What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I would describe my 1971 self as “shaggy.” I actually transferred to Columbia as a junior from Drew. In high school, I had written an updated “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, featuring an SDS member, a hippie and a poet, all on pilgrimage to Columbia (much in the news for the 1968 uprisings). My first choice of a college was obvious, but my motives suspect, and my Republican father refused to let me apply. The plan was finding a more suburban alternative. Perhaps after I matured I might transfer. Two years later, my hair even longer and curlier, my eyes more dilated, my conversation even more incomprehensible, he gave up on my taming and off to Canterbury I went.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
First the powers-that-be put me in a teeny room in King’s Crown Hotel, on the corner of West 116th Street overlooking Morningside Park. Within a week or two I was living in a far friendlier room in Furnald Hall, looking across Broadway to the landmark Ta-Kome deli. The impetus for the upgrade: Within days of arriving on campus I made my way to the Gay Lounge, a dimly lit den with broken sticks of furniture and exposed pipes in the basement of Furnald. There I met Morty Manford ’79, an early gay activist, who not only led me to my first gay bar (International Stud, the inspiration for Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy) but also took me to meet a dean of housing who pulled levers to get me a room on the same floor as Morty in Furnald. I suppose my first lesson learned at Columbia was networking in the old boys’ network — or young boys’ network.
What class do you most remember and why?
The most important class in my college career — and my life — was “Imaginative Writing” with Kenneth Koch. Everyone submitted work for admission and when I had my conference with Kenneth he told me I was on the list but “I don’t like your stories. You’re a poet.” I believed him and wrote only poems for the next five years. I remember sitting on a bench on the traffic island on Broadway first reading the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams and Rilke with an electric response. Kenneth taught more than just one class. He was a class in himself. The title just changed. I took his seminar “Blank Verse”: the first evening he strolled in and began talking to us — without letting on — in blank verse until we realized his trick. The course was made up of writing imitations of the greats: Wordsworth, early Shakespeare. When I did my imitation of Wallace Stevens, Kenneth said, “It makes sense that a young poet trying to imitate Stevens would end up sounding like John Ashbery [GSAS’50].” It was a criticism wrapped in a compliment. Classes spilled into life generally at Columbia College in those days. In Kenneth’s case, we were once at the same headily bohemian party downtown. Kenneth kindly said to me, “Who do you want to meet?” “Allen Ginsberg [’48]!” He introduced us.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
I have a soft spot for Earl Hall, the stately McKim, Mead & White building, which not only housed the offices of chaplains and religious groups, but also hosted a monthly gay dance on its top floor with a starry dome (as I remember it, at least). Those dances were advertised downtown and come spring lots of men from the West Village and other points a #1 IRT subway ride away would show up. You could lie on the lawn in front of the building and engage in conversations with them. At that point anyone with a “real job,” not a student, was a figure of fascination to me. I had no idea why they would want to travel to a student dance when they might go to far wilder venues downtown. Having grown up in the repressive 1950s in America, I had never danced with a boy. I did so, for the first time, to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” at Earl Hall.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I would have found my way to a wish list of classes that were near misses for me — two because I believe I was ineligible. I would see the venerable Lionel Trilling ’25, GSAS’38, like a pensive bear making his way down the hallway of Hamilton Hall, and try to imagine his thoughts, but he was only teaching a graduate seminar. Likewise, Meyer Schapiro ’24, GSAS’35. I never even eyeballed him, but I worked in the art library among his graduate students in art history. He was teaching only a graduate seminar in those years as well but I hoped my one degree of separation would work in my favor. Obviously it didn’t. I sporadically audited Donald Keene ’42, GSAS’50’s lectures on Japanese literature. I wish I had fully enrolled. My greatest regret — and embarrassment: I passed an “audition” with Fritz Stern ’46, GSAS’53 to join his history seminar “Bourgeois Society in the 19th Century.” A phone call was required to confirm. I forgot and in a panic called his home after 9:00 in the evening (I hope not after 10:00) to confirm my intention to take the course. Professor Stern informed me that he had enjoyed our conversation but that he had now reconsidered admitting me due to the lateness of the hour of my phone call. I would do over that call to Professor Stern.