The Beats Abroad Features Norse in Italy, France and Greece

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BeatsAbroad CoverCity Lights Books recently published the final edition in their popular set of pocket travel guides about Beat writers. The Beats Abroad, A Global Guide to the Beat Generation completes the previous installments for New York City, San Francisco and America at large. The series was written by Bill Morgan who is best known as biographer and bibliographer for Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

iuIn recent years Bill has brought some overdue attention to lesser celebrated participants in Beat literature. His edition of Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words appeared in 2014. Drawn from journals, correspondence, poems and photographs, this the most comprehensive collection of Orlovsky’s writings in print and the closest we can come to reading Peter’s own story.

In The Beats Abroad, Bill Morgan has added Harold Norse to the list of those Beat writers meriting further attention. The Bastard Angel of Brooklyn pops up a number of times in the book with his own entries for Italy, France and Greece. Though Harold lived in many other countries during his fifteen years abroad, it was in those three countries where some of his most significant work was written.

When he left America in 1953, Harold headed straight to Italy where he spent the next five years. Following a brief stint dubbing American films into Italian, Harold survived on minimal stipends from benefactors that were supplemented by the occasional job teaching English. While in Rome, he translated Italian poets from the pornographic verse of the Classical poet Catullus to the 19th Century anti-papal Roman sonnets of Giuseppe Gioanchino Belli.

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Poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who knew Harold Norse in Italy in the 1950s.

The translations success was due to Harold’s use of his native Brooklyn vernacular to convey the essence of Roman dialect. A selection of then were published in 1960 with an introduction by Harold’s mentor William Carlos Williams.

While living in Rome, Norse would often drink coffee at Rosati’s on the Piazza del Popolo with poet, filmmaker and fellow boy lover Pier Paolo Pasolini. One can only imagine the lively conversations shared between these two visionary queer artists.

The Beats Abroad also includes a snapshot of Harold’s apartment in Naples on Via Posillipo, which Morgan described as “what might have been the most spectacular view that any Bear writer ever enjoyed: a panorama of the city, a view of the bay and Mount Vesuvius were all visible from his perch on the side of a cliff.” It was while living in Naples that Harold wrote one of his most famous poems “Classic Frieze in a Garage“.

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After Italy, Harold traveled to Paris. Upon the recommendation of Gregory Corso, he took a room at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter. Known as the Beat Hotel, its dingy but inexpensive rooms provided residence over the years to a number of Beat writers including Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and Norse.

It was there that painter Brion Gysin first discovered the Cut Up method. One day, cutting a matte for a painting, Gysin sliced through a stack of newspapers and discovered startling phrases which appeared from the reordered sections.

William Burroughs was quick to pick up on this innovation which followed upon the shuffled order of sequences in his recently published, and recently banned, novel Naked Lunch. Harold was a significant participant in Cut Ups and his story “Sniffing Keyholes” was singled out by Burroughs and Gysin as a key breakthrough.

Norse’s surviving Cut Ups were eventually published in English as the novella Beat Hotel in 1983. Its first appearance was a 1974 German translation by Carl Weissner with collages by Norman Mustill. It remains the only book composed entirely at the hotel. Selections from Harold’s experiments with reel-to-reel tape recorders at the Beat Hotel were released on cassette by Bart De Paepe’s Sloow Tapes in Belgium under the title Take a Chance In The Void: Harold Norse’s Beat Hotel Recordings.

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When the Beat Hotel shuttered its doors in 1963, Harold headed to the Greek Islands and this is where The Beats Abroad logs its final Norse entries. Harold’s first stop was Athens where he found a small apartment just below the Acropolis. Living nearby was the poet Charles Henri Ford whom Harold had known from their Greenwich Village days in the 1940s.

From Athens, Harold periodically traveled to other islands including Poros, Crete, Madouri and Hydra. It was while residing on Hydra that Harold first met the poet and translator Jack Hirschman and the Princess Zina Rachevsky.

cohen - beautiful losersAs relayed in his Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, Harold acted as a mentor for a then unknown Canadian folk singer named Leonard Cohen. He was inspired to write after reading Norse’s “Sniffing Keyholes” which made a big impression on the young writer.

The Cut Up story’s bold approach to sexuality and language inspired Cohen to a burst of writing. Fueled by amphetamines and fasting, he created material which eventually became hiss second novel Beautiful Losers.

Though the sun, the sea and the boys all served to inspire Harold’s poetry, some of it published in 1966 as Karma Circuit, he ended up contracting hepatitis on the island then endemic amongst the expatriate community. Harold’s health flagged for the next couple years, precipitating his return to the United States in 1969.

 

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San Francisco Beat Conference Report Back

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V. Vale of RE/Search Publications displays his copy of Harold Norse Memorial Collection

V. Vale of RE/Search Publications displays his copy of Harold Norse Memorial Collection

Last weekend’s Beat conference, sponsored by The Beat Museum, was two days of well attended presentations and performances including a joint presentation on Harold Norse and Jack Micheline.

With multiple events scheduled for the same time, it was impossible to attend all the presentations one wanted to. Luckily, my brother Tate and I were able to film a number of them and that footage should be available online in the coming weeks. Of the presentations I’m most eager to watch are those with Gerd Stern who was a patient at Rockland Psychiatric Center with Ginsberg and Carl Solomon. These experiences would form the basis for Part III of Ginsberg’s poem HOWL.
L to R: Tate Swindell, Brian Hassett, Jerry Cimino, Gerd Stern, Levi Asher and James Stauffer, SF Beat Conference, July 28, 2015. Photo by Brian Hassett

L to R: Tate Swindell, Brian Hassett, Jerry Cimino, Gerd Stern, Levi Asher and James Stauffer, SF Beat Conference, July 28, 2015. Photo by Brian Hassett

Stern had been falsely accused by Allen Ginsberg of destroying the infamous “Joan Anderson” letter. Written by Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac, the missing pages had become legendary in Beat history as Kerouac cited Cassady’s use of language as crucial inspiration in the writing of On The Road. The letter was discovered last year.
 
Stern was one of the founders of “USCO,” a group of artists, engineers and poets creating multi-media performances and environments which toured the U.S. museum and university venues during the sixties. He also was a friend and manager to composer and creator of musical instruments, Harry Partch. According to those in attendance, Stern spoke of the time he dated author and poet Maya Angelou.
 

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Display of rare books by Harold Norse & Jack Micheline

On Saturday afternoon, I attended a talk by Dr. Philip Hicks who was a young psychiatrist in the mid-1950s at San Francisco’s Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic. Among his patients was Allen Ginsberg who at that time lived in North Beach, establishing a love relationship with Peter Orlovsky and completing what would become one of the most influential poems of the 20th Century- Howl. Ginsberg accepted that he was more attracted to men than women but still grappled with society’s rejection.

It was Dr. Hick’s audacious response of “Why not?” which proved to be a turning point, not only in Ginsberg’s life, but in the establishment of Gay Liberation. Ginsberg credited Dr. Hicks with giving the struggling poet “permission, so to speak, to be myself.”

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Ginsberg in the back garden of Milvia Street Berkely Cottage, 1955, where Part II of Howl was completed.

I was stuck by how non-plussed Dr. Hicks was by this moment which he saw from an understated perspective. Such empathetic insight was extremely rare during a time when the establishment used psychiatry to discredit men caught expressing their same-sex desires. During the height of McCarthyism, it was possible for such established figures as politicians and prominent businessmen to be institutionalized and forcibly medicated. Even white, male privilege couldn’t protect them from electro-shock therapy where, too often, they were forgotten, abandoned and left to rot.

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V Vale of RE/Search publications speaks at the SF Beat Conference.

V. Vale & Marcia Wallace of RE/Search Publications have been documenting underground scenes since the days of Punk. The pair presented two panels, one which focused on the work of William S. Burroughs. With a soft-spoken voice, Vale’s Sunday talk (which I attended) saw him relating his time as a student at UC Berkeley during the Hippie days. It was those formative experiences that led him a decade later to become an anthropologist of the creative underground when he began to document the burgeoning Punk scene in his zine Search and Destroy.

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Vale referenced Burroughs’ work with Cut Ups that the writer had developed, along with painter Brion Gysin and Harold Norse, while living at the Beat Hotel. In particular, Vale singled out books such as The Job and The Electronic Revolution as being among Burroughs’ least known but most interesting works. Vale’s connection with poet Philip Lamantia led him further to an interest in Surrealism.

If you have the chance to hear him speak, I highly recommend it. Vale has a dry humor that’s refreshingly free of the feigned political correctness that passes for critical insight these days. Lamenting the absence of upcoming radical arts underground, Vale commented that the only group capable of recruiting these days was the Islamic State!

single_coverPoet and filmmaker Marc Olmsted gave an early talk Sunday about his friendship with Allen Ginsberg. Olmsted initially contacted the older poet through correspondence hoping to make a connection based upon poetry and an interest in Eastern religions. The two became, for a time, lovers as their friendship developed in tandem with their involvement in Tibetan Buddhism. Marc speaks with refreshing candor about his relationship with Ginsberg that is sure to be a boon to scholars and students of the esteemed poet’s work. I picked up a copy of Marc’s new memoir Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg 1972-1997 – Letters and Recollections, published by Beatdom Press, which I look forward to reading.
Marc Olmsted speak of his friends with Allen Ginsberg

Marc Olmsted speaks of his friends with Allen Ginsberg

It wasn’t all talk as David Amran and ruth wiess closed out both evenings with exceptional performances of music and poetry. Here’s hoping it’s not too long before another event like the Beat Conference happens in San Francisco.

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Harold Norse and Peter Orlovsky 1980

Harold Norse and Peter Orlovsky, Naropa Insitute, July 1980. Photo by Michael Kellner.

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