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Noise Poetry: An Interview with Thurston Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Interview

Katie Ingegneri: How did you first hear about Naropa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thurston Moore and Anne Waldman, presenting a panel

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The workshop taught by Thurston Moore at Naropa, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thurston Moore and MFA student Katie Ingegneri at Naropa

“It was electric”: A conversation with Michael Sharp

By Noel Dávila

On Ginsberg’s anger & kindness, Kerouac’s “homo viator”, Burroughs’ excremental prose and a fateful evening in the American Midwest.

“What is it you want to talk about, in case I have nothing to say?” I received the above message on my phone from Michael Sharp, who I’d been trying to sit down with for nearly three months. As our anticipated encounter approached I wondered at the possibility of yet another setback. Two days before our repeatedly rescheduled talk, I was not pleased with his message. “The Beats”, I replied, “and your experience, interpretation and knowledge of them.” No surprises; simple as that.

However, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome of my conversation with Sharp, a respected professor and published poet. His insight provides a clear path leading from the Romantics of the 19th century to the Beats, and then from the Beats to rock & roll. Having attended a reading from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in the 80s, Sharp draws a parallel between these so-called readings and rock shows, hinting at the exhilaration of a performance few can claim to have witnessed.

Trained as a Romanticist and in the literature and ideas of the Nineteenth Century, Michael Sharp’s expertise also encompasses poetry and Victorian literature. I sat down with him at his office in the University of Puerto Rico to discuss why he thinks the Beats were American literature’s first rockers, Burroughs’ genius or lack thereof, and the momentous performance he witnessed at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s.

How did you first come in contact with the Beats?  Was it through their writing or through the live shows?

I think it must have been through reading them, but seeing some of them perform was great also. I saw Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso on stage at the University of Wisconsin about 25 years ago.

What year was this?

It would’ve been 1980 something… I forget when Ginsberg died – 1997, I think – but certainly all three of them were alive. Corso died in 2000; he’s buried in Rome, you know, next to the poet Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Quite close to Keats’ grave. It must have been about ’82 or ’83.

What can you tell me about the show, or the readings?

Well, it was electric. In one corner, Burroughs sat ominously behind a desk, and his fingers, which were very long, hung over the desk, very noticeably.  In fact, his fingers were more noticeable than he was. He wore a gray suit, but then he always wore a suit, and he never moved. I think he read from copies of Junky and Naked Lunch in front of him; that’s all he did, he never moved, and his hands remained like this (places hands on desk). Ginsberg had brought his squeeze box and there was a guitarist with him. Corso, who was “the fourth Beat,” after Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, was hovering in the background with a bottle of whiskey – loaded, it seemed. It made for good theater and the nice thing about the reading was that while Ginsberg was doing mantras, he was making eyes at and seemed attracted to the guitarist. This intimate sideshow was part of the show which was periodically interrupted by this strange man here who never moved and Corso who flitted around upstage like a ruined dancer.

So they were all three together?

All three. They were on tour. The University of Wisconsin invited artists, mostly classical musicians and orchestras and Ginsberg & Co were part of the season’s offering. The Beat Show was very memorable and the place was packed.

You’d mentioned it was akin to a rock band playing live.

Oh yes, it certainly was. They were American literature’s first rockers. Well, you know they’re related in a way. Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty (On the Road) is a rapper of sorts. Burroughs later associated with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, and The Clash, among others.

There is a line that leads from the Beats to many rock bands.

Bob Dylan was a great fan of Ginsberg, so was Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain actually met William Burroughs and they spent some time together.

Yes. In Graham Caveney’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, there’s a photograph of the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.. As for Cobain and Nirvana, well, you know, there’s something ‘grungy’ about William Burroughs.

He ventured into other things besides literature: film, acting, multimedia…

He was in a film with Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy). He did a film with Warhol if I remember correctly. He sang as a guest vocalist on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak. He painted, of course. When he moved to Kansas he started to paint, apparently giving up writing, if writing is the right word for what Burroughs did.

The cut up procedure.

Right.

Norman Mailer said that Burroughs “Is the only American novelist living today that may conceivably be possessed by genius.”  Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Yes, in a way. I read somewhere that Burroughs, in pushing the limit, found himself in the wilderness of what ‘limit’ sometimes might imply. I don’t know about genius. Burroughs is a dirty writer. I don’t mean that pejoratively. He’s visceral, he’s excremental, and he pushes the boundaries, I suppose. Like many French writers of the 19th century: Baudelaire, de Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He reminds me of Michel Foucault, actually. Foucault pushed the boundaries to the point that he thought that if he went to every bath house in San Francisco, say, he might just cheat AIDS, circumvent it somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there is an adventurism, a great daring in the way that Foucault crossed over in his writing, and I think, perhaps, Burroughs does the same too. Burroughs doesn’t strike me as being the great writer that Mailer claims for him. I think Burroughs did things that people didn’t dare do, or simply couldn’t/wouldn’t do. If that makes him a great writer, fine. Rimbaud, who must have influenced Burroughs, was equally strange, equally courageous, a poetic genius who gave things up to become an arms dealer, of all things. In a way, Burroughs was like Rimbaud; but he simply ‘gave up’ writing later than Rimbaud who quit writing poetry at nineteen.

What’s your take on Burroughs’ drug addiction?  What effect do you think it had on his work?

It seems to me to be part and parcel of what it was to be a Beat. You know if it wasn’t LSD, it was peyote. If it wasn’t peyote, it was marijuana. If it wasn’t marijuana, it was Benzedrine. I’m not tremendously sure what they took. Whatever Timothy Leary suggested, I guess!

But he was a life-long opiate addict.  Physically he resembled that; pale, skinny…

I suspect there are reasons why people do what they do.  Once again, I think Junky pushes the boundaries. It’s a book that hadn’t been written before. It makes de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater seem quite tame. The closest one is perhaps a book by the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi whose Cain’s Book describes the life of an addict living on a barge in New York. I don’t have any take on Burroughs’ drug addiction at all. Rimbaud had deliberately dirty teeth. He and Verlaine misbehaved in public, at dinner parties. One of the things Baudelaire liked to do – though I think this may be apocryphal – was throwing flowers into the Paris pissoirs and watching them disintegrate in the urine. Burroughs watched himself in the mirror, presumably, disintegrating. But then he never seemed to. He lived until he was 80 something. He had criminal friends who presumably kept him supplied. He had money for drugs. Not as much money as everyone said he had, despite his family’s adding machine business. Coleridge was an opium addict. It eventually killed him, but in his last years he was cared for by a concerned doctor in London. I think over the years, Burroughs was in the care of lots of people, one of the people who cared for him was Ginsberg. Not physically, but cared for the phenomenon of William Burroughs. Ginsberg, who was a kindly man, arranged for Junky to be published, edited Naked Lunch, etc.

Ginsberg and Burroughs were both homosexuals.  Do you think being vocal and open about their sexuality opened doors to the current struggle for gay rights?

Yes, but it’s not as if homosexuality, being gay, hasn’t been around for a while. I mean they were open about homosexuality. Extending sexual boundaries was part of being a Beat as much as it was exploring the possibilities of drugs and spiritual belief. I think the Beats may have opened the doors for gay rights, but Zen Buddhism in some respects and the spiritual power of search were things that kept them going. As for the homosexuality, I don’t know how important it was. They spent a lot of time in Tangier; it’s still an open city. It’s a lovely city too. In Europe, the Beats, for example, are preceded by the 1890s French symbolists, by Oscar Wilde. Burroughs was apparently as much into paid sex as Wilde was. I don’t know if that’s liberating or even how open Burroughs was a homosexual. There’s a photograph here in Caveney’s book of his having his toes sucked by Brion Gysin, a British painter. Is it his toe? I can’t tell. I think he liked to be photographed. Whether or not his being gay enhances his art, I don’t know. I think there was a real bond between all the men from Cassady to Kerouac, from Ginsberg to Orlovsky, from McClure to Corso. Burroughs liked men – despite having been married – men’s company, simple as that.

What do think of Ginsberg’s “Howl”?

It’s Ginsberg’s masterpiece. It reworks the Biblical rhythms, the insistencies of William Blake’s great poetry against a devouring world. Ginsberg looks for a common humanity in a dehumanizing, consumer-driven post 1945 America. It’s very democratic like Whitman’s poetry. You can’t have a democracy unless you include all people in it. If you exclude gays, for example, then you don’t have a democracy. When Ralph Waldo Emerson was appalled by some of Whitman’s notions, he told him to clean up his act, and Whitman – I imagine – must have said something like “I can’t, because if we want a union, then that union includes people like me who fall in love with men on trams”.

Do you agree with the notion that Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s leader?

