Saturday, March 08, 2008

"Minor Characters"? Beat 'Others' 1

After introducing 4 male authors, all white (although not all generically white-bread American), and approximately half of them more or less straight - it is high time to ask whether there were no women Beat writers, and no Beat writers of colour...

The immediate answer is that of course there were some, but none who have gained as much interest (neither publicly, nor academically) as the big four (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Snyder), nor even as much as the next echelon of writers, which would count Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and perhaps Whalen, Lamantia and Welch (all male). Nor are the main non-writing Beat culture heroes female or black: Cassady, Huncke, Carr - you name 'em - white males...

Thus the sharp irony with which Joyce Johnson titles her memoir of life as a female member of the Beat circle, Minor Characters, is terribly apt. In fact, this irony of marking alterity, simultaneously with hedged belonging, runs through several of the titles which the Beat women who have published about their own lives, as well as the lives of their famous men or fathers, have chosen: Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road and Jan Kerouac's Baby Driver both play off Kerouac's On the Road title and road persona. Two other Beat women's memoirs tell stories of identity crises and formation: Hettie Cohen Jones' How I Became Hettie Jones, and Bonnie Bremser's Troia: Mexican Memoirs (apparently Troia is a Mexican slang term for prostitute) both deal with the sometimes shocking sacrifices these wives made for their husbands, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Roy Bremser, respectively...

However, I have chosen to focus today's blog on two figures who are both excellent poets and have stood up for their identities without subordination and apology. Diane di Prima is a fine, bold poet who has commented on sexual identity and gender inequality through her work (sometimes in a direct writing back to more established male figures), and Amiri Baraka has long since transcended his initial affiliation with the Beats and with his insistence on Black roots and belongings has contributed greatly to political art in the US for at least the last 50 years.

Before discussing these two figures, I do want to point out that the representations of the sexual and racial Other in the Beat 'canon' also are problematic. Kerouac notoriously idolized the racial Other as a Fellaheen primitive, who was more in touch with the land and with the immediacy of human needs and urges, and whose creativity was somehow primordial, and usually pre-linguistic. Thus the great jazz-men of On the Road blow tremendously, but rarely speak - in fact it is their animalistic qualities that are always singled out as their distinguishing marks. The most acute analysis of this figuration of the racial other as the sociopathic, orgasm-directed figure, prowling the subconscious of white disaffected youths, of course remains Norman Mailer's influential essay "The White Negro" which can now be read on-line at Dissent Magazine's website. I recommend that one also reads Frantz Fanon as a companion to Mailer's discourse to get another perspective on what it feels like to wear a white mask over black skin...

The alterity representations get even more striking when the racial and the sexual Other melt into one in Kerouac's prose. Sometimes an unholy marriage of antisemitism and homophobia is found in descriptions of 'fags' and 'queers', and such epithets regularly spilled over into Kerouac's own real-life love-hate relation with Ginsberg (no doubt sometimes spurred on by Kerouac's mother's rather unmitigated racism and bigotry) and his paranoid belief in a Jewish intellectual mafia trying to discredit him and his work.

On other occasions (as in the notorious description of Mardou Fox, the black protagonist of The Subterraneans, whose genitals are seen by the male Kerouac alter ego as oversized and supplemented by monstrous, non-human attributes) it is the depiction of women of colour as promiscuous beings, usually prostitutes - who are on the one hand hotly desired for their primordial sweetness and immediacy (which translates into availability), but on the other always objects of either contempt (when they give in too easily) or fear, as in the case of Terry, the Mexican girl Sal Paradise seduces in On the Road, whom he then instantly decides must be a whore, whose pimp is waiting at the bus station to steal Paradise's money. Although she retaliates by accusing him of being the pimp, and they subsequently make up and Sal spends a bucolic fortnight as a Fellaheen farm worker with her Mexican brothers, he ends up summarily dumping her and moving on when the pressures of her love become too insistent for him to handle...

Not just Kerouac had problems seeing women as equals, as Rebecca Metzger points out in her now apparently defunct blog Beat Generation Women, in which she for instance refers to Ginsberg's less than feminist atitudes towards Elise Cowen, who in addition to being his on-and-off girlfriend during the years Ginsberg experimented with going straight, also served as his typist and would-be friendly critic. Even a quite highly developed consciousness of eco-sensitivity did not stop Gary Snyder from penning a condescending and essentialist poem such as "Praise for Sick Women" (their only apparent sickness being their menstrual cycle), which notoriously begins with these lines:

The female is fertile, and discipline
(contra naturam) only
confuses her
Who has, head held sideways
Arm out softly, touching,
A difficult dance to do, but not in mind.

This reduction of the female to a birdlike simplicity (can dance, but cannot think) is however fortunately not left unchallenged, as Diane di Prima mockingly writes back to him in "The Practice of Magical Evocation":

i am a woman and my poems
are woman's: easy to say
this. the female is ductile
(stroke after stroke)
built for masochistic
calm. The deadened nerve
is part of it:
awakened sex, dead retina
fish eyes; at hair's root
minimal feeling

Di Prima rather indelicately reminds the male poet that the vagina has more qualities than he seems to realize: not merely fertile but 'ductile' - pliable both for the penis going 'stroke after stroke' but ultimately also ductile for the event of childbirth. Females are always objectified by other-labelings: as women poets, writing woman's poems; as passive receptacles 'built for masochistic calm', as ultimately fishlike beings of 'minimal feeling'... Note how even the form and graphic lay-out of di Prima's poem, which btw. borrows Snyder's beginning for its epigraph, parodies his structure and mannerisms, such as the show-off'y parenthesis.

