BEAT SCRAPBOOK OFFERS TRIBUTES AND TREASURES: A Review of Gerald Nicosia’s “Beat Scrapbook” by Matthew McLaughlin

“We find aspects of our lives and thoughts buried in the lines,” writes Michael Schumacher in his brilliant introduction to Gerald Nicosia’s Beat Scrapbook. It was almost as if this line reached out and struck me in the face, like a splash of cold water, because that was precisely how I felt when reading Kerouac’s work and the excitement that you discover when you read your own thoughts mirrored in the writings of others and realize that we are not alone.

You can read about the holy beat trinity of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg by picking up one of the large number of biographies on these great writers, as well as several other key figures of the Beat Generation movement; and if you are after all the details and so-called ‘facts’ you might even want to pick up a copy of Kurt Hemmer’s The Beat Encyclopedia. However, there’s one thing that none of those books can offer that Beat Scrapbook can: a true ‘insider’s’ account of many of the beats, to whom Nicosia was indeed close and knew personally, some of them largely overlooked or forgotten under the shadows of their more famous contemporaries. The author outlines his intentions early on in the eponymous poem ‘Scrapbooks’: “It will all be remembered by someone / in a book,” and this is precisely what he has achieved with this new and welcome addition to the growing beat-and-beyond canon.

North Beach gang: From Left: translator and editor George Scrivani, poet Neeli Cherkovski, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gerald Nicosia, poet Jack Mueller.  Front row: unknown man, “Tees” (boyfriend of George), photographer Mark Green. Fall, 1981, photo by Chris Felver.

The poems in Beat Scrapbook are revealing. Among other things, they reveal Nicosia’s love and respect for each of these poets and writers, for the works of art that they devoted themselves to, sometimes receiving recognition, more often than not, forgotten. Here is a man committed to printing them into eternity, not just through the eyes of a random observer but of an actual talented writer and poet himself.

Graves don’t speak, as dead men tell no tales; another way of looking at it is that the graves speak the language and wisdom of silence and death. In this book, Nicosia speaks for them, and what a spokesperson he is. As my eyes travelled through the pages of this book with utter joy, I admired Nicosia’s skill and ability to recall such a rich repository of fond memories for his beat heroes, some fallen, a few still marching on, my heroes, our heroes. The voices, the people, some of them ‘larger than life,’ are suddenly revived through Nicosia’s rhythmic lines and seem to appear in the room alongside us. If we are walking through the beat version of the after-life, then Nicosia is our Virgil guiding us down hallways of memories now safely put to paper before they are gone. In other words, Nicosia generously shares his precious memories of the beat greats, but these flitting moments and fitting tributes are more than just memories in these troubling times – they’re indeed veritable treasures for all time. For the reader, indeed, as Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher writes, “you feel as if you are at a parade, standing curbside, watching familiar faces walk by, each poet a sparkle in a mosaic picturing a history that cannot be overlooked or forgotten.”

Together, hand in hand with Nicosia’s poems, we go walking down memory lane as he recalls and celebrates each of the beat poets, beat contemporaries, San Francisco Renaissance poets (or Bay Area poets), and others not as well known that touched his own life in some real and genuine way. These ‘memoir-poems’ become ghosts that rise from the page with their beautiful haunting memories.

Ntozake Shange speaking, Berkeley, 2004.  Photo by Gerald Nicosia.

