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Linda Russo

Particularizing people's lives

(Joanne Kyger in conversation with Linda Russo)


This piece is 6,500 words or about sixteen pages long.

 
 


On February 27, 1999, a pleasantly wintry Saturday afternoon - several feet of snow on the ground, sky only partly gray - Joanne Kyger, Christopher W. Alexander and I sat down to tea in the kitchen of our Buffalo apartment. At the time I was editing her EPC Author Page and thinking about the problems one encounters in addressing women writers of her generation, in which poetic production was mainly accomplished by men. Joanne had emerged - "arrived" as she was told at the Sunday Meetings - early on, was (and is) a prolific and complex poet, yet has remained relatively unknown. She'd given a reading at SUNY Buffalo with Ben Friedlander the previous Wednesday, for which there'd been a reception; and at a Friday night party for the publication of my chapbook, o going out, she'd initiated two collaborative projects - on the manual salmon-pink Olympia typewriter, a poem, and on four large sheets of paper and with her own portable water color kit, a collage. I think she was as curious about what was going on in Buffalo as we were about her and she was generous and energetic in the spirit of the time she'd spent in our company.

 
 

Linda Russo: I want back up a little bit, to something you'd mentioned earlier - that the so-called Beat Movement was more of a "newspaper phenomenon" than a "literary phenomenon."

Joanne Kyger: What did I say, more of "a cultural media phenomenon" than a "literary phenomenon." But I think that's true of a lot of literary movements. Writers are associated with one another, then they get a name or a handle on them afterwards, like the "Objectivists."

Linda Russo: The 'beat' origin myth has several stages, according to Ginsberg, but he gives primacy to Kerouac in conversation with John Clellon Holmes. But what you're saying suggests that the term 'Beat' didn't so much work to establish an aesthetic affinity between writers as to shape it and announce it to others - non-writers - as in a cosmetic production.

Joanne Kyger: Allen was a person who liked to grandstand. The writers he loved and was close to, he'd work very hard to get them published. I think he was as responsible as anyone else for turning it into a group of writers: here's Gary Snyder's poem, here's Philip Whalen's, here's Kerouac, here's Corso . . .

Linda Russo: And then there's the idea that the beat phenomena came from New York versus the idea that there was already something happening in the Bay Area when the Beats showed up.

Joanne Kyger: It was the Berkeley Renaissance, a group of writers around Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton and Robin Blaser that brought all those people together, through the 40s they had an established literary, cultural closeness and phenomenon. There was a cultural happening then with jazz and poetry, Ferlinghetti, Rexroth. Before Howl was published, the Six Gallery reading . . . but I don't think they were identified as beat writers at that moment, 1955-56. The Six Gallery sets off this group of writers, many of them met each other, Ginsberg meets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure.

 
 

Linda Russo: And the Philips Whalen and Lamantia.

Joanne Kyger: Who'd [Whalen] come down from Oregon. He and Gary were old roommates up at Reed College. This sparked a kind of energy. Later it was the publication of On the Road. It became a media phenomenon - the characters in it, and in the Dharma Bums became celebrities, and Howl being censored brought this more into the forefront, the laid back lifestyle of the "beatnik," a term coined by Herb Caen, became a cultural phenomena: the guy in the sandals, the bongo drums, beret, poetry and jazz, and this was opposed to the establishment, the guy in the gray flannel suit, Brooks Brothers.

[Jacket's note: On April 2, 1958, columnist Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a column in which he created the term 'Beatnik.' The 'nik' suffix evoked Yiddish slang ("nudnik", etc.) but was actually borrowed from 'Sputnik,' a satellite that had just been launched by the Soviet Union, striking fear into the hearts of many Communist-fearing Americans.]
Linda Russo: And figuring out how women fit in, that's something that's been thought through only recently. In 1996 Brenda Knight's anthology, Women of the Beat Generation, made an attempt to bring women into the literary scene, to make them a presence. What did you think about how she went about doing this?

Joanne Kyger: It was just too general, there was some sloppy scholarship that was in there. Kristin [Prevallet's] article on Helen Adam - remember that?

Linda Russo: Yes. Apparently she [Brenda Knight] borrowed extensively from Kristen's scholarship. Hard to believe she'd do that since the Helen Adam archives are here in Buffalo, and Kristen was here, in Buffalo. Who would she be kidding?

Joanne Kyger: And including someone like Anne Waldman, who was what, 10? when the Beats were going on? I think it was just a way to say there were women doing something during that time who were not necessarily interesting writers except maybe for Diane DiPrima who is still a generation later. To consider the Beat phenomena of writing the way that Kerouac et al. started to define it, it was this group of Columbia guys, Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, who were hanging out together. And someone like Joan Burroughs, she was actually a writer . . .

Linda Russo: There's a more recent anthology A Different Beat: Writing by Women of the Beat Generation and yet again we have this same positioning of women who weren't "beat" necessarily.

Joanne Kyger: Lenore Kandel is early 60s . . . I think it's a way to put a bunch of women together that were not necessarily, or didn't personally consider themselves beat writers. "Beat" has just become a cultural word now.

Linda Russo: There's two definitions: "of the Beat generation" which is how these anthologies choose to talk about women who bear signs of being, contemporaneously or consequently, under the influence of beat aesthetics, and "Women who were Beats," as in women who wrote, lived in, and actively developed that milieu. Are there any women you would put in the latter category?

Joanne Kyger: How do you define what a 'beat writer' is?

Linda Russo: Well, that's the problem. There's the association of "women of the beat generation," which is a retrospective grouping. You get little sense of what it means, in terms of the poetry and the poetics that a 'group' produces, to be 'associated' with that group. Are associations aesthetic only? In terms of life- and writing-style?

Joanne Kyger: So if we say it's the women that were non-academics of the fifties . . .

Linda Russo: And that knocks out one of Knight's primary "Precursors," Josephine Miles, and raises questions about Denise Levertov's inclusion. The problem with anthologies is that any sense of real, material circumstance falls away, and there's this false aesthetic transcendence.

Joanne Kyger: But I don't see why the particular writing . . . I guess it's a way to access certain writers. It's useful to be part of the group, because then you can get a handle on the group of the moment in a book together. Someone like ruth weiss, I remember her coffeehouse readings from the fifties. Janine Pommy Vega, she comes along a little later but so did I.

Linda Russo: Right - and there's a parallel here between establishing aesthetic affinity - that moment of putting a book together, recognizing a group as a 'group' - and cosmetic production - the packaging of women, in this case, as products of the 'beat.' But how many of these women who are gathered under this grouping would select themselves to be of that movement?

Joanne Kyger: Hettie Jones certainly feels herself to be part of that movement, I've heard her speak of that.

Linda Russo: She co-edited the very important little magazine Yugen with the then-LeRoi Jones. Well actually she typed all of the issues, she's written explicitly of that - of the significance of that, along with paying for paper, offset printing, arranging for distribution, etc. - to the production of the magazine

Joanne Kyger: And Kay Johnson . . .

Linda Russo: There's Joyce Johnson, writing of her life with Kerouac in Minor Characters. Joan Kerouac wrote an article for Esquire called "Jack Kerouac is a sleazebag" or something like that.(1) One wonders why we glorify the beat era as fertile for women writers at all, except to somehow define them . . .
Note 1: It was actually an article for Confidential magazine, "My Ex-Husband, Jack Kerouac, is an Ingrate."
Joanne Kyger: Jan Kerouac, associated by proximity and style . . .

Linda Russo: And genealogy. But that's not an identification you would make?

Joanne Kyger: It's not useful to me. And also the beat writing at the time, the coffeehouse reading on Grant Avenue, what's it called . . . the Coffee Gallery, the Bread and Wine Mission, there's still Beatitude (2) that comes out, which was really a particularly politically inspired forum, but not very good poetry. My practice of writing was a lot stricter, coming from the energy of Spicer, and someone like Robert Duncan who was opposed to the tendency of Beat popular poetry writing - let it all dribble out . . .

 
 

Bob Kaufman at the Cafe Trieste
Note 2: Beatitude was first published in 1959 on the mimeograph machine at the Bread and Wine Mission on Grant Avenue by Bob Kaufman, John Kelly and others.

Photo (detail) of San Francisco beat legend Bob Kaufman in the Trieste coffee bar, by A.D.Winans, courtesy Larry Sawyer and Milk Magazine, on the Internet at http://www.milkmag.org/

 
 

Linda Russo: Would you compare it to the Poetry Slam? Very populist, people hanging out in bars, reading poetry to each other?

Joanne Kyger: Yes.

Linda Russo: Whereas, from what I know about the Magic Workshop and the Sunday Meetings at the Dunn's etc. it was more focussed on poetry as a structure, on the line, on words. It seems to be very different than an expressive/ excessive approach to poetry. You have a poem in Just Space where you talk about knowing the architecture of your lineage. Could you read it, and talk a little bit about it?

Joanne Kyger: Well, it's pretty straightforward. (reads):

          You know    when you write poetry    you find
        the architecture    of your lineage    your teachers
     like Robert Duncan for me   gave me some glue    for the heart
Beats      which gave confidence
                                         and competition
              to the     Images     of Perfection

          . . . or as dinner approaches     I become hasty
                   do I mean PERFECTION? (3)

Note 3: Just Space: Poems 1979-1989.
Black Sparrow Press. p. 105.

I think that's fairly straightforward.

Linda Russo: What was it about the Beats which gave confidence?

Joanne Kyger: Heart Beat - wasn't that the name of that book by Carolyn Cassady, about her multiple lives with Kerouac? Ginsberg's own sense of heart, of the family of poetry, although he was a terrible misogynist later, some of the women that he trusted became acceptable to him.

Linda Russo: What about "perfection"?

Joanne Kyger: I don't know what we mean by that - "images of perfection." I'm not sure what perfection means, obviously. Could you make a perfect dinner? What's perfect?

Linda Russo: What's interesting is the competition. Because that would imply an engagement with something - a politics, a person, an aesthetic - that you could argue with, that you might perhaps call "Beat" to set it aside from yourself.

Joanne Kyger: Beat was a period of history and until very recently nobody tried to make that a working historical phenomenon. I think Allen always was able to talk about his own history. Kerouac died in '68 and that ended a certain era. He certainly was the main writer of that time, the On the Road phenomena - the reprinting of his books in the last five or six years since the death of his wife, all his books were able to be reprinted - so people got interested again. Making up a literary history is the phenomena of looking back and trying to make a picture of a puzzle. So trying to ask someone now "what did you feel like then" - I didn't think about it in that way, I thought about it as a practice of my own writing that I was interested in, and certainly a lot of the ideas that came through the quote "beat generation" - I didn't call them the "beat generation." Gary Snyder's idea of opening Pacific Rim ideas, but there wasn't a Pacific Rim that anybody talked about then. A lot of it was Allen's idea of expanding consciousness, opening up the cultural avenues of what a writer can see and articulate, and maybe nobody had articulated this before, or seen this, or done this before. The whole Judeo-Christian world was not enough culturally . . . how do you see yourself, not as a religious idealist, but what are the acculturating generosities of Buddhism? What is the practice of looking at what your mind does? And it's certainly on the heels of that, the 60s phenomenon of taking LSD. That was a huge cultural phenomenon based a lot in some of the ideals of dropping out, living, or like Gary and the "rucksack revolution." If you want to be a writer, you don't have to be in the academy. What you want to do is make enough money at an ordinary job so you can do your own writing, that your friends are your audience, that you don't have to be in Kenyon Review. There is a life you can make as a writer that doesn't have to do with the academic tradition which was prevalent then. So it was the beginning of a kind of dropping out.

Linda Russo: In talking about the Beat generation maybe the stress should be on the idea of generation. What I hear you talking about mostly is the ideas that were beginning to circulate about consciousness, about approaching poetry in a different way, about approaching religion in a different way. The concept of "generation" is more important than a particular, "beat," identity. Would that be a helpful way to think about it?

Joanne Kyger: Maybe. I don't think people think about it, when you're leading your life, are you thinking about 'thinking' new ideas? You're thinking about getting along, and trying to find a way to express, to get your poetry out there, to read it to each other. But you're somewhat in an academic tradition right now in Buffalo, but I think, to veer away from trying to generalize, from trying to make a point of generation, to try and particularize peoples lives and pasts may be - would be - more useful for myself.

Black Mountain College had just broken up when I arrived in San Francisco; I was meeting people like John Wieners, Michael Rumaker, Ebbe Borregaard, all these people who had come from Black Mountain. They were closer to me as contemporaries than the Beat generation, who'd developed romantic kind of political ideals that Spicer couldn't stand, the whole sense of self propagation, self-advertising, where Ginsberg was out with his friends. Gary always had his own path, his scholarly practice, trainings in Japanese, practice of Buddhism, living with his teacher, so you can look at certain elements, but to generalize . . . And there was certainly a difference between the west coast, which was a lot less urban, and the people that were in New York City. No doubting that it was a great cultural stirring that was going on, the phenomena of painting and writing and jazz.

Linda Russo: Where were women inside this?

Joanne Kyger: There were very few women that set out to be independent thinkers. There was the beat chick. The "emancipation" of women and the hippie generation - yeah they were really emancipated - they stayed in the kitchen all the time, they wore long skirts, they did everything for the boys that they possibly could, and went to bed with them very easily, I'm sure that's emancipated!

Linda Russo: And they didn't wear bras.

Joanne Kyger: They didn't wear bras, right! [laughs]. I thought that was very free, but looking back at it I thought "that wasn't very free at all." So I think that was it, too, women tended to . . . I didn't find many women I could talk to in any interesting way. Women thought about being intellectually independent. That was a goal or an aim.

Linda Russo: In the Spicer biography [Poet be Like God, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian] there's a quotation from Dora Dull, that is, Geissler, in which she talks about attending the Sunday meetings but not reading because she was "with" Harold Dull.

Joanne Kyger: But also she didn't write very much. She's an old friend of mine. But nobody was . . . I came up from Santa Barbara where I studied with Hugh Kenner such as it was, I got a D in English from him [laughs]. I didn't know how to type papers, I was out on the edges, but I still was very interested in that. I hung out, I started the first literary magazine there, there was a sculptor, Mark DiSuviero, a contemporary of mine, we'd be fighting over each other's philosophy books, but I was very undisciplined, emotionally frayed and undisciplined. I wasn't a scholar in any way. And that's why when I went to San Francisco, and all these people were 22 and 23 years old, that was like my school. I needed out of the academy.

Linda Russo: Did you graduate?

Joanne Kyger: I ended up needing freshman biology, I couldn't memorize all that stuff. It never made any difference in the long run. So I was already interested when I came up to San Francisco in the literary phenomena.

Linda Russo: How did you know to be interested, how did you hear about it? Were you looking for something there?

Joanne Kyger: The Howl trial had started. I lived in North Beach, and I went eventually to work at Brentano's, I met Joe Dunn and John Wieners, and I read Howl, I thought it was just . . . nobody could be unaffected by the energy of it, it was wow. I was reading it with a friend of mine.

Linda Russo: How'd you meet John Wieners and Joe Dunn?

Joanne Kyger: North Beach was a small place. Have you ever been to San Francisco?

Linda Russo: A few times.

Joanne Kyger: Then you know that whole blocks-long/ Grant Avenue phenomenon. I only lived a few blocks away from The Place where it was all happening, so I met Joe Dunn, who said you need to speak to John Wieners, and there was this poetry group I went to.(4) I guess he'd been to Spicer's magic workshop the summer before. So it was easy. Ferlinghetti was doing poetry and jazz at The Cellar with Rexroth.
Note 4: i.e. the Sunday Meetings.

 
 

Kenneth Rexroth reading poetry to a jazz accompaniment, San Francisco, 1957


Kenneth Rexroth reading poetry to a jazz accompaniment, San Francisco, 1957


 
 


Linda Russo: How do you think the Duncan/Spicer group of people were affected by the Beats?

Joanne Kyger: Spicer didn't like Allen Ginsberg's work. When we went to hear him read Kaddish he made us all get up and leave. He said "do you like this stuff?" and I actually did, you know? But I went along. Then Ginsberg went down to Chile afterwards, and he told me he'd had nightmares about Spicer. He was put down. He was coming back to San Francisco with this open heart and everybody was snubbing him - "you wrecked the city! you brought all this beatnik publicity." That had nothing to do with us. There were greyhound bus tours going through North Beach, and a 'beatnik of the month' club.

Linda Russo: How were you affected by all this?

Joanne Kyger: I loved being part of the North Beach phenomena but then I had to go to work every morning, and got very stretched out, with late nights and taking dexedrine which was the drug of choice then if you could get it. So it got very stretched out for me during that time. But I needed to earn a living.

Linda Russo: Was this between 1957 and 1960?

Joanne Kyger: Yes, but it was kind of 'over.' I got there and everybody said "you missed it, it was last year." But I met this other phenomenon, Black Mountain and John Wieners, who got there in '57. Things started to get very unravelled. There started to be a lot of casualties. It got crazy. Joe Dunn got into methedrine, somebody got murdered . . . it kind of got messy.

Linda Russo: And then you went to Japan.

 
 

Joanne Kyger in Kyoto

 
 

Photograph of Joanne Kyger in Kyoto by Allen Ginsberg,
copyright © Estate of Allen Ginsberg, 2000.
Joanne Kyger: Yes. And I had friends there during that time that stayed there, but I think it was pretty much over by then, 1960. 1964-65 was when Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles arrived, and that was a whole other phenomenon. And someone like Richard Brautigan was there, and Ron Loewinsohn, and they were not especially Beat. But the cultural phenomena of what was happening in San Francisco was legitimate, I mean it was really there. It had a lot more to do with . . . the beatniks were part of it.

Linda Russo: Were there any women when you got there that had a reputation for being part of that scene?

Joanne Kyger: No there wasn't. Who was writing? Denise Levertov, she was being published, Black Mountain Review was out, I was very much reading Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" over and over and over again.

Linda Russo: You write that it "hit you like a wallop" in the Japan and India Journals. Did you get a copy while in Japan?

Joanne Kyger: I got it in '57 from Joe Dunn.

Linda Russo: And after your returned to San Francisco all of that was sort of codified, Olson being a major spokesman of the new in the New American Poetry. Where were you then, poetically?

Joanne Kyger: At the time of the Allen anthology? . . . I felt I had really assimilated "Projective Verse" somehow, which I needed - I needed a thoughtful, philosophic basis for where this new poetry was at. I remember at one of these meetings Robert Duncan saying to me (I was trying to figure out how to get the voice on the page) "I'm going to tell you about the line," and I thought "oh great" so the next time we went I said "are you going to tell me about the line?" [laughs]. And somehow I remember exactly we were at John Weiner's apartment, the second time we'd been there, and I remember just this view out the window by this radiator and his sort of looking at me, and he never said anything. I never got it, you know I never, whatever it was, was it arbitrary where you break the line, what is it, and there was Creeley's breath line, and John Wieners certainly had Billy Holiday's beautiful line. I guess probably it kind of rubbed off and finally through reading "Projective Verse" I understood there was a breath and physicality to the line.

Linda Russo: So most of your formative thinking that went into Tapestry and The Web was about the breath and the line through Olson and Creeley, Duncan and Wieners?

Joanne Kyger: I think Duncan's sense was allowing a certain ear to flow, it wasn't easy to get a sound like Robert Duncan unless you were into his whole romance of the household or maybe a mixture of dream. I don't know what rubbed off of Robert Duncan for me. Certainly Jack Spicer's sense of just "No Shit, it's gotta be true," whatever that meant, whatever the truth was, so any posturing that went on you certainly were going to get paid for in artificiality. And also this belief in this thing called The Poem: The Poem has an independent life of its own, you have to be true to The Poem. When Lew Welch came to San Francisco from Chicago he used to hate it because it was "The Poem" and we were always talking about this 'Poem' all the time. Lew was very much into Williams. It's a basic Williams sense of the word as being, the way you speak, your own cadence, being aware of that.

Linda Russo: What did Williams mean to you?

Joanne Kyger: He was my one of my great heroes. I think there was a lot of anxious energy for myself. I never sat down and read a lot of poetry. I always kind of flirted and hung out and tried to wrestle with writing it down and wasn't sure where it was all coming from. I studied some Pound and Williams in Santa Barbara. I was aware that Yeats was too dense and too difficult and his language was too foreign for me. Philip Whalen became a great mentor in the 50s for me, in 58-59 when he came out, said "just keep on writing, just keep on writing." But it was probably the early pieces that I read in these groups that were "Duncansy."

Linda Russo: Like the poem Duncan refers to in As Testimony, "The Maze"?

Joanne Kyger: That was the first time I really read a poem to the group and they said, "okay, you're in, you've made it, you've written a poem, you've come to a place where we accept this as writing." Of course it was kind of hard to reduplicate it, it's not like a formula, you know something that happens to you. And so since they had given that to me, that recognition, and helped me produce it, I think that's where, in terms of my own lineage, it comes from. Whereas someone like Ginsberg never was able to - I remember when he was in Japan, sitting down, giving him these poems that I had written, he started looking at them and "I don't know" - he didn't have a clue about what to say, he didn't connect to them, so it wasn't until I went back in '64 and Don Allen wanted to do a book of poetry that I realized I could be published. I went back to writing for Open Space and writing these Odyssey poems for Stan Persky's magazine. Robin [Blaser] was there then, and Robert Duncan and - Spicer. So they cultivated and printed my poems in Open Space. That gave me a writing voice. I never got it from Allen Ginsberg.

Linda Russo: One of the things I've been really drawn to in your work is your questioning of yourself, or your questioning of poetry, when you write sometimes "is this a poem" "am I a poet" and that willingness to openly question at the risk of looking insecure.

Joanne Kyger: After I came back to San Francisco, Spicer, who was always able to speak in a metaphorical sense, was talking about "The Maze" and asking "have you gotten out of the maze" and so a lot of this was written as a way of trying to get out of the maze. "I don't know if you've done it yet," I remember him saying to me, "have you really figured it out." And I didn't know whether I'd figured it out.

Linda Russo: Do you remember him asking the same question of other writers? Was it assumed that all young writers start out in a maze? And start out by questioning?

Joanne Kyger: No, Spicer used the specific language of the specific poem. Some of the poems were trying to figure it out - and I was able to write these new poems because I was back from Japan and a very active scene that started to happen, it was Open Space. Have you ever seen Open Space?

Linda Russo: Yes. I love the Don Allen parody, number 11, "The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary American Verse."

Joanne Kyger: So you could see it was very energetic in terms of 'right away,' you could publish something right away, and you had an immediate audience, and this was after being, for four years, in a sort of isolation about whether I was doing real writing, or who to write for.

Linda Russo: This was in '64 when you came back from Japan, and you were publishing in Open Space before this [The Tapestry and the Web] came out. How did you feel about publishing a book versus publishing in something like Open Space? Is it different?

Joanne Kyger: Of course. But the Open Space poems were all included in The Tapestry and the Web. Don Allen, who'd just published New American Poetry was the one who asked me for a manuscript so I felt at that point that I had arrived in a certain way because he was like a real cultural editor/ icon by that point. Although I wasn't included in the first New American Poetry, I was in the later Penguin edition of it published the next year in England. And Spicer and Duncan were both people who stressed a lot that you shouldn't publish until you're ready and it was important not to publish a lot of junk. But I remember when Old Angel Midnight came out, the great piece of Kerouac's, in Big Table, and I remember Duncan turning to Spicer, "maybe we should jump on this bandwagon." I could tell they were excited by this piece of writing, and thought maybe we should just drop our cultural warfare with these Beat writers who're trying to take over the scene. The phenomena of Open Space and White Rabbit, you have your own small coterie of like-minded writers and readers. You're not going to sell yourself out by trying to go for this other culturally scurrilous audience and publishers.

Linda Russo: So where does Don Allen fit into all of this?

Joanne Kyger: Stan Persky turned on Don Allen and did that parody of New American Poetry. Gary had come back and Stan was working as a bartender at the Anxious Asp then and Gary was coming over to defend Don Allen's honor and went over and punched him out behind the bar, that was part of all these wonderful "wars" that were going on, and especially with someone like Stan who loved to stir the pot.

Linda Russo: And this as a sort of backdrop to your assembly of Tapestry?

Joanne Kyger: Yes, getting this book together was an important step. Mostly the mss. was almost finished. At this time Gary and I had separated. When I left Japan our relationship essentially had ended and it took me a little time to . . .

Linda Russo: It's a beautiful book, very beautifully done, and it's held up well.

Joanne Kyger: The cover was done in an unstable dyes. And there's that one page, the second illustration by Jack Boyce, that was supposed to be a full page, bleed out to the edges, that was a mistake, I mean this would've looked great if it was a full page.

Linda Russo: This book came out right before Spicer died?

Joanne Kyger: '65. A lot of poems I wrote while I was in Japan, keeping the Odyssey as a kind of framework; some of these I wrote before.

Linda Russo: You mention in an interview [in Occident], I think you were referring to the Odyssey poems, that it was the first story that you felt you could get inside of . And once inside there's an insistent working over of how stories, in epics, get told. How did that get in there?

Joanne Kyger: Well it was the oldest narrative one could find to think of your life as history, as a story, and narrative always interests me.

Linda Russo: My sense is more that you criticize Penelope, you're very critical of her behavior.

Joanne Kyger: Is she being true or not, or who is - take a step back and, well, you know.

Linda Russo: The 'myth' reveals itself as not fact, but as 'open'? You write "I think she's happy now, her household is restored, and she knows he'll die an old and comfortable death." Then he tells her to go up to her room and wait a while, and she does what he says . . .

Joanne Kyger: Oh sure, oh sure. [laughs]

Linda Russo: And then the poem says "I guess it's good to know where you're going." Your revisionism displays a feminism of sorts, but what you were doing preceded the feminist poetic project of 're-vision' - stepping into female characters and "taking back" myth. What were your influences?

Joanne Kyger: Robert Duncan certainly incorporates some of that thinking. These texts were accessible - Robert Graves' Greek mythology was out - these were books that were there.

Linda Russo: What role did Gary Snyder play in those years?

Joanne Kyger: Gary was generous to a certain point. I remember him saying to me once "I don't know, you're 29, it might be too late for you" [laughs]. And so certainly aware that his group of writers, his friendships, were a very male-bonded group, and there wasn't any room for women to be in there. Although it would've have been nice to have been. Except for Philip [Whalen], who was always very responsive to anything I said. We were in correspondence back and forth a lot, he was always very supportive. And in some ways there's a certain amount of competition between two writers in the same household too.

Linda Russo: It was when you came back to San Francisco that things started happening for you?

Joanne Kyger: I was back with my old friends who were excited about my writing. It was a very different from Japan. I had met Jack Boyce then and I was starting a new relationship. I'd left Gary Snyder, I'd separated when I realized he really wanted to continue on in Japan and immerse himself in Japanese culture. It was too isolating for me, and he had his own particular Zen practice, at that time you had to know Japanese to be able to do it, it wasn't an open practice like it is now, although things were starting to open up. It was still very culturally isolating for me, I was taller than everybody else, and the manners were so different. I was capable of disagreeing, no Japanese woman would ever do that - ever!

Linda Russo: You modeled didn't you? And weren't you in a movie?

Joanne Kyger: Yes. Several movies. They needed an actress. They made a lot of B-movies there. Gary and I were in a movie together, we went to Ryo-an-ji. I was in this Yokahama bar scene of meji period and I was supposed to sing this song, and the guy was hiding his head, I couldn't tell if he was crying or what. I never got to see a lot of them. Another was a gangster movie. It was a sort of fun. I only saw one movie, when I was a nun.

Linda Russo: Do you remember the title?

Joanne Kyger: It was in Japanese. I had Japanese lines I had to say, I don't remember the title. It was always very hokey, and they showed my hair even though no nun would show her hair, so there's this little blonde hair sticking out of the front - no shaved head.

Linda Russo: The flying nun had hair.

Joanne Kyger: Yeah, right.

Linda Russo: One thing you mention in your journals, and even in the poems, is meditating - "maybe I'll think about meditating." How did the idea of resistance come into being into Japan, going there, having to be married. How did you feel about that?

Joanne Kyger: Gary took his practice of Buddhism very seriously and he wasn't interested in how Philip and myself got there. If you get to Japan by yourself I'll help you once you're there. He was a very committed person, very strict on himself, very disciplined, so his whole practice was very important to him. At one point, he's written himself, he said his teacher told him he can't be a poet and a practicer of Zen too, and later he said no, that it was the other way around. He had his own particular rigorous practice, getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to see his teacher at the monastery, a beautiful, beautiful traditional Japanese temple and monastery. But the whole role of where women were at, and men, it was very different.

Linda Russo: Why'd you go?

Joanne Kyger: I wanted to study Zen, and I wanted to go there. Gary and I'd had this year long correspondence and I needed to find out something about the world and life, whatever it is.

Linda Russo: At one point early in the journals you talk about writing to Nemi and telling her to come to Japan, or telling her that she has to leave San Francisco . . .

Joanne Kyger: Well there was this drug culture going on down, and a lot of methedrine, and I think later on she had this boyfriend, an old friend of John Wieners, and they got into a fight and he stabbed her in the belly and she was in the hospital, and later this guy who was in the apartment jumped out the window and paralyzed himself. It was similar to the end of the Haight-Ashbury scene. A lot of bad drugs were going around, it was a real burn-out phase.

Linda Russo: I want to talk about your scandalous Ted Berrigan poem in All This Every Day, which you wrote when you were in New York? (5)
Note 5: "Earlier"

Into the party, with engraved invitation, I am bored when
I realize the champagne in the decrepit bowl is going to get
filled up a lot. Well then, on the greens in front of the
Mansion are walking Tom Clark and Ted Berrigan, what chums!
Do you think I could possibly fall in step, as they turn same
to far flung university on horizon, gleaming. You bet your
life not. The trouble, says Ted, with you Joanne, is that
you're just not intelligent enough.

           from All This Every Day, Big Sky, 1975
Joanne Kyger: In Bolinas. This was actually a dream. When I read it at a reading Ted Berrigan shouted out "that's not true."

Linda Russo: When did you meet Berrigan?

Joanne Kyger: After I returned to San Francisco and married Jack Boyce in '65 we went to Europe for nine months. I was brought up on the west coast and I'd been to Japan and India and I needed to see what my Atlantic-crossing roots were all about. So we stayed in New York for little over a year, and that's when I met Anne Waldman. I met Ted at the '65 [Berkeley] poetry conference when he came out. I met Lewis Warsh at St. Mark's. But I didn't like New York City, I'm not a very urban person.

Linda Russo: Did you meet Alice Notley then?

Joanne Kyger: No. Ted was married to Sandy. I met Alice after she came out with Ted later on, she came up to Bolinas.

Linda Russo: How did you come to live in Bolinas?

Joanne Kyger: I was still married to Jack Boyce. It was part of the whole scene of the '60s to get out of the city and go live in the country. He had inherited some money and wanted to buy some land and build a house. So we looked a lot up and down the coast for places to start. Bolinas at that time was still very small, 500 people, a small little town that had been established in the last century. My friend Bill Brown was living there, who edited Coyote's Journal with Jim Koller during the '60s so I kept visiting him. You could buy 40 acres and homestead it yourself, and build up a whole life, but I realized I needed more than one other person. It was hard to know how to live there; there weren't any jobs - but it was part of the 'dropping out.' There weren't a lot of houses then; subsequently some got built, until there was a water moratorium. But it felt like people were really intense . . . just great.

Linda Russo: What about your friends? neighbors?

Joanne Kyger: The Creeleys moved there shortly after, Don Allen was there, and many, many more. So there was enough of a locus of writers to be highly charged.

 


 
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