Norse Centennial Recap: Mechanics Institute

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Authors Todd Swindell, Kevin Killian and Regina Marler celebrate Harold Norse’s 100th birthday at the Mechanics’ Institute, July 6, 2016

Authors Todd Swindell, Kevin Killian and Regina Marler celebrate Harold Norse’s 100th birthday at the Mechanics’ Institute, July 6, 2016

MI#3 WebAn 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.

MI#2 WebThe 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.”

MI#6 WebThe 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.

MI#5 WebRegina 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.”

MI#4 WebThanks 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:

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Happy 100th Birthday Harold Norse

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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.

Happy Harold Birthday

For Harold Norse

By James Broughton

 

Hello Harold

                   here and there

Hello Harold

                     Everywhere

Harold in Italy

      Harold in Holland

            Harold in Tangier

                 Harold in Hell

Everywhere that I have been

Harold was already in

 

             Harold is a Norse

             of wandering force

             prankish of nature

             and intercourse

             Norse is a Harolding

             Widespread source

             of salty lust

             and sweet remorse

 

Harold in Paris

     Harold in Sonoma

           Harold in Euphoria

                Harold in the Dumps

Everywhere that I have spotted

Harold has already squatted

 

Hello Harold

                        near and far

Hello Harold

                        here you are

 

                                     6 July 1986

                                     San Francisco

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Petaluma Poetry Reading and an Old Friend of Harold Norse

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Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma hosted the latest reading for the selected poems of Harold Norse for an attentive of 30 people featuring readings and remembrances by the book’s editor Todd Swindell and San Francisco poets A.D. Winans and Neeli Cherkovski.

A.D. Winans brought along copies of his book This Land Is Not My Land for which Harold had written the introduction. He has published over 50 books in addition to two decades of running the small press publisher Second Coming. His latest book, Dead Lions, features essays on many of the writers he’s known including poets Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski.

A.D.’s selection of poems included some of Norse’s lesser read works such as “The Ex-Nun and the Gay Poet” and “For All These You”. “North Beach” featured recollections of North Beach fixtures Bob and Eileen Kaufman both of whom Winans had known. A.D.’s reading on Harold’s classic poem “I Am Not A Man” was especially moving.

Neeli Cherkovski read his poem “Hydra” which is a moving tribute to Harold and the experiences both poets had on that magical land amongst the Saronic Islands of Greece. The poem is included in Neeli’s latest book The Crow and I which among his best work.

Many of the warm anecdotes from their over four decades of friendship are included in Neeli’s brilliant introduction to the selected poems. At the reading he read some brief passages from it including this one:

“Harold and I cruised the gay bars. One night he turned to me as we were sitting in a bar on San Francisco’s Folsom Street, center of the leather scene and he said, ‘Could you imagine Walt Whitman at our side? We’re trying to be the cool, observant types, and he would be spouting poetry.'”

A wonderful surprise was to find amongst the audience a woman who had met Harold over fifty years ago. Monique Laurin had known Harold in Naples and Paris as her mother Julia was a confidant and benefactor to the expatriate poet. The family is featured in Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel.

paris 59-julia-laurin

Julia Chanler Laurin, Paris 1959

In fact Julia Laurin was responsible for Harold’s first visit to Paris after the two initially met in Naples. Mme. Laurin offered Harold the use of the family’s apartment on the Ile St. Louis, one of two tiny islands located in the heart of Paris on the Seine River. It was on the train to Paris that Harold shared a compartment with a young Roman Polanski who was on his way to Paris having had no success as a film director in Rome.

While staying in the small but cozy apartment filled with Oriental objects in a gray stone house some five hundred years old, Harold had a torrid affair with a closeted male writer who introduced him to famed author James Jones, who lived nearby on the Ile de la Cité. The two became good friends during that time and Jones had no qualms admitting to his same-sex exploration.

james-jones

Novelist James Jones who befriended Norse in Paris 1959

One afternoon the two writers were having drinks at Les Nuages in St. Germain along with Beat poet Gregory Corso. At one point, Jones asked Harold whether he preferred boys or girls. Harold replied he preferred boys. When Corso asked Jones, “Have you had any queer experiences,” the celebrated novelist replied in his gruff voice, “Sure, many times.”

The impish Corso pressed on, “Did you like it?” “Yeah, very much,” growled Jones. “The only thing I didn’t like was, when you kiss, the other guy’s beard scratches. But after a few experiences I kind of lost interest. I just happened to like women more.” Harold admired Jones for his fearless honesty. The only straight man he new who didn’t cover up or misunderstand. “Jones was unafraid of the truth. Unlike most writers, he wasn’t a liar.”

Thanks to Ray Lawrason and the staff at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma for providing a space to share Harold’s poems and connect with those who knew and loved him. The store now stocks the selected poems, so make sure you stop by and purchase a copy.

