On 'Transcultural Poetics: An Anthology'
Naropa University’s program in poetics has gained near legendary status. The annual summer sessions bring in poets from around the world to teach week long seminars, give readings, and participate in panel discussions. Founded in 1974 in honor of Jack Kerouac by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, it has long since eclipsed its early beginnings when it was generally taken quasi-seriously as a place for the devoted to study with surviving elders of the Beat generation, et al., while pursuing meditative practice (i.e., “disembodied poetics”) with varying levels of serious intent among participants. For a taste of what was in part the norm from the period look no further than the documentary video Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds (1989) for example of Gregory Corso’s bantering style of instruction in assorted living rooms and stairwells, wearing a necktie as headband.
This is not to imply that the footage of Professor Corso is anything but adorably terrific. Rather that as Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics makes clear, the teaching style at Naropa has just evolved into the practice of a much more broadly palpable pedagogy. Not that some current-day instructors didn’t have a hand in the rambunctious climate of the past, as Eileen Myles attests: “The first time I ever came to Naropa, in 1979, I was sort of a young, constantly-getting-trashed lesbian with her girlfriend, and we came here and raised hell. We laughed at the Buddhism. Now I sit a bit” (136). Streaks of similar behavior no doubt continue among students of today. I know of one young would-be poet who crashed the summer program one week a few years ago, sitting in for free, and even at random consoling Anne Waldman for a brief minute in the women’s restroom over a recent personal loss in the poetry world.
Opportunity for personal interaction with visiting instructors combined with unstated permission to rebel, raise some hell, and just do your own thing are trademark attractions of Naropa. After all, the integrated educational experience in poetics offered does not seek to separate out the personal and political from the work of writing and studying poetry. Instead it encourages students to draw upon personal histories, theories, and self-identifications when producing their own body of work. While this perhaps may be said of nearly any MFA program, few or no other programs are as dedicated to poetry as a radical art form capable of manifesting itself as cultural work with the desired intent of altering the political-social reality.
Here’s Joanne Kyger sharing her own poet-survival tactics while on the panel “Cultural Activism: Writing Under the New World Order” during the dark years of the Bush regime in 2003:
I inform myself as much as I can. I live in a small place, so that is what I can do. And I talk with other people. I add my presence to the bulk of people showing their democratic right to oppose policies they believe wrong through demonstration and parade — although at the last parade all I did was, with a friend, make posters under the apple tree in the back yard and take pictures of ourselves, but at least I have that as a recorded opposition. I obsess, I write poems; I have deep and dark dislike for the current people in power, I think they invented evil. I never used to hear about evil in the speech of diplomacy before. I gag when I hear the word terror. Then what? You start to get a little poisoned. Is it only rhetoric that has power? (176)
An experimental bent and/or edgier political outlook colors the work of most everybody invited to Naropa. It remains one of an ever dwindling number of educational institutions where hands-on practical pedagogy focused on poetics will hopefully always trump bureaucracy. Of course administrative offices are still needed to keep the lights on and the classes going, but Naropa provides a beacon for successful resistance to the increasing corporate-think flooding American educational organizations. A direction which promises nothing good for the imagination or the holistic intellectual health of the country, as Eileen Myles exclaims in her talk “Choralizing Cultures”: “The ultimate direction of the corporate culture is continuous, continuous, continuous consciousness, and that only yields psychosis” (143).
Having never been to Naropa I’m unable to speak from personal experience, but Cross Worlds certainly supports the impression that instructors at Naropa of all ages and backgrounds celebrate the program’s embrace of the anti-mainstream. They ask necessary questions of students, challenging presumptions, advising courses of action, and developing complex responses to complex times encouraging that the practice of poetics be at once both as divisive and yet healing an act as ever. Cecilia Vicuña’s “What’s Poetry to You?” pushes readers right up against the gates, questioning the limits of who is answerable to who, and for what. Vicuña is a Chilean activist and poet well aware there’s plenty of blame to be spread around, but she isn’t willing to let any members of her audience off the hook:
It is easy to feel angry with the US, but I think people all over the world don’t feel angry with the US.They feel puzzled and angry at the fact that Americans are not claiming their democracy. Why are Americans passive, letting these freedoms and this democracy slip away? (246)
As with all the contributions, Vicuña’s talk is centered on how important it is a poet not lose sight of the ways in which engaging with the wider political and/or social culture vitalizes and transforms the nature of one’s poetic practice. Cross Worlds contains example after example of poets with a broad swath of political know-how combined with practical experience sharing how to put ideas into words into action. This is the fourth published gathering of Naropa material since the seminal two-volume Talking Poetics (1978) and as ever the accruing book collections of transcribed Naropa talks continue to prove endlessly rewarding. Entries in Cross Worlds date from 1975 all the way up to just a few years ago, presenting a wondrous mixed tape collection of sorts covering the scene across multiple generations of teachers and students.
Pierre Joris, in “Arabic Poetics and the International Literary Scene,” points to the deplorable lacunae in Western historical knowledge regarding derivative roots of our traditional lyric love poetry:
the lyric, the love song, comes from the troubadours. Since the Middle Ages, the root of the very word troubadours, our philologies have told us, comes from trobar, which means, they say, in Latin “to find.” Now if you look trobar up in the etymological dictionary, it has a little star on it that means this is a suggested root, this is not a documented root of this word. If you ask any specialist in Arabic poetry, specifically in Arabic Spain, the Moorish kingdom, that root is in fact tarab, the Arabic word for “song.” […] the best European — German & French & Spanish & English philologists — unable to tear themselves loose from what at base is cultural imperialism, namely their belief that there has to be European roots, an autochthonous European origin to lyric poetry & that it may — must — not come via Arabic song & poetry. But that is indeed where this lyrical tradition, that will also give us Dante & beyond, comes from. (160)
In “Talking Back to Whitman,” Lorenzo Thomas re-frames the conversation from the perspective of his renewed vision of an African-American poetry tradition. He offers short takes on a number of poets beginning with a compelling, if somewhat oppositional to others, such as Amiri Baraka (109), reading of eighteenth century Phillis Wheatley by stressing the importance she be read as a deeply ironic poet steeped in Alexander Pope. Regarding the early twentieth century poet Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr., he pointedly remarks:
Here is a man whose father was a poet and a minister of the gospel, a man whose legacy, if you want to call it that, extends to the woman [Wheatley] who wrote excellent neoclassical poetry a few years before the American Revolution. On what possible basis could anyone in 1917 say of this young man, as he stands up to read a sonnet, how did this happen? That is the question. It doesn’t make sense, does it? He read Shakespeare, he read Spenser, he read Wheatley, he read Milton; why in 1917 should someone ask him, “how is it that you write sonnets?” (110)
In similar spirit, Bhanu Kapil gives her own “meaning of the word postcolonial” (171) in “The Event of the Border”:
Write backwards from the dissipated, exploded, violent body. Write the blows backwards until you make a real body. This movement of a body through space, how to reduce the pain of this body, the pain of a static, habitual, repeated movement — impact — is what I mean by healing. Not resolution, but a rewriting in neuromuscular terms of gesture. As the new gesture, which is often much more painful to experience than the habitual gesture to hold, is held, we breathe deeply, to nourish the new structures of fibers and nerve bundles and cells. If we breathe like this long enough, the specific human cultural form can become something else. (171)
A firm belief in poetry’s inherent transformative principle properties is pervasive throughout this collection. From continents to languages, there’s a diverse offering of perspective both historical and contemporary. The result is not only an enduring testament to Naropa’s program in poetics but to the overall pursuit of knowledge grounded by poetic practice. While some of the panel discussions and talks may appear all too brief or incomplete, Cross Worlds nevertheless contains several indispensible documents concerning contemporary poetics.