Greek American writer Stephanie Nikolopoulos talks about Kerouac, David Amram, Jazz, and Beat family

"The legacy of the Beats is their words!  Their honest, beautiful words set down on paper, giving comfort and hope to many."

Stephanie Nikolopoulos: Burning Furiously Beautiful

Stephanie Nikolopoulos is a writer and editor, based in New York City. Education Stephanie Nikolopoulos received a BA in English, with a minor in studio art, from Scripps College (Claremont, CA). She was selected for the Junior Fellows Scholar at the Scripps College Humanities Institute, where she studied the Ancient World. While attending Scripps College, she also studied Creative Journalism under the direction of Emmy Award–winning journalist Rubén Martinez at Claremont McKenna College and Classical Greek at Pomona College.

She is featured in Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges. Stephanie went on to receive a Certificate in Editing from New York University (New York, NY). There she took coursework in copyediting, developmental editing, proofreading, and scientific/ technical/ medical editing. She also has a Certificate in European Architecture and Art History, which she received from the University of Salzburgh (Salzburg, Austria). She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at The New School (New York, NY), where she received a merit scholarship. Poets & Writers ranked The New School the number 1 Creative Nonfiction MFA in New York and number 3 in the entire country. She is co-authoring a book with Paul Maher Jr. on Jack Kerouac called Burning Furiously Beautiful that is due out in 2012.

Stephanie talks about Kerouac, Greeks in New York, David Amram, Beat family, and her book.


Interview by Michael Limnios


Stephanie, when was your first desire to become involved in the Beat literary & what does the Beats mean to you?

I was a voracious reader as a kid - the kind who would be caught reading under the covers long past bedtime - but I discovered the Beats as a teenager in an admittedly unliterary way.  In the American teen fashion magazine Seventeen there was a photo spread of ordinary teenagers (not models) hanging out, and they were reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters.  I asked my mother to buy me a copy of the book, and she took me to our local bookstore - which sadly has since been replaced with a Starbucks - and bought it for me.  That year at Christmas, there was a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road waiting for me under the tree.  From that point on, I began studying Beat literature and writing about it.  The website Lit Kicks, run by Levi Asher, was one of my first forays into getting involved in Beat literature, as I would read the articles on the website and post comments.  In college, while my friends were on spring break in Mexico, I happily stayed back to write an undergraduate thesis on Beat literature and abstract-expressionist painting, and continued to study their works after that.

Part of my initial attraction to the Beats was their literary camaraderie.  I loved reading about how they talked excitedly late into the night at coffee shops about the books they were reading, shared with each other the novels and poems they were writing, spurred on each other’s creative process, and wrote about each other.  That last part - that they wrote about each other - particularly intrigued me.  It was so different from most of the fiction I’d encountered up until then, which even when it was semi-autobiographical felt heavier on the “semi.”  I also read a lot of biographies in my adolescent years, but those were of historical or pop culture figures.  Since then, the popularity of memoir has increased, giving voice to the common man, but its focus generally remains on a singular individual’s story.  It’s rare, even amongst writing collectives, that you have a group of writers referring to each other to the extent that the Beats do.  Of course, as I continued to study the writers and poets associated with the Beat Generation, I came to see them as highly individual writers with unique styles.  They were never an exclusive hipster club that set out to start a literary movement, and the extent to which they shared their work with one another changed over the years.  Even so, the Beats still represent to me the attractive idea of being part of a passionate creative community.


How did the idea of the “Burning Furiously Beautiful” come about?

Paul Maher Jr. had written a book called American Journey: The Real-life Odyssey of On the Road for the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road.  He asked me if I would be interested in coauthoring a revised and expanded edition of the book, and of course I said yes!  The result is Burning Furiously Beautiful, which contains new research and fascinating details about Kerouac and the development of On the Road.   


What is the main characteristic of Jack’s that made him a popular writer?

His honesty.


Which is the most interesting period of Jack’s life and why? Which memory from his adventures makes you smile?

The various periods in Kerouac’s life are all of interest for different reasons and for understanding him in full.  His first novel, The Town and the City, isn’t as widely read and discussed as some of his other books, but I think it covers a time period that is worth more discussion as it mirrors Kerouac’s own coming of age and move to New York City.  Going off to college is an incredible time of transition and development for almost everybody, a time when one leaves the safety of their home for the first time, makes new friends, and is exposed to new ideas.  In Kerouac’s case, he moves out of his parents’ home to go live with his mother’s stepmother and her husband—who is Greek, by the way—in a borough of New York City while attending prep school.  The sights, the cultures, the wealth, the speed of New York City is vastly different than his hometown of Lowell.  In The Town and the City we see a teenager get caught up in drugs and love as he meets a whole new set of friends, and this very much happened in Kerouac’s life.  It’s around this period in his life, when he’s at Columbia University, that he meets the people who would become associated with the Beat Generation.  He’d been part of the Young Prometheans, a culturally minded roundtable back home in Lowell, and it’s interesting to consider the parallels between the two groups of friends and what they meant to him.  Of course, it’s through his New York friends that he meets Neal Cassady, spurring him to go on the road.  His time on the road is probably the most exciting, but the events leading up to it are the foundation.

The memory from his adventures that makes me smile is how he had this big plan to travel one road across the United States, and then as he sets off he can’t even make it out of the state!  I love traveling, but I’ve had quite a few similar experiences myself where my trips just didn’t go smoothly.  I guess that’s schadenfruede!  The adventure that makes me smile sweetly though is when he was out in his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur and he left food out for the mice because he was worried they were hungry.  Kerouac loved animals and had a very sensitive soul.


Any of Beat poems or novels has any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorites?

Some of my favorites are Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage,” Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Dog,” and John Clellon Holmes’ Go.  Perhaps the most personal for me, though, is that heartbreaking line “when did you forget you were a flower?” in Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra.”  Isn’t it just so true that many of us don’t believe our true worth?


"When I read On the Road I put myself in the shoes of his alter ego Sal Paradise and later went on to embrace Kerouac’s independence." 

What does “On the Road” mean to you?

So many things!  On the Road helped teach me to trust myself as a writer.  It showed that it was okay to mix high and low culture, and it gave me permission to write about my own life experiences.  It made me want to write prose that sounded like poetry and to stay true to my voice.  As I’ve studied Kerouac’s process and technique, I’ve felt challenged to experiment more with spontaneity, get inspired by sources outside of literature, and find characters’ voices through real-life conversations and letters. 

On the Road also inspired me to ride the Greyhound bus across the United States by myself when I was in my early twenties, and although I had traveled extensively through Europe, it made me fall in love with how diverse and absolutely beautiful the United States is.


Why did you think that Beat writers, continued to generate such a devoted following?

The Beat writers have continued to generate a devoted following because of the merit of their literature.  People discover the Beats through various means - whether it’s through Patti Smith mentioning them in her award-winning book Just Kids, the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie creating the soundtrack to the documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone, Ginsberg’s photography being shown in major art museums, people stumbling into the Beat Museum while hanging out in San Francisco, or Kristen Stewart creating buzz for her steamy role in the film adaptation of On the Road - but in the end, it all comes back to the words, to the poetry.  Their writing - both in terms of style and content - resonates with readers.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the Beat “culture”?

When I interviewed David Amram in 2001, he set the record straight for me: there is no Beat culture.  There are individual artists, each creating their own unique works.


Stephanie with David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe. Photo by RA Araya

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experiences with David Amram?

It was such an honor to read with David Amram at the Cornelia Street Café - only steps from where he and Kerouac did the first jazz-poetry readings in the ’50s.  I was so nervous though!  Even though I had interviewed him on the phone years prior to that, corresponded with him, and been in the audience at some of his shows, I’d always been too shy to introduce myself in person.  The reading went smoothly, but afterwards I was tongue-tied again talking with him even though he’s so friendly and encouraging. 

I really admire David’s creativity.  He knows so much about music and is always pulling out all these esoteric instruments to play jazz, folk, world, and orchestral music.  At one point he even was playing two flutes at the same time!  He is full of energy and puts on a fun show that gets the whole audience involved.

His bandmates are also really great.  Kevin Twigg, the percussionist, had hurt his arm on the day of the show, but you would’ve never known it listening to him play. 


Make an account of the case Beats & Blues Jazz music & what characterize the sound of Beats?

Many of the Beat novelists and poets admired jazz, collaborated with jazz musicians, and were influenced by the improvisational techniques and rhythm of jazz.  However, they also loved classical music.  As time went on, they continued to follow new music trends and collaborated with alternative and punk musicians.

Jazz was certainly a major influence on many of the Beats, but I don’t believe that a singular sound can characterize the Beats.  For example, even though both Holmes and Kerouac worked jazz into their novels, their works sounded very different.  They each had their own techniques and styles.  Corso was influenced by the Romantic poets, whose style was demonstrative, while Burroughs made cut-ups, a technique that in randomizing his words made it less personal.


Who from THE BEATS had the most passion for the Blues & Jazz? How does the music come out of the Beat literary?

Many of the Beats were passionate about jazz.  Amram played jazz.  Amiri Baraka wrote Blues People: Negro Music in White America, an acclaimed book of jazz criticism, as well as other volumes on jazz.  John Clellon Holmes’ novel The Horn has been dubbed a jazz novel, as it’s centered around jazz.  Kerouac wrote jazz reviews when he was in school, incorporated jazz into both the content and rhythm of his novels, and collaborated with jazz musicians. 


What mistakes of the Beat generation would you want to correct? What “BEAT MOTTO” does you like most?

I’d like to correct a lot of the misconceptions people have about the Beat Generation.  Burning Furiously Beautiful, the book I’m coauthoring with Paul Maher Jr., uses Kerouac’s letters and diaries to distinguish myth from fact.  When Kerouac went on The Steve Allen Show and said he’d spent seven years on the road and only three weeks writing On the Road, it was great marketing, but it wasn’t entirely the truth.  In the long run it may have even damaged the way critics consider his work.  One of my pet peeves is that people dismiss it as “rambling.”  Now, I happen to enjoy stream-of-conscious writing, so I don’t think the term “rambling” has to be negative - in fact, I think it is purposeful - but the suggestion that Kerouac wasn’t educated or disciplined in his writing is completely inaccurate.  He attended a prestigious prep school, studied at Columbia University, and later took classes at The New School.

I don’t believe there are any official Beat mottos, but I do love the meaning of the word “beat.”  Kerouac said it referred to “beatific” and tied it to the Beatitudes.  The principles of the Beatitudes - that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the poor in spirit will find the kingdom of God - are comforting.  It flips worldly ideas of fortune on its head and gives hope to the weary.  Kerouac saw beauty in people the world doesn’t normally give a second glance at.  There’s a powerful message in that. 


How you would spend a day with Corso? What would you say to Ginsberg? What would you like to give Stella Sampas?

I’d kiss Corso in the cemetery.  I’d ask Ginsberg if we could take photographs together.  I’d give some baklava to Stella and ask her to tell me her life story.


What would you like to ask Jack kerouac? What advice would you give to Neal Cassady?

I’d like to ask Kerouac how he really felt about his various relationships with women, especially with Jan Kerouac, the daughter he didn’t acknowledge but then told to use his name.

I would just try to encourage Cassady and be supportive of his writing.


Stephanie standing in front of the Hudson driven in the film On the Road at The Beat Museum. Photo by Jerry Cimino

How important was the role of Greeks immigrants in Lowell, Massachusetts in Jack Kerouac’s life?

Although he himself was French-Canadian American, Kerouac had many Greek American friends in Lowell, such as George Apostolos, Billy and Johnny Koumentzalis, and the Sampases.  He wrote about George in a few of his Lowell books.  Johnny was killed in World War II, and Billy later served as one of Kerouac’s pallbearers and has a CD out called On the Lowell Beat: My Time with Jack Kerouac.  Sebastian Sampas introduced Kerouac to some of the authors that would influence him the most, his brother Charles was a journalist who helped promote Kerouac’s writing career, Stella and Jack kept up correspondence even after Sebastian died in the war and eventually Kerouac married her, and John Sampas now runs the Kerouac estate.


How does the blues / jazz music and Greek philosophy affect Jack’s and Beats life?

One of the aphorisms of Greek philosophy (Heraklitus) is Πάντα ῥεῖ  (panta rhei), meaning “everything flows.”  It’s the idea that everything is in flux and subject to change.  Both jazz music and Beat literature embraced this philosophy through improvisation.  Perhaps one of the most famous examples is the film Pull My Daisy, in which Kerouac improvised the narration on the spot.  He had to go with the flow of what was filmed, changing the course of his narration as necessary.  Although a singular performance of a song or a poem may be preserved through a recording of it or through it being published, a work will, to a certain extent, always be in flux.  For example, even after Corso’s poem “Marriage” was published, he used to recite different versions when he gave readings.  On the Road could be another example, when you think about it.  For years, all we had was the novel as it was published in 1957.  Fifty years later, the scroll version was published.  Now there’s the On the Road film.  With each version, we get the same book but a different book.  Everything flows.


What's the legacy of Beats legendary bohemian adventures? Mostly spiritually. Beats was more ghosts or a humans?

The legacy of the Beats is their words!  Their honest, beautiful words set down on paper, giving comfort and hope to many.


"Both jazz music and Beat literature embraced this philosophy through improvisation."

What experiences in life make you a BEAT? What is the difference the way of life between nowadays and beat era?

I wouldn’t call myself a Beat.  I don’t try to emulate any of the poets and writers associated with the Beat Generation in my writing style or in my lifestyle.  I referred to myself as Jack Kerouac once in an article, but that was hyperbole meant to drive home my point that when I read On the Road I put myself in the shoes of his alter ego Sal Paradise and later went on to embrace Kerouac’s independence.  I’ve often traveled on my own, staying with friends or in cheap hostels, living out of a backpack, and writing it all down in a notebook.  Most days, though, my life is more similar to Holmes’ stable, quiet, writerly life in Connecticut.        

I think one of the main differences between the ways of life now and in the 1940s and ’50s has to do with the ubiquity and individualization of technology.  There’s MYspace, the iphone, and in 2006, Time’s Person of the Year was “You.”  Meanwhile, great bookstores and poetry hangouts are closing down.  Community exists, but the way we discover it and participate in it has changed.  Ginsberg and Lucien Carr met when one of them came knocking on the other one’s dorm room at Columbia to find out who was playing classical music.  Imagine if instead, they’d had ipods with headphones.  They might have never met!  Or imagine if instead of reading “Howl” at the Six Gallery, Ginsberg had released it on YouTube.  Would it have gone viral?  Would it have lost its intimacy?  Still, some of today’s writers are using technology in innovating ways or are finding new ways to bring poetry and literature to the masses.  Here in New York, the POEMobile is a truck that drives around projecting poetry on city buildings.  In Japan, Keitai Tanka refers to crafting poetry on cell phones; at the Melbourne Writers Festival a few years ago, winners of a poetry contest had their 140-character-or-less poems Bluetoothed to people’s cell phones.  Shelley Jackson put out a call for volunteers to each tattoo a randomly assigned word to their body, and the participants began sharing photographs of their tattoos over the internet, making the literature collaborative and in flux.  The Burnside Writers Collective is an online magazine that has become a voice for writers outside the franchise and has established a community of writers across the globe, showing that nowadays writers are oftentimes meeting virtually instead of in coffee shops and bars.  NaNoWriMo provides online tools that allow writers to track their progress of writing a novel in about the same time that Kerouac wrote the scroll version of On the Road.  In the end, though, no matter if one is writing on a typewriter in 1951, participating in a poetry slam in the 1990s, or creating multimedia poetry on an ipad in 2012, it all comes back to the words. 


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