N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 0 7
October 16, 2006,
This morning a long Metro ride to Ecole Militaire from Reuilly-Diderot for the
. A few stops in, a guy with an electric guitar and an amplifier gets on and stands near the door. At first I groaned inwardly, remembering the surly accordion player who got on my car on the Metro two days ago. I was riding from south-east Paris to the Pompideau, sitting for most of the ride across from an old Eastern European woman who was wearing a black wool winter jacket with a caul over her head on a damp muggy day. She sat facing the floor of the car with a scared look on her face, whispering prayers, her hands clasping a rosary tight in her lap pushing her large breasts together. Rodin Museum
A man of about 40 got on with an accordion and pushed numbers on a Casio until he got a samba beat and began to play a polka on a red tortoise-shell Vox accordion. No one was in the mood for happy accordion music at 7 in the morning, and when everyone turned their backs to him, he slammed the Casio off and walked up and down the crowded subway car with one hand extended while the other continued to play his accordion. When everyone (including me) ignored him, he stopped playing mid-song and went back to his machine and angrily shut it off, staring sullenly at us until we reached the next station—where he got off to, no doubt, get the same reception in the next car.
Anyway, this guitarist had a beat box too and began playing “Rawhide,” which I thought was an interesting choice for the Paris Metro. Nothing fancy, but each note clearly and precisely defined, with a nice attack and some tremolo added to each note to give it a little extra bounce and depth. I was sitting across from him on one of those fold-out seats in the landing of the car and an elegant businessman, cradling a briefcase, was standing next to me and also faced the guitarist, and a young Japanese girl sat across from us.
I struggled to know what I should do—to look up would be to acknowledge his presence—I would get involved, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to do remembering the accordion player’s insolence when I wouldn’t give him any change. But it felt odd not to look at him. I liked what he was playing, I liked his fingerwork, I was curious to see who this guy was, playing “Rawhide” in a subway car in the Paris Metro.
First I looked at his shoes (black Keds, hi-tops), his slacks (black pegged jeans), his shirt (soft reddish-brown, plaid), then his guitar (a vintage black Stratocaster), and then his right hand. He was holding a white plastic pick loosely between his thumb and forefinger. His fingernails were long and trimmed, solid. He held the guitar tight against his body and slowly rocked back and forth and side to side as he played.
When he saw me watching his fingers, he palmed the pick and began to fingerpick, playing freestyle. His fingers moved from string to string, precisely attacking each note and leaving it reverberating when his fingers went on to the next string. Then my eyes moved up the neck to his left hand. His fingernails were rounded and short. He drummed his fingertips onto the strings, his fingers striking the strings against the fretboard the way a piano-player hammers the keys with varying delicacy and force, their touch determining the amount of vibrato and clarity in each note.
I shot a glance up to his face. He wasn’t looking at his fingers, but vaguely off at the floor, just as I was a moment before. He had short blonde hair, a clean-shaven face. Young, a little weathered, but clean and bright-faced. His reddish-brown shirt was freshly pressed.
He was playing out of his imagination and never seemed to be pushing himself, or attempting to play outside of what his fingers could actually accomplish—the notes were precise with lots of air and space around them, his fingers and body language relaxed. I could feel the force of his concentration—effortless and originating from somewhere deep inside him. Or perhaps he was gathering it from the air around his head, listening to the notes before and after they appeared and disappeared, replaced by whatever came next, listening and playing at the same time. Between the melody lines, when he was waiting for the beat to come around again, he rested the palm of his right hand on the soundboard, then flipped the pick back between his fingers, darting out a final flurry of angular, off-kilter endnotes.
As the last note of “Rawhide” reverberated, he bent over and programmed the beat box to begin a song I immediately identified as “Samba Pa Ti.” He looked up and when he realized I was smiling, he rested his hand on the pick-guard, and palmed the pick and began playing with his fingertips, his index finger playing a counterpoint to the melody he was picking out with his third and fourth fingers. Then he began hammering a counter-melody with the fingers of his left hand, simultaneously extending and bending the notes and dropping in unexpected and discordant notes around the melody line, using these to launch short and then longer runs and fills around the simple slow melody, all the while completely relaxed, unforced, playing well within his limits. In my peripheral vision I could see that the businessman and the young Japanese girl were looking up and watching him, too.
Then in a gentle way he began to ascend away from the melody entirely, soaring above it, overlaying a brace of crisp notes in the air, the descending notes guttural, reverberating like stones dropped in a deep well, the upper register bright and glistening with vibrato, the two progressions finally coming together in a single note that he maintained longer than anyone could possibly imagine, until he raised it and sharpened it higher and higher and higher until he hit a pitch that was like the ice of a thousand windows shattering into gold.
Written at My Last Penny Lane Reading, July 11, 2005
I tried to understand what I was reading,
rushing through the swirling text as it expanded
and rose into the sky as a dazzling aureole of light,
a shooting star circumambulating the roses, incense,
and teas served to an army of phantoms, swimming
in the margins of sleep with one vein of rose woven into the gold
the way the sun expands, pouring over the horizon from a spit of land
from which both the sunrise and sunset can be seen
the way a blossom splits from its stem in the hard intellectual light
of a restless mind where I hold what few answers I have near.
And the audience has left what they should be doing
to listen to a song as impossible to understand
as the strange rainbows in puddles, or the shaded paths
of stones and thistles through mountain snow,
or Chinese paper with absolutely nothing written on it,
or the humiliating brightness of a journal by Thoreau,
or the way Goya’s images slowly sink into the sunset
we had hoped for, the not-quite-here and not-yet-dead.
at the Laughing Goat Reading
What could I have done if I didn’t have to be dragged to it,
losing interest, my mind wandering to the women in the room,
wondering if it’d be cooler under the stars, why everyone is yelling—
who would I have become if I didn’t choose to coast in the wind’s direction,
who knows what I could have accomplished if I wasn’t so easily bored,
mind racing ahead, not wanting to do anything twice, anything predictable,
wanting to be scared or surprised, not to be any one thing, above all not to be
a mask pretending to be something other than I am, to be something others
might prefer or pretending to be what I was no longer, or looking down
when I should be looking up—or looking past, looking forward,
or uninspired, less than, to perform, to remain, to wait, to be willing,
to be willing to, to be static to be hollow to be empty and unfeeling,
to be solid to be certain to be right to be sure—
I Really Don’t Mind
Think I care what is shouted in the street?
The world I was born into was small, weather-beaten,
a narrow dirt road, a spent arrow inert and exhausted—
I saw the crow settled on the black branch above us,
the uncontrollable river that hurtled past and abandoned us here,
the distant waves brightly white in the haze
cracking in the cold like clouds of blossoms
attached to nothing, exciting at first and then sad
like the sun shining on white moonflowers—
the smooth summer moss bearing flowers,
the early summer river swollen, dangerous in spots,
and in winter sheaths of ice at the river’s banks
mixed with pebbles brought down from above,
the moon thinned into a thread in tossing water,
its self-portrait in silver ribbons, how cold it is.
(A transcription of an improvised presentation at an event honoring the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” hosted by Naropa University, July 2006)
I’m an example of the apprenticeship program that Allen [Ginsberg] ran while he was here. It was a course that you could sign up for, you got credit for it, and met alone with Allen once a week for three hours. Some of the time was spent looking at your own work as a poet and giving you one-on-one instruction. And some of it was secretarial work: you actually were an apprentice, you did the work of a poet.
But I want to talk about the apprenticeship program in a way that is not about sentimentality or nostalgia, or as something that happened in a circumscribed period of time and is no longer active in my life. As Allen said in that William Buckley clip, being a poet is grounded in a consciousness. And in that one-on-one instruction I learned how to ground that consciousness—for myself and others. I learned from him the way a baby bird learns from its parents how to fly—through observation and practice. He showed me how to do things that I always knew were possible but I’d never actually seen anyone live them out or practice them—what they actually looked like in action. In fact, most people told me that these ways of living were unrealistic—like giving all of your extra money away, like dedicating your life to the service of others. He showed me how these practices actually work.
When I came to
in ‘79, as a 25-year-old, the problems I had as a poet were basically three. The first was that I was more or less ignorant of my poetic lineage and tradition. I was technically unread. The second problem was that my poetry was awful and, in addition, it was false, which made it even worse. And, three, I was socially inept. [Laughter] I was socially retarded in the sense of someone who was not behaving at their chronological age, emotionally, and living in a way that wasn’t congruent with what they knew and believed. Boulder
So, how did Allen deal with those three problems? The first was easy. He gave me assignments. He told me what I needed to read in order to be a poet. The second problem with my poetry was that I had fallen in love with the poetry of William Butler Yeats as a teenager: I thought he was the greatest poet—and still do—of all time. The problem was, I was a 25 year-old kid writing as if I was, you know, William Butler Yeats. But I didn’t have the wealth of experience or depth of insight to pull it off, so it was a false persona—false to my actual experience. So Allen gave me assignments to write from my own experience: What did I remember? What did I see? What did I feel? And when that wasn’t working, he would make me face a white wall and take a poem of mine and ask me: “What did you actually see that gave you these thoughts? What was the color of the sky? Where were your hands when you thought this? What color dress was she wearing?” Precise details. His idea was that I needed to learn how to transcribe my own sense impressions, what actually occurred previous to my thoughts about what happened. Third, he sensed that I had a reservoir of emotions that I had frozen; I had squelched them in many ways; I was afraid of exposing them. And so I tended to be a body that carried my brain from room to room—I dealt with everything intellectually. So he began asking me questions that I could only answer from my heart. And by answering out of my heart over and over again—the actual, literal experience of honestly answering out of my heart—he gave me my self.
Allen wasn’t interested in creating little Allen Ginsbergs. That was frightening to him. There was nothing worse than being Allen Ginsberg surrounded by Allen Ginsberg clones. He wanted big Randy Roarks, big Joe Richeys, big Steven Taylors. He wanted to see how good we were, how deep. So he would create situations that were high profile, challenging, like throwing you in to pitch in Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. “Okay, kid, let’s see what you got.” These situations were always spontaneous, so you had no way of preparing for them. He was constantly pushing, pressing you to be better, to be you, to find out what resources you had inside of you that you weren’t yet aware of. “Let’s take this baby out and see what it can do.”
The other side of the apprenticeship was the work part. I was an expert at that. That sort of made up for my social ineptness and ignorance. I could type really fast, work really hard, I never missed an appointment or deadline. And I was totally attentive to Allen. He would send me on errands that he would do if he had the time, so I was occupied with a poet’s errands, I did a poet’s work. I went to the library, researched
Milton, scanned his poetry: what rhythms did use? Are there any contemporary first-person accounts of Blake singing his poems? And social and political investigations, rabblerousing, networking, phone calls, letter writing, building a community of poets. I learned that that’s what a poet did, as much or equal to the writing of their poems. Milton
The benefit of this is that I realized that I had my ideas about how to become a poet all wrong. I thought that to become a poet what you did was create a significant body of work and then you were acknowledged for that and people would consider you a poet. They would sort of give you that title. And that’s how you made it. But it became clear to me that to be a poet is something completely opposite of that, that I had it completely upside down. To become a poet, you have to be a poet in every moment of your life. Like this moment, right this second, how it is for me now. That’s how the apprenticeship continues in my life, how it’s always present. It’s not like you can “make it new,” like [Ezra] Pound said—because it’s always new. The apprenticeship never ends. Every second is always just the latest installment, and no one can anticipate what’s about to happen, so you look at it as if you don’t know, and you pay attention to what you see and you take note of it and declare it. That’s the job of the poet—whether they’re reading a poem or writing a poem or having a conversation or just observing what’s going on above or beyond and behind what appears to be happening—to experience epiphanies, which my friend Jonathan Gill explained to me comes from the Greek for epi or the highest—and phanos—sight. That’s the job of the poet, to experience the highest vision, to experience all of the possible epiphanies in any moment. And then you try to capture some of that excitement in words and gather it into a poem.
So as a poet, every moment, whether driving your car or shopping at the supermarket, sitting next to your friends at a reading like this—whatever you’re doing, you could be the only poet in that moment! It could all be up to you! And if your being a poet is grounded in a consciousness, there’s never an off switch. There’s no down time. You are a poet. And, if you’re a poet, you write poems out of those experiences that seem to capture something you were looking for, to preserve it and present it to others who may find some consolation in your being able to put into words what they’ve been experiencing themselves. Whatever it is, your poem can never be more than your ability to experience whatever you experience. It’s obvious—it can’t be anything more than that. And if you can stay in that state of consciousness and write a poem while still in it, then your poem will be a series of revelations and insights, like footsteps in the sand, or a path through the woods. And as they follow you, you and the reader will share that state of consciousness, at least for a moment, and you can make others become poets for a moment, too.
What I’ve thought about the last couple of days is that the reason Allen was so unafraid of public relations and getting the word out about his work and being and manifesting as a poet was because he thought his poetry was medicine. It was education. If you think of your work as medicine—medicine that people need—as a living example of what it is that they can be, then you want as many people as possible to experience that. And so any kind of self-consciousness about promoting and advertising yourself and work disappears. Poetry in this sense has a higher purpose, and promoting and advertising yourself merely become tools for getting the medicine to as many people as possible before you expire.
And when I thought about the apprentices I’ve kept up with, in addition to all being accomplished poets, one is working to preserve the ecological habitat of the
Mississippi River. One works for Disability Services at CU and runs a virtual on the web and is a blues guitarist. Joe [Richey] is an investigative reporter, involved in local politics, and an international emissary for poetry and politics, going to Central and Museumof American Poetics South Americawhen he’s not playing in a Buddhist rock band. One person writes children’s books for gay and lesbian families. Another poet is teaching meditation in the prisons and translating Buddhist poetry from the Korean and writing a biography of Tilopa in verse. And then there’s whatever it is I do—my interest in improvisation and recording oral wisdom traditions. So: ecological understanding and sensitivity, working with the disadvantaged and socially and culturally isolated, the blues, preserving the American poetical lineage, investigating the government, working in local government, an interest in Buddhist rock-and-roll, teaching meditation, Buddhist poetry and oral wisdom traditions, an attempt to broaden acceptance and understanding of the gay and lesbian community, and improvisation.… Sound like anybody we know? [Laughter] In many ways, I think of Allen as a firebrand, as a burning bush, and when he died, little sparks of him flew out everywhere and set a lot of ground fires.
When Allen died it was the last teaching he gave to people who were actually paying attention, because he was not afraid, not grasping. It wasn’t like it was a good thing, but he was kind of relieved and relaxed when he got the news that he was terminally ill, because of the way he lived his life. There was no off switch. He lived his life fully. He checked every box. So when it came time to die, it was like, “Okay, I did it.” It was his last important teaching to his students—how to constantly be aware of your death so you can decide how to live the rest of your life. And my death will be the end of my apprenticeship, too.
So blessings to everyone for coming here tonight. Thanks for celebrating this poem and this poet and, uh, I wish you luck.