“Hi, it’s Ginzy,” he’d say when I’d answer the phone. “Come over at two.” And so at ten minutes before two, I’d walk across the then-tiny town of Boulder, Colorado and ring the doorbell of America’s most famous (and infamous) poet, Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl, Kaddish and other books that have been revered as well as banned for obscenity. He didn’t look like a controversial writer, mind you. He looked more like my Uncle Irving as he shuffled to the front door in his baggy grey pants and rolled up shirtsleeves, his glasses slightly askew and the top of his bald head shining. Billy Holiday would be playing on the stereo and Peter Orlovsky, Allen’s lover of twenty odd years would be standing by the stove in red jogging shorts, cooking something delicious, his silver ponytail hanging down to his waist, a white towel draped over his arm like a maitre d’.
It was 1980 and I was twenty-five, a baby poet lucky enough to be taking a class entitled “History of the Beat Generation” from Allen and working as his apprentice at Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I had hitchhiked out to Boulder the summer before with a friend; he flashed a sign that said “We tell jokes” at passing cars while I read aloud from the worn copy of On The Road I kept in my pocket. When summer ended and it was time to return to the east coast, I decided to stay and work with Allen, who became my teacher, my mentor and my friend.
In class Allen talked about rhyme, meter and line breaks, “but,” he said, “if you really want to learn how to write poetry, hang out with a poet and watch how his mind works.” Which is exactly what I did. My job as Allen’s apprentice was to help him with the pounds of mail that arrived on his doorstep every day. What impressed me was the way he considered every letter of equal worth, whether that letter came from a U.S. Senator or a young gay boy in Kansas who didn’t know whom else to write to. And then there were dozens of editors asking him for poems. Allen told me which poems to send to which editor and often added, “Include some of your poems, too.” One editor liked my poems so much, he offered to do a chapbook. Allen was as excited as I was, and insisted on writing a blurb for the back of my first collection.
Besides answering the mail, Allen and I spent a great deal of time working on our poems. When I think about it now, it seems unbelievable, but not only did Allen critique my poems, he had me critique his as well. He treated me more like a peer than a student, and actually listened to my opinions about his work, as if I knew what I was talking about. All I was going on was my own intuition, which was precisely the point. Allen taught me to get to know and trust my own mind. In fact, his often-repeated mantra, “First thought, best thought,” is never far from my ear even now, seventeen years and two-thousand miles later, as I sit and write my poems.
Allen’s generosity knew no bounds. In 1982 when I moved to New York City, Allen put me up in his apartment until I could find a place to live. I called from the corner and then waited for him to lean out the window and throw the keys, tied in a sock, down four flights. Allen was on his way out of town, so I had the place to myself for a few weeks. I don’t know what was more thrilling, seeing my slim, first volume of poetry, Just Looking for my Shoes, among the hundreds of books on his shelves, or picking up the phone and hearing, “Hi, this is Ram Dass. Is Allen home?”
My contact with Allen grew spotty over the years. I left New York after only ten months–the life of a struggling poet living in Alphabet City and working as a temporary secretary is much more glamorous in hindsight–and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1986 Allen came to my newly adopted town to give a reading and I showed up at his sound check. Always interested in everybody’s sex life, he asked, “So who are you into now, boys or girls?”
“Girls,” I said, having finally come out. Allen grinned from ear to ear. “I’m so happy for you,” he said. “You were so miserable with the boys.” He gave me a big hug and a fatherly kiss on the forehead which I greatly appreciated, as my own father, born the same year as Allen, did not have such a celebratory response.
I saw Allen a few times after that. Once at a reading which he started by chanting, “Ommmm….” in his deep, melodious voice and ended by singing William Blake’s “Tyger, tyger, burning bright,” accompanying himself on a tiny, ancient-looking squeezebox. Another time I heard him give a speech as he accepted an award at OutWrite, the Gay and Lesbian Writer’s Conference. I don’t remember the content of his speech, but I do remember that afterwards he walked off the stage, came over to me and asked, “Did I make any sense at all?” And he wasn’t being coy; he really wanted to know.
I treasure the postcards I received from Allen over the years, written in response to poems I sent him. “Solid as a rock, right there, light as a feather,” he wrote. “Expose yourself more, both your intelligence and your dumbness.”
When I heard that Allen had died, I jumped on a train to New York. It was the end of an era, and I felt that I had to bear witness to such a great loss. His funeral was held at the Shambhala Center in New York, where he practiced Buddhist meditation. Hundreds of loved ones, colleagues, friends and students took off their shoes and crowded into the meditation hall. The memorial service mirrored the richness of Allen’s life: first we received meditation instruction and practiced breathing in confusion and fear and breathing out compassion and expansiveness. We listened to Buddhist Monks chant in Tibetan, and friends and family members recite Kaddish, the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. The poet Amiri Baraka told us Allen had called him a few days ago. “‘I’m dying,’ he said. ‘Need any money?'” Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s personal secretary for over twenty years told us to honor him by donating money to his meditation teacher’s Buddhist Center, calling Jesse Helms and asking him to play “Howl” on the radio, or just making love with our sweetie. Anne Waldman who had founded the Jack Kerouac School with Allen read a poem, and Peter Orlovsky, his ponytail long gone, described Allen’s last night on earth for us, how he moved “slow as a turtle” to put Ma Rainey on the stereo before he lay down and passed from this world into the next.
And then the service was over and we really had to say goodbye. A spontaneous line formed in front of Allen’s coffin, draped with the Buddhist flag, and we all marveled at how small the casket seemed for such a large man. One by one we filed sadly by. When my turn came, I knelt down and whispered into the vicinity of his ear, “Goodbye, Ginzy.” And then there was nothing left to do but just look for my shoes, put them on and step out onto the streets that Allen will never shuffle down again.
© 1997 Lesléa Newman