“Reed Bye, The Buddha of Boulder Poetry” by Jonathan Montgomery

One day my girlfriend and I were walking around Pearl Street and decided to stop in one of those Tibetan gift stores, the ones with all the incensey smells and colorful tapestries and holy, golden figurines. We were casually looking for something that might empower us in the more non-Tibetan gift store realities of our lives, when something on the shelf popped out at me. Right between statues of a fat-belly, laughing-face Buddha and a thin-body, stern-eyes Buddha there was a Reed Bye. I seriously mean that there was a little jade and bronze, plastic and plush Reed Bye doll.   It stared right at you with The Reed Bye Smile, (an indescribable expression that needs no description for those who know him) and it made you go “Ahh!”

 “Who is that?” my girlfriend asked, “some kind of ancient Eastern deity?”

 “No,” I said “that’s my former writing professor.”

 “Why is his likeness in this store?”

 “Because he is the most Buddha poet in Boulder.”

 “Oh, cool.”

“You’re looking at more than just the product of your writing but also your own searching and development and that you learn something about yourself doing writing. “

 I met up with Reed Bye last week to talk to him about his upcoming feature with Jack Collom on Monday February 22nd for Tom Peters’ So You’re a Poet series’ 10th anniversary of readings at The Laughing Goat. Reed and Jack, who according to Reed met in a blizzardy yodeling climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain back in 1969, have been fixtures in the Boulder Poetry Scene since about that time. Collom had already established a local reputation for poetry and mentored and encouraged Reed “as he has so many thousands of young poets.” “We’ve written many, many collaborations together,” Bye said, “and we’ll two or three this Monday.”

For those of you who don’t know, Reed Bye taught at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics from nearly its beginning in the 70’s, becoming a full time professor in the 90’s, and finally retiring at the end of last spring. Some of his classes were on Modernism, Shakespeare, and Contemplative Poetics. He also taught Dharma Art workshops every year during the Summer Writing Program.

I asked him his thoughts on how well the school has maintained the legacy of its founders, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman. He said it was all just an experiment to see if a spark would catch. “I’ve had some trust over the years… it’s made it through… the external world understands it to a surprising degree,” Bye said referring to school’s reputation and attraction to renowned writers, especially to the Summer Writing Program.

He spoke of the contemplative values the Kerouac School was based on. “You’re looking at more than just the product of your writing but also your own searching and development and that you learn something about yourself doing writing. You don’t want to write thinking you know what you want to write before you write it. You’re not just confirming yourself and what you know by what you write.”

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After purchasing the little Reed Bye stuffed animal from the Tibetan gift shop, I went home and used it with my other toys to replay some of my favorite scenes from my personal history with him. Like this one day in Contemplative Poetics class.  I made the Reed go to the front of a classroom of my other stuffed animals. He bowed, arms straight at his sides, toward the center of the space.   Then he turned and looked out at the class with The Reed Bye Smile. He took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and said the word “GRAPES.” He repeated the word “GRAPES” once more. Then he breathed deeply, smiled again, bowed and walked off.

 It was the most Buddha thing the class had ever seen. When everyone else tried to follow his lead, they couldn’t help but do it wrong. Either they forgot to bow. Or they took a rushed, shallow breath.  Or they had a strained and panicky expression on their face. Or they almost certainly couldn’t get the one word right. They said something too obvious like “PRESENT.” Or too SAT word-y like “ANTI-COLONIALISM” Or too funny like “SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS.” No one could let a pure and true word from the ether just flow through them in the moment like Reed Bye did with “GRAPES.”

“To hold a general attitude of resentment never seems very profitable,” he said. “Are you under the illusion that it could have stopped somehow?”

I asked Reed about the difficulty of passing down the Jack Kerouac School’s legacy, as the generation who initiated the vision fades further into the past. “It’s not one person” Reed said, “It never was. It started before anything. It never had a beginning. They (the founders) would never hesitate to say they were a part of something much earlier and bigger.”

The conversation turned to how that legacy continues outside of Naropa to the Boulder Poetry Scene. I mentioned how the school teaches you to try to start your own projects, publications, open mics, workshops, etc… and how there’s always something new going on here. Reed confirmed, “It was never about just turning out writers. It’s a sense of a role in culture and community. It may not be your livelihood comes from that. But your writing is kept enlivened by a social network you’re plugged into.” I asked if he felt as if this scene was unique to others around the country. “I think it’s rare and special,” he said. “There’s been a definite positive influence from Boulder and Naropa out.”

I had to get Reed’s thoughts on the changing nature of Boulder, especially in the last couple years as development has intensified and cost of living has soared. “I don’t even know it hardly,” he said. I suppose I wanted him, like anyone I speak to about it these days, to match my frustration and go on some rant about it, but that’s never been the mild-mannered professor’s style. “I don’t have any point of view on it. It’s just the way it goes. Hopefully [Boulder] maintains some of its identity – quirky, innovative, free thinking, new age aspect, Buddhist aspect, the arts.” He spoke of how it’s getting harder to survive here and most of the Naropa faculty now lives in the outlying towns. He also mentioned how right now Boulder can still support an arts scene, but there might be a point at which it becomes impractical. But still he responds more as an observer of the situation rather than a resistance fighter. “To hold a general attitude of resentment never seems very profitable,” he said. “Are you under the illusion that it could have stopped somehow?” We then discussed how this is just a process that happens to artists of many areas throughout history, for example the Lower East Side of New York City, and more recently Detroit, and even rural towns in Upstate New York. He seemed hopeful that for at least the time being Boulder has “a general cognizance that includes the arts.”

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 I also used Little Reed to play Modernism class. I was not good at Modernism class at first. I didn’t read entire assigned episodes of Ulysses and turned in response papers about it with lines like “Ah ya know, it’s like Dedalus is like Odysseus’s son, right?” and “I’d rather be reading the speedy and clear Kerouac.” And Reed just Reed-Smiled at it, took a breath, and then gave it a BAD GRADE, saying “you actually need to support your arguments with evidence.” I was sort of a fraud, getting thru college by attending unconventional institutions (Sarah Lawrence), taking mostly only creative writing classes, and finding a way to get credit for everything else with a ‘personal reflection paper.’ But Reed would not accept it and it was he who finally Buddhally woke me up like a quick tap of the singing bowl. It made me try to actually play by the rules of academic writing on the next essay, reading the text, going to the library, and researching every word ever written about The Nausikaa episode. I learned and forever know that Nausikaa found Odysseus on the beach, and Bloom was on a beach with Gerty McDowell too, and it was all written in the style of a romance novel. And Reed saw this and Reed-Smiled and gave me a REALLY GOOD GRADE. I was taught by my teacher that one of the four noble truths about applying yourself in literary analysis. And now I’m a teacher, trying to teach community college kids some kind of compositional dharma myself.

“Do not discount the fact that everything you do is related to your writing,” he said. “Don’t make mental compartments – this is what I hate to do, because I’m not doing this… (the point is) you’re engaged with something.”

We also spoke about his life after retirement. Reed mentioned how “a lot of identity is tied up in it [your career]… Suddenly who am I?… life looked like a bleak and endless, featureless expanse in which I didn’t have a role or place.” It was a surprising insight to someone like me, who dreams of the day they can retire so they can do nothing but write. Reed explained he’s never been much of a “daily writer,” and an hour of writing is pretty good. This led to a discussion of how all the things we hate that get in the way of writing can actually help it. I mentioned a line from the Bukowski poem “Air and Light and Time and Space” that goes “no baby, if you’re going to create, you’re going to create whether you work 16 hours a day in a coal mine.” “Yeah,” Reed said. “You do it in the cracks… if there’s a lot of relaxed expanse around it, not the same intensity… In those moments of deadlines or pressure you give up to get it done. You can nurture something too much if you’ve got the time.”

That said Reed has been working on several projects, including some songwriting (which he actually has time to practice for now) and daily morning notebook writing with the contemplative approach he mentioned earlier. He’s released three chapbooks recently of those writings and may be reading some for his upcoming feature. We talked about the benefits of reading newer material for events like this. “It’s a good opportunity to get things in shape that aren’t in shape yet…” because of the chance to hear the words out loud.   He saw it as another Kerouac School platform, “to put yourself out there and read aloud is not just showing off, it’s part of getting into the work and knowing it well.”

We ended the conversation with me asking for any advice he had for younger writers trying to establish a career. He didn’t consider himself an expert on it, noting how his wasn’t “a strategized path,” and how it was a different time. He did mention how writing has to be a priority or else it falls away.   And also spoke of witnessing the process instead of trying to determine it. I mentioned the frustration of not being where you want to be with your writing career and the distraction of other things like jobs. “Do not discount the fact that everything you do is related to your writing,” he said. “Don’t make mental compartments – this is what I hate to do, because I’m not doing this… (the point is) you’re engaged with something.” Reed also mentioned getting involved in “little seed projects that may make potential livelihood,” and also the approach of “slightly wider public access to the art without too many daydreams about it.”

Finally Reed had to leave to teach an informal class on Ulysses, the challenging James Joyce novel, which was the centerpiece of his old Modernism class at Naropa. It’s for a small group of former students who asked him to do it. “We mostly just read it aloud,” Bye said. I mentioned how if there’s one great thing he’s done on this Earth it may be helping so many people by “holding up the lantern” as he guides them through that book. “Maybe,” Reed laughed.

 “Don’t call me The Buddha of Boulder Poetry,” I made the little Reed doll say, because as a Buddha he has to say things like that. It’s one of the rules, and if he did like being called “Buddha” we couldn’t call him that.

“I can’t help it,” I told the doll, “that’s just what you seem like to me.”

 Then I scrunched his face to make the best Reed Smile ever, and then I gave him a good squeezey-squeeze hug.

***

Reed Bye will be featuring with Jack Collom Monday February 22nd for the So You’re A Poet Series’ 10th Anniversary at the Laughing Goat.

Jonathan Montgomery is the editor-in-chief of boulderpoetrytribe.com.  He’s a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (MFA ’05) as well as the author of Pizzas and Mermaid and Taxis & Shit.  Go to his website jonathan-montgomery.com for more!

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