An interview with Allan Graubard (AG) by Matthew McLaughlin (MM)

Allan Graubard lives in New York where he was born. His previous lives in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, London, Washington DC, and other places lost to time, water and rice fields are turns to the dance that sustains him. Through it all, body to body, shadow to shadow, he has sought and sometimes found the warm transparent breadth of living completely.

MM: What do we know about Ira’s childhood? I heard that both of his parents were deaf-mutes but as a result Ira was able to pick up sign language very quickly. Louise LandesLevi mentioned that given this background, Ira would have perceived language in a very different way from most of us. What do you think?

AG: Ira was born in the Bronx several streets from where I lived on the Grand Concourse, near Yankee Stadium. Although Ira was 15 years older than me, the neighborhood was about the same for the both of us, mostly bourgeois, mostly Jewish, an open community where neighbors knew each other. I can’t recall when Ira’s family moved to Manhattan but I’m sure it was before I was born. Ira’s parents were deaf mutes but made enough to keep the family in trim. He loved them dearly, especially his mother. He said that when they tried to speak they sounded like birds. Of course, he knew sign. I always connected Ira’s penchant for conversation, and for taking center stage in conversation, to his having grown up in a house where silence was the norm. 

Near my apartment building on the Grand Concourse was a place we loved to play in. Ira loved to play there, too. We called it “The Rocks”; just an empty lot with big boulders. I don’t know if that was the name Ira used. But one afternoon there as a kid, playing by himself, Ira made a discovery that he would never forget. In a paper bag he found a human fetus.  

MM: Can you tell me anything about how Bardo Matrix (in Kathmandu) was formed? Louise read somewhere that it was possibly Angus Maclise’s idea but there was also another kind of ‘beat books’ shop already set up in Kathmandu before Bardo Matrix came on the scene.  

AG: Ira launched Bardo Matrix Press and its Starstreams Poetry publications while collaborating with Angus MacLise, also living in Kathmandu, on his Dreamweapon Press, which may have preceded Bardo Matrix though not by much. Ira and Angus were close friends and their publishing ventures allowed them to work together intensively. And, yes, there was a bookshop on “Freak Street,” as they called it, where they all gathered for readings and such but whose name escapes me at the moment.

MM: Ira seems to have travelled far and wide in the world. He talks fondly about his times in Morocco, where I assume he met Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin and others, his time in Kathmandu obviously was significant, as that is where he published much of his early work, and he also talks very fondly about Amsterdam and of course his hometown, NYC. Was Ira someone who could effortlessly fit in anywhere?

AG: Yes. Ira had a knack with people he’d never met before. He was also something of a Harlequin in service to meeting anyone, anytime, anyplace. As a tall fellow, and when I knew him a bit too heavy, this also took some doing. Wit and an engaging, half smile helped. Did this come from his upbringing by deaf parents and their mix of friends, many of whom were also deaf? Perhaps. Did it come from his initial foray into Morocco — where masking and bargaining were talents you just had to have in the day to day? Perhaps. Ira was a theatrical figure in any event, and when he appeared you knew it …   

MM: Was Ira’s decision to print his works on rice paper an aesthetic choice, or was it out of an ecological concern? I recall Ira once talking about printers he admired who used certain types of organic or eco-friendly inks when they published. So it appears to me, although I could be wrong, that from an early stage, Ira was also thinking about our impact on the environment as humans. Would you care to comment on this?

AG: Ira loved the feel of rice paper, the texture of it and also that it was a paper stock that others didn’t use too much. It made his pubications unique, not mass produced. You have to remember the period as well; this cultural shift to artisan products in the West … 

MM: What would you say is different about Ira’s poetry compared with his contemporaries? To me, it seems like there is an indescribable alchemical or even occultic mystical current that runs through his work. I know he was greatly inspired by the work of some of the Sufi mystics such as Rumi. Does this mean that his work is perhaps more inspired by eastern or Asian literature? 

AG: As poet, Ira was inspired by several sources: surrealism, symbolism, romanticism, Sufism, and other heterodox trance sects he encountered in his travels to North Africa, India and Ethiopia, etc.. He was also inspired by his many poet and artist friends (from Corso, Burroughs, and Gysin to Bowles and Lamantia, Julien Beck, Jack Smith, Petra Vogt and so on). As a poet of exceptionally wide reading, Ira was influenced by many different voices from many different cultures. What’s unique here was Ira’s capacity to synthesize it into a personal expression that was unmistakably his, quite usually poignant, oneiric, and umorous.[1]   

MM: When I listen to Ira Cohen read his poetry, the first thing that strikes me, before I start thinking about the startling and beautiful intricacy of his lines and the vivid and rich imagery, is his voice. I assume that Ira considered performing his poetry, either live or when recording an album, as important as publishing his work, considering how poetry has always been an oral tradition. Would you agree with this assessment?

AG: Of course. Ira was a wonderful reader and performer who knew how to connect with his audience, get them laughing, and have them listen deeply to whatever it was he was reading or saying. Whenever I read now, that deep vibrato of Ira’s always comes in handy.  

MM: How did Ira come to publish Gregory Corso’s poem/play Way Out? I have heard that Corso and Cohen were fairly close friends, when they were able to meet. Would you say it is more play than poem? One story I heard was that they found an abandoned Corso manuscript that Gregory had left somewhere and they decided to publish it. I also heard that they performed the play in Kathmandu.

AG: I recall Ira mentioning that he asked Gregory for a contribution and that’s what Gregory sent to him. And, yes, Gregory Corso and Ira Cohen were good friends. When Corso was dying at his daughter’s house in Minnesota, Ira flew out there to spend time with him. They talked and Ira read poetry and other texts to Corso while ministering to his physical needs. Given Ira’s financial state, which was always on the thinnest edge of the margin, I was very touched by the visit he made to Corso. It spoke volumes about his love for Corso, and how Ira valued that friendship and friendship in general. Ira was a great friend to those he felt close to.  

MM: Ira’s photography is unique I find in the way that he ‘plays’ with light. Technical matters and the artistic medium aside, do you think his approach to photography was different from his approach to writing poetry? What was he able to capture with the camera but not with the pen? And vice versa? 

AG: Ira’s photography fed his poetry and his poetry fed his photography. Both were aspects of the adventures that drove and inspired him. Now Ira’s ability to capture a person on film was exceptional. He’d use humor, affability, command, whatever he felt was necessary and whatever he could get away with. The photos captured that aspect as well. Not only are they vivacious images. They also appear active in terms of what he did to get the shot. Somehow he carried his relationship with his subject into the photo. His poetry is equally personal. Of course, his poetry also carries cosmic metaphors that enlarge the frame of the experience revealed in the poem. Ira was fond of distinguishing between an act of the imagination and “something that really happened.” The quotation notes a line from a poem he’d written. He felt that poetry came from experience, from something that happened, and not solely from the imagination. In that sense his photography and his poetry stand side by side: results of “something that really happened” to him or that he made happen, however that occurred.

     Otherwise, I don’t think it of much value to speak of him being able to do something photographically that he couldn’t do poetically. Two different ways of presenting a revelation that rose from his depths or that took him into the depths of a personality, an emotion, a place, a meeting, an image — all in transformation …

MM: When we talk about Ira’s photography, I immediately think of the legendary Jack Smith. I heard Ira Cohen once describe Jack Smith as “the greatest artist of my generation.” His Flaming Creatures film is legendary and as Louise Landes-Levi once described it, “a product of its time.” Not quite as well-known but equally important, I believe, is The Beautiful Book, a series of photos taken by Jack Smith and published by Piero Heliczer’s Dead Language Press. What was it about Jack Smith’s photography and art that Ira particularly admired or was inspired by?

AG: Jack was the lynchpin in the downtown scene then; a master creator of extended theatrical events and poetic kitsch films that are as magnetic now as they were when he first released them. He used cast off and found materials, cloth, beads, etc for his costuming and, like Joseph Cornell before him, loved the exotic romantic. He taught Ira how to frame scenes and how to initiate them with friends. Whenever I think of Jack, I recall what may have been the first film he was in, something made by his CCNY classmate; the extraordinary Ken Jacobs. Was it done in 1956, something called “Orchard Street”? I’d have to see it again to make sure. In any event, Jacobs has Jack swathed in thick thrown-off industrial plastic as if he were some Spanish beauty from the 17th century. Jack walks down the street and everyone he passes can’t get enough of it: the kids, the older Italian guys and gals …When Ira was at his best in what he created, he measured up to that kind of magnetism … spontaneous, engrossing, just pure poetry …   

MM: Could you tell us a little more about your collaboration with Ira in Fragments from Nomad Days

AG: I was interested in a more extensive collaboration with Ira. So I went on up to his flat and began looking through photographs. I found this triptych; three photos of Caroline Gosselin taped together. When I spread it out on the coffee table, I shuddered, fascinated and terrified. I told Ira I needed it and asked him if I could take it home. He agreed. That night I began the writing. But I didn’t gaze at the triptych and wouldn’t again until I finished the entire text. Then, and only then, did I check the triptych, basically to determine if my brief descriptions of it were correct. I wouldn’t say that the triptych inspired the text but it sure sunk into me — and so suddenly — as a ground for the text. In the original publication, I placed in a back note on the triptych, simply writing down what Ira said: “The photos were taken in an inspired moment with the aid of a Tibetan Khata, or prayer shawl, given to me by a high Lama in Katmandu. The photo was taken around 1984.” 

The other two photos in the original publication were of termite mounds, which Ira took in Ethiopia when on his way to the Omo River in 1986. As Ira put it: “They appeared suddenly amidst a site of mounds in such endless profusion that I could hardly believe my eyes. Marvels of architecture and gardens of sculpture, which could only have inhabited the dreams of a Giacometti.”   

MM: Ira once said in an interview that “I’m not a beat” even though he was friends with many of the major members of that group or generation. I’m deliberately trying to avoid the term ‘movement,’ both because I don’t really see it that way and also like Gregory Corso once said, a ‘movement’ implies that it will ‘slow down or stop’ but true poets are immortal in the sense that their poetry never ‘slows down’ or ‘stops’. Instead, Ira talked about something called electronic multimedia shamanism.What do you think he meant by this? And which other ‘electronic multimedia shamans’ would you include under this category? Angus Maclise perhaps?

Ira meant that he worked in different media and that electronics was part of it. He was a poet, writer, chronicler, publisher, traveler, performer, photographer and filmmaker. He also came into his own as a photographer during his Mylar Chamber period (1968-1971) when electronic multimedia was on the cutting edge, as much for avant garde, ritual performances as for large rock concerts. Ira found his niche within the electronic multimedia realm. His use of “shaman” referred to the modern equivalent of this indigenous therapeutic magic, which a traditional shaman practices. Remember: the shaman attains a state of ecstasy in order to heal someone. Multimedia events, sometimes heightened by psychotropics, could gain that kind of intensity — depending on who created the event, how it was done, and for what purpose. The phrase allowed Ira to further distinguish his works from that of the Beats — most of whom he knew well and some of whom he’d previously published when doing Bardo Matrix in Kathmandu, including his earlier literary journal, Gnaoua. Ira was never satisfied by any phrase that could identify him and his work unless he discovered or came up with it. 

Yes, Ira would certainly consider Angus MacLise as an “electronic multimedia shaman.” He also would have considered Brion Gysin in the same light, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jimi Hendrix, to name a few …   

MM: Would you care to tell us a little about your publication on Ira’s work that will be published in the near future?

AG: The book to come gathers together a good number of different texts that Ira wrote or responded to. It includes interviews he did with his friends — Paul Bowles and others — and the interviews done with Ira; travel diary excerpts; several striking nonfiction texts; poetry; portrait photos he took, and was so great at taking; commentary on Ira by noted writers; and other such texts. We hope to get this done by first quarter 2023.  

MM: Allan, thank you so much for your time.

Two Poems for Ira Cohen

By Allan Graubard

For Ira Cohen

In the spectral deserts

where gold fish swim

and dark mesas

tear glittering spines

from whirling white clouds

I bend low over your sleeping face

which is just another dune

strapped to the shell of a tortoise

that lunges out across time

to drink the salt

of ancient oceans

one faint insect

scatters its seed

and there –

as in the last fitful convulsions

      of childbirth –

our dreams dream us

       dreaming them

— and we dance in a dreamless

     dream of dreaming

endless dunes

and shattered cries —

in the spectral deserts

where gold fish swim


I have been waiting

He doesn’t come, only his voice

    In a dream, the light touch of an absent finger

The rustle of cotton across the black tar that drips from words

These words

Which carry his words

       Unctuous vowels of light

Nerves of luminous dark

Where sparks of meaning distill ancestral passions

Hatred as revenge

Love as guilt

Possession as freedom

On this planisphere rushing through time

        Suspended between continents, 32,000 feet

I have been waiting for him

An eternal moment

      Without momentum

Systole that spins about its own emptiness

Diastole that embodies and emboldens

There is a rhythm to waiting

An intimate script whose scenes dissolve

The second they appear

And which re-member

His voice

In the only words he has left: “Call me!”

     — For Ira Cohen (February 3, 1935 – April 25, 2011)

      between London-New York

Some books by Ira Cohen

(2021) Alcazar. (A German-English bilingual edition with German translation by Axel Monte and Florian Vetsch, and photos by Florian Vetsch & Ira Cohen). Moloko Plus: 2021.

(2004) Chaos & Glory Poems. Salt Lake City: Elik Press, 2004.

(2003) Whatever You Say May be Held Against You. Kathmandu: Shivastan Publishing, 2003.

(2001) Poems from the Akashic Record (*Allan Graubard and Ira Cohen collaborate on the poem “He Wears the Map of Calabria on his Face”) Panther Books, 2001

(2001) Where the Heart Lies / Wo Das Herz Ruht: New & Selected Poems. Rohstoff Verlag. (A German-English bilingual edition).

(2000) Licking the Skull: A Retrospectacle of Photographic Works by Ira Cohen. (Photographs by Ira Cohen, essays by Michael Rothenberg, Ian MacFadyen, and Allen Graubard) Cynthian Broan Gallery.

(1996) A Letter To No One. Brussels: Théâtre Varia. 

(1986) On Feet of Gold. Oracl, Az & London: Synergetic Press, 1986.

(1986) From the Whole Megillah: A Crystal for Bob Kaufman. Mokum, Holland: Visible Voice Publication.

(1981) The Stauffenberg Cycle & Other Poems. The Amsterdam School / Poetry Series.

(1977) Gilded Splinters. Starstreams Special Edition: Bardo Matrix.

(1976) From the Divan of Petra Vogt. Cold Turkey Press.

(1976) Opium Elementals. (Ira Cohen & Dana Young). Starstreams Special Edition: Bardo Matrix.

(1976) Poems from the Cosmic Crypt. Bardo Matrix.

(1975) 7 Marvels. Starstreams Poetry Series, No. 2: Bardo Matrix.

(1974) Poem for La Malinche. Bardo Matrix.  

(1966) Cohen, Ira & Richkin, R. (eds.) The Great Society. (Legendary literary magazine featuring many famous beat-and-beyond writers such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsber, John Wieners, Piero Heliczer, Ray Bremser, Paul Bowles, Jack Smith and more)

(1964) Cohen, Ira (ed.) Gnaoua. (Legendary literary magazine featuring many famous beat-and-beyond writers such as William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Smith and more)

Some books by Allan Graubard

(2020) Language of Birds. Anon Edition.

(2019) Western Terrace. Ekstasis Editions.

(2019) Into the Mylar Chamber: Ira Cohen (with photographs by Ira Cohen). Fulgur Press.

(2017) A Crescent by any other name.Anon Edition.

(2016) Sirenes (collaboration with Gregg Simpson). Phasm Press.

(2013) Targets. Anon Editions.

(2011) And tell tulip the summer. Quattro Books. (contains Fragments from Nomad Days)

(2011) Invisible Heads: Surrealists in North America – An Untold Story. (with Thom Burns). Anon.

(2010) Roma Amor (with photographs by Ira Cohen). Spuyten Duyvil.

(1999) Fragments from Nomad days (with photographs by Ira Cohen). Allan Graubard (self-published.

[1] “Umorous” was a term invented by the playwright Alfred Jarry, referring to ‘the blackest type of humor.’