Visiting Carolyn Kizer: Mentorship From a Woman Poet Is No Small Thing


"It is easy to be a poet/brim with transparent water..."

Carolyn Kizer's book Mermaids in the Basement was open on the table before me. But I recited the lines from memory as I scanned the familiar, yet strange face, so close to mine, for any sign that their author recognized them in all their bravura and beauty.

The beloved words rose up through my voice, then spread out through the small room. Kizer's sharp gray eyes focused, glittered -- and then, radiant, recognition came. A bigger, sweeter smile than any I'd ever seen her bestow in the 25 years I'd known her broke loose across her face. She looked suddenly youthful. And all of us were charmed, repaid, transported in the echo of the words of her poem, in the eloquent silence of that smile.

We had come, three women poets -- Katherine Hastings, host of the WordTemple poetry show on Sonoma County's KRCB-FM, Joyce Jenkins, editor of the Bay Area's Poetry Flash and I, on a reading tour for my selected poems, Spells, from my home in Maine -- to pay tribute to one of the last of a generation.

Born into the same generation of Plath, Sexton, Kumin, Clifton, Rich, Lorde, Levertov and Brooks, Carolyn Kizer has been one of the most manifestly feminist of that breakthrough wave of women poets. A native of Spokane, Washington, she enrolled in Theodore Roethke's poetry class at the University of Washington in 1954, as a recently divorced 29-year-old mother of three young children. She went on to become a founding editor of Poetry Northwest, editor of such anthologies as 100 Great Poems by Women and The Essential John Clare, the first director of literary programs for the NEA, and author, during the 1970s and beyond, of eight books of poetry, including the powerful and classic poems "Pro Femina," "Bitch," "Semele Recycled," and "A Muse of Water." Her brilliant book Yin: New Poems, turned down by just about every major poetry publishing house, was finally picked up by the small press BOA Editions and then awarded -- adding an everlasting tale to the store of poets' consolations -- the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

Like so many other women who knew Carolyn, each of us three that day felt indebted to her in complex and poignant ways. Each of us had found her not only a literary inspiration and role model, but also a supportive mentor. Kizer, after meeting me briefly once, and reading the manuscript that I had sent at her encouragement, had offered to write a review of my first book of poetry. She had also urged me to visit her friend Marie Ponsot in New York, telling me, "Go, with your book tucked under your arm." She would send Christmas cards, one consisting of a hilarious poem with the refrain "Major poets don't send Christmas cards." This was precious to me, I think, because I understood a gendered subtext: Male major poets don't usually seem to send holiday cards (Frost, Wilbur and Heaney being three notable exceptions) -- but Carolyn was pulling it off.

Mentorship like that from a woman poet was no small thing, especially in the late 20th century. No wonder Joyce, Katherine and I, all born in the 1950s, treasured our relationship with Carolyn; we had experienced firsthand how singular such a gift was. Maxine Kumin, an exact contemporary of Kizer's, for example, once told me that the only women poets she mentors are older than she is -- women who are even less comfortable than she is in navigating the male-dominated literary world. And Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker include among the "mentees" in their anthology Women Poets on Mentorship only women poets born after 1960 because, according to their preface, most women poets born before that were mentored by men, if we were mentored at all.

After all, it is only recently that most women have felt themselves in a position powerful enough to mentor anyone. And many of us, even now, have yet to really learn how. If you haven't had the experience of being mentored yourself, it is that much harder to get the hang of it. But Kizer was the exception. As I drove my rental car north over the Golden Gate Bridge toward Sonoma, Joyce Jenkins shared with me her own tales of Carolyn's generosity. She had encouraged Joyce to publish her first collection of poems, and had written a preface for the book; she had donated items to auctions benefiting Poetry Flash and lent her queenly presence to many small readings given by local poets in the Flash's poetry series. As I listened to Joyce, it became clear to me that she had been moved by Carolyn's rare generosity in the same way I had been.

I had first promised myself to visit Carolyn during a conversation with Joyce several years earlier, during a literary conference. Joyce told me that Carolyn, then in her mid-80s and suffering from dementia, had been moved out of the house she shared with her architect husband and into an assisted living facility. During the same conversation, Joyce happened to mention that Carolyn had donated several belly-dance costumes, collected while she was serving as cultural ambassador to Pakistan, to an auction to benefit Poetry Flash.

That did it. Having an older sister who was once a professional belly dancer, I happen to have a personal relationship with this magnificent art form. Kizer is the only woman poet of her generation whom I could imagine having belly-dance costumes and the audacity to donate them. I was reminded how fiercely I loved this courageous and vivacious woman, perhaps the most explicitly sensual woman poet of her generation.

So when a reading invitation brought me out west, Joyce and I arranged to drive up to Sonoma to pay our respects. Joyce got in touch with Katherine, who lived in the same county, and she agreed to meet us there. All seemed to be falling into place.

But halfway through the drive, just as we were entering the drought-parched brown hills of Sonoma County, we got a phone call from Katherine, who had already arrived. "Carolyn has taken a turn for the worse," she told Joyce. "She may not even recognize you at all. Are you both sure you want to go?" I looked at Joyce and we were both quiet for a moment, remembering Carolyn in her prime: the jewels, the hair, the fur, the acerbic wit. Did we want to see her old and vulnerable?

Joyce looked back at me. I knew she was thinking the way I was. "We're coming anyway," we told Katherine. There was no question about it. We needed this pilgrimage, for Carolyn's sake and for our own.

For centuries, the relationship of women poets with our poetic forebears has been fraught. Eager to be embraced by the powerful male poetry establishment, women have turned their backs on the women who came before them, disowning their female poetic ancestors as quaint or trivial. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out in their landmark 1985 essay "Forward into the Past," the price of success as a woman poet for centuries was to disown one's literary femininity. If this is still largely true, it was far truer in Kizer's generation. Kizer was a magnificent exception; she was never afraid to champion women's poetics and to stand by other women poets.

As we drove up to the modest southwestern-style building, a small group assisted-living facility on a quiet cul-de-sac, I felt quiet, anxious, alone. If you had asked me as I entered the building what the purpose of this pilgrimage was, after all, I couldn't have said. I just wanted to see her, that was all.

My education had exposed me to many stories of aged male poets at the ends of their lives: blind Milton on his deathbed, dictating poetry to his daughters; Goethe crying "more light"; Whitman with his white beard in Camden, New Jersey, receiving pilgrimages from young poets; Joyce, with the young Beckett offering his assistance; Pound in St. Elizabeths; an elder Hayden Carruth in his cottage in Vermont. But the tales of aged female poets are much fewer; even if they avoided death in childbirth or death by disease, alcohol or suicide and survived into old age, they seem to fade into private life with no literary tales wrapped around their legends. So I had no preconceptions about our meeting today, no sense of being part of a tradition or a chain.

The three of us walked into the building. Carolyn was brought out to see us in a wheelchair. And I was flooded with how strange it was, how much love I felt for her still, and how bright her smile was. Then, in spite of what we had been warned, it occurred to me that I did feel that she recognized me -- and I think Joyce and Katherine also felt recognized.

We sat around a table together. We told her how glad we were to see her, how far we had traveled, how important she was to us, how often we had thought of her, and how much her poetry is still admired. She simply smiled back at us. I think we were all captivated by the sweet brilliance of her smile, an open smile almost like a child's, so different from any expression of the wry, witty and brittle Carolyn we had known before.

After a while, something became clear to all of us and we could no longer avoid acknowledging it: Carolyn was not talking at all. Though her smile, changing and sensitive, alive with knowledge and recognition, was eloquent, she was not speaking any words.

After a little while longer, I got the idea to read her some poems. That morning, Joyce had given me a tour of the Poetry Flash office, stuffed with poetry memorabilia and a library covering many walls floor to ceiling. On a whim, we had pulled the Flash's complete Kizer collection -- about a foot and a half of poetry -- off the shelf to bring along, thinking Carolyn might enjoy seeing the books.

They were piled on the table, and I had also brought Carolyn a copy of my new book, Spells. So I started with my poem "A Carol for Carolyn," which I had written in tribute to her for a panel at an AWP conference: "She brims with transparent water/as mother and poet and daughter." Then I opened the Flash's copy of the 2000 reprint of "Pro Femina" and read out the beginning:

I will speak about women of letters, for I'm in the racket.
Our biggest successes to date? Old maids to a woman.
And our saddest conspicuous failures? The married spinsters
On loan to the husbands they treated like surrogate fathers.
Think of that crew of self-pitiers, not-very-distant,
Who carried the torch for themselves and got first-degree burns.
Or the sad sonneteers, toast-and-teasdales we loved at thirteen;
Middle-aged virgins seducing the puerile anthologists
Through lust-of-the-mind; barbiturate-drenched Camilles
With continuous periods, murmuring softly on sofas
When poetry wasn't a craft but a sickly effluvium,
The air thick with incense, musk, and emotional blackmail.
Did Carolyn recognize her own poem?. Her face lit up, and it seemed apparent that she was following every word, nodding proudly at particularly good moments, laughing with her eyes at the funniest parts. Then Joyce and Katherine shared some of their favorite Kizer poems, reading so beautifully that time stopped, and I read another...

We passed the books around the table for a good long while, gifting the poet's poems back to her. The last one I remember reading was this passage from "A Muse of Water":

We rose in mists and died in clouds
Or sank below the trammeled soil
To silent conduits underground,
Joining the blindfish, and the mole.
A gleam of silver in the shale:
Lost murmur! Subterranean moan!

So flows in dark caves, dries away,
What would have brimmed from bank to bank,
Kissing the fields you turned to stone,
Under the boughs your axes broke...

And so our visit passed: an afternoon out of time. About 90 minutes after we had arrived, the spell finally broke when Carolyn's son arrived for a visit. We spoke with him about the possibility of getting Carolyn a desk and computer in case she wanted to do some writing, and hatched a plan to record some of her own poems and perhaps other favorites so she could listen to them. Through all of this conversation, Carolyn watched with the same keen attention. And through all this time, she never spoke.

Finally, there was nothing more for us to say. It was time to go. We hugged Carolyn Kizer good-bye. We told her again how much we admired her, appreciated her, loved her, and how much her poems mean to so many people. Katherine, who lives nearby, promised to visit her again soon. And, reluctantly, we started to make our way toward the door.

At that moment, as I gave Carolyn my last hug, it happened -- in a voice I will never forget. She looked right into my eyes, and she spoke.

And then she repeated the same words to the others. They were her last words to each of us, to all of us:

"Thank you," she said.

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