I finished reading the “Cuba” section of Allen Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals this morning, which is one of the most interesting first-person accounts of life during the Cold War I have ever encountered. The whole thing reads like an intellectual spy thriller, complete with nuclear tensions, a Marxist-Leninist police state, undercover informants, illicit sex, and a queer literary underground. I can hardly believe that Ginsberg (or the Ginsberg estate) never published his account of mid-1960s Cuba as a stand-alone book — a hybrid travel narrative / nonfiction novel. It is an extraordinary document.
One of the things I found most compelling about this section of Ginsberg’s journals is how it captures his interactions with significant historical figures, including the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, the Cuban revolutionary Haydée Santamaría, and the African American civil rights icon Robert F. Williams, among others. Ginsberg had briefly stayed as a guest in Parra’s home in 1960 when he attended a poetry conference in Chili, and both poets were happy to reunite in Cuba, where they were serving as guest judges for a poetry contest run by Casa de las Américas. It was through this important cultural organization that Ginsberg came to meet Santamaría (its founder) and Williams.
I have had an interest in Williams for some time. I’ve read a good deal of his writing, including Negroes with Guns, which he published while in Cuba, and I wrote a short paper about his use of epideictic rhetoric in The Crusader, the scruffy newsletter he edited from Monroe, N.C., and then from exile in Cuba and China, which I presented at the 2016 meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, Texas. Every now and then I see Williams’s name mentioned in relation to the Civil Right Movement, but almost never in relation to American Literature (the notable exception being Amiri Baraka’s autobiography, which praises Williams’s heroism), so when I saw him mentioned in Ginsberg’s journals, I was both surprised and excited.
Ginsberg first mentions Williams in his entry from January 31, 1965, where he writes:
“Found note from Robert Williams & called he said he’d be at hotel this evening, we talk,—I remember story of Leroi Jones, him confronting the U S Consul Havana with a pistol demanding protection for his family threatened in (Monroe?—)—and by phone consul calling U S A & getting protection. Also had seen biographical account of his Cuban antiwhite antiyankee propaganda in NY Times, which painted fair tho smug picture of his ideas but completely left out ignored or eluded his early terror-suffering experiments in his home town which drove him to total & rational distrust of local & Federal authority in that area, to take up arms to protect himself & his group from white anarchy—” (65).
These lines were written sometime in the early morning hours. Later that day, Ginsberg met Williams in the lobby of his hotel, where they had a face-to-face conversation. Ginsberg’s account of their meeting is brief:
“Left & ate & met Robert Williams in the Hotel Lobby—Conversation on couch with him, he’s insane, I think, says he’s isolated & wants to destroy world of Injustice even if it means starting over a la Chinois with radioactive universe. But he was open to my white shit & we argued & made date late for later. I told him about Marc & Leroi activities plays in NY—he seemed impressed by Marijuana Legislation Campaign” (67).
I’m not sure if Ginsberg and Williams met again before Ginsberg was expelled from the country, but they did have at least one additional conversation by telephone. Ginsberg reports:
“Robt Williams on phone said heard Cuban radio talking how friendly and happy Famous Beatnik Poet is with friendly Cuban citizens literary scene. Castrated propaganda not news” (88).
Ginsberg was not, in fact, happy in Cuba, largely because he was repeatedly censored and his movements and interactions with younger Cuban poets were closely monitored by the police. The local poets with whom Ginsberg associated experienced much more intense forms of harassment, including arrest and detainment. Ginsberg was eventually deported for reasons that were not initially made explicit, though his journals strongly suggest that it was due to his outspoken positions on marijuana and homosexuality. (The Cuban newspaper eventually reported that he had been expelled for distributing marijuana, which is patently untrue.) Williams wasn’t long for Cuba either. He too felt unduly constrained by Cuba, and within a year of his meeting Ginsberg, he had relocated to China, where he bore witnessed to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He would eventually repatriate to the United States.
I don’t believe that Ginsberg and Williams ever met again. A basic Google search doesn’t turn up anything useful, and Williams is not mentioned in Michael Schumacher’s Ginsberg biography, Dharma Lion, though to be fair, Schumacher’s account largely neglects Ginsberg’s African American friends, including Amiri Baraka and Bob Kaufman, which is a shame. It is likely that Ginsberg’s brief meeting with Williams in early 1965 was the lone encounter between these two Americans, and the account in Ginsberg’s journals may very well be the only surviving evidence of the meeting. And that’s okay, I suppose. It is enough for me to know that Ginsberg and Williams met to exchanged ideas… and a bit of friendly gossip too.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997.
Ginsberg, Allen. Iron Curtain Journals: January-May 1965. Edited by Michael Schumacher. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Williams, Robert F. Negroes with Guns. 1962. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2013
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins