The Education Of Pat Nolan
An Anniversary Memorial for Keith Kumasen Abbott, 1944-2019
By Pat Nolan
Paintings by Ivan Suvanjieff
In pursuit of the writer’s life with absolutely no clue of what I was doing, I left the Midwest (c.1965) after my discharge from the US Navy and ended up in Monterey, California, on Cannery Row to be exact, bartending at a bohemian hangout called The Palace Bar & Grill. One of the regulars was a young woman (but we were all young back then) by the name of Lani Hansen. And through the usual schmoozing with customers, I learned that her boyfriend was a poet and that he would soon be coming to live with her. That’s how I met Keith Abbott.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, in retrospect, seems like the most appropriate title for a book of poems in the late fifties, a portent of what was to come. I can think back to my perplexity at what was presented as poetry in his selection compared to what I remembered of high school English textbooks and their columns of tiny print poetry with thumbnail depictions of dour Victorian matrons and men whose beards looked like they’d just smoked an exploding cigar. The only poet of interest was Dylan Thomas simply because he was pictured, hair uncombed, with a cigarette jutting from his lips. I picked up a copy of Coney Island in a bookstore in Old Town San Diego while still a sailor, the first of hundreds of poetry books I would buy, steal, beg, and review. The indented arrangement of stanzas on the page, luminous single word lines, stair-stepping cascades of thought as a progression through time no matter what the words said or meant made perfect sense to me. A passing familiarity with the writing of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti led me to purchase my first poetry anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, and which served as an introduction to a vibrant, distinctly independent, postwar development in American literature. It was a moment of destiny as I intuited the concerns of my future although I didn’t realize it then. Following the thread in that volume and in subsequent related reading, it became my ambition to learn everything that had a bearing on my understanding of the art of poetry, and although it is largely self-education (the dreaded autodidacticism), I could not have done it alone.
I was older than Keith by six months. His birthday, Groundhog Day in the US, was also James Joyce’s birthday, something he liked to remind friends as a confirmation of his associated astrological genius. Keith was the youngest of a large working class family from Washington State. Always very certain of himself, he was outgoing, brash, with the exaggerated down to earth humor of wide open Western spaces. Almost the polar opposite, I was the oldest of two of upwardly mobile immigrant colonials making a go of it in the Motor City. The cautious émigré uncertainty of my sheltered French Canadian crypto Jansenist culturally confused foreignness cloaked a delight in the absurd and penchant for sarcasm. My eagerness to learn and Keith’s willingness to share resulted in a association that was the basis for my education in the arts and ensuing scholarly pursuits. In a years-later moment of cosmic insight I came to appreciate that the bond between Keith and I had a similarity to Kerouac’s neo-Romantic attraction to the Western authenticity of Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder. Keith had a similar unaffected genuineness.
Most people attend college to get an education. I did eventually obtain a degree, but my attendance at university was solely to cash in on the GI Bill (it paid the rent) and free access to the library. My real education continued at a different pace and by different means. By the time I graduated with a nominal degree in “English”, I was editing a mimeograph poetry magazine, had poems published in Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, and The World as well as a handful of little literary publications, and I could claim a few poetry chapbooks and numerous public poetry appearances. I doubt that many of these undertakings would have come about had it not been for my friendship with Keith.
My schooling in the art of poetry was a collaboration with one of the smartest and most intuitive writers I’ve known. With the exception of a brief period on the Monterey Peninsula, Keith Kumasen (his ordained Buddhist name) Abbott and I always lived at quite a distance from each other, from hundreds of miles to thousands of miles. Our mostly typewritten missives were the primary mode of communication, often two or three letters a month, pages long, filled with lies (gossip, real or imagined) and loves (the latest book, music, film, trend, discovery, recommendation). That this intense dialogue took place over a period of fifty plus years is still incredible and astonishing to realize. Keith and I exchanged hardcopy mail, available only in the original, for at least thirty of those years. And perhaps for the later twenty some years, our correspondence was a mix of hardcopy and cyber mail which eventually devolved into “memo-randoms” often lacking the cohesion of collected thoughts that letter writing seemed to foster. I have a file cabinet drawer full of Keith’s end of that correspondence. The electronic mail is lost to the ether unless I bothered to make a hardcopy. For me those epistolary documents were Keith’s lesson plans for the further study of literature, specifically poetry, and they were where I got my reading cues.
Keith’s autodidactism had a rigor, a thoroughness that I largely benefited from, and being a serial reader I was inclined to take up that modus operandi. I came to share three of Keith’s interests in a poetry/world lit scholarship determined by his informal syllabus. They were contemporary West Coast aka “Pacific Rim” poetry and poets who were somewhat aligned or affiliated with the early 20th Century William Carlos Williams/Objectivist persuasion and included Snyder, Welch, Whalen, and that éminence grise, Kenneth Rexroth, as well as their arch opposites, Duncan, Spicer, and to a certain extent, Olson; also Asian literature, primarily Chinese and Japanese, from Han Shan and Su Shih to Basho and Shiki; and French poetry of the early 20th Century with the usual suspects: Apollinaire, Reverdy, Jacob, Cendrars. Although I had been directed to Baudelaire and Rimbaud in the course of reading Kerouac, Keith brought me up to speed with the early 20th Century French poets by directing me to Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Pierre Reverdy.
