ANSELM HOLLO at The Naropa Institute
By Andrew Schelling
The first time I saw Anselm I did not know who he was.
I’d gone into San Francisco to hear a talk on Walt Whitman by Kenneth Irby. The talk, offered for poetics students at New College, was open to the public. A sunny day in San Francisco, the room spacious, old, wood-floored & dusty. Fifty people sat by tall windows in folding wooden chairs. Irby delivered his afternoon talk, whipcord smart, peppered with random Irbyesque facts, ideas, notions, and approaches to the poems of Whitman. From the back of the hall came voices, a bit loud for the occasion’s solemnity. Not really voices, but what sounded like honking & cackling.
Two men seated on wooden chairs in the room’s last row were passing a bottle in a paper sack. They were also heckling the speaker. Not with fervor, certainly not malice, more like they were sharing a noisy few jokes, tossing offhand comments, contradicting an opinion, countermanding a fact, mimicking a word or two that sounded odd or overtly pedantic. This was a glimpse into the old relaxed world of poetry readings when speaker and auditors shared a playful arena. For the serious New College students—these poetry years of the early eighties had become very serious indeed—it must have seemed impossibly rude…
…or a lesson in what poetry could be.
Years later, I figured out the hecklers were Bob Grenier and Anselm Hollo. They knew Ken better than anyone else in the hall did. Why did they heckle? 1982 or thereabouts we lived through an era when poets scrunched up their brows. People took to poetry with Leninist fervor: “poets are revolutionaries, poetry better change the world, you fucking better change your life….” Here sat and shifted these two cacklers, old time immortal bums, sharing wine, making sure the room did not take itself too seriously. Maybe poetry has a higher purpose than changing the world.
I would not meet Anselm for another eight years. By then he had quit drinking. My memory might be deceptive too. Anselm might be more of a coyote than I suspected. What if that companion of Grenier’s hadn’t been Anselm? As I said, I didn’t know him in the early eighties. I did not know him as a drinker.
When I joined the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at The Naropa Institute, Anselm was faculty. He’d landed a year or two earlier, joining Anne Waldman, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, and Jack Collom. I saw him every day—at meetings, parties, we swapped books on poetry & translation, ate meals together, poked in and out of the rooms of the little clapboard buildings that housed the poetics school—from 1990 until he stopped teaching twenty years later. I’d gotten to town from the dead serious days of Bay Area poetry, late seventies through the eighties. Animosity between austerely militant language poets and the “mystical” crew over at New College had resulted in trench warfare: the goals of the poem were at stake. I credit Anselm with reminding me that poetry can be fun. Even if you want a leftist politics, poetry’s counterculture influence (New Left zaniness) remains the high spirited friendships. Be whip-smart if you like, go any direction you can, avoid the doctrinaire or the mean-spirited. And keep making word-objects with grace. Want to go to hell in a bucket? Then laugh as you go.
Having watched first-hand the nation-state furies of 20th century Europe, Anselm had no need to climb into a trench with Marx in his back pocket.
Anselm wore black. Shirt, pants, coat, roper-style boots, a brimmed hat, always black. With silvery-white hair and beard, he looked old-fashioned, bohemian without apology. Boulder in the early nineties still had the tang of a former mining town sixties enclave—not the high tech fantasyland it has turned into. Anselm was Baudelaire in riding boots. Late in life for reasons I never figured out he took to wearing loud colored Hawaiian shirts in the summer. And a straw hat.
One day in the small asphalt lot behind Naropa’s principal buildings we fell into conversation. He said, “My sister has died in Finland.” A few words went back and forth. His eyes settled on the redslab Flatirons of compact Dakota sandstone, jutting through dark pines to the west. “She’s the last person who knew me as a child.” He looked like the loneliest man in the world.
Anselm taught a course on translation. He studied the economics and politics of translation. He could tell you, for instance, the percentage of books published in the United States each year that were translations, what the main languages were, what trends stocked the bookshops, practical details of the translator’s trade. This made sense; he translated into English and into Finnish, from a confounding range of tongues. His father had translated Homer, Cervantes, and Dickens into Finnish.
Anselm’s polyglot skills stood him on solid ground when he taught French poetry, European Modernism, or brought the Cubists, Surrealists, or Russian avant-garde to class. The Kerouac School from its 1974 beginnings had taken poetry to be an international field of activity. Anselm’s presence on the faculty provided—what to call it? Credibility? Authenticity? I cannot stress how important his courses were, along with his publications, in helping set the Kerouac School apart from the suppositions of most writing programs in the USA, which look militantly one-language.
His translation courses were lowgrade Dada. He would assign students odd tasks. Some arrived knowing languages other than American English, but Anselm took Ezra Pound’s view: you don’t need to know a full language in order to translate. If you work hard you can get pretty far with a bilingual book and a dictionary. He’d have people try translating older English verse into modern forms. He had students to mistranslation, homophonic translation (by ear, don’t worry what it says). Try a bit of French, look into Italian. His orientation was, of course, avant-garde European. One year he received a decoration from the Finnish culture ministry. He and Jane drove into Denver to accept the award at Finland’s Consulate.
I arrived at Naropa with a rucksack full of Sanskrit, so he and I began to mix things up. Anselm wrote a over note for my first book of old India poems:
These dear ancients deserve a translator like Andrew Schelling: with
gentle authority, he helps them raise their hands to bid time halt for a
moment in our heads. Their brief translucent poems in Schelling’s
“rekindled translations” (William Carlos Williams) demonstrate the
coexistence of past, present, and future in the perennial vortices of
human emotion; they are gists of the heart.
This could be one pointed note describing his own notion. Jane later told me it was this book of “dear ancients” that got him looking at old-time Greeks, a way to go back before Europe was Europe. To catch what from the past had whirled into our own vortex. In the note he names Williams but notice what he takes from Ezra Pound: vortices & gists. He would have gotten to the old Greeks in time no doubt; his father had translated Homer.
The first outcome of his quest for a dear ancient was “Hipponax of Ephesus.” He found in Hipponax a like spirit. Hipponax had discovered “limping iambics” (bust expectations apart) to deform standard Greek metrics. These “lame feet” had caught the eye of William Carlos Williams in Paterson. Anselm took notice. It aligned the bitter Greek elder with Anselm’s dry humor. He gave quite a hip title to his Russian translations from the City Lights: Red Cats.
Anselm savored the curses, invectives, & complaints Hipponax flung at—here’s Anselm’s list—“dribblers, gluttons, imitators of Homer, corrupt judges, dumb painters, witches, sadists, masochists, [and] con-men.” A tiny Baltimore press put out the 13-page Hipponax book. Anselm handed me a copy, “To Andrew, aren’t we lucky? and, let’s remain so—.”
I take lucky to mean, who else gets to swap happy, dirty, philosophical words with the ancients, bitterly, drunkenly? To converse with the dead remains a joy had by Ouija board fanatics, and by translators. “Translation,” Anselm wrote, is “the closest reading you can give a poem.”
He & I swapped off the translation course. I ran it differently since my work took place on other language territory than Anselm’s. Our tempers differed too. In those years Summer Writing Program guests came to Naropa and offered work that included translation, or they dug into linguistics. Poets came from Austria, Mexico, Holland, India, Japan, South Africa. He and I figured we had enough to add a course of study to the Kerouac School. To the basic MFA tracks, one in poetry, one in prose, we added translation. We had people in class working and publishing poems from Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, Korean, Ladino, Ukraine, Tibetan, Czech, Russian, Latin American Spanish, Arabic, and the run of West European tongues. Someone even translated Basque.
During the years I knew him Anselm didn’t touch liquor. He smoked cigarettes and weed. When he visited our house my daughter would place ashtrays outdoors and post handmade signs telling smokers to take their smokes out back. A lot of people found their way to the “smoking section” at an iron lawn table, just to talk with him. Some people smoked but Anselm smoked a lot. He carried a Sucrets tin in his pocket for the butts; he stripped his cigarettes.
Did he learn field stripping from Bobbie Louise Hawkins? She did not smoke. I always figured she learned about it from him. The way he’d take care of his smokes gave rise to one of Bobbie’s monologues. At the first gathering of each year’s Summer Writing Program—the large white tent on Naropa lawns—she taught neophytes how to field strip their cigarettes, not drop them into the grass. Each year Bobbie ran through her instructions, Anselm rocked with laughter.
How did Anselm fare as a teacher? Some students became friends, some he met with to collaborate on translation. There were those who complained Anselm didn’t offer much. He didn’t act like a college professor. His lectures came off like spare, funny collages. I think students who wanted feedback on their poems before they had read widely bored him. Get him to talk, you’d find a trove of ideas, languages, history, poetry forms. His thinking was Beat, Dada, steeped in the schools of the anti-academic. He didn’t give up his thoughts for nothing.
Today rockets thunder into Kyiv. I remember when U.S. missiles rained over Iraq in the first Gulf War. TV showed footage of nighttime green flashes lighting up the turrets and domes of Baghdad. Anselm said the sight reminded him of Helsinki. The Soviet Union military attacked Finland throughout World War II. The night sky over Helsinki had lit up with green stars and comets, from when he was five.
The Naropa Institute’s Board of Trustees decided to change the school’s name. They thought Naropa University a better way to go, now that there was a B.A. degree along with the dozen Masters programs. At a meeting of Academic Council—the gathering of Naropa’s faculty—we were asked who supported the change. (I’d carried my first paycheck into the bank in 1990 and the teller said, “What’s Naropa? A mental institute?”) A show of hands by the forty faculty ratified the change. We now worked at a University.
Anselm was the sole dissenter. I think the term Institute means something different to a European.
Andrew Schelling is a poet and translator of old India’s poetry, largely from Sanskrit. Twenty-odd books. These include The Facts at Dog Tank Spring (poems), three recent books of translated poetry from Shambhala Publications, and a folkloric account of linguists, bohemian poets, wilderness, and myth, Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo & Pacific Coast Culture. He teaches poetry & Sanskrit at Naropa University in Colorado.
The Parole Officer notes: The Anselm Hollo Challenge is ongoing. Parole continues to be interested in publishing writing that reflects on the life and work of the extraordinary poet Anselm Hollo, be they anecdotal, reminiscences, or critical reviews and appreciations of his work and its influence on the American canon (more of the latter). Queries to nuallainhousepublishers (at sign) gmail (dot) com.