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Bay Area Poet Joanne Kyger on San Francisco's Literary Culture

With a new book out, the poet known for her work in the Beat Generation reflects on San Francisco's influence on her work then and now.

One of the most respected Bay Area poets working today, Joanne Kyger is often associated with the Black Mountain poets, San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation. She has written more than 20 books of poetry and prose since the 1960s, the first of which was published after traveling throughout India and Japan with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gary Snyder, her husband at the time.

Her latest collection, “On Time,” was published in March 2015 by City Lights Books, the historic Beat-era bookstore and publishing house. Kyger reflects on San Francisco’s literary culture and its influence on her work, both then and now.

Of the three movements with which you’re associated, do you feel aligned with one movement more than the others?

I came up from UC Santa Barbara to San Francisco in 1957, already confident that I knew modern American poetry—William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound. Then I read the poets associated with the San Francisco scene—Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and then Philip Whalen—Reed College graduates from the Pacific Northwest; and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the Beat writers. The so-called Beat writers we all considered New Yorkers.

Black Mountain College had closed a few years earlier, and I met students from there who had moved to San Francisco. We became close friends. They introduced me to Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. It was from these sources my own writing voice evolved.

You're one of the few female poets associated with the Beat Generation. As a woman, what was it like being part of a male-dominated movement known for its masculinity? Were you taken seriously by the male poets?

I get asked this question often, and to be honest I never noticed I was in "male-dominated" groups. There were always women I was friends with associated with these groups. But few were interested in poetry and writing to the degree I was. I loved the company I was in—poets—who took my writing seriously because I did.

What do you remember most about San Francisco during the time of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement? How is the city different today and do you feel the spirit of that era still lingers?

North Beach and Grant Avenue made a wonderful intimate neighborhood in 1957 when I arrived. Anchored by City Lights bookstore and Vesuvio bar, there was also The Place at the other end of Grant Avenue—a wonderful tiny gathering place for poets serving wine and beer at 25 cents per mug.

There were also family-style Italian restaurants like The New Pisa, where one could have a meal of many courses including wine for $1.35. The Coffee Gallery is where jazz was played and paintings were shown. And The Cellar, where one could hear Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth and often David Meltzer read poetry to jazz. All locations were easy to walk to, like a campus. I thought it was like going to a graduate school of growing up. I was 23 and living by myself for the first time.

How has the San Francisco Bay Area influenced your work and has it influenced your work in different ways over the years? 

In the late ’60s, I left San Francisco and moved to a small town on the coast, where I've lived since then. But SF was and is always the destination for poetry readings and gatherings. It’s the home of the San Francisco Poetry Center, which started in 1954. I taught on and off for several years at New College when it was still extant and met a younger generation of poets while watching the gradual then quick changes to Valencia Street and the Mission. For a while it almost felt like the North Beach I remembered from years ago.

Do you write strictly every day? Is your process very regimented or do you write as inspiration strikes?

I keep a spiral-bound notebook, which I usually make some notation in every day—weather, visitors, interesting conversations I overhear, dreams, strange facts, quotations etc. I could wait forever for "inspiration."

How do you feel your work should be experienced?

Poetry can be experienced by reading it on the page to oneself or out loud to others. The best way is to hear the poet's actual voice—at poetry readings or on recordings—which gives an indication of how the poet means words and phrases to really sound. Poetry is meant to have a physical voice. It would be great if all the little books of poetry on the shelf started speaking their poems at once. What a tumultuous conversation that would be! I always hear the voice in the poem when I write, and try and score the movement and inflection of the voice on the page through the movement of the line.

How does your most recent collection compare with your earlier work?

"On Time," my newest book, is for me an extension of the writing that I have already done—not evolving, but continuing. My poems are arranged chronologically—a reflection, an articulation of the world of the moment. The book is a document of history happening to me.

Do you often revisit your past work? What's that like?

Poems I wrote 50 years ago or so do seem to have a lighter tone, but heavier concerns. But I still find a familiar voice that I can feel at home with.

"On Time" is available at City Lights Books.