The European Beat Studies Network (EBSN) was established in 2010 as a self-described “light touch organization” whose mission is to facilitate an open, non-hierarchical approach to Beat scholarship and encourage scholarly work in a decidedly informal and open format. One need not have an academic affiliation to become a member and no fees are required to participate.
So it was that earlier this year I became an EBSN member with plans to attend their annual conference in Manchester, England from June 27-29 to share my work on behalf of the poet Harold Norse. Norse was a friend of many Beat writers and lived in the early 1960s at the famous Beat Hotel in Paris.
During that time Norse participated with William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the development of Cut Ups which applied the technique of montage to writing. Though acclaimed amongst poetry aficionados, Norse’s larger body of work remains neglected within Beat studies. My conference presentation “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel” examined Norse’s connection with Burroughs and Gysin as well as the painting and writing he did at the hotel. Much of that material was published as a Cut Up novella in 1983 titled Beat Hotel.
Though this essay was intended to be a report back on the conference, I believe the term “field notes” is more accurate. I missed out on a couple of presentations which had interested me simply because I became absorbed in conversation with other EBSN members. One of the best parts of the conference was the communal aspect fostered by the network.
Much of the conference’s success is due to the tireless effort of its co-chairs Oliver Harris and Douglas Field. Oliver is the President and co-founder of the EBSN as well as a professor of American Literature at Keele University. In recent years Oliver has overseen the republishing of William Burroughs’ work, including revised versions of the Nova trilogy that exhaustively examined the different versions of Burroughs’ Cut Up novels.
Douglas Field is a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester. Oxford University Press published All Those Strangers, his book on James Baldwin, last year. Douglas also presented a talk on “Beat Counterculture in the Digital Age: Documenting Harold Norse” at the 2015 EBSN conference in Belgium. Throughout the conference they not only saw to the many details that came up during a large conference but facilitated the connecting of network members in a warm and welcoming manner.
Their choice of venue was The Wonder Inn located in Manchester’s historic Northern Quarter. The building itself dates back to the 19th century with large, open spaces on separate floors. The ground floor featured a small café and delicious, vegan lunches were served each day in an open cafeteria setting. As colleagues greeted each other, having visited the previous year’s conference, I discovered how this social interaction was an integral part to the EBSN.
Additionally, some talks were so engrossing that I forgot about my pen and journal and immersed myself in what was happening in the moment. Among them was the captivating performance by musician Erik Anderson, who told of his tales with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith. Keynote speaker Andrew Lees read from his recent book Mentored by a Madman about how his association with William Burroughs influenced Lees’ work as a celebrated neurologist. Jim Pennington’s mimeograph workshop featured an actual mimeograph machine from the 1960s used to print copies of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl with the help of the workshop attendees.
With regrets to those whose work I was not able to document, here then are a few snapshots from my experience at the 2016 Manchester EBSN conference.
Session #3: Ginsberg– Buddhism, Collage, Kaddish
The first session of presentations focused on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
“Ginsberg’s Poetry through the prism of Buddhist Theories of Mind” was an examination by Franca Bellarsi of Ginsberg as a religious poet. His interest in Buddhism began in 1953 when he wrote his first poem on the topic. Bellarsi described his 1958 poem “Laughing Gas,” written after the poet’s visit to a dentist where he was administered nitrous oxide, as a very serious Buddhist poem. She said it was a Zen paradox that some of Ginsberg’s most Buddhist poetry predates his taking refuge in 1972.
She also examined the contrasting approach to Buddhism amongst other Beat writers. The influence on poet Gary Snyder was more focused on the practice while Kerouac had more to do with the text and research. Overall their focus was less on ethical concerns and more of the epistemological and intellectual aspects.
Some of the points of entry that brought Ginsberg into Buddhism were the theory of emptiness, perceptions, and cognitive streams as illusion. Emptiness is not just an absence of stable, permanent phenomena, but a different type of fullness.
Bellarsi also noted the long poem “The Fall of America” as having been composed on a tape recorder given to Ginsberg by Bob Dylan. This portable machine became a new tool of composition. The poet recorded his impressions of American people and landscapes while traveling on the road. Thus developed a repetitive imagery that described the anti-pastoral visions of the desecrated American land.
“Mind Breath” was described as a meditative poem influenced by the Tibetan tradition of the wheel of cyclic existence that looks at how the perceiver and perceived interact. That is how the outside universe makes contact with our sense organs and perceptions create emotions. This connected back to the impressions in Ginsberg’s early Buddhist poem “Laughing Gas”.
Next up was Peggy Pacini who looked at one of Ginsberg’s greatest works– Kaddish. The poem, which was written in large part at the Beat Hotel, used the form of the ancient Jewish prayer for death as a memorial for Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi. Pacini’s focus was the role of music in composition. Specifically she focused the oral performances of the poem as an acoustic soundscape.
Examining the different recordings of Ginsberg’s readings of Kaddish, Pacini observed the 1960s version as being more bebop jazz than the 1950s reading. A recording made in 1995 was more like a Kaddish for Ginsberg himself, coming only two years before the poet’s death. Pacini stated that she wants to work with musicians to score the poem in musical notation. To this end she showed a slide of an early attempt at registering Ginsberg’s spoken recording of Kaddish in the form of a line graph. By collaborating with developing technology, Pacini proposed new ways to understand the beauty and power of Kaddish.
Session #6: Out of the Archives: Poetry in Performance
This session began with a short presentation by Janette Martin, an archivist with the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. I had the opportunity to visit the Rylands library, a beautiful neo-gothic building from 1900 that houses a number of archives from ancient texts to 20th century writers.
Martin presented selections from the archives of the Lancashire writer and publisher Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004). He was among the post-Beat writers who continued the development of Cut Up writing like Carl Weissner, who also translated works by Beat authors into German. Nuttall’s book Bomb Culture (1968) provided a link between the Beat writers and the rising counterculture movement, though Martin mentioned in her talk that writer Doris Lessing was critical of the book’s accuracy. Harold Norse expressed a similar concern in a 1971 interview with the small press publication Amphora.
Nuttall also published My Own Mag from 1963-1966 and many of its issues featured writings by William Burroughs. The Rylands Library is soon to mount an exhibit of correspondence from Nuttall’s archive that includes letters from Burroughs and Harold Norse along with illustrated correspondence from writers and artists Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu, who were also practitioners of Cut Ups.
Session 7: Beating Film
This was among the sessions I looked forward to most because of the chance to see the 1961 film The Brink based upon the poem by ruth weiss. weiss has been writing and performing poetry since first arriving in San Francisco in the early 1950s. She recently turned 88 and still gives memorable performances throughout Northern California in addition to occasional international events. The film was presented by Thomas Antonic, who is working on a biography of weiss.
It was pleasing to know that the following day’s Session 14 focused on the poetry of weiss as well as Elise Cowen. Cowen had been a girlfriend of Ginsberg’s and lived for a time with him and Peter Orlovsky. Issues with her mental health contributed to Cowen’s suicide at age 28. Following her death, many of her poems were destroyed by her parents’ neighbors who were concerned about their frank discussion of sexuality and drug use. However a close friend saved eighty-three poems that were later published.
Though I was unable to attend this session, as it was scheduled at the same time as my presentation on Harold Norse, I was grateful to see EBSN members broadening the scope of interest in Beat writers, outside the big names like Kerouac and Burroughs, to include work by women Beat writers. This is one of the refreshing aspects of the network and why, I believe, it has such active participation from a number of young women.
The Brink is based upon a long narrative poem of the same name that concerns a love story between a man and a woman. Filmed in black and white with a soundtrack of weiss reading her poem with accompanying sound effects, the film retained its spontaneous vibrancy. The avant-garde approach to editing and composition added to the poignancy of the narrative which retained a loose, improvisatory feel.
Following this was a presentation by Lars Movin titled “Brakhage and The Beats.” It was a fitting compliment as the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage had singled out The Brink as one of the most important San Francisco films of that period. Movin also showed a brief excerpt from work by San Francisco filmmaker Christopher Maclaine. According to Movin, Maclaine had been a Beat poet in San Francisco during the late 1940s and early 1950s before becoming involved with filmmaking.
Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly 25 years, this was my first exposure to his life and work, which had fallen through the archival cracks. One explanation is due to Maclaine’s descent into methedrine addiction which ultimately saw him die in a state institution in 1975. Though Movin was only able to show a couple minutes from Maclaine’s film The End (1953), Maclaine’s lucid imagery, dynamic eye for color, and a jarring approach to editing clearly showed his talent was no mere novelty.
Session #9: Beating Science
Ian MacFayden’s “Atomica Psychedelica: Under the Bomb, Bruce Connor, Jim Morrison, Ira Cohen” was among my conference highlights. It wasn’t just MacFayden’s impassioned perspective with which I connected, but the accompanying visual displays from his collection of books and photographs that vividly illustrated MacFayden’s theme of the artistic response to the moral crisis of nuclear annihilation. Of course this was a key topic of many Beat authors from Ginsberg’s poem “America” (go fuck yourself with your atom bomb) to Gregory Corso’s poem “Bomb” which celebrated nuclear destruction.
Additionally MacFayden called attention to the various systems that sought to create new arrangements out this chaos and disorder. These could be as diverse as the Tarot to Kabbalah systems or machines all creating different kinds of language.
One example he gave was the artist Wallace Berman, whose Semina was among the most important post war Beat publications. Berman was one of the originators of assemblage art. His photocopied collages used elements of Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet, giving letters numerical significance.
We live under the same threat of nuclear annihilation as the Beats did in the 1940s and ‘50s. MacFayden asked, “When the image of the bomb became generic, it became difficult to write about it. What vocabulary can translate the incomprehensible horror? How do you write a song about it?”
One response in a world of destruction is to make art out of its refuse and detritus as can be seen in the brilliant, visionary work of Bruce Connor, whose innovative talent was expressed in assemblages, sculpture, and film. His film Crossroads consists entirely of footage of the U.S. nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, which was filmed by the government with 500 cameras using half of the world’s film stock.
In an interesting synchronicity, MacFayden revealed that Connor was so adverse to the commercialization and exploitation of the art world that he was known to throw marbles on the gallery floors of his art openings. For this he carried a suitcase with 500 marbles.
Session #18: Papers, Borders, Libertines, and Impressions
Though this was an early morning session and I was beginning to feel a bit of conference fatigue, I made sure to catch this presentation about the Beat writer Herbert Huncke on the conference’s final day. Though often mentioned as a sort of footnote in the biography of his friends, Huncke was a central figure. Not only did he provide the term Beat to Jack Kerouac, he was also responsible for Burroughs’ early connection with heroin.
Yet many admirers of Beat literature remain unaware that Huncke was a gifted writer whose stories and characters from his life as a junkie and hustler are relayed in an empathetic voice with a sharp attention to detail, like listening to an old radio show.
In the last couple years there has been increased attention towards Huncke. Hilary Holladay’s excellent biography was published last year by Schaffner Press. Unrequited Records released a spoken word CD of Huncke reading from his book Guilty of Everything in Amsterdam in 1984.
While Alexander Adams’ “The Huncke Papers” didn’t add much to my knowledge of Huncke’s biography, it was certainly enjoyable to learn about and view the material he had accessed from Huncke’s papers at Columbia University.
The material consists of three boxes of stories, letters, notes, notebooks and manuscripts.
Adams reported that all of Huncke’s manuscripts were written in long hand. A good deal of the material consisted of letters to and from Ginsberg. There was lots of discussion about Huncke borrowing money to and from others. A lovely Japanese sketchbook was used for writing.
Despite being a street hustler and having spent considerable time in prison, Huncke was an aesthete with a refined, gentlemanly manner. He was friendly with Elise Cowen as well as Joan Burroughs. He had the best relationship with women of all the major Beat writers.
The thread of Herbert Huncke continued with the presentation by Arthur Nusbaum of his interview with writer and Beat biographer John Tytell. With his wife, the photographer Mellon, Tytell published Paradise Outlaws. His book The Living Theatre: Art, Exile and Outrage is an excellent overview of America’s oldest running radical theater troupe, originally founded by Julian Beck and Judith Malina. The Becks were close friends of Harold Norse who was instrumental in the founding of the Living Theater in the late 1940s.
Tytell told of a skeptical Huncke whom he approached for an interview. To convince him he was not a cop, Tytell offered a joint of strong cannabis and smoked it with the suspicious Huncke. He also remarked about Burroughs’ manner as being “genteel, grandfatherly” and his “cinematic way to use fiction.”
As both Alexander Adams and Bruce Nusbaum aren’t associated with a university or college, it was great their informative and illustrative presentations could share the stage with academics and scholars. This is one of the core principles of the EBSN and a main reason why the conference was so successful.
Session #24: Burroughsian Guerilla Virus
The third day closed with a series of performances that were among the conference’s highlights. “On-going Guerilla Conditions” featured Frank Rynne’s presentation of films made in the 1960s by Burroughs and British filmmaker Anthony Balch. As the concept of montage was central to the use of Cut Ups, it could be argued that cinema is the purest form of Cut Up.
Aficionados of these short films have seen various segments on YouTube or perhaps the 1989 VHS release Towers Open Fire. The mainly black and white films include footage shot outside the Beat Hotel on rue Gît-le-Coeur with glimpses of Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin, the latter dressed in Moroccan garb.
Though some of the short films originally featured an incantatory voice-over by Burroughs, “Curse go back…Towers open fire…Breakthrough in grey room…” much of the original soundtrack was a mix of sound effects, music and Cut Up recordings made at the Beat Hotel. It was in such a spirit that Rynne provided an improvised soundtrack, an immediate aural Cut Up, of Burroughs’ spoken word recordings with the occasional addition of Moroccan music. Though the mistaken inclusion of some later era Burroughs recordings marred the timeliness of the soundtrack, Rynne’s continuation of the non-linear immediacy of Cut Ups added a unique spark to the presentation.
