Home (Up and Down) on the Range
I first moved to Colorado—the Front Range—in 1984. Boulder, specifically, my junior year of college at that other university, CU. A California kid who had gone East for college initially (Colgate), I was rather worn out by the place, its small size and Tri-State insularity, the lake effect weather. And so, like many Californians, I ended up at the University of California, Boulder, eager for some sunshine and some skiing.
It was a heady time to be in the place. It was the height of the New Age movement, and Boulder was a portal. New Age Foods, the Brillig, the Trident. My “Aquarian period”—meditation, channeling, past life regression, men’s drumming circles, group sweats. Yup, the 80s, I had a mullet. I did a 10 session Rolfing treatment which cleared up my sciatica and made me a half inch taller. Naropa was really in its power, and Rinpoche Choygyam Trungpa was still very vital. I had studied Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka the year before, and here was this “crazy wisdom” version of enlightenment. I got to hear Trungpa lecture, perplexing and exciting; there was a lot of fireworks in the community, a lot of Tom Peters’ open mic readings at the now gone Penny Lane. And it was still essentially a grubby hippytown. I lived in a big house in the Goss-Grove ghetto, the master bedroom for a $125 a month. I came to terms with my parent’s divorce, I was a short order cook at TJ’s Grill. I bought a mountain bike and some climbing shoes.
CU was a pretty vibrant place then. Gordon Gee had become President, and he really pushed CU into the national spotlight. It was an amazing year. I remember Prof. Nilon’s Faulkner class where we read virtually all of his novels; I remember Marty Bickman’s contemporary novel class, discovering Pynchon and Nabokov. Most of all, I remember Sidney Goldfarb’s Poetry workshops. He turned me on to Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce and, oddly, Buckminster Fuller. That was the start; he really got me writing original work for the first time. Yet I had not a clue about the remarkable Creative Writing program that was at CU (though I do recall seeing Peter Michelson in his various dapper vests, omnivorously smoking Pall Malls and flicking them elegantly onto the lawn. As to CSU, I knew very little.
I came back in early 1988, after graduating from Colgate, and after chef’ing in California for a stretch, and taking a meager Grand Tour of Europe. My intention was to enter the CW Masters program and, specifically, to study with Ed Dorn, for in my senior year I did an honor’s thesis on Charles Olson, and I had discovered Gunslinger. I remember pestering Ed into having lunch with me at the iconic and now sadly gone Tom’s Tavern sometime after I returned. I remember him suffering my uppity tirade about Richard Brautigan’s slightness; it was the first of many ‘corrections’ Dorn made for me. I remember him having two burgers and four camel straights.
I did do the Masters, from 1989-92, and I studied with, principally, Ed and Peter Michelson, with important classes with Linda Hogan, Lorna Dee Cervantes and Marilyn Krysl. It was an amazing program, then, last gasp of energy for the old guard. And it was certainly fiction, too—Robert Steiner, Ron Sukenick, and most importantly to me, Steve Katz. These were crucial 60s metafiction cats, and crucial 60s Black Mt cats. And it really made me as a writer; not so much how to write but how to think, and how to be. Methodology and ontology. I consider these people still my teachers, and I am deeply grateful. And there was an amazing cluster of student writers, there, too. David Gessner and Nina de Gramont. Joe Richey, Randy Schroth, Luis Urea, Mark Spitzer, Jim Campbell, Alan Gilbert, Erika Krouse—all writers who’ve gone on to make a name for themselves.
And there was the western landscape. Tripping around Central City before it was destroyed by gambling. Or going out to the truck stops on I-80 with Ed doing “research.” And driving I-80 in Randy Schroth’s burnt orange Chevy van to the 25th Anniversary of the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Festival w/Alan Gilbert and Heidi Krauth. We were on assignment for Rolling Stock, then edited with incendiary brio by Ed and Jenny Dorn and Peter Michelson. And there was Ray Williams’ “Novel of the Americas” program. Leslee Marmon Silko and Carlos Fuentes, William Gass and Peter Matheiesen, Oscar Arias and Mario Vargas Llhosa, Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka. I remember a poignant conversation about Spain and Willy Masters’ Lonesome Wife on a quick trip from Stapleton with William Gass. I remember being ushered into the bowels of the Coors’ Event Center by the CIA to meet Salmun Rushdie. The fatwah was on, the Contras were raging, and Boulder was about to go from Hippy Crystal to dot com bubble.
The Legacy of the Front Range is that visionary sense, that historical sense, that connects a place to its cosmological implications. That’s why the Front Range feels both central to and continuous with the coasts, a diamond glyph on the cross-country necklace of American history. It is crucially landscape, and scope is ‘scape, a western possibility of saying. From Kerouac trolling in Denver, or jazz jiving in that same Central City in On the Road, to James Galvin’s The Meadow parsing the high mountain grasses in the headwaters of the Poudre. Or Gregory Corso chatting up a table mate w/an “I’m Izzy Knish, are you gonna eat that I’m homeless rap” to the latest Matter release rocking New Belgium’s rafters. Socioliterary agitprop. Those late night I-80 rumbles with Ed Dorn, photographing the Sinclair refineries, his invective declaring, circa 1990, the Evil Reaches of Cheney. Or Peter Michelson and Marilyn Krysl, full cap and gown, getting arrested protesting the first Iraq war. Or Anne Waldman and doing a shakini warrior anti-War dance, stopping the railroad at Rocky Flats. Or a sublime experience of hearing Allen Ginsberg read “Kaddish” at the Fox Theater, accompanied by Philip Glass. Tears streaming down his face, a halo of spotlight and rage, the audience streaming grief and rage yelling “go go go.” A world of characters and a landscape for them.
* * *
I came back for a stretch in the early 2000s, then to CSU in 2003. That too is a legacy of landscape. I didn’t know much about CSU or Fort Collins back then, it being, as my friend Joe Richey describes it, “beyond the Longmont Curtain.” But I do now, and I see a luminous literary history—Colorado Poet Laureate Mary Crow, and legendary Beat Bill Tremblay, John Pratt and Laura Mullen, and my current colleagues, extraordinary fictioneers Steven Schwartz, Judy Doenges, Leslee Becker, essayists John Calderazzo and SueEllen Campbell. And now the incomparable EJ Levy. And what I see happening at CSU is what I see happening up and down the Front Range. My brilliant fellow poets at CSU, Sasha Steensen and Dan Beachy-Quick, were both hired in the past five years. And they have deep connections to the West. This remaking for future legacies is happening at CU, DU, Naropa and now the MFA at Wyoming. Great people up there too, the Front Range, like a cattle drive, moves north. Sadly, that momentum lost some luster with poet (and friend) Craig Arnold’s tragic death in 2009. The youth movement is tinged by shadow, too.
CSU is a land-grant school, and its historical mission is to provide an agrarian-based education to the instate students of Colorado. We’re the “green university,” and climate change and natural resource management are at the front of the university’s identity. That’s a good thing, a great thing, and spills in a lot directions. And that identity happens to be, beyond poetry (for me and my students) a focus on ecology, ecopoetics, place, community. More attunement to this landscape legacy. We are placed in a place and become it by looking. Taking a glance around, I see an incredibly vibrant school and city. Todd Simmons at the conglomerate Wolverine Farms Publishing/Matter/Matter Books/Bean Cycle is visionizing the town (and bridging town and gown). And Beet Street is trying its art incubation. And there’s 75—wait, no 76 breweries—springing up! And Tour de Fat keeps the carnival going. And the Poudre through it all runs riverine. It’s a little tough walking by it these days—the High Park Fire left a black smudge for all to see—but the water’s flowing, we’re resilient. The sky is big blue and clear today up and down the range. I’m here for the duration, drawing a line around the flinty landscape, happy to be placed in this place.