Tag Archives: Mexico

How Antonin Artaud Came to Influence the Beats

24 Apr

Antonin_Artaud_jeune_b_SDAntonin Artaud had great fashion sense.

Bronx-born writer Carl Solomon joined the United States Maritime Service in 1944 and traveled overseas to Paris, where he was encountered Surrealism and Dadaism. When he came back to the US, he voluntarily admitted himself to a New Jersey psychiatric hospital as Dadaist expression of being beat, being conquered, being overpowered. There, he received shock therapy instead of the lobotomy he requested. He wrote about the experience in Report from the Asylum: Afterthoughts of a Shock Patient.

At the psychiatric hospital, Solomon met Allen Ginsberg. (You can read about how Ginsberg ended up there in Burning Furiously Beautiful.) He introduced the young poet to the poetry of Antonin Artaud, a French poet of Greek ancestry (his parents were from Smyrna) whom he had seen give a screaming poetry reading in Paris. Artaud had written the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), and produced Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci in 1935. The year after that, he went to Mexico, living with the native Tarahumara people and experimenting with peyote, before Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs would pack their bags for Mexico. Another year passed and Artaud was found penniless in Ireland, where he was arrested and deported. Back in France, he was sent to various psychiatric hospitals, where he was subjected to electroshock therapy. Notably, in his earlier years, Artaud had spent time in a sanatorium, where he read none other than Arthur Rimbaud.

Solomon wrote Report from the Asylum with Artaud in mind, while Ginsberg wrote “Howl” with both Artaud and Solomon in mind.

Once again, I could not find any of his poems in public-domain English translation. So, here’s a quote I found interesting and relevant from Artaud’s prose piece The Theater and Its Double:

“I cannot conceive any work of art as having a separate existence from life itself.”

You can read one of his poems, “Jardin Noir,” here.

*4/24/14: The subject’s name was originally misspelled and has now been corrected. Thanks to my reader for pointing that out!

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.

100 Facts on William S. Burroughs for His 100th Birthday

5 Feb

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The title say it all, and I’ve got a lot of ground to cover so let’s just get on with it!

      1. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, which would make him 100 years old today!
      2. But he passed away on August 2, 1997
      3. The S. in William S. Burroughs stands for Seward
      4. Burroughs is actually Burroughs II
      5. Burroughs’ father’s name was Mortimer Perry Burroughs
      6. Mortimer ran a gift shop called Cobblestone Gardens
      7. The II comes from his grandfather
      8. William Seward Burroughs I was the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company
      9. William S. Burroughs II named his son William Seward Burroughs III
      10. Burroughs’ mother’s name was Laura Hammon Lee
      11. Burroughs’ pen name was William Lee
      12. Burroughs’ maternal grandfather was a minister
      13. In the ’60s, Burroughs joined and left the Church of Scientology
      14. In 1993 he became a member of the Illuminates of Thanateros
      15. Laura Hammon Lee’s family claimed to be related to Confederate General Robert E. Lee
      16. Burroughs’ uncle was Ivy Lee, the founder of modern PR
      17. His family was not very affectionate
      18. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri and lived on Pershing Avenue in the Central West End section of St. Louis
      19. He attended the private school John Burroughs School, named after the naturalist
      20. Burroughs was class of ’31
      21. Burroughs’ first publishing achievement was at the school when his essay “Personal Magnetism” was published in 1929 in the John Burroughs Review
      22. He didn’t graduate from John Burroughs School
      23. On its website, John Burroughs School calls William S. Burroughs a “controversial author”
      24. After John Burroughs School, he attended Los Alamos Ranch School, an elite boarding school in New Mexico
      25. Another famous author later attended Los Alamos Ranch School: Gore Vidal (born 1925)
      26. At the boys boarding school, Burroughs kept a diary about his attachment to another boy at the school
      27. Burroughs was a virgin through high school
      28. Burroughs dropped out of Los Alamos too
      29. Next up, he went to Taylor School in Clayton, Missouri
      30. From there, he went to Harvard to study art
      31. At Harvard, he was part of Adams House
      32. Back home on summer break, Burroughs became a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
      33. His beat? Police docket
      34. Surprisingly, he hated the job and refused to cover gruesome stories
      35. That summer he lost his virginity
      36. He shed his virginity to a female prostitute
      37. It was back at Harvard that he was introduced to gay culture when he traveled to New York City with his wealthy Kansas City friend Richard Stern
      38. Stern was apparently a bit like Neal Cassady when it came to driving: he drove so fast that Burroughs wanted to get out of the car once
      39. Burroughs graduated from Harvard in 1936
      40. After he graduated, his parents gave him $200 a month
      41. After Harvard, Burroughs went to Vienna to study medicine
      42. There he became involved in the gay subculture
      43. He also met his first wife there, Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis
      44. Burroughs and Klapper were not romantically involved, but he married her in Croatia so she could move to the US
      45. After they divorced in New York, they remained friends
      46. By 1939, he had become so obsessed with a man that he severed his own finger — the last joint of his left little finger, to be exact
      47. In 1942, Burroughs enlisted in the US Army
      48. When he became depressed that he was listed as 1-A Infantry instead of officer, his mother called a family friend, a neurologist, to get him a civilian disability discharge due to mental instability
      49. It took five months for him to be discharged, and he waited at Jefferson Barracks, near his family home
      50. Afterward, he moved to Chicago
      51. In Chicago, the Harvard grad became an exterminator
      52. The Burroughs family was friends with another prominent family, the Carrs
      53. William S. Burroughs II was eleven years old when Lucien Carr was born
      54. During primary school in St. Louis, Burroughs had met David Kammerer, who was three years older than him
      55. Kammerer had been Carr’s youth group leader and become obsessed with him, following him to the University of Chicago
      56. When Carr fled to Columbia University in New York City, Kammerer followed — as did Burroughs, who moved a block away from Kammerer in the West Village
      57. Carr met Allen Ginsberg at Columbia and introduced him to Burroughs and Carr
      58. Burroughs met Joan Vollmer Adams around this time, and he moved in with her
      59. In the summer of ’44, Carr killed Kammerer with his Boy Scout knife, and then went to Burroughs — Kammerer’s friend — for help
      60. Burroughs flushed Kammerer’s bloody pack of cigarettes down the toilet and told Carr to get a lawyer and turn himself in, but instead Carr sought out help from Jack Kerouac
      61. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses, but Burroughs’ father posted bail for him (Kerouac married Edie Parker to get bail money)
      62. Burroughs became involved in drugs around this time, becoming addicted to heroin
      63. When Burroughs got arrested for forging a prescription, he was released to his parents in St. Louis
      64. When he was finally allowed to leave, he went back to New York City for Joan Vollmer Adams, and together, with her daughter, moved to Texas
      65. It was Joan who gave birth to William S. Burroughs III in 1947
      66. After Texas, the family moved to New Orleans
      67. Around this time, Burroughs was arrested after police found letters at Ginsberg’s place that incriminated him
      68. Burroughs, Joan, and the kids went on the lam to Mexico
      69. In Mexico, Burroughs decided to go back to school: he studied Spanish and the Mayan language at Mexico City College
      70. He studied under R. H. Barlow, a homosexual from Kansas City who commit suicide through overdose  in January 1951
      71. He also decided to take up a game of William Tell. It didn’t go so well: he shot Joan in the head, killing her
      72. He only spent 13 days in jail, after his brother bribed authorities to let him out while he waited for trial; witnesses were also bribed so Burroughs would appear innocent. Either way, Burroughs skipped town
      73. Burroughs considers his killing of Joan to be the beginning of his life as a writer; he wrote Queer at this time
      74. Queer was not published until 1985; Burroughs’ first book was actually Junkie, published in 1953 — four years before Kerouac’s On the Road came out
      75. Burroughs III went to live with his grandparents in St. Louis; Joan’s daughter, Julie, went to live with her maternal grandmother
      76. Burroughs himself went down to South America in search of the drug yage
      77. From there, he moved to Palm Beach, Florida, with his parents
      78. His parents paid for him to travel to Rome to see Alan Ansen
      79. They didn’t hit it off romantically, so Burroughs left for Tangier, Morocco
      80. When Kerouac visited Burroughs in Tangier in 1957, he typed up his manuscript for him and edited it into Naked Lunch
      81. In 1959, Burroughs moved to the Beat Hotel in Paris; Ginsberg, Ginsberg’s lover poet Peter Orlovsky, poet Gregory Corso, and photographer Harold Chapman lived there
      82. There, he discovered the cut-up technique of Brion Gysin, which greatly influenced his work
      83. In 1966, Burroughs went to London to seek treatment for his drug addiction and worked there for about six years
      84. Student editor Irving Rosenthal, of Chicago Review, lost his job for publishing excerpts of Naked Lunch and founded his own lit mag, Big Table, where he continued to publish Burroughs’ work. The United States Postmaster General found the work so obscene that he ruled it couldn’t be sent through the mail. This intrigued Maurice Girodias, publisher of Olympia Press
      85. A 1966 case against Naked Lunch remains the United States’ last obscenity trial against literature
      86. Back in the US, Burroughs’ own son had gotten involved in drugs and gotten arrested on prescription fraud (just like dear old dad); Burroughs took him to the Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison
      87. Burroughs covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine; he refused to alter his style to fit Playboy‘s literary demands for another article
      88. Burroughs hated teaching because it expended all his energy and he felt like he got nothing back in return
      89. Bookseller James Grauerholz initiated Burroughs’ reading tour, which helped Burroughs remain in the public eye … and make money for it
      90. In 1976, Burroughs’ son had liver cirrhosis and underwent transplant surgery; Burroughs stayed with him in 76 and 77 to help care for him
      91. Burroughs III cut off his father, writing an article in Esquire that said his father had ruined his life, and died in 1981
      92. In 1978, the Nova Convention took place — a multi-venue retrospective of Burroughs’ work that included readings and discussions by Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, and Timothy Leary in addition to concerts featuring The B-52s, Debbie Harry, and Philip Glass
      93. Speaking of musicians, in the 90s Kurt Cobain hung out with Burroughs
      94. In the 80s, Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent the remainder of his life
      95. Always the gun aficionado, there he created an art form in which he used a shotgun to shoot spray paint bottles that would explode paint onto a canvas
      96. In 1983 Burroughs was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
      97. He played a character from one of his own short stories in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy
      98. His collaboration with Nick Cave and Tom Waits gave birth to Smack My Crack, a collection of short prose and spoken-word album
      99. Burroughs died from complications of a heart attack
      100. He is buried the Burroughs family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery

Tim Z. Hernandez Gives a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Manana Means Heaven

16 Sep

TimTim Z. Hernandez photo courtesy of the University of Arizona Press

I’ve often thought that poets make the best prose writers, and I was reminded of this once again as I read award-winning poet Tim Z. Hernandez’s novel Mañana Means Heaven. The story is about Bea Franco, the real-life woman who inspired Jack Kerouac to write one of the most poignant passages in On the Road—the story of “the Mexican girl,” Terry. Mañana Means Heaven is by no means a work of fan fiction. It is beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched, and stands on its own. Even as I got caught swept up in the story, I kept wondering how Hernandez did it—how was he able to write such a captivating story about a real person, one he’d met and interviewed, one whose children he’d met, who for so long seemed mythical herself yet was perhaps overshadowed by Beat mythmaking?

When the University of Arizona Press asked me if I’d be interested in participating in a blog hop with Tim Hernandez, I jumped on the opportunity. Special thanks to the University of Arizona Press for arranging this interview and for being great to work with. And, of course, a big thanks to Tim for so thoughtfully answering all my questions.

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How did you first come across Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and how old were you?

I first read it when I was around 17. I believe a friend of mine from Sweden, Jonas Berglund, turned me onto it. He was the poet back then, while I was mostly into painting. He was trying to get me to go backpacking with him in Europe, and he kept telling me how cool it would be. He told me I should read “On the Road,” so I did. That summer I split with him to Europe.

