Join editor Todd Swindell, Neeli Cherkovski and Jim Nawrocki for a reading from the new volume of Harold Norse’s selected poems, I Am Going to Fly Through Glass, freshly published by Talisman House. Each knew Norse personally and can shed light on the life and the work of this major poet, born in Brooklyn in 1916 and resident in San Francisco, in the Mission District, from 1972 until his death in 2009.
Allen Ginsberg met Harold Norse on the streets of Greenwich Village in 1944, both men embarking on a life of letters, reshaping what America knew of poetry and giving birth and shape to a new literary generation. Ginsberg was 18, but Harold was 28, steeped in the classics, boasting a close association with W. H. Auden and proclaiming the influence of William Carlos Williams. Norse became renowned for his embrace of a vernacular approach that would characterize the innovations of the beat generation poets.
Norse himself later recalled, “…Allen Ginsberg and I met on the subway in New York. It was about four in the morning and I was going home to my room in the Village, Greenwich Village, and I saw this young boy of about eighteen with eye-glasses and a red bandana around his neck reciting poetry. There was nobody else in the whole train. And at the stops, I heard parts of what he was reciting and it was French and I realized it was (Arthur) Rimbaud. And the first thing I said to Allen Ginsberg was, “Rimbaud!”. And he said, “You’re a poet!”. And at that point we began talking about it. He ended up with me in my small room on Horatio Street, Greenwich Village, talking till seven o’clock in the morning. He showed me his unpublished poems (he hadn’t published any yet) — and I’d published a long poem in Poetry magazine called “Key West”, which is also in my first book, The Undersea Mountain….”
Over the next six decades, Norse was one of the crucial, original American voices in poetry, much admired by his younger colleagues. Read more on Norse and this new anthology at the Allen Ginsberg Project blog.
Norse’s trajectory and influence were significantly shaped by his arrival in San Francisco in 1972. Poet and literary critic Jack Foley notes that “In 1977, Gay Sunshine Press published the substantial volume, Carnivorous Saint: Gay Poems 1941-1976 and in 1986 The Crossing Press published Harold Norse The Love Poems 1940-1985. Norse’s status as both a gay and an innovative writer was definitely established.” Foley’s insightful profile of Norse can be read here.
The editor of this selected poems, Todd Swindell, came to know Norse in the poet’s final decade. From the Ginsberg Project blog noted above: “Todd Swindell has been a devoted student and custodian of Harold’s work, since 2000, when they first got together, before Norse’s death. From a contemporaneous article – “Swindell cleans Norse’s apartment, organizes his papers, proofreads his letters and runs the occasional errand. Mainly though Swindell and Norse simply talk. When they get together, Swindell, 27, recalls his experiences as a young gay man growing up in straight-laced Orange County, and talks about his work with ACT UP S.F. Norse, 84, recalls his experiences as a young bi-sexual man growing up in New York..”..”Swindell first discovered Norse as a teenager when he ran across a copy of…Carnivorous Saint..in the Orange County Public Library. Living in that hotbed of conservatism, Swindell figured it was only a matter of time before the powers-that-be discovered the provocative book of gay liberation writing in their midst and purged it. So, with a tinge of regret, he stole it. “More than any other gay poet, he touched a nerve to me.” Swindell says, “at a time when I had no one, I had Harold’s poetry.”
Neeli Cherkovski, poet, biographer and literary critic, who will read on the program and share anecdotes of Norse’s life, was close to him thoughout the San Francisco years. He recounts, “Harold led me into the gay underworld of San Francisco. We shared a few guys together. I loved his knowledge of such figures as Blaise Cendrars, the Syrian poet Adonis, and so many others. At one point we had the same therapist — driving each other crazy comparing notes. He taught a class at his apartment in the 70s — about seven of eight of us attended. Harold was like a wizard with a wand, talking of WC Williams one moment and Antonin Artaud the next. He even showed a film he had made the burning of a pier on the beach in Los Angeles. He just happened to be walking by with a movie camera — it was magnificent, as if he had stepped in to the flames.”
Jim Nawrocki, in an obituary of Norse written published in the Gay and Lesbian Review, wrote “Norse received a National Poetry Association Award in 1991. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, was published in 1989 and republished in 2002. During his final years, Norse continued to live in his cottage in San Francisco’s gritty Mission District, continually reworking his poems, seeing his work widely anthologized, giving readings, and corresponding with admirers from around the world. Reflecting on his storied life in a 2003 interview with the Review, Norse remarked, laughing, “Well, it was life. I thought everyone was living like that.” Read the full obit here.
Come celebrate the work of a writer whose peers considered one of the towering talents of mid-century American literature, with friends — poets, literary chroniclers, critics — who knew him well and who recognize his place in the canon of modern American poetry.