On Time: Joanne Kyger’s Journals and Ephemera


There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera

By Joanne Kyger; edited by Cedar Sigo

2017 Wave Books, 176 pages, $25.00, ISBN 978-1940696584


Reading down the list of Joanne Kyger’s books, one begins to feel memento mori: titles like Some Life, About Now, Again, As Ever, and Going On imply that her work is one great project seamed only by the covers. There You Are provides context about Kyger that is not in her own diaries or poems. It is a collection of interviews, short essays, photographs, poems, letters, and diary entries. We get more data about how Kyger thinks about her poetry in interviews like “Interview with Dale Smith & Michael Price, Jacket” (105-107).


Kyger’s concern with breath recalls Olson’s, Ginsberg’s and the Beats’ concern with the line as a unit of breath and her own studies of meditation. Although I know there must be other ways of looking at the line, I find myself stuck to this aesthetic, too: “how to translate the voice to the page” and how to translate the mind to the page at the same time. “A period has three breath stops; a comma has a breath stop; a semi-colon, a breath-stop and a half.”


Kyger doesn’t use a lot of punctuation in her poems; it becomes unnecessary when you have spacing as a tool. She depends on line breaks and spacing to show pauses. For example, in On Time, Kyger doesn’t use a lot of punctuation, although she still likes commas. The only punctuation in “Take a deep breath” (96) is the apostrophe in “can’t” and the comma in the date at the bottom. The line breaks mark breath and the stanzas and indentation mark content changes.


Kyger discusses the habit of keeping a journal: “in… 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.” When I am not writing, I remind myself that I can write anything. Being free to just write anything, and not have to write a good, finished poem, opens me up. You have to “keep word energy flowing.” From these comments and from watching her develop a daily practice of writing in The Japan and India Journals, we discover why Kyger dates her poems and writes about elements of her everyday life in her poetry. Her poetry seamlessly blends the diaristic and poetic.


Asked whether she’d met Olson, Kyger says “The page itself was an energy source, and words and ideas were transmitted to it… I could really understand how the page could start to hold these ‘energies’” (There You Are, 106). I remember feeling this when I read Steve McCaffery’s Rational Geomancy: I was drawn to his ideas about how the page was already energized, already an historical, geographical, sonic space. All of these ideas about the blank page space seem to borrow from John Cage’s ideas about silence (simply: it doesn’t exist), which Olson would have been hearing about the same time that he wrote “Projective Verse.” (To be clear: just as there is no silence onto which musical sound is projected, there is no completely blank space onto which poetry is written.) I like how she says “[Olson’s and Whalen’s] 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…” (106).


We also get more information about Kyger’s early adulthood with Gary Snyder in Japan, especially in the first few selections, “Interview with Paul Watsky, Jung Journal,” and “Interview with Trevor Carolan, Pacific Rim Review.” In conversation, Kyger reveals much more to us about how she thinks about her work than she does in her journals or within her poems. Cedar Sigo’s collection of Kyger ephemera sheds light on Kyger’s biography and process for those interested in in-depth study of her work.

On Time

by Joanne Kyger

2015 City Lights, 126 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-0872866805


Kyger’s death in March 2017 marked the end of her creative production, but not of her readership, which seems to only increase as we share a feeling of apocalyptic depression under Trump. Kyger’s political commentary in On Time, published in 2015, still feels fresh.


“You Go To War with the Army You Have” and “Are You One of Those Revolutionary Poets?” both begin with their titles, unattributed yet familiar quotes. Donald Rumsfeld said the first one; Kyger imbeds political news in her poems. Here, Rumsfeld was defending his military strategy while being accused of sending the military into dangerous situations without adequate equipment. There is a hum of danger, the background of the war in Afghanistan, like hearing the news on t.v. while one is occupied by something else. Due to Rumsfeld’s hollow assertion that we must go to war with the army we have-- not a more prepared, well-outfitted army-- we feel a sense of doom and anxiety.


The poem is organized visually in two sections like a frame narrative. There are three indented lines at the beginning and three indented lines at the end, framing a middle, left-aligned section in which Kyger tells a story of her yard being overrun with scrub jays. Her use of the taxonomy places her in a very precise territory, as scrub jays only live in a tiny strip of the West Coast. They’re pecking holes in the apples, which means the apples are large enough to eat (in the first poem of On Time, dated July 24, the apples are still “tiny”), which makes sense because the poem is dated September, and that she lives in a place where apples are ripe in September-- which is not, for instance, Argentina, where her visitor is from. The scrub jays are taking over, which is a nicer vision of birds taking over than in Hitchcock’s The Birds, although the juxtaposition of military operations and birds taking over reminds me of the threatening imagery of that film (for instance, when the crows gather on the playground equipment). Kyger and others (her partner? Her guests?) “clap our hands” “to make them fly away” -- they “go to war with the army they have” to get the jays away from the apples, but like the U.S. Army, their efforts are insufficient: “they mostly learn to shut up.” The poem takes a comical turn: “The other day, our friend from Argentina / saw us run out on the deck / after lunch / and clap our hands // he thought it was some kind / of New Age California ritual / to end a meal.” Californians, teased for their alien “New Age” habits, running and clapping to keep birds away, makes a funny image, although this image is still haunted by the darkness of Rumsfeld’s insufficient military strategy. The comic twist is a kind of twist of the knife: the absurd image of adults clapping to keep the jays away, fruitlessly, is haunted by the idea of Rumsfeld putting thousands of soldiers’ lives on the line because they are not adequately prepared for battle.


The first and last stanza of the poem are indented: they aren’t exactly part of the story of the scrub jays. The first stanza takes us from Rumsfeld to scrub jays: “the froth of rapid associations.” We imagine Kyger’s brain working as she hears Rumsfeld on t.v. and sees the jays again through a window, perhaps, but the association is “entirely in the mind” -- there’s no real-world connection between the two, but there’s a paratactical connection in the poem. “This ‘here’ is not moving” reminds me of battle lines that never move. We’re in a stalemate. The Iraq War will never end. The scrub jays will never stop eating the apples. We’re entirely underprepared to win at this game, but we “go to war with the army we have.”


The last stanza is also indented, offset from the main storyline that is left-aligned. Kyger writes, “Time later to find out / what went right / and what didn’t go right, right?” Her wry voice underlines the darkness of the presumed answer: No. For some, there’s not time later to find out what went right and what didn’t go right. The apples, the civilians, the soldiers are gone.


The poem is dated September 2005. The dates of the poems here are useful to mark what is going on politically and environmentally. (September: apples. 2005: during the ongoing Iraq War, although Rumsfeld’s quote is from 2004.) Kyger dates most of her poems, a practice that makes them feel inseparable from her prose journaling  practice.


“Are you one of those Revolutionary Poets?” has an inverse comic strategy to “You Go To War With The Army You Have.” Here, the title is funny (and reminds me of Robert Creeley’s title, “Was That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It up Yourself?”). It’s one of those annoying comments people make after a reading when they would rather dismiss your work than have to think about it, or something said in under-informed and faux admiration, perhaps. It’s funny because one universality of being a poet is that people are going to say weird things to you about your work and your legitimacy in the world.


It’s May, now-- May 1, 2006, the date of “Worker’s Day in Europe” when people may carry or wear “a small bundle of Lilies of the Valley.” The history here is an amalgam of the original purpose of May Day (celebrate spring-- lilies of the valley are one of the earliest flowers) and class struggle (one of the French kings made the lily of the valley a popular flower, and Worker’s Day is a labor protest day modeled on Labor Day in the States), so the first two lines are a deep palimpsest of European history: pagan rituals, socialism, royalty, ecology: “A small bundle of Lilies of the Valley / marks Worker’s Day in Europe” (20).


