Archives For anne waldman

“A Fleeting Moment in a Floating World”: The Women of the Beat Generation Through Allen Ginsberg’s Eyes

“The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves.

The real communication was going on between the men,

and the women were there as onlookers…

You kept you mouth shut,

and if you were intelligent and interested in

things you might pick up what you could.

It was a very masculine aesthetic.”[1]

-Joyce Johnson

 

 

Inception: Recognizing Absence

“The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.”[2] Upon Allen Ginsberg’s reflection on nearly a lifetime of capturing photographs, his remark seems most fitting when considering those less visible, but equally significant writers of the Beat Generation. Gazing through Ginsberg’s lens of cultural history exposes complex narratives, both fleeting and lasting, of nonconformity, rebellion, and artistic spirit. Though it also reveals a powerful void; an absence of silence and omission. At a time when women’s independence was either limited or non-existent, such spaces enveloped female artists striving for personal freedom amid male dominated society. The women of the Beat Generation were active counterparts within this subculture, yet their lack of visual representation exposes a fissure in Ginsberg’s photography. Continue Reading…

Naropa Turns 40

This Sunday, April 20th, Naropa University – which was founded by Tungpa Rinpoche and was America’s first accredited Buddhist university – turns forty years old. Since the beginning, it included an English department known as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which was founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman.

To mark the event there will be a reading at City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco – which has always kept close ties with Naropa and JKS. Included in the reading are Naropa Assistant Professor of English Andrea Rexilius, plus Robert Glück, Juliana Spahr, Cedar Sigo, Eric Baus, Michelle Naka Pierce and Chris Pusateri.

Event Details:

Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics 40th Anniversary Party: 5 p.m. Sunday. Free. City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. (415) 362-8193. www.citylights.com.

Noise Poetry: An Interview with Thurston Moore

As an MFA fiction student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (one of the longest, most consistently-made-fun-of school names ever), I was fortunate enough to be brought face-to-face with some of the most legendary members of the American cultural underground of the past 50 years. Since the Kerouac School was founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974, we have operated in a lineage outside the cultural mainstream, inasmuch as the Beat Generation was somewhat welcomed into the fray with Kerouac’s On The Road, but is still consistently debated and misunderstood.

So you could say that we are still misunderstood as a school – from the infamous tales of Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs teaching some of the first classes, to today, when MFA programs are booming and we are still rarely mentioned in those lists. Merits of my education there aside, one of the most remarkable aspects of the program was getting to attend two summers of Naropa’s famous four-week Summer Writing Program, which Ginsberg had taught at nearly every year until his death and continues to feature some of the most cutting-edge writers and artists performing and teaching today, including legends such as Amiri Baraka and Joanne Kyger visiting, and Anne Waldman continuing to host the program every year.

My first year at the Summer Writing Program in 2011 coincided with the arrival of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to our little campus in Boulder, Colorado. I became one of the lucky few to get into his coveted workshop in the last week of the program. As an editor of the Kerouac School’s literary journal Bombay Gin, I also decided to make it my mission to get an interview with him. I had been cautioned not to bother him or take up too much of his time, but he couldn’t have been more accommodating and down-to-earth, willing to brave the Boulder summer sunshine one morning and talk to me for three hours – large portions of which didn’t even fit into the interview below and will potentially be repurposed somewhere, someday.

The first day Thurston came in to teach our class, he looked like your (taller than) average punk rock kid – Converse sneakers, a backpack, and a guitar – not the 30-year veteran of the American underground, the legend who had “hung out” with everyone from Ginsberg and Burroughs to Kurt Cobain, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith. He told the class stories and histories, of writers and rock stars – an inexhaustible library of knowledge on every poet, every small press, every punk band.

But Thurston was not there to be the famous guitarist and singer from Sonic Youth – although he did incorporate a few songs into his poetry reading, and worked with our class to create a sonic experiment of music, poetry, and screaming distortion. Thurston came to Boulder, a college town of relative anonymity, and he came to Naropa, where he could be taken seriously as a writer and member of not just the musical counterculture, but the literary underground as well. A place he has rightfully earned through his lyrics, poetry books, and collaborative associations.

Beyond the living archive that is Thurston’s memories and mind, his appreciation for the world of small presses and publishing led him to create what is one of the most interesting and important collections of underground (and sometimes above-ground) American literature from the second half of the twentieth century. He is a cousin of the Jack Kerouac School, related through the spirits of transgression and subversion that haunt our corridors, the same spirits that gave a tall redheaded kid growing up in suburban Connecticut a copy of Naked Lunch and the desire to run away to New York City to play guitar.

Thurston is the space between the words of poetry and the scream of a guitar, the punk rocker and the professor, the father and the rebellious teenager. His work as a writer and musician has explored the space where the subversive becomes the commercially successful, where success doesn’t mean selling out, where you can create your own world and get everyone else to live in it. Where poetry is noise – and noise is poetry.

The following interview originally appeared in the literary journal Bombay Gin (issue 38.1, Fall 2011), published by the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Initially only available in the limited-run print release of that issue, it is now exclusively available here on Beatdom in its original form.

 

Interview

Katie Ingegneri: How did you first hear about Naropa?

Thurston Moore: It was through my interest in the world of underground poetry publishing and small presses – something I became fascinated by around the early 90s, and before then my interest in literature was more about the writer and less about the book, as far as poetry was concerned. But artifact collecting and the idea of a singular vision and an imprint was always interesting to me. I started getting more into collecting first-edition, first-printing books by certain authors that I felt were significant to my own interest. And it was a shared interest with a few other people that I knew, in my scene of being in a rock band in New York City. I always saw playing music for myself to have equal value to writing.

