By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Todd Swindell carried a copy of that book with him when, in 1994, he went to see Norse speak at an event at the Roxie Cinema. Swindell had barely been in town a year and wanted to tell Norse how much his work meant to him, but when he handed the book to Norse to sign, he was speechless. He took the book back and ran off.
Last year he finally got to say what he wanted when Ronnie Burk, an ACT UP S.F. member and a poet himself, introduced the two. Since then, Swindell has been among a handful of Norse's caretakers and has done much of the work poring through and transcribing the Bukowski correspondence, and he has taken charge of promoting Norse's work both within ACT UP S.F. and outside it. Last year, Swindell profiled Norse for ACT UP S.F.'s newsmagazine Magnus. In April, he hawked Beat Hotel after Norse read at the North Beach Public Library ("That's the greatest book you'll read in your entire life," he said to anybody who would listen). This summer, Swindell invited him to participate in a new monthly poetry reading series at ACT UP S.F. headquarters, and he has registered haroldnorse.com in the hopes of eventually selling Norse's work online.
"The market now is all about the demonization of gay men and the demonization of gay sexuality -- it's all about AIDS," says Swindell. "Harold's outside of that, and I think that's why he hasn't been as popular. The popular media image right now is the victim, the dying AIDS queen and feeling sorry for yourself. Harold's never been about that."
Burk concurs. "Harold is proof that you can live to a full and creative life and be a gay man, be sexual about your life, and live to a long and ripe old age," he says. "The literary heroes of the gay community represent petit-bourgeois conformist values. Harold does not."
"They have a bad rap," says Norse of ACT UP S.F. "I find them brilliant and devoted totally to what they're doing. I'm not taking sides because I don't know enough about it, and I wouldn't jeopardize my life for what they say. I used to want to do that, but not while AIDS is around. And they may be right -- some of the greatest minds are now saying the same thing."
Swindell is well aware of ACT UP S.F.'s reputation, and he says he thought about the group's association with Norse carefully. "I was concerned about that because I didn't want anything to negatively affect him," he says. But, he adds, "I don't think it would be a detriment. If anything, the controversy would help Harold. People would say, "Wait a minute, what's going on? This is a guy who shouldn't be agreeing with them, shouldn't be participating with them. Why is he?'"
AIDS, like a medieval plague, has claimed the lives of many I knew and changed the world I knew. I have drawn in my horns, so to speak, become celibate. For two years I had a very young lover and lost him to drugs. Between drugs and the plague there was little to choose. I went underground.
-- from Memoirs of a Bastard Angel
"There are only two things I can do in life," says Harold Norse. "One is teach. I'm a born teacher; I can bring talent, genius even, out of someone who didn't know they had it. And I can write poetry and sexy stories, the way I did earning my living with writing for Hustler."
Spending an afternoon with Todd Swindell satisfies at least the teaching part; a two-hour conversation between the pair is a wide-ranging seminar on Walt Whitman, Dei Profundis, the Bible, Fred Phelps, the Beat Generation, the history of Christianity, family issues, gay liberation, sexual repression, and, naturally, ACT UP S.F. But after a while, neither of them can stifle a burst of laughter at the absurdity of the situation, that their easygoing conversation is being snooped on.
"This is pretty much it," explains Swindell. "We go on like this for hours."
Harold Norse eases back into his chair after getting a glass of water. "They are," he says, "a light in my life."