City Lights at 60: City Lights Conference in North Dakota, 1974

group photo by D. Sorensen

Maybe you missed this press release from the University of North Dakota in 2011- long and short of it; you can watch the above poets reading on streaming video at this link…

“Recently discovered and newly digitized versions of never-before-released videos of the “Beat Generation” poets are now on line, thanks to the University of North Dakota.

The 1974 footage records the 5th Annual University of North Dakota (UND) Writers Conference, “City of Lights in North Dakota,” featuring Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth and Peter Orlovsky.

It is believed to be the first time all of the authors appeared together on stage in 20 years.

The videos are part of the UND Writers conference Collection, which is preserved in the UND Chester Fritz Library at The UND Writers Conference celebrated its 42nd year in 2011.

The videos capture March 18-22, 1974, when the ideas of some of the most influential members of the “Beat Generation” were recorded for posterity, including nearly 10 hours of video, which the University is making freely available online for scholarly, educational, and historical purposes. The footage was recently discovered in a box of 28 mostly unlabeled film reels donated to the University by former UND Writers Conference director and professor of English Dr. James McKenzie. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed for digitization.

The Beat Poets dedicated much of their conversation during the UND conference to passionate discussions of the need to return to the land to reduce energy consumption. In Ginsberg’s words, their time in Grand Forks was dedicated to “talking and biology, politics, sociology, police state, metaphysics, poetics, farming, advertising, condition, psychology, conditioned fat slobs, America.” He said the topics were “some random suggestions” in an attempt to “prophesy another way of life for America.”

As the footage reveals, during this time “the Beats” repeatedly advocated subsistence farming over agri-business. From the stage, Snyder declared himself “an agrarian” and Orlovsky said he was “a farmer.” Both encouraged the audience to grow their own food rather than buy it from supermarkets. Ginsberg, too, called for de-centralized farming.

Although the topic had been discussed all week, on the last day of the conference, Rexroth, speaking to “the Beats,” pointed out what was obvious to the audience: “You see, you have to realize, you guys, that you’re talking to a bunch of people whose families are farmers.” While the writers described the benefits of going organic, creating compost piles, clearing land, and planting crops with limited machinery, the audience was not swayed by their seemingly romanticized descriptions.

In response, one person, who “grew up in western North Dakota, small town, U.S.A.,” and “spent half of his life working on a farm in the summer,” declared “the American people will be too damn soft to ever be self-sufficient agriculturally again.” The conversations between the audience and the panelists at times became contentious perhaps because many in attendance were first-generation college students who were pursuing a degree with one goal in mind: getting off the farm.

The writers also discussed America’s dependence on fossil fuels and promoted the use of renewable resources, such as solar and wind power, to reduce pollution. Again, the North Dakotans in attendance were well versed on the subject. As the panelists learned, the state had 20 percent of the world’s lignite coal. When asked, the writers described the potential environmental and social impact of the increased strip-mining of coal in western North Dakota, which was then being developed.”



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