In early September 1995, I sat with fifteen other student poets around a conference table at Brooklyn College, while Allen Ginsberg made appointments for the private tutorials he would give over the next two semesters. I told him I lived in Manhattan. Since my apartment on Elizabeth Street was only a short walk to his place on East 13th, he said I could meet him there. Before dismissing us, he warned: "Don't bore me!"
I took the warning to heart. Afraid that the 1968 King of the May in Czechoslovakia, the man who heard Blake or God on a fire escape in Harlem, and who tried to levitate the Pentagon during the Vietnam War would read my work and pass out from boredom, I wrote two new poems. In the first I described what it had been like not being an "angel-headed hipster," and next, a pornographic fantasy about Jesus fucking me, a little sacrilege to liven things up. It had the immortal line: "Who but the Son of God would have the dick of death." I didn't think either poem was any good (I suspected they were awful; I was right), but I hoped they wouldn't bore him.
I arrived at his apartment with new -- and some old -- poems in hand and sat at a large round table in his tenement kitchen. I'd had one just like it on East 10th and 1st Avenue in the early 70s. The tub sat next to the stove; the water closet next to the window we faced. I still have a tub in the kitchen and a water closet inside my apartment on Elizabeth Street. He silently read both poems; I sipped the scalding herb tea he'd prepared and felt completely at home, but also anxious for his approval. When he handed them back to me, he didn't mention Jesus.
"Is this what you usually write?"
"No, but you said not to bore you."
"Did you bring anything else?"
I handed him a poem I'd written in August, for my mother's birthday. During my childhood she'd made dozens of hooked rugs, afghans and sweaters for us. The movements of her hands as she coiled yarn, or pulled it through canvas had always mesmerized me. I loved sitting in front of her as she balled yarn. She looped single skeins over my outstretched hands and reeled it in, yard by yard, until it was a tightly ribbed sphere dense enough to hold two knitting needles she stuck into it like giant hatpins.
"This is lovely," he said when he finished.
"I was afraid you'd think it sentimental."
"If it's real, it's not sentimental."
That was the turning point for me. Every week after that, I brought him my latest revisions as well as new work and he marked up both ferociously. He explained that "First thought, best thought" did not mean "First draft, best draft." Some poems went through a dozen or more revisions before we both agreed I'd gotten as close as I could to whatever had originally inspired the poem. He was tough and he was indefatigable. He murdered my darlings. I sometimes tired of working on one of my poems before he did. I can still see him jabbing the paper and demanding: "What is that? What is a sour love? Are you talking about anyone specific?"
"An old boyfriend, George."
"Then why isn't George in your poem?"
Before I began the first semester, I'd decided to accept anything Ginsberg had to teach me, even if it went against the grain. What was the point otherwise? By my second semester, I found some instances where I preferred my approach to his. In particular, I resisted one of his favorite methods of revision: filling-in specific information like actual street names and times of day "like on a bureaucratic form." Do poems have to be as specific as a bureaucratic form? Read Blake's "London," or Hardy's "During Wind and Rain," or Yeats' "The Wild Swans at Coole" and you tell me. Still, he was the single best teacher I've ever had. Being his tutee was a great gift. I had an advantage over some of my fellow students. Forty-five when I began the program, I was older than they were, closer to Allen in age, and like him a gay man who had come up during a very different time. That he liked me and my work confirmed me as no other encouragement ever had. He was under no obligation to like me or my work and he was famous for students leaving his office in tears. Zen Master Poet demanded you be as serious as he was or get out. And God help the child who brought in two short lyrics written in pencil on torn out notebook pages, clearly the work of the last half hour before the tutorial.
Ginsberg died in 1997, the year I finished the MFA. I was editor of Brooklyn Review 14 and was able to dedicate the issue to him. Knowing his devotion to Blake, I quoted the most fitting lines I could from the Blake poem I thought most appropriate: "America A Prophecy":
And earth had lost another portion of the infinite.
And I was thrilled that my first published poem, also in that issue, was the first poem of mine he'd admired.
Night after night, all through childhood,
I watched my mother's hands at work.
From simple tools and plain materials--
yarn pulled through painted canvas,
yarn coiled around knitting needles--
intricate objects slowly appeared:
a soft, hooked-rug, the color of wheat,
with scrolled clouds and a Chinese pagoda;
bed-sized afghans in colorful geometrics;
cable-stitched sweaters of mohair and wool.
She sat on the sofa, drinking iced-tea,
under a lamp with a beige-pleated shade.
In memory it seems to be summer, windows open,
ice clinking when the needles are still.
I've long since outgrown the sweaters,
always, at first, too big for me.
But each day I grow into the lesson
she unknowingly taught me,
the patient habit of art, the daily work
of making a garment fit for a lifetime.