"Writing is one way of documenting my actual experience—the content and sensations of my life, including my mental life, my emotional life, my physical surroundings, everything I become aware of."
Randy Roark: True sounds from a poet
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.
How do you describe Randy Roark’s poetry and progress? What characterizes your philosophy about poetry and life?
RR: Right now the most excitement for me is in writing the Decalogue. The other eleven Newtopia columns each year are from the Decalogue, a collection of travel writings that I began eight years ago. The idea for A Poet’s Progress is from John Bunyan’s 17th-century poem, A Pilgrim’s Progress. In it, Bunyan explains that our life is a test set up by God and everything in it is significant. He then maps out the general path of humanity, where we are confronted with certain identifiable challenges—like lust, and jealousy, and anger. The purpose of our lives is to purify ourselves, so we can join God and the saved in heaven.
A Poet’s Progress is my attempt to see if by taking away the Christian model, would there still be an identifiable map, with recognizable landmarks? There’s certainly still lust and jealousy and anger. Right now I’m just trying to get it all down so that the backlog doesn’t get overwhelming. And the whole point of the work is that I forget things, so I like to write as close to the source as possible. I’m enjoying what I’m learning about a long form that’s as structured and unstructured as mine is. As I began writing more and more prose, it became clear to me that prose had a more visceral impact than poetry, which surprised me. I could say more outrageous things in prose than in poetry.
I still write or more accurately compose poetry, mostly when I’m deep in some reading. When I’m reading really good writing—like when I re-discovered Goethe last year in preparation for a boat trip through Europe—it stimulates my sensitivity to language, and I hear more poetry and ideas worth writing down than usual. Then I’ll go for long periods of time with nothing happening at all—like since that trip to Europe up until two weeks ago, when I suddenly started writing again, based on work that came out of attending thirteen plays and an art exhibit of Mark Rothko’s over a ten-day period. It was my way of trying to capture all that I was experiencing.
I didn’t have any conception at the start that I’d have anything approximating a book at the end of the first year, but even after it turned out that I did, I doubted that I’d have enough for another one. But by then I’d developed the habit of writing down whatever caught my attention, and that habit has continued up until the present day. I honestly don’t know what would make me stop the project even at the end of the tenth year other than a relationship. Sometimes I think I’m trying to get everything down before I meet someone and give the writing up to spend time with them.
When was your first desire to become involved in the Beat literary movement & what does the Beats mean to you?
RR: My first real desire to become involved in the Beat literary movement came when I learned in 1977 that there was an opportunity to apprentice with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute, a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado. He was also teaching year-round, and the faculty for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics included Burroughs and Corso and Waldman and di Prima and Philip Whalen and lots of others. I applied and was accepted. I was married and twenty-five at the time, managing the Mystic Seaport Museum’s bookstore and art gallery. It took me almost two years to get to Boulder.
I’d known who Allen was since 1965 or 1966 when my junior high school classmate (thank you Eric!) found out that I wrote poetry and loaned me his older brother’s copy of Howl. I can’t say it said much to me as an 11- or 12-year-old straight boy in rural Connecticut. So much of “Howl” had to do with things I knew nothing about.
I never wanted to be a Beat. I was born in 1954. The Beats and Elvis were popular with the hipsters in my neighborhood who were graduating from high school when I was just waking up to culture, in 1964 or so. That was the year I bought my first Beatles single. I was in Florida, staying with my grandfather in Fort Lauderdale for the summer. The Beatles were vacationing nearby with Muhammed Ali. The harmonica on “Love Me Do” was good summer music for driving along the beaches. That was the summer of the Beatles and Muhammed Ali in the U.S.—it was impossible to miss them.
Growing up with the Beatles from “Love Me Do” (albeit well over a year after it was recorded—everything seemed to be released at once in the U.S. that summer) to the end was pretty much the dividing line between people born in 1954 and the Beats. Allen was one day younger than my father. I was two years old when Howl was published and three years old for On the Road. But TV news and “Life” magazine brought Hippies and the Human Be-In and LSD and light shows and Allen Ginsberg and Woodstock into everyone’s living rooms, even in rural Connecticut. It was like the Beats gone Technicolor. I felt part of a revolution in politics and music and writing that was aimed at the future, not so much the past.
In 1967, shortly after my thirteenth birthday, I was reading a copy of “Life” magazine—the one with Ed Sanders on the cover—and as I was looking at these kids dancing with flowers in their hair and brightly colored hand-made clothes with the women looking feminine and the men like softer versions of men, all of them smiling psychedelic naked, I decided that I wanted to live an interesting life. That was the determining moment in my life, really, that’s the through-line—not the poetry, not meditation, not art. Those are just means to an end, the end of having an interesting life, of doing everything I want to do. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew I wanted to live an interesting life. It seemed like a choice had to be made—either this way or that. And I knew which way I wanted to go. It was scary because everyone told me I was wrong, that I would fail, that I might even be mentally ill. But I was more afraid of succeeding at failing than I was of failing at succeeding. And I mean succeeding and failing at my definitions of succeeding and failing.
And the more “successful” I got—the outward symbols of success for a poet—the less satisfied my parents were with what I’d accomplished. It took me forever to figure it out, but by the end I finally got it. They had dreams too. But they didn’t follow their dreams. They parroted the things their parents had told them—that they were being selfish, that they would fail, they were kidding themselves, that they weren’t talented. They’d listened to their parents but I’d foolishly disobeyed mine, and they were waiting for everything to come crashing down. Plus if I succeeded, they could no longer blame their parents for their refusal to follow their dreams. So my parents had a lot invested in my failure.
Even my friends told me that my plans to go off to Boulder to study poetry with Allen Ginsberg were a mistake. And I didn’t have a single ally in either of our families—including my wife. Finally I just said I’m going, I don’t care what anybody says. At the last moment my wife—the least happy of anyone about the move—decided to accompany me.
The turning point for me came one day when my father took me to Yankee Stadium. Halfway there he tried to talk me out of moving to Boulder again, mano-a-mano. I was married and running a successful bookstore. I had responsibilities. I’d had my chance to go to school. Now I didn’t need school—I had what people went to school for. Would I be able to get as good a job when I got out of this school? Was this the best time to leave it all and study poetry? Why not wait a couple of years when the economy will be better? The economy was tanking—we were in the worst of the Reagan’s recession at the time, with no end in sight. But for me everything was going so well. Did I really need to go to Boulder to study poetry? I could attend poetry classes at either the University of Connecticut in Storrs and Eastern Connecticut State College in Willimantic.
Plus there was all the recent bad press about Trungpa and the school, just as I getting ready to arrive. This was only months after the Jonestown mass poisoning, and Trungpa was recently in the news about an infamous “Party” during a Buddhist retreat. Poet William Merwin and his wife decided not to attend a party, so Trungpa sent some of his bodyguards to force them to attend. Merwin barricaded the door but Trungpa’s goons forced their way in. Merwin broke a bottle to protect his wife and cut one of them before he was disarmed and physically carried—along with his screaming wife—to the party. Once there, Trungpa ordered those attending to strip them, which they did. I can’t remember if anyone present objected, but if anyone did it wasn’t more than one or two. That the students at a meditation retreat allowed this to happen in their presence is bad enough. Merwin’s wife is Japanese, and Trungpa insulted her with racist comments about her body as she stood, naked, in front of the whole assembly. As you can imagine, this is a very shameful thing for an Asian woman. For anyone, certainly, but especially a Japanese woman being insulted by a mainland Chinese man. And Merwin was unable to protect his wife. Is there any more of an emasculating experience for a man?
