"APPRENTICING WITH ALLEN GINSBERG: THE OBJECT IS TO SEE CLEARLY"
July 1996, Boulder, Colorado. After Allen’s last class that summer, Kai Sibley, the photographer, surprised me by saying “Let’s get a photo of you together,” and Allen said, “Of course” and grabbed my hand to bring us closer—so we’re holding hands in this photograph of the last time we’d be together.”
Foreword, October 2012, Boulder, Colorado
In 1979, I drove to Boulder, Colorado, with the hope of apprenticing with the poet Allen Ginsberg while he put together his Collected Poems. At the time, I was a 25-year-old “poet” who had published exactly two poems—one in my high school newspaper, and one in one of those “competitions” where they publish your poem in a telephonebook-sized “anthology” and try to sell it back to you for $29.95.
When I explained to Allen why I was in his living room, he told me that he already had all the apprentices he could handle that semester. But he asked me in for tea and we talked about this and that. He explained that he was asleep when I knocked. He was quitting smoking and had slept for three days straight, which was weird because I had just done the same thing, and we’d both come up with the idea of sleeping through the withdrawal period on our own.
I had been a bit startled when he opened the door himself, especially because he was clean shaven. He’d given up smoking and cut off his beard under the advice of a Chinese physician who recently diagnosed him with high blood pressure. He was also cooking Chinese medicines and herbs in his kitchen, and he apologized for the smell.
He asked me what I did back in Connecticut and I told him I’d run an art center, and started a reading series, and audited literature classes at the university on Yeats and Frost and Eliot and Joyce, and worked for a local leftist literary press, Curbstone Press, with Sandy Taylor. But what interested him most was when I told him I’d been a medical transcription. What did I know about high blood pressure? Not that much it turned out, but on the way home I stopped at the library and later that night typed up my notes and put them in his mailbox in the morning.
The next night after he dismissed the first “Basic Poetics” class he said, “Is Randy Roark here?” I was startled and shook my hand in his direction. “Can I talk to you after class?” There were a lot of students standing around his desk, so I stood as out of the way as I could behind him. Suddenly he stood up, stumbling a bit. “Randy Roark!?” I put my hand on his shoulder to steady him and he put his hand on top of mine. “Do you have a car?” “Yeah, sure.” Then he turned to Susan Edwards, the director of the poetics program. “He’s going to be my apprentice.” Then “Can you give me a ride home?” That’s all I can remember.
8 October 2012—Boulder
When I arrived at registration, I was told that Allen wanted to interview me the following morning as a possible apprentice at his house on Bluff Street. But the next day when he opened the door and asked me in, it was immediately apparent that he had no idea who I was at all. When I explained why I was there, he told me that he had already chosen his apprentices, but he went about serving me tea and engaging me in polite conversation, the kind of conversation peculiar to people unexpectedly thrown together in a room. We searched for something in common.
He asked me where I’d come from, and I told him I was born in Uncasville, Connecticut, and he asked me if I knew that the poet Ed Sanders had been imprisoned in the Federal Jail there for rowing a boat out in front of a nuclear submarine when he was 21, and that Sanders had written a great poem on toilet paper that friends had smuggled out of jail and City Lights published as “Poem from Jail”? And when I mentioned living in Mansfield Center he said, “Did you know you were living across the street from Ann Charters, Kerouac’s first biographer, and the famous jazz producer, Sam Charters?” He knew they taught at the University of Connecticut so he asked me if I knew George Butterick (finally I could answer “yes” to one of his questions) who ran the Rare Book Collection at the university and was a great Olson scholar. And did I know John Clellon Holmes, who was living in Old Saybrook, the next town over when I’d lived in Mystic?
Then he asked me if I’d ever had a “transformative” experience related to poetry, and I immediately knew I’d had one, and what it was, although I’d never thought of it in those terms before.
The owners of the bookstore I worked for at the time started a cultural center and my job was to host a reading series. At the time I was working most evenings in Sandy Taylor’s basement, working his drum press, hanging the photographic plates from clotheslines, and later collecting the inked pages that would become Jim Scully’s Santiago Poems, so that book’s release seemed to be the natural choice to open the series.
I’d never met a “real poet” before and had no idea what to expect, but Jim was easygoing and plainspoken as I guided him through the crowd to the chair of honor at the end beside a pile of books fresh from the collating and binding party the night before.
I’d never been to a poetry reading before and had no idea how to set up the room, so I didn’t think of a sound system and rows of chairs and a podium. Instead, I took all the books off the sales table and covered it with a tablecloth and rented two dozen folding chairs, and arranged them in a circle around the table. Then I arrived an hour early and started the coffeemaker and waited. Fifteen minutes before the reading began I was the only person in the room, and then suddenly the entire room was full and there was a crowd of people on the sidewalk who couldn’t get in. By the time Jim arrived, we had to force our way through the crowd.
After Sandy introduced him, Jim picked up his book and began to read. The poems begin when he’s a young university poetry professor who’s studying the “people’s poetry” of the Quechua, a South American mountain tribe that spans several countries in their migrations, but who have a strong presence in Chile. After years of planning, Jim takes off for Santiago, only to land on the day after the C.I.A.-sponsored coup that murdered Allende. His plane was the last commercial flight they allowed to land before they shut down the airport. Santiago was considered firmly in the army’s hands, even though the government sector was still blockaded with barbed wire, fires, broken glass, machine-gun nests, and tanks.
On the cab ride from the airport, Jim drives through a dark, burned-out city, with bloody corpses stripped of anything of value lying in unnatural postures on the streets. After dark from his hotel window he watches shadows walking down the center of the street with their hands over their heads, and the nearly constant sound of gunfire, sometimes distant and sometimes nearby.
The national soccer stadium had become a detention center. The locker rooms were used as interrogation centers. After dark trucks arrived. Some were for the bodies, and the others were loaded with shackled limping men, who disappeared into the forest.
The next morning Jim walked past the bloated bodies that had gotten caught in the fronds at the edge of the river on their way downstream, and began his research as if nothing was out of the ordinary. He lunched with Quechua natives whose names he’d been given by the university. There was a curfew and no one was allowed on the streets after dark.
The one subject no Chilean wanted to talk about was what was going on in Chile at the moment—especially to an American who arrived mysteriously on the day after the coup. So Jim asked them about the traditional uses of poetry among the Quechua people, and he wrote down what they remembered.
In one home he recognized a photo of the poet Victor Jara and was told that Jara had been taken to the soccer stadium, “where torture became a national sport.” Jara had his guitar with him and the story is that he sang “Venceremos” at the stadium until the guards crushed both of his hands with their rifle butts. When he continued to play with broken and bloody hands, they cut off his hands, and then took his guitar and their guns and hammered his face until he was toothless. “Now sing!” they shouted. And he did. So “they killed him, they couldn’t kill him enough.”
One afternoon he visited Neruda’s wife. A few days before the coup, Neruda—suffering from cancer—had been imprisoned in a hospital, separated from his wife of nearly fifty years. Jim was let in by a servant and found Matilde sitting in a dark room beside an open window, dressed in widow’s black. He explained why he was there—he’d had an appointment with her husband and hadn’t heard he’d been arrested—and left as quickly as he could.
There were times during Jim’s reading when I listened so hard that I actually stopped breathing. I had no idea how much of this story I could take, or how much worse it would get. And what was transformative, I told Allen, was that his voice throughout the reading was so flat, so emotionless. He never looked up from his book, he never played to the audience. He just read the words as they appeared on the page from beginning to end. And because he wasn’t acting them out, I felt his fear and anger, I experienced his hopelessness and horror as my own. And I knew it wasn’t because he wasn’t feeling any emotion. I was sitting next to him, I could see his fingers tremble as he turned the pages.
As I told my story, Allen stopped me infrequently with questions or comments. Yes, he knew Jim Scully. They’d read together once at an anti-Reagan rally at the university. And Allen was very interested in what I knew about Victor Jara’s death. The story sounded to him like a folk tale, a ballade. “What actually happened? Surely there are eyewitnesses who have survived?” And he filled me in on what he’d heard about Neruda’s last days, that he’d died suspiciously three days after the coup, maybe poisoned by the government.
And then, after I’d finished my story, Allen told me that my story reminded him of an experience he’d had at a reading given by William Carlos Williams in the early fifties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the middle of describing Williams’ casual, chatty reading style at the time, Allen suddenly jumped up and began reciting from memory the end of Williams’ poem “The Clouds,” which ascends through a series of comparisons, ending with the lines: “lunging upon / a pismire, a conflagration, a …….”— and then he ended the poem with a gesture, his mouth open, his index finger tilted toward the ceiling, searching for the right word, stuttering into silence. Then he gave up and slumped down in his chair, defeated. Then he looked up and said, “And I realized he was talking, just talking.” Caught up in the excitement, I shouted, “Yes, but beautiful talk!”
“NO!” Allen threw his hands over his head and bellowed. “No! No, no, no, no, NO! Not beautiful talk. Not beautiful talk! Just talk! TALK-talk!” He buried his face in his hands. “You … missed … the whole … point!”
Allen decided to accept me as an apprentice after all, and—as often happened—our second meeting never got around to looking at the poems I’d left for him to read the week before. When it was time to go he handed me the poems. “I wrote what I had to say about them on the poems themselves. You can read the notes yourself.”
I read them as soon as I was out of sight. One poem had a lightly-drawn “X” all the way through the second stanza. The poem was only three stanzas long to begin with and, reading it over and over again with and without the second stanza, I was certain that the poem didn’t work without the second and, in my mind, pivotal stanza.
So I asked him about it at our next meeting. He reread the poem and said, “Well, there’s nothing in this stanza. These other stanzas have THINGS in them; this is just some abstraction about … it’s just some abstraction about some other abstractions.” Then he got an idea: “What were you DOING when you thought this?”
He made me face the white wall of his living room and asked me to go back to the actual event and say whatever came to mind. Don’t think, he said, see. Each time the words stopped, Allen would prod me with precise questions about minute details of movement, placement, and color. Where were my hands? What was the color of the sky? What was she wearing? Did I know the names of the trees we were under? What happened next?
When he stopped asking questions, I turned and saw him bent over his desk, writing. Then he handed me the poem with his handwritten notes at the bottom. “Well, it’s not great,” he said, “but it’s better.”
He’d written down every detail I’d remembered. So now the poem was a collection of images, like a slideshow, presenting visually the afternoon tryst I’d tried to evoke in words alone.
But I was more excited that Allen Ginsberg had written a stanza in one of my poems. “I wish I could write like that!” I said, shaking my head and laughing.
Allen screamed, “I just wrote down what you said! I just wrote down what you said! That’s where the poetry is—it’s in everything you left out. This is the poem … this… I don’t know WHAT this is, but this is the poem.” Then he got very quiet and serious. “You’ve got to learn to be your own secretary. You’ve got to learn how to transcribe your own sense impressions.”
Once I brought him a couple of ragged pages written the night before. I hadn’t even had a chance to go over most of it, except the first stanza, but Allen didn’t stop where I told him to, but continued reading until the end. There were uncorrected typos and I began to lose the structure in the middle of the poem—for entire pages the text wasn’t even arranged in lines, it was just gushes of language, thoughts, impressions, memories, emotions, events as I remembered them, but all out of chronological order, written down as fast as I could so I could get them out of the way and get ready for the next image, so it was all written without any sense of style and in a kind of shorthand where most of the references were too personal to be understood by anyone but me.
But he was actually more interested in this mess than anything else I’d ever brought him. Every once in a while he’d look up and ask me a quick, clarifying question—“Was Henry in love with you? What do you mean Craig overdosed on L.S.D? That’s impossible! Where did you get that image of the father sitting alone in the dark in the kitchen? That must be some kind of archetypal image because that’s an image I have of my own father, sitting in a dark kitchen, alone. Did Michael’s parents get back together after his suicide?”—and then he’d be back to reading before I’d finished with my answer.
“Well, I think you’ve got pay dirt here,” he said when he finished. But I continued to insist that it wasn’t a poem yet. “Think of all your questions! There’s lots of stuff in it that no one else can possibly understand but me. That’s not poetry. Yet.”
“But it’s clear.” And he began explaining events in the story and fleshing them out with secret longings and unacknowledged feelings that at first I thought were just Allen’s crazy projections but over the next couple of days I realized were absolutely true. My conscious mind couldn’t have written the poem because it didn’t have enough information. Or it didn’t have the right information. The real story was hidden from my conscious mind but still present in what I remembered because what I remembered was significant enough to me that I remember it. Now that I knew this was true, I would have to find a new way to write poems or stop writing poems at all. The process seemed to be to remember what I remembered in the order in which it was remembered.
Anyway, who cares if a story from ten years ago is rightly or wrongly remembered? Even if someone could prove to me that some of my memories and impressions are misremembered or wrongly re-imagined, what could I possibly replace them with? A blank? Someone else’s memories?
I’d written my first poem about a Chinook—one of those strange, sudden, powerful winds that rush across the western plains and crash into the Rocky Mountains every January, tearing the roofs off buildings, pulling trees up at the roots, overturning semis on the highways around Denver.