Di Prima's other poems in collections such as This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, Dinners and Nightmares, and Revolutionary Letters, plus her prose in Memoirs of a Beatnik, are all marked by a surefooted sense if independence and self-esteem, while never shying away from controversy and explicit sexuality. Unlike much other confessional literature di Prima's texts regardless of genre are strongly anecdotal and funny in their revelations and observations of the follies of others as well as the poet herself with regards to lifestyle and subcultural choices. In this light it is a bit ironic that di Prima's own official website features a somewhat condescending quote by Ginsberg as its front-page caption, labelling and subtly diminishing her with these words: "A great woman poet in second half of American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity." Why 'woman' poet, why brilliant 'in its particularity'?

Among the several good online resources for di Prima, I recommend's page on her, captioned with a typically ironic "No Problem Party Poem" by her; and, as always with Beat related matters, Literary Kicks has a fine (but too brief) page on her. Why she should be absent from both and the Modern American Poetry site is beyond me. Her major later work, such as the poetry cycle Loba has drawn much praise from fellow female poets (Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy), but the testimonials di Prima herself has gathered on her Reviews page come mainly from male colleagues. Her recent memoirs volume, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, has been well received, too, as a chronicle of the Counterculture heyday:

"Because it is so unashamedly personal and true, it will disturb all those who lived that passionate time when theatre and poetry, love and revolution seemed at last conjoined." - Judith Malina

Listen to her read a poem for her grandfather:

The other women writers associated with the Beats have latterly experienced somewhat of a renaissance, involving getting anthologized more as well as having their work re-issued or published anew in better editions. Among these publications I want to mention 3 memoirs: First, Carolyn Cassady's now classic Off the Road, which she discusses among other places at this website which is the official site of the Cassady estate. Carolyn earlier on published a shorter book on the same topic, her menage a trois with Neal and Jack, titled Heart Beat, which was actually turned into a Hollywood movie, starring Nick Nolte.

Secondly, Hettie Jones, who HAS made it into the Academy of American Poets and has a page at their site, despite only debuting with a poetry collection as late as in 1997, and her very detailed account in How I Became Hettie Jones of life with LeRoi Jones and being his partner in running (out of their apartment in the Village) a publishing house, a newsletter and a journal of experimental poetry, Yugen, which was almost unique in bringing together on its pages the various dissident poetry groups and coteries such as the Black Mountain poets, the New York School of Poetry and the Beats. Jed Birmingham has the following to say about Hettie's role:

Much of the work of constructing Yugen was done by Jones’ wife, Hettie Cohen. Cohen worked as an editor at Partisan Review which gave her invaluable experience in putting together a magazine. She performed many editorial tasks as well as designing the layout. Like with many magazines of the period, the construction process, such as collating, folding, mailing, and stapling, provided a center for the literary community. Collating parties became literary events. Hettie Cohen’s How I Became Hettie Jones is mandatory reading on the literary community in New York City in the late 1950s, early 1960s, as is Diane Di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman. Both books provide detailed accounts of the day-to-day process of running a literary magazine. I highly recommend them.

And finally, Bonnie Bremser, who paid a dearer price than most for following Ray Bremser into refuge from the law in Mexico. There is a very good write-up of Troia: Mexican Memoirs at by Ronna Johnson. Here is her evaluation of how Bonnie Bremser manages to transcend the conventional victim position that seems scripted for her through her forced life in prostitution:

Both protagonist and narrator, Bremser is a sexual adventuress partaking in the descriptive gusto usually reserved in Beat writing for freewheeling masculinity; her confessed inner states provide the text’s gritty, visceral discourse. Merging memoir with road narrative, domesticity with adventure, Troia inscribes a revisionist, hybrid female protagonist. In this, Frazer [Bremser's birth name] converts “beat”—the subcultural ethos that rejected traditional values and inhibitions for nonconformity,
self-determination, and existential improvisations—to her own specifically gendered ends.

Returning to Joyce Johnson, she is one of several so-called Beat 'muses' or almost-wives who has written about their life with one or several of the Beat luminaries. Her memoir Minor Characters and subsequent other beat related works, such as Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, are special in the sense that they also emphasize the role of herself and other women in the circle of friends and writers, and the real work they did to help the better-known writers to become just that: writers. Interviews with Johnson and Hettie Jones from 1999 (carried out by Nancy Grace) have appeared at the Artful Dodge site, giving also a nice historical frame for the Beats:

Much of my research over the last several years has focused on an attempt to expand the definition of Beat by turning the critical lens toward the women. And there were indeed women involved who were much more than girlfriends, wives, or muses. They were writers themselves--poets, novelists, playwrights, editors--individuals who have thought quite seriously about what it meant, and means, to be Beat.

Closing the book for now on the women Beats, I just want to mention the two readers that have appeared: Brenda Knight's anthology Women of the Beat Generation (2000), and Richard Peabody's A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation (1997). Of the two, Knight offers the slightly better selection (she includes precursors and a few artists) and more volume. Both volumes have their stars, mostly writers I have already mentioned. Both also deservedly feature Elise Cowen who committed suicide in 1962, but left poignant poems behind showing similarities to some of Sylvia Plath's work. One volume of critical essays on women Beat writers complements the two readers particularly well: Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation - ed. by Ronna Johnson and Nancy Grace.

Peabody's book is, strangely enough, the only Beat reader to have been edited by a man - Charters, Waldman and Tonkinson who have compiled the three main Beat readers are all women. So it seems there may still be remnants of a gendered division of labour now transposed to the critical field: the men create, the women compile, archive and comment...

The second part of this post will focus on the work of Amiri Baraka and on the racial other in Beat literature.