DATE March 15, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sam Kashner discusses his memoir "When I Was Cool" and
his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Studying with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso sounds like
it would have been the hippest education imaginable for a college student who
devoured Beat literature. Let's just say that reality wasn't quite what Sam
Kashner expected when he left his parents' house in Long Island in 1976 and
enrolled at the new Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Located
outside Boulder, Colorado, the school was basically the English department of
Naropa University, which was established by the Tibetan Buddhist meditation
teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In the new memoir "When I Was Cool,"
Kashner writes about getting close to the Beat writers who had been his heros.
Kashner is also the author of "Sinatraland" and is a frequent contributor to
Vanity Fair and GQ. Here's a short reading from the beginning of "When I Was
Mr. SAM KASHNER (Author, "When I Was Cool"): (Reading) What I didn't quite
realize as I packed my bags for the Kerouac School was that Ginsberg,
Burroughs and the rest of the Beats were on the downward slope of their fame.
Eleven years earlier, Allen had been crown King of the May in
Czechoslovakia. William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," considered a classic novel
of nightmare comedy, was nearly 20 years old. Because the core faculty had
turned their autobiography into art, their fictional selves lived on in a kind
of perpetual youth. But as I would soon discover, they themselves had grown
old. The Beats I would encounter at Naropa were long in the tooth, cranky,
full of bowel complaints and the perils of advanced age.
I came downstairs. My parents had a present for me, waiting for me in the
car. It was my father, Seymour Kashner. He would be coming with me to
Boulder to see that I got settled in OK. My father going with me to the Jack
Kerouac School? In the midst of my happiness, another crisis. I felt the
cold hand of embarrassment on my shoulder. `Just for the weekend,' my mother
said. With so many secret fears of what life among the Beats would be like, I
was secretly relieved. I'd have my `naked brunch' at last, but it would be
with my father at the other end of the table, eating Baskin Robbins.
GROSS: That's Sam Kashner reading from his new book "When I Was Cool: My
Life at the Jack Kerouac School."
As we could see in the reading that you just did, you were intoxicated by the
young Beats who were on the road and who were writing the classic fiction.
You weren't prepared for the older versions of them that you encountered when
you went to Naropa.
Mr. KASHNER: Right.
GROSS: How had Ginsberg changed with age from the image that you had in your
Mr. KASHNER: Well, the Allen Ginsberg that I came to Naropa expecting to find
was very, very different. I wanted--or thought I had wanted the outrageous
beatnik, as Gregory Corso once called them, the `Commie, sex-crazed, stoned
beatniks' of the '50s and of legend. And instead I found someone who had
almost institutionalized his legend, who was looking for a way somehow to kind
of hang up his Beat sneakers and somehow come in off the road, someone who was
to some degree--I don't want to say trading on his reputation, but who was
beginning to sort of codify his fame and his reputation and to somehow lean on
the legend. I found someone who was a copious keeper of files, I mean, down
to the--he kept files on the pets of his friends, Gregory's cat, Bill's hound
dog. I mean, they all had their own files. He was--in fact, I had come to
Naropa to be what they called an apprentice, which is really a kind of
personal house-boy, handmaid and editorial assistant.
So--and with Bill Burroughs, the same thing. I thought I would be
encountering this great sort of junkie of legend. And instead I got someone
who was walking with a cane. So it was a real cold bath for me. I expected a
much different kind of crew.
GROSS: Yeah, and you had written books about, you know, adventures with drugs
and everything, and you got there, and when Ginsberg is on the road, his
assistant phones the venue where he's going to be reading to let them know
what prescription drugs he takes in case he loses them.
Mr. KASHNER: That's right. That's right.
GROSS: So did the fact that he was in the period of his life where he needed
a lot of prescription drugs for various disorders--did that mean that he was
no longer doing the more recreational kind?
Mr. KASHNER: I think so. I mean, in a way, Terry, it's a curious thing, but
Allen Ginsberg, when I came to Naropa, I was kind of stunned to see that he
had a slightly crooked mouth, a kind of Bell's palsy which he said to me that
he developed in an airplane because he had mixed two prescription medications,
you know. And in fact, I saw him without a beard; his guru had made him sort
of shave off his beard because he seemed too attached to it, because he was
too recognizable. And I also think that Allen was very youthful in some way;
as I said somewhere that he passed his 50th birthday with The Clash, his 60th
with Sonic Youth. But also those years of kind of hard living and
experimentation had really rather caught up with him. But here was Allen
Ginsberg telling me that I shouldn't be drinking coffee, that caffeine was bad
for me. I mean, what a blow that was, like, you know. I mean, Allen Ginsberg
was telling me to give up a drug like caffeine, you know, so I was just
GROSS: Now one of the reasons why you went to Naropa as opposed to a
conventional college was that you didn't want to deal with shared toilets in a
dormitory. What was your problem with that?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, I was just kind of particular, you know.
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah, I mean, I don't know if you've been watching; Michael J.
Fox on "Scrubs" does really kind of this fabulous performance where, you know,
he's also kind of obsessive-compulsive and he looks at this toilet seat and he
says, `Why can't I sit on you?' you know, I mean, because he's such a
germophobe. I'm sort of a throwback. I'm like Oscar Levant when it
comes to, you know, personal hygiene. And so that was a real obstacle for me
going to a conventional college. I tried it. I tried going to Hamilton
College in Clinton, New York, when it was an all-boys school. And I certainly
wasn't prepared for Beat hygiene, which is...
GROSS: Oh! Well, I can imagine. I was thinking, like, how could somebody
who's so obsessive about personal hygiene...
Mr. KASHNER: Right.
GROSS: ...even think about being a part of Beat culture?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, yeah, exactly. Well, that was another revelation, really.
I mean, but I did have my own place. And Peter Orlovsky, Allen's lover and
companion of more than a quarter of a century, was a fantastic housekeeper,
you know. But really, it was difficult. But I also in a way was completely
unschooled even in taking care of myself. When Allen would give me his
laundry to do, I went through a brief period where I was sending it home to my
mother, you know.
GROSS: You're kidding.
Mr. KASHNER: No, absolutely, in giant sort of UPS boxes. And this poor,
lovely woman out in Merrick, Long Island, was having to do Allen Ginsberg's
laundry, you know. I mean...
GROSS: Well, why didn't you do it yourself?
Mr. KASHNER: You know, I probably just didn't want to touch it, you know.
And you know, I had to do it. I could have actually taken it to a laundry,
GROSS: I was going to mention that next. Yeah.
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah, I know, Terry, but I was kind of so sheltered, I almost
only related to my parents in some way. I was like a kind of feral child in
a way, you know. I mean, the one set of relationships that I knew. And I
mean, I didn't do it for the entire two years, but I realized when I was
doing it how absurd it was and what an imposition--and also Allen was grumpy
about why he wasn't getting his laundry back fast enough.
GROSS: So he didn't know.
Mr. KASHNER: No. God, no. I never told him, either. Yeah.
GROSS: How did you first find out about Naropa and the Jack Kerouac School?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, you know, I did at the very beginning go to a legitimate
school. I wasn't a very good high school student, and my guidance counselor
thought I should go to, like, a kind of vocational school, you know, one of
those, like, schools with the short buses, you know. And I didn't want to.
And yet I still had enough rebel in me that I didn't want to go to what I
thought was a conventional college, so I found the one school, Hamilton
College in upstate New York, that had actually given an honorary degree to
Ezra Pound after the war, you know, after he was imprisoned for treason, you
know. And so I found the one school that would do that. I applied, I got in,
but I was very unhappy. And on a trip to New York City, I saw a copy,
possibly the only copy extant, of the catalog for the Jack Kerouac School.
And I looked at it, and it had a picture of Allen Ginsberg and Bill Burroughs
and Gregory Corso on a bench, on a park bench, and this was the core faculty.
And I just fell in love. I felt I had to go there; I had to be there. And
you know, it was like being a painter and being able to sort of, you know,
study at a school with the great masters, you know. I just saw myself as the
fourth man on the bench, you know. I didn't realize at the time there was no
room on that bench for a fourth person, even if he weighed 98 pounds.
GROSS: My guest is Sam Kashner, author of the new memoir "When I Was Cool:
My Life at the Jack Kerouac School." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Kashner. He's the author
of the new memoir "When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School."
Would you describe your first meeting with Allen Ginsberg when you got to the
Mr. KASHNER: Sure. It was in Boulder, and I went into sort of a
student-teacher apartment complex that the Jack Kerouac School had reserved
for what I thought was the school, which turned out to be Allen, Bill
Burroughs, Gregory Corso and myself as a student. And I saw Allen, but he was
practically undressed. I mean, he was wearing boxer shorts and he might have
been wearing socks. And he was very comfortable in his own house and sitting
at a large--in his breakfast nook, which was really just a glass table with a
couple of kind of `overwrought iron chairs,' as Bill Burroughs called them.
You know, and he didn't have his beard, which just completely threw me. And
with that slightly kind of charming but crooked mouth of his, he just didn't
look like Allen Ginsberg. He looked like an eighth-grade science teacher.
But he was very nice and he had--by the end of this little get-together, you
know, he had made the comment that I seem like a nice boy, but I'm so
unformed. And he gave me what amounted to my first assignment at the Kerouac
School. I don't know if you want me to talk about that at all.
GROSS: No, why don't you talk about your first assignment?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, Allen was in the process, all during this period, of
beginning to concentrate his mind on his collected poems. This would be his
sort of great monument. And so he was kind of--he was a terrible judge of his
own work. I mean, Gregory Corso told me this, that if you asked Allen for 10
of his greatest poems, you know, "Kaddish" and "Supermarket in California" and
"Sunflower Sutra," his three great works of his that are widely anthologized
now, would be missing, but "Punk Rock Your My Big Crybaby" would be in the
list, you know. So in a way, he was a kind of a terrible judge of his own
work on some level.
But he was looking through a lot of his poems, and he wrote so much he was
almost a graphomaniac, I think. And he gave me this poem, and he was watching
me read it. And as I was reading it, it was apparent to me that it was about,
of all things, being in love with Neal Cassady, who was sort of the great sort
of petty criminal muse figure for Allen and even for Burroughs and, of course,
is sort of central to the Kerouac books. And I realized that this poem was
about giving Neal Cassady oral sex. And Allen said, `You know, why don't you
go home and work on this poem and finish it for me? 'Cause I really--I'm not
sure--I've kind of lost interest in it.' And you know, I'm studying this poem,
and I realize that, even through all my years of having a girlfriend in high
school, I wasn't quite sure how this was going to come out, you know. And I
even went to what passed for the Naropa librarian to sort of ask for help, or
maybe they had a spare copy of "Lady Chatterly's Lover" or something that I
could refer to. And they said, `Well, I can't help you with this. You know,
this is your first assignment in any case, and so you're on your own. It's a
poem. I can't write the poem for you.'
And so I struggled with it for a while and used my imagination, and brought it
back for Allen's approval or disapproval.
GROSS: What did he say?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, I think he kind of liked it. He thought that I was being
too--well, actually, he said when he read it that I was being too shy and that
I had used too many adjectives. So he was very simpleminded, in a strange
way, about verse, you know, about poetry. He, for example, admitted that he
just didn't get John Ashbery, that he was always asking me, `What does this
poem mean?' when he would see a poem of Ashbery's. He just didn't get it. He
loved John and loved his sensibility, and they were old friends, but he just
didn't get his poetry. He much preferred the work of much less sophisticated
GROSS: Did it trouble you that your idol was asking you to finish a poem that
then he would put his name on? In other words, what did that say about him as
a writer, and had he written and completed all of the poems that we think of
Mr. KASHNER: Oh, well, that's a very good question. I mean, it really
crossed my mind. I thought to myself, well, did Carl Solomon's, old friend of
his, kind of knock off "Howl," you know, while he was on a hunting trip, you
know, and then give it back to Allen? You know, I kind of wondered about
that. But then I was kind of sort of liberated by the thought that, `Well,
isn't this cool and kind of great that Allen's not overly attached to his
work?' you know, which, of course, was a mistake; he was very attached to his
GROSS: Oh, I just want to say that not being attached to things was one of
the values of the Naropa Institute because it's a Buddhist institute. So
Mr. KASHNER: Right. Yes. It was really created by a Buddhist meditation
teacher, quite famous, apparently, named Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who
founded this school in Boulder because the mountains reminded him of Tibet.
And he and Allen got to know each other because they haggled over a taxicab
downtown in Manhattan in front of City Hall, and they both got into the cab
together, and it changed both of their lives, I think.
GROSS: How did the Beat writers you were with at the time, Allen Ginsberg and
Burroughs and their friends--what did they talk about when they were alone?
Did they reminisce about the old times? Did they talk about Kerouac and Neal
Cassady? Did they talk about their writing a lot or what they were reading?
What was just like ordinary conversation usually about?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, their table talk was very often sort of deep-dish gossip
about who Trunkpa might be sleeping with, or one topic of conversation the
first year that I was there was Bob Dylan, who was a kind of magnificent
obsession of the core faculty at the Kerouac School. This was during the time
with The Rolling Thunder Revue. Do you remember that at all?
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah. And the Rolling Thunder Revue rolled through Denver on
occasion, and so there was always talk about would Dylan show up at a Ginsberg
reading or at a so-called school sock hop, or would the Rolling Thunder Revue
come to Boulder, or would Allen hit Dylan up for some money to keep the
Kerouac School in the black? A new album of his would create a lot of
interest, and Allen would sort of talk about the lyrics. He and Bill
Burroughs had a standing weekly lunch which they called their dream lunch in
which they went to a place called the New York Delicatessen. It was modeled
after the Carnegie; it was downstairs from the Naropa. And they would sit
over chicken soup and ...(unintelligible), and they would tell each other
their dreams. And Burroughs considered himself a kind of lay analyst, and so
he would basically interpret Allen's dreams. And a lot of sort of internecine
kind of office gossip which I think made them feel like they were part of a
real school. Kerouac, his name and his work came up a great deal. His death,
which was only--What?--maybe five, six, seven years earlier, was still a topic
of conversation. And I could tell that they were still a little bit shocked
that he wasn't around.
GROSS: Sam Kashner is the author of the new memoir "When I Was Cool: My Life
at the Jack Kerouac School." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, the whiner who howled. We continue our conversation with
Sam Kashner about his encounters with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs at
the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. It's a subject of his new
memoir, "When I Was Cool."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sam Kashner. His new
memoir, "When I Was Cool," begins in 1976 when he enrolled at the Jack Kerouac
School of Disembodied Poetics to study with two of his heroes, Allen Ginsberg
and William Burroughs. The school was basically the English Department of the
New Naropa Institute, which was founded by the Tibetan Buddhist meditation
teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Kashner says he became Allen Ginsberg's
Part of your job, in addition to being Allen Ginsberg's apprentice, was to
take care of Allen Ginsberg's people, to take care of his longtime lover,
Peter Orlovsky; to take care of the fallen poet Gregory Corso; to take care of
William Burroughs' son, who was an alcoholic, who was suffering with cirrhosis
of the liver. How did you feel about being handed these responsibilities for
Mr. KASHNER: Well, at the time I had romanticized the Beats so much that it
really took years and the writing of this book, essentially, to kind of
understand how broken or lost they were. At the time I was just sort of
treading water, trying to kind of stay up. I was really just trying to deal
with one incredible crisis after another and to keep what I thought was my
cool, you know, literally and figuratively. I would lurch from crisis to
crisis with Gregory, for example, who was much more of a serious junkie than
William Burroughs, another sort of revelation. And then there was Peter's
confession that he, after 25 years with Allen, was--in fact, felt that it was
just the power of Ginsberg's personality that had sort of overwhelmed Peter
and that what, in fact, what he really wanted to do was to live with a woman
and have a baby. I mean, these were a lot of things to sort of lay at the
doorstep of a pretty unformed, teen-age kid from Long Island.
GROSS: And Burroughs' son, Billy, was really sick.
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah.
GROSS: But Burroughs had given you the responsibility of taking care of him.
What did Burroughs' abilities as a parent tell you about him?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, it was a very curious case. I mean, I had known that Bill
Burroughs had accidentally shot and murdered his wife in Mexico. There was a
crazy stunt that his wife, Joan Haverty Burroughs(ph), sort of asked Bill to
perform, a kind of William Tell stunt gone terribly wrong, where she put an
apple on her head and wanted him to shoot it off, and he missed. And as a
result she was killed and also sort of entered into legend. It was strange
because the one time--people believe that the one time that Bill Burroughs and
Joan actually slept together, they produced this child, Billy, who grew up a
kind of emotional orphan.
And Billy was a kind of dead-end kid, a sort of brilliant writer in his own
right. I mean, "Kentucky Ham" is a wonderful and very funny book. But he was
a truly lost soul who would sort of sit in his room on his couch watching a
lot of daytime television, drinking copious amounts of sort of little airplane
bottles of hooch and getting high. But he was incapable of lying and
incapable of being a kind of poseur, which I think his father was. I mean,
you know--but his father's pose and mask almost kind of melted onto him to the
point where I don't think Bill Burroughs knew the difference between--he
became his mask, essentially. And Billy was a kind of demented truth-teller.
He said at one point that people like his father have looked at their image in
a cracked mirror for so long that they don't know the difference; they think
they are that person.
GROSS: Were you able to do anything to help Billy?
Mr. KASHNER: No. I mean, in fact, if I have regret for anything during this
period, it was for the fact that I wasn't much good to him. I mean, I was
still so enthralled to the Beats--this was, after all, William Burroughs' son
by way of the murdered Joan Burroughs. I mean, you know, in a way, I was
suffering under another kind of drug or delusion, which was the Beat legend,
you know, the Dulios legend(ph), as sort of Kerouac called it.
And so the one time that Allen and some other people asked me to arrange for
Billy to go to a doctor, it turned out to be a psychic surgeon, someone who
was basically, you know, hiding chicken livers up his sleeve. And so we all
made the trip into Denver to go to a surgeon that was essentially a kind of
ledger domain. I mean, he was pulling out, you know, chicken guts while all
the time Billy was sort of dying of this cirrhotic liver. And Burroughs just
seemed very remote and detached. His father just did not seem interested in
him. In fact, on the way to the real hospital at one time when he became
terribly ill, Billy said to me, you know, `Just please--you know, I don't want
my father to come to the hospital with me.' So...
GROSS: Did Billy die?
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah. Well, he died after receiving one of the first liver
transplants. But he celebrated the success of the operation by going on a
three-week bender and didn't live much longer than that. I mean, his life was
just incredibly--for all the humor of his novels, his life was just
incredibly, unbearably sad. And when I compare my own childhood with Billy's,
you know, I just feel awful, you know.
GROSS: That's interesting that you should say that because one of the things
you wanted to do by going to the Jack Kerouac School and apprenticing yourself
to Allen Ginsberg was to basically reshape your personality or, you know, your
identity so that you wouldn't be the suburban kid anymore.
Mr. KASHNER: Right. That's one of the delicious ironies of that period for
me--is, you know, when I met up with Rinpoche at one time during this
experience, he said to me, `Well'--I must have looked disgruntled or freaked
out about something, and he said, `Well, look, you've come here, in a way, to
sort of smash your idols, you know, to be liberated from them, to free
yourself from these men and this kind of image, which is sort of oppressive.
Now you can see how it is for someone to really live their life and not to
have a kind of romantic idea of it.' And so, you know, I was too--Allen was
right, I was too unformed or unborn to realize at the time that, you know, you
create idols, I think, so you can smash them, you know.
GROSS: My guest is Sam Kashner, author of the new memoir "When I Was Cool:
My Life at the Jack Kerouac School." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sam Kashner. He's the author of the new memoir "When I
Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School." And it was about the time he
spent studying with Allen Ginsberg--or apprenticing Allen Ginsberg--at the
Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which was part of the Naropa
Institute, an institute of Buddhist meditation and study in Boulder, Colorado.
In the passage that you read for us, you read about what it was like to
encounter Ginsberg and Burroughs when they were older men as opposed to being
the younger men of their early, now-classic literature. And you wrote that
they were long in the tooth, cranky, full of bowel complaints and the perils
of advanced age. How did they deal with those perils of advanced age? Would
they sit around and complain a lot about their bowel disorders and about, you
know, all the problems that they were having related to their aging?
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah. I mean, Allen and Burroughs, in particular--after a
lifetime of junk, to his horror, Bill Burroughs realized that he was dealing
with constipation, you know. Had he known how constipated he would have
become as an old man, he would never have gotten involved with heroin.
Mr. KASHNER: So...
GROSS: They don't tell you that when you're young (laughs).
Mr. KASHNER: No, they don't. Isn't that a shame? And I think it would be
GROSS: Well, can you imagine the public service ads for that (laughs).
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah, that's right. It'd be great. Yeah. So Burroughs was
obsessed with his bowels. Gregory, who was only in his 40s when I knew him,
constantly referred to himself as a toothless old man, as a kind of medieval
hag. Actually, I mean, and he looked like that in a way. I mean, he really
did look like he had just stepped out of a Breigel painting with, you know, no
upper teeth and this kind of wild hair. And, I mean, some of it was his
financial--I don't think he could afford dentures. And Allen, too, was a kind
of bitty about sort of taking his medicines at the right time and whether the
tea was too hot or the tea was too cold. I mean, he was a magnificent
GROSS: Yes, you call him `the whiner who held.'(ph)
Mr. KASHNER: `The whiner who held,' yeah, yeah, although, you know, I was a
little ashamed to write that when, you know, you realized how bravely and
magnificently he handled his own death, and--but I feel a little bit guilty
about that. But in a way it was the truth. I mean, he was a kind of
magnificent complainer. I think I might have said it in the book--I don't
even know--but that when I encountered Allen Ginsberg, he really had given
sort of vent to his secret heart, which is really the heart of an actuary, you
know, and not a wild-eyed, great artist.
GROSS: I have to say something about my relationship to Allen Ginsberg...
Mr. KASHNER: Please do.
GROSS: ...as a fan and sometime interviewer, which is that, you know, I'd see
him and I'd just be in awe of some of his performances and of some of the
things that he'd have to say about life.
Mr. KASHNER: Yes.
GROSS: And then one time I'd interview him, and he would just kind of gas on,
and it was hardly usable because it was just so, like, overly wordy and speedy
and not really saying much of anything. And then I would talk to him another
time, and I would just be amazed at how insightful and interesting and full of
Mr. KASHNER: Yes.
GROSS: ...his conversation was and his writing.
Mr. KASHNER: Yes.
GROSS: And he'd just sit--he just seemed to, in that sense, kind of embody
both. And it was always worth hanging in there because, like, the wonderful
Ginsberg was so wonderful...
Mr. KASHNER: Right.
GROSS: ...and so unique.
Mr. KASHNER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, there was something
also, don't you think, almost like a rabbinical quality about his...
GROSS: Absolutely, yeah.
Mr. KASHNER: ...you know, genuine sort of joy in life, his wisdom, you know,
his very keen, almost Proustian, sense of observable detail, which I think,
you know, I guess he and Kerouac sort of shared that: the idea that--you
know, the kind of shapeliness of mind, how you would sort of write as you
think; that somehow your writing should resemble a kind of natural shapeliness
of the mind. But, you know, it was my impression, even back then, that if you
talked about that kind of thing for too long, you can just--I mean, it's like
ether. You just would put the room to sleep. And, also, people with
butterfly nets would start to chase you, you know. I mean, there's just a
certain amount of that that one can take, and then you really do lose your
audience, you know.
GROSS: Now Allen Ginsberg was gay, and you write in your book that, `I wanted
Allen to love me without taking me to bed.' Did you feel it was hard for him
to love you without taking you to bed?
Mr. KASHNER: Oh, gosh, that's such a good question, and I wonder. I mean, I
always thought that the really good-looking guys later, when there were more
students that would come to the Kerouac School, when I sort of survived my
apprenticeship and made the world safe for the other students to come to the
Kerouac School--I think that I noticed that if you were really good looking,
Allen really liked your poems and kind of championed you. And so I spent a
lot of time kind of getting dressed and groomed and ready for my classes with
him, you know, and my one-on-one poetry workshops because I wanted him to like
my poems and, also, I wanted him to sort of fall in love with me. I mean, I
felt like, in a way, a great lineage would be falling in love with me at the
same time; you know, that it was like sitting on Walt Whitman's lap, you know?
On Uncle Walt's lap.
So I did want him to love me, but I wanted him to love my work and love the
enthusiasm that I brought to my job as a kind of sorcerer's apprentice, you
know? But because we didn't sleep together and it wasn't a sexual
relationship, I'll always wonder about that. I mean, I think that if--in a
way, I wondered if the relationship suffered because that didn't happen. But
there's no way of knowing that now (laughs). But I wonder.
GROSS: There was one time when he approached you in a more intimate way. How
did you handle it?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, you know, during my time at the Kerouac School, Peter
Orlovsky had finally kind of admitted to Allen that he was in love with a
woman who had come to Naropa. I had actually introduced this young woman to
Peter, the daughter of a New York psychiatrist. And Peter had just really
kind of flipped for her but in a very strange way. I mean, Peter had a very
strange sort of idea in which I think he said, `Well, I'm really in love with
homeliness. I sort of love homely girls.' I didn't even think, you know,
there was--I mean, the object of Peter's affection was perfectly nice-looking
person, you know. But he had this kind of idee fixe about homeliness and how,
you know, he only wanted to make love to homely girls. But he finally really
flipped for this young woman, and he spent a lot of time with her.
And Allen found himself increasingly alone or at least in the company of young
men who he would sort of take care of an evening--I mean, a lot of Allen's
poems, I noticed as I was typing them up and sort of getting them ready, were
poems about, really, just wanting to be with someone in bed, not even having
sex. I mean, a lot of them were poems about impotence actually. And so I
think that one evening Allen was sort of in bed, and he was really getting
ready for sleep and he had been ill. And he had--and I was wearing pants at
the time, and I didn't have a belt on. And he had sort of hooked his hands
around my belt loops and then kind of pulled me toward him and wanted me to
stay. And he gave me a kiss.
But, you know, I wasn't attracted to Allen, and I was already so mixed up at
Naropa. You know, I felt I needed this like, you know, I needed to get
chickenpox all over again. And I was also frightened. And, I mean, you know,
I left. I gave him a kiss on the forehead and on the hand and left him, and
he really--I felt terrible about it. I felt, you know, that a good apprentice
and good acolyte and someone who loved Allen and his work as much as I did, I
should have gotten into bed with him. But, you know, the heart does what the
heart wants to do, you know, and if you don't feel it, it's going to bother
you in the morning probably, you know.
GROSS: Did the fact that you didn't stay with him affect the relationship
that you had with--did it send a chill into the relationship?
Mr. KASHNER: For a short while. I remember the next class that we had
together, I came over and I sat with my poems, and he practically, like,
tossed them away--you know, practically threw them away. And, you know, I
mean, the only other time I was sort of that insulted, you know, was during a
kind of fertility test when they sort of held it up and said, `Not enough
volume,' and threw it away, you know?
Mr. KASHNER: You know, that was the second most-humiliating moment of my
life, but the first was probably when Allen looked at those poems and said,
`They're no good,' you know. `They're too arty,' I think he said. And he
barely read them, but--hey, can you hear the anger coming back in my voice
GROSS: Yeah, well...
Mr. KASHNER: Yeah. But, you know, he was mad at me. And, I mean, here was a
guy who went to bed alone a lot, despite being sort of, you know, one of the
most sort of sought-after men of his time with a lot of acolytes and groupies,
really. But he was lonely.
GROSS: My guest is Sam Kashner. His new memoir is called "When I Was Cool:
My Life At The Jack Kerouac School." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Kashner. He's author of
the new memoir "When I Was Cool: My Life At The Jack Kerouac School." And
it's about the years that he was Allen Ginsberg's apprentice, and he studied
at the Jack Kerouac School, which was basically him and Allen
Ginsberg--(laughs) weren't any other students when he came.
There was a meal that brought your two worlds together when your parents took
you and Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky to a deli. What was it like to have those
two worlds come together?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, it was two things. It was the--it was kind of a nadir and
the sort of summit all at the same time.
Mr. KASHNER: I mean, it was a nadir of embarrassment. My mother and father
meeting Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky? And yet the fact that they were in
my company and in my parents' car was just an almost unbelievably joy, a kind
of great triumph. But then, of course, you know, the worlds collided when it
was someone's idea--I think possibly my mother's--that we all looked sort of
undernourished, and I realized that my father was heading for Ratner's on
the Lower East Side, where we were all going to be eating vegetarian chopped
Mr. KASHNER: And I wanted to die, you know. But at the same time I had this
just indescribable thrill and joy and feeling of triumph. At the same time I
wanted to just disappear.
GROSS: Well, you know--I don't know if you ever feel this way, but sometimes
you're one way around one group of people and a slightly different way around
Mr. KASHNER: Right, exactly.
GROSS: The way one is around one's parents isn't always the way one is
around, say, Allen Ginsberg, no?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KASHNER: No, I would say not.
GROSS: Yeah. So did you have to figure out who you were going to be during
Mr. KASHNER: Well, that's what was so horrible. I almost don't remember the
lunch--it was actually a kind of very late dinner--because I really felt like
I was going to sort of pass out with kind of quandariness...
Mr. KASHNER: ...about who and what I should be. What I didn't realize at the
time, you know, was that Allen was very much like me. I mean, he loved his
father. His father also drove him crazy; his father, Louis. And he adored
his stepmother. And one of the first things he did when he sold his papers
and finally had a lot of money at the end of his life is he set his stepmother
up in a kind of beautiful apartment, you know, exactly the kind of thing I
would have done if a college wanted my papers and gave me a million bucks.
So, in a way, we're very much alike, but we were just both too, I think, shy
and embarrassed to admit it.
GROSS: You had said earlier that one of the things you really admired about
Allen Ginsberg was how he handled his own dying. What were you thinking of?
Mr. KASHNER: Well, I was thinking of Allen's--really, his kind of--I
wouldn't even call it stoicism. But when he was told that his hepatitis C had
really metastasized into liver cancer and that he wouldn't survive, he began
to very methodically, in the way that he kind of did everything towards the
end of his life, take out his Rolodex, the most formidable Rolodex in American
letters--I think, and, you know, it had everyone from Willa Cather to Kim
Gordon of Sonic Youth in that address book. And he began to call people, to
call the people he was closest to, of course, to tell them to say goodbye.
And the way he kind of left his life is almost sort of tidying up. I mean, he
had left--you know, he'd lived this very shambling, untidy life. And yet his
taking leave of it, it had an orderliness, a kind of shapeliness and made me
even think, you know, `Well, know, there is something to all this Buddhist
meditation after all,' you know? I was afraid to go into the shrine room(ph),
as they called it, the years I was at the Kerouac School. But it really had
done something for Allen. I think he just created a kind of zone of sanity
and calm while everyone else was just out of their minds with grief and
sadness that he would soon be out of the world, do you know?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. KASHNER: So it was really kind of remarkable.
GROSS: Sam Kashner, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KASHNER: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Sam Kashner is the author of the new memoir, "When I Was Cool: My
Life At The Jack Kerouac School."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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