Writer and archivist Todd Swindell talks about the Beat Generation, Harold Norse, Counterculture and the music

"Poetry’s roots are lyrical and this continues to expand and illuminate as can be seen in the cultural preeminence of hip-hop. Music is the blood flow of our cosmic existence on terrestrial earth."

Todd Swindell: Harold Norse Blues

Todd Swindell is writer and archivist based in Sonoma County, California. As a close friend of Beat poet Harold Norse, he was responsible for gathering Norse’s archives which are housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Swindell is the editor of I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2104) with introduction by Neeli Cherkovski.

Harold Norse & Todd Swindell at the Beat Museum / Photo by Tate Swindell

Much of his work preserving and promoting the legacy of Harold Norse can be found at haroldnorse.com. During the 1990s, Swindell was a member of the direct-action AIDS protest group ACT UP San Francisco. He documents the group's history at the blog ACT UP Archives.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Beat Movement influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My first memory of reading about Beat artists was a journalistic piece which mentioned that even if drunk or stoned, they would always get up to turn down the volume on a T.V. or radio during a commercial break. What struck me vividly was the power to engage with broadcast media on one’s own terms despite the stereotype of intoxication leading to passivity.

How started the thought of Norse’s archives? What's the legacy of Harold Norse? What characterize Norse’s archives mission?

Harold Norse’s archives began as an attempt to ensure what remained of his legacy would be preserved and made accessible. A housemate’s friend had previously stolen precious manuscripts, correspondence and translations from his home. There was also a desire to attempt to repay what he had given me with his time and friendship.

The legacy of Harold Norse is to see through the distortion engendered by religion, government and corporations. The writing of Harold Norse reconnects us with our animal origins beyond the confines of science and rationalization.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life? How does music affect your inspiration?

Poetry’s roots are lyrical and this continues to expand and illuminate as can be seen in the cultural preeminence of hip-hop.

Music is the blood flow of our cosmic existence on terrestrial earth.

"From breaking the taboos of homosexuality and gender norms, to challenging racism and the aggression of war, to concern over the destruction of the environment, the poetry of Harold Norse and his Beat contemporaries remain prophetic, relevant and necessary." (Harold Norse with William S. Burroughs at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado / Photo by Michael Kellner, 1980)

Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture?

When I was a teenager in the later 1980s, there was a good deal of media nostalgia for the 1960s, twentieth anniversaries etc. Popular culture was beginning to assess the brutal legacy of the Vietnam War. Those stories led back to the Hippies and from them to the Beats.

While the music and imagery of that time remained bold and exciting, the cultural and political critiques continued to hold sway, pointing that the way forward is through the past.

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

My comrades in ACT UP San Francisco– Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli– were brilliant, difficult, visionary, hilarious, fearless, loyal and indefatigable.

Harold Norse once said, “Don’t stand in your own light.”

What do you miss most from Harold Norse nowadays? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

I miss his enthusiasm for social connection and his curiosity for the diversity of human experience.

As a very old man, Harold could faithfully recall his boyhood experiences in Brooklyn with an emotional clarity that never failed to amaze me.

"The legacy of Harold Norse is to see through the distortion engendered by religion, government and corporations. The writing of Harold Norse reconnects us with our animal origins beyond the confines of science and rationalization." (Photos: "I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: Selected Poems of Harold Norse" (Talisman House, 2104) & "Harold Norse – Poems", translated by Yannis Livadas (Heridanos, Athens, 2012)

What is the impact of Beat generation and Harold Norse to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

From breaking the taboos of homosexuality and gender norms, to challenging racism and the aggression of war, to concern over the destruction of the environment, the poetry of Harold Norse and his Beat contemporaries remain prophetic, relevant and necessary.

What were the reasons that you started the protest group ACT UP/SF? What do you think the major changes will be in near future of the world?

ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) began in 1987; I joined in 1994. As a teenager growing up in conservative Orange County, California, I was aware of ACT UP’s militant approach to direct-action because of their eye catching graphics and strong media presence.

The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s illustrated a legacy built upon by the feminist movement of the 1970s and the animal rights movement of the 1980s. ACT UP offered a contemporary place in that legacy, also a place to be of service to my community during a time of great need.

The grave changes we face in the near future of our world come with fewer options for radical change. What has worked and will continue to work is mobilization of people, getting out into the streets.

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

To sit in a café on the left bank of Paris after the war with Rene Crevel, Jean Cocteau and Max Ernst, nothing else would be required.

Harold Norse - Home

(Photo: Todd Swindell, Harold Norse Centennia at the Beat Museum, 2017)

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