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Women of Wild Words

Carolyn and Neal Cassady
Courtesy Carolyn Cassady

Affair of the Art: Carolyn and Neal Cassady embrace for amateur photographer Jack Kerouac in a snapshot taken in San Francisco in 1951.

The Beat women regain their voices at 'Fast Speaking' conference

By Geoffrey Dunn

MORE THAN four decades after the apotheosis of the Beat Movement in the mid-1950s, it's easy to forget just how terribly sexist--if not downright misogynist--those times were. Center stage was solely the sanctum of men: Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure.

Women, for the most part, were left to the periphery of the movement, their roles limited to those of wives, sex objects and castoff lovers, their voices muted, their triumphs trivialized. Only a handful of women writers were included in the Viking Portable Beat Reader: Diane DiPrima, Brenda Frazer and Anne Waldman. In her breakthrough feminist memoirs of the era, Minor Characters, Joyce Anderson, one of Kerouac's lovers during the '50s, chronicled a world where the women of the Beat circle were forced to "lead lives that didn't fit them."

In recent years, the critical role that these women played in the Beat Movement has been brought into sharper focus. Many more of the women have written nonfiction accounts of their experiences in the movement or have published fiction and poetry of their own. As many of their male counterparts have died, it is they who have carried on the torch of those who Kerouac dubbed "the mad ones, those who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved."

The most significant star of this feminist Beat renaissance has been Carolyn Cassady. Her memoirs--first Heart Beat (1976) and then the fuller version, Off the Road: My Life with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg (1990)--were both superbly written and poignantly rendered.

A beautiful and brilliant Bennington graduate, Carolyn Robinson headed off to the University of Denver, where she completed her master's degree in fine arts and theater arts. It was while a graduate student there that she met the inimitable Denver pool-hall wizard and ersatz car thief Neal Cassady. Her life was forever changed. She married Cassady, moved to California, had three children, and briefly carried on a romance with her husband's road buddy, Jack Kerouac.

Like many of the Beat women--most notably her dear friend, the late Helen Hinkle, who died in San Jose in 1994--Carolyn was the glue that held her family together. She was forced by necessity to suspend her artistic endeavors while her husband cavorted with the boys. She is also a survivor--outliving husband Neal and ex-lover Kerouac by 30 years--who has reclaimed her artistic vision as both a writer and a painter in her later years.

Cassady, who lived for many years with her family in the San Jose area, will be among those honored in a two-day series, Nov. 6-7, titled "Fast Speaking Women: A Celebration of the Women of the Beat Generation," hosted by the San Jose State University Center for Literary Arts and the literature department of UC-Santa Cruz. The series includes some seven readings, panels and informal get-togethers on both the SJSU and UCSC campuses. A special $30-a-plate "homecoming luncheon" for Cassady will be held Nov. 7, at the SJSU Guadalupe Room.

Also featured in the series are Beat poet Anne Waldman, whose 30 books of poetry include Fast Speaking Women and Not a Male Pseudonym; poet and playwright Bobbie Louise Hawkins; poet Joanne Kyger, the author of Just Space: Poems 1979-1990; Joanna McClure, whose books include her autobiography, Wolf Eyes; and Janine Pommy Vega, author of the recently published Tracking the Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents.

November 6

  • "Wild Women," a panel featuring Carolyn Cassady, Anne Waldman and Janine Pommy Vega. UC-Santa Cruz, Kresge Town Hall, 4:30-6pm.

  • An evening of poetry with Joan Kyger and Anne Waldman. San Jose State University, Music Concert Hall, 7:30pm.

November 7

  • Coffee-hour mixer. Costanoan Room/Student Union, SJSU, 9:30-10:30am.

  • "Tracking the Serpent," a panel with Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman and Joanne Kyger. Coastanoan Room/Student Union, SJSU, 10:30am-noon.

  • Carolyn Cassady Homecoming Luncheon. Guadalupe Room/Student Union, SJSU, 2-3:30pm. $30 per person.

  • "The Other Writer in the Family," a panel with Carolyn Cassady, Bobbie Louise Hawkins and Joanne McClure. Guadalupe Room/Student Union, SJSU, 2-3:30pm.

  • An evening of readings by Carolyn Cassady, Bobby Louise Hawkins, Joanne McLure and Janine Pommy Vega. Engineering Building Auditorium, SJSU, 8:30pm.

For more information call 408/924-1378.

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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