The e-book Dead Beats Anthology 2011-2012 (edited by Alexander J. Smith, Adonis Leboho and Jack Mann) collects work by eight contributors to the UK group Dead Beats (“a Sheffield-based, student-run publishing and performance poetry organisation, set up to cultivate literary sartorialism.”) The group’s website bears the tagline “The Beats are dead; long live dead Beats”, a provocative tribute suggesting the writers come both to bury the dead and to praise them. No emergent group wishes to be defined by its forbears, and the range of writers in the Dead Beats Anthology explore areas beyond the Beat sensibilities conjured by their name. Nonetheless, a consistent ‘Beat spirit’ runs throughout the work, replete with images which evoke Kerouac’s famous sentiments from On the Road: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”. Contributions pulse with notably Beat concerns; an emphasis on urgency (Olivia Rourke: “I found chalk and used it above my bed to write ‘Carpe Diem’ and lived every day as if it were the last piece of cheese on the plate”); a faith in writing and the tools of the writer’s trade: (Ulf Skei: “my old typewriter, a Remington-57, the one with the problematic ‘W’”); and a penchant for the possibilities and pleasures of intoxication.
Throughout the anthology, the contributors pay tribute to the spirits of those who surpass the mundane (Jayce McNeill: “Time seems so brief/But your life was bright/Like a burning star/In the cold black night/The cloudy sky parted/And down poured moonlight”). Many of the texts work towards inscribing a cruel or indifferent word with the tangibly human (Joel Mak: “some wake up next to others/some to the sound of bird fights/deciding to make the breakfast for the other/putting personal touch into an impersonal world”). This interest in the ‘personal touch’ echoes a motivation underlying the group’s formation. The anthology’s introduction presents the fledgling Dead Beats as “apathetic towards and disenchanted by the strict canon of their Literature course”, suggesting the wish to put a ‘personal touch’ into the detached world of academia. The result is a realm of the intimate into which the explicitly political rarely intrudes, with the exception of a contribution by Rhiannon Rose which adroitly tackles David Cameron’s flagship policy (“Whether you serve fries, bullets/or political rhetoric/this is the landscape of the Big Society”).
The popularity of the Dead Beats’ poetry readings points to the appeal of much of this work when performed as spoken word. In particular, it is easy to imagine the work of Dan Turner coming alive in performance, strewn with vernacular speech and internal rhymes (as in ‘Drunk Dialling God’, the narrator of which confronts the Almighty with a litany of complaint: “trust me, I’m self-deprecating, but if man’s made in your image, when you made Adam you were defecating.”) Elsewhere, poems less readily geared towards performance are distinguished by bouts of startling imagery (my personal favourite, from Lewis Haubus: “Her breath felt like the ghost of an ambulance”).
From the perspective of Beat Studies, the Dead Beats Anthology attests to the continued vitality of the literary example offered by the original (dead) Beats. These young writers’ heady enthusiasm and preoccupation with transcendence ensure that the collection marks a bold and confident entrance for the voices within. Taken as a whole, the anthology fulfils the promise of its final lines (from Joe Vaughan’s closing poem), in managing to capture “that sometimes sensation of being alive.”
The editors of the Dead Beats Anthology were good enough to answer the following questions:
The introduction to the ‘Dead Beats Anthology 2011-2012’ describes the founders of the group feeling “disenchanted by the strict canon of their Literature course” whilst being “inspired by the writers of the Beat Generation.” How would you describe the appeal of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs when compared to George Eliot, et al?
The canonisation of the Beats and their apparent assimilation into the stuffy, academic discourse hasn’t limited their appeal to us, as some would venture to suggest. It seems to us that the Beats didn’t – still don’t – fit into this linear, complete and distilled notion of ‘the canon’. For us, the Generation exists in a liminal quarter of literary history, never being drawn in too neatly from the edge, despite the desire from within the canon to formalise and sanitise their rather discomfiting essence; after all, as Kerouac suggests, “[they] had nothing to offer anybody except [their] own confusion.” We read this ‘confusion’ as a denial of any claim to authority, a sentiment which really resonates within the group.
