AN INTERVIEW WITH ALLEN GINSBERG’S ASSISTANT – Nina Zivancevic Unveils the Underground

by Marc James Léger

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Nina Zivancevic is a poet, playwright, fiction writer, scholar, performer and art critic. A leading Serbian literary figure, Zivancevic published her first book in 1982 for which she won the National Award for poetry in Yugoslavia. From 1980 to 1981 she worked as a teaching assistant and secretary to Allen Ginsberg. Since that time she worked as a literary editor, correspondent and contributor to several publications, including East Village Eye, Theater X, Politika, El País, Woman (Spain), The Tribes, and Dnevnik. Besides having worked for the Living Theatre from1988 to 1992, she co-founded the Odiyana Theatre. Author of more than sixteen books, her principal works in English include I Was This War Reporter in Egypt (Leave Books, 1992), Inside & Out of Byzantium: Short Stories (Semiotext(e), 1994), The Death of New York City (Cool Grove Press, 2002), and Living On Air (Barncott, 2014). She presently lives in Paris and teaches languages and the theatre of the avant-garde at Paris University. Johny Brown, the noted British poet and playwright, once said of her: “Nina is Serbia’s true Punk Laureate. Nina stands over the mike stand. She reads in Serbian but the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Every face in the room, all the generations, all the clans, every subculture representative, is trained on her… Nina pushes her words way beyond Acker and Ginsberg to a place all her own. The punk metaphysicist! Other civilizations and their attendant cultures seep through the city walls of her poems. Faded brocade ruffles hang from under the sleeves of cracked black leather jackets.”

Marc James Léger: I’m wondering if you could say something about the people that I will name in this interview and anything that comes to mind, whether it be about art, life, love or politics. The New York artist and theorist Gregory Sholette has a theory about what he calls “dark matter,” which to make things simple refers to all of the unacknowledged members of the art world who together keep a pyramidal system of cultural prestige running for only a few privileged and well paid art stars. My position on the avant garde is rather than if there is something like dark matter in the universe it can’t only exist at the so-called bottom and middle of the system but must be found in some measure in all the spaces of the system, otherwise why would those who are not so well-known or acknowledged even be inspired to carry on as slaves to culture.

I take Sholette’s theory seriously all the same as a way to focus on art labour politics and on the problem of the value form, but there must also be a means to think through what my teacher Janet Wolff referred to as “sociological imperialism.” Unfortunately this usually involves a nod to Kantian judgement and the trick is done. I read recently in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit the passage in which he discusses creative talent in terms of individuality “that takes itself to be real in and for itself.” Naturally, we’re dealing here with a complex dialectics of “spiritual self-consciousness” and the “limitation of being” that is mediated by consciousness, otherwise referred to in that section as action and determinateness. Hegel develops this with reference to artistic works, a means by which the individual has created himself or herself through action. “Talent,” he writes, is “nothing else but the determinate, original individuality considered as an inner means, or as a transition from End to an achieved reality.” He later writes about the integrity of such a consciousness, of its having willed in thought and in matter a work of reality in action and related to this the satisfaction that this active consciousness – which he defines as good – takes in all its relationships. One could go on in more detail but there is enough here to at least see the difference between this and a kind of postmodern skepticism that would attempt to reduce such questions as artistic achievement and merit to some sort of agnostic materialism, capitalist system, media technology and so on.

With this as a sort of preamble, my first request is to hear from you about Allen Ginsberg.

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Nina Zivancevic with Allen Ginsberg, c.1996. Photo by Ira Cohen. Courtesy of Nina Zivancevic.

Nina Zivancevic: Ach, his work can really be explained through the Hegelian stance which you have just mentioned and which involves the so-called “spiritual self-consciousness,” otherwise referred to as action and determinateness. And in order for us to understand Ginsberg’s really innovative “determinate and original individuality” as exemplified in his poetry, one would have to go even further back to Plato’s “Politeia” where the ancient philosopher describes the written word as “the shadow of the living one,” the one which is (according to Socrates) inscribed in the mind of the teacher, “the word which speaks to the man who can get it but is always silent to someone who can’t.” Of course, Allen was, and is, much more than the written word to me: he was a precious teacher, an oral griot and a shaman who followed Woodie Guthrie to the letter in combining the spoken word with music and the scores, etc. He always reminded us, his students at Naropa, that “music unnaturally divided from poetry” with the tenth century Church of performers and that it was our role to put it back together. I tried, in my personal work, to follow his advice.

MJL: Karel Appel.

