Poetry, Art, Photos, Memories, Anecdotes, Interviews, and Essays on her Life and Work by friends, contemporaries, poets, and fellow writers, compiled and organized by Sara Safdie (with technical assistance from the Parole Officer)
Introduction Sara Safdie
(click on the bold type to go to a particular section)
Set One Ammiel Alcalay • Dawn-Michelle Baude • Michael Boughn • John Daley • Jennifer Dunbar Dorn • Mark DuCharme • Stephen Emerson • Kathleen Frumkin • Gloria Frym • Robert Grenier & John Batki
Set Two Anselm Hollo • Stefan Hyner • Alastair Johnston • Larry Kearney • Ku Yün • Nafet Le Renyh • Lewis MacAdams • Phoebe MacAdams • Duncan McNaughton • Genie McNaughton • Diana Middleton-McQuaid
Set Three Jim Nisbet • Pat Nolan • Alice Notley • Arthur Okamura • Kevin Opstedal • Simon Pettet •
Set Four Red Pine • Steve Potter • Michael Rothenberg- Joe Safdie • Sara Safdie • Edward Sanders • Miriam Sanders
Set Five David Schneider • Cedar Sigo • Dale Martin Smith • John Thorpe • Anne Waldman • Michael Wolfe
Set Six Art & Photo Gallery and Links to Videos and Miscellany
Introduction Sara Safdie
As I write this, it’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since my good friend, Joanne Elizabeth Kyger died. Her death came as a complete shock to me, even though I knew she was ill, but I never knew how ill she really was—nor did most people, including Joanne. It was hard to break the habit of thinking I’ve got to call Joanne to tell her about what I just saw or where I went. She came to me in dreams, often. In January I began to feel that I had to do something for her, to keep her memory present in all those in her large circle whose lives she touched. I have been truly amazed, though not surprised, at the response I got from so many of you, so I thank everyone who has contributed a poem, an essay, a memory, or photos that are gathered in this volume.
I especially want to give particular shout-outs to those who made this possible. To Alastair Johnston, who suggested I get in touch with Pat Nolan to provide the platform for this special edition of Parole, blog of The New Black Bart Poetry Society. To Duncan McNaughton who was kind enough to provide email addresses and suggestions about inviting people whom I might have overlooked. To Anne Waldman, Joanne’s good friend and poet-in-arms, who also provided email addresses, her own work, Anselm Hollo’s poem to Joanne, a series of emails between them, as well as enlisting the aid of her Naropa assistant, Caroline (Swanee) Simpson. To Donald Guravich, whose loss is probably the greatest of us all, who also helped with email addresses, suggestions about contributors, and the photos he has shared here. Finally, I want to thank Pat Nolan, whose generosity in time and spirit has made this all possible.
Thank you all so much for everything you’ve shared to make this the celebration it should be of the life of a great friend, a great poet, and an undying spirit.
Submitted to the membership on March 22, 2021 by the Parole Officer who would also like to thank the contributors for their effort in this tribute to Joanne Kyger. The amount of material collected made it imperative that the work be presented in alphabetic order and parceled out in sections so that everyone received a fair viewing and that the readers did not suffer from scroll fatigue. A special thanks to Sara Safdie for her diligence and to Stephen Ratcliffe for his treasure trove of photos. And last but not least, to Donald Guravich for his blessing.
In anticipation of arranging a reading for Joanne in New York in 2012, I began thinking about a project we might be able to do together that could fit into the Lost & Found chapbook format, using unpublished archival material that might shed new light on her life and times. Knowing that there was correspondence between Joanne and others we had recently published or were about to publish, namely John Wieners and Michael Rumaker, I began floating the project to her. On September 11, 2011, Joanne wrote:
Those dates sound fine!
Some of the correspondence I had with John was very arch and funny, circa 1965 etc. We had a close friendship and understanding over the years, having met in 1957 when he was doing Measure, and having enough energy to swoop through the poetry bars of North Beach every night.
A week later, on September 17, 2011, Joanne wrote:
I wonder if San Diego has all the letters catalogued—I sent them the rest of my letter and mss. archives last October. Up to 2007. Wieners would be lots of fun to do. The language is a little arch. I did send carbon copies of my letters TO people, but am not sure who—that would have been in the 50’s and 60’s. Letters to and from Philip Whalen is another possibility, but those too are fraught with style. A sampling of correspondence, and replies, might be lively, if it didn’t pose too many editorial decisions.
By January, a plan started to emerge:
What a great idea to use the Rumaker and Wieners’ correspondence. We were close friends during that time, and YES, so young and brash and screwed up, but loving most minutes of it. Do send the scans when you have time.
By the end of January, excitement started building:
What a rush of the late 50’s North Beach scene. I often typed letters on the book order sheets at my job at Brentano’s which entailed using carbon copies. I don’t know what happened to the copies of the missives I sent to ‘Pip’ Wieners, I thought there might be some in the Mandeville Collection which I sold to them in the early 70’s. I don’t have a list from then. I love John’s tone. The letters to Michael certainly give a picture, I think they may have to be edited a bit to protect the shredded reputations of those still around… The ‘humor’ is very wicked, slashed reputations etc. This from a cursory look.
I’ll try and put them in some kind of order and get back to you.
The very next day, this came, with subject heading: “Giddy reading at dawn”:
I think this is after Ebbe [Borregaard], Michael [Rumaker], Jerome [Mallmann] and George Stanley were hauled off to jail in North Beach, after Ebbe gave a policeman the finger. Ida Hodes of the Poetry Center bailed them out the next day and they all returned triumphantly to the Sunday poetry group.
He told me to run run, or they’ll get you too. I got a taxi back to my apartment at 949 Columbus.
The evening started out with ‘cocktails’ made at Michael’s suggestion of Rhine wine and gin.
We did have some kind of dinner, and then went out on the town, which was North Beach a few blocks away.
Who are the roving gang in the archives–and where are Michael’s letters?
Cheers from a very cool dawn,
As we got into details of the trip, by the end of February, Joanne wrote:
I also have a few other John Wiener’s odds and ends to send. A poem he wrote for me, in 1972, which may be from a time later than what you were looking for; and a long account written on the bus, of going to the dentist after he had swallowed one of his teeth. It was written on the inside of my paperback Hart Crane poems, in 1958.
At some point, a letter from John to Joanne answered a question I had about a reading I went to, where I had, as a teenager, taken pictures of the readers, including John, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, and Ron Lowensohn, at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. I knew it was tied to a political event and always thought it took place in 1969, on Moratorium Day, in protest against the American War in Vietnam. But John described another event, in 1970, for the Chicago 7, and Joanne wrote: “John’s letters are like messengers of the moment, replayed and replayed.”
By mid-March we had a series of letters, but were creeping closer and closer to the deadline. In “the middle of the second day of storms,” Joanne wrote:
Sometimes it’s difficult visiting a 23 year old self. I thought Michael Rummkaer, at times, needed ‘cheering up’ mmediately. And I was charmed by everyone else’s letters. I’ll read through them again to check for redundancies. And Thank you for all the attention you’ve given this project —actually you created it!
We continued working through April, with back and forth commentary, filled with Joanne’s meticulous detailed thought and laser-like editing. At some point Joanne realized that the event planned in New York would include a “reunion” of sorts with Michael Rumaker and, given that they had been out of touch for decades, this entailed some sense of uncertainty. But they began corresponding and by the end of April Joanne wrote: “It’s been great hearing his Enthusiasm for the series. He wants to have a good time, and that sounds like the right attitude.”
And a good time certainly was had, as an enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear Joanne and Michael Rumaker read some letters from those we collected for the chapbook, and talk to each other, after all those years. I treasure the time we had, whether that week in New York when Joanne was my houseguest, or on visits to Bolinas. I deeply miss her unfaltering clarity and uncanny ability to respond directly to the world in her own inimitable way, and there is still much to learn from her work and how she carried herself in the time she had.
“Joanne Kyger’s poetry terrified me”
Joanne Kyger’s poetry terrified me, although I didn’t know why. I first encountered it in the early ‘80s when she delivered a lecture at New College of California. Drawing on Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman, she described the shamanic journey via a visionary hole in the earth—I was astonished at how matter-of-factly she delivered this information at a time when hyper-rationalism in the poetry community was ascendant. Three days later, I ran into her at a Bill Berkson reading. I told her that “I went down the hole.”
Joanne gave me a look that eventually I learned to recognize—an intense, anticipatory pause she savored before replying—though at the time I worried she didn’t believe me. She asked what happened, and that was the start of a 37-year friendship. Soon, I joined lively roommates in Duncan McNaughton’s Bolinas house as part of a permissive intellectual community with Joanne at its center.
Those were difficult times for me: I was processing everything life had lobbed my way. Joanne had no patience for self-pity. “That’s not interesting!” she snapped when I explained my feelings. It was one among many vital lessons. Once when I poured wine into a clay cup, Joanne snatched it away and found a glass. “You must see the wine,” she said. “Respect Dionysus.” The lessons kept coming, everything from Robert Duncan’s mysticism and the “de-meter” of her prosody to the finer points of anal hygiene. She helped draw up the list of participants for The White Rabbit Symposium and Jack Spicer Conference on one hand, and explained the superiority of a salt spoon to a shaker on the other. Turkey buzzards, men, the necessity of scarves: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Joanne was the mother I never had, but she picked up slack.
When I moved in with Joanne’s friend, Alastair Johnston, in Oakland, a new pattern was established: visiting Joanne and Donald in Bolinas, when Joanne would heap the table with books, fill my head with ideas, and insist that I learn something, anything, about the natural world. Over the years, that pattern solidified: returning to Bolinas from France and visiting Joanne and Donald. Returning from Egypt, Lebanon, Italy, wherever. Joanne was a lifeline, an anchor. Each time we exchanged gifts. I brought a jacket I’d found for her in Beijing, salt from the Camargue; she gave me earrings, bracelets, scarves, her latest chapbook or broadside, the Bolinas Hearsay News. The gifting ritual was born of Joanne’s generosity of spirit, her drive to inclusively connect with others, to mark meaningful occasions with mementos that concretized the transience of life as surely as her poems.
Occasionally, I reckoned with Kyger’s books, publishing a review of Again: Poems 1980-2000 in First Intensity (2002). But I delayed immersing myself in the entirety of her work; I was saving it for when I was ready. That moment came in 2015, when I was living in Las Vegas and realized Joanne wasn’t receiving enough attention for her contribution to American poetry at the moment when her health was fading. I got a Huffington Post editor on board for an On Time (2016) review, but when it posted, the lines excerpted from her poem were yanked flush-left to the margin, ignoring the open-field prosody essential to sound and interpretation. I phoned Joanne to apologize. “I’ve had this problem my whole life.” Her voice was wistful; I realized that, given the tyranny of the left margin, indeed she had (the layout in the review was later corrected).
Next, Jennifer Burke and I began the Herculean task of assembling Joanne’s Wikipedia page, which entailed piecing together a biography as well as familiarity with as many of her publications as I could get my hands on. It took months. During that process, I discovered much about Joanne’s family, training in philosophy, lovers, travels—the life she’d lived before I met her. I also realized that what frightened me about Joanne’s writing was the white-hot truth at its core. I was angry with myself for not having seen her books, journals and letters in a tight web of controlled continuity, for not reckoning with Joanne’s phenomenological project writ large.
The Wiki page occasioned frequent correspondence and calls, including a delicate loop when Joanne refused to be associated with either “Bolinas” or “Buddhism.” This refusal was problematic, first because Joanne clearly is associated with Bolinas and Buddhism, and secondly, from a technical standpoint, Jen and I needed the links to authenticate her page. She wouldn’t budge. I knew she was refusing to be pigeonholed, as she had throughout her life; I also knew that other scholars and readers would come forward to grapple with her work, and that the Wiki foundation needed to be solid. I argued that omitting Bolinas and Buddhism called into question anything left in, and she relented.
The last time I saw Joanne was in fall 2016, when, at the age of 82, she flew to Las Vegas for the Vegas Valley Book Festival. I’d worked to get Joanne and Jim Nisbet invited so we could have a reunion in the Mojave, along with Kathleen Frumkin and Jim’s wife, Carol Collier. When I showed Joanne the guestroom, she gave me the look. “Well, it’s a start.”
For the next thirty minutes, Kathleen and I moved furniture, changed bulbs, dug in the garage for lamps, fetched different bedding, and arranged plants and flowers until we’d made Joanne comfortable. She was nervous at being away from Donald, when I so desperately wanted her to feel at home since so many times over the years she had extended to me that very privilege. I noticed that she positioned herself near the statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva in the dining area. I made sure that she ate from the lacquer bowls she spotted in the cupboard and requested.
Joanne gave, I believe, her last reading at the Writer’s Block Bookshop; many people in attendance were discovering her poetry for the first time. They crowded onto benches, stood along the walls. She chose poems mostly from On Time, a book—like many of Joanne’s—dealing with death, or the “transit,” as she corrected me during discussion of the endless drafts of her Wiki page. Her reading was sober. No jokes, no asides. The poems were chiseled, cut from marble, so deliberately did she read them. Their truths made the crowd roar.
“It wasn’t my best reading,” she said, afterwards.
“It was perfect,” I replied.
February 2021, Banner, Wyoming
The Gardener —for Joanne
Walking around in colored sheets mumbling prayers; the vegetables don’t care. Nor good vibes. It’s like that. The wind doesn’t whisper and the trees (or columns) huge and shaggy in wet gray air speak for themselves. Here spook. Don’t stream. Listen to the men in plaid skirts out by the oaks blowing into bladders. They dream of someone named, while beyond the sea devours edges of earth. Licks its chops. Dozens of others, each with a little wire in hand, crisscross the ground in search of the fluid beneath. The wires wiggle with delight, kirilian energy, or oedipal undertones. But they wiggle, you dig it? Trombones here, trumpets there, girls in short skirts waving flags. Each to a different drummer than the drummers. And oh those piccolos, off in a corner near the gardener watering the rugosas which are tough and hardy, capable of withstanding hard freezes, wind, drought, and salt spray from the ocean.
Earth bends with heaven’s shoulders Tamalpais dream of desire fades with the morning star at sunrise Every day prayers to Kwan Yin Yet at first apprehensive with marriage fire starting, chores, meals, but then wrote such deft flower poems and worked hard to take 100 breaths without a thought, Joanne Kyger sailing to study Zen in Kyoto and spoke to the end of her life “Donald san” as the Japanese with a charm sort of deferential, returned alone after four years in Asia coming at dawn to go under the Golden Gate Bridge, “Only Phil Whalen waiting when I disembarked.” But listening to the murmur of Mnemosyne there comes fresh subtlety of voice out of the air, whether of goddess or penumbra, but what the echo yields or its opera nor any word spoke anger Heard the voice and distance within the voice, shadow, occultation, but relaxed, unafraid she had lost her own dear place nor was there much time to celebrate inflection, adorable pitch of her thought beyond ambient sounds wind’s breath gulls’ screech cross Bolinas Lagoon phoned the off-rhymed echo from unrhymed space
Jennifer Dunbar Dorn
In her poem “Encircling Folds” Joanne quotes Robert Duncan saying he is “disturbed” by her work because “actually, buddhism isn’t part of the poem it isn’t a part of the imagination so you get a little homily in the middle of the thing.” She repeats
like a question mark hanging in space she drops another mystery into thin air:
What I want to know is which is the homily here and what the thing?
I love the way you write poems, Joanne so casually, so cool, in the moment like you’re plucking cosmic strings as you listen to waves roll in with the latest gossip wars without end on the radio a bird in the window, flowers, trees what you see and hear is all there is—pure Zen not a thing Robert Duncan is wrong your poems are true all the way through as are you who live on in them always.
You always gave exquisite gifts, Joanne, small delicate things—a shell, a tiny envelope containing a fragment of the Soledad Virgin on red tissue-thin paper. A miniature wirebound notebook with “Bonheur” and a 4-leaf clover embossed in gold on the cover its blank-dated pages way too little to write in—or so I thought— but today, thinking of you, I threw the I Ching and, dating the first page 2/23/21 drew the ideogram and wrote down the last line of commentary: “no blame, there are things more important than life.”
Cento: In Memory of Joanne Kyger
That individual will die in my back yard over the septic tank I don’t change your flamboyance into the neighbors’ lives, therefore living pressed to the earth. Just resting and dreaming
I saw him like a shadow rise I’m full of French ideals. Which happen way before the case of what passes by the eyes This is the ghost one I was referring to I am in Paul McCartney’s new house Elizabeth arrives his grace is of love and charm, as I have seen him from the blue of the farm house tile roofs on honeymoon, peeling slightly
How much time can I spend regaining these refreshing circumferences of the day.
Joanne Kyger in Flight
At dinner before a reading (hers), in the Bolinas shack I shared with friend Andy Berlin, she pulled a book off my shelf. Long ago. She’d driven down in the orange Datsun she called “Pumpkin.” The book was Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. “Hugh Kenner was my teacher,” she said. That made sense: UC Santa Barbara. Still, pretty fascinating, and what a span among those three. She also told me, grinning, that she was from Vallejo, CA, and so was Bugsy Siegel. This was, perhaps, a prank. I find no evidence Siegel ever set foot in Vallejo.
Joanne Kyger was a poet but she was also a person. I knew both. The identities overlapped in ways they don’t always. Certainly the poems coming straight from the quotidian in daily life, not entirely unusual. But there were also her readings. Everything sounded fabulous, crackling with vitality and surprise that might not even exist on the page. She was as brilliant a reader as she was a poet, and if you knew her for a minute or more, you knew she was dazzlingly quick on her feet, her brain answering each surrounding moment with the alacrity of a hummingbird.
And so at her readings. Did she always alter the poems? The sense of improvisation was strong, the question moot. But it was almost as if there were as many versions of poems as there were readings (a lot). She was renowned for this, of course. Also for her contributions to the readings of others. No tolerance for boredom and no feeling she should have any. More than once I’d be giggling next to Joanne at an hilarious aside she’d made at somebody’s reading, only to have heads spin and loud “sssshh” sounds issue. Some listeners actually thought her commentary wasn’t what the reading was about! Few readers objected.
A hummingbird, but maybe birds in general as well. For such a large personality, Joanne stepped very lightly. She was discrete (the -ete discrete), as in “clean around the edges.” When you remember Joanne’s demeanor, there’s a smile because so often she was laughing. I think she cultivated that—a sense of bemusement. She knew the world too well for that stance not to have involved some real work on her part.Once at Smiley’s Bar in downtown Bolinas, my friend Mo approached her as to a third party. He guilelessly asked, “Joanne, will you go over and cheer him up, he’s depressed and morose.” “I can’t, it’s too hard,” she told him.
Miss Kyger (in her quoting of John Weiners, ever etched in memory) was a Buddhist and at the same time, a hipster of the most virtuous kind. And she was what very few people are, a talisman.
THE MORALITY OF ATTENTION for Joanne Kyger 8.8.13
Count the words
funny little guy
you and your dopamine squirt
behind the scenes I see you going out in nature
I have you in my sight You spend more noise
eye of white
eye of newt
I go fight sharks You out me
What would Charles Olson say?
monopoly of the polis
of strangers gathered
The customer is iron the customer is always water
some kind of sentiment analysis
So, go count the woods
I saw your jaw as if a relative beckoned
why are we speaking through analogues which poets hate
because so pedantic and we are not referencing foot surgery here
at Blackhawk Bardo Plaza ducks sleep in the drainage pit at the bottom of a waterless pond on gravel
where can they go my heart is above my head
always go to the bottom of the page that is where you will discover the surface
no less than you
penny thrift upon the pylon
will harvest the moon
in the meantime I will be content
to pull weeds from the sidewalk
between places where we once lived
and welcome trousseaus of another order *
MIDNIGHT JOY (brain)
Oh you silly fossil that tells me what to do
We were all sitting at the breakfast table on McGee Ave. in Berkeley (so long ago now!) drinking coffee and Joanne had taken a fresh piece of paper to begin writing a poem (which she often did in the midst of lively conversation back and forth with other poets) at the table. There was an incident of spilled milk or was it coffee? on this “first page” on the table, and Joanne had not really written anything on it yet. So, she simply started a new page, “p.2,” that you see in the scan above, in which the spilt milk/coffee is included as part of the phenomena and structure of the poem in the field. So much like Joanne to let something impromptu like this, even accidental, become part of a poem, including the grease blobs on the page she delineates with her red pen. I think “page 1” ended in the trash as it was covered in milk and could not be saved. This was Joanne’s decision if I remember this correctly.
Remarks on Joanne Kyger Delivered at her Memorial Service, Bolinas, 22 July 2017
Conversation with Joanne: JK: How are things going with the new work? GF: I’m sick of it. JK: Why? GF: I’m trying to get the wars out of my writing. JK: Why would you want to?
This is classic Joanne, in the sense that she believed that anything belonged in a poem; the smallest thing and the global could enter the poem and be the poem. The daily had to enter. What could be more daily than war?
Can you imagine Joanne when Jack Spicer asked her, “What are your plans for poetry?” As a young woman in her early 20s, it must have been a daunting conversation, but she got right to work and never stopped. I like to think that she respected consciousness more than most of us. In any case, to me, the work knew itself, early on and continued steadily, with no guile and no bile. Well, maybe an edge here and there. She tells us, “Be in awe of the tiny things under your paws.”
A Kyger poem says whatever it has to say in the most plain, direct language possible in a poem. There’s the surprise of it! We don’t expect a poem to be so natural. In Joanne’s world, things are exactly what they are, not what they’re like or close to being like. Early on, she figured out a way to avoid poetry’s little helper, the figurative. Metaphor falls away in her poems even if it’s implied. So that she fulfills Spicer’s mandate, “We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem.” And . . . “words are what sticks to the real. And to paste a real lemon in it. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste—a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. Poetry is a collage of the real.”
I could say that the totality of Joanne’s work is a mythology of a real life, a metonym for a poet’s life. “Prose invents, poetry discloses.” I feel grateful to have been alive in the orbit of her extraordinary disclosing consciousness.
From On Time, 2010, “Last Rays in the Garden”
They lasted a long time didn’t they those rays
Blurb for The Japan & India Journals, Joanne Kyger, reprinted by Nightboat Books, 2015
In language forever lucent, Kyger is always all present—natural, graceful, honest. One is never her student, though the work is sensei in dialogue with us. THE VERGE—is the only creative/truly creative/moment—when things have not yet condemned them/selves—by coming alive—to extinction. The Japan and India Journals introduce the reader to a mind and life of attention. Keep this book close to you as a cherished wedding ring.
How, he wonders, watching the apple blossoms drift across his path, can one ever repay all this grandmotherly love?
I met Joanne in North Beach in the spring 0f ‘64. Nothing really changed between us when she died, and if I’d opened my gate in the dark this morning and she’d been standing across the street I’d have felt nothing but recognition and a deep, unsurprising reinforcement.
I’d have said ‘Hi Joanne,’ and put up a hand, palm out.
The way it’s always been, I sometimes meet someone I know, immediately. We look at each other and there’s nothing in particular said, just the sudden and overwhelming sense of ‘Oh, there you are.’
I think it happened more in North Beach than anywhere else, and my first day there I met Joanne and Jack Spicer.
The events have the edge of what happens when you catch the eye of a meadow-cow by a fence. You look at each other steadily and there’s a deeply moving sense of ‘She sees me exactly as I am, and it doesn’t matter.’
From the moment we said ‘Hello,’ up in Nemi Frost’s apartment on Telegraph Hill, some things were understood. There were ripples over and under the table and a certain blankness of knowing, a kind of nod to how things are, when you notice.
Through all the years I knew her there were always four of us―in the company of others there’d be one of each, brittle and a little tentative, sometimes on the edge of irritation. When it was just the two of us, walking here or there, alone, as simply the people we knew ourselves to be, aspirants to an impossible understanding and moving through talk and presence with a minimum of strain and that occasional, seamless sense of allowed to be.
It was quite lovely.
The problem with the poetry has always been that we’re not quite up to hearing because that’s how we’re put together―of consciousness, the required unknowability of the universe, and the haunt that comes with it.
Joanne was a master to the degree that’s possible.
We had different obsessions and different dictions and saw the real arriving differently, but one thing was constant―the outside, right over there, and whether it was perceived phenomenologically (Joanne, mostly), or phantasmagorically (Spicer, mostly), it was the real, here and there and whispering in the rooms in the head marked ‘Open.’
I think there are only a few things worth saying about the outside’s willful poem and the first and most generative for me is that we need to be able and willing to write down what the poem wants to say when it wants to say it.
And Joanne was a master at making the necessary space for her floating, creeping, settling-in information. The only description I have for that is The Real Thing.
Getting old can open up the haunt a bit, and while it still won’t declare itself now, it clearly owns the mumbling-light landscape that says ‘Hey, yeah, I’m talking to you.’
Joanne listened and looked and heard and saw and did it in the fugitive ways that come with allowing oneself.
In North Beach, tough as it was, I found more of that outside, between and attentive that I’d find anywhere else. Sequentially, I met Joanne, Jack Spicer, Jamie MacInnis, George Stanley, Richard Duerden and Richard Brautigan. There were others, too.
In Bolinas―Terry Bell, Duncan McNaughton, Shao Thorpe, Bob Creeley.
Some would become close and some not, but what was always there was the recognition, the clear understanding that could run back and forth silently under a five chair bar table in the light from a neon waterfall―Hamm’s beer, from ‘the land of sky blue waters.’
Between those who were what?
Over the years what I’ve come to believe (not really―belief signifies a judgment I don’t honor) that those who, for whatever reason, had appeared with a premature and sort-of conscious sense of the womb itself. Of the previous, too, the particularities, the thrum―a shared a way of observing and staying private that let us know each other unspokenly, at a distance.
Joanne broke open in my head immediately. She listened. Her whole body showed it, posture and movement and a tremulous, tight-rope balancing of eye and mouth.
At Nemi’s, Joanne was sitting at the kitchen table in a morning wrap kind of thing. Coming in the front door the first thing noticed in Nemi’s apartment had been her enormous painting of Fred Astaire in mid-leap.
The second had been Joanne.
She was newly back from Japan where she’d been traveling with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, and she was living in a very small apartment on the back-stair landing just off Nemi’s kitchen.
God she was alert. Hungover but there, and for me the focus of the room. I was just off the plane from Brooklyn and I was babbling a little but Joanne as focus point had a serious talent for babble and time passed in an okay fashion. At one point Nemi said, ‘Larry’s in from Brook-lyn,’ with that slightly mocking Santa Barbara drawl she had. ‘He writes po-e-try.’
Nothing much happened.
‘Really,’ Joanne said to her cigarette and asked me to read something. Which I did. She said ‘Oh my,’ whatever the hell that meant. I didn’t much care because I’d been able to see her listening, and that was something to appreciate, and remember.
Later, I’d think I could tell when a poem had come in her head. There was a stillness and a little parting of the lips, a shift of attention from where to somewhere. It was deeply interesting. As she was, almost always.
The day wound around to afternoon when we all retired for what Nemi would call ‘trick naps.’ Then we had dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and headed to The Bars. Nemi liked to say that, ‘Hey kids, let’s go to the bars.’
Gino & Carlo’s which was the bar, really, was full but not crowded, long and not very wide. There were pinball machines flanking the door, and pool tables in back.
There were two tables against the wall on the right and one of them had two guys sitting at it, observant maybe, maybe just bored. They were Jack Spicer and Graham Mackintosh. Again, I knew Jack right away. The feeling was ‘Looks like I’ve done something right.’ I was introduced and sat down.
Joanne was at the bar ordering and her head was like a searchlight. She was self-possessed and what? Maybe just possessed. I watched closely.
‘I see you’ve met Joanne,’ Spicer said, and I smiled and he smiled back. It was all okay though I was scared to death. My good luck was that I’d spent my teenage years drinking in Brooklyn and had my defenses in place.
Joanne was odd around Jack. She seemed almost afraid of him and spent a lot of time tapping her cigarette and looking up blankly before quickly turning her head.
Bright as a penny they used to say when I was a kid. Flippable might have been added to that, with some accuracy.
Joanne, I knew, was apprehensive, a bit distraught. She’d split from Gary Snyder in Japan, I think it was, and he was due back any day.
It all gets a little blurry, but every time I saw Joanne over the next few months I watched her intently. I read her book The Tapestry and the Web, and bits and pieces stuck in my head though I had the feeling that it was kind of a blue book handed in to god knows which teacher.
It wasn’t Jack, at least not on the surface.
Jack had died after falling in ‘66―one of the very few times I’ve cried as an adult. There’d been someone with him at the hospital most of the time.
I wasn’t there when Joanne came, but I was told that when Jack had started to raise his arm in greeting, Joanne had flinched and stepped back, as if he’d been about to hit her.
I don’t know what it was between them but it was deep and there’s no question in my mind that it probably involved Jack pontificating, being helpful, He had an acute eye and I always figured he’d found something in Tapestry in the Web that he’d thought was the poem, and had got buried.
Joanne had more than a passing familiarity with the terrors of Spicer’s rooms in the dark, and when his name would come up her voice would change, just slightly, as if a changed chemistry of air were affecting vocal chords.
They knew each other well, Joanne and Jack, but she was a bit afraid.
Gino & Carlo’s started to fade and sometime in the very early ‘70s a lot of us would end up in Bolinas, a town up the coast with a population of 400. Five years later there’d be seventy or so poets.
Joanne lived in a few places but finally got a cottage about two-and-a-half blocks from me and when I got up and the morning opened in a particularly blank way, I could walk over to her place and sit.
The things we talked about involved two very different transcribers―who we were, where we were and what the hell our obligations might be to poetry, to the poem.
There were four of us, as I’ve said, two in social settings, brittle and occasionally sharp tongued, and two by themselves, perfectly at ease and talking about where we were, what we were attempting, and how it was arriving.
Joanne didn’t belong to any clubs.
She had protective coloration, my god did she, but it was all bullshit―defensive flicks and jumps verbal and otherwise, occasional bits of Ginsbergian dogma, opinions so little real or central that sometimes I could just sit with my mouth open.
But none of it mattered and god knows she’d earned the right to any evasion she needed. The last time I saw her I was back in Bolinas, can’t remember the occasion.
I went to see her and she dressed a bit and off we went on the walk, the long hello/goodbye with the secret smile ending. We traced old paths on the mesa and went downtown on the steps by the tennis court and walked to the beach and headed out toward Duxbury. We must have been out for a couple of hours but there wasn’t a single piece of difficult time. Nothing but the real thing, the special knowledge of process, the flooding incoming, the threatening presences and the grace in crocuses and time itself, fictional and not.
She was kind and honest and a poet.
It was like having an invisible friend with an infinitely surprising mind and a deep, reflexive and embracing compassion. When the alcohol was almost finished eating me, she was the one place I could turn for the news of things as they were, had been, and might be. She kept me alive a few times, and she helped my twelve year old son, too. Because she could, because she chose.
I remember one afternoon when we were living in Duerden’s garage, waiting for the
house on Birch Road we’d just bought to let us move in, and I was out in the backyard with my son when Joanne and Lew Warsh came down the side-path and Joanne saw us and smiled and I swear she lit up the whole yard, the whole of the day.
It was like that with her, always―her eyes and mouth conjoining in their own bright secrets. It was a foodstuff. It was the poem in waiting and the willingness to wait, the information about to happen. Joanne at rest electrically.
During my early years in Amsterdam she sent me a copy of a new book, and when I opened it what I found on the title page was the most perfect inscription with which I’d ever been graced. It just said ‘Oh Larry, remember?’
Sitting with Don Guravich after her death, I was trying to describe how she’d helped keep me alive in the dark, and found my eyes filling up with an enormous pressure. Stupidly, I was embarrassed and hoping it went unnoticed. I should have rung the Bolinas school bell. I should have stood on the corner of Birch and Alder and said to anyone passing, ‘I loved that woman in every particular.’
Last night she was present all through my half sleep and, as I was waking, halfway out of the screen, the line that came was,
‘in the drawn-on gloves of the dead are the re-membered hands.’
‘it’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me.’
Ku Yün Translation and calligraphy of Joanne Kyger’s poem ‘Night Palace’
The World of Transformation is Real or The Goddess Never Dies either… (…she rides off into the sunset in a red Mercedes convertible, a Janis Joplin song on her lips)
It was at a workshop during the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam 1978 with Franco Beltrametti (South), Reidar Ekner (North), and Nanao Sakaki (East) that i met Joanne Kyger for the first time where she personified the West with all the wisdom and humour she cud display so effortlessly.
The last time i saw her was in April of 2016 at a party at Jim Nisbet’s home after the reading at the Green Arcade Bookstore in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of Franco Beltrametti’s Collected English poems.
In between lay 38 years of friendship marked by a sympathy for nothingness that didn’t exclude anything and where manners made all the difference, manners and the white table linen, for the private was public and the public where we behave. It was pea stew from a light blue enamel pot with a hint of curry and instant pickled cucumber with sesame seeds. We almost got busted at the Austrian border and when the excitement had just ebbed away got caught in a snow storm crossing the San Bernadino Pass. In Riva S.V. she stayed up all night and cleaned the apartment of her host and back at the Boat we let Ting’s hamster escape while we sampled the local Riesling.
There was a roof to be shingled, and a fleeing porch to be reattached to the house, a kitchen counter to be refinished and all the while i was sleeping in the skew whiff shed struggling with a runaway blanket while the fog moved in thru the open door. Not just that roof beam set on the new addition wud have made J.D. Salinger blush, there was this taste of New York Zen, as in Bill Berkson, a sharp witted elegance, like the Tapestry which covers the chairs at Circe’s home and there was always the chance that one woke up in very different shape, not necessarily a pig, tho waddling off into the sunset definitely ranges among the higher teachings and always a cup of tea and always a stick of incense lit now to remember again my four bears and how one of them went thru the cabin when nobody was home …
P.S. Not as to put Decartes before de Horse, but that bear appeared again 1998 at the dinner after reading at the Lyrik Kabinett in Munich, when Michael Köhler, who raised a monument to the international poetry Avantgarde with his audio-edition S-Press, asked Joanne who’d taken that photo of Snyder, Ginsberg and Orlovsky in the Himalayas. Joanne looked at him with a squinting eye and asked, “Who do you think, the bear?“
The world as seen from Joanne’s kitchen window
A butterfly flutters by on a column of light. It’s almost night. The mud puddles on Evergreen Road reflect the sky at sunset. The great work will never be complete or left undone; The puddles on the path will neither be empty or filled. The night is so dark you can’t even see your reflection on Evergreen Road turning into a path. What can I tell you? She’s gone.
(transcribed by Phoebe MacAdams)
Happy Birthday Bolinas for Joanne Kyger
Good morning, Joanne. This country is two hundred years old. One green car. One white car. One convertible. The heart is a muscle, the heart is a door.
Dream 1: I am in a concentration camp. I am on the beach. The water is black. I am standing by the wire. I am talking to someone outside the wire. We are standing face to face talking. There is no difference between life outside and inside except for the wire. I am in the apartment of the commandant. I strip in front of an empty bed. I get in and make love to the air.
Dream 2: There is a car machine, stripped down. There is a driver somewhere. A voice says, “Now you have to make another one.” The second car will be identical to the first. A death’s head.
Dream 3: I go out of my house to the pre-shamanistic exercises. We do splits handing on our hands in preparation for the shaman movie. I am awkward. The woman teaching is a shaman. She has silver discs on the tops of her hands and on her palms.
