There You Are: Interviews Journals & Ephemera   by Joanne Kyger  Edited by Cedar Sigo   Wave Books , 208 pages, September 6, 2017

There You Are: Interviews Journals & Ephemera

by Joanne Kyger

Edited by Cedar Sigo

Wave Books, 208 pages, September 6, 2017

  Tramping the Bulrushes   by John Clarke   D  ispatch Editions , 288 pages, July 20, 2017

Tramping the Bulrushes

by John Clarke

Dispatch Editions, 288 pages, July 20, 2017

REVIEWED BY PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN

“Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.” In other words, don’t bullshit me. A colorful bit of poetic witticism I recently overheard down at the bar the other afternoon during a stop-in while doing my laundry next door. And quite apropos of the two poets whose books I had in hand, Joanne Kyger’s There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera and John “Jack” Clarke’s Tramping the Bulrushes. Highlighting archival material, both collections present unvarnished firsthand documentation of a lifetime’s dedication to poetry by two poets who bucked “the System” in their own distinctive manner. 

Kyger, who unexpectedly passed away this spring at a lively 83, more than held her own as both woman and poet amongst the hegemony of male dominance in Beat Generation affiliated circles. She flew under the radar of general recognition long before “women beats” gained broad recognition in collections such as Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation (1996) and began receiving long overdue critical attention from scholars. Her work presents an astute record of daily observation and commentary grounded by a localized Buddhist worldview from her home in the coastal village of Bolinas, California. Since the 1990s, a broad consensus of critical appreciation for Kyger’s work has steadily grown, leading up to the appearance of About Now: Collected Poems in 2007, which she followed with a number of further small collections culminating in On Time (2015). 

In contrast, any sort of critical interest in Clarke’s work has yet to emerge to any measurable degree whatsoever. He toiled in near obscurity under the cover of a professorship in the English department at SUNY Buffalo until his death in 1993, all the while pursuing his work within a prophetic mytho-poetic tradition drawn from the poetic lineages of William Blake and Charles Olson. Once Olson hit Buffalo in the mid-1960s, a fascinating energetic spasm of poetry activity started to occur (various publications, readings, and visiting poets, university-affiliated and otherwise). Clarke was soon smack dab in the midst of it, and that’s right where he remained, always on his own terms, even as the vast majority of the outside poetry world paid little if any interest in his activities. Ironically enough, this was as the Buffalo Poetics program grew in recognition with a faculty of poets including Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and Robert Creeley. 

Tramping the Bulrushes offers an expansive sampling of Clarke’s voluminous outpouring of work. Editor Michael Boughn, a poet himself and former student of Clarke’s, dived into the poet’s archives in Buffalo churning out a grand assemblage of material in the many formats Clarke avidly engaged with equal commitment and aplomb. A few items have previously appeared in a clutch of stable-bound chapbooks and/or fugitive small press magazines—such as Clarke’s own Intent: Letter of Talk, Think, & Document, produced and mailed out from his home address—yet the vast majority of the work gathered together here never saw publication. Thus, making it the long-awaited companion volume to Clarke’s set of challengingly dense yet brilliant lectures, the colossally ambitious From Feathers to Iron: A Concourse in World Poetics (1987), which demarcates Clarke’s mytho-poetic practice in medias res, as it were. For these lectures, Clarke set himself a broad target by way of the lecture’s announced title and then riffed his way along with abundant reference and citation from a substantial stack of resource texts piled on the table next to him. He later thoroughly went back over the transcripts of the lectures, ironing them out prior to publication.

There are several poems and poem-series—a form Clarke came to favor working in, frustratingly leaving his projected epic ten-book sonnet-series In The Analogy (1997) unfinished at the time of his death—along with lectures, short essays, and correspondence. All of which, at points, boil over into each other. Clarke’s letters, oftener than not, bleed into becoming poetry and/or statements of his poetics; just as the opening piece “Lots of Doom” first reads as a “lecture” yet in reality turns out to have been a poetry reading. This is a result of, as Clarke was well aware, it being “a matter of stamina of being able to stay with it, with the things, of the presence to be made permanent by articulation” (“Fire Delighting in Its Form”). Similar to the From Feathers to Iron lectures. Each public presentation triggered into action expression of the visionary poetic knowledge in back of Clarke’s work and, given the range and scope of content informing it, every opportunity to be heard became an all or nothing situation requiring titanic energy on his part.

There are also a set of protective well-tempered diatribes in reaction against the anti-Olson sentiment sparked by Tom Clark’s 1991 biography Charles Olson: Allegory of a poet’s Life, which invited critiques of the poet on personal grounds as well as antipathetic views towards his work in general. Clarke’s admonitions on Olson’s behalf are staunch in their unfailing allegiance to adhering to accuracy towards the work itself. His interest lies with the larger movements of ideas Olson held to and the creative space he opened and left behind for future adherents to continue working in. As he says in one of the talks on Olson included here, “Olson was one of the last to dare intervention upon our time. He left a huge monkey wrench in the works and, I think, that’s what is so resented by the Hierarchy” (“Tramping the Bulrushes”).

