INTERVIEWED BY JEFFREY SIDE (2006)
Randy Roark studied with Philip Whalen at Naropa Institute. In addition, for seventeen years he was Allen Ginsberg's assistant. 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.
Jeffrey Side: How did you come to be Allen Ginsberg's assistant at the Naropa Institute?
Randy Roark: In the late 1970s, I was living in a rural town in Connecticut, and I came across a magazine article about Naropa Institute. It said that Allen Ginsberg was accepting apprentices, and I applied, never expecting to get accepted. But I was, and flew out to Boulder, Colorado in November 1979, when I was 25 years old. I’ve written about that experience in an article published by the Naropa Bulletin in 1981 (‘The Object Is to See Clearly’), and I’ll post that article on my website, for anyone interested (www.randyroark.com).
When the apprenticeship was over, I worked for Ginsberg for a couple of years as one of his teaching assistants, helping him to prepare for his classes and recording them, and transcribing and editing his lectures on William Blake. I also worked as an administrative assistant for the Poetics Department at Naropa while he was running the program. Then I worked with him on the first three years of the Naropa Summer Writing Program, leaving in 1985.
At that time I had a severe falling out with the Naropa Poetics Department, and took off for several years. I returned in the late 1980s to get my MFA in Poetics and Prose from Naropa Institute, and began working with Allen on several projects. In 1991, Allen asked me to transcribe and edit an article on William Blake for the New Censorship magazine, and that led to a plan to transcribe all of his poetry lectures. I worked on that project from 1991 until he died in 1997, transcribing, editing, and annotating over 28,000 pages of his lectures. I also transcribed and edited the material used in the book that accompanied his 4CD set for Rhino Records, Holy Soul, Jelly Roll. By the time he died I had finished editing a manuscript from his work on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which he never got a chance to finish, and had begun assembling material for a book chronicling his 1995 trip to China, including photographs, poems, and lecture transcriptions. After his death, I also edited a set called First Thought, Best Thought for Sounds True, an audio book publisher, including recordings of lectures by Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anne Waldman, and Diane di Prima.
JS: What sort of things did Ginsberg teach at Naropa?
RR: Allen taught there for 22 years so, of course, he taught a lot of things, especially since he rarely taught most texts twice. For instance, he taught a series of classes called “A Literary History of the Beat Generation”. He taught a couple of semesters of “Ecstatic Poetry” from every century and country, and he taught a class on William Carlos Williams. And he taught Blake and Sapphics and blues and spontaneous poetry most of all, because they were each a combination of the elements he liked to talk about—which was that they were oral forms, that they were improvised in the moment within a particular form, and they were a more proletarian poetry than the stilted, artificial poems that were mostly being taught in most schools. But, in 1980, he began teaching a class called “Basic Poetics” when he realized that you couldn’t talk to kids about Kerouac or Pound if they didn’t think at that educated and informed level. It was like the pendulum had swung too far—poets were showing up who only knew the Beats and not the lineage they were writing out of, and so he thought their work was being largely misunderstood or appreciated for the wrong reasons. So he began with the earliest possible poetries available in the Norton Anthology of Poetry and tried to work his way through the entire history of English poetics in a couple of semesters. Each year he’d set dramatic goals—like Gilgamesh to Blake, and each year he’d get hung up on an anonymous Victorian lyric or Shelley’s political poetry or the meter in Milton, and spend the rest of the term talking about it.
But, if I had to choose one class title to sum up Allen’s interests, it would be a class on Williams that he taught that first summer at Naropa, called “Mind, Mouth, and Page”. “Mind” because he was interested in the mind as the crucible in which the poem was formed and what “a poet’s mind” was and what could be done to experience that state as often as possible, and then what to do to pass that actual state along to others, not just write another “poem”.
And the way Allen was interested in passing along those states of mind was through actually invoking them in his audience. And he found the best way to do that was through their breathing, which he had learned through his study of mantra and classic Tibetan Buddhist breathing techniques taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The idea is that when you are in an ecstatic state, or a meditative state, or a sad state, or whatever, that there is a precise and distinctive physiology to that state, and the way you can access that state most easily is through your breathing. In other words, if you are in a heightened state of any form—anger, regret, whatever—then you will naturally fall into that emotion’s distinctive breathing pattern, and, of interest to poets, you will naturally write and speak in those rhythms also. And it works in the reverse as well—if you breathe in the form of the emotion, then that emotion will appear in you. This change in breathing will actually invoke a real experience in you of the emotion invoked—especially elevated states like joy and ecstasy and rage and despair. And that’s why Allen was confused by so much poetry, because not only was it written without an understanding of these natural rhythms, so no actual emotion was invoked, but too often there was no emotion in the poem at all—or confused emotions. The poem Allen most often taught to beginners was Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” because he found that reciting that poem in choral form with an entire class would make this connection between breath and state of mind obvious to everyone, depending on their state of participation. Those who really breathed the poem inevitably got high—or at least dizzy.
And, as an aside, Allen thought that one of the reasons poetry had devolved into this state was that poets too little loved themselves and their emotions—so they couldn’t celebrate them in their verse, or they celebrated them too little, and instead were always censoring themselves.
Allen also wanted to remind people how many of our classic poems were actually lyrics—like the lyrics to a Dylan song—but to songs now forgotten—like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience or the lyrics of Andrew Marvell and Thomas Campion. He was also happy to discover that many of these poems were actually sold on the streets of London and Dublin over a one-hundred-year span, or that families passed on broadsides of poems that had hung in their living rooms for generations. That also explains Allen’s interests in Dylan and the modern troubadour method and pop music.
And “Page” because everything depended on what you read on the page and how you read it. But also because the poet was reduced to the page in modern culture, unless you’re Dylan, so if you didn’t also make it something that could be enjoyed in a book, you wouldn’t make it into the anthologies, and your work would be lost. I also think it probably has something to do with the amount of reading a poet would have to do in order to know their craft.
JS: Apart from Ginsberg you also knew other poets connected to the first wave of the Beat movement, such as Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Gregory Corso. You also knew poets Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman and others who came slightly later. This must have been a very formative period for your poetic development. Was it?
RR: I probably only have two stages of poetic development. The first was meeting the poet and teacher Sandy Taylor in Willimantic, Connecticut when I was 19 years old. I had dropped out of college the year previously, and Sandy was the first living poet I ever met. I was amazed to find someone else who wrote poetry! I audited Sandy’s classes on Yeats, Eliot, and Frost. I can still remember how he came into the classroom one day and slammed a pile of books on the table and said, “Today I’m going to sell you on Yeats.” Then he stood in the center of the room and mimed the events opening Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’—“A sudden blow”—and he slapped his fist into his hand—“the … great … wings … beat … ing … still”—and he waved his arms above his head in rhythm to the words—“above the stag-ger-ing-girl,” as he stumbled across the room. In that one moment, on a visceral level, I realized that poetry was more than just words on the page, but I had no idea and no skills on how to take it there.
Sandy was also a publisher and his Curbstone Press (with Judy Doyle) is still publishing international literature with political and, some would say, leftist concerns. He also introduced me to the social world of poets by hosting poets from other countries, working beside me in his basement with an old drum press printing broadsides and chapbooks, involving me in poetry readings and events, and hanging out with a young kid and answering his endless questions and talking “shop.” It’s funny, but the unpolitical poetry Sandy dismissed with contempt is probably the poetry I write now. And the poet he ridiculed most often as over-rated—Ezra Pound—became one my favorite writers.
When I arrived at Naropa I knew almost nothing about modern poetry, but suddenly I was surrounded by poets from the previous generation—like Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Clark Coolidge, Anselm Hollo, and Tom Pickard—as well as writers I considered my elders, like Ginsberg, Snyder, William Burroughs, Diane di Prima, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky. I didn’t realize at the time how special a time that was—but now I realize that if I had been born five years earlier or five years later, I would have … well, I have absolutely no idea what my life would look like now.
The poetry I write now is almost completely written via cut-ups or the collage method, and that’s certainly nothing I would have ever developed on my own. It started entering my work in 1980 or so, when I told Ted Berrigan that Dylan had composed the lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” out of the first lines of songs he didn’t think he’d have time to write, and Ted suggested I do that with my own work—to go through poems I didn’t like, take out my favorite lines, and arbitrarily stitch them together. When I began working in this way, I immediately noticed a different voice in my poetry that I preferred to my own. It was also something that I could read in front of an audience with some sense of engagement, as if I were reading someone else’s poem. I also remember being somewhat puzzled and disappointed when Gary Snyder mentioned that he used file cards to copy down orphan lines of poetry that occurred to him during the day, and then rifled through them later when he needed something for a poem. Now I have post-it notes all over my computer with stray lines to scan when I’m writing collaborative poems over the Internet. Philip Whalen taught how his most famous poem—“Sourdough Mountain Lookout”—wasn’t really “a poem” at all, but the result of typing up his notebook one summer and realizing it was a kind of poem. And then once I “caught” Ted Berrigan making a poem out of someone else’s words, and he taught me how to use someone else’s words to create a poem that the original author wouldn’t even recognize as their own words.
But the education I received at Naropa was more about how to live than it was about writing poetry. During my apprenticeship, Allen was less interested in my poetry than he was in asking me questions that I could only answer out of my heart, until I began to speak from my chest, not my forehead. This remains the most influential event in my life, both personally and as a poet. That and Anselm Hollo’s encouragement not to be afraid of my intellect. And there’s the day when I was at my lowest and Ted Berrigan stuck his thick finger in my chest and said, “You’re a poet.” Or when Philip Whalen stopped me as I was fleeing a party, insisting that I was a “genius” and should stay out of the social scene completely—“They will only make you stupid or confuse you.”
Each of these elements is such an important event that just one of them would have been enough to set me off in a certain direction, but taken all together, they gave me the tools I needed to continue to explore language with limits so vague and all-inclusive that there is practically nothing my poetry cannot contain or at least explore. In addition, we had the yearly presence of the wit and gentleness of William Burroughs, and casual and technical conversations with Robert Creeley, Michael McClure, Ed Sanders, Carl Rakosi, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carl Solomon, John Clellon Holmes, Bernadette Mayer, Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley, Marianne Faithfull, Philip Glass, Robert Frank, David Hockney, Karl Appel, Herbert Huncke and (before my time) Robert Duncan, Rambling Jack Eliot, John Ashbery, Helen Adam, and John Cage. And, of course, the year-round presence of Allen Ginsberg and all the excitement that brought to town. And the general insistence from all of them that I was looking in the wrong place—that it wasn’t so much about writing poems, but of living a poetic life—of being a poet. That if I could accomplish that, poems would fall naturally from me like leaves from a tree. If you add all that up somehow, that pretty much explains my poetic method.
The most interesting thing about Naropa poets, I think, is that they’re so dissimilar. Some follow Clark Coolidge into L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and work that is, for me, fairly opaque. Others, especially women, followed Anne Waldman into performance poetry and music and theater, some followed Allen’s messianic path, some Corso’s poete-maudit alcoholic dance, some wrote in the classical form of the great Buddhist poets, and there’s whatever I do. Maybe someone outside of Naropa can categorize a post-Naropa poet, but I don’t see it.
JS: Over the years, you’ve delivered a number of lectures combined with slide shows. You did one on Philip Whalen and one on William Blake. What stimulated you to combine lectures with slides?
RR: You ask great questions. They make me think about things in a new way, and help me to say things I’d like to say about my life and work. This is a great gift to me. By late 1994, I had “retired” from poetry for a second time (the first being in 1985, when my marriage dissolved and I more or less retired from everything). By January 1995—when I was asked to give a 41st birthday reading by Tom Peters—I had lost interest in writing and performing poetry entirely, and had gotten involved in other things. Poetry as a means of self-expression or of announcing my opinions or to express any private pleasures I experienced in language was no longer interesting to me, and I was having those needs satisfied in other ways. One of the things I got involved in was traveling to Mexico as part of a team bringing medicine and physicians to remote mountain communities and helping to rebuild an orphanage outside Mante. At this time I was also working full-time in an emergency room as well as transcribing and editing and annotating several Ginsberg poetry lectures a month. I was also running a lot.
Seconds after agreeing to read as part of Tom’s series, I started to panic—what was I going to read? I went through my work and found only one piece that I was interested in reading, which was a prose piece that I assembled out of a notebook I’d kept while I was traveling solo through Europe and Egypt from July 1990 through January 1991. Like Philip Whalen’s “Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” I typed up my notebooks when I got back, and one particular section was rather startling in the way it was arranged, solely by chance. Because I was more or less studying something particular at the time while moving through England and France, my notes looped and were interrupted and returned and re-returned to previous themes which, by the end, included the pre-Raphaelite painters and their models and wives, medieval lovers Heloise and Abelard, the Beatles and Beatlemania, and Dadaists Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. The problem I had was that most of it was written as private notes to myself about particular photographs and paintings, and so they didn’t attempt to describe them, but only to note what I wanted to remember about them.
But one day while I was out running, I had an interesting thought. On a relief mission to Mante, Mexico, in October 1994, I had met a woman photographer who lived in Boulder and I wanted to spend more time with her. This might solve both problems! I could have her shoot slides of the paintings and photographs, and have them projected while I read. Luckily she said yes and luckily she already had a macro lens, because taking slides of paintings and photographs turned out to be a lot more complicated (and expensive) than I thought. At that first performance (of Ekphrasis and Cathexis, with Kai Sibley’s slides), I also had Barbara Jean Slopey simultaneously translating the text into American Sign Language. It was like a three-ring circus with better art. Plus, it was the perfect speed and stimulation level for kids who’d grown up on MTV and McDonald’s commercials. While the audience was looking at Kai’s beautiful slides of beautiful paintings and photographs, and Barbara Jean was signing the words with gestures that visually painted the words as a flowing movement, I was sitting behind a music stand with a booklight in the shadows at the corner of the stage. I found that I really enjoyed hamming it up when I wasn’t feeling dozens of eyes staring at me. I was certain this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and that’s more or less been the case, although Kai and I amicably parted ways before the Cocteau performance, and the ones on Stan Brakhage and my travels through Turkey in 2003.
When this first performance was over, I wanted to spend more time than ever with this woman, and we began putting together and performing two dozen of these slide/text presentations over the next eight years. Some of them were constructed around original writing of mine, but most of them were designed as illustrated poetic lectures for various festivals and fund-raisers. We did one on the surrealists, two different ones on the Dadaists, one on the pre-revolutionary poets of Russia, one on Philip Whalen, one based on my notebooks as a student of Ginsberg, Snyder, Burroughs, Berrigan, etc, and ones on Lorca, Blake, Anne Waldman, and Cocteau. The one I like best—other than that first one (Ekphrasis and Cathexis)—was the only one where Kai shot the photos first, and I had to write the text to go with them. That was actually published, with about a dozen photographs, as “Hymns”. That book ended up as a collaborative artwork, with the book design (by Amy Hayes), the photographs, and the poetry treated equally.
JS: You mention Stan Brakhage. What is it particularly that you like about his work?
RR: When Allen G. died (in April 1997), I was somewhat set adrift. For 17 years, I more or less used Allen, the parasitic way that a pilotfish uses a shark. Allen was the magnet that attracted all of the trappings of artistic success, and I hung around close enough that I could experience all of that excitement without having any real accomplishments or attention or responsibility of my own. It was through him that I met painters like Francesco Clemente and Karel Appel, and musicians like Marianne Faithfull and Philip Glass, and could sit in his apartment and eavesdrop on his “backstage” conversations with Robert Creeley, Paul McCartney, and Harry Smith. And it was through him that I was involved in large-scale art projects, like his 4 CD retrospective set with Rhino Records, or creating manuscripts such as the one on Blake and the one from his travels in China. And by transcribing, editing, and annotating his poetry lectures, I continued my education, not only through his insight into poems and their components, but also in how his mind worked. By 1985, Allen had moved from Boulder back to New York City and I refused several offers from him to move there and work for him full-time as well, preferring to remain in Boulder and transcribe and edit his lectures from there, where I felt safe. Every time I called his office in New York, it seemed someone else had been shot or arrested. So in spite of all his protestations that the city was safe and that I was missing hanging out with Bob Dylan and Beck and Bono, I was happy to keep all of that excitement at a distance, and to reconnect with him when he visited Boulder twice a year.
Luckily for me, the filmmaker Stan Brakhage lived in Boulder, and I began hanging out with him shortly after Allen died. Stan was teaching film at the University of Colorado at the time, and every Sunday evening he would host a “salon” at the university, where he’d show a selection of short films, and afterwards retire to a conference room where he’d discuss the films and anything else that crossed his mind with anyone interested. It was another way for me to continue to experience the creative process and listen-in while an accomplished artist discussed their work and art in general.
Stan was, in my mind, the most important American “art” film creator. He is the “author” (I don’t think he’d be averse to that title) of over 300 finished films. By the time I met him, he had suffered both kidney cancer and cancer treatment, and it had mellowed him incredibly. In the early eighties, I was literally afraid of him—any seemingly innocuous statement could set him off on a tirade—but by the late nineties he didn’t seem to have the energy for argument, or he was much more interested in being kind and supportive to people—especially younger artists like myself—in general. He also considered himself a frustrated poet, and for a time in the fifties lived with Robert Duncan and Jess in San Francisco, and he went out of his way to support me and my work as a poet—especially in those times when I was very uncertain of my own work. By enthusiastically encouraging me at those times, I came to accept, as I never did with Allen, that art is often created out of confusion, not certainty.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with much of Stan’s work, but he quickly moved from creating films with a camera and lens, to creating films by painting and drawing directly on film stock or scratching, with an exacto blade, on black leader. I still remember the revelatory feeling I had the first time I saw one of his films—I was listening closely to a lot of John Coltrane solos at the time and I actually “heard” the film’s movement as an ascending solo, much like one of Coltrane’s—which is interesting because I later learned that Stan considered these painted films examples of “visual music”. In his later films, when he applied acrylic paint directly on the surface of film stock and then projected them in a darkened theater, it was like looking at a painting by Kandinsky or Kline, except that it moved through time, and accumulated “afterimages” in the mind’s eye. Even in his earlier films, made with a camera, Stan radically altered the film medium—instead of assuming all of the clichés of sight and vision, he drew attention to act of perception itself, of stripping the world of narrative meaning so that the images in the film could be seen freshly, almost as one would enter the intensely personal world of another’s dreams, without narrative or second-hand conceptualizations. When he did use metaphor and concepts—in films such as Dog Star Man—they were used not as means of explanation, but forced us to directly experience the primal elements of the metaphor—most commonly the miraculous and mysterious processes of birth, sex, and death.
For almost six years, I soaked myself in film through Stan. By the time Stan died in 2003, I had arranged a two-night retrospective of his films in his adopted hometown of Boulder (which won that year’s “Art-Film Festival of the Year” award for the Denver area), put together a six-hour three-night celebration of his films on a local cable access television station (the first time he’d agreed to showing his films on television), and produced a 3-hour television interview with him and the filmmaker and musician Joel Haertling, and got the City of Boulder to declare his 67th birthday “Stan Brakhage Day”. I also published a book (Dissolve: Screenplays to the Films of Stan Brakhage) which he received three months before his death that was written by transcribing, as closely as possible, my actual thoughts while watching a series of his films at the Boulder Public Library over a course of a six-month period.
When Stan died, I feel my apprenticeship ended—I was no longer interested in attaching myself to any particular artist, and was drawn more and more into my own personal relationship to art, and my own writing experiments in particular.
JS: You’ve written and lectured extensively on Bob Dylan, presented a 24-hour radio history program on him for KAIR in 1985, and taught about him at Naropa Institute. What it is about Bob Dylan that interests you so much?
RR: I grew up in Uncasville, a lightly developed rural area surrounding an obscure Connecticut state highway. We only listened to one radio station in our house, and it played Adult Contemporary fare—Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at that time—and the intermittent novelty hit, like “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.”
One of my favorite things to do every summer was to sleep in a tent in my backyard when it was too hot to sleep inside. One year when I was about ten or eleven, I brought a small transistor radio with me to listen to until I fell asleep, because at that age I became obsessed with the radio. There were people talking in a studio somewhere where it was always “now!” and it would be impolite not to listen. Plus, you learned everything that was happening before everyone else, and they also had intelligent people who explained everything to you.
But that night was rainy, and something in the atmosphere made it possible for me to find a radio station in NYC. And the first sounds I heard coming out of the radio were Bob Dylan singing “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
I’m not the one you want, babe,
I will only let you down.
You say you’re looking for someone
Who will promise never to part,
Someone to close his eyes for you,
Someone to close his heart,
Someone who will die for you and more,
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.
It was as if the air lit up. Before then, all I’d heard were the heavily orchestrated, schmaltzy love songs on my parents’ radio—but here was this guy saying the most fantastic things, as if he was sitting beside me in the tent. And he was telling me what I instinctively knew everybody was feeling but no one dared talk about.
Part of the reason for my intense reaction was because I had to press my ear to tiny speaker to hear anything at all, but I remember each line ending with a bomb. He even said before he was through, “And anyway, I’m not alone.” He was talking to an ex-girlfriend on the phone, and he’s telling her he’s already with the next one. This guy was a fiend! I was intrigued!
I don’t know how much of this I understood at the time, but I remember knowing immediately that this was something I wanted to learn how to do. It sounded so simple, like anyone could do it, but it was different from the limp Sinatra and Nat King Cole ballads my parents listened to. It’s funny, though, that now I probably love Sinatra and Nat King Cole and even Dean Martin more than almost anyone.
The reason that Dylan has continued to inspire me is that he’s found a way to stay alive in the business of singing songs as a living better than anyone I know. Better than the Beatles, better than Presley, better even than the Rolling Stones, who are still going strong, but their range is pretty prosaic when compared to Dylan’s. I saw Dylan as recently as his last tour, where he played piano half-turned away from the audience all night and didn’t address us, and then almost unintelligibly, until after the final encore where he (I think) introduced the members of his band. And I turned to a friend on our way out and told him that the best thing about seeing Dylan in concert is that he’s always teaching me what’s in store if I can grow old with grace and style, and with my wit and sense of humor intact.
The lucky part of being a Dylan fan—other than the great songs he continues to churn out—is that he has been able to precisely describe the path of his fierce intelligence and it moved through time and circumstance. I don’t know of any body of work that is as rich in illuminated detail seen in the light of a sometimes hyperkinetic and sometimes Zen-like mind like Dylan’s. Ginsberg had that quality too—of innocently and honestly reporting the events of his life in the moment, without the benefit of hindsight. Ginsberg, and Dylan too somewhat, continuously kept moving outward from the center, trying to discover where the living energy was. Ginsberg did this mostly by hanging around with kids, and by continuously trying to burn the “corpse of Ginsberg,” as he put it, after he returned from India. For Dylan it was more like the relative anonymity of trying to reinvent or improve upon some inherited, traditional form—like Dust Bowl Ballads, folk music, love songs, protest songs, and even trying to get his sound on AM radio.
You can start to chart Dylan’s transformative power with the political songs, which are unlike any other—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” for example, where he points the finger away from the man who pulled the trigger, and focuses it on the ones who benefited from and instigated the murder and explains why and how they did it. I heard Dylan sing “Masters of War” to a packed house at the Denver Coliseum on the weekend following the September 11th disaster, and each line of the song was so precise in its detail and clearly enunciated that the audience shouted out the truth of every line. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is constructed as tightly as any Dashiel Hammett novel—complete with a twist at the end. I can remember playing “Ballad of Hollis Brown” to my parents in an effort to get them to understand me—a story song that ends with an impoverished farmer shooting his family and himself because he can no longer face them starving a little bit more every day. And in “Who Killed Davey Moore” he enumerates the list of those who are really responsible when a fighter dies in the ring.
After reinventing protest music—making it smart and sophisticated—he began to deconstruct his own persona in public. He wrote a song about how everything he had said was wrong—“My Back Pages.” He tore someone apart in “Like a Rolling Stone,” only to admit years later that he lost the ability to write such songs because he came to understand that the person he was angry at was himself.
But the most important lasting contribution of Dylan’s is, in my life, the objectification of certain mental states that I believe are at the root of what it is to be creative. The mind that can write “To live outside the law you must be honest,” or “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all” is a mind that is living, and writing, in the presence of that mystery.
An interesting footnote to this story is that the second sounds I heard that night in the tent when I was ten, and the last before I lost the connection, were the thunderous opening notes of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and this guy screaming at me about how everything they had sold him on TV was empty and a lie. That started a different root desire in my life, a search for a combination of Keith Richards’ rawness and Jagger’s swagger.
JS: Yes, Dylan does seem to have a knack of writing songs that are forever relevant (your experience of his “Masters of War” at the Denver Coliseum being one of them) and which can provoke in the listener personal significance. He does this, I think, by not telling the listener the whole story. He leaves something for you to fill in—or personalise. Most mainstream contemporary “poets” would call this lazy writing, but I call it genius. And you are right—his songs contain gems of wisdom such as the ones you quote (“To live outside the law you must be honest”). This sort of thing is presumably frowned upon in contemporary poetic circles. But I think it is their loss. What mystifies me is when I see Dylan passed over for the Nobel Literature Prize, when a “poet” like Seamus Heaney (who basically writes descriptive prose) has been awarded it.
RR: It’s interesting to me that you mention not telling the listener the whole story as creating a space for the listener to enter into the work. When I began using cut-cups, pastiches, and collages and was no longer interested in creating poems of personal significance—like the art I was taught to appreciate in high school and college before I attended Naropa, art that “said something”—I experienced something similar. When I wrote a poem that was designed by some sense of order outside of traditional narrative or had a lot of space in it, people began to come up to me after a reading or write me letters about how a poem of mine somehow read their minds, or they would tell me what a poem of mine meant, which was not what it “meant” to me at all. It reminds me of an experience I have while listening to jazz—sometimes a musician will play a series a notes where the final note is obvious and they don’t play it so instead I hear it in my head—and it’s not only sonically perfect, but, because I hear it in my head, it’s inside of me, instead of outside of me. Of course, who knows if everyone in the audience hears the same note (laughs)? I think something similar is possible in all forms of art. I have friends I discuss films with as well, and it’s interesting to me how we see ourselves and our concerns reflected in a film as well, as long as the filmmaker isn’t overly concerned with getting a message across. I think you’re right about a lot of Dylan’s power coming from this aspect as well.
So, for the artist, the question becomes—if this response is important to you—how do you create it in art? It seems to be a radical redefinition or vision of what the artist and art is about. I know when I first began thinking of poetry as a career, I thought my job was to create a body of work that was distinctly mine—that it involved knowing things and experiencing them for others and then writing about them. But now it seems to be more about a state of mind that I can transmit to others once I learn how to attain it. In other words, when listening to Dylan’s songs, what you actually experience is Dylan’s mind moving—or, as Philip Whalen described it, “a graph of the mind moving.” One of the few things I said to Allen Ginsberg about poetry that he found interesting was that sometimes I realized a thought I just had was the last line to a poem, and then I had to go back and precisely recreate the sequence of thoughts that led to it in order to capture the poem.
The way I see it now is that the task of at least one kind of artist is not so much the creation of art but rather the manifestation of a kind of mind. And I think this is where one kind of art appears—where instead of a painting coming out at you, so to speak, you can fall into it or project yourself into it. That movement—into a work of art as opposed to being confronted by it—has a particular sensation to it of expansion. I feel—quite literally—moved by it. It’s like falling into smoke and having the smoke enter you. Narrative art tends to have a harder surface, and you stand in relation to it. You remain intact. Because I’m always changing, what I thought yesterday is usually not that interesting to me. But when I write a poem that has a lot of ambiguity in it, sometimes I can continue to read it over time.
There are a couple of other things I should have mentioned were important to me in reference to Dylan as a poet that I didn’t think of until just now. The first is that the only real poem of Dylan’s that I’m aware of is his poem to Woody Guthrie that he performed once in concert early in his career, and it’s quite a good poem (“Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”). I could never really read [Dylan’s book-length prose poem] “Tarantula,” so I can’t really address that as literature. And the other thing is that Dylan is remarkably well-read for an autodidact, and one can find references to a lot of great literature in his work, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rimbaud and Verlaine, and an “Italian poet from the 15th century,” which I’ve heard is a reference to Dante.
JS: That was an excellent answer and one that would make the basis for an interesting essay, should you ever want to do it. Another appealing thing about Dylan (although it’s not directly connected to the poetic) is his singing voice; in particular his unique phrasing and stressing of words that are not normally grammatically stressed. For me this, somehow, “opens-out” the particular word for more interpretation. I can’t think of an example off-hand, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Have you any thoughts on this?
RR: Well, one example of what you’re talking about would certainly be the changing sense of the word “blue” that he ends every chorus of in “Tangled Up in Blue.” Dylan’s ability to “open-out” the individual syllables of his lyrics is something that interested Allen Ginsberg as well, who knew his work primarily in performance, especially as one of the members of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975-1976. Allen often remarked on two important vocal qualities of Dylan’s performances—the first was that Dylan always enunciated every letter very clearly in performance—snapping the t’s at the end of a word, for instance, or elongating and delighting in the vowels inside of them. Allen thought this was the result of Dylan’s awareness that his lyrics had to be understood by those in the back rows of the venue through all of the electricity. The second thing Ginsberg noticed night after night was that Dylan used the syllables themselves as something like a sail that he would fill with air, not so much concentrating on their meaning as on their sound, as a jazz musician might. He thought that was one way that Dylan kept himself interested in playing the same songs night after night.
JS: The way he sings the words “meet again” (like a cry from Hell or something) in the line, “We'll meet again someday on the avenue” from “Tangled up in Blue,” for me, evokes a feeling of threat. It’s as if the woman saying the line to him is really only voicing what Dylan (or the song’s “protagonist”) thinks of the situation himself anyway and that it is he, rather than she, who knows they will meet again someday. But turning from Dylan, now, I’d like to ask you about the Naropa Institute audio archive. You’re currently in the process of rescuing it as it's in danger of audio degradation and disintegration. This must be a mammoth task. Can you tell us more about this project?
RR: The poetics department archives at Naropa University are the result of Allen’s vision that he—and others—could preserve their knowledge and continue to teach long after their deaths. This is only audio collection I know where teachers like Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigan, Philip Whalen, William Burroughs, and many others continue to teach every day, to anyone interested, for free. A lot of people couldn’t make it to Naropa back when Allen, John Ashbery, John Cage, Robert Duncan, Chogyam Trungpa, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Alice Notley, Michael Ondaatje, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, and Diana di Prima taught there. There’s 30 years of classes with Anne Waldman available, all waiting for future students and scholars. In addition, the voices of many of the important characters have been uniquely preserved, sometimes in dialogue with each other, including Carl Solomon, Herbert Huncke, Helen Adam, Robert Frank, John Clellon Holmes, and Carl Rakosi.
The Naropa website has a link to the archives, but it may be easier for most people to go to The Internet Archive and look for the Naropa audio—there’s currently about 350 hours of material available. Recently the Naropa Archives has been focusing on getting high school teachers and university professors to use these audio recordings in their classes. If anyone is interested in getting these audio recordings into their classrooms, they should contact the Naropa Archives directly.
It should be noted that the Naropa archives languished for almost the three decades before their current successes in preserving, indexing, and making these recordings available. These efforts are largely due to the efforts of a very few dedicated and skilled people, including Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, Sue Salinger, Steven Taylor, and Tim Hawkins.
JS: What are you writing at the moment?
RR: You always ask questions that seem to catch me off guard and make me reconsider what’s going on in my life. Actually, my main writing and my greatest excitement about writing presently comes, oddly enough, from recent work ghostwriting books for others, including Buddhist lamas, Zen nuns, mystics, and physicians, and a series of anonymous devotional books on saints, sages, and siddhis for Sounds True, where I work as a producer and editor. I feel this is very important in my writing practice, although I’m not exactly sure why. Part of it is just learning how to write a book, of how to construct a chapter and a paragraph, of learning what a good introduction is and what it does, and how to end a book—that sort of thing. Working from someone else’s ideas and trying to write in another’s voice seems very much like an apprenticeship in a craft, without having to work directly from my own work.
I haven’t written anything much of my own since late July 2005, when a major relationship in my life ended, and something else ended for me as well, I’m not sure what. Since then, I have mostly been writing collaborations with poets such as Tree Bernstein, some of which were published as Away in 2005. I went through one intensive period of writing, from 2000 to 2003, where I wrote every night from 8 p.m. until I went to sleep, and that resulted in completing all of the projects I had envisioned up until that time, resulting in seven completed manuscripts––including rewriting the Norton Anthology of Poetry Volumes I and II; a book of “alternate maps of the world,” including works exploring shamanism, alchemy, and dreams; and a collection of travel writings--that are sitting on my shelf, waiting for the right moment to publish them. When they begin getting published, I have a feeling my writing may also open up again. I’ve also written a book on the poet Louis Zukofsky that I promised to Elik Books several years ago, and the rough manuscript has sat on my desktop for almost two years now because I haven’t found the will or desire necessary to spend the dozen or so hours to bring it to completion. I have a feeling that I’m waiting for something, I’m not sure what, to complete it. On some level, I feel like my major work has been written, and that takes a lot of heat and pressure off any need to write more. But in the past at some point I’ve always envisioned something that rises up from the darkness following a period of not writing anything much at all that appears as a complete surprise to me, and that may happen again, although when I’m “out” of writing it’s hard to imagine a way back in. I’ve been thinking for a couple of years now about writing another alternate map of the universe, featuring the language and visions of mystics, but nothing much has happened on that yet. But a vision of what turned into A Map of the World, a book-length poem written in the voice and language of alchemy, literally waited for over two years before I began to write it, and then it was written in a very short period of time—in two writing sessions lasting, at most, eight days over a period of about four months. So, who knows?
My writing “career” has been marked by “retirements” such as these in the past. I go through some kind of personal crisis and my personality dissolves in some essential way, and at some point in the future my next writing phase becomes a way of entering into or creating a new relationship between myself and writing, of writing myself into back into being. I keep thinking about something that the poet Jack Spicer once said, that one day you write a poem out of a voice that you don’t recognize as yours—usually out of a state of unknowing or crisis—of discovery—and then you sit back and look at it and think “this is something really different, this is a real poem;” and then you decide to write another poem in the same style and then another and each one has a little less charge than the one before it. This seems true to my experience. It’s like opening a door and entering a dark room of mystery and discovery and I explore the room until I feel I come to understand it. And then there’s an enervating phase where I feel used up in a way. Then I turn my back on what had once been so encompassing to me for a period of time and enter a long hallway where I don’t know where I am or where I’m going until I come to another door and I feel at first that it’s a kind of doorway out, and I explore it until I realize it’s not a door out but rather just an entry into another room, and I go through the whole process again. I find the same process affects my studies as well—I’ll become interested in a writer or musician or art movement and enter it and become obsessed with them for a period of time. And at some point, I instinctively realize that I’m done, and I lose all interest. This has happened with my studies of Thomas Pynchon and Louis Zukofsky, of myth, of Ezra Pound—where I actually went to study at his castle in Dorf Tirol, Italy, with his daughter and his ex-girlfriend, Olga Rudge—or James Joyce, where I went to Dublin and read all of his work and studied with his nephew—or Dylan or the Dadaists and Surrealists. My bookshelves are a graveyard of sorts of previous infatuations.
Jeffrey Side’s publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Slimvol, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry).
[This interview was originally published at The Argotist Online and can be found at http://www. argotistonline.co.uk/Roark%20interview.htm. Copyright © Randy Roark & Jeffrey Side, 2006. Used by permission.]