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Meeting a Beat in Paris

Meeting a Beat in Paris

George De Stefano (July 30, 2015)

Fred Misurella recalls his 1976 interview with Gregory Corso, newly republished in "The Whole Shot"


"It's difficult today to imagine the 1950s – the up-tightness, the conformity, the repressed insanity that kept leaking out at the seams, and the nastiness those in power got away with."

Dick Brukenfeld's sharp assessment of that decade comes from his foreword to The Whole Shot: Collected interviews with Gregory Corso (Tough Poets Press). The book, edited by Rick Schober, comprises 13 interviews with the poet who, along with fellow "Beat" writers Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Burroughs, defied – and helped undermine – the conservative consensus of mid-twentieth century America. The interviews range over 24 years, from 1958 (by humorist Art Buchwald) to 1982 (by Lewis McAdams, for a documentary film about the Beats). One of the more revealing ones is by Fred Misurella, who met Corso in 1976 at the Paris apartment he was sharing with wife Jocelyn Stern and their son, Max-Orpheo Kerouac Corso.

Misurella, an author of fiction and nonfiction who teaches Italian American literature at East Stroudsburg University, recently recalled his long-ago encounter with Corso. Although the poet could be a difficult interview subject, especially if he was high or drunk, Misurella found him "clear-headed" and "insightful," if, at times, more involved with the tennis match on TV than with Misurella's questions.

"Here's the scene," Misurella said. "It was America's 200th birthday, and the French were in love with the U.S. Two American magazine journalists, Tom Moore and Harry Stein, started an English language bi-weekly newspaper called the Paris Metro and they hired me to be the articles editor and chief writer. I was in Paris on a Fulbright, lecturing on American literature and culture at the university, and writing a novel. One of the Metro staff knew Corso's wife, who was French-American and had just given birth to Corso's son, Max. Since I had written for the Village Voice, was interested in Beat poetry, and had known Seymour Krim, another Beat writer, I decided to do the interview myself. A phone call, during which I spoke to him and got his address – in a very ritzy apartment near the Eifel Tower, as I recall – and I took the Metro to go see him."

"His wife ushered me into their living room, where he was watching the French Open on television. He lay on a couch, head propped by a couple pillows, with his pants open and his hands inside them. He stayed that way through most of the interview, but he seemed alert, clear-headed, and, I thought, made interesting, insightful comments, though his eyes kept track of the match on TV."

"I think he was on the wagon at the time, probably because he was newly married and newly a father, but I don't know. I was ready for just about anything because stories I had heard about him from Seymour Krim and others were pretty wild. However, I was pleasantly surprised. He also seemed to like the idea of helping the fledgling Paris Metro publication."

Misurella asked Corso about, among other things, the "playful" humor of his poetry, his friendship with Allen Ginsberg, and, of course, the Beats.

On humor: "Let's say that to get rid of a lie you use humor. Especially with Americans – if they can laugh at something, then that gets rid of the thing they're laughing at … It's what I call a Divine Butcher – it gets rid of all the bullshit."

On Ginsberg: "Now he's acting like a groupie, with [Bob] Dylan. Wherever Dylan is, he's there. Allen always gets these things from people. Like if he shaves off his beard it becomes a big piece of news. 'Why did he shave off his beard?' everybody asks. 'It must be symbolic.'… Dylan said, 'Shave your beard off' and Allen said, 'Sure' and he shaved it off. Then people go around saying, 'Oh, there must be some big significance behind it. Allen is changing.' Weird, right? I mean what hair can mean, what can it suggest to people?"

On the Beats: "None of us were really alike. Kerouac and Burroughs were two different kinds of novelists. Myself and Ginsberg are very different. The Beat movement was very varied. That was one of the main things that held us together, the fact that we could all be different and still like each other's stuff."

Misurella brought Corso an edited typescript of the interview, which he approved, with some minor changes. "He wanted to be paid – 'the poet should always get paid,' he said – and I said that we'd pay him 100 francs, $20-$25 at the time,  if he gave us a poem to publish along with the interview and a photo of him and his wife and child. He agreed immediately, and we went to press. I don't recall ever seeing him again, although we had a phone call or two about the issue he was in. He seemed to like it very much."

Corso, though Italian American – he was born in Greenwich Village in 1930 to Michelina Colonna and Sam Corso, both teenage immigrants – generally isn't considered an "ethnic" writer. He was, however, not without italianità. His original name was Nunzio (he took Gregory for his Confirmation name) and he grew up around Italian Americans, including gangsters, who protected him when he was in prison. He visited Italy, where he gave readings of his poetry. In 1989, he was at the Cinecittà studios in Rome to film a small role in "Godfather III."  Corso, a (renegade) Catholic, lies in Rome's Protestant Cemetery, next to Percy Shelley.

The central trauma of Corso's life was his abandonment by his mother when he was an infant. Thereafter he was shuttled between foster homes and orphanages before being returned to his father. (A few years before he died in 2001, Corso was reunited with his mother, whom he thought had died in Italy but had been living in New Jersey.) When he wrote about Italian Americans, as in "Italian Extravaganza," he could observe them sarcastically, as a tribe with strange and confusing ways:

Mrs. Lombardi’s month-old son is dead.
I saw it in Rizzo’s funeral parlor,
A small purplish wrinkled head.
They’ve just finished having high mass for it;
They’re coming out now
…wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.
I encountered a very drunk Gregory Corso in 1973, at conference in Massachusetts on the Beats. When I told him my last name, he mumbled, "Oh. A wop, like me." Fred Misurella said he and Corso did not have an ethnic bonding moment during their conversation. "We didn't talk about Italian-American stuff, mainly because I didn't bring it up. Ethnicity was not a big subject at that time."

"As a prominent member of the Beat movement, Corso is very important," Misurella said. "But I put him a notch below Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. In terms of Italian American literature, despite his ethnic background, I don't see him as an Italian American writer, in the same way I don't see Don DeLillo or Richard Russo as Italian American novelists. I'd say he was blue collar and anti-establishment, qualities that may come from his ethnic background, but his expression had more American rebel about it than Italian American."

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