Tag Archives: postmodern literature

That’s Cute that You Think You’re Subversive: How the CIA Promoted the Radical Arts During the Cold War

29 Jul

cia

 

 

During a recent writing workshop that I’m part of with two female writers, our conversation rambled along to the topic of how the CIA had advanced abstract expressionism. That weekend one of the writers asked if I’d pass along the article I had referred to. I did a quick search for it online, and realized I’d actually read several articles about how the CIA had been involved in promoting artistic and intellectual communities that many people tend to think of as nonconformist, liberal, and subversive.

Here’s a quick roundup of articles about the CIA promoting nonconformist art and literature:

  • The article I was thinking of was The Independent‘s “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon,’” about how the CIA used art to show how free-thinking the US was in comparison to Russia during the Cold War
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education published “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” which shows the CIA’s involvement with the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop
  • Work in Progress’George the Gentlemanly Ghost,” references the CIA being involved in The Paris Review.  It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac’s first clip from On the Road was published in The Paris Review. (You can read more about that in my book Burning Furiously Beautiful.)
  • Encounter Magazine, the UK lit mag founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol in 1953, was funded by the CIA

I’m sure there are more, some we know of and some we don’t. Please add your stories and links in the comments section.

There’s a lot to be said here, but it raised a few questions for me:

  • Without the CIA’s help in funding and promoting modern arts, would these works have remained obscure?
  • Is modern art a scam, and traditionalists correct that it’s not real art?
  • Is the art and literature of the 1950s and ’60s a reaction to or a product of its times?
  • Can something be subversive even if it’s a political ploy?

Whole books could be written in answer to these questions. They’re important topics to consider and discuss, but I want to take a far less Big Brother approach and ask:

  • What are you trying to accomplish by being subversive?
  • Why do you want to be different?
  • Where do you get your information and how do you evaluate it?
  • Who is challenging you to think outside of your own box?

I’m all for dancing to the beat of your own drum. But is that what you’re really doing?

 

TODAY: William S. Burroughs Centennial Conference

25 Apr

burroughsimage via CUNY

William S. Burroughs turned 100 back in February — and we’re all still celebrating!

Today the WSB@100 Festival continues at the CUNY Center for Humanities. What I particularly love about this event is how academic it is! Though the writers associated with the so-called Beat Generation are studied in colleges across the country, many critics and scholars alike still focus more on the writers’ personal lives than on their literature. The William S. Burroughs Centennial Conferences tackles weightier issues such as innovation and technique, the business of publishing, and gender politics.

Here’s a look at the schedule:

Fri Apr 25, 9:30am – 6:30pm | Conference | Room 9206-9207

William S. Burroughs Centennial Conference

John M. Bennett
Ann Douglas
Oliver Harris
Barry Miles
Jed Birmingham
Charles Plymell
Geoffrey D. Smith
Anne Waldman
Regina Weinreich
Jan Herman

Held in honor of the centennial of William S. Burroughs’s birth, and the WSB@100 Festival in New York City scheduled for the entirety of the month of April, 2014, this conference will explore the life and works of one of the most innovative and influential twentieth-century American writers and artists. Join us for a series of talks and roundtables by editors, artists, and scholars on a range of issues from the problem of gender in Burroughs’s writings to his role in postwar America little magazines, his still unpublished archival materials, cut-up experiments and novels, and his photography.

“Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you power powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet. Listen. What I have to say is for all men everywhere. I repeat for all. No one is excluded. Free to all who pay. Free to all who pain pay.” – William S. Burroughs

This conference is free and open to the public.

This event will be livestreamed. For viewing during the event, please see here: https://videostreaming.gc.cuny.edu/videos/livestreams/page1/

Join this event on Facebook.

SCHEDULE:

9:30AM  Coffee

10:00AM
Editing Burroughs with John Bennett and Geoffrey Smith

11:00AM
Burroughs and Literary Magazines with Jed Birmingham, Charles Plymell, and Jan Herman

12:30PM Lunch

2:00PM
Biography and Photography: Barry Miles in conversation with Oliver Harris

3:30PM
Gender Trouble with Anne Waldman, Regina Weinreich, and Ann Douglas

5:15PM Coffee Break

5:30PM
Keynote:  Oliver Harris Cutting up the Trilogy

 

Cosponsored by the English Students Association, Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, the PhD Program in English, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, the Doctoral Students’ Council, and the WSB@100 Festival.

You can find all the information on the CUNY website.

* * *

Interested in how William S. Burroughs helped shape Jack Kerouac’s literature? Check out Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the book I coauthored with Paul Maher Jr. (2013). It’s available through Lulu’s print edition, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

I’m with Guo: American Literature IS “Overrated”

19 Feb

Gao

“Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society,” said Chinese British author Xiaolu Guo, speaking about the effect American literature has had on Asian reading habits, on a panel about global literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Oh, and she called American literature “massively overrated.”

I kind of agree. I love American literature, but when I was getting my MFA and started attending writing conferences I began to get frustrated by the push toward what I’ll call commercialism. What I mean by this is that a lot of the feedback I received had to do with creating scenes, telling a story, writing a memoir that reads like a novel. I suppose that’s good feedback because that’s what people want to read…

—Except, I don’t. Much of contemporary fiction seems so contrived to me. Worse, it’s lacking in Art. It’s straightforward, it’s fast-paced, and it’s even enjoyable, but in the same way a sitcom is. Now, I’m not one for magical realism, so I’m not saying I want to venture as far away from the American tradition as Guo might be suggesting, but I think a little messiness, a deeper dive into postmodernism, some stream of consciousness, less obviousness, more layered meaning would do our literature some good, would give it a little more heart, a little more authenticity, more rigor.

What do you think? Which American authors are you particularly enjoying right now that you think would change my mind?

UCLA Prof Blames “Beatniks” for Kristen Stewart’s Poetry

12 Feb

mc

Kristen Stewart’s poetry has been blowing up the internet. I read a bunch of snarky comments about it on facebook last night, and this afternoon on my lunch break I discovered via Poets & Writers that the venerable Poetry Foundation gave it attention on their blog, Harriet.

I wasn’t going to comment on it, but then I read, via The Poetry Foundation, what Brian Kim Stefans had to say about it:

My own initial post went like this: “The second stanza isn’t horrible. Worst part of the poem are those awful adjectives! Stupid Beats.” What I meant by this was that the words “digital” (applied to moonlight), “scrawled” when linked to “neon” (neon is a much overused word by poets who want to sound like Beatniks) and “abrasive” (applied to organ pumps) weren’t working for me….”

What Stefans doesn’t say and what The Poetry Foundation doesn’t say is that Kristen Stewart played the role of Marylou in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat novel On the Road. Part of her training for the film included “Beatnik Boot Camp,” where biographers and Neal Cassady’s son, John Allen Cassady, talked to them about the real-life individuals the novel was based on and the time period. It’s important to state this upfront because the very critique hurled against her work is that it sounds too Beatnik. Whether that’s because her poetry does sound too “Beatnik”—we’ll come back to defining that word in a moment—or whether her association with the Beats fueled criticism of her work is up for debate. Maybe, more than anything, though, the criticism surrounding Stewart’s poetry has less to do with the work itself and more to do with her celebrity persona—which, let’s face it, is similar to how the Beats are reviewed. Even before her poem was revealed, the media has loved to lash out at Stewart.

Actress Amber Tamblyn was also in a Beat-related film—One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur—and has gone on record about being influenced by the Beats. Except Tamblyn blogs for The Poetry Foundations’ Harriet and has published a jazz-inspired poetry chapbook, while Stewart, seven years her junior, revealed her road-trip inspired poem to the women’s glossy Marie Claire. This certainly says something about the difference in the seriousness and literary merit of their work, but it also says something about their celebrity persona and how they are received by the media.

Okay, so now we’re caught up on Stewart. In case Stewart, or you, didn’t know, Stefans makes his authority known at the outset of his open letter:

I’m a poet and professor at UCLA, and thought you might be interested in what some of my poet friends (most of whom also teach and are otherwise very accomplished) and I have been writing on Facebook about your recent poem published in Marie Claire.

I take it Professor Stefans is not a fan of the Beat poetry. That’s fine; to each their own. Stefans is actually quite an accomplished poet, and I particularly respect his postmodern innovations in digital poetry as he bridges the gap between new media and literature. From his UCLA faculty page:

My interests in electronic writing stem directly out of my work as a poet, though it has branched off into any number of art genres that have fallen under the persuasion of digital technology, such as photography, film/video and book publishing. Research interest include creating a “bridge” between the concepts and traditions of various 20th-century avant-gardes — Language writing, the Oulipo, concrete poetry, conceptual art, Situationism, metafiction, etc. — and the various genres of digital literature, including animated poems, interactive texts, algorithmically-generated and manipulated texts, “nomadic” writing, hacktivism and experimental blogs. Presently working on a series of wall projections called “Scriptors” which will appear as gallery and environmental installations in the coming years.

His research and work in electronic literature suggests his open-mindedness toward new and experimental ideas that may not yet be culturally accepted. I would think then that he’d find Stewart’s use of the word “digital” related to his own interests, but perhaps it wasn’t “working” for the Brown graduate who got his MFA in Electronic Literature because it was too obvious of a connection, the word “digital” sounding contrived or outmoded in today’s ever-changing technical world. I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. His forward-searching eye may also be why he lays into her for relying on passé Beatnik clichés and the word “Whilst.” Stefans’ critique of Stewart’s poem is fair and balanced. There is validity to his point about “overused words” in poetry and even Beatnik buzz words.

My contention is with Stefans’ comment “Stupid Beats” and the lumping of Beat literature with “people who want to sound like Beatniks.” Yes, I get that this is a flippant response to pop culture that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, however the cultural knowledge of so-called Beatniks is wrought with so much misconception that it makes me uncomfortable to see a humanities professor at a well-known college perpetuate the stereotype.

Here’s a little Beat 101 refresher course:

  • Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” during a conversation with fellow novelist John Clellon Holmes, in which they were riffing on the Lost Generation and their own generation.
  • Holmes went on to write “This Is The Beat Generation” for The New York Times Magazine in 1952.
  • Six years later, journalist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” in an article for The San Francisco Chronicle. An amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik,” the word, as conceived during the Cold War, was derogatory.
  • In fact, “The Examiner had a headline the next day about a beatnik murder,” reported the SF Gate. Note that this had nothing to do with David Kammerer or any of the writers associated with the literature of the Beat Generation.
  • In the column in which Caen coined the term “beatnik,” he was eye rolling at how Look magazine was doing yet another photo spread on the San Francisco Beat Generation scene, saying “250 bearded cats and kits were on hand.” So right there we have it that he wasn’t commenting specifically on Kerouac, Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the specific poets or poetry associated with the Beat Generation. He was talking about the scene, man.

Let me put this into more current context. Caen used the word “beatniks” the same way people today use the term “hipster.” Think of the way people in the 2000s equated the Williamsburg hipster with the eccentric trust-fund kid wearing aviator sunglasses and skinny jeans and making really bad “art.” That’s the equivalent of a “beatnik.” They’re both pop-culture fads that aren’t wholly indicative of the art, literature, and music that loosely inspired these “scenes.”

Consequently, saying Kristen Stewart was writing in the vein of bad beatnik poetry could be a worthwhile critique and even a very interesting one if the critic were to delve into more specific examples like the use of the word “neon” (HTML Giant questions if “neon” is solely beatnik; I apparently already have a tag for “neon” because I used it for light sculptor Stephen Antonakos … was he a beatnik??), discuss the appropriation and disfiguration of Beat ideas and style (Stefans mentions a colleague who posted a response to Stewart’s poem that suggests an evolution of Beat literature: “If it’s ‘beat’, it’s more Bolinas or young Bernadette than hortatory elder beat.” [hyperlinks mine]), and analyze the cultural phenomenon of beatniks.

Saying “Stupid Beats,” though, is akin to saying “Idiot Pre-Raphaelites,” “Dimwitted Transcendentalists,” or “Insipid Oulipo.” It’s negating an entire body of literature that has resounding cultural importance.

You can read Stewart’s poem “My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole” on IndieWire’s blog, The Playlist.

The Light and Life of Greek American Neon Artist Stephen Antonakos (1926–2013)

19 Aug

I learned via Gregory Pappas, founder of the Greek America Foundation, that artist Stephen Antonakos passed away this weekend. I had the great privilege of attending an exhibition of Antonakos’ neon sculptures at the Lori Bookstein Fine Art gallery here in New York City when the abstract artist was honored for the Gabby Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. You can read about that here. Antonakos attended the event, and I remember him being a quiet, humble artist. Yet his work speaks volumes.

Captivated by the neon lights of New York City, the Greek immigrant—Antonakos moved to the US when he was four years old—the artist began incorporating neon into his art in 1960. In an interview with Zoe Kosmidou, he explained the symbolism—or lack thereof—in his neon work:

My forms do not represent, symbolize, or refer to anything outside of themselves. Such specific correspondences would limit the work’s meaning, whereas pure abstraction, liberated from any external references, is capable of saying so much more. My neons relate formally to architecture and space, but they do not represent anything outside themselves.

Even so, raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, the artist’s work did have spiritual subtext. He created crosses and “chapels.”

Earlier, in the mid 1950s, Antonakos was creating collages. In a 2007 interview with Phong Bui for The Brooklyn Rail, Antonakos said:

And since oil painting was too slow for me to keep up with all of the ideas that were racing through my mind, I felt the physical and spontaneous process of putting various objects together was more suitable to what I needed to get done in those years.

His desire to work fast, engage in a spontaneous process, and collage disparate found objects together resonates with the postmodern aesthetic. We hear the same vision in the works of the abstract expressionist painters and the Beat Generation writers. Antonakos revealed that although he admired the work of the abstract expressionists, he felt he could “get more out of” the Italian artists Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana.

Antonakos went on to have more than 100 solo shows around the work.

For artists of any discipline, one of the great takeaways from Antonakos’ life is that one can have a day job and still be an artist as long as one perseveres. Antonakos worked as a pharmaceutical illustrator during the day and then would work in his studio until 2 in the morning.

Here are a couple of links to celebrate the life and work of this inspired artist:

Biggest Advice for… English Majors

22 Mar

 

I’ve received a lot of emails lately from students at my alma mater, Scripps College, wanting to know how I got started in book publishing and what advice I have for them.  I’ve been responding to emails individually but I thought it might be helpful to do a series of career-advice posts in addition to my regular Writing Wednesday posts here on the blog.

As with all my posts, this is simply my opinion.  There are a lot of great books, articles, and career counselors who can set you on the path to choosing and establishing your career.  I’m offering my perspective because it’s been requested and because sometimes it’s helpful to hear personal experience, but it’s by no means the only advice and methods available.

First up in this series is my biggest advice for English majors.

 

Congratulations!  You’ve decided to become an English major.  An English degree is incredibly versatile.  It can be applied to such exciting fields such as book publishing, journalism, teaching, writing, law, and so much more.  You need to know how to write and comprehend the written word in practically every job, whether you’re writing your cover letter for an application or writing a compelling business proposal once you’ve gotten the job of your dreams.

Plus, English majors are just plain cool.  They’re always walking around with dog-eared paperbacks.  They scribble poetry in blue ink on hand-bound journals and think typewriters are still relevant.  They’re in touch with their emotions.  They’re in touch with the emotions of others around them.  They know big words.  They read the book before the movie comes out.  Okay, so maybe I’m stereotyping, but there’s just something so romantic about English majors as opposed to many of the other majors.  I should know.  I was one.

I knew going into college that I wanted to major in English.  I love working with words.  Reading them, writing them, painting them, savoring them.  Though I do wish I’d taken a few more “practical” courses, I don’t regret my decision to major in English.  It’s had a tremendous impact in my career choice as a writer and editor, and I just plain enjoy studying literature on a personal level.

Here are a few tips garnered from my personal experience as an English major that I hope will help those of you pursuing your degree.

  1. Select a wide variety of English courses.  Variety is the spice of life!  Instead of limiting yourself right away to a particular time period in English literature, load up on courses from different time periods and regions.  You’ll gain a more complete awareness of the full history of English literature and learn how they interact and respond to each other.  Remember that in order to fully understand postmodernism, you need to also study modernism.  Take a Southern Gothic class and an Elizabethan Shakespeare class.  Take a women writers course and an Asian American lit course.
  2. Be open-minded.  My undergrad program was heavy on British literature.  At the time I didn’t really appreciate reading books by Samuel Johnson and poetry by Edmund Spenser because I wanted to study the Beats.  Now, while my focus is still on Beat literature, I’m so thankful that I have a wider knowledge of English literature because it informs me of the history and progression of writing.  Plus, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, published in 1759, could give postmodernists a run for their money any day!
  3. Research the authors you read.  A little trick I learned in grad school was to look up information on the author before I came to class.  Knowing the author’s biography and bibliography helps give context to their books.
  4. Take creative courses outside your major.  One of the courses that had the most impact on my writing was not an English literature class; it was Introduction to Film, taught at Pitzer College by Professor Alexandra Juhasz.  Through the jump cuts and camera angles, I learned about craft and point of view in a way I’d never thought about so clearly before then.
  5. Take digital art classes.  I studied digital art under Professor Nancy Macko at Scripps, and having that background opened up opportunities in web design, typesetting and page layout, branding and marketing, and production.  Even though I have a production manager now who deals with printer specifications of my books, it helps that I have an understanding of production issues.  Furthermore, I know how to create logos and manipulate images, which I can use on my personal blog to promote my own writing.
  6. Find a second subject that captivates you.  If you’re planning on becoming a writer of any sort or working at a publication, it will be useful to have specialized knowledge in a subject outside of literature.  Whether it’s classical music or psychology, the subject will inform your style and subject matter.  I took History of New York at CMC and continually find myself drawn back to what I learned in that class.  It gave me a broader scope of the New York lit scene I admire so much, and I’ve since gone on to study writing under one of the authors of the books we read in that class.
  7. Think outside the campus bubble.  While many college campuses lend themselves to picturesque academic landscapes, I have to brag that in 2010 Forbes ranked Scripps’ campus one of the most beautiful in the world.  The campus is so pretty and yet the academics so rigorous that I really didn’t think much beyond Elm Tree lawn while I was there.  Not only is there life after college, there’s life going on while you’re at college.  Try to picture where you want to be after college and look into what options are available.  Schoolwork is invaluable but so is eating, so try to remember that your schoolwork is only a means toward something greater: your career.  One lousy paper isn’t going to matter in the grand scheme of your career.  In fact, seeking help from your professor may foster a mentoring relationship that will help you in the long run.

All of this is what I learned from trial and error.  I’d love to hear from other English majors.  What advice would you give to undergrads?  What would you do differently?

I’d also love to hear why those of you who were or are English majors chose that major.  What career do you have or hope to have?