When John Giorno steps onstage dressed in head-to-toe black, he doesn't just read his poems — he performs them like a standup routine. He grimaces and grins while his eyebrows rise and fall. He bellows and sings, inflecting syllables, drawing out vowels, and blending octaves high and low. He repeats phrases à la Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. Indeed, Giorno has been a prolific poet, performer, and visual artist since the 1960s. He is part of a generation of New Yorkers who define modern American art today.
At 79 years old, Giorno is still performing — and this Thursday, he'll join experimental-film archive Obsolete Media Miami and poet Ryan Van Winkle at the Design District's Institute of Contemporary Art to present a poetry performance installation as part the month-long poetry festival O, Miami.
"I had an invisible hand in bringing John Giorno," laughs Kevin Arrow,
Arrow says he has long petitioned O, Miami for a Giorno appearance. "It got to be a pretty repetitive joke," Arrow says, "but a few months ago, they announced he was coming."
Giorno's participation in O, Miami — which exposes locals to poetry every April — is fitting. He has long stuffed poetry into the crevices of other art forms. In 1965, he founded the not-for-profit Giorno Poetry Systems because he wanted audiences to experience poetry in unexplored new ways. A history of relationships with prominent modern artists prompted Giorno's quest to take poetry off the page. "I would talk to my friends who were artists, and I saw them using this kind of energy — experimenting with form and content and everything, whereas poems were quite formal," he says.
He speaks from his three-story loft in Manhattan's Bowery neighborhood, where he has lived and worked since 1962. At age 14, he began writing poetry after receiving an assignment from a teacher he "really liked a lot." Since graduating from Columbia University and abandoning a very brief career as a stockbroker, Giorno has spent most of his waking hours writing poetry, pausing only to "work with his mind." He says he has meditated since encountering Tibetan Buddhism in the early 1970s. A line of artists and sometimes lovers has stepped through his doors: fellow writer William S. Burroughs, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and pop artist Andy Warhol, who unwittingly made Giorno a cult icon with his five-hour 1963 film Sleep. "Nobody was famous, and everyone was doing some brilliant work," Giorno says.
It was through his associations within the "very small circle" of the 1960s New York art scene that Giorno began experimenting with the way poetry reached consumers. "In the early '60s, poetry couldn't do more than one thing," he says. "There was no such thing as what a poet does. You would write a poem, and then what? Just wait until it gets published in a book?" Studying the work of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs, or more modernist writers like John Ashburn and Frank O'Hara, Giorno realized he was somewhere in the middle. " I appreciated all of them, but I went on to make something else out of it," he says.
In the '60s, Giorno played with new ways to make poetry more exciting. His first performance in 1962 was a "terrifying moment," he says. "I'd use my breath in a way that has to do with sound, and in my mind, the words would form in
Soon he began recording his poetry and then distorting the sound with synthesizers. "I was a poet developing skills to perform and a poet discovering skills to do other things," he says. "
Soon after that, he launched his famous Dial-a-Poem project, calling upon friends such as Frank O'Hara, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, and countless others to record poems that people would hear when they dialed one of ten phone lines. Within five months, Dial-a-Poem had received more than 5 million calls.
In Miami, Giorno will present alongside fellow poet Ryan Van Winkle, who can relate to Giorno's need to branch out. "I was doing a lot of readings, but I didn't like how I delivered them to a crowd," Van Winkle says. "I didn't feel like presenting poetry this way was right." A Connecticut transplant who now resides in Edinburgh, Scotland, Van Winkle has long fused sensory elements with spoken word. "I fill the room with bits and pieces of my poems — playing cards, a Christmas tree, mango boxes, maps, paper bags of hair," he says. "You're inside the poem, inside the poet's head. It allows the poem to wash over
Throughout his 60-year career, Giorno has continued to experiment by collaborating with musicians and dabbling in visual art. "My words and my poems can be made visual, and then that's a whole process: painting and learning to paint," he says. He is represented by Elizabeth Dee Gallery and opened his first solo show, "Space Forgets You," in 2015. Later that year, a retrospective of his poems, visual art, and recorded performative works — "Ugo Rondinone: I Love John Giorno," organized by his partner, Swiss-born artist Ugo Rondinone — opened at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
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Now he's working on a memoir. "I can remember these conversations with all these people from my whole life," Giorno says. "I have about 680 pages done."
At Thursday's event, Van Winkle will read a recent work preceding Giorno's performance of his legendary "Thanks 4 Nothing" and a new work, "God Is Manmade." Obsolete Media Miami will set the stage. "I looked at Giorno's poems and started pulling slides out on the table, looking at what makes sense to create visual poetry," Arrow says. "It's truly an homage to John."
O, Miami Presents John Giorno
Featuring Ryan Van Winkle and Obsolete Media Miami. 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28, at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, 4040 NE Second Ave., Miami; icamiami.org. Admission is free.