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Breaking the Rule of Cool

Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers

Nancy M. Grace
Ronna C. Johnson
Copyright Date: 2004
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  • Book Info
    Breaking the Rule of Cool
    Book Description:

    The Beat movement nurtured many female dissidents and artists who contributed to Beat culture and connected the Beats with the second wave of the women's movement. Although they have often been eclipsed by the men of the Beat Generation, the women's contributions to Beat literature are considerable.

    Covering writers from the beginning of the movement in the 1950s and extending to the present, this book features interviews with nine of the best-known women Beat writers, including Diane di Prima, ruth weiss, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, Brenda Frazer (Bonnie Bremser), Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman, and the critic Ann Charters. Each is presented by a biographical essay that details her literary or scholarly accomplishments.

    In these recent interviews the nine writers recall their lives in Beat bohemia and discuss their artistic practices. Nancy M. Grace outlines the goals and revelations of the interviews, and introduces the community of female Beat writers created in their conversations with the authors.

    Although they have not received attention equal to the men, women Beat writers rebelled against mainstream roles for young women and were exuberant participants in creating the Beat scene. Mapping their unique identities in the Beat movement, Ronna C. Johnson shows how their poetry, fiction, and memoirs broke the male rule that defined Beat women as silent bohemian "chicks" rather than artistic peers.

    Breaking the Rule of Coolcombines the interviews with literary criticism and biography to illustrate the vivacity and intensity of women Beat writers, and argues that American literature was revitalized as much by the women's work as by that of their male counterparts.

    Nancy M. Grace, a professor of English at the College of Wooster, is the author ofThe Feminized Male Character in Twentieth-Century Literature. Her work has appeared inContemporary Literature, theBeat Scene, and theArtful Dodge.

    Ronna C. Johnson, a lecturer in English and American Studies at Tufts University, has been published inCollege Literature, theReview of Contemporary Fiction, and thePoetry Project Newsletter. Johnson and Grace are the editors of and contributors toGirls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-599-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Mapping Women Writers of the Beat Generation
    (pp. 3-42)
    Ronna C. Johnson

    Feminist critics who have conducted the recovery of overlooked or elided women writers in twentieth-century literature have identified wide-ranging forms the neglect of these writers has taken, and women Beats have been part of this literary landscape of omission and exclusion.² Recognizing women Beat writers is significant for the many reasons that fuel feminist recovery projects, but also for reasons unique to this group. First, women Beat writers have been in the unusual and provocative situation of being the agents of their own recovery, writing themselves into Beat and postwar literary history through a spate of memoirs that records their...

  5. Interviewing Women Beat Writers
    (pp. 43-53)
    Nancy M. Grace

    One of the functions of giving an interview is to work out a knowledge of the past or, as historian Alice Kessler Harris has written, “to preserve what [we] remember for the future” (Grele 5). In the nine interviews included here, ruth weiss, Diane di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Ann Charters, Anne Waldman, Janine Pommy Vega, Brenda Frazer, and Joanne Kyger engage in such reflection. This group has not been extensively interviewed.¹ While Waldman has received some attention, and there are a few published interviews with di Prima and Kyger, the total of extant interviews with the women Beat...

  6. Interviews

    • Single Out:
      (pp. 55-81)
      ruth weiss

      A bohemian free spirit made peripatetic by the vagaries of history, ruth weiss is a self-proclaimed street and Beat poet. Born in Berlin in 1928, weiss escaped Nazi Germany with her parents in 1938 and immigrated to the United States. For more than a decade, she moved frequently, living in New York City, Switzerland, Chicago, and New Orleans. In 1952, she hitchhiked from Chicago to California, where she became a regular on the North Beach poetry scene, pioneering jazz poetry readings at a club called The Cellar. Her community in the San Francisco Bay area has long included painters, sculptors,...

    • Pieces of a Song:
      (pp. 83-107)
      Moffeit Tony and Diane di Prima

      Beat’s most famously woman poet is Diane di Prima. Her dedication to that vocation, combined with a brazen repudiation of prescriptions for female behavior, has rendered her a paragon of artistic independence for many of the women Beat writers. Di Prima was born into a Catholic Italian family in Brooklyn in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was a spirited anarchist who taught her to love literature and to remain passionately independent. In the early fifties she briefly attended Swarthmore College, but left to pursue a life in poetry in New York’s Lower East Side. She wrote and performed her own poetry,...

    • Artista:
      (pp. 109-131)
      Brenda (Bonnie) Frazer

      Bonnie Frazer has lived along a border of American mainstream culture, dropping out for writing and hipster adventure and dropping in for work and family life several times over. Similarly, her work has probed a fault line of American writing, the point at which confession borders salacious entertainment. Frazer was born in Washington, D.C., in 1939—the end of the Depression. Her father worked for the Department of Labor. After studying briefly at Sweet Briar College, in 1959 she met Beat poet Ray Bremser and married him three weeks later. In 1961 she, Bremser, and their baby daughter, Rachel, fled...

    • Places to Go:
      (pp. 133-153)
      Joanne Kyger

      Joanne Kyger’s immersion in the cultural climate in which the San Francisco Renaissance converged with the Beat movement aligns her historically with many other writers discussed in this study. But her impress on the poetry scenes and poetics with which she is identified—an ironic wryness, understated, pacific, and tensile—suggests the California character of her work. Born in 1934 in Vallejo, California, Kyger studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She has developed a poetics of personal expression mediated through classical forms, obscure local allusions, and cryptic, dark irony; her later work expresses an Eastern aesthetic reflecting...

    • Drive:
      (pp. 155-179)
      Hettie Jones

      Hettie Jones, née Cohen, was born in Laurelton, New York, in 1934 and knew from the age of six that she had to leave home—“Unlike any woman in my family or anyone I’d ever actually known, I was going tobecome—something, anything, whatever that meant” (How I Became10). In 1955, after graduating from Virginia’s Mary Washington College with a degree in drama, she headed to Columbia University and then to Greenwich Village, where she found a burgeoning arts avant-garde. Her role in the inception and production of the literary magazineYugenwith her then-husband, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka,...

    • In the Night Café:
      (pp. 181-205)
      Joyce Johnson

      With the 1983 publication of Joyce Johnson’sMinor Characters, a memoir of her experiences as a young writer coming up in the nascent Beat scene in New York City, women associated with the movement became visible. Johnson was born Joyce Glassman in 1934 in New York City, and after an adolescence devoted to theater and the piano, she quit her composition studies and declared her intention to write. She left Barnard College in 1954 one course short of the degree requirements, found a job in publishing, and began to focus on becoming a novelist. She earned a book contract in...

    • The Story and Its Writer:
      (pp. 207-229)
      Ann Charters

      Ann Charters is responsible for initiating a canon of Beat writers and writing through her prolific scholarship, criticism, and literary history focused on the Beat generation. Charters is Jack Kerouac’s first biographer and bibliographer, and the only one to have worked with him to establish a record of his work. She is the editor of major anthologies of Beat literature includingThe Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America (Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1983),The Portable Beat Reader(1992), andBeat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation?(2001), texts which have mapped compelling arguments for the continued attraction...

    • Tracking the Serpent:
      (pp. 231-253)
      Janine Pommy Vega

      Janine Pommy Vega was born in 1942 in Jersey City, New Jersey, into a Polish-Prussian family. Reading Jack Kerouac’sOn the Roadin 1958 inspired her to search for an elusive intensity of experience in the Beat world. Leaving home at the age of sixteen after graduating from high school, she headed for Greenwich Village, where she met Herbert Huncke; Allen Ginsberg; Peter Orlovsky, who later became her lover; and Elise Cowen, her roommate. Within the next five years, she met and married the Peruvian painter Fernando Vega; traveled with him to Paris, Israel, and Spain; endured his sudden death...

    • Fast Speaking Woman:
      (pp. 255-278)
      Anne Waldman

      Entering poetry late in the Beat movement, Anne Waldman encompasses diverse literary schools and eras in her work, embracing Beat and New York school poetics; drawing from Sappho, Stein, and the Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina; and performing slam poetry. Her works are produced from a profusion of media and art forms, many inspired by collaboration with writers, musicians, and dancers, and created to be performed. Waldman balances an aesthetic that advocates both personal expression and political activism; her longstanding practice of Buddhism merged with her affinity for postmodern literary theory and praxis to produce a poetry of complex visual and...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 279-282)
  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 283-288)
  9. Index
    (pp. 289-295)