Wednesday, August 09, 2017

If It's Written, It Must Be True: Remember Kay Boyle

“For I can recall now only your faces: Woody Haut, Shawn Wong, Rebhun, Turks, Alvarado
And how many more. Or I catch now and then the sound of a voice
From a long way away, saying something like: ‘Poetry is for the people.
And it should represent the people.’(You can say that again, Woody,)”
— Kay Boyle, Testament for My Students

Did I really say that? I guess I must have, though I’ve no memory of having done so. But, then, what is written always carries a degree of certitude, if not finality, particularly if the person doing the writing is someone whose words bear witness to the highs and lows of much of the twentieth century. at is certainly the case with Kay Boyle, a writer as well as an activist—traits apparently inherited from her mother, who read Joyce’s Ulysses and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons as a Farmer- Labor candidate in Ohio—who brie y entered my life, before politely retreating to a dimly lit corner of my memory, where she remains part of that enticing rubric labeled San Francisco, late 1960s. 

It has always been flattering, if not slightly embarrassing, that she would cite me in her poetry book Testament for My Students, though these days it causes me to wonder who that person might be whom she quotes. Or, for that matter, if I really was her student? Because I can’t remember her having actually taught me anything. Nor could it be said that she in influenced my writing. But, then, perhaps that’s as it should be. After all, even though she taught creative writing at San Francisco State from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, she always harboured a realistic attitude regarding her job, publishing, during that time, an essay in which she argued, tongue perhaps only partly in cheek, that “all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” And even though she was my graduate supervisor, it wasn’t like we had the usual teacher- student relationship. We would simply meet, first in her office on campus, and then, once the 1968–69 student strike was under way, at her home on Frederick Street in the Haight. I remember our first conversation concerned a short essay I had written about discovering the work of writer Jorge Luis Borges. It wasn’t about Borges’s writing so much as about the pleasures of discovery, and how that particular discovery came about. In fact, the essay, in retrospect, was not dissimilar from the type of retrospective prose Kay would produce in a book like Being Geniuses Together, which she had co-authored with Robert McAlmon. at discussion aside, our conversations mostly focused on more immediate matters, namely the strike and the politics surrounding it.

Since I have no memory of having said the words she attributed to me, it not only makes me wonder who that person was who said or wrote such things, but the the fact that she had grown up in the heady atmosphere of mid-western populism, the politics of which had long been of interest to me. Although Kay would prove an advocate for young writers like Sonia Sanchez, she appeared slightly hesitant when confronted with unfamiliar strands of contemporary writing, clinging, as she would do, to the fractious rise of Modernism, what she would describe as the revolution of the word, which had played such an important role in her life. I remember, not long after our first meeting, she asked me to have a look at the galleys of a book of poems by Joe Ceravolo, Spring in is World of Poor Mutts, which had just won the first Frank O’Hara award. She’d been asked to blurb the book, and wanted me to offer her an opinion as to whether the poems were worth commenting upon. I don’t know why she would have felt insecure about passing judgment on such an excellent poet, particularly when one considers the influence of Kay’s old friend and mentor William Carlos Williams on Ceravolo’s work. So, on the one hand, Kay, who was already in her mid-sixties when I met her, was willing to accept what was on offer, but, on the other hand, she was sometimes baffled by it. I suppose there was a similar contradiction when it came to her politics and her writing style. Or, for that matter, in her somewhat dated sartorial style—dark grey suits, perhaps the very same tailleurs grises, which her in-laws deemed the correct attire for a young married woman on their first sighting of her in France in the early 1920s—and liberal amounts of make-up, as though paying tribute to the past while living in the present. 

Reading Kay’s stories and essays these days, I’m impressed by their elegance, politics, humour, their ability to conjure up a particular time and place, as well as her exactitude when placing herself in the situations she describes. However, it was only in the late 1980s that I began to reassess her work, prompted by a remark made by my late friend, the poet and cultural critic Edward Dorn who mentioned that, in his estimation, Kay was a better writer than Hemingway. At the time I thought it was an unusual, if disparate, comparison—stylistically they seem so different albeit sharing a particular era. But I was reminded that the critic Edmund Wilson, whether complimentary or otherwise, once called Kay a “feminized Hemingway,” while Gertrude Stein compared the two writers as well, but only in terms of social class, offering the opinion that Kay Boyle was every bit as middle class as Hemingway. Or it could be that Dorn meant that Kay was a more interesting chronicler of those earlier decades than Hemingway, which, judging by essays in her Some Things that Need to be Spoken, might well have been the case. 

Did Kay Boyle exert an influence on my future interest in noir ction and film? I seriously doubt it. is even though I had already begun what would be a life-long obsession with Dashiell Hammett. Too bad that it never occurred to me to ask her about Hammett and Lillian Hellman, both of whom she surely must have known. After all, were there any writers of that era Kay hadn’t met or corresponded with? And in a sense I guess there was something noir-like when it came to the subject matter of our discussions, at least as far as Borges’s literary mysteries or Rimbaud’s disappearance were concerned. And maybe, if I had only been able, during those meetings with Kay, to cast my mind forward, into the future, I might even have been able to catch a glimpse of the person I would become. A decidedly trickier feat to accomplish than looking back on that younger version of myself, the one who knew Kay Boyle in an era when everything was, for a brief moment, up for discussion and ideas seemed capable of threatening the social order. Not unlike those earlier decades that Kay liked to write about. Though partial to the past, Kay made more than the best of the present. Writing about those years when I knew her, Kay, in a Long Walk at San Francisco State, would put it like this: “I had lived on mountaintops, carried my babies in a rucksack on my back when I skied, believed in poets more than any other men, honoured French Resistance fights and Italian partisans, crossed into Spain with letters from the exiled to the brave and the defiant and the imprisoned there, and brought illicit messages out. And now, through force of circumstance, I was, of all unlikely and unsuitable things, a college professor. I was a college professor, who spoke of her institution as if it were a possession of the heart.” 

(If It's Written... first appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of The Scofield)

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