April 1st…April Fool’s Day…Birthday of Ronnie Burk:
Surrealist Poet, Chicano, heretical AIDS activist, prophetic collage artist, Witch.
Ronnie Burk was a visionary creative force who participated in a dizzying number of political and artistic communities. As a student at Naropa University in the 1970s, he studied under Allen Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima. As a resident of the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, he associated with David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner and programmed the calendar at NUYORICAN Poet’s Cafe for Miguel Algarín.
In San Francisco in the 1990s, he protested alongside the two most fearless and feared HIV+ activists Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli. As a Surrealist poet, he called both Phillip Lamantia and Charles Henri Ford friends. As a Chicano artist, he associated with Ana Castillo and Miguel Piñero.
It was Ronnie who first introduced me to Harold Norse in 1999. One night at an ACT UP San Francisco meeting (we were both active members) he showed me a copy of Harold’s cut-up novel Beat Hotel, which I’d only read about but never seen.
When Ronnie died of complications from AIDS in 2003, memorials were held in the two cities he had called home: San Francisco and Manhattan.
It was at the NYC memorial that Ira Cohen read his tribute “Poem for Ronnie Burk” which was later printed in Ira’s chapbook Chaos and Glory. The accompanying video was recorded by Colin Hayle.
Ira Cohen, poet, photographer, filmmaker, magician, first met Harold Norse in Tangier in the early 1960s. It was Ira who first published Harold’s breakthrough cut-up text “Sniffing Keyholes” in his seminal publication Gnaoua.
It was also Ira who photographed Harold in his legendary Mylar Chamber. One of those images later graced the cover of Harold’s classic collection of gay themed poems Carnivorous Saint (Gay Sunshine Press, 1976).
The Mylar Chamber was a series of moveable wood panels covered in mylar which Ira used, in a loft on New York’s Jefferson Street, between 1968 to 1971 to create fantastical psychedelic images of his friends and visitors, such as Jack Smith, Angus MacLise and Vali Myers, dressed up in fanciful clothes and colorful makeup. A collection of these photographs, accompanied by an insightful essay by Ian Macfayden, was published in 2019 by Fulgur Press in the UK.
Among the many cultural contributions of ACT UP San Francisco, which included a pirate radio show, magazine publishing and a TV show, was a monthly poetry reading–OPEN REVOLT! Both Harold Norse and Ronnie Burk were featured poets at the first reading, on August 9, 2000, which was captured on film by the renowned archivist KUSH. At another reading in January 2001, Ronnie read from his review of an exhibition of Ira’s photographs. You can listen to a low-fi recording of it.
Sky*Boat, Ronnie’s selected poems and collages, was compiled and edited thanks to the dedicated work of his close friend and fellow writer Mia Kirsi Stageberg. It was published in 2012 by Kolourmeim Press.
To read more about his life, read my post at arteidolia.
To understand more about Ronnie’s impassioned AIDS activism, read my post at ACT UP Archives.
There remains an abundance of material from Ronnie’s archives which have yet to transfer to the digital realm. In the meantime, his poetry (like Harold’s) continues to guide and inspire us with his ferocious prophecy. Take his poem “Asoka” which can be heard at the clip below. This could be culled from the headlines of panic-stricken 2020.
Last year saw the release of two exciting new collections by lesser known Beat poets Bob Kaufman and Jack Micheline. Both writers were San Francisco fixtures whose poetry gave voice to the marginalized and downtrodden, whose actions and actors were of the street. Both poets were disdainful of commercial recognition and academic accolades resulting in their legacy being neglected over time.
Like Norse, Jack Micheline was from New York (albeit the Bronx instead of Brooklyn), Jewish, and changed his last name when he became a poet. Micheline’s first collection of poems, Rivers of Red Wine, was published in 1957 by Troubadour Press with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. By the early 1960s, he settled in San Francisco which became his home base.
For the next three decades, he was known as one of the city’s celebrated street poets as well as a painter. Skinny Dynamite, a collection of his stories, was published in 1980 by A.D. Winan’s Second Coming Press. His archives, like Harold’s, are housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.
Thanks to the diligent and dedicated work of my brother Tate Swindell, a new collection of previously unpublished poetry and ephemera was recently made available the Lithic Press.
Titled after one of Micheline’s unpublished poems, On Valencia Street, it’s a vibrant poems, fragments as well as poetry flyers, postcards and artwork.
