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THE BEAT GENERATION CONFERENCE: NYU 1994

1994 By Mick Cusimano

Published in Squawk Magazine, the Kerouac Connection, and Y Magazine (Ukraine)

In the spring of 1944, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs met on a rainy street corner in New York City. This meeting set in motion a friends hip that evolved into the phenomenon known as The Beat Generation. Fifty years later, New York University's School of Education organized a six day reunion of the this literary movement. The celebration began on Monday, May 17th and went through May 22, 1994, with a 48-hour Insomniacathon of non-stop poetry readings hosted by Rant Magazine, from Louisville, Kentucky. In the opening remarks, author Anne Charters spoke of the historic importance of this conference , the first of its kind at an American university. Co-chair, Alle n Ginsberg indicated that the celebrated the original meeting of Kerouac, Burroughs, and himself in the city, adding that Gregory Corso joined them in the early 1950's. The Beats didn't always stay together in Greenwich Village, however. They took their movement to various haunts from San Francisco to Paris and Tangiers. Several thousand people attended the conference over the six days, some from as far away as France and Germany. An English professor put up a notice on her bulletin board at Oklahoma State College. Immediately 23 of her students signed up and they rented a bus to attend the conference. That night several of us were roaming the streets of the East Village. We saw a movie in production. It was the film about poet Jim Carroll called the Basketball Diaries.An unknown actor Leonardo DiCaprio sitting on a doorstep pouring potato chips on the head of Juliet Lewis, playing the part of a hooker
On Thursday, May 19th, the panel on the Beats and Music, David Amram recounted his early days as a kid lucky to be playing jazz with Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Charles, and Miles Davis. Amram also did the score for Pull My Daisy, the first movie about Ginsberg, Corso, and Jack Kerouac. Ray Manzarek said that The Doors would never have existed if Kerouac hadn't paved the way b y combining poetry with jazz. Cecil Taylor compared his method of spontaneous jazz to Kerouac's Beat style writing.

That night, the first-generation of the Beat poets and musicians gathered to read for a once-in-a-lifetime event at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan. Ed Sanders introduced the evening, by placing a phone call on stage to William Burroughs, who answered in Lawrence, Kansas. Sanders said, "Bill, the Beat goes on." Burroughs advice to writers was, "Be a bullfighter, not a bullshitter. Wri ting a universe, a writer makes a universe possible, vitalizing the characters." In the beginning his own writing made him feel revulsion and disgust. "Kerouac kept prodding me and told me to write Naked Lunch." Burrough's continued his advice, "Beware o f whores who say they don't want any money. What it means is that they want more money. Lots more. Beware of religious sons of bitches. Make sure you get an agreement from them in writing." Burroughs furthers his sentiments, " Advice to thieves, never pul l a heist on a Chinaman! He would rather die than give you his money." Ed Sanders then introduced Anne Waldman, who he called an intoxicating poet. She intoned, "I'm coming up out of my tomb, oh men of war!.......just when you thought you had me down . I'm coming up out of the ground -- thrusting up to your private property. Get ready big boys, I'm coming up. I'm opening the big box.........BOO!!!" Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs said afterwards, "Her poetry really seemed to be coming from the soul.

Gregory Corso rambled on to the stage in an old trench coat, looking much the same as he did in old Fred McDarrah's photos from the Fifties. Corso warmed the crowd up and then plunged in with political observations: "Palestine and Israel are answerabl e. Haiti shall be answered. North Korea will never be given the world. Peace is upon us. Finally South African whites are free." The audience exploded in applause. In Sea Chanty, he recanted his relationship with his mother. "My mother hates the sea.......two years later the sea ate her." He read Greenwich Village Suicide. The irony of this poem was that the woman who wanted to be chic, aspiring to Bartok and Van Gogh, was taken away with the lowly Daily News draped over her face. When the crowd called for his poem, Marriage, Corso remarked, "My peers will be known for On the Road, Naked Lunch, and Howl, but I'm stuck being remembered for this damn Marriage poem. But by popular demand he began, "Should I get married? Should I be good? Astound the girl next door......Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust." Then he looked up, adding, "I love penguins, that's my surrealist shot." Corso looked disheveled, sometimes confused, he ran overtime, and was a complete rascal as usual. David Amram sang the original song Pull My Daisy and with great enthusiasm recalled his playing jazz accompaniment to Jack Kerouac's poetry in the Village scene. Then he broke into glorious spontaneous rhapsody with his accompanying band. Stately, dignified Brooklyn College professor, Allen Ginsberg, read his poem about gastronomic indulgences. Ginsberg, always the rebel, defies his doctor's orders in his new poem. "More sirloin, more roast pork with gravy, fried chicken boiling in oil, glistenin g French fries, Coca cola, champagne, Pepsi. Order a plate of bratwurst, salt on those fries, forget green beans. Have another coffee. Here's a cigar. Here's a plate of Black Forest cake....... YOU DESERVE IT!" A surprise guest, Russian poet, Andre i Voznesensky performed two impassioned poems in his native tongue. The audience rippled with laughter as he introduced himself by saying, "Greetings to The Beat Generation from us Red Cats." The senior statesman of the Beat Generation, Lawren ce Ferlinghetti did his famous poem, Our Father, who's art's in Heaven...... Following that he read the first poem from Coney Island of the Mind , "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see the people of the world exactly at the moment when they first atta ined the title of 'suffering humanity.' They writhe upon the page in a veritable rage of adversity............" Ferlinghetti read his new poem---turned down by The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker-- A Buddha in the Woodpile articula ted the senseless insanity of the Waco, Texas incident last year. "If there had been one Buddhist in the woodpile in Waco Texas to teach how to sit still........if there had been only one calm little Gandhi in a white sheet or suit one not so silent partn er who at the last moment shouted Wait..... " Rounding out the night was the duo performance by Ray Manzarek of The Doors and poet Michael McClure. Manzarek played keyboards to McClure's poetry. "Going back to Cali...Cali Cali......fornia.

Many small presses had tables at The Beat Conference. Rant Magazine is published by a very active group from Louisville, KY, who put on poetry readings with Anne Waldman, Ginsberg, and Corso. Squawk Magazine, called an open mike in print, chronicles the po etry and music of the Naked City Coffeehouse in Harvard Square. Dharma Beat is a Jack Kerouac newsletter originating from Jack's hometown, Lowell, MA.

On Friday, during the panel, Woman and The Beats, four women expressed their sense of oppression, with the expectations of motherhood and respectable marriages, saying that they felt they never had the chance to develop as poets. They acknowledged their rebellion against traditional expectations, but had few, if any, role models to encourage them. He ttie Jones recounted that although they took care of their male counterparts, they couldn't expect the same in return. She said, "Our only reliable support came from our own grit and independence. We didn't see what the Beats understood, the deep connect ion between creative and erotic energy. We weren't reading woman writers back then, or we would have taken our own work more seriously, and placed more value in our own darkest misadventures. Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millet.....all of them were bad girls. Carolyn Cassady was somewhat embarrassed and amused when asked a question about the "power" she held over Kerouac and Neil Cassady. She said, "Both of them were always drifting in and out and were seldom there at the same t ime. After a short stay they were always on the road again heading somewhere else." Joyce Johnson told the story of a young woman student in her class who asked, "What was so different about now and then?" Johnson's answer was, "Underwear! I looke d at this young woman in the classroom. She was sitting loosely, with a minimum of underwear, ass loose, and tits sagging. What Madonna wears on the outside, we had to wear on the inside. Clothes have shackled women throughout history. Women haven't been free since the 1920's, and 30 years is a long time to be tied up!" Jan Kerouac read from the soon-to-be-published writings of Jack Kerouac's second wife, entitled Nobody's Wife. Joan Haverty Kerouac describing her wedding day with Jack, "The one concession I had asked of Jack was that he refrain from meaningless declarations of love he thought were expected. His request of me had not been verbalized, but I knew he wanted me to listen to everything he had to say, without contribution or criticism ." Soon, when the conference on Women and the Beats was adjourning, Lawrence Ferlinghetti walked up to take the mike.Ferlinghetti remarked, " Women may have felt that they didn't have the same opportunities as the men, but the Beats would never had made it without them . Women made the Beat Generation possible.

