Women of the Beat Generation: Conversations with Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones
EVEN BEFORE THE Beat Generation became a national phenomenon in the wake of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in 1957, American journalism had begun to explore the concept of “Beat” and philosophize about its possible significance. For example, John Clellon Holmes, a friend of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as well as the author of what is generally considered the first Beat novel (Go, 1952), wrote an essay titled “This is the Beat Generation” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in November 1952. Holmes used the essay to compare his generation to the Lost Generation of World War I and to declare as Beat a post-war generation encompassing the hipster and the radical Republican, both forced to cope with the reality that “the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable.” He argued that unlike Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s generation, the Beat Generation, whether disguised as hip excess or Republican conformity, had had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, and faithlessness, that they were on a spiritual quest.
The novelist Norman Mailer also attempted to define this new vision of U.S. culture, setting forth in his essay “The White Negro” (published in Dissent in 1957) an apocalyptic treatise of the white beat hipster as a psychopathic variant of the illiterate black. Kerouac, too, was pulled up onto the bandwagon. As the originator of the term “Beat Generation,” he was certainly a likely spokesperson, and while he railed against this role, he nonetheless did his best to use his exposure in popular magazines to clarify misconceptions about the Beats. But by the time his essays appeared in Playboy and Esquire, the popular press had already codified Beat to entail a violent, nihilistic movement bent on destroying the very fabric of American history and culture. For Kerouac, however, it was nothing of the kind-“no hoodlumism,” as he wrote in “Lamb, No Lion” for Pageant in 1958. For Kerouac, Beat was both (1) the process and state of being beaten down by social forces and (2) a spontaneous affirmation, a state of beatitude, the glee of comic American heroes from film (such as W.C. Fields), as well as the wild joy of the American immigrant.
In hindsight, we can recognize that these popularizing attempts to define Beat reflect the culture’s fascination with its own generational character — an untidy effort to quantify with language the anxiety permeating a society extremely conscious of, and ambivalent about, its emerging role on the world stage. In addition, these definitional essays published in popular journals not only helped writers such as Kerouac and Mailer to create and perpetuate their own mystique; but they also enabled subsequent literary scholars (and other readers) to categorize and pigeonhole “Beat” in rather limiting terms. Indeed, for more than forty years, we’ve turned to these “defining” texts to make sense of a complex and at times highly contradictory body of literature, so much so, fact, that the definition of Beat has been fossilized.
However, the stereotyping of Beat involves not just definition, but face. The image of Beat still overlooks the wide range of people who were actually involved in the composition of Beat literature. Most noticeably, these understandings seem to speak only from and about white male experiences, for the most part rendering invisible the experiences of white women and people of color as they declare “This is what Beat is.” To the women, however, being a part of the Beat movement meant being silent, being part of the scenery — staying on the sidelines of the great, big literary game being played out all around them.
Much of my research over the last several years has focused on an attempt to expand the definition of Beat by turning the critical lens toward the women. And there were indeed women involved who were much more than girlfriends, wives, or muses. They were writers themselves — poets, novelists, playwrights, editors — individuals who have thought quite seriously about what it meant, and means, to be Beat. The following interviews were conducted in 1999 with two of these central figures of the Female Beat: long-time friends Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones. —Wooster, Ohio, November 9, 1999.
A Conversation with Joyce Johnson
JOYCE JOHNSON MET Jack Kerouac in January, 1957. At that time, she was Joyce Glassman, 21, and had been a part of the Greenwich Village underground scene since the age of 13, when she snuck down to the Village on Sunday afternoons with her classmate Maria Meiff from Hunter College High School. During those “pre-Kerouac” years, Johnson had studied piano and musical composition, attending Barnard College from 1951 to 1955, and had decided to become a writer, attending Hayden Hiram’s writing workshop at the New School for Social Research. She had also worked as a secretary and had met poet and fellow underground traveler Elise Cowen. Through Elise, she was introduced to Allen Ginsberg, who in turn encouraged Kerouac to give her a call.
In Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming of Age in the Beat Generation, published in 1983, Johnson tells the story of her two-year love affair with Kerouac. This memoir, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, creates a quite moving portrait of a hoped-filled — and vulnerable — young Kerouac during the tumultuous year when On The Road came out and was heralded as the voice of a new generation. More importantly, perhaps, it chronicles the life of a young woman coming of age in the Beat Generation. Indeed, Johnson’s account, more than any other story to date, has informed succeeding generations that women within the Beat scene were more than mere spectators — wives, mothers, sisters, lovers. Instead, some of them were artists and writers struggling to break out of destructive gender roles, at times risking their lives — often sacrificing ties with family — for sexual and artistic freedom at least one decade before the widespread appearance of the women’s movement in the late ’60s.
Johnson exemplifies the daring young woman who willfully pursued a life as a writer. She was working on her first novel when she met Kerouac and, after their relationship ended, she went on to write three novels as well as to pursue investigative journalism. She also worked as an editor at William Morrow, The Dial Press, McGraw-Hill and The Atlantic Monthly Press. After leaving publishing, she wrote for such periodicals as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, Mirabella, and Harper’s. In 1992 she received an NEA grant, and since 1983 has taught writing, primarily at Columbia University’s MFA program, but also at the Breadloaf Writers Conference, The University of Vermont, and NYU. “The Children’s Wing,” the penultimate chapter of her novel In The Night Cafe, was a first-prize O. Henry Award recipient.
Johnson’s first novel, Come and Join the Dance, published in 1962, is often called the first female Beat novel. The narrative records a week in the life of a young middle-class woman, Susan Leavitt, situated between her last examination and her graduation from college in New York City. In Susan’s search for “real” life, she experiences self- awakening which is centered on sexual experimentation and her relationship with three young people who lead an “outlaw” life. As the novel ends, Susan has rejected what’s expected of her — graduation — by intentionally failing a required gym class. Instead, she is about to set off — by herself — for Paris.
Johnson’s second book, Bad Connections , came out in 1978. In this novel, she focused on the life of a divorced mother in her mid-thirties who works as an editor. Molly is caught between her need to live an independent life and her need to define herself through a relationship with a man. The novel explores this tension (and feminist predicament) not only through content, but also through form — the alternation of the first and third persons.
In 1989, Johnson published In The Night Cafe, a novel that highlights the end of the Beat era in Greenwich Village, ca.1962-63. Its protagonist is Joanna Gold, a woman somewhat like Johnson herself. Joanna marries an artist, Tom Murphy (based on Jim Johnson), who later dies in a motorcycle accident. The book presents a beautiful mosaic of period history, the heady mix of painting, music, writing, politics and love characterizing New York City at that time.
Johnson quickly followed this novel with What Lisa Knew: The Truth and Lies of the Steinberg Case (1990). Venturing into the world of non-fiction, Johnson tackled the frightening story of Joel Steinberg, a criminal attorney in New York; Hedda Nussbaum, an editor at Random House; and their illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, who died of severe physical trauma caused by her sadomasochistic, cocaine-using parents. Of all these books, only Minor Characters is still in print, just re-issued in 1999 by Viking Press. Most of the others, however, can be found in public and university libraries. Meanwhile, Johson is at work on a novel entitled Door Wide Open, a fictional rendering of her love affair with Jack Kerouac. She has also just completed editing a collection of their correspondence, also forthcoming from Viking Press.
I conducted the following interview with her in May 1999.
Nancy Grace: What prompted you to write Minor Characters?
Joyce Johnson: Ah, well, a kind of mysterious urge. I was still working in publishing at the time and it was in, I guess, 1980 or 81. Anyway, they sent me off on a business trip to England, and I arrived very jet-lagged and some friends who met me immediately said, “Even though you’re jet-lagged, we have to go in and hear this great musician, a Kansas City piano player, in this cafe in London. Pizza Express, it was called. So, I went out with them, and in came these old guys, very nattily dressed, who played this wonderful music, and I began reflecting on the fact that here were these septuagenarians, still On The Road, while others in their generation are dead-people like Charlie Parker and so on. Then I began thinking about people who I had known who had sort of perished young, and suddenly I thought I wanted to write a memoir.
NG: That somehow seems the way a book should happen.
Johnson: That’s the way one gets an idea for a book, all at once. That’s been my experience. But you know, had I written that book, say in my late twenties or early thirties, I probably would have written a novel about a sad love affair. And, in a way, this new book of mine, Door Wide Open, which I’ve arranged so it almost reads like an epistolary novel, is more like the novel I might have written at that time in the sense that it focuses almost completely on the love affair with Jack Kerouac, without going so much into the picture of the times and all of that, although there is some of that.
NG: In your late twenties and early thirties, were you thinking about a memoir at all?
Johnson: Oh, absolutely not! I was thinking solely about fiction. You know, I think it’s probably a good idea to write a memoir at a sort of a 25-year remove. You can see with Virginia Woolf, for example, in her book Moments of Being. She writes about the same events at 25, and then she writes about them again at the age of 50, remembering so much more, it seems, and being able to recreate them so much better — to see around the events, the things that happened to her. To have the recognition that she and her siblings were Edwardians, whereas her father was Victorian. That was the kind of thing she could not have realized at the age of 25.
NG: I was talking to a friend of mine about Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments and how upset she was because in the book Vivian had conflated two marriages into one. What is the place of fabrication in memoir writing? How far can one go in terms of re-membering?
Johnson: That is troubling. I wasn’t aware of that, and I myself would not go that far. But there are things you do for the sake of form. For example, I could have put in everything that happened to me during the years that I was writing about, but there was a lot of stuff I simply left out because I wanted to have a focus. For example, the fact that when I was a child I was in the theater. Well, that was very interesting, but it would have taken me away from what I was really writing about, so I didn’t put that material in. As much as I could, I tried, really tried, to remember what happened as close as I could get, apart from one’s lapses in memory. I didn’t consciously invent in Minor Characters. I sort of re-created, which is different.
NG: Do you have particular processes for remembering as accurately as you can? I’m thinking of that one scene in which you write so beautifully about remembering the room with the red couch with a green slipcover, the baby grand piano and needlepoint piano bench.
Johnson: You know, I can close my eyes and still see that room.
NG: But you don’t have any particular process that you go through in order to visualize these places?
Johnson: No. There are some things that are stamped on my memory. There are also a lot that are simply lost. Can’t remember it at all. I forget whole people whom I used to know rather well. I’m a very selective rememberer — as opposed to Jack who was very inclusive.
NG: I think his mind was unusual in that regard.
Johnson: Well it was unusual, and I think his very extraordinary, full memory definitely influenced the way he was able to write fiction. If you want to call it fiction. I think it’s more accurate to call them true-life novels.
NG: Did he talk to you much about his processes for writing?
NG: Did you ever experiment with some of his techniques? The spontaneous prose or the sketching?
NG: Do you think those are worthwhile theories to practice?
Johnson: I think they’re very interesting. They’re interesting theories. But I also think there’s not one kind of writer. The reason Jack was able to [write that way] was his fantastic memory which was so available to him. And also his amazing verbal fluency. He was somebody who really could write at speed. And, I guess, obviously, the letters that I wrote him were more spontaneous — written faster.
NG: Do you like the voice in those letters?
Johnson: I do. Recognizably my voice!
NG: Do you see the novels you have written as working you toward Minor Characters in some way?
Johnson: No, not really, although they all have been autobiographically based.
NG: I was just wondering, though, if the process of writing a novel prepares one to write the memoir.
Johnson: Oh, I think it does. There are a lot of the same techniques that go into writing a memoir. I did bring what I learned writing novels into the memoir. To know how to tell a story, how to re-create a scene, all of that.
NG: Why do you think there’s so much interest now in memoir writing?
Johnson: Well, I think for one thing, it’s the age of confession, where confession has become the norm. When Allen Ginsberg and Jack were first writing their rather confessional literature, it was a strange thing to be doing-shocking. But we have become very accustomed to this. Another thing is that, in a way, very often the stories that memoirs tell are often more surprising and more interesting than a lot of the fiction that’s around. If you read a lot of contemporary fiction you seem to feel after a while that the same kinds of things are being endlessly written about. Where real life is full of quirky surprises, messier. I think people are especially casting about for content right now. In the days of, say, Edith Wharton, there were so many restrictions on life and class differences and so on that dramatic situations were inherent. If you wrote a novel about a woman who had an affair, it was really a life or death situation. Nothing is as loaded now.
NG: We don’t have as many taboos.
Johnson: We don’t have as many taboos, and a lot of novels are about people who are kind of unhappy and wish they were happier.
NG: But there are a lot of very good new fiction writers out there.
Johnson: There are good new fictions writers, but I think they have that content problem. That’s one reason why you’ll find a lot of good fiction writers turning to a kind of historical novels. They go back into the past, and they get those situations in which there is more inherent drama.
NG: Do you think it’s the end of the novel then? Have we run out of content?
Johnson: I don’t know that it’s the end, I would never want to say that. The novel always surprises us, but I think the content problem is a big one.
NG: What do you recommend to young writers who are struggling with that?
Johnson: Live! I get a lot of young writers whose only experience has been school. And then, fortunate is the person who has had a really lousy childhood. Abusive, drunken families — something to write about!
NG: Do you see a lot of young writers going through the workshop system, MFA programs and Ph.D.s?
Johnson: The Ph.D. is an absurdity. By the time somebody gets their Ph.D., any originality would have been leached out of them. I don’t know — I do think MFA programs are a good thing, and they really do serve to bring some gifted people along. They also provide employment for writers. But, you know, a lot of people are kidding themselves. One good thing that the programs do is that they keep the audience for fiction and poetry alive. These programs may not graduate writers; they graduate readers. That’s my cynical view!
NG: Well, we all need readers, so if we’re graduating readers, that’s a positive.
Johnson: But you know, there were plenty of wonderful writers before writing programs. You don’t need a writing program to be a writer.
NG: What were the major influences on your own fiction? Reading, experimental influences, etc.?
Johnson: Reading. Henry James was terribly important to me. When I began to read Henry James’ novels — well, even before that — I had thought I would write plays, a carry over from my years in the theater. Then I began to realize more and more the stuff that really interested me was not the kind of stuff you could write very well about in a play. It was what was underneath the action that I wanted to write about, which is what Henry James did superbly.
NG: Were there any particular memoirists? You mentioned Virginia Woolf.
Johnson: Virginia Woolf, Natalie Sarraute, Vladimir Nabokov. Actually, however, when I wrote Minor Characters I wasn’t reading memoirs. I began to read a lot of memoirs only after I had written the book, when I was asked to teach a course in memoir. Then I went out and saw that, “Oh, there’s a literature here!” But I didn’t go out and study the memoir.
NG: So you were really working at the time as a novelist more than a memoirist?
NG: Do you think you would have written a different memoir if you had studied the literature prior to writing it?
Johnson: Oh, I have no idea. But, no, I don’t think so. I’ve always felt that somehow your content and the story you want to tell and its inherent problems always determine the form. For example, I remember one of the problems I was concerned about when I started writing the memoir was that I knew I had tell the reader about Jack’s life in a way that wouldn’t interrupt the memoir. Then I hit upon the device of following myself and following him as two separate streams, then converge. Then, we diverge at the end. That was the form.
NG: The form really makes it your story. Kerouac is there and he’s very important, but it’s you who emerges.
Johnson: Yes. I think one thing that was an important influence on that book was thinking of the women’s movement — suddenly the recognition that my story was important, that the story of the other women was important.
NG: Have there been any particular women in the women’s movement, or particular events in the movement that have been important to you?
Johnson: Oh, the whole abortion rights movement. It’s particularly meaningful to me. People don’t realize how it used to be. And we can go back to that. You can easily go back to that. But it’s interesting. I definitely have a debt to the women’s movement in terms of seeing my story as important, but I have also always been a little bit out of step with them. I guess because a lot of the things they were talking about I had already done.
NG: Your book really did serve as the catalyst for our contemporary interest in the women of the Beat movement. If you had not written it—
Johnson: Right, had I not, nobody would have known about Elise Cowen .
NG: Yes, all of her poems would be lost, all of that story about your friendship with her, her love for Ginsberg, her suicide. But shifting gears slightly, let’s talk about your three novels: Come and Join the Dance, Bad Connections, and In The Night Cafe. Are they a trilogy of sorts? Are they thematically connected?
Johnson: In a sense-in that they are about me in different stages of my life.
NG: Do you consider your first novel, Come and Join the Dance, to be a Beat novel?
Johnson: Ah, I don’t know. At the time, I thought of only the male writers as the Beat writers, but I felt a part of the Beat scene, as in sympathy with it, and I felt that this was a novel those people would understand. But I see now, in hindsight, that it was much more of a Beat novel, and that I had conceptualized the whole thing even before I got involved with Jack, working on it for a year so that I had the whole idea for the novel already in mind. A lot of it grew out of my Columbia experiences and knowing this group of people through whom I eventually met Allen and Jack. These were people who were perpetual graduate students, somewhat ten years older than I was, who were sort of experimenting with a lot of stuff, moving around campus, living in sort of pad-like situations.
NG: So when someone says Beat novel, what do you think of? That term is becoming fuzzier and fuzzier for me the more I teach Beat literature. What does it mean to you when someone says, “She wrote the first Beat women’s novel”?
Johnson: Well, nobody knows Come and Join the Dance at all. Barbara Probst Solomon, who wrote a book called The Beat of Life, considers herself the first woman Beat.
NG: But does that term “Beat novel” have any critical meaning?
Johnson: I think it defines a certain unconventional bohemian attitude of the 1950s.
NG: Yes, that makes sense, the focus on individual freedom, sexual liberation, rejection of various white, middle-class values, the critique of cultural mores. Come and Join the Dance certainly does that.
Johnson: It wasn’t the kind of novel that young women were writing at that time. It wasn’t the kind of story they were telling. Not many of them were writing novels, anyway. One big influence on that novel, by the way, was The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide. I was very interested in the whole idea of the gratuitous act. So, in Come and Join the Dance, the young woman Susan decides to go to bed with someone as a gratuitous act. To see what it was about. That fascinated me.
NG: Yes, certainly at the time this was a radical gesture. Were you satisfied with what you were able to accomplish with this scene?
Johnson: Oh, I wrote that novel with so much uncertainty I could hardly believe I was actually writing one. I was so scared. And also, I was quite nervous. I was quite aware that I was writing about things that a nice, young lady should not write about. If you wrote about those things people would think you had experienced them yourself — that my parents would read it and be shocked. And various people did read it and were shocked. Reviewers were shocked!
NG: What about Bad Connections? You experimented with narrative perspective in that novel. I know some reviewers didn’t like that very much. Were you able to accomplish, again, what you had hoped for with that experimentation? Personally, I enjoyed the moving back and forth from the first person to the third person. It was disconcerting for me as a reader, but I rather liked feeling disconcerted.
Johnson: Yes, I wanted to be close and then distant, sort of like a camera moving in and moving out.
NG: Do you think about your work that way? Cinematically?
NG: Perhaps some of your readers do, at least with the first two novels. But In The Night Cafe appeared to have more of a sense of history, a kind of explicit attention to history, than did Come and Join the Dance and Bad Connections .
Johnson: Well, both Bad Connections and Come and Join the Dance were written very soon after the experiences that were their basis, whereas In The Night Cafe was written around 25 years later. So it was more reflective. It was also a novel I had tried to write, made a couple of attempts to write, before that. Because I was actually widowed, and I wanted to write about that experience and that man, Jim Johnson, and to remember him. So I first attempted that book early in the sixties, shortly after he died. Then I had a long hiatus where I really didn’t do much writing. I married again and I had a child, I had a divorce, I had a very demanding job. And it wasn’t until my son was five and I left my husband that I really tried to write again and I wrote the good part of a version of what eventually became In The Night Cafe. But it was written in the third person and seemed too distant and too elegiac and I still didn’t think I had totally comprehended what had happened, and I knew something was very wrong with it. I showed it Tillie Olson actually, and she said that it was just too distanced, that it wasn’t working. I knew in my heart that she was right. So, I put it aside and I started Bad Connections . Then I went back to Cafe in the late eighties. I still wanted to write that novel, you know, and I went back to it with a very different perspective.
NG: Was it a matter of just having time? The distance of time?
Johnson: Distance of time — and various other things that had happened to me. I suddenly thought in a very different way. The emphasis on people’s childhoods, that was something I wasn’t really capable of doing when I first attempted this novel. I didn’t understand fully the whole impact of those things. And, also, by now I saw the relationship much less sentimentally.
NG: But the book still preserves an elegiac quality, I think. In fact, all three of the novels have this sense of longing. They’re haunting. Shadows of history in all of them, something which seemed to have matured in In The Night Cafe.
Johnson: I guess I consider Night Cafe my best book.
NG: I’ve also been struck with the way you write opening lines — for example, opening sentences for your chapters. They’re extremely poetic. Overall, your writing is very poetic, lyrical, but the opening sentences seem particularly so, and I don’t know if you’ve thought about that,or if you have a particular process.
Johnson: No, I just try to get a good opening sentence.
NG: In Night Cafe , Chapter 1, you write: “Missing persons don’t die. Time congeals around them. They remain as young, as unfinished as when they went away.” That’s a poem. Have you written any poetry, by the way?
Johnson: Oh, I’ve written maybe 10 poems. But I like the poetry of prose. I am very attentive to tone and sound and cadence, to the music of writing. When the music isn’t right, I’m not satisfied.
NG: Your musical training does seem rather apparent in those opening sentences. Are there any authors that you read in order to develop that musical sense as well?
Johnson: No. I read all kinds of people. I’m going through an intense period of reading a lot of M. F. K. Fischer, whom I find really fascinating. I like to keep reading as I’m writing.
NG: What are the major differences in writing fiction and nonfiction for you?
Johnson: It really depends on the book and its particular problems.
NG: With What Lisa Knew, for example, was there a different process at work in the actual composition of it?
Johnson: Well, it was all based upon a huge amount of information that I had to absorb and then to let pass through me. In a way, I almost had to re-experience it in order to write it. It was pretty harrowing, actually. But with nonfiction, you’re working with a whole lot of received information, and within it you have to find the story. You have to find what the narrative is, what it’s about, but you’re still working from all this received information. That’s a faster process for me. But the other, fiction, is something that takes me a long time, something I sort of have to dredge up out of myself, out of my own imperfect memories, and out of what I make of them. It’s a much slower and deeper process.
NG: When you’re writing nonfiction, I’m sure there are moments of choice where you say, “I’m not going to use this material, but I will use some of this.”
Johnson: Right. It’s all selection. It was also interesting to me that there were so many versions of the truth. I just wanted to figure out what on earth had happened in the Steinberg household.
NG: I think you gave Lisa a voice. She’s, of course, the one who couldn’t speak at all and needed this voice badly.
Johnson: Yes, that’s exactly what I tried to do.
NG: Are there other stories you could have added about that situation — her abuse and eventual death?
Johnson: Well, other people wrote about Hedda Nussbaum very sympathetically, and I don’t think I would have wanted to write a book about the situation at all if I hadn’t seen that some terrible distortion of the point of the whole case was going on. It had a lot to do with the politics of the women’s movement. On the one hand, women were being proclaimed the equal of men. On the other hand, however: “No, no, we’re victims. We’re too weak. Even if we let a child die, you mustn’t judge us.” There’s something terribly wrong with that thinking. That’s what led me to write the book.
NG: How do you respond to negative reviewers? Again I’m thinking about Bad Connections and What Lisa Knew. Some critics within the women’s movement kept saying, “Johnson:’s just not feminist enough.” How does a writer deal with that? How do you?
Johnson: It’s painful. It’s upsetting. I think it’s the orthodoxy of the women’s movement that really began to get me down. That you couldn’t have a position that was at all passive, or you couldn’t do this or you couldn’t say that, or you couldn’t have the views that I had and Susan Brownmiller had about Hedda Nessbaum. It was like the thought police. And I had a big encounter about it with Gloria Steinem on “The Larry King Show.” It was when What Lisa Knew came out and I was invited to be on the show and there was going to be another guest. I only found out that night that the other guest was Gloria Steinem, and she was a real Hedda supporter. I don’t think she had even read my book. But she totally trashed it, told people not to read it and so on. It was unbelievable.
NG: I think that shows like “Larry King” tend to do that. They draw on certain people who become the sole representative of entire movements. And certainly, Gloria Steinem is one who is often called upon to represent “the woman’s view.”
Johnson: Yeah, exactly! I had always respected her. . . On the show I was very lady like. But I wish I would have taken her apart.
NG: You’ve done a tremendous amount of editing as well as writing. What is it about editing that fascinates you or challenges you? Why would someone want to go into editing as a career?
Johnson: Well, first of all, I needed to have a career. I needed to earn money. And it was something I was good at. I liked the whole world of being an editor. There’s a lot of novelty with people coming and going, and I enjoyed the close working relationships I had with a lot of authors. I loved making books and making something better, making something work. It was very satisfying.
NG: What was the best editing experience for you? the most satisfying?
Johnson: That’s a hard one to answer. They were some very uphill experiences in terms of various authors and so on. But I did some really important books. I was especially interested in doing a lot of New Left books. That was my contribution. I did Abbie Hoffman’s book Revolution for the Hell of It, and I did a very important book by a man named Harold Cruse, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. I also did Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, which was a book I rewrote from stem to stern. Another book that was important in the civil rights’ movement was a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody. They were important books at the time. I’m proud of them. I really felt I was making a contribution, helping to get these books out into the world.
NG: What are the marks of a good editor then? When you talk about rewriting something from stem to stern, what does a good editor have to do?
Johnson: Whatever is necessary! I was very tough. And, yes, it can be difficult. I had some difficult times with some authors. Of course, what most authors would like is to be told, “I just love this, you don’t need to do anything!”
NG: What was it like to edit Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, since it came out from McGraw-Hill three years after his death?
Johnson: Well, that was a book where I couldn’t do much, I couldn’t do any editing. What I mainly did was conform all the names because the book had been written at different periods of time until the names and characters were inconsistent. But I had a pretty good sense of who they were, so I was able to that. Then I commissioned Allan Ginsberg to write an introduction. I put the whole package together. Had I been Jack’s editor, I would have recommended some cuttings.
NG: And what would he have said to that?
Johnson: Oh, he would have absolutely refused — while I think I could have made a somewhat more readable book. But I’m very proud of doing it. It has some of Jack’s most remarkable writings.
NG: Why do you think there’s so much interest now in the Beats?
Johnson: It’s always been there; it’s never faded. But somehow Jack continues to be a kind of reference point for people. I think this is a period, in some psychic way, sort of like the ’50s, where people’s lives feel very circumscribed. You almost have to, in order to survive, buy into the system and make money and have your whole life consumed by your job — or else! So this whole idea of dropping out and being free and having all these experiences and not buying into the establishment — this is opposite of the prevailing ethic. And I think it’s very potent. And probably also, since this is such a very materialistic period, the spirituality of the books is also very potent to people. And there is also a lot of imitating of life styles. You’re always looking backward and imitating something of the past-something retro. When I was going to college, we were all hung up on the twenties. We all wondered if we were like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. We weren’t, but. . .
NG: Yes, and today it’s the ’60s retro too, certainly in terms of fashion. I see images of all my friends from the ’60s and early ’70s on campus now. Mini skirts, the daisies and the whole thing. It’s odd.
Johnson: I had the strangest feeling watching the whole Littleton, Colorado thing. Because I could see all of those white-bread kids in that school. They all seemed very much alike. They could have been cut with the same cookie cutter, and they all wore the same clothes and they went to church and they played sports and so on. But you didn’t see any intellectual kids, you know what I mean? There was this norm, and I’m afraid that one really negative feature is that now kids who don’t seem to be part of the norm are going to be perceived as really threatening — the kid who keeps to himself, wants to read a lot maybe, instead of going out for the football team. There’s tremendous pressure, I think, on kids to conform.
NG: There seems to be a package that they are expected to model. You have to be in student government, you have to play sports, you have to be in at least one student play, you have to get high test scores. There doesn’t seem to be much room for thinking.
Johnson: No, I don’t think these kids are reading and thinking. They’re not, they’re not. Increasingly I find this in some of the students I teach.
NG: Your own students? That might attribute to some of their longing for, their need to look at, people like Jack Kerouc.
Johnson: To look at. exactly, exactly.
NG: Well, we’re about done. Is there anything you would like to add?
Johnson: It’s always interesting that people ask me questions about my writing as though it’s a very conscious process. You know, like, well, I’ve got to sit down today and write-what’s my process? But, it’s not like that, not like that at all!
NG: You just do it? Is that more what it is?
Johnson: Just do it! On really fortunate days, it’s as though there are voices inside your head. And other days, you don’t have them, but you sit down at the computer anyway. You try to start them going. That’s about all I can say. Half of it is getting across the room to the computer. It can be a very long walk!
A Conversation with Hettie Jones
ALL THINGS COME to she who waits. She who writes in earnest, secreting away her poems in the drawer until the day arrives when she is ready to share them — and an audience is willing to listen.
In 1998, Hettie Jones published Drive, winning the Norma Farber Award for a first book of poetry, a vindication of sorts for a woman who had been writing for more than thirty years. As she says with a laugh in the following interview I conducted with her on June 14, 1999: “[My mother told me that I’d] be a jack of all trades and a master of none. . . [so] I’m glad to have won my prize — it makes me a master at one thing.” Hettie Jones, born Cohen, was part of the cultural whirlwind of the late fifties and sixties that encompassed not only the heyday of the Beat generation but also the birth of the Black Arts Movement. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Laurelton, New York, she attended Mary Washington College in Virginia and then headed back to New York where she met LeRoi Jones, a young African-American fresh out of Howard College. Both shared an interest in music and Kafka, and both soon found themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Their interracial marriage broke tabooed ground, and their Village flat became not only a place where racial boundaries seemed to diminish in importance but also where hip young poets, painters, and musicians came to hang out and create a new American literary scene.
Hettie and Roi had two children during this time. They also established Totem Press and Yugen, a literary journal that provided a forum for many of poets of the Beat and New York schools, including Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara. Hettie Jones’s role in Yugen was central — without her patience and perseverance, without her talents as typist, typesetter, editor and designer, the little journal would never have made it into print.
It was also during this time that Hettie Jones met Joyce Johnson. The two became fast friends, bolstering each other through pregnancies, divorces, and deaths — and celebrating the sheer exhilaration of being part of a world on the brink of radical change. It is this world that she writes about in her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones (E.P. Dutton, 1990), a poignant account of her courage to combat racial prejudice (her own family disowned her after she married Jones), to cope with the fact that LeRoi Jones divorced her because she was white, and to raise on her own their two daughters, Lisa and Kelly. It is also the story of a woman who willingly worked as an editor and secretary to support her husband’s art, and of a woman who developed her poetic talents — as did many of the women associated with the Beat movement — in virtual isolation, writing late at night after the children had been put to bed.
Jones’s emergence as a writer in her own right has taken place over several decades. Besides her work with The Partisan Review, for which she served as managing editor from 1957 to 1961, she has authored many short stories and poems as well as several books for adolescents, including The Trees Stand Shining: Poetry of the North American Indians (Dial Press, 1971, reissue 1993); Big Star Fallin’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music (Viking Press, 1974); and I Hate to Talk About Your Mother (Delacorte Press, 1979).
She has taught poetry, non-fiction writing, memoir and juvenile fiction at colleges and universities in New York as well as at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Her passion for teaching has also taken her into the prisons; she has conducted writing workshops at the New York Correctional Facility and at Sing Sing. In 1997, she edited Aliens At the Border (Segue Books), a collection of poetry written by female prisoners at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. In 1984, she was elected to PEN.
Nancy Grace: How did you come to write your memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones?
Hettie Jones: Well, people asked for years when I was going to write the story. And I refused because I really thought all people wanted was personal information. You know, they really wanted to get between the sheets. And I had no desire to put my personal life on the line like that. But then, after I began teaching, after having run into a lot of young women and realizing that nobody knew this history — nobody knew what the women involved had done — I just felt that I had to set the record straight. And then, LeRoi published his book. So I decided I really had to do it. By that time I had been writing autobiographical stories, and my agent sent some of those around to various editors, and they all said they’d be interested.
NG: What year was that? The book came out in 1990.
Jones: About 1985, because I know it took five years from start to finish.
NG: So in what way were you trying to set the record straight?
Jones: First of all, about the situation of women. A lot of young women at the time had no concept of the fact that prior to the women’s movement there were women who had removed themselves from general cultural expectations, during the ’50s especially. I really wanted to show that we had started the whole process, that not enough attention had been paid to the fact that we were there and that we had made a change in women’s lives. A lot of the people who began the women’s movement had some vague idea we had been out here, though they didn’t attribute any real advances to us. But here they were later all out there getting their own apartments and taking off their bras, without realizing that there were women who had already left home like we did and had to suffer for it.
NG: Both you and Joyce Johnson in your memoirs made it very clear there was great sacrifice and suffering, a lot that was given up.
Jones: I had lunch last week with Rena Oppenheimer, who is now Rena Rosequist. When she left home to marry Joel, her mother sent for the priest, who tried to bar her way. We were all thought to be lost, but at least we did what we wanted. I don’t think I knew any woman, who, if she was still in touch with her parents, was on good terms with them. Many had just left home and disappeared.
NG: How did your group contribute to the women’s movement at that time?
Jones: By physically taking a stand, rather than intellectually, or through any particular writing. Simply by saying, “Okay, I’m going to live on my own. I’m going to acknowledge that I am a sexual being and I’m going to have sex and I’m going to practice birth control. I’m going to be a responsible person comparable to a man — I’m going to live what is generally regarded as a man’s life. I’m going to have my own apartment and I’m going to have a job and I’m going to be self-supporting.” Even among the young women I knew who were slightly younger than I, all this was really considered an accomplishment. You just weren’t supposed to leave home until you got married and already lived under another man’s hand.
NG: Even in my generation, graduating from high school in 1970, it was still radical, though not as much as with you.
Jones: Also, clothing! Young women today don’t have any idea of the discomfort. I always talk about this when I make speeches — that to take off your girdle was a radical move — first came the girdle and then came the bra — but to take off your girdle! Ah! And be able to think and walk and move without feeling blistered all the time. To acknowledge that you could have an ass. And to wear pants! At my college in the ’50s, Mary Washington College in Virginia, we weren’t allowed to wear pants. In order to work on the stage, to climb all the ladders and everything, they issued us garage mechanic uniforms, monkey suits. Again — just that — the idea that one could move freely! I took off my high heels and threw them in the sewer one day when I first came to New York, and then I took to wearing old ladies’ shoes that I got in the orthopedic shoe store. And they were so different! Oh, I remember my boyfriend, and husband-to-be, loved them — a pair of little red, old lady’s shoes and he thought that they just looked terrific! They were weird! But they were comfortable. And another thing — to stop carrying that little pocketbook — the kind that came back into style not too long ago? But instead to wear a shoulder bag and have your hands free. We’ll see how long this current incarnation of carrying your little pocketbook lasts — because it’s a pain. And what you needed then was a big bag anyway, especially if you weren’t going to go home at night.
NG: Your talking about the girdle does remind me of when I first started wearing hose. I think it was in seventh grade. My mother allowed me to wear them, and of course they came with the girdle and the little garters and snaps and the whole thing. Painful! I ditched it by the 8th grade.
Jones: How the women felt about the politics thing back then I can’t say. Remember we hardly spoke amongst ourselves to firm up a “woman’s opinion” on issues. It was all we could do to share information on how to live the lives we’d chosen — practical info about sex, abortion, marriage, divorce. I was grateful back then, as I still am, for the women friends who would help.
NG: What was the process of writing the memoir like?
Jones: Well, I won’t say I didn’t cry. I cried a lot, and that, of course, is therapeutic. And of course any exploration into the self is going to involve self-discovery. I read a lot about memoirs subsequently. But, prior to writing mine, I’d read nothing.
NG: I asked Joyce the same question, and she said the same thing-that before she had started to write her memoir she hadn’t done any reading in that area.
Jones: Right, it’s sort of reinventing the wheel. Later of course I found that the memoirist has to be honest and explore her own foibles and missed steps and acknowledge them and be humble. All of that I did just in my quest for the truth of the matter, or simply because I’ve always tried to be an honest person-to admit what it is I’ve done wrong. In that respect the process was very healing for me, I think. I’m glad I did it. But while I was doing it, I have to admit, it was difficult. When I began, I really didn’t think I could write more than around 50-60 pages. And, I really had to figure out how to do it on my own. Joyce’s book had come out, but her book has a different tone and it doesn’t address the length of time that mine does. She doesn’t get so much into the present as I do. So there was a different process, really, because of the different stories involved, so I really had to wander my own way through.
NG: How does one determine the span of time to deal with? You start with the memory of being a very young girl at camp, weaving a basket in the clouds.
Jones: Well, it was very, very important to me to show that the decisions I made when I was a young woman were a long time coming. They were really an organic part, a progression in the life I had been going toward from the time I was very small. Because it seems to me that I’ve always been conscious, or I can remember very early moments of consciousness, even before the basket, but still that one moment was the most important one. I realized that in order to satisfy whatever it was in me that needed to be satisfied by art, I was going to have to leave home, and that nobody in the group of people among whom I lived — my family — no one else spoke of such things nor had those types of ambitions. So it was a very secret life, and I wanted to reveal in my book that it had always been there. It was something I wanted very much to bring up. Mine was not a rebellion against any kind of treatment, any kind of repression, but was there simply because I had been destined to do it. Yeah. Because if you know when you’re six years old that you have to leave home in order to realize your passion, then you just start to look forward to it happening. And I did.
NG: The book is beautifully crafted. It really is. A very lyrical construction of your life, the way it focuses on a place, the way you handle memory and to weave in your own poetry and the letters. I was curious about the process involved in your decision to use these types of constructions — to include the poems, to focus on place as you do, a structuring which in some ways does not exhibit a conventional memoir form at all. I think of it as being more within the novel tradition in some ways, as fiction.
Jones: Well, I really didn’t know what I was doing. But my memories fell into those patterns associated with place, and then I wanted this to be woman’s book. I thought men would not focus on their homes. But here I mean “home” not just in terms of where we lived, but “home” as the art scene. So it seemed like the likely place to locate not only my life but the literary life. And also because of the business of race, where things came together in terms of race. So it seemed very logical. I was hesitant at first, however, because I thought, oh god, people are going to think this is corny! You know, women always talk about their homes. But then, finally I just said, “Fuck it!”
NG: It was a good decision!
Jones: Then about putting the poems in, well, when I wrote the memoir I had published only one little chapbook of poems and wasn’t very assiduous about sending out my poems because I didn’t really like the literary scenes I saw around me. For one thing, I wasn’t a l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poet. I was much too logical and much too old fashioned and much too linear. (What are my other faults?) But the poems expressed my state of mind, and I thought that the poems I included by other people expressed the state of mind that was current in the culture at that time, or the culture I was trying to show. So, I put them in at some risk, but it worked.
NG: With respect to the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets, to which ones are you referring?
Jones: Examples that come to mind are Barbara Guest. and, of the younger generation, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Perhaps I should study them before making blanket condemnations, but they just don’t interest me enough. I think the “school” grew out of a group at St. Mark’s Church who were all trying to imitate Frank O’Hara’s non sequiturs, but unfortunately none of them possessed his wit and breathtaking energy. But my dislike/disdain arises largely from the apoliticalness of it all. I wish I could tell you who among them is most important or influential, but I guess I just let them go on their merry way while I go mine. Besides, my poems arise less out of the study of other poems or forms than my response to life itself. Doesn’t that sound old-fashioned? But the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets would surely say that their poems do too, so there we are.
NG: When you began writing as a poet, were you writing within Beat tradition, some sort of alternative artist tradition?
Jones: Well, I can’t say I wasn’t influenced by it. I certainly didn’t learn rhyme. Yes, of course, one learned rhyme and meter in Shakespeare class in college, and I took classes in Elizabethan poetry and learned the sonnet form and this and that. But I wasn’t going to write like that because I didn’t think like that. But because of the fact that I earned my living as a proofreader and copy editor, I read a lot of poetry. I worked for Grove Press, mainly, and I read all of their avant garde stuff, so I think I was influenced by both prose and poetry of that time. And, sure, I read more of Allen Ginsberg than I did of say the more academic poets like Mark Strand or John Hollander. You know, the people that the Beats were sort of in competition with. Yes, I read Robert Lowell as well, but not as carefully maybe. But I read Olson and Creeley and all those people. What I did not read so much — other than a few poems by Adrienne Rich and maybe some by Sylvia Plath — was poetry by women.
NG: Any H.D.?
Jones: No, I found her too formal and too focused on the classics.
NG: Amy Lowell?
Jones: Oh, Amy Lowell, sure. I read her in college, but the models for the form of the poems I eventually wrote were the guys all around me — LeRoi Jones in particular. But what to say? That was the big question. You know, writing a woman’s life, you know. The poem that’s in my book that I wrote a thousand years ago — “my dearest darling will you / take out the garbage?” — when I wrote that I never dreamed of publishing it. I just thought no one would want to publish this. I just assumed no one would want to. But that didn’t keep me from writing!
NG: Are there ways you went beyond or otherwise manipulated the form that “the guys” were working with at that time?
Jones: I don’t think so. I think one of the things that influenced me regarding form was a statement that LeRoi wrote for the Poetics of the New American Poetry. He said there must not be anything to have to fit the poem into, no form — everything must be made to fit into the poem; that is, the poem itself. I guess if you want to go back to it, it’s Olson’s idea of projective verse — that one thought leads to another, that you don’t have to have an initial idea that you follow all the way through. And I find that it still works for me. It works so gorgeously when you’re teaching poetry to young people and you free them all at once — if I give people that for a first lesson, it frees them from the constraints of thinking and they write wonderful poems. And I show them that the poem doesn’t need to hug the margin; it can go all over the page. So people don’t have that constraint in their brains, and it helps to develop their voice.
NG: That makes a lot of sense.
Jones: Yeah. That way you learn your own breath.
NG: Do you consider yourself principally a poet, fiction writer, editor, publisher?
Jones: I’m just now writing a poem. You know my poetry book Drive won an award for the best first book of poetry? Well, it turned out that the award ceremony was on my mother’s birthday, so I started writing this poem for her. She once said to me, I don’t know in what context, “You’ll be a jack of all trades and master at none.” My mother seldom criticized me. She was a very good mother in that respect, not bossy or wanting me to bend. Obviously I didn’t — and she couldn’t have done a thing with me anyway. But that one comment smarted, and I always remembered it. So, writing the poem, I’m in the middle of trying to find out why. Anyway, I’m glad to have won my prize — it makes me a master at one thing. But I don’t see why, if you write, you can’t do everything. I mean, I have examples of this all around me, certainly Olson, Creeley, Frank O’Hara, Baraka. Though I was never attracted to writing criticism, and I’m still not. I’ve done a few book reviews and I find it very hard.
NG: Yes, it’s a different way of thinking. A different mind set.
Jones: Yeah, and you really have to distance yourself from it, while the fiction I write is mostly autobiographical, although some of it is not. You know, Poe said that the short story is much more related to poetry than it is to the novel and I guess I feel that way about my stories, which are generally fairly short. I think, though, when you write fiction you have to be a little more concerned with gossip, and I’ve never cared very much for repeating “guess who’s sleeping with whom,” for finding out things like that, so my stories are generally morality tales, and in a way might even be borderline essays.
NG: With a clear message.
Jones: Yeah, well, I’m a preacher at heart. But I like writing nonfiction too. I think from the same impulse.
NG: Did you or do you consider your writing Beat? And what does that term mean to you? Just defining that term is a monumental task anymore. In fact, maybe it always was, despite the men presenting some fairly easy descriptions.
Jones: Well, it certainly has meant that I don’t write about middle class angst, because I really don’t have any. I don’t even know what it is because poverty takes you a long ways from all that. Also, so much fiction goes into the ins and outs of marriage, of friendship — and I’m not really interested in that kind of stuff. So I’m more interested in telling these morality tales and adventure stories that also deal a lot more with race. But I seem not to deal with race in my poems, and I don’t know why this difference occurs. Gender issues find their way into my poems, but not race. But I do deal with it in stories. Perhaps because I’m more angry and therefore less immediately articulate about race issues and I need the space that prose offers. But I don’t know whether all this is Beat or not, though it certainly grew out of a separation from American fiction in general. Also, I think my writing is political when it deals with subjects that touch on our political lives — race, class, gender issues, etc. It’s probably political on most counts because of who I am and the way I think about things.
NG: I even wonder if that term Beat has much meaning anymore. In some ways it still does in popular culture, but what about in terms of literature and literary traditions, in terms of young poets today who might see themselves — or not — as “Beat”?
Jones: Well, if you want to go off the “beaten down” path, if you want to go to the beatitude aspect of it, writing for me is a spiritual experience. I mean, when I said I was a preacher I was serious. I think that’s always what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a cantor; or, in another world I probably would have seriously thought of becoming a rabbi, if I could have stood the scholarship. I think this preacher/spiritual side is behind my artistic impulse, that I’m more in that tradition than, say, your novelist who is in more of a literary tradition. I’m less influenced by literature than I am by what this literature is after. The philosophical premise behind it. And we were living then, if you want to start back there, in such a material world. Thus, Beat was a spiritual movement. Allen used to try to get people to understand this all the time, that we were looking for enlightenment and organized religion wasn’t giving it to us. Our parents certainly weren’t after that enlightenment, either. They were after comfort and security, as far as possible. But there had to be a different way. One had to redefine the values. So, yeah, beatitude or whatever. That’s such a fancy word, though, isn’t it? You expect to see somebody with a halo.
NG: Do you see that same search for spirituality in young poets today?
Jones: No, I think they’re looking for language, for language that isn’t the language of advertising. And the spoken word is so hot right now! I mean, there was an enormous poetry weekend just here at Cooper’s Union with venues all over the Lower East Side. High school kids got up and performed and everything. And though a lot of the work is shallow, it’s a facility with language that they are seeking. But the ones that stick with it — they can go below the superficial aspects of language and ask language to carry meaning, not just to be pretty. Then they will redefine something. I don’t know — it certainly has upset all the adults and I find that excellent! Would you believe I was walking up the street over the weekend and a man in a shirt and tie carrying a briefcase walked past me? Meanwhile, there was some kind of something going on a few blocks away with a loud speaker, some kind of rap. I didn’t find it offensive at all. But the man said, “When rap disappears it will be good for everyone — the people who say it and the people who are forced to hear it.” I just looked at him. I didn’t say a word. I’d never heard such vehemence from a stranger. Since I was an older woman, however, he thought he could say anything and have me agree with him. But anything like that — that upsets people — is just fine by me. Let’s see what becomes of it. If it leads people to the study of language and the possibilities of language, what could be wrong?
NG: It’s central to who we are. In fact, isn’t language use an essentially spiritual act in some ways?
Jones: I think all of us — young, old, and anywhere-who write are engaged in an act that could be construed as spiritual, though I’m not sure how to define that word anymore. I know that for the Beats the idea of the spiritual was very much opposed to the material way of defining our own lives, our urges and motions. We were reacting to a material world — and the reaction as well as the position of that post-World-War-II world was rather clear cut. Nowadays it seems permissible to be an acquisitive venture capitalist at the same time one is a spoken-word poet. But maybe this isn’t even a criticism; we don’t ever put down Wallace Stevens for having supported himself by selling insurance. Anyone in pursuit of art is responding to a desire to make visible that which is not, to offer the unknown self to others. Rather, my concern today regarding young writers would have more to do with their failure to communicate through language’s first role — that of meaning, of message. As a species, I’m sure we didn’t start to use language to entertain but rather to instruct, as in “Get your hand out of the fire!” Or, to convey important messages, as in “I yearn for you, baby!” Oh, well, I guess they’ll figure it out or they won’t.
NG: Do you see a connection between rap and Beat poetry?
Jones: Well, I’ve heard that connection made. But I’m not going to make any serious attempt to flush that connection out any further. Rap has its own long tradition from which it springs.
NG: Doesn’t it go back to the blues tradition too, the man of words in black folk culture?
Jones: Sure. And it goes back to improvisation in jazz and being able to do that with language. I think there are recordings of some of the disc jockeys in the ’40s and ’50s. They could really spin it. I remember Frankie Crocker saying, “You’ve got a hole in your soul.” There’s that. And I’m sure rap artists knew The Last Poets, and The Last Poets knew the beat poets. You can always find cross-culture relationships, intersections. But I don’t think a lot of the rappers like Heavy D and — I’m trying to think of some names off the top of my head — were all that familiar with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
NG: Do you think your own poetry and fiction somehow manifests, as does some other Beat poetry and literature, the black street language of the time? For example, there’s some in your memoir, but not as much as, say, what we see in Diane di Prima’s early poetry.
Jones: Yeah, I don’t mean to accuse Diane wrongly, but think I wouldn’t have done it that way. She was just being hip. I feel that hers was really an adaptation, in a way. Mine comes out of the language of my young adulthood that I have always used. I’m always surprised that people laugh at the things I say. For instance, once in response to a friend of mine I said, “Yeah, you just ain’t bumpin’ your gums!” And she said, “What? What is that? Did you learn that from your children?” But, no, that was just an old ’40s expression that became a part of my language. I also know and am more intimately involved with what we — I guess — call black culture than most adults of my age. I was at a conference last week, and began to sing, “Save the bones for Henry Jones, ’cause Henry don’t eat no meat.” And people looked at me like I just stone crazy! “What is that” they said. And I said, “It’s a song from the ’40s.” Then I told this story to an older black man, and he laughed and laughed. He understood. So, that’s that what I know, and it comes out in my language. I don’t feel it as an adaptation.
NG: It’s organic. It’s the way you talk. Were there any women of color writing in your community, though?
Jones: Yeah. But so few of us actually shared our writing. A friend of mine, Aishah Rahman, became an experimental playwright and now teaches at Brown University. She was writing, and I knew about her.
NG: Weren’t you sharing your writing?
Jones: No, I wasn’t. People who were publishing more might have, but I wasn’t.
NG: Didn’t you enjoy sharing it?
Jones: No. I was writing poetry at that time that I put away in a drawer and wouldn’t show to anyone.
NG: I have to confess, that’s one of the many things in your book that I always remember. It was wonderful for you to be very honest about that, because so many people are afraid of saying that “I wrote it but it’s all in a shoe box” or “It’s only on my computer and no where else.” It was an important thing for you to put in your book, for a lot of your readers.
Jones: But a lot of people believe it was somebody’s fault.
NG: Did LeRoi encourage you to write?
Jones: He wanted me to write criticism. But I didn’t tell him I was writing poetry. It was my very private thing. Diane di Prima, who was the person I knew most, was the most accessible of all the women writing then. And there were others like Barbara Moraff or Rochelle Owens. But I couldn’t write like them, and didn’t want to. Also, when you’re having two children, it just takes a lot out of you! But, and I think I said this in my book, nothing but my own voice held me hostage. I am, I will admit, somewhat of a perfectionist when it comes to writing. I really work on my things. But LeRoi was so adept, he would pull a poem out of the typewriter and come running and show it to me. It was perfect.
NG: Did he revise much?
Jones: No. But my poems have to be revised because they’re not perfect when they come out. It’s getting a little bit better now, but not that much better. There are people who write to say what they think and other people who write to find out what they think, and those latter people have to work on it to find out what it’s all about. But I didn’t understand that. Don’t forget, this was a time when there weren’t writing classes — I didn’t know a thing about them — and certainly I didn’t take any writing workshops in college. There were no such things! But I struggled with it-although I did write prose in college, for my literary magazine, just little articles, little essay things here and there, not fiction. The first fiction I began to write, which was probably in the ’70s, was autobiographical, very little different from writing essays, although I knew much more about form then and I had read so much more. I was also not a lit major, which makes a big difference in what models you have. I was a drama major, and how many playwrights were there? Then I grew dissatisfied with drama because it involved putting on plays when I just wanted to write.
NG: Do you think being a drama major, though, might have given you a sense of voice or somehow allowed you to break out of that more formal kind of H.D. tradition? Your poems indeed seem very much like performance.
Jones: Yeah, they are. And a lot of people who have never heard me read, they’ll say, “You know, I’m embarrassed to say this, but you sound like your ex-husband,” or “I’m embarrassed to say this, but you sound like Audre Lord,” or, “I’m embarrassed to say this, but you sound like X, Y, Z.” But, yeah. I was on stage early. I acted when I was in high school, but even before that in the summers when I was at camp I had to do with drama and played roles. Then when I was in college I wrote musicals and performed in them and was the emcee at a lot of events. I even had a children’s theatre and performed in that. Performing is something that’s easy for me. Although, just like everybody else, I do get a little nervous.
NG: When I read your poetry — and I’ve seen you perform your poetry twice, so seeing it “live” might contribute to my impression as well — but I have the sense that you’re speaking directly to other people, as opposed to some contemporary poets whose work presents the sense the poet is just sitting there in the corner speaking to him or herself. Their themes somehow seem so — not inconsequential — but very individual, in terms of an inward turning eye that doesn’t engage me. But your poetry strikes me as being outwardly directed. There’s a community with the reader that you establish.
Jones: Well, that’s what I feel poetry or anything written ought to be. Why bother to write it down if you don’t want to communicate it to others? This is not to say that people are not allowed, as you say, to write for themselves. But what I find when I teach is that when I ask for a certain clarity in someone’s work or “what does that mean, what are you trying to say?” I sometimes get, “Well, I know what it means!” Well, okay, that’s just fine, but there’s also the fact that you’re in a class and you’re reciting this poem to other people. Do you want them to get an inkling of what it means? What do you want the poem to convey? So, try to convey that. But I must admit that my impulse is the preachy one-and that requires an audience.
NG: Do you have your students recite their poetry aloud, to do a lot of oral readings?
Jones: Well, that’s the only way. That’s what they do. And prose classes as well. Everyone has to read their stuff aloud.
NG: You and Joyce did that in the memoir writing workshop you conducted at the College of Wooster. One thing the students talked about afterwards was how much they appreciated just hearing each other’s stories. That was really important to them.
Jones: That’s the memoir class I teach at the Y and at libraries sometimes. And once people get over their initial fears, and when other people say, “Hey, that was good, that was interesting,” it’s so gratifying.
NG: There were some students in there who had not gotten a lot of positive feedback on their writing, from their other writing teachers, and they commented on the way both you and Joyce identified in everybody’s work, each individual piece, something positive.
Jones: That’s the way you get people to write! You can’t get people to write by saying, “No, this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong,” because you just stop them. But the voice comes from, the voice comes from the soul — if I can be totally deliberate about this! You really do have to encourage people, and then they will get better and better. Positive reinforcement, it’s the only way. A lot of people ask, “Would you have written earlier had you had a teacher who encouraged you?” Maybe. But I think I wrote early enough. And I wasn’t interested in writing about my “rotten childhood,” because I didn’t have a rotten childhood. I had an ordinary childhood. As I said, I wasn’t rebelling against anything. But that impulse to tell was always, always there, but it was also a way of exploring, of finding out about feelings. A lot of people have that. All you have to do is give them permission.
NG: A question to take us back to the ’50s, to the position of women in the publishing phase of the Beat movement, to the place of Yugen and Totem Press.
Jones: We were the facilitators. Joyce did a lot of work. Eventually, she became an editor, but prior, when she was still serving her apprenticeship in the publishing industry, she brought people to the attention of the big editors, who were beginning to understand and trust young people who had their fingers on the culture at the time. This is not to say that Roi couldn’t have gotten Yugen together by himself, maybe. I don’t put a lot of things on me that he could have done. But, you know, I did all the work. I did the real physical work. Plus the question of where I worked was very important. At Partisan Review, getting Bernhard DeBoer who was the distributor for all those little literary magazines. That meant that he took us on — a magazine stapled at the spine — only because he liked us! And it wasn’t only me he liked, he liked Roi, he was a very open-minded man. I never did figure out whether he liked the idea that we were married, but he and his wife invited us to their house. We did not get that kind of attention from white people for the most part. But that brought us to universities, and, if you like, I’ll show you, if I can find where I put it, the little cash book I’ve kept from that time, and you can see for yourself all the universities that ordered subscriptions. It made a difference. Yugen got out to the West Coast. And then Ted Wilentz, who owned an Eighth Street bookshop, I remember him loaning us $500 — ah, such a huge sum of money! — to get things typeset, because I couldn’t do the IBM typewriter anymore. And he said to Roi, “I’m only loaning you this money because of your wife. You know this, don’t you?” And Roi said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I mean, he didn’t want to hear that. But Ted knew that I would get the job done and stuff like that. So, yes, my role was very important. I may have not written the poetry, but I sure did type it! And I sure did lay it out, and I sure did do all the physical parts of it.
NG: Well, those networking connections — as we say today — are just critical. For developing a reputation, a voice.
Jones: Yeah. And people liked me and saw my role. In that, I did get a lot of positive reinforcement. Not every woman had a good job where she was associated with something that was important and was given a certain amount of responsibility.
NG: You’ve done a lot of editing since then. You edited Memory Babe, for instance, the biography of Jack Kerouac by Gerald Nicosia. What was that experience like?
Jones: Well, Gerry Nicosia came up to me at one of these conferences and said, “You know, for a long time I was mad at you, but I’m not mad at you anymore.” And I said, “Well, thank you.” Except, in the book, I really was just appalled by what he had written. His comments about women were just startling. And that book traces Jack’s life through his work. Jack’s work is autobiographical, but there’s also art involved. So Nicosia extrapolated the life from the work, instead of the other way around. And there were things that shocked and offended me at the time. But, you know, we made it all right and then they got somebody else to work on it who was more sympathetic, Fred Jordan, I think. So, I’m glad that Nicosia isn’t mad at me anymore. But for a long time he was. But, you know, editing was fun. The earlier books, the things that I worked on for Grove in the ’60s. Ah, copy editing, just doing copy editing, which is different because you’re not responsible for the shape, although eventually copy editing became much more involved than it used to be. But working on things like Faulkner and working on Marguerite Duras, working on Fanon — it was bliss to sit at home and get paid to work on this stuff! I was happy! I guess I have been fortunate all my life in having work that interests me and being able to find it. Maybe just because I got there at the right time. That could be. But it was an interesting time. I did stop copy editing after I did about five or ten romance novels sometime in the ’70s. Then I thought I can’t do this any more. It’s ruining my own voice. It was just too boring.
NG: Are you still writing children’s books?
Jones: No, but I have some manuscripts in the drawer that have never been published, things that I would like to work on, and every once in a while I think, “Oh, if I just had some time, I would work on this.” There’s a kids’ book about the wind I would like to do which, no surprise given that it’s me who is the author, gets didactic in telling the folk lore of wind. But I became disenchanted with it. I just tired of doing it when my kids got older and I grew tired of speaking to an audience who was under 13. But maybe I will return to it. Maybe when I have grandchildren, if I ever have grandchildren, I’ll go back to doing it, because it is fun. But there are so many things that take up my time, I barely have time to breathe. And Joyce is yelling, “You must come up to Vermont and relax!” I guess I’ve always been somebody who just likes to work. The “R” word to me is spelled R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y. But you know, teaching takes so much out of you.
NG: It’s hard to balance one’s writing life and one’s teaching life.
Jones: Yeah. But I can write poetry some way or another as long as I’m teaching a poetry class or I’m involved with it in some way. I was very surprised when I finally started to clear out my desk at the end of May, when the semester was over, and I saw these scribbled things and then typed them up. Maybe three or four of them really are poems.
NG: Where do you want to go as a writer?
Jones: I’d like to have the time to go as a writer into a non-fiction project. I’d like to write those children’s books that are still there. And I love writing poetry so much. I would like to continue to do that as long as I have a thought in my head. It’s very important because I still have the feelings required for poetry. And I still have political opinions, and those need to go into poems too, so we’ll see. In a way, I’ve never planned what I was going to do next. It just sort of happens. But maybe a little planning would be good at this stage, because when you’re going to be 65, which I am going to be soon, you have to sit back and say, like my poem “Song at Sixty:” “If you want to know me / you better hurry.” Maybe it’s time to start planning something. I’d love to plan my retirement, but there ain’t money for that. That’s what happens when you work for yourself your whole life, you really do suffer for it. But that’s okay. And I don’t feel that what I have to say is no longer valuable just because I’m older — maybe because I was a late bloomer. And maybe I’m still blooming. You never know.
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