“Two Stories on Apprenticing with Allen Ginsberg”

I had written a little poem and in my excitement had immediately made two copies, which I put into the mailboxes of Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan, two of my teachers at Naropa in the spring of 1980. The next day I was over Allen’s house to work on some of his journals. He’d read the poem. “It’s okay,” he said, “but this line is terrible. Cut it out.”

I looked at the poem. He was right. It was a little black and white movie until about two thirds of the way through where the “I” appeared, making an absurd comment about the scene. It was awkward and broke the surface of the poem. It turned the whole exercise into a joke. I immediately cut the line out, retyped the poem and rushed to the mailboxes, but Ted’s copy was already gone.

That night Ted’s class met at Yeshe House on the Hill. We sat in the dining room around a large oak table and as we settled in Ted called out: “Roark!” He looked at me and stood up, gigantic, my poem in his hand. He pushed it across the table. “This is a fucking great poem. But this line”—and he pointed to The Line with his chubby, yellowed finger.

I didn’t really have to look but I did, and all of my excitement had turned into dread. At school I was surrounded by good advice on how to write good poems but I never seemed to be able to access that part of my mind while I was writing. To have Allen point it out privately was one thing, but here, in front of the whole class, was something completely different. I forced myself to look at Ted as my heart sank. “But this line,” Ted continued, “this line is genius.

                                *                              *                              *

For the last session of his Basic Poetry class, Allen brought in three guitarists who were to play a simple 12-bar blues. We would go around the room, making up blues lyrics for “fun.”

It didn’t sound like fun to me. As always, I was in the back and hadn’t said a word the whole semester. As Allen made his way through the first row, I tried to think of a way to leave the classroom without anyone’s noticing. By the time he was through the second row, I’d divided the elapsed time by the number of students so far and then multiplied that figure by the number of students left to gauge the chance that we might run out of time before it was my turn. As this proved unlikely, I began to compose a lyric in my head. My eyes followed Allen as he moved around the room, student to student, laughing, bouncing, shouting encouragement, making up his own as he got inspired, editing and rearranging the students’ lyrics into perfect blues phrasing, while my head went over and over my “improvised” lyric, cutting and polishing and rearranging the words before starting all over again.

Two hours later, he was finally in my row. He was three students away, two students away, and then I was Next. The woman next to me sang her verse and Allen nodded and then he was standing next to me, and then the guitar line was coming around, and then Allen’s fingers were on my shoulder. I lifted my head, gazed into infinity, and recited my memorized lyric haltingly, as if I were composing on the spot: “Duh duh dah duh duh dah dah, duh duh dah dah dah . . . Duh duh dah duh duh dah dah, duh duh dah dah dah . . . um . . . dah dah duh duh dah dah, duh duh dah dah dah!” And then I heaved a great theatrical sigh of relief. I had done it. It was over. “No,” he said, “Do another.”

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