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SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

[Two Tributes]

by Bill Mohr

Steve Kowit (1938–2015)

Laurel Ann Bogen called me this evening and said that San Diego-based poet Steve Kowit has died. The last time I saw Steve was at the Long Beach Poetry Festival in 2011, at which he was the featured reader in the evening program. The festival was in a gallery space on Atlantic Blvd., the kind of venue that Steve was most comfortable in. He did not read any new poems, but the old ones seemed as lively as ever. Kowit was a performer who knew how to convey that his themes were chosen out of profound necessity. One could see how he might have made a very interesting character actor, but for one drawback. He was far too literate to remove himself from a life devoted to the written word and too blunt to tolerate those who had no such need.

As editor of The Maverick Poets, an anthology that included several of the poets who came to be associated with the Stand Up School, Kowit showed that it was possible to integrate non-academic West Coast poetry with the work being done elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, he was one of the few editors I have ever met who had more than a partial grasp of the common poetics that linked those working in Southern California with those based in Northern California. He cared about the poem, not the poet’s reputation. He spoke up for poets, such as Kim Addonizio, long before they had achieved their current popularity. His ability to appreciate the poets living in Northern and Southern California may well be an outgrowth of the time he spent as a young poet in San Francisco, when he was a graduate student at San Francisco State, before moving to San Diego.

Kowit was that rare cultural worker, an individual who could truly appreciate the work of others without worrying unduly about whether others appreciated his work. In part, his confidence in his poems came from years of giving poetry readings in which he didn’t have to wonder afterwards about the sincerity of the audience’s pleasure. 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. “I died & went to hell & it was nothing like L.A.” begins one of his poems. For those of us who live here, the poem is worth posting on the door of one’s workroom.

Along with many other poets, I will miss his ever-fermenting amusement at the foolishness of contemporary civilization. We’ve been given a paradise to celebrate the possession of consciousness within and we cannot resist the temptation to despoil it. Steve, may you rest well on the long journey home, and reemerge in an enduring garden of the ever-ripening.

An obituary has been published in the Los Angeles Times since my posting of the above commentary. You can find that article at: LA Times Obituaries.

—First published at (2 April 2015); republished here by author’s permission


Steve Kowit Post-Script: Walt Whitman’s Butterfly

That singular flight of felicitous whimsy...

Before I headed off to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California, I spent a few minutes working on my bookshelves at home. I have enough new books that I simply must prune (de-accession?) the shelves! Sorting and re-shelving, I found that treasured gifts from other poets awaited me, especially a broadside from Steve Kowit entitled “A Whitman Portrait.” It’s a 55-line poem with a delicious sense of humor. Kowit loved to let others hoist themselves on their own petard, which in this case is their presumptuousness that the butterfly poised on Whitman’s finger in a photographic portrait taken of him in Camden in 1883 was “nothing but papier mâché.” Kowit’s poem is the pleasure of community formation at its best. Sure it’s an “us against them” poem, but those who have mocked the alleged artificiality of this portrait (with the implied contempt for Whitman’s sentimentality) deserve this rebuke, which also rebounds to us for the ultimate fate of this species. According to Kowit,

...high-resolution spectro-
analysis proved what any fool could have guessed:
she was just what she seemed, mortal & breathing,
a carbon-molecular creature like us: Papilio
now all but extinct...

Kowit’s critique of contemporary poetry is already blunt and merciless. He was a poet whose eyes partook of “that singular flight of felicitous whimsy,” but it must also be said that he saw no reason to spare the feelings of the Great Pretenders.

If it’s true there exist fake butterflies
cut out of paper & wire, my guess is
they belong to a later generation of poets.

I’ll leave you to figure out the ones who dedicate their lines to fake butterflies, but I don’t think such a project deserves more than a few minutes. Better to give yourself the pleasure of the company of Steve Kowit’s poems, which are more than willing to alight on your fingertips.

My retrospective thanks again to Steve, for sending me a signed copy of this broadside, dated 12-22-89. I think that may have been the year when Christmas looked fairly bleak. I was living with my first wife, Cathay, in our apartment on Hill Street in Ocean Park and my job as a typesetter did not pay very much. I remember that we probably had about $50 in our bank account on December 22, just enough to buy some basic groceries to get us through the month. We had not bought any Christmas gifts for each other, even tiny ones. I remember standing at the bottom of the staircase and starting to sort through a pile of old mail and assorted loose paper. I saw an envelope from a co-worker at Radio & Records for whom I had done some free-lance work, and I was one hundred percent certain that I had already opened it, but I took another look regardless and there was a simple sheet of paper in it with a notation of hours of work done and a check for well over $200. I couldn’t believe it. I suppose that moment was a holiday butterfly. Recollections of many holidays are a blur, but in that instance I still remember how the original expectations for the year’s final week made the outcome all the sweeter. I keep thinking at the present moment that there is some meaning I am missing about how one remembers eating well and having a small tree and a few gifts. Is it just nostalgia betraying me, another “bittersweet kaleidoscope”?

—First published at (18 April 2015); republished here by author’s permission
—“A Whitman Portrait” is published in Steve Kowit’s collection The Dumbbell Nebula (Roundhouse Press, 2000), as well as in Visiting Walt: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Walt Whitman, edited by Sheila Coghill and Thom Tamarro (University of Iowa Press, 2003).
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Bill Mohr

is an associate professor in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. He has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and has taught at CSU Long Beach since 2006. His collections of poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982); Penetralia (1984); Bittersweet Kaleidscope (2006); and a bilingual volume published in Mexico, Pruebas Ocultas (Bonobos Editores, 2015). A CD and cassette release of spoken word was produced by Harvey Robert Kubernik and released by New Alliance Records in 1993.

Mohr’s poems, prose poems, and creative prose have appeared in dozens of magazines in the past 40 years, including 5 AM, Antioch Review, Beyond Baroque, Blue Collar Review, Blue Mesa Review, Caliban (On-line), Miramar, ONTHEBUS, OR, Santa Monica Review, Skidrow Penthouse, Solo Nolo, Sonora Review, Spot, Upstreet, Wormwood Review, and ZYZZYVA. His poems have also appeared in a dozen anthologies, including all three editions of Charles Harper Webb’s Stand Up Poetry (1989, 1992, 2002) and Suzanne Lummis’s Grand Passion and Wide Awake.

He has given readings of his poetry in New York City, San Francisco, and Mexico City, as well as Los Angeles. He was a featured poet at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival five times and was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in 1996. His literary history of Los Angeles poetry, Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011 and has gone into a second printing. Mohr’s critical essays have appeared in such magazines as the William Carlos Williams Review and the Journal of Beat Studies. From 1972 to 1988, he was active in Los Angeles as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press. Its archives can be found in the Special Collections of Geisel Library at UCSD.

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“...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