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Joanne Kyger and Simon Pettet in Conversation 


Joanne Kyger is a poet often associated with the Black Mountain School of Poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Beat Generation. She lives north of San Francisco on the Pacific coast. She is the author of some 20 books of poetry. Her most recent are As Ever: Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 2002) and God Never Dies: Poems from Oaxaca. (Blue Books, 2004) Forthcoming from National Poetry Foundation is Collected Poems: About Now.  


Simon Pettet, as well as the recent author of More Winnowed Fragments, is the author of  Selected Poems. Black Sparrow published his Selected Art Writings of James Schuyler in 1999. He is also the author of two books with the photographer Rudy Burckhardt, Talking Pictures and Conversations About Everything. British by birth, he is a long-time resident of the Lower East Side in Manhattan.





SP:  Hi Joanne!

JK: Hi.

SP:  First, how would you put together a sentence, if you were the ‘master (mistress) of all time and space’? 1

JK. I would issue an edict that all mandatory sentencing is over. I would advise discretionary sentencing when needed.

SP: Discretion, discretionary, distinction -  "discrete" - what a beautiful word! I look it up in the OED, and come across this (among other citations) - from Henry Peacham: ‘Raine or water, being divided by the cold ayre, in the falling downe, into discreet parts’. So just what are we distinguishing here. It's all water, right? - and air? - or words? - so what do we do with them?

JK: Finding focus is like winnowing words 'til a larger fragment floats to the surface, or drifts through the air and lands like a word in a book.  Your recent book, for example, More Winnowed Fragments. 2  When did you start writing that particular book? Is it chronological? Do you write in the morning or the evening?

SP: I think of poetry as accretion - (just like Walt Whitman!) I love the fact that there is continuing presentations of, what is, finally, the same book. More Winnowed Fragments, (the title) is a little...dead-pan – ‘Here's some more fragments, you might want to check out the earlier ones!’ I wish I were disciplined about my writing hours. Are you disciplined?

JK: If I write down at least one thing a day, I call that discipline.  A “thing'” can be a sentence, a dream fragment, or a telephone number.  But it is “of the moment”.

SP: I think of that as accomplishment. If I can "accomplish" at least one "thing" a day, that's good (if I get to accomplish more things, that's good too!). I wish I wrote (sentences, a poem) every day, but I don't. I write letters and scribble notes, but that doesn't "count", right? Do you think the epistle is a sad lost art? (‘now, with e-mail...’) Do you think we're apt to squander? (our attention, I mean) -The Wonderful Focus of You (sic) 3 - you mean focus of attention?

JK: ‘The Wonderful Focus of You’ is the focus of the "other". And when that other ONE is no longer in your life, all that energy and concern and heart has to go somewhere, so it can open out to include everyone - the mucho plural “you”. And, of course, I mean always a focus of the moment, in the moment. Much poetry I read now-days is so self-consciously poetic and opaque that I am never introduced to an interesting reality. It's like writers are trying to hide themselves, as if the “self” is no longer of interest. The epistolary voice has such a personal confidence about it, one is always included. I mean if you're writing a letter, it is to someone, you aren't just whistling in the dark. Email has certainly engendered a kind of epistolary short hand literacy.

SP:  …or epistolary short-hand laziness?

JK:  I try to practice a kind of daily notational writing. I often don't bother with the “I”, it takes too long. One “checks in”  to the world of the written self. If I stop for too long I get anxious and think I have to reinvent the poetic voice again. I use my portable notebook for jotting in the morning. And then try and write at least one line, dated, on the computer I use in my studio.

We (Donald Guravich and I) were planning a trip to Veracruz last January-February (2006), but had to cancel it. It was a very stormy, wet winter here, and I wrote a daily line or two, which incorporated the weather damage, along with news of the U.S. administration's current horrors, and including occasional hopefully illuminated states of mind, dream bits, and observations as to the state of  “nature” around me. I call it Not Veracruz. It is fragmented in that there is no narrative line that draws the piece together, except a daily chronology.

SP: Could you perhaps quote some fragments from it?


    "I really can't stand the 'formality'

           of 'intelligence



     Who really 'cares' if the eucalyptus

            have the smarts"

JK:  (So) How many years does your More Winnowed Fragments cover?

SP:  Oh a long time, maybe ten years? , it's that "winnowing", can a poem (every word, every line) "hold up"? I'm pretty tough with myself, I think, but for the best (at least, I say it's for the best!). There's a major proportion of attrition.   I know, "hold up"? - to/for what?

JK: Do you “test” your poems by reading them at poetry readings to see if they “hold up”? I find if I can't bear to read a poem anymore, it probably shouldn't be in print.

SP:  I find that, by the time it comes to a public reading, I'd better have some confidence in its worth, otherwise, crikey, what am I doing?

I often let poems "marinate" for a little while before I "re-discover" them, and then, how interesting, did I write that?. Well, manifestly I did, but...or, alternatively, did I really write that (and what on earth was I thinking)? Yes, I have scattered things in print that I'm embarrassed about. You too?

JK: Yes.  But that was long ago, and those magazines are gone -- except for the collection in that Granary book, A Secret Location on The Lower East Side. 4

SP: Alice Notley in her review of your work 5 speaks of your "honesty" as perhaps your abiding characteristic. What do you think of that?"

JK: Well, are you attracted to poets who you think are lying to you?

SP: (Francois) Villon?  Gregory Corso? - but wait a minute, the poem can't lie, can it?

JK: Your reader will know if you “fake it”-- i.e. if you're a spin-master of verbal acrobatics. Laura Riding 6, back in 1938 in a rather profound flourish defines a poems as an 'uncovering of truth so fundamental that no other names besides poetry is adequate except truth’.

SP:  I like that, summoning up the essence, fundamental (but not fundamental-ist!)

JK:  Laura Riding was also prone to pronouncements like ‘historical time has stopped with me’.

SP: Ah well then maybe I'll reverse my opinion! What do you think about time-travel?

JK: I think it's happening at this very moment.


copyright © Joanne Kyger & Simon Pettet

1  Simon acknowledges that he's "stolen" this as his opening salvo from Tom Clark's wonderful interview with Ted Berrigan in United Artists 4 (re-published in Talking In Tranquility: Interviews With Ted Berrigan (Avenue B/ O Books, Oakland, CA, 1991).

2  Full disclosure. Simon's recent book of poems, More Winnowed Fragments, appeared at the end of 2005, with a cover note from Joanne – ‘More Winnowed Fragments/Ah, romance, the hint of mystery/perfect, quirky interludes -/this is the lesson he comes to teach/Charmed in every wryly conceived moment’.

The Wonderful Focus of You (Z Press, Vermont, 1980).

A Secret Location on The Lower East Side: Adventures In Writing 1960-1980 (Granary Books/NYPL, New York, 1998).

5  Alice Notley - Coming After: Essays on Poetry (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2005 - the article on Joanne first appeared in Arshile 9, 1998)

6  Laura Riding in In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding - Deborah Baker (Grove Press, New York, 1993).