Harold Norse, 1916-2009

Update, June 14: Harold Norse obituaries from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle

Harold Norse, a poet, experimental novelist, and memoirist who associated with the Beat writers of the 60s and the gay liberation writers of the 70s, died June 8 in San Francisco. He was 92. In 2000 I spent a lot of time hanging out in Norse’s house on Albion Street in the Mission District, as he talked about his life and his relationship with members of Act Up San Francisco, a group of disreputable HIV deniers. In the story I ended up writing, he said he figured he had about five years left. I’m glad that he got four more than he anticipated.

It was a pleasure spending all that time in Norse’s living room, in part because he made my job so easy—he had so many good stories to tell about so many well-known authors, and he was eager to tell them. He’d hand me a copy of the June 1978 issue of Hustler, the one with the infamous “meat grinder” cover, and eagerly point to the short story of his inside. He’d tell me about this one time with W.H. Auden. This one time with Allen Ginsburg. This one time with Tennessee Williams. He was eager to talk about himself but never came off as pushy about being heard. There was a certain sadness to his existence—he lived alone, apparently was visited by friends only intermittently, and it could feel isolating in that odd little cottage on Albion Street in which he lived. (It was off the street, and you had to go through a sunken, viaduct-like walkway to get to it.) But it wasn’t the kind of misery you’d think would envelop an 80-something man living alone. Just a kind of fortress of solitude. As he told me himself, “I always said—and it was a stupid thing that I lived by—‘I won’t lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.’ So in a way I buried myself.”

We didn’t talk much after that story came out. Shortly after the piece was published he gave a well-attended reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. I’d helped bring more than ten people to a poetry event; my job was done. When his dishy 1989 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel was republished in 2002, putting his work back in print for the first time years, I dropped him a line congratulating him, and we exchanged a few more e-mails. After that, I mainly just wondered what would become of his work and his reputation. A wide-ranging collection of his poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force, came out in 2003, but to little attention, and I don’t know whatever happened to that collection of his correspondence with Charles Bukowski, the book that Norse was certain would reposition him as a major American writer.

That won’t happen, even if the book does appear. Bukowski is still a cult writer, if a well-known one, and Norse had the problem of straddling so many eras in literature that he was hard to classify; he could translate Latin 19th Century Italian poetry, he was mentored by William Carlos Williams, he hung out with the Beats, he became a leading gay poet—and dealt with both the respect and ghettoization that came along with that. The man was complicated, in literary terms if not personal ones. But the correspondence is a fun read, and I’m cranky at the moment that the binder holding copies of it, which Norse gave to me while I was working on the piece, apparently hasn’t survived one of my recent moves. Poetry isn’t my bailiwick, and I can’t speak with any real authority about Norse’s work’s ability to endure. “I Am Not a Man,” one of his best-loved poems, strikes me as a overly sentimental, suitable for framing in America’s more ponytail-infested apartments, but I very much like “At the Cafe Trieste,” in which the weight of centuries of literature bear down on him in a coffee shop, and “You Must Have Been a Sensational Baby,” a portrait of pure lust.

I no longer have the Bukowski correspondence, but I do have Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, a sort of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again for the gay and bisexual literary set. Norse may not of have been a self-promoter, but he did have an ego, and the fun of flipping through it again, for me, is to feel that assertiveness again, the persona of the literary traveler who had a grand time hanging out with literary elites, even if he was secretly cataloging their foibles. Does James Baldwin come off badly in the book? Yes. Did James Baldwin write the introduction to the book anyway? That too.

Judge for yourself. Below are a few excerpts from the book on some of the more prominent authors that Norse hung out with.

James Baldwin:

When some young men displayed interest in me Jimmy thrust himself frantically between them and me. Finally, seizing me by the arm, he positioned us before a mirror. “Look at me! Just look! What do you see? I’m queer, ugly, and black! What future can I possibly have?” His desperation was so intense that I felt guilty for being annoyed. “Jimmy, ” I said consolingly, “you’re only twenty-one, you’re very gifted and have lots of friends.” “Friends!” he exploded. “But no lover! And no money! What good it talent without recognition?” “I’m in the same boat,” I said. “Oh, no, baby, we’re in different boats! he cried. “You’re white!” I longed to leave with one of the handsome young men, but after his outburst I felt his situation so keenly that I left with Jimmy. It was like taking care of a sick friend. Besides, he had ruined the party.

William S. Burroughs

He raved, ranted, raged, retched, and groaned. He thrashed about in fits and convulsions. It was a bit much for a rational eighteen-year-old British math student, used to the clositered walls of Corpus Christi College. Yet Ian Sommerville had proven equal to the task of bringing about the junk cure of perhaps the most haunted American literary genius since Poe. Ian became his nurse and companion, lover and collaborator. And so it happened that I was the agent of not only Burroughs’s cure but also the first lasting love affair of his life….

We saw each other more often and he kept urging me to move into the hotel at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur. “For a dollar a day you get a room, gas ring, linen, and cleaning service if you want it,” he drawled. “And you can bring in tricks. Can’t beat it, man.” He passed me a joint. “If Madame likes you,” he added, expelling the smoke.

Jane Bowles:

What was Jane like when I knew her? Certainly unlike anything this post mortem adulation would suggest. I saw not a glamorous legend but a disturbed, ailing woman, desperately unsure of herself. As for wit, there was little evidence of it. She was petulant, fussy, irritable. Bohemian? Suburban seemed a far more apt description.

Charles Bukowski:

We had established a mutual admiration and rapport in our letters. His were explosive with pain and humor, an amazing amalgam of wordplay, ripe, earthy, vulgar,; his language leapt from the page like a van Gogh, galvanic, whirling, immediate, full of raw violence, color, and light; he was an American Dylan Thomas but bolder, cruder, meaner, more daring, not stuck in tradition. He was more savage than Celine, Miller, or Jan Cremer…but he was also gentle.

The man, the drunken writer, would not wear well. He never tired of bragging and boasting, of clamoring for attention. His competitive spirit, arrogance, and macho pose were irritating. When drunk, which was after 5:00 p.m., he had an insulting mockery in his voice; his aim was to crush others. Before fie he was a lamb, literally sheepish with shame and guilt. I believe his hurt eyes got their color from envy and jealousy. He’d shout, “I’m Charles Bukowski. Watch my steam, baby. I’m the king, I’m the greatest!”