But in all fairness, and at Merwin’s own insistence, it’s important to note that Merwin has never spoken out against Trungpa for what happened that night, and that he and his wife stayed for the rest of the retreat, and until his death Trungpa remained his heart guru.
But the story of the Party got out and resulted in a big scandal, especially in Boulder, where Allen was also embarrassed to read negative comments he’d made about Merwin and Merwin’s poetry that he thought were off the record published in a local magazine. Boulder was already awash with stories about the Vajra Guards who protected Trungpa, who were now reportedly armed. Naropa was right in the middle of the downtown mall, Trungpa lived and partied in the oldest and most expensive part of town. The Mercedes and the Vajra Guards were well documented and intimidating.
And then poet Tom Clark wrote a book called The Great Naropa Poetry Wars where he not only regurgitated all of the gruesome facts of the Party, but also accused the NEA of being staffed by friends of Naropa and giving out grants to their no-talent friends. Even Ed Sanders wrote a book about the Party. It grew out of his Investigative Poetics class at Naropa that summer. He had the class chose what to investigate, and they chose the Party. Their published findings included interviews with as many people as possible who were present at the retreat. They used those interviews to document the complete retreat and reported as many different versions of what happened at the Party and its aftermath as possible.
This was the last thing the poetry school needed, and it sucked in people like Allen and Anne who weren’t even involved with the Party. And then—worse for me—the story broke nationally with a cover-story for “Harpers” magazine called “Spiritual Obedience,” by Peter Marin (which I subscribed to at the time) featuring a photo of someone in a white robe with a bullhorn in their lap. Trungpa’s Party was one of the more colorful examples of what was being reported in the press following Jonestown. There were inscrutable stories of Sun Myong Moon marrying thousands of strangers in mass weddings in Shea Stadium and Rajnesh and his Rolls Royces and unquestioning devotees taking over a town in Washington State (this was years before the group actually did go rogue). So there was that.
Finally, in exasperation, I told my father that just because other people didn’t see this as a great opportunity didn’t mean it wasn’t everything I claimed it to be. This was about more than studying poetry. This was about an offer I had in my hand to apprentice with Allen Ginsberg, one of the most important American poets of the second half of the 20th century. And not only that, but I’d get to meet and study with other writers I admire like William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and God knows who else. Ginsberg and Waldman had just toured with Bob Dylan, my personal hero. Anything could happen. I didn’t know why there wasn’t thousands of people trying to get into this school. And even it was a complete catastrophe, it was just for two years. My marriage could survive this. I had put Beth through college; now it was my turn. I proved I was reasonable by putting off my plans for two years longer than we originally agreed, but there’s no reason to postpone any longer. I’m going, no matter what. I don’t want to end up at fifty five wondering what my life would have been like if I had gone to Boulder and done what I wanted to do when I had the opportunity.
When I stopped talking my father quietly said, “Yeah, you’re right,” and changed the subject. Then we watched my favorite pitcher at the time—Catfish Hunter, in the last year of his career—pitch a couple of innings before getting pulled. After that, whenever the subject of going to Boulder came up at my house, my father always said, “Shut up and leave him alone. He knows what he’s doing.”
I called my father on his birthday, a couple of days before he died. He asked me what’s new, and I told him, and he said, “Isn’t it time you grew up and started making better decisions?” And I said, “You know, all I’ve ever wanted to do was what I wanted to do, what I enjoyed doing, and I didn’t want to do what I didn’t want to do. I believed that what I wanted to do was really important and that things I didn’t want to do weren’t important and I only had a certain amount of time so I decided to make certain I got all the good bits in. I’m not saying I’m a model for everyone or that my life is without regrets, but I decided to see what it was like to at least try to have an interesting life. Everyone told me that it’d be impossible but I’ve lived my entire life—45 years at the time—doing exactly that. Now, I’m not saying that I won’t end up at 65, regretting my entire life, sitting on some ledge contemplating suicide, but I can say this: If I get run over by this bus tonight, I’ll have lived my entire life exactly the way I wanted. And I’ve documented what that’s been like in my writing. For me, that’s a win. I’ve already won. Everything after this is just gravy.
And even if my end is something tragic, which it very well could be as it’s not easy to get old alone—in fact, I already have proof that living alone is dangerous to my health and well-being, several times over. But even if it ends badly, I don’t think it will be because of the decisions that I’ve made, or not them alone. Who knows, I probably would have died sooner if I eventually die of a stroke or heart attack.
My father listened to all of that and said, “Yeah, you know what you’re doing. I always think about that time on the bus to Yankee Stadium, when you said you didn’t want to end up like me at fifty five, wondering what your life would have been like if you had done what you knew was best for you, against everyone’s advice. That took courage.” And I said, “Dad, I didn’t say like you. I wasn’t even thinking about you. I was only thinking about me.”
That was our last conversation. He wasn’t even sick at the time, but he died in his sleep less than a week later, about fifteen years older than I am now.
You know, there’s another connection between Ed Sanders and Uncasville. Six years before he was on the cover of “Life” magazine, Sanders was incarcerated at the federal jail in Uncasville for rowing a boat into New London harbor to protest the launching of a nuclear submarine at Electric Boat. Of course I didn’t know about it at the time, and he was released before I began riding past the jail on my way to school in 1965-67. Sanders wrote his first great poem—“Poem from Jail”—in that jail, written on toilet paper, smuggled out by friends a sheet at a time and eventually published by City Lights in 1963.
Later, when I was a sophomore at St. Bernard’s Boys High School, I bought a copy of Tenderness Junction by Ed Sanders and the Fugs and Allen sings the Hare Krishna mantra on that LP, so I was familiar with his voice when I was fourteen.
But I mostly remember Allen from TV and the “Life” magazine coverage of the Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. My Allen Ginsberg was the articulate, clear-eyed, joyful almost silly poet in the Uncle Sam hat, not the Beat poet. My Neal Cassady was the Prankster in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, not the hipster saint in On the Road. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was my On the Road.
I came to the rest of the Beats very late. I didn’t read On the Road until 1974 or so, when I was auditing 20th-century American novels with Sandy Taylor at Eastern Connecticut State College. At one point in that book, Sal and his married friend are driving east from coast to coast, and they’re traveling on the wife’s money. The guys are annoyed because the girl has to go to the bathroom more than they do and in Salt Lake City, I think, she’s had enough and insists they stop at a hotel so she can sleep in a bed. The two men wake up early and their idea of a joke is to sneak off with all of her money, leaving her to face the hotel bill alone. Ha, ha, ha. All I could imagine was what it must have been like to wake up in the morning and realize that her husband and her “friend” had snuck out on her with all of her money and her car and left her to face the manager about the hotel bill. At that point I threw the book across the room in disgust. Ten years later a teacher at Metro State College in Denver wanted Allen to come to talk to his class about On the Road. Allen suggested they talk to me instead and gave him my number. I told the teacher I hated the book and told him why. Okay, he said, come and tell them that. So I figured I should at least reread the book before I spoke about it and when I did I thought it was one of the best books I’d ever read. And that bit in Salt Lake City? It just flashed by, like a speed bump. I knew what happened. I knew she’d be okay. But the novel didn’t need her any more.
Other than that I didn’t read anything by the Beats except by happenstance until 1977, when I was accepted at Naropa. In the next two years I began reading everything I could by the Beats. I ordered one of everything in print by everyone who was teaching at Naropa, which was a much broader list than just the Beats, although almost all of the living Beats were teaching there at least once a year—Allen, Burroughs, Corso, di Prima, Orlovsky. I also got to meet and form a deep connection and correspondence with Carl Solomon, and got to meet other Beats and San Francisco poets like Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, Edie Kerouac-Parker, Carolyn Cassady, Robert Frank, Ferlinghetti, Micheline, Michael McClure, Nanao Sakaki, Joyce Johnston—Kerouac’s girlfriend at one time, and the musician David Amram, who scored the Robert Frank film of the young Beats, “Pull My Daisy.”
But I was actually more drawn to the work of some of the other non-Beat teachers there at the time, like Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder and Gregory Bateson and Meredith Monk and John Cage and Chogyam Trungpa. And later Ted Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, and Clark Coolidge. I wasn’t impressed with the dance department. My wife was a very serious dance student, and we were together at a really wonderful time for dance—the early Seventies to the mid-Eighties. Plus before we moved to Boulder, we lived down the road from Connecticut College, which had a very lively modern dance scene at the time. Maybe they still do. I got to see Judith Jamison dance “Cry” with Alvin Ailey’s company at least twice, and we also saw Pilobolus’s second tour—when onstage nudity and dramatic acrobatics and their surreal visuals really were new. And we were on the circuit for the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp and Balanchine companies, and we were close enough to visit the New York City Ballet, and I’m forgetting half a dozen companies, I’m sure. Anyway, Naropa’s dance department was all about contact improvisation and I preferred the technical and dramatic dances I found in modern dance and ballet. I could appreciate the concept of a dance school where the students were encouraged to experiment with their intimate relationship to their bodies and others while remaining in motion, on a dance floor, in front of friends and strangers, but for me a little goes a long way.
I’ve only recently realized how important two specific readings by Clark Coolidge at Naropa were to my writing and performances ever since. The first one was a lecture on Kerouac that Clark gave at the On the Road Festival at Naropa in 1982, and the other was a talk he gave completely woven out of lines written by Beckett in the order in which they were written, mixing Beckett’s poetry, drama, prose, letters, and speeches.
I could hear several different facets in what he was reading, like the faces of a diamond. By preserving the chronology of the writing, you could hear how Beckett changes over time. At first he’s seeking, and not finding. Then slowly over time—after World War II and his work in the French Resistance, after he found true love, after he’d been stabbed and survived, after he’d had success, especially after the Nobel—it’s as if he relaxed, stopped searching, and suddenly the whole world with all its beauty rushed into the vacuum, which was even more painful for him than searching and not finding because to have the whole world given to you means that’s what you’re going to have to lose. Life for Beckett became a beautiful pain.
Clark chose passages he loved and he read them with all the clarity of great passion. And, if you were familiar with Beckett’s writing, you could hear what Clark was doing, where he was getting these passages, how he was jumping around, changing contexts, what he was using and what he was leaving behind.
And I learned something from that reading that I tried to make use of with Dangerous And Difficult Art Productions. I noticed that when people read work they’ve chosen by a poet they love, they read with their whole being. So I organized a series of events in celebration of certain poets or poetry movements, and people would read other people’s work. I thought it would inspire people to read their own work with the same passion, but nothing ever came of the experiment.
From Clark’s first talk, the one on Kerouac, I felt very powerfully what happened when his prose and Kerouac’s prose and poetry were jammed against each other. It created an odd experience in the reader. There was a clearly a voice moderating the discussion but it was constantly undermined by the exuberance of Kerouac’s voice, which would keep busting through. That’s echoed in my own use of two voices that come into and out of focus in so much of my writing. I wasn’t conscious until now that I stole it from Clark, but including two often contradictory voices allowed me to open the writing outwards—to use one voice to comment on another, say, so it wasn’t just megalomania that you’re listening to. And if you do that enough, when you do just present one voice, like in the poems in my work that are written “by” certain historical personages like Emily Dickinson or Lucia Joyce, it’s more powerful. And sometimes the piece is about the person reading the poem, you’re talking directly to them, appealing directly to their state of mind. Plus the different sensibilities and rhythms and voices between poetry and prose break up the numbing pace of prose and the tiring flash and dazzle of poetry. It’s more like writing a play, I imagine, feeling into when each voice should interrupt the other. With a voice, what they’re thinking is often more important than what they’re saying. Like a play, a piece of writing exists between the different voices on the stage or in the piece of writing, and in my work it’s often about two or more voices inside the same head—it’s rarely mine—trying to come to some sensible middle ground, taking each reality into consideration.
In the second piece what I recognize in my own writing is its process of generating writing that I’ve always claimed to have invented on my own, which I’ve called “distillation.” It came to me on the Island of Iona in October 1990. I had visited the island because the monks of Iona had preserved a great amount of Western civilization in their library, which they hid in their stone towers during the Viking invasions.
While on the island, I ran out of books, so I bought a book at the abbey bookstore about Irish myths that I assumed would be interesting but it wasn’t. But, since it was written very early in the 20th century, there were some very interesting verbal constructions that were delicious, and I began underlining them, wanting to remember them. When I got back to the U.S., I got the idea to type them up. When I did I realized I had about 60% of a poem in a voice completely different from my own. And it was a long poem form since it was a long book and there were lots of these phrases. As I read the raw material over, I began to see that it was a long poem composed of shorter poems. And I’ve continued to use this process of “distillation” in other situations to create works out of my reading, almost all of them in the long-poem-composed-of-shorter-poems form—including a history of dada, a history of art, long works on alchemy, shamanism, and dream language.
This form of distillation is something that Pound also used in his Chinese Cantos. But in Clark’s presentation, every word made sense, even if you didn’t know the source material. Anyone could follow the piece as it was, which you can’t say about the Chinese Cantos. Later Anselm Hollo wrote a series of poems distilled from Ted Berrigan’s classroom lecture transcriptions via this process as well. I’m not sure where he got the idea from. Maybe he thought it up on his own.
The Beats who I enjoyed the most as a reader were Corso and Allen and Diane di Prima, and the non-fiction writing of William Burroughs. Their poems made sense—they said something in a beautiful and deeply felt and intelligent way—and that’s always been the kind of poetry that means the most to me. The biggest influence on my own poetics has been Brion Gysin’s cut-up method—which I learned literally at the feet of William Burroughs—and Pound’s and Clark’s distillation process. I’m sure Allen’s constant berating of me for thinking too much and presenting too little had the most effect of all.
For my first few years in Boulder, Allen lived and taught more or less year-round, and when he moved back to NYC in 1983, a lot of the excitement went out of living in Boulder for me. But he would come to Boulder to teach at least twice a year. I got my BFA in Poetry from Naropa and the University of Colorado in 1983, and I continued to work in various capacities for the Summer Writing Program and Naropa until I turned my back on the school in 1985, vowing never to return.
I returned for my MFA in Prose and Poetry in 1988 as a work-study student in their audio archives. I graduated with my MFA in 1991 (thesis: A Reader’s Guide to Thomas Pynchon). After graduation, I began transcribing Allen’s poetry lectures, and I continued that project until he died. I ended up transcribing all of his poetry lectures and interviews from 1974-1983; the 9-hour interview with Hal Willner that became the liner notes for Rhino’s box set “Holy Soul, Jelly Roll” (an introduction to a book about Harry Smith was excerpted from that interview as well); and all of Allen’s lectures on William Blake, including the ones at Brooklyn College after he left Naropa; and everything he recorded on a 1983 trip to China—his university lectures, whispered surreptitious interviews with dissidents; journal entries; and recordings made—including interviewing his shipmates—on a boat ride down the Yangtze River before the dams were built. Many of these transcriptions are available on-line via the Ginsberg Trust.
I also typed up about a dozen of Allen’s journals over the years, including the years following the Party. Part of my job was to bring to his attention any poems or “particularly good writing” I found in them. Then once a week we’d meet and go over my transcriptions, and he’d look at my poems and tell me what was wrong with them and me. Then he’d read me some poetry—Reznikoff and Williams and Shakespeare I remember most of all—and give me next week’s work assignment and some writing instructions. After the first semester, I became his teaching assistant, doing everything I could to make his life easier, including preparing for his classes, attending to the necessary administrative stuff, recording his classes and indexing his recordings for the archives, and by 1982 I’d begun working for poetics department.
Even after I became aware of modern poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, I was more interested in the lyrical and story poems I found in the standard big poetry anthologies I’d been ordering from Scholastic Book Services ever since I was old enough to read. I especially enjoyed Donne and Chaucer and the Medieval and Arthurian romances. I liked the long form for poetry, I liked how the story changed as time moved along. The long form was the only way I could see to get a lot stuff to harmonize. My first published book—Awakening Osiris—is based on the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, better known as The Golden Ass, and I turned my poem into a book-length incantation for the 1001 masks of Isis that ends where it begins. My long form poem on the history of art—“Mona Lisa’s Veil”—also ends where it begins. My history of art is one that connects prehistoric art with modern primitivism.
The first time I realized the beauty of an open-closed system was with Yeats’ A Vision. Yeats vision is of a wheel where “body” is at the top and “spirit” is on the bottom. As long as you’re alive and growing, you are on some point of this wheel, somewhere on a journey from the spiritual to the physical, or from the physical returning to the spiritual, but never stepping off the wheel, always moving away from one pole and toward the other. And any desire to “transcend” the wheel-like quality of life, would actually be a form of insanity. To step off the wheel at any point would only end your evolution, it wouldn’t cede you any authority in return for becoming rigid. Instead, we should embrace this cycle of life, seeking out the spiritual only to one day experience a fleeting idea that life is passing you by. So you get married, have a family, get a degree, and then one day you feel that something essential is slipping past you and you return to your studies or the church. The thing is to keep on the wheel, to keep changing, to keep leaving and returning, because that is life. To stop changing is to die.
Once I applied this idea that every distinct moment is just a single slice of a much larger pie, balanced by a piece on the exact opposite side of the wheel, I began to see every individual thing from its larger perspective, as getting from here to somewhere yet unseen. But I’ve walked this way so long now that I’m always waiting for the propelling dramatic event, the one that will turn all of this certainty into its opposite. For me a single event or a single poem is like a Magritte lampost without a shadow: you know something’s wrong before you know what it is. And the hardest thing to notice is what’s missing. It’s difficult to get any kind of clarity on what’s absent.
Until college the only modern poet I’d read with any excitement was Leonard Cohen. I loved the life he portrayed in his poems and wanted to live a life like his. I was a straight middle class rural Connecticut kid—the self doubt and egomania and lust and vague spiritual longings I read about in Cohen’s poetry were much more exciting than anything in Howl for me—especially Cohen’s The Spicebox of Earth, which my first girlfriend bought for me in 1970 (thanks Kathy!). I was a junior in high school and the book was the perfect text for the man-boy I was, exploring those early sex-soaked days of my first intimate relationship—this articulate celebratory voice urging me to go, go, go! Gather ye rosebuds while ye may! It turned out to be really good advice. They should teach more of that in school!
Ezra Pound said we should have mentors but not ones whose work is so great that it intimidates us into silence. I’ve had teachers who have intimidated me almost into silence (Anne Waldman and Anselm Hollo come to mind) but Allen wasn’t one of them. When he pushed me, he only provoked me to write more, better, sharper. Plus, the more he insisted my poetry be a certain way, the clearer it was to me that I would have to find a different way or I’d never know how much of my writing was mine and how much of it was his. I didn’t know at first what my writing would be like, but I knew it would have to be completely different from his. But Allen will always be the most important person in my life, no question. After Brakhage’s death I realized that my apprentice days were over.
I literally don’t know who I’d be today if Naropa didn’t exist. What an amazing experiment, what a moment in time! It was just a couple of years with Allen and the whole gang. Anne is still there, and the school is thriving, but I feel so blessed that I was the right age and at the right position in my life to be able to come out to Boulder and study with the people I did. I am so grateful to Trungpa and Naropa and Allen and Anne and Diane for making the life I had possible.
But I’m older now than Allen was when I met him. They say it’s difficult to grow in the shadow of a tall oak and I may be kidding myself but I feel that I’ve gone a considerable ways since my days with Allen.
I was also blessed to be living in the same town as Stan Brakhage during his last years. I’d known Stan since 1980, and I loved his guerrilla film screenings with an 8mm projector in one hand and an extension cord in the other. He just needed a wall, preferably white. He’d rest the projector on his knee if he had to. I’ve seen films with him in college dormitory hallways.
But in the early days Stan was so intense and unpredictable that I mostly avoided him, and sadly that eventually extended to his screenings. He was a rager and so was my father, and he wasn’t safe to be around either. Stan would solicit questions and comments after a screening and invariably someone would ask a question—and usually a very innocuous one or one that attempted to be flattering—and Stan would misunderstand and just go off on them. I’d have to get up and leave. Then, following his cancer treatment, he became so soft and welcoming. Sometimes a comment would begin to get him riled up, but he no longer had the energy to get really upset. Once again, it was strictly a matter of good timing on my part that I was free at the time of Stan’s greatest generosity and openness.
One of my most powerful art moments was when Stan stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a roll of film in a paint-splattered plastic bag. It wasn’t what he was looking for, so he put it back in his pocket. What was that, I asked. Oh, it was a piece of black leader he was carving. He carried it around with him along with an Exacto knife in a leather case for when he had a minute or two to work during the day. Would I like to see it?
I nodded and he handed me the bag. I opened it and took out the film. “Open it” he said. There was a thick piece of black electrical tape holding the leader together. I peeled the tape back and held the first couple of feet spread out against the light. The differing depths of the cuts determined how much light got through. This would be how the film was seen. But I turned it over and looked the surface itself. Stan had sliced the leader sideways, carving into the black. Without the light going through it, it was a soft sculpture, a shallow bas relief, cliffside rice paddies on a Balinese scroll.
Every Sunday night he was in town, Stan would show an hour’s worth of film in the film study’s private projection theater at the university, usually including one of his own shorter films. The audiences varied, but there were a lot of regulars, including some who drove up from Denver every Sunday and sat near the front, next to Stan.
At the end of his life, Stan was an assistant professor in film at the university and his students were the tenured film professors who were technically his superiors. The difference between an assistant professorship and a tenured position is the reason why Stan was still working after 65, after cancer, and why he finally moved to Canada—for the health benefits. I was ashamed for the state of the arts, that Stan Brakhage was forced to keep working to maintain his family even though it was killing him. That seemed a bit harsh for anyone; I’m not saying that Stan Brakhage deserved special treatment as a genius. I bet it’s even worse if you’re not a genius. But it’s like the say about confining Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s with raving lunatics. Can you imagine a sensibility so refined in such an environment? But Stan never complained about his situation—at least to me. I know he was more worried about what would happen to his wife and their two young sons after his death.
After the films on salon nights, anyone who wanted to stay could follow Stan to a back room, where we would discuss what we had seen, or anything else people wanted to talk about. Those salons were a great opportunity to get educated about film for free, to see new films, the kind of films that change your ideas about film, then later to sit across from Stan as he freestyled on whatever came to mind, which was always the most entertaining part of the evening for me. For me he’ll always be feet up on the desk, hands behind his head, his roaring laughter. I couldn’t believe how much he knew, how he could speak so deeply about so many things. His friends were not only filmmakers but the New York painters and the Sixties poets, like Creeley and Coolidge and Whalen and McClure and Ginsberg.
For almost four years I was able to educate my eye with a visual artist who not only rarely used words in his films, but almost never used sound. It was the exact opposite of writing, and yet Brakhage was a poet in film as his friends were poets in words. I wanted to learn how he structured his films, visually; how he organized them into “films.”
I also found the form of film very exciting. The after-images are the perfect objective correlative—in Eliot’s sense—for the presence of absence. Film is so ephemeral. It doesn’t really exist unless it’s projected and seen by a human eye because the after-images and the persistence of vision are almost as important as the film itself. It’s one of the reasons he resisted broadcasting his films on TV—because they were designed to be projected across a silent darkened room, onto a broad reflective screen. The TV flattened out his films, changed their colors, cooled them down. The radiance was gone. They were made of color now, not light.
That’s why I would group Brakhage’s films with conceptual art, because they are about the process of seeing, which is, of course, the primary means for anyone in a film theater for coming to know the world. But how often do the sighted examine the process by which they come to know the world, and in this way, where the lights will come up and you’ve all just shared a very powerful silent and private experience in a public theater? On the sidewalks outside the theater, no one is thinking exactly like any one they meet, ever. Only at the end of a film or a play or a concert or a reading are you likely to be feeling exactly like those around you.
What I learned from Stan is that he thought in images, he saw shapes, he saw light. People were kind of reflective surfaces in his film. For him color had as much of an effect as a minor or major key for a musician. In fact, that first deep experience I had while watching his film on Chartres, the one where I was listening to a lot of Coltrane and beginning to identify some of the main themes in his music, or his style I guess you’d call it. I was getting a sense for how Coltrane was constructing his solos. It seemed to me that he’d start low, like rooting himself and his solo in the earth. And from there he would make repeated attempts to take flight, to break free, and there would be several spikes near the end where it really seemed like he was going to succeed where before he had failed. I mean, that would be the Hollywood ending, right? The one you’re waiting for, half in anticipation, half in dread.
And I saw something similar in Stan’s work, so I told him what I saw in his films and why they made me think of Coltrane and I asked him if any of this was making any sense. That was the conversation that launched a conversation that lasted until very near the end.
Stan loved to talk and I loved him for that, especially after the morphine, when he became even sweeter, more tearful, more thankful, more joyous. That’s why I don’t mind these interviews about the past, because when I think of Stan I’m flooded with happiness and love, so it’s fun for me too.
Watching Stan’s films I came to understand non-narrative film in a way that I’ve never managed with non-narrative poetry. His films reminded me of Franz Klein or Pollock paintings, but they moved. So it would be like a seeing a hundred Franz Kline paintings in quick secession every minute. And then in Stan’s last decade the techniques became so complex they were like Pollocks if there were Pollocks as big as a film screen, made up of a dozen paintings every ten seconds, each one different but each one clearly related to the previous one and the next one to follow. How did he keep it all in mind, I wondered. How did he create, assemble, edit, process his films? How much of the film was forethought and how much of it was left up to the making? (The answer to every question —I learned—was “it’s all more or less accidental.”)
I was reading Simon Schama on Rembrandt at the same time (thank you Jonathan!) and when I go back to what I wrote at this time it’s as if my black and white writing suddenly becomes Kodachrome. I’ve toned it down quite a bit since then, I hope, but that’s the time of “Mona Lisa’s Veil,” my history of the visual and plastic arts, and all that comes after.
And then Stan died and I’ve been working since 1998 for Sounds True, producing and recording and editing audio by many of the leading spiritual teachers of today. Right now I have a relationship with American Buddhist Jack Kornfield that’s almost exactly like the one I had with Allen, except now it’s as author and producer/editor, not as poet and student/secretary. And instead of transcribing lectures, I’m turning Jack’s audio archives into anthologies and recording original programming and developing books out of his recordings with him.
And I continue to write—although I work more happily in prose these days than poetry—and I feel like I’m doing my best work right now. Others may feel differently—I hear that Anselm Hollo was one—and that’s to be expected. I probably feel the same about their work.
But not Anselm’s! Ask anyone. I’ve been saying that Anselm is the best poet writing in the English language since Creeley’s death. What a collected poems he’ll have! He was an inspiration to me from the first time we met at Naropa in 1980. He was a crazy Finn who knew more about English and poetry than anyone I knew. He taught Dada that first semester, and he introduced me to the writings of Hugo Ball and Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. I wouldn’t have read “Sharpen the eye (a method of torture)” except in that class. That’s where I also read Duchamp on how the great artist’s greatest artwork is how they choose to use their time. It would be impossible to over-estimate the importance of Anselm’s writing class and his literature classes—and later his classes on the European poets—in all of my subsequent writing.
Anselm is the only poet I’ve ever seen called back for three encores. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t love Anselm and his poetry and his readings. Yet he’s always remained—it seems to me—a poet’s poet, writing outside of the limelight. He once told me that he’d probably met every person who’d ever bought a copy of one of his books. That vision of the poet as someone who gets the work done, without regard for whether the world values the work he is doing, has been one that I’ve made into a sort of cloak to wrap around some of my more experimental work.
I also relate to what I saw as his slow and steady approach to life, and how he always had at least two things going on, on top of his writing—teaching and translating—and how it all fed into his work, as my work does for me. His work seems all of a piece; the poet of his last years sits so comfortably beside the poet in his youth.
Editing other people’s writing is the best education for working on your own along with, I imagine, translating poems into different languages. I was afraid that becoming a producer and editor at Sounds True would drain me of my creativity, but it turned out the exact opposite. It’s like exercising regularly—you get stronger, not weaker. Writing is like typing—the more you do, the faster and more accurate you get. Writing is a muscle.
I don’t blame Anselm and others for preferring my earlier work. When I was studying Pound in Brunnenberg Castle in 1990, and then afterward, as I traveled on my own for six months on a series of literary and historical pilgrimages from Italy to France to the British isles to Greece and Egypt, my interests in my chosen literary forms more or less coalesced. It’s been the half dozen or so practices that I continue to explore since I graduated from Naropa: 1) mashing together varying styles of prose and poetry; 2) mixing “masks” and first-person monologues, and intentionally blending the two; 3) how far can I go into fiction before it’s no longer non-fiction; 4) how far into non-fiction before it stops being fiction; 5) crafting poetry using the cut-up or assemblage methods from my readings and overheard conversations that people won’t realize are generated from cut-ups or assemblage; and 6) using travel to generate writing.
All of my travel writing is to me one long, oft-interrupted piece. It’s the same guy, traveling. Nothing is itself by itself—every incident is the culmination of everything that has gone before, and a bridge to everything that follows. The work grows as I grow. Life is more imaginative than my imagination. Real life is more unpredictable than any dream, and there’s very little waking up. Once you begin, everything begins to change. And if you work in the long form there will be moments that couldn’t possibly be understood until something happens maybe two years in the future. And in the short form those moments of coming to understand the bigger picture are incomprehensible—there’s not enough context to earn them. But those would be the most important moments, the ones where you connect the dots, when you get a glimpse of the bigger picture, the bigger picture beyond your own personal experience, the kind of thing that might actually have something to say of interest to another.
The premise of the Decalogue is that to the extent that I can document my life honestly, at some point even I won’t be able to miss the larger implications and patterns. And as friends began dying, I realized that their stories continued to change after their death as well, and they’ll never know it. And so you have to give up not only recognition in this lifetime but eventually—win or lose—in the next!
And you realize that no matter what, one day you and everyone and everything you know will mean no more than what the loves and hates of the average Civil War soldier or Medieval serf means to anyone today. But that is the bargain from the beginning; you can’t spend your way out of this one. You will be forgotten, and everything you know and love will disappear, and it likely doesn’t mean a thing. Maybe your name is on a building, but that doesn’t mean anyone will know a single thing about you.
Then that’s balanced by a feeling of, But you’re alive today! And then there follows, What does it matter? Then it follows that it doesn’t matter, and yet it does, somehow. Then it matters more because one day you and everyone you meet will be completely forgotten. But even as I come to the end of the list I think, well, what’s next? What’s going to come next and turn the tables upside down and I’ll have to start all over again, adding one more bigger picture to the expanding story, sometimes contradicting what I was so sure of just a moment before?
Plus even if you win—which is doubtful—you’ll probably never know it. But if you leave a novel that people still read and are moved by? If you leave a poem worth reading? Even Ozymandius is immortal because of a poet, not history. But even Shakespeare doesn’t know he’s Shakespeare. Van Gogh could have never dreamed of how things turned out for him.
Most people—myself included—prefer Pound’s earlier work to his later Cantos, but looking at Pound’s own copy of the huge history of China (written in French) where he took notes in pencil on the endpapers that would become the “Chinese Cantos,” I came to believe that this form of notation in Pound is how he remembered what was important to him in his reading, distilling out of his notations a poetics of the essential, the objective correlative, the transposition of words on a page into an experience or thought or image inside the reader. It’s as if Pound’s poems are written on an abacus or one of Burroughs’ scrapbook pages. From an early age Burroughs kept a series of notebooks where he’d paste images cut from newspapers and magazines, adding drawings, written words, matchbooks and other found objects. When one two-page spread was finished, he would turn the page and start the next one, documenting the next chapter of his life. He dated them as if they were diary entries, although I also know that Burroughs kept a written journal as well. Burroughs said he’d sometimes get ideas for writing from the collages. He would begin to see stories connecting the figures and the landscape.
With Pound’s Cantos, if you could understand his runes—if you were a Chinese history scholar in the case of the Chinese cantos, say, or an Adams scholar for the Adams cantos—then you could follow the story. If not, good luck. Burroughs could be obscure as well. He once said that if he could he’d go back and re-edit books like The Soft Machine and the Ticket That Exploded.
Mary de Rachewilz said something that has stayed with me and probably infiltrated my writing as well. She said that people say that Pound’s silent period was at the end of his life. But he wasn’t silent at the end of his life, she said, he was senile. Pound’s truly silent period was during the time he was writing the Chinese and Adams cantos, when he literally shut up and let the words come through him from other texts. It was like Pound was channeling ancient Chinese history as an oracle might hear the divinations of Apollo, or he was mining Adams’ letters for a contrary history of the founding of the United States to the one we’re taught in school (still).
For Pound, his poetry became a personal encyclopedia, a journal, chronicling what he became interested in, in the order that it came into his awareness, preserving the messy chronology of his experience, much like what I’m attempting in the Decalogue—to write moving forward, not writing in retrospect or in control of the tale, but in the messy way life is lived, forwards, surprising us, until we look back one day and realize that everything was just fine, that everything worked out after all.
For me, writing is one way of documenting my actual experience—the content and sensations of my life, including my mental life, my emotional life, my physical surroundings, everything I become aware of. Going to China and India is my version of Pound’s history of China. Pound’s walk through the landscape of the troubadours in 1912—before Adidas and REI—is really the model for the poetic walkabout, along with Wordsworth’s more abstract wanderings. Pound walking across southern France alone in 1912 was crazier and more difficult than anything I’ve ever attempted.
I’ve found the notebook form, over an extended period of time, in this case ten, or I’m guessing now it’s more like eleven or twelve years, turns out to be a canvas large enough that I can find a place for just about anything, which is what Williams found in Paterson and Pound found in the Cantos and Waldman with Iovis. The “travel work” in this way can continue to expand over the years, until the very end. Why not?
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
RR: Probably the closest I ever came to a perfectly balanced life was from 1995 until 2001 when everything in my life seemed golden. I was running six miles a day at least five days a week and I was in the best shape in my life, which also improved my moods and my creativity and my relationships with women, and I was working three 12-hour shifts in the emergency room, which gave me four days off a week, and I worked nights so I made good money, and at the end in 1997, I’d worked there for seventeen years so I was at the top of my pay grade and got almost two months of vacation a year.
Working in the emergency room satisfied the service part of me, the part of me that wanted to be in service to others. And on weekends I was transcribing Allen’s poetry lectures, so that was the student part of me—I was learning. And I was also editing and annotating the lectures too, so that was exercising the scholarly part of me. And I was excited about my own writing. Without that, I think working for Allen would have been smothering. And I was also making the most money in my life up until that point, so I had more money than I needed, and I was able to secure one of my dreams, which was to own a house, in my case a townhouse in Boulder. And I was living alone, so my emotional life was stable, and there was a considerable amount of feminine energy around me. I was in my 25th year of meditating twice a day. And I had met the photographer Kai Sibley in Mante, Mexico, in 1995. We’d both arrived at an orphanage on the same international bus. She was part of a church group, and I was part of a hospital group. We spent a week rebuilding the orphanage, then my hospital group took off into the mountains to run clinics in several of the mountain communities while the Christians went to the beach.
