Reflections on the Kerouac School (Part 1)

Allen Ginsberg Library

The Allen Ginsberg Library at Naropa University in Boulder, CO.

When I attended the Kerouac School’s Summer Writing Program in 2012, I was naive and bushy-tailed, wide-eyed but excited for my first serious step as a poet. Having enrolled on a whim (I don’t even know where I got the money), here I was walking the same grounds, visiting the same libraries as the 20th century’s knights of the counterculture: Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, and many others. One afternoon I remember sitting beneath a mulberry tree, some of its fruits squashed on the cement sidewalk, trying to grasp all of the history before me. I couldn’t.

Tramping around, sleeping out of my car in the parking lot (this didn’t last long – by the third week I was kicked out), I remember my daily routine well. With no Internet or electricity, I went out with the streetlamps (around 10:30pm) and let the sun wake me up. Rolling out of the front seat, disheveled and cold from the morning air at the foot of the mountains, I caught the dew on my shoes while walking down the street for a cup of coffee. Gas station coffee: $1.35. Dark roast. No creamer.

When I returned to Naropa a few hours before lectures started, the campus was still empty. Setting my three Moleskine journals on the table – one for my life, my notes, my rough drafts – I then pulled out my copy of Robert Bly’s latest book, Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey. On my first day in Boulder I spent half of my “meal money” ($30) just so I could have it. Every morning, sprawled out on the table, for breakfast I would chew on his words, drink his metaphors, and, thus satiated, turn to a journal and try cooking my own meal. Looking back, much of what I had to say related to the Dakota hanging in Mankato, the decline of small town America, and how generally disgruntled I am (I’m an awful dinner guest).

This was my ritual and it was invigorating. My pen rarely stopped. The pages filled.

Unfortunately, for as eye-opening as the whole experience was there were instances that left a bad taste in my mouth. For example, I didn’t feel as though everyone had my same appreciation for writing as a craft. I felt that for some the school was just an expensive vacation (the weekly tuition is $350-400). It was actually a little irritating. To illustrate this point, what follows is an excerpt from my journal [June 2012].

As one of the few Midwesterners at the school, I was excited to see a young man wearing a jacket that said “Willmar, MN” on the back. Having grown up in the region (I used to “road trip” there) it was a place I knew well. Asking him what his connection to the city was, I was told, “Don’t got one. I bought this at a thrift store.” Instead, he was from Minneapolis. Although we talked a few times in the interim, one night a friend and I ran into him as we walked the neighborhoods.

Tall and thin, a shadow comes to light, his eyes glowing when he recognizes us. It’s ___, another kid from Minnesota, his face pale between the locks of blonde hair. We can smell the liquor on him and my instinct is to place my arm around her – I suppose in the same way a pack of animals may tighten up under stress.

“Where are you going?”

“Back to Naropa. You?”

He takes a swig of his beer and comes closer to us on the sidewalk. “Not me. I’m going to ___’s. Probably have a few more drinks before lighting up. Do ya’ll want to come?”

I’ve never felt as square as when I’m asked these questions. Luckily, she has an answer prepared about how we’d love to but we’ve got stuff to do. I can only squeak out affirmation.

“Well, would ya’ll want to buy some ‘shrooms?”

“No, not right now.” I say.

“Well, not right now but later.”

She is great enough to have a throw-away response to this, too: “Nah, I already know a guy for that.”

He looks a little defeated. “Oh, OK, those’re probably better than what I’ve got right now anyway.”

“Yeah, it’s good stuff.”

And she probably knows.

As the would-be drug deal fades off, he asks us – as we’re trying to make our escape to the shadows – what classes we’re taking. She’s with Anne Waldman and I’m with Samuel R. Delany. He wishes he could have made it into their classes. Instead he’s with Clarke Coolidge, whose class he falls asleep in, is hungover in. She and I look to each other wondering how such a lifestyle sustains itself.

He asks her what kind of sunglasses she usually wears. She answers something about Long Beach and their being “wife beaters” since they cover the whole area of her eyes.

“Yeah, I need those since I’ve basically been wasted for each class I’ve been in,” he says. Responses like this only leave me with disdain, which only festers when he tells us about a new pair of expensive, purple Ralph Laurens he’s trying to buy.

Is this our generation?

We all want to be the artist without making the art? We all want to look like the rock star without making the music?

I discuss this with her as we wander back into the night …

Stay tuned for Part 2.


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