#tbt: Joanne Kyger in “Poet Be Like God”, and reading for SFSU!


The painter Harry Jacobus lounges behind Joanne Kyger in this Stinson Beach scene from June 1959.
Photo by Tom Field, from Poet Be Like God

Today’s Throwback Thursday post features three brief excerpts from Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian. On the occasion of Joanne Kyger’s reading for San Francisco State University Poetry Center at the First Unitarian Universalist Church (1187 Franklin St., San Francisco) on Friday, March 6th, we’re sharing a few short passages from Poet Be Like God that touch on Spicer’s literary relationships with Kyger and others in the Bay Area. These passages shed some light on the 1950s Bay Area literacy scene, the rise of the Beatnik in American poetry, and what it was like for women authors navigating the literary landscape of the time.

from page 100:

On Blabbermouth Night, no reading from text was permitted; it was all extemporaneous public speaking. Up on the balcony, set into the wall, stood a box “like a soap-box,” where the contestants stood. If you were terrible, one of the bartenders would play a trumpet, or the crowd would hoot you off by yelling, “Take off your clothes,” as they do in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

Just too late to attend the “Magic Workshop,” Joanne Kyger and her childhood friend Emily (“Nemi”) Frost came from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. The two women fell in love with the city’s bohemian splendors. “We couldn’t stand to be away from North Beach,” Nemi remembered, “or each other. We couldn’t go through the tunnel[s—Broadway and Stockton, which divided North Beach from the rest of San Francisco]…. And we just raced to get back. It was home. It was where everything was happening.”

North Beach was a small world—three or four blocks, like a toy city dropped at the edge of a larger metropolis. Nemi, Joanne, and their friends Paul Alexander and Tom Field rarely went even to Washington Square Park, which was just a block away—only after the bars had closed at 2:00 A.M., when Joanne would cartwheel around the Park.

Kyger worked and held court at Brentano’s Bookstore, meeting poets of all schools, including Spicer, who took her under his wing—the wing of Hecate. One night he added her to a group performance of “Zen singers,” inviting Tom Parkinson over from Berkeley to witness their performance at The Place on Blabbermouth Night. In her journal she wrote: “We have rehearsed, whenever we felt like it, such tunes as ‘Give me some Zen who are Stout Hearted Zen’ and ‘When it rains it always rains, Zenies from Heaven.'” When it came time actually to perform, however, the singers demurred “on some grounds or other, probably lack of free beer.”

More and more young people, most without the talent and alacrity of Kyger and Frost, flooded the once-quiet streets of North Beach. The police became concerned and assigned a special task force to deal with this invasion. “Officer Bigarani was arresting people for pissing in the street,” George Stanley recalled, “and a woman named Wendy [Murphy] was arrested for “The Whole Boon of His Fertility” being barefoot. It was a big scandal: the Chronicle was playing it up, you know, ‘degeneracy’ or whatever. And then thousands of tourists.” Who was “beat”? Who wasn’t? The wild, crazy style of the Spicer/Duncan group made many of the Beat poets doubt their seriousness. Joanne Kyger, who met her future husband, Gary Snyder, at The Place, was torn between allegiances to two very different kinds of poetry life. The exclusiveness of Spicer’s group of poets, friends, and lovers did not escape the members’ own notice. “There were definitely circles within circles,” recalled another young poet in the Spicer circle. “There was a sense of ‘We are not Beatnik.’ We [the poets] all felt like that. Sometimes we’d play it up to the tourists: the tourists came in and they thought we were all Beatniks. It was a big game. There were Beatniks out there. The Beatniks were more the followers of Ginsberg—more ‘everything is everything else.’ We called them ‘sloppy thinkers.'”

These young poets tended to despise other artists whose interests and personalities seemed unsympathetic. Nevertheless, the allegiances were ambiguous. George Stanley put the matter succinctly: “If you could consider the group centering around Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Corso, and later on, McClure—and still later, the Oregon poets, Whalen, Snyder and Welch—if you consider that one group ‘Beatniks,’ then the group around Spicer and Duncan were anti-Beatniks. But we were all Beatniks; we didn’t think we were Beatniks, but we were.”

from page 111:

In the fall of 1957, Joanne remembered, George Stanley approached her in The Place, and said, “Some people are treating these meetings just like a party.” The tone of his voice left no doubt that “some people” included herself. She hadn’t been reading her own work at the meetings, that was true. Too shy; too hesitant. It was time to shape up. She assembled her work, got on the cable car over the hill, realized she had forgotten her poems, went back home, found the poems, got on the cable car again, and finally read them at the Dunns’. “Robert Duncan loved them, and I remember Jack Spicer looking very serious-faced and saying, ‘Now what do you intend to do?’ His commitment to poetry was absolute, right down to the marrow of your bone. This was no light-hearted affair at all. And then after I wrote ‘The Maze’ poem, which was the first one in The Tapestry and the Web.” Completed late in 1964, The Tapestry and the Web became Kyger’s first book.

If Spicer was serious with Kyger, Duncan was coy. “I remember Robert Duncan saying, ‘There are a few things I could teach you about the line,’ and I said, ‘Well, tell me.’ ‘Oh, I’ll tell you next meeting.’ So, when everything was over, we were standing in the kitchen, and I said, ‘Now tell me.’ ‘Well, ah … ‘and he really didn’t tell me anything at all, as a matter of fact.” Joanne laughed, a deep, rich chortle of warmth. “But there was something he did tell me which then made me more interested in the fact that there was something going on which I wasn’t quite handling, or could handle in some way-some breath-beat implicit in Creeley’s tone, the hanging-article at the end of the breath-line, in the ear, giving this kind of staccato rhythm.”

From page 117

The Sunday meetings attracted a variegated group of men and women, but why were no more women writing than Joanne Kyger? The reason was partly financial, since the women who were likely to contribute were busy supporting their men. Dora Geissler recalled:

I didn’t read anything at Joe Dunn’s. I was Harold [DullJ’s woman. It was sort oflike—There wasn’t room for me to write, too. There were women in the group, but only Joanne did any writing. Nemi [Frost] went to the poetry meetings, too, but she wasn’t a writer. It was the group that went. Joanne and Nemi and I were very good friends. We were so different we weren’t competitive. Nor were we feminists. We all enjoyed the company of gay men, probably for similar reasons. For me, coming to San Francisco and meeting gay men was a wonderful experience, because I had just been through that season in my life where you’re seen as a sex object, and in Seattle, I would try to talk to people and think they were interested in my mind, and they just wanted to get in my pants? That was always so disappointing to me, and then when I met gay men in San Francisco, and realized, “They’re interested in my ideas,” I was just overjoyed! I knew my gay friends enjoyed my company for me alone, not as someone to fuck. That was a very comfortable place for me to be then. Feminism really hadn’t been invented then to any extent, and most women were uninteresting to me. They would talk about the house, and clothes, and I was never interested in makeup, clothes, the things that they talked about that didn’t interest me. The world of ideas and poetry and politics that gay friends would talk to me about, why, that’s where I felt at home.

In addition to Poet Be Like God—a project brought to our attention by Samuel R. Delany—Wesleyan has published two books of Spicer’s work, both poetry and lectures: My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi.