Beat Treasure – UND Writers Conference 1974

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: Michael McClure,Gregory Corso, Miriam Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Janie McClure, Shig Murao, Curator (name unknown – female), Joanne McClure Curator (name unknown – male),  March 18, 1974. – Photo by D.Sorensen
 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, 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”.

(See City Lights own later notice of this remarkable historic gathering – here)

6 comments

  1. You have no idea how fabulous it is for me to know that Allen Ginsberg & The Beats came to my hometown the year I was born! The UND Writers Conference was something special, it seemed, every year I was growing up, but this one in particular. I wish I had seen this yesterday & could have asked Gary Snyder about it last night as he was in Minneapolis. Thanks for this awesome project!

  2. I was at the conference as well. On Saturday there was a tour of a nearby (40 miles from Grand Forks) Hutterite Colony by a group of writers and poets, including Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky. The group had a meal at the colony's communal dining hall, with Peter anouncing in a loud voice what had just been whispered by one of the Hutterite elders: Please be quiet for a moment while we pray for blessings before our meal. There was no doubt after Peter's anouncment: Quiet Please! We are going to PRAY! He was the one the elder was trying to quiet.

  3. I was at the conference. There was an afterparty 2 or 3 houses from the Red Pepper where I met Ken Kesey at the kitchen table and when Ginsburg arrived & saw the beer flowing advised everyone to smoke dope instead which then happened. Gary Severson, Chaska,Mn.

  4. John McKenzie is right that the female curator is Laurel Reuter, and the one identified as male is John Little, founder of the UND Writers Conference. This remarkable photo was taken by Dennis Sorensen, a student and great photographer (now deceased). I was in my third year in UND English, helped organize the conference, and got a modest “faculty research grant” to document it. I hired Dennis to photograph everything (he did) and student Don Foresman to record everything, which he did, including interviews with all the writers, all of which are in print. Among those, an interview Little did with Ferlinghetti, which was published eventually in some obscure Montana literary magazine I lost track of. John is also deceased. The tapes are indeed a treasure. CORRECTION: Ken Kesey was not at that conference. He came to a later one, (1976?) but the rest of the story is true.

  5. An addition to the story of the visit to Hutterite colony: that visit was a last minute substitute for a visit to a Minuteman missile silo which conference organizers had set up at nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base. When the base commander read about Ginsberg in the Grand Forks Herald he phoned UND English to say that permission to visit that silo was now canceled. Not sure how the Hutterite Colony came up as a substitute, but Allen was very interested, asked a lot of questions, as per usual. The Hutterite elder were interested in his perspectives as well. It was not some photo op (though Sorensen documented it) but an engagement about religious thought, organic farming, pacifism. Peter Orlovsky wore his Cambodia bombing statistics tee shirt (see Sorensen photo above) and did pushups in the snow at the Colony. There had been a blizzard the night before and the temperature was way below zero. Peter was seriously into organic farming and exercising, but also determined to call attention to the immensity of the “secret war” in Cambodia.

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