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Letters from Lost & Found

By Joanne Kyger

All those poets’ papers, folders, and manuscripts filed by the foot in college and university libraries all over the US, now have an avenue of escape and rebirth with the publication of a series of chapbooks edited by students in the English Program at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. And it is the correspondence, the letters, which shine with the dialogue and stories of what “really happened.”

Series III of the Lost & Found Series, published late Spring 2012, with Ammiel Alcalay as General Editor, presents among other titles: The Selected Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson Part I and II, edited by Michael Seth Stewart; Selected Letters of Michael Rumaker, edited by Megan Paslawski; and Letters To & From Joanne Kyger, edited by Ammiel Alcalay.

All these letters reveal a “cast of characters” that “appear and disappear,” exchanging news of their lives and loves from their Black Mountain days of 1955 onward, through San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Buffalo… Letters that come from archives at University of Connecticut, University of California San Diego, and Boston College.

I first met John Wieners and Michael Rumaker in the early fall of 1957 in North Beach, during the excitement of the San Francisco Renaissance. They had arrived from Black Mountain College in North Carolina which had closed the year before, with lots of stories that made the school seem like a dream for writers and artists. I had just come up from UC Santa Barbara and was full of all the first time exuberance and dangers of living on my own. John had charm, humor and empathy which was immediately endearing. Michael with his swift intelligence and tender emotions taught me how to drink gin martinis with Rhine wine instead of vermouth. Really a significant way to get messed up. Which we already were in our attempts to keep jobs, write, stay up all night in North Beach, and find a “comforting” emotional life. Usually with the liberal assistance of “mother’s little helpers.” Depression, and anxiety were good steady companions. John, hand to forehead, “I can’t TAKE it anymore.”

By the beginning of 1958 Michael had left for NYC prompting a series of letters to let him know the “news” of those poets we cared about. I also reported dreams, knowing he was aware of their “language.”

February 4, 1958

…I had a dream Monday night: I was looking at the white muslim curtain in my bedroom and I fell asleep. When I awoke Sheila had gone mad—like Pip’s ‘friend’ in Great Expectations, Mrs. Haversham—and had done awful things to the curtains. They were shredded in the most terrifying way—like loose spider webs, and fastened with the points of open safety pins to the ceiling and walls around the window. Horror possessed me. After a moment I was walking with some friends and I was overwhelmed with a great thirst. I drank one glass of water after another urgently…

This disturbing fragment became the end of my first really successful poem, “The Maze,” written during the winter of 1958.


three feathers
I picked
from a stone
in my path

and turning at last
I saw
the speckled bench
and halting fountain
which marked
the end.

She
tortures
the curtains of the window
shreds them
like some
insane insect
creates a
demented web
from the thin folds
her possessed fingers
clawing she

thrusts them away with
sharp jabs of long pins
to the walls.

[Editor's note: please see original poem for correct spacing and arrangement.]

These times were a bit perilous for me. I finally broke my ankle running down Telegraph Hill one night, which slowed me down considerably. Michael, in a letter from May 3, 1958 says:

Tom didn’t tell me how it happened. (I hoped you weren’t pushed!)… It’s too bad John broke his cane because you might be needing one for a little while… You must have the most fashionable cane in San Francisco… of polished ebony… the handle encased in the thinnest platinum, the slender trunk studded with sapphire chips and for the tip I suggest a broad rubber “nose” to prevent your poking it inadvertently down some cable car slot while you are hobbling elegantly along babbling on all those remote, bizarre and delightful topics you do so carry on about…

Michael Rumaker

I sent Michael dreams again in December 1959 before I got on a boat to Japan—

Funny how I dream of Spicer in connection with poetry… recently in a dream he was sitting in my room thinking about my writing and finally said One bird cannot fly alone, use two birds for your poetry

John Wieners

John remained in San Francisco until late in 1959. But I found writing to him often the best way to communicate. I was working in a downtown San Franciso bookstore.

March 17, 1958
Dear Mr. Wieners,

Thank you so much for the enjoyable time I spent with you at your lovely home Sunday afternoon and the ensuing time spent in your company that afternoon and evening. I am only sorry that you were unable to stay and witness the late evening spectacle of beer throwing exchanged by Ebbe Borregard and myself. However, I am sure you will hear about it quite soon, as he stole my umbrella and will not give it back.

Propriety being much on my mind, I wonder if you would care to join me for a quiet luncheon in the park Thursday. I will of course provide the eatable material for the both of us and we can watch the seagulls.

I will meet you by MEASURE in the hallway and will be wearing a small yellow flower somewhere upon my person so that you can recognize me. I am planning to undergo a complete change and never remove my white gloves. I am typing now with them on. I have long been and admirer of you and your work.

John and I continued our correspondence through the years. In 1962 he writes:

…we spend long hours, nights and dawn talking of San Francisco and what it all meant… Mike Rumaker is out of the hospital and lives in upstate New York. His book is doing very well; at last count 4000. Allen sent photos from India and one of Peter Orlovsky in a human hair wig made me think it was (you) at first sipping tea with Bengali poets… Forgive me.

And in 1965:

…I don’t think Gregory Coarso and I inhabit the same universe. What does Don Allen mean, even comparing me to him. I want to be compared to Henry Miller, living in a rat-infested cellar, under a bare light bulb. But I’m not Henry Miller, I’m just John Wieners, and that’s enough for me. And you’re Joanne Kyger, and that’s enough for me until the day I die. Don’t go to black stockings you never did. But go I Magnin. Strictly Mainbocher, my dear. Right down the line… As you might know, Charles (Olson) and I are going to Spoleto for a reading there at the Festival of Two Worlds where we will read every day of the week… I loved every word of your poem, on the death of your father… I am very proud of you, that I even know you, despite the fact that you went to Japan with that man… I’m sorry I didn’t print those poems in Measure… I could have put one in, I guess, and I don’t know why I didn’t, I didn’t even think of it. Please forgive me. All this human stuff. I must go out and get a soda…

And in 1970 with ornately elegant rhetoric:

Without your scintillating interest in all things, lovely and ugly, along our path together, in San Francisco, New York, and I have no doubt in many other places still open to us. I reminisce over the exciting events you created by your love for poetry… Education has dulled my capacity towards the ceaseless experience we radiated in the streets and literary obligations offered while fledgling devotees in both ports… Necessities of economy prohibit our position from being near to one another, yet these attempts at communication result in relighting the old honors of recognizing a common cause…

I can’t remember exactly what year it was in the near past that all the intimacy of those hand written and typed letters turned into email. Quick, immediate exchanges on the computer have changed the style and language of communication. There certainly is still the desire for correspondence, but it seems the actual letter has become almost an artifact. I still have a few friends that know how to put pen to paper or type out a letter and put it in an envelope with a stamp. I am trying to envision an archive of hard drives. It seems rather soulless.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Friday, August 31st, 2012 by Joanne Kyger.