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SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

In Memory of Steve Kowit

(June 30, 1938–April 2, 2015)

[Poems + Books + Tributes, and More]

compiled by Clare MacQueen

Vintage photo of Steve Kowit in his twenties
Vintage photo of Steve Kowit copyrighted by Joan Levine Gannij, 1983 *

As Steve liked to say, he was Jewish by birth, Buddhist by inclination. We like to think he will be remembered as a bodhisattva mensch: an enlightened and extraordinary man whose mission seemed to be to help others become better at their art than they thought they could be.

Steve Kowit was a man of integrity who wrote and spoke Truth, often in a very direct way. He was a generous, ebullient spirit who helped folks for the sheer satisfaction of helping; an unsurpassed teacher who used hilarity to edify and instruct his students; and a jocular personality overflowing with love and laughter—yet feisty enough to point out the foibles of humanity on a regular basis. He was an authentic human being who genuinely cared; an outspoken champion of human and animal rights; and a kind-hearted soul who was mindful of all sentient creatures down to the tiniest insects that most of us never notice. His eyes were wide open to the miracle of life and how precious and fleeting it all is.

In other words, he was someone to emulate—whenever and wherever possible.

Perigee lauded Kowit when his third full-length collection of poems, The First Noble Truth, won the Tampa Review Poetry Prize in 2006: “His spirit, intelligence, and humanity never cease to amaze us. Not to mention his particular talent for poetry which is both profound and accessible.”

Novelist Duff Brenna calls Kowit “a major figure in poetry in America today” and “the best lecturer and commentator on the craft of creative writing that I’ve ever seen in action.”

Steve Kowit (pronounced “COW-it”) was born in New York City in 1938. He was educated at Brooklyn College in New York City (B.A.), San Francisco State University (M.A., 1968), and at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina (MFA in writing, 1992). He taught English and creative writing for 46 years, including two decades at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California; and he regularly toured with his popular poetry workshops.

Numerous awards have been conferred on Kowit, including among others the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, two Pushcart Prizes, the Atlanta Review Paumanok Poetry Prize, the Oroborus Book Award, the San Diego Book Award, the Tampa Review Poetry Prize (as mentioned above), the San Diego Book Award, and the Theodor S. Geisel Award in 2007 for The Gods of Rapture.

With much gratitude and love for Steve, we offer this memorial edition of Serving House Journal to commemorate a life dedicated to Poetry, to his beloved wife Mary, to his students, to humanity, and to the circle of all sentient beings who suffer.

Cover photo of Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life

April 2016 update: In July 2015, Serving House Books published a 298-page, soft-cover anthology with poems and tributes reprinted from our online memorial issue (SHJ-12):

Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life
* September 2016 update: Cover image is copyrighted by the photographer, Joan Levine Gannij, and is reproduced here by her permission; photographs of Steve Kowit throughout SHJ and in the anthology are reproduced with permission from Mary Kowit.

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• University of Tampa Press:

He was a strong and vibrant force for poetry and a friend who will be deeply missed.
—From In Memoriam: Steven Kowit

• Tony Perry, in the Los Angeles Times:

Steve Kowit dies at 76; San Diego poet championed numerous causes

• Jewish Voice for Peace, San Diego:

If the poet uses his own skin for “wallpaper,” as one poet complained, Steve’s skin was most sensitive to injustice. His poetry raged against the crimes of many, sparing no one.
—From Brilliant Poet, Ardent Activist, and Founding JVPSD Member Steve Kowit Dies at 76

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Kowit’s poetry and essays appear in numerous journals, and his poems have been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR. Influenced by 19th-century American poets Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, as well as by 20th-century poets such as Alan Ginsberg and Jorie Graham, Kowit’s writing possesses an unabashed social consciousness. That he was raised in a large Zionist family in Brooklyn may explain in part why his writing is intensely spiritual as well as polemic—aptly captured in poems like “Intifada,” and in articles such as “The Mass Suicide of the Xhosa: A Study in Collective Self-Deception,” which examines genocidal colonialism and was published in Skeptic magazine (Volume 11, No. 1).

The title poem of his first collection, Lurid Confessions (1983), is reprinted in Stand Up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond (Red Wind Books, 1990), edited by Charles Harper Webb and Suzanne Lummis. In a footnote to the poem, the editors describe Kowit and other poets included in the anthology as not so much favoring performance over print as moving “away from the dour and ponderous, toward creativity, spontaneity, and childlike (not childish) joy.”

• Appearing here in SHJ, Issue 12:

Portfolio One: Nine Poems
Portfolio Two: Ten Poems from Lurid Confessions
[+ An Introduction by the Author]

• Favorites which appear elsewhere online:

A Prayer, in The Sun (Issue 423, March 2011)
A Whitman Portrait, PDF from Mickle Street Review
Abuelita, The Sun (Issue 471, March 2015)
Basic, video of Kowit reading his poem in 2012
Cherish, video of Kowit performing at Ducky Waddles Emporium Book Store in 2011
Notice, Poem 118 in Poetry 180
Perognatious Fallax, a reading filmed by Craig Oliver outside Kowit’s home
Refugees, a reading filmed by Craig Oliver outside Kowit’s home
Taedong River Bridge, The Sun (Issue 390, June 2008)

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Books by Steve Kowit include five full-length collections of poetry, with the newest, Cherish, forthcoming this spring from the University of Tampa Press; these books are listed in the table three paragraphs below.

The poet also produced several chapbooks, listed here by date of publication, most recent first:

  • Steve Kowit Greatest Hits 1978-2003 (Pudding House Publications, 2004)
  • Epic Journeys, Unbelievable Escapes (State Street Press Chapbooks, 1998)
  • Pranks, with illustrations by Lenny Silverberg (Bloody Twin Press, 1998)
  • Everything Is Okay, with drawings by M. Jeanne Willoughby (Gorilla Comix, Gorilla Press, San Diego, 1985)
  • Passionate Journey: Poems & Drawings in the Erotic Mood, with Arthur Okamura (City Miner Books, 1984)
  • Cutting Our Losses, with drawings by Louis Griffith (Contact/Two Publications, 1982)
  • Hearts in Utter Confusion: Takes on the Erotic Poetry of India (Dog Ear Press, 1982)

Kowit’s guide to writing and appreciating poetry, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, is used as a teaching manual in workshops, colleges, and universities across the country. He also edited The Maverick Poets and translated into English Pablo Neruda’s final book, Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution.

Books are listed below in reverse chronological order. For details, please click on images, and publisher links below them.

New & Selected Poems
Lurid Confessions Crossing Borders,
with art by
Lenny Silverberg
Cover photo of Cherish by Steve Kowit Cover photo of Lurid Confessions by Steve Kowit Cover photo of Crossing Borders by Steve Kowit and Lenny Silverberg
University of Tampa Press
Serving House Books
Spuyten Duyvil
The First Noble Truth The Gods of Rapture In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop
Cover photo of The First Noble Truth by Steve Kowit Cover photo of The Gods of Rapture by Steve Kowit Cover photo of In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit
University of Tampa Press
City Works Press &
Sunbelt Publications
Tilbury House Publishers
The Dumbbell Nebula The Maverick Poets Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution
by Pablo Neruda;
translated by Kowit
Cover photo of The Dumbbell Nebula by Steve Kowit Cover photo of The Maverick Poets by Steve Kowit Cover photo of Incitement to Nixonicide by Pablo Neruda
Roundhouse Press
Gorilla Press
Quixote Press

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Crossing Borders

Tough, poignant...drawings and poems addressing the international epidemic of refugees.
[Kowit is] the most raging, socially concerned, funniest dead serious poet I’ve ever met.
—Robbie Conal, who wrote the introduction to this book and is one of the country’s foremost satirical street-poster artists

In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop

An illuminating and invaluable guide for beginners wary of modern poetry, as well as for more advanced students who want to sharpen their craft and write poems that expand their technical skills, excite their imaginations, and engage their deepest memories and concerns. Ideal for teachers who have been searching for a way to inspire students with a love for writing—and reading—contemporary poetry, this book is used in high schools, colleges, universities, and writing workshops across the country.
—Tilsbury House Publishers

The First Noble Truth

Steve Kowit’s poetry is shamelessly accessible, written in something close to the real language that we speak. Yet in Kowit’s hands it is language that is both luminous and lyrical. His poems are sometimes hilariously funny, sometimes fiercely political, sometimes slyly anecdotal, and sometimes all these things at once. His latest book, winner of the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, will confirm the observation of Thomas Lux that Kowit “has more energy, more passion, more fire, and more humor in his left little finger than most poets have in their whole bodies.”
—University of Tampa Press

The Gods of Rapture: Poems in the erotic mood

Praised by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins as “poetry that marvelously inhabits the adjoining rooms of the past and the present.” Montana’s Poet Laureate Sandra Alcosser said, “The Gods of Rapture could provide an erotic daybook of the year. Pace yourself and prepare to be seduced.”
—From the review A Few Words about Steve Kowit by Duff Brenna, in KYSO Flash (Issue 1, Fall 2014)

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• Deborah Allbritain:

Sappho Learns of Your Death

• Peter Bolland:

It’s one thing when a fan says, “great job,” but when a writer of Steve’s caliber goes out of his way to talk about how powerful your work is, it stops you in your tracks and emboldens you to do more, go further, and slip deeper. Steve Kowit changed my life.
—From [A Pillar of Our Own Reach]

• Duff Brenna:

