Ted Joans, one of the original Beat poets, was born in Cairo, Illinois on 4 July 1928. By his twenties, living in New York City, he moved in the surrealist world of painters, jazz players, and poets. If a scene was happening Joans had it covered. A partial list of his friends reads like a who’s who of the important creators of the 20th century: Allen Ginsberg, Ella Fitzgerald, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Langston Hughes, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Anis Nin, Jackson Pollock, Weegee, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Yoko Ono, William Burroughs, Miles Davis, Gregory Corso, Max Ernst, Gary Snyder, Thelonious Monk…to name a few.
People are still reminiscing about the legendary party-happenings that he used to host in Greenwich village in the early 50s. His most well-known work is the graffiti icon BIRD LIVES! Ted recalled how in 1955 when Parker died he “gave charcoal and chalk to three Bird listeners and instructed them to scrawl on all the subway walls of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx: BIRD LIVES! And they did just that.”
Joans claims the African continent as his home, although he and his partner, Laura Corsiglia, regularly shuttle back and forth between Africa, Europe, the United States and Oaxaca. Ted and Laura did an evening of poetry and art called Beauty and the Beat last fall at the IAGO, and during the show Ted said he thought “that Africa should start sending missionaries out into the world. The missionaries would teach people how to be cool.” That seems like an excellent suggestion and Zocalo nominates Ted Joans as the number one Minister of Coolness. Joans, today, in his seventies, is still wailing, following the dream trail song lines of art, looking with his poet eyes at the world, searching for the next first line, the fantastic squiggles of reality.
Laura and Ted are a team; writing, painting and traveling the world together, “I have traveled in every country in Africa except Angola, Botswana and Namibia and I’ve read poetry in most of them. I always say proudly that I read in Libya cause I was there before Ghadaffi. There was a library there, a dusty little place. I went in there, I talked to them. “Well, I’ll have to get a clearance from Washington,” they said. Because in those days they didn’t have the things we have now. She had to send a telex and Washington gets back, “Clear.” So I did a program, talk about my Beat Generation buddies…see I came in on the wings of Langston Hughes. Some libraries had Langston Hughes’ books there, some not because he had been on McCarthy’s list. Some evil bits went on back in those Eisenhower days, you know.”
ON THE BEATS
“I’ve lived out of the States, I still do. I mean at first it was self-imposed exile because of America’s racism and the keeping up, the trying to keep up with the Joneses. They didn’t realize that I am the Joanses. And the Beat Generation tried to tell them that. Hey, hey wake up! That’s not it, you know. You’ve been through those two big wars and came out unscathed but you should change. You should change and make a better world for yourself and other people.
See, messianic people like Ginsberg, he really had that attitude. Change and transform America. You see Allen, after he died I told people they should stop, they shouldn’t write like 1999 A.D. I told them to write A.G. He used his poetry, he also turned his back on a kind of lucrative career that he could have had. There were so many editors that asked, “Write a novel Mr. Ginsberg. Write anything.” He said no. Ginsberg turned his back on all of that. He could have done it. They’d say, “Look, now Jack is gone or he’s still alive down there in Florida but he’s turned his back, he’s gone crazy. Write a road novel.” It is true, Allen’s road was longer and much wider than Jack Kerouac’s. You know Allen.
Jack was U.S.A., the all-Americana. He wrote in a certain way that people in the United States could identify a lot with it. Then they made this movie, “Easy Rider”, people on the road. Although, it had a tragic ending. Kerouac’s book didn’t have a tragic ending. See, Kerouac’s was ecstatic. But Allen refused, Allen wrote his poetry. Allen also told people, trying to tell all America straighten up and fly right. Ginsberg didn’t mince his words, but see Jack did.
Also, Ginsberg didn’t have like Jack had somebody looking over his shoulder. Jack had Mama. I used to call up. I never met the woman. I’d say my name is Ted Joans, I would like to speak to Jack if that’s possible. She would say, “You’re not another one of those Jews calling here.” Really she was a meany. And he became a real conservative because of her. He lived there with her. His Dad told him never leave her. Take care of your Mom. Don’t you ever leave her. Ginsberg said he had witnessed some terrible things going on between the two of them.”
Joans said that he is very happy to have survived to this point: “Once upon a time there was a whole bevy of Beats and now there’s only a few. There’s Alan Ansen in Athens, Greece, who people don’t know very well. Without Alan Ansen there would be no William Burroughs. Read some biographies on Burroughs.
In his writings. there’s Dr. Benway, the one who comes in and throws the scalpel at the patient. Well, Benway is Alan Ansen. He was the secretary for Auden when Auden was living in New York.
Alan along with Auden was in that sort of in-the-closet gay bunch then. That’s something Ginsberg did. He was the first one to break out. He put it out front. He embarrassed the whole bunch of them, they got really uptight about it.