To be clear, Clarke was no mere Olson imitator. Boughn describes the nature of the Olson-Clarke relationship: “They travelled in the company of each other’s thinking. Clarke found a boundless potential there, a thinking that resonated with Blake’s thinking, opening into otherwise occulted complexities of our strange condition” (“Preface”). And to be sure,“Clarke moved, as Al Cook stated, as far beyond Olson as Olson moved beyond Pound.” Clarke is far from a mere marginal figure. His work is sorely in need of being read, evaluated and argued over as being as much outside of Olson as Olson’s own is from predecessors. In addition, poet Lisa Jarnot’s introduction recalls her time as an undergraduate student in “tweedy Dr. Clarke’s” class “Approaches to Literature: Mythology (Greeks and Romans)” and how she “stopped doodling” on “day one” when he declared “Mythology is about what happened before the System took over.” Clarke’s “subversive maneuvers” in classroom discussion kept her interested while his “light touch” when it came to avoiding pushing his own poetic allegiances to Olson and others was in hindsight quite admirable. The only agenda in back of Clarke’s work is full immersion in furthering the possibilities of the work itself. There is no pandering to obligations from outside of that framework.     

Like-mindedly, Kyger consistently proves herself similarly committed to attending to the needs of the work first and foremost. Gorgeously laid out in an over-sized format, There You Are provides vivid documentation of the places and people in back of her poetry. It’s a smorgasbord of remembrances recounted in interviews from throughout her life. In collaboration with the editor, poet Cedar Sigo, Kyger had a direct hand in shaping the book’s contents. The two first met at Naropa, when one evening “scholarship student” Sigo came across Kyger “bounding up and down the halls opening every drawer and closet door” of the “odd sorority house” the two happened to both be housed in (xiv). When he asked her “what she was doing she simply said she was “'looking for something ….useful!’”(xiv)

“Useful!” is the perfect description for every piece found in There You Are. There’s much to admire in the deliberate ordering of the “collage” nature by which Sigo made selections from out interviews given between 1974 to 2014 with an eye “towards telling Joanne’s story chronologically” (ix). In between the interviews, vignettes from out Kyger’s work and life are placed to enhance the narrative discussed in the previous excerpt. Along with well-reproduced photographs and pages from several of her books of poems, as well as hand-written notebooks, there are letters from Philip Whalen, Charles Olson, and Lew Welch; poems from Anne Waldman, Michael McClure, and Joe Brainard; and two marvelously dead-on introductions to poetry readings she gave in the 1980s written by Robert Creeley (one of these serves as Preface to the book). 

Kyger and Clarke were in fact friends. Clarke masterminding the multi-poet gathering of assorted individual works published across thirty-plus years, A Curriculum of the Soul (2017), of which Kyger’s Phenomenological constituted one part while Clarke’s own contribution, Blake, was itself stylized as a masque “staged” in Bolinas. Clarke gathered ideas for the work during 1968 and 1970 stays in Bolinas when the village happened to play host to a heady stew of local and not so local poets. This period of time was wryly noted by poet Philip Whalen in Scenes of Life at the Capitol: “Who is there to see in New York anyway. Everybody's moved to Bolinas.” 

In his masque, Clarke aligns individual poets—& artists? NYC-based Joe Brainard and Bolinas local Arthur Okamura were on hand as well—with a cast of characters found in Blake’s Illuminated works: Los, Ulro, Beulah, Rahab, etc. Clarke unfortunately doesn’t provide any sort of key for identifying who’s who. Although in the seminal work on the Bolinas poetry community, Dreaming As One Poetry, Poets and Community in Bolinas, California 1967-1980, Kevin Opstedal does finger Ulro as Robert Creeley explaining: “Crucial then to the plot of this play was the anticipation of Creeley's arrival in town. The climax of which was the transformation of Creeley as Ulro into Eden—Blake's lowest to highest condition—corresponding to a moment in Blake's prophetic poem, Jerusalem.” For the Powers of Poetry are ever apparent in the everyday. As Kyger humorously reflects upon in a memory of the light-hearted perniciousness of Gregory Corso:

 

“We go to Trungpa’s house for cocktails and a talk. I’m standing by a pillar listening and I drop my glass. Oh look what boo boo you did Joanne, says Gregory loudly. […] Gregory can read minds. He knows who’s outside the door. Where the stash is hidden. And he goes right to the heart of beauty. He’s sitting next to her, his arm around her, at home. Allen asks me to introduce Gregory and him at a Naropa summer reading. I want to give it some Cosmic Sizzle and talk about them as the White Lights of poetry. Gregory is terrifically angry and says white light! That’s what you see when you die! I don’t do the introduction.”

 

Kyger also shared Clarke’s enthusiasm for Olson. Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” (1957) serving served continually as a touchstone for her Kyger’s own poetics. It also played a central role in her teaching as a guiding principal for encouraging students to explore how their work sounded when read as well as how it appeared upon the page. The classroom remained a familiar space. As she recalls in a 2013 interview, “I did teach at the New College of San Francisco, and have taught at Naropa since 1975, at their Summer Writing Program.” However, similar to Clarke—remember he and his work were anathema to the Buffalo Poetics program— Kyger has little time for the Creative Writing endeavors of those practitioners in academia: “But often there are critical “academic” requirements—writing papers, analyzing poetry, and taking poems apart in certain ways, to comment on them—that just seemed to me ruthless and useless activity.” 

In today’s poetry world, it feels more and more as if MFA programs are corralling poets into AWP-sanctioned territories. The poets writing and being recognized for their work are indeed a broader group than ever. In terms of skin color and gender identification, it’s certainly a far more diverse crowd of individuals gathering together at poetry events across the country than at any previous time. Yet that’s also reflected at the broader cultural level in the U.S. as well. Problems remain at heart with the role of underlying characteristics within the larger institutional forces at play, which remain unthreatened. Poets of the like of Kyger and Clarke always keep a steady eye on this other level, where the levers of the powers-that-be truly operate. Poetry’s ongoing business should remain one of wariness over any slacking off in that regard. In other words, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”

 

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil).