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.”
“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.
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.
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.
The most recent issue of UK based Beat Scene features a lengthy piece about Harold Norse’s magazine Bastard Angel. Though it only ran for three issues in the early 1970s, Bastard Angel is remembered as an eclectic mix of writers and artists from the earlier generation of Beat writers to then up and coming authors.
Harold founded the magazine shortly after his arrival in San Francisco in 1971. Energized by the city’s poetry scene and his contact with a younger generation of authors, Harold wanted an outlet for these creative voices. The title Bastard Angel was something of an avatar for the bard from Brooklyn, who never knew his birth father.
The image to the left is an excellent example of the magazine’s mixture of collage and poetry, in this case Harold’s ode to Cut Up progenitor Kurt Schiwtters. The vibrant layout of the publication added to its attraction. Harold had also been inspired by the underground publications he read while living in Venice Beach including the L.A. Free Press and John Bryan’s Open City.
To gather material, Harold was able to draw for his associations with writers such as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Gerard Malanga, Julian Beck, Judith Malina and Diane Di Prima—and that’s just the short list!
But it wasn’t only writers form the early Beat days who made the editorial cut, as Harold welcomed the voices of rising talent like Neeli Cherkovski, Andrei Codrescu, Erica Horn and Adrian Brooks. The gathering of seasoned and emerging voices is part of what made the magazine so strong.
A major coup was the inclusion of what I believe to be previously unpublished poems that were provided by Allen Ginsberg. The poet Jack Hirschman translated a long poem by French author Jen Genet by using alexandrian lines. The magazine also featured literary reviews and correspondence.
Bastard Angel’s final issue, No. 3, coincided with a major exhibition on the Beats at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum. Though the publication proved to very popular, finding a home inside libraries and universities, its success was also part of its downfall. Like with most creative endeavors, funding was an ongoing concern. Ultimately Harold’s poetry work took precedence as he began work on many poems in the mid-1970s which are among his strongest.
As momentum builds for Harold’s 100th birthday this summer, it’s fitting that Bastard Angel should take flight once again. Stay tuned for more updates about the Norse Centennial celebrations including an online book sale of rare and out of print Harold Norse books. In future posts, I’ll delve more into the Bastard Angel archives but, in the mean time, here’s the article from Beat Scene, with thanks to Kevin Ring. Click on the images to enlarge them to reading size.