Visiting Naropa in the Summer of 1992
I took a train from New York to Denver in mid-July of 1992 and landed at Naropa University—visiting The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics during the Summer Writing Program. I was a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday, and on the first leg of my first solo adventure—a train ride to Denver, with two weeks in Boulder, then another train to Seattle followed by a week of camping in the Cascades, before a final train ride home. I don't remember the exact sequence of events at Naropa, but much of the trip remains vivid to me.
I had been to Naropa multiple times over the course of my childhood, even spending part of my kindergarten year at a school in Boulder in 1980, when Dad was asked to teach for a few months. I have memories of Gregory Corso pouring water from his window towards us children playing in the courtyard of our housing during the summer that year. I had been back once or twice in my early teens, accompanying Mom on teaching stints. This was my first time travelling there on my own, and as a poet, with a handful of poems.
I stayed with Anselm Hollo and Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, who were gracious hosts with a beautiful home. Jane had a studio in the backyard for her artworks and Anselm had a small writing room, full of many books, including many by my parents. Their friendship and connection, going back to Iowa University at the end of the 1960s, was so strong that my parents had named my brother after him. Anselm was faculty at Naropa. He drove us to campus on my first day of classes. I spoke to Anne Waldman, who gave me a choice of what to sit in on. I was introduced to Stephen Rodefer, who gave me advice on what to attend. I had never met him before, but he was nice to me. He pointed to a couple options that he favored, and then in a pleasant way told me someone to avoid. Later in a bookstore I saw a copy of an early book of poems by Stephen, The Bell Clerk's Tears Keep Flowing. You could say the poems were O’Hara-esque, and I found them to be very moving—about the end of a marriage, about family, and nakedly so: "Dear Jesse/we love you/we do not misspell your name/we wish you a good tennis game."
I decided on Robin Blaser's workshop, in which, with a group of a half-dozen students or so, we sat outside on picnic benches, listening to Robin speak and reading poems out loud. Robin was a star that week in all his appearances, with an elegant manner of speaking, paper-white hair and a white suit. I was at an age where heroes still seemed mythological, poets especially, and I already had knowledge of the larger picture that a lot of these people seemed to fit in. Robin was part of that—connected to Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, quoting Pindar, and dazzling the audience with his observations. It was hard to find fault with him. However, as an institution still populated by literary heroes, by living Beats, there was also a certain sense of degraded heroism that accompanied some of the poets there. Turn the corner and Allen Ginsberg is there, talking with... whoever he might be talking to, there was always someone.
I read a recent poem during the workshop, titled "9 Years Later," an abstract elegy for my dad, the title referencing his death. At that point it was a few pages long, included lots of animal references, rhymed a little, and mostly tried to capture whatever sense of Dad's line that I felt could be caught in the little echoes I would get from various words. Phrases like "elephants decay" appeared, a lift from Dad's book The Sonnets. After the class ended and we were dissipating, I walked with Robin a little, and expressed my doubts—I felt like I had something to live up to, and I wondered aloud if I was really doing it. I don't know if I really felt it or not... maybe I felt that I was supposed to feel like that. Robin said to me, "You are a poet, surely you know that."
One day, a poet named Randy Roark was scheduled to give a talk on Bob Dylan, in a tent outside on the lawn. Roark was a somewhat recent Naropa graduate. As a big Dylan fan, I was very excited for the lecture. While the audience gathered, Roark put on a Dylan album that I hadn't heard yet. The first song was a Mexican-tinged ballad loaded with symbolism, illustrated in lines like: "They shaved her head/She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo." The album is called Street Legal. The second song that came on was a bluesy, riff-driven rock song—something about a pony—and Anne began dancing while simultaneously working to make sure everything was set-up correctly. Roark focused on questions that still frustrate Dylan fans to various degrees. Why are some albums so undervalued? Why would Dylan sometimes rewrite his classic songs? Why does he appear to have lost hope? There was a mic set up for audience participation, and I was more than happy to chime in with my take on the '84 re-write of "Tangled up in Blue." My comment was followed by one from fierce prose writer and faculty member Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who immediately pointed out how subjective the conversation was, and therefore not conducive to any real answers. Roark seemed a little stung by the criticism but handled it well. All heads turned shortly thereafter, as Allen walked up the center aisle to the audience mic, arm-in-arm with rock star David Crosby— a complete surprise to everyone. Crosby stepped up to the mic and said something to the effect of: "Writing a song is like throwing a paper airplane over a brick wall—you don't know who it's going to reach." Everyone was a little stunned by this, and Allen and Crosby disappeared before the event ended.
