And the Beat Goes On

An interview with Alan Kaufman

When the Summer of Love rolled through San Francisco in 1967, there was already a thriving counter-cultural literary scene going on. Why?

Well, there were the San Francisco poets. Jack Spicer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and so forth, were all here. So Ginsberg, Kerouac, and [Gregory] Corso came from New York to San Francisco and really woke the scene up. That all happened, of course, in the Fifties. By the late Fifties, early Sixties, the Beats were an established fact of life in American popular culture, in San Francisco. North Beach became known as the Beat enclave.

And was City Lights Bookstore part of the scene, too?

Certainly. At that time I believe City Lights was the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States. That was what was radical about that. People would just come in, in the tradition of (Paris bookstore) Shakespeare & Co., and sit around and read all day, and you can still do that. And right across the street from City Lights, where Ginsberg publishes Howl and Ferlinghetti gets arrested for publishing it and breaking the obscenity laws — and we're talking about the Fifties still — right across the street is Lenny Bruce being dragged off the stage [of the Hungry I & Purple Onion] night after night by policemen.

So you have, right there in that little cluster of bookstores and clubs, you have American Free Speech being fought for in a ferocious battle during the McCarthy Era. [San Francisco] was politically the most incorrect place in the United States — and the hub of it was right there in North Beach.

By the time the Sixties came around, there was the emergence of new trends, many of them fostered by this political/literary cluster of activists.

Who was big in the San Francisco literature scene then?

Richard Brautigan was a giant. In the Summer of Love on stage at the “Be-In” was Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and, I believe, Diane DiPrima. And [Henry] Miller was just becoming a national phenomenon. And Kerouac was huge. Hunter Thompson was living in the Lower Haight. R. Crumb was walking up and down Haight Street drawing. Zap Comics and the Oracle [newspaper] were really huge at that time. This was the time of the underground newspaper. And, of course, [Ken] Kesey was here.

Is anyone from that scene still here?

Ferlinghetti. He's here. Umm. You know most of them are dead. Diana DiPrima is still alive and thriving here.

What represents the counterculture feeling, now?

Well, certainly there's an alternative feeling to McSweeneys, especially in the publishing part. But [in San Francisco] what really constitutes counter-culturalism is … well, one thing for sure is the gay/queer literary scene — Michelle Tea [Rent Girl, Rose of No Mans Land] and company. [She's] doing a lot to get lesbian literature into the mainstream. That's great. And of course it's interesting — lot of the Beats, back in the Fifties, a lot of them were gay.

Cody's downtown and A Clean Well Lighted Place have closed — do you think writing's in collapse?

No. Writing will never be in collapse and I don't believe writers are going to be content having their works published on the Internet. What's going to happen, I believe, and I'm very excited by this prospect, is that writers will form their own collectives, as was done in the Sixties [and publish their own books]. I don't think I'm a dinosaur in thinking this way. I want to hold a book in my hand. I was looking through a book of mine from years ago and it had little pieces of food on it and I remembered the meal that I had eaten.

What attracts you to memoir writing?

The traditions of writing that I most have loved: Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. They were very self-revelatory kinds of writers. They were memoirists disguised as novelists. I think we live in a time where we need true self-revelation, not the phony kind, but real self-revelation and connection. Where people can connect with each other and say, “Yeah, I can relate to that.” That's what writing memoir gives us.

Alan Kaufman, author of the recently published novel, Matches, and the memoir Jew Boy, traveled with Allen Ginsberg to Berlin in the 1990s. He is the co-editor (with Barney Rosset, legendary founder of Grove Press and American publisher of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer) of The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, which features many of the underground literary voices of the late '60s. Kaufman lives and teaches writing in San Francisco, bridging the gap between the Summer of Love and the MTV Generation.

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