Photo by Christopher Diaz.
Alan Ginsberg is a poet based in Baltimore, whose work is inspired by agender identity, their hometown, and DIY communities. They've self-released two poetry books and have just put out a new cassette, 1000 Dogs. They've participated in poetry slams across the country like Rain City Slam and have been published by Transcendence mag and Great Weather for Media, as well as being a 2015 Capturing Fire queer poetry slam finalist. I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan this month via email, where we talked about the Baltimore poetry circuit, frustrations with poetry in academia, and the state of DIY in the city.
First off, cool name! Is Alan Ginsberg your birth name, stage name, a legal name-change or something between the three? How does it feel to have the same name as one of the more iconic queer poets in public consciousness? Ever been any complications in having a name so similar to such a massive figure in the poetry world?
My real name is Alain Ginsberg, as real as anyone else’s name is, though when I perform I drop the “i” so as not to have confusion with hosts, MCs, etc. To be completely honest, when I started going to open mics I didn’t even think about Allen Ginsberg. It was only after I was at The Beltway Poetry Slam in DC when someone heckled me from the back with “are ya gonna read Howl?” that I had the moment of realization. My thoughts on it are…complicated, to say the least. The most difficult thing to have had to deal with was after my moment of realization, I went home to start learning more about Ginsberg and I learned about his prominent support of NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association), and how there are accounts of other artists in the Beat movement that spoke of his pedophilia and sexual assaults. After that I had a bit of a sour taste, and thought about using a stage name for a second, but then I decided that it is my name, and the actions and reputation of someone else can’t change what I do for myself.
How did you initially get involved with Baltimore DIY? Did you grow up in Baltimore? Did you seek it out as a city with a larger (or safer) presence of/for marginalized peoples?
Baltimore DIY is a weird animal. I originally started going to house shows and local venues in 2011, but it wasn’t until I started living in the city in 2013 that I had more of a hands-on attitude given the birth (and later death) of our little house spot called ‘The Foxhole’. I grew up in Baltimore. Or at least I can say that to an extent but the full story is I grew up in Baltimore County, just 20 minutes outside the city in Middle River. But in high school I started transplanting myself in more and more until I can truly say I found a home within it. I love Baltimore City because of the people who live here, and I mean the people who are from here. I have met many a transplant, either coming here for college or otherwise, but the people I’ve met through the poetry scene, jobs, my brief time in a university have been endlessly supportive and kind to me.
What were some of the first spaces you went to in Baltimore and how did they shape your perspective of the city/scene?
The first neighborhoods I spent time in were Bolton and Reservoir Hill as well as a couple blocks north of Patterson Park. I was couch surfing for the most part, living outside the city with family but working in the city made it all the more appealing to trade dinner or whatever for a couch to sleep on. Saves bus fare at least. My first lease was in Old Goucher, which is quickly becoming squished out by Station North and Charles Village with MICA buying up and Johns Hopkins buying south. I’d say I got a pretty diverse perspective given in Bolton and Reservoir Hill I met mostly transplants from MICA, some kids from the Baltimore School for the Arts as well, but in the areas above Patterson Park it was mostly folks who had lived there the entire time, and though I was still crashing with folks who hadn’t, I had been able to meet more people who had. I was able to learn about the people who either wittingly or unwittingly are gentrifying the city, as well as those directly affected by that.
Are there alternative spaces specifically dedicated to poetry? I’ll admit, most of my exposure to the scene is through music, but specifically in terms of poetry, do you think spaces are generally open to that sort of thing in the community? Are there popular community spaces or regular open mics nights that emphasize/prioritize slam poetry specifically?
There’s a huge poetry scene in Baltimore. There’s a swath of open mics, a Poetry Slam Inc. certified slam, as well as a yearly regional slam called Word War. Aside from that I know some spaces do “a night of readings” or whatnot, namely the Crown has Hey You, Come Back and Red Emma’s is starting poetry readings every now and again. Technically speaking you can do slam poetry anywhere, but really slam poetry is any poem used in a poetry slam, but every 2nd Sunday at the Soulful Emergence Art Gallery is the official certified slam Speak Out: Slammageddon. It’s where we decide who gets to represent Baltimore at the national poetry events.
I’m really enjoying your recent spoken word cassette, 1000 Dogs! How long has that been in the works? What’s your general writing and editing process like? And how long does it usually take for something to go from an idea to a fully formed spoken word piece?
I’ve been talking about making a cassette for about a year, but the poems were always in flux. I write something and a week later I hate it. So it changed a fair amount before I really penned in the pieces. It’s difficult for me to talk things plainly, to say things that impact me in a way that seems honest while also being straightforward, and that’s how the poetry thing works out. I stew on something I need to talk about and when the words aren’t there the poetry is. I usually write a poem in at least two different notepads before typing it out, and then I might write it again and every time it changes places words will change, sometimes the order, sometimes I figure out different or more interesting line breaks. Sometimes things can cook out as quickly as a month; sometimes I’ll work on a piece for a good half a year. Sometimes a piece is finished for a year and then I change it all over again.
So often (for me at least) it feels like poetry is a field limited to creative writing programs, MFA degrees, and the oftentimes-convoluted hierarchies of academia. How does it feel to be a poet working outside of that model? Are there challenges getting exposure, getting published, networking, etc. without predetermined models like academic programs, student publications or campus arts spaces? Or are there alternate models maybe in the community that replace that kinda thing?
Eh. Fine. I’ve never been a fan of academia. I used to be a bit of a prick about it, but I’ve come to understand that it’s just not for me, and that’s fine. I’ve met a lot of good people through my time in college, and eventually I’ll probably get that B.A., but for the time being, it’s on the backburner for me. I’m getting the same jobs with the same amount of debt doing things my way, which is to say I have two jobs in food and bar service and occasionally I get on the bill for a show or just take the time off to perform out of state. I’ve always been of the volition that if you want to do something you find the things you have to do to get to that place and you do those things. Predetermined models will get you nowhere if you’re not hungry for what you actually want to do. Sure they help give you a comforting space, but eventually you leave college and what then? You stop or keep going, and not everything is handed out to you on a plate. It’s the same way in spoken word scenes. Sometimes you might get thrown a show because you’re friends with the host or whatnot but more often than not you book yourself shows and you pay for your travels and if you’re not willing to do that then it doesn’t happen.
I’m aware of things like Louder Than a Bomb Baltimore, LitMore and DewMore Baltimore attempts to bring poetry to the larger community, ever work with any city-wide groups like this? What’s been your experience with the wider Baltimore lit world?
Last year I got to be a part of Louder Than a Bomb Baltimore, but the other two organizations I haven’t been able to work with yet, though I would really like to and constantly support the things they’re doing. I’d love to have a bit more time to dedicate to helping out and giving back to the communities and people who have provided space and community for me. With outside of Baltimore? Well for the most part my experiences have been with varying spoken word scenes, at National competitions as well as locally, but I’ve met a lot of great people, and haven’t butted heads with anyone directly just yet.
As a vocal agender poet, are there discriminatory difficulties in your community? I know of a few community resources in the area, but have you ever found any challenges with employment, access to hormones, etc.?
A lot of people don’t seem to get, despite queer poem after queer poem, that I myself am a queer person. I get misgendered a fair amount, and although it’s not malicious it’s still disheartening. With every job I have I always made it my point to get in, become indispensable, and then have the gender talk. I usually have to suffer through a month or so of misgendering and micro-aggressions, but it means I get to keep a job more often than not. In regards to hormones, I know that Chase Brexton has great health care for LGBTQIA individuals. They ask you your gender and your pronouns which was breath of fresh air of course.
How’s touring been going? I’ve seen a bit on Facebook about your participation in Baton Rouge’s Rouge Roulette, Wesleyan’s WeSLAM, and Seattle’s Rain City Slam, what’s that been like?
Honestly I don’t get it. Things are popping off which is wonderful and I’m so grateful about it but it’s still wacky as all hell. This year I’ve performed in over 10 different cities. The year before that I performed in Baltimore and DC only. It’s been a wild ride and I’m so excited about it. I’ve met so many kind and good folks and there’s been nothing but light from it all.
What’s next for you? Any big events on the horizon? Any other books/mag features in the works?
What’s next? Well I’m featuring at Rowan University on December 4th in NJ, but aside from that? Well my eyes are closed and I’m running to the horizon as quickly as I can.