Electric Guitar Poet: Interviewing My Teacher Thurston Moore

by Katie Ingegneri

When I came to Boulder last January to start my MFA at the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, I didn’t know…anything. Even though I had been writing since I was a small child in Concord, Massachusetts (a trip to the Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and her family, inspired my first ghost story when I was a student at Alcott Elementary School), and spent most of my only-child life devouring books, the desire to become a writer only hit me sometime around the end of my third year of undergrad. After a highly academic, theory-intensive college experience, and given my love of deceased writers like Kerouac, Vonnegut, and Ginsberg, I thought I knew writers and writing. I knew names, I knew concepts. But I didn’t know what the scene was going to look like in the world I was placing myself into at Naropa.

I was only a few months into my first semester when we had to sign up for our workshops for Naropa’s 2011 Summer Writing Program. Some of my classmates had eagerly spoken of the fact Thurston Moore was coming – and I had no idea who he was. I discovered quickly that he is a founder of Sonic Youth, a band I had definitely heard of but never really listened to, apart from the cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’m Not There” that they did for the Todd Haynes movie of the same name. But never one to miss an opportunity to come in contact with music legends, I signed up for his workshop – along with many other hopeful students – and got in.

The research commenced. I downloaded his solo album that had just come out at the time, Demolished Thoughts, and marveled at the fact he was performing it on shows like “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” right before he was to come to Naropa. The gorgeous guitar chords, cello and harp in the background, and poetic lyrics were beautiful, but didn’t provide me with a full picture of what to expect from this Thurston. People told me to download Daydream Nation, apparently Sonic Youth’s best-known album, but at first, it was easier to get into their famous cover of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” (another cover I was aware of through the movies, this time in Juno) than shrieking guitars and unconventional song structure. I would soon discover that those shrieking guitars were in the lineage of musicians that I had grown up adoring, like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

As I had just become an associate editor of Bombay Gin for the next school year, and my fellow editors were planning interviews with writers I had no awareness of at the time, I latched on to the fact that I would be in a class taught by an underground music legend and decided to ask him for an interview after our first class. I had been cautioned to be careful of making demands on the time of a legend, to be respectful and not necessarily expect too much.

But when Thurston first came into our classroom, appropriately held in the largest space in Naropa, the Performing Arts Center where all of our readings are held, he did not have the demeanor of a diva rock star who kept the world at bay. For all intents and purposes, he could have been another student in the class, wearing Converse sneakers and carrying a beat-up guitar case, and I would never have guessed that he was closer in age to my parents’ generation than mine.

As he started talking during our first class, I quickly realized we would have lots to talk about in this interview (that I had not yet asked him for). Yes, he was a musician, known for being a musician, but he was also a poet, who had devoted much of his energy over the years to not only writing but archiving the writing culture of underground and small-press poets. He showed us examples of his own journal that he had started, the Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, created in the tradition of hand-written and photocopied, stapled zines. The students all received folders of editions of these journals, plus sheets of notebook photocopies where Thurston had written his poetry and various ideas for what we would do in the class.

Here’s a scan of what would we would be doing as our class project that week: writing poetry, reading it into a tape recorder as he improvised music on his 12-string guitar, and re-recording cassettes until the result was a new “hybrid” as only the founder of Sonic Youth can produce: a new experience of words, music, and feedback that defied categorization.

We ended up meeting for an interview on the one day we didn’t have our workshop during the week. Thurston is an incredibly laid back, down-to-earth individual for someone occupying a position in our cultural realm that would otherwise entitle him to be a standoffish rock star, and conversation flowed easily as we walked from Naropa to a local coffee shop and back again, before we sat down in a quiet conference room, the only air-conditioned room I could find to escape the sweltering Boulder summer heat.

During the three hours we talked, we discussed a wealth of subjects tracking how he came to be so knowledgeable about the counterculture, from his teenage years driving from Connecticut to New York to see the first punk bands, to his realization that many of the musicians he admired, like Patti Smith and Lou Reed, had artistic origins in their admiration and emulation of Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. His stories of documenting the culture of small presses and underground publications that exist below the awareness of the cultural mainstream reveal an expert level of understanding and engagement with a facet of American literary culture that few are truly aware of. And the fact he was there, hanging out with Burroughs in Kansas or seeing Ted Berrigan walking around the Lower East Side, makes him a figure with remarkably unique knowledge that would be nearly impossible to duplicate.

Like my fellow associate editor Heather Goodrich and her interview with Vanessa Place, I have a 26-page Word document of the transcription from our  interview. There was not a minute during those hours when I was not fascinated, and there was so much more I wanted to include in my published version. But I had to keep the interview in Bombay Gin focused on what was strictly relevant to the interests I had set out to investigate on behalf of the Jack Kerouac School: the importance of the archive, how writers and writing functions in other fields like music, and how someone like Thurston Moore fits into the lineage of Naropa through his association with our legendary founders and teachers of the Beat Generation, and conversely, how Naropa fits into the lineage of underground experimental art and culture that extends beyond the realms of writing and our little campus in Boulder.

Later on, after the interview and on our last day of class, the students indulged our inner fans and asked for autographs and pictures, and Thurston was an excellent sport about it.

The Interviewee and The Interviewer

I spent the rest of the summer downloading every Sonic Youth and Thurston solo album I could find, and they became my new writing music of choice, as I find guitar distortion oddly soothing in many ways (and always have, so perhaps this was all inevitable). A few months after our class, Thurston announced to the world that he would be starting a new poetry imprint called Flowers + Cream Press. I like to think that his time at Naropa this past summer might have contributed to his decision to embrace writing and publishing more, given how well-versed he is on the subject. I also look forward to seeing him with his new press at the upcoming AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Chicago at the end of this month, where some of the other editors and I will be with our new issue. (He is also slated to return to Naropa for the 2012 Summer Writing Program, which is very exciting.)

See our new issue of Bombay Gin for two of Thurston’s poems and our (highly-condensed) interview. Perhaps I will cobble together a more music-centric version of it for another publication. The most interesting thing about him and this whole process was not, ultimately, his extensive knowledge of the counter-culture of the past 50 years, or his discussion of his vast archive of that culture; it was the fact that he, himself, Thurston Moore, is the most interesting object of the archive, containing a wealth of knowledge and experience interacting and collaborating with everyone from Ginsberg and Burroughs to Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain. But if we can’t put him in a punk-rock museum, giving lectures on Lester Bangs and d.a. levy, then we’ll just have to give thanks that the underground is still alive and well, because, as he told me, “the underground is where all the foxes are.”

Here is Ambrose Bye’s video of the poetry reading Thurston gave during the 2011 Summer Writing Program.

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9 thoughts on “Electric Guitar Poet: Interviewing My Teacher Thurston Moore

  1. JPost says:

    great article. Thurston is a legend, underground and aboveground. you should also check out Lee Ranaldo’s poetry. everyone in Sonic Youth has a fascinating background worth exploring more. I hope Thurston’s work (and yours) continue to inspire young writers.

  2. guitareste says:

    Love it. Very jealous!

  3. guitareste says:

    Reblogged this on GUITARESTE and commented:
    Check out this blog post by Naropa MFA student. She discusses her class with Thurston Moore.

  4. Your “taste” is cliche and horrible, like a Spencer’s Gifts of subliterate pseudo-educateds. Your authorship as a “small child” (as opposed to large child?) might should be immediately discarded as dippy tripe, or was it “remarkable”? You are an almost-grownup fake “beat” who never listened to Sonic Youth. Think about that as a 2012ian. While you’re learning to type: you meant “such as,” over and over, not “like”. You don’t even seem aware of how vacantly and pathologically you repeat unvivid verbs (is/was/have/had). And what a move, to pair “sweltering” with heat; it changed the way I think about people who don’t think about they words they use. This post skims like an ignorance testimonial undeserving of even the least aggressive “self-esteem” buffering. Maybe get a camera, a gameboy, whatever, just leave words alone. Just as Truman Capote is supposed to have said, “That ain’t typing; that’s fucking embarrassing.”

    Your “fellow associate” (so, like you, they associate with you?) “he, himself”,
    The Human Papillomavirus

    • Sorry to offend your delicate sensibilities, William, but this was just supposed to be a casual recounting of an experience, not “great literature”; not even a column on “Pitchfork”. It’s true that I don’t subscribe to the masturbatory, faux-edgy style of writing that seems unique to white male music critics who just crawled out of Championship Vinyl, and I don’t usually see the need for overwrought prose or excessive “taste-dropping”. But if you want to talk about Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, William Carlos Williams, and everything that didn’t make it into this piece or my interview, then hit up that email address listed under “Contact”.

      Yours in subliteracy,
      Katie

  5. Ahoy, Katie: just got reminded via twitter of my accountability for this gross a-hole reply, for which I apologize. M’facebook chums & I yammered for a thread when I posted there about my embarrassment at having been so mean. For what it’s worth, samples from my comments: “omg, suddenly downwind of my full hubris and churny negativity” “i see my typo there, which is also my new band’s name, They Words They Use,” “ashamed…& bummed by my boorish behavior”, “my comment was itself poorly composed & thuggishly non-constructive, etc. what a jerk.”

    (That said, you didn’t exactly rise above projection / strawperson/ j’accuseyness in your response–the pigment&genitalia jab seems particularly pat & blecch–but at least you had provocation.)

    again, sorry,
    WSB

    • How very strange to make unnecessarily venomous blog comments and then feel guilty about them – and then “apologize,” yet not. I 100% stand by my comment as a response to you – but I guess for what it’s worth I, uh, accept your apology. Truce?

      – Associate Editor (because that is what my title is),
      Katie

  6. […] Katie Ingegneri, who interviewed Moore, brings us the page of text as well as the video above of Moore reading at Naropa. According to another one of Moore’s […]

  7. […] Katie Ingegneri, who interviewed Moore, brings us the page of text as well as the video above of Moore reading at Naropa. According to another one of Moore’s former […]

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