INTERVIEW with ROCHELLE OWENS

By Friedman, Amy | Journal of Beat Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

INTERVIEW with ROCHELLE OWENS


Friedman, Amy, Journal of Beat Studies


Introduction

The American poet and playwright Rochelle Owens's enduring literary career started with writing trend-setting plays for the nascent Off-Off-Broadway scene in the 1950s and 1960s, and publishing over 18 avant-garde poetry and prose works since 1962. Her publishing continues to the present, with new books and online works. Owens belongs as an innovator in several niches of major American writing since the mid-twentieth century. Her artistic career has seen her name on the bill at poetry readings, in little magazines and anthologies, and featured in theater seasons with a surprising number of Beat Generation writers.

We do not tend to associate Beat Generation writers with experimental theater, but actually many, if not most, Beat Generation artists worked in or had associations with the avant-garde Off-Off-Broadway movement in New York City starting from the late 1950s. Archival theater listings show Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the experimental Living Theatre working with numerous Black Mountain College artists including John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and sponsoring poetry readings at their venue by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Beat poet and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti's play, The Allegation Impromptu, written with Tad Mosel, ran at La Mama Theater in New York during the week of March 5, 1964, and was directed by John Parkinson. In the first week of January 1967, poet Jack Micheline, who later settled on the West Coast (and maintained a sometimes vexed relationship with the designation Beat), had his play East Bleeker performed at La Mama under the direction of Alex Horn, with music for the show composed by Gary W. Friedman and Frank Wilson. In the same era, Chelsea Theater Center, founded in 1965 by Robert Kalfin, was producing Amiri Baraka's Slave Ship, and Allen Ginsberg's already famous poem "Kaddish" was adapted as a stageplay there.

The New York Poets Theatre was founded in early 1961 by Beat poet Diane di Prima, along with her fellow artists, the Beat writer LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), actor Alan Marlowe, writer and choreographer James Waring, dancer Freddie Herko, and musician and composer John Herbert McDowell, in a flurry of buoyant enthusiasm and by extremely modest means. New York Poets Theatre opened its first show that autumn, on October 29, 1961, with a program comprising three pieces, all one notes, by Beat writers: The Discontent of the Russian Prince, a play by Diane di Prima, and featuring di Prima and dancer Freddy Herko as the cast; West Coast Beat Poet Michael McClure's verse play The Pillow; and LeRoi Jones's drama, The Eighth Ditch, from his longer work, The System of Dante's Hell.

This confluence of the Beat aesthetic and avant-garde or fringe theater productions will no doubt continue to attract scholarly attention, as this focus gives such a strong purview of the breadth of an individual's oeuvre and a clearer sense of an intertwined artistic community. Rochelle Owens's fundamental view of the avant-garde has always been that it is the product of many modes of artistic practice and diverse expression. My interview with Owens aims to shed some light on that vibrant and influential community as well as on her role as a nonchalantly rule-breaking and ground-breaking artist. The following brief biography helps to place her in the context of avant-garde and Beat writing.

Biography

Rochelle Bass Owens was born April 2, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York. She was drawn to art at an early age, studying ballet for an intense period and relentlessly churning out playscriptsand poems. In her late teens, Owens approached Allen Ginsberg for comments on her poetry; Ginsberg referred her to LeRoi Jones, who was an enthusiastic early supporter and publisher of Owens's work. Owens's meetings in Greenwich Village with LeRoi Jones sparked a warm, enduring friendship with Jones's wife and co-publisher, Hettie Jones. Owens's path through the New York bohemia of jazz cafes, coffee houses, and gatherings in downtown walk ups crossed that of Diane di Prima, who was herself getting started as a poet. …

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