So book collecting became as significant to me as record collecting and documenting certain more arcane musical genres, like free jazz and avant-garde jazz and underground experimental rock and 20th century composer music that was really on the margins…and progressive British folk music…[laughs] A lot of my fascination with getting into rock n roll was about fantasizing, ever since I was a kid, about being in a rock band, but at the same time it seemed out of reach. I didn’t really know how to play guitar, and I wasn’t that proficient a technician as far as music was concerned, so I had more of a feeling I was going to be a writer. There was a lot of literature in our house, but it wasn’t very focused on poetry so much – it was more focused on philosophy. What resonated with me in the 70s as a teenager was certainly music coming from these people who had some connection to serious poetry and literature. People like Patti Smith, and Tom Verlaine, from Television, and Richard Hell, who had a band called the Voidoids, and I really was enamored by what these people were doing, for a lot of reasons. It was at a time when rock writers were in the same milieu as the performers, and it was kind of one of the last periods of when that existed, because it was completely pre-Internet, and it was all about the physical interaction between people. There was no real interest from high media on this activity.

So it was underground, and it was owned by the people. You know, Patti Smith’s whole thing, “we created it, let’s take it over,” about rock n roll music. That was a very powerful statement and everybody understood that…and that’s what drew me in. I knew that was the culture I wanted to be a part of, and it had a lot to do with the lineage of poetry that was under the hubris “beat literature” or whatever. For me, you would take it upon yourself to find these books by writers who these musicians were claiming to be their inspiration and influence in writing. Certainly Dylan did that in the 60s, but he was a little more obtuse about that – he was Dylan, he’s such an enigma as far as that’s concerned. But having not lived so much in the 60s, I didn’t have the sophistication or wherewithal to glean any sort of history of poetry or writing.

So as a teenager in the 70s, I really started responding to this information, of writers who inspired people like Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and it would certainly be William S. Burroughs, and it would be Allen Ginsberg – those two specifically. They were like the dynamic duo, and they were extremely interesting, once you saw these names in connection with rock n roll. How can this thin graying man with a fedora and a suit and tie, and smoking a cigarette, and looking very all to the world like he could shut it down with one glance – like who the hell is that? And then you’d go buy the book, and you’re sixteen years old, and you’d buy The Wild Boys or Naked Lunch, and Naked Lunch was so important cause it had the transcript of the trial with Allen Ginsberg and it was amazing to read, for me. And so of course one thing leads to another if you allow it to and you’re interested in it.

I figured out what that world was, and I knew right away that moving to New York and investigating it and working within it is all I really wanted to do. My romance with writing was that I’m going to move to New York, I’m going to be a writer. So when Anne Waldman introduced Eileen Myles the other night [at Naropa’s 2011 Summer Writing Program], one of the first things she said was that she moved to New York to be a poet. And when I heard that, it was so simple, and so beautiful, and it was both serious and romantic, and it just implied everything that was important emotionally for myself, that I immediately said, “if I ever have to write a memoir, that’s the title of my memoir: She Moved to New York to Be a Poet”! That was sort of how I felt growing up in a small town in Connecticut, was that I wanted to move to New York and I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to hang out with Patti Smith and I wanted to hang out with Richard Hell, and nobody in my high school knew anything about this stuff.

So all during this period it was all about my intention was to move to New York and be a writer, and I didn’t really have any kind of support for it. I didn’t know anything about St. Mark’s Poetry project, but I did know that Patti Smith did a very significant reading there, and I had a bootleg album of it. Throughout ‘76, going into New York a lot, to CBGB and Max’s and a couple of other places, I would see the [St. Mark’s] Church and I figured out where Gotham Book Mart was, up in midtown. I would go there and I would buy whatever was associated with her, and buy the books by Burroughs and Ginsberg, maybe buy a Gregory Corso book or something. It was discovering things completely outside the academy, you know, cause I wasn’t in school and I wasn’t doing any lit courses or anything like that. So my information, I was just gleaning it from connective tissues, in a way.

If somebody would do an introduction to a book, I would go out and buy the person who introduced that book. I would find out more about that person, and one thing would lead to another, and I would let that progress and I would expound on it – not overly academic or seriously. I moved to New York in very early ‘77, and I lived right near St. Mark’s Church. I would see activity going on there, but I was playing music with some people, and my whole thing was that. I was friends with some poets in my tenement building, who would read at certain places and I would go see them, and I would share my poetry with them, because I was writing poetry since high school, and I remember giving a sheaf of poems to these guys, who were like 10 years older than I was, and they were poets. Then they all came back to me with such enthusiasm, like they loved what I wrote. I mean, they said they loved what I wrote. When I look back at what I wrote then, it’s pretty teenage. But that was so encouraging, and I have one retrospective regret – not cultivating my writing by going to a poetry workshop at St. Mark’s. But I didn’t have so much awareness of it. I knew something was going on, but it didn’t really draw me in.

Thurston Moore and Anne Waldman, presenting a panel

The activity I was involved in, playing music and getting gigs here and there, at CBGB or Tier 3, was very important, and just what was going on with the people in the No Wave movement, with Lydia Lunch, and James Chance and the Contortions. These were people who also had the same trajectory as I did. I mean Lydia Lunch, she was a writer, but she came from this scabrous background in upstate NY, and ran away to New York City as a 16-year-old girl. She had this very wild, wild existence in New York, as Lydia Lunch, and she was trying to get her poetry out to people, that’s how she started. And she would hand her poems to people like Lenny Kaye, the guitar player in Patti Smith’s band, like “I’m a poet, I’m a poet.” But she got a response when she put a guitar on, which she didn’t know how to play, and turned the amp up and started smashing on it, and then she started reciting her words. And that’s when people were like oh, who’s this. So that became the obvious standard, like put a guitar on, and turn the amp up, and THEN do your poetry, and that became the new poet, in a way – the electric guitar poet was like the new poet. So it was like that was what punk rock had as a real blueprint.