Yes.  Howl is the seminal poem. To go back to Burroughs, if it wasn’t for Ginsberg we wouldn’t have Junky as it is, perhaps. It would have never been published. And Naked Lunch, which is the better book, if you can call it that, was edited by Ginsberg. Yes, he’s important. The thing about Ginsberg too was that he was nice to people, a nurse, a wound-dresser like the great Walt. He helped writers whom he believed had talent, rather like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Kenneth Rexroth. This is one of the things I have always liked about him as a man. Ginsberg was nice despite the rage. Howl is a very angry poem. Ginsberg looked at America in 1950 understanding that he was a different kind of American. Compare them to the “greatest generation” which came back from Normandy and the Pacific and was venerated as the saviors of the new world. The Beats felt left out. The intelligentsia especially felt left out. This is why I think writers like Ginsberg congregated in places like Columbia University in New York City and the University of California- Berkeley in San Francisco.

They broke those old 50s patterns of thought and behavior. Instead they had hedonism, spontaneity, inconformity…

The Ur-Text for all them, it seems to me, whether it’s Corso or Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs is British Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets were rebels, mostly young men (with Mary Wollstonecraft) who felt that a millennial moment was at hand in 1789 with the revolution of France and its enormous social possibilities. Then there was the disappointment of the Terror in 1793 and the split between the younger and older Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge were on one side; Byron, Shelley and Keats on the other. Blake was much older, but a revolutionary all the same. All of them, at various stages of their poetic careers wanted to – as Ezra Pound said much latter – “make in new.” There was a common rebelliousness, a common belief in the possibilities of a new world order based on freedom and justice and equality and fraternity and sorority, at least in the western world. There was an enjoyment in the role of the outsider. Look at… Burroughs. There’s an outsider for you. William Burroughs, the man in the gray flannel suit who never moved, the man with long fingers, the man who wrote Naked Lunch, the man who’s a junky, the man who liked rent boys – I’m guessing – the man who knew and liked Jean Genet, Paris, its grime. He was fascinated by criminals, Times Square lowlifes whose circumstances I believe he empathized with. There’s a Shelleyan quality to almost all the men we’ve been talking about. Shelley was the arch-rebel. Shelley gave away his shoes to a beggar in Ireland. He didn’t ask for them back. Metaphorically, his poetry dares you to do the same. He was ‘sent down’ from Oxford for his atheistic views. When his body was cremated on an Italian beach, his heart refused to burn. That’s as good as you get!

The Beat Hotel in Paris.

What I think attracted the Beats to Paris was Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Perhaps it was the studied eccentricity of the poet Nerval and his pet lobster. I think the peeling splendor of Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the 6th arrondissement and its grungy ‘Class 13’ hotel also appealed to them.  I’m guessing that they found Tangier much more liberating. They could smoke hashish in the streets, they couldn’t get picked up for particular things, soliciting, say, and they could live relatively open as gays – those of them that were, that is. As for hard drugs, I don’t know. Tangier always strikes me as being the city of the Beats, with the exception of San Francisco and New York, not Paris.

I thought initially that Paris is where you’d seen them perform.

No, I saw them in the American Midwest. I mean, how perfectly junky. Remember Madison is halfway between Columbia and Berkeley!

Any thoughts on On the Road and its lasting influence?

It’s not a book that I’ve found easy to read. Why should it be? But, I do recognize its importance. Dean Moriarty appeals to me. You could say that he’s one of the sources of rap music. Recently a first edition sold for $12,500. Kerouac’s road novels aside, I think where the Beats excelled was the poetry. Corso – remember his “I Am 25”? – “with a love a madness for Shelley”- and Ginsberg were excellent poets.  On the Road has lasted, though. It’s a post-Romantic book. Homo viator, man on the road. It’s about two men traveling in Mexico, two men talking, getting into scrapes, falling out with each other. It’s a cool book.

Going back to the performance you saw.  When you think back, what sticks out?

