The Sunflower Collective (TSC) recently interviewed Andy Clausen, a Beat poet and a close associate of Allen Ginsberg and other Beats. Clausen has taught at Naropa University and given readings and lectures at many universities, prisons, poetry conferences, and cafes at home and around the world. He is presently working on memoirs of his friendship and adventures with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and many others of the Beat Generation.
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TSC: First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. We would like to know your opinion on the relevance of the Beat Generation today- more than 60 years after Howl was first read in public.
AC: I view the Beat Generation in at least two ways. One, as a historical, poetic, social revolution and renaissance, the other, that it is a living movement. For myself, I reject Neo-Beat and Baby Beat, maybe After-Beat. So what was it and what is it? Beat.
It certainly wasn't a literary style. Look at Ray Bremser and Gary Snyder — couldn’t be more different — no style, no subject, was taboo; it had to swing, to be with the flow, (of) the tremendous energy of the post World War II times. I once opined to Allen Ginsberg that the Beats had been the antidote to the Cold War and, if they hadn't influenced the American culture, we probably would have had a "Hot War". The Beats were not for censorship, self or other. It was a rebirth of freethinking, the search for and living out of meaning. We live in unbelievable times. Political satire is made impossible because reality seems to be satire and, to any thinking person, painful.
Not to say there wasn't tragedy, anger and abuse, but its goal, its heart, its dynamic impetus, was free thought, non-violence, anti-domination — socially, economically, militarily, sexually.
TSC: The Beats have been criticized for the way they treated their female associates and for lack of women writers in the group. How far are these allegations valid?
AC: The women of the BG were marginalized. The male prerogative still had a strong cultural hold in the early days of Beat. I think if you look at the other realms of society at the time, you would find the Beats more tolerant and supportive than the academic world, the sports world, business world, church world, and ordinary middle and working class homes. Yes, the women wound up cleaning the houses, or it didn't get clean, and were often regarded as "sidekicks", acolytes, housekeeping wage earners, and especially as sexual partners for the men. They were often treated better by gays than by horn dogs.
Diane DiPrima, Janine Pommy Vega, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel, Anne Waldman did and are receiving recognition. In the closely related category of women of color, there are many outstanding Beat-like poets, Jayne Cortez, Wanda Coleman, Sonia Sanchez, Amina Baraka. I'm looking forward to what's to come.
TSC: Why do we need to read the Beats today? Do you think the Beat Generation literature is limited to an idea of an era that has passed or, do we see a growing influence of these styles among new writers/poets today?
AC: Almost all modern American poetry has been influenced by the Beats. The opening up of subject matter, the incorporation of the language of the underworld, of the immigrating cultures, making it through a huge war and now living with the atomic threat, the integration of the military and schools, and expansion that was previously unseen had been inseminated with Beats. I can name a few hundred poets writing today who would fit comfortably under the Beat tent.
We need to read the Beats today to remember how poetry can teach and reach down into one’s solar plexus, how poetry can inspire action, how it can bring sanity and exuberance into everyday Samsara.
TSC: Purists (especially those dealing in poetry) believe that Beat generation was more about pop culture than poetry. What is your opinion on that?
AC: Who are these purists you speak of? Why are they pure, because all their work is in an ancient historic form? They have no adulteration?
The works of Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Burroughs, Bremser, Vega, Di Prima, Kandel, Micheline, Perkoff, Snyder, could not been more anti-pop culture. One must not confuse accessible language with pop culture which was pretty much the enemy of the Beats as much as Academia. The ignorance-worshipping, materialistic-blending and dulling-jingoism of the pop culture was what we dedicated our lives to enlightening. Prime examples of this is, (the poem) "The American Way" by Gregory Corso; in fact the whole book Elegiac Feelings American is a terrific example; "Death to Van Gogh's Ear", "Television Baby Crawling Toward that Death Chamber" and "Sunflower Sutra" by Allen Ginsberg; "First They Slaughtered the Angels" by Lenore Kandel. When one starts reading Vega or Bremser, they know Janine & Ray don't listen to pop music, maybe they write about sex and that's pop-u-lar. One shouldn't confuse the Campbell soup cans with the Beats. There are similarities and crossovers. We don't have a TV. We sit around the campfire, read poems, play some music, tell stories.
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TSC: Could you tell us more about the poetic process and techniques that the Beat poets used? (For example, Ginsberg had often mentioned breath as a measure for linebreaks.)
AC: Breath for linebreaks works, Mayakovsky paced his poems from wall to wall, often starting with just a few words and onomatopoeic sounds to fill the verses then the word came to him in the cadence of his room, he worked them out in his head and then wrote them down and edited a bit. So his work composed at the seashore or big rooms had longer breath. Yet his verse appears in short lined staggered, usually three liners, but that was because he was getting paid by the line.
Not just for the Beat poets but for all poets, how the words appear on the page is significantly important. The Russian Futurians believed this to an extreme. The pages in Khlebnekov’s edited anthologies, each page is a work of art, meant to elicit the poet’s tone and gesture.
When I was in my thirties Ginsberg lamented that my verse pages looked like spaghetti. When I first wrote, it was in ecological mania, margin to margin. I thought we could save trees that way. Ah, youth!
Neal Cassady told us a poet has to have history. The Beat movement was no library to classroom, to dacha by the lake and the poetry society for purity in verse. The Beats were writers who experienced the unusual, the heartfelt and the adventurous.
They wrote high. They wrote low down. Some took psychedelics. They lead extraordinary sexual lives. Imitation was only a starting point. "Find your own voice," was the motto.
TSC: Can the Beat aesthetic exist without the musical form of Jazz?
AC: Well, Jazz was big in the early days of the Beats, the main music of the movement. One doesn't have to immerse self in Bird& Slim Gaillard to dig Beat lit, but it sure can't hurt. The poly-rhythms of Bop, the flatted fifth, the sharpened eleventh was the soundtrack of the mental movies produced by the typewriters, pens and pencils of the Beats.
TSC: Who were the Beats that you were in touch with? Could you tell us a little about your association with them, at a personal and professional level?
AC: Allen Ginsberg was my hero, friend, and mentor. We sat knee to knee as he showed me how to clean up my work. He championed my work.
Much of the poetry scene resented his championing of my work, for various reasons including jealousy. I was not an easy going fellow in my youth. I went to Asia in 1989 and that had a profound influence on the rest of my life. I believe it mellowed me down and afforded me a greater and more accurate perspective. Allen sent me money when I was in Haridwar, running out of it. He was a very generous man.
Gregory Corso and his son, Max, lived with my family for a couple months. That was an adventure. We hung out and read together in San Fran, Texas, New York, Boulder. We'd argue, pull pranks, agitate other poets.
Ray Bremser was my running buddy. He stayed awake & rode shotgun from Utica to Boulder in 31 hours straight non-stop. We talked about everything.
Janine Vega didn't want to be known as a Beat poet, but rather as an activist. She did tremendous work in prison writing programs, as director, as teacher. She was sixteen when she moved in with Allen Ginsberg & Peter Orlovsky, as Peter's girlfriend. She resented Allen leaving her behind when they went to India. She resented he didn't understand her poetry that well. She was an ardent feminist, I'd say. She loved Huncke and Ray and many other Beats. Great friends with Hettie Jones and Lenore Kandel. She told me that she was against competition, but with me she was very competitive (she couldn't figure out how I did it using techniques completely antithetical to hers). She made me respond to her output with some of my best work.
I read with Jack Micheline a dozen or so times. I'd see him at the racetrack. I was closer to Billy Burroughs Junior than to Senior. I was Senior's chauffer once. It was a tough job. I've written a book about my experiences with these poets and many others.
| Andy Clausen, Charles Plymell, Ray Bremser, Janine Pomy-Vega, Cherry Valley, 2002|
AC: Janine's poetry is quite different than mine, yet often had the same sentiments. Her writing became more overtly political in the last 12 years of her life we were together. She loved growing plants and flowers. In her backyard, she had a plant one each for her dead poet friends. She attended an ashram run by Gur Mai, though less in the later years. She was an extremely hard worker, admonishing herself for relaxing. She had nearly every disease and condition imaginable all at once and continued producing, driving through the snow, in blizzards to teach poetry to kids and to Mexican workers in the upstate New York fields and dairies. She spoke and wrote Spanish well, she had spent years in Peru. She resented the way women were treated by the Beat men and she was mostly correct. She died in my arms December 2010. There's an elegy I wrote and delivered at her Woodstock memorial on Youtube.
TSC: What do you think about the women of the Beat generation? Tell us about their contribution towards the movement and their art and poetry?
AC: Well I've told you about Janine. Lenore Kandel, who lived with Janine in Hawaii is a poet I admire. A lot of fire. She's a character in Big Sur by JK. Her Love Book was busted for obscenity in the Sixties. It was not prurient by any means; it was about the spiritual aspects of sex. She was Lew Welch's lover for a while. Her career was stymied by a horrendous motorcycle accident that kept her in constant pain. She and Janine corresponded with each other until a few days before she died.
Diane DiPrima has established herself as a major poet. Her political poems are rooted in her benevolent anarchist roots. Some of her work is Alchemy, some are great appreciations of nature and the Buddha nature, others passionate love poems. Her memoir work is very frank. She gave birth to, and raised, six kids.
Hettie Jones who was married to Amiri Baraka is an accomplished biographer, memoirist and poet. Joyce Johnson in Minor Characters displays a feminine view of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Carr and the boys.
Joanne Kyger, once with Gary Snyder is humorous and often profound. Anne Waldman whose dramatic powerful prophetic reading style and prolific output has turned on many younger women to the modern style that’s inspired by the historical Beats.
I do feel that a female Beat avatar will emerge and reinvigorate not only the movement but world society. I don't think the literary and reading poetry public has fully comprehended or felt the significance of female contributions.
TSC: I have read somewhere that you had worked with Allen Ginsberg on a couple of his books. What do you think of Ginsberg as a poet? How was it like to work with him? Was he a hard task master?
AC: Allen Ginsberg was a versatile and indefatigable poetry writer, freethinker, ambassador, scholar, musician, photographer, horny gay warrior with a love of the common people. He wrote in a hundred poetic styles and genres, classical forms, the blues, Greek metrics, the forms of Kabir and Lalan, the Veerashaiva poets, haiku, epics, biblical forms, objectivism, surrealism, the sutra, the sonnets, jazz inspired cadences, Whitmanic expanded breath.
No political or sexual subject was taboo for the poet. He was a man of extreme candor, yet rarely inappropriate. He helped in any way he could the poets he loved and respected, many of us struggling. At the time we must have looked like a motley bunch.
I think his interviews, many of which have been published, and his essays (He was the Spokesman!), are some of the most well thought out eloquent yet accessible explanations of the human condition. A spiritual problem? Questions on the creation and significance of poetry? Political dilemma? He's there. What I’m saying is he was a superb analyst as well as the creator of myriad exquisite & sublime pieces of verse.
No, not everything he wrote was my cup of chai. He once said, "I'm going to have a huge amount published & unpublished all over the place. Gregory (Corso) will have six or seven little books."
Hard taskmaster? Well, he scrutinized my every word.
TSC: You are currently working on your book that deals with the last days of Beat Generation. Tell us more about it.
AC: My book as of now is titled The Latter Days of the Beat Generation: a First Hand Account. It is full of anecdotes of both the well-known and more obscure Beat characters. It is told in a conversational style. We are getting ready to see how we will market it.
TSC: Are there any small presses in USA today dedicated to publishing Beat poetry and counter culture literature?
AC: Out of all the mags, the best was closed down a few years ago, Long Shot. Coffee House has published some good writers. Out in Denver there's Passion Press. Big Scream out of Michigan. Shivastan out of Woodstock-- printing in Kathmandu on hand-made paper is outstanding, run by Shiv Mirabito who spends winter in India & Nepal. The Museum of American Poetics which published my Home of the Blues Zeitgeist out of Las Vegas, published Jack Micheline and QR Hand and also many latter day Beats who came out of a San Fran club called Cafe Babar (1986-92}.There's Ragged Lion and the Beat Scene out of England.
TSC: How was it to finally settle down in Woodstock and see it grow as a community over the years, since the days of the festival and the Summer of Love? How is it to live in Woodstock today?
