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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Andrew Schelling

Joanne Kyger's Portable Poetics


28 July 1997; Patzcuaro

In the dream Donald and Joanne show up. We're delighted they've joined us in Patzcuaro. But inside a bar-room full of local handcrafted objects we find a cabinet of colorful Michoacan shelves loaded with science fiction body-snatcher pods. The pods are intricately lacquered with blue and white Indian designs. Seems they've been put here to replace humanity. An apocalyptic mood settles over the room.

Joanne departs for the mercado to buy ceramic cups - "cupitos" she calls them - leaving me and Donald to figure out the immense complicated coffee machine while Anne keeps vigil over the pods. Someone's put the machine together wrong. When I throw a switch it steams dangerously and coffee drizzles from many unpredictable valves.

I HAVE SEEN Joanne Kyger over the past ten years in various temporary lodgings here in Boulder, and recently down in Mexico's Michoacan mountains. It was in January, in Patzcuaro, that I asked about her principles for packing - how she gets it together to travel - and she told me she learnt a great deal in the sixties watching Gary Snyder pack his rucksack for the woods.

Joanne moves into her quarters with modest duffel bag and backpack, and from it produces all manner of practical items, ritual objects, and writing tools. Up goes a portable Buddhist altar, small thanka painting tacked to the wall, and various select bandanas come unrolled. (She seems to have made a study of the many designs available, both north and south of the border, commenting on new patterns she encounters. I was unaccountably pleased recently when she asked me to teach her the knot I use for tying bandanas around the throat cowboy style able to give back some bit of practical learning to one who has made a deep study of these things.)

On and around the variety of bandanas go plates, spoons, knives; fruit from the local market, a flower or two, and a little larder of food chosen for quality and inexpensiveness. Tequila or beer; and tiny drinking cups, the "cupitos" that made it into the dream, she has pickedup for pennies in Patzcuaro's Friday open air ceramic market.

These details are not meant to be merely personal or anecdotal. I put them down because I've maybe learnt about how she writes as much from watching her travel habits as querying her poems on the page. Joanne Kyger is after all the preeminent living poet of the journal or notebook an old nearly underground tradition I like to trace back to Japan, where the nikki ("day book") has survived as a durable genre for over a thousand years. A genre that seems to have been designed for the traveler.

The fine early journal practitioners in Japan were women of the Heian court (tenth and eleventh century). While the cultivated men were distracting themselves writing poems in classical Chinese, and remained dependent on large nonportable libraries, the courtesans were forging a peerless literary tradition based on the diary form. Direct observation and colloquial recording of events, people, places visited; conversations overheard; accounts of poetry competitions; as well as enough solid ethnography & natural history to make the period utterly vivid. After Arthur Waley's partial translation of Sei Shonagon, and then Ivan Morris's full version of The Pillow Book into English, the twentieth century had to hand a splendid up-to-date model for list poems of everything from trees and birds to "despicable things" and harsh sounding words. Other good diaries from the period are those of Murasaki Shikibu, the poet Izumi Shikibu, Lady Sarashina, the anonymous author of The Gossamer Years, and that of Lady Nijjo.

In the spirit of Basho who wrote "the journey itself is home", Joanne once told me: Traveling, the journal is your home away from home, the place you live. The little book is your casa. And she continued with what everyone knows but needs to hear again, repeatedly how in that book, in the domestic space of that casa, one ought to give things the dignity of their names. Such a practice in our planetary house of course implies a great scholarly interest directed towards the world. Go out and learn it all: birds, trees, landscapes, people, languages, customs, food, the prices travelers pay and the prices for locals. Get these things down while they are close to hand.

It is in her very important Japan & India Journals that Joanne Kyger most fully (in terms of number of pages and timespans and regions covered) shows herself a terrifically disciplined yet sprightly & loosely omnivorous journal writer. Of the lessons one learns or somehow picks up over the years, for life & for poetry, only a handful really stand out. It was she who passed on to me one of the most serviceable: that the journal as a regular writing practice shifts the focus of writing from that old Occidental head trip "who are you" to "when" and "where" are you. These questions it turns out are more interesting points for writing and living to proceed from.

Patzcuaro for instance is a where. A when might take note: winter, the dry season, vegetation a little withered by drought; six years after Mexico's Zapatista insurgency put the PRI (government party) on notice and delivered around Mexico and into Michoacan a certain long-supressed pride for the indigenos. Four hundred fifty years after the Jesuits constructed the first Western Hemisphere college (it's up on the hill near the Basilica, today used as a museum of regional folk life). Over at Plaza Chiquito is bronze statue of revolutionary hero Gertrudis Bocanegra baring her breasts to the firing squad: who's revolution and when? what was the legacy? why alongside Patzcuaro's open air mercado and across from the biblioteca?

Joanne Kyger

And so, you always enter the date, the time, and the location at the top of your entry. Notice how Kyger's poetry of recent decades follows suit, bringing this information to the bottom of the page, making of it a frame for the poem. There is something ceremonial in heading your page with where and when: it anchors what follows, if only a single word or thought. Not surprisingly, this is the advice found in bird-watch journals, back country notebooks, and has been used by most travelers of the hundred literary epochs. Anyone who goes on a journey, or takes an interest in ecology, bioregionalism, or that enormous journey of everything around us termed natural history, can't do with a better teaching.

The writer's mindstream is freed on the instant, and can assume a relaxed and ironic removal from the inward junk of fluctuating mood intricacies; attention relocates on an out-there world: history, geopolitical observations, bioregional specifics like flora & fauna & weather currents, other peoples' customs, foreign vocabularies, and the indelible impact of capital on the twenty-first century.

Possibly Kyger's low-impact lifestyle and the way she packs and travels should go into some future handbook of how as a human being to dwell on our planet: lightly and with good bright humor. Beware enterprises requiring new clothes. But always put in your rucksack a clean notebook.


J A C K E T  # 11 
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