A day or so later, Anselm and I were in a book and record shop, and I found a copy of Street Legal on vinyl and showed it to him. He didn't know the album either, so he bought it and then made a copy for me on cassette tape, which I kept for years. For my money's worth, it's one of Dylan's many throwaway masterpieces, the kind of album you forget to rediscover, and that'd be a career highlight for anyone else. Anselm simply smiled and expressed enthusiasm for it.
Each week contained multiple faculty readings. One of those was a reading by Allen, Steven Taylor, Anne, and Amiri Baraka. Anselm provided the introduction for Allen, announcing that he would be reading "Howl" in its entirety, and that he'd seen Allen's performances of the poem bring audiences to tears, and other times lift them up in joy with his energetic reading. There was a film crew on hand. Allen began in his normal speaking voice, but gradually his breaths got longer and longer to match the lines, letting the spell of the poem slowly lift him into the energetic litany chant of excited breath distillation. Steven followed with a couple of beautifully sung songs, and Anne gave a great reading, with backup vocals from poets Eleni Sikelianos, Akilah Oliver, and Katie Yates. The highlight of Amiri’s reading was "When Miles Split" a long, beautiful elegy for Miles Davis, accompanied by violinist Stephen Said. Baraka read him as a hero, ("You was the man!") even while not agreeing with his later choices ("I don't know about that purple shit"). With these great poets there was no “poetry voice,” no pretension of ideological or theoretical territory. Instead there were very raw, real performances that engaged their whole bodies, their entire respiratory systems, to deliver the most honest and compelling performances that they could bring of some of their best work.
On the weekend, parties were thrown alternately at different faculty homes. Everyone seemed to have nice houses with back yards, which was pleasant and mostly unfamiliar to me. Maybe this one was at Anne's, as I recall talking with her son Ambrose. I said hi to a few other people, and when I ran out of conversation I went out to the garden and sat down in a lawn chair to read a Jane Austen novel. At some point I was satisfied and replanted myself near Allen and Amiri, who were seated and in the midst of a heavy conversation that had somehow just turned to Stalin. Amiri was making a point about communism under Stalin's regime. "But Amiri, he killed millions of people..." Allen said. "That's never been proven," Amiri said, and then repeated it. Allen was at a loss for how to respond, but kept talking, and the conversation turned. It was a fascinating moment as they sat, leaning in, old friends at a party. I had spoken with Amiri one time earlier that week, introducing myself. I repeated to him my line about feeling like I had a lot to live up to. "Ah man, don't be that way," he said.
One morning I arrived on campus and Anne directed me to go to Joanne Kyger's Journal Writing Workshop. I had met Joanne before with my folks but hadn't really spoken with her myself. I wasn't sure if she would even recognize me. She began by presenting a large number of notebooks, of different shapes and sizes, differentiating one for longer writing, one for dreams, etc. She indicated that she always had multiple notebooks in play. She then moved onto journal-based writing, and, to my surprise, pulled out a copy of a book by my dad, Train Ride, a poem/journal of a train trip dedicated to artist and friend Joe Brainard. Joanne then read the entire poem, expertly presenting the casual, talky tone of the poem. She said a couple more words about Dad, and then finished with a reading of part of an epistolary journal from a trip to Chicago, called "The Chicago Report." "The Chicago Report" was first published in the magazine The World and republished in a book called Ted: An Homage to Ted Berrigan, edited by Anne Waldman. In the homage book, an introductory note by Ron Padgett explains that "Ted was a natural mimic and parodist" and "[a]t certain points in this letter, he parodies a voice common to Tulsa, Oklahoma" and that "[i]n some ways the letter is a take-off on Kerouac." The note ends with: "I hope no one will make the mistake of interpreting it literally." The note is included because the piece, while somewhat accurate to events, is also fictional in places, and uses racial and sexual slang. No one commented on it in class, but it would come up again later in the week.
For my part, I was thrilled to be able to hear her reading these works so unexpectedly. Though I had started writing poems shortly before Dad had died, my turn towards poetry had a lot to do with trying to understand who my father was, and by extension who I might be. I carried his books around with me. Only a couple years previous I had brought his selected poems, So Going Around Cities, to high school and read it in the cafeteria, finally old enough to begin to recognize just what was missing in my life and what that meant to me. At Naropa, I was in a place populated by his friends—and my friends—and people were studying him there, just as I was. Except that I was my own vehicle for study.
Not everyone was having an experience like that, of course. At the end of the week there was a summation panel, with presentations on the week's classes. During a moment of response, a young woman questioned the progressiveness of the education, and expressed that she was shocked by the sexist writing of Ted Berrigan that Joanne Kyger had presented in her class. Joanne wasn't at the panel, but Anne was, and she defended Dad. "I knew Ted Berrigan intimately, and he was not a sexist!" she said. The point of conversation moved away, and the panel ended. I went up to speak with Anne, and we took a short walk to shake off the intensity of the moment.
I would come to learn that a lot of my heroes were flawed in various ways. Not that that should be a surprise. Part of what I thought was attractive about the poetry community was that it seemed to have space to include eccentric or damaged people. There was a sense of loyalty to the fringes of the community—people on the edge, maybe, but who were still finding a way to express their lives. The worst part of someone might be their alcoholism, vulgarity, or effects of mental illness, and there were people you would keep a distance from for any number of reasons. But you never just threw someone away entirely, often there was a brilliance there that deserved some kind of attention. It might be fleeting, but those moments of poetic triumph might be that person's lifeline. Allen's poem “Howl” was about these kinds of people. I don't really think of my Dad like that, but he was inspired by that generation. Some of those people were appearing as guests at Naropa, which presented a dynamic of new generations coming in to learn from the old. The old poets tell the young students to question everything, and the old poets happen to be the closest and safest thing for the students to call into question. It's a just dynamic, but it's also painful.
During one of the two weeks, at the end of the summation panel, a sea of roaring voices could be heard in the background, making it hard to hear the panelists. Thousands of men had gathered at a nearby stadium for a rally organized by the Promise Keepers, an evangelical nonprofit founded by a local football coach. The group's core beliefs are strongly religious and patriarchal. A group of students decided to protest by marching to the site and staging a mock gay wedding. I didn't want to go with them, but I watched as my friend Brad Will headed towards the protest, dressed as the bride in a white gown, with a giant grin on his face, behind his bushy beard and mustache. The protest went down peacefully. I would see Brad around New York in later years, taking part in Critical Mass demonstrations, and hosting a pirate radio show out of a squat in the East Village. He was killed in Mexico in 2006, having gotten too close to a violent event that he was trying to film. His camera was recording up until the moment he was shot. He didn't live long enough to become a poetry hero, or a point of study, but he was already well known in activist circles for the risks he took.
My two weeks at Naropa came to an end, and I hopped back on an Amtrak and headed north for my camping trip. I turned 18 mid-trip, climbing Prusik Peak on my birthday. Thereafter I hopped on another train, crossing the northern part of the country, and headed back to New York City.
- Robin Blaser
- Allen Ginsberg
- Anne Waldman
- Alice Notley
- Bobbie Louise Hawkins
- Amiri Baraka
- Gregory Corso
- Naropa University
- Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics
- Akilah Oliver
- Bob Dylan
- Ron Padgett
- Eleni Sikelianos
- Ted Berrigan
- Joanne Kyger
- Anselm Hollo
- David Crosby
- Jane Dalrymple-Hollo
- Stephen Rodefer
- Randy Roark
- Brad Will
Edmund Berrigan is the author of the poetry collections More Gone (City Lights, forthcoming 2019), Glad Stone Children (Farfalla, 2008), and Disarming Matter (Owl Press, 1999), as well as the memoir Can It! (Letter Machine Editions, 2013). He edited Selected Poems of Steve Carey (Sub Press, 2009), and with Anselm Berrigan and Alice Notley he is...