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During times of upheaval, art of all kinds can offer solace and refuge. As an antidote to the horrors we are all grappling with these days, I recommend to you the life and writing of Harold Norse (1916-2009),  an out gay man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, his centennial year, let’s have a look at who he was and what he was all about.

The Brooklyn native was a smart, sexy guy with a winning smile. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1938 and later earned an M.A. from New York University. His elegant lyric poems received high praise from William Carlos Williams, who called him the best poet of his generation. First in Europe and then in San Francisco, Norse found his milieu among the Beat writers. His numerous books of poetry, his experimental novel, The Beat Hotel, and his memoir were published by both mainstream and small presses beginning in 1953.

Here’s Norse writing in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (Morrow, 1989) about a letter he received from W.H. Auden:

Wystan had repeatedly said, and had written in a letter to me, ‘Live every moment as if it were thy last,’ quoting an Anglican hymn he had sung in childhood. And although the context of this line was religious, I could believe the thought without the religion. There was no other way to live. Certainly not if you were in your twenties and the most devastating war in history had just ended. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky the government did not have room in its military machine for young men designated 4-F because of ‘feminine reactions.’

But Norse did fight during World War II–in New York City. One day on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, he encountered a drunk beating up a peddler and hollering anti-Semitic epithets:

Nobody made a move to help the old man. The crowd’s passiveness and the helplessness of the old peddler at a time when millions of innocent Jews were being terminated in the gas chambers of Europe proved too much for me. I pushed my way forward through the throng and hovered a moment indecisively. Then, almost without my knowing it, my fist shot out of the crowd and the drunk went down, flat on his back, his head thudding on the asphalt. A cheer rose from the crowd, which began to disperse, many thanking me warmly, shaking my hand.

Norse was a man of many talents. In the late 1950s he arrived in  Paris and soon began experimenting with cut-up writing, a technique that William Burroughs made famous. Norse was also painting:

I had begun painting at a suggestion from Julia Laurin. I threw colored Pelican inks at random on Bristol paper and washed them off in the bidet with startling results: a series of maplike drawings of outer and inner space in the most vivid colors and minutely precise details, as if they had been meticulously drawn by a master hand. Yet my hand never touched them. I allowed everything to happen, letting the laws of chance take over, acting as a medium through whom these colors, shapes, and designs would flow, dictated by whatever forces reside in the unconscious. With the feeling that I was charting new territory in the visual arts I worked compulsively, calling the results ‘Cosmographs’–cosmic writings. I was no draftsman, but I was an artist. When I showed them to Burroughs [… ] he was so enthusiastic that he wrote the introduction to my first one-man show, which opened a year later in March 1961 at the English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine.

These are just a few glimpses of Norse, someone I knew little about until I became friends with Todd and Tate Swindell of San Francisco. The Swindell brothers have done a great deal to promote Norse and other San Francisco Beats who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

A writer and activist, Todd Swindell had admired Norse’s poetry for a long time before he began helping Norse around the house near the end of the poet’s life. After Norse died, Todd compiled his archives. He also took on the enormous task of editing I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2014). Later this month, he will be presenting a talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel,” at the European Beat Studies Conference in Manchester, England. In July, Todd and Tate Swindell will host and participate in a series of discussion panels commemorating the centennial of Norse’s birth. For more info on these panels (two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles), go to the Events page at haroldnorse.com.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Swindell by email. Here’s what he had to say about his old friend Harold Norse.

What does Harold Norse add to the Beat Movement? 

Harold adds a strong connection to Modernism to the Beat Movement. He was publishing in magazines like Poetry in the 1940s. When W.H. Auden arrived in the States, Harold was among the first Americans to connect with him, and he became Auden’s secretary. Harold also got to know Anaïs Nin, Dylan Thomas, and James Baldwin.

Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene. Nor would we have had Harold’s magazine Bastard Angel, from the early 1970s, publishing a new generation of writers such as Andrei Codrescu and Neeli Cherkovski in the same pages as Bob Kaufman and Diane di Prima.

Where was Harold living when he was editing and producing Bastard Angel, and how long did it last? Where is it archived?

Bastard Angel magazine began shortly after Harold moved to San Francisco in 1971, inspired by the city’s poetry scene and its mixture of younger and older poets. Issue #3, the last one, came out in the fall of 1974. The mock-ups and other production material are archived at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Harold sold them a part of his archives in the early 1980s. Most of his papers are housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

How did Harold get along with Allen Ginsberg? Did they have much contact?

Harold met Allen in the winter of 1944, a week before Ginsberg met Kerouac. It was on a subway train, very early in the morning heading to Greenwich Village, when Allen entered the empty car wearing a red bandana around his neck, taking a seat opposite Harold. When the train’s rumble would quiet at each stop, Harold could hear the 18-year-old mumbling to himself while his head bobbed as if he were in a trance. Eventually he recognized “The Drunken Boat” being recited in French. “Rimbaud!” Harold shouted. “You’re a poet!” Allen replied. They went back to Harold’s apartment on Horatio Street and compared poems. The pair would have likely met later at parties or bars in the Village, but they were acquaintances more than friends, similar to Harold’s connection with Frank O’Hara.

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Allen Ginsberg and Harold Norse (photo by Gerard Malanga, 1973)

There was a subtle rivalry between Norse and Ginsberg. In Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, he mentions the time Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived in Paris in 1961 on their way to India. At a party filled with champagne and hashish, Peter pestered Harold to disrobe. After swigging and toking, he complied, but then Peter disappeared into the bathroom. Eventually most of the guests ended up in their birthday suits, as Allen sternly guarded the bathroom door. The whole story is well worth reading.

When I was gathering Harold’s archives, I found correspondence to Allen asking him for a letter of recommendation. Harold was trying to obtain a paid teaching position. Ginsberg replied he didn’t have time to comply and ultimately such a letter would not make a difference. In his defense, Ginsberg was inundated with such requests.

In Harold’s archives at Indiana University, there is a series of photographs by Gerard Malanga taken in 1973 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Allen and Harold were both in attendance wearing the colorful hippie garb of the day. You can see their bright smiles. As you know, Ginsberg was a talented photographer and he photographed Harold in the kitchen of his Mission District apartment in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful photos taken of Harold.

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Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1988

Did Harold have a workaday job, or was he able to earn a living as a writer? 

Harold’s paid employment varied throughout his life. In New York City, he taught at colleges like Cooper Union. When he left for Italy in ’53, his finances were very strained. At first he worked dubbing English films into Italian and then taught English, on and off, for a couple years. During his years abroad, Harold was supported by a couple of patrons who were from wealthy families but lived frugally. This support was usually a vacant apartment or money for food—but only the bare necessities.

When Harold repatriated to California in 1969, he tried to obtain a regular teaching position but was systematically rejected by petty professors jealous of his time abroad. There was an image projected of Harold being too wild because of his poetry. In the 1980s he had some stints at a college in San Jose and at San Francisco’s New College. Harold scraped by his whole life, but of course he’d been doing that since he was a child. His parents were always leaving furnished rooms under cloak of night because they couldn’t pay the rent.

I read that he rearranged the letters in his surname, Rosen, to come up with Norse. Why did he do that? What was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage?

Like his hairpiece, Harold’s name change was something he never spoke of. According to his memoirs, Harold’s new name came from childhood readings in Norse mythology and because his mother’s family were Nordic Jews, blue-eyed blondes from Lithuania. Though his mother was suspicious of religions (and people), her siblings converted when they married spouses who were Catholic.

Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.

What are some of the poems you especially admire in I Am Going to Fly Through Glass?

A selection of my favorite poems can change from day-to-day. For now…“Piccolo Paradiso” is a love poem for the ages. “Believing in the Absurd” is a snapshot of Harold’s time at the Beat Hotel. “California Will Sink” is a prophetic lamentation about global warming. “Remembering Paul Goodman” encapsulates the queer poetic geniuses of 1940’s Manhattan. “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” merges the lusty odes of Catullus with the liberating playfulness of James Broughton.

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What were some of the challenges of compiling and editing this edition of selected poems?

 My original idea was to photocopy a chapbook of Harold’s poetry and circulate it amongst friends, a stoking of the fire, as it were. I’d self-published a memorial chapbook of poetry from Harold’s friends like Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Eddie Woods after he died in 2009. (Readers can email me at poet@haroldnorse.com to purchase a copy.) It wasn’t until Neeli Cherkovski suggested a full-length collection that I set my sights higher, which meant going back and reading all the poems again.

The 2003 edition of Harold’s collected poems is comprehensive but poorly organized and needlessly repetitive. I wanted to illustrate the development of Harold’s poetic voice, mirrored by his world travels. Including photographs from Harold’s archives accented this progression. Neeli contributed a brilliant introductory essay that motivated me to include additional poems.

It was hard not to give up when publishers repeatedly turned down the manuscript. I was on the verge of self-publishing when Ed Foster from Talisman House came in with a wonderful offer to print 700 copies­—considerably larger than the usual small-press poetry print runs.

Tell me a story about Harold Norse that only you would know.

Harold’s last years living alone in his cottage apartment in San Francisco were fraught with loneliness, compounded by lack of restful sleep. Though social by nature, he had become increasingly isolated. There was an element within his psyche which could often sabotage an opportunity.

Many folks who knew Harold longer than I have remarked on how he would perpetually kvetch about his work not being recognized. I was in my twenties when we first met and naively unaware of Harold’s role in that situation. I could only be supportive and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, the value of his work obviated Harold’s shortcomings.

