Take a Chance In The Void: Harold Norse’s Beat Hotel Recordings

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Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel in 1961.

Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel in 1961.

I’m pleased to share news of the release of Harold Norse’s magical cut-up recordings from his time at the Beat Hotel in the early 1960s.

Joining the ranks of his poet friends Ira Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Valery Oisteanu and Eddie Woods, Harold’s recordings are now available from Bart De Paepe’s Sloow Tapes in Belgium under the title Take a Chance In The Void: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel. This is a cassette only release whose low-fidelity technology is an excellent format for these historic analogue recordings.

Originally recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine, the cassette features Harold reading from his translations of the satirical sonnets of 19th Century Roman poet G.G. Belli, along with some of his then recent cut-up works. There are also what could be called field recordings of local Parisians telling their tales and singing songs while visiting Harold’s room.

Harold said of the Beat Hotel, “This fleabag shrine will be documented by art historians.” The small hotel, located on Paris’ Left Bank near the Seine river, housed, at various times, Beat writers from Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky to William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, whose residencies coincided with Harold’s.

It was during this time that Harold participated with Burroughs and the painter Brion Gysin in developing the Cut-Up technique. Taking abstract elements from painting, they introduced them into literature by physically cutting up text to produce hallucinatory images freed from the rational mind. This process became the basis of Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy of novels The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express.

Harold’s first cut-up, Sniffing Keyholes, singled out by Burroughs and Gysin as a major step in the development of cut-ups, was first published in Ira Cohen’s literary journal GNAOUA. A collection of Harold’s cut-ups were published in the brilliant novella Beat Hotel.

For more information on the recordings, visit Sloow Tapes where you can hear a selection from the tapes of Harold reading his cut-ups. It’s like some surreal radio program mutating through radio waves.

Individual tapes can be purchased from Bart at sloowtapes@gmail.com.

Celebrating Harold Norse’s 97th Birthday

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Scanned Image-89

Photo by Nina Glaser

 

We salute Harold Norse on what would have been the great poet’s 97th birthday,  a day shared with visionary painter Frida Kahlo and visionary being the Dali Lama.

Harold lives as long as his poetry is read and his voice remembered. To that end, here’s a poem from Harold’s time in Tangier, breaking through to a new voice: a new man, recalling the visions and ecstasies shared with his young lover.

To Mohammed On Our Journeys

I was the tourist
el simpatico
and your brother offered you
and also himself
I forgot about your brother
and we took a flat in the Marshan
with reed mats and one water tap
about a foot from the floor
and we smoke hasheesh
and ate well and loved well
and left for the south
Essaouira, Fez, Marrakech
and got to Taroudant
thru the mountains
and bought alabaster kif bowls
for a few dirhams and watched
the dancing boys in desert cafés
kissing old Arabs and sitting on their
laps, dancing with kohl eyes
and heard the music down in Jejouka
in the hills under the stars
the ancient ceremony, Pan pipes
fierce in white moonlight
by white walls
with hooded figures
stoned on kif
for eight nights
and the goatboy in a floppy hat
scared us, beating the air
with a stick, beating whomever came close,
Father of Skins, goat god,
and the flutes maddened us
and we slept together in huts.
San Francisco 7.xi.72

 

Writers Remembered Report Back

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The evening of Writers Remembered was held to a packed audience at California College of Arts Writers Studio in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Among the twenty-two writers paid tribute were poets such as Janine Pommy Vega, Roberto Valenza and Lenore Kandel.

Here’s a photo of me speaking about Harold taken by Gerald Nicosia, who organized the event.

Todd Swindell speaking about Harold Norse at Writers Remembered, March 1, 2013. Photo by Gerald Nicosia

Todd Swindell speaking about Harold Norse at Writers Remembered, March 1, 2013. Photo by Gerald Nicosia

America Destroys Though Who Create- The Italian Exile of a Brooklyn Bard

I want to dedicate my talk tonight to the visionary Judith Malina and The Living Theater, our country’s oldest experimental theater troupe. They were exiles that performed throughout Europe in the 1960s because of persecution from the IRS. This week the Living Theater closed the doors to its Manhattan performance space, as they could no longer afford the rent. That’s so terribly unjust. Harold Norse was not only a close friend of both Judith and her husband Julian Beck, but was involved in the creation of the Living Theater in 1947. His then lover, Dick Stryker, composed music for many of the Theater’s early productions.

From Gertrude Stein’s modernist prose which flourished in avant-garde Paris of the early 20th Century to the evolution of blues and rock by Jimi Hendrix in the psychedelic scene of 1960’s London, many of America’s most prophetic artists were forced to leave this country in order to find the encouragement and community necessary to voice their visionary creations

Harold Norse was born in Brooklyn, during the summer of 1916, to an unwed Lithuanian Jewish immigrant. Like many others of his generation, he grew up poor during the depression with an abusive stepfather and a superstitious, overbearing mother. Harold was a language prodigy; his heroes were Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. As a student at Brooklyn College, he quickly rose above the fray.

By World War II, Harold was a full participant in the bohemian milieu of Greenwich Village. Among his friends were James Baldwin, W.H. Auden and Paul Goodman. Following a Master’s in English from NYU, Harold was on his way to a PhD and a life in academia.

But 1950’s America was gripped in the clutches of Cold War conformity and its conservative hysteria was particularly dangerous for Harold.  Not only was he a liberal and a poet but also queer, all red flags for being labeled a communist. This was the soulless era of validation through collective consumption where the only escapes were the numbness of alcohol & the ecstatic bliss of furtive sexual contact.

Fearing that he would either end up in jail for being gay or drink himself to death, Harold left for Italy in 1953. His plan was to go for 3 months but he quickly sold his return passage and, for the next 15 years, lived in Tangier, Paris then Athens. This geographical travel mirrored a development of his poetic voice as he took inspiration from the mores of Classical Rome and Greece.

By the time of his expatriation, Harold had published his first collection of poetry, The Undersea Mountain. The establishment of that time coveted poets such as Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro and viewed Harold’s poems as too wild. William Carlos Williams was an early & strong supporter of his work, stating that Harold used the colloquial American language as never before.

Harold spent the next five years living in Rome, Florence and Naples primarily. In these classical surroundings he could finally breathe freely as a person and a poet. In a society with pre-Christian attitudes to same-sex desire, Harold no longer had to dissociate his soul’s voice from his poetic voice, but instead found fertile ground to blossom in an ancient culture (one which America could not offer). Europe’s shattered remnants from World War destruction had yet to be bulldozed for commercial development, the progress of underarm deodorant & computer automation.

Harold’s next collection of poems, The Dancing Beasts, connected his immersion in Italian life and the historical experience of Ancient Rome to the uncertain and changing realities of the mid- 20th Century. In such poems at “Tiberius’ Villa at Capri” and “An Episode from Procopius”, the poet asks how much had we truly changed from those ancient days? When stone and marble structures from two millennia still stand yet homes, families, and lives were reduced to rubble. What had modern man learned but more efficient and lucrative means to destroy through violence?

Harold’s gift for language and his Whitmanic love of everyday American speech soon found him translating the Latin poet Catullus whose poems had been censored through translations choked by Christian prudishness. In “On Translations of Catullus,” he writes

Catullus, you’d bust your balls laughing!
For 2000 years they’ve fixed you like a horny cat-
The pedagogues can’t take you straight.
Old pederast, they’ll never make it
-not while they teach you how to write!

Harold also turned his ear to Giuseppe Gioachino Belli whose satirical sonnets attacked the corruption and egotism of the papacy with a sharp humor. Though D.H. Lawrence and Joyce both attempted translations, the vernacular of 19th Century Rome proved too much of a challenge. Harold said that he accomplished the task with “a dictionary in one hand and an Italian youth in the other.”

During this time Harold continued to correspond with Williams and their surviving letters are preserved in the wonderful collection The American Idiom. In it Williams singled out the poem “Classic Frieze in a Garage” as “the best I have seen of yours” which saw Harold combine the old world and the new by following his native idiom. I will close with the second part of the poem:

I have passed my time dreaming thru ancient ruins
walking thru crowded alleys of laundry
    outside tenements with gourds in windows
& crumbling masonry of wars
 
when suddenly I saw among the greasy rags
  & wheels & axles of a garage
      the carved nude figures
      of a classic frieze
     above dismantled parts of cars!
 
garage swallows sarcophagus!
    mechanic calmly spraying
       paint on a fender
observed in turn by lapith & centaur!
 
the myth of the Mediterranean
            was in that garage
        where the brown wiry youths
               saw nothing unusual
                               at their work
among dead heroes & gods
 
but I saw Hermes in the rainbow
     of the dark oil on the floor
           reflected there
      & the wild hair of the sybil
          as her words bubbled
mad & drowned
              beneath the motor’s roar

An Evening of Writer Tributes: Harold Norse

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On Friday, March 1st, I will participate in an evening of tributes to writers who have passed away in the last couple years by offering remembrances and reflections on Harold Norse. A number of Harold’s friends and contemporaries will be featured including Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Peter Orlovsky. Please come and join what will be a lovely event.

