Showing posts with label passing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label passing. Show all posts

Friday, April 3, 2015

About Steve Kowit

Wednesday was April 1st, known to us all as April Fools' Day. It's the same day that commences the start of National Poetry Month, a four-week span selected because of the famous T.S. Eliot's line from "The Waste Land" that "… April is the cruelest month…" Thursday, April 2nd was the day Steve Kowit, a great poet, a genuinely principled moralist, a quick-witted spirit of irrepressible good humor and no one's fool by any means, died. The irony of how a day dedicated to practical jokes, a commemorative poetry month selected for a line written by a reactionary, racist, dour by nonetheless brilliant poet, and the passing of one of the most jubilant poets and exuberant personalities collided the way they did is inescapable, I suppose. But rather than inspecting and interpreting too closely. 

It's better, more appropriate, more helpful to remember Steve Kowit as a man of many gifts, interests, passions, commitments, from his work in which he superbly fused the vernacular of street rhythm with the careful and skillfully off-center ear of a jazz improviser, his genius as a teacher where he combined that rarest thing, honest and productive criticism intended to make a poet a better writer. As a writer, he was loquacious who favored long lines, unexpected examples of what he was talking, odd turns of thought and colorful phrase-making and high-octane similes; for all is the love of chatter, though, there was cultivation, a genius for getting to the point in the seemingly effortless rhythm of a musician as he ad-libbed fine musical phrases and elegant filigrees over either the most accelerated or most relaxed of tempos. 

He made what he did sound simple, easy to do, but as any with a love of music and perhaps has even achieved a level of fluidity on an instrument, the aspect of effortlessness comes with practice, practice, practice. To that end, Steve was always practicing his craft, poetry, constantly honing his chops. I had always thought of Steve's poems as perhaps the best example of someone achieving the effect of someone musing out loud, thinking out loud, taking a topic sentence, a chance remark about something he had seen, heard, caught, and taking us through the dancing and delicately spun perorations of his thought as he came finally to rest, halt, at that place where there is a pause and Steve takes a deep breath and reveals how his experience of the world was altered by the event, the conversation, the book, the thing he heard or saw and thought remarkable.

 Remark he did, and for me, he was the most intimate of poets, a writer to whom someone is being addressed, spoken to, confided in.  Even if it were merely a matter of Steve loving the sound of his writing being resounded with the city cadences of his speaking voice, there was still the feeling that he was someone talking to you from across the table or leaning in closer to add an insight or a joke or some confidence that were for your ears alone. But for all the seeming effortlessness of making it seem as though he was talking seamlessly and without boundaries, off the cuff and unbound, Steve's writing did not, in large part, drift or wander lost in abstraction or confused association. In his workshops and the countless readings he'd given and in personal conversation, Steve talked about craft, rewriting, honing each poem until it was the most perfect expression it could be. Steve was constantly rewriting lyrics and would often introduce his poems as ones he'd been working on for months, even years. All this sounded incredible to me, a poet who was habitually writing fast and perhaps doing some minor tweaking; at first glance, all that revising seemed contrary to spontaneous expression. Later, I realized why there are so many poems that are so good. That feeling of effortlessness in his poems was the result of hard work. Steve loved poetry too much to put his least worthy efforts into the public conversation. 

Steve was a grand champion of other poets. He had an unfailing interest in others. He was the man we needed to have around when others spoke in code, euphemism, and fuzzy equivocation, Steve told his mind and cut to the chase. Likewise, he said his truth, as the saying goes these days. After a pause, the conversation would begin again, invigorated by Steve's skill at pulling the covers off those things --racism, exploitation, sexual inequality, militarism--that were obscured by babble and can. He taught his students to read a great variety of poets, learn a great many techniques honed by tradition, expand their notion of what poems can speak to, and find within the styles assimilated. The techniques mastered one's own voice as a writer who may tackle the subject with wit, originality, honesty, and great beauty.

One could argue with Steve about his passionate arguments against deliberately tricky poems. He considered the worst habits of late literary modernism--I adore my Eliot, cherish my Ashbery, I am invigorated by the rigor of Silliman, Armantrout, and Perelman-- but Steve made his case with the same sort of lyricism he brought to his poems. Steve felt that beauty was the expression of experience in ways that did not obscure the event and the memory; neither theory nor sentimentality would interfere with the sweet language he used to present the travails and noise and significant and minor frustrations of existence. Steve's best writing, which was prodigious, was about love, justice, lust, philosophical ironies that reduced, for the moment, the insurmountable hackery of what life in the city throws at you. Clarity of expression was Steve Kowit's genius--as wild as his poems became, as beautifully strung out as they could get on a metaphor or a pile-up of "then-what-happened?" that had the makings of an exceptionally hirsute shaggy dog story, Steve was in control of his instrument. He hated obscurantism and overly literary self-referencing and insisted that poetry is about the writer's engagement with the world they lived in, worked in, made love in, laughed and cried in, and not be a receptacle of meditations on its form. In conversation with him when I attended a workshop he conducted at San Diego State in the early eighties, I recall saying that he wasn't opposed to abstraction in poetry altogether. Not at all. What bothered him was the kind of writing that lay there, thick and more or less dormant, daring the reader to make sense of tangled syntax, private jokes and artlessly inserted intrusions from areas that offer more murk, not clarity. Poems either created the passion within the reader to think harder and deeper into the experience of their lives, or the poets failed in their Poetry was about the ear, not the footnote, not the end note. Poets needed to be in the world perfecting their craft, not in the study writing obscurities shared with only other obscure poets. Steve Kowit seemed like a force of nature, and even now, it's difficult to imagine a world without him.

I can still hear his voice each time we meet. I can still see him smiling, leaning in close, asking me if I was still "dry," even twenty-five years since my last drink. Likewise, I can still hear him telling me to proofread my poems and prose better. I can still remember him asking me to put a volume of my work together and send stuff out to the publishers for the love of God. Life is rewarded by the energy one puts into it. "Live" is a verb, after all, and Steve's message to anyone was to for those of us with things they want to do to get out there and live a little, take a stand, start a love affair, write a poem for your parents, get a job you actually like. Good things come if you work for them.  My glancing friendship with Steve Kowit was one of my best years as a San Diego poet.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

George Duke

George Duke, a dynamic , versatile and wonderfully imaginative jazz keyboardist, has died. I was fortunate enough to have seen him three separate times with Frank Zappa's various virtuoso ensembles, and with the extraordinarily gifted jazz drummer drummer Billy Cobham in the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band. There wasn't any style or technique that Duke couldn't master and merge effortlessly with his own proclivities as an improviser and composer. He could master any of the ruthlessly complex pieces and arrangements Zappa could toss at him, and he could improvise with lyric grace, funk and deft alacrity over, under and between whatever chord and key changes happened to be in the mix. He was an amazing, under appreciated musician who gave me much pleasure in my concert going days. We've lost a major talent.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


My condolences go out to late conservative agitator Andrew Breitbart’s  family and friends for their loss, but he was, in truth, a hyped up and generally unlikeable sociopath who had enough media savvy to know how to make a living and keep his name in the papers by being a vindictive and ugly little troll. It was show biz with him, not politics, and what he did was a shtick that was no more elevated than what we've seen for decades in professional wrestling: he was willingly, purposefully being the Villain, the Man You Love to Hate. He was ruthless in making already repulsive Conservative talking points even uglier, and no amount of righteous indignation coming his way could slow him down.  I go with what Lawrence O'Donnell said last night in that the private Breitbart and the public Breitbart were two different things. According to him , and others who recalled their friendships with the deceased, AB was someone who got "into character" when the cameras were on him.There is , however, evil in the world; doing what he did in the media regarding public policy , turning it into a carnival, was an evil thing to do.His biggest asset was his lack of the capacity to be embarrassed or feel shame. Him dying so young is, in itself, a tragic event, but the loss of him his presence robs us of nothing . His death only reminds the rest of us that we've allowed our political discussion to be reduced to a geek show.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron, RIP

