Tag Archives: jazz-poetry

Recap: RA Araya’s Music Jam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

12 Mar

IMG_8593

Stephanie Nikolopoulos reading at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, accompanied by flash-back-puppy and Elinor Speirs. Photo by David Lee.

 

On February 16, 2019, RA Araya’s Music Jam rocked the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 E 3rd Street, NYC).

The initial advertised lineup included Good Leaf, acoustic “Piedmont style” guitar picking vocals original compositions; Chris Barrera, guitar vocals original compositions; Cherylina, harmonium vocals yoga chanting; Professor Nancy Mercado, poetry; Alvaro Kitsa-to Andrade reads John Trudell’s poetry; Jeff Wright, poetry guitar vocals; FOAMOLA!! Sparrow, Violet Snow, Sylvia Mae Gorelick, Lawrence Fishberg, Gabriel Quigley; Michael Robinson, vocals guitar; Willie Martinez, drums and timbales, vocals; Gabriel Castellar, lead guitar; Angelo Segarra and his salsa merengue cumbia band, congas timbales piano sax bongos vocals; Antoine Alvear, piano; Joi Sanchez, poetry vocals; Paul Skiff, poetry drumming; Lorena Mnemosyne Cabrera, belly-dance; Alexie F., comedy; Ronnie Norpel, novelist actress comediane, Tract 187: Culture-Clatch hostess; Sasha Smith, poetry; Ahda Hann, performance art; Stephanie Nikolopoulos, poetry; Rachel Printy, poetry; Sebastian Gil, trumpet; Lydia Cortés, poetry; James Peach, free-style hip-hop; RÁ Araya, poetry vocals congas tabla harmonica….; Lighting Design by Julia McCabe; Photography, documenting this event by Katie Grammes.

Some weren’t able to make it, but there were a few surprise guests, including Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman, and the open mic readers.

IMG_8577

Poet Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

IMG_8591

Poet Bob Holman

IMG_8598

writer Rae Printy

IMG_8620

poet Ahda Hann

IMG_8632

Paul Skiff read his ode to Loisaida (the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as Puerto Ricans renamed neighborhood after our friend poet and educator Bimbo Rivas wrote his poem “Loisaida” in the 1970’s. Avenue C in Manhattan was renamed Loisaida Street after Bimbo Rivas passing. It was a very deep emotional moment to all of us that know and knew all the Nuyorican and bohemian poets Paul Skiff mentioned, deep history.” ~RA Araya

IMG_8633

Ronnie Norpel, author of Baseball Karma and the Constitution Blues

IMG_8644

It was a sold-out show, full of energy!

It was such an honor to read my poetry with these legends! RA has been a huge supporter of my writing over the years, and I’m so thankful for all the opportunities he’s given me. As I always say, he is my Allen Ginsberg.

A heartfelt thanks for  Elinor Speirs for playing classical jazz violin while I read my poetry. She will be the musical guest for this upcoming jazz-poetry event I’m producing.

Special thanks to artist David Lee for capturing photographs of me reading at the Nuyorican and to writer Rae Printy for video some of you might’ve seen on social media.

Also thanks to all the friends who supported the event, including author Norma Jaeger Hopcraft.

IMG_8594

Photo by David Lee.

 

 

Find about my other upcoming events, in the Appearances section.

If you’re interested in booking me for a reading, book club, or writing workshop, you can contact me at snikolop {@} alumna.scrippscollege.edu.

Hear Me Read at The Red Room This Wednesday

25 Aug

redroom

I’m excited to reveal that poet RA Araya asked me to read with a bunch of super talented artists this Wednesday, August 27, 2014, from 7 to 10pm, at The Red Room. RA usually somehow manages to persuade me to read Homer in the Ancient Greek (no small feat!), but this time he said I was free to read whatever I wanted so I’m planning on reading from my memoir. If you’re interested in getting a candid look into my weird life, now’s your chance!

Author Ronnie Norpel will be hosting. She runs a great reading series uptown, and I admire the way she makes transitions between sets so natural. The other artists scheduled are each so unique that it’s kind of a dizzying array of poetry, jazz, fiction, and tap dance:

poets performance at 7pm:

  • Moira T. Smith
  • Sarah Sarai
  • Stephanie Nikolopoulos
  • Liz von Klemperer
  • Linda Kleinbub
  • The tap-dancing and choreography of Camille Schmoeker

music by The New York City Brass Brothers at 7:45pm

Chris Barrera & the ‘flash-back-puppy’ band at  8:15pm

The venue is gorgeous. I kind of want to live inside of it. The brainchild of Denis Woychuk, The Red Room is a lush speakeasy-style lounge on the third floor of KGB Bar (85 East 4th Street) in the East Village in New York City. It even has a bathtub by the bar!

tub

The event is $10, but I have a special discount offer for you: if you rsvp on Facebook you get half off! There’s also a 2 drink minimum.

See you there!

* * *

For other upcoming events, check out my appearances page. If you’re looking to book me for a reading or hire me to teach a writing workshop, you can contact me at snikolop {@} alumna.scrippscollege.edu.

See New York Through David Amram’s Eyes Tomorrow

25 Apr

First80

Ever since pioneer jazz French-horn player David Amram mentioned that he’ll be doing an urban hike, pointing out places of importance to him on the Upper West Side, I’ve been counting down the days.

I usually associate David with Greenwich Village. Whenever I see him play at Cornelia Street Cafe or (le) poisson rouge, he always tells enthralling stories of how we’re only steps away from where he and Jack Kerouac did their first jazz-poetry readings or how he used to go into the music store down the street and learn how to play instruments from around the world. It’s that curiosity, though, along with talent and tenacity that allow him to transcend any particular place or “movement” or style. Uptown, he worked, for instance, with The New York Philharmonic’s conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos; in 1966, Leonard Bernstein selected him to be The New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence.

Now, the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has acquired David Amram’s archive and is hosting David Amram’s New York, a series of free events, which includes a screening of a documentary about him and the urban hike. Here’s the info via the New York Public Library:

Composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist, and author David Amram is a musician with a celebrated career as prolific as it is diverse. While his achievements and influences extend far beyond the city, New York has played a vital role in Amram’s life and music. Specific locations throughout New York have served as inspiration for Amram’s compositions, and his pioneering work with Leonard Bernstein and The New York Philharmonic, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, Joseph Papp, Jack Kerouac, Dizzy Gillespie, Pete Seeger, and many other jazz, folk, and world music artists has helped shape the city’s cultural landscape. To celebrate the recent acquisition of Amram’s archives, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center will present David Amram’s New York, a series of public programs and offerings that explore his remarkable career and ongoing relationship with the music of New York.

The series begins on Saturday, April 26 with a screening of the documentary feature film David Amram: The First 80 Years, followed by a conversation between the filmmaker Lawrence Kraman and Amram. Later that afternoon, Amram will lead a walking tour of Manhattan locations that have played a significant role in his life and music. The walk will be co-hosted by author Bill Morgan and sociologist Dr. Audrey Sprenger of SUNY Purchase.

On Tuesday, April 29, the series concludes with a special concert of Amram’s chamber music compositions, featuring a program that spans Amram’s career and musical influences. Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie, will also be in attendance to celebrate her commissioning Amram to compose THIS LAND: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie. Performers for the concert include Howard Wall and Kim Laskowski, both members of The New York Philharmonic, former Metropolitan Opera concertmaster Elmira Darvarova, and saxophonist Ken Radnofsky. The evening will also mark the release of two new albums of Amram compositions: The Chamber Music of David Amram – Live from the New York Chamber Music Festival (Urlicht AudioVisual), featuring Darvarova; and Newport Classic Records’ album of Radnofsky performing Amram’s compositions for saxophone, including the concerto Ode to Lord Buckley and Trio for Tenor Saxophone, French Horn and Bassoon.

In conjunction with the programs, The Library for the Performing Arts will exhibit original materials from Amram’s archives.

One of the most influential and prolific composers of his generation, David Amram has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works, two operas, and scores for the award-winning films Splendor in The Grass, The Manchurian Candidate, and Jack Kerouac’s Pull My Daisy–all while balancing a career as a pioneering jazz improviser, symphony conductor, and multi-instrumentalist featuring 35 instruments from around the world, all of which remain a source of inspiration for many of his formally composed classical works. Amram was a vital force in the Beat Generation, and presented the first-ever public jazz-poetry concerts in New York City in the 1950s with Kerouac. Amram was the first Musical Director and composer for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, for the Phoenix Theater, and for The Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, where he composed scores for new plays by Arthur Miller directed by Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman. In 1966, Leonard Bernstein named Amram The New York Philharmonic’s first Composer-In-Residence. Five years later, Amram became the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s first Musical Director for Young People’s, Family and Free Parks Concerts, a position he held for nearly three decades.

Today, Amram continues to compose music while traveling the world as a conductor, soloist, bandleader, author, visiting scholar, and narrator in five languages. In addition to the David Amram’s New York programs at The Library for the Performing Arts, Amram’s other projects this spring include the release of THIS LAND: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie (Newport Classic Recordings), a live recording of Amram conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his work by the same name, and the DVD release of David Amram: the First 80 Years in May. Amram’s fourth book, David Amram: The Next 80 Years, will be published in 2015.

All events included in the David Amram’s New York series take place at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (40 Lincoln Center Plaza), and are free and open to the public.

David Amram’s New York

Saturday, April 26 @ 1pm
Film Screening: David Amram: The First 80 Years
Post-Screening Conversation with Lawrence Kraman and David Amram In Person

http://on.nypl.org/1l4ObCG
Lawrence Kraman’s 2012 documentary about the life and times of David Amram features interviews and performances with Buck Henry, Pete Seeger, Sir James Galway, Kurt Elling, Paquito d’Rivera, Max Gail, Larry Merchant, Candido Camero, Bobby Sanabria, John Ventimiglia, Philip Myers, Maurice Peress and the Queens College Orchestra, David Broza, Avram Pengas, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, the Earl McKintyre Orchestra, and David Amram and his three children Alana, Adira and Adam. This compelling film not only explores Amram’s unique career and the breadth of his talents, but as the title implies, also proves that one of the most exciting aspects of Amram’s story is knowing that with his endless energy and zest for life, his narrative is far from over, and the future chapters are sure to be just as exciting as the past.

Saturday April 26 @ 3pm
Walking Tour With David Amram
Meet in the lobby outside of The Bruno Walter Auditorium, located at the Library’s 111 Amsterdam Avenue entrance
http://on.nypl.org/1hpUzo5 
David Amram leads this walking tour of Lincoln Center and other nearby locations that have influenced his life and music. The tour will be co-hosted by Bill Morgan and Dr. Audrey Sprenger.

Tuesday, April 29 @ 6pm
Chamber Music Compositions of David Amram: from 1958 – 2014
http://on.nypl.org/1gqMVsQ
Over the course of his career, David Amram has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works. For this concert, he selects four of his favorite chamber works:

Trio for Tenor Saxophone, French Horn and Bassoon (1958)
Ken Radnofsky – Saxophone
Howard Wall – French Horn
Kim Laskowski – Bassoon

Violin Sonata (1960)
Elmira Darvarova – Violin
Linda Hall – Piano

Blues for Monk for Unaccompanied Horn (1982)
Howard Wall – French Horn

Three Greenwich Village Portraits (2014)
For Alto Saxophone and Piano
Ken Radnofsky – Alto Saxophone
Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek – Piano

About The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts houses one of the world’s most extensive combination of circulating, reference, and rare archival collections in its field. These materials are available free of charge, along with a wide range of special programs, including exhibitions, seminars, and performances. An essential resource for everyone with an interest in the arts — whether professional or amateur — the Library is known particularly for its prodigious collections of non-book materials such as historic recordings, videotapes, autograph manuscripts, correspondence, sheet music, stage designs, press clippings, programs, posters and photographs. For more information please visit www.nypl.org.

Don’t live in New York? Check out David Amram’s extensive calendar to see when he’ll next be in your neighborhood.

You may also like:::

 

 

Jamming Jack

7 Nov

Friday night at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac we all headed over to the White Eagle Pub, a dive bar on Market Street.

WP_20131011_020

The evening started off with a viewing of Brent Mason’s documentary Grave Matters. The thirty-minute film got off to a riotous start when one of the people in the crowd fell or fainted off their chair! The film had to be stopped, but after it was determined she was okay, the documentary started rolling again. Whew, what excitement. Canadian musician and filmmaker Brent Mason explores Jack Kerouac’s life and legend by documenting his visit to the author’s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. Complete with interviews from people like Kerouac’s friend and eventual pallbearer Billy Koumantzelis.

Billy was there in the audience and afterwards he introduced me to Brent–who was there with his teenaged son–and Jim Sampas. Jim played some recordings of Jack reciting his work.

David Amram led Jamming Jack and was magnificent as always. I’ve seen him play a few times now, and each time feels unique.

He also invited people up to read and perform in what turned out to be an inspiring evening.

Jerry

Here Lowell’s very own actor and screenwriter Jerry Bisantz, of Image Theater, performs as Jack Kerouac.

Steve

Christopher Barry and his youngest brother Stephen Barry each performed their poetry. Stephen (pictured above) had flown all the way from California to be at the event. I’ve met Chris a few times, and it’s always a pleasure hearing him read. It was nice meeting his brother and seeing that talent obviously runs in the family.

SteveD

Jazz-poet Steve Dalachinsky, whom I’d heard read at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac two years ago, was back to read more poetry! He is brilliant. His wife Yuko Otomo was in the audience, and I wish she’d read too.

Drummer

Throughout the performances, David was playing the piano. He also selected some wonderful young musicians to accompany them. I believe the drummer and the guy on the tambourine were local students. The guy on the box-drum came from further away and was at LCK two years ago. If anyone has their names or contact info, please do pass it along. They were phenomenal.

Toward the end of the evening, David starts talking, says something about an author who wrote a new book, and that she doesn’t know he’s going to call her stage, and then calls out my name! The last time I read with David I was so nervous I could barely eat the entire day. I didn’t have time to get nervous this time around! I read one of Kerouac’s prose-poems. So beautiful! I don’t know that I did it justice, but it was such an honor to get to read Kerouac’s own words in his hometown and with so many phenomenal musicians and writers there.

The event made me kind of sad… It was so fun and inspiring, and I wish that Kerouac would’ve gotten to see that his literature continues to be appreciated to this day by people who are willing to come from far-flung locales of Canada and California and from people in their teens to people in their 80s.

* * *

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

Happy Birthday, Amiri Baraka!

7 Oct

BluesPeople

Happy birthday to the great poet, playwright, critic, and activist Amiri Baraka!

Baraka was born on this day in 1934 in Newark, the same New Jersey city where eight years earlier Allen Ginsberg had been born. His given name was Everett LeRoi Jones, and he went by LeRoi, eventually changing his name in the late 1960s to Amiri Baraka. Baraka had studied at Rutgers University and Howard University before, like  Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, studying at Columbia University. Also like Kerouac, he took classes at The New School. However, while Ginsberg and Kerouac could be found in the English departments, Baraka’s major fields of study were philosophy and religion. It is not surprising, then, that he became known for his social criticism.

As his website states:

Baraka started his professional career by joining the US Air Force in the early fifties.  Destined to be an accomplished author, he did not serve the military for long and switched to a completely different domain by opting to work in a warehouse for music records. This is where his social circle expanded and added the Black Mountain Poets, New York School Poets and the Beat Generation to it. Also, it developed his interest in Jazz music which later matured in making him one of the most sought after music critics. 

Around that same time, in 1958, he married Hettie Cohen. Together they founded the short-lived lit mag Yugen. He also edited the lit mag Floating Bear with Diane DiPrima. His first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. Perhaps the book he is best known for is the 1963 jazz criticism Blues People: Negro Music in White America.

