Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

[Two Tributes to Steve Kowit]

by Rebecca Chamaa

The Most Meaningful Memorial

Leave it to a group of poets to create the best memorial (celebration of life) I have ever attended. The last funeral I went to, I got the giggles so badly, because the whole thing seemed so absurd. A pastor who barely knew the deceased read off a list of things he had been told by her family. There was nothing connecting me to the memory of the person I once knew.

But yesterday was different. Way different.

I wrote two weeks ago that my mentor, teacher, and friend Steve Kowit had unexpectedly died.

Yesterday a group of his students, which I have been studying poetry with for two years, gathered in the home of one of our fellow students. We sat around in a circle in the living room. There was coffee, homemade brownies, a variety of nuts, and bottled water.

We talked about our future as a group. We talked about how to proceed without our beloved Steve. We decided to meet as before, on the last Sunday of the month, and work our way through a poetry workshop book that Steve wrote, In the Palm of Your Hand. We decided to take turns facilitating the group. We all agreed no one could step into the shoes of Steve.

After we had taken care of business, we started talking about personal things. It happened naturally. One person told a story about Steve, about the suspenders he always wore, about how he would ask us to raise our hands if we didn’t understand the poem we just heard, about how he used to force snacks on us.

The stories continued. People brought out poems and we went around the circle, and most people read a poem or two that they had written about him since his passing. I cried so hard, that tissues were handed to me from every direction. Most people cried. I found it hardest to keep my tears under control when the men cried. All of our hearts were breaking.

Then someone would say something else and we would laugh, from the deepest parts of ourselves.

We sat that way for three hours, telling stories about “Our Steve,” about a man who had made such an impact in all of our lives. We laughed and cried together. We shared our grief, our heartache, our sorrow. We shared our incredible loss. We shared our love.

And we bonded. We healed. We found a way to go on, a way that would have made Steve happy. In fact, the whole gathering would have made him happy. We talked about the man. The real man, as we all knew him and loved him.

We honored his memory in our togetherness, in our laughter, and in our tears.

Leave it to a group of poets to make me feel every high and every low for three straight hours and want to see them all again as soon as possible, because they hold the magic of memory and healing in their words.

It’s not good-bye. We will still have his words to guide us. And maybe we will even leave the chair at the head of the table open, so he can join us as we critique our art in the way he taught us, with laughter and love.

—First published in A Journey with You: Surviving Schizophrenia (20 April 2015); republished here by author’s permission


The Last Act: Steve Kowit

I can’t open my e-mails. I need to clean out my inbox, but I can’t see his words right now. He died yesterday. I loved him.

His poetry group was the first place where I openly came out about my schizophrenia. Even with that, he once told me I was one of the clearest thinkers he knew.

He never judged me. He never treated me as less than. He was a champion of my poetry and prose. He wrote me a letter for graduate school. I got accepted.

When graduate school turned out to be a joke, he felt personally responsible for encouraging me to try the program. Of course, the problem with the program had nothing to do with him. I applied to another school. He wrote another letter. I got accepted.

He published my poems in Serving House Journal, and accepted a poem for The Reader that was supposed to come out this month. I don’t know if it ever will. I wish it would, so I could hold on to the memory that he believed in me.

[Editor’s Note: As the author wrote five days later in her blog, “My mentor sent this in for publication just before he died. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to see it on the Internet and in print this morning. Thank you, Steve. You continue to be good to me.” On the 8th of April, The Reader ran the poem “Tying the Knot” with a footnote from Steve: “Rebecca Chamaa’s poem is an intriguing model of the ‘list poem,’ and a clever poem about failed love.”]

That’s it. He was a successful writer, and teacher, and he believed in me.

Of course, he believed in hundreds and hundreds of people, but all of us felt as if we were the only one. He had that knack. He possessed the ability to make every writer (mostly poets) he encountered feel as if they were special, and he gave all of us his attention.

He wrote countless letters, and endorsements, and gave feedback continuously on the poems that flooded his inbox. I don’t think he believed in God, but I believe enough for both of us, and if there is an inbox in heaven, his is already full of poems from all his poetry friends he told me went before him. He is reading poetry. I am sure of it.

And making jokes, and serving snacks to everyone, “Here, try one of these. Have some. Take some home.”

Home, he is home now, or at least that is what people say. I thought his home was with us. He was always a natural wherever he was. Laughing. Joking. Laughing. Joking. He freely gave out good, sound writing advice, all kinds of advice on how to live, and be a writer.

He wanted us all to succeed, and the funny thing is he made us all feel like we had.

I had no confidence as a writer when I met him. I wouldn’t even call myself that. I was just someone who wrote an occasional poem. He built me up, block by block. I have a business card now that has the word, writer, printed on it.

He gave me that, and so much more.

Good-bye, my friend, my mentor. I have to keep pushing on, because that is how you would have wanted it. “Do it!” “Go for it!” “That’s a great idea!” “You are so smart!”

Your words will now have to hold me over until we meet at the next poetry workshop, the one where you’ll need to introduce me all over again.

You are among the greats now.

—First published in A Journey with You: Surviving Schizophrenia (3 April 2015); republished here by author’s permission
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Rebecca Chamaa

is a writer who advocates for the mentally ill and is working towards an MFA in poetry at Antioch University in Los Angeles. She attends two writers’ groups, one for poetry and one for memoir. Her poetry and essays have been published in Transition, Structo, A Year in Ink, Pearl, City Works, The Reader, San Diego Poetry Annual 2014, and elsewhere.

She is also the author of the mixed-genre collection Pills, Poetry & Prose: Life with Schizophrenia (, April 2015), and lives in San Diego with her husband of 17 years. Together they published an anthology of poets: Sundays at Liberty Station (March 2015).

Author’s blog: A Journey with You: Surviving Schizophrenia

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury