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There You Are

Review by Colin James Sanders

There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera
Joanne Kyger
Edited by Cedar Sigo
Wave Books, 2017

The whole occupation of poet, if it does exist as an identity in the current society, is one that has to do with a spiritual, cultural practice of words, and can’t be ‘bought.’
~ Joanne Kyger

This marvellous and exacting collection is required reading for persons interested in the history of the San Francisco Renaissance and the poets who emerged within that community. Specifically, this collection situates Joanne Kyger (1934-1917) as the principle female poet within a community and poetry scene dominated by men. This evocative and enchanting posthumous collection, There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera, is thoughtfully edited by Cedar Sigo, a poet of the Suquamish Nations, Washington, who studied with Kyger at Naropa University and living now in San Francisco. Resulting from Sigo’s superb editorial efforts, this collection offers a revealing addition towards comprehending the wide range of influences and enchantments informing Kyger’s practice as a poet. Sigo’s Introduction provides a valuable, informative, biographical graph of Kyger’s life, illustrated with a few personal anecdotes.

This rich collection contains letters to Kyger from dear friends, including Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Charles Olson; brief recollections by Kyger of Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac and of Gregory Corso; photographs; India journal entries; a facsimile of a poem to Kyger by Ann Waldman and one by Michael McClure, in addition to other ephemera, as noted in the subtitle. Importantly, the several interviews collected in this volume capture Kyger at different moments along the path of her lifetime, providing, overall, an account of an existence lived intentionally, simply, thoughtfully and non-materialistically; an existence especially attuned to local ecology, and attention to, and deep appreciation for, a poetic articulation of the daily commonplace.

In conversation with Paul Watsky in 2013, Kyger recounts her mother was Irish and Scottish, one of eleven children, born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; her mother’s family moved in 1914 to Long Beach, California. Kyger, born in Vallejo, California, in 1934, attended high school in Santa Barbara, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studied with some “excellent teachers” including Canadian literary critic “Hugh Kenner, who taught Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and Paul Wienpahl, who taught Wittgenstein and Heidegger.” Of Wienpahl, Kyger observed, “He showed us how Heidegger’s ‘nothing’ was the bridge into D.T. Suzuki’s Buddhist nothingness”, perhaps providing inspiration towards Kyger’s own decades’ long interest in Buddhism, an integral thread woven throughout the kinship of her friendships and practices.
Moving to San Francisco in 1957, Kyger became part of a community of poets, artists, and musicians associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, at the time a community evolving around the poets Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser.

Moving in 1960 to Japan, “…because I was really interested in studying Buddhism”, she married Gary Snyder (they divorced in 1965). Together, they travelled through Japan and India, where, along with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, they met the young Dalai Lama, not yet thirty. Sections of Kyger’s journals from her time in India, appear in There You Are.

Though immersed in a predominantly male poetic milieu, Kyger evolved her own unique voice, becoming a respected and integral member of the San Francisco Renaissance, publishing her first book of poetry in 1965, The Tapestry and the Web. Eschewing ambition, competitiveness, and fame Kyger, her friend, poet Robert Creeley observed, “…has had no interest in the usual market place of this art [poetry], the anthologies, appointments, etc. Yet this fact has nothing to do with a Puritan austerity of purpose. Rather, she lives so explicitly where she is and with what she has as daily factor, that some projection of it all into the vacant generality of usual ambitions has never been her interest.” Introducing Kyger at a poetry reading in Buffalo, April 2, 1982, Creeley referred to her as “the First Lady of Poetry”, distinguishing her writing from others’ proposing, “There is no poet with more whimsically tough a mind, no one who moves faster in a seeming offhand attention and purpose.”

Kyger left San Francisco in 1969 to live in the still unincorporated town of Bolinas, north of San Francisco. In conversation with Trevor Carolan, Kyger reflected, “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.” Bolinas would become a central focus within the constellation and synergy of Kyger’s poetry. “Perhaps compulsively I always date all my writing, even to the hour sometimes. I feel writing is an occurrence, a happening, an intersection of the writer and time and place. The writing happens in the natural world of seasons, weather, tides. Where is the sun, where is the moon? This ‘real’ world is there in concert with the writer’s words, moods, muse.”

In a conversation with Chris McCreary, Kyger said, “I’ve always lived a West Coast, more or less rural, life. In this world, the emergence of a regional history has given us a language of geographical and environmental awareness.” Though Kyger lived within the biosphere and community of Bolinas, she was not reclusive; in interviews collected here, Kyger’s thought weaves between poetics and politics. For years, Kyger attended to local developments as editor for the Bolinas Hearsay News, and reproduced here are facsimiles of the front page of three editions, one illustrated by Philip Whalen, one by Kyger’s longtime Bolinas friend, artist Arthur Okamura, and one by her partner, Donald Guravich. According to Kyger, the newspaper would publish “…announcements concerning roads, water usage, the Fire Department, the school, etc., and agendas for meetings for all pertinent organizations…”; it also published the minutes of meetings, and Kyger observed how “It makes the ‘government’ here much more transparent. The paper works as a community bulletin in which everyone is a ‘reporter’ – the only requirement being that you sign your name.”

Beginning around 1972, Kyger also lived in parts of Mexico for varying periods of time; her first Mexican trip was to San Cristobal de las Casas, where “The ancestral spirits of the Mayan people have never left…” Interestingly, given the current divisive debate regarding NAFTA, Kyger observed, “There is no denying there is striking poverty in Mexico and NAFTA seems to add to it. Simply put, NAFTA has had horrible consequences for a vast majority of Mexicans – the working poor, small farmers, etc…Safety, environmental and wage laws have been eroded.” In Mexico, Kyger witnessed how “Globalization is a real threat to the support of ‘endangered cultures’” and presciently reflected, “I think the very form of our government with ‘a’ president at the top is archaic, patriarchal, dangerous.”

Kyger published more than thirty books of poetry and prose; this posthumous collection selected by Sigo reveals the mind and presence within this body of writing that is consistently thoughtful, erudite and illuminating. Request that your local library purchase the book, and engage with the elegant poetic articulation of the ineffable, mysterious, and commonplace which she bequeathed us.

Colin James Sanders PhD reviews frequently for PRRB. Colin writes from B.C.’s Sunshine Coast.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #23