Beat Scrapbook with Poet Gerald Nicosia; Hosted by Chicago Newsman Rick Kogan | Dec 10

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Join poet Gerald Nicosia and host Rick Kogan during a discussion about Beat Scrapbook, Gerald Nicosia’s sixth book of poetry, in which he looks back on his five decades in the Beat world, both as Jack Kerouac’s biographer (Memory Babe) and as a member of the San Francisco post-Beat group of poets and writers.


The 42 poems in the book are combination tribute/eulogies to people Nicosia loved–most of whom he knew personally, yet a few like Kerouac whom he never met but had a powerful influence on his life.  Some of his subjects are famous writers–Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti among them–others are fellow writers who never acquired much renown, such as Jack Mueller. Tony Scibella, and Reginald Lockett, but whom Nicosia sees as great spirits and mentors nonetheless.

There are also poems for icons and guiding spirits in his own life–people he saw as living the Beat ethic–including the short-lived Chicago folksinger Steve Goodman, a charismatic prisoner called Sugar Bear on Pennsylvania’s Death Row, a demon-driven ex-girlfriend, and a Vietnam veteran martyred by the California legal system.  Nicosia also looks at how he came so deeply under the Beat influence, tracing it back to his own father, who grew up on the streets of Chicago and  hitchhiked to California at the age of 17 in 1927, to follow in Jack London’s footsteps; when Nicosia was just ten, his father told him that everything he needed to know about life could be found in London’s book The Iron Heel.

Awakened as a poet by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Nicosia has for years been pioneering his own genre of poetry, which he calls “people poems.”  With Beat Scrapbook, he has taken those “people poems” to a new level, something akin to a full-spectrum portrait of the American outsider community.

“I can’t understand why I don’t see more of Gerald Nicosia’s work in the mainstream media.  I get a poem sent to me every day by and I rarely read anything as directly moving as Nicosia’s (unless it’s a classic on weekends).  Same with the New Yorker.  Nicosia’s work is so full of heart and soul.  His poems are peopled like those of no other writer I’m familiar with these days.  Real, specific people.  It’s like I can reach out and touch them, because he has reached out and touched me.”

— Chuck Brickley, award-winning haiku poet, author of earthshine

“In Beat Scrapbook, a truly Beat extension of the great tradition of poetic remembrance, Gerald Nicosia homages the people he has loved and admired in his life.  Mourning and rapture merge in these fine portraits of lives lived creatively and on the edge.  This is a profoundly moving and validating work.  It is nothing less than a poetry of life and love over death.”

–Ian MacFadyen, British poetry critic and editor of Naked Lunch @ 50

Gerald Nicosia may be the best-kept secret in American poetry.  In Beat Scrapbook, his sixth collection, published by Coolgrove Press, he offers dozens of poetic portraits of the people who have most moved him in his life.  Some are famous Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso.  Others are Beat writers that few have heard of, such as Tony Scibella, Jack Mueller, John Montgomery, and Reginald Lockett.  There are a few women he loved, whose lives were Beat, though not necessarily their work.  There are guiding spirits, whom he sees as Beat, including a man on Death Row called Sugar Bear and the tragic, short-lived Chicago folksinger Steve Goodman.  And then there are his mother and father, from whom his own Beat vision was formed.  His father, he writes in “Social Justice 101,” told him when he was ten years old that “everything I needed to know/ was in a book by/ Jack London/ called The Iron Heel.”


Gerald Nicosia has moved in Beat circles for nearly 50 years.  In his twenties, he traveled 50,000 miles in the United States and Canada seeking out people who had known Jack Kerouac, in order to gather material for the biography of Kerouac he was writing called Memory Babe.  That book won the Distinguished Young Writer Award from the National Society of Arts and Letters while it was still a work-in-progress; and today, nearly 40 years after it was first published, it is still regarded as the definitive work on Kerouac’s life and writing.  Later, moving from Chicago to San Francisco, Nicosia joined the group of post-Beat poets in the Bay Area and became friends with the people he had started out merely writing of.  It is no wonder, then, that Nicosia has “plenty” to teach even Beat biographer Michael Schumacher, who wrote the introduction to Beat Scrapbook.  Nicosia, Schumacher writes, is a “teller of secrets.”

But Beat Scrapbook is not just Beat biography broken up to look like poetry.  “Nicosia is a real poet,” the Los Angeles critic Lionel Rolfe wrote in the Huffington Post, “very much in the San Francisco tradition of Ferlinghetti, Patchen, Rexroth and Ginsberg.”  Nicosia’s poetic chops were developed in the hundreds of readings he gave both in the U.S. and abroad, from tiny cafés and unknown venues to notable sites such as Bob Holman’s Bowery Poetry Club in New York, Bob Weir’s Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California, the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, Wales, and Shakespeare & Company Bookstore in Paris.  From those readings he learned the importance of sound and rhythm, emphasis and musical delivery, in poetry.  But he also learned a lot from working with the master poets he knew, two of whose collections he edited, Bob Kaufman’s Cranial Guitar and Ted Joans’ Teducation.

Many of the people who matter in poetry have been noticing Gerald Nicosia’s poetry for many years.  When his first collection Lunatics, Lovers, Poets, Vets & Bargirls was published in 1991, the éminence grise of Beat poetry, Harold Norse, wrote, “Very strong, clear-eyed, fine music, full throttle.  Nicosia is a portrait painter, and a damn good one.”  Anne Waldman wrote that “Nicosia’s poetry …  continues the Beat lineage.”  When his second book of poetry was published in 2002, poet Michael McClure wrote, “Gerry Nicosia’s poems are written with compassion and clarity.  Love, California Style is like some of the new jazz in its many-sidedness and intelligence.”  Musician/poet Ed Sanders called Nicosia’s fourth poetry book Night Train to Shanghai “good bardic travel poesy,” and he liked Nicosia’s use of often very short lines to “create a smooth yet interrupted flow like tracing the ornaments on a packed necklace.”

Some of America’s top contemporary poets have also expressed their admiration for Nicosia’s poetry.  Clark Coolidge wrote of Nicosia’s fifth collection, The Ghost of Kerouac, “Nicosia’s poems are tuned to the spirits of our living Beat America.”  Sharon Doubiago wrote that “Gerry Nicosia’s poems have a beauty that is soul-satisfying–funny, flippant, genuine, from the heart … [he writes] deeply meditative poems too.”

Perhaps hip laureate Michael Lally summed it up best when he wrote, “Gerald Nicosia’s poetry proves Kerouac did not die in vain.”

Nicosia, whose life and work have always been aligned with the hip and the outlaws, was thus deeply honored when in 2013 he received one of the first Acker Awards, named after the queen of hip and outlaw writers, Kathy Acker: “for avant-garde excellence.”

According to Michael Schumacher: Nicosia’s “years of memories, stripped down to minimalism” are now shared with strangers in Beat Scrapbook as a “gift of both familiarity and surprise.”


Rick Kogan began his career at sixteen, working for the Chicago Sun-Times during the tumultuous Democratic Convention of 1968. He is currently senior staff writer and columnist for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine and host of the popular WGN-AM Sunday Papers radio program, which airs in thirty-eight states and Canada. He was named Chicago’s Best Reporter in 1999, Chicago’s Greatest Living Journalist in 2002, and was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in March 2003. A longtime friend to Ann Landers and her editor for the last five years of her life, Kogan lives with his wife in Chicago.

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