Recollections, appreciations, musings, poems, photos, art gallery, and video celebrating the life of Keith Kumasen Abbott, 1944-2019, by Lani Abbott, Persephone Abbott, George Mattingly, Gloria Frym, Maureen Owen, Pat Nolan, Jerry Reddan, Brit Pyland, David Schnieder, Günter Ohnemus, Eugene Zander, Janine Ibbotson, Meredith Shedd-Driskel, and Clark Coolidge (via Steve Dickison).
To begin Pat Nolan reached back into his memory to try to pin down the year he first met Keith Abbott:
Sometime in ’65, maybe ’66, I think. I was pouring beer and wine and making sandwiches at the Palace Bar & Grill on Cannery Row in Monterey, California. It was one of those authentic bohemian hangouts with wire spool tables and mismatched chairs. A jukebox featured forty-fives by Dave Brubeck or Miles and some of those new folksingers like Dylan and Baez. It wasn’t exactly a tourist spot. An occasional sightseer would wander in and then wander out. It had the atmosphere of a waterfront dive thanks to the blatant drunkenness of many of its denizens. I’d made the acquaintance of one of the patrons, a young woman by the name of Lani Hansen. The first thing I noticed about Lani, in addition to her Norwegian comeliness, was how smart she was. That made her dazzlingly attractive. And I learned she was from the Seattle area. As it turns out Lani and I also lived in the same rooming house located above the old Wing Chong Grocery Store then Antique Emporium on Cannery Row known as Good Old Roy’s (that’s another very long story) although I didn’t know that when I first met her. Somehow the subject of my being a poet came up. It usually does, even if I have to be the one to mention it. Lani told me her boyfriend and high school sweetheart wrote poetry as well. He was attending the University of Washington but would soon be coming to visit her. Not long after that conversation I ran into Lani again and she introduced me to her boyfriend, Keith Abbott.
Keith’s passing in the early morning of Monday, August 26th, 2019 brackets my almost fifty-five year friendship with him and, of course, Lani. That relationship was held together by a steady stream of correspondence for most of those five decades, often numbering two or three letters a month, long letters, half a dozen typed pages in fact were the rule rather than the exception, until predictably email rendered most communication a memorandum. The letters were an ongoing record of our daily doings, what we were reading, what we were writing, the de rigueur literary gossip, our ever evolving aesthetic, hopes and dreams (as only authors can have), and, above all, our unfaltering dedication to our art. Ours was a long distance friendship interspersed with visits whenever we had business that brought us in proximity to each other, the pleasure part of “business and pleasure.” The last time we lived in the same neighborhood and socialized regularly was at the beginning of our friendship, in 1967, the year that both Keith’s daughter, Persephone, and my son, Bryan, were born.
Lani Abbott provides this time line for those early days:
1965. Keith and Lani begin partnership and meet [Pat Nolan] while living on Cannery Row at Carney Good ol’ Roy’s with lots of local color, and find the groove that supports the next 50 years of life, love and work.
1965-66. Migration begins: Living in San Francisco Haight/Fillmore apartment across the street from Family Dog commune, riots, martial law, Kenneth Rexroth, and let’s have a baby.
1967. Baby daughter Persephone born in Monterey/Pacific Grove paradise.
Persephone Abbott now lives in the Netherlands where she teaches voice, sings opera, and writes. She contributed this poem in her father’s memory.
Recollections from his Daughter
I am unable to remember when I met my father.
He told me he recalled the moment even though
The nurse thrust a substance upon his person
To keep him (well mustached at 23 years of age) from fainting
And falling on the hospital floor in a heap.
He admitted he liked both:
The baby and the intervention.
It was a good day.
I remember my father busy in the mornings writing something important.
Then he’d come out of his lair for coffee.
He was adored and admired for his charm and wit but he also drank coffee.
He ground the beans first.
It’s not a secret to making good coffee.
When I was a young girl, my father sometimes invited me
To go with him to the municipal dump.
I thought it was very exciting and I always said yes.
I also hung around him and his buddy Richard, who bought me
Steamed clams in Chinatown, but only occasionally so I
Didn’t miss too much school. But I
Tended not to go to school before lunchtime anyway.
My father and I enjoyed Amtrak together.
My father taught me the best way to collect money at a golf club.
He’d never taken a short iron rod in a brown paper bag to a golf course,
But he thought I should know about golfers’ kneecaps
As part of my education.
When I was fourteen my father bought me a piano,
And, circumventing the school system, he found me private
French lessons. Following up on these two notions later:
I moved to Paris and studied music. Simple as that.
I once asked him what he thought about reincarnation.
He stared at me and did not utter a single word.
I believe he had a point.
The last thing he wrote me was a postcard of a stone frog. It said:
“Persephone I’ve got a place in the CHOIR!”
“I can’t wait!!” he added along with a large splat of ink at the end.
Then he croaked.
Tears ran into my coffee
Feeling salty, I took the dog to the park.
She likes the park and I do too.
She’s slow, selective of hearing, bow legged,
Benefits from poor eyesight and just like my premonition
I watched her slide from behind a favored tree down the slope
Enacting the part of a slow motion replay
Plonk into the canal, panic registering in her cloudy eyes.
It figures, I thought, that I end up jumping into an Amsterdam canal
The day my father is cremated,
Separate elements, each of us chasing a dog.
Pat Nolan again:Keith was responsible for my initiation into the world of underground avant-garde poetry. Whalen, Snyder, O’Hara, Spicer were our buzz words and passwords. At first I think ours was a kind of lopsided reciprocity. I obviously got much more out of the friendship than perhaps he did. He introduced me to his friends who were also writers. At that time I had met very few writers who were of my generation or radical inclination. Clifford Burke, Bill Bathurst, Steve Carey, and Richard Brautigan were all writers I met through my acquaintance with Keith. Through him and Lani I also got to know, and claim as a dear friend, Michael Sowl, a Duluth transplant, graduate of the Defense Language Institute, and the model for Magic Eddy in Keith’s novel Gush, and Mordecai in Mordecai of Monterey. I was also introduced to the Dunn Brothers, a couple of hillbilly conmen who populated his novel Gush as well as one of them being the model for Lee Melon in Brautigan’s A Confederate General In Big Sur. I published Keith’s first book of poems, Dump Truck, and a few years later he returned the favor and published my first book of poems, Rock Me Roll Me Vast Fatality.
In the mid-sixties you could put everything I knew about poetry in a nutshell and still have ample room for the nut and a family of four. Most of what I read back then was an odd assortment of academy sanctioned poetry, those long dead poets garnered from my insatiable reading, Rimbaud and Baudelaire in particular, and a chance discovery of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. But then, fresh from my discharge out of the military, I had yet to enroll in any college literature courses. My friendship with Keith was also an apprenticeship in the day to day reality of being a poet—off the page, so to speak. Keith had a clear vision of what it took to be a poet in the latter half of the 20th century. He knew who to read and what to read. Some of it was from an underground poetry world I didn’t even know existed. With Keith as my virtual Virgil, I stepped into an undercurrent of intellectual ferment and passionately innovative literature. Every little side stapled mimeographed one shot poetry magazine was read as if it contained the most urgent news.
Lani’s time line continues with more adventures of the Abbott family:
1968-69. Parenthood in world of American trouble after moving back to San Francisco so Keith could finish his undergraduate degree at SF State University, riots, violence outside Panhandle apartment relieved by small inheritance received by Lani who decides a change of nation is in order.
1969. Keith, an Irishman, finds himself in England, schedules a nervous breakdown and figures learning to write long fiction is the remedy. The result is a novel called Dead Hippo, for which publishing prospects are captured in the title. Keith’s wonderful mother, Gert, visits and tries to persuade Keith (and Lani) they need a career direction. K & L are living in idyllic village and fail to comprehend a better direction then the footpath to the pub. Gert offers to pay for graduate school so Keith can teach future layabouts in America. Keith accepts.
1969-71. Keith completes MA at Western Washington State College in Bellingham with impromptu thesis on William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and the family escapes back to Monterey, where Keith finds a job as chair of the English Department at a high school in Salinas. When he asks why the faculty are wearing dresses, he learns it is run by Dominican brothers. He lasts a year.
Pat Nolan: I also benefited from Keith’s reading regimen. Kenneth Rexroth, for his essays and translations of Reverdy as well as the Chinese and Japanese poets, Philip Whalen, for a Pacific Rim sensibility, ditto Gary Snyder, Williams of course, and O’Hara, for those wild mood swings customary to the process of creativity. The foundational readings of my poetry autodidacticism were recommendations by Keith. Some of the most significant books in my poetry reading experience were gifted to me by Keith: On Bear’s Head, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, and Second Avenue.
And it was Keith who tipped me to the networking potential of mimeo magazines. His Blue Suede Shoes was a vortex of New York poets on the West Coast. It was enough to make James Schuyler sit up and take notice, as he remarks in his March 1971 letter to Trevor Winkfield: “Have you ever exchanged magazines with Keith Abbott? He is, or was, Blue Suede Shoes. I like a lot of his poems—sort of West Coast Padgett, with a lot of the dilution that might imply—also someone he’s published named Pat Nolan, who’s a little closer to being a West Coast Larry Fagin; or perhaps is to Abbott what Fagin is to Padgett? Only different. . . .” (Just The Things, Selected Letters of James Schuyler Turtle Point Press, 2004). Following Keith’s example, I started my own mimeo poetry mag, The End (& Variations Thereof). In 1973, Keith Abbott and I were the only two California poets to receive a grant from the New York-based Poets Foundation.
Lani again: 1972-73. Keith supports Lani’s hilarious idea of finishing her undergraduate degree and even more hilarious idea of going to graduate school. She completes the former at UC Davis, where Keith spends the year drinking sherry in the pool. To give him something to do, Lani persuades him to write some terrible poems which she submits for a statewide poetry contest. Lani wins and becomes California’s student Poet Laureate for the year. To Keith’s relief, she turns down a Regent’s Fellowship to stay in Davis. The family moves to Berkeley where they move into a shared house with old friend Darla Hilliard, who is soon to go to Nepal to be the first to radio collar snow leopards. Lani just thumps along in grad school until she figures out life is much more rewarding in theater where she works for the next decade. Keith recognizes the Bay Area as his natural territory and sets about matching his living environment to his imagination.
George and Lucy Mattingly were the first to publish Keith’s novels, Gush (1975) and Rhino Ritz (1979), from their Blue Wind Press. They also published a selection of Keith’s poems, Erase Words (1977). Keith, Lani. Persephone, George and Lucy were neighbors for much of the Abbott family’s time in that nebulous East Bay region known as the Berkeley-Albany-Solano triangle.
I met Keith Abbott in spring 1974 at a poetry reading by Stephen Rodefer at San Francisco State University. The poetry scene then was hot. Even the unknowns could draw audiences of dozens, and name poets, hundreds — Ginsberg and Snyder, thousands. There were hundreds in this audience: a full auditorium. I was sitting near the back (in case escape became necessary). Rodefer’s poems were full of obscure jokes, puns, and outrageous eroticism, so I couldn’t resist laughing, encouraging, and commenting. At some point I noticed there were a couple of serious-looking gatekeeper types glaring at me. One of them wagged a finger, and then put it in front of his lips. Shut up, in other words, this is Serious Stuff. “But it’s too—” I started to say, when a large hand patted me on the shoulder & the guy attached to it said “—too goddamned funny!” The gatekeeper’s face twisted like paper crumpling. I turned around and saw Keith Abbott behind me, smiling his big Buddha smile — and chortling. He finished my sentences, my jokes, even my laughter — and my drinks sometimes if I wandered too far.
The first Saturday morning after Lucy and I started renting the front bedroom in Lani and Keith’s faded pink stucco house at 1146 Sutter Street in Berkeley, we were awakened by loud banging. Pulling on my jeans, I walked down the hall and saw Keith, in his cool weather gardening clothes holding a 55-gallon metal garbage can with one hand & banging on it with a heavy-gauge steel garden rake. Whack. Whack. Bang. Bang. From their 8-year-old daughter Persephone’s room came a blood-curdling wail. “No! No! You can’t!” And Keith barking back, “Yes! Yes! I can! Everything off the floor in 5 minutes or—” — he pointed a work glove at the garbage can. I peeked into Persephone’s room: clothes, books, toys, bedding, her whole life in a layer half a foot deep.
“Saturday morning on Sutter Street,” said Keith, “hope you and Lucy slept well!”
Later, after the wailing and banging stopped, I saw Keith on the couch, mustache beaded with hot black Berkeley coffee. Looking up from a film star biography he was reading, he said “Amazing how the author thinks we’re going to believe that all these things actually happened during his one life.”
In August 1974, Lani Abbott was readying for a solo trip to the UK. Lucy was about to move to London for an Antioch College semester abroad. I had just gotten a check from H.U.D. for vacating my $60-a-month apartment in Iowa City, Iowa (in a block slated for “urban renewal” a.k.a. bulldozing). And a check from a writers’ aid foundation — to speed my recovery from the breakup with the last of my Scorpio ice maiden girlfriends (aid I no longer needed but was happy to get).
“Time for a PARTY!” Keith announced. Pulling out his calligraphy pen, he created an announcement postcard for
THE HAPPY BAD LUCK & GOING AWAY PARTY.
He invited fifty or sixty friends, and passed the hat for cheap wine and snacks.
The day of the party, Lani and Keith’s daughter Persephone went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Keith and I took the pickup downtown to buy a new stereo — the one material possession (besides pot and cheap wine) essential to every hippie household at the time. Then off through the tunnel to Joseph’s Liquors on Solano Avenue to buy 6 gallons of Grower’s red wine. At $3.79 a gallon, this particular wine “had never seen a grape” according to Keith’s friend in the wine business, Peter Brehm. Lani (easily the best home cook I have ever known) made a bean dip and an aïoli to go with a beautiful spread of fresh vegetables and breads — the polar opposite of the low-rent beverages on the card table.
