If Allen Ginsberg were still croaking around today, he would’ve just celebrated his 90th birthday. I can see it now– the old man and his expansive beard, its gnarls wafting gently at the rims of coke-bottle glasses. He’d invariably be rocking sandals (whatever to the people locking eye-to-fungi) while boy servants fan him with palm leaves, gently though, so he can still roll those double-sized fatty spliff-spliffs from pages ripped out of On the Road and intermittently flash people from underneath his dashiki. Inevitably, James Franco would be VJing a Howl ft. Grimes remix and everything, everything would be lost.
The truth is, Ginsberg passed away nearly 20 years ago (RIP) which means we were spared from witnessing, in real time, a post-post-Ginsberg Ginsberg nightmare like this one. But thankfully his memory has been preserved intact and as the most recognizable Beat, Ginsberg’s cosmic stepping aside may have given more Beat writers, poets, and artists– whose legacy remains incredibly potent but nevertheless obscure– the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of his outsize influence. It doesn’t seem to matter that Ginsberg and the rest of the Beats were distinctly countercultural– historians, academics, and even fellow Beats (Carlo Marx and his band of brothers, anyone?) have treated the movement with the same standards for memory-making that have simplified, whitewashed, and phallic-ified the rest of American cultural history.
As we know, On the Road didn’t have much room for women at all, Burroughs shot his wife, and that inner circle of the best-known Beat poets were all a bunch of white dudes. It’s kind of ironic then, that a gallery named after Ginsberg’s seminal work and Beat & Beyond, an event that kicked off over the weekend with a celebration for the Beat poet laureate’s posthumous birthday, are making a real effort to recover lost stories and recognize artists, including woman and people of color who have long been relegated to the footnotes (if anywhere at all). But then again, an endeavor like this one is what the Beats (including Ginsberg) intended all along.
Bob Holman, a longtime New York City poetry scene luminary and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, recalled that when he was just an “18-year-old kid,” he’d fallen in love with poetry. “The Beats opened up my mind to something beyond the rote classicism of how poetry was being taught then, and showed poetry as a living thing,” he said. “So coming to New York City and being where the Beats were was my dream– and I’m still here.”
He’s also one of the chief organizers behind Beat & Beyond, a six-day event series in collaboration with Howl! Happening already underway that celebrates the prolific artists of the Beat era whose ideas have since woven their way into other cultural movements on up to the present. And really, there’s no better place to have this thing than the Greenwich Village/East Village area, which was the solar center of the Beat galaxy. “The idea of a gathering was kind of a natural way to honor our history and those still alive who actually participated in what was one of the great literary movements of the country, one that really defined literature in the United States,” Holman explained.
Jane Friedman, the founder of Howl! Happening– the East Village gallery dedicated to preserving downtown art and culture– was inspired to coordinate the gathering, in part, because she believes that (Allen Ginsberg not included) many of the Beats really haven’t been celebrated to the degree that other countercultural movements have. “Most of them never got the recognition that they should have been rewarded,” she said. “And this is a very big part of our history.”
The series is certainly historically-minded– several major figures in the movement including John Giorno, and Michael McClure, will perform, read, and present, and of course Ginsberg will be a major topic of discussion too. “That’s really what this gathering is about: going to the source,” Holman said. But many more guests offer deep-cut style history, the story behind the usual story about who led the period of explosive creativity and rebellion against old poetic forms, acceptable music, and stale ideas. Look out for Hettie Jones, Margaret Randall, and a few representatives from the Umbra collective. Still others– Nomadic Wax Collective (a hip-hop group) and the people behind Lost & Found– will demonstrate the impact the Beats had on later generations of artists, musicians, and researchers.
“Kerouac learned from Neal Cassady as much as he learned from any of his Buddhist teachers,” Holman explained. “It’s about experimentation, it’s the integration of different ideas, cultures, and people. And it’s also a party.” It seems that Ginsberg, as we know him, will get a good preening after all.
Throughout the series, there will be a major emphasis on in-person delivery. “It’s a way to hear poetry direct,” Holman said. “What you hear when you’re in a room interacting with the poet, you’re getting direct, you’re clearing out the wax in your ears that’s been collecting for centuries.”
The ecstatic moment and person-to-person experience of poetic performance were majorly important to the Beats, and remain so in spoken word circles. Coffee-house style readings may seem commonplace today, but it’s one aspect of Beat aesthetics that was rejected by establishment poets once upon a time. “They were considered alien creatures, with so much prejudice against them,” Holman explained. “Now people revere them, they’re in the academy, and they’re on the walls of the museums. But back in those days, they had to fight just to be heard.”
And yet some artists associated with the Beat era are still struggling to be heard, in the grand scheme of things very few have been given their proper due. Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman, two black writers associated with the movement who have passed away, will be honored at the fest, while some living poets like Hettie Jones, an often overlooked female Beat figure (Amiri Baraka is her ex) will be reading and performing. “She’s still living in the same apartment that she was living in with LeRoi [Jones] before he became Amiri Baraka,” Holman explained. “She’s still working in the neighborhood, teaching poetry at the [Lower East Side] Girl’s Club, the Bedford Hills jail, still doing the job of the poet.”
Margaret Randall, an extremely prolific artist and writer of the same generation will also be on hand at the fest. “She’s just an extraordinary liberation poet of the first rank,” Holman said. “When the Beats were making the noise in San Francisco, she was in Mexico City publishing a global magazine that had the energy and poetry of the Beats, but looked at it as a world movement. These are stories that aren’t known in the canon, not even known in the history of the Beats so much.”
Tonight, three writers who were a part of Umbra, an art collective of young black artists on the Lower East Side in the early ’60s, will gather for a discussion at Bowery Poetry (5 pm). The speakers include folk singer Len Chandler; Steve Cannon, founder of A Gathering of the Tribes, the come-as-you-are East Village poetry salon and arts organization; and poet/writer David Henderson. The Black Arts Movement, Black Power’s answer to art, can be traced back, in part, to Umbra– as such, these guys will have a lot to say about the role of black artists in the Beat era. (You can also catch Len Chandler today at Bowery Poetry at 3 pm for discussion titled, “Tell Me What You Know” along with Peter Stampfel, Ed Sanders, Steven Taylor, and Hal Wilnor.)
Per the Beat taste for flowy, freeform “happenings,” over the next two days you can catch the artists who have participated in events throughout the fest at a variety of super chill happenings like the one going down tonight at 9 pm at Bowery Poetry, which promises “music and hang-time” with the artists. There’s also a final celebration Wednesday night at the Poetry Project at Saint Marks Church.
Admittedly, the location for Beat & Beyond presents something of a challenge. There’s no denying that the East Village is no longer the same culturally diverse, low-rent neighborhood, and center for bohemian counterculture and creativity that it once was. However, the Beats certainly weren’t the first artists to make their home in the East Village (the influential blues musician, Lead Belly, lived in an apartment on East 10th Street in the late 1930s) nor were they the last.
Jane Friedman should know a thing or two about the area’s transformation– her ties go way back to the 1950s, when she was a kid growing up in Greenwich Village. In high school, Friedman lied about her age and got a job working at The Gaslight Cafe, the famed Macdougal Street coffee shop where a young Bob Dylan played folk songs and Ginsberg read poetry. “I worked at the Gaslight for a long time, listening to the performers,” she said. “I can’t say I was actually friends with any of them, because I was still so young– they had no time for me– but I just loved my life. I loved their message and their way of thinking.”
Back then there “was no such thing” as the East Village, Friedman explained. It wasn’t until the late ’60s that the neighborhood came about. “’68 was the beginning of the East Village– it’s when people came from Haight Ashbury, sat out on the streets, on Saint Mark’s Place, and that was the beginning of the hippie movement.”
She never lost her passion for the neighborhood– her romantic view of the place and the people who occupied it simply grew into a much more tangible feeling of being part of a community. “The East Village is where you came if you had new ideas, if you had no money, if you wanted to be an artist, if you didn’t want to get chased out of town,” she said. “It was a safe house.”
Bob Holman can recall a very different East Village also. “The neighborhood still holds those ongoing energies,” he explained. “Even that corner we’ll be walking across from Bowery Poetry Club– Bleecker Street, across Bowery where CBGB was and making a left at 1st street, where you find Howl!– Jack Micheline the Beat poet used to call that ‘East Bleecker’ and he knew it as the street of dead souls. And, in those days, Extra Place was a rat-infested alley where you drove your van down to unload into CBGB. Now, it’s a high-end shopping alley.” Holman said today we still see that block as one that’s haunted by the ghosts of art movements past.
Both Friedman and Holman believe that the arts (and artists, for that matter) have a future in the East Village. “New York City changes,” Holman said. “We have to keep art alive here, and you don’t keep art alive by just worshipping Broadway and the Met, you keep art alive by having a vibrant community of artists.”
And so the Beat & Beyond programming blends the old with the new. “It wants not only the autenticos, the originals, but also the young ones or the people who think they might be artists, who can discover first hand what that kind of lineage is, which is the way that the arts are passed on and the way the Beats lived,” he explained. “If you weren’t here then, just walk down the street with somebody who was, and let them show you the reality behind the facade, the poem behind the place, and how the Beats lived here and wrote here and made this place, and it still can happen now. Poetry helps.”
There are still two days left in the Beats & Beyond gathering (Tuesday June 7 and Wednesday June 8) see site for details and schedule.