'Study is the gate': A conversation about Ken Irby

Inside Kenneth Irby’s home.

KW: Looking at this photo — a familiar view from Ken’s couch — gets me thinking of the small objects, totems, that fill his home. The left corner of the coffee table below, opposite the Martinique rum, is dedicated to such objects.

CC: Arrowheads from Kyle Eberle’s inheritance, Petoskey stone from you and Jackie, indistinct rock from Gloucester.

KW: Polished petrified wood. Agate egg from the Tallulah Gorge.

CC: Dried rhododendron receptacle. Cut-glass from turn of century, cameos of obscure relatives. Burr oak acorn.

KW: A few chestnuts, I think. Some gingko … berries? (Are they gingko berries?)

CC: Gingko nuts from Jeff Bergfalk? I’m trying to think what other rocks there are; maybe a, I can’t remember the name, museum gift shop stone with “clouded” or “night” in the name, black and grey. Antique marbles, there’s another. Do you think geology and geography are of a piece here?

KW: I think geology, the study, is always a component of geography, the writing. But the phenomenon of the rock’s shape, texture, flecked coloration, etc., is of greater significance to Ken than its classification. It seems to me the geographer in Ken has little interest in an unpopulated landscape: “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it.” Habitation and migration are modes of writing earth: the “areal landscape” (to borrow from Carl O. Sauer) is the ur-wiki, composed by occupation.[1] (The rocks remind me of Novalis too, Ken roaming among the novices of Sais. “[T]he small stone picked up without thinking,” he writes in “Cahokia,” “means everything.”[2])

I also think of those chunks of pink quartzite (“Sioux Quartzite”) sprinkled throughout The Intent On that were pushed down from Minnesota to Kansas by a glacier 600,000 years ago. One of the larger boulders, standing on its end by the power plant near the bridge over the Kaw River (which follows the morainal line), bears a plaque memorializing the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company who founded Lawrence. The confluence of all those different kinds of movement at the continent’s vortical centrum is instructive of Ken’s sense of geography as a function of migration — tectonic, imperial, glacial, seasonal, vocational, nomadic, whatever.

CC: And then the totemic houseplants: Norfolk Island pine of many score years, “Christmas cactus” whose blooming is an annual event, I think there’s some kind of arum, a jack-in-the-pulpit?

KW: That sounds right. I can’t remember when, exactly, I took on the responsibility of taking care of Ken’s plants while he traveled east over the summer. I do remember being nervous about it, mainly because I was incapable of maintaining plants of my own at the time, but also because I’d read in Ken’s poems of the intersubjective exchanges between him and the plants I was to nurture — like the delicate Christmas cactus you mention. There were other complications too. It seemed, for example, that the number of pots in one back bedroom exceeded the number of plants, and the densely entangled vines make it difficult to determine in which pot the Joya, say, with its otherworldly inflorescence, begins. Sometimes I wondered if the pot I was watering had any plant in it at all, or if I weren’t perhaps watering the rug. The books, CDs, letters, records, etc. that a friend once said are “threatening to consume Ken’s apartment” represent one kind cultural growth, and the exotic, antediluvian flowering plants represent another — a sense of “culture” as a site or medium “for all manner of living growth.”[3]


as often as I entered his house, I thought I was in the wilderness[4]  

Certainly the plants and the poems grow from a common soil:

midwinter days when the focus stays inside entirely, some yet again different than you’ve ever made it before dinner out of leftovers and bare, chance essentials — as the glue of the turning of the year begins to dry and crack, pages starting to loosen and fall out, the gin before dinner helps watch, without imitation, and the irritation increasingly an instant answer to its own pointlessness, by that quick anger and regret, to use, as by some new peccadillo — to slow, to enjoy, to thank for, the Christmas cactus blooming once again, the realizing it is closer to Jeffers’ birthday than Weinnacht, and from the morning, a book jacket fitting a depiction of the Globe Theater into the cursive script of the title without having to do with words or the letters or their shapes at all, which in any case were not to be remembered—the crucial words, it matters very much to look up, though no one dictionary for them can be found, the crucial words tenedos &/or tendeos &/or teneos are kept stretched very taut and resonant across the rest of the day, without ever yielding up exactly what they mean — I hold the tantra of the tendril’s tone — the hypotenuse of containment is the alternate sitar — thin, but tender — lean, but cherce — into the family of love, the lover’s home, the body of the lover, and the food, that protect the stretching forth to hold and keep, yet heavy with the rift of predictive judgement and its loss — what is meant beyond etymology, in the shifting and then lost d, the delta Δ where the seed and the eye appear and disappear in the history of the singular a-historical event, translated to the next dimension on, not quite totally out of the one before, the equilateral three in one in many more than three in one, the three hermits of the story who pray unceasingly, “You are three, we are three, have Mercy on us”[5]

KW: Ken’s poems really capture the feel of his home; they’re structures of commensurate intrigue. And his home is one of the most inviting, comfortable, invigorating places I’ve ever been — a space set aside time, like Duncan’s “eternal pasture folded in all thought.” And you’re right, this sense of a nourishing substratum, of undergrowth inside and outside, interpenetrant—“[the] calm pasture of the mind” and “the carpet of grass” “carried in the back of the head”[6] — is formally and thematically elaborated in a number of the poems:

What do you desire? And not just the carpet runner that comes into being under your feet out in the street and then into the yard as you approach the front door, nor the figurations in the carpet that are after all alive and rustle and run and jump around and bloom and fly, or the weaving itself that is still going on and talks to you as it throws the shuttle back and forth, and looks up at you and stops and explains the fabric up out of the ground, and the spindles of thread that whirl at the steps, set into song by the wool and the sheep that give the wool. And who is that at the door? The lore. Says, let you in.[7]

In his preface for To Max Douglas, Ed Dorn wonders if this rhizomatic “rumination” (“the mind has aerial roots”) has something to do with what “it mean[s] to be from Kansas.”[8] He links “the volition to movement” in that corridor with an image of the windswept “waving carpet of grass.” Ken delights in the prairie’s stormy weather, and the midcontinental grasslands are for him, as they were for Coronado, an oneiric transport as well. (Recently reading over a handful of letters from Ken to Dorn, I came across this: “I’ve found that what direction I sleep in makes a difference in my dreams — they’re sexier when I lie east-west — the N-S axis is very unrestful & headachey.”[9]) Likewise, the polyvocal thicket that Jed Rasula describes in Ken’s work — the dense, matted “dendritic” journey of quotation (“lore” that “lets you in”) — also reveals how geographical processes inform Ken’s writing and living.[10] If geography is the writing of the earth, then many of the poems in Relation and Catalpa are “geographical” in a very strict sense — like “Point Reyes Poem, 2,” for example, in which we read of poison oak as an intergenerational agent whose “infernal” messages, which “we share across 400 years” with the members of Sir Francis Drake’s New Albion expedition, are inscribed on “equal, heedless bodies.”[11]

Anyway, all of these entanglements are constitutive of the synesthetic intensity of Ken’s living space. The odor of garlic and fennel mixing with the smell of aging paper mixing with Clifford Brown and Max Roach remixing Duke Jordan, etc. The interior of Ken’s home doesn’t really change, it accumulates layers, arboreal, like the Norfolk Pine that has grown exactly to the height of his living room ceiling. There’s a very palpable sense in his apartment of time passing — i.e., of measuring time (the calendar with a smattering of birthdays; the stack of books that offer an index of Ken’s recent attentions; the fact that he personalizes the fly-leaf of every book he owns, etc.) — and of time standing still (in the frayed shag carpet from the ’70s, say, or the dusty glass vases and paperweights of an earlier era, etc.). The Norfolk Pine is a measure, like the gifted rocks and the Thorpe Feidt paintings Ken returns with from Gloucester every summer, which signal the coming Fall semester — “the Bloody Grind,” as Ken calls it.

CC: The paintings — propped against piles of books in the dark — by no means neglected, quite to the contrary, but not displayed in the way an acquisitive nature would have them displayed.

KW: That’s true. You’re a man of few possessions, Cyrus, capable of carrying the bare minimum on your way. It seems to me that Ken lived a more peripatetic and, by necessity, ascetic life in his twenties and thirties. He makes that autobiographical statement, turning on Spinoza’s asceticism, in his poem “Notes”:

The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered, but the total lack of anything carried along.[12]

Ken, now a full professor, carries no PhD, and no degree at all in the discipline he teaches, and yet he also subscribes to the Lawrence and Fort Scott newspapers, and often has a copy of the New York Times too. If questions about movies come up over dinner, we might consult “the Hound” (VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever), or the Leonard Maltin Guide, or Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, or all three. What do you make of this more recent, almost encyclopedic accumulation? And what does it have to do with his poem’s lengthening line?

CC: In Ken’s case the hoard of books and periodicals is a paradoxical form of nonattachment, because of the way he allows the printed matter (like the plants) to take over. He himself asserts no ownership of the domestic space. His space is populated by the people behind the print:

Dale Hawkins is dead, that day, the 24th, in Topeka, where he’d been a fireman, battalion chief, retired — a year older than me, I hadn’t ever known or didn’t remember — failed a grade? it could be, though not very likely — or rheumatic fever? some faint memory click of that? — but we were in the same grade all along? — I’d just a day or so before been thinking about him in grade school, wanting the recipe in an old chemistry handbook I had from my brother, for rose water, to make some for his mother — intense request, pleading, remonstrating, “come on man, you promised, it’s for my mom” — AA member, Little League, Boy Scouts, the Fort Scott Tribune’s obituary of last Friday tells — one more to earth o’ergiven of childhood’s friends — as birth month ends — the dark time of the year — and what tales of the dark time here? — first Christmas cactus buds just starting to open — Dale and Dale — and Dale Barney and all the taunts growing up because of Dale Evans — the far West side of town, Dale Hawkins, less money, Ab Wood, Jim Hegge, Carmen Lewis, Oop Hood, to my nearer West side, big house, doctor father — or Dale Barney’s East side, and railroad father — and the closeness with Dale Hawkins not kept up as we went on into high school — and he into the Navy after graduation, married in San Diego, and then Topeka and the fire brigade, children, grandchildren — those who can tell you about yourself when you were young, or you about them — fewer and fewer, one by one — the closed-in self, the expanded self —[13]

KW: I like the idea of the people behind the print very much, a question of who’s on the other end of the line. There was a period when Ken lived with his mother in Lawrence. I think of that line from his poem written on Chuck Stein’s 60th birthday: “they call for my mother who’s dead, because her name’s still in the phonebook, and only use her first name / and I haven’t had it changed for mine because I’m still alive.”[14] These lines suggest the fixity of an address — whether of the domicile or the utterance — sets one that much closer to death.

It also seems to me that Ken intentionally lives on top of things — his flat-screen sits on top of the wooden cabinet of an antique television; stacks of cds frame his stereo; etc. One could view this habitation geologically, as a kind of stratification, or one could take George Carlin’s view, of the home as a mere storehouse for your shit, “while you go out and get more shit!” Both are encompassed by Ken’s sense of the “pastoral,” as the concern for “the precise landscape wherever we are. […] Given the amount of shit we live in, it is also manure for all manner of living growth.”[15] It’s interesting that while Ken, as you aptly put it, “asserts no ownership ... of the domestic space” — in the most generous and inviting way — he also remains inseparable in my mind from the texture and wonder of its interior. I think of that “Home Sweet Home Sweet Home Sweet Home ...” fabric he salvaged from a dumpster in Berkeley — or was it Lowell Levant who recovered that?

CC: I don’t remember, can’t visualize, the fabric.

KW: Here it is: 

… and there’s Ken digging for Josquin or Aksel Schiøtz or Dexter Gordon’s “Homecoming” or who knows what. The red and blue design of that fabric produces the same minor visuals as the Vision® skateboard deck I had in middle school.

CC: And next to that chair the cameo chair, and the view out the balcony:

The quiet intricate interior forest of the Christmas cactus and its blossomings bends down

               over the jade tree where the cameo chair seat looks out to the Northern world

 what can be seen over the balcony boards, wood rush to meet, contemplation of the tops

               of trees and roofs and the sky lines advancing and receding

 If you lean forward far enough you can see almost in the back right corner one board with

               a knobhole through it

 the start of a needle down to thread and begin the sewing, the mending and the


 and just barely visible over the edge straight ahead at the other end of the compound


 the upper third of a balcony door and the room seen lit the night of the poet’s death and

               known there was a sun in there through the dimension

 through the leaves and branches into and through the dimension, through what stare

               stares into and through

and drew it, the red life, the thread drawn[16]

The throw makes me think of Ronald Johnson’s








— a Topeka poet, one of the first of a very long list of writers and artists Ken introduced me to.[17] “Also the author of The American Table,” you can be sure Ken noted, “an excellent cookbook.”

KW: I dig the Johnson. His categorizing that poem in particular as a “beam” is wonderfully suggestive of its spectral and structural qualities, of the poem as a self-sustaining ecosystem that you “can enter from any corner, like a field”[18] (to quote another Topeka poet). Thinking of managing the hearth, of the peculiar chores each home calls for, and of working to live with the other objects of one’s environment, rather than trying to subjugate or overwhelm them — like what Creeley says, that we “will find a world only as [Irby] does, by loving it”[19] — all of this echoes the themes of “Song 3,” as well, from Olson’s Maximus Poems, an obviously important text for Ken:

              This morning of the small snow

 I count the blessings, the leak in the faucet

 which makes of the sink time, the drop

 of the water on water as sweet

 as the Seth Thomas

 in the old kitchen

 my father stood in his drawers to wind (always

 he forgot the 30th day, as I don’t want to remember

 the rent

                a house these days

 so much somebody else’s,




                             Or the plumbing,

 that it doesn’t work, this I like, have even used paper clips

 as well as string to hold the ball up. And flush it

 with my hand

                              But that the car doesn’t, that no moving thing moves

 without that song I’d void my ear of, the musickracket

 of all ownership …


 in my shoes, that’s all right, my fly

 gaping, me out

 at the elbows, the blessing

                                                    that difficulties are once more


 “In the midst of plenty, walk

 as close to


          In the face of sweetness,


               In the time of goodness,

 go side, go

 smashing, beat them, go as

 (as near as you can




 In the land of plenty, have

 nothing to do with it

                                        take the way of

 the lowest,


 your legs, go

 contrary, go



Ken’s encounters with his own leaky faucet, for instance, or with the plastic bowl emptied weekly and repositioned on top of the tin of Washington State cheese in order to catch the drip in the back of the refrigerator, these inconveniences (so most people would think of them) are the poignant, “bless[ed],” rhythmic “difficulties” by which “the day is saved” for Ken; these are those “leftovers and bare, chance essentials” from the poem you cited above, to be dealt with, as with the daybooks to be cannibalized.[21] In a way, it’s like whatever happens happens in Ken’s world, and he writes his way into and through it as love. The poison oak he “got at Reyes a week ago” is something that “we” — as “equal, heedless” humans — get to share! Here the mind encounters temporal/historical distance as proximal to its distance from the body and, as such, as constitutive of what Lyn Hejinian calls the “lyric sociality” in Ken’s work.[22] There’s obviously a dose of fatalism in this “whatever happens, happens,” but my sense of it is much closer to the closing lines of Hejinian’s The Fatalist: “That’s what fate is: whatever’s happened / — time regained.”[23] The will to regain — “the reciprocity of hospitality” — is the rub for Ken: Ken’s care for the reclamation of minutiae that most people pass over is intense, gemlike — such as his account of saving a wolf spider in “[a Nocturne of the day — James Huneker],” a poem that demonstrates his empathy, as well as what he’s done with Olson’s instruction:

In the middle of the day the smell of peanut butter and mayonnaise and jelly brought

               out a small spider from under the chopping block and the blender

 a puff of breath, a puff, and it rolled into a ball, recovered, and hurried back where it

               had come from

 bringing and receiving luck and renewal




 The wolf spider, hunter of the night, trapped in the kitchen sink and its porcelain slick     

               unclimbable sides

 took quite a while to rescue, since it hid much of the day in the garbage disposal and

               kept trying to get back there

 at last brought out with a big plastic spoon and set down between the icebox and the

               sink counter, and away

 saving, and the day saved, and again




 You might own a pair of such great lichen screens

 one of the rocks, one of what grows on them

 dyed with their pigments, translucent, illuminant, through

and at the centers, they turn[24]

Focusing on the uncommon care it takes to rescue the spider, I almost overlook the fact that Ken releases it in his kitchen a few feet away! What’s remarkable here is not that he avoids killing the spider — of course he does — but that, in his placing it out of harm’s way, he’s equally intent on minimizing the disturbance this intervention will otherwise create. Our current culture of gratuitous collateral damage and fearful excess — “the superstructure of filth,” as Amiri Baraka has put it, “[that] Americans call their way of life”[25] — could learn a lot from the everyday values in The Intent On. It’s responsibility of use that confers value in Ken’s world, not possession; not how many shares one has, but how one shares.

KW: Yesterday you asked what I considered to be Ken’s task and I didn’t have a very good answer. I guess I’d say the task is to communicate, a word which derives from the Latin for “share,” another important term in his work. The desire to get across is present in his poems’ patchwork of quotations, in his epistolary habits, in his anecdotal pedagogy, in the way he talks of friends as ore (that personal lore, from OE lār, “instruction), and in the connections he facilitates among them — “these people you know are like gold,” I hear him saying, “only where you find them.” All of these associations convene, “commune,” under the roof of the host — from L. hospes (meaning both “host” and “guest”) and L. hostis (meaning “army,” in the sense here of containing multitudes). Ken is a consummate host, and the lessons he’s shared have considerable half-lives, if that makes any sense. Having moved away, I find them returning with greater intensity.

CC: Writing — to which Ken’s dedication is total, writing as sustenance — as subordinate to a higher task of keeping company (thinking of Creeley’s etymology com + pānis plus eucharistic idea of “host” as bread), the daybooks a form of communion with the day, the weather, the place, the flora and fauna, and the reading is a form of company with the like-minded, like-in-spirit.

Apropos of food and hospitality: Ken’s delight with the name and concept of “gravlax.” His anecdote of the first time — was this in Berkeley — that he bought (almost accidentally, and at an incredible bargain) a case of “good” wine. 

KW: I think of his delight in the exaggerated mispronunciation of “feesh” (for “fish) and other signature cooking remarks — like his preference for letting a soup or sauce “muse on itself.” Ken is a superb cook, though I’ve never seen him look at a recipe or measure out anything in the kitchen.

CC: Catfish baked in the oven under a thick sprinkling of anise, oregano, and thyme, arborio rice flavored with drippings from the feesh, half an avocado with olive oil and balsamic vinegar pooled in the pit concavity, often asparagus or roasted red pepper … Divine sweet potato baked to deliquescence in foil, split, buttered, with parsley.

and now remember here: interior with a Norfolk Island pine as Christmas tree, until


 and through it a garden in the wall where two figures suspended are confronted by an

               angel whose back is to us

 or is it at the balcony door where the curtains moiré the last sunlight of the year, and still,

               and away

 the chalk, the little chalk, the oil, the wax of the little chalk

 is cray the crayfish cray?

 but that’s a mistaking out of OE crevise, OF crevice, OHG krebiz: edible crustacean

made to crayfish, crayfeesh, and craw- and -dad

but gerbh- and scratch and crab and crawl and graffiti and diagram and draw

and all[26]

KW: Succulent pork chops with the same herb sprinkling glazed with soy sauce and honey, blackened scallops, olive oil over everything, fresh mango slices on vanilla ice cream swimming in cognac for dessert. Not a gin drinker myself, I can’t speak to what Patrick Doud calls “the shimmer of Ken’s special gin apertif,” but you enjoyed the drink, once upon a time.[27]

CC: What I remember above all about the drink was the viscosity of the cold gin. It doesn’t seem that the drink had anything in it other than gin (straight from the freezer, and the condensation froze white on the Sapphire bottle), lemon zest, and assorted olives. Ken introduced me to the oil-cured “Moroccan” olive, for example, and to the large green “Sicilian” and bright green “Castelvetrano.” The aperitif almost always contained a very small olive that seemed mostly pit — maybe that was an Arbequina. I drank so fast at Ken’s, that only the speed of my drinking could subdue the shame of my manners. I don’t know if it was that I had something to prove, or that I was taking out some unnameable aggression.

Yet anyone, however unlettered, would be welcome at Ken’s table.

KW: True, I don’t think lettered and unlettered are categories Ken’s hospitality recognizes. I guess the important thing for Ken is that one pays attention to how one goes about doing whatever it is one does. “Process is soul,” as the man “sd.”[28]

CC: That seems right. What Ken seems to admire in a person is the faculty of taking an interest. And his conversation is characterized by singularly intense interest, attentiveness. One visible way his truly astonishing learning serves him is that it allows him to take active interest in his interlocutor, whether he/she’s a trucker or flautist or hydrologist or itinerant schizophrenic. But there are whole tracts of Ken’s learning that are obscure to us. I don’t mean literature we haven’t read — I mean whole fields.

KW: Like the travel journals of sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, or Scotch Heredom.


Dr Dee stood at the edge of Governor Winthrop’s Chinese garden, gauging the descent, catching sight through the rhododendrons of the rain-swollen stream

                                                                                                                                Here, he said to his

host, I am in intimate contact with that Far Ancient East which has been heretofore only a

matter of venerable report to me—among these exotic shrubberies, the traceries of these

paths afford us insight of the flow—this, I take to be patterned exact fixation of those

features, what one master of such lore once termed to me, fungh-shwaye, or water-winde,

which pierces the earth, and attracts from the heavens the mute attendant spirits to in-


             So he spoke, stopped at the pond’s edge, leaning out over the water ...[29]

Ken is a spirit of the threshold. He has guided us over many of them, and, as you say, it takes a long time for some of the lessons to accomplish this. Is there a corresponding sense in which Ken’s poems and his persona alike are hermetic, closed, remote, inaccessible? His connection to the source of the poems seems more mysterious than that of other poets.

KW: I’m not sure, maybe. For example, in his preface to Movements/Sequences, Ken writes: “Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain.”

Interesting that we’ve come back to the heap of stones on Ken’s table that we started with — that is, “hermetic” = Hermes = herma (Gr. “heap of stones”).

CC: But a sense in which the poems might be intended never to commune with another sensibility. Surely undecidability is part of all bodies of work, but I see that as a different thing from the cryptic — I guess I’m asking if Ken’s poems also do some work of encryption that other poems, other oeuvres do not.

KW: I read, in the distance they aesthetically, syntactically and intellectually construct, a form of Eros, and, as such, a gift — an open-ended Whitmanian proposal entreating the reader to collaborate in bridging that gap. I find the poems instructive in this sense, but not didactic. Both Gerrit Lansing and Jed Rasula have made this last point before me, or one close to it.

CC: All items in the richness of his routines — in them, the work emits a special sense of company, even its recondite elements, even if they remain obscure, some are insistently so, they grow personal, demonstratively familiar.

CC: I would like to hear an account of how Ken mediated your deep and abiding interest in Dorn. Surely Ken introduced you to his work? Dorn would be a good example, in your case, of the effect of Ken’s teaching. You wrote a 600pp master’s thesis on Dorn. The process put you in touch with many other writers and scholars, I mean intimate touch, connected to Dorn.

Would the Dorn project — all of it — have started for you at Ken’s table?

KW: Probably, but it’s hard to determine where a 600pp master’s thesis entitled News from Now/Here started. Somewhere in Call Steps Ken writes: “study is the gate of justice.”[30] Ken illumined a path that gave me, as he said of the project, “a way in.” I learned a great deal at Ken’s table, mostly because Ken is an extraordinarily patient teacher. The process of my thesis project (and what it’s led to) is, most of all, an example of how Ken brings his students to a cognizance of what is, in front of and around them; he shows us a way to deal with that, whatever that happens to be. The lesson is portable.

CC: I’m curious about how Dorn figures in Ken’s conversation. It’s hard for me to understand why Dorn or Dorn’s work (on which I am no expert, and forgive me for putting it in these terms) should mean so much to Ken (whereas the meaning of Duncan and Creeley — Duncan’s spiritualism and Creeley’s mindfulness — seem essential to Ken’s work and presence).

KW: That’s a tough question for me to answer. I think Dorn was the only poet addressing the Poundian all-times-are-contemporaneous complex of the North American continent in a way that Ken felt it should be addressed, or maybe simply in the way that Ken felt it. Neither Duncan nor Creeley really offer a way to incorporate the kind of historical information that Dorn’s early, lyrical and elegiac narrative poems about Meriwether Lewis, or John Ledyard, gracefully animate. The lean, barbed, intermittently tender lyricism of Dorn’s first few books, in addition to his “Elizabethan” ear, clearly spoke to Ken, and Ken’s earlier poems frequently borrow from, and/or respond to, Dorn. They both hail from the same time zone too—the nation’s slowly deserted and desiccated agricultural core, where you and I also come from.

CC: So it goes without saying that we really became Ken’s students in his apartment.

KW: That seems right. There was his basement office in Wescoe Hall, too — the decommissioned parking garage into which KU has cast their Humanities — with Coleman Hawkins or Debussy trickling into the hall. It was a kind of gateway, a portal to a richer life.

CC: Limen.

KW: One of the first times I visited Ken’s office he asked if I’d read Mary Butts. Then he proceeded to read “Friendship’s Garland” aloud. In retrospect, the intense generosity of that spontaneous gesture spoke louder than the text. At the time I remember thinking I should have something interesting to say about the story, but was preoccupied with a dread at my own banality. I guess I was intimidated by Ken’s erudition, but in the larger struggle that that led me to — the struggle to take my interest in literature and the arts seriously, which was the struggle to take myself seriously — Ken’s deeply sympathetic wisdom made all the difference. He didn’t care that I hadn’t read the Butts, the point was to share it, to offer his time as a form of trust and gracious encouragement to his students. A few years after the Butts story, more than a decade ago now, Ken casually reminded me one evening: “The greatest mystery you will ever be involved with is yourself.” That affirmation, which again emphasized the value in paying attention to what I was doing, rather than what hadn’t yet “done,” is among the most useful things I’ve learned from Ken — or anyone. Did you have similar anxieties? And how did Ken influence your artistic development?

CC: I didn’t want him — still don’t — to find out how little I had read. I remember when he asked me if I had read Sarah Orne Jewett, whose “The White Heron” is (thanks to Ken) among my favorite short stories. “White Heron” is where I encountered the name “Sylvy.”

KW: Your daughter’s name. Wow! And that Jewett story speaks specifically to the virtues that characterize Cyrus Console. It shows Ken’s perspicacity that he knew to recommend it to you. This was around the same time — 1998? — when you and I first met, in what we then spoke of as “Irby’s” class, though we’ve been referring to him as “Ken” in this discussion. Had you read any of his books before you took his classes?

CC: I knew him first as my teacher, though, being in the class you mention, I probably went to look at his work in the KU library at about the same time. For me, coming to know the work and coming to think of him as a friend are part of the same process, one that must have begun officially when we continued to interact after that semester’s end. And “Ken” is the name of the friend, and the name that feels natural to this discussion, though “Irby” is how we have traditionally referred to him in the third person, probably an artifact of our having been nineteen years old. The dilemma is evidence of how large his presence is, how often his name comes up, how many times we have had occasion to say “Irby showed me this Odilon Redon catalogue ...”  “Irby played me this Dagar Brothers CD ...”  “Irby has these Thorpe Feidt paintings ...” “Did you hear Irby’s Lord Buckley record ...”  “Remember how Irby met Neal Cassady? ..”

And he played music just as he declaimed Mary Butts — whole cloth, no apologies — and it would have been a real faux pas to treat it as “background music.”

KW: True. That makes me think of Ken’s story about meeting Borges, (through his brother, James) in a bar, and how Borges scolded someone who interrupted their conversation: “Silence! We speak of poetry, all else is darkness!” To neglect the music Ken offers would be more than a “faux pas” really, it would be a diminishment of the spirit of sharing on which friendship is founded for Ken; it would be “crapmusic,” musickracket. By the way, I can’t help but hear that Borges quote in Ken’s Robert Duncan voice, which is the voice of nearly everyone he imitates. Borges, Charles Laughton, Billie Holiday — they all sound like Duncan. And Ken’s version of Duncan sounds vaguely like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.  

CC: It should be recorded that for these and perhaps other purposes Ken has a “Duncan voice.” But he also has the “hepcat” voice.

KW: True. I hear his hepcat voice from Lord Buckley’s “Jonah in the Belly of a Whale”: [sucking in a long drag] “What d‘you say fish?”

CC: I was going to say “The Nazz”.

KW: Ken’s wealth of experience, to which he has seemingly unrestricted access through storytelling, and his knowledge of the world out there — the natural world, say, not merely the literary anyway — are astounding. He’s capable of mobilizing all of these different knowledges in his teaching. Then there’s the “news” straight from the mailbox that he shares with his classes, no matter the subject of the course — letters from his brother, or Duncan McNaughton, or the catalogue for a Jess show, whatever. “Interdisciplinary” barely scratches the surface of Ken’s approach to teaching.

CC: I am thinking about all the times I rode my bicycle home from his apartment west of campus — I would cross the neighborhood where the professors lived (The Dept. of English, inscrutably, did not promote Ken from “Lecturer” until late in his teaching there) and then fly down the hill into the student ghetto, as it was called — and the buzzing of my mind, whether I have felt so excited before or since about poetry and the intellectual life of which poetry seemed the sublimest fruit.

The first image I have of Ken, I think I’ve got it now, he is in front of the poetry workshop, he’s mentioned Kerouac (and doubtless Creeley and Duncan and Olson, whose names would have been ciphers to me at the time) and now he mentions that in the middle of his graduate study at Harvard (Eastern Studies), he “came into possession of a large quantity of a certain ... substance.” And thereafter dropped out. And at that moment I felt I had discovered a real teacher. And I didn’t know this at the time but I would take leaves of absence from every degree program in which I ever enrolled, thinking at the time I was through for good — and each of these leaves involved large quantities etc. So in that moment when Ken — he would have started the first class by saying “I am here in my capacity as a poet, though my formal training is in … and Eastern Studies” — and then within a few minutes, after cataloguing some of the people important to his becoming a poet, he’s telling this story of dropping out — and suddenly — here is the point of what I’m trying to say — I saw someone like me, who was like me in some deep and abiding way — and this person had found a way to live. I saw a window to this dream, and that meeting gave me confidence to, you know, dedicate my life to reading and writing.

KW: That’s beautifully stated. My academic career has similar gaps, during the BA and the MA, and before the PhD, which I’m still working toward. I now attend the Graduate Center, CUNY, where I work with (among others) Ammiel Alcalay, who also considers his having dropped out of college as a valuable and formative experience. It’s funny that the first thing we’re looking for in a teacher is how they’ve denied or abandoned formal education.

CC: Funny but very true somehow. Ken is our teacher because no one else we encountered shared our particular alienation — from formal education and from the American Dream —

they kept asking, but what do yall do? o God, I said, I’ve tried everything, and
never any luck[31]

— and Ken’s table, because extramural, is a figure for that alienation.

KW: Alienation really brought us together.

I have one more question for you, Cy. You were, without question (as Ken himself has said), the most accomplished writer in our undergraduate classes, and the first real poet I met who was my own age. I very much admired your poem about the mob of emus you didn’t see on I-70, and your “Keyboard Partita” and “Destruction of Woods” that Lee Chapman published in First Intensity, a magazine Ken introduced us to.[32] That’s also where I first read Ben Lerner. In any case, if Ken demonstrated that it were possible for you to pursue the life you’ve now realized as an artist, can you talk about how his teaching, or his writing, or his take on your adolescent form of alienation, contributed to the particular shape that life has taken? or how it shaped the specific concerns of the work that life has produced? 

CC: I met you and Ken both about the time of transition from childhood/adolescence (which I regard effectively as having been lived by another person) into adulthood, the sentient part of my life, one dominating affect of which has been, for good or ill,  “this isn’t quite right; I didn’t sign up for this.” I don’t know how articulate or detailed this sense was at the time of the poems you mention, but it was the sense of this not being what I signed up for, of realizing there never was a sign-up sheet anywhere — I mean, it was out of that inarticulate feeling that the poems you mention arose. And Ken’s teaching on this point is deep. You say “The hell is this?” and he says yes “but what do you do with it?”

if I can be the young man who went with that expedition long before I ever knew him

and was their navigator with as much certainty as his own life was not

if only for one long evening finding him lifting himself to be someone more

haven’t I kept that yearning since before I was born and his[33]

Cyrus Console and Kyle Waugh
Kansas City–Brooklyn, July 2012

Cyrus Console and Kenneth Irby, Lawrence, KS, August 2012 (photo by C. Console).

Kenneth Irby and Kyle Waugh, Gloucester, MA, July 2012 (photo by J. Zammuto).



1. Carl Ortwin Sauer, “The Morphology of Landscape,” Land & Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 315–50.

2. Kenneth Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006, eds. Kyle Waugh & Cyrus Console (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 335.

3. Irby, The Intent On, 94.

4. William Lilly, quoted in ibid., 320.

5. Ibid., 632–33.

6. Ibid., 177; 184; 46.

7. Ibid., 660.

8. Ibid., 183.

9. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 13 January 1966, Folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs, Connecticut.

10. Jed Rasula, “On Ken Irby,” Credences 7 (1979), 40–55.

11. Irby, The Intent On, 259.

12. Ibid., 659.

13. Ibid., 633.

14. Ibid., 665.

15. Ibid., 94.

16. Ibid., 550–51.

17. Ronald Johnson, “BEAM 24,” ARK: The Foundations: 1–33 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1980), unpaginated.

18. Ben Lerner, “For Jimmy Sprig,” First Intensity 16 (Winter 2001), 120.

19. Robert Creeley, “A Note for Ken Irby,” Vort 3 (Summer 1973), 77–78.

20. Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, ed. George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 18.

21. Irby, The Intent On, 670.

22. See Hejinian’s essay, “‘We might say poetry’,” in this same Jacket 2 special feature.

23. Lyn Hejinian, The Fatalist (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2003), 83.

24. Irby, The Intent On, 669.

25. Amiri Baraka, “An Explanation of the Work,” in Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-67 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).

26. Irby, The Intent On, 586.

27. Patrick Doud, “Invoice,” First Intensity 16 (Winter 2001), 69.

28. Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, eds. Donald Allen & Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 305.

29. Irby, The Intent On, 331–32.

30. Ibid., 469.

31. Ibid., 458.

32. Cyrus Console, “The Emus,” Skunky Possum 4 (Spring 2000), 86–88; ---, “Keyboard Partita No. 1,” First Intensity 14 (Spring 2000), 111–115.

33. Irby, The Intent On, 578.

[On Ken Irby]

Kenneth Irby reading in his study.

I have had the peculiar luck of never actually taking a class taught by Ken Irby. In my final semester of undergraduate study, I felt I needed some individual guidance to balance the terrifying prospect of my first graduate-level workshop. I needn’t have worried on that account, but fortune brought us together nevertheless — he as an independent study arbiter, myself as a weekly visitor with maybe an extra page to show for my efforts. That’s how we formally met, but it’s not where I first heard of Irby. That would have been through Cyrus Console and (indirectly) Ben Lerner. These being two fellows whose work I continue to admire immensely, and whose attentions to the man gave me a mental construct before I ever set eyes on him. I vividly remember Cyrus reading a few of his “rainbow acrostics at a hastily arranged reading in one of Solidarity’s bookstores in Lawrence. His work is definitely a poetic landmark for me, so his mention of Ken in passing did not escape my notice. This was reinforced a few months later at an art/music/writing exhibit in Topeka (yes, they have those), at which I happened to browse through a copy of No edited by Ben Lerner. Here was another fresh poetic hero of mine, another Kansan singing his praise and — importantly — dedicating a generous portion of that particular issue to the work itself. I admit that I don’t recall anything else about the night, having read through a good deal of the performance, completely oblivious. I was overwhelmed in a way that reminded me of the first time I tried to listen to Ornette Coleman; this accomplished actual thought on page, disciplined and un-equally there. It was hard for me the way sound and proximity carried the stakes (presumed to carry the stakes, I took it, wrongly). So I had a good deal to think about, and needed to, before walking into his office. It sweated books, migratory piles of them. I always seemed to catch him a bit off guard — but no matter, I would sit and wait for whatever came. Usually music, usually jazz. He helped me come to terms with that, too, come to think of it. And he was just as likely to be playing indigenous Peruvian chants as the Kronos Quartet; he gave all of his attention to the sound, easily swapping genres depending on the mood. There were times we didn’t get down to poetry at all because we just chatted through the allotted time. He had the professorial streak, to be sure. If he wasn’t dredging up an esoteric quote from memory, he would string a thought together from an amalgam of photographs, anecdotes, even knick-knacks he had lying about. Amiri Baraka, Robert Duncan (first I had ever hear of him), and of course Charles Olson. His casual familiarity with the terms of American Poetics — resources, personalities, contingencies, genius — astounded me. I was cowed most of the time, and usually curse my younger self for handing him such indulgent garbage, but then he had such discernment. He never gave me a program and the attentions he paid to my work were of a different lens entirely. The man looked at things better, harder, odder. He could point out the blueprint, giving me the impression that a viable poetic direction might be blueprinting as-is. Here again, the action of thought depicted. Where I wanted to make a metaphysical cardhouse, I learned from Irby to take into account the situational aspects of cardhouse-making. The way to accomplish this came clear with further reading: sound cues, the irresistible conveyance of the turn-of-phrase, or vowel coloration, or what have you. Take this example, from Etudes:

call snown draw              cold moon sawm

comb new leaver lean

so shadows dough

I will always be grateful for his guidance in word-smelting. The whole prospect is thrilling — its inherent draw demonstrated for posterity in Irby’s oeuvre. I would teach it even if this were the only reason.

Into friendship and poetry with Kenneth Irby

I’m on the phone with Ken Irby. He’s watching Cat People on TV. He’s narrating bits of the picture:

A Siamese cat has just come out of a box. It doesn’t like her, you see, because she is a cat person.

I search Cat People on the Internet to get a visual. Buried among the millions of YouTube cute cat videos, Jane Randolph swims alone in a hotel pool. Shadows move in catlike shapes above her. A loud purring is heard. Randolph screams. Help arrives. She discovers her robe has been clawed “to ribbons.” She begins to sense all is not as it seems.

I’ve called Ken, because I have to write this article.

I want to write about you, I say, but it keeps getting personal. I can’t write anything academic here.

How can it not be personal? he says. How can anything you write not be personal? I keep telling my students that, and they don’t hear that very much, it seems.

I want to write about how he read his students’ poetry with genuine respect. He didn’t question our aesthetic or give any credence to our self-doubts. He trusted us. He listened to the work and attended it with generosity. Often, he would just urge us to do more of whatever we were doing: writing, painting, or lucid dreaming.

I want to write about having dinner at Ken’s apartment in a blizzard. It must have been ten years ago. I was visiting family in Kansas and I’d borrowed my mom’s car and spun it out into a snowy ditch on Highway 10, the two-lane highway that connects Lawrence to Kansas City.

The tires were buried in soft snow. It was evening. The sky was darkening. No cell phone. Nothing to do but try to dig out around the tires and shove cardboard under them to give them traction. All I had to dig with was a plastic CD case. So, I’m digging in this dark snowy ditch for twenty minutes and a tow truck comes out of nowhere. This friendly tow-truck driver tows me out for free. He wouldn’t take any money, which was a good thing, because I didn’t have any.

I get to Ken’s apartment, probably two hours late. He was worried. The TV played some PBS dance special with the sound off. The food was kept warm in the oven. I sat on the old brocade settee that was his mother’s. The tree that’s been growing in his living room for decades welcomed me. And, behind it, the paintings by Thorpe. Out the balcony window, snow billowed. He brought me a dry pair of socks and a glass of calvados. We talked for hours about friends and family, poetry, painting, and music.

