I first met filmmaker, author and activist Tilman Otto Wagner while visiting Vienna, Austria last year. An hour at the Unicorn Bar and many high-class German beers later, I discovered that he shared my love of the Beats and their spirit of life. Although relegated to the annals of historical genre, the Beats are still very much alive today as an influence that has affected every generation that has come after them. Wagner’s personal contributions to this legacy are documented in a book and a short film and he will be embarking on further projects to maintain the Beat legacy next year. In the interview below, we discuss our communal love of the Beat phenonmena and its still ever-presence in today’s world.
What first attracted you to the Beats and why?
It all goes back to my early childhood. My uncle, who was a university lecturer in American Culture Studies, had an affinity for the Beats and kept on telling me how great they were and how refreshing their ideas were for him. I was five or six at that time. Then I recovered the scent in my teenage years, when I began reading On the Road. Somehow, a sparkling fascination grew inside my mind and my heart for the Beats and their artistic universe.
When did you make your film and what was the idea behind it? What were you trying to express and explore?
I always wanted to realize an honest film about the Beat Generation. We made Beat Today in December 2003/January 2004 in Vienna. A few friends from the Academy of Fine Arts got into it, and in two weeks time we had all the raw material together. I edited the film in a few days before leaving to Chihuahua, Mexico for a teaching assignment. In spring 2005 I submitted the film as part of my diploma thesis for the English and American Studies. The main idea was to find out whether there is such a thing as an European Beat spirit or an equivalent for it. We worked in the tradition of Beat filmmaking – experimental, anti-narrative with an open form.
What do you think the Beat spirit provides to the individual that is positive for life in these days?
Liberation of the mind, individuality, authenticity and most of all, exploration of our spiritual capacities. Tolerance, respect, multi-cultural co-existence and more confidence between people. We have to get down to the bedrock of our conscience in order to start loving each other again. Just like Ginsberg brilliantly concluded: The Cold War is over. All we have to do is love one another!
Why do you think remembering the Beat spirit is important in these times?
I wouldn’t choose this access path. Nostalgia always implies resignation. I think the Beat spirit is very alive and kickin‘. There are a few contemporary witnesses out there, and pretty much every modern way of thinking implies Beat values. Especially with this economical notch forcing us to reinvent ourselves in matters of maintenance and earning our keep, we have to make way to visionaries and unconventional thinkers, just like the Beats were in their times. New social models and distribution of finances are being required. There is actually a professor here in Vienna from the University of Economics who wrote a book called The End of Money. Very interesting thought.
Why did you write your book on the Beats and how did the process affect you?
It was my diploma thesis for the English and American Studies. I had chosen an American Modernism topic for reasons of personal interest. Spending all those years in reading their books, watching their films and researching on the subject I somehow became a pro. The Beat Generation in a Scholastic Analysis: literary hipsters and subversive visionaries is a scientific work on the Beat subject, which deals with 65 years of American culture and society, especially literature. Beat literature is a must in the compulsory courses throughout all levels of education. I consider spontaneous prose, free verse and cut-up writing indispensable literary techniques in the development of literature as a form of expressing human feelings and ideas. Writing this book helped me a lot in finding my own literary style.
What is your association with any Beat organization today?
I am in touch with a few Beat organizations, both in the States and in Europe. I got to meet Todd Easton Mills, one of the directors of The American Museum of Beat Art, which has a location in Alhambra, CA. Am also in touch with Levi Asher with his Literary Kicks online platform, which covers Beat issues on a regular basis. Then there is editor and publisher Kevin Ring, who is in charge for the Beat Scene magazine, whom I contacted via e-mail. Thanks to you, I have also made the acquaintance of Newtopia writer Randy Roark, Ginsberg’s assistant for 17 years. Right down the corner is the Vienna Poetry School, which offers Beat poetry-courses and keeps a vivid track of the European Beat scene. The list goes on and on …
What is upcoming for you in the Beat realm? Projects in the future?
I am actually planning my – believe it, or not! – first trip to the States. Some bureaucratic procedures I still have to face, but I am optimistic to be in California by May/June 2012. Would be a lifetime dream coming true. I am really curious about the real Beat spirit and how the Beat institutions function over there. As there is always a continuation of a success story, I am planning to make a second Beat film in collaboration with friends from California, who work in the film industry. Working title: Angel-headed. Co-writing the script at the time being. Writing Beat poetry and trying to bring open-minded people from the Beat community worldwide together.
What do you think society today fails at that the Beats were trying to impart?
Emotional intelligence, tolerance, open-mindedness, acceptance of the other and of course cosmopolitanism. Actually, the nowadays young generations (been working as a high school teacher) are returning to conservative life styles and philistine, narrow-minded interests. I don’t think that the Beats were imparting a soulless hedonism and consumerism. It is rather the heavenly connection or a beatification, which can exist outside religious dogmatism. The Zen Way, maybe.
Who were your biggest Beat influences and specific items of literature and why?
I consider Jack Kerouac’s writings the true Beat literary style. Very much driven by jazz and an unrestricted vitality. There is a strong connection to Marcel Proust’s literary style, which I consider amazing. Probably Kerouac’s French-Canadian background. I love The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums because these books have an honest drive. Spontaneity and wanderlust are two important things in a young person’s life. In any person’s life. And I think that Kerouac was a romantic person, with a multi-faceted emotional intelligence. He loved the ladies, and they loved him!
How does the Beat spirit relate to your life in Austria?
Well, the Austrian way is unfortunately very history-driven and xenophobic. I have lived in Austria since 11 years, but I never really coped with the Austrian way. Burroughs studied medicine in Vienna for about six months in 1936 after leaving Harvard out of an interest in psychoanalysis, but the Nazi occupation irked him. Ginsberg held a poetry class in 1993 at the Vienna Poetry School. A couple of years ago I had the unique privilege to meet Ruth Weiss during one of her jazz-poetry-performances in Vienna. There are many writers and artists who naturally are influenced by the Beats, but you couldn’t really say, that there is a Viennese Beat scene over here. There were some cut-up lectures and performances at the Academy of Fine Arts during the years. The true Viennese art scene is rooted in the Beat lifestyle somehow.
How do you think our generations differ in Austria (Europe) and America?
I guess it’s very much the pragmatic things, like family background, education, socialization, taste etc. Most of the Europeans – especially, with the European Union getting bigger and bigger – are pretty much driven by tradition and a sense of duty, with sometimes a touch of cultural pessimism to go with it. For me Americans always had something optimistic, sort of a joie de vivre, which fascinates me. But I will probably have to (finally!) have a personal, closer look at American sensitivities, in order to give a good answer to that one.
What do you think the internet’s effect on Beat philosophy is or could be?
Huge, if the Beat organizations and communities know how to make use of the internet tools and social media software. I am publishing electronic books only at the time being. The Beat community is connected via internet, and most of the future Beat projects will have the support of the new media. Am thinking especially of film making, e-books, skype-performances or webcam poetry slams.
How does the Beat spirit perpetuate within your own life today?
Since I started to live on a 9 to 5 routine out of financial reasons, it sticks to writing mainly. But I am already looking forward to the Angel-headed film project next year. Some sort of goin‘ back to the roots and finding time for new ideas and new Beat experiences. Yeah!
Why is this still relevant all these years later?
Because it is a lifestyle, a life philosophy and sometimes even a way out of economic compulsion. A liberation of the mind, the heart and the soul. Beat is alive and kickin‘ and will be relevant for some more generations. I am sure about it.
Article by Kimberly Nichols
Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel Fish Tales: Looking for the Bird with the Golden Feather. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.