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Energy on the Page —

Joanne Kyger in conversation with Dale Smith

 
 


The following interview took place at Joanne Kyger and Donald Guravich's home in Bolinas, California, on May 4, 1997. I arrived with Michael Price, Duncan McNaughton and an ancient Radio Shack tape recorder. We sat in Joanne's backyard. It was one of those perfect, cloudless NoCal days. Somehow, through a kind of rambling conversation kicked off by my novitious questions, the following words cohered. ( - Dale Smith)

 
 

MIKE:  Joanne, what did you think of Trungpa? Just curious, because being from Boulder, I saw him driving in his Mercedes around town.

JOANNE:  Why not have a great car? We're accustomed to the Zen Buddhists out here who have a more modest lifestyle reflecting the 'common' people. It's a difference of cultural presentation. It was difficult for me, however, to get swept up in the panoply of it all in Boulder.

But one of Chogyam Trungpa's first books, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, was excellent in being able to present a dialogue with American questions and concerns about Buddhism. Specifically Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. He had a real gift for translating Buddhist terms into psychological realities. A big dramatic and exotic force field seemed to surround the Tibetan teachers who arrived in the U.S. in the early 70's. It was a heady time.

Then various sanghas, practices of Tibetan Buddhism, began to see how this could be adapted into an American 'way of life.' That's when some of the 'headiness' departed and the work began.

The class Ed Sanders gave in 1977 at Naropa, in Boulder, was based on a much made of 'incident' concerning a big party at a seminary by Trungpa for his students in Snowmass, Colorado, in 1975. This involved the poet W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend of the time. It was a story that I remember Duncan McNaughton saying, 'would attract a lot of flies.' Everybody had an opinion and version. The class was based on Ed's poetic principles of 'Investigative Poetry,' which had been published by City Lights as a booklet in 1976. It was later published as a chronological perspective in a little red book called 'The Party.'

 
 

I thought the role of the historical investigator was a great one for the poet. It gave them something to do, other than ramble on about their feelings and nature. One could open up the 'past' and the writers one felt an affinity with, retell their story, bring them into the light again. You know, illuminating an affinity with a lineage.

DALE:  Is that what you did with Blavatsky?(1)

JOANNE:  Exactly. She was the woman who actually first introduced Buddhist thought into the United States, through her organization, The Theosophical Society. A real Heavy.

DALE:  Are you a religious writer? I was thinking about it in terms of life practice, and the journal, and the idea of story, and how you incorporate them. I mean the story seems like something you put inside of you, and then you are that. It seems like your poetry, especially a book like All This Every Day (2) just has as title a day, or a date. I read that book especially as a book, rather than individual poems. They all flow and connect the way a novel or an autobiography would. There's a feeling of a story taking place in it. And there's a lot of references to Buddhist terminology and language. So I was just wondering about that . . . 

Joanne Kyger, photo Elsa Dorfman

Joanne Kyger

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JOANNE:  I used to go back to Homer because I thought, well, here's at least a narrative story line I can understand, about life and characters, and it's the oldest story I know. So I went inside that story of the Odyssey, and started reporting on my life through it. Your life is a story and as a writer, you comment on it, incorporating it into yourself. It becomes part of your daily address.

And writing for me is a kind of daily practice. Even if you don't have anything to say, you keep your hand in - that's the journal, just jotting something down, observations of the eternal weather. I find if I don't write for a while I become very uncentered. But that's because I'm used to using the journal as a kind of focus.

DALE:  A focus of energy and perception?

JOANNE:  Yes, a focus of articulation. You know how thoughts and words can drift through you but once you write them down, they've arrived. And when something beautiful arrives, you want to have enough coordination to transcribe it. You know, the HEAD to the EAR to the SYLLABLE. And the HEART to the BREATH to the LINE. Voice and Word.

MICHAEL:  Yes, Projective Proprioception.

JOANNE:  Verse.

DALE:  You've got a great sense of humor and mind. It seems like you can 'feel' a mind thinking through a thought. Philip [Whalen] does that too.

JOANNE:  You mean being reflective of 'mind?' Well, that's an important investigation. Otherwise you start to believe this thing (points to head) is solid, important and serious. Which can be deathly dull for anyone.

DALE:  You didn't become this great poet overnight. It seems like there are these influences and threads of the practice of living, that somehow joined.

JOANNE: When I was first learning to write, or first practicing writing, I would often show work to Philip Whalen, and he would say 'Just keep on writing.' I don't know if anyone is ever completely satisfied with what they do. I try and show or reflect, as much as I can of an active 'consciousness.'

Your dreams are important, your humorous life is important, your cooking life is important, your friendships, the dialogues you assume, the news that comes from within, the news that comes from out there. There's such a wide variety of 'things' that go on. It's important not to get stuck on any one of these as being the 'I' that writes. Being able to report, as it were, from all these areas of life and see that they're equally 'valid' and 'important.' Nothing is more or less important than anything else. An egalitarian sense of what it's like to be a human. What being alive is like.

DALE:  So writing takes all these different parts, or just what's important at that moment, on that date.

JOANNE:  Just what happens at the moment. Trust your own serendipitous sense. John Wieners taught me that once words arrive on paper, they're sacred. You don't change them. If you make a 'mistake,' you can't erase it. There are no 'mistakes.'

MICHAEL:  So does re-writing or revising have any meaning to you in your practice?

JOANNE:  You can tidy up a bit, but often you lose the breath and flow of the minute when you re-write. The writing can get flat, or tough, like pastry dough when you handle it too much.

MICHAEL:  But as in any kind of apprenticeship, you learn. And don't you learn by re-working something that you're building?

JOANNE:  Well you might beat it to death. But the best thing is to try and go back to a similar mood and see if you can recreate it again. There will be a certain loss of freshness. When you 'get going' in the process of writing, there's a breath and rhythm that starts to build up inside; the song starts singing, the vowels fall into place with the breathing and rhythm. When you try and re-stress and re-do the words and lines, it's very hard to re-create the original brightness. That's why it's nice to get it close, as close as you can the first time.

DALE:  This would be different from the Blavatsky book, because that seems more you going 'out' of yourself into another subject or another place.

JOANNE:  Yes, like summing up. I read this new biography of Helena Blavatsky and extracted what I thought of as the 'essence' of her story in anecdotal lines of a poem 'bio-sketch.'

DALE:  One of the first things I ever noticed seeing in your books was the space and the line movement because it arrests the eye. Also, instead of having a block of print, it opens up light behind it.

JOANNE:  I saw the page as some kind of tapestry and voice glyph. When you move your line to the right, the lesser the impact of the line, the voice. The whole movement and rhythm on the page give us instruction as to voice and phrasing and import of what's going on.

DALE:  Yes, and for me, it also clarifies the voice. Philip has these poems in Brain Candy called 'Native Speech' and those were important to me when I was reading and thinking about his work. It made me think about Williams and your work too . . . 

JOANNE:  And Olson . . . 

DALE:  Your poetry is very much in your mouth. You hear the voice thinking and exploring, revealing . . . 

JOANNE:  It's a physical voice, yes. I think that's the best you can do sometimes, trying to 'score' it as closely as you can on the page. I'm always amazed that this isn't taught more. How to translate the voice to the page, to get the little subtleties of breath and tone, or change of tone or character emphasis.

There's one really good essay that I've never been able to find again, I think by Williams. He says, okay, let's get this all down: a period has three breath stops; a comma has a breath stop, a semi-colon a breath stop and a half. Empty space means nothing goes on but breathing until you get to the next word, etc. You're scoring your reading. Otherwise you follow this boring convention of the straight left hand margin, a kind of cookie-cutter block stamp.

DALE:  You've mentioned before your daily practice of writing in a journal.

JOANNE:  Yes, and in this daily writing, you don't have to think of it as 'poetry,' you don't have to think at all about what 'kind' of writing you're doing. You're writing some kind of un-self-conscious open utterance, being as clear as you can, or as muddled as you want. You're not writing for anybody. It's spontaneous.

DALE:  It seems definitely un-self-conscious. Because when you sit down to write a poem and think, okay, this poem's got to be this or that, that's when poems really get bogged down. They're most free when you can step out and not be self-conscious.

JOANNE:  Right. Know how to step 'out' of what you call a form; wake up. Keep word energy flowing. That's why I love travel writing. When people on trips write about what's happening, they're out of their own familiar habitat and experiencing something new, strange, awful. That can produce very fresh and inspiring writing. Very human, very vulnerable.

DALE:  You're very vulnerable when it's a place you don't know. Do you write for anybody in particular?

JOANNE:  I think there's a kind of address that goes on all the time, especially to your peers in poetry. Once you've published, you do realize someone is hopefully going to read your words.

DALE:  Do you ever publish your journals?

JOANNE:  Yes. For example Phenomenological (3) was a journal written in the Yucatan and was part of an 'assignment' in a series of chapbooks called 'The Curriculum of the Soul'. A series published by the late John Clarke and Al Glover based on a list of 'topics' by Charles Olson. As a form it contained many different kinds of writing; poetry, biography, quotations, dreams, travel observations, historical data bout the Yucatan Mayans, conversations, etc.

DALE:  Did you know Olson, did you work with him?

JOANNE:  I met him in 1965 a the Berkeley Poetry Conference. He also came out to San Francisco to participate for a month on an experimental television project at KQED. I got to know him a lot better then. Bill Brown was also working with the project. Bill had transcribed and published through his press Coyote Press, Olson's filibuster talk phenomena at the '65 Conference. I remember him as being a brilliant and continuous conversationalist, his ear so keen.

