Lefkowicz-Smith 1979 Naropa Interview continues

Roberta Lefkowicz and Mike Smith’s 1979 Naropa interview with Allen Ginsberg continues

RL:  Okay, do you think that people in everyday life actually are poets, even though sometimes they’re not aware of it?  People who are working with language, with images, just in their everyday lives.

AG:  Well, it depends how you define the word “poet”; but obviously yes, if you define the poet that way.  (Chogyam) Trungpa, (Rinpoche) has been lecturing on art and has been defining the word “artist” that way –  that the point is there is no such thing as separate “artist” really, or “poet”,  it’s that, in the Buddhist scheme of things, the order – creating an order – during everyday life, is artistry.  And so the Buddhist notion of art is that it applies at all times…

RL:  It’s a sensibility.

AG:  … whether cooking a meal, washing dishes.  No, it’s actually awareness.  Mindfulness.  The sensibility.  It is a sensibility and the specific characteristic of that sensibility is mindfulness or awareness of present space around you, rather than daydream.

RL:  What do you think are the greatest strengths of the (Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics ) department?

AG:  The individual poetic genius of the teachers, and the comradeship and community that they have that reaches back into time and forms a kind of lineage, parallel to the Buddhists.

MS:  It seems like a lot of the poets who come are doing it… like, there’s nothing to draw them here except kind of the relationship to you or the relationship to Anne or….

AG:  The relationship to the community of poetry.  Some curiosity about Buddhism.  So it’s all personal.

MS:  Yeah, it’s no money.

AG:  Well, there’s money.  It’s not money that’s attracting them. Maybe glory, but then that’s a little doubtful, too, since the school is so controversial.

MS:  Yeah.  Well, so then what would be a weakness, do you feel?

AG:  The main weakness of it at the moment, and all along, has been that because the poets are really occupied with their art, they are not very good managers and organizers.  Actually, Anne (Waldman)  is quite a brilliant organizer, and so am I in certain respects, but it isn’t in the kind of formal structured organization of sequential teaching as you have it in the Academy, or as you have it in traditional Buddhist fields, where you begin at the beginning and go through Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana with much discipline.

And also one difficulty is that poetry, by its very nature in America, or in the West, has had to accomodate to the tradition of Francois VillonArthur Rimbaud, the poète maudit,  the criminal poet, or the outrageous poet, or the drunken poet, or the Dylan Thomas-type …

MS:  (Gregory) Corso.

AG:  … or Corso, and that is one of the houses of poetry.  It is one of the Western traditions and it’s probably one of the Eastern traditions, too.  So that makes it very difficult to fit into academic circumstance.

Now, that’s been a problem with the regular academies, that mad geniuses are stifled.  However, in a Buddhist situation, it probably gives a little bit more space, or room, or humor, or non-attachment, (to it)  so that the difficulties and thorniness of mad geniuses can be accomodated and worked with.  However, there are limits  (partly, limits of Buddhist patience, unfortunately, and limits of poets’ compassion, unfortunately –  both).

So the second drawback is, especially, right at the moment, nobody knows quite who’s in charge.  I don’t want to assume tyrannical charge.  Dick Gallup, who is receiving a salary to be in charge, has been somewhat confused as to who’s in charge and what to do with it all, and it’s too much work.  What we really need is a secretary or manager – some paid employee who can take over and take care of the routine organizational matters that are necessary, like the supervision of the teaching assistants, the checking out of details, such as is there enough tape for taping classes?, is there a follow-up on the tapes so that they’re gathered and archived in one spot?, are they indexed?, are teaching materials available to teachers? (and do) visitors have proper accomodations, and pillows, and spoons and silverware?, are the connections made between the visitors and the administrative community and the Buddhist community and Trungpa?, are the visiting teachers invited to the right parties?, is there someone to drive them around and get their laundry?  The details of management and hospitality and orderliness really are a full-time job, and none of the… neither myself nor Anne (are) maintaining phone connections to the poet’s ghetto.

RL:  Isn’t that usually an oral tradition?  Or a written tradition?

MS:  Would that just be money, pretty much?

AG:  That’s very much a question of money.  If we had twenty-five thousand dollars..

MS:  You could hire somebody.

AG:  … to hire a cracker-jack, marvelous administrator, we’d have the best poetry (department).  However, if we had twenty-five thousand dollars we could then pay the poets a little bit, instead of..  For instance, (Ken) Kesey came here for two hundred dollars, and (William) Burroughs is being here for a full month, and available socially as well as teaching and giving a reading, for something like six hundred dollars, when he gets two thousand dollars a reading for just one night, if he goes out on the road.

MS:  Yeah, I find it incredible that people like Burroughs, whose work has been so singular …

AG:  Um-hmm.

MS:  … as you put it, that he kind of gives that up to come and work in this environment.  I mean, he’s still kind of Burroughs….

AG:  Totally Burroughs, and he’s completing his novel here.  He’s completed his major work of the ‘Seventies here, and in New York.  He’s right now going over the final seven-hundred-page manuscript of his book, Cities of the Red Night, which is going to be his big best-seller bombshell that’s going to out-fame Naked Lunch

MS:  Have you looked at it?

AG:  Yeah, he’s read parts of it here.  And I’ve been on tour with him in Europe and in America when he’s read parts.  Over the last five years.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute

RL:  Well, excuse me, (but) what about the students and the department?

