Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Poetry and Punk

This summer, Columbia University Press published Do You Have a Band? Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City by Daniel Kane. I asked Daniel a few questions about his book.

Q: You make the point throughout the book that poetry in the 1950s and 60s, specifically New York School and Beat poetry, was far more transgressive than rock and roll of that time. How so?

A: Well, poets could write things like "fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy" as Allen Ginsberg did in his poem "Howl," or publish a magazine entitled "Fuck You: a magazine of the arts," as Ed Sanders did, and kind of get away with it. Sure, these poets faced hassles with the law--Ginsberg's publishers were charged with obscenity, as was Sanders later on, but these charges were later dismissed. These poets set the stage for the literary freedoms we've enjoyed since.

Pop music at the time simply didn't have that kind of radical ambition or sense of possibility. Particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, American pop music was schmaltzy and safe--think Perry Como's [Correction: Pat Boone's] "Love Letters in the Sand." Even in the late 1960s the MC5 had to overdub Rob Tyner's cry "Kick out the jams motherfuckers!" with "Kick out the jams brothers and sisters!" before Elektra Records could distribute their first album Kick out the Jams to the hoped-for masses. Poetry was where the really transgressive action was taking place, especially the poetry that was happening in the Lower East Side. Examples are endless. Amiri Baraka's and Diane di Prima's works dedicated to taking down the State, Leonore Kandel's outrageously explicit erotic poetry, Aram Saroyan's bizarre one-word neologistic texts including one of my personal favorites, "lobstee"--we could go on and on.

Q: How did poets kickstart the punk movement in NYC?

A: Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Patti Smith--even Lydia Lunch!--all moved to New York City initially to be writers, not musicians. They had all read the Beats before they made the move, but living in NYC meant they could actually encounter writers such as Ginsberg, and be introduced to New York School-affiliated poets including Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer, who quickly challenged their notion of poetry as a "higher calling" and more generally schooled them in an anti-establishment poetic culture. Poetry, these future musicians understood, could be made in groups, collaboratively. It could be the occasion for wild, politically charged and drug-fuelled parties. Poetry readings were actually busted by city authorities, and poets dragged to court. These were not your parents’ visions of genteel poetry readings, by any standards.

In short, I make the case throughout my book that writers and the "scene" affiliated with the New York School of poetry (from, say, Frank O'Hara through Mayer, Berrigan, and others) taught these budding musicians -- at least in part -- how to be punk. I don't want to overstate the case, of course. Reed, Hell, Smith, and related artists certainly were responding to a wide range of artistic practices taking place in NYC during the period. And they obviously had their own innate genius to work off of! I just don't think that the work of the poets who were these musicians' contemporaries has gotten its due as informing proto-punk and punk rock sound, lyrics, and style. We often hear from critics about Rimbaud, Baudelaire, etc in relationship to punk -- my book takes a different approach.

Gerard Malanga and his whip

Q: You describe the scene at Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable on St. Mark’s Place, where poets showed people how to dance to the Velvet Underground. What do you think gave the poets this ability to translate the Velvets’ music into movement?

A: Yeah, you know Gerard Malanga was a poet throughout his tenure as assistant to Andy Warhol, right? And he was the guy dancing in leather pants while whipping Mary Woronov on stage during Velvets performances! I'm not sure why poets were so tuned in to the Velvet Underground that way, but perhaps -- and this is a grotesque generalisation, admittedly -- they had a particular sensitivity, given their work in avant-garde writing, to the possibilities of lyricism and rhythm in otherwise discordant, disjunctive sound. They could hear more complexly than most people at the time (I think the poetry I discuss throughout my book proves that), and maybe that ability helped them figure out how to dance to things like "Venus in Furs."

Q: What makes a punk poem punk?

A: I think Frank O'Hara nails it in his manifesto "Personism": "I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have, I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'"

The poetry I write about in Do You Have a Band really responded to and expanded on that improvisatory, playful, and irreverent style O'Hara embodied so wonderfully. The poems are almost like a corollary to that punk slogan "this is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band." That kind of anti-specialist, no more heroes, neo-dada thing we associate with punk (however generally and arguably) was, I think, anticipated by the poets the punks read and in some cases hung out with.

Q: What’s the punkest thing a poet’s ever done?

A: How about poet Jim Carroll's transformation of Ted Berrigan's poem "People Who Died" into a pop-punk hit loved by millions? Jim Carroll, what a story -- poet becomes punk star, then soon says goodbye to all that and becomes a hermetic poet again.

Q: Who was the punkest poet? And the most poetic punk?

A: If we could combine Frank O'Hara, Eileen Myles, John Giorno, and Dennis Cooper into a multi-headed monster, I'd say that's the punkest poet. For me, the most poetic punk, even though he'd probably hate me for saying this, is Richard Hell. The surrealist imagery and radical enjambment evident throughout his lyrics, the fractured squall of his music and the way he synthesized that with a deliciously “pop” sensibility, makes him, in my mind at least, the most poetic punk of the New York scene.

Patti Smith reading poetry

Q: A few years back, punk poet Patti Smith said, “Find a new city,” explaining that New York has “closed itself off to the young and the struggling." Poetry and punk has often come from the young and the struggling. So does it still exist in New York? Can it still exist? And if not, then where?

A: Sadly, I must ask how could anyone not agree with Patti Smith's depressing conclusion? When she and Richard Hell and others came to NYC it was a time -- as you of all people know -- when you didn't have to have stable employment to live here. You could just show up, find a part-time job at a bookstore, maybe another part-time job as a bartender, rent a crappy apartment in the East Village, lose your crappy job, get away with not paying rent for a month or two or more, find another part-time job to tide you over, work on your art, your music, your writing.

Economics was crucial to providing young people with the time and space to do what they had to do. And, importantly, there were some rich New Yorkers that served as patrons to these artists. Think of, for example, the legendary Lita Hornick, publisher of Kulchur magazine, who held swank parties in her Upper East Side apartment where writers including Baraka, Ron Padgett, etc rubbed shoulders with high society figures, admen, doyennes. Or George Plimpton, who held similar parties, hired Tom Clark as poetry editor of the Paris Review, who went on to publish Lou Reed lyrics in the magazine! Or even the 1980s, when Madonna mingled with Basquiat, lived off nibbles at art gallery openings, etc.

That New York, as far as I understand it, is gone. On a brighter note -- though I am way too old and out of it to know where the new New York is -- I'm sure a new version of it is still there, but it’s just somewhere else.

Like, I was in Berlin in the early 2000s, and saw that possibility--so romantic--I was staying at a friend's squat, impossibly complicated music was being composed by her friends, she was writing poetry, artists mingled with architects, anti-fascist politics mixed merrily with hedonistic parties, sexuality was all over the spectrum, just heavenly....and of course, everyone there said I should have been there in the early to mid-1990s when it was really happening!

My friends who have moved out of Manhattan and Brooklyn have told me Detroit, and Buffalo, and certain sections of Queens, maybe, are pretty wide open. Are these places passé now? I personally don't know. At this stage, let’s face it, I’m not the person to ask where the new New York is. I'm almost 49 years old, after all, I live in fucking Hove, England, in a Victorian terraced house with my beloved wife, Jenny, and hilarious daughter, Bramble. As the Ramones put it, “we’re a happy family, we’re a happy family, we’re a happy family, me Mom and Daddy.”

Go see Daniel Kane discuss his book on September 7 at NYU's Fales Library:


samadamsthedog said...

Pat Boone, not Perry Como, recorded "Love Letters In the Sand", and even so it was an atavism at the time. The very existence of acts like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis was more revolutionary in the mid-'50s than the recitation of obscenities by the punk rockers in he early '70s. Such language was already becoming printable at the time. In the mid-'60s the Fugs arose, and they indeed surpassed the limits of contemporary acceptability – again, moreso than the punks who followed nearly a decade later.

Brian said...

Saw the movie Smithereens a few months ago. Richard Hell had a pivotal role in it, he was very good. The East Village was a lot different in 1982.