamas visiting New York and still teaches at 222 Bowery, Burroughs’s famous Bunker.

In his poetry, Giorno never hesitates to bear witness, even at the risk of shocking or displeasing his audience. When he provokes, he does so with mischief, sifting through everyday life.

Watching Giorno perform can feel like a physical encounter. He has an integrity and a commitment to his art that has helped make poetry in performance — spoken word — an art form in its own right, one that demands involvement, a physical search for the right tone, and method. With a career that has lasted more than fifty years, he is without any doubt one of the leading figures in performance poetry.

Of course, at 72 years of age, a certain serenity has settled over the impetuousness of youth. The same energy is still there, as compelling as ever, but now there is humour and tenderness as well. As our guest of honour at this 7th annual Festival Voix d’Amériques, John Giorno bears living witness to the fact that poetry in performance has been around a long time — well before we were, well before the FVA was created, before the Grand Corps Malade, the return of the slam, or the increasingly assured performances of our poet contemporaries — and that knowing something of its history is a good thing indeed.

John Giorno raises questions to an almost unbearable pitch, to a scream of surprised recognition. His litanies from the underworld of the mind reverberate in your head and ventriloquize your own thoughts.
William S. Burroughs