An Interview with Jaap Van Der Bent
By Daniel Morris.
Jaap Van Der Bent is a professor in the Department of English and American Studies at
1. Morris: I was struck in reading your work about the influence World War Two had on the reception -- both positive and negative -- of Beat writing in
Van Der Bent: To some extent the influence of the Beats in
2. Morris: Why were Beat writers drawn to
Van Der Bent: It seems as if the Beats had various reasons for wanting to go to
3. Morris: How influential were French writers such as Genet and Beckett to Beat writers? In general, do you feel the Beats learned from various European writers and artists?
Van Der Bent: I wonder whether Beckett really was an influence on the Beats. I am sure they would have and probably did admire and identify with his dedicated attitude towards writing. But Beckett seems too staunch and bare and down to earth to be put on one line with the Beats. They clearly saw more in the free-flowing, poetical and highly personal prose of Genet, who of course also writes about spiritual matters in which the Beats were interested, and which Beckett does not seem to care for. Anyway, one can find quite a few references to Genet in Kerouac's work: in a novel like The Subterraneans, but he also discusses him at some length in his interview with the Paris Review. On the whole I think European writing, and art, has played an important role in the work of the Beats. Even in Burroughs' work, because his use of the cut-up technique and the montage was to a large extent a European invention, practiced by Tristan Trzara and the dadaïsts, among others. I have already mentioned some of the European influences on Ginsberg, and I am sure there are more. In his own notes to "Howl" he himself also mentions Mayakovsky, Lorca and others.
4. Morris: Can you discuss the role anthologies such as Donald Allen's, publishers such as
Van Der Bent: I have my doubts whether a magazine like Merlin, which was published in
5. Morris: One thinks of Gregory Corso as something of a wildman, but you show him to have been involved in creating the "infrastructure" for the reception of the Beats. Can you discuss the Beats as promoters in
Van Der Bent: Yes, Corso of course often was a wildman, especially in the 80s and 90s and perhaps even earlier. There are many stories around about his destructive behavior and anyone who has attended a conference or poetry reading at which Corso was also present will probably remember how he would often try to disrupt the proceedings by shouting whatever came into his head and by always saying or doing what one did not expect. I have witnessed how his close friend Ginsberg, who in a way kept him alive, had to beg him to please “shut up.” On the other hand, when one reads the collection of Corso’s letters that was published by New Directions in 2003 it is striking to see how seriously involved Corso is in his own work, but also in that of others. It is quite impressive how, when he trying to put together an anthology of Beat poetry that will be published in Germany, he keeps on goading poets in America to send him work, and it is also interesting to see the dedication he has for this particular project. At that time he is also very much concerned with his own poetry, giving a lot of thought not only to the individual poems, but also to the structure of the volumes of poems he is trying to put together. In other words, in the late fifties and early sixties he knows very much what he wants as a poet. Unfortunately at a certain moment he becomes addicted to drugs and that is where things begin to go wrong for him. He seems to become less interested in his own work and in that of others, and that dwindling off of genuine interest is illustrated in the collection of letters by the fact that most of the substantial and relevant letters in the book are from the fifties and early sixties; the later ones of course still have a human interest but they are rather rambling and self-centered. Still, I think a project like the one in which Corso was involved, the German anthology, is a good example of how the Beat poets themselves made Beat writing better known in
6. Morris: You mention that the mid-60s were a highpoint for Beat writing in
Van Der Bent: The story of how I discovered the Beats, in the first place Jack Kerouac, is a story which can, and has, been told by dozens and probably hundreds of young people who at a certain moment developed an interest in reading literature. I am not that special. When I was 12, 13 years old I was not really much of a reader yet, although I had always read “real” books instead of some of my friends whose parents – unlike mine – allowed them to read comics. One hobby I shared with some of those friends was listening to pop music: first the kind of rather sentimental American and British pop songs that were popular at the beginning of the 1960s, for instance the hits of singers like Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell and all those other Bobbies and Connies, whose music I still appreciate, by the way. But we also listened to somewhat stronger stuff, like Jerry Lee Lewis and other rock and rollers, and at a certain moment of course the Beatles and the Rolling Stones appeared more or less out of the blue, at least that is how it seemed to young listeners like us. Actually, it was one of my friends with whom a shared a passion for pop music who got me interested in literature. This friend was somewhat older than I was and consequently somewhat ahead of me in the development of his interests and tastes. At a certain moment he sold his Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley records and he would sometimes appear in school with a novel or a volume of poetry in which he would point out passages which had been in the news because they were considered to be offensive or obscene. There was one poem by a very famous Dutch writer, and a friend of Simon Vinkenoog, called Remco Campert, which described
7. Morris: Can you discuss your dissertation and its reception in the Dutch academic community? Was writing about the Beats considered to be something of a radical act? What was the academic climate in which you wrote your thesis? Did your advisor show an interest in alternative American poetries? How did you conduct research? Did you travel to
Van Der Bent: I wrote my dissertation on the work of John Clellon Holmes, who is considered to be a Beat writer, but who was somewhat on the fringe of the movement and who still is not widely known, at least not to people who are not familiar with the Beats. Still, he was part of the Beat scene almost from the very beginning. He met Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1948 and especially he and Kerouac got on quite well. But he was much less exuberant and outgoing both as a man and as a writer than Kerouac was, and that gives his work a somewhat cerebral and sometimes rather strained quality, which is rather unlike the kind of writing one expects from the Beats. Perhaps the fact that there is this cerebral quality to Holmes's work made it more acceptable as a subject for a dissertation when I was looking around for a subject to write on at the beginning of the 1980s. It ís true that at most Dutch universities around that time the Beats were not yet taken seriously and I distinctly remember the professor of English literature we had in Nijmegen making fun of the Beats and a title like "Howl": a poem with a title like that could never stand in the shadow of anything by Eliot or any of the other writers of the "Great Tradition." Fortunately, at
8. Morris: Have Beat writers been translated into Dutch? If so, how are these translations in your opinion?
Van Der Bent: Yes, quite a few Beat writers have been translated into Dutch. As far as that is concerned
9. Morris: Can you tell us more about the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog? My understanding is that he became quite friendly with several ex-pats associated with Beat and other alternative writings.
Van Der Bent: It’s sad, but since you asked me about Vinkenoog, Simon has died, in July 2009. On the other hand he did have a long and fruitful life; he lived to be almost 81 and, a little bit like Henry Miller, it seems as if he was not afraid of death and could look upon it as another exciting new experience, which was how he had been viewing life for a very long time. He was born in 1928, so he grew up during the war, after which he was one of those young Dutch - and European - budding writers and artists who wanted to experience more freedom and life than they could in their home countries, and who all moved to Paris, sometimes for a few weeks or months, but sometimes also for longer periods. Vinkenoog was in
10. Morris: Can you tell us more about Alfred Chester? He sounds like a fascinating figure, but one not nearly as well known as Burroughs, Kesey, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso?
Van Der Bent:
11. Morris: You have described to me your childhood in
Van Der Bent: In this case your own question already gives you the answer, I think. Yes, I did grow up in a fairly conventional Dutch family in a rather conservative period, the 50s and early 60s. And my father was not even a businessman, which could suggest a sense of adventure and being on the road, but he spent most of his life in an office; in fact, he only had two positions in the course of his life, and both were in administration. In some ways I think I was, and probably am, rather like him, but unlike him at a certain moment I began to feel the need for a little more excitement and freedom, even if I could only read about that. So that’s I think where the Beats and later a writer like Charles Bukowski came in. In some ways I could identify with their spontaneity and their need for transcendence and liberation. But I am still playing it rather safe, and in that respect I am much closer to someone like John Clellon Holmes than to figures I admire from a somewhat longer distance, like Kerouac or Corso.