Archives For carolyn cassady

“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…

Reconsidering the Importance of the Joan Anderson Letter

It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history. Continue Reading…

Neal Cassady Birthday Bash

5th ANNUAL DENVER NEAL CASSADY BIRTHDAY BASH FEBRUARY 7th

The Fifth Annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash will take place on Friday, February 7th at 8:00pm, upstairs at the Mercury Café located at 2199 California in Denver.

The Bash features music, poetry and reminiscences celebrating the birthday and life of Neal Cassady. Reared on the streets of Denver, pop culture icon Cassady was the archetype Beat writer as well as the protagonist of
Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” He also was the driver of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters bus for the “Acid Tests.” Throughout his life Neal exuded a style and distinct Denver “cool” which cemented his stature as a true American original.

The 2014 Bash will feature Cathy, Jami and John Allen Cassady presenting a special tribute to their Mother the late Carolyn Cassady who died in 2013. In addition, poet, cannabis advocate and founder of the 60’s White Panther
Party John Sinclair will fly in from Amsterdam to perform with his Blues Scholars. And to conclude the Bash, the David Amram Quartet-augmented by Jazz power couple Richie Cole and Janine Santana-will play a full set of Jazz in their only Denver appearance. A friend and collaborator of both
Cassady and Kerouac, David Amram’s integration of jazz, ethnic and folk and film music has led him to work with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Pete Seger and
many others. The New York Times noted that the eighty two old Amram was “multicultural before multiculturalism existed.”

There will also be free birthday cake! Tickets will be available at the door and are on sale now at BrownPaperTickets.com.

Denver’s self-described “unnatural son” Neal Cassady would have been 88 years old on February 8th.

Additional information:
Mark Bliesener
(303) 477-6987

The Town and the City

The Town and the City is a complete joy, Jack Kerouac’s holiday present to the world.
As the New England chill turns to cold and colored leaves fall from trees, girls and boys, it’s time to dust off copies of The Town and the City and settle down to an autumnal read for the fall season of football games and big Thanksgiving turkey dinners and American life seen through the glorious, golden, rose-colored glasses of Jack Kerouac. Nostalgia never tasted so good: big families, hometown USA Galloway, life along the river, mother and father, brothers and sisters who are best friends, dozens of neighborhood and school pals, big roast beefs and eggs and bacon and coffee smells, cakes and pies, cigars, cigarettes, and whisky, a wonderful jubilation of Christmas and New Year’s holidays and dances and songs, followed by spring and summer and swimming under shade trees.
A delight to read and fun, sentence after sentence, there’s a bounce to the words, a spark and sparkle, like firecrackers crackling on a big night. In a stunning essay “The Blind Follow the Blind” (The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats) Carolyn Cassady states, “Kerouac’s appeal was his joyous celebration of life . . . giving us descriptions so intimate, intense and colorful, few others have matched his gift.” This is especially apparent in The Town and the City where warm-hued descriptions break wave after delightful wave. As in this scene when Mr. Martin [father] and young Mickey [a brother] win at the track. “Now we’ll go to Boston and have a big feed . . . Whattayou say we both eat a couple of steaks apiece, . . . All the ice cream you want! . . . All the steaks and chops and lobster you want . . . all the ice cream and pie and cake in the world! Everything! Fried Clams! hot dogs! hamburgers! sauerkraut and franks! . . .” The excitement, the good times, the adventure is delicious: grab a slice of life and relish it.
The book is divided into five parts; about half is set in the town of Galloway, Massachusetts, a time of idyllic youth, and the other half, after World War II, is set in the city, New York City, that is, mainly Manhattan. The second half is less innocent than the first. The war has changed the world and life has changed the Martin family. The kids have grown up and the family’s fortunes have dwindled. The protagonist has met up with “wild” friends, who of course turn out to be Levinsky, Dennison, and Wood [Ginsberg, Burroughs, Carr] and the whole gang. Mr. Martin muses, “I wish Petey [Jack] could make friends with some nice normal young people,” which of course is hilarious, and how dull things would have been without such intimates. He continues, “I’m proud of you to have dope fiends and crooks and crackpots for friends.” Pete defends his choices, his friends, and just as he thinks he’s found the meaning to love and life, the police come to the door, and then another explosion from the old man, and tears from Ma.
This is a family saga that comes full circle, ending where it began for Dad, George Martin, in the green rolling hills of New England, surrounded by family, home, tradition. But Jack is who he is, “And Peter was alone in the rainy night . . . on the road again, traveling the continent westward . . .” The rest is history, his story, Jack’s stories, autobiographical poetic prose.
Lucien Carr said about Jack (Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac), “I tell you, you will never find as pure a man as that.” And Jack’s purity, his light-shining spirit certainly illuminate the five hundred pages of this, his first published novel. Originally, the novel was about a thousand pages, but the publishers insisted on cuts.

Carolyn Cassady, 1923 – 2013

 

Carolyn Cassady portrait

Today the Beat community was saddened to hear of the death of Carolyn Cassady. Carolyn is well-known to Beat fans partly as the wife of Neal Cassady, and also through the work of Jack Kerouac. She played an important role in these men’s lives, but also contributed to the world of Beat studies by writing two memories of her involvement in the movement: Heartbeat, which was made into a movie starring Sissy Spacek, and Off the Road.

In 2007, when I was founding Beatdom, I spoke with Carolyn a few times via e-mail and she was tremendously supportive of the project. She continued to help in various capacities, and later we published an interview she did with Spencer Kansa.

She lived a long life and will be greatly missed.

The Last Man Standing: Al Hinkle

The name Al Hinkle should be familiar to most readers of Beatdom, and if it isn’t then they’ll most likely know him by one of the names Jack Kerouac gave him in his novels: Big Ed Dunkel, Slim Buckle, or Ed Buckle. Hinkle and his wife, Helen were good friends of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, and feature frequently as characters in a number of Beat Generation texts, including many of Kerouac’s, and also John Clellon Holmes’ Go.

Hinkle is known as the “Last Man Standing”, a reference to his position as the only male character from On the Road who remains alive today. In that novel he was Ed Dunkel, and his wife, Helen, was Galatea. In the original scroll, Hinkle is one of the people to whom Kerouac refers as “they” in his most famous quote, which begins, “they danced down the street like dingledodies…” He was one of the people who Kerouac followed, who inspired Kerouac, who taught Kerouac, and therefore a primary influences on the creation of one of the most significant pieces of mid-twentieth century American literature.

The Hinkles remained friends with Kerouac and Cassady until their short lives ended in the late sixties. Today, Al Hinkle maintains a website (www.alhinkle.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel), and speaks at events to help maintain the flow of information about the stories behind Kerouac’s classic novel.

He was kind enough to speak to Beatdom about his life, and also the forthcoming On the Road movie, with the assistance of his webmaster and biographer, Teri Davis.

 

How did you first meet Neal Cassady?Al, Jack, Jami and Cathy Cassady, Mark Hinkle Spring 1952

 

I first met Neal in 1939, when we were both 12. It was summertime, and I wanted to join the Denver YMCA. I didn’t have the money, but since hardly anyone did, they were pretty loose about membership. Both Neal and I spent a lot of time there, and we became good friends.

 

Neal and his father lived on Skid Row. Neal Sr. was an alcoholic, and spent a lot of time in the Denver jail as a trusty. The jailers would get his barber tools out of hock so he could give them, and the cons, free haircuts. Between Neal’s situation and my lousy home life, it was no wonder that we both wanted to be away from it as much as possible.

 

The Denver Y had a program come in called “Gym Circuses” that trained people to do circus acts. They chose Neal and me to participate, so we spent about 6 weeks practicing and tumbling. At age 12, I was almost 6 foot tall (I eventually ended up 6 foot 6), so I was the bottom man in the pyramids and the high wire act, and I was the catcher in the flying trapeze act. Neal was the flier; he would swing on the trapeze and do a somersault, and I would catch him. There was a net, but we hardly ever had to use it.

 

Life intruded after that summer, and we didn’t see each other again until a mutual friend reintroduced us when we were 19. Because of our shared experience, my little inside joke with Neal was that after all these years, I was still trying to keep him from falling!

 

An interesting side note: Recently Teri Davis, the woman helping me write my biography, was doing research on the Internet. She found a website – www.aerialartsfestdenver.com, which talked about the Denver Y’s trapeze and how it got there. Teri left a message on their site asking for more information and received this reply from Lynn Coleman, the founder of Aerial Fabric Acrobatics:

 

“My father was one of the trapeze flyers at the [Denver] YMCA when he was in college in the 1940’s. Our family learned circus skills and performed on the road as a result…

One reason that Kerouac came to Denver is that my Great Uncle Haldon Chase was from Denver. He is one of the characters in On the Road. He no longer is living…”

Isn’t that something? I never knew that our friend Hal Chase’s family got involved in those gym circuses too, and ended up becoming professionals. Small world, huh?

Tell us about Luanne Henderson.

 

Luanne! I fell in love with her the first time I met her. She was a beautiful, blonde 16 year old, outgoing and confident. She wasn’t forward with men, but she wasn’t shy, either. Luanne wasn’t a “quirky” girl; she was very down to earth and got along with everyone.

 

Neal had such complicated relationships. I remember us pulling in to the drive-in diner and being introduced to Neal’s beautiful little wife when she came out to take our order, then going to Pederson’s pool hall and meeting Jeanie, Neal’s girlfriend. It kinda shocked me.

 

I know Luanne was in love with Neal all her life. I could see that, even at 16, she felt that she was a married woman, not a child. She was the one that found the way to make all of Neal’s crazy plans work – she worked for money (or stole it), found rides, made sure she took care of her man. Even after he divorced her to marry Carolyn, Luanne made herself available to Neal whenever he asked, and I think she always felt that she was still his wife, even though they both remarried. When BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) first opened in the 70’s, I would take a ride from San Francisco to the last stop on the line – Daly City, and I would walk up this enormous hill to Luanne’s house and visit with her every week. I always had good feelings about her – she had earned her place in our gang and was fun to be with.  I know she had gotten into heavy drug use later, in her 40’s, but she went to rehab in Colorado and came back to California clean and sober.

 

How did you first meet Jack Kerouac? What were your first impressions of him?Al Hinkle and Jack Kerouac, Spring 1952

 

Jack was a friend of Neal’s, and one of the reasons for the “OTR” cross-country trip we took was to pick up Jack in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  That was not the first time I met him, though. Jack had come to Denver a couple of years before that – in 1946. That was right about the time that my father, his wife and my grandparents took a two-week vacation to California, and we partied hard in their house while they were gone. We didn’t have permission, of course!

 

When my father returned, he found out about us using the house. He’d done a little investigating and he’d talked to several people, and some of those girls we’d been partying with at his place were underage. I was in deep shit as far as he was concerned. He decided to get me out of town. He said, “You are not going to stay here in Denver and maybe get sent to jail. You’re going to go to California and get a job on the railroad with your uncle.”

 

Obviously, there was a lot going on with me at that time, and I really didn’t have a chance to talk to Jack very much.

 

After we picked him up in Rocky Mount, I finally got the opportunity to know Jack a little better. I thought he was a true intellectual. He had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded everything he experienced, filtering all through his own unique lens. I felt that his friends were all intellectuals as well and, having dropped out of school in the 10th grade, that gave me the impetus to further my own education. We became lifelong friends, and I sure miss him.

 

How did you and Helen feel about her stay with the Burroughs family in New Orleans, 1949?

 

I think I’ve mentioned before that the Burroughses weren’t all too happy to have had Helen ‘dumped’ on them. As a matter of fact, when Helen first got there, Bill wasn’t happy and began writing letters to Allen (Ginsberg) in New York telling him to tell me to come and get her out of his house, it’s not a hotel! When we finally got to their house, which was actually in Algiers, LA (across the Mississippi River from New Orleans), Bill and Joan welcomed us. Helen had made herself indispensible in the three weeks she had been there, caring for both the Burroughs children (Joan’s three year old daughter Julie and William Jr., who was an infant at that time); she bathed them, fed them, and generally kept them out of their parents’ way. Bill and Joan actually asked Helen and I if we would stay with them – he had a room all ready to fix up for us! But Helen wanted out – she couldn’t believe how they lived, how little care they took of their children; never mind the house, which was dirty, with lizards running around everywhere.

Helen was appalled by Joan’s use of the Benzedrine inhalers – she would open them up and swallow the cotton. Joan would send Helen to buy an inhaler almost every day. Once Helen mentioned to Joan that the pharmacist told her he would happily sell her ten inhalers at a time because he knew she was not the type to abuse them, to which Joan replied, “So, where are they?” And Helen never figured out that Bill was using heroin – she just thought he was stoned on marijuana all the time (which he was, on top of the heroin). It was all just a little too crazy for Helen, and she was glad when we turned down their offer of a room and found ourselves a room in New Orleans, where we stayed for about six weeks. It was a low-budget adventure, but we did get our honeymoon and we enjoyed it immensely.

 

Those three weeks you spent in New York with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others: How accurately were they depicted in On the Road and Go?

 

I would have to say that John’s account in GO! is probably the more accurate. Jack spent some of the time with us, but he also spent days at a time at his mother’s house in Queens, where he’d do all his heavy writing. Neal, Luanne and I went out every day and partied almost every night, and John was with us pretty much all of the time. We also spent a lot of time at John’s house, though we had to leave by 10PM because his wife, Maryanne, worked and needed to go to bed.

 

You know, Maryanne had worked and supported both of them while John went to college. She put up with a lot – John was out every night, or had people in the house all the time, partying and smoking marijuana – and I never saw her upset or complaining. But, once John got his $5,000 advance for GO!, Maryanne told him, “You have money now, you can stand on your own. I’m leaving.” And she filed for divorce. I guess all that partying got to her after all! Maryanne was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.

 

How did you feel when you first read On the Road?

 

My favorite book of Jack’s is On the Road. It was such a wonderful surprise to read! After reading The Town and the City, which was classic American literature, I read On the Road expecting more of the same, and instead it totally blew my mind. It was amazingly different, like nothing I had ever read before. It was brilliant.

 

Jack had just moved to Berkeley when On the Road came out in 1955. Neal, Luanne and I drove over to see him, and he had just received some advance copies of the book. He tried to hide them from us, but Neal grabbed a copy and started reading parts of the book aloud, whooping and jumping around with excitement. It was very exciting to read about our adventures, something written by our friend, something tangible that you could hold in your hand.

 

Jack was worried that we would be mad at his depictions of us, but we loved it. He was very relieved because, as he told us, “I have seven more books ready to go!”

 

In On the Road, Kerouac wrote, “and Al Hinkle would outlive us all telling stories to youngsters in front of the Silver Dollar.” How has your life played out since then?

 

I think that I have had an enjoyable life. I had a job that I loved, riding the rails; I would have done it for free. I achieved my goals, and despite being a high-school dropout, I graduated from San Francisco State with a Bachelor of Arts, and from Stanford with a Masters. I spent time as an Executive, and I worked for the Union as President of the San Francisco Region. I traveled to many places around this great world of ours, and I had 46 wonderful years with the love of my life…

 

I think the most important thing I’d like to let people know is that I’ve lived a grand and interesting life, full of good adventures, good times, good luck and wonderful people. I love having lived my life with liberty and freedom. I guess Jack was right; here I am today, 85 years old, the “last man standing” as they call me, only with my own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel) instead of a bench outside the Silver Dollar, telling my tales to a whole new generation of “youngsters” from all around the world who understand and respect what the Beats stood for. I am honored to be a part of it all.

 

What are your thoughts on the upcoming movie version of On the Road?

 

I think they stayed pretty true to the book and the message. I got to meet some of the young actors in San Francisco when they were shooting there, and later got to know them better at a party thrown for the cast. I fell in love with all of them! It was so satisfying to see how all of these young people took the story, which was written over half a century ago, to heart and showed it so much respect. They were all dedicated to doing the movie right. I just saw the trailer, and I’m really looking forward to the movie; I really think it’s got a shot at the Academy Award!

 

**

This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #11.

Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

Jack Kerouac’s books contain such a variety of subjects, styles, and voices that his readers have never shared many common characteristics. On the surface, many of Kerouac’s books seem to exude a tone of rebellion against mainstream culture and everything that comes with it, be it business, government, or religion. This voice speaks to the counterculture that has existed in the developed Western world since the 1950s. Similarly, Kerouac’s major works reflect his heavy interest in Buddhism during the ‘50s – an appealing characteristic to the hordes of young Americans disillusioned with their indoctrination under the various denominations of Christianity. Yet behind Kerouac’s Buddhist leanings remained his consistent views about Catholicism, as well as his constant mentions of Christian iconography in his writing. This voice calls to those who never fully departed from the Christianity or Judaism of their youth, often because of the painful experience of disagreeing with family tradition. What most readers don’t know is that Kerouac himself lived almost entirely in this religious mindset, spurning the counterculture altogether. Continue Reading…

Carolyn Cassady – Neal, Me and Jack makes three

By Spencer Kansa

In 1951, Jack Kerouac began work on a roman a clef whose breathless prose would help define an era and seduce generations to come, On the Road. Based on his road trip adventures from the previous decade, Kerouac drew upon his battered notebooks and unique recall to get it all down. Typing on a continuous roll of teletype paper, his stream of consciousness spilled out in one long inspired flow and soon a soulful vision of America arose from its pages.

Reflecting a romantic flipside of American society, its story is told through the impassioned narration of Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a spiritual quest across America, searching for the divine and finding it in the places he haunts, jazz music he eulogises, and people he touches souls with. A post-War gathering of malcontents lusting for life, mystical illumination, love and meaning amidst the crass materialism, sterile conformity and atom bombs.

Feted on its release six years later, the book’s success created a literary legend out of Kerouac, and immortalised his best boon buddy Neal Cassady, the dynamic inspiration behind the novels freewheeling hero, Dean Moriarty.

In 1990, Cassady’s widow Carolyn set down her own inside take on the Kerouac and Cassady mythos in her highly acclaimed autobiography Off the Road. In her role as a defender of their legacy, she has railed for years against what she sees as the inaccurate and shoddy mistreatment of Kerouac and Cassady’s lives by unscrupulous Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters, whom she charges have too often reduced them to little more than glorified juvenile delinquents.

Excerpted from a series of interviews that were conducted at her apartment in Belsize Park, London, between February and May of 1998, the following segment focuses on Carolyn’s romances with the two charismatic soul brothers, and lifts the veil on their complex sexual psyches.

So let me get this straight, you weren’t physically attracted to Neal but you were to Jack. You loved them both but you werent in love romantically is that right?

 

Well there were times with Jack that I was, but I knew there was no point because there was Neal but yes. I don’t know what was going on with Jack ha ha. Neal could be romantic when it suited him but it wasn’t much for me except when he was trying to get back into my good graces ha ha then he could turn it on ha ha ha. That’s what got all the other girls.

But it seems incomprehensible that you and Neal got married and yet you werent physically attracted.

 

No, but as I said the reason I thought he was the one, aside from the karmic thing, was because he didn’t make passes. He was the only man I’d run into who didn’t have one thing in mind. So I thought this must be serious ha ha. That and he acknowledged that I had a mind. Course he knew what he was doing, he’d psyched me out immediately. He knew that wasn’t the way to come on.

You wouldnt have had any truck with that.

 

No, he could tell I must have gone through that and so he made a different approach and it worked ha ha, and then he was sorry ha ha ha. It worked too well ha ha. Whereas Jack would make passes at you and he wouldn’t mean to actually, the chemistry was there but there wasn’t any chemistry with Neal.

Well you seduced Jack the first time didnt you?

 

Not really, I just let it happen that’s all. We avoided each other like crazy because we had felt it in Denver and he said ‘too bad’ and it was discouraged because we were principled and nothing more was done about it. In those days we didn’t carry on. Now its ‘go ahead and seduce her’ ha ha, ‘why bother stopping it?’ But in those days we had principles so nothing was done. So eventually, what with the scene with Neal, I just thought ‘might as well let it happen.’

Thats quite a delicious feeling anyway isnt it, having that sexual frisson in the air and not acting upon it?

