(This is the first guest post in our interview series The Literary Life, in which we present fascinating people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of creative inspiration. Today, Laki Vazakas interviews Spencer Kansa, author of 'Zoning', a novel, and 'Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron', the biography of an underground film star who worked with L. Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley. Kansa is pictured above in 1994 with William S. Burroughs at WSB's home in Lawrence, Kansas. -- Levi)
Laki: What was the genesis of your novel Zoning?
Spencer: I began writing Zoning in my early 20s, and William Burroughs read it during my first visit to his home in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992. It’s kinda funny the comment he made about it – that’s been used on the front cover - because I’d never read Celine before then but, having done so subsequently, I presume that what he meant by it was there’s a similar matter-of-factness in relaying horror.
I then left the manuscript on the shelf for over a decade while I worked as a music journalist, then I dusted it down a few years ago and started hawking it to several publishers.
Laki: Describe the publishing process?
Spencer: Well, to be honest, I was beginning to fear that Zoning was a roman maudit - a cursed novel - because it was actually slated to come out a few years ago with an American publisher but, shysters that they were, they reneged on the contract. Then a Portuguese publisher agreed to publish it two years ago, only to tell me, right at the last minute, that they wouldn’t do it with the original cover design we’d already agreed on. I love the cover of the book. It was created by an old mucker of mine, the hugely gifted artist Dan Lish. It’s beautiful, and its dreamy, druggy quality perfectly evokes the hallucinatory atmosphere and spirit of the book. So I refused to have the novel published without it.
1. Michael Stutz recently shared his theory that a diner in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts might have been the inspiration for the name of Sal Paradise, the On The Road narrator. In a follow-up conversation, Michael told me more about the Paradise Diner: it opened in 1937 (when Jack was 15 years old) and can be found on Google Maps here.
2. The poet Adrienne Rich has died. Jamelah Earle has written about this.
3. My younger daughter compelled me to read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games last year, and we were both fairly blown away by the movie (as was Benoit Lelievre and many, many others). The Atlantic has published a good list of the story's mythological and pop-culture sources. (I'm only surprised this article doesn't mention Gone With The Wind, since Katniss's richly layered love triangle with Peeta and Gale strikes me as a clear echo of Scarlett O'Hara's tortuous confusion over Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes).
Michael Stutz began exploring the literary/underground/DIY culture of the Internet as a writer for Wired and Rolling Stone so long ago that, way back when I first showed up on the lit/tech scene (which was a long time ago), he was already there to show me around. After a long self-imposed separation from the online world, he has now returned with a three-volume novel chronicling the entire life story of a connection-hungry connoisseur of online culture. Meet Michael Stutz.
Levi: Your novel Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age is a coming-of-age tale, hearkening back to other classics of the genre from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. But your hero's world is a new one for fiction: the emerging society of online culture, from the early Unix dial-up BBS's of the 1980s to the dot-com mania of the 90s to the more scattered social networking scene of today. What kind of reaction are you getting from readers to the idea that a life lived largely online is one worthy of heroic fiction?
Michael: The novelist Tony D'Souza just called the book's hero, Ray Valentine, "the Everyman of the wired age," so it seems to be natural -- and remember McLuhan: "technology forces us to live mythically." Yet, you know, heroic fiction of the kind we're talking about is almost nonexistent in contemporary literary fiction. Arther S. Trace, Jr., an outsider intellectual, wrote a powerful, prescient book in the early 70s called The Future of Literature. This is about the only book of literary theory to map out and show the decline of heroic fiction. It was a long process, but Trace shows how it really tanks in the day of postmodernism. And you know what? I've always been repelled by postmodernism -- in everything, from literature to architecture. I don't identify with it or fit in with it at all. For decades we've had the postmodern "anti-hero" in fiction, and everything has to be ironic and heartless, and that just doesn't connect with me. I'm Beat and before. Bring me back to that and let's go off in a whole new direction and forget all this other stuff. I want to do something totally different. So if the classical hero is the way, and the new world of the net is my ineluctable material, the combination is pretty much the way it had to be.
1. What do we learn from Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, the second volume of letters edited by Beat Generation archivist and expert Bill Morgan? We learn that Burroughs' obsession with literary splicing and combining possessed many of his thoughts; he writes about the cut-up method constantly, to everybody. We learn that he was polite to his parents and warmly paternal to and concerned about his son Billy. We learn that he had a calm demeanor but a cutting temper, that he couldn't stand Timothy Leary but was considerate enough to offer support when Leary was arrested, that he really hated Truman Capote (and never offered Capote any support), that he had great regard for Barney Rosset of Grove Press, and none for Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press (the primary difference seemed to be that Rosset always paid Burroughs the money he owed him, and Girodias never did). Overall, this collection of letters doesn't much change my understanding of William S. Burroughs, but is worthwhile for the pleasure of spending time in the company of this erudite and broadly original brutalist/postmodernist. Especially when Burroughs paraphrases Shakespeare, as in this quip about Herbert Huncke's imdomitable sneakiness: "he is not only a junkie but a thief, strong both against the deed in the words of the immortal bard the raven himself is harsh who croaks the fatal entrance of Huncke."
When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”
Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.
Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.
As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”
Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.
1. After (seriously) 17 years of development, the major new Hollywood Walter Salles/Francis Ford Coppola film of On The Road is going to premiere on May 23, four months and twelve days from now, at the Cannes Film Festival in the French Riviera. I can't believe the day is actually going to come.