With the first big gust of wind, the curtains in my bedroom knocked over a vase, which splashed across the floor. I opened my eyes and saw something straight out of a Magritte painting. There was a Hershey bar candy wrapper hanging almost motionless in space outside my second-story window. It was both the outer and inner wrapper nested together, so the folds echoed each other like petals on a flower. I stared at it as if it would fall out of sight in a second or two—as it would any other day—but instead it hung in place for an impossibly long time, rocking gently back and forth and spinning slowly in a counter-clockwise direction.
I forget how I first described this image in the poem, but Allen wasn’t satisfied. We tried a couple of different ways and none seemed right. Then the phone rang and I waited, looking out the window, trying to come up with a fresh idea. I thought back to the candy wrapper floating past my window—the winglike folds, the sense of weightlessness, how it rested on the wind like a feather.
Allen got off the phone and sat down. “Well,” he said, moving papers around, “where were we?”
“I was trying to describe a candy wrapper drifting past my bedroom window.”
I pretended to think. Finally, in a downbeat and understated way I said, “Well, maybe “drifting past my window like a little bird.’”
I’d always experienced an extreme undercurrent of tension in these one-on-one meetings with Allen. I knew my work wasn’t worthy of his attention, and this was something that Allen himself had often made clear. “You seem like a smart-enough guy, I don’t know why you don’t get it” was a comment I remember. One day I even asked him why he chose me as an apprentice when my poetry was so bad and he said it was because I was a transcriptionist and he had tapes that he wanted transcribed. But then he said it was because I was sincere. “I can do more with a bad poet who’s sincere than I can with a good one who’s not.”
Plus, I was very uncomfortable with the idea of sitting next to Allen Ginsberg, discussing my poetry. The day would start with going over what I’d typed up since the last meeting, so we’d review transcriptions of his Blake lectures or go over any poems I’d discovered in his journals, and then he’d say, “Okay, what did you bring today?”
And add to that the constant fear that at any moment Allen would come to the same conclusion I’d come to during our first six weeks together—that I wasn’t and would never be a real poet. That I was wasting his time and only embarrassing myself. I wasn’t learning anything. Sometimes it seemed as if I was actually getting worse.
And at that particular moment this sense of anxiety was amplified by the fact that Allen was staring at me with a quizzical, hideous smile on his face. He looked at me as if I was completely exposed, as if for the first time he was seeing into the very depths of me, and that what he saw was ridiculous.
Never in my life has a phone rung at a better time.
I spent the first five minutes of the phone call going through an escalating monologue that consisted of equal parts of self-pity and anger, of variations on the theme of “I try so hard, you expect too much, can’t you see how hard I’m trying?”
The longer the phone call went on, the more certain I was that I wouldn’t be able to regain my composure or concentration and would probably say something that I regretted, so I picked up my papers and—without even saying good-bye—I left.
I spent most of the next few days immobile. I didn’t go to class. I didn’t eat. I didn’t answer the phone or leave the apartment. When I did get up, it was just to sit in the living room and stare out of the window at everyone passing by. How could I ever face them again, the “real poets.” I’d been exposed. I lacked a “poetic eye.” There was nothing I could do about it. I was a failure. An impostor. A fool.
After about a week of this, some part of me separated from my mood long enough to realize I was really bored. And the part of me that was bored was another me, like the woken up part of me. And it was always there, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it before.
It was instantly much more interesting to be bored than depressed, so I tried to listen to what else this other me had to say. But he didn’t have words, he had wordless things, and if I wanted to know what he had to say, I would have to translate it into words.
So I went to my typewriter and, trying hard not to think, I listened for something that was not words. And I typed without thinking, just like when I was transcribing—the words went through my ears and out of my fingertips while I was mostly thinking of something else.
It didn’t turn out to be much of a poem, and it was filled with a lot of embarrassing personal information that I began to censor as soon as I read it over in the morning. Then I “improved” certain bits, deleted and reordered things, tried to turn it into a “poem,” or maybe even a style. It had begun as the first words I’d ever written that came from some place deep inside my body, but by the time I was finished with it, I didn’t have a poem at all.
We were going over some of the poems I’d transcribed out of his journals and we came to a line that went something like “Icicle branches on the other side of frosted windows but warm beside my dewy radiator.” He stared at the line for a long time and then looked up at me and said, “Should that be ‘but’ or ‘and’?”
I was surprised by his question and kind of panicked. I wanted to give him the right answer—the best answer—and one by one I went through the drawers in my forehead, but they were all empty. When I ran out of drawers, I heard a voice say quite clearly, “Well … read the line!” So I read the line. “Icicle branches on the other side of frosted windows but warm beside my dewy radiator.” “Icicle branches on the other side of frosted windows and warm beside my dewy radiator.” And I knew the answer.
“Well, if you use ‘and,’ when you get to the end of the line you have the whole picture—you have the icicles and you have the frost and you have the radiator and the warmth in your kitchen. But if you use ‘but,’ it’s like you cancel out everything in the first half of the line and you’re just left with the warm kitchen.”
Allen turned back to the page and read the line aloud in both versions. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said, and changed the “but” into an “and” with his pencil, and we went on as if nothing extraordinary had just happened.
For the last session of the Basic Poetry class, Allen brought in three guitarists. The idea was that we would go around the room, spontaneously composing blues lyrics for “fun.”
It didn’t sound like fun to me. I hated the whole spontaneous poetry thing so important at Naropa at the time because I was so bad at it. But after I realized there was no way I would be able to leave the room without being noticed, I began to compose a “spontaneous” lyric in my head.
Allen made his way up and down the rows of students, shouting encouragement, sometimes asking for something to be written on the blackboard, sometimes suggesting changes, then moving on to the next student.
After two hours of this, Allen was finally in my row. Then he was three students away, then he was two students away, then I was Next. Susan Edwards sang her verse and Allen nodded and then he was standing next to me, the guitar line coming around again, Allen’s fingers on my shoulder. Then he squeezed and I tilted my head and stared off into infinity, pretending to create a spontaneous lyric. “When people are unhappy, it’s you they criticize … when people are unhappy, it’s you they criticize . . . um . . . but when they sing of beauty, the beauty’s in their eyes.” I’d done it. It was over. I’d passed. “No,” Allen said, “Do another.”
Our last meeting went long, trying to tie up all the loose ends, and I was burnt out and wanted to go home. But when we finished, Allen put his papers aside and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm, “Well, what did you bring today?” So we tinkered with my poems a bit and then he asked if I knew the work of Charles Reznikoff. I wasn’t very familiar. “I think he’d be a good model for you.”
He went to his bookshelf and pulled a chair beside mine in the dim light of the living room window. He flipped through the first few pages. Then he began to read, looking up occasionally as some line or image or word struck him as important. His voice was clear and his eyes were bright. He was speaking in his own voice—the same voice he’d been using in our conversation only a moment ago—but now he was luxuriating on the vowels, chewing on the consonants.
I began to shiver a little. There was something very strange about this. I found I could lean into what he was saying, and when I did I could hear a voice coming from a dark apartment in turn-of-the-century New York City. It was sometimes a young man, sometimes an old man, but it was always a Jewish man, and he was writing alone in his kitchen while his family slept. He didn’t know that what he was writing would be read one day from one poet to another, in a future he never imagined.
I closed my eyes and leaned forward and began to feel bursts of energy in my chest and forehead that were unpleasant in the sense that I was afraid of being overwhelmed by them. So I’d alternate—I’d lean into what he was saying and ride those waves and then, when it got scary, I’d back off. Sometimes I’d be able to go quite far; other times I wouldn’t get very far at all.
Finally there was a moment where I decided to see how far I could go and I quickly realized I’d gone too far—I’d gone past the point beyond which I could pull my body back under my conscious control and I was afraid that Allen would notice my hands shaking and my heels tapping the floor, then my head falling forward and the thought crossed my mind that I was in danger of falling onto the floor. But since Allen had pulled his chair so close to mine, I knew that if I fell it would be right into his lap.
And throughout it all there was the continuity of Allen’s voice and Reznikoff’s poetry of intense turmoil spoken in a quiet, understated, urban voice: stories of gray and off-white and deep, cracking black.
Allen read for about twenty minutes. During that time everything in the room was calm, clear, and very real: the color of the words, the wind that moved through Allen as he read, the coming darkness. Then he stopped and brought the covers of the book together. “Well,” he said, “that’s it.”
[Originally published by Newtopia Magazine, October 15, 2012, http://newtopiamagazine.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/a-poets-progress-apprenticing-with-allen-ginsberg-the-object-is-to-see-clearly/. Used by permission of Randy Roark. Photo by Kai Sibley, 1996. Used by permission of Kai Sibley.]