UND Releases New Video Footage of Beat Writers

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UND Releases New Video Footage of Beat Writers

The University of North Dakota (UND) is making digital video of famous “Beat Generation” poets freely available via the Internet. The historic digital video records the 5th Annual UND Writers Conference, “City Lights in North Dakota,” which featured Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg. The video is part of the UND Writers Conference Collection preserved in UND’s Chester Fritz Library. Access the Digital Video

Beat Generation Digital Video Information

Grand Forks, North Dakota is a seemingly unlikely place to find scholarly treasures; yet since 1970, the annual University of North Dakota (UND) Writers Conference, a free and open event, has hosted approximately 277 authors, including four Nobel Laureates and twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners, who have given readings, spoken with the audience, and interacted with each other. Beginning in 1974, conference proceedings have been recorded, resulting in approximately 500 hours of unique video footage. Found within this archive are materials from the first video recorded conference “City Lights in North Dakota,” which featured Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg. It was the first time that all of them had been together on stage in 20 years. While Beat biographers refer to the event, it usually remains something mentioned only in passing as what actually happened during that week was thought to be lost to history. From March 18 through March 22, 1974, the ideas some of the most influential members of the “Beat Generation” were recorded for posterity, including approximately nine and half hours of video, which University of North Dakota is making freely available online for scholarly, educational, and historical purposes.

This footage was recently discovered in the UND Chester Fritz Library Special Collection vault in a box containing 28 mostly unlabeled film reels donated to the University by former UND Writers Conference director James McKenzie. Using funds from a National Endowment for the Arts Access to Artistic Excellence Audience Development grant, the UND Writers Conference in collaboration with the UND Chester Fritz Library sent the films to D.C. Video in Burbank, California, a company that specializes in digitizing rare and obsolete video formats. Although the reels had deteriorated over the past three decades, the preserved footage is of decent quality and contains material that is not only entertaining, but also of immense scholarly interest.

Significant portions of the conversations of the Beat Generation poets were dedicated to passionate discussions of the need to return to the land and to reduce energy consumption. In Ginsberg’s words, their time in Grand Forks was dedicated to “talking about biology, politics, sociology, police state, metaphysics, poetics, farming, advertising, condition, psychology, conditioned fat slobs, America.” He claims the topics were “some random suggestions” in an attempt to “prophesy another way of life for America.”

As the footage reveals, during this time, “the Beats” repeatedly advocated subsistence farming over agri-business. From the stage, Gary Snyder declared himself “an agrarian,” and Orlovsky stated that he was “a farmer.” Both encouraged the audience to grow their own food rather than buying it from supermarkets. Ginsberg, too, called for de-centralized farming. Although the topic had been discussed all week, on the last day of the conference, Kenneth Rexroth, speaking to “the Beats,” pointed out what was obvious to the audience: “[y]ou see, you have to realize, you guys, that you’re talking to a bunch of people whose families are farmers.” While “the Beats” described the benefits of going organic, creating compost piles, clearing land, and planting crops with limited machinery, the audience was not swayed by their seemingly romanticized descriptions. In response, one person, who “grew up in western North Dakota, small town, U.S.A.” and “spent half his] life working on a farm in the summer,” declared “the American people will be too damn soft to ever be self-sufficient agriculturally again.” In other words, the conversations between the audience and the panelists at times became contentious perhaps because many in attendance were first-generation college students who were pursuing a degree with one goal in mind: getting OFF the farm.

The Beats also discussed America’s dependence on fossil fuels and promoted the use of renewable resources, such as solar and wind power, to reduce pollution. Again, the North Dakotans in attendance were well versed on the subject. As the panelists learned, the state had 20% of the world’s lignite coal. When asked, “the Beats” described the potential environmental and social impact of the increased strip-mining of coal in western North Dakota, which was then being developed. Allen Ginsberg, along with the others, encouraged the audience to join a group known as CLEAN in their protests against the expansion.Moreover, Ginsberg apparently wrote and read an occasional poem on the subject while in Grand Forks, which is available on the audio footage most likely for the first time.

In addition to the twelve discovered reels containing footage from the 1974 UND Writers Conference, digitization of the remaining reels has revealed over ten hours of footage from the 1975 UND Writers Conference, featuring Ken Kesey, William H. Gass, John Barth, Ishmael Reed, N. Scott Momaday, Wendell Berry, James Welch, and Alice Walker. This footage will also be made available online once copyright permissions have been obtained.

National Endowment for the Arts Announces Grant for UND Writers Conference

$15,000 grant will support the 43rd annual UND Writers Conference and The UND Writers Conference Digital Project

Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, announced that the University of North Dakota Writers Conference has been recommended for a grant of $15,000 to support the 43rd annual UND Writers Conference “humanimal” and the preservation of archival footage from past conferences. The UND Writers Conference is one of 1,145 not-for-profit national, regional, state, and local organizations recommended for a grant as part of the federal agency’s second round of fiscal year 2011 grants. in total, the Arts Endowment will distribute more than $88 million to support projects nationwide.

An independent agency of the federal government, the National Endowment for the Arts advances artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said, “NEA research shows that three out of four Americans participate in the arts. The diverse, innovative, and exceptional projects funded in this round will ensure that Americans around the country continue to have the opportunity to experience and participate in the arts.”

“We are very grateful to have received another grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Dr. Crystal Alberts, assistant professor of English and, along with Dr. Heidi Czerwiec, co-director of the UND Writers Conference. “The funds received from last year’s NEA grant enabled us to digitize approximately 76 hours of footage from the 1970-1975 Conferences, as well as make sure that the 2011 Conference was recorded for posterity. This year’s NEA will allow us to continue building the UND Writers Conference Digital Collection, particularly 1976-1979, which includes footage from Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, William S. Burroughs, and Eudora Welty, among others,” said Alberts.

The grant will also help support the 43rd annual UND Writers Conference, “humanimal,” which will take place on UND’s campus March 27-31, 2012. The 43rd annual UND Writers Conference will explore the various ways the human and animal worlds intersect. Czerwiec comments, “animals are a huge part of our world -- as pets, livestock, prey, food -- and the Conference readings and panels will feature literature that discusses these relationships. Speakers for the 2012 Conference include Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres and Moo, as well as poet, translator, and Grand Forks native Aaron Poochigian.”

Founded in 1970 by Professor John Little, the UND Writers Conference has been held every year since. While our conference takes place in the heart of the heart of the country, over the past forty plus years, some of the most influential writers of the twentieth and twenty- first century have traveled to Grand Forks to participate, including four Nobel Laureates and twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners (Jane Smiley will make twenty-nine). However, the UND Writers Conference mission remains the same: the Conference wishes to create an opportunity for a rigorous exploration of the literary arts, as well as provide a forum for a local and regional conversation about the arts as tied to the community’s everyday lives. All conference events are, and always have been, free and open to the public.

“We firmly believe that the UND Writers Conference is a unique and special event that contributes to the quality of life here in Grand Forks, the Red River Valley, and the state of North Dakota. We are pleased to be recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and hope to be able to continue our proud tradition for years to come,” Alberts said.

For additional information about this project contact Dr. Crystal Alberts, Co-director, UND Writers Conference, the Department of Special Collections, or visit the UND Writers Conference Website.

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