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:
“In this selection, Swindell shows how Norse broke new ground through his open exploration of gay identity and sexuality using accessible language in what he referred to as a new rhythm – the voice of the street. Humor, compassion and inner pain are all to be found in equal measure.”
That’s an excerpt from a new review recently published in the online poetry review GALATEA RESURRECTS (A POETRY ENGAGEMENT) of my selected edition of Harold Norse’s poetry. The complete review can be read at this link.
Written by Scottish based author Neil Leadbeater, who has read the Brooklyn born poet for nearly fifty years, this excellent review offers a perceptive appreciation of Norse’s vital yet overlooked role in composing poems that were “raw and straight to the point.”
“For too long, Norse has been the outsider, certainly in the U.K., but, with this publication, the “lone wolf”, as he once described himself, has finally come in from the cold.”
I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: Selected Poems of Harold Norsewas published in 2014 by Talisman House and is the first posthumous publications of Norse’s influential poetry. Illustrated with photographs of the poet, it includes selections from over sixty years of Norse’s work. Thanks to Neil and GALATEA RESURRECTS for helping more readers become aware of this accessible introduction to the poetry of Harold Norse. Here are a few more excerpts:
“The present selection goes a long way towards putting Norse back on the poetical map, especially for readers in the U.K. A helpful preface by Todd Swindell and an informative introduction by Neeli Cherkovski helps to place Norse and his colorful life in context by establishing the background to his work and its relationship to the rest of the beat movement in America.”
Gerard Malanga’s photo of Ginsberg and Norse at John Ashberry’s poetry reading at SF MOMA, 1973.
“He could write a protest poem that was the equal of any by Ginsberg…which reveal his engagement with politics and his concern for the environment as well as his commitment to poetry as a vehicle of persuasion to help bring about a better world.”
Continuing from the previous post about the Beat Museum’s Norse Centennial Celebration, here are more excerpts from comments made by poet & writer Adrian Brooks who was a friend of Harold’s. As writer & editor Raymond Foye wrote in the comments section, Brooks reflections offer “a beautiful appreciation of Harold Norse, and perfectly evokes his generous spirit. How marvelous to see his personality presented in the context of his work. He is one for the ages.” I couldn’t agree more.
Todd: I was wondering, Adrian, if you wanted to talk about your experiences with Harold producing Bastard Angel magazine? People are always interested in how Harold was publishing older poets like Kerouac, Di Prima and Corso and then new poets like yourself, Neeli Cherkovski, Andrei Codrescu, Erika Horn. A theme that came up was it wasn’t just who Harold had known, it was always current and melding the past and the present.
Adrian: What am I supposed to say?
Todd: [To Audience] Harold also had a Master Class for young writers when he came back to the United States. Harold was not only a writer; he was also a very good teacher. [To Adrian] So this sense of being able to work with younger poets, bringing the past into the present, but also seemed to be a contemporary in a way. Am I wrong?
Adrian: Harold was complex. There’s that phrase in Whitman, “multiplicity of selves.” He was too complex to say that he was this, and this, and this. It wasn’t that. [Long pause]
His apartment was a mess of manuscripts. People were sending him lots of things because he was publishing a magazine and they wanted to be in it. So Harold wanted to establish [himself] with the other celebrated Beats, with whom he belonged. That was clearly a priority.
I think that where you’re right is that he was always dipping into other channels. He believed in the accidents; he loved Surrealism and the divine inspiration of the haphazard.
I was already fully functioning by the time I met him. I was born in 1947 and didn’t meet Harold until I was 27. By that point I had been involved in the civil rights and anti-war movement, [arts scene in New York City’s] SoHo, I was up and going. Gerard Malanga thought that I would be the perfect partner for Harold. That was wrong.
He was extremely generous with his criticism and feedback; it was an extraordinary thing. Like most artists, I feel that a great deal of what’s necessary is shoveling away the bullshit. So: you find out who you are, then you work from that place if you can tell the truth, which is what he did in his work at his best. Harold told the truth, in his yearning and also his gutsy use of language.
At his best, he was shoveling away whatever obstructed a certain energy at its most crass. It could be a sexual frustration. On a higher level, it was this spiritual desire to participate in the life of culture.
As a teacher, there were two things that happened in his class. I’m not an intellectual or an academic, but his class was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done as a writer. It was divided into two parts. One part was Harold giving a lecture about Modernism and how it began and came all the way through the 19th century, through Yeats and the Surrealists, all the way up to where we were in the 1970s. The point of that was to frame what we’re doing, all of us who write, in a larger context.
What Harold was doing was showing people– it was an amazing thing because his poetry was so personal, so much him…. What was great was that he could completely step out of any egotism and talk about poetry comprehensively. What is language? Why is poetry important? Why is language important? How do we discover who we are and what our culture is? What are the values that are living things, which we can hold on to?
Yes, recognition would have been nice. We’d all love it. He got some; he didn’t get enough. More important than that…
there is a force field in this country that followed Nagasaki and Hiroshima and it blew up with the Beats. We are still seeing the repercussions of that through the revolution of the 1960s, the sexual revolution and the liberation, thank God, of women and other minorities, now transgender people. Harold was so, so conscious that this transformative force was, also, the instrument by which we were being shaped and used.
Harold Norse when he lived in Venice Beach, ca. 1970
As personal as he was, and as human as he was, as much himself as he was, he could also take a very long-range cultural look going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, to Catullus and the people he translated, and come up through to modern times, with a great sense of fidelity to what was possible, through being an artist, as long as people were being honest. I don’t know what he would have done with a dishonest person.
Harold chose people to impart this sense of belonging to– you talk about family; he made us believe we were part of a family. It was an incredible thing because his mind was on that level, quite apart from ego. It was clear, like a prism. That shows through what he did in [his magazine] Bastard Angel too.
There was the historical element and then there was the welcoming of wildness.
There was the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I would say Harold would always come down on the Dionysian for himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a real sense of the Apollonian because he could feel it in inanimate objects even like unopened parcels. For example, saying: “That’s not going to be good. It’s shit.” [Audience laughs] He would know.
There were about twelve people in the class. It was in one room of his flat. It was about a three or four hour evening… every other week. I really wish it had been recorded because…
You know, I know more about painting than writing, so I always saw Harold as a kind of abstract expressionist like Franz Kline or Jackson Pollock in the way that he used his materials. How gutsy it was. His love and appreciation of the various branches of twentieth century art movements– cut ups, Surrealism, Dada– things that never appear in his work, to the best of my knowledge, like Tristan Tzara, and how that related to the Living Theater or the Angels of Light, which was an underground culture here in San Francisco.
Harold totally got how different groups of artists created their survival systems and then created, call it whatever you will, schools or movements or styles, which were their way of finding a tribe.
So he wanted that very much for himself and he appreciated it very much when other people had done it, sometimes under the aegis of people like the Steins in Paris, but in theater and painting and poetry.
He also had a profound appreciation for people like, at the most extreme, Emily Dickinson, although she wasn’t the subject of one of his lectures, who could only function within a very small bandwidth. It wasn’t a question of being out there; it was a question of the quality of the focus. Harold had a wonderful, generous way of appreciating how we got to where we are.
I think that, like most of the people in this room, he would feel horror at what we’re seeing out there now because it is so different than what he wanted for our country.
As mentioned in a previous post, correspondence from Harold Norse is included in an exhibit at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground features material from the archive of British writer and publisher Jeff Nuttall. His mimeo publication My Own Mag was one of the few outlets that published William Burroughs most experimental Cut Up work of the 1960s.
The letter from Norse to Nuttall was written sometime in 1968, shortly before his repatriation to America following fifteen years abroad. At that time, Norse was living in Regents Park, London, attempting to recover from chronic hepatitis and a broken love affair while busy with the publication of his collection Karma Circuit.
He was also editing an edition of the Penguin Modern Poets Series No. 13 featuring himself, Philip Lamantia and Charles Bukowski, in one of the L.A. poet’s first big exposures outside the small press. William Burroughs, who lived near by on Duke Street, St. James, was hooked on Scientology, offered to analyze Norse with the help of an e-meter and two tin cans.
The letter opens “after the debacle, i.e. anglo-american poetry conference at the American Embassy.” (I am not aware of the conference Harold’s referencing. If any readers have information, please post a comment.)
Harold continues to set the scene: “doors guarded by US Marines–don’t worry, boys, poetry ain’t dangerous here.” A nodding of his head is misread by the poet Edward Lucie-Smith as an agreement with (I assume) Nuttall’s presentation, “but actually was beating time to a tune by that great modern poet, Dylan,––Bob Dylan:
“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mister Jooones…”
The reference to “that great modern poet” is a bit tongue-in-cheek as Norse had befriended Welsh poet Dylan Thomas back in New York City in the early 1950s.
From there the letter takes off into freestyle musings of 20th century poetry and arts that is unmistakably Norse, infused with his keen awareness of history which, towards the letter’s closing, connects to the present state of poetics:
& my mind went back to the Cabaret Voltaire (1916) where Hugo Ball chanted nonsense syllables, the Odéon where Tzara, at the end of the world, picked out words from a hat…& knew where it was at…& Gertrude Stein knew, & Ezra knew, & the poet of Finnegans Wake knew…& even Eliot knew but twisted it all back into the hands of the rational boys, who took fright and crept all the way back into the lap of Madame Bovary, as if 2 wars hadn’t happened, as if it wasn’t happening now everywhere…
You can click on the photo of the letter’s display above to view the text in better detail.
The exhibit, which runs through March 5th, is free and the Rylands Library is open every day. While you’re there, make sure to browse through their excellent gift shop or purchase a beverage from their drink bar. Several of Norse’s books are in stock, a rare chance for UK bibliophiles to obtain these pristine, out-of-print copies.
Following the remarks in the letter to Jeff Nuttall, it’s a good time to begin reviewing last summer’s fantastic series of events commemorating Harold Norse’s 100th birthday. It’s no mere coincidence that the Bastard Angel of Brooklyn was born the same year as Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and others birthed the revolutionary art movement DaDa in Zurich, Switzerland.
The second centennial celebration was held at the Beat Museum that has, for over a decade, offered an invaluable resource in preserving and sharing the legacy of the Beat generation. It was also the host of Harold’s last public poetry readings.
Upcoming posts will explore the evening’s other participants. For now the focus is on remarks made by poet & writer Adrian Brooks, featured in a previous post, who was introduced to Harold in the early 1970s through poet Gerard Malanga. The two developed a friendship that encompassed Brooks assisting with Bastard Angel magazine as well as participating in Norse’s Master Class taught to a select group of young writers.
After reading a brilliant poem about Harold composed specifically for the event, Adrian joined in adding his comments to questions about various aspects of Harold from poet to scholar to teacher. This post will close with quotes from Adrian’s reflections from that evening which presciently expand upon observations made in Harold’s letter from the Rylands exhibition.
In addition to wanting his own place in the pantheon of modern “greats,” I don’t think it was just his nurturing that was at play. Harold was alive and therefore life spoke to him through the most haphazard signals.
I think he had a tremendous sense of dislocation that any artist has–a loneliness, a haunted-ness–because he had a great heart.
There’s so much to say. He was never spiritually disciplined, but he absolutely got it. I think if Harold were here tonight, aside from being very pleased that this event was happening, he would also want to connect what’s happening here tonight in honor of him, to what’s happening in this country right now, with the killing of black people and the schism which he saw so clearly. Not only racially and through the lens of having been an expatriate, but really wanting the country to come together and embrace a larger sense of humanity.
He felt chiseled out of that because most artists are. But if he had a spirituality, it was in the recognition of the place of artists and writers in other countries, like Cavafy, or the other people he translated, and people he knew, Anaïs Nin, for example.
He was also propelled by a larger sense of justice. Partly because he had been denied it as a child, and a child who is denied justice either is destroyed by it or fights and Harold was a fighter. He was gutsy.
I feel like we are living, right now, in a catastrophe, which Harold saw and forecast and was right about, even though he missed the ‘60s here. That caused a kind of syncopation in his sense of contact with America. So partly through nurturing young writers, Neeli [Cherkovski] is a perfect example, I guess I am, he created this Master Class and it was a phenomenal experience.
[Audience question as to what was Harold’s focus like.]
When I was listening to the other people [speaking tonight] I was thinking about that. Probably what I am going to say may be offensive, but you asked a question, so I am going to tell you what I think.
Photo by William Childress 1974
I think the two great themes for an artist are sex and death. I think Harold’s focus was sex not death, but I think it wasn’t really sex that was his focus. It was the yearning for love, although he wrote that poem “Friends, if you wish to survive I would not recommend” it.
I think he had a very ambivalent relationship to desire. Harold was friends with Tennessee Williams before Williams was famous. They were in Provincetown together the summer that Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie. I think of desire– sex– like it’s presented in A Streetcar Named Desire; the opposite of death is desire. But for Harold I think it was the attempt to staunch a wound through the enacting of sex.
That’s why I think there is very little of the “other” in his work. It’s about him and his relationship to it, not another person. Rarely, is there another person in his work. I don’t think that diminishes his art, but when you look at the plight of the homosexual, that Harold was born into and grew up with in America, it was so dangerous to be gay, so challenging to try to be a man, because he was a man, against the odds. He was a short man, a Jewish man, a poor man; the odds were stacked against him. Yet there was a grandness in him.
Authors Todd Swindell, Kevin Killian and Regina Marler celebrate Harold Norse’s 100th birthday at the Mechanics’ Institute, July 6, 2016
An attentive audience of nearly forty people gathered last Wednesday, July 6 to commemorate the 100th birthday of American Beat poet whose groundbreaking work forged a new voice for gay liberation, free of bigotry and hypocrisy.
The evening was hosted by Laura Sheppard, events director for the Mechanics’ Institute, in the storied San Francisco institution’s performance café. With wine available from the bar, this elegant room with professional light and sound equipment was a beautiful setting to recall and evaluate the life and work of the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn.
The festivities began with an invocation of queer poetic spirit by the multi-talented Jason Jenn who performed a selection of poems written by Harold that included “A Man’s Life”, Norse’s translation of a sonnet by the 19th Century Roman poet G.G. Belli.
Here’s a clip of Jason’s performance of “At the Caffé Trieste“, written in the early 1970s at the landmark North Beach coffee house as Harold looks back through the ages to the ways in which the poets’ voice guide us. It ends with the line, “this is the only Golden Age there’ll ever be.”
The evening’s compère was Tate Swindell of Unrequited Records who introduced each of the speakers, adding observations into Harold’s life experience. The first speaker was San Francisco based writer Kevin Killian whose friendship with Norse began in the early 1980s.
He spoke with warmth and affection about his friendship with Harold which began when Kevin would wheel his electric typewriter, down Guerrero Street from 24th, over to Harold’s cottage on Albion Street. A speedy typist, Kevin would assist Harold who was compiling material that eventually became his Memoirs of a Bastard Angel. Some of the pieces first appeared in Kevin’s magazine No Apologies which he published with Brian Monte.
Turns out Kevin had been a member of the Mechanics’ Institute at the time he met Harold and had brought him to visit their beautiful library. Earlier Harold had been kvetching to Kevin that none of his books were available at the local branch of the SF Public Library. “It’s only because they’ve been stolen the Public Library,” was Kevin’s clever reply. Here’s a six minute clip of his introductory remarks.
Kevin also remarked on Harold’s youthful spirit when in company with other writers and artists. He spoke of how Harold was always keen on visiting with artists whom he had known from his earlier days, from Tennessee Williams to John Cage, who were passing through San Francisco to participate in one event or another.
Regina Marler offered insights into the connections between Beat writers and their Mothers which made her anthology Queer Beats a much needed addition to Beat literature scholarship. Her reading of “I’m Not a Man” added another level of appreciation to what is one of Harold’s most well known and well loved poems.
My remarks followed Regina’s sensitive evaluation of how Harold differentiated from his Beat contemporaries in terms of his treatment of women. I quoted from a 1985 letter from Harold to a publisher concerning an updated version of his 1976 collection of gay themed poetry Carnivorous Saint. Here’s an excerpt from the letter concerning Harold’s desire to remove instances of the word “bitch” when the collection was reprinted in 1986 as The Love Poems.
“Such usages do not accurately represent my consciousness now or, indeed, then, if truth be told, as I have always resented slurs of any kind in the language, yet given a macho background have been insensitive to slurs against women, whom I’ve personally always considered the superior sex, in any case…These words are offensive to me and to those I might hurt unintentionally.”
