If you want to taste the Beat Poets and sample the writers who followed them, Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance is about as good as it will get. The work in this collection is of high quality. I’m not sure why this surprised me. I have read many anthologies and usually come away with a 50% sense of satisfaction, but not this time so I asked Thomas Rain Crowe whose work is featured in the collection and whose preface helped to established historic context. He told me, “Looking back, now I think the poetry that came out of the 2nd San Francisco renaissance is still some of the best, and most interesting, poetry of the last thirty years. These were talented, dedicated, and extremely literate poets, some of whom were ‘well educated’, but all of whom were very well read and had been writing for quite a long time, even though many of us were only in our mid-late twenties. This was a very diverse group of poets, who wrote in uniquely different styles from one another and from their beat friends and mentors.” The book includes poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Jack Micheline, Jack Hirschman, Harold Norse, Diane Di Prima, Nanos Valaoritis, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman and David Meltzer on the beat side, and poetry by Thomas Rain Crowe, Ken Wainio, Neeli Cherkovski, David Moe, Janice Blue, Paul Wear, Luck Breit, Kaye McDonough, Philip Daughtry, Kristen Wetterhahn, Jerry Estrin, and Roderick Iverson, as well as pictures and an attached CD which includes readings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane Di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, Jack Micheline, Thomas Rain Crowe, Michael Lorraine, Cole Swenson and Ken Wainio.
I sensed Crowe’s significant presence in this publication and asked if he was the driving force behind it and how the hell did a French Press become the publisher for an anthology focused on American poets? He told me, “While it’s true that I was the main contact and the supplier of much of the raw material that made its way into the anthology, this isn’t a “Thomas Rain Crowe” production. Mathias de Breyne was the catalyst and initiator of the project. This anthology was his idea. He contacted me and asked for material–which he then chose from and translated into French. He was familiar with the publisher of La Main Courante, Pierre Courtaud, and it was Mathias de Breyne who contacted Monsieur Courtaud and proposed the idea of such an anthology. M. Courtaud’s press, La Main Courante is primarily a press that publishes contemporary French poets. It’s a relatively small literary press, and so this project was the largest project that he had undertaken to date. I did write a preface for the book, since M.de Breyne wanted something that would allow readers to get a glimpse into the whole scene in San Francisco during the 70s. And I did assist with problem areas of the translations. But this book was generated in France by a French poet and a French publisher–which is ironic in one sense and appropriate in another.”
All the content in this collection appears in English and in French. As I counted up the contributors to the anthology I totaled 29 men and 7 women. So where were the women? It was the 70’s and feminism was coming of age, yet an anthology focused on the 70’s features mainly male poets. I asked Kaye McDonough whose work is featured in this collection to comment on the state of women’s poetry in the 70’s, “I think the North Beach lifestyle itself was hard on women. You had to be able to live poor and like it — handle yourself in a bar, walk alone on the street at any hour, and rely on no one. You had to take care that you weren’t an alcohol or drug casualty — and that you could keep up with all those poets and what they read, and they read plenty. You had to be able to read your poetry to rooms full of mostly men who were not shy about giving you feedback. The womanizing was a definite minus. Where I came from, women did not go about unescorted at night, let alone into a bar, so North Beach wasn’t exactly a place to settle down and start a family– I’m not sure I knew what in the heck I was after – alcohol certainly played a role. I think I wanted to live like a man – a man who was a poet.” (An extended quote from Kaye McDonough can be found at the conclusion of this review.) This excerpt from her poem, “Talk To Robert Creely About It” is telling, “Breast are your bonbons / You suck a lemon fondant / spit out a chocolate-covered cherry / You try on vaginas like finger rings / The pearl cluster is too loose perhaps / the gold band too tight / You collect hearts like paintings / They are nailed to your walls / Skulls ring your house / They are the ivory necklace / fallen from the throat of your latest lady // Women lie around you like mirrors / You pick up one, then another / comb your hair, adjust your features in their glass / Do you see, you grow thin / from wanting some love on your bones?” (Beatitude #24, 1975)
I wanted to hear a male’s take on this gender imbalance and asked Thomas Rain Crowe if he would comment. “No one was counting in those days. There were a lot of women writing and involved in the 70s scene. Not all of whom got into the anthology, just as not all of the male writers in the bay area got into the book. It always felt like there was an equal balance of men and women (masculine and feminine energy) involved in everything we did. There certainly was a very strong feminine voice in North Beach and in the issues of Beatitude during those years. As I say, who was counting? If you look at the posters for Beatitude events and at the issues of Beatitude during those years, you’ll see that there were always a healthy, if not equal, number of women represented. It didn’t feel like anyone was fighting for position, etc. those that were on the scene and who wanted to take part publicly were the ones that ended up on the reading posters and in the many bay area publications during those years.” I am sure the answer lies somewhere between McDonough and Crowe’s perception of the time, but it presented an interesting back story and sent my mind rambling to today’s small press scene where I often sense a lack of female poets and editors, yet realizing women write more poetry. So why aren’t they publishing? Why aren’t they fighting for an audience?
I needed to find out about Beatitude. The small press magazine started in the 1950’s and picked up in the 1970’s which became the glue for these new post-beat poets. Again here is Thomas Rain Crowe, “Beatitude was the glue as you put it, for our group, and also for this anthology. Since Beatitude was at the center, the core, of the 70s renaissance, and a catalyst for the renaissance, the editor and publisher of Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance decided that this anthology would hinge on the Beatitude poets–since we were in closest proximity to the Beats and were working and playing with them constantly during those years, and since Beatitude was the first beat publication during the 1950s. It was us babies that resurrected the magazine. The publisher and editor wanted to cite and establish a viable tradition, with the passing down of the Beat heritage and the Beat “torch” as it were, to the next generation. This book establishes that tradition and documents the history of this “rite of passage.” We published usually 500 copies of each issue of Beatitude. It was done in the mimeograph format of the former 50s Beatitude, and was distributed to bookstores all over the bay area, as well as to select bookstores all over the country–including LA, the Northwest Coast, Chicago, New York, Canada, and England. I was in charge of the distribution during those years, and the emphasis was not to make money, but to get the magazine out and as far-reaching as possible. We usually sold enough copies to pay for the next issue. But mainly is was about the poetry and showing others in the states and in other countries what we were doing. The magazine came out as often as was possible. There was no concrete publication schedule, as there is in most literary journals these days. In other words, it wasn’t biannual, quarterly, etc. since we used a rotating editorship policy; it came out as quickly as each different editor could accrue text and get it through production.”
“Finally, I asked Crowe to tell me what he viewed as the key style and content distinctives between the Beats and Baby Beats? “While there would be some inevitable similarities, there are also some very distinct differences between us (the baby beats) and the beats. I think that, in general, our writing is much more imaginative and experimental–reflecting the values and cultural politics of the 1960s. I also think that the general oeuvre of the Baby Beats has a much wider arc. Our major influences tend to be more international–since there were more translations of foreign poets available in the 60s and 70s than there had been in the 40s and 50s. Also, we were more politically active, I think, than the beats. Our generation had a history of taking the issues of the time to the streets. We continued that during the 70s in San Francisco, and afterwards. Much of what we did, publicly, was usually for some cultural or political cause outside of the purely literary. I also think that we tended, and still tend, to be more inclusive. Inclusive of women. Inclusive of foreigners, inclusive of different literary styles and persuasions, inclusive of class and race, etc.”
As a reader of poetry, I can often say, I enjoyed that, but not as often say, I enjoyed that and I learned a lot along the way. This is a great collection for many reasons and on many levels. The poetry is outstanding, the bio’s, photos, preface and CD provide wonderful historic context. It also made me reflect on women’s role in poetry in the 1950-1970’s in a wider framework. $20 plus shipping is not too much to pay for this very good, very enlightening read.
Addendum: The following is the extended quote from Kaye McDonough’s remarks found in paragraph three of my review of Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance. Her original quote was too long for the review, but too good for me cut completely. I found her description of female poets during this period and in this place interesting. I hope you do as well. ~ Charles P. Ries
“Blue, Kristen, Jackie Baks, Tisa Walden, and my closest friend from that time, Alix Geluardi, would each have quite a story to tell. All the women from that period were just terrific, exciting people – well – the men, too! What brought us all there? I’m still trying to sort it all out.
