Correspondence from Harold Norse is featured in a new exhibit Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground at the John Rylands Library as part of the University of Manchester. Jeff Nuttall was, among many activities, a critic, poet and publisher whose mimeo publication My Own Mag was one of the few outlets that published William Burroughs most experimental Cut Up work of the 1960s.
According to their website, “The John Rylands Library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. In 1889 the architect Basil Champneys designed the striking gothic building, which took ten years to build and was opened to public readers on 1 January 1900.
The library became part of The University of Manchester in 1972 and currently holds the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library. Mrs Rylands’ memorial to her husband is now part of the third largest academic library in the United Kingdom, and the Deansgate building houses over 250,000 printed volumes, and well over a million manuscripts and archival items.”
I had the chance to visit this cathedral of an archive in June while attending the European Beat Studies Network annual conference where I presented a talk on Harold’s involvement with Cut Ups at the Beat Hotel. My impressions of the conference can be read at Beatdom.
The Jeff Nuttall exhibit has been co-curated by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones in collaboration with staff from the Rylands Library. Field, who is a senior lecturer of 20th Century American Literature at the University, recently published All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin. I asked him for some words about the exhibit.
“hope my last letter was not interpreted in the wrong light—hardly remember what i said,” Harold Norse wrote to Jeff Nuttall in the mid-1960s, “except i was feeling a blowtorch searing my liver and my pharynx seemed stuffed with cottonwool and my head with potato salad.” Despite publishing their work in the most prominent publications of the international underground, including Residu, Jeff Nuttall and Harold Norse remain peripheral figures in accounts of post-war avant-garde writing. “Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground” shows the extent to which Nuttall, the author of Bomb Culture (1968) and the editor of My Own Mag (1963-1967) formed extensive international networks with writers including William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi.
Harold wrote about Nuttall in a post script included in his Cut Up novel Beat Hotel. Completed in London on May 24, 1968, the essay titled “Cut-Up Magic” is perhaps the only contemporary document of the development of the Cut Up method.
“Among the younger writers whose talent developed through association with and influence from” fellow Cut Up originators William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Norse singles out Frenchman Claude Pélieu, whose Cut Ups were translated into English by Mary Beach, Carl Weissner, whose German translation of Beat Hotel first appeared in 1974, and Jeff Nuttall, “an English poet, prose-writer and painter, [who] used the technique to enrich a fertile imagination.”
Douglas Field generously offered a description of a letter from Harold included in the exhibit:
Norse and Nuttall corresponded in the 1960s, displaying a warmth and camaraderie. The exhibition displays a letter from Norse to Nuttall in 1965 where the American writer riffs on orange coloured paper, his missive a fine example of Norse’s inimitable surreal poetic prose that he would deploy in the Beat Hotel.
“Saturday, after the débacle, i.e. anglo-American poetry conference,” Norse begins his letter, “doors guarded by US Marines—don’t worry boys, poetry ain’t dangerous here.” Norse appears on another letter, one written by the German translator and avant-garde writer, Carl Weissner, a close friend of Norse, and a collaborator with Nuttall. “Hope you dug Olé 5,” Norse scrawls at top of Weissner’s letter to Nuttall, in reference to a special issue of the magazine which featured Norse’s work. Norse, as Nuttall recalled in Bomb Culture, was “on the wavelength,” a “formidable and adventurous” writer.
The John Rylands Library maintains a special collections blog that’s well worth a view. I particularly enjoyed a post by a computer science student from the University who designed innovative ways of mapping the connections between Nuttall and the wide variety of artists with whom he collaborated. These dynamic and artful compositions chart the extensive interactions that branched out from the Beat originators of Norse’s time to the burgeoning counter-culture generation of which Nuttall was certainly a ring master.
The Rylands Library is open seven days a week and admission is free. Their gift shop and café is a lovely, light filled space also deserving of a visit.
The Nuttall related material in their gift shop features a selection of Harold Norse publications including the recently published selected poems and the hard to find first issue of Bastard Angel magazine. This is a rare opportunity for travelers in England to purchase books by Harold Norse, yet another reason to not miss this incredible exhibition.