Beatdom #21 is the CHANGE issue, in which we look at the Beat writers (and a few Beat-adjacent ones) in relation to the topic of CHANGE. This is a fitting topic for a turbulent era – a time when the world seems perennially on the precipice of the apocalypse. Change is happening at a faster and faster pace, leaving people confused, divided, and often angry.
In this issue, we are going to look at a wide array of literary figures and explore how they changed, perceived change, inspired change, or even predicted it. There will also be a few off-topic pieces, like interviews and reviews.
Here is a brief overview of this issue:
The Many Lives of LeRoi Jones
First up, Ryan Mathews looks at the many lives of a man known as LeRoi Jones and Amiri Baraka. A controversial figure, Baraka is often overlooked by Beat readers nowadays, perhaps due to his race. Baraka (as he was known later in life) was a poet, essayist, playwriter, and much more. He fought against racism but also was outspokenly racist himself. A mess of contradictions, the man’s life was as fascinating as any of his Beat peers. Mathews writes:
- When Allen Ginsberg opened “Howl” with the vision of the best minds of his generation, “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” odds are the “angelheaded hipsters” he was describing were white.
The Change: Allen Ginsberg, Reborn
How could we talk about change without looking at Allen Ginsberg’s 1963 poem, “The Change”? It is a lesser-known work that chronicled the monumental personal, poetic, and philosophical changes he underwent during a two-year journey around the world. David S. Wills, author of World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, analyses this important poem in light of its author’s travels through Asia:
- Ginsberg had for decades existed in a state of uncertainty, unhappiness, and often self-loathing. In 1945, he had told Jack Kerouac, “I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself,” but in 1963, after returning to the US, he said “I seem finally to have returned back into my body after many years absence – I think the Indian Gurus did it.” The opening of the poem then alludes to a new beginning, a new Allen Ginsberg. It marks the great dividing line in his life. Everything that had happened before it was a part of his education. It had all led to this realisation and change.
Make the Change: The Art & Prophecy of William S. Burroughs
Does art reflect life or does life reflect art? And is it possible to affect change through a photo or a poem or a painting? These are questions Westley Heines asks in his essay on William S. Burroughs. Examining the Cut-up Method and Burroughs’ peculiar philosophies on life and art, Heines asks why exactly he once pointed his shotgun at the World Trade Center – and whether that had anything to do with the towers falling some twenty-three years later.
- The meaning of a piece of art changes over time depending on the audience. If a book, painting, piece of music, or a film has universal qualities, it will adapt and translate over generations. Some works of art seem to predict the future as times change. Or perhaps, prophetic art seems to predict the future because history repeats itself. Is the future really being predicted or is life just repetitive?
Turning the Tables: An Interview with Victor Bockris
Leon Horton discusses life and literature with Victor Bockris. In a wonderful interview, Bockris recounts many amusing and revealing stories about William S. Burroughs, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Marcia Resnick, and many others. He takes us from his childhood, through New York in the seventies and eighties, to his present-day engagements. At the top of the interview, he explains:
- The interview is my favourite form. I think of it as a literary form like a short story.
Review: Some American Tales
Brenda Frazer (probably better known to Beatdom readers as Bonnie Bremser) is a fascinating character in Beat lore. In her latest book, she offers poetry and prose that looks back over parts of her life, including stays in Guatemala and on Allen Ginsberg’s Cherry Valley Farm. Here, Heike Mlakar reviews Some American Tales:
- This collection of poetry and prose texts not only offers insight into the very intimate details of a mother and wife on the road, it is also a testament to how women of the post-Beat era fundamentally transformed conservative views of female roles in society. Frazer is the antidote to the notion that women in the post-war decades were happy homemakers.
Violets are Blue
Paul Carroll is not often thought of as part of the Beat Generation, but of course he was very much connected to it through his efforts to publish Burroughs and Kerouac, and his friendship with Allen Ginsberg. In this short memoir, journalist Vic Larson recalls studying poetry with Carroll. He remembers:
- The professor loathed rhyming poetry. He introduced me to free verse, completely changing my emerging style. I unwittingly stepped into a trap with the reading of my first of twelve poems. We had been assigned the topic of “Angels.” The rest of the class responded predictably, literally. I took the poem in another direction with my “Ode to An Angel – Bridgette the Brazilian Bombshell,” recounting my lonely visit to a strip joint after my friends went back to school following spring break.
All Change: The Lives & Arts of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Matthew Levi Stevens returns to the pages of Beatdom with an essay on the life of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, a multimedia artist influenced by Kerouac and Burroughs. P-Orridge passed away in 2020, leaving behind a legacy of transgressive pursuits that spanned the cultural gamut. Stevens writes:
- The complexity and diversity of his activities as an adult known by the unlikely name Genesis P-Orridge – and, later, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge – would be truly bewildering. As a multi-media artist and self-styled “Cultural Engineer,” they included but were not limited to collage, literature, music, performance, poetry, and video. They also encompassed a lifelong engagement with occult strategies of self-initiation and liberation that would see him hounded into exile by the authorities as a subversive cult leader, all the while pursuing psychedelic utopian ideals that would ultimately attempt to de-construct gender itself.
