Embrace the Pulp
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…
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,
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’
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.
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)