 

Oh well yeah it’s nice to be admired and wanted sort of, but I’d rather not ha ha ha. You can’t go on with it, you can’t do anything about it, but it did make us closer. I think I said in the book in those days the man had to make the first move and I also knew that Neal would get over it ha ha ha. But had it been anyone but Neal we wouldn’t have resisted. But the things Neal wrote in those letters about what I did with Jack aren’t true, they’re from jealousy. Yet the whole world’s gonna think they are. It’s one of those things you have to put up with. It’s difficult to read those letters. In some ways it’s my word against his.

You particularly weren’t happy with the way the director John Byrum depicted the love triangle between you Neal and Jack in the film Heartbeat were you?

 

No, and I told him ‘you’ve ruined my life, all you seem to do is let me hang around and watch you make a movie and tape my mouth shut’ and I did except for one time, and he did this three times in three scenes, where Jack and I are canoodling and Neal is out playing ball with the kids or something. Three times this scene. So after the first one Sissy Spacek and I were at the station wagon going to the next location and I said to her ‘y’know I promised not to say anything, but that was the hardest scene I have had to watch y’know, Jack and I loved Neal, we would never have done anything like that in front of him. The lack of humanity, as well as the showing off’ and she said ‘oh my God’ and burst into tears, and she had to do it two more times and it was that kind of thing, ‘whose turn is it tonight fellas?’ Because we didn’t admit it to ourselves much less anybody else, we were ashamed of it. So Jack and I never looked at each other when Neal was in the house because we cared for him. But the consciousness of people today is ’well it was a three-way…’

A ménage a trios!

 

Which it was! But it was certainly not acknowledged or discussed at all.

No, it wasnt like a Jules et Jim scenario.

 

Of course not ha ha. Actually Byrum had just seen Jules et Jim actually and this was what he wanted to do, in fact they almost made the T-shirts ‘Jules and Jim go to North Beach’ ha ha ha. I said ‘look it’s been done and it’s been done well, you can’t possibly do that, why not do my book?’

Speaking of movies, I always thought the person who shouldve played Neal years ago was Paul Newman – whenever I watch him playing Fast Eddie in The Hustler I always think of Neal.

 

Yeah, I think that’s more like Neal than anybody else. Newman’s handsomer but it’s the right blue eyes and the smile that would have been nice back then.

But also in Visions of Cody, that Denver pool scene always reminds me of that film.

 

Well I think they had thought of it as well ha ha, so I hear.

There’s a picture in your book where Neals tossing the hammer, and in profile he really looks like Paul Newman.

 

Yeah, well of course he had this broken nose but he had those bright blue eyes, that’s what’s so accurate. And Jack too had bright blue eyes.

But that rarely comes across because most of the photographs of him are in black and white. To have blue eyes with black hair, thats a great combination.

Oh my, a fatal combination ha ha ha. In fact there are few actors that have that combination. But Jack was swarthier and more handsome, more like a Clark Gable, he was fleshier is what I mean, had those fleshier cheeks. And he was a little ruddier than Neal who was quite pale.

Jack and Neal look very contemporary looking dont they, in the way that James Dean still does?

 

Well they never grew their hair ha ha ha. The one thing they did is have their hair cut, which is contemporary now. Now that men have started cutting their hair again and pulling their pony tails back. But the most popular picture of Jack is the one where he’s just come out of the shower, where his hair’s all messed up and that’s the one they used over and over. After that of course he just got drunker and drunker, but when I knew him he never had a hair out of place. He always had a comb. Boy he was always so finicky about his hair ha ha ha.

Well it was his crowning glory.

 

Right. It’s a shame because I like long hair and beards but Neal abhorred them. I’ve got a picture of him where he shaved his head. He came back from New York and got stoned and shaved it all off. I know about the beards because he had very sensitive skin and wouldn’t shave. Jack would be unshaven of course if he was drinking or they were working on the railroads. But I don’t think Jack ever grew a beard or a moustache or anything, he wasn’t very vain really. But it was an awfully quiet period for men in terms of being colourful. It was still very muscle-bound. Jack was more sort of agile but his muscle had turned to flab by the time I knew him. He wasn’t doing any exercise ha ha.

Jack is also often accused of suffering from a Madonna/Whore complex.

 

Mmm.. that turns out to assess him ha ha. Well I saw a lot of examples of that in Tristessa, because she’s a whore. But the thing that seriously impressed me reading it over was how vividly he describes his surroundings, no matter how miserable he is, every puddle, every crummy everything he gets down. It just makes such a vivid impression on his mind so you’re drawn into that horrible, creepy place but he doesn’t judge either his surroundings or these dreadful people that’s he’s involved with. Absolutely no judgment at all. But you see that he has loved this woman and he respected all women because of the Madonna thing. Also I was thinking about the tenderness, he was such a sensitive, tender hearted person and the compassion he felt for her is amazing, and he never says anything that isn’t admiring. He gives you clues that she must’ve been ghastly, but to him she’s the Madonna thing. Course they never did sleep together but his attitude towards whores was – and I think that’s why the only time he enjoyed sex – if at all – may have been because he rationalised the fact that they wanted it and they were asking for it and they were earning a living.

So he was helping them ha ha ha.

 

Justifying it yes. So he was just doing them a favour ha ha. So that way I think he could probably relax more.

Maybe because he figured that they were bad girls and so he could do bad things with a bad girl.

 

Well something like that, although I don’t think he ever thought anyone was bad. Even though he tells you about these men’s lives and things, he never judges or condemns them. Of course all the time I’m reading it and he describes this rooftop room I’m thinking ‘my God that’s where he wanted me to come!’ I mean he was trying to persuade me to join him. Oh I’m glad I didn’t go ha ha. But as Luanne (Henderson, Neal’s first wife) said ‘you never felt as though Jack was completely participating in the (sex) act’ ha ha. Part of that was he was always the observer no matter where he was, even when he was involved he wasn’t ever totally involved, he never surrendered. He couldn’t because he was just totally wrapped up in himself and in writing, that’s all he did. And in one letter he wrote to me he said “no woman owns me – not even you who should” and I always knew that of course. There was no way that he could ever be a husband, and I had to let him be completely free. I mean he lived in his head all the time. Yet he always wanted a home and a family. It was still a dream that he never lost, but it was all in his head!

There is a difference between loving somebody and being in love isnt there?

 

Yes I certainly know and with Neal I loved him but I wasn’t in love.

But the way you describe him, he is physically attractive.

 

Yes, but see I was a sexual cripple in that department too so that made a difference, but the chemistry wasn’t there with Neal, but I admired him artistically and aesthetically.

Like you would in an art class.

 

Right. I’m really sensitive to physical things but there’s been chemistry without that, it has nothing to do with aesthetics, there’s some sort of strange attraction we can’t explain and we call it chemistry.

But with Jack you were in love?

