Wednesday, October 3
On the eve of the conference proper, some three-dozen participants and EBSN members
met in the charming rooms of the Vienna Poetry School, tucked away in a kind of clandestine ironic juxtaposition behind Mariahilferstraße, one of the city’s busiest and smartest shopping streets. We were warmly welcomed by the School’s director, Fritz Ostermayer, as well as by Paul Pechmann and Harriet Nachtmann, the conference’s co-organizers with Thomas and Polina. The AGM was followed by a drinks and snacks reception, and by a gathering sense of anticipation. The mild evening air of Vienna seemed full of promise.
Thursday, October 4
Thomas Raab, “Is Working on my/your political mindset political?”
After the formalities of opening the conference, we welcomed its keynote, Thomas Raab, who talked to a packed main room in the Kunstlerhaus. Tall and distinguished yet with tousled hair and a flair for improvisation, Raab cut a striking figure. He made clear that he was present as a multidisciplinary thinker rather than a scholar or an expert on the Beats. It made for a refreshing and wide-ranging perspective, as he worked his way through understandings of the relationship between the arts and politics. Food for thought, as everyone went off to enjoy the first conference lunch…
Literature, Activism and the Counterculture
There were some fascinating points of intersection as well as differences that made the opening panel especially thought provoking. Frank Rynne’s presentation brought into the room riots on the streets of Chicago from almost exactly 50 years ago, and questioned how Ginsberg, Burroughs and Genet responded to the debacle of the Democratic Party Convention. In contrast, through a series of beautiful slides and close attention to detail, Peggy Pacini presented the more upbeat side of the Sixties with her analysis of the Human Be-In staged in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park the year before. Matt Theado then brought the issues of the era right up to the present day by documenting how censorship in American schools served to demonise education itself, as well as making it increasingly risky to teach sexually explicit poems such as Ginsberg’s “Please Master.” And finally, Ian MacFadyen departed from his script to narrate the strange but true story of Grace Lake, aka Anna Mendelssohn, a British poet tragically caught up in the anarchist activities of the Angry Brigade in the 1970s.
This session drew a lot of interest from participants, given ruth weiss’s special connection to Vienna. Laura Martin started the session with a detailed analysis of weiss’s poetics of embodiment in her recent work, White Is all Colors. Weiss’s poetics were seen against a wider backdrop of contemporary American poetics by women. The paper by Stefanie Pointl navigated weiss’s poetics in terms of the important concepts of place, memory and identity. The most interesting part of the panel was the discussion that followed which touched upon issues of identity in contemporary poetry. Delegates debated identity politics in weiss’s recent poetry and debated whether weiss’s authorial position is or should be determined through gender, ethnicity or class.
The Beats and (Anti-)Capitalism
Despite a somewhat cryptic title, this panel turned out to be a richly engaging and highly interrelated assembly. First to speak was Ewan Clark, the down-to-earth high school teacher based in Holland who very modestly regards himself as a ‘Beat hobbyist’. His PhD research on Lew Welch was supervised by that towering Beat expert and great friend of the EBSN, Jaap van der Bent, and Ewan’s paper delved into the archive to paint a fascinating picture of the political ideologies swirling around the San Francisco Diggers scene. Welch wrote several essays for the Diggers, a radical community-action group of activists and Street Theatre actors circulating around Haight-Ashbury in 1967-68, and Ewan’s paper shed light on the ecological and political relevance of their ideologies concerning counterculture and the impact it was having on San Francisco, and how Welch’s words continue to be relevant today.
Olivier Penot–Lacassagne’s paper was a little more open-ended and philosophical, but nevertheless expanded consideration of some of the issues raised by Ewan’s paper. Olivier is a maître de conférences HDR at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, and has published extensively on the Beats and Antonin Artaud, so is well placed to situate the Beats in current debates about the anthropocene and disaster capitalism, a term derived from Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. Olivier’s paper noted the many struggles the Beats waged, denouncing consumerist servitude and breaking notions of political correctness. The Beats can be seen to embody a resistance that can be used to evaluate current events: their openness to the world, defence of the poetic word against capitalist homogenisation, respect for nature, and the invention of parallel lives.
John Tanner’s wonderfully smooth and relaxed voice acted as a perfect accompaniment to his fascinating portrait of Ferlinghetti, which also served to demonstrate some of the issues raised in Olivier’s paper. Tanner is a former journalist and media executive who returned to university in his fifties, completing a PhD on Richard Brautigan which he later published as a book titled Landscapes of Language. Tanner’s paper effectively places Ferlinghetti as the central gatekeeper and overseer of Beat legacy, in the context of the American archetypal, down-to-earth, frontier town shopkeeper – keeping the wolves from the door while still providing the goods, a bastion against the continuing onslaught of consumer capitalism.