Saturday's capacity crowd pressed forward like a pack of hungry wolves, smoke filled the air,and dogs barked in the alley. The mood at the N.Y.U. auditorium resembled the start of a rattlesnake hunt. Hunter S. Thompson, legendary Gonzo Journalist, took the stage. Thompson started by talking about his Beat connections. He leaned over and asked Allen Ginsberg, sitting in the front row of this conference, "Allen, do you remember the night we met in Boulder? We w ere partying heavily and I decided to walk on water when I fell into that damn swimming pool you didn't even notice." He continued, "The Hell's Angels were coming down to beat up a group of Berkeley Free Speech protesters and Allen intervened to talk them out of it. Those were the days." Thompson continued, "Back in the sixties, if you didn't get tear-gassed at least once a week there was something wrong. You felt guilty that you weren't doing your job." Thompson recalled how he first met Ed Sanders of The Fugs ."Ed was hiding out from a cult known as The Process. When he saw me coming up the driveway, he thought I was one of their hitmen sent to get him." Ed Sanders gave his philosophy. "I was inspired by the Allen Ginsberg poem, America. We were part of a non-violent revolution. We were out to use all the freedoms provided by the U.S. Constitution. During the civil rights marches they called us Beatniks. I loved it when they called us that name. This was soon after Sputnik and they were convinced that any group with a "nik" at the end of it was some kind of Communist." Thompson recalled the Nixon era, confessing, "In a way I miss the bastard. He was a real humdinger." He added, "But I should be kind of grateful to him. He paid for my house ." Thompson reminisced fondly about lunch time target practice at William Burroughs' house. The floor was open to questions. One person asked, "Is blasting away with high powered weapons counter-productive to a spiritual quest?" Thompson replied, "William Burroughs, like many Southerners is a gun freak." Sanders, the Ex-Fug, added, "Yes, it's possible to have a spiritual life and own a gun........quipping, "Zen and the Art of the .44." The final questioner asked, " If The Beats stood for freedom of expression, why do you make a big deal about Garry Trudeau's Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury?" Hunter's reply, "It's a savage hideous caricature. It's copyright infringement. I'm stuck being this weird cartoon character for the next 20 years." The questioner followed with, "But we ren't your descriptions of Nixon and Edmund Muskie hideous caricatures?" Hunter responded, "This is a rough league we're in." The session ended with Hunter S. Thompson announcing that his obituary for Richard Nixon would be printed in the upcoming issue o f Rolling Stone.

To quiet things down, there was the panel about Zen, Spirituality, and the Beats. The moderator, Saman Sodo has been a Buddhist nun for many years. She said, "When I first read Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg, it was like a knife going through me. I was in shock for three days. The poem revealed the very deepest expressions from the bottom of the human soul. During the panel on Censorship, the legal battles behind the publications of Howl and Naked Lunch were detailed. Michael McClure recounted how his play, The Beard, was busted fourteen times, when Nancy Reagan and Charlton Heston led a drive to get it banned. A guest from Czechoslovakia told how Ginsberg was crowned "King of the May" in Prague in 1968 and was then expelled from the country as an "imperialist hooligan." Ginsberg warned, "Censorship in America is bigger than ever. Censorship IS the main marketplace of ideas today. You used to have radio and television censorship from 6:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M., now it's 24 hours a day. Howl and Naked Lunch can no longer be broadcast in their entirety." Allen Ginsberg gave his observations about the current state of affairs. "Poetry readings are more popular than ever in Ameri ca, Europe, and China. It brings out young kids, baby-boomers, and old intellectuals and professors with white hair. The attraction of poetry seems to be some sense of liberating the mind and an examination of basic friendliness. There is some compassion for human suffering. An exuberance of the human spirit comes from Walt Whitman. Precision, laying words out on a page, comes from William Burroughs. The breakthrough for gays, women, multi-cultural affairs, and Eastern philosophy is connected to poetry." The official conference ended with Allen Ginsberg leading the audience in meditation. On the following day Ann Charters and Allen Ginsberg led off a seven-hour marathon, with dozens of people taking turns reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac: the book that launched The Beat Generation.

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