Tag Archives: America

Poet Esther Cohen on Collaboration

19 Aug

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I had the opportunity to interview poet Esther Cohen for the Festival of Women Writers. She is an amazing talent, and I learn so much just from listening to the types of questions she asks. As someone who has studied writers in collaboration, I was particularly interested to ask Esther about her collaborative projects.

Here’s a snippet from our Q&A:

Nikolopoulos: You’ve done several collaborative projects. For your book Unseen America, you gave cameras to the working class so that they could document their lives and you helped tell their stories. For Don’t Mind Me: And Other Jewish Lies, you worked New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chas. For Painting Brooklyn Stories, you contributed bio-poems to Nina Talbot’s portraits. What is it about collaboration that appeals to you? 
 
Cohen: Yes I have done many collaborative projects, all my life. I’ve written poems with visual arts like the wonderful Nina Talbot, I was lucky enough to collaborate with amazing cartoonist Roz Chast, and I’ve been doing an ongoing project for many years with my favorite photographer Matthew Septimus (our work is on the ON BEING blog on the NPR site at http://bit.ly/1Mb5MZa.) Other people often bring our own work Somewhere Else. Matthew’s pictures, for instance, take my words into another place, a place they want to go.

You can read the rest of the Festival of Women Writers blog.

And just in case you missed it, here’s the interview novelist and Festival co-founder Breena Clarke did with me.

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Allen Ginsberg Channels Walt Whitman

23 Apr

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Allen Ginsberg hung a portrait of Walt Whitman in his home. He said his most memorable day as a student at Newark’s East Side High School was when his English teacher Francis Durbin read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to the class. You can really hear a lot of Walt Whitman in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. I mean, literally, he writes about Whitman in “A Supermarket in California.” More than just that, though, Ginsberg echoes Whitman’s themes. Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” is one such poem that seems simply a more old-fashioned version of Ginsberg’s poetry.

Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat
deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon
intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or
washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
Though Ginsberg had some less kind words for America.

Happy 118th Birthday, Fitzgerald!

24 Sep

442px-F_Scott_Fitzgerald_1921Photo circa 1921, “The World’s Work” (June 1921 issue), via Wikipedia

The man who perhaps best captured the glitz and the glam of the roaring twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Fitzgerald is, of course, the author of The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, Tender Is the Night, and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” He was connected with a group of expatriates living in Paris, who became known as the Lost Generation.

It was this Lost Generation that inspired Jack Kerouac to come up with the term the Beat Generation when he was having a conversation with John Clellon Holmes one day. However, in many ways, Kerouac’s content is dissimilar to Fitzgerald’s. F. Scott — named after Francis Scott Key, the lyricist of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and his second cousin, three times removed (whatever that means!) — glamorized America’s economic boom during the Jazz Age, while Kerouac glamorized the American hobo that sprung up following the Great Depression. Yet, their language, their syntax, is similar in capturing all that jazz.

 

You might also like:::

Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fizgerald, and Eugene O’Niell

 

Kerouac Searched for the Authentic America

17 Jul

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Jack Kerouac has sometimes been accused of being anti-American or of destroying American values, and yet On the Road depicts a young man reveling in America. On the Road is, in many ways, a love letter to the true America. His honest search has inspired countless readers to pack their bags and hit the road, to discover America for themselves instead of relying on what the history books and network news report and the images coming out of Hollywood and glossy magazines.

Burning Furiously Beautiful details Kerouac’s research into American history and what he saw as he traveled throughout this amazing country.

“Devouring history books and Westerns alike, Kerouac lit out after the authentic America, an America that wasn’t mass produced or steeped in fear of atom bombs and Communism but blazed intrepidly, recklessly onward into the horizon, asking:

‘Wither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?'”

~ Burning Furiously Beautiful

Want to know which books Kerouac read and what sort of authentic people he met while on the road? Buy the book from Lulu or Amazon.

Happy 88th Birthday, Allen Ginsberg!

3 Jun

ginsbergAllen Ginsberg at the Miami Bookfair International on November 7, 1985. Photo by MDCarchives via Wikipedia.

 

Today would’ve been Allen Ginsberg’s eighty-eighth birthday, and in honor of the Jersey-born poet’s powerful and beautiful work we asked people on the Burning Furiously Beautiful facebook page what their favorite Ginsberg poem was. I’ve loved hearing the results! So far we’ve heard:

My favorite is “Sunflower Sutra,” in which Ginsberg writes about Kerouac and him sitting under the shadow of a train as the sun set and spying a dried up sunflower amdist the machinery. The line “when did you forget you were a / flower?” slays me every time.

What’s your favorite poem by Allen Ginsberg? Leave it in the comments below or on the Burning Furiously Beautiful facebook page.

Want to read more about Ginsberg on his birthday?

And if you’ve ever been curious about how Allen Ginsberg met Jack Kerouac in the first place, you can read all about the early origins of the key people who came to represent the Beat Generation but who are all really so much more than that in Burning Furiously Beautiful.

 

Happy 155th Birthday, Theodore Roosevelt!

27 Oct

HuntingTheGrisly

Ten years ago — wow, time flies! — I had the pleasure of penning an introduction to Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt’s adventure memoir Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches. As part of my research, I toured his birthplace, a gorgeous brownstone right here in New York City. I loved hearing the inspirational story of how he was a sickly child whose love for reading and nature led to him becoming an advocate for conservation. Just like Jack Kerouac later would, Roosevelt read Leo Tolstoy and dime-store westerns, traveled America, dreamed of ranching (Roosevelt actually did ranch; Kerouac was a lot of talk), became associated with hyper-masculinity, and created a legend out of himself through his writing.

Today marks the 155th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Are the Beatniks Anti-American?

27 May

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmerican flag outside Kerouac’s birth home

I came to read Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with little to no preconceived ideas about the Beat Generation. I had heard of Gilligan but never Maynard G. Krebs. I associated goatees with Ethan Hawke and turtlenecks with Sharon Stone. I liked the poetry bit in So I Married an Axe-Murderer but associated it with the spoken word poets of 1990s coffeehouses. So when I picked up The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, I had no presupposed knowledge of the writers in it or the culture they apparently inspired, apart from having discovered the book in a photo spread of a teen girl’s magazine. The kids in the spread looked like how I looked–or, rather, the cooler version of how I wished myself to look. That seemed as good a reason as any to beg my mom to buy the book for me.

I discovered humor and beauty and sensitivity in the words of the poets and novelists associated with the Beat Generation. When I read Kerouac explain the definition of “beat” as being both beat down and beatific, I understood and believed his words. It enlightened the way I read On the Road, and yet I read it sympathetically in the first place. I was a lot like Sal Paradise, hanging out with a friend who was wilder than I was. I longing to hit the road, to escape the humdrum of the suburbs and walk the city sidewalks of New York.

It was only later that I discovered that many others viewed the Beats and their work quite differently. It was only through reading biographies and nonfiction books on the Beats that I came to see that these writers were referred to as “beatniks,” and that that had a negative connotation. The term was a derogatory amalgamation of “Beat” and “sputnik,” and not being up on my history in my teen years, I understood it simply to mean they were “far out,” like a satellite in the space race. I had certainly heard of the Cold War, but it took me longer to understand that “beatnik” suggested the writers were somehow anti-American.

The idea of the Beats as anti-American took a long time for me to wrap my head around. Kerouac had written such a beautiful novel about America. He seemed so in love with the country and even made me fall in love with it in a new way. Before then, as the daughter of an immigrant, I had considered travel as something to do outside of America. I’d been to Europe but never the West Coast. Reading the Beats, I wanted to know more about this splendid vision of America they described. Sure, Ginsberg challenged America, but growing up decades later than him I was encouraged in school to think independently as he did. One could speak up in love. One must speak up in love.

As I continued to study Kerouac in particular, I learned about how he had been in the Merchant Marine during World War II. So much of what I read emphasized that he’d gotten discharged from the US Navy after being diagnosed with “schizoid personality.” It took more digging to hear a story like this one of how much Kerouac respected even the American flag:

At a party with Kesey’s Merry Pranksters Kesey came up and wrapped an American flag around me. So I took it (Kerouac demonstrates how he took it, and the movements are tender) and I folded it up the way you’re supposed to, and put it on the back of the sofa. The flag is not a rag.

The Beats were far from squeaky clean, but anti-American? I don’t see it. Perhaps the Beats didn’t jive with sock hops and malt shops, but maybe that’s a good thing because those 1950s stereotypes whitewashed the truth and left out large segments of the population. Some of us had fathers who spoke with an accent the way Ricky Ricardo did. Some of were intelligent but didn’t like stuffiness. Some of us liked to play our music LOUD. Some of us were friends with the outcasts. Some of us were misfits ourselves.

This Memorial Day, remember that many who died fighting for our country were just kids looking for a chance to escape from home or hoping for a chance to make something of their lives or desiring to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And think about today’s generation of Americans, those who may be a little rough around the edges or a little outspoken but who are so full of life, liberty, and justice.

You may also be interested in Memorial Day: Kerouac in the Merchant Marines.

Exclusive Interview with Author Paul Maher Jr.

7 Sep

I am so excited to share my interview with Paul Maher, Jr.  He has such incredible insight on Kerouac and the writing process in general.  I think you’ll see why I enjoy working with him so much on Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

How did you first become interested in Jack Kerouac?

I remember one of the first books I ever picked up of Kerouac’s, it was Dr. Sax. I didn’t buy it at the time, I just looked at the back cover and read its blurb: “In this haunting novel of intensely felt adolescence, Jack Kerouac tells the story of Jack Duluoz, a French-Canadian boy growing up, as Kerouac himself did, in the dingy factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts.” That was the exact same sentiment of myself at the time, I must have been about 18 or 19, and my adolescence too was “intensely felt” as well as growing up in Lowell. I also grew up in Centralville in a French  Canadian enclave for about the same time period as Jackie Duluoz. Soon afterwards, when I did buy Dr. Sax, I related to Kerouac’s capturing of the whole scene, the sense of hauntingness; the dialects, the sensibilities, and the mystery of Catholicism. I attended Saint Louis de France school like Jack did, and attended masses there. My last time in the basement of that church, it was for my father’s funeral. I remember sitting in those little wooden pews, smelling the burning candles, and the hushed yet amplified sounds of murmurings, sneezes and the priest standing before us all. It brought me right back to my boyhood when I used to walk there every day. Except, of course, the cycle was complete for my father who had also attended that church as a boy, as well as his parents.

So, dipping into Kerouac was easy for me. That was my introduction, not, like many, On the Road. After reading Dr. Sax and Visions of Cody, my first Kerouac books, On the Road seemed a bit tame. A disappointment really, and it still ranks lower than those aforementioned visionary masterpieces. It is no wonder Dr. Sax was a novel that he was really proud of.

You grew up in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, MA.  What was that like and how does it inform your understanding of Kerouac and his work?

I can’t objectively say what it was like, it just was. There was also a lot not to like about Lowell, like any other town or city. Growing up in Lowell was as natural as anything else. My home address was less than a quarter-mile from three of his Centralville addresses. His house in Dr. Sax was next to the Hildreth Street cemetery, and walking by that cemetery, as a child, the stone wall was high and there were iron gates surrounding it. It was padlocked with a chain. We never got in, so we wondered what was in there, and so that naturally retained a mystery for us. Adjacent to that house was a funeral home, and my father and grandfather were waked there (among others). There was a mystery to all of it, and I easily made those associtations captured so perfectly in his Lowell writings. However, I didn’t feel it so much with Maggie Cassidy or Vanity of Duluoz, because I didn’t grow up in Pawtucketville or attend Lowell High School. Those two books do more to capture an era than a certain mystical reverence for childhood.

I have a high regard for Visions of Gerard as well, because it captures more of the Franco-American sensibility of Centralville, and that sort of insular vibe common to the city. Like Kerouac, I was friends with kids named Plourde and Beaulieu, for all I know they were grandsons of his friends.

Which is your favorite of Kerouac’s books?

In no particular order, any of those books written between 1952 and 1954, especially those that have more of a mystical nature. I love The Subterraneans and Tristessa. The Lowell novels, Visions of Gerard and Dr. Sax; Book of Sketches and Some of the Dharma. I always carry Visions of Cody with me, though I am no admirer of Neal Cassady, I am fond of how Kerouac transmuted that person into his artistic sensibility to create a portrait of bygone America.

One of your greatest skills as a biographer is the thoroughness of your research.  Do you have any tips for aspiring biographers on how to track down hard-to-find material and incorporate the information into a work without it sounding like a Wikipedia entry?