One day, venting his woes, Harold expressed concern that he sounded paranoid. His complaint wasn’t specific to his poetry not getting the attention it deserved but more about the difficulty of not getting enough sleep and lacking money and companionship. The day before, I had been reading his City Lights collection Hotel Nirvana, which contains the poem “These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid.” I blurted out the title and Harold looked at me wide-eyed as I explained it was the title of one of his poems.

He was not convinced. I had him locate a copy of the book so I could read the poem aloud. When I was done, Harold had tears in his eyes. “I’m hearing this poem for the first time,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We are unable to see ourselves,” he replied, “That’s why I write poetry–for the reflection that comes from the reader.” It was then I begin to appreciate what my friendship offered Harold beyond housecleaning and conversation.

To read a selection of Norse’s poems published in Poetry magazine, click here.

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Harold Norse and Todd Swindell, 2008 (Photo by Tate Swindell)

 

If Herbert Huncke were alive today, he would be eagerly following the story of Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two convicted murderers who recently burrowed their way out of maximum-security Clinton Prison in upstate New York.

Huncke knew the place well. A burglar with a long rap sheet and no one to vouch for his character, he served time there in the mid to late 1950s. Given his record, he was grateful to the judge who listened to his plea for leniency and gave him five to six years instead of a decade or longer. But when he thought of his pals Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, gratitude was the last thing on his mind.

As I document in my biography of Huncke, these ambitious writers loved Huncke’s meandering, darkly nuanced tales. When he described a sunset that had terrified him as a young boy alone for the first time or the impoverished black prostitute he encountered in New Orleans in 1938, they listened with rapt attention.

Huncke was not only an adept storyteller but also an excellent specimen of the beat life that the emerging authors wrote about so memorably. The character Herman in Burroughs’s Junky is based on Huncke, as is Elmer Hassel in Kerouac’s On the Road. Huncke is the figure behind Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection” in “Howl.”

All three writers knew that the heroin-addicted Huncke could be an annoying, whining gobbler-upper of their time and money, but he was too interesting to lose sight of altogether.

Except when he was in prison. As day after day passed without word from anybody, Huncke stared at the walls of his cell  and thought of his friends with furious resentment:

Once I did over four years, closer to five, and never received so much as a penny post card of greeting from my so-called friends. Man, I got so it didn’t hurt me or make me regret. Fuck them I paid my dues I went along my way—when it was all over. And when it came time to kick—I kicked on the floor—cold and alone and more dead than alive.

Despite his occasional claims to the contrary, it seemed that he never entirely forgave his prolific writer-friends who didn’t bother to write to him:

I was cut off completely from the outside world I knew. It was a funny feeling not hearing from anyone. I admit I felt very bitter when I came out, I really did.

When Huncke was finally released from Dannemora in 1959, he walked into a literary movement well underway. Kerouac’s inspired naming of the Beat Generation owed its glistening keyword to Huncke, who so often said, “I’m beat, man, beat down to my socks.” Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had fulfilled their literary promise while Huncke was festering behind bars.

Suppressing his anger as he sought his footing in a changed world, Huncke found a place in Ginsberg’s ever-widening circle of friends. He reacquainted himself with Burroughs as well. Kerouac was more elusive, but Huncke had never felt particularly close to him anyway.

Huncke wrote about Dannemora in a harrowing story called “Cuba” and a jaggedly upbeat prose poem called “Dancing in Prison.” He continued to use heroin and other street drugs and stole TVs and other relatively small items, but he had sense enough to retire from large-scale burglary.

I picture Huncke shaking his head in wonder over Matt and Sweat. With their gruff, apt names and their ingenious escape from a place no one has ever escaped from before, they would have fascinated him.

If their time at Dannemora had coincided, who’s to say that Huncke wouldn’t have slithered underground right along with them? A great lover of nature as well as freedom, he might have risked his curiously resilient life for a chance to run through the woods and smell the wildflowers in the fresh June air.


Read more about Huncke in my biography: Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, due out very soon from Schaffner Press. On Amazon here and on BN.com here.

Dannemora map

When I think of the authors I’ve taught who have truly fascinated students, Jack Kerouac’s name is high on the list. No matter how much they learn about Kerouac’s problems and sometimes boorish behavior, most of them still love him at the end of the semester. They’re responding not just to his writing or his life story but to the whole package. Call it charisma. What accounts for it in Kerouac?

He has a great name. He was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, and that is a wonderful banner of a name. When he published The Town in the City in 1950, he called himself John Kerouac–a serious name. By the time On the Road came out in 1957, he was Jack Kerouac and that’s what stuck. Jazzy and fun to say, it’s a little poem that dances on the tongue. Jack Kerouac!

He is photogenic. The pictures of him in his prime are dazzling. No matter whether he’s dressed in plaid shirt and chinos or suit and tie, Kerouac is a knockout. His strong jawline, tousled dark hair, and smoldering gaze appeal to both men and women. His French Canadian heritage bangs against the all-American bravado. Once you’ve seen that sleek, stubborn face, you won’t forget it.

His voice is distinctive. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Lowell accent is smoky and rough-edged. By the time Kerouac was giving readings and interviews, he had traveled a lot and his accent seems to have faded. Recordings give us a wonderfully resonant voice, both light and deep, seasoned with the salt of Lowell.

He’s the king of sentences. Open up any book by Kerouac, close your eyes, and let your finger drop on a sentence. Read it aloud. It will give you a jolt and maybe a lift. Kerouac’s true gift as a writer is at the sentence level. It’s those musical sentences, not characters or plot or symbolism or anything else, that keep drawing in new generations of readers.

He’s all about possibility. Call him selfish, call him obsessive, Kerouac did exactly what he wanted to with his life. His many books are a brilliant legacy but also a challenge. You want to write or paint or learn to play the didgeridoo? Well, who’s stopping you?

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

One evening in October of 1995, I attended a reading by Herbert Huncke in Lowell, Massachusetts. From where I sat in the cavernous old auditorium, the eighty-year-old Huncke looked exceedingly vulnerable. Standing alone under a spotlight, he was a small man with a bony forehead and wide, haunted eyes. He held a little notebook.

He was there to talk about Jack Kerouac, Lowell’s most famous native son, and read a short essay he had composed in Kerouac’s honor.

He began by describing the notebook in which he’d written the essay and was now reading from. The notebook, made of Tibetan rice paper, was a gift from a young friend named Zachary. Then he got around to Kerouac:

This notebook suits Jack’s personality as I saw it. Here is a very serviceable book of unusual appearance—sturdy and distinctive—made by hand and of a subtle shade of plain purple cover binding—soft, tan pages—suggesting a touch of the Eastern or Mideastern culture—earthy in texture and handsome. And Jack—with his rich flow of language, his eyes—filled with a look of tenderness, innocent wonder of all they beheld but affected deep inside, beneath his conscious knowledge of a wondrous world filled with awesome and bewildering beauty constantly stressed by the varying degrees of disintegration—much of his belief about the strength of purity died with his spirit flooded with sadness. Purple has always seemed a trifle unhappy color.

It would have been so easy, in Kerouac’s hometown, to talk about what a wonderful writer he was, what a great guy. But instead, Huncke said he wished Kerouac “had been as loyal to himself … as I believe he tried being to his mother.” He also said that when he was first getting to know Kerouac he never would have guessed “what a strong influence he would have on the literary history of the world.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement. Yet Huncke’s lyrically meandering remarks have substance. He had glimpsed Kerouac’s tender spirit but also his sadness and psychic pain. That’s what mattered. As for Kerouac’s fame, Huncke couldn’t have cared less. Huncke wanted to remember the man he knew, not the cult of personality that grew up around him.

After his reading, he took questions. There was no raising of hands, no moderator deciding who got to speak first. Instead, the questions just sailed out of the darkness toward Huncke, a frail twig wavering in a circle of light.

Suddenly a man’s voice called out: “What’s the most important thing in life, Huncke?” “Love!” Huncke answered, his melodious voice rising. “Love is the most important thing.”

The audience cheered.

That was one of Huncke’s last public appearances before his death the following August. If I had known that someday I would write his biography, I would have lingered afterwards to meet him and talk with him. But I didn’t know, so when the time came to write the book, I got close to Huncke through his writing and his friends.

The friend I got to know first and best was Jerry Poynton, who gave me a copy of The Herbert Huncke Reader, the posthumous collection of writings that convinced me Huncke’s story deserved to be told. (This volume includes his sketch about Kerouac.) Through Jerry, Huncke’s executor and now the driving force behind the Huncke Tea Company website, I met countless friends and acquaintances of Huncke’s, all of whom were willing to share their recollections of this unusual man—a fine writer, superb listener, and consummate storyteller.

For Huncke was all those things, not just a kooky heroin addict who went around saying “I’m beat, man.” Impoverished, extraordinarily sensitive to slights, well acquainted with despair, he parted the darkness when he set words to paper.

Stories like “Elsie John” and “Song of Self” and “Detroit Redhead” light the path connecting him with Genet and Kafka and Dostoyevsky.

Today, on his 100th birthday, I salute Herbert Huncke: the man with the notebook and the beautiful voice. He, too, has had an impact on the literary history of the world.

Herbert Huncke in the Chelsea Hotel, NYC, by Jerry Poynton

Herbert Huncke in the Chelsea Hotel, NYC, by Jerry Poynton

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