What did you think of it at the time and how has your perspective on the novel changed over time?

I’ve read OTR three times now. At age 17, and then in my early twenties, and then later at around 30. At age 17 I identified with the desire to break free, to adventure and take risks, to get away from the place I called home. In my early twenties I began questioning whether or not these guys, Kerouac and his crew (The Beats), were just completely insane. Also, the idea of a threshold appeared. I related more with the underlying question Sal Paradise was seeking to answer, that is, do I continue on this path of wild abandon, this path as perpetual seeker of truths, by whatever means, OR, do I fall in line with the rest of the world and live a “normal” life clocking in day to day and having a family? It was a matter of maturation. Not that I decided to let go of that desire “to seek” but just that I would go about it differently, in my own way. And then by age thirty, I was reading the book less for its subject and more for the writing itself, the technique and process, and also the idea of lineage. This is what sparked the initial seed for Mañana Means Heaven.

In the introduction to Manana Means Heaven, you say that you became interested in the story of “the Mexican girl” Terry/Bea Franco because it was the part of Kerouac’s novel that you could relate to. I understand that your parents were migrant workers near where Bea’s family worked as migrant workers. I know you also worked for the California Council for the Humanities interviewing immigrants about their lives and struggles. Were your parents immigrants? Can you talk a little about your relationship to and interest in the migrant worker experience and how it relates to your writing?

Yes, all of this was very influential to my wanting to write about Bea Franco. My work with CCH, and even the Colorado Humanities today, has been very instrumental in the research and process for the making of this book. It’s the experience of working for them that has emboldened me to walk up porches and knock on the front doors of total strangers, for the sake of stories. Not to mention, having these two entities as a resource throughout my research has been invaluable. As for the other part of your question, my parents were migrant farmworkers, but they were born in Los Angeles and Texas, so they weren’t immigrants. I’m the third generation in my family to be born here in the United States, and I think this is also why I related to Bea so much once I finally met her. My first question to her was, “What do you think about being called the Mexican Girl?” She laughed and replied, “I’m not from Mexico, I was born in L.A..” So she was very conscious of her own identity in this way too. She was not an immigrant by any means, and I believe that it’s possible this assumption about her is what kept Kerouac biographers from finding her, or even looking. In any case, having come from the same background as Bea Franco, the farmworker experience, living among the labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley, this was all part of my growing up. My parents and grandparents used to travel all over picking crops, grapes, hoeing sugar beets, so I knew the people from this place very well. When Sal Paradise entered the San Joaquin Valley in “On the Road” I felt he was now entering my world, a distinct place that is in every fiber of who I am, and I knew I could write about this with some authority.

Similar to your experience with Bea Franco, part of what continues to draw me to Kerouac is his ethnic experience and how he writes about feeling a duality within him. I was born here in New York City, but my father is an immigrant. He moved here from Greece when he was in his thirties, and he felt embarrassed because sometimes people couldn’t understand him because of his accent. Kerouac’s parents were immigrants from Quebec, and although he spoke English as a child he really didn’t feel comfortable with the language until he was a teenager. I think our immigrant experience was much different, though, because of our skin color. Kerouac is seen as a quintessential American novelist while Bea got pegged as “the Mexican girl” even though they were both born here in the States. Was Kerouac’s portrayal of the immigrant experience something you were interested in or were you mainly interested in telling Bea’s story?

Yes, all valid points here. Bea too was in that strange purgatory of “immigrant born in the U.S.,” and she too was very light skinned with green eyes, and because of it was sort of an insider-outsider, similar to Kerouac’s and your own situation. In some of our conversations she talked about how she was treated differently, sometimes cruelly, while growing up because of her complexion. In many ways, hers was a real “Chicana” experience, before the term was popular. She was balancing between two cultures at once, was educated in Los Angeles public schools, spoke fluent English and Spanish. She loved both the Mexican classic songs, and the big bands of her time. In 2010 she still had stacks of records by Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, folks like that. When I first met her she had a portrait of Ronald Reagan in her dining room. It took my aback for a moment, until I asked her about it. I was afraid she’d say something like, “He was our greatest President.” But instead, she said, “He was a great actor and I loved his movies,” and then she chuckled. Bea loved being American, and even though her father was from Mexico she clearly identified with aspects from both sides of the border. In regards to the last part of your question, yes, I was mostly after Bea’s story, about who she was/ is. As a fan of Kerouac’s writing, in the beginning it was tough for me to distance the two, but it was necessary to do so. If I was to write about Bea’s life, to fill in that “missing link” about who “The Mexican Girl” was, I had to start from scratch. That is, I had to, in some ways, reject what other biographers had written about her, and even reject what Kerouac himself had written about her, and go straight to the source—Bea and her family—and start there. So then the question of what she remembered of her time with Jack was no longer significant. Instead I would ask her, Tell me who you are? Where were you born? Who did you love? Approaching it this way would allow readers to enter the book on her terms, not based on anything else written about her previously. This is what I was after.

The Beats have often been criticized for the way they treated and portrayed women. In fact, I have been criticized in the media for being a woman who likes Beat writing. You’ve given voice to one of the most influential women connected to the Beats. The story of “The Mexican Girl” was the first part of On the Road Kerouac got published in a lit magazine. Some might argue that Kerouac used her for her body or for gaining experience for his book. Your depiction of their relationship was quite tender and sympathetic toward both of them. It reads like a beautiful love story. What was your thought process in writing about Bea striving to make a change in her life and cheating on her husband, and Jack leaving and never reconnecting with her?

Yes, my initial idea, as I started to envision the book, was that I’d somehow have the opportunity to “even the score.” That I would make Jack out to be this womanizer only after his own “kicks” or “experiences.” Of course, this was still before I had ever met Bea. Too, I think in order to write a good story, an honest or authentic story, at least in this case, one has to suspend those kind of judgments about their own characters. This occurred to me after I had met Bea and began speaking with her. She never viewed herself as the “damsel in distress,” and in fact, was a woman who took responsibility for her own decisions, in her early years and even now, yet was also very much a romantic. After speaking with her I quickly saw that she was not the naive “Mexican Girl” that Kerouac made “Terry” out to be in “On the Road.” Nothing in our conversations told me that for Bea, at least in her own mind and heart, ever doubted their relationship was a real possibility. Of course, she was aware that this could also mean a new start for her and her children. And this is the sense I get too from reading her love letters to him. In the end, the relationship had to feel like a very real possibility, for her mostly, but for Kerouac too. Because if he didn’t believe in it, then going by what I know about her, she would not have wasted her time.

You tracked down the real Bea Franco and got to know her. How did she feel about being a character in Kerouac’s novel and how open was she when answering questions for your book?

When I located her in September 2010, she nor her children had any clue about the legacy of “The Mexican Girl.” She was just about to turn 90 years old, and when I did tell her, I said something to the effect of, “Did you know you are a famous character in a famous American novel?” Her children, Albert and Patricia, laughed out loud. Bea just sort of nodded and said, “Oh really. I didn’t do nothing so special.” The next thing I did was take out a list of over 20 Kerouac biographies that mention her name. She just shrugged, like it was no big deal. Her son though, Albert Franco, who Kerouac dubbed “Little Johnny” in On the Road, he opened up his laptop and started typing stuff into the search engine. There he was now at age 70, blown away by it all. I can’t describe the feeling of it, but the word “surreal” comes to mind. I just sort of sat there praying they wouldn’t kick me out of the house. A couple of visits later, while interviewing Bea, Albert asked me, “After all these years…how can so many people mention my mother’s name in their books and never tell us about it?” I didn’t have an answer for them. But I knew right then that I had already done a couple of interviews and still had not formally asked their permission. I felt, symbolically at least, that this was necessary. So I asked her point blank, “Bea, can I write the book about your life?” She said, “Sure.” I replied to her, “What would you like the world to know about you?” She answered, “Oh, I guess that I tried hard to be a good person.” Albert was sitting with us too. At the time he looked reluctant with the idea of yet another book. I told him, “People will continue to learn about your mother from all these books, or I can write the only book with her input, her own words, from her perspective, and after that everyone will no longer guess at who she is.” I think it was after he did his research on me and saw that I was a kid from Fresno whose parents were also migrant farmworkers, did he finally begin to trust me. Of course, Albert and I are now great friends.

How did her children react? You uncovered Bea’s affair and described her and Jack’s relationship in pretty sensual terms. Did you feel any awkwardness writing about any of this or any responsibility toward her and her family for how you portrayed the events?

Patricia and Albert are both very proud of the book. As are the rest of their family and friends, many of who are the children or grandchildren of some of the background characters in my book. As for the “sensual” aspect, this is probably where I had the toughest time writing the book. Which seems weird coming from me, since both of my first two books have been called “raw,” “graphic,” “sexual,” in past reviews. But here I was dealing with someone else’s life, not purely my own imagination. My first attempts with the love-making scenes were horrible. A good friend who was a first reader told me, “You’re writing as if Bea herself is standing over your shoulder.” And this was true. I was worried about losing the trust of her and her children. I didn’t want it to come across as distasteful. But still, in order for anyone to be convinced of this romance, an affair where two adults holed up in a hotel room for several days, then the range of intimacy had to be present—everything from long talks in the wee hours of the night, to the ebb and flow of emotions, sex, regret, risk, liberation, all at once. I’ve long considered myself to be the kind of writer who doesn’t shy away from “the real,” and in fact, this is what I returned to as the book was being written.

Manana Means Heaven is categorized as a work of fiction. How much of it is true? In literature, where do you think the lines are drawn between fiction and creative nonfiction?

This is the kind of question that would require many pages to even scratch the surface, so I’ll try and give you the brief version. “Fiction” and “Creative Non-Fiction” are genres, and I treat them as such. Neither are qualified substitutes for “the actual.” Isn’t this part of what Kerouac’s own legacy is built on? The idea of writing it as he lived it? If I had to put it into a percentage I would say about 75% of Manana Means Heaven is “true” from Bea’s perspective. The other 25% is authored by me, but also rooted in truth, about the life of farmworkers in the 1940’s, about the history of that part of California and the people who worked the land. Like I told Bea herself, even though it’s called “fiction” it’s still closer to the truth about who you are than anything else out there. Which is odd when considering that most of what is out there can be found in the “Non-fiction” books shelves. Reason being is that biographers have only counted on Kerouac’s version of events. One of the first biographers I contacted when my research began was Paul Maher Jr. This was because his book, “Jack Kerouac’s American Journey” had the most unique pieces of information about Bea than any other book out there at the time. I wondered how he knew certain things, so I asked him. Turns out he had read Bea’s letters to Kerouac, which were housed in Kerouac’s archives at the New York Public Library. So Maher had dug a little deeper than most in regards to Bea. And now only recently, Joyce Johnson’s new book “The Voice is All” has echoed some of what Maher had discovered. I imagine now that my book is out we’ll start to see more accurate information about Bea Franco, which is also a big part of why I wrote this book.

You’re also an award-winning poet. I think poets often make the best writers. Can you talk a bit about how you approached this novel as a poet or how the writing process differed?

Yes, ultimately, I feel at home with poetry. For me, prose is like going to work, slinging a hammer from 6am–5pm. Poetry is like the ice cold beer you crack open when the day is done. Poetry was my focus throughout my undergrad and graduate degrees. But I do love telling stories too. Why can’t both happen? In writing I don’t begin by saying “I’m going to write a poem today.” Or, “I’m going to make this a story.” I write and allow the muse to tell me what it is. Even then I’m skeptical, or open about it. I keep writing until I get to a point where I go, okay, now I have to make a decision here. In the end, my main goal is tell a damn good story. It so happens that for me a good story is one that works on multiple levels. Not merely subject, but on the line level. For me a good story also has language that sings, that isn’t afraid to dig deep in the crates, use fresh turns of phrase, make rhythm, use imagery that evokes emotion.

Can you talk a little about the literary device you used in opening and closing the book in the same way?