Friday, March 1, 2013, 7-9 PM
California College of the Arts Writers Studio
195 DeHaro (@ 15th Street)
San Francisco

Todd Swindell and Harold Norse, San Francisco, 2008

Harold Norse and Todd Swindell, San Francisco, 2008

Harold Norse Book Covers

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Announcing the complete visual documentation of Harold Norse’s major publications. From his first books in the early 1960′s to his later ones from City Lights and Gay Sunshine, the covers of Harold’s books were often as innovative and provocative as his poetry. This pages also includes hard to find foreign editions of Beat Hotel. They are all lovingly gathered under the Book Covers section.

Harold Norse Poetry Recording Now Available

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They say Dylan Thomas’s recordings were the best recorded poetic voice of the twentieth century, but for my money, Harold Norse’s voice runs a close second. Hear this master of the American idiom, whose mind and knowledge were absolutely cosmic, on the must-have album for all poetry collection, Harold Norse Of Course…”

-Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac

 

Originally released on cassette tape in 1984 by Ins & Outs Press, Harold Norse Of Course captures the Master Poet in all his glory. Recorded in Amsterdam, this historic recording has been re-released on CD and a luxurious double-colored vinyl with gatefold cover featuring a collage of Norse photos.   Please visit the Merchandise page for more information.

We Salute Ira Cohen- Poet, Photographer, Film Maker and Magician

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Ira Cohen first met Harold in Tangier in the early 1960s when they were part of an expatriate group that included William Burroughs and Paul Bowles. It was Ira who gave the title “Sniffing Keyholes” to Harold’s first cut-up piece which was first published in Ira’s magazine GNAOUA, subsequently featured by Bob Dylan on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.

Harold paid a visit to Ira’s Mylar Chamber while in New York City in the Summer of 1970. The photographs captured Harold dancing as a psychedelic Krishna, naked, flashing mudras. A photo from this series was featured, albeit in black  and white,  on the cover of Carnivorous Saint, Harold’s seminal collection of gay poetry .

Along with Judith Malina and the late Charles Henri Ford, Ira Cohen remained a loving friend until the end of Harold’s life. After Harold moved into an assisted-care facility, I remember Ira telling me on the phone that he wanted to cheer Harold up by sending him sweet potato pies and fudgesicles in the mail.

In 2007 when Ira made his last visit to San Francisco, he made sure to pay a visit to Harold. Sitting across from each other in Harold’s cramped room, they made quite a pair. Talk turned to reminiscence of Burroughs and the Beat Hotel. Harold, whose memory had begun to fail him, turned to Ira and asked, “Do you know Ira Cohen?” Without missing a beat, Ira replied brightly, “That’s me!” Harold was so pleased. He said, “How wonderful,” as he leaned over to shake Ira’s hand.

Being slips in and out of time’s stream of thought and memory.
Gone but not forgotten. Still here, more than most.
Image and word continue on, guiding us, chiding us, inspiring us.

We Salute Peter Orlovsky- Poet, Farmer and Queer Revolutionary

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Harold Norse and Peter Orlovsky at Naropa Institute, July 1980. Photograph by Michael Kellner.

In the summer of 1980, Harold joined Burroughs, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky for a joint reading at Naropa Institute where Peter had taught poetry the previous decade.

Peter Orlovsky, poet, Ginsberg’s partner, dies

Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Peter Orlovsky was a sweet and handsome 21-year-old with a troubled past when he met Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco in 1954, and the two forged a relationship that would last for decades and transform their lives.

Mr. Orlovsky, who became a poet in his own right but was always overshadowed by Ginsberg’s fame, died Sunday in Vermont. He was 76 and had battled emphysema and lung cancer.

“When Peter and Allen met, they were both troubled,” said Gerald Nicosia, a Marin County poet and biographer of Jack Kerouac. “Ginsberg was troubled by his homosexuality and afraid to be a poet, and Peter had come from this family defined by mental illness, and he was living in San Francisco and wondering where his own life was going.”

Within a year of meeting Mr. Orlovsky, Ginsberg started writing “Howl,” a poem that was first performed Oct. 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco and published a year later. The controversial poem became a seminal work of the Beat Generation.

“Allen was the brains, and Peter was the heart,” said Nicosia. ” You couldn’t be around him without feeling this love radiating from his eyes.”

With Ginsberg’s encouragement, Mr. Orlovsky, who had been born into poverty, grown up in a converted chicken coop on Long Island and seen his siblings institutionalized, began keeping a journal and writing poems.

Mr. Orlovsky could also be a natural performer, pausing from poetry recitations to break into a yodel, wearing outrageous clothes and growing a ponytail that ran down his back. He also was known for trying to get the hard-partying beat poets of his generation to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Ginsberg and Mr. Orlovsky were notorious early in their relationship for taking off all their clothes at Bay Area parties, and were sometimes invited to parties just for that.

In 1974, Mr. Orlovsky began teaching poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., and in 1979 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. City Lights Books in North Beach collected Mr. Orlovsky’s works. In 1980, Gay Sunshine Press published “Straight Hearts’ Delight,” comprised of the letters and love poems between Mr. Orlovsky and Ginsberg.

Over the years, they became one of the most famous openly gay couples – with Mr. Orlovsky listed in “Who’s Who” as Ginsberg’s “wife.” They split as a couple in the late 1980s, when Mr. Orlovsky had a mental breakdown, but remained close.

Ginsberg died in 1997. Mr. Orlovsky was said to have started in recent years working on his memoir.

E-mail Julian Guthrie at jguthrie@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page C – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Harold Norse Memorial Celebration

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Join us in celebration of beloved poet Harold Norse
as we remember his life and work.
Norse’s friends and admirers will pay homage to this master poet.
Led by Norse’s longtime friends and fellow poets

NEELI CHERKOVSKI    MEL CLAY    A.D. WINANS

July 12, 2009 2:00pm

The Beat Museum, 540 Broadway (at Columbus)

North Beach, San Francisco

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Harold Norse Obituary by Todd Swindell and Jim Nawrocki

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Harold Norse, whose poetry earned both wide critical acclaim and a large, enduring popular following, died on Monday, June 8, 2009, in San Francisco, just one month before his 93rd birthday. Norse, who lived in San Francisco for the last thirty five years, had a prolific, international literary career that spanned 70 years. His collected poems were published in 2003 under the title In the Hub of the Fiery Force, and he continued to read publicly into his 90s, bringing his work to new generations.

Born in 1916 to an illiterate, unwed mother, Harold Norse’s natural gift for language, influenced from the varied dialects of his surroundings, led to a boyhood interest in writing that blossomed into a rich, peripatetic life that he documented in an innately American poetic idiom.

Like Walt Whitman, Norse was a Brooklyn native. He came of age during the Depression, an experience that significantly shaped his voice and endeared him to a varied audience of underdogs and the persecuted. Beginning in 1934, he attended Brooklyn College, where he met and became the lover of Chester Kallman. In 1939, when W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood gave their first reading in America, Norse and Kallman were in the front row winking flirtatiously at the famous writers. Norse soon became Auden’s personal secretary, a role he filled until Kallman and Auden became lovers.

During the 1940s, Norse lived in Greenwich Village and was an active participant in both the gay and literary undergrounds. His close friends at the time included James Baldwin, who was a teenager when he met Norse in 1942. A close friend of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, Norse was integral in the early foundation of The Living Theater. In the summer of 1944 Norse was introduced to Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the two shared a summer cabin while Williams completed the manuscript for The Glass Menagerie.

Abandoning his doctoral work in English in 1954, Norse sailed to Italy, spending the next fifteen years traveling across Europe and North Africa. Living in Rome, Naples, and Florence, Norse immersed himself in the classical culture that had survived the two World Wars. Norse found a mentor and friend in William Carlos Williams, who encouraged the younger poet to move away from the classical poetics of academia and explore the poetic possibilities of the spoken word of the American streets. The complete correspondence of Norse and Williams, titled The American Idiom, was published in 1990.

Norse’s travels continued in the 1960s, bringing him to Tangier, where he consorted with Paul and Jane Bowles, Ira Cohen, and Mel Clay. In 1959 Norse traveled to Paris, where he settled in the infamous Beat Hotel. Through friend and fellow Beat Hotel resident Gregory Corso, Norse met William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. It was Norse who introduced Ian Sommerville to Burroughs as the group experimented with the cut-up method of writing. Norse’s collection of writing from that period was published as a cut-up novella, The Beat Hotel, in 1983.

From Paris Norse moved onward to Greece and Hydra, where he reconnected with the poet Charles Henri Ford, a friend from Greenwich Village days, and smoked pot with the then unknown poet Leonard Cohen. Norse also spent time in Switzerland, Germany, and England. During this time Norse maintained a close correspondence with Charles Bukowski, who affectionately referred to Norse as “Prince Hal, Prince of Poets.” In 1969 Norse edited Penguin Modern Poets 13 featuring Norse, Philip Lamantia and, in his first major exposure, Bukowski.

In 1968, gravely ill from hepatitis, Norse repatriated to Venice, California where he was met by Bukowski and the young poet Neeli Cherkovski. Norse enjoyed the social freedom and political activism of the hippy era, so presciently voiced in his writing, which breathed new life into his body and work. Norse also reconnected with Jack Hirschman; the two had spent time together in Greece during Norse’s expatriate years. Recovering his health, Norse became a vegetarian and a body builder at Gold’s Gym along with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 1972 Norse moved to San Francisco, ultimately settling in the Albion Street cottage he would occupy for the next thirty years. The 1970s were a productive and personally fulfilling time for Norse as the personal and sexual liberty he had lived clandestinely now became the cultural norm. City Lights Books published a collection of poems tilted Hotel Nirvana in 1974. It was nominated for a National Book Award. Carnivorous Saint, published in 1977, was an historic collection of poetry that covered Norse’s gay erotic experience from World War II through the Gay Liberation Movement. During this period Norse was a habitué of North Beach coffee houses where he often connected with fellow poet Bob Kaufman.

Norse’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, was published in 1987 to international acclaim. Chronicling his rich life at the cutting edge of twentieth-century literary arts, Norse’s memoirs were republished in 2002. A National Poetry Association Award was bestowed upon him in 1991. During his final years, Norse continued to live in his cottage in San Francisco’s gritty Mission District, continually reworking his poems, giving readings, and corresponding with admirers from around the world.

Gerald Nicosia Review of Harold Norse Of Course

They say Dylan Thomas’s recordings were the best recorded poetic voice of the twentieth century, but for my money, Harold Norse’s voice runs a close second. Hear this master of the American idiom, whose mind and knowledge were absolutely cosmic, on the must-have album for all poetry collection, Harold Norse Of Course…”

-Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac

Harold Norse Of Course on CD and Gatefold Coloured Double Vinyl

OF COURSE HAROLD NORSE

“Anyone who has read Memoirs of a Bastard Angel is aware that Harold Norse was a very perceptive individual. Intuitive. Sensitive to atmospheres and moods. That remarkable (and incredibly fast-paced) autobiography is rife with instances displaying his keen sense of ‘just knowing’ what someone, or some place or scene, was really all about. Yet Harold’s finely-tuned instinct for seeing things as they were was far from limited to the present. As I discovered for myself in late 1984, six years after he and I had first met and spent time together, in Amsterdam and afterwards Barcelona. This second encounter was at the seventh annual One World Poetry festival, for which I had sponsored Harold and where we both performed. I then offered to put Harold up, so he could stay in Holland a while longer and additionally do a reading at Ins & Outs Press.”

-excerpt taken from Eddie Woods’ introduction to Harold Norse Of Course…

Harold Norse Of Course…was originally released on cassette tape in 1984 by Ins & Outs Press.

Eddie Woods and Tate Swindell are now releasing it on CD and Double Vinyl.

Track Listing
1. Alarm
2. Sniffing Keyholes
3. Pan Pipes of Bou Jeloud
4. To Mohammed at the Cafe’ Central
5. To Mohammed on Our Journeys
6. To Mohammed in the Hotel of the Palms
7. To Mohammed at the Height
8. I’m Not a Man
9. Invocation for Ira Cohen
10. Poem to Jack Kerouac
11. Love is a Homicidal Mania
12. Double Cross
13. In a Cafe’ Bar (translation of poem by Paul Verlaine)
14. To Reuben
15. To Byron Alfonso
16. Dreams
17. A Question of Identity
18. We Bumped Off Your Friend the Poet
19. Van Gogh’s Eyes
20. Exploding Madonnas

*The first 100 vinyl orders will receive a hand-typed Eddie Woods introduction on rice paper

Please visit Unrequited Records website, located in the links page, to order a copy.

Memorial Collection of Poetry and Photographs in Tribute to Harold Norse


Featuring Paul Bowles, Ira Cohen, Mel Clay, Neeli Cherkovski, Douglas Field, Jack Hirschman, Tom Livingston, Gerard Malanga, Jim Nawrocki, F.A. Nettlebeck, Gerard Nicosia, Valery Oistneau, A.D. Winans and Eddie Woods.

Copies are $5, please add $2 domestic postage or $4 international.

Please visit Unrequited Records website, located in the links page, to order a copy.