Featuring an introduction by musician and poet Eric Mingus, this book serves as both a welcome introduction for readers new to Micheline’s work and a compendium of memorabilia for those familiar with his poetry.
In case you’re still on the fence about acquiring a copy, there are a number of excellent reviews recently published by renowned writers. At the San Francisco literary journal ZYZZYVA, Lindsey Pannor’s writes,
“Micheline’s aesthetic sense of San Francisco’s Mission District, and its streets which he so valued, has been faithfully and thoroughly catalogued here.”
“Though often regarded as one of the less nuanced poets of his time, it is Micheline’s straightforward style and eerie emulation of his historical moment that lifts his work off the page.”
“Jack Micheline was a cursed vagabond who plied the outer fringes of society– a mad poet, street artist, free-spirited legend, and wildly creative talent with tragic-comedic accents. He lived with the courage to be himself: a half-drunk, half-drugged lumpen proletariat.”
In the most recent issue of the UK based Beat Scene, reviewer Bella Zundapp writes,
“The notes, posters, postcards, paintings all combine to give a scrapbook image of Jack Micheline’s life…it is a multi dimensional look of course, adding to our knowledge of the poet, letting us peek behind their screens, the creative act sort of revealed. More books should be presented this way.”
Born of mixed race parentage, Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans. At the age of eighteen, he begins sailing the seas as a merchant seaman throughout the 1940s. By the late ’50s, Kaufman makes San Francisco his permanent home where he becomes a key participant in the North Beach poetry renaissance.
Not only is Kaufman’s work published by New Directions and City Lights Press, he also becomes involved with Beatitude magazine of which he is co-founder and co-editor along with John Kelly and William Margolis. Kaufman’s poetry often contained elements of surrealism, jazz and African diaspora. He infamously took a decade long vow of silence following Kennedy’s assassination.
Subjected to harassment and beatings by the San Francisco police, Kaufman was repeatedly incarcerated during the late 1950s. It was through the dedicated care of his supportive partner Eileen that much of his later poetry survives as Kaufman wasn’t concerned with recording his work on paper.
Published by City Lights Press, Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman features for the first time a comprehensive chronology of Kaufman’s life along with an extensive section of previously unpublished poems.
Both of these are results of the diligent and dedicated work of archivist Tate Swindell, who co-edited the book with Raymond Foye and Neeli Cherkovski.
San Francisco Chronicle recently featured two pieces of Bob Kaufman and his new publication. The first article by Dense Sullivan features from San Francisco poets such as Alejandro Murguía, Kim Shuck and devorah major, who composed the foreword to the Collected Poems. Sullivan writes of Kaufman’s work,
“The body of work is small but voluminous in intensity, spirit and soul, with a lineage that runs from Charles Baudelaire to Charles Mingus. Kaufman — with his commitment to the art, his surreal eye on the urban experience and beyond it, and his jazz timing — brings San Francisco to life.”
Sometimes identified as an exemplar of Afro-Surrealism, Kaufman considered himself a jazz poet, rooted as he was in a time and place — the midcentury American metropolis — when hard bop was part of the atmosphere.
But Kaufman’s poems are also much more than fusty Beat Generation time capsules. They’re cries of fury, or religious irony. Some are absurdist comedy routines…These “Collected Poems,” long overdue, assure us that a little Bob Kaufman, like his beloved Charlie Parker, will echo in the atmosphere.
The two best reviews come from writers who were themselves participants in the counter-culture. Jonah Raskin has written books on Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman. In the radical muckraking magazine Counterpunch, Raskin looks are Kaufman’s writing in contrast to Beat celebrities Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
“Unlike Kaufman’s surrealistic, Dadaesque universe, Kerouac’s parallel universe isn’t populated by zombies. Nor is it infused by the surrealist aesthetic. Kerouac was closer to Joyce and Proust than to Rimbaud, Baudelaire and the French symbolists.”
“…Ginsberg was rarely as enraged as Kaufman was. Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” ends, “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Kaufman was far more alienated from American life than Ginsberg or Kerouac. A century after the end of the American Civil War, it still rankled him.”
