Hiding Out With Joanne Kyger, Poet Of West Marin
by Steve Heilig, October 7, 2010
“…the thousand-year sigh in Joanne Kyger’s genius!”
— Ed Sanders, “Ode to the Beat Generation”, 2008
For your eyes
If you make it this far you are fairly out of danger
because now you are on foot
on dirt roads, edged with sunlight
and small birds. When the wind
comes up you inhale it whole
and slowly distribute it
calm the torrent of breathing
— Joanne Kyger
Modern poetry is for many readers something like the famed Emperor’s new clothing - although we are supposed to “see” and appreciate it, few of us do. The abstraction, the willful difficulty and obscure references so prevalent in much “good” poetry are like medicine we suspect must be good for it simply because it tastes bad. So while many people profess to like it, few regularly read good poetry. Thus it’s all the more rewarding to find that rare poet whose words are neither a clever labyrinth of abstraction nor simplistic pap, but something which allows us to see things from new angles - and even to laugh while doing so.
Joanne Kyger, who is one such poet, may be a widely renowned for her writing, but she’s not that easy to find. She is a longtime denizen of a Marin coastal village with no road signs leading to it - or rather, with many such signs, but all of which are safely hidden in residents’ homes and garages - and has never courted wider renown than that which comes to her naturally. But come to her it has, at least among those who love a mastery of creative use of words, of lines and space on the page, and of imagery and feeling which cannot really be conveyed in any other means than by a skilled and inspired master of words.
Kyger was born in Vallejo in 1934; her father was a career Navy officer whose travels took his family to China and then Southern California, where Kyger grew up. She studied at the University of California in Santa Barbara and then found herself, at the age of 23, in San Francisco’s North Beach, just when Allen Ginsberg’s legendary poem “Howl” was on trial for obscenity. Already enamored of poetry and beginning to write some of her own, she found the late-1950s ferment there encouraging, and was soon associated with the fabled “Beat” writing milieu - although she expresses distaste for the Beat label and associated image to this day. Kyger studied with or at least knew many of the leading literary figures of that time and place, including Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Richard Brautigan, Lew Welch, and Gary Snyder - a cadre of writers whose work remains popular and collected around the world. She was one of only a few women writers of this iconoclastic and fabled cadre to gain respect on her own terms, both among peers and readers.
Kyger’s first book of poems, The Tapestry and the Web, was published in 1965. After extended travels to Asia with Ginsberg and Snyder (to whom she was married at the time), she settled in West Marin in 1969, buying a house which committed her to a tiny monthly mortgage. “I didn’t always have a lot left over to be able to leave town, so I stayed out here a lot”, she recalls.
Since then Kyger has published steadily if not especially prolifically, with twenty mostly-brief collections of poems, journals, and other writings appearing over the past three decades. But a relative flurry of printed collections of her work has appeared in more recent years, including Again: Poems 1989-2000, Some Life, and a reprint of Strange Big Moon: Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964. In recognition of her cumulative body of work, As Ever, a selection culled from her lifetime of poetry to date, appeared in 2002 as part of the prestigious Penguin Poets series. This year, her work in print has culminated with About Now: Collected Poems, an nearly 800-page “doorstop” (her term) which features over 400 poems published from 1957 to 2004. She has also traveled somewhat more extensively than in those early years, especially to Mexico, and teaches, gives readings, and lectures around the country and in Europe.
But Kyger is still most comfortable in her original West Marin home, sharing it with her longtime partner, fellow writer and illustrator Donald Guravich. Their house and garden are, appropriately enough, hidden behind a huge hedge off a dirt road. But as a voracious reader and viewer of the events of the broader world, Kyger remains notably informed and concerned about the events of the outside world “over the hill,” and for years has infused not only her writing, but a weekly version of the local village paper which she often edits, with political commentary - and satire - from many sources.
As for her primary work, poetry, she is often reluctant to speak of it, preferring to let the words in question do the talking. Others, though, praise her work unreservedly. The late Robert Creeley, one of the most revered poets of the past half century, said “There is no poet with more whimsically tough a mind...She’s the best of the west.” Nobel Prize-winning author Czeslaw Milosz, in compiling his 1996 international poetry anthology A Book of Luminous Things, chose not just one of her poems - as he did for the other notable contributors to the volume - but two. Allen Ginsberg took her portrait for one of her books, Richard Brautigan dedicated one of his own best-loved books, In Watermelon Sugar, to her, and fellow poet David Meltzer, in his introduction to a collection of her poems, wrote “No other poet of my generation has been able to make the pleasures and particulars of the ‘everyday’ as luminous and essential and central.” And in one of the early reviews of her work, the reviewer wrote “Let us propose that Joanne Kyger is a genius, though a weird one.”
The object of all this acclaim is herself a tall, elegant, self-effacing woman with a twinkle in her eyes - usually partially concealed behind tinted glasses - who obviously loves words and will talk enthusiastically and/or caustically about nearly anything, other than herself (Creeley also noted that she has “an almost confusing demur in respect to prizes or or any such games poets play”). But here is some of what she will say about her own life and work, and about life in West Marin and beyond.
* * *
Your book of selected poems, As Ever, was dedicated “To Those who love to read.” Do you remember your own first loves in this regard - what did you most love to read?
As a small child in the early 1940s, I was living in small town in Illinois, and of course there wasn’t any television yet, and so reading was something you could do for sheer escapism, the ability to be transported somewhere else. So I read constantly, even before I could really understand what I was reading. I’d just skip over words and parts I didn’t ‘get’ - maybe that’s why I ended up such a bad speller. And it was portable, you could take a book anywhere with you. So I read all the Wizard of Oz books, Dr. Doolittle, the Nancy Drew novels, and lots of magical adventures with caves and princesses and such.
So when did you first realize you were to become a writer yourself?
In my small school, they had us memorizing poetry alot - lots of Longfellow, and I think the first poet I was really struck by was Robert Service - “The Creation of Sam McGee.” I thought that was just as thrilling as you could get.
I don’t think many kids have to memorize such things anymore...
Probably not, but I’m really glad I did. A whole classroom would recite it out loud. Maybe they do rap songs now. There’s the iambic pentameter rhythm that make the words accessible to memory.
Do you recall what you were trying to “do” with your first attempts at writing?
I think I thought about amusing people, entertaining them. So at ten or twelve years old, I did class assignments, writing poetry monologues. And in high school I wrote features for the school paper. And by college I had read and heard - on records - T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and especially William Carlos Williams.
After college in Santa Barbara, you came to San Francisco in the mid-1950s. Was it the Beat poetry scene which drew you there?
No, I wasn’t even really aware of that “scene” yet. But then there was the Ginsberg “Howl” trial, and I started going to poetry and jazz performances, and there was excitement, electricity in the air. I was writing all the time and somebody invited me to a writing group led by Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and after a few meetings they said I would have to read out loud too. It went over OK. So essentially that became my “path,” as it were, as I could see that people like Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were major identities, and that you could say you were a poet and through that identity be interested in virtually anything. And also, at that time it was about “how do you stop feeling so screwed up, and get over your neuroses.” Everyone seemed to feel that through Buddhism or psychoanalysis or understanding your dreams you could do better and maybe be less intense, which was one of my problems. So eventually I joined Gary in Japan to “do” Zen, and I kept writing and some got published and then after I returned in 1964, my first book was published the next year.
How has living in Marin over the decades informed your writing?
Well, I moved out here in 1968. There was that big “back to the land” movement then, and a few writers had already figured out that you could do it. John and Margot Doss had a house here and she was very generous about letting writers stay there to get their bearings, and supportive of publisher Don Allen, who had the Four Seasons press here - later Grey Fox - who published a lot of us early on, such as Philip Whalen. And there were a fair number of other local presses started here as well, like Angel Hair, Coyote, Big Sky, Smithereens, and Tombuctou. And in the early 1970s Tom Clark here was poetry editor of the Paris Review, a big deal, and published his friends.
It’s really amazing what a literary presence this area was, considering what a small community it is - people even refer to it as a distinct “school” of poetry. I don’t know of anything or anywhere else that compares.
Yes. And it was quite an era, really. Most of us were in our 20s and 30s and it was a time where we were figuring out how to do our art, have households and babies, and sort out what it was all about. The environmental movement was getting underway and it was a real “greening out” in this area. There was a strong sense of communal living, and of being “organic”, whatever that meant then. It was possible to get by on very little.
And this affected the writing going on here too?
Yes, the whole frame of reference shifted, to the landscape and the weather, the place, which we all had in common. There was always this natural magic going on, and the news was just right outside your window. And it was a small town feeling - you could spend all day getting somebody’s old truck out of the mud, and it was a big adventure. And then there’d be a bunch of poems about it.
Some pretty good ones, too. When did you see this era coming to an end?
Well, really that came in the 80s. It became less bucolic, and people drifted away, usually for real reasons, such as having to make a living, children going to different schools... There was a certain wild openness here, which lessened as a more cultivated gardening approach came in. But again, the human community is also part of the attraction of being in a place like this.
Back to the writing itself; what was revolutionary about the San Francisco Renaissance? Your first publisher Don Allen described it as having “a new attitude towards mind, nature, and society...of the primordial, of spiritual and sexual necessities... “. But he also called it “postmodernism.”
Hmm. I’m still trying to figure out what “modernism” is or was, let alone postmodern.
My favorite cultural critic, Homer Simpson, called postmodernism something that is “complicated for the sake of being complicated”.
That sounds about right. But that’s certainly not me, I hope. For myself, I thought about the other Homer, the old Greek who wrote about great journeys and stories of life, and the multiplicity of gods and goddesses, and omens and signs. After awhile your poetry fits your landscape, or it should if you want to be literally grounded, and interesting. Otherwise you’re just writing in your head, and let’s face it, most heads aren’t all that different or interesting in themselves. It’s language talking about language. Poetry should say what’s going on. The established, East Coast schools of poetry had become very dry, academic, abstract, and out West the writing was a reaction to that.
Your friend and fellow poet Lew Welch, who also lived in Marin, said he wanted to have his poetry understood by people down in the bar, not just in the university.
Right. And I too did want to make my writing accessible. I even once wrote a poem about making it so accessible that it would be like baby talk. Really it’s about trying to find a common language.
You’ve also said that poems are best read aloud. Do you write with that in mind? You are particular about how your poems are laid out on the page.
Yes. You want to make it so that someone could say it. I try to “score” the lines for the page with that in mind, the breathing, the timing.
You’ve mentioned Buddhism, and many of your fellow poets are identified with that, particularly Zen. Does that inform your writing?
Well, Buddhism can make you aware of the interconnectedness of things, and is sophisticated about how the mind works, which is helpful for a writer. I do meditate but it’s a little tussle to do it every day. But again, when you think about Marin, I’ve been fortunate to be kind of entranced and informed by the landscape itself. I have some walks I take regularly, and keep my hand in by writing something everyday, by hand - even if it’s just a grocery list. I think the act of writing is an “historic” occurrence that happens in time and place with yourself, the writer, in a recorded moment. It's a very pure unencumbered intersection, and when the words happen they are out of the realm of “good” or “bad” writing. It's a non-judgmental state - “First thought, best thought” is the oft-quoted phrase by Allen Ginsberg, which sums it up.
You’ve been writing some “political” poems in recent years. Is this in response to the presidential regime since 2000?
I've felt since the 2000 election that there was a moral obligation to not “look the other way.” I think it's important to articulate political observations, with some kind of humor and balance, and refuse to be victimized by the corrupt, corporate, “buy your vote” place the country is currently in. Locally, certainly in Marin, people are very active politically, but in a larger overview there is little education on how global politics and economy affects us all. I'm thinking again of Allen Ginsberg, who as a political poet was able to use humor and outrage with an enormous amount of political detective information and skill. He named all the ills, that are still here a generation later. We think times change, but a new generation grows up and sees the problems of the environment and economy are still very much here. Unfortunately.
The new National Poetry Foundation collection of your life’s work is something of a landmark for you, right?
Well, it's always interesting to see if 40-some years of writing hangs together as a life's narrative; What exactly is that story about? I believe in chronology and all my poems are dated. So the book flows like a journal. I think when my first book came out it was really exciting, but I have never found the publication of book has changed my life much. The important thing, as Philip Whalen kept telling me, is to “Just keep on writing. On the days it isn't fun, do something else.”
In her introduction to your latest collection, Linda Russo writes “Kyger returns us to ‘where we are’.” What does “where we are” mean to you?
Awareness of the place you are in. Once you 'know' one place, you know every place, with that same intimate regard, from the ground up. Like the doe with her fawn, eating the birdseed scattered on the feeding table. Whose mother taught her a few years earlier, how to do it, and now she's teaching her baby the same habit. Bad habit. Big wet deer tongue marks on the wood surface.
This mooching doe
munching the fallen apples
from the tree outside the door
doesn’t even bother to move
When I approach her suggesting
She exit — which she does apple
still in mouth bounding
across the overgrazed wild sweet peas
pieces of abalone
So intimate these overcast days
Home is the moment
the quail arrive
July 23, 2004