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Steve Kowit


(1938-2015)


STEVE KOWIT, that feisty teddy bear; open-hearted provocateur and shepherd of causes; self-deprecating magnifico; sharp and silver-tongued, smooth rolling, funny, funny poet, died at his home in Potrero, in San Diego County near the Mexican border, on April 2. His heart stopped at the age of seventy-six.

He was born June 30, 1938 in New York City "Jewish by birth, Buddhist by inclination," as he liked to describe himself. That Buddhist inclination, a compassion for all earthly beings, played into two of his causes: animal rights (he reviled, for instance, the eating of hamburgers) and the plight of immigrants. A third was directness, accessibility, and emotional involvement in poetry; among his poetic heroes were Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, and Allen Ginsberg; he published the tasty, hard-hitting anthology The Maverick Poets; and he wrote a carefully argued, eloquent essay, "The Mystique of the Difficult Poem." Here are excerpts from the first paragraph:

When I was about fifteen I fell in love with Hart Crane. The poems in White Buildings, The Bridge, and Key West shimmered with the most fragile and delicate poignance. It was the music of the soul's anguish…The fact that I had only the vaguest idea of what he was talking about, and sometimes not even that, bothered me hardly at all until I was in my twenties and the pure music of Crane began to seem less enticing than the work of poets who, in addition to their engaging linguistic skill, actually seemed to have something coherent to say…Though my first reading of a poem is likely to take pleasure in the language, the tonalities, the music and linguistic sparkle…nonetheless I find myself unlikely to finish reading a poem if it becomes apparent that the poet has no intention of communicating much of anything beyond all that language, all that music. Far be it from me to invade his privacy. If I want pure music I can listen to Palestrina and Sam Cooke.

Strong sense of Kowit there—as in everything he wrote—his enthusiasm, humor, openness (Palestrina and Cooke) —and his tendentiousness.

He came up in the Lower East Side poetry scene in New York in the early 1960s. Attracted particularly by the Beats, he moved out to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury and got his master's degree at what was then San Francisco State College.

He was a great reader and performer of his own work. And a great teacher; his teaching book, In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet's Portable Workshop: A Lively and Illuminating Guide for the Practicing Poet, published in 2003, is still a great favorite among teachers of poetry. He, himself, taught at San Diego State, San Diego City College, University of California San Diego, and the College of Southern Idaho. He had recently retired from Southwestern College in Chula Vista when he died—a few days before his new book of poems was to be published by Tampa University Press.

He was publisher of Gorilla Press, founder of the Animal Rights Coalition of California. Garrison Keillor read his poetry on his national radio show, The Writers Almanac.

Poetry Flash had the pleasure of publishing his collection, The Dumbbell Nebula, as the third book in the California Poetry Series, a collaboration between Poetry Flash and Heyday Books, edited by Joyce Jenkins, in 2000. Here's a poem from that book, ironically suited—as he probably foresaw—to this sad occasion.

A memorial to Steve Kowit, a celebration of his life and work, will take place on Sunday, July 26, 2015, at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice, California, free to all, 2:00-5:00.

—Richard Silberg

Last Will


by Steve Kowit


If I am ever

unlucky enough to die

(God forbid!),

I would like to be propped up

in my orange overstuffed chair

with my legs crossed,

dressed in a cashmere sweater

& jeans,

& embalmed

in a permanent glaze

like a donut,

or Lenin,

a small bronze plaque

on the door of my study

showing the dates

of my incarnation & death.

& leave the room as it was!

Let nothing be touched in the house!

My underpants stuck to the doorknob

just where I left them.

My dental floss

lying on top of the Bhagavad Gita

next to my socks.

Let the whole of Ebers Street

be roped off

& planted with yews

from Narragansett to Cape May

& left as a monument to my passing.

The street?

No—the city itself!

Henceforth

let it be known

as the Steve M. Kowit

Memorial Park & Museum.

Better yet

if the thing can be done

without too much fuss

put the whole planet to sleep.

Let the pigeons and busses

& lawyers & ladies

hanging out wash

freeze in their tracks.

Let the whole thing

be preserved under ice

just as it looked

when the last bit of drool

trickled under my chin.

Let the last of the galaxies

sizzle out

like a match in the wind

& the cosmic balloon

shrink down to a noodle

and screech to a halt.

Let time itself clot

like a pinprick of blood

& the great solar flame

flicker down

to the size of a yahrzeit candle

leaving the universe dark

but for one tiny spotlight

trained on the figure of me

propped in my chair—

for after my death

what possible reason could life

in any form

care to exist?

Don't you see,

it would be utterly pointless!

I would be gone!

Look, try to conceive it,

a world without me! Me

entirely absent—

nobody here with these eyes,

this name,

these teeth!

Nothing but vacant space,

a dry sucking wind

where I walked,

where I sat—Where

you used to see me

you would see nothing at all—

I tell you it dwarfs the imagination…

Oh yes, one last thing:

the right leg

is to be crossed over the left

—I prefer it that way—

& poised on the knee.

Prop the left elbow up

on the arm of the chair

with a pen

in my right hand—

let my left

be characteristically

scratching my skull

or pulling my hair.

If you wish,

close the lids of my eyes

but whatever you do

the mouth must remain open

just as it was in life—

Yes,

open forever!

On that I absolutely insist!


— posted June 2015

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