Regina Marler


Regina Marler writes for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, New York Observer, and The Advocate. The author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom and the editor of Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, Marler has a terrific talent for writing literary biography and criticism for a general audience. She lives in San Francisco.

Queer Beats

"Queer Beats [is] popular scholarship at its most relevant and entertaining best." —San Francisco Chronicle

"An essential addition to the Beat oeuvre. Regina Marler's passionate and informed scholarship infuses the entire book. Queer Beats is one of those rare books that takes familiar material and is able to give the reader a fresh look at the Beats." —Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Books

"Queer Beats adds something fresh and vital to the Beat canon. Marler...has compiled a crazy quilt of queer sexual exuberance." —Books To Watch Out For


The Beat Life: An Interview with Regina Marler

"Theirs was a revolution of flesh as well as word," writes editor Regina Marler in her introduction to Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex. She is referring to the Beat writers—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, among others—who famously shook up the rigid conformism of post-WWII America with their sex-infused poems and novels.

An accmplished scholar, Marler is also the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom, which explores the phenomenon of Bloomsbury, a group of English writers (composed of literary legends like Viriginia Woolf and E.M. Forster) who, like the Beats, challenged the sexual conventions of their day. We met with Marler at her home in San Francisco.

Cleis: What drew you to the Beat writers?

Regina Marler: When I finished my second book, Bloomsbury Pie, I swore to myself that I'd read some American literature. I'd been buried to the neck in all things English for longer than I could remember. And besides, a lot of people hate the Bloomsbury group. I thought it would be a nice change to write about Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs—everyone loves them. Of course, that turned out not to be true. I learned that if you're brilliant, famous, and have lots of friends, people are going to hate you.

C: Both the Bloomsbury Group and the Beats are known for their unconventional sexual attitudes. What similarities and differences have you discovered in their approaches to sex?

RM: Well, both groups tended to blur the lines between friendship and romance, but the Bloomsberries were a little more high-minded. They were really late Victorians rather than Moderns. They had all these passionate love triangles in private, but they were outwardly respectable. And their wild years were very brief. Vanessa Bell was celibate from the age of forty. Maynard Keynes, who had been the most promiscuous gay youth of the group, married a woman and settled down. You have to remember that they were reaching sexual maturity at the turn of the century, in the shadow of Oscar Wilde's imprisonment. They weren't ashamed, but they were very guarded. Even Forster's first biographer, Lionel Trilling, had no idea that Forster was gay. But the Beats had people like Henry Miller as their immediate forebears. So they didn't settle down early. They got a little more hedonistic, infact, once they came into their own as artists. And their work was autobiographical. You can't separate the poet from the poem in "Howl." Every passing affair, every crazy night with a stranger, could become a passage in a novel or poem—and usually did.

C: Many fans of the Beats tend to ignore their homosexual behavior—or maybe they just don't know about it. Why do you think that is?

RM: Kerouac's bisexual encounters weren't part of his legend until very recently. He would have hated it. He identified—stridently—as a heterosexual. And although he showed a little gay panic once in a while, I think he refused to look closely at his feelings for men. He wrote openly about almost everything else. With Burroughs and Ginsberg, it's a question of emphasis. Fans of the Beats know that Ginsberg and Burroughs were gay, but they don't focus on it. Burroughs is the patron saint of junkies. Ginsberg was a pop icon, an antiwar activist, an educator, a prophet of pot smoking. Those are their public personae. They weren't really active in the gay rights movement. They were rebels in a larger sense. The censorship battles over Howl and Naked Lunch are their biggest political contribution to the Left. So straight readers can look beyond the Beats' sexuality, even though it's at the center of their writing. And they do. They have for fifty years.

C: Did you learn anyting surprising while researching Queer Beats?

RM: I wasn't surprised, exactly, but I was reminded of how different people's impressions can be of the same person or incident. Especially about Ginsberg, who had such a potent personality. John Giorno and others remember him as jealous and backbiting—very watchful of his friends and his status. But other people remember him as incredibly generous and kind. He listened well, and kept extensive files so that he could offer help or advice to anybody. Kids came up to Ginsberg during Vietnam for help getting out of the draft, and he'd tell them who to write, and what to say, and what worked for others. And then he'd say, "Oh, just tell them you're gay. Tell them you slept with me." Of course, both versions are true.

C: Was there a particular Beat writer you prefer to the others?

RM: Oh, Burroughs, definitely. A shadowy figure. You have to search a little harder to find that famous Beat tenderness in Burroughs, but it's there.

C: Your biographical note in Queer Beats says that you live a "Beat life in San Francisco." What does that mean?

RM: When you write a book, your hair gets long and your clothes fall apart. But a Beat life is more than bad grooming. It’s also more than wild sex, although I do strive for that. It has to do with keeping an open mind and heart, with some kind of spiritual searching and tenderness and reverence. It means accepting human frailty, and acknowledging that you may not be so smart, even if you can string some words together gracefully. So I try to live a Beat life. I haven’t arrived.