Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

A Tribute

by Ron Salisbury

Text delivered on 26 April 2015 at an Open Mic Poetry Reading sponsored by San Diego Writers Ink, honoring the life of Steve Kowit

I met Steve thirty-six years ago when I moved to San Diego for the first time. But within the last year, comparing our early poetry years and time in New York City, we discovered that we may have been close to first meeting years before. I was in my late teens, from a farm in Maine; Steve, in his early twenties, had grown up in New York City. There was a coffee house in the East Village called Deux Magots that had poetry readings every week; this was probably 1962. I got up the courage to read a poem for the first time in public. In the middle of the reading that evening, a guy named Taylor Mead read a letter he had received from Allan Ginsberg who was in India. It was a pages-long letter and Allan talked about bathing in the Ganges River and watching “the burning Gahz.” Steve remembered that evening. He didn’t remember my poem. Just as well.

He was the same irascible, wonderful character thirty-six years ago when it came to poetry as he was right to the end. About a month before he died, he published an op-ed piece in the Review Journal about modern poetry. Look it up. A kind of final bugle call from Steve.

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.”

He was supportive to all poets no matter how they wrote. But if you were one of his close friends, he could be very, very direct. I took his last poetry class at Southwestern College before he retired. The class was filled with amazing writers all wanting to get one more “Steve fix.” I had known Steve and exchanged poems with him for years but never took a class from him. I met many writers in that class, many who have become close friends. Steve was showing us poems that while we didn’t exactly understand what the poet said, we knew what he meant. He used one line from Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the line that says “an orphan with a gun,” as an example. Steve said we don’t really understand this but we know what he means. Then Steve, waving his arms, sent us off for the night with the direction to go home and write a poem that had lines like that. I brought mine in the next week, showed it to Steve—he’s standing at the front of the class, waves the poem at me and yells, “What is this Shit?” He had forgotten he gave us the assignment. All the “professional Steve students” had not written such a poem; they knew better. He was notorious for forgetting what he had assigned.

We would often walk along the beach in Pacific Beach and talk. It was on one of those walks when I told him I wanted to go back to college and get my MFA in Poetry. And what did he think of the idea. He asked if I thought I’d learn how to write poetry at one of those programs. No, I answered, I thought it was too late for that. If I wasn’t doing it now, I never would. But I wanted an MFA so I could spend my last few decades teaching young poets in a college MFA program somewhere. Steve, as only Steve could be, wrapped his arm around me and said, “Forget it. No one’s gonna hire an old shit like you.” Ah Steve. No one talked to you straight like he did.

At readings, open mics, Steve was the first to applaud, the loudest, the last to stop clapping, always a big smile. He’d sit in the front row, had to, he couldn’t hear very well. What you don’t know is that often, he’d leave his hearing aids home. On those walks along Pacific Beach, the subject of open readings, open mics, frequently came up. Steve likened most of them to the experience of a root canal.

So, Steve, this is my gift to you tonight. This is an open reading. I am a poet. I am not going to read a poem.

SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Ron Salisbury

lives in San Diego where he continues to publish, write, and study in San Diego State University’s Master of Fine Arts program, Creative Writing. His work has been published in Eclipse, The Cape Reader, Serving House Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Spitball, Soundings East, The Briar Cliff Review, Hiram Poetry Review, A Year in Ink, and others.

Awards include Semi-Finalist for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize (2012), Finalist for the ABZ First Book Contest (2014), First Runner-up for the Brittingham and Pollak Prize in Poetry (2014), and winner of the 2015 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, which includes publication of Miss Desert Inn in November 2015.

“...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