Naropa Writing, part 1

This is part one of a three-part essay composed at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program in 2016 by Avren Keating, OmniVerse staff writer.

July 3rd, 2016

The Grateful Dead and a national softball tournament are also taking place in Boulder this week, and so the city is thousands of people over its usual capacity. Luckily the dead and the players are leaving on Tuesday, according to the Naropa residence hall supervisor. I could hear the wailing of an epic guitar solo reverberate across the the UC Boulder campus over to my groceries and me on Arapahoe Blvd. The sound crashed onto the Flat Irons and fell away as a car drove past.

I was tired and stressed about making sure I’d be on time for everything on the first day of class. I spent most of the evening missing Digby, my partner, and Merlin, our French Bulldog pup—a part of the settling in process. I had a Google hangout with them and felt heavy with homesickness. Went to bed an hour earlier due to being in Mountain Time. Had to rise at six-thirty.

July 4th, 2016

I am pressure in the chest I am knee tightened I am internal side flinch at sound I am jaw rooted up into ear, ear holding white noise of air conditioner fluorescent mumble

First day of class and sleep was spare like my dorm. Due to my anxiety I can’t have my limbs touching nor can they be on top of each other when I try to sleep. I also have to sleep on my side. I ended up stealing a seat cushion from the sofa and propping that between my knees back in bed. This worked until I woke up at one-thirty, and three, and four, with varying limbs asleep. Eventually, I got up at six-thirty, when I had to get up to get ready for the morning’s meditation session.

I could be light cold I could be a cement pillar in the center of the room I could be the condensation on a glass reaching down to touch a hand I could be loud if I could be certain

After distracted meditation, I walked into town with three women in search of coffee: HE, HB, and L. I split with them in search of better coffee than the kind they were about to get at Joe’s Diner. I am an annoying coffee snob.

I was almost late for class, but thankfully I ran into a woman named S who, when I asked for directions, told me she was in the same class as me and we walked to TC’s class together.

Our classroom was a very large room with cement pillars and wooden floors. It had a foosball table, a pool table, meditation cushions, tables and chairs, and thangkas of Gautama Buddha and Guanyin that sat behind a glass panel. TC took to either laying on the floor or standing up, since he was in recovery from the car crash that he got into while getting taxied from AWP last spring. The class has about eight other people—there are two men and the rest are women. We started off the class with a guided meditation that TC read from the book Body Image Space by Miranda Tufnell. One line that stuck with me is:

“Breath is how the outside of the body knows the inside of the body.”

TC then had us grow familiar with the room and state out loud the words of things and sensations we noticed. He emphasized that we didn’t have to be creative about naming. It’s hard for me to speak out loud. I was happy to hear that other people were naming so that the room wasn’t completely silent. After several minutes of silence I started to say words quietly to myself:

Headache. Knee pop. Cold. Floor. Wood grain. Voice.

TC invited the class to talk louder and people did. But I didn’t really. It’s hard for me to take up space in a room.

After that meditation, TC had us do a couple free write exercises where we finished the statement “I am” and “I could be” for about five minutes each.

TC asked us to introduce ourselves and our pronouns. I’m the only person, besides him, who is a transgender person in class. It feels safer to have him in the room.

TC provided a couple helpful tips to keep in mind while we improvised as a troop: We’re not planning what to write, we’re not composing, we’re tracking. Tracking what’s present. Tracking the development of what’s missing in the piece we’ll be creating as a group, not what one person wants. We’re committing to the practice of saying “Yes, and…” which doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with what’s happening in the moment.

A question we can continuously ask ourselves:

“Does this poetic choice of moment open or close a window?”

He also let us know that our ideas don’t have to be great, but as an ensemble we are in this class to help each other and support our classmate who is in the process of making mistakes or making something beautiful.

We don’t need to know the beautiful thing beforehand. We’re practicing what he called “retroactive sensemaking,” where we are wholly present in what’s unfolding and will examine it later.

We then went around the room and did an improv game where we “gave each other gifts,” handing each other an invisible thing. The receiver had to describe it and then give the giver something of their own. I liked pretending to give people hefty objects that I’d have to drag across the floor or heave to pick up. Whole body buckled under invisible weight.

As a group we did this circle game where we would make a sound and the person to our right had to finish the sound. Later on this became a story, with the constraint that we had to repeat a word from the previous folks at least once. We ended up talking about projections of peacocks in space.

Our last group exercise was to keep contact with the floor and improvise lines for a class poem. I felt weird and scared about it, but eventually I was able to say some phrases. The poem wasn’t really going in a direction I liked, there was lots of talk about floating, and rivers, and silk—that sort of weightless void imagery that shows up a lot in undergraduate poetry workshops. But I was also trying to practice non-judgment. Practicing “Yes, and…” Just staying quiet and using the time to keep connected with stretching my body felt nice.

At the end of that we came together as a group and talked about the things we noticed happening—repetition of images, not wanting to talk over each other, people not really leaving the center of the room.

I hung around at the end of class to try and play a few notes on the piano that stood in the corner of the room, but it was really out of key. TC and I talked for a bit outside of class. We agreed to get lunch together while we were both in Boulder. He had to go prep for the post-lunch panel.

I rushed to my dorm room, heated up some lentil soup, and talked to Digby and Merlin over Google hangouts. Merlin looked demure with his French Bulldog frown and didn’t seem to be registering my voice at all. My heart ached seeing the both of them. Digby was dealing with a migraine that happened at seven this morning, poor thing.

After slurping down some soup I walked back to campus to sit in on the panel that had TC, CA Conrad, Eileen Myles, Christian Hawkey, and Anne Waldman. That was the first time I’ve seen most of the students at Naropa, and it is, to borrow a phrase from Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, a mainly white room. The panel was also completely white. Discussion was about Personal Activism & the Safety Net of Community.

TC talked first about how he deals with taking up space and feeling alive in his body as a trans person and a sexual child abuse survivor. This act of taking up space in his body was once perceived as radical. But, after hormonal replacement therapy, he is now seen by people in the larger world as reinforcing the patriarchy since he passes as a white heterosexual man. He is dealing with the poetry and prose he wrote when he was still hurting and angry with his mother/perpetrator, but now that he’s close to her doesn’t know what to do with those past works. In regards to the Safety Net of Community, he quoted the Bible,

“Faith without works is dead.”

and suggested that for every $15 we spend on books, we could try and send another $15 to domestic abuse shelters, or other charities. Yes, yes, yes. TC pointed out that poets often complain about being broke but then somehow find the money to attend AWP, go out to dinner, buy a $20 bottle of wine, etc.

He also talked about how he saw text as material, and as material as what he called “the skin sack [he] fall[s] asleep in every night.” This has me thinking about trans poetics and the flesh ↔ book correlation that is present in quite a bit of trans poetry.

Christian talked a lot about his efforts to take part in the anti-gentrification in his neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn while also being a white guy who helped gentrify it in the first place. He talked for a really long time about his collaboration with the Decolonial Cultural Front and the Anti-Gentrification Network to disrupt a pro-Israel art gallery exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum.

CA talked about his newest ritual, which is to “resurrect extinct vibrations,” as in laying down in a very public place and letting the sounds of all the animals that have gone extinct since his birth in 1966 (40% of wildlife since he was born remains) wash over him and then he takes notes/write the poem. He’s encountered, of course, a lot of weirdness about this practice in Walmarts, in visitor center lobbies, etc. He talked about how we need to get creativity on the other side of the military. CA remarked that the LGBTQIA movement has lost and that as a culture we need to realize that trans folks in the military is a failure. We need to regroup and rethink strategies that don’t use anger or bloodshed (like the clash that happened recently in Sac with the neo-nazis and the anarchists). He talked about how in Berlin one tactic he’s seen is that anti neo-nazi protestors have balloons they fill the street with so that the view of the nazis are blocked.

Eileen finished the conversation. She talked about self-care and how making personal change can affect our communities. She talked a lot about ACT UP strategies that still work. When she did a die-in recently at Stonewall the belated mourning from the 80s and 90s of all her friends who died of AIDS suddenly hit her. She recently visited a friend who runs an art institute in Chicago and was a founding member of ACT UP, and Myles noted how he takes these strategies and uses them in the classroom. She sees this pedagogy as radical. She stated that we need to form radical writing programs, like Naropa, that help bring forth moments of non-capitalist connection and creativity.

After the panel there was a brief break and then Serena Chopra read from her thesis about Invisibility as Queer Poetics. Chopra described the rhizomatic networks queer women in India make with each other outside of the danger of visibility. Queer women, when faced with forced marriage or who are forcibly outed, often commit double suicides with their partners. These women work invisibly to create possibilities where their desire can be realized without the dangers of it being erased, colonized, and/or punished.

“Lesbian” is an English term that didn’t exist in India; instead in ancient India the word “dogana” was used, which literally means a woman who eats out another woman. Chopra claims that since their native homoerotic history was wiped out by British colonialists, queer Indian women use the English word “lesbian” to describe themselves. The colonialists oppressed homosexuality since they were worried that their soldiers stationed over in India were having sex with each other since there weren’t sexually available women around for them.

Poetics, according to Serena, gestures to the powers of intuition and the inward gaze, (or drishti as one audience member pointed out) much like invisible queerness. In fact, she said that “queer poetics” seems to be a redundant statement. The poetic line, like queer desire, refuses a sentence- or prose- like direction, and the end of a poetic line opens numerous possibilities and meanings.

After the panel I walked down Arapahoe to Homegoods and grabbed a couple pillows, went to Safeway to pick up a vegetable steamer basket, and then went back to my dorm for a quick dinner before heading to a open mic and featured reading at The Laughing Goat.

I could be a sofa curled with xyr back against the wall. I could be irritation I could be homesick headache pressed with small fingers I could be another story of breathing if I could be

The reading was long but I had nowhere else to be. Most of the open mic I drank two glasses of wine that were too expensive and sat by myself hoping to make acquaintances but didn’t know how. I wish I could say all poets feel this way, but that evidently wasn’t the case at the Laughing Goat. Thurston Moore and Clark Coolidge jammed together, weird that no one else was dancing or tapping their feet. CA’s reading was my favorite part, where he read “MY FAGGOT KANSAS BLOOD CONFESSIONS TO THE EARTH,” along with some new work he wrote in Marfa, TX. Everyone at Naropa seems to have formed groups already. High school again.

I walked down the street back here to the dorms and fireworks were going off over some football field somewhere. Fireworks could be symbolic or ironic if I wanted them to be, but I just can’t. I am tired. I am tired.