Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kay Boyle

Kay Boyle
in her San Francisco home on Frederick Street
(in the 1970's)

Kay Boyle (February 19, 1902 - December 27, 1992) was a distinguished American writer who published nearly fifty books (novels, collections of short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction).  A ferociously independant woman and writer, Boyle, as Leah Garchik noted, was "always quick to approve or disapprove."  Boyle was in Paris with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Robert McAlmon, and a raft of other writers.

A good place to start with Kay Boyle is Fifty Stories (Doubleday, 1980) and/or Collected Poems of Kay Boyle (Copper Canyon Press, 1991).  

For nearly two decades, Kay Boyle taught at San Francisco State University.  The most fortunate student writers had her for "directed writing," which she taught in her home on Frederick Street.  I was among the lucky, though I have no idea, to this day, why she chose to help me with my poetry, because she had made it clear, just before I became her student, that "white male writers have nothing more to say."  When I finally asked about this view, she smiled, "I wasn't speaking of you."

The first semester that I studied with her, once a week meetings, she spent the first nine weeks lecturing on Paris, praising those she liked, damning those she found distasteful or boorish or just talentless.  On our first meeting she asked what I drank.  "Irish whiskey," I said.  I settled for bourbon.  She drank what she always drank, Dubonnet.  After that Kay kept a bottle of Power's Irish Whiskey for me.  I'd get half-sloshed and she would lecture on the evils of drink for writers.  On the other hand, when Kay got going on why writers must not get flabby, must always be lean, that obese writers were awful, she praised my athletic appearance... saying that it signaled a marvelous writing future.

Although she widened my circle of influences, her writing was far from the turf where I could work.  It's probably natural for student writers to be strongly influenced by mentors... to consciously or unconsciously imitate them.  I had not the talent or sensibility for that.

Ever generous to her students, Kay located opportunities for them.  One afternoon she announced that it was time for us to do a joint poetry reading.  I was astonished... having carried the notion that Kay was, essentially, tolerating my rather soft and weak poems.  But read together we did, along with William Dickey (my other mentor), Jim Hubert (also a grad student... with a poem in Esquire, Barbara Riddick, and Gene Ruggles.  We had a marvelous night, with an overflow audience, at the Parkside Public Library in San Francisco.

If  not for Kay Boyle and her tiny camera, no photographs would have been taken at my oldest daughter's baptism.  Kay insisted, too, on being the first person to give us a gift for the forthcoming infant (a blue baby rattle) and, if memory serves, gave Kate and me diapers, baby powder, and many stern lectures on child-raising.

* I snapped these photographs (in the 1970's) as Kay talked to my wife, Kate.  The negatives were rediscovered recently... found in a box in a closet as I searched for old poetry notebooks.

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