Apprenticing with Allen Ginsberg–spontaneous talk given on the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Howl” at Naropa University, Boulder, CO. June 25, 2006

Originally published in “Elephant Journal”:

Randy Roark:
I’m an example of the apprenticeship program that Allen ran here. It was a class that you could sign up for, you got credit for it, and met once a week for three hours. Some of the time was spent looking at your own work as a poet and giving you one-on-one there. And some of it was secretarial work: you actually were an apprentice, you did the work of a poet.

This [talk] is not about sentimentality or nostalgia, about something that happened in a circumscribed time and is no longer active. As Allen said in that William Buckley clip, it’s grounded in a consciousness. And we learned how to ground it. I learned from him the way a baby bird learns from their parents how to fly. He showed me how to actively do things that I always knew were true but had never seen anyone actually live them out, practice them. He showed me how they actually work.

I came here in ‘79, a 25 year-old poet and became an apprentice. The problems that I had as a poet were basically three. One was I was more or less completely ignorant as a poet of my lineage and tradition. Unread. Two was my poetry was awful and, in addition, it was false, which made it even worse. And, three, I was socially inept. [Laughter] I was socially retarded in the way that someone is not at their chronological age, emotionally.

The way Allen dealt with those three problems? The firstwas easy. He gave me assignments. He told me what I needed to read in order to be a poet. Secondly, the problem with my poetry was that I had fallen in love with William Butler Yeats: I thought he was the greatest poet—and still do—of all time. The problem was, I was a 25-year-old kid writing as if I was, you know, William Butler Yeats. [But] I didn’t have the wealth of experience or depth of insight to pull it off. So [Allen] gave me assignments to write from I: What do you remember? What did you see? What did you feel? And when that wasn’t working, he would make me face a white wall, then take a poem of mine and ask me: what did you see? What was the color of the sky? Where were your hands when you thought this? What color dress was she wearing? Precise details. His idea was that I needed to learn how to become my own dictationist, to learn how to transcribe my own sense impressions.

Third, he sensed that I had a reservoir of emotions that I had frozen, I had squelched them in many ways, I was afraid of exposing them. I tended to be a body that carried my brain from room to room— I dealt with everything intellectually. So he began by asking me questions that I could only answer from my heart. And by that experience of answering out of that place over and over again, the actual, literal experience of doing that over and over is what gave me my self. He gave me the gift of myself. Allen wasn’t interested in creating little Allen Ginsbergs in the apprenticeship program. That was frightening to him. There’s nothing worse than to be Allen Ginsberg surrounded by Allen Ginsbergs. He wanted big Randy Roarks, big Joe Richeys, big Steven Taylors. He wanted to see how good we were, how deep! He would create situations that were high profile, challenging, like throwing you in to pitch in Yankee stadium against the Red Sox. Let’s see what you can do, kid. They were spontaneous, so you had no way of preparing for them. He was constantly pushing, pressing you to be better, to be you, to find out what resources you had inside.

The other side of the apprenticeship was the work part. I was an expert at that. I could type really fast, work really hard, I never missed an appointment, or deadline. I was totally attentive to Allen. He put me to errands that he would do if he had the time. So I was occupied with a poet’s errands, I did a poet’s work. I went to the library, researched Milton, scanning his poetry: what was the rhythm that Milton had? Had someone actually heard Blake sing his poems? And social and political investigations, networking, phone calls, letter writing, the building of a community of poets. That’s what you did as a poet. The benefit of that is I realized that I had it all wrong. I thought that to become a poet what you did was you created a significant body of work and then you were acknowledged for that and then people would talk to you as if you were a poet. They would sort of give you that title. And that’s how you made it. It became clear to me that it’s completely opposite. To become a poet, you are a poet in every moment of your life. This moment, right this second, is a becoming. It’s not “make it new,”like [Ezra] Pound said—it’s always new. It’s always now. The apprenticeship never ends. It’s always just the latest manifestation. So as a poet, every moment, whether driving your car or at the supermarket, sitting next to your friends—whatever you are doing, you are the poet, grounded in a consciousness. Your being a poet is grounded in a consciousness and you take that with you and there’s never an off switch. It never ends. You are a poet.

And then, you happen to write poems—a natural extension of that experience.Your poem is never more than your ability to experience whatever you experience. It can’t be anything more than that.

So you begin working on your ability to experience, something you do in every moment. And then when you come to the page, start to write your poem, that’s the bear tracks in the woods, the evidence of what it was you were able to experience.

What I’ve thought about the last couple of days is, the reason that Allen was so unafraid of public relations and getting the word out and being and manifesting as a poet was because he thought his poetry was medicine. Education. If you think of your work as medicine that people need, and education, a living example of what it is that they can be, then you want as many people as possible to experience that. And so any kind of self-consciousness about yourself disappears.

And when I thought about the apprentices I’ve kept up with, in addition to all being accomplished poets, one is working with the Mississippi River to preserve the ecological habitat of the Mississippi River. One works for Disability Services at CU and runs a virtual Museum of American Poetics on the web and is a blues guitarist. Joe [Richey] is an investigative reporter, involved in local politics, an international emissary for poetry and politics, going to Central America, plays in a Buddhist-based rock band. One person writes children’s books for gay and lesbian families. Another poet is teaching meditation in the prisons and translating Buddhist poetry from Korean and writing a biography of Tilopain verse. And then whatever my interest in improvisation and recording oral wisdom traditions. [So put that all together]: ecological understanding and sensitivity, working with the disadvantaged and socially and culturally isolated, blues, preserving American poetical lineage, investigating the government, working in local government, interest in Buddhist rock-and-roll, teaching meditation, Buddhist poetry and oral traditions, improvisation….This sound like anybody we know? [Laughter] In many ways, Allen was a firebrand, a burning bush and when he died, little sparks of him went out everywhere and set these ground fires. When Allen died it was the last teaching that he gave to people who were paying attention because he was not afraid, not grasping. He was kind of relieved and relaxed when he got the news that he was terminally ill because the way he lived his life, there was no off switch. He lived his life fully. He checked every box. So then when it came time to die, it was like, Okay, I did it.It’s an important teaching to think about your death and how to live the time between now and then.

So blessings to everyone for coming here. Thanks for celebrating that poem and the poet and, uh, I wish you luck.

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