Norse Centennial Recap: Mechanics Institute

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Authors Todd Swindell, Kevin Killian and Regina Marler celebrate Harold Norse’s 100th birthday at the Mechanics’ Institute, July 6, 2016

Authors Todd Swindell, Kevin Killian and Regina Marler celebrate Harold Norse’s 100th birthday at the Mechanics’ Institute, July 6, 2016

MI#3 WebAn attentive audience of nearly forty people gathered last Wednesday, July 6 to commemorate the 100th birthday of American Beat poet whose groundbreaking work forged a new voice for gay liberation, free of bigotry and hypocrisy.

The evening was hosted by Laura Sheppard, events director for the Mechanics’ Institute, in the storied San Francisco institution’s performance café. With wine available from the bar, this elegant room with professional light and sound equipment was a beautiful setting to recall and evaluate the life and work of the Bastard Angel from Brooklyn.

MI#2 WebThe festivities began with an invocation of queer poetic spirit by the multi-talented Jason Jenn who performed a selection of poems written by Harold that included “A Man’s Life”, Norse’s translation of a sonnet by the 19th Century Roman poet G.G. Belli.

Here’s a clip of Jason’s performance of “At the Caffé Trieste“, written in the early 1970s at the landmark North Beach coffee house as Harold looks back through the ages to the ways in which the poets’ voice guide us. It ends with the line, “this is the only Golden Age there’ll ever be.”

MI#6 WebThe evening’s compère was Tate Swindell of Unrequited Records who introduced each of the speakers, adding observations into Harold’s life experience. The first speaker was San Francisco based writer Kevin Killian whose friendship with Norse began in the early 1980s.

He spoke with warmth and affection about his friendship with Harold which began when Kevin would wheel his electric typewriter, down Guerrero Street from 24th, over to Harold’s cottage on Albion Street. A speedy typist, Kevin would assist Harold who was compiling material that eventually became his Memoirs of a Bastard Angel. Some of the pieces first appeared in Kevin’s magazine No Apologies which he published with Brian Monte.

Turns out Kevin had been a member of the Mechanics’ Institute at the time he met Harold and had brought him to visit their beautiful library. Earlier Harold had been kvetching to Kevin that none of his books were available at the local branch of the SF Public Library. “It’s only because they’ve been stolen the Public Library,” was Kevin’s clever reply. Here’s a six minute clip of his introductory remarks.

Kevin also remarked on Harold’s youthful spirit when in company with other writers and artists. He spoke of how Harold was always keen on visiting with artists whom he had known from his earlier days, from Tennessee Williams to John Cage, who were passing through San Francisco to participate in one event or another.

MI#5 WebRegina Marler offered insights into the connections between Beat writers and their Mothers which made her anthology Queer Beats a much needed addition to Beat literature scholarship. Her reading of “I’m Not a Man” added another level of appreciation to what is one of Harold’s most well known and well loved poems.

My remarks followed Regina’s sensitive evaluation of how Harold differentiated from his Beat contemporaries in terms of his treatment of women. I quoted from a 1985 letter from Harold to a publisher concerning an updated version of his 1976 collection of gay themed poetry Carnivorous Saint. Here’s an excerpt from the letter concerning Harold’s desire to remove instances of the word “bitch” when the collection was reprinted in 1986 as The Love Poems.

“Such usages do not accurately represent my consciousness now or, indeed, then, if truth be told, as I have always resented slurs of any kind in the language, yet given a macho background have been insensitive to slurs against women, whom I’ve personally always considered the superior sex, in any case…These words are offensive to me and to those I might hurt unintentionally.”

MI#4 WebThanks to Michael Petrelis for snapping the photographs included in this post. The photo to left shows me in an animated conversation with Laura Sheppard and, at the edge of the frame, Count Federico Wardal who attends all the Harold Norse related events in San Francisco.

Harold would certainly have been thrilled that such an event for his hundredth birthday would be hosted at a landmark San Francisco location. Thanks to all those who attended the presentation. Stay tuned for the next report back from the following Saturday’s event at The Beat Museum.

The complete video of the event can be viewed below:

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Hilary Holladay Interview and Belgium Broadside

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Author and Beat biographer Hilary Holladay has been doing her part to bring more attention to the poetry of Harold Norse. As mentioned earlier this year, Hilary’s interview with writer and publisher Jan Herman highlighted his friendship with Harold. Hilary recently interviewed me about Harold Norse, his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, Bastard Angel magazine and my editing of the selected edition of Harold’s poems. You can read the complete interview at hilaryholladay.com.

“Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene.”

“Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.”

herbert-hunckeI highly recommend Hilary’s biography Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Huncke’s pivotal role in connecting Beat writers with narcotics and criminality has sadly overshadowed the magnificence of his writings. Though he never published as much as his friends Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Herbert was able to convey the sordid tales of those he knew with a rare empathy, which is the essence of Beat literature.

Leslie Winer has been contributing her passion and creativity to Huncke’s estate with the elegant website Huncke Tea Company. I highly recommend perusing their SoundCloud page where you can listen to recordings of Huncke reading along with Leslie’s contemporary interpretations of Herbert’s writings spoken in her dry yet winsome voice. She is currently recording a series of Huncke stories, notebook entries & letters put to some new music co-written with & produced by Christophe Van Huffel which will soon be released on vinyl.

DSC00091For over a decade, Bart de Paepe’s Sloow Tapes in Belgium has been releasing cassettes recordings from numerous artists who were connected with Harold including Judith Malina, Ira Cohen, Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles. Three years ago Sloow Tapes released Harold Norse Take a Chance In The Void: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel, another cassette-only release from Cut Up recordings made by Harold when he lived in Paris at the Beat Hotel in the early 1960s. I’m pleased to note that the edition of 100 copies has completely sold out.

Last year Sloow Tapes began publishing broadsides with eye catching graphics on the front and poetry on the back of A5 size paper. Sloow Tapes Broadside #11 was released last month featuring Harold’s poem “Wise to its Poisoned Condition.” Here’s what Bart had to say about the broadside,

“Between 1960 and 1963 Norse lived in Paris with William Burroughs and Gregory Corso in the hotel in the Latin Quarter known as the “Beat Hotel”. Although initially wary of the Beat writers’ literary credentials, Norse collaborated with Brion Gysin on the cut-up technique and was briefly an acclaimed painter of ink drawings soaked in the hotel bidet, known as Cosmographs. Norse described himself as a “lone-wolf” and he refused to join the pack, at some cost. In many ways he was more “Beat” than the Beats: Jewish, illegitimate, homosexual.

Norse was an outsider who quietly produced some startling and technically accomplished verse from the fringes of the US literary scene. ‘Wise to Its Poisoned Condition’ is an unpublished poem written at the time he lived at the Beat Hotel and illustrated with a mylar portrait by Ira Cohen.”

WisePoisonI just received some copies of the broadside and it is a truly beautiful artifact. The psychedelic photograph was from a series of pictures Ira took of Harold in the early 1970s when he was photographing everyone from Jack Smith to Jimi Hendrix in his mylar chamber.

A black-and-white version of that photograph was used for the cover of Harold’s 1976 anthology of gay poems Carnivorous Saint. It was also featured on the back cover of Harold Norse Of Course…, the double vinyl record release of Harold’s 1984 poetry reading in Amsterdam available from Unrequited Records. This collector’s item is sure to be snapped up in no time, so make sure you procure a copy at this link.

 

 

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