THE KEROUAC SCHOOL EXPERIMENT: INTERVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Chris Thompson: When did you study at the Naropa University Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and for how long?
Jim Cohn: I was not at Naropa at its inception in 1974. In 1974, I was living overseas in Jerusalem, studying at Hebrew University. When I returned to Boulder in 1975, I began hearing interesting things about Naropa Institute, as it was named in the beginning, from one of my housemates, Dan Cooper—strange and bizarre things, comical things, and some things that indicated that the suffering hadn’t even really begun. I was a student in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics over a period of four years, first taking a reading course from Kerouac School co-founder Anne Waldman in 1976, attending several Summer Writing Programs thereafter, and finally settling down long enough to complete a Certificate of Poetics program in 1980. During my last year I served as a teaching assistant to Allen Ginsberg.
CT: Would it be possible to describe the Kerouac School?
JC: The Kerouac School had the beneficent karma of being called into presence because of the spiritual relationship forged between Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trunga Rinpoche, founder of Naropa, and Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, 20th century master of global poetics practices and forms. Allen’s first words upon meeting Trungpa, “Can I borrow your vehicle,” were exemplary. Allen had diamond clarity, grounded sanity, thusness of mind, complete openness to others, and not just a little pinch of humor that appealed to Trunga who began writing poetry in English at the age of thirty-five. In Ginsberg’s Introduction to Timely Rain: Selected Poetry of Chögyam Trungpa (Shambhala, 1972, 1983, 1998), edited by David Rome, he makes the famous observation “Mind is shapely, Art is shapely. Gertrude Stein’s style thus merges literary artifact with present consciousness during thetime of composition. Put another way: the sequence of events of poet’s mind, accidents of mind, provide the highlights, jumps & Plot of Poetry.” This elucidation on compositional process became a prequel to later Ginsberg Buddhist American contemplative discourse Allen eventually referred to as Dharma Poetics. That said, he never seemed to waiver from a perspective of Trungpa that was pretty realistic:
The author [Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche] is a reincarnated Tibetan Lama trained from age 2 in various ancient practices aimed at concentrating attention, focusing perception, minding thought-forms to transparency, profounding awareness, vasting consciousness, annihilating ego, & immolating ego-mind in phenomena: a wizard in control of day-dream, conscious visualization & thought projection, vocal sound vibration, outward application of insight, practice of natural virtues, and a very admiral of oceanic scholarship thereof. […] In the drama of this book, yes, the author Chögyam, with all his Vajra Perfections, is the drunk poet on his throne in the Rockies proclaiming “Chögyie is yours.”
So, any description of the Kerouac School begins with a study of how these two highly magnetic energies manifested vast commitment to divergent but interrelated crazy wisdom fields of study. The other key relationship in understanding the chemistry of the early Kerouac School days was that between Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. Together, they taught and displayed encyclopedic knowledge of poetics traditions and brought in an array of inspired compatriots outside the bleak literary establishment. During that period, both poets demonstrated a visionary ability with which to absorb, decipher, and make new poetics works, to reveal the everyday world with unerring insight, and to shape the political and social life of the sangha that was the Kerouac School community.
This they accomplished in real time. I’m thinking of Ginsberg’s creations: Mind Breaths and Plutonian Ode, and Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman and Makeup on Empty Space from the 1970s Kerouac School period. These were the first books in which I felt I had insider secret knowledge. You knew, in some way, how and when they were written and why. You saw the various poems produced in that period performed. Some nights you saw first performances of poems just written that would end defining your own experiences. At times there was no separation between poem and discourse, performance and interview. Allen’s Composed on the Tongue and Anne’s co-editorship of the Talking Poetics From Naropa Institute showed a lot of people how to make themselves a home in the world, in their bodies and in The Poems. These abilities were tied to historically co-emergent lineages of poetic originality, discourse, and performance. Both Ginsberg and Waldman walked the poet’s life with sacred outlook, with tremendous power of words, magic of words. In essence, theirs was a marriage of poetic alterities. On the one hand, Allen worked tirelessly to explicate and expand upon the idealized dreams of Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. Anne, on the other hand, worked tirelessly to absorb the Beat and New York School traditions, and then drove deeper down through the linguistic artifices of male language and male energy to create a trove of feminist texts. In each, one can find endless examples of the non-dogmatic and that which does not support the development of ego. What connected them, from my perspective, was a sense that each had taken the Bodhisattva vow.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course. In 2005, Allen’s first assistant, Sam Kashner, published a book entitled When I Was Cool: My Life At The Kerouac School. This was the first account of life at the Kerouac School, from a student’s perspective, that reached the mass media. Sam did not seem to have too many precious memories of his time back then, but this was not an uncommon experience. He wrote about hanging out with Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs as if he’d been held by the CIA at Guantanamo. In a way, he was dead-on about those days. You could live to regret ever having stepped out of your world and into those of the poetics faculty. Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Amiri Baraka, Ted Berrigan, Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer—these were poets who lived the spirit and the letter of the vow.
When you consider the typical psychological angst of being young and misinformed or half-informed by one’s American high school experience and the passive-aggressive mindset that develops with living in a dysfunctional or distressed or dislocated American family, it’s no big trick to understand why most of the young poets I associated with during my time at the Kerouac School found themselves on the outs with the whole scene eventually. To come to poetry with such a wounded or obscured sense of the higher order of letters was probably too much given the educational and emotional backgrounds of most of the students I met there. The revelation of poetics mind is actually a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. You cannot even begin to write out of one’s self for the benefit of others anything of worth until your actual creative practice of writing is a service performed without the need of approval or validation from others, immune to indifference or rejection by any outside source, including one’s teachers, family, friends, community, publishers, critics and society at large.
