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Giorno Worked 25 Years On His Memoir. It's Being Released Posthumously

NOEL KING, HOST:

Poetry readings - some people love them, some people would rather be elsewhere. The late performance poet John Giorno spent his life trying to get audiences to love him. He'd do things like performing his poetry in nightclubs. His posthumous memoir is out tomorrow, and Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In his memoir, John Giorno tells a story about sitting with Andy Warhol at the back of a packed poetry reading in 1963. At one point, Warhol turned to him and said, why is this so boring? Giorno writes that the experience changed his life. In 1984, he told me why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN GIORNO: When a poet is performing in front of an audience, he's talking to the audience, and every single word has to grab them. And most often, poets completely do not understand that. They have this great, wonderful, magnificent work, and they read it in front of an audience, and it's like showing radio over television or something.

VITALE: So Giorno, who had been writing poetry since high school, decided to develop a way of performing his poems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORNO: OK, I'm going to read a poem that I've been working on for the last two months, and it's just about finished, and it's called - (reading) We got here yesterday. We're here now. And I can't wait to leave tomorrow. And you had nothing else to do today but hang around and wait until it was time to see somebody, and I didn't particularly care who it is.

VITALE: To hold the attention of his audience, Giorno sometimes brought in a backup band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIORNO: (Reading) You're at the ranch, riding horseback in the mountains. And everything seems amazingly clear, fresh and wonderful - a mixture of sunrise and sunset.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORNO: Words - it's very hard to listen for a long time. And audiences - no matter who it is - they will listen for a while, five or 10 minutes, and their minds start wandering. And the longer the time, the more the mind wanders. And music has a way of sort of pleasing people and entertaining people, and then they come back, you know, rather than get bored or lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GIORNO: (Reading) I'm waiting in line with my groceries in the supermarket. And I want to get away without an incident.

LAURIE ANDERSON: I think of John onstage with sweat just spewing off of him in every single direction.

VITALE: Performance artist Laurie Anderson toured rock clubs across the country in 1982 on a triple bill with novelist William Burroughs and John Giorno.

ANDERSON: He went through a lot of T-shirts. And he had the timbre of his voice, too - like a kind of trumpet, very compressed - and he could really use that to get to the back of the club.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORNO: (Reading) I don't need it. I don't want it. And you cheated me out of it. I'm old, and I'm bitter, and I'm going to tell you what I think.

VITALE: John Giorno's memoir is called "Great Demon Kings." It's a title that refers to a handful of major 20th century artists he knew well. Before he was 30, Giorno lived with Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Later, he lived in the apartment above William Burroughs. Burroughs inspired Giorno to create collages of found images in his poetry. Warhol taught him to be fearless in his art. And Rauschenberg motivated him to incorporate technology. So in 1968, Giorno created Dial-A-Poem. Over the course of three years, a popular series of museum installations allowed anyone anywhere, 24/7, to call a number and hear a poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORNO: There's the point of communication with an audience, and that point is something the poet can work with, rather than just sort of sending a poem off to a publisher, this or that, and then it's over, and it sort of happens for you. And Dial-A-Poem was the idea that there's a new point of communication.

VITALE: Giorno recruited 150 poets for the Dial-A-Poem project. One of them was Laurie Anderson.

ANDERSON: It was cool to use the phone as just a metaphor for poetry as a way to get from one ear to another very quickly in a most personal way possible because John was about whispering into your ear stuff that you wouldn't necessarily say out loud or else he's screaming, you know? So he really used audio to the max.

VITALE: John Giorno said sound was what poetry was all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORNO: The intention, it seems to me, about poetry - going back over thousands of years, actually - is the sound of the words. The wisdom is inherent in the sound, which comes from the heart of the poet.

VITALE: John Giorno died of a heart attack at the age of 82 last October, just days after finishing his memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORNO: (Reading) You are alone, and you are unstable, and you're not sure it's going to be OK anymore - exiled in domestic life. Exiled in domestic life.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURIE ANDERSON AND KRONOS QUARTET'S "ALL THE EXTINCT ANIMALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.