He asks the legendary beat poet “Are you Bob Kaufman?” and recalls Kaufman’s confident response: “answering without hesitation / eyes awake and curious/ “Yes!”” This memory offers an interesting contrast to Raymond Foye’s recollection of asking Kaufman the same question and receiving a very different and slightly cryptic answer: “Sometimes I am.” (Refer to the documentary And When I die, I Won’t Stay Dead for more details).  We sense Kaufman’s appeal to his contemporaries and young future poets, including Nicosia himself, when he writes of the North Beach literary community: “no one hated you.” Of course, looking at Kaufman from a wider perspective, certain members of the local police force certainly did hate him, as documented by the accounts of police brutality against him — for the ‘crimes’ of having a white wife and speaking the truth about the North Beach police. While I loved this tribute to one of the most underrated poets of the Beat Generation, I also wished that Nicosia could have mentioned something about a social issue that has come to the very forefront of our consciousness recently – the Black Lives Matter movement — a cause that Kaufman would undoubtedly have wholeheartedly supported. However, if I just wait a few pages more, Nicosia reminds us with great precision in his poem about Ferlinghetti that it is “time for poets to end their silence and speak up about things that matter.” A few pages later, he adds a few jabs, in a way that Bukowski might have admired, at those who make a business out of poetry when he reminds us that the true poets are those “not giving an inch to / Popularity or social demands.” Amen to that. Instead, what he offers us are the “seeds of endless rebirth” — a phrase he uses to describe the influence of the “Beat Father of Chicago Poetry,” Paul Carroll — and passes on the torch of inspiration to future poets.

Then the moment I had been waiting for came: his tribute poem to Jack Kerouac. As most readers will know, Gerald Nicosia has spent and devoted much of his life to studying the writings of the legendary beat novelist and poet in his exhaustive biography on the great man, Memory Babe, which is and still remains, as Michael Schumacher aptly puts it, “the high-water mark in the line of Kerouac biographies.” When Nicosia recalls in “The Ghost of Kerouac” the falling autumn leaves on an October day in Lowell and how “they can’t keep you [Kerouac] out of Lowell,” he captures how Kerouac’s soul has come to permeate and embody the very spirit and essence of the town itself.

Gerald Nicosia and Jan Kerouac, Corte Madera, California, August 1994.

He imagines sitting down talking to Richard Brautigan, and when he says “words are the best way to meet anyway,” this quirky comment itself recalls the style of the author of Trout Fishing in America, a modern-day American surrealist classic. 

There are many types of poets – poets who write to impress the intellect, poets whose lines ring like a symphony or jazz tune, and then there are poets who just write from the heart.  According to Nicosia, “only those who speak for the Human Heart / Endure.” (Beat Scrapbook: p. 29). And then I am reminded of another aspect of beat poets that I admire: their humility. While Nicosia himself “sometimes writes poems / To keep the world away,” he writes of David Meltzer, a poet who “doesn’t care / if we read it or not / the joy is / in the making.” For the poet, indeed, the joy is in the making, the writing of the poem, and for us the reader, the joy is in the reading.

Finally, another aspect of this book that I admired was how some of Nicosia’s lines would immediately conjure up another line or an image from one of these poets he is writing about. When he writes about street-urchin beat poet Gregory Corso, someone “people had to acknowledge […] / as a phenomenon of nature,” he also writes “he will spit on you,” which immediately recalls Corso’s “spit on Bosatsu” line from his poem “Buddha,” a poem that he dedicated to Kerouac.

Gerald Nicosia with Gregory Corso, Little Joe’s restaurant, North Beach, San Francisco, November 1980.  Photo by Marc PoKempner.

When Nicosia visits his parents’ graves in Illinois, we are not only immediately reminded of our own mortality, and our own eventual time when we will return to the earth, but also of Ginsberg’s long poem Kaddish, when Nicosia writes, “Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!” and recall the crows of that particular poem. We then automatically realize that this is Nicosia’s own private heart-moving kaddish for his parents.

When I was reading this book, I pictured Gerald Nicosia entering the room, sitting down beside me, opening his suitcase, and pulling out these memories one by one that he has been carrying around with him for so long. For the heart is like a suitcase – we carry it with us, it sometimes gets battered and torn, but its memories bring us warmth on a cold night. And in this world of Covid-19, greed, deception, and our dazed confusion over the “truth” as we navigate our ways through oceans of information and misinformation on social media, I dream of and am reminded of Nicosia’s ironic description of Death Row in Pennsylvania: “a world where a man can love / his fellow men / with the welcome of a smile / given freely / and nothing expected in return.” Reading these lines, I can’t help but think – it would be pretty neat to live in a world like that again. 

The poet Antler, Gerald Nicosia, Harold Norse, photographer Chris Felver, book party, City Lights Books, San Francisco, September 1982.