Monday, March 07, 2005


Roy Kiyooka is a name I first heard from the lips of Robert Creeley a long time ago. Kiyooka was, I gathered, one of those Canadian poets one heard about in the 1960s, but about whom not a lot of information snuck over the border. Once in awhile I would see something in a magazine, crafted & casual. Beyond that, I was clueless. Then shortly after I joined the then-embryonic Buffalo Poetics List in 1994 – it was averaging less than 3 messages a day back then – my friend the late Charlie Watts mentioned in an email that Kiyooka had died earlier that year. I had a sense of having missed that boat entirely, so to speak.


Years passed & somewhere along the line, perhaps as far back as 2000, I came across a big beautiful book entitled Pacific Windows. I can’t remember where exactly but I suspect that it may have been on one of my prowls through the stacks in the back of SPD. I do recall thinking “At last!” & snatching up the volume immediately. But it’s been sitting on the shelves of my “still-to-read” bookcase up until just this past week. And it’s a revelation.


Kiyooka, as it turns out, was part of that great generation of poets born between 1925 & ’27, a group that came of age during the Second World War but who, for the most part, managed to avoid being swallowed up by the experience. In Kiyooka’s case, however, a Calgary schoolboy who happened to be the child of immigrants from Japan, WW2 meant internment, displacement & the unconcealed racism of his government & fellow Canadians. It meant also an abrupt ending to formal education.


After the war – and this I didn’t realize literally until reading the book this week, including editor Roy Miki’s fabulously specific afterward – Kiyooka attended art school briefly & very quickly became established as a major presence in Canadian painting, first focusing on the abstract expressionism that was emerging, then moving off to a more complex period involving photography, sculpture, even music. Sometime around 1963, Kiyooka met American poets – hunting around on the web, I’ve now read conflicting reports as to where & how – including Robert Creeley, Phil Whalen & Charles Olson. Shortly thereafter, however, a first book of poems, Kyoto Airs, appears.


And for the next 31 years, until his death at the age of 68, Kiyooka seems to have been a thoroughly successful Canadian poet. That is a particularly amazing story, especially for someone whose grandfather was Masaji Oe, “the last great master of the Hasegawa school of Iai,” whose role as the last samurai is commemorated by a monument in Kochi City.


But I’m even more appalled at my own ignorance. It’s my second visceral reminder in less than two weeks as to exactly how dramatically the internet, and especially the World Wide Web, is changing the role of geography in poetry. One half century ago, just being in the far reaches of the United StatesPortland, say – was to be fairly isolated in the sense of being a writer. William Carlos Williams’ trip through that town circa ’53 proved to be a big deal to the students at Reed, Whalen, Snyder & Welch among them. Indeed, I think one reason for the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, at least in the 1950s, was to encourage, coax & otherwise finagle poets of note to come visit that port town so far removed from the “major” literary centers of New York & Boston.


Canada – especially the cities west of Toronto – has had to deal with questions not just of distance, but, at least for readers in the U.S., of borders, book distribution & literary traditions as well. I recall when George Bowering first began to be a presence on the aforementioned Poetics List seeing one or two “who the heck is he?” type responses from people obviously unaware that Bowering had, at that point in his career, published something like 50 books (and soon enough would become Canada’s first poet laureate).


It may be a generational thing – if so, the kids win this one hands down – but I don’t think that Canadian poets ever again will find themselves at quite such a remove from audiences south of the border. I wonder if it would have made any difference to Kiyooka if he had had anything like the kind of audience in the U.S. his work deserved during his lifetime. Some of the books gathered in Pacific Windows were first published in editions of 40 or “26 + 9.” Yet this is somebody who could very easily have had audiences on the scale of, say, Gary Snyder or Michael McClure. I must say, tho, that one senses, reading Pacific Windows, that Kiyooka is doing exactly what he wants to do – he might not have changed a thing. He might not have missed having a large U.S. audience in the slightest.


Indeed, Pacific Windows is what Yanks might see as a “profoundly Un-American” work. In spite of his obvious interest in American poets, the U.S. itself is not even an afterthought here anywhere, save possibly (and in the strangest way, with Kiyooka identifying uneasily with the U.S. position) for a sequence written during a tour of Hiroshima. From the little I’ve been able to see of Kiyooka’s art work on the web, I can’t tell if my own sense that his move from the easel into writing (actually, that was a both-and, not an either-or proposition) was occasioned by his first adult trip back to Japan where a couple of his older siblings had grown up & remained even during the war, or not. But the first sequence is coincident with that time & much of the book as a whole is taken up with works composed at least initially while traveling back & forth.


As proved to be often the case for so many poets who came out of either projectivist poetics or its western variant centered around the mesa in Bolinas, Kiyooka’s earlier books have a more rigorously held to sense of line & linebreak that relaxes gradually as he ages. The details are often quite daily, and Kiyooka picks up on Blackburn’s sense of variable space between words (and in a couple of instances, even between the letters of a word) to visually pace the poem on the page, as in “The Dress”:


how   to

convince   you

that    you

do    look    beautiful

that    it

does    fit    you

that    the    sheen

of    it    sur-

rounding    you

is    the


of   intentions

both    of    us



If you’ve never given Roy K. Kiyooka any attention, Pacific Windows is like suddenly discovering the collected works of someone on the order of Lew Welch, say. Roy Miki has done a superb job, especially incorporating in texts that – as several do here – involve painting & photography as well as words upon paper (one terrific sequence, The Pear Tree Pomes, is a collaboration with painter David Bolduc). This book won awards when it was first published in 1997 & happily is still in print. Last I looked, there were still six copies available through SPD.