Steve Kowit: Poet’s Poet
Walking through the front door at Clair de Lune was like entering another plane of existence. The place, formerly a bridal dress shop, teemed with people, all anticipating the evening’s poetry. After purchasing a mocha, I looked for a place to sit down. All the couches and chairs were taken. I made my way towards the stage and sat down on the floor in front of it. The microphone awaiting the dulcet or impassioned tones of the poets-to-come.
A popular local poet, Lizzie Wan, read two pieces. Then Mark Kokonos, who had memorized his work, slammed. Chris Vannoy, with the style of a beat poet like Ginsburg or Kerouac, also slammed. The crowd applauded. Still, the level of anticipation rose as the signature poet, Steve Kowit, took the stage.
About Steve Kowit
I think of Steve as a poet’s poet. His generous spirit and vivid imagination are slathered all over his works. I first met Steve in 1978 when I participated in a poetry workshop at his home in Ocean Beach. He’s an intense critic and enthusiastic teacher. His works are funny and poignant, sometimes in the same line.
Prior to reading, he chatted with the crowd, sharing a short history about how he had become a poet – he received his street smarts from Manhattan and a Masters degree from State.
In his big glasses, jeans, blue-plaid long-sleeved shirt, brown vest and turquoise choker, he grinned at the full house. His full head of tight brown curly hair is shot through with enough gray to tell you this guy has been around the block. But he’s got incredible youthfulness about him.
Preceding each piece, he explained how the poem came to be. He shared stories from his old New York neighborhood, and about places in South Amreica, where he and his wife, Mary, had fled so Steve would not have to serve in the Viet Nam War, which he did not believe in.
The Dumbbell Nebula
He read work from his latest book, The Dumbbell Nebula, including “Beetles,” “of whom, among all earth-born creatures, God is fondest,” “The Black Shoe,” about the bombing of Iraq and two women killed by a train in Carlsbad, and “Basic,” about an Army bunkmate who committed suicide.
After leading his audience through a gamut of emotions, Steve said he would read two more poems. I detected some self-deprecation, i.e., “I hope it won’t bother you too much if I read a couple more…” Everyone was there to hear him! He should revel in that kind of demand!
I Attend a Poetry Reading
He finished off with one of his most notorious pieces, “I Attend a Poetry Reading,” which many in the audience (including myself) had experienced a few times before, like the most popular cut on a favorite album.
The crowd exploded into applause. Afterwards, Steve retired to a table where he signed copies of The Dumbbell Nebula for those who purchased it. I bought one for $7, his cost. I wanted him to keep the ten dollars I gave him, but he insisted on digging into his pockets for three frayed one-dollar bills in change.
“We need to support our poets,” I said, trying to press the money back into his hand.
He waved it off. “You’re a poet yourself. I want my work to be accessible.” We hugged. Then I drove home and read Steve’s book from cover to cover, hearing that broad New York City accent with every line, and laughing and crying, both.
- Steve Kowit passed away in 2015, much to the chagrine of those who loved him and enjoyed his poetry.
- I videotaped him reading “Basic” (above) at a La Mesa Library in 2011.
Patty Mooney is a VP, Video Producer, Sound Technician, Teleprompter Operator and Video Editor at San Diego’s award-winning video production company, Crystal Pyramid Productions.