The Necessity of Outlaws: An Interview with Alan Kaufman

by Todd Follett —

alan-kaufmanOver the course of Alan Kaufman’s writing career, he has published memoirs, novels, poetry, and is the editor of the well-known Outlaw Bible series of anthologies. The first entry in this series, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, first published in 1999, is nearly 700 pages and features a wide range of poets who mostly write on the fringes of academic literary culture.

Todd Follett: Alan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. How did the opportunity to work on Outlaw Bible of American Poetry come about, and what was your intention with the project?

Alan Kaufman: In 1989 I joined the underground poetry scene then springing up in the East Village/Lower East Side of New York City. A growing group of downtown poets came to know each other and we appeared together in readings every night in places like ABC NO Rio, Under Acme, Max Fish, Life Cafe, The West End, Cafe Wha? and The Upfront Muse. The readings became a way of life, a raison d’etre. Many of us were flat broke, couch-surfing, and there was no real thought at the time of where all this was headed, no ambition to do anything beyond to write nakedly, about anything, and in any way that one wanted. We sought to grasp each other’s intention, understand it, and see what influences we could absorb from each other. We were all in constant dialogue with each other about poetry—what is it, what does it mean, and what are we trying to do? When the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe opened under the management of Bob Holman and Miguel Algarin, we all showed up on the first night to read and kept going there every Friday, taking part in the Slam and open mic. It became a way of life, a form of practice, a discipline, regardless of what else was going on with us personally. At the Poet’s Cafe we met poets from Chicago, San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Baltimore—and a milieu sort of formed, a regular batch of irregulars who always seemed together, reading in the same places. None of us considered ourselves “Slam poets”. We didn’t really call ourselves “poets” either. Poetry, the field, the profession, seemed so bankrupt at the time. We found the term “Poet” embarrassing—though others called us that.

We didn’t really know what we were—Spoken Word, Performance Poetry, Beat… none of those terms felt right. To this day, I’m hard-put to say exactly what we were and that is what made it wonderful. Anything and everything seemed possible. When I heard about the San Francisco poets at Cafe Babar, the group of poets known as “The Babarians”, I decided to come out, see what I’d find.

In 1990 I rode the dog, came on Greyhound on a $99 one-way ticket, three days, and landed in SF with $67 in my pocket. I was homeless at the time, living in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village and had nothing to lose. I met Kathy Acker, Jack Micheline and Jack Hirschman, who wrote the intro to my first book of poems. I met Neeli Cherkovski, Kirby Doyle, Paul Landry, Diane DiPrima, Peter Plate, and so many others. As the scene began to grow, become national, an underground newspaper started, called HOWL: San Francisco Poetry News, for which I wrote big articles with loud headlines, broadcasting the scene. Then the mainstream media picked up on us. Our names appeared in the SF Chronicle, Village Voice, Time Magazine, Newsweek. It was surreal. Many of us were still flat broke, couch-surfing, living on air, and being followed around, at various times, by reporters from CNN and People Magazine. There was the sense of something hugely significant happening, but still no one knew what it was precisely. In the minds of poets, some of [whom were] mentally ill and living on SSI disability, wild dreams erupted of reading to football stadiums full of audiences. I came to know most of the poets, I kept everything they gave me, began to archive the materials, to ingather this new kind of poetry. I published poetry with Bukowski and came to know his generation of poets too. I performed with Ginsberg in Berlin in 1994 and toured through Europe—performing with poets from New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, and was the first to bring Spoken Word to Northern Europe. I got the works of some of the poets translated and published abroad.

All this time, as the radius of my acquaintances in this emergent scene grew it occurred to me that what we were doing belonged to a largely unexplored and unlinked vein of American poetry that, when seen as a whole comprised a new unarticulated vein in American Letters, one that had been apprised piece-meal but never in its entirety, never as a continuum—an Outlaw tradition. Poetry rule-breakers who flew by the seat of their pants and operated esthetically and personally outside the mainstream. I thought of doing an anthology, something along the lines of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry but on a grander scale. A book that would serve not only as a history but a template for future poets and their scenes. A book that was a portable poetry scene, complete with its own history. A book that you could pick up and feel a part of and be inspired by to devote your life to the making of poetry. So, in early 1999 I [sold] my idea for The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry to Thunder’s Mouth Press, a great publishing house.

I envisioned the book as a chronological procession of Outlaw poets, now assembled for the first time, sprung from the loins of Whitman and comprising a historical realm largely unexplored, a counter to the mainstream. I wanted the book to have a photo gallery of some of the poets, plus marginalia like posters from readings. I wanted a book that any young person in Des Moines or St. Louis or New Orleans could pick up off the shelf and browse through and see and feel what Outlaw poetry is, and inspire [that kid] to go off and do that too.

I’ve heard from young people around the U.S. who call The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry“The Bible” and who tell me that the volume changed not only the way they saw poetry but the way they live. I wanted these young people to encounter poets in its pages who lived the poet’s life to the end, defying convention, expressing the inexpressible, daring to be poets to the grave, never giving up.

TF: In the introduction to the book, you say outlaw poetry is, at its best, “an ongoing record of streetwise sensibility and tough tenderness.” What do you think it is about the Outlaw sensibility that makes it integral to the modern landscape of poetry?

AK: Outlaw poetry is not a discipline or genre, not “literature” per se. Outlaw poetry is the corpuscular spill of poets opening veins of ink over a page in acts of desperate linguistic and emotional daring. It is a scream in the night, or the wild exaltation sometimes felt even in the most hopeless of circumstances and given expressive form. It is a prayer to Freedom. And so it’s very important to distinguish between the cozy theoretical clap-trap, the mooning, baleful, moping drek poetry that is purveyed in the pages of the establishment magazines, and the raw-nerve fire that some unknown ignites in unpublished obscurity in his or her notebook—doing so not from a wish to please some editor but because the failure to dig infernally deep into their own voice, and vocalize what is found there, may result in suicide or crime.

That’s why The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry has become the favorite volume of incarcerated people in American prisons. To today’s poets behind bars it is what Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” was to the inmates of his day: an anthem of desperate outlaw pride, a cry of defiance. Outlaw poets are those who take both life and poetry to the limit. That’s why I started The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry with a section entitled “Voices from Outlaw Heaven”—so that we could hear voices from beyond the grave who had lived the life and paid the price for their freedom and expression.

TF: The series went on to include The Outlaw Bible of American Literature (2004), which continued the same spirit of non-conformity and revolt, containing 143 works by 134 authors including Malcolm X, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer. This was followed in 2006 by the most recent entry in the series, The Outlaw Bible of American Essays, a further examination of Outlaw literature. Why do you think this literature of non-conformity seems so vital and necessary to American culture now and going forward?

AK: In speaking about The Outlaw Bible of American Literature I have to mention my esteemed co-editor, Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press, since passed from us, who not only co-edited the book with me but became the publisher of the paperback edition of my first memoir, Jew Boy. Barney Rosset was a lifetime hero of mine. I first came across his Grove Press books as a teen in the Bronx. Barney’s Grove Press really set the precedent for what I later did with Outlaw literature. He fought and won in the Supreme Court for the right to publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, William Burrough’sNaked Lunch and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. He published Kerouac, Sartre, Malcolm X, and many others who formed my early ideas about literature. He published Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., one of my earliest influences, and who became, to my eternal honor, a colleague of mine and whose quotes are on both Outlaw Poetry and Jew Boy. So, I was already Barney’s author, he was already my publisher, and once I recognized that my concept of Outlaw writing linked up perfectly with his perspective, it seemed natural to have him aboard as co-editor.

I wanted to go into places that even Grove had not ventured, to give a platform to such writers as Robert Beck, who wrote under the name of Iceberg Slim and produced a masterpiece called Pimp, and to another unacknowledged great, Donald Goines, author of Never Die Alone, Black Gangster and other terrific books. Both Beck and Goines lived the life they wrote about. Beck was a pimp. Goines was a real gangster in Detroit who was actually shot at his typewriter in a gangland hit.

Why is it important to read such writers? I was asked to speak in a local prison for National Poetry Month. On the way there, the officer driving me to the facility asked me to tone down the presentation, not get too literary, because most of the inmates, so said this officer, had never read a book. When I got there, I saw the majority of inmates were black. The warden and guards, who were mostly white, looked on with smug knowing smiles as I introduced myself.

I asked the inmates: “Who knows who Donald Goines is?” Hands shot up. They knew not only who Goines was but what he wrote and when, and how he lived (and died). I asked: “Anyone here know of Robert Beck?” Again, hands shot up. They knew everything I could have told them about Beck, and some things that I didn’t know. On the prison administrators’ faces the smug smiles were now gone. You see, Beck and Goines are two of the biggest selling black authors in American history. But because they wrote about how things really were they were and still are largely marginalized, relegated to the sidelines of our national literature. But to me they belong squarely in the center. I’d like to see, for instance, a New American Library series of their works. We did it for Hunter Thompson. Why not for Goines and Beck? Little chance of that, though.

There’s another reason why we need Outlaw literature. Young people today are funneled by corporate culture and the educational system into a labyrinthine maze of predetermined choices designed to reduce them, their very lives, to raw material for pure profit. It is so cleverly done that no one even knows that they are slaves. We need writers like Thompson, Kerouac, Goines, Beck who can show us what enslavement is, what it means, and how to escape to freedom. We need a literature that serves, existentially-speaking, as a spiritual and intellectual “underground railroad” to consciousness. To be an Outlaw poet or writer means not only to seek to become free in oneself through writing, but also to show others the ways to attain liberation through that unsparing portrayal of the truth about one’s own life. Words that worry the authorities who preside over literature. True words that will lose you friends, not because they are outrageous for the sake of being so but because they articulate unsparingly the unspeakable reality of being consciously alive.

TF: Looking at your career as a writer, your capacity for finding truth in self-reflection is a consistent theme. In 2000, you published an unflinching and remarkably written memoir calledJew Boy about your experience growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor and struggling with both your identity as a writer and as a Jewish man. The book is incredibly visceral and honest about the issues you’ve faced in your life. From your perspective, what influence did this struggle for identity have on both your writing and your affinity for Outlaw poetry and literature?

AK: I like very much how you put that. The urge to find truth in self-reflection indeed changed my life and so then my writing, however the habit was not always with me. In fact, the opposite was more often the case: For a long time literature served as a form of personal escape, the career of “writer” a culturally-approved legitimization of my right to avoid not only self-reflection but to reject altogether any sort of responsibility for my personal conduct. I felt that the ambition to write conferred upon me the authorization to act out any crazy impulse in my head, in the name of “experience”.

This cut me off, in a sense, from the stream of humanity. However, a few things got in the way of that and brought me back down to earth, which saved me as a human being and writer. It’s what you find here on earth, happening to other people—not just whatever happens to be buzzing in your head—that you must write about.

The Holocaust brought me back to earth. My mother was a French-Jewish Holocaust survivor who at a very early age imparted to me a sense that whatever narrative about the nature of existence and of civilization that I was being fed in school and by society was not real. That there existed, in her direct experience, another narrative, largely untold, of innocent Jewish people numbering in the millions who were enslaved, tortured, and murdered by Gentiles for no other reason than that they were Jews; that no one, truly, had ever paid for that crime; and that the crime was civilizational, that the culprit was civilization itself. That as Jews we were “the Other”. But her sense of this Otherness endemic to Jews extended to others too. She felt deep anger at the injustices which she saw perpetrated against Blacks in America. She saw Blacks subjected to the same sorts of prejudice that she had experienced. It terrified her, since she had come here fully expecting America, which had defeated Hitler and liberated Europe, to be the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

Spoken Word poetry also demanded from me greater and more penetrating levels of self-revealing truth, and when poetry no longer served that end, I had to turn to prose to identify and expiate my demons. I needed to dig deep within to learn what my true values are and where my deepest concerns lie. Interestingly, it was my frequent performance tours in Germany which lead me to confront as I never really had before the fact of being the son of a Holocaust survivor. Trips to Dachau, to Frankfurt Jewish cemetery and to the razed Jewish Quarter of East Berlin led me to ask what the Holocaust meant for me, which in turn lead me to sit down and compose the memoir Jew Boy. This brought up suicidal feelings, and all sorts of irrational fears that I was betraying the survivors by writing truthfully about my experiences as a child, that sort of thing. But of course, I chose to proceed, regardless of the consequences. I met many other children of survivors who were similarly writing of their experiences in new and revealing ways: Art Spiegelman, Thane Rosenbaum, and Melvin Jules Bukiet, to name a few. Bukiet included me in his groundbreaking Norton anthologyNothing Makes You Free: Writings From Descendants of Holocaust Survivors. I was welcomed into their ranks as a Second Generation writer. We are the literary successors to Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Aaron Applefeld, and we have our own unique story to tell.

TF: In 2005, you published Matches, a tale of a man who is an American ex-patriate serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. This book took a hard look at the turmoil of the region, the tensions between the Arab and Jewish communities, and Israeli society at the time. You yourself did several IDF tours, and the book’s take on the absurdities of war has an air of legitimacy and urgency that is surely reflective of this. In your eyes, what is the role of literature in exposing the realities of conflict and war?

AK: Interestingly, when Matches was being published by Time-Warner/Little Brown, my editor asked me who I’d like to see quoted on the back of the novel and I named a few writers, two of whom I particularly admired for their integrity and power, the Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee and the playwright David Mamet. Well, Mamet lauded Matches but Coetzee emailed back a ranting reply condemning [the book] for its brutal depiction of the conflict. He was pissed that I’d failed to offer a softer narrative containing some sort of feel-good hopeful solution. But I don’t think that solving political crises is the purpose of literature. Nor is the purpose of literature to praise or condemn war. The best we can do is to portray the human side of such conflicts as unsparingly as we are able, which I sought to do. My aim was to avoid the cant of the nightly news hour and the political correctness camp, to show what it is like to be a common Israeli soldier with boots on the ground in the most intractable war on earth. The book contains moments of exaltation as well as terror.

Matches has earned high marks not only from Israeli war veterans but from American veterans of foreign wars and even some Arabs who praised the book as fair, which I took to be a great compliment. I’ve never met an Israeli soldier who thought well of war, but when people shoot at you and blow up your loved ones what choice have you but to fight back with all determination? But then, what about those days when you don’t want to get out of bed to risk death? What then? And how do you cope with sheer uncertainty? What do you do when your convictions are shaken? Service in a combat unit with any army on earth will shake the faith of the most determined individual. What then keeps one going? Sometimes the answers are astonishingly heroic. Other times, they are utterly absurd. In the end, soldiers are human beings obliged to do impossible things. The best soldier is not the hero but simply the one who survives. No one who survives walks away without scars.

It’s truly amazing to consider how many continue to be touched by war in our time, directly or indirectly. What does it feel like? Matches attempts to answer that question.

TF: Recently, you published another unflinching memoir, Drunken Angel (2012). This book looks at the effect alcoholism has had on your life and the redemption that was ultimately found in writing. Do you find this kind of self-reflection helpful in moving on from these times in your life?

AK: The other factor which caused me to excavate my own experience for some measure of personal truth was my drinking, which began to erode my capacity to live. In other words, no matter how many books I read or how much I wrote, I could not elude my intense suffering from alcoholism. The agony was unremitting and when at last it caught up with me I was faced with the choice to either die with my literary hopes unrealized or do something radical to help myself and rescue my talent. I chose the latter and entered into Recovery from alcoholism, which requires one to dig deep on a more or less daily basis into one’s truest motives, and to excavate one’s most unpardonable acts and inadmissible secrets, and face them. In so doing one discovers that one possesses a moral center that is beautifully nuanced and complex. One’s view of oneself and life becomes, in a sense, Tolstoyan. This yields a mostly forgiving view of oneself and most human beings. If one can forgive others, one can oneself. There are monsters within, which I as a man and a writer can and must face, and where possible, I write about what I find. In so doing, I discover those themes that most matter to me, and so the next book, the next vista of my own human experience.

Most importantly, writing the books is part of my Recovery—it helps to keep me sober. It was a feature of my alcoholism to talk constantly, even obsessively, about writing books without ever actually writing them. All that changed once I stopped drinking and undertook to become another person and a writer of books. My literary career has largely occurred in the 24 years that I have been clean and sober in Recovery. Writing books has become a way of being true to myself and so of staying alive. As Shakespeare put it: To Thine Own Self Be True.

TF: What role do you see Outlaw writing playing in the future of literature?

AK: We cannot know what lies ahead for each of us. But the world appears to be moving in ominous directions. I think that the disappearance of our bookstore culture is a warning sign. I think our obsession with technology is a degradation of the human. For the coming generations—or even the current one—it may take more courage than ever to remain a writer or poet. You may have to learn to write underground, or on the run, in the face of persecution, even in the shadow of death. To internalize the sense of oneself as an outlaw obliged to commit one’s personal truth to written language, regardless of the cost, is a practice best learned now. Camus learned it during the German occupation. We need writers and poets whose written words rise above the cacophony of modern life, the clamor of technology, the railing of politics and religion, the purveyors of terror: outlaw writers who create imperishable literary works of the imagination that are a flag of personal integrity and independence, and an anthem to freedom.

TF: Thank you again for making time today, Alan.

Todd Follett is a first year Poetry student in the MFA Writing program. Originally from Boston, he earned his undergraduate in Liberal Arts at Columbia College Chicago before coming to USF last fall to further pursue poetry. He has published small-run ‘zines’ collecting his and others poetry in Boston, Minneapolis, and Chicago, and hopes to shift the landscape of poetry going forward towards issues of social justice and being a voice of the voiceless.