Another Beat poet still going strong is Gary Snyder. Gary is very good. Both he and Laura have a thing about the big forest. Laura likes bears, like I like rhinoceroses. When I introduced her to Gary they started talking about it. They have this thing, you know about trees. She reads his things.
With me I had another thing going on from the previous generation. I was always interested in the surrealists. I go on trying to get people to get away from the idea that surrealism is just a way of painting and that painting has to be the Coca-Cola guy of surrealists who is no longer a surrealist, Salvador Dali…Breton and all the others knocked him out.
He has as much to do with surrealism as I have to do with turning the clouds upside down that is above us. This man, at the beginning, he was very important. But at a certain point he changed. It had a lot to do with his companion, Gala who rhymes closely with a word called Dollah. She says with his technique, don’t waste it doing these things for Breton and the others. Save it for the public and watch what happens. She was right! When he hit New York one of the agents started a thing. See there was the Daily News which was a newspaper and he turned it to Dali News. I met the man, I was Dali-ized like the rest of the United States. I painted a portrait of him.”
“Oaxaca is our favorite town here (in Mexico). Laura creates while she’s here. She paints, she’s done a series of drawings on bakery bags, where we buy our bread they have white bags. She takes them apart. When I’m in Seattle, I go to T.J.s. That doesn’t stand for Ted Joans, that’s Trader Joe’s. You buy something there, especially you buy wines and they give you big, strong, brown bags. Well, I turn them wrong-side out. Then I take them apart, you know a shopping bag is this size, when I take them apart I’ve got a lot of space there. I take them apart. That’s what I do.
I’m sort of retired from the things they taught me in schools about how to draw. I don’t do that. All that, Laura does. Someday, it’s already magical, but I hope it would become a lucrative thing.”
ON THEIR ART
“Sometimes I do a collage now and then. Laura did the drawings in the book WOW . These are drawings that were done while I was sitting across from her. Another drawing in the front part, she did.
That’s another thing you’ll find out in this interview. I talk more about Laura. Why is because at this part of the game, I’d rather talk about her art I than about my yesteryear paintings.
But in fact, I’m waiting to see if Berkeley is going to buy a stash of drawings I did. I’ve got drawings I did in Tangiers of Bowles, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Alan Ansen. I had a big house there. I showed it to Laura several years ago. It’s so big it’s now a hotel. I used to do little fantasy things like out of movies. I’d wear a white cotton suit, black shirts, a red tie and a fez. I’d come along the middle part of Tangiers, the Moroccan police or the Moroccan hustlers would say, “See that man, he’s a rich man.
Now, I told you I’d divorced myself from painting but there is one on-going artwork that’s always there. I do a collective drawing called Long Distance Exquisite Corpse where you fold it and draw. I started in 1974, there’s perhaps one hundred and sixty-four people now. I’m very selective about who I ask to contribute to this drawing. They always leave lines for the next person.
Long Distance Exquisite Corpse is a continuous idea of a collective or collaborative authorship, in which an ongoing composite image is producing its own meaning undetermined by any single participant. On this thing, I’ve got all my Beat Generation buddies, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Leroi Jones, and I got Burroughs. In Boulder, I went into his room and said, “Bill, I want you to contribute to this.” He said, “Yeah, I heard. You got your surreal thing. You know I don’t draw, I write.” I said, “I don’t want you to write, just follow the lines.” “Follow whose lines, Ted?” So I said, “Well, someone left the lines, you grab the lines and do whatever you want.” He said, “I don’t draw Ted.” “Don’t you ever doodle?” “Sometimes sitting around or when the phone rings.” I said, “Well, wait until the phone rings.” The phone did ring while I was there and he told whoever it was that I was there with those surreal ideas of mine. I finally had to stop him because he was going over to the next lines and that was it.
Within one year or more Bill was a painter. Paul Bowles, who was a friend of mine, said that Bill wrote to him, “Paul, I make more money with these damned paintings than writing. I may never write another book.”
Ted and Laura have that effect on people. They are catalysts and stirrers of the creative juices. You can’t be a room with them for longer than 10 minutes before you’re working on a group drawing, reciting poetry, drinking white wine or just discussing Monk’s Geometric Riffs and the Unconscious. They (Ted and Laura, not the Geometric Riffs) plan on returning to Oaxaca later this year.
Before Ted and Laura packed their poems, bakery bag drawings, and their traveling surrealist menagerie, the rhinoceros, okapi, tapir, aardvark, pangolin, echidna, and the platypus into their metaphorical back packs and headed north, Joans recited one of his poems for us:
If you see a man
walking down the street
talking to himself,
don’t run away,
he’s a poet and you have
nothing to fear from a poet
except the truth.
This interview was conducted in November 2002 and was published in Zocalo in summer 2003.