Q&A with the editor of the Encyclopedia of Beat Literature, Kurt Hemmer - Professor of English at Harper College in Illinois

"The Beats loved jazz, Kerouac wanted to be a jazz writer, but they also appreciated classical music and other forms of music. Notice the shout-out to Ray Charles at the beginning of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.” What really helped keep the Beats alive was their influence on rock music: Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, The Clash, Nirvana. Rock lyricists are the true heirs of the Beat Generation."

Kurt Hemmer: Over the Hills and Far Away

Kurt Hemmer is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Beat Literature (Facts On File, 2007) and Professor of English at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. With filmmaker Tom Knoff, he produced several award-winning films: Janine Pommy Vega: As We Cover the Streets (2003), Rebel Roar: The Sound of Michael McClure (2004), Wow! Ted Joans Lives! (2010), Keenan (2011), and Love Janine Pommy Vega (2014). His essays have appeared in Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays (Southern Illinois UP, 2009), A History of California Literature (Cambridge UP, 2015), Beat Drama (Bloomsbury, 2016), The Cambridge Companion to the Beats (Cambridge UP, 2017), Approaches to Teaching Baraka’s Dutchman (MLA, 2018), William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century (Indiana UP, 2019), The Beats, Black Mountain, and New Modes in American Poetry (Clemson UP, 2021), and Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate (Clemson UP, 2022).

(Kurt Hemmer, 2017 EBSN Conference, Paris, France / Photo © by Michael Kellner)

In November 2022, he organized The Jack Kerouac Centenary Conference at Harper College. He is currently the Secretary of the Beat Studies Association and working on a biography of Gregory Corso. Beat Scene Press released the chapbook THE SECRET LIFE OF GREGORY CORSO IN VERMONT (March 2023) by Kurt Hemmer.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How have the Beats and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Beats inspired me to view my own life as an adventure. After reading On the Road, I believed that all I really needed was some friends and a destination. The trip was the most important thing, and I didn’t need much money. I also didn’t have to become someone else. My own life was the movie in my mind. I also enjoy visiting places that were important to the Beats: Corso’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Tangier, Paris—my favorite city.

When did the idea of Encyclopedia of Beat Literature come about? What characterizes the philosophy of Beat literature?

The Encyclopedia of Beat Literature was originally conceived of by Rob Johnson, author of the exciting book The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas. When I took over, I wanted to concentrate on the works of the Beats (the poems, plays, novels, and experimental texts) to give readers a sense of how diverse the Beats were and how experimental and innovative. There had already been several good works on the Beats’ lives, but I felt, and still do, that their art had been neglected and overshadowed by their extraordinary lives.

Most people will say the Beat philosophy is about spontaneity. The more your study them, the more you discover that they were craftspeople with a great more discipline than they are usually given credit for. What separates them from their peers, like Charles Bukowski, is their spirituality. This is a neglected side of Beat Studies. Their spirituality was an amalgamation of multifarious religious beliefs and philosophies. They were spiritual seekers. Most of them were also crazy—but I’ve always been interested in interesting mad people.          (Kurt Hemmer & Michael McClure / Photo © by Larry Gerald)

"The Beats inspired me to view my own life as an adventure. After reading On the Road, I believed that all I really needed was some friends and a destination. The trip was the most important thing, and I didn’t need much money. I also didn’t have to become someone else. My own life was the movie in my mind. I also enjoy visiting places that were important to the Beats: Corso’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Tangier, Paris—my favorite city."

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

Meeting my wife was the most important experience but bringing Ray Manzarek of The Doors and the Beat poet Michael McClure to Washington State University and hanging out with them and hearing their stories over drinks was one of the greatest highs I’ve ever experienced.

When Robert Plant sings to me, “Mellow is the man who knows what he's been missing,” in “Over the Hills and Far Away,”—that’s some pretty profound advice.

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

The birth of my twins, Naomi and River, changed my life the most, but in keeping with this discussion, watching James Dean in East of Eden had an impact on my life that still reverberates today. Learning about James Dean led me to the Beats. The highlight of my life is marrying my wife, Erin, but being able to teach the books I admire for more than twenty years—some of those classes were highlights.

Why do you think that the Beat Generation continues to generate such a devoted following?

The Beats cannot be consumed by the mainstream because they have an edge that will not go down the throats of the middle class. Try getting someone with straight, conservative views to read Naked Lunch. That book will baffle them, and it also frustrates our expectations of what a novel should be. This is also true of Kerouac’s novels. Beat writing is contrary to how anyone would be taught to write. It is inspiring to artists because it gives them room to breathe with their own ideas. Many of the Beats were literally outlaws, abut they were also social outlaws whose ideas about drug use and sex remains unpalatable to most people. But the ultimate message of the Beats is to be passionate about what you do—even if it’s making popcorn.

"Most people will say the Beat philosophy is about spontaneity. The more your study them, the more you discover that they were craftspeople with a great more discipline than they are usually given credit for. What separates them from their peers, like Charles Bukowski, is their spirituality. This is a neglected side of Beat Studies. Their spirituality was an amalgamation of multifarious religious beliefs and philosophies. They were spiritual seekers. Most of them were also crazy—but I’ve always been interested in interesting mad people." (Photo: Kurt Hemmer at Gregory Corso's grave, Campo Cestio in Rome, Italy)

What touched you from Janine Pommy Vega? What do you love most about Gregory Corso's writing?

For a brief time I was friendly with Janine Pommy Vega and with Tom Knoff we made two short films about her, Janine Pommy Vega: As We Cover the Streets and Love Janine Pommy Vega. She impressed me with her intelligence and compassion for others. She was an absolute joy to speak to on the phone and the breadth of her knowledge was astounding. I pushed her through The Art Institute of Chicago in a wheelchair and she regaled me with stories about the ancient goddesses depicted the pieces we saw. That was pretty fantastic.

I was lucky enough to spend a little time with Gregory Corso. The humor in his poetry is really appealing to me. I can’t think of a poet that is as simultaneously funny and profound as Corso. We filmed his reading at the University of Connecticut called Corso@UConn.

What is the impact of music in Beat Generation (and the opposite)? How did "Music & Beats" relationship come about?

The Beats loved jazz, Kerouac wanted to be a jazz writer, but they also appreciated classical music and other forms of music. Notice the shout-out to Ray Charles at the beginning of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.” What really helped keep the Beats alive was their influence on rock music: Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, The Clash, Nirvana. Rock lyricists are the true heirs of the Beat Generation.

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

I’ve learned not to be afraid of experimentation and be open to other peoples’ artistic ideas and alternative lifestyles. I think Beat literature has made me try to try to understand people better and not be judgmental. Ultimately, it has made me want to fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it. There are certainly racist and sexist aspects in the works of the white male Beat writers, but when I encounter someone who digs the Beats, they are almost universally not racist or sexist. That says something. Lived experience has shown me that the critics who feel that the Beats will lead people to have prejudices are simply wrong. You can appreciate Beat literature and still be critical of it. What I look for in art is beauty and inspiration, and I find those things in various forms in Beat literature.

(Photo: Kurt Hemmer with filmmaker Tom Knoff, together produced several award-winning films; Janine Pommy Vega: As We Cover the Streets, Rebel Roar: The Sound of Michael McClure, Wow! Ted Joans Lives!, Keenan, and Love Janine Pommy Vega).

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