"Breathe together with an ordinary mind"
I'll be in New York for a few days this week, giving a presentation on Caracas Notebook to students and seeing friends. It was 10 years ago this month I left New York for Providence, from a friend's couch in Chinatown to a streetcorner on the Lower East Side, with all my belongings stuffed into a duffle bag that wouldn't quite close, to the Port Authority and a bus that would take me away. It was at my friend's apartment that I first listened to the Outkast album ATLiens on the week of its release. An album I now associate with October 1996 in NYC, the week I spent in Chinatown after quitting my job, my last haircut at the barber shop off Avenue B that had my photograph up on the wall along with two dozen other customers, displaying our barber's various styles.
My year in New York helped dispel any romantic notions I had about poetry and that city, crushed as I was by dire economic circumstances, making my living just out of college unloading trucks and stocking the shelves of a health food store on 1st Avenue. Allen Ginsberg came in one afternoon with his assistant to shop. We chatted briefly at the check-out counter, after my friend who was a cashier said to Ginsberg about me: "This man's a poet, too." When he heard this, Ginsberg smiled and shook my hand.
I told him I had been one of his students at Naropa three years earlier. He didn't remember me and said: "I don't know if I'll be going out there much anymore, I've been very sick recently. I'm getting too old." He would be dead within a year, and I'd find out about it on a bus from Amherst to Providence, noticing his photograph on the front page of the New York Times.
I saw Ginsberg on a couple other occasions during that year in NY. Once, I caught a glimpse of him eating with Peter Orlovsky at the diner next-door to my job as I walked home from work one evening. The other time was at a reading he gave at a huge theater at Columbia University. One morning I walked down to Tompkins Square Park during a break from work and across from me sat Peter Orlovsky reading a newspaper, with his long white hair and beard.
I spent a month at Naropa in 1993. It was fantastic and I learned a great deal, even though I found the scene there to be intimidating. I grew to dislike the "American" Buddhism of so many people there, couched as it seemed to be in a hipness and exoticism I considered annoying. In his class, which he gave in the big white tent on the back lawn of Naropa, with a view of the Flatirons cliffs, Ginsberg assigned a meditation writing exercise as our first homework. I went home and did the meditations he assigned, along with the writing exercises, but other than that I avoided any type of Buddhist practice during my time there. I was more interested in Boulder's trees, the girls I met and the poets I was discovering.
The person I was renting a room from in Boulder had worked at Naropa for many years and was friends with Ginsberg. During the first week of the summer session, a large group of us went to a restaurant near campus. My landlord was sitting with Ginsberg and she called me over to meet him. We talked about Venezuela (I told him it was "fucked up") and Latin American poetry. He mentioned a visit he made to Lima, Peru, where he met the reclusive poet Martín Adán. I told him about Adán's novel The Cardboard House, which he hadn't read. He recommended the Peruvian poet Carlos Oquendo de Amat, whose book 5 metros de poemas unfolded like an accordion. (Ugly Duckling Presse plans to publish an English translation of this book soon.)
At the time, I was passionate about Octavio Paz's poetry and I mentioned him to Ginsberg. He frowned and after a few seconds said, annoyed: "I never know what he's talking about in his poems. He goes on and on but never settles on specific images." Later on I remembered the disparaging line in his Indian Journals about Paz playing tennis at the Mexican embassy in India. A few months earlier I had discovered the work of some Venezuelan poets published by the magazine Poesía at the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia. I mentioned these poets to him and he asked if I had any translations of their work. I told him I would work on some versions but that they were bound to be very rudimentary. He said that most translations were awkward anyways, but were valuable because they helped "give a flavor of what the work's like." On the topic of Venezuela, he told me about a group of young poets from Caracas he had corresponded with in the early 60s called El Techo de la Ballena. ("The Roof of the Whale," he said, holding one hand up to visualize a low ceiling.) When someone at the table asked him what he was reading, he mentioned a recent biography of T.S. Eliot. Ginsberg was amused that Eliot's first wife was an avid drug user and he wondered how often Eliot might have joined her in that enthusiasm.
Towards the end of the summer session I gave him a copy of my finished English versions of several Venezuelan poets, naively thinking he was interested in reading my translations. I had been too young or too unworldly to realize he'd simply been hitting on me. That summer he ended up getting together with my friend Z. who used to give me rides to and from campus. Z. and I had been talking about Ginsberg when we first met one afternoon as we were leaving Naropa and, in what seemed to be a cosmic coincidence, we drove by him as he was walking alone on the sidewalk in front of Boulder High School. Sometime during the second week of classes Z. came up to me with a big smile on his face and told me about the beginning of his escapades with Ginsberg. At the end of the summer, while Z. was driving me to the airport in Denver, he told me that Ginsberg had let him leaf through his journals and manuscripts whenever he wanted. Z. had fallen in love with him and was asking me what he should do. Go visit him in NY, write him letters, forget him? I can't remember what I said to him, but it was probably unhelpful, since I had slept very little during those last few days, ensnared as I was with a girl I had befriended.
Ginsberg's class that summer was based on his Mind Writing Slogans, which he had recently completed. As he would go over specific quotations, he would pause to elaborate on certain writers. Wordsworth, Blake and Pound were cited more than once. One time, as he was reading aloud a section from The Cantos, he began to cry slightly, stopping to wipe his eyes and catch his breath. The passage that made him cry was from Canto CXV: "A blown husk that is finished / but the light sings eternal / a pale flare over marshes." One poem we read in its entirety during class was Guillaume Apollinaire's "Zone," which Ginsberg called the first truly modern poem of the XX century.
During a small critique session for half a dozen students, Ginsberg was brutal in his analysis of our work. He noticed an ornate quality in my poems that he said distracted from the central ideas. One of the few margin notes he wrote on my manuscript said a stanza of mine sounded like "translationese," as though I was awkwardly turning Spanish lines into English. For another poem he asked me to describe what I was writing about. When I did, he said: "Then why didn't you write that, instead of creating all this convoluted imagery?" What I had thought of as daring and original work, he dismissed within a few minutes of sharp analysis. He recommended we all read Rimbaud's Illuminations, praising his ability to create vivid, succinct images.
At the end of the summer session there was a party at someone's apartment, downstairs from where Ginsberg was staying. I remember waiting in line for the beer keg on the porch with Michael McClure and seeing Tom Hayden standing awkwardly in the living room. At one point Z. and Ginsberg came downstairs for a few minutes. Ginsberg was wearing blue pajamas & house slippers and wandered around the apartment mingling with people.
My notebooks from that month in Boulder are sparse. I'm surely distorting some episodes and forgetting others. I'm not mentioning the poems by fellow students Chris Apache and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke which I absorbed and admired during their readings under the tent one night. Or Basura Bob's great photocopied zine, his generosity in introducing me to Slint's Spiderland on vinyl (another moment that permanently changed me). Or my first reading of Ted Berrigan's Sonnets. Or the night at a party in someone's backyard when I met a Navajo cousin who'd been raised by rednecks in Alabama, who told me about his time in Tampa seeing hardcore shows at the Ritz theater & getting into fights with skinheads. I first recognized him when he arrived with his friends by the eagle feather he had pinned to his backpack. An awareness and misunderstanding of my own Indianness. That same night, another Guillermo (Puerto Rican) showed up at the party, who'd just gotten back from a year in India. People would say his name out loud and until I met him, I was wondering why I kept hearing my name. When we spoke, I quoted Vallejo's lines: "¡Cuatro conciencias / simultáneas enrédanse en la mía!" A few hours later, after the party and before dawn, I left my room and walked into the valley at the edge of town, where I climbed onto a cliff to watch the sunrise over the plains. Autobiography as a means of countering a growing sense of ghosthood.
Although I became interested in poetry while I was in high school (I remember reading an Amiri Baraka poem I liked in the 11th grade), it was "Howl" that really transformed me. I can still recall the night I walked across campus to the library at USF in January of 1990 and checked out the facsimile edition of "Howl." I read the opening verses in the stacks of the library and was entranced from the very beginning. As with the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, I felt I understood what Ginsberg was saying immediately. It felt familiar and cosmic.
I bought a hardcover edition of his Collected Poems: 1947-1980 at a used book store in North Tampa, and carried that book around for months in my backpack like a talisman. The poems I published in a student magazine were obvious Ginsberg imitations, though I suppose someone must have liked them enough to accept them. It took me years to shake Ginsberg's influence, and I think I often still imitate his writing in certain ways. Though I hardly read him anymore, he remains a touchstone for me, especially his bravery in opposing the Vietnam war, in advocating for the existence of a cosmic consciousness within the material world, and in exposing the hypocrisy of politicians, both on the left and on the right. He was also crucial for me during my brief psychedelic season, offering valuable lessons on dissolving paranoia and fear. His final stanza from "Capitol Air" is some of the best advice I've encountered:
"Aware Aware wherever you are No Fear
Trust your heart Don't ride your Paranoia dear
Breathe together with an ordinary mind
Armed with Humor Feed & Help Enlighten Woe Mankind"
The expanded, definitive version of his Collected Poems: 1947-1997 is being published later this month and I've ordered a copy. There's plenty in there that should have never been published, mediocre and self-centered poems that go nowhere. But there's enough in that book, particularly in his work from the 1950s and early 60s to value and reread. There are several great pieces in his later work, including portions of White Shroud and Death & Fame. His footnotes for the Collected are fascinating, almost a parallel universe to the poems, with citations leading to French surrealism, Latin American avant-gardes, Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts, Native American traces and American Marxist history. I can't imagine myself as a reader without his books.