Beat scholar, poet, filmmaker, musician Thomas Antonic talks about music, poetry and the Beat Generation

"Because the Beats addressed many issues already in the 50s that we still have to deal with and are still red hot. Simple as that. And since mainstream writing is still as conservative as ever and still lacks courage, it’s still inspiring and refreshing to read Beat poetry and all their successors throughout the decades."

Dr. Thomas Antonic: The Beats Go On..

Thomas Antonic, Dr. phil. [PhD], Beat scholar, poet, filmmaker, musician, currently leading the research project “Transnational Literature: Austria and the Beat Generation” at the University of Vienna. In 2013 he was Visiting Scholar at the FSI (Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies) at Stanford University, in 2014 and 2015 he was Max Kade Fellow at the Department of German Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent publications include the books Amongst Nazis - Unter Nazis: William S. Burroughs in Vienna 1936/37 (bilingual edition, Engl./Germ., Moloko 2020), Wolfgang Bauer: Werk, Leben, Nachlass, Wirkung (German, Ritter 2018), the poetry collection Flickering Cave Paintings of Noxious Nightbirds / Flackernde Felsbilder übler Nachtvögel (Ritter 2017), and the CD Fat Cat Bonfire with his band William S. Burroughs Hurts (Moloko Plus, 2019).            Thomas Antonic / Photo by © Sarah Earheart, 2020

A biography about ruth weiss is in process, as well as the documentary film ruth weiss: One More Step West Is the Sea (2021). Beat scholar, poet, filmmaker, musician Thomas Antonic talks about music, poetry, ruth weiss, William Burroughs, Wolfgang Bauer, Jack Kerouac, Wiener Gruppe, Maya civilization, and the Beat Generation.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the US Beats and Wiener Gruppe influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I started reading the Beats at the age of 16. First Kerouac then Burroughs and Ginsberg, later all the others. In their writings and biographies, I discovered world views and ways of thinking that corresponded with my own. I’ve found kindred spirits. But being in Europe, working in the field of German Studies, and not really interested in going to the US until I was 30, it took me 15 years to get connected personally. First with ruth weiss on one of her visits in Vienna, later with all the others at the West Coast who were and are still alive and kickin’, and of course especially those of younger generations who follow their footsteps or strike a new path. As for the Wiener Gruppe / Vienna Group … I was always interested in their works, which are certainly worth analyzing from a scholarly viewpoint. But as a poet and freedom-loving individual, their approach and stiffness is definitely not my cup of tea. Their writing is way too neurotic for me.

How started the thought of Amongst Nazis: William S. Burroughs in Vienna 1936/37? What was the hardest part of writing this book?

I found it puzzling that there are two voluminous biographies on Burroughs out there and many other biographical publications, but no detailed account of his time in Vienna at all. Although it lasted almost a year, the 700-pages Call Me Burroughs dedicates not more than 4 pages to this sojourn in the life of the writer. When I organized the 2018 conference of the European Beat Studies Network in Vienna, I invited Barry Miles for a round table discussion on Burroughs in Vienna, but unfortunately Barry had to cancel. So, I decided to present a paper on the subject myself. While doing research it quickly turned out that Burroughs’s time in Vienna had much more impact on his writings than previously presumed. The results of the research were too voluminous to only write a short essay on it for an academic journal, so I turned it into a book. The hardest part though was that there aren’t many accounts in which Burroughs himself talks about Vienna. So, there was a lot of archival research involved. Also, there was almost nothing to be found on Burroughs’ first wife Ilse Herzfeld Klapper whom he married in 1937.  A lenghty email correspondence with James Grauerholz, Simon Johnson, and Richard Byrne, who all did quite some own research on the subject helped me a lot in putting the chapter on Ilse Herzfeld together. And many lucky coincidences.

"I started reading the Beats at the age of 16. First Kerouac then Burroughs and Ginsberg, later all the others. In their writings and biographies, I discovered world views and ways of thinking that corresponded with my own. I’ve found kindred spirits. But being in Europe, working in the field of German Studies, and not really interested in going to the US until I was 30, it took me 15 years to get connected personally."

Why do you think that the Beat literature (and movement) continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because the Beats addressed many issues already in the 50s that we still have to deal with and are still red hot. Simple as that. And since mainstream writing is still as conservative as ever and still lacks courage, it’s still inspiring and refreshing to read Beat poetry and all their successors throughout the decades.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I’ve been a musician long before I started writing. And for my own poetry writing works best when I get into a certain flow that I know perfectly well from playing the piano or the drums and entering a zone. It isn’t really explainable, but I know when it’s happening, and when it’s happening it’s most certainly something good that comes out. Music is also often a starting point when I write, either rhythmically or when I hear a line of song lyrics that strike me and match my mood. This becomes the initial spark for a piece that most of the time contentwise doesn’t have anything to do with this initial spark.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories from ruth weiss, Joe Berger and Wolfgang Bauer?

Joe Berger died when I was 11, I never met him. And I had only one encounter with Wolfgang Bauer, short before he died in 2005, but this was so inspiring that in the end I published a 630-page biography on him. I spent a large amount of time with ruth weiss between 2012 and 2019, so there are naturally lots of memories. Great memories. But I can’t say which meetings were the “most important”. Many encounters were special, whether it’s been short conversations with Wolfgang Bauer or Vic Chesnutt, long nights with ruth or colleagues and friends anywhere on the planet, or an unexpected talk with a bartender, a total stranger on the subway or at a parking lot.

"First there is jazz that inspired Beat writing. ruth weiss started Jazz & Poetry performances already in the 40s, followed by Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, and this line continues until the present with artists such as Moor Mother and Irreversible Entanglements, Hip hop, or also contemporary singer-songwriters – via Bob Dylan. Regarding the socio-cultural implications there are many many books about that. I don’t want to answer that in a few banal sentences." (Photo: Thomas Antonic & ruth weiss)

What are the lines that connect and what touched (emotionally) you from the connections between U.S. and Austrian Beat literature?

I found it quite logical that some Austrian writers like Bauer were inspired by the Beats in the 60s, started writing in a certain similar style and acquainted certain world views. What touched me emotionally was the discovery that some contemporary colleagues and friends are even more familiar with the Beats and incorporate this way of life and writing in their own works than the “Austrian Beats” of the 60s. It’s a timeless movement!

What is the impact of music on the literary, and what is the relationship between the Beat movement on the socio-cultural implications?

I think I don’t have to explain this. First there is jazz that inspired Beat writing. ruth weiss started Jazz & Poetry performances already in the 40s, followed by Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, and this line continues until the present with artists such as Moor Mother and Irreversible Entanglements, Hip hop, or also contemporary singer-songwriters – via Bob Dylan. Regarding the socio-cultural implications there are many many books about that. I don’t want to answer that in a few banal sentences.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (books, albums, etc) would you put in?

Yucatán, around 900, or at least before the catholic dickheads arrived in the 16th century and destroyed the Mayan codices, which I would like to read.

"I’ve been a musician long before I started writing. And for my own poetry writing works best when I get into a certain flow that I know perfectly well from playing the piano or the drums and entering a zone. It isn’t really explainable, but I know when it’s happening, and when it’s happening it’s most certainly something good that comes out. Music is also often a starting point when I write, either rhythmically or when I hear a line of song lyrics that strike me and match my mood. This becomes the initial spark for a piece that most of the time contentwise doesn’t have anything to do with this initial spark." (Thomas Antonic with Michael Fischer on sax at Coaxial Arts, Los Angeles, June 2019 / Photo by © D. Robert Cummingham)

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