It was a pleasure to see these films in such pristine digital transfers, which included a little known three-minute clip created as an advertisement for the Cut Up films. As Balch was also a film distributor, this was an attempt at promoting his own cinematic adverts for the Burroughs-Balch collaboration.
The Burroughs theme continued with a screening of a thirty-minute excerpt from “Language is a Virus from Outer Space” a theatrical production by British musician and actor Richard Strange that was part of the 2014 international events for the Burroughs centennial. Performed only once on October 11 at London’s Queens Hall, this multi-media work featured original music composed by Gavin Bryars with text from Burroughs’ writings, including some of his spoken word recordings.
The performance began with Burroughs alone on the stage speaking to the audience. The depiction by actor Richard Durden was not merely physically authentic, with Burroughs’ familiar drawl, but appropriately heightened for a theatrical portrayal of one of the most turbulent biographies of 20th Century American letters. Strange’s story centered on the shooting of Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ wife, in Mexico and how that horrific event served as a catalyst for Burroughs development as a writer.
This introduction was mixed with the musical accompaniment of a large orchestra which remained visible throughout the performance, acting as a chordal Greek chorus. Burroughs then seats himself center stage at a small table with a typewriter. Later Joan appears slightly behind stage left, sitting with drink in hand. These sparse set pieces were augmented with two large screens at the back of the stage projecting images of guns, typewriters, and photos of Burroughs. With stark stage lighting of cool blue colors, the minimal settings recalled the theater work of Robert Wilson who collaborated with Burroughs and Tom Waits on the play The Black Rider.
Joan’s death during a drunken game of William Tell was chillingly conveyed through a projected image of a glass spinning on a tabletop. Later a thoroughly convincing Allen Ginsberg appears with bushy black beard. At one point, phalanxes of men dressed in suits walk down steps in between sections of the orchestra while playing guitars, each of them wearing a Burroughs mask, like a psychedelic scene from a Busby Berkeley film.
Another vivid moment occurred post-shooting as Burroughs sat stage front at the table. Standing behind the shaken writer was an angel in black with black wings who moves Burroughs’ hands to the typewriter with the gun resting next to it. The murder of Joan Burroughs remains among the most troubling incidents in Beat lore. It’s to Strange and Bryars’ credit that the hellish impetus for Burroughs’ influential literary work was told with much talent and care.
During a post-screening discussion, Strange revealed the production was recorded with 14 cameras under the direction of Gavin Turk. A team is currently working on editing the footage, including audio producer John Leckie, known for his work with the Manchester music group The Stone Roses, and David Lewis who edited many of Derek Jarman’s films. Though it’s uncertain a theatrical production will be mounted again, we can look forward to the completed film being released in the not too distant future.
Session 26: Fields Notes: Radio Joy Sails on the Drunken Boat
For the close of the conference, Johny Brown and other collaborators joined Strange for Field Notes: an experience that mixes video imagery and sound collage into a truly original live performance. Brown and Strange sat upon a small stage clad in white t-shirts with their heads in their hands. Behind them a large screen projected the word “BURN” over visual static accompanied by a soundtrack telling us to “burn spectacle, burn television, burn empire boardwalk, burn breaking bad…burn glamour, burn style, burn vanity for all while…”
From this gripping opening, the performance of Radio Joy set sail on the Drunken Boat. It was an escape from our modern day technocratic nightmare of consumer surveillance. As the black and white imagery changed to a ship sailing on the sea, the dialogue between Brown and Strange evoked the numbing dystopia of market driven globalism and the cultural waste it creates. Eventually their boat reached shore and the projected imagery shifted to open fields. Once again Radio Joy was able to travel the land with the hope of a future where creativity and exploration developed beyond the control of industry and government.
It was a fitting end to an amazing conference. I encourage readers of this essay to learn more about the EBSN and their important work. The next conference has been scheduled for Paris in September 2017. If you are able to attend, or perhaps even participate, you won’t be sorry. As the interest in artists and writers of the Beat generation grows, the European Beat Studies Network provides a structure for expanding our knowledge and appreciation beyond the walls of the academy.
All photographs by Lars Movin except #1
#1 Poster for the 2016 EBSN Manchester Conference
#2 EBSN President Oliver Harris
#3 The Wonder Inn, Shudehill, Manchester
#4 Michele Gazich, Chelsea Stripe and Eric Andersen
#5 Jim Pennington Mimeograph Workshop
#6 Todd Swindell with Harold Norse’s Cosmograph painting
#7 Gestetner 360 Mimeograph machine
#8 Lunch break at the EBSN Conference
#9 Ian MacFayden
#10 Richard Strange
#11 Johny Brown and Richard Strange of Radio Joy
#12 Johny Brown and Richard Strange of Radio Joy