Art of the Beat Hotel Featured in New Anthology

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outlaw-coverA new anthology features an essay on the visual artwork created in the early 1960s when expatriate writers were living in Paris at the Beat HotelThe Outlaw Bible of American Art is the final edition in a multi-volume series overseen by author Alan Kaufman, a good friend and admirer of Harold Norse. The series’ first volume which focused on poetry gave the Beat poet prominent exposure.

The latest anthology centers on visual art which has largely been ignored by the establishment. It’s a massive volume that rewards readers with introductions to artists and movements, from the post-WW II to the early 21st century, whose work challenged the complacency and commercialization of the art world. The book opens with Boris Lurie, the No!Art Movement and other New York based artists before moving to the visual art of Beat writers.

outlaw4webThe photographs of Allen Ginsberg were exhibited several years ago at the National Gallery of Art and the paintings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti are familiar to anyone whose visited City Lights Bookstore. Kaufman’s anthology calls special attention to the work done at the Beat Hotel.

While the paintings of Brion Gysin have been exhibited in many venues and William Burroughs’ visual works were the subject of a 1996 exhibit, the Cosmograph paintings made by Harold Norse are relatively unknown, though several were featured in the Whitney Museum’s 1995 exhibit Beat Culture and the New America 1950–1965.

outlaw0webAn essay co-authored by myself and my brother Tate, of Unrequited Records, offers a succinct overview of different artists who lived at the inexpensive, dingy hotel on Paris’ Left Bank where the Cut Up approach to literature was developed. Following an accidental cutting of paper by Gysin, Burroughs and Norse joined in the experiment of cutting up text to create new forms of communication beyond the rational. The essay begins…

“The Beat Hotel has been rightfully enshrined as one of the preeminent sources of avant garde art of the Post-war era. The cut-up method developed at the Hotel acted as a precursor for the radical changes in the way we receive and understand media, from the fast editing of MTV videos of the 1980s to today’s world of texting and social media. Yet little attention has been paid to the visual art created during this fertile time.”

Under the influence of hashish, Norse threw pigment onto coarse paper which was then rinsed in a bidet. These proto-psychedelic works of startling color revealed undiscovered psychic terrains and were singled out by Burroughs who wrote an introduction to an exhibit of the paintings at the Librairie Anglaise that was featured in Life magazine. From Burroughs introduction…

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“Poetry is a place. The drawings of Harold Norse map a place. And anyone can go there who will make the necessary travel arrangements. Poetry is for everyone. Painting is for everyone. Harold Norse reached the place of his pictures by a special route which he is now prepared to reveal so that others can travel there.”

– William Burroughs on Harold Norse’s Cosmographs

The essay concludes with the following paragraph:

“While the influence of literary cut-ups continued to be seen in popular culture, from David Bowie’s use of cut-ups on his 1974 album Diamond Dogs to Thom Yorke selecting lyrics at random for Radiohead’s album Kid A in 2000, the visual art produced at the Beat Hotel remains unjustly neglected. Hopefully future scholars will find interest in these dusty gems from a forgotten time of vibrant North American expatriate activity.”

Reading The Outlaw Bible of American Art was like looking through a creative genealogy where I was reacquainted with artists who had influenced me while introducing artists previously unknown to me, but with whom I felt recognition. It also exposes readers to regional movements such as the Cleveland based artists like D.A. Levy and T.L. Kryss.

Collage by D.A. Levy

One artist I was surprised to not know of is Ben Morea, considering his early alliance with Allen Ginsberg, the Living Theater and the radical arts movement of New York City’s Lower East Side. Harold Norse was involved with the creation of the Living Theater and remained close with its founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina.

With the Becks, Morea joined in serving free food to the poor with Dorothy Day and the radical activists at the Catholic Worker, along with their protests against nuclear warfare. These experiences are documented in Judith Malina’s diaries published in 1984 by Grove Press.

By the mid-1960s, Morea along with Ron Hahne began producing the broadsheet/zine Black Mass whose title was inspired by the rising movement of black intellectuals and radicals. It’s provocative text and cut-and-paste aesthetic echoed the work of The Situationists and looked forward to zine-based movements such as Homocore and Riot Grrl.

The publication’s outreach led to establishing the anti-consumerist Free Stores, where people were able to obtain basic goods without currency, which later morphed into the underground anarchist affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.

Among the anthology’s most extensive essays are those about writer, artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz. Best known for his searing narrative memoir Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Wonjarowicz’s writing takes off where Herbert Huncke and William Burroughs left off.

His sexually provocative writing differed from that of L.A. novelist John Rechy in that Wonjarowicz did not shy away from the political reality of gay oppression. Later he became an active member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power- ACT UP NY.

Wojnarowicz’s visual work defies easy classification. The work varies in format from sculpture, paintings, to stencils, collage and installation. He collaborated with other artists including a series of photographs taken in 1980s New York City with Wojnarowicz wearing a mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. He also collaborated with filmmaker Tommy Turner on the unfinished Super 8mm film Where Evil Dwells.

Among the imagery associated with Wojnarowicz’s visual art are children and houses sprouting flames, canvases and bodies covered in maps with their pastel colored countries contrasting with the blue of the oceans, metallic machinery, bugs and serpents, as well as Christian iconography.

His use of sexually explicit (though unapologetic may be a more apt description) homoerotic imagery brought controversy when the hateful and hate-filled conservative group Focus on the Family targeted Wojnarowicz’s participation in an exhibit which received government funding. Though this brought his work into the larger focus of the culture wars of the Reagan and Bush years, his response differed from apolitical gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in that Wojnarowicz fought back. He sued Focus on the Family for misappropriating his imagery in the group’s fundraising material and successfully won an injunction.

While there are a number of worthy artists not included in The Outlaw Bible of American Art, such a collection can never encompass all those who deserve further attention. Alan Kaufman is to be commended for publishing his own extensive curation. Here’s hoping there’s more recognition for the many neglected American artists whose vital work remains hidden. This post will end with some additional works included in the anthology: Winston Smith, Steve Dalachinsky and Jeff Kramm.

Collage by Winston Smith

Collage by Steve Dalachinsky

Silkscreen poster by Jeff Kramm

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Revisiting Harold Norse Obits 7 Years Later

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“Harold Norse’s poetry was very much expatriate poetry,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti said. “It was the voice of alienation from modern consumer culture.”

As this week marks the seventh anniversary (June 8, 2009) of the death of Harold Norse–visionary Beat poet, progenitor of gay liberation and oracle of the American Idiom–it’s a fitting time to look back at some of the obituaries published in the weeks after he spoke his last words on this mortal coil, “The end is the beginning.”

NYT090613 WebThe New York Times obituary described him as a poet who “broke new ground beginning in the 1950s by exploring gay identity and sexuality in a distinctly American idiom relying on plain language and direct imagery.” Featuring a great photo Harold taken in 1973 by Neil Hollier, the obit included this quote from Harold’s good friend Neeli Cherkovski:

“Harold was one of the pre-eminent rebel poets of our time,” the San Francisco poet Neeli Cherkovski said. “He was someone who smashed conventions, like Ginsberg, and broke through to what he called a new rhythm, writing the way he talked, using the voices of the street. He also gave voice to homosexuality early on.”

LAT090613 WebThe Los Angeles Times obituary described Norse as a “mentor or peer  to many of the greatest talents in 20th century American literature, including Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski” who “was unabashed about being homosexual and poured his experiences into poems that reflected anger, sadness and pride.”

The accompanying  photograph of Harold was taken in the kitchen of his apartment at 157 Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District by Norse’s old friend Ginsberg. This time the quote came from Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published Harold’s book Hotel Nirvana in 1974 as part of City Lights Books prestigious Pocket Poets Series.

“He was essentially an expatriate voice in American poetry,” said Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and bookseller who published a volume of Norse’s poems in the mid-1970s. “He had an original voice because he ventriloquized what a lot of other poets were saying. . . . He could sound in one poem like T.S. Eliot . . . or in another poem like William Burroughs.”

GRD090617 WebUnder the headline “Striking Beat writer and artist later feted as one of America’s leading gay poets“, the UK Guardian newspaper published an appreciation by Douglas Field, renowned James Baldwin scholar and a friend of Norse.

Along with William Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris, Douglas is co-chairing next month’s European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester, where I will be presenting a talk about Harold’s participation in the development of Cut Ups at the Beat Hotel where he lived in the early 1960s.

The San Francisco Chronicle also ran an obituary with the following quote:

“I consider him one of the best poets there was,” said A.D. Winans, a poet and friend. “He was very congenial, very educated. He was also funny. He could hypnotize you with all these stories about the great writers he knew.”

EQCRPSAnother of Harold’s poet friends was Andrei Codrescu whose Exquisite Corpse featured two tributes from poet and publisher Eddie Woods.

First up was “Harold Norse Is Dead! Long Live the Carnivorous Saint!“, culled from emails about his death from myself and San Francisco poet Jim Nawrocki among others. The second,”Remembering Harold Norse“, is a lengthy piece by Eddie of his many adventures with Harold that is well worth reading.

Closing out this post is an obituary written by myself and Jim Nawrocki who will be part of the Beat Museum event on July 9.

Harold Norse, whose poetry earned both wide critical acclaim and a large, enduring popular following, died on Monday, June 8, 2009, in San Francisco, just one month before his 93rd birthday. Norse, who lived in San Francisco for the last thirty five years, had a prolific, international literary career that spanned 70 years. His collected poems were published in 2003 under the title In the Hub of the Fiery Force, and he continued to read publicly into his 90s, bringing his work to new generations.

Born in 1916 to an illiterate, unwed mother, Harold Norse’s natural gift for language, influenced from the varied dialects of his surroundings, led to a boyhood interest in writing that blossomed into a rich, peripatetic life that he documented in an innately American poetic idiom.

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Harold Norse as a student at Brooklyn College in 1935

Like Walt Whitman, Norse was a Brooklyn native. He came of age during the Depression, an experience that significantly shaped his voice and endeared him to a varied audience of underdogs and the persecuted. Beginning in 1934, he attended Brooklyn College, where he met and became the lover of Chester Kallman. In 1939, when W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood gave their first reading in America, Norse and Kallman were in the front row winking flirtatiously at the famous writers. Harold soon became Auden’s personal secretary, a role he filled until Kallman and Auden became lovers.

During the 1940s, Norse lived in Greenwich Village and was an active participant in both the gay and literary undergrounds. His close friends at the time included James Baldwin, who was a teenager when he met Norse in 1942. A close friend of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, he was integral in the early foundation of The Living Theater. In the summer of 1944 Norse was introduced to Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the two shared a summer cabin while Williams completed the manuscript for The Glass Menagerie.

Abandoning his doctoral work in English in 1953, Norse sailed to Italy, spending the next fifteen years traveling across Europe and North Africa. Living in Rome, Naples, and Florence, Norse immersed himself in the classical culture that had survived the two World Wars. He found a mentor and friend in William Carlos Williams, who encouraged the younger poet to move away from the classical poetics of academia and explore the poetic possibilities of the spoken word of the American streets. The complete correspondence of Norse and Williams, titled The American Idiom, was published in 1990.

Harold in Crete 1963 by Thanassis

Harold in Crete 1963 by Thanassis

Harold’s travels continued in the 1960s, bringing him to Tangier, where he consorted with Paul and Jane Bowles, Ira Cohen, and Mel Clay. In 1959 he traveled to Paris, settling into the infamous Beat Hotel. Through friend and fellow Beat Hotel resident Gregory Corso, Harold met William S. Burroughs then Brion Gysin. It was Norse who introduced Ian Sommerville to Burroughs as the group experimented with the cut-up method of writing. His collection of writing from that period was published in English as a cut-up novella, The Beat Hotel, in 1983.

From Paris Norse moved onward to Greece and Hydra, where he reconnected with the poet Charles Henri Ford, a friend from Greenwich Village days, and smoked pot with the then unknown poet Leonard Cohen. Harold also spent time in Switzerland, Germany, and England. During this time he maintained a close correspondence with Charles Bukowski, who affectionately referred to Norse as “Prince Hal, Prince of Poets.” In 1969 he edited Penguin Modern Poets 13 featuring Norse, Philip Lamantia and, in his first major international exposure, Bukowski.

In 1969, gravely ill from hepatitis, Norse repatriated to Venice, California where he was met by Bukowski and the young poet Neeli Cherkovski. He enjoyed the social freedom and political activism of the hippy era, so presciently voiced in his writing, which breathed new life into his body and work. Harold also reconnected with Jack Hirschman (the two had spent time together in Greece during Norse’s expatriate years) as well as Anais Nin who first mentored the Brooklyn born poet in the early 1950s when Norse’s first book was published. Recovering his health, Harold became a vegetarian and a body builder at Gold’s Gym along with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Photo © Nina Glaser

Harold Norse in the 1980s Photo © Nina Glaser

In 1972 Norse moved to San Francisco, ultimately settling in the Albion Street cottage he would occupy for the next thirty years. The 1970s were a productive and fulfilling time for Harold as the personal and sexual liberty he had lived clandestinely now became the cultural norm. City Lights Books published a collection of poems tilted Hotel Nirvana in 1974. It was nominated for a National Book Award. Carnivorous Saint, published in 1977, was an historic collection of poetry that covered Norse’s gay erotic experience from World War II through the Gay Liberation. During this period Harold was a habitué of North Beach coffee houses where he often connected with fellow poet Bob Kaufman.

Norse’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, was published in 1989 to international acclaim. Chronicling his rich life at the cutting edge of twentieth-century literary arts, Norse’s memoirs were republished in 2002. A National Poetry Association Award was bestowed upon him in 1991. At over 600 pages, his collected poems–In the Hub of the Fiery Force–was published in 2003 During his final years, Norse continued to live in his cottage in San Francisco’s gritty Mission District, continually reworking his poems, giving readings, and corresponding with admirers from around the world.

Harold Norse in the bedroom of his Albion Street cottage, November 11, 1999 © Todd Swindell

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Harold Norse Centennial, Manchester UK Beat Conference and Pocket Poets Anthology

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July 6, 2016, marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Beat poet Harold Norse. From the immigrant streets of his Brooklyn childhood, to mid-century Greenwich Village, to the American expatriates of Europe and North Africa, to his position as one of San Francisco’s best poets, Harold Norse remains a forgotten voice among 20th Century American Poetics. In the coming months, I’ll be announcing a series of events to increase attention and appreciation for the rich legacy of Harold’s like and work.

The European Beat Studies Network website states it “brings together, from across and beyond Europe, those who share an academic or creative interest in the broad field of Beat culture. The EBSN aims to be inclusive; a genuine community of scholars and students, writers and artists, which not only reaches out to all kinds of people who work on the Beats, but also actively invites their participation.”

EBSN barThe organization’s President, Oliver Harris, has overseen expanded publications of many of William Burroughs’ books. In 2014 he edited editions with the restored text of Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy: the cut-up novels The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket That Explode. Material for these books were written while Burroughs lived at the Beat Hotel collaborating with Harold and Brion Gysin on the development of the cut-up method.

EBSN’s latest conference was held in Brussels, Belgium in late October 2015. Renowned James Baldwin scholar Douglas Field, Lecturer of 20th Century American Lit at the University of Manchester, has taken the lead among academics calling attention to the work of Harold Norse. Douglas presented a paper about Harold and has been generously offered to share the preface to his work.

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Harold Norse & Douglas Field, San Francisco, 2007. Photo © Tate Swindell

“Keen to promote the life and work of Harold Norse, I presented a paper titled “Beat Counterculture in the Digital Age: Documenting Harold Norse” at a plenary panel session with Thomas Antonic (“Ruth Weiss – Beat, Jazz, and the Art of Improvisation”) and A. Robert Lee (“Beat Contenders: Kupferberg, Micheline, Sanders”).

As I’ve found in the past, Norse remains a shadowy figure in the history of Beat lore; he is known to many but read by few. As I talked to people in Brussels, many Beat scholars and poets knew something about Norse’s life and work, but they did not know the extent of his output, or of his craftsmanship as a poet.”

“As Alan Kaufman astutely observes, Anne Charter’s Portable Beat Reader brought attention to many Beat writers—but it also consigned those writers omitted from her anthology to obscurity. Writers like Norse who didn’t make the Portable Beat Reader, it seems, would quickly be forgotten. Thanks to the tireless work of Todd and Tate Swindell, Norse is destined to rise from the ashes… reminding us of this late writer’s incomparable talent as a poet, artist and letter writer.”

poster-ebsn-manchester-20161 copyHarris and Field are organizing this year’s EBSN conference to held June 27-29 in Manchester, England, and the two mains topics will be music and science. Given the cut-up method’s ongoing influence among English musicians such as recently departed David Bowie, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, the activities at the Beat Hotel in early 1960s Paris will certainly be among the main discussions.

As Harold was an integral participant in the creation of cut-up (his cut-up novella Beat Hotel was published in 1983), I hope to make sure that his work and legacy are known at the conference.

Hotel Nirvana remains among Harold’s best known collections, responsible for introducing him to a new generation of poets and writers when it was published in 1974. It was among that year’s National Book Award nominees losing to double-winners Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich. As part of the prestigious Pocket Poets Series (edition #32), it unfortunately remained the only collection of Norse’s writing published by City Lights Press.

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To celebrate last year’s 60th anniversary of the Pocket Poets Series, City Lights editor Lawrence Ferlinghetti released an anthology from all 60 editions. Harold’s poems are included among his friends Allen Ginsberg (Howl #4), Gregory Corso (Gasoline #8), Frank O’Hara (Lunch Poems #19) and Bob Kaufman (Golden Sardine #21).

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Customers at City Lights are likely to receive a complementary bookmark featuring stamp size reproductions of all 60 editions of the Pocket Poets Series. Harold would be rightly proud to see Hotel Nirvana prominently featured. Let’s hope City Lights chooses to republish an updated edition of this essential Norse collection in the future.

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