IRA COHEN: POET AT LARGE
by Romy Ashby, of Goodie Magazine
"On my arrival after literally having to smoke my way through hundreds of naked sadhus covered in ashes, I was fortunate enough to meet Ganesh Baba, India's own Mr. Natural, who immediately transmitted to me by psychedelic bullet all I needed to know and gave a place to sleep besides. Even in your wildest dreams you could never imagine such a circus of high madness, true devotion and showbiz savvy as the Kumbh Mela, which could have absorbed the whole Woodstock Nation, as if under a single tent." -Ira's voice, from the film Kings With Straw Mats.
At a crowded screening of the movie, which was in itself a marvelous circus of freaks and luminaries from around New York, Ira's narrating voice was a sort of hypnotic hypodermic. Almost everything that comes out of Ira's mouth is worth writing down or remembering. He is impossible to trim down without losing great stuff, and some great stuff I did have to forfeit here because of space. I wanted to know everything, about all the places he's wandered and hung out, who he's known, where he came from right in the beginning, what he thinks about, his movies, poems, his pictures. I asked him about his first world travels, and he said:
The first time I left the United States I took a Yugoslavian freighter to Morocco, stopped in Casablanca, got back on the boat, went to Tangier, certain things happened, I stayed for awhile, I went to Spain, the next thing I knew I was up in Paris, and then I found myself back in New York and said what am I doing here? And I took the freighter again.
What about the beginning, your birth?
I might be a little bit inaccurate, but I think that my parents were living on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx when I was born. Of course I'm happy about that, how fortuitous for me. When I was born they switched me with some other kid, and brought the other kid to my deaf mother in the hospital. She was saying, "No, no, this is not my baby," but they couldn't understand her and weren't paying any attention. They pushed this kid on her who already actually had teeth, and he bit her breasts and she got an infection from that, which caused her not to breast feed me. And I was born with milk in my breasts. I only know because my mother told me when I was conscious enough to be amazed by her telling me that. I read about it once somewhere, how there is a very small percentage of male babies born with milk in their breasts. It's a temporary thing, I wasn't dripping milk from my tits until I was one or anything like that.
What were your parents like?
Both my parents were deaf. My father became deaf from Spinal Meningitis when he was two or three. My mother was born deaf. Her parents had three other children, one perfectly normal with her hearing, and two others, one male and one female, who were hard of hearing. They had very gentle personalities, and very strange, poetic lives. Poetic in the sense of being poignant and unfortunate, and they never found a right place as being either deaf or hearing. Deaf people have their own whole world with other deaf people. All of my mother and father's friends were deaf. They had deaf card parties, and their whole social life revolved around deaf people. I grew up constantly surrounded by these wonderful, loving people with strange voices like doves cooing in the eaves of a country house, which is how I like to remember it. Maybe I'm exaggerating or romanticizing, but I remember one or two women friends of my mother's with very soft voices which had this kind of cooing sound. Some people might have had trouble understanding them but I was so used to it that I could. I could hear, so that already made me magical in my family. My mother taught me to spell on my fingers. She never forgot that when she was teaching me the alphabet and got to the letter M, I turned it upside down and said W. That made a very big impression on her, and I'm still proud of that. My mother told me she used to see me walking in the street like a little munchkin and that my fingers were always working while I was walking. She couldn't read what I was spelling, but I was obviously spelling out words on my fingers. I think I may still do that on occasion.
Ira grew up in the Bronx near the Cascade Swimming Pool, Yankee Stadium and Morrisania Hospital. He went to Hebrew school there, and to public school, where he remembers crying when his mother dumped him off on the first day. Not far from where he lived was a big bluff with no buildings where he used to play.
I remember a garden planted there, and I was especially fond of the irises, because my name was Ira. They were very pretty purple flowers, and a couple of times I even picked a few and took them to my teacher in school. I wasn't out there picking them every day and selling them on the street corner or anything like that. I used to roller skate in between the oxygen tanks of the Morrisania Hospital sometimes, which was across the street from where I lived, at 1265 Gerard Avenue.
Eventually, Ira's family moved down to Manhattan, a few blocks away from his father's parents. His father was badly stricken with diabetes at a time when diabetes wasn't well understood, and would sometimes have epileptic type fits because of it. They remain vivid in Ira's memory, although they happened rarely.
I remember my mother squeezing oranges through his teeth with him thrashing around in the bathtub with his clothes on. I have diabetes now, and I wrote in a poem recently something about a Jamaican nurse who taught me how to shoot insulin, and how "now I can feel one with my father in his underwear". I always have that sense when I stick the needle in. I remember him sitting at the table shooting insulin, every day.
At sixteen, Ira left home to go to Cornell, fell in love with an older girl, had various emotional difficulties, not least around being away from home for the first time, and soon began to skip a lot of classes and read on his own. He shared a house with some older guys who loved jazz and got heavily into that, becoming president of Cornell's jazz club, the Rhythm Club. And he started smoking grass.
Suddenly I could get stoned and start reading a book, and I'd realize things that were hidden in there that the author wasn't even talking about. I could look at a painting and see a certain kind of strange thing in it that I would understand. Something that wouldn't even be mentioned if there were an accompanying text, like another vision. As a head, I often think to myself how wonderful certain great writers might have been if they ever smoked a joint. Imagine Ezra Pound as a pothead. Especially with all that fascist trip and becoming such a pain in the ass when he was so wonderful and brilliant. He turned me on as much as anybody in my life, when I first encountered his poetry and essays at the age of sixteen. I had all his books. I loved The Spirit of Romance, for example, just the title enchanted me. Whenever I read a book by somebody who would've abandoned going to school and gone off on a freighter somewhere, I realized that I too had those longings. But I overcame them and stayed in school.
Did you want to be a poet at that time?
I never thought I would be a poet. When I was old enough to be thinking and reading a lot, I was always more interested in novels and had trouble understanding poetry, as probably most people do at some point. Later, if it's good poetry rather than obscure language you need a skeleton key to figure out what the person is saying, you'll understand what poetic language is, or the way poetry works. I always feel I'm talking very straight in poems, and maybe I do talk straighter than a lot of people, but I make certain synapse jumps and certain other things to keep it all cooking.
What kind of inspiration did jazz have on your life then?
I remember coming into the city when I was about seventeen and talking to Miles Davis. It was funny because he was so stoned and smacked out, and I was following him down into the subway trying to talk to him about coming up to Cornell for a concert, and he had enough trouble getting his nickel into the token thing. I remember it being a nickel, although it might have been a dime by then. I went to see Lenny Tristano, which was a beautiful experience. He was one of the most avant-garde cerebral jazz players at the time, and he was living over a garage somewhere on the east side in the twenties or thirties. He was blind. It was a very hot day in the summertime and he was in his striped boxer shorts and sleeveless undershirt, giving a lesson to a guy who was a saxophone player. The guy said, "When can I start playing Polka Dots and Moonbeams like Lester Young?" I'll never forget what he said to the guy. I would say that it was an influence on my life, because when you hear something and you know that it's true, unless you're a jerk, you listen to that and you remember. Lenny said, first play the record twenty-five times, and just listen, even fifty times. After that start humming along with it, note for note. And when you've done that and know it totally and can do it even without the record, then try to do it backwards. When you can do it backwards, then pick up your horn and try to play it just like Lester Young is doing it, note for note, and after that, then you can start to think about improvising. And of course you know the example of Claude Monet painting the cathedral in Chartres at every hour of the day to get the different light. Stories of that kind of stamina and endurance are shining examples of what you have to do to a lazy guy like myself, you know, of how many times you have to go to the well, and I accept that. It's certain other things that are harder to accept. The lack of acceptance and respect and response that might actually make me feel as if I'm in as good a position financially as if I were selling Good Humor ice cream at Jones Beach for two months in the summer. I sell my pictures from time to time, but I'm not out in the gallery world where people come to buy things for whatever reasons they do. Hopefully it's because they love a picture and they have taste. But people buy for a lot of other reasons besides that. On rep and cockroach celebrity values and all sorts of other things that influence them more towards what they buy. Trends and blue-chip stocks and income tax write-offs. All that stuff that helps to create a body of work stylized by museum curators and others who end up being the arbiters of taste and the quality of people's work. It's nothing new in any business. It's sad when you come across tragic stories of great artists who could never be accepted or have a reasonable outlet, and end up like some of the great jazz musicians, you know, working delivering laundry instead of being supported and encouraged to take their music to greater heights. The more authentic somebody is, the more likely that is to happen. In the world we live in today especially, you have to be a certain kind of wizard with a good agent to be able to get anywhere.
Is the getting of money always a hassle? Do you ever get grants?
In the poetry world they don't give grants to people who really need it and deserve it. They wouldn't even give one to Allen Ginsberg, and I'm not saying he's the most deserving, but as an example of the avant-garde, off the wall thing. They're always looking for poets like WS Merwin or Galway Kinnell to give money to, even though those guys also have tenure and jobs. I don't even have SSI. I don't mind you putting that in. I don't believe in SSI. If I really need it and have no alternative I'll accept anything, I'm not hung up about it. For some people money is a bigger problem than sex. It's so complicated, and especially for artists and other sensitive people, the idea of money and everything that it indicates and means can also fill you with guilt about anything. I'm always trying to knock prices down instead of up and I don't need to do that because other people are always trying to push me to do that too, rather than telling me that I should go sky-high. At the Ginsberg auction you'd see somebody suddenly paying $5000 for a print of Allen's. Or for the buckskin jacket Dennis Hopper gave him that he wore in Easy Rider, Johnny Depp bought that for fifteen grand. If someone like that asked me how many of my pictures they could get for $15,000, well they could get a hell of a lot. Say thirty mylar exhibition prints at $500 each, that would be fifteen grand. Put that on a scale with Dennis Hopper's buckskin jacket and what are we talking about? I hope he gets some use out of it. And that he likes wearing it in a magical way. But I think I'd just as well like to have Johnny Depp's jock strap as Dennis Hopper's jacket. I'm kidding, but I'm just trying to say that Johnny Depp could sell some clothing fetish of his own for that much money. Some people make enough that they can afford to spend that, you know?
Here and there during our interview Ira had things to say about some people which he later suggested I not include, out of tact, courtesy, etc. Even though many of those things were pricelessly juicy and enormously entertaining, I agreed to leave them out. Ira readily admits to having a tendency to talk too much, and told me a wonderful story from when he lived in Morocco:
There was this guy I knew in Morocco named Leslie Eggleston. He was a very smart guy who waddled around Tangier, one of these guys we called Remittance Men. I don't who invented that term, but somehow I remember hearing it first in relation to Burroughs, who was a Remittance Man and who would also talk about Remittance Men. They were certain guys who came from wealthy families with some social standing, and they were such outrageous characters themselves, drunk fags causing scandals and being so extreme that their parents were very glad to send them $200 a month and have them live in Morocco. So Leslie was one and I really liked him. Anyway, one day we were sitting in the Zoco Chico and he said "Why don't you come over to my place, I'd like to suck you off." And I said, "Well, I'd be glad to do that, Leslie, but I just don't want people to start talking." And he said, "I won't tell anybody, I won't say a word!" Then I said, "It's not you I'm worried about. I can't keep my mouth shut." That buffaloed him and he had to start giggling. He saw the brilliant truth of it all. So I handled it with such aplomb that we could always stay friends easily.
I lived in Morocco from about 1961 until 1966. I was far from being a real writer or a poet then, but I was living the life and doing a lot of other things. I remember the waiter who served me my first glass of mint tea in Morocco. He bent down to put the tea on the table, and in his ear was a rather large triangular hole which would take a large weighty earring, which was not in his ear at the moment. I looked through the hole in his ear and saw a perfect cloud floating over the Zoco Chico in the sky and I thought, too bad Magritte isn't here.
In Morocco, Ira took pictures, ran around jotting things down, and recorded Jilala trance music with Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles, now out as a CD. He did a magazine called Gnaoua, in which he published Burroughs and Ginsberg. Through Irving Rosenthal, with whom he was sharing a house, Ira got to know Jack Smith and published photographs of him as part of a series entitled Superstars of CineMaroc. I asked Ira if this was the Irving Rosenthal who wrote Sheeper, and Ira said he was somewhat amazed that I had heard of it. Sheeper was recommended to me by Alexander Laurence, and I had to have Skyline Books on 18th street do a search in order to get it. What a great book! It should never have gone out of print, and if you ever see one for sale on the street, grab it.
I feel a great pride in that I actually was responsible for getting Sheeper published. I had published early selections from it in Gnaoua. I remember when Irving sent his manuscript off to Burroughs and to Ginsberg. I read the letter Ginsberg sent him back, which was more critical than supportive, and suggesting all kinds of changes. I told him to forget it. He was a little disturbed by the reactions he was getting. I was astonished when I came back to New York that he hadn't been able to publish it, because I knew that Grove Press had it, but it was just sitting there. Irving didn't want to badger them and had put the whole thing in Allen's hands. Finally at a certain point, I said, "OK, I'm going to publish it." I had just inherited $4000 and Irving had just been given a small printing press. As soon as Allen got wind of the fact that I was going to publish it, he was suddenly over to Grove Press saying that someone else was going to do it. And that became the spur that got Grove Press off the pot to do the book. You know, Irving had a tooth growing in the middle of his palate, which he had removed at some point when I knew him. In a way I wondered if it was a good thing to do.
Back in New York, Ira published the Hashish Cookbook, and entered the exotic Bagdadian world of Jack Smith, whose beautiful, outlandish, and fabulous movies were shocking and thrilling and delighting everyone to death. My friend Liza Stelle described feeling her whole life change while watching Flaming Creatures, in which Irving Rosenthal also appeared, before the whole thing was raided by the police. Liza would describe the effect of Jack Smith's films and plays (which sometimes lasted all night) on her, the way they tilted the world and made anything seem possible. I remember her taking me to Jack's memorial, where Ira lighted handfuls of incense sticks and his son Raphael read a poem he had written for Jack. I remember something about "the architecture of his nose" being in the poem. Eventually Ira would edit the little Hanuman book by Jack Smith, Historical Treasures, which if you can find, you should grab.
I was around Jack a lot, helping him in sessions, and finally starting to make photographs myself, using mylar. I began to do that obsessively for a whole period. I was obsessed with the mirror, you know, like from Cocteau and other aspects of mirror magic, which all just obsessed me, and Jack would come and be in some of those sessions. One of Jack's films that I was in was called Reefers of Technicolor Island, and Jack actually grew marijuana plants and filmed them as if it was a tropical jungle. He had a little boat with seashell sails which he put in the bathtub. He hooked up something to make it seem like there was an electrical storm and that the miniature ship was actually at sea. I played a weird unshaven sea captain, I didn't have a beard then, something between Jon Hall and Barton MacLane, a little more villainous than Jon Hall. You don't see me too much in it, but there's a great shot of just my eyeball in one place. He had one scene with a lot of fake pearls on which he had drawn little jackolantern faces with a magic marker, and I'm running my hands through them like a greedy sea captain in a tropical paradise.
When did you start making films yourself?
I was really shooting stills and didn't know much about film making. But then I made one called The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, with a movie camera I got through strange circumstances. I came home one day and found this guy walking around my loft, obviously up to no good. But I got into a conversation with him. He saw the mylar chamber and all this chemical apparatus I had set up for a scene I was shooting with colored fluorescent liquids in bottles. Somehow I didn't call the police, he didn't have a sack over his shoulder when I encountered him, just a bogus story about why he was in my loft, looking for someone. But in the end we became friendly, and later he brought me a suitcase with a Bolex and some prism lenses and some other stuff, I took it all for a song, and I made Thunderbolt Pagoda.
I also made a beautiful contact with the Living Theater, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, and got involved with them in making a film of Paradise Now. Sheldon Rochlin ended up making another film of Paradise Now in Europe, in color video, which was at that time a real breakthrough. At the Living Theater I met Petra, and we collided like two giant comets. We were together for seven years. We went to India together, it was something we wanted to do, Petra wanted to travel on bloody feet, as she put it. We finally ended up in Katmandu, and that's when I really began writing poems in earnest. I really blossomed in Nepal. Petra always kept notebooks full of drawings and writings, and the only way I could remain was to start doing it myself. And someone had stolen my camera. Thank God someone finally gave me another one, because I made a whole body of work there.
One of the people Ira and I have in common is Vali Myers, the beautiful, wild Australian artist. She is absolutely the most inspiring, extraordinary person I know. When I met and befriended her in the early nineties at the Chelsea Hotel, I felt that I had tripped and fallen into a pot of majoun. Over the years, on my many visits to her in her magical mountain garden in South Italy, she's always spoken with enormous affection of Ira, "Big Ira" she calls him, always said smiling or laughing.
I met Vali in a very simple kind of way. Sheldon Rochlin was editing a film he had shot about her in Italy, called The Witch of Positano. I was with him then, and through watching the film I became quite enchanted with her, which wasn't too difficult to imagine. Then she ended up coming to New York for the first time, having been in Positano for fifteen years or so, and she pitched a tent in the loft of the painter Mati Klarwein and was living in it. I went to see her there with Sheldon, and we became very fast friends. I had a loft downtown then, a big beautiful place, and she spent a lot of time there. I took some nice photographs of her and we were always very close. She was the first one who mentioned the fantasy that we should get married and have a giant gypsy wedding. A while ago I wrote to her and said let's do it now, in Australia. I'm speaking here more of the spectacle and the drama and the joyous explosion of the whole thing than the idea of having a serious marriage. It would be like King and Queen of the Gypsies, a grand, theatrical spectacle. The whole beautiful thing about my relationship to Vali was that it was really a love story in my life, one that is significant. But I never got it on with Vali, you know, I'm a little bit shy. Not that she doesn't understand being shy, she can be shy herself. I think it was very lovely that we both understood that wasn't what was happening, although it was very affectionate. When she would visit me in my loft she'd always treat me in a certain special way, she'd make Turkish coffee and say, "Here baby, I don't even make coffee like this for Rudi, you know, hahaha." She lived with Rudi in Italy, but she was sowing her oats while she was here. She's never made any big pretense about being Miss Faithful exactly, or of being easy to possess. She was always a bit wild to say the least. Ching and she had this incredible affair (In her book, Vali wrote of her first trip to New York City: "There I met a young Chinese painter, Ching ho Cheng, and with him rode a dream voyage on the Great Chinese Wall"), because Ching was really homosexual. But then he ended up adopting Vali's handwriting exactly and changed his whole style of painting. They were like two little foxes, they loved each other and they had a real affair. She tattooed a black spade on his dick. Which I never saw, but I remember asking him how they did that, and he said he kept an erection while she was tattooing. I asked what happened when he didn't have an erection. I imagined you probably couldn't even see it. He'd have to pull it out or have an erection to see the spade. He just laughed. Vali gave me my first tattoo, which was a small heart on my arm. I asked for it when I had to think of what tattoo I was going to have. Being a tattoo virgin, I wasn't too sure and didn't want to get too complicated. I was very into hearts in a way, and maybe it's a little sentimental, but I was thinking about the Heart Chakra, and it was Valentine's day. I got a big box of candy, and for a long time I would carry that big heart-shaped box around with pencils and things in it. Anyway she had a nice heart with the bottom twisted a little in some Italian style, sort of gypsy, on her belt which was made of brass. I said, "Put that on my arm," and she did, with three little dots on the bottom, as a sort of protection sign. One time Petra drew two eagles fighting on the heart with each other. We were actually having certain problems at the end of our relationship when she did that, so I took it as a kind of rapacious thing, these two eagles, fighting on the heart that Vali had put there. I had them tattooed with the heart, so now I have a tattoo with Petra's eagles on top of my heart. Later I got another tattoo from Vali when she was in Amsterdam, living in a gay bordello where they loved her and gave her a room. I saw her walking in the street from behind and screamed out "Vali!" We spent a lot of time together in Amsterdam. I told her that I wanted a tattoo over my heart, and I was saying that I wanted flames. But the way she did it was as waves, which was brilliant because I needed something more to cool me off than to ignite me at the time.
Just to know Vali is enough to make one's life that much more worthwhile. What a piece of work. Everybody is "love" whether it's a fat pig or a wolfhound or a chubby little bald guy, she always sees the beauty in everything, every person, every living thing. Everything is adorable. It's not a question of which breed she prefers. Whenever she loves somebody, that's it and there's no other question about it. Is my hair okay? You know, which is pretty down to earth. That reminds me, there is a movie called Gone to Earth, made by Michael Powell with Jennifer Jones as this wild girl who's in love with a real macho nasty guy, and then there's a priest who really loves her in another way. She's absolutely wild, and she has a pet fox. One day I asked Vali if she knew that movie, and she said, "Of course I know that movie!" And then she told me that it influenced a lot of her whole trip about the fox. That was very interesting to know, because I couldn't see that movie without thinking of Vali. We talked about it and she asked me, "Can you get a copy of it, baby?" I tried, I called around but finally gave up. So much for Gone to Earth. Once it showed at the Museum of Modern Art. That together with one of the films about Vali would make a nice double feature.
I'd like to say something more perfect about Vali, that would actually shed light on her beauty and how important she is to me. She's really a great artist, and she's always followed her own star, which is to me the most important thing. Especially when you're talking about authenticity, a word which doesn't have a lot of play in the art world. For me Vali is both a great artist and a great person, absolutely unique. Anyone who has ever seen her or knows her can tell that. But she herself is her greatest work of art. I never really saw her when she was drawing, although I have a tiny doodle she made on an envelope and gave me which I put in a little frame.
What about your film, "Kings With Straw Mats?"
The title came from something Ganesh Baba said to me once, during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. He said to think of all the bright lights everywhere else in the world, while here we had just one little twenty-five watt bulb hanging under the doorway of the camp with these Nagas, and that was more than the whole psychedelic circus of the universe so to speak. That led to him to say that someone should write a book called Kings With Straw Mats. I actually took down a lot of very pithy, one-line remarks which Ganesh Baba was dropping a dime a dozen, especially at the celebration in Allahabad in '77, which is the first one I went to. Even when it was something like "Don't cut the vegetables, throw them in hole," I found it resonating with significance for me, you know, sitting there smoking my brains out in this great Kumbh Mela. Another thing Ganesh Baba said was "Beware the non-psychedelic. A non-psychedelic can never enlighten a psychedelic." That took care of a lot of shit for me. I didn't have a problem intuitively, and unconsciously I always knew that, but when he formulated that in such a simple, straightforward sentence I knew how much truth there was in it.
Anyway, I was in New York and wanted to go to this Mela in 1986 and take photographs, to get out of the New York rat trap. Of course I didn't have any money and I figured I needed two thousand dollars to go, which would be enough to buy film and live there very inexpensively. I was putting the word out and hoping somebody would buy some pictures. Look, nobody was going to give me the money to go there. I know plenty of people who have given me money from time to time, and if it weren't for them I'd have been dead in the water a long time ago. But still, when you really need it even those people are not around. I thought I wasn't going to be able to make it. But then someone suggested that if I wanted to make a movie, there would be people who might be interested in backing something really big. It's that syndrome, where if you ask for five hundred million that's better than asking for ten bucks. So this idea worked. A friend called me up and said he heard I was going to make a movie and how much did I want. And I said, $25,000? That worked out. I never got the full amount, I was very cautious, taking it in small amounts, because I didn't want to be responsible for that much money and not using it smartly. Anyway, I went and stayed for three months, and Kings with Straw Mats came out of the fifty or sixty hours of video we shot there. It took twelve years before I found myself in the perfect situation to be able to complete it, working with Morgan Harris, who edited the film for nothing and did it for love. He understood everything that I was thinking even before I told him.
What would you most like to do now?
I'd like to get one book of poems published in the United States of America without seeming to be guilty of hubris. Everything that I've ever done is out of print, and all done in very small editions. I'd like to get out a book of poems because I feel that I'm already looking at the end of the road. Just the other day I was telling someone that the path never ends, the path goes on and on. But at some point I do see an end in sight, I've seen enough people drop off the tree in the last few years, and things happen. I don't know what I have the time left to do but I still have all the energy. I would like to get out a big book of poems that's actually available. I'm tired of telling people, "You can't get it." I don't think you can find another poet of my caliber who can say that he never had a book published in this country. But I'm not knocking on doors like a Fuller Brush salesman, that's not my trip.
You certainly give a wonderful interview, Ira.
Well, I sometimes rant, I sometimes go nuts, I like it best when I'm funny and in a good mood, or even better when I'm inspired. I wish there was more to be inspired about. But inspiration is something you have to find in yourself. We all dream of finding it in some other source, and it can come from other sources. There is a chemistry that actually makes things happen. If I could, I would draw up the architectural plans for how a poet or an artist could live perfectly.
- Interview by Romy Ashby