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Sixty Years After the Six Gallery Reading

October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…

Alt Lit as the New Beat Generation

Tao Lin and Jack Kerouac

“Do you think in five years the national media will create a stupid term like blogniks to describe us?”

 

As a scholar of the Beat Generation, the recent public attention focused on the current phenomenon known as Alt Lit has inspired in me some observations of similarities between the two literary movements. Indeed, one could provide comparisons to other movements or “generations,” but for me the similarities between these two sets of urban hipsters, sixty years apart, seems interesting.

The above quote, from Tao Lin’s novel, Shoplifting From American Apparel, shows an apparent awareness that the group of people he describes will become subject to, in the near future, the same sort of media scrutiny that was foisted upon the Beat Generation, who were derided in the press as “beatniks.”[1] Indeed, Noah Cicero, another key member of the Alt Lit community, described as central to the Alt Lit movement “the idea of the return to the literary life.” He goes on:

The literary life is about ‘living,’ like Rimbaud, Whitman, Celine, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, traveling, doing drugs, partying, standing on street corners in cities and thinking crazy thoughts, taking shits in gas stations in Nebraska at 4 in the morning, going to Asia to teach English, flying over from New Zealand or England just to get drunk with people who’ve met online. Staying up till 5 in the morning talking about philosophy and politics. Making a ten-minute long YouTube video about something you can’t get off your mind. It’s that kid walking down the street with headphones playing Ladytron, carrying a laptop, and a copy of The Stranger, who just feels like this is fucked.

In referencing Rimbaud, Whitman, and Celine he is acknowledging key influences on the Beats, and in mentioning Bukowski and Thompson he is talking about writers who’ve later been categorized as “Beat” or at least in the Beat vein. His language in the description, too, is Kerouacian and Ginsbergian. He is channeling On the Road and listing like Howl, yet applying these techniques to his own generation.[2] In a word, he is placing Alt Lit as the next step.

Like the Beats, there is no real unifying style in Alt Lit. There is certainly an influence taken from Lin’s own unique voice, but Alt Lit is as diverse as the massively varying approaches taken in the Beat classics. However, there are of course elements that unite these groups, not just into social networks but also a literary framework. The Beats were categorized by their confessional prose, their drug use, and their challenging of social and sexual norms. There is, in their work, the notion that nothing is too personal or sordid to tell the world. Likewise, in Alt Lit writers like Marie Calloway and Megan Boyle document the most intimate details of their own lives, treating sexuality in a manner that would not seem out of place in a poem by Ginsberg, while Lin depicts his own drug use as matter-of-factly as William S. Burroughs.

Moreover, there is also the breaking of grammatical rules and attempts to move away from literary convention. From Kerouac’s “automatic writing” and “spontaneous prose” it is hardly a great leap to the treatment of Twitter feeds as literature, and the inclusion of Gmail chats in novels. Where the Beats took liberties with run-on sentences and attempted to imbue their narratives with the jargon of their times, so too are Alt Lit writers willing to forgo capitalization, punctuation, and embrace internet vernacular into their own prose and poetry. Rather than look back and embrace their literary forbearers, both groups sought to immortalize their own generations. The Beats and Alt Lit are united by the documentation of their own times and their almost insular literature. The Beats wrote about each other, like the Alt Lit writers, and their works stand as a biography to their times. People like Neal Cassady have become virtually household names through their depictions as characters like Dean Moriarty, and in the future we will surely remember some of the less prolific Alt Lit writers as their published alter egos.

What readers of Beat Generation literature often failed to observe is that although the Beats became known as a literary force in the mid-fifties with the publication of On the Road and the Six Gallery reading, the Beat group that is described in these works existed ten years earlier. By the time the Beats were a cultural phenomenon, the Times Square hipsters and Columbia group that made up the core of the Beat legacy had largely disbanded, and were leading lives far apart from one another. Perhaps, had Kerouac had access to Createspace and Lulu, or even a Blogger or Tumblr account, it might not have taken so long. Ginsberg, certainly, would’ve enjoyed promoting his friends’ work via Twitter and Facebook.[3]

If this essay is descending into increasingly random observations, then I apologize for what is coming next: a far-fetched comparison of various Beat and Alt Lit figures.

 

Tao Lin = Jack Kerouac.

Why?

Kerouac was famously the “King of the Beats,” the man whose style and philosophies were adopted and mimicked by millions of young fans. His stories documented the lifestyle of his contemporaries, and his work influenced other writers and artists.

Lin is the father of Alt Lit, and writers considered “Alt Lit”, whether by their own admission or labeled by others, are either involved with Lin on a social level, or draw heavily from his stylistic and thematic innovations.

Both men have chronicled the lives of their fellow young hipsters and the times in which they lived, and utilized the patterns of speech of their generation in order to create the definitive novels of their day. Their work has garnered the most attention to their movements, and been viewed as inspirational to their followers and contemporaries

 

Noah Cicero = William S. Burroughs

Although his place in literature is as part of the Beat Generation, Burroughs was only briefly part of the Beat group, and largely took off on his own. He was older than the other Beats, and following a few arrests in New York City, he went off on a decades-long journey around the world. His style deviated tremendously from those of the other Beats, and he rejected the idea that he was a part of the movement, or indeed that it ever really existed.

Cicero, while only three years older than Lin, is also like an elder to his so-called generation. Like Burroughs, is prose bears little resemblance to that of his peers, and while they seem to have maintained a relatively tight social group, Cicero wanders off to far-flung locations.[4] In many regards, these men appear set apart from their literary labels, yet their associations appear cemented.

 

Megan Boyle = Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most important members of the Beat Generation, promoting the work of his contemporaries tirelessly, and later ensuring the continuation of certain Beat ideas in the cultural shift to the Hippies. His poetry was intensely open and confessional, and he sometimes appeared naked on stage.

Megan Boyle wrote an essay called “Everyone I’ve Ever Had Sex With,” and is in the process of liveblogging her life. These alone make her a unique and Ginsbergian genius. Her writing is as revolutionary as her better-recognized peers, but it is only a matter of time before she is considered one of the more important poets of her era.

 

Steve Roggenbuck = Peter Orlovsky

Peter Orlovsky was Allen Ginsberg’s long-time lover/boyfriend/husband/partner, and his fame was largely accredited to his association with Ginsberg. However, Orlovsky was a poet himself, yet even in that capacity he was derided for his inability to spell.

Roggenbuck has become a key member of the Alt Lit community, too, in spite of his apparently lacking literary credentials. Like Orlovsky, Roggenbuck can’t or won’t spell correctly, and his editors appear content with that, allowing spelling mistakes in the titles of his books, as did Orvlosky’s. Roggenbuck is better known for his YouTube videos, wherein he often appears manic, and also his status as an Alt Lit social butterfly. These traits also place him surprisingly close in stature to Orlovsky.



[1] The term Beat has a debatable history but was popularized by John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac. The suffix “-nik” was added by Herb Caen following the launch of Sputnik in order to associate the Beats with Communism.

[2] These phrasings are not arbitrary. Cicero is well-read in Beat literature, with a particular affinity for William S. Burroughs, whose work he says inspires “hope.”

[3] I’ve spoken with one of Ginsberg’s old assistants and he concurs with this notion, agreeing that Ginsberg would’ve made a thoroughly irritating Twitter-fiend.

[4] On the advice of this reporter, Cicero took a job in South Korea.

Dylan the (Secretly) Well Dressed

Bob Dylan

“You never seem to give yourself away completely, but of course dark-haired people are so mysterious.”
Remark made by Lucien Carr to Jack Kerouac
in Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

The black shirt with the white polka dots triggered the message that Bob Dylan was well dressed. It was subtle, but it was there in the cut of a tailored jacket, the angle of a hat, and the shape of his shades. This is a quick, informal, and incomplete study using photos from a recently published bio, album covers, and a viewing of No Direction Home (superb Allen Ginsberg moments).

Bob was definitely grooving in hip threads—after the Chaplinesque early Village debut and the plaid shirts and Woody work clothes. On that cold 1963 day with Suze Rotolo walking on Jones Street, garbed in a thin suede jacket with hands thrust in the pockets of his somewhat baggy jeans: casual and freezing, they present the world with an image of happy young love.

The 1965 black leather jacket at Newport signals a high-voltage change.

The 1966 corduroy jacket with the high collar, New Castle, England, so mysterious, like Garbo, and the tousled halo of curls, the aquiline nose, and puffed lips, seal the veiled sophisticated glamour.

Seersucker Bob wearing eyeglasses—the country squire, stay-at-home Daddy in Woodstock —conservative, traditional, but who else could pull that off?

Dylan as Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid looks cowboy chic, bearded and hatted, and a dandy of a hat it is.

Bob in black and Johnny Cash in white in a black-and-white still photo from The Johnny Cash Show 1970, Bob with short hair appears every inch a cowboy angel—by the way, wasn’t JC the man in black? On the television show, both men in black, minus hat, curls, and glasses, is Dylan revealed in all his heartbreakingly handsome glory.

Who could forget that dapper, hand-crafted hat worn on the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975— with a patchwork quilt fur, multicolored fur? (Why not the return of fine haberdashery, Harry S. Truman?)

Robert the Nazarene, in a Palestinian keffiyeh, what a great look for he with the Arctic blue eyes.

Outlaw heroes, the posse of Traveling Wilburys rode nostalgic rails in traditional American uniform: jeans and sneakers, but somehow manage to take on the aura of Whitmanesque Civil War veterans. (America is this the final journey? The end of romance and freedom? Where goest thou soft halcyon years?)

And Dylan accepting awards, dressed like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, so chilling and unforgettable an American villain…Dylan the villain?

Everyone’s heard the story of Bob roaming around Long Branch, New Jersey, taking a walk and checking out real estate in a modest working-class neighborhood? This happened in August 2009 when he was on tour with Willie Nelson. On a rainy day he donned a couple of raincoats with the hood up and rubber boots, and he, Bob Dylan of the Hood, was picked up for suspicious behavior by a young police officer. The charge: he a strange man, a stranger, strangely dressed, looked in the window of a house for sale. He startled the residents, so they called the police. The young twenty-something-year-old cop didn’t know or recognize Bob Dylan—both were cited in various news reports—so she politely questioned him, asked for ID that he didn’t have, and brought him in. Everything turned out fine, he seemed amused, but she didn’t know Bob Dylan, ace of disguise.

In the midst of wild decades, he never looked outrageous, he looked self-possessed, dignified, princely. He could fit in anyplace. Who was the inspiration behind much of this fashion image? Perhaps someone even more mysterious than mystery man and that would be the lovely Sara. His best looks years were the years of their marriage.

 

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Illustration by Isaac Bonan

Down by Law

Down by Law

“It’s a sad and beautiful world.”

            Down by Law a 1986 black-and-white indie comedy starts with gorgeous shots of real life, low-lying New Orleans and two beat characters: Zack the DJ (Tom Waits) and Jack the pimp (John Laurie). They’re battered by women troubles and more troubles and that leads both to Orleans Parish Prison, where they contentiously share a cell—two framed, innocent men.

Roberto (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist, gets tossed in with Zack and Jack. Bob killed a man with an eight ball during a card game: one well-aimed hit and the man is dead. Bob’s spirit is so irrepressible that nothing, not even being canned for murder, will keep him down. In his cell, he practices English language skills with his less than willing cell mates, draws a finestra, a window of opportunity, and then screams for ice cream and the whole prison joins in the howl of rebellion.

The three angelheaded hipsters crash through their minds in jail and break out—where they maneuver in the mosquito-screeching backwaters of Louisiana swamps, a place crawling with poisonous snakes and alligators three times the size of a little Italian man who’s bent on knowing American poets, especially Walt Whitman and “Bob” Frost.

A sweet love story saves everyone’s skin, and two of the three begin their life on the forked road less traveled. “Don’t forget to write.” “Wish you were here,” Bob shouts as he bids his friends goodbye in celebration of his new words and freedom.

Down by Law is a treat inciting lots of laughs. Tom Waits, John Laurie, and the supporting cast are all fun to watch, but Roberto Benigni steals the show. It’s amazing what a little story, a genius comic actor, a low budget, and brilliant director (Jim Jarmusch) can produce. A hip soundtrack underscores the heat.

 

 

Many Loves

by Dr Madhu Mehrotra and Geetanjali Joshi Mishra

“Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment”

-Walt Whitman

“Longing is a better muse than satisfaction” says Regina Marler the author of ‘Queer Beat: How the Beats turned America onto sex’ and this is very true with regard to the nucleus of the generation which broke all rules of hegemonic, heterosexual, square society, a generation that questioned procreation itself, that regarded ‘manly love’ as the source of all enlightenment and divinity. Without Kerouac there would have been no ‘Howl’, without Neal there would have been no On the Road and without Ginsberg there would have been no Naked Lunch. It is rather amusing that all these poets were at some point of their lives unrequited lovers of each other. While Ginsberg longed for sexual unification with Kerouac and Neal, Burroughs on the other hand loved Ginsberg who in turn loved Burroughs but not the way he loved Neal and Jack and his long time flame Peter Orlovsky. Though there were many heart breaks, and Ginsberg felt that both Kerouac and Neal “ didn’t want anymore sex” with him and that they actually “rejected” him, but “had there been direct, requited, unhampered love between any two Beats, they would have paired off and broken the circle”.  This is what is so unique about these writers, they were muses  to each other  and without one the other was incomplete.

The generation has been accused of being sexist, though women were not very popular as a part of the Beat generation, there were few who made some impact and were part of the grand orgy. Diane Di Prima, a bisexual bohemian, the writer of ‘ Memoirs of a beatnik’ and the co-editor of a newsletter  ‘The Floating Beer’ was one such magnetic woman who quite often made out and participated in orgies involving almost all the major Beat poets. She describes one such occasion when all the poets got involved in one of the most mystifying orgies of their time. She says “it was a strange, nondescript kind of orgy. Allen set things going by largely and fully embracing all of us, each in turn and all at once, sliding from body to body in a great wallow of flesh.” Ginsberg in particular loved to “lie down between the bridegroom and the bride” and would embrace “those bodies fallen from heaven stretched out waiting naked and restless.”

