An Interview with Mary Norbert Korte
March 26 and 27th, 2008, Willits, CA
by Cindy McMann
Described by Denise Levertov as One of Americas foremost undiscovered poets, and by Anne Waldman as one of the lesser known illuminati (her favorite), Mary Norbert Korte has been writing in the woods of Mendocino County since 1972. Author of several books of poems, and contributor to many anthologies, Korte's passion has always been poetry: the making and proclaiming of it from boardrooms to bars, from schoolrooms to street corners.
In this interview Korte speaks about growing up a writer at the time when Kerouac changed how literature was being written and read, being an artist in a strict religious environment wary of artists, and trying to make it as a woman poet in the masculinist culture of the San Francisco Renaissance. She recounts how her spirituality and her commitment to environmental activism have shaped her writing for over 40 years. Korte speaks intimately about her thoughts and writings, but also grounds her stories in her perceptions of the larger social issues which have shaped American culture to this day.
MK: I think I need to call the book, if it ever comes out, The Persephone Poems, or just Persephone, because I have thought of myself as Persephone for many, many years. And that came from driving this road to where I live. Living at the bottom of a canyon, that the locals all call “The Hole”...
MK (laughs): I mean it’s appropriate, isn’t it? And I actually have a new poem where I talk about having to drive the road, and I say Persephone had to do it only twice a year, and I have to do it every day. When I arrived here I felt very aggrieved, of course, because I couldn’t stay home for months at a time. My mother got to stay home and have everything delivered, and I don’t see why I can’t do the same! On the other hand, she lived in Berkeley.
CM: Growing up in Berkeley, was there a moment where you felt that writing was your vocation?
MK: As long as I can remember, I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know I was a poet until I was a freshman in high school, and the principle announced that Mrs. Archer would be teaching prose writing as well as poetry in creative writing class. And I thought, oh that’s good, so I’ll take that. Mrs. Archer was a Scots balladeer, very much like Helen Adam, who was just a magical teacher, and all thought of writing prose was just gone. I’d written a lot before – mostly academic sort of stuff, a lot of analytical stuff. I liked analyzing. I was brought up in the Brooks and Warren tradition – do you know the Brooks and Warren tradition?
CM: The Well Wrought Urn and such . . .
MK: Yeah, and how you don’t go outside the work to evaluate it. You take your evaluation only from what’s in the text. And I was actually coming out of graduate school at about the time that Brooks and Warren were beginning to be, tempered a little bit, shall we say. Not exactly tossed aside, but where biography became important. That was around the time that Kerouac started writing. And you know, he was a person who could get away with spontaneous writing because of the load he carried. He was a nice, Jesuit boy. He had an absolute classical education. If he went to a Jesuit high school it meant that he took Latin, Greek. He had it all there. Then he went on to Columbia. So there was bringing to that spontaneity was a tremendous encyclopaedia of rumination. So that whole school of life driving one’s art . . .it drives it, anyway.
CM: What do you mean?
MK: Well, in looking at ‘the work,’ people began bringing in stuff outside the work. That’s the only way I can say it. So that biography was beginning to drive the criticism. Where now, it’s just . . .whatever . . .
CM: And did that start to show up in your own writing, as well? That biographical edge?
MK: Well, certainly the edge of place. Yeah. Place was just tremendously important. I mean, I’ve lived here for 35 years, really rooted (grabs hold of the table and laughs). It’s pretty monumental. So in that sense, biography just ruled it. My work certainly is much more narrative than it used to be, and much less, well, my friend Robin calls it poetical. In other words, I’ve rarely taken abstract themes and written a poem about them for the writing itself, for its own sake. Usually there’s a story, or the outcome of a story, or a story gone awry, but there’s a story.
CM: Mostly biographical, or not necessarily so?
MK: Oh, I think more communal (laughs), in the sense that I incorporate a lot of other people’s stories into my work.
CM: It seems like in this place, there might be a lot of fodder to work with, in that respect.
MK: (laughs) Yeah. There was a letter in the Ukiah Daily Journal the other day by somebody named Praetorius who’s written alot of letters, and I don’t know who the hell he is, but with a name like Praetorius that’s a heavy burden to bear, right? And he says, “I want the county to return to the peaceful quiet place it was 19 years ago when I moved here,” and 19 years ago I was being shot at by my crazy neighbours who had erected a target pointed towards my house, 23 degrees above the horizon and 500 yards from my house.
CM: So his nostalgia doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of what went on.
MK: Well, things have always been crazy up here. This area has always been full of little native tribelets who had very little to do with one another, except they did some trading and some clan gathering but they didn’t do much because it’s very isolating terrain out here, and it was settled by people who were brought up here to work in the mills, to serve out indentures, prison terms. (Laughs) It’s sort of like a little Australia in that regard, and the tribes of the native people were just massacred. There were no treaties in the state of California, so people were just massacred. The agents were sent up to the northern tribes to negotiate treaties. And the tribes up here were very worried. The agents brought back the treaties to the state legislature and the state legislature responded by putting out a bounty of $25 a scalp.
CM: When was this exactly?
MK: 1850. It’s very recent, so the wounds are still raw. So, yes, there’s much fodder.
CM: Do you try to incorporate the stories that really haven’t been told about that history, or to give a voice to those stories in your writing? Or is that something that you try to stay away from?
MK: I haven’t very much. I have a couple of occasional poems that mention the history. Poems that I wrote for the tribal council when I was working there. Working with the Pomo has made me aware of when it’s not appropriate to try to understand a culture. This truly is Indian country. I wish people understood that.
CM: If you think about how you’ve developed as a writer, are there other things that you notice have changed dramatically in your writing?
MK: I wrote my first sonnet when I was 15 years old, and I wrote them almost exclusively and continually until the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965. And that’s when I realized that you really didn’t have to rhyme, and you didn’t have to squijjy up the language in order to accommodate the rhyme. There’s a huge demarcation when I left the convent. The thing that I noticed physically was that almost fairly quickly, my lines became longer. They stretched out. The rhythm became less pinched, more relaxed. There was a roll there, that I like to think partook a little bit of what Olson said of Ginsberg – I don’t think Ginsberg said it of himself – the Melvillean bardic voice. I hope that in that roll that I partake a little of that bardic voice.
CM: So that’s something that you were consciously striving for or is that something that just started to come out?
MK: I think that it just evolved.
CM: Why do you think that was?
MK: Oh, I think I was . . .repressed (laughs). When I think of the really early stuff, some of the stuff I wrote was just so erotic. And I had no idea. I was talking about religious experience, honey! And it was so erotic! And that was maybe a convention, to a very small extent, but it was the unconscious voice just having a holiday, just horse-racing, or however you want to describe it. It just took me over. There is, it’s very mixed up with craft, but there is, consistent in all the poetry I’ve ever written, something of the altered state in the composition. And sometimes that’s very strong, and sometimes it’s not, but it’s always there, and that gives birth to things I call dangerous lines.
CM: And do you try and strike a balance between vision and craft, so to speak?
MK: It’s a circular balance. It’s more like putting a little tiny drop of dark coloured paint into light coloured paint, and it changes the whole shebang if it’s mixed well enough. To me it’s mixed beyond being able to be separated again. It is what it is. It just does what it does.
CM: So the two are always intertwined.
MK: I think so.
CM: Do you do a lot of revision when you work?
MK: Yes, I can’t stop. Sometimes I don’t, but I’m very nervous about stuff that I’m just thrilled with in the beginning. I learned fairly early on that the lines I loved the most were almost sometimes the first to go. I went to a college that pursued the writing of papers as an art form. It really was an art form. And things were crafted, papers were crafted. It came over in the writing of a paper once when my major professor said the lines you love the most are often the first to go.
CM: Do you regret them, if you have to let them go? Is there a part of you that wants to try and keep those lines you love because they have that value in and of themselves?
MK: There are some lines that never get the adequate poem, and they sort of wander around all by themselves forever. It’s very strange because I don’t know exactly what they’re saying, but I just know that they have some sort of a strange magic power. That’s where Diane di Prima is such an inspiration, speaking of magic power. Her work is really visionary. She’s such an amazing practical person. She’s also a really good teacher. Just an amazing teacher.
CM: Do you know her very well?
MK: I’ve worked with her a couple of times. We met through the Diggers, way back in the Haight-Ashbury, and we’ve always had that connection of being brought up in a nice Catholic culture. And having a lawyer brother who’s just a pain in the ass.
CM: Is that something you share? You both have pain in the ass lawyer brothers?
MK: Yeah. They always come through, but let me tell you, the lecture has to happen. (Laughs.) And of course, all the lectures now begin with “at your age. . .” Then you know – America should pay its workers, and poets are among its workers.
CM: They sure are. And it’s not negligible work.
MK: No, damnit!
CM: How do you know that a poem is finished?
MK: That’s a matter of discussion with myself. I know it’s finished if it comes back to where it began. I know it’s finished if it ends with what I like to call a resounding thump. And sometimes I’m just never sure. I’m leery of the New York ending, where it just stops. Because one time somebody who at the time I really respected said to me, ‘you know, a lot of your work sounds like you just got tired and quit.’ And that might have been true, I don’t know. I just don’t know. Because I have all those female self-doubts that my generation was programmed to have. I am a child of my generation, and that’s the late 40s, very early 50s when I was going to school and to college, and it was different then.
CM: Did you have that sense when you were going through school that you were somehow busting out a little bit?
MK: Yes I did. And, I also came from a highly literate, highly verbal, highly scholarly family, and then I went to a highly literate, highly verbal, highly scholarly school where it was considered gold star to be a nerd. If you were a nerd and glamorous at the same time, you were just totally unbeatable. And there were lots of nerds who were glamorous at the same time. I wasn’t one of them, but I was a good nerd. And I loved scholarship. I still do. I just love it. But at the same time, there has always been a real paradox in devotion to the scholarly life, because you were taught to think for yourself, but thinking outside the box. . . I’ll put it this way - you were taught to appreciate, and even revere art, but being an artist was a little creepy. A little suspect. They didn’t eat right. They didn’t live right. And my mother used to say, ‘I just worry about you,’ when Allen Ginsberg and I were friends. I mean my mother had me living with him! It was just so wild, it was just so silly. Allen had more respect for me than my family did for him, it was amazing.
CM: He seemed to have had a high respect for people who were pursuing their art?
MK: Yeah. Allen was one of the most straight-laced people I knew. When he went down to Cuba and got into so much trouble for protesting against their laws over homosexuality and so forth he was in bed by 9 o’clock every night, I was told! I had his poetry up on the wall in my room at the convent. In one poem, he wrote about being king of the May in Prague. He has a crown – it’s a profile, he’s in profile facing the centre page where the poem is, and the profiles were done in silhouettes. And it was a silhouette of Allen, he has the crown on, and he has his tennis shoes on and nothing else. And of course, his cock is just hanging way out, and there it was on the wall. And I just loved it because I loved the poem. I just thought the poem was great, the silhouettes were great, very funny, and everything like that. Well, Mother Superior wasn’t thrilled.
CM: I can’t imagine that going over very well.
MK: (Laughs) I was so unconscious of what was going on with me and my psyche. I came out of the convent a superbly honed intellect, and an emotional idiot. My sister told me, you were seventeen when you went in, and seventeen when you came out. I think she was right.
CM: And was that from being very sheltered?
MK: From being very sheltered, and it’s also from being taught that feelings are not part of the scene. In so many words, we were told feelings don’t count. And the whole idea was no matter how you felt, you still went on with the job, whatever the job was. Whether it was going to prayers, or whatever. And despite how you felt, whether you felt good about what you were doing, or whether you felt absolutely rotten about it, too bad. That kind of thing I understand, that it’s a nobility of purpose, but I wish they had said, ‘you have nobility of purpose’ instead of saying that feelings don’t count, because then people like me whose feelings are very easily...whoosh...it was constantly pushing and pushing and pushing and snuffing, and shoving down. I’m sure I was doing a lot of dreaming, I’m sure. I don’t remember from those days, but I certainly was doing a tremendous amount of writing that was highly erotic and I had no idea what I was doing.
CM: In a lot of your writing, there seems to be a reluctance to separate spirituality and eroticism, and the present world and God, and all these things get really bound together, and I wondered if you had any sense that you were being a bit transgressive while you were writing that?
MK: No, not transgressive, I felt that I was writing in a long, long tradition. I mean, it goes back way before the Bible. And so I knew I was part of a long tradition of spiritual experience as erotic, that the erotic and the spiritual were one. So, the most obvious poem I think that I ever wrote was the Greek fire one. And, I mean, what it’s describing is an orgasm, but I was describing spiritual experience. What I took to be the ecstasy of spiritual experience. Well, that’s what Tantric yoga people do, and that’s how I knew and became really close to and admiring of Lenore Kandel. She was very special to me.
CM: And she’s very brash about that connection between spirituality and the erotic.
MK: Oh, yeah! She’s right up front about that. Well, she’s a Tantric yogist, and she practises that, and she practised Tantric Buddhism, and that’s highly charged.
CM: How did you come upon that tradition of erotic spirituality?
MK: I think the bible was the first place I ever came across it. And there used to be earnest discussions because Graham Greene was considered, this was at the time when he was writing a lot, was considered a really strong, moral Catholic writer. But there was very earnest discussion that, yes in the end in his novels good triumphed over evil, but evil was sure depicted appealingly along the way (laughs). See, that’s also the time that Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral, and the most impressive thing about that poem, that play, is his tempter – the one who tempts Thomas. He says, “think of the pilgrims from every place, from every space, and think of your enemies in the other place.” And he finally says to him, “this, then, is the greatest treason – to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” And that’s typical 1950s existentialism. It is very self searching. Almost bitterly so. Eliot, and Sartre, and Camus. Camus was a little more . . .what . . .a little softer, but all those guys did, I think, their best writing under the shadow of the bomb, knowing that maybe anything they wrote would never survive. And it did things to them. It certainly did things to everybody’s head. I don’t know if it still does today, but it sure did to my generation.
CM: Your writing doesn’t seem to carry that bleakness through it.
MK: I think that’s because I live in a very vivid nature. I live in a very vivid forest, in a temperate rainforest, where there’s always regeneration. There’s always hope even when there’s great destruction. But over the years I have seen and heard things, and as often as I could written about them, that give me an unreasoning hope that it’s going to all go on. I don’t know. We got through eight years of George Bush, I don’t know how it could get any worse.
CM: How has your spirituality affected your poetry?
MK: Oh, it permeates it. I think I couldn’t write without it. As a matter of fact, when I was leaving the convent this was a terrible dilemma to me, because I was really, really worried that if I left the convent, would the poetry go also. That really scared me.
CM: Why did you decide to leave the convent?
MK: Oh, lots of reasons. I think because I was living and working with women who in the final analysis I had nothing in common with anymore. They were very dear to me, and very good to me, but I couldn’t talk to them. I couldn’t tell them about the fact that I was sneaking out. (Laughs.)
CM: In Brenda Knight’s anthology, from what she says it sounds like when you came out of the convent that there was a community of writers there that you pretty quickly got involved with – is that the case?
MK: Yeah, very much so. I had a lot of support. The Bay area poets were really good to me. I don’t know whether I was their little mascot before I left the convent or not, but they still took me in and they still helped me, and loved me and were good to me.
CM: A lot of the women in Knight’s anthology talk about how difficult it was to emerge as a woman writer at that time – that they had a hard time getting the work out. Many of them speak about a general lack of support, particularly from male contemporaries. Did you ever have that sense?
MK: No, I didn’t, because I was running around in a nun’s suit. I was an exotic, and that’s how I got in. Some of them, when I left the convent, just said, well, that’s the end of her. And others kept the connection and kept the support, kept the affection and the love, and so forth.
CM: I think Denise Levertov is one of the names that Knight mentioned?
MK: She was so good to me. She was really, really good to me. Joanne Kyger is such a hero to me, and Diane di Prima. Bill Everson, in that blurb that he wrote that Brenda printed at the head of my biography, wrote that of Joanne Kyger as well as me, and he said something about us challenging the men on their own ground. And she did that, very bravely. She said, I am who I am. I am not an adjunct of Gary Snyder. This is me, and this is my work. And she earned a lot of respect for doing that. But, there was a lot that went on. I remember women being told, “no we’re going to reject your poem because we already have one of your husband’s.” That happened time and time and time again. Well, it happened to Zelda. Fitzgerald’s wife. She wrote a lot of stuff that came out printed under his name alone. So it was supposed to be under both their names and the only reason it was both their names was because they would accept his. They just wrote her off. A lot of his stuff was hers.
CM: Did that kind of thing happen to you quite a bit, or were there always people who were interested in what you were doing, and what you were writing?
MK: What do you mean by an audience?
CM: It seems to me that at that time in San Francisco, there was a community of writers going to each other’s readings, and promoting each other, so there was a generally receptive audience around.
MK: Yeah, I guess so. What comes to my mind is there is a devil who speaks to me in the middle of every poetry reading I’ve ever given. Sometimes the devil - if I’m wearing a skirt it’s cool, but if I’m wearing a pair of pants the devil says, “your fly is unzipped.” (Laughs.) And then you’re just paralyzed. But the other one which is really more insidious, says, “look around – people don’t want to hear this shit. Just give up. Stop.” And that always lurks. So when you say audience...People have been awfully good to me! (Laughs.)
CM: Reading seems to be very important to you, even more so, it seems, than publishing. Is there something about the performative aspect of poetry that’s really attractive to you?
MK: Yes. Very much so.
CM: What is it about the performative aspect of poetry that you enjoy?
MK: I love to read aloud. I just love it. Any time I ever went to the movies. I always loved the omniscient narrator. That’s very special.
CM: To what extent do you allow form and content to balance each other?
MK: Well, form is an extension of content. I really do believe that. What you say and how you say it are so inextricably intertwined. But I do believe that what you say is conveyed most powerfully by how you say it, therefore form is an extension of content.
CM: And is that something that you try and also bring across when you’re performing a piece?
MK: I think so. The spacing in the lines is very important to me. People have said I conduct with my foot. I almost conduct with my hand the way Robert Duncan used to do . . .he would conduct with his hand. There is a poem that I wrote for people on this road, on the road committee, and it starts out, “Consider . . .dust.”
CM: That pause is really integral . . .
MK: Yeah, for some reason I had to say it “Consider – two, three, four – dust.” And that was the way the poem came out. Music’s very, very important to me, and rhythm is important, and melody is important. I don’t do well with atonal stuff, but the new music that has . . .tone . . .(laughs) I do love.
CM: Do you listen to music while you’re writing?
MK: It depends. I cannot listen to any music that has any kind of vocals in it, any kind of lyrics in it or anything, because that interferes. But sometimes music gets in the way, and sometimes it’s very helpful. I think the biggest failing in my life is failing to put something down the minute it comes into my head. I’m not that good that way. I should be better.
CM: Is that because you don’t trust what’s coming out?
MK: No, it’s because I’m doing something else, and the habit of finishing what you’re doing before you go on to something else is so strong that I just don’t drop everything. Sometimes I do, but not as often as I should.
CM: Can we talk a bit about your environmental activism? What precipitated this move up north to the wilderness from San Francisco?
MK: Well, first I went down to Santa Cruz and I was down there for about a year and a half, two years, and I answered an ad in the newspaper for a caretaker, and it was this place. I was part of a couple then, and he wanted to live a wilderness life. My companion at the time really wanted to live in the wild, and this was as close as we could get to it. I walked into this place, and that was it. A voice said in my head, “You will stay here the rest of your life.” How did my environmental activism come about – because I couldn’t stand seeing trees go down, go down, go down, go down, go down.
CM: So environmentalism wasn’t necessarily something you brought to this place, but something that developed?
MK: Yeah, I brought it here, too. Way back when I was living in Berkeley, I was working in a project of the psychology department called Project Community. I was working with youth, and one of the things we did was take them into the wilderness, and that’s how I was introduced to it. We did it two years in a row, and the second year that we did it, I went back a couple of months later by myself, and I took acid up in the mountains east of here. And that was an awakening. It was magic. It was perfect – I’ve never had acid again, that was it. It was a peak experience and I didn’t want to ever mess with it again. And it was a tremendous enlightenment. I certainly didn’t formulate it in any words at the time, but I knew that nature was not separate, was not a separate entity from me, and that it was very important.
CM: That sounds very pagan.
MK: (Laughs.) Yeah, it is! It’s as pagan as you can get! And then what do I do, I go work for an Indian tribe, and they’re a bunch of animists. They’re just as pagan as you can get. The thing is, you can’t live, here anyway, with creatures that pump 5-7 tonnes of water inside their skin, daily, without feeling some of that. I mean, there’s resonance there, there’s aura. Whether you see it or not, you can’t help but feel it. You have to feel it – it’s there. So, I think it gives you a sense of your place, and your place is...is a space in a continuum. A space in a line, a space in a circle, but space, anyway, that’s been allotted to you, but it’s only part of something, part of an organism – a floating organism. That’s the way I describe the earth. And that really and truly, I am no more nor less, I am no better or worse, than any other creature who is part of this organism, this whole organism.
CM: Is there anything in the works that you’d like to talk about, anything that’s forthcoming?
MK: Let’s see now, did I send you, “Now is the age when memory is sweetest?”
MK: Well, it’s now a sonnet. I’ve really pared it down. Now, see, that one wasn’t finished. Garrison Keillor announced a sonnet contest on “Prairie Home Companion” so I’m going to send this in. It’s supposed to be a love poem. And it is a love poem, in its way, but it’s a strange poem. Because it’s saying to this person, I can remember, and you haven’t got memory at all. At all.
CM: Could you read it?
White Bread Blues: Sonnet for a Long-ago Love
Now is the age when memory is sweetest
The heart going to the time when wearing pearls
was magic before it was cause for grief
played over and over and over
The same befores and afters, the same
first the love, then the pearls, then the grief.
Grief then, had all the all time charm.
In the end, now, when treasured companion
of the heart is memory of love and pearls,
when longest debate over lovely lust
is cause for warmest regard
when sheer possession of memory sweeps all argument aside
makes equal the foolish and the fine,
there grief and pearls and love abide.
Cindy McMann is a recent graduate from the University of Calgary with a PhD in English literature, and specializes in modernist poetry and women’s writing in the twentieth century. Her thesis focused on the spiritual writing of women associated with the Beat and San Francisco Renaissance movements. She currently teaches at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.