Tribute to Keith Wilson

Last Sunday the Duende Poetry Series in Placitas, NM, hosted a tribute for the poet Keith Wilson. Keith, now 80 years old, is frail and in poor health, following a series of strokes. He understands what others are saying but is not capable of making simple sentences or even words without enormous struggle. It's a terrible sickness for a poet. And to make matters worse, the day before the event he had to begin using a walker. The hosts were kind enough to ask me to introduce the event. I was honored. Below is my tribute to Keith that I wrote for the occasion. In an aferword following, I'll say more about the event, the Duende Poetry Series and its organizers.

Duende Poetry Series
Placitas, New Mexico
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Welcome, as Jerome Rothenberg would say, to the Paradise of Poets. Welcome, as Gertrude Stein might say, to the continuous now of poetry. We are here today to honor poet Keith Wilson, and by our presence, the radiant beast of poetry survives. We nourish her by making our poems, we nourish her by reading the poems of others, by hearing aloud the poems of others, by buying books of poems and by sharing these poems and talking about these poems and the poetics that we discover in these poems.

It’s a peculiar idea, thinking of poetry as a creature of biology, an ethereal animal made of words and ideas and rhythms of language and culture. An animal that was birthed in the chants and drumbeats of our collective pre-history and which continues to breathe the air of our contemporary wanderings through, and experiments with, our language. I began learning about this idea when I was school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, 1963 to 1965. Keith and Heloise Wilson were kind enough to invite me into their home and there I discovered a household of poetry. It was a unique place. The idea of poetry and art as community and as a continuous thread of understanding seeped into my mind and heart. In Tucson that community of poetry was centered in the Wilson household. I met Bob Creeley, Gary Snyder, Robert Sward, Barney Childs, Paul Malanga, Drummond Hadley, Diana Hadley, George Bowering and so many others. We talked about poetry, especially about the poetry that rooted itself in Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson--the New American Poetry as anthologized by Donald Allen. Keith was a role model. He always had at his side his notebook where he was working on his poems. I listened to Keith’s early work in manuscript and saw him rejoice when Gino Sky and Drew Wagnon, editors of the mimeographed little magazine Wild Dog, decided to publish a poem, his first publication. I remember Keith being enthralled with Jack Spicer’s work. He borrowed books and typed them up, duplicating the format of the book and creating his own librito, doing a mockup of the cover. The practice he told me was to feel the words and to learn how and why Spicer broke his lines the way he did. He typed other poems and books he admired. He was obsessed with his writing, and his obsession was contagious. He was, like for so many of us, a role model of what a poet is. It was a wonderful time, and I learned so much, being in that community which so much created by the presence of Keith and Heloise. In the 70s, when Jerome Rothenberg began to publish his anthologies and theorizing about the life of poetry, I knew immediately what he was talking about. It made perfect sense.

That was over 40 years ago now. So much has happened. Keith and Heloise, with their children--Kathy, Kristin, Kevin and Kerrin (aka Turtle)--moved their household and their menagerie of dogs and cats and yes friends to Las Cruces. Keith became an important teacher of poetry at New Mexico State and his presence there attracted other poets. Las Cruces became an outpost of the New American poetics, and Keith’s poetry became a cornerstone of contemporary New Mexico and southwestern poetry. Indeed, the poetry of our nation. We have all benefited in our own ways from the work he has done, the way his life of poems evolved and fed the beast. And during all of that time the Wilson household has continued to be a center of poetry. Many hours I have sat around that dining table on Locust and talked and laughed and argued and hooted about people and ideas and poems and family and about sorrow. The core of those hours and days was always poems. For me I cannot separate Keith and his poems from that kitchen table; I cannot separate Keith and his poems from the community of poetry that he and Heloise have fostered in their lives. I would not be standing here without the presence of Keith and Heloise in my life. This is the Paradise of Poets. The continuous now of poetry survives. Like Keith we write ours poems in the flow of this unending history. We write in the margins of our culture, we are ignored, but that is okay somehow. Our work somehow survives in the language, in the way the culture experiences the world. And we are doing what we love to do.

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The Tribute to Keith was a wonderful event emceed by the poet Larry Goodell. This event followed one held earlier in the year in Las Cruces and hosted by the Sin Fronteras Reading Series. Both were emotionally exhausting, but quite different, probably because the Duende event was held in the nice open air ramada of the Anazazi Winery in Placitas. People mostly came from Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, El Paso and Tucson. Heloise Wilson, Keith’s wife of all these years, read a series of poems that Keith had dedicated to their children (Kristin, Kevin and Kerrin were present, along with three grandchildren). She was followed by a great group of poets and friends and family, all telling stories and reading their favorite Keith Wilson poems—poets Leo Romero, E.A. Tony Mares, David Johnson, Karen McKinnon, Wayne Crawford, Dick Thomas, Gary Brower, Larry Goodell, JB Bryan, son Kevin Wilson and daughter Kristin Wilson, ecologist Peter Warshall and others I may have (forgive me) forgotten. After it was over Keith seemed stunned and in a strange but exhausted ecstasy. Readers and listeners, once done, felt likewise. Friends were crying openly and hugging each other. The community of poets and poetry and art can sometimes be so wonderful. Luckily, Larry and Lenore hosted a huge potluck dinner. Their house was crowded with people and kids. The dogs wagged their tails, the fish swam in the pond, the chickens stayed in their coop, the sun was shining bright, the food was delicious and too much, likewise the wine and the beer. My gosh.

The Duende Poetry Series is old school 1960s stuff organized by survivors of those times—Larry and Lenore Goodell, JB and Cirrelda Bryan, Gary Brower and others who throw in their support from time to time. With a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, they have hosted a variety of events, including a memorial reading for Bob Creeley (he had lived in Placitas back in the day when he was teaching at UNM), Acoma poet Simon Ortiz reading with his two daughters Rainy and Sara Marie, a performance by the great old time folk fusion Bayou Seco band (aka Jeannie McLearie and Ken Keppler plus all their assorted friends along with a cornucopia of instruments), and others.

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A note about this tribute I wrote for Keith: So much of what I do (especially my poetry and tasks at hand like this tribute) seems to me like luck (good, bad or indifferent) mixed with improvisation. Or vice versa. JB and Larry had asked me a month or so ago to do something to introduce Keith and so I've been thinking about it. I had been thinking about Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies, his sense of the ongoing body of poetry as a living being. I've always loved his work, especially his and George Quasha's anthology, America, A Prophecy, the first and probably only anthology I read from beginning to end like one reads a novel, so I had been looking for my beatup copy of the book to re-read the introduction. (I first met Rothenberg at Keith and Heloise's house after a wonderful reading at NMSU in Las Cruces--his reading of the poem "All the world needs is a 5-cent cigar" was an important event for me, helped me look differently about the way I go about poetry.) Then on the Ron Silliman blog I saw the link to the discussion of Jerry's poem "A Paradise of Poets"--hosted by Al Filreis and featuring poets Randall Couch, Bob Holman and Jessica Lowenthal--at the Poetry Foundation website. Then soon afterward Jerry sent out an email announcing his new blog, so I simply riffed off that stuff. That's how poetry works, I think. At least for me. That's what Rothenberg has been saying all of these years.

In the next week or so I'll have more about Keith and his work. Hopefully, Joe Somoza will allow me to publish his introduction to the first tribute for Keith held in Las Cruces. His was more biographical, especially in discussing how Keith developed a poetics fit to the occasion of his own voice. I also have a couple of nice videos of Larry reading poems. Stay tuned.


Halvard Johnson said...

Many thanks for all this, Bobby. I wish I could have been there.


Anonymous said...

noted the mention of AMERICA A PROPHECY

found my copy again, & yes it is truly great tho shocked by how yellow the paper is & doubly shocked that a new book isn't available at all i mean what gives?

this book should be as important as NEW AMERICAN POETRY in big picture it's the real "new western writing" --ties much together and should be read cover to cover and then some, it's still fresh

yr blog is great because it feels like actual history at streetlevel


Anonymous said...

thanks Bobby,

here is one nice piece of his via the RS blog..

Burro Man

I heard he went
away, old Maximiliano,
took his burros
down the trail one
day and never came

some say he died
others just shake their
heads and wonder what
he did down there

with sixteen burros
the world being
what it is today and no
room for burros

when someone tells me "you're just an old Jack Ass"
I 'take it' as a compliment.
hang in, Ed

Robert Sward said...


Thank you for this moving posting and, please, if you're able, communicate our respects to Keith. Years and years since I last saw Keith, but he is certainly in our thoughts. Please keep us posted...
robert sward