Interview: Bob Holman on the Beat Movement
And, how the Beats still keep poetry from going extinct today
by Lisa Markuson: poet ambassador & haikuist
From June 3–8, Bowery Arts & Science will join forces with Howl! Happening to bring to life a new side of the Beat Movement that you never knew existed: BEAT & BEYOND. Bob Holman is the Founder of Bowery Poetry Club, Artistic Director of Bowery Arts & Science, Co-Director of the Endangered Language Alliance, and a Visiting Professor of Writing at Columbia University and NYU. I had some questions for him about why a precocious millennial such as myself needed to learn about this pivotal moment in American counter-culture, and what it means today. Let’s start with a haiku to get us in the mood, shall we?
who will bare our brains
if we hear not the stem’s calls
like wolves before suns?
Good question, eh? And now to Bob’s answers.
Lisa: What was the biggest success and biggest failure (or yet-to-be-success) of the Beat movement?
Bob: Success? To create a new American literature. To make an Outsider Art into an international cultural movement that continues today. Gay rights, anti-war and civil rights activism, free love, drugs, rock’n’roll, Buddhism and meditation — a new paradigm.
But there were other energies, parallel energies, that would lead to Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation and other movements. There were other poetries besides Beat that would help birth the new American Poetry — The New York School, Deep Image, San Francisco Renaissance. By the time the Spoken Word/Hiphop/Slam movement of the 90s came along, the Beats were one of many strands that came together, including the African-American Oral Traditions, the Nuyorican poets, Chicano poets, Indigenous language poetry of the Americas, Asian-American traditions, and others. Now there’s a new New Paradigm, and with digital consciousness, everything is subject to change yet again.
Lisa: Which would explain why you and the organizers have worked to include many women and people of color in this celebration who are not remembered as well by the mainstream as central beat generation figures, right? Can you speak about why that’s important and what you hope to accomplish in making that decision? How did they react to being included?
Bob: [It is] too bad that Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger had to cancel due to health concerns — [they’re] two strong women, essential to Beat poetics. But Hettie Jones and Margaret Randall are here, and Anne Waldman will Skype in from Naropa, Ann Charters, Joyce Johnson, Regina Weinreich, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson and many others will represent, so we’ll get to hear the women’s stories that have too often gone unheard. It’s [also] time for the Umbra poets to take their place alongside the Beats, the Black poets who stayed downtown when LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, moved to Harlem and started the Black Arts Movement — so Steve Cannon and David Henderson, Len Chandler and Joe Johnson will grace our stage. We’ll see Billy Woodberry’s new doc on Bob Kaufman, a Black Beat poet better known in France than in the US.
It’s obvious now that we need all these voices to create a true United States of Poetry. Can’t say there was any reaction from the poets themselves, who have been doing the work all along. At this point, for them participating in Beat & Beyond is simply part of that work.
Lisa: I can’t wait to hear them and enjoy their continued presence. If the Beat movement had never reached a critical mass and gained reach mainstream attention through Howl and other seminal works, where do you think we’d be today, in poetry, counter culture, and society as a whole?
Bob: Without the Beats and the other poetry movements I mention above, Poetry would be an extinct species.
Lisa: I guess you can’t argue with that, can you? I wonder if I even would have pursued my career in performance poetry if not for the way the Beats shaped the city of my youth, San Francisco. What would you say is the most crucial effect that an aging leader from an older generation can have on young people, in the world of art and activism or otherwise?
Bob: To keep writing. And to point out, to anyone interested, the new poets who are carrying on these lineages.
Lisa: Ok, let’s get down to brass tacks. If someone unfamiliar with the Beat Movement could go to just one event to get an idea what this is all about, what should it be?
Bob: I’d start with Allen Ginsberg’s Birthday Party, the opening event, where you’ll hear original Beat poets Michael McClure and Ed Sanders read/sing their lauds for Allen, participate in a group reading of “Howl,” and celebrate the re-release of first Blues with true Beat musicians including David Amram, who played with Kerouac on what is billed as “the first-ever jazz poetry reading.” And the last event, the group reading at St Mark’s Poetry Project on Wed June 8 at 8pm — where you’ll get to meet everyone. Of course, you’ll want to participate in the Curriculum for the Soul, the book parties and films and theater, catch The Fugs and Last Poets in concert, and everything else in-between. Beat & Beyond: A Gathering is a once in a lifetime chance to grab first-hand knowledge from the actual participants of a true American literary revolution.
Lisa: I can’t believe how impressive the schedule is. And I personally am most excited to see the big slam event you’ll be hosting at Bowery Poetry, with the brand new Bowery Slam team really demonstrating the connection between the movement that started 60 years ago and the people who carry it on today. And I hear that Abiodun Oyewole and Umar bin Hassan of The Last Poets will be there, too!
For more information on Beat & Beyond, click here.
Most events are free, and the neighborhood will be brimming all week.
There will be a private press lunch for exclusive interviews with honored guests and poets.
For a press invitation please email email@example.com.