RHYMES AND RHYTHMS OF EDEN: INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL LUIMNIOS
Hedwig Gorski is an artist-poet. She coined the term “performance poetry” to describe her spoken words recorded during radio broadcasts with East of Eden Band. She published three books of poetry and released several audio collections before 1994. Her BFA degree from NSCAD, a world famous radical art school, is in painting. She received a doctorate in creative writing in 2001, Louisiana Artist’s Fellowship in 2002, and a Fulbright to lecture in Poland in 2003. Artistic influences include the avant-garde and experimental across genres such as conceptual art and Beat poetry including individual artists and writers such as Mayakovsky, Warhol, Pound, Eliot, Philip Glass, John Cage, Jim Jarmusch, Dylan, Polanski, Milosz, and Szymborska. She has been called the American Mayakovsky for her playfulness, optimism, and attachment to the working class and farmers. In 1976, she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University (NSCAD) in Canada then returned to the South and Southwest. In Austin, Texas, Gorski's journey of invention and intense self-discovery continued after finding a foundation for it in New Orleans during 1973-74.
Gorski’s audio recordings have been played on radio stations around the world and charted on several Canadian stations in rotation with Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Leonard Cohen. She has also produced successful audio poetry anthologies for broadcast. For many years, people who heard about or saw the name did not know whether Hedwig Gorski was a man or woman. The name confused them until they heard her voice on the radio with her band.
Michael Limnios: Poetry and music––can these two arts confront the organized government “prison” of the spirit and mind?
Hedwig Gorski: Absolutely, poetry and music, together especially, should confront any organized government “prison” of the spirit and mind, as you state it so aptly. Every movement had its artists to inspire the masses and keep rebellion alive. I see the role of poets, supreme word artists, as a political one, to articulate for those disenfranchised or abused by bureaucratic systems. Even when there is no official protest movement by citizens, poets should probe and instigate the ills that are under wraps but destroy or have the potential to destroy the well-being of citizens. The ability to be an “antennae for the human race” as Pound stated it requires that poets take risks and use their abundant skills to penetrate the state of affairs for the purpose of improving them. In every culture throughout history, poets have been murdered for this ability to instigate listeners and readers while using coded rhetoric to fly under the radar. Music added to poetry makes it more entertaining expanding the audience while adding yet another cloak of deception to hide volatile political and social messages from authorities. My chief annoyance with my colleagues and about most contemporary poetry in the United States is the lack of provocative content, either intellectually, aesthetically, or politically.
We should write quotably and aphoristically about evil and oppression by power mongers to provide rebels and leaders mantras for the progress of good. Let the most sensitively intelligent lead: first, expressions of reality; then, actions to change negative reality. Who can articulate it better than cognoscente. Additionally, publishers should take risks to publish the best. We should be in court fighting for our revelations and piercing expression like the Beats and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights press in San Francisco did during the 1950s.
ML: What was the relation between music, poetry and activism?
HG: Let’s narrow it down to the twentieth century and provide some background to discuss the relationship between activism, music and poetry: First, activism always had its anthems and slogans to rally the people. Why shouldn’t the political slogan makers be poets instead of speech writers and advertising executives? In oppressed nations, the poet’s ability to speak in metaphors creates secret codes that communicate ideas, support, plans, and messages to the activists and citizens using public speech yet keeping the writers and speakers safe from government persecution. Poetry is a sophisticated secret code that the initiated can decipher when need be. That is why totalitarian regimes immediately murder the poets, intelligentsia, and artists along with professors and others capable of free thinking, daring, and exercising free speech, as Anne Applebaum points out correctly in her new book Iron Curtain, an examination of how totalitarianism operated in Eastern Europe during 1944-1956. Those living in censored societies, like Iran today, love and read their poets as they hunger for news of their situation with aching desire to enjoy human rights.
Poland’s fight against Stalin’s oppression produced two contemporary postwar Noble Laureates who were also politically engaged poets, Milosz and Szymborska, plus others like Zbigniew Herbert, who was also considered for a Nobel. When governments oppress their citizens, then poets become the voices for the oppressed. Poetry is even more capable of getting past censors than song lyrics or bombastic and confessional raps because poets tend to stay under the radar more effectively with their studious, academic, or seemingly harmless writer nerd personas. Even public eccentrics like the Beats were seen more like clowns and buffoons instead of serious threats by a majority of people. Here is a democracy where free speech protects clowns and buffoons as well erudition. Whether coupled correctly with the sensuous art of music or not, poetry has changed laws, opinions, and governments by risking all to speak truth.
However, if done cohesively with music, text elevates and inspires while provoking. This way, it reaches many people who could use a lift or those who need shaking.
ML: Some music styles can be fads, but the blues and jazz is always with us. Why do think that is?
HG: Blues and jazz and their descendent, rock and roll, are the only uniquely American art forms because of the African American culture that produced it. Blues music is honest and raw speaking in charming ways about the basic compulsions and travail all humans share, and this feature alone could make it of lasting importance. In addition, it represents a period in history and culture when slaves maintained spirit and identity through art. Blues music is basic, honest, entertaining, and discusses universal themes elevating real loss and pain to art. Art makes reality bearable and often beautiful.
On the other hand, jazz is our classical music with the same level of complication, highly evolved musical skills, and universal appeal. It is timeless and must be admired just like classical music is for the same reasons. However, it is culturally different because of the African roots in jazz, something it has in common with the Blues. Both originated in the segregated South and were originally played for African American audiences, a music dense with pleasure and life experience. It developed outside the mainstream so was eccentric and unique taking many chances the proper social mores and tastes of the majority society at the time censored and mitigated.
Once it did cross the color barrier, both forms, blues and jazz, continue to be cherished and imitated with a provenance that is full of the history and mystery of the South and the dark plague of slavery. Jazz has the high intellectualism and spirituality of our best timeless performance forms, such as opera, but its African American origins immortalize the triumphs of spirit and culture unlike anything that came before it or since.
ML: What first attracted you to the music and poetry? How has the music and poetry changed your life?
HG: I always admired the way Richard Harris spoke-sang his role in the 1967 film Camelot. I was around 17 and wanted to be a folk singer playing the basements and other hip haunts in Princeton and New York. Even though I sang in the church choir during most of my childhood at St. Hedwig’s Grammar School and Church in Trenton, New Jersey, I really did not have much of a singing voice, so I admired Harris’s ability to fake sing.
The second major trigger was a reel-to-reel tape of Dylan Thomas reading his poems with so much vocal dynamism and expression that his voice was singing in a Welsh bard way. Let me go back in time here. I was on my own for the first time in a third-floor walkup near the train station and reinventing myself as the artist I would later become. I always wrote and put together hand-made books of illustrated poetry in that first apartment while attending art school and working as a graphic artist at JZ Art Service. I had talents in painting, drawing, writing, and drama since childhood, but the standard forms of each were boring. To practice them, I had to invent new ways to create; ways that could keep me entertained and interested enough to invest so much effort and emotional energy.
A multitude of memories in my angst-ridden life were severely dominated by the compulsion to join together my disparate talents in visual and high art, desire to perform with a band, and to write or, more accurately, make poetry. Destiny dealt me this hand, and I felt a spiritual pressure to succeed using Destiny’s cards. Enrolling in the radical progressive Nova Scotia College of Art and Design freed me from the literal interpretation of visual art practices since they almost abolished the painting department at that time in 1974, so powerful was the momentum toward performance as well as conceptual and media art. After Emmett Williams, who started a performance-oriented avant-garde art movement of the 1960s called Fluxus, performed his poetry as a guest at NSCAD, I was hooked. Vito Acconci, a NSCAD graduate, also was what I call an existential poet conflated onto performance art, which is more sculptural than performance poetry, which is more textual. This defines a huge distinction between the two.
When Allen started recording albums of his readings with live music in the background, it showed me that recordings of poetry and music could work. I could be a fake singer. All of the poets who used music occasionally did so at poetry readings to promote their books. Their music and poetry never cohered because poets did not allow space for the music, and musicians were not familiar enough with the text or did not have the ears for it. The only other poet with band I heard who made it cohere was Michael McClure in the late 1980s. McClure writes drama so is theatrical and knows how to use copious amounts of dramatic pause. If I were to give a piece of advice to performance poets who want to work with a band or musicians, it would be that dramatic vocal pauses and vocal extensions are needed to make poetry and music cohere.
I was already into performance art and media art eschewing supremely boring printed poetry and wrote to produce what I began calling poetry for voices during the 1970s. I had improvised with experimental and professional musicians in the past. When I met musician and composer D’Jalma in 1978, we started collaborating immediately with our skills. I wrote poetry only for the band we formed and not for the printed page. These are two different animals. Our results received much support of all kinds of disciplines because we produced pieces that cohered. The composition, music, spoken vocals, and text became an aural film with all the pieces supporting and enhancing each other in tone, timing, and dynamics—a rarity for music and poetry even now. It was my primary form, like performance art can be for visual artists, which is why I named it performance poetry—to distinguish what East of Eden Band did from other poets’ half-hearted attempts at adding music to their stodgy poetry readings.
Inventing and succeeding at something new creates a hallmark in a person’s life, as did performance poetry in collaboration with D’Jalma Garnier. We clicked in all sorts of ways. The results created a legacy for this living new form, the new spoken word poets and slammers coming up today who take performance of poetic text as seriously as I do. It is more than writing well and reading well. It is performance and theater as well as writing poetry for performance. The two are extremely difficult to do well together since the printed cannon can’t be ignored even as new elements, like music, are explored and used.
HG: Blues fits my melancholy and angst-ridden nature, so much so that I moved to the Mississippi River Delta where I met dear Babe Stovall and others. I drank many bottles of MD 20/20 wine with them in pool halls and 24-hour bars where they played for tips. MD stands for Mad Dog, a sweetish cheap red wine, but they don’t make that anymore. Delta blues was my favorite with its homespun tropes about sex: I had a coal black mare; my how that horse could run.
Blues showed me an alternative to the Catholic views on sex I was raised with and helped me to explore free love and hedonism. Blues music illustrates how art transforms sorrow to joy and satisfaction. Blues is an affirmation of life while acknowledging and empathizing with the living conditions caused by poverty.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD POET?
HG: All of the struggles with being different and misunderstood at my family home translate into poetry: beatings, disrespect, constant harassment about my desires, actions, and opinions, and the resulting loneliness. There aren’t only a few experiences that create a good poet. I was born to be a poet, but without making it my number priority in life from a young age, it would have been wasted. Consequently, I lived a risky and experimental life to support my birthright while staying away from anything that did not fulfill my supra ambition for wisdom and arty expression, including having children and a bourgeois life. Thus, my life has been materially spare yet does not feel that way at all. It feels as rich as my cultural and creative life because art infuses true wealth upon us. Making good art takes complete dedication and sacrifice.
ML: How do you describe Hedwig Gorski’s poetry and philosophy?
HG: Understanding trumps hate every time. Real poetry communicates what is hidden, what we and others try to keep out of view. I participate in everyone’s philosophy to some degree, as do we all whether we want to or not. My philosophy is that all ideas are fair play for examination and analysis. I never met an idea that was not made more interesting with exposition and rebuttal, and good poets are fearless living in uncommon comfort amongst all opposing views. Further, we who control ideas manipulating language to suit our purposes need opposition as well as support.
My philosophy of art embraces the future and technology without fear knowing the momentum of humanism increases the longer it travels. My humanity is the legacy I inherited from human predecessors, and the American Republican Party platform that we are on our and should remain victims of our birth circumstances is anathema.
