(On the forgotten 50th anniversary of a once-controversial convict's execution, Beat historian and Library of Congress archivist Alan Bisbort provides a sweeping summary of the prison-writing genre, and the therapeutic invention that once supported the genre. -- Levi)
Fifty years ago, on the morning of May 2, 1960, the State of California executed Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.
For more than a decade prior to that date, Chessman had been a thorn in the state’s side, as well as a pinprick at America’s conscience and an international cause celebre. His case drew support from all corners of the globe and all areas of human endeavor, from the sacred (Pope John, Albert Schweitzer) to the profane (Marlon Brando, Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine), from the literary (Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and, yes, William F. Buckley, Jr.) to the mundane, with petitions to the California governor to spare Chessman’s life coming from millions of people around the world who’d been touched by his case and his writings. From Brazil alone, a plea for Chessman’s life sent to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown in March 1960 contained 2.3 million signatures, as well as offers from forty Brazilians, many of them women, to die in his place. And when he was finally killed, after 12 years on death row and eight stays of execution, riots broke out in European and Latin American cities.
1. Beat poet Michael McClure's new book of poetry is called Mysteriosos. In his long and exciting career McClure has collaborated with Janis Joplin and Ray Manzarek, written influential plays like The Beard, and appeared as a character (a voice of sanity, strangely enough) in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. He's also, in my opinion, a better nature poet than W. S. Merwin, and a whole lot more fun to read.
Mysteriosos is a wildly adventurous (typographically and otherwise) romp through existence and language. Characteristically for McClure's work, the consciousness of the poetic narrator is not restricted to the human species, and instead generally aims for a universal or animal awareness. Sometimes this is even achieved. Check out this good book (an earlier version of which was previewed temporarily on LitKicks during our 24 Hour Poetry Party in 2004).
(There are many, many books about the literary Beat Generation, but Alan Bisbort's guidebook Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture offers a freahly anthropological look at the same old crowd, rich in detail and enthusiastic about far-flung cultural connections. I asked Bisbort, author of books like When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me”: The Life and Redemption of Caryl Chessman, Whose Execution Shook America and Rhino’s Psychedelic Trip, how this new work came to be, and here's what he wrote.-- Levi)
In 2008, my friend Sharon Hannon was contracted by Greenwood Press to write Punks, part of a reference book series called Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures. As a talented writer, dogged researcher and former punk rocker who cut her teeth in Washington, D.C.’s hardcore punk scene, Sharon was imminently qualified to undertake the volume. She sent me an email to thank me for putting her in touch with Greenwood Press, for whom I had written a book the year before (Media Scandals, part of their Scandals in American History series). Sharon mentioned in passing that she thought Greenwood was also planning to publish separate volumes in the Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures series called Hippies, Goths, Flappers and Beatniks.
If you are a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please note that I have changed my mailing address:
328 8th Avenue #337
New York NY 10001
Also, if you're a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please know that I'm probably sorry for being so absolutely terrible about getting back to you. My review copy situation is a mess, I never get around to answering emails in time, but I do appreciate when you send me a book I'm interested in and I will try to be better about keeping in touch.
And now ... some more interesting stuff:
1, A font face captures Franz Kafka's handwriting, which turns out be rather pretty in a Kafkaesque sort of way.
2. Tablet Magazine interviews eternal Fug Tuli Kupferberg and points us to his excellent YouTube Channel. I love the audience participation in this little-known literary facts video, in which Tuli reveals that T. S. Eliot was Jewish, that Walt Whitman was heterosexual, that Homer's Iliad was actually written by a guy named Iliad, and that when Dylan Thomas drank himself to death his drink of choice was strawberry milkshakes. All true.
(Please welcome Mark Cohen, author of Missing A Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim and proprietor of the culture blog Stumbling Into Jews. -- Levi)
Author and literary critic Seymour Krim has fallen off today’s Beat bookshelf. But when he let loose in 1957 with his slanted, rankling, fight-picking essays in the Village Voice he was a Beat, because what else could he be? Especially when he saluted Jack Kerouac's On the Road as his escape hatch from literary criticism, his pre-Beat beat. And then in 1960 he edited The Beats and appeared in The Beat Scene. Still, his first and most celebrated book of essays, the 1961 Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, made it clear he was less a Beat than one of the establishment’s casualties (unless that’s one category of Beat). With its foreword by Norman Mailer, and back cover summary of Krim’s publications and death-riddled family history, Nearsighted Cannoneer is torn between sticking its tongue out and making excuses for what the reader will find inside. Krim mined that inner tension his entire writing career, which produced two more collections of essays, garnered him a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, and brought him teaching posts at Columbia and Iowa. Since his death in 1989, Beat anthologies have ignored him. But he still has impressive fans, including James Wolcott, Phillip Lopate, and Vivian Gornick, who called Krim "a Jewish Joan Didion."