Copperfields2

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Alley Cat Books Hosts Reading from Norse Selected Poems

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Poets Neeli Cherkovski, Todd Swindell and Kevin Killian following a reading of poetry by their friend Harold Norse at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco.

A crowd of three dozen poetry lovers gathered in San Francisco’s Mission District at Alley Cat Books and Gallery to hear poems from I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse. This reading featured three writers who were all close friends with Norse and who shared various tales of their time with the master poet.

AlleyCatz1 copyThe evening began with the book’s editor Todd Swindell who explained how he met the acclaimed Beat poet through the introduction of Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk, whom Swindell knew through his involvement with the AIDS protest group ACT UP San Francisco. There was also a brief tribute to Harold’s good friend Judith Malina, founder of The Living Theater, who had died the day before. Swindell continued with an excerpt from Norse’s lengthy prose poem “HOMO” which described the history of homophobia and the transformative power of gay love.

AlleyCatz2 copy

San Francisco author Kevin Killian followed by reading a poem not featured in the selected edition titled “Rescue Remedy” which he first published in the premier issue of the literary arts magazine Mirage. Written in the early 1980s, the poem begins as an elegy to the city’s gay men who were dying from AIDS and continues as a playful list of the healing properties of various herbs and elixirs. The work draws on Harold’s extensive knowledge of alternative healing and his frequent visits to San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery.

crab apple for those who feel something is not
quite clean about themselves
gorse for feelings of hopelessness and futility
holly for negative feelings
and a need for love

 

AlleyCatz3 copyRenowned lyrical poet Neeli Cherkovski began with his tribute poem to Norse, “Hydra”, about the famed Greek island where Norse lived in the mid 1960s. It was during that time he befriended the young unknown Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen who was working on his soon to be published novel Beautiful Losers. The poem is featured in Cherkovski’s latest collection The Crow and I.

Another reading celebrating Norse’s work is coming up in Sonoma County on May 9th at 1:30 PM at Copperfiled’s Books in Petaluma.

 

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We Salute Judith Malina- Actress, Playwright and Revolutionary

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“I think in the 1960s, by the 1960s, most people thought by now in the 2010s we would have abolished prisons, abolished wars, abolished police, abolished national boundaries. We didn’t abolish any of that. It’s still around and the work remains to be done.”
-Judith Malina interviewed in 2013

Judith Malina in front of a portrait of her by Mary Beach. May 10, 2013. Photo© Tate Swindell

Though she was quite old and in very poor health, word of Judith Malina’s death seems implausible. Surely someone so filled with the fire of liberation could transcend even death, yet none of us escape that final curtain. Harold Norse’s history was intimately entwined with Judith and her partner Julian Beck. He was integral in the creation of the Living Theater and befriended many in their circle like Paul Goodman, Ira Cohen, Hanon Reznikov and Mel Clay.

I had the opportunity to meet Judith two years ago for a film project about Harold which my brother Tate and I have been working one for some years. It was the afternoon of a partial solar eclipse and the astral energy was strong. I recall a nervousness, thrilled to meet one of my inspirations, absurdly hoping to capture everything about her and Harold’s relationship within the few dozen minutes we spent on camera.

Though frail and bent, her presence remained luminescent. Dressed in black, her lips painted bright red and a colorful shawl draped across her shoulders, Judith wasn’t much interested in recalling the past. It was the present, the next play that intensified the light in her eyes. She was immensely patient with my list of names and dates. It wasn’t until Tate suggested i jettison my printed notes that the exchange began to swing.

Judith was a performer, an artist. Born in Germany, her family immigrated to the United States in 1929.  With a mother who was an actress and a father who was a rabbi, there was no separation for Judith between the artistic and the spiritual. For her, everything was political. This was the young girl who, during the second World War, beseeched her parents that we must show the Nazis we love them. No enemies, no fear.

Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theater photogrphaed by Iran Cohen.

Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theater photographed by Ira Cohen.

Judith Malina was a new Yorker to the bone. As a student of The New School, she had the chance to study with many of the artist refugees fleeing Europe. An early mentor was the dramatist Erwin Piscator who, along with Bertolt Brecht, was the foremost proponent of “epic theater” which espoused that theater should be a force for social change.

“Harold introduced Michael Fraenkal who brought a word into my life that’s really been central. Michael Fraenkal said the problem is the system. We began to analyze what is the system? It sounds like some kind of abstraction you know? The System. Well the system is the money and the form of give and take we practice with each other, the form of how to make a living in the world, how to live in the world. It’s all part of the system. We can’t entirely get out of it.”
-Judith Malina interviewed in 2013

It was Judith’s friendship, love affair and collaboration with Julian Beck that ignited the spark of theatrical revolution. Julian and Harold had become friends during the summer of  1944 in Provincetown. Beck at that time was a painter. Harold lived in a cottage with Tennessee Williams who was finishing his “pot boiler” The Glass Menagerie.

Judith1Readers are encouraged to seek out Judith Malina’s diaries which tell many tales of the Living Theater’s early days. Harold’s input was integral as it was his reading of an essay by W.B. Yeats essay on The Theater, which suggested that a stage wasn’t required in order to perform, a stage could be anywhere, that lead to the first Living Theater performance in the Beck’s apartment on West End Avenue.

 

Harold’s then lover was the composer Dick Stryker, whose music accompanied a number of early Living Theater performances. They also shared a mutual friend in the poet William Carlos Williams whose play Many Loves was the Living Theater’s first production. It should be noted that Judith and Julian were instrumental in promoting the dramatic works of Gertrude Stein.

 

“[William Carlos] Williams liked my English. Wrote me a letter in fact saying…how impressed he was to hear an American voice. Now I never thought of myself that way but Dr. Williams flattered me with that appellation. I like to have an International accent. I don’t want to be American. I want to be planetary, cosmic maybe even, post-planetary.”
-Judith Malina interviewed in 2013

Her diaries also record her and Julian’s resistance to Cold War paranoia and their radical opposition to nuclear weapons. During the 1950s it was common to hear air raid sirens blasting in lower Manhattan, so called civil defense alarms. At these times, you were required by law to take shelter indoors. Peace activists saw this ruse for what it was- the government’s desire to normalize Armageddon. Joining such illustrious company as gay civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin and radical Catholic worker Dorothy Day, the Beck’s refused to go inside during a mid-day air raid drill and were arrested. Judith’s diaries continue the story with her incarceration at the infamous Women’s House of Detention on Greenwich Avenue.

Judith3A second volume of the diaries covering the years 1968-69 when the Living Theater returned from several years in Europe to which they’d fled following persecution by the IRS that had closed their theater location. They toured college campuses filled with radical students performing such pieces as Paradise Now and The Mysteries. Featuring an all black cover, the second volume of diaries was appropriately titled The Enormous Despair.

When I visited her in 2013, Judith mentioned that she was working on another volume of her diaries. She continued to keep her daily journal in addition to working on two new plays, one of which was to performed with the fellow residents at the Lillian Booth Actors Home just across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
Judith’s energy expanded as she related how much she had grown in the last twenty years of her life, how much she learned in her 80s compared to her 70s and how different that was from her 60s. She was still discovering, still at work, working for the beautiful non-violent anarchist revolution. That task is still ours to continue but with her reminder that the work should be playful, thoughtful and most of all loving.
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Neeli Cherkovski on His Friendship with Harold Norse

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Neeli Cherkovski reads from the work of his friend and fellow poet Hal Norse at Bird & Beckett Books 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

Neeli Cherkovski reads from the work of his friend and fellow poet Hal Norse at Bird & Beckett Books 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

One of the highlights from the first release event for I Am Going to Fly Through Glass was the opportunity to listen to Neeli Cherkovski share stories from his forty year friendship with fellow poet Harold Norse. From their start of their friendship, palling around with Bukowski in Los Angeles in the late 1960s to Harold helping Neeli come out as a gay man in mid–1970s San Francisco, their relationship as friends and fellow poets continued to blossom through their grey years. Here’s a clip of Neeli talking about those times.

Poets Neeli Cherkovski & Harold Norse in the basement of City Lights following the publication of Norse's Hotel Nirvana in the Pocket Poets Series. Photo by Raymond Foye.

Poets Neeli Cherkovski & Harold Norse in the basement of City Lights following the publication of Norse’s Hotel Nirvana in the Pocket Poets Series. Photo by Raymond Foye.

In 1968 Harold returned from fifteen years in Europe to Venice, CA where he was met by a young Neeli and his friend Charles Bukowski. Neeli shared a great story of the three of them out to dinner one night.  Carnivores Neeli and Bukowski were chowing down on t-bone steaks while Harold noshed on a salad. Bukowski’s competitive nature edged him to growl at Harold, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you eat like a man?” Harold. still chewing his salad, replied in his Brooklyn accent, “Let’s see who lives longer.” Neeli’s summation–– “Needless to say it was my dear friend.” Neeli wrote a poem about Harold’s survival as an elder poet titled “Slicing Avocados” where Harold advises “you have to eat like a rabbit/in order to survive.” More of these wonderful anecdotes are included in Neeli’s brilliant introduction to the new collection of Harold’s poetry.

IdiomHFMAfter Walt Whitman, one of the greatest influences on both Neeli and Harold was William Carlos Williams whose poetry broke from academic convention to celebrate common American speech. In the early 1950s, Williams singled out Harold amongst the upcoming Beat poets and acted as a mentor, encouraging him to write in the American idiom. Their correspondence was collected and later published under that title. It remains an insightful document worth searching out. In this last clip Neeli reads, from the selected edition, Harold’s poem “William Carlos Williams” which he characterizes as “one of the greatest tributes from one poet to another.”

 

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Bird & Beckett Hosts San Francisco Book Release for Norse Selected Poems

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Let me start by thanking Eric Whittington at Bird & Beckett Books and Records for hosting the first release event for the selected edition of Harold Norse’s poems. It’s a great store which hosts many events each month from book readings to live Jazz performances. A festive crowd of thirty folks gathered last Wednesday to celebrate the first publication of Harold’s writing since his death five years ago.

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A festive crowd gathers at Bird & Beckett Books for a poetry reading to celebrate the release of “I Am Going to Fly Through Glass” on 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

I began the evening by touching upon what lead me to publish a new collection of Harold’s poetry and the inspiration I drew from similar attention that’s being paid to some of his contemporaries. This was followed with some of my favorite poems from Harold including “Now I’m in Vence” and “California Will Sink”.

Neeli Cherkovski entertained the crowd with a number of his lively anecdotes of his the forty years from their friendship and read some of Harold’s best loved poems such as “Classic Frieze in a Garage” and “To Mohammed at the Café Central”. Neeli’s contribution was so great that in the coming days I’ll do a separate post about it.

Neeli Cherkovski reads from the work of his friend and fellow poet Hal Norse at Bird & Beckett Books 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

Neeli Cherkovski reads from the work of his friend and fellow poet Harold Norse at Bird & Beckett Books 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

Jim Nawrocki told of first meeting Hal, as he was called by his friends, after reviewing the reprint of his memoirs for the Bay Area Reporter. Jim was so taken by the book’s storytelling personality that he looked up Harold’s name in the phone book and gave him a call.  “The voice [on the phone] sounded just like the book,” Jim warmly recalled. From there grew a rich connection that saw Jim make a significant contribution to the publication of Harold’s Collected Poems in 2003. Among the poems Jim read were “I Would Not Recommend Love” and a moving rendition of “I Am Not a Man”.

SF poet Jim Nawrocki reads from the work of his friend Hal Norse at Bird & Beckett Books 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

Writer Jim Nawrocki reads from the work of his friend Harold Norse at Bird & Beckett Books 12/3/14. Photo by Tate Swindell.

Here’s a short video clip of me reading one of my favorite poems of Harold’s which I see as a declaration of the liberation that can arise from discarding society’s prohibitions against pleasure–– “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness”.

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Celebrating Harold Norse’s 98th Birthday

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On the occasion of what would have been Harold Norse’s 98th birthday, I have a couple video clips to share after stumbling upon on a Greek YouTube page dedicated to poetry. I’m not aware of the source for these rare clips of Harold interviewed in the side room of his back cottage on Albion Street, where he lived in San Francisco’s Mission district.

The first clip shows Harold talking about the influence of William Carlos Williams on the development of his mature poetic voice. Williams encouraged him to move away from academic poetry and instead follow the spoken language that Harold heard on the streets of his native Brooklyn. Williams called it the American Idiom, which served as the title for the collection of their correspondence.

The clip closes with Harold recounting his first meeting with a then teenage Allen Ginsberg on a deserted, late night New York subway. The full story is descriptively conveyed in Norse’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel.

In the second clip, Harold reads his famous poem “At the Café Trieste,” composed at the North Beach landmark. Having recently repatriated from fifteen years in Europe and North Africa, Harold describes his return to the West Coast poetry scene from the timeless perspective of the poet.

While your at mpakana’s channel check out some more of the amazing poetry footage including extremely rare clips of North Beach’s great poet Bob Kaufman.

 

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Harold Norse Still Walks 16th and Valencia

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San Francisco poet Alejandro Murguía reads his poem “16th and Valencia” in this short video edited with footage from street protests against the recent killing of Alejandro Neito who was shot in his Bernal Heights neighborhood by the SFPD.

The poem powerfully evokes the anger and resistance that is rising along with the rents in San Francisco. As a mirror to the cultural loss that is part of displacement of gentrification, Murguía invokes the image of writers such as Jack Micheline, Oscar Zeta Ocasta and Harold Norse.

Harold scraped by living in his back cottage on Albion Street near 17th street. This same area has become a prime target for greedy developers seeking to erect a 10-story complex of million dollar condos in place of the BART plaza at 16th and Mission.

If Harold were alive today, he would no longer be able to survive in San Francisco and would surely direct his rage and grief into poetry as moving as Alejandro Murguía’s.

Alex Nieto from Juan Ruiz on Vimeo.

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Video of Tribute to Harold Norse

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You can now watch my tribute to Harold Norse from an evening of Writers Remembered earlier this year in San Francisco. After checking it out, have a look at some of the other fantastic presentations from that evening.

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