Thanks to Michael Petrelis for snapping the photographs included in this post. The photo to left shows me in an animated conversation with Laura Sheppard and, at the edge of the frame, Count Federico Wardal who attends all the Harold Norse related events in San Francisco.
Harold would certainly have been thrilled that such an event for his hundredth birthday would be hosted at a landmark San Francisco location. Thanks to all those who attended the presentation. Stay tuned for the next report back from the following Saturday’s event at The Beat Museum.
The complete video of the event can be viewed below:
This summer’s centennial celebrations for Harold Norse kick into full swing following two incredible events last week in San Francisco. Next up is a return to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice Beach where Harold lived for a couple of years following his return to America after fifteen years abroad. In a previous post, I looked at some of his connections from that time including Anais Nin and Charles Bukowski.
Once again the host of this event Beyond Baroque which is now approaching its fifth decade as Los Angeles’ premier literary arts center. Over thirty years ago Harold was featured as a “guest star” at a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg. Last summer Beyond Baroque was the host of a reading for my release of the selected poem of Harold Norse. This time around the featured participants are Southern California based writers Thomas Livingston, S.A. Griffin and Michael C Ford.
The event will be held on Saturday, July 23 from 4-6 P.M. at 681 N. Venice Blvd. in Venice Beach. Please note there is an admission charge of $10 for the general public and $6 for students and seniors. Members of Beyond Baroque are free.
Thomas Livingston and Harold Norse in Vence, 1963
Thomas Livingston has published two novels: Paper Walls and The Tower Is Down and short stories in mass circulation magazines including Playboy, literary magazines such as Nothing Doing in London, The Ledge, Bastard Angel, and Main Street Rag, and academic anthologies such as Aleination: A Casebook.
His poetry has appeared in Two Cities, The Ledge and the new renaissance. He taught at Rutgers University and San Jose State University and recently finished his new novel The Years of Light and Gangrene.
Thomas first met Harold in Paris in the summer of 1961 when Norse was living at the Beat Hotel. Their friendship grew in the coming years with Harold offering Thomas a summer job working with The Living Theater on two theatrical productions including The Connection. As this upcoming event he will share stories about The Living Theater, meeting William Burroughs at the Beat Hotel and his decades long friendship with Harold.
Thomas was among the contributors to The End is the Beginning– my 2010 memorial collection of poetry for Harold. His loving remembrance concludes with this paragraph,
Harold introduced my to Burroughs and Gysin, McClure and Ginsberg and, of course, Bukowski before they had their falling out. He enriched my life through our friendship, which was very often spiked with wine and laughter. I’m sure when he saw the praiseworthy obituaries in the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, he had the last laugh and said, “Well, it’s about time I got the recognition I deserve.”
Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher
S.A. Griffin lives, loves and works in Los Angeles. He is the progenitor of Elsie The Poetry Bomb which he took on a five week tour of the United States in 2010 in an effort to foster civil disagreements.
The co-editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry which featured several poems by Harold Norse, S.A. recently edited The Official Language of Yes by Scott Wannberg for Perceval Press and Natural Geographics by M. Lane Bruner, published on his own Rose of Sharon imprint. His latest collection of verse, Dreams Gone Mad With Hope, was released in 2014 by Punk Hostage Press.
Returning again this year is poet Michael C Ford whose participation in last summer’s poetry reading for the selected edition of Harold’s poetry remains a memorable highlight. Here’s a video of Michael’s knock out reading of Harold’s 1973 poem “Remembering Paul Goodman”.
Publishing steadily, since 1970, Michael C Ford is credited with 28 volumes of print documents and numerous spoken word recordings. He received a Grammy nomination in 1986 and earned a Pulitzer nomination in 1998.
L.A. poet Michael C. Ford stands between Tate Swindell (L) of Unrequited Records and Todd Swindell (R) editor of Norse Selected Poems. Beyond Baroque, Venice Beach, July 17, 2015.
His most recent volumes of work are the pamphlet edition of music related poetryentitled Atonal Riff-Tunes to a Tone-Deaf Borderguard (2012)and a 2013 volume entitled Crosswalk Casserole:both of which are published by Lawn Gnome Books in Phoenix, AZ.
Michael was a student of Kenneth Patchen & Kenneth Rexroth both of whom influenced the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s. He’s also performed with Michael McClure and the surviving members of The Doors including a numerous performances with Ray Manzarek.
Make sure you arrive on time to catch Jason Jenn’s performance of Harold’s poetry which has been among the highlights of these Harold Norse Centennial Celebrations.
Today marks the 100 years since acclaimed American poet Harold Norse was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Beginning tonight at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute will be a series of events this month commemorating this historic occasion.
The kick off began earlier today outside Harold’s last home in San Francisco’s Mission District on Albion Street– shades of William Blake. As an invocation of the queer poetic spirit, I read a poem by Harold’s friend, poet and filmmaker James Broughton. James was recently profiled in the award-winning documentary Big Joy.
Gay writers Jason Jenn, Hank Henderson, Daniel Foster and Todd Swindell following a reading of Harold Norse’s poetry at Stories Books & Cafe in Echo Park
I first encountered the phenomenally talented Jason Jenn last summer in Los Angeles during my book tour for the selected poems of Harold Norse. Homo-centric is a monthly reading series in Echo Park curated by Hank Henderson. For the July event Hank had invited local artists to read Harold’s work. I was thrilled to have a chance to hear Harold’s poetry read by gay voices other than mine.
When I mentioned I was planning for Harold’s centennial the following summer, Jason immediately said he wanted to participate. I was surprised mainly because talented queer artists are invariably booked solid with their own projects. Yet Jason said he felt not only a connection to Harold’s work but a need to learn about and share Harold’s own queer history.
