GALO: The Jack Kerouac Writing School offers an MFA in writing and poetics as well as an MFA in creative writing. Do you see the school as the antithesis to most MFA programs?

AW: We cultivate a non-competitive ethos and encourage writers to collaborate, become fine press printers, editors, translators, and cultural activists. No one asked you to “be a writer.” You need to help create the environment that nurtures others as well.

GALO: There is a course entitled “Writing with Shakespeare” in the school. Is The Bard alive and well in the Jack Kerouac Writing School? 

AW: I once designed a course that had Allen Ginsberg teaching The Tempest and William Burroughs teaching Troilus and Cressida. We have no literature department as such, so the reading components are determined by the writing faculty. But courses offered are on world epics [such as] James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and [William] Blake. I often taught Gertrude Stein and H.D., in the old days…and Shakespeare’s’ sonnets.

GALO: Ideally, would the Jack Kerouac Writing School be more low-cost? 

AW: Yes, of course! We are a poor, tuition-driven school, started by a group of visionaries 38 years ago. We need serious ongoing endowment and help with our massive audio and video archive, among other necessities. We offer a few summer scholarships, and there’s a new fellowship in my name for an entering MFA student. I abhor the debt that students go into at Naropa [University], and in many other places as well. I like that the Occupy Movement wants to bring back the “Free University.”

GALO: You and Ginsberg first named the school the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Do you believe poetics can ever be embodied or are they a product of imagination? 

AW: Yes, certainly they are embodied, and [they] emanate from our own psycho-physical beings, very much so. We named it as such in 1974, when we had no building, no office, no desk, no telephone, and no stationary. We were also honoring so many poets of the past and recent past.

GALO: Do you find yourself eager to explore other spiritual paths in order to expand your worldview as well as your work? 

AW: Certainly. I have traveled to Kerala, [India] in recent years, where I visited Muslim schools and have had recent work in Morocco, working with Berber schoolchildren in Marrakech. I’m very interested in the artistic paths of these cultures — the extraordinary music [and] poetry. Do you know Adonis’ book on Arab poetics?

GALO: Not as of yet, but now I know I should! What about your idea of New York today? Do you still see yourself as a New Yorker? 

AW: I have lived on MacDougal Street my whole life, with forays and long inhabiting stints to boulder in my bifurcated life. Naropa was the lure out there, the spine of the North American continent, close to the Continental Divide, and now we are seeing a very robust Colorado Renaissance of Front Range Poetics with more writers attracted to the area and the activities of Denver University, the University of Colorado, and much more. Maybe we will see a Gertrude Stein School in Denver soon. New York is still the great, impossible hub, outrageously expensive but probably one of the most tolerant, culturally diverse places on the planet. I feel safest here. There are so many interesting interstices, always.

GALO: The simplicity of us versus them ideology aside, if you had to choose, would you describe yourself as a citizen and a product of the art world, which is international, and align yourself with the artists of the world, or would you describe yourself as a citizen of the United States and a product of American ideals and traditions (whatever you think they may be)?

AW: Probably huge doses of both.

GALO: Is the Kindle (or any other e-reader) an enemy or a friend to traditional books (never mind the publishers)?

AW: I’d like to see it as an enhancement. I’ve yet to own one; I prefer the book as object.

GALO: Do you believe that a writer accesses a different part of his or her brain when they write in another language and do you believe that the message changes with the language? 

AW: It’s hard for me to know if the message changes because I would think that’s carried through. A message is not just one reality.

The subtleties and the nuances will carry. I would assume so. I feel myself, when I’ve worked primarily with [writers] working in another language and culture, the Sons and Daughters of the Buddha, these old texts that are oral originally and were written down around 80 B.C. I felt, when I was working with this other language, which I don’t really know, that it was another kind of focus and attention. There’s something that ancient and old. It was women’s songs, women’s poems, often nuns, who were Buddhist and that I was trying to get into another state of mind and consciousness.

GALO: We had a funny moment during the reading…after you read…

AW: Yes! The lights went off!

GALO: Exactly! Do you believe in spirits?

AW: I’ve had that happen in other readings, where suddenly something goes off. I think it’s a technical thing, when you’re so wired. I think it always brings in a nice little dimension, a reminder that we’re dependent. We’re in this room; we’re in this modern reality, which is so plunged in, so hooked up. I’m ready to bring in a candle if necessary.

GALO: And do a séance?

AW: [Laughs] Yes.

GALO: In the beginning, during the introduction, the role of the Spanish intelligentsia was mentioned. What do you think is the role of the intellectual in America? 

AW: It’s complicated. It’s a very demanding role. No one asks you to be a poet or an intellectual. It’s self-appointed. You have to follow your ethos and communicate that, especially if you’re a writer — it’s a part of who you are and the work you do. Hopefully, it magnetizes others to have a conversation. It’s very much about conversation, discourse, exchange, and working across languages and cultures; being au courant, in a way, not afraid of the difficult scenarios, the culture wars in this country. The situation in China is so extreme. I’ve traveled there several times and been with poets and artists.

GALO: Do you agree with what Salman Rushdie said last year, when he was interviewed about the PEN festival, that China is the worst country in the world right now in terms of human rights?

AW: I don’t know if I want to say all that, but it is pretty dire, just knowing about some of the dissident writers. I know Fae Dao, of course, who now lives in Hong Kong, and he can’t really go back to mainland China. They let him come back to see his father, who is dying. But he can’t really be there because of his safety.

This is why PEN is so important, as I say, being a guardian, being awake, being aware, being in touch, letting people know who are in difficult, dire, dark, and hopeless situations that there are people out there being attentive to these struggles around freedom of speech, and essentially, freedom of philosophy; having a very different point of view — a political view, a philosophical view, a religious view, and a spiritual view. It’s so urgent. There are many things we don’t even know about.

GALO: Like North Korea? We don’t know anything about what is going on there. 

AW: No, it’s a bubble. We don’t know anything. I’m sure there are a lot of suffering artists there. It’s the world over. We have this common denominator. It’s not particular to any one culture. The American prison system is questionable, as I know from working occasionally in prisons, there’s a lot of nascent talent there.

GALO: Susan Sontag talks about that with her work with PEN.

AW: Yes, she does. Prisons are big business. Prison is a way of life here.

GALO: Thank you so much for the interview.

AW: Thank you.

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