Paris Review’s ‘Beat Writers at Work’

The Paris Review’s “Beat Writers at Work,” edited by George Plimpton and published in 1999, is not a comprehensive tome of everything you could ever possibly want to know about Beat writers. For example, though almost every single writer interviewed mentions Gregory Corso, there is no section on him. No female Beats, not even Diane DiPrima or Anne Waldman, have a section.

However, what the book *does* include is worth reading. After an introduction by Rick Moody, the volume kicks off with an interview with William S. Burroughs in 1965, in which he explains his cut-up and fold-in methods and his fascination with junk. After picking the brains of Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, the reader is treated to a drunken, chummy roundtable with Jack Kerouac at his home about one year before he finished drinking himself to death, replete with wine, singing, chants, and spoken examples of his famous spontaneous composition.

Also featured in the book are Charles Olson, Paul Bowles, Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, Barney Rosett and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There is a transcribed conversation, which took place in a cab, a restaurant and a hotel in New York, between Ginsberg, his longtime companion, poet Peter Orlovsky, and the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.

Besides the Kerouac piece, the most entertaining vignette was written by a grad student at NYU. Allen Ginsberg taught The Craft of Poetry class there for one semester in 1995, and Elisa Schappell’s bemused diary entries and transcriptions show the idiosyncracies of Professor Ginsberg at work. (He leads the class in meditation and yells at late-comers.) Gregory Corso shows up to teach one class period, and keeps trying to leave early. Ginsberg teaches from a suprisingly academic syllabus (“Survey of Historical Poetics from Pre- Literate Oral Traditions to Multiculti Poetics”), though his lectures include as much theory and history as they do ecstatic diatribes on his favorites poets (Corso, Kerouac, Creeley), light-headed group readings that leave the class dizzy, and wake-up interjections: “Ultimately, his mouthing is a variety of cocksucking,” he says of Hart Crane.

The book is worth reading because, as its title suggests, you get the goods straight from the lion’s mouth about how these writers *work*. Corso types with two fingers, Jack takes benzedrine, Allen even demonstrates in class, writing on the blackboard a spontaneous composition called “Bald Heads.” “Beat Writers at Work” is, at the very least, an entertaining fix for the Beat junkie.

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