But I think a lot of people shared the same response I had, that the lyrics were so interesting and new and they had such a quality of poetry to them, but that’s just the basis for later on becoming interested in avant-garde music through record collecting. Which I could never do cause I never had any money – I mean, I was kind of doing it, but it was problematic. But as soon as Sonic Youth started having a little more income I really got seriously involved with collecting records that were from these genres that were really arcane and interesting to me. Especially coming out of punk rock where it was about establishing an independent means in the industry, that didn’t have to utilize the industry. So when I started seeing other record labels from the 60s that dealt with avant-garde jazz or whatever that were independent, I was like oh, we’re not the first ones, this isn’t something we created. Even though a lot of people who were joining punk rock were like we’re so cool, we created this kind of independent network, and it’s like no, there’s a history there. So I became really interested in that history, and when I found out that there was a lot – that it existed in the literary, publishing scene, I became really fascinated with that.

But when I started finding out about the communication between poets through self-published literature, that’s when I became really involved and interested in the history and all the people involved with it. And by the ability to tour across the United States with Sonic Youth, I could go to every college town, and go to the local bookstores – second-hand bookstores – and go into the dusty poetry section and go to the end of the alphabet where they would have the anthologies or whatever, and invariably there would be some boxes of stapled mimeos from the 60s. I began amassing this collection and finding out about the different imprints and different writers that were associated with them, and just seeing all this activity of writing and communication between poets from different regions of the United States.

I was really into learning through investigation, pure investigation. I knew a couple other people who were interested in this stuff, and we would powwow about it, but I didn’t know the writers. So I started going to the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s, when I could, even though I didn’t live in town anymore. And I missed everything – I missed all of Eileen Myles’ running the programs there, being the director there, I missed all of Bernadette Mayer’s era, it was like God, what a fool I was, for missing it. But I just really did not know any better – it’s just this nostalgia for something that I didn’t know existed. But I turned Bernadette Mayer, and Eileen Myles, and Clark Coolidge, and all these people – they became my rock n roll stars, in a way. And it was very private for me. [laughs] So I would go see these people, and I would go up to Clark Coolidge with some of his earlier stapled stuff and have him sign it or whatever, and they’d always look at me like – where’d you get this? Who are you? And I was like, this kid. And some would know who the band was, and they’re just like why is the guy from Sonic Youth asking me to sign this completely obscure publication.

When I came to the school this week, I brought a couple of documents, and one of them was the 1979 curriculum calendar of student/faculty events at Naropa. And I carried it around with me a little bit, and everybody’s just coming up to me like, can I hold that and look through it, and somebody made a copy of it, and it had such value as an object. I mean, you could talk about 1979 at Naropa, and everybody was like yeah that must’ve been so cool, but to actually see this piece that existed from then, and it exists in this kind of living state, in a way. You know, it’s kind of faded, it’s kind of sunburnt, it’s been handled a little bit, which gives it this sense of time, but it’s like there’s a certain sort of gleaning that comes from this actual document of paper, that comes from that period. So I found that really interesting, and I brought a production piece from the workshop here in 1974. It was a series of broadsides, one of which was Anne’s, in this die-cut folder that was stitched together, in an edition of 46 copies or something like that. All numbered, which I had found in some bookstore amongst a bunch of other papers, and it cost pennies. I brought that here too, and I showed it at the panel. But that’s all anybody wanted to talk about afterwards, like can I see that, can I hold it, can I touch it, can I see it. So for me, the importance of the life – devoting yourself to the life of being a poet, to me there is such an importance to the history of what that is, and with the actual production and documentation of work that existed…and I never knew what kind of value to put towards what I was doing as an archivist of this stuff.  So it’s kind of wonderful, in a way.

 

Thurston Moore reading his poetry at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, 2011

KI: Now that you have this archive, do you think that will serve a purpose for future generations?

TM: I think it serves a purpose if it’s made accessible in a way that makes sense. I do want it to exist as an accessible library of sorts. I don’t want to let it out of my sight so much because it means a lot to me, but I have talked to a couple of other people who have similar archives and possibly talking to some kind of institution that might establish a library of sorts. But the fact that a lot of the material is so ephemeral, it almost becomes a thing like – do people have to put on white gloves to look at this stuff? I have some stapled mimeo stuff where the edges are crumbling a bit and you really wanna be careful looking at it. So what do you do about that? And there’s some talk about digitizing it all, so it’s all available as digital information, which kind of bores me a little bit. I like the idea cause it makes the work available to read and you can actually see what these pieces look like, but the physicality of the pieces is, to me, very important. So I’m not quite sure how to present it. In a way I feel like all this investigation I’ve done, and the archiving, has come to a really good point because I think a lot of the culture of poetry has become really dependent on the archive as a very real sense of vibrational history. Cause there is all this information, and historical information that’s available, through the Internet, and we can all share this knowledge – but the documentation of it, the actual documentation of it, and what that was physically, and what that meant, has just recently become something of import for a lot of young writers.

In the spring of 2010 I had a show at White Columns gallery [in New York City] where I exhibited a lot of the archive in vitrines and I kind of fetishized a lot of what I liked about it, the visual stimulus of it, and so I made huge posters of about 40 of the covers. And the whole gallery was postered with all these images. There was lots under glass, and I had readings once a week during the show. I had started editing and publishing a poetry journal myself from the year 2000 onwards, called Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, cause I had a record label called Ecstatic Peace, and so the show was like a new edition of the poetry journal. And Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal was certainly all about referencing and wanting to continue the lineage of the aesthetic of this kind of publishing. Which I enjoy doing, to this day. And the idea in my class this week is to actually create one of these journals.

But I don’t really know what to do at this point. I mean, I’m not too concerned about it. I think at some point we’ll figure it out. There’s certain institutions I think that have an awareness of my collection. I know that it’s sort of idiosyncratic, its focus is very personal, so that makes it something else than purely academic. Anne and I were talking about my archive the other night, and she looked at it like “From the Library of Thurston Moore,” that’s its focus, and I was like okay, I like that. I do have everything on file – I keep a FileMaker Pro document of all the poetry – I have to, cause I’ll go into places and find old poetry stuff, and I’ll see these pieces that look so amazing to have been found, and I’ll come home and I’ll look in my FileMaker Pro and see that I have like three other copies of it. [laughs] So I just really don’t know how I’ll utilize it beyond it just being in my house.

But to me it’s artwork, and it sits in my house to me as art, and I’ll figure it out someday. I was actually thinking about weeding it out a little bit and refining it to some degree, and selling off some of it. Which is what I do with records as well – just crystallizing my focus a little more. But I’m not there yet, with that. You know when I think of an archive like Naropa, which is a lot of paper, ephemeral writing, and there’s also this recorded audio, a lot of it on cassette, that needs to digitized or has been digitized. I had come here six years ago and played at a benefit for the school to raise money to allow that archiving to continue. You know, there’s been a lot of relevance attached to the concept of the archive, the archive becomes this really mystical concern or something – which is fine, but it really is just this sort of personalized library, and it brings in this sense of the political where it’s like you’re responsible for your own culture, and recognizing the value of that culture, and what it means in a humanitarian way, what it means in an educational way, what it means in a very emotional way too. So I am okay with it existing contemporaneously as this living archive, we’ll see where it goes.


KI: Even in the past 10 years, it’s been such a shift with the Internet. When I was growing up, I was really into music and I would go to record stores, I was always buying CDs and creating my own archive of albums and CD covers. But now all the music I listen to is all just in my iTunes, and I don’t know how the archive is going to exist as we go further and further into this digital age.

TM: Well I think it has to exist, digitally, because that makes it free, it makes it safe, but it’s also intangible. So I’ve been coming into this focus of distinction, what that relationship is between yourself and the artifact, and a lot of it has to do with the equality of value towards aspects of the artifact where content is just one aspect, so it does become very physical – what it looks like, what it feels like, what it smells like, what it tastes like, whatever, that all to me is like – there’s a certain shared value in all of that. And so the culture of the Internet allows one value, and that’s basically just content. I find it very limiting. But it certainly serves a certain purpose and one of those is just to be what I refer to as the “exploded library.” So I don’t know what to think about that, cause I do see a new culture of record stores and book stores that exist with really focused appreciation on objects and they’re smaller, more boutique, in a way, and that’s fine. I don’t think that sort of thing is ever going to disappear, disappear. But there’s something really political about it that I am interested in, the idea of working at something that you love as opposed to working for the sake of making money, and how it’s very rare that anybody can work at something they love and make enough money doing it. And then there’s this whole idea of this Protestant ethic of “you have to suffer” [laughs] and there’s a denigration towards people who work at things they love and are compensated for it. I don’t think anything’s going to disappear, to tell you the truth. I think there’s gonna be a certain exhaustion that comes with the formlessness of the Internet as a library, as a store, as whatever, and it’s going to create a more independent and factionalized world of commerce. We just opened up a little record store in Northampton, Massachusetts, with these two young people, and [rock writer] Byron Coley and I have been able to fill it with all these secondhand records we’ve collected over the last 30 years and go out and buy collections and stuff like that, and we have some performances in the back room of traveling independent experimental music people, and we’re able to pay the monthly rent, and we each get a check for a few hundred bucks once in a while, but that’s fine. It services the community, and you’re amidst the pleasure of what you really like, which is music, and film – we have lots of DVDs, but nobody’s getting rich off this stuff [laughs], that’s certainly not the idea.

KI: When you were starting out, did you start writing poetry before you became a musician?

TM: It was kinda concurrent – I mean, I had aspirations to play music but I had aspirations towards being a writer, and I couldn’t really articulate what that would entail. I guess my idea of writing, I equated it with journalism, like I was gonna be a journalist, or I was gonna go to journalism school. The one quarter of a semester that I went to college in fall of ‘76, which was at a state college in Connecticut, I remember signing up for whatever English classes they had, and journalism class, whatever that was, and that invariably had some connection to the school newspaper. I wrote about music in the college newspaper, and I wrote about the Ramones, I wrote about Patti Smith – I wrote about what I was interested in, and people started responding to it, like, man that was so cool what you wrote about but what the hell was it – like nobody knew about this stuff.

So I wrote about John Cale. I went to see John Cale play, and I filed it, and they printed it, and they took it upon themselves to correct what they thought was my misspelling of John Cage. They changed John Cale to John Cage. And so my John Cale piece became this review of a John Cage concert which never existed, as if it was John Cale, and I went up to the office and I was like why did you change John Cale to John Cage? And they were like it was about John Cage, wasn’t it, we just thought you spelled it wrong…at that moment I was just like – I hate school. I’d had it, and I moved to New York. I found a place to live and I started playing music with some people, and I was writing – I’d always sort of written poetry in my later teens, and continued to write some in New York – but my involvement with playing music became my primary interest. I always kept notebooks when I was playing music.

You know, lyric writing to me was predicated upon the art of the rhyme. I also knew that poetry, the way it appeared on the page as far as it being rhyming schemes had become so quaint, a fairly passé presentation of poetry. I didn’t really see anything wrong with that but as far as it being lyrical in song – rhyme still worked as something that was really permanent and substantive. I understood the relationship between the poem on the page and the poem as a sung lyric, where the art of the rhyme had a different nature. So that was kind of important to me, and a lot of times when I would write and I had ideas of writing, I would think about how it would exist as a song lyric, and I would write down lyrics that had certain intonation and a certain sense of rhyme, but I never really thought of presenting them as poems. I thought I wouldn’t want to have them read as poetry just because there was a certain kind of sing-songy aspect of it that, without the context of the music, it just read too quaint on the page. I understood that distinction.

 

The workshop taught by Thurston Moore at Naropa, 2011

But all through the 90s, I understood the correlation between writing and poetry and writing and songwriting, and I invariably would get lyrics either from notebooks, poetry writing, and I would sort of reshape them for the song, or I would go to a number of poems and take lines from different poems and create a unified piece that would work in a song. Sometimes I would do that, which was a semi-kind of cut-up method, or had some kind of correlation with cut-up, but I was kind of into wanting to have an identity as an poet that was separate from an identity as a musician, which I always found very difficult. I would actually do a book of writing or poetry, that I would do myself or somebody would publish, and whenever I would see it in a bookstore it would more than likely be in the music section, cause I was a musician making poetry, or something like that. Which really kind of bummed me out, because it inferred that poetry was a dalliance, and I didn’t want to be Jewel [laughs]. And Spin Magazine, when my first book Alabama Wildman came out, they actually did this page where it was these three books of writing that were out, and it was Dee Dee Ramone’s book, Jewel’s book, and my book, and they were like – Jewel’s was this flighty romantic poetry, and Dee Dee Ramone’s was like this memoir of madness of being in a punk rock band, but then “we can’t even decipher what Thurston Moore’s was about,” they didn’t know what was going on with this different poetic kind of thing, cause there was nothing in that book that was relative to anybody who thought poetry was basically what Jewel was writing. [laughs] So it was just like, I was weird – this is some fucking weird thing this guy did. Which I like. I was like great, at least I’m not the musician making the bad poetry book.

KI: We spoke a little bit about your association with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. I was in a class this past semester on the history of the Beat Generation and we watched the recent documentary on William S. Burroughs, “A Man Within,” a project that you were involved with. I understand you and Sonic Youth collaborated with him on his album “Dead City Radio.” I also recently read that Sonic Youth celebrated Allen’s 60th birthday with him. How did you first meet these legendary writers (and Naropa teachers), and how did you come to collaborate with them?

TM: When I lived on East 13th Street between Avenues A + B in NYC in the late 70s I’d see Allen and Peter Orlovsky walking hand in hand around the neighborhood (and sometimes even on the L – very bold!) Allen’s place was on East 12th Street, same building where Kerouac lived, and where Richard Hell still lives I believe. Allen would appear at CBGB once in a while and play Buddhist harmonium chants on stage opening for Patti Smith, Television and other denizens of that stage. So he was a neighborhood figure. I didn’t really meet him until much later when Sonic Youth garnered a more prestigious profile. I seem to remember Lee [Ranaldo] and I going to a book publication party at The Poetry Project and talking with Allen and he had asked about working together. He called me up and we discussed possibilities. I said I thought it might be hip for SY to improvise music with Allen reading. He replied that that’s what Dylan also requested. Ha! I would run into Allen here and there and it was always cool. He came to hang out at the NYC stop of Lollapalooza 1995 and I have some pictures of him and myself with my baby daughter Coco. While I talked to him, Coco would be grabbing at his beard and mouth and while most people would flinch at such messiness, Allen allowed her to stick her fingers into his mouth and he sucked and bit at them. I was very impressed. We never did get around to collaborating beyond him sending me a package with a nice letter and a sheaf of poems to peruse.

Burroughs lived on the Bowery in a place called The Bunker, same place as John Giorno I believe. I remember having to call Giorno, as we were submitting a track to one of his Giorno Poetry System records, and Burroughs answering the phone. I can still hear that gravel tenor in my ear. After he located finally to Lawrence, Kansas we were invited to come to his house by his assistant James Grauerholz, who was a SY fan. We went a couple of times, once by ourselves and once when we were touring that area opening for REM. The first time I recall sitting in his living room and he had a number of Guns and Ammo magazines laying about and he was only very interested in talking about shooting and knifing. Not exactly a subject dear to me but it was amazing hanging out. And we went into his backyard where he had an actual orgone box built from the specifications of Wilhelm Reich, which I sat in, even though it was rife with spiderwebs. The recordings we did on the “Dead City Radio” LP were organized by Hal Willner, who had a personal and professional relationship with both these men as well as with SY.

KI: I’ve noticed a few Sonic Youth songs are dedicated to Beat writers like Gregory Corso. Were the Beats a big influence on you as a writer and/or musician – in terms of style, subjects, and/or their challenge to traditional, mainstream American culture?

TM: The Beat writers, even to this day, are still on the margins of American letters. Even though they are universally recognized as a significant development in modern and post-modern literature, they are still considered off-the-grid. In a way it was relative and resonant to the structure of American society and its professed standards in that they need to be defined as troublemakers, which is where I wanted to be. In that lineage. And, in music history, it was concurrent, where you had experimental and punk rock music on the margins of “popular” and acceptable. I came to Beat writing through music where music writers like Lester Bangs, Patti Smith, Richard Meltzer and others would point to Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and others as compatriots of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Iggy & the Stooges and many others.

KI: How has working as a writer and editor impacted your musical career, or vice versa? Do you find you get different rewards from different creative practices?

TM: Writing and editing are a more singular passion for me, whereas music usually has a more collaborative practice. Lately I’ve been more interested in writing music alone and am seemingly becoming more focused thus.

KI:  One of my Bombay Gin co-editors, Jade Lascelles, who was also in our class, had a question: When you returned to “Daydream Nation” 20 years later to perform it in concert, you said you had to return to the same kind of bodily space you had inhabited when you were first creating that album. Do you ever find you undergo similar experiences when revisiting old writing?

TM: I do, without a doubt. With writing though I find I can take the work and update it, sometimes. I find the more I study the work and history of poetry as a spiritual as well as academic vocation, the writing I’ve put to paper decade(s) past is very innocent and, in a way, I feel it best to choose to not update the work and keep it as a reminder of who and where I was.

KI: Do you think that there’s hope for a renewal of non-corporate creativity, in all forms, in the mainstream? Or will it all be underground?

TM: Well, that’s pre-supposing the mainstream as the more valuable environment. The underground is where all the foxes are.

Thurston Moore and MFA student Katie Ingegneri at Naropa

Poetess and Patriarch

An exploration of female Beat writers and their involvement with the second-wave feminist movement

By Lee McRae

 

‘American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate… It is not surprising that in it the experience of being American is equated with the experience of being male.’

Judith Fetterley – The Resisting Reader (1978)

This introductory quote by Judith Fetterley has been chosen for its boldness and will hopefully set the pace for some of the topics I am going to cover in this article. Through much of the twentieth century, women – as academics, scholars, feminist theorists, leaders of political groups – have sought to challenge what it means to be female and to fundamentally confront the supposed innate and biological factions against those which are socially formed in a political spectrum that undervalues women as creative, artistic and intelligent members of the human race. So how do the women of the Beat Generation fit into this? Firstly, it has been suggested that women members of the Beat Generation lived an emancipated existence that found its routes within the Beat ideals themselves – the freedom of expression, the resistance to mundanity, the sexual freedom – all of which became adopted towards the end of the 1960s when the countercultural revolution and the feminist movement were in full-swing. Secondly, we can derive from the literature produced that the women Beats felt a strong sense of self, a sense of one’s own place within, what was mainly, a male-dominated, male-orientated body of commercial literature; as Ronna C. Johnson tells us; ‘all women Beat writers express a rebellious, anti-establishment critique of women’s assigned place and value in patriarchy, and this gendered emphasis is the radical distinction by which beat literature is amended by its female practitioners.’

Allen Ginsberg, on the topic of female writers within the Beat generation, was once quoted as saying, ‘Among the group of people we knew at the time, who were the [women] writers of such power as Kerouac or Burroughs? Were there any? I don’t think so.’ In this statement Ginsberg tells us how he failed to recognise the contribution of literature by women of the Beat generation that equalled in quality to that of its contemporaries.  Much has been said about this quote. From a feminist-literary perspective this quote embodies what many women feel as patriarchal hegemony, meaning that within the forces of the industry and in culture generally, women are considered the subaltern – the undervalued.  Later in this article I will discuss the writings of the women who contributed so greatly to the Beat Generation. But first I want to place feminism in its true historical context.

Being Beat and Being Woman

American feminism tends to be split into two categories; first-wave and second-wave movements. First wave, as Valarie Sanders tells us, began as early as 1848 with revolutionaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Early campaigns were an attempt mainly to change ‘divorce laws, married women’s property rights, and the vote.’ Despite motivated campaigns the ability to vote spread over several decades – firstly being lifted in Wyoming, in 1869, and then in Utah, in 1870. Almost five decades later, by the 1920s, most of the northern states had also abolished this out-dated exclusionary practice. The second- wave feminist movement, as Sue Thornham describes, is often associated with the 1960s countercultural revolutions. In 1966, Betty Friedan founded NOW (national organisation for women). This organisation arose out of the ineffectiveness of government bodies to promote equality within the work place. Also during this time the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ began; ‘Unlike NOW, these groups had no national organisation; instead they drew on the infrastructure of the radical community, the underground press, and the free universities.’ An action which is often synonymous with feminists of the 1960s – the burning of the bra – was in fact true to a certain extent, in that at some demonstrations a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ was set alight, where women could dispose of items which oppressed them as women – ‘dishcloths, high-heels, bras and girdles.’

The counterculture itself – a period usually coupled with freedom and liberation – is often criticized for its attitudes towards women. Rochelle Gatlin, in her book American Women Since 1945, tells us how she feels the counterculture was a male led movement; ‘Men were willing to become more “feminised” but they did not encourage women to assume traditional masculine characteristics.’ She goes on to say, ‘The model for sexual liberation was a masculine one.’ Many women felt that the removal of ‘sex’ from ‘feeling’ was advantageous to men in that it led to sexual promiscuity. The media at this time only seemed to re-enforce the notion of women as objects for male attraction; the magazine Cosmopolitan, started in 1965 by Helen Gurley Brown, was targeted commercially at the single girl, who took the pill and who lived alone. In the magazine emphasis was placed solely on fashion, beauty and sex serving only to place women into the category of ‘male-lust-objects’. In a similar way the magazine Seventeen, ‘designed for teenage girls, emphasised physical attractiveness. Advertising showed models in postures of sexual surrender to men and in competition with each other.’

The Beat Generation found itself in between the two periods of feminist discourse. The period prior to the second-wave movement is often termed ‘protofeminist’. Ronna C. Johnson tells us how female Beat writers were an integral element to this protofeminist period; their work tends to ‘challenge and interrogate assumptions about women, gender, and relations between the sexes, and asserts a corrected version.’ Sex for the Beats is commonly cited as one of the boundary-breaking taboos to which they discussed, admired and used in a multitude of ways (see: tantric sex). The idea was freedom and an expression of one’s true natural being (be it male or female); as Clinton Starr notes: ‘the Beat Generation was intricately intertwined, discursively but also materially, with sexuality, race relations, and gender roles in the post-war decades. The Beat lifestyle offered an escape from the sultry American role as homemaker; as Brenda Knight tells us; ‘Being beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a brand-new kitchen appliance.’ The conservatism of 1950s America aimed to instil a sense of national pride in a time fraught with cold-war panic, inadvertently placing women under the thumb of men and depicting them as either ‘wives…’ or ‘mothers…’ What is evident in the writing of female Beat writers is trueness to self and an accurate perception of the realities faced by women within the 1950s and 1960s. Beat poetess, Anne Waldman tells us how women were ‘driven, despite, fighting against the constraints of culture, family, education… often dwelling in the twilight of a “great” man’s personality or career.’

The Women of the Beat Generation

Anne Waldman, perhaps one of the most prolific of female beat writers, played a role in bringing the issues that women face into a public sphere – in both her essays and prose. The writings of Anne Waldman, as Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace tell us, ‘not only incorporate beat perspectives but [also] extend through and beyond beat into a women-centred, countercultural idiom.’ On the recovery of women Beat writers Anne Waldman tells us how ‘it is necessary to bring the female persona, the feminine principle, feminist concerns, the sense of the women’s struggle as wives, lovers, mothers, artists, breadwinners… into the whole macrocosm that is the beat literary movement.’

The Waldman poem Fast Speaking Woman, from the collection of the same name, is a chant-based mantra that’s primary focus is to speak to everywoman; she states, ‘I had in my head that I would do a list-chant telling all the kinds of women there are to be.’ The poem begins with the citation, ‘“I is another “- Rimbaud. The poem itself is an impassioned monologue using mainly the prefix ‘I am the/a…’ used to denote the different characters of women; ‘I’m the abandoned woman… the absinthe women… I’m the girl under an old fashioned duress.’ The Beat life she led inevitably led to her realisation of the issues faced by women. In an interview Waldman speaks about the many ‘interesting creative women’ she knew ‘who become junkies for their boyfriends, who stole for their boyfriends, who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations, who slept around to be popular, who had serious eating disorders, who concealed their unwanted pregnancies raising money for abortions.’

Beat author Diane Di Prima was heavily involved with the iconic Beat figures. She first moved to the lower east side, New York in 1953 where she began a relationship with Ezra Pound. In 1957 she first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and other of Beat’s iconic figures. Memoirs of a Beatnik is a biographical novelette depicting a seventeen-year old Di Prima’s coming of age in the midst of the 1950s Beat revolution. In this account, emphasis is placed on the ever relinquishing sexual oppression that was felt by American youth. Di Prima discusses both sexual encounters with men and women; chapter two, for example, details how she came to lose her virginity on a one-night-stand. The novelette is written with coarse, descriptive sexual imagery; ‘afterwards there was blood on his cock, and when I could move again I licked it off, swallowing my childhood, entering the world of the living… He was on me now, bucking and straining like an animal. A faun. But it was too much. My small tight cunt couldn’t take in his huge cock.’ She also makes reference to sexual promiscuity; ‘I had forgotten the name of the man whose hand was in my cunt.’ Further in, and she describes to us her experience of lesbianism; ‘Five or six girls had gathered in one room. One had been chosen and ritually stripped, and the rest, posted at different parts of her anatomy, sought to arouse her while she lay naked on the bed.’ Di Prima here is confronting, within a literary exercise, her experiences as a young woman who fought for self-realisation and freedom; allowing herself to express and fulfil her sexual desires without fear of social persecution from an American mainstream based on oppression.

It is also worth mentioning Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson as two poets, who sought an ulterior existence in the Beat exterior; as Nancy M. Grace tells us, ‘As historians, Johnson and Jones embark on the formidable task of speaking as gendered beings, knowing full well that their lives in the Beat avant-garde broke many of the rules for “good girl” behaviour promulgated at mid-twentieth century.’ Johnson had a two year relationship with Kerouac. In her book Minor Characters, Johnson describes how she felt an otherness regarding her involvement in the Beat movement; ‘I ended up accidentally with Kerouac in the centre of the action, yet always felt myself on the periphery. I was much more of an observer than I wanted to be.’

The Power of the Pen

“When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject.’

Simone De Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)

Writing seemed to be somewhat of a catalyst for the second-wave feminist movement. This form of expression was paramount to the success of women’s rights; writing (particularly scholarly), allowed women to create concise and politically armed pieces of literature that could function as biblical rhetoric; as Cora Kaplan wrote, ‘defiance is a component of the act of writing for women.’ Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) is certainly considered a canonical piece of writing; the book deals principally with the ‘cultural construction of women as the Other,’ in similar ways in which Edward Said talks of the cultural construction of the Orient by the West in his book Orientalism (1978). Other works of interest through the 1960s/70s include Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970); (note: the publication of Diane Di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969)).

In the twentieth century much of the literary merit goes to the male writers. One possible reason for this, as Rita Felski points out, is the ‘many hurdles’ faced by women who wish to devote their lives to writing; ‘economic dependency, lack of time and space, the relentless intrusion of everyday life in the form of squalling infants or testy husbands [and] the disparagement faced by women who chose to remain single or childless.’ Women could not associate enough with the writings of men, and if they wished to read, they were expected to ‘read as men’. The problem was identity. A literature was required that related to women’s true sensibilities rather than those sensibilities being dramatised by male authors, as Judith Fetterley writes; ‘To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness.’

I feel that within the female Beat canon this sensibility is realised. By not only living but exhibiting – within their writing – their lives, these women could reach out to those disillusioned by American values, the American dream and misogyny. The ambition and drive these women had personified a message that was to become all too clear within the feminist movement that proceeded; as Anne Waldman petitioned, ‘We no longer have to be fetched up.’ Feminism is a movement with labyrinthine academic possibilities. In this article, I realise I have only scratched the dirt-sodden surface of women’s politics. Without further in-depth analysis of the role of the female Beats within the feminist movement, little in the way of a conclusion can be given. I would suggest, however, to anyone who has an appetite for Beat literature to visit (or revisit, as the case may be) the works of its female practitioners. It is in these works where we find true Emersonian-reliance upon the self; where we find a disparagement between media-representations of women and the lives of women; and most important of all, where we find intelligent, creative and articulate pieces of fiction and prose.

Women of the Beat Generation

History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society.

Certainly that might be one reason, but there are many others. Some are hardly worth mentioning at all: that fact that sexism exists in all facets of life, including historical and literary studies. Some are just hard and tragic facts, like the fact that whereas the males of the Beat Generation were looked down upon, arrested, and mocked for years to come, the females got fucked over far worse. The 1940s and 50s were times when women belonged to their parents first, and their husbands second. Their independence was either limited or non-existent. If they acted up, got out of line, or embarrassed their parents, they were punished brutally. For men, such humiliation resulted in being cut lose, thrown out of the family, forced to take the Beatnik kick on the road. But for the women it meant mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment and being locked up at home and force fed conservative values.

Maybe we’re being cynical here. Perhaps there really weren’t that many great female poets in the movement. Look at the more famous faces, like Carolyn Cassady. Read her Heart Beat and tell me she’s a good writer… (See review)

But maybe it’s a little more complicated. The men that were part of the Beat Generation, whether they liked it or not, were talented and brilliant poets and novelists. They were geniuses unwanted by conventional academia. The women that were part of the Beats were fewer in number and less successful in quality of literary output. Of course, there were some outstanding poems produced by women, and some fantastic ideas espoused, but perhaps their exclusion from this portion of the literary canon has less to do with the sexism of today and more of a reflection of reality.

Arguments for focus of the role of women tend to centre on appreciation of their role as muses to the men that wrote the famous books. But that seems to be flattering to the women. Kerouac began the Beatnik revolution and his muse was all man. Ginsberg was constantly encouraging and being encouraged by his male friends and lovers, and although heavily influenced by his mother, seemed to draw inspiration from the incredible masculine figures around him. Burroughs only began to write serious after killing his wife, but seemed to take help from the men in his life, particularly in developing his cut-up novels.

Like all bitter debates, the fight over the role of women in the Beat Generation seems lost in bullshit and rhetoric. History tells us they stood on the sidelines and cheered their men on, and then presumably settled down into conformity. The feminists and advocates of female writers will tell us that the women were the inspiration behind the men’s work, and wrote the best works themselves.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps nowhere at all. One could not, for example, claim that the men were all brilliant writers and equally appreciated by the popular literary community. Not at all. To seek truth, we must look at a few of the female writers, their lives and works, and analyse them as individuals, before considering judging their collective output and worth.

Carolyn Cassady

Let’s first look at one of the more famous of the female Beats, though perhaps famous wrong reasons. Or maybe not… Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich & famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.

Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of which her parents would approve. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.

She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.

Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.

Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952, when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.

Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.

She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.

Joyce Johnson

Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac & co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, but remembered in popular memory for her memoirs (part of which became a terrible Hollywood movie), Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.

Joyce Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, who Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.

According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”

She dated Kerouac for around two years, but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.

She won the National Book Circle Critics award for her Minor Characters, her memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.

Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s gal, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.

Diane di Prima

Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”

Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.

She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between Beat and hippy movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.

She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. She also helped Amiri Baraka edit The Floating Bear, worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and teaches at Naropa and the New College of California.

Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of the Generation, and became a valuable contribution not just to the Beats, but to American literature.

Hettie Jones

It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.

While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem press, an important Beat publisher.

She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, been published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.

Edie Parker

Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.

Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.

When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.

Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.

Joan Vollmer

Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was her that spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them, and later became Joan Vollmer Burroughs. William S Burroughs was her second husband.

Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that torn her away from her mother, and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women.

In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug-use caused them.

Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, becoming a strange epitome of gay-junky chic, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.

Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug-use, legal troubles, unpredictable, self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young boys, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.

Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:

Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.

Joanne Kyger

Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principals and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.

Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Anne Waldman

 

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.

That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.

But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken in social issues.

Elise Cowan

I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources, for she was not a great writer, but she helps to explain why there were not a great many female Beats. Elise Cowan’s example explains why perhaps it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in the literary anthologies, but rather explains why there just weren’t that many female Beats.

Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.

When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.

For more info on the Beat Babes, Beatdom suggests you read Brenda Knight’s fantastic Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.

Women of the Beat Generation

History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society. Continue Reading…

Know Your Beats

A very brief guide to the players of the Beat Generation.

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