Working on Letters to & from: For Joanne
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thinking about a project we might be able to do together that could fit into the Lost & Found chapbook format, using unpublished archival material that might shed new light on her life and times.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
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
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,
but relaxed, unafraid she had lost her
own dear place
nor was there much time to celebrate
pitch of her thought beyond ambient sounds
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:
“Malaysian Airline Flight #370 totally disappears.”
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
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
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
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
his grace is of love and charm, as I have seen him
from the blue of the farm house tile roofs
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
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
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)
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.
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
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.
Robert Grenier & John Batki