Contrary to media suggestions that university students are primarily concerned with vodka-soaked oblivion, the success of your project shows a large number of young people are interested in writing and performing. Do you feel you’re going against the grain of the student masses, or are ‘the youth of today’ keener on cultural stimulation that we might be led to believe?
There hasn’t been a resurgence of arts and culture in ‘the youth of today’, or at least one that has been perceptible to us. Regardless, we certainly believe that the ‘post-internet’ moment and new digital forms of discourse (alternative literature, flarf poetry, the meme, even) have engineered a new language. More than this, they have enabled novel ways to interact with literature such as the spree cast. Uncannily, ‘vodka-soaked oblivion’ is the theme of our next poetry gig.
Sheffield’s key exports include Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys, bands noted for their lyrical acuity and palpable sense of place. Do rainswept Sheffield streets play a role in the Dead Beats’ work, or is the group’s focus more global in its outlook?
Sheffield itself probably doesn’t figure as an aesthetic concern, but in terms of enabling the project and functioning as an effective context for engagement, the city has been conducive to the success of the blog. After all, if the three of us hadn’t landed in Sheffield, there’d be no Dead Beats.
Your website announces “The Beats are dead; long live Dead Beats”. This implies a relationship to the original Beats that encompasses both homage and disavowal. How would you describe the Dead Beats’ attitude towards the (literally) dead Beats? Does their influence cast a comfortable shadow or is it one you’d wish to escape?
As a way into this question, it may be best to begin with observations we made in the days after our recent gig with the British Beat poet Michael Horovitz. Whatever the spirit of his performance, the evening was never going to be as enigmatic as the fabled Six Gallery reading; regardless, the spirit of the Beat Generation was rekindled in our imaginations and we were awed by the arrival of such a seminal figure in our midst, especially after a rather forgettable seminar on Keats that day. In this way, Horowitz’s car ride from London to Sheffield that evening became more than a business commute, took on more in significance than the anticipation of embracing history incarnate had in the preceding months. It seemed to us that Michael was tracing that figurative road, travelled once in the company of Ginsberg, Burroughs and the others, and speeding toward us three wide-eyed boys to impart something other than just a poetry reading.
That spot on which we first shook hands marked history’s arrival. It also marked our point of departure; Michael had a history to rest upon whereas we had to define our cultural moment, cut our own path as it were. This departure isn’t as dramatic as an ‘escape’; it’s something more comfortable and, in actuality, a very necessary act for our differentiation.
The Dead Beats hosted a night at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe. What were your experiences of bringing your work to one of the leading events in the UK’s cultural calendar?
We traipsed up on the Wednesday and touched base with our hosts, who provided both venue and digs. After taking in the sights, we headed out onto the Mile to promote our show and their month-long programme. A series of conversations, wine-fuelled evenings and attendance of free gigs saw our limited print of thirty fliers quickly disappear to be replaced on the Friday by a mob of sixty spoken-word hungry punters, who crowded the bar forty-five minutes before doors were due to open. That support was completely unexpected and helped to aid the feeling that we were onto something good.
When performed aloud, poetry takes on dimensions missing on the printed page. Do you have any thoughts on how public readings may blur the lines between poetry, stand-up comedy and performance art (or are these irrelevant distinctions)?
From our experience of the local poetry scene we have found that laughter is the easiest audience response to evoke, thereby the more popular performers are not necessarily the most gifted writers. The blurring between various forms, in most cases, is a dilution of a classic sense of a poetry reading.
Your Facebook page has a monumental 9,300 ‘likes’. How would you rate the importance of social media in bringing the Dead Beats to the world?
Social media is the means and the end, and in quite a few cases it is the inspiration behind the work as well. The instantaneous interaction which social media grants enables us to expand the appeal of literature and for people to engage with literature with a certain ease.
Finally, having achieved an enviable amount in a short space of time, what does the future hold for the Dead Beats?
Yeah, we’d like to know that too! Joking aside, we’re planning on turning our anthology into a physical book or a limited-run pamphlet and keeping on expanding our reach.