Poet Marc Olmsted, also filmmaker and musician, was an intimate confidant of Allen Ginsberg from the early 1970s until the elder poet’s death in 1997. Don’t Hesitate, his collection of memoir and correspondence of that relationship, was published by Beatdom Books and remains an essential document of Ginsberg’s poetic practice. Writing in the arts publication Sensitive Skin, Olmsted’s review encompasses Kaufman’s connections with Afrosurrealism and Buddhism.
Kaufman, a divine madman, was a longtime fixture of the San Francisco North Beach scene until his death in 1986. A casualty of police beatings and electroshock, it was very hard to guess just what he understood or was oblivious to, only that this was a drinking, drugging man in pain who wore his crown of thorns with dignity and had the complete respect of his more famous peers…Since Bob’s North Beach presence by 1974 had a distinct derelict madness, even in appreciating his genius it was hard to see how well-read he was, as these collected poems clearly show.
Through his friendship with Ginsberg, Olmsted became Buddhist. From that perspective, he offers appreciation of a number of Kaufman’s later poems influenced by Buddhism.
Buddhism appeared in his work enough for him to be anthologized in at least one Buddhist poetry collection, but Kaufman was hardly a conventional devotee. Whether he had just gleaned some insights from Zen literature or actually had some realization was hard to say, though at the same time as the spreading of his ashes in the San Francisco Bay, a rainbow appeared. That is known as “auspicious coincidence.”
For the dedicated readers who have made it this far, I’d like to circle back to Harold Norse’s connection to Kaufman and Micheline. Upon settling in San Francisco in 1971, Norse was in contact with both poets, sharing space at coffee shops, soirees and poetry readings.
Much of this activity centered around Alix Geluardi was a friend and patron of many poets and artists of North Beach as they gathered at her home at 185 Marina Boulevard whose street address became the title for the influential anthology 185 Geluardi published in 1973.
Norse dedicated a number of poems to Geluardi, among them his great poem “We Do Not Speak of Love.” The poem “North Beach” evocatively captures the spirit of the scene including Bob and his wife Eileen, who was also a good friend of Norse, along with Geluardi.
North Beach For Alix Geluardi
in the Coffee Gallery Bob Kaufman sings Summertime shakes my hand asking What do you see when you look at George Washington? I say The American Revolution the big breasts of a hermaphrodite The White Man is God laughs Bob as he dances drunk clutching a battered anthology of lonely North Beach poetry raw from the burning ghats of bars and human wrecks Salvaged from speed and junk and booze and one-night stands
the tape deck plays soap opera music to our tragic script out of it we make poetry like sudden life like the shock of light
the drunken sound from a motley crew Linda Lovely down Grant Avenue Eileen in shawls and dresses of colored threads threads of the beat beauty of peyote in the flow of pills and weed in Blabbermouth night I have seen 20 barechested drummers getting stoned on rooftops says Eileen chronicler of obsessive visions Would you wear my eyes? asks Bob
they broke down each other’s doors hocked typewriters and record players lied, screamed, jumped from windows died and fell in love those poets and painters you hung on Marina walls and visited in prison in parks waterfronts bars cheap hotels an ocean of missing persons departed poets leaving no address orchestrating distances in temporary shelters San Francisco, 1973
Micheline read with Norse at a number of San Francisco poetry readings in the 1970s and 1980s. Both were habitués of the city’s Mission District and could often be seen on Valencia Street at the Abandoned Planet Bookstore or across the corner on 16th Street at Adobe Books. Norse, of course, lived around the corner at 157 Albion Street.
Though a minor poem, “All American Poets Are In Prison” is a collaboration between Norse and Micheline published in the influential 185Anthology by Geluardi. The poem’s pronounced political polemic and repeated use of Fuck are earmarks of Micheline’s verse as well as the time it was written– the apex of the counter culture’s conflagrations. Though the line “I’m sick of America let’s leave it out of this poem” echoes sentiments expressed in one of Norse’s most well known poems “I’m Not a Man.”
All American Poets Are In Prison
Written by Harold Norse and Jack Micheline at 185 Marina Blvd., San Francisco
Yesterday I sent a secret letter to a Russian poet in prison by carrier pigeon Guilty of publishing a mimeographed magazine of young Russian poets who said fuck you to the establishment In American such a silent murder The pigs of commerce want to control your mind the cash register joins every cause Nor do they want the fire of the soul Fuck truth they say over the gray ashes of America’s living dead Thank God for my mother’s Rumanian heart my grandfather carrying stones to keep warm my father jerking off the iceman in the Bronx Thank God for my father’s Russian Hard-on I’m sick of America let’s leave it out of this poem What has American done that I should notice her Notice the girl peeing her pants next to me in the 6th grade and the Jewish teach with the self-conscious eyeglasses weeping tears of borsch for the labor movement and Father Coughlin blowing Joe Louis in his dreams Fuck America give it to France I got to go to the next course Rotten lettuce in the icebox Spread the word like butter we’re sending our poems to the Chinese laundry for lichee nuts The Grocer’s daughter poor nymphomaniac with legs like lox and lust for cock she was a real intellectual with 194 I.Q, hustling sailors on Times Square O silent Russian poet in prison All American poets are in prison Jails of the soul Blocks of the brain Streets without deliverance Murder in their shoes Deceived by rotting molars O instinct where is the ash tray Old urinals on the Russian Front The beer is no good The printer’s ink sucks on the page O Comrade in Russian tea rooms They have killed my pigeon My brother
As today marks the 103rd birthday of the Bastard Angel of Brooklyn, poet Harold Norse, a fantastic new book about the queer history of the New York City borough highlights Harold’s connection to his hometown during his formative years. I had the chance to speak with the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, historian and writer Hugh Ryan, about his work.
Ryan has stated that when he moved to Brooklyn, he was surprised to discover its local library didn’t have a book that focused on the neighborhood’s queer history, so he set out to write one. When Brooklyn Was Queer is a monumental contribution to growing history of the varied and still little-known experiences of queer people before the advent of the modern gay rights movement.
Among the parts I found most significant about this book is the attention Ryan paid to experiences of gender non-conforming individuals and African-American women. Historically these voices have remained obscured, a reality compounded by the lack of traditional archive resources like photographs, correspondence and diaries. So it was that Hugh had to turn to sources such as newspapers, medical journals and police reports which were written by men who viewed queer people through the lens of criminality or mental illness– a fact that’s still too common in communities dominated by religious fundamentalism. I asked Hugh about the particular challenge.
I think I often had to sit with what was written on the page and, knowing it came from a very biased source, ask myself how were there other ways this scene could have been interpreted from someone else’s point of view. I can only work from the information I have, but can I try to unwind some of the assumptions that were made by these doctors and lawyers and judges? It does take a while and you have to read the things over and over again. For me what was important was highlighting the fact that I was doing that and why I was doing that, so anyone reading that could make their own decision about what I had decided. I didn’t want anyone to think I was making assumptions I couldn’t prove, but more to show possibility than a definite answer.
One particularly fascinating story features a young white trans women who went by the name Loop-the Loop after the popular Coney Island roller coaster. This glimpse into her story came from interviews given to a racist medical doctor whose report on Loop-the-Loop was published under the headline “The Biography of a Passive Pederast.”
This offensive report was part of the early twentieth-century eugenics movements which saw social problems as a result of unnatural behavior and genetics of those who weren’t white, heterosexual and Christian. Such psuedo-legitimacy of bigotry under the guise of medical science is a core feature of white supremacy.
Despite the doctor’s biased lens, Loop-the-Loop offers an interesting look into her world. She comes across as not only accepting of herself but defiantly comfortable with her sexuality. As an orphan without education, she worked as a prostitute on the Brooklyn streets around the time that Harold Norse was born.
Two of Harold’s early poetic inspirations Walt Whitman and Hart Crane are also prominently featured in the book, in particular their experiences around Brooklyn’s waterfront which was a site of teeming same-sex and gender nonconforming activity until its demise following World War II. Whitman and Crane had in common a poetry steeped in a mystical voice, one that was unabashedly romantic. Both poets offered Harold, born out of wedlock to an illiterate immigrant, an example of the transformative power of poetry and it was in their footsteps that he began not only to write poems but see himself as a poet.
Though today’s younger readers may struggle to appreciate Whitman’s work, particularly his exaltation of a uniquely American ideal, the issue of his sexuality is still challenging people’s assumptions about sexuality. As Ryan related to me when he was asked by a publication to create a list of 25 queer books that people should read during Pride month.
I included Walt Whitman on it. The editor said, “You should say something there about how there’s debate about his sexuality and no one’s sure that he’s [gay]– and I said,” Nope, there’s no debate. I’m not writing that.” She took it very well. She said, “I had no idea. It was in high school…” I said, “Yep, we all learned some version of that in high school.” It’s so much about getting this information out into the world so it’s easier for people to find it even if they are not taught it in school.
There’s a great deal to write about Harold Norse and Brooklyn but Ryan’s focus is on Harold when he was a student at Brooklyn College. The school had opened at the start of the Great Depression to offer a free education for all city high school graduates. Harold’s gift for language was quickly recognized and he soon became editor of the college literary magazine. It was at this time that he became friends and eventual lovers with another young Jewish boy named Chester Kallman. Harold would often reminisce about Chester as the great love of his love, though their relationship became contentious as Chester turned his attention to his the poet W.H. Auden with whom he became life long partners.
Brooklyn College was also significant in that it gave Harold his first sexual experience with another man thanks to his English-literature professor David McKelvey White. Harold’s version of the story is included in his autobiography Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, though Ryan’s book provides previously unknown information about David McKelvey White.
The son of the governor of Ohio, White grew up well-to-do and well educated. He was outspoken in his sexuality at the time as well as a member of the American Communist Party. He lived openly with his boyfriend who was also a Party member and a professor at Brooklyn College. It was White’s egalitarian politics, accentuated by the radicalism of the day, which led him to a teaching position less illustrious than what his patrician family would’ve hoped for. His time at the school was not long as White eventually left midsemster for Spain and joined the Loyalists as a machine gunner fighting against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. Upon his return to the U.S.A. two years later, Brooklyn College refused to rehire him. He eventually took him own life in 1945.
Harold’s recollections of David McKelvey White show a man of great intellect and sensitivity and Harold enjoyed the attention of the older professor, who exposed him to art and culture and took him for swimming and fine meals at Brooklyn’s posh St. George Hotel. Even the story of Harold’s deflowering is one of an old school gentleman without the exploitive or predatory aspect that has come under widespread criticism in our era of the #MeToo movement.
Given that Harold and many of his friends who were also gay writers, such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Henri Ford, were known for their intimate relations with underage boys, I asked Ryan about how their experiences could co-exist with today’s changing views.
They lived in a very different time where people who understood their sexuality found each other at much younger ages, in certain ways the only people you could find when older where younger. It wasn’t like there were there were the gay storylines or knowledge there is today. I do think there’s a common part of the queer history that’s fallen out a little bit today.
I think it’s important that these things happened and this is what we know and learned from them, this is the experiences of these people. They don’t necessarily correlate with things today. We don’t know if Harold were a young person today whether he would end up with David McKelvey White. That’s impossible to know and I think it’s best to let them speak about their experiences and trust them as much as possible when Harold said it was a great experience for him.
Unfortunately my phone conversation with Hugh Ryan was cut short by a sudden rainstorm that’s a hallmark of summertime in New York City so we were unable to talk more, especially about Harold’s relationship with Auden whose connection to Brooklyn continued with the esteemed English poet’s residency at 7 Middagh Street which became a short lived queer arts commune. Known as the “February House” due to the winter birthdays of a number of it’s illustrious inhabitants that included writer Carson McCullers and composer Benjamin Britten and ballet and theater designer Oliver Smith.
Though you can learn more about their story and the vibrant, relevant queer history in When Brooklyn Was Queer available from St. Martin’s Press. Ryan’s next book will take a look at the Women’s House of Detention which used to be located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood whose inmates included Dorothy Day, Angela Davis and Harold’s good friend the poet and actress Judith Malina.
I know how much Harold would have loved reading Ryan’s book, not only appreciating the coverage of his own story but also the uncovering of hidden histories. There’s still so much to learn about the queer experience of the past and how it can contribute to the struggles we still face today.
Today marks the 102nd birthday of Harold Norse whose gutsy and ground breaking poetry in the American vernacular continues to inspire and inform generations of readers. Among those readers was the talented San Francisco poet Jim Nawrocki who died on May 31st of this year.
He first encountered Harold’s work in 2002 while writing book reviews for San Francisco LGBT newspaper the Bay Area Reporter. Harold’s scintillating Memoirs of a Bastard Angel were republished that year by Thunder’s Mouth Press and it brought Jim into Harold’s life and work as it has for many readers, both gay and straight.
Jim was instrumental in assisting Harold with compiling his life’s work for what became In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems 1934-2003. This was no small feet, as Jim recounted during an event at North Beach’s Beat Museum celebrating Norse’s 100th birthday. Harold had often described himself not only as a writer but a re-writer. Jim would often arrive at the aged poet’s Albion Street cottage for a day’s work only to discover Harold was more interested in revising a decades old poem instead of focusing on the gargantuan task of assembling the manuscript.
Jim was himself an immensely talented poet. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago, Jim continues writing poems that captured much of the hope and despair that surrounds our time. Three of those poems, called The Joy Sequence, were published online at the literary journal The New Engagement. Two final poems, The Hex Shank and Moby, were posthumously published online at IDK magazine.
The Joy Sequence by Jim Nawrocki
Love lives at the corner of Prince Street and Broadway amid dishrag air and the shrill of renovation where the beverage cart man pushes annoyance across the heat and a father leans toward his boy in a shadowed doorway.
I carry a copy, just bought, of Islamic mystical poetry, entreaties to a God impatient, a God unseen, a stolid God who sits as each new day sends up its tendrils of prayer.
Down here in the throng youth blazes towards us and I tell you it’s okay as it passes incarnate along these brown boards that skirt gaping holes of excavation where sun sears old pipes and the scurry of displaced rats, and we know we’re as old as we’ve ever been.
I’ll take this year and its tentativeness.
I’ll read Rumi in the clouds as we fly out from this city into the all-too-shallow pool of blue and pollution far above the absent towers and new ones trying for heaven.
Love is our arc across the continent over states we imagine empty. Love is all the furrowed rows of seed. Love is each little pearled light nudging across the crooked, worried quilt that is the land’s darkness.
Nothing reached me except a death sentence and doubt.
I knew that black cables pulse on the bottom of the ocean
crossing the great darkness between the continents
with voices other than mine, a multitude of ambition and hunger.
I crumbled against a wall of transit and cried
amid all that thundering on toward silence.
And then the tunnel opened into a muted daylight,
peaked rooftops under a sky pewtered with ribbons and rain.
My dead mother and father surfaced in memory, each one
looking down with me at the tableaux of their last beds
and last days. Their faces said: It won’t be the same for you.
On my way home, I passed torn-open garbage bags, sidewalks of flotsam.
We make such bright things and hope.
Spills of green glass, recent plunders, crunched underfoot.
I stood at the bleak intersection, the bottom of the hill that looks up
to the sky’s emerging canvas of blue. A sugared white moon hung, traced there
almost like a whisper:
There are other worlds than this.
A coverless book at the edge of the yard.
It must be winter and it must be at the margins
of what I know.
A biting wind turns the gray pages
without looking at them.
And of course, the wind cannot see,
at least not in this poem.
This book holds all of my rooms.
It holds those days that rose up
and pushed their obstinacy
like a cold car working along a path
plowed through deep snow.
I had my secrets; so did you.
Mom, there you are, staring
through me, out the window.
Dad, there’s you, years later,
standing secretly outside
my closed bedroom door, straining
to hear the music I fed myself
when I thought I was alone.
Among the many gifts that friendship with Harold Norse offered me was the continued opportunity to connect with other talented authors such as Jim.
I’m grateful for the friendship he and I shared through a mutual appreciation of gay history along with a colorful postal correspondence. (Jim had a knack for finding the best notecards.) It’s a testament to Harold Norse’s legacy that his poetry continues to illuminate the life path for many of us who encounter his life and work.
This post closes with a clip of Jim reading one of Harold’s most celebrated poems, “I’m Not a Man.” This video was recorded on Dec. 3, 2014 at Bird and Beckett Books during a poetry reading to celebrate the release of I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: Selected Poems of Harold Norse.
Today marks the 101st birthday of Harold Norse whose gutsy and ground breaking poetry in the American vernacular continues to inspire and inform generations of readers. Last year there were a series of events celebrating the centennial of the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn. In this post, we’ll look back at the final Harold Norse 100 event held at Beyond Baroque in Venice Beach, where Norse had lived upon his return to the States in 1968 after fifteen years abroad.
The evening featured remembrances by one of Harold’s oldest friends complemented by interpretations of his poetry by two local L.A. performers. That evening the SoCal skyline was but a hazy layer of smoke and ash from a raging wildfire north of the city, but it didn’t deter a small yet dedicated audience from attending a truly special event.
For decades Beyond Baroque has been a space where performance and creation of new works has remained available to a wide variety of artists. (They celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.) It’s bookstore has a superb collection of poetry titles, including a number of Harold Norse’s books which are out of print.
Richard Modiano, Director of Beyond Baroque, has long been a supporter of Norse’s work. In 2015, they held a reading for the release of Norse’s selected poems, the first posthumous collection of his poetry.
Jason Jenn’s dedication to keeping alive the legacies of ground breaking gay artists from the 20th century are part of his gifted talent of inspiration and information. Following his participation in the two San Francisco centennial events, Jason was on his home turf at Beyond Baroque. Among the poems he chose for that evening’s performance was “California Will Sink“, written while Harold was living in Venice Beach in the early 1970s.
A work of both hopelessness and regeneration, it interweaves the poet’s initial attempts at restoring his health after decades of cigarettes, booze and boys with an awareness of society’s destruction of the environment and its effects on animals. Further analysis of the poem, and the political perspective in Norse’s poetry, can be read in an essay I wrote for Beatdom.
Longtime Los Angeleno, S.A. Griffin, profiled in a previous post, has been acting and writing for decades. His unique talents were in fine form that evening with a reading from Griffin’s own cut up of Norse’s writing prepared specially for the event.
The cut up method was first developed in the early 1960s at the Beat Hotel where Norse collaborated with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin by physically cutting up text, inserting the element of chance. The rearranged text often resulted in startling new works.
The group’s experimentation continued through the manipulation of tape recorders and into visual art. Harold made what he called Cosmographs by throwing colored ink onto paper which was then rinsed out in a bidet. The vibrantly colorful works, which looked towards the forthcoming psychedelic movement, were recently featured in an anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Art.
For this final centennial celebration, Griffin chose his cuts from a number of Norse’s best known poems including “I’m Not a Man” and “Classic Frieze in a Garage” and adding “Sniffing Keyholes”, the centerpiece to Norse’s novella Beat Hotel, the only cut up book written entirely at the famed hotel. Griffin’s piece, strong and engaging, brings refreshed perspective to Norse’s work, suitably evocative for a hundredth birthday celebration.
Writer Tom Livingston’s friendship with Norse was previously examined in this post. In 1961, when his first novel had been accepted by Bantam Books, Livingston was living in Palo Alto. Long before its transformation into the immense wealth of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto was still a small town.
It was on a nondescript country street named Perry Lane where the poets and novelists hung out. Ken Kesey lived there while finishing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the gay English poet Thom Gunn was a teaching assistant as Stanford.
Once Tom’s advance money came in, he flipped a coin to decide whether to travel to Tahiti or Paris. It came up heads for Paris. It was through a friend from Palo Alto named Mike Miller that Tom first heard about Harold Norse when New York Times columnist Anatole Broyard invited them to visit the Beat Hotel and meet the expatriate poet.
They first met at the café Deux Magots where Norse offered Livingston a job with the Living Theater who were performing two plays as part of France’s Theater of Nations summer series. Their friendship further developed when Norse learned that Livingston knew Henry Miller. Among Norse’s mentors from his time in New York City was the writer Anaïs Nin who had a long love affair with Miller.
Livingston had played ping pong with the Brooklyn born writer’s sons in Big Sur when Livingston had worked as a bartender and chambermaid at what later became the Esalen Institute. Norse revealed that a New York friend named Harry Herskovitz had entrusted him with two boxes of about 500 letters from Miller which had mysteriously disappeared. The loss of correspondence and manuscripts became a reoccurring theme in Norse’s life.
While discussing this mutual association in Norse’s tiny room at the hotel, Livingston suddenly felt a paralyzing chill from the back of his neck down to base of his spine. “Bill is giving you his death ray,” Harold said. Turning towards the doorway, Livingston saw William Burroughs in a three-piece suit, one hand holding an unopened umbrella, who turned away and called “Ian…Ian…it’s time for dinner.” Ian Sommerville was Burroughs’ lover, who helped him get off heroin while also contributing to the development of Cut Ups.
These are but a few of the stories relayed by Livingston; for more of his fantastic talk, take a look at the video link above.
As the evening ended, we drifted out into the nighttime sky whose setting sun glowed red from the still burning Sand Fire. It’s unearthly glow prompted me to recall the final lines from one of Harold’s greatest poems, “I Am in the Hub of the Fiery Force”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.