Al Green, Weather Report, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin on the brand-new tune box & we were ready to party — all afternoon, into the evening, and most of the night. As people began to trickle in, I saw Lani and housemate Darla Hilliard gazing at a print on the wall near the kitchen: a male model cropped from lower back to upper thigh, wearing skin-tight neon-striped underwear. “You’ll see a lot of that in London,” said Darla. “Umm…yes,” said Lani, stirring her glass of white vermouth on the rocks. Darla’s tall boyfriend Victor came in, holding a greasy piece of Honda innards from the engine rebuilding project that had blocked the garage for months. Darrell Gray lurched by with a tumbler of brandy. “Have you seen Patty? Can’t find Patty (his girlfriend Pat O’Donnell). He left, opening closet doors, looking out every window, looking for Patty. (A couple hours later I had to rescue Darrell, who had wandered face first into the hedge and was too drunk to extricate himself.) By 3 a.m. most of the guests were passed out on the floor. Darrell was explaining Schopenhauer to the cat, which was cowering under the card table. “Almost time to send my veins out for dry-cleaning,” said Keith, pulling on his mustache. He smiled and shuffled off to bed.
In January 1975, I was trying to organize poems I had written since 1969 (which were eventually published as Breathing Space). I had no clue which to include or how to order them. Keith came by one afternoon with a 6-pack of Liberty Ale, opened a couple and offered to look at the manuscript. A few days later he brought back the typescript — re-ordered and with notes pencilled on every page. He had categorized each poem as Big Talk, Reality George,* You’re Kidding, or Beauty Secrets. “Don’t give the audience a chance to get bored and give up on you — which they might if you put too many similar-sounding poems in a row. Mix up the categories. And start with a work that teases the reader about where the trip is going to go.” Everything he did made perfect sense. He told me he found it much easier to edit or arrange someone else’s writing.
(*Reality George: the nickname given to me by Allan Kornblum in 1970.)
Bang bang bang bang on the door of the half bedroom Karl Kardel charmer Lucy and I lived in that spring of 1975. Rubbing my eyes sitting up naked in the mattress on the floor of the carpeted loft. Bang bang bang bang. “Up and at ’em, George!” For a guy whose writing and illustrations could be so subtle and quiet, Keith could be really loud, really big, a huge presence. He let himself in and scanned our LP collection and grocery list while I pulled on jeans, boots and long-sleeved flannel shirt. Stamping impatiently. “Time to get the money!”
That day was one of many when I did trash hauling, moving, and yard work with Keith. The splintery sideboards on his old pickup were spray-painted with the words “GTM.” Customers were told this stood for “Good Times Movers,” but the acronym actually stood for “Get The Money.” I was one of many friends who worked with Keith when funds were low — and in mid ’70s they were often really really low.
Those were the days Gloria Frym remembers:
Keith Abbott was a dear pal. We met in the late 1970s. When he and Lani moved away from, as he would say, “the old country” to teach at Naropa, he wrote and called every couple of months, assiduously keeping up our friendship even when he was in the early throes of his illness. Lani and he always invited me and other summer writing faculty over for lunch or dinner, when we managed to squeeze in the latest lit gossip despite our increasingly heavy schedule. Boulder lost three pieces of my heart when Lucia wasn’t there anymore, then Bobbie Louise, now Keith. Life has grown a lot less interesting and certainly less charming without that triumvirate. Here, anthologized by Andrei Codrescu in Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970 is one of my favorite Keith Abbott poems:
Good News Bad News
in memory of Ted Berrigan
An old-fashioned sketchbook
With plenty of young women
Old wine the refined taste
Turns to restoring youth
Here the joy also heard
In the soft early songs
And this charm still enough
To save the new for an aged brain
To have old books past friends
Enjoy the ripe days Autumn
Here all the pleasures except
The one which always astonishes us
The one we call love
For this alone the world breathes
By this everyone knows the way out
The way in night & day
To live and die
Good news bad news
Pat Nolan: Keith and I traveled to New York City to read at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the fall of 1978 and met some of the poets we had been publishing in our respective magazines, both which were no longer active by then. We spent quality time with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, and family, and had a jolly reunion with our old West Coast pal, Steve Carey. We also met Ron Padgett and Maureen Owen who were at the helm of the Poetry Project in those days.
As Maureen recalls:Back so many years ago I can’t recall exactly, Pat Nolan invited me to join himself, Keith Abbott, and Michael Sowl in the writing of a Renga, a linked poetry. I loved the idea of collaborating and was an ardent fan of Japanese poetry and so joined in. I knew Keith’s work and had met him at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project (now The Poetry Project) where he was giving a reading. Those were the days before email and we sent our lines to each other by regular post. And so of course our lines had to be accompanied by a long letter or a long letter with our lines embedded. Vast expanses of time passed as we received the next lines and letters from one another. Often hand written, sometimes typed, our letters languidly trotted the oncoming link to our eager mailboxes. Keith’s letters were always a delight and full of literary news, family news, news of his latest writing, and sometimes a dynamic swoop of calligraphy. We wrote our Rengas over many years and many letters. From Michael in Minnesota, Pat in California, Keith in Colorado, and me on the east coast, our linked verse trekked and crackled.
Later I had the pleasure of living near Keith in Colorado and seeing him often on the Naropa campus where we were both teaching. I remember delicious and fun lunches at Lani and his home during the Summer Writing Program at Naropa. Their hospitality and lovely gardens, a living Zen. Keith was always bigger than life, brash in an open and lighthearted, bighearted manner; always welcoming and generous in his life and in his art. Besides teaching writing at Naropa, he taught a fabulous course in Calligraphy. A gorgeous piece he created for me hangs over my desk right now. Mu, Void, in blackest ink forever liquid, it is moving perfection created by the brush of a master. A huge presence, now forever missed, but never missing.
Günter Ohnemus, Keith’s German translator, provides this account at their friendship and how they met.
In the old days—1982 or 1983—when the world around me was full of love and laughter and a future other people could only dream of, my wife and I met George and Lucy Mattingly at the Frankfurt Book Fair. We went to dinner together and we laughed all night . . .well, not all night, because they stayed at a hotel in Aschaffenburg and had to catch a late train that took them there. But the echo of this night and this laughter is still with me. In these years laughter was so much around that sometimes we woke up laughing.
In 1984 (which was the next year or the year after the next year) we visited them in Berkeley, and one night they introduced us to Keith (“Ursus Abbotticus,“ as George called him. “He’s as strong as a bear.”). In the sushi restaurant, where we had dinner, Keith mentioned a manuscript that he held back because he wanted to sell it to the movies. I asked him if I could see it, and a couple of weeks later I took it back with me to Germany. The title was Racer. A story about an unruly boy.
I was ravished when I read the book, Keith and I agreed that a German version of the book would not diminish its Hollywood prospects. I sent the manuscript to my publisher, Benno Käsmayr of Maro’s, and the book was published in October 1987. So there was an American book in German that never existed in English as a book. It stayed in print for two decades. As far as I know it was never published in English.
I translated four of his books, and for a long while Keith and I were pretty close, we went on a reading tour with one of his publishers, his books were highly praised in Germany (though never a financial success), and translating them was a great joy for me. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like living, it was life.
We had a falling-out some years ago, hadn’t had contact over all these years, which is a pity, but that’s how things go sometimes. Talk about financial success – I remember what Keith once said on one of our walks in Munich: “If I can be for just one person what Ray Charles was to me, then spending my life as a writer wasn’t in vain.”
We hadn’t had contact, I said. But we had some sort of contact through his daughter Persephone. Last year I translated her first novel, A Closely Knit Web, from the manuscript. So far there is no English edition. Like Racer it was published by Maro. Last year, 2018: Ein rasch gesponnenes Netz. So, like her father before her . . . Ah, well, I seem to run in the family.
Lani recalls the years from 1973-1994: Keith finally lands a long tenure in the Bay Area literary scene. He publishes a succession of poetry, novels, and short fiction with small press publishing including Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press and George Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press. He cultivates what he considers a well rounded working writer’s profile: working widely in poetics, including classic forms, prose and sound poetry, and the collaborative Japanese form, Renku, with fellow poets Pat Nolan, Maureen Owen and Michael Sowl. Inspired by Phillip Whalen, he trains in western and Asian calligraphy to create visual poetry. He writes long and short fiction, works in journalism both as feature writer and editor. While serving as fiction editor for The Berkeley Monthly, he champions and befriends the writer Lucia Berlin. He explores dramatic writing, collaborating with actors and directors at the Berkeley location of the Drama School London and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and he workshops a one act play at the Magic Theatre. His audience expands internationally and his work is published in Germany, France and the U.K. He learns to enjoy public performance of his work.
Brit Pyland remembers first meeting Keith:
I was introduced to Keith by our mutual friend John Veglia. John and I brought a bottle of Cabernet to Keith’s home in Albany, CA for a fun afternoon. We found many areas of keen mutual interest, including poetry and Zen. Keith’s Zen and calligraphy teacher Kobun Chino roshi had been one of my first teachers when I was just starting Zen practice and study at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Kobun was very kind, patient, and friendly. He was generous with his time and helped me with sitting posture. We took a long hike above Tassajara and downstream. On the way back he paused below the tall Sycamore in wonderful dappled light and shot an imaginary arrow at a high bird. His big smile indicated that he had hit his mark.
Another time when leading a demonstration of Zen archery on a high bluff at Esalen retreat center, he shot an arrow way out into the Pacific and with a big grin turned and remarked “Bullseye!”
Keith was Kobun’s assistant in calligraphy classes at Naropa Institute. Keith refined his calligraphy and brush art under Kobun’s guidance and became a fine artist.
Our friendship grew and was nourished by close mutual friends, including Zenshin Philip Whalen, Denis Kelly, and George and Lucy Mattingly. Philip and I shared a flat in Noe Valley in S.F. and hosted a small informal sitting group with tea or breakfast after zazen on Friday mornings—just a few people, including a few of Phil’s writer friends. I later became Philip’s assistant when he became abbot at Hartford Street Zen Center and Maitri Hospice, doing mainly administrative work.
I took Keith and Lani to visit Philip when his health was failing and was living at SF Zen Center’s Hospice on Page Street, very upbeat farewell.
Keith and I shared writing and art over the years, sometimes exchanging correspondence of assumed comic personae. We also confided aspects of our Zen practice to encourage one another.
I am very grateful that we were able to speak on the phone on number of lucky occasions when he was not suffering from aphasia and was very clearheaded and in good spirits before he passed.
Keith is very much alive in my memories.
Brit also provided this account of Keith’s ordination in his own words:
At age 69 I decided it was time to know what the Japanese characters said on the rakusu I have been wearing since 2002 and so I commissioned Kaz Tanahashi to translate my teacher Kobun Chino’s Japanese on the rakusu silk backing. Know that a kashaya is the Buddha body, Buddha mind. It is called a robe of emancipation, a field of benefaction. It is called a robe of patience, a robe beyond form. It is called a robe of compassion, a robe of the Tathagata, a robe of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment.
June 12th, 2002, Auspicious day of Ordination
For Lay-person Mugaku Jikido
to maintain this
(The passage is from Dogen, p. 146, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye) translated by Kaz Tanahashi.
Note: Mugaku Jikido was my formal Buddhist name. Before my ordination Kobun translated this for me as: “No knowledge / preconceptions on the clear / straight path.” He died after this event, on July 26, 2002.
The history of my rakusu goes like this. This formal name resulted some months earlier from what happened at the end of the incredibly intense dokusan that confirmed my ordination. Once my ordination and its details were arranged, I wanted to commission Kobun to brush a calligraphic version of a phrase, Mugaku No Koto that I had found in D.T. Suzuki. In that context this phrase was the highest praise for a Zen calligraphy: “A thing / matter / event of no learning.” i.e. the brushwork showed no preconceptions whatsoever: it just was what it was. But because the intensity of Kobun’s dokusan exhausted me I could not remember the last two words No Koto. So I only said “Mugaku” and that there were two more words. Kobun dismissed my distress with a wave of his hand and said, “And that [mugaku] will be your first Buddhist name!” He also added that now he had the burden of thinking up the rest of my Buddhist name before my ordination; I only had to sew a rakusu. Such was his humor.
During my ordination in June 2002 Kobun announced my “Mugaku Jikido” title for the assembled monks and friends. But, he immediately followed that with: “But we will not call him by that name! His name will be Kumasen (i.e. Bear Sage).” When we co-taught the contemplative brush class together at Naropa Kobun had noticed that my habitual actions displayed some of that nature. On December 27, 2013 after learning what the rakusu said, I decided to research jikido and found this:
In Zen Buddhism, it is the job of the jikidō (直堂?) to run the zendo according to the rules prescribed by the teacher, and maintain the zendo’s schedule. The jikido makes a commitment to run every regularly scheduled sitting and each monthly sesshin. In Sōtō the jikido is the one person, other than the Teacher, who faces outward in the zendo instead of facing the wall. This is because the jikido’s practice cannot be simply private or inward, but must always face outward, aware and responsive to what’s going on in the zendo. The jikido’s job is not just to facilitate the functioning of the zendo, the jikido embodies and exemplifies practice as functioning. And that is the functioning of no-self – of the forgotten self – that responds to each thing in turn, performs each function in turn without a thought of right or wrong or how am I doing or how do I look doing it.
So for me to be a “Mugaku Jikido” means that among other duties I am the caretaker of the no-self zendo, basically running what I call Mu Shin Zendo routines: Nothing Doing Doing Nothing (my translation into American English of Mu Shin). I believe that I had been maintaining those duties for Kobun during our two contemplative brush workshops, and since 2002 in my daily life.
Janine Ibbotson studied brush with Keith. Here is her appreciation on her website: https://janineibbotson.com/blog/2019/9/3/appreciation
Jerry Reddan, master printer and publisher at Tangram Press, recalls meeting Keith in a short note addressed to Pat Nolan:
I’m pretty sure I met Keith at Serendipity [Books] in the late 70’s. As Tangram was getting started in ’87 I’m sure Keith was seeing some of my projects. It was not until ’87 that I printed Skin And Bone followed by broadsides over the years. As I recall it was Keith who provided you with my address, so it’s all his fault, what a pleasure. When he and Lani moved to Longmont all correspondence was delivered via USPS, often very funny. On occasion when he was in the Bay Area researching Whalen, Kerouac material in The Bancroft [Library] he would stay with us for a few days. There was lots of fun conversations about his teaching students more interested in the movie version than the book itself. Always in good humor even with his mobility problems. We’ll miss him.
In the early 90’s Keith made a few exploratory trips to Colorado before moving the family to Longmont. In Denver he stayed with the artist Ivan Suvanjieff, the model for Chili Palmer in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, and editor of the literary magazine The New Censorship, in Ivan’s art loft in the pre-gentrified Wyandot Corridor. Eugene Zandler, also a resident of the loft remembers Keith this way:
One of my first memories of Keith is the evening that I awoke from my usual swoon to find thick gray smoke coming under the door of my rooms, which was close to the kitchen, for any readers who are unfamiliar with the premises of The Lodo Art and Boxing Team.
I entered the twilight kitchen to find the apparent source of the smoke to be heavy skillets on the gas range top. No one was there; whatever substance was being smelted had also been removed. I returned to my digs, probably after ascertaining that the north stairway was useable in case of necessity. Alchemical transmutation being such an uncertain process.
Keith had concluded that the perfect temperature for scorching pasta was well above the smoking point of the best cooking oils. Say 500 F. He was not yet a resident in the LAABT to the best of my memory.
I did later speak with him briefly numerous times. He made jokes; one often felt that some cataclysm or great awakening was at hand. Some force, following him about, waiting for him to prybar open some awareness into the ordinary understanding. I cannot though remember any specific words he said.
Later [Ivan] gave me a copy of one of his comic novels. Unique and unforgettable scenes in that. Where was/is Hollywood? Some hapless bad guy unwittingly submerged in semi-poisonous smelt (while romantically engaged, I think) and then the whole exterior wall of the bungalow bedroom tactically dropped like a toilet seat, ker-bang, the better for retribution and photography. And this scene in what is now the heart of Silicon Valley, before the ascension of those unworthies. A pig rooting away under a carpet. Etc. His writing was bitingly direct; the man himself behind an impenetrable caul.
I intended to catch his act as a Professor at Naropa, but never got around to that. I suspected some paradox, some revelation. I hope he had success and peace. These are mostly, of course, not anecdotes. Keith was very funny, in a dangerous sort of way, but the details slip away.
Meredith Shedd-Driskel, an old friend of Keith and Lani’s from the early 70’s and Lani’s grad school days in Berkeley provided these pictures from a visit to Longmont in 2005.
Keith and I were best friends for many years, and only gradually lost that closeness when he and his wife Lani moved from the Berkeley area to Longmont, Colorado, so that he could take a job as professor in the Writing Department at Naropa University in Boulder.
The day I met him was one of the best days of my life. The day they moved was one of the saddest days of my life.
I hate talking on the phone, but Keith loved talking on the phone, and we talked often in the decades after they moved to Colorado. In the beginning, Keith finished my sentences. In the end, I finished his.
Pat Nolan: Keith was born on February 2, 1944, Groundhog Day. Groundhogs are also sometimes referred to as “little bears” thus the importance of the name Kobun gave him, Bear Sage. That date is also James Joyce’s birthday which Keith was never shy in pointing out. I was born September 3, 1943, approximately six month before Keith which for me had some odd mystical significance. Although we often joked that we were the poetry twins and there was no telling us apart (on the page), we were actually quite different in personality, for certain, and in our ideas on how best to represent the world, our world, through poetry. Yet in our love of literature, in particular the art of poetry, we were joined at the hip, informed by the dialogue we shared for nearly fifty five years.
I admired Keith’s poetry immensely—it was a showcase for his intelligence. Keith’s instincts about the art of writing were always very sophisticated and informed. His perception and comprehension had an unerring depth that revealed an understanding of the basics, the root of what was necessary to continue in our craft and sullen art while maintaining our authenticity. Authenticity is the key word here. It is a quality we valued in the poets we both admired and one to which we aspired in our own work. I can honestly say that my education and development as a poet owes an enormous debt to Keith Kumasen Abbott. He was my oldest friend and I was his oldest student.
Steve Dickison shared this video clip of Clark Coolidge reading one of Keith’s poems
David Schnieder, another Buddhist friend and the author of the Philip Whalen biography, Crowded By Beauty, remembers Keith this way:
Keith stole the show at the event where I first saw him. It was not an easy show to steal, being the large, formal, memorial reading in San Francisco for a recently-dead Ted Berrigan. Keith read a story, one with several protagonists and a few interweaving plots, most involving serious consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants, and the resulting misadventures. Gentle, self-deprecating, hilarious, the tale provided much-needed humor—relief for a crowd uniformly upset by Berrigan’s sudden death.
As Keith and I got to know one another, it became clear that we shared many interests, a wide, motley spectrum of them, stretching from poetry and fine prose and bibliophilia, to graphic arts to Zen Buddhism to gardening to professional football to home-made beer…. the Pacific Northwest…calligraphy, Asian and Roman….the poetry, calligraphy, Zen and the person of Philip Whalen.
In most fields, Keith was senior, more knowing. He grew up in the Northwest; I’d only gone to school there. I watched football; he’d played it, alas. (His legs never recovered.) He was an accomplished writer. Keith also drew beautifully. With regard to Zen though, I was senior. I’d also practiced calligraphy longer. Not unconnected to these points, I lived for years at a time in daily contact with Philip Whalen.
The intercourse between Keith and me was never competitive though; our business was exchange — tips, knowledge (rumor would do), techniques. When I began to work on Whalen’s biography, Keith stood right there, his offering personal stories, texts, referrals, letters, essays, and hours of bright conversation. It is perhaps an under-appreciated fact of his oeuvre that Keith had himself written a fine memoir/critical biography of a poet, Downstream from Trout Fishing in America, about Richard Brautigan.
“Use legal folders,” he advised, on organizing unruly correspondence. “Or shallow boxes.” It was exactly right; it moved things forward, ordering both physical and mental space. This tiny example is evidence of much larger forces in Keith.
“For the 100th time, bodhisattva not Buddha,” Philip Whalen wrote in his journal one day. He seems to be saying that the aim of the Buddhist path is not an (imaginary) immobile state of Buddha-like royal ease and chill, but rather continuous engagement with the world’s troubles, against obstructions to that path. Classically, the bodhisattva conducts her-or-himself following the six paramitas, the six perfections. Foremost and fundamental of these is generosity.
Circling back to Berrigan, Ted is famously to have remarked that when someone dies, they go from your outer life to your inner life. So it should be no surprise that I now meet Keith in mind, where he continues his very sincere way along the bodhisattva path, practicing generosity. And the others: ethics, patience energy, meditation, and wisdom.
Lani provides this account of Keith’s final day:
And here is one of the many miracles that completed his life. It was not until Saturday evening that I finally focused on Keith’s Zen. I contacted the temple in Boulder with which Keith had had loose affiliation, and whose Sensei was a friend of Keith’s. An ordained monk named Martin Mosko. Martin, as I understood, no longer lived in Colorado and would be unavailable to chant for Keith. However, looking for advice I sent an anonymous general message to the temple’s website. Then I discovered that the temple was going into sessin the following morning for a week and I probably wouldn’t get a response.
Not so. Early Sunday morning I got a call from Martin who was in town and immediately understood the message I sent was about Keith. I explained what had happened and accepted that he would not be available. Oh no, said Martin, Keith is important and he requested permission to come that day to the hospice to chant for him.
And that was the release Keith needed to end his suffering. The hospice nurse told me that when she came to attend to him later that evening, he was making a humming sound. Are you chanting? she asked. Yes.
Hours later, at 2AM I got a call from the nurse that Keith’s condition was finally changing. I arrived at the hospice by 2:30, and he took his last breath at 3:15.
The miracle? Martin was in town to lead the memorial sessin for Keith’s teacher, Kobun Chino Roshi, who had ordained him.
We brought Keith’s body home, dressed him in his robes and Martin and the monks came Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in their ceremonial robes to chant during the 3 day vigil.
Zen is mysterious. A couple of months ago Keith had a moment when he was able to speak a bit about his experience of dementia. I asked him what Zen meant to him in his affliction. His answer came from deep within. He could no longer speak coherently, read his own work, or identify the day. Unable to reason, he still knew the answer.
He quoted: water sees water.
It was a privilege to be his partner.
Master & disciple
in a slippery line
for the grand perhaps
inside the vast mishaps
—Keith Kumasen Abbott
Keith’s Art & Calligraphy
Keith Kumasen Abbott was a practitioner of the three perfections in art: painting, poetry, and calligraphy. It is something he fell into easily as it coincided with his avid interest in Asian literature, particularly the Chinese and the Japanese, as well as his drift toward contemplative practice, largely as a result of his reading, and his down home Northwestern temperament, of course. As with a core of Pacific Rim writers and artists, especially in the postwar era, the cultural transmission lines have been long established and the discourse is in progress.
Keith’s art reached a peak around the turn of the century with showings of his work in multiple gallery venues nationally and internationally as part of a group show in Shanghai. It reveals an additional aspect to his creative sensibility in bringing a discerning contemporary eye to the practice of yet another ancient tradition. Writing and painting have different names but the same body, the Chinese say, as well as employing the same instrument, the ink brush. They enact a fundamental unity through a shared lexicon of brush strokes. As in writing, painting utilizes space (the page, the canvas) as the matrix through which forms emerge and bring about an interchangeable sublimity so that in effect word has presence and presence speaks. This is the language of Keith’s art.
Post Script: Last September (2018) Keith, in the prescient genius of his later decline, sent me the photo at the head of this post. Actually, Lani sent it to me at Keith’s insistence. Of the four men shown in the photo I only recognize Keith (on the right)—the others, friends, writers, I would assume, taken in the mid-sixties on Cannery Row. He captioned it with a handwritten note: “Hey—here’s a PIX to get your BACK BRAIN to work on. The right hand of smoker Keith—But what he holds in his left hand appears to be a home rolled kind—the right hand is drawing out a lighter. Presumably a cop car has just passed by and we ALL are acting Non-sha-lot, a lot!” Keith thought I would know what to do with it.
Thanks is due to everyone for their contributions and encouragement in this memorial project for an old friend and a significant light in American art and letters. As George so aptly reminded me, particularly in the world of literature, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. . . .”