 

Yeah he knew and I knew. I loved him lots and lots. But that didn’t diminish my love for Neal, he knew I loved Neal, as he did, and that was important for him. That’s why he felt so safe too and why he could be more himself with me and Neal cos for one thing we weren’t asking him for anything. He knew I was safe and wasn’t gonna make demands or ask to marry him or anything. So that the best thing you could do was listen to him and that was fun. I loved hearing him talk and figure things out, and of course we exchanged ideas, but he didn’t have to approve of my opinion. But I don’t think he could ever surrender which is what you sort of have to do if you’re going to mate with someone. So we were very close and compatible, but I always felt that he was a separate entity, that I’d always be an outsider, an appendage. But also Jack talked about sex a lot and wanted Neal to write him about sex and he puts a lot in his books and I’m sure he thought about it a lot, but actually it probably was that sin thing at the back of his mind that he couldn’t really enjoy it or participate in it.

Thats what I meant about being with the prostitutes, it’s easier for him because for these women – sin is their business.

 

Yes, it’s easier, right. He could rationalise that, whereas with respectable women, I don’t know how he did it ha ha ha. But it wasn’t on his mind all the time either as it was with Neal. I think Jack mentioned sex so much because it was such a problem, such a dilemma and a guilt thing. He was always asking God “why did you create us just to die” ha ha ha. Y’know that was his problem. His God was not a loving father but the horrible judge.

The fire and brimstone type.

 

Yes. That you were born a miserable rotten worm and were never gonna get any better.

So thats why he embraced Buddhism.

 

Yes, but see that is a snare, a delusion, because of course he wasn’t a Buddhist. I’m sure that he loved all the imagery and what not, but the thing that caught him was that all this was nothing ha ha ha. So all his sensory stimulus, that he was so guilty of, the Buddhists said ‘it’s empty, it’s nothing’ so that became his reassurance. ‘It doesn’t even matter anyway and then were all gonna die’ but he never got that quite together because Buddha doesn’t believe in death so that for a Catholic was strange. But it gave him this out. This ‘oh well it doesn’t matter.’ Of course he didn’t follow anything else in the Buddhist tradition but that load of old escapism was very appealing to him. He certainly wouldn’t say he was a Buddhist at all, but he and Ginsberg were good at pronouncing all the names and getting the concepts ha ha.

They read the books ha ha.

 

Yes, ha ha. They read the books but didn’t quite get the message.

Author’s Bio:

Spencer Kansa has written for a variety of publications including Hustler, Mojo, Erotic Review, and The NME. His interviews with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and Herbert Huncke feature in Joe Ambrose’s book Chelsea Hotel, Manhattan (Headpress). He is the author of Wormwood Star, a biography of the American artist and occult icon, Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake of Oxford). His novel, Zoning, was published by Beatdom Books.  For more info: www.spencerkansa.com

The Beat Generation and Travel

More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.

We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.

It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.

 

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.

Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.

At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.

On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.

“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.

The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.

In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.

Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.

Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.

In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”

Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.

After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.

William S. Burroughs

 

Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.

Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.

After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.

In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.

In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.

In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.

When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.

Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.

In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.

After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.

Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.

Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.

In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …

 

This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.

In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.

In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.

 


Allen Ginsberg


 

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

 

Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.

Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”

Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.

In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.

During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”

In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.

In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.

Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.

After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.

In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.

Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”

Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.

On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.

In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.

In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.

Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.

Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)

He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.

After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.

Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.

After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.

READ MORE ABOUT ALLEN GINSBERG’S TRAVELS HERE

 

 

Neal Cassady

 

Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.

Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.

It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.

After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.

Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.

Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.

In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.

 

Gary Snyder

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.

Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.

From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.

The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.

 

After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)

Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.

His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.

Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.

As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.

Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.

Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.

In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.

Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.

Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.

Gregory Corso

The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.

He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.

Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.

Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.

It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.

He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.

Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.

His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.

Michael McClure

McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.

He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.

His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.

He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.

Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.

Harold Norse

Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.

Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.

In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.

Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.

Lady Beats

by Hannah Withrow

1

I begin my immersion into female Beat writers fittingly with Diane di Prima; referred to in one anthology as “Poet Priestess,” she is one of the more well-known of these women.  My introduction to her large body of work was Memoirs of a Beatnik, a piece of erotica.  Ridiculous orgies, almost constant sex, nude modeling to pay the bills, always high, always scandalous. Most of her other work is more classically respected as literature—poetry, editing literary journals, novels, that sort of thing. In the Afterword to Memoirs, written in 1987, she describes the writing process for that particular book,

Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with “MORE SEX” scrawled across the top page in Maurice’s inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I’d wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: “Lie down,” I’d say, “I want to see if this is possible.”

That’s how it was in 1969. For a disreputable Beat lady there was not to be an actual memoir; any attempt at truth-telling. Who would want to read that? That wouldn’t sell.  What did such a woman have to say?  Instead the book had to be one of those secret pleasures for women, if tainted by the forceful hand of commerce. A glimpse into the still forbidden world of female expression and pleasure, though its content was likely somewhat controlled by di Prima’s male editor.  Perhaps a young house-bound mother read it; she hid it under the mattress by day.  She did not speak of it with her well-mannered friends.  But when she got a moment to herself, perhaps she snuck it into the living room inside a ladylike publication while the children played pick-up sticks, and perhaps she whispered the rolling words, poetry and adventure to herself.  Hot, hot, hot!  A woman liking sex, a woman grasping for sex—what a revelation—a dirty secret revelation.

Even for me, reading this in 2008 in the privacy of my own apartment I feel self-conscious, not sure that I am allowed to read such a book. I rush home from work to devour its pages; shudder with her as she kisses college girlfriends, beds the sad-green-eyed junkie, and romps in the bedroom with Allen and Jack. I gush about the book to a friend—the prose—the beautiful prose. He wants me to bring it for him to check out, I can’t do it. Would I bring him a vibrator?  He can’t possibly understand.  It won’t be the same for a boy, not the same at all. No, this book is one I will pass around to girl friends, recommend for a quiet night at home.

Ms. di Prima didn’t get to write her real memoir until 2001, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years. A big fat juicy memoir, no longer a total literary prostitute, she had put in her time, waited and worked. Books and books of poetry, many self-published, very difficult to acquire these days, page after page, typing away, listening to the men read. Writing-teaching-grey-hairs-fighting-marrying-divorcing-mentoring-mothering-scrimping-saving, she had put in her time.

This memoir focuses more heavily on the scary side to sex. In those days every intimate encounter would literally put your life in danger. With limited access and few effective options for birth control, randy women were faced with illegal and dangerous abortions, the perils of childbirth, and the disgust of parents and society at large. Lesbian activities could get you institutionalized. There they might perform unethical experiments, engage patients in bullshit analysis, and electroshock was a given. Lobotomies were preformed, sterilization presumed to be a favor to society, and the prescribed levels of lithium were off the charts. But Diane di Prima did not let it stop her. She writes, “Every chance encounter was weighed: was it worth, ultimately, dying for, if it came to that?  And the answer was usually yes… It was not that I held my life so cheap, but held experience, the savoring of life so dear.”

