Saturday, February 04, 2006

Thomas Crowe: Baby Beats' "Time To Shine"

When Tuckasegee poet Thomas Rain Crowe left for France on January 14th, he was completing, in a sense, a trip he began many years before, in the nineteen seventies.

Crowe first went to France early in that decade determined to find there his identity as a poet. He planned to live there, in the land of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and become part of the French literary scene, perhaps the next Rimbaud; he left, disappointed and ill (he’d contracted undulant fever while working on a dairy farm) after a year. After he recovered at the home of his parents, who were then living in Pennsylvania, he wandered on to San Francisco, and the rest, as they say, is history: he found there the identity and community he sought, and became a poet who picked up the torch of the great Beat poets, his mentors. He was particularly moved by the work of Gary Snyder, shared his ecological vision, and came to know Snyder personally. Eventually, Snyder urged him to return to his native South, to light the lamp of ecological and bioregional awareness there – that is, here. Crowe made the journey back across the continent, found a cabin in the woods near Saluda, and lived there with rare human company, but daily visits of deer, foxes, raccoons, hawks and the other wild denizens of that specific place. That stay was the genesis of his memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods, published last year by the University of Georgia Press to wide acclaim; it won the Ragan Old North State Award for the best book of nonfiction in the state of North Carolina for 2005. His work as a poet continued, of course, enriched by the contact with the familiar earth of the Appalachians, and he soon founded his own publishing company, New Native Press, to publish his work and that of poets whose work he felt spoke from some of the same recognitions his own did. Each New Native Press book contained, as books usually do, an address for the press, and when one of his titles found its way to the Winding Stairs bookstore in Dublin, Ireland (Crowe had done a reading there while promoting a collection of Celtic poets), the ground for a magical bit of serendipity was prepared.

And so … Crowe was surprised one day in 1999 to receive a letter from one Matias de Breyne, of France, who wanted to translate some of the poems he’d discovered in Crowe’s collection Personified Street and publish them in French literary journals. Where had he come upon Crowe’s book? In one of fate’s curious twists, de Breyne had picked up Crowe’s book at the Winding Stairs, and had been immediately struck by the language and vision of the work. Crowe was delighted, of course, and responded. Over the next few years, with Crowe’s encouragement, de Breyne expanded his project to include other poets who had been active in San Francisco while Crowe was there, and then assembled his work into a bilingual anthology, Baby Beat Generation. Crowe, no longer in search of identity, has now led a group of San Francisco veterans to France, his first visit since his earlier travail, to introduce that book to the French audience. M. de Breyne will accompany Crowe and his Baby Beat comrades on the promotional tour, and will act as both translator and reader of the French versions of the poems. “Mathias de Breyne has done an amazing job with this book,” Crowe said as he prepared for his trip. “It took him almost three years to translate all the material that appears in this large volume, and he has done so with remarkable accuracy and poetic skill. This was not an easy job, as the styles and voices of the poets who appear in the pages of this book are very diverse, if not complex. If there is a French prize for translation, Mathias de Breyne should win it, hands down, in 2005 for his work with this book.”

In his Preface to the anthology, Crowe describes San Francisco during the 1970s and the flurry of literary and artistic activity that followed the famed 1960s Hippie scene, and draws analogies between it and the Paris of an earlier era. “From the early 1970s through the early 1980s, San Francisco was often compared to Paris at the turn of the century. Young poets, artists and musicians were arriving, almost daily, from all over the country, and in fact the world, to add their voices to the chorus of a growing international community of bohemian brethren. It was an exciting time, and we were literally living, eating, and sleeping poetry and the arts. A group of us had resurrected the old Beat literary magazine Beatitude, and you could find us in the bars down on Columbus Street and Broadway at night and in the cafes up on Grant Avenue during the day. A lifestyle that we often referred to as ‘the university of the streets’.”

“It’s been twenty-five years since all this occurred,” said Crowe from his home in Tuckasegee. “Much of the work of those who were on the front lines of the 70s scene has gone unnoticed for a quarter century. That is, until now. It’s taken the French to recognize the impact and the importance of this scene, and what we accomplished. This has often been the case in terms of progressive and alternative arts and counter-cultural activity in this country – that it has been embraced first and foremost by countries in Europe and abroad. My cohorts from those years in San Francisco had all but given up hope for any kind of recognition, thinking that they and their work had fallen between the cracks during the dominance of the academic scene here in the U.S. for the past three decades. We owe a huge debt of gratitude – to the French poet Mathias de Breyne and to Pierre Courtaud at La Main Courante, the book’s publisher, and to the French bookstores and venues who are part of this 'Tour de France', as we are calling it – for this second chance.”

Readings for the tour were scheduled in such well-known venues as the historic Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore in Paris, the American Library in Paris, the Modern Art Museum, the famed Café de la Mairie, L’Alimentation, one of Paris’s hottest nightclubs, and several other venues between Paris and Lyon. An email from Paris reveals Crowe’s excitement as the tour gets underway: “The anthology is in the front windows of the bookstores, including Shakespeare & Co! First event/reading of the tour, tonight. Have been meeting with other French poets, painters, musicians, who will join us for many of the readings. A general buzz about town regarding our being here and the tour, etc. Posters all over the place.... Seems that this is, indeed, our time to shine.”

The Baby Beat Generation was released in France in late November, and is now available in the U.S.; Malaprops in downtown Asheville, in fact, has it in stock. The American launch for the book was held at the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center in downtown Asheville this past December as part of the celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Other events celebrating the book’s publication and commemorating the 1970s San Francisco Renaissance are being planned for New York and San Francisco later in the winter and the spring of 2006.

Crowe definitely plans to be on hand for those celebrations. He’s especially looking forward to the trip to San Francisco. Just as he hadn’t returned to France since his disappointed departure many years ago, he’s hasn’t been back to that city, so crucial to his coming to his work as poet, since his pilgrimage east, the trip that led him to the solitude of that cabin at Zoro’s field.

If the current trip is any measure, much has changed since then. As the country sage Zoro Guice, for whom that field was named, told Crowe many years before, “All you need is a little patience.”

(Note: The photo of Crowe was taken by Mark Olencki.)

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