There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera
Joanne Kyger, edited by Cedar Sigo
Wave Books, $25 (paper)
Poet Joanne Kyger died last year on March 22 at the age of 82, leaving behind a long list of published and unpublished books, an enormous amount of fond goodwill among poets of her own and succeeding generations, and an almost perfect lack of fame. Robert Creeley, a good friend of Kyger’s and a tireless promoter of her work, described this paradox: “[T]he vacant generality of usual ambitions has never been [Kyger’s] interest. . . . She plays a far tighter game.” Documenting her “far tighter game” is the aim of this posthumous collection of Kyger’s writing, There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera, edited by poet Cedar Sigo, her friend and former student. The book has the feel of a scrapbook and the weight of literary history: it includes poems written for Kyger by Anne Waldman, Joe Brainard, and Michael McClure; facsimile reproductions of letters to and from Philip Whalen, Charles Olson, and Lew Welch; photos and hand-lettered broadsides; pages from Kyger’s bird journal and from the Bolinas Hearsay News; and transcripts of interviews that often double as informal craft lectures. Through Sigo’s inspired curating, There You Are gets at two of poetry’s most pressing questions: how to ground poems in the lived life, and how to make “the intimate public.”
There You Are gets at two of poetry’s most pressing questions: how to ground poems in the lived life, and how to make ‘the intimate public.’
Sigo praises “the turning of perception made manifest in [Kyger’s] voice.” This quality is especially present in the journals and in the poems that seem to have been lifted from her daily writing. The poem “Sunday” shows her characteristic supple movement between registers, balancing a gentle, self-mocking inventory of the self with hard-nosed closing lines that make the poem’s stakes plain:
I know I do not suffer more than anyone
in the whole world
But this morning I had to have first thing
2 cigarettes, half a joint,
a poached egg and corned beef hash, 1 piece toast,
2 cups tea
Jung, Williams, shells, stones,
2 slugs rum, depression, rest of joint,
cigarette, 7 Up, and it’s only 10 o'clock
Because I wanted to write a poem
Because I want something to come out of me
You can’t try. I believe in life, I am living
now and for a moment the landscape
This is not “morning writing” à la Julia Cameron, the routinized filling of pages to clear space for creative work. For Kyger, the banal record of her morning’s rituals of procrastination opens into nothing less than a theory of art: our appetites, addictions, and desires shape what we put out, as well as what we take in, and yet these processes of creative consumption and production threaten our ability to inhabit the present, fragile moment. A poem is residue or after-effect, as well as aspiration. Kyger always included date and time at the start of her journal entries, but beyond that she had no rules except to write absolutely for herself and without judgment, if also with considerable discernment. On the often spare pages of her journal, Kyger refined the practice of “the editing that goes on in the ear.” A mere five lines may suffice for the day’s work, but those lines must bear witness to the moment—and motive—of their making. “If you can’t read your own writing back,” she tells an interviewer, “it’s time to find out what or how you want to write things.”
Kyger numbered among her closest friends those who read at Rexroth’s famous Six Gallery reading on Fillmore Street in 1955—including Allen Ginsburg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen—but she steadfastly resisted affiliation with either the San Francisco Renaissance or the Beat movement. When pressed by literary critic Linda Russo about her connection to the Beats especially, Kyger said, “My practice of writing was a lot stricter, coming from the energy of [Jack] Spicer, and someone like Robert Duncan who was opposed to the tendency . . . to let it all dribble out.” While Frank O’Hara was in New York writing his “I-do-this, I-do-that” poems, Kyger was on the opposite coast, sitting zazen, obsessively rereading Olson’s “Projective Verse,” practicing “how to put words on the page, determining . . . where to do your own internal editing,” and sampling all manner of psychotropic substances. “Peyote has its own truth. It’s hard to misuse it,” she tells one interviewer, helpfully. She read and admired Lorine Niedecker’s work in Origin, Cid Corman’s magazine, where Kyger’s own work would later be published. With respect to aesthetic philosophy and literary style, There You Are situates Kyger at the disciplined edge of the experimental vanguard.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, Kyger’s book offers evidence of the violent misogyny branded into and between the lines of twentieth-century American poetry.
And yet socially Kyger was at the center. Writing, reading, meditating, and tripping were the main enterprises of this amped-up scene. Kyger earned the nickname “Miss Kids” from her characteristic way of entering a room: “Hey, kids! I've got a great idea. . . .” In a letter to poet George Stanley, Duncan lavished pages of appreciation on Kyger’s first major poem “The Maze” in 1958, after he heard her read the poem in one of the Sunday afternoon readings writers from this milieu held in apartments around the city. The following year, Spicer registered Kyger’s “currency as an artist,” publishing her first poem in his J magazine. Although Donald Allen omitted Kyger from the New American Poetry in 1960, four years later, his expression of interest in publishing her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, prompted Kyger to say that she had “learned that [she] was ‘okay’ as a writer, whereas before [she] wasn’t sure.” By 1968 Charles Olson affectionately addressed Kyger as “the premier poetissima of the Medium. Wow.”
Despite these shows of approval, it was just as likely, in what one contemporary called “the theatre of cruelty” of the Bay Area arts scene, to be snubbed, ridiculed, or attacked by a fellow poet in an alcoholic fury. Kyger recalls one night when Jay Blaise and Lew Welch tried “to fix Jack [Kerouac] up with a girl,” and her deadpan account allows the rage to seep through:
Jay knows this girl. She’s in such bad shape she’ll fuck anyone. She has a glass of whiskey by her bed. Just waiting for Jay to call. She’ll do it. What a heartless use of women! I throw a gallon of wine at Jay. It breaks on the wall and a flying piece of glass cuts him over the eyebrow. Lew Welch jumps up and down screaming, You Spoil Everything.
This is the same Lew Welch, Kyger’s friend, who the following year wrote her a letter full of writing advice and confessions of his own depression and loneliness, punctuated with ambivalent endearments: “I bless you with my little beach shell. (smack!),” and signing off “yr-very-best-frin-in-the-whol-worl, Lew.” In the current context of the #MeToo movement and the work of feminist organizations such as VIDA on behalf of women writers, Kyger’s book comes forward with dispositive evidence of the violent misogyny branded into and between the lines of twentieth-century American poetry. Then, as now, cruelty is unevenly inflicted in the theater of literary production.
A choice bit of correspondence between Whalen and Kyger illustrates what it was like for Kyger to negotiate and navigate her way through this “barbed-wire flak of bitchery,” a scene of peril which also served as her home base of artistic and personal support. In a letter from Whalen to Kyger in 1967 (beautifully handwritten on featherweight, Air Mail stationery, sent from Japan), Whalen rehearses at length the details of his own book contract with Corinth and checks in with the antiwar riots in the United States, before turning at last to the writing concerns Kyger must have confessed to him:
As for poetry, I expect you’re just ‘wrung out’ temporarily, after having finished so much work. How well do you know Chaucer? Shakespeare & his contemporaries? The Greek Lyric poets? Medieval European stuff? Dante? Sanskrit poetry newly translated? David Hawkes translation of the Ch’u Tsŭ? IT AIN’T DEAD. Love, Phil.
Self-promotion and paternalism masquerade as support. Two years later, Kyger buoys Whalen in a letter: “It’s about time Don Allen did a book of yours, when you’ve already become rich and famous, and your popularity poll is up.” Recounting having to soothe the fragile egos of other male friends who were upset that their books were not on display at City Lights, Kyger concludes, “As for myself, I am content to be empress of the world.”
For all the dysfunction and insecurity around her, Kyger remained remarkably sturdy. She unwaveringly eschewed “the ruthless and useless activity” of academia, and was dumbfounded by the very fact of the AWP. She was always attuned to the pragmatic problems of where one’s food comes from and how to pay the rent so as to enable the writing life. Ultimately, her own work was sustained by her Buddhism and her friendships (and her marriages, to Gary Snyder, Jack Boyce, Peter Warshall, and Donald Guravich), especially in the insular community of Bolinas, California, where she lived from 1972 until her death, and at Naropa where she taught for many years in the summer writing program.
Kyger unwaveringly eschewed ‘the ruthless and useless activity’ of academia, and was dumbfounded by the very fact of the AWP. She was always attuned to the problems of where one’s food comes from and how to pay the rent.
“The only way a voice gets strong is by writing in a group,” she asserted. In answer to an interviewer’s suggestion that one’s voice might get “meshed in” with other voices, she argued, “But that’s great . . . I don’t see how you get strong unless you do that, unless everybody goes in and out of each other’s stories or words or sounds or plots or themes.” She concluded, “The less that’s held private for that strength, the better.” In this gregarious model of art-making, Kyger resembled Creeley, who made as many works with fellow poets and visual artists as he made alone. (In 1999–2000, the New York Public Library staged an extraordinary exhibit of Creeley’s collaborations; the generously illustrated catalog, In Company, makes a perfect companion to There You Are.) Kyger’s own collaborative work was unearthed recently in an exhibit of Northern California art at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, which included an experimental television piece by Kyger performing her poem, “Descartes and the Splendor of.” The show took its exuberant and hyperextended title from Kyger’s work: “So I traveled a great deal. I met George, Ebbe, Joy, Philip, Jack, Rober, Dora, Harold, Jerome, Ed, Mike, Tom, Bill, Harvey, Sheila, Irene, John, Michael, Mertis, Gai-fu, Jay, Jim, Anne, Kirby, Allen, Peter, Charles, Drummond, Cassandra, Pamela, Marilyn, Lewis, Ted, Clayton, Cid, Barbara, Ron, Richard, tony, Paul, Anne, Russell, Larry, Link, Anthea, Martin, Jane, Don, Fatso, Clark, Anja, Les, Sue, and Brian.” “The advantage of being a poet?” she said in interview. “The advantage of being a poet is you get to know other poets! [Laughter.]”
The terms of Kyger’s literary life have uncanny relevance in today’s “po’ biz,” dominated as it is by social media. It is tempting to view Kyger as a proto-Tweeter: the compulsive sociality, “the push to dailiness” and “pieces of mood.” 2012, one of her last books, reads “like a little bulletin board of messages.” Nonetheless, like the many poets today who wring their iPhones over selfie culture, Kyger was alarmed by “the crowded ‘I’” and its “watch-my-mind gymnastics.” After all was said and done, Kyger would no doubt have advocated dropping out of what poet Dana Levin calls “the ambition and yearning and doubting and shame.” There are “several selves that move one self around, thousands jiggling,” she wrote in a prose poem from 1974, as if addressing the current parade of self-promotion: “It is so inappropriate to be unfound, whine around, hesitate, lock the windows again, this body is dissipated.” In a recent Facebook thread on poetry and fame, poet Martha Silano wrote, “I wake up feeling invisible and go to sleep the same. The work in between is all that matters.” Kyger would sympathize and approve: “Keep your hand in, keep your ear in, keep your voice in.” To Silano, to the many poets who share her sense of vulnerability, and to herself, Kyger offers the reassurance that “poetry’s an ally itself”: “A more open mind can bring out a little more space, a little more wonder, more congratulations, which is something I would like to do.”