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Steve Silberman and Raymond Foye in conversation

Steve Silberman was interviewed by Raymond Foye for The Brooklyn Rail, as part of their “The New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversation (episode 37). May 2020.

Steve Silberman

Raymond Foye

Two razor-sharp minds and a riveting discussion. The full interview (very much worth listening to) may be accessed here 

We take up the talk in media res, when the subject turns to Allen.

Raymond Foye: Sigmund Freud once said, “Every time I get to a new place, I find a poet has been there first.”

Steve Silberman: Oh, interesting.

Raymond Foye: Speaking of poets, I guess this is a good way to segue into your early relationship with Allen Ginsberg, because he was a formative person in my life and in your life as well. What were your earliest experiences of Allen and the Beats growing up? Was it the City Lights books and the Fantasy record of Howl? These were signposts to a completely new way of living and behaving. What did Allen mean to you growing up, and how did you come to get to know him personally?

Steve Silberman: My parents were anti-war activists, so I remember seeing some guy with a beard, in a white schmatte, who would go to rallies. I knew he was important, but my sense was that my parents  – who were very serious, buttoned-down, cigarette-smoking Marxists – thought he was a frivolous hippie or something. But I had an uncanny experience when I was very young that foreshadowed my later life. One day in 1967 or so, I found a bunch of older kids – who seemed like adults to me, but they were probably in their early twenties – camped out in the backyard of our apartment building in Queens. I went back the next day and was amazed to see they were still there. Years later, I realized that they were probably taking LSD. They were lying around on blankets, cutting leaves out of construction paper and putting them in the trees and stuff. They seemed really cool. At the end of the day, I brought them up to meet my parents, which was kind of hilarious. Right before they left, I asked them, “Where are you guys from?” They seemed to come from some enchanted place or another planet. And this woman said to me, “We’re from a place you’ll never see: the Haight-Ashbury.” That turned out to be such a fateful remark: I’ve lived in the Haight-Ashbury for forty years. I’m here now.

My first literary interest in elementary school was science fiction. It was the golden age of mind-expanding science fiction. I would say that my later interest in poetry as a means of transforming consciousness, and psychedelic drugs as a means of transforming consciousness, came out of that early interest in science fiction. I would later find out that was also true for many of the musicians I loved, like David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who co-wrote “Wooden Ships”, and were inspired to form early communal households by the writings of Robert Heinlein.

So I started reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry in English class in junior high school – probably the oft-anthologized pieces like “Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.” I related to his sensibility; he seemed heartbreakingly earnest in the same way that I felt myself to be heartbreakingly earnest – in the same way that probably every teenager feels himself or herself to be. Then eventually, once I started reading his stuff about his friends, like Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, in which he would manifest his love for them, I was figuring out that I was gay myself, and loved my friends that way. Allen’s descriptions of those loves always had a note of sort of hopelessness about them, like they would never reciprocate his feelings with the intensity that Allen wanted. I related to that too.

So eventually I went to Oberlin College and had my first relationship. One night me and my first boyfriend, Ed Power, decided that we had to get away from school, so we got on a Greyhound bus and went to New York City. We saw that Allen was reading that night at Queens College and went to that reading. We sat in the front row, Allen came out, and the first thing he does is sing Blake’s “Nurse’s Song” with Steven Taylor, a young man who was not much older than me, and very much my type — a sensitive longhair, like my boyfriend sitting next to me. It was obvious that they loved each other though Steven is straight — the nonverbal communication between them was absolutely electric and beautiful. I had never seen a middle-aged man who seemed so completely awake in his body, completely awake to his surroundings. It was like seeing an older man who was not a robot for the first time in my life.

While I was watching Allen and Steven, I had a very profound, kind of inexplicable experience – as they say in Tibetan Buddhism, I recognized Allen as my guru, basically; he was the guy. I couldn’t explain it. But I knew that I needed to be around him for some reason, so I said to myself, “Wherever that guy’s going to be next summer, I’ll be there too. If he needs somebody to go out and get cat litter at the bodega, I’ll be that guy.” And as it turns out, I was that guy. When I got back to Oberlin, my poetry teacher, David St. John, said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Ginsberg teaches every summer at a place, called Europa Institute!” Because there was no such thing as the Internet or Google yet, it took me a month to figure out that it was actually Naropa, not Europa. So I sent away for a catalog. There was a class with Gregory Corso called “Socratic Rap,” there was a class on screenwriting with William Burroughs, there were courses from Zen psychotherapists, dancers, and stuff.  It was like getting a brochure from a better universe.

So I wrote a note to Allen to apply for what was called an “apprenticeship” with him, as the catalog told me to. I never got an answer. But on a chance that I could actually study with him, I sold everything I had and went to Boulder, to Naropa registration, and found Allen. The image of him in my mind was this lonely, lovelorn guy, writing poems in Berkeley, but he was surrounded by admirers. He was a rock star! So I waited until everyone else had left and said, “Hi Allen, I’m Steve Silberman,” and he said,  “Oh yes, you wrote me that very nice letter. I haven’t decided who my apprentices will be yet, but where are you staying?” So I told him. By the time I got back to this dorm I was staying in, there was a note on my door that said, “Mr. Ginsberg would like to offer you an apprenticeship.” So I went to his apartment, and my life as an adult began.

It was actually Allen who introduced me to you, Raymond, because he told me, “You should know this guy, Raymond Foye.” I think he was trying to set us up as a date, which didn’t work out — but something much better worked out. I walked into your room at the Chelsea Hotel and you were playing David Crosby’s solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. I remember saying to you, “Wait a minute, who put this on?” And you said, “I put it on.”

Raymond Foye: On vinyl, of course.

Steve Silberman: Exactly. So I said, “Do you realize what this is?” And you said, “Yes, the best record ever made.” And I completely agreed. I’d been obsessed with that record for years. By now, you and I have even affected that album, because later, you introduced me to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and I ended up putting a bonus track on the album called “Kids and Dogs,” so it was a very karmic meeting when you and I met.

Raymond Foye: We also managed to get Robert Hunter to write a set of lyrics to it. When I played it for him he said, “I was always hoping I could get a crack at that song.” I hope somebody records the whole thing someday. I think we’ve always taken popular culture very seriously. We’ve always thought about people like Dylan, or Neil Young, or Robert Hunter, in the same way we thought about Emily Dickinson, or Poe, or Whitman: as great artists, similar in that their works are exemplary expressions of our culture and humanity. and very finely crafted. who deserve to be listened to and enjoyed. We were born in the same year, 1957, so we have a strong hit of the 60s, but we were too young to catch a bus to Haight-Ashbury, though we wanted to. I remember watching Allen Ginsberg on the Merv Griffin Show when I’d get home from school as a kid, and he introduced Peter Orlovsky as his husband. I remember having a big black-and-white poster in my room of Allen marching with a sign that said “Pot is Fun.”  I think one of the things that the establishment realized they made a big mistake on in the ‘60s was letting the cat out of the bag in terms of countercultural messages. Later on they made sure that never happened again. I remember sitting at home, watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news with my parents, and there was a broadcast piece about LSD in San Francisco in Haight-Ashbury.  I was probably ten years old. I watched it with such interest, when it was over, my mother turned to me and said, “You’d better never do that.” And all I remember thinking was, “How can I do that?”

By contrast, these are such conservative times today. But I think that the role of the counterculture is a very important one to cultivate, promulgate, and preserve — that’s something that Phong Bui is doing with The Brooklyn Rail and Allen did with Naropa. These are all parts of the counterculture, which is a stream going in the opposite direction to mainstream culture, and that’s extremely important.

There’s an incredible diversity to the Beat writers. Even the so-called ‘minor’ Beat writers are extremely important — fine writers like Howard Hart or Kirby Doyle or Carol Bergé. There’s diversity with black writers like Amiri BarakaBob Kaufman, and Ted Joans, and great women poets like Diane Di Prima, Joanne Kyger, and Lenore Kandel. It’s a remarkable congregation.

Steve Silberman: Absolutely.

Raymond Foye: I actually don’t like the category of “Beat,” it’s become too limiting. It was a  remarkable group of people. To me, it always represented the alternative to what I considered to be the meaninglessness of mainstream American literature, for the most part.

Steve Silberman: Absolutely. Diane di Prima said something in a class at Naropa that really struck me. She was talking about the notion of “cool” and what that word meant to the early Beat people. She said that the mainstream culture around them was full of fake sentiment. You would turn on the radio and there would be these hysterical voices moaning about some very shallow version of love. She and her friends said, “No, we’re gonna turn that off. We’re going to turn off the fake sentiment and just talk about what’s real.” That really impressed me.

One of the biggest things I learned from Allen was to take what I was doing very seriously, as a professional. That’s something nobody ever talks about in relation to Allen. Sure, in some ways his life was a mess, but whenever I saw him engaged with media, he was very serious about what he was doing. He had his trip together. As many people know, Allen had these file cabinets where he kept all his research about the CIA and global heroin trafficking. He figured out that the CIA was involved in global heroin trafficking long before anybody admitted it and people thought it was a wacky conspiracy theory. But Allen “had the receipts,” as they say now on Twitter. Allen was very, very serious.

I ended up learning to meditate because Allen told us to in his course at Naropa called “Literary History of The Beat Generation.” It was suggested that we all sign up for meditation instruction, but it was a bunch of kids, so, you know… But one day Allen said, “OK, how many of you have signed up for meditation instruction?” Only a few hands went up, and Allen said, “Argh, you’re all amateurs in a professional universe.”

Raymond Foye: Wow!

Steve Silberman: I did not want to be an amateur in a professional universe, so I signed up for meditation instruction from Maezumi-roshi, the founder of Los Angeles Zen Center, who was a visiting teacher that summer. In a lot of ways, my interest in dharma and Buddhism and sitting meditation was a way to be a professional in a realm where most people were just kind of vaguely mystical. I really wanted to get serious.

Steve Silberman:  One of the things that I’ve always respected and been inspired by in you, Raymond, is how professional you are. You absolutely have your trip together, whether you’re working with an artist, a writer, a poet, or whatever – you do the necessary diligence so that the thing you produce is really solid and important, and you’ve given a lot of things to the world that no one even attributes to you because you like to be a behind-the-scenes person. But by having your trip together behind the scenes, you’ve made so many great things happen.

Raymond Foye: Well, thank you. I’m more comfortable being a behind-the-scenes person. When you mentioned ‘What did I learn from Allen,’ the filing system is really the first thing that came to mind. A lot of great books like Acid Dreams were based on Allen’s filing system.  Another thing I thought of was that class at Naropa, “Beginning Poetics”, where Allen came in and said, “OK, first rule: brush your teeth twice a day and floss your teeth” — and he took out dental floss and starts demonstrating how to how to floss your teeth! He’d seen so many poets who, later in life, lost their teeth, and it was a problem. You could just see these poor kids in his poetics class getting really deflated with this information.

There was such a practical side to him.  A more interesting question is what did I learn not to do from him. Maybe he made himself too available to people. Rene Ricard once said to me, “You don’t have to do everything that everybody wants you to do.” So that thing about not suffering fools gladly and protecting yourself a little bit from the world — maybe I learned that from Allen, in a negative way.

Two questions came up when you were speaking. One of them is about your early teachers. There was Chögyam Trungpa, there was Maezumi-roshi, there was Richard Baker-roshi, and all of them turned out to be rather imperfect and problematic individuals in certain ways.

Steve Silberman: So did Allen.

Raymond Foye: Yes. So what do you make of that, and how do you how do you deal with it?  Then another teacher you had a very close relationship with was Philip Whalen. You recently sent me this incredible interview you happened to find sitting in a drawer, a tape you never transcribed, about the famous Gallery Six reading where Allen read “Howl” for the first time, and Philip Lamantia read the poems of John Hoffman. Also present was Michael McClure, and let us just pause at this moment so we can acknowledge his passing a few days ago. He was a great figure, a great friend,  a marvelous poet, and a very important playwright. Some of the most profound artistic experiences I’ve had in my life were sitting in Michael McClure’s plays. So let’s just say farewell and thank you to Michael McClure.

Steve Silberman: Farewell and thanks, Michael.

Raymond Foye: Do you want to talk about your early teachers?

Steve Silberman: As you mentioned, a lot of my early teachers turned out to be imperfect.  Allen was… well, you know. I’ll tell you an embarrassing story. I wasn’t attracted to Allen physically, but I loved him very much, and if he had wanted to have sex with me, I probably would have done it. But the closest we ever came to that was at a party at Naropa, smoking one of Gregory Corso‘s truly epic joints that devastated the party, when Allen came up to me, kissed me on the lips, and said, “Why don’t we get together and fuck sometime?” I was very shy, and probably blushing furiously, I said, “Sure, Allen, any time.” Then he looked away and said, “But there’s so little time.” I mean – really, Allen!  I guess I was in the right demographic or something; I was a teenager, and he wanted me to be available to him. But he didn’t necessarily want to be committed to even his own sloppy pass at me. So I actually learned a lesson: don’t treat people like that! And I don’t.