In the 1950s it often seemed that the only openly gay poet was Allen Ginsberg. The enormous publicity that Ginsberg received made him an important figure, whose avowal of homosexuality was part of his larger attempt to undermine American society and its pretensions to respectability. Although many of the Beat writers were homosexual or bisexual (such as Burroughs or Kerouac), it was Ginsberg who made his sexuality an integral part of his public image and his poetry. ‘Howl’ was the first poem to bring Ginsberg public attention, and its treatment of homosexuality is characteristic of Ginsberg’s position during this time. Ginsberg followed the poetic tradition of Whitman and spoke about the ‘self’ in his poems, though Whitman kept his sexuality mostly underground emphasized behind the themes of procreation in his work, Ginsberg on the other hand celebrated it. Whitman’s sexuality was portrayed as both active and passive in his works; he devoted much attention to the image of two lovers happy together as to actual moments of sexual penetration.  In Ginsberg the desire for religious vision is transformed into a desire to be laid, whereas in Whitman the experience of sexual pleasure leads to a greater understanding of the world. Ginsberg takes inspiration from Whitman when he transforms an ultimately peaceful vision of human unity into an affirmation of the homosexual’s alienation from the “straight” world and a desire to become an object of love rather than a participant in it.

The  writing  of obscene, and provocative phrases like ‘Butler has no balls’ and ‘Fuck the Jews’ and tracing two lewd drawings, one of a phallus and testicles and the other of a skull and cross bones on the dust of his dorm window, led to the expulsion of Allen Ginsberg from Columbia University. What could have caused Ginsberg to create such an outrage? For answers we might have look into his childhood. Naomi gave birth to Irvin Allen in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, his father Louis was for Allen an ‘old fashioned’ lyric poet who was used to making ‘clever puns.’ Ginsberg was in a silent and intense war against his parents, his silent revenge, gave birth to the most remarkable pieces of American poetry, ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’. Ginsberg was always haunted by the ghosts of his parents; he would be haunted all his life by Naomi, which resulted in some very provocative and obscene episodes in ‘Kaddish’. Bill Morgan in his book I Celebrate Myself: the somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg captures the appalling incidences that took place in the house of young Allen: “she seldom wore a dress around the house and Allen became quite familiar with his mother’s anatomy. He was particularly upset when he saw her wearing only a bloody menstrual pad while doing her chores.”

His motherless childhood starved him of loving touch and affection, physical contact became a very strong need. He would share the bed with his brother, who would push him away as he would desire to be physically close to him. “I must have been a sexpest to the whole family” confessed Ginsberg years later. Louis Ginsberg called him a “Little Kissing bug” as he desired to be physically close to his father and brother. His yearning to be close in childhood manifested itself in a profound sense of alienation in his youth, his sense of alienation was intense and excruciating, even in the company of the like minded crazy men, whose minds were ‘destroyed by madness’, Allen always remained a lone star, he wanted Jack to remember that he was a Jew and an outcast “I am alien to your natural grace,” he wrote. “I am in exile from myself.” He added, “You are an American more completely than I, more fully a child of nature and all that is the grace of the earth…I am not a child of nature, I am ugly and imperfect.”

