It seems fitting that there's a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book related Gregory Corso. Back in the 1990's I remember stories, perhaps apocryphal, of Corso walking around the Poetry Project and telling people to give him a dollar. When asked why, he'd say because I'm Gregory Corso!
So when I saw the Kickstarter page for The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews with Gregory Corso, I knew that I had to support it.
I love underdogs, and Beat poet Gregory Corso (1930–2001) was an underdog’s underdog. He always struck me as the most dangerous and least housebroken among the core group of the Beats. Perhaps because of that image, Corso was regarded as the Ringo in the Beat fab four of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.
A collection of interviews with Corso will hopefully start to change those misperceptions. Edited by Richard Schober, The Whole Shot collects 13 rare and out-of-print Corso interviews from 1955 to 1982, with a foreword by Dick Brukenfeld, publisher of Corso's debut 1955 collection The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems.
I emailed questions to Schober, who lives near Cambridge, MA, and we talked about the book, Corso, getting permissions, and the acronym OPM.
The Kickstarter will end on March 26, which would have been the Corso's 85th birthday. Get over there and help a worthy cause.
I guess I'll ask the obvious question first: Why Gregory Corso?
Back in the heyday of the so-called “Beat Generation,” the late 1950s and early 1960s, Corso was considered one of the most influential and groundbreaking American poets but, unlike the other major Beat writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs), he has fallen into relative obscurity.
In my opinion, Corso was the most beat of the Beats. His backstory is fascinating. When he was just an infant, he was abandoned to foster care by his young parents and his mother just up and left. In 1941, after 11 years in a series of foster homes, Gregory’s father brought him home, thinking it would help him avoid the military in World War II. He ended up getting drafted anyhow and was shipped overseas.
Corso spent his early teens homeless on the streets of New York City and spent time in prison, including New York’s infamous Tombs, for a series of petty crimes. When he was 17, he was arrested one more time. As the story goes, he broke into a tailor shop to steal a suit so that he could impress a girl on a date. Since he had prior offenses, he was sentenced to two to three years at Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, New York. There, he educated himself by reading every book in the prison library including the 1905 Standard Dictionary from cover to cover. It was also in prison that he started writing poetry.
A chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg shortly after his release from prison led to introductions to both Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. The two poets and two novelists formed the inner circle of writers who launched the Beat movement.
Given that history, it’s hard to believe there hasn’t been a collection of Corso interviews before.
Similar works have been published for the other three major Beat writers (Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg's Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996, and Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997), so I figured, why not Corso?
I would really have liked to tackle a comprehensive biography of Corso but I don’t have the discipline for such a large project. I’m more of a researcher. I really enjoyed tracking down copies of these interviews in obscure literary magazines and old newspapers and then getting in touch with the copyright holders to negotiate permissions to reprint the works in the book.
How about a peek into the table of contents?
There are 13 interviews in “The Whole Shot” that span the most productive years of Corso’s career: from 1955, when his first collection of poems was published, to 1982, the year following the publication of his last book of all new poetry.
Which interview is your favorite?
If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Gordon Selerie’s interview, which took place in 1980. Corso gives the most details of his early years but, being conducted later in his career, he also gets to touch upon almost his entire body of work.
The beauty of this collection is that no two interviews are alike. The earlier pieces, back when the Beats were media darlings, are more humorous--light pieces for the general reading public, like the two Art Buchwald syndicated newspaper articles reproduced in the book. The later interviews are more in-depth, the tone is more serious, and the focus is more on poetry and poetics and less on the whole “Beatnik” phenomenon. Throughout them all, however, Corso’s sense of humor and his candor, his direct honesty, are evident. He was was a colorful character.
Is this your first time as an editor?
I was an English major in college, not really by choice but because I changed my major so many times in my five years as an undergrad that it just so happened that I ended up with more credits in English than anything else since I had been taking writing and literature electives all along.
In my mid-20s, I edited and published one issue of a 32-page literary magazine--a few short stories and poems written by me and some friends. A true underground publication. I’m sure the vast majority of copies ended up under tons of garbage in a landfill somewhere. I sent copies to dozens of writers whose work I admired to get their feedback. Only Robert Creeley and Richard Brautigan responded, both positively.
Then, later on, my wife and I published four issues of a magazine full of tips and advice for owners of giant breed dogs. It was called Canis Max. We did most of the writing and all of the editing and were just about to break even when the distributor who got it into the bookstores went bankrupt.
Do you remember the first time you encountered Corso's work?
It was really by chance. Shortly after college, my roommates and I would haunt the used bookstores in Harvard Square (Cambridge, MA). I came across a copy of Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death and picked it up just because I liked the title. I read it. I loved it. It was the perfect mix of humor and wordplay with a touch of surrealism. I was hooked and then went on to explore all the other Beat writers, mostly Kerouac.
This was really my first exposure to Beat literature. Even though I was supposed to read On the Road for one of my college classes, I ended up just reading the Cliff Notes.
As someone who has edited an anthology, I know first-hand that permissions, and the obtaining thereof, is often difficult. What has been your experience, getting permissions for these interviews? Have you had to deal with the Corso estate?
It was very time-consuming but not really frustrating. I don’t think I could have pulled it off without the Internet, though, to help me with my detective work. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to deal with the Corso estate, which was probably a good thing since none of his children responded to any of my requests. As it turned out, all of the interviews reproduced in The Whole Shot, the intellectual property, belonged in most cases to the interviewers or their estates who were much more responsive. A couple pieces were actually in the public domain.
What led to your setting up a Kickstarter?
In a perfect world, I would just shell out a couple thousand dollars of my own money, publish the book, and hope for the best. However, I have four daughters, two in braces and one going to college in the fall, so I really couldn’t justify investing anything but time and effort in something as speculative as an independent publishing project right now. If this book is ever going to see the light of day any time soon, it’s going to require a little bit of OPM, other people’s money.
This is actually my second attempt at funding The Whole Shot on Kickstarter. Back in 2011, I tried and failed but I think it was because I was a bit premature. The book was nowhere near completion. I only had a handful of interviews and still hadn’t received permissions to reprint them all. This time, the book is done--designed, laid out, proofread, and all the permissions are in hand. If it fails again, I’ll probably try a more traditional route to getting it published, maybe shop it around to some university presses at schools that have strong Beat literature programs.