I want to talk today about why we’re here at the Jack Kerouac School for this 43rd Summer Writing Program and where we’re at as writers and as humans in 2017. This is a significant visit to Naropa for me because I first taught here twenty years ago in the Summer of 1997, and that visit created an opening for me to begin a new phase of my life’s-work as a writer. That was the summer that I began my biography of the poet Robert Duncan, and it really began here—and it began here because of the people I taught with, and because of the atmosphere of this place, and because of the sense of possibility that this place always affords writers. I’d like to propose that we make this a summer that opens a collective project for us as writers and activists. When we address the theme of our convergence here, the theme of “The New Weathers”, and the theme of this week “Reckoning This Fleeting World”, we have to consider two key words: Possibility and Responsibility. Possibility for a radical change in the way humans steward the planet, and Responsibility in Robert Duncan’s sense of the word: “Responsibility is the Ability to Respond”. We may look back through our lineage as writers here and think of our ancestors as Titans, but it seems really clear to me that you—all of you who are here as students and are coming into life as writers—are the very most important generation of the Kerouac School. We may have all come here for similar reasons, but the urgency of the world situation falls more squarely on your shoulders, and your roles as writers will be different than the roles of your ancestors—you will be the generation that lives on the precipice of the end of the species.

Now part of the reason I became a writer (and probably a big part of it) was that I desperately needed to be heard. And I know this is a familiar story. And some of the women in the audience know this story, of being a girl and not being heard. Or for some of you it’s another story: of being in exile, or abandoned, or marginalized in whatever ways your story has played out. Being a writer, and being aware of this, puts us in a very unique position as humans: our decision to become writers forces us to examine who we are and where we are in relation to all other creatures. It brings us to that line from Spiderman “With great power comes great responsibility.” So we can meditate this afternoon on Spiderman and Robert Duncan: “With great power comes great responsibility” and “Responsibility is the Ability to Respond.” We see if we move from these maxims that we as writers have a greater potential than let’s say a lot of our politicians, to really feel the pain of the rest of the planet and to do something about it. And I know for me, in my story I gravitated toward one of the founders of this school, Allen Ginsberg, because of his story – that crucial childhood story of longing for parental love and longing for love in a culture that couldn’t provide it. You don’t have to go far beyond the first line of “America”, which he wrote when he was in his late twenties: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” to see that. But what I can also confess, is that I came into poetry seeking immortality, really hungry to participate in lineage, and in Blake’s dictum “The Authors are in Eternity”. To bring it down to pedestrian terms, I really just wanted to be famous. And that again is a feeling that I think others in this room can relate to. The Jack Kerouac School is a pretty glamorous place. This is where rock and roll and poetry meet.

So our expectations for future poetical glory have been radically rearranged by The New Weathers, by a long history of disconnect from the planet that we live on. I’m not sure why we haven’t articulated it in these terms more often here: that we are at the end of the world. We’ve certainly been talking about the destructive forces that surround us since this project called the Naropa Institute began. But we haven’t said frankly that we’re coming to the end of it all. I remember my mentor in college, a poet and Blake scholar named Jack Clarke talking about a line of Charles Olson’s—that Olson was asked vaguely in an interview “What are we doing here?” And Olson replied “Waiting for the ice to melt.” So to admit to ourselves where we’re at means we also have to be open to experience a good deal of grief. And Anne said this the other day, you can “write from a broken heart.” Because if we are frank about it, it’s very likely that we’re no longer writing for future generations. It’s possible that I will not be part of a grandparent generation of writers like Robert Duncan or Allen Ginsberg were for me. It’s highly probable that most of you will not be part of a grandparent generation of writers. That puts a huge responsibility on us right here in this room. We have to be realistic—the Paris Climate Accord was a compromise, it didn’t save our species or other species, even if the United States abided by it. So we have a lot of work to do if we want to do it. There’s probably a reason you chose to come here and not to be at a summer writing retreat on the coast of Maine or at an Ivy League School somewhere. As writers in the Kerouac School lineage, we’re deep readers and researchers. This is part of the lineage that comes to me through Olson and Ginsberg and Sanders and Bernadette Mayer. So the first thing I would encourage you to do as a human, and as a writer working with facts, is to go online and download the PDF of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC 2014 Report. This is the document that was released by the United Nations ahead of the Paris Climate Summit. Now this report was compiled by a panel of over one hundred scientists globally, and it details the reasons for climate change, the projected effects of climate change on the planet and its ecosystems, and the various scenarios for mitigating climate change. It is a 1400-page document. The Synthesis Report culled from it is a 169 page document, and you can start there if it seems more reasonable. And this document is our formal prophecy of The New Weathers, and it’s really the most important text we have at hand right now if we want to think about our future as writers and humans. As a writer and researcher, I would actually say it’s a beautiful document, because it takes into consideration every creature on the planet and it looks at every possibility we have to save the ecosystems we now know as our own. And it is a Great Prophecy in that it really clearly points out what will be happening for us in our own generation and in our children’s generation if we continue to live the way we live. We’re still not taking this information head on, and I do think it’s because we’re paralyzed with anxiety. I think we get into spots where we’re too afraid to love deeply and act wholeheartedly and that’s part of the confusion right now. This was mentioned on a panel the other day—that we ask for permission too much, that we ask permission to resist, and that we need to take things into our own hands. This has been in the air for us in America for some time, and it’s all part of a continuum. In 1962 Martin Luther King wrote: “Today it has become almost a truism to call our age an ‘age of fear’. In these days of terrifying change, bitter international tension and chaotic social disruption, who has not experienced the paralysis of crippling fear? Everywhere there are people depressed and bewildered, irritable and nervous all because of the monster of fear…. We must honestly ask ourselves why we are afraid. The confrontation will, to some measure, grant us power. We can never cure fear by the method of escapism. Nor can it be cured by repression. The more we attempt to ignore and repress our fears, the more we multiply our inner conflicts.”

 

Firstly we have to accept that we are the people of the Anthropocene: “Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” (IPCC 2014). And I think we have to own that. We didn’t ask to be here, and we all have our ways of trying to deny that we are here. In one way or another we’re all climate change deniers. Our first world carbon footprints, even for the best of us in the first world, are unsustainable. (You don’t even need to drive a car to have an unsustainable carbon footprint—all you have to do is live in a single family dwelling and use heating oil in the winter.) As hard as it is, we have to be humble. Our daily actions in the first world negatively affect the lives of people in the third world every day. But we also need to frame this beyond the realm of fault and blame. We need to position all of us, every one here, as victims of a long history of non-cooperative societies. This doesn’t let you off the hook—it simply puts things into perspective. I’d say we’ve all been in the story for so long, we really can’t help but be who we are. And we have to break through to a radically different way of thinking and living if we do want to continue to live. Like it or not, we are the Rich Man in the Book of Mark. I will bring Christ into this conversation because he very strongly suits the Outrider tradition that we are part of here: As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘You know the commandments’, Jesus said: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’ ‘Teacher,’ the man replied, ‘I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.’ Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. ‘There is still one thing you haven’t done,’ he told him. ‘Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.’” I suspect there’s a part of this in all of us when we think about climate change. We consider whether or not we can stop eating meat or stop buying things on Amazon or stop driving cars and we go away sad. These are extraordinary times, and as I’ve heard Anne Waldman shout to a packed room at the Poetry Project: “Don’t Tarry.” I know that some people say they don’t believe in personal virtue as a path to healing the planet, that the work is too large and has to be done from the top down. I have to say that I really disagree with this. We are all that we have. And it’s really only through our example that anything positive is going to happen. The actions that we take, either in participating in revolutionary changes to our lifestyle, or having dignity in accepting the end of the species, or in a combination of those two paths, is what we can leave as a testament to our compassion as humans. As writers we can also document this journey for each other for as long as we are here. I want to read for you part of an essay by an activist named Anne Herbert from the Bay Area. This is from a piece called “Handy Tips on How to Behave at the Death of the World”:

 

“Probably good to tell truth as much as possible. Truth generally appreciated by terminal patients and we all are….Good to avoid shoddy activities. You are doing some of last things done by beings on this planet. Generosity and beauty and basicness might be good ways to go. Avoid that which is self-serving in a small way. Keep in mind standing in for ancestors including people who lived ten thousand years ago and also fishes. Might be best to do activities that would make some ancestors feel honored to be part of bringing you here. Silent statement to predecessors: Well, yeah, we blew the big thing by killing ourselves. I tried to honor you as much as I could in that context by doing the following: _______________. TRANSFORM YOUR OWN POWER-OVER BEHAVIOR to whatever extent possible. … E.g. Men profoundly understand and change around relations with women. White people profoundly change in relations to people of color. Humans profoundly change in relationship to other beings on planet. This constitutes thank you note and note of apology to the whole history of the planet.”

My students have been hashing out the message of this essay since Monday and it’s been tough going in different ways for all of us. Some of us feel grief, some of us feel rage, regret, confusion, and doubt and guilt and anger at being called out as humans, or first world people, or men, or straights, or meat-eaters. The process has reminded me of the 12 Steps of recovery programs. I’ve been working with students and activists on climate change for the last couple of years, but it wasn’t until I got into the classroom here this week that I saw how useful it could be to organize climate action through the 12 Step Process:

We admitted we were powerless over _________________—that our lives had become unmanageable.

The Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us how powerless we are, and how unmanageable our situation is: “Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise. {2.2}”

“A large fraction of species faces increased extinction risk due to climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate change interacts with other stressors (high confidence). Most plant species cannot naturally shift their geographical ranges sufficiently fast to keep up with current and high projected rates of climate change in most landscapes; most small mammals and freshwater molluscs will not be able to keep up at the rates projected under… and above in flat landscapes in this century (high confidence).”

“Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases. {2.4}”

You can also look at a 2015 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The UK Guardian and Scientific American picked up on this research last year. Here’s the byline from the Scientific American article, which is probably all you need to hear to get the message: “if current rates of [soil] degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said.” That leaves us sixty harvests, and brings the crisis into focus generationally.

Step Two of Twelve Step Recovery Programs: We Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. And Step Three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Her/Him.

Now some of us come from traditions where we have higher powers and we seek them out for spiritual guidance. Others of us have higher powers plain and simple as writers. I mean I would be the first to say that where I’m coming from as a writer I’d happily pray to James Joyce for guidance. I also find myself thinking of that summer I was here twenty years ago. It was the year Allen Ginsberg died. And I arranged when I was here that summer to sit down with Ed Sanders and do an interview with him about Allen. One of the most important things that came out of that for me, was a reminder of an approach to writing that involved an engagement with documentation, with facts, with real news, with a deep personal involvement with the world. This is something that Brenda Coultas spoke about on Tuesday—and she said that great thing about why she writes, “I want to know this planet.” The thing that Ed Sanders learned from Allen Ginsberg and also from Charles Olson, was that we don’t just run on gut feelings as writers—there’s a place for that, but we also have the responsibility to think on our feet and to connect facts in a lucid way.  I think this is especially important for us as Outriders, in the way that you see its importance to thinkers like Noam Chomsky or Rebecca Solnit—when one is positioned by others on the outskirts of the dominant culture, it’s really necessary to show up to the gunfight armed with facts. And Allen was that writer for me, and for so many others. He was the one who had the courage to investigate the CIA. He was the one who decided that if he didn’t like something that was happening in the government, he would call them and let them know. And he would find a way to get through. When Jack Spicer taught poetry workshops in San Francisco in the 1950s, he handed out a questionnaire to students that made clear his priorities as a writer—the first three sections of questions were in the categories of Politics, Religion, and History, not Writing or Literature:

I.Politics

  1. What is your favorite political song?
    2. If you had a chance to eliminate three political figures in the world, which would you choose?
    3. What political group, slogan, or idea in the world today has the most to do with Magic? With Poetry?
    4. Who were the Lovestoneites?

  2. Religion
  3. Which one of these figures had or represented religious views nearest to your own religious views? Which furthest? Jesus, Emperor Julian, Diogenes, Budha, Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tse, Socrates, Dionysus, Apollo, Hermes Trimegistus, Li Po, Heraclitus, Epicurus, Apollonius of Tyana, Simon Magus, Zoroaster, Mohammed, the White Goddess, Cicero.
    2. Classify this set of figures in the same way. Calvin, Kierkegaard, Suzuki, Schweitzer, Marx, Russell, St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, St. Augustine, Santayana, the Mad Bomber, Marquis de Sade, Yeats, Gandhi, William James, Hitler, C.S. Lewis, Proust.
    3. What is your favorite book of the Bible?

III. History

  1. Give the approximate date of the following people or events:
    Plato____Buddha____The Battle of Waterloo____Dante____The invention of printing____Nero____Chaucer____The unification of Italy____Joan of Arc____
    2. Write a paragraph about how the fall of Rome affected modern poetry.

When Robert Duncan taught similar workshops in the Bay Area, he asked his students to prepare a family tree of the generations of writers who had most influenced them. Now if you go somewhere entirely else, to Ghana (and I can’t really think of any two stranger things to put together than Ghana and Robert Duncan)—there is a word “Sankofa” in the culture of Ghana—and it means “Go Back And Get It”. And there’s a symbol you’ll see, of the Sankofa bird—with its neck turned backwards, reaching into the past—fetching what is necessary to move forward. This is something that was brought to my attention earlier this summer in a class at the New York Theological Seminary, and it made me think of what we do here at Naropa, of the way we rely on our ancestor writers. We all bring various traditions to the table. We can’t merge into one tradition—my experience is not the same as anyone else’s in this room. But our strength in this moment is in finding common ground around our differences. I can tell you my experience and my tradition and lineage and what I can contribute from it and you can do the same. I know it gets emotionally hot sometimes, partly because as a young writer you have to come into your beliefs by fiercely defending the things that are important to you so that you can emerge with your own voice. And partly because this is a place where it feels safe to say “wait a minute, I am a marginalized person and I can almost be heard in this space, finally.”

Writing is testifying. We testify to our experiences of the world. The form we use—prose or poetry, hybrid forms, performance form or on-the-page form is part of our craft, but where we come together is in the experience of conveying the message by any means possible. We all have different ancestors, which is really our strength, that we can all work together to fetch from the past what we need to move forward. For me it’s something in the Beat tradition, and I know that Anne included this line of Allen’s in the description for the program this summer:: “Well, while I’m here I’ll / do the work–– / and what’s the Work? / To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken / dumbshow.” It’s obviously also a Buddhist way of thinking, which we can pay homage to in this space. And I’ll go back to the two words I dropped into this talk at the beginning: Possibility and Responsibility. We might bring Emily Dickinson into the discussion—“I dwell in Possibility”. How do we organize ourselves emotionally for the task of dwelling in possibility in such dire times? If we continue to use the 12 Step process as a guide, we see how it corresponds to Anne Herbert’s plea in “Handy Tips on How to Behave at the Death of the World”: We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves (as in “why do I continue to buy my kid Chicken McNuggets?” I think it’s important to say that—it’s the only way we can grow. And we see this in the way we work with race and gender—we make mistakes, and it’s a good thing even though it’s hard—it’s a growing process). We make a list of all creatures we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all. We continue to take personal inventory (and that’s something we’re all always doing as writers). Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to other humans, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

We are Outriders. Remember how Anne positions that term: “The Outrider rides the edge—parallel to the mainstream, is the shadow to the mainstream, is the consciousness or soul of the mainstream whether it recognizes its existence or not. It cannot be co-opted, it cannot be bought.”  There is no reason we can’t work at the margins of dominator societies to cooperate in a society that does not value cooperation. We all have Outriders that we look to—those voices that speak to us, brought forward in this space individually by each of us, are enormously powerful in concert. We are working out of the ground of a new orientation. And this is something that I’m fetching from my past, because when I was a young person in Buffalo, New York, finding a place in what I’ll call my family of faith—and I mean my family of poetry—I was drawn to a fantastic constellation of people including Robert Creeley who was my teacher, and Jack Clarke who I mentioned earlier, and a peer and fellow poet named Elizabeth Willis, and a culture worker named Harvey Brown who was the editor of Frontier Press—an Outrider press that published Ed Dorn and H.D. and Stan Brakhage, and Williams, and others. And I remember Harvey describing being in Mexico City in September of 1985 during the big earthquake there and he said the ground was moving under his feet, and he realized he had to move with it, and he called it “Dancing to a new orientation.” And I do think that’s exactly what we need to do now. We need to accept where we are, to be heartbroken, and to use our gifts as writers—and we are here because we have gifts—we have to own them—we have to ask ourselves every day “Why did I come through my mother’s womb?” – and I think part of the answer may be “to ease the pain of living”.