What It Was Like Working For Allen Ginsberg: A Chat With His Assistant-Turned-Biographer

What It Was Like Working For Allen Ginsberg: A Chat With His Assistant-Turned-Biographer

by Sarah Stodola

By 1989, Allen Ginsberg was as famous as a living poet could ever hope to be in this country. Out of his East Village apartment, the “Howl” author continued to write poetry, entertained friends and admirers, oversaw his legacy, and planned his many travels. Writer Steve Finbow, an Englishman spending time in the States in an effort to outrun his dissertation, somehow fell into the thick of it — he became Allen Ginsberg’s research assistant. Twenty years later, with a writing career of his own secured, Finbow signed on to write a biography of the poet for the UK publisher Reaktion. Allen Ginsberg comes out this week in the United States (distributed by the University of Chicago Press).

In the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, I spoke with Steve over email about his time working for Ginsberg and how that experience informed the biography. We also touched on some more personal anecdotes, about Ginsberg’s generosity, his feelings about the term “Beats,” and even his porn collection.

Sarah Stodola: Tell me the story of how you became Ginsberg’s assistant.

Steve Finbow: I was doing research at Columbia University as part of my PhD on William S Burroughs. It was 1988, I stayed at the Vanderbilt YMCA and travelled by bus up to the campus. I’d written to Allen beforehand to ask if I could look at his archive there and he had agreed. I had a great time — Manhattan was a very different place then. The West End Bar — notorious Beat hangout — was still open in its original form and I’d go there lunchtimes to drink a beer and grab a burger. I spent the evenings visiting bars I’d read about.

Allen had said to call while I was in the city, so I did. He invited me to his apartment at 437 East 12th Street. I remember it was raining but I walked from Midtown and when I arrived someone buzzed me in.

The door was open. Allen was in the kitchen making tea. He was much taller than I thought he’d be: big wet lips, lazy eye, bearded and in socks. He was very polite and welcoming. Allen introduced me to his manager Bob Rosenthal, plus Vicki Stanbury and Victoria Smart, who all worked for him. Later, we had some beers, something to eat. We talked about punk, poetry and Allen’s visits to the UK. He gave me some books and left an hour later. I stayed and drank and talked some more. I left thinking, ‘Hey, that was cool. Wait until I tell my friends back in England.’

A year or so later, close to a nervous breakdown over finishing my PhD, I accepted an invitation from my friend Rob Dowling to help him set up a bookshop in Providence. While in NYC, I called Allen to say hi and Bob Rosenthal (who’s writing his own bio of Allen, which I can’t wait to read) said why don’t I drop by. I did, we chatted. Later that evening, Bob called to ask me if I’d like to come work for Allen, mainly researching and writing bios for a book of Allen’s photographs. After nearly choking on my chop suey, I said, “Er, yeah.’”

What was he like?

“Generous” is the first word that comes to mind. Generous with his time, contacts, stuff and money. Maybe a little too generous sometimes with money — some people took advantage. Extraordinarily energetic; he wouldn’t stop working even when doctors told him to slow down. Meticulous in his research on causes. Sometimes he acted like a spoiled child, and I did see him stamp his feet and jump up and down on occasion.

Where was his office, and what was it like?

He didn’t hang out at bars, he mostly entertained at home, and when he did, the bodega on the northwest corner of 12th Street and Avenue B was the place to hit.

At first, the office was in Allen’s apartment on 12th Street, but it was cramped and crowded with guests and friends, and the phone rang continually, so Bob Rosenthal found a separate office on the fourth floor of an office block on 14th Street near 2nd Avenue (rented from Arlene Lee, the basis of Mardou Fox in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans). The office comprised three rooms — the main office where Bob managed Allen’s readings, appearances, recordings and publications, etc., a side office where I mostly worked, and an office further down the hallway where Jacqueline Gens archived and managed Allen’s ever-growing photo archive. It was a great place to work, relaxed but busy, always full of visitors. We had a small kitchen where we could make coffee and tea, and a fridge to keep food in — macrobiotic salads for when Allen visited, which wasn’t that often.

He rarely visited his own office?

