Harold Norse 101st Birthday and Centennial Recap: Beyond Baroque

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Today marks the 101st birthday of Harold Norse whose gutsy and ground breaking poetry in the American vernacular continues to inspire and inform generations of readers. Last year there were a series of events celebrating the centennial of the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn. In this post, we’ll look back at the final Harold Norse 100 event held at Beyond Baroque in Venice Beach, where Norse had lived upon his return to the States in 1968 after fifteen years abroad.

The evening featured remembrances by one of Harold’s oldest friends complemented by interpretations of his poetry by two local L.A. performers. That evening the SoCal skyline was but a hazy layer of smoke and ash from a raging wildfire north of the city, but it didn’t deter a small yet dedicated audience from attending a truly special event.

For decades Beyond Baroque has been a space where performance and creation of new works has remained available to a wide variety of artists. (They celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.) It’s bookstore has a superb collection of poetry titles, including a number of Harold Norse’s books which are out of print.

Richard Modiano, Director of Beyond Baroque, has long been a supporter of Norse’s work. In 2015, they held a reading for the release of Norse’s selected poems, the first posthumous collection of his poetry.

Jason Jenn’s dedication to keeping alive the legacies of ground breaking gay artists from the 20th century are part of his gifted talent of inspiration and information. Following his participation in the two San Francisco centennial events, Jason was on his home turf at Beyond Baroque. Among the poems he chose for that evening’s performance was “California Will Sink“, written while Harold was living in Venice Beach in the early 1970s.

Jason Jenn performing the work of gay poet and filmmaker James Broughton

A work of both hopelessness and regeneration, it interweaves the poet’s initial attempts at restoring his health after decades of cigarettes, booze and boys with an awareness of society’s destruction of the environment and its effects on animals. Further analysis of the poem, and the political perspective in Norse’s poetry, can be read in an essay I wrote for Beatdom.

Longtime Los Angeleno, S.A. Griffin, profiled in a previous post, has been acting and writing for decades. His unique talents were in fine form that evening with a reading from Griffin’s own cut up of Norse’s writing prepared specially for the event.

The cut up method was first developed in the early 1960s at the Beat Hotel where Norse collaborated with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin by physically cutting up text, inserting the element of chance. The rearranged text often resulted in startling new works.

The group’s experimentation continued through the manipulation of tape recorders and into visual art. Harold made what he called Cosmographs by throwing colored ink onto paper which was then rinsed out in a bidet. The vibrantly colorful works, which looked towards the forthcoming psychedelic movement, were recently featured in an anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Art.

For this final centennial celebration, Griffin chose his cuts from a number of Norse’s best known poems including “I’m Not a Man” and “Classic Frieze in a Garage” and adding “Sniffing Keyholes”, the centerpiece to Norse’s novella Beat Hotel, the only cut up book written entirely at the famed hotel. Griffin’s piece, strong and engaging, brings  refreshed perspective to Norse’s work, suitably evocative for a hundredth birthday celebration.

Writer Tom Livingston’s friendship with Norse was previously examined in this post. In 1961, when his first novel had been accepted by Bantam Books, Livingston was living in Palo Alto. Long before its transformation into the immense wealth of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto was still a small town.

It was on a nondescript country street named Perry Lane where the poets and novelists hung out. Ken Kesey lived there while finishing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the gay English poet Thom Gunn was a teaching assistant as Stanford.

Once Tom’s advance money came in, he flipped a coin to decide whether to travel to Tahiti or Paris. It came up heads for Paris. It was through a friend from Palo Alto named Mike Miller that Tom first heard about Harold Norse when New York Times columnist Anatole Broyard invited them to visit the Beat Hotel and meet the expatriate poet.

Thomas Livingston and Harold Norse in Vence, 1963

They first met at the café Deux Magots where Norse offered Livingston a job with the Living Theater who were performing two plays as part of France’s Theater of Nations summer series. Their friendship further developed when Norse learned that Livingston knew Henry Miller. Among Norse’s mentors from his time in New York City was the writer Anaïs Nin who had a long love affair with Miller.

Livingston had played ping pong with the Brooklyn born writer’s sons in Big Sur when Livingston had worked as a bartender and chambermaid at what later became the Esalen Institute. Norse revealed that a New York friend named Harry Herskovitz had entrusted him with two boxes of about 500 letters from Miller which had mysteriously disappeared. The loss of correspondence and manuscripts became a reoccurring theme in Norse’s life.

While discussing this mutual association in Norse’s tiny room at the hotel, Livingston suddenly felt a paralyzing chill from the back of his neck down to base of his spine. “Bill is giving you his death ray,” Harold said. Turning towards the doorway, Livingston saw William Burroughs in a three-piece suit, one hand holding an unopened umbrella, who turned away and called “Ian…Ian…it’s time for dinner.” Ian Sommerville was Burroughs’ lover, who helped him get off heroin while also contributing to the development of Cut Ups.

These are but a few of the stories relayed by Livingston; for more of his fantastic talk, take a look at the video link above.

As the evening ended, we drifted out into the nighttime sky whose setting sun glowed red from the still burning Sand Fire. It’s unearthly glow prompted me to recall the final lines from one of Harold’s greatest poems, “I Am in the Hub of the Fiery Force”

obsessed with red as the universe burns
                       i am in the hub of the fiery force
                          the red heat of the conflagration
                               o cosmos turn! turn! thy flaming wheel!

 

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Norse Cut Ups at EBSN Manchester Conference

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poster-ebsn-manchester-20161 copyThe European Beat Studies Network (EBSN) annual conference begins in two weeks in Manchester, UK. I’m very excited to attend this year’s conference as a participant in Session 13: Cut Ups, of Course.

My talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel”, will focus on Harold Norse’s involvement in the development of Cut Ups during his residency at the Beat Hotel in the early 1960s. Also presenting in Session 13 are Antonio Bonome, “Polytopy and Burroughs’ Coordinate Points” and Edward Robinson, “Audio Technology, Science and Fiction in Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution”.

Harold Norse in his room at the Beat Hotel. Photo © Harold Chapman.

Harold Norse in his room at the Beat Hotel. Photo © Harold Chapman.

Cut Ups began as an accident when the painter Brion Gysin cut a matte for one of his pictures. Slicing through a stack of newspapers, he was startled to discover new phrases as a result of the altered text.

Gysin eagerly showed the results to his friend and fellow Beat Hotel resident William Burroughs who took up the mantle of this new experimental method in his novels The Soft Machine and Nova Express.

Unfortunately Harold’s role in Cut Ups has been consistently under appreciated.  Norse is of course partly to blame as he never promoted his involvement unlike Brion Gysin who always had a flair for promotion. The relationship between Norse and Gysin was complex. Despite a developing rivalry, the pair were friendly during their time at the Beat Hotel. Gysin was the first to see Harold’s breakthrough Cut Up “Sniffing Keyholes” and immediately brought it to Burroughs’ attention. It later became the centerpiece for Norse’s Cut Up novella Beat Hotel.

Ian Sommerville, Montparnasse, Paris, 1962. Photo © Harold Chapman.

Ian Sommerville, Montparnasse, Paris, 1962. Photo © Harold Chapman.

Harold was also responsible for introducing Ian Sommerville to their scene. As related in Harold’s memoirs, it was in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter that he met the young British mathematical student who “liked older men.”

Despite his icy, anti-social affect, Burroughs was in need of youthful male companionship, something which had been easier to find when living in Tangier. Sommerville’s connection with Burroughs was significant in a number of ways. Ian was instrumental in assisting Burroughs through heroin withdrawal and collaborated with Gysin in the creation of the Dreamachine.

BURROUGHS1097This year’s EBSN conference theme is science and music. One of the sessions is titled “Burroughs – Addiction, Dystopia and Biology”. The conference’s keynote speaker is Andrew Lees, Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital, London. A fascinating interview with Dr. Lees was recently posted at RealityStudio.

His book Mentored by a Madman: the William Burroughs Experiment is described as “drawing on Burroughs’ search for an addiction cure to discover a ground-breaking treatment for shaking palsy, and learns how to use the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes to diagnose patients. Lees follows Burroughs into the rainforest and under the influence of yage (ayahuasca) gains insights that encourage him to pursue new lines of pharmacological research and explore new forms of science.”

Towers Open FireAmong the many presentations relating to music, Frank Rynne’s “On-going Guerrilla Conditions” will feature a live soundtrack to a series of short films from a collaboration between English filmmaker Anthony Balch and Burroughs made in the 1960s.

As Cut Ups brought the use of montage to literature, it was natural for Burroughs to extend his exploration in altering space and time to experimenting with cinema. Though some of the Balch films can be seen online, it will be interesting to see what new experiences occur at this screening.

Photo Paul Beattie, San Francisco, 1960

ruth weiss photographed by Paul Beattie, San Francisco, 1960

Among the other sessions I’m looking forward to include a number of presentations about Beat poet ruth weiss. Still going strong at age 88, ruth’s participation in Beat poetry reaches back to the 1950s, though she continues to perform her poetry in San Francisco as well as internationally.

ruth will be perform June 15 in North Beach with Doug O’Connor (acoustic bass), Rent Romus (saxophones), and Hal Davis (percussion). This event is part of the Beat Museum Presents series which is sponsoring the Harold Norse Centennial events. An impressionistic interview with ruth can be read at Michalis Limnios’ website.

ruth’s cinematic poem will screen along with the work of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. There is even a conference sessiton titled “wiess & co.” featuring two presentations about ruth, in addition to “Elsie Cowen as Feminist Avant-Garde Poet”. It’s wonderful to see EBSN including diverse Beat poets outside of the more familiar and predominantly male names.

Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs

Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs

But there’s even more happening at the EBSN Manchester conference: Ginsberg – Buddhism, Collage, Kaddish; Kerouac’s Tristessa and Mexico City Blues; Philip Lamantia and Jay DeFeo; The influence of John Rechy and Hubert Selby Jr. on the Music of Lou Reed; The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop;  Burroughs the Pussy King: Burroughs, Acker and Punk; The Huncke Papers and Beat Impressions: A Conversation with John Tytell. You can read the full program here.

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