Saturday, July 11, 2009
Sam Kashner's When I Was Cool
About two years ago a friend of mine in my department (Mike McKenna) mentioned that he had read about a book called When I Was Cool, by Sam Kashner, in the NYT Book Review. It was about Kashner's life as Allen Ginsberg's poetry apprentice at Naropa Institute in the years from 1975 to about 1978. Published by Harper Collins, I got the book from Amazon.com, where it sat in a pile of unread books ever since. Part of the problem is that when I got it I was in the middle of a semester, and was snowed under. Other things kept popping up, and it was only about ten days ago, that I happened to see it, and think, I'll read the first 50 pages.
So I read the first 75 pages non-stop. I didn't like it. I loved it. It was kind of like the way I love Kierkegaard. When I'm in it, I read it without stopping, but later think, wow, what a sad writer, and it's hard to go back into such whirlwind intensity.
Kashner was sort of a cool dude at Naropa when I went there in 1977. He was often invited to read his poems in the big poetry classes, as were poets like Jim Carroll, who had a hit on the radio at the time about dead people, and poets like Diane di Prima would pop in, too. Many of these poets were good. Kashner was a mystery to me. I didn't think his poems were great. They had a kind of pop style, and referenced pop music. I've never liked pop music, but he appeared to revel in it. They were clever and beautiful, but I thought they were kind of skating on the surface and never risked saying anything that would make him vulnerable.
Kierkegaard risked everything, on the other hand, although generally under a nom de plume. And Kierkegaard can be hilarious. But Kashner can also be hilarious, at least in this new volume, where he risks everything. In spite of my initial reservations, this is an important book in a minor key.
I went out to lunch with Kashner in New York City with a group of famous poets probably thirty years ago. We were both probably about 22 years old. I don't think I said a word during the meal, and later left in a darkened state, sad to have even been there, and been so square. Dinner with those famous guys including Sam was like watching fireworks go off for two hours. I never got a word in. Kashner and his friend Jason Shinder were very funny throughout the lunch. I'm almost never funny when there's more than one person present. I just stare at the wall. Which is why I like writing. At least there is no one to interrupt me.
Kashner himself felt a bit unnerved by the company at Naropa. He says that he had never read William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and couldn't stand it. He was prepared for Naked Brunch, at best, when he first went to the Buddhist poetry college. I myself never read Naked Lunch. I read about thirty pages tops, and put it down. It was just so icky.
Kashner realized too right away that the Buddhist college had a frightening hierarchical aspect (an icky aspect). If the guru Trungpa liked someone in the entourage, they were called in for sexual duties.
"In fact, I would soon discover that one problem with having a girlfriend who was a Buddhist at Naropa was that, if she was really attractive, Rinpoche might ask to see her, well... no self-respecting student of Rinpoche's would turn him down. So don't even bother asking her to choose. I would later come to know about this form of suffering" (41).
Suffering is something that Buddhists believe that all beings must experience, and apparently your guru doesn't mind adding to your suffering, as long as it temporarily relieves his own.
At Naropa Kashner was the only poetry student for about a year or two. So he got in on the ground floor. He hung out with Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs and others as more or less their equal, and he did get to know them fairly thoroughly since there were no other rivals for their time. Since he was basically the only student, the various poets sought him out all the time, so as to have someone to fetch something or to read and type their poems. Kashner also knew the guru, Trungpa, and had to vacuum his house on command. All the poets were hungry, but Gregory Corso constantly ate out on Sam's Father's Diner's Card. At night Corso wet his bed and Kashner had to help on that front, too!
"Allen turned back to me and began explaining my new duties vis-a-vis Gregory. First off, he warned me about the bed.
"Gregory will ask you to keep it dry for him," he said. I didn't understand at first, but Allen explained that Gregory was a constant bed wetter.
Corso was 46 years old at the time!
Corso had a wife named Lisa, and a girlfriend named Calliope, who was a prostitute. Calliope apparently turned her money over to Corso so he could buy drugs. Corso liked to mainline heroin, which can be expensive.
I knew Sam Kashner only very slightly (he probably took no notice of me) and I felt such intense envy of him because he was obviously everybody's favorite poet among the faculty. The Diner's Club card was probably a bit of the draw, but he was obviously very witty. I had no money, and was too shy to speak. Corso and the other impecunious poets were constantly trying to chisel money out of the students by any means necessary. I think I gave Corso five dollars once for his signature, and he threw a fit until I gave him ten. Kashner himself hated a poet called Antler because he was even further up in the hierarchy, and was getting a book published at City Lights. I hated Antler, too! It was fun to share in Kashner's hate! But I felt the same thing (even worse) toward Kashner!
I knew Calliope, but I didn't know she was a prostitute! I thought she was a nice girl who fell in with Corso because of his genius.
At one point the poet Diane di Prima blows Kashner after she and he have dinner on the Diner's Card. First, she ate her own dinner, and then she ate half his dinner. Apparently, she was rather corpulent, but her eyes were steamy enough for Kashner to overlook it.
At another point Gregory Corso kidnaps Sam, and takes him with girlfriend Calliope to a shack in the mountains above Boulder, to try to ransom him off to his wealthy father. Meanwhile, they try to get Sam to shoot heroin and make love with Calliope. The motivations struck me as squirrelly. Kashner escapes and runs back to town, and then is friends with Corso and Calliope all over again the following week. (Jewish humor of a kind that recalls Woody Allen is spread thick through the book.)
Kashner has sharp insights into all the Beats, but particularly wrt Corso. The reason that Corso liked the book Gilgamesh, Kashner speculates, is not just that it's the oldest book in recorded western history, but that it delineates a friendship between Gilgamesh and his wildman friend Enkidu.
"In the story there is a Wild Man who is created by the gods because he's the only one who can match Gilgamesh. They become best friends and travel together.... It suddenly dawned on me. Everyone keeps thinking that Allen is the Wild Man, but he's not -- he's Gilgamesh" (107).
And Corso is Enkidu, the real Wild Man, and the better poet, not only on his own score card, but that of many others.
In the class I took with Corso back in 1977, Corso used this relationship to talk about Kerouac and Cassady (with Cassady as Enkidu), but he didn't identify himself as Ginsberg's Enkidu. Top shot.
One could say that it was what Nietzsche picked up on in the relationship of Apollo and Dionysos, but this being an older text, it puts the friendship of wild and civilized man on a more enduring and fresher basis.
The Beats used Rinpoche to create a BAD AS I WANNA BE college that drew punks and would-be poets from all over America and the world to Naropa Institute. The place was crazy, but I was never an insider on the gossip, or what was really going on. I never fit in, because I was about as wild as domesticated corn. I had grown up Lutheran, and though I put it on the back burner for a few years, I never intended to completely abandon it, and become a Wild Man. This wasn't in the itinerary. Not only does Kashner provide a pretty good account of a big part of his own growing up he clarifies a lot for me, too, about that period.
Kashner is insightful in talking about how much it cost the Beats to live and act in the outlaw way they did. They were always in someone's bed, but were also always alone, unable to bond over time, and were tricksters, Houdinis of the sheets. But they were often drunk and weepy, too, because their lives didn't work, and they were getting diseases. Burroughs says they were just old men working on prostate cancer. Ginsberg got Hepatitus C. Orlovsky lost his mind. Corso died from prostate cancer.
I have about 40 pages left, and I don't want the book to end. I'm about to read about the W.S. Merwin incident in which Trungpa forcibly stripped the mediocre poet apparently to humiliate him and let him know who was boss. Merwin fought back and gave 600 stitches to various Buddhist guards. It almost got Naropa Institute closed down, and at the time, instigated commentary from all over. It will be interesting to see how Ginsberg handled this behind closed doors. I arrived at Naropa shortly after the incident, and have read all the extant documents about this case (the central ones by Tom Clark and Ed Sanders are hard to find, and out of print, by Ginsberg's request), but as usual, I think that Sam Kashner will provide juicy and telling details.
The book reminds me of the hilarity of Punch and Judy shows, with Kashner himself as a Jewish schlepp and schmo and shlemiel and mensch. Perhaps the most interesting thing in the book is that Kashner loves his parents, and can't quite square his love for them, with his fascination with things Beat. At one point the two come together and Kashner's dad plays harmonica with Ginsberg's band. The vulnerability Kashner feels in that scene as his two worlds come together is worth the price of the book.
"Seymour got a standing ovation, which wasn't hard seeing that there were no chairs, but they were really digging him. I was embarrassed, but I was also secretly proud of my father.
I suddenly saw Gregory Corso across the room, mingling with the crowd... Gregory sidled up to Seymour and told him that he played the harp like a Negro, then he asked him for ten bucks. Seymour gave it to him. That night my father met all the people who had been wining and dining on his credit card the past year" (252).