By the time I got back to Boulder I was so charmed by Kai and her enthusiasm around taking photographs that I re-started “FRICTION” magazine more or less to put one of her photos on the cover.
And then after the success of a performance of Ekphrasis and Cathexis at Tom Peters’ Penny Lane reading series—the first time I worked with Kai projecting slides while I read—I started DADA Productions—Dangerous And Difficult Art Productions. Several times a year I would choose a focus—like Dada, or Louis Zukofsky’s A, or Surrealism, or Bloomsday (at the Boulder Book Store), or the centennial of Lorca’s birth (at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art)—and produce a free arts festival, inviting anyone I could think of to perform.
Working with Kai was my first experience of the consciousness that comes into being when two artists truly collaborate—a shared consciousness that’s different from either of you alone or any combination of the two. It’s an actual separate mind. You become telepathic in that you think with each other’s thoughts, as well as your own. My only other experience of that was in 1999 with the poet Katie Bowler. In six months Katie and I created an incredible body of poetry and prose, all from life. Up until then I’d never been able to successfully collaborate with another writer, but with Katie we immediately began writing at a very high level and never wrote an uninteresting poem.
Another golden period in my life was 1986 to 1991. That was a time of great domestic bliss for me, of living with someone I felt lucky to be in love with. After my marriage broke up, I went in therapy really deeply to figure out what went wrong so it would never happen again, and this woman was the next person I dated, so I was at the very top of my game. There were a lot of real breakthroughs in that relationship because I took huge chances and learned some very important things about myself and relationships. This was only my second serious relationship; I’d been more or less married since I was eighteen. I’ve had important relationships since Cynthia, but no one has ever gotten all of me except her and my wife. I can’t even imagine having a third relationship as important as either of those were to me. But I also feel satisfied. There’s no longing for a third.
I also liked being married, which was 1975 through 1985. That was a very important relationship for me. We were eighteen when we moved in together, me right out of a physically and emotionally abusive childhood. I did a lot of healing in that relationship. It was stable. And we were so young we were honest with each other and told each other everything. Neither of us were virgins when we met, but The Joy of Sex had just come out and we went through that book together, page by page, from the beginning to the end, trying everything. That was an amazing experience to share with someone, to learn about the full range of sex with one person. It was my first and as far as I knew at the time only marriage, so I threw everything into it and I think she did too and we deeply lived that experience. I never imagined it would end, until it did. Same with Cynthia. I have trouble doing what has to be done or saying what has to be said to keep a relationship together.
But I know that the period I’m in right now is the happiest and most important period of my life, bar none. I’ve got enough money, I’ve got a creative outlet, I have a creative job, I’m comfortable, I’m healthy, I’m occupied. If everything crashes tomorrow—if I get fired or laid off or I quit—I can make a comfortable transfer over to early retirement, barring unforeseen catastrophe. The odds are getting better every day that I’ll have a reasonably comfortable retirement. And most importantly I’m writing something that excites me. The Decalogue is already by far the biggest thing I’ve ever accomplished with the biggest vision and it isn’t close to being finished and I’m still excited about discovering new ways of writing and I can feel myself getting better if only more experienced in the form. I feel blessed. People feel sorry for me because I’m not in a relationship but I’m not in a relationship by choice. I feel blessed that my happiness doesn’t rely on a relationship, that my own happiness is enough. That I can entertain myself.
What experiences in your life make you a good poet?
RR: Well, even presuming that I’m a good poet, I think it’s likely hubris or delusion to think I have an answer to that question, but I believe I do.
My homelife was dangerous and I escaped through compulsive reading. I had to out-think my father, who was dangerous, so I became hyper-vigilant, which is both a blessing for a writer, and a curse in personal relationships. In other words, my early life in a dangerous environment gave me the gifts of being observant and a quick adapter, but I never learned the skills necessary for a positive long-term relationship. So I’m into long-form poetry but I’m unsuccessful at long-term relationships. It’s apparently a trade off and I’m not unhappy with the hand I was dealt.
There was music playing at home a lot of the time, and it was mostly Broadway soundtracks or ballad singers like Frank Sinatra. There was always a radio on in the kitchen on a school day morning and I’d walk to school singing whatever tune was playing as I left my house, and I began to create new lyrics to the songs as I walked to school. I only bussed to school for 7th and 8th grade, to St. John’s Junior High School, in Montville. I think it was invaluable to have extended daily experiences of quiet and solitude and walking. And creating the music and lyrics in your head, not listening to them through earphones. I don’t know how common that is today.
Then at the age of seventeen I was in a bike accident where I broadsided a van at a high rate of speed and did the whole out of the body thing. Ever since then I’ve always been both here and not here, with one foot always on the other side, knowing this is only a temporary reprieve, knowing a little of the great nothingness ahead. So that changes everything. It’s like I’m looking back at every moment from a hillside in a grave.
And then there was meeting Sandy Taylor of Curbstone Press at such a young age and being embraced by him, and then being able to come out and apprentice with Allen at just the right moment, and then the years of studying at Naropa Institute and the University of Colorado and more than thirty years of nearly constant writing. I’m happy that I’m still writing, and that I’m writing now more than ever. I’m finally getting the hang of it. No matter how good or not I am in cultural terms, I have never been writing better than I am now, whether or not that’s faint praise. Personally, I’m more satisfied with both the experience and result, and I don’t need an audience—I really don’t. I prefer not to have an audience—for an amateur writer, anonymity is freedom. You amass your work without concern for the public’s tastes. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the magic number of 10,000 hours, and I passed that figure a long time ago, so I’ve got no one but myself to blame for my writing from now on.
What does the Music and Poetry mean to you & what do you learn about yourself from the Music and Poetry?
RR: I’m at a severe disadvantage with music because I can’t play a musical instrument. It’s not through lack of trying. I’ve studied the violin, piano, guitar, the recorder, hand percussion, harmonica, the five-string banjo, lap steel guitar, voice, and composition. Nothing’s taken. I don’t understand how to make music. My enjoyment of music is in the listening.
In my editing process, one of my passes is to read a poem as fast as I can without listening for its meaning but solely concentrating on its sound, looking for any point where the text stumbles or snags. I have actually taken “not” out of a line if it makes a better sound, even though it reverses the meaning of the original. Apparently the sound is more important to me than the sense. And I’ve learned that if I have to accommodate a strong statement in opposition to my actual feelings that surprise is always good for a poem. Which is sort of a delicious, naughty contradiction to my insistence on the importance in art for authentic emotion.
Which was the best moment of your career and life and which was the worst?
RR: The worst is easy. I was asked to teach a class on Bob Dylan at Naropa Institute during the Summer Writing Program in 1994. But I discovered as I began to put the syllabus together that I wasn’t really interested in teaching Bob Dylan or his lyrics at all, but one thing that did interest me was the difference between the live version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that he released on Real Live from the 1984 European tour, and the original recorded ten years earlier for Blood on the Tracks. I wanted to talk about the lyric as a means of transferring genuine emotion over to the listener by re-experiencing the genuine emotion in performance through the map of the text (as on Blood on the Tracks)—that it isn’t a matter solely of authenticity in the writing but it was necessary to re-experience the emotion yourself when you’re performing. I wanted to play the version on Real Live as evidence of a performance gone painfully awry. I played the two versions for the class and asked if anyone noticed anything different between the two performances. It all went downhill from there. David Crosby was there, four people who had recorded with Dylan were there, Raymond Foye was there, Anselm was there, it was the only time Allen ever saw me teach. It was a disaster. But I will say this in my defense: What I was ridiculed for in that class—claiming that genuine emotion was important in the performance of a poem—was what Anne and Allen chose as their subject for their class in 1996, the last summer Allen taught at Naropa.
One of my best days was when I was out running and came up with the idea to begin integrating Kai’s slides at my readings. That one run initiated the most creative and happy period of my life. I hadn’t read in years. I’d retired from poetry, as far as I was concerned. I’d moved on to other things. But one day Tom Peters asked if I’d read at Penny Lane and I said yes and then I regretted it almost immediately. I went to my writing—years old at this point and scattered—and nothing sounded good when read aloud. My taste had outgrown my work. I realized I was going to have to create an almost completely new body of work. There was one piece that I would love to read—Ekphrasis and Cathexis—the only thing I had that I thought was interesting—but it was composed of my notes while looking at several visual works—a painting of Merlin and Nimue by Edward Burne Jones, a photograph of Dadaist Emmy Hennings, and two images from the Beatlemania museum—one of the young girls screaming during Beatlemania and then a short clip of John Lennon talking reporters after learning of Brian Epstein’s death. That’s what ekphrasis means—to describe a primarily visual experience in words.
If only they could be looking at the images while I was talking about them. I thought of holding up a copy of the image and then a thought surprised me. I had just gotten back from Mexico and was looking for reasons to work with Kai, who was a photographer. Maybe she had a macro lens and could take slides of these images and project them as I read? She did and we did and it was great, and a very fruitful period of my life began. We created over two dozen text-and-slide performances, and performed as a duo at the Book Fair in Denver, at the Poetry Circus in Taos, during the Boulder Arts Alliance’s Twelfth Night Celebration, at Naropa, at Penny Lane, at the Laughing Goat.
How you would spend a day with James Joyce?
RR: In 1990, on that first trip to Europe, I got a room in Dublin and stayed there for almost an entire month reading the collected works of Joyce in chronological order. On that trip I also read all of Yeats’ poetry from Dublin to Sligo and Gort—where he spent the last years of his life in the Tower. I also read all of Beckett while traveling the islands—the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Scilleys, the Arans, on ferries, on trains, on buses, mostly in the rain. I read all of Thomas Hardy in Dorchester, all of Fowles in Lyme Regis where he was recuperating following a stroke and where the events of his novel French Lieutenant’s Woman took place (and where I also hunted fossils in the cliffs nearby with other tourists). I read all of Flaubert and Joan of Arc in Rouen, read Proust in Paris, read all of the Greek dramatists sitting in the Dionysian Theater at the foot of the Acropolis, read the Greek poets in Delphi and on the Hill of the Muses in Athens, and the Greek philosophers on sailboats traveling island to island in the Aegean. I read all of Dante in Dante’s wife’s childhood home in Florence. I read the Book of the Dead and crawled into the center of a pyramid in Egypt. That was the trip I also traveled for a couple of weeks with a group put together by Nancy Covey—the wife of guitarist Richard Thompson. We traveled a bit with Fairport Convention, a bit with Richard and visited Robin Williamson and other traditional British folk musicians.
I also lucked out to be in Chartres at the same time as the world’s preeminent English-speaking Chartres scholar. I challenged him and he was able to give two tours a day for six days and never repeat a story. I gave him an extra twenty, which was a lot of money to me at the time, already traveling for over six months solo through Europe. That was why I went to see that film by Stan Brakhage, the Chartres series, because I had been to Chartres and had seen the light inside and outside the cathedral in all sorts of weather, at all times of day, and I wanted to see how Stan—who loved light and had been to the cathedral as well—would present that light in film.
I had bought a hand-sized piece of raw “Chartres blue” stained glass in 1990 from the official glass making shop that has been in operation continuously since the building of the cathedral began in 1198, so that I could recall that particular blue whenever I wanted to. I brought that piece of glass with me to the film as well. When we were finished talking about Coltrane’s solos, I pulled out the piece of glass and Stan held it in his hand as if it was giving off heat.
But the highlight of that trip was when I decided I would stay in Dublin to read all of Joyce when I discovered that Joyce’s nephew lived in town and gave tours on Joyce and Dublin to tourists. During his time off, we would go to his office, where he was trying to create a James Joyce museum. In the evenings I would read from one of Joyce’s books and then after breakfast I’d walk to the places I’d read about the night before. In the afternoon there was a tour of Dublin with his nephew, and then I’d accompany him back to his office for lunch, where we’d share each other’s lunches and afterwards I would explore the contents of his file cabinets. He had collected unpublished interviews, memoirs, writings, photos, including the only known—and still unpublished as far as I know—interview with Joyce’s father. Then he’d go back to the visitor’s center to pick up his next group, and I’d go back to my evening reading.
It felt so luxurious, staying in Dublin long enough to read all of Joyce. My original plans had called for me doing exactly that, but when I got down to refining my itinerary to my budget, I’d regretfully scratched it as too expensive and not a good use of my time. But then I found his nephew, so staying longer was the right decision. The only book I didn’t reread was Finnegans Wake as I’d just read it before I left for Europe, as my senior thesis for my MFA was on it. I used Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake and it was easy. I wept the last page and a half, unable to stop reading or crying. Then, of course, you start it all over again.
But I did read the rest, which was pretty much new to me, other than the stories “Araby” and “The Dead.” Even Portrait was new to me. I read it all in chronological order—the poetry, the plays, the short stories, the novella, the novel, the rough draft of the novella, and several biographies. I was concerned when I was reading Ulysses that my neighbors might call the front desk and report me because I was laughing so hard. I guess I’d like to walk through Dublin with Joyce, to see how people reacted to him, and get him to tell me stories.
RR: I’d try to get him to talk. I don’t think there’s anything Ezra Pound needs to hear from me, but I would give anything to hear him talk.
Randy reading, Penny Lane, 1989, Artwork by Julia Connor.
What would you like to ask Alan Watts?
RR: Actually nothing at all. I’ve listened to dozens upon dozens of hours of his audio archives in order to create several very large audio anthologies and I feel that I know Alan Watts’ mind very well. I really admire his sensibility, but I don’t have any pressing questions for him. I feel like I’ve probably heard his best stories already. I guess I’d ask him what death is like.
And that reminds me of something else I want to say before this is over. I want to acknowledge the grace with which Allen met his death, and my mother too, blessings to my sisters and niece. I’m sure that I’ll rely on visions of those good deaths to help me through my own death as well.
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