NZ: I met him with Allen at Naropa in the summer of 1981 and was taken by his good, productive energy. I witnessed his long hours of action painting “on the spot,” directly, as he entered some sort of quiet “Samadhi” or “Satori” and pretty much like the ancient Oriental masters was just applying hues on the paper. He was relaxed, and as he was already famous, he had a face of an artist who did not bother about the act of selling it (his work I mean). What strikes me though the most is his total immergence in his action painting, a quality which I had witnessed only in a couple of living artists whose work I had followed closely in the capacity of an art critic.

MJL: John Giorno.

NZ: Ach! I will tell now exactly the same words which he used to describe my own activity: he’s “a being who has a huge compassion and a wisdom mind stream.” His huge compassion enabled him to create the “Giorno Poetry System” among which one remembers his Action (back to Hegel) of creating the “Dial a poem” thing. According to John, every desperate being in NYC (and there we find many of them pinched by the ultimate phase of Capitalism) was able at one point, I think during the 1970s, to dial a certain number and hear a poem by a living poet, just at the time when the caller found himself in a suicidal desperation. The poetry action in this way would save his life. Totally devoted Buddhist, a mix of Slavoj Zhizhek and the Dalai Lama. Looks you straight into the eye and then you notice that your eye pupil has dilated. I think that his mostly innovatory approach to poetry is less important to me than his social work within the poetry community of New York but I am not sure that this part of his story would go down to the history of the world poetry.

MJL: Ira Cohen.

NZ: Now Ira’s action was also noble and not less significant than Giorno’s. Instead of dialing a phone number, Ira Cohen’s desperate (and those not so desperate) friends were able to stop by and visit the poet/photographer in his pad on W106 street, smoke some weed, discuss the gracious host’s favorite artists and writers – and go back home happily everafter. Ira made people happy – his brio allowed us to experience some sort of the most intellectual Jackie Gleason who trained our brains in humor and goodwill. Great photographer, a very close friend, a true Underground and Aboveground avant-garde artist. Thoroughly grateful for his revelation of the secret called Jack Smith and the secret of Kenneth Anger to me. Sorely missed by all his friends.

MJL: Judith Malina.

NZ: And, of course, Judith Malina, being both a rabbi’s daughter and a natural performer treasured Ira’s company. Their parties were the wildest in NYC for a good couple of decades and I had often thought that the REAL Living Theater performances at their best were taking place only in Ira’s living room or in the Becks’ apartment. Now that she has  already been for 20 days in Bardo and, sort of watching me from the above, asking “Nina, what do you really think of my entire work in this past century?”, I have to “summarize Sumeria” and think of her being in an entirely different way than I did before. I sort of took her presence for granted. She has always confided in me, knowing that both of our respective Central European families came from the same anarchist background. She had to fight poverty, fight the police, the government system, fight ignorance and the lack of public visibility all life long, in art and in her private life, which was, in fact, only one thing for her. She founded The Living Theater with Julian Beck in 1947 with the intention to achieve “the Beautiful Anarchist Revolution.” She had almost done it.

MJL: Ellen Stewart.

NZ: Her “compassion and wisdom-stream” were also huge and incredibly matching Malina’s own or John Giorno’s for that matter. However, if I’m not mistaken (and I doubt that I am) all these incredible, left-oriented artists had suffered persecution, hunger, poverty and bad treatment on the side of the Arts’ Councils of their government.

MJL: Sava Andelkovic.

NZ: However, if I’m not mistaken (and I doubt that I am) all these incredible, left-oriented artists had suffered persecution, hunger, poverty and bad treatment on the side of the Arts’ Councils of their government. The scenario is a bit different here as Andelkovic, a Serbian-born theater actor-cum-director and drama teacher at La Sorbonne could not express himself fully in his home country where people still fight for the Minorities’ and Gay rights and… I enjoyed his work immensely as he was staging something difficult, so called “bilingual theater” — in 2006, he wanted me to participate in his production “Rapporteur de Guerre, rapporteur du Coeur,” his take on the life and times of “Nina Zee,” a certain compilation that he made from my poetry written in NYC, in Egypt, in France and in former Yugoslavia. He figured out that I was feeling equally comfortably uncomfortable living in all these different places.

MJL: Slobodan Šijan.

NZ: Another fighter along the road, a classic Yugoslav filmmaker. Not my favorite, but that’s unimportant for the film history and above all for the film industry. I studied film and literature with Arnošt Lustig at the American U.N. and he sort of liked him, but I could never figure out why. Lustig also liked Max Ophüls but in the case of Ophüls, I figured out why.

MJL: Srdan Dragojevic.

