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 Centennial Spotlight: Jason Jenn

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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

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?

PQNorse_Geronimo5Hopefully 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!

Jason4Stuart 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?

EcstasyJJWebIt’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

Books narrations and poems

Sex bars and a newly found freedom

Life as it should and did then exist

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Harold Norse in Echo Park at Homo-Centric

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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

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, Los Angeles

Writing, editing, archiving, and the technology that facilitates such work, too often ends up being a solitary experience. Of the many great happenings which have occurred from publishing a selected edition of Harold Norse’s poetry has been the opportunity to share his work with a live audience. The poetic tradition connects to our ancient roots of oral communication and Harold’s work certainly benefits from being shared in spoken form.

Homo-Centric2So it was with much excitement that my brother Tate and I journeyed to Echo Park where, for the last five years, Hank Henderson has curated homo-centric (a monthly reading series for the LGBTQ community) on the third Thursday of each month at Stories Books & Café in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park.

Traditionally homo-centric features writers who have recently published work or seek an outlet to share work in progress. Hank’s interest in and appreciation of Harold’s poetry allowed for a posthumous poet to be featured. Stories Books is a lovely store filled with a wonderful collection of books and the added bonus of a café. One could easily spend the better part of a day there drinking tea and browsing through the shelves.

Homo-Centric3By 7:30 PM a sizable crowd had gathered in the store’s back patio filled with wicker chairs and assorted tables. I was very pleased to see such a diverse gathering of queer people with a broad range in age, from a number of young folks to a few elders. Harold’s poetry is so diverse that it’s not difficult to select poems to interest varied audiences. The chance to participate in a series for the LGBTQ community was particularly pleasing to this veteran queer activist/artist, not to mention that it allowed for highlighting more of Harold’s erotic gay poems.

Following my introductory remarks that included a brief biography of Harold and how I came to know him and publish his selected poems, I eagerly grabbed a chair up front for the all-too-rare occasion of listening to other talented, handsome gay men bring their own voice to Harold’s work. As one of the scheduled readers was unable to make it, Hank did an admirable job of jumping in at the last moment.

Homo-Centric4Standing together in front of a brightly colored mural, the three men each took turns reading a poem of Harold’s bouncing from one reader to the next. Jason Jenn is an artist who works in many disciplines from performance to writing to photography. Recently he wrote and performed in a piece about the great gay poet C.P. Cavafy as well as presenting an evening of poetry by Harold’s friend poet and filmmaker James Broughton.

Among the poems of Harold that Jason chose to  perfrom was “Parable” which was published in the September 1953 issue of Poetry magazine. The poem, which still bears the influence of Modernism before Harold turned towards William Carlos Williams’ American idiom, was well suited for Jason’s unique voice.

The highlighting of Harold’s poems outside those in the recently published selected edition continued with writer and visual artist Daniel Foster, who was familiar with Harold’s work. In fact he brought along his personal copy of Harold’s collected poems, complete with pre-marked pages of his favorite selections, from which he read a strong array of Norse poems including “First Love” and “To a Young Man in Torremolinos.” The latter was written in 1962 when Harold traveled through the town located on Andalusian coast of Southern Spain. In the poem, Harold’s imagery manages to convey both erotic fantasy and social commentary.

Homo-Centric5The evening however did not end with the last poem read as one of the purposes of homo-centric is to bring community together to share and connect. I had a terrific time hanging out afterwards answering questions, hearing what other creative queers are up to and even signing a couple copies of the selected poems.

All this would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and dedication of Hank Henderson. Having put on a number of readings myself, I am inspired and appreciative of Hank’s hard work. If you’re happen to be in Los Angeles on a third Thursday, make sure to come out for homo-centric. If you’re a queer writer traveling through town, look into the possibility of participating in homo-centric.

 

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