O Great Tongue, do not abandon us. Our conversations make a difference. All I want out of life is to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit. The tone was honest and the words fell about in the length. The song is resilient. The song is a muscle. Birds fly over, grass moves in the breeze. Rational Mind, you are so stupid here in the morning, in the gentle aching where the door is open and the view is clear.
from Sunday Tombouctou Press 1983
the chemistry changes the black chemical earth becomes yellow earth the old sky, ethereal grey ethereal infinite grey
vast ceiling timeless grey
through this hallway of infinite depth one wanders errant like they say so many doors gleaming white so many rooms it’s a bit like a hotel’s hallway on an upper floor seemingly but perhaps the only floor if not, how does it communicate above or below one never reaches a stairwell though occasionally the hallway turns it never ends
now and then one tries a door there are people in the rooms some familiar alive or not others not who don’t mind that I come in in that way like a dream
everybody looks okay especially the dead although not as I remember them they look better healthier untroubled no one expresses surprise that I am there they hardly notice I guess they grow older dead though they don’t appear older until finally it’s enough and they lose the appearance of body what happens then is beyond me this hallway which is so like that of an old hotel in the States or Canada has its romance too its unaccountably erotic episodes or rooms one is suddenly in the arms of a total stranger however one knows by the quality of kiss that each lover knows you inside out this is a fantastic relief one’s embarrassment finally as it’s meant to be
this hallway of infinite timeless ethereal grey shining white doors must be emblematic of an innocence so vast one can only conclude that the sweetness of life is more real than all the illusions of bitter disappointment and cruelty
personally I’ve never encountered anything but extraordinary pleasure in those rooms while to walk alone through that ethereal hallway through melancholy is never sad
meanwhile in the usual world the black earth has become yellow
THE REAL THING CAME ALONG
There, now, cálmate, she said. Cálmate. I’ll explain everything.
Though I had heard about her and read her work, I didn’t meet Joanne until we moved to Bolinas in 1973. It was a wonderful time, full of listening, learning, becoming part of the community, of poets, painters, musicians, environmentalists, and long-time Bolinas folks. We did party quite a bit, though I was very often home early to relieve our babysitters of the care of our three pre-school and elementary school children. Once in a while, I was envious of the life that Joanne was leading, a full-time poet with a well-deserved reputation and no kids.
Joanne and my son, Dan, were born on the same day, which brought us somewhat closer in the circle of friends, though a double-birthday party at our house on November 19, 1977, left Dan a little put out. The perceived slight was overcome in time, and she officiated at his marriage.
Joanne did work, giving poetry readings nationally and internationally, producing wonderful volumes of poetry, teaching in the summer at Naropa and editing the Bolinas Hearsay News, the local, informal three-day-a-week newspaper, for many years. She also gave what she called journal classes, and I was lucky enough to be able to take one in the fall of 1993.
We met at Joanne’s house on Evergreen. I think it was either outside or in the main house, as this was before the shed behind the house was torn down and a new shed, more like a living room, was added to the property. There were twelve of us, some of whom were published writers, others who were interested in writing and were curious to take a class with Joanne.
She was an excellent teacher. She gave us reading and writing assignments. I probably have some notes somewhere, but I didn’t really want to recapitulate the six-week session. I remember that we read our writing assignments out loud and that some of us were praised, but not by Joanne. There was no sense from her as to what she thought of our writing, just a seriousness in teaching that made it a thought-provoking, pleasure to be there.
I have the compilation of our writings, that contains a list of contributors in order, but no one’s name is found on the pages of writing, which is mostly prose. And there’s a mysterious “she” at the end, after a page of gertrude stein demonstrating the difference between narrative and diary. Sarah’s pages are slipped in, unbound, at the end, the only one that is signed. It was very satisfying to have something to take away, the “Journal Class fall 1993,” purple cover copied from one of those black-and-white composition books from our school days. It is one of those curious items that the children will be glad to read when I, too, am gone.
I think of Joanne often, and I miss her.
February 14, 2021
Three For Miss Kidz
01/01/18 Joanne would say just put your hand to the paper and write the date & the time 5:55 PM Lucky Time Blown
03/30/18 Good Friday
Nine (9) Turkey Buzzards riding thermals Joanne Kyger I am thinking about you about Greg Hewlett about Russ Rivière about warriors & now “you got to give it up” bring it good just regular bombs good & funky to the Sewer Ponds 4PM
Joanne’s dark grey turtleneck cashmere sweater two sizes too big freebox sweater I sleep in she left us left us left us so much …….what time is it?
On page 269 of the Tombouctou edition of The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964, Joanne Kyger reproduced a honey-do list handed her by then-husband, the poet Gary Snyder, towards the end of the book and their marriage. Some two pages, headed “Someday you really ought to try:” it reads, in part,
Fold your clothes in a drawer Don’t save everything Quit reading so much trash What about history and prosody?
Notwithstanding, and indeed, Joanne remained renowned among her friends for reading anything and everything. Madame Blavatsky? E.F. Benson? Freya Stark? Wilfred Thesiger? No problem. All of Agatha Christie? H. Ryder Haggard? Ditto and ditto. Vanity Fair? A subscription to the bitter end. I, for one, came to terms with the sub-voracity of my own reading when, with a sort of triumphant enthusiasm and, perhaps, the assumption that we were siblings circumvallated beneath a shot-raddled flag, Joanne handed me the Pyramid paper edition of The Yellow Claw by Sax Rohmer, which I found to be seriously unreadable. She may have been a little disappointed but, as goes self-adumbration, read on.
My first published novel, The Gourmet, appeared in 1981. Produced in an edition of 35,000, retailing at $1.95 per example, it materialized on twirly racks in drug stores and bus stations across the land and was firstly, and lastly, detected, in San Francisco, face out in a matrix of its confrères in a cigar store on Union Street, right up there with 14 titles by Louis L’Amour, 9 by Barbara Cartland, 6 by Danielle Steele, and, do not doubt it, the latest installment in the Executioner series. (At least six of its 435 titles were penned under the series-spanning ycleptic of Don Pendleton by my friend Steve Krauzer — a real pro.)
I heard about this fugitive sighting and, since the publisher had sent me but a lousy pair of author’s copies (welcome to the club) and, hell, I had ten bucks, but by the time I got down to the north side of Union Street, between Octavia and Laguna as I recall, the five copies were gone. In response to my query, the stogie-fellating grayling in a checked hickory shirt and sleeveless sweater vest on a riser behind the cash harvester unparked the damp snipe from the groove in his lower lip long enough to tell me: That’s it, bub. Even if they sell, they don’t get replaced. Them five copies? One week on the stand. By now, some or more likely all of their covers are on their way back to some warehouse in New Jersey, for credit, and their guts are in the landfill in Colma, for nourishment. Next!
The Japan and India Journals was published the same year. By and by, as is customary among authors of a certain camaraderie, Joanne and I exchanged books. Her inscription in my copy of The Journals, with its fabulous cover by Ken Botto, reads
So may we well worm/warm our further trails… Joanne
The cover of The Gourmet features a peroxide blonde in a tight red dress (a transvestite, in context) arm and arm with a guy in a trench coat wearing a striped tie and a fedora, withal constellated by the Chinatown Gate, The Golden Gate Bridge, and a trolley car. Sparing you its uppercase scarlet, the jacket tease reads, “A baffling case involving murder and kinky sex.”
“Oh,” said Joanne, clasping the pulp to her breast, “I’ve always wanted to know somebody who writes this kind of book.”
The inscription inked into her copy of The Gourmet reads,
Quit reading so much trash.
In 1983 Joanne invited me to read at the Bolinas Public Library. I hitchhiked from my home in Monte Rio to a bus stop in Santa Rosa, rode the bus down to San Rafael, and hitched the rest of the way to Bolinas. I wrote a little travel journal in the manner of Basho about my adventure. It was originally published in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse. In 2009 I published it as a limited edition handmade book titled Ah Bolinas! I sent a copy to Joanne of course. She replied: “Just a wonderful thrill to read…and the prints are so handsomely precise for the book and the text. We all enjoyed ourselves immensely. I read it out [loud] yesterday, just having returned from Oaxaca a few days before—to one of ‘Joanne’s great looking women friends’ who of course thought She should be the center of the quest. Tom Sawyer meets Timothy Leary is one of the great comments on Bolinas.”
Back at Joanne’s, we sit around the kitchen table sipping tea with a little of the creature in it. This is the first time I’ve really had a chance to sit down and talk with Joanne, someone I’ve known in passing for almost twenty years. I remind her of the first time we ever met. It was at a book party in San Francisco. I was a campus radical literary magazine editor then—shoulder length hair, ratty, patched Levi’s, cast-off Army jacket, I really looked the part. Joanne had come up to me and asked if I was one of those new “revolutionary” poets. I’m certain now that it was all in jest, but back then, being an ill-tempered young upstart, I mumbled an angry reply and cut short any opportunity to make friends.
On the mesa a lost world of mostly older single women
Joanne doesn’t recall the incident, but then why should she? She’s Joanne, after all, la belle dame sans merci, accomplished acknowledged poet on more than one continent, confidante of Gary and Philip, dowager of the local poetry minions, sponsor and patron of the literary arts, representative of the Muse on this muddy spit of land, promoter of esthetics, and so on. The list is quite long, and after a while, quite boring. It’s not like she’s the Virgin Mary or anything like that. But she has the presence and the posture and the stature of a great woman whose approaching grayness is the badge of her wisdom. I comment on her collection of little magazines. I collect them too, especially the ones with my poems in them. “Do you save them because you think they’ll be worth a lot of money someday?” At least we share a common delusion.
Jungle of entanglements gentle tigress digresses moon in mist
from Ah Bolinas! (Not My Hat Press, 2009)
you have no body even when it hurts so much some matter has arranged to be you hasn’t it then you go to the fortune-teller I went to sev- eral when young one even had a membrane over her iris but they didn’t understand me as well as I did oh I was just curious Remember
signs; what remember I remember my imag- ination houses I visit non-existent or a grotto no remember when Joanne got me to write a collaborative note with her and leave it in a tree for Donald Allen who was feeling bad we rolled it up a scroll tied with ribbon mostly she made me shy at some point I re-
alized, though, she liked human niceness more than I —the scroll — she liked surprise birthday parties what I liked was her voice I never knew what she and Bob Creeley were going on about I was 25 later she said everyone in Bolinas loved me I know that isn’t true and Philip loved her so much
did she really not know that? ‘batty inexor- able logic’ I’ve said all these things before Like when suddenly her aesthetic was chang- ing from Duncanism and Ted wanted her for the New York School some part of her joined it remaining Joanne but I remember that
moment when Ted, Bob, and Tom Clark all seemed to be courting her esthetically she had such brilliance and one wanted her to write like one she would always follow her voice — and Lewis Warsh ‘she’s becoming more autobiographical’—no she wasn’t she was doing mind/nature/voice partic-
ular to person/life finds expression as ‘that flicker’ bird as mind of no-god drifting coastal moment You were so beautiful and I’m remembering how right before Ted died he placed new books on shelf by bed, by Joanne, Joe Ceravolo, and Anselm Hollo and said ‘I have a generation’ b. 1934 I’m sorry I’m just crying
i.m. Joanne Kyger
originally published in Kenyon Review
“There are 4 voices in your poems but you should have at least 8 & one of them should be mine” – JK to KO, Nov. 2012
An email from Joanne Kyger to Kevin Opstedal – 6/16/13 Friday 14 June
Noon. The chainsaw gang on their third day next door. Three saws wanging thru the green big wood. Chunks. One pine trimmed Japanese style. One take down. Kevin called at 10am on his way to Bolinas for soup. Pretty quiet for a moment, just the ukulele music. 1:05pm Here we are. And here HE is. Hi Kevin. He drives a ’65 white Ford Ranchero pick up
4pm It is Flag Day. Any flag will do as long as it’s red, white and blue yellow, pink, & turquoise–in downtown Bolinas the museum, the appalling ‘park’–is this Camarillo? A Yater longboard we never went to see plus a brief walk in/walk out at Smiley’s. Did you see what I saw? I’m not sure I saw it myself, maybe I only ‘heard’ it. 5:45pm Four charcoal colored dinner plates from Ikea at the freebox in the Plaza, the real people’s park. 6:05pm I’m going to be 90 this fall. So please put in a hand rail on the way to the barbecue.
The Phone is Ringing for Joanne Elizabeth Kyger
She said “Everyone deserves to be a bodhisattva if only for one day”
But missing the evening of slack key guitar at Pt. Reyes
due to television or immigrant authority or elbows at the Food Bank I suppose we should opt for a bag of rice & some seaweed “You might feel bad but you won’t starve”
The “burden of opportunity” has a certain charm but I’m not sure that it’s the truth
These things must be sorted out So many sand pebbles to choose from agate, quartz, jade, glass, wood, iron, bone, styrofoam–
I’ll take the one that’s shaped like my heart
Let me know when you’ve found it
Joanne Kyger and Simon Pettet in Conversation
SP: Hi Joanne!
SP: First, how would you put together a sentence, if you were the ‘master (mistress) of all time and space’? 1
JK: I would issue an edict that all mandatory sentencing is over. I would advise discretionary sentencing when needed.
SP: Discretion, discretionary, distinction – ”discrete” – what a beautiful word! I look it up in the OED, and come across this (among other citations) – from Henry Peacham: ‘Raine or water, being divided by the cold ayre, in the falling downe, into discreet parts’. So just what are we distinguishing here. It’s all water, right? – and air? – or words? – so what do we do with them?
JK: Finding focus is like winnowing words ‘til a larger fragment floats to the surface, or drifts through the air and lands like a word in a book. Your recent book, for example, More Winnowed Fragments. 2 When did you start writing that particular book? Is it chronological? Do you write in the morning or the evening?
SP: I think of poetry as accretion – (just like Walt Whitman!) I love the fact that there is continuing presentations of, what is, finally, the same book. More Winnowed Fragments, (the title) is a little…dead-pan – ‘Here’s some more fragments, you might want to check out the earlier ones!’ I wish I were disciplined about my writing hours. Are you disciplined?
JK: If I write down at least one thing a day, I call that discipline. A “thing’“ can be a sentence, a dream fragment, or a telephone number. But it is “of the moment”.
SP: I think of that as accomplishment. If I can “accomplish” at least one “thing” a day, that’s good (if I get to accomplish more things, that’s good too!). I wish I wrote (sentences, a poem) every day, but I don’t. I write letters and scribble notes, but that doesn’t “count”, right? Do you think the epistle is a sad lost art? (‘now, with e-mail…’) Do you think we’re apt to squander? (our attention, I mean) –The Wonderful Focus of You (sic) 3 – you mean focus of attention?
JK:’The Wonderful Focus of You’ is the focus of the “other”. And when that other ONE is no longer in your life, all that energy and concern and heart has to go somewhere, so it can open out to include everyone – the mucho plural “you”. And, of course, I mean always a focus of the moment, in the moment. Much poetry I read now-days is so self-consciously poetic and opaque that I am never introduced to an interesting reality. It’s like writers are trying to hide themselves, as if the “self” is no longer of interest. The epistolary voice has such a personal confidence about it, one is always included. I mean if you’re writing a letter, it is to someone, you aren’t just whistling in the dark. Email has certainly engendered a kind of epistolary short hand literacy.
SP: …or epistolary short-hand laziness?
JK: I try to practice a kind of daily notational writing. I often don’t bother with the “I”, it takes too long. One “checks in” to the world of the written self. If I stop for too long I get anxious and think I have to reinvent the poetic voice again. I use my portable notebook for jotting in the morning. And then try and write at least one line, dated, on the computer I use in my studio.
We (Donald Guravich and I) were planning a trip to Veracruz last January-February (2006), but had to cancel it. It was a very stormy, wet winter here, and I wrote a daily line or two, which incorporated the weather damage, along with news of the U.S. administration’s current horrors, and including occasional hopefully illuminated states of mind, dream bits, and observations as to the state of ”nature” around me. I call it Not Veracruz. It is fragmented in that there is no narrative line that draws the piece together, except a daily chronology.
SP: Could you perhaps quote some fragments from it?
”I really can’t stand the ‘formality’ of ‘intelligence
Who really ‘cares’ if the eucalyptus have the smarts”
JK: (So) How many years does your More Winnowed Fragments cover?
SP: Oh a long time, maybe ten years? , it’s that “winnowing”, can a poem (every word, every line) “hold up”? I’m pretty tough with myself, I think, but for the best (at least, I say it’s for the best!). There’s a major proportion of attrition. I know, “hold up”? – to/for what?
JK: Do you “test” your poems by reading them at poetry readings to see if they “hold up”? I find if I can’t bear to read a poem anymore, it probably shouldn’t be in print.
SP: I find that, by the time it comes to a public reading, I’d better have some confidence in its worth, otherwise, crikey, what am I doing?
I often let poems “marinate” for a little while before I “re-discover” them, and then, how interesting, did I write that?. Well, manifestly I did, but…or, alternatively, did I really write that (and what on earth was I thinking)? Yes, I have scattered things in print that I’m embarrassed about. You too?
JK: Yes. But that was long ago, and those magazines are gone — except for the collection in that Granary book, A Secret Location on The Lower East Side.4
SP: Alice Notley in her review of your work 5 speaks of your “honesty” as perhaps your abiding characteristic. What do you think of that?”
JK: Well, are you attracted to poets who you think are lying to you?
SP: (Francois) Villon? Gregory Corso? – but wait a minute, the poem can’t lie, can it?
JK: Your reader will know if you “fake it”– i.e. if you’re a spin-master of verbal acrobatics. Laura Riding 6, back in 1938 in a rather profound flourish defines a poems as an ‘uncovering of truth so fundamental that no other names besides poetry is adequate except truth’.
SP: I like that, summoning up the essence, fundamental (but not fundamental-ist!)
JK: Laura Riding was also prone to pronouncements like ‘historical time has stopped with me’.
SP: Ah well then maybe I’ll reverse my opinion! What do you think about time-travel?
JK: I think it’s happening at this very moment.
1 Simon acknowledges that he’s “stolen” this as his opening salvo from Tom Clark’s wonderful interview with Ted Berrigan in United Artists 4 (re-published in Talking In Tranquility: Interviews With Ted Berrigan (Avenue B/ O Books, Oakland, CA, 1991). 2 Full disclosure. Simon’s recent book of poems, More Winnowed Fragments, appeared at the end of 2005, with a cover note from Joanne – ‘More Winnowed Fragments/Ah, romance, the hint of mystery/perfect, quirky interludes -/this is the lesson he comes to teach/Charmed in every wryly conceived moment’. 3 The Wonderful Focus of You (Z Press, Vermont, 1980). 4 A Secret Location on The Lower East Side: Adventures In Writing 1960-1980 (Granary Books/NYPL, New York, 1998). 5 Alice Notley – Coming After: Essays on Poetry (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2005 – the article on Joanne first appeared in Arshile 9, 1998) 6 Laura Riding in In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding – Deborah Baker (Grove Press, New York, 1993).From The Argotist (2005)
Phenomenology. Consciousness. Existence.