NZ: Another fighter along the road, a classic Yugoslav filmmaker. Not my favorite, but that’s unimportant for the film history and above all for the film industry. Perhaps the underground filmmaker whom I like the best from my Serbian Pantheon is Milutin Petrovic, a creature who tried, somewhat in the manner of Olivier Assayas, to tell a story of the Yugoslav Civil Wars, through the mouth of a film editor gone crazy, where by the end of his film (a Montreal festival winner in 2002) we truly start asking Artaudian questions like, who’s really crazy here and why “the sick call themselves the doctors?” His maverick work also includes trailers and presentations of different underground and punk rock bands such as “Bezobrazno Zeleno” (Wicked Green), etc…

MJL: Chögyam Trungpa.

NZ: Ach, here we are talking about the real Buddhist Master. I’ll never forget the day when a society lady threw a party in Boulder, Colorado. I was a newcomer and everyone there started coaching me how to behave and prostrate in front of Trungpa Rinpoche, that is, were he to arrive to the party that afternoon. I was peacefully drinking my soda on the society lady’s balcony when I observed a great commotion in front of me, people falling down on their knees and then to the ground, madly rushing themselves to do prostrations, and then I turned around. A tiny, round-faced creature, dressed as an English gentleman approached me and benevolently waving his hand in my direction, bowed in front of me and started doing prostrations in front of me! I started laughing as I instantly got his joke: he was going to show his court that every living being deserves attention and prostrations and that we all live in the perfect Buddhahood … even people like this young girl who’s completely unaware of his teachings! I loved his humor but I was not able to become his adept!

MJL: Gerard Malanga.

NZ: A very handsome young man who worked in Andy’s Factory, a great and tender photographer of young mothers (Inès de La Fressange and Nina Zee) and cats, a good friend with a similar sense of humor who gave me the title for my first novel, Living On Air. But the nicest thing about Gerard is his resilience as the NYC street urchin who was balancing his existence between the Andy Warhol’s court and the one of Virgil Thomson with an incredible success.

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Nina Zivancevic poetry reading poster, 2011. Design by and courtesy of Dragana Nikolic.

MJL: Kathy Acker.

NZ: The only American writer I dared to write an obituary for… Proud to be her translator.

MJL: Chris Kraus.

NZ:  A great woman of letters. Proud to be her translator.

MJL: Marina Abramovic.

NZ: A great woman of action. Proud to be her friend.

MJL: Jean Baudrillard.

NZ: A great photographer! I interviewed him for NY Arts Magazine only in relation to this art and I’m proud to have met him at 6 rue de Boef where he spent his last days before he went to join Deleuze, Guattari and Bourdieu in the sky. Perhaps he was the first of my French friends to point to me the perversity of their academia and the higher strata of their society. He kept on telling me “but you know, Nina, if it were not for Michel Maffesoli, (a former pupil of Gilbert Durand and Julien Freund) I would have never defended my Ph.D. at the French university! They (the academic jury) were always turning me down.” I think the same goes for Deleuze and Michel Foucault who had to make their career moves first in the US so that they could return peacefully to France… As for Baudrillard, I remember that he liked.. fish for dinner..

MJL: Jean-Pierre Faye?

NZ: Luckily he’s still with us… In my view, he is with Jacques Roubaud, one of the most innovative European poets of this century. Both of them founded “Change,” the interdisciplinary group for the exploration of language, politics and philosophy, but what I like about them is their plurality and diversity in writing. I translated Faye’s poetry into Serbian, my mother tongue, and I worked on this translation for some good 15 years or longer. I had made something like ten different versions of each poem that I dared translate but what has surprised me the most is that ambiguous as these poems were, each version of the translated poem held on its own and had a life of its own. In other words, whether you translated his poem in one way or the other, the translation “always held” and was like an entirely new ‘meaningful’ and independent poem of its own! A great language master that Faye!

MJL: Last one: Marc James Léger. In an email exchange between us from April 5, 2015, I warned you that you are about to enter and also to leave the fantasy zone. You replied with a message addressed “Dear denizens of Earth.” You write: “We are fortunate to announce / The arrival of our new ThinkTankTeam which came down to Earth with the sole purpose to enhance your fantasy / They say they are even capable of modifying your DNA cells into potent fantasy genes. They will stay with us on Earth for only 7 years in order to accomplish their mission…” So what is the TTT exactly?

NZ: To go back to your initial paragraph, Marc, and this time we’ll leave Sholette in peace, there’s another hero of yours, Zhizhek who tells in his lecture “on Buddhism” that all the great leftists were not necessarily “the optimists who believed in the improvement of human nature” and that there is a dark side of human nature which attests to its fragility … but its poetic or “ fantasy side” renders it legitimate and beautiful.. Perhaps the existence of the ThinkTankTeam is here to encourage people to rediscover that hidden part of their nature.

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