Workshop method

How a workshop with America’s most famous Beat poet changed my life – press enterprise

By Johnny Bender

Contributing columnist

I was just an enthusiastic young poet and part-time journalism student when I drove from Cal Poly Pomona to Boulder, Colorado in July 1982 to attend the Jack Kerouac conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the novel’s publication. de Kerouac, “On the road.”

My friend Craig Rick and I split the expenses and drove my decaying 1962 Travelall International down there on back roads and freeways because the big station wagon had a little radiator from an old AMC Rambler, and we couldn’t not go too far or too fast without him boiling over.

We stopped at a tavern in Needles on the first day of our trip, where we drank with a pair of Florida bikers and passed out covered in mud by the Colorado River. (Guess that kept mosquitoes away.)

And since the heavy Travelall was unlike any other car on the road, or should even run on the road, we were frequently stopped by the police, even the tribal police who searched the car outside of Taos. , New Mexico, and made Craig drive the rest of the way because I lost my wallet, money, and driver’s license in the mud of the Needles.

Craig couldn’t operate a shifter, and my car’s shifter was a broken metal garden hose. But he had a driver’s license.

We’ve hosted these adventures since we were on the road ourselves, and nothing could spoil the excitement of seeing and hearing our Beat Generation heroes: Abbie Hoffman, Diane DiPrima, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William S. Burroughs were among the guest speakers at the conference.

I was even able to sign up for a small writing workshop with Allen Ginsberg. I think it was for two sessions, but it’s hard to remember the details four decades later.

Yet this workshop was extremely inspiring, and the inspiration is reflected in my poems today.

Ginsberg, famous for writing “Howl” and many other books of poetry, rose to fame after US customs officials seized his allegedly obscene books as imported from Europe.

The 1957 “Howl” obscenity trial put Ginsberg and the San Francisco Beat literary movement at the forefront of the American literary scene. He and his publisher won the case, giving us all access to explicit books that would previously have been banned.

And here was in 1982, and I was hanging out with them at the Naropa Institute.

I remember the poem I gave Ginsberg for his review, and I know it wasn’t very good. I probably should have been kicked out of his class, but instead he wrote “good here” and “ok here” in a few scatological sentences in my poem.

Later, I asked him what could be considered good about these sentences, and he replied, “First thought, better thought. “

I remembered then that he had told us during the workshop not to rewrite our work if it embarrassed us – especially if it was embarrassing. Because that’s where the truth lived – in the spontaneous verses that we would like to hide later. And I realize now that these embarrassing verses hold most of the power of poems.

I remember a friend once sharing an early draft for a poem that was much more moving and powerful than many of his other works. He emotionally exposed his relationship with her husband and children.

“This is just a draft,” she told me. “I’m still working on it.”

When she showed me the final version, I was disappointed. Her husband, her sons and all the raw and honest emotions were gone.

I told him, “First thought, best thought,” but I don’t know how the poem ended.

So after more than 40 years of writing and performing my poems, published sometimes and rejected many other times, I never achieved the fame of my heroes, but I am still full of the enthusiasm that I acquired at the Kerouac Conference.

And I always follow the “first thought, best thought” rule: review if something you write is confusing or trite, but never review to avoid embarrassment.

Johnny Bender, alias Brutusaurus Rex Chieftain and alias Bombastus, has written several books of poetry, including “An American Peasant” and “Brutus in Benderland”. His latest is “Slow Unraveling of Living Ghosts” with Cati Porter. All books have been illustrated by Steve Lossing.