Naropa Writing, part 2

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

July 5th, 2016

I woke up at six even though I didn’t want to. Ate the usual oatmeal, did the usual Youtube-led yoga, and skipped out on the morning meditation. Instead, I went to the Market Brewing Coffee place off Folsom to chug a cold-brew coffee as I wrote most of a sestina. The poem was inspired by blue and ceramics. I was trying to just go with the first six words that came to mind and play with what arose within the form constraint.

Today’s class was about air, space, and hearing. TC read some of the more famous Bashō poems. One I really like is:

The clouds
are giving these moon-watchers
a little break.

This haiku set the tone the class, which was mostly spent on breathing on the floor in the dark.We listened to the air in our body, the air close around us. We were guided to make noise, breathe audibly, and to feel the parameters of the space. TC asked us to find out what we wanted to know about the room. I could hear some of the others breathing, panting, humming, mumbling questions. It was very strange, curled up on the floor, listening to others breathing and barely feeling okay to make my own sounds. I decided to use the ujjayi practice that I know from yoga to breathe audibly but also to calm the anxiety I felt about making noise in the first place.

What the hell am I doing here? What do I need? What do I want?

The floor gave me nothing in response. Buddha and Guanyin looked down to me, offered me silent symbolic compassion. Felt no safety in sound, only movement. I vibrated out a hum to TC—comfort there. The space, the lack, allowed me to tap into my physical sadness, an almost primordial ache I’ve always had and barely understand. I got lost breathing onto plastic chairs and floor molding and tried to concentrate on the feel of my breath coming back to me. I tried to breathe relief into my achy knees, hips, back, forehead. I hold so much fear in making noise, where does that come from? Goosebumps were all over me, increased my skin’s surface area. My leg hairs tingled as tiny muscles pushed them upward.

At the end of the forty-five-minute breathing practice we had a twenty-minute writing session, and then we met up together and shared what the experience was like for each of us. I didn’t share my experience, and neither did another classmate, but the others echoed some of the feelings that came up in me, including fear and sadness.

In the last section of class we participated in a movement exercise called “The Grid.” We stood in a rectangle. Three to six people had to be in the center, moving in straight lines, either standing, crawling, or sitting. This was a pretty fun exercise, I liked that I didn’t have to participate if I didn’t want to. Sometimes I would crawl into a ball and lie down in the center of the grid. Or I’d run back and forth on the outside of the rectangle. Mostly I lurked.

Our assignment for class is to write a haiku.

I ate a quick lunch of microwaved soup and crackers in my dorm then headed back out to campus for a panel about the performance of music and poetry. Various speakers discussed how they deal with stage fright, others talked about struggling with the male gaze on stage. There was some tension between the men and women on the panel when discussing the male gaze—one guy on the panel stated that performance is always about the gaze, regardless of gender, and that’s something the performer needs to anticipate. Needless to say I rolled my eyes a bit.

TC gave a talk in the Student Commons room after the post-lunch panel. He talked a lot about forgiveness—forgiveness for the self and for the person who performed the harmful action. He talked about his experience growing up in the south as a Pentecostal and coming to poetic language through hearing others in the church speaking tongues—glossolalia—and being both intrigued and scared of this happening. Poetry and the channeling of god as nonlinear.

I could be a claimed safety from the floor to the ceiling I could be safe I could be love like how light fills a room

At tonight’s reading, as part of the Akilah Oliver News Report, Anne Waldman informed the audience that Alton Sterling had been shot several times by Baton Rouge police and killed.

Back in my dorm, I found out a video of this shooting exists. I can’t watch it. A thumbnail for the video was all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds and I just couldn’t handle it. How many people posting this video are actually taking action within their communities to stop police brutality, and how many posted it to engage in the cultural spectacle of black death and tragedy?


July 6th, 2016

Today is a free day from classes, and so HE, L, HB and I went to Chautauqua Park to have breakfast at the Dining Hall there. The area was very sunny and grassy, and there were many families in pastels, cargo shorts and baseball hats chowing down on pancakes. HE joked, “Is this where all the middle-class white families gather for breakfast in Boulder?” Seemed that way, and the four of us were/are part of that process.

I was honestly just thrilled to be part of a group. For the past several days I’ve felt more and more isolated—trying to talk with classmates with no luck, trying to talk with TC with no luck. Curling inward.

We each talked about the different teachers we had and how we felt the classes were going. One thing I noticed about these few insights into other classes was how strange it was for us, past and current writing teachers, to be students again. I asked the group if they felt like the teacher had asked about their needs and their points of artistic curiosity. Most of the teachers had not asked this question, and we supposed this was due to the fact that there was so little time, the class was only a week long and the teacher had already set up their syllabus. This felt like a generous hunch to me.

This morning I got an email from TC that asked the entire class troop if we’d be willing to take part in his reading that night at the Naropa Performing Arts Center, where all panels and readings have occurred, save for the first Laughing Goat open mic. I was a little hesitant at first but eventually emailed TC back to say I was in.

On the short walk through campus I noticed #BLACKLIVESMATTER written in bright chalk all over the sides of Naropa’s buildings and walkways.

Judith Lief gave a Dharma talk this afternoon about the different realms in Tibetan Buddhism. I’m a Buddhist, but not part of the Tibetan tradition, and so I was fascinated in hearing the different ways of describing the Dharma.

To paraphrase her talk: she stated that the world is in flames with the intensity of materialist delusions. We, as in the human race, use our personal filters to block out the Earth’s wonders and horrors. We squash the vastness of reality so that we’re not challenged by it. Each individual creates the world they inhabit, as in, we project our emotional state onto the world and find it there. (We believe the world is subjective but really it’s objective?) To recognize the untarnished consciousness that exists, this vastness, is to have an open-sky-like mind. However, freedom is threatening because it means giving up possessions, giving up our worldviews, being generous with our material possessions, and recognizing that internal narratives are indeed narratives.

What results from shutting out the vastness of reality is a feeling of fundamental alienation from the world, creating an “us versus them” mentality. This pattern of thinking ossifies the open space of the world into a prison of possessiveness, self-absorption, fear, and delusion.

Lief then went on to summarize the six realms of existence, each realm describing a different component of dukkha. She described the Deva/God realm as a place for those who are stuck in ignorance and pride. They pretend to be above all the suffering of the world and like to hide out in spiritual or gated communities. They avoid and put up barriers between themselves and others who do not share their world view. She referenced post-911 US as being stuck in the Deva Realm.

I’m not going to sum up all six of the realms, Google can help anyone interested with that, but I did appreciate how she then directed the discussion of Tibetan realms toward an understanding of one’s writing practice. What realm is one artistically stuck in? I would say, personally, I’m stuck in the Human Realm: needy and uncomfortable with being needy. Lief stated that when we are aware of the realm we are in, we are able to create work that is unbiased by the moods that color the realm.

Meditation, Lief went on, becomes a practice of removing these filters and layers of preconception. This meditation practice is a “non-conceptual” way of intruding into our comfort zone and sense of solidity. Think of meditation, she suggested, as if it was a boycott to our “usuals.”

I am energy up the spine across shoulder digging xyr hands into muscle contorting story malleable muscle I am prickling under the right shoulder I am hip crease folding inward knees drawing upward

I appreciated one woman who went up to the mic during the Q&A portion of the lecture and noted how the ways Lief’s description of the world sounded a lot like victim-blaming, as if there weren’t actual oppressions and injustices that cause harm and influence one’s worldview. Lief didn’t come up with an adequate response, I remember. Once she sat back down, I slipped this woman a piece of paper after she sat down, thanking her for her input and telling her that, if she was interested, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s book The Way of Tenderness grapples with this very question, though Manuel approaches it from the Zen tradition.

After the dharma talk, I went back to the dorm, made a quick dinner of steamed vegetables and fake sausage, and then headed back to campus to meet TC and the rest of the troop to prepare for the night’s reading.

We met outside the Performance Arts Theater to prep. TC assigned different reading parts to the troop—he asked me to whisper “Dear Melissa” throughout the epistolary middle of his set, others were to call out the names of the trans women of color who have been murdered, other were assigned to shout “Word Problem!” randomly.

TC’s reading was unforgettable. At the points where I felt his pain, or imagined I could feel his pain, I would whisper “Dear Melissa.” It’s hard for me to tell if there was a genuine connection to him, if he could hear my almost prayer, almost balm. In my brain, as I dead-named him I also comforted him, I let him know that this part of his history is not dead—it happened. It happened to him. The entirety of the piece was so moving and beautiful it’s hard to describe. It’s exactly what I want my poetry to do. To get at that tender ache, this moment’s aching, put this grief to form.

I thought about how different this was for me, how I could now make noise in a room, not completely cured of my anxiety, of course, but the fact that I could even take this part of his set was a big step for me.