I can go to my bookshelves even now and find books I was gifted by Keith over the years as nudges in directions of common interest and dialogue. I still have my battered, well-read copy of Philip Whalen’s On Bear’s Head with the inscription, a quote from a Whalen poem, “connect me with the Button-Molder right away” dated spring of 1970. The Anthology of New York Poets, an accompanying note read “some of our people”. Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems From the Chinese, the basis for my enduring scholarship in Asian poetry and art. Frank O’Hara’s Second Avenue, a first edition with cover by Larry Rivers as well as a well-worn copy of John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, both of which, as Keith predicted, would rotate my poetry wheels. Kobayashi Issa’s A Year Of My Life dated 1975 from “Mr. Ray Dio.” The game changing eye-opener of Earl Miner’s Japanese Linked Verse and The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat from the early eighties, gateway to thirty years of poetry collaboration into the mysteries of mastering haikai no renga. The doorstop tome of Edwin Cranston’s A Waka Anthology, Vol. I, with accompanying suggestion that I might be in need of some “light” reading. Jon Halper’s book on Gary Snyder, Dimensions Of A Life, inscribed “More gossip about the poets” in 1995. As well, John Suiter’s Poets of the Peaks, with “To Pat & Gail in Monte Rio, 5/20/05.” And as the open ended enso of my continuing education, Ron Padgett’s translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone from 2015, in his characteristic calligraphy, “from an old friend.” Of course these titles are merely the tip of the literary iceberg. Practically all the poetry books stuffed and piled in a room full of bookshelves can be traced back or attributed to decades of intellectual exchange between Keith and me.
Undoubtedly the greatest gift I received was heuristic in nature where every author recommendation from Keith was a node in a vast web of related reading that continues to unfold kaleidoscopically to this day. Keith had been steered (as only a country boy could) to the classics, Dostoyevsky in particular, by an uncle. When I met him he had widened his scope to embrace the French modernists as well as the American tradition up to and including contemporary poetry with which he was well acquainted. In that way I became familiar with the revolutionary poets of early 20th Century France and the US as well as those among our elders and contemporaries who were tuned to that particular affinity. They served as passports to the world of modern literature and informed the poetry being written as well. For someone whose undereducated aspiration to be a poet involved climbing a steep learning curve in the dark, what I learned from Keith was key to an understanding that what it takes resides in the mind’s eye. Poet wasn’t a goal-oriented physical, social or psychic attainment as much as a process of creating and appreciating that creation through language. Everything else depends on how tight you think your pants should fit. As well, that poetry was that same stream that Heraclitus said you couldn’t step into twice. It was from Keith, who had studied philosophy at the University of Washington that I learned to appreciate Heraclitus and the pre-Socratic philosophers which then led down the rabbit hole of Ancient Greek/Mediterranean cultures guided by the likes of Davenport, Graves, Harrison, and Frazer, not to mention the Golden Age playwrights. Once again Kenneth Rexroth’s wide erudition (whose example we strove to emulate) with his Poems from the Greek Anthology and The Classics Revisited served as the motivation for a deep dive into the roots of Western literature. Kenneth Rexroth stood as the iconoclast authority of a radical populist view of literature that Keith and I adhered to in the understanding that institutes of higher education were the tar pits of creativity.
In 1966, I attached myself to an adept, a natural born master, and former College football prospect. Early on, from my association with Keith I was made well aware of a larger literary society, one that included live actors not just the dead white guys of literary history. Most memorable among those writers whose acquaintance I made through Keith when I first met him were Richard Brautigan, Clifford Burke, Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, Pamela Milward, Bill Bathurst, Michael Sowl, Lew Welch, and Mary Norbert Korte.
Over the years, through various marginal literary enterprises, especially during the mimeo revolution of the late sixties and seventies, Keith published selections of my poetry in his poetry magazine, Blue Suede Shoes, as well as side-stapled mimeo chapbook selections. I reciprocated by publishing his work in my own mimeo magazine, The End (& variations thereof), and chapbook selections of his from my poetry press, Doris Green Editions. We were engaged in the American samizdat, sidestepping the entrenched literary establishment into a future literature. I consider my involvement in the mimeo rebellion, at Keith’s encouragement, as my initiation into guerrilla publishing, something I’ve kept at since then.
Keith and I both received a Poets Foundation Award in 1973, the only two West Coast poets to snag the honorarium that year. By the mid-seventies we also had books published by Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press. Blue Wind Press published Keith’s selected poems, Erase Words, in 1977. A year later we were invited to read at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. In the late eighties our poetry was included in Andrei Codrescu’s anthology, Up Late; American Poets Since 1970, as well as in Codrescu’s cosmopolitan literary magazine, Exquisite Corpse. We were the Gold Dust Twins of poetry.
