An extracurricular undergraduate book club I’ve run since 2004 met this week to set our fall schedule. Our first selection will be Eric Drooker’s illustrated edition of Ginsberg’s Howl, released just a month or so ago. Drooker’s drawings are the basis for the animated segments of the current feature film starring James Franco. He worked with Ginsberg in the late 1990s on a volume called Illuminated Poems, obviously operating on a Blakean model. In that volume Howl and “Footnote to Howl” scored a total of nine illustrations, ranging from woodcuts to an image of two bums huddled over a trash can fire beneath the Brooklyn Bridge — one of Drooker’s best known New Yorker covers.
Drooker’s more recent engagement with Ginsberg’s poem, weighing in at close to 225 pages, is subtitled “A Graphic Novel.” The images have the feel of film stills to some degree — at least if you’ve already seen the film — and like the movie it forwards, by its very nature of offering supplemental images, a particular reading of the text. But it’s an extraordinary volume in any case and I look forward to spending some time with it over the coming weeks and hearing students’ reactions. When I placed the order for my book club I took the opportunity to poke around Drooker’s website, where I discovered the artist’s bio Ginsberg had written about Drooker for their earlier volume. The artist’s roots are more East Village/Lower East Side than his work for the New Yorker would have led me to believe. As Ginsberg tells it, he
first glimpsed Eric Drooker’s odd name on posters pasted on fire-alarm sides, construction walls checkered with advertisements, & lamppost junction boxes in the vortex of Lower East Side Avenues leading to Tompkins Square Park, where radical social dislocation mixed homeless plastic tents with Wigstock transvestite dress-up anniversaries, Rastas sitting on benches sharing spliff, kids with purple Mohawks, rings in their noses ears eyebrows and bellybuttons, adorable or nasty skinheads, wives with dogs & husbands with children strolling past jobless outcasts, garbage, and a bandshell used weekly for folk-grunge concerts, anti-war rallies, squatters’ rights protests, shelter for blanket-wrapped junkies & winos and political thunder music by Missing Foundation, commune-rockers whose logo, an overturned champagne glass with slogan “The Party’s Over,” was spray-painted on sidewalks, apartments, brownstone and brick walled streets.
Eric Drooker’s numerous block-print-like posters announced much local action, especially squatters’ struggles and various mayoral-police attempts to destroy the bandshell & close the Park at night, driving the homeless into notoriously violence-corrupted city shelters. Tompkins Park had a long history of political protest going back before Civil War anti-draft mob violence, memorialized as “. . . a mixed surf of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot,” in Herman Melville’s The Housetop: A Night Piece (July 1863).
He began collecting Drooker’s posters and eventually befriended him, learning he had trained at Henry Street Settlement and Cooper Union. Drooker proposed the idea of an illustrated volume of Ginsberg’s poems, and Ginsberg readily agreed to let him have his way with them. The posthumous collaborations seem all the more fitting with the earlier collaborations in mind.
Readers interested in learning more about Drooker may be pleased to find out that he’s offering a few illustrated lectures in the near future:
Saturday, Oct. 23rd 7:00pm (w/artist Zina Saunders), Bluestockings Books
172 Allen St. (btwn. Stanton & Rivington)
Sunday, Oct. 24th 7:00pm, 6th Street Community Center, 638 E. 6th St. (btwn. Aves. B & C)
Sunday, Oct. 31st (Halloween) 6:00pm, The Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (btwn. Bleecker & Houston)
According to his website the lectures include “hundreds of his provocative images,” through which he “explores his years as a street artist in New York City, the creation of graphic novels, paintings, and his infiltration of the mainstream.” Sounds like a good time.