Fowler, Gene

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Nationality: American. Born: Oakland, California, 5 October 1931. Education: Oakland High School, graduated 1949. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army, 1950–53. Family: Married April Corioso in 1981; one step-daughter. Career: Worked as a nightclub and specialty performer, 1949–50, and as an appliance salesman and medical records clerk. Served prison sentence for armed robbery, San Quentin Prison, 1954–59. Clerk and semi-official computer programmer, University of California, Berkeley, 1959–63; poet-in-residence, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, summer 1970. Founder, The Re-Geniusing Project, Berkeley, 1981. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1970. Address: 1432 Spruce Street, Berkeley, California, 94709, U.S.A.



Field Studies. 24 El Cerrito, California, Dustbooks, 1965.

Quarter Tones. Grande Ronde, Oregon, GRR Press, 1966.

Shaman Songs. El Cerrito, California, Dustbooks, 1967.

Her Majesty's Ship. Sacramento, California, Grande Ronde Press, 1969.

Fires. Berkeley, California, Thorp Springs Press, 1971.

Vivisection. Berkeley, California, Thorp Springs Press, 1974.

Felon's Journal. San Francisco, Second Coming Press, 1975.

Fires: Selected Poems 1963–1976. Berkeley, California, Thorp Springs Press, 1975.

Return of the Shaman. San Francisco, Second Coming Press, 1981.

The Quiet Poems. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Wren Press, 1982.


Waking the Poet. Berkeley, California, Re-Geniusing Project, 1967.


Critical Study: By James K. Bell, in Eikon (Ogunquit, Maine),i. 1, 1967.

Gene Fowler comments:

(1980) There are no "positions" for nonacademic poets. Officially I am illiterate. Not qualified to teach the use of language, existing literature, or other such.

I am not and have never been a member of a school of poetry, though reviewers have tried to stuff me into one or another. I battle against such entities.

Whitman wrote critical analysis of his own work—but under other names. I've done what amounts to c.a. in letters. But here I'll say only what I believe I'm up to. I want to write poems that when recalled are confused with the reader's own experiences, not recalled—at first—as "something read" but as "something that happened." Fighting against myth perpetuated by both outlaws and academics that craft is the same thing as academic tone. I take the Orphic myth literally. Believe words can induce and manipulate perceptions. Intend in my poems to prove this.

(1985) Beyond entertaining, informing, or even transforming the listener or reader with the shaped contents of poems, it's possible, in the making of the poem in the recipient's awareness, to rouse the experience-making faculties, the poet, in that listener or reader. And by guiding that poet through the shaping of my poem, to stir it to life, to "waken" it. While I teach this waking in seminar-workshops and in my "seminar in a book," Waking the Poet, the main work in my poems, too, is this waking of the active or working poet in my listener… or listening reader.

(1995) I continue to cultivate the deep-seated crafts usually called "talents" and thought to result from a throw of the genetic dice. And to function as a "village explainer" regarding those crafts. There'll be a third Fires in a year or two and some gathered letters. I've boxes of Waking on my porch and will send on to anybody who buys pack room on the U.S. Mule. Beyond A.D. 2000 and beyond, or through, the poems, I'm working on language, even word birthing … nudging at the Amerish that'll be spoken in, say, 2094.

*  *  *

American prisons, as in the case of Gene Fowler, can be a school for poets. Prison is self-education, but Fowler's Felon's Journal can educate the hopelessly honest. Fowler sees himself, however, not as an outlaw but as a shaman, writing insightful poems of everyday life.

Fowler is a contemporary symbolist, a maker of surprising equations. In poems like "The Lover" these equations develop dramatically and become revelations: the body of the beloved is the earth. "The Words" is a little allegory about writing:

   I carry boulders across the day
   From the field to the ridge,
   and my back grows tired …
   I take a drop of sweat
   Onto my thumb
   Watch the wind furrow its surface,
   Dream of a morning
   When my furrows will shape this field,
   When these rocks will form my house.
   Alone, with heavy arms,
   I listen through the night to older farms.

Fowler finds writing a heavy labor. His rhythms, in poems like "Venus Returns to the Sea," are heavy. He likes Venus and Adonis in Roman mythology, and, like Gregory Corso, who also served time in prison, Fowler likes Greece. But what happens to words transmuted into poems? They grow hot, like coals or fires:

   i come upon stones
   in the wind shoved grasses
   they wait
curled in on themselves
   i reach out to touch
   sun warmed quiet and flame
   jumps to scorch my fingers.

Fires is Fowler's first major collection. Shaman Songs, a chapbook collected and edited in Fires, compares society to an Indian tribe and the poet to a neglected shaman. The songs go behind symbol and allegory to ritual and magic, as in "On Taking Coal from the Fire in Naked Fingers":

   The word
   is in the hand.
   Under the moon
   in the hand.
   At the head of the valley
   in the hand.
   It glows in the hand.
   Look here
   in the hand.
   Look at the word
   in the hand.
   It glows.
   A great translucence
   in the hand.
   Go thru the translucence
   in the hand.
   Into the world
   in the hand.

The repetition of "in the hand" creates chant and suggests power: the future is not in the hand of God but in the hand of the shaman. Fowler discovered the shaman at about the time another, more famous West Coast poet, Gary Snyder, did so.

The Quiet Poems, a later collection, is sophisticated, polished, and relaxed. But my favorite collection has the mock-Hollywood title Return of the Shaman.

—Michael Andre