I was saddened to read that poet-singer-musician Gil Scott-Heron has passed away at the age of  62. He was one of those musician-writers who was a pioneer, someone who Had Done It All First and from whom generations of younger artists still take inspiration and work in his shadow. Along with the work of the Last Poets, it is possible to opine that what we acknowledge as the art of Rap/Hip Hop would not exist. It's possible to debate the merits of  hip hop over the long run, but it is indisputable that Gil Scott-Heron was instrumental in changing the way musicians and writers  viewed their artistic mission. Not many people are game changers to that degree,and that,  along with the intensity of the actual work, commands respect. Without the work of GSH, what we would have would be something quite different and , I think, quite less potent. What I found especially powerful in Gil Scott-Heron's work was that he was one of the very few at the time to harness his rage , his anger into a art that , beyond being a powerful joining of minimalist musical and rhythmic forms and street-level irony, was his tendency for self-criticism. "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" is as powerful piece of truth telling as has ever been created in musical formation; to this day , the message rings true, for us all not to be distracted by the dog and pony shows centralized corporate media throws at us, to get off our couches and get busy creating the change we wish someone else would bring us  and entertain us with.

We have to be our own Messiahs. so said Gil Scott-Heron.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Leslie Scalapino

Poet Leslie Scalapino has passed away, a great loss to American poetry. I had a good fortune some thirty-plus years ago to do a reading with her at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco at a reading organized by friend Steve Farmer, and I've been a fan of her writing ever since. Her particular genius was bringing language to the forefront and investigating how accounting for what one perceives isn't a cut and paste process as we would normally believe. Still, something actually more complex, elusive, wonderfully confounding. There is a sense in her work of experiencing many emotions simultaneously, and the notion of feeling the varied senses fire up in sequence. She presented her poems as variations on the small things heard, seen, felt: it seemed to me that it was the smallest matters for her that evoked the largest response. Coherence was more nuanced than what the mainstream culture would have us think. She was a poet of accumulating power. I am grateful to have read with her. I am grateful for the books she wrote and published.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper

The funny thing of it all was that this morning a work associate and I were talking about recent celebrity deaths, a habit many of us indulge in when more than one celebrity passes away. We'd had gone through the mentions of Art Linkletter and the actually tragic Gary Coleman when she asked me how Dennis Hopper was doing. I  said that I hadn't heard anything since I read that he was gravely ill a couple of weeks earlier.
A half hour later during a break I  went online to check on Google News headlines, and there it  was, Dennis Hopper Dies. It caused a chill. Hopper was  as iconic an actor as has ever come out of Hollywood, an intense student of the Method who's twitching, mercurial intensity got him involved in some truly landmark motion pictures--Rebel Without a Cause,  Easy Rider,Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, River's Edge. One might say that his trademarked style of performance, of finding the raw-nerved insanity of each emotion a scene called for and maintaining a sense of a barely contained contradictions within his  character, was something that limited the range of roles of might have had during his career.

His style  could at times be like listening to late period Coltrane, where the saxophonist pushed his technique to a sustained , shrieking harmonic emotionalism; the ability to get to that edge and maintain it over time was impressive, but it could also grate. Hopper's presence--a figure of narcissistic menace who was constantly evaluate what is in his world and abruptly, violently remove the people and things in it he no longer fancied-- had the good fortune to find use in a series of films that weathered the fickle preferences of studios and audiences.The appeal of Hopper's roles in this best work is that he seemed to be the person in the crowd who had realized the great possibility that the meaning of existence depended more on the quality of choices one made in good faith rather than adhering to an abstract moral framework one is intractably born into. It seemed that his most extreme creations--Frank Booth, The fried  Photo Journalist in Apocalypse Now--had come across the fine print hidden that  stated that our philosophies and our certainties are based on nothing outside our own invention. In that regard , one wonders what Hopper might have said of his own life, his own work,  his legacy of worthiness beyond his personal and career struggles to be honest, creative and helpful in the world he actually lived in. To over-stated praise after his passing, Hopper's lurking  spirit paraphrase the Photo Journalist's rant about the cryptic Kurtz:

 I mean, what are they gonna say when he's gone? 'Cause he dies when it dies, when it dies, he dies! What are they gonna say about him? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bullshit, man!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

David Levine, RIP

David Levine,very likey the most important caricaturists of the 20Th century, has passed away at the age of 83. Whether his target was Lyndon Johnson,Richard Nixon , Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton, Levine took an unkind eye to the liars, scallywags and overachieving glory seekers who managed to make the world into a trash-strewn playpen. He showed them them not as extraordinary personalities but rather as chronic sufferers of delusion. Bad haircuts, unshaven jowls, necks that couldn't quite fit into the necks of their assigned shirts, Levine saw these power elitists as strange and difficult creatures who looked and sounded sane , but who seemed malformed and amoral on closer inspection. His acid-etched pen and inks were long a tonic in the middle of many a meandering political controversy,and one wonders where such clarity and moral outrage might come from next. Let's hope we get luck.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


1951-October 30, 2009
Norton Buffalo was one of the best harmonica players on the planet, a skillful, fluid and fleet player at home with blues, folk and country idioms, and was a monster chromatic harmonica player above it all. He made a lasting impression on my own playing since the early Seventies, and it saddens me and countless other harmonica players and fans that one of the modern masters has gone. Rest in peace, Norton

Friday, October 23, 2009

Soupy Sales, RIP

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I can't actually say to what degree a television comedian like Soupy Sales had on me as I grew up, but it's enough to say that he was a large part of my viewing life while otherwise growing up in Detroit in the early sixties. His wackiness has remained a family reference point for years. When my father passed away in 1995, the five of us kids--Julia, Owen, Hollis, Reed and myself --went to the LaJolla Comedy a month later where Sales was scheduled to perform. Well, perform he did, delivering what seemed to be an endless stream of jokes, drink in hand, his face still rubbery and begging for a fabled pie in the face. The jokes were blue, the memories were grand, and it seemed an appropriate way to remember our lives with our father and our eventual destination, California. Some have mentioned his influence on Saturday Night Live and Pee Wee Herman. You can read some more on Sales here and here.

Friday, June 26, 2009


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My girlfriend and I listened to Thriller at least three times a day, it seems, while we were in graduate school, and it suffices to say that I don't care to hear the album too soon or too often. Not that I'm tired of the music. I love the memories it brings from some better times during the eighties, and I still think the songs are among best pop-rock tracks ever released. The man had his problems and gross indiscretions, and the charges of child molestation against him will, of course, fire up righteous anger against his very being--famous people seem to get away with vile things more often than the used to--Michael Jackson all the changed pop music in ways that can't be undone. I will let the musicologists make those distinctions. 

But on the matter of keeping the late singer's music fresh, I do have to say it's the same with the Beatles, as the over-saturation of their music over five decades at this point threatens to finally leech whatever spark and jump in my response; I weary of growing bored with the music of John, George, Paul and Ringo, and prefer to pick my moments when I slip on Revolver or Yesterday and Today (two of the great rock and roll guitar albums, by the way). And so it goes with Michael Jackson--bless him, dear man, a dear gifted man was a mess, conflicted with more issues than National Geographic. 

We'll be spending years parsing his life and sifting through the undercurrents of a life that was larger than life, so to speak, and yet thoroughly out of control of the life force that propelled it. The pundits, the critics, the lower level social scientists will take their place among the gossip mongers to harangue a dead man on matters of bad choices, pedophilia, gender confusion, cultural ambiguity, and certainly no consensus will be arrived at, all of which will have Jackson's music blasting as a constant soundtrack. 

I saw the Moonwalk for the first time during the fabled Motown television special. It was a marvel to behold, and to reclaim the memory, I am switching cable channels when the old videos come on, changing the radio dial when a song of his hits the rotation, locking my Jackson Five and Michael Jackson cds up for a year until the coming shit storm over his sad death blows over and I can listen to him again as a musician, not a freak and then wonder, what the hell happened to this man, who could have been so much more than even the promise we said he had early on?