Interview: Joanne Kyger
The following interview took place in August and September, 2011, by email. Joanne Kyger was in Bolinas, California, and Andrew Schelling in Boulder, Colorado. The reference to Peter Berg (1937-2011) in the interview was occasioned by a series of memorials. One of the foundational activists and writers on bioregionalism & watershed awareness, Berg founded the Planet Drum Foundation. He died on July 28. The exchange late in the interview on Pai-chang and the fox is a reference to Case 2 in the Zen koan collection Mumonkan: various translations are available.
Andrew Schilling: In your poetry you allow entry to animals—or I could say, ‘the animal realm’— more than any other poet I know. Animals and birds are familiars, though they are generally not domestic animals, and you do not use them as symbols or emblems. Deer, skunk, jay, hummingbird, and dozens of others including mice in the house and offshore mammals show up, and you often address them as people. One of your books, Up My Coast, is a poetic and projectivist recounting of tales collected by the unusual ethnographer and doctor, C. Hart Merriam. Those tales depict a time before the present world got established, when people were animals or animals people.
First, there were the First People
And the First People changed
into trees, plants, rocks, stars, hail and
and then Animals made Our People.
Joanne Kyger: UP MY COAST was an attempt to write the history of part of this coast—’pre-invasion’. I am fascinated by the First People, a way of speaking of ancient history. An animistic path. Where finally Animals create the people we are familiar with.
AS: How far back does this sensibility reach for you? Did the natural world engage you as child? Were animal stories part of your consciousness growing up? I wonder if either of your parents told you animal story-cycles. You might also say a word about why your selection of tales, which you made into poems, was distinctively Californian.
JK: I read the usual books as a child—for example the Dr Doolittle books, where animals were able to talk, the Oz books where animals and humans conversed and had adventures together. I grew up with the Brownies and Girl Scouts who always engaged in outdoor activities, camps etc. Bird and tree identification were always of interest. From the ages of 6-10, I lived along the shores of Lake Michigan and found real magic and excitement in seasonal changes, the arrival of spring wild flowers—ordinary things but so different from the California life I knew. Then, of course the Greek Myths in their simple Edith Hamilton retelling introduced the wonderful notion that birds could be harbingers of events to come. And that the ‘gods’ were many and often able to turn into an animal of choice.
C.Hart. Merriam’s book, THE DAWN OF THE WORLD. Myths and Weird Tales Told by the Mewan Indians of California, published in 1910, was my source for ‘Up My Coast”—my adaptation of Coast Miwok people’s creation stories. Coast Miwok territory included all of Marin County, where I live, up to Bodega Bay in Sonoma County where I lived before I moved here. I felt I needed to find a history of this area pre-‘conquest’. The stories, parts that remain from larger cycles of oral-tradition stories told only in the winter time rainy season, are the remaining history that I could find of the local people, who lived here before there was any such thing as ‘California’. I always appreciated the fact that the Coast Miwok tribes have Coyote Man, the creator, coming to this shore by crossing the Pacific on a raft. The Bering Strait theory proposed by anthropologists who were unacquainted with celestial navigation always seemed very pat—that all ‘aboriginal’ peoples crossed the land bridge and walked all the way down to Oaxaca! for example.
AS: Some of your poet friends—surely Lew Welch, and to some extent Gary Snyder—appear to be in search of (or have found) medicine animals. Welch’s poem “Song of Tamalpais,” with its wheeling turkey vultures is a good example. You could use that poem as an example of the search for spirit animals that Jaime de Angulo has written of so often—in Pit River or Achumawi the term would be dama’agome: medicine animal or spirit power. This might be treading too close to something deeply personal, but do you have a spirit helper?
JK: I took peyote several times and in February of 1959, I had a quite unpleasant experience of massed black energy intercut with animal faces. The fact I was taking this trip in my apartment, which was over a bar in North Beach, and was not feeling well added to a very unstable sense of ‘reality’. I gave an animal name to this energy, hoping to focus it. A wild animal, which I noted whenever I saw it mentioned. For years I was afraid of stepping over some edge into a loss of self, or a schizophrenic duality. Living in Japan and seeing the guardian warriors outside temples, with fierce expressions, I finally realized that these were protectors. If they scared you off, then you could be spooked easily, and didn’t have enough courage or self-knowledge to enter into the Buddha hall. I think I was fearful of the energy of the ‘animal’ self, whatever I thought that was.
In 1967 I met Carlos Castenada and Michael Harner at Don Allen’s one evening. I remember telling Castenada of this experience—seeing the demonic as a protector guardian energy—and him nodding his head wisely. Later I read his first book on the experiences with ‘Don Juan’ with amazement and some degree of familiarity.
I was raised with phrases like, ‘don’t act like an animal’, ‘you have manners like an animal’—one should rid themselves of ‘animal’ nature—which was a debased sensibility towards the nonhuman world. Understanding that one does not have to ‘suppress’ one’s animal nature in order to be civilized, is something I gained while living a less urban life, one in which there was no ‘cut-off’ between human and non-human life. We shared the same air and small territory together.
AS: When I read your poetry, the first entry I find is to a deeply animistic world. There are also numerous references to figures from the Buddhist pantheon, and a wry approach to impermanence. Under those more surface-level aspects of the poem, I find a signal approach to the world—ahimsa or non-harming—to do as little harm as possible to any creature. In your poems the doors and windows of your house often let in small critters, and one image I keep replaying is either you or Donald freeing some animal caught in the human house. Can you draw a line from the animist sensibility to the Buddhist?
JK: I’m not a big fan of letting critters live in the same room with me. And at this point I don’t really care for ‘pets’—which has become for many the link between the human and the animal world—and in which wildness and freedom have been ‘domesticated’ away. One is ‘using’ an animal companion in a relationship of dependence and, often, emotional superiority.
Buddhist sensibility, as far as I understand it, has us all interconnected in a non-hierarchical lineage. It’s okay to be born a worm. That’s why one is respectful to the worm as it turns through the compost.
AS: Do you study up much on the non-human orders? use field guides? learn about your own watershed, or the drainage systems and eco-zones of other people?
JK: I was just reviewing again Peter Berg’s term ‘bioregionalism’—in which one informs oneself of all the aspects—historical, cultural, natural—of one’s ‘home’. And of course, field guides are enormously handy and informative. So is just looking. That’s why I so appreciate the reality of the ‘First People’ who themselves turned into the sacred spots of the geography we experience today. In Japan, Shinto Shrines often encompass these spots. Two large old trees, tied together with a magical rope, indicate their history together, their marriage.
AS: Did you know Peter Berg personally? I’d also like to stretch the question a bit, and see if you could address the significance of bioregional thought—or practice—for your poetry.
JK: I met Peter Berg in the late 60s when he was part of the Digger organization in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. But I especially remember him as being part of the Reinhabitory Theater in their recreation of Northern California coyote stories. The theater did a cycle of stories in a canyon near Bolinas in May of 1977, and he was a memorable Lizard Man, who in his winning argument with Coyote over how ‘man’ should be made, gave us five fingers ‘just like his own’ instead of paws. This was, of course, a great gift to mankind.
Along with Raymond Dasmann, Peter also produced a great and useful word—’bioregion’. A way to designate natural, watershed boundaries as opposed to sharp political lines. One became aware of the authenticity of the local with it’s attendant history and natural multiplicities. I became a detective of place, out of respect and an obligation to observe and inform myself of everything I could of the land west of the coast range.
AS: I suppose if we want to regard bioregion not just as a collection of helpful thoughts, but as a practice, then the key term would be Berg’s notion of reinhabitation. Is that what you mean when you say you’ve become a detective of place? That this is a key practice for you? My own sense is that, for those of us who want to live according to the tenets of bioregional thought, the watershed world or our local ecology is coextensive with the spirit realm. Would you say this is close to your own perception?
And could you speak a bit to the region you investigate, “west of the coast range”? It is one of the richer areas in terms of biodiversity, and from pre-contact times until today has had about the greatest diversity of human languages & cultures in North America.
JK: If one thinks about the origins of the word ‘spirit’ coming from ‘spiritus’—breath or ‘spirare’—to breath—then one understands that in a ‘bioregion’ we all share the same air. So yes, there is a ‘coexistence’ with the spirit realm. We share the same arena of breathing existence. And being attentive to that interconnected net is when one becomes a ‘detective’ of place with all its history and animistic locations.
AS: I know you have made a long-standing practice of using notebooks or journals. Most of your poems of the past several decades are dated, which suggests a specific relationship to place and time. In a way this is exactly what naturalists do—birdwatchers, and mountaineers, and botanists. So the interest in the bioregion would link those other disciplined observers of the natural orders with the poet. Do you still write regularly in journals? Is it a daily practice or routine?
JK: I think of myself as keeping a ‘notebook’. Writing notations, short observations, names, etc.Things I want to remember. Often I think of the page as a ‘document’. The date, time, and place putting it into an historic occasion—the first letter on a blank page, the note of the moment, unencumbered by a karmic dialogue, is a very pure act.
AS: Do you have a sense of journal writing being close to Buddhist practice? Many poets I can think of who draw on their journals for poetry seem to have ties to Buddhist discipline. Of your generation, Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, yourself, Allen Ginsberg, have all published journals. And I know younger writers such as Shin Yu Pai have extended the sense of the journal to a disciplined blog-site.
JK: I think of notebook writing like a practice—I try and do it whether I have anything good or bad or interesting to say. And the chronology becomes the narrative, a history of a writing ‘self’. It is such an open form, anything can be included, it’s very free.
AS: The one volume of journals you’ve published are The Japan & India Journals, which got retitled Strange Big Moon when North Atlantic Publishers reissued the book. Most of it was written while you lived in Japan. Were you aware at the time of the long rich tradition of nikki or journal writing as a genre there? Not only poets and literary women of the Heian Court like Murasaki Shikibuu, Sei Shonagon, and some who are still “anonymous”—but Buddhist nuns, and then later poets like Matsuo Basho—pushed the journal to a high level of literary accomplishment. How much did their example spur you on? Or was it more a question of poet friends?
JK: I didn’t become acquainted with Sei Shonagon and some of the ‘pillow book’ writers of Japan’s court until much after I had left Japan. I had kept journals, diaries, etc since I was very young. It was a matter of deciding what exactly it was that I wanted to write down during my stay in Japan. I was aware that both Whalen and Snyder kept daily journals. And Ginsberg of course. They gave it a sort of ‘literary permission’. Like it was an authentic form in itself.
AS: Do you have journals other than The Japan & India Journals of the early sixties that you would consider editing and publishing?
JK: In 2007, LO AND BEHOLD: HOUSEHOLD AND THRESHOLD ON CALIFORNIA’S NORTH COAST 1980-1992 was published. It contains a culling from notebook entries for those years which make a kind of portrait of place, of a heightened sense of community. I found that to be a useful way to make a little history—taking incidents, phrases, ‘awakenings’, and keeping them in their ‘notational’ and chronological form. And yes, I do think about doing more of that. I have all my notebooks in the their somewhat disheveled and traveled forms, and whenever I open them there is usually a flash of memory and recognition. I only wish I had written more down, but really that can become a dogged act.
AS: Let me ask about those “disheveled and traveled forms”—which anyone who keeps notebooks through the years can relate to. Is there anything particular you do for these notebooks, either when preparing to use them, or for organizing them later? For instance I learnt from Thoreau—who’s sort of a patron saint of the North American notebook tradition—the almost obvious idea to create an index for each notebook. And to keep them in chronological order on a bookshelf. Even to maintain an ongoing list of vocabulary, or plant and bird encounters. How do you organize or work with your notebooks to help with memory & recognition?
JK: What a splendid idea to index each notebook. A simple chronological order is all I have achieved so far, with notebooks tucked into ziplock bags with attendant ephemeral postcards, clippings, and notes. They provide a kind of rangy history of self, and encounters with, at least, the weather.
Bird sightings have their own book, where the dates of returning flocks are noted—for example two years ago the large mixed species flock of sparrows which used to show up like magic on April 23 and leave on September 21 have stopped arriving, after almost 40 years of hosting them locally near my house. At least there is a record. And the yearly nesting of the quail flock, which lives here, is noted, along with the offspring that have survived cats and hawks.
AS: Any idea how many notebooks you have? And is there any particular type of notebook you like to work with?
JK: I have over 200 notebooks. I like to use a spiral binding, as I can lay the book flat to write on. Art stores usually carry the 5.5” x 8.5” sketch books with a medium weight paper that takes ink well, and I use those. I also keep little spiral bound books that can be carried in the pocket for short observations, and the ever continuing list of things to do.
AS: John Whalen-Bridge, the scholar who specializes in Buddhist influence on North American writers, did an interview with you a couple of years ago. I could not quite get from it whether you have had any formal Buddhist training. Did you learn to sit meditation in Japan?
JK: I learned to sit on my own, from books of course. In 1959 I joined Shunryu Suzuki after he had arrived in San Francisco as abbot of Japan Town’s Sokoji Temple on Bush Street. He started early morning sitting at the temple, a new innovation. I was living a few blocks away at the East West House, so it was not a heavy task to get there. Getting up early for 6am sitting was more difficult. Suzuki’s English was almost non-existent at the time, but it went well with Soto Zen’s ‘just sitting’ practice of meditation.