I'm not sure what to expect from this film, but there's no doubt that Jack Kerouac, a Breton Francophile, would have been pleased about a prestigious Cannes festival premiere. Very little is currently known about the film of On The Road, and only a single still image has been seen: the photo above, showing Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund as Marylou and Dean Moriarty apparently in one of the movie's big dance numbers. The image may give some idea of the director's photographic style (muted colors, naturalistic setting, not bad so far), but there's no word yet on what the entire film is like. I'm looking forward to seeing a preview trailer soon. Thanks to the Beat Museum in San Francisco (always the first place to check for news about this film) for the scoop about the opening at Cannes. (For the record, the news is still unconfirmed, but it's true.)
2. The two main characters in On The Road are Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, but since Kristen Stewart is the biggest star in the film, the character of Marylou will probably receive special emphasis. Marylou was based on Neal Cassady's real-life wife Luanne Henderson, and those interested in learning more about this little-known figure from Beat Generation history will enjoy One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road, a new book by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos that tells the story of On The Road (and all that followed) from a new point of view. As the youngest and least commanding member of the real-life Kerouac/Cassady traveling entourage fictionalized in On The Road, Luanne has often been imagined or depicted by literary biographers as a hapless unfortunate, caught in the Beat Generation whirlwind and then left behind after they became famous. One and Only presents Luanne as more knowing and more in control of her situation than Kerouac's novel depicts, and also shows her to be a remarkable, intuitive, sensitive and courageous woman.
(Last year's big counterculture memoir was "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, and 2012's might turn out to be "Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side" by Ed Sanders, an American writer, musician, happener and activist I've long admired. I'm proud to present this new interview with Ed Sanders by Beat scholar and librarian Alan Bisbort, and I'm looking forward to reading this memoir myself. -- Levi)
Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half century. Arguably best known for his satirical 1960s rock band The Fugs and his perennially wide-selling 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders's appeal to readers is also grounded in his deep Beat Generation roots. As a high school senior in Missouri, he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then, after a failed attempt at a college education in Columbia, Missouri, hitchhiked east to see what all the Beat commotion was about.
Sanders was founder of a legendary literary “scrounge lounge”, the Peace Eye Bookstore, remembered as a Greenwich Village version of San Francisco's City Lights Books during the hippie era; editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); prose author (Tales of Beatnik Glory); poet (America: A History in Verse); antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the American underground.
In his new book, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Sanders ties all of his earliest threads—up to 1970—together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the new year. Helpfully subtitled “An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side,” Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as “a leader of the Other Culture.”
Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, is today the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth.
On November 17, 2011 I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with Miriam Sanders, his wife of more than 50 years.
Alan: The events you describe in the new memoir are so rich in detail that many of the chapters and sometimes even individual paragraphs would be worthy of entire books. Did it seem this complex at the time or is this true only in retrospect? In other words, did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and you can’t believe all the ties to all the things and people?
Ed: I was very young, had a lot of energy, didn’t need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to the early 1970s, which is where I stopped the book.
Half a year ago I began assembling Beats In Time: a Literary Generation's Legacy, an anthology of the best articles about the Beat Generation from the Literary Kicks archives. Many of these articles dated back to this website's first five years, 1994 to 1999, when Litkicks called itself the Beat Generation website.
I've expanded the site's focus since then (and vastly expanded my scope as a reader too), which is probably why I now look back at some of these early Litkicks articles with wistful dismay, even though I treasure them. I am no longer the same innocent person who wrote or published these enthusiastic pieces about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder, and I suppose a big part of my subconscious impulse in assembling Beats In Time was to gather all these articles together so that I could say farewell to them, and send them on their way.
In retrospect, this is not a good reason to publish an anthology, and fortunately my readers let me know this nearly the minute the book hit the Kindle store. The initial feedback I got was spookily perceptive; everybody seemed to notice that I had done a rush job on the editing, that I hadn't pored through every individual piece for necessary tweaks and fixes, that I hadn't even thought about the ways the book's implicit themes -- ecology, religion, digital communication, violence, love, the writing process, the mercurial process of literary criticism -- could be highlighted as relevant to today. One person, a book marketing professional who'd been following my ambivalent and semi-agonized blog posts about my editorial process, was particularly helpful and perceptive, and volunteered to work with me on a complete edit of the entire text, followed by the publication of a new, better edition of the book.
I often hear people complain about "dirty hippies". Well, cleanliness is a virtue. But I've never understood why anybody would hate hippies. Is it that their exuberance is embarrassing? I like hippies, and I also like several writers identified with the post-Beat/hippie literary tradition of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom are still active (or being remembered) today.
1. Johnny Depp is the star of a new film based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel of sin and excitement in Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary. Haven't seen it yet, but early indications are encouraging.
2. The late-career writings of the once-acclaimed novelist Ken Kesey were scant and unimpressive, but I recently wondered if this only indicated that Kesey had lost interest in the book format, and if there might be more substance to Kesey's later collectivist theatrical experiments than is commonly thought. Mike Egan's new book Ken Kesey and Storytelling as Collaborative Ritual asks the same question, examining group works like the play Twister with a Jungian point of a view and a fresh eye.
3. Karen Lillis has written a memoir, Bagging the Beats at Midnight, about her years as a bookseller at the endangered St. Mark's Bookshop (which remains one of the best places in New York City, and I hope it will never go away). Bagging the Beats includes chapters with titles like "Susan Sontag Wants The Manager & Richard Hell Wants the Bathroom Key".
Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey's 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.
This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady's driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.