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The Beats in India—A Symposium

Poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger onstage at the Asia Society on June 14, 2008. (Julienne Schaer/Asia Society)
14 June 2008

NEW YORK, June 14, 2008 – Poets, writers, musicians, critics, and historians gathered for a historic event at the Asia Society to explore the influence of India on the Beat Generation. The program began with a discussion of Allen Ginsberg's original journey to India in 1962. His fellow travelers and poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger were interviewed by critic Eliot Weinberger about this life-transforming experience. To close the session, Kyger read poems from India and a more contemporary selection of wry poems, after which downtown poet John Giorno took the stage for a spirited recital of "There Was a Bad Tree" and "Thanks for Nothing."

For the second panel, Deborah Baker, author of A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (Penguin Press, 2008), interviewed Indian poet and author Sunil Gangopadhyay about what it was like to meet Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in 1962. Ginsberg was an important influence on the new generation of Bengali poets of which Gangopadhyay was a member. Poet Anne Waldman described her own pilgrimages to South Asia, and how her travels have influenced her poetry.

In the second half of the program, writer and composer Ed Sanders paired with musician Steven Taylor to perform songs from the satiric folk/rock band The Fugs (founded by Sanders) as well as a selection of Ginsberg's poems set to music.

John Giorno and author Gita Mehta recalled India in the early 1970s for the third panel, sharing their perspectives as traveler and native, respectively. Mehta's reading from Karma Cola, her social satire on the Western invasion of India, brought a critical perspective to the program. The panel closed with the world premiere of Giorno's 1971 film of Ginsberg in Bangladesh, September on Jessore Road, followed by Gary Snyder's reading a poem from Mountains and Rivers Without End.

In the final panel, authors Pankaj Mishra and Eliot Weinberger engaged in a lively discussion with Ginsberg biographer Bill Morgan on "Westerners and Eastern Spirituality." Closing out the program, Anne Waldman read a selection of recent and older work inspired by India and from Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl"—a fitting end to a historic program at the Asia Society. According to Ed Sanders, "the word-of-mouth among writers is that the Beats conference was a big success, and done with flair."

Reported by Helen Koh

Audio excerpts:

Gary Snyder recalls initial impressions of India, and discusses its influence on his work (4 min., 35 sec.)

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Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, and Eliot Weinberger on other Western travelers to India (including the Beatles) and what Allen Ginsberg brought back from the country (4 min., 8 sec.)

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John Giorno reads his poem "There Was a Bad Tree" (8 min., 58 sec.)

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