I’m a Utopian and animal lover who wants to solve the world’s problems through art. I love people idealistically in mass, which in Polish is ludzi or The People. Individual and personal love becomes more exclusionary. Most intellectuals and philosophers prioritize similarly. I want my poetry and writing to be probative and unflinching so we can all attain a humanist Utopia.
ML: From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the poetry and music?
HG: Without doubt, the Beats are my greatest influence in poetry. I had the pleasure of hanging out with them after an initial excitement about Kerouac’s prose and Ferlinghetti’s poems, to start, at age twenty. They were compassionate and inclusive (except maybe for women the feminist in me might whine), and became fascinated with the darker layers of society as well as Zen practices to elevate the outer parameters of light in balance with the dark.
In music, besides blues singers, conceptual minimalist John Cage reveals context and theory are as important as musical composition, increasing the intellectual component of music compared to sensory/emotional. The world of conceptual ideas is a comfortable domain for my poems. During the early 1970s, I wanted to eliminate materiality from art objects to convey meaning, a complete mind-to-mind transmission of pure arts, something like dance but with mind waves. The closest I came to that is using text.
Patti Smith almost did what I did but she sings, mainly, and did it in pop rock culture while I accomplished alternatively. Her gender bending appearance is very seductive. I went to a reading where she was accompanied by Lenny Kaye, her band guitarist, in New York. I forget where, but it was one of those iconic places like the Village Gate. Her reading was ponderous and provocative. She interacted with the audience in the same way Joy Cole did, as if the text was secondary to presence in shared space. I call that existential poetry.
Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre actors exude the physical presence of their bodies and beings challenging the audience with the power of their souls as well as their bodies on exhibition. This is theatrical presence and what I call existential poetry performance, which is something Joy Cole did best of anyone I knew.
I learned the biggest secrets from performing poetry and music together as a primary instead of a secondary or tertiary activity. A band allows for each individual to meld into a simultaneous giant great thing. So, the influences of the theories and performances mentioned here come to mind as having revealed secrets for my art in a broad way. My own practice taught me to listen and respond with every aspect of my being regardless of the consequences, positive or negative, which are secrets from my art in specific ways.
ML: What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from Babe Stovall and New Orleans?
Freedom. Babe Stovall played almost daily in Jackson Square for tips as tourists passed starting about noon. He used to pitch tourists this way between songs: “Put in a quarter or a dollar. I even take food stamps ‘cause I likes to eat.” I’d ride my bike under the hot Gulf sun to K & B Drugs on Esplanade for a fish burger and coffee, then to Jackson Square where I would sit with Babe drinking MD 20/20 until nightfall. He would go to “the chicken place” for dinner and sometimes we’d continue to the Seven Seas bar where he’d play for tips and drinks. A pleasant state of tipsiness kept us mellow. So the feeling was not intense at all, but free and mellow.
Speaking of intense, though, let me tell you a story about a guy at the Seven Seas who came over to us at the bar one night. He was in his thirties, a black guy, who kept asking why I hung around with Babe. He broke a bottle and pointed the broken shard end at my throat. I don’t know if he expected me to start screaming, but I did not react at all sensing he was a paper tiger. Unfortunately, when I walked home later that night from the Quarter up Esplanade to my rented room at N. Miro, the man appeared and followed me. He caught up and started a conversation as if he did not know what to make of me and my care-free mellow nature. His confusion became threatening because it seemed he wanted something from me but he was not sure what it was. I rang the doorbell of Tom Natkin, a jazz keyboardist, who thankfully buzzed me in when he saw the man standing behind me through his glass front door. Living freely has its risks, and the so-called Big Easy can kill those who get too mellow in a variety of ways.
ML: Tell me a few things about your meet with Babe Stovall, which memory from him makes you smile?
HG: One sunny day, I rode my bike down Esplanade Avenue to Jackson Square near the Mississippi River side of the Quarter across from Café du Monde and stopped to listen to Babe sing and play his steel faced guitar. Actually, the entire guitar was metal and acoustic hollow bodied. He sat on a park bench with his guitar case open, and he would put that guitar behind his head to play without missing a note or lyric. Stevie Ray Vaughn copied that move. Babe was old and lost a few chops, but tourists were enthralled. I sat on the park bench when a spot presented itself, and Babe passed the bottle of MD 20/20 wine to me. I loved being there and listening to his music and banter. What a way to spend a sunny afternoon in New Orleans it was. We became friends and casual companions for a time.
One day, a young hippie mandolin player who sat in with Babe at Jackson Square convinced us we could drive up to visit Roosevelt Holts in Mississippi in his station wagon. It was a dry county in a small town with shacks on stilts along orange dirt roads. Roosevelt’s shack was about 500 square feet. His electric guitar and amplifier were in his bedroom, and he moved these out to the living room for a jam. Neighbors stood outside in the orange dirt to enjoy the music. Babe had a fifth of whisky in his back pocket. After a while, he was tipsy and I walked with him to the corner store where he bought a couple of pickled eggs to eat. The white woman store owner must have phoned the sheriff when she saw the fifth in Babe’s back pocket because the sheriff stopped us on the walk back and arrested Babe. It was a dry county in Mississippi meaning no booze was allowed.
The mandolin player, his girlfriend, and I piled into Roosevelt’s Cadillac and drove to the jail to bail him out. I will always remember Babe’s meek look when he stood behind bars while Roosevelt made some sort of deal with the sheriff promising to keep these New Orleans folks in line with Mississippi standards for sobriety. The sheepish and apologetic look on Babe’s face behind bars when we went to bail him out charmed us all and remains an image I will always recall about him with fondness and warmth.
ML: Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
HG: It would be easier to pinpoint the least interesting period in my life because I made it a point to live an unusually interesting life as an artist and bohemian. This I accomplished with immense success and continue today.
My least interesting times were Sundays at my parents’ home on Indiana Avenue in Trenton, NJ, where I felt misunderstood and restricted like so many growing up in the 1950s. I could not wait until Mondays to return to my Catholic schools, first St. Hedwig’s and then Notre Dame High School, where I found liberation and fun as well as new knowledge. It may sound peculiar that Catholic schools were less restrictive than my parents’ home, but I loved school and most teachers, even nuns, appreciated my talents and nurtured my intelligence. I easily forgive every transgression from my Slavic peasant immigrant parents saddled with an artistic brooding child like me because they sent us to parochial schools throughout, which I loved so dearly. I hope they forgave me the intolerable explorations of entitled Americanism I forced upon our home culture.
ML: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
HG: To young musicians or older ones embarking on a career, you will need to dedicate your life to mastering the craft by making everything else second to it. After mastering the craft, keep yourself excited, most of all, with creative innovation and risk. It is important to surround yourself with other professional or aspiring musicians and artists who also place their art, craft, and career first above all other things. Everything in your life should support your dedication to music and making it a career.
ML: Are there any memories from with East of Eden Band, which you’d like to share with us?
HG: I recall one performance with an alternate version of East of Eden Band called “early breakfast with Hedwig Gorski” in Austin where venerable South American poet Cecilia Bustamante was in the audience. Townes van Zandt’s sax player, Donnie Silverman, played with us, and Jacob Dylan and members of his band during his woodshedding period in Austin were in the audience, too. The venue’s stage, an art house, was floor level and it was like the audience was on stage with the band, which excited me very much, so I turned out a very physical performance inspired by their attention and appreciation. I felt out of control which embarrasses the intellectual in me but works well for performance. When you lose yourself in the moment, the soul’s existence becomes palpable—the soul comes to the forefront. I see slammers using their bodies and voices in predictable and imitative ways to add theatricality to the text, but without an abandon toward risk in performance, it can come across like brittle old pages. Performance should be unpredictable and metaphysical as well as unique.
ML: Do you know why the music and poetry are connected to the avant-garde & what characterize the sound of poetry?
HG: Allen Ginsberg preached how “breath” controls the sound of poetry after he became a Buddhist, so that is one easy way to characterize the sound of poetry. However, with music, spaces control the sound or meter of free verse in a similar way to how word accents/emphasis, such as iambic pentameter, controlled the beat of older poetry. When I work with musicians, we all have to stay on beat which requires me to pronounce words like singers with elongated syllables or spaces and silence that accommodate synchronization with the music. These are not easy to chart, so listening by musicians and poets working together is crucial for success. So poetry is the unnatural yet super-real sound of words, to answer your last question first.
Music and poetry together is ancient, and you being Greek know that. What makes my performance poetry avant-garde in the 1970s and 80s is the combination of pop culture influences (Warhol), feminist attitudes, and most importantly, my rejection of print poetry, which surpassed ancient oral poetry. While most poets superimposed poems on music, or vice-versa, during readings of their print poems, usually with largely unsuccessful results, none dedicated themselves to write exclusively for oral performance with music marrying the spoken text to a musical composition the way singer-songwriters do. I was in the forefront of the spoken word movement that followed me in the late 1980s making my work with poetry and music avant-garde. Spoken worders write poems for oral performance, not for print publications or mere reading in public putting theater first, and I did that first starting in the late 1970s. My artistic leap was logical to me in a musician’s town like Austin. Performance poetry led to slam and the spoken word movement where poets wrote for clubs and the stage, the ear in a primary and real sense instead of a forced metaphorical way counting out syllables and forcing rhymes silently. Old rhyming patterns are redundant for print poetry since the metrics and rhyme originated to help ancient bards memorize and remember their long oral poems. Free verse makes more sense for page silent print poems. Being first to start a radical artistic trend that evolves and lasts makes it avant-garde, I suppose.
Finally, when I started in the late 1970s, it was a challenge to translate poems written for performance for the printed page. When publishers asked to print my performance poems, I used to get reactions like “I don’t understand your line breaks.” I wasn’t concerned with line breaks or other visual textual matters when writing. I wrote in line units for the oral voice and the need to breathe while speaking instead of writing in stanzas for print. If you understand that aesthetic choices while writing oral poetry differ greatly from aesthetic choices when writing for the page, you gain an insight into why my performance poetry, my poetry and music, is avant-garde. Today, publishers and readers have become accustomed to reading the unusual forms spoken word takes on the page since the culture has caught up with me.
Being an avant-gardist, an innovator, is difficult for at least two reasons: first, it takes 5 to 30 years for the culture at-large to catch up and appreciate or understand what I’m doing; second, the systems that support the innovation have to be adapted, borrowed, or educated to get it out to the public since the establishment system for literature is not set up or prepared, of course, for avant-garde work dealing with form.
ML: Are there any memories from Bob Dylan and Václav Havel, which you’d like to share with us?
HG: The Dylan concert in Prague where I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Havel backstage was unique because the audience continually took photos and videos of the concert. Flashes went off throughout the audience continually, and this is forbidden at his concerts in the U. S. When I kissed Bob on the cheek after the concert during the line-up before he left for the tour bus, he thanked me for the kiss like a 19th century cowboy. Deep down, I think Bob sees himself as the guy tipping his cowboy hat on the album cover for Nashville Skyline. He really does see himself as a working and touring musician more so than an icon or celebrity.
What a privilege it was to meet Václav Havel, the Nelson Mandela of Czech Republic, and an honoree of the Fulbright Foundation in the United States, because he is an artist diplomat who became president of his nation after being jailed and tortured. He acted first and foremost like an artist, an unassuming lovable fellow who wrote piercing satirical plays fearlessly. He and Bob are the same height and have the same sort of unassuming dispositions and mischievous smiles--both smokers and artist dissidents. It was a shame to lose Mr. Havel in 2011 while he was still vital. To inform those of your readers who are not familiar with Havel, he was President of Czechoslovakia (1989-92) and President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) as well as an author and playwright. He was one of the principal authors of the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and remained an important voice in global affairs until his death in 2011” (Project Syndicate / Vaclav Havel).
