Now that last summer’s Harold Norse Centennial has passed, it’s a good time to look back at the inspirational and historic tributes commemorating the 100th birthday of one of 20th century America’s important poets who was a pioneer in the use of common American speech and an early advocate for Gay Liberation.
For years, North Beach’s Beat Museum has remained the go-to place for keeping the Beat legacy accessible and was the location of Norse’s final poetry readings. A previous post looked at the backgrounds of participants in the July 8, 2016 event and their unique connections with Norse.
The evening kicked off with the multi-talented Jason Jenn who lent his enthusiastic performance skills to interpreting several of Harold’s poems for all three centennial presentations. For the Beat Museum event, he chose, amongst others, the poem “Naked Men in Green Heated Water.” Originally composed in the early 1970s, the poem is an impressionistic document of one of San Francisco’s gay bathhouses, the Ritch Street Baths, that comes alive on the page in part to Harold’s use of surrealistic imagery.
Accompanied by a percussive soundtrack, Jason’s interpretation invokes a tribal dance of the timeless communion of gay male sexuality with an incantatory repetition of the line “His eyes perfect body stirs mind ripples.” Harold would certainly have loved Jason’s performance as much as that evening’s audience did.
Nawrocki was instrumental is assisting Norse with the assemblage of material which became his massive collected poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force. In his remarks, Nawrocki shared how Norse would often revise a decades old poem, seeing new ways to make the piece stronger. As Harold often commented, “I’m not a writer but a rewriter.”
The video clip below includes that anecdote along with Jim reading his poem “At Albion” which was part of a memorial collection of poetry that I published following Harold’s death in 2009.
Among the evening’s highlights were remarks made by poet and writer Adrian Brooks who knew Harold in the 1970s when Brooks was a member of the radical gay theatrical troupe the Angels of Light. He offered assistance in the assemblage of Norse’s influential magazine Bastard Angel.
Brooks was invited to participate in a Master Class held by Norse over the course of several months where promising young writers listened to the elder poet’s lectures about the development of Modernism, in addition to critiques of their own writing. Transcripts of Adrian’s remarks were previously posted here and here.
Tate Swindell’s friendship with Norse continues to blossom, providing fruits that enrich our appreciation of the Bastard Angel of Brooklyn. Through his record label Unrequited Records, Tate makes available recordings of Beat writers Jack Micheline and Herbert Huncke which were originally recorded by Eddie Woods’ Ins & Outs Press. Harold Norse of Course… documents Norse’s historic 1984 reading in Amsterdam. You can purchase a copy via digital download or a deluxe double colored vinyl.
In the video clip below, Tate speaks about visiting Harold at his home on Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District and the continual enthusiasm Norse expressed when having young visitors.
The older members of the queer community are acutely vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. These experiences are captured in Tate’s tribute poem which closes out the video clip.
Thanks to all the participants for sharing their memories and creativity and to the Beat Museum for continuing to provide the inhabitants and visitors of San Francisco what is becoming an increasingly rare opportunity to honor and celebrate the legacy of its great poets.
The complete video of the evening can be viewed below:
International publishers have recently shown a renewed interest in Harold Norse, as detailed in a recent post about a German translation of Karma Circuit. That momentum continues thanks to two recent publications in Scotland and, once more, Germany.
Author and publisher Eddie Woods first met Norse when establishing himself in Amsterdam in the late 1970s. Both native New Yorkers, the writers cemented their friendship during an extended stay in Barcelona.
It’s precisely this time that’s covered in Woods’ prose piece “Remembering Harold Norse” as part of Smugglers Train.A collection of 19 poems in the original English plus German translations of six prose pieces (fiction and non-fiction), beautifully illustrated, it has recently been published by Moloko+ in Germany.
Together with Jane Harvey, Woods launched Ins & Outs magazine and founded Ins & Outs Press who published work by Norse and his friends including William Burroughs, Ira Cohen, Paul Bowles and Charles Henri Ford. The press also recorded readings by Norse, Jack Micheline and Herbert Huncke where were released on audio cassettes.
Harold Norse of Course… was recorded during Norse’s 1984 appearance at the seventh annual One World Poetry Festival.
“Remembering Harold Norse” tells the story of the evening when this recording was made, revealing the lingering contention of Harold’s connection with writer and painter Brion Gysin, both of whom resided at the Beat Hotel participating in the development of the Cut Up movement. The full text of the prose piece can be read in English on Woods’ website at this link.
Four years ago, Woods published an account of his time as a journalist in Bangkok during the end of the hippy era where he befriended playwright Tennessee Williams, whom Harold Norse first met in the early 1940s.
Tennessee Williams in Bangkok is less a tell-all memoir of Williams (there’s enough of those already) and more an evocative portrayal of Woods’ relationship with a drag-queen prostitute named Kim. Those who may be disappointed that Woods doesn’t dish the dirt about Tennessee will miss out on a sensitive and engrossing tale of Woods’ exploration of sexuality in a foreign land.
To learn more about Eddie Woods’ colorful life, I recommend a somewhat recent interview that can be found at Urban Graffiti.
Eddie Woods is also part of a recently published anthology from Scottish based author and publisher John Reilly, whose earlier 2003 anthology Shamanic Warriors Now Poets was co-edited with multitalented artist Ira Cohen. Described as “a celebration of now unfolding in all its nakedness, manifested and expressed by a gathering of like souls unfurling the banners of beauty and truth, the poetry of now”, it featured work in a variety of media by four generations of counter culture artists.
Building on that volume’s powerful content, comes The Final Crusade which offers a focused look at the transformative and destructive forces at play in global politics. Reilly has described the anthology as “an unprecedented global gathering speaking out against the destruction of civil liberties, against the destruction of your planet, against the new world order.”
It certainly lives up to that billing with contributions from, among others, Gerard Malanga, Charles Plymell, Neeli Cherkovski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’m pleased to mention an essay I wrote about the history of the medical cannabis movement has been included in The Final Crusade.
“Medical Marijuana Meltdown” takes a historical look at the medical cannabis movement which came out of alternative treatment AIDS activism and its development of patients’ buyers clubs, arguing for the federal rescheduling of cannabis to acknowledge its known and documented therapeutic benefits. A brief analysis of one part of this historic movement can be read at my other blog ACT UP Archives.
Harold is represented with two very strong political poems “Rapist, Racists & Rats” and “Requiem for St. Robbie Kirkland”. Both poems illustrate his ability to combine both an outrage over violent injustice and a sweeping historical knowledge illustrated with personal details.
The later poem concerns the tragic suicide of a gay youth, composed years before the pressing issue of anti-gay bullying gained recognition by the media. The poem’s emotional punch derives from Harold’s visceral connection to his own bruised youth, some seventy years before Robbie, where he lived in terror of anti-gay violence condoned by parents and teachers.
This was also at the heart of Harold’s final, uncompleted, masterwork HOMO, which examined two millennia of religious and political homophobia through poetry, prose and cut up. An excerpt from the work, published as part of his selected poems, can be read at this link.
Requiem for St. Robbie Kirkland
(1984-1997 martyred by schoolboys)
Teased , punched and kicked,
stoned with rocks since first grade
at age six, he did not choose
to be gay. He knew nothing
of sex, except as kids do,
Nature held sway.
Though girlish in childhood
his family loved him no less.
Boys taunted him, hooted and spat
in his face, yelling sissy and fairy
and sister Mary! They laughed at him,
jeering and sneering all day.
As they got older they goosed him
while rubbing their crotches, muttering
“Suck this!” and hissing like snakes.
At 14 he put a gun to his head
and ended the torment
before he returned to ninth grade.
The suicide note said, “I hope I can find
the peace in death that I could not find
in life.” Was this what Christ taught?
He who was mocked and nailed
to the cross? Now in His name
false “Christians” dish out the same.
To learn more about Robbie’s story, I recommend a tribute website created by his family at robbiekirkland.com.
“In this selection, Swindell shows how Norse broke new ground through his open exploration of gay identity and sexuality using accessible language in what he referred to as a new rhythm – the voice of the street. Humor, compassion and inner pain are all to be found in equal measure.”
That’s an excerpt from a new review recently published in the online poetry review GALATEA RESURRECTS (A POETRY ENGAGEMENT) of my selected edition of Harold Norse’s poetry. The complete review can be read at this link.
Written by Scottish based author Neil Leadbeater, who has read the Brooklyn born poet for nearly fifty years, this excellent review offers a perceptive appreciation of Norse’s vital yet overlooked role in composing poems that were “raw and straight to the point.”
“For too long, Norse has been the outsider, certainly in the U.K., but, with this publication, the “lone wolf”, as he once described himself, has finally come in from the cold.”
I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: Selected Poems of Harold Norsewas published in 2014 by Talisman House and is the first posthumous publications of Norse’s influential poetry. Illustrated with photographs of the poet, it includes selections from over sixty years of Norse’s work. Thanks to Neil and GALATEA RESURRECTS for helping more readers become aware of this accessible introduction to the poetry of Harold Norse. Here are a few more excerpts:
“The present selection goes a long way towards putting Norse back on the poetical map, especially for readers in the U.K. A helpful preface by Todd Swindell and an informative introduction by Neeli Cherkovski helps to place Norse and his colorful life in context by establishing the background to his work and its relationship to the rest of the beat movement in America.”
Gerard Malanga’s photo of Ginsberg and Norse at John Ashberry’s poetry reading at SF MOMA, 1973.
“He could write a protest poem that was the equal of any by Ginsberg…which reveal his engagement with politics and his concern for the environment as well as his commitment to poetry as a vehicle of persuasion to help bring about a better world.”
Continuing from the previous post about the Beat Museum’s Norse Centennial Celebration, here are more excerpts from comments made by poet & writer Adrian Brooks who was a friend of Harold’s. As writer & editor Raymond Foye wrote in the comments section, Brooks reflections offer “a beautiful appreciation of Harold Norse, and perfectly evokes his generous spirit. How marvelous to see his personality presented in the context of his work. He is one for the ages.” I couldn’t agree more.
Todd: I was wondering, Adrian, if you wanted to talk about your experiences with Harold producing Bastard Angel magazine? People are always interested in how Harold was publishing older poets like Kerouac, Di Prima and Corso and then new poets like yourself, Neeli Cherkovski, Andrei Codrescu, Erika Horn. A theme that came up was it wasn’t just who Harold had known, it was always current and melding the past and the present.
Adrian: What am I supposed to say?
Todd: [To Audience] Harold also had a Master Class for young writers when he came back to the United States. Harold was not only a writer; he was also a very good teacher. [To Adrian] So this sense of being able to work with younger poets, bringing the past into the present, but also seemed to be a contemporary in a way. Am I wrong?
Adrian: Harold was complex. There’s that phrase in Whitman, “multiplicity of selves.” He was too complex to say that he was this, and this, and this. It wasn’t that. [Long pause]
His apartment was a mess of manuscripts. People were sending him lots of things because he was publishing a magazine and they wanted to be in it. So Harold wanted to establish [himself] with the other celebrated Beats, with whom he belonged. That was clearly a priority.
I think that where you’re right is that he was always dipping into other channels. He believed in the accidents; he loved Surrealism and the divine inspiration of the haphazard.
I was already fully functioning by the time I met him. I was born in 1947 and didn’t meet Harold until I was 27. By that point I had been involved in the civil rights and anti-war movement, [arts scene in New York City’s] SoHo, I was up and going. Gerard Malanga thought that I would be the perfect partner for Harold. That was wrong.
He was extremely generous with his criticism and feedback; it was an extraordinary thing. Like most artists, I feel that a great deal of what’s necessary is shoveling away the bullshit. So: you find out who you are, then you work from that place if you can tell the truth, which is what he did in his work at his best. Harold told the truth, in his yearning and also his gutsy use of language.
At his best, he was shoveling away whatever obstructed a certain energy at its most crass. It could be a sexual frustration. On a higher level, it was this spiritual desire to participate in the life of culture.
As a teacher, there were two things that happened in his class. I’m not an intellectual or an academic, but his class was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done as a writer. It was divided into two parts. One part was Harold giving a lecture about Modernism and how it began and came all the way through the 19th century, through Yeats and the Surrealists, all the way up to where we were in the 1970s. The point of that was to frame what we’re doing, all of us who write, in a larger context.
What Harold was doing was showing people– it was an amazing thing because his poetry was so personal, so much him…. What was great was that he could completely step out of any egotism and talk about poetry comprehensively. What is language? Why is poetry important? Why is language important? How do we discover who we are and what our culture is? What are the values that are living things, which we can hold on to?
Yes, recognition would have been nice. We’d all love it. He got some; he didn’t get enough. More important than that…
there is a force field in this country that followed Nagasaki and Hiroshima and it blew up with the Beats. We are still seeing the repercussions of that through the revolution of the 1960s, the sexual revolution and the liberation, thank God, of women and other minorities, now transgender people. Harold was so, so conscious that this transformative force was, also, the instrument by which we were being shaped and used.
Harold Norse when he lived in Venice Beach, ca. 1970
As personal as he was, and as human as he was, as much himself as he was, he could also take a very long-range cultural look going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, to Catullus and the people he translated, and come up through to modern times, with a great sense of fidelity to what was possible, through being an artist, as long as people were being honest. I don’t know what he would have done with a dishonest person.
Harold chose people to impart this sense of belonging to– you talk about family; he made us believe we were part of a family. It was an incredible thing because his mind was on that level, quite apart from ego. It was clear, like a prism. That shows through what he did in [his magazine] Bastard Angel too.
There was the historical element and then there was the welcoming of wildness.
There was the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I would say Harold would always come down on the Dionysian for himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a real sense of the Apollonian because he could feel it in inanimate objects even like unopened parcels. For example, saying: “That’s not going to be good. It’s shit.” [Audience laughs] He would know.
There were about twelve people in the class. It was in one room of his flat. It was about a three or four hour evening… every other week. I really wish it had been recorded because…
You know, I know more about painting than writing, so I always saw Harold as a kind of abstract expressionist like Franz Kline or Jackson Pollock in the way that he used his materials. How gutsy it was. His love and appreciation of the various branches of twentieth century art movements– cut ups, Surrealism, Dada– things that never appear in his work, to the best of my knowledge, like Tristan Tzara, and how that related to the Living Theater or the Angels of Light, which was an underground culture here in San Francisco.
Harold totally got how different groups of artists created their survival systems and then created, call it whatever you will, schools or movements or styles, which were their way of finding a tribe.
So he wanted that very much for himself and he appreciated it very much when other people had done it, sometimes under the aegis of people like the Steins in Paris, but in theater and painting and poetry.
He also had a profound appreciation for people like, at the most extreme, Emily Dickinson, although she wasn’t the subject of one of his lectures, who could only function within a very small bandwidth. It wasn’t a question of being out there; it was a question of the quality of the focus. Harold had a wonderful, generous way of appreciating how we got to where we are.
I think that, like most of the people in this room, he would feel horror at what we’re seeing out there now because it is so different than what he wanted for our country.
As mentioned in a previous post, correspondence from Harold Norse is included in an exhibit at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground features material from the archive of British writer and publisher Jeff Nuttall. His mimeo publication My Own Mag was one of the few outlets that published William Burroughs most experimental Cut Up work of the 1960s.
The letter from Norse to Nuttall was written sometime in 1968, shortly before his repatriation to America following fifteen years abroad. At that time, Norse was living in Regents Park, London, attempting to recover from chronic hepatitis and a broken love affair while busy with the publication of his collection Karma Circuit.
He was also editing an edition of the Penguin Modern Poets Series No. 13 featuring himself, Philip Lamantia and Charles Bukowski, in one of the L.A. poet’s first big exposures outside the small press. William Burroughs, who lived near by on Duke Street, St. James, was hooked on Scientology, offered to analyze Norse with the help of an e-meter and two tin cans.
The letter opens “after the debacle, i.e. anglo-american poetry conference at the American Embassy.” (I am not aware of the conference Harold’s referencing. If any readers have information, please post a comment.)
Harold continues to set the scene: “doors guarded by US Marines–don’t worry, boys, poetry ain’t dangerous here.” A nodding of his head is misread by the poet Edward Lucie-Smith as an agreement with (I assume) Nuttall’s presentation, “but actually was beating time to a tune by that great modern poet, Dylan,––Bob Dylan:
“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mister Jooones…”
The reference to “that great modern poet” is a bit tongue-in-cheek as Norse had befriended Welsh poet Dylan Thomas back in New York City in the early 1950s.
From there the letter takes off into freestyle musings of 20th century poetry and arts that is unmistakably Norse, infused with his keen awareness of history which, towards the letter’s closing, connects to the present state of poetics:
& my mind went back to the Cabaret Voltaire (1916) where Hugo Ball chanted nonsense syllables, the Odéon where Tzara, at the end of the world, picked out words from a hat…& knew where it was at…& Gertrude Stein knew, & Ezra knew, & the poet of Finnegans Wake knew…& even Eliot knew but twisted it all back into the hands of the rational boys, who took fright and crept all the way back into the lap of Madame Bovary, as if 2 wars hadn’t happened, as if it wasn’t happening now everywhere…
You can click on the photo of the letter’s display above to view the text in better detail.
The exhibit, which runs through March 5th, is free and the Rylands Library is open every day. While you’re there, make sure to browse through their excellent gift shop or purchase a beverage from their drink bar. Several of Norse’s books are in stock, a rare chance for UK bibliophiles to obtain these pristine, out-of-print copies.
Following the remarks in the letter to Jeff Nuttall, it’s a good time to begin reviewing last summer’s fantastic series of events commemorating Harold Norse’s 100th birthday. It’s no mere coincidence that the Bastard Angel of Brooklyn was born the same year as Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and others birthed the revolutionary art movement DaDa in Zurich, Switzerland.
The second centennial celebration was held at the Beat Museum that has, for over a decade, offered an invaluable resource in preserving and sharing the legacy of the Beat generation. It was also the host of Harold’s last public poetry readings.
Upcoming posts will explore the evening’s other participants. For now the focus is on remarks made by poet & writer Adrian Brooks, featured in a previous post, who was introduced to Harold in the early 1970s through poet Gerard Malanga. The two developed a friendship that encompassed Brooks assisting with Bastard Angel magazine as well as participating in Norse’s Master Class taught to a select group of young writers.
After reading a brilliant poem about Harold composed specifically for the event, Adrian joined in adding his comments to questions about various aspects of Harold from poet to scholar to teacher. This post will close with quotes from Adrian’s reflections from that evening which presciently expand upon observations made in Harold’s letter from the Rylands exhibition.
In addition to wanting his own place in the pantheon of modern “greats,” I don’t think it was just his nurturing that was at play. Harold was alive and therefore life spoke to him through the most haphazard signals.
I think he had a tremendous sense of dislocation that any artist has–a loneliness, a haunted-ness–because he had a great heart.
There’s so much to say. He was never spiritually disciplined, but he absolutely got it. I think if Harold were here tonight, aside from being very pleased that this event was happening, he would also want to connect what’s happening here tonight in honor of him, to what’s happening in this country right now, with the killing of black people and the schism which he saw so clearly. Not only racially and through the lens of having been an expatriate, but really wanting the country to come together and embrace a larger sense of humanity.
He felt chiseled out of that because most artists are. But if he had a spirituality, it was in the recognition of the place of artists and writers in other countries, like Cavafy, or the other people he translated, and people he knew, Anaïs Nin, for example.
He was also propelled by a larger sense of justice. Partly because he had been denied it as a child, and a child who is denied justice either is destroyed by it or fights and Harold was a fighter. He was gutsy.
I feel like we are living, right now, in a catastrophe, which Harold saw and forecast and was right about, even though he missed the ‘60s here. That caused a kind of syncopation in his sense of contact with America. So partly through nurturing young writers, Neeli [Cherkovski] is a perfect example, I guess I am, he created this Master Class and it was a phenomenal experience.
[Audience question as to what was Harold’s focus like.]
When I was listening to the other people [speaking tonight] I was thinking about that. Probably what I am going to say may be offensive, but you asked a question, so I am going to tell you what I think.
Photo by William Childress 1974
I think the two great themes for an artist are sex and death. I think Harold’s focus was sex not death, but I think it wasn’t really sex that was his focus. It was the yearning for love, although he wrote that poem “Friends, if you wish to survive I would not recommend” it.
I think he had a very ambivalent relationship to desire. Harold was friends with Tennessee Williams before Williams was famous. They were in Provincetown together the summer that Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie. I think of desire– sex– like it’s presented in A Streetcar Named Desire; the opposite of death is desire. But for Harold I think it was the attempt to staunch a wound through the enacting of sex.
That’s why I think there is very little of the “other” in his work. It’s about him and his relationship to it, not another person. Rarely, is there another person in his work. I don’t think that diminishes his art, but when you look at the plight of the homosexual, that Harold was born into and grew up with in America, it was so dangerous to be gay, so challenging to try to be a man, because he was a man, against the odds. He was a short man, a Jewish man, a poor man; the odds were stacked against him. Yet there was a grandness in him.
The international attention to Harold Norse’s legacy continues with a new German translation of his book Karma Circuit by Stadtlichter Presse. The translation and publication are the work of Ralf Zühlke who first discovered Beat literature through a paperback edition of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while a young man growing up in East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ralf discovered translations of Burroughs and some poetry by Ginsberg but none by other Beat writers.
His series of publications titled Heartbeats focuses on work by lesser-known writers that are printed in small editions so they may be kept in print over time. Among the titles are works by John Wieners, Diane Di Prima, Gregory Corso and Lenore Kandel. Harold’s original title is translated as Karmakreis.
The first English language publication of Karma Circuit was by Nothing Doing in London in 1966 and it was later republished in 1972 by San Francisco’s Panjandrum Press. The book was assembled during Harold’s time living on the Greek Islands and features some of his best known poems including “Classic Frieze in a Garage,” “I Am in the Hub of the Fiery Force,” and “William Carlos Williams.”
The book features what appears to be an informed afterword by Judith Pouget that runs nine pages. Additionally Ralf has included six pages of footnotes explaining some the poems cultural and biographical references.
Harold was rightfully proud of the many languages in which his poetry had been translated, among them Spanish, Italian and French. In 2014, Norse’s poetry was translated into Greek by the poet Yannis Livadas.
It was thanks to the German translator Carl Weissner that Harold’s cut up novel Beat Hotel was first published in 1975 by Maro Verlag then republished in 1995.
Weisnner, along with Claude Pélieu and others, was among those who continued to explore the cut up approach to writing which had begun at the Beat Hotel. His influential publication Klacto featured work by Norse, Burroughs and Bukowski.
Stadtlichter Presse has certainly succeeded in making Harold Norse’s life and work available to German speaking readers. Next year, they plan to publish translations of poems by San Francisco poet A.D. Winans whose “Poem for Harold Norse” was included in a memorial collection of poetry for Norse published in 2010.
A new anthology features an essay on the visual artwork created in the early 1960s when expatriate writers were living in Paris at the Beat Hotel. The Outlaw Bible of American Art is the final edition in a multi-volume series overseen by author Alan Kaufman, a good friend and admirer of Harold Norse. The series’ first volume which focused on poetry gave the Beat poet prominent exposure.
The latest anthology centers on visual art which has largely been ignored by the establishment. It’s a massive volume that rewards readers with introductions to artists and movements, from the post-WW II to the early 21st century, whose work challenged the complacency and commercialization of the art world. The book opens with Boris Lurie, the No!Art Movement and other New York based artists before moving to the visual art of Beat writers.
The photographs of Allen Ginsberg were exhibited several years ago at the National Gallery of Art and the paintings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti are familiar to anyone whose visited City Lights Bookstore. Kaufman’s anthology calls special attention to the work done at the Beat Hotel.
While the paintings of Brion Gysin have been exhibited in many venues and William Burroughs’ visual works were the subject of a 1996 exhibit, the Cosmograph paintings made by Harold Norse are relatively unknown, though several were featured in the Whitney Museum’s 1995 exhibit Beat Culture and the New America 1950–1965.
An essay co-authored by myself and my brother Tate, of Unrequited Records, offers a succinct overview of different artists who lived at the inexpensive, dingy hotel on Paris’ Left Bank where the Cut Up approach to literature was developed. Following an accidental cutting of paper by Gysin, Burroughs and Norse joined in the experiment of cutting up text to create new forms of communication beyond the rational. The essay begins…
“The Beat Hotel has been rightfully enshrined as one of the preeminent sources of avant garde art of the Post-war era. The cut-up method developed at the Hotel acted as a precursor for the radical changes in the way we receive and understand media, from the fast editing of MTV videos of the 1980s to today’s world of texting and social media. Yet little attention has been paid to the visual art created during this fertile time.”
Under the influence of hashish, Norse threw pigment onto coarse paper which was then rinsed in a bidet. These proto-psychedelic works of startling color revealed undiscovered psychic terrains and were singled out by Burroughs who wrote an introduction to an exhibit of the paintings at the Librairie Anglaise that was featured in Life magazine. From Burroughs introduction…
“Poetry is a place. The drawings of Harold Norse map a place. And anyone can go there who will make the necessary travel arrangements. Poetry is for everyone. Painting is for everyone. Harold Norse reached the place of his pictures by a special route which he is now prepared to reveal so that others can travel there.”
– William Burroughs on Harold Norse’s Cosmographs
The essay concludes with the following paragraph:
“While the influence of literary cut-ups continued to be seen in popular culture, from David Bowie’s use of cut-ups on his 1974 album Diamond Dogs to Thom Yorke selecting lyrics at random for Radiohead’s album Kid A in 2000, the visual art produced at the Beat Hotel remains unjustly neglected. Hopefully future scholars will find interest in these dusty gems from a forgotten time of vibrant North American expatriate activity.”
Reading The Outlaw Bible of American Art was like looking through a creative genealogy where I was reacquainted with artists who had influenced me while introducing artists previously unknown to me, but with whom I felt recognition. It also exposes readers to regional movements such as the Cleveland based artists like D.A. Levy and T.L. Kryss.
Collage by D.A. Levy
One artist I was surprised to not know of is Ben Morea, considering his early alliance with Allen Ginsberg, the Living Theater and the radical arts movement of New York City’s Lower East Side. Harold Norse was involved with the creation of the Living Theater and remained close with its founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina.
With the Becks, Morea joined in serving free food to the poor with Dorothy Day and the radical activists at the Catholic Worker, along with their protests against nuclear warfare. These experiences are documented in Judith Malina’s diaries published in 1984 by Grove Press.
By the mid-1960s, Morea along with Ron Hahne began producing the broadsheet/zine Black Mass whose title was inspired by the rising movement of black intellectuals and radicals. It’s provocative text and cut-and-paste aesthetic echoed the work of The Situationists and looked forward to zine-based movements such as Homocore and Riot Grrl.
The publication’s outreach led to establishing the anti-consumerist Free Stores, where people were able to obtain basic goods without currency, which later morphed into the underground anarchist affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.
Among the anthology’s most extensive essays are those about writer, artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz. Best known for his searing narrative memoir Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Wonjarowicz’s writing takes off where Herbert Huncke and William Burroughs left off.
His sexually provocative writing differed from that of L.A. novelist John Rechy in that Wonjarowicz did not shy away from the political reality of gay oppression. Later he became an active member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power- ACT UP NY.
Wojnarowicz’s visual work defies easy classification. The work varies in format from sculpture, paintings, to stencils, collage and installation. He collaborated with other artists including a series of photographs taken in 1980s New York City with Wojnarowicz wearing a mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. He also collaborated with filmmaker Tommy Turner on the unfinished Super 8mm film Where Evil Dwells.
Among the imagery associated with Wojnarowicz’s visual art are children and houses sprouting flames, canvases and bodies covered in maps with their pastel colored countries contrasting with the blue of the oceans, metallic machinery, bugs and serpents, as well as Christian iconography.
His use of sexually explicit (though unapologetic may be a more apt description) homoerotic imagery brought controversy when the hateful and hate-filled conservative group Focus on the Family targeted Wojnarowicz’s participation in an exhibit which received government funding. Though this brought his work into the larger focus of the culture wars of the Reagan and Bush years, his response differed from apolitical gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in that Wojnarowicz fought back. He sued Focus on the Family for misappropriating his imagery in the group’s fundraising material and successfully won an injunction.
While there are a number of worthy artists not included in The Outlaw Bible of American Art, such a collection can never encompass all those who deserve further attention. Alan Kaufman is to be commended for publishing his own extensive curation. Here’s hoping there’s more recognition for the many neglected American artists whose vital work remains hidden. This post will end with some additional works included in the anthology: Winston Smith, Steve Dalachinsky and Jeff Kramm.
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.
“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.
Authors Todd Swindell, Kevin Killian and Regina Marler celebrate Harold Norse’s 100th birthday at the Mechanics’ Institute, July 6, 2016
An attentive audience of nearly forty people gathered last Wednesday, July 6 to commemorate the 100th birthday of American Beat poet whose groundbreaking work forged a new voice for gay liberation, free of bigotry and hypocrisy.
The evening was hosted by Laura Sheppard, events director for the Mechanics’ Institute, in the storied San Francisco institution’s performance café. With wine available from the bar, this elegant room with professional light and sound equipment was a beautiful setting to recall and evaluate the life and work of the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn.
The festivities began with an invocation of queer poetic spirit by the multi-talented Jason Jenn who performed a selection of poems written by Harold that included “A Man’s Life”, Norse’s translation of a sonnet by the 19th Century Roman poet G.G. Belli.
Here’s a clip of Jason’s performance of “At the Caffé Trieste“, written in the early 1970s at the landmark North Beach coffee house as Harold looks back through the ages to the ways in which the poets’ voice guide us. It ends with the line, “this is the only Golden Age there’ll ever be.”
The evening’s compère was Tate Swindell of Unrequited Records who introduced each of the speakers, adding observations into Harold’s life experience. The first speaker was San Francisco based writer Kevin Killian whose friendship with Norse began in the early 1980s.
He spoke with warmth and affection about his friendship with Harold which began when Kevin would wheel his electric typewriter, down Guerrero Street from 24th, over to Harold’s cottage on Albion Street. A speedy typist, Kevin would assist Harold who was compiling material that eventually became his Memoirs of a Bastard Angel. Some of the pieces first appeared in Kevin’s magazine No Apologies which he published with Brian Monte.
Turns out Kevin had been a member of the Mechanics’ Institute at the time he met Harold and had brought him to visit their beautiful library. Earlier Harold had been kvetching to Kevin that none of his books were available at the local branch of the SF Public Library. “It’s only because they’ve been stolen the Public Library,” was Kevin’s clever reply. Here’s a six minute clip of his introductory remarks.
Kevin also remarked on Harold’s youthful spirit when in company with other writers and artists. He spoke of how Harold was always keen on visiting with artists whom he had known from his earlier days, from Tennessee Williams to John Cage, who were passing through San Francisco to participate in one event or another.
Regina Marler offered insights into the connections between Beat writers and their Mothers which made her anthology Queer Beats a much needed addition to Beat literature scholarship. Her reading of “I’m Not a Man” added another level of appreciation to what is one of Harold’s most well known and well loved poems.
My remarks followed Regina’s sensitive evaluation of how Harold differentiated from his Beat contemporaries in terms of his treatment of women. I quoted from a 1985 letter from Harold to a publisher concerning an updated version of his 1976 collection of gay themed poetry Carnivorous Saint. Here’s an excerpt from the letter concerning Harold’s desire to remove instances of the word “bitch” when the collection was reprinted in 1986 as The Love Poems.
“Such usages do not accurately represent my consciousness now or, indeed, then, if truth be told, as I have always resented slurs of any kind in the language, yet given a macho background have been insensitive to slurs against women, whom I’ve personally always considered the superior sex, in any case…These words are offensive to me and to those I might hurt unintentionally.”
Thanks to Michael Petrelis for snapping the photographs included in this post. The photo to left shows me in an animated conversation with Laura Sheppard and, at the edge of the frame, Count Federico Wardal who attends all the Harold Norse related events in San Francisco.
Harold would certainly have been thrilled that such an event for his hundredth birthday would be hosted at a landmark San Francisco location. Thanks to all those who attended the presentation. Stay tuned for the next report back from the following Saturday’s event at The Beat Museum.
The complete video of the event can be viewed below:
This summer’s centennial celebrations for Harold Norse kick into full swing following two incredible events last week in San Francisco. Next up is a return to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice Beach where Harold lived for a couple of years following his return to America after fifteen years abroad. In a previous post, I looked at some of his connections from that time including Anais Nin and Charles Bukowski.
Once again the host of this event Beyond Baroque which is now approaching its fifth decade as Los Angeles’ premier literary arts center. Over thirty years ago Harold was featured as a “guest star” at a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg. Last summer Beyond Baroque was the host of a reading for my release of the selected poem of Harold Norse. This time around the featured participants are Southern California based writers Thomas Livingston, S.A. Griffin and Michael C Ford.
The event will be held on Saturday, July 23 from 4-6 P.M. at 681 N. Venice Blvd. in Venice Beach. Please note there is an admission charge of $10 for the general public and $6 for students and seniors. Members of Beyond Baroque are free.
Thomas Livingston and Harold Norse in Vence, 1963
Thomas Livingston has published two novels: Paper Walls and The Tower Is Down and short stories in mass circulation magazines including Playboy, literary magazines such as Nothing Doing in London, The Ledge, Bastard Angel, and Main Street Rag, and academic anthologies such as Aleination: A Casebook.
His poetry has appeared in Two Cities, The Ledge and the new renaissance. He taught at Rutgers University and San Jose State University and recently finished his new novel The Years of Light and Gangrene.
Thomas first met Harold in Paris in the summer of 1961 when Norse was living at the Beat Hotel. Their friendship grew in the coming years with Harold offering Thomas a summer job working with The Living Theater on two theatrical productions including The Connection. As this upcoming event he will share stories about The Living Theater, meeting William Burroughs at the Beat Hotel and his decades long friendship with Harold.
Thomas was among the contributors to The End is the Beginning– my 2010 memorial collection of poetry for Harold. His loving remembrance concludes with this paragraph,
Harold introduced my to Burroughs and Gysin, McClure and Ginsberg and, of course, Bukowski before they had their falling out. He enriched my life through our friendship, which was very often spiked with wine and laughter. I’m sure when he saw the praiseworthy obituaries in the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, he had the last laugh and said, “Well, it’s about time I got the recognition I deserve.”
Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher
S.A. Griffin lives, loves and works in Los Angeles. He is the progenitor of Elsie The Poetry Bomb which he took on a five week tour of the United States in 2010 in an effort to foster civil disagreements.
The co-editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry which featured several poems by Harold Norse, S.A. recently edited The Official Language of Yes by Scott Wannberg for Perceval Press and Natural Geographics by M. Lane Bruner, published on his own Rose of Sharon imprint. His latest collection of verse, Dreams Gone Mad With Hope, was released in 2014 by Punk Hostage Press.
Returning again this year is poet Michael C Ford whose participation in last summer’s poetry reading for the selected edition of Harold’s poetry remains a memorable highlight. Here’s a video of Michael’s knock out reading of Harold’s 1973 poem “Remembering Paul Goodman”.
Publishing steadily, since 1970, Michael C Ford is credited with 28 volumes of print documents and numerous spoken word recordings. He received a Grammy nomination in 1986 and earned a Pulitzer nomination in 1998.
L.A. poet Michael C. Ford stands between Tate Swindell (L) of Unrequited Records and Todd Swindell (R) editor of Norse Selected Poems. Beyond Baroque, Venice Beach, July 17, 2015.
His most recent volumes of work are the pamphlet edition of music related poetryentitled Atonal Riff-Tunes to a Tone-Deaf Borderguard (2012)and a 2013 volume entitled Crosswalk Casserole:both of which are published by Lawn Gnome Books in Phoenix, AZ.
Michael was a student of Kenneth Patchen & Kenneth Rexroth both of whom influenced the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s. He’s also performed with Michael McClure and the surviving members of The Doors including a numerous performances with Ray Manzarek.
Make sure you arrive on time to catch Jason Jenn’s performance of Harold’s poetry which has been among the highlights of these Harold Norse Centennial Celebrations.
Today marks the 100 years since acclaimed American poet Harold Norse was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Beginning tonight at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute will be a series of events this month commemorating this historic occasion.
The kick off began earlier today outside Harold’s last home in San Francisco’s Mission District on Albion Street– shades of William Blake. As an invocation of the queer poetic spirit, I read a poem by Harold’s friend, poet and filmmaker James Broughton. James was recently profiled in the award-winning documentary Big Joy.
Gay writers Jason Jenn, Hank Henderson, Daniel Foster and Todd Swindell following a reading of Harold Norse’s poetry at Stories Books & Cafe in Echo Park
I first encountered the phenomenally talented Jason Jenn last summer in Los Angeles during my book tour for the selected poems of Harold Norse. Homo-centric is a monthly reading series in Echo Park curated by Hank Henderson. For the July event Hank had invited local artists to read Harold’s work. I was thrilled to have a chance to hear Harold’s poetry read by gay voices other than mine.
When I mentioned I was planning for Harold’s centennial the following summer, Jason immediately said he wanted to participate. I was surprised mainly because talented queer artists are invariably booked solid with their own projects. Yet Jason said he felt not only a connection to Harold’s work but a need to learn about and share Harold’s own queer history.
Overtime I learned more about Jason’s work on other gay poets especially his full-length performance on the poetry of James Broughton– a San Francisco poet and filmmaker who was a good friend of Harold’s. His art is also activism, exemplified by his ongoing Queer History Tours of West Hollywood.
Each of the three upcoming Harold Norse Centennial events will begin with a brief performance by Jason of Harold’s poetry. I can honestly say that Harold would be thrilled about Jason’s involvement. During the busy preparations for next week, Jason and I had a chance to chat over email.
What can those who attend the Norse Centennial events look forward to during your performance?
Hopefully those familiar with Harold will see him in a compellingly fresh way and those unfamiliar will be turned on by how relevant, moving and provocative his poetry is. It’s my goal to create an experience that reflects the emotional truth of Harold’s work with an engaging visual component that supports his words. It will be a somewhat unique interpretation that honors the Beat generation as a vocal performance tradition mixed in with my own contemporary queer spirit. I like to believe that when I create these performances, Harold’s spirit is being entertained as well. I hope it encourages others to dive more into his work.
You provided assistance and friendship to the elder gay artist and poet William Emboden who recently died. What did you gain from an intergenerational queer connection?
Volumes. Literally and figuratively. I’m really missing William right now; he was a great friend. The value of intergenerational queer connection is infinite and worthy of further attention. It’s how we pass along the life-force, the children of the mind, the queer spirit. William gave me insight into what he gained from his life experience; he was a bridge to other generations.
Through our discussions from typing up his handwritten poems, plays, and manuscripts, I learned so much about the queer cultural icons about whom he encountered, admired, and wrote. It has always been my intention to perform some of William’s poetry someday. It made him happy thinking about what I might come up with even though he knew he wouldn’t get to see it. Writing kept him going day by day through his challenging decline, but he carried himself with such grace and cheer up until the last time I saw him. That was another big lesson.
You’ve created performance pieces for a diverse range of gay authors from the Greek poet Cavafy to poet and filmmaker James Broughton who was a friend of Harold’s. How do you choose these artists? What have you learned from them?
It’s actually because of William and his partner Tony that I even got into the series of gay/queer poet performances in the first place. And oddly enough, in all cases, I never chose the artist — it happened rather serendipitously.
Tony invited me to create a short performance piece for a book release and gallery opening of photographs by Stathis Orphanos called My Cavafy. I was actually not familiar with Cavafy’s work, but once I started reading his poems, I felt a rapturous connection and my imagination lit up. I ended up creating a full-length one-act play with a few other performers by combining Cavafy’s poetry with other aspects of his life story.
Broughton’s centennial was timed with the documentary film Big Joy. Its producer/director Stephen Silha encouraged other artists to create art about Broughton. Again I was mostly unfamiliar with his work, but fell head over heels for it (literally – my legs were up the air during a recitation of one of his poems in my show “Ecstasy For Everyone” as befitting Broughton’s espousal of sexual freedom).
Each poet has encouraged me to continue my own poetry. In working over and over again with their poems, I discover both what works for me and what doesn’t about their individual style. They become my teachers and I certainly draw upon them in my writing subconsciously, whether I want to or not.
For some time you’ve collaborated with Harry Hay biographer Stuart Timmons on a Queer History Tour of West Hollywood. How has that changed your perception of the neighborhood?
Working with Stuart on the tour deepened my appreciation not only of West Hollywood, but how I look at queer history. It was author Mark Thompson who suggested I get to know Stuart and introduce him to some of the newer Los Angeles Radical Faeries. I guess I’m a repeat example of why intergenerational queer connection is influential!
Stuart had written a trio of LGBTQ history walking tours of Los Angeles, but hadn’t finished the section on West Hollywood when he had a major stroke in 2008. When I found out the city was seeking artists to help create events for its 30th Anniversary, I immediately thought about working with Stuart to complete tour. Originally we intended it to be just an audio and written tour, but during a walk-wheel-through of his original draft the idea came to create a “live-action adventure”. I imagined different performers stationed around the city in some wild period costumes delivering the history. It was a bigger endeavor than either of us intended but ended up being so much fun that the city keeps asking us back to do it again.
What place do you think queer rage and anger has in the current discussion about violence against the LGBTQ community?
It’s an absolutely vital component for transformation. We need to really go there and share that rage in order to counteract and move beyond the horrors brought against us throughout history. But we can’t let it consume us. We have to stand up to, be strong, all while staying true to other aspects of our queerness like compassion, creativity, wisdom, vision, service, community – you name it, we contain multitudes. Anger has a valid, important place in the spectrum, but only in unison with the rest. You can be sure there will be some of the rage I feel right now about the world in the performance. It can’t be ignored and Harold brought that into his poetry.
Who are some of the LGBTQ artists that have inspired you and your creativity?
My dear friend Robert Patrick Playwright is an enormous inspiration to many of us. He and I both have a knack for creating our own a cappella songs since neither of us can play an instrument. He believed most of his life he couldn’t sing, but he’s charming the hell out of everyone singing for us and sharing his incredible wit and command of melody.
Ian MacKinnon is a mega-talent component of a fierce queer renaissance who shares queer history lessons in a wild and sexy way unlike anyone else. You can find the greatest inspiration from any number of the regulars who perform at the monthly Planet Queer event Ian co-produces with Travis Wood. I know I’m biased, but there are easily a dozen or so who deserve to be given a heap of funds to just keep doing what they do. The list seriously goes on and on, especially from artist’s like Harold who are no longer with us, but left us a lasting legacy to tap into and rediscover.
Here’s a poem that Jason’s friend William Emboden wrote about Harold Norse, San Francisco and Poetry:
A New Found Freedom (1960)
A week ago Jason loaned me
The Selected Poems of Harold Norse
He knew how I would respond
I feel totally at one with this poet
I lived his San Francisco experiences ten years earlier
Nineteen sixty was my time in San Francisco
City Lights Books was my alternative home
I listened to the poets that Norse knew personally
I never had the nerve to approach them
Other than Bukowski whom I did not take to
Ginsberg was a wonderful poet and orator
Poems came spilling out of him on those dark San Francisco nights
City Lights was extraordinary among bookstores
I walked to its beacon of lights almost nightly
Exhausted by hard physical work I was resurrected
It was my real coming out to the world
Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were our gay saints
In the sixties San Francisco poets were everywhere
But all congregated as worshipers at City Lights
A basement with hard benches was a hive of bees being poets
The excitement of words filled the air
Walls of books voices booming others hushed
There we worshiped by listening
Our communion in coffee and after coffee houses
The Trieste was a special bakery-coffee house
North beach was Italianate and vital
Lucca’s restaurant with its great oysters in the shell with garlic
Cheap Chinese markets with exotic fruits and vegetables
I as a student lived on the kindness of strangers
And those new friends among the Sainted poets
How alive was my life then
Gay and twenty five in bookstores
Gay and finishing a night in a bar
Waking up in the bed of a friend of the night before
This post takes a closer look at the participants in the second event celebrating the Harold Norse Centennial. On Saturday, July 9, the Beat Museum will host a panel including poet and writer Adrian Brooks, poet Jim Nawrocki and artist Tate Swindell. All three men were friends of Norse and will bring their personal remembrances to the evening’s discussion.
Adrian Brooks has a storied history from his Quaker upbringing, volunteering with Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, involvement in the New York arts scene of the late 1960s, then moving to San Francisco as part of gay liberation. Adrian became a member of the seminal performance troupe the Angels of Light which grew out of the equally legendary Cockettes.
Flights of Angels: My Life with the Angels of Light is his memoir of that glittered encrusted period when gay liberation in San Francisco was a heady mixture of political, social and artistic movements. Illustrated with photographs by renowned gay photographer Daniel Nicoletta, Flights of Angels is required reading for those interested in radical gay performance in 1970’s San Francisco.
Here Brooks relates his initial contact with Harold–upon the suggestion of poet and photographer Gerard Malanga–which led to his involvement with Norse’s literary magazine Bastard Angel,recently profiled in the UK publication Beat Scene.
First, after being put in touch with novelist Christopher Isherwood, who liked my poems and invited me to visit him in Santa Monica, Gerard [Malanga] suggested I telephone a local Beat poet. At fifty-six, Harold Norse was a stumpy ex-bodybuilder with a bad toupee and a huge chip on his shoulder about being overlooked. I loved his earthy New York humor and ballsy work. I also appreciated his praise, and his invitation to serve as the editorial assistant for his cutting edge magazine, Bastard Angel, which featured surrealists and celebrities like Jean Genet, stellar Beats, and on occasion, up and coming “unknowns.”
In a 2013 interview with Adrian about his friendship with Harold, I was impressed by his insight into Harold’s work and character–imbued with both criticism and compassion. Brooks was in a unique position at that time given his artistic expression straddled both the theatrical performance and poetry scenes.
On September 18, 1974, he organized what may be the first all-gay poetry reading at the Fellowship Church on Larkin Street. Among others, the roster included Norse, poet and publisher Paul Mariah, Pat Parker and Judy Grahn.
Here are some of Adrian’s reflections on the poetry scene at that time:
My perception of the Bay Area poetry cosmos was shaped by North Beach bars and coffeehouses like Café Trieste. The scene revolved around the City Lights bookstore, but the degree to which one had “arrived” in this tiny yet most egotistical of all art scenes, was how close one got to Allen Ginsberg or twee Lilliputian Bolinas, a coastal town south of Inverness. Against this yardstick, poets measured their importance. I found it ridiculous. For all its much-vaunted status as the coolest hotspot in the country, the San Francisco poetry worlds was sophomoric.
Even so, I admired the poets, well known names like Jack Hirschman, Gregory Corso, and Diane di Prima as well as lesser-known luminaries such as Jack Micheline, a poet and painter whose bellicose, belligerent manner and crudely fashioned verse–rarely edited–belied an unusual sensitivity. And in the background, Bob Kaufman wafted, a burned-out Beat star, like a disembodied ghoul of Goya.
Jim Nawrocki is another San Francisco based poet who was a friend of Norse that will participate in the July 9 event. His poetry has appeared in A&U Magazine and Empty Mirror and he also regularly contributes essays and reviews to the Gay & Lesbian Review. Jim first met Harold in the early 2000s, resulting in a warm and supportive friendship between two gay poets from different generations.
Norse was notorious for exacting demands when it came to publishing his poetry, so it’s a testament to Nawrocki’s connection to Harold that he was instrumental in assembling the hundreds of poems that made up 2003’s collected poems–In the Hub of the Fiery Force–which spanned 70 years .
“At Albion” is a poem Jim wrote for a memorial collection which I published following Harold’s death in 2009. Evocative and graceful in its heartfelt sorrow, Jim conveys the impression and emotions which arose when visiting Norse’s home on Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District where the Beat poet lived for several decades.
Originally released in 1984 on cassette by Eddie Woods’ Ins & Outs Press, Harold Norse, Of Course… is a poetry reading which Harold gave in Amsterdam. In fine form, it remains one of the premier recordings of Harold reading his work.
Unrequited Records has made the original recording available as both a digital download and double record album. The vinyl release is a work of high craftsmanship featuring deluxe colored discs and a stunning gatefold collage of Harold’s snapshots. It’s a must for collectors of Beat era artifacts.
This once in a lifetime line up is a fitting way to continue the centennial celebration of Harold Norse. The Beat Museum was the site of Harold’s final poetry readings, so it is fitting that his spirit returns to North Beach. The event, which runs from 7-9 PM, is free.
As the Harold Norse Centennial approaches, there will be posts spotlighting the participants in upcoming events, presented by The Beat Museum, to celebrate this historic milestone. On Wednesday, July 6 (Harold’s actual 100th birthday) the Mechanics’ Institute will host a panel featuring San Francisco writers Kevin Killian, Regina Marler and myself, Todd Swindell.
Founded in 1854 to serve the vocational needs of out-of-work gold miners, the Mechanics’ Institute is a historic membership library, cultural event center, and chess club in San Francisco’s Financial District. Today it serves readers, writers, downtown employees, students, film lovers, chess players, and others.
In 2013, the Mechanics’ Institute was part of the Allen Ginsberg Festival that coincided with an exhibition of the Beat poet’s photography at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The one-of-a-kind event featured everything from Beat poet ruth weiss performing in the Institute’s café space to a panel discussion featuring a whose-who of Bay Area authors that have written about the Beats.
For many years Kevin has helped preserve the work and legacy of poet Jack Spicer–a key participant in the 1950s San Francisco poetry renaissance that included John Wieners and Robert Duncan and influenced many Beat writers. His acclaimed biography of Spicer, Poet Be Like God, co-written with Lew Ellingham, was published in 1998. Killian also edited, with Peter Gizzi, the collection My Vocabulary Did This to Me-Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. The title comes from Spicer’s last recorded words; Harold’s were “the end is the beginning.”
Regina Marler is the editor of the anthology Queer Beats, How the Beats Turned America on to Sex (Cleis Press, 2004) which features two poems by Harold Norse as well as an excerpt from his memoirs. Even though I’ve read a good amount of Beat literature, I found her inclusion of excerpts from lesser known works by Beat-associated authors like the Paul Bowles and poet Alan Ansen to be enlightening. Additionally there are contributions from female writers like Jane Bowles, Elise Cowen and Diane di Prima.
But it’s not only her sharp selection of writers that elevates Queer Beats head and shoulders above other Beat anthologies. Each of the book’s three sections feature an incisive introduction by Regina. Speaking about the homocentric content of Burroughs and Ginsberg, she writes about their
candid attitude towards sex and the body–towards pleasure. This open confession of their feelings is one of the pivots of the movement, and no less vital to their influence on the rising counter-culture than marijuana reveries and restless literary experimentation.
Among the selections I found most illuminating was an excerpt from a letter by Jack Kerouac whom Marler describes as a “sensitive, gentle mama’s boy who goaded himself into macho displays…[whose] queer sensibility was most disguised, folded into the hero worship” of Neal Cassady.
Written on October 3, 1948 to Cassady, Kerouac states “Posterity will laugh at me if it thinks I was queer…little students will be disillusioned.” It’s a telling admission that Kerouac couches the censorship of his same-sex desires as protection for future generations. As Marler succinctly puts it, “He wanted the behavior, clearly, but not the identity.”
Of course this is exactly the kind of ignorant, oppressive attitude that Harold Norse sought to make extinct through his lifetime of confessional, open hearted gay poetry that follows the proud lineage of his Brooklyn forbearer Walt Whitman. Thanks to Queer Beats we can see how authors like Norse, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Gore Vidal were gay visionaries who, Marler claims, “stand outside the normalization of gay sex and identity.”
“They were not assimilationist. If the culture could not accept them, the fault lay in the culture.”
This is set to be a perfect evening to celebrate the 100th birthday of Beat poet Harold Norse, the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn. Please note there is a $15 charge for the public but haroldnorse.com readers can wave the fee by stating they are a “Beat Museum Member” either at the online registration or that evening at the event which is from 7-9PM. As the event will be held in the Mechanic’s Institute’s café space, make sure you arrive early to enjoy a drink at the bar.
Author and Beat biographer Hilary Holladay has been doing her part to bring more attention to the poetry of Harold Norse. As mentioned earlier this year, Hilary’s interview with writer and publisher Jan Herman highlighted his friendship with Harold. Hilary recently interviewed me about Harold Norse, his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, Bastard Angel magazine and my editing of the selected edition of Harold’s poems. You can read the complete interview at hilaryholladay.com.
“Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene.”
“Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.”
I highly recommend Hilary’s biography Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Huncke’s pivotal role in connecting Beat writers with narcotics and criminality has sadly overshadowed the magnificence of his writings. Though he never published as much as his friends Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Herbert was able to convey the sordid tales of those he knew with a rare empathy, which is the essence of Beat literature.
Leslie Winer has been contributing her passion and creativity to Huncke’s estate with the elegant website Huncke Tea Company. I highly recommend perusing their SoundCloud page where you can listen to recordings of Huncke reading along with Leslie’s contemporary interpretations of Herbert’s writings spoken in her dry yet winsome voice. She is currently recording a series of Huncke stories, notebook entries & letters put to some new music co-written with & produced by Christophe Van Huffel which will soon be released on vinyl.
Last year Sloow Tapes began publishing broadsides with eye catching graphics on the front and poetry on the back of A5 size paper. Sloow Tapes Broadside #11 was released last month featuring Harold’s poem “Wise to its Poisoned Condition.” Here’s what Bart had to say about the broadside,
“Between 1960 and 1963 Norse lived in Paris with William Burroughs and Gregory Corso in the hotel in the Latin Quarter known as the “Beat Hotel”. Although initially wary of the Beat writers’ literary credentials, Norse collaborated with Brion Gysin on the cut-up technique and was briefly an acclaimed painter of ink drawings soaked in the hotel bidet, known as Cosmographs. Norse described himself as a “lone-wolf” and he refused to join the pack, at some cost. In many ways he was more “Beat” than the Beats: Jewish, illegitimate, homosexual.
Norse was an outsider who quietly produced some startling and technically accomplished verse from the fringes of the US literary scene. ‘Wise to Its Poisoned Condition’ is an unpublished poem written at the time he lived at the Beat Hotel and illustrated with a mylar portrait by Ira Cohen.”
I just received some copies of the broadside and it is a truly beautiful artifact. The psychedelic photograph was from a series of pictures Ira took of Harold in the early 1970s when he was photographing everyone from Jack Smith to Jimi Hendrix in his mylar chamber.
A black-and-white version of that photograph was used for the cover of Harold’s 1976 anthology of gay poems Carnivorous Saint. It was also featured on the back cover of Harold Norse Of Course…, the double vinyl record release of Harold’s 1984 poetry reading in Amsterdam available from Unrequited Records. This collector’s item is sure to be snapped up in no time, so make sure you procure a copy at this link.
That’s what Harold said to me one day about fifteen years ago in the sun-filled front room of his cottage located off Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. We had a unique friendship. I was in my late twenties, by then a long-time member of the radical AIDS activist group ACT UP San Francisco (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Harold was then in his mid-eighties, having lived a storied life of love and poetry across many decades and continents. I don’t remember what caused him to say that, but I recall how it felt: Harold was connecting his poems–and all poetry–to the deeper story of what they spoke about.
As the news of today’s bloody attack on the queer community of Orlando, Florida worsened, we all experienced a range of terrible and uncomfortable emotions. For gay men of my generation there is the constant question of why we were the ones who have survived the endless, relentless slaughter of our community. Florida has been part of the battleground of America’s hostility towards queers for decades. In the late ’70s washed up beauty queen and orange juice spokesmodel Anita Bryant was on a homophobic “Christian crusade” to “save the children” from “dangerous queers” by eliminating our civil rights thereby condoning violent attacks against the LGBTQ community.
My two dearest friends and comrades in ACT UP SF, David Pasquarelli and Michael Bellefountaine, first met in the early ’90s in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. They spent a lot of time battling the Christian Right and the Church of the Avenger until the status quo dominance of the region’s gay leadership sent them on a road of urgency and action to San Francisco. Both eventually died of AIDS and I find myself now older than they ever had the chance to become. With them went my access to the twin engines of urgency and action which had previously propelled me through fear and despair.
So it is that I turn to poet Harold Norse–as historian–to offer some perspective with a selection of poems that articulate the rage, sorrow and love that pulse through these hopeless times. As some of these poems are long, the full text of each one can be read by clicking on its title.
HOMO– an excerpt from Harold’s last great work. He began writing the poem in 1984 during an affair in Amsterdam with a young dutchman “with shock of honey hair”. A shared visit to the Van Gogh museum inspires in the poet a desire to “fix you in this poem/As firmly as Van Gogh fixed your ancestors/In his immortal sketches. I pray for this.”
From there the poem grows to describe the long, proud, terrible history of same-sex attraction along with the nearly two Millenia of its prosecution and persecution by political and religious powers. By the time of Harold’s statement to me, the expanded HOMO (told in poetry, prose and Cut Up) was on its way to being his magnum opus, but remained uncompleted by the time of his death in 2009.
We Bumped Off Your Friend The Poet was inspired by a book review Harold read in 1973 about the murder of gay poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. What makes this poem so disturbingly powerful and sadly relevant is Harold use of Lorca’s assassin, a Spanish fascist, as the poem’s narrator.
Elegy for St. Matthew Shepard“martyred by criminal bigots blinded by hate” was written for the young gay man who was beaten and left to die on the prairies of Wyoming in 1998. Though 82 when he composed this elegy, the red-hot anger from Harold’s youth, under the threat of murderous homophobic violence, still burns through the poem until it is absorbed by the compassion that came from his broad knowledge of history.
The European Beat Studies Network (EBSN) annual conference begins in two weeks in Manchester, UK. I’m very excited to attend this year’s conference as a participant in Session 13: Cut Ups, of Course.
My talk,“Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel”, will focus on Harold Norse’s involvement in the development of Cut Ups during his residency at the Beat Hotel in the early 1960s. Also presenting in Session 13 are Antonio Bonome,“Polytopy and Burroughs’ Coordinate Points” and Edward Robinson,“Audio Technology, Science and Fiction in Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution”.
Cut Ups began as an accident when the painter Brion Gysin cut a matte for one of his pictures. Slicing through a stack of newspapers, he was startled to discover new phrases as a result of the altered text.
Gysin eagerly showed the results to his friend and fellow Beat Hotel resident William Burroughs who took up the mantle of this new experimental method in his novels The Soft Machine and Nova Express.
Unfortunately Harold’s role in Cut Ups has been consistently under appreciated. Norse is of course partly to blame as he never promoted his involvement unlike Brion Gysin who always had a flair for promotion. The relationship between Norse and Gysin was complex. Despite a developing rivalry, the pair were friendly during their time at the Beat Hotel. Gysin was the first to see Harold’s breakthrough Cut Up “Sniffing Keyholes” and immediately brought it to Burroughs’ attention. It later became the centerpiece for Norse’s Cut Up novella Beat Hotel.
Harold was also responsible for introducing Ian Sommerville to their scene. As related in Harold’s memoirs, it was in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter that he met the young British mathematical student who “liked older men.”
Despite his icy, anti-social affect, Burroughs was in need of youthful male companionship, something which had been easier to find when living in Tangier. Sommerville’s connection with Burroughs was significant in a number of ways. Ian was instrumental in assisting Burroughs through heroin withdrawal and collaborated with Gysin in the creation of the Dreamachine.
This year’s EBSN conference theme is science and music. One of the sessions is titled “Burroughs – Addiction, Dystopia and Biology”. The conference’s keynote speaker is Andrew Lees, Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital, London. A fascinating interview with Dr. Lees was recently posted at RealityStudio.
His book Mentored by a Madman: the William Burroughs Experiment is described as “drawing on Burroughs’ search for an addiction cure to discover a ground-breaking treatment for shaking palsy, and learns how to use the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes to diagnose patients. Lees follows Burroughs into the rainforest and under the influence of yage (ayahuasca) gains insights that encourage him to pursue new lines of pharmacological research and explore new forms of science.”
Among the many presentations relating to music, Frank Rynne’s “On-going Guerrilla Conditions” will feature a live soundtrack to a series of short films from a collaboration between English filmmaker Anthony Balch and Burroughs made in the 1960s.
As Cut Ups brought the use of montage to literature, it was natural for Burroughs to extend his exploration in altering space and time to experimenting with cinema. Though some of the Balch films can be seen online, it will be interesting to see what new experiences occur at this screening.
ruth weiss photographed by Paul Beattie, San Francisco, 1960
Among the other sessions I’m looking forward to include a number of presentations about Beat poet ruth weiss. Still going strong at age 88, ruth’s participation in Beat poetry reaches back to the 1950s, though she continues to perform her poetry in San Francisco as well as internationally.
ruth will be perform June 15 in North Beach with Doug O’Connor (acoustic bass), Rent Romus (saxophones), and Hal Davis (percussion). This event is part of the Beat Museum Presents series which is sponsoring the Harold Norse Centennial events. An impressionistic interview with ruth can be read at Michalis Limnios’ website.
ruth’s cinematic poem will screen along with the work of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. There is even a conference sessiton titled “wiess & co.” featuring two presentations about ruth, in addition to “Elsie Cowen as Feminist Avant-Garde Poet”. It’s wonderful to see EBSN including diverse Beat poets outside of the more familiar and predominantly male names.
Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs
But there’s even more happening at the EBSN Manchester conference: Ginsberg – Buddhism, Collage, Kaddish; Kerouac’s Tristessa and Mexico City Blues; Philip Lamantia and Jay DeFeo; The influence of John Rechy and Hubert Selby Jr. on the Music of Lou Reed; The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop; Burroughs the Pussy King: Burroughs, Acker and Punk; The Huncke Papers and Beat Impressions: A Conversation with John Tytell. You can read the full program here.
“Harold Norse’s poetry was very much expatriate poetry,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti said. “It was the voice of alienation from modern consumer culture.”
As this week marks the seventh anniversary (June 8, 2009) of the death of Harold Norse–visionary Beat poet, progenitor of gay liberation and oracle of the American Idiom–it’s a fitting time to look back at some of the obituaries published in the weeks after he spoke his last words on this mortal coil, “The end is the beginning.”
The New York Times obituary described him as a poet who “broke new ground beginning in the 1950s by exploring gay identity and sexuality in a distinctly American idiom relying on plain language and direct imagery.” Featuring a great photo Harold taken in 1973 by Neil Hollier, the obit included this quote from Harold’s good friend Neeli Cherkovski:
“Harold was one of the pre-eminent rebel poets of our time,” the San Francisco poet Neeli Cherkovski said. “He was someone who smashed conventions, like Ginsberg, and broke through to what he called a new rhythm, writing the way he talked, using the voices of the street. He also gave voice to homosexuality early on.”
The Los Angeles Times obituary described Norse as a “mentor or peer to many of the greatest talents in 20th century American literature, including Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski” who “was unabashed about being homosexual and poured his experiences into poems that reflected anger, sadness and pride.”
The accompanying photograph of Harold was taken in the kitchen of his apartment at 157 Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District by Norse’s old friend Ginsberg. This time the quote came from Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published Harold’s book Hotel Nirvana in 1974 as part of City Lights Books prestigious Pocket Poets Series.
“He was essentially an expatriate voice in American poetry,” said Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and bookseller who published a volume of Norse’s poems in the mid-1970s. “He had an original voice because he ventriloquized what a lot of other poets were saying. . . . He could sound in one poem like T.S. Eliot . . . or in another poem like William Burroughs.”
Along with William Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris, Douglas is co-chairing next month’s European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester, where I will be presenting a talk about Harold’s participation in the development of Cut Ups at the Beat Hotel where he lived in the early 1960s.
The San Francisco Chronicle also ran an obituary with the following quote:
“I consider him one of the best poets there was,” said A.D. Winans, a poet and friend. “He was very congenial, very educated. He was also funny. He could hypnotize you with all these stories about the great writers he knew.”
Another of Harold’s poet friends was Andrei Codrescu whose Exquisite Corpse featured two tributes from poet and publisher Eddie Woods.
Closing out this post is an obituary written by myself and Jim Nawrocki who will be part of the Beat Museum event on July 9.
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.
Harold Norse as a student at Brooklyn College in 1935
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. Harold 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, he 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 1953, 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. He 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.
Harold in Crete 1963 by Thanassis
Harold’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 he traveled to Paris, settling into the infamous Beat Hotel. Through friend and fellow Beat Hotel resident Gregory Corso, Harold met William S. Burroughs then Brion Gysin. It was Norse who introduced Ian Sommerville to Burroughs as the group experimented with the cut-up method of writing. His collection of writing from that period was published in English 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. Harold also spent time in Switzerland, Germany, and England. During this time he maintained a close correspondence with Charles Bukowski, who affectionately referred to Norse as “Prince Hal, Prince of Poets.” In 1969 he edited Penguin Modern Poets 13 featuring Norse, Philip Lamantia and, in his first major international exposure, Bukowski.
In 1969, gravely ill from hepatitis, Norse repatriated to Venice, California where he was met by Bukowski and the young poet Neeli Cherkovski. He 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. Harold also reconnected with Jack Hirschman (the two had spent time together in Greece during Norse’s expatriate years) as well as Anais Nin who first mentored the Brooklyn born poet in the early 1950s when Norse’s first book was published. Recovering his health, Harold 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 fulfilling time for Harold 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. During this period Harold 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 1989 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. At over 600 pages, his collected poems–In the Hub of the Fiery Force–was published in 2003 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.
City Lights Books recently published the final edition in their popular set of pocket travel guides about Beat writers. The Beats Abroad, A Global Guide to the Beat Generation completes the previous installments for New York City, San Francisco and America at large. The series was written by Bill Morgan who is best known as biographer and bibliographer for Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In recent years Bill has brought some overdue attention to lesser celebrated participants in Beat literature. His edition of Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words appeared in 2014. Drawn from journals, correspondence, poems and photographs, this the most comprehensive collection of Orlovsky’s writings in print and the closest we can come to reading Peter’s own story.
In The Beats Abroad, Bill Morgan has added Harold Norse to the list of those Beat writers meriting further attention. The Bastard Angel of Brooklyn pops up a number of times in the book with his own entries for Italy, France and Greece. Though Harold lived in many other countries during his fifteen years abroad, it was in those three countries where some of his most significant work was written.
When he left America in 1953, Harold headed straight to Italy where he spent the next five years. Following a brief stint dubbing American films into Italian, Harold survived on minimal stipends from benefactors that were supplemented by the occasional job teaching English. While in Rome, he translated Italian poets from the pornographic verse of the Classical poet Catullus to the 19th Century anti-papal Roman sonnets of Giuseppe Gioanchino Belli.
Poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who knew Harold Norse in Italy in the 1950s.
The translations success was due to Harold’s use of his native Brooklyn vernacular to convey the essence of Roman dialect. A selection of then were published in 1960 with an introduction by Harold’s mentor William Carlos Williams.
While living in Rome, Norse would often drink coffee at Rosati’s on the Piazza del Popolo with poet, filmmaker and fellow boy lover Pier Paolo Pasolini. One can only imagine the lively conversations shared between these two visionary queer artists.
The Beats Abroad also includes a snapshot of Harold’s apartment in Naples on Via Posillipo, which Morgan described as “what might have been the most spectacular view that any Bear writer ever enjoyed: a panorama of the city, a view of the bay and Mount Vesuvius were all visible from his perch on the side of a cliff.” It was while living in Naples that Harold wrote one of his most famous poems “Classic Frieze in a Garage“.
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After Italy, Harold traveled to Paris. Upon the recommendation of Gregory Corso, he took a room at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter. Known as the Beat Hotel, its dingy but inexpensive rooms provided residence over the years to a number of Beat writers including Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and Norse.
It was there that painter Brion Gysin first discovered the Cut Up method. One day, cutting a matte for a painting, Gysin sliced through a stack of newspapers and discovered startling phrases which appeared from the reordered sections.
William Burroughs was quick to pick up on this innovation which followed upon the shuffled order of sequences in his recently published, and recently banned, novel Naked Lunch. Harold was a significant participant in Cut Ups and his story “Sniffing Keyholes” was singled out by Burroughs and Gysin as a key breakthrough.
Norse’s surviving Cut Ups were eventually published in English as the novella Beat Hotel in 1983. Its first appearance was a 1974 German translation by Carl Weissner with collages by Norman Mustill. It remains the only book composed entirely at the hotel. Selections from Harold’s experiments with reel-to-reel tape recorders at the Beat Hotel were released on cassette by Bart De Paepe’s Sloow Tapes in Belgium under the title Take a Chance In The Void: Harold Norse’s Beat Hotel Recordings.
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When the Beat Hotel shuttered its doors in 1963, Harold headed to the Greek Islands and this is where The Beats Abroad logs its final Norse entries. Harold’s first stop was Athens where he found a small apartment just below the Acropolis. Living nearby was the poet Charles Henri Ford whom Harold had known from their Greenwich Village days in the 1940s.
From Athens, Harold periodically traveled to other islands including Poros, Crete, Madouri and Hydra. It was while residing on Hydra that Harold first met the poet and translator Jack Hirschman and the Princess Zina Rachevsky.
As relayed in his Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, Harold acted as a mentor for a then unknown Canadian folk singer named Leonard Cohen. He was inspired to write after reading Norse’s “Sniffing Keyholes” which made a big impression on the young writer.
The Cut Up story’s bold approach to sexuality and language inspired Cohen to a burst of writing. Fueled by amphetamines and fasting, he created material which eventually became hiss second novel Beautiful Losers.
Though the sun, the sea and the boys all served to inspire Harold’s poetry, some of it published in 1966 as Karma Circuit, he ended up contracting hepatitis on the island then endemic amongst the expatriate community. Harold’s health flagged for the next couple years, precipitating his return to the United States in 1969.
For some years, David S. Wills has made Beatdom an essential resource and outlet for the varied participants of Beat arts and literature, along with the subsequent generations who’ve taken inspiration from them. Though names like Kerouac and Ginsberg catch readers’ attention, there remains a wealth of experience to be shared. An interview with writer and activist Amiri Baraka from 2013 is an excellent example.
My extensive essay “Harold Norse– the Bastard Angel of Brooklyn” has just been posted to Beatdom. You can read it here. As the current print edition of Beatdom focuses on politics, my piece takes a look at the ways in which Harold’s connection to gay liberation and environmental destruction were expressed in his work.
Unlike his contemporary Allen Ginsberg, Harold was more observer than participant in social movements. Though he was politically enlightened, the distance created by his outsider status as an illegitimate child and queer imbued his work with a voice both empathetic and prescient.
One of the reasons Norse’s work connects with today’s new generation of poetry lovers is the prescient nature of his voice – its observations of gay liberation and environmental destruction. These topics are echoed in his critiques of racism, war, and animal abuse. For Harold, the sexual drive is connected to our animalistic origins, its expression growing from childhood, before repression by religious brainwashing. His poetry demonstrates this universal truth through his rich knowledge of history and literature; he reflected contemporary culture as changing little from the impulses of Classical Greece and Rome.
In addition to posting online essays, Beatdom publishes an annual literary journal as well as operating its own press. Some of the titles include Wills’ Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ which takes a look at Burroughs’ involvement in the controversial movement and the ways it affected his writing.
Burroughs’ interest in Scientology coincided with his exploration of Cut Up writing, which viewed language as a virus of control, and directly influenced his novels The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys. More than a passing interest, this key period in Burroughs literary development has, until now, been ignored by the majority of Burroughs scholarship.
Another Beatdom book worth reading is Marc Olmsted’s Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg. Olmsted was first fan, then lover and then a student of Allen’s and this collection of letters and his memoir is a much welcomed addition to better understanding the influence Ginsberg’s had on the generation of writers and artists who followed the Beats.
The book inclusion of photographs and copies of correspondence give the collection the feel of mimeograph press where many Beat writers were published in the 1960s. Harold Norse also makes an appearance in Marc’s story. In the coming months, I’ll post a more thorough review of the book, but for now I strongly recommend Don’t Hesitateto those interested in expanding their knowledge of Ginsberg’s biography.
In the meantime, you can take a look at my report back from last summer’s Beat Conference in San Francisco where Marc presented a talk about Ginsberg and other Beat writers who influenced him including William Burroughs and Charles Plymell.
Beatdom has also added an announcement about the Harold Norse Centennial events coming up this summer, along with a plug for the Norse book sale fundraiser, now in its final days. Look forward to more Norse material at Beatdom in the coming future.
“Attention must be paid,” was the famous line from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. It appears the Harold Norse Centennial has begun to engender some of that past due attention to his legacy.
A couple months ago, I wrote about Harold’s friend Jan Herman, whose recently published The Z Collection contains portraits and sketches of notable 20th Century authors. Jan was also a notable publisher whose Nova Broadcast Press included works by William Burroughs, Carl Weissner and Norman Mustill.
These days Jan’s writing can be found at ArtsJournal. His latest post focuses appreciation on the Harold Norse Centennial and my work here at haroldnorse.com. Read the complete article here.
In addition to Jan Herman’s article, the folks over at City Lights Books gave a shout out to #HaroldNorse100 San Francisco events and ongoing book sale on their Twitter account.
Accessibility of information and material about Harold Norse on the Internet is crucial for introducing him to people who may not have heard of his work or unable to find his books at their local library. Thanks to City Lights Books for using their platform to bring more attention to Harold Norse’s poetry.
There are still a couple weeks remaining for the online Harold Norse book sale at indiegogo. Featuring a selection of rare, out of print works, this is an exceptional chance to obtain copies, in mint condition, of Harold’s books. Each book bundle comes with a bevy of extras including commemorative book marks, photographs and text by Norse including his acceptance speech for the 1991 National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Achievement award.
This week’s featured book is Harold’s Cut Up novel Beat Hotel first published in English by Atticus Press in 1983. This one of the few Cut Up publications written entirely at the famous hotel at 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur, on the Left Bank of Paris, and includes a foreword and text by William Burroughs.
These are fast becoming collector’s items, so visit the campaign to purchase your own copy.