I left long after midnight. The snow had stopped and the streets were plowed. Standing by my mother’s car for a moment, I looked up at the clear, cold Kansas night sky, expansive and silent. My heart burned with love for life.

I felt deeply reassured, in spite of the desolate drive back to Kansas City in the dark, to the old home place with inquisition pope prints and a life-size crown of thorns by the door, reassured that whatever it is I am doing with my life, it has meaning. Reassurance borne from Ken’s generous hospitality: dear friend and ally.

I remember Ken telling me once, There’s never any harm in knowing what you are doing; the more you know what you are doing, the more you can do whatever it is you intend to do.

I think that advice has stayed with me, because now it’s so helpful. What am I doing? I ask myself this all the time in my work. It helps. I try to ask fearlessly. What am I doing? I ask and then take notes.

Ken loves dreams. I love dreams. We talk about dreams: what they are and where they come from. Once, Ken had a student who was always extremely late to class so that finally Ken asked him why and the student apologized and said, I’m sorry, professor, I want to come to class, but I keep having the most interesting dreams, so that I just can’t wake up.

I learned from Ken that I was my own key. This information actively contradicted much that I was being taught at the time. I was to make my work, through awareness and dream, observation and research, and through paying attention to EVERYTHING.

Ken helped me recognize that desire, actually, was enough of a reason to want to write and that making work was all I needed to do to feel satisfied.


When I was nineteen, I met Ken and wasn’t taking my work seriously at all.

Larry Eigner had died and there was a memorial reading at a bookstore in downtown Lawrence. I’d come across Eigner’s work, because I was an assistant at KU’s archive. I loved his use of the page and that he wrote about squirrels.

Six people showed up to that reading: Ken Irby, Judy Roitmen, John Moritz, Wayne Props, Lee Chapman, and me. I was the audience. So what happened was a conversation that was a crash course in poetics. Moritz read Eigner’s work from Hall’s New American Poetry anthology, Roitman talked about Leslie Scalapino’s Way, and Ken talked about Eigner. I realized that I’d found the conversation I’d been looking for; only, I hadn’t known I was looking. (It was so Dorothy.)


As an adjunct lecturer at KU, Ken was relegated to teaching beginning composition courses. He wasn’t allowed to teach any upper level undergrad courses, graduate seminars, or independent study courses. This was a strange situation for those of us who wanted to study with him. I couldn’t study poetry with Ken without a weird bureaucratic scenario involving a faculty member agreeing to oversee the independent study. It was odd.

Why do you want to study with him, one professor scoffed. His poetry doesn’t make any sense!

(This was before a letter writing campaign and department-wide vote secured Ken a tenure-track position, when he was in his fifties and the author of more than twenty books.)

In spite of the red tape, a tenured faculty member allowed me to take an independent study with Ken. Every Friday we had a four-hour conversation. My brain burns just thinking about it. We read and discussed poets and works that to this day remain tremendously important to me, including Gertrude Stein, H.D., Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan. What was so particularly helpful about those conversations is that they really were conversations. There was no set “objective.” We would talk and, wherever the conversation went, that’s where it went. If something came up, such as “scrying,” we would talk about it without any particular goal. What evolved from that, I think, for me, was an appreciation for the expansiveness of writing. That anything and everything goes into poetry. That poetry is reality. That nothing is excluded from poetry, not even “nothing.”

Readers of Ken’s work will notice this expansiveness. That web of connectivity — what could be called love — remarks on the structure of the universe itself, what also could be called love. If love is the activity of connecting one to an/other, thereby dissolving the subject/object confusion, then the drawing of connections via poetry is also love. And so, I would argue that Ken Irby writes love poetry.


Ken asks about “the West” and I tell him about the Occupy movement, which has been so much in the foreground this past week, what with the cops tearing down the Occupy Oakland tents and destroying encampments. We talk about the subsequent marches that resulted in dozens of arrests, injuries, and the hospitalization of Scott Olsen.

There’s an Occupy Lawrence, he says. They’ve set up tents in South Park. Police brutality is nothing new in Oakland. Rexroth used to say that whenever he went to Oakland, he always felt like he needed to show the police a passport.

Then he launches into a story about when he first moved out to Berkeley and how Robert Duncan loaned him a manuscript of The H.D. Book and Ken somehow ended up reading it in Golden Gate Park. I wonder where he read it? Hippie Hill? Stow Lake? And I think about those days when I was nineteen, sitting in his office for hours talking about Andrew Lang’s scrying or Maria Callas or, just, anything! And, that when I think about what a mentor is “supposed” to do, it’s teaching what it means to live a good life, a life full of love. And, what’s amazing about Ken Irby, is he does just that.

October 2011

October 21, 1964

After all every one is as their                                              1519 48th Ave
land is                                                                                San Francisco 22
— G. Stein[1]                                                         21 Oct 64[2]

Ed —
             Thanks for yr card, esp. a Patchen one (its against the wall now where I can see it).
god knows where one goes finally — only finally goes — & I’m here, the fall mov’t west finally, even to living here (48th Ave), to hell & gone out west almost to the ocean, near nothing of the city, except that sea, & Golden Gate Park, just north of me (but then, those are of the real importance to me, not N. Beach or that area, scene, whatever). From here, where does one go? Having come here, I keep wondering (or at times, not “keep”) where that country, of Kansas most, I came from, is in all this mov’t now. Well, don’t we always. I met Don Allen the other day — he wants to use that photo of Olson I took, for the dust jacket of Human Universe[3] — & he said something abt a lot of people cracking up here — that, literally, it came to seem there was no place to go, once here. Jim Clyman[4] went back east, over the Sierras & then to (Ohio was it?) home, way east, in 1846 — but it isn’t an easy mov’t — I can go north (after all, to come to SF from Albuq isn’t finally a simple westward move — only so far as Los Angeles, & up to LA it’s as if the muscles moved w/o thought, toward the sunset — but from LA to SF, north, takes an effort of the will, a decision of the intellect (?) — & one wonders the why of that move, but not of the one to LA, as a direction), but to go back to the midwest now, no, or not at all easily. Oh well. I begin to feel, for real, at last, as a physical, palpable thing, the motion of the currents of this continent, ours — & do they, circling clockwise, west, to north, to east, to south, to west again, center, go down in a whirlpool, in Kansas finally? or never touch center, go round & round? idle conjectures. But I feel the mov’ts, as if an undertow under me.
                                                                                                                                               The ocean
fascinates & repels me, as it must always to someone from the plains. Calm? one knows across the plains, & cannot come to, w/ the sea, its endless restlessness (not at all the same as grass moving —). But fascinating, yes, & now, for the first time in my life really living near the ocean (in Cambridge it was miles away), worth coming to. It, and these hills of California, that are like no other landscape of the U.S. — bare but for the yellow grass & scattered few trees, rounded & steep. Why do they haunt?

