IS THE WEB BEAT? INTERVIEW BY MARC CHRISTIAN
Marc Christian: What stimulated your interest in the Beat Generation? What motivated you to create your own website?
Jim Cohn: I began 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, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg. The ultimate workshop I ever had in my life—where it all got laid right out there—was by Ted Berrigan. Ted knew how to talk about poetry better than anyone I ever met. I attended many readings by Beat Generation authors Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, and Gary Snyder. Clark Coolidge was a poet that really made sense to me. He was a jazz drummer and a great lecturer on poetry and music. His book Quartz Hearts (This Press, 1978) had just come out.
In 1980, I served as Allen Ginsberg’s teaching assistant. To say that was life changing would not be incorrect. Working closely with Ginsberg released me from the suppression of my poetic dreams. The year before Allen’s death, I was sitting with a friend, the poet Kenny Lerner, at his rural homestead outside Geneseo, NY. During one conversation we had, I realized I was having a vision—a clear image of where I was going. I had my own interpretation of the value of texts as historical and alchemical documents, and wanted to create an open special collection living and activist poets’ archive available to anyone anywhere anytime. The night Allen died I had a dream that the entire Beat Generation effort of raising global consciousness would be covered up, discredited, made into a joke. It seemed that the Beats would be forgotten simply in the tremendous crush of The New. The following morning, April 6, 1997, I had a vision that I would create the holospheric Museum of American Poetics.
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 Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City, Writers & Books in Rochester, NY, the old Cody’s Books in Berkeley, and really any poetry scene no matter how informal or formal. I envisioned it as a center where people experience the finest in experimental verse, see performances, attend lectures on the nature of the poetic experience and at some point of entry contribute to its activist scholarship. I had also been influenced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as an aesthetic space, as well as the literary curatorial work done by Frank O’Hara, in association with such important American painters as Jackson Pollack and Larry Rivers. From these influences, I developed the idea of creating web exhibits that link readers to existing sites; as often as possible, author home pages, and operate in as indy a fashion as possible without the help or hindrance of the publishing industry, the media, or major benefactors. As Anne Waldman told me when she gave me her blessings to start this project years ago, it’s a good thing we cannot see the future or else we might not get into the things we do. The interesting thing about that are the endless possibilities to move onward. In the end, one cannot fill space, which is boundless. So I see the potential for web page 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 interaction, but I never had expectations of the way that interaction was going to go or that there would be any interaction. I 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, a poet from the Boulder community poetry scene and publisher of Dead Metaphor Press. Beside the Corso page, the next most visited sites are also collaborations. A perfect stranger sent me original 78s of Hank Williams recording under the name of Luke the Drifter and I put an archival page together to celebrate Hank’s alter ego. The eco-poet and noted children’s poetry editor Jack Collom and I assembled an exhibit that’s used in the teaching of poetic forms to children.
I worked with the Allen Ginsberg Estate and Beat archivist Walt Smith in creating a page dedicated to Allen’s doodles and inscriptions—the uniquely artistic way he autographed front pages of his books. I am enamored by web pages designed by NJ poet/dj Bob Rixon. This summer, 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. I ran into the photographer Stephen Miles in King Soopers today and we planned an addition to his exhibit of photographs that we began seven years ago. So, things come from all over.
MC: You know the actual poetry scene quite 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 very wide circle of poets as being “Postbeat” and consider myself a part of that community. One defining aspect of the Postbeats is interconnectivity. Another aspect—many of us had personal relationships with Beat Generation writers. So, there is a continuity of the Beats at the core of the Postbeats. One of the things continuing from the Beats is the expansional revolutionary poetic impulse that in the Postbeat manifests as interconnected expansionist communities. Another thing continuing is this underlying Beat notion that one finds in the best works of the Postbeats—dignity, the dignity of the human experience.
I do think the Postbeat is new in that the scale within each community has equaled out. By “equaled out,” I mean nontraditional poetries are no longer marginal. We live in days of catastrophic change. Before providing assistance, Poetry does not ask, “What do you believe?” There are Postbeats I will never know, but each of us continues the work of inspired experimentation in spontaneous mind, each of us hears the world poetic mantra of open hearted naked mind. It is as though Sappho, Catullus, Milarepa, Han Shan, Rumi, Keats, Dickinson, Neruda, Rimbaud, Sitting Bull, and Robert Johnson are alive and walking among the people of the world today.
MC: How would you describe the virtual landscape of beat in the www?
JC: The Beats were the first generation of poets to find themselves archived outside the walls of brick and mortar libraries as well as within them. In that regard, the virtual landscape offered the Beats an opportunity to go beyond the traditional restrictive permanent archival environment fixed by location. The National Archives has done some terrific online poetry exhibits, suggesting that the internet—like it has with so many things related to intellectual property—made the concept of fixed archives obsolete. Although the Beat Generation’s presence on the web is primarily as a subject of history, the virtual landscape provides certain ideal circumstances for them unknown to any previous generation of writers. For example, Allen Ginsberg’s photography, sound recordings, music videos, and most significantly, readings and talks, were perfectly suited for virtual preservation. That makes the Beats a qualitatively distinct generation of writers. They are the first internet archived generation. As such, there is a degree of openness or nakedness on public display that goes on to shape the artistic essence of virtuality.
Since the end of the Beat period overlaps with the early decades of the hypertext age, you find poetics electronica consociates anywhere on the globe as well as real-time applications. The use of digital networks to organize and mobilize peaceful protest against violent, insulated and manipulative despots, armies or governments who have the ability to improve people’s lives, but don’t, does call to mind the pre-digital social networking ability of Allen Ginsberg. The key point is that how the web is used to communicate subjective humanity still depends on thinking for yourself.
[21-22 August 2004]
[Jim Cohn. “Is The Web Beat?”: Interview by Marc Christian.” In Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, The Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, Postbeat Poets & The New Demotics. Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2011.]