Steve Kowit reads his poem "Cherish"
Steve Kowit, leader among the San Diego poets and editor of the weekly poetry column in the Reader since 2006, passed away in his sleep April 2.
The following are among the tributes to Kowit by local poets.
The Last Conversation with Steve Kowit
- A Southern California Buddhist priest
- was walking with his wife in a temple
- garden that merged with a city path,
- He noticed some beautiful wild flowers
- growing in the middle of the path.
- The Sensei said to himself,
- “Those flowers grew where people
- walked...they grew silently,
- minding their own business,
- not to show off...they just grew,
- when the time came, they would die.”*
- The Sensei felt drawn into talking
- to the flowers, just like me,
- One of my Sensei's, Sensei Steve
- Has passed away. It was April Fool's Day,
- Even in death he held his sense of humor.
- I too wish a last talk with him,
- In death, and in life, he would do that for me,
- He would not talk as teacher, only as my friend,
- Only he did not grow silently, no, far from this,
- The way he talked was always vocal,
- always on point warrior, always protecting the weak,
- the voice for the voiceless, the confident warrior
- directing the flow of battle, the pen parrying the sword,
- I wonder if his spirit words to me would echo the anonymous
- poem on a Japanese CD, entitled “Sen no Kaze”?
- (“Breezes Numbering A Thousand”)
- They sell it at the Hongwanji Temple:
- “Don't cry...
-         Please don't cry before my grave.
-         I am not sleeping there for eternity.
-         I have become a thousand breezes
-         Circling the world,
-         Sparking like diamonds in the clouds,
-         And pouring light on nourishing grains
-         Within gentle autumn showers
- Look again...
-         I have become a thousand breezes
-         Circling the world.
- When you wake in the morning,
-         I become a bird
-         Flying all around you,
-         And at night a shining star.
- You are always enveloped
-         By innumerable forms of life,
- So don't cry...
-         Don't cry before my grave.
- I have become a thousand breezes
-         Constantly by your side.”**
— Jim Moreno, Spring 2015
- *Nembutsu Daze, Tesshi Aoyama, Horin-Kai Publications, Penryn, CA, 2003, p.47.
- **Aoyama, p.47-48.
My Steve Kowit
For days, since learning of Steve’s death, I have read the emails and Facebook posts from so many whose lives he touched. I have talked with others — heard the words — generous, kind, funny, loving, poet, teacher, mentor, publisher, friend. He was all of those things, had such an impact on hundreds of students, colleagues, friends. He connected me to so many of you beautiful, gifted poets, writers, friends.
And, yes, when I tell of him, I use those words, too. This is how I knew him.
Steve was my first poetry teacher more than 20 years ago and has been over and over again, at workshops, classes and readings; at The Writing Center, Southwestern College, San Diego Writers Ink; at coffee shops and bookstores and churches. He once asked me to co-teach a class for Seniors and Alzheimer’s patients at St. Paul’s Villa. What a thrill and validation!
His greeting, always, “how are ya? Ya doin’ OK?” in a way that I knew he meant it, he really wanted to know. As we aged together, we are the same age, we began to share news of a bad back or tweaky knees, hearing aids and cataract surgery; how things that used to be easy now took much more energy. Not complaints, but a common bond.
I have not been able to make sense of the reality of his death until today – 4 days since I heard the impossible news. It left me reeling, shocked, devastated – dramatic words I rarely use, certainly never frivolously or cheaply, their meaning so profound.
It has been impossible to conceive of my world, our world, without him in it. Today I write it, think I can wrap my brain and heart around the truth of it. I don’t claim to have been as close to him or known him as well as many. I do not negate others perhaps, even greater feelings of loss. Mine is deep, it is my own. Today I add a word to the list of praise for this man who means so much to me – authentic – he was the most real person I know – an authentic human being. Oh, yes, I’ll also add “cheerleader.” He always wanted us to do well!
I send to all who loved him, and to his beautiful wife, Mary, whom he loved so much and whose loss must be the greatest of all, the wishes, the words he emailed me on my birthday. “Hope it’s a wonderful, fertile, productive, healthy deliciously happy year! Hugs & more hugs, love & more love, Steve.”
Yours in grief and gratitude,
Steve Kowit was my closest male friend. I know many people felt that way, and I was one of them. I remember the first time I met him. I had taken a one day workshop he was giving at the Writing Center when it was downtown. After it was over, I hustled over and pulled his coat.
“Want to go have coffee:”
“No, sorry, I’ve got an hour drive to get home.”
“OK, well, would you ever be willing to look at some poems?”
“You know, whenever people ask me that, I know what they’re hoping for. They’re hoping I’ll say, ‘You’re an undiscovered genius and I will contact my publisher right away’. Instead, what I invariably tell them is, ‘You have some talent, and if you’re willing to work really hard for five years you may have something interesting to say.”
