The Return of the Bastard Angel

To resurrect his reputation as one of America's greatest poets, Harold Norse is counting on the help of one of the city's most despised...

On Oct. 23, a dozen members of ACT UP S.F. burst into the Sixth Street offices of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Chanting slogans into bullhorns, the assailants scattered fliers, knocked over filing cabinets and baskets of condoms, hurled books off their shelves, and battled with anybody who tried to make them leave. The vandals were taking revenge on the foundation — which they consider to be the enemy — because of an ad the foundation had run publicizing an increase in HIV infections. Because ACT UP S.F. believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, the ad was a bridge too far — and, to ACT UP S.F.'s logic, a terrorist raid was in order.

When the mayhem came to an end, two ACT UP S.F. members had been arrested on charges of trespassing, battery, and disturbing the peace. Another member, Todd Swindell, plans to file assault charges after he was thrown out of the offices by a foundation employee.

Four days later, Swindell volunteered to clean the home of an elderly poet named Harold Norse. They talked about love.

Swindell visits Norse in his Mission District cottage once or twice a week. Swindell cleans Norse's apartment, organizes his papers, proofreads his letters, and runs the occasional errand. Mainly, though, Norse and Swindell simply talk. When they get together, Swindell, 27, recalls his experiences as a young gay man growing up in straight-laced Orange County, and talks about his work with ACT UP S.F. Norse, 84, recalls his experiences as a young bisexual man growing up in New York, and talks about his adventures and friendships with many of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

Norse has played a role in just about every major movement in 20th-century poetry and has befriended, partied with, studied with, or mentored everyone from W.H. Auden to Allen Ginsberg to William S. Burroughs to Charles Bukowski. Among poetry scholars and aficionados, he is widely considered one of the country's greatest — and unjustly ignored — living poets, and in 1991 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Poetry Association.

Today, however, all his works are out of print and Norse himself is mainly homebound, the result of a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in 1996. But — and Norse is insistent about this — his mind doesn't feel old. When he speaks, he is a spry raconteur holding court, and Swindell listens to him with the reverential awe a child reserves for a parent or beloved teacher. On the afternoon of one of Swindell's visits, Norse is recalling his first childhood crush on a boy. He remembers how he'd thrill whenever the boy and the rest of his Italian friends would put their arms around his shoulders and kiss him convivially, as the older men in the neighborhood played bocce. He remembers how, later, that boy was all over him on a hiking trip. And he remembers how he froze for fear of being called a fairy. “So I was a stupid virgin until I was 21,” Norse tells Swindell with a laugh. “But in New York City I had everything I ever wanted. Men were chasing after me in the parks. I was a butch little number, believe me.”

It is a seemingly odd alliance — the aging poet and the radical gay activist — but one that serves them both. Norse, for his part, knows that, realistically, he does not have long to live — he figures five years at best — which leaves him precious little time to accomplish the one remaining goal of his life: to resurrect his reputation as a poet.

To achieve that end, Norse will take help where he can get it, even if that includes ACT UP S.F., an organization despised in much of the gay community for its controversial stand on AIDS and its antagonistic, often outrageous acts of civil disobedience. And Swindell, for his part, is eager to help a man he has idolized for years.

Swindell first discovered Norse as a teenager, when he ran across a copy of the poet's best-known book, Carnivorous Saint, a 1977 collection of gay-themed poems, in the Orange County Public Library. Living in that hotbed of conservatism, Swindell figured it was only a matter of time before the powers that be discovered the provocative book of gay liberation writing in their midst and purged it. So, with a tinge of regret, he stole it. “More than any other gay poet, he touched a nerve in me,” Swindell says. “At a time when I had no one, I had Harold's poetry. It's very erotic, and I came from an unerotic, repressed environment.”

By getting Norse's files in order, by promoting Norse's work — by simply keeping Norse company — Swindell is playing an instrumental role in Norse's life. And this year has been the poet's busiest in a decade. In April, the Board of Supervisors presented him with a Certificate of Honor in recognition of his “extraordinary contributions as a leading poet of the Beat Generation as well as the gay liberation movement,” and he has been asked to give an occasional reading.

But Norse is weary of being known mostly among the cognoscenti, and his goal now is nothing less than to place himself in the pantheon of great American authors. The plan to accomplish that goes something like this. First he'll find a way to publish his correspondence with Charles Bukowski, a 20-year, two-fisted narrative that follows Norse's mentorship of the celebrated barfly author. Because the rabid fascination with all things Bukowski will put Norse back on the map, the theory goes, people will be interested in reading — and reprinting — books like Carnivorous Saint or his 10 other poetry collections. Then, perhaps, there will be a revised edition of Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, his bawdy autobiography that tracked America's literati through the revolving door of his bedroom. Or even Beat Hotel, a slim book of experimental prose produced from his experiences living with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and others in the Paris residence of the same name during the early '60s. Then, finally, Norse could hit the world with Homo, a massive work-in-progress that lays out the history of homophobia in prose and poetry, from the days of early Christianity to Matthew Shepard. [page]

It is Homo that Swindell takes particular interest in — he has been contributing news articles and suggestions for the work — because its sensibility, he argues, dovetails with ACT UP S.F.'s. “ACT UP has taken an interest [in Norse] because we realized that we're kind of in the same lineage,” he says. “We're pretty much vilified in the mainstream gay community because we don't conform, we don't play by the rules, we're not part of the get-along-go-along gang, we won't sell out for money or for prestige or for getting your name in some article. Harold sees that, and Harold respects that. When I first met him, he had a lot of questions and trepidations about our positions. But over time, talking with him about my experiences and my information — and also his experiences — if anybody should be dead from AIDS, it's Harold Norse.”

For the tight-assed majority, the reigning queen is still Victoria, and that's a bitch.
— Introduction to Carnivorous Saint

Harold Norse doesn't sleep well. Bypass surgery, he says, has made him restless. During the day he keeps banker's hours, working on new poetry and revising older work. But nights are long, frustrating stretches with nothing to do. So he's taken to watching the wee-hours proselytizing of televangelists like Benny Hinn, a faith healer who, with the wave of his hand and the sound of his voice, can cure every ailment known to man.

“I realized I had to see more of the enemy,” he says with a pointed laugh. “And there it was, right at the click of a button; it's a carny show. And I thought, “Shit, this is the material for me.'”

In conversation, Harold Norse will occasionally complain about the effects of growing old: the way it has hurt his ability to sleep, his memory, his ability to get around — even, perhaps, take on a lover. But his main complaint about aging is that it makes people think he's an invalid. “Most older poets are not brain-dead, despite appearances to the contrary,” he said in his acceptance speech for the National Poetry Association's award. “Actually, they tend to be more acutely alert, having surmounted insuperable obstacles in a materialistic culture that ignores them. They've spent a long lifetime thinking, feeling, and writing it down. In my own case, I still can't believe that I am of a certain age, since I never could kick the habit of being young.”

In Norse's case, this isn't Viagra-commercial, I-feel-like-a-teenager claptrap. Because time is precious, everything becomes part of the work. If he is forced to stay awake nights watching some huckster with a ridiculous hairdo sell religious snake oil, then he'll try to turn it into a poem on one of his favorite topics: how the Christian establishment engineered homophobia in the sixth century, and how it continues to do so today.

Norse lived among the San Francisco beat culture — Kerouac, Ginsberg, and all the rest — but it wasn't until the early '70s that he actually moved here, the final stop on a 50-year trip that ranged from New York to Greece to Tangier and finally to San Francisco. At 5 feet, 6 inches, he is a strikingly short man — “Is that all there is?” quipped Charles Bukowski on first meeting his idol — with deep wrinkles around his eyes, who shuffles steadily, if slowly, in getting around his home. He now lives alone on Albion Street in a roomy, spare cottage set well away from the bustle of nearby 16th and Valencia. Excepting a bright orange iMac in his bedroom, the place is mostly solemn and decorated in muted colors, filled with old furniture and shelves of well-read poetry volumes. He used to have roommates, but after a couple of bad experiences with people who he claims stole portions of his valuable archives — old letters from Burroughs, Bukowski, and Ginsberg — he has given up on cohabitation. Researchers call on him occasionally, but unlike Ginsberg he adamantly refuses to solicit attention. “I had a big ego,” he says, “but I always said — and it was a stupid thing that I lived by — “I won't lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.' So in a way I buried myself.”

The unsolicited presence of a reporter in his home, then, is a major event, and it prompts him to convert his living room into a mini-museum of his career. One table hosts a display of the proclamation from the city and copies of Bastard Angel, a literary magazine he edited in the '70s. On another are copies of nearly every book he's written. At one point, he even presents a stack of Hustler magazines, which include the straight erotic stories he and Charles Bukowski used to contribute in the late '70s.

There's a certain glee that overtakes Norse when he talks about himself — as if he has stored up so many great stories about himself and his famous colleagues for so long that when somebody finally does ask, it all comes flooding out. His thick hands move often, and he'll lean over in a chair and point when he is particularly excited. He is fascinated with the idea of synchronicity, and most of his stories seem to have ironic twists to them, cocktails of one part celebrity, one part sex. The 19-year-old boy drunkenly reciting Rimbaud on the subway whom Norse took home turned out to be Allen Ginsberg. The handsome young actor who hit on him at a New York party hosted by Tennessee Williams turned out to be Marlon Brando. The stylish man hitting on him at another party turned out to be a millionaire railroad heir; when he offered Norse “anything,” he asked for a Picasso, and got it. W.H. Auden, the famed expatriate poet who stole Norse's boyfriend, turned out to be underendowed, and a lousy lay to boot. “He's certainly no master of this art,” Norse recalls thinking during Auden's drunken attempt to suck him off. Every story like this that Norse tells ends with a hoarse but enthusiastic roll of laughter. [page]

Norse's memory isn't what it used to be — more than an hour of conversation at a time wears on his concentration and recall — but he got most of his history down on paper for his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, published in 1989 to much tongue-wagging about its giddy dishing on the sexcapades of 20th-century literati. “Don't forget his horizontal history,” his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti jokingly cautions. “Line up all the men end to end, and they'll circle the Earth.”

“Harold's just fine,” says writer Neeli Cherkovski, a longtime friend of Norse and Charles Bukowski. “He lives in bohemian splendor. He's living there in the cave on Albion Street, and for him that's the glory. He wrote the script for that.”

I wish I could use the language like you. You have all the words and you use them exactly as they should be spent. I don't have the words. I'm afraid of them.
— Charles Bukowski, letter to Harold Norse, July 6, 1966

Harold Norse and Charles Bukowski shouldn't have gotten along. Bukowski was a hard-drinking scion of the beats who had zero patience for the literary establishment. In the late '50s, Norse was very much a part of that establishment. A student of Greek and Latin and a studious, mannered poet, he wrote for Poetry, Hudson Review, Commentary, New Republic, and The Nation. He hung out with members of the New York literary elite like Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, and Tennessee Williams. He corresponded with William Carlos Williams, arguably the most respected American poet of his time.

In 1959, Norse was traveling through Europe — on the proceeds of selling that Picasso the railroad heir gave him — when William Carlos Williams suggested he track down the beats in Paris. Norse wasn't a fan of their work, though. “You can have them,” he wrote to Williams, “especially Kerouac. His book, The Subterraneans, is the most sloppily written drivel I've ever read.” But he did find them, and in the Beat Hotel settled into a similar lifestyle — a lot of writing, a goodly amount of drugs, and a healthy amount of sex. Brion Gysin would give out hash brownies to the residents; everybody took part in regular sessions indulging in cocaine, pot, and opium. In the haze, some of the beats' finest works came out of the hotel: Burroughs finished Naked Lunch, Ginsberg started “Kaddish,” and Gysin finished his Dreammachine, a spinning contraption that, in theory, produced drugless hallucinations. Norse himself worked on paintings and employed Burroughs' “cut-up” technique to write “Sniffing Keyholes,” a sexual romp that would later be a chapter in Beat Hotel. “I recall my enthusiasm and laughter when Brion and I read “Sniffing Keyholes,'” Burroughs writes in Beat Hotel's introduction. “”What a gas!' Brion exclaimed, and coming from him that was high praise indeed.”

When the man Norse dragged over from Italy left him for a woman, Norse kept busy patrolling the bars for women and the bathhouses for men. If Norse slept with any of the major luminaries who also lived there, he isn't telling. But Norse does claim a minor role in the Herculean task of getting William S. Burroughs off junk. At a nearby bookstore, Norse made the acquaintance of the young Ian Sommerville, who would become Burroughs' constant companion as he worked to kick his addiction to codeine.

Norse stayed at the Beat Hotel until it closed in 1963. Shortly before, however, an acquaintance told him that a young writer named Charles Bukowski idolized his work. That year, the two began writing each other, and in 1968, Norse moved to Venice, Calif., to take care of his ailing mother. Bukowski lived a short drive away.

Today, our collective image of Bukowski is of a hard-bitten, take-no-shit force of nature who kicked down the literary establishment — the misanthrope with the pockmarked face whose tales of L.A.'s lowlifes made him one of the world's most popular cult authors — a reputation that has only grown since his death from leukemia in 1994. But when he started corresponding with Norse in 1963, he was a remarkably humble and suppliant writer searching for a mentor. “Fucker,” Bukowski wrote Norse in one early missive, “you might at least send me a couple of your books (free and autographed) for me to percuss peruse abuse abound in; I don't read anymore unless they ship it to me free. … I liked your poem in Outsider, right on the nipple, baby, and I see you've been around — Evergreen Review, Poetry, etc. I cannot make these golden outhouses of culture and have long since given up.”

It is this correspondence — over 200 pages of it, across 25 years — that Norse believes will resurrect his good name, even if he says chest-beating isn't in his nature. The manuscript, titled Fly Like a Bat Out of Hell, is now in the hands of his London agent, whom Norse routinely and steadfastly refuses to name for fear of jinxing any possible deal. For the preface to the book, which he has been slaving over, he says, “I wanted to avoid, strenuously, any self-congratulation. It just happened. It's facts. It's there. I mention all this because this is the first possible opportunity — he's world famous — where at last they'll say, “Who is this guy?' And I want my books ready, so they can see who I am.” [page]

Ever since Justinian
Who wanted more power over the Church
Fifteen-hundred years ago
Passed the first law against same-sex love
With the perfectly logical excuse
That homosexuality
Caused earthquakes, we have seen
Religion and politics
Condemn gay sex as crime and sin.
— from “Homo”

“I consider Harold Norse one of the living masters of poetry in America,” says author and beat scholar Gerald Nicosia. “I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I would say that Norse was a technically superior poet to Allen Ginsberg in terms of meter, rhythm, the way the lines flow together, the coherence or tightness of a poem. Ginsberg was a great poet because he cut so much new territory — he brought a lot of raw experience that hadn't been in poetry before and put it on the page and shook people up. Harold's poems are just extremely great poems.”

Author Alan Kaufman, who collected a handful of Norse's poems for last year's anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, sees a similar distinction between Norse and Ginsberg. “I thought Allen was a wonderful man, but he was gay in a way that was safe for the literati,” he says. “Allen was gay, but he was tortured about it, tormented about it. Harold was just unabashedly gay. In terms of the politics of the situation, there could only be one great gay beat writer in the canon, and that was going to be Allen.”

“Bukowski was very enamored of Harold's writing early on,” says Neeli Cherkovski. “He loved both the experimental quality of it and the street-level quality of it. Here was a man [Norse] who had reneged on the New York life on the literary starship, being published in all the right magazines. He led this gutsy life in Greece, carving out his own life as a literary renegade. Bukowski was distrustful of the beats, and he admired that.”

In 1969, Norse selected Bukowski and the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia to contribute to an edition of the esteemed Penguin Modern Poets series. Until then, Bukowski's fan base had been in the underground; the Penguin book was his first introduction to the literary establishment. Bukowski was ecstatic. “I never get tired of telling you how well you write and you must get used to this,” he wrote after receiving his copy of the Penguin book. “Whenever I read you my own writing gets better — you teach me how to run through glaciers and dump siffed-up whores. This is not saying it well, but you know what I mean. God damn you, Norse, I've just burnt a tray full of french fries while WRITING about you!”

Norse was, in turn, enamored with both Bukowski's writing and his work habits. “Bukowski said that you have to get it out there every day — in a week you're forgotten,” says Norse. “He was a one-man revolution and a one-man self-promoter. He spent more money on [sending material to magazines] than food.” In the meantime, Norse's own poetry career had moved forward. The 1977 publication of Carnivorous Saint, a collection of a lifetime's worth of poems celebrating homosexuality — and railing against attacks on gay rights — made him a cause célèbre in gay literary circles. Magazines like The Advocate and Christopher Street ran stories calling the book a landmark in gay literature.

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 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?'” [page]

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.”

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