She shifts from European rites to U.S. foreign affairs in stanza two: “A day when even Patrick Buchanan / gives a stay away / approach to foreign policy / in Iran.” Noted loud Republican Buchanan could be expected to support any Republican-led military agenda, but on this odd day when delicate flowers merge with labor protests, even Buchanan defies his usual logic. As in “You Go To War,” Kyger jumps from one association to another and any connections we make between paratactical elements is up to her readers. I have long loved these lines from Charles Bernstein’s Content’s Dream: “‘Thinking’ as the conceptual basis for literary production suggests the possibilities for leaps, jumps, fissures, repetition, bridges, schisms, colloqualisms, trains of associations, and memory…” (63). The “froth of rapid association” that comprises Kyger’s poems reminds me of both Objectivism and Language Poetry, and I would be interested to re-read On Time with Ron Silliman’s Revelator, which covers the same time period and has similar concerns: politics, friends, time, place.


“I’m sorry the Renku rules / were so hard to grasp / I almost threw / them away,” Kyger apologizes to an unknown correspondent, showing us that she is considering other forms, specifically this complex Chinese haiku ring form. “This doesn’t happen easily, does it,” she writes, again addressing someone, but not necessarily the same person. What is “this”? Poetry? Peace? Fair labor practices?


“Slight wind blown / tiny white petal / on the ground” mimics haiku form and traditional content, although it’s not properly a haiku, but it may be a translation. She links back to the white petals of the lily of the valley, and I get the mental image of someone’s lily of the valley boutonniere crumbling in the chaos of a labor protest.


“‘Nobody Told Me Grief Felt So Much Like Fear’” (102-103) follows a loose collage “formula” that Kyger uses multiple times in On Time. A limited menu of motifs recur in Kyger’s poems. I can imagine her tracking these concerns to produce a poem a day:

1)     Your dreams

2)     What you are reading

3)     What the news says

4)     Relevant nature you observed

5)     What friends you hung out with.

It seems as if Kyger has a daily, or near-daily, practice of writing, and to get the poems out, she reuses strategies. I imagine her constructivist approach as a collage of elements from the outside (i.e. not Kyger’s thoughts) with elements from the inside (her thoughts) that mark the day in some way. In “Nobody,” she writes about wanting to control one’s destiny and the complex pain of grief, her family history (“like my grandfather / and the Other Side wins”), tosses in a reference to the natural world (the precisely named “sharp-skinned hawk”), a reference to a dream, and an anonymous observation (hers?) “there’s no way of telling people / that they are all walking around / shining like the sun” that resonates spiritual theories that all souls give off their own light.


The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964

By Joanne Kyger; foreword by Anne Waldman

2015 Nightboat Books, 300 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-937658-43-4


In her introduction to The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964, Kyger apologizes that the journals aren’t “travel journals” in the traditional sense. In fact, while in Japan, Kyger is largely relegated to a small home she shares with Gary Snyder while he explores Japan on his own. As she is mostly limited to a small house and small social circle, her journal entries begin to cycle through the subject matter of daily life: her meditation practice and progress, her dreams, who’s coming for dinner, social gossip, letters she’s received, where Gary is and whether he’s returned. Her relationship with him becomes like Stockholm Syndrome as he is emotionally and sometimes physically abusive when he’s home, and expects her to be a docile housewife, but then she misses him when he’s gone and she is left alone for weeks in the house. As Joanne and Gary cross the ocean to Japan, he tells her that they must be married to be able to live together on the artists’ residence property, and they’re married on the ship-- an act that Joanne takes in stride, but leaves the reader with a sense that Gary is not entirely honest. (In 1960, Kyger is 26 and Snyder 30.)

Joanne’s entries about Snyder are often heartbreaking, and they illustrate the complexities of an emotionally abusive relationship:


Friday 3.25.60


Gary Says-- there are many things as important to me as you-- as if distinctions are to be made this way-- I feel some sort of confidence in himself and/or in me has died/faded. Patience.



Sunday March 27.60


Married one month.



-- Is Gary still disappointed. I wonder all afternoon.


Like many abusive men, Gary’s disdain for Joanne trickles into everything. Joanne records what gifts they give each other for holidays, and they’re predictably disproportional. Gary doesn’t seem to put much thought into his gifts, while Joanne seems to think both about Gary’s needs and how to please him as part of the couple:


Saturday. December 24, 1360.

… Gary gave me a stamp, rubbing outfit, boots for winter, guide book to Japan, and I gave him a sweater, shirt, pants, Kama Sutra, folk songs of Japan, Kabuki envelopes, umbrella, 2 notebooks, bowl set, mikon & candy in a stocking, 2 sake cups, book on Japanese Gardens.


Ironically, Joanne can barely leave the house without Gary’s accompaniment, and Gary is often away on meditation trips, so a guide book to Japan is probably a suitable gift-- other than the book, her experience of the country is limited to a housewife’s viewpoint. Later, they get into a physically violent argument about this, in one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the book:


Tuesday 5.17.60

Feeling terribly anxious and unfree. Asked Gary what if I was involved in doing something & didn’t want to do the dishes for say a few days-- I want to feel the freedom of acting that way should the possibility arise. He would not grant me that, he said. We argued and talked about it for sometime, at last in exasperation I rose from the bed ad said I was going to sleep in the Genkan whereupon he grabbed me around the knees and down I fell striking my head against the edge of the table splitting it open. I couldn’t believe what had happened, feeling a furrow in my head & blood pouring out.


Although the reader suffers along with Joanne, they also see the complexity of the situation. Gary is a celebrated poet (“My husband thinks he is a genius and he is”); Joanne’s life in Japan is funded by his residency and teaching work. She is dependent on him for the experience, and she idolizes him. Although she doesn’t want to get married, initially (“I decide to stay only a short time in Japan and not marry”), she changes her mind without writing about it much and then seems to devote herself to being a “good” wife, hosting dinners, caring about Gary’s feelings and their sex life, keeping house, and accompanying Gary as his spouse.


By December 1963, things have gotten dire. Again, at Christmas, the gift-giving is disproportional. On New Year’s Eve, Gary write Joanne a lovely note that includes lines like:


It would be so nice if you could get up early and make breakfast while I did soji or worked in the garden.


Why can’t you ever have a meal ready on time??


And wash the dishes soon after. And pay attention…


Learn to take criticism when it’s fair without getting nasty in return // humility.


By January 4, 1964, Joanne records: “Gary says we need a rest apart,” and she goes back to America. They remained married until 1965. As a record of marriage in the early 1960s, the Journals are nightmarish, but then, so little has changed. Abusive men are still abusive in the same ways. There’s no avant-garde of abuse.


However, meanwhile, Joanne Kyger, the major poet whose work so many of us admire, is establishing the building blocks of her poetics. Observing her development as an artist while she is under such oppressive conditions is exhilarating. She’s writing The Tapestry and the Web (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1965), an autobiographical retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, as she endlessly waits for Gary to get back from various romps. The recurring features of her diary entries-- notes on nature and the weather, current news events, relationships, guests, meditation, dreams, running the household-- become shifting pieces of her poems for the next five decades. The prose diary entries often morph into poems without substantial change in tone. We begin to recognize her life project as recording a life-- its daily habits, its interiority, its dreams and conflicts, its personal and political influences and relationships. Although her published production is dominated by poetry, the diaristic mode established in her earliest writings remains the mode.


The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964 was previously released as Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964 (North Atlantic Books, 2000) and The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964 (Tombouctou Books, 1981). This new edition retains Anne Waldman’s very insightful (and humorous) Foreword, Kyger’s Introduction from the 2000 edition, and her Author’s Note from the First Edition. A new Foreword or Introduction may have been interesting to add to this palimpsest.


What this edition offers, instead of new prefaces, is a larger album of photographs. Here are Joanne and Gary on a motorcycle; Joanne and Gary playing music; Joanne with a flower arrangement (she dutifully practices the zen art of ikebana). In the earliest photographs, Gary looks miserable while Joanne has a big, sunny smile; by 1963, she also looks miserable in a photo by Don Allen. The photos-- especially the one of Joanne and her flower arrangement-- add illustrative context to the words and enhance our understanding of her experience of Japanese culture.

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