Who is this “I” that experiences−and what does it experience (what is it experience- ing)? What is the relationship between the “inside” (note quota- tion marks) and the “outside” (note harmonious parallel, and further quotation marks), what’s really “important?” (again the qualifying rabbit ears, revealing the strictest attention to language, in the futile (it would surely seem to be?) practice to capture (register?) attention and awareness in this continually shifting (floating? dissolving?) world).
How might one be? How might one act (being and action being acknowledged as integral, one and the same, perhaps?)? What would one possibly need to say, or write, (given the truth, spiritual or otherwise, about the illusory nature of our perception of time and space)? What might this mean, then, a “Buddhist poetics,” (a life-and-poetry, a life in poetry)? Radical simplicity. Personal integrity. Non-invasive traces. The long-awaited publication of About Now, Joanne Kyger’s Collected Poems provides an exemplary demonstration. This is a beautiful (because recognizable, human) collection, a gathering, a life lived (could there be, is there ever, anything else?).
The literal title provides the key – the momentary, the present tense (the accretion of moments providing a narrative—an illusory narrative, it’s true, but, enough — a unifying, expansive, sympathetic, consistent, portrait). The discipline of writing, like the discipline of meditation (it is the discipline of meditation), permitting a natural, organic, growth (since the “now” is each and every time experienced (re-experienced) as new). It’s easy! You simply practice every day.
Dailyness, the quotidian, is Kyger’s patch, that is, it is the enviable grounding and locus of the poems (allowing the poet (mind) to range high and low, far and wide, without further need to justify, apologize, explain, etc. (all, derivative, secondary, acts)). Indeed, juxtaposition of the cosmically profound and the gloriously matter-of-fact (even, on first glimpse, the seemingly banal) is at the very heart of these poems, something of a signature trope. It is a laudably open-minded, truly democratic, stance towards “phenomena” that we see here, recognizing the primacy of the local, the immediate, the domestic (ah! Bolinas, California! ah! the world!)—of friends, visitors, the weather, of the fine art of deep gossip.
Sentience—we’re all breathing, we’re all feeling, we’re all experiencing (thus the thrill, the delight, not at all shock, of recognition). A good Buddhist, a good pantheist, Kyger recognizes the numen in all things—birds, trees, flora and fauna, the landscape, the ocean, even so-called “inanimate objects” (kitchen utensils?— Carl Jung used to greet his, she informs us, each morning (“Good morning frying pan—hello cup”). Kyger approaches the world, and the poem, in the same (respectful, reverential) way).
This attitude of mind, a graceful cohabitation with all things, allows for an extraordinary transparency in the poem as poem— the attainment of a seemingly autonomous free-floating thing, vivacity, pure surface. Objects (attentions) are seen, unimpeded —and instantly transmitted as seen, (as is the poet herself, a dis- tinctive presence), with a charming intimacy. The analogue might, indeed, be Zen brush-work. The particular skill here is focus. It’s—it’s true—a kind of magic.
Could be on Earth
anywhere and Time
focused on chopping
the tomatoes, chillies, and onions.
In another poem, she makes this analogy direct:
Stroke of brush in painting Pitch of tone in writing
Such ease and grace (such deftness) manifests itself (also) in a complimentary (exquisite) attention to both music (her ear, her poetic ear, is pitch-perfect), and the formal presentation of her carefully-scored breath-line (see, for example, in the lines quoted above)—or this, (from the last stanza of an early 2000 poem, written in Patzcuaro, Mexico, home-away-from-home for Kyger for many years now, “I Can’t Help It:”
There you go again Awakening The pure three note
song really listening Look I’ll do it for you once more To WAY wheet wheet
Here’s another Patzcuaro notation. The entire poem reads:
It’s so quiet you can hear
the wasps sipping water in the courtyard fountain
“Time and measure make up your voice / So keep it sparse to parse it.” I have refrained from quoting at length from Kyger, because, quite simply, each poem in this embarrassment of riches that is the Collected Poems has lines eminently quotable (whole stanzas, whole poems, whole sequences, in fact). She is adept at the miniature, but, as one of the original students of Jack Spicer (not forgetting her unofficial apprenticeship to Robert Duncan and, pre-eminently, Philip Whalen), she’s no slouch with the “serial poem” (Collected Poems is, I’ve been arguing, one big serial poem). Among the many remarkable long (longer) sequences included here are Joanne (1970), her “novel from the inside out,” Up My Coast (1980) (a redacting of Native creation myth)—
First, there were the First People and the First People changed into trees, plants, rocks, stars rain, hail and Animals and then Animals made Our People
Light comes from Sun Woman. Whose body is covered with shining Abalone Shells….
—the legendary Dharma Committee (1986) (witness here, but indeed throughout the book, her coruscating wit!) and several remarkable biographical-historical examinations—Some Sketches From The Life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1996) (on Madame Blavatsky) and her distilled life of the Buddhist poet-saint, Milarepa’s teacher, Naropa (sweetly dedicated to Ted Berrigan).
These poetic peers and antecedents, this lineage (poetic and spiritual) is a central fact of Kyger’s work – reverence for the seekers, reverence for the ancestors (a further generative accumulation). Consciously, but humbly and gratefully, she takes a walk (writes) in their path (sic–the tao), in their footsteps. Simultaneity of time and space means that she’s right there, alongside them.
You know when you write poetry you find the architecture of your lineage your teachers
The book ends with a typical piece of sympathetic magic. Queen Lili’okalani, “the last Hawaiian Queen,” is evoked (in a kind of ars poetica)
“a soft rustle of bamboo quivering with the wind’s touch”
A tear, a sigh sure sounds
like poetry to me….
Her aspiration is Kyger’s too
“The expression of my thoughts in music as natural
and easy as breathing…”
I have neglected to remark on the groundbreaking early work (The Tapestry and the Web, Places To Go—wrestling with male hegemony—always wrestling with male hegemony!). Likewise, the great (truly great!) explicitly political later work (The Distressed Look (2004), originally published by Jim Koller’s Coyote Books, is one of the most clearly-articulated expressions that I know against the evils, twin evils, of Bush (American politics) and global capitalism
… Corporate capitalist oligarchies own the war Feel terrified? The “war”
Can go where it wants, when it wants with bizarre expansions
Endless war fear hysteria Great
There is never an end to profit. There is never enough There are no “acceptable losses”
when it means more “money” … and this, (from a poem, “Whatever It Takes”)
… Didn’t foresee
the horror of free global trade
terrorizing innocent patches of mahogany hillsides
—the tyranny of the shareholder is foremost—
So far from the Tao planes need to spy
to check the profit margin
Oh do me a favor and don’t rile me …
Long-time Kyger scholar Linda Russo provides a thoughtful, intelligent, and useful introduction to this volume (kudos to her), and mention should also be made of John Bryan’s (La Alameda’s) gorgeous and utterly-apposite cover-design (by the great Japanese wood-block master, Shiko Munakata, a pleasant first for these NPF Collected’s, yes?—usually, for all their immense value, dour, mildly forbidding, functional tomes—this (and the rest in that estimable series), of course, having no need for elaborate window-dressing).
What’s this I hear about them only printing 750? That can’t be true! That’s a serious under-estimation! Make sure you have one of the 750. Order yours now. This here, Joanne Kyger, she’s your sister! This is an essential book. I cannot (and she need not!) say it more plainly.
From The Poetry Project Newsletter #213 (December 2007-January 2008)
When Qu Yuan was banished, he wandered among rivers and lakes, he sang as he walked past the marshes, his body weak and his face forlorn. A fisherman saw him and asked, “Aren’t you the Lord of the Gates, what fate has brought you to this?”
Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) was China’s first poet. Chinese celebrate his death on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by rowing boats to reach his body before the water dragons do and by making rice tamales to throw into the river as a distraction—or to eat with friends and loved ones. As Lord of the Three Gates, Qu Yuan was in charge of the religious affairs of Chu’s three most important clans as well as the education of their sons.
Qu Yuan answered, “The world is muddy. I alone am pure. Everyone is drunk. I alone am sober. And so they sent me away.”
The fisherman said, “A sage isn’t bothered by others. He can change with the times. If the world is muddy, why not wade into the mud and splash in the mire? If everyone is drunk, why not strain the mash and drink up the dregs. Why get banished for deep thought and purpose?”
Qu Yuan said, “I have heard, when you wash your hair, you should dust off your hat. When you take a bath, you should shake out your robe. Why should I let something so pure be defiled by others? I would rather jump into the Xiang and be buried in a fish’s gut. How can I let something so white be stained by common dirt.”
 The Miluo flowed into the Xiang which flowed into Dongting Lake.
The fisherman smiled and laughed and sang as he rowed away, “When the river is clear, I can wash my hat. When the river is muddy, I can wash my feet.” And once gone he was heard from no more.
A euphemism for serving at court.  A euphemism for retiring to the countryside.
The bio in the back of On Time, Joanne Kyger’s collection of poems written between 2005 – 2014, describes her as, “One of the major women poets of the SF Renaissance.” That is, of course, correct, but I would make a case for removing the word “women” from the sentence. While I’m sure the intention of including that gender signifier was to emphasize the importance of her position as a woman in what was largely a man’s world/boy’s club, its placement before “poets” in the sentence diminishes rather than enhances her standing. It reeks of “pretty good for a girl” condescension, unintended as that may be.
Joanne Kyger was one of the major poets of the San Francisco Renaissance coterie, period. She was a woman. She was a woman who, despite operating in what was largely a man’s world/boy’s club, became a major member of that club. But even that SF Renaissance signifier, while more accurate than the Beat Generation designation emphasized in her New York Times obituary and useful in placing her in time and place and lineage, seems unnecessarily limiting. In his introduction to As Ever, her selected poems released in 2002, Kyger’s longtime friend and fellow poet, David Meltzer, says of the atmosphere in the late ’50s when they first met:
“It’s important to remember (or realize) that those days were before literary academicians freeze-framed them into ‘movements or ‘generations.’ The slickest, surest way to defang dissent and creative doubt is to accept it and (ugh) incorporate it into glossy narratives circulated throughout institutional castle culture. (A big irony many tapdance around.) Even then, Joanne was a thoughtful and thinking (and self-effacing) poet of deep innate knowing. Her early work was distinctly complex, personal, and resistant to expectations.”
So how about something like this: Joanne Kyger was a thoughtful and thinking and self-effacing poet whose distinctly complex and personal work made her a major figure in the SF Renaissance/Beat Generation orbit. That self-effacing quality is what gives poems such as “Town Hall Reading With Beat Poets” and “Bob Marley Night Saturday Downtown” and “Fact Checking” their charm. Her poems are at once deep and learned yet casual and conversational. They are also often quite funny. She comes across as a poet who took her poetry seriously while not overly-concerned with being taken seriously herself.
There is more to her poetry than self-deprecating humor, of course. A great sense of reverence is on display throughout her work when engaging with mythological themes, her Zen Buddhist studies, interactions with the natural world, and considerations of the lives and deaths of friends. From the poems in her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, published in 1965, to the late work collected in On Time, Kyger’s writing displays a marvelous way of finding the mythic in the mundane and revealing the mundane in the mythic. Here is how “Pan as the Son of Penelope,” probably her best-known poem, begins:
Refresh my thoughts of Penelope again
Just HOW solitary was her wait?
I notice Someone got to her that
barrel chested he-goat prancing around w/ his reed pipes
is no fantasy of small talk. More the result of BIG talk
and the absence of her husband.
In his thought-provoking essay, “The Great(ness) Game,” David Orr discusses how Elizabeth Bishop’s stature has risen posthumously while her friend Robert Lowell’s once-towering reputation has been in decline. It would not surprise me to find Joanne Kyger’s stature ratcheted upward by a similar recalibration of reputations in years to come while those of some of her better-known male peers and predecessors in the SF Renaissance/Beat pantheon are demoted. As a stunningly lovely, yet delicate, voice like Billie Holiday’s or Karen Dalton’s would be difficult to hear when a big booming voice like Pavarotti’s was bellowing nearby, so, too, a subtle poetic sensibility, like Joanne Kyger’s, can get drowned out when there’s a big personality like her friend Ginsberg Howling nearby. Not to mention Duncan and Spicer and Snyder and Whalen and McClure and Berrigan and others. She moved in serious circles.
But life is life and death is death. Reading the books of dead poets after their time has passed and their legends have cooled is a different thing than reading the living. Sometimes the poet of the moment isn’t a poet for the ages. Tastes change and change again. Who knows what the literary landscape of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries will look like to readers a hundred years hence. In his essay, Orr quotes a passage from J. D. McClatchy wondering about how Bishop could be claimed as the favorite predecessor poet of contemporary poets as varied as John Ashbery, James Merrill and Mark Strand. Orr takes a stab at an answer: “It’s possible, one might answer, because Bishop was a great poet, if we take ‘great’ to mean something like ‘demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.’” I predict that Kyger’s work will be similarly deemed a useful resource by poets to come.
The Times obituary includes Kyger’s poem “Night Palace” but, for some reason, they did not format the poem, which was composed in projective breath units and spaced on the page in the composition by field manner, as written. That’s a shame. The spacing, in large part, makes the poem the poem it is. It’s not unusual to come across poems laid out in the composition by field manner for which reformatting them with a standard left margin justification doesn’t detract much from the poem. Sometimes it’s little more than ornament. This is not the case with “Night Palace,” a fine example of how much emotional information can be conveyed by spacing and placement on the page in the hands of someone who fully understands the approach.
Her poem “Elegant Simplicity” written May 22, 2007 ends:
Demons are more or less human in appearance Monsters are more animal like
The first soul or spirit that resides in a person is immortal
The second soul is the animal spirit you acquire at birth with a real counterpart animal spirit roving around in the world.
If it dies, you die That’s it.
Joanne Kyger’s real counterpart animal spirit died in March of this year, so that was it, but her poetry will live on and, I suspect, gain greater prominence in the years to come.
so soon? I needed more instruction in the everyday Cody lying luxuriously in the front yard belly up light wind blowing across the sagging tree dahlias you never had time for sadness so we’ll feel it for you vibrant one mocking one just space
Moon rose orange and flattened like sun at almost green flash sunset
the more it rose the more it flattened
branches dimming its top till no more was there. big, flat moon
till it disappeared into the mist.
3/1/21 for Joanne
“The World Was Spinning. She Was Right There With It.
… And she was.” She was a force of nature, engaging with all the world around her. Joanne was most at home in her home, the old Portuguese fisherman’s house she bought, just three rooms, a small bathroom with shower only and the gray-water system she installed, but lots of outdoor space. Super-Coot, her row boat, used to adorn the front of the yard, behind the hedge. The deer and quail that used to come and visit, but damned deer ate all the apples. She loved the quail and fed them. Later came the big “shed” that became the dining room and her bedroom when it became too much for her to climb up to the loft, or was a guest room on occasion. A one-block walk to the cliff’s edge, over the ocean. A short bike ride when she’d go to the Hearsay News’ office as the Wednesday editor for the community newspaper. Friends’ houses just a short walk away. The world she inhabited, her own habitat.
I fully remember the night I heard of her death. My husband, Joe, came in to tell me to put down the knife I was using to cut up that night’s dinner. I could tell it was going to be bad news, but didn’t expect that news. I called mutual friends, hoping they’d say it wasn’t true. It still doesn’t seem true.
Joanne wasn’t perfect, but she was always there, there with you. She talked a lot, especially on the phone, though she also listened carefully. She had this gentle way of sing-saying Spanish phrases, like “pus, pus,” or chanting/singing Native-American lyrics. Music was always in the background or part of the conversation. “Hit me with your rhythm stick, hit me, hit me,” as she’d say.
She was the most generous person I’ve ever known. All the gifts we exchanged on each other’s birthdays, chosen with care and attention: scarves, earrings, necklaces, toys, cat brooches. Generous in her hospitality, especially at her dinners, table formally set, cloths always ironed. Generous in her smile and laughter, especially with advice. She counseled me when Joe and I began dating that love was like a plant whose roots had to have time to grow for the plant to flourish. Generous in arranging a walk along Palomarin Trail with her and Donald to Bass Lake, where I found scores of friends waiting to celebrate my birthday. Joanne had planned it all. She was at my wedding. She was part of the fabric, no, the tapestry of my life.
The hour(s)-long phone calls, many times at 9:00 or 9:30, at the end of which we’d both say that we’d have problems pulling away the phones stuck to our ears. Sometimes she’d call around dinner and I’d have to cut her off to cook. Would that I could take back all those missed/lost minutes, especially when I was forced to turn down what would be her last Thanksgiving invitation because I’d had surgery on my lip that limited talking and eating. All now lost, along with her presence.
Joanne was the glue for the people who were lucky enough to be part of her world. She kept up on everyone, like the character Lucia in London whom she was smitten with, and then let us all know what was happening in each other’s lives. In a funny way, she kept us alive for each other.
So many occasions. Meeting her at a party at the Dosses’ after hearing her read for the first time in SF, Duncan talking to me outside during intermission with a giggly-teenagey laugh, just saying “She’s terrific.” How right he was.
The only time I’ve ever seen a “green flash” (a rare oddity at sunset) was with Joanne, on the deck of my little rental unit with a wide Pacific view. The same unit she’d come to, put a chair on the deck, unfurl the towel she brought along, and pull out the box of Toni permanent solution I was to administer in the hope that she’d be able to put some curls into her straight hair. We called it the Farallon Beauty Salon, ocean mist mixing into the chemicals.
Her presence at our little group, led by Duncan McNaughton, into the Koran. Our other reading group, held at Bob Grenier’s, where we would discuss various authors, including Olson. Reading her Japan/India Journals (Tombouctou version, which I was privileged to proofread), I understood how important Olson’s “Projective Verse” was to her poetics.
