On ‘Seeing and Noticing’: William S. Burroughs, The Beat Hotel and ‘Taking The Colour Walk’ Through The Streets of Paris

In a dilapidated hotel famously dubbed The Beat Hotel by its colourfully eccentric inhabitants, a coalescence of some of the Beat generation’s most important protagonists came together under one roof to push forward the frontiers of literature, painting and psychic awareness.

In an extraordinary outburst of creative energy, Gregory Corso wrote some of his most important poetry there, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville devised The Dreamachine , Allen Ginsberg worked on Kaddish (dwelling in Room 25), Burroughs and Gysin experimented with the ‘cut-ups’ and Sinclair Beiles – amongst many others who came and went –  co-authored Minutes to Go with Burroughs and Gysin amidst a burlesque carnival of creative chaos.

Always seeking new paths of creative inspiration, Burroughs also devised a fascinating observational technique known as ‘taking the colour walk’:

“I was taking a colour walk around Paris the other day … I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day, and when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me… blue on a foulard…a girls’ blue sweater…blue neon…the blue sky …all the blues. When I looked again, I saw nothing but all the reds…of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose…”

Excerpt from The Beat Hotel, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, London, 2000, p 157.

Located at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur and curated under Madame Rachou’s ever watchful eye (circa 1957-1963), The Beat Hotel was undoubtedly one of the great oasis’ of Parisian creativity at that time. Indeed, in this extraordinary interview below, Sinclair Beiles recalls some of the legendary ‘eccentricities’, excesses and antics that took place amidst the dilapidated digs of The Beat Hotel –

More biographical information about Sinclair Beiles – one of the Beat generation’s most neglected if not tragically overlooked protagonists – can also be found at:

http://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/beat/sinclair-beiles-a-man-apart/

 

 – Marcus D. Niski, September 2017

 

 

“You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless…”

Georges Perec in Species of Space and Other Pieces

Who, or what, is a flâneur?

The flâneur – or the notion of the flâneur – is a creation of the nineteenth century Parisian streets. The flâneur is, by definition, an ‘exemplary stroller’ who strolls though the streets at a pace at which observation becomes the centrepoint of his or her experience.

As Edmund White suggests in his stunningly observant account of the flâneur and the ‘paradoxes of Paris’ *, Walter Benjamin was probably one of the most acute observers of the idea of the flâneur and one of literature’s most important writers in documenting the activities of this unique Parisian creature.

For Benjamin, the flâneur ultimately, is –

“… In search of experience, not knowledge…’ [Edmund White, p47]

The flâneur is also by definition not a tourist or pedestrian eager to rapidly ‘consume’ the landscape, but one who is almost overwhelmed by the delectable possibilities of the urban landscape; so much so that he or she is not really sure where to start or where the journey will take them.

Marcus D. Niski (2011)

 * Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2001.

 

 

 

 

 

… In the streets of Paris, Benjamin earned a living as a journalist while hunting out concrete examples on which to field test and then synthesize cutting-edge social theories. Encouraged by fellow German expatriate author Franz Hessel, he learned how to wander Paris with a voyeuristic curiosity modeled on that of the flaneur — a detached, attentive spectator who believed in the “religious intoxication of great cities” — who passed through every line of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, especially the groundbreaking volume Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

– Tim Keane in ‘Walter Benjamin on How to Stop Worrying and Love Late Capitalism’ as found at: https://hyperallergic.com/390574/the-arcades-contemporary-art-and-walter-benjamin-the-jewish-museum-2017/  (July 15, 2017) accessed 19 September 2017 also published at: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/118955609/posts/390574

 

Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out. Force yourself to see more flatly.

George Perec in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces

The Camera Eye: II

Blaise Cendrars: The Poet’s Camera Eye

[Travel Poems; Kodak series]

The camera eye is a technique that uses acute observation as a basis for writing. The camera eye implies taking visual snapshots of scenes from life and transferring those observations into immediate textual portraits of the observed phenomenon.

In its poetic form, the work of Blaise Cendrars is probably one of the best examples of poetry based on exceptional observational attention to detail from scenes observed in life.

In the typically flamboyant style that Cendrars would become famous for throughout his writing life, Cendrars embarked upon a series of poems known as the Kodak Poems (1924) that attempted to employ a technique of ‘verbal photography’ which, as Anne Reverseau* writes, was aimed at “… convey[ing] a cinematographic or photographic model [of poetry] … we are reading descriptive poetry and vignettes by a writer-reporter. The “documentary” aesthetic thus sets the “horizon of expectation” for these poems…”

Whilst Cendrars was controversially accused of in fact using a montage of cut-up texts  plagiarized “…from the adventure novels of Gustave Le Rouge…” – the ruse later allegedly admitted by Cendrars himself (which is typical of Cendrars’ own mischievous self-mythologizing as a writer) –  Cendars nevertheless demonstrates himself to be an uncanny  master of the use of visual imagery or ‘cinepoetics’ in his texts whether using his own words or allegedly appropriating those of another writer (Kathy Acker is worth mentioning here as a contemporary reference point for similar controversies embroiling her work).

The Kodak poems saga no doubt represents just one of the many imbroglios that Cendrars was involved in throughout his charismatic and often turbulent career: indeed, he seemed to either specialize in, or actively court, controversy throughout much of his life. I have always been intrigued by Cendrars’ work as well as the scholarship surrounding it, and accordingly, I have extracted below an excellent piece of writing on the Kodak poems which deals with some of the fascinating mechanics of the Kodak poems controversy.

The Kodak Poems Saga…

In her highly engaging essay on Cendrars and the ‘Kodak saga’ entitled, Kodak Modernism: Avant-Garde Poetry in the Age of Popular Photography [1] Elena Gualtieri documents the essential dynamics of the saga involving Cendards and the Kodak company itself over the use of the trademark name ‘Kodak’ –

In June 1924 Blaise Cendarrs was visiting Brazil when he received  the first edition of his latest collection of poems, Kodak. Published by Stock with a cover design by Frans Masereel and frontispiece portrait by Francis Picabia , Kodak comprised sixty-three poems that looked like the simple vignettes caught by the poet during his travels to the U.S and beyond, and put down with the apparent immediacy and directness of a tourist’s photographic record…

As Gualtieri  goes on the explain, it was here that Cendrars unexpectedly felt the wrath of the Kodak Company in New York who, through their lawyers, took a different view of Cendrars’ creative exploits in using the name Kodak as a direct infringement of their trademark name [!]:

… The poems’ easy charm was, however, lost on the makers of the [sic] Kodak. At the publication of the book, Stock received ‘a notarized letter from the American firm of Kodak Co’ which objected to the unauthorized use of their trademark. The publishers replied that they believed it acceptable ‘to use a commercial  name once that name has acquired the sense of an object in everyday language’, and that the company itself had made of the commercial name ‘the synonym of the photographic apparatus that accompanies the traveller’. Their position was that the appearance of Kodak on Cendrars’s title page was effectively proving free publicity for the company. For the Kodak lawyers, though, such unlicensed use of their trademark was ‘on the contrary detrimental to it, because it distracted customers  form the precise uses the company’s products sold by their company’. While the company did have the legal power to request that the publication be withdrawn from sale, it eventually settled for the commitment that any subsequent editions of the poems would be published under a different title. **

Cendrars was undoubtedly an extraordinary admix of raconteur, provocateur, self-styled swashbuckling adventurer, but above all, a brilliantly observant poet. He is without doubt one of the great heroes in my literary pantheon and a source of endless inspiration in reading of his adventures both fictive and real.

He was a unique and spirited visionary that will unquestionably continue to inspire and confound many generations of new readers brave enough delve into his exotic and highly eclectic body of work.

*See: ‘Kodak or Documentaires’, Anne Reverseau as found at http://www.litteraturesmodesdemploi.org Viewed 31 May, 2017

** The title was in  fact changed to Documentaires (Documentaries)

Editors Note: An excellent critical biographic profile of Cendrars’ kaleidoscopic and sometimes confabulated life can be found within Richard Sieburth’s review of Cendrars’ Oeuvres Autobiographiques Complètes ‘Blaise Cendrars in the sky’ in Time Literary Supplement, n.d [which sadly seems to have disappeared from open access online].

Details of the collection itself can be found at the publishers website at:

http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD/Bibliotheque-de-la-Pleiade/OEuvres-autobiographiques-completes

See also an excellent interview with Cendrars on The Art of Fiction as appeared in The Paris Review which can be found at: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4388/blaise-cendrars-the-art-of-fiction-no-38-blaise-cendrars

Marcus D. Niski, May 2017

 

 

The Camera Eye: I

Imagine that you are a Human Camera…

The Camera Eye

John Dos Passos’ [U.S.A]

John Dos Passos was justifiably lauded as one of the twentieth century’s great American writers. His U.S.A trilogy, in which the stream of consciousness technique known as The Camera Eye can be found, is actually a compendium of three separate novels – The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money — which form a ”collective portrait of America, shot through with sardonic comedy and brilliant social observation.”

Throughout the novel, as the Library of America editorial for the U.S.A trilogy suggests, Dos Passos employs –

A startling range of experimental devices [that] captures the textures and background noises of 20th-century life: “Newsreels” with blaring headlines; autobiographical “Camera Eye” sections with poetic stream-of-consciousness; “biographies” evoking emblematic historical figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, John Reed, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thorstein Veblen, and the Unknown Soldier. Holding everything together is sheer storytelling power, tracing dozens of characters from the Spanish-American War to the onset of the Depression.

The Camera Eye, to me, represents a metaphor for exactly what it implies: the notion that the human eye can be used as a ‘recording camera’ in connection with reportage that is written down, either in the form of a stream of consciousness, or as a focused tool for delivering acute narrative descriptions of the world around us.

Often I have taken my students into the streets and laneways and asked them – poised at a fixed position – to SPONTANEOUSLY write down what they see in front of them and without THINKING about it too much, to try to RECORD as accurately as they can what they SEE, as well as to SLOW DOWN their mind as an enabling tool in the process.

Next time you have your notebook in hand try this simple exercise: you might be very surprised what springs from it. Indeed, the continued honing of your skills using this observational technique can sometimes lead to some remarkable results.

Marcus D. Niski,  June 2017

 

How to Analyse a City: Part I…

How to Analyse a City: Observation, Memory, Reflection and the Journal/Notebook as a Tool for Observing and Analysing Cities in Action

One of the most useful ways to engage with a city is to learn how to read it through the process of observation, memory and reflection.

To take time to be in the city, enjoy the city and to practice the ancient art of being a FLANEUR in the city.

The Flaneur: or, How to Read a City

 ‘…as Walter Benjamin explains, the flaneur is in search of experience, not knowledge…’

– Edmund White in The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2008.

 Who, or What, is a Flaneur…?

The flâneur, or the notion of the flaneur, is a creation of the 19th century Parisian streets that offered an almost unlimited kaleidoscopic opportunity for social observation and experience.

The flaneur, by definition, is an ‘exemplary stroller’ who strolls through the streets at a pace in which observation becomes the centre point of his experience.

As Edmund White suggests in his stunningly observant account of the flaneur and the ‘paradoxes of Paris’, Walter Benjamin was probably one of the most acute observers of the idea of the flaneur and one of literature’s most important writers in documenting the activities of this unique Parisian creature.

The flaneur is not a tourist, shopper or pedestrian eager to rapidly consume the landscape, but one who is almost overwhelmed by the delectable possibilities of the urban landscape; so much so that he is not really sure where to start or where his journey will take him.

The Journal and the Notebook and How to Observe a City

One of the best ways to really learn to observe a city is to carry a notebook or a journal with you in your pocket or in your bag and to record the observations that you see and hear all around you.

This is one of the simplest and most powerful techniques that a writer can use in gathering material for their writing.

Some Observational Techniques for the Journey: Memory, Observation, Reflection – Writing or Slowing Down and Observing – The City as Art and Text

Next time as you wander through the streets and lanes in your city, you might like to consider the following creative ideas as the basis for making notes in your notebook which can later be used as the basis for reflection and writing in a wide range of genres:

Poemwrite a poem based on an observation you make…

Found poemconstruct and write down your found poem in your notebook…

Observationalrecord an observation/s you have made…

Overheard conversation – record and overheard conversation as dialogue…

Visual image  – record a visual image that you have seen as the basis for poem or starting point for a piece of writing…

Remembrance  – Record a remembrance that may have been triggered by something you have seen…

Smell – use your sense of smell and record some notes or reflections…

Reflection – use a visual image to reflect or to write a mediation about what you have just seen …

Colour – Taking the Colour Walk: William S. Burroughs and the ‘colour walk’ through Paris …

“I was taking a colour walk around Paris the other day … I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day, and when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me… blue on a foulard…a girls’ blue sweater…blue neon…. the blue sky …all the blues. When I looked again, I saw nothing but all the reds…of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose…”

Excerpt from The Beat Hotel, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, London, 2000, p 157.

In the next two Journal entries, I’ll talk about one of my favorite creative and observational writing techniques which I call the The Camera Eye, as well as my two most favorite writers – Blaise Cendrars and John Dos Passos – who both used this technique as an important exploratory and experimental tool amongst their broad armory of creative writing techniques.

Marcus D. Niski,  June 2017

[1] Modernist Cultures 7.2 (2012)  180-204

Choosing and Using Your Writer’s Notebook

Choosing Your Writer’s Notebook

The notebook is a crucial writing tool for recording observations of place, space, research notes, all of which are fundamental to the ascetic and practical activities of any writer.

Choosing your notebook is a very individual thing and there are no real guidelines for this other than choosing one that looks and feel right for you as an individual.

Believe it or not, I feel that this is a crucial part of the process in as much as that if your notebook does not feel right for you, then there is a good chance that it will sit on the shelf and not fulfill the special role that it is intended to fill.

Some hints and ideas that will help you choose a notebook that is right for you include attention paid to the following:

Paper:

Try wherever possible to select a notebook that is made of acid free paper, as this paper will inevitably last much longer due to its proper archival quality.

Non-Acid free paper will tend to yellow and break down over the years, hence it is worth spending a little extra to get good long lasting paper on which to write.

Binding:

Always choose a notebook that is solidly bound, as one which is poorly bound will quickly fall apart when the binding breaks down. The best forms of binding are those that use the traditional sewn paper interleaving and are then glued and finished along traditional classical binding lines.

Physical Feel + Touch:

Crucial: your notebook must have a feel that is right for you otherwise you won’t use it. Feel and touch are vital ingredients to a notebook that you will use

Size:

Size is important, as you must think about the maximum size that is satisfactory for you to carry around with you. Notebooks that are too heavy, bulky or awkward will not work well for you.

Price:

Don’t spend too little or too much. Remember that once you select a type of notebook that you want to use bear in mind the repeat cost each time you buy one once your old notebook one has been filled up.

Availability:

Choose a notebook that you will be able to secure a regular supply of once you have settled on a particular type.

Ornateness:

Overly ornate notebooks will often cause you to hesitate in using them.

The notebook is to the writer what the camera is to the photographer: an essential tool of observation and recording – so never forget to keep your notebook you at all times – inspiration often strikes randomly and its vital to capture your thoughts freshly and immediately which is the great value of the notebook.

Keeping writer’s notebooks has been one of my greatest enduring pleasures. At times an almost addictive pleasure, but one which is endlessly satisfying.

Marcus D. Niski,  14 May 2017