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.