I’m not a trained researcher. I took courses for my degrees on how to conduct research and much of it was rote, based on archaic practices and for the most part, teaching us to dispense with the piecemeal detective work of newspapers and archives, and instead operate backwards by working through secondary sources. For my Kerouac biography, I made it a point not to use the existing biographies as a resource. On the other hand, I had already retained much of what was written and having that knowledge, I could work on another level.

I also operate out of a sixth sense, almost intuiting where material might be, or something that may exist and is worth pursuing by surmising that it might be there. It may be as simple as spelling a name wrong, and then doing searches for it. The Internet has made it awfully easy to do much of it, especially in regards to newspapers and magazines. However, there is also room to abuse it, so that it does sound like a Wikipedia entry.

Per incorporating it, that can be tricky. You always want to use it where it adds to the narrative and doesn’t seem like filler material. I could have easily added anecdotal information on every town Kerouac passed through when he traveled across America. However, the emphasis is on Kerouac, not the town. However, if it was a documentary on the Travel channel, then it works.

I feel like you and I have worked really well together on Burning Furiously Beautiful, but collaboration is not desirable to many people or can be intimidating for those interested in it, particularly artists who want to leave their personal imprint on a work.  However, there is a grand tradition of collaboration; Kerouac himself collaborated with Burroughs on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.  What would you say to someone who is contemplating collaboration?

You just have to operate on blind trust and intuition. I like collaborating, but I can certainly understand the desire to want to have your own book, with just your name beneath the title. I am past that; it doesn’t matter to me if my name is on there at all. Films are created in collaboration with others, books are no exception.

In addition to various biographies on Kerouac, you’ve written Tom Waits on Tom Waits, Miles on Miles, and One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick.  You’ve recently started writing your first novel and are documenting the process through your blog Scrivener Notes.  Why are you documenting the writing process?  What do you think are the positive and negative effects of lifting the curtain to expose the work that goes into writing, especially this early on when the work is still at its nascent stage?

I have always been very open about my work, sometimes to my detriment. To write inside a vacuum, to sit on your idea and let it gestate in isolation doesn’t seem like fun at all. I feel with this little adventure, that the book can just as well bloom when it is fostered by a like-minded community. I think there is something perilous and reckless yet strangely beautiful in throwing your ego out the window and letting the world watch you try to invent something out of nothing.

I have finally arrived to the point in my life that I don’t care about how any book of mine is received, because they are written out of a pure volition of wanting to do it, not having to, and in wanting to do it, once it is done, the act of creating has already been accomplished. The rest is just grist for the mill.

Documenting it just seemed right to do. I always wanted to see someone else do it, and I haven’t found it done to my satisfaction. I could write an entry how thrilled and elated I am to finish a chapter, and the next day write how much I suck. There is a reality television vibe to it. I do understand that it will only appeal to maybe 1% of the people out there, if anyone at all, but since I am doing it for myself, it doesn’t matter to me who reads it in the end. At the very least I will eventually get a novel out of it for better or for worse.

In happenstance, I could say the negative thing is that someone can lift your ideas and run with it. This has already happened with a reputable person in Kerouac studies. However, I think once the writing on the blog is exposed enough, it is more or less on public record so if someone does lift from it, then they are pretty much hurling themselves and their work into disrepute.

You write a little on your blog about why you wanted to make the leap from biography to novel.  What I want to know is how, if at all, do you think your biography work will influence your fiction?

I’m not sure that it will. The work ethic is already ingrained in me. I wanted to free myself from the world of facts and I have started resenting having to prove myself to publishers any longer. I have come to recognize that it isn’t an art form, it is a business, and I do not have a business mindset.

Also, a recent incident when my research and ideas were stolen from me has totally killed the spirit of writing biography, though I do admire others that are more honest in their profession. Operating out of my own intelligence and imagination keeps my ideas and impulses sacred and pure. I guess that’s it.

You also are a photographer and a filmmaker.  While these are notable in their own right, as a writer I am curious if you see any correlation between those art forms and the literary arts?  You and I have spoken before about how the narrative of film has influenced your scene-setting in your books.  Can you talk a little more about this?

The only correlation for it is personal, in that I am creating out of my own impulses to satisfy me. Taking a photo is immediate gratification, writing keeps me constantly busy, and it keeps my depression at bay. It keeps me in books and it serves to keep my mind occupied and focused since it is always burning at both ends.

Through chance and not design, I have a natural tendency to see things cinematically. That takes in imagery, dialogue, and creating a setting. This is how our collective minds are trained, and to bombard a reader with minutiae just for the sake of being all-encompassing with the facts is just an exercise of indulgence. We live in new times, where the facts are available if we want them, within a few keystrokes. I think pointing to the heart of the matter, isolating a biographical scenario like it was a storyboarded scene adds to the appeal of the book tremendously. I think Kerouac also had that in mind with his “bookmovies.”

How do you find time to do everything?  How do you balance all these various projects?

If I had to itemize my time, I couldn’t do it. I live this stuff. I breathe it. If we were taught at the beginning of our lives that we had to make sure we breathe at least eighteen times per minute, and it wasn’t automatic, that we had to go about our daily lives having to count, then we would crumble, sooner or later, under the pressure of it all. It would be too stressful. Instead, it comes to us automatically; we don’t have to make room for it. I just do it because it is all I think about. If I don’t do it, then I feel like shit. My mind turns to mud. I get lethargic. Unbalanced. So, like I said, it has become a survival mechanism for me, whether it is a book, a blog entry, an email or a photograph, all of it is tied into the daily phenomena of my being.

I never have considered how it is all balanced other than I keep my own schedule. When I need a break from one project to let it breathe, I move to another. Eventually I return to all of them.

Actually, managing writing projects is a lot easier than trying to manage a practical everyday life for me. To that end I am a colossal failure.

 

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9/7/12, 10:28am: Several minor edits were made to this interview.

Road Trip with Kevin Russ

23 Aug

I stumbled down the rabbit hole of the Internet into some incredible road-trip photography by Kevin Russ, via Miss Moss. Looking at his photographs of grazing buffalo and wild horses that can’t be broken is like looking into the great American West of the past—and yet his photographs were taken with an iphone.

Kevin Russ’ photographs, wild and natural, rustic and warm, capture a moment that could be any moment in time. Massive mountains and deep gorges speak to the untamed beauty of the American landscape—the type of view that makes you pull over on the side of the road, speechless. You feel small. Not insignificant, but no longer the center of the universe. Your perch in the corner office becomes a little less important. Your eyes readjust. You begin to see.

The photographs have such a timeless quality to them even though there are signs of modern-day life in some of them. There are no people in the photographs that Miss Moss featured, and yet the contemporary traveler is present. There’s the lone yellow school bus traveling in the distance. Mundane-looking cars parked by a corral. The camper on the side of the road. A pastoral home, with what appears to be a kerosene lamp. Teepees. Yellow stripes dashing down grey pavement.

What’s interesting about the absence of people in the photographs is that Russ is actually an amazing portrait photographer. I liked his road-trip work so much that I did a bit of digging around on the Internet and found more of his photos on CameraLuv. He shoots hipsters with envy-inducing haircuts in front of abandoned tires, layers of newspapers, beat-up vans, and industrial fences. Is it any surprise he’s based in Portland?

So then I found his Flickr page and discovered he’s done photography for Radiant, a publication that has published my writing.

I want to languish all day on his Tumblr.

Seeing Kevin Russ’ photography makes me kind of wonder what it would’ve been like if iphones were around when the poets and writers of the Beat Generation were crisscrossing the United States. Allen Ginsberg was the itinerant photographer of the group, capturing hipster friends Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and the like on their travels.

Mixtape: Music and Poetry for On the Road

28 Jun

photo via Aunt13’s 8tracks mix

Aunt13 over on 8tracks made a mix called Music and Poetry for On the RoadIt’s inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and in the blurb she mentions Burning Furiously Beautiful!  How cool is that?!

I have the coolest friends!  I am going to be listening to this while I write, for sure, and daydreaming of hitting the road.  Aunt13 has over 300 mixes, so be sure to show her some love.

You may recall I posted a while back the soundtrack for the On the Road film.  It was just announced yesterday that the film will be making its US debut in late fall.

J. Haeske also made a mix for the soundtrack he’d envision for the film.  Teaser!  I have an interview with him about his new book on Kerouac lined up for you, so stay tuned.

What songs would you put on a mix for On the Road?

Also, I took my own advice about social media, and created a Facebook page for Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the book I’m co-authoring with Paul Maher Jr.  Be sure to “like” the book on Facebook!  We’ll be posting news about the book, information from Across the Underwood, updates on the film, and so much more!