During the four years I lived in Japan [1960-1964] I sat at Ryosen-an, the First Zen Institute’s Zendo in Kyoto, and then later at Daitoku-ji’s main temple where, at one point, they made a place for a few foreigners to sit. I never had a formal teacher for sanzen [going to a Zen teacher for individual instruction] as there was a mutual language difficulty—my Japanese never became that skilled, and there were no teachers that were speaking English.
There were almost no books in English on Zen, or translations of sutras. The feeling was, one just sat and ‘discovered’ on one’s own their ‘Buddha nature’.
AS: With so many appearances of non-human animals in your poetry, I’d think some of the Zen folklore would excite you. A number of famous koans, like Pai-chang and the fox, have central figures that are non-human. What Buddhist literature has drawn you the most? Zen collections? Tibetan biographies? Jataka Tales (former lives of the Buddha, often in animal form)?
JK: Don’t you think that Buddhist literature in English is a fairly new phenomenon?
I met up with the Jataka Tales, in English in the early 60s in India, and was delighted by many aspects of non-human Buddha-hood. Even before the birth of the Buddha.
All of Evans-Wentz’s translations seemed important in the 60s to me—especially the life of Milarepa. Lama Govinda’s books were full of Tibetan Buddhism but also magic and adventures in the Himalayas. And someone as simple and dogged as Alexandra David-Neel was very attractive to read. All those early Buddhist travelers who actually had to endure hard and difficult conditions in order to find their sources in Tibet were amazing.
MONKEY as translated by Arthur Waley is a delightful folk mixture of monkey, pig and monk on the road to the west to find a sacred Buddhist text—the Tripitika.
I can’t think of koans as literature in the usual sense—but the wild fox in Japan is a mysterious and often dangerous other worldly creature, and not above cause and effect by any means. Better watch out for fox women in Japan! They aren’t of this world.
AS: Do the fox women remind us that cause and effect still operate in poetry?
JK: I don’t think poetry is free from cause and effect, in fact it rattles around with it. And Fox Spirit Woman, being both animal and human, with the ability to create illusion-like realities, is not free from causation even though she is ‘supernatural’. She can bear children with a human form, is a devoted wife, and probably operates in an inspiring manner within the realm of poetry.
AS: One of the poetic gifts Japan has provided the world is haiku. I saw one critic call it Japan’s greatest “post-war export.” It has become an international form, with all sorts of little innovations attached—and if you go into a bookstore you are likely to find lots of anthologies and how-to books for writing it. It was your generation that really brought North America’s attention to haiku, with that sensitivity to the seasons, to the little moments of nature and human nature, and gave us a way of writing poetry that I find refreshingly free from prophetic, oracular, metaphysical or epic noise. Yet haiku is profoundly spiritual in intent, and gets closely identified with Zen insight. Do you feel that a Zen sensibility, or a blinking open of spiritual insight through language, is one of the goals or attitudes of your own poetry?
JK: As for haiku, and writing in general, yes one hopes to give flashes of spirit and insight which could be called ‘Zen’, but could survive without that label. But I don’t know if it’s a ‘goal’ as such—that would be a bit self conscious. It’s the ordinary, after all, that mostly provides ‘spiritual insight’. Traditional haiku’s formality is not really useful to my writing. I always loved how Jack Collom described haiku—“They are short poems, but they must be very, very short.”
Some of the grand masters of the haiku/senryu tradition right now, like John Brandi and Steve Sanfield are really razor sharp. Besides writing their own books, they exchange lines in a haiku correspondence which bring one, often, to that ‘aha!’ place. Which is why I love to read them. Some of the ‘prettier’ and more self conscious attempts at Haiku translated into three line English poems make one think why bother with all those rules. Just be as concise and aware as possible.
AS: I Know you and Donald are about to leave for Oaxaca. You spend a lot of time in Mexico. What does life south of the border provide for your poetry? Animism? Catholicism? Or just the ordinary?
JK: Life in Mexico provides lots and lots of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’. It’s fascinating to observe very old civilizations in their archeological sites, and realize that the many ‘indigenous’ tribes of people there today are part of that history—here on this North American continent. The Catholicism practiced in Mexico today is often a cover story for the old religious practices and festivals. And yes, the everyday on a much simpler and direct level, is absorbing to participate in—like the daily market.
This interview first appeared in Quo Anima: innovation and spirituality in contemporary women’s poetry Ed. Jennifer Phelps and Elizabeth Robinson. The University of Akron Press: Akron, Ohio, 2019. Published with permission of the interviewer.