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Joanne Kyger: A Bloomsday Interview in NYC

Interview by Trevor Carolan

A mid-June morning in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood is a comfortable time to approach an interview with a respected poet like Joanne Kyger. If it’s Bloomsday and the sun is shining, a stop for coffee at Café Eros at Seventh Ave. and 21st is a good place to review the architecture of the conversation ahead before the day heats up. It’s a friendly part of town, built to human scale; there are flower-sellers on the corners and black-bibbed sparrows on the curb. Kyger herself is in town for an Asia Society Soul of Asia symposium— convened through the generous patronage of Harold and Ruth Newman. Addressing ‘what drew the Beats to India and how they inspired successive generations of Americans to turn to the East for spiritual and creative wisdom’, the participants include distinguished poets, translators, Beat Lit biographers, and a group of authors invited from India. There’s a sense of historical importance about this gathering, a testimony to the company Kyger has enjoyed throughout her long, productive career.

Never confined to any one camp, Kyger’s poetry and celebrated Japan and India Journals have been informed at times by Black Mountain and Beat poetics, and since taking up residence in Bolinas, California in 1969, by an acute awareness of and commitment to place. Nature literate and known pre-eminently as a poet-of-the-moment, her poetry reflects the basic Buddhist premise of dwelling in the present, an approach to documenting experience and occasion that she shares with such fellow travellers as Phillip Whalen, John Weiners, and Ted Berrigan, the latter a New Yorker. In this, Kyger represents an independent poetic voice—but more importantly a poetic eye—curiously bridging both the nature-attuned West Coast/ San Francisco tradition and the New York School of O’Hara, Schuyler, and Ashbery with its non-linear narrative ethos. In itself this poetic shape-shifting traces back to the European tradition of Beaudelaire’s ‘urban pastoral’ with its simultaneity of time, mental impression and emotion—what Charles Olson would remake via T.S. Eliot as Proprioception theory, recording what the eye sees in the moment. As the 800 pages of Kyger’s About Now: Collected Poems (National Poetry Foundation) confirm, this has been her practice throughout much of the past four decades. Unsurprisingly, she has been variously claimed by Language-Centered poets, and by scholars subscribing to one or another of the early tribes with whom she consorted. But defying any easy typecasting, Kyger remains simply a California poetic original. She met with PRRB international editor Trevor Carolan on Bloomsday at the loft home and office of Vincent Katz, publisher of Kyger’s new collection, Not Veracruz (Libellum Books).

PRRB: Joanne, you’ve recently come out with your ‘big’ book—About Now: Collected Poems, at 800 pages. When Allen Ginsberg come out with his Collected Poems back in ’84, it seemed monumental. Here you’ve been at it all the while too, quietly, steadily plugging away. Any thoughts on the role of the ‘little books’ that individually reflect a life in the craft, that cumulatively shape your masterwork?

JK: Yes, the smaller book are the ones you can pick up and carry around. They have an intimate feel. I call my Collected Poems a ‘doorstop,’ —and there’s Ted Berrigan’s Collected work and Philip Whalen’s as well These books are useful; they’re a kind of library work—you can refer to them, but they’re not intimate in the way that you can easily handle them. I find that when I want to refer to a poem, I generally go back to the small press edition because I know where that poem is.

PRRB: Your early San Francisco Bay Area involvement with the craft brought you into association with the Duncan-Spicer group. Several of those personalities would move on to Canada and become citizens—George Stanley, Robin Blaser, Stan Persky. Can you tell us something about the mood and flavour of those times?

JK: Around ’57 I moved to North Beach from Santa Barbara where I’d been a university student studying philosophy and literature. Paul Wienpahl, my Philosophy professor was teaching Wittgenstein, and Heidigger’s thoughts about ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’. Then D.T. Suzuki’s translations of Zen Buddhists texts became available, it seemed the inevitable next step.

It was through John Weiners and Joe Dunn that I met the rest of the people in an informal Sunday group, taught by Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. Everyone hung out in a little bar called The Place. George Stanley was there, Dora Fitzgerald who was married to Harold Dull, Ebbe Borregaard, George Stanley and the others. After Black Mountain broke up in ’56, a lot of poets followed Duncan out to San Francisco. Also painters like Tom Field and Paul Alexander. Spicer and Duncan started teaching these various poets informally and I guess that’s when Spicer started the Magic workshop, of which I wasn’t a part. There’s a very readable book about this period by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian called Poet Be Like God. It’s a somewhat picaresque view of what was going on in the Duncan-Spicer group scene at that time.

PRRB: What it was like to be young and hungry for poetry within such an artistic milieu?

JK: It was totally exciting. It was like going to ‘actual’ school. I had a small apartment obtained from a friend, on Columbus Avenue, a few blocks away from City Lights bookstore in North Beach. I was working at Brentano’s bookstore and the whole Howl trial had come down at that time. Before this in Santa Barbara I’d associated with a young group of writers and with a sculptor named Mark DiSuvero, who became fairly well known. With a few others we started their first literary magazine. My writing hadn’t really developed yet; actually, I wrote a column, humorous journalism, for the college newspaper. I still wasn’t sure what poetry was.

PRRB: You’d studied with Hugh Kenner at UC Santa Barbara though…

JK: Yes, he was teaching Freshman English, introducing Pound and W.C. Williams. At this time Pound wasn’t even allowed to be taught at any of the U.S. schools. Kenner was Canadian, the campus was fairly new, and there were a few people from Germany who had come and who were specifically interested in studying Pound; so Kenner was something of an anomaly. I didn’t know how to write. I wrote with a great deal of emotion, and I wrote for the school newspaper, but I didn’t know how to spell, and I didn’t write in real sentences. Nothing I wrote was polished and Kenner thought I wrote a column that parodied him—I was reading James Thurber and Robert Benchley, a lot of satirists—and he gave me a D in freshman English! When I came to San Francisco and read Howl, that was such a different order of emotion and language—I was immediately thrilled by it. Then I began participating in this small group after being introduced by John Wieners and Joe Dunn, who had been students at Black Mountain College. Jack Spicer was encouraging Joe Dunn to print a small series of White Rabbit books, these little 25¢ books—they did Charles Olson, Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, Borregaard, Stanley... So these little books were coming around and they were easy to read. I was still thinking about what poetry was, and by reading some of my own pieces, which I had started to write, I found myself being accepted; I was on my way then.

PRRB: Any reflections about the larger influence of that period on your own work, your own life and times?

JK: Well, I went to Japan January 1960, after I’d met Gary Snyder in ’58. He’d come back over from Japan and read at one of the Sunday meetings and I was really taken by him and his poetry, his direction. When I came to North Beach in ’57, everyone said “Oh, you should have been here last year; Kerouac was here, everyone was here then…”

PRRB: Speaking of Kerouac and Snyder, there’s a reference in one of your early poems, from “Journal, Oct. 9, 1958” to the ‘Dharma Committee’. What was that?

JK: I think that was when The Dharma Bums had come out. Spicer has this Dada surrealist sense, you know, having encounters in bars, totally non-academic environments. He loved to set us up. The dharma committee was kind of a joke, like Spicer saying, “So you’re interested in Snyder are you—Well, let’s start a Dharma Committee…” I didn’t even know what dharma meant, Spicer really encouraged this surrealist humour to go on.

PRRB: It’s surely one of the earlier references to dharma in American culture, but that’s Kerouac for you…

JK: Jack had a very keen ear and was writing things down all the time in his pocket notebook. It’s pretty clear if you read his letters that he was writing exact renditions of what was going on. He was one of the best typists I’ve ever seen. He was able to transcribe very quickly what was going on, to go with whatever he saw, and with such style. He and Ginsberg and Burroughs read a lot of James Joyce out loud and they went into improvisations: they’d make up characters and act out little scenes for each other. They had a flair for the dramatic, besides the open-ended sentence: I think Joyce gave Jack especially an open mind, an open consciousness in his writing.

PRRB: It’s Bloomsday today, of course. Was Kerouac’s French-Canadian/Atlantic sensibility welcomed by the San Francisco Lit community?

JK: The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance didn’t have anything to do with the Beats at all. It had to do with the Berkeley Renaissance group that was basically Spicer and Duncan and the teachers they had there, along with Helen Adams, James Broughton, Landis Everson, Robin Blaser, and a few others, as well as William Everson. There were others who were interested, in communal living. Rexroth of course, was seminal in terms of a kind of socialist political stance, and his familiarity with the California landscape. Radio station KPFA had also started up in 1947. This energy moved across the bay to San Francisco—San Francisco always had its own culture, style, artists, politics. When I was there the Beats were considered a New York City phenomenon, coming and causing a lot of Grey Line tourist bus trips that would go through North Beach and cause a hullabaloo. There was a certain amount of resentment against this much-publicized phenomenon of the Beats, the Beatniks.

PRRB: At some point you encountered the Pacific Northwest poetry contingent—Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen. Is it possible to quantify what their influence brought to Bay Area arts and letters?

JK: Perhaps in terms of work specific to location. The Six Gallery reading was a meeting, a collision of all the groups—the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, Ginsberg/the Beats from New York. You had Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Rexroth as the M.C., Kerouac was there, Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen. Spicer was going to be part of it, but he was stuck back east, and Duncan was in Majorca or teaching at Black Mountain. It wasn’t only the San Francisco people who were blessed by the alchemy of that historic event.

PRRB: Somewhere in all of this there’s the East-West House that you were involved with…

JK: Essentially, East-West House, was modeled after the Institute for Asian Studies when Alan Watts, among others, taught other like-minded people in Asian Studies. It closed and a group of students decided that they would start a communal house in which people who were interested could study Buddhist texts, Japanese, and go to Japan. Snyder had already gone there on his own. Gia-fu Feng, a translator from Chinese whose edition of the Tao Te Ching is still circulating, was living there too; also Claude Dahlenberg,and Philip Whalen. Gai-fu went down to Big Sur and become part of the beginnings of the centre at Esalen. I was there at the East West House in 1959 for a year and the house had been running for some years by then. They had sort of loosened their constraints and allowed women, and other non Japan-directed people to live there, But by then I was planning to go to Japan. There was an overflow of people from East-West House and so they started something called Hyphen House, which was the hyphen between East and West. That was a few blocks away in what is now Japantown. Close by there was the Soto Buddhist temple where Shunryu Suzuki was invited to come and be the priest for the Japanese community in the Spring of 1959. He started zazen practice in the morning, open to everyone. He became the catalyst for beginning the Zen Center of San Francisco. I learned to sit there, during the year I spent at the East West House before going to Japan.
PRRB: Before we head to Kyoto, can we get some sense of what the Pacific Northwest poets brought to arts and letters in San Francisco? A nature literacy? For example, attention to birdlife, to local flora is persistent throughout your writing…

JK: When Lew Welch came he brought a particular kind of high energy. He also lived at East-West House for a while. Phillip Whalen’s observations were always his own, from his own original and quirky mind. Snyder was more formal, using native American texts, his own work experiences, and explorations of the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think it was until I moved to Bolinas in 1969 that I really entered into a close relationship with the land around me in my writing. About the birds who live here: to this day the quail are probably my closest neighbours. You get used to watching what’s going on around you; you get to know what they’re saying—the scrub jay announcing when someone is arriving. Bolinas is the location of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, started back around 1965 and is a very well-known organization. They started banding birds and studying them and received enough endowments and patrons that they’ve begun studying birds farther afield—like the penguins in Antarctica. This is a great location for birds here, with a lagoon for blue herons and American egrets, many migrating ducks. Every year when the gold crown sparrows come down from the north, with the white-crowns—they have the Gold-Crown Festival. The gold-crowns have a very singular song, three descending notes. And they usually arrive right on the autumnal equinox.

PRRB: So you’re readying for Japan… What was the feel of things as you were gearing up to leave?

JK: Don Allen edited the second edition of Evergreen Review which was called ‘the San Francisco Scene’, because by then the San Francisco Renaissance had already mixed with this Beat thing and it was a cultural phenomenon. Something was happening. It had become a way of dressing, of semi-dropping out, of music and jazz with poetry, smoking grass—a cultural attitude that was a gigantic contrast against what the mainstream ‘50s were all about. Music was certainly a part of the North Beach scene—there was the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, There were famous clubs to hear jazz. John Weiners gave me Olson’s “Projective Verse” to read, and as a way of looking at writing and the page it was extremely important to me. Duncan had come to represent this attitude of the poet, of believing that you lived the life of the poet. Spicer was this cutting-edge sort of bullshit-detector all the time—whether a poem was true…you could tell if someone was faking it. “Poetry” poetry was out to lunch, so there was an astute sense of where you were coming from. These were valuable teachers.

PRRB: And so Japan…

JK: The four years I spent in Japan were spent more or less reading what was there in the British and American Cultural libraries. There was Cid Corman’s Origin magazine, where I first read Lorine Neidecker …I was just practicing my own work—how to put words on the page, determining what’s important; and when your emotion is going to take over, where to do your own internal editing before the work gets to the page. There were a number of figures writing or translating in the local community—Philip Yampolsky, Burton Watson, and the young poet Clayton Eshleman. Clayton was studying informally with Cid Corman—he was eager to find out things.
And then I also practiced ‘sitting’. There were no books to read about Zen, in English then, and I was encouraged just to pay attention to breathing.

PRRB: You returned to California…

JK: After four years away I came back. Don Allen had visited and he wanted to publish my first book, The Tapestry and the Web. I found out that I was ‘okay’ as a writer, where as before I wasn’t sure. Stan Persky started publishing something called Open Space magazine in 1964 which was very important. He put it out every month and ran things by Robin Blaser, Ebbe Borregaard, Lew Ellingham, etc. and everyone kind of turned everyone else on. I wrote a series of poems for him; Stan was still working in North Beach, so that was the cultural center.

Then there was the l965 Poetry Conference in Berkley and that essentially established certain poetry-political lines. Spicer died after that. I believe that’s when Warren Tallman invited Robin to come up to Vancouver and Stan went up with him; George Stanley too, I think. Weren’t they offered jobs? That made a big difference.

PRRB: Did any other writers from that era that have an influence upon you?
JK: Albert Saijo. He published a little book about hiking in the sierras, and then more recently Outspeaks, from Bamboo Ridge Press. It’s one of my favourite books of poetry. He’s so direct about what he does and says. He was there at the beginning of the psychedelic ‘revolution’ in San Francisco. Lived at the East West House. Learned Zen meditation from Nyogen Senzaki in the late 1940’s in Los Angeles. Very unaffected. He was a close friend of Lew Welch and Philip Whalen and Gary. A very modest fellow.

PRRB: When you came back from Japan the Vietnam War was escalating. Did it affect the way you thought about your work?

JK: Yes, but not overwhelmingly so. I lived in New York City, 1966-67, for a year and was part of a whole group there that became the Yippies. I worked doing some demonstrations with Keith Lampe (Ponderosa Pine), and ‘flower power’ became one of our slogans. One of the Yippie group, Ed Sanders is responsible for trying to levitate the Pentagon, although Allen Ginsberg is often given credit for that. After the Be-In in San Francisco, we decided we should have something in Central Park and called it the ‘Spring Out’. People smoked banana peels. But California was still more open about having a psychedelic revolution, dropping out, and generally being more politically confrontational.

PRRB: During your years away you travelled India with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlosky and your then-husband, Gary Snyder. Regarding your experience there or in Japan, can you speak to how Buddhism, or dharma practice might relate to your writing? You’ve mentioned at the symposium how one comes to pay attention to the moment, to details.

JK: In India I became aware of this historical phenomena called ‘Buddhism’ which had 2500 years of ‘moments’. Seeing the origins of Buddhism in India, the Bodhi Tree, the Deer Park at Sarnath, Vulutre’s Peak, the great university of Nalanda, all in this cultural context of India, was an awakening. So ‘world history’ became an awareness in my writing.

In Japan, since I didn’t have a teacher, I learned the patience of sitting. That there isn’t really any where to ‘go’, although your mind surely wants to move like a rabbit.

PRRB: You’ve also mentioned from your experience in India how you observed that when the Tibetans brought their diaspora down to India’s historical Buddhist sites, they also brought their devotionalism…

JK: Buddhism had not been practiced for centuries in India, although all the historical places related to the Buddha had been carefully tended to by British archeologists
as part of a historical past. Then all of a sudden these places became full of the devotional energy of the Tibetans, with their friendly energy, and the power of the Vajrayana Himalayas with them.

PRRB: You’ve been associated with Naropa University and its writing programs. Allen Ginsberg used to say, ‘Teach what you know—your own practice, own awareness…” Anything recommended for writers who may be coming up now?

JK: It depends on what you know. I guess there could be a certain number of frisbee players teaching their practice. But how do recognize or find what your awareness, and practices are? Travel is certainly a way to see the world and your place in it. Understanding that you are in, a part of, a lineage of writers and teachers. That you didn’t invent your ‘awareness’, your practice—but are nonetheless individual in your own way and your understanding is unique.

PRRB: Allen also used to say that the duty of the poet is to expand consciousness…

JK: Yes, he said, after experiencing the power of yage, expand your consciousness so it encompasses your own death. Good advice. If you can do it. But don’t you think we are already a part of that ‘expanded consciousness’, that it has already happened?

PRRB: Have you any response to the idea that Allen Ginsberg ‘walked out’ at a certain critical moment from the Beat celebrity that ultimately killed Jack Kerouac? In ’62 Allen dropped off the radar and ended up travelling in India, part of it with you and your then-husband…

JK: After reading Kaddish at the San Francisco Poetry Center, he traveled to South America for six months, by himself, initially to take part in a reading with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Chile, and then went on to travel in South America on the yage trail. He took it eight times, altogether, and then he decided he needed a teacher, which he thought he could find in India. He probably dropped out of sight from the heightened publicity surrounding the Beat Generation at that time, but returned from his travels and helped facilitate the counter-culture revolution in the early 60’s. Also he never really drank alcohol, so didn’t have Kerouac’s problems in that regard.

PRRB: In the various individually published accounts of that journey there are points of subtle (and not sometimes not so subtle) discrimination between how some group experiences are reported by Allen, Gary and yourself…Anything about your own personal approach in this?

JK: My journals were written on the spot. Gary’s were written after he returned, as a letter. And Allen’s were edited. Being the sole woman on the trip, there were
of course differences, in the physicalities of travel. But that would be true of any trip.

PRRB: After meeting with a youthful Dalai Lama, you come away and write in your journal that Allen “Actually believes he knows it all, but just wishes he felt better about it…”

JK: A slightly sarcastic tone, but true, I think.

PRRB: You’ve already got one other new collection of poetry out following your Collected—Not Veracruz (Libellum). What’s your sense of the poetic grounding in this mature work?

JK: Grounding? Hopefully, the simpler, the better.

Trevor Carolan is the international editor of PRRB.