Everyone Counts: Some Questions for Joanne Kyger

Your heart is fine    feeling the widest

possible empathy for the day and its inhabitants

-Joanne Kyger


Joanne Kyger invites everyone in. Her attention to the present is not without acknowledgment of the history that focuses her lens. I first read her collected poems ABOUT NOW cover-to-cover in one long summer day in 2007. Kyger’s newest collection, THERE YOU ARE, combines 40 years of interviews, letters, poems, and journals edited by Cedar Sigo. It is forthcoming from Wave Books in the fall of 2017.

Dear Joanne,

The things you are saying are things I always need to hear. Thank you—for agreeing to do this interview and for writing poems in this life.

– Hailey


Hailey: Your poems feel ageless. They contain an “outside of time” quality—like they are aware time is not necessarily a fixed space, but a continuum that is never held. Memories appear to occupy a present tense. (“But when has the present ever been singular?”) Can you share some of your thoughts on time? Is there such a thing as a fixed space? Can a person be “on time?”


Joanne: One is more ‘in’ time. One moment after another. Like a great cascade of shuffled cards falling through the air. Time is one moment after another. Time is ‘now’. Past time is remembered in this ‘now’. Future time conjectures occur in this now moment.


H: You weave traces of the personal in your poems—names of real people, places, memories, dialogue (my favorite part). Tell me more about your writing process. How do these elements intrude? Are they always there, because they are, truly, what’s happening?


J: My first book was called THE TAPESTRY AND THE WEB. I thought of the poem on the page as a weaving together of a story–and I used classic Homeric incidents from the Odyssey (the oldest story existing that I could find) which I related personally to– along with what was going on in the moment. Which would make this new woven picture. Making a poem was like weaving a tapestry.

More recently I use a daily notebook–notational writing–to record incidents, voices, what the weather is doing, what’s happening in the land outside the door. And yes, they are truly what is going on. But they feel significant, important, even though they are ordinary. The more ordinary the better.


H: What space, if any, do the dead occupy in the present? Do you believe in Rebirth? If so, what do you suspect about your past lives?


J: Of course we all are part of a long lineage of our ancestors, no longer with us. You are a culmination of all those past beings. New humans are born from their mother and father.

This has gone on, continued, from whenever humans began to exist, and before then too.

The Tibetan Buddhists believe in rebirth, reincarnation, of special teachers who make their way through the bardo to arrive again here on earth in a new form carrying the special awareness of their teacher.


H: Dreams have a way of distilling impressions in your poetry. What directions do you take from your dreams?


J: I take them as equal information as my waking life gives me. I often start out with the last landscape I have dreamed I am in.


H: I am wondering if the spiritual is political and if the political is personal and if they are all vantage points of the same thing. It’s okay if “becoming” isn’t a thing. I’m going to ask anyway: when did you become political? When did you recognize your intention to be compassionately spiritual?


J: Allen Ginsberg once said to me that the political is like air. Polis, from the Greek.

It is a community, what we have in common, what we share with each other. Spiritual, or spirit, comes from the latin ‘spiritus’ meaning breath, air, wind. So yes they are connected.  We need both to exist, a given communality. I have lived in a small town community for the past 47 years and realize that it is a shared interconnectedness. Everyone counts. Especially in elections. A matter of two votes can make a big difference.


H: George Bush has made his way into several of your poems (“falling off his couch all by himself watching the Superbowl”). In On Time one poem refers to him and Dick Cheney as “un-adorable.” You have a way of pointing to the combined funny and scary in these men. Do you anticipate the new Republican “president” can be captured in a similar light?


J: The poems referring to George Bush etc. at the time were written during the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. There was no way to avoid the politics of that time and the horrible consequences they subsequently produced, and which we are still involved in. The current president does not seem to have even a small awareness of those consequences.


H: What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for the future of poetry?


J: Right now I am reading FINDING THEM GONE: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past by Bill Porter/Red Pine. I recommend all of his books and translations.

Another wonderful poet to read is the late Albert Saijo’s books–OUT SPEAKS and WOODRAT FLAT. And of course, Philip Whalen is always a treat to read.

And for the future? Realize you are part of a lineage of poets, writers. Keep journals/ notebooks. Write about what surrounds you and what pops into your mind. And beware of the “I”.


One of the major poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, Joanne Kyger was born in 1934 in Vallejo, CA. After studying at UC Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco in 1957, where she became a member of the circle of poets centered around Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. In 1960, she joined Gary Snyder in Japan and soon traveled to India where, along with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, they met the Dalai Lama—all experiences she has written extensively about. She returned to California in 1964 and published her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, in 1965. In 1969, she settled on the coast north of San Francisco where she continues to reside today. She has published over 34 books of poetry and prose, including THE JAPAN AND INDIA JOURNALS: 1960-1964 (Nightboat Books, 2015), ON TIME: POEMS 2005-2014 (City Lights Publishers, 2015), As Ever: Selected Poems (2002), and ABOUT NOW: COLLECTED POEMS (National Poetry Foundation, 2007), which won the 2008 Josephine Miles Award from PEN Oakland. She has taught at Naropa University, The New College of California, and Mills College. In 2006 she was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her newest collection, THERE YOU ARE, combines 40 years of interviews, letters, poems, and journals. It is forthcoming from Wave Books in the fall of 2017.
Hailey Higdon is a lifelong student of sound and language. She is the author of several poetry chapbooks including, The State In Which (above/ground), Packing (Bloof Books), How to Grow Almost Everything (Agnes Fox), Rural (forthcoming from Dropleaf Press), andYes & What Happens, a chapbook completed as a part of the Dusie Kollektiv (2015). She is originally from Nashville.

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