I was chagrined, but at a deep level I knew at had met my teacher. That was twenty years ago. I hustled down to Southwestern Community College and signed up for his weekly evening class. We became dear friends, and I continued to send him poems almost daily, right up until a few days before he passed. I learned from him the true secret of poetry; to work on a poem is to work on yourself. In his work as much as the way he treated everyone he came across, he constantly added kindness to the world. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do without him
— Michael Nieman
(for Steve Kowit)
- Mail boxes in the ether
- are filled with messages
- of friends who are gone
- without a good bye note,
- There is chatter
- and the clinking
- of teaspoons against
- the sides of small dishes,
- No one knows
- when they are leaving
- on journeys to the end of the sentence,
- So few of us
- suspect that the
- period at the
- will finally be placed,
- a dot will
- mark the spot,
- Mail of all sorts
- are in voices terse and harsh
- under the light
- we read them in,
- Sing low and loud and high
- and through the roof
- and the nails that hold
- things together,
- There might be
- no words
- of goodbye
- but maybe
- We can leave some words
- that sing about
- why any of us
- stayed so long
- and hung by our nails
- and the whispery strands of our wish
- to speak to the mountains
- and streams
- and the cities where
- dreams collect
- and churn
- and become awful
- and real while we invent joy
- and find
- ourselves with each other
- and become grateful
- that we don't breath the air alone,
- We need mail that opens up
- with laughter
- that brings on the tears
- of remembering that
- makes us laugh yet again,
- We need
- letters to remind us
- that no gets to say
- goodbye as they wish they could say it
- but that we can tell each other
- that we love that we're here
- for as long as this party lasts
- into the night and the morning beyond that.
- — Ted Burke
Steve Kowit and I first met in the part-timers' office at San Diego State in the fall of 1977. It was love at first sight — filtered through the screens of our own competitive poetic egos. We cautiously exchanged our first books of poems — his was Climbing the Walls, mine, The New Physics. That’s all it took to set the multi-decade bromance in motion.
With our friend, Federico Moramarco, Steve and I would often day-hike in the Cuyamacas and Lagunas, where conversations, frequently passionate, ranged through poetry, politics, philosophy, trivia…. and gossip. As on-again, off-again Zen practitioners, we would invoke a ritual of walking silently for at least 15 minutes, taking in the beauty around us.
When Steve and Mary moved out to the east county and Arlie and I moved north, I saw him less often, but still we'd do poetry readings and long walks, and the four of us would meet for vegetarian Thanksgiving lunches at an Indian or Thai restaurant, living out the Kowits’ commitment to the non-harming of any sentient beings.
Though Steve often despaired at the human race — the injustice and suffering—he never withdrew his love and respect from any individual. I never saw him be mean to anyone. Treating us all with open-hearted love, acceptance, and high regard, he championed the best in us, delivering any critique of our views or our poetry with passion and compassion and, of course, humor.
It's impossible to overstate what a powerful and life-affirming influence Steve was on my life and poetry and on the larger poetry scene — his generosity towards other poets, his unselfish promotion of their work, his encouragement and support through the many workshops he ran.
Farewell, Dear Friend. Your powerful legacy lives on in the many lives you touched.
— Al Zolynas
Facebook posts on the death of Steve Kowit
"The San Diego poetry community mourns the passing of a local treasure — Steve Kowit. His life and work, friendship and generosity will be celebrated at each scheduled reading of the San Diego Poetry Annual 2014-15."
— San Diego Entertainment & Arts Guild (a local 501(c)(3) nonprofit)
"The most generous artist in San Diego is dead — poet Steve Kowit. His poetry was music, the deliberately discordant minor tones jarring with the full-bodied brightness of the major keys: our own Thelonious Monk, by way of Brooklyn and all the bumps between there and here. I loved his wit, his outlandish sense of humor, his keen mind, those halting pauses when he read his poems, the way you could hear the smile in his voice. So many of us loved him as friend, mentor and teacher, and it took him all but the last two years of his life to learn to say "no" to requests. Still, I don't think he ever let any of us down. He showed up, always. He has long been an emblem of what the best of us looks like, and will he remain that for me. We've lost a genuine treasure."
— William Harry Harding, publisher, the San Diego Poetry Annual
"What eloquent words, Bill, to em-body, bring alive the wonderful Steve Kowit, whose generosity we all experienced. What a mortal year this has been. Elegy has become my mode of expression."
— Diane Wakoski, in response to Bill Harding's post
"April is National Poetry Month and National Jazz Month. Yesterday, we lost our local poetry treasure, Steve Kowit. Last September, we lost our local jazz treasure, Daniel Jackson. Both were teachers,mentors and friends to so many of us in San Diego. There was music in Steve Kowit's poetry and poetry in Daniel Jackson's music. The San Diego Poetry Annual and SDEAG - The San Diego Entertainment & Arts Guild will celebrate the life, work and spirit of these two giants at each scheduled poetry reading this year, beginning with the first reading on Wednesday, April 8, at the Hervey/Pt. Loma Library."
— Musician Franco Z (the stage name Bill Harding performs under)