Kowit was demanding when it came to his views about poetry, art of any kind, political beliefs, the rights of animals—vegetarian diets versus carnivore-omnivore-raptor-predators specific to the human species. Serious subjects for a man who was an idealistic, over-awed lover of nature as well—its profundities, its depthless wonder, its staggering beauty...
—From Something About Steve

• Tim Calaway:

The Poetry Teacher

• Brandon Cesmat:

Dinners To-Go

• Rebecca Chamaa:

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.
—From Two Tributes (“The Last Act: Steve Kowit”)

• Anna DiMartino:

A Cricket’s Prayer

• Bill Harding:

So many of us loved him as friend, mentor, and teacher, and it took him all but the last two years of his life to learn to say “no” to requests. Still, I don’t think he ever let any of us down. He showed up, always.
—From [A Genuine Treasure]

• Jackleen Holton Hookway:

Steve had several “tricks” for writing poems, which he used in his own work, and I have tried my best to include in this tribute piece.
—From The Poetry Lesson

• Peter J. Lautz:

And now, a week later, you’re gone and I didn’t find the time to tell you this, Steve, but you were right that “goodness” didn’t really convey anything real or true or useful in writing my little story.
—From Dear Steve

• Sylvia Levinson:

Today I add a word to the list of praise for this man who means so much to me—authentic—he was the most real person I know—an authentic human being. Oh, yes, I’ll also add “cheerleader.” He always wanted us to do well!
—From My Steve Kowit

• Bill Mohr:

It’s fashionable to mock sincerity as a virtue worth retaining in a postmodern culture; Kowit mocked the self-indulgent, whether they were poets who read too long or simply people unable to savor the transitory privilege of playfulness. His sincerity had the genius of never seeming didactic. His poems taught you to laugh at yourself.
Kowit’s critique of contemporary poetry is already blunt and merciless. He was a poet whose eyes partook of “this singular flight of felicitous whimsy,” but it must also be said that he saw no reason to spare the feelings of the Great Pretenders.
—From [Two Tributes]

• Lynda Riese:

His First Day in Heaven
Like Wings

• R. A. Rycraft:

I’m distressed to discover that I took him for granted. Time and distance dull incentive and motivation to keep in touch with someone who should always be there. A ruthless email inbox cleaner, I discovered last night that I didn’t save a single personal note from Steve. Desperately, I searched all of my email folders and came up empty-handed. You know what I saved? The business notes.
—From Don’t Laugh at My Poetry!

• Ron Salisbury:

I was emailing back and forth with Dorianne Laux about Steve (he was her first poetry teacher and close friend) and asked her who was going to wave the flag of clear and accessible poetry now that Steve was gone. She answered, “We all have to.”
—From A Tribute

• Al Zolynas:

A Philosophy of Life

Tributes also may be found elsewhere online at sites such as these:

Facebook: Steve Kowit

Like It or Not:

About Steve Kowit
Ted Burke’s blog about poetry, literature, music and movies

San Diego Free Press:

Last Will by Steve Kowit
Comments by Frances Payne Adler, Paul Fericano, Dan Gilmore, Donna Hilbert, Carolyn Miller, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others

The San Diego Reader:

Tributes to Steve Kowit
Comments and poems from Ted Burke, Jane Cartmill, Jim Moreno, Michael Nieman, Al Zolynas, and others

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And More...

Stolen Kisses [+ Kiss]

Essay by Kowit on his poem “Kiss” and on filching shamelessly from other writers

• Kowit reviews Seth Farber’s book:

Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel

Mystique of the Difficult Poem

The 97,000-Mile-a-Minute Poetry Machine

An excerpt from Kowit’s essay in Light Years: an Anthology on Sociocultural Happenings (Multimedia in the East Village, 1960-1966), ed. Carol Bergé

The Chiron Interview

Fellow poets and old friends Terry Hertzler and Steve Kowit talk about spirituality, religion, politics, and poetry.

Pablo Neruda would like to “Explain a Few Things” to you

In this “Rhyme Scheme” column of The San Diego Union Tribune (September 23, 2007), Kowit urges readers “who want a taste of [Neruda’s] exuberant, endlessly fecund poetic genius to read the translations by Ben Belitt.” He also mentions the “anti-poetry” of Nicanor Parra, now 100 years old and a former professor of physics at the University of Santiago in Chile.

A Note Concerning My Military Career

In which Kowit advises young men and women to resist the military’s “self-righteous fairy tales about freedom and peace,” and to run for their lives if need be. Republished in Socialist Viewpoint (Volume 13, Number 6) from the October 2013 issue of The Sun.

Israel no beacon of democracy, diversity

Why Kowit believed the United States should stop giving Israel billions of dollars each year in military aid


* Image is copyrighted by the photographer, Joan Levine Gannij, and is reproduced here by her permission; photographs of Steve Kowit throughout SHJ and in the anthology (Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life) are reproduced with permission from Mary Kowit.

“...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