Baraka has gone on to receive the PEN Open Book Award, the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts, an Obie Award (for Dutchman), and the American Academy of Arts & Letters award, and become Professor Emeritus at the State university of New York at Stony Brook and the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.

This is barely even scraping the surface of who Baraka is and the importance of his work. My emphasis on his connection to Ginsberg, Kerouac,  DiPrima, and the Beat Generation is an artificial construct, simply to navigate my usual Kerouac readers. Baraka’s literature and activism is integral to our nation’s history and development. The Poetry Foundation offers a more thorough biography.

Read an excerpt from Blues People on Barnes & Noble.

Find out more on Amiri Baraka’s website.

Evening of David Amram’s Chamber Music and Readings from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

21 Aug
This promises to be an unforgettable evening:
An Evening of David Amram’s Chamber Music
and Readings From Jack Kerouac’s On The Road with music
Friday, September 7, 8:00 pm

 

Symphony Space, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
2537 Broadway @ 95th

 

A tribute concert to celebrate the chamber music of composer David Amram
as a part of the New York Chamber Music Festival

On Friday September 7 at 8 pm, the acclaimed New York Piano Quartet, internationally renowned flutist Carol Wincenc, violinist and former MET Orchestra concert master Elmira Darvarova, eminent cellist Wendy Sutter, New York Philharmonichornist Howard Wall, Metropolitan Opera principal percussionist Greg Zuber, actor John Ventimiglia (of the The Sopranos), famed pianists Tomoko Kanamaru and Hsin-Chiao Liao, talented young musicians from the award-winning ensemble Face the Music with artistic director Jenny Undercofler, the much talked about David Amram Quartet and multi-instrumentalist David Amram himself, will gather at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Symphony Space to celebrate the chamber music of one of the most significant American composers of all times — the indefatigable David Amram, as part of the 2012 New York Chamber Music Festival.

This celebration of David Amram’s chamber music includes a wide variety of the composer’s works which represent his prolific career spanning many decades. Works include the 1960 Violin Sonata, the 1979 piano quartet Portraits, the 1977 Native American Portraits, the 1982 Blues and Variations for Monk, the 1993 Theme and Variations on Red River Valley, the Andante movement from the Concerto for Flute Giants of the Night (commissioned and premiered in 2002 by Sir James Galway), its chamber music version presented at this concert by flutist Carol Wincenc in its New York premiere, and the very recently written 2012 Cancion de Verano (Summer Song), also performed in its New York premiere, by the acclaimed young musicians ensemble Face The Music.  Several of these works are inspired by David Amram’s legendary collaboration with Jack Kerouac, whose iconic work On the Road has its own presence at the September 7 concert, with 5 readings, performed by actor John Ventimiglia (of The Sopranos) and David Amram’s daughter Adira Amram.
Program
Violin Sonata (1960)
Elmira Darvarova (violin) and Tomoko Kanamaru (piano)
Theme and Variations on Red River Valley (1993)
Carol Wincenc (flute) with the members of the Face the Music ensemble
Andante from Giants of the Night* (2002)
Carol Wincenc, flute and Hsin-Chiao Liao (piano)
*New York premiere of the chamber version
Portraits (1979)
Members of the New York Piano Quartet with Wendy Sutter (guest cellist)
Intermission
Cancion de Verano (Summer Song)* (2012)
Members of the Face the Music ensemble
*New York premiere
Blues and Variations for Monk (1982)
Howard Wall (horn)
5 Readings from “On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac (2011)
John Ventimiglia and Adira Amram with the David Amram Quartet
Native American Portraits (1977)
Elmira Darvarova (violin), Greg Zuber (percussion), David Amram (percussion), Tomoko Kanamaru (piano)
*
Tickets: $20 in advance (Symphony Space Members, Students, Seniors $15; Day of Performance $25) at symphonyspace.org or call their Box Office at 212-864-5400

 

