Nationality: American. Born: Tulsa, Oklahoma, 22 March 1937. Education: Occidental College, Los Angeles, B.A. in English 1959; Columbia University and New School for Social Research, both New York, 1960–61; San Francisco State University, 1976–77, Doctoral Equivalency in creative writing. Family: Married Jack Marshall, q.v., in 1961 (divorced 1970); one son. Career: Visiting professor, Writers Workshop, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1969–71; writer-in-residence, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, 1971–72. Director of the Poetry Center, 1972–75, associate professor of creative writing, 1975–78, and since 1978 professor, San Francisco State University. Founding editor, HOW(ever).Awards: YMYWHA Discovery award, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969, and fellowship, 1978. Address: 554 Jersey Street, San Francisco, California 94114, U.S.A.
Change of Address and Other Poems. San Francisco, Kayak, 1966.
In Defiance of the Rains. Santa Cruz, California, Kayak, 1969.
Little Notes to You from Lucas Street. Iowa City, Penumbra Press, 1972.
What I Want. New York, Harper, 1974.
Magritte Series. Willits, California, Tuumba Press, 1978.
New Shoes. New York, Harper, 1978.
Each Next. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Figures, 1980.
Something (Even Human Voices) in the Foreground, A Lake. Berkeley, California, Kelsey State Press, 1984.
Notes Preceding Trust. Venice, California, Lapis Press, 1987.
Boundary. Santa Monica, California, Lapis Press, 1988.
Giotto, Arena. Elmwood, Connecticut, Abacus, 1991.
when new time folds up. Minneapolis, Chax Press, 1993.
Recordings: The Poetry of Kathleen Fraser, McGraw Hill, n.d.; Even Human Voices, Watershed, 1986.
Other (for children)
Stilts, Somersaults, and Headstands: Game Poems Based on a Painting by Peter Breughel. New York, Atheneum, 1968.
Adam's World: San Francisco, with Miriam F. Levy. Chicago, Whitman. 1971.
Editor, Feminist Poetics: A Consideration of the Female Construction of Language. San Francisco, San Francisco State University, 1984.*
Critical Studies: Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser by Linda A. Kinnahan, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1994; interview, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 39(1), spring 1998, and "Infectious Ecstacy: Toward a Poetics of Performative Transformation," in Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, edited by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1999, both by Cynthia Hogue.
Kathleen Fraser comments:
My poetry has moved from girlish, Plath-fed lyrics, first published in the mid-1960s, toward a recognition—inside the poem—of life as a more undecided and precarious process. Language is, for me, exploratory—the fluid and changing record of daily risk taking. I use my writing to locate myself in particulars, to catch the multiplicity, the layering of thoughts, feelings, visual impressions experienced simultaneously. Writing is, in a sense, taking a reading on what has thus far transpired and what my attitude toward it is. There is, hopefully, a movement back and forth. I use my poetry as my most serious way of paying attention to the world outside of my own interior struggle. The poems begin as acts of attention and try to allow in whatever is there waiting to make itself heard. And seen. I regard the ability to write as a gift that must be honored with the utmost seriousness. My great permission giver, in learning to use that gift, was Frank O'Hara. He still appears in my dreams as a guide and friend. I am also deeply indebted to Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein for complexity. American jazz (particularly Eddie Jefferson's lyrics and Betty Carter's scat) has made a much greater range of tonalities and movements available to me. Painting has always been important and often provides paths to unconscious material that I bring into the poetry. Surely my father's early chanting of limericks and lyrics from Alice and Through the Looking-Glass will always be there as playful resonance in my work. And my mother's singing. To catch the exact angle of light as two planes shift. To catch the unbroken moment between two people and speak it.* * *
Kathleen Fraser's early poetry bears the imprint of the New York school, especially of Kenneth Koch, with whom she studied in the 1960s. The tone is one of playful self-mockery, as in
But over here, where it's dark out,
I'm just me
feeling uneasy in these nights
cold and black.
I turn the heat up
thinking other people's lives
In "Because You Aren't Here to Be What I Can't Think Of" Fraser invents a dazzling inventory reminiscent of Koch's "Sleeping with Women" or Frank O'Hara's "Having a Coke with You." In this catalog poem the speaker blithely tries to convince herself that she is not going to care about her lover's involvement with someone else, all the while doing everything in her power to conjure up his presence. The distance between the lovers takes on fantastic proportions: "Because the moon's another streetlight and your lights are off, and on in someone else's" or "Because there's a saxophone playing between our telephones but you can't pick it up." Yet, injured party that she is, the speaker wryly and wisely concludes that, life being what it is, things could be worse: "because I'm not on a dancefloor with you, but here, / hanging out with my shadow over a city of windows, / lit-up, imagining another kind of life almost like this one." The lover's absence is irritating but not, finally, tragic. The same rueful comedy and witty analysis are found in "The Fault," in which the poet watches another woman make the wrong moves toward a man she herself has not hitherto paid much notice to but whom she now suddenly finds an attractive challenge:
I felt myself in love with him watching his tongue run over
and remembered Fredericka
always keeping the tube of vaseline in her purse
always gliding it over her mouth should there be someone
and thought how I liked space and long unending lines,
how my life
was that way, without visible connections or obvious
how I was glad
I'd washed my hair
From this early, jaunty poetry Fraser has moved on to compose a much more serious and ambitious lyric. The confluence of the feminist movement, in which Fraser has been extremely active—she was the founding editor of HOW(ever), an important journal of women's avant-garde poetry and poetics—and the language school, together with a strong sense of the visual arts already latent in her New York period, gave birth to the series of prose poems and complex phenomenological lyrics collected in New Shoes, Each Next, and Notes Preceding Trust. For example, "L'Invention Collective/Collective Invention," one of the Magritte Series, is based on the painter's grotesque and haunting image of a sort of reverse mermaid, a fish with human legs, slender and feminine, and with pubic hair. In Magritte's painting the fish-woman is oddly erotic and repulsive, and the single blank fish eye confronts the beholder, whose eye is drawn downward to her (its?) lower parts. She lies on the edge of the beach, the whitecaps of a picture-book blue ocean beating pointlessly behind her. Fraser invents a narrative that can incorporate this image. Her story is of a tacky domestic heroine, part comic book, part fairy tale, whose role in life is to keep things "neat and tidy" so that she is quite unable to "see / her seducers in a line and shaking their fingers." Only in her dreams does she see herself lying "at the edge of the waters," the sand scratching her body, and watch herself turn into a fish—"a face cut deep with gills and the sad eyes panting / and the absolute quiet of something about to arrive." What this something is we do not know, but it is frightening in the poem as well as in Magritte's painting. The pose of the figure invites rape, but what would that mean in this context? Fraser is playing with notions of smugness and self-deception, exploring the fantasy life of the little woman who wanted life for herself and her boy to be "as fresh as Watermelon slice."
The prose poems in Each Next carry on the painterly motive of the Magritte Series, but Fraser now fragments her texts, shifting from one pronoun to another and collaging snatches of conversation (remarks by Grace [Paley] and Francie [Shaw]) with images of green and blue (the swimming pool setting) and memories of previous swims, so as to create a taut "field of action" where words become the actors. The poet's drive toward greater density and ellipsis reaches its height in Notes Preceding Trust, many of whose poems are dark dreamscapes like "Everything You Ever Wanted," which begins with
I do not trust these glaring invitations to break into green. An apple, viewed as a journey: have a bite, another bite. A red and yellow street, all dashes and splashing. Or white teeth moving in, just under the skin. First comes the comma, then the period. Walking on water, then stepping into a long breath trying to catch up. I am having trouble finding where to take the first step.
The narrative begins in a fairy-tale vein but is broken by "commonsense" observations like "first comes the comma, then the period." The ensuing dream creates a curious doubling; the poet is aware of her legs, tucked up under her, but sees them "swinging up and out over the edge to the floor." She starts to eat, but "there is nothing to eat but a small dish of buttons." Even when she awakes and finds "a key in my wine glass," put there by a "person I desire," she cannot respond. Rather, she is recalled to routine, to "the list of necessary distractions," where "each task has a check mark next to it, a little gesture on the map's white silence." "Everything you wanted," this delicate prose poem implies, is nevertheless not within "your" grasp, for women are conditioned to be practical, to take care of others, to put "check marks" where they belong. Hence the difficulty of "break[ing] into green," a difficulty subtly dramatized in this and related poems in Each Next.
In her book when new time folds up Fraser moves into more public spaces. The lead poem, "Etruscan Places," alternates meditative free verse, pictograms, and documentary prose (for example, the letters to a friend named Annalisa) so as to probe the marks and traces of Etruscan culture as it continues to animate our lives today. Fraser's einfühlung into the artifacts of ancient Rome, into the "narrow walkway wide enough for territorial smuggle," is masterly on all counts. The "remorse" of the city becomes hers in these spare and delicate poems, poems that "include history" in new and subtle ways.
At one point Fraser wrote, "Love has always been the motivating force in my life." She has always written with the assertion that language and form have the capability to surmount grief and loss. Il Cuore: The Heart: Selected Poems, 