A Report From Naropa

By Stephen Scobie

A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg

The Naropa Institute
Boulder, Colorado
July 2nd-9th, 1994

July 2nd

.... step out of the plane, Denver airport, a wall of heat and humidity. I thought we were supposed to be a mile high, shouldn't it be cooler here? (No: fierce heat all week, Fahrenheit 90s. Forest fires on the other side of the Rockies: 14 firefighters killed.) .... walking round Boulder, a very pleasant town. Pedestrian mall lined with cafes, galleries, bookstores. Kids playing guitars on the sidewalk, long hair, already a faint sense of 1960s timelag in the air .... evening performance at Chautauqua, great old wooden barn of a building. Meredith Monk starts her performance, & the thunder comes in on cue, first note, so perfectly timed I thought it was on tape. She sings sound poetry. All vocal but non-verbal, abstract sound which she nevertheless introduces as if it had semantic content. The musical form means that the timing is absolutely precise, especially in duets with Arthur Een; but also, of course, that there is no space for improvisation. Uncanny; entrancing. Thunder rolls on, rain pounds on the wooden roof .... but is clear by the time I walk home, half hour walk back to the hotel, pitch-black streets, stumbling my way. Am I crazy, doing this in America? ....

July 3rd

.... inauguration of the Allen Ginsberg Library at the Naropa Institute. Choir of Buddhist monks, in bright yellow head-dresses, chanting: head monk with a bass voice so deep it out-thunders any thunder. That's what Naropa poetics are all about: the holiness of breath .... tribute speeches pile up. The Mayor of Boulder declares officially that this was Allen Ginsberg Day. Gary Snyder talks about libraries. David Amram (old beat musician, wrote the score for "Pull My Daisy") plays two Nepalese flutes simultaneously, out of both sides of his mouth. Antler instructs us on the sex life of trees. Anne Waldman reads, another declamatory, almost over-dramatic style. But she looks great, looks scarcely older than she did 20 years ago, in Renaldo and Clara, maybe Buddhism is good for you.... Short poem by Bobby Louise Hawkins:

He doesn't understand
it's a joke.
He has no sense of humour.
If he did have a sense of humour
he'd be surprised
how often he needed it.

.... Allen sits humbly through it all, suffering ambition, accepting illusion, maya, dharma .... afterwards, I talk to him for a minute. (This is standard, all week, people are lining up to talk to him, get him to sign a book, kiss him, whatever. You stand in line with one prepared question, ask it, get out.) He remembers me from New York last summer. He looks much healthier than he did then .... evening performance: more music from Amram, three flutes this time. Snyder, reading from "Rivers and Mountains Without End," quiet, precise, wise; always a wonderful stillness about him. Ginsberg himself in fine head-rolling form, flinging his whole body into the readings. Breath is holy. Sings with Steven Taylor (who looks angelically young), sings "Father Death Blues," whole audience weeps, whole creation cries ....

July 4th

We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day....

.... first time I've ever been in America on the 4th of July. Most of the day is just hanging around. Big picnic at Naropa. Memorial tribute to Harry Smith, mad musician, artist, writer, film-maker, collector. Under the trees, students reading poetry: loud, declamatory, angry. Even Vietnam is invoked; it seems more and more like 1967. Hippy couples with babies on their laps. Only thing different: more tattoos .... long talk with Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher, who is now working on a biography of Phil Ochs. Don't trust Allen's dates, he tells me. Allen means well, but he gets dates wrong .... at one picnic table, an archetypal view of the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with between them Ed Sanders, leader of the Fugs. They eat vegetarian hot dogs while people sneak up and take photos. A strange grey-haired gnome is Gregory Corso ..... today's 30 seconds with Allen, I get him to sign my copy of "First Blues." He's talking to someone else about Peter Orlovsky, now in a sad state in Harlem, cocaine and alcohol; case workers' advice is that Allen should not see him for a while. But their vow remains ..... 4th of July fireworks .... late night performance at the Boulder Theatre, by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Sad disappointment. Long, amateurish, boring, unfunny. (Some students take great exception; later in the week they launch a furious attack on Kesey, who in turn calls them stupid, storms off in his bus, says he's never coming back to Boulder.) All week, this is the only reputation that crashes ....

July 5th

.... at last we're into the regular schedule. Lecture at 1pm, panel at 3pm, reading at 8pm: pattern for the next 5 days .... lecture today by Ed Sanders. Sanders is one of the revelations of the week for me: intelligent, witty, charming, and displaying an unexpected passion for Ancient Greek Metrics! Fine lecture, pointing especially to Ginsberg's love of questions: what other poet uses the ? so often? .... panel on Buddhism, Snyder again the most intelligent, most to-the-point. Meditation, says Ginsberg, is a way of knowing one's own mind, which is the instrument of poetry. It cultivates a sense of detachment, and an appreciation for the silence between words, and inside words .... I meet with Gordon Ball, editor of Ginsberg's journals, and show him in my xeroxes some passages of Allen's Rolling Thunder journals which I had been unable to decipher. One line especially, which I thought read "????? calls Isis." Gordon looks at it closely. "I'm not sure," he says, "but I think that word is 'Abraham.'" I look at it and am convinced. "Abraham calls Isis"! what a great line! already I foresee five pages of exposition of the mythological implications .... later, I use my daily 30-second stand-in-line slot with Ginsberg to check out the reading with him. "What's this line say, Allen?" He barely glances at it. "Niagara Falls." Such are the perils of scholarship with live subjects .... evening reading: Gregory Corso, totally charming, loving his own poems; after one poem, "My favorite line in that poem is ... " and goes back and reads it again. Standing ovation; he gives an encore .... Joanne Kyger less impressive, the poems more interior, she didn't give enough to the reading .... Amiri Baraka be-bopping and scatting through his inflammatory rhetoric, an extraordinary "lecture" on poetry and short stories, a deeply moving elegy to Miles Davis ....

July 6th

.... morning in the tent at Naropa, Ferlinghetti is doing calligraphy poems. Large sheets of white paper on an easel: wash of ink with a broad brush, then lettering with more precise brush, lots of lovely spill and run on the ink. The poems are for sale, in support of a student bursary fund, $15 each! My friend June buys one which reads "Old Sky New Clouds". I'm waiting. He starts one off "No ideas but ... " Aha, I think, Williams ... "... in beings." I buy it .... lecture by Amiri Baraka. Revolutionary rhetoric like I haven't heard since the old days of Hardial Bains and the CPC-ML. "We are taught to believe that art has no force, no effect. So we become mere craftsmen, making cunning little artefacts for devils who drink blood. We are the good manners of vampires" .... panel also on politics, predictable discussions. Testimonial utterances: Dave Dellinger, veteran of many a 60s demonstration, now fasting for Leonard Pelletier; Dennis Brutus, on his way to celebration in South Africa; Galway Kinnell, rather uneasily declaring that all poetic genres are now political; nature poems are now about ecology; love poems are now about gender issues. And Kinnell calls Ginsberg up on stage to read "America," to remind us all how it's done. Obligingly, Allen puts his queer shoulder to the wheel .... by way of reaction, I seek out for dinner Boulder's most exclusive, expensive restaurant .... some students complaining that Dylan didn't come to this event, feeling that he should have, that he owed it to Ginsberg. I don't think so. Dylan has always been very careful not to intrude on Ginsberg's events; he stays in the background, he plays bass guitar rather than lead, he appears uncredited on Allen's recordings. As the students' own questions showed, if he had come, he would have drawn attention to himself, away from Allen. Bob would never do that. Besides, he hates occasions like this, tributes, even (especially) when they're to him. Dennis Brutus told a story of Allen getting up in a crowded plane (when everyone was supposed to be strapped in) and chanting "Don't smoke Don't smoke Don't smoke!" Dylan would never do anything remotely like that. Ginsberg is open, candid, willing to make himself vulnerable; Dylan is closed, secretive, devious, absolutely reluctant to expose his weaknesses. Yet these are simply two different styles of leading a public life, of dealing with the burden of people's expectations .... evening reading: Sharon Olds, so direct, so unassuming, that I am disarmed from my usual criticism of her show-business morbidity .... Galway Kinnell more "literary," but with a powerfully affective elegy for his sister .... wonderful reading/performance by Ed Sanders. I'm buying all his books and records, even the ones sung in Ancient Greek ....

July 7th

.... long conversation/"interview" with David Amram: I get no chance to ask questions, he's telling me what he wants to tell me. I'm deep into the trivia of dating the events of November 1971, the recording sessions of Ginsberg and Dylan that month, no two people agree on when they happened or in what order .... talk also to Hal Willner, who's producing the compilation of Ginsberg CDs due out in August .... lecture today is Marjorie Perloff, who talks veryveryfast. Most "academic" lecture of the week, more to my element. Curiously unconvincing background in Wittgenstein; brilliant close readings of poems. Ginsberg, she says, always claims to be in the tradition of Pound, but really, he isn't the least bit like him. Well, I want to argue with that, but it gives me pause for thought .... panel begins with Anselm Hollo announcing the death of Warren Tallman, and asking for a minute of silence (impressive, when there are 500 people keeping silent) .... highly diverse panel, on biography, bibliography, and other ancillary tasks .... wonderful anecdote from Bob Rosenthal, Ginsberg's secretary. He's in a NY cab with Allen, the driver is clearly Moslem, Allen asks what the driver thinks of Salman Rushdie, driver says Rushdie has insulted Allah and deserves to die, Allen (as the cab weaves crazily in and out of NY traffic) sits up in the back seat and yells "I shit on your God!" Please Allen, Rosenthal is thinking, not while I'm in the cab .... Ann Charters reads two unpublished letters by Jack Kerouac: not only unpublished, unsent: addressed to a woman he'd scarcely met, but to whom he poured out his 20 year old soul as he embarked in the Merchant Marine .... evening reading: Ferlinghetti, benign, white-haired, reading "additional sections" to "A Coney Island of the Mind" .... Bobby Louise Hawkins, with that marvellous acerbic voice, marvellous acerbic poems on the tight knots of human relationships .... Michael McClure, grey-haired but svelte, impeccably preserved, smooth, and altogether a bit too smooth, one might even say superficial. But, for your sense of history, he too was there, 40 years ago, in the Heroic Age of Beatdom ....

July 8th

.... I ambush Robert Creeley outside the auditorium, talk to him about Warren, and about the 1963 Vancouver poetry conference: both themes that he takes up in his lecture, which is really more of a rambling chat. According to Creeley, he and Warren were 2 out of 5 members on the UBC organising committee for the conference, and were continually outvoted by the more conservative English Department profs. But Warren told him: Don't worry, all these people they've invited won't come; none of them is interested in Vancouver; one of them is so established he's actually dead! And when they all say no, the committee will panic, and we'll move in with out list of invitees. And thus came Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg et al, to Vancouver in 1963 .... panel is deep in nostalgia, memories of San Francisco in the 1950s. McClure recalls Creeley arriving at a house in SF and asking if they had anything to drink; all we have, they replied, is the gin we keep the garlic cloves in; I'll take that, said Creeley, "and we knew he was one of us." .... Sharon Olds puts on a mask, to stunning effect .... "Poetry audiences," says Bobby Louise Hawkins, "are inured to pain" .... reading in the evening leads off with Anne Waldman. I still think she overdoes the dramatic presentation, but there's some good stuff here, especially a long piece on John Cage .... Creeley delights me by going right back to the poem that includes the line "Poor. Old. Tired. Horse." He is as precise, and as elliptical, as ever .... jazz pianist Cecil Taylor gives an extended improvisation, which I think would have gone on forever if they hadn't commissioned Ginsberg (who else could have done it?) to go on stage and tell him to stop .... drink till the bar closes at 1 with June and John, a 19 year old from Michigan, who is an impossible combination of street-smarts and innocence....

July 9th

.... snap a photo of Gregory Corso, "I love getting my picture taken!" .... lecture by Robert Clemente, NY artist and Ginsberg collaborator. He speaks nervously, spontaneously, yet with extraordinary elegance. Fragments: "The line of the drawing is the extension of the line of the body; it is a borderline between two worlds. -- The Hindus believe that speech is a tree, whose roots are lies. Therefore you should never lie, because to lie is to expose the roots of speech, and when the roots are exposed, the tree dies. -- [on Hinduism as opposed to Buddhism:] The search for knowledge is not a boring ascent to the ineffable, but an elegant sloppy descent from what you already know. -- A good painter spends more time preparing the ground than actually painting the painting. Great paintings have a light of their own, which comes from within, from behind. The ground is the pristine face of the moon. -- A painting is not going to follow you around the room: you can just walk away from it. -- A painting should give you an impression of ease, disguising the work that went into it. One should imagine the artist is in the studio taking a nap. -- In India, I have no guru. My teacher is my laundryman." .... Panel on collaboration. Steven Taylor says that he has learned, in Ed Sanders' phrase, to "ride the bucking zebra" of Ginsberg's delivery .... Philip Glass confesses that collaborations with people he didn't get along with usually worked out just as well as collaborations with people he liked .... Corso is genially drunk, interrupting everyone with inapposite remarks. Then a woman from the audience asks: "Why are there so few women on this panel? Why are there so few women in this whole week's programme? Why were there so few women among the Beat writers?" and Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: "There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the 50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them" .... then Gregory is back to the clown mode: "Why aren't we more celebrated? In Europe they name streets after poets, why not in America? Why shouldn't there be an Allen Ginsberg Street in San Francisco?" "But Gregory," says Allen, "there are streets named after you all over Italy: Corso... Corso... " .... Reception back at Naropa, unveiling of Clemente's portrait of Ginsberg. I talk to Jerry Aronson, director of the film "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg," and get from him a signed videotape copy. He takes a photo of me and Allen standing together. I grin like a fool; Allen looks solemn, and holds his plastic punch glass as if it were a sacred vessel. (I love this photo.) I ask him how he has survived a week of such focused attention. "In one ear and out the other," he says, moving away .... talk with Yves Le Pellec, Ginsberg's French translator. I promise him, what else, a tape of the last Dylan concert he was at (Toulouse, 1993) .... evening reading, last gala occasion. Dave Dellinger reads from his prison memoirs. Philip Glass gives us 45 minutes of mesmerising solo piano. Allen comes on for a last hurrah, reading classics, "Sunflower Sutra," "The Change." At the end of the week Allen is as energetic as ever, his head still rolling back and forth, his body jumping out of the chair he's sitting in. Glass comes out and plays piano as Allen reads from "Wichita Vortex Sutra" -- for me, his greatest work, the climax of his vision. So, also, the climax of the week. America redeemed, once again, in the auditorium of the Boulder High School. And everyone piles on stage to sing Blake, "all the hills echoed," visionary mantra, song without end .... late night party, everyone there, Amram playing music, the police called, I'm suddenly talking Scottish politics with a Boulder lawyer called Duncan Angus Campbell III, Allen must be exhausted but he's still here, circulating through the crowd, ready for anyone ....

Literary Kicks
Stephen Scobie