Randy Roark on Allen Ginsberg as Teacher

The first volume of what is slated to be a pretty extensive and exhaustive on-going series of memoirs, detailing a life richly-lived, Randy Roarks  Poets Apprentice – Book One – At the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – January-March 1980   has happily just appeared. Although we’ve noted the Roark-Ginsberg connection on The Allen Ginsberg Project before – (see here) –  and strongly recommend these two early drafts – here and here  (published back in 2012 in the magazine Newtopia), the publication of this thoughtful and comprehensive volume more than amplifies the story and is indeed cause for celebration.

Roark, it should be re-asserted, is the primary source for any number of Naropa transcriptions (our on-going William Blake transcription being just one of them) that have been appearing (and will continue to be appearing) on this site. As an archivist and an early apprentice of Allen (and his Naropa milieu) his contribution has been invaluable and indeed, and of course, the book reflects this.

As Jacqueline Henrion in her introduction writes –  “Roark interweaves Naropa history, critical commentary and observations (here) in 250 pages…The Table of Contents provides a clear overview of subjects that will pique the readers interest, ending with a hundred pages of original reference material, appendices and an index…His encyclopedic archival notations provide rich original source material notated by date from the heyday of Naropa’s history.”

She cites one of Roark’s stated hopes –  the preservation of “something of what Allen was like as a teacher and some of what was taught the years I attended the school, reduced to what remains evocative or meaningful to me today” –  “news that stayed news” (Roark was inspired via Allen’s insights and the teachings of Allen’s mentor, Ezra Pound) and “the tools and information that proved most useful when I was on my own”

He was interviewed by Emily Rivera of Giant Steps Press back in May 2021 about the book. The full interview may be viewed and listened to here

from the book (Randy, self-effacingly, remembering, in those early days he was yet to understand, and how Allen gave him the understanding):

“..the writing was without any sense of style, there was no one at the helm – it was just language about emotions triggered by memories that others couldn’t share. Plus it was written in a kind of shorthand where most of the references were too personal to be understood by others, like showing someone a photograph of a soldier, without telling them it’s a photo of your father who never returned from the war. It doesn’t communicate. It was the raw material of a poem, but I would need to create a story or some style to hold it all together before it became a real poem. That’s what I wanted Allen to help with. That’s why I wanted him to stop at the end of the first stanza, to see if I was going about transforming the raw data into a poem in the right way.
But Allen didn’t stop where things got messy. He went through the pages with his head down, reading it with more interest than anything I’d ever brought him. Every once in a while, he’d look up and ask a quick, clarifying question—“Was he in love with you?” “What do you mean, he overdosed on L.S.D? That’s impossible!” “Did his parents really get back together after his suicide?” “Where did you get that image of the father sitting alone in the kitchen in the dark? Well, that must be some kind of archetypal image because that’s an image I have of my own father, stumbling in on him in a dark kitchen, everyone asleep, silent and alone, like a Sphinx.” And then he’d be back to reading before I’d finished answering.”

“Well, I think you have pay dirt here,” he said, writing the two words at the top of the last page and underlining them three times. But I continued to insist it wasn’t a poem … yet. “Think of all your questions! There’s lots of stuff in there that no one other than me could understand. It’s not poetry. Yet.”
“But it’s clear,” he said and began explaining events and fleshing them out with secret longings and unacknowledged feelings that at first I thought were Allen’s crazy projections, but over the next couple of days I slowly realized were absolutely true. That’s why those moments were so charged. At the time, I was too close and looked away because that’s the way I am. But what caused me to look away was still in there, like an image burned into my retina. And I was still looking away from it. My conscious mind could not have written the poem because it didn’t have enough information. Or it didn’t have the right information. The real story was hidden from my conscious mind but still present in what I remembered because what I remembered was significant enough that I remembered it. If I had tried to massage the poem into shape, the real message would have been edited out because it wasn’t the story I was aware of telling.

I want to explore this practice further, write poems and stories I don’t understand that are created from actual memories, the way they come up unexpected. I want to use those moments to instigate writing by letting my memory write, like a waking dream journal, recounting everything I can remember about an encounter, no matter how out-of-sequence or seemingly random. But not automatic writing. I want to focus on what actually happened, what I’ve seen and heard. And to write about the present in this way too and notice what I notice when I notice and write it down. Or whatever I remember about a day at the end of it—what people said that made me take note, what I saw that stands out, what I heard that’s memorable, what I felt when I felt and why. Mix it up…

The process seems to be to remember what I remember in the order in which it is remembered. Because who cares if a story from ten years ago is in perfect chronological order? Even if someone could prove that some of my memories and impressions are misremembered or wrongly re-imagined, what could I replace them with? A blank? Someone else’s memories?”

Rivera and Roark’s conversation further illumines:

So that’s the kind of things that would happen in those meetings, things that wouldn’t happen in a classroom. If I handed that poem in to Allen (in his class), he would have made some comments and handed it back to the guy in row A, seat four. But with the apprenticeship, it doesn’t get to be like that. He asked me a question and tried to find what was underneath that to try to understand why I wrote it this way and what it was that he should be telling me to make me write more interesting poems…

Allen never made me feel like I didn’t have it. He made me feel like I wasn’t focused properly. He always told me it’s in there, like “We’ve got to get it out.” He read this (holds up a first draft). He knows it’s in there. I have a real life. He doesn’t know what this is (that I’m bringing him) – “What is this? I don’t know what this is.”

The most common thing he said to me was that when you talk about your poetry, you’re really interesting. “I love to hear you talk about it, but your poetry is not interesting.” So that’s what he is trying to do, is try and steer me. That’s what a teacher does. They see what your skills are and what your potentials are. And it’s like a son, you know, that (a father( wants to draw you over here to where they think you’ll be happier and you’re stuck over here because your mind is hemmed in and he’s trying to break your mind open. He never made me feel like I was never going to be a good poet. It was just a matter of like, how do we get you to be you and write a poem?

I’m lucky that Allen was the first class I had there (at Naropa) because it was a good root and foundation to go in there and start smacking things around rather than (only) in a classroom, more or less anonymous. ….(During) the apprenticeship, for hours I’m sitting there and he’s asking me questions.

One of the most important things about what I learned from Allen, and no one else would have ever done, is that he asked me questions that I could only answer from in here (pounds on his chest). Not ideas but responses. The answer isn’t hard or anything, but it’s not in my head. I couldn’t answer (and remain) in my head. I could only answer how I felt and who I was. I kept answering out of that place for hours at a time until he gave me myself. He taught me how to talk about myself to other people as well. He helped me to explore those feelings by asking me questions, not giving me answers, not telling me what to think, but asking me questions that I had to (respond to by saying) okay, I don’t like that, but why not? Then I had to explore why – Or why don’t you do that? – Well, I don’t – But why don’t you? –  That stuff happens. The difference is, he’s actually going in there and, like, you know, breaking legs to reset them, and stuff.  He’s doing serious work

(N)obody was like Allen. Allen was the full menu. He was fully awake and he was not going to stop until he was exhausted. I would wear out from the attention, but he was still going strong. Can I go home, please? You know, this a lot of (emotional) work for me. And I have a certain personality. It’s very sheltered and protective and doesn’t feel safe exposing itself. And (the apprenticeship) is all about being exposed. It’s all about manifesting who you are, the only time you can manifest it, which is right here, right now, all the time, whatever the circumstances. If not you lose, not Allen.”

Randy Roark and Allen Ginsberg, July 1996, Boulder, Colorado, photograph by Kai Sibley

4 comments

  1. Were you, Randy, in Allen’s class “ 19th century American poetic Genius, in the fall of ‘83? I wasn’t in the Kerouac school but I audited it. One of the best experiences of my life.

  2. we would like to carry it at our bookstore, but can only find it on satan’s amazon…Gary Lawless, Gulf of Maine Books

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *