That question still drives poets and artists at Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which Ginsberg co-founded in Boulder more than four decades ago with Boulder Beat poet Anne Waldman and others. And as they prepared to mark what would have been Ginsberg's 91st birthday on Saturday, June 3, Kerouac School writers decided to honor the legendary Beat poet with a night of live poetry and music at Boulder's Fox Theatre.
"We want to foster community, and we want to honor lineage," says Eric Shoemaker, a master's student at the Kerouac School who co-hosted the night. "Since we're living here and working and making [at the Kerouac School], our lineage includes the Beat poets. What better way to honor all of those things than with a party?
Poems dominated the entertainment. More often than not, long-form poetry was accompanied by improvised music, a nod to the freewheeling "stream of consciousness" writing that the Beats pioneered. Ambient music, silent performance art and burlesque acts were interspersed between readings. Artistic themes were all over the map as readers exposed their torment, humility, sexuality, love and anger with the political system — all familiar elements in Ginsberg's own poetry, which was also read and sung.
Ginsberg made several other appearances that night. First, he peered out from a painting reverently placed in front of the stage, surrounded with candles lit by poets. Then, scantily-clad Boulder Burlesque dancers hid their faces with paper cut-outs of the smiling Ginsberg. Perhaps most apparent, though, was Ginsberg's artistic legacy: The Kerouac School has now seen multiple generations of writers blossom in an environment based upon such Beat Generation values as fierce individuality and expression, experience-based learning and community.
A common thread of personal relationships linked the poets, burlesque dancers and musicians who performed, according to Shoemaker. "Artists are often identified by what they do — poet, playwright, dancer, whatnot — but most of us are, at our core, part of a community," he explains.
Waldman thinks Ginsberg would have "been really thrilled by the spirit" of the night and the diversity of artistic performances. "He would have maybe wanted to hear a little more Blake, and I think he would have been amused by the high and low — the high art and the low art," she says, laughing. "Fun to imagine him at a burlesque show! A date with William Burroughs? I loved that women were so prominently featured last eve, because the Beat scene was such a guy thing."
Waldman's own presence linked Ginsberg to the present day. Ginsberg, Waldman and others formed the Kerouac School in the summer of 1974, when the two were living together in University of Colorado Boulder student housing and scheming on plans to gather some of the great American poets in Boulder. At the time, Ginsberg and Waldman were also busy protesting the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant site, as part of a life of activism through conventional and unconventional channels, including poetry.
Today, Waldman believes that Ginsberg would be very concerned about "Trump and company," and very active politically. "I don’t think he would be out of touch with the role of history in the last few months," she adds. "He’d be pushing for the ouster of Trump. He’d be in the streets, he’d be totally connected to the intelligence of the resistance. He’d be with Bernie and supporting Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community and very present at Naropa."
Just as he was at the Fox on June 3. And as Waldman, the bearer of the Beat torch, finished her set, she succinctly affirmed the purpose of the artists and activists in the room.
"We have to keep doing the work!" she said.