American poet, performance artist and activist (b. 1936)
Beat poet and performer John Giorno is probably as renowned for the things he has done for other people as he is for the stark and dramatic images he creates with words. His Giorno Poetry Systems has helped hundreds of poets and musicians get started, get noticed, and collaborate with one another—and it has brought their words to a wide audience through audio and video recordings. More recently, his work on behalf of AIDS awareness has aided in spreading the word about this deadly epidemic.
Giorno was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Columbia University in 1958 and moved into the life of a stockbroker. But his first love was writing poetry, and his association with the beat poets would change his life forever. Among the friends he made were Robert Rauschenberg, William S. Burroughs, Jasper Johns, and (possibly the most significant for Giorno) Andy Warhol. About that time, Mr. Giorno's Wall Street persona fell away and his life began to turn upside-down.
Warhol featured Giorno in his 1963 film Sleep. The movie, a five hour film of the poet asleep in bed, was hailed by some as a masterpiece of experimental cinema, derided by others as unwatchable junk—either way, it brought Giorno quite a bit of favourable attention (although not for his acting skills, one supposes).
Warhol and Giorno suffered a split in the next year, but no one seems quite sure what happened. Both men were famously temperamental and sources have been less than forthcoming on what this falling-out was about. Before Warhol's death in 1987, the two men were able to mend their friendship to some degree.
Giorno became concerned about the impending demise of poetry as an art form. He felt that the visual arts and music had managed to keep up with the times, but poetry had not. Hoping to address this need, he founded Giorno Poetry systems in 1965. A few years later, in 1968, GPS launched a venture which would become its most esteemed and successful undertaking, and which would become nearly synonymous with Giorno Poetry Systems for over a decade.
The idea behind Dial-A-Poem was beguilingly simple: fans could call a phone number and hear a poem read by one of the GPS poets. The service started in 1968 with a few of Giorno’s best friends (well-known artists such as William S. Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg, and John Cage). This simple idea spawned hundreds of imitators (and you know what they say about imitation)—dial-a-prayer, dial-a-joke, and dial up numbers where you could get anything from weather forecasts to stock tips.
GPS saw explosive growth over the next few years as poets, artists, and musicians swelled their ranks. Before long, John Giorno was associating with hundreds of great artists such as Lou Reed, David Johansen, Nico, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Laurie Anderson, and more—hundreds more.
Heartened by his successes, Giorno began to borrow from the rock 'n' roll culture, producing albums of poetry supported by clever marketing. GPS also held large music and poetry festivals inspired by rock festivals. Successes followed successes—many great careers started in the hallowed halls of Giorno Poetry Systems, and the world owes Mr. Giorno a debt of gratitude for the great men and women that he helped to discover.
Avid to use technology whenever possible, Mr. Giorno followed the critical, financial, and creative successes of Dial-A-Poem and the albums it inspired with video compilations, starting in the late 1970s. That the videos sold well should not surprise anyone very much.
Throughout the 1970s, Giorno collaborated extensively with his longtime friend and colleague William S. Burroughs. In 1977, GPS paid tribute to Burroughs with the Nova Festival. This three-day event featured performances by Frank Zappa and Patti Smith, among others. Portions of the performances were made into an album and also were used in the GPS video collections.
Poetry took a back seat to activism in the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic began to tear through the gay community. In the spirit of compassion (he has been a practicing Buddhist in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition since 1971), John Giorno set out to help. His AIDS Treatment Project gave money to people who needed it the most. His work continues to this day.
An explosion of spoken word art took place in the 1990s. Montreal, Quebec became the centre for spoken word artists and John Giorno was there, working with artists such as Henry Rollins, Karen Finley, and Lillian Allen. In this exciting and dynamic environment, Mr. Giorno brought together performance artists, poets, musicians, monologists, and even rappers and stand up comedians. He brought back some of his old friends and introduced the world to a number of new ones in the process.
John Giorno has since ceased publishing audio and video collections, but he is hardly slowing down! In addition to his selfless and tireless work on behalf of AIDS charities and being a powerful voice in the gay community, he also continues to write and perform his work as well as encouraging young spoken-word artists of a new generation.
Most of this information was cobbled together from small bits and pieces that I have picked up over the years, including the research I did for my Giorno Poetry System writeup.
Details and fact checking were accomplished with the help of the following sources:
Wikipedia (yeah, I know, I know, but there just is not that much info on this guy around)
DeNoilles, Bill "Subduing the Demons in America: An Interview with John Giorno" in The Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation online at http://www.leslielohman.org/newsletter/No11/giornopart1.htm