In a new ongoing BOMB column, two poets head out on the town on a mission to map—and mine—the creative arts community of New York City, for inspiration, celebration, and collaboration, through parties, openings, readings, and more.
Rebecca: Does this exhibit make you want to write poetry?
Leah: No, it makes me want to invite a bunch of friends over. You?
Rebecca: It makes me want to snap pictures around the city, snapping pictures and refusing to erase them.
The sun shines through the window on the 14th floor of the Fuller Building, and you could swear you’re on the same beach as William Burroughs who, in a photo, is stretched out in the sand, wearing a long overcoat. This visual is part of Allen Ginsberg’s personal photographs of his Beat generation, and as you glance around the walls, lined with old black and whites, an idea resonates: document those you love.
We came to The Howard Greenberg Gallery as writers, looking for a next poem, inspired by the idea of being invited into a writer’s personal life through his images. The exhibit is a mix of well-known portraits, like the nude of Ginsberg and his life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky, as well as other personal and random moments. Maybe you didn’t know what Neal Cassady, a muse for the Beats looked like, but in one picture, he’s buying a used car with Ginsberg’s scribbled chicken-scrawl beneath the image formulating the story behind the image. You can also see Jack Kerouac who is numerously documented, standing by a railroad track post, “On the Road,” or tucked into the corner of a couch in a dusty apartment.
The exhibit is worth seeing, not only because it’s free, but also because it’s authentic, raw, and reminiscent of a time before Photoshop and before deleting photos became so instantaneous. Ginsberg observes real moments. Some of his written captions are signed and smudged in black ink. There is even a receipt from his film developing which only heightens the reality of the photographs.
Pictures of his kitchen window frequent the walls of the exhibition. You can sit on the windowsill if you want, looking out at a then less gentrified East Village, watching trees reflect the changing seasons. You can see The New York Times sprawled on a nearby table, next to what looks like a copy of a recent American Poetry Review. Under one picture, Ginsberg’s caption reads that he was “focus’d on the clothesline” watching the dangling raindrops, because, as he says, “Things are symbols of themselves.”
As you walk around the gallery, from moment to moment, don’t be surprised if the writers beckon you to join in their camaraderie. You may suddenly turn around to find Jack Kerouac staring right through you. Ginsberg’s photos urge nostalgia. It becomes desirous—the want for not only writerly friendship, but creative collaboration. In these photos, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs are present even when they are not visible. You sense that all these writers are present in Ginsberg’s pictures at the same time, in the next room, at the kitchen table, or on the sofa, having a “pretend-fight” or, what Ginsberg calls, embraced in “mortal-combat.” When a leg is sprawled in the bottom of a photograph, you wonder which friend has stopped by. Envy is the word that comes to mind. A community of artists is present in his photographs, as is Ginsberg’s documenting of all of their self-destruction and creation. Both show that writing isn’t necessarily a solitary life.
Writing is multi-faceted and raw. It’s to be standing in the middle of a street with your mouth wide open, making a “Dostoyevsky mad-face” or a “Russian basso be-bop” like Ginsberg’s Kerouac in one photograph. Everything is caught in the moment—a spontaneous generation, one that is left in the shadow of our now digital age.
We look around one more time, and by the end of our excursion, we realize that it is not about taking the right picture or writing the right word, it is about harnessing a life-force—a moment—a raindrop.
The Allen Ginsberg exhibit ends this Saturday, March 12, 2011. The Howard Greenberg Gallery is located on the 14th floor of the Fuller Building on West 57th Street between Park and Madison.
Leah Umansky is a teacher, a concert-junkie, an anglophile and a poet in Manhattan. She has had poems published in The Paterson Literary Review, Magma Poetry (UK), and Cream City Review. Visit her poetry blog, I Am My Own Heroine for more of her work.
Rebecca Melnyk was born in Canada. She is a poet and writer studying in the Riggio Honors Program at The New School. She is also the poetry editor of 12th Street, and an intern at The Poetry Project.