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Conversation with Myselfby Sam Kashner
Question: Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book because I couldn't afford to go back into therapy. When I heard that Allen Ginsberg died, I started to think what his life had meant to me what if anything I had learned from him when I was his student in the late 1970s at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics when, for one shining moment (most of the first year), I was Allen's only real student. Allen wasn't always a good judge of talent. The Kerouac School rejected Kurt Cobain's application, but they accepted mine. Go figure. Life isn't just unfair, it's weird. Back then, I had wanted to be the son Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs never had. Instead, I was the son they never wanted. Burroughs didn't even want his own son, and that's how I got to know William Burroughs, Jr.
Question: What did you learn from Billy Burroughs, Jr.?
I wrote about Billy in When I Was Cool. In some ways, he was like myself in the parallel universe he had hip parents (William Burroughs wrote one of the most outrageous books of the 20th century, Naked Lunch, and Burroughs, père, accidentally killed his mother when he tried to shoot an apple off her head in Mexico). My parents took me to Freedomland in the Bronx (a giant amusement park that's now a housing project), and we spent summers in South Fallsburg in the Catskill Mountains. They belonged to the Book of the Month Club, but they never read any of the books. Yet somehow, they had this kid me who wanted to be a poet. They were good sports about it. They let me do it, and they let me go to the Jack Kerouac School. On the other hand, Billy was the answer to Lenny Bruce's question: What would it be like to have hip parents? Not so great. He lived in a rooming house up the street from his father, whom he hardly ever saw. He never paid the electric bill, so the place was always lit by candles. He drank himself to the brink of death. That's when he got a liver transplant one of the first in the country. To celebrate, he went on a three week bender, and within a few weeks, he was dead. Again.
So in some ways, this book is about parents. The letting go and the coming back.
Question: What did you learn about poetry at the Kerouac School?
I didn't even know what a good poem was when I first went to the Kerouac School. I remember one of the last days of high school there was a girl I really liked. Her name was Amy Eisenberg. She gave me her autograph book or maybe it was her yearbook to sign. I wanted to write some kind of spontaneous poem that she'd remember me by. I wrote, "Isn't It Good? Norwegian Wood." I had a lot to learn.
I know I make fun of Allen Ginsberg sometimes anyone with a big, passionate life like that is a juicy target but he was actually a great teacher. With Ginsberg I discovered Rimbaud and John Clare, Christopher Smart and John Keats Allen was no dummy. In fact, he was the best-read person I knew. He once gave me a three-ring notebook with work he admired it had everyone in it, from lyrics by The Fugs to Blake's prophetic books, like Urizen and Jerusalem. If you read too much of it at one sitting, it was like taking acid, so sharing literature was as close as Allen and I came to taking drugs together. The derangement of our senses came from books. By the time I got to the Kerouac School, Allen was trying to kick caffeine and cigarettes. He wanted to steal some more time to write a few more poems and learn the dharma. He wanted to appear on MTV?s Unplugged and to have sex with Johnny Depp. Allen had plans.
Question: Are there any heroes in the book?
Man, you ask a lot of questions. But if I answer this, will you go away? Ok, besides my parents, who are the real heroes of this book (their sweetness and their incredible indulgence of me to say nothing of the Diner's Club Card they let me take to the Kerouac School), my real courage teacher was the poet Gregory Corso. He was only in his forties then, but he was already a legend and a wreck. He had wives and girlfriends, and a harsh mistress, heroin, that never let him off the hook. It was one of my work/study jobs at the Kerouac School to keep Gregory as far away from his mistress as possible. I wasn't very good at it. But he loved poetry, and so did I, and that was enough. Gregory was like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes he always told the truth. Even though he was a con man himself, he had that innate gift that seems to belong to all con men: he was impossible to bullshit. He just knew when you were lying, even to yourself. He made Allen's life a kind of a nightmare, but Allen kept him around, because he kept "Ginzie" (his affectionate nickname for Allen) honest. "I have been kept alive by the kindness of Jews and women," Gregory used to say. Maybe I was one of the chosen.