Given the apparent contradictory position of the likes of Welch and Ferlinghetti in advocating essentially anti-capitalist ideologies while simultaneously having to function and earn using capitalist modes led to a lively discussion about the relationship between the Beats and capitalism.
Beat Arts and Hubert Fichte
This session had an alternative, pan-European and interdisciplinary flavor, framed by Helmut Neundlinger’s fascinating talk about German novelist Hurbert Fichte, opening the debate about whether, because of his restless and transgressive sensibility, such a figure should be included in the ‘global Beat’ canon. Nina Zivancevic’s lovingly cast recollection-cum-presentation on Ira Cohen’s visionary, distorting ‘Mylar chamber’ photographs and poetry evoke Cohen’s sense of the dramatic, and helped re-centralize Cohen’s works in both the Beat canon and 1960s counterculture. Frida Forsgren’s triumphant return to EBSN conferences (she has recently recovered from a major injury) painstakingly recovers weiss’s illustrated works and particularly her haiku into new contexts – rightfully situating weiss as a significant Beat artist in a multi-media mode. The Q&A was wide ranging, and included an intriguing discussion of the linguistic implications of weiss replacing the representational, visual signifiers of Japanese kanji characters with her own minimalist sketches.
Back and Forth on the Road from Embodiment to Sentience: Beat Ecopoetics as Environmental Activism
This panel focused on the Beats from environmental angles. Franca Bellarsi argued that Beat environmentalism contributes to a wider shift towards ecological consciousness. More specifically, she discussed the vulgar, the body, and sex in the context of Ginsberg’s writing and asserts that it is essential to understand the many links between sentience, interdependence, and material determinist embodiment. Chad Weidner’s paper provided a green reading of ruth weiss’s South Pacific (1959), Blue in Green (1960), and Desert Journal (1977). He described the way her work explored environmental concerns, transitory spaces, and the negated material body, and further suggested a phototropic art aesthetic that continually turns towards the light. Stefan Benz, who gave his paper by Skype, addressed the human imagination in the work of Michael McClure and Philip Whalen. Benz questioned the dualisms of mind versus body and subject versus object. This talk also turned to the influence of Alfred North Whitehead’s thought process on both McClure’s and Whalen’s lyrical agenda. In all, the panel proposed intriguing connections between the Beats and environmental questions today.
Thursday evening at the Alte Schmiede, a packed-out, slightly cramped but beautiful space in an old blacksmith’s workshop, brought together five terrific performative presentations. Thomas Antonic’s “Dr. Benway meets Dr. Pernkopf: Burroughs and the Nazi Doctors in Vienna 1936/37” was an amazing expansion of the more familiar narrative of Burroughs’ time in Vienna. His talk revealed how in the run-up to the annexation of Austria, Burroughs found himself on the front line of history while studying medicine, his professors literally dividing up into Jews about to disappear and Nazis about to authorise it. With a light touch but an eye for detail, Thomas then re-read the doctors of Naked Lunch against the background of that Nazi takeover to great effect. That was a hard act to follow, but Ann Cotten delivered, in a halting and curiously affecting manner, an astoundingly original take on Burroughs’ psychology, a strange kind of inner monologue at times. Fritz Ostermayer’s “Dum Dum Science,” spoken in German but with English slides, was also an inventive and often very amusing performance, followed by a trilingual narrative (German/Spanish/English) from Natascha Gangl, set in Mexico that played deliriously on the pun Burroughs/Burros. The evening closed with Judith Nika Pfeifer making at times witty and at times emotionally wrought connections between Burroughs, Tangier, a Lada car and her own family history. It was an extraordinary evening.
Friday, October 5
Burroughs, Technology and Neuroscience
The second day opened with a pair of Burroughsians ostensibly sharing technology as a common ground, although they worked in very different ways. Jim Pennington has always brought unique and interesting materials with him to conferences, and so it was no surprise to see him brandishing the cans of an E-meter, or screening the architectural designs for Ron Hubbard’s Scientology headquarters at Saint Hill Manor that he’d unearthed in a junk shop. Jim’s finale was a wonderful recording of L Ron sounding for all the world like a stand-up comedian. David Holzer’s “Revolution by flicker: why the Dreamachine matters” was a calmer, gentler exploration of therapeutic technology, including his own devices, that radiated its own calmness while also being highly informative.
Burroughs, Psychoanalysis and Cut-ups
The second Burroughsian panel of the day was opened by Richard English with a superbly lucid account of the relationship between Burroughs and Freud, which formed a natural prelude to Tomasz Sawczuk’s more tightly focused enquiry into Lacanian therapy and the proposition that variable-length psychoanalytic sessions were related to the economy of cut-up methods. The final two talks also formed a fitting pair, with Ben Heal’s detailed analysis of how Burroughs weaponized noise, and Eva-Maria Hanser’s exploration of music in the 1984 experimental film Decoder, in which Burroughs played a fascinating but generally overlooked part.