AC: Woodstock prior to the Festival of 69 was an artist, writer & musician enclave. Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Eric Andersen, Tim Harden, the Traum brothers have lived here. Woodstock locals planned to have the festival where they had smaller shows here in Woodstock. The town realized they couldn't handle a big one and it was in Bethel, approx. 140 miles away, where it was held. Many musicians did settle or had been living here, The Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jesse Winchester. There was a little movie about Woodstock called "You can't get there from here," which was the standard joke-answer by townies (villagers) to the tourist question, "Where was the concert?"
During the Summer of Love, I lived in Berkeley. People were pouring into the Bay Area, especially into Haight Ashbury. By autumn with a new mayoral regime in, and all the pot & mushrooms disappeared and crank (methedrine) and smack (heroin) was everywhere. All these sad stray kids with blisters on their lips huddled in doorways, cops everywhere.
As for Woodstock, instead of an artist community, it's becoming a vacation or second home spot for the bourgeoisie. They like the peace, the art, the spiritualism and vestiges of hippie culture and they will, by sheer numbers and their money, destroy what attracted them. Pretty soon the workers will have to commute into town because they can't afford to live here.
TSC: Name some of the latter-day beat writers/ poets who you think beat enthusiasts must read.
AC: List of latter-day or under-recognized writers: Pamela Twining, Elizabeth Gordon, Nancy Mercado, Dan Shot, David Cope, Antler, George Wallace, Jim Cohn, Lisa Jessie Peterson, David Lerner, Eliot Katz, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sharon Doubiago, QR Hand, Pedro Pietri, Paul Beatty, David Henderson, William Burroughs Jr. There are others. I don't know much about the slam scene. From what I've witnessed some of it is amazing
but much is not.
TSC: You have spent a few years in India. What brought you here? Tell us more about your travels through India?
AC: In India, I came with a younger female companion, who had already been there a few times. I knew a little bit about India, as I had friends who were elated about the adventures they had there. In the Sixties, Indian culture was very "hip". Even teenagers liked the sound of the sitar, wore saris, did the Hare Krishna mantra. I had read Indian Journals by Ginsberg. My friend could speak Nepali and Lhasa style Tibetan, so we got around okay. From Kathmandu, we went to Benares where I wrote a long piece that describes the streets, alleys, and ghats called Streets of Kashi. Then we went to Khajuraho where I got very sick. Then flew to Agra, and Mathura, then Bombay, Goa and an epic train ride from Margao to Bhubaneswar, Puri and up to Calcutta, Bodhgaya and Hardwar, Rishikesh.
I was writing a lot. I didn't feel I had to embellish or use elegant vocabulary to make exciting verse. I just wrote what my five senses experienced. Though I was often frustrated while traveling in India, it was fun and enlightening. I liked the people, they are resilient.
There is much intelligence and kindness in India, there is also the opposite. As you travel, each place is very different. Though since I've been there a certain homogeneity must have taken place by now. But it was often a different language, different clothing, even different food, tempo that we had to acquaint with as we travelled. In the US, it's different.
TSC: Your thoughts on the future of Beat Poetry and the legacy.
AC: Where's it going from here? Nobody knows anything absolutely for certain. There needs to be a cultural change, which will gestate & ameliorate a political change. Most of the changes here were gestated and impregnated into the mainstream by songs, poems, photographs. The irony is, there needs to be a political change so that culture can breathe.
Can culture defeat exclusivity, power, wealth, might-is-right job security coercion, that destroys the meaning of the words like 'commerce' and 'democracy'?
Sure, but it will need some powerful medicine and I don't think it can afford to be a slow change. The enthusiasm that the young exhibited in the coffee houses, taverns, independent bookstores, around a room, writing verse that would have a relaying value, a redemptive value, is at its lowest ebb since I can remember.
The survivors aren't passing it on and there's little to pass.
You know if others hadn't been foolish we would be. The Beat Generation is not some planned strategy. It is the noble qualities of individuals trying to escape, break through denial, a Samadhi through the hypocrisies of religion, culture, and state. The individuals that have gone on to that great Unknown, let me say, view them as transitional characters We are an essential part of an alternative future.