Still, she laments the “rule of Cool,” that kept her time-after-time from revealing true feelings, hurt, love, rejection, and desire, from friends and lovers. People were supposed to be free; claims should not be made on them. Lovers could love others, dear friends could leave town on a whim, and breakups were supposed to happen without comment. Sometimes di Prima wanted to say, “stay,” but felt she wasn’t allowed to. She writes, “With all my belief in freedom I was in pain, of course, was wounded again and again in the course of this love. But for me these wounds were a kind of decoration. The scars of intentional battle against deadening rules, against all sense of possession of the Other, against my unruly, starving, clamorous self.” But she used the rules for her own benefit as well, gave herself permission to love anyone anytime, had her children without consulting the fathers or asking anything of them, and living wherever she wanted to live.

This defiance and unwillingness to be controlled is part of the attitude that kept her going, what stopped her from being shoved down by misogyny and the literary glass ceiling of the times. She stood up and read her poems; she printed journals and books, her own and those of others she admired. She started theaters, had babies when she felt like it, stuck with her values and ideals. She would not be told. Scary and powerful. Diane di Prima is my fucking hero. Get me some of Those ovaries.

2

How I Became Hettie Jones, where has book been all my life? Fascinating stuff, white Jewish woman, secret poet, marries black activist poet, LeRoi Jones, New York in the 50s. Sexism and racism compounding to crush her and her family. Hettie sleeps with another man; LeRoi (at that time also involved with Diane di Prima) is infuriated. At home they scream at each other. He calls her a whore, she reminds him of his infidelities, he smashes plates—he wants to hit her—she dares him. He does it.

Terrible sexism, Hettie the abused wife.  But Mrs. Jones reminds the reader that this is a more complicated story: “Two twenty-five-year-old kids with a kid, in the middle of a lot of commotion.  Do you see race in this?  Have you forgotten?  It would get worse.”  Gender isn’t what eventually tore them apart, race is.  And Hettie Jones takes her blackwhite children with her on the subway, they get stares and yells, cruel comments, can’t rent in this buildings, threats. This is as close as a white woman can get to knowing racism. Walk a mile in his shoes, carry the children that are also his, back sweating under the double-triple burden. Hettie Jones talks about her own troubles and the troubles of others without giving in to the easy outs of comparison and minimization of the pain of others.

Hettie Jones wrote her poems in secret. She listened and praised her husband. Lugged her baby belly over to see Jack Kerouac and listen to the words bouncing off the walls with shining eyes. Hettie Jones did not read her poems out loud. She was afraid they were bad. She wrote her poems and destroyed them, began a children’s book and lost the manuscript. It took years for her to gain her footing, to trust herself. To make and give art.  Hettie Jones had something to say. Lucky for me she managed to get some of it out.

I, too, have thrown out poetry. Have thought I was no good. Me, what am I, what have I to say? I close my eyes and lean back, I imagine Hettie Jones pushing the heavy stroller, doing all the grunt work for LeRoi Jones’ projects. Putting together their literary magazine Yugen, a magazine he got all the credit for, typing his poems and plays, cleaning and doing his editing, raising babies, and earning the money to feed them. Hettie Jones became an abomination to her family for her rebellion yet remained tied to the kitchen. She got to be near greatness and people thought that was supposed to be enough for a woman.

3

By the time I get to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters I am in love with these ladies. I go online and order myself a black beret. If it wasn’t so hot out I would get black tights too; maybe I will this fall. Friends start calling me Annie Hall and making countless other beret references. I clarify that I am going for a Beat aesthetic; I started reading female Beat memoirs and poetry in hopes of uncovering the female art inspired by the movement and how it was limited by the pervasive sexism and racism of the male leaders. I want to know how and why they made art in such a mean and dirty world. I am so glad I have looked; I have found a new bundle of beautiful writers and artistic mothers. Women I can declare as influences.

Joyce Johnson is sweet. I think we would have been friends if we had met in her teens or early twenties. At thirteen she began making treks to Greenwich Village lingering hopefully around the oh-so-cool Trotskyites, hoping to be noticed by one of the attractively disheveled older men and adopted into the scene. Hanging out in skeezy coffee shops singing songs of the proletariat and learning to smoke, she unknowingly hung out in proximity to such artists as e e cummings, W.H. Auden, and Jackson Pollock. I want to drink ten-cent coffee and overhear Franz Kline discussing abstract expressionism. I want to copy the garb of the bohemian and brilliant, slipping into my affect with dangling earrings and a sinewy belt as I head to the Village on a subway towards hip.

While I certainly spent my share of time as a teen riding around in cars with disheveled older males and hanging around scenes I was not yet old enough or cool enough to actually be part of, I wasn’t exactly chilling with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So while I’d like to think I would have been friends with Joyce Johnson, it seems quite likely that she was much smarter, hipper, and luckier than I ever will be.

I suppose I should just take a number in my envy of her. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s lover during the time in his life when his fame was just beginning. There has to have been scores of young women and men thinking how romantic and wonderful it would be. Except that it sounds awful to me. I really like his writing and all, but from what I can tell he was totally neurotic and obsessed with his mother, not to mention a raging alcoholic.  Don’t get me wrong, when I first read The Dharma Bums my toes fell off at “Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds,” but all this Memere stuff is creepy and sad to me.

What I am most envious of is her ability to be a part of such a wild scene and survive it. The drugs and music, the many lovers, the late nights, the drunken poetry readings, the press jangling her phone at all hours looking for Jack, looking for a quote, the manic friends in and out of institutions, bumming money and a begging for a place to crash. And here she is managing to become successful, functional, and not dead in the midst of craziness and creation. How wonderful to be best friends with the sad, possibly insane and hidden poet Elise Cowen, to have another best friend in Hettie Jones, to publish a fantastic novel by the age of twenty-six, and to have fucked some seriously hot men—also exceptional poets.

Joyce Johnson allowed herself to be an accessory. As a female, choosing such an unconventional life meant losing her family and that whole support system. And boy Beats weren’t exactly the types to bring home the bacon. No, they were hustlers and moochers, at the expense of the disempowered ladies around them, ladies inspired by their art and a lifestyle that couldn’t quite be theirs. Joyce Johnson was one of those women. I imagine she worked twice as hard as any of the male Beats, full-time at a real job, writing her novel by night, but always prepared to drop everything if her Jack showed up. He came and went, she stayed and toiled, took care of herself and others. Had to keep it together for no one else seemed able.  She writes,

The great accomplishment was to avoid actual employment for as long as possible and by whatever means.  But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages, since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from.  The women didn’t mind, or if they did, they never said—not until years later.

I can’t be mad at her for living this way. What models did she have for independent female life? And who would have supported her in such an endeavor? I forget how impossible it all was, how much disgust and disapproval she faced for all her actions. Johnson writes of John Clellon Holmes’s portrayal of the Beats in his novel Go,

And whereas he scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman à clef to their originals, the ‘girls’ are variously ‘amalgams of several people’; ‘accurate to the young women of the time’; ‘a type rather than an individual.’  He can’t quite remember them—there were anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience.  Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men?

It must have been hard to think of herself of an equal to these men with them constantly brushing her thoughts or comments to the side, not ever really seeing her.

Not everyone has the confidence of di Prima, who called the males on their shit continually, refused to internalize their misogyny. In Sam Kashner’s book, When I was Cool, a memoir of his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets studying under aging Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs in the mid seventies he writes about his experience meeting Diane di Prima whom he mistakenly credits with having been married to LeRoi Jones (probably having been misinformed by Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg introduces di Prima “as a poet from Hunter High School in New York and a lover of LeRoi Jones.” She immediately calls him out in front of everyone, “You do that to all the girls. You need to know who they’ve slept with to figure out why they’re important to you. It’s annoying.” Kashner is impressed at her ability to stand up to Ginsberg and takes careful notes during her lecture.

Where would Joyce Johnson have received the support she needed to carry on independently? Twenty-one and in love with poetry and a poet. How could I judge her for it? I know what I was like at twenty-one; lacking the strength of identity to ground myself, I floated from one idea to the next, felt no real truths applied to my existence.  At twenty-one, I too discovered Kerouac and spent long evenings in coffee shops staring at his handsome face on the cover of my copy of The Subterraneans (an uncomfortably racist novel where Kerouac appropriates the painful story of a female lover’s descent into madness). I bought a book of Buddhist scriptures and didn’t edit my poetry that year. I quit going to church and drank too much. I thought salvation came from art, often forgetting that art comes from artists, and artists are people, just people, people with problems and flaws. And if a Jack Kerouac had come along and asked, I too would have stopped the clock to make him grilled cheese with tomato and run my fingers over his desperate head.

Just today, I turned on the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? There is a clip from 1959 (the year after Kerouac and Johnson broke up) of him on the Steve Allen Show, he reads from On the Road his lips pouting, his pauses perfect. Isn’t that what makes a good writer, someone who creates wells in your eyes and makes you fall a bit in love sans reason? Yeah, I get it, Joyce Johnson. I think I get it.

4

I have to try to like Carolyn Cassady. She isn’t as charming as the others but she matters.  I think about her struggles of time, place, poverty and womanhood, contextualize her as trapped in a cycle of abuse with the stunning deadbeat Dean Moriarty incarnate—the inspiring “N” of “Howl.” She is the loyal housewife on steroids, raising the children and supporting the family on almost nothing while Neal Cassady rode around America in stolen vehicles, sleeping with every crazy chick he met. She stayed; she gave him what he needed to survive in his own restless way, almost always with someone to come back to. Sure, she kicked him out, split with him from time to time, eventually for good. But she continued to care for him, if from a distance. Her book, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, involves seemingly endless yelling, screaming and crying at his outrageous behavior. Then she goes into ecstasy at every attempt for change and improvement, but, no matter what he has done this time, she is always there for Neal Cassady to come back to penitent and needy.

Carolyn Cassady had her moments when she refused to be a doormat. When Jack Kerouac brings a black woman into her house and takes her up to his room, Carolyn Cassady will not stand for such behavior in front of her children and demands that Jack and her husband get her out. Her description of the woman is jarring:

She lunged at me flashing her black eyes, narrowing them into slits, then opening them wide with hate, the yellow eyeballs around the black center like the eyes of toy animals.  Slowly she coiled words around her tongue, and they slithered out between her teeth, smashing against my ears like a string of firecrackers gone wild.

Mrs. Cassady can’t believe it when neither Jack nor Neal defends her against this woman she so despises, and feels herself a sad victim, blubbering and blaming their actions on the fact that she looked unattractive that day in her robe with half her face swollen with a case of Bell’s palsy. She tries to assure the woman that she “has nothing against her personally,” and is shocked that her statement only makes the woman angrier. This is the moment where she chooses to take a stand.

When the family takes a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, she mentions being amused at Neal’s “failure to get the right slant (for a white guy) on how to treat black people.” His friendliness to Southern blacks causes them to freeze up in suspicion as they were accustomed to only ugly hostility from white people. “I explained to him how I’d had to learn the techniques and attitudes of Southern whites, although I’d hated it and it had been a major cause of my leaving the South.” Her attitude is, oh well “It’s all emotional and ingrained.” She seems to think it is cute that Neal doesn’t get it.

Many of the other female Beat writers seemed to be trying so much harder to understand the people around them and fight against the reigning principles of the day. It’s easy for me to judge her and feel angry about her ignorance and ugly behavior. However, Carolyn Cassady was much more isolated than the other women I read, few female friends to work and struggle with. No one to challenge her in this way. Perhaps she would have been different if she were able to hang in New York with the aforementioned women.

The back of her own book identifies her as “Neal’s wife,” not Carolyn Cassady, not Carolyn, not Cassady an artist in her own right (actually more prolific than her husband ever was). Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all get their full names printed in the blurb, from reading the back you would think the book was all about them, not an autobiography by the woman who spent years of her life picking up their pieces and putting them back together so they could go out and be famous. That is probably a somewhat accurate description of Carolyn Cassady’s own self-identification. She lived so long in his shadow, everyone always praising admiring and loving him while she made pizza and cleaned up after the manic parties. I have moments when I feel really bad for her. Her attempts at asserting herself always seem to fall flat, just mirroring Neal’s choices, he sleeps around so she begins to sleep with Jack Kerouac. Finally, by maintaining a tenuous ménage à trois, she gets enough of the attention and love she craves. Yet it all unravels when Neal gets jealous, and once again she puts his needs and desires first. More sacrifices to make Neal happy. So many lost chances, chances to do better and get away, she never makes the leap. Carolyn Cassady was the stone on which an icon was built.

5

In Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs the Beat lady lifestyle gets distilled to its scary core. Ray Bremser becomes a fugitive of the law, escapes with his wife and baby to Mexico. Here they descend into a cavity of addiction and hopelessness. Again, this is a case of the lady Beat supporting her artist man. Bonnie Bremser (also known as Branda Frazer) becomes a prostitute for her husband. He sits in the hotel room writing tortured poems and gets mad, hits her if she doesn’t come back with cash. She has many lovers and revels in their attention and affection, but she hates it when they begin to play a role in her domestic life. She does not want her choices and self-esteem to be questioned. In her head it all makes sense. A trick turned lover begins to ask uncomfortable questions and she tries her best to deflect,

He told me that he couldn’t see how I had stayed with Ray so long when I received the treatment that I did, and he didn’t understand when I told him that I loved Ray, so I resorted to excuses about his being a poet and a beautiful soul, et cetera, to defend my love which Pedrito made me ashamed of.

Her book reads like a Greek epic; Bonnie Bremser and Ray search and search for peace, for a break from the watchful eye of the law, for a good time, a good high. Sometimes they find these things, but it never lasts. Troia is painful to read. The book was drawn from a series of letters to Ray, written immediately after the events detailed in the book had transpired while he was, again, incarcerated. Bremser, the narrator, is not much healed, is still trapped in the arms and mind of her abuser. The control he has over her and the sickness of their relationship is chilling. She writes:

Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues.  He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty.  I am brought back to our meeting in Washington, D.C.; we fucked a lot the first time, all night and all day.  Ray also says that fucking is good for chicks: the more they fuck the better they look and are, and later when he went to jail I figured I should uphold his views and fucked everyone in sight, from the first night to the last.

I just want to cry, I’ve heard this talk before, the girls who become parrots for the men they love. He says, he says, he says, and it isn’t just the words coming out of their mouths it’s the things they do. I remember a teenage client I once had squirming away; telling me it was none of my business if I asked too many questions about her relationship. If I said anything remotely critical about her boyfriend/pimp she was out the door and into his arms, telling him to whisper again all his rules, the truths she knew she were all she had to live by to be safe in his love. The only things she had to know and do to keep being his and not have to think anymore.

In the end the couple finds their way separately back in New York after a lengthy separation resulting from the fraying of nerves and her refusal to continue living under his palm. They meet fatefully on the street and come together again, ready to forget all and be swept back into their sicksad love. Bonnie Bremser and her man inject amphetamine and achieve the “perfect fuck.” The book stops there. The book doesn’t say that once reunited they are torn apart again, Ray Bremser goes back to prison and Bonnie Bremser gets the space she needs to write her memoir. She smokes pot like it’s the seventies and spews forth a stream-of-consciousness, Kerouac-style, which is often illogical and random. The book is packed to the brim with emotion and honesty. Reading it, I can pretend to feel myself in her ratty costume walking the streets to the disdain of many, not being street wise, getting ripped off, getting scared, getting treated like a whore. And I can pretend to feel her love of husband and baby in its crushing weight, taking away all logic and pushing her through sticky drunk nights, just one more lay and then I can go home.

6

Elise Cowen jumped out the window. She’s a ghost now, a ghost with burned papers. Few of her poems survive, her parents having destroyed them upon her untimely death. They burned them due to the scandalous life they told of—drugs depression homosexuality fornication. Just eighty-three remaining poems, eighty-three poems and countless memories told mostly by Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. I read accounts, I read poems, and she eludes me. Is Elise Cowen a fairy story? Was she ever anything but a ghost? I can’t find a single account of her where she seems anything other than a doomed woman at all times.

She loved Ginsberg, sad silly girl, she loved him and he slept with her for a while during his dabbles in heterosexuality due mainly to advice given to him in analysis. Analysis. Elise Cowen understood analysis; she spent plenty of time in Bellevue herself. It didn’t seem to do much good; Elise Cowen’s life story is a spiral of bad choices. Reading about it, I say, don’t don’t don’t! Don’t sleep with your Barnard professor, don’t keep house for him while he walks all over you. Don’t live alone. Don’t drink so much. Don’t take a female lover only because Allen has met Peter Orlovsky. No no no no, don’t move in with them it will only hurt worse. Don’t run away to San Francisco all alone. Don’t jump out the window, the closed window. Don’t die. Write more poems. Please, more poems.

It’s painful to read about Cowen’s love for Ginsberg, for he doesn’t care. It means nothing to him. She barely exists as a person in his mind. She loses her identity to him. Her friend Leo Skir writes of her,

From then on until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter [Orlovsky], left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.

It makes me a little angry to think of this wonderful poet’s personality disintegrating into a replica of her imperfect hero. Elise Cowen does not write the poetry of a follower. She has her own voice, though certainly hints of Ginsberg peek through. These are the poems of a lost and miserable woman; she had much to say that was just her. She had a beautiful mind but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t bear to be Elise, just Elise. She brings to life the morbid realization of what happens to someone who believes it when she hears that to be a woman is not to be a whole human. To be a woman is not good enough.

Every line of poetry by this woman rattles about it my head for hours after reading it. “Emily white witch of Amherst/ The shy white witch of Amherst/ Killed her teachers/ With her love.” Elise Cowen feels like my Emily Dickinson, a white witch but in black, a spirit trailing along touching everything. Always vaguely mourning something, she is the kind of woman who makes unrequited love, oppression, and melancholy look exquisite, romantic. She makes me want to slip back into depression and self-destructive thoughts, life is so bad and Cowen makes it so pretty when it’s ugly. What does she mean? What does she say about poet womanhood? Are all sad lady poets doomed as she was?

Death I’m coming

Wait for me

I know you’ll be

At the subway station

Loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka

And your single simple answer

To every meaning

I want to believe that it shouldn’t be fatal for a woman to love art; I want to have faith in the world and humanity. Poetry is something good and private; there are many who don’t seem to want women to have anything good or private. It is easy to think that maybe women like Elise Cowen are the ones who love poetry most and best. There is something romantic about the idea that poetry can kill you if you love it too much. Loving something that might be pure in this fucked up place is hazardous to one’s health.

But there is more to the story, the truth is, poetry didn’t kill her, sexism did. Elise Cowen could never be Allen Ginsberg because she was a woman, and that knowledge ultimately killed her. She could not see that being Elise Cowen was just as good because there was no evidence that it was. Elise Cowen makes me hope for reincarnation. I hope she gets second chance, and no one better burn her fucking poems next time around.

7

These Beat ladies they make me feel things. Some sort of double X memory within me, memory of pain and punishment, memory of how I got to this place, this lucky place. And it is a lucky place I realize, for while some might drop hints that I should be looking to get married now and that they don’t think this or that is the right decision, they will not shove me in an institution and they will not have the final say. Nor will any man kick me around.

Freedom is not something you have or don’t have, it comes in steps, degrees, small doses. I believe the lady Beats helped bump up my dosage; they helped create a climate for the radical politics and revolutionary beliefs of the sixties and seventies. They made art, they wrote, even if it was hidden or burned, these writings told their secret knowledge, their tired anger. It told of all that was wrong. Elise Cowen writes, “I borrowed the heads of corpses/ To do my reading by/ I found my name on every page/ And every word a lie.”  Now, with these women I can find my name on a page and isn’t always a lie; for they know what it is to be a lady who writes.

Sources:

Bremser, Bonnie. Troia: Mexican Memoirs. New York: Croton Press, 1969.

Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.  New

York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

di Prima, Diane. Memoirs of a Beatnik. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San

Francisco, 1988.

—. Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. New York: Viking

Penguin, 2001.

Johnson, Joyce.  Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit

of Jack Kerouac. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing

the Beat Generation. Piscataway: Rutgers, The State University, 2002.

Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990.

Kashner, Sam. When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School. New York:

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums.  New York: Signet, 1959.

Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the

Heart of a Revolution. New York: MJF Books, 1996.

Peabody, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation.

New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.