CREATIVE KEYNOTE Camae Ayewa
The afternoon kicked off with an artist talk and Q&A featuring the conference creative keynote and acclaimed artist Camae Ayewa, also known as Moor Mother. The session was a conversational dialogue between Ayewa and Thomas Edlinger with plenty of time for questions from participants. Thomas began the conversation by sharing a few of Moor Mother’s video projects, “Led by the Light” and “Parallel Nightmares.” Ayewa discussed her process in creating these pieces and her reactions to revisiting them here in Vienna. She described her work as “distortion” that “also tells authentic stories” through sound, language, and performance. The discussion offered an engaging exploration of the artist’s role as activist, how Ayewa positions herself inside and outside of these roles, and of her work on projects like Black Quantum Futurism, a collective reclaiming of black history and an envisioning of alternative futures. In what was a highlight of the event, Ayewa’s charisma and passion for her work, as well as the complexity of her art, left participants engaging in this conversation long after the session and looking forward to her performance at the Porgy & Bess Jazz club.
Burroughsian Politics and Beat Legacy
Sometimes it seems as if there’s a secret Burroughsian conference going on in inside the larger Beat one… an idea that resonated with the opening talk of this third Burroughs panel of the day, as Florian Zappe documented the ways that parts of the ‘alt-right’ movement were seeking to claim Burroughs as one of their own. The unsettling ambiguity of Burroughs’ politics was also the subject of Antonio Bonome García’s reading of Burroughs’ recently republished Revised Boy Scout Manual, where he drew striking parallels between his subversive-satiric proposals for assassination and actual murders involving the clandestine Italian organization Propaganda Due in the early 1970s. By way of light relief, the panel closed with an admonition from Margo Kirlan and Elizaveta Arkhipova that social media are controlling our lives and short-circuiting our capacity for critical thinking and resistance.
Transnational Beat: Allen Ginsberg
The panel explored Ginsberg in terms of his work’s appeal beyond the borders of the United States. Antonin Zita discussed the reception of Ginsberg in Czechoslovakia. The paper found much relevance between Ginsberg’s politics and the ex-communist country’s socialist policies. Josef Rauvolf complemented this analysis by discussing the translation of Ginsberg’s work into Czech. Rauvolf, himself a translator of Ginsberg, spoke about translation as a process of transculturation, illustrating his argument with specific examples from Ginsberg’s translation into Czech. The final paper was by Polina Mackay who explored Ginsberg’s popularity among the so-called ‘austerity generation’ of contemporary Greek poets. Mackay focused her analysis on George Prevedourakis, whose work includes a rewrite of Ginsberg’s “Howl” into Greek for austerity Greece. Mackay concluded that the legacy of the Beat ethos of resistance is strengthened through its various transformations in different cultural contexts.
Impeccably chaired by Bent Sørensen, three great talks about Beat archives opened with
Arthur Nusbaum revealing some of the highlights of the John Tytell Archive he recently acquired and is cataloging for institutional resale. As always, Arthur’s presentation set the bar very high technically, and amassed a remarkable wealth of detail that showed the work of one of the pioneering figures in Beat scholarship in a new light. A little more leisurely, Carol Criss documented her interest in archiving the work of the Bay Area visual artist Erin Matson, and Diana Schreier reported on, and played clips from, a revealing interview with Jami Cassady Ratto, the daughter of Neal and Carolyn Cassady.
Transnational Beat: Politics and Culture
Every EBSN conference in the last few years has featured at least two panels on the Beats’ transnationalism. Vienna 2018 was no exception. As recent published work on the Beats shows, there is growing interest on the intersections between the Beats and other cultures, histories and literatures. The first paper on this panel, from Erik Mortenson, explored the reception of the Beats in Turkey and the challenges of translating – or rather transculturating – the Beat moment and the group’s legacy for Turkish readers. Estíbaliz Pinedo’s paper brought into the discussion the case of Spain and, in particular, contemporary Spanish authors’ fascination with the politics of the Beats. The final paper, from Rene van der Voort, explored a significant space for the Beats, Amsterdam. At the centre of many of the Beats’ intersections with Europe, Amsterdam has served as a point of reference for many generations of Beat-like countercultures, including the artists based at Ruigoordduring in the 1970s and 1980s. After the papers, the chair of the panel, A. Robert Lee, who is largely responsible for bringing many of these different voices together through his edited collection The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature, led a lively discussion on the international legacy of the Beats.
Influences – Legacy
The last of the Burroughs-centred panels turned out to be one of the most interesting and provocative. It opened with a highly original take on cut-up methods in James Mackay’s
reading of texts by Nisga poet, Jordan Abel. His emphasis on the ethics of the poet’s work in the way it used found materials and represented the Canadian land made for some telling contrasts to the way cut-up methods have generally been deployed. Alexander Greiffenstern followed with a comparative approach to Burroughs, HP Lovecraft, and Alan Moore, discovering points of intersection through some very perceptive analysis of texts and images. The panel then closed with a “lively” debate between James and the chair, Kurt Hemmer, about the ethics of representation and criticism, now perhaps the most divisive topic in academia in the US.
Just after lunch on the final day of the conference, this panel asked listeners to consider or reconsider the personal politics of Beat figures like John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and Elise Cowen. While Jaap van der Bent was not able to give his talk in person, Ewan Clark stepped in to deliver his paper on the depoliticizing of John Clellon Holmes. Van der Bent’s presentation explored Holmes’ work on his unpublished novel The Transgressor and how Holmes’ presentation of himself and his work as a deliberately political writer shifted as he befriended Beat figures like Ginsberg and Kerouac. Anna Wyrwik used her presentation to explore the personal politics of Jack Kerouac as both the Beat icon and the personal conservative figure often seen in interviews post the publication of On the Road. A kind of thought experiment, Wyrwik’s paper worked to unpack the complexities of Kerouac’s politics while asking the audience to consider where Kerouac may stand on contemporary issues in American politics. Lastly, Isabel Castelao-Gómez tied the panel together nicely with a discussion of the personal as inherently political through a closer look at identity, gender, and the notion of madness in Elise Cowen’s poetry. Castelao-Gómez’s paper explored the complexity of a Beat activism. A rich paper with much to consider, she invited the audience to think about Beat as its own political identity positioned outside of the mainstream, while also working to unpack the identity politics within the Beat subculture.
How “Howl” Became History
The final afternoon closed with a film screening of the documentary “How ‘Howl’ Became History” by Samantha Evans. The culmination of her dissertation work at the University of St. Andrews, Evans’ film offered the audience a new look at “Howl” through historical footage, personal interviews, and the filmmaker’s own musings on her relationship to the poem. Evans used all of these elements to explore the legacy and social impact of “Howl,” asking a question we have seen before but one that we keep revisiting: what makes this poem and Ginsberg’s reading at the 6 Gallery such an iconic historical moment? The film allowed the audience to hear from figures like Thurston Moore, John Burnside, Anne Waldman, Clark Coolidge, Jonah Raskin, and Jack Foley as they offered their thoughts on this very question. Overall “How ‘Howl’ Became History” resonated well with the EBSN audience, many of whom had their own commentary to add during the Q and A, sharing stories of the first time they encountered the poem and the impact it has had on their work.
Double Book Launch
This panel focused on two presentations covering new Beat-related books. Robert Lee discussed his most recent edited collection, The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature. Lee posed the important question about whether we can reconceive of the Beats as an international phenomenon, and he emphasized the elastic nature of the Beats. This challenges the idea that the Beats were largely American and male. The book includes entries on a variety of geographical locations including Canada, Mexico, Britain, France, Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Far East. As such, the collection is successful in showing the Beat project has a lasting international impact. Lee acknowledges the cost of the book at £148 is a real problem. If we are to make Beat scholarship accessible to new audiences, new forms of dissemination are necessary.
One alternative to traditional huge publishing houses might involve independent publishers, and Bent Sørensen suggests just that in introducing Gregory Stephenson’s Points of Intersection, which is published by Eyecorner Press for a mere £13. The book details travel through Tangier, Paris, and Copenhagen and contact with various Beat personalities. Stephenson traces the contours of the past, thus “Pursuing points of intersection.” This book is a tribute to both Stephenson’s longtime fascination with, and commitment to, the Beat project. Essentially, this panel shows that the Beats remain a potent source for scholarship both in traditional as well as alternative forms.
Club Celeste Closing Party
A series of high-octane performances rocked a packed little nightclub on Hamburgerstraße, starting with our very own EBSN double-act of Ben Heal and Raven
See, a combo of haunting sound effects and uplifting spoken word. They were followed by Natascha Gangl and Matija Schellander and then Michael Fischer, who combined text with noise, while Ann Cotten read with accompaniment from a variety of works by Burroughs and others. The stars of the evening, however, were “William S. Burroughs Hurts,” featuring Thomas Antonic and long-bearded Finnish writer Janne Ratia, a cross between a Viennese cabaret act and the Soggy Bottom Boys from the Coen Brothers’ comic masterpiece O Brother Where Art Thou? It was a fitting finale to an inspiring conference.