Naropa Summer School/Gary Snyder

The Naropa Summer Writing Program.  The Writing Program for the four-week Summer 2016 sessions at Naropa (starting June 12) has already been announced.  Among the highlights (alongside program co-ordinator, Anne Waldman) –  Steven Taylor, Margaret Randall, Thurston Moore, Eileen Myles…  For more information – see here

We thought today (this weekend) to go back (over thirty years!) to 1983 and a relatively early moment in the Summer program – a symposium panel, chaired (but, by his own confession, very openly) by Gary Snyder.

Gary Snyder

The participants (“corps faculty bodhisattvas”) include, aside from Gary, Allen (and Peter Orlovsky) – Larry Fagin (who introduces the day’s events), Michael Brownstein (a worthy counterpoint), Pat Donegan, as well as an eager student body (notably, Joe Richey and others)

The tape begins with some words of congratulation and planning and proposals for fund-raising (regarding the Summer Writing Program)  – This is 1989: 

Larry Fagin: We felt this program had been successful, you know, and I don’t honestly see how it could have been otherwise, you know, just in terms of what we… We really didn’t know quite at what point.. where w’d arrived at the end of this thing, and I think what we’ve done is arrived at a beginning, which is a good beginning, and that the program has been, as you know it’s been.. a pilot.. almost like a pilot program for next summer, which should be even smoother (and we’d like to have a similar kind of program next summer, probably a month program, maybe not as intense.. maybe more intensive.. (just to save people from heart attacks!) – So, what I’d ask you to do is to, when you go back to your various hovels, to spread the word about this program, the summer program (and year-round program) if you can pick up, or if you know, or you already have some literature from Naropa, so that we can have a really soft time of it as far as recruitment goes (because that has been our weakest point, we haven’t been able to get the apparatus for recruitment out because of the lack of funds). So you could help enormously, if you like this program, (to) tell your friends and spread the word about it, and it will happen next summer, next… probably around the same time.  We’ll have a swamp-cooler (by) then! – so everyone can be comfortable!  So that’s what I wanted to say. So I think it’s been a great experiment. So…thank you all, I think you’ve (all) been terrific.

Allen Ginsberg Who is going to be here next summer? Have you got any idea?

LF: Well, next summer. Well, we’re not certain how that’s going to work out. We may find it’s too late to include a slightly larger faculty and a slightly larger student body without losing any individual interview-time (and probably gaining some). Do you think that you prefer forty-five minutes to half-an-hour?.. Obviously, I guess you would, you know.. Something like that… We’re going to work that out carefully. Randy Roark has a master-plan that he’s working on, and tomorrow, Allen and I are going to meet and talk about who we can possibly have back, who we can get to be here for a week, maybe two weeks, and I don’t want to name any names yet, because it’s too early to say, but, among people discussed are  (Robert) Creeley and (Gary) Snyder [present]. (Kenneth) Koch  (John) Ashbery, Philip Whalen
AG: Philip Whalen
LF: Philip Whalen
AG: ..and Diane Di Prima
LF: Diane Di Prima  ..possibly Anne Waldman!
Student:Norman Mailer?
LF: Well that’s something else. Possibly. That’s another idea that’s just in its…it may not happen at all but it’s just a thought that we would have a five-day(  it could be five, it could bet ten day), workshop, with… My idea was to have (Norman) Mailer,  (William) Burroughs, and (Susan) Sontag
Michael Brownstein: Good luck!
LF: What? – Well, why not?
AG: Sontag said she wanted to come.
LF:  It’s nothing., I talked to Susan Sontag last summer and that’s…mazel tov, you know.  Well, that’s generally what… But we don’t  know yet, and we will soon, so keep in touch with us, and look in the sky for..
AG: Omens
LF: Omens
Student: Keep your antennae up
LF: Yeah

Norman Mailer did turn up – “Norman Mailer joined William Burroughs at Naropa Institute Summer 1985 to spend a week to end with Symposium on ‘The Soul – Is there one, What Is It, & What’s Happening To It  – here leaving John Steinbeck III’s backyard apartment” (caption by Allen Ginsberg) -Photograph by Allen Ginsberg © The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Student: I have one suggestion. Why don’t you plan the program so there’s one day off in the middle of the week when everybody goes to the planetarium or something..?
LF: Oh I don’t think it’s going to be.. It’s going to be…
AG: We’ll do this again.
LF: Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to do it exactly again. I think there’s going to be a lot  more..
AG: Space.
LF: Space and  I don’t think we’ll lose anything either.
Michael Brownstein: I heard that from even.. even half way through the first week..
LF: Oh sure.
MB: ..every day something (exciting)
LF: (Well) we didn’t know what we were doing.. We had no idea of what we we’re doing, and, actually, it’s amazing what we accomplished in this tight situation, what we did. So next year it’ll be a lot easier. We’ll know a lot more about that