He was out of the city a lot. While I worked there he travelled throughout the USA and Canada for readings, benefits and teaching, spent a lot of time at Naropa University in Colorado, and toured Prague, London, Turkey, Greece, and Korea. The man was constantly on the move.

How did he work? Do you remember anything about his writing habits?

Allen had his notebooks and sketchpads; he also carried his camera with him most of the time, and a voice recorder. But he’d write on slips of paper, anything really. He’d then bring these into the office and I (or someone else) would input the poems and prose into a Macintosh SE/30, which I loved.

Did he ever use a computer himself?

No, not when I was working for him. He’d look over my shoulder and ask me questions about how it worked and what it could do.

Did he mostly hang around the East Village? What were some of his favorite spots in the city?

He loved the East Village and Lower East Side (where his mother Naomi grew up on Orchard Street). I remember him enjoying Tompkins Square Park. He enjoyed eating at Kiev, Leshko’s and Veselka — he loved Eastern European food, also Japanese and Korean. But he had to be careful of hot spicy dishes. He didn’t hang out at bars, he mostly entertained at home, and when he did, the bodega on the northwest corner of 12th Street and Avenue B was the place to hit.

On a daily basis, what did you do for him?

I started — as I said — by researching and writing biographies of people in Allen’s collection of photographs he’d chosen for a forthcoming book (later published by TwelveTrees Press). So, the usual suspects — Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, but also Judith Malina, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley. I also input Allen’s poetry and prose into the Mac, helped on the archives (then held at Columbia and now at Stanford). Occasionally, when Allen was too busy, I’d write prose pieces, blurbs, recommendations and references in Allen’s style and he would correct them — basically, loads of ampersands and a shortage of definite and indefinite articles. I got quite good at it.

You mean you wrote things that were published with his byline?

Some stuff I did the groundwork for and Allen went back over it and changed or completely re-wrote. Sort of how Da Vinci and Rembrandt used assistants or apprentices to sketch in outlines on canvas or colour backgrounds. I suppose, with me, Bob doing the administration and management, Jacqueline the photographs and other people helping out, it was like a mini-version of Warhol’s Factory.

Did Ginsberg ever read any of your work?

Yes, he did. Not sure he liked my poetry. He mumbled something about Ted Hughes (I’m the most unlike-Ted Hughes poet I know, or was when I wrote poetry anyway). I was heavily into Language poetry at the time, and even though Allen was dubious, he introduced me to Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Ray DiPalma, Jackson Mac Low and others.

Did he view himself as an icon?

No, I don’t think so. He had an understanding of his place in American literature and promoted that particular line — Whitman, Crane, Ginsberg. He was a tireless champion of his friends and, if anything, turned Keroauc and Burroughs into cultural icons.

What was his relationship with Burroughs like during that time?

Good. They’d forgiven each other for how badly they had treated one another in the past and were happy being counterculture figures, lauded by film stars and rock musicians while being members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Allen was a little jealous of the money Bill made from his paintings.

What did Ginsberg think of the term “Beats”?

He was a lot more comfortable with the term than Kerouac and Burroughs were, incorporating Corso, Weiner, Huncke and even Bob Creeley into his Literary History of the Beat Generation course that he taught at Naropa.

Who else did you get to meet over the course of the job?

Jacqueline Gens, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Hubert Huncke, Bob Creeley (who became a good friend), Alice Notley, Doug Oliver, Ed Friedman, Harry Smith, Robert Frank (who I was very rude to at one of Allen’s birthday parties at the apartment, I was a bit drunk and told the great photographer and filmmaker — in no uncertain terms — to stop photographing my Guyanese girlfriend. What an idiot — me, that is), John Wieners, Steven Taylor, Barry Miles, Francesco Clemente, Richard Hell, oh and Bob Dylan — but that’s another story. I spoke to William Burroughs and James Grauerholz over the telephone quite a bit. I also had a telephonic transcontinental argument with Michael McClure. I was there before Johnny Depp started coming around.

Any particularly good Ginsberg stories you’re willing to share?

Ooh! Well, Allen was very open, so I don’t think he’d mind. One week, while Allen was away, Bob asked me to catalogue and index Allen’s book collection in the apartment — he had these really cool sliding bookshelves. I love doing things like this. I indexed the bibliographical details of all the books — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art books — mostly material Allen had been given. At the end of the week — and at the end of the shelves — I found a cardboard box, opened it and there was Allen’s porn stash, which I also indexed.

