5. (Blue Silk Chiffon)
Reader Road Map: 1979-1982. Current Events: Iran hostage crisis; Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie arrested in Vienna; John Lennon assassinated. News Topic: racial protests.
On broader horizons, NASA spacecraft Voyager 1 zoomed to the edge of the solar system to reveal Jupiter’s planetary rings. The United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were the World’s lone two Superpowers, chilling each other with their Cold War. University of Michigan’s radical student group Weather Underground had disbanded, but former Weathermen teamed up with the Black Liberation Army to make headlines.
These and other news items came to my adolescent attention via newspapers and television or radio broadcast. My bedroom inside Dora’s house hosted the round mahogany table that had for decades supported the elbows of my grandfather. Seated at his table, in a cane-bottomed dining chair made of pecan wood, I read everything I could gather. I read half a dozen texts at one time, devouring the contents like bon-bons.
Publisher William Randolph Hearst’s granddaughter Patty (recently released from prison) had been kidnapped by revolutionaries and joined them in crime sprees. Patty Hearst was splashy news.
Abbie Hoffman from the University of California at Berkeley surrendered to police in 1980 for his role in various protest activities associated with groups like the Yippies and the Black Panthers. I was revolutionary-minded, but looking for something more artistic and less militarized.
I heard folk and rock music songs about people working in factories. The hippie vibe was strong among America’s youth; I felt called to break free from my socially bigoted heritage. A fearlessness grew in my heart regarding labor and poverty. I decided I would go out into the world and seek my fortune like in the tales my grandmother had read to me. I was willing to work, and work hard, for my bread. I would set forth to find the meaning of happiness, as had all the youths I’d read about in the Lang fairy-tale books.
I was a teenager in North Carolina when I read City Lights Pocket Poets paperback, “Howl.” Reading Ginsberg at my grandfather’s round table, my heart torched in kindred flame. Beat poets were the revolutionaries I wanted!
Howl, a slim book, conjured in me the spunk to find Allen Ginsberg. I practiced my handwriting in Gothic and Copperplate scripts and wrote a letter of inquiry to Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (JKS) in Boulder, Colorado. Instead of completing high school, I decided to enroll at JKS. The School answered quickly, reviving me like Kentucky bluegrass.
It’s hard to imagine such a place as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics really existed, but it did. Unaccredited and obscure, tucked away at 1111 Pearl Street above a bar that served alcohol.
People used the full name of the School back then, although now it’s known as Jack Kerouac School. The fuller name had meaning. ‘Disembodied’ implied spirituality. The revolution going on at JKS was one of Art and Literature. Allen Ginsberg named the School after his college comrade Jack Kerouac.
Kerouac had been a good-looking kid with a Columbia football scholarship, an expansive mind, and loads of personal charm. He also had a heavy drug problem, which was Kerouac’s eventual downfall, but not before he helped to create the Beat literary genre. I read about them and saw them standing half-naked in black and white photographs. They looked happy and good-spirited. Welcoming and friendly. The biggest attraction to me was their intellectualism.
I carried a blue portable Olivetti typewriter with me on my journey to Boulder and a few dresses. I traveled alone. I arrived in January, during a Rocky Mountain snowfall. I knocked at the door of a brick house on Tenth Street, as pre-arranged by JKS administrators. A Christmas tree stood in the house’s front room, silver tinsel fallen everywhere. My rented bedroom was upstairs and had a walk-in closet, in the shape of a square. The closet’s window seemed like a painting, with a sunset view of the Flatirons and the base of the Rockies. The window was a single glass pane, opening with a latch and swinging horizontally like a door.
I decided to sleep on a mattress inside the closet and use the bedroom area as a writing studio. I set up my portable typewriter, ready to become a poet. My bedroom windows faced Tenth Street. This detail proved significant for a certain Romeo, Sam Jake Seuss. He could woo me from beneath my windows, but not yet. We didn’t meet right away. My first friends were the poets Larry Fagin and Michael Brownstein. JKS faculty and my Buddhist housemates embraced me in friendship. I was happy from day one.
I knew death had come to Kerouac in 1969, a full decade before I arrived at JKS, but students heard about Kerouac’s vivid exploits from Allen Ginsberg. Sharing and caring, Ginsberg gave generously. He was a wonderful, exciting teacher. His poetry and teaching style, deeply personal. Sincere. Genuine. Truthful. For these attributes, Ginsberg was universally respected.
“Bohemia is a very old lifestyle,” Allen Ginsberg lectured. “A longing for feminine bliss, and at the same time a fear of it.”
His book poem “Kaddish” described his mother who had died in 1956. Kaddish is an Aramaic word of ancient origin used in Jewish prayers, something Ginsberg held holy. When I met Ginsberg, he was a practicing Buddhist. (If I met him for the first time now, in 2017, I’d throw my arms around him and tell him how much I appreciate him. But back then, I just said, “Hi.”) He was an adult man, but not old, because the boyhood of his personality sang forth intact.
I learned Jack Kerouac earned notoriety for abandoning closest friends to bedsit his aged mother and drink himself to death, as if Robin Hood had deserted his Merry Men. He was deeply missed. Everybody revered Kerouac, but nobody grasped his motivation for retreat. He could have lived, celebrated and loved by the poets now collected at JKS, yet Kerouac chose to die in sorrow, self-banished from those who most cherished him, and aloof from the companionship that had allowed him his greatest freedom of expression. But Jack Kerouac’s youthful fortitude remained uncorrupted, in part because of Allen Ginsberg’s sustained courage. Ginsberg did not ‘sell out’ commercially. He did not accept less than his ideals. He did not choose what was easy, convenient, comfortable, or safe. He had kept on being Allen Ginsberg, and he was still in fullest flower of self-hood when I met him.
Naming the poetics school for Kerouac had been Ginsberg’s final salute to a literary brother, and when Ginsberg spoke of him to students, he said the name joyfully, “Kerouac!”
Classes (I registered for Fagin’s and crashed the other two without credit) included:
Hot Bucolics: (Peter Orlovsky)
Lots of longevity snow rock song poetry: with help from all kinds of poet people inspiration (under the Great Eastern Sunrise) – Williams, Reznikoff, Essenin, Apollinaire, Catullus, Pessoa, et al, and the far-reaching threads of Milarepa and his Hundred Thousand Songs. Open class with student spontaneous composing. Bigger the better so bring your pets and joys.
Writing For Real: (Larry Fagin)
We will write long and short poems, canzones, sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, prose poems, short fiction, commentary, etc., striving for clarity, honesty, surprise. Work will be exposed to in-depth criticism by teacher and students. Readings in Shakespeare, Shelton, Donne, Milton, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, Lawrence, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Crane, Creeley, Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Whalen, Kerouac, Collom, Wieners, Herd.
19th Century American Poetic Genius: (Allen Ginsberg)
Poe’s rhythmic macabre, crank bard; Melville’s leviathan breath; Dickinson’s bedroom metaphysic scrivening; Whitman’s cosmic powerhouse of detail. Survey of four major American poets, their philosophies, elegances and verbal peculiarities, with side reference to their contemporaries.
Some noteworthy background information: Naropa Institute and JKS were part of a larger, non-profit, educational Buddhist foundation called Nalanda. Tibetan meditation master ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche was Nalanda—and Naropa’s founder. At JKS, Trungpa was as legendary as Kerouac. Trungpa came out of a Tibetan spiritual culture into the West during the late 1960’s. When Trungpa founded Naropa in 1974, he was the preeminent Buddhist teaching master of the Western world.
He’d fled Tibet on the back of a mule, wearing monkish robes. At Naropa, he wore American suits and used a microphone. He wore a military-styled uniform. I told the other JKS students I thought Trungpa looked like a friendly dictator.
I never spoke to Trungpa outside of the formal setting of an assembly at Naropa or a reception at a Buddhist event. Trungpa had a reputation for love affairs with his students, drugs and sex parties. I was carefully kept away from this sort of thing by the JKS poets.
I read that Trungpa married an English girl aged sixteen. Local Buddhists told me Trungpa’s wife was a titled English aristocrat. She was the daughter of a London lawyer but the Buddhist community honored her as nobility because Trungpa was, for Naropa, a young god.
Teaching in public, Trungpa kept his facial movements subdued. His lips were full and sculpted. Trungpa, along with Buddhism, was white-hot.
Musician David Bowie had studied with Trungpa in Scotland during the late 1960’s: “I used to be a Tibetan Buddhist,” David told a friend, gleefully. Before he wrote he’d be King, and we—you could be—Queen, Bowie had been Trungpa’s meditation student. In the original video for Bowie’s song “Heroes,” Bowie performed alone on a stage, barely moving his body or features, but placing extraordinary emphasis on the way he moved his mouth: tongue and teeth against lips. Trungpa did the same thing when teaching. Subtle, yet a sledgehammer of power.
“Austerity, pride, a sense of wildness,” Trungpa described meditation retreats. In Trungpa, one felt a strong current of visual sensuality.
Bowie was one visually sensual dude, too. I liked “Moonage Daydream” (with guitarist Mick Ronson). Bowie had romped through the song like a star athlete in heavy makeup and no pants, all thighs and Mount Kilimanjaro vocals. During the late 1970’s, boys and girls wore their hair lusciously long. Kids were pretty, and pretty innocent, too, in spite of a mushrooming drug culture. Bowie was new and exciting. Young people thought they’d live forever, in a sort of Alice-esque psychedelic Wonderland.
In 1987, Trungpa drank himself to death at the age of forty-eight. By then, I had gone to live with my two godmothers in Rome. But in the early days of Naropa, when Trungpa was a mighty force behind all that happened there, nobody envisioned him dying young. And when I left Naropa in 1982, Trungpa was still, you know, The Man. Big Daddy, Head Honcho, Top Dog and Cool Cat. (There followed an eventual AIDS/sex abuse scandal regarding Trungpa’s replacement, but to the Buddhist’s credit, unlike the Vatican’s conduct, the scandal was treated with transparency and timely corrective action.)
Originally, Allen Ginsberg co-taught the first poetics sessions at Naropa with Western-born yogis Bhagavan & Ram Dass (attended Stanford), John Cage (UCLA) and Gregory Bateson (Cambridge). John Cage was a visual artist, composer and writer; lover and partner to modern dance legend Merce Cunningham. Bateson was a writer and anthropologist.
Grafted to this nucleus of folk were Ginsberg’s personal pals.
Beat poets William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and a slew of fine poets including Michael Brownstein, Larry Fagin and Robert Creeley were hand-picked by Ginsberg to be faculty members. He asked orator poet Anne Waldman to help run the school as co-director and she has faithfully stayed at the helm all these years, never abandoning her post at Naropa.
Poetics teachers at Naropa were immaculately educated, for the most part either at Columbia or Harvard. Corso outsiderishly studied in Harvard’s library, with Harvard and Radcliffe students underwriting the costs of his first book, The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems. Trungpa had studied at Oxford; Ginsberg at Columbia with Kerouac.
It was Trungpa who invited Allen Ginsberg to Naropa—and Ginsberg fleshed out the JKS faculty with the cream among living poets. Trungpa was the big guru, but the poets came because of Ginsberg. Until the day he died, Allen Ginsberg could draw a crowd of top talent to the Jack Kerouac School.
Ginsberg was fabled for stout friendship and loyalty, which I think he learned from Kerouac and Ginsberg was an integral part of the New York literary scene, living on and off at a Lower East Side apartment with seasons in Boulder at JKS. He died in his New York City apartment. Larry Fagin still lives in the same building, downstairs from Ginsberg’s old rental apartment, at 12th Street and Avenue A. The Lower East Side was a haven of hipsters in far-out garb, street corner booksellers, sex workers and addicts.
(In October 2017, as this memoir goes forward into publishing contract, and as an excerpt is published online with Empty Mirror, I note for readers that dear Fagin is now dead and I include a photo from the last time we met, August 2011, in NYC at De Robertis Caffe and Sam Jake Seuss texted my cell phone to send his greetings to our “old courage teacher of the ancien regime.”—Alison)
Fair-haired and young, Peter Orlovsky joined Allen Ginsberg in 1954 as lover and lifelong partner (the same year that artist Larry Rivers painted poet Frank O’Hara in the nude wearing boots). Orlovsky taught classes with Ginsberg and on his own, drawing many admirers. Orlovsky had a paid fellowship to teach at Naropa from the success of Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs. People loved Orlovsky; both sexes had the hots for him. Peter was classically handsome. He wore his blond hair long, like a woman. His outspoken goofiness came across as loveable elegance.
“Nathan’s hot dogs!” Peter Orlovsky could be totally tacit or wildly outspoken.
I thought Gregory Corso was the most gifted poet at JKS, although they were all enormously talented. (The big draw for me was their candor.)
Michael Brownstein gave me a copy of his book Highway to the Sky and autographed it, “To Alison, Love in the beginning, Michael.” Larry Fagin wrote me love poems.
I liked Corso’s poem, “The Creepy Flower Peddler,” one of his earliest.
He sells flowers and is a creep!
He sells flowers and wonders why he cannot sleep.
Unlike most peddlers, he grows his own.
And cuts them before they’re fully grown.
And here’s his nowhere song.
Little flowers without a stem, little flowers without a stem
Please for a nickel, who wants them?
(Poetry Center Digital Archive, San Francisco State University, 10/21/1956, with kind permission.)
Corso: “That’s the end of that poem. Nobody should want them. They should shoot the old man. Let me see, I believe a flower should be left to grow. Let them grow and let them die where they are; we have no right to take these things away from the Earth.”
Now, instead of crumbling verandas and racists, I was surrounded by sage zealots, the Beat poet men. They were a living, educational masterpiece.
One of the first things I’d done arriving to JKS was run around in the dark with a flashlight up at the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center (RMDC). RMDC was Trungpa’s meditation hideout under construction. There was no indoor plumbing. And no toilet paper.
I went to RMDC for a ‘weekthun’ of meditation, unprepared and enthusiastic. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but I lived that week as if I would be there forever.
RMDC was being built at the top of a mountainous wilderness and nights were frigid. Local Buddhists from Boulder rotated in shifts to help build. During my weekthun, there existed a few sporadic wooden buildings for bunks and a kitchen. The most advanced building contained the Shrine Room.
I stepped inside. Other people were already seated. I took a red cushion and sat cross-legged on the floor in the first row. The room was large with a gong in a corner to strike out time intervals. It seemed hours passed in silence. I didn’t know anyone present. I didn’t feel especially welcome here. RMDC was not about poetics. It was about Buddhist spirituality.
The splendid brass gong, when struck with a wand, reverberated in deep tones.
I wore painting overalls with my hair pinned in bobby pins. I imagined poems, writing them in my head. I’d composed my first poem at age five, in a dark hallway at Dora’s house in North Carolina the year revolutionary Che Guevara was executed in Bolivia (Dora found my poem and threw it away).
Meditating at RMDC seemed to me punitive. I wished I had pen and paper. Instead, I sat on a red cushion, hungry and thirsty. I pondered a loaf of rye bread, hidden in my cabin bed. I had brought the bread secretly from Boulder; we weren’t allowed to have anything extraneous like hidden bread. I was a rule-breaker.
During meditation break, I determined to peek at the RMDC kitchen. I saw a table made of thick, wooden slab, where a member of the Buddhist elite stood chopping petite portions of vegetable: slivers of cabbage. Our daily broth was being prepared. The kitchen was off-limits, but I’d gotten a glimpse of the sustenance that would be long in coming.
We were to dine in Zen Oryoki ritual. Small bowls formed a set of three that fit one inside the other, each bowl smaller than the one before. A cloth napkin wrapped around each oryoki bowl-set and a meditation practitioner seated next to me instructed me how to fold and refasten my napkin. In famished anticipation, I was ready to receive broth at distribution.
My oryoki bowls were beautifully displayed in front of me. A silent server poured miso soup into my largest bowl. I detected a shred of finely chopped vegetation. The cabbage.
A gong sounded; servers poured warm water from kettles into our bowls. We swirled the water gently, ceremonially, drinking it as part of the meditation program. We dried our bowls with our napkins. I carefully re-stacked and wrapped my oryoki set. The dining ritual continued for ten hungry days. My bread loaf diminished and became drier.
The bathrooms were two adjacent outhouses at the top of a mountain: primitive sheds with wooden perches above deep holes. The outhouses had three walls and no door. When pooping, a person witnessed the Rocky Mountains in grand panorama. I went to the outhouses with other girls from my cabin, in pairs, keeping a lookout for one another. You had toilet paper if you brought it with you when you arrived. I had only brought the forbidden bread loaf so another girl lent me her roll of tissue and I gave her a portion of my rye. None of the other poets were there and I was homesick for the Jack Kerouac School crowd.
RMDC was an untouched wilderness. At night, we ran around in pitch darkness with flashlights. Nalanda Foundation owned the land, which was to say, Naropa did. Everything was newly begun. Naropa and the Jack Kerouac School were in infancy. At RMDC, we were adventurers, first pioneers. The ashes of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky are buried at RMDC, now called Shambhala Mountain Center.
Glad to be back in Boulder, after the meditation hunger weekthun, I met Sam Jake Seuss.
It was a day in still-cool springtime. Sunlight shone toastily through Naropa’s front glass doors on Pearl Street. I was inside talking to Ginsberg and several students when I beheld Jake Seuss in silhouette at the top of the carpeted Naropa stairwell.
Pearl Street was a cobbled mall walkway with no automobile traffic. The doors to Naropa, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics therein sequestered, opened from Pearl Street onto an immediate stairwell.
Entrance to JKS entailed immediate ascension. One set of wide steps ended at a level halfway up and after a modest breadth, came the second climb.
It was at the very top, a bit removed from the entrance stair but still in full view of the doors that I stood chatting with my friend Suzy Banay, a dance student at Naropa.
“Who is that boy?” I asked. He’d just appeared at the top of the stair. His conversation rang like finest lead crystal, alive with meaning. I admired the gleam in his eye. I approached.
“Snakeskin,” Jake Seuss indicated his boots. I noted his small, booted foot. I stood thoughtfully before him. I did not care for his boots one way or the other, but he himself, minus of any trappings, won me. Instantly. Forever. Jake Seuss really was like a fairy-tale youth and it’s how I have always remembered him. It was this boy, the poet-lad, for whom I gladly wait homeless and betrothed three decades later.
Suzy said Jake Seuss was in his mid-twenties, a recent graduate of JKS—his presence in constant demand because everybody liked him. With manner electric, he seemed my male counterpart, ablaze in rapid-fire Cupid torpedoes. Many years passed before we became passionate lovers. (The fact we met at JKS as Ginsberg’s students was icing on the cake. My godmother, Lady Jeanne Campbell once said, “It is very important where you meet someone, Alison.”)
Reading and talking with Jake Seuss was delightsome. We snacked downstairs on Pearl Street at the New York Deli, lingering in innocence, although he was arguably somewhat experienced. When I pointed this out, he gasped, “Don’t remind me!”
Female friends told me stories about his romantic prowess with older women at a Boulder Bed and Breakfast called the Briar Rose. But I heeded only what his lips pronounced beneath my bedroom windows on Tenth Street.
“Juliet!” called out Jake Seuss, my Romeo, and I ran to a window, breathless with glee (the same way I continue to respond to him now, decades later).
People walked in Boulder.
Naropa was in the heart of downtown and we all lived in nearby houses. Most of the poets were from New York City, where people didn’t usually drive. Jake Seuss was from New York, too. At night, when he paused on occasion beneath my windows, he was walking to wherever he was living or visiting.
One time, in afternoon, a wind blew so fiercely I had to cling with both arms around a large tree along a sidewalk to keep from being blown away. I was wearing a linen and silk striped Victorian gown and a cotton stretch tube tank top with a giant rose ceramic belt. My arms went only part way the girth of the tree trunk. At five feet 5 & 3/4 inches, I weighed 98 pounds.
Snows were deep during the Boulder wintertime. But everybody walked around everywhere, regardless of weather, or so it seemed. The zone around Naropa was as one big yard shared by the same people.
Trungpa Rinpoche was from Tibet, not New York; he surrounded us with ceremonies, flowers and floral words. Jake Seuss and I attended his talks, big affairs where Trungpa sat enthroned on a dais, students seated on the floor, listening. Jake Seuss and I used these opportunities to pass notes to each other. I practiced my handwriting by adolescently scripting, “Mrs. (his full name)” across the pages of a notebook.
Apart from the Trungpa-led ceremonies, our lives were stripped of anything to do with Buddhism. Most of the poets weren’t Buddhists. They were just poets. Their main interest was literature. Writing was what we sat together discussing; we liked Trungpa’s enigmatic sayings.
Students were encouraged to investigate everything from Frank O’Hara to Shakespeare, yet emphasis was on Kerouac’s work. If Allen Ginsberg lord and mastered over the poetics school, Jack Kerouac was absent king.
Ginsberg and Orlovsky kept Kerouac alive, never dropping the fireball of remembrance. We heard about Kerouac constantly from the older poets at JKS.
William Burroughs was a teacher at JKS, but before that he used to be an opium eater. His 1959 novel Naked Lunch described in graphic detail drug-induced hallucinations and pornography, things alien to my psyche. I hadn’t read his book. Although I lived in a drug and sex-drenched setting, personal innocence safeguarded me. I’ve found this to be the case throughout life. A sense of self preserved me. I had no interest in sex or drugs. I only liked to drink wine, which I wasn’t yet old enough to purchase. I wanted friends, not lovers. I wanted literary laudanum, not opioids. I wanted profound regard, not fool’s gold of mere money, power, and security. I wanted genuine value: Love.
Many at Naropa had once been big-time druggies. In the 1950’s, Ginsberg had travelled to Morocco with Burroughs and Orlovsky on hashish vacations similar to what Evelyn Waugh described in his novels about genteel debauchery. It was on an international drug jaunt that Ginsberg befriended Trungpa.
Freedom from responsibility can allow artists to soar. Many of the world’s bohemian (a term originally designating gypsy-Romani people in France) painters and writers were notoriously free-spirited. Jack Kerouac was anything but responsible.
The wanderlust list is long: Cézanne, Monet, Gauguin, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Edgar Allan Poe.
There were some female artistic wanderers, too. But most artists from the past were males, since those of my sex were shackled by societal norms. Our place was in the home.
To me, what’s great about boys is that they are boyish. “Coltishly free,” Jake Seuss said, and if any of the Naropa poets felt guilty about their coltish pasts, they didn’t look guilty. They looked happy.
Naropa was my first experience with homosexual society and I thought all gay men were open, carefree, truthful, generous and sweet like Ginsberg and Orlovsky.
Ginsberg struck me as rigidly honest in life, but flexible when it came to creating poems. I heard Carl Solomon (to whom the poem is dedicated) wanted Allen Ginsberg to rewrite “Howl” because Carl Solomon hadn’t really been hospitalized at Rockland Psychiatric Center, but at Columbia Psychiatric Institute.
“Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Columbia Psychiatric Institute” didn’t have the same zing as Ginsberg’s well-known Rockland refrains. What was wanted was a rocky base. Bedrock, from which to launch verse: Rockland. “I’m with you in Rockland!” wrote Ginsberg.
Lobotomies were performed at these mental hospitals in shades of the Gothic South. In 1936, neurologist Egas Moniz had put forward a surgical operation that won a Nobel Prize. Patients were tied with restraints and metal probes introduced, via an eye socket, to jiggle into brain tissue, destroying connections between the prefrontal region and other portions of the brain. Allen Ginsberg’s mother Naomi received a lobotomy like my Dixieland cousin.
Reading “Howl,” I rejoiced in the excellence of imagery and fevered descriptions, not knowing what tragedy lobotomies really were. Alice Julia was sixty when I was a kid. I accepted my cousin as my family presented her to me, never knowing the radiant girl she had once been.
Allen Ginsberg wrote the poem about his mother in 1955. He had signed the lobotomy procedure papers for his mother in 1947. Could this be the genius behind Allen’s heartfelt poetry—intensity of emotion subsequent to an irrevocable action?
“I hate reflection on irrevocable things,” Jake Seuss once told me. He explained he’d come to Naropa as a virgin prince. He wasn’t talking about sexual virginity; his artistic persona had not yet been touched.
Ginsberg spoke about anal sphincters in a class I attended; I wasn’t offended. He paced the front of a classroom, speaking. The students were mostly college-aged boys. “My sphincter is always willing, always eager, if any of you are interested, let me know,” he told the class and students quickly looked at one another. Ginsberg did not appear to have any sphincter hopefuls, but he read us glorious poems. Peter Orlovsky stopped in a hallway after the class, near the spot where I’d met Jake Seuss, showing Ginsberg a poem on paper. They huddled in a corner with heads down, examining the poem together. This was why I came to Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics: to read and write poems. The image of Ginsberg and Orlovsky, animated over a page of writing, standing side by side, was the snapshot of JKS I never forgot.
Orlovsky spoke of dicks. I wasn’t put off, especially since I didn’t know anything about dicks.
Tom Waits had just come out with Heart Attack and Vine, produced by Bones Howe, Asylum Records, 1980. At my rental house on Tenth Street, I listened to the Waits LP and one by Tim Hardin from 1974 on Archetypes Records: “Lady Came from Baltimore” (all she wore was lace). Hardin had served in Vietnam and is said to have started using heroin there. I read he died of an overdose in 1980. A lot of rock songs had sexual themes, but I only heard a song’s musicality, not the sex stuff. (Writing my memoir decades later, I emailed Bones from Columbia University’s Butler Library to ask where Tom Waits was and Bones told me that during filming of One From the Heart at Francis Coppola’s studio, Waits met his bride-to-be who was a scriptwriter; after the soundtrack album was done, Bones never saw Waits again; Waits married and had three kids. Waits knew Ginsberg. I reached out to Waits and got a sweet reply.)
Allen Ginsberg performed at clubs where he collaborated with a number of musicians, including British punk band The Clash. Ginsberg was also friendly with Bob Dylan.
As a student at Naropa, I went one night to hear Allen perform “Don’t Smoke.” My Buddhist housemates from Tenth Street drove me to the nightclub in a car full of saxophonists.
Ginsberg often sang his poetry at readings and music performances. He was a joyous soul. Ginsberg wore a suit at Naropa, with a shirt and tie, but a lot of photographs showed him wearing robes or walking naked. Ginsberg was a man comfortable with himself. I think that’s why we admired him, for his self-awareness.
Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest reads as comedic mishap. In reality, when a person is genuine and passionate at the same time (my definition of earnest), that person sparkles. Ginsberg sparkled. And that’s what my teachers said about me, “When you walk into a room, a light bulb goes on.” That’s what we all experienced at JKS: daylight of the mind.
Slender in boyhood, liver disease had produced a widening around Ginsberg’s middle and paralysis curled his lip. By the time I knew him, he was balding and bearded. These were the overt visuals, but Ginsberg’s personality vaulted over outward appearances. He was forever young. Meeting Ginsberg was like encountering a time-zone. Indisputable. Authentic.
Ginsberg liked me. I hadn’t gone to the Kerouac School to meet famous poets, didn’t even realize how famous they were.
“You respond to everything,” Larry Fagin said to me. How could I not? I wondered, I’m alive. Ginsberg was like that, too. Responsive and excited.
The ability to hold fast the sentiment of camaraderie is what stood out most to me about Ginsberg.
“Don’t Smoke” was a 1971 poem-song Ginsberg enjoyed reading aloud. A swath of Naropa attended the performance, chanting “Don’t Smoke” to a barroom of patrons. Smoke swirled and Ginsberg chanted. Ginsberg wore a beaded necklace, a dress shirt, opened with no tie, and suit trousers; hair in tufts wildest, black-rimmed eyeglasses and a loopy-lipped smile. “Don’t Smoke,” a locomotive refrain, endless in a night of drinking, smoking, and small spaces, people crushed together. Cool, older people. Musicians, elbow to elbow seated at tiny tables not big enough to hold more than two beer mugs. We’d driven some distance to reach the club. I had no idea where we were. The club’s darkly lit interior was a black and white tableau. Ginsberg’s beads shone in the shadows. Loud music and chant created an enveloping crescendo, blue smoke dancing in the air. Ginsberg beat a fast mantra using spoons and blocks. At Pearl’s bar downstairs from the Kerouac School, poets bought me alcoholic drinks, but not here. Tonight was too risky; I was underage. And this wasn’t Naropa territory. It may be that we were in Denver. I had no drink, but I drank the sounds of the night and wore one of my best gowns. Everybody inside smoked as many cigarettes as they wanted. I liked to smoke. French Gitanes and Canadian Export A’s were my favorites.
The next day, we were right back where we’d been the day before, hanging out at JKS and reading poems.
Maybe the poets appreciated my excitement or maybe they loved me because I loved them.
If you can imagine.
What it was like.
To be there.
Jack Kerouac, revivified by Allen Ginsberg. The essence of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was poetry. Kerouac had famously said, “One day, we die.” Beat poets were for living and getting it down on paper.
Kerouac wrote that we are all in Heaven now and don’t know it. Buddhism taught that we were stranded in sorrow and life was about sadness. “I remain chrysanthemum,” Trungpa Rinpoche said, and I wrote this saying carefully into my student notebook.
The early days of the Kerouac School were alive with dances, literary and Buddhist festivals, friendships, and poetry readings. I thought Jack Kerouac would have been proud.
Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Jake Seuss, and I gave a recorded reading:
“Hereby begins the terminal reading of Session One of 1982 Summer Naropa Jack Kerouac of Divine Disembodied Poetical Rapture mass monster reading,” introduced Allen Ginsberg.
“Next, a great Southern lady. You can never tell what madness lies inside. Alison Burns. Ready?” asked Allen. “Alison will be working with…oh really? You can make it?”
Wolf-whistles rang out from guys in the audience and Orlovsky.
“Peter, don’t laugh,” I said, ripe with Blanche DuBois flirtation.
“I won’t,” Orlovsky called from the back of the room.
I read a short poem about the color blue.
“Denyse King is home in bed with the flu. Or is Denyse here?” Ginsberg asked for Orlovsky’s girlfriend Denyse.
“Home. Next then! Ready?” Ginsberg introduced Jake Seuss.
“Okay. I just wanted to find the two poems I was gonna read, okay?” Jake Seuss rustled papers.
“Five minutes,” Ginsberg called out.
“Yeah, okay.” Jake Seuss read a poem about a boy at the mercy of snapshots and a woman whose heart had rusty locks floating loose inside her body.
“Now I’ll find one other poem,” a nineteen-line villanelle consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, but he didn’t find it and read to loud applause “Kink Poem” about someone chasing him into the middle of an uncomfortable room.
“Next is Peter Orlovsky whose yodel poetry is heavy as a metal blues hammer; delicate as a nightingale’s teensiest tail feather.” Ginsberg ushered Orlovsky to the microphone.
Peter yodeled and began reading.
“July 14th, 1982, 2:45 PM Bluff Street, Boulder. Page 71 of Charles Reznikoff poem from 1918-1936, Section 12: Dear Reznikoff…licked pink saliva.”
Orlovsky eulogized salad lettuce and described a televised interview he’d watched the day before: “The B1 Bomber costs 120 million apiece or the whole thing costs 120 billion—they want eighty-six of them…they showed this B1 Bomber which sorta looked like my prick this afternoon when I had put some water on it, and I was cleaning the foreskin.” Peter’s voice was easy to listen to and everybody liked him. “It sorta had that look, you know, it goes down in the front, sorta sticks forward; it’s got a mushroom little balloon head, but it’s real. You know, it doesn’t quite look like a B1 Bomber but it’s the real thing. Here he is—this General—talking about a B1 Bomber that looks like a dick.”
(Naropa University Archives, Marathon Student/Faculty Reading 07/14/1982 with permission of the Allen Ginsberg Estate)
We were carefree, yelling out whatever we wanted.
Dearest Allen saved the poems I wrote for him in the Ginsberg Collection of papers now held by Stanford University.
It’s true what Ernest Hemingway said—if we are lucky enough to live our dreams in youth, as Ernest Hemingway had in 1920’s Paris and I did with the Beat poets, then youth’s dreams become a moveable feast you take wherever you go—youthful love remaining a repast plentiful; exquisite, substantive and good. You live on happy memories. Eat of them eternally.
After our reading, Jake Seuss and I went to a pub with Suzy Banay to drink black & tan ale. Excited, I tossed the contents of a pint glass halfway across the room, waving my arm as I said something to Jake Seuss about poetry, while he gazed pensively at my face.
Thus began a tradition. Years later as lovers betrothed, we slung multiple glasses of wine. Happy accidents! Planning our California honeymoon tour, I splashed a wine glass filled with Cabernet across a Manhattan cafe’s window that separated our inside table from a pair of outdoor-seated female diners. I wanted to know if Lady Colin Campbell (standing in for my deceased godparent Lady Jeanne) should send our wedding gift to Jake Seuss in care of his magazine or where? He explained her gift could go to our hotel in Los Angeles. Jake Seuss gingerly unfolded a white napkin: “I feel like I’m giving the women a bath,” he said, sponging a rivulet of red wine. And I remembered my favourite Allen Ginsberg poem, “Wild Orphan,” (April 13, 1952, New York): “A question of the soul. And the injured losing their injury…an excellence of love.”
6. Homeless Newsreel
Reader Road Map: homeless, 2012-2014.
At St. Luke’s Emergency Care, I am lucky. The doctor on call is someone I encountered as a Columbia undergraduate when I once injured my hand helping out in the days after 9/11: Dr. Marsha Dixon remembers me.
“That’s a clean wound,” Dr. Dixon says, tilting my head to examine the gash. I need sixteen stitches.
“I fell in the rain and washed the cuts with hand sanitizer in the bathroom at Columbia.”
“You won’t see a scar because the wound is beneath your chin.” She looks me over, smiling. “Any place else?”
My knees are torn, too, but I don’t bother her with that part. They can get well on their own. My knees are sharp and shapely, but since Jake has already loverly admired my naked knees, I won’t mind a bit of damage now, in case he never sees them again.
Dr. Dixon doesn’t know I am homeless. I can’t pay for the care. I can’t buy antibiotics so she gives me a Tetanus booster shot.
My first year of homelessness, nobody yet knows (except one senior administrator who provides me with an overnight access).
I’ve always worked at the computer terminals in Butler, writing and reading, even as an alumna. My presence is expected. I have never owned a personal computer. There was no need. Columbia has a tonnage of computers.
During the days and nights, I launch a startup journalism endeavor to alert the public about the pending dangers of climate change. I interview several nuclear power experts and write published, unpaid articles. I meet with Y Combinator. I seek funding after I build the beta site Guerra Earth, making an appointment with the Columbia Alumni Center director in charge of entrepreneurship; he refuses to listen.
Undaunted, I approach movie stars and leading news media about climate change and the threat of increased instances of extreme weather developments. (Today, in 2017, many of these same entities now report on climate change issues and speak out. But at the time, they didn’t want to be seen as differing from accepted commercial attitudes.)
I work around the clock, mercilessly tapping the wellspring of my robust physical and intellectual powers. A representative for the CEO of Google invites me to act as a science reporter at a secretive international symposium to be hosted by Eric Schmidt in Hawaii all expenses paid, but abruptly revokes the written invitation.
My second homeless year, worried library staff members begin to call me into their offices to offer sandwiches or chocolate cookies, but it is sleep I direly need. One of the Columbia guards begins sending me down the street to play the Lotto for him, buying tickets at a magazine kiosk. When he wins ten dollars, he calls me his lucky charm. He also gives me errand money for food. Once, he cooks dinner at his apartment and brings a plate of spaghetti for me back to Butler Library. When we have University events, food is plentiful, and I manage to survive.
I write unpaid journalism articles for the Huffington Post and the first draft of this memoir, a text of about nine hundred pages written as a diary. Documented with my sweetheart’s back and forth emails I saved.
Not paying writers for their work had become a normal practice following the 2008 American economic crash. (My unpaid internships included a stint with Louise Blouin Media.)
Jake Seuss calls and emails that when his Hollywood ships come in, he will return. The comeback kid. My faith in him is that of a little child. He is my hero, from long ago at that JKS microphone with Allen Ginsberg, ready to read a special villanelle. I wear his Cartier betrothal ring. I call it the “Alice ring.” I feel I can slay Jabberwockies.