Eric Fischman’s workshop “Multiverse Seance,” invokes an impromptu Jug Shovel Jam. Doc Martin asks if anyone needs “pencils or papers” as he begins our first ever figure drawing workshop offered. Somewhere in between Thomas Ivory Jr. drops his pants to model for us. This is an example of just one afternoon at this year’s Beyond Academia Free Skool Summer Camp up at Love Shovel Ranch in Nederland.
“The farce of BAFS; that we’re here to study poetry. We’re actually here to understand community”Marcus If
On one notable evening during Camp, the poets descended down the mountain to bridge dimensions with Writers Block for a BAFS teacher feature, followed by the Full Moon reading off of Pearl St, which packed the alley with 25+ participants. The scene for the Full Moon was set with items found in the alley – pallettes, a piece of ply wood, and brown crinkle shipping paper for pizzazz. The cast was a merry mash up of boisterous beings frolicking, clapping, tapping and drumming any percussive wall or body part. Improvised songs spontaneously emerged, and we all sang along relishing in the artistic absurdity. It reiterated themes from that week of Camp – creating community as an improv game we are all playing in any moment. We can howl poems at the moon, tap into the multiverse, form a band that only plays instruments made from trash turned treasure, and learn about figure drawing all in the same 24 hours.
At camp we engage with the nature of improvisation as we intentionally create chaos, then play in it; figuring out the rules as we go, finding our character in the untamed. The only rule at the beginning of the game – respect. We cultivate respect through our Socratic seminar style workshops and our various contemplative (yet unconventional) practices, like Jug Shovel Jam, and Drunken Haiku.
[Jug Shovel Jam:] The art of turning anything into any instrument. This is not to be confused with simply banging objects and making loud sounds, although cacophony is one of the stages that may emerge. There is a finesse to this practice, a state of meditative bliss to be tapped into discovering the rhythm of when to bang on the bottom of an empty six gallon water jug. In the midst of Poetry Camp, this also serves as an exercise in attention to sound beyond words, and to our sounds in relation to other sounds present. If you’ve ever wanted to be in a band, but have no idea how to play an instrument, join Jug Shovel; as Thomas Ivory Jr. says, “there’s always room for more!”
[Drunken Haiku:] The objective of this game is to encourage a group of loud inebriated performance poets to stay quiet long enough to write, share and score haikus. Each round, a theme or topic is offered by the winner of the previous round. In between rounds, players engage in their choice of consciousness altering; be it a shot of whiskey, puff of wacky-tobbackky, breath-work, or doing 100 jumping jacks (etc). The idea is that it’s an exercise in mindfulness through tracking one’s creative flow in relation to altering states of consciousness…or so we thought ; I’ve come to the conclusion that drunken haiku is a mindfulness practice in how we engage with one another.
On the final Friday of camp we held our annual drunken haiku competition. We laughed, wrote, argued, shouted, tested one another, tested ourselves, never decided upon an ultimate winner, and came out wiser because of it all. We learned there is no one right way to score a drunken haiku competition, and that yelling “shhh!” never quiets a room; but sometimes, respect looks like a bunch of poets yelling “shhh!” to one another so we can relearn the power and limitations of that sound. In doing so, we relearn the reverse, the power and limitations of silence.
Although it may come across that way to some, BAFS is not all “bad kids” drinking out of flasks in detention doodling haikus on our notebooks (that’s just study hall). Beyond Academia Free Skool is an anarchist writers collective founded as a response to inequities in higher education that limit the voices which are represented in academic poetics. We are dedicated to 100% free to the public literary and performance art education and events. BAFS was founded in 2012 by Marcus If, has been fiscally sponsored by the Boulder County Arts Alliance since 2017, and a sponsored Boulder Public Library program since 2018.
We believe spaces in which no voices are “shhh”d, (or at least, in which we can recognize shhh-ing and give power back to the marginalized voice), serve as homeopathic medicine for society; these inclusive spaces show us the mirror, then ask us to stare into it and authentically communicate what we observe. An example of this occurred during Camp when Punketry! took a road trip from its usual second Wednesday spot at The Mutiny in Denver, for a Saturday night performance at The Trident in Boulder. Since BAFS values being an organization that speaks out against cancel-culture, I feel called to speak to a conflict which arose that evening. One performer, Kenny White, a person of color, performed, in his signature improvised style, a piece which reiterated “fuck white people.” While most of the audience was captivated and inspired by his performance, a few stated feeling “unsafe” during it, which made me realize an underlying issue in the poetry community – we forget that poetry is a performance.
Kenny’s own reflection on the experience: “It got people frustrated and angry because I don’t sugar coat anything whether it be racial issues, lgbtq issues etc… or how any of those things are going with my life. It created a dialogue because people were so frustrated. Sometimes people listen to their emotions and not to your words even if you speak facts with your words.”
The purpose of poetry is not always to make one feel safe, rather, it is often to make us feel and question our experiences. In the BAFS curriculum the value “question everything” underscores every pedagogical choice. While the slam poetry era ushered in a new wave of confessional poets, could it be we overly connect one’s poetic performance to the individual poet? Do we forget that the poet is, indeed, a performer; calling upon the many tactics of a performer to invoke an emotional response from the audience? In BAFS class’ we address those types of questions – the ones without any correct answer – with the intention of returning to our community even more informed and aware of the many perspectives represented. Contrary to what some may believe, anarchy is not just doing what you want; anarchy is the art of co-creating the space we want to experience as a community.
At Camp, away from the structures & paradigms that shape our world, we are freed to relearn our role as co-creators in shaping the spaces we occupy with ourselves and others. In many ways the Skool is designed to support this process through being a longitudinal experiment researching the question – “How weird can we get?” BAFS ’10 Year Graduation’ Camp was a continuation of this study. Can we get so weird that we can create an alternative space which gets closer to the reality we’d like to experience?
In the first BAFS workshop I ever attended, “Ontological Engineering”, Marcus was teaching the question everything lesson. When I saw him next at BAFS Camp 2018, he wore a top hat yelling profanities shirtless at the night sky. I felt like I was home; finally found people who liked to play the same kind of games. This notion was validated as Ira Liss engaged several of us in spontaneous theatrical improv scenes throughout the evening. I eagerly awaited next year’s Camp, regularly attending second Sunday workshops in the mean time.
Once upon a time, the opportunities to go write, perform or listen to poetry in Boulder felt infinite. If an event was missed there was always next week or next month. Then everything shut down, and we realized these spaces of poetic gathering were not permanent. I was elated to see the return of BAFS Second Sundays in 2021. We started slow by meeting outside. At first there were only a few of us under a tree, and any passersby that wanted to join in. Eventually we moved back into our usual Arapahoe Meeting Room, and steadily class sizes have grown. After a pandemic hiatus, we returned to Love Shovel Ranch for 2021’s BAFS Poetry Camp: “Uncertainty: The Moment of Creation.”
As Camp 2021 wrapped up, Marcus said to me, “Well, we did it, Camp happened and next year BAFS Graduation”
Half jokingly I asked, “Does that mean we finally get our diplomas?” With the other half expecting heartbreak at the potential loss of a community space that I and many others deeply value.
He responded, “Graduation means 10 years since the school started, and I will retire. I want to nominate you as the new chairperson.”
I accepted because I am no stranger to the inequities of the higher education system. I began attending BAFS workshops at a time in my life when I did not know if college would be an opportunity accessible to me. The path of the autodidact has been my salvation during times of uncertainty and grief. I graduated from high school with plans to study theatre at university. In high school, I attended a performing arts magnet school where I was inspired by a teachers performance company, “Collective Consciousness Theatre”, which used theatre as a catalyst for conversation on social justice. I was drawn to the CU-Boulder Theatre Program because it emphasized the role of theatre as commentary on social issues and experiences; I applied and was accepted. As September approached, my mother told me that we could not afford college. FAFSA partially stands for “A Fucked System”, but that’s another story. Fast forward several years; my father had passed away, my family lost our home in foreclosure, and I moved to Colorado to work and wonder what the future held. Then I walked into the BAFS classroom, which catapulted me into the poetry scene; after the first workshop I had a notebook page filled with upcoming events and readings, scribbled as quickly as they were suggested. One of the first poems I wrote and performed in the local poetry scene was titled “The Gap Year that Turned into Four, Maybe More.”
In the poem I write: Now, I am here, on the Front Range where I wanted to be four years ago/in the moments past the process felt so slow/but patience is paint drying/it’s the sound of my mother sighing everytime she buys a Powerball ticket hoping I’ll one day go to college
The poem concludes with with: Mom, I promise, I’m not dropping out/ I’m dropping in/ to become more of who you’ve always wanted me to be/ & that’s happy/I’m happy, Mom/I’m happy.
I don’t share these lines because I think they are examples of great poetry. (In fact, I recall during one BAFS workshop Sarah Rodriquez reflected back to me that my poems were confessional, which encouraged me to challenge my existing writing habits so I could grow new ones and expand my horizon of techniques). I share these lines because they document why I believe there is life changing potential present in learning about something one is passionate about, particularly in the context of a community.
On the final day of BAFS Camp, the graduation ceremony commenced. During the ceremony we sat in the aspen tree grove at Love Shovel Ranch around a centerpiece shrine made of a leather ottoman surrounded by sun rays of bark and a hula hoop topped with natural materials, a skull, and soon an empty bottle of whiskey flipped on it’s side. A ripped piece of pink fabric adorned the podium stand and blew in the wind as poets stood behind it for the open reading. There were retirement speeches and acceptance speeches, which are woven together with footage from camp, and can be viewed here: https://fb.watch/fC2QWwVGJ-/
“The poets; preservers of letting your freak flag fly”Marcus If
So what’s in store for BAFS future? Well, one answer comes from the oracle game played during Ira Liss’ camp workshop. During this game we tap into the mind stream of the oracles collective conscious through asking a question, and then answering that question in the form of a verbal exquisite corpse where each participant interjects a spontaneous word.
Q: “What is in store for BAFS future?”
As BAFS evolves, Marcus plans to continue being present in the organization as the zen tyrant professor drinking chocolate milk out of a gallon jug and whiskey out of the bottle; we plan for him to outlive us all and trust he’ll remind the future there once were poets here. I plan to carry the torch forward as poet wrangler. I feel well equipped for this role because I’ve spent the past decade working in early childhood. Both young children and poets seem to share a propensity for expressing strong feelings in loud ways and sharing ideas in streams of tangential thought; I look forward to hearing all of it while holding space for the “yes &…” to be discovered in the socratic circle, on the page and beyond. I hope to be a student more frequently than I teach, so that I can learn from the brilliance present in each member of our poetic community. Please reach out if you are interested in teaching, and stay tuned for our teacher training program launching in 2023!
The time is ripe for artists rebuilding the momentum for the weirdness and creativity of the Boulder poetry community. In whatever poetic era we are currently experiencing, BAFS serves as a collaborative think tank. During class we deep dive into the art of co-creating spaces we want to occupy. BAFS is the experience of wild, unhinged, community based work that is always in progress; it can not be tamed, only guided.
“We are improvisational beings, it is a muscle that is a part of our minds and spirits that can be strengthened, exercised, and built upon”Ira Liss
As we continue to evolve as an organization, we plan to expand our services as a hub for free poetic and performance art education in Boulder. Mostly, we plan to be present for class, and hope you will be too.
To learn more about our wherewolfabouts check out facebook.com/BeyondAcademia (it’s where we keep our event schedule up to date). To learn more about where our wolves have been, check out loveshovelranch.com/bafs (it serves more as an archive of BAFS and Love Shovel history+philosophy+lore, and is intriguing to say the least).
Thank you from BAFS to our camp teachers: Reed Bye, Matt Clifford, Eric Fischman, Jonathan Montgomery, Ira Liss, Marcus If, Thomas Ivory Jr, Peter Adler Ash, Seth Walker, Lee Frankel Goldwater, Roseanna Frechette, Maggie Saunders (myself), and Rafe of Vanabby Visual Arts ; & to our sponsors: Boulder County Arts Alliance and Boulder Public Library
Maggie Saunders is the Chairperson of Beyond Academia Free Skool LLC, an autodidactic poet, Summa Cum Laude graduate in Early Childhood Education, and current Chancellor’s Scholar at CU Denver studying Human Development and Family Relations. Her writing can be found in OUT Front Magazine, Boulder Weekly, the South Broadway Ghost Society’s Thought For Food anthology, and at https://akashicrecordpoetry.blogspot.com/ .