Yes, there are two ends to the book, Bea’s story, and then my search for Bea. The idea of starting the book at the second ending emerged somewhat organically. I had to figure out how to let the reader know that this book is rooted in my interviews with Bea, and I had to address the one thing that I knew would be on the minds of Kerouac fans, that is, what did she remember of her time with Kerouac. And then there was one big wrench in the machine that I also had to figure out how to get around. By starting from the very end of what is considered the “non-fiction” portion I was able to set these three things up so that when the reader finally enters the “fictional” portion of Bea’s story, they have suspended their idea of “fiction.” The book went through something like twelve drafts before I could figure this part out. There was a lot of shuffling chapters around and reconfiguring the whole thing…in fact, there were times when I thought to myself, who am I kidding? It’ll never work. But I finally found a combination that did work.

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Tim and I will be continuing this conversation this Thursday night at La Casa Azul.

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Meanwhile, join Tim Z. Hernandez on the rest of his blog-hop!

Tim Z. Hernandez Blog Tour:

Tuesday, September 17 | The Daily Beat http://thedailybeatblog.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, September 18 | La Bloga http://labloga.blogspot.com/

Thursday, September 19 | The Big Idea http://www.jasonfmcdaniel.com/

Friday, September 20 | The Dan O’Brien Project http://thedanobrienproject.blogspot.com/

Saturday, September 21 | Impressions of a Reader http://www.impressionsofareader.com/

Video from Collaboration with Jazz Musician David Amram

19 Sep

 

This is the video from my collaborative reading with David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe on Labor Day.  If you missed my full recap, you can read it here.

In the video you’ll hear me reading a section on Jack Kerouac’s time in Mexico, which gives some perspective on Kerouac’s faith, his sensitivity toward animals, and his tumultuous friendship with Neal Cassady.  The book I’m reading from is my book with Paul Maher Jr. called Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Special thanks to my videographer Liz Koenig.

The event also picked up some press!

Larry Closs mentioned it in his article “Transcending Beat with David Amram.”

The Pappas Post mentioned it in “Stephanie Nikolopoulos and Jazz legend David Amram pay tribute to Jack Kerouac.”

Recap — with Photos! — of David Amram Reading

10 Sep

 

When musician David Amram introduced me before I read with him at Cornelia Street Cafe on September 3, 2012, he very generously said people should pay attention because one day they’d see me on television.  To me, though, reading with David Amram was a much bigger deal than being on television.  There are countless television shows, but there is only one David Amram.  While there are many fantastic musicians and writers out there whom I’d be honored to read with, there are few who hold such a special place in forming my creative identity as Amram does.

I first became acquainted with Amram through studying Jack Kerouac when I was just a teenager.  I was enamored with his improvised performance as Mezz McGillicuddy in the 1957 Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie film Pull My Daisy.  In fact, this photograph, featuring Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, who all collaborated on the film, is probably my all-time favorite photograph of the poets, writers, and artists associated with the Beat Generation.  It seems to so purely capture their friendship: just a couple of people hanging out at a cafe, maybe talking about the arts, or maybe just drinking coffee late into the night and enjoying each other’s company.

Although it was literature that introduced me to Amram, his music fascinated me.  Here was a musician who was more than just skillful.  Amram is an innovator.  He’s someone who experiments, improvises, blends genres, captivates.  He is, quite simply, mesmerizing to watch and listen to.

Through reading biographies on Kerouac and also reading Amram’s own biographies, I came to discover the jazz-poetry readings Amram and Kerouac began doing in the Village in 1957.  These were improvised sets, requiring each to masterfully foresee and adapt to changing tempos and moods in each other’s works.  These jazz-poetry collaborations captured my imagination, challenging my view of art and the way in which it’s created, the musicality of words, and the role of collaboration, improvisation, and performance in literature.  As I read about the collaborations in musty library books, forty-some-odd years after they’d taken place, I envisioned what it must’ve been like to be in the crowd at a painter’s loft or at the Circle in the Square.  Did the people there realize they were part of history?

