On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Steve Kowit, 1983.
We had just published Steve Kowit in our March 2015 issue and were looking forward to seeing him on the West Coast, where he’d be teaching at a Sun writing retreat. Then we learned from a reader that he had died.
There is very little that can slow our work here at the magazine, but this sad news brought the day to a stop. Kowit was a gifted poet and a compassionate human being. He was enthusiastic and outspoken, both on and off the page. (He described himself as an “all-around, no-good troublemaker.”) It was hard to believe he was dead, but as he himself wrote, “Although you may not believe / it will happen, / you too will one day be gone.”
I’d taken a poetry workshop with him six months earlier. He’d come in late, hair awry as if he’d been hurrying. Rumpled clothing. Suspenders. Glasses on top of his head. He rummaged through a stack of papers, complained his back was hurting, then read a poem by someone he admired. His delivery was emphatic, his pauses dramatic. Every writer cultivates a voice, but Kowit commanded his. He talked about poems as revelations. He warned us not to “prettify”: we should tell a story in simple language — and then revise it a hundred times. He advised us to draw from our own experiences, especially the painful ones. When the class ended, he gave everyone his personal e-mail address, encouraging us to send him our writing. I was struck by his generosity, and I realized that over the years he must have offered this to countless students. “I want to read your work,” he said, peering at us over his glasses. And he promised to respond. “It may take a while,” he added with a smile, “but I will get back to you.” Later, when he read his own poems from a stage, I noticed people in the audience straightening up to pay attention. (He often joked that “a boring poetry reading can be more painful than a root canal.”)
Born in 1938, Kowit grew up in Brooklyn, New York. As a young man in the 1960s he joined the “hustlers, hoodlums, deadbeats, artists, students, bongo players, hipsters, and out-and-out sociopaths” (his words) at coffeehouses in downtown Manhattan. After “dropping in and out of Brooklyn College,” he earned a BA. He subsequently earned an MA at San Francisco State College and an MFA at Warren Wilson College. He joined the Army Reserves, but in 1966, to express his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he sent the Army a letter of resignation: if forced to fight, it said, he’d fight for the other side. He then married his sweetheart, Mary, and they fled the country, traveling in Mexico and Central America for several years. After returning to the U.S., the couple settled in San Diego, where Kowit became a mainstay of the local poetry scene and a popular teacher of writing workshops.
In an essay for Poetry magazine, “The Mystique of the Difficult Poem” (available at stevekowit.com), Kowit argues that poems ought to be clear and accessible, and above all they should say something. He observes that “the widespread critical belief that poetry needn’t communicate has had disastrous consequences for the art.” He urges poets to put their “craft at the service of content,” to embrace emotion, and to go ahead and be socially and politically engaged. Who says a poem can’t have a conscience?
Suspicious of monotheistic religions, Kowit found himself drawn to Buddhism. He claimed to be a “skeptical mystic” or a “mystical skeptic.” Kowit engaged in humanitarian and antiwar efforts and was especially passionate about the plight of displaced people and immigrants. In the 1980s he founded the first animal-rights organization in San Diego. He also taught for five decades: at San Diego State; Southwestern College; San Diego City College; and the University of California, San Diego; as well as in retirement homes, community centers, and cafes. When Kowit “semi-retired,” he and Mary and their dogs and cats moved to the backcountry of Southern California, ten minutes from the Mexican border, but he never entirely gave up teaching.
Kowit published seven books of poetry and a writing guide, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop. He also edited The Maverick Poets, a poetry anthology for “people wary of poetry.” His awards included a National Endowment Fellowship in Poetry and two Pushcart Prizes. Garrison Keillor read Kowit’s poems on the radio. (Keillor is a fine reader, but for the real Kowit experience, you should search for him on YouTube.) After his death, Mary completed the editing of his final collection, Cherish: New and Collected Poems, forthcoming this summer.
The Sun frequently published Kowit’s poems, and his contributor notes were characteristically pithy. For example: “Steve Kowit awarded himself the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 in a private ceremony in his living room but declined to accept on political grounds.” And “Steve Kowit has spent his entire life among the savage, warlike tribes of North America and has learned their language and customs well enough to be often mistaken as one of their own.”
For all his invective about the human species — he often referred to us as “Homo satanicus” — Kowit’s poems acknowledge our suffering and resilience, the endless small griefs “that the heart pretends it can bear.” This is poetry that offers comfort in the face of impermanence, that appreciates the good, the bad, and the funny.
Kowit once said that he wanted to “move the reader with memorable tales that celebrate the whole inexplicable business — this strange, unspeakably marvelous life,” and that is exactly what he did.
— Carol Ann Fitzgerald, Managing Editor
P.S. We are grateful to Mary Kowit for providing us with photographs and biographical information.
When I grab big Eddie, a gopher drops from his teeth,
scurries into the closet, & disappears
behind racks of jackets & broken-down luggage
& vacuum attachments & endless
boxes of miscellaneous rubbish.
Cursing, carton by carton, I lug everything out:
that mountain of hopeless detritus — until,
with no place to hide, it breaks
for the other side of the room, & is trapped
in a corner, tiny & trembling.
I lower the plastic freezer bowl over its head, & boom! —
slam the thing down.
“Got him!” I yell out,
slipping a folder under the edge for a lid.
But when I open the front door, the rain
is so fierce it drives me back into the house,
& before I can wriggle into my sneakers, Mary,
impatient, has grabbed the contraption out of my hands
& run off into the yard with it, barefoot.
She’s wearing that blue housedress.
I know just where she’s heading: that big
mossy boulder down by the oleanders
across from the shed, & I know
what she’ll do when she gets there — hunker
down, slip off the folder,
let the thing slide to the ground
while she speaks to it softly, whispers
encouraging, comforting things.
Only after it takes a few tentative steps,
dazed — not comprehending
how it got back to its own world —
then tries to run off,
will she know how it’s fared:
if it’s wounded, or stunned, or OK — depraved
ravisher of our gladiolus & roses,
but neighbor & kin nonetheless.
Big Eddie meows at my feet while I stand
by the window over the sink, watching
her run back thru the rain,
full of good news. Triumphant. Laughing. Wind
lashing the trees. It’s hard to fathom
how gorgeous she looks, running like that
through the storm:
that blue sheath of a dress aglow in the smoky haze —
that luminous blue dress
pasted by rain to her hips.
I stand at the window, grinning, amazed
at my own undeserved luck —
at a life that I still, when I think of it, hardly believe.
The fellow reading poetry at us wouldn’t stop.
Nothing would dissuade him:
not the stifling heat; the smoky walls
with their illuminated clocks;
our host, who shifted anxiously
from foot to foot.
Polite applause had stiffened to an icy silence:
no one clapped
or nodded. No one sighed.
Surely he must have understood we had families
waiting for us, jobs
we had to get to in the morning.
That chair was murdering my back.
tasted unaccountably of uric acid.
Lurid bullfight posters flickered
in the red fluorescent light —
& suddenly I knew that I had died,
& for those much too windy readings of my own
had been condemned
to sit forever in this damned cafe.
A squadron of enormous flies
buzzed around the cup of piss
I had been drinking from.
Up at the mike, our poet of the evening
& flicked his tail,
& kept on reading.
Sometimes when you say goodbye you know it’s goodbye for keeps.
You touch your lips to her cheek, or you squeeze his hand & walk off.
What else can you do? Out on the street, the light has never
been so intense, so luminous, so intolerably bright.
But mostly we don’t know when it’s that final goodbye.
Who would have thought that perfectly casual “Hey, Steve, take care”
would be the last? Years later someone mentions that Greg is living
in Spain or Rebecca got married in Ecuador or Don
is in Shreveport. Or you hear through the grapevine
that Kenny has died, someone you once loved, someone with whom
you spent endless hours laughing back in those feverish days
on that other coast, in that other life. One morning you turn
the page of the Union-Tribune, & among the obits there’s a picture of Larry,
from the old coalition, & you read that small notice beneath it,
& your heart stops. One afternoon, at Dennis’s bookshop up on Girard,
some guy you don’t quite remember starts shaking
your hand & tells you that Susan died of stomach cancer
five years ago now. “I wasn’t sure that you knew.” & in fact
you didn’t know. & Eliot, swallowed by time. Was that the last
goodbye, there in the narrow hallway of that sixth-floor walk-up of mine,
all those decades ago? Eliot grinning that edgy, cherubic grin & turning
to leave, & me with my hand on the tarnished knob of that door, watching
him make his way down the stairs in the dusty, fluorescent semidark
of that place fifty years back, that door which hasn’t yet quite shut for good.
A friend I hadn’t seen in more than three decades wrote
to tell me he had just remarried, & was finally happy
— this followed by a long denunciation of his former wife,
whom I had known back then when all of us were young,
& who, through tireless manipulation & deceit
(he claimed), had managed to get full custody of the kids, ruining
two decades of his life. “She would not show me
the room where the children slept,” he wrote, “or so
much as offer me a cup of water from the kitchen tap.”
I was shocked, though at the same time couldn’t help
but recollect that afternoon a few weeks after his first
son’s birth, when he’d dropped by, exuberantly happy,
& in the midst of laughing about how little sleep they got
these days, mentioned, in passing, that they had taken Pica,
their lovable Irish setter, back to the pound: “With an infant
in the house . . . ,” he started to explain — the way one might
about a troublesome TV or a sofa bed returned
for taking too much space up in the den.
“Why didn’t . . . you find her a home?” I tried
to keep my voice under control. “You know as well as I do,
at those places only puppies get adopted. She’ll be put down.”
It came out broken. I could hardly wrap my mouth about
the words. — “Oh, not at all. Pica’s so adorable she’s bound
to find another home!” He shook his head with a dismissive laugh,
& then went on again about the endless pleasures
of his newborn son. & I said nothing further. What more,
I’d like to know, could I have said? By the time
I was done with that letter, & that flood of memories,
the sun was setting. I sat there for a long moment, & then
read it through a second time, trying, this time,
to be careful not to betray our friendship, to keep in mind
what a decent, fine, well-intentioned fellow he had been,
& all that he had suffered. Though it didn’t work: Pica
pacing back and forth across the cage of his disquieting letter,
pausing now & then to lick the back of my right hand.
She could not comprehend what had happened.
Had she done something wrong?
Where were those humans she had loved so much, those
humans who had seemed so trustworthy & generous & kind?
After I’d sent the Army my letter of resignation, two beefy Intelligence types
showed up at my place in the Fillmore with a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder,
& without mincing words I tore into America’s despicable agenda:
the circle of hell reserved for our savage carpet-bombing campaign
against the people of Vietnam & the puppet state the U.S. was trying
to force down their throats. Which was why, I explained, I wouldn’t put
on their fucking uniform ever again & why, if I had to fight, it would be
for the other side.
Quiet, courteous, polite, they sat there listening
to my ferocious rant till, after two hours, I asked what exactly it was they
needed to know, & one of them said they had really been sent to find out if
I was planning to shoot President Johnson, or do something else of that sort,
& I laughed & said no, & we shook hands & they packed up & left.
But a month later, when the Army sent me the transcript to sign & return,
I brought it instead to a young San Francisco attorney whose family firm
did pro bono work for resisters, & Josh Callihan read that whole eighteen-
page harangue & looked up & told me how much he liked what I’d said,
& when I asked him what to do next, he advised me to get the hell out of town
as fast as I could. Which I did. I ran for my life & for the lives of all those
they were trying to get me to kill, & of nothing I’ve done in this world
have I ever been prouder.
Listen, if you’re reading this poem & you’re young
or desperate enough to think of enlisting, or have already been suckered in,
understand that all those self-righteous fairy tales about freedom
& peace are meant to convince young men & women like you to massacre,
city by city & village by village, America’s villain du jour, adding, every few years,
another small state that stepped out of line to its necklace of skulls.
& for those of you who will march to your own graves in so doing,
the powers that sent you will bow their heads & present to your folks
the flag that was draped on the box they carted you home in.
Friend, find any way that you can to resist
or escape. If you have to run for your life, for chrissake, run for your life.
Steve Kowit, circa 2009.
Look, if it can’t be arranged
then forget it.
But make certain
I have a clean shave, OK?
& my nails aren’t filthy
& my poor dead nose
doesn’t dribble over my shirt
during the service.
& if you could
put a nice clean pillow
under my head
in the casket —
I know it sounds silly
but I could never
sleep soundly without one.
but if it comes to that
any old pillow will do.
& please, no cut flowers:
just let the weeds of the place
be permitted to flourish
over the stone. Alive,
they are lovely enough
in their own right.
how pleased I would be
if you sniffled a bit
when they lower me
into the ground
& if, even years later,
you still think of me
now & again — if nothing
more than one of my gestures
or jokes — or better yet
a figure from one of my poems
that had always stuck in your head
nudging open the heart
with its grace
or disarming humor —
in which the world
is made new
& I am alive
& we are together again.
“The Blue Dress” and “I Attend a Poetry Reading” appeared in Epic Journeys, Unbelievable Escapes (State Street Press Chapbooks, 1998). “Codicil” appeared in Lurid Confessions (Carpenter Press, 1983). All other selections originally appeared in The Sun. Copyright © Steve Kowit. Reprinted by permission of Mary Kowit.
My wife, Joelyn, and I attended The Sun’s 2013 writing retreat at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. While there we took one of Steve Kowit’s poetry workshops. Joelyn wrote about a dream she’d had, which Kowit happily helped her expand into a poem. I was reluctant to share with him what I had written, but, ever the passionate teacher, he encouraged me to e-mail my work to him after the retreat. To my surprise he liked the poem so much that he published it in an online literary magazine.
Joelyn and I are among the many who feel Steve’s loss deeply. He was down-to-earth, fun to be around, committed to his craft, and enthusiastic about not only the words he wrote but those written by his students.
I was a professor at San Diego’s Southwestern College between 1996 and 2003, where poet Steve Kowit and I were colleagues. At the age of fifty-two I suffered a massive stroke that ended my teaching career. I lost the ability to walk, read, and spell.
Steve worked with me on my English skills over the phone every Sunday morning for thirteen years, helping me relearn the alphabet and build words. Steve would slowly read a sentence, and I had to write it on a piece of paper. He would read the sentence to me over and over.
Steve was a great friend and an amazing person: He was a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization concerned about the war crimes being committed by the state of Israel against Palestine. He started the Animal Rights Coalition, the first animal-rights group in San Diego, and was a vegetarian almost his whole life. He even respected insects. If a fly buzzed in his classroom, Steve told his students that no one was allowed to harm it.
Thank you for the moving account of Steve Kowit’s life [“The Whole Inexplicable Business,” July 2015], and for consistently including his poetry in your magazine. I belong to an organization called Veterans for Peace, and one of our goals is to shatter the myth that there is an irreconcilable gap between those of us who fought in the American war in Vietnam and those who fought against it. Many of us who didn’t stand up to the authorities who sent us to war appreciate Kowit’s stance as a conscientious objector. I am one of those people.