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Jack Spicer

Linda Russo
 
"to be Jack Spicer in a dream" :
Joanne Kyger and the San Francisco Renaissance, 1957-65 
 

 

This piece is three thousand words or about seven printed pages long.
A list of works cited appears at the end of this file.
 

 
"They're not trying to make it with her," one of the group says. "They're faggots. She's a queen bee -- you know, a faggot's moll. I have a theory that all of San Francisco is a faggot's moll. They're only attracted to her because they want to be like her. "
 
This description, transcribed poets' chatter overheard in The Place, partial fabrication or thoroughly imaginative creation from Joanne Kyger's autobiographical writings ("a dreadful portrait of myself"), provides an unabashed glimpse of the context in which her early poetry was written and received. Kyger was one of few women numbered among the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance who clustered around Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. At the Sunday Meetings and in the little magazines J and Open Space she would bring to poetry "the self that wanted to articulate itself in the world, [as] a human self, with all attendant identity anxieties." Women writing in the fifties faced the dilemma that they were inarticulate, at once mysterious and profoundly revelatory, Muses who would inspire but were themselves incapable of writing 'real' poetry she can't after all take for herself a muse-figure, and she certainly can't be muse to herself. But for Kyger the question of her poetic identity was not a primarily "male / female question" in that, thoroughly aware of what it 'meant' to be a woman contra what it 'meant' to be a poet, she would not choose for herself an oppositional, sexed role (Kyger, "Thoughts"). As this passage suggests, Kyger enjoyed acting the part of The Muse and it is perhaps no coincidence that in the company of gay male poets she managed, by returning to the source, Homer's Odyssey, to poetically address the sexual (and intellectual) anxieties that bolstered the poet/muse binary and then break with them.
 

 

Kyger arrived in San Francisco in 1957 during the Howl obscenity trials as a recent near-graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara. She was a little too late to establish some ground from which she could be swept up in the embrace of Donald Allen's New American Poetry (1960), and though something might be made of her exclusion whether it were to blame for her status as a 'missing' female poet of the 'Beat generation,'* years later Allen would ask her for a manuscript he would soon thereafter publish, Kyger's first book, The Tapestry and The Web (1965), a worrying and weaving of materials Spicerian, Homeric and Female.

* [Relatively little has been made of her in the anthologies and literary histories that seek to recapture and contextualize the San Francisco of the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance, with the exception of the hasty genealogies of anthologies specific to women writers that inadvertantly 'misplace' Kyger as a female Beatnik. Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian's Poet, Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance is an exception. Alan Golding's "The New American Poetry Revisited, Again" (Contemporary Literature 39 [1998]) also illuminates.]
The intervening years were to provide for Kyger, who quickly was taken to and taken up into the energetic North Beach scene, a sense of herself as a poet among poets. Jerome Mallman, a young painter, first introduced her to 1546 Grant Avenue, The Place, "where it is really happening. Champagne $4 a fifth and beer 25 a glass." Here she became acquainted with a group of young artists and poets that gathered around Jack Spicer, many of whom had arrived from the recently-dispersed Black Mountain College. Kyger, "not wanting to miss a single thing," was attracted to the social and poetic atmosphere that Spicer created: "Jack encouraged outrageous behavior in us. He was an aider and abetter"(Ellingham 50). with his jeers and insults, instigating Monday's "Blabbermouth Night." Joe Dunn and John Wieners nicknamed her "Miss Kids" because she called everyone "Kids" and invited her to the weekly Sunday Meetings at Joe and Carolyn Dunn's apartment.

 

 
Writing was "in the air" and the air, Kyger sensed, was of two kinds: "there was the writing that was more disciplined, like say of Spicer and Duncan; and there was this kind of free Beatnik-type writing, Beatitude-type . . . there was poetry and jazz happening down in the Cellar, so you have this kind of long lament that goes on a la Rexroth-style, which is a kind of free-floating/kind of bee-bop-type language"
(Ellingham 45). It was "the specificness of Spicer" rather than open-ended beatnik bee-bop that came to instruct Kyger's early poetry. In Admonitions Spicer instructs

Break
Your poem
Like you would cut a grapefruit
Make
It go to sleep for you
And each line (There is no Pacific Ocean) And make each line
Cut itself. Like seaweed thrown
Against the pier.
 
("For Harvey")
Such a specificity and materiality of line-breaking would become central to Kyger's very visually broken poems. Words would be specific to poems and not necessarily the world, as in "There is no Pacific Ocean," and would there make their own truth: the poem would not have to mirror the world but reflect against/on it. As Spicer put it in Admonitions, "one does not make a mirror to resemble a person, one brings a person to the mirror." For Kyger "things" (stones, persimmons, a tree, Jack Spicer in a dream) are seen but palpable, moved and carried around. They are "images of the past" and yet "an entirely new thing each time," a rock might move but "oh where does it go"? Things do not recede into their images. The poem made of words not as referents but as "waves chuck full of things to happen."
              Those things we see are images of the past
 
          From now, always, on the turning point, viewing back
                                                    and that delicious interpretation
is the world, HOW CLEVER OF US
 
                              An entirely new thing each time
                blind or not about it, always inventive seeing
                    stones,
      persimmons,
moving a stone in dirt, oh where does it go
              she's fleet footed
      to be a tree, to be Jack Spicer in a dream
              to carry this around all day.     and every night
      the waves chuck full of things to happen
 
                                                    As clear as you can See
                it's done, isn't it, isn't that a fact.
The "delicious interpretation" is merely "clever." It is not in retrospection, "viewing back" that one sees the world -- one may as well be "blind or not about it, always inventive." As in Spicer's notion of 'Dictation' where "there is a difference between you and the Outside of you which is writing poetry," in Kyger's poetry she tries "to keep as much of [her]self as possible out of the poem"(Gizzi 8). This directive would prove impossible for Kyger. Herself as muse and medium, rewriting woman's tapestry-making role in the Odyssey meant entangling it in her own willful vision of that which is "as clear as you can See." Homeric myth is "pretend," it "escapes" her, and riddled with accusation it is but a web of lies tightly woven to resemble "fact."
We are in a tighter web than I had imagined.
            that story
        about him capturing a girl in the woods was a lie!
The formative and permissive context in which these masculine-myth debunking poems were written and read is easily dismissed next to the more sensational years that preceded its publication, years of studying Zen and living in Japan with Gary Snyder, of travelling to India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and next to the fact that Tapestry came out the year of Spicer's death. But it isn't difficult to uncover a paper trail that reveals a Spicer-Kyger connection attesting to how he "took her under his wing," (Ellingham & Killian, 100) or to see also that Kyger herself was a much valued figure, Queen Bee or not, to a group made up largely of gay male poets.
 
Kyger spent a significant amount of time during San Francisco's 'Spicer years' away from San Francisco. But her time abroad is preceded by two significant events, her first public poetry reading and the dissolution of the Sunday Meetings, and is succeeded by another significant event, the 1964 Berkeley Poetry Conference at which Spicer delivered his last lecture. It is also is framed by her appearance in two significant San Francisco little magazines: J, where she published her first poems, and Open Space to which she contributed numerous times and where she published her first substantial selection -- 6 pages -- of what would become "The Odyssey Poems" in The Tapestry and The Web.
 
Duncan and Spicer were Kyger's "informal, but real teachers" and the Sunday Meetings were her first poetic 'school'
(Kyger, "Thoughts"). The younger writers in the group after hearing Spicer and Duncan read, would read their own work or respond. These were for Kyger "formative times," where she "began to write. So of course it had a lasting influence"(Ellingham 105). The Sunday Meetings were also to be her poetic initiation. Kyger became a 'regular' and got serious after George Stanley told her that "some people are just coming here and treating this like a party"; and though she was shy about reading her work, she did:
I had been hesitantly writing the past nine months, simple pieces, childhood memories. The reading was at Ebbe Borregaard's the Sunday afternoon I read. I remember James Broughton was there and, when I finished reading, said, "Wonderful." Spicer said, "What are your plans for poetry?" Harold Dull said "Shh, leave her alone." One of the most important initiations I ever had . . . I had attained a "voice."
That voice was to guide her through "The Maze," a poem that "came out of being there,"(Ellingham 37) the first poem in The Tapestry and the Web. Lacking what Bill Berkson has called the "bounce and zing" of her line that has come to define much of her work and somewhat less adventuresome visually, it demonstrates the concise line and introduces a number of themes that Tapestry takes up: a positioning of the self in a structure (the maze or cobweb) within which reality is primarily composed by sensual experience (i.e. not an image) and a reimagining of epic material:
The sky disappeared
and I could hear
the sound of water
rushing.
 
I knew
each corner
without pausing.
 
Held captive in a cave
Ulysses
sobbed for his wife
who was singing high
 
melodies
from the center of a
cobweb shawl
of their design.
Spicer was behind Kyger's first public reading at the Beer and Wine Mission on March 7, 1959, "the most important thing to happen" to her before she moved to Japan the next year. A letter she writes to Gary Snyder portrays Spicer's affection:
Jack Spicer and Ebbe Borregaard came over to "help" me get to the reading. Jack was trying to convince me that it was "fashionable" to be late for one's own reading. All he really wanted to do was stay and drink my "fashionable" Madera Rainwater. But at last all six of us got on our way. Except that after I shut and locked the door, Jack Spicer found the telephone cord still wrapped around his leg, which he thought was spaghetti. . . . I was exhausted when I got there because Jack Spicer had his arm around my neck all the way up Greenwich Street. (Kyger)
The next year the Meetings began to dissolve after Duncan and Jess moved to Stinson Beach, draining the momentum, so that, as Duncan wrote in a letter to Robin Blaser, even Spicer felt that the "Sunday afternoon era will pass now"(Ellingham & Killian, 117). Kyger was optimistic, insisting that they try to "do it without Jack . . . [and] find out what [they] really sound like." But for various reasons it didn't work. By this time, though, in the spring of 1959, Kyger had decided to go her own way: she had moved to the East-West House, a communal house for people interested in going to Japan.
 
If the Sunday Meetings were Spicer's school, J was a graduate course. Spicer's J took up publishing roughly where the Sunday Meetings left off and would serve the local community in a similar way: by being "a society," one that constructs itself and thus inheres. "You have to behave within the rule of the society, and if you don't, then there's nothing else." He objected to poets sending to poems to magazines like Poetry, not for their professional or academic affiliations, but because they weren't local. As Spicer said of Open Space, "It was a kind of community of poets using one person who was able to take on the enormous job of doing it"
(Gizzi 166). It came out irregularly, eight issues over 3 years, produced from submissions left in a box in The Place, and there too Spicer hand-distributed it for 25 a copy, intending, as for his own publications, that it stay in the Bay Area. J too was to serve an important initiatory function for Kyger. Undoubtedly J's permissive and accessible submission policy encouraged her to submit Tapestry # 3 ("The eye/ is drawn/ to the Bold/ DESIGN") which came out in the fourth issue. Kyger was ecstatic: "The world changed. I thought people on the street looked at me differently"(Kyger).
 
January 20, 1964, the day Kyger returned to San Francisco from Japan, was also the deadline for the first issue of Stan Persky's Open Space. Spicer was a frequent contributor and correspondent and Persky's confidant, and Open Space maintained Spicer's local vision (submissions were left in a box in Gino & Carlo's bar on Green Street) and more clearly pontificated on the principals instigated by J. Its "Proposition," published in the first issue and repeatedly throughout the year, was to be "'Open Space' -- a working space" and "To make young poets come out of hiding." Spicer summarized, "it was a magazine which went on for one year and purposely just for one year, which simply had all the poets put poems in it, not at final stage but poems as they were writing them. In other words, to encourage other poets to plow the field sort of, and it succeeded fairly well"
(Gizzi, 166).
 
That Kyger was one of those young poets who over that year had to come out of hiding is clear in the last two issues of Open Space. The cover of no. 11 parodies the New American Poetry anthology, announcing itself as "The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary American Verse Edited by Donald M. Allen" and a spoof table of contents includes Abraham Lincoln, John Greenleaf Whittier, Debbie Reynolds, The Beatles, Adolf Hitler and Barry Goldwater, Allen-anthology poets LeRoi Jones, Lew Welsh, Gary Snyder and Ron Loewinsohn, and two young poets excluded by Allen -- Joanne Kyger and George Stanley, "the most talented of all the new writers Spicer came to know in San Francisco"
(Ellingham & Killian, 144). Open Space no. 12 followed with this condemnation: "it should be noted that work of Whalen, Welch, Loewinsohn, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, McClure and Duncan is not an accurate representation of poetry here, but rather an uninteresting little tyranny -- an anthology that insists on the work of Ray Bremser, Robt Kelly, Lois Sorrell as well, while excluding Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Rick Duerden, Joanne Kyger, Harold Dull, Ebbe Borregaard and Jim Alexander is a farce."
 
Kyger, though she contributed less frequently than most of her male peers, appeared in 4 out of the 13 issues of Open Space that appeared during 1964. All of these, along with the poems that appeared in J, were reincorporated into The Tapestry and The Web. Many took up Homeric themes on which Tapestry would put a new, proto-feminist, spin. "Pan as the son of Penelope," published in J, takes up the suggestion Penelope bore "Either as the result of a god / or as a result of ALL the suitors." It sardonically casts doubt on the canonical interpretation of Penelope's role as dutiful and faithful wife: "Refresh my thought of Penelope again./ Just HOW/ solitary was her wait?"; and goes so far as to suggest that she might persuade the masculine/epic trajectory by inhibiting Odysseus' return:
She did not run up and embrace him as I recall.
                                He came upon her at the house & killed the suitors.
I choose to think of her waiting for him
                                    concocting his adventures       bringing
                    the misfortunes to him
she must have had her hands full.
"The Odyssey Poems" are a willful weaving and a reworking of Kyger's poetry with epic themes taking up Odysseus at places, and leaving him aside for a more anonymous "him" and a more contemporary circumstance.
                                She comes and rages
                quit eating the coffee cake and cottage cheese
              put the lid on the peanut butter jar
                    sandwiches made of cucumber, stop eating the food!
 
          climbing over the rough ravine
        and up an impossible cliff, naked, you mark how high you can go
          coming back to his opinion of her or hers of him
                    listening sometimes
to him raging, you leave me alone. you dream of me.
                                and there, she withdrew
 
                                                            and wept for odysseus
When mythic tapestry-making meets the poetic suspicious of factual representation the poem reveals the happening. It is a web on which her life depends, "Dealing with the detail / on the fragment," the re-telling of the new facts revealed despite the tightness of the whole.
                Her hair is uncombed.
            and hand
      raised up in lackadaisical gesture
            meaning all's well.
 
                You can tell
Puffeyes and the broken turned nose.
                                      Searching
    for bigger & better things.
Though Kyger would put aside any claim that Tapestry was a mature work (she told Lewis Ellingham that they were "just the poems that I thought the strongest work I had done") it's clear that Tapestry was a considered and intentional fragmenting of a whole. While the poems in Tapestry don't reflect the mode of 'serial' production that Spicer espoused*, that they appear printed in J and Open Space in the order that they were reprinted in Tapestry, and that a full nine pages of "The Odyssey Poems" appeared in Open Space, suggest that the society there and in the Sunday Meetings provided Kyger with another mode of serial production production via serials as a continual audience and accessible working space.
 
It also suggests that to whatever degree the male poets she encountered during her Spicer Years had a rather asymptotic relation to her gender - wanting, as Kyger perceived, to be like her - this response perhaps provided a fruitful contrast to the oppositional relation that poetics, on the basis of sex, traditionally posed. Sexed one might be Muse and Other, but gendered one might find her poetic path through middle ground as poet and muse.
* [Though her next book, Places To Go (1970), written while she was travelling in Europe, does: "a serial poem is different from what's going on in The Tapestry and The Web. A serial poem is more like 'places to go' . . . you write one poem, then you write another poem the next day that relates to the poem before so you're addressing yourself as a dialogue."(Ellingham, 190) Kyger's notion of seriality is an obvious elaboration of Spicer's notion which focuses on the book as a unit and on forward-driving chronology rather than discursivity.]

 


 
Works Cited
 
Berkson, Bill. "Joanne Kyger." Dictionary of Literary Biography (vol. 16), ed. Ann Charters. (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1983)

Ellingham, Lewis. "Tape Interview of Ebbe Borregaard and Joanne Kyger by Lewis Ellingham on May 28, 1982, at Bolinas, California." SUNY-Buffalo Manuscripts Collection.
 
Ellingham, Lewis and Kevin Killian. Poet, Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. (Wesleyan UP, 1998).
 
Gizzi, Peter. The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. (Wesleyan UP: 1998).
 
Kyger, Joanne. Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 16, ed. Joyce Nakamura (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1992).
 
------. "Thoughts on being a woman poet starting in the 50's." Unpublished ms.
 

Linda Russo 
Linda Russo (left, with friend) lives in Buffalo, New York. She is the author of o going out (Potes & Poets Press) and her essay "The 'F' Word in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," an account of post-Modern women small press editors, will be published in Talisman this fall.
 
You can visit the newly constructed Joanne Kyger Author Page at SUNY Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center.

 

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