To top it all 1950’s was an era of sexual liberation and revolution. The concept of ‘Free Love’ as expressed by hippies, didn’t just appear overnight. It was a philosophy with roots deep in human consciousness and the 50’s which just required a little encouragement to surface. That encouragement appeared in the 1950s in the form of new knowledge about human sexuality, ‘the pill’, psychedelic drugs, and a counter-culture which rejected the conservative ways and embraced individual freedom. A new awareness of human sexuality began to spread among Americans starting with the Kinsey Report in 1948. It was a nine year study of human sexuality which opened everyone’s minds to the diversity of sexual behaviour. The result of the survey indicated the astonishing truth that up to 10% of the entire population was gay. One statistic suddenly put homosexuality into a whole new light for many people. Another statistic from the study that shocked people was the fact that nearly everyone masturbated. The backdrop for a new generation to explore their sexuality in a free and uninhibited way was initiated in the late 50’s. Allen Ginsberg and his circle wrote popular books that embraced sensuality and sexual experimentation as an essential ingredient to living life to its fullest. Yet it took America with its conservative, Puritan roots a while to catch on to this new awareness and freedom as Americans were programmed at an early age to regard sex and marriage as a sacred pair, not to be separated. So the whole generation growing up in the 1960s, developed a radically different attitude towards sex as compared to their parents. Drugs like marijuana, alcohol, LSD and cocaine loosened inhibitions and sex became just another ‘turn-on’. Gay men and women started coming out of the closet in the cities. Communal living situations fostered short-lived relationships, and much sexual experimentation. As a young student when Ginsberg got admitted to Columbia, he neither had any notion of what literary style he would adopt for his poetry, nor did he realize his potent and hidden homosexuality. He, for the first time explored his homosexuality through the company of men Like Lucien Carr and Kerouac. 1950’s was not an era of sexual liberty and liberation, homosexuality on the other hand was considered abomination by the civilized ‘square’ society. Ginsberg kept his homosexuality hidden and used coded language to communicate with likeminded intellectuals. Homosexuality being considered as felony caused homosexuals to go underground and create their own secret society, it was this secret society that Ginsberg communicated with, in bars and coffee shops. He started reading books on the subject of ‘sex’, both fiction and nonfiction, Clifford Howards’s idea of ‘phallus’ being “the embodiment of creative power” interested him the most and he formed his own mythology of phallus being the fountain of all creativity. Jonah Ruskin, the writer of ‘American Scream’ gives us an account of Ginsberg’s sexuality and his fascination for sex and Kerouac.  “Sex and sexuality became the subtext of his fiction and poetry; almost all his symbols were sexual symbols, he explained to Kerouac. At eighteen Ginsberg fell in love with Kerouac and wrote love poems and love stories about him.” He confesses in his gay sunshine interview , conducted in 1972 in his Cherry Valley  farm in upstate New York that when he realised in the early 50’s that he was in love with Kerouac, he told him one night, “Jack, you know I love you, and I want to sleep with you, and I really like men.” Though Kerouac didn’t seem to be really interested at that time, Ginsberg felt that “he wasn’t going to reject” him “really, he was going to accept my soul with all its throbbing and sweetness and worries and dark woes and sorrows and heartaches and joys and glees and mad understandings of morality…” Eventually both of them caught up together, Ginsberg recollects that “I blew him, I guess. He once blew me, years later. It was sort of sweet, peaceful.”

The principal episode in the life of Ginsberg which changed the course of his writing forever was his affair with Neal Cassady. It was in the year 1946 when Allen Ginsberg and Neal Casady met; Allen instantly fell in love with the wild, young and handsome boy he came across. Cassady was “The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.” Cassady was a sexual outlaw and Ginsberg was aware of his dark ‘caliban’ side. Cassady was a sadist and derived pleasure in abusing Allen both physically and emotionally, but Ginsberg on the other hand ‘turned the agony of their relationship into the ecstasy of art. If he was sexually abused he would be inspired to write poetry.” Neal Cassady was the major influences that inspired ‘Howl’, and it is Cassady who is the sexual hero of the poem, in the poem he appears to be the ‘Adonis of Denver’ Adonis being a Greek mythological figure associated with male youth and beauty. In ‘Howl’ Ginsberg describes Cassady as “flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake” who “went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too…” Indeed, Cassady often took on a larger than life persona in much of the Beat literature. ‘Please Master’ is one of the most graphically written works by Ginsberg about his relationship with Neal Cassady. Ginsberg portrays sadomasochistic sexuality precisely as a symbolic relationship, with language, too, that is ironic in its erotic affirmation of the master’s dominance and slave’s submission. In ‘Please Master’ Cassady seems self-evidently the controlling master having his way with a submissive Ginsberg. However a closer reading of the poem dramatizes sexual activity that, of course, would not occur without the person in the slave subject position initiating intercourse. However, it was Peter Orlovsky with whom Ginsberg had a long lasting affair which continued as long as Ginsberg was alive. The Pygmalion legend came true for Allen when he first saw a painting of Peter made by a young artist by the name of La Vigne, he was at once in love with this young boy in the painting with his yellow hair and a pleasing smile. Peter was primarily heterosexual and cried the first time after making love to Allen. Allen explained this later by stating that “the reason he wept was that he realised how much he was giving me, and how much I was demanding, asking and taking” while Allen on the  other hand knew that in Peter he had found a long lasting union, he wrote a poem called ‘Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo’ addressing it to Kerouac, describing his inner state of mind after having Peter in his life:

I’m happy Kerouac, your madman’s Allen’s

finally made it: discovered a new young cat,

And my imagination of an eternal boy

Walks on the streets of San Francisco,

Handsome, and meets me in cafeterias

And loves me…

Later when Allen and Peter moved in together they shared a beautiful bond of trust, faith, friendship and love. Peter was much younger to Allen and looked up to him, together they travelled a lot to Asia, especially India, where they lived for several years and kept on visiting later. Allen for the first time proposed marriage. It was Peter with whom he wanted to share that special bond of trust and everlasting love. He proposed that he and Peter should take marriage vows and one morning at 3 AM “We made a vow to each other that he could owe me, my mind and everything I knew, and his body; and that we would give each other ourselves, so that we possessed each other as property, to do everything we wanted to, sexually or intellectually, and in a sense explore each other until we reached the mystical ‘X’”

