For too long there’s been a glaring absence of critical attention towards poet Harold Norse, but that’s now been corrected thanks to an historic new collection Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate recently published by Clemson University Press.
Skillfully edited by A. Robert Lee and Douglas Field, this hardback edition contains fourteen essays that examine Norse’s work as memoirist, poet, publisher, painter and correspondent. Featuring an international team of scholars, many of them members of the European Beat Studies Network, Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate is the latest edition in Clemson University’s Beat Studies Series imprint edited Ronna C. Johnson and Tony Triglio.
The anthology’s striking cover image is from one of Norse’s cosmograph paintings created in 1960 while residing in Paris at the Beat Hotel where he collaborated with his fellow residents William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the development of cut up. This new collection opens with an insightful introduction by Jan Herman who met Norse around the time of the cosmograph painting. Herman published an early version of Norse’s long poem “Hotel Nirvana” in his NOVA Broadcast Press literary journal of the late ’60s called San Francisco EARTHQUAKE.
"I've sometimes been asked why he wasn't as famous as Burroughs and Ginsberg, and the other celebrated Beat writers, and I've always said he needed a better press agent or a better strategy. Until he was taken up by San Francisco's radical gay activists, he was strictly a literary man—which was not enough to vault him to fame. His poems, fine as they were, didn't make headlines." – from the Prologue by Jan Herman.
Among the other unique contributions to the collection is a nine-page Harold Norse timeline, to-date the most comprehensive gathering of the poet’s peripatetic travels and extensive publications. The anthology closes with an afterword from writer and editor James Grauerholz. From his decades of friendship and collaboration with William Burroughs, Grauerholz offers a critical but compassionate recollection of Norse in his later years.
"The most important thing to understand about him is that Homophobia really is the last acceptable prejudice . . . To borrow from the screenplay of Gentleman's Agreement, the 1947 film about systemic anti-Semitism: "A 'faggot' is the gay gentleman who has just left the room." Fear of the queer, and a casual disregard of "open Queers" like Harold were always the real obstacle to his finding the acclaim he sought. If only he could have seen that it would all come to pass." — from the Afterword by James Grauerholz
Copies of Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate are printed through Liverpool University Press. On their website, the book’s editors have provided a perceptive and engaging overview of the places and people in Norse’s history, the accolades and setbacks from his recognition as a Gay Liberation poet, and some of the reasons why the rich legacy of his work has been neglected for too long.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts where I’ll take a deeper look at some of the essays and hear from individual authors about their research, analysis and interest in the work of this uniquely American poet. Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate is a major contribution to long overdue consideration and scholarly focus of an important participant in Beat and Gay poetry.
Correspondence from Harold Norse is featured in a new exhibit Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground at the John Rylands Library as part of the University of Manchester. Jeff Nuttall was, among many activities, a critic, poet and publisher whose mimeo publication My Own Mag was one of the few outlets that published William Burroughs most experimental Cut Up work of the 1960s.
According to their website, “The John Rylands Library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. In 1889 the architect Basil Champneys designed the striking gothic building, which took ten years to build and was opened to public readers on 1 January 1900.
The library became part of The University of Manchester in 1972 and currently holds the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library. Mrs Rylands’ memorial to her husband is now part of the third largest academic library in the United Kingdom, and the Deansgate building houses over 250,000 printed volumes, and well over a million manuscripts and archival items.”
I had the chance to visit this cathedral of an archive in June while attending the European Beat Studies Network annual conference where I presented a talk on Harold’s involvement with Cut Ups at the Beat Hotel. My impressions of the conference can be read at Beatdom.
“hope my last letter was not interpreted in the wrong light—hardly remember what i said,” Harold Norse wrote to Jeff Nuttall in the mid-1960s, “except i was feeling a blowtorch searing my liver and my pharynx seemed stuffed with cottonwool and my head with potato salad.” Despite publishing their work in the most prominent publications of the international underground, including Residu, Jeff Nuttall and Harold Norse remain peripheral figures in accounts of post-war avant-garde writing. “Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground” shows the extent to which Nuttall, the author of Bomb Culture (1968) and the editor of My Own Mag (1963-1967) formed extensive international networks with writers including William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi.
Harold wrote about Nuttall in a post script included in his Cut Up novel Beat Hotel. Completed in London on May 24, 1968, the essay titled “Cut-Up Magic” is perhaps the only contemporary document of the development of the Cut Up method.
“Among the younger writers whose talent developed through association with and influence from” fellow Cut Up originators William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Norse singles out Frenchman Claude Pélieu, whose Cut Ups were translated into English by Mary Beach, Carl Weissner, whose German translation of Beat Hotel first appeared in 1974, and Jeff Nuttall, “an English poet, prose-writer and painter, [who] used the technique to enrich a fertile imagination.”
Douglas Field generously offered a description of a letter from Harold included in the exhibit:
Norse and Nuttall corresponded in the 1960s, displaying a warmth and camaraderie. The exhibition displays a letter from Norse to Nuttall in 1965 where the American writer riffs on orange coloured paper, his missive a fine example of Norse’s inimitable surreal poetic prose that he would deploy in the Beat Hotel.
“Saturday, after the débacle, i.e. anglo-American poetry conference,” Norse begins his letter, “doors guarded by US Marines—don’t worry boys, poetry ain’t dangerous here.” Norse appears on another letter, one written by the German translator and avant-garde writer, Carl Weissner, a close friend of Norse, and a collaborator with Nuttall. “Hope you dug Olé 5,” Norse scrawls at top of Weissner’s letter to Nuttall, in reference to a special issue of the magazine which featured Norse’s work. Norse, as Nuttall recalled in Bomb Culture, was “on the wavelength,” a “formidable and adventurous” writer.
The John Rylands Library maintains a special collections blog that’s well worth a view. I particularly enjoyed a post by a computer science student from the University who designed innovative ways of mapping the connections between Nuttall and the wide variety of artists with whom he collaborated. These dynamic and artful compositions chart the extensive interactions that branched out from the Beat originators of Norse’s time to the burgeoning counter-culture generation of which Nuttall was certainly a ring master.
The Rylands Library is open seven days a week and admission is free. Their gift shop and café is a lovely, light filled space also deserving of a visit.
The Nuttall related material in their gift shop features a selection of Harold Norse publications including the recently published selected poems and the hard to find first issue of Bastard Angel magazine. This is a rare opportunity for travelers in England to purchase books by Harold Norse, yet another reason to not miss this incredible exhibition.
The 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”.
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.
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.
This 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.”
Among 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
The 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.”
The 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.”
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.”
Another of Harold’s poet friends was Andrei Codrescu whose Exquisite Corpse featured two tributes from poet and publisher Eddie Woods.
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.
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’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.
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.
July 6, 2016 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of master American poet Harold Norse. Known for his association with Beat literature and gay liberation, Norse’s work retains its pertinence in today’s fractured world of politics and despair. This has been reflected by increased attention to Norse’s legacy from The New York Timesto the International Times.
Since April is National Poetry Month there will be further posts this month to kick off the Harold Norse Centennial. In the meantime, here is information about upcoming events so you can make sure to mark your calendars.
The European Beat Studies Network is hosting its annual conference in Manchester, England June 27 to 29. Co-chaired by renowned Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris and Manchester University professor Douglas Field, whose All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin will be published this summer by Oxford University Press.
The conference program is packed with presentations on all aspects of Beat writers and artists. It’s inspiring to see a number of presentations about Beat poet ruth weiss, who at age 87 continues to perform her poetry in San Francisco.
As part of Session 13 on the second day of the conference, I will be presenting a talk titled “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel.”
The EBSN Manchester conference is merely the kick off for the Harold Norse Centennial. Beginning on Harold’s actual 100th birthday, July 6, there will be two separate dates of discussion panels in San Francisco co-sponsored by The Mechanics’ Institute and The Beat Museum.
These will be followed by a return to Harold’s old stomping grounds of Venice Beach at Beyond Baroque. Each of these events will feature a short performance of Harold’s poetry by Los Angeles based multi-talented artist Jason Jenn who has previously performed works about gay poets James Broughton and C.P. Cavafy.
Wednesday, July 6 from 7-9 PM at the Mechanics’ Institute, SF
Saturday, July 23 from 4-6 PM at Beyond Baroque, LA
Tom Livingston – Author & Friend of Norse
Michael C Ford – Poet & Audio Journalist
S.A. Griffin – Poet & Actor
Check back in the coming weeks for detailed information about the events and the authors who will be participating. Also keep on the lookout for a Centennial fundraiser featuring bundles of rare Harold Norse books for sale.
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.”
The 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.
“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.”
Harris 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.
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).
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.