Polina Mackay: Beat Feminisms

The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women  (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.

Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.

There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]

The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]

Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.

Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.

There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.

Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?

The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. The extensive bibliography and a full index contribute to the book’s use as a study resource. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.

Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, Routledge, hardback, 172pp + xiv, £120, ISBN 978 0 415 8927 1 1

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: “After/Après Francis Bacon”

Book

Alexander Adams, Peggy Pacini (trans.), After/Après Francis Bacon, Golconda Fine Art Books, February 2022, first edition, 60pp, 1 col. illus., English/French, 140gsm cream paper, one-colour cover, A5 size, ISBN 978-1-9999614-2-8, 250 copies, 50 signed and numbered, £10 + £5 p&p (UK and worldwide)

After/Après Francis Bacon is a suite of 21 poems by Alexander Adams based on the life and art of Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon. It follows his story from childhood to death, including key parts of his life, evoking his art, milieu and residences. Partly set in Paris and Monaco, the entire sequence has been translated into French by Mme Peggy Pacini. The English original text and French translation are set out on parallel pages. It includes one colour illustration by the author.

The author and publisher wish to gratefully acknowledge the generous contribution to this publication made by The Alessandra Wilson Fund and a private donor.

Purchasing

This book may be purchased directly from me (via this page https://www.alexanderadams.art/contact) or via Amazon (UK residents only). Payments are £15 per book or £5 p&p + £10 per book for multiple orders. Payments can be received by bank transfer, cheque, cash and PayPal.

“Fernando Pessoa, Shadow of a Ghost”

“If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

“He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

“This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/12/27/fernando-pessoa-shadow-of-a-ghost/

Review: “British Orientalisms, 1759-1835”

“The main objective of this study is to historicize the different and shifting modes through and ways in which Britons may have conceived of themselves and their nation as ‘open’ to the East across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” So writes James Watt, historian of the Britain in the Eighteenth Century, in the introduction to British Orientalisms, 1759-1835. It opens with the “year of victories”. In 1759 Britain won victories over the French in Madras, the West Indies, Quebec and Minden and the French invasion of the British Isles failed. It saw Britain become the supreme world power and the consolidation of a worldwide empire. It was also a time when intimations of corruption of the state and British identity as the British were forced to administer and mix with nations distance and dissimilar to her neighbouring nations. Watt concludes his study in 1835 with T.B. Macauley’s Minute on Indian Education (1835), a paper in which the colonial administrator demeaned native Indian culture and recommended the active promotion of British standards via education of Indians. He recommended the replacement of Persian with English as the language of administration. “[…] Macauley serves as a fitting end point since the ethnocentrism of his ‘Minute’ ostensibly signals a decisive transformation in British self-understanding: rather than thinking of Britons as in any way disoriented by colonial contact, it instead calls for the nation to wield its civilizational authority so as to afford moral direction to its colonies.” Watt uses literary texts of the period as a lens through which to examine these issues.  

Watt analyses Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), an apologue (moral tale). Prince Rasselas tires of entertainment in the cossetted kingdom of the Happy Valley. He escapes with his sister and travels to Egypt. However, he is disillusioned of exotic sights and returns to his kingdom. It was criticised as providing little by way of local colour, thereby frustrating the expectations of those wanting the detail and variety that they expected of tales of the Orient. Johnson was known to be an opponent of imperial conquest and sceptical about the spread of Christianity among non-Western peoples. Rasselas is considered an indirect satire of imperialism and a recommendation for the British to stay on their isle, their own Happy Valley.  

Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760) was a series of fictional dispatches from Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese traveller recording England. His errors and misinterpretations both make him a figure of fun and allow Goldsmith to satirise the manners and customs of England. Altangi delights in vivid descriptions of the East and lionises the warrior spirit of the English. In texts of the time, “Goldsmith’s various narrators and authorial personae at different times share in popular exhilaration at British military triumphs and stand back from the crowd in order to warn that victory comes at a price.” (Namely, the difficulty of governing such a vast and diverse empire.)  