How did working with him change you?

I became more generous with my time, more sympathetic to causes, more driven to become a writer. More open, generally, to the things in the world, to different places and cultures.

A lot of myths surround someone like Allen and I came to understand that these were false or had eroded over the years

And now, to fast-forward 20-plus years: How did the biography come about?

My friend Stephen Barber (author of Walls of Berlin and Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End) suggested to Reaktion that I write a history of Tokyo. I started it, wrote the introduction and opening chapter on early Tokyo. I was about to start research on the Edo period when I had this brutal flash of reality — this was an impossible task. I wrote to my editor saying she’d have to give me 20 years to finish the project. But Reaktion liked what I’d written and, knowing my connection, asked if I’d like to write a biography of Allen in their Critical Lives series. I’d read and enjoyed Stephen Barber’s one on Genet, and I’d read others on Bataille, Burroughs and Debord, and jumped at the chance.

How has your personal knowledge of Ginsberg informed the biography?

That I knew him as a person and not just the mediatized Allen Ginsberg. Realized how fragile he was, both healthwise and emotionally. A lot of myths surround someone like Allen and I came to understand that these were false or had eroded over the years. I very rarely saw him anywhere near drugs (apart from prescription ones). If he drank alcohol — red wine was all I ever saw him drink — he’d get tipsy very quickly. When I first worked for him, I was intimidated somewhat by the legend but, after a few months, he was Allen and, rather than have an image of him reading ‘Howl’ or haranguing politicians, I have a picture of him in his kitchen drinking tea and preparing mangoes. When you’ve been to RadioShack with someone and laughed secretly at a man with a cockroach crawling around his hat, then the familiar overrides the legendary.

Did the biography change your view of Ginsberg in any way?

Yes. I developed a strong dislike of some of the people close to Allen — Neal Cassady in particular — and saw that Allen was more vulnerable than he had seemed when I worked for him. And that his behavior — the episodes of mental instability, his attraction to people who were addicts or (how shall I put it) psychologically challenged, his obsession with being part of the American literature canon (despite being a loose one, ka-boom-ching) and his championing of friends despite their blatant lack of talent — stemmed, to a large extent, from his childhood experiences.

How did you research the book?

First, I read the biographies already out there — Bill Morgan, Barry Miles, Michael Schumacher and Ed Sanders, correlating dates and places — Allen was in constant motion. I then read secondary material on the Beats, again Bill Morgan, James Campbell, Ann Charters, Joyce Johnson, Sam Kashner, John Tyrell and others. After that came selective reading of texts by and biographies of William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and others.

Once I’d established a timeline and a placeline, I read through the primary texts — the poems, the letters, the prose, the interviews, the journals, and listened to all available audio — and associated these with the chronological data. People who knew Allen were generous with their time; so I emailed or telephoned them and asked them questions about Allen.

I finally went back over what I had and added observations, criticism, personal reflection, and basically what sprung to mind as I was working.

Then — with the generous help of Peter Hale at the Ginsberg Trust — I chose photographs and illustrations to complement the timeline.

Were you conscious of not wanting to disappoint Ginsberg while writing it?

Yes, particularly with regard to style. Allen worked vigorously on everything and I wanted to do the same — with energy, honesty, precision, and humor. As an aside, I vehemently reject the ‘First thought, best thought’ philosophy attributed to Allen’s writing methodology (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrase, not Keroauc’s, as it is sometimes claimed). Yes, Allen may have been spontaneous in his original compositions (as are a lot of writers) but he would then rewrite and edit until the text was how he wanted it.

How long did it take to write the book, start to finish?

Two years. It took about six months to research and a year to write, sitting at my desk in Chitose (Japan), staring out at the buildings, the mountains, the volcanoes, most of the year covered in snow, my big fat cat either curled behind my chair or on the table. I worked from 8 until 4 six days a week. Then six months to edit, get permissions and illustrations. In all, three years until it was published. I was lucky to have an understanding partner, Victoria, to give me the time and mindset.

Sarah Stodola is a freelance writer who blogs here and tweets here.