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Colleen Lookingbill

By Kevin Killian
Colleen Lookingbill outside the Palmer House, Chicago.

Colleen Lookingbill outside the Palmer House, Chicago.

Our little world here in San Francisco was rocked the other day when we learned of the death on Monday of local poet Colleen Lookingbill, whose presence among us was for so long the one steady thing you could depend on, a beam of kindness and vivacity in a world that valued other things entirely. The days since her death have left many of us speechless as well as bereft, even though we feared something of the sort was coming, after a return of the cancer she had successfully wrested to the ground, or so we thought.

I met her maybe twenty-five years ago in a poetry scene that was to my mind strangely decimated, thinned out, blanched out by the AIDS crisis and also by, paradoxically enough, by the end of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” that had given poetry, or more precisely, poetry life, an energy it hadn’t had in a long time. By the time I met Colleen, no longer would you go to a party and half the people would be outright cutting the other half depending on how they felt about Language Poetry. Colleen herself had a number of acerbic friends but from the beginning, her spirit was calm, beautiful like her older peer, the Lebanese born poet and artist Etel Adnan. And like Adnan, Lookingbill seemed equally adept at the visual arts and those of the poem.

I sometimes felt Colleen was denied her proper due, and perhaps one of the reasons is that she had more than one string to her bow. And another of course is that she was not a teacher; her job was in the business world and not academia, so she didn’t have the clout some of her less talented contemporaries did. I remember talking to her on the phone and shyly, nervously almost, she brought up the fact that Spencer Selby’s Sink Press was putting forward a book of her poems, Incognita, and it hadn’t really dawned on her that she needed blurbs for it, and now it was almost too late, and could I read the manuscript very quickly and write a blurb in two days time? Naturally I complied and now I’m reading what I wrote, and getting a little fey feeling about it, like, why did I have to concentrate on the disappearing-author aspect of Lookingbill’s writing? Well, “Incognita” as a title sort of asks for it, doesn’t it, but she was performing the renunciation of the female poet as a feminist protest, like Virginia Woolf in the unfinished Anon. “Incognita and the other poems in this book,” I wrote,

confirm my impression of Colleen Lookingbill as one of the best new writers around. What she says in reference to her title is, I think, worth repeating. “Epic tendencies and a certain poetic freedom justify sacrifice of the self. God does not answer either perhaps because she wishes to maintain her incognita.” She has disappeared from her book with the abnegation of Isabel Archer or Fanny Howe, so that only the numinous remains. Whoever and wherever she is, I admire her composure and her doubt.

It’s that last sentence that gives me the willies today, but at the time she liked it and it really began our friendship, I think. As the 90s wore on more of Colleen’s energies were spent on the sharp focus of the long-running North Beach reading series Canessa Park, one of the strangest venues for poetry in San Francisco. Colleen married the tall, quirkily handsome young poet Jordon Zorker and the two of them were perfect together. He was a bit like Adam on Girls and the world knows how much I like me my Adam on Girls, and he had that name, Jordon with two “o”s, and Zorker at the end, which called to mind a character in a Preston Sturges screenplay. The two of them curated the Canessa Park series and re-booted it as a place of the imagination in which the lyric and the musical—and the spiritual—and the serial—shared a domestic setting, and Colleen made every reading a Lucullan feast of food and drink, wine and cheese, yes, but always different unusual treats you never saw anybody else pull off. Here was their schedule for the autumn of 1995:

August 13: Norma Cole and Duncan McNaughton, Sunday 3:00; September 10: Steve Carll, John McNally, Anselm Berrigan, Sunday 3:00; September 17: David Miller and Larry Fixel, Sunday 3:00; October 29, Carol Snow and Joshua Clover, Sunday 3:00; November 12 – Five Fingers Publishing Party, Sunday 3:00; December 8: Spencer Selby and John Yau, Friday 8:00.

Maybe that name “Joshua Clover” stands out, anomalous, but Colleen and Jordon were never programmatic or totalizing, and they welcomed all sorts of writing into their space. She was so adventurous! I remember one time that Dodie Bellamy announced a new session of her long-running “Prose Workshop,” designed to get poets to start writing prose fiction, memoir, essay, whatever, and held in our living room here on Minna Street for the past 20 years, and Colleen signed up, and so did Elizabeth Robinson; and they became friends and stayed so long after our hilarious nights together here were forgotten. With Robinson, Lookingbill established “Etherdome,” a publishing project that would print the work only of female poets who had never had a chapbook before.

Somewhere in all this activity her own writing got sort of lost, and it wasn’t until 2011, after many trials, that the follow-up to Incognita came out—A Forgetting Of. At its publication Kate Greenstreet asked her (in an interview over at Bookslut) how it felt to return to the world after beating cancer. “Do you feel like you’ve returned from Hell?” Dear Kate Greenstreet, I could never have been as empathetic or asked such a brilliant question! And Colleen replied, “I do! I saw George Albon at the Symphony the other evening and he asked me the same thing. I told him now I am back to the normal Hell of life here on earth and that is the Hell I prefer!” God bless her and keep her, as she kept all of us for so many years with her divine kindness, humor, elegance and grace.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 by Kevin Killian.