The rise of the East India Company, which provided the foundation for British imperial rule in India, provided opportunity for British administrators and traders (and their servants and families) to visit India and leave written records. The records varied from letters and reports to poems and novels, all of which contributed to the British public perception of India. Charles Johnstone’s The Pilgrim (1775) was the fictional tale of a woman’s adventures in India before returning home. Watt considers the story to be critical of Major-General Robert Clive, whose administration was considered to have contributed to the 1770 Bengal famine. In Samuel Foote’s play The Nabob (1772) “Sir Matthew Mite attempts to use his riches [obtained by trade in India] to gain the hand of a baronet’s daughter and to buy his way into Parliament, and the mixture of social ambition, conspicuous consumption, and Orientalized manners that he displays identifies him as a composite portrait of Clive and other prominent contemporaries. The Nabob satirizes Mite’s efforts to pass as a gentleman and to legitimize his new wealth […]”

Other accounts were lewder and indulged the readers’ libidinal curiosity – but in doing so they tended to confirm the corrupting and decadent nature of the East, region of the feminine and sensual abandon. Hartly House, Calcutta (1789, publ. 2007) by Phebe Gibbs includes an account of a rape by a British man of an Indian woman, which likely resulted in capital punishment. Although the author declared that such crimes were “more oftener perpetrated than detected”, it shows that far from impunity, British people in India could expect equal punishment. It also shows that British writers approved of this legal equality in regard to serious crimes.   

In The History of Women (1779), William Alexander discussed the situation of women in the East. He advanced the idea that as society advanced, it freed women from labour but that this freedom caused now-indolent women to gravitate to corruption and pursuit of vice. Thus, financial and material security led women to become less maternal and faithful, more selfish and depraved. “[…] female virtue is becoming ever more scarce, as the feminine qualities of care and concern for others ‘diminish gradually, in proportion as women advance more toward that perfection, or rather imperfection of politeness’.” Materialism undercuts morality; freedom leads to transgression; absence of hunger heightens the drive to satiate carnal desires. According to Alexander, this is seen no better than in the harems of the East, where there is nothing more for a woman to do than indulge herself – she is literally permitted to do nothing else.

One interpretation of Orientalism is one of horizon expansion rather than a means of “otherising” or “exoticising” inhabitants of foreign societies. An example is Sir William Jones’s Poems Consisting Chiefly of Translations from the Asiatick Languages (1772) and his Persian grammar (1771). Jones was a judge in Bengal and developed into a fluent Persian speaker. He developed the idea of Indo-Aryan cultures and languages sharing a root – the first time that English language had been associated with non-European languages. Jones hugely advanced British understanding of India and Persia. He translated Hindu myths and poems into English; he codified Hindu and Moghul law. Upon his premature death at the age of 47, Jones was idolised for his erudition and sympathy for the peoples of India.

Robert Southey’s Thabala the Destroyer (1801) “is an important text for my book as a whole since it both helped to establish the Orientalist epic poem as a medium of political engagement and in its own distinctive fashion extended the Jonesian project of cultural translation.” Watt dissects the politics and symbolism of Southey’s epic (which was heavily footnoted by the poet), showing how the attitudes and ideas relate to the wider trends. Roderick the Last of the Goths (1814) about the king of the Visigoths battling the Moors in Spain. It is compared by Watt to Thabala and assessed as an allegory of Continental politics under Napoleon. Watt notes how contemporary critics responded to it. Southey led the way for the Romantics taking up Orientalist epics. Thabala was followed by Byron’s The Giaour (1813), Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818)

As Watt demonstrates, the response of the British to newly gained empire was mixed and often hostile to the corruption, death and cultural influence that came with subjugating and administering peoples of far-off lands. Far from welcoming the glory of supremacy, British people saw empire as an enterprise that brought out the worst in individuals – the temptation to carnally sin, the opportunity to abandon land, family and religion and the lure of gold and indolent life were identified (with some evidence) as ever-present threats to Englishmen.

Watt’s assessment of British writing reflecting upon Empire in the Enlightenment-Romantic period is well grounded, thoughtful and catholic. British Orientalisms helps to explain the complexities of responses to empire and dismantle recent narratives that are driven more by present-day politics than evidence.

James Watt, British Orientalisms, 1759-1835, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 285pp + vii, hardback, £75, ISBN 9781108472661

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Bukowski: The Shooting

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

By the mid-1980s, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was already both famous and infamous. As king of the West Coast underground poetry scene, Bukowski was a critical figure in the counter culture, on the verge of entering the mainstream. His verse – curt, pungent, profane, grand – spoke to many, even those who usually did not read poetry. During the 1970s he had filled university halls with his poetry readings. For decades he had published stories, poems and columns in the underground press and men’s magazines. He had appeared on radio and television and a documentary had already been made about him. His novels won critical acclaim and a cult following, not just in the USA but also Germany, with his works being translated into other languages yearly.

In 1985 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Magazin finally managed to get Bukowski – who was an increasingly well-known author in Germany – to agree to have his picture taken for a feature. Bukowski: The Shooting is the illustrated story of four days a young photographer spent with Bukowski.

Abe Frajndlich – a German-American professional photographer – got the assignment. Frajndlich used a personal contact to persuade the reluctant Bukowski to give him one day. He recounts in his essay his time with Bukowski and his fiancée Linda Lee Beighle. On 4 and 5 March, the photographer spent time with the couple in their house in San Pedro, California; he photographed the couple and Bukowski alone. He was allowed into the office. “Although most of the house was clean and tidy, his working room was complete, but creative, mess, with papers strewn about, beer and wine bottles and magazines lying about helter-skelter, and manuscripts over and under the desk and on the floor.” However, when he submitted the images, the picture editor rejected them all. He told Frajndlich that the photographs were too poor to be used. They were mere documentation and provided nothing exciting or visually powerful. Frajndlich was crestfallen and desperate to make emends. He half-begged, half-bullied Bukowski into letting him return for a second session. Bukowski agreed.

The photo shoot on 1 April was quite a different affair. The first had been low-key, unintrusive: Bukowski typing in the garden, in his office, with Linda. The second shoot had to be something special. Bukowski and Frajndlich decided to play up the author’s wild-man reputation with props, humour, play acting and excess. Frajndlich believed his career was on the line and Bukowski wanted to help him out; they tapped into Bukowski’s irreverent side.

When the feature was published, Bukowski received copies and was delighted with the result. He invited Frajndlich to his wedding in August. Frajndlich agreed to take a set of photographs for the couple, himself and a patron. The ceremony was performed by Linda’s guru (she was a Buddhist) and the day proved memorable for all, with Bukowski getting very drunk.    

The Shooting reproduces photographs from all three days. This captures a wide range of moods and aspects. The first shoot has Bukowski at work (or mimicking it), drinking at a garden table during an evidently not warm day. We see his office, dirty, chaotic and comfortable, chair at the desk facing a blank wall, books, magazines and manuscripts in profusion. Next to the electric typewriter is a lamp and a radio. (Bukowski preferred classical music to rock music.) We get a sense of Bukowski’s normal life and environment: working, smoking, drinking, under his lemon tree, with and without Linda. This is Bukowski’s subdued self, his sensitive and introspective side. Much of Bukowski’s power as a writer resides not in the declamatory, erotic and comic modes; rather, it lies in the thoughtful, reflective and tender side of the man, which does not undercut his dry humour, clear-sightedness and lack of false sentimentality. Bukowski was as much a reader and (in his youth) a frequenter of libraries as he was barroom brawler. The obscure historical asides and literary references in Bukowski’s verse demonstrate the writer’s time spent as a reader.

In the second shoot, Bukowski puts on Linda’s hat and glasses. He wears the glasses upside down. He draws his famous cartoon figures at giant size and poses with them. He strips off his shirt and he brandishes a knife. He plays the grotesque. In his mugging for the camera, Bukowski acts very similarly to how Picasso acted in his photoshoots of the 1960s, which Bukowski must have seen. We see the man unshackled from boredom and the routine of a professional writer with a fiancée, a mortgage and a BMW, allowed to play freely. We have drunk Bukowski, a sliver of the hostile, arrogant, lecherous drunk that acquaintances were accustomed to and wary of – yet, here, Bukowski is his other self more in jest than earnest.

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

The final shoot was the wedding of Bukowski and Linda in August 1985. We see bride and groom, the Rolls Royce hired for the day and a shot of the couple in their marriage bed. On the covers is a drawing by the poet of his cartoon figures, with the legend “LEGAL, AT LAST! AFTER 8 YEARS! Hank & Linda”. On a photograph of cups and saucers set out on a table, Bukowski has written “FOR ABE – FILL THESE FUCKING THINGS WITH WINE!” We get a sense of the friendliness that developed between poet and photographer and a glimpse of the marriage that provided Bukowski with much needed stability and serenity.

Included is “The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski” by Glenn Esterly. First published in 1976 in Rolling Stone, it is a long profile of the poet, describing a Bukowski reading in 1976 (not long before the poet ceased giving public readings) and featuring an interview with the poet at home. Public readings made Bukowski nervous, he often drank too much and antagonised the audience. By 1980, his royalties were so high that he no longer needed the money. Esterly captures the tone of the event and incorporates comment from Bukowski’s colleagues. The interview is good and the author is not afraid to challenge Bukowski, question his public image and present him with contradictions. It presents a snapshot of the poet just before he met Linda and his life settled into its late period of material comfort and emotional security (albeit with ructions).

The text is translated into German in full. The combination of new text and provocative and memorable images – both providing insights into the life of one the century’s great writers – make a winning combination. Fans of Bukowski will not be disappointed by The Shooting.

Abe Frajndlich, Glenn Esterly, Bukowski: The Shooting, Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 96pp, 65 col./mono illus., English/German, €29.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3667 8

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


UbuWeb: Culture meets the Internet

“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.

The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.

Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.

Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.

Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.

UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.

Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.

There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.

The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.

The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.

The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.

Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.

Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.  

Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

“Rage against the dying of language”

“‘Dahwdezeldiin’ koht’aene kenaege’,
ukesdezt’aet.
Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
nekenaege’ nadahdelna.
Koht’aene kenaege’ k’os nadestaan.’

“(I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.
Only the elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.
There are not many words anyhow.
They are scattered like clouds.)

“John Elvis Smelcer, writing in Ahtna language, Alaska.

“Today 7,000 languages are spoken. Fully half are expected to die out before the year 2100, continuing a centuries-long trend. Half of all people in the world speak 25 main languages. Every year these large linguistic groups expand at the expense of the smaller languages.

Natural disaster, legal suppression and forced migration all play their part in this process of linguistic extinction. But sometimes native speakers have advocated abandoning their language. In the late 18th century, some educated Scots suggested that speaking primarily Scots dialect deprived intelligent ambitious people from communicating with English-speaking audiences. Speaking English would allow Scots greater opportunities. Indeed, it was after English became favoured over Scots that Scottish individuals came to be disproportionately represented among Britain’s leading thinkers, scientists, engineers, writers and entrepreneurs.

“The fact that over 800 languages are still spoken in Papua New Guinea – the least colonised, least explored and most ethnically diverse region in the world today – is hardly a coincidence. There is a sadly inexorable process of absorption when an indigenous tribal culture comes into contact with a larger, more technologically advanced and more militarily powerful group. It seems that improved medical care, better literacy, efficient sanitation and centrally codified laws necessarily entail the lessening of ties to a population’s traditional heritage….”

Read the full review on Spiked website here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/06/01/rage-against-the-dying-of-language/

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: On Art II

This new collection gathers 10 poems and 1 essay by Alexander Adams related to art. On Art II covers subjects such as memory, history, imagination, travel and art including that by Bruegel, Magritte, Dutch painters and others. A short essay discusses the author’s life drawings, with images. On Art II is illustrated with 10 drawings, none previously published, and it follows the format of On Art (2018). Printed on cream paper, paperback, double-stapled spine, A5 size, 41pp, 128 copies in cream covers.

Alexander Adams, On Art II, Golconda Fine Art Books, 15 May 2020, paperback, 41pp, 10 mono illus., £8, ISBN 978-1-9999614-1-1

How to purchase: For some regions, the book is available on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-II-2020-Alexander-Adams/dp/1999961412/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=on+art+alexander+adams+golconda&qid=1590960789&s=books&sr=1-4

There are plans to make it available worldwide via a distributor. This information will be posted here. Copies of On Art are also available via Amazon.

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (Folio Society)

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This new edition of the collected poems of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) brings together Larkin’s poems published in his lifetime and his own photographs for the first time in book format. The book is handsome and pieces work very well.

This edition has introductions from editor Anthony Thwaite and biographer Andrew Motion. Motion discusses the connections between Larkin and photography. Larkin was influenced by photographs and made them the subject of some poems. The device allowed Larkin to use more temporal distance and emotional detachment whilst permitting detailed visual description. Yet Larkin did not always use emotional detachment, as Larkin knew and exploited the personal responses he had to viewing photographs. Photographs were ways of preserving memories and interacting with these images generated new responses – melancholic, wry, sad, cynical, sentimental.

From his teenage years on, Larkin was a proficient and enthusiastic amateur photographer. His hobby of cycling and church visiting went in tandem with his photograph taking. He also photographed friends and scenes around him. These have been the subject of exhibition and publication, although these have treated the photographs as adjuncts to Larkin the poet. Whether or not Larkin’s photography stands as an independent body remains to be determined. Photographs in this book include those of Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan (long-term romantic interests), his mother, himself and scenes of Hull and local countryside. Some of the selected images are those Larkin marked for cropping.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

Larkin very rarely left Great Britain and his writing is characterised by its intense affection-repulsion complex regarding the British, specifically the English and Englishness. “Show Sunday” describes the course of a day at a country fair; “The Whitsun Weddings” is an account of travelling by train and observing newlywed couples boarding the train. “Going, Going” laments the commercialisation and industrialisation of England and the degradation of the country he considered irrevocably lost to him. He blames companies, social policies and people generally. “[…] greeds / and garbage are too thick-strewn / to be swept up now […]” Larkin’s misanthropy is never very far away. He sees the English working class as saviour and destroyer of English culture, a cultural ecosystem that is fragile and degrading yet still capable of coarse vitality. It reminds us that environmental concern is not the preserve of the political left or right but temperamental in outlook.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

The selection and arrangement of verse by Thwaite is almost ideal. Thwaite admits being in error for the editing of the first Collected Poems of Larkin, performed just after Larkin’s death. Rather than abiding by Larkin’s carefully judged ordering of poems in their original collections, Thwaite broke up the poems and ordered them chronologically. This contradicted Larkin’s wishes. He stated often that he carefully arranged his selections in order to heighten drama and direct the mood of readers. This volume has the poems sequenced in the order of original publication in books, with a selection of published and uncollected verse at the end. Thwaite has correctly decided to exclude Larkin’s juvenilia, published while he was at Oxford University. He has also excluded all unpublished pieces, which is not entirely satisfactory. A few fine pieces, which Larkin deemed too raw to publish in his lifetime, are omitted. The means the volume lacks a couple of powerful poems (“Ape Experiment Room”, “Love Again”) and the unfinished “The Dance”, which is a loss.

I spotted one error. The couplet “When the Russian tanks roll westward” omits the prefatory quotation quoted in Larkin’s letter of 22 August 1969 to C.B. Cox. It is a small thing but as easy to get right as to get wrong. Thwaite knows the letter as he included it in his edition of Larkin’s letters.

The Folio Society is known for its attention to production detail and distinctive designs. A leaf-green cloth binding and an abstract geometric design (reminiscent of the 1950s) are attractive and appropriate for Larkin’s verse. The layout is unobtrusive and the number and choice of illustrations serve the texts rather than drawing attention to the designers. This is not just a bookshelf ornament but an edition that will be constantly re-read by the Larkin enthusiast. There is no reason why this edition will not become the go-to volume for readers. This collection is by far the best collection of Larkin’s verse ever published. It is comprehensive, respectful of Larkin’s wishes, beautiful printed and bound and including some of Larkin’s images. It omits weak and distracting material and is not encumbered by notes. This is not a book for scholars and researchers but a reader’s book, a book for lovers of Larkin’s writing.

 

Philip Larkin, (introductions) Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020, three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with a paper front board, set in Berling, printed with a design by Richard Peacock, 280pp, colour title page, 12 integrated black & white photographs by Philip Larkin, 91/2˝ x 63/4˝, $49.95/£34.95. The book is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Alexander Trocchi: “Cosmopolitan Scum”

Young Adam

When Glaswegian writer Alexander Trocchi appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Festival in 1962, his reputation preceded him. Disreputable, dissolute, addicted to heroin, fugitive from the law, a confirmed libertine and author of books with description of sex, violence and drug abuse, Trocchi was marked as a subversive and potentially dangerous figure. When Trocchi appeared to talk on a panel, he became involved in a verbal altercation with Scots nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him “cosmopolitan scum”. Trocchi took great pride in the insult.

