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The Return of the Bastard Angel 

To resurrect his reputation as one of America's greatest poets, Harold Norse is counting on the help of one of the city's most despised organizations -- Act Up S.F.

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
On Oct. 23, a dozen members of ACT UP S.F. burst into the Sixth Street offices of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Chanting slogans into bullhorns, the assailants scattered fliers, knocked over filing cabinets and baskets of condoms, hurled books off their shelves, and battled with anybody who tried to make them leave. The vandals were taking revenge on the foundation -- which they consider to be the enemy -- because of an ad the foundation had run publicizing an increase in HIV infections. Because ACT UP S.F. believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, the ad was a bridge too far -- and, to ACT UP S.F.'s logic, a terrorist raid was in order.

When the mayhem came to an end, two ACT UP S.F. members had been arrested on charges of trespassing, battery, and disturbing the peace. Another member, Todd Swindell, plans to file assault charges after he was thrown out of the offices by a foundation employee.

Four days later, Swindell volunteered to clean the home of an elderly poet named Harold Norse. They talked about love.

Swindell visits Norse in his Mission District cottage once or twice a week. Swindell cleans Norse's apartment, organizes his papers, proofreads his letters, and runs the occasional errand. Mainly, though, Norse and Swindell simply talk. When they get together, Swindell, 27, recalls his experiences as a young gay man growing up in straight-laced Orange County, and talks about his work with ACT UP S.F. Norse, 84, recalls his experiences as a young bisexual man growing up in New York, and talks about his adventures and friendships with many of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

Norse has played a role in just about every major movement in 20th-century poetry and has befriended, partied with, studied with, or mentored everyone from W.H. Auden to Allen Ginsberg to William S. Burroughs to Charles Bukowski. Among poetry scholars and aficionados, he is widely considered one of the country's greatest -- and unjustly ignored -- living poets, and in 1991 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Poetry Association.

Today, however, all his works are out of print and Norse himself is mainly homebound, the result of a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in 1996. But -- and Norse is insistent about this -- his mind doesn't feel old. When he speaks, he is a spry raconteur holding court, and Swindell listens to him with the reverential awe a child reserves for a parent or beloved teacher. On the afternoon of one of Swindell's visits, Norse is recalling his first childhood crush on a boy. He remembers how he'd thrill whenever the boy and the rest of his Italian friends would put their arms around his shoulders and kiss him convivially, as the older men in the neighborhood played bocce. He remembers how, later, that boy was all over him on a hiking trip. And he remembers how he froze for fear of being called a fairy. "So I was a stupid virgin until I was 21," Norse tells Swindell with a laugh. "But in New York City I had everything I ever wanted. Men were chasing after me in the parks. I was a butch little number, believe me."

It is a seemingly odd alliance -- the aging poet and the radical gay activist -- but one that serves them both. Norse, for his part, knows that, realistically, he does not have long to live -- he figures five years at best -- which leaves him precious little time to accomplish the one remaining goal of his life: to resurrect his reputation as a poet.

To achieve that end, Norse will take help where he can get it, even if that includes ACT UP S.F., an organization despised in much of the gay community for its controversial stand on AIDS and its antagonistic, often outrageous acts of civil disobedience. And Swindell, for his part, is eager to help a man he has idolized for years.

Swindell first discovered Norse as a teenager, when he ran across a copy of the poet's best-known book, Carnivorous Saint, a 1977 collection of gay-themed poems, in the Orange County Public Library. Living in that hotbed of conservatism, Swindell figured it was only a matter of time before the powers that be discovered the provocative book of gay liberation writing in their midst and purged it. So, with a tinge of regret, he stole it. "More than any other gay poet, he touched a nerve in me," Swindell says. "At a time when I had no one, I had Harold's poetry. It's very erotic, and I came from an unerotic, repressed environment."

By getting Norse's files in order, by promoting Norse's work -- by simply keeping Norse company -- Swindell is playing an instrumental role in Norse's life. And this year has been the poet's busiest in a decade. In April, the Board of Supervisors presented him with a Certificate of Honor in recognition of his "extraordinary contributions as a leading poet of the Beat Generation as well as the gay liberation movement," and he has been asked to give an occasional reading.

But Norse is weary of being known mostly among the cognoscenti, and his goal now is nothing less than to place himself in the pantheon of great American authors. The plan to accomplish that goes something like this. First he'll find a way to publish his correspondence with Charles Bukowski, a 20-year, two-fisted narrative that follows Norse's mentorship of the celebrated barfly author. Because the rabid fascination with all things Bukowski will put Norse back on the map, the theory goes, people will be interested in reading -- and reprinting -- books like Carnivorous Saint or his 10 other poetry collections. Then, perhaps, there will be a revised edition of Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, his bawdy autobiography that tracked America's literati through the revolving door of his bedroom. Or even Beat Hotel, a slim book of experimental prose produced from his experiences living with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and others in the Paris residence of the same name during the early '60s. Then, finally, Norse could hit the world with Homo, a massive work-in-progress that lays out the history of homophobia in prose and poetry, from the days of early Christianity to Matthew Shepard.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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