Joanne Kyger (1934-2017)

Yesterday we were shocked and saddened to receive news of the death of City Lights author and legendary Beat Generation/San Francisco Renaissance poet Joanne Kyger. Joanne’s death leaves a massive void in American poetry generally and in the Bay Area specifically, where she was a formidable presence—periods of travel aside—since the late 1950s, even as she chose the relative seclusion of Bolinas as her base of operations, receiving visitors at her elegantly rustic home and making occasional raids on the City for readings and other literary pursuits. At City Lights, we had the honor of publishing her last book of poems, On Time: Poems 2005-2014 (2015), a book which is still receiving reviews and remains one of the more impactful volumes I’ve edited for the press. Since then she had also published a new edition of The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964 (Nightboat, 2016) and a chapbook of recent poems, The Year of the Ram (Omerta Press, 2016), and she had just completed work on There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera, in collaboration with her editor, close friend, and fellow City Lights author Cedar Sigo, as the inaugural volume of Wave Books’ new interviews series, due in September—continuing to break new ground, in other words, right up until the end.

I’d known Joanne, not well, for about a decade when I first received a call from her wondering if City Lights would be interested in a book of her poems. And how! I thought, and it was not difficult to sell the press on the idea. I admit I was intimidated at the prospect of being her editor, but I needn’t have been. It was easy, because she knew what she wanted, and merely required me as an occasional sounding board. (J: “Should I cut this?” G: “No!” was our most frequent exchange; I think I asked her to add one poem I knew of that she hadn’t included in the initial MS.) A couple trips to Bolinas, a couple glasses of wine, and we were done. The clarity of purpose she brought to the project was characteristic, perhaps necessary for a woman of the Beat Generation. Recognition was not as easily forthcoming as it was for some of her male colleagues and she’d had to endure in order for her reputation to catch up to her achievements.

Her poetic practice was fascinating to me, a process of daily writing and retrospective culling, resulting in a MS of sequentially dated poems. When the book was published, she tweaked me, just a little, for not including a table of contents, and I admit it hadn’t occurred to me because the flow of the book seemed so organic and integral to itself. I was struck during our discussions around the book by her remark that she was deeply influenced by Frank O’Hara, who provided an antidote to her early lessons at the feet of Robert Duncan. The weight of erudition Duncan brought to his poems, she said, was impossible to emulate, and O’Hara offered a welcome relief in his attention to the quotidian details of experience. In her own poetry we’re afforded access to a larger, metaphysical realm of inquiry through her focus on the minute particulars of daily life.

Joanne will be deeply missed by all of us at City Lights and we send our condolences to her husband and fellow poet Donald Guravich.

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