Overtime I learned more about Jason’s work on other gay poets especially his full-length performance on the poetry of James Broughton– a San Francisco poet and filmmaker who was a good friend of Harold’s. His art is also activism, exemplified by his ongoing Queer History Tours of West Hollywood.
Each of the three upcoming Harold Norse Centennial events will begin with a brief performance by Jason of Harold’s poetry. I can honestly say that Harold would be thrilled about Jason’s involvement. During the busy preparations for next week, Jason and I had a chance to chat over email.
What can those who attend the Norse Centennial events look forward to during your performance?
Hopefully those familiar with Harold will see him in a compellingly fresh way and those unfamiliar will be turned on by how relevant, moving and provocative his poetry is. It’s my goal to create an experience that reflects the emotional truth of Harold’s work with an engaging visual component that supports his words. It will be a somewhat unique interpretation that honors the Beat generation as a vocal performance tradition mixed in with my own contemporary queer spirit. I like to believe that when I create these performances, Harold’s spirit is being entertained as well. I hope it encourages others to dive more into his work.
You provided assistance and friendship to the elder gay artist and poet William Emboden who recently died. What did you gain from an intergenerational queer connection?
Volumes. Literally and figuratively. I’m really missing William right now; he was a great friend. The value of intergenerational queer connection is infinite and worthy of further attention. It’s how we pass along the life-force, the children of the mind, the queer spirit. William gave me insight into what he gained from his life experience; he was a bridge to other generations.
Through our discussions from typing up his handwritten poems, plays, and manuscripts, I learned so much about the queer cultural icons about whom he encountered, admired, and wrote. It has always been my intention to perform some of William’s poetry someday. It made him happy thinking about what I might come up with even though he knew he wouldn’t get to see it. Writing kept him going day by day through his challenging decline, but he carried himself with such grace and cheer up until the last time I saw him. That was another big lesson.
You’ve created performance pieces for a diverse range of gay authors from the Greek poet Cavafy to poet and filmmaker James Broughton who was a friend of Harold’s. How do you choose these artists? What have you learned from them?
It’s actually because of William and his partner Tony that I even got into the series of gay/queer poet performances in the first place. And oddly enough, in all cases, I never chose the artist — it happened rather serendipitously.
Tony invited me to create a short performance piece for a book release and gallery opening of photographs by Stathis Orphanos called My Cavafy. I was actually not familiar with Cavafy’s work, but once I started reading his poems, I felt a rapturous connection and my imagination lit up. I ended up creating a full-length one-act play with a few other performers by combining Cavafy’s poetry with other aspects of his life story.
Broughton’s centennial was timed with the documentary film Big Joy. Its producer/director Stephen Silha encouraged other artists to create art about Broughton. Again I was mostly unfamiliar with his work, but fell head over heels for it (literally – my legs were up the air during a recitation of one of his poems in my show “Ecstasy For Everyone” as befitting Broughton’s espousal of sexual freedom).
Each poet has encouraged me to continue my own poetry. In working over and over again with their poems, I discover both what works for me and what doesn’t about their individual style. They become my teachers and I certainly draw upon them in my writing subconsciously, whether I want to or not.
For some time you’ve collaborated with Harry Hay biographer Stuart Timmons on a Queer History Tour of West Hollywood. How has that changed your perception of the neighborhood?
Working with Stuart on the tour deepened my appreciation not only of West Hollywood, but how I look at queer history. It was author Mark Thompson who suggested I get to know Stuart and introduce him to some of the newer Los Angeles Radical Faeries. I guess I’m a repeat example of why intergenerational queer connection is influential!
Stuart had written a trio of LGBTQ history walking tours of Los Angeles, but hadn’t finished the section on West Hollywood when he had a major stroke in 2008. When I found out the city was seeking artists to help create events for its 30th Anniversary, I immediately thought about working with Stuart to complete tour. Originally we intended it to be just an audio and written tour, but during a walk-wheel-through of his original draft the idea came to create a “live-action adventure”. I imagined different performers stationed around the city in some wild period costumes delivering the history. It was a bigger endeavor than either of us intended but ended up being so much fun that the city keeps asking us back to do it again.
What place do you think queer rage and anger has in the current discussion about violence against the LGBTQ community?
It’s an absolutely vital component for transformation. We need to really go there and share that rage in order to counteract and move beyond the horrors brought against us throughout history. But we can’t let it consume us. We have to stand up to, be strong, all while staying true to other aspects of our queerness like compassion, creativity, wisdom, vision, service, community – you name it, we contain multitudes. Anger has a valid, important place in the spectrum, but only in unison with the rest. You can be sure there will be some of the rage I feel right now about the world in the performance. It can’t be ignored and Harold brought that into his poetry.
Who are some of the LGBTQ artists that have inspired you and your creativity?
My dear friend Robert Patrick Playwright is an enormous inspiration to many of us. He and I both have a knack for creating our own a cappella songs since neither of us can play an instrument. He believed most of his life he couldn’t sing, but he’s charming the hell out of everyone singing for us and sharing his incredible wit and command of melody.
Ian MacKinnon is a mega-talent component of a fierce queer renaissance who shares queer history lessons in a wild and sexy way unlike anyone else. You can find the greatest inspiration from any number of the regulars who perform at the monthly Planet Queer event Ian co-produces with Travis Wood. I know I’m biased, but there are easily a dozen or so who deserve to be given a heap of funds to just keep doing what they do. The list seriously goes on and on, especially from artist’s like Harold who are no longer with us, but left us a lasting legacy to tap into and rediscover.
Here’s a poem that Jason’s friend William Emboden wrote about Harold Norse, San Francisco and Poetry:
A New Found Freedom (1960)
A week ago Jason loaned me
The Selected Poems of Harold Norse
He knew how I would respond
I feel totally at one with this poet
I lived his San Francisco experiences ten years earlier
Nineteen sixty was my time in San Francisco
City Lights Books was my alternative home
I listened to the poets that Norse knew personally
I never had the nerve to approach them
Other than Bukowski whom I did not take to
Ginsberg was a wonderful poet and orator
Poems came spilling out of him on those dark San Francisco nights
City Lights was extraordinary among bookstores
I walked to its beacon of lights almost nightly
Exhausted by hard physical work I was resurrected
It was my real coming out to the world
Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were our gay saints
In the sixties San Francisco poets were everywhere
But all congregated as worshipers at City Lights
A basement with hard benches was a hive of bees being poets
The excitement of words filled the air
Walls of books voices booming others hushed
There we worshiped by listening
Our communion in coffee and after coffee houses
The Trieste was a special bakery-coffee house
North beach was Italianate and vital
Lucca’s restaurant with its great oysters in the shell with garlic
Cheap Chinese markets with exotic fruits and vegetables
I as a student lived on the kindness of strangers
And those new friends among the Sainted poets
How alive was my life then
Gay and twenty five in bookstores
Gay and finishing a night in a bar
Waking up in the bed of a friend of the night before
This post takes a closer look at the participants in the second event celebrating the Harold Norse Centennial. On Saturday, July 9, the Beat Museum will host a panel including poet and writer Adrian Brooks, poet Jim Nawrocki and artist Tate Swindell. All three men were friends of Norse and will bring their personal remembrances to the evening’s discussion.
Adrian Brooks has a storied history from his Quaker upbringing, volunteering with Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, involvement in the New York arts scene of the late 1960s, then moving to San Francisco as part of gay liberation. Adrian became a member of the seminal performance troupe the Angels of Light which grew out of the equally legendary Cockettes.
Flights of Angels: My Life with the Angels of Light is his memoir of that glittered encrusted period when gay liberation in San Francisco was a heady mixture of political, social and artistic movements. Illustrated with photographs by renowned gay photographer Daniel Nicoletta, Flights of Angels is required reading for those interested in radical gay performance in 1970’s San Francisco.
Here Brooks relates his initial contact with Harold–upon the suggestion of poet and photographer Gerard Malanga–which led to his involvement with Norse’s literary magazine Bastard Angel,recently profiled in the UK publication Beat Scene.
First, after being put in touch with novelist Christopher Isherwood, who liked my poems and invited me to visit him in Santa Monica, Gerard [Malanga] suggested I telephone a local Beat poet. At fifty-six, Harold Norse was a stumpy ex-bodybuilder with a bad toupee and a huge chip on his shoulder about being overlooked. I loved his earthy New York humor and ballsy work. I also appreciated his praise, and his invitation to serve as the editorial assistant for his cutting edge magazine, Bastard Angel, which featured surrealists and celebrities like Jean Genet, stellar Beats, and on occasion, up and coming “unknowns.”
In a 2013 interview with Adrian about his friendship with Harold, I was impressed by his insight into Harold’s work and character–imbued with both criticism and compassion. Brooks was in a unique position at that time given his artistic expression straddled both the theatrical performance and poetry scenes.
On September 18, 1974, he organized what may be the first all-gay poetry reading at the Fellowship Church on Larkin Street. Among others, the roster included Norse, poet and publisher Paul Mariah, Pat Parker and Judy Grahn.
Here are some of Adrian’s reflections on the poetry scene at that time:
My perception of the Bay Area poetry cosmos was shaped by North Beach bars and coffeehouses like Café Trieste. The scene revolved around the City Lights bookstore, but the degree to which one had “arrived” in this tiny yet most egotistical of all art scenes, was how close one got to Allen Ginsberg or twee Lilliputian Bolinas, a coastal town south of Inverness. Against this yardstick, poets measured their importance. I found it ridiculous. For all its much-vaunted status as the coolest hotspot in the country, the San Francisco poetry worlds was sophomoric.
Even so, I admired the poets, well known names like Jack Hirschman, Gregory Corso, and Diane di Prima as well as lesser-known luminaries such as Jack Micheline, a poet and painter whose bellicose, belligerent manner and crudely fashioned verse–rarely edited–belied an unusual sensitivity. And in the background, Bob Kaufman wafted, a burned-out Beat star, like a disembodied ghoul of Goya.
Jim Nawrocki is another San Francisco based poet who was a friend of Norse that will participate in the July 9 event. His poetry has appeared in A&U Magazine and Empty Mirror and he also regularly contributes essays and reviews to the Gay & Lesbian Review. Jim first met Harold in the early 2000s, resulting in a warm and supportive friendship between two gay poets from different generations.
Norse was notorious for exacting demands when it came to publishing his poetry, so it’s a testament to Nawrocki’s connection to Harold that he was instrumental in assembling the hundreds of poems that made up 2003’s collected poems–In the Hub of the Fiery Force–which spanned 70 years .
“At Albion” is a poem Jim wrote for a memorial collection which I published following Harold’s death in 2009. Evocative and graceful in its heartfelt sorrow, Jim conveys the impression and emotions which arose when visiting Norse’s home on Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District where the Beat poet lived for several decades.
Originally released in 1984 on cassette by Eddie Woods’ Ins & Outs Press, Harold Norse, Of Course… is a poetry reading which Harold gave in Amsterdam. In fine form, it remains one of the premier recordings of Harold reading his work.
Unrequited Records has made the original recording available as both a digital download and double record album. The vinyl release is a work of high craftsmanship featuring deluxe colored discs and a stunning gatefold collage of Harold’s snapshots. It’s a must for collectors of Beat era artifacts.
This once in a lifetime line up is a fitting way to continue the centennial celebration of Harold Norse. The Beat Museum was the site of Harold’s final poetry readings, so it is fitting that his spirit returns to North Beach. The event, which runs from 7-9 PM, is free.
As the Harold Norse Centennial approaches, there will be posts spotlighting the participants in upcoming events, presented by The Beat Museum, to celebrate this historic milestone. On Wednesday, July 6 (Harold’s actual 100th birthday) the Mechanics’ Institute will host a panel featuring San Francisco writers Kevin Killian, Regina Marler and myself, Todd Swindell.
Founded in 1854 to serve the vocational needs of out-of-work gold miners, the Mechanics’ Institute is a historic membership library, cultural event center, and chess club in San Francisco’s Financial District. Today it serves readers, writers, downtown employees, students, film lovers, chess players, and others.
In 2013, the Mechanics’ Institute was part of the Allen Ginsberg Festival that coincided with an exhibition of the Beat poet’s photography at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The one-of-a-kind event featured everything from Beat poet ruth weiss performing in the Institute’s café space to a panel discussion featuring a whose-who of Bay Area authors that have written about the Beats.
For many years Kevin has helped preserve the work and legacy of poet Jack Spicer–a key participant in the 1950s San Francisco poetry renaissance that included John Wieners and Robert Duncan and influenced many Beat writers. His acclaimed biography of Spicer, Poet Be Like God, co-written with Lew Ellingham, was published in 1998. Killian also edited, with Peter Gizzi, the collection My Vocabulary Did This to Me-Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. The title comes from Spicer’s last recorded words; Harold’s were “the end is the beginning.”
Regina Marler is the editor of the anthology Queer Beats, How the Beats Turned America on to Sex (Cleis Press, 2004) which features two poems by Harold Norse as well as an excerpt from his memoirs. Even though I’ve read a good amount of Beat literature, I found her inclusion of excerpts from lesser known works by Beat-associated authors like the Paul Bowles and poet Alan Ansen to be enlightening. Additionally there are contributions from female writers like Jane Bowles, Elise Cowen and Diane di Prima.
But it’s not only her sharp selection of writers that elevates Queer Beats head and shoulders above other Beat anthologies. Each of the book’s three sections feature an incisive introduction by Regina. Speaking about the homocentric content of Burroughs and Ginsberg, she writes about their
candid attitude towards sex and the body–towards pleasure. This open confession of their feelings is one of the pivots of the movement, and no less vital to their influence on the rising counter-culture than marijuana reveries and restless literary experimentation.
Among the selections I found most illuminating was an excerpt from a letter by Jack Kerouac whom Marler describes as a “sensitive, gentle mama’s boy who goaded himself into macho displays…[whose] queer sensibility was most disguised, folded into the hero worship” of Neal Cassady.
Written on October 3, 1948 to Cassady, Kerouac states “Posterity will laugh at me if it thinks I was queer…little students will be disillusioned.” It’s a telling admission that Kerouac couches the censorship of his same-sex desires as protection for future generations. As Marler succinctly puts it, “He wanted the behavior, clearly, but not the identity.”
Of course this is exactly the kind of ignorant, oppressive attitude that Harold Norse sought to make extinct through his lifetime of confessional, open hearted gay poetry that follows the proud lineage of his Brooklyn forbearer Walt Whitman. Thanks to Queer Beats we can see how authors like Norse, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Gore Vidal were gay visionaries who, Marler claims, “stand outside the normalization of gay sex and identity.”
“They were not assimilationist. If the culture could not accept them, the fault lay in the culture.”
This is set to be a perfect evening to celebrate the 100th birthday of Beat poet Harold Norse, the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn. Please note there is a $15 charge for the public but haroldnorse.com readers can wave the fee by stating they are a “Beat Museum Member” either at the online registration or that evening at the event which is from 7-9PM. As the event will be held in the Mechanic’s Institute’s café space, make sure you arrive early to enjoy a drink at the bar.
The folks at the Beat Museum have done it again. Following last year’s fantastic Herbert Huncke Centennial event, the Beat Museum has designed another sensational promotional poster. It features a photo of Harold taken in 1961 outside the Beat Hotel where he was living along with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, who were practicing the Cut Up- a process of applying montage to writing.
As previously mentioned, three Harold Norse Centennial events are happening in California during the month of July. The Beat Museum is co-sponsoring these dates as a kick off to a year of events which they will be curating. Harold’s final poetry readings were hosted by the Beat Museum, so it’s great to be returning to North Beach on July 9.
Also there has been a change in the July 9th line up, as poet and writer Adrian Brooks has offered to participate in the evening’s panel. He first met Harold in the early 1970s, upon the suggestion of Gerard Malanga, and the pair became friendly, with Adrian assisting in some of the preparation for Harold’s Bastard Angel magazine. Adrian’s public speaking engagements are rare, so I’m thrilled he’s agreed to join a truly special presentation, as all the #HaroldNorse100 events will be.
For those interested in obtaining copies of Harold Norse’s rare, out of print books, such as Beat Hotel, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, and Hotel Nirvana, there is an online book sale happening during the month of May.
Each Book Bundle comes with rare Norse ephemera and material created exclusively for Harold’s hundredth birthday. All proceeds support the Harold Norse Centennial. With a number of offers reasonably priced, including 3 commemorative bookmarks for $5, there is something for everyone. Find out more about the book sale here.
July 6, 2016 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of master American poet Harold Norse. Known for his association with Beat literature and gay liberation, Norse’s work retains its pertinence in today’s fractured world of politics and despair. This has been reflected by increased attention to Norse’s legacy from The New York Timesto the International Times.
Since April is National Poetry Month there will be further posts this month to kick off the Harold Norse Centennial. In the meantime, here is information about upcoming events so you can make sure to mark your calendars.
The European Beat Studies Network is hosting its annual conference in Manchester, England June 27 to 29. Co-chaired by renowned Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris and Manchester University professor Douglas Field, whose All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin will be published this summer by Oxford University Press.
The conference program is packed with presentations on all aspects of Beat writers and artists. It’s inspiring to see a number of presentations about Beat poet ruth weiss, who at age 87 continues to perform her poetry in San Francisco.
As part of Session 13 on the second day of the conference, I will be presenting a talk titled “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel.”
The EBSN Manchester conference is merely the kick off for the Harold Norse Centennial. Beginning on Harold’s actual 100th birthday, July 6, there will be two separate dates of discussion panels in San Francisco co-sponsored by The Mechanics’ Institute and The Beat Museum.
These will be followed by a return to Harold’s old stomping grounds of Venice Beach at Beyond Baroque. Each of these events will feature a short performance of Harold’s poetry by Los Angeles based multi-talented artist Jason Jenn who has previously performed works about gay poets James Broughton and C.P. Cavafy.
Wednesday, July 6 from 7-9 PM at the Mechanics’ Institute, SF
Saturday, July 23 from 4-6 PM at Beyond Baroque, LA
Tom Livingston – Author & Friend of Norse
Michael C Ford – Poet & Audio Journalist
S.A. Griffin – Poet & Actor
Check back in the coming weeks for detailed information about the events and the authors who will be participating. Also keep on the lookout for a Centennial fundraiser featuring bundles of rare Harold Norse books for sale.
July 6, 2016, marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Beat poet Harold Norse. From the immigrant streets of his Brooklyn childhood, to mid-century Greenwich Village, to the American expatriates of Europe and North Africa, to his position as one of San Francisco’s best poets, Harold Norse remains a forgotten voice among 20th Century American Poetics. In the coming months, I’ll be announcing a series of events to increase attention and appreciation for the rich legacy of Harold’s like and work.
The European Beat Studies Network website states it “brings together, from across and beyond Europe, those who share an academic or creative interest in the broad field of Beat culture. The EBSN aims to be inclusive; a genuine community of scholars and students, writers and artists, which not only reaches out to all kinds of people who work on the Beats, but also actively invites their participation.”
The organization’s President, Oliver Harris, has overseen expanded publications of many of William Burroughs’ books. In 2014 he edited editions with the restored text of Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy: the cut-up novels The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket That Explode. Material for these books were written while Burroughs lived at the Beat Hotel collaborating with Harold and Brion Gysin on the development of the cut-up method.
EBSN’s latest conference was held in Brussels, Belgium in late October 2015. Renowned James Baldwin scholar Douglas Field, Lecturer of 20th Century American Lit at the University of Manchester, has taken the lead among academics calling attention to the work of Harold Norse. Douglas presented a paper about Harold and has been generously offered to share the preface to his work.
“Keen to promote the life and work of Harold Norse, I presented a paper titled “Beat Counterculture in the Digital Age: Documenting Harold Norse” at a plenary panel session with Thomas Antonic (“Ruth Weiss – Beat, Jazz, and the Art of Improvisation”) and A. Robert Lee (“Beat Contenders: Kupferberg, Micheline, Sanders”).
As I’ve found in the past, Norse remains a shadowy figure in the history of Beat lore; he is known to many but read by few. As I talked to people in Brussels, many Beat scholars and poets knew something about Norse’s life and work, but they did not know the extent of his output, or of his craftsmanship as a poet.”
“As Alan Kaufman astutely observes, Anne Charter’s Portable Beat Reader brought attention to many Beat writers—but it also consigned those writers omitted from her anthology to obscurity. Writers like Norse who didn’t make the Portable Beat Reader, it seems, would quickly be forgotten. Thanks to the tireless work of Todd and Tate Swindell, Norse is destined to rise from the ashes… reminding us of this late writer’s incomparable talent as a poet, artist and letter writer.”
Harris and Field are organizing this year’s EBSN conference to held June 27-29 in Manchester, England, and the two mains topics will be music and science. Given the cut-up method’s ongoing influence among English musicians such as recently departed David Bowie, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, the activities at the Beat Hotel in early 1960s Paris will certainly be among the main discussions.
As Harold was an integral participant in the creation of cut-up (his cut-up novella Beat Hotel was published in 1983), I hope to make sure that his work and legacy are known at the conference.
Hotel Nirvana remains among Harold’s best known collections, responsible for introducing him to a new generation of poets and writers when it was published in 1974. It was among that year’s National Book Award nominees losing to double-winners Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich. As part of the prestigious Pocket Poets Series (edition #32), it unfortunately remained the only collection of Norse’s writing published by City Lights Press.
To celebrate last year’s 60th anniversary of the Pocket Poets Series, City Lights editor Lawrence Ferlinghetti released an anthology from all 60 editions. Harold’s poems are included among his friends Allen Ginsberg (Howl #4), Gregory Corso (Gasoline #8), Frank O’Hara (Lunch Poems #19) and Bob Kaufman (Golden Sardine #21).
Customers at City Lights are likely to receive a complementary bookmark featuring stamp size reproductions of all 60 editions of the Pocket Poets Series. Harold would be rightly proud to see Hotel Nirvana prominently featured. Let’s hope City Lights chooses to republish an updated edition of this essential Norse collection in the future.