Oh well. Its like coming to know a woman — not just the sleeping together, but the long contact day to day, intimacy, unconscious knowing of all habits, conscious knowing of them … that kind of knowing, not some silly symbol “the land is a woman” etc etc. Only recollections in the flesh, of how it’s lived before.
                                So I come, too, to total despair — & that’s been coming on a long time — the job in Albq held off — & now, free all day & night (as long as my little saved holds out), & knowing no one here but one friend out of the Army, come up straight against it — quiet & dull, the slough of Despair Despond did Bunyan[5] call it?, but mostly dull, inactivity, paralysis. In & out of, mostly lonely one figures. W/ all the work in the world to do, I can’t do anything — the Zukofsky book,[6] book reviews, an article, a prose thing on the Army, poems, wow. Slowly things crack — tonight (viz., this letter as evidence) coming out, maybe drinking quantities of strong black coffee — a cheap high, one I used to use broke in the Army — or the pitch reached re-reading War & Peace, listening to Bach’s B minor Mass & now the St. M. Passion  
                                                                   anyhoo! up & out — (of myself, toward at least the street outside & the beach & most of all G G Park)
                                                                                 So, wow, there are the mov’ts now. Vegetating mostly — soon maybe move to show.
                                                    The prose concern has been w/ me a long time — & now, feeling hung on what I was/wasn’t doing every time I tried to write a poem, its been a way to let loose, not care, do what the hell I like. I started describing coming to Albq in the Army, I went off for 5 pages describing the Army barracks, in detail. No one’s done that — that information, I mean — & the try at least stays with me. Only Jones has written anything abt the Army worth a damn (not war, you dig, but the life, way of it, in the Army). I don’t yet feel where the focus is in what I’m doing — where going? More what seems important to talk abt, include? It isn’t a “story” I’m telling — & yet recounts incidents — a form finally set only by the time involved — I went in 4 Aug 60 & got out 3 Aug 62. Where I move & how, w/in that, is my own predilection. It all happened. I’ve never read more than 10 pages of Proust, so I don’t know what he did. I’m not, whatever it was. Gertrude Stein, by god, seems closer to me than that — Bob’s stories & yr own — in that 1) they deal of the emotional instance(s) personal; 2) let themselves happen as they go, that form. (Again, no plotted “story”). Though if I wrote a novel I wdn’t do it like Bob’s (& I haven’t read more’n’ a chapter of yrs, so can’t say). But what I’m writing isn’t a novel, or not so simply? Damned if I know what it is. But goes. Very baldly (not badly), description mostly. 1st person w/ asides, senses of what happened, & the facts of the instances given pretty much in skeletal outline. Ah, lordy.
                                                                 I even plan to read James, yet, next (starting w/ darkest James, The Golden Bowl). What did you come to, reading him & then teaching that class? I’d like to know — I’ve avoided him except for a few stories, & they a long time ago — but it comes finally that he was American, his concerns & perceptions — & he was no fool, god knows. It’s always seemed to me his focus was totally on what I guess I’d call propriety — & that seemed to me finally only so deep, no matter how adroit you were in according all its angles, shades. I’m ready to. Last night I found EP’s article on James in the Literary Essays & read it w/ a good deal of interest. & I know Stein drew from him a lot. So I’m green, god knows. Wd like to know what you found.
                                                                                                                                             God, there is so much to do, if I only cd get my ass in gear, as they used to say. Energy simply — I want, or have wanted a long time, to do a study of the town I grew up in, as a place to focus on & draw in whatever, historically, 0f that whole area. Not a year by year acc’t, you dig, but a reckoning w/ what that town is, was, why, where, how, its mov’t. Literal reality of it — photographers (as I use in writing of the Army drawings, diagrams, sketches: of barracks, rooms where Inscription Rock is, etc). What wd one have, w/ all that (I mean really I guess, what the hell of me wd emerge — calculated or not, there) —

Malin has already written several articles on early theatrical entertainments in Ft Scott, & on several philosophers — two — who lived there — amateurs, of course, but significant of what was concerning people there, in that place, state, area, at that time (1870’s). Malin being very keen on such sense. Barbed wire, plays, grass, social darwinism, the railroad, why the library seems the center of town. The presence to me, w/ me, of that town is not at all (or that’s another thing altogether) bound up w/ the people, individuals I know, knew, there — but w/ its corporeal presence, as a body. & it isn’t WCW; “a city is a man,”[7] god knows, no. It’s extremely particular, houses, streets, smells, light, weeds, where vacant lots are (were, still are), where streets go when they run out of town, hills — all, on & on. The people change, or don’t — individuals come & go anyway — & a sense of that place, yes, means something as tangible in the town’s whole presence, as buildings. But I don’t feel any Spoon River Anth. or midwest Peyton Place acc’t (or Look Homeward, A.).[8] Me, except as relator, omnipresent then, don’t count. I don’t know that I cd ever summon to that acc’t the objectivity of resources & all history Olson does to Gloucester or anything now he turns to. I mean, a sense of my reactions to, evaluations of, perceptions of the place, wd always be on past specifics of history — always? I mean that the whole idea as it now is, is perception, & the reality of the bldgs, etc, not to illustrate or investigate some mov’t of human history — ?? The emotional, I’m hung on? God knows. It wd have to come out in the work of it, I can’t fore-guess now. God knows I’ve got to come to a pt where Olson doesn’t freeze me up in awe & frustration to ever do anything he hasn’t already seen, understood, & done long before — i.e. feel I’m w/ him, not down below & no where — & not against, who’s competing?
                                 Anyhoo. Enough of all this. How are you all there? Snow yet? All seasons blend here, but still the angle of the light is Fall, clearly. Is Idaho Out out yet? & that Wagnon,[9] in SLC, how’s he? I wrote twice, & asked for WD 10,[10] which I’ve seen, but no answer yet. Clammed up, pissed off, cracked, or busy? What’s become of that anthology on the West — god I cd ask questions all night, & that’s dull. / I liked yr various views from the N. side grocery in MATTER 2[11] (this is 1st I’ve had chance to say), only felt a generalizing in 6 I hadn’t before in others? Or am I full of shit? The lines’ mov’t is fine; very very fine — I admire so much that long sinuously, more adroit here than even The Newly Fallen. Yas. Damn, the moon’s near nigh full & it’s close on to Halloween — I’ll have to go & scare somebody. Barricade myself in w/ enough to drink, against the marauding kids that’ll come. Or turn on & laugh. Anyhow, write, when you can! One longs, almost, for that frost you must have already had up there — breath of it on envelopes, at least. Hang loose!


 — Ken

P.S. Peyote can be had by mail — maybe you already have the info, but if not — 100 buttons for $11 (ask for it cured & they’ll send it so w/o charge)! /

H. C. Lawson
Lawson’s Cactus Farm
1223 S. Alamo St.
San Antonio, Texas

 Abt 5 buttons — ground & put in capsules is easiest — seems a “normal” high.



1. Stein quote from Wars I Have Seen (New York: Random House, 1945), 250. Stein mentions Kansas on the previous page.

2. Irby to Dorn, 21 October 1964, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

3. Olson, Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Don Allen (New York: Grove Press, 1967). The photograph now appears on the cover of Olson’s Collected Prose, ed. Don Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

4. James Clyman (1792–1881), ranger and explorer of the American West, explored the South Pass with Jedediah Smith, about whom Irby wrote a lengthy half-narrative poem, “Jed Smith and the Way,” which originally appeared in Caterpillar 17 (October 1971): 99–112, and was later collected in Catalpa (Lawrence: Tansy Press, 1977). Clyman went back to Ohio, as Irby recalls, after his missions out West, but thereafter returned to settle in Napa, California.

5. John Bunyan (1828–1888); the “Slough of Despond,” is a bog in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

6. For a period of time, Irby planned to write a book on Zukofsky for the Twayne’s US Authors Series.

7. Williams’s author’s note to Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1946) begins: “Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”

8. Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1915); Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (New York: Julian Messner, 1956); Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel (New York: Scribner, 1929).

9. Drew Wagnon, coeditor of Wild Dog, beginning with vol. 1, no. 3, in 1963, until the magazine’s final issue, vol. 3, no. 21, in 1966. Wagnon was a student of Dorn’s at Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho. For further info, see Clay and Phillips, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side.

10. Wild Dog 10; see endnote 11 (“April 30, 1963”).

11. Dorn’s poem “Six views from the same window of the Northside Grocery” appeared in Matter 2 (1964), and was collected in Geography (London: Fulcrum Press, 1965/1968).

January 16, 1963

16 Jan 63[1]

Your unexpected & very welcome letter got to me this morning, forwarded from NY — I want to get some sort of answer off to you right away, but there won’t be as much as I’d like to go into, with final exams breathing down my neck in abt 2 days & more to do than I want to even admit to myself. So, well, anyway — it is good to hear from you — god, I intended more than once during the more than year it’s been since I saw you last, to write — but first the army,[2] which ended up sending me to the Pacific on the atom tests for abt 4 months last spring & summer,[3] then this place have contrived to keep me from doing much of anything but drudgery — I seriously doubt I can hold out here past this year & god knows why I should really, but we’ll see what happens; for whatever, I’m just not an academic type & can’t be even enough to go through the motions here. Anyway, I have thought many times to write you, but like writing to Olson,[4] such a letter is not one I wanted to dash off without thinking a lot first abt what I wd say — the care, at any rate, the concern such a letter would mean — you know what I mean. So anyway, enough of apologies.

