Out of the shadows came beats from a drum,
Calling the dreamers, the lost and the just.
Promising freedom, promiscuous lust,
Wordsmiths and painters, musicians and fun.
Into the shadows went children and wives.
Broken, neglected, abandoned like fools
Sacrificed over the altar of cool;
Prey to the men who had ruined their lives.
There in the shadows they too found their art,
Glimmers of light in the benzedine haze.
Nightmares, depression, mistakes, the male gaze,
Motherhood, marriage: the price was their hearts.
Still now, the shadows stretch long over them:
Women, great artists, eclipsed by their men.
The last few days at the University of Agder have seen scholars of the beat world head through our doors. It is not at all incongruous that Norway’s ‘summer town’ should host a conference on beat art, literature and music: the University of Agder, together with the neighbouring Katedralskolen, is home to the world’s largest collection of beat art outside of the USA. Conference organiser and art historian Frida Forsgren gave not one but two tours of some of the highlights of this collection which includes Jay DeFeo’s ‘The Wise Virgin’ and ‘The Foolish Virgin’; the viewing of which was surely the high point of the conference. (For the Norwegian paper Aftenposten’s article on these paintings – including pictures – see here)
But when not looking at art (or taking a boat to an island for the conference dinner, or swimming), delegates were treated to a range of international scholarly papers. Keynote speaker Polina Mackay started with an assessment of Keatsian influences in Diane di Prima’s early poetry. Di Prima was also the subject of Lisa Chinn’s paper which also covered LeRoi Jones, and both Jones partners (Hettie and LeRoi) came under scrutiny from Raven See. The first day also saw papers from Jaap van der Bent on the women in John Clellon Holmes’s Go (which included a striking comparison to Jane Eyre), and Miryam Sivan on Jane Bowles as ‘proto-beat’. Finally, Anna Solonina and Estíbaliz Encarnación Pinedo investigated the genre of ‘memoir’ among female beat authors. The first day ended with a moving reading from Jan Kerouac’s memoir ‘Baby Driver’ by Rebecca Evans.
Day 2 returned to Hettie Jones, this time with Chelsea Stripe’s discussion of her editorship of the little magazine Yugen. Anette Irene Nyhagen challenged us to rethink the life, death, and work of Joan Vollmer Adams, and Eric Mortenson offered a fascinating comparison of the women beats to Turkish female underground writers of the 1990s. The day continued with Simon Warner’s location of Patti Smith within a post-beat tradition, Franca Bellarsi’s eco-poetic analysis of women beat writers, and Estíbaliz Encarnación Pinedo’s trip to travel writing, particularly that of Janine Pommy Vega.
The final day began and ended with Mary Kerr, first in a keynote, and then with the showing of her film ‘SF Wild History Groove’. This docu-film uses no voiceover, only interviews with beat artists and poets together with a jazz soundtrack. The University of Agder’s very own Michael Prince gave an far-reaching paper on the use of Proust citations in the film version (Salles and Rivera) of On the Road, and in the final keynote A. Robert Lee combined poetry and decades of scholarship to make the valid point that women beat artists are now, thankfully, out of the shadows indeed.
It may have taken almost fifty years, but it is heartening that these women of the 1950s are now recognised for their work, and take their place in the ‘imaginary museum’ (to borrow Lydia Gehr’s term) of literary, musical and artistic talents.
I live-tweeted the conference. To see the tweets, search using the hashtag #OutShad. My twitter name is @skatemaxwell.