Survival of the hippest

John Giorno, performance poet, tells it like it is to Dominic Cavendish
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The Independent Culture
john giorno is sitting in a seedy hotel lounge in Camden, taking coffee and talking. Whether it's because he's just arrived in London, or whether it's because he's a loud performance poet imbibing coffee, or whether it's because, as his good friend the novelist William Burroughs once suggested, he underwent testicular surgery, he doesn't stop talking. Sometimes he talks so darned quick, he sounds like he's reciting a beat poem. "By '63, I'd fallen in with a lot of painters," he intones, "and in those days, if someone gave a party, everyone would be there, the whole scene - Bob Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and all the Pop artists, the poets John Ashbery and Frank O' Hara, and Merce Cunningham if she wasn't performing, John Cage for sure, George Segal, everybody you now consider to be icons of the 20th century..."

He's not boasting, John Giorno, he's telling you like it was. At 59, he knows he leads a blessed life. Blessed still to be making a living as a poet, running Giorno Poetry Systems, marketing CD-video-LP poetry spin-offs like his great Dial-a-Poem. Blessed to have been friends with the then-to-be famous; star of Andy Warhol's directorial debut, Sleep. Blessed, above all, to have been untouched by the Aids virus, despite having had sex with hundreds of men in the early Eighties who were HIV- positive. He is continually amazed, he says, continually thankful. And, though he has seen the best minds of his generation die horrible deaths, and though he now runs an Aids treatment project in New York, he continues to celebrate sexuality in general, gay sex in particular. His first major UK tour for over a decade is called John Giorno's Great Anonymous Sex Tour.

For Giorno, sex and poetry have always gone hand in hand. He describes performing as "sustained sexual activity in a golden age of promiscuity". He hyperventilates on stage. "The air is pressed into the diaphragm," he says, inhaling deeply, "building up heat in the body, see, 'til I start to sweat. It's not so different from sexual energy." His style is alarmingly insistent, a repetitive bump 'n' grind growl: "If I wasn't so / tired / I would have / a good / time / if I wasn't so tired / I'd have a good time..." ("Life is a Killer"). His subject matter is 20th-century primordial: body fluids landing on concrete floors, water sports in swamps, that sort of thing.

His work demands publicity. He was the first poet to use the Pop Art technique of found images and he knows a thing or two about the money machine. He knows that repressed, embarrassed British audiences will be drawn by the promise of salacious titbits - his intimate prose memoirs of artists like Warhol, Keith Haring and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But he's also sincere. "You can't help it," he says of the memoirs, "things just keep coming back to you. Like when Andy Warhol died in '87, I hadn't been friendly with him for years, but he had become very powerful and naturally I kept thinking about him. I realised I had to write it down or lose it forever."

It's a good story: Andy kissing him on a Tiffany couch on the day of Kennedy's assassination ("It had the sweet taste of kissing death"); Andy licking his shoes and other parts ("He had a fragile approach to sex"). Then there's the one about Keith Haring in the subway toilet and Robert Mapplethorpe's soul breaking a Lalique glass of his on the night of his death and, oh, so many other things. Yes, he knows you're interested in all that, but he nevertheless hopes you will join in the Suicide Sutra and be touched by chants like "I don't need it I don't want it and you cheated me out of it".

"For some reason I continue to be sexual in my writing," he says, "but it amazes me that, after all these years, people still have a really hard time dealing with sex." He says this as someone who has practised Tibetan Buddhism for 20 years. If he has survived, if he is still sane, then it's thanks to that. "I'm a tough old fag and I know what I'm talking about," he once wrote. "That's true," he beams, "but everyone has that way of looking at the world - everyone, gay or straight, is, one way or another, a tough old fag."

Tonight's show 8.30pm BAC, SW11 (0171-223 2223); discussion "Mouthing Off: Sexuality and Performance Poetry", Tue, ICA, W1 (0171-930 3647)

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