Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
“You know, over the course of his career Ginsberg reviewed many books. Once I asked him: ‘Allen, do you like everything you read? Why don’t you ever write any negative reviews?’ And he answered: ‘Why waste your time on that negative bummer scene?’”
Author Michael Schumacher wrote what many consider to be the definitive biography of poet Allen Ginsberg: Dharma Lion, in 1992. The biography is notable because it synthesizes Ginsberg’s storied history and renders it accessible to the general reader. In addition to Dharma Lion, Schumacher has also edited several of Ginsberg’s travel journals (South American Journals; The Fall of America Journals), guiding them to publication.
Editing a famous poet’s work is not for the faint of heart. Ginsberg wrote in long hand and also recorded his work on a reel-to-reel tape machine while on the road. In turn, Schumacher was tasked with placing the texts of Ginsberg’s notebooks in their proper historical context while remaining true to the overall vision of the poet’s great canon. And Schumacher accomplished this feat in remarkable fashion, capturing the taut nuance of Ginsberg poetics in each of these books. After working with the poet’s papers for over three decades, Schumacher’s contributions to Ginsberg’s bibliography have become indispensable – every true student of the Beat Generation must now include Schumacher’s volumes in their library if they want to insure a complete understanding of the real Ginsberg.
As Anastasia Faunce notes in her 2019 Learning Life article, “The Sinking and Trial of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Schumacher is a private man who lets his writing speak for him. According to Faunce, Schumacher gained literary acclaim after he published an interview with songwriter Tom Waits for Playboy in 1979. If you go back and research that Playboy piece, you will see Schumacher’s voice and vision on full display – showcasing a style he has not deviated from in over 40 years.
In addition to the benchmark references he has contributed on Ginsberg, Schumacher has also written several other incisive studies, including: Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life (1999); There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (1996); Crossroads: The Life & Music of Eric Clapton (1995); The Trial of the Edmund Fitzgerald (2019); and First Thought: Interviews With Allen Ginsberg (2017). Schumacher also edited a riveting yet little-known compendium of letters between Ginsberg and his father Louis, Family Business: Selected Letters Between A Father & Son (2001). After Bill Morgan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights, Schumacher is probably the foremost authority on Ginsberg’s poetry.
The Electric Review sat down with Michael Schumacher for this interview over two sessions (February 12 and February 16, 2021) – our chance to reverse roles and place the master interrogator on the witness stand. Just like in his books, Schumacher doesn’t back down from a question, striving to confront the reader and himself in the name of enlightenment.
Well, my background and education are not really that impressive. After high school, I attended the University of Wisconsin-Parkside part time, majoring in Political Science and English. I knew when I entered school that I wanted to be a writer. I had actually written a little novel in high school. One of the real reasons I went to college was to stay out of the Vietnam War. Was I draft dodger? You bet I was. And I am not one bit sorry about that. There was no way I was going to Vietnam. College was a way to get a deferment. And I took it. Looking back, school wasn’t for me. I have learned far more out of college. And that’s because I’ve read so much. But one aspect of the [educational] process I do enjoy is teaching. Over the years, I have given various lectures on Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation and I enjoy it a great deal. But by not finishing college, I lost the chance to teach [as a career]. And I regret that.
Well, I don’t know if I actually avoid the spotlight. Over the years I’ve given some 200 interviews. But I guess I believe that some things are not for public consumption. Some things the public doesn’t have a right to know. Once, USA Today was doing a story on me and they wanted a photo of my office. Well, I declined that request, because at the time my office was in my bedroom. And that’s something I I didn’t want to share. As a writer, I try to be as forthright as possible – but within certain perimeters. There are simply parts of me that I do not want to discuss – they’re mine and mine alone.
At one point in the 1970s, I was working as a pressman – operating a printing press, creating labels for packages of sausage. And then I blew it. In 1979, I tried to bring the union into the shop. The plant was anti-union and I was asking for trouble trying to organize one. I was immediately laid off. But that turned out changing my life [for the better]. When I went on unemployment, my wife said that it might just be the right time to try and make it as a writer. That’s how it all happened for me. I haven’t held a regular 9-5 job since that day in 1979…
I think my father was my first real example [of a writer] and I think I had him in mind when I embarked on this path. My father actually wrote three books: two for children, and also a young-adult biography of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice who was on the bench at the time of the Dred Scott decision. I used to see him writing, with his cardboard box full of papers [comprised of his research]. And I used him as my model. I liked the process of being a writer. It seemed right for me. [Eventually], I became a contributing writer for Writer’s Digest Magazine. And I interviewed people like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. I interviewed Vonnegut at his residence in New York. And all this helped to give me the proper foundation [to take on bigger projects].
No, not much at all. Interestingly, the first thing I ever published was a poem. But I feel that work should be left to the poets.
I met Allen in Milwaukee in 1981. I had written a piece about him for a weekly alternative paper. Much of the piece focused on his music [at the time, Ginsberg was working to present his poetry on a musical platform]. When I met to interview him I found out that he had seen my piece and liked it. He was so pleased that somebody actually noticed and gave a shit about his music that he immediately opened up to me. In our interview, he spoke a lot about Dylan and his other inspirations. A bond was immediately forged between us because he trusted me. I was not some wise-ass and I treated him seriously. Our trust naturally snow-balled from there.
It’s going to seem impossible to believe this story, but it’s true. At one point , I was working on a piece to celebrate the 25th anniversary of On the Road. As part of the story, I was interviewing many of Jack’s contemporaries – people like Allen and John Clellon Holmes. One night while in the middle of the Kerouac article, I was eating dinner in my car at a drive-in restaurant in Wisconsin called “The Spot.” I had actually worked there when I was a teenager. And all of a sudden a storm started – with thunder and lighting and heavy rain. I pulled the tray with my food in the window and just sat there. As I was sitting there, I asked myself, “What do you know about Allen Ginsberg?” And then I tried to answer my own question, scribbling down thoughts in this Steno notebook. And those notes I wrote while I was just sitting in my car in that rain storm turned into the outline for both the proposal and the text of Dharma Lion.
Yes, it’s happened many times. I have actually done a lot of writing in my car. Interestingly, I asked a shrink about it once – asking why I tend to write so much in coffee houses and restaurants and in the car. And he said: “It’s [representative of] you going to work. Since you work so much at home, this is how you go out of the house to work.” I interviewed Raymond Carver once and he also shared that he used to go out of his house and sit in his car to write…
I remember once I asked Mailer: “Do you like doing fiction or non-fiction projects more?” He said: “God gives you the best plots.” He truly loved doing non-fiction. And Terkel told me that he never did an “interview,” but instead had conversations. Studs said: “Conversations go where they go. But you’re going to get something.”
I can use something that happened once with Allen Ginsberg as a good example. Once I was working with his journals in his office in New York. At one point, Allen came into the room and said: “You’ve been reading my journals. And there’s stuff in there that could invade people’s privacy. You need to really watch that.” [When he told me this] I believed he was speaking to aspects of his sex life. He wanted to make sure that part of himself was protected. And I made sure to respect that at all times. Those journals are as close to Allen’s mind as you are going to get, they’re as close to his raw thinking process as you are going to get. He really laid himself on the line in those books. Talk about courage. Ginsberg kept going back to those dark visions no matter how scary it all got…
It’s about being able to soldier on when you know things aren’t necessarily going to go so well for you. I have always been amazed by that about Allen. People don’t really understand what Allen was all about. He was about generosity. He truly gave of himself. He was also tremendously patient. And he had the courage to keep working to get his point across…
Well, he and Lawrence Ferlinghetti [poet and founder of City Lights in San Francisco] defended NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) on Freedom of the Press grounds. And my position was that [Freedom of the Press] is not what people are seeing. People are seeing old men preying on teenage boys. Ginsberg actually wrote an essay on NAMBLA, but he didn’t allow it to be published until after his death. I think he was embarrassed by certain aspects of it. Even though he had this tremendous courage, he was never foolish about things…
Well Allen and [Beat poet/playwright] Michael McClure are part of one of the most moving things that ever happened to me. Back in the 90s, we were together at a conference in San Jose [California]. One day, the three of us were eating lunch together and McClure and I were involved in some spirited impassioned discussion. At one point Michael asked to borrow my Magic Marker to make some notes. When he returned the pen to me he didn’t cap it, and I just stuck it back in my pocket. When I did, it bled all over my shirt. Ginsberg always carried that pesky camera with him and he snapped a photo of me right at that moment. [Years later] After Allen got seriously sick and found out that he had terminal cancer, Allen held a press conference to make his diagnosis public. A few days later, he had a seizure and fell into a coma and died. When he died, his office asked me to come to New York to help with media requests. When I returned home after the funeral I had an Express Mail package waiting for me. Allen had had copies of those pictures he snapped in San Jose made on special paper and he sent them to me. He knew I always loved those pictures, but I never had copies. That was Allen.
I thought Michael could be very shy at times – but you’re right, he was a much bigger poet than people realized or gave him credit for. He just didn’t have that Ginsberg self-promotion gene [what propelled Allen center stage]. Nonetheless, Michael was a major writer who deserves a biography [and sustained recognition]. I remember I ran into Michael on the street once in New York during a Beat conference at NYU. I recall we ended going to lunch at this Japanese restaurant – Michael just loved Asian food (laughing). Anyway, we were having a great discussion, really enjoying ourselves, when Allen walked in with all these people following behind him. When Michael saw that, he just said “Oh Jesus!” When Allen and his group joined us at the table, Michael became withdrawn. That really wasn’t his scene. But Allen was just basking in it – that was his element…
I interviewed Allen once in Chicago after White Shroud was published. In our discussion, we talked a lot about dream poetry and the impetus behind this collection. The poem “Black Shroud” in the book is about his mother. In researching Dharma Lion, I saw many of the letters Allen exchanged with his mother, and they are truly heart-breaking. You know Allen is the one who had to make the decision to go forward and consent to the lobotomy for Naomi. He was given no choice. His father and his older brother couldn’t do it. So he had to do it. He really had no choice. His mother was harming herself and something had to be done. But Allen never really came to grips with that decision [to allow the lobotomy]. Because he knew he ended up destroying her natural consciousness. And it troubled him tremendously. In Black Shroud he writes about beheading his mother. Look at the symbolism – obviously, he never came to grips with the decision he made. Allen really had a difficult time with Naomi’s illness. When he was growing up, one of the two boys always had to be with her at all times in case she needed help. It’s really something that he was able to soldier on [through these events], and then share it with the world in his poetry…
That’s just what he wanted to be! Allen really wanted to be a rock and roll star. I think one of the last things he performed publicly was “Ballad of a Skeleton.” I recall Paul McCartney, Philip Glass and Lenny Kaye were involved in it. Allen loved the idea of writing songs. He admired the medium so much because people remember the poem [when it’s presented with a musical backdrop]. It’s amazing to think that people can recite these long pieces Dylan writes; I think the reason is because they’re set to music. The music helps you remember. Even though people quote Allen’s work all the time, he didn’t see it in the same way. [Music journalist] Al Aronowitz introduced Bob and Allen and the two just hit it off like there was no tomorrow. Allen really thought a great deal of people who could write lyrics that people would remember. And Dylan was the master at it. He writes unbelievable pieces that work as both poetry and lyrics. Bob Dylan is truly a poet. Look at his stuff as it appears on the page. It’s poetry in its own way.
It’s quite interesting that you mention this. The way to understand Allen is to understand the relationship he had with his father. Everybody immediately goes to Naomi and the relationship he had with his mother. But Louis was a published poet and very political as well [noting that the two were similar personalities]. I first saw the letters they had written to each other while researching Dharma Lion. Later I approached Allen about the idea of doing a book based on the letters. Allen didn’t see why. He didn’t get it. And he didn’t want to participate in the project, but he still trusted me to do it. One time I was working on the book in the guest room in his loft when he came in to check on me. I remember he picked up a letter I was working with and said: “Hmmm – maybe you’re right. Maybe it would be useful to publish these.” The letters are remarkable because they show the passion between father and son. Allen loved his father very deeply. Allen often bounced ideas off of Louis, and Louis would do the same, asking for his son’s perspective on various ideas. One letter that Louis wrote Allen still sticks in my mind. It was a two word letter. It said: “Exorcise Neal.” Louis didn’t have a lot of use for some of the Beat characters, or for some of Kerouac’s writing. You have to understand that Louis grew up in a time of rhymed lyrical poetry, which was very different from what the Beats were doing. But if you want to really understand Allen Ginsberg, those letters are a good place to start.
I believe his obsession with writing was healthy. I read a term paper he did on Whitman when he was a teenager – going back to the time he was a kid, he needed to communicate. Even back then, he liked Whitman’s work when no one else did. Allen saw the need to explore ideas creatively and to also deal with politics [in some substantive way]. And he felt he hadto write about some of these things. Part of this came from his father – this need to express himself. And poetry was the only way he could do it. Allen’s early work was derivative. He needed Kerouac to show him another way.
