Professor Hassan Melehy talks about Jack Kerouac, counterculture literature, music, Lord Byron and Descartes

"All of the best literature is countercultural because it challenges commonly accepted ways of thinking and living."

Hassan Melehy: Langue, Poésie et Musique

Hassan Melehy is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of North Carolina, USA. Though he specializes in early modern French and comparative literary studies, Hassan Melehy recently completed Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2016, a book that explores the Beat Generation author’s experiments with his native French as an integral part of his poetics. Prof. Melehy’s new research focuses on the relationship between political writing and literature in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France and England, in further development of his 2010 book The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England (Ashgate), and the collection he recently co-edited with Catherine Gimelli Martin, French Connections in the English Renaissance (Ashgate). He has also written numerous articles on early modern literature and philosophy, recent and contemporary critical theory, and film studies. In addition to his critical writing, he also regularly publishes poetry.

He teaches courses on the French Renaissance, the Anglo-French Renaissance, film studies, and critical theory to both undergraduate and graduate students. In recent years he has been an invited speaker at the University of Kansas, the University of Regensburg (Germany), and the University of Giessen (Germany). In 2013, while a short-term fellow at the New York Public Library, he gave a co-presentation on Kerouac’s bilingualism at Barnard College (Columbia University) with Beat Generation author and Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson. Hassan Melehy specializes in early modern French and comparative literature, contemporary critical theory, and film studies. He is the author Writing Cogito: Montaigne, Descartes, and the Institution of the Modern Subject (SUNY Press, 1997), and The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England (Ashgate, 2010). He has also written numerous articles on early modern literature and philosophy, recent and contemporary critical theory, and film studies. Currently he is doing research on Jack Kerouac’s Québécois cultural background and his role in recent Québécois literature. In addition to his critical writing, he also regularly publishes poetry.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What were the reasons that you started the literature researches?

When I was eighteen years old, I started my university studies in the sciences, since I had always been good at them and the wisdom in my family was that I would pursue them. But for as long as I can remember, I loved reading and writing. After two years of study, when I was twenty, literature became my biggest interest. I thought it had more to say about life than anything. Philosophy interested me too, but even when I studied philosophy I was just as interested in how literature responded to philosophy (e.g. how Blake understood the philosophy of the Enlightenment and how he showed its limitations exactly by demonstrating that poetry could go farther). When I read Heidegger, I was intrigued by his idea that poets were always ahead of philosophers. For my doctoral studies I chose to do comparative literature, because the field in the early 1980s, especially where I studied, the University of Minnesota, combined literature, theory, and philosophy. One reason that appealed to me was that, in my opinion, too many people talked about theory without knowing the philosophy it stemmed from — I didn’t think someone who hadn’t read Hegel or Heidegger could understand a word of Derrida. I spent the years of my doctoral program learning as much as I could about the combination of philosophy, theory, and literature, believing that it was teaching me more than anything else could about how civilization and society work, how people think, and even about politics. Though I went to poetry readings fairly regularly and read a lot of poetry, I wasn’t writing much poetry then.

What touched (emotionally) you from the poetry?

Though I’ve been interested in poetry since I was a child, and even wrote a few poems before the age of ten, and when I was a teenager published some in one of the newspapers in our area of Connecticut, I wasn’t very emotional about it. I was drawn to its concentrated expression and the way that it made the sound of words important in combination with their meaning. I think the sound of language was especially important to me when I was a child because the people who mainly taught me English, my parents, weren’t native speakers. Even as a teenager, I remember that my older brother and I were often puzzled by expressions people used that I later learned were very common, even cliché. I think my occasional trouble in understanding words when I was very young tilted me toward paying attention to their sounds. It’s only in recent years that I learned that was also true for Jack Kerouac, who in childhood knew English considerably less well than I did, since his first language was French. The first poet who really made me feel emotional, and it was only in my early twenties, was Blake: he showed me more than any writer had how meaning is continually changing, how the sound and appearance of words interact with their meaning, and also how poetry can offer outstanding cultural, psychological, personal, and political discoveries. I was struck by the way he could write a phrase, for example “The sick rose,” with two entirely different meanings (the second in this case being that those who are sick got well), but that, in his context, contributed to a single larger meaning, the suggestion of an interaction of living things where one benefits to the other’s detriment. In the last fifteen years, when I’ve returned to writing poetry, two poets who have really moved me emotionally are from sixteenth-century France, Joachim du Bellay and Louise Labé: du Bellay’s cycle of sonnets called “Les Antiquitez de Rome” is a set of poems that captures and conveys the constant change in language by closely connecting it to the rise and fall of civilizations in the transformations of history. Louise Labé wrote wonderful erotic sonnets, placing emphasis on feminine sexual desire at a time when male poets usually overlooked it; this emphasis allowed her to describe a rich, shared experience. And she does it through concentrated language, with a lot of double entendres. Some have explained her double entendres as necessary for a woman to avoid being labeled lecherous (she could say, “If you find that in my poems, you’re the one with the dirty mind”), but I think it also had to do with a challenge to the treatment of language as monosemic, which is more or less required for the maintainance of political and social hierarchies.

"I love some country music too - Hank Williams is one of my favorites. He was a poet in both his words and music - when I listen him I sometimes imagine what I might bring of his often simple ways of combining tones, sounds, words, and Ideas to my own writing. I do that with a lot of music."

What do you learn about yourself from the poetry and what does ‘Counterculture Literature’ mean to you?

Poetry is a way for me to explore important questions that are constantly in my mind, but that I can’t explore in my research. It can be very personal: I’ve written a few poems about my background as a child of immigrants to the US, how people reacted to us, what people thought Arabs and Muslims were when I was growing up (there were some odd ideas, but the current one about the bearded zealot prone to violence, ready to commit mass murder, was at most a very small part of it), and how people’s perceptions were complicated by the fact that my parents were from different countries: my father is from Egypt, my mother is from Holland. “That’s an interesting/unusual combination,” people said all the time, I think because they believed that immigrants should stick to their own kind — they seem to remain easier to understand and control that way. All of that turns up in my poems. I also write in order to meditate on my relationship to places where I’ve lived: I grew up in the only part of Connecticut that qualifies as poor -- my family wasn’t poor, but soon after my parents got married my father took a job at the University of Connecticut, which is in the middle of a region of family farms (it started as an agricultural school in the nineteenth century) that were failing around us as I grew up. By the time I was in my twenties, there were far fewer cows in our town than when I was a kid. It’s also a very industrial area that was once quite prosperous, but the factories had been failing for the entire twentieth century. In the villages and towns around us, there were many mostly or entirely abandoned mills, huge, imposing granite buildings sitting on rivers. I write about the poverty I saw around me, which puzzled me when I was a kid, and I still try to understand some of the cruelty and violence I saw among the people I knew, which I believe resulted from the growing poverty in the area.

Counterculture literature? All of the best literature is countercultural because it challenges commonly accepted ways of thinking and living.

How started the thought of Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory? What characterize Kerouac’s philosophy?

Kerouac first interested me when I was twenty years old. I didn’t know very much about literature then, and I didn’t know that most people didn’t consider his work to be good literature (this was 1980). I had even less occasion to be aware of this common judgment of Kerouac because I was studying at the University of Connecticut, where Ann Charters taught: she wrote the first biography of Kerouac, published in 1973 and still in print. I had seen the biography and I knew who she was, though I didn’t take a class from her. But Kerouac’s books were in the used bookstores in the area — there were several in those days. I was getting tired of school, especially studying the sciences, and I had an idea that Kerouac might offer me not only interesting books, but also stories about traveling around the country and moving to San Francisco. I didn’t know much about California, but the idea of that faraway, free place seemed very appealing to me. I had always been fascinated with American countercultures — when I was about eight years old I wanted to be a hippie. When I read Kerouac, I left school and moved to Santa Cruz, California. What intrigued me most about his books, as I read them, was that his characters are children of immigrant families who live in old industrial towns in the northeastern United States — my interest was basic identification. I knew his narrator and many of his characters were French-Canadian — where I grew up in Connecticut, the biggest immigrant group was the French Canadians. My first girlfriend at UConn had a French-Canadian mother — she spoke French at home and we met in French class. As I read Kerouac, I saw more and more why, as I contemplated my own background and constantly fielded people’s reactions to me and questions about me, I might be drawn to American countercultures. I never studied Kerouac in school. His books were always pleasurable reading to which I returned. Through philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, but also writers like Michel de Montaigne, I got more and more interested in the idea of moving between languages, speaking several but perhaps being at home in none — this was perhaps a more personal set of questions for me than I realized when I first began thinking about them. In one of my repeated returns to Kerouac, when I was maybe around forty years old, I began thinking about how he approached that question. I quickly found out that he took it very seriously and that it had a lot to do with how and why he wrote. It was in about 2006 that I decided to do more serious research into this aspect of his work, and in 2008 that I decided it would be a book. I was working on another book then, The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England, which came out in 2010, so it took me a while to really get the work on Kerouac going. Interestingly enough, a lot of the questions concerning language and poetics that I brought to Kerouac were ones I was exploring extensively in the book I just mentioned.

Why did you think that Jack Kerouac’s life and books continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think he figured out a way to write that makes a lot of people feel that he’s speaking directly to them. He certainly had that effect on me, and I’ve heard many, many people describe his work that way. Some people think it’s because he wrote casually and in an everday manner, but I think it took him years to figure out exactly how to produce that voice. It had a lot to do with his increasing settlement in the English language, one of the reasons he wrote, and in understanding how he could bring a language, which as he recognized is always in motion, closer to himself. It’s also true that the subjects he chose, which are carefully correlated with his style, have a lot to do with this effect.

"Kerouac would be interesting, dynamic, and not drinking too heavily."

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

I think that the main reason I wanted to be a hippie at age eight was because of the music I heard, which moved me deeply. Probably one of the first song that really stirred me, I think I was five years old, was the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Roger McGuinn’s opening guitar solo, a jangling sequence of notes played on a twelve-string electric guitar, suggested to me that there was a whole world somewhere I hadn’t seen. (When I saw McGuinn a few years ago, I was amazed at his brief account of composing that solo: he spoke of once learning from Pete Seeger an arrangement of Bach for guitar, which as he played it morphed into that lovely piece of music.) I loved the Beatles from a young age — none of my friends did. I really didn’t like any other music, except a bit of Dylan — certainly nothing that was on the radio in the 1970s, except on the oldies shows. My brother loved Billy Joel — other than “Piano Man,” which I found kind of engaging because of the story it told, I didn’t like any of it. Friends liked Peter Frampton — I hated him. When I saw Elvis Costello on TV in late 1977, my last year of high school, I loved him because in so many aspects of his style — songwriting, performance, the intelligence of his lyrics — he was challenging many of the norms of rock and roll. When I started college in 1978, I found other people who liked the Beatles, and some of them had collections of 1960s music. So I started listening especially to the Rolling Stones and the Who. That was when I first owned a lot of records by the Byrds. More and more, I associated music with sitting down and contemplating for a long time, spending time with friends, getting stoned — when I started to take LSD, which I did about fifteen times between 1979 and 1982, not since then, I always planned the music I would listen to. I loved the Clash and Talking Heads in the early 1980s. When I moved to California, I met a lot of musicians. The music scene in Santa Cruz had a huge intersection with the poetry scene, so I had a few close friends with whom I discussed music and poetry. I went to graduate school in Minneapolis, which had a thriving music scene in the 1980s — Hüsker Dü, Prince, the Replacements, the Suburbs, the Wallets, Soul Asylum, the Willie Wisely Trio. Though for a few years I was very involved in my studies, I kept up an interest in music; given that many musicians in that period were reflecting on their relationship to music and its history — this was especially true of bands like Camper Van Beethoven, whom I knew from California, and Hüsker Dü, also Prince, though I wish I’d paid more attention to him then — it seemed that my own critical studies were closely connected with it.

These days, I listen to a lot of the music from that era, stuff I was less interested in at the time. I don’t seek out much new music. When I hear Katie Perry or Uncle Kracker, they do nothing for me. I listen to the jazz I’ve discovered through my studies of the Beat Generation — Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk. I love some country music too — Hank Williams is one of my favorites. He was a poet in both his words and music — when I listen him I sometimes imagine what I might bring of his often simple ways of combining tones, sounds, words, and Ideas to my own writing. I do that with a lot of music.

What is the impact of music on poetry? What is the relationship: Beat movements to socio-cultural implications?

The impact of music on poetry? That’s a huge question. I’ll just say that I doubt you could find a period in at least Western history when poets and musicians aren’t closely connected, whether as collaborators or as inspiration going one way or the other, or both ways — Shakespeare and Thomas Morley, Ronsard and Guillaume Costeley, Molière and Lully, Beethoven and Schiller, Baudelaire and Wagner, Mallarmé and Débussy, Hughes and Mingus, Kerouac and David Amram, Ginsberg and Will King, and the list could go on an on.

The other part of the question’s pretty tough too. A lot of people say that the Beat Generation influenced all the countercultures that came after it — hippies, punks, and so on. At the current Beat Generation show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the catalog makes the claim that the movement had a direct impact on the events of May 1968. Now, I find it very questionable that a primarily intellectual, literary, and artistic movement would be one of the prime movers of a huge political upheaval with broad goals involving hundreds of thousands of people or more — at best, that’s sloppy history. Intellectuals, writers, and artists comment on social movements — they may affect them sometimes, but it’s not as though they’re getting into the heads of even a fraction of the people involved and motivating them. People are politically motivated by the conditions affecting their own lives, which are only very slightly affected by any one artistic or literary movement. That said, many people who do have a major impact on subsequent cultural movements, especially countercultural ones, are inspired by the Beat Generation. They spoke directly to social, political, and cultural conditions in their time; even though the phenomena they addressed are now part of history, their way of addressing them, their directness and their boldness, continues to be an inspiration. I don’t know how many Beat revivals there have been that in one way or another turn up in music, art, and literature.

"I think that Kerouac’s interest in jazz, and his modeling of his prose and poetry on the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of jazz, makes him of great interest to a lot of jazz musicians."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of poetry?

I really can’t say what I miss most from the music of the past. Given that it still gets played a lot, even by young people who stream it or get it from services like iTunes and are largely in charge of their own playlists (a big change from when you had to buy a CD or vinyl album, and pretty much had to commit yourself to a singer or band even to hear one song, and from when we depended strictly on radio programmers to choose our music for us), I don’t think there’s anything to miss, because it’s still here. I’m sure there’s a lot of good new music being played now — I’m just not in touch with it.

I hope Anglophone poetry gets less dogmatically organized and dismissive. I’ve heard too many poets who call themselves experimental because they’ve learned a few moves from Olson, Creeley, or O’Hara and have made a system out of them. There are too many claims to having a unique, cutting-edge approach to poetry that rely on little more than a particular style, an established one to boot. If you write a certain type of poem, one that sounds sincerely confessional or that uses meter or rhyme, a lot of other poets will simply write you off as doing something at best uninteresting and at worst worthless. Their only support for their reaction is the idea that they belong to something currently recognized as a school, though few will admit that. It’s ironic that, at least in my experience, the most narrow-minded poets are those claiming the mantle of experimentalism: they’re as harsh in their judgments as those few hardcore formalists who say that free verse isn’t poetry, except the latter make their criteria clearer. Though I’m not as familiar with poetry in the Francophone world, I’ve never had the impression that it’s anywhere near as Balkanized as in the Anglophone world. I don’t have a good explanation for these states of affairs.

If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d like to see many more politicians in the Western democracies who are willing to embrace social democratic principles. You can’t establish a just society when big corporations are allowed to write the rules — they act entirely in their own interest, and when that interest is so much a part of an economy that everyone is requried to participate in, huge parts of populations are left in the cold. Hillary Clinton is a 100% supporter of corporate capitalism — the Democratic Party establishment’s resounding rejection of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, despite his high popularity, indicates how willing most professional politicians are to embrace the rule of corporations. The phenomenon in the UK of Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection by both the Conservative and Labour Parties as an extremist, when a majority of the population is in accord with many of his positions, indicates the same problem. Though I don’t think we’re going to overturn capitalism any time soon, politicians who claim to be progressive and to serve the people need to be willing to enact very strict laws to keep corporate behavior from damaging the lives of millions or billions of people.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jack Kerouac with Jazz and Blues music and Rock n’ Roll culture?

This is another huge question. I think that Kerouac’s interest in jazz, and his modeling of his prose and poetry on the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of jazz, makes him of great interest to a lot of jazz musicians. And I think his countercultural disposition as I’ve described it, especially when he became popular in the late 1950s, intersected with the interests of a lot of people who were playing early rock and roll, who turned to his work and to music for the same reasons. And I think that in both cases, the initial connections between jazz and Kerouac, between rock and roll and Kerouac, were so strong that they’ve persisted as a tradition.

How you would spend a day with Kerouac? What would you say to Lord Byron? What would you like to ask Descartes?

If I were to choose a day to meet with Kerouac, it would probably be in late 1956 or early 1957, when On the Road had been accepted but not published yet, when he was getting optimistic again about his writing career, seven or so years after the disappointing reception of The Town and the City, right around the time Joyce Johnson met him. I would hope to meet Joyce then too. Kerouac would be interesting, dynamic, and not drinking too heavily. I’d want to spend the day talking to him, in what I’m sure would be a wide-ranging, energetic conversation on all manner of subjects.

As for Lord Byron, I’d hope we could meet in Italy. I’d ask him to tell me what he considered most important about two subjects: poetry and free love. I’d especially want to know if he thought that some kind of free love would ever be a viable alternative to monogamy (the current supposed alternative, “polyamory,” as far as I can tell, works only for a small number of people, no more than for any other kind of “open relationship,” like, say, a suburban married couple in the 1950s or 1960s agreeing they could have affairs), and what a society would be like where people could freely practice free love. And I’d ask him his projections of the future of English-language poetry — in the early nineteenth century, does he think there will ever be a great American poet?

If I met Descartes fairly late in his life, I’d ask him to tell me all about Queen Christina. I’d tell him about Greta Garbo — I’m sure he’d be very interested in the future invention of the movies and would have no trouble understanding what they are.

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

I don’t think I’d get into a time machine unless I knew it would also bring me back. And if I went into the past, I would have to be assured that nothing I did would change things in the present, like in so many science fiction stories and movies. If I could go to more than one place, I’d go to one time in the future and one time in the past.

I’d go three hundred years in the future: of course, before I get out of the time machine, I’d like to be sure there’s still a habitable earth to get out to. If there is, that will be the first piece of good news. If possible, I’d land once each in my favorite cities: Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, New York, Montreal, Minneapolis, San Francisco. Actually I’d land in the woods nearby, hoping to be inconspicuous, though of course as soon as I stepped out I’d be very conspicuous — I could wear futuristic clothes, but then I’d just look like a character from antique science fiction. Mainly, I’d try to see what life is like: do people still live in cities the way they do now? Are cities for the wealthy? For the poor? Do cities try to accommodate different classes? Have classes been abolished, or has antagonism gotten worse? Is there a recognizably new economic system? What did they do about global warming? I don’t think I’d bring anything with me to leave behind: if anything from the early twenty-first century matters — books, music, movies, art — then they’ll have saved them. If they haven’t saved them, bringing them to the future won’t mean anything.

I wouldn’t go so far into the past, mainly because I don’t think I’d be happy with the conditions. In the West during the twentieth century, we got used to an unprecedented degree of cleanliness in our houses and on the streets — if I went back to, say, the sixteenth century, I’d see people defecating in public and in houses, not cleaning up after themselves, dirt on everyone and everything. To a contemporary sensibility like mine, that would be impossibly repugnant. I’d want to go to Paris in the nineteenth century — maybe at the beginning of the Third Republic, when a few social democratic principles were implemented. And maybe after 1878, when the modern sewers were completed in Paris. And since we know what period attire looks like, I could dress inconsipicuously. I don’t know if I’d look anyone up, like Mallarmé, Verlaine, Cézanne, or Débussy — how would I explain to them why I want to talk to them? I think I’d just look around for a few days, see what was being sold in the bookstores and shown in the museums and galleries, make it to some openings and readings, some concerts. If I happened to get invited to a salon, I’d go, no matter which one, and just as I am now when I go to poetry workshops, I’d be on my best behavior even if what I heard were the farthest thing from Rimbaud.

Photo © by Michael Markos / All rights reserved - Hassan Melehy at the KGB Club, NYC 2016

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