Q&A with Erik Mortenson- American literary and visual texts and their intersection with the cultural concerns of the twentieth-century.

"The Beat writers raise interesting paradoxes worth exploring.  The Beats are, in many ways, out of step with the current American climate of identity politics.  To say that the Beats are politically incorrect is an understatement.  Their desire to celebrate life outside the margins led them to exalt minority experience in ways that are clearly viewed as racist today, despite their celebratory tone."

Erik Mortenson: Translating the Counterculture

Erik Mortenson is a literary scholar, writer, translator, and writing center consultant at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Michigan.  After earning a PhD from Wayne State University in Detroit, Erik spent a year as a Fulbright Lecturer in Germany before journeying to Koç University in Istanbul to help found the English and Comparative Literature Department.  His scholarly work focuses on American literary and visual texts and their intersection with the cultural concerns of the twentieth-century. Erik has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, as well as three books.  Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (Southern Illinois UP, 2011) examines “the moment” as one of the primary motifs of Beat writing, and won a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title award.

His second book, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (Southern Illinois UP, 2016), investigates the role shadows play in Cold War literary and popular texts, looking specifically at Beat poetry, postwar photography, film noir, and Twilight Zone episodes to explain why shadow imagery had such a hold on American imaginations at mid-century.  Erik's most recent work, Translating the Counterculture:  The Reception of the Beats in Turkey (Southern Illinois UP, 2018), explores how the Beats have been received in Turkey as “underground literature” and what happens when transgressive texts cross national, political, religious, and cultural borders.  In addition to his scholarly work, Erik is engaged in numerous creative projects and collaborations.  He has just finished a memoir of his time in bohemian Detroit, and currently writes obituaries for the company Beloved.  Erik is also an avid translator whose work has appeared in journals such as Asymptote, Talisman, and Two Lines.  In his spare time he enjoys playing racquet sports, swimming in Lake Michigan, gardening organically and cooking for his friends and family.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What were the reasons that you started your Beat Movement researches? Where does your creative drive come from?

The Beat Generation typically conjures up images of smoky, late-night jazz clubs or the sounds of espresso cups rattling café tables.  But my first encounter with the Beats occurred, uncharacteristically, on a sunny San Diego beach.  I had left the San Francisco Bay area to attend university, and in a literature course my professor, Michael Davidson, had assigned Ginsberg’s Howl.  As the sun shone and the waves crashed and my friends chatted, I became enthralled with the underground world Ginsberg presented and the lives of those who willingly left the common world behind to explore their own preoccupations.  I tracked down the other Beat authors mentioned in the poem, and one text led to the next.  Part of my fascination was probably due to my nostalgia for the San Francisco that the Beats loved to write about and that I had left behind, but the more I read the more I became drawn to the enticing mode of engaging the world that Beat writing offers.  It is the desire to understand that mode of existential inquiry and apply it to my own life that continues to motivate my research. 

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your "experience" with the Beat Generation?

Beat writing is unique in that it provides an intimate account of how these authors experienced the world around them.  Each reader responds to such personal writing differently, but for me, the abiding message of the Beats is to view life as a ceaseless experiment.  Whether trying to bend the world to your desires or humbling yourself by acknowledging your mistakes, the goal is to never stop the process of witnessing and engaging the moment as it unfolds around you.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? 

There is a lesson to be learned from everyone, though some have more to teach than others.  One bit of advice I received from my uncle sticks in my mind in particular.  Charles, or Charlie as some called him, hailed from Missouri.  I remember him being pretty good on the guitar, which he would often use to accompany his songs and yodels.  He was man with opinions, and gave them freely; many were quite enlightening.  He liked to travel around the country in a camper with my aunt, and was, like me, fond of fishing.  Uncle Charles once told me how he always carried a fishing rod in his truck, and always made a few casts whenever he came across a body of water, no matter how unpromising it might look.  As he explained it, “Most people think someone else must have already tried it, so nobody does.  So I always make a few casts.”  He laughed as he told me all the times he pulled out a nice-sized trout while everyone stood around surprised!  This idea of tapping into overlooked opportunity hiding in plain sight all around you I thought pretty insightful.

How has literature and music influenced your views of the world? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Literature has had an enormous influence on my thinking, but it is music that holds the greatest capacity for affecting my mood.  As someone who does not play an instrument, my experience with music is mainly passive, and after years of listening I began to realize that I “use” music in one of two ways.  Either I enter into the song as though I myself was the singer, or I employ music to create a particular ambiance.  The lyrics of bands like Modest Mouse or New Order allow me to internally voice those feelings that have a hard time coming out otherwise, while Miles Davis or Bill Frisell, for instance, provide an inspirational soundtrack for writing.  I would like to write more about this experience with music, but it is difficult to put sounds into words—I wish I had learned to play or at least had a better working knowledge of musical theory.

What do you think was the relationship of Beat culture to music? What's the legacy of Beats to music counterculture?

The Beats would have been impossible without music, especially jazz.  Kerouac connected the term Beat itself to the “beat” of music, and his work and that of many of his fellow Beat writers made explicit links between their writing and the jazz that inspired it. Beats like ruth weiss were some of the first writers to read to jazz accompaniment as well.  Ginsberg was enamored with all forms of music, idolized Bob Dylan, and turned many of his own poems into songs that he accompanied on his harmonium.  Burroughs collaborated with a number of recording artists, from hip-hop artists The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to indie rockers REM to grunge guitarist Kurt Cobain.  Influence went both ways, as song tributes by artists like Tom Waits attest, and many artists such as Patti Smith and Steven Tyler put Beat works to music. Musicologist Simon Warner has a book called Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll that is worth reading in this regard.

Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

The easy answer, of course, is that it is both.  But I would go further, and say that both are intertwined.  The Beats offer a way of looking at the world that is at the same time the driving force behind their literary art as well as a call to focus attention on the sanctity of the passing moment.  Beat writers attempt to write their relationship to the constantly-unfolding universe, and the result is a writing that offers both a glimpse into their thinking and an inspiration for readers to, in the words of Walt Whitman, “look up in perfect silence at the stars” when they put down the book.

What touched you (emotionally) from "Howl"? How does the underlying philosophy of On the Road impact you?

It is difficult to read Howl without empathizing with the pain of those trapped by social expectations, conventional thinking, and stifling institutions.  Ginsberg offers a remedy, but the emphasis is squarely on the suffering, with which almost everyone can identify to a greater or lesser degree.  On the Road, while likewise capturing this frustration with the limits placed on individuality by a constraining society, strikes me as much more upbeat, though as I get older, melancholy replaces enthusiasm as my identification shifts from the youthful Dean to the pensive Sal.  But both works inspire a desire to rethink my assumptions in an attempt to break free from prevailing custom and habit.  Like any inspirational work, they are worth periodic re-reading to remind oneself to stay true to the Beat call to question, probe, and experiment.

What are the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications of Beat literature and music?  

The Beat writers raise interesting paradoxes worth exploring.  The Beats are, in many ways, out of step with the current American climate of identity politics.  To say that the Beats are politically incorrect is an understatement.  Their desire to celebrate life outside the margins led them to exalt minority experience in ways that are clearly viewed as racist today, despite their celebratory tone.  Their treatment of women is troubling to say the least.  And though many Beats were homosexual, their views regarding gay lifestyle differ sharply from that of today’s LGBTQ community.  On the other hand, their rebellious nature and spirit of unrestricted inquiry makes them perpetually fresh.  Not only are all their books still in print, but even their more obscure works, journals, and letters keep coming out.  The Beats get rediscovered by every new generation, keeping them visible in US and indeed global culture.  In my opinion, their work is more relevant than ever, even if (perhaps especially because) they resist neat, tidy, “clean” positions.

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

If I had to choose one particular time, I guess it would have to be the later Colonial period in America, when the country’s birth pains were over and the US was groping toward a contested idea of self-conception.  I would love to compare notes with today, to see if “we” were really that different roughly two centuries ago or whether the future of the country could be seen in earlier outline.  What would I bring?  Copies of some Beat writers, of course!  Would my predecessors see such works as evidence of a decline, or as a continuation of the best impulse of an oftentimes problematic nation, where Emersonian ideals like self-reliance and openness to opposing viewpoints are not only tolerated but encouraged.  I would be interested to hear their thoughts.

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