In the later years, when alcoholism started to take over, it brought the ugly part of Kerouac to the surface. We all have our ugly sides. Booze bought out Jack’s bad side and it tore his relationship with Allen apart in those last years. The gentle nice Jack was still there [but the liquor stifled him]. When you saw this guy now, you just wanted to bleed for him. You knew who he was inside, but now he was just the sloppy town drunk who was so very hard on people. And the people who were around him [at the time] just let him be who he was. Alcohol really destroyed Jack at the end. Allen was always a defender of Jack’s, even when others could not put up with him anymore. At the end, the letters between the two had dwindled to almost nothing. I guess it had reached the point where they just didn’t have that much to say to each other anymore. There at the end, Jack was drinking a phenomenal amount. He was almost in a vegetative state. Ginsberg tried not to judge him, but he did back away from the scene, even though he never stopped loving Kerouac…
Yes, at one point I thought about it. But Gerry Nicosia had already done a pretty good job with Jack’s biography in Memory Babe. I feel it had been done and I didn’t have a lot to add [to the story].
That’s a good question, and it’s somewhat of a funny story, too. In the beginning, he was not on board. When I first contacted him, he was working on a book about the making of Apocalypse Now. And he didn’t want to be involved with my project. I told him I was going to proceed anyway and he didn’t try to stop me. So I did the research and interviewed many of his contemporaries. When I was all done with the book, I reached back out to him. Francis was in Paris at the time, and I contacted him and said: “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” I sent him the manuscript and gave him a chance to participate. I told him I would make additions, but that I was not taking anything out. When I got back his revisions he had scribbled all over the manuscript, making insertions in the text. At one point in the manuscript, I had written that Godfather II was his masterwork. And he wrote in the margin: “I think so too.” (laughing). [After reading the manuscript], he had become engrossed in the project and wanted his family to participate with interviews, too. So I found myself rewriting and recasting the text [after I thought it was done]. It was a lot of work. But it was certainly worth it.
Well, I had read Marc Eliot’s Death of A Rebel, and I felt it was top-heavy on Phil’s last years. I thought there had to be more to this guy than that. I understood that the Ochs’ family was not happy either, they thought Eliot’s book dealt too much with the downside of Phil. But what about the upside? So I tried to get a book published on Ochs for the next ten years. But I simply had no luck placing it. And then one day I was sitting at dinner with two friends – [one of whom] worked as a production manager for St. Martin’s Press. I had just finished Dharma Lion and they asked me, “what’s next Mike?” I answered that I wanted to get a book on Ochs published, and my friend who worked at St. Martin’s said: “I know where you can publish that! Bob Miller at Hyperion is looking to do a book on Ochs.” And that’s just how it happened. Miller bought the book right out of the chute. When I look back, I think the book on Ochs is my favorite book that I have done. It might not be my best book, but it was certainly important to me to get it written.
Well, one of the things I am known for and have a reputation for in the Midwest is doing books on the Great Lakes. A few years ago, I published a book on the ship the Edmund Fitzgerald. I also did one on the storm of 1913 – which was about a hurricane on the Lakes. And I am in the middle of doing another one now on the Lakes. After that, who knows? I know I would love to do the history of American diners. I love old hash houses and it would be interesting to explore that in a book. It wouldn’t be a big heavy-weight book, but it would be fun to write. Really, I don’t know what I’ll do after this book on the Lakes is finished. Stuff just pops up. But I think I’m pretty sure I am done doing biographies. I am getting too old for that kind of work-load now, it’s just so intense and all-consuming…
Ginsberg was presented the National Book Award for his Fall of America collection. These journals provide a peek into his writing process as we watch him build the poems that became a City Lights classic.
Schumacher helps to bring the travelogue of Ginsberg’s trip though South America to life in this volume. It’s notable for shedding light on the writing style that the poet would employ during the latter half of his long career.
Ginsberg’s ground-breaking journal based on his trip through the Soviet Union, expertly edited by Schumacher.
This is the quintessential Ginsberg biography, with Schumacher writing in an easy conversational tone that gently escorts the reader through the story. If there’s one life study to own on the ‘Godfather of the Beats’ – it’s Dharma Lion.
A unique compilation of interviews with the famed poet, seamlessly edited by Schumacher.
The essential Ginsberg canon – from Gates of Wrath and Howl through important pieces of correspondence with his mentors and contemporaries. The book is noteworthy for the way Schumacher edits the ‘periods’ of Ginsberg’s life into a sharp-sighted, cohesive volume.
This biography tells every tale about George Mikan, the first of the great centers to dominate for the Lakers. Mikan’s height and prowess were the stuff of legends, and he truly stood head and shoulders above the league. Schumacher deftly tells the Mikan story in handsome prose that echoes the best of the daily sports page.