Out of the shadows

Posted on April 28, 2006


Susan Tomaselli: Beat Scene magazine has been going since 1988. Why did you start it, and did you think it would reach Issue 50?

Kevin Ring: I never imagined the future. I’m hardly a planner. Tomorrow is about as far as it goes. Beat Scene started it because I was in love with all these writers, especially Jack Kerouac, who had a powerful emotional impact on me when I first read him in about 1971. And because they all received such scant coverage in the media. They were forgotten, out of print, obscure — maybe hard to imagine now, in an age of so much coverage, biographies, films. It seemed a good idea to do what little was possible to promote them, spread the word about what they did, who they were. There’s an expression the West Coast Beat artist Wallace Berman used ‘Swinging in the shadows,’ meaning a lot of the writers and artists worked for themselves, their friends, not for commercial aims. It seemed like a good idea to bring them out of the shadows a little.

ST: Is Beat Scene a full-time job?

KR: It wasn’t to begin with. I was a teacher for many years. But since 1995 it has been a full time job, alongside my Beat bookselling business, Satori Books, which has been running since 1982. Now it is very much full time.

ST: Jim Burns has been writing from issue one. How did you hook up with him?

KR: Jim Burns and I have been friends since the mid 70s. He ran a literary magazine with a strong focus on American culture called Palantir and I subscribed to it. Jim is a true believer in the dying art of letter writing, as I am. His letters from Cheshire are full of everything, an amazing, knowledgeable, modest man. We meet up every so often and the letters between us go back and forth. He’s just so helpful and kind and utterly reliable.

ST: How do you think the UK Beat scene differs from the one in the US?

KR: To me there isn’t a Beat scene in England. The Beats are American. The British writers who looked to them are something else.

ST: Aside from featuring the Holy Trinity (Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs), the magazine covers writers that embrace the Beat ethos. Charles Bukowski has been a mainstay of your magazine, and you scooped some pretty amazing exclusives from him. How was your working relationship with him? And do you have any anecdotes you’d care to share?

KR: Of course Bukowski didn’t much care for the Beats and he wasn’t a Beat for sure. However, he shared their iconoclastic outlook on life, on writing. He looked for something in America and couldn’t find it. Bukowski shared their disdain and disgust for a lot of American culture. Bukowski turned up on my doorstep one day, well at least the post lady did, with a big envelope full of poems and a short letter from him asking if I would consider publishing some of them in my still fairly new Beat Scene magazine? As I dropped what I was doing, mowing the lawn, I thought, is the Pope Polish? I replied rightaway and some of his poems appeared in the next issue, think it might have been number 8. Sure, I was well aware of him and bought his books but I never considered Bukowski would ask me to publish him. Surely it should be the other way around. To this day it is humbling to reflect on him writing initially. After all, he could have been in any number of prestigous magazines. It shows, behind his rough exterior, his great heart, supporting the little magazines that gave him a chance.

Well, we gave away a little Bukowski disc with an issue of Beat Scene. It was him reading two poems. He never asked for any money. I sent him $100 and he said he had invested it on the horses. He really liked the disc and the little sleeve that went with it. It had a photo of him taken by his wife Linda that were part of a series taken specially for the magazine. He also loved classical composers and I’m very fond of the English composer Vaughan Williams so I sent him a disc of his recordings with the dollars and asked him to really pay attention to the track Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which brings me to tears every time I hear it. He loved it. I wondered, because he loved the big composers, the heavy stuff and I doubted whether he would take to this pastoral English tune. I’d like to think he might have enjoyed it once or twice.

ST: What’s the story with the photo of Bukowski and Georgia Hubbard standing by a fridge, featured on the cover of Issue 22? I read that the photo was cursed. What’s that about?

KR: The Buk with Georgia Hubbard photo was taken by an American photographer at Bukowski’s apartment in the 1970s. She sent us a copy. I understood it was a copy to be used editorially in conjunction with an article about him and the photographer. In going to get the magazine printed — this is many years ago — it got lost. The photographer decided they wanted it back and was not amused and was asking for hundreds of dollars. It got fairly tense. After some months a compromise was reached. But to this day I am at a loss to work out the photographer’s attitude. They had other copies of the damn thing. There is more besides but it brings back horrible memories. But all that doesn’t take away that it was a brilliant photo.

ST: The Beats seem to go in and out of fashion, but there’s always a wealth of material published on them each year. With a movie version of On the Road in the pipe-line, the reading pubic might fall in love with them all over again. If you had to recommend ten Beat desert island books, what would they be?

KR: Wow, you don’t ask much do you? Kerouac’s On the Road, Michael McClure‘s book of essays, Lighting the Corners, the big recent and huge book Wallace Berman’s Semina Culture, Go by John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg’s Journals 1954-1958, Gary Snyder‘s A Place in Space, Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s A Coney Island of the Mind, a biography of William Burroughs by Ted Morgan called Literary Outlaw, an earlier book by Charles Bukowski Ham on Rye, and the final one, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Having said that I love and really rate Kerouac’s The Town and the City and I’d try and sneak that in my bag as well. You know there are so many to choose from. I haven’t picked up Brautigan or a Philip Whalen and there is David Meltzer with a few decades full of books, I’ve really grown to appreciate and begin to understand what he’s about. There’s the fairly new Snyder Danger on Peaks, his poetry is brilliant and useful too. A long out of print book that really documents the Beats well is Steven Watson’s The Birth of the Beat Generation. I could list ten great books about the Beats.

ST: The women of the Beat generation never got as much coverage as the males, but your magazine was the first to attempt to redress that. Why do you think that is?

KR: I’m not sure Beat Scene should get the credit for promoting the women of the Beat Generation first, though we were pretty quick in that respect. There’s no denying they got a raw deal. But you have to place everything in context. I’m certain there were plenty of writers who were sympathetic and compassionate with women as people and as writers, but I wasn’t there and I don’t know for sure. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that society had Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as tough leading men and the women were beautiful and waited to be swept up. That was the movies but it reflected life in America in the 1950s. I’d recommend everyone read Joyce Johnson‘s Minor Characters and Being Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones, for insights into what women writers were experiencing in the era. I recall Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in the film Hammett, playing second fiddle to Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett. And Hellman was a big time writer.

ST: You run Satori Books, but do you collect yourself? If so, what are some of the most interesting things you have?

KR: Running Beat Scene will never get me the Alpha Romeo or the yacht. With a family and a house to pay off many books have slipped through my hands over the years. I could never afford to be the collector I would have liked. But I still keep all the Beat books I bought at the brilliant Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town in the early 70s. I used to go with my wife and say I’ll be half an hour, six hours later I was still there. All the books I bought there still have the pencil prices that Mike Hart used to enter in on each one as he sat at the front desk. I used to go there once a month and buy as much as I could afford. So I have the earlier Kerouac’s. I have one signed Kerouac, it isn’t in very good condition but it is priceless to me. It cost me absolutely nothing and was given by a good friend. Of course I have one or two signed Bukowski’s and a pile of letters from him, with poems etc. But signed copies have never been high on my list. There was a point where I hated anyone writing in books. Onetime I was in America and went to see an exhibition of the photos of Allen Ginsberg. I bought a copy of the exhibit catalogue and was standing in line with it to say hello to him as he was sitting at a table signing books. When it got to my turn he took the book off me and went to sign it, in horror I grabbed it back before he could deface it. He was a bit startled but smiled when I explained I just wanted to say hello and not to sign it please! Maybe the best things are books given to me personally by writers like Jack Hirschman and Michael McClure and I must also mention Dan Fante, who I have the pleasure of publishing in a very modest way. I suppose the book that is most important to me is the very early 70s paperback issue of On the Road that I bought in Compendium. It has no monetary value to speak of but it is the book that had such a dramatic impact on my life, and I suspect many, many other people. Sadly the brilliant Compendium closed about three years ago. It was there for decades.

ST: You’ve been championing John Fante for years now. Why do you think people were slow to cotton on to him, especially considering Bukowski sang his praises? And have you seen Ask the Dust?

KR: John Fante was writing in the 1930s and his writing life was buried under his being a screenwriter for Hollywood films. It was so long ago, it was only natural to he might have slipped off the radar a little. But people like Ben Pleasants, Charles Bukowski and John Martin resurrected him and reintroduced him to a new audience. There is a lovely interview with Ben Pleasants about all this in the new issue of Beat Scene. Fante was writing from the poor immigrants viewpoint, something so many can identify with in America. I haven’t seen Ask the Dust yet. A few people in America say it is disappointing, but I’ll reserve judgement til I see it. I did see Factotum recently, based on Bukowski’s book. What a let down. An opportunity missed.

ST: Can you tell me about Transit, a companion journal to the magazine? How long has that been running for and how do you decide what goes in it?

KR: If I recall correctly Transit was begun about 1992. It has the same outlook as Beat Scene, I consider it purely another Beat-oriented publication. In it I include poetry from as many of the existing Beat writers as I can encourage. Michael McClure is a regular contributor, so too is Diane di Prima and David Meltzer. One of Kerouac’s biographers Barry Gifford also sends material, as does another Kerouac biographer Tom Clark. The fun thing is I would never have contact with these people in the everyday scheme of things. Tom Clark is a big English football fan, he spent a few years in England as a young man, and we talk football a lot. Bukowski sent in material for Transit, he thought it and Beat Scene were ‘curious things.’ Ed Sanders, Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Dan Fante all appear regularly. The late Robert Creeley also. Try as I might, can’t get Gary Snyder to let me publish something. It gets published because I want to publish poetry, if I tried to put poetry in Beat Scene it would die a death. Poetry is such a minority thing sadly. So I see Beat Scene as an information-type publication and Transit as a modest little Beat poetry magazine in the old Beat tradition of the kinds of magazines Diane di Prima and Hettie Jones used to do forty or more years ago.

ST: As well as Beat Scene and Transit, there’s also the Beat Scene Press. You put out Dan Fante’s Marbleman in 2002 and recently Jack Kerouac in San Francisco by Tom Clark. Anything lined-up for future pressings?

KR: It was a surprise when I realised how much has been published under the Beat Scene Press banner. I’ve done three paperbacks, The Beat Journals, a play about the lives of Kerouac and Cassady and a book about Charles Bukowski. They have all lost me money. More recently there will be more Dan Fante. I’m just waking up to the possibilities, there is so much to do and not enough time. I want to continue the series which includes Richard Brautigan, Bukowski, Dan Fante and Tom Clark’s Jack Kerouac in San Francisco. There will be some handpress publications soon. The creation of something – a modest little chapbook even – gives me a great kick. There will be a special issue of Beat Scene this summer, something pretty radical and I’m looking forward to publishing that.

ST: The Beats continue to influence new generations of writers. Is there anyone we should look out for?

KR: You know, I have tunnel vision regarding writers. Doing what I do leaves little time for much else. Simply doing the mail out on each issue takes a few weeks but I do it to the background of a new compact disc release by someone like David Meltzer or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, young up and coming writers! Have to say Barry Gifford’s books are ones I’m trying to catch up on, he’s well known I guess for writing Wild at Heart which got turned into a film starring Nicholas Cage. But other than that I go back to favourites like H.G. Wells when I need a change. I’m hopeless.

ST: You must have came into contact with some amazing characters from the scene over the years. Would you ever consider writing a biography?

KR: If there were more hours in the day it is something I’d consider. Obviously not the well documented writers — doubt there is anything I could add there. But certainly some of the writers who are not such household names, that is something that appeals to me. Heck, I could finally put my History ‘O’ level to good use.

ST: Do you have a favourite issue of the magazine? If so, why?

KR: Number 40 was a real joy to do. Though they are all good fun. Wouldn’t do it otherwise. But it had a lot of Michael McClure in it. Meeting him and his wife Amy in California was terrific. Just delving that little bit deeper than perhaps an average magazine would go on one writer was exciting. My thoughts were that here is a very much alive and well survivor of the Beat Generation, he’s lived that, gone on, done countless things and is still very vibrant and productive. The idea of promoting him in England, in Europe, was a driving force. And he’s such a good bloke. Make no mistake, a very serious and committed poet and writer in touch with the modern world, but good fun and so kind hearted. I’ve regular correspondence with him and look forward to seeing him again this summer when his play The Beard is performed again in London. Number 50 is almost ready for the printer and I love it tying all the pages up and making sure everything fits. I used to do the school magazines many, many years ago, so things haven’t changed that much have they?

ST: Beat Scene has come a long way from the A4 home-stapled early copies, and those copies are worth a far bit of money. Can we look forward to another 50?

KR: I sincerely hope so. If I’m honest I’ve only really realised the responsibilities I have as some sort of very modest documenter and information point with Beat Scene. So many of these writers have been neglected over the decades. Sure they have a name around the world for a good number of people, but the Beats are still a cult thing, yet their voice is such a potent force. So many things have changed because of their influence, but I doubt the average book buyer in Borders or Waterstone’s would be even faintly aware of their existence. With each issue I take it so much more seriously, to improve, to find the best material, to inform. The thought of another 50 issues really excites me. I’d like to do them better and more often.

Susan Tomaselli is editor of Dogmatika and lives in Belfast.

Posted in: Interviews