Tag Archives: Stephen Antonakos

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

12 Feb


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:

2011 Gabby Awards: Stephen Antonakos, Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

7 Jun

I am extremely thankful to the Gabby Awards for sending me tickets to attend the 2011 Gabby Awards, a celebration of “Greek America’s Best and Brightest Stars.”  The website describes the Gabby Awards as follows:

The Gabby Awards were created to celebrate and reward the excellence Greek Americans have achieved in various fields. Founded in 2009 to also celebrate the 15th anniversary of the launching of Greek America Magazine, the Gabby Awards serve as the “Oscars®” of the Greek American community.

The 2011 Gabby Awards were held on Ellis Island, and there were special, star-studded events all weekend to celebrate.

On Friday, June 3, the American College of Greece hosted a cocktail and art exhibition to honor Gabby Awards Lifetime Achievement Award winner artist Stephen Antonakos at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.  I’m a huge fan of Stephen Antonakos’ art.  I love modern art in general but I’m particularly entranced with the idea of using neon in fine art, as Antonakos does.  Neon — symbol Ne; atomic number 10 — comes from the Greek word “νέον,”  which means “new one.”  Neon was discovered by British chemists in 1898 and made into advertising signs first in France in 1912.  It wasn’t until 1923 that neon signs were bought in the U.S.  Antonakos, who was born three years later in 1926 in Greece, move to America in 1930 and thirty years later, in 1960, began using neon in his art.  According to the Gabby Awards:

Antonakos “discovered” neon in 1960 when he was intrigued by the light emanating from midtown Manhattan neon signs. From there, he made neon his primary medium, developing his individual contribution to modern art.

I was hoping for a whole roomful of neon sculptures, but there was only one, Plea, at the Lori Bookstein Fine Art gallery.  Plea is a red rectangle, hung vertically on the wall.  Neon light emanates from behind it, making one reconsider the shape, color, and even significance of the red rectangle.

The sculptor of light, Antonakos, says:

My use of neon is really my own.  I began with it around 1960 and very soon it became central to my work.  The geometric forms, usually incomplete circles and squares, were a tremendous excitement to me.  It is very difficult to separate light from space — even when the art is directly on the wall.  For years I have been investigating the great subtlety and range of neon using forms that haven’t changed that much since the beginning.  It’s spatial qualities interest me — formal relationships within a work and with the architecture of the room or building and the kinetic relationship that viewer may feel in the space of the light.  I feel that abstraction can have a very deep effect visually, emotionally, and spatially.

Stephanie in front of Gabby Awards Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Stephen Antonakos' "Drawing/Neon For The University of Massachusetts" (1978, Colored pencil on paper, 38" x 50")

As this quote indicates, Antonakos’ artwork is about more than just neon — it’s also about shape.  At first, some of his works seem simplistic, but upon closer inspection they are brilliantly thought-provoking.  Take for instance, Drawing/Neon For The University of Massachusetts, also up at the gallery.  On top of white paper sits the outline of a circle, done in red pencil.  Except, it’s not a circle at all — there circle never closes, never completes.  It’s very nature — unending — is interrupted, challenged.

The Gabby Awards points out:

In his long and storied career, Antonakos has had more than 100 one-person shows, more than 250 group shows, and almost 50 Public Works installed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is recognized as the world’s pioneer light artist.

Antonakos’ Lifetime Achievement Award was presented the following night at the Gabby Awards, by Helen Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Friday’s event at the gallery was quite lovely, even though I wish there would have been more of Antonakos’ art on view — in particular, I want to see Mani Sky, Arrival, and Transfiguration.

The passed hors d’oeuvres were probably the best appetizers of the entire event.  I’m talking mac-and-cheese croquettes, vegetarian sushi, and other delectable treats, served by charming caterers, who caught on to my dietary choice and looked out for me, going out of their way to give me vegetarian options.

I want to also take a moment to mention Deree, The American College of Greece.  The college’s president, David G. Horner, Ph.D., was there to speak about the college’s esteemed history as “Europe’s oldest and largest, comprehensive, U.S.-accredited academic institution.”  The college offers undergrad, grad, and continuing ed courses.

Congratulations to Stephen Antonakos!  His work will be on display at the Lori Bookstein Fine Art Gallery (138 10th Ave, New York) through June 25, 2011.