I went to see Harold Norse read Sunday (7/15) at the Beat Museum in San Francisco. First time I’ve been to the Beat Museum. My friend Tim calls it a tourist trap. The museum is upstairs. It’s less than half the size of the gift shop at street level. The major artifact is one of Allen Ginsberg’s organs, which is about 2/3 the size of an upright piano. Most of the exhibits are big photo blow-ups with captions. A couple cases filled with books by the Beats and books about them, including racy paperbacks from the 50s: she found her kicks among the denizens of the Beat underground
I bought Harold Norse’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel last December. It’s been sitting by the bed since. When I heard Norse would be reading to celebrate his 91st birthday I figured I ought to go. I brought along Memoirs, beginning it on the BART train. I had just read Edward Field’s memoir, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, and Field doesn’t mention Norse. The two had friends in common. They are near the same age (Field is eight years younger). Both are gay, Jewish, New York natives. Both are poets. You’d think they’d have an inkling of each other. Of course, a memoir is not a methodical chronicle of everything. Most of life ends up left out. I haven’t finished Norse’s book yet (Field is not listed in the index), but I can say it’s better written. Not saying I didn’t enjoy the Field memoir.
Harold Norse read from his collected poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force. He has a deep, resonant voice, which would have carried well without a microphone. Norse would hold the book up and say, “It’s a big book, isn’t it? More than 600 pages. Lot of poems in it.” He seems to be having trouble with his short term memory. He would introduce a poem, read a line or two from it, which would lead him to make some other remark, then he would return to the poem, reintroduce it with the same words he had just used and read it from the beginning. More than once he was uncertain whether he’d yet read it. “Yes, you did!” chorused the audience. Or in one case: “No, no. You haven’t. Read it!”
I got my copy of Memoirs signed after the reading. Actually, I thought Norse had already left and was getting ready to leave myself when I saw him sitting at a table near the cash register. “I’m tired,” he said, “so I’m just going to write my name. Is that OK?” But when he’d finished with his name he looked up and asked if I wanted him to add my name. I did, so he did.
Harold Norse is living in an assisted care facility and the friend who had brought him to the reading encouraged us to make contact. He even had a hand-out. I will quote from it.
“Harold’s ability to stay strong and healthy is [greatly helped by] outside contact … Please make an effort to reach out to him … Remember that being 91 is no walk in the park.”
Hayes Valley Care
601 Laguna St, Room 13
San Francisco CA 94102
I am going to send him a card. My thanks to Todd Swindell for the contact info.