DIAMOND FRAGMENTS, GOLDEN SPARKS: INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL LIMNIOS
Michael Limnios: When was your first desire to become involved in the Beat literary scene, and what do the Beats mean to you?
Jim Cohn: Before Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche founded Naropa Institute in 1974, nothing could be further from my mind than becoming involved with the Beat literary scene. If a fortune-teller had told me this was going to happen I would have told them to take their crystal ball down to the carwash.
I was already attending the University of Colorado at Boulder and was an English Major in my final semester when I decided to take a closer look at poetics outside the academy. My door to the Beat lit scene opened in the spring of 1976 when I took a survey of 20th century poetry class with the poet Anne Waldman, cofounder, with Allen Ginsberg, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Anne was my entry into 20th century American poetics innovation in general, and Beat literature in particular.
I was twenty-three years old when I began this exploration. Naropa had opened only two years earlier. Beat literature, my exposure to Beat works of art, was a definitive aspect of my study, but Waldman’s course was also my introduction to the multiplicity of poetic experience. Pound called the poet the antennae of the human race. I don’t have antennae. I’ve got sensors. My sensors really picked up on the multitudinousness of the poetry. Anne has a certain perfect eye for language. It was in the poets she taught and back then she taught of her own New York School community.
The new diversity I found in her reading list set me off on a multicultural study of what it means to be a part of all these tribes and outside of them simultaneously. A new history of American poetry was being told. And like anyone else in the poetics multifield, I had my own version of things. My own work was in relationship with many 20th century literary movements, including the Beats, without being of any of them, except as a kind of adjacency. My work is inspired by Beat Literature, but it comes after Beat Literature.
Later, poet and prose writer Vernon Frazer described Beat-influenced poets as “post-beat” in his “Extending the Age of Spontaneity to a New Era: Post-Beat Poets in America.” Similarly, and without our knowing one another or each other’s research, I described the “postbeat” as influenced by Beat Literature and allied to the new diversity of American Poetry. I was quite impressionable when I stumbled into the Beat literary scene at Naropa, quite open to the myriad lineages and traditions in operation. Over time, I’ve gathered a deepening sense that the psychological effects of the Beat writers I knew personally were as spirit guides to the removal of obstacles for the expression of my highest self.
ML: Tell me a few things about your apprenticeship with Allen Ginsberg. Did knowing Allen change your life?
JC: It’s a tribute to Allen and his siddha-like skillfulness that he could reach me because I am very introverted, fiery, neurotic feminine, and suspicious of public figure celebrity personae. He was the father I never had. As a teaching assistant at Naropa in 1980, the most beautiful aspect of working with Allen was how real his bonds of friendship felt. Other teaching assistants and/or younger poet friends of Ginsberg who went on to distinguish themselves in poetry include Eliot Katz, Lesléa Newman, Randy Roark, and Marc Olmsted. There were three younger U.S. poets Ginsberg vigorously championed - Antler, Andy Clausen, and David Cope. The heart sons and daughters of Allen Ginsberg were legion.
Allen was a master of prosody, dharma poetics, global interconnectivity, radical scholarship, inspirational teaching, the Norton Anthology, Blake, Kerouac, Corso, Burroughs; the master of vast correspondence, holy performance, and metamedia awareness. He was calm sane poetic presence on the public sphere during the late 60s - a time of great social and civil rights unrest in America. To paraphrase the poet Randy Roark, my intention is to never tarnish the legacy of Allen Ginsberg by my own actions or inactions.
ML: What advice did Allen have for you?
JC: Ginsberg was the emissary of Whitmanic candor - make the private public. Speak freely. Reveal secret mind. Candor is the heart of vernacular. If you speak your most true, most real, innermost realities, others will too. Social media has its American roots in Walt Whitman - the idea that if everybody is naked there is no shame, no humiliation. This kind of philosophy can be seen in action across the globe today from Pussy Riot in Russia to the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei. Allen was a Vajra Buddhist practitioner, a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, Naropa’s founder. He practiced a marriage of polarities within self and between self and others through simultaneous poetic proclamation and refutation of ego. Mindfulness amidst partisanship became the bedrock of his oeuvre. Strictly in terms of poetry, he advised me that once you develop the eye to test the line’s vividness, rhythm, and wit, it’s up to you to adhere to the superior writing path or slip into some lesser form of expression.
ML: Which memory from your studies at Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School makes you smile?
JC: The second generation New York School poet Ted Berrigan, author of The Sonnets (1964) and So Going Around Cities (1980), was blowing everybody’s mind in his writing class. I remember Ted saying, “If you think you'll be a poet, you'll know what a poem is.” Ted had this thing. He said he was the true American poet, not Allen Ginsberg. He’d explain it by making claims such as Allen Ginsberg eats whole wheat bread. Ted Berrigan eats white bread. Allen is a pacifist. Ted fought in Korea. Allen reads Buddhist texts. Ted reads detective novels. This proves Ted should be President, not Allen. People made runs at Ginsberg all the time. Ted was just goofing on that. It still cracks me up.
ML: What characterizes your philosophy about poetry and life?
JC: As a student at Naropa, I came in contact with the Buddhist tradition known as Crazy Wisdom. Trungpa Rinpoche also referred to the Mishap Tradition. It was Allen Ginsberg who revealed the Dharma Treasures (Terma) teachings directly to me, around 1992, when he said that Bob Dylan was leaving certain work until after his death as “treasures for heaven. In life and poetry, I aspire in an arhat direction. That is, be a foe destroyer - a person who has destroyed his or her delusions. Attain liberation in your own lifetime. Poetry and life require commitment to one’s calling. The commitment required is not great or huge. It’s just total.
ML: What does music and poetry mean to you, and what do you learn about yourself from your music and poetry?
Music and poetry exist in numerous dimensions exclusive of each another, yet one is never without the other. Together, music and poetry are exemplars of the Prajnaparamita Sutra’s most admired line “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Music and poetry are analogous to a deep space bodhisattva eliminating conceptually imagined forms across the universes. I think John Cage went somewhere like that in his 1959 recording Indeterminacy: New Aspects of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. Jazz notions of improvisation in the work of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, etc., as well as Kerouac’s idea of bebop-inspired “spontaneous prose” triggered my own Postbeat approach to the music-poetry nexus.
Having grown up in a period when, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, popular music evolved into high culture, Bob Dylan epitomized the Postbeat troubadour singer songwriter lyricist of sophisticated codified Postbeat oral literature. In my time, Sandy Denny, John Lennon, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Robbie Robertson, Etta James, Graham Parsons, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bettye LaVette, Tom Petty, Jane Siberry, Prince, Lucinda Williams, Chuck D., Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Susanne Vega, Neil Young, Rickie Lee Jones, Don Henley, Peggy Lee, and Van Morrison are song writing lyricists that influenced me. The evolution of oral folk literatures after the Beats - Blues and Folk, Rock and Soul, Punk and Rap, Hip-Hop and Slam, or Deaf sign-language based visual poetics, such as the Postbeat Deaf ASL poet Peter Cook––became the rubric by which I defined and continue to explore my own relationship between poetry and music.
I released my first solo record, Unspoken Words, in 1998 and put out four more original recordings - Antenna (2000), Emergency Juke Joint (2002), Trashtalking Country (2006), homage (2007) - and then a compilation double CD, Impermanence (2008). A complete discography of these recordings, with lyrics and tracks, can be located at poetspath's. My views on recording change from record to record, and between record and record, but I’ve learned tracking is all about space. I want to give space to the music and the people making it. For me, as a poet who vocalizes, there’s this spectrum, this no-man’s land between song, recitation, chant, shout, broadcast, speech, talk, and the poem. I learned there’s no “I” from one recording to the next. I’ve learned that I hear things as I write poems and I hear different things when I record them.
ML: How did the idea of your poetry journal Napalm Health Spa and your website, the Museum of American Poetics, come about?
JC: I became interested in the whole micro-press underground poetry magazine movement that emerged after the obscenity and censorship trials against Howl and Other Poems and Naked Lunch. As a Postbeat poet, I was influenced by Ed Sanders’ Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts and Anne Waldman’s Angel Hair with Lewis Warsh. I was involved in a couple editing/publishing projects while a student at the Kerouac School. My first published poem was in the first issue of Bombay Gin, the long running Kerouac School journal. I’d published ACTION Magazine from 1983-1987 when I lived in Rochester, New York and received my M.S. Ed. in Deaf Studies. In 1990, I started Napalm Health Spa (NHS). The magazine’s title is from a line in “Clean Cut Kid” from Bob Dylan’s 1985 album Empire Burlesque. The complete archive is at Napalm Health Spa's site.
The Museum of American Poetics (MAP) is archival in orientation and structured for digital age scholarship, but it is based on predigital poetic public skills I’d already been doing and then applied to the digital domain. I coordinated reading series, special events, lectures. Special Collections Libraries and doing scholarship in archive reading rooms was sirenic to me. I’m fascinated by museums, by curating, by the art of putting together exhibits. So, founding the Museum of American Poetics in the first days of 1998 really was a natural progression. The idea for MAP began almost the second I heard Allen Ginsberg had died on the 1:00 p.m. top of the hour ABC news. I had just visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. I felt that if the Beat Generation never existed, neither did I.
After Allen Ginsberg’s death I went through an extended period where I sought to understand why he had so affected the rest of my life by knowing him. The Museum of American Poetics came out of that period of mourning Allen’s departure and grief that my teacher was gone. MAP was the making of something new within myself - something to celebrate Allen as well as the enormous diversity and interconnectivity and isolation of the Postbeat poets that emerged.
ML: Why do you think that Beat writers continue to generate such a devoted following?
JC: If the work gets into your bones, it gets carried on. It becomes part of your psycho-emotional-cellular-skeleton hardware. Beats literature has a reputation for giving 19th century Romanticism a later 20th century makeover. That was exactly part of their genius. The deep connections between Gregory Corso and Percy Shelley or Ginsberg’s self-defining 1948 auditory hallucination of William Blake convey aspects of Romantic tradition. Beat Literature itself continues to resonate, in large part, for its disaffection or dissatisfaction or disillusionment with conventional aggressive patriarchal war culture and its ways of controlling identity for its own dark purposes.
The Beats created a body of literature with compelling initiatory significance - an initiation to freeing of mind from imposed conformist social mores that limit human potential, growth, and liberation. Even with the critiques of the Beats - particularly those against its writers’ general reputation for drug experimentation, alternative forms of sexuality, interest in religions of the Orient, rejection of materialism, idealized exuberance, obscenity, and repressive sexism against women - their legacy has not faded with the passing of its most famous members. Jack Kerouac’s books are all still all in print.
In 1982, Allen Ginsberg suggested in “A Definition of the Beat Generation” (Friction 1, 1982) that the “essential effects” of the Beat Generation include revolutionary impacts in the areas of spiritual, sexual, and gay liberation with catalyzing impacts on women’s liberation and civil rights struggles as well as liberation of the world from censorship; spread of ecological consciousness with respect of land and indigenous peoples and creatures as emphasized by Gary Snyder; opposition to the military-industrial machine complex, and a return to idiosyncratic tactics against state regimentation; evolution of popular music into high art form; and demystification and/or decriminalization of cannabis and other drugs.
Allen’s sense of Beat “effects” was instrumental in my own analysis of the Postbeat Era. I have suggested that the Postbeats became the primary literary recipients of these values and proponents (see my essay, “Postbeats Poets” at site), with significant differences from the Beats; not the least being the home and then mobile computer revolutions, but specifically, a sense that this generation of poets was leading the way onward, to paraphrase Michigan poet David Cope, from the precipice of self-induced world apocalypse.
Beat Literature as a genre is a complex of subjective and social liberation. This is particularly powerful in today’s climate of global civil revolt, whether it be related to the democratic social media-assisted 2010 Arab Spring uprisings, the Euro debt crisis and grassroots labor austerity rebellions, China’s internal human rights democratic revolution, the leaderless Occupy Movement against the top 1% U.S. wealth-holders, or anywhere despots, governments, courts, institutions, corporations or the individuals that head them oppress a citizenry. It’s a varied spirit of freedom, energy, and open-heartedness underlying Beat Generation literature that touches people around the world.
ML: How then do you describe Jim Cohn’s poetry and progress?
I’ve been composing poetry for book publication since 1980. I have followed the path of my days in the poems I write, one by one, and preserved the shapeliness of my life in my art. My books are Green Sky (1980), Prairie Falcon (1989), Grasslands (1994), The Dance Of Yellow Lightning Over The Ridge (1998), Quien Sabe Mountain (2004), The Ongoing Saga I Told My Daughter (2009), and Mantra Winds (2010). Currently, I am completing a manuscript of new poems, and have two new recording projects scheduled for 2013 in which I will perform poems from this most recent project. I’ve also begun deliberations for a book of selected poems from this poetic journey approaching its fourth decade.
In addition, I’ve also penned a trilogy of prose poetics works - Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics (1999), The Golden Body: Meditations on the Essence of Disability (2003), and Sutras & Bardos: essays & interviews on Allen Ginsberg, The Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, Postbeat Poets & The New Demotics (2011) - that I felt compelled to write along the way, and describe, I suppose, the progression of my own thinking about myself, others and poetry as time passed. In many respects, I see my prose as the ethnographic work we all need to be doing constantly in order to understand ourselves and those around us.
One of the key decisions I made early on was not to be beholden to any business interest in the creation of my own body of poetic work. When you are not faced with writing to satisfy editors, publishers, and sales people; that is, when you’re a book industry outsider, you are left to your own indy skillfulness and your own sense of freedom. One of the fascinating aspects is how freeing that has been for me as an artist and as a person. After all, we have the means of production today that authors in the past could only dream of. And the times suggest that literary institutions of all kinds can be developed virtually and collaboratively, at far less expense digitally and actually provide improved access to readers.
There is a lot of internal work involved in living off the literary grid, and I’ve found that progress cannot be determined materially. I always keep in mind Gary Snyder’s notion of sustainability as “elegant simplicity,” and the progress we make personally toward living energetically or artistically within our means. The right literary footprint is an aspect of sustainability, and sustainability suggests giving back. The only sense that there is literary progress is if it is a turning toward one’s writing with or without the constant desire for external approval, internal certainty, or monetary reimbursement. Ultimately, for me, the poem is the place where the blockages of a closed heart and the downed wires of mind may find repair and healing.
So, if I am to accede to the idea that progress and poetry are not incongruous terms, which in this case they are not, it would be based on the fact that I have benefitted directly from the poetry of the past and that I have been able to appropriate its diamond fragments and golden sparks to benefit the present and to project that further toward the unborn future. Additionally, without any negative impact, the presence of other poetries than my own or the Postbeat community I consociate with is its own progress as well as its own kind of homage to the Beats.
Finally, innovation is the hallmark of any successful poetics movement and is a semblance of progress. “Make it new” as Ezra Pound suggested almost a century ago. Innovation that drives people from poetry is not progress. Innovation that drives people to poetry is. Innovation for innovation’s sake is rather pointless. Innovation that isn’t innovative but thinks it is, is just ignorance. It’s like focusing on sex positions instead of making love. Innovation may have been innovative the first time, but the same innovation repeated again and again is no longer innovation at all.
The progress of my poetry can be described by innovation, but for me, this innovation is grounded in unvarnished, elemental, intuitive feeling––the kind of feeling found in the ancient poets of China. Others may apply innovation to uncover new ways of signifying life’s incomprehensibility or mystery and they may do that by breaking all the rules and perhaps that is enough––expressions of incomprehensibility to signify the incomprehensible. That may be the progress of the incomprehensible. I was after something else. My sense of innovation was like being lost in a dance.
03 November 2012
[This interview was conducted on November 1, 2012. Originally publish at Blues GR: Keep The Blues Alive, http://blues.gr/profiles/blogs/poet-spoken-word-artist-jim-cohn-talks-about-ginsberg-naropa by Michael Lumnios.]