Snapshot Poetics

The Queer Cultural Center and the Contemporary Jewish Museum recently collaborated to produce a performance event, “Snapshot Poetics Now: Queer Encounters with Allen Ginsberg,” inspired by the CJM’s current exhibition Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg. Qcc and CJM invited six San Francisco Bay Area artists and scholars (including me) to engage with Ginsberg’s candid photographs. We used the photographs as portals into Ginsberg’s milieu.

I was drawn to this image.

Allen Ginsberg, Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus, laundry-man..., 1953. Gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997, 6 ½ x 9 ½ in. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis. Copyright © 2013 The Allen Ginsberg LLC.  Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg. On view May 23–September 8, 2012. Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg. On view May 23–September 8, 2012. Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Allen Ginsberg, Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus, laundry-man…, 1953. Gelatin silver print, printed 1984–1997, 6 ½ x 9 ½ in. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gary S. Davis. Copyright © 2013 The Allen Ginsberg LLC

Ginsberg didn’t focus his camera, or his attention, on very many women. This is one of only two women pictured in the exhibition. Most are snapshots of Ginsberg’s lovers, literary mentors, and protagonists in the mythology of the Beat Generation.

Ginsberg’s handwritten caption identifies this exception as follows:

Rebecca Ginsberg, Buba, wife of Pincus, laundry-man, later tobacco store owner, my paternal grandmother (b. Russia, near Kamenetz-Podolski, b.May 1869-d. July 1962), visiting her elder son’s house, here 84 years old at the table for Seder preparations. She’d attended adult education English classes in Newark, 14 years earlier, and written a patriotic essay declaring “God Blast America!” Younger son, uncle Abe, & daughters Aunt Rose, Clara & H.S. teacher Hannah were her children. Dining room 428 East 34th Street, Paterson, New Jersey, 1953.

Ginsberg situates Rebecca Ginsberg primarily in relation to her husband and children. Who was she, and what did she do outside the family? Ginsberg gives us only one hint: he mentions a “patriotic essay” she wrote for her adult education English class, at age seventy, fourteen years before this photograph was taken.

I tried to imagine how that essay sounded and why it had survived in Ginsberg’s memory as a key to his grandmother’s identity. At CJM, standing in front of a mural-sized enlargement of Rebecca Ginsberg’s photo at the entrance to the gallery, I performed my rendition:

GOD BLAST AMERICA

God Blast America

for its freedom

for men

to speak their minds,

for boys

to cluster

under awnings

and on tar roofs

to commit words

to memory, or at least the page.

God Blast America

for its freedom

for sons,

for its freedom

not to run the store,

not to provide

for elders,

or marry.

Or when they do,

the freedom to shoot

a wife in the head

and not serve time.

God Blast America

for the freedoms

men do not share,

for their outrage at custom

that does not extend

beyond their sex.

God Blast America!

Promise me freedom

and give me only a taste

at the Seder table

of my eldest son.

No freedom for me

in Paterson, New Jersey.

No freedom

for me surrounded here

by kin who call me

Buba, who call me Mrs.

Ginsberg, who call me

grandmother, mother, my wife.

Who call me

buttoned up, bitter, bitch,

headstrong, homely, hag.

Who call me

if they need something.

Who knew what I

would say if

I could speak?

“Read Dostoyevsky?”

Who knew what I

would write, what name

I might sign? Buba? Luba? Nana? Reba?

No freedom for me at the Seder table

in Paterson, New Jersey,

where I look

my grandson, the writer,

straight in the eye,

in the lens,

and refuse

to smile

for the camera.

Blast his camera!

Blast his poet’s pen!

Who knew what it meant

when I wrote,

“God Blast America?”

in 1939.

Not him.

Not them.

photo

Rebecca Ginsberg and Tirza Latimer. Photo: Jewelle Gomez

Acting as stops on a gallery tour, each performer brought a unique perspective to the exhibition Beat Memories while creating new narratives about queer culture, queer history, queer poetics, and queer visuality.

Kim Anno riffed on the caption of a photo picturing Jack Kerouac on the Staten Island Ferry Wharf. Kim performed against the backdrop of a video created for the occasion by Joyce Burstein.

Kim Anno riffed on the caption of a photo picturing Jack Kerouac on the Staten Island Ferry Wharf. Kim performed against the backdrop of a video created for the occasion by Joyce Burstein.

 

Justin Chin performed in front of a photo captioned "Bill Burroughs in back bedroom waiting for company."

Justin Chin performed in front of a photo captioned “Bill Burroughs in back bedroom waiting for company.”

 

D-L Alvarez paid tribute to City Lights Books on its 60th anniversary.

D-L Alvarez paid tribute to City Lights Books on its sixtieth anniversary.

 

Jaime Cortez conducted a sparkling conversation with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Jaime Cortez conducted a sparkling conversation with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

 

Jewelle Gomez closed with a series of open windows.

Jewelle Gomez closed with a series of open windows.

The Snapshot Poetics event is part of an ongoing series, Queer Conversations on Culture and the Arts (QCCA), which brings together culture-makers to discuss a broad range of LGBTQI topics in the humanities and the arts. California College of the Arts collaborates with Qcc to produce these events year-round. The event, moreover,  is one of dozens of queer-affirmative events rolling out this month under the banner of the National Queer Arts Festival. The Queer Cultural Center has produced the festival since 1998. To date, NQAF has sponsored over four hundred events created by one thousand queer artists. It was an honor to participate.

Comments (4)

  • Thanx for providing the chance to read your poem for Buba again! What a treat and what an wonderful experience the afternoon was. x0j

  • Contemporary Jewish Museum says:

    So happy to have you back at the CJM, Tirza!

  • Hi Tirza, I had a winderful time at this show, thank you for capturing it here. A question: at some point during the readings, I think maybe during DL Alvarez’s piece, there was a mention of a book coming out in August as a revival of the queer beat themes in the show, but the title has escaped me! Any idea what it was or how I can track that down? Thank you!

  • William Haning says:

    Justin Chin is a marvel. He is a light in your house.

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