Is The Web Beat?

Interview with Jim Cohn

by Marc Christian



Marc Christian, a student in Munich, Germany, was working on his thesis when he wrote Jim Cohn for his views on the specific continuity of Beat Generation literature via Cohn痴 online Museum of American Poetics ( Christian was also interested in Cohn痴 vision of the future relationship between poetry and the web. This interview, conducted via email, took place August 21-22, 2004.



Marc Christian: What stimulated your interest in the Beat Generation? What motivated you to create your own website?


Jim Cohn: Kerouac's On The Road incited me to begin hitching America at 13 years old. In 1976, I began my poetics studies at the Naropa Institute where, over the course of the next four years, I took classes from Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg and attended many readings by Beat poets Gary Snyder, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. In 1980, I served as Allen Ginsberg's teaching assistant. I received a very powerful transmission from the Boulder poetry scene and as a result began my own career as a journeyman poet and editor of poetry magazines and organizer of readings.


The night Allen Ginsberg died I had a dream that the entire Beat Generation effort of raising global consciousness would be covered up and forgotten by disposable American entertainment consumption. I was sitting with a friend, the poet Kenny Lerner, at his rural home outside Geneseo, NY, and I explained this dream vision to him and during that conservation I realized what I wanted to do was create an online transmission of the poets and poetry that was, like jazz, one of the purest examples of American art. By setting up the Museum of American Poetics in the holosphere, I hoped to blend the form and content of the expansiveness of Beat literature with the ever-expanding nature of the web, and thereby, survive the machinery of U.S. post-industrial academia. I had my own interpretation of the value of texts as historical and alchemical documents as well, and wanted to create an open special collection available to anyone anywhere anytime.


MC: Please explain how you created your website and any difficulties you encountered?


JC: The Museum of American Poetics was designed upon the idea of an actual physical literary sangha, such as the Saint Marks Poetry Project in NYC and Writers & Books in Rochester, NY. That is, I envisioned it as a center where people could come and read the finest in experimental verse, see performances, attend lectures on the nature of the poetic experience. I had also been influenced by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as an aesthetic space as well as the literal curating work done by Frank O'Hara in association with such important American painters as Jackson Pollack and Larry Rivers. From this influence, I developed the idea of doing exhibits and thought about creating web pages that would contain both permanent and short-term curations. In addition, I wanted to use the net in a way that it works best--and link readers to existing sites; as often as possible, by the poets themselves, or those representing poets, and operate in as indy a fashion as possible without the help or hindrance of the publishing industry, the media, or major benefactors. Last, under the current American administration, the idea of "intelligence" seemed paramount and so the MAP links page provides access to some of the many alternative news streams available through digital sources.


I've had few difficulties per se. There is a site called The Way Back Machine that charts the development of MAP since it began in 1997. I have always worked with a webmaster and these collaborations have been a great source of pleasure. Things really began to develop during the period when Chris Healer was working on the site. A film student I met at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he's gone on to do animation in NYC and was always light years ahead of his time. Over the past few years, I've worked with Tim Williams who lives in the mountains west of Boulder, CO. Tim has firmed up the infrastructure of the site which is crucial as it gets bigger. He and I kind of have a special chemistry. He's ok with production and we see eye to eye on design. As Anne Waldman told me when she gave me her blessing to start this project years ago, it's a good thing most of us cannot see the future or else we might not get into some of the things we do. The interesting thing about that is that the endless possibilities to move onward in this format provide a certain amount of ego yoga. In the end, one cannot fill all the space, so I see the potential for web making as approximating that of any contemplative practice of first hand awareness of form and emptiness.


MC: Do you have any contacts with users of your website or other website operators? What does this contact mean to you?


JC: There would be no Museum of American Poetics without some form of interaction. Personally, I don't have expectations of the way that interaction is going to go. I have worked with poets Anne Waldman, David Cope, and Eliot Katz in developing pages of their own works. I've done a few posthumous pages on Gwendolyn Brooks, Gregory Corso, and Richard Wilmarth. Beside the Corso page I developed upon his death, the next most visited sites are also collaborations. Some guy from back east sent me original 78's of Hank Williams' recording under the name of Luke the Drifter and we put a page together. Jack Collom and I assembled an exhibit of children's poetry that's used widely in the teaching of poetry. I worked with the Allen Ginsberg Estate and the Beat Generation rare book archivist Walt Smith in creating a page dedicated to doodles and inscriptions by Allen Ginsberg. I am enamored by the web pages created by NJ poet Bob Rixon. This summer, my dear friend, the poet David Cope, suggested MAP include Pablo Neruda's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, in honor of the Neruda centennial, and maybe I wouldn't have thought of that without his suggestion. So, things come from all over. All this is to say that the chance to work with others creatively, in honor of master poets past, present and future, and the massive spiritual legacy that is Beat Generation literature, is the heart of the ongoing tradition of Whitmanic camaraderie. Without it, in this day and age, a poet's life is just a fragmented poebotics anime.



MC: You know the actual poetry scene quiet well - what is your opinion to the Slogan "The Beat goes on?" Do you think there is a kind of a new Beat Movement?


JC: I do characterize a circle of poets as being "post-beat" or "e-beat" and consider myself a part of that group. Poets included are Antler, Andy Clausen, David Cope, Eliot Katz, Marc Olmsted, Thomas R. Peters, Jr., and myself. Each of us seems to have actualized a strand of Beat Generation consciousness and through our individual being, continued writing in a lineage, that despite the world's growing lack of faith in America, represents the best expression of the pure heart of the original American democratic mind. All these poets had direct, face-to-face, tender relationships with some or most of the Beat poets, save for Kerouac. Kerouac was just too distressed by alcohol and fame and family to be available to younger poets, save for the continued significance of the books themselves. He gave it all away, in other words, to everybody, in real time. Not only has this after Beat group taken the writing into the present, but it has also taken the essential aspect Ginsberg talked about -- the sense of Whitmanic comrades -- forward, the love and admiration of men for one another into a time of state & nonstate terrorism, mass paranoia, globally competing cultural medias, planetary hospice, monotheistic god wars, and virtual materialism.


This group of poets have their own unique place in that they have lived entire poetic lives in the shadows, or under the radar, of the 60's culture that mark the flowering of Beat America. In that sense, our lives as poets best resemble that of Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg and Burroughs in the late forties and fifties, before their works became subject to wide public distribution. We write undeterred by nonrecognition for the sake of all sentience. It is an obscured genius that defines the nature of our latter-day beat works. Our poetry appears mostly in the shrinking small press world or on virtual indy sites. We have books and recordings that cover world travels and speak out with increasingly relevant transmission, as though in each of us, one can glimmer what it is not only to continue the work of Beat inspired experimentation in spontaneous mind founded on 20th Century American poets from Stein and Pound to Williams and Olson, but also what it is to hear echoes of the entire world poetic mantra of open hearted naked mind -- as though Sappho, Cattulus, Milarepa, Li Po, Tu Fu, Han Shan, Rumi, Villon, Shelley and Keats, Rimbaud, Neruda, Lorca, Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey or Rilke or Whitman were alive and walking among the people of the world today.


MC: How would you describe the virtual landscape of beat in the www?


JC: It appears to be that the Beat Generation has a major presence on the web as a subject of history, and perhaps, more indirectly than directly, the virtual landscape remains open to a continuation of their lineage. What I call "Digital Vistas" 末 an exhibit I curate at the Museum of American Poetics 末 is meant to signal some of that potential. As the end of the Beat period overlaps with the dawning of the hypertext age, you find consociates leading the way as to the poetics of electronica. The key point is that most of us have lived through a time when how the web is used to communicate subjective humanity still depends on thinking, as in Charles Olson's poetics of the "open field", derived from the hard copy page. So, you see any number of people exploring new forms of language available to software dependent writers. That's interesting, to a point. But I look for what, if anything, is there being said 末 in art 末 that isn't or can't in the media or politics or commerce. What is it in language that is primary in itself 末 that's what I look for. Or the feeling element hinted at by Pound in the idea that "What thou lovest well remains."


I remember the first time I learned how to do a search online. The instructor told us to type in the word "chocolate" in the search field. That brought up this entire listing of maybe 2000 sites for chocolate. And that about says it all about the whole thing. But after you take that to your own research interests and beyond to the whole expansiveness of it all, what do you actually know that you didn't know before? Does it tell you who you are or why are you here? You can marvel at the virtual landscape and wonder over its vastness. You can find what it is you find and you can realize that there are limits to your searching and that you may not find what it is you are looking for. It may be "out" there or not. You can find something you weren't looking for and find it changes your perspective. You can steal from the entire cybersphere and make an epic a day -- before lunch. I like it when I stumble onto some really cheesy boardwalk or dingy alley, am disturbed when I enter some zone of vicious hate speech, classified government secret photos -- that is, the net in its totality is almost representative of any single individual in that all the normality and abnormality of the "real" world is in the virtual.


The real test of poetry, however, is in its ability to relate what it is to be human 末 past present and future. This is something I've read between the lines since my studies at the Kerouac School at Naropa University 末 the Buddhist studies and performance art college founded by Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974. He, through a vajra Buddhist dharmic affinity with poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, have given audience to at least 4 generations of poets since opening its doors. I cannot say the influence of the Kerouac School is anything less than radical transmission of social inquiry transmitted via poetry. A poet has to know his or her own mind to do that. And not be ashamed of it to write it all down. So, I don't think the existence of the virtual landscape affects that at all. To be a poet is something that can happen, but not taught. It is passed on from teacher to student in an unspoken yet total understanding. So, I would say that any cyber poetry can only be of use if it is transhistoric, if it unleashes the force of creativity and imagination that's available here and now to cut the knot of existence. Does it have the effect of speaking clearly for the people? Does it describe in a vivid and concrete and sincere and shameless and concise way a life was lived. Does it move the whole enterprise of consciousness forward 末 on the ground? Ultimately, I don't know if the internet can do much more than Trinity downloading a helicopter manual into her brain in order to save Neo from the Agent Smiths of this world's growing "Matrix" neurotic phantasm. But the lineage of Beat will always include something like that, and always be something other than that.