I was sitting in a classroom, mid-afternoon, in one of those desks with a place to write attached to it. We were all in rows. It was Naropa. I was there for their Summer Writing Program. Where did I ever get the nerve to sign up, drive myself to Boulder and check into the big ‘ole Victorian house where we all lived together for a month?
THE Beat poets. We had all come to be there with them, to study with them. Everyone had a camera and was constantly taking their pictures, oohing and awing. Beyond Ginsberg, I had no idea who they all were. It was me in my southern California colors, everyone else in black motorcycle leather. Me wine. Them drugs. Me life. Them, yep, death, literally, since their star, Burroughs, did accidentally shoot his wife at a party one night.
My first night there, a staff person took me upstairs to show me my room, and as we looked into the room, she casually told me the woman who had slept there just the night before had been raped. Then she walked out and went back downstairs.
At the very first class, the next day, sitting there in my desk waiting for introductions, I was somewhere in the middle of the room—not here or there, not front or back, not left or right. Hiding. Waiting. Watching. Finally, instead of introductions, they gave us our first assignment: “Open your notebooks and draw the person sitting next to you.”
How DID I ever get myself there?
And of course, the program ended with a student reading. The great ones held their readings too, all through the month. People flew in from all over the US to be there for them. While the poets told us how they hated reading their poetry in front of audiences, banners went up all along the boulevard downtown promoting their readings. But the finale of the entire month was a staged evening of students reading their work. Us. Me.
These guys, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cruso, etc. had read their darkest, grittiest, shadow-filled poetry, all month long, leaving their audiences and the students entranced. I was to write something to read there, also? I was to go up front, with hundreds of people in the auditorium, at the month’s grand finale, and read a poem I’d written too? All twenty of us, each student, were all on the program. There was no place to hide.
And yet, it was why I came. I had to learn to make my statement, to speak up, to be someone. Mike and the boys and I were in the middle of our last summer. The marriage was over, and they were all leaving home. I had to step out. Now!
All I remember was a huge hall, softly lit, with solemn faces. It was standing room only. I ‘acted as if’ as I walked to the lit podium in all this intensity with a dominant force of bold, blatant verse, stark and cold coming before me. I knew I was about to expose myself and horrify all of them with my gentle poetry, my soft voice, my kindness even.
Sure enough, right in the middle of me reading my poem to an auditorium full with people, one of THE Beats (Phillip Whalen, the Zen Buddhist of “garbage-in-garbage-out” fame) standing in the back where I could see him when I looked up, let out an uncontrollably loud, “OH NO!” He could not believe it either. How DID she get here? It was sudden and forgotten, instantly, by everyone in that entire universe, except me.
In the end, as I drove slowly home through the canyon country of the Southwest and on to San Diego and a new life ahead of me, it was clear that because of his cynical outburst I now knew for sure I had done what I had come to do. I had faced my fears, and I had not left hidden. I had even been heard. My statement, as different from these poets as could be, had been made, loud and clear. I had given myself a voice.
Lois Sunrich is the founder of Storymakers, an open community of thirty women who developed a ten-year commitment in January 1990. Storymakers still meets monthly to either share personal stories or present the larger story of women in our time.
In October 2000, Lois founded StoryArts, Inc., a nonprofit community-based arts organization, celebrating life’s stories. Since its inception, StoryArts has published 33 high-quality, custom life-story publications and produced five city-wide, year-long projects honoring the rich stories of residents. Since 1988, Lois has taught life story writing to individuals, and in ongoing monthly groups or annual community workshops in San Diego, Colorado, and Japan, as a way to inspire and maintain creativity in women’s lives. Lois has a B.A. in Humanistic Psychology from UCSD and studied the Intensive Journal with Ira Progoff and poetics at Naropa a Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado.
PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/3092999/