CT: Was there a feeling of a particular philosophy surrounding the Kerouac School? If so, was it enforced on the students or was the atmosphere just very free?
JC: A twenty-year old Chögyam Trungpa led a party of monks on foot and on horseback across the Himalayas to India to escape the Chinese when they invaded Tibet in 1959. He was no John Denver singing about a Rocky Mountain high. As a teacher, he set The Standard and he laid out The Golden Norm above all the business as usual normative states. He affected the curriculum, resuscitated it from its intoxication with itself. Once you see that the blinders are off, that the scene before you that you thought was a static or stagnant scene is only a taped loop you have installed in your own mind, that’s an invitation to no longer let yourself be overwhelmed or depressed by actions that occur as habitual patterns. So, the atmosphere was very free in the early days.
Poetry has a long and revolutionary history. From my perspective, Rinpoche’s unconventional approach to the teaching of dharma was equally revolutionary insofar as his teachings are resplendent with consciousness and cut through the physical, emotional, and spiritualmaterialism that is the root impediment to spiritual awakening. Some people got it and some didn’t. It wasn’t favoritism or cronyism because there was no inheritance, nothing to bestow. There was no special treatment or preference given, no political posts. You were there in order to think for yourself, to uncover your own critical intelligence. On one’s merit alone were cast the seeds of trust, generosity, discipline, humor, and scholarship. The unconditional nature of the Kerouac School at Naropa was not for the sheltered. Controversy was immanent. People were constantly shocked out of their aloofness. It wasn’t for those with the longing to make things comfortable for themselves.
CT: Do you feel current generations of writers, musicians and designers can still learn from the output and ethos of the Beats, and do they have the capability to influence our current political, social and artistic environments in the way the Beats were able to? Do you think the ideas of the Beats have the longevity to still inspire future generations?
JC: The output of the Beats is truly staggering. But what is even more remarkable are the convictions behind their collective output because those convictions are the ethos of the future. Many of the Beats were exceedingly systematic, like Blake. Yet with all the steps forward, people seem to have less of an idea on how to read beyond the facade of their existence, so yes, I am inspired by recent literary history and works being left to posterity. I don’t really know if the current generations of artists have it right or wrong. A lot of them got known, in one way or another. The few became cherished. The output today makes the output of the Beats look like a hill of beans. It’s virtually incalculable, so we have entered beyond the threshold of human absurdity. The job of a poet is not to devise some kind of totalitarian poetics, as Rinpoche once said to a class of Kerouac School students led by Ginsberg in 1982, but to be a kind of shining mirror.
CT: The Beats themselves searched widely and diversely for their inspiration. Was this practice, exemplified by documents on your Museum of American Poetics website such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Big Beat Anthology”, endorsed at the Kerouac School?
JC: The poet Randy Roark and I attended the Kerouac School around the same time. Randy was also a teaching assistant to Allen. He worked with him on transcribing Ginsberg’s Naropa lectures, a project which yielded over 28,000 pages. In the spring of 2006, I asked Randy if he wouldn’t mind rummaging around in his extensive basement archives to see if he had any papers that would be interesting to make available to the general public. Some time later, Randy sent me a package of reading lists and bibliographies he had saved from our days as students at Naropa. Of those, a bibliography Allen had titled “Big Beat Anthology” became the focus of an exhibit we collaborated on. That exhibit was published at the Museum of American Poetics, a website I founded in 1997. So, your question about how central bibliographies and the like were to the Kerouac School experience is a very good one. It touches upon a very basic issue regarding the learnedness of the authors that one finds in Beat Studies.
The most common mischaracterization associated with the Beats to this day is that their literary experimentation was overly reliant on jazz-inspired spontaneity, or overly dependent on drugs or alcohol, kicks, or that the writing expressed the narcissism of an elite group, or that it was structureless, picaresque, white male rambling bafflegab. By far, taking a course by Ginsberg on William Blake remains the highlight of my Kerouac School experience. The graphic richness of Blake’s creations, their futurist comic book quality, made them so transparent, so contemporary. Through it all, you could see Blake himself mental traveling, blessing the mendicants so that we may be free from attachments. I didn’t really understand the word “visionary” until I read Blake. Once I did, I could only wonder what lama did he get this from, what century, what list of detailed questions, what magic? Then there was the fabulous connection Allen had with Blake through dreams in which he heard Blake’s voice.
One of the cornerstones of my Kerouac School critical or analytical apprenticeship was the model provided by Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. That book begins with the in-your-face dedication “For those who might like to learn, … who have (not) arrived at full knowledge of the subject without knowing the facts.” If you cannot tell a work of genius from that of a hack, distinguish imitation from original, you can’t make any contribution to modern culture as an artist. I learned more about poetry from a one-sit read of ABC than I did from four years at the university as a literature major. “Until you have made your own survey and your own closer inspection you might want to at least beware and avoid accepting opinions,” wrote Pound. His was a living force, an almost archetypal representation of brash, vivid, raw candor.
This kind of furious investigative pursuit was considered imperative at the Kerouac School. To devoutly practice intelligence in the face of the unknown requires giving up the monumental impetus toward petty attachment to the entertainments of the self. The contemplative art of poetry offers a qualitatively different experience from that of distraction and escapism. Bibliography, its graph of the consciousness of others, is a gateway to cultures and peoples beyond one’s own circle. The test of any bibliography, any reading list, is in its ability to transmute the dualistic nature of the world of appearances into advaya—not-two.
[March 26-27, 2007]
[Jim Cohn. “The Kerouac School Experiment: Interview by Chris Thompson.” In Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, The Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, Postbeat Poets & The New Demotics. Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2011.]