1. Welcome to Literary Kicks's new look. This latest redesign (the previous version is above, just for old times sake) takes advantage of some cool Drupal capabilities -- real-time tracking of popular and highly commented articles, a custom-built taxonomy-based "Explore Related" box on every article page -- and also includes improvements I've been jonesing for like share boxes and a liquid layout (finally!) that takes advantage of the full browser page size. I also tweaked the design specs a bit (I'm using a custom variant of the Fervens theme), and created a new version of the Paul Verlaine logo (just for fun).
Website redesigns often trigger the "Wow Effect", named after the word people say when a favorite website suddenly changes. This is often followed by the depressing realization that it's the same old website with different colors and fonts. Personally, I like to avoid the whole "Wow Effect" ordeal by releasing changes gradually, and you may have noticed some of the changes leading up to this redesign going up in the past few weeks. I'm still far from done, and will also be experimenting with Semantic Web features as well as some custom database algorithms I've been dreaming up for the various "featured article" lists.
I'm also going to completely reinvent the Action Poetry pages, but that'll take another month. Please bear with me as this proceeds, and please email me or post a comment if the pages do not display correctly on your browser or device -- thanks.
2. J. D. Salinger. Hmm. By any rational calculation, I'd be very drawn to J. D. Salinger, a brainy New York Jew who emerged in the 1950s, became a superstar, became a Buddhist, and retreated from the world. I admire Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and most of the short stories, though I never understood the gigantic appeal of Catcher in the Rye. On the other hand, my two daughters both like the book very much, and Elizabeth even wrote about him for LitKicks when she was 15.
Still, his work never fully grabbed me. What I can't relate to about J. D. Salinger is that joylessness, that dread of life. I can't relate to that at all. His Buddhism is clearly very different from mine.
As far as classic writers from the 1950s and 1960s go, I'll take the ecstatic Jack Kerouac over the morbid J. D. Salinger any day. Still, I salute an American original who certainly, if nothing else, stuck to his principles. I'll pay some attention if unpublished manuscripts come out. Till then, the New Yorker has a nice tribute display of several of his short stories originally published in that magazine. The Onion, meanwhile, must have had this ready in advance.
3. Somebody went to an art museum and fell into a Picasso. And not one of those late period Picasso lithograph cartoons that you see all over the place -- this was a serious Picasso, from the "Rose Period" just before Cubism. I always wanted to go to an art museum and do something like that.
4. Words Without Borders, which also has a new look, is highlighting Georges Perec.
5. Bookslut's Michael Schaub on the new Patti Smith memoir, about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
7. Sure, I got some Beat Generation links. The movie Howl is coming out soon. This is a big deal and I wish the filmmakers would let me see a preview already. Then: Ginsberg's photographs, Gary Snyder communing with hardware, Jack Kerouac in Detroit, Ginger Eades's blog. Okay.
8. What the Los Angeles Lakers are reading. Nice to see 60s classics Edward Abbey and Eldridge Cleaver on this list!
10. Is somebody making money off of slush piles? Why shouldn't they?
11. Okay, I had something cool planned for today's redesign launch: an interview with Up In The Air novelist Walter Kirn. We talk about technology, careers, literature and how it feels to become a George Clooney movie. I decided to devote the day to Bananafish instead, so I'll be presenting this exciting interview (really) on Monday. Friday is hiphop day again.
1. So the New York Times is going ahead with a payment wall for its website. I still say this is a bad business decision. Newspapers have always made more money on advertising than on sales, and newspapers that force readers to pay for online content will significantly harm their advertising numbers without bringing in a lot of subscription revenue. The New York Times is about to get much smaller.
1. Forest Hills. I don't know these people but I feel like I do.
I still haven't mentally returned from vacation, still haven't gotten back into the LitKicks swing. I've been running around a lot, actually, as well as working hard behind the scenes on a new software platform for the site that has so far only succeeded in breaking the Action Poetry pages (they will be back soon, I promise). More soon! Till then ... links:
1. I first spotted New York City "character poet" Bingo Gazingo at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002 doing a crazy improvisation about his lust for an R&B singer named "Mariah Canary". I then caught many more unhinged performances at the Bowery by this elderly Queens rhymer, who, I'm sorry to hear, passed away on New Years Day. The world of poetry may not long remember Bingo Gazingo, despite a brief long-ago moment on MTV, but I hope every poetry nightclub in the world has a weird old geezer like him around to liven up the room.
2. "We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it." Really! Just by showing up, they're going to do all that? The New Republic has launched it's new book section The Book with a big blast of self-congratulation.
5. Jim Morrison's favorite beatnik cafe.
7. Rani Singh, an old friend, has finally published a book about the oddly great Harry Smith.
10. Scott Esposito ponders writers vs. commentators.
11. The Millions asks a few bloggers to name the best literary readings they'd ever attended. It's a good question, and I had to pause for about three seconds before coming up with my own answer. Then I remembered seeing Allen Ginsberg. The kind of full-body, whole-soul performances he delivered -- funny, dead serious, totally in the moment -- set a standard for me that no other performer has yet matched.