AG:  Well, there is some question in my mind.  Are the students worth the attention of the faculty?

MS:  Yeah.

AG:  We have this top-notch faculty, but how many students have come here to experience it long enough to get the whole cycle over a year or two and get a Certificate?  How many are coming in just to …

MS:  (..hang)

AG:  … well, to take part in a star-trip…

MS:  Yeah.

AG:  You know, just hang around.  Hang out with Burroughs, or myself, or Anne, or Ken Kesey.  How many are actually just coming here to have big parties with a lot of poets, and how many are coming to study the insights and psychology and subtle body darshan of the writers?  How many are actually picking up on the intelligence of the writers rather than their drinking or their fucking or their screwing?  How many (are) coming for sensationalist purpose or romantic idealistic purposes, and how many realize the opportunity they have to actually observe closely the way various writers operate –  their body English, their relationship to the world, to external phenomena and to each other and to learn that with respect and quiet and dignity? A lot of the students just think it’s a big party, and some of them are just coming here to learn how to write in a very pedestrian way, (and) not really… They can’t be taught how to write, but they can pick up a certain kind of élan and openness and amusement and humor and wit and subtlety, if they observe carefully.

MS:  Do you think that like….

AG:  Then another core problem is that many of the students are almost … some of them are almost illiterate, like in my first years’ teaching here I took a survey of what people had read, and found that many had read me and (Jack) Kerouac, but very few had read (John) Keats and (Percy Bysshe) Shelley.  The first year when I went to teach the last chorus of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues poems, I mentioned that it referred back to a certain speech of “Hamlet”.  (I found) that the majority in the class had never read “Hamlet”, so trying to teach them Kerouac’s wisdom and wit was hopeless until they’d first read “Hamlet”.  So it’s an illiterate television generation.  The ones that come here are not illiterate, generally, but some are.

RL:  Have you found that you couldn’t reach the students directly but you had to predicate your lessons on other lessons,  for example, to predicate Kerouac on Shakespeare?

AG:  Well, if there is a specific poem of Kerouac’s that I thought was very good, his last poem in Mexico City Blues,  that was, in a sense, a take-off or parody of Shakespeare soliloquy, they would miss the whole humor and point of it if they didn’t know Shakespeare.  I mean, it isn’t as if Kerouac existed in a void.

RL:  No.

AG:  He was one of a great line of geniuses and he was very funny about the genius of others.  In fact, speaking of Shakespeare he said, “Genius if funny.”  And his own language was funny like that.

MS:  What about Buddhism to the department?  Like it seems at most clashing with the same sort of thing that has a person develop their writing, is sort of individuality or, you know, like (William) Blake saying, “I want a system….”

AG:  “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Actually, it’s “I want a system that will liberate men from systems.”  Well, that’s not very different from atta, you know.

MS:  Yeah.  But definitely my impression from being here it’s not that developed but that there’s not that many practitioners in the Poetics Department, other than the faculty.

RL:  Well, wait, I’d just like to ask….

AG:  Well, there’s a problem, yes.  The Buddhist community I don’t think has taken advantage of the richness of the poetic community here to pick up on the variety and energy of it.  The poetic community here has gotten paranoid about the Buddhist community and hasn’t really taken advantage of the discipline and training available and the wisdom.  That is, they haven’t done it enough. There has been some, and the very co-existence of the two within the same school is already a miracle. And already the miracle’s accomplished – just that they’re together as it is, whether or not it comes through osmosis or direct study, something has happened that’s important.  And I don’t think American poetry will ever be the same, nor will American Buddhism ever be the same.  Because the Buddhism will have to tally up to the intelligence and variety and humor and liberality of the poets and the poets will have to tally up to the spiritual dignity and accomplishment of the Buddhists, because poetry is always supposed to be spiritual.  So they’re both an embarrassment and an enrichment to each other.

MS:  That’s well said.

AG:  So the question is “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day” [Editorial note – Allen quotes Kerouac here]

RL:  What’s the role of sitting –  sitting meditation – to the poetics practice?

AG:  Well, in my case I think I do both.

RL:  Alright.

AG:  And I’m advanced in both.  Some people are and some people aren’t in different areas, but the mind of poetry and the mind of meditation I think is similar in the 20th century.

RL:  It’s in the seat.

AG:  No, in the breath.  Literally. in the breath.  Inspiration, poetry, the breath, and meditation is on the breath.

RL:  Alright, what about the great….

tape breaks here

to be continued

One comment

  1. The intersection of the buddhic and poetic traditions creates a cutting intelligence to the nature of reality and human existence. Poetry has a revolutionary spirit and like Buddhism seeks to transcend and enlighten whilst still functioning within everyday mundane reality. Poets are like the soothsayers of ancient Greece who saw the tyranny of Kings and the machiavellianism of the political nation state. I recently watched the Bob Dylan rolling thunder revue in which Allen Ginsberg shone like a star he was compassionate and avuncular and danced with graceful abandon to music. He truly was a great creative spirit and a counter culture revolutionary. He embodied filial love and brotherhood and joy in the buddhist sense. Im fascinated by poetry and buddhism and Ginsberg embodied the best of both spheres. Joyfulness is something I rarely see in the high tech world of transhumanist cyborgs and 21st century alienation. Im a gen Xer who deeply longs for the zeitgeist of the 60s…..

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