CAROLYN KIZER: OTHER VOICES, OTHER POEMS
“Exodus,” the last poem in Carolyn Kizer’s new book, “Yin,” has “a very strange voice. It’s not me at all,” Kizer admitted.
“It’s a middle-aged Midwestern not-educated woman who doesn’t read but is something of a yenta, a gossip. But she has a very good eye, she notices people and she notices the distinguishing qualities of people. She’s a sensible person.”
None of these qualities fits Kizer herself, the poet said recently, “except maybe the yenta.”
Kizer woke one morning with the first line of the piece, “We are coming down the pike,” and began writing. “Really, writing the poem was like taking down dictation. The voice just came, from somewhere,” Kizer said. “Exodus,” she added, is a poem about nuclear holocaust; the people “coming down the pike” are fleeing the city, taking what they can carry.
Chain-smoking Carltons and reclining on a chaise longue in Laguna Beach, Kizer talked about the voices in her work, the places she’s lived (she lives in Berkeley now), the jobs she’s taken and left as a “poet-administrator.” And she laughed. Often. A hearty, rather raucous laugh.
Kizer does have a touch of the gossip about her. That comes through both in conversation and at a reading; she’s inclined to long, anecdotal responses to questions and fills spaces between poems with explanatory chat. She isn’t the sort of person you’d expect to sit in a corner at a party.
“I have a very, very gentle, very well-mannered, WASPy husband, and at a party last summer somebody asked me to read ‘Exodus’ and I read it, and then we were talking about it and I said something about the voice,” Kizer said. “And there was a woman poet sitting on the floor and she said, ‘Oh, you mean that wasn’t your voice?’ And I said, ‘No, indeed.’ And afterwards my husband said, ‘I wanted to hit her in the mouth.’ ”
She laughed, remembering. “People are so strange, that they don’t (understand).” It’s particularly odd, Kizer said, for another writer “not to be able to distinguish between the voice of the poet and the voice of another person.”
Other voices new to Kizer also sound in “Yin,” which is just out from a small press called BOA Editions Ltd. One such unpunctuated voice speaks through “Threatening Letter,” which begins:
I understand you’re writing your autobiography youd better be careful remember Im a published author & can strike back I can get printed here for example & you cant anyway the children tell me I dont figure in it they dont either but if you omit your wife & children what can you possibly have to say of any interest nothing absolutely nothing has happened to you except us. . . .
That prose-poem, Kizer said, is “very autobiographical, but it’s not my voice. I think it’s almost the voice of someone talking under pentothal or something. Or someone who’s so mad (she) can’t get the words out fast enough. That poem is always greeted with shrieks of glee by divorced middle-aged ladies.”
Kizer, 59, said she has been happily married for nine years to an urban planner and architect she met in 1974. “He heard me read at the Library of Congress and got himself introduced to me, and bingo! I went back to (the University of North Carolina at) Chapel Hill and quit” her teaching post there. The couple lived in Washington, D.C., for a while, then moved to their present home in the Berkeley hills.
“It’s very beautiful, a little unreal there,” Kizer said. “That’s the only problem I find with living in California, is that it gets to be a little too beautiful and comfortable, which is one reason I like to go out on the road.” She leaves home often to teach and give readings.
Born in Spokane, Kizer has gone “out on the road” a lot in her life. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College, she was a fellow of the Chinese government in comparative literature from 1945-46, then spent a year in China before the Communist takeover. Almost 20 years later she traveled in Pakistan as a specialist in literature for the U.S. State Department. In between were a first marriage and the early years of raising three children, as well as the founding and running of a prestigious Seattle-based magazine, “Poetry Northwest.”
For five years after returning from Pakistan, Kizer worked as the first director of literary programs for the then newly created National Endowment for the Arts. She quit that post when her boss, Roger Stevens, was fired by President Nixon. Since 1970 Kizer has taught in numerous university programs and writing workshops.
Her poems have appeared in many small magazines, but until this year she had published only three books: “The Ungrateful Garden,” “Midnight Was My Cry” and “Knock Upon Silence.” This year, however, two books have appeared: “Yin,” and a volume called “Mermaids in the Basement,” published by the Copper Canyon Press, based in Port Townsend, Wash.
“I think a lot of younger poets get terrible anxiety that they’ll be forgotten if they don’t have a book all the time,” Kizer said. “Well, maybe they will be forgotten, but if they’re any good they’ll come back.” She publishes less often than many other recognized writers, she said, because “I work on things for a very long time. And the big poems take a long time.” A long poem in “Yin” called “Fanny,” which was written in the voice of the much-maligned wife of 19th-Century writer Robert Louis Stevenson, took 10 years to finish.
“‘Fanny’ is about what happens to women who are the surrogates of gifted men,” Kizer said. “Women who look after the great writers, whether mothers, sisters, wives or daughters. What they do with their creativity, because they can’t engage in open or active competition. I think ‘Fanny’s’ a political poem, if you consider feminism a political issue, as I do.”
Louis has called me a peasant. How I brooded!
Confided it to you, diary, then crossed it out.
Peasant because I delve in the earth, the earth I own.
Confiding my seed and root--I too a creator?
My heart melts over a bed of young peas. A blossom
On the rose tree is like a poem by my son.
My hurt healed by its cause, I go on planting.
(From “Fanny,” by Carolyn Kizer, published in “Yin”) Kizer seldom writes poems that are politically overt. Without knowing the writer’s intent, even “Exodus” could be read as simply an amusing, idiomatic piece about a motley crew of neighbors running away from an unidentified Something, rather than from a nuclear threat. Yet Kizer thinks of herself as a political poet.
“I was very pleased by something my husband said last summer,” she said. “Someone said, ‘I love that political poem you read, which one was it?’ My husband said, ‘All of them.’ I was very pleased. Because I do not feel that is a steady undercurrent, just as feminism is, there are these parallel streams that I hope infuse everything that I do. And I find that stream getting more and more strong in my work. But I don’t ever want to be hortatory or propagandistic. I love that Quaker phrase, ‘Speak truth to power.’ Power doesn’t listen most of the time, but that doesn’t mean we should shut up.”
One early-1960s poem, “Pro Femina,” was written after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book, “The Second Sex.” That book “really liberated a generation of women here and abroad,” said Kizer. “Even though ‘Pro Femina’ is really a poem which is not attacking men but telling women to shape up! Pull up their socks and get on with it! I suppose that’s the poem on which my reputation is based, if any. But I think women needed a dash of cold water, they needed someone to say: ‘Come on, let’s quit making alibis for ourselves, let’s quit having men tell us how weak and emotional we are, and how we are obsessed with lost love, and let’s get on with it.’
“I know one of the standard reference works begins the essay on me saying, ‘Carolyn Kizer is the poet of love and loss,’ ” Kizer went on. “And every time I read that I laugh. Love, maybe. And I suppose people go back to early, early poems when that (loss) got in, but I certainly don’t think of myself as the poet of loss. I think much more of myself as a poet of found.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.