Allen as a lover had always been demanding but at the same time he had given freedom to his partners to explore their own sexuality. The desire to be laid, and to be loved are the strongest in Ginsberg. He always feared separation and pain and begged his lovers not to condone their love. In one of his journals, he wrote an entry addressed to Peter saying, “So I don’t care who else you screw, make it with girls, only to be sure to keep compassion for me, answer call when I break down to need of love moment- initiate my liberation and sexual revelation of self. Far as I know I want to be tied to bed and screwed, whipped, want to wrestle and blow and come in unison, sexual ecstasy…”

On the other hand with Neal Cassady Ginsberg shared a sadomasochistic relationship. Neal abused Allen, which he encouraged, “I want to be your slave, suck your ass, suck your cock, you fuck me, you master me, you humiliate me” wrote Ginsberg in one of his journals. Ginsberg’s father Louis Ginsberg, knew that Neal was a bad influence and he warned his son to “Exorcise Neal”. Ginsberg finally understood that Neal was not the partner who could have shared a bond of eternal love and ecstasy with him.

Ginsberg was a self declared homosexual and thus kept off woman for most of his life. It is said that he embraced misogyny in the 50’s and though he admitted that he hated women, he did have some female partners. He fantasised making love to Neal and his wife Carolyn which he mentions in his ‘Love Poem on Theme by Whitman’ He had both male and female lovers who came together for the celebrated orgies at his apartment. In the beginning of 1955, he wrote to Jack telling him how he had come to enjoy the company of women too, “something great happens to me in Frisco. After girl now for first time in life boy.” Johan Raskin talks about Ginsberg’s liberated and ecstatic life in California, he says “California was dream-like not because he was writing great poetry, but because he was enjoying great sex.”

Eroticism and its elements have long been considered mystic in the poetic traditions of the world. It could be the troubadours of the English courtly love poetry or the erotic Sanskrit verses, mysticism can be said to be inherent in them. Ginsberg refers exclusively towards the glorification of the human body. In fact, it will not be an overstatement to say that Ginsberg is a neo humanist; he aims at establishing a contact with his spirit and the universal human spirit through extensive allusions to the body, in Ginsberg the allusions to the body and the longing to make love and be loved represents a yearning thirst to satisfy the instinct for spiritual growth. Ginsberg may be easily compared with the few poets who could understand the transcendence of sex into the realms of spirituality much on the lines that Osho later picked it on. Osho argued in his book ‘Sex Matters’ that love and sex are inseparable and that orgasm is an inside into timelessness and thoughtlessness. These were the lines on which Ginsberg wrote his erotic love poetry.

It is true that Ginsberg’s sexual self and his ‘Many Loves’ dominated most part of his life and had a remarkable influence on his writings. It seemed that the more sex he got the better he wrote. Sex inspired him and worked as an elixir; though he had many affairs mostly disappointing he continued his search for the ultimate love making that could take him to the ‘mystical X’ he was searching all his life.

Happy Birthday, Bob Kaufman!

On this day in 1925, Bob Kaufman was born.

From Beatdom Issue One:

Bob Kaufman: The Unsung Beat

Overview

It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.

What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.

Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.

“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.

His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.

Biography

The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.

Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.

To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.

So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.

With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.

However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.

He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With LonelinessGolden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including theAbomunist Manifesto.

Work

Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.

Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.

He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.

However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.

But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.

Patti Smith and the Beats

by Michael Hendrick

“A hipster goes into a diner.

‘What kind of pie do you have?’ he asks.

The waitress says, ‘The pie is gone.’

‘Cool,’ says the hipster. ‘In that case, I’ll have two slices.’”

–          Patti Smith, Philadelphia, 2003.

We are a Generation of Beats. This Generation has more longevity than any other generation to date. I am 53 years old. I know Beats who are 20-something and the beginning of the movement was 60 years ago. We are an ageless generation. Our heroes are infinite. They are both dead and alive. They are gone but still they teach us. A succession of anti-authoritarian voices have been raised (for this, our generation) since the 1950s.

It is said that Patti Smith bristles at a sobriquet which labels her as an ancestor, or an elder, of punk rock, and rightly so. While she was performing her art in a form that would be incorporated into the punk scene, she predated the rest of the ‘movement’ by a couple of years.

More Beat than Hippie or Punk, movements she feels are linked together by a “common anti-establishment mentality,” her dark, soulful voice, frantic, guttural rocking and shimmering poetics ala guitar rage put her at the head of the vanguard before the movement made it to vinyl. If she is progeny of the Great Spirit, which prevails in the existential and individualist work of hipsters, punks and hippies, then she is a cosmic Big Sister – cajoling, smiling, inciting caring, minding us to wash our socks and drink lots of water. She is, at once, big buddy and spiritual advisor.

A Patti Smith Group show is very much akin to psychedelic experience. It cannot be accurately described in full without losing feeling; if you are aware and paying attention, you learn a lot; you feel a strange energy bubbling up from the pit of your gut and climaxing cerebrally; you do not look at things in the same way the next day and everything looks sorts of different. A typical show is a hallucinogen comprised of  thoughts floating on musical notes and snatches of poetry, punctuated by a voice that comes from far away, from one lost in the wilderness, from one as close as a mother’s breath… and you can count on a couple of laughs thrown in for good measure.

Watch her smile. Feel the vibration of her voice course through your body and let the deep reediness consume you. Listen to her read from Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’ Have a few laughs as she tells a joke or makes humorous observations. See her jump up and down in anger and frenzy while reading the Declaration of Independence. Dance to her voice as she struts Jagger-style from one side of the stage to the other. Cheer as she yells “Fuck You!” at an odd request from the audience. Sweat from the energy and dance, dance dance.

She deliberately keeps ticket prices low for her fans, so I imagine she may be one of the less expensive trips available these days.

The first time I saw Patti, I was hooked. It was just an album cover but the face, the figure (remember album art?) and the sound of her voice – deep, vibrant, rich, wild, unrestrained – were enough to put me on the path to songs that inebriated my sensibilities. ‘Horses’ (1975) was unlike anything before it or since. It has inspired countless young musicians to take the stage and opened pop music’s back door to sneak in poetry, literature and art. It is the same bottomless voice that belted out ‘You Light Up My Life’ on the kids TV show ‘Kids Are People, Too,’ in 1979. From the beginning, Patti was anything but definable.

With Patti, it seems to always be about “the people” – at least, when she is not holed up in a café writing in her journals or losing herself in the pages of the masters of art and literature. Her song, ‘People Have The Power,’ is an exaltation to all that we, all of us together, have the power to change life, ourselves and the world around us. We just have to know it. We need people like Patti to tell us.

The song was written when she was in the non-performance mode. In a recent Public TV interview, she recounts washing dishes in the kitchen when her husband, the late Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5 suggested the song to her. (Some older readers will remember the importance of the ‘Kicks Out the Jams (Motherfucker!)’ LP from the MC5 back in 1969. The MC5 were first to cross the hippie-punk border and put a hard edge on the flower-children.) Patti was leaning on the sink and Fred came into the kitchen, looked at her and said, “Patricia, People Have the Power…write it.” She did eventually write it and the message it carries is one of universal love, hope and encouragement. I post it on YouTube.com about once a month, just to feel like I am giving people some hope.

A few years after ‘Horses,’ the venerable Tom Snyder treated us to an interview with Patti, in 1978. It was an amazing show. In necktie and tweed, she was a gleaming presence as she praised Little Richard for his ability to “focus physical, anarchistic and spiritual energy into a form,” that form being rock and roll. She often sites Mick Jagger as her biggest rock idol, however, and in early videos you can see how much influence Jagger had on her moves, if nothing else.

Death, she told Snyder before losing husband, lover, brother and mother to it, is a really magical extension of being in love. Snyder asked about her feelings for the USA, perhaps hoping to catch a snippet of punk outrage but Patti remained ever-positive, noting that “we have a real wonderful country” but she did give a hint of her penchant for looking at the bigger picture:

I want to see us just care more. We have such a wonderful planet and (yet) we are so lackadaisical about it. I’m not against sin. I’m not against perversity… (we should) define our priorities.

In 2010, those priorities seem to have been defined by the hope for global survival but Patti was on the ball 30-odd years ago. I quote an old interview like this because it adds more gravity to her words and her prescience.

I do a lot of my work to inspire people… inspire them in all different ways – cerebrally, sexually, spiritually. I always hope people will have some kind of orgasms from my work, whether just a sense of relaxation, a sense of release…an illimunation! …and also a good laugh!

Isn’t this what the Beats were aspiring to since the beginning?

Burroughs pushed the envelope with Naked Lunch. It was the last book to be censored in the United States, following a 1966 Supreme Court ruling. Lenny Bruce pushed the language envelope, too, by exposing the treachery of racism in society by using the language of racism against itself.

‘Rock N Roll Nigger’ is a song that Patti usually saves for encores. A song that is shoulder-to-shoulder with all the best rock and roll songs, she often presents it after reading some poetry or giving the crowd a little advice. Her shouts of “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger NIGGER!!!” still shock and cause us to look around and see who is listening. Isn’t that what Lenny did? What Ginsberg did in ‘Howl’ and Burroughs in Naked Lunch? This is, in fact, the technique employed in ‘Howl’repetitive succession of chorus into orgasmic ecstasy. Ginsberg and Patti share an orgasmic vision as the goal of their art. The other multi-choruses of “…outside…” hung on the phrase “outside of society,” offer the most basic Beat tenet. (I digress, but it is hard not to give a tip of the beret to the Ramones for giving us the song Outsider, to add to the soundtrack of Beat lifestyle.)

The difference between Patti and, say, Mick Jagger is that Jagger does not read Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Tennyson to fans from the stage. He doesn’t sing about his “Blakean Year.” Patti does a service by teaching us, by giving us other voices to learn from. She reads Walt Whitman in honour of Ginsberg and takes the time to explain why Thomas Jefferson is important to us.

After reading a biography of Bob Dylan, I had no choice but to pick up the works of John Steinbeck and read every one. I read about Steinbeck and his love of the poetry of Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire and the prose of Rabelais. It seemed like pretty heavy stuff but when I saw Patti quoting Rimbaud and even dressing like him, I had no choice but to dive in. She is our teacher, our hallucinogenic big sister. She makes sure we don’t pay too much for tickets to see her. She wants us to be safe. She wants us to be smart. She wants us to have warm socks. She tells us in so many words. When seeing her deal with overly-rambunctious audience members, you remember she is mother to two boys (one of who is now a member of the group, Jackson Smith). She can put loudmouths back into their “terrible twos” with a few words and send them sulking… then tell a joke to diffuse any negativity.

As heavy as she may be, she delights in being the comedian. She was voted “Class Clown” in her final year of high school and her material does not depend on being literary. She will quote a popular television advert when things get quiet. She will be a holy goof when necessary.

During a recent live interview, she was asked a particularly deep question. Looking deadpan into the camera and audience, she quipped, “I guess none of us are gonna get home in time to see House tonight.”

Growing up in TV culture goes deep. When things get a bit dodgy onstage, as is apt to happen in any variety of live entertainment, she humbles herself and thinks, what would JC do? The JC she looks to is not the Holy Saviour of the Bleeding Heart… no, it’s good old Johnny Carson, former king of the tube. She ruminates that her failure to appear on Carson’s show is one of her great regrets. She tried very hard to get a booking and even promised to wear a dress. Her love of Johnny is no passing fancy. A long-time viewer, she would verbally spar with compatriots in the years when she was an opening act in order to prepare herself for the stage. She found that conducting herself  in Carson’s unflappably affable manner always put her comfortably in charge of any onstage mishap… barring physical ones.

She broke her neck after a fall from stage onto a concrete floor in 1977 and between recuperating, enduring therapy and raising a family, she stayed offstage for 17 years. In 1994, her husband Fred died. Shortly after that, her brother, Todd, died. It could not have been an easy time for her. Friends came to her and pulled her up. Allen Ginsberg and Michael Stipe (of REM) urged her to get back onstage when Bob Dylan asked her to join him for the eight-city ‘Paradise Lost Tour’ in December of 1995. Her duet with Dylan on his song ‘Dark Eyes’ was a highlight of the tour and is still a YouTube favorite, fifteen years later..

I managed to catch the fourth show in the tour. Bob Dylan fans are not easy to find sometimes, so I ended up with an extra ticket and an empty seat next to me, which was used by Stipe during part of the concert to take photos for a book he was doing about Patti and the tour. I didn’t know any of the background until afterwards. I didn’t know that a Father of the Beats had sent this Heavenly Sister back to us with her message. Allen died less than two years later but we are grateful for his gift of bringing Patti back to us. May Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and all the others keep on rocking today, through the voice of She, a Most Sacred Sister.

Patti keeps touring, currently booking a lot of shows in Spain and Italy. She travels Beat. She writes regular journals which are available to her fans on her website.

In the 1970s, she made reference to her Vision and how she would realize it. Her lyric indicates that she has long since found that Vision…

I was dreaming in my dreaming
of an aspect bright and fair
and my sleeping it was broken
but my dream it lingered near
in the form of shining valleys
where the pure air recognized
and my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry
that the people / have the power
to redeem / the work of fools
upon the meek / the graces shower
it’s decreed / the people rule…

(Lyrics to ‘People Have The Power’ by Patti Smith/Fred ’Sonic’ Smith)

In February, Patti published Just Kids, an autobiographical work centering on her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.  Her other books include Witt, Babel, Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, and Auguries of Innocence.

In 2005 the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur of Arts & Letters, the highest honor awarded to an artist by the French Republic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

“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.

Happy Birthday Bob Kaufman!

On this day in 1925, Bob Kaufman was born.

From Beatdom Issue One:

Bob Kaufman: The Unsung Beat

Overview

It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.

What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.

Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.

“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.

His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.

Biography

The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.

Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.

To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.

So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.

With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.

However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.

He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With LonelinessGolden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including theAbomunist Manifesto.

Work

Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.

Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.

He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.

However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.

But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.

Letter from the Editor

A brief excerpt from issue six

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