On January 29 and 30, The Gregory School welcomed its first ever guest poet for poetry week, Steve Kowit. Poet, essayist, workshop facilitator, inhabitant of San Diego and professor at San Diego State University, Kowit conducted workshops with both students and teachers during his time on campus.
Kowit has published numerous books of poetry. His works include “The Dumbbell Nebula,” “Mysteries of the Body,” “Crossword Dictionary,” and of course his best-known book on campus, “In the Palm of Your Hand,” a teaching book of poetry used in the school’s creative writing classes.
With interests ranging from spirituality to animal rights, Kowit’s writing career began at a very young age and his passion expanded from there. “I was always interested in writing. The first thing I wrote was for a teacher in the fourth grade. And it was a story, a little novel illustrated in crayons I think, about a slave rebellion,” Kowit said.
He added, “I still own it and every now and then I come upon it. It interests me that the very first thing I wrote was about a slave rebellion because I’m a very political person. So I looked back and I realized, oh, even then that world of right and wrong was very interesting to me.”
Although immensely influenced by his mother and ninth grade English teacher in his writing pursuits, Kowit admitted that school was never his greatest pleasure growing up. His favorite high school activities were those of many Gregory School students: tennis and anything writing related, particularly the literary magazine.
Kowit said, “I was not terribly social. I was very shy around girls, but I had some good friends: literary friends. By that point I was already a writer so I was working on editing the school literary magazine. So that and playing tennis were my world.”
Kowit’s long-time position in the literary field has enabled him to see its evolution over time, but unfortunately one aspect of this is the world’s flickering decline in poetic enthusiasm.
He said, “Poetry means much less in the United States than poetry tended to mean in most cultures. Before there were novels and prose, it was the poets and really the epic poets who were almost like priests.” He explained, “Poets are not terribly important in our culture now for good reason; a lot of them aren’t really saying anything that people can understand, let alone is important.”
Many students have the preconception that poetry is unnecessarily confusing or conceptual. Kowit champions a very different type of poetry though. Kowit said, “I think modernism and postmodernism have been absolutely disastrous for poetry. A good novel is almost always more interesting than a collection of poems, except for by a very few poets.”
He added later, “If readers don’t know what a writer is attempting to describe or what idea the writer is trying to express, that piece of writing has failed. Poets have been taught to sound impressive and complex, edgy and avant garde by creating passages that seem highly imaginative albeit indecipherable.”
Kowit hopes that with time and the new developments of our digital age, more comprehensible and enjoyable poetry will circle back in. He laughed and said, “I should think things like haiku should come back because if you want to write something on an iPhone you want short, easy to process work.”
As a teacher and poet, Kowit acknowledges the obstacles and mistakes young writers face today. He advises young writers against being easily dissuaded by criticism.
“You know every now and then someone goes to a teacher and the teacher doesn’t like their work and it just blows them away. I’ve had that happen to me, and even I’ve done that, I’ve been guilty of it without knowing,” Kowit said. He warned, “That’s the great danger perhaps – being invalidated before you’re strong enough to realize it’s not important.”
Kowit considers his greatest accomplishment to be “that in an age when American poetry tends to be mannered, obscurantist, and indecipherably opaque—the sort of elitist verse that used to be called ‘difficult’ and now proudly characterizes itself as ‘indeterminate’ — I have remained steadfast in writing a poetry that tries to be as clear and precise as possible.”
He added, “I want to communicate,” and if his poetry and influence on The Gregory School students and staff are anything to go by, it is clear Kowit has succeeded in this.
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