Thursday, January 11, 2007

Denver is Lonesome for Her Heroes

The course Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, a sociology course taught by Dr. Audrey Sprenger at SUNY-Potsdam, is based upon the work of Jack Kerouac, and the literature courses are primarily taught by Penny Vlagopoulos and Joshua Kupetz, with Adira Amram teaching the texts as the basis for performance.

The seminars focused on Kerouac's poetry and prose through two assignments: Sketches of New York and DharmaPops on Avenue A.

Sketches of New York

Penny Vlagopoulos and Joshua Kupetz, two of the four co-editors of the forthcoming scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Adira Amram, a New York City-based actor and performance artist, conducted literary seminars and performance workshops aboard the California Zephyr and the Lake Shore Limited. The workshops explored the development of Kerouac’s narrative technique through the more-conventional prose in On the Road to the spontaneous prose techniques in Visions of Cody.

While the courses focused on close reading and the ways that Kerouac uses grammar and syntax to convey meaning, students also considered how those intentional styles affect cognition, and how that cognition effects performance.

Based upon these discussions, students completed both conventional and spontaneous narrative assignments, culminating in Sketches of New York, spontaneous prose descriptions of people and places in Kerouac’s New York which the students will perform at Goodbye, Blue Monday in Brooklyn, January 11, 2007, at 7:30 p.m.

DharmaPops on Avenue A

Penny Vlagopoulos and Joshua Kupetz, two of the four co-editors of the forthcoming scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Adira Amram, a New York City-based actor and performance artist, conducted a literary seminar on Kerouac’s use of spontaneous prosody in his “Western haikus,” a form that he felt “must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery.”

After examining a selection of Kerouac’s haiku, or “dharmapops,” students composed their own dharmapops on the streets of New York and workshopped them at the Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, at the foot of First Avenue between Houston and Bleecker.

Penny Vlagopoulos is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She holds an M.A. and M.Phil. in English from Columbia. Currently, she is an Adjunct Professor at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is working on her dissertation, which examines the underground in post-World War II American Culture. She is also, along with Howard Cunnell, PhD, George Mouratidis, and Joshua Kupetz, editing Jack Kerouac's scroll manuscript of "On the Road." It will be published by Viking Penguin in 2007.

Adira Amram is a New York based actress and performance artist. After graduating from the State University of New York at Purchase she appeared in the Off-Broadway production of "Door Wide Open" as the young writer Joyce Johnson, a play based on the letters between Joyce Johnson and Jack Kerouac. This year she debuted in "The Sopranos" as Stacey in the season finale. She can be seen in the feature film "Some Kind of Awful" set to be released August 2007. She is a fixture of the NYC downtown alternative comedy scene. Her CD "Me & Bill," out on Northstreet Records, received a rave review from "Jane Magazine" as well as interviews with National Public Radio, "WBAI," "" and "The Gothamist." She is currently in production with a new CD due out in 2007.

Friday, January 5, 2007

All Your Doors Are Open

David Amram slept on the floor of the Blair-Caldwell branch of the Denver Public Library, his coat folded into a pillow and Pull My Daisy1 projected on the white wall at the head of the room. He needed sleep after four days in San Francisco with students from the class Jack Kerouac Wrote Here: Criss-crossing America Chasing Cool. Artie Moore, stand-up bass bandleader sitting in with Amram while Jack Kerouac Wrote Here occupied Denver, lounged out in the hall with Tony Black, a drummer with a flair for the martial that stretched through the weekend, also light with brushes, who uses his elbow to distort the tom head, wringing new notes out of the old blue tub.

The room was set for two hundred, but the librarians and event planner had to pass more chairs into the room like a bucket brigade, while kids had sat on the floor and flat-backed on walls. Amram looked across the crowd, already at capacity, twenty minutes before the event’s scheduled start, so he gave a nod to Moore and Black and they played a number to pass the time, Amram switching from a keyboard to winds, his jazz French horn with the bell whanged out by some past drop, his tin whistles that he will play two-at-once, his great head bobbing with the rise and run of his sets of notes.

And the room kept filling. Kerouac was back in town, "Denver at last!" indeed.

Beat crowds have a certain look in the east—teenagers in Salvation Army couture, middle-aged men in bajas, a few turtlenecked, bespectacled elders in long white hair—but this beat crowd in Denver looked like Denver—men and women in fleece, straight-legged blue jeans or khakis that drooped to hiking boots rimed with salt from the snowy archipelagos of sidewalks.

The crowd came to honor Kerouac and to hear Amram, jazz musician and arranger, Kerouac’s first musical collaborator, and the crowd always goes loose from Amram’s music—his original compositions and repertoire of jazz standards, the tables littered with wind instruments and drums. Yet, most people who see Amram are most taken by the man’s erudition—he speaks knowingly and lovingly about music from classical to rap, and he tells stories that highlight what Amram identifies as beat, often quoting Kerouac’s should-be-famous phrase “Live your lives out? Naw, love your lives out”2.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of On the Road, the focus of these celebrations is on Kerouac and his life’s work, yet as these events accumulate—the longer I take my place beside academics like Audrey Sprenger and Penny Vlagopoulos, beside icons like Ed White and John Cassady3, I realize that Amram is the jewel-center of this contemporary quest narrative.

When Amram invites his daughter, Adira, to perform, her scat jazz vocals reach moments of the golden treble in the heart’s center—the audience feels it the way shower-stall vocalists feel those notes that float beyond them, the notes that if sung would say all the ideas and purge all the feelings the singer has carried around since the last exultant phrases.

And only Amram’s words of pure encouragement, not a put on or a false up-with-everything mock beatitude popular among those who seek justification for their excesses, can gird Elijah, a nineteen year old from upstate New York, for a room full of ears attuned to Amram’s band’s professional polish and free ideas, and allow Elijah to stumble through a few bars of freestyle before finding it, the pocket, and to let his words tumble in the harmony of an August rain, drops so heavy and rhythmic with the variations from a shifting wind.

When Amram, with Artie Moore and Tony Black, blow the final notes after the screening, the crowd is rapt and they want more, and Amram has to be told to stop, to keep some in the tank for tomorrow and the next nine days of travel across the country, where he will keep improvising on his horn, his whistles and flutes, proselytizing the spirit and accompanying the multitude.

The people will keep coming.

1Pull My Daisy is, according to Amram, “a kind of a home movie” based, loosely, on a script written by Jack Kerouac and starring Amram, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, among others, and filmed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie.

2From “Beatific: Origins of the Beat Generation” (Good Blonde).

3For a complete list of the many talented people who are making Jack Kerouac Wrote Here possible, visit the website.

Chasing Cool

The first friend I made in Denver, Steve, has a dog named Japhy. We met at a picnic hosted by our partners' work, and after everyone had eaten and the rockies were climbing toward the sun, someone produced an Ultrastar1 and we wound up in the grass throwing long forehands to one another. When he called for his dog, a single "Japhy!" I answered "the greatest Dharma bum of them all" across to him. Steve seemed surprised that I knew the source of his dog's name and said that people always asked him about it.

After tomorrow, Denver may not need to ask Steve that question again.

On January 6, 2007, the scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac's On the Road will go on display at the Central Branch of the Denver Public Library, and Denver's finest publications—from the glossy 5280 magazine to the hip Westword, Denver's answer to the Village Voice—plan to run articles about it. A perennially newsworthy author, Kerouac will once again steal the limelight during this, the 50th Anniversary year of On the Road's publication.

A huge tourist destination in its own right, Denver will this weekend experience the influx of a roving band of academics and students, all part of Dr. Audrey Sprenger and David Amram's course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here: Criss-Crossing America Chasing Cool," offered in conjunction with SUNY-Potsdam. The course is designed to introduce Kerouac's literature in terrains where it takes place: the San Francisco of The Dharma Bums2, the Denver of On the Road, the New York City of The Town and The City3, the Lowell of the oeuvre, as much a sociological study as a literary one.

Dr. Sprenger asked me to participate, so when the cohort arrives—scheduled on a Friday morning flight from San Francisco, while Denver is again beset by heavy snowfall and the cattle are starving, ranchers cut off from their herds by four feet of snow and eight-foot drifts—I will join them for a week-and-a-half train trip east and through history and fiction.

Along the way we'll converse with musicians, painters, writers, literary agents, and Kerouac's friends and loves, and we'll read On the Road, the Dharma Bums, and a selection of his poetry.

For daily updates, please visit the Lowell Sun, Kerouac's hometown newspaper, and this blog, which I will attempt to update daily as we move east, toward "the great and final city of America" (Road).

1Flying disc manufactured by Discraft, the official disc of the Ultimate Players Association.

2& The Subterraneans & Visions of Cody &....

3& Vanity of Duluoz &....