Peter Orlovsky: Also, in a way, there’ll be sort of a show of your.. of what you’ve learned here and how much you’ve enjoyed being here by spreading the word, tell all your friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, and..
LF: (Don’t sound desperate for anything!)
PO: …each one of you..get ten people… [laughter]
GS: (Ten people each!   –  You get two percent of whoever you recruit!)
PO: …and take Naropa literature about what will be going on here in the next…what will be going on here next year, and I think that if each of you could talk to, and each one of you get ten.. ten people each [more laughter]
GS: (Ten people each!)
LF: (You get two-percent off whoever you recruit!)
GS: I’ll give you a fund-raiser. Sixty percent, at least (then you’ll really get a lot!)
PO: The more you talk about what you’ve done here and what you’ve learned here…and ran into new acquaintances…
GS: (Or you’ll frighten people!)
PO: ..It’s a good way to get to know people.
AG: Pick up girls in the street that way?

[At approximately six-and-a-quarter minutesi in, the formal part of the program begins]

LF  Well, thank you, and I guess we should begin..Mr Snyder?
GS: Thank you. I must confess I’m not entirely sure what my role or responsibility this morning is.
AG: So you don’t have to talk all three hours.
GS: Really?
AG: No.
GS; Aw shucks! – And how are you folks all going to participate?
MB: These things have varied each week, you know.. Some people, who’ve led them (which is presumably what you’ll be doing) have kind of had topics or axes (axes to grind), or.. And other people have had a sort of more open….open topic
LF: And if it runs away from what you want to do, you can pull it back anytime you wish.
AG: Or push it away.
GS: In other words, I’m the chair.
AG: Yes
LF: Yeah, you’re the chair.You have the floor.
GS: I can be fired tho’ ?
LF: No
AG: No
LF: You can be ignored, but you can’t be fired.
GS: I can be ignored tho’ ?
LF: Yes.
GS: So if anyone of the mandala of corps faculty bodhisattva-hood, here, wants to get in there, of course you can, please, and what I’m saying is, this is going to be quite open and maybe a couple of steps tho’
First step – my personal first step is, since I’m winding up my week here, is there any unfinished business that any of you feel you have from the last week, that involves questions and discussions (that we’ve been in)?

Q: There was one thing interesting the first days when you asked us about  what we wanted to cover and you touched on “right occupation”, as a writer, and you seemed to have things that you wanted to go into and we never got back on that subject.

GS: Did I really not get back on that subject?

Q: Yes, that was first day when we were throwing things out and that was one of the things that seemed interesting and then we never talked about it.

AG (to Student): Wasn’t that covered with some of the talk about local roots and local work?  (at that (earlier) reading)

GS: Well, I think, by implication, to some extent I’ve been talking about “right occupation” (“right livelihood’) as a writer all along. In opening out the many vernacular possibilities of cultural participation that are always there, the many roles and functions that are song, poetry, and, by extension, the writer or the singer’s place in a society, in a community, both, on one side, both affirming and nourishing a cultural matrix, when you give your assent to a cultural social or community matrix, or, playing the opposite role and critiquing, opposing, rebelling against, offering alternative reality-propositions to a culture to which you don’t give your assent. A funny position to be playing, you see… but, that’s what writers.. that’s part of the work of writers and singers all along – to both affirm a culture or critique a culture, or affirm a set of views or critique a set of views, based on independence of flow of mind, a capacity to move away from preconceptions and arbitrary notions. “Right occupation”, also, as I commented, takes its first step from recognizing how you get your food, because that’s your occupation, your occupation is getting food, ultimately. People who get food by beheading chickens, or by skinning and cutting up the flesh of cattle, have an immediate reason to.. and an immediate recognition of some of the paradoxes and problems that the occupation of getting food raises for us.

Others of us, who aren’t so immediately involved in the primary production or exchange of food energy, think that maybe we’re free from that. But we’re not. We’re all are faced with the same set of questions, and come to the same resolutions (which are our own resolutions). So that’s what a right occupation really comes down to is understanding how to nourish life, as best you can, in the process of drawing your life on the life of others, (or extending your life on the life of others). The first (Buddhist) precept – “not to harm” (which is sometimes taken as “not to take life”) is turned around to mean “nourish life” – Nourish life. It doesn’t mean that you don’t kill, but you nourish life.

So how then does a poet’s occupation then apply? what is “right occupation” with regard to writing?. In fact, my quick notion of a writer’s occupation is that, if you’re working in a mode that can support you commercially, then you do it, steering a sensitive and intelligent course between that which brings in money and that which would compromise your own integrity, but being fearlessly professional. An artist is a business man, operating in the free market, not an intellectual worker assigned a job by the State, (as orthodox, narrow-minded, Marxists might interpret the role of the artist, and is indeed as the artist is generally used in socialist countries, both in China and the Soviet Union, where everyone is assigned an occupation, people who have managed, in one way or another, to get the proper authorities convinced that they should be assigned to the occupation of “writer” will be assigned to the occupation of writer – like in China, the Writers Union. And then, given a salary, a house, a schedule of meetings that they should attend, maybe a car and a driver, and will be paid that salary no matter if they write something this year or not.. It can go ten years

MB: I want to do that!

GS: You want to do that? Listen on. Allen and I had a long talk with some Chinese writers last Fall about that, when you’re in that position. It turns out it helps, if you’re a member of the Communist Party, that if you write something that  sells well you’ll get a very tiny royalty percentage off it, but it encourages you to make things that sell well, And that the structure of distribution and promotion is such that that which is going to sell well will be that which encourages the increase of production at the tractor factory!  And, if you have a dry streak (which anybody will have) and you’re being paid a salary for ten years and you haven’t written a novel, your conscience will lead you to undertake other assignments which are suggested to you. “Do you have the time? If you have the time? You don’t really want you to do this if you are at work on that novel you said you would do but if you have the time, would you mind  going  down to Yuan-an for three months and do a real nice write-up on our hydro-electric project there. And so the energy and prestige of writers is really well employed.

And you ask the Chinese writers, “Well, suppose you’re some kind of goofy writer?”. That’s fine, you know. Anyone can write anything they like, place for that person in the Writers Union, and probably no possibility of getting published. So the writer is a free agent in the society, in the community, offering poems by the roadside in the mall. I mean, really, it comes down to that. Either they take them or they don’t take them. Either people tell other people about them, or they don’t . And so, in a way, each and everyone of us here’s solitary and alone in our relationship to the whole society, making our offering, making our gift,  and if they accept it? – wonderful, if they don’t accept it, you can say, “Well, they’re a bunch of slobs, and they don’t appreciate me anyway!”, or you can say, “Well, let’s see, is there another strategy, another angle by which I can take my extraordinary insight and wisdom to these people”. And if you make money thereby to support yourself thereby – no blame. If you can’t – no blame either –  and so what I always urge people who are going to work in the field of poetry (since poetry really does not stop anywhere on the scale that prose does, and is really a different game than prose), is that you have another trade, and that you properly regard poetry, not as a career but as a calling. You all know this I’m sure. As a calling, you’re more than amply repaid by having the fact of…the very fact of having that calling, you are more than amply repaid by the pleasure that is privately and uniquely yours in the knowledge of how excellent the poem that you have written is. And anything you get back beyond that is an additional gift. So you’re prepared to support yourself in the world by doing school-teaching, social work, growing corn, automotive repair, whatever it is. And also, let that be, you know, what floats into and feeds back to your poetry (because it allb has to come out of the womb-context of daily-life concrete actuality, and I would say it’s rarely possible to make poetry-out of poetry out of poetry, or literature-out of literature out of literature,  but to live in a thoroughly literary context is to be feeding literature back into literature, a composting technique, which will not ultimately work because certain essential nutrients are lacking . Now you can only compost the same material back in on itself so long for thermodynamic reasons, and so there’s the same thing in poetry. So real life is where it’s at, you know. Is poetry really necessary?

I give you one blunt alternative view of all this  (it’s kindergarten) – People who are working in the arts are doing an exercise in intensifying (artificially, in a sense)  a reality which needs no intensification or clarification and putting a frame around it to call our attention to it since we seem to be incapable of acknowledging the power and beauty of the real universe,  upfront, that easily, And so art is a step to call attention to our eye (and see a painting) or our ear (and listen to music) or our language and flow of thoughts (when we read poems). But, in a sense, a raft to be left behind,  when the accomplishment of the ear and eye and mind is such as to see that everywhere, hear that music everywhere, in cars honking, and birds flying over, and idle chatter down the street. Yeah?

AG: How does that match with what Creeley.. (Robert) Creeley’s idea of the composition of the poem as being indistinguishable from any creative act in life. Creeley was very strong on that. What was his formulation of that?  anybody?

Student: Not a re-creation of , not a  recreation but a creation, of itself

Student (2):  It’s an addition, more than an interpretation, an addition to the universe.

AG: That the act of writing, for him, was an exercise of life, rather than.. What was his term? – was it “active exercise”?  in living..  an engagement with living… It wasn’t an.. It wasn’t imitation of life, it wasn’t… It was action itself, life, action itself.

Student: (The active, I think (he) was active during the poem (he) was, truly living..)

MB: We should call him up and ask him..

AG:Well, we’ve got it on tape, but does anybody remember the essence of what he said about that?

Robert Creeley

LF: What is the essence ?

Student: Well, it came out of the first week when he talked of Imagists, Objectivists

AG: Yes.

Student: ….you know, like, reproducing and reproducing experience. And reproducing experience, like Gary, you were saying, it seems to fall short. There’s just, like, a frame on something that naturally is, But what (Robert) Creeley was saying was that that poem you create is an experience in and of itself and it’s not a recreation, it’s a new experience to be experienced freshly as looking out from a…

AG:  Here’s.. yeah….here’s how I heard it.  His engagement with life, or reality, was through the poem, was through poetry, his engagement

GS: His personal engagement? –

AG: Yes, his personal engagement, his method.

GS:  Yes, this is talking from the stand-point of the creator

LF: A calling. That’s the calling. Like, you’re involved in the calling, you’re involved in the calling (some people, you know,  say “poet is priest”, and you’re, you know, involved in that calling)

Student: Yeah, well, even as readers, you know, we can pick up something and read it and maybe not go into it as, “this is a recreation of something that happened before, I wish I was there”, but, (rather), “this is something in and of itself, an experience in and of itself”,

GS: Why not both?

LF: Almost simultaneously.

Patricia Donegan: I think I want to stress.. It might not be helpful to you but, echoing what she said, about making your everyday life a poem,  I think, with the idea of occupation sometimes there’s a disparity, because I have my work, and then I have my creative work, my poems, but the whole thing could be pervading everything you do.

MB: Right. (Are) slogan’s a problem?

PD:  I find them helpful.  That’s always helped me (when I) remember what it says – Gary?

AG (to GS): Join us.

GS: Yes

PD: You were saying, at the beginning, about the food chain, being the all-important thing when…  It just seems like, as poets, we have to be involved in what’s going on around us, the whole society is one big bottle-neck about the distribution of, not only food, you know, but everyday necessities crashing around… I don’t know how we can ignore all that in our poetry?

AG: Well, I don’t think Gary was suggesting that we ignore it
PD:  No, I know he wasn’t, but I mean, I just feel we ought to…

GS: You can’t ignore it, but the other side of it is you can’t take a virtuous subject-matter and arbitrarily make it your work either. In the nature of the creative process, if you..  a person with big heart and mind encompasses those larger processes, handles them one way or another (perhaps some people have narrower, or more finely-pointed, smaller areas of approach, and so I don’t feel inclined to make judgment about the relative merit of a refined haiku on sticky monkey-flowers, as against, say, a massive “Plutonian Ode“, dealing with fundamental historical and spiritual  problems of our whole world. It may be that each is doing the same job from a different angle. So it’s really hard to make judgments of that order . As we have been saying, I guess for years now, or have been told for years now, the point there is in quality, is in authenticity of poem as poem, rather than between range or scope or appropriateness of subject-matter. And ultimately, some things don’t work and are boring as subject-matter in literature and notability, notable utterances.. notability is always an interesting question – what makes something notable?. I was going to ask Joe Richey will you please recite a few lines of a poem you know from memory?

JR: Right now?
GS: Yes
JR: Okay
GS: If you can.

JR: “It’s hot and inhumane, approaching the Holland Tunnel exhaust pipe under the swirling chemical river running between these two states in my eyes tasting the brick lips carbon on the wall windows rolled on entry, exhaling deeply and peering lights burning hear the static wire as each bulb grows with passing traffic my head is cocked I cruise by NJ-NY without batting an eye inhaling window specks and the bus fumes I am following road love the road the engine swallows as the left headlamp leans to the double yellow line leading me funneling me alone with machine and every breathing carburetor every grizzled truck face every finer white button collared man every heart throbbing until the sky explodes before us and the whole city flashes and races”

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning, and continuing till approximately twenty-six minutes in]   – and also here:

One comment

  1. Was there really a Naropa Institute symposium on “The Soul — Is There One, What Is It, and What’s Happening To It?” in the summer of 1985? I can’t find any information about it other than the mention of it in “Snapshot Poetics”.

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