Mind meld

Poet Anne Waldman looks back on 50 years of Naropa

Renowned counter-culture poet Anne Waldman co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at what is now Naropa University in 1974. Courtesy: Anne Waldman

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Boulder’s storied Naropa University and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, legendary poet Anne Waldman teamed up with a local independent press to offer a vital account of the institution’s early days.

Published May 28 by Trident Press, the imprint operated by the Pearl Street coffee shop of the same name, Tendrel: A Meeting of Minds explores how controversial Naropa founder and Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa taught and influenced a number of important poets and artists, including Waldman and fellow poetry department co-founders Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima.

The collection also includes never-before-published poetry and recollections from Waldman as well as photos from the early days of the institute. The essays, poetry and images evoke the energy of this charged intellectual moment in time, when writers were pushing the boundaries of American poetry. The time capsule is a fascinating look at these cultural figures as they built a monument to creativity and free thought in Boulder.

“I can’t believe we made it to 50 years,” says Waldman, who serves as the artistic director of Naropa’s annual summer writing program. “I am amazed that our project has come this far, with so much history and such extraordinary people being part of it over the many dynamic years.”

‘Rocky Mountain Renaissance’

The last half-century has brought more than its fair share of challenges. Waldman points to the upheaval the planet has experienced in recent years, from COVID-19 to the worsening effects of climate change, as trials that have tested the strength of Naropa.

“Just thinking of all the unnatural disasters and the natural disasters, the precipice we’re all on, with the incredible grief and suffering and war and people not getting along,” Waldman says. “It’s up to the poets and educators and writers to keep the vision of an alternative way to live. It’s more of an intervention on the version that we’re living in.”

Naropa wasn’t founded as a traditional Master of Fine Arts program like so many writing programs in America. Instead, the early students were undergrads and dropouts who were coming to Boulder for the natural beauty and culture “that were good for the mind, meditation and the health of poetic imagination and consciousness,” Waldman says.

“Boulder was a terrific common ground for this kind of endeavor, getting to know the people from the University of Colorado worlds — translators, scientists, filmmakers, linguists and all kinds of energy there,” she says. “Feeling part of an experiment in a different environment: The Rocky Mountain Renaissance.”

Exploring the cultural and intellectual influence of Naropa founder Chögyam Trungpa, Tendrel: A Meeting of Minds was published May 28. Courtesy: Trident Press

‘Channels of empathy’

Poetry has always been the driving force for Waldman, and it helped guide her to create this tight-knit community of poets in the foothills. She has also been long known for passionate, intense live readings. A documentary film titled Outrider, focusing on Waldman as a poet and performer, is soon to hit the film festival circuit. She reminisces on that performative component of the poetry during the early days of Naropa.

“We were projecting into the world, raising our voices,” she says. “It was an oral reclamation for poetry. Transmission of sound. That was my dream as a younger person, about taking poetry into public space.”

Waldman wanted to publish Tendrel “to present something about this wild experiment I’ve been involved with for 50 years,” she says.

The book focuses partly on Trungpa’s importance to the founding of Naropa and the subsequent artists who studied his teachings. Waldman describes him as a generative, controversial and consistent kalyanamitra (spiritual friend) and master teacher on the path of Buddhist study.

“He’s always been a trickster figure for many people, stirring the pot of ordinary mind and intervention and ways of questioning our sense of solidity,” Waldman says. “There’s my connection to what I see as Buddhist ideas and practice, but it’s much more complicated than that when you’re thinking of how you found and actually create a school, a university — the infrastructure of all that.”

She also emphasizes that Trungpa was not a saint, god or savior. As critics have noted, his mixed legacy includes a history of sexual relationships with students and allegations of physical abuse. 

But Waldman sees reason for optimism when she looks to the future of an institution founded by a flawed figure. The 79-year-old underscores the success of the university’s psychology training program  and the promise in the ongoing study of psychedelic therapy. Applications for Naropa’s psilocybin facilitator training program opened May 1, with the hope of educating 60 trainees in the inaugural year.

“That’s something that will help people, training therapists to work on the curing of the mind through psychedelic medicine,” she says. “I think we at Naropa are taking it seriously. We knew many years ago it had therapeutic value, opening channels of empathy and love.”

When it comes to dealing with political and cultural shifts nationally and here in Boulder over the coming years, Waldman still sees big potential in another powerful medicine: the humanities.

“I think the arts will have a role in how communities and ecosystems are shaped into the future,” she says. “It’s what I hope for, and I will support and work for this vision as long as I can.” 

ON THE PAGE: Tendrel: A Meeting of Minds reading with Anne Waldman, Jeffrey Pethybridge, Shannon Sky and Zoe Brezsny. 4-7 p.m. Sunday, June 23, Trident Booksellers & Cafe, 940 Pearl St., Boulder. Free


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