The legendary John Giorno may be, first and foremost, a poet, but at this point in his career, Giorno’s artistic identity is more complex than that label alone. Performance is a key component of his work, and arguably, when he is at the height of his talents. Straying a bit further from poetry though, he has become a painter, combining his knack for creating poignant and pithy text with an eye for visual art. Currently, Giorno’s work, made across a variety of mediums, is being celebrated at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The exhibition, honestly titled, “I ♥ JOHN GIORNO”, was conceived as a work of art in its own right by mixed-media artist Ugo Rondinone. Earlier this year, we spoke with Giorno about the creative paths he’s taken, gaining some insight into how “a poet” has ended up contributing so much more than straight poetry to the world.
“People who stay poets are more conservative,” says John Giorno. The poet— sitting cross-legged on a divan in his studio on the Bowery, where he’s lived for fifty years, and where his friend and collaborator William S. Burroughs once resided—brings forth anachronistic logic in this wide-eyed statement. One thinks of poets as the madmen and madwomen of the world, the Shelleys and Pounds and Plaths. Poets are harnessed to a legacy of pain, to the point where it seems as though they must live calamitously or die tragically in order to be thought of as true poets.
He seems to have captured the secrets of both artistic immortality and here-on-earth happiness. When he makes this comment about poets, he is talking about a newer strain of erstwhile bards—rock stars—who have adopted the poet’s abandoned tragedy manqué. “Poets can be rock stars or they can be writers who write prose that sounds like poetry—they can become anything,” says Giorno. “I’m peculiar, because I stayed a poet. I’ve been a poet since I was 14. When anyone asked me what I wanted to be, I said, ‘I am a poet.’ I was a part of an innocent generation, so I stayed a poet.”
Giorno, however, is also an artist. All around us, shin- ing down on us as we talk, are the paintings he’s been working on for the past year. They are all the same size— large and square—and all feature a playfully koanish phrase (Giorno has been a practicing Zen Buddhist for 50 years) gleaned from one of his poems. Lines like “A HURRICANE IN A DROP OF CUM” and “GOD IS MAN MADE” are rendered in white type that appear above a rainbow-roll background. Much of this work is new although the silkscreens of his past make an appearance.
Earlier he made silkscreens and watercolors featuring deluges of lines culled from his poems, but he has since pared each work down to a very short, tail-swishing statement. “They work when they’re only two or three lines,” says Giorno. “Because you’re not reading them. ‘THANX 4 NOTHING’: that’s iconic. You’re not reading that. It’s that pop thing, like a pop image. That’s half the reason why these work as paintings.”
Giorno is best known for his performances. A Giorno performance is spellbinding in the most literal sense—his words are spells, incantations. “Being a poet means writing, and somehow, in my case, it means performing,” says Giorno. “And that’s an elaborate process of how the words sound when I write them down, how I develop the musical qualities. And then the next step being that I memorize them and make a performance out of it.” Poetry is both an oral and a literary tradition, but it’s not necessarily the job that brings home the bacon, or guarantees a life in the spotlight. His poem “Thanx 4 Nothing,” written in 2006 on his 70th birthday, illustrates this problem with a pithy couplet: thanks for allowing me to be a poet/ a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice. The poet seems to stand by this sentiment, but he elaborates its finer points: “It’s a hopeless thing to be a poet, because poetry is beyond all concepts,” says Giorno. “But anyone that says poetry is dead is nuts. They’re either a failed poet or someone who wishes it were dead. You can’t kill poetry—it would be like trying to kill the human race.”
Photography Richard Burbridge