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.
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...