I knew she had been in a lot of pain towards the end. She called less and less frequently then, emailing to say that she wanted to finish the book she was working on. She also wrote how grateful she was to Donald for helping her and being tender to her in her diminished physical state. I just didn’t know how fatal it was. She never let anyone know.
One time, I followed her explicit directions. We were living in Seattle and told her that Gary Snyder was giving a reading there. She asked me to find a good pine cone on our property to give him. I came up to him at the end of his reading as he was signing books and told him Joanne had specifically instructed me to give it to him. In response he said, “Joanne is a good poet.” He then paused and corrected himself. “No, she’s a great poet.” A truly correct emendation.
For Joanne Kyger, 2021. “Gat, Gat, Parasam Gat, Bodhi Svaha.”
Edward and Miriam Sanders
Remembering Joanne Kyger
She loved the beautiful things you could find in the natural world She would arranger beautiful items she would find in natural places when we toured together —minerals, pods whatever was in the environment at hand for her traveling altars in her rooms
She was witty, funny, easy going non-judgmental fun to be with
She sent me 2 million year old fossil sand dollars from the beach in Bolinas
& she sent a slice of black obsidian that looked like when you cut off a slice of cranberry sauce, only black
I sent her back a black pegmatite specimen from a road cut above Boulder
& also she sent me beautiful pods which I could never identify, maybe lotus, from her travels.
—Miriam Sanders read at Joanne’s Memorial 11-6-17 at St. Mark’s Church
In Praise and Memory of Joanne Kyger
Joanne Joanne You came to a party at the Peace Eye Bookstore on East 10th In July of ’67 fresh from a visit to Europe You were radiant and beautiful standing near Julius Orlovsky &Tom Clark.
Always those years we referred to you as Kyger Kyger burning bright in the forests of the night.
For decade ’son decade I was amazed at your poetry! We visited you in Bolinas over the years where you were very active in town affairs & wrote for the Bolinas Hearsay News You helped protect your oceanside village from excess development.
Later when we toured Italy together in your hotel rooms you always set up a Buddhist shrine with holy items & images & incense to burn
We exchanged many emails for years all the way to your final months when you shielded your health from much of the world
Your books shine brightly —a fine stack of them glowing in our living room Kyger Kyger Burning Bright.
—Ed Sanders, read at Joanne Kyger’s Memorial at St. Mark’s Church. November 6, 2017
Because she was such an important and pleasurable poet, not many perhaps think of Joanne Kyger as a serious Buddhist; but she was. She studied and practiced the Dharma with discipline and insight from the time she encountered it—at college, in her 20’s, in the early 1950’s—until she couldn’t. She sat in Japan’s macho zendos with young Gary Snyder; she knew Ruth Fuller Sasaki there; she was one of the first Westerners—if not the first—to seek guidance from Shunryu Suzuki-roshi in Japantown’s Sokoji Temple, in pre-Zen Center days. She wore all this lightly, not making a big deal of it. She preferred, it seems, to demonstrate the effects such a life might ideally have on the character of a practitioner.
The most consequential conversations we had took place when she agreed to sit for an interview about Philip Whalen. At the outset of a biographical labor that would run to 9½ years, there were many obstacles, not least of which was that I lived in Germany. All the people I urgently needed to speak with were on the West Coast of the U.S., as were most of the papers I needed to consult.
Work began with a trip to California in March of 2005. As research goes, it was an extremely lucky visit, yielding much rich material. Joanne was the second interview I was able to do, and she told me straight off, “Set up a time-line. As you find out things, put them on the time-line.” It sounds elementary. Like a lot of what Joanne said—and no small part of what she wrote—the remark is deceptively simple. And again, similar to her work, the effects were profound. Actually doing what she said unwound many misunderstandings: facts I thought I knew, could not be true if I put them on a time-line. Contrariwise, dating things along a line brought previously unseen constellations of people and places into sharp focus.
The day I went to see her began in Davis, CA. where I had been visiting the Rare Book Room at Shields Library. That collection houses fifty years of letters from Whalen to his friend Gary Snyder—not coincidentally Joanne’s first husband. An early Amtrak from Davis to Richmond, followed by a long car-ride out to Bolinas, got us there in time for lunch, which Donald and Joanne had thoughtfully put together. During the brief, efficient clean-up, Joanne asked on the down-low if my friend was OK. She had seemed OK during the ride and lunch, though she’d spoken of enduring a painful break-up. Joanne had picked up the woman’s deeper, sadder vibes. Without preamble or explanation she simply asked my friend if she’d like a place to lie down, to just be, while we did our interview. My friend accepted.
At the end of the afternoon, several hours of Joanne’s patient, smart talk later, she bent down from her chair and pushed a couple of boxes of paper my way. They contained all of Philip Whalen’s letters to her, with copies of a number of her own letters to him. Though these had already been officially accessed by the library at U.C. San Diego, she told me that if I was quiet about it, I could simply take them, make copies, and get them back to her. It was a biographical goldmine. Given the wit and range of the writing, it was also a literary treasure. She just handed it to me; helped me carry it to the car too.
Eleven years later, I made another trip out near Bolinas, to read from the published book to any who cared to listen. Very few did that evening. Two friends of mine from the Bay Area wanted to be there, and undertook driving duties. Gail King. and Pat Nolan appeared, as did Donald Guravich and Joanne Kyger. A small crew, but a learned, talented, interested one. I thought we seven had a good time. The next day, Joanne wrote to say how much she’d enjoyed it. The reading was the last time I saw her; her elegant note the last I heard.
On The Way
Have the swallows returned
to my porchlight?
I may have left it on through the night
I may have burnt them out
when the wind shakes the window glass
I step out of the house hoping for the smell of rain twisted and waking up the earth the dust dispersed over again
longing for further signs of your presence mistaking bats for the swallows
rushing up ridge street again the sun sets late for the divers
‘you’ are everywhere
it’s wonderful and true but not location
that’s my point of sadness (the impaler) no hologram or talking back or ghost of a chance
but a small polished box we can sit beside
What is left to bring to moving pictures? a steady focus ability to unwind and rest the lever
the ‘I’ left hanging
“watching for the red gold line of morning to rise”
record the bobbing heads of lavender flowers (wind off the sea) over the shoulder as you said
“a wonderful density and appreciation of language.” Or in lines from your sketches
of Blavatsky, “but of course
this is not the end.
Oh no.” One is more in time so attentive to its wavering
her pacing, enveloping…
wanting to see.
4-17-17 – Marfa, Texas (for Joanne, again)
Dale Martin Smith
February Fox in Memory of Joanne
The foxes share people’s food and drink. They do not serve a single master. At the time there was a figure of speech saying, ‘Where there is no fox demon, no village can be established.’ (Rania Huntington, 2003)
She slept under a pear tree
snow had melted, grass and sun
shone bright on her
paw prints down the fence-line
now and then she’d arch her back
fur thick, black
forefeet reaching then follow
new patches of light
Who could work that day?
We sat near the dining room window looking
every so often to see black-tipped ears
smoothed back her head
nuzzled close to red fox body
After some hours I offered two big chunks
she gnawed one down, bit another in half
hiding pieces in the snow
cautiously at me
My teenaged son called out from a distance
“I love you, little fox” he said
and looked at me shyly
“Go on, say it—you love her too”
I did so I called
big fox love
Two mornings this week paw
and a little spirit
fox presence held to the yard We
look up often through the back window
snow and sunlight
SITTING ON JOANNE’S PORCH
It’s long past our bedtime and there’s nothing much left to think about
The success of the Japanese automotive industry
is equal to the failure of the American automotive industry or vice versa
The 10 Great Military Fiascos of History are equal to the 10 Great Peace Treaties.
The foot-prints coming curiously resemble the foot-prints going. That this is interesting
is equal to this being uninteresting. Its investigation is equal to
its noninvestigation. Its conclusion
is equal to its inconclusiveness. And thank you
is equal to its sweet rest tonight.
Email correspondence with Joanne Kyger. Permission for publication from Donald Guravich
To: Anne Waldman
Yes, we were having our climate change weather, broke records! Rene Franken of Demian bookstore in Antwerp emailed about trip there, but it’s only 10 days away, and I have a Bolinas class I’m teaching now, so I probably can’t make it . . . but a great invitation. Thanks for passing my name on. I take it Lawrence’s health is ok if he stays local? There was a clear and historically detailed obituary of Philip Lamantia in Friday’s paper. My friend Nemi Frost just called. He was her boyfriend for a while when she first came to San Francisco in 1958, John Wieners introduced them. She did a portrait of Philip called ‘Auto de Fe’. Only he was talking so much during the sittings that she could never see his mouth, it was always a blur. So she ended up by painting a little Clara Bow rosebud type mouth, which wasn’t at all accurate. (Much regards to Ed and all in Boulder. Have a good time at your party. Linda Russo is going to read in our studio tomorrow afternoon, thanks to Steve Ratcliff, who will show off his new baby boy, Johnny!)
Lots of xxxx Joanne
Anne Waldman To: Joanne Kyger Re: so much going on January 9, 2006 at 4:37 AM
Saw the GREAT show. Hope it can be a book. Wish Steve Clay was still in biz for something like that (costly). Home now to Boulder, yes very quick visit. To small dinner in Sausalito, not sure how we “did” or “came off.” Good to have Peter there, Lawrence. I wasn’t wearing the right clothes, alas. It was so HOT. Wish there had been room for more like YOU & Don!!! O yes I loved yr stuff, wonderful to see Bobbie JK portrait & Don & Franco.
Up til 2 am last night with Nick…fun but exhausted. And watched THRENODY & other footage. The city looked beautiful in the bright light of the day.
Did you see the Middle East Campus Watch (go to Google or website) piece on Ammiel Alcalay? References me, others, Poetry is News, Naropa, Archive..scary.
Later & love. Did agit prop with 20 students on the Mall last Sunday. Boulder is roiling with Ward Churchill fracas, clamp downs at CU. Wrapped up the summer catalogue—smashing.
Ed here. Party here Sunday.
Yes to April 21!! An honor (but place not generally available so don’t broadcast, ok?). I am going to be “trained” for radio work tomorrow at KGNU with Daron M. I keep telling students to “be the media” so I’d better get down to it too.
Ed has a new script & maybe shooting this summer with Daron’s help—fun.
Later & much love—wish I’d had more TIME there (never enough anywhere).
March 10, 2005 at 10:24 PM Joanne Kyger To: Anne Waldman <no subject>
Dear Anne, sorry to have missed you on this ‘quickie’ visit.The weather was nice and warm, though, wasn’t it. Bill B. said you might be able to see the Poetry Center exhibit at the California Historical Society—a kind of landmark for household art (in lieu of gallery and Museum) of the past 50 years in the Bay Area, which I thought very intimate social, and gossipy.
The waves have been very impressive for the past two days, big surge in attendance of surfing spots on the coast, especially here, with cars out to there from 7am on. . . .
I’ll be arriving NYC on April 21, Thursday, and it’s still convenient for you to lend a bed for a few days?
Hope all is well with you both!
Anne Waldman To Joanne Kyger Re: you there Scorpio
Dearest Joanne— How is your birthday month going?
Unseasonably warm days here—have been to the Elizabeth Murray show 3 times . . .
How is the new book coming? Saw the Orono folk a few weeks ago, they seem excited about it . . .
What is the gossip?
Did you get to the Creeley memorial out there?
Very sweet here—some moments of levity with Ron Padgett, John Yau anecdotes—Bob’s intimacy with everyone comes thru . . . Pen and Will so strong tho. Will broke down sobbing at the end…
I finished Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking at dawn—an admirable job, but she might be interested in the Bardo perspective . . . also she seems to name drop a lot . . . Ed has been a fan of hers . . .
Have you seen the Berrigan book? We are celebrating here Wednesday with readings from it on Ted’s birth date (16th).
LeeAnn had a party for some Scorpios last night—including some of the Mayer-Warsh clan . . . thought of you. Lunch with Pat Padgett, another Scorpio, tomorrow . . . And Alice in town who turned 60 this month . . . Her virus is gone, hooray.
Ed got another clean Kat scan & I have more tests in a few weeks—head to Boulder Friday . . .
Much love to you both
From: Joanne Kyger Subject: Re: you there Scorpio Date: November 15, 2005 at 2:06 PM To Anne Waldman
Yes, Scorpio month is going very well, the weather is warm and no rains so far. I did go down to Stanford and was part of their afternoon 2 panel Symposium, in which we each presented a 10 minute (count them precisely) ‘paper.’
Marjorie Perloff did her exegesis / close reading of ‘Rain’ which she does so brilliantly, and which pleases her so much. It was held in the special collection room with some of Bob’s broadsides and books out. Limited seating for 80 maximum. Penelope and Hannah were there, the former looking very thin. Penelope read the same piece she read at St Marks, about Bob’s death, and in her introductory remarks, broke down. I don’t know if these memorials are cathartic or not, but they surely are emotional, and I hope the family’s duties in this respect are almost done. I was supposed to read Monday at the Poetry Center’s 3 hour memorial, but came down with some kind of respiratory wheeze so had Steve Ratcliff read Tom Clark’s poem about sitting on the beach with Bob, which I was supposed to deliver. I heard Bobbie was succinct and brilliant with Charles Olson’s piece for Bob, and a few remarks. I only got to talk with her by phone.
One of the editors at UC Berkeley Press is sending me a copy of Ted’s book, which I read in proof sheets last summer. It was an excellent visit with Ted. Alice and sons did a thorough and loving job of editing it. Give my greetings to Alice and a happy birthday to Ted’s spirit at reading. Nobody else like him.
Glad to hear the good news about Ed’s tests, and yourself, stay relaxed!
From: Joanne Kyger Subject: hello Date: April 14, 2008, 3:51 PM To: Anne Waldman
Steve Clay said he saw you the other day so you must be back. What a wonderful place to be! have been..
Just finished A BLUE HAND by Deborah Baker. She sent me a note apologizing for the NY Times Sunday review and any intimation that she may have treated me unsympathetically. I can handle it (except for the fact she has me rummaging through Allen’s rucksack to read his journal—when it was on the table for all (me) to see. Now my visitors will all want to lock their suitcases.
It’s that irritating practice of her biographical writing (and she is not the only writer to indulge in this) to tell you what her ‘subjects’ are ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ and their motivations. When it is all conjecture. And very intrusive. Lots of value judgments that reinforce the stereotypical characterization of the unwashed beatnik druggie ‘banging’ away at their wives (Neal). Gregory Corso’s dirty fingernails. And so on.
She is a very pleasant woman, and I think wanted to reflect some of what the Calcutta, and Indian community was experiencing with Allen’s visit. Perhaps the book is successful on that level, but the rest of her characterizations are overly simplistic, and Hope Savage remains a fragmented focus.
Lots of wind today, lots of sneezes.
Very best to you both!
From: Anne Waldman Subject: re: hello Date: April 15, 2008 To Joanne Kyger
Joanne—O my dear that black drip dry dress of yours is such a luminous detail in literary annals now. I agree with NY Times that the book is sorely lacking, missing really, the reality in your guys’ writing. The weave is good, keeps one on toes but essentially a re-telling of the journals sort of & irritating projection as you say on what you are all thinking, what motivates you . . . & reinforces the image: druggie, naïve, self-centered. I feel everyone as presented is not the humans I know. Today I am being interviewed on a docu about AG in India . . . One of the questions, How did AG’s trip to India lead to the founding of Naropa U? The legend continues. I am so happy I will finally SEE you in June, you living legend, you. Maybe we can have some drinkies at the Hotel.
What ever did happen to Hope S? I thought John Giorno had some news a million years ago . . .
Meditated with Tibetans yesterday at the UN. Forwarding photo of Chinese police with Tibetan monk costumes under their arms . . . Still jet lagged & off to Austin in the a.m. for work, will see Dale & Hoa & god daughter Naomi. Ambrose wants to record you reading poems. Is possible? Check out Ed’s website & the movie (I sent Donald info) . . . Ed says hi, he’s working on next project “Entanglement. “
Kalyanamitra: Joanne Elizabeth Kyger November 19, 1934–March 22, 2017
nerves are bee hive
cracks in the field composition
stay relaxed you said
“we think the squirrel that lives in the pine here is eating the Amanita that came up behind the studio.
He must be very stoned but haven’t seen him leaning at the glass door yet “
trying to reach you
come Kalyanamitra, come
with yr knack for animalia garden commentary
at loss here without you
$1200 to kill the emerald ash borer within-
are they serious?
who is the deadliest foe?
Death? so many friends
And you wrote::
“Two big raindrops just fell on the deck. Shortest rainstorm in California history.
Those fires burning, have plenty to eat, stressed and diseased pine forest etc.”
& for new years:
“be sure to visit Jai Singh’s observatory in India
and all those poets together at St Marks, what energy! “
[ *Kalyanamitra: the spiritual friend]
Some Words for Joanne (Michael Wolfe: 7/22/17)
I have a couple of things to say here today.
First, I have a week-old email here from Larry Kearney then in Athens, Greece.
It says: “Joanne was an everywhere bright thread for me—We seldom agreed except when we were alone (audience laughter here), and then the talk was simple and perfect. First bright day in SF, up on Nemi’s roof and everything just there, just perfect.”
And I have a short poem Larry wrote, with Joanne in mind, a few years ago:
Tap Root Poem After Reading Joanne’s 2012
oh larry, remember? it says on the first page. I do. and you were there I knew your face was kindly too through all the shift of shifting panes and the somnambulist glazier’s rerun film artistry so way out here today I’ll dig for you a hole in the meadow and put in there the meadow. [the man bends to the shovel and the stray gray earth at the same time.
And I have this to say, too:
Joanne’s first book, The Tapestry & the Web, was the first book of hers I read.
You can already hear her remarkable ear in this earliest work, the ear listening, in the writing, to the speaking of the lines, a voice refashioning ancient treasure: Penelope Kyger of Vallejo, in the Gold State, staking a claim.
Joanne, the Odyssean: she traveled and then she came home and brought Japan and India with her in beautifully scribed notebooks, woven into the fabric of her language.
When I think of Joanne, home to stay on the western edge of an empire she questioned to the end, I’m reminded of other poets, Greek ones centuries ago, at the western edges of another empire, whose work ran consciously counter to global conquest.
Like them, Joanne accomplished an alternative placement. She gave us a hearable, manageable center— not a monument to heroics on a hill, but a localized voice to talk about the living. Anyte and Nossis, Leonidas and Joanne… a human voice for human themes.
Joanne was a great neighbor in my 15 years in Bolinas, a serious big-hearted opinionated and forgiving neighbor, who put in her time and then-some being sure The Hearsay News came out on time, attending to the condition of the Free Box. Her chat had an edge, her dedication a strain of frivolity, her rules of the game included magnanimity: her many visits to my little bookstore in the dead of winter, with no clear purpose but to entertain, her biting wit and scholar’s seriousness had equal weight in my experience of her, those spectacles she wore when reading, the eye for detail.
A bird flits in and out of The Tapestry & the Web. On the first page it lies dead on the sidewalk, an omen, sidestepped. Later it watches. Then it tunes up. By the time it reappears on p. 45, the bird is taking over the household:
Look the bird is making plans talking to men in the room upstairs poking at crumbs in the kitchen using our toilet & whose rights do I worry about? Keep the house I’ll go bird— you keep this place at the very farthest wall pushing & scratching to get out thru the cracks in the batten where the light comes in after storms & the weeds tear thru in august all all has fled has gone flicked by & scratched the soil. & you claw foot fix it fix it I’m going.
We feel bruised today by Joanne’s going. But loss isn’t all this. It’s the having, not the keeping, that’s the measure. That we were fortunate to have her, and that she endured a lifetime. We’re sad, and we’re lucky. “The Lord gives everything and charges by taking it back.”
It’s still a bargain.
I watch you go. You go. I feel diminished, Though at the time The time we had was More than I supposed. The rose I set out in a vase Looks the way it did When you arrived here. Then the light drops, And with the light The way the flower looked And then my feelings.
We expect a feeling To continue, even when we Know it’s almost gone, Even when it’s hard for Him to breathe, For her to see, For me to watch you fading In the twilight. The music softens. The voices over there Across the garden Take on the colors of the west.
Somewhere a spade stands Sunken in a bean row. A car starts up and Drives away all night. Its headlights light A patch of country road, Not the distance Of the long night’s trip, Just ten or twenty yards In increments Sweeping enough darkness From the future To show the way A little at a time—
Over the water, Into another state, Miles and miles from the town Where we all lived Together, for how long.
The Great Broadside Heistby Steven Lavoie. A report of the Joanne Kyger Memorial, July, 2017 in Bolinas by the cofounder and co editor of Life Of Crime, the original Black Bart Poetry Society newsletter now poetry society columnist for Parole, blog of The New Black Bart Poetry Society. Click on bold heading to read the full report.
Ah Bolinas! A travel journal by Pat Nolan in which the poet travels by thumb and public transportation from his home in Monte Rio to the misty mystic enclave of Bolinas to read his poetry at the behest of the muse of the mesa, published as a limited edition handmade book with original linoleum prints, and bound the the traditional Japanese manner. Click on bold heading to read the journal as a pdf file.
Early Video of Joanne Reading Joanne Kyger, a Bolinas resident, has published more than 20 books of poetry and prose. Her collection, About Now was awarded the 2008 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles National Literary Award for Poetry. She was a co-presenter in the Bay Area Writers class with another Bolinas resident, Bobbie-Louise Hawkins . Although the Beat and San Francisco Renaissance movements were decidedly male-centric, these two powerful female voices are clearly central and vital components of the Bay Area literary scene. From Bay Area Writers. Click on bold heading to view video.
Joanne Kyger Reading at UC Berkeley A prominent figure in California’s poetry scene for decades, Joanne Kyger writes poetry influenced by her practice of Zen Buddhism and her ties to the poets of Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Beat Generation. Her latest collection, “About Now: Collected Poems” is forthcoming from National Poetry Foundation. She frequently teaches at New College and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. From the University of California Lunch Poems Readings curated by Robert Haas. Click on bold heading to view video.
Stephen Ratcliffe, Joanne Kyger, and Julia Bloch joined Al Filreis at Stephen’s beautiful home in Bolinas, CA, to discuss Philip Whalen’s poem “Life at Bolinas. The Last of California.” Click on bold heading to view video.
Some Notes & Addendum
Joanne’s Nude Refrigerator Photos taken on the occasion of Joanne finally getting rid of her old ice box, replacing it with a functioning refrigerator. Photos taken in front yard of her home. Bill was a very old friend of Joanne’s with whom she spent time in Japan (see Japan/India Journals) and a witty, wonderful, bright-colors painter. Ken gained some renown for his set photos of Barbie and Ken dolls; also an old friend. Bill Porter’s (Red Pine) The Fisherman will soon be published as an Empty Bowl chapbook.
Nafets Le Renyh is a professional dilettante who holds degrees from the Joanne Kyger School of Interior Refurbishments in Pömsthrowing and Moongazing, as well as from the Ed Dorn University of Katana Humoru in Blackpainting, Doom’n’Gloom, and Open Field Misguidance, and also from the Rainer Maria Gerhardt Institute in advanced desperations. He now lives along the banks of the river Rhine in the German south-west, where he spends his days tending to the grave of Townes van Zandt’s Pretty Frohlein or drinks tea with Sei Shonagon. He has been nominated for countless prizes and awards, most recently for the Golden Bandaid with Blue Ribbon from the National Pottery Foundation, but so far he’s been shied away from them all. Among his publications are the local telephone book and the manual Instructions for the Honey Collector or How to Turn Shit into Gold, A Beginners Guide to Everyday Alchemy published by Phantom House, Dobuy 2019.
Stefan Hyner, met Joanne Kyger in a bar in Amsterdam 1978 while he was travelling thru Europe with Jim Koller. He is a Buddhist layman living in a small hamlet outside of Heidelberg with his wife Marianne Steele where they grow flowering cherries and cherry plum trees.
Kü Yün, born as Chuang Che-fan, in O-Mei, Sze Chuan Province, in 1957. Joined the Buddhist order when only 13 years old and has lived as a wandering monk ever since. He visited Joanne Kyger in Bolinas for the first time in the early summer of 1983
Michael Rothenberg’s Big Bridge published a great little chapbook of Joanne’s titled The Real News. Click here to view.
Jonah Raskin, the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation, wrote this upon hearing of Joanne’s passing in March of 2017 and wanted to share it.
Joanne Kyger (1934-2017): Memories of A Poet All Her Own
Joanne Kyger spent much of her life resisting and running from labels. Then, when she died at her home in Bolinas, California at the age of 82, on March 22, 2017, obituary writers immediately slapped labels all over her and her work. Sam Roberts in The New York Times noted that, “she was associated with the West Coast School of writers.” I didn’t know there was such a school. John McMurtrie in The San Francisco Chronicle observed that she was a “trailblazing Beat poet.” When I visited Kyger in Bolinas a couple of years ago she told me, “I don’t know where to stick myself categorically. I used to call myself a California poet to avoid the tag of woman Beat poet.” She added, “I’ve long since given up insisting I’m not a Beat, and when someone said that I was fundamentally a religious poet I had an urge to say that I was fundamentally a secular poet.” For fifty or so years, Kyger was something of a contrarian who adhered to her own inner clock and internal map. When I wrote about her for a local Marin County newspaper I said, “What Amherst was to Emily Dickinson and Brooklyn was to Walt Whitman, Bolinas has been to Kyger: a big backyard that has led to the beyond.” I knew that the link to Dickinson and Whitman was a bit of a stretch, but I wanted readers to sit up and listen and to realize that a rare and unusual poet lived in their midst and that at 80 she was still writing poetry, and still getting ready to write poetry by clearing her head. “If your mind is a messed-up closet, your poetry will be messed-up too,” she told me. “The point is to have a clear mind so that what comes out on the page is also clear.” So, she mediated and practiced Zen Buddhism that she learned when she lived in Japan with her first husband, Gary Snyder. Before then, she read philosophy and studied with the literary critic, Hugh Kenner, who have her a “D” in freshman composition. Decades later, she still remembered. Decades later, the “D” still hurt her. “I couldn’t spell,” she told me. Perhaps that’s because she was raised in China and for years spoke what she called “pigeon English.” Or maybe her spelling didn’t satisfy Professor Kenner because, after she and her parents returned from China, they bounced all over the U.S.A.: from California to Florida and to Illinois back to California. Her father served in the military. In the Midwest she found a home and escaped from quotidian reality in the public library where she discovered The Wizard of Oz. I like to think that there was something of Dorothy in Joanne: someone who traveled to far-off places, and lived in her own head and battled wizards and witches and survived. “ When we lived in Lake Bluff, Illinois, the library was close enough for me to ride my bicycle there,” Kyger told me “Reading was my great TV.” Then, in college, she discovered poetry that was “direct and conversational,” and there was no turning back. Poetry beckoned. She read it and wrote it almost every day. Kyger might have remained Gary Snyder’s wife and rubbed shoulders with Kerouac and the Beats. That was one of her fantasies, she told me. “Gary was interesting,” she explained. “But he was also a square.” After a few years, Kyger left Japan, came back to California, divorced Snyder and then settled in Bolinas which had become a haven for hippies, surfers, poets and single moms. Kyger fit right in. “Bolinas was perfect for me,” she told me. “In the 1970s single mothers created a community for themselves, their friends and their kids — for all of us.” Whenever she felt “shack-simple” she traveled to Mexico. “You can’t live forever on the delight of your neighbor’s gossip,” she added. “And long rainy days can be bleak.” More recently, as millionaires and billionaires moved into Bolinas she felt uncomfortable, but by then it was too late to relocate. When she first arrived in Bolinas she lived in a tent. Then she bought a house and filled it with books. That’s where I met her, though I had read her poetry long before then. In 2008, when I reviewed About Now: Collected Poems that ran to 769 pages I wrote, “From beginning to end, Kyger is a brilliant comedian; she’s whimsical, playful, even about serious and reverential subjects like Buddhism and the dharma. Her poems are almost always fun and sometimes funny in a graceful way to look at on the printed page, whether they go for pages, or whether they’re just two lines long like “Man get relaxed/ Woman get permanent,” or the silly poem titled “Love” that reads “When people say they love me I tell them / Give me a loaf of bread – I loaf you.” A lot of people told her they loved her. It’s easy to understand why; Kyger was beautiful in more ways than one. Now, years later, I remember her gracefulness and her elegance on the day when we sat and talked and drank cups of black tea. Indeed, Kyger wasn’t Beat or Zen or a member of any school, but something else, something all her own. When I interviewed her she wore black trousers, a black blouse, a black sweater, several silver necklaces and several rings, her hair arranged neatly in a bun at the back of her head. She might have fixed herself up special for the interview. Or maybe she dressed that way every day. That’s what I’d like to think.
Richard Levine Recalls My own recollection is of attending a reading Joanne gave at New College, on Valencia Street, about a year after Philip died, which was 2002. He had instructed his temple-heir Steve Allen very specifically that his large turquoise ring—the one Gary bought for him in Varanasi during that fabled “passage to India” in the early ’60’s (w/ Joanne/Allen G./and Peter Orlovsky)—that that ring should be bequeathed to Joanne. I volunteered for the job, which I accomplished at the reading that night, and which I attended with Jack Weller. Jack—at the time, a Dean at CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies)—was interested in seeing Joanne as well, as they had both studied philosophy with Paul Weinpahl (“Zen Diary”/Spinoza) at UCSB during the ’50’s and knew a number of people in common.
I approached Joanne during intermission–she was both gracious and apparently thrilled at this gift from beyond. We noted that while Joanne was with Peter Warshall, I had been with his sister Jackie, which meant that we shared a mother-in-law for awhile. Beulah Warshall, the mother, was dear to me, literally from the playpen childhood era, but also a challenging piece-of-work from the Jewish mother standpoint.
In the early/mid 70’s Joanne came to 300 Page (the San Francisco Zen Center) for something, maybe to see Philip, and I told her that I had profited greatly by reading her letters to Phil, which were collected at the Reed library. Later he told me, laughing, that Joanne had complained to him that “some kid has been reading my mail”…
Stephen Ratcliffe wanted to add a few items from his personal trove of Joanne memorabilia, in particular her beautiful calligraphy.
Sara Safdie, erstwhile compiler and organizer of this Remembrance to Joanne Kyger, “had a poem that Joanne had written for me because I made a meal for her with pomegranate syrup, which she’d never tasted before. Today, while I was cleaning the trunk of my car, lo and behold, as Joanne might say, I found it.” Here it is:
The following interview took place in August and September, 2011, by email. Joanne Kyger was in Bolinas, California, and Andrew Schelling in Boulder, Colorado. The reference to Peter Berg (1937-2011) in the interview was occasioned by a series of memorials. One of the foundational activists and writers on bioregionalism & watershed awareness, Berg founded the Planet Drum Foundation. He died on July 28. The exchange late in the interview on Pai-chang and the fox is a reference to Case 2 in the Zen koan collection Mumonkan: various translations are available. —A.S.
Andrew Schilling: In your poetry you allow entry to animals—or I could say, ‘the animal realm’— more than any other poet I know. Animals and birds are familiars, though they are generally not domestic animals, and you do not use them as symbols or emblems. Deer, skunk, jay, hummingbird, and dozens of others including mice in the house and offshore mammals show up, and you often address them as people. One of your books, Up My Coast, is a poetic and projectivist recounting of tales collected by the unusual ethnographer and doctor, C. Hart Merriam. Those tales depict a time before the present world got established, when people were animals or animals people.
First, there were the First People
And the First People changed
into trees, plants, rocks, stars, hail and
and then Animals made Our People.
Joanne Kyger: UP MY COAST was an attempt to write the history of part of this coast—’pre-invasion’. I am fascinated by the First People, a way of speaking of ancient history. An animistic path. Where finally Animals create the people we are familiar with.
AS: How far back does this sensibility reach for you? Did the natural world engage you as child? Were animal stories part of your consciousness growing up? I wonder if either of your parents told you animal story-cycles. You might also say a word about why your selection of tales, which you made into poems, was distinctively Californian.
JK: I read the usual books as a child—for example the Dr Doolittle books, where animals were able to talk, the Oz books where animals and humans conversed and had adventures together. I grew up with the Brownies and Girl Scouts who always engaged in outdoor activities, camps etc. Bird and tree identification were always of interest. From the ages of 6-10, I lived along the shores of Lake Michigan and found real magic and excitement in seasonal changes, the arrival of spring wild flowers—ordinary things but so different from the California life I knew. Then, of course the Greek Myths in their simple Edith Hamilton retelling introduced the wonderful notion that birds could be harbingers of events to come. And that the ‘gods’ were many and often able to turn into an animal of choice.
C.Hart. Merriam’s book, THE DAWN OF THE WORLD. Myths and Weird Tales Told by the Mewan Indians of California, published in 1910, was my source for ‘Up My Coast”—my adaptation of Coast Miwok people’s creation stories. Coast Miwok territory included all of Marin County, where I live, up to Bodega Bay in Sonoma County where I lived before I moved here. I felt I needed to find a history of this area pre-‘conquest’. The stories, parts that remain from larger cycles of oral-tradition stories told only in the winter time rainy season, are the remaining history that I could find of the local people, who lived here before there was any such thing as ‘California’. I always appreciated the fact that the Coast Miwok tribes have Coyote Man, the creator, coming to this shore by crossing the Pacific on a raft. The Bering Strait theory proposed by anthropologists who were unacquainted with celestial navigation always seemed very pat—that all ‘aboriginal’ peoples crossed the land bridge and walked all the way down to Oaxaca! for example.
AS: Some of your poet friends—surely Lew Welch, and to some extent Gary Snyder—appear to be in search of (or have found) medicine animals. Welch’s poem “Song of Tamalpais,” with its wheeling turkey vultures is a good example. You could use that poem as an example of the search for spirit animals that Jaime de Angulo has written of so often—in Pit River or Achumawi the term would be dama’agome: medicine animal or spirit power. This might be treading too close to something deeply personal, but do you have a spirit helper?
JK: I took peyote several times and in February of 1959, I had a quite unpleasant experience of massed black energy intercut with animal faces. The fact I was taking this trip in my apartment, which was over a bar in North Beach, and was not feeling well added to a very unstable sense of ‘reality’. I gave an animal name to this energy, hoping to focus it. A wild animal, which I noted whenever I saw it mentioned. For years I was afraid of stepping over some edge into a loss of self, or a schizophrenic duality. Living in Japan and seeing the guardian warriors outside temples, with fierce expressions, I finally realized that these were protectors. If they scared you off, then you could be spooked easily, and didn’t have enough courage or self-knowledge to enter into the Buddha hall. I think I was fearful of the energy of the ‘animal’ self, whatever I thought that was.
In 1967 I met Carlos Castenada and Michael Harner at Don Allen’s one evening. I remember telling Castenada of this experience—seeing the demonic as a protector guardian energy—and him nodding his head wisely. Later I read his first book on the experiences with ‘Don Juan’ with amazement and some degree of familiarity.
I was raised with phrases like, ‘don’t act like an animal’, ‘you have manners like an animal’—one should rid themselves of ‘animal’ nature—which was a debased sensibility towards the nonhuman world. Understanding that one does not have to ‘suppress’ one’s animal nature in order to be civilized, is something I gained while living a less urban life, one in which there was no ‘cut-off’ between human and non-human life. We shared the same air and small territory together.
AS: When I read your poetry, the first entry I find is to a deeply animistic world. There are also numerous references to figures from the Buddhist pantheon, and a wry approach to impermanence. Under those more surface-level aspects of the poem, I find a signal approach to the world—ahimsa or non-harming—to do as little harm as possible to any creature. In your poems the doors and windows of your house often let in small critters, and one image I keep replaying is either you or Donald freeing some animal caught in the human house. Can you draw a line from the animist sensibility to the Buddhist?
JK: I’m not a big fan of letting critters live in the same room with me. And at this point I don’t really care for ‘pets’—which has become for many the link between the human and the animal world—and in which wildness and freedom have been ‘domesticated’ away. One is ‘using’ an animal companion in a relationship of dependence and, often, emotional superiority.
Buddhist sensibility, as far as I understand it, has us all interconnected in a non-hierarchical lineage. It’s okay to be born a worm. That’s why one is respectful to the worm as it turns through the compost.
AS: Do you study up much on the non-human orders? use field guides? learn about your own watershed, or the drainage systems and eco-zones of other people?
JK: I was just reviewing again Peter Berg’s term ‘bioregionalism’—in which one informs oneself of all the aspects—historical, cultural, natural—of one’s ‘home’. And of course, field guides are enormously handy and informative. So is just looking. That’s why I so appreciate the reality of the ‘First People’ who themselves turned into the sacred spots of the geography we experience today. In Japan, Shinto Shrines often encompass these spots. Two large old trees, tied together with a magical rope, indicate their history together, their marriage.
AS: Did you know Peter Berg personally? I’d also like to stretch the question a bit, and see if you could address the significance of bioregional thought—or practice—for your poetry.
JK: I met Peter Berg in the late 60s when he was part of the Digger organization in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. But I especially remember him as being part of the Reinhabitory Theater in their recreation of Northern California coyote stories. The theater did a cycle of stories in a canyon near Bolinas in May of 1977, and he was a memorable Lizard Man, who in his winning argument with Coyote over how ‘man’ should be made, gave us five fingers ‘just like his own’ instead of paws. This was, of course, a great gift to mankind.
Along with Raymond Dasmann, Peter also produced a great and useful word—’bioregion’. A way to designate natural, watershed boundaries as opposed to sharp political lines. One became aware of the authenticity of the local with it’s attendant history and natural multiplicities. I became a detective of place, out of respect and an obligation to observe and inform myself of everything I could of the land west of the coast range.
AS: I suppose if we want to regard bioregion not just as a collection of helpful thoughts, but as a practice, then the key term would be Berg’s notion of reinhabitation. Is that what you mean when you say you’ve become a detective of place? That this is a key practice for you? My own sense is that, for those of us who want to live according to the tenets of bioregional thought, the watershed world or our local ecology is coextensive with the spirit realm. Would you say this is close to your own perception?
And could you speak a bit to the region you investigate, “west of the coast range”? It is one of the richer areas in terms of biodiversity, and from pre-contact times until today has had about the greatest diversity of human languages & cultures in North America.
JK: If one thinks about the origins of the word ‘spirit’ coming from ‘spiritus’—breath or ‘spirare’—to breath—then one understands that in a ‘bioregion’ we all share the same air. So yes, there is a ‘coexistence’ with the spirit realm. We share the same arena of breathing existence. And being attentive to that interconnected net is when one becomes a ‘detective’ of place with all its history and animistic locations.
AS: I know you have made a long-standing practice of using notebooks or journals. Most of your poems of the past several decades are dated, which suggests a specific relationship to place and time. In a way this is exactly what naturalists do—birdwatchers, and mountaineers, and botanists. So the interest in the bioregion would link those other disciplined observers of the natural orders with the poet. Do you still write regularly in journals? Is it a daily practice or routine?
JK: I think of myself as keeping a ‘notebook’. Writing notations, short observations, names, etc.Things I want to remember. Often I think of the page as a ‘document’. The date, time, and place putting it into an historic occasion—the first letter on a blank page, the note of the moment, unencumbered by a karmic dialogue, is a very pure act.
AS: Do you have a sense of journal writing being close to Buddhist practice? Many poets I can think of who draw on their journals for poetry seem to have ties to Buddhist discipline. Of your generation, Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, yourself, Allen Ginsberg, have all published journals. And I know younger writers such as Shin Yu Pai have extended the sense of the journal to a disciplined blog-site.
JK: I think of notebook writing like a practice—I try and do it whether I have anything good or bad or interesting to say. And the chronology becomes the narrative, a history of a writing ‘self’. It is such an open form, anything can be included, it’s very free.
AS: The one volume of journals you’ve published are The Japan & India Journals, which got retitled Strange Big Moon when North Atlantic Publishers reissued the book. Most of it was written while you lived in Japan. Were you aware at the time of the long rich tradition of nikki or journal writing as a genre there? Not only poets and literary women of the Heian Court like Murasaki Shikibuu, Sei Shonagon, and some who are still “anonymous”—but Buddhist nuns, and then later poets like Matsuo Basho—pushed the journal to a high level of literary accomplishment. How much did their example spur you on? Or was it more a question of poet friends?
JK: I didn’t become acquainted with Sei Shonagon and some of the ‘pillow book’ writers of Japan’s court until much after I had left Japan. I had kept journals, diaries, etc since I was very young. It was a matter of deciding what exactly it was that I wanted to write down during my stay in Japan. I was aware that both Whalen and Snyder kept daily journals. And Ginsberg of course. They gave it a sort of ‘literary permission’. Like it was an authentic form in itself.
AS: Do you have journals other than The Japan & India Journals of the early sixties that you would consider editing and publishing?
JK: In 2007, LO AND BEHOLD: HOUSEHOLD AND THRESHOLD ON CALIFORNIA’S NORTH COAST 1980-1992 was published. It contains a culling from notebook entries for those years which make a kind of portrait of place, of a heightened sense of community. I found that to be a useful way to make a little history—taking incidents, phrases, ‘awakenings’, and keeping them in their ‘notational’ and chronological form. And yes, I do think about doing more of that. I have all my notebooks in the their somewhat disheveled and traveled forms, and whenever I open them there is usually a flash of memory and recognition. I only wish I had written more down, but really that can become a dogged act.
AS: Let me ask about those “disheveled and traveled forms”—which anyone who keeps notebooks through the years can relate to. Is there anything particular you do for these notebooks, either when preparing to use them, or for organizing them later? For instance I learnt from Thoreau—who’s sort of a patron saint of the North American notebook tradition—the almost obvious idea to create an index for each notebook. And to keep them in chronological order on a bookshelf. Even to maintain an ongoing list of vocabulary, or plant and bird encounters. How do you organize or work with your notebooks to help with memory & recognition?
JK: What a splendid idea to index each notebook. A simple chronological order is all I have achieved so far, with notebooks tucked into ziplock bags with attendant ephemeral postcards, clippings, and notes. They provide a kind of rangy history of self, and encounters with, at least, the weather.
Bird sightings have their own book, where the dates of returning flocks are noted—for example two years ago the large mixed species flock of sparrows which used to show up like magic on April 23 and leave on September 21 have stopped arriving, after almost 40 years of hosting them locally near my house. At least there is a record. And the yearly nesting of the quail flock, which lives here, is noted, along with the offspring that have survived cats and hawks.
AS: Any idea how many notebooks you have? And is there any particular type of notebook you like to work with?
JK: I have over 200 notebooks. I like to use a spiral binding, as I can lay the book flat to write on. Art stores usually carry the 5.5” x 8.5” sketch books with a medium weight paper that takes ink well, and I use those. I also keep little spiral bound books that can be carried in the pocket for short observations, and the ever continuing list of things to do.
AS: John Whalen-Bridge, the scholar who specializes in Buddhist influence on North American writers, did an interview with you a couple of years ago. I could not quite get from it whether you have had any formal Buddhist training. Did you learn to sit meditation in Japan?
JK: I learned to sit on my own, from books of course. In 1959 I joined Shunryu Suzuki after he had arrived in San Francisco as abbot of Japan Town’s Sokoji Temple on Bush Street. He started early morning sitting at the temple, a new innovation. I was living a few blocks away at the East West House, so it was not a heavy task to get there. Getting up early for 6am sitting was more difficult. Suzuki’s English was almost non-existent at the time, but it went well with Soto Zen’s ‘just sitting’ practice of meditation.
During the four years I lived in Japan [1960-1964] I sat at Ryosen-an, the First Zen Institute’s Zendo in Kyoto, and then later at Daitoku-ji’s main temple where, at one point, they made a place for a few foreigners to sit. I never had a formal teacher for sanzen [going to a Zen teacher for individual instruction] as there was a mutual language difficulty—my Japanese never became that skilled, and there were no teachers that were speaking English.
There were almost no books in English on Zen, or translations of sutras. The feeling was, one just sat and ‘discovered’ on one’s own their ‘Buddha nature’.
AS: With so many appearances of non-human animals in your poetry, I’d think some of the Zen folklore would excite you. A number of famous koans, like Pai-chang and the fox, have central figures that are non-human. What Buddhist literature has drawn you the most? Zen collections? Tibetan biographies? Jataka Tales (former lives of the Buddha, often in animal form)?
JK: Don’t you think that Buddhist literature in English is a fairly new phenomenon?
I met up with the Jataka Tales, in English in the early 60s in India, and was delighted by many aspects of non-human Buddha-hood. Even before the birth of the Buddha.
All of Evans-Wentz’s translations seemed important in the 60s to me—especially the life of Milarepa. Lama Govinda’s books were full of Tibetan Buddhism but also magic and adventures in the Himalayas. And someone as simple and dogged as Alexandra David-Neel was very attractive to read. All those early Buddhist travelers who actually had to endure hard and difficult conditions in order to find their sources in Tibet were amazing.
MONKEY as translated by Arthur Waley is a delightful folk mixture of monkey, pig and monk on the road to the west to find a sacred Buddhist text—the Tripitika.
I can’t think of koans as literature in the usual sense—but the wild fox in Japan is a mysterious and often dangerous other worldly creature, and not above cause and effect by any means. Better watch out for fox women in Japan! They aren’t of this world.
AS: Do the fox women remind us that cause and effect still operate in poetry?
JK: I don’t think poetry is free from cause and effect, in fact it rattles around with it. And Fox Spirit Woman, being both animal and human, with the ability to create illusion-like realities, is not free from causation even though she is ‘supernatural’. She can bear children with a human form, is a devoted wife, and probably operates in an inspiring manner within the realm of poetry.
AS: One of the poetic gifts Japan has provided the world is haiku. I saw one critic call it Japan’s greatest “post-war export.” It has become an international form, with all sorts of little innovations attached—and if you go into a bookstore you are likely to find lots of anthologies and how-to books for writing it. It was your generation that really brought North America’s attention to haiku, with that sensitivity to the seasons, to the little moments of nature and human nature, and gave us a way of writing poetry that I find refreshingly free from prophetic, oracular, metaphysical or epic noise. Yet haiku is profoundly spiritual in intent, and gets closely identified with Zen insight. Do you feel that a Zen sensibility, or a blinking open of spiritual insight through language, is one of the goals or attitudes of your own poetry?
JK: As for haiku, and writing in general, yes one hopes to give flashes of spirit and insight which could be called ‘Zen’, but could survive without that label. But I don’t know if it’s a ‘goal’ as such—that would be a bit self conscious. It’s the ordinary, after all, that mostly provides ‘spiritual insight’. Traditional haiku’s formality is not really useful to my writing. I always loved how Jack Collom described haiku—“They are short poems, but they must be very, very short.”
Some of the grand masters of the haiku/senryu tradition right now, like John Brandi and Steve Sanfield are really razor sharp. Besides writing their own books, they exchange lines in a haiku correspondence which bring one, often, to that ‘aha!’ place. Which is why I love to read them. Some of the ‘prettier’ and more self conscious attempts at Haiku translated into three line English poems make one think why bother with all those rules. Just be as concise and aware as possible.
AS: I Know you and Donald are about to leave for Oaxaca. You spend a lot of time in Mexico. What does life south of the border provide for your poetry? Animism? Catholicism? Or just the ordinary?
JK: Life in Mexico provides lots and lots of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’. It’s fascinating to observe very old civilizations in their archeological sites, and realize that the many ‘indigenous’ tribes of people there today are part of that history—here on this North American continent. The Catholicism practiced in Mexico today is often a cover story for the old religious practices and festivals. And yes, the everyday on a much simpler and direct level, is absorbing to participate in—like the daily market.
This interview first appeared in Quo Anima: innovation and spirituality in contemporary women’s poetry Ed. Jennifer Phelps and Elizabeth Robinson. The University of Akron Press: Akron, Ohio, 2019. Published with permission of the interviewer.
In which Carl Wendt, poet, flaneur, and walking anachronism, dips his gnarled toes into the waters of the cyberverse to find it not as cold as he’d anticipated. Although still in the shallow end with his gaze directed toward the creative horizon of a setting sun, the prospect for poetry as he knows it does not look so good.
From Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius A Fiction by Pat Nolan
He was introduced to computers rather late, getting rid of his old Royal, appropriately, at the turn of the century. First through the glacially slow desktop stations in the library, owning one then beyond his means, and subsequently picking up someone’s cast-off, after they’d purged the hard drive. “Knowing you, Wendt” was a common assumption, plagiarism allegations following him around like he’d stepped in dog shit. And he’d learned the hard way to make back-ups and hard copies, friends letting him have use of a printer or an office machine. The last one, an obsolete laptop Angie had let him have, was not Wi-Fi capable, though it had come with one of her old printers.
“I don’t know what to do with them, they just pile up like broken toasters,” she’d complained.
He couldn’t figure it, an earth conscious stalwart like Angie and she couldn’t make the jump to recycling them. He’d thought to get a cell phone and a tablet. Short of robbing a jewelry store and that wasn’t going to happen. Then he met Oren Rickles. Or was finally introduced to him, by Stoddard Leary, a slightly rotund man with a head of oily dark curls and beard, signature orange Converse. Friend of Kay Sayrah’s, and apparently IT consultant to the poets.
A sign read poetry is code over a workbench strewn with a rat’s nest of wires, stripped armatures, and solder studded green motherboards. Rickles had taken a look at his laptop when he’d asked if it was worth upgrading with a wireless connection. The tech looked at the top and the bottom without opening it and then had shrugged handing it back, saying “I dunno, paper weight, museum, boat anchor?”
It struck him then how dependent on his computing device he’d become. He didn’t think he wanted or could, even if he tried to, go back to not being able to record himself through the magic of electrons. It wasn’t exactly a deal with the devil, but he did upgrade to a used laptop with Wi-Fi, charger thrown in, word processor software, an updated version of the one he was already familiar with. Once he got the hang of the web browser, well, the world was at his fingertips like never before, every and any arcane fantasy could be called up at a key stroke, mouse click, dark, unknown corners brought to light in the course of a browse to spiral further down that autodidacts’ rabbit hole. It had taken about a week to scare up a down payment from various sources, the bulk of which came from Nora who reasoned that an improvement in his prospects was an improvement in her prospects of being repaid the money he owed her.
But he had to draw the line somewhere or redraw it, at least, and branding himself as had been suggested as a path to success, was it. He wasn’t interested in the shiny lamination of a presentable product, a definable entity encased in plastic like a fly in amber. It offered a dubious immortality and in a disposable culture the chances of being recycled were slim. Facebook, Twitter, he didn’t have time for their compelling hypnotic appeal. There had to be a demarcation, a perforation between the tectonic plate of one generation and the next. And where the plates shifted, that’s when the energy was generated, a friction felt along the fault line that filled the air with static electricity. There he drew the line.
Yet there was a treasure hoard of nostalgia, the open sesame to which was whatever one wanted it to be as long as it comprised eight characters and at a minimum upper and lower case characters and numerals. Arcane lore and magical science, showrooms of innovation and museums of ancestral excellence, documents and documentaries, the past represented in grainy photo and remnants of shadow on yellowing celluloid. To his everlasting delight he had found footage of the jazz giants in his pantheon of greats and lovingly indulged in every move, mannerism and expression of his heroes in the delineation of the music that resonated in the depth of his being. To their videos he gave himself unconditionally as if in a dream with a fixity that excluded all else.
And this was only one facet of the holographic cyberinth, there were so many corners to turn, so many surfaces to explore, so many directions to follow without a thought to ever finding the exit. And then there was porn, the brothel for the eyes, that alone providing enough proof for the primacy of the visual cortex in processing consciousness let alone on-demand woody. Never had the uses of anatomy been so graphic and sex so boring, after the first five minutes at least. Porn, he came to understand, was fascinating more on a metaphysical level than on a sexual one. It was an outsized athleticism, a fiction of equine proportions and juicy Junoesque dimensions consumed for its mockery of the absurdity of sex as a cruel collective spectacle. And it made men into voyeurs, a world of Chauncey Gardeners who liked to watch. Porn couldn’t capture two of the most essential aspects of sex, intimacy and scent. If there were any lessons to be learned, one was that all vaginas were not created equal, and that not all penises could tell the difference. Also the male was on automatic and soon ran out of gas. The female was on manual but once started wouldn’t stop. The only thing worse than porn’s hypnotic repetitious inanity were cat videos. Yet now anything of visual stimulation by the abundance of choices glossily presented was deigned porn for its salacious appeal which naturally enough encourage consumer orgies of which the economy so much depends upon.
Oren Rickles was an odd egg but fairly personable for someone with borderline autism. His workshop/squat took up the rear of an industrial building in the flats off of Third and one of the State streets. Apart from being a computer nerd, he fancied himself a poet and a literary theoretician, but because he was a tech no one would take him seriously when he spoke his ideas about poetry. It was, yeah, thanks for fixing my computer but I’m not interested in hearing what you have to say about literature. So typical of English majors. And because Rickles was letting him buy the reconditioned laptop on time, and that he needed to be talked through the open source operating system, its quirks and whistles, and the kind of product review that only a guy totally obsessed in discerning the x-y coordinates of every aspect of the technosphere could give, he had lent a superficially sympathetic ear.
What transpired during these tutorials along with helpful hints and various shortcuts was a recitation of Rickles’ opinions on the failings and future of poetry in the cyber age. Such as the internet had exposed a vast wasteland of writers of poetry whose only definition of the art came from the dictionary and children’s nursery rhymes, and that they far outnumbered the really intelligent working artists, threatening to redefine poetry by their sheer number and shameless ignorance, and comparing the situation to the cult movie Idiocracy. Also, that a tsunami of shit poetry would wipe out any accumulated innovation and reset the bar to ground zero. In his opinion, authentic poetry would rise from the obliterating sameness in an adjacent possible where it would flourish in ways unknowable as a creative adaptation to new technology. Language changes, he’d insisted, because new words are needed for new concepts which are then parsed as common denominators. And, in turn, that affects the direction of cultural drift. Rickles had a lot of other crazy ideas. He’d even quoted Italo Calvino to him. “The author, that spoiled child of ignorance and romantic myth, vanishes and gives way to a more thoughtful person, a person who knows the author is a machine and knows how the machine works.”
He’d come to similar conclusions. Now with his own personal access to the internet and the millions upon millions who wrote poetry, he understood that good or bad was no longer a valid standard, that whether a poem was good or bad really didn’t matter. Obeying the laws of entropy, poetry was becoming static, flat, dissipated, an infinity of poetry particles whose repulsive polarity, no longer negative or positive, was, as a consequence, losing its energy. It didn’t matter if he had written a good poem or a bad poem. What mattered was who his friends were, who he knew in advantageous positions, and who could exercise their power by awarding him boons or influence others to do so. Yet poet was such a solitary occupation. And success required social skills, the one seemingly a betrayal of the other. That left only the luck of the draw.
Though certainly less tactile than a cocktail party, there was a similarity to online interactions. Internet poetry groups were like children lost in a forest calling out their positions or locations to each other or merely, as birds in distant trees or thickets, defining the edges of their territory with song. They represented not so much an avant-garde poetry underground as they did isolated instances of undifferentiated ground litter. And as in the actual world, the cyber world of poets was its own kind of hell. Well-meaning intention could count on being easy prey for poetry trolls and grammar ogres eager to exploit potential for conflict.
The faith of these poets in their simpleminded intent reflected a particular innocence. Uninformed of the latest developments, their poetry was lacking in the most basic acquaintance with the breadth of literature and its significant history. These Volk or folk poets were often driven by self-righteousness and exhibitionism similar to those of itinerate preachers or evangelicals. In spirit, they believed in a true poetry, unhampered by the petty questions and quarrels that made up the dark matter of the literary universe. On the other hand, and not surprisingly, theirs was also a very conservative poetry, one not so much devoid of inspiration as perhaps of innovation and imagination. The styles adopted or imitated were modern only in the sense that they were developed in the Twentieth Century. In some ways, they could be considered zombie poets, living off the dead in a clueless regurgitation of great art.
And that went for those who recited free associated lists as a claim to a pedestrian edginess as well. Their poems championed a self-conscious abstraction. Abstraction, the deadliest of language mires, was the beacon of pretenders. Ironically, only parodies of abstractions were actually bearable and anywhere near being truly abstract. But presenting this metaphorical porridge as jambalaya was criminal not to mention nauseating.
Still others wrote the poetry of misguided journalists whose feeble ironies served only cliché while yet others aimed to be photographers, subjective in their Ansel Adams black and white objectivity. Poetry workshops and writing groups, to further the muddy the waters, fostered a self-esteem that verged on delusions of reference in which celebrity was the ultimate attainment. What all of them could not comprehend was that poetry was tautegorical, not intellectual. The poem did not represent the thing, it was the thing. Poetry belongs to the sphere of affectivity and will.
Poets surround themselves with words to assimilate the world of objects. The poetic mind never perceives passively, never contemplates things, and all its observations spring from some act of participation, some act of emotion and resolve. Even as the poetic imagination materializes in poems and presents the definitive outlines of an objective world, the significance becomes clear only if the dynamic sense of life from which it originally arose can be detected. Only when it expresses itself as love or hate, fear or hope, joy or sorrow is the poetic imagination roused to the pitch of excitement at which it begets a definite world of representation through the agency of the poem. And only when the entire self is surrendered, possessed by a singular impression, is there the utmost tension between subject and object, the outer and inner world. Then external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated but overwhelms with its sheer immediacy, with fear, hope, terror, or wish fulfillment. A spark jumps the synaptic gap and the tension finds release as subjective excitement becomes objectified and confronts the poet as a poem. The earliest products of poetic thinking neither are permanent, self-identical, or clearly distinguished as poems, nor are they immaterial inklings. They are like elements of a dream, objects endowed with poetic import, haunted places, accidental shapes in nature resembling something of portent, all manner of shape shifting fantastic images which speak of larger ineffable ideas of good and evil, life and death. Their common trait being that they evoke awe in the connectedness of all life. Poetry does not give rise to discursive understanding. Nor does it beget apperception by sorting out concepts and relating them to distinct patterns. A poem tends to bring together great complexities of related ideas in which all distinct features are merged and assimilated. He’d said as much to the two women who had come to interview him.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. Nolan is also publisher of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
New To the Society’s Shelves
Lucille Friesen, Blue Bicycle, Ideal Café Editions, 2020
Robert Hébert, Coulisses, La Compagnie a Numero, 2020
Sandy Berrigan, Viajes, Private Edition, 2020
Elizabeth C. Herron, Insistent Grace, Fernwood Press, 2020
Bruce Holsapple, The Birth Of The Imagination, University of New Mexico, 2015
Matt Turner, Wave 9: Collages, Flying Island Books, 2021
Last Gasp Swoop (Fell Swoop #164), Joel Dailey, et al. 2020
The Cosmopolitan, the Quotidian, and the Anthropocene Turn
in Sun Dong’s 2020 Pandemic Poetry
“春天在人类纪 欲呼无气，欲加口罩” — 孙冬《注视》 “Spring in the Anthropocene You who’d scream to breathe, add a mask” — Sun Dong, “Fixed Gaze”
— 王維《鹿柴》 Empty mountains: no one to be seen. Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes.
— Gary Snyder’s translation of Wang Wei’s “Lù Zhái”
“I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead.” — Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”
None of this is to say that Sun Dong’s poetry is about “the Anthropocene,” per se. Not at all. Sun Dong writes, more so, in her recent poems, of love and family (including beautiful poems addressed to elderly, ailing or departed parents). She is playful and inventive, and her range of cultural references run from the Book of Genesis to Qu Yuan to Thoreau to bodiless lacquerware (脱胎漆器). The point is, rather, that this deep-time consciousness simultaneously grounds her poems in the physical world and lends a fluid, dissolving quality to them — a double consciousness that reckons with the profound ecological loss relentlessly accumulating around us, registering within us, and constituting us as we constitute it in the process of going about our quotidian business. Like the best poetry, her work is about being alive in the poet’s time — about embodied desires and loss, about the life of the mind, and life lived among and with others. This poet’s time, however, is “Spring in the Anthropocene.” Just as modernists worked to acclimate readers and publishers to work that left classical and pastoralist tropes behind in order to write the realities of the industrial age, or postmodern writers insisted on reflecting the shattering and fragmentation of grand narratives and the mirage of the “post-industrial”, this kind of work seeks to open our eyes to the realities of change, albeit change that registers in planetary geologic time as much as, if not more, than human-historical time.
Returning to a poem like “Thinking of Frank O’Hara Mid-Epidemic,” then, there’s something of the terrible human awkwardness inherent in blurting out a comment about, say, looming ecological catastrophe in the midst of a pleasant dinner among new friends and acquaintances while enjoying a beautiful view (something I refrained from while enjoying incredible home-cooked meals with my Chenjiapu hosts). It’s the mark of that nagging double consciousness of our time that reminds us that the energy we use today to peruse our phones and share photos of stunning landscapes contributes its little bit to the cumulative enormity of a growing human transformation of the planet into something post-O’Hara and post-Holocene, as the finale of “Thinking of Frank O’Hara” rather awkwardly notes:
…in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive, though he died at forty
defeated by a reckless young couple
Defeated, we’re alive, at least
Today, thinking of O’Hara again
I have to concede that I’m defeated by him
along with all those defeated others who say
in a sense
we all lose
The sense of loss that so many have felt as 2020’s coronavirus pandemic grinds its way through our lives, with all of its economic, political and psychological collateral damage, resonates throughout Sun Dong’s “early 2020 poems” (as if the first three or four months of the year comprised a full era — but isn’t that just it? The crisis accelerates, dilates, elasticizes our perception of time to the point that it might as well be). The pleasures of the everyday take on a new valence in memory and in memorialization, as in “Forced Adaptation” (《应变》), which transposes a measure of O’Hara-esque urban excitement and compression onto her home metropolis, Nanjing:
Back then we’d find ourselves flush up against the piano in Shiwangfu
sitting at the top of the steps to the stage, which later became [the spot at Wuyuecheng where we
shared steak and onion soup before it became the movie theater [where we caught whatever was
showing before it in turn became the Lizhi Building
O’Hara’s present-tense excitement, here, has given way to Sun Dong’s backwards look, which isn’t just tinged with nostalgia (“Nostalgia” is the title of another of these poems, 《怀旧》), but also what Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has termed solastalgia, or “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” — an emotion arising less from missing the old days than, as it turns out, from missing the old planet. “Forced Adaptation” continues, picking up from memories of a Nanjing cityscape, encoded with deeply personal memories, that has transformed repeatedly:
So we’ve seen that movie already and the building goes [nameless now
as we find ourselves mid-epidemic and recovery
lurks within its own latency
“Recovery” — 恢复— is by its nature hidden, as undetectable in its way as the virus was in its outbreak and spread, and the return to the normal, even the normal state in which one might indulge in nostalgia, is no longer there, even in moments of apparent domestic tranquility:
And now we’re home side-by-side frying up a few dishes
to cram into the overstuffed refrigerator
while downloading movies onto the computer while still [watching
Sometimes we even mix the place names up
but maybe we don’t
Domesticity is indeed a temporary refuge, one in which many couples and families have found opportunities to renew connections frayed by the pre-pandemic pace of life, yet, in the wash of digital representations of experiences, of narratives of others’ fabricated lives, and of news of unfolding disaster, something goes missing and, it seems, will not be restored: the desire to go back, to return to “how it was before.” Representations mediate experience in our social-media era even more intensively than they did in the recently departed television age, driving us deeper into distraction (technological hyper-mediation is another running theme in these poems.) And in the context of the rest of her 2020 work, it’s hard not to read “forced adaptation” as being about adapting to the Anthropocene and not just well-documented and commented-upon rapid transformations of modern urban space, or to a quarantine that will, eventually, lift and allow life to return to “normal.”
It’s easy to forget all this when, after months of confinement in the city, one has the opportunity to escape into “nature.” Chenjiapu offered that, despite my own sense of solastalgia and of living in shadowtime, of living in the Anthropocene which, by definition, means virtually no nature that hasn’t been altered at some level, visible or not, by humankind. It had stayed with me on the high-speed train as it raced through a countryside built up to an incredible degree, in which farmed land blurs into newly built high-rise apartment blocks, factories, power plants, high-intensity power line towers, and other features of eastern China’s intensive industrial development, flashing past travelers sitting, chatting on and staring at their phones. But that feeling did indeed dissipate as I walked into Chenjiapu — the car could take me no further — and down narrow stairs onto the path that led to my home for the next two weeks, with its view of mist-shrouded peaks and the calls of birds and drone of cicadas drowning out memories of the city’s clamor.
I might not have expected O’Hara, but I could have anticipated Wang Wei — along with Du Fu, Li Bai, Bai Juyi2 and a handful of other famous Tang poets. Sure enough, one evening mid-way through my stay, he came up in dinner conversation. My hosts and a few of their friends took turns cooking dinners served on an open-air table overlooking the valley. The meals were fantastic, often featuring vegetables raised in village gardens, bamboo shoots and other delicacies foraged from the forest accompanied by one of the chickens that range freely throughout Chenjiapu’s steep, winding lanes. A young entrepreneur hoping to launch his own bookstore and cafe was visiting to research Librairie Avant-Garde. He introduced himself as Ethan and joined us, eager to talk poetry and translation.
We were admiring the view as the setting sun cast dramatic shadows across the landscape when Ethan asked if I had read Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, edited with commentary by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. The concept is simple. In chronological order, starting in 1919, Weinberger presents and critiques various translations of Wang Wei’s poem 《鹿柴》. The first edition ends with Gary Snyder’s 1979 untitled rendition; the expanded edition ends with 2006’s “Deer Park,” translated by J.P. Seaton. It’s a book that I love and frequently teach at NYU Shanghai. I responded to Ethan’s question with an enthusiastic “yes!”, adding that I was a bit surprised that he knew of the book. Native Chinese speakers can simply read Wang Wei, after all. His response surprised me more: “Oh, it’s quite well known here!” This minor mystery was cleared up for me shortly thereafter, when my hosts gave me the gift of the 2019 translation into Chinese of Weinberger and Paz’s expanded edition (which adds an additional nineteen translations). It’s a gorgeous edition, translated into Chinese by Guang Zhe (光哲) as《观看王维的十九种方式》.3
Wang Wei is, among other things, often thought of as a consummate nature poet, and 《鹿柴》— most often, but not always — translated as “Deer Park,” is as a good an example as any of why. Kenneth Rexroth’s title for his 1970 translation provides a clear example of how this poem imagines “nature”: “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness.” And when sitting by a clear-running stream a bit outside of Chenjiapu just below a small waterfall, looking out at the pine-studded ridges and bamboo-clad peaks rising above the valley below, I could almost believe that I was there, too, deep in the mountain wilderness, that I’d “escaped into nature.” But I was actually sitting on a slab of concrete presumably hauled up the ravine to help channel the stream, which waters the garden plots below. And I was online, no doubt thanks to that microwave tower just visible in the distance through the branches of a twisted pine. I could see a car, then a truck crawl along the two-lane highway on the valley floor as an airliner plowed the Anthropocene skies above, its contrail mingling with the high cirrus.
When did the Anthropocene begin? The current consensus is the mid-Twentieth Century, with fallout from nuclear weapons testing as a prime geological stratigraphic marker. But paleoclimatologist Bill Ruddiman argues that we can discern the beginning of the Anthropocene some 7,000 years ago, with the advent of widespread rice cultivation in what is now China and resulting spikes in the greenhouse gas methane, legible in ice core and lakebed samples. Ruddiman’s “early Anthropocene” theory has no chance of being endorsed by the international body of Earth System scientists responsible for the Geologic Time Scale (they’re currently considering whether to make the Anthropocene official and declare the end of the Holocene), but, as Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin note in The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, the theory “has been tested again and again, as all promising theories should be, and has emerged even stronger.” The point? We humans have been a planet-shaping force for a long time, and “nature” without some degree of human influence is, increasingly, a fiction.
In Nineteen Ways, Weinberger favors Gary Snyder’s untitled translations of Wang Wei’s 《鹿柴》, writing that it is surely “one of the best translations, partially because of Snyder’s lifelong forest experience. Like Rexroth, he can see the scene.” Snyder, however, sees it differently. He closes his 2016 essay “‘Wild’ in China” with his 《鹿柴》translation, commenting on how poetry like Wang Wei’s helped change his relationship to the idea of “nature”:
I first came onto Chinese poems in translation at nineteen, when my ideal of nature was a 45 degree ice slope on a volcano, or an absolutely virgin rainforest. They helped me to “see” fields, farms, tangles of brush, the azaleas in the back of an old brick apartment. They freed me from excessive attachment to wild mountains, with their almost subliminal way of presenting even the wildest hills as a place where people, also, live.
So instead of “wilderness” or “nature” as a landscape empty of the human, or within which the human plays a minor or even insignificant role, Snyder sees in verses like 《鹿柴》the indelible mark of the human: “Empty mountains: no one to be seen. / Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes. / Returning sunlight enters the dark woods; / Again shining on the green moss, above.” Even in “the empty mountains” of Wang Wei’s time, there were “human sounds and echoes.” Several scholars propose the sounds are those of woodsmen on Wang Wei’s estate whose job it would have been to cut trees, hunt, and otherwise manage the “wild” forest. One might speculate that Wang Wei, a devout Chan Buddhist, no doubt intended to present a kind of koan (from the Chan 公案 gōng’àn), a paradox of “emptiness” that gives rise to sense perceptions of the phenomenal world which necessarily fall back into emptiness.
Sun Dong is more of a city poet than a “nature” poet, though “nature,” as in a poem like “Fixed Gaze,” permeates her urban world. Her cosmopolitan verse references Eastern and Western literary, philosophical, and religious traditions with equal facility. She is not a Buddhist, though her work often draws on Buddhist philosophical themes and references, as it does in the final stanza of my favorite of her early 2020 poems, with its reference to 合十, which I translate as “palms pressed in blessing.” There’s no obvious Anthropocene reference here, though within the pattern of the set of poems the strange admonition to “inform those passers-by / who overdraw on spring, that night itself gives birth to night” does suggest that we have overtaxed nature, and, as in Wang Wei’s 《鹿柴》that our human strivings and desires have always-already fallen back into emptiness. I find it to be a beautiful, soothing poem, one that calms a mind agitated by reading of collapsing glaciers and ice shelves, of massive wildfires and heat-fed superstorms, and that says we may yet, together, somehow rise to meet the challenges that come with pandemics, ecological upheaval, and concomitant geopolitical strife. “Do you recall the bell,” it insistently asks, nudging me — and maybe you, too — from a moment of crisis-news induced paralysis:
Balloon with a Bell Inside
Day gave birth to night, night not fully formed yet
like bodiless lacquerware, a wisp of black limning the horizon
swelling, a pair of hands polishing it all to a high finish
Inform those passers-by
who overdraw on spring, that night itself gives birth to night,
like a balloon with a bell inside, so loud in the midst of its [darkness that the deaf can hear it all
without themselves being able to form the slightest sound
Do you recall the bell, speaking in a dream city of sleepless [nights
one pair of hands polishing it all to a high finish
another letting spring rain fall from between palms pressed in [blessing, the balloon slipping
ringing & ringing
O’Hara identifies himself with Bai Juyi in his 1954 poem “To John Ashbery”: “I can’t believe there’s not / another world where we will sit / and read new poems to each other / high on a mountain in the wind. / You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i…” Tang poetry in translation was in vogue among US American poets of the time.
David Perry lives in Shanghai with the artist Monika Lin and their daughter. He teaches in the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai and, with Monika Lin, runs Seaweed Salad Editions, a small press currently focused on publishing bilingual editions of contemporary Chinese poetry. You can follow him on Twitter at @DvdPerry or at his website David Perry
Many thanks to Paper Republic, where this article first appeared, for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to repost it for the information and edification of the membership.
The translation of the title, Meditations In An Emergency, is by Chen Dongmei. She also translated the article into Chinese, available here where there are also more pictures of the Chenjaipu Residency.
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