The Beat Vortex

by Lee Streiff


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While it is in the nature of things that much gets lost in the course of time, sometimes a little of the past is saved: a few photographs, poems, drawings, letters, programs, scribbled notes, occasional chronicles and stories — and memories. And sometimes these can make the past assume a form again. That is the why of these essays: to remember some of what happened, in a particular place, among a small circle of people, in a few brief years. In that sense, this present work is a “souvenir” — something that brings back a past time again into memory for a short while.

The place is, of course, Wichita. The time, from the mid-1940s to the mid-60s. And the circle: whether they are called “beats”, “bohemians”, “intellectuals”, “subterraneans”, “iconoclasts”, “esthetes”, “hipsters”, or whatever else — it doesn’t really matter — was a collection of people who saw life somewhat differently than the conformist doctrine of their times dictated.

The Wichita group was not entirely a unity, however; it passed through many phases, with new people coming in and others leaving — and its character changed several times. In the ten years between the late forties and the late fifties, in particular, the times had changed as well, and there was a qualitative difference in the ideals and the philosophies of those involved. The hippie scene that emerged in the sixties reflects the magnitude of that difference quite clearly. The group incrementally, then, actually became two quite different circles: the first from roughly 1945 to 1955, and the second from 1956 to 1966.

The origins of the culture of the earlier Wichita group went back further in time and were more complicated than many of those who came later were to understand. Unaware of how this distinct culture had come into being in the first place, their lack of recognition of its depth left them with only its surface texture, and the illusion that they belonged to its tradition — when in fact they did not.

In particular, those who came to Wichita only from the mid-Fifties onward, signally failed to understand Wichita’s uniqueness, and how things had developed there the way they had. And those who did not enter its “non-conformist” cultural life until then, similarly were left with no connection to that culture’s source, or even, in some cases, to anything of what and who had gone before them. These essays are meant to shed some light on that earlier time.

For many, a defining peculiarity of Wichita’s culture was a slow-motion exodus that ebbed and flowed, carrying the youth of Wichita out across the continent. Sometimes they stayed where the flood had carried them, sometimes they returned — only to push on again after a while. Later, this perpetual journeying would be connected to the myth of the Vortex itself.

It began early — one of the threads in the first group was the linkage to New York City — or more precisely, to the idea of Greenwich Village — and its twenties and thirties heritage. Several of the early group left for New York City in 1951 and ‘52: Maryjane Naanes, Phyllis Murray, Nancy Hurst, Phil Gardner — and some went and came back: Mike McClure, Dave Haselwood, Coleta Eck, and Bruce Conner, among others. For most, the New York of that time was different from what they had expected, and they did not find what they had hoped to find there.

But Wichita did not offer them the way of life and the artistic opportunities they needed, either. Within two or three years, the second great outpouring began to take place — toward San Francisco. And for many, because of the stimulation of the things that were happening there, and because the time was right, this time they found what they had been looking for. And made history.

By the late fifties and early sixties it was clear to a younger generation that California was the place to go, and San Francisco, in particular. The trail had already been blazed, and many others followed the way. Again, many of these stayed and many were drawn back. Some left for places unknown or far from anywhere.

But it should not be forgotten that some remained behind in Wichita, as well, and their stories also need to be told. Thus, the essays in this book stay with what happened in Wichita — “the heart of the Vortex” — leaving the chronicles of other places to other writers.


The Depression, World War II, the beginnings of the Cold War: these were the times in which the Beat Generation germinated. And in the late 1940s and the early 1950s the flower began to unfold. There was no “Beat” image per se yet — Allen Ginsberg’s Howl would not be read until October 7th of 1955, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road would not be published until September of 1957. It was these two works that were to be instrumental in defining the form and character of the Beat Movement in many people’s minds.

There is a kind of paradox in this — the Beats were waiting to happen — in Wichita as well as other places — but there was no instruction manual to tell anyone what it was going to be like; you just had to make it up as you went along.

Of critical importance in this new intellectual milieu was the experience, and end, of World War II — a reality that generated the belief that the old order had given way to a new direction, not only in world affairs, but in the arts and in culture as well.

One of the tragedies of this period, and a major impediment to literary change, however, was that the publicly recognized poets of the time — what we would now call the Establishment, were just as eager to discredit any new movement in poetry as the Powers That Be were. These poets had worked long and hard to gain control over the whole apparatus of Poetry in the United States.

Let us set the scene for a moment:

It is difficult now to recall just how unbelievably bad most poetry that was being published in the late 40s and early 50s really was. The generation of poets after Pound, cummings, and Patchen, et al., were now centered in the universities. They had captured the critical medium of poetry — the publishing houses — and only their work and the work of their protégés could get into print. They established university sponsored “little magazines” to extend their control, and created rigid university “Poetry Workshops” to ensure that their monolithic discipline was maintained. Writing poetry had been reduced to the stuff of Academic Credentials — a ticket to employment — for a host of third-rate hacks. And the threat of any change in this situation required an all out attack on any who dared to depart from the accepted norms.

This is not exaggeration — this is the way things were; and Poetry was in imminent danger of being strangled by the conformist Establishment. It was almost dead. Little rhyming bits of sophomoric philosophy, convoluted pseudo-metaphysicalism, and introspective trivialities were all that remained of a once grand tradition.

In April of 1952, what could have been the coup de grâce was delivered. Mentor pocket books published the first in its series called New World Writing. 110,000 copies of this pocket book “little magazine” were printed and distributed through book shops, drug stores, and everywhere else throughout the country that the pocket book system reached. Billed as a “cross section of current literature” — and occasionally featuring such “new” — but safely established — writers as Dylan Thomas, Norman Mailer, and even Pablo Picasso to achieve credibility, this series went straight to the universities for its poetry and literary criticism, and the blurbs about the authors were depressingly peppered with lists of university positions held, establishment magazines published in, establishment poetry prizes won, and books of poetry written for university presses and major publishing houses. With New World Writing, the stranglehold of the mediocre and sanctioned appeared to be almost complete — not just in the rarefied atmospheres of Academia and the “little magazines”, but in the common culture as a whole.

It was in this perilous milieu that the proto-Beat movement began. At first it was not a rebellion — only an attempt to reform a Poetry that had gone bad by bringing in new voices. That completely undermining the old system was the only real cure was not fully understood at the beginning. But of course, this is what the Beats eventually did — though it took them many years — and three brave publishers (City Lights, Grove Press, and New Directions) — to do so.

The road was difficult. Some in the media during the conformist 50s — like those at Time and Life magazines, the self-appointed official interpreters of the mainstream culture — saw the Beats as a threat to their idea of a well-ordered society. Others were simply ignorant of the roots and purposes of the movement. As a whole, most reporters were simply baffled. Reporters are not generally well versed in artistic movements, or the history of literature or art. And most are certain that their readers, or viewers, are of limited intellectual ability and must have things explained simply, in any case. Thus, the reporters in the media tried to relate something that was new to already pre-existing frameworks and images that were only vaguely appropriate in their efforts to explain and simplify.

With a variety of oversimplified and conventional formulas at their disposal, they fell back on the nearest stereotypical approximation of what the phenomenon resembled, as they saw it. And even worse, they did not see it clearly and completely at that. They got a quotation here and a photograph there — and it was their job to wrap it up in a comprehensible package — and if it seemed to violate the prevailing mandatory conformist doctrine, they would also be obliged to give it a negative spin as well.

And in this, they were aided and abetted by the Poetic Establishment of the day.

Thus, what came out in the media: from newspapers, magazines, TV, and the movies, was a product of the stereotypes of the 30s and 40s — though garbled — of a cross between a 1920s Greenwich Village bohemian artist and a Bop musician, whose visual image was completed by mixing in Daliesque paintings, a beret, a van dyke beard, a turtle-neck sweater, a pair of sandals, and set of bongo drums. A few authentic elements were added to the collective image: poets reading their poems, for example, but even this was made unintelligible by making all of the poets speak in some kind of phony Bop idiom.

The consequence is, that even though we may know now that these images do not accurately reflect the reality of the Beat movement, we still subconsciously look for them when we look back to the 50s. We have not even yet completely escaped the visual imagery that has been so insistently forced upon us.

Certainly, the lifestyle of the Bohemian artist of the 1920s was in the background of the proto-Beat picture. As was the Bop musician — or at least the jazz musician. But there was a great deal more: the literary and artistic experimentation of the 20s, 30s, and 40s; a strong philosophical bent — primarily Nietzsche and Sartre’s existentialism — and a look at Eastern philosophies; classical music and folk music; and more than anything, a determination to reject the way things were in the narrow, conformist culture, and to find something better.

The reality of the Beats was both philosophically and artistically, deeper, and more extraordinary than what the media image made it out to be; and the media image trivialized an important new movement in the arts that would ultimately influence the culture as a whole.

But even as the movement was growing, as late as the fall of 1958, Life magazine was still doing battle with the Beats, denying that there was even a “movement”, and stating, “Actually, The Beat Generation is ridiculously small in numbers (120 ‘Beatniks’ at the most).” And this at a time when high school kids in Wichita were selling books of their own poetry in the halls at Southeast High School.

A year later, as P. J. O’Connor points out, Life had grown even more strident, declaiming that the Beats were “... talkers, loafers, passive little con men ... writers who cannot write, painters who cannot paint ... .” The movement had gotten out of hand and the full force of the mass media was being brought bear in an effort to convince the populace that the Beats were a bizarre aberration in American Society, not a harbinger of things to come.

But the genie was out of the bottle — and had been for thirty years.

Section 1: Notes on Wichita in the 1940s, 50s and 60s and the Beat Generation

1: The Proto-Beat Scene in Wichita: 1945 - 1955

The only printed source for the proto-Beat scene in Wichita in the early 1950s is Michael McClure’s 1970 autobiographical novel The Mad Cub. Fictionally set in Tulsa, the book details over a year of some of the happenings of that time. Naturally, much is left out, given the selective structure of the narrative — though what is recorded is mostly an accurate accounting.

The novel is not intended to be history or analysis, however, and without knowing the events or the people first hand, when looked at as history it can be confusing. What follows, then, in this section, is meant to be, in starkest outline, an introduction to some of the people involved and a background for that period.

There is no doubt that some of the group that formed the proto-Beat scene in Wichita in the late 40s and early 50s had an image of themselves that had some elements in it that were similar to the Bohemian images of the 1920s and ‘30s. That is understandable. In 1948 there was no other image available to depict the way we felt about ourselves.

Initially the Wichita group started as three separate groups, one at Robinson Junior High, one at Roosevelt Junior High, and a third, composed of people two to three years older, at both North and East High Schools. The two younger groups merged at East High during the late 40s, and by the summer of 1950 all three groups had solidified into one.

It was in the 8th grade at Robinson, late in 1945, that I first met Mike McClure. The Robinson group already had about five members, among them Phil Gardner, Francis Honey, Ron Weidman, and Joan Murray. Ironically, although Bruce Conner was only one year behind us in school, and was at Robinson at the same time as the rest of us during our eighth and ninth years, we did not meet him until the 12th grade at East High.

Our interests at this time were in the areas of science (biology), science-fiction, classical music, and some literature and art. I had written poetry since the 4th grade and had read nearly all the works of Mark Twain and Guy de Maupassant, some of Shakespeare’s plays, Whitman’s poetry, and a variety of other non-science-fiction authors. I was also the editor of a couple of science-fiction fanzines.

Mike was very much into tropical fish and Irish mythology. In the 9th grade he began to write poetry (he was 14 at the time), and I published one of his first poems in my fanzine, Moor.

During these years we spent many hours in the country-side around Wichita exploring the ecosystems and collecting animals for our cages and aquariums for study. We also formed a Science-Fiction Society and carried out experiments in telepathy.

When we moved on to the 10th grade at East in 1947, we began to meet the people in the Roosevelt group and some others who had been going to other junior highs. In particular we met Eric Ecklor and Jack Morrison, and later, Dave Haselwood. All three of these people would figure later in The Mad Cub.

The high school years were a time of intense discovery and creative experimentalism for the members of the group. As we became more involved in art and literature, our interest in science waned accordingly. It was then that our “Bohemian” phase began.

Loren Frickel and I began to write music as well as poetry, and most of us experimented with painting. I started my first novel in the summer of 1948, when I was still 15. Many of us began a serious study of philosophy at this time as well. Mike and I had already read Nietzsche, and now I was reading Kant and Marx as well.

As early as 1945, also, I had read much of my brother James’ copy of Lin Yutang’s The Wisdom of China and India, and was generally, therefore, also acquainted with Eastern concepts — which I had rejected in favor of Mark Twain’s anti-Christian views as expressed in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “The Little Blue Books” were also a source for philosophy.

Here I am only using myself as an example to indicate how wide-ranging and intense our study was in the years between 1948 and 1951 — quite apart from what we were learning in our classes.

Those of us in the proto-Beat group in Wichita during the late 1940s and early 1950s were voracious readers and active experimenters. We took up Dadaism, surrealism, abstractionism, and non-objectivism in the arts — verbal as well as visual — and listened to Bartok, Stravinsky, and other modern composers along with atonal and periodic music in addition to the classics. Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, and Kenneth Patchen were among the most admired poets. Among prose writers, James T. Farrell, Faulkner, Wolfe, Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Paul Bowles, and many others were read and discussed by various members of the group. We thus acquired a firm foundation in the course of the most contemporary trends in the arts, while being already grounded in the old and recent classics of literature: Shakespeare, naturally, Poe, Rimbaud, Blake, Donne, Twain, Pierre Louÿs, and so on.

In short, the proto-Beats in Wichita were not unlettered cowboys or skid-row bums. We had a firm grasp of the artistic traditions that had led up to the present point in time, and we were ready to go on from there. Neither, in addition, were we petty criminals, drug addicts, or fugitives from asylums. I find it necessary to add these disclaimers because of not only the media image, but because many Beats as well as pseudo-Beats have made some of these characteristics seem almost integral parts of the movement.

In the 12th grade, as I have indicated, Bruce Conner joined the group, and in the summer of 1950, after we had graduated from East High, we met the third group, most of whom were already in college. Among these were Virginia Bing, David Wright, Maryjane Naanes, Nancy Hurst, Jim Stearns, Phyllis Murray, and John Pearson. It was also about this time that Mike began to seek out advice about his poetry from Irma Wassall, a local poet.

Over the next couple of years others joined the group, such as Betty Schneider, Coleta Eck, Jim Lyle, George Stewart, and Corban LePell.

The group evolved over the period from 1950 to 1953: some people left for New York (Nancy Hurst, Phil Gardner, Maryjane Naanes, and Phyllis Murray), Betty Schneider went to Denver, and others went elsewhere. New people, however, came into the group, and the core remained in Wichita, and at the university.

The intensity of our activity did not let up when we went to the university, but it rather increased. Our lives became one long party and one long discussion.

It is roughly at this point that The Mad Cub begins.

A number of us were involved at this time with the youth group at the Unitarian Church and took on a project to integrate some of the local restaurants. Joining with black young people at the Hutcherson Branch of the YMCA, we staged several peaceful “sit-ins” of mixed groups at the Continental Grills. We also “integrated” the Crest Theatre by having the whites buy the tickets and then bring in some of the black members of our party. The management tried to evict us, but, once seated, we stayed in place until we left of our own accord.

At this time we were circulating our writing informally in a variety of ways: hand-written, typed, and carbon copies were usually passed along from one person to another, and people sometimes read or recited their latest works in conversations over coffee at Manning’s or over beer at The Blue Lantern, or at parties -- and even at our swimming and drinking parties at Wilson’s sandpit, one of our favorite places. We were always aware of what each other was writing and we were all influencing each other. Needing an outlet for our writing, we decided in the spring of 1951 that it was time to put out our own literary magazine, and from that point on, much of our effort was aimed in that direction.

We were reading Poetry, and Partisan Review and many of the other “little magazines” of the day and we were convinced that main-stream poetry had completely degenerated. The magazine was to be our way of putting out “good” poetry. At that point, like those in San Francisco later, we had no intention of starting a revolution in poetry — and we did not have the means to do so even if we had wanted to. What we did want to do was bring back some energy and meaning to poetry. We did not know then what a task that would be. But work on our magazine, Provincial Review, continued apace.

Unfortunately, a conflict was building up in the group. A number of misunderstandings had arisen, one of which was around the story I had written for the magazine. Mike was told that it was an attack on him — which was not my intention at all — and when he learned that I was writing an autobiographical novel about the group, The Kings in the North, he naturally drew the conclusion that this work would also be aimed at him.

By December of 1951, these and other problems were sufficient to cause an open rift between McClure and me as well as between him and some other members in the group. Some suggestion of the other conflicts appears in The Mad Cub, but not the one about the magazine specifically, although it was the most destructive.

In any case, the publication of Provincial Review was in limbo, and it was not published until 1996 by Bruce Conner and me. An examination of the work scheduled to be printed shows clearly that we were already anticipating what would come later when the Beat Movement began. The poetry of David Wright and Jim Lyle, and the short stories of Coleta Eck and Don Duncan in particular all clearly reveal the themes and techniques that would gain nation-wide recognition in just a few years. And the metal mobile of John Pearson’s pictured in the magazine was also quite experimental at the time.

Finally, of course, among the contributors who would achieve major standing in the Beat Movement in San Francisco, were Bruce Conner (who did the cover for the magazine), Mike McClure (who was one of the six who read his poetry the night Ginsberg first read Howl), and Dave Haselwood (whose Auerhahn Press published many of the Beat writers).

The group largely continued, but without the magazine, it now lacked a central purpose. Some people in the group reconciled their differences, but other splits remained. Virginia Bing and David Wright got married, and by June I had married as well. A good deal of The Mad Cub takes place in this period.

The parties continued, and people still worked on their writing and their art, but it was clear that the whole thing was becoming more and more patchwork and temporary. McClure came to a New Year’s Eve party that Phyllis and I gave at the end of 1952, but within a couple of weeks he had left Wichita, first going to New York and then the Southwest, arriving in San Francisco late in 1953. Bruce Conner and Corban LePell left for the University of Nebraska to pursue their studies after the end of the 1952-53 school year.

While some people were leaving, new people continued to come into the group, giving it life for another couple of years. Among these new people were Glenn Todd and Ann McEwen.

The dream of publishing a literary magazine also was finally realized, but in a much reduced format, when the Sunflower added an occasional Literary Review of four pages. Three issues were published in the spring semester of 1954, under the editorship of Dave Haselwood, and several more issues the following year.

In addition, although folk song singing had been an integral part of our parties for some time and I had been writing “composed” folk songs since 1951 (and even McClure — along with Betty Schneider — had written one), it was not until the spring semester of the 1953-54 school year that we “went public”. I was given a weekly program on KMUW for 13 weeks to discuss folk music and play examples — both live and from records. I also played tapes I had made from some of our parties where we had sung folk songs. Bruce Conner, on a holiday trip back from NU, appeared on one of these tapes playing his congo drum and singing.

In the summer of 1953 I had begun a film entitled Day of Wrath which I continued work on during the 1953-54 school year, and Corban LePell and Bruce started working with abstract footage at NU in the late fall of 1953, though they finally abandoned the project. Years later, Bruce would become famous for his films, and Corban would work with Wayne Sourbeer on short art films.

Also in the second semester of 1953-54, several members of the group were asked by the university (which was in the process of taking over the management of the Wichita Film Society) to select some short art films for the rest of the year and put on a spring film festival. The first semester of 1954-55, I was appointed Chairman of a joint faculty-student committee to run the WU Film Society. Several members of the group were on the committee.

Overall, the 1954-55 school year was taken up with the work on the WU Film Society and the publication of five issues of the Sunflower Literary Review — and, of course, a lot of parties. During this period, David Wright began making beautifully done mobiles, and I started another novel. What was different about this year was that at last we had learned how to work inside the framework of the university and use it for our purposes. In this we were helped by several of the teachers at the University, among them Bill Nelson, Joanie O’Bryant, Geraldine Hammond, and Jo Sullivan-Rogers.

At the end of the year, some of the group who had not graduated the previous year took their degrees, or went on to other schools, and the group came to an effective end. Dave Haselwood joined the army and went to Germany. I graduated and was accepted as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Illinois, and spent the 1955-56 and 1956-57 school years there while I worked on my Master’s Degree. Bruce Conner, after graduating from NU, went to New York in February of 1956, and then to Boulder, Colorado to school. It was in February that Conner launched his “Ez for Prez” campaign.

And, of course, it was on October 7th of 1955 that the Beat Era began with the reading at the Six Gallery, and soon that “Rock and Roll” entered the popular music scene.

In June of 1956, Mike McClure’s first book, Passage, was published. It was also that summer that Conner appeared on a local Wichita radio station pushing his “Ez for Prez” crusade.

2: The Second Beat Scene in Wichita in the Late 1950s and Early 1960s

In September of 1957 Conner had moved to San Francisco, after having visited there the year before for a few weeks, staying with McClure and his wife. Very little had happened in the arts in Wichita during the years from the summer of 1955 to the summer of 1957 when I returned to Wichita to teach at the newly opening Southeast High School. However, with the publication of On the Road in September of 1957, and The Dharma Bums in 1958, things began to happen everywhere, and Wichita was no exception.

•1957, 1958

In the second semester of 1957-58 I taught three Junior Honors English classes and we convinced the school newspaper to give us a “Creative Corner” for student poetry. We also put out a mimeographed literary magazine and the next year — 1958-59 — we put out another — as we would then for several more years. The next year, three students of mine, Ralph Hollis, Steve Hawkins, and Janet Bramel, put out an 85 page dittoed book of their poetry and sold it in the hallways at the school.

It was also at this time, in December of 1958, that Ann (McEwen) Arnold (whose husband, Bob, was teaching at East High School) made up a hand bound copy of a selection of her poems for circulation.

Things were occurring at the university as well. Corban LePell had returned to Wichita in the spring of 1956 to work on his Master’s in Fine Arts, and by October of 1957 he had helped to spark a new group of artists into displaying their work at an exhibition at the university. [John Simoni, “Wichita’s Art Life”, The Wichita Eagle, October 13, 1957].

He also founded Mikrokosmos at this time and the first issue was published in March of 1958. [“WU Students Publish Own Writing, Art”, The Wichita Eagle, March 21, 1958]. The issue included such new writers as Alan Russo, Kay Long, and Robert Rowton, and artist Jim Davis. Later, Jane (Schmidt) Curry, who had had pieces published in the University of Kansas literary magazine Upstream in 1951, also published in Mikrokosmos.

It was as well about this time that Corban produced a long playing record of folk songs sung by Marvin Grandstaff. Corban was also involved with the Wichita Society of the Classical Guitar, as was Tom Dickerson, Irma Wassall, and myself. On February 14 in 1958 the Society gave a performance at the Art Association on North Belmont.

There is no doubt that Corban LePell was the person largely responsible for the revival of literary and artistic activity in Wichita at this time.

•1959, 1960

In the spring of 1959, Wayne Sourbeer and Corban produced Montage I: Paint and Painter, a short film which documented the creation of a painting over a period of time. In April of 1959 I had A Cornice of Angels, a little book of some of my poetry, printed.

In May of 1959 the combined art, music, dance, and English departments at Southeast put on the first Chimerical Euphony, a program originated by Rex Hall, Howard Jacob, and me, which gave students a full range of opportunities to display a wide variety of creative work. Faculty members at Wichita University, including Corban LePell and Robert Kiskadden, also exhibited their paintings during the program. Rex Hall was also involved at the time with the indeX Gallery group that had begun in 1958.

Then in the summer of 1959, a little magazine not sponsored by the university entitled The Poets Corner #2 was put out by Alan Russo, with a cover by LePell, photography by Wayne Sourbeer, drawings by Jim Davis, and poems by Alan Russo and a number of new poets, including Karin Antonio, Bob Branaman, Charlie Plymell, and Roxie Powell. Subsequently, with Corban’s encouragement (in the 1959-60 school year Corban had become an “art lecturer” at the university) Plymell made his first appearance in Mikrokosmos in January of 1960 and also that same year printed a book of his own poems, entitled Selections: Charles Plymell. He also helped Russo (who had earlier had poetry published in the Sunflower Literary Review) print a thin volume of his poetry entitled the locked man.

Untangling the discontinuous chronology of Plymell’s later (1971) book, The Last of the Moccasins, is not easy, but the facts in the case seem to be that Plymell became involved in one part of the Wichita scene in mid-1959, and remained in Wichita (with occasional trips to the West Coast) until sometime around early in 1963 when he went to Los Angeles, and then later went to San Francisco. There he re-established contact with Alan Russo (who had gone to San Francisco earlier), who introduced him to some of the former Wichitans there, including Dave Haselwood and Glenn Todd.

Mikrokosmos 4 was published in May of 1960, with poems by Mac Armstrong, Steve Hawkins, and Charlie Plymell, among others. Earlier, in January of 1960, The Wichita Dance Association was given two rooms in the old county courthouse for practice sessions. The group, formed in 1954, had given one recital in 1957 and one in 1958, but had largely been inactive. Under the direction of Alice Bauman and with the new practice space, the Association began offering lessons in modern, classical, and jazz styles of dance. [Dave Winston, “Old Courthouse Gives Art Big Boost”, The Wichita Eagle Magazine, January 17, 1960: 7].

A new development in the scene in 1960 was the opening of the Id Gallery and Coffee House sometime around April. The Id was located at 3107 E. 13th, just west of the southwest corner of 13th and Hillside. Dorothy Wadsworth was the motivating force behind the opening of the Id, though Marilyn and Bob Latham handled its actual day to day business operation for much of its existence. Besides having paintings displayed on the walls, Wadsworth also arranged for films and readings; and occasionally the coffee house featured folk singers as well as chamber music. My sister, Celeste, sang folk songs there for a time before she and Brad Hammond went to California. Wadsworth saw the Id as a place where people could come together to discuss the arts and have intellectual debates. She wanted to establish a “cosmopolitan” atmosphere in which professionals and students could enjoy the arts. [The Wichita Eagle, undated clipping].

The Wichita Society of the Classical Guitar was still having recitals, and in November of 1960, Patti (Payne) McLaughlin sang a program of folk songs at a meeting open to the public. [“Patti McLaughlin To Play And Sing For Folksingers”, The Wichita Eagle, November 14, 1960: 12A].

Other venues for paintings were also opening up with the success of indeX. Lou Dunn displayed his paintings at a make-shift gallery at 448 1/2 N. Main on January 23, 1960. In August of 1960, the Art Village League was formed under the leadership of Pat Seaman, and began opening up studios and galleries and holding art workshop classes in a building on the northeast corner of Main and Murdock. By a year later, there were 30 artists “eating, sleeping, and painting” in buildings in the immediate vicinity. [Fred Huddleston, “Art Colony Spreads Influence”, The Wichita Eagle & Beacon Magazine, August 13, 1961: 18].

•1961, 1962, 1963

In this time frame, Wayne Sourbeer made a film with Charlie Plymell which was based on a mystical experience of Charlie’s. I assisted them by taking them to a number of settings out in the country around Wichita that I had discovered over the years, which fitted some of the imagery they were after. It was during the middle of 1961 that another coffee shop opened, the Green Parrot Coffee House and Gallery, at 2618 E. Douglas.

Among the particularly good authors who emerged in the scene during this period were Janet Bramel, Joan (Murray) Pepitone, and Jim Mechem. Janet published her book of poems The Ten Days of My Dream in May of 1961. Jim Mechem was developing his unique style and his concept of “the hundred page novel” and writing one work after another: Dreams Money Can Buy, Nonsense from Geraldine, The Undercurrent, the Fanchon novels, and so on, and printing them up on a ditto machine. Frank Curry was also working on a novel.

Art was thriving in 1961. On January 29th, the 2nd Innes “Living with Art” show included Dorothy Wadsworth, Jim Davis, and Tom Dickerson among others. [John Simoni, “Wichita’s Art Life”, The Wichita Eagle Magazine, January 29, 1961]. The Bottega Gallery opened in this period at 110 1/2 E. Douglas, with Bruce McGrew giving a show from March 6 through the 31st in 1961, and Charlie Plymell reading poetry there on Sunday the 19th.

Meanwhile, Mikrokosmos continued to be published. Issue 5 appeared in January of 1961, and number 6 in the spring of 1961, with a play by Jane Robertson, another former student of mine. Increasingly, however, the magazine was not sufficient to fully serve the needs of the rapidly developing literary and art community and, as a result, a variety of short-lived magazines sprang up. Hobson’s Choice, a mimeographed literary magazine edited by Jim Rauh and Gar Bethel, for example, appeared in the spring of 1962. Janet Bramel, Jim Mechem, Jon Roe, Kay (Long) Day, Eddie Hullett, and others contributed. Even the Unitarian Church put out a poetry broadside and started a recorder group. Having failed as a coffee house, the Id re-opened in early October of 1961 selling beer.

Corban LePell had left Wichita during this time, accepting a teaching position at Northwestern University, and he taught there during the 1961-62 and 1962-63 school years. Bruce Conner returned to Wichita twice in this period, once in 1961 (going on to Mexico afterward), and again later for several months from late October 1962 through March 1963.

In March of 1962 Southeast ran a week-long Chimerical Euphony Week celebration exhibiting all areas of student artistic effort. In April, Wayne Sourbeer gave an exhibit of 33 of his photographs at the Wichita Art Museum.

In the summer of 1962, the first “gathering of the clan” took place at “The Night of the Green Castle”, which was held at Coronado Heights, and sponsored by Corban and Audrey LePell, Dick and Kay Grove, Richie and Sylvia Meyer, and Wayne and Dorothy Sourbeer. This event consisted of such things as picnicking, viewing the sunset, singing, lighting and setting up luminarios for a candlelight procession, summoning the spirit of Coronado, “mysterious happenings” and so on. Another gathering was held in the summer of 1964, organized by the Sourbeers, Streiffs and LePells.

In January of 1963 I gave a sermon on Zen Buddhism at the Unitarian Church. In 1958 the Unitarian Church began a summer art, music, and literature program for children and adults. By July of 1963, it was offering book discussion groups on such works as Camus’ The Plague and classes in recorder playing, folk guitar, art, drama, ballet, and yoga. [John Roe, “Church Summer Activities Day Provides Full Family Program”, The Wichita Eagle & Beacon, July 7, 1963: 7A].

Some hallucinogenic drugs, such as peyote and mescaline, were beginning to find their way to Wichita during this time, primarily from individuals bringing their own personal batches from the coast rather than in any organized way.

It was also in January of 1963 that Moody Connell opened his Skidrow Beanery, a type of venue which was later complemented by another coffee house, B.C., on the northeast corner of Hillside and Kellogg. B.C. was fully intended to be a Beat scene, and singers sang, paintings were displayed, and poetry was sometimes read. Charlie Plymell had a showing of some of his collages at the Beanery in the spring of 1963. Also in the spring of 1963, I made another film, A Passage of Angels, with Joanie Robertson, and that summer wrote a Mechem-type novel, Giselfe Revisited, which circulated widely.

Given all of the bursting artistic and literary activity that was taking place, I find myself in disagreement with the remarks made in The Last of the Moccasins that Wichita was “a vast cultural desert” and that “In Wichita it was rare to meet someone who had read a book.” When one was surrounded in those early 1960s days with the likes of such people as Jim Mechem, Joan (Murray) Pepitone, Corban LePell, and Janet Bramel, among many other artists, film makers, writers, and poets, I can only conclude that Wichita was, rather, in fact in a cultural high gear.

Strictly speaking, The Last of the Moccasins is not an historical document of the overall Wichita Beat scene of the 1959-1963 period, and I do not believe that Plymell would make that assertion. As can be seen from the work itself, the main character interacts in the relevant sections of the book primarily with a group of four: Rocks, Bob, Alan and Bruce (who I take to be Roxie Powell, Bob Branaman, Alan Russo, and Bruce McGrew). Although Corban LePell is glancingly mentioned (as an unnamed teacher at the university) and an anonymous pony-tailed blonde and a Spanish looking girl are brought in for a scene, the dialogue and action are mostly limited to the doings of this small circle of friends, and that was the book’s intention.

Many of the most important figures of the Beat scene in Wichita at this time are thus left out of the book altogether. The book also does not cover the events surrounding Plymell’s return to Wichita in January of 1964 and the subsequent problems the Beanery had with the police. For historial purposes, this episode, however, is well documented by the newspapers at the time.

Again, however, as with The Mad Cub, Plymell’s book was not intended to be history — but as The Last of the Moccasins includes the real names of real people, it may fairly be considered to be more a memoir rather than a novel, and therefore more open to historical consideration. In any case, as a result of its limited scope, The Last of the Moccasins does not give a picture of the total scene during the period — and cannot be characterized (as one reporter did) as the “definitive chronicle” of Wichita’s Beat Generation.

Another book, The Book of Friends, written by Glenn Todd in 1963 and published in a limited edition many years later (1997), briefly touches on the visit of Haselwood, Todd, and Plymell to Wichita in the late spring of 1963 and their subsequent return to San Francisco and events there during the fall of 1963 at the Gough Street apartment. In some ways this memoir is a sharper portrayal of the Wichita group in San Francisco than The Last of the Moccasins is, and gives a quite different perspective of the personalities involved. In it we also see a different version of the famous Gough Street party depicted in The Last of the Moccasins.

Although the Beat scene continued in Wichita after the mid-Sixties, by this time the Age of Aquarius had come, with its Hippies and Flower Children, and the Beat movement as a distinct element was being relegated to the past. The Skidrow Beanery was caught in the transition and near the end of its three-year existence was largely a haven for a younger generation of hippies. P. J. O’Connor documents the Beanery well in his book Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, Kansas Underground from Beat to Hip, and discusses as well, the music, underground press, and head shops of the early ‘60s period.

It might be noted that little has been said in this section about the civic and commercial activities in Wichita: Civic Music, The Wichita Symphony, University recitals, operas, plays, and art shows, Community and University Theatres, the Wichita Art Museum, and the Art Association, but all of these were occasional outlets for artists and musicians at the time and formed a cultural background against which the Beat movement played itself out.

If one were to put a specific terminal date on the Beat scene in Wichita, it would probably have to be the occasion of Allen Ginsberg’s visit to Wichita in February of 1966. The ensuing difficulties upon Plymell’s return in March and the closing of the Skidrow Beanery / Magic Theater-Vortex in April signaled the end in any case.

As to the role Wichita ultimately played in the Beat movement, I can only refer to what Allen Ginsberg said when I asked him in 1966 why he had come to Wichita. He replied, “I wanted to see where everyone came from.” It was certainly an eloquent tribute to the many Wichitans who had played an important part in the movement.

Section 2: The Wichita Vortex

Most readers of one of Allen Ginsberg’s most important works, the “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, are aware that the poem was written after Ginsberg’s visit to Wichita in February of 1966. Those versed in the history of the poem also know that the “Vortex” of the title is associated with the place that had formerly been Moody Connell’s Skidrow Beanery at 625 East Douglas, near the Eaton Hotel and next to the downtown main railroad overpass. At the time of Ginsberg’s visit, the place was called the “Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery”.

The connection to this nexus is memorialized in the poem:

So home, traveler, past the newspaper language factory
xxxxxunder the Union Station railroad bridge on Douglas
xxxxxto the center of the Vortex, calmly returned
xxxxxxxxxxto Hotel Eaton —
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx[Ginsberg, 1988: 410].

But few know exactly how the Vortex came to be associated with the Beanery, or where the concept of the Vortex, as applied to Wichita, came from to begin with.

1: Bruce Conner’s Story

In 1987, Bruce Conner, in discussing the origins of Provincial Review in a letter to Robert Melton of the Special Collections department of the University of Kansas library, wrote the following:

“The concept of the WICHITA VORTEX was conceived at that time [‘circa 1951’].

“The VORTEX myth was based on the concept that we (Eric Ecklor, Loren Frickel, Lee Streiff, Bruce Conner, Jack Morrison, Michael McClure in specific and the residents of Wichita in general) were held captive as outlaws of another planet. We were deposited annually in Wichita and endowed with fabricated memories at the time of the WU Homecoming game. WE could never leave Wichita. All outside of Wichita was an illusion of the VORTEX. No matter how hard one might try, the Vortex would snap you back to Wichita where we were eternally trapped. I first heard this comic myth from McClure, Morrison and Ecklor. It was elaborated into great detail over the next couple of years and was referred to when many of us had moved to San Francisco.... somehow we had not really eluded the force of the VORTEX and we were in actual fact deceived by mind altering rays from the enemy from outer space.

“When another generation of artists from Wichita arrived in SF (Bob Brannaman, Alan Russo, Beth Pewther, etc.) the myth gathered dimension to the point where native Californians traveled to Wichita on their vacation in order to see and understand why these unusual creative people existed. They were warned of the pull of the Vortex that they might never return.

“McClure was the youngest of the poets at the six poets that read at the SIX Gallery in San Francisco with Snyder, Lamantia, Whalen, Ginsberg.... the Wichita Vortex became a common reference for the poets and artists. Allen Ginsberg's writings in reference to the Vortex spread the term into more general usage.

“As Dorothy said - That’s the vortex in Toto.”
xxxxx[Letter from Bruce Conner to Robert Melton, 11-1-87].

But that is not the Vortex in Toto, for Bruce had picked up only the tail-end version of the “aliens from another planet” myth that had been around for quite a while already.

2: The Epic of the Martian Empire

In fact, the myth had actually begun in the fertile imagination of James Streiff somewhere around 1937, when he was in the 8th grade at Robinson Junior High School. Put together from the stories, pictures, and characters in the science-fiction magazines of the day that he read, and elaborated in conversations with his friends, the myth — or more accurately, the Martian Epic — grew over the next four years as James moved on to East High School. More people also became involved, until something like fifteen similarly minded friends were all picking up on the epic and enlarging on it. At some point in that period James wrote a summary of the Exile of the Martians from their home on Mars:


“At some time after the Martians had begun extensive colonization in Andromeda, the inevitable happened. Among the natives of Mars was a person whose ideals were not up to the Martian standards. This person taking advantage of the peaceful life which Martians were accustomed to lead unscrupulously corrupted a few of the more degenerate of the younger Martians. In their home workshops (every Martian had one) they made a few cannon and other usual weapons. Then they struck. The Martians being peaceful people had no weapons with which to resist. caedes magnum erat. Streiff of the Parks Streiff Construction Company sat with a cigar in his mouth and with his feet on a mahogany desk contributed by the people of Mars for that purpose, asleep, when suddenly a shell struck the desk and blew it up, rising to his feet Streiff calmly went over to the file.

“He was astounded when he realized that this revolution was not a Parks Streiff Construction Company job. An hour later after using all forms of communication and calculation the situation was clear. All of Mars but the capital city was in the hands of the rebels. In far off Andromeda Moscovich began construction of a space ship with which to come to the aid of the beleaguered city. On Mars the Parks Streiff Construction Company hurriedly finished a space ship which had been intended for use in colonizing Andromeda and prepared to leave the doomed city. Five hundred feet in the air above Mars a shell struck the ship before it became inertialess. Though the drive mechanism was damaged the ship headed out into space. Painfully making their way through the star-studded void, the refugees arrived at last on earth. Slowly and painfully they began to repair the ship. At last however the great undertaking was completed. Embarking once more they cheerfully set out for Andromeda. One thousand miles above the earth their bubble of joy was burst. They were met by a Martian fleet. Unarmed [they] were unable to run the gauntlet of flashing heat beams. Despairing they returned to earth and eluded their pursuers. Tediously they fortified their secluded thickly forested hideaway against an attack from space. Finally as was inevitable they were discovered by the searching Martians. A force of six ships swooped down inert, blasting huge masses of trees with their infra-red beams. Then they were destroyed by hidden guns whose presence they did not suspect but not before they had a chance to report their find.”

After several more attacks from the Rebel Aristocrats, the Earth-bound refugees made a successful attempt to blast their way through the ring of Aristocrat ships and established a base on the Moon. With this forward defense outpost, the refugees were able to prevent any more Aristocrat ships from coming within “a million miles of Earth”.

Unfortunately, however, the refugees were still stranded on Earth and there they remained.

Eventually, the Martian Epic became very complex — covering several billion years of Martian history, and the fields of Martian technology, manners and morals, art, music, religion, language and literature, and other such subjects. The Earth Exile, however, was a central event, as it explained how James, Bob Parks, Robert Frickel, and all the other Martians of the Empire ended up in Wichita.

During World War II, at the age of twelve, I took over the job of running the business of the Empire while all of its members were away from Wichita in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. I published The Martian News Letter, the official journal of the group, using carbon paper and later a hectograph; kept the Files of the Parks-Streiff Construction Company current; and handled all correspondence among the far-flung Martians scattered around the globe. Needless to say, I learned the stories of the epic myth well.

3: The McClure Connection

I first met Mike McClure in the 8th grade at Robinson Junior High in late 1945 — when we were both thirteen — and we were soon fast friends. Naturally, I passed along the stories of the Martian Epic to him, and when James returned from the Air Force in February of 1946, he continued Mike’s education in the legend.

Thus, Mike became actively involved — as was Eric Ecklor later — in the myth, and he applied to become a Martian himself. James had devised a series of tests back in the ‘30s to determine who really had the Martian mentality and who did not, and anyone interested in becoming a Martian had to take the tests.

But how did the image of the Vortex get mingled in with the epic’s story of the Exile that McClure told Conner? Quite simply, because the Vortex, too, was part of the epic. In The Martian News Letter, Volume 2, Number 2, published by James in the late fall of 1942, there appeared a story concerning the collapse of the Universe inadvertently triggered by the destruction of an asteroid that, as it turned out, happened to be the Universal Pivot. The asteroid was scheduled to be destroyed in order to disable the so-called “Goodrum Screen” which had cut Mars, Venus, Tellus (Earth), and Ganymede off from the rest of the Universe.

The asteroid was, however, destroyed three hours ahead of schedule by the (U.U.) or “Utterly Unpronounceables”, a rather nasty race, which thus caused the disaster. Part of the consequences of the destruction of the Universal Pivot are detailed in the MNL story:

“The entire Andromeda nebula was sunk into a subspace as a single unit and maintains existence there. Mars returned to the solar system just in time to be caught in the spacial whirlpool that was being formed there. So far as we know this whirlpool is the only remaining section of the universe in existence.” [Martian News Letter, Vol.2, #2, 1942].

When Paul Carter, a science-fiction fan from Blackfoot, Idaho (who had the persona of a an extra-terrestrial from the planet Statos in the Alpha Centauri system and who corresponded with James) read this issue of MNL, he dashed off a letter to James further elaborating what had happened:

“[...] The screen fell, as scheduled, on November 30. A few hours later---but not before doing incalculable damage---the (U.U.) died, also as scheduled. But, of course, they had been at work on this particular system for a very peculiar and very important reason:

“The Asteroid Q9M23GHJ8 HYUU is the pivot of the universe. True, it is at the edge of the galaxy, and subordinate to a sun, but the universe, as a whole---by mass and not by position---revolves around it. The (U.U.) simply destroyed the asteroid--literally, completely destroyed it! No energy was left, no matter. Nothing.

“Naturally, when the pivot disappeared, the Universe fell apart---literally. Space was torn in fragments, and from sub- and super- spaces came creatures hinted at only by a few Tellurian authors, notably Lovecraft and Merritt (especially the latter---Khalk’ru.)”

[there follows a description of some of the disasters that occurred]

“[...] But this was merely prelude! Today---December Second---a monster destroyed Arisia!

“If Asteroid Q9M23GHJ8 HYUU was the pivot on which the Universe hung, then Arisia was the armature through which its energy poured!!!!!

“Well, anyway, here’s the set-up. There is now one zone of quiet in the universe---a sort of vortex, or storm center. Within this tiny (20 billion mile) zone, are located the following:

“1. A GO-type star (Solar), only remaining part of the Hercules Cluster.
“2. The Planet Mars.
“3. The Planet Statos.
“4. The Planet Beelzebub.
“5. The Planet Xordon.
“6. The Planet Vexadl. Formerly of Canopus; all life wiped off it.
“7. Five asteroids, none from any galaxy within former instrument range.
“8. And, of course — Schultz’s and Ed’s Saloon.

“At the edge of this “New Universe” I sit, vizing out this vizigram, so to speak, from a space-time-trap left behind by the (U.U.)
“Outside is a howling, raging, cosmic tempest, complete with lightning and thunder (where there should be no sound)! The planets and stars are gone; weirdly-angled surfaces and objects have appeared, infested with the entire former population of the sub- and super- spaces.

“Fortunately, the monsters do not dare to approach the “Vortex,” composed of the “old” time and space, because they are of “new” time and space. So you are safe. Yet somehow this chaos is immensely interesting.

“Statosian scientists will gladly cooperate with you Martians in exploring the new cosmos. They have already sent an expedition to extricate me and about fifty thousand other entities from our space-traps, but the expedition was destroyed by the raw elemental fire playing at the edge of the Cosmos.

“Despite the horror of it, there is something wonderful about this new universe. Shall we explore? There might be intelligent beings in the new cosmos, besieged by monsters, whom we might save!

xxxxxxxxxx“May the Sun of the Vortex Shine Long Upon You (as there are no more Suns of the Galaxies),

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx“Paul Carter”

[Letter from Paul Carter to James Streiff, December 2, 1942].

Needless to say, after Carter’s brilliant exposition, the Vortex itself became one of the important elements of the Martian Epic, and the expression, “May the Sun of the Vortex shine long upon you,” became an elegant remembrance of the event.

What Mike told Bruce, then, was an imaginative transformation of the “Martians stranded on Earth” story mixed with Carter’s “Vortex” story.

4: Provincial Review and Ezra Pound

The concept of the Vortex — though from a quite different source, and with a quite different meaning — re-entered the thinking of the Wichita group when it was preparing to publish its literary magazine, Provincial Review, in the 1951-52 school year at Wichita University. We decided that we needed to write down an aggressive manifesto to establish what our literary and artistic point of view was — and why it was necessary for us to reject the current state of poetry and fiction. Accordingly, one night in the fall of 1951, several of us — Eric, Mike, Dave Haselwood, and I (I don’t recall Bruce’s having been there) — met at a tavern at the corner of 17th and Broadway and hashed out what it was that we were actually trying to accomplish with the publication of our magazine. Someone, probably Dave, had brought along a copy of Ezra Pound’s “Vortex Manifesto” as a possible formal statement we might want to adopt, and we discussed it detail by detail.

The discussion was acrimonious and heated. Eric objected to Pound’s attack on the Futurists, and, although I was all for Imagism, I thought the wording of the Manifesto as a whole was too out of date. Others also took issue with one point or another. Eventually, as the evening wore on, however, we all somehow agreed in principle that the statement reflected a great deal of what we believed in. As an Editorial Board, we agreed to provisionally adopt the statement’s ideas to provide us with some guidance, but decided not to print Pound’s Manifesto in the magazine, or even write a new statement of our own. I have the feeling that we thought to do so would be unduly pretentious.

I also think the notion of basing our aesthetic on the image of the Vortex appealed to us even more than Pound’s actual use of it in the Manifesto. After all, it was already a part of our thinking process.

Looking back, one quotation from the Manifesto in particular strikes me as significant: “The DESIGN of the future [is] in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.”

When Ginsberg writes of Carry Nation’s act of violence as leading to the defoliation of the Mekong Delta, the idea is obviously thoroughly comprehensible in these terms.

In January of 1952, when I wrote a philosophy paper for a course I was taking from Joanie O’Bryant, I included a section on aesthetics — with Pound’s Manifesto and our discussion of a few months earlier still clearly in my thoughts:

xxxxx“Art must not be formalized.
xxxxx“Art must be individual.
xxxxx“There can be, by nature, no such thing as a dilettante, where art is concerned.
xxxxx“Art is man’s attempt to make life more beautiful.
xxxxx“Art is both spacial and temporal. That is, while existing in one point in time, it also exists through time. [...]
xxxxx“Primarily, there are three aspects of art.
xxxxx“Music: A thing existing as a sound, without instruments, by the way; and extended through time. A temporal and auditory art.
xxxxx“Poetry: Visual and auditory; both temporal and spacial; that is, temporal in the auditory sense, spacial in the printed sense.... primarily temporal.
xxxxx“Pictorial art: Painting, sculpture, ceramics, architecture, and so on. This is a spacial thing, existing at one point in time.
xxxxx“The dance is both pictorial art, and added to it, the element of temporality. The moving picture, also [....]
“There have been statements to the effect that: music is dependent upon the dance, for meaning; the dance upon the image it creates; and poetry upon both the image and the music.
“Unfortunately, poetry has become too formalized to bear much relation to either image or music, and thus has lost its calling as an art. It has sacrificed image and music, to form [....]”

Thus, I was both affirming my basic agreement with Pound, and attempting to declare my independence from him. The whole piece was five pages long, and this extract leaves out my appeal for more use of natural symbolism and the concept of the “nostalgic echo” of the image, but it does show how the “Vortex Manifesto” influenced our thinking at this time.

Interestingly, in writing the preface to his 1984 Collected Poems 1947-1980, Ginsberg characterized the development of early Beat poetry as “the breakthrough from closed form to open form in American poetry” [Ginsberg, 1984: xxi], which was precisely the idea in my final point above.

5: The Vision of the Vortex

The Wichita Vortex Myth continued, as Bruce says, in California, but it also had at least two more manifestations in Wichita.

The first occurred on a night in October in 1961 after Bruce and I took an Indian medicine and then went to Oak Park. There we experienced a manifestation of the Vortex in a clearing just south of the Lily Pond. Ten years later I described the vision in the following way:

The park was a sacred grove. In the moonlight I saw curling traceries across the dark grass of the clearing, and was drawn downward into a swirling grassy vortex. At the center of the Vortex, the whirlwind, was a translucent window into the earth, and a pale, luminous face looked upward, a hand against the window bracing the unseen form — eyes transfixed and locked in a passionless and eternal vision.

I remember wondering if the Old Earth had thinned so tenuously at this point that the New Earth underneath shone through. Or whether I stood on the New Earth, and the face was a transfiguration caught immobiley when the Old Earth was swept under, crushed, faulted and vaulted downward. I wondered if there were many New Earths to come, and the window was a presaging of myself to be. It was not my face, and yet it might as well have been mine — now, or then: in the past or in some time to come. I could not say for a certainty that it was not me; in that concatenation it may have been me.

Time is not finished yet — and perhaps the great Vortex knows no time, and for it all time is simultaneous — like the Aeternitas. Only I am a creature of time, a vortex of wind and blood swirling for a moment — an intermittent vision, through which certain colors and lights are seen.

The vision of the Man-in-the-Earth possessed me for years afterward. I could not understand the vision. I tried to think whether he might be the spirit of this place, but all my thinking ended in an inexplicable mystery. No one in Wichita knows its real history. The names of the early white settlers, the buildings, the financial transactions: none of these have anything to do with the real history. I could not escape the deep conviction that somehow the secret to the city, and all who lived there, including myself, was somehow bound up in the meaning of the Man-in-the-Earth.

To me, then, the center of the Vortex will always be that spot in Oak Park.

6: The Skidrow Beanery / Magic Theatre-Vortex

The second later manifestation of the Vortex was, of course, that of the transformation of the “Skidrow Beanery” into “The Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery” just prior to Ginsberg’s visit to Wichita in February of 1966.

According to P. J. O’Connor,

“Moody’s Skidrow Beanery was one venue for folk musicians in Wichita in ‘64 and ‘65. Moody Connell sold out to a couple from San Francisco, Chloe and Ike Parker, in early ‘66.

“They renamed the place the Vortex Magic Theatre and later that year had as a visitor, one of the recognized founders of the beat movement, Allen Ginsberg. Charles Plymell [...] commented on this visit to Wichita:

“’I took them [Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky] down there and he gave a reading. We went into the Salvation Army and Okie’s [tavern].’ [...]

“Ginsberg, on a tour of America in a VW Camper purchased through a $6000 Guggenheim grant, also went into the Showboat tavern, a place in southeast Wichita that featured well-scrubbed folk singers. He wrote of his impressions of the land and people in the poem ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra,’ selections of which were published in the May 27, ‘66 Life.”

[P. J. O’Connor, Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, Kansas Underground from Beat to Hip. Rowfant Press, Wichita, 1999: 24-5].

According to a later article in the Wichita Beacon reporting on the publication of Ginsberg’s poem in Life in May:

“The poem’s title alludes to The Vortex in the 600 block on E. Douglas. At the site of the former Skid Row Beanery, it was a combination movie theater, art gallery and meeting place for local poets and artists.
“The Vortex’s poetic immortality comes a bit late.
“It was closed in April because of lack of funds, just a few weeks after Ginsberg had packed the place by reading his poetry there.” [The Wichita Beacon, May (?), 1966].

Thus, by May, The Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery was already closed.

But the story of Ginsberg’s visit to the Beanery / Vortex and his use of the myth of the Vortex has its own place in other parts of this website.

7: The Once and Future Vortex

Significantly, however, by Parker’s re-naming of the Skidrow Beanery as The Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery, Ginsberg was misled into thinking of the downtown area of the Beanery and Eaton Hotel nexus as being the center of the Wichita Vortex, which, of course is not necessarily true. In fact, the Skidrow Beanery had been the Vortex in name for less than a month when Ginsberg arrived, whereas the Wichita Vortex itself had been a principle for many years in both Martian epic and Beat myth. It may even have had an existence in the myths of the Wichita Indians and their Spirit figure of Tsikidikikea — “the windman”. In any case, the Vortex even still remains as a strange marvel of the city’s cryptic life.