I think the thing that made William Burroughs different was the fact that he sat still, oh, and his fingers. That might seem odd. I was totally struck by how somber, how sinister he looked. I thought that Burroughs might not be a man you’d want to find yourself in a room with alone. He struck me as threatening, but then I think that his writings are threatening. To go back to the question about whether he’s a genius or not, perhaps he is because the greatest literature should threaten you in some way: make you think, make you change, make you act. The best of Shelley’s poetry dares you to give away your shoes; if you don’t then you’ve failed the task. I don’t think Burroughs dares you to the needle or dares you into the underworld off Times Square, but there was something singularly odd and different about him, whether you understand it or not. Remember that photograph of him asleep fully clothed on a Tangier beach while Kerouac and Orlovsky beef-cake for the photographer? I’m not sure anything means in Burroughs – nothing has to mean, by the way – but he was a phenomenon and a presence. I think probably I thought he seemed rather evil. I’d just gotten back from Africa when I saw the tickets on sale so I went with my friends Ann, Mike, Marsha, Bob, Ina, and Berger. They’re all Beats still. Someone we knew was writing a doctoral dissertation on the Beats. It was a spectacle and good theater. Burroughs was good theater, it seems to me still. If you look at his face, there’s something quite frightening there. He looked so respectable too. Look at the socks, look at the shoes, the cuffs, the trousers, the hat, and the jacket – but underneath the jacket, of course, he’s wearing a Moroccan jilaba. I love that. Burroughs clearly influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain. Somebody once said that Burroughs is as American as the electric chair.

I think that’s a great quote.

Yes, I think it is too. I’m not quite sure what it means. In a way, I think that’s what strikes me about him.

Electrifying?

Oh yes, and dangerous. I mean his writings seem to steal fire. They don’t have the quiet Zen, the environmental concerns of Gary Snyder’s poetry, say. But, like Foucault, his notions in their own shockingly Promethean way are dangerous, challenging. Ginsberg, despite the epic rage in Howl, doesn’t strike me as dangerous as Burroughs. Ginsberg viewed his generation as misunderstood and misused just as Shelley understood the tyrannical England of 1819. Burroughs was a gentleman junky. Taken as a metaphor, ‘junkies’ are dangerous people. The best writers strike me as dangerous. Burroughs seems to convey an underworld most of us don’t want anything to do with. Some of the depths that Burroughs touched, or was involved with ultimately seem to have bogged him down in the unknown territory of “limit.” Foucault crossed over, and it killed him. Rimbaud crossed over and became ostensibly someone else, even, according to his sister, accepting Christ on his deathbed. When Kurt Cobain died, I wondered if Burroughs had had something to do with it.

Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict as well, but he didn’t even live to be thirty.

Burroughs died when he was 80 something. Perhaps moving to Kansas cured him. It might have. More so than Rimbaud, I guess, Jean Genet was a perfect model for Burroughs. The petty thief who wrote great books about incarceration, sex, a terrible upbringing – none of which Burroughs had. Genet who was raped in prison or reform school – I forget which – is venerated in France. One of the reasons that Burroughs is so famous in France is because the French like boundary jumpers. Foucault, to the Left, is a God, or was. Philosophers are venerated like rock stars in France. So is Jean Genet. Thieves, murderers, Genet, Burroughs, even the anti-Semitic Céline have a special place in French culture. In Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book – if my memory serves – there’s one sequence in which the hero Joe Necci makes love to woman on some rolling logs. One of the things that he enjoys most about it is that she’s an amputee. I don’t know if that’s supposed to shock you, it’s like punk hairdos or Sid Vicious on stage. Without reading the book, there’s something shocking about the cover of Junky especially when you remember that the man who wrote it looked so much like an accountant. (Points at book) This is a lost look, don’t you think?

Even the way he spoke was kind of strange.

Yes, sepulchral. Like a funeral director. On the other hand, Noel, in some respects I’ve often thought that it was all just a joke – a joke played by Burroughs on all of us. That we can venerate the excremental, the anal, dirt under the fingernails, people who we spend a lot of time avoiding in life because they’ll steal from you, or stab you in the back, transport you to Auschwitz, have you killed. I think Burroughs meant to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like Bosch or Breugel. Perhaps, however, there is also a monumental empathy at work that ‘cares for the lost souls, for the shoeless of the earth.’ That’s Naked Lunch; chew on that one.

William Burroughs’ brother read “Naked Lunch” and said that it repelled him.

Samuel Beckett, by the way, had a brother who also disapproved of his writings. If Burroughs’ brother disapproved of him, then Beckett and he are in the same camp. Beckett often didn’t quite know how to say what he wanted to say so we are left with what he said – remember Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot ? – so if that’s the case with Burroughs, we are similarly left with what he had to say, what he felt. Is he great? Well, he’s different. In a way I think he is great, but I don’t know how, I’m not sure in what way. There was something so much more innocent if you were a Beat and you dressed in a beret and glasses and had a goatee and looked like Dizzy Gillespie, you know? I think Burroughs must have struck everyone in that auditorium as sinister, a touched old man with deep secrets, dark visions.