Sean West: Why do Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the other Beats still excite so much attention?

Steven Taylor: The Beats’ ongoing attraction is discussed in Don’t Hide the Madness, where Allen reads his list of rock bands of the ‘80s who were influenced by Burroughs. I think of the Beats as the last Romantics, and the punks as the shredded ends of the Romance. So nostalgia is part of it.

In “Howl,” Ginsberg wrote “Denver is lonesome for her heroes“; substitute America for Denver. The Beats were the first major American literary movement of the Cold War, but the way they hit the culture paralleled and fed something larger than literature. Their moment came in 1957 with the “Howl” obscenity trial, which the ACLU took on and won, with the court finding for freedom of speech and noting literary merit and redeeming social value in the poem. This spoke of an impulse to freedom reflected on a larger scale in the Civil Rights movement and what became the counterculture. The release of Kerouac’s On the Road was likely timed to benefit from the national press attention to the trial. These events situated the Beats as rebels and media figures, not just writers.

The 1950s was a period for the rebel hero in popular culture, such as James Dean and Marlon Brando (The Wild One, 1953, and Rebel Without a Cause, 1955); the Beats apparently got associated with that. When On the Road came out, serious critics invoked switchblade-wielding juvenile delinquents, which had nothing to do with the book. In 1959 Life magazine described the Beats as fruit flies sucking the juice of American prosperity. Gregory Corso’s photo was placed opposite an ad for cockroach spray. What do you do when the military industrial complex runs the world and the freedom-loving individual, who the American is supposed to be, appears as a criminal and an insect? That was a question six decades ago and is perhaps now a more urgent question, and On the Road sells now more than ever.

SW: Aside from actually getting dragged into playing guitar with Ginsberg for the night, what drew you to his work, the work of other Beats?

ST: I got Kerouac first – The Dharma Bums. By the early 70s, I was coming into a sense of self as a hippie because that was the most attractive available social gear, and Kerouac and Ginsberg informed that (much to Jack’s dismay). They spoke my language: they generated the mix of Harlem hip-talk and college boy gossip that my generation thought it had invented. When I met Allen, I thought, “He’s older than my dad, but he talks like I do.” The Buddhist angle was attractive; I’d been looking at that before I knew of the Beats. I read some Ginsberg in my teens, but was nuts for Kerouac, hitched around looking for America, etc.

I knew Allen before I read him in any detail. It’s not that I read all these writers and then got involved with them personally; it was the other way around. I got Corso from Allen and from Gregory himself, similarly, Burroughs, met and read west coast affiliates Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Diane Di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen. I was introduced to Bob Kaufman on the street, then read him. It was like that. Became great friends with Anne Waldman in New York, moved among the New York School writers of several generations, also David Henderson, Amiri Baraka, Sonja Sanchez, Umbra and Black Arts, Miguel Algarin and the Nuyoricans, innumerable others, now into my third generation of culture workers in poetry. 

SW: You mention Melville’s The Confidence-Man as bringing alive “a body of writing that literature classes had bludgeoned into dull irrelevance.” Do you think Burroughs and Ginsberg have been bludgeoned this way? How so? And if so, is part of the aim here to bring their work to life again?

ST: As you said, the Beats still excite attention, so I don’t think they need resurrecting. Maybe the Beats haven’t penetrated the schools enough to be made dull. Do high schools even teach literature anymore? Allen always complained about that. He spent twenty summers at Naropa teaching poetry from Sappho to the 70s, trying to fix the hole where literary history used to be. I suspect that if high school kids are getting American literature, it’s still the virtues of Hester Prynne. Is anybody teaching “Howl” and Naked Lunch? To adapt your terms, it’s fair to say the aim here is to bring Ginsberg, Burroughs, and their historical milieu to a particular light for a moment, in William’s dining room.   

I expected more footnote jokes, like the Rolodex in the introduction. Your dictate for adding notes was only to clarify Burroughs?

That first footnote was partly meant as a joke, but mostly to illustrate the point that Allen had made when I was compiling footnotes for his Collected Poems, that I should footnote “anything a kid fifty years from now won’t understand.” In those days, everyone I knew had a Rolodex, but now most people under 40 wouldn’t know what it was. Apart from that, I put footnotes in my book mostly to identify people and a few court cases and other events under discussion, things that were not contextualized in the conversation. 

SW: Do you see this book as continuing Ginsberg’s mission of literary history? Or, more to the point, it’s out there – now what?

ST: Yes, continuing the mission. It wasn’t just Allen. There’s the transmission from Charles Olson, which I got first through Ed Sanders, that poets, because they are keepers of the language, are keepers of the culture. If we stop writing, the language is swamped by adspeak and culture is a financial services corporation. So now I go back to writing the literary historical work I started while traveling with Allen in the 1980s. More immediately I am composing music for Douglas Dunn & Dancers and finishing an album of the songs of William Blake, also preparing to play in a band that’s doing the Beatles’ white album live at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, 1 December. Reserve now.

