City Lights at 60: Women of the Beat Generation

Women-of-the-Beat-Generation-9781573241380Tuesday, November 19, 2013, 7 P.M., City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA

An evening of readings and discussion about the accomplishments and influence of the Women Beats. Often overshadowed by the their male counterparts, the women artists and poets of the BEAT Generation created significant contributions to not only the counterculture of their time but to the larger cannon of art and letters. With the recent exhibition of Jay Defeo‘s work, we have seen a resurgence in interest in their work.

This evening of women Beat poets will reverberate with the howls, raps and roars of ruth weiss and Joanna McClure, poets and peers of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Hosted by Brenda Knight, author of the American Book Award-winning Women of the Beat Generation, this special evening will highlight and celebrate the lives and work of these female iconoclasts.

McClure, with her then-husband Michael, was at the very epicenter of the scene from the Six Gallery reading to spending time with Beat progenitors Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen and W.H. Auden as well as artist Jay Defeo and the Digger poet activists Peter Coyote, Lenore Kandel and Janine Pommy Vega.  Joanna will read from her new collection.

Jazz innovator ruth weiss escaped Nazi Germany with her family in 1939 on the last train allowed across the Austrian border. She and her parents are the only the only members of her family to survive the Holocaust. ruth wrote her first poem at five and has not stopped since. Her work is shot through with the history of the Beat Generation and a stark and starting originality.  Kerouac envied her Haiku and Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman says of ruth, “No American poet has remained so faithful to jazz in the construction of poetry as ruth weiss. Her poems are score to be sounded with all her riffy ellipses. Others read TO jazz or write from jazz, ruth weiss writes jazz in words.”

Some more reading selections for those that can’t make it…



Catching Light

Joanna McClure’s poems reveal the story of a central woman writer of the San Francisco Beat generation counterculture. Married to Beat poet Michael McClure soon after she arrived in San Francisco in 1954, Joanna McClure became a significant figure in the Beat poetry scene.

Growing up on a ranch in the Arizona desert, Joanna developed early on a deep sensitivity to the beauty of nature. Her move to San Francisco as a young woman in 1951 launched a lifelong love affair with that city and the poetry it engendered. Thriving on the energy of the Beat movement, the young poet found herself inside a circle of famous poets and great writers in American poetry and American literature, including San Francisco Renaissance poet Robert Duncan and his lover, artist Jess Collins, as well as the Beats Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Gary Snyder. She heard Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in 1955, and the home she shared with Michael became a gathering place for beatniks.

Meanwhile, Joanna was developing own body of poetic work, allowing her clear inner voice to guide her. Her poems ardently claim the freedoms her generation struggled to achieve, yet they often do so in a playful and generous voice, reveling in the beauty of the natural world and everyday moments and elegantly celebrating sensuality and intimate love. In the late 1950s she began publishing her work in literary journals and chapbooks, and her first book of poems, Wolf Eyes, was published in 1974.

Like many of her female Beat poet contemporaries, and American women writers throughout the 20th century, Joanna McClure wrote prolifically yet quietly year after year, even as her life shifted focus to a career in early childhood development and she and Michael divorced. “Poetry is where I keep company with myself,” she declares. Now for the first time the full range of McClure’s voice is accessible in one volume, spanning the poet’s entire writing life.

Fast Speaking Woman: Chants and Essays
Pocket Poets Number 33

This expanded edition of Anne Waldman’s poems and essays adds 20 poems and three essays to the original. Published in City Lights’ Pocket Poets series, the collection is the perfect size to carry in a pocket or purse. The poems, however, are powerhouses meant to be read aloud. Waldman reigns as queen of the performance poem; in this book she focuses on the chant and the ritual rant. She’s “here to sing the power,” and, believe me, you can feel it.

Troia: Mexican Memoirs

For those who are interested in the Beats and want to dig a bit deeper beyond the usual suspects, this long-neglected memoir of hard life in Mexico is raw, naked, honest, full of feeling, and sometimes barely in control. While avoiding statements about the role of women in literature, Bonnie Bremser powerfully illuminates the shadowside of the freewheeling male lives our culture has grown to idolize.

—Recommended by Matt

In this newly rediscovered memoir, Bonnie Bremser, ex-wife of Beat poet Ray Bremser, chronicles her life on the run from the law in the early Sixties. When Ray fled to Mexico in 1961 to avoid imprisonment for armed robbery, a crime he claimed he did not commit, Bonnie followed with their baby daughter, Rachel. In a foreign country with no money and little knowledge of the language, Bonnie was forced into a life of prostitution to support her family and their drug habit. Just twenty-three years old, Bonnie was young and inexperienced, but very much in love with her husband; indeed, she was ready to go to any lengths in an attempt to keep their small family alive and together, even if it meant becoming une troia.

(The cover art is by Alice Neel, part of the Bremser’s NY circle…)


ruth weiss
“It’s an old idea, but always be true to yourself. We women have a tendency to be nursemaid to everyone. But you can’t take care of anyone until you take care of yourself.”








How I Became Hettie Jones

Hettie Jones

Jones’ atmospheric prose brings the Beat era to life with more gusto than any previous memoir, thanks to homely details like eating potato pancakes at the Second Avenue Deli and wearing Ukrainian scarves and black tights. She looks back on her marriage to LeRoi Jones with tenderness, even as she delineates the cultural forces that eventually ripped them apart. Famous friends like Allen Ginsberg make appearances, but Jones’ focus is on family (her two daughters are lovingly described) and individual growth. Evocative and touching.



Diane Di Prima

“Long before feminism was publicized by 1960s activism, di Prima encountered the postwar literary scene as a particularly instinctive kind of woman who would seek the attention of men as lovers, but not look for them to offer her security in the form of long-term relationships. In retrospect, her life stands out with a kind of determination far more radical than many of her contemporaries: she had more to risk as a young woman vulnerable to institutions of male dominance.” (LA Review of Books)



Joyce Johnson

Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg. William S. Burroughs. LeRoi Jones. Theirs are the names primarily associated with the Beat Generation. But what about Joyce Johnson (nee Glassman), Edie Parker, Elise Cowen, Diane Di Prima, and dozens of others? These female friends and lovers of the famous iconoclasts are now beginning to be recognized for their own roles in forging the Beat movement and for their daring attempts to live as freely as did the men in their circle a decade before Women’s Liberation.

Twenty-one-year-old Joyce Johnson, an aspiring novelist and a secretary at a New York literary agency, fell in love with Jack Kerouac on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg nine months before the publication of On the Road made Kerouac an instant celebrity. While Kerouac traveled to Tangiers, San Francisco, and Mexico City, Johnson roamed the streets of the East Village, where she found herself in the midst of the cultural revolution the Beats had created. Minor Characters portrays the turbulent years of her relationship with Kerouac with extraordinary wit and love and a cool, critical eye, introducing the reader to a lesser known but purely original American voice: her own.



Off the Road

Carolyn Cassady

Love, literature, and friendship at the heart of the Beat Generation

Off the Road tells the intimate story of the now legendary Neal Cassady and his remarkable friendship with Jack Kerouac (who immortalized Cassady as Dean Moriarty in On the Road) and Allen Ginsberg. Written by the woman who loved them all–as wife of Cassady, lover of Kerouac, and friend of Ginsberg—this riveting memoir spans one of the most vital eras in twentieth-century literature and culture, including the explosive successes of Kerouac’s On the Road and Ginsberg’s Howl, the flowering of the Beat movement, and the social revolution of the 1960s. Carolyn Cassady reveals a side of Neal Cassady rarely seen–that of husband and father, a man who craved respectability, yet could not resist the thrills of a wider and ultimately more destructive lifestyle.

Bruce Connor on Jay DeFeo’s The Rose


Bernice Bing

 “The Worlds of Bernice Bing” illuminates the life and times of Bernice Bing – artist, Chinese American, lesbian, and activist. The powerful story of a woman who used color, paintbrush, and canvas to speak from her heart, this film promises to energize and inspire viewers with the resilience of a unique American icon.

Bing came of age during a time when “lesbian” was a bad word, racism was rampant, and women were expected to be housewives. As a young artist, she won a scholarship to attend the California College of Arts & Crafts (now California College of the Arts) and received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.

She emerged at the forefront of the avant-garde and thrived in the heart of the North Beach bar scene, her large circle of friends including Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo. In addition to producing her own masterful compositions, Bing affected changes in the San Francisco art world and community arts organizations that continue to be vital today.

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