John Giorno became an underground hero in the 60s as the dozing star of Andy Warhol’s Sleep and the artist and poet has barely rested since, these days touring his poetry performances and exhibiting his impactful text paintings. We tapped artist Wade Oates to visit the downtown icon at his Bowery loft, where he has lived for nearly fifty years.

Wade Oates: Do you think poetry is something that’s meant to be shared or can it be something that you just do for yourself ?

John Giorno: It’s both. When I was young, in the 60s, I felt it necessary to have poets as friends, probably for the wrong reasons! Being with other young poets authenticated me as a young poet. It was very community-oriented — community being the poets and the larger world of artists, painters, and sculptors. This went on until the 90s and then something happened. Now I don’t see anybody or work with anybody, but on the other hand I perform all the time. But I don’t hang out with poets at all — and don’t want to! I don’t know why.

WO: I used to be in a band [called The Virgins, Ed.] and I always thought that in terms of performing, it’s interesting connecting with so many people at once and connecting with none of them personally. Traditionally when I think of poems I think of them as love poems to one person, like songs are sung to one person, and then you take that thing and perform it for so many people.

JG: It’s an enormously complicated experience because when you perform these words, they’re directed at one person, and that’s the audience. It’s not these 100 people, or one thousand, it’s sort of one person, like the way I’m talking to you. It’s like a song for me, because they’re musically the same every time. These words presumably contain wisdom of some sort and they’re realizing something while you’re performing. And they’re seeing it as a great poem or they’re liking me, but it’s not me they’re seeing. They’re seeing something that’s already in their mind. It’s like a mirror — they’re seeing themselves in the poem.

WO: Do you think that the whole “Die young, leave a beautiful corpse…” — isn’t that kind of bullshit?

JG: It’s a waste but those things happen in life — it’s not right or wrong. Somehow I’m 78 years old and I completely did all of those things and managed to stay alive.

Words Allyson Shiffman — Photography Hector Perez — Retouch The Color Club