In 2001, I had the opportunity to ask Amram just that when I interviewed him for some research I was doing at the time.  I sat enthralled, clinging to his every word, as he told me about all the places he used to hang out at in New York, about collaborating with Kerouac, and about how the term “Beat Generation” is just a marketing term that people later attached to the individual artists who each create unique works.  As he talked, answering all of my questions and never rushing me, and later as I read another biography of  his, I realized that Amram is the real deal — a creative genius and also a beatific individual, an artist who inspires and encourages.

Amram has been someone whom I’ve long admired, both on an artistic and a personal level.  Reading about those 1957 jazz-poetry readings he did with Jack Kerouac, I never imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to read the book I’m writing on Jack Kerouac with him.  When my former editor suggested we attend Amram’s show at Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village, I excitedly said yes.  A few days later, I had to email him back to say Amram had invited me to read with him.  It was completely surreal.

The September 3, 2012, show was completely sold out.  I had some friends who were turned away at the door.  Special thanks to Cornelia Street Cafe’s Robin Hirsch and the staff for hosting the reading and for doing such an excellent job in organizing the event.  I read a short selection about Kerouac’s time in Mexico from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the book I’m co-authoring with Paul Maher, Jr.  It was really exciting because author Larry Closs and painter Jonathan Collins, both of whom I met through the Burning Furiously Beautiful Facebook page, were in the audience.  Poet and producer RA Araya, who has been hugely supportive of my work and whose birthday bash was the premiere reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful, was also there, and graciously provided the photography you see here.  I had some other family and friends there as well and am so appreciative of their support.  It means more to me than most people realize.

As soon as my videographer, Liz Koenig, sends the video, I’ll post it so you can hear me reading with David Amram and his band.  The band, consisting of Amram, Kevin Twigg, and John de Witt played so beautifully — even more of a feat, considering Twigg had hurt his hand before the show.  The music was haunting and fit the piece that I read so perfectly.  I wanted to remain present in the moment, to really hear what they were playing, and savor the moment.  It was one of those times in life that I wanted to tuck into my heart and cherish.

 

 

David Amram, Stephanie Nikolopoulos, Joe Pacheco

Stephanie Nikolopoulos, David Amram, RA Araya

Character Growth in “On the Road”

27 Aug

A friend of mine told me he was reading On the Road and couldn’t figure out what the point of the novel was.  He was only partway through and wanted to know if the characters ever grow.

I thought it was such a fascinating question!

As I’ve posted before, I do believe that the narrator, Sal Paradise, grows.  He is exceedingly complicated.  He’s zigzagging across America, refusing to conform to society.  And yet he keeps stating that’s what he so desperately wants.  He wants the house and the wife.  Likewise, he’s Sal Paradise—oh what a name!—is out cavorting with a car thief, and yet he’s constantly thinking about God and heaven and the holy.

I guess I can kind of relate to Sal Paradise a bit, and maybe that’s why I feel like the whole notion of whether his character grows is a complicated one.  I so often feel torn between two things that don’t seem to fit together.

I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a contemporary reader thing, or both, but it seems like we have this notion that characters have to change, grow, evolve.  We want them to become people by the end of the story.  …I guess that’s because we want that for our own lives.  We like inspirational stories—be they self-help books or Hollywood movies.  We think if this lowly character can overcome this-or-that, maybe we can too.

But how often does life play out like an inspirational book or movie?  Isn’t it more often the case that life is pretty mundane?  That we continually struggle with the same issues over and over again?  Aren’t we always searching for meaning?  Significance?  Trying to understand ourselves better?

I suppose if I’m honest, I do want to like the characters I read about, and I do want them to grow.  But I don’t think they have to.  I think part of what I love about On the Road has more to do with the language.  I’m not a huge fan of Kerouac’s poetry—though I do enjoy a few of his haikus—but I love the poetry imbued in On the Road.  I love reading his novel because of how sensual, visual it is.  I feel like I’m looking out the car window with him.  I don’t really care whether he’s in California or Mexico, whether he’s picking cotton or hitchhiking.  It’s all just so beautiful.