RB Morris Interviews Gerald Nicosia
In a long interview that covers a great many writers, Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia talks about his latest book – a collection of poems called Beat Scrapbook. “It’s not supposed to be a picture of the Beat Generation,” he explains. “It’s memories of the Beat people in my life whom I have loved.” He talks about his relationship with many figures in Beat history and explains why he did not see eye-to-eye with Allen Ginsberg, in spite of his great respect for Ginsberg’s poetry. He also explains why Gregory Corso was his favourite:
- I think Corso is the greatest of the Beat poets, hands down. All except Kerouac, who maybe should tie with him for the Beat poet crown. But Corso is not only articulate—they’re all articulate—his power of imagination is just leaps and bounds beyond everyone’s!
Allen Ginsberg in Nebraska
The year is 1966 and Allen Ginsberg is visiting the University of Nebraska, shocking and amusing the naïve students there. Randy Rhody recalls his first impressions of the world-renowned poet:
- I was less than starstruck when I got my first look at the famous poet, not more than twenty feet from me. He was going on forty, only a year older than my dad, jelly-bellied and unimposing. His straggly dark hair was nearly shoulder-length but balding in front with a few remaining strands brushed across. He had a bushy beard and black-rimmed glasses. He was dumpy-looking in khakis and canvas shoes, a wrinkled white shirt with a couple of pens clipped into the pocket, and a rumpled tweed sport coat. So that’s what a real Beat poet looked like, I thought.
Bringing the Beats to Iran
Farid Ghadami is an Iranian writer who has translated the works of many Beat authors into Persian. He has played an immensely important role in popularising the Beat Generation in his native Iran. In this interview, he speaks with Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, about his work and why the Beats have grown so influential in Iran.
- Walt Whitman showed us that technology, which has made great strides with the rise of capitalism, relates to democracy by two bridges: celebration and road. Jack Kerouac shows exactly this in his novels: the importance of celebration and the road. But in Baraka’s poetry, we suddenly find that there is no celebration and no road, and that the great technology of today has come to serve terrorism, whether it is the internal terrorism of governments against their people or international terrorism.
Box Car Communion
In one of the more unique essays we have published in Beatdom, Paul W. Jacob offers a theological study of the opening pages of Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums:
- The train keeps moving towards its physical destination; Kerouac and the dharma bum are gathered together in the sacred room of the open box car where they are rooted in the light and warmth of The Beloved and their spiritual goodwill. Their openness to the depths of each other changes the atmosphere in the box car to a sort of communion. Kerouac relates this feeling in his jazzy narrative prose; the slight bum interiorizes it in his contemplative silence.
Only Tough Guys Shit Themselves in Public
Charles Bukowski was, of course, no Beat, but he was a fascinating character whose life and work certainly overlapped somewhat thematically with the Beats, and so we’ve included this interesting look at his live performances. You probably know a few things about his novels and poems, but what about the terror he faced at the prospect of going on stage to deliver readings of those works? Leon Horton delves deep into Buk’s anxieties.
- Bukowski bristled at the idea of being cast as a performing clown, but for reasons unknown he continued to endure – even play up to – the crude expectations of his audiences. If it was dirty poems, sex, and drinking they wanted, then that was what they would get. “You disgusting creatures,” he told the braying crowd at Baudelaire’s nightclub in Santa Barbara. “You make me sick.”
Like Father, Unlike Son
Juan Thompson is the son of Gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. In this interview, he sits down with Scottish writer Graham Rae to discuss life, art, politics, and what it was really like growing up as the son of a famous literary outlaw.
- Drinking a lot and taking drugs will not allow you to write like Hunter S. Thompson or, I would say, to create anything of any value. I think Hunter was a great writer in spite of his drinking and drug use, not because of it.
Matt Schultz writes a poem that includes another poem by Jack Kerouac. This playful effort makes something new out of a Kerouac haiku.
An Excess of Meaning
What is the Cut-up Method and why did William S. Burroughs use it? In this essay, Josh Bergamin explains through two demonstrations how cut-ups can be used for various purposes and how the resulting writing could be interpreted in different ways. Looking at human psychology, he explores the idea of a cut-up work being read in numerous possible ways, with both creator and reader assigning their own meaning, neither of which is definitive. As to Burroughs’ own fanciful interpretations, Bergamin explains:
- Burroughs was also a conspiracy theorist of the first order, a living archetype of that very American attitude of anti-authoritarian truth-seeking that pushes freedom of thought beyond its rational limits. His was a mind that sought – and found – connections in everything he worked with – connections that often pointed to elaborate systems of control.
Review: Beat Scrapbook
Ryan Mathews reviews Gerald Nicosia’s latest publication – a collection of poems related to the Beats. He writes:
- Beat Scrapbook is first and foremost a painfully honest autobiographical collection. We are never allowed to forget that we are seeing people, places, and events through Nicosia’s eyes.
The Times, The Times
Weldon Kees was an important poet who disappeared in 1955 as the Beat Generation was beginning to take off. In Beatdom #20, we looked at his relationship to Denise Levertov and this time we have one of his previously unpublished poems, recently found in an Ohio barn.
A Memory of Gregory Corso
John Pratt recalls a brief meeting with Gregory Corso on the patio at Café Flore.
Unrecorded Corso Secondhand Flashes
Marc Olmsted offers various stories about Gregory Corso, all told to him by others.
The Words That Ended My Life
This short story is the first piece of fiction David S. Wills has written in perhaps a decade. It is about a man suffering an unbearable loss. He travels to the end of the world and attempts to inhabit his own memories, where he believes he can live forever free of the grief that haunts his waking life. It is not so much a story about change as one that explains the immutability of the past, no matter how badly one wishes to change it.