ML: If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
HG: One negotiation for a record deal on the west coast which I should have seized but let slip through my fingers is something I regret. I wasn’t prepared for the business end of recording and record production.
Also, I wish I could get back most of the time wasted on some of those youthful low-life ways in the past that helped me overcome the demoralizing insecurities I developed during childhood; yet and still, it was good therapy to recover from the abuse. I enjoyed the looseness and experimentation proffered by my contemporaries through the Hippie culture and postmodern art. While those nomadic experiences drifting in search of myself sophisticated and educated me in special ways, I keep thinking that I could have accomplished more if I had been more stable. Too much of my nomadic life was spent trying to avoid going over the insanity cliff; nevertheless, artistic experimentation and poetic sensitivity inevitably forces practitioners to far edges of life anyway. I suppose I should be grateful for getting a head start toward brinksmanship with an uncommon, troubled childhood.
ML: Why did you think that the Beats, and avant-garde artists continued to generate such a devoted following?
HG: Beats became an alternative voice to Academics and Modernists in the postwar society that questioned Humanism. The universities were dominated by conservative views at that time, and liberal thinkers, activists, and inclusive writers did not feel comfortable there. The Beats established an alternative literary culture with observations that opened up society to underclasses and gave access to poetry for those who were previously disenfranchised. They looked outward and spoke with colloquial passion in ways anyone could understand, part of the postmodern momentum toward egalitarianism in practice. Their new approaches harkened to the Romanticist and Humanist topics in Whitman and Williams, yet they translated these topics to expose the hypocrisy in the 1950s American divisive society. They used the iconic images of America, like Robert Frank’s photographs also did, to expose honestly the vulnerable core of ourselves while not fearing the establishment that often prosecuted them for obscenity for their works. Robert Frank produced the experimental Beat film, Pull My Daisy, in 1959, a playful verité improvisation featuring the Beats. Due to the courts prosecuting Beat literature on obscenity charges, the courts were forced to ultimately endorse radical Beat literature as legitimate works of art with redeeming social and cultural value--in a way, usurping the boycott of Beat literature by conservative Academia. Ginsberg’s Howl in 1957 and later Michael McClure’s play The Beard during Hippie free-love 1966, went on to win an official imprimatur from the court trials as art with redeeming social/cultural value, by definition, during proceedings that tried to label them pornography.
On a more superficial level, the Beats were exciting characters with provocative literature. They exploited the American constitutional rights of freedom, to speak and express whatever they wanted and to travel the network of highways in our iconic machine, the car. They offered an exciting lifestyle alternative that fit younger generations who rightfully questioned the integrity of existing institutions that practiced racism and other forms of discrimination and privilege.
Finally, few realize how much Allen was a master of promotion. He ran for president during the Hippie period, and the notoriety revived his lagging career at the time. He also advocated for the works of his colleagues, including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, creating a context for his own writing resulting in a movement. Passion is a powerful force when joined with artistry, and the Beats had a wonderful brand and product, and like Andy Warhol, knew how to bring it to the attention of the public.
Avant-gardists are the first ones to launch a new culture that everyone else wants to participate in, so they imitate it, but they have just as much fun imitating since it is new to them. Society is always intrigued with the new and grateful for it.
ML: What is your “secret” DREAM and what is your nightmare? Happiness is...
HG: My most secret dream is to receive the Noble Prize. One nightmare I have is society going backwards to social mores of the 1950s. It did not ever feel right even when I was a child growing up in that conservative and hypocritical world.
As for happiness, read my poem about the matter “There’s Always Something to Make You Happy.”
ML: Which of historical personalities would you like to meet? How you would spend a day with Mayakovsky?
HG: Historical personalities I would like to meet include Socrates for conversation, Sappho, Billie Holliday, and Bessie Smith.
Mayakovsky’s birth date is July 19 and mine July 18, and my mother is also Ukrainian like his. I empathize with the idealism of early Socialist notions and the disillusion of Stalin’s regime for communist Russia. I feel a deep connection to his politicized and futurist aesthetics, compassion, personal stoicism, and social empathy, especially for rural populations and the working class.
In answer to your question, I had to think if I would spend the day in his time period or mine, and his won out with the bright future Bolsheviks offered Russian peasants and workers at that time. We could have fun drinking coffee and vodka in the morning, maybe with a little pickled herring, take a walk around Moscow, read new and unpublished works to each other, plan a media project or play we could write together, ride around to rubble city places on a whim, converse with discarded people we find there, and take photographs. We might make love if I were in my early twenties during this hypothetical day, then go to the baths for a steam. Later, at dusk—it would be late fall and light snow would brighten the evening--we’d discuss art, poetry, and politics with his contemporaries at the Black Dog Café, where we could improvise a poetry duet for the audience, with everyone in the place beating on tables or cups to keep time. Finally, bleary-eyed and tired, we might commit suicide together but fail at that to live another day contemporaneously, possibly in New York this time.
ML: What would you say to Warhol and Pound? What would you like to ask Jack Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg?
HG: Well, I did speak to Andy Warhol once briefly in New York, and he gave me the evil eye and walked away, so what I said did not go over very well at all. I was a young art student/painter at the time and wanted his semen on a bride painting, a twisted blank gauze canvas stretched on both sides with a sensuous slit on one side creating a 1.5 “ vulva space between the two layers, perfect for the amorphic tone-on-tone stain I envisioned. I asked avant-gardist Charlemagne Palestine and a few others—none agreed. Even though the painting remained a virgin, responses I received from male artists created a process art piece that surpassed the object at the center of it.
With Pound, I would have to ask what about the Nazis compelled his support since my family suffered terribly first-hand due to the Nazi invasions in Eastern/Central Europe. This disjunction between idealization by intellectuals like Pound and the practice of Fascism, for example, is probably why Plato did not trust poets.
Assuming that your hypothetical scenario would allow me to ask whatever I wanted and would receive an answer, I’d ask Kerouac who his favorite woman writer is. I spent an evening or two with Gregory, and he seemed to be looking for the maternal in women like other brooding boys and men in the arts I knew. We talked about different things, but nothing too deep since he had a role for me in his mind based on my gender—a disappointingly typical old-guy response for his generation at the time.
With Allen, well, I never asked him why he gave me the thumbs down early during a reading I did at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Conference in the Naropa Great Hall during the 1980s. Like a Roman emperor’s thumbs down, it signaled to the rest of the audience that reading from my avant-garde verse drama Booby, Mama! was not to be supported and applauded. And, I lost that audience due to Ginsberg’s rudeness to his young guest reader in her early thirties. Later, even when I drove him around Austin in the car alone or when he practiced for a show at Liberty Lunch in our garage apartment in Hyde Park, I did not want to sound whiney about it, so never asked. There was a lot of slam-like competitive jostling on stage amongst the core Beats, who were also close friends, and my kind supposition about his blatant rejection assumed they wanted to toughen up the youngsters coming up. Gentle Peter Orlovsky apologized for Allen’s rudeness afterwards. I expected more recognition for the quality of my work then and now, but it is always rough for avant-gardists waiting ten to twenty years for the audience to fully catch up. Allen wrote stunning blurbs for male poets whose poems I did not especially like. He was a bit of a whore, really, and was not beyond using poetry to get laid. His disinterest in women made feminist sexual bluntness in poetry an affront, I imagine.
[“Hedwig Gorski: Rhymes and Rhythms of Eden,” interview by Michael Limnios, was originally published in Blues GR: Keep The Blues Alive, http://blues.gr/profiles/blogs/an-interview-with-hedwig-gorski-a-performance-poet-and-avant, 2013. Used by permission.]