Wednesday, February 18, 2004

 

When Kathleen Fraser first arrived in San Francisco sometime around 1970 in order to direct the Poetry Center at SF State, it was a major moment in the evolution of the poetry scene of the city that likes to call itself The City. The three prior directors with whom I’d been familiar – James Schevill, Mark Linenthal & Stan Rice – had all been local poets with relatively little engagement with the dramatic changes that had been transforming verse since the 1950s. Schevill had been around the fringes of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance & had even lost a job at UC Berkeley in the early ‘50s after having refused to sign a loyalty oath aimed at ferreting out Communist professors. Linenthal was interested in Objectivism & generally paid attention to the broader world, but I doubt that in those years he himself could tell that the student who would become his second wife, Frances Jaffer, was soon to become herself one of the driving forces for change in poetry. As a poet, the much younger Rice found himself identifying with the writers against whom the New American Poetry were rebelling. He too had little inkling of the impact his wife, Anne, would soon have on writing, in her case genre fiction. Regardless of their personal aesthetics, the defining feature of the three men was that their own poetry never really connected with any existing literary community. None was ever truly part of a scene.

 

So the Poetry Center was very much a backwater when it finally decided to look outside & bring Kathleen Fraser in to head up the program. Fraser had gone to Iowa City – she almost certainly would not have been hired without that credential – but before that she & her first husband Jack Marshall had hung around New York City in the 1950s & were totally in touch with the vibrant antics of the New York School. Had the Allen anthology included the next younger age group (and been a little more woman friendly), Fraser is one of the writers* who almost certainly would have been included.

 

Fraser was – and so far as I can see, still is – interested in everything, which meant that the Poetry Center suddenly became a site for all of the possible debates going on in poetry. Some of it was exciting, some silly, some maybe just beside the point – but there was always an interesting program to think about & for the first time really since the days of Madeline Gleason, Robert Duncan & that 1958 visiting professor, Louis Zukofsky, the Poetry Center & the creative writing program at State could claim to be fully a part of the San Francisco scene.

 

The interesting thing about Fraser’s own poetry in those days was that you couldn’t pin it down. She certainly wasn’t an “Iowa poet” in the way that phrase was used in the 1970s to indicate a narrow range – upper limit James Tate, lower limit Norman Dubie – nor was Fraser a New York School writer, even at a remove. She certainly wasn’t either an SF Renaissance or a “Bolinas” poet as well.

 

That might have been a prescription for yet another isolated poet, but not in Fraser’s case. Her sense of community & restless intelligence wouldn’t permit that. Not only was she instrumental in broadening – forever, as it so happened – the vision of the creative writing program at State & at the Poetry Center, one found Fraser during those years in all manner of places. She was, for example, an important supporter of a collective effort to get a poetry bookstore going in Noe Valley during that period, a project that lives on today as Small Press Traffic. Traffic was the first store I ever saw that acknowledged issues of gender in writing, even if its initial categories – Men, Women, Fiction – seem rudimentary by today’s recognition of a rainbow world. Later in the 1970s, I ran into Fraser when she & I & Steve Benson, among others, found ourselves together in a Marxist study group led by Robert Glück & Bruce Boone. When I was invited to teach a graduate seminar at SF State in the fall of 1981 – an invitation she may well have had a hand in, although she never once mentioned it to me – the course that turned out to be the “dry run” reading list that became In the American Tree – Fraser sat through every session of the class. At no point did she ever present herself there as the tenured faculty person amidst such “students” as Jerry Estrin or Cole Swenson. Fraser was simply there because she wanted to know something. & I felt both humbled & honored that she thought to do so.

 

Her greatest community building project got under way in May, 1983, when she & some friends – Carolyn Burke, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Frances Jaffer & Bev Dahlen among them – started the feminist poetry newsletter HOW(ever). If language poetry, when contrasted with the New American poetry, seemed feminist by comparison, it was – by today’s standards certainly – still very much the creature of its times, one foot forward perhaps, but one foot still very much in the old world of gender presumptions (& me as much as anyone in that regard). HOW(ever) presented a completely different vision of a possible universe. Today, it may be impossible for a younger reader to even comprehend how completely different that newsletter was for poetry in 1983 – it was woman led & woman centered, but not in the slightest identarian, proud of its interest in all manner of progressive literary tendencies. Today, when the absolute majority of publishing poets in the U.S. are women, such a project might even seem unnecessary. But just 21 years ago, it was so radical as to have been all but unthinkable until Fraser & her cohorts thought – and did – otherwise. In retrospect, I don’t think any other literary magazine has had the impact on American writing that HOW(ever) has had. Happily all to the good.

 

So I’ve long since given up trying to figure out what Kathleen Fraser is going to do next. Suffice it to say that as a person & poet, she continually surprises me & that I learn from these surprises. There is a brand new book out from Apogee Press, Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling. I want some more time to read in it before I try writing anything about it specifically, But I’ll mention it today, because clearly it’s a book you need to own.

 

 

 

 

* Like Ted Berrigan, like Joanne Kyger, like George Stanley & Bill Berkson. Like Ron Padgett & Peter Schjeldahl & Larry Fagin & Harold Dull & Steve Jonas.





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