“The thought of a safe and comfortable bourgeois married life in Pittsburgh (where I am from) seemed constrained to me. When I was 18 (1961), I remember trying to convince a friend (a woman) to go on an expedition in search of the Lost Dutchman Mine in the Southwest, a place I’d never been, not because I wanted the gold, but because I wanted an Adventure with a capital “A.” I have a feeling I wasn’t the only woman coming into North Beach who just did not want to settle for a woman’s life as it was then. At that time (mid to late 60s) women’s job listings in the newspaper were actually separate from the men’s. When I got into Vassar College on Early Admissions, my father saw no point in my going. He wanted me to go to the secretarial school Katie Gibbs instead, but my mother prevailed. With the help of my grandmother and Aunt Lihi, she paid for me to go college. As the first woman realtor in the Allegheny Valley she was able to. I knew only two women who had gone to graduate school. I thought all women did was get married. If you were unlucky, you’d go be a teacher, or worse a secretary – but I didn’t actually know anyone who did that. In the Pittsburgh I grew up in, women got married and lived off their husbands and went to “the club” even if they’d gone to college.
“My mother was an exception. She was independent and I wanted to be independent, too. How to live a different kind of life — or at least try out a different kind of life before “settling” — that was the problem in a nutshell.
“At Vassar, before I went out West, I was an English writing major and had a wonderful teacher Miss Mercer who encouraged me. But my sophomore year I had so many disagreements with my narrative writing teacher that I left my major altogether for Art History. Most of my Vassar and Pgh. friends were engaged to be married, or about to be, before they even graduated. I was lucky and met one or two wild cards among the women — Hudgins and Connie Berry — they wanted to travel and talk about literature and art and explore. (We’re still friends — Hudgins, aka Elizabeth Spinner, being one of my closest) As I saw it, you couldn’t live back East and live an unconventional life — so I went to California.
“Ended up graduating from Berkeley in 1967. I met my first poets in Berkeley and fell in love with one of the best, Frank Sears. (He was killed when I was 24.) Other than Edna St. Vincent Millay, the only role models among women poets and writers I had heard of by that time were Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf — They had all committed suicide, not something I really looked forward to doing!
“I remember the thrill of going into Vesuvio’s all by myself and standing at the bar and ordering a drink just the way a man did. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the men, paid for myself, just like a man, I supported myself in a minimal way, and met some of the most wonderful poets writing in the 20th century as an unforeseen result. Lucky me!
“Unlike the circumscribed world of the college poetry workshop now in vogue (as far as I know they didn’t even have poetry workshops then — no one I ever knew or had heard about before I went to California was a poet, let alone a woman poet), literary life in North Beach was open to everyone – rich, poor, blue, green, red.
“Readings at Minnie’s Can Do (run by ruth weiss) and at the Coffee Gallery were open. The hotels like the New Riv, the Tevere, the Basque, were open to everyone with the price of admission, $25 a week I believe they were then. Even some of the restaurants like the San Remo were communal — you’d sit at long tables with anyone who wanted to join you, or vice versa. The bars like Spec’s, Vesuvio, 1232, certainly were open. What a wild mix of people from all parts of the country — the whole American spectrum!
“The poets in North Beach circles came from all over the place — What a great brew of surrealists, tough Bukowski types, beats and bibliophiles — and the range of literature discussed blew away the limited scope of any college course I’d had. Poets were reading everyone from Nelson Algren to Vosnesensky, Breton to Lorca — you had to read all the time to keep up at all. It was fabulous! Then readings were happening all the time — exciting.
“The bohemian life agreed with me — I liked the freedom and independence. The only part about it that was upsetting was the difficulty of finding a partner and the near impossibility of having a child and raising him or her with any kind of stability.
“Bohemian men don’t want to settle down — and maybe I didn’t want to either (whether I could admit it to myself or not), a possible reason why I had a problem finding a mate. Being an alcoholic didn’t help either! By my thirties, I had stopped drinking and wanted the whole experience of being a woman. More and more that included having a mate and a child. I fixed on Zelda Fitz. as a woman who had tried to do everything: have the husband, the child, be a writer, a dancer, a free spirit — she and Isadora, another hero of mine, tried for all of it. Even if everything didn’t work out perfectly for them (to put it mildly! all that tragedy) at least they embraced life and gave it their best shot — and they didn’t kill themselves. Thank you, Zelda. Thank you, Isadora.
I got the great education of my life in North Beach with the most fascinating poets, writers and artists in the arts at that time — and I certainly got my Adventure. It just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and twenty print and electronic publications. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org) and Pass Port Journal (www.passportjournal.org). He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literarti.net/Ries/.