Monday, January 16, 2006

Women of the Beat Generation

I've just finished reading Brenda Knight's Women of the Beat Generation (1996), an excellent book on women writers, muses, wives, and artists of the Beat Era. Knight's book along with an associated" Women of the Beat Generation Panel" at the San Francisco Book Festival on November 2, 1996, for the first time focused on these long neglected women.

Before reading this book I had already read three important memoirs by Beat generation women: Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters, about her years from 21 to 23 when she was writing her first novel and had a romance with Jack Kerouac; Hettie Jones's How I Became Hettie Jones largely about her romance and marriage with LeRoi Jones; and Diana di Prima's Recollections of My Life as a Woman, about her life as young poet, mother, and lover in the 1950s and 1960s. All three memoirs are superb works telling what it was like for young American woman coming of age in New York bohemia in the 1950s and 1960s. Di Prima's is really spectacular: I'd rank Di Prima's memoir along with Mother Jones's and Emma Goldman's autobiographies as the three classic tales about woman rebels in American literature.

Reading a few memoirs highlights three women's lives but not a generation.What Brenda Knight did wonderfully in her anthology was give a short biography of 27 women along with samples, for most of them, of their writing: Knight truly has produced a portrait of a whole generation.

She starts with a section titled "The Precusors" including poets Helen Adams, Josephine Miles, and Madeline Gleason, and fiction writer Jane Bowles. Poet Josephine Miles, the first female tenured English professor at UC Berkeley, is well-known as is Jane Bowles; the latter was the inspiration of her husband Paul Bowles' heroine in his novel The Sheltering Sky which was made into a few years ago into film, but the other two poets are not known at all. Adams, a Scottish immigrant, chanted her wonderful ballads that updated the traditional Scottish ballad to mid-20th century America, while Gleason organized in 1947 the San Francisco Festival of Poetry, the first such festival in the country, and wrote a musical verse exploring the realm between the divine and the commonplace. Both Adams and Gleason are fine poets deserving to be better known.

Knight's second section "The Muses" is largely about the wives of Beat generation men. Of the wives, four have written memoirs: Carolyn Cassady, Neil Cassady's wife; Edie Parker Kerouac, Kerouac's first wife; Joan Harvey Kerouac, his second wife; and Eileen Kaufman, Bob Kaufman's wife. Though all the memoirs give insight into these women's lives and their marriages, Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road is by far the finest written tale. After reading two excerpts from Cassady's work, I think Carolyn was the writer in the marriage, not Neil. Carolyn tells a tale of a heroic bohemian mother: she held the marriage together despite all Neil's abandonments, raised her three children, and worked full-time. Cassady's strength as well as her fine story telling ability shine through the excerpt of her work.

The third section "The Writers" has 15 women and their writing including, of course, excerpts from Joyce Johnson's and Hettie Jone's memoirs I had already discussed. As for the other prose writings, Bonnie Frazer (aka Bremser, poet Ray Bremser's ex-wife) had an excerpt from her harrowing memoir Troia: Mexican Memoirs about traveling peniless through Mexico with her husband and baby. Also, there is a sad but moving excerpt from the novel Trainsong by Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac's daughter. Jan Kerouac, who only published two novels before her tragic early death, seemed to be quite a good a writer as her father.

Of the poets, Knight has few of Diana di Prima's poems. Di Prima from adolescence on was fiercely dedicated to her writing and published her own work as well as other writers in the magazine she put out with LeRoi Jones in the 1950s. She lived a much more radical--both bohemain and political--life than her more conventional contempories Rich, Plath, and Sexton. Knight has included one of di Prima's Loba poems where she explores female Goddess energy in that epic book-long poem; critics should look again at Di Prima as I think she is a major mid-20th century feminist poet.

Knight includes six obscure women poets who deserve recognition. Elise Cowan, who was for a short time Alan Ginsberg's girlfriend, wrote a haunted poetry before her tragic suicide a 29. She like Di Prima in the 1950s lived on the edge in New York bohemia, but while diPrima was a tough survivor, Cowan's dark tormented visions echo through her amazing lyric poetry. While Cowan in her work did a dance with death, Joanna Kyger, who for a short time was married to Gary Snyder, was in her poetry fiercely dedicated to exploring spirituality, particulary Buddhism, as her ex-husband was. Joanna McClure was also married to a Beat poet: for many years she was wed to Michael McClure. McClure writes a short, lean lyric that can praise Sappho or wonder "How life can be so full at 52."

The next four poets weren't romantically linked to any Beat male. Instead Janine Pommy Vega has lived with as much risk and abandon as any male: her wild bohemian spirit pulsates through her long-lined poems. Holocaust survivor Ruth Weiss captures in her poetry the amazing tale of her escaping the Nazis; she writes poems to her women friends as well as was a pioneering jazz poet.

Mary Norbert Korte captures the moment she left the nunnery in her poem "Eddie May the cook Dreamed Sister Mary Ran Off with Alan Ginsberg" and later became a redwoods activist in Northern California recording her love of that land in amazing nature poems. Lenore Kandal's book of erotic poetry, The Love Book, provoked a raid by the police who declared it obscene. In the trial Kandel said wants to "express her beliefs that sexual acts between living persons are religious acts." Kandal's work did give women poets in the 1960s more freedom to explore the erotic.

Knight includes Anne Waldman, the only woman associated with the beats who has had a thriving national poetry career. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti published in the 1970s Waldman's book Fast Talking Woman he for the first time recognized a beat women poet writing strong feminist work. The value of Knight's work is she shows that Waldman wasn't alone: most of the other poets also explored female imagery in their work. Though the beat women were often seen as victims, Knight's anthology should correct that false impression. They were instead strong women, and many were strong writers.

Also, some critics have said that women of the beat generation did their strongest work in memoir, but memoirs, being more financially successful, were published first and received much larger audiences. If critics would look at the work of the poets as well as the memoir writers, they might find beat women produced an important body of poetry.

Knight includes also a short section on two women painters, Jay DeFeo and Joan Brown, who were associated with the beat generation in San Francisco both in their lives and their work. Both women were important painters and helped put the Bay Area in the map as a center of the visual artists. Though the anothology includes one illustration of DeFeo's massive painting "The Rose," I would have liked many more illustrations of the work by these two fascinating women.

All in all Women of the Beat Generation is a must read for anyone interested in women's writing, the beat generation, or 20th century American literature.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pride and Prejudice

I went to see the movie Pride and Prejudice last night, which I found utterly delightful. Jane Austen's novel, which I read in junior high school, has always been one of my all-time favorites.
The film wonderfully connects with the comedy of Austen's romantic comedy about the romances of the five Bennett sisters around 1800 in rural England. Elizabeth, the second daughter and the heroine; her elder sister Jane, the family beauty, and Lydia, a fifteen-year old flirt and fool, all have romances, but are the men suitable marriage partners?

Austen portrays her heroine Elizabeth as quickly prejudiced against a possible suitor because of a small slight or rumors. Mr. Darcy, the rich young man who falls in love with her, is so full of pride that during his courtship he continually hurts her feelings. The eldest sister Jane is too restricted by convention to show Mr. Bingley, the young man that she loves, her true feelings, while Mr. Bingley lets himself be manipulated by his sister and Mr. Darcy to cut off a promising romance. So each sex has blinders on, unable to see the other's true worth. Austen portrays these romances with her wonderful comedy showing how foolish her characters are, but she allows her characters--particularly Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy who loves her--to see their errors and grow.

In graduate school my roommate Cynthia Evans wrote her paper defending Mrs. Bennett, the mother who is usually seen as a nervous idiot whose main focus in life is marrying off her five daughters. The intellectual father Mr. Bennet who has buried himself in his library reading is usually praised. My roommate Cynthia defended Mrs. Bennett and so in the film Brenda Belthyn gives us a fine Mrs. Bennett as nervous and flighty, but also very concerned for her daughters .

In both the novel and the film the Bennet family estate can only be inherited by a male heir, so the five Bennett sisters have no inheritance. They also have no education or jobs, so they must marry or be impoverished. Cynthia Evans argued that Mrs. Bennett is the wise one, trying her best to take care of her daughters, while Mr. Bennet is a narcisstic intellectual reading his beloved books and largely ignoring the girls except for his favorite Elizabeth. As Mrs. Bennet says in the film to Elizabeth, it's no easy task to marry off five daughters in 1800. Well, it isn't.

Keira Knightley, who played Elizabeth, is beautiful, lively, playful, and charming--one could quickly see why a young man would fall in love with her. In the first shot the camera follows Elizabeth rambling alone on the family farm, not the usual shot of her and the other girls cooped up in the family drawing room. Indeed Joe Wight, the director, often has shots of Elizabeth out in the open fields as if she has the freedom to roam around of 1950s romantic heroine rather than live the constricted life of a 1800 girl. What I find wonderful about Austen's novel and this film is the conflict between Elizabeth and her sisters' attempts to be emotionally freer versus the strict rules they were supposed to follow in society. Wight is giving us a new reinterpretation of the novel which focuses on this conflict between convention and freedom.

As a teenager I loved the romance of Pride and Prejudice but watching the movie I also loved the comedy. Tom Hollander did a wonderful job portraying Mr. Collins, the clergymen cousin of the Bennet's who will inherit the Benett estate. He calls calling, looking for wife, and first settles on Jane, but after Mrs. Benett tells him that Jane is half-engaged, decided after one minute reconsideration to propose to Elizabeth. Mr. Collins' proposal is funny and touching: he's such an awful suitor but he has his dignity at the same time. As he says, he is trying to do the right thing by proposing to one of the sisters whom he will disinherit. One feels for him at the same time as one laughs at his pretensions of a proposal to a young woman who clearly has no interest in him.

So go see this wonderful romantic comedy. Wonderful author Jane Austen. Wonderful novel. Wonderful film.

Friday, January 06, 2006

MLA Conflict over NYU Strike

Last week I attended the MLA, the largrest professional organization for academics in modern languages, where the biggest conflict was over a Radical Caucus’s emergency resolution to support the graduate students’ strike at NYU led by Graduate Students Organizing Committee/Local 2110 UAW (GSOC).

In 2000 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students at private universities who teach sections at their colleges have the right to unionize (graduate students at public universities like UC and University of Michigan already have that right and are unionized). Then NYU recognized GSOC union for its graduate students who teach and signed a first contract in 2002; GSOC helped get its members a raise in pay to $19,000 and better health benefits. But in July 2004 the NLRB, which had Bush appointees, reversed itself on a 3-2 party line vote, saying graduate students at private universities like NYU don’t have the right to unionize. NYU then rescinded its recognition of GSOC, refusing to recognize the union’s grievance procedure, and basically tried to destroy the union, so November 9 GSOC went out on strike.

NYU President John Sexton sent a November 28 email ordering striking students to return to work December 5. If they didn’t, he threatened striking students with loss of their spring semester stipends (their jobs); further, if they took any work action in the spring, they would lose their jobs for the next two semesters. Faced with much pressure in terms of emails and letters, Sexton postponed the December 5 deadline, but it still hangs there, threatening graduate students with loss of jobs and a blacklist. Under the 2000 NLRB ruling, NYU’s action of reprisals against unionists on strike is illegal, but now under the 2002 NLRB ruling NYU’s actions are technically “legal” but clearly unethical.

Bill Mullen of the Radical Caucus brought an Emergency Resolution in support of GSOC, and at the MLA meeting of the Delegates Assembly Organizing Committee (DAOC) on December 28th , anybody who has resolutions or motions discusses them with DAOC before the actual Delegates Assembly (DA). Well, we members of GSOC, the Radical Caucus, and other pro-trade unionists all argued for the emergency resolution. I was there as a member of the Radical Caucus. Also, I’ve a staunch trade-unionist, having founded a trade union local once. The Radical Caucus more than any other group in the MLA has supported trade union rights for academics, particlarly non-tenure track, part-timers, and graduate students. Furthermore, my dad was a graduate of NYU. Since the MLA had already passed Motion 1999-11 supporting unionization of graduate students at both private and public universities in 2000, we thought the Emergency Resolution would pass.

At the December 28 meeting DAOC members told us that the MLA Constitution had a new amendment saying emergency resolutions “shall not name individuals or institutions in such a way that, in the determination of the committee, a response from the named party must be sought.” If persons or an institution are named, then the MLA must have the time (unspecified) to ask them for a reply, but since the DA was to vote on all resolutions within 24 hours on December 29th, there was no time to get a reply.

After some debate, Michael Berube of DAOC proposed a compromise that the Radical Caucus revise their resolution, removing the clause that said NYU threatening sanctions against GSOC, and ask the MLA to reaffirm it’s two earlier motions supporting unionization of all graduate students. The Radical Caucus accepted Berube’s compromise for a more moderate motion urging all universities to bargain in good faith with graduate student unions and adding words to reaffirm their previous motions endorsing graduate student unions.

During the December 28th meeting members of DAOC repeatedly urged the Radical Caucus to drop its emergency resolution and instead ask the Executive Council, the small elected ruling body of the MLA, to take action supporting the NYU strikers. Druing the lively debate that occurred DAOC members said an emergency resolution isn’t really “emergency” as first it has to be voted on by the DA on December 29th, next goes to the Executive Committee who ensures the resolutions aren’t libelous or untruthful, next the membership of MLA votes on them and only then eleven months later in November, 2006, would the emergency resolution take place.

But we wanted to go forward, taking the emergency resolution to the DA the next day. People felt that if the DA would pass a pro-NYU strikers motion, it would help immediately the strikers, some of whom were seated there. The strikers might lose their jobs within weeks, and we wanted to give them support. That afternoon DAOC had a meeting to give it’s opinion on the resolutions.

Next day the Delegates Assembly took place in a large ballroom at the Marriott in Northwest Washington D.C. The elected delegates sent in the front of a ballroom while the non-elected (again GSOC strikers were there, members of the Radical Caucus, and, of course, other interested MLA members) sat in the back of the room with the Executive Council (EC) members at the front podium. Bill Mullen again introduced the revised NYU emergency resolution that was a compromise. Next Michelle Massé of DAOC said they had “a prolonged, intense and deeply divisive discussion” in their meeting and they had deadlocked: some members believed that NYU should have the chance to respond to the revised resolution while others thought that a response from NYU wasn’t needed

Next the parliamentarian ruled the NYU emergency resolution was out of order for a second reason: Robert’s Rules of Order forbid organizations from voting to reaffirm previous actions. Since the Emergency Resolution asks the MLA delegates to reaffirm its two previous pro-union motions, it is 100% out of order. It would be too confusing for a organization to get a chance to not affirm its previous resolutions, so any resolution asking them for such a vote is void.

Again, many people spoke at the mikes in an passionate debate. One asked if there was any way the NYU emergency resolution could be revised to bring it to a vote. The answer was “no.” Bill Mullen argued that DA is the larger and more representative elected body of the Executive Council, so it should vote on NYU resolution rather than the EC. Cynthia Young, one of the Yale graduate student strikers of that strike a decade ago, said at the 1995 DA the MLA vote to censure Yale during its graduate student strike had an immediate, positive effect to help the strikers, so similar vote for NYU voters would have also have an immediate positive effect. GSOC strikers NYU went to the mike saying how important an MLA resolution would be to them. The answers were again and again the NYU emergency resolution was dead. I got up to speak once as a non-delegate, but the chair ruled that they had run at of time and had to move on to other business.

At the very end of the four-hour meeting, after all other business had been concluded, people were still give their opinions about the NYU strike at the mikes—one for delegates in front and one for non-delegates in back. I and two others from the Radical Caucus lined up to speak (we could only speak for about two minutes). The three of us were standing there when the chair said since the meeting was nearly over non-delegates could no longer speak but only delegates.

Barbara Foley, the Radical Caucus member who was also a delegate, went to the delegates' mike saying she would give her time to let the non-delegates to speak. The chair said, “No.” The chair at the front podium said they could ask the DA as a whole to vote to extend the time of the meeting, but they needed a quorum of 36 votes. Well, 34 delegates present voted 33 to 1 to let us three in the back of the room, but it wasn’t the 36 needed for the quorum, so the chair adjourned the meeting. I never did get a chance to speak at the DA.

What can one conclude from all this? The College Art Association months again passed a resolution to support GSOC union at NYU. The press and others often call the MLA “radical, “left,” or one of the more radical of the academic professional organizations. It isn’t radical at all. The MLA isn't on the left at all. MLA is apolitical.

MLA is basically an organization devoted to scholarship and scholarly publishing which is figuring if it wants to do advocacy on and what kind of advocacy. Some members want advocacy while others do not want it do advocacy at all but concentrate on scholarship, remaining apolitical. Now the MLA is having that debate and will, indeed, debate the topic of MLA and activism at the 2006 DA. I hope that will be a productive discussion.

As for NYU, the right to organize a labor union is a basic human right—and certainly any person should have the right to unionize without fear of losing one’s job or blacklists. All the trade union bloc wanted was for the MLA to reaffirm NYU graduate students' basic human rights to have a union. We tried our best but we failed. I do hope, speaking as an individual, that the Executive Council will soon vote a strong resolution supporting NYU strikers. I also hope that the NYU strikers do not lose their jobs this spring and next year.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

California Writer Goes to Washington D.C.

I just returned from a one-week trip to Washington D.C. where I did some sightseeing and went to the Modern Language Association Convention, the largest convention of higher education teachers in language. During Christmas dinner at my friend's mother's home I met an engineer and an architect: the engineer had helped create the Washingotn D.C. subway in the 1970s and 1980s while the architect had worked for years on historic preservation of older buildings in the city. The engineer said that visionaries created this subway Well, the visionaries did a fine job as the subway was excellent: it was clean; full of riders of all ethnicities and classes; and moved passengers quickly around the city. I wish Los Angeles had such a good subway system: we need visionaries to enlarge LA's small subway to make it more like D.C.'s subway.

Also, the architect and his fellow historical preservationists also seemed to be doing a good job. As I walked and bused mainly along Connecticut Avenue from northwest D.C. to the National Mall, I was impressed by the main fine looking mutli-story older dark brick buildings--from two-store family homes in northwest to three to eight-story apartment buildings and hotels more toward downtown. In the Kalorama section of Dupont Circle the two-, three- and four-story brick buildings were quite beautiful in their dark muted browns, maroons, blues. From the bus I saw many restuarants of different ethnicities ranging to Cajun to Indian to sushi to French to Italien: D.C. has a lively international food culture.

On the National Mall I particulary enjoyed visiting the new National Musuem of the American Indian where in the atreium in the lobby my friend Anne and I heard a trio of Peruvian Indians play music from Peru. Then we went to the see the exhibits of Native American cosmologies on the 4th floor, learning about cosmologies of the Mapeche Indians in Chile; the Maya in Guatemala; the Huppa in Northern California; and others. We had lunch in the fine cafeteria, eating the 5-dish sampler of Native foods: Buffalo roasted meat of Plains Indians; salmon from Pacific Northwest tribes; a cooked tomato dish as tomatoes were first cultivated by Mexican Indians; wild rice and watercress salad as wild rice is a staple of Chippewa in Northern Michican; and mashed potatoes as Inca first cultivated potatoes.

The next day I visited the National Gallery of Art, stood in the wonderful room ful of Rembrandt paintings; was entralled by the Manet and Degas works; walked through room full of Audubon drawings of birds; saw a wonderful selection of paintings by United States artists from the 1790s through the mid-20th century. The National Gallery of Art has a far richer collection of painting than the Los Angeles County Musuem of Art. Of course, many other musuems lined the National Mall--but I didn't have time to go see these other musuems. Again, I thought another group of visionaries had created these terrific musuems that ringed the National Mall. One would need a week to visit the rich collections in the many wonderful musuems of Washington D.C.

Of course, the city has its problems. Recently with the rise of prices for renting apartments as well as for buying houses, the city has like so many others a lack of afforable housing. One professor who works at a D.C. college told me that D.C. public school teachers, bus drivers, or police officers no long can afford to buy a house in the city where they work. Also, the architect I met said he owns a house in the Capital Hill district right south of the Capitol but that district of modest small worker houses is being gentrified and has skyrocketing home prices for even very small homes--15' across, long, and two-story. I was told that throughout most of the city where people of color live the schools as well as the health care systems needs to be improved. So D.C.'s problems--lack of affordable housing; schools and health care need investment--are the nation's problems.

Well, the people of D.C. has had visionaries who created their wonderful subway system and the great musuems, so hopefully more visionaries will emerge to create better housing, schools, and health care.