Howl

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The annual HOWL! FESTIVAL kicks off today in the East Village.

Opening day, this year, coincides with the 85th anniversary of Ginsberg’s birth. Per tradition, the poet Bob Holman will lead a group reading of Howl with a cast of friends and fellow poets. From the website:

Each year we commence the open air festivities in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park with a group reading of Allen’s ground-breaking 1956 poem, HOWL, just before dusk, conducted in a symphonic manner by Bowery Poetry Club mastermind, Bob Holman. The line up of poets lending their voices to bringing Howl to life this year (in no particular order) include: Darian Dauchan, Alice Whitwham, Nicole Wallace, Curtis Jensen, Julie Patton, Fay Chiang, Miguel Algarin, Andy Clausen, Eliot Katz, Bob Rosenthal, David Henderson, John Giorno, Hettie Jones, Steven Taylor, Ed Sanders, sick prose, Elisabeth Velasquez, Helena D. Lewis, Eliel Lucero, Nikhil Melnechuk, & Jon Sands.

I plan to be there with my undergrad Downtown Scenes class. (It’s our final day today; we opened the course with Howl, so this seems a fitting way to close.)

As much as I look forward to the reading, I think I’d rather listen to Patti Smith read Ginsberg than just about anyone else but Ginsberg. Here she is with Philip Glass reading Ginsberg’s “On the Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa Vidyadhara” (1987) at a memorial for Ginsberg. From Dream of Life:

That spittle at 2:50 is, I think, one of the most moving moments in the history of punk performance.

I also like her piece “Spell,” which incorporates G’s Footnote to Howl:

The same piece as included in Dream of Life:

Follow the Howl! Festival on Twitter. Follow @HowlTweeter too.

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A guide to posts we’ve written in past years about Ginsberg’s Howl and the history of hipsters in New York:

In last year’s roundup post, I offered additional thoughts on some contexts I’d brought up in lecture but hadn’t explored fully: Diana Trilling’s famous reflections on her attendance at a 1959 Beat poetry reading at Columbia University, boycotted by several faculty members, including her husband, Lionel — in spite of the fact that he had been Ginsberg’s teacher. Last year’s post also includes some discussion of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (also 1959), in which he defines the hipster as born from the confrontation of young white intellectuals in the Village (many of whom were raised Jewish) with black American culture. Both pieces are worth thinking about for their discussions of race and their competing desires for assimilates “whiteness” and for the freedom to cross racial lines. I suggested in that post that Mailer’s essay may be considered a forerunner of Patti Smith’s use of cross-racial fantasy in “Rock & Roll Nigger,” but it should also be seen as a forerunner of this famous photo of Smith’s contemporary, Lester Bangs.

Since then we’ve considered a variety of other Howl-related material, from Eric Drooker’s illustrated edition of the poem (drawn from his animation sequences for the recent film) to my initial take on the film itself. I also posted some thoughts about Ginsberg in relation to the intensive seminar I taught last summer, “The Downtown Scene, 1960-1980.” As part of that course we watched the early Beat film “Pull My Daisy,” and my post about it elicited comments from one of its actors, the musician David Amram. (I’m teaching that course again this May if anyone’s up for it.)

Part of our consideration of Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters” (and Mailer’s “White Negro”) has included lighthearted looks at hipster history here at PWHNY. My favorite has always been our consideration of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog’s role in this cultural formation. We’ve also noted a contemporary graffiti writer called “White Negro” take to the streets. We wish we had been able to attend this panel, which is now published as this book, which we wish we’d had the time yet to read. We’ve pondered whether contemporary Williambsburg attire is indebted to Mose and the Bowery B’hoys, but I’ve also wondered whether or not Sesame Street might have had something to do with it:

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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.

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Brendan, one of our TAs, sends along a notice of the following event this coming Saturday, sponsored by n+1 and the New School:

“What Was the Hipster?”
 
An Afternoon Panel, Symposium, and Historical Investigation
 
–Saturday, April 11, 2009–

 
Mark Greif (n+1)
Jace Clayton (dj/Rupture)
Christian Lorentzen (Harper’s)
+ Special Guests TBA

Free and Open to the Public
 
Who was the turn-of-the-century hipster? Who is free enough of the hipster taint to write the hipster’s history without contempt or nostalgia? Why do we declare the hipster moment over–that, in fact, it had ended by 2003–when the hipster’s “global brand” has just reached its apotheosis?

A panel of n+1 writers invites n+1 subscribers and the public to join a collective investigation. Short presentations will be followed by audience debate, comment, and recollection, to be transcribed and published in book form this year.
 
Saturday, April 11, 2009, 2 pm – 4 pm.
The New School University, Theresa Lang Center, Arnhold Hall
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor.

Admission: No tickets or reservations required; seating is first-come first-served.

I’ll be on a walking tour in Chinatown that afternoon, but perhaps someone else will avail himself or herself of the invitation and report back. The announcement has relevance to our Writing New York course material this week, especially today’s discussion of Howl. In parsing the poem’s invocation of “angelheaded hipsters” “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” I wondered aloud in lecture what relation Ginsberg’s imagery had to Norman Mailer’s infamous essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which appeared in Dissent the year after Howl was published and was collected in Mailer’s 1959 book Advertisements for Myself. (The essay used to be on Dissent’s website in full, but it looks like it’s been removed; here’s a meditation on it that followed Mailer’s death a few years ago — written by one of the n+1 panelists, it turns out.)

hrc_mailer3.jpgThe quote I put on the screen contained Mailer’s formulation of the idea that white and black outsider cultures had come together, in the Village, to form a new type: the hipster, which Mailer considered synonymous with “the white negro.” Here’s the quote:

“In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed–the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life. … marijuana was the wedding ring.”

Since we were short on time — lecture was coming to an end — I didn’t have time to elaborate or contextualize as much as I would have liked. It may not have been clear where Mailer positioned himself in relation to this new cultural type, but in fact he’s not being a crank complaining about a phenomenon he finds disturbing. Rather, he identifies himself with the hipster/White Negro he describes. By identifying spiritually with black men’s alienation (and with their primitivism and virility, which he also celebrates as psychopathy), he argues, white men can achieve better orgasms and feel more courageous about life in general.

Of course there’s a lot in his idea that’s offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it’s hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it’s just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we’ve examined (Jolson and O’Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It’s hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man,” and Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger.” Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn’t respect notions of cultural purity?

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Since our students are reading Howl for tomorrow, I thought I’d link to one of my favorite recent posts from Jeremiah. It has an especially great opener:

I kissed Allen Ginsberg. Once. Years ago. It was a wet, full-lipped,
slightly scruffy kiss. And I’m sure it was quite different from kissing
James Franco–who happens to be playing Allen in Gus Van Sant’s upcoming film Howl.

[The rest of the post here.]

francoginsberg.jpg

Pretty sure the Diet Coke and the parka aren’t period-appropriate.

I dunno. What do you think? I mean, Ginsberg had his own kind of sexy, but it was a different kind than Franco’s. I especially like this early photo:

ginsberg.jpg

Is he pointing to his apartment, or just to Moloch in general?

JF does have a history playing smart, sensitive, outsider stoners, though — all the way back to Freaks and Geeks. But will he be able to pull off the beard?

ginsberg.jpg

Maybe the film won’t get to the beard phase: it reportedly centers on Ginsberg’s 1957 obscenity trial in the wake of Howl‘s publication. Franco’s castmates, according to the Hollywood News, include David Strathairn as prosecuting
attorney Ralph McIntosh, Alan Alda as Judge Clayton Horn, Jeff
Daniels
as prosecution witness Professor David Kirk, Mary-Louise
Parker
as radio
personality and prosecution witness Gail Potter, and Paul Rudd as literary critic and defense witness Luther Nichols. 

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