I’m glad Jones liked what I sent him — they look less impressive to me the more I reread them, but then, yeah — he asked me to send him some more, which I did — he said he wanted to use them for the April issue, if he can get it out.[5] It was a great thing for me, anyway — I mean, a tangible support at a time when it was needed. & just the week before the New Mex Quarterly took one poem too — so, wow, all at once a breakthrough.[6] I feel, I know there is so much work for me to do just as a beginning really, in order to ever write any even one thing worth a damn, that to stay here much longer seems impossible — all my energy going into learning Japanese & Chinese & the history — when I don’t have the real knack for language nor even the beginnings of the historical insight necessary to produce a great work (& god knows there needs to be one on China, yes). Anyway, though, not to go on abt this. The point is my increasing commitment to writing, that Harvard, nor any such place, can’t foster (or prevent). Clearly. But the commitment is there, for better or worse. I’ve got so fucking much to learn.

So — the Malin[7] books.[8] The name & address you’ve got is the man alright — his books are several, & for the most part only available from him. […] [T]he major book, I guess, the one I find I keep looking over & over again & again is called The Grasslands of North America,[9] which amounts to a commentary on all — scientific & historical — that has been written on the great plains as geographical area — from explorations to ecological treatises. The bibliography alone — abt 60 pages — is a great thing to have. That one is avail. from Malin — I think the cost is abt $4.00 or so. Winter Wheat in Kansas[10] was published by the Univ of Kansas Press, is still I think in print (pretty sure, I only got my copy last year). A book of essays mainly on late 19th cent in the mid-west, Confounded Rot About Napoleon,[11] is from Malin himself again, as well as some other things I figure. His earliest book, the one which made his reputation, so to speak, is titled John Brown & the Spirit of ’56, (? I think that’s it — put out by Am Philosophical Soc, or Am Historical Society, or something of that sort,[12] I don’t have my copy here & I’ve barely looked at the book since I got it in the summer.). So, I guess to write to Malin himself at that address you’ve got would be the best thing, & the Grasslands book esp. as what seems to me his greatest thing, & the most useful for coming to grips with what is there. […] [I]t seems to me he’s one of the few people writing about the land, the country there, the land, god, that you can go to & learn from, tangible things, directly & to the point.
                                                                                                                                                     Libraries might have his things —though the privately printed stuff like the Grasslands bit (new edition last year) might not be in them.  — Will write more about Malin when finals are over & I’m more or less free again, hopefully.

Maybe it’s only my feeling for my own country there, Kansas, but anyway, so it is. Bob[13] should still have somewhere a copy of the Kansas Historical Magazine I left with him, with an article in it by Malin on where the people came from who settled in Kansas, during different decades of the 19th cent.[14] Another point of concern. When you see him in February, you might ask him to try to find it.
        & say hello from me, too; I haven’t heard anything out of him for a while now, figuring he’s busy as hell on the novel[15] & school, etc. So, well.
                                                                                       I got up to see Olson once briefly in September, rode up to Gloucester on a Lambretta w/ a friend of mine[16] & nearly froze my ass off, but the trip was worth it — after finals are over next week I hope to get up again. He spoke abt yr prose in particular when I was up there, with a great deal of praise. Yr things in Kulchur & Yugen[17] lately have been greater to read than anything else prose-wise I’ve come into lately or for a long time — the more here in Boston & out of my natural country did they speak greatly to me. Well hell, I can’t say anything that will say more clearly, this damned Japanese clouds my brain completely. I hope the anthology of contemp. Am. Prose will be out before too long, & can get at more of yr stuff. Any hope for another bk of poems?
& what is the bit you’re doing on the West? I’d like to know more about that too …

So, I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll stick in one thing, one of the poems Yugen took.[18] The thought in it is pretty loose & wobbly, too generalized, but that’s what to work out of, to go on away from. & the try, by god, the try I don’t give up on, yet.
Let me hear from you again, wish I could write more now, but no time. My best to Helene & the kids[19] — & wishing to hell I was there in Idaho instead of here in Cambridge next to the Hertz RentaTruck

  Hope the reading in Vancouver[20] goes w/ great things.                                  best, as always
                                                                                                                                                      — Ken

Elie Dorfman[21] also sends her best wishes, etc., when I talked to her briefly tonight. Her cat — named after Corso[22] — I’ve taken in because of her roommate, is crawling all over me as I write this — reason among others for the frequent mistakes & flubs — but a great cat.

 Till later —



1. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 16 January 1963, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

2. See the chronology included in this special issue, as well as Irby’s short account of witnessing the detonation of a nuclear warhead in his poem “For Round Dances,” in The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 50.

3. [Irby’s handwritten note:] got out of the Army in August

4. Charles Olson (1910–1970).

5. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), editor of Yugen from 1958 to 1962 (with Hettie Cohen, coeditor for nos. 6–8); coeditor, with Diane di Prima, of The Floating Bear from 1961 to 1963; founder of Totem Press, active from 1958 through 1962; and coeditor and critic for Kulchur from 1960 to 1965. Dorn’s correspondence with LeRoi Jones is extensive, see: Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: the Collected Letters, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), as well as “Edward Dorn, American Heretic,” Chicago Review 57, nos. 1/2 (Summer/Autumn 2012).

6. Irby’s poem “Madrid, New Mexico” was published in the New Mexico Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Spring 1963): 68–69.

7. [Irby’s handwritten note:] (“Barbed Wire” Malin he’s known as)

8. James C. Malin (1893–1979), historian and author of The Grasslands of North America, among much else, whose writing had a heavy influence on Irby’s poetics and sense of geography. See Irby’s prose pieces on meeting Malin (and Carl Sauer) elsewhere in this special issue.

9. [Irby’s handwritten note]: this must be the one Bob mentioned I’d shown him

10. Malin, Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas: A Study in Adaptation to Sub-humid Geographical Environment (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1944).

11. Malin, Confounded Rot about Napoleon: Reflections upon Science and Technology, Nationalism, World Depression of Eighteen-Nineties, and Afterwards (Lawrence: James C. Malin, 1961).

12. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1942).

13. Robert Creeley (1926–2006).

14. Irby is referring either to Malin’s article “Housing Experiments in the Lawrence Community, 1855,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Summer 1954): 95–121, or “The Turnover of Farm Population in Kansas,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 4, no. 4 (November 1935): 339–372.

15. Creeley, The Island (New York: Scribner, 1963).

16. Robert Grenier (b. 1941). See Robert Grenier’s essay in this feature.

17. See endnote 5, (“January 16, 1963”). Dorn’s seminal essay “What I See in the Maximus Poems” was published in Kulchur 4 (1961), and his “Notes More or Less Relevant to Burroughs and Trocchi,” as well as his review of Michael McClure’s The New Book of Torture, were published in Kulchur 8. Dorn’s prose reflection “Notes About Working and Waiting Around” was published in Yugen 8 (1962).

18. Jones’s involvement with Floating Bear ended before the issue containing Irby’s “Grasslands of North America” would be published; the poem was instead published in Robert Kelly’s magazine, Matter 1 (Jan 1964): 5.

19. Dorn married Helene Buck in Seattle on July 1, 1954. They had a son, Paul (b. 1954), and Buck had two children from a previous marriage — son Fred (b. 1949), and daughter Chansonette (b. 1952). From 1961 to 1965, the family lived in a refurbished chicken coop on Ray Obermayr’s ranch outside of Pocatello, where Dorn taught at Idaho State University. Dorn had met Obermayr in 1950, when he enrolled in the latter’s painting class at Eastern Illinois University. Dorn attended Eastern Illinois for two years before dropping out and, at Obermayr’s suggestion, enrolling in classes (initially as a painter, not a writer) at Black Mountain College in 1954. For further information, see Tom Clark’s Edward Dorn: A World of Difference (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002).

20. Dorn gave a reading at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in February 1963 (recording available online at Pennsound and the Slought Foundation).

21. Elsa Dorfman (b. 1937) — Cambridge-based photographer.

22. Gregory Corso (1930–2001).