Of course Joe Dunn had given me Projective Verse to read in 1957. I really studied it. I'd come out of the University of California at Santa Barbara studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger. I liked looking at what 'thoughts' were about. I hadn't heard anyone trying to talk about writing or poetry that had a language, an articulation. I read Projective Verse over and over again, trying to 'fathom' or absorb it. There was a field, an energy, energy on the page. The page itself was an energy source, and words and ideas were transmitted to it. As quick as ideas arrived they should be transformed into this field.

Robert Duncan, Snyder, and Ginsberg were articulating their own poetics. But for me, I could really understand how the page could start to hold these 'energies.'

MICHAEL:  That's interesting that you say that, because for me, just holding a book of Olson's has that energy. I've noticed that with your books too. I'm just getting to know them. The same with Philip Whalen. There's something about the presence of even the book itself.

JOANNE:  Well, yes, the pages certainly look alive. I mean it's so boring to pick up a book of poetry and see that left-handed margin going evenly up and down the page like a little platoon of soldiers.

MICHAEL:  It's almost like running up and down a staircase over and over again, instead of wandering everywhere.

DALE:  That's about the power of observation. Olson magnified it. I mean it was so ingrained with him. That Bibliography of America for Ed Dorn. He says something like 'just go study barbed wire.'

JOANNE:  He didn't start writing poetry until his forties, so he had a very well developed intellect, and was a wide reader. A person willing to go beyond the usual bounds of the Greek-Roman Empire, Judeo-Christian inheritance.

DALE:  What do you mean, as you say in one of your poems, 'Me is memory . . .  take me out, take me out.'

JOANNE:  You are composed of all of the ideas of yourself, so 'you' are your memory, so 'you' are your history. How you solidify a 'me.'

'Take me out' means take 'me' out, so 'I' can view someone else's memory. If you are going to try and go out to another time and history to tell someone else's story, you have to drop that 'me' behind.

DALE:  I was just wondering also, if you could tell your own story with that kind of detachment. The 'I' that is writing, from the 'me' that is experiencing the memory of experiencing.

JOANNE:  Why would you want to do that? You would take a lot of warmth out of it. But maybe it would be interesting to try, just to see what it felt like.

DALE:  It could also be really sympathetic.

JOANNE:  How you could have a detached look at yourself.

DALE:  You've got to be sympathetic though, in the negative capability way. There's a lot of Philip's work that also does that. A mind, then there's Philip and these distances in perception.

MICHAEL: What were you like Joanne, when you were our age?

JOANNE:  Well, when I was younger than you both, I spent a lot of time in North Beach, 1957. It was great. A little bar called The Place was happening. Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer had a circle of young writers that got together on Sundays. We read our poems and they would comment on them, and read their poems too. Then we'd go to a bar in North Beach afterwards.

DALE:  Who all was there? David Meltzer? Duncan and Spicer . . . 

JOANNE:  And Harold and Dora Dull, Ebbe Borregaard, George Stanley . . . 

DALE:  Were there many other women besides you?

JOANNE:  Not really. Diane Wakoski came a couple of times but she didn't like the questions or criticism, and she would cry.

DALE:  So were they very critical. Who was it, Duncan?

JOANNE:  Sometimes, yes. But it was mostly Spicer, who was very clear about what he thought was bullshit. One must be true to 'the poem.' and I wasn't too clear on what that was.

MICHAEL:  But you just stuck around to find out.

DALE:  What do you mean by 'architecture of your lineage?'

JOANNE:  Who your teachers are; how did you learn the architecture of your page, become aware of the 'structure' of your thinking and the books in your life. Robert Duncan was especially important to me when I was young as he presented the 'religion' of the household. He's a person who just unabashedly made a wonderful, magical home. Unlike Spicer who lived a lonely life in drear apartment rooms. How do you make your household? How do you keep it together, to live a life that is balanced with beauty? A place to put your bookshelves. But not get tied down too much. The rucksack revolution of the Beat Generation was to be able to know how to get on the road too. You had to know how to earn your living, at a job that you didn't confuse with your 'identity,' but gave you the economics to travel, and time off to write.

DALE:  The architecture of 'me.' That's why I was wondering about the 'me.' Poetry does something to that 'me' because it's 'you' but not 'you.' 'Well I myself, am not myself' you say. It's a distance, but it's very close. It's an inhabited distance of revelation. There's something, ultimately in good poems that you just can't control. It just happens, and you're always stunned and surprised when you've done something really good, you see something you didn't expect to see.

JOANNE:  That's when you understand that words have their own independent existence. They say what they want to. Like Spicer saying you are just the medium, the funnel for the words to go through. they have their own lineage, returning through you. The magic syllables, seed syllables.


 
 

Notes:

Books by Joanne Kyger

(1) Some Sketches from the Life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Rodent Press. Boulder, CO. 1996.

(2) All This Every Day, Big Sky Books. Bolinas, CA. 1975

(3) Phenomenological, The Institute of Further Studies Curriculum of the Soul Series. 1989.

 


 
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