Uploaded: Sunday, March 29, 2009, 12:13 AM
The Beat goes on
Michelle Kraus helps preserve the voice of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg
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By Renee Batti
It was as a college student in the 1970s that Michelle Kraus heard the howl.
Those were the days when Beat poet Allen Ginsberg would come to Douglass College at Rutgers University to read his work, the most famous of which was "Howl," the poem that was the subject of an obscenity trial after being seized by federal authorities upon being published in 1956.
"I was a young girl at Douglass, and he read for the students, and he would just rant and rave and scream profanities and send the faculty off in a tizzy," Ms. Kraus recalls.
"I was mesmerized," she adds. "I asked myself, 'Who is this man? What is he doing?'"
As an American studies student at the college, Ms. Kraus had known of the poet's work, she says, but the live expression of his poetry was transformative.
"He was such a siren for the times," she recalls, sitting in her Menlo Park office while time-traveling back to her days as an impressionable student, a passionate researcher and, eventually, the author of a bibliography of Mr. Ginsberg's work.
That book, "Allen Ginsberg," was published in 1980 after Ms. Kraus, fresh out of grad school, spent several months working with the poet in his Manhattan flat in the Lower East Side. During that time, she sorted through streams of letters, manuscripts, and photographs the poet gave her access to in his home, and culled information from the most important source of all: Allen Ginsberg.
The book project was "a labor of love, an historical inquiry, a frustrating experience, and a cooperative venture into the unknown: underground culture, literature and the Lower East Side," Ms. Kraus wrote in the book's afterword. "Allen was my tour guide; without him this book could not have been completed."
Now, Ms. Kraus is sorting through and inventorying the photographs, books, notes, quotes and "faded yellow paper and clippings" known as ephemera she acquired during those days. The Menlo Park resident is preparing the collection, now stored in fire-proof, temperature-controlled facilities, to donate to an institution in either New York City or on the West Coast, she says.
==b The journey==
Ms. Kraus is now the chief executive of Menlo Park-based Carbon Tracing Inc., which is developing technological systems to validate carbon trading. That sounds like a long journey from her days as a scholar and researcher, but she insists it was a natural progression.
After receiving her bachelor's degree, Ms. Kraus entered the master's program at the University of Michigan, where she studied interdisciplinary research methodology. "I was a kid in a candy store" as a student researcher, she says, and when she was choosing a research topic, the howling Beat poet who lit a fire in her and fellow Douglass students seemed a natural.
"I did a small piece of that research at Michigan, then the (teaching) team encouraged me to make it into a major book," she explains. Encouraged, she wrote to Mr. Ginsberg, and he invited her to visit him and work at his residence.
The residence turned out to be an old rundown building that Mr. Ginsberg owned, occupying a flat while housing others who could afford little rent, Ms. Kraus says. "Poets came in and out, and there were always poetry readings going on."
This was long after Mr. Ginsberg, who died in 1997, made his reputation with "Howl," whose famous opening became a rallying cry for the Beat generation and future rebels against mainstream American culture: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix ..."
When her research was complete, she spent about nine months putting the book together; the publication party, she says, "was a happening." It was held at Jeannette Watson's legendary Books & Co. in New York City. There for the party, in addition to Mr. Ginsberg, were Leroi Jones, Kenneth Koch and Gregory Corso, among other poets, Ms. Kraus recalls.
Now that the book project was complete, Ms. Kraus returned to her studies, and began a doctoral program at Carnegie-Mellon University. There, she earned a doctorate in applied social sciences.
Her career has been in the field of technology, which, she says, dovetails nicely with a dream she nurtured decades ago as a "scholar on fire." In her afterword for "Allen Ginsberg," she wrote: "Public access to nontraditional information was the motivating force behind this compilation. As computer technology is adapted to library systems, one hopes that this process of data retrieval will be simplified. However, in lieu of advances in application, this sourcebook has been provided with material that is not readily available."
Rereading the afterword for the first time in years, Ms. Kraus notes, with some surprise: "The seeds for what I do now are so in there. I was thinking about the democratization of information, about databases, even then."
The Ginsberg book "was put together index card by index card ... but I was dreaming my big dreams" about a technology that would make those index cards obsolete, she says.
These days, in addition to her professional efforts to support cap-and-trade carbon policies, Ms. Kraus focuses on environmental and public policy issues. She was a member of the city of Menlo Park's Green Ribbon Citizens Committee, which studied the city's "carbon footprint" and made a series of recommendations to reduce that footprint through changes in policy and practice.
She also writes, which, she says, "is one of the most joyous things I do — akin to having a piece of dark chocolate."
She writes regularly for the Huffington Post, and last week her column on funding challenges for clean technology appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
She's somewhat optimistic about the future of the country and the environment now that President Obama has taken charge. "For eight years, we've been in the dark," she says. "For eight years, we've had a set of blankets put over us ... but now the light's coming back in."
But smart, effective measures to minimize and try to reverse worldwide environmental degradation must be put into place quickly, she adds, because the time lost over eight years, given the scale of the problems, "is like a millennium."
Ms. Kraus sees similarities between today and the times in which Mr. Ginsberg sounded his "Howl," and hopes the culture's exposure to his ideas and attitudes will help the country "get back to a place where people are valued."
Just as he was a siren for his own times, she says, "he's such a siren of our own culture. We're back at a place where he speaks to us. We're there again, and Allen's words ring in my ears. ... What a lovely treat to have known him."
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