"I miss most about the Beat family was their willingness to open their houses and lives to us, the next generation’s poets. It was an inspiration to meet people who were artists and that was enough and every conversation was between poets."
Randy Roark: The Lotus of the Beats
Randy Roark is a poet, author and producer for Sounds True where he has been employed since 1998 - after working with poet Allen Ginsberg and writes a monthly column for Newtopia Magazine on his travel experiences and world music. Randy Roark studied with Philip Whalen at Naropa Institute. He is currently involved in the process of rescuing the Naropa Institute audio archive, which is in danger of audio degradation and disintegration.
Randy worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust.
Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.
His poetry collections include The San Francisco Notebook, One Night (with Anne Waldman), Hymns, Awakening Osiris and Mona Lisa's Veil: New and Selected Poems 1979-2001. He is also the author of Dissolve: Screenplays to the Films of Stan Brakhage.
Randy Roark talks about Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Naropa University and the Beat bohemian adventures.
Tell me a few things about your meeting with Allen Ginsberg and how has Allen changed your life?
Randy Roark: I’ve written quite a bit about that time and what I learned from him already, and those other stories are easy to find on-line for anyone interested, so I’ll try to stick to things I haven’t talked about before.
I can say without a doubt that my time at Naropa transformed me from one consciousness into another. I enrolled as one person and graduated three years later a different person. For example, Allen and I argued about everything, but nothing more than the core point of his teaching—the slogan he attributed to Chogyam Trungpa, “First thought, best thought.” From its founding, spontaneous poetics was important to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and Allen insisted on making us improvise in class—almost always in meter—and I was terrible at it and I wasn’t about to get any better because I really didn’t care to. I found most of the spontaneous poetry I’d heard indulgent, and I thought the classes he turned over to the creation of spontaneous chain-poems an annoying waste of time. And yet both times when I was asked to give the commencement address at Naropa, I decided to speak extemporaneously. The first one was the most important because Allen and Anne were in the audience. I had never done anything like this before. It was the largest and most important performance in my life, and yet, as I was walking up the stairs to the stage, I kept pushing thoughts out of my mind. I would have felt like a phony if I accepted a diploma from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with a prepared text.
Ever since then, whenever I’m asked to speak as a graduate of Naropa, I’ll arrive at the podium without a single prepared thought in my head. For me, it’s ironic that the guy who argued most strenuously against spontaneous poetry has been seen by more people speaking extemporaneously than reading from a text. Another irony is that the biggest fights I’ve gotten into in the studio as a producer have been because I insist that the authors speak from notes and never use a script.
There was one moment at the very beginning of our relationship that was almost mystical for me. We were walking up the steep stairwell from Pearl Street to the Naropa mailboxes in the first few days of our work together and I was walking on Allen’s left and his left foot slipped and he slid toward me and I caught him with my right arm before either of us really knew what was happening and I stood my ground. It surprised us both and Allen took a moment to stop and look at me like he was seeing me for the first time. And in some indefinable way in that I think our relationship was either cemented or defined in that moment.
One time I asked Allen about a scroll he had hanging outside his kitchen in Boulder. He told me it was the “Prajnaparamita Sutra”—it’s known as “The Diamond Sutra” in English. Then he recited a piece of it in Sanskrit, which he then translated, his hands in the air in front of his, as if he is conjuring from a text: “All composed things are like a dream, / a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.” Then to make sure I got it, he acted it out for me. “You know that passage in Kerouac where he’s staring into the bakery window, and he’s starving and he doesn’t have any money? He can see the pastries—they’re only separated by a thin sheet of glass he could break if he tried to—but he knows that he will never know those pastries, no matter how hungry or deserving he is. And yet their scent has woken in him a hunger for what he cannot have. The “Prajnaparamita Sutra” is warning us that that’s what human life is like.”
But there were also ways in which Allen and I were just fundamentally different. For example, I’m an introvert, and proud of it. But if a scene or a party or a class was getting too complacent or dull, Allen would break the boredom by doing something outrageous. I remember one party in Jane Faigao’s back yard where I was talking to someone and there was a commotion and a lot of yelling and skin flashed by and I looked over and it was Peter and Allen and Gregory running naked through the party. The funny part was that no one paid any attention to them, other than a glance to see if that was really Allen Ginsberg running naked through the party, followed by Peter and Gregory. And it was and we went back to our conversations. But it did wake everyone up for a moment. Everyone thought, at least I did, if only for a second, Should I take my clothes off and run through the party as well? If not here, now, when? People like me who had never thought that thought, thought that thought that night, and a choice was offered to us that for me has never come again: Is tonight the night I’ll remember all my life as the night I ran naked through Jane Faigao’s backyard with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso? But, see, that’s it; I’m not Allen Ginsberg. I’m never going to do that because I don’t want to. But I’m glad that Allen did. I can still bring up that image of Allen’s hairy back from over thirty years ago and it still makes me smile.
And I’m coming to realize recently how important it’s been to my writing that Allen taught that poetry could transmit actual states of consciousness and emotion. The idea is that if a poem is written while experiencing a particular emotion—such as ecstasy in the last stanza of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”—it will retain something of the original experience preserved in its vocabulary, its rhythms, its imagery, as well as its sentiment. But for Allen, sentiment was secondary; the rhythms in the words that rise up in us without thinking when overcome by an emotion were what would trigger the same emotion in the listener. And for Allen the most important aspect of the original emotion was the breathing rhythms recreated in the length of the phrases and the punctuation of any poem written while under the possession of any genuine emotion. For Allen a poet’s commas were more than punctuation—they were instructions for breathing. So as a poet you were doing much more than writing a poem; you were repaying attention with genuine emotion, and transmitting it to the human on the other end of the poem. Allen knew he responded as a child to emotions in poetry before he had ever experienced the emotion itself. But having experienced the physical sensations associated with that emotion recreated in a poem, he could recognize them in real life, and experience them more deeply, with more awareness, and try to capture them in poetry in the moment. That’s why it was important to get the breathing and the rhythms exactly right—or it’d just be another intellectual exercise—nothing real would be woken up in the listener.
Allen would demonstrate this at least once a year by arranging a choral reading of the last stanza of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” All the new students would gather with the veteran students and Allen would instruct us on proper breathing, the importance of precise enunciation of our vowels and snapping our consonants. Vowels are like sails, you fill them with air. Aaaaiiiirrrrr. If a word ends with a consonant—con-SO-nanT—pronounce it! Then he would teach us how to stand with proper posture—erect but relaxed, feet firmly planted on the earth—and on the count of four we enunciated clearly and loudly the poem in unison while Allen instructed us from the front, breathe only at commas!
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is;
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies (Keep going!)
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe (No breathing!)
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an extinguished hearth (Good!)
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unwakened earth (Yay!)
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
And we’d get high. The more you put into it, the higher you got.
Allen also taught that Euripides and the ancient Greek dramatists would go to the marketplace and listen to people arguing, and later use those same rhythms when they wanted to write for Medea as she was cursing Jason, say. And if Euripides wanted to write words for Agave after she realizes the bloody head in her lap is her son’s, he would listen to the women keen over the burial of a son who has died too young. These meters then got codified and carted off by the Romans, but the Romans didn’t realize their proper uses and would write any kind of poem in any fashionable meter. Poems became technical exercises, word puzzles, and the original uses were lost. Poetry’s roots in the human voice were lost, of communicating truth by communicating the actual experience of what is true. And finally, poetry’s connection to music was lost when it was converted to the page. So if you need to explain Allen’s poetry, that’s a pretty good start: to reclaim the poet’s voice, to speak truth in order to wake the truth up in others, and to return poetry to its musical roots.
Allen also found in mantra a spiritual philosophy that believed that sound—especially poetry—could be an agent for transformation in the speaker and the listener. But Allen’s deepest roots were in the Norton anthologies and not the Bhagavad Gita, so he was especially excited to find poets who believed in the incantatory power of verse, from Shelley to the Russian poets of the Stray Dog Cafe.
While I was studying with Allen, this was more or less an intellectual concept for me. I worked in language, not in meter or rhythm or breathing. I wrote words to be read off the page, not read aloud. But about a year later I had an experience that would change the way I wrote and how I thought about writing.
Ted Berrigan gave us a homework assignment that I’d completely forgotten until the last possible moment and, worse, I was headed out the door after a heated argument with my wife. So I sat down on our front porch and took out a pen and completed the assignment while I was still upset, my heart racing, my breathing shallow. The assignment was to describe a physical object—in my case an ash tree in our front yard—without using its noun. Then I rushed to class and waited my turn to read. I was still a little hot, a little nervous. My voice quivered. When I’d finished, Ted’s mouth hung open, an unfiltered Chesterfield hanging from his bottom lip. “Wow,” he said, the cigarette bobbing up and down, “you were really angry when you wrote that poem!”
What changed in my writing in that moment was in my realization that I didn’t write that poem to communicate my anger, I wrote that poem to sketch a tree without using the word “tree.” Yet what I communicated—at least to someone like Ted Berrigan—was my actual state of mind. The repercussions of this realization were devastating to my understanding of who was really writing my poems, and how to write them, and exactly what to do with everything I’d already written, but it was ultimately very good for the writing. I probably wouldn’t still be writing if I used my intellect alone to write. I find the mysteriousness of large swaths of my work conducive to going back and re-experiencing my past in a new way, when most of the specifics are forgotten and I can see the larger picture, which is always impossible for me to see in the moment, or I see it differently through the lens of what happens afterwards. Like an interview. For me each interview is the latest in a series of self-portraits. I’m always surprised by who shows up.
Which memory from Allen Ginsberg’s adventures makes you smile?
RR: One day I was driving him back from a doctor’s appointment and he told me he was going to buy a bike and use it to get around Boulder. His Chinese doctor had encouraged him to get some exercise to rein in his high blood pressure. I laughed out loud. “You don’t think I will? You just wait! One day I’ll be riding around town and I’ll stop by and say hello!” I never saw him ride it, but there’s a self-portrait he took with his camera attached to that bicycle’s rack, I think.
Are there any memories from Allen Ginsberg which you’d like to share with us?
RR: I want to continue to use ones I haven’t talked about before.
He was very protective and supportive of his stepmother. He would call her every weekend, even when he was traveling, and tell her all of the things that he’d been up to lately—some international honor, a new book, that he was interviewed in “New York” magazine or “Rolling Stone.” And he would ask her about her life and make sure that all her needs were taken care of—was she eating well, had she been out, who visited, who wrote, who called? Then he’d catch up on all of the family and neighborhood gossip. He would put his feet up on the coffee table and pick at his teeth and talk to her at great length and laugh and joke with her—there was no sense of rush on Allen’s part at all. The call would last as long as she wanted it to, and during that time she had his complete attention.
I loved to watch Allen cook. He would wear a bib that went over his neck and tied around his middle. Corso used to call him Granny Ginsberg. He made a great baked chicken with whole quartered onions and chopped carrots and celery and whole medium-size unpeeled potatoes and rosemary and garlic. When he took it out of the oven, it was an entire meal, everything ready at the same time, everything savory from the juices mixing together. And then after dinner he’d make chicken soup with the carcass and whatever was left over. But when Peter was there the kitchen was his. Peter did the shopping, he did the cooking, he did the cleaning, he answered the phone and the door. Allen paid the bills.
Allen didn’t drink and he never had drugs in the house that I know of. But if you passed him a joint at a party he’d take a hit. He did get some LSD backstage from Bob Weir in Boulder in 1982 that he gave to me as payment for some work I’d done for him. I hadn’t done any acid since I began meditating and I’d been meditating forever. They were black squares of blotter acid with a tetragrammaton in white in the center, surrounded by Arabic writing. It took me about seven days to decide to take one. I discussed it with my wife and took it after she went to bed.
That night I wrote my first long poem, composed of separate elements and separate incidents strung together solely by the fact that one entry followed another, without any effort to tell a single focused story. Yet to me there was a story, and it was more subtle and moving than any story I could make up on my own. For me it captured without trying something of time and the sense of time moving forward, never resolving, always changing, no rest, no ends, no beginnings. My poem ended when I went to sleep, but by then it’s clear that any ending is completely arbitrary. And I was right.
Allen would do a psychedelic once a year to—as he put it—“clean out the cobwebs.” There’s some famous photos of Allen naked, taking photos of himself in the mirror in Boulder in 1985. It was the last summer Ecstasy was legal and Bataan and Jane were getting rid of their little white pills at a party on Mapleton Hill where Allen was staying. When the drug began to take effect, Allen left the party and went upstairs to his room, undressed, and took photos of himself in the bathroom mirrors and wrote all night. Allen often had unpleasant experiences on psychedelics. I’m not sure why he persisted.
Allen always left his front door open—during summer days it was literally open—so people felt free to come and go. Often I’d come over and there’d be a dozen people in his living room and he’d have gone off to someone’s empty apartment to prepare for his class. Every summer on the last day before he left town I would bring over three books—no more and no less, my limits not his—and put them on his dining room table and he’d pick them up and doodle on them while we made plans for what happens next.
He’s the only man I’ve ever kissed on the lips. He never hit on me, never did anything suggestive, never misbehaved toward anyone in my presence. But we would kiss on the lips when we said hello and goodbye. Mouth closed and eyes open. It was sweet and quick and scratchy and I liked it. It seemed more manly than shaking hands or hugging.
One of my favorite memories comes from 1985, when I was driving Allen back to Boulder from a booksigning for his Collected Poems at the Tattered Cover in Denver. I was going through a divorce at the time and very raw. That afternoon he had drawn the appearance of the Diamond Sutra in the Three Worlds on the title page of my copy of his Collected Poems. On the way to the booksigning I was trying to convince him that I was in hell. No, you’re not, he said. You’ve got a good job. You’ve got a nice car. You speak too lightly of being in hell for anyone actually in hell, he said.
This would be my last summer as Allen’s assistant in Boulder. I couldn’t seem to hold anything together that year. I had decided I had no choice but to walk away from Naropa and start over at the same time my marriage was dissolving. My wife and I had lived together since we were eighteen. She was the only adult relationship I’d ever known. So I was losing not only my professional identify in Boulder but also my social identify as well, along with a life centered at Naropa for the last five years, and any friends who were more my wife’s than mine. And I was extremely aware that I had nothing to replace them. I felt like I was stepping off a burning plank. At the time it seemed the lesser of two evils.
At this point I’d been in pretty intensive psychotherapy to figure out what went wrong in my marriage so it would never happen again, and my therapist was encouraging me to speak up more about what I was actually feeling in the moment, to take more chances, and I was feeling grateful to Allen for all that had happened in the previous five years. I had no idea whether we would ever work together again but it was unlikely. So I waited until I was driving him home after the reading and said, “Allen, I want you to know how important you are to me and how much you mean to me and how much I’ve learned from you and how grateful I am that you were willing to open your life to me. The time I spent with you is the most important period in my life and probably always will be. And that was all made possible by your willingness to allow me into your life and I want you to know how much I love you and how much I’m aware of and appreciate what you’ve done for me and what you mean to me and what you’ll always mean to me.” Allen yelled, “I don’t want your love! Someday you’ll realize I’m a schmuck just like everyone else and you’ll make me pay for your ‘love.’ I refuse your love! You can’t even see me! I’m just a screen you project all of your fantasies onto about a good daddy so you can feel all of those emotions you want to feel. But I deny your love! I reject your love!” And he sulked and turned away.
I was shocked into silence. I felt shamed and embarrassed. And then I surprised us both by saying, “That’s your problem.” “What’s my problem?” “Your problem is that someone just told you that they loved you and that’s your response. My problem is that I just told someone that I loved them and that’s the response I got.” From that point on, our relationship changed completely. It’s like he adopted me.
I think I was able to stay away for more than a year, but not two. Anyway, one night I got up and went to Allen’s reading and Allen was on stage, doing a soundcheck when he saw me sitting third row center. He put down his harmonium, hopped off the stage, and pushed the chairs aside and I stood up and he hugged me and said, “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you. I have some work you might be interested in. What are you doing after the reading? Can you drive me to the party?” And we were back in business. From then on we found ways to work together until the end. First it was to turn his lectures on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience into a manuscript. Then he wanted the Literary History of the Beat Generation lectures transcribed and turned into a book. Later I dreamed of doing a book based on the trip he took to China in 1985.
One time he told me he wanted to return to Columbia incognito and study astronomy. I told him that would look great on his resume and in the news. The only part I questioned was the incognito part. It wasn’t going to be possible for one thing. And why hide who he was? Why not be proud? Allen said, no, I can’t, I’m Allen Ginsberg. And I said, what does that mean? That Allen Ginsberg can’t go back to school to study astronomy if he wants to? Who made that rule? No, I need to be Allen Ginsberg. Naropa needs me, Brooklyn College needs me. I have obligations. It’d be impossible.
His last year, before anyone knew he was sick, Allen was complaining about being tired more than usual. I immediately thought it was the “everybody needs me” thing so I encouraged him to do a personal writing retreat at Cherry Valley. What if he got sick? Naropa would muddle through. Brooklyn would find a replacement. He’d replaced Ashbery at Brooklyn College, who had better things to do. Diane got away. Other people could fill in for his responsibilities, but no one else could write his poems. No, he said, you have no idea how primitive things are out there, how difficult. He would need help. I’d help, as much as I can. But it never happened. I think he actually got energy from being his constant social life in New York City. Everyone wanted to meet him, including the next generation, including Ethan Hawke and Bono and Beck. It must have been the cancer sapping him. He used to wear me out when he lived in Boulder. It seemed like that as long as the party kept changing locales he gained momentum as the night wore on. And it wasn’t alcohol—he didn’t drink. And it wasn’t drugs. He just enjoyed being alive more than anyone I’ve ever known.
What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from Allen Ginsberg?
RR: I miss talking to him on the phone in the middle of the night. He knew I’d be up late and some nights he had trouble sleeping and he’d call and we’d talk until he’d begin to yawn. I miss being able to sit in on his poetry classes. I miss transcribing his lectures. I miss reading about Allen in the news. I miss when Allen would get involved in some new project and he would dictate a list of things for me to do. I liked seeing him every spring and summer when he came to town. I miss how excited he was about everything. I wish Allen was still alive. I miss having to call him for some reason or other and then talking about whatever came into our heads for an hour or more. I miss getting postcards from him when he was traveling, just to say hi. Just knowing Allen seemed to make my life worthwhile.
What's the legacy of all of Allen Ginsberg’s legendary bohemian adventures, especially the spiritual ones?
RR: I think the legacy of Allen’s legendary bohemian adventures is how many of them are now considered mainstream. He was part of the authoring of a new vision of humanity and it became true. The world is post-Ginsberg, post-Beat. On every social issue I can think of that Allen cared about strongly, history has proven to be on his side.
And when you ask about his spiritual legacy, it’s what ties all of his interests together: the potential to transcend in any way we can—even for a moment—the limitations that are imposed on us by our culture and upbringing and history and education and social gossip and language and become essentially and quintessentially ourselves—if just for a second, to blaze! After meeting Allen, there seemed an obvious choice to be made: what Thoreau described as a life of quiet desperation or Allen’s life of total engagement. He made me ask myself, what would I be capable of if I believed in myself as much as he believed in himself? My answer is the Decalogue, and what’s ironic is that Allen would never have had the patience to read the book that he’s inspired.
Another difference between us, though, is that Allen’s imagination went as far as a desire to attain transcendent wisdom, the truth behind appearances. That’s not part of my agenda. I don’t feel like I’d know what to do with transcendent wisdom. I’m most comfortable as a child of illusion. I have no vision for anything beyond that.
I’ve recently become very interested in the potential of conscious evolution, and this is a concept I first heard from Allen back in 1980, when it sounded like crazy science fiction. Allen said that he was taught in high school biology that “ontology recapitulates phylogeny”—that the impregnated human egg goes through all the stages of evolution in embryonic form before it becomes recognizably human. We begin as a single-cell lifeform like the ones that began life on Earth. Then we divide, like the second step in evolution, but this time we become a two-celled organism. And then these two cells divide again and become four and then four become eight, and then cell differentiation begins, with some cells forming a circulation system to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the farthest cell, and a primitive brain stem and neural network form to connect them all. Then we form recognizable gills at one end and a tail on the other, and then the gills become lungs, and the tail becomes a vestige, and at that point we and the chimpanzee share almost identical genetic codes, until the last 2%, which is the genetic percentage that separates us from the chimpanzee.
So, Allen wondered, what if evolution didn’t end with our birth? What if the next step in evolution was something that happened to our consciousness? And what if for the first time in history we could choose how we were about to evolve? We’ve already talked about how Allen believed that poetry could preserve and transmit genuine emotion, even in dark times. Now he saw a use for this power in a larger plan.
Allen had his vision of his audience redefined by Trungpa’s and Whitman’s visions, where they were speaking to generations in the future. They were casting their visions into the future. They were setting out the DNA for a revisioning of the future. He began taping all of his classes and interviews, of amassing an archives. He found that thinking of addressing generations yet unborn forced him to focus on his message and his language. Working with translators on his own poetry had taught him what was translatable and what was not. He had been refining his language and his presentation for almost a generation now. He knew that what he had done already with “Howl” was even more important than the poem itself: a poem written to friends with complete candor—believing it unpublishable—has become a part of the literary canon, and culturally means even more outside of the United States.
That’s part of the reason why lineage was so important to Allen; he saw himself as part of something bigger than himself forwarding a specific agenda, picking up the poetry of Whitman and Williams and Reznikoff, and celebrating his many friends as fellow voices of particularly American verse. Who knew who his poetry would inspire sometime hence? It would certainly be as different from his work as his work was from Williams, and Williams’ work was from Whitman’s.
Another of Allen’s legacies is his generosity. When he could he supported so many people—myself included. So many people around him benefited from Allen’s good will. He used his celebrity to bring attention to younger poets and causes he believed in. He sacrificed personally for the good of others.
Allen also returned poetry to its oral and musical roots and saw immediately that the Beatles and Dylan were the most influential troubadours of all time. And of course there’s his—impossible to believe this was ever necessary—rediscovery that Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were like a sheaf of Dylan’s lyrics without the music. Allen would begin his readings with spontaneous songs on his harmonium, and end with a singalong of Blake’s “Nurse’s Song.” I bet there are people who remember nothing more from one of Allen’s readings than singing “All the hills echo’d” at the end.
His most important poetic legacy that I brought with me to Boulder but he cemented in me was his love and respect for the oldest poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Students would come to Naropa expecting Allen to be teaching his own and his friend’s poetry and preaching revolution and writing incendiary verse. They would find a humble, modest poet trying to remember what a gerund or a trochee is, setting a Medieval lyric to music for ninety minutes and then weeping, recalling a line from Shelley or Reznikoff or one of his own poems.
For me it was mostly by systematically reading deeply into the history of literature that I learned what that history was and where my work fits into it, so Allen’s reverentially teaching so many poems from the first 250 pages of The Norton Anthology of Poetry probably had a deeper impact on me than any other literature class (other than Anselm Hollo’s classes on European Poets and Dada).
And there was the apprenticeship, which was like poetry boot camp. It was really tough, but it whipped me into shape. Allen wasn’t afraid to set what seemed to many a very high bar. Some of the apprentices didn’t finish. Everyone, I imagine, got what they put into it.”
And even more important to me was the larger vision of Naropa Institute, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and later the Summer Writing Program. I could spend the rest of my life paying homage to Trungpa, Allen, Anne, Diane, and everyone else responsible for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) and still feel I haven’t thanked them enough.
I also want to single-out Anne Waldman for coming back to Boulder in 1985 to resurrect the school after Barbara Dilley decided to suspend the year-round JKSoDP program because of low enrollment and low morale. Anne brought the school to life and it has survived—and thrived—ever since, now in its fortieth year.
I also want to publically thank Tom Peters. Without him, there would have been no Dangerous And Difficult Art Productions, no post-Naropa readings for me. I probably wouldn’t still be writing. But I want to especially thank him as the host who has launched a thousand—and more—poets through his continuous 25 years—and more—of hosting Boulder’s poetry open mic.
Do you remember anything interesting about Ginsberg’s record collection?
RR: I’m sure that most of his record collection remained in New York City. In Boulder he had one of those big fake woodgrain entertainment center cabinets with a record player and stereo speakers in it, something popular in the Sixties. He also had a portable record player he borrowed from the Naropa library and never returned, with detachable speakers in the lid. Nothing very high fidelity, but the music he played—except for the Bach—wasn’t very high fidelity either. I mostly remember him playing Ma Rainey, Dylan, Bach, and Harry Smith’s Folkways collection. Ray Charles and Coltrane and Thelonious Monk—the one recorded by Harry Smith with the first version of “Misterioso.” Later he had the Clash albums. He also had several of the Fugs LPs and most of John Giorno’s poetry LPs, which he would sometimes use in class. He had a live recording of Voznesensky reading in Russian and someone maybe Ivor Winters translating the poems into English, but I can’t remember ever hearing it played. I was curious. He had his own records as well and played the ones with songs as often as anything else, especially the First Blues collection produced by John Hammond. He had a lot of cassettes and a boombox—including unreleased recordings with Dylan and Elvin Jones and Ornette Coleman, and Kerouac’s unreleased and then out-of-print recordings. Other than that, it was talk radio in the background, usually NPR, especially when Peter was in the house. Music was never just on in the background. Allen put music on in order to listen to it.
Are there any memories of working with Gary Snyder you’d like to share with us?
RR: He was the featured poet in the final week of the first Summer Writing Program and he spent his week teaching Fairport Convention’s version of the Child Ballad “Tam Lin.” I spent a short time traveling with Fairport Convention in 1990 and I was able to surprise them with that story.
In our final colloquium that first summer with the staff and students, Gary impressed me with his willingness to moderate some criticism of the program from the students. Gary’s sanity just radiated out into the battlefield. I saw him turn frustrated, over-heated students, pent up after four weeks of poetry bootcamp, unleashing all of their grievances upon the faculty, who really had little control over what they were most upset about. He slowed the disagreement down by asking quick, clarifying questions. He also had an ability to ferret out what was not being said and needed to be said, motivations and expectations we weren’t aware we or the others held. He would suggest over and over again that once all the facts were known, the complete picture would be seen in all its complexity, from every point of view, and we could decide together—with all of our interests in mind—how to move forward, at least for the present moment. We were a small group, he reminded us. We were poets. Our small number has gathered here because we are brothers and sisters of spirit.
When Gary spoke, I felt I was in the presence of a Native American elder. I could feel the whole room relax. If he was able to speak passionately and at the same time remain calm and open to opposing arguments, then so could I. It was as if he didn’t want to win the argument unless everyone won the argument, together. Of course, I’ve never been able to put any of that into practice. It’s just not part of my make-up. But I know it can be done.
That’s what Allen knew when he set up Naropa, I think, that poets had a lot to teach people who wanted to be poets about what was possible in being human, and that the primary teaching occurred in the presence of the teacher by modeling, by resonance. And that it was important to have as much variety as possible, because for everyone who loved Allen, there was someone who didn’t. Same with all of the teachers. No one was everyone’s first choice.
But Gary was pretty close to everyone’s first choice. He did have a reading style that people either loved or hated. It seemed a little stiff to me, but I wish I could connect with the audience the way he does between poems. He’s funny in a self-deprecating way. He radiates humility and good humor and smarts and sensitivity, and he makes it clear from the very beginning that he doesn’t share the chauvinist attitudes of the Beats toward women and children. His love poems are always about families.
And Gary’s opinions and poetry are always well considered and worth hearing. And he taught me a writing method that I used until I began the notebooks. He writes stray comments and observations onto 3 x 5 cards, and then files them away under headings like “old friends,” “nature,” “death,” “summer.” Then later, when he’s writing a poem and he runs out of ideas, he rifles through his 3 x 5 cards to see if anything fits. I did something similar with “poetry pools” that I would dip into whenever I needed something to jumpstart a poem that had ended but hadn’t gone very far. I would look over pages of stray lines until something seemed to magically fit. It always started when I read a line that would be transformed in some way by putting it into my poem at exactly that place that would change its original meaning. What usually happened was that once I saw one line that seemed perfect for the poem, I started seeing lines shining out half a dozen times on the page. In fact, dipping into the pool wasn’t a process that really jumpstarted a poem—it always ended it. The only writing left to do was what I had to do get the lines to fit with each other and the poem. It was like harvesting fruit and making a salad.
But a change away from paper records happened for me when I began the notebooks and the text became the place where I stored those pieces, in their natural order of appearance, that may or may not fit together in the future.
I will retell one story. In 1983, I assigned myself as Gary Snyder’s assistant. One afternoon I set him up at a desk in my office downstairs at the Lincoln Schoolhouse and gave him the pile of student’s work he was to review and comment on. I made sure he had everything he needed, that he knew that I’d be back in 45 minutes to take him to class, and asked him if he needed anything. He said no, that things were going fine, thanks, but how are you, he asked, his elbow on the huge pile of papers I’d just put on his desk, looking up me with genuine concern, as if he really wanted to know. And I just collapsed at his feet and began talking, without a single thought in my head. I told him that I was tormented. I told him that when I got up in front of an auditorium of people with my handful of poems I looked out into the audience and the room would be so beautiful, this moment would be so beautiful and quiet and still, and I was bathing in all these warm feelings and I just wanted to stand there and start talking but I was shy so I couldn’t say anything if I didn’t have a piece of paper in front of me. But nothing I’ve ever brought seems to have anything to do with what makes the moment at the podium, in front of all their open expectant faces, so beautiful, even if it seemed to back in my living room. I told him I was seriously considering burning all of my poems and then having to get up and improvise in the moment. Or I would bring up a handful of blank pieces of paper. Maybe like anything else it would take time to get proficient at it, maybe I’d have to really crash and burn a few times, sure, but better to start now, right? I mean, if I want to continue doing this. I can’t keep doing it this way, that’s for sure. And that’s when I stopped talking.
After a polite pause to be sure I was finished, Gary said, “Well, you can do that. You can destroy all of your poems. But you don’t have to. Think of an actor getting up on stage 200 nights in a row. If he isn’t really there, he isn’t doing his job.”
Are there any memories of working with Philip Whalen you’d like to share with us?
RR: I assigned myself the job of being Philip’s teaching assistant at Naropa my first summer, based largely on a transcript of a class of his in Talking Poetics. My job was to arrive early to set up the classroom—which was his living room and kitchen in the Varsity Townhouses, which Naropa rented for the visiting faculty. So Philip would be in one room and Allen would be in the next one and Burroughs would be next door and then Corso and then whomever else was around that summer. There was a pool in the center of the townhouses where most of the after-reading parties happened.
Philip and I didn’t talk much after the first couple of meetings. When I arrived, he would already be in his chair, reading something by one of the three poets he was teaching that summer—Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Lew Welch. He would mumble as he read, sometimes humming to himself, rubbing his bald head, delighted, chuckling. He was always wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt that summer.
I’d set up the recording equipment, make sure Philip had plenty of fresh water, and then I’d take attendance, return homework, collect assignments, answer questions, and record the class on cassette tapes. Then I’d clean up afterward and ask Philip if he needed anything. He didn’t have many needs. There was someone to take care of the groceries and clean the room. I picked him up at the airport and would return him to it, and would drive him wherever he wanted to go. The readings were held on the main campus, about a mile from where the faculty was staying.
On the final day of class, I set up the room and watched the room fill up as time for the class to start came and went, and still no Philip. I didn’t know what to do. This had never happened with anyone I’d worked with before except Corso, and that I more or less expected. But not Philip. I was certain something terrible had happened.
I was just about to get up and go looking for him when he suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs, in his black Zen robes, his head freshly shaved and polished, a mala in his left hand, his lips moving in silent prayer. With each step, he’d push a bead over his index finger, and take another step. Slowly the students became aware that something was happening and grew quiet, and those sitting on the floor parted before him. He walked slowly to the front of the room and when he reached his chair, he turned around, snapped his robe taunt behind him, and sat down very deliberately and slowly.
There wasn’t an ounce of pretense in what he was doing. But he was demonstrating more than just what it’s like to consciously walk across a room. In his bluejeans and t-shirt he wasn’t intimidating, but in his Zen robes he was, but he had the personal strength to hide his power in order not to intimidate us. He had been incognito, more or less. It was a feat of great humility. And then his almost melodramatic entrance for the last class is like the end of “Henry V, Part II,” when Harry ascends the thrown and puts on the crown and becomes Henry V. I find that very helpful to remember, especially when I’m traveling; that I can be anyone I can imagine myself to be. And that I can hide who I really am, which is something I do a lot now when I’m not traveling.
But Philip made his life more difficult than it had to be, I think. I don’t really understand what that was all about. He was gifted at saying the wrong thing to well-disposed people. When I was visiting the Hartford Street Zen Center in 1998, while he was still its director, he was afraid he’d lost their longest-lasting major benefactor, by something he’d said or hadn’t said, he wasn’t sure. He told me that he had no skill in raising donors, only in losing them. At one of his readings that summer in 1980, he stopped and complained to the audience about their applause. There was nothing here worthy of your applause, he scolded them. They were throwing off his rhythm and ruining the reading, he told them, but it was his irritableness that soured the reading.
At a colloquium on politics and poetry in 1985, Philip sat so far stage left that he was no longer sitting behind the conference table. For most of the afternoon he appeared to be napping, his chin on his chest. But if you looked closer, you could see his lips moving, and a single bead being pushed regularly over his left index finger.
Amiri Baraka was in attendance that week and he was stirring things up, as usual. Amiri polarized audiences. By 1985, I was tired of it. I wasn’t going to intervene and take the heat this time. He and Allen were arguing about how many people Stalin had killed. Allen claimed that the most commonly accepted figure was 20 million, and Amiri laughed and accused Allen of being a stooge of the government. “Allen Ginsberg believes a figure notarized by Stalin’s enemies on how many people he may have killed? Unbelievable! It couldn’t have been more than half of that,” Amiri insisted. “It couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 million.”
With that comment—that it was only 8-9 million that Stalin had killed—the room divided into two factions, yelling to be heard over the other. Things were getting very ugly very fast when suddenly Philip sat up, waving his mala, shouting, “I’ve been listening to this same fucking argument for the last thirty god damn years. It never ends! I’m sick of it! Everybody’s always looking for the bad guy. Find the bad guy! String him up! Where is he? Who can I believe? How can I be sure? Can anyone be certain who’s the bad guy? Show me the bad guy and we can kill him and bury him in a big hole in the backyard and put a big stone over him and he’ll never get out and we’ll never have to worry about the boogey man again. But every time I think I’ve found the bad guy I look a little closer and all I see is my own face, scowling, angry. The bad guy looks just like me when someone has made me angry! Then I look back on my passions and the words of my passions and the deeds of my passions and I feel ashamed.”
I’ll retell another story. During that same summer, I was working in the office when Philip’s teaching assistant came in during a break to tell me that Philip had slipped on the concrete steps on his way downstairs to his classroom and scraped himself up a bit, but he refused medical treatment, other than a handkerchief to wash the scrapes off in the men’s room.
I went looking for him and found him standing outside the Lincoln classroom, hands behind his back, chin up, looking at a willow tree and humming to himself, rocking back and forth. Philip, I said, concerned, I heard you fell down some steps today and hurt yourself. Are you okay?
“Posh,” he said, “it was nothing. Nothing injured but my pride. I teach mindfulness. You’d think I’d be aware enough not to hurtle my huge and swollen bulk unsteadily down a concrete stairwell in sandals when I’m half-blind.” He was wearing his full black Zen robes every day that summer. He said his tetanus was up to date—“I’m like a puppy—my shots are scheduled.” I made him show me his wrists and palms, his ankles, his knees. They were red, abraded, but not actively bleeding and they weren’t swollen, no point tenderness. I let go of his wrists and cautioned him to keep them clean and covered under his robes, but open them up in his room when he strips down to his shorts and t-shirt at night. I told him to keep the areas clean and warned him of the signs of infection. I would have some antibacterial salve and pain reliever delivered to his room later today. Did he have any allergies? Even if you feel okay now, wait until you lie down tonight. Keep them by the bed with some water. You can ice things up tonight if you’re sitting or lying down for an extended period of time, but put something between your skin and the ice. I work in the emergency room, I told him, sometimes peace of mind is worth a visit to the doctor. I’m sure Naropa will pay for it. It happened on their property. They’re insured. But he refused.
The conversation was over, but for some reason I didn’t leave. Finally I said, in preparation for taking off, was he having a good time? “Good time?” Philip snorted. “Good time???? Don’t they teach you anything around here? Life is suffering, dear boy. If you haven’t figured out number one, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
I turned red and looked down at my feet and tried to think of something to say to make a graceful exit. My embarrassment lasted about five seconds. Then I felt myself bristle. “No. No! No, I don’t believe you! Life is not all suffering. The blue sky’s not suffering, a cold glass of water isn’t suffering. I thought you were hurt and you aren’t and that’s not suffering. Life’s not suffering. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that at all!” And when I finished Philip started laughing, and I looked up and he was gasping for breath, tears in his eyes, his head tilted back, and roaring: hur-rarh, hurh-rrah, hurr-rah-hah-hah!
Artwork by Alex B. Bustillo
Are there any memories of working with Gregory Corso you’d like to share with us?
RR: Most of my memories of Corso are bad ones. My father was a physically abusive alcoholic, so Gregory and Trungpa really never stood a chance with me.
Anyway, there is one story about Gregory that I love to tell. When Corso was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he expressed a desire to find some more information about his mother. All he knew is what his father’s family had told him: that his mother had abandoned the family when Gregory was still an infant and her boat sank and she drowned sailing back to her family in Italy, which is why Gregory never knew his wife’s family either. Word of his wish reached Gregory’s friend, the very rich Japanese artist Yamagata, who paid to have a private detective track down what could be learned about the fate of Corso’s mother. The detective found her living in New Jersey, about 50 miles from where Gregory had grown up. In that moment everything in Gregory’s lifestory turned upside-down. It turns out his father took Gregory and abandoned his mother—which is why none of her family were part of his life either—and that his father’s whole family conspired to lie to him about what happened.
Everything Corso believed about his life turned out to be false and he found this out right before he died. But I kept wondering, what if Corso had not been a famous poet with a wealthy compassionate friend? How many people go to their graves without understanding the true significance of their own lives? That’s what scares me.
You have met with many great poets. It must be hard, but which meets have been the biggest experiences for you?
RR: I liked hanging out with Allen the most. I felt very relaxed around him, and I didn’t feel relaxed around very many people at the time. The poets I enjoyed the most as teachers were Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder and Anne Waldman and Anselm Hollo and Ted Berrigan and Clark Coolidge and Diane di Prima. They seemed the ones who were the most in love with what they were doing and the most interested in making new work, and they were often the most passionate and said the most interesting, thought-provoking things.
Later I really connected with Stan Brakhage at a screening of one of his films in 1998. I’d come to see one of Stan’s films of Chartres Cathedral and told him afterward how I saw a connection between how Coltrane constructed his solos and the passages in his films that seem to get brighter and faster and then there’s a long peaceful interlude.
I hadn’t come to Stan’s films to find the missing key to my non-narrative assembly dilemma. I’d come because I’d spent a magical week in Chartres exploring the cathedral with Malcolm Miller, perhaps the world’s foremost English-speaking expert on the cathedral, and I wanted to see what Stan would do with the light I knew we’d both seen there.
What I saw in Stan’s films that rhymed with what I’d felt listening to Coltrane was that in both, I felt the desire of a seeker trying to use their medium to break free of their medium into something beyond music or film, an experience of transcendence of worldly existence for just an instant, hoping to bring the audience along with him—and how there’s an innate sense in us that wants to fly, but that desire will never be met, but I felt in Stan’s Chartres films and Coltrane’s solos that just the desire to transcend was enough. If either of them had succeeded, it would have seemed a very timid denouement after such an intense effort, I thought.
Coming at the end of his life, when Stan had mellowed out, my relationship with him was much less stressful than the one I had with Allen, but the important difference between my time with Allen and my time with Stan was that I wasn’t with Stan to learn how to make films. I was there to learn how to appreciate his filmmaking and his life as an artist. I was learning how to see.
But the only one I really miss is Allen. Still. Almost every day. I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating, but you don’t know, I do. I certainly miss him at the moment.
And he’s not really a poet, but I haven’t talked much about William Burroughs. William was the smartest and most consistent one, I thought, and one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met. He had watery ice-blue eyes and there was this searching intelligence behind them that made me feel very seen and explored. His eyes were always smiling, even when he was performing Dr. Benway or reading from the Red Night Trilogy, all that stench of death stuff.
I can’t say I was close to William, even after I organized a William Burroughs festival for him at Naropa during my final summer in 1985. Ted Morgan wanted to interview Burroughs for the biography he was writing and this would be their only opportunity to meet, but to get Ted out here and put him up we would have to get his expenses added to our budget, which had been locked for almost eleven months and all of our funds had already been assigned. There was no slush fund. I went to Ralph, the finance manager, and told him that for a $500 honorarium and a domestic round trip ticket (Ted would stay with William), I could get a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer to come to Naropa and present an evening on Bill as part of a William Burroughs Conference. I have commitments from all the other principles who have agreed to appear for free (true). I can get national press on this I told him (I was right) and we can make back our investment and more (I was wrong). But Naropa got a William Burroughs Conference for $500 and a round trip ticket from New York City.
Each night before we began, Burroughs and the panelists for the night would sit on the stone steps in front of Kappa Sigma on 10th Street on the Hill, where the evening classes were held. Burroughs would light up a joint and take a deep hit and nod, smile and pass it on to Allen. We were always starting late, but it wasn’t like we couldn’t have been on time; we were always just sitting around beforehand waiting for something to happen. And then at some impossible to predict moment Burroughs would suddenly look up and say—in his Dr. Benway voice—“Well, Padre, what say we get this show on the road? No … time … like … the … present!” And he’d lurch himself vertical and salute on “Present.” Then everything started moving really fast and there was a hundred faces peering up at the dais through the silence. I don’t think I’ve been more proud than on those nights I was the one who walked Bill onstage.
I’ve met a lot of really brilliant people, but no one was more a genius for me than Burroughs. I could never anticipate what he was going to say. He would say things that seemed absurd at the time but began to make a wacky kind of sense about two days later. And he was able to be a genius and stay humble even though he was probably the smartest person in every room he was in. And he was funny and generous and kind. But don’t cross swords with William!
The only people I’ve met who rivaled him in their ability to balance their genius with their humanity were the visual artists Francesco Clemente and Karel Appel. As visual artists, they didn’t have words (and English was their second language in both cases) so most of their personal communication was done by shaking hands and looking into people’s eyes.
And that’s something that Burroughs shared. The first time I met him he modestly dipped his head and shook my hand, never taking his eyes off mine. The first time you meet Bill, it’s a bit disconcerting, to be looked upon by eyes that are so lively and focused and curious. And blue.
What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the Beat “family” and era?
RR: What I miss most about the Beat family was their willingness to open their houses and lives to us, the next generation’s poets. It was an inspiration to meet people who were artists and that was enough and every conversation was between poets.
One realization that came from the chance to meet and mix with them is that it became clear that their poems were written in the same voices they used in conversation; there was no separation between their poetry and their actual speaking voices, raised to a higher pitch. Their gifts in poetry were not by accident. I learned from them that in order to polish my poetry I would have to polish my speech. And to polish my speech, I would have to polish my thought. This was the beginning of an idea that intrigues me even today: is the secret to good poetry simply sincerity and a skilled recording hand? Insincerity must certainly be some kind of anti-poetry. But is sincerity more important in poetry than imagination? More important than truth?
I knew the nobility of the Beats who were still alive, and they were models of engaged, active writers reporting on what they’d learned on their travels, as much as any troubadours in history. I miss being a witness to their passion and creativity and humor and honesty and generosity and differing intelligences. The sense of being backstage, of running away with the circus, not sure where I’d end up and not really caring, but in some small way a member of a tiny literary sub-community of saintly artists looking after one another any way they could.
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