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Posted by : cj on Saturday, December 04, 2004 - 03:05 PM
Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BEATIFIC: BY JARED SMITH


THEN: Memories Of The Beats

I've been pleased to see how popular much of the Beat writing has become over the past few years. I've generally been pretty upset, however, over the number of poets who claim to revere the Beats, and don't know anything about them as people, let alone what their writing was all about. I hear stories about the "angry, abusive" Gregory Corso whenever I go to readings that are meant to honor him. I hear Allen Ginsberg described as a poet who more than the other Beats understood commercialism and marketing; how he carried an American Express copier machine with him when he walked around the city in case people wanted to buy a copy of Howl on credit.

Okay, Corso could be abusive. I've seen that side of him, but it isn't what made him a poet. I've seen him thrown out of public readings he was supposed to feature at, for being too drunk or drugged to keep his thoughts straight so that he couldn't give a reading. One time at Dr. Generosities in the Village, I saw him dragged off the podium because he kept trying to tell people why he had written a poem--and would break off and start crying about the injustice behind its inspiration. I remember the emcee there striking a noble pose and saying let's get on to the real poetry, and then inroducing an open mic. session while I and a few other walked out seething.
I bet that went into Gregory's writing somewhere or another. Everything did.

That's the key to Beat writing. Everything went into it. Nothing was posed. When a lady listening to the Beats at St. Marks in the Bowery shouted out after a performance by Ginsberg that she didn't understand what he was trying to say, Gregory jumped up at the back of the theater, tore off his clothes, and ran up on stage. "He's trying to say 'Get Naked!'" Gregory yelled. That's what it was about. The writing was about experiencing everything you could, taking down your public personnae and your shields, and showing all of yourself--your fears, your insights, your love, and your mistakes--to the world. It was about loving everything that was human, and about fighting to improve human understanding and compassion. If that made a man bitter and angry at times, if it made him willing to kick out against the mediocrity that choked the culture of the time, so be it; as long as he worked to understand the world, he was a better man than most. And a more compassionate man.

I sat on the curb at the corner of West Twelth and West Fourth in Greenwich Village with Gregory late into the night talking about the girl who lived upstairs who threw him out because she thought he drank too much. We talked about corporate America and how it reminded him of the way animals were kept in the Bronx Zoo. We talked about living above a funeral parlor while he was growing up, and the years in jail, and his discovery of Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats. He never said he was a Beat. He was a man who was being battered hard by life, and was fighting back. He didn't speak of Ginsberg as a commercial poet or a great success. Hardly that. Anyone who lived in The Village knew Ginsberg as a quiet man who wore a shabby wool coat and carried a ramshackle bookbag over his back while he wandered through bookstores reading all the little mags and poetry books he could get his hands on. He looked almost like a caveman hauling all his life possessions along with him with that bag over his shoulder--and in fact he probably did have all his possessions there: his writing, his notes on what was coming next. He was a tired and haggard man, like Gregory. The world didn't treat him well because he asked more of it than money or performance. Sure, he took the money; he needed to survive. But there's nothing glorious about surviving if you're fighting all the time. This society, this culture, never gave a poet of any sort a decent living.

Those guys could write, though. And they believed in something better, with a strength that is very hard to find. One time, Allen was wandering around gathering images in the mid seventies and he was jumped by a bunch of guys who thought he might have money on him. Like so many poets today, maybe they thought, "Hey this is the great Allen Ginsberg. Maybe he has something on him we can use." And they jumped on him, and when they found he didn't have any money they beat him and kicked him. All the time, he lay still on the pavement, chanting "Ohm" while they kicked him. He let the world happen, and took it in, and asked for piece that surpasseth understanding. There was nothing cartoon, or television-like about it. He was an honest man. That is what being a Beat was all about. As Kerouac said, it was finding the Beatific in all things and taking them for what they were: the dark secret streets; the angry young woman; the drugs; the punks that were occupied with money and graffiti.

Great poetry in the Beat tradition only comes from living life intensely, fighting the bastards even when they get you down, and writing honestly--sounding Whitman's barbaric yawp over the countryside whether anyone is listening or not. It hardly ever happens anymore. When that poetry comes it comes from people who don't try to emulate the Beats--from people who never tried to emulate the beatniks or anybody else, but just found themselves walking the open road together through time.

NOW: Back Beat, by Albert DeGenova and Charles Rossiter (104pp, $10, Cross + Roads Press, P.O. Box 33, Ellison Bay, WI 54210), Reviewed By Jared Smith

Back Beat, by Al DeGenova and Charlie Rossiter, is one of the extraordinary books that refinds that open road. I almost didn't pick it up when I first heard about it because I though "Oh, God, another book claiming allegiance to the Beats. I could puke." If Lawrence Ferlinghetti hadn't given the book a blurb (saying it was "beater than the beats"), I probably wouldn't have opened it at all, but Lawrence, after all, has always been an honest man who doesn't give praise freely. Thank goodness I did pick it up. It's one of the best things to come out of Chicago in a long, long time.

Who knows how Al and Charles managed to get together, except that art finds art in a city like Chicago. They both work hard outside the literary world as well as within it. Al grew up in Oak Park, plays the saxophone, and works as a communications manager in Chicago. He has worked on the Oyez Review, and recently started the magazine After Hours. Charlie started building his literary credentials in Albany, New York. I don't know how he earns his living, but he's part of Three Guys From Albany, teaches writing at the college level, travels everywhere, helps run, and has grants from the New York State Council of the Arts and the Ohio State Council. Both of these writers have a lot of publication credits as well.

Thank goodness they did get together. Back Beat is a compilation of their journals and thoughts over the last few years. It gets inside the head and keeps on expanding outward through the mind and throat and chest into a dimension without time; gets stronger and more haunting every time I go back to it. This is a major work. Buy, beg, or steal a copy of it. Don't miss it. It is an honest exploration by two people who are involved in life.
It takes a lot of courage, determination, and skill to write a work vibrating with references to the Beat writers of the 50s and 60s--and make it an entirely original virtuoso performance. That's what this is, however, unabashedly.

The opening Intro Riff by Norbert Blei grabs hold of all the right roots from Whitman to Sandberg to Lindsay to the beebop Bird blue Miles men; and "JACK'S BACK!/Subtext: HE NEVER LEFT THE ROOM." Yessir, Albert DeGenova and Charles Rossiter are keeping us all honest and alive.
We're talking poetry and jazz and blues that go well beyond the words you see on a page. We're talking about "moved in during the winter when the dirty walls and halls and old guys wearing grease smeared pants smelled of stale green loneliness" (DeGenova), in a living memoir that embraces prose and poetry and whatever other word forms and music are necessary to capture moments of intensity.

"Baby, Don't You Wanna Go" wails the title of one poem, proceeding

X-Ray blue borrows cymbals
tapes his drum kit together

and away we go. We go into a world which the Beats knew and made famous and which most of us forgot. It is a world of sensuality, and naked flesh pressed against corporate America. Brutally honest, direct, and throbbing with the "beatific" understanding Kerouac called for in the definition of the original Beat movement--but rediscovered by two men going beyond the material surface trappings that technology has given us half a century later.

"Easy to be an aetheist in Las Vegas":

a horse runs in New Mexico
a laughing woman on his back
his black mane, her long brown hair flying
freeing the wild madness within;

stars fall
one after another; a
warm rain of summer dreams
finding two friends making wishes
on a rooftop in Prague;



And Charles Rossiter picks it up. It works. They fit together as comrades in battle against the mediocrity that strangles of our communication with the universe. In "Our Way", Rossiter writes:

Outside the American dream
we haunt highways and streetcorners
through dirty blues and doo wop days
barrooms and coffeehouse nights
we search for friends, for truth, for love
on feather beds and oriental rugs
in dim cafes
barefoot on burning sand
we raise a glass
to electric skies gone crimson

He carries it forward in "Listen," helping us to open up and touch the bones of the universe ourselves:

I'm the voice of the unpaved road
dusty, pock-marked and ribbed
by spring rain. I can take you places
the long straight interstate
never imagined where the air is clear
places that make you want to
throw your head back
look up at the stars
and breathe.

Is it entertainment?

I mean, can it hold us to our seats, or does it "mean" something?

Like the Beats, it does both; it's the real thing.

I've seen these guys perform together (as Avant Retro) outdoors by candlelight and scrounged-up footlights, blowing strands of music and gentle laughter through their words. I've loved it, laughing at the throw away lines and gritty words while I drank my beer.

But I've taken the book home with me too. I bought it; best investment I've made in some time. I've read the warnings, and remembered that I've been there too. We all have. Beware that we don't forget:

We who have kept our eyes open
are the last indigenous people of the 21st Century

Make no mistake, Starbucks is our Cortez
Bordello's Books & Music is our Custer
Big Brother's got 99 channels and rising
Wal-Mart comes bearing diseases many
are not immune against. Their parking lots
and paychecks are contaminated and spread
the infection. If you don't believe it,
look around. Small town America is sick
and dying, withered from a lethal dose. Beware.


The Beats were deeply religious in the tenacity with which they sank their teeth into life; they and their beliefs need not cease to exist with the passage of a timeframe chosen by literary illuminati. Al and Charlie are with us. And there are others, or else there wouldn't be any point to writing this review. Together, we are greater than anything you can imagine.

--Jared Smith, March 10, 2002


Back Beat by Albert DeGenova and Charles Rossiter, Reviewed by Shin Yu Pai

Back Beat brings together the work of two Chicago poets, Albert De Genova and Charles Rossiter, who have collaborated together for years as the performance duo AvantRetro. As performers the two men pair spoken word performance together with jazz rhythms, in the Kerouacian tradition. In Back Beat, verse appears alongside prose passages in which each author meditates upon the influence of the Beats upon his artistic development.

The more engaging of the 2 writers is Charlie Rossiter who documents his experiences of interacting with the Beats – Ferlinghetti, Huncke, and Ginsberg, with whom he once had the opportunity of studying. Rossiter's understanding of the poetic maxim "First thought, best thought" taught by Ginsberg (and taken from Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche), extends beyond a "say anything" or "let your mind run wild" approach to writing. "It's easy enough to say 'First thought, best thought," but it takes a while to become able to do it," the poet confesses. The care with which Rossiter approaches language is reflected in his poems. Often site-specific to locales like Ocean City, NJ, Capitol Hill, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Rossiter works hard to perceive the details and characteristics of his environment more closely. Poems like "Our Way" and "Listen" speak more to a generalized experience of post WWII America, evoking a feeling of nostalgia.

Outside the American dream
we haunt highways and streetcorners
through dirty blues and doo wop days
barrooms and coffeehouse nights
we search for friends, for truth, for love
on feather beds and oriental rugs
in dim cafes
barefoot on burning sand
we raise a glass
to electric skies gone crimson
we honor the days, the times
the ways of ancestors long gone
who made us who we are
who we are

The landscape evoked by the poet is the America of Robert Frank's photographs, an acknowledgement of gone days and of ancestors, or predecessors, in the creative lineage who contributed to shaping who the speaker has become.

In prose entries, Rossiter details his experiments with different poetic forms which lead him to writing one haiku a day inspired by Lake Michigan, haibun, and short verse forms inspired by T'ang Dynasty poet Han Shan. In #6 of his Cold Mountain series "Han Shan in the City", the poet writes:

People ask how to get here
but it's tricky business –
the way keeps changing.
when you're depressed
you think it's close by,
when you're elated
you think you might already be here
If you heart was like mine
you wouldn't need a mood to find the way.

Inspired by Gary Snyder's translations of Han Shan, Rossiter places the "old ragged tramp" in an updated contemporary urban setting complete with "grubby streets and back alleys". But despite this modern adaptation, the speaker in Rossiter's poems retains much of the spiritual quality of the original Han Shan.

Rossiter's supplements his texts with interesting and insightful performance notes: " I typically do a handful of poems from the [Han Shan] series with accompaniment by Al on bamboo flute." The poem "Who We Are" is written for two different voices and laid out like a performance score with notes on the introduction of the 2nd voice into the speech. The varied glimpses into Rossiter's creative process keeps the reader engaged throughout the text.

In contrast to Rossiter, whose poetic sensibility is directly informed by his reading of the Beats, Al DeGenova is more heavily influenced by jazz music. Several of De Genova's poems are written as songs, or blues, and make heavy use of repetition. As a young sax player, DeGenova played at Chicago's Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. clubs and attracted much attention for being an anomaly - a white guy playing jazz. In his early stages of his literary development, the poet wrote free verse poems romanticizing his life as a performer. De Genova's portrayals in his early poems of "Barbie-doll" women as sexualized objects of desire, is deeply akin to the Beats own treatment of women in literature.

Much of De Genova's poetry might be characterized as "spontaneous prose", less crafted then the poems of his counterpart Charlie Rossiter, but born out of an improvisational spirit. The most interesting language in De Genova's poems occurs in moments when the poet focuses in on his subject and uses his descriptive and narrative abilities:

Down the 15-watt bare bulb hallway
a common bathroom
shared by seven tenants,
water bugs on the walls,
dirty cracked linoleum,
neighbor smells,
neighbor hair in the tub,
no shower, no radiator, it's cold so cold.
Danny lives upstairs.
Unlocked door swings open as I knock.
He looks like any junkie sitting in his underwear
but the eyes,
the eyes, are dark, deepset black stones
watery, bloodshot
the eyes of death.
He washes down pills
with a quick-jerk swallow of old cold black coffee.
And the metamorphosis begins.
He pulls on dark blue pants
a pinstripe running the length of his leg,
buttons the light blue shirt, clips on a tie,
badge in place, lifts on a gun belt,
slides the dark glasses into place…

Danny moonlights.
Checks I.D.s, collects the cover charge.
Pockets what he can.

(from Baby, Don't Ya Wanna Go)

By the time the poet discovers Beat literature, he has gotten a "real job and built a career in marketing communications… and conformed to a middle class life." Despite this late discovery of the Beats, De Genova has a intuitively Beat quality that is apparent in his work which speak of poverty and being "beaten" by life. //
De Genova ends his selection of work with the poem "Back There":

gotta go-go
gotta go-go
4 speeds forward an no reverse
pass a 21st century hobo
dharma bum with rooster hair
backpack full of stories
to tell
tell of the road
the road back there
the hitchhiker I missed
back there, the stories
I missed

Written in the playful style and get-up-and-go urgency and energy of the Beats, De Genova references the wide open road and Kerouac's dharma bums, who like Rossiter's Han Shan were spiritual seekers. Having come of age decades after the Beats were at the height of their influence, the poet gives a nod to the generation which came before him and became a shaping force in his own poetic sensibilities.

--Shin Yu Pai
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