Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Week 11: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), "Transbluesency"

Our next author, LeRoi Jones, will be the last contemporary Beat writer we'll be reading this term — our final two authors (Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones) while closely-linked to writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso, didn't write their memoirs of the Beat era until long after the fact — and, for that mater, some question whether Jones is even a Beat writer in the first place.

As Donald Allen's groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry reveals, the Beats were just one of several sub-groups operating within the world of postwar experimental poetics, alongside the New York School, the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance group and the poets operating at North Carolina's Black Mountain College (who later navigated north to NYC after its close). LeRoi Jones, a multifaceted young writer — in addition to the poetry you'll read here, Jones was also an Obie-wining playwright, wrote a novel and short fiction, and also was a much-lauded music critic who penned a highly-influential volume on jazz, Blues People — was living and working in New York at the same time and both close friends with, and publisher of (through Totem Press and the journal Yugen, both of which he ran with his wife, Hettie) of members of all of these groups (Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso from the Beats, Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch from the New York School, Gary Snyder from the SF poets, and Black Mountain writers including Paul Blackburn, Ed Dorn and Fielding Dawson), however he was never "officially" a member of any. Nonetheless, it's clear from the start of our reading in Transbluesency that the Beats are near and dear to him, and his writing, along with his wife's memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, provides us with a unique perspective on the Beats and their times.

Born into a working class family in Newark, NJ (a city whose identity, both then and now, has been shaped by its large African-American popuation), the young and idealistic Jones studied religion and philosophy at Rutgers, Howard, Columbia and the New School (though he never earned a diploma) and read widely in contemporary literature and the arts. He joined the the Air Force, which gave him broader exposure to the world, but also an early reminder of the price one paid for his individuality, when the gunner sergeant was dishonorably discharged after he was discovered reading Communist writings. He'd eventually settle in New York City, where he'd meet and mingle with the city's young writers, marry his first wife, Hettie (a controversial interracial union in an era when such marriages were not only unrecognized, but also illegal in many states) and begin the publishing ventures mentioned above. Still guided by an intense interest in the political and social (particularly the fledgling civil rights movement), Jones would eventually move away from the friendships and artistic associations that would mark his early years. In 1960, he joined a delegation of artists and writers that traveled to Cuba as a show of solidarity, and as the decade unfolded, he'd find himself drawn into the Black Nationalism movement and the Nation of Islam, eventually (after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X) going so far as to move to Harlem, leaving his wife and two daughters behind, sever many of his associations with former friends, and change his name to the one on the cover of your book (and the one he went by until his death this January): Amiri Baraka. While his political passions and his association with the Nation of Islam would eventually fade slightly, and he'd express regret for some of his actions, he remained (and remains) a defiant figure in America's literary and cultural scenes, a tireless advocate for a uniquely black aesthetics, and an adventurous and formally inventive writer.

While, like many of our previous authors, Jones/Baraka continued to write beyond the Beat heyday, we'll more narrowly confine our focus to his earlier output, with a few selected later works thrown in. Here's the breakdown for our two classes:

Tuesday, Nov. 4: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964)
  • Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (5)
  • Hymn for Lanie Poo (6)
  • In Memory of Radio (15)
  • Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today (17)
  • To a Publisher . . . Cut-out (22)
  • Way Out West (29)
  • The Bridge (31)
  • Symphony Sid (36)
  • The New Sheriff (43)
  • Notes for a Speech (48)
  • As a Possible Lover (53) MP3
  • Balboa, the Entertainer (54)
  • A Contract (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson (56) MP3
  • A Poem for Neutrals (58)
  • An Agony. As Now (60)
  • A Poem for Willie Best (62)
  • Short Speech to My Friends (72) MP3
  • A Poem for Democrats (77)
  • The Measure of Memory (78)
  • Footnote to a Pretentious Book (80)
  • Rhythm & Blues (I (82)
Thursday, Nov. 6: from The Dead Lecturer (1964), Black Magic (1969), and Hard Facts (1972)
  • Black Dada Nihilismus (97) MP3 / DJ Spooky mix: MP3
  • A Guerrilla Handbook (101)
  • Political Poem (107)
  • A Poem for Speculative Hipsters (110) MP3
  • Three Modes of History and Culture (117) MP3
  • A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand (120) MP3
  • The People Burning (122) MP3
  • The New World (127)
  • Tone Poem (131)
  • Numbers, Letters (136)
  • Red Eye (138)
  • Return of the Native (140)
  • Black Art (142)
  • Poem for HalfWhite College Students (144) MP3
  • American Ecstasy (145)
  • History on Wheels (151)
  • Real Life (155)

And here are a few supplemental resources to help you through our time with Baraka:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Weeks 9–10: Gregory Corso, the Poet's Poet

We're switching gears from prose back to poetry as we move on to the poet who served as D'Artagnan to the Beat Three Musketeers of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs — Gregory Corso. Still, it would do him a horrible disservice to suggest his talents are any less than theirs.  Our readings will be taken from the 1989 collection, Mindfield: New and Selected Poems, sadly the only comprehensive volume of Corso's poetry, even if it neglects his final twelve years of writing.

Corso's childhood was every bit as tough as Neal Cassady's. Abandoned by his mother (or so he thought) not long after his birth, and then abandoned again by his father, who shuttled him in and out of foster homes throughout the first eleven years of his life. While he was a talented student, in spite of these hardships, he soon ran afoul of the law, serving time for several thefts and break-ins throughout his teenage years, ultimately leading to his three-year incarceration in Clinton Correctional Facility from the ages of 16-19. It was here that Corso's life began to change for the better. 

By sheer happenstance, Corso was placed in the cell that had just been vacated by the gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and this had several positive consequences: Luciano had donated an extensive library to the prison so that he could keep up with his reading, and to facilitate this, he also arranged to have a special light installed so that he read into the wee hours of the morning. Protected by the hardened criminals (who saw the teenaged prisoner as a mascot of sorts) he began a long process of self education — reading widely through Greek and Roman classical literature as well as the English canon — and started writing poetry, which became a salvation for him. Not long after his release, he met Allen Ginsberg at a lesbian bar called The Pony Stable and struck up a conversation, becoming fast friends. The rest, as they say, is history!

As you'll recall from Kerouac's depictions of Corso in The Subterraneans it's a bit of an understatement to say that he is a character — both cantankerous and charming, the ex-con and freeloader with a heart of gold who can quote Keats and Shelley from memory. This tension between hyper-modern and clasical and Romantic influences makes Corso a unique voice among the Beats, and it'll be interesting to explore these dichotomies as we work through Mindfield

Here's our reading schedule for Corso:

Thurs., October 23rd: from The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Gasoline
  • Greenwich Village Suicide (3)
  • In the Morgue (4)
  • Sea Chanty (5): MP3
  • The Horse Was Milked (7)
  • Requiem for ‘Bird’ Parker Musician (8)
  • Cambridge First Impressions (15)
  • Mexican Impressions (24)
  • Sun (26)
  • Puma in Chapultepec Zoo (27)
  • Uccello (29)
  • On the Walls of a Dull Furnished Room (30)
  • Italian Extravaganza (30)
  • Birthplace Revisited (31)
  • But I Do Not Need Kindness (32)
  • Don’t Shoot the Warthog (34)
  • I Am 25 (35)
  • Three (36)
  • Hello (37)
  • The Mad Yak (38)
  • This Was My Meal (39)
  • For Miles (40)
  • Last Night I Drove a Car (42): MP3
  • Allen Ginsberg, "Foreword: on Corso’s Virtues" (xi)
  • William S. Burroughs, "Introductory Notes" (xv)
  • David Amram, "Introduction" (xix)

Tues., October 28th: from The Happy Birthday of Death and Long Live Man
  • Notes After Blacking Out (47)
  • Hair (51)
  • Under Peyote (54)
  • I Held a Shelley Manuscript (58)
  • Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway (60)
  • Marriage (62): MP3
  • Bomb (65)
  • She Doesn't Know He Thinks He's God (70)
  • Dream of a Baseball Star (71)
  • Giant Turtle (73)
  • Clown (76)
  • The SacrĂ©-Coeur CafĂ© (85)
  • From Another Room (86)
  • Power (87)
  • Army (93)
  • 1959 (97)
  • Happening on a German Train (105)
  • European Thoughts—1959 (106)
  • Friend (108)
  • Writ on the Steps of Puerto Rican Harlem (115)
  • They (117)
  • Danger (118)
  • Second Night in N.Y.C. After 3 Years (119): MP3
  • Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday (120)

Thurs., October 30th: from Elegiac Feelings AmericanHerald of the Autochthonic Spirit, and uncollected poems
    • Elegiac Feelings American (125)
    • America Politica Historia, in Spontaneity (152)
    • God is a Masturbator (156)
    • Columbia U Poesy Reading—1975 (161)
    • I Met This Guy Who Died (169): MP3
    • Earliest Memory (170)
    • How Not to Die (177)
    • Many Have Fallen (182)
    • Getting to the Poem (187)
    • Spirit (190)
    • I Gave Away . . . (191)
    • The Whole Mess . . . Almost (199): MP3
    • Feelings on Getting Older (203)
    • Fire Report - No Alarm (234): MP3
    • Poet Talking to Himself in the Mirror (237)

    Gregory Corso passed away in January of 2001, and thanks to the intervention of his friends, he was buried, as he wished to be, in Rome, beside the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here are a few remembrances:
    • The New York Times obituary [link]
    • Robert Creeley announces Corso's death on the Poetics List [link]
    • The Woodstock Journal's tribute to Corso [link]
    And here are a few supplemental videos:

    Corso reads from "Bomb" at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant

    Corso in Rome, 1989 (part 1)

    Corso in Rome, 1989 (part 2)

    Wednesday, October 1, 2014

    Weeks 8–9: William S. Burroughs, "El Hombre Invisible"

    Moving on from our time with Allen Ginsberg, and after taking a little break for the fall reading days, our next Beat author for weeks 8 and 9 will be William S. Burroughs, and our primary text, Word Virus: the William S. Burroughs Reader (eds. James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg).

    An early mentor to the younger proto-Beats Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr — he not only suggested books and authors that were radically different than their readings at Columbia, but also exposed them to the drug and criminal subcultures of New York's seedy underbelly — Burroughs had no real intentions of being a writer, but the his friends' persistent encouragement (Ginsberg's in particular) lead him to give it a try.

    Ivy League-educated, and a world traveler by his mid-1920s, Burroughs who always seemed to find himself in trouble with authority, was drawn to philosophical questions of control and spent much of his career exploring that topic, whether through the guise of addiction, criminality, propaganda, media or deviance — all topics he knew well from first-hand experience — and in particular, his accidental shooting, in 1951, of his wife, Joan Vollmer, brought these issues into the forefront, unleashing "the Ugly Spirit" and charging him to use writing as a medium for his explorations. He wed the sharp analytic eye of a historian or anthropologist to a wildly experimental prose style, creating some of the 20th century's most challenging and innovative texts.

    You'll notice a distinct difference between relatively-straightforward early prose like Junky and the excerpts from Naked Lunch, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine, as well as the handful of excerpts from Interzone, that you'll be reading this week. All of these texts were drawn from a large manuscript Burroughs produced in the aftermath of Vollmer's accidental death, called "The Word Hoard," or simply "WORD" — a vast series of "routines," (the author's term for the short vignettes that fill his work) which he would constantly revise, deconstruct and remix to produce new works. As a result, you'll likely notice a lot of repetitions and overlaps between the excerpts from Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy books, since, after all, they come from the same source.

    Burroughs' primary means of reconstructing these texts was the "cut-up method," an experimental cut-and-paste practice devised by the author and Bryon Gysin in the late 1950s, which draws inspiration from, among other things, the Dadaist practice of automatic poetry, as formulated by Tristan Tzara. Here's a brief audio clip of Burroughs describing the origins and methodologies of the cut-up technique. Take a few minutes to listen, and perhaps the work you'll be reading might make more sense:

    It's also worth noting that Burroughs' writing is deeply-rooted in postmodern notions of "meta-fiction' — a practice in which form is almost as important as content. Getting a handle on what Burroughs is saying here is one thing to shoot for, but also pay attention to how he's saying it. He's taking chances with his writing, in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of the writing itself.

    Those of you who're able to make it out to this week's film screening will get a lot of useful background information on Burroughs and his techniques, and thankfully the reader we'll be using also provides some helpful contextualization. Here's a breakdown of our Burroughs readings:

    Tuesday, Oct. 14: Junky and Interzone
    • The Name is Burroughs (15)
    • Personal Magnetism (23)
    • Twilight’s Last Gleamings (24)
    • International Zone (121)
    • Ginsberg Notes (excerpts) (133)
    • from Junky: prologue and selections (47)
    • Ann Douglas, "Punching a Hole in the Big Lie: the Achievement of William S. Burroughs" (xv)

    Thursday, Oct. 16: Naked Lunch and The Nova Trilogy
    • from Naked Lunch (149)
    • Dead on Arrival (184)
    • Case of the Celluloid Kali (187)
    • The Mayan Caper (193)
    • See the Action, B.J.? (202)
    • Operation Rewrite (208)
    • The Invisible Generation (218)
    • Last Words (225)
    • So Pack Your Ermines (231)
    • Shift Coordinate Points (232)
    • Pay Color (240)
    • Clom Friday (243)
    As you make your way through Naked Lunch, keep these words of wisdom from The Simpsons in mind:

    Tuesday, Oct. 21: The Third MindExterminator! and beyond
    • Who is the Third That Walks Beside You (256)
    • The Exterminator (270)
    • The Future of the Novel (272)
    • Notes on These Pages (273)
    • Exterminator! (383)
    • The Discipline of DE (386)
    • From Here to Eternity (394)
    • Seeing Red (396)
    • The "Priest" They Called Him (397)
    • from The Cat Inside (selections) (504)
    You also might want to check out the cut-up films Burroughs made with Antony Balch and Brion Gysin in the 1960s and 70s ("Towers Open Fire" and "The Cut Ups" are a good place to start).

    Unlike Ginsberg, there aren't exact audio tracks to correspond with many of the readings, but I'm listing a few files below to give you a taste of Burroughs' reedy, grim delivery.
    • from "Twilight's Last Gleamings" (2:48): MP3
    • from Naked Lunch (2:12): MP3
    • from Naked Lunch (20:28): MP3
    • from Junky (7:29): MP3
    You can find a great many more recordings on UbuWeb's William S. Burroughs sound page.

    And here are some supplemental readings, followed by a few videos.
    Much like Ginsberg, Burroughs would have close ties to the world of popular music throughout his career — he coined the term "heavy metal," and bands like Steely Dan, the Soft Machine and DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid all took their names from his writing. In later years, he collaborated with a diverse array of artists, from R.E.M. to Sonic Youth to Nirvana. Here's "The 'Priest' They Called Him," with musical accompaniment from Kurt Cobain:

    Burroughs and R.E.M.'s collaborative version of "Star Me Kitten":

    And here's a compendium of Burroughs' scenes in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy: