Before the Beats, Rimbaud Had a “Bohemian Life”

17 Apr

225px-RimbaudPhoto by Etienne Carjat (1871)

Rimbaud’s kinda cute, eh?

Before Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” during a conversation on the Lost Generation with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, before he went on the road and lived a bohemian life, he attended (and dropped out of) Columbia University. It was through his Columbia connections—which Paul and I explain in more detail in Burning Furiously Beautiful (it’s actually super interesting to discover how they all met and became friends)—that Kerouac met Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg. Back then, the phrase they were throwing around was a “New Vision.”

Carr had borrowed the phrase from Arthur Rimbaud, and the young friends in Morningside Heights used it to mean:

1) Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity. 2) The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses. 3) Art eludes conventional morality.[17]

As a teenager, Rimbaud was part of the Decadent movement in late-nineteenth-century France. The term “Decadents” refers to the clever poets who preferred to show off their literary skill rather than emote as naturally as the Romantics. The earlier Romantics—such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—used more colloquial language than the highly stylized language of the Decadents.

In a letter to a friend, Rimbaud wrote:

I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.

 

Sounds like something Kerouac might write, doesn’t it? Not because the author of On the Road sought to make himself scummy by any means, but because he shook off pretensions and suffered for his art, appreciating the authenticity of experience.

I couldn’t find a translation of any of Rimbaud’s poetry that was in the public domain, so here is Rimbaud’s “My Bohemian Life (Fantasy)” in the original French:

Ma Bohème (Fantaisie)

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
- Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.
- Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

You can read a 1962 English translation by Oliver Bernard here.

 

The Feast Day of Saint Bernadette

16 Apr

469px-Bernadette_Soubirousimage via Wikipedia

Bernadeta Sobiróus was only thirty-five years old when she passed away. A miller’s daughter from Lourdes, France, Bernadette was fourteen years old when she first saw a “small young lady” appear to her while she was out fetching firewood in Massabielle. This apparition requested that a chapel be built in the grotto near there, and later it was revealed that she was the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, a number of chapels were built at Lourdes, and today Bernadette is remembered as a saint even though many did not believe she’d had visions at the time.

In Jack Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, where many French-Canadian Americans resided, there is a a Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, which he writes about it. I’ve visited it twice and wrote about it as part of my Church Hopping column.

 

 

 

Writing Wednesday: Are Writers Right or Left Brained?

16 Apr

brain_resultvia sommer+sommer

Years ago, I read somewhere that right-brained people are more likely to put their right shoe on first. Since being right-brained is associated with creativity, naturally I began telling myself to put my right shoe on first whenever I left the house.

How left-brained of me!

Using facts — instead of intuiting — is a left-brain trait. My very attempt at subverting my instinct proved just how left-brained I am.

When I came across “Right-brained? Left-brained? Take the brain test!” on sommer+sommer, I had to take it. I’ve always been told I’m “creative” and have been interested in the arts, but I also take things very literally and sometimes veer toward the anal retentive. Perhaps that’s why I’m an editor. My left-brain tendencies to follow rules and look at parts can shine in a right-brained creative field that I enjoy.

I think the same holds true for writers. We tend to think of writers as being right-brained thinkers. Writers embrace fantasy, curiosity, chaos, and intuition. But writing takes a great deal of left-brained work.

Language itself is a left-brain trait. Nonfiction writers in particular deal in research and details, also left-brain traits. Fiction authors and poets also consider rules and details, even if they choose to subvert them. I think of the New York School poets in particular when it comes to writing rules, for their very creative writing experiments were in fact formulaic. For instance, Bernadette Mayer‘s “Writing Experiments“:

  • Make a pattern of repetitions.
  • Explore the possibilities of lists, puzzles, riddles, dictionaries,
    almanacs, etc. Consult the thesaurus where categories for the word "word"
    include: word as news, word as message, word as information, word as story,
    word as order or command, word as vocable, word as instruction, promise,
    vow, contract.
  • Structure a poem or prose writing according to city streets, miles, walks, drives. For example: Take a fourteen-block walk, writing one line per block to create a sonnet; choose a city street familiar to you, walk it, make notes and use them to create a work; take a long walk with a group of writers, observe, make notes and create works, then compare them; take a long walk or drive-write one line or sentence per mile. Variations on this.

Forced creativity! I love it!!

Having a successful writing career also take a great deal of left-brained work. As mentioned in Burning Furiously Beautiful, Jack Kerouac kept a running tally of the number of words he wrote each day. He also kept meticulous records of his work. Writers who seek to be published often create writing schedules and work regardless of whether the “muse” inspires them or not, they have to think analytically about the best market for their work, and they must keep notes on when and where they send work out to literary journals. There’s a lot of business in writing, as there is in many creative endeavors.

So what did the brain test reveal to me?

Congratulations
You use your brain equally.

It said I’m 59% left brained and 41% right brained.

You can take the test here. What did you get?

Find more Writing Wednesday entries here.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Music, when Soft Voices die”

10 Apr

ShelleyPortrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819)

When you think Beat Generation do you also think Romanticism? No?? Don’t get tripped up by the overuse of the word “neon” and other supposed markers of so-called Beat poetry. Think more about their shared notions of colloquial language, intuition over reason, and spontaneity. Beat poetry is a natural evolution of Romantic poetry. (Caveat: “Beat Generation” and “Romanticism” are convenient labels, but the people associated with them wouldn’t identify themselves as being “members” of any sort of “movement.”)

I’ve written before about Beat poet Gregory Corso’s connection to one of my personal favorite poets, John Keats. Even more than Keats, though, Corso professed an admiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley. Corso is actually buried across from Shelley. While Allen Ginsberg (read last week’s post on Ginsberg’s Blake vision here)  is known for littering his poetry with the names of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Corso wrote of Shelley in “I Am 25” and “I Held a Shelley Manuscript.” I love, love, love the language he uses in those poems and can relate to the theme of idolizing other poets who have gone before one’s time.

When thinking about possible poems to share with you for National Poetry Month, I decided on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Music, when Soft Voices die” not just because of Gregory Corso’s love for Shelley but because it reminded me of the themes I’d found myself wonderfully entrenched in while recently reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, a book the Beats also read—themes of memory and love and music and flowers. (Swoon, swoon, swoon.) Like Corso’s “I Held a Shelley Manuscript,” Shelley’s “Music, when Soft Voices die” sensually touches on what remains after death.

Without further ado, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Music, when Soft Voices die”:

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap’d for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

What’s your favorite poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley?

Writing Wednesday: Keep In Touch with Your Alumni Network

9 Apr

bookclub1

One of the best decisions I ever made was attending Scripps College. I accepted their offer of enrollment sight unseen. I had never even been in California before arriving a few days before orientation!

I made so many great friends — and I’m STILL making new friends because of Scripps.

A few years after graduating, I began attending the New York chapter of the Scripps alumnae book club. At the time, I didn’t know a single person who attended the book club. None of them were from my graduating year. In fact, it was only after I’d been attending for over a year that someone I’d actually known when I was attending Scripps as an undergrad began attending book club and we reconnected. What’s great about the alumnae book club is that I’ve met so many new smart women, some around my age, some much older, and some much younger.

These women from my book club have been so supportive of me. As I posted a while back, they selected the book I coauthored with Paul Maher Jr., Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” for their January 2014 read and invited me to speak about the book.

The college even posted a photo on the Scripps College facebook page of a group of alumnae from the book club holding Burning Furiously Beautiful!

Even before the book club reading, the Scripps College Alumnae Association posted about the book’s publication on facebook.

I haven’t been supported just online, though. In the Winter 2014 issue, Scripps Magazine featured me (see page 40) in their regular column “ManuScripps” about Scripps authors.

It’s not just Scripps, though. The New School, where I received my MFA, has also supported me. Every week during the academic year, the Creative Writing program emails a newsletter of students’ and alumni’s publications. It’s sent through email to those who attend or have attended the graduate program so I don’t have links to share with you (though the New School Writing is on Twitter!), but they have generously announced my publications.

Does it sound like I’m bragging? Well, I am. I went to a GREAT undergraduate college and a GREAT MFA. I feel so supported by the community I had while I was attending and also by the new community I’ve made back here on the East Coast.

But I’m not any more special than you. YOUR college would love to hear from you. Colleges love to brag about the success of their former students because it makes them look great too.

They’re also always looking for stories to fill the pages of their newsletters. Don’t expect them to keep tabs on you and know about your every publication, though. Many people who work on these publications are interns, work-study students, or volunteers who don’t have time to track you down and see what you’ve been up to. You have to tell them! They want to brag about you, but they have to know how first.

What to send to your alumni network:

Do the hard work for them by sending your alumni publication full details of your latest story any time you get something new published. That means: your full name (perhaps maiden name if you got married), your graduating year, the title of the piece, what type of piece it was, who published it, when it was published, and a link to the story (if applicable).

It’s not just about you

Be sure to give back, though. Class participation counts when it comes to fundraising campaigns, so even if you can’t give a lot, just by giving you’re contributing to the college’s efforts. If you’re a starving artist, there are other ways to give back too, such as submitting free articles for the alumni magazine, meeting with prospective students in your town, fostering a sense of community amongst alumni by congratulating individuals on their achievements, participating in regional alumni events, informing your alma mater about internships and job openings at your place of business, and mentoring recent grads. Cheesy as it may sound, it’s actually a real ego boost to be able to help others. Real success is being good enough at what you do to help others become better at what they want to do.

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Allen Ginsberg’s William Blake Vision

3 Apr

 Blake_Roses_Sun-Flower_LillyWilliam Blake’s illustrated “Ah! Sun-Flower”

I’m kicking off this National Poetry Month series with William Blake for reasons that will soon become obvious. In 1948, when he was in his early twenties, Allen Ginsberg experience a supernatural vision. He was alone in his Harlem apartment, reading William Blake, when the Romantic poet appeared to him. Ginsberg said he wasn’t high at the time but was having some … um, personal alone time. Wink, wink. He looked out his Harlem window at the bright blue sky and realized that the sky had been created, that the sky did the creating, and found God. In later years, Ginsberg experimented with drugs to try to recapture that feeling.

One of the poems that Ginsberg heard Blake read in his vision was “Ah! Sun-flower,” published in his 1974 poetry collection Songs of Experience. Blake illustrated the poem (see above). Here is the poem in its entirety:

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Close to a decade after his Blake vision, while in Berkeley in 1955, Ginsberg composed his own sunflower poem, “Sunflower Sutra.” I’m inclined to say it’s my favorite poem. You can read it here.

You may also like these posts:

And of course you can read more about Allen Ginsberg in the book I coauthored, Burning Furiously Beautiful.

“We’ll Keep at It, Anyway,” Responds Author to DBW Report That Most Authors Make Less than $1000/Year

2 Apr

dbwslidevia Mediabsitro

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond of the excellent writing and publishing blog People Who Write gave a compelling response to Mediabistro’s depressing “Most Authors Make Less Than $1,000 a Year: DBW” post:

We’ll keep at it, anyway….

Yes! Yes, we will. Nana, a friend of mine whom I met through a writing group, goes on to give good reason why we’ll continue to write. Not only that, she suggests that even established authors sometimes step away from their fame to publish under a pseudonym because it’s not about the money.

Even so, as Nana says:

But money would be very nice, and we have no shame in saying so.

What I took away from Nana’s post, though, is that even successful authors are not necessarily making their money from their writing:

And we can’t even hate on E.L. James because, yeah, we want to introduce a companion wine to sip as you read our novel or watch the film that’s been adapted from our bestselling book. J.K. Rowling, Robert Galbraith, whatever your name is, we see you and we want to be you one day, extending our novels into theme parks, selling our homes for $3.6 million and raising $250,000 for charity for a first edition copy of our wildly successful book.

In other words, marketing tie-ins like companion wines and theme parks pad their wallets. I’ve always known this, but it got me thinking:

What would be the perfect tie-in for Burning Furiously Beautiful?

I’m open to suggestions!

Kalo Mina and Happy National Poetry Month!

1 Apr

Happy National Poetry Month!

 

I cannot believe it’s April already. The winter months feel like a blur of snow. While a lot of people complained about it, for some reason I just didn’t seem to mind this year. Maybe it matched my mood. Or maybe since I spend most of my time cooped up in a windowless office or in front of my computer writing it doesn’t much matter if it’s sunny, rainy, or snowy. Still, I’m glad for the hope of spring. I can’t wait til it’s warm enough to go read in Central Park.

And I’m super excited about National Poetry Month! Last year, my friend John, from the Burnside Writers Collective, sent out poems written on the backs of postcards to celebrate, which I thought was a magnificent idea. This year I figured I’d celebrate by sharing poems with you on my blog throughout the month of April.

Tune in Thursdays this April for poems!

Coming Soon! Ferlinghetti’s Travel Journals

31 Mar

Ferlinghetti

In super exciting Beat-, travel-, poetry-, publishing- related news, Liveright Publishing will publish Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s travel journals in September 2015! The suspense is driving me crazy!!

Ferlinghetti is one of my most favorite poets. Back when I was in undergrad, I made my first pilgrimage to City Lights, the bookstore he founded, bought his San Francisco Poems, and proceeded to drag my biology-major friend all around the city to read the poems in their appropriate places. The fact that his travel journals are now being published may just inspire me to hit the road again.

The book, titled Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals, will cover the years 1950 to 2013. As I wrote in my recap of the film Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, Ferlinghetti once traveled to Italy to seek out his family roots and promptly got arrested! He also happened to own a little cabin out in Big Sur, California, where Jack Kerouac stayed; Kerouac wrote a book about his time there that’s since been made into a film. For the record, Ferlinghetti does not consider himself a Beat, and he’s not one of the characters constantly described as sitting in the back of a car driven by Neal Cassady. He’s had his own set of adventures through Cuba, France, Haiti, Mexico, and North Africa.

Kerouac’s literary agent Sterling Lord brokered the deal for Ferlinghetti’s new book with Liveright’s editor-in-chief Robert Weil. You can read more about it in The New York Times.

Remembering John Clellon Holmes

30 Mar

brother

Earlier this month we celebrated what would’ve been John Clellon Holmes’ 88th birthday. Today marks the anniversary of his passing from cancer at the age of 62 in 1988.

Holmes’ first published book was Go, a fantastic novel about the early Beat scene featuring the same cast of characters that Kerouac wrote about in On the Road. In fact, Kerouac and Holmes remained life-long friends, after initially meeting on their way to a party in 1948.

Somewhat recently — 2010 — Ann Charters and Samuel Charters edited Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and The Beat Generation. Here’s the write up on Barnes & Noble:

John Clellon Holmes met Jack Kerouac on a hot New York City weekend in 1948, and until the end of Kerouac’s life they were–in Holmes’s words–”Brother Souls.” Both were neophyte novelists, hungry for literary fame but just as hungry to find a new way of responding to their experiences in a postwar American society that for them had lost its direction. Late one night as they sat talking, Kerouac spontaneously created the term “Beat Generation” to describe this new attitude they felt stirring around them. Brother Souls is the remarkable chronicle of this cornerstone friendship and the life of John Clellon Holmes.

From 1948 to 1951, when Kerouac’s wanderings took him back to New York, he and Holmes met almost daily. Struggling to find a form for the novel he intended to write, Kerouac climbed the stairs to the apartment in midtown Manhattan where Holmes lived with his wife to read the pages of Holmes’s manuscript for the novel Go as they left the typewriter. With the pages of Holmes’s final chapter still in his mind, he was at last able to crack his own writing dilemma. In a burst of creation in April 1951 he drew all the materials he had been gathering into the scroll manuscript of On the Road.

Biographer Ann Charters was close to John Clellon Holmes for more than a decade. At his death in 1988 she was one of a handful of scholars allowed access to the voluminous archive of letters, journals, and manuscripts Holmes had been keeping for twenty-five years. In that mass of material waited an untold story. These two ambitious writers, Holmes and Kerouac, shared days and nights arguing over what writing should be, wandering from one explosive party to the next, and hanging on the new sounds of bebop. Through the pages of Holmes’s journals, often written the morning after the events they recount, Charters discovered and mined an unparalleled trove describing the seminal figures of the Beat Generation: Holmes, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and their friends and lovers.

In addition to reading any of Holmes’ works, Brother-Souls provides a portrait of an author whose work deserves more recognition.