[The City Lights in North Dakota Conference, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, sponsored by the UND English Department, was the first of many beat related conferences recognizing the cultural importance of the beats. Clockwise from top left: Gregory Corso, Miriam Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky (cut in half!), Gary Snyder, Janie McClure, Shig Murao, Curator (name unknown), Joanne McClure. March 18, 1974. Allen Ginsberg Collection. Photographer unknown]
A veritable trove of archival material has just been put on line by the University of North Dakota’s Chester Fritz Library – six (now digitalized) tapes pertaining to the March 1974 5th Annual UND Writer’s Conference, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Rexroth (and Miriam Patchen reading the poetry of her late husband, Kenneth Patchen). The technology back then was, it has to be said, pretty crude (now giving it, maybe, a kind of kitschy charm?). Minimal production values notwithstanding, the rebelliousness of the occasion (the Beats in North Dakota!) and the sheer verve and intelligence of the participants, comes barralling through.
The first tape is of Ginsberg-Orlovsky’s reading/performance and a remarkable one it is,
consisting, to a large degree of him chanting “the Tibetan mantra for purification of speech and for appreciation of limitless spacelessness” – AH! – a moving meditation in three chords – He does read poems, “Returning to the Country for a Brief Visit”, “Mind Breaths”, “Flying Elegy” (a significantly longer version here on this tape), “Truth Wheel Bone Rap” (an improvised piece, one of several improvisations). Following an initial mantra chant, Allen sings Blake’s
Spring (“merrily, merrily, we welcome in the year”) and improvises. “We welcome the apocalypse/We welcome the end of the earth/We welcome (a) new birth..”
The other tapes are no less revelationary – four consecutive evenings of “Open Microphone” sessions. On the Tuesday, the entire company, sans Rexroth and Patchen, “discuss various topics”, “including censorship, the military-industrial complex, Limits to Growth by Donella H Meadows, environmental issues, farming, the history of City Lights Bookstore, Robert Bly, Robert Graves, among many other (thing)s” (to quote from the description in the archives).
Wednesday, Miriam Patchen reads her husband’s work. “In addition Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth and Michael McClure discuss energy conservation”. Thursday’s is a particularly good one, kick-started by an ever-irascible Gregory Corso,”Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti discuss various topics including drug use for mind expansion, women poets, jazz and writing habits..”. Friday, they discuss “various topics”, “including subsistence farming, agri-business, environmental issues, the drug trade and its political impact, as well as strip-mining, particularly in reference to western North Dakota.
In addition, Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads Pablo (Neruda?) in Spanish”.