Thursday, June 16, 2016

Completing a Life Circle: My Correspondence with Allen Ginsberg; David Cope Interviewed by Kirpal Gordon

1996 Backstage photo of David Cope at Hill Auditorium. Photo by Allen Ginsberg
Kirpal Gordon: David, my heartiest congratulations on your new manuscript, Transcript: Correspondence, David Cope & Allen Ginsberg, 1976-1996, soon to be submitted for publication. Talk about its genesis and the value you see it offering the literary community and world.


David Cope: I had known that eighteen years of my letters to Allen were in his archive at Stanford, and was even able to identify which boxes they’d be found in, but didn’t feel a pressing need to retrieve them—so many other projects lined up before this one, and even in “retirement” from my teaching career, I found myself working a full day with writing, editing, and research—my Dante Project took over a full year and involved tracking and reading most of the major criticism of his work from 1321 to the present, developing a huge bibliography and writing two of my best essays in critical appreciation, one on Beatrice and one involving “my journey with Dante.”  After that, it was the continuous editing and revisions of my selected poems and a book of newer poems, and the long haul of trying to find a publisher after over a decade of relative indifference to that aspect of my writing career.  I’ve also been involved with Bridges Across the Pacific:  Chinese and American Empathy Poems, with editor and translator Zhang Ziqing and my blood brother, Jim Cohn—that project inching toward completion.  Beyond that, there is the annual publication of my Big Scream magazine, still a combination of new poets and poets who have been friends and co-conspirators for decades.  


What geared me toward finally retrieving my letters to Allen was the publication of his “Poem,” which I had long ago nicknamed “the postcard poem”—script of a postcard that Allen had sent to me from China on November 11, 1984, and which I published as a poem in Big Scream 20.  The poem reappeared in Allen’s recent Wait Till I’m Dead:  Uncollected Poems, edited by Bill Morgan, and that spurred me to ask Stanford’s Tim Noakes, curator of the Allen Ginsberg Papers in their Special Collections Library, if there might be some way for them to send me my letters.  Mr. Noakes was generous and sent all 300+ pages of mostly hand-written letters, postcard scripts and manuscripts of my poems to me via pdf, and I searched out the postcard poem and my letter asking if I could publish it as a poem in the next issue of my Big Scream.  Allen’s letter responding to the request is missing, but mine of January 24, 1985 thanks him for the “final form of your postcard poem which I’ll place in BS 20.”


The poem was published there, and in subsequent discussion with my translator, Zhang Ziqing of the Institute of Foreign Literature at Nanjing University, I learned that Zhang had seen it in my magazine, likely when he was at Allen’s place in New York; he translated it into Chinese, and it will appear in his forthcoming three volume study of 20th Century American poetry, to be published in Beijing.


At this point, I was planning to place my letters in my archive, The David Cope Papers at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, to be added to the original manuscripts of Allen’s letters to me.  This would complete a major thread in my correspondence.  I figured that this would give future scholars the whole picture of our correspondence which, though perhaps a minor part of Allen’s great pattern of writing letters to friends, could be a niche of some importance in that they do initially track a kind of bildungsroman between a great poet-mentor and a young poet eager to find his way—a pattern quite different from the letters with Kerouac, Snyder, or Ferlinghetti.  I did not consider trying to publish them, as my interest was in how the relationship might contribute to future scholarship and complete a major arc in my life as a poet.


As I perused the letters, however, I found far too many that were misdated by someone in Allen’s office, largely a result of the fact that I had neglected to place dates on many of the letters, and the fact that some of them were dated via pure guess.  Many letters from the early 80s were placed in a 1988-1989 file, for example, and this could have led to scholars’ inability to piece together the correspondence.  One was a particularly egregious example—the December 1980 letter,  which began with an elegy and prose in memoriam for John Lennon, and included mention of my recent reading hosted by Allen Pearlman at the UM Residential College in Ann Arbor.  That reading took place on the 9th of December, 1980, and was particularly memorable for me, as it was difficult to read when I was overloaded with so many intense, contradictory emotions.


At this point, it occurred to me that I could place the dates of the letters most effectively by integrating them with Allen’s—my own memory and the contextualizing evidence in the letters would give me the time period, if not an absolute date, when they would fit, and it would also give me the precise interaction between the two of us over the 18 year—and later 20 year—period of our correspondence.  Kathleen Dow, curator of my archive at Michigan, and Jim Cohn were both quick to let me know that often the misdating and misfiling of letters makes research difficult for scholars, that it’s a common problem for both authors who were diligent keepers of their papers and those who were shoddy in this respect.  Allen, of course, was as diligent as anyone I have known, but his work was so vast that often he had to rely on folk with far less grasp of what they were looking at.  Ultimately, of course, the fault is mine—not properly dating all of them.


The task was arduous but fulfilling in that the lineaments of the evolving relationship began to come clear, and as my own pleasure in the task grew, friends began asking me if I planned to publish them.  I wasn’t sure of their value to the larger world of publication, especially given my initial motivation of providing a guide to future scholars, should they pursue this strand of my work or of Allen’s correspondence with younger poets.  The early letters—particularly those in the 70s—have some alternatively brash, silly, pompous or ridiculous thoughts on my part, but there is also a strong thread of an evolving relationship in them.  The 80s began and became a time of intense work together on projects we both valued, and the 90s continued that theme, in the final years rising to an intense finale and coda.  At this point, I’m of two minds about publication, but I will say that the task itself has developed as a good guide to anyone researching Allen’s papers at Stanford for his work at Naropa and Brooklyn College as well as the major poems of his later period, and especially for an understanding of his mentoring relationship with one of the many younger poets whom he took a shine to.  In my case, the letters are a record of my growth as a poet and thinker, and documentation of the many projects I initiated or was a part of during the 70s through the 90s, and a record of my evolving friendship with Allen.


1973 National Poetry Festival. Allendale, Mi. Allen Ginsberg,
courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Kirpal Gordon: Reading your exchanges with him, the man’s real character shows through unmistakably. I think you speak for many of us who knew him as you describe him:  a warm-hearted, one-of-a-kind thinker, poet & teacher certainly with citizenship on other planets but not nearly the one-note Beat Generation marketer or predictable madman of media fame. You celebrate the big, liberating quality he radiated: a compassion; in short, he walked his talk. What do you make of the difference between the real and the imagined Allen?


David Cope: Allen was already a living legend when I first heard of him, and the first times I saw him in person, I observed him silently, not sure what to say and yet trying to grasp his presence as a person.  Once I’d sent him my Stars chapbook, our friendship grew out of my desire to meet and publish the poets of my generation in my indie mag, Big Scream, but also in the fact that we both shared an intense love of literary traditions, new poets and old, and of reveling in the words themselves.  Still, the human touch, the humble and ordinary love of bargains, the ability to yakk with anybody about damn near anything were what gave me a sense of the man behind the mask that I’d constructed from the legend.


Many tales come to mind, perhaps most centrally his love of shopping at second-hand stores and garage sales.  I first discovered this, I think, during one of my visits to Naropa—I arrived a few days before the weeklong sessions were to begin, and Allen enlisted me along with his teaching assistants and other early arrivals, going to Goodwill and similar shops in the Boulder area.  The poets were going to stay in the Marine Street townhouses, and they’d need plates and glasses, pots, pans, and silverware for the kitchens—so we scoured the shops and brought back heaps of these things for the apartments.  It was enormous fun, loading them up and sorting them for each apartment, yakking and carrying on together.  In a later visit to Grand Rapids Community College (where I worked), Allen would purchase a fine suit, several white shirts and ties at the local downtown Goodwill, marveling over the bargains he’d gotten even as I drove him to the Bed and Breakfast he’d stay at for his reading and lectures. 


There are many such stories, all of them jewels tucked in my memory, some spilling out in poems, as in my elegy “for allen”:

    that summer in the mansion on the hill: 

                        you & Peter in spacious kitchen

                                    fretting over chicken soup, seaweed, Tibetan tea,

                        the nightly readings—Chris Ide & I dashing thru

                        halls & rooms upstairs in our underwear, chasing each other

                            giggling rowdies rolling across beds

                        or wandering in the basement perusing huge library,

                        singing old Kerouacky Catullus Kit Smart

                            & Shakespeare’s sonnets aloud together—

                            you upstairs all night answering mail yakking long

                        distance scribbling surprised by visitors

                            as I lay in the next room & watched the million stars

                                    fill the night over the flatirons, singing myself to sleep—


                        or that time in your apartment twelfth street I come

                            to read in your Brooklyn series—

                        racing to work to class to plane Laguardia taxi-dash

                        downtown in bright springtime exhausted—Steve showing

   videos you at wailing wall & old Reznikoff

                                    our shared love introduced by George Oppen,

                            steely-voiced compassion my reentry

                        into New York—gefilte fish, Peter & the Wolf

                        after everybody cleared out, you & I soft reunion,

                            both drained in crazed worklives, both sleeping

                        20 hours, waking together Saturday evening going out

                            bite to eat at Christine’s:  NY Times, cabbage soup,

                        chocolate cake—a Danish family recognized you,

                        sent their kid over for autograph, you yakking

                            & drawing elaborate skull & stars & flowers personal

                        greeting with final pen flourish for their bright eyes—

                        friendly, welcoming the parents their first time in America


                        or that summer where you’d injured thigh, lay naked

                            on floor your apartment Boulder as

                        young girl massaged pain spots, relaxed nerves

                           & we sprawled around you,

                                    singing Campion & Dowland,

                        Steve as director who

                        gave us parts bass baritone tenor singing

                                    again & again crooning to find

                                                the shared voices in the dream—

                            poets coming & going, staying a time,

                        always singing, singing deep into the Elizabethan night

                                    as Boulder’s sirens shrieked

                                                & traffic flashed beyond—


                        & in later years, both too busy, yet your call sped me to

                                    buddhist retreat Yankee Springs

                            only 20 minutes from my home—

                        two afternoons scribbling notes together in lodge

                            as Gelek spun the word thru Gun Lake sunset—

                        or meeting backstage after Howl  & Kaddish Ann Arbor,

                        too tired to speak, no need to yakk,

                        comfortable merely to sit an hour

                            in each other’s silent presence as

                                    stage hands gathered props & instruments—

                        your kiss disappearing into the night your hand waving

                                    pulling away—

                        & now, calling each of us before the press releases go out

                            generous gesture even dying

                        passing burden & light from Walt thru Williams you & Jack

                            thru those who remain

                                    to new nippled generations

                        struggling even now to be born.

March 15, 1983 Allen and David at the 67th Street YMCA, NYC, unofficial book launch for my Quiet Lives (foreword by Allen Ginsberg). Photo by Sharon Guynup.

Kirpal Gordon: Yeah, well said. He had classic, old school NYC bohemian style and helped young poets get their social game on by creating a community around shared artistic values. In that context, what is refreshing in the letters is that you say and do all the dumb shit we all said and did around Allen until we learned to take the paper bag off his head—talk about starting with him at such an early age.


David Cope: It’s probably important here to note that I built this collection with two very different perspectives:  the youthful “me” interacting with Allen in the letters, and the notes (pages 111-121) where the 68 year old “me” responds to the letters, with clarifying evidence in some cases, and with my critique of some of the foolishness especially inherent in the letters written in the 1970s.  Allen was, of course, endlessly patient with me.


In those early days, some of my peers had a far more sophisticated grasp of the entire poetry scene than I did, especially those who grew up involved in major scenes (e.g. New York or San Francisco).  I had attended a few readings in Ann Arbor, won two local contests in Grand Rapids, and studied under the great Robert Hayden, but otherwise everything I knew about the beats and other famed poets came to me through the words or through public appearances, such as Allen and Dick Gregory leading protestors away from the police riot in Grant Park, 1968.  In addition, I was abnormally shy when first approaching others—covering it with a brash mouthiness, strangely enough—and deeply wounded by my father’s walking out on our family when I was eleven.  It was difficult for me to trust adult males.  At the 1973 National Poetry Festival, it took me the entire week of the conference to build up the courage to ask him for his address, believing as I did that one day I’d have poems worthy of a book I could publish. 


I’d spent three years in the factory by 1973, and saw how working class folk were driven to their deaths by their jobs, living in the horrible thunder of factory fans and noises, breathing fumes ranging from hi-lo exhaust to toluene, acetone and methanol, shouting bosses and workers made angry by the work itself and by the company’s deceptions—regularly speeding up the line before workers arrived, only to have the line shut down when the union reps. timed it and saw what had been done.  Some would take massive doses of company-provided aspirins in order to kill their pain, others died relatively young of heart attacks induced by job stress, and some would angrily toss parts into the “redo” box just to keep up with the massive influx of parts coming down the lines.  I read Whitman and kept to myself, waiting for something better but feeling trapped in “Amerika,” even as friends were killed in Vietnam and the death count and politicians’ lies continued to mount up, month by month.


Between 1973-1976, it took me three years to find my own voice—in the voices and lives of those around me—and to complete a basic education in world poetics, though that process continues to this day.  During that time, I took the cue left by Charles Reznikoff and developed poems that told the tale of my peers at the factory, and later the tales of working folk and neighborhoods seen during my years as a school custodian.  By then, I had also begun editing and publishing my little magazine, Big Scream, and during that time I learned enough of editing to write two chapbooks that I felt worthy of sharing with Allen, and I sent him my latest, The Stars, not expecting any reply but hoping he’d notice.  This is where the letters begin, and all through the correspondence in the 70s, I was trying to come to terms with the other-world legend that was Allen Ginsberg, putting out feelers to see what he valued, occasionally being a pompous ass or admitting my own uncertainties when assessing how to approach him.   


For example, my critique of Mind Breaths is a bit of pompous prattle in the February 10, 1977 letter, as is the assessment of The Dharma Bums, which gravely misreads the tragic elements of the book and neglects the “mountain zen lesson” that ultimately gives the book its center.  The letter that follows it, in May of 1977, apologizes for my overblown rhetoric, saying that it “lacked clarity.”  This letter also questions my own ambitions:  “not sure how to deal with all my thoughts, it’s a complex of feelings still too new to be clear about, but I’ll try to elaborate. . . . finding myself after all these years  of working talking to you, one of the great mythical heroes of my childhood, who helped me thru so many crises of understanding, I find myself a bit confused, maybe as you must have been getting to know Dr. Williams—I sense that a little in the letters in Paterson.  There’s also the thin-skinned retort that I sent Ferlinghetti, alluded to in the June 8, 1978 letter, where I took Ferlinghetti’s “Adieu à Charlot” in City Lights Journal #4 as an insult to my generation—totally missing the point of this great poem, likely because it somehow reactivated my anger at elder males.  Later, as I point out in the notes (per my letter and note of June 8, 1978), Lawrence “graciously sent me a short card asking me what he should do with the manuscript I had sent;  I apologized and asked him to recycle it.”


There are other instances where I now wonder what I was thinking, but at least two bits of youthful wisdom do pop out: first, the hope ending the February 10 letter, noting how mentor-mentee relationships usually break down in alienation, with the desire to “be careful to make it a lasting friendship.”  Finally, there’s the insistence that my generation’s work would ultimately be different from Allen’s (see the letter postmarked Sept. 25, 1979).  Though my reading of our generation’s task is unnecessarily narrow (e.g. “recording the great and small events of our times”), it does point to the need to learn from our elders and “make it new,” as Pound once recommended.                            


Looking over the letters from this period, I can’t help but be amazed at Allen’s patience with me, as though he recognized something in my writing and editing activities, and perhaps in our discussions of world traditions, important poets and poems, that was worthy of continuing the correspondence.  I think that once I began coming to Naropa (1980, 1882 and after) and working with poets and students, and certainly after Humana published my Quiet Lives with Allen’s Foreword, I began to mature, found my place in a developing poetic community, and grew to deeply value the friendships of peers, many of whom I’d met through Allen’s good offices.

4th of July trail, 1994. Antler, Jim Cohn, David Cope. Photo by Jeff Poniewaz.

Kirpal Gordon: Perhaps he also recognized himself in you, a kindred spirit/hard worker in a mean and unpoetic world. Unlike the many Han Shans of our generation wandering the outback far from the Emperor/center, you two created conferences, published books, gave readings and teach-ins. How did he put it: “—and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.” Perhaps you are both living your dreams, co-creating a poetry loka in which the invocation of certain sounds and the transmission of direct images has consequences most favorable. Is this not a form of Grail Quest: he’s sharing his poems with you as you share yours with him? Regarding the mentor/mentoree limitation you mention, friendship is the soul mode but what of poetic continuity and community? Is the whole notion of lineage in literature quaint and obsolete in a you-&-me-tube-Insta-slam-email-smoke-signal-protological-telegram that arrives before the event can even happen? Where is objectivism now? Have the categories collapsed? Should we see lineage as susceptible to hybrid vigor and tradition as a meeting and mating with infiltration? Isn’t Dylan, Kesey, Patti Smith, Last Poets, Johnny Depp, Sapphire, Gil-Scott, Kathy Acker, Public Enemy, Talking Heads, John Sinclair, Grateful Dead Postbeat?


David Cope: Lineage and influence can be liberating to the younger poet; they can also be mere marketing tags for a generation, and can be confining under some circumstances.  Carl Rakosi never liked the term “objectivist,” which was invented to describe the style of Charles Reznikoff’s poems; Carl wanted the freedom of the subjective in some of his poems, and preferred the notion of “realism” to describe his work.   On the other hand, such things can be useful in trying to describe a poet’s work.  We are all influenced by the work we read and love—I think most American poets would agree that we are all the children of Whitman and Dickinson, even if obliquely so.  In our generation, the terms “objectivist” and “neo-objectivist” have dogged me for years (probably because of my first two books, Quiet Lives and On the Bridge), and while I still occasionally employ that format in poems that fit best in it, I have made a concerted effort throughout my career to expand my repertoire beyond any poetic ideologies, finding ways to compose poems with the sort of persona and techniques most appropriate to each subject in an intuitive choice of format, rhythms, images and figures. 


Lineage terms make sense in some ways—even now—as a key to initial entry to a poet’s work, but the reader’s task is to transcend all that in the encounter with the writer’s mind and approaches to content and compositional styles.  During the period of the letters and throughout my career, my work has gone through an enormous number of changes, involving sly allusions to classic poems, techniques employed by Dante, Shakespeare, Catullus, and many others, styles as seemingly remote from objectivism as my own idiosyncratic approaches to the middle-eastern ghazal or ekphrasis as a take-off point for spontaneous riffing on the subject itself.


Back to the letters themselves:  there’s a big change from the letters of the first four years to those from the 80s and early 90s,  which show the engagement in the work we shared—whether in the dual-voiced lecture and questions we did at the 1987 Objectivist Conference or my initial idea of  developing an eco-poetics conference and work on the 1994 Beats and Other Rebel Angels Conference, both at Naropa, but also our work on cultural diversity poetics as seen in courses we taught at our respective schools.  They are, in a sense, “poetry business,” perhaps to some a bit mundane, but I suggest  that they form the nuts and bolts of successful friendships—shared enthusiasms in the work itself, giving one’s friend space and yet emerging when something important needs to be said.  They also document my “learning curve” in observing how Allen handled the immense pressures that he lived with—for example, his patience and genuine interest with an enormous variety of people who wanted his signature on the new Collected Poems or on a tattered copy of Howl and Other Poems, carried in a back pocket for years as a treasured manifesto of identity. 


There are also those moments that are my own personal favorites:  the January 1977 “American Airlines” letter, wherein Allen explains Blake’s system of Zoas in concise detail and expands on his own recent and planned readings, or the note to the March 27, 78 letter, in which he showed me the recently FOIA-obtained FBI correspondence on antiwar radicals in Detroit and Ann Arbor (where I was active in the anti-war movement); also the already noted December 1980 letters, with my unpublished elegy and eulogy for John Lennon and Allen’s response, and Allen’s Dec. 21, 1982 postcard from Charleville, Rimbaud’s apartment—“how sad his dark old wooden steep stairway, + the toilet in his old flat!”  Similarly, in the already-covered “postcard poem” from China, the script was indeed a tightly written poem, ending on a note of completing a life circle, finding Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Temple “w/Gary Snyder who’d / heard its bell echo across years.” 


That notion of completing a life circle (per the final lines of the “Postcard Poem”) underlies much of the purpose of this volume.   In my case, I not only wanted to complete one of the many life circles that emerge as one plunges onward in samsara—to see the entire dialogue Allen and I engaged in over that two-decade curve, with the perspective attained at last in my late 60s—but I also needed documentation of my own work as editor and poet riding on the initial cusp of ecopoetics and cultural diversity studies, and for literary historical items that have come up in recent years.  I’ll provide three of the important passages as documented in detail here:  the development of a generational anthology, Nada Poems; the now legendary 3-in-1 book being prepared for City Lights; and the documentation of my efforts to promote an eco-conference.  There are several other such strands in this collection, of course.


Perhaps of initial importance is my desire to find the “best minds” of my own generation, whose experiences were significantly different from those of our elders.  After Allen realized that I was editing my own small press magazine, he began sending me the work of my peers—those he felt had some original spark, as they turned up at his readings or in the mail.  He mentions in a letter from October 8, 1976 that he has “seen clear + lovely work by about 10 poets in recent years, a surprising harvest, some kinda wave of new clarity + charm + energy” from across the nation.  He began sharing them with me almost immediately, beginning with Andy Clausen’s early chapbook, Shoe-Be-Do-Be-Ee-Op, presented in a letter of Jan. 10, 1977.  This pattern of talking back and forth about young “obscure genius” continued throughout our correspondence, and his nudge probably spurred me to thinking of my generation’s work, experiences and values as being in some ways quite different from his. 


I was not only looking for poems that spoke to the deeper and more troubling issues of my time, but the sort of poets that would form the initial community that I was seeking.  The letters record this faithfully:  first, in the Nov. 16, 1982 letter, where I announced my plan for a “BIG anthology of my generation’s poems/poets,” noting on May 14, 1983 that I had completed such a manuscript of “14 poets my age,” all of whom would eventually be represented in the Nada Poems anthology.  I worked on the anthology on and off for the next 4 years of so, and it crops up again in the March 25, 1988 letter, written after I had won the 1988 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for my second book, On the Bridge.  With the award money in hand, I now had the means to publish it properly.  Jim Cohn traveled to Grand Rapids and we met with two younger poets, Chris Ide and Joel Kuszai, traveling to Michigan State University, where Joel’s professor father gave us a primer on how to work up an anthology using the school’s Macs.  We spent an entire night putting the book together, and later hired a printer outside of Ann Arbor to do layout and design for the cover, printing it in an edition of 1500 copies.  The book was in print for about ten years, and poets sold it at their readings, gave it away, and I used it as a free textbook for my creative writers during my first years as a professor. 


Second was the ill-fated “3-in-1” book which Allen edited while nearly convincing Lawrence Ferlinghetti to publish it.  I had forgotten about it until recently, when it cropped up on pages 235-236, 238, 245-246, 248, and 255 of I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career:  The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg 1955-1997, ed. Bill Morgan; there’s also an oblique notice of Allen’s efforts on our behalf in Michael Schumacher’s Dharma Lion (page 650),  and a description of the proposed book in Bill Morgan’s I Celebrate Myself:  The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (523-524).


The book was supposed to feature around 48 pages of work by each of us—Antler, Andy Clausen, and me—and the editing progress and eventual rejection of the book are documented in these letters.  Allen was pushing me to send my chapbooks and poems to Ferlinghetti quite early, and I did mail a 26 page manuscript to City Lights, as documented in the anti-nuclear postcard letter of 1978 (page 28).  There’s a further reference to the collection in the September 25, 1979 letter, which accompanied a manuscript for the “proposed anthology.”  By February 18, 1980, Allen was explaining his approach to editing the book, noting the hard work of my soon-to-be best friend and blood brother, Jim Cohn; Allen mentions that Ferlinghetti “somewhat doubtfully” offered to do the book, and it later became apparent that Lawrence was concerned that it wouldn’t sell.  Although Bill Morgan notes in his  biography of Allen that the compromise of publishing all three of us in one book “didn’t please any of the poets” (524), my letters reveal that I was quite excited about project and dutifully sent my work in for consideration. 


Antler eventually withdrew his work from the book when it became apparent that it would have to be printed sideways; Allen substituted work by Robert Meyers, but he had to announce to me that “Ferlinghetti fudged on the book” in his January 1981 letter.  Lawrence apparently wrote to me about it, because my letter to Allen at about the same time says “Ferlinghetti said he had no money for the 3 man book project” (c. Jan. 1981).  I was not upset about it, but rather sanguine in my estimation of the outcome, especially given the Reagan recession that was currently a blight on jobs and income:  “The publishing scene is undoubtedly as depressed now as the rest of the economy, & I felt he was correct in assessing possibilities of a new book getting somewhere”; in addition, I felt that “the big printing may or may not come later,” that I was having a ball getting to know the others, and that I still had a lot to learn.


Third is the documentation of my initial letters proposing an ecolit conference at Naropa.  I had been working with sustainable ecology since the 1970 Earth Day conference at Michigan, which made us all aware of the major issues facing the planet; Sue and I used our home as a laboratory for growing our own food, developing an ecosystem involving great variety, converting an old shed into a solar greenhouse for growing seedlings and sustaining a variety of plants during all but the hottest days of the summer.  We had also led anti-nuclear teach-ins at local colleges and high schools, and during the final years of my time as a custodian at Grand Rapids  Junior College (now Community College), I developed a paper recycling system that still functions there to this day, and wrote the college’s first by-law committing the school to sustainable action, shepherding it through a Board of Trustees meeting to adoption.  I also worked with the ecology office to educate myself on the current state of the eco–movement, legislation affecting environmental issues, and newer approaches to activism. 


By 1988, I assembled two different lineups of speakers with approaches to developing such a conference at Naropa; I sent the first line-up to Anne Waldman in June of 1988 (pages 77-79), and included that message/lineup and a more detailed lineup (pages 73-77) in my letter to Allen on September 12, 1988.  Anne and others eventually picked up on the idea, which was a fully developed conference when the Naropa summer session presented it in 1990.  The final reference to the conference—in my July 14, 1990 letter to Allen—invoked my pleasure in “working with Gary Snyder & Peter Warshall & Bill Devall,” three of the stalwarts among the more than thirty poets, scientists, and eco-activists who worked with me and Chris Funkhouser in revising and editing the draft document of “The Declaration of Interdependence.” I had composed the initial draft of this conference position paper, yet used it as a means to give conference participants several opportunities to amend and extend the document, which eventually appeared in Disembodied Poetics:  Annals of the Jack Kerouac School (eds. Waldman and Schelling.  U of New Mexico, 1994),


There were many other threads such as these in the correspondence, but these three suffice to show the documentation that I find important to the completion of my own arc on my way toward the fabled sunset.


Allen at lunch, Naropa outdoor cafe, Boulder, 1987. Photo by Cope

Kirpal Gordon: I also much appreciate how reflective and insightful passages are all rolled up together with practical and mundane details. They celebrate a life in poesie from a rock star-like guy who could fill any size auditorium. What happened to that energy at the national level, poetry as a call to create/imagine a new way of interacting? Which way Eden in a world ever more resembling the Moloch section of Howl? Where has all the magic gone?


David Cope: Many cultural and historical differences come to mind with this question, but the most obvious answer to this is that Allen wrote a challenging and complex poem at a time when youthful alienation and the deadened culture of the fifties led to such desperate searches for meaning in the mechanistic mentality of the time—a time when poetry still mattered in the national consciousness.  It’s also clear that he had an enormous skill set capable of responding to the horrors of both the fifties and sixties in a very public way that even awed some of his own peers.  Allen was a true maestro in many, many ways, and I doubt we shall see his like again in this lifetime; I was fortunate to know him well and to learn from him, to help sustain the community of visionary poets that have graced my life, to continue publishing new authors in my small press mag, finding ways to connect those who are in need, as I certainly was when I first reached out to Allen.

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