David Amram has conducted more than seventy-five of the world’s great orchestras, composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber works, written two operas and, early in his career, wrote and conducted many scores for theater and films, including Splendor in the Grass and The  Manchurian Candidate. Since being appointed by Leonard Bernstein as the first composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic in 1966, he has become one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, listed by BMI as one of the 20 Most Performed Composers of Concert Music in the United States since 1974. The Boston Globe has hailed him, “The Renaissance Man of American Music.”
For twenty-nine seasons, Amram was the Music Director, Conductor and Narrator of Young People’s, Family and Free Summer Parks concerts for the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and for seventeen seasons, Amram was the Musical Director and Conductor of the International Jewish Arts Festival, conducting members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  In addition to conducting, he has also performed with symphony orchestras as a soloist on instruments from all over the world, combining jazz, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Native American and folk music alongside the European classics.
Today, Amram continues to perform as a guest conductor and soloist while continuing a remarkable pace of composing. Recently acclaimed new works include Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie; Three Songs: A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; and Giants of the Night, a flute concerto commissioned and premiered by Sir James Galway.  A Little Rebellion: Thomas Jefferson, a piece for narrator and orchestra, was premiered at the Kennedy Center with Amram conducting;  and Kokopeli, A Symphony in Three Movements, had its world premiere with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, also with Amram conducting.
A pioneer player of jazz French horn, he is also a virtuoso on piano, numerous flutes and whistles, percussion, and dozens of folkloric instruments from 25 countries, as well as an inventive, funny improvisational lyricist.  He has collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kerouac, Leopold Stokowski, Langston Hughes, Dustin Hoffman, Willie Nelson, Thelonious Monk, Odetta, Elia Kazan, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg, Charles Mingus, Lionel Hampton, Paddy Chayevsky,  Johnny Depp, Archibald MacLeish, Pete Seeger, Tito Puente and Joseph Papp.
A documentary feature film, David Amram: The First 80 Years, is currently being shown at major music and film festivals throughout the United States and internationally. Directed by Lawrence Kraman, the film includes the New York premier of his Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie and highlights of his comic opera 12th Night.  Amram is also featured in Andrew Zuckerman’s book and new feature film documentary Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give To Another, as one of the world’s 50 Elder Thinkers and Doers;  and his instructional video, Origins of Symphonic Instruments, released by Educational Video, is shown in over 6,000 schools throughout the United States and Canada.
On Sept 7th, 2012, the 4th Annual New York Chamber Music Festival presents an entire evening of Amram’s chamber music compositions at Symphony Space in Manhattan; and on September 21st and 22nd, Amram conducts the Colorado Symphony in Denver for a program which will include a live recording of his Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
For further information of Amram’s activities, access his webpage.
If you haven’t visited the appearances section in a while, you may have missed this news:
September 3, 2012.  8:30pm.  Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Cornelia St.).  New York, NY.  Stephanie will be reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as David Amram plays, just like the first jazz-poetry readings Amram and Kerouac did in 1957. Amram & Co. includes David Amram, Kevin Twigg, John de Witt, and Adam Amram.  $10 cover, plus $10 minimum.
See you there!

Ramblin’ Jack: Just Because You Don’t Like a Book, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Well Written

20 Aug

Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial.  Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions.  The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing.  The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective.  One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value.  Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.

Take Of Mice and Men.  This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school.  I didn’t like the story.  The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative.  Still, it was a classic!  John Steinbeck!  I should like it, right?  I didn’t.  I moved on to The Red Pony.  Hated it even more.  But I was determined to like John Steinbeck.  Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books.  Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard.  Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.

Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author.  Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book.  And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author.  If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.

I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books.  And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard.  For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.

However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them.  When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot.  One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll.  Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.

I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy.  Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them.  But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance.  Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.

One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy.  The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze.  It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary.  It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius.  It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!

Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:

  • Kerouac’s first language was not English.  He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual.  When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English.  It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
  • While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing.  Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times.  He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
  • The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels.  One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness.  In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles?  The one that goes:

… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

  • Kerouac read voraciously.  He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books.  In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read.  These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
  • In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music.  If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose.  He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.  You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.

Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.

 

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.