Svetlana ran up to me on the street and excitingly announced that Allen Ginsberg was coming to Olomouc! I hitched my backpack on my shoulder and asked, “Who?” She looked at me incredulously and repeated, “ALLEN GINSBERG!!!” I looked at her blankly. She looked at me in disbelief. “Oh,” I chuckled, pretending I misunderstood her, “Oh ALLEN…yes, yes… When is he coming?”
While I was racking my brain trying to figure out “who the hell is Allen Ginsberg?
This was 1993 in Olomouc, Czech Republic. People barely had landline telephones and it was years before Google. It was not like I could just look up who this Ginsberg guy was.
I just thought he must be someone from our university who was coming over to give a talk. So I shrugged and didn’t think any more about it.
That is, until my roommate wanted to go for drinks Ondrej.
Ondrej wanted to go for drinks with her BUT he was going to listen to Allen Ginsberg speak and wanted to see first if he would go for drinks with HIM…. That is where I came in. I was to go to the lecture with Ondrej and I would be the one who would confirm if he would finally be meeting my roommate or not.
(What was life like without phones? Like this. One step up from Paul Revere. I was the human one by land, two by sea.)
I was surprised by the crowd in the lecture hall. We barely got seats and we were behind the TV cameras from the Prague television station. “Wait, who is this guy again?” I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth to Ondrej. He barely glanced at me because he had his joyful face turned to the stage. “A poet. One of the best, from the Beat Generation.”
Oh, another artifact from the 60’s. The Czechs had lived closed up behind the iron curtain for decades but they had had a slim peep at what was happening in the rest of the world during the Prague Spring in 1968. Anything that was able to seep through from the West during that time, be it movies, books or ideas, were clung to until the Wall came down.
When the movie “Easy Rider” came to town for the first time since the revolution, it played to a sold out audience. For two weeks. Straight. The night I went, I remember the Czechs around me were enthralled. I remember looking bewildered. Why are they getting so excited over a hippie movie?
For them, the hippies represented what they thought freedom must have been like for us on the other side of the Wall. That we all drove around on our choppers saying, “easy rider, man.” They didn’t realize along with Wall Street and corporate America, the yuppies had pushed the hippies out of the way years ago.
Growing up in Ohio in the 80’s, the Beats were not on my reading lists either in high school or in college. Sure, a friend had loaned me “On The Road” and I remember one kid, who I took to being a poser, reading “Naked Lunch” while lounging, limbs askew, over a dorm chair. That was pretty much it.
I had been living in the Czech Republic for about 4 months and I had seen a fair share of Western carpetbaggers trying to take advantage of the Czechs. Several religious groups had moved in as well as some unscrupulous capitalists with shaky business deals. I became quite protective of my new friends and got defensive when I thought someone was trying to take advantage of, in my opinion, their naivety…
So that take us back to our lecture at hand. The entire audience was on the edge of their seats. Whereas I was sitting back, with my arms crossed. A door opened and out walk this man called Allen Ginsberg. The audience gasped and broke out in applause. I was still sitting there, skeptical. He looked like an aging hippie in a suit with a wild grey beard.
He started the lecture off by asking everyone to take a few minutes to mediate. “Oh good lord,” I thought to myself as everyone settled in, closing their eyes. He then continued on to talk about spontaneous writing and poetry.
At the end of the lecture, the host announced that Mr Ginsberg was willing to meet with some students afterwards, if anyone was interested.
Ondrej grabbed my hand and I followed about 15 Czech students to an office that was set up with chairs facing a desk. They nervously took their seats, I just sat there, unimpressed. I looked around the room and saw a framed picture on the wall. I was taken aback that it was a black and white picture of a American theater marquee with “Allen Ginsberg” written is bold letters.
Saaaay. Who was this guy and why had I never heard of him?
That is when Ginsberg walked in the room. The students sat up a bit taller as he took a seat behind the desk. He started fielding questions from the students. I remember one boy saying that he had a hard time coming up with topics to write about. Ginsberg started to make up a poem on the spot to show that a poem can be about anything.
“I was walking down the hallway and didn’t know if I wanted to take a piss or take a crap.”
Everyone was listening with rap attention. I just rolled my eyes. He started asking questions directly to the students and after awhile he surprised me when he looked me right in the eye and asked,
“what are you thinking?”
Chairs squeaked as everyone turned to look at me. I then in turn squeaked, when I spontaneous said “I’m amused?” (25 years on and I still cringe that I actually said that.)
Another student later on shared his frustration that no matter how hard he tried, he always wrote about his ex-girlfriend. In all seriousness, Ginsberg replied,
“have you ever thought about trying LSD?”
I wanted to cry out no-no nononono…and cover their innocent ears! Here was a fellow American persuading them to take hallucinogenic drugs…this was so wrong! Who let this guy in here? I looked around the room and they were nodding and taking notes. I felt powerless to do anything to stop this.
About that time, Ginsberg started another impromptu poem. “…With her long black hair and her big blue eyes….” I don’t remember the rest. Because I realized that I was the only one in the room with long black hair and big blue eyes. He was making up a poem about me. And it creeped me out.
Yes, one of the most amazing poets of our lifetime made up an impromptu poem about me…. And. It. Creeped. Me. Out.
What did I do? I said goodbye to Ondrej….and left the room discreetly. I figured I would be drinking alone with my roommate that night.
Yes, with time, I learned who Allen Ginsberg was. His name has been jumping out at me in books and magazines for years. Each time, I smile and cringe simultaneously. Frequency illusion, perhaps, but it never fails to creep me out.