Responses to Randy Roark’s Naropa Questionnaire


Randy Roark: Describe your poetry background before studying at Naropa.

Jim Cohn: When I was six I wrote a poem called “Red.” I recently had the experience of the text to that little child’s poem appearing to me in a dream:




Red is the color of the

little log cabin in my heart.

I see Abraham Lincoln in the cabin.

It is night.

Fire is red.


My early poetry background was pretty limited to songwriting and singing in bands. The first gig I had must have been around 1964. We played things that were in the air––“The House Of The Rising Sun,” “Time’s On My Side,” “You Really Got Me.” I was lead singer in a band called The Next Of Kin. We played at a recreation center. My mother got me into music. I was adopted by her second husband, Marvin Cohn, a distant relative, and he bought me a Wurlitzer electric piano. I spent most of my free time in the basement working out arrangements to The Beatles, The Doors, The Yardbirds, Buffalo Springfield. One night, my sister played me The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. She thought he was a comedian. I knew his entire published catalog by heart. People who knew me back then still come up and tell me they remember my playing. But keyboards aren’t exactly portable. I was too interested in getting out into the world. That began in earnest when I was shipped off to a wilderness camp in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. I was canoeing down the headwaters of the Mississippi, backpacking in Ontario, and camping for weeks at a time at ten years old. I hadn’t read On The Road as a teenager, but I must have been influenced by the Beats because I was hitchhiking cross country by the time I was 13, taking notes, hanging out in truckstops all night, avoiding the law, taking whatever ride came my way, learning the ropes, working out the tricks of the trade. My birth father’s mother was a poet in the old lyric closed form style. So there was some poetry in my genes. My mother was a woman of great integrity. The kind of woman Lew Welch wrote about if you wanted to know the language of the tribe. The first book that touched me in a profound way was Siddhartha. Otherwise, it was the ordinary anemic literary public education most everybody else gets. I was reading Chomsky before going to college. I was very interested in visual semantics, in the meaning of images and how they are used in poetry. The most important book I read during high school was M.K. Gandhi: An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It was my introduction to nonviolent politics. In 1971, I entered the University of Colorado at Boulder where I majored in English. I took off the next year to travel around the country. Racked up a lot of miles. My junior year I lived and studied in Jerusalem. My professors at Hebrew University were serious and thorough. Buses I took every day would occasionally blow up. The cycles of retaliation between the Israelis and Palestinians sickened me. I saw the violence of political fundamentalism up close and personal. The year I got back to Boulder was the year Naropa Institute landed. It came from over the Himalayas, but might’ve just as well come to the Colorado Front Range in a spaceship spilling out aliens from outer space. My college years were punctuated by long experiments in the field. I met a hairdresser that knew no poetry at all but could give spellbinding recitations of Whitman verbatim cover to cover. There were bums I met with newspaper stuffed up their sleeves and legs that would saddle up to tell me about the letters of the alphabet each being a secret prayer. My junior year I got an F in a writing class because the professor thought I’d plagiarized a poem I’d turned in. I went to talk with her, convinced her I’d written it myself, and that was the turning point. By that time I was reading all the Kerouac I could find. I was especially enamored with Desolation Angels. Around that same period, I saw Allen Ginsberg for the first time. He was giving a reading on the CU campus. He was sitting on stage reading the New York Times oblivious to the house. The hall was packed at the beginning and by the time Allen was into his manboy poems people were pouring out in droves. It was quite a scene. Homophobia was alive and well on the college circuit. By the spring of my senior year when I signed up for Anne Waldman’s Poetics course at the 1345 Spruce Street building Naropa was in, I was pretty burned out with critical analysis of other people’s fictionalizations. I was pretty aware of the absurdity of the mental work I was engaged in.


RR: How did you hear about Naropa?

JC: I heard about Naropa from Dan Cooper. Dan had pretty much ditched his own artistic pursuits for the full-blown life of a Buddhist. We met when he picked me up hitchhiking in his yellow Volkswagen. It was on that drive that I first learned about Naropa. It’d happened before and happened after, crucial signs coming in this way. We ended up living together in a big house in Boulder in 1975-76. The house where we lived was on Grandview. It’s just a parking lot now. I had a piano in the basement and his room was down there. He was a photographer. I remember his photographs of men’s ties from back then. No heads, no legs. Slight of figure, a cross between Charlie Chaplin and a young Leonard Bernstein. Dan immediately got hooked on the Trungpa scene. It was as notorious as it was profound back then. Dan was meeting girls left and right. Shedding inhibition was the fad of the day. He went from a shy guy to Don Juan overnight and he wasn’t alone. I wasn’t at all interested in becoming a follower of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was lame in one leg from a car crash into a joke shop in London and that somewhat interested me. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism showed he was a real heavyweight. Once, Dan took me to go hear Rinpoche. As the hour passed that the talk was scheduled to begin, the crowd grew more and more impatient. You would’ve thought they were waiting for Hank Williams to be dragged out of his Cadillac onto the stage. When Trungpa did finally appear, he sat on an ornately designed dais beneath a basketball backboard. The basketball rim and net right above his head looked like a halo. The image seemed to make a perfect statement on Buddhism in America.


RR: When did you arrive?

JC: Anne Waldman’s spring 1976 Poetics class was my first encounter with the Kerouac School. The whole alterian poetics shot Anne had championed at the Poetry Project in New York was transplanted out to Boulder. The poetry she taught was like nothing I had ever seen before. Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” was one example. She had Fast Speaking Woman under her belt, but the best of her work was still to come. You could tell she was no ordinary teacher. In her presence you felt the shamanic tradition. I had pretty much given up on literature as hopeless by the time I walked into the room. I was twenty-three. I don’t know how or why it was such an influential event in my life. It just was. As soon as the course was over she went off to join Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.


RR: What did you study while you were there? Describe some of your most memorable classes.

JC: The Kerouac School was a road show of poetic traditions. It had its share of magicians, con artists, smoke and mirrors, and transcendental blues. Having come over with an academic background, I was amazed at how useless my education was. You could study Shelley all you wanted at the university and never feel anything for the work like you could hearing him out the mouth of Gregory Corso. Same with Blake. Studying Blake line by line with Allen, always with an emphasis on whatever was happening in Blake with what’s happening today, made the most cryptic text contemporaneous. That was a crucial lesson in surveying the lineages leading up to the Beats. First things first was that you could decipher anybody from any time and that they were equal to you and you were equal to them and anyone that would come after you and that the poet’s life in any time took place both of and in and beyond one’s own. It could be John Skelton or Francois Villon or Li Ch’ing Chao or Bernadette Mayer and it would always be different but the same in so far as Pound said––only emotion endures. You’d have to have been pretty much brain dead to not get a heavy dose of where the writing could go and what could be in a poem after attending a series of Ted Berrigan workshops. Ted was a Bodhisattva of the highest order. He would play recordings and muse ripped out of his mind, delivering formalism out of the hands of the cannibals. Philip Whalen had such a prodigious technical mind, yet he managed to lay it on the page with such unexpected elegance. and common sense. The list goes on. There wasn’t only the reading and writing of poetry to learn. There were all the aspects of embodying it. There were the hundreds of performances. There were all the diverse ways to talk about it. And there was meeting the poets doing it and the novices wanting to get into it and the sad hanger-ons who you knew would never get too far before veering back into whatever oblivion they came from. In a way, it was pretty pathetic to see what ends people would go to climb the ladder of poetry fame. Ultimately, I never really fit in except that Naropa changed me. And it didn’t exactly change me as much as it illuminated a way to see things that were different from the way I already saw them and I respected seeing those blind spots but in a way that verified my doing that and in another way was something to place alongside the hopelessness I knew would come in my becoming someone committed to poetry.


RR: What did you learn while studying poetry at Naropa that has continued to be of use to you as a poet?

JC: The introduction to all these dimensions, permeated and merging as they were with the medicinal aspects of ancient Buddhist orientations toward neurosis and suffering, compassion and liberation, helped me to see poetry in equal measures of free agency and social advocacy. I learned how to let myself open to the assignments the firing squad of life placed squarely right in front of me. If I am any example, those assignments are as long as one’s alive, if only you’ve the nerve to face them. As for Naropa, I knew that the Kerouac School would recalibrate in new directions, just like everything else. The poetry world of today has little in common with the golden age of the Beats that reached its final bloom there. I could see the writing on the wall. It was fairly obvious that nobody was just going to move in and take their place. How many of Whitman’s students or Stein’s students or Pound’s students does anyone study today? The poetry world Naropa fostered had expanded, diversified, and was going in directions toward a promised land that most of the people that brought it that far would never see. In particular, the white male aspect had gone about as far as it was going to go. America just isn’t going to replicate Allen Ginsberg any time soon. The kind of radical candor he brought to American letters might not ever come again. You could hear it all fragmenting, decentralizing, becoming more equal across the margins, but at the same time you knew something new was going to be needed to address what we’re living through now. I looked up the road and saw that all the poets of the seen and unseen universes could teach me everything they knew, but there’s a certain loneliness inescapable with art. The test of one’s education lies in one’s own solitary productions. And so I have been doing ever since––writing past what I learned back then, creating my own time capsule for people of the future, contributing to the one great poem. The Kerouac School was all about poetics activism––community service, social justice, and remembrance. It encouraged taking matters into your own hands, taking the indy route. Publishers, editors, agents, contracts, record deals are all fine, but I never was one to wait for confirmation. The value of writing is not in the expectation that anyone else has the power to acknowledge or negate it nor is the value of writing found in whether or not it has some kind of hotheaded impact or corrective purpose. What you would do if suddenly all your emails and text messages and blogs and websites and manuscripts and publications and MP3 recordings vanished––would you suddenly become invalid? That’s how Naropa influenced my thinking about the making of a body of work. And a body of work is made up of numerous sacred and profane traditions, chosen styles, automatic proclivities, landscapes, musics, wounds and inventions, energies and speeds all brought to bear on and by their present carrier. For me, if I’d known that I would be haunted by the fact that I had worked with Allen as his teaching assistant in 1980, I don’t know if I would have gone that route, but there was a silver lining in that what I was assisting him with networked me to younger poets capable and persevering enough to carry on regardless of any enterprise, including Naropa. In 1980, Allen introduced me to the Michigan poet David Cope while compiling a manuscript of poetry by Andy Clausen, Antler, and Cope for Lawrence Ferlinghetti. City Lights would choose to publish Antler’s long poem “Factory” and forego the project, but through David I developed friendships with the early poets of the postbeat generation including Clausen, Antler, Eliot Katz and Marc Olmsted. Around the same time I met fellow Boulder community poets Randy Roark and Tom Peters and so have developed long lines of friendship over Allen’s skeleton. The best poet of my particular Kerouac School group was Denise King, who changed her named to Denise du Roi. She just flamed out. After Naropa, I began studying American Sign Language and in 1986 received a master’s degree in English and Deaf Education from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. As a hearing person from Naropa, I played a significant role in the emergence of ASL poetics––arranging a meeting with Allen and deaf poet Robert Panara in 1984, arranging interpreted readings featuring deaf and hearing poets, and coordinating the first National Deaf Poetry Conference in 1987. During my time in Rochester, I established friendships with the deaf poet Peter Cook and his hearing collaborator Kenny Lerner. They have performed internationally for several decades under the name Flying Words Project. From 1983 to 1987 I published Action Magazine in mimeo format and since 1990 I’ve published Napalm Health Spa, an annual poetry journal, now online. When Allen died in April of 1997, I had a dream that the Beat lineage would be paved over and forgotten and so I began the online Museum of American Poetics in 1998 and that project has been going ever since.


RR: Describe some of your most memorable experiences at Naropa—in the classroom and outside of it—with teachers, students, and other events.

JC: Here’s my top ten Most Memorable Experiences (in no particular order):


Gregory Corso taking over David Cope’s lecture on Charles Reznikoff to give his shot on how the “missing link” theory of evolution was that first monkey that ate morning glory seeds and had an LSD-like experience that opened its mind into that of a human.


Doing a playreading of The Tempest poolside for an Anne Waldman Shakespeare class in which the students all wore costumes and at the end jumped in for a swim.


Sharon Olds on a panel for a tribute for Allen Ginsberg’s 70th birthday in which she described carrying Howl and Other Poems under her blouse to silent family dinners in order to remind her that there were people that actually talked and said things that mattered and then opened a shoebox and took out a mask she’d made as a child with words from the last stanza of “A Supermarket in California” painted on the forehead.


Peter Orlovsky’s reading at Penny Lane in which he swore the audience never to speak of what he told everyone in the room that night: that Kerouac had been reborn and was living in Brooklyn.


In the beginning, sitting down with Allen, a row of sharpened pencils on his home office desk. Learning from him how to edit, how to find the “clear hard images” in the work. In the end, rerecording his great gospel tune “Lay Down Yr Mountain” with him. Listening to him explicate the lyric in terms of “renouncing and proclaiming” ego simultaneously. It was his last recording.


Randy Roark’s Summer Writing Program lecture on Bob Dylan in which he analyzed different live versions of the same Dylan song, was shouted down by Bobby Louise Hawkins, and kept going. Allen Ginsberg later came to the microphone to say that Dylan had left most of his best work unreleased as “treasures for heaven.”


Bob Creeley’s recitation of “Transcription of Organ Music” at a memorial reading for Ginsberg at the Fox Theater in Boulder in celebration of his life and death.


Visiting Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley and the kids on St. Mark’s Place and Ted showing up at the door in his knee-length underwear smoking Chesterfield Kings and talking poetry a mile a second, Alice cooking fried chicken on an electric skillet, running out for beer, and Edmund and Anselm on the floor beneath the Christmas tree looking up through the branches.


Being invited to shoot the Anne Waldman Symposium honoring Anne’s archive at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and making a movie of the proceedings, including Andre Codrescu’s keynote address in which when he first met Anne Waldman thought she had been introduced as Walt Whitman, Eleni Sikelianos’s slide show of Anne growing up and the influence of her mother, great talks by Ron Padgett, Joanne Kyger, Lorenzo Thomas and myriads other scholars on the profundity of Anne’s work as a feminist poet.


Ed Sanders’s lecture a creating a “Zen Zone” in which he described creating an optimum information flow, including methods of filing and retrieval, so that a writer always has projects going on, short and long term.


RR: What is your current relationship with Naropa?

JC: For five years, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I coordinated the American Greats lecture series at the Boulder Bookstore, the site of the original Naropa performance space, and featured a number of lectures by or about once Naropa faculty. That came to a halt when my daughter Isabella Grace was born in 2003, the third day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq over the false claims of weapons of mass destruction. In the spring of 2005, I wrote Tom Coburn, the President of Naropa, suggesting that NU create a Buddhist oriented social science curriculum called American Karmic Studies and hire Ward Churchill to head an interdisciplinary contemplative practice of looking at the history of the United States in causal relation to its acts of domestic domination and enslavement of historically underrepresented Americans, civil and human rights social policies, and wars. In the summer of 2005 I was invited by the Summer Writing Program to introduce Jack Hirschman. Meeting Jack was terrific. He’s the last of the red-hot Beats. It reminded me that Naropa has some kind of karmic relationship with the Beat tradition that should not be forgotten, even as the poetry wheel turns. I’d like to be involved with others in presenting this tradition as it continues to evolve due to the young poets that have emerged from being there. In the meantime, I’m working with Randy Roark to mount an exhibit of Kerouac School printed curricular materials on the Museum of American Poetics. I also contribute my voice and resources to dispel any misconception regarding the integrity of the Kerouac School. Any perception that the best works of the Beats engaged with the Kerouac School were behind them as they passed through middle and into old age is false. The works of the latter period by Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Whalen, Synder, Kyger, di Prima, Waldman and Baraka bares this out.


RR: What are you currently doing now?

JC: At 50, I became a father. Gary Snyder once said having a child is like living with a Zen Master in the house and he wasn’t wrong. Today, my muse gravitates toward trying to inform my daughter who her father was and what open roads await her. I have worked professionally as a disability specialist, first as a teacher of the deaf, then later one-on-one with people with nonvisible disabilities. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now, kind of following a William Carlos Williams track. Combining the theoretical ideas of American Sign Language poetics and Disability Studies with the pragmatic world of Disability Services was a right livelihood I could live with. I just put out my sixth spoken word recording, Trashtalking Country. Last year I published a new collection of poetry, Quien Sabe Mountain, my fourth. I almost dimmed the lights on the Museum of American Poetics in January, 2006, because I thought it had become irrelevant, but friends convinced me that it was worth it to keep going if only as an example of early transitional treatment and organization to web-based poetics in the postbeat era. This era is really quite interesting. Cyberspace is the home of the global underground. It has not yet become an international business card club. We’ve seen the golden calf of ‘objectivity’ fall to the wayside. America’s status as a “superpower” has been marginalized by all the harnessing of machines and political will and monotheistic obedience and creative brainpower and lethal force used to exploit and not sustain international activism. Governments are addicted to national security, but they never harness the essence of power. Corporate interests seem capable of nothing else but devising the most intricate and far-reaching business plans to deceive the most people. Poetry has been graced by the formidable energy of all the multiple portals of language, style, narrative, form and experience more or less suddenly available to the individual. It may arc toward downloadable I-pod Matrix-style directly-into-the-brain-files of MFA students, but will these instant journeymen and women poets be able to find the means of original voice through which to work out mass compassion and their own impermanence?


19 February 2006