I’ve never attended summer writing programs at Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, Iowa, Juniper, Aspen, etc., but I feel confident in saying that the one held each year at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado is the most progressive—aesthetically, intellectually, politically. Perhaps Cave Canem’s Summer Retreat approximates it, although it’s only a week long and includes a half-dozen faculty, compared to Naropa’s sixty or so who rotate in during the course of a month.

Through a combination of choice, coincidence, and connections to the area, I’ve been visiting, hanging out at, and teaching in Naropa’s summer writing program for more than fifteen years. But that’s not what interests me. Rather, it’s the alternatives Naropa presents to the credentialed professionalization—the MFA-ification—of poetry, and especially experimental poetry. At the same time, Naropa is a telling barometer of just how difficult it can be these days to work outside poetry’s venues of official institutional support. Unlike during the first half of its existence, Naropa’s summer faculty now leans heavier to the MFA (and PhD) side of the writing spectrum, and more of its students move from Naropa to other MFA programs, or to the inevitable creative writing teaching position somewhere. Nevertheless, this percentage remains relatively small.
Founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman as part of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Naropa Institute, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was initially conceived as a one-time summer program with Ginsberg, Waldman, John Cage, and Diane di Prima forming its initial faculty. But two weeks into the session, talks had already begun about a hundred-year plan. The summer of 1975 saw John Ashbery and William Burroughs teaching, and by the next year, a consistent lineup of faculty members was established that continued through the ’80s: with Waldman and Ginsberg constituting the core of the year-round program (to be later joined by Anselm Hollo and Bobbie Louise Hawkins), regular summer visitors included Amiri Baraka, Ted Berrigan, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley, Philip Whalen, etc. Along the way, there were tragedies (the decline of Burroughs’s son; Berrigan’s health issues), scandals (the infamous “party,” which on a positive note spurred Ed Sanders to develop and refine the important “investigative poetics” mode that many interesting current poets now draw from), conferences (especially a big one on Jack Kerouac in 1982), and the development of an MFA program in the mid-’80s.
The ’90s saw a next wave of experimental writers invited. During the summer of 1991 (my first direct experience with Naropa), Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Nathaniel Mackey taught as part of a week celebrating Robert Creeley and the legacy of the New American Poetry. Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, and Leslie Scalapino were invited soon after. Marjorie Perloff, champion of experimental poetry and Language Poetry in particular, gave a keynote talk at a conference honoring Allen Ginsberg in the summer of 1994. Peter Lamborn Wilson, whose notion of a “temporary autonomous zone” (TAZ) remains a guiding principle at Naropa, was the unofficial summer scholar-in-residence during the ’90s. Throughout that decade, as the boundaries of avant-garde writing expanded and the line between mainstream and non-mainstream blurred, so too did the range of faculty and students participating in Naropa’s summer program. The current decade has seen an expansion of its international perspective, a greater emphasis on the process of translation, and further encouragement of performance-based work. The faculty for 2008 is among the most diverse yet, ranging from LA-based visionary Will Alexander to former Sandinista Vice Minister of Culture Daisy Zamora.
Just as gas will never be cheap again, the NEA will never again be funded robustly, and electronic voting machines will jeopardize every future election in which they’re used, there’s no turning back to the days before MFA programs, poets with CVs, and a classroom-seated poet citizenry. I’m not a reactionary who longs for that. And I’m not a Naropa groupie either. Like Nietzsche, I think it’s important to dismantle your idols. But I do sometimes imagine Franz Kafka bringing in a draft of “The Metamorphosis” to his fiction workshop for feedback. “Why did you make him a bug?” “I think it starts too abruptly.” “Are you in therapy?” “I wish there was more character development.” “The ending doesn’t make sense to me.” In the meantime, places like Naropa—an institution for sure, with a fully accredited MFA program—creatively present other options for the transmission of poetry and knowledge as potential agents for change.

Originally Published: July 6th, 2008

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...

  1. July 6, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    >scandals (the infamous “party,” which on a positive note spurred Ed Sanders to develop and refine the important “investigative poetics” mode that many interesting current poets now draw from)
    To what extent, Alan, I'm wondering, is the Naropa past a part of its current poetic openness, so embracing of post-avant poets, as it is, who in turn embrace it and takes its Summer salaries?
    Is it still impolite to talk there, for example, about the forced stripping of W.S. Merwin and his wife in the drunk, "enlightened" Trungpa's presence (He vehemently demanding their nakedness), while Ginsberg, Waldman (I believe she was there, but apologize if I am wrong), other faculty, and a whole assembly of people looked passively on, and then did nothing while Trungpa's thugs attempted to break down their door, as Merwin and spouse huddled, terrified, in their room, to which they had fled?
    Is it cool to talk about Ginsberg's horrific and never-abandoned advocacy of NAMBLA (the pedophilic North American Man-Boy Love Association)?
    I realize things change and people move on. But your mention above seems a bit polite and euphemistic. Or is it not right for poets to remember these things clearly, deal with them forthrightly, and be a bit more self-conscious?

  2. July 7, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    I wrote the above comment last night. I might have framed things a bit better.
    One thing I wanted to make clear, since I think the tenor might give the opposite impression, is that I didn't, there, in any way mean to impugn Alan Gilbert's sincerity: I have no reason, based on what know from mutual friends, that he is anything other than a fine person, and I do respect his work very much, as well.
    Still, I think my questions posed on the Merwin assault and on Ginsberg's sympathies for NAMBLA are relevant. Both of them are disturbing parts of "contemporary" poetry history that speak--via their repression within particular reading formations--to ways in which personality-cult dynamics and institutional power set-ups can frame what is permissible to address within communities. They are dramatic, over-the-top "scandals," true, but I'd argue that the same control dynamics are at work in lesser known, more seemingly banal arrangements: One could mention, for just one example, the utter lack of discussion at the Poetics List (or in the general post-avant scene) about the continued, vindictive exclusion of a select list of poets from that discussion space--even though the list has long been moderated to prevent anything "impolitic" from going through. And this on a list whose "Editorial Board" is composed of people who claim poetic freedom and radicalism as their creed (one of the board members is even a leader of Factory School, a self-described "anarchist" collective!).
    Well, I suppose my point is that if we are going to talk seriously about the ways that poetry might impact the power arrangements in the "world beyond," we first have to take stock of the ways in which traces of those arrangements, in different guises, ideologically inhere within the poetry field itself.
    Which is an argument, as I proposed in a comment to another of Alan's posts (unanswered), for the pressing need of more satire in poetry. Satire, that is, in the venerable tradition, directed back at the poetry field itself...

  3. July 7, 2008
     Alan Gilbert

    I'm sympathetic to your point of view, which is why I've repeatedly used the word "institutions" in my posts; referred to the art-world practice of institutional critique (however problematic and compromised), for which there's tellingly no real poetry-world equivalent; talked about how poetry communities are based as much–if not more–on exclusions than inclusions; and wrote in my June 27th post: "That’s why as much as I consider myself occupying a position on the political left, it’s always difficult for me to listen to poets tell other people to get their houses in order when their own dwellings are in disarray." Believe me, I'm sensitive to what you say.
    Naropa is a different place now compared to the '70s and '80s, which isn't to say its prior history–good and bad–should be swept under the rug. In fact, I wasn't obliged to mention the "Merwin incident" at all, but felt it (ethically) necessary to do so. In the world of Google, people can pursue that thread if they like.

  4. July 11, 2008
     Ian Keenan

    Kent: Ginsberg and Waldman were not present at the attempt by Trungpa and Merwin to worship together. No member of the writing faculty was present in anything but your fantasy of the event.