SW: You said your ethnographic training influenced your approach to the book. Could you elaborate here?

ST: A few months after completing the original transcription of the tapes in 1992, I was offered a graduate fellowship at Brown that enabled me to finish my punk rock book (False Prophet, Wesleyan UP 2003), learn how to write a musical ethnography, and earn degrees in ethnomusicology. At the time the field was in a period of self-critique regarding who gets to speak for whom; part of that was a trend toward publishing minimally edited interviews and in some cases giving the byline to the “informant.” This planted the idea that I could and should present this material uncut.

The training also highlighted something that had been a problem for Ginsberg and me together and separately. We saw material in print that was ostensibly based on interviews with us that bore little resemblance to what we had actually said. So while working on this book, it was important to avoid the common editorial practice of smoothing out the sentences, not indicating pauses, cutting text without acknowledging it, and otherwise manipulating the material in an attempt to make it “more readable” or to save on the page count. My training said to put it all in, and notate in some way the rhythm, the false starts, interruptions, and pauses, to get the voices as true as possible.

SW: So you found the tapes again in 2014, but what made you think book?

ST: I found the original typescript, or a photocopy, in my closet in 2014. I had wanted to make a book of it since we first sent off a tiny slice of the material to the London Observer in ’92 and put the rest away in a drawer, but I kept forgetting about it or putting it off. I did make a couple of false starts over the years. But it’s a strange creature, and I thought there might not be interest from publishers, which proved true initially. One publisher said they couldn’t figure out how to make a book out of it. That struck me as odd but unsurprising; like, lay it out well and put a cover on it. Three Rooms Press did that. They have been totally supportive.

In terms of process, what’s editing/compiling a book like this look like compared to writing poetry or doing an ethnographic study?

It’s altogether different from poetry, other than that in both cases you are listening for a voice. It’s less complicated than writing an ethnographic study. I didn’t have to argue a thesis, select and cut up quotes from the subjects, interpolate interpretive language and draw conclusions. In editing this book, the job was making sure I heard the talk right and got it down accurately, to get the voices in the reader’s ear. Having the audio to work with makes this relatively easy. And the book structures itself, because it’s about a daily routine. It’s breakfast talk, driving out to the shooting range, working lunch with the secretaries, dinner talk, and smoking a joint at bedtime. It was a long job, but not a difficult one.

SW: You make an offhand remark about future Beat PhDs. What are your thoughts on this as a field of study? Do you see this book primarily as a source for these sorts of folks?

ST: It’s a field of study like the Transcendentalists or the Harlem Renaissance or any other literary constellation. I did a quick Worldcat search for dissertations and theses on Burroughs (377), Ginsberg (359), and the Beat Generation (460). It seems a healthy trend. I hope the academics will pick up the book because it’s a primary source. I could see it assigned to students in literary studies, American studies, ethnographic studies, even journalism, but my aim is not primarily academic. Some of the reviews say the book will be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about these writers. That’s encouraging. It’s to your earlier point about the Beats exciting interest. Most dead American authors are read more by scholars than by general readers, but the Beats cut across those lines.   

SW: The long David Foster Wallace interview Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was made into a movie (The End of the Tour). Would you have any interest in seeing that happen here?

ST: We’ve done a couple of readings in New York, with me as William and Allen’s assistant Peter Hale or producer Hal Willner reading Allen. There was a reading at Beyond Baroque in LA on 15 November, and we’ll do a reading at City Lights in February. People enjoy it. These guys were real characters. They’re relaxed and happy to be together and they’re funny. The dialog performs well. I have some reservations about the movie thing, but the book bears on that too. There are parts where Allen and William comment on actors who have portrayed Beats in various movies. Allen is more critical, William more open. So yes. I have an idea for making a film of it. Call me.

SW: Were you involved at all with getting Crumb to do the cover?

ST: I was meeting with the publishers, Kat Georges, and Peter Carlaftes, and Peter said he had Crumb’s agent’s or secretary’s email address on a chain and should we try it, and we said why not? Crumb went for it and he turned it around pretty quick. That blows me away, having his work on the front, obviously. I was a Crumb fan as a kid before I had read the Beats. And it’s a great likeness. He even got Allen’s palsied lip. 


About Steven Taylor, Editor, Don’t Hide the Madness

Steven Taylor is a poet, musician, songwriter, and ethnomusicologist. He has published two books of poems and the musical ethnography, False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground. He has composed music for the theater, film, radio drama, and dance and has made more than a dozen records with various artists. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in anthologies and zines. From 1976–1996 he collaborated on music and poetry works with Allen Ginsberg. Since 1984, he has been a member of the seminal underground rock band The Fugs. He has toured and recorded with Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie, and the New York hardcore band False Prophets. From 1995–2008 he was on the faculty at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. He lives in Brooklyn.

 

Sean West is a communications professor in southeastern Pennsylvania.