Raymond Foye: But I do love the Beats’ political incorrectness and what they got away with in those days. I remember being Gregory Corso’s teaching assistant at Naropa. He walked in the first day, threw down a big bag of marijuana, and said, “You’re the T.A., roll me a joint.”  If these people were around today, they’d all be locked up.

Steve Silberman: Indeed.

Steve Silberman, Allen Ginsberg and Marc Olmsted in San Jose, California, 1986 – photo: Marc Geller

Raymond Foye, Allen Ginsberg, Jacob Rabinowitz and Harry Smith, New York City, 1987

Raymond Foye: I really miss the Beats. Allen and Bill died just before the turn of the millennium, which Gregory was so looking forward to. Then he died just after that. But they were all gone by the time of 9/11. I really miss what their commentary would have been on that moment.

Steve Silberman: Particularly since Allen lived in the so-called Frozen Zone, below 14th Street. He could have walked down to where the towers had been. Can you imagine the poem he would have written about that?

Raymond Foye: Burroughs’ film Towers Open Fire was restored, and was going to be shown in a screening room in the World Trade Center on the evening of the bombing.

Steve Silberman: My God.

Raymond Foye: That’s a film he made with Antony Balch about holy war between the U.S. and Islam. And what do you do in a holy war?  You knock down the temple. What’s the temple today? It’s capitalism.

Steve Silberman: It’s the Moloch temple.

Raymond Foye: Yes. The coincidence is incredible and there’s actually an ad for that premiere. When Allen and Gregory and Bill died, suddenly it was like the whole continent just wasn’t there anymore. Times have changed, and you cannot judge those figures by the standards of today, that’s completely unfair. If you’re going to do that, essentially it’s the end of history. We may be hipper to some of these issues, and know more about the correct way to treat people, the proper vocabulary, and all that, but doesn’t make us any better than these people.

Steve Silberman: Yes. But we can learn from them. Maezumi-roshi, who taught me how to meditate, had problems with alcohol, eventually had to go into a 12-step program, and then died when he had a backslide. He went to Japan and drowned in a hot tub after a night of drinking with his brothers. Richard Baker, my teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, had to step down because he had an affair with a married woman who was married to one of the big donors for the Zen Center, so that was a problem. Chögyam Trungpa had a terrible drinking problem that eventually killed him. He had been an absolutely brilliant lecturer in the ‘70s, and you could see his decline on videos over the years, though some people claimed he wasn’t declining. I grew up in a family with problems with alcohol and drugs in my parents’ lives, so I saw the kind of denial that could excuse behaviors that were just not tolerable. But eventually what I learned was to stop looking for perfect teachers. That’s just a projection. All of these people are on the path with us at the same time, working stuff out. So I stopped looking for perfect enlightenment. I stopped looking for human beings who had no flaws, or who were always awake continuously. I stopped looking for that, and just accepted people with all of their imperfections. A Zen master once described his life as “one continuous mistake.” There’s nobody here but us chickens. So I started to understand that people could be very inspiring and really fucked up at the same time. I feel like you probably came to that realization as well, working with older artists.

Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995)

Raymond Foye:  I’m fine with imperfections, I’m not fine with judgmentalism. Yes, there’s been damage done, there is in every life. Trungpa harmed the cause of Buddhism, at one point, no question. But it’s not something I’m interested in judging. What they offered were tools for disarming the psychic demons within, and I employ those every single day. I encourage people to get into some form of meditation practice, because if you’re not doing that, I think you’re really wasting your time in life. It’s a process that continues all your life. You may still be stuck in your own movie, but at least you know it’s a movie.

Steve Silberman:  Allen’s biggest gift to me was probably the biggest gift I ever got from anybody, which was to learn how to meditate. But more than that, he clued me in as to what was going to be happening for the rest of my life, which is old age, sickness, and death — the suffering of samsara. It’s built-in.  It’s not because you committed a sin, it’s not because Adam committed a sin, it’s not because somehow you have bad luck. This is what life is. I don’t expect it to be anything else. Allen was incredibly meticulous at mapping his own increasing physical ailments, but also his increasing exuberance. I got one of those famous phone calls in the week before he died, where he would just call people who had meant something to him and talk to them. He told me he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer — which I knew because Allen’s office had emailed me. I asked him how he felt and he said, “Exhilarated.” He talked about how “poetry’s final subject”, as he called it, was in sight. And that has been tremendously encouraging to me. Even after a terminal diagnosis, he could feel a sense of joy and anticipation of discovery, at the same time that he acknowledged that suffering was built into life, and that it wasn’t some extra thing that got added on if you were screwed. Everybody gets screwed!

Raymond Foye: Don’t you love his poem title right at the very end, “Sleeping With my Skeleton”?

Steve Silberman: For sure.

Raymond Foye: That says it all. I remember at the very end of his life, he was talking about aging and the body falling apart, and I said, “Yeah, it’s really mythic, isn’t it?” and he jumped up and yelled, ”Yes!” He got so excited.

Steve Silberman: Yes.

Raymond Foye: OK, we should start wrapping things up with before we get into the questions and answers. You have all these glorious obsessions. You probably know more about jazz than just about anybody I know, and I’ve gotten so many great recordings and tips from you. You recently wrote a really brilliant essay called “Broken Time” that I encourage people to go online and find, published by The Believer. It’s about Bill Evans and a song called “Nardis,” which is a song that Miles Davis wrote but only conveyed orally, as a set of changes, to Julian Adderley. Miles never performed it. Since there was no original, every musician was free to come up with his or her own version, and in time it became a measure by which musicians distinguished themselves.

Steve Silberman: Raymond, before we get to the questions, could I read a very short poem by Michael McClure?

Raymond Foye: Please.

Steve Silberman: It’s very short, but it’s lovely. It’s called “Fragment.” It was written for Baker-roshi, the Zen master who was my teacher. [Editorial note – McClure’s distinctive spatial design regrettably not reproduced here]

“AH/ YES,/ how perfect/ to be within a dream/ inside a body/ in a VISION!/ How REAL!/ HOW SOLID/ ! /  I/ am/ the body/ ! / The dream/ is flesh!/ APPEARANCE/ is my breath/ !/ I/ AM/ THE/ HUMMINGBIRD/ OF/ CHANCE/ !”


(On NeuroTribes)

Steve Silberman: One of the big inspirations for NeuroTribes was Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Kaddish,” the poem he wrote for his mother Naomi, who had schizophrenia. It was a very tragic story. When Allen was just a teenager, he was asked to sign a permission form for his mother to have a lobotomy, and the lobotomy eventually killed her. She died in an asylum. In Allen’s concern, not just for his mother, but for all the other “mad” people in asylums everywhere, Allen was very Christ-like, which is a phrase he would never have applied to himself. But he looked for the outsiders in society and included them in his vision. So, junkies, people in asylums, even his partner, Peter Orlovsky … I suspect that at least one of Peter’s brothers, Julius, was a non-speaking autistic and may even still be alive in an institution. Allen’s vision included people who had been not just left out of society, but forcibly excluded, and confined in an “armed madhouse” as he put it. That was very much an inspiration for NeuroTribes and for my centering of autistic people’s experience in the narrative.

Steve Silberman: Raymond, what are you working on?

Raymond Foye: As I mentioned in the intro, I’m working with George Scrivani on the last twenty years of Gregory Corso’s poetry, which he never published, in part because his work was changing so much, stylistically, and in part because he was dealing with early childhood trauma which he never addressed before in his work. He never got around to putting this book out. Gregory died in early 2001. So working on that, and on a collected poems of Rene Ricard, and on a monograph on the work of Jordan Belson, who was an extremely important experimental filmmaker and artist and left behind an important body of work when he died in 2011 at eighty-five. I think that’s something where my interests in Buddhism and meditation and yoga really have come into a play in my understanding of an artist like Belson, who was an extreme recluse. I wrote him a letter in 1976 asking if I could meet him, and he finally agreed to see me in 2001.

Reading NeuroTribes, I thought about how many friends of mine in the artistic community, if they were not dealing with autism, have dealt with bipolar problems and certainly with depression. They struggled with all of these things, and through them, found a way to give us visions that we can live our lives by. Aesthetics for me is not some kind of flighty, dilettante thing. It’s very much about living one’s life and getting through the next 24 hours, and having some encouraging things to get through these horrible times.

Steve Silberman: Absolutely.

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