For Scots authors of gritty fiction, such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, Trocchi is a point of origin. Tough, unsparing, tautly written, unsentimental, identifiably Scots but tempered by French existentialism and Beckett’s interiority, Trocchi’s books are a touchstone for ambitious Scottish writers of later generations. The international acclaim afforded Trocchi was a badge of approval from the cognoscenti. As an individual, Trocchi’s extreme lifestyle – including drug taking, drug dealing, facing the death penalty, flight from US legal jurisdiction and pimping out his own wife to feed the couple’s heroin addictions – is full of palpable authenticity. By turns pathologically selfish, pitifully squalid and creatively barren, Trocchi’s life and long writer’s block act as a warning to creative artists those who are tempted to dabble in depravity. At his death in 1984, there was little unpublished material in his estate.

One can read all of Trocchi’s serious fiction over a long afternoon, if one is minded to. If one excludes eight erotic pulp novels, written to make money, the entirety of Trocchi’s prose fiction comprises Young Adam (1954), Cain’s Book (1960) and The Holy Man and Other Stories (1965), the latter of which consists of four stories. Man at Leisure (1972) is a collection of verse and completes the quartet of Trocchi’s substantial output published by Calder Publications, now owned by Alma Books.

Trocchi is generally grouped with the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs in his early hard-bitten documentary period, but John Calder comments that Trocchi actually belongs to “the “damned” French writers, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Céline and Genet. One could almost also mention Cocteau, who was responsible for introducing him to heroin, the cause of [Trocchi’s] eventual downfall and death.” Trocchi was also an active member of the Situationist movement.

Young Adam is a quasi-crime mystery novel. Our narrator recounts his collection of a woman’s body from a canal, coloured by indifference, where his responses to his breakfast are as stronger than his reaction to handling of a dead body. A observes a naked leg hang from below the blanket as the body is carried on a stretcher, looking like “a parsnip”. A boy watches the scene while eating an apple. The novel is situated in a world that has remained almost unchanged since Victorian times – low wages, simple meals, manual labour, newspapers read in pub saloons, no presence of radio and television – with hardly a glimpse of the post-war world of the time. We are immersed in the narrator’s ennui and his detachment. His only strong motivation is to seduce his colleague’s wife. We find out the narrator’s connection to the dead woman and watch his reactions as the story of the consequences of her death is played out. The blend of indifference and intimacy is affecting. The narrator’s pathologically cold and selfish psychology is mapped out indirectly through his observations of his reactions to events, from which he seems detached.

CAIN'S BOOK

Cain’s Book is about a scowman working the waters of New York. The narrator works maintaining and piloting a scow (a barge used in inland waters to transport cargo), filling in time between fixes. He is a junky who also uses marijuana. He is also writing a novel. We meet his fellow scowmen and scowwomen, individuals whose company he seeks out or avoids. His writing seems no more or less engaging than the reading he does or the conversations he has. He is unthreateningly unambitious, drifting in the moment, occasionally recalling events from his past and his failed marriage. Fragments of the narrator’s past in Scotland and his sojourns to Greenwich Village intersperse his waiting moored in the river off Manhattan. It is worth comparing the book to Trawl (1966) by B.S. Johnson. In that book, the narrator is a writer seeking material by taking passage on a fishing vessel. We are immersed in his internal monologue and preoccupation with his romantic failures and the privations of confined living and seasickness. In Trawl the subject of a writer is a very self-conscious preoccupation and plot point. In Cain’s Book, the writing is incidental and one could imagine the book without that aspect not being thematically different from the book Trocchi wrote. Trocchi writes perceptively about addiction, but it is not a core of the novel, being no more than a single factor in the narrator’s guiding conditions.

Junkies in New York are often desperate. To be a junkie is to live in a madhouse. Laws, police forces, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority which ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto. There was never a wandering Jew who wandered further than a junkie, without hope. Always moving. Eventually one must go where the junk is and one is never certain where the junk is, never sure that where the junk is is not the anteroom of the penitentiary.

There are other novels which bear comparison with Trocchi’s. Beckett’s internal monologues of isolated individuals (which Trocchi uses as an epigraph of Malone Dies (1951) in Cain’s Book) and the stripped nouveau romans of the period both parallel Trocchi’s novels. Another book from the preceding era which also relates is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). It is a crime novel which follows the struggles and deterioration of George Bone, as a wrestles with the unreciprocated desire for Netta Longdon, a bit-part actress. Netta exploits her looks, drifting in a dissolute lifestyle of sleeping, drinking, fancy restaurant meals and borrowed money, cultivating a façade of indifference. In the end, Bone murders Netta and her lover, then takes his own life. The isolation of the main characters of Hangover Square – socially and familially disconnected, emotionally and financially atomised – who seem to have few ties or duties and are immersed in a demi-monde centred on immediate gratification and calculated cynicism are not dissimilar to Trocchi’s dissociated protagonists. The undeclared and unspoken part-time prostitution of the women is another thread connecting Hamilton and Trocchi. While the prose style is leaner in Trocchi’s novels, the internal monologues, character behaviour and ambience are close. Both Hangover Square and Cain’s Book include quotes as –somewhat elliptical – chapter introductions.

The Holy Man

The Holy Man and Other Stories collects four short stories. “A Being of Distances”, a description of a family funeral, reuses material that is in Cain’s Book. “The Holy Man” is about the outcast inhabitants of a tenement building in Paris. It shows a debt to Beckett in terms of tone. “To live, to grow old and to die: the process excited little interest.” He downplays the comic and anecdotal potential and instead emphasises the existential aspect of a holy man living in squalor in an attic. “Peter Pierce” concerns a man going into business with a disfigured ragman. “A Meeting” is a description of a clerk’s afternoon’s work in a small office and his conversation with a secretary. As a story, this is the most engaging and subtle story in The Holy Man – apparently the entirety of Trocchi’s short fiction.

Man at Leisure

Man at Leisure is a collection of poems, with a foreword by publisher John Calder and introduction by William Burroughs. Calder recounts that he had to illegally enter Trocchi’s residence to take possession of the manuscript, for which Trocchi had signed a contract but had repeatedly delayed to deliver.  The manuscript was not thoroughly revised by the poet. The 49 poems date from the writer’s time in Glasgow in 1951, through his wide-ranging travels in Europe and time in New York, up to his residence in London in 1972; they range widely in style. Burroughs correctly discerns the influence of John Donne’s Metaphysical poetry in some of Trocchi’s verse. Myrtle with the Light Blue Hair: “[…] what she / showed the toad, & not coy… / the slicks, flats, elastic tensions / of her great, her imperial thighs, the torque of her hot delta […]”It is striking how many times “thighs”, “belly”, “loins” and “sperm” appear in the poems – a debt to Marvell and Donne, as well as the pulp erotica of Trocchi’s era. At other times we get the jibber-jabber wild listings and political mottos of a Ginsberg: “[…] foreign policy implies / apes showing teeth / black ape-teeth / white ape-teeth / brown ape-teeth / yalar ape-teeth / gritting their prongs / all ape / all them aliens / sounding their gongs”.

Some poems are rather slight, hardly more than occasional pieces, and very short. The flippancy and flimsiness of some of the poems is not balanced by wit, insight or skill. However, that is not to suggest that Trocchi was a poor poet, just a poet who tried only sporadically and achieved uneven results. The most ambitious poem is “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters”, a sweeping description of the West and East, is delicately descriptive and carefully worked but still with energy and originality. In it, Trocchi expounds the common counter-culture view that the West is rational and male, enervated and played out (“The west is boudoirs and actresses / and a dwindling aristocracy”); the East is intuitive and female, fecund, unknowable and vital (“The east is a dark uterus, / darker than the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates. / she is female & her spawn / is a seeping alluvial silt […]”). It reiterates the tropes of Orientalism and anti-capitalism in terms of the human sexes. Regardless of what one thinks of the politics, it is an effective and powerful poem. Sadly, little else rises to that standard in Trocchi’s poetic output. “How at Thebes Tiresias, the Prophet, Told…” is Trocchi’s effort at recasting Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, complete with mixture of ancient myth and modern life, anachronistic parody, multilingual interjections and multi-part format. It is the longest poem here but still unfinished. One cannot help thinking that Trocchi was rambling, enjoying the writing but directionless. Verse allowed Trocchi to detach himself too much from argument, description and unambiguous meaning and to attach himself too much to undirected asides, free association and the minor pleasure of word play.  Trocchi’s gifts of description and insight shine forth in prose.

 

Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam, 2018, Calder Publications, paperback, 139pp + xiii, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4462 5

Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book, 2017, Calder Publications, paperback, 212pp + xx, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4460 1

Alexander Trocchi, The Holy Man and Other Stories, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 115pp, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4847 0

Alexander Trocchi, Man at Leisure, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 85pp + viii, £10.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4944 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art