In the eighties, as well, a mutual interest in Japanese literature was reignited by the discovery of Earl Miner’s two volume treatment of haikai no renga, Japanese linked verse. For over thirty years Keith and I tried our hand at a verse form whose dynamic is the relationship between stanzas written in collaboration by a group (two or more) of similarly inclined poets adept at the complex rules and stringent constraints of haikai aka “dog” renga. Keith was the one who initiated our first fledgling attempts at linking. However, rather than in-person moon viewing sessions as was traditionally done, our linking had to be conducted through the mail and often took months to complete. From his insightful reading of Miner’s exposition, Keith came up with a few innovations to give a modern spin to the method of our mad renga. Among them, a batting order in which each poet was assigned a turn in the rotation and as well as special stanzas (moon, flower), all very useful when linking through the mail. Keith understood that even though haikai no renga had achieved its peak in 17th and 18th Century Japan, there was something quite contemporary about this collaborative form that had aspects of improvisation similar to those of a jazz combo as well as capturing a kinetic non-narrative imagistic flow akin to film.
Over time we enlisted other poets in a literary collaboration that contradicts the whole idea of Western poetry’s individualism and authorial exclusivity. Mike Sowl, Maureen Owen, John Veglia, Sandy Berrigan, Steven Lavoie, and Gloria Frym were among those initiated into the ranks under the rubric of “The Miner School of Haikai Poets.” In 2015 a sampling of the haikai no renga passed around through the mail since the mid-eighties was published under the title Poetry For Sale (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2015).
Keith was as adroit at fiction as he was at poetry and he had a storyteller’s talent and love of the tall tale. He published Gush, his first novel, in the early seventies with Blue Wind Press. Unlike his poems (well, most of them), his fiction was insidious. There were always trapdoors or back doors or sudden reversals. Shiny word/syntax baubles and narrative leaps followed slapstick routines. His second novel, Rhino Ritz, was one such literary maze. He excelled in portraying the laconic irony of Americana. His third novel, Mordecai of Monterey, as well as Harum Scarum and The Next Thing Coming, semi-autobiographical stories of coming of age in the Pacific Northwest published by Coffee House Press were closely perceived vignettes, rich with a lived authenticity. The anomalous Racer, published in Germany in 1987, was never issued in English. Downstream from Trout Fishing In America, A Memoir, published by two different presses, (Capra, 1989; Astrophil. 2009) was his contribution as a personal literary history of an era on the West Coast and of a unique American author. Richard Brautigan and Keith shared a Northwest homeboy sensibility, and it is that regional culture of exiled Yankee pioneer stock still viable in the gene pool that they recognized in each other and made them compadres. Then circumstances change and circles shrink. Fame, celebrity can be self-destructive.
Keith was definitely overqualified by the time he came to teach fiction in Boulder. He was a genius editor as well, with an intuitive grasp of a narrative’s architecture and how it could be strengthened or improved. Despite the Rexrothean admonition that no matter how good the library, a snake pit is still a snake pit, he stuck it out for about a dozen years, lecturing on the Northwest writers, teaching contemplative brush as an extension of his own calligraphic meditations. He and his colleague Bobbie Louise Hawkins received high marks for their inspired curriculum during their tenure as faculty at the Kerouac School. Some of Keith’s reworked lectures on the poetry of Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder have been a regular feature of The New Black Bart Poetry Society blog since its inception.
A half dozen years ago, I received an email from Keith. “Hey Pat!” was his usual salutation, as if he were calling to me from across a field. He’d been going through his archives, he said, sorting letters and literary ephemera to sell to some library collection. He wanted me to know that he’d unearth a few of my limited edition poetry books, and that he’d even reread some of them. “You know what,” he announced, “You’re a great poet!” No further accolades necessary, those words conferred my greatest honor, esteem from the guy who showed me the ropes.
Keith Kumasen Abbott achieved equilibrium August 26th, 2019 at his home in Longmont, Colorado. The difference between autodidacts and the hothouse hybrids of academe is one of zeal unrestrained by financial or career considerations. Keith’s example served as my grounding, and my education, in part, is his legacy. To this day, with respect, regret and affection, I bow, address my inklings to his memory.
An Off-Key Prayer
I met Keith Abbott at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in the late 80s or early 90s. The school has a summer writing program that draws some of the finest poets and writers in the world, such as Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, etc. A stunning “etc” if there ever was one.
Keith was teaching at the summer writing program.
“Are you a writer?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “a professional liar.”
True. Fiction writer.
Fast friends. Stayed at my loft in Denver. Ran around with all the artists in the neighborhood. Uhhh, interesting cooking skills. Great sense of humor. And a great partner Lani, who had to put up with him, har. I love you Lani!
Read his works again. Somebody should really make a flick out of Mordecai of Monterey. Read it, pass it along.
Sing an off-key prayer for Keith. He’d like that.
Ivan Suvanjieff, artist. “Jeff ‘The Dude’ Dowd, the guy Lebowski is based on, told me not to tell my story because no one would believe it.”
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. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.