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'May King' Ginsberg returns to city of his brief reign

'May King' Ginsberg returns to city of his brief reign

Posted: April 03, 1996

By Rogers, Tim

"Of the 20,000 Americans here, 19,900 may be drinking beer and smoking pot and not writing, creating music or making art. But that may be the compost from which a flower grows."

With this dreary, but hopeful, proclamation, poet Allen Ginsberg renewed his relationship with a country that has given him warm embraces and strange memories.

This time, Ginsberg was in Prague on the invitation of his friend, pianist/composer Philip Glass. During Glass' two nights at Divadlo Archa (his first visit to Prague), Ginsberg joined him on stage to perform several poems that Glass had set to music, including selections from their opera Hydrogen Jukebox.

The following evening, Ginsberg returned to Archa to give a reading, accompanied at times by former members of the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe and by young American poet Geoffrey Manaugh, who read three of his own poems. The evening was billed as "Navrat Krale Majales" (Return of the May King), recalling the bizarre set of circumstances that cemented Ginsberg's relationship with Czechoslovakia.

According to Ginsberg's account, he found himself in Prague for the first time in 1965, after having been expelled from Cuba for what he called "radical ideas and promoting homosexuality." Cuban authorities had unceremoniously deported him aboard a flight bound for New York, via Prague and London. He deplaned at Ruzyne Airport and called one of the only contacts he had here, the renowned writer Josef Skvorecky, who had previously written him for help on some translations.

Ginsberg said he was surprised to learn that his poems were being performed here every weekend at the Viola Cafe. He had a ready-made following and earnings from royalties due from those performances. In this unexpected situation, he used Prague as a base and set out on a trip to see a little of Russia and Poland, returning near the end of April.

It was then he was told that university students would be allowed that year to resume their annual May King celebration, which had been banned by the communists for many years. A party and elections were to take place on May Day.

Each school had elected a candidate. Ginsberg recalled that the law school candidate gave his speech in Latin and the medical school candidate came dressed in bandages. Skvorecky had been nominated to represent the engineering school, but had come down with the flu. He asked Ginsberg to take his place. Warily, Ginsberg asked if the event was political. Reassured that it was just a "student thing," attended by only a few thousand, he agreed.

The actual turnout, Ginsberg said, was closer to 100,000 - and he was elected king by a near-unanimous vote. But the huge throngs had drawn the attention of the authorities, and even before his queen was selected, Ginsberg was dethroned. A Czechoslovak student, bewildered by the festivities, was installed.

A week later, Ginsberg shared another tradition common to royalty - exile. He was abruptly deported, though he argued in vain that he had a plane ticket to leave the following day, and that it would look better politically to allow him to leave voluntarily than to exile the May King.

On the plane to London, he wrote a poem, "Kral Majales," telling the tale of his stay, which he read with obvious relish at Archa March 27. He explained that within hours of landing in London, he was in a studio with Bob Dylan, and within a couple of days was in a room with Dylan and all four Beatles. "So, then," he said, "I really was feeling like the King of May."

By Rogers, Tim

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