Carolyn Kizer Interview (1985)

 

Carolyn Kizer's Pulitzer Prize ( for Yin: New Poems) was announced shortly before her appearance as the 1985 Roethke Memorial Poetry reader.  The Seattle Times published this in-depth story and interview the day of the reading.

 

 


'In this same rainy, misty area, on which the sun never (or almost never) rises, with a climate tempered by the Japanese current and protecting mountains, with living traces of pioneer and Indian days...where anything resembling night-club or cafe life is almost unknown, a new Pacific school of poets has been emerging.'
--from Carolyn Kizer
from The New Republic, July 16, 1956

 

Carolyn Kizer
Pulitzer prize winner closes a circle that began at the UW when she returns for a reading
by Richard Zahler

 

Carolyn Kizer does not just enter a room.

 

"When she walks in, you know something's changed, said Tree Swenson, a friend and a co-publisher of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend.

 

Kizer does not merely read her poems.

 

When she delivers the Theodore Roethke Memoial Poetry Reading at the University of Washington tonight, she will have prepared and practiced a part of her art--the performance--that she feels is as important as the words.

 

"Dylan Thomas was a success not because he was a great poet, but because he read magnificently," Kizer says.  "There are only a couple of women who read well, and I'm one of them.  I'm modest about my poetry, but I'm not modest about my reading.  I've worked hard to be good at it, and I'm proud of it."

 

Carolyn Kizer was a Spokane girl who went east to college, moved back to Seattle, married and had three children, divorced, decided she was going to be a poet, and 30 years later, at age 59, won the Pulitzer prize.  The prize, which was presented in New York Monday night, is American poetry's most public honor.  It puts Kizer in the company of Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and a few others who have earned wide recognition in an art where few do.  Yet Kizer won a $20 bet from her husband that she wouldn't be mentioned in Time or Newsweek magazine coverage of the Pulitzer awards.  She wasn't.

A California resident now, Kizer hasn't lived in Seattle for 20 years.  But she will always be thought of by many as a Northwest poet, because of her beginnings amid the intense mid-'50s flowering of art and poetry in the city and at the UW.

 

In returning to the campus, Kizer will close a circle that opened in Roethke's famous poetry workshop, where Kizer and others were cajoled, bullied, sung to and inspired, and tales were born that glow with the warm burnish of legend 22 years after Roethke's death.

 

There is more than legend, though, for young poets continue to flock to the UW.  They publish poems in dozens of little magazines that most people never see, and help maintain for Seattle a national reputation as a place where good poetry is still written, loved, alive and well.

In 1954, when she enrolled in Roethke's workshop, Kizer had three small kids, a big house on North Capitol Hill, enough money to get by and more than enough talent and determination.  And although one of her poems had been published in The New Yorker when she was 17, she remembers that she needed a nudge from Roethke to get serious.

 

"When," he asked, "are you going to lose your cherry, honey?"

 

"He meant," Kizer said, finishing the story, "when was I going to take the plunge and start sending out my poems and getting rejected like everyone else."

 

Roethke had won the poetry Pulitzer himself that year, and his reputation was growing not just as a poet, but also as a teacher.  In his notebook he described himself as a coach, or "an old fishing guide," and wrote: "Teaching is an act of love, a spiritual cohabitation, one of the few sacred relationshipos left in a crass, secular world."

 

One of his students, Richard Hugo, wrote that Roethke, with his love of language, "performed therapy on the ear."

 

Roethke's example and teaching were to inspire some remarkable poets.

 

Kizer is the second--James Wright came first in 1972--to win the Pulitzer.  Hugo, who died in 1982, won major awards and became an influential teacher in his own right in the creative writing program he directed at the University of Montana.  David Wagoner, who studied with Roethke earlier at Penn State and joined him on the UW faculty, is among the most prolific and prize-laden of American poets, a chancellor of the prestigious Academy of American Poets.

 

All were part of what Kizer, in a 1956 article in The New Republic magazine, declared to be a new school of poets emerging in the Northwest.  Roethke was there for inspiration, painters Mark Tobey and Morris Graves influenced mood and color, and art was created in an atmosphere of respect, criticism and support, she wrote.  Part of the milieu was the Blue Moon tavern in 45th Street, "a grubby oasis just outside the university's one-mile-limit Sahara," Kizer wrote, where "poets, pedants, painters and other assorted wildlife make overtures to each other."   The scene included Kizer's own home, wehre she collected teh paintings of Tobey, Graves and others, "had rooms full of books from floor to ceiling, and lived beautifully," says a friend, Seattle painter Jan Thompson.  Says Wagoner, "She came as close in the 1950s as anyone ever has in this area to having--you can't quite call it a salon--a social center for literary activities.  Her house was always open."

 

Kizer helped found the quarterly magazine Poetry Northwest, and then became its first full-time editor.  It is in its 26th year now, the equivalent of several epochs in a literary field where little magazines appear and vanish like butterflies.  Wagoner, her successor, has fostered Poetry Northwest's national reputation for quality.  He estimates that he will receive in the mail and read 40,000 poems this year, and publish about 170.  But he shares the credit with Kizer and "her good taste as an editor": "By the time I took it over in 1966, it was a going concern, a nationally known magazine that poets wanted to be in."

 

Kizer left the Northwest in 1965.  She taught for several months in Pakistan under a State Department program, then joined the government in 1966 as the first director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts.  She resigned in 1970 and began the pieced-together business that adds up to a career for many poets in America, a shifting mix of short-lived university jobs, critical workshops for poets and would-be poets, lectures and public readings of her work.  She gained a reputation as a sharp-eared, demanding but generous critic of others' poems, and a spirited reader of her own.

 

Thirteen years since her previous collection, two volumes were published almost simultaneously last fall.  A volume of mostly new poems, Yin, was cited for the Pulitzer.  The second volume, Mermaids in the Basement, subtitled "Poetry for Women," is from Copper Canyon Press of Port Townsend and recently won a Washington Governor's Writing Award for Northwest authors.

Kizer's poems range widely in form and subject, and she laments that an anthology editor years ago pigeonholed her as "a poet of love and loss."  The unwanted label has follwed her since, from anthology to anthology, she says.

 

Though diverse, her poems live mostly through their feeling, in moments of intensity or reflectiveness.  Many mediate among the needs of family, art and love, or between memory and the present.  Her rhythms are strong; her language erudite or sensual or both.  The poems seem born of what Kizer described in The New Republic article as the Roethke circle's mid-'50s war against the "Age of the Fear of Feeling...the fear of the display of emotion, the fear of self-exposure, the desire to be emotionally sophisticated even at the cost of a lie."

 

Much has changed since that age.  Self-expressiveness and exploration of feeling are among contemporary American poetry's major traits.  What was once a close, university-dominated circle of a few young poets has become a diffuse, decentralized scene with thousands of writers pressing for publication in hundreds of small magazines.

 

Poetry writing workshops have boomed, at the UW and elsewhere. Nelson Bentley, poet and UW teacher since 1962, remembers that Roethke conducted the only poetry workshop when he arrived.  Today there are five, he says.

 

"People mob workshops all over the country," Kizer says. "They're not going to get rich, and they're not going to win fame and fortune.  It beats me why they do it, but every decent writing course in the country, both academic and the writing-conference type, is mobbed."

 

Non-university programs have boomed, too.  In Washington state a vocal, visible community of writers and poets has taken root in Port Townsend, partly because of the town's longstanding attractiveness to artists, partly because of the growth in importance of the Centrum Foundation.  Centrum's 11-year-old summer writing conference has won a national reputation, attracting writers, teachers and students from around the country.

 

Opinions vary about why the region has been such a fertile ground for poetry.  Carol Jane Bangs, poet and director of the Port Townsend writing conference, attributes it to a sophisticated audience of students, readers and writers, an audience "knowledgeable about poetry, that goes to readings, that can tell the good poets from the bad poets."  Colleen McElroy, director of the UW creative writing program, says, "The people who have come here and stayed here have been very good writers, and have encouraged a community of writers.  It gives young writers a reason for remaining in the area, a kind of camaraderie, an identity."

 

Kizer believes, "the openness and friendliness of the Northwest" nurtures poetry.  But she also reaches back to Roethke's teaching and influence.  "I'm going to be in trouble at home for saying this, but the standards by which poetry is judged in the Bay Area are not as rigorous as they are in the Northwest, or in New York.  It's still the heritage of the Beat Generation, as contrasted with the genius of Roethke.  I see poems in respected magazines in the Bay Area that would never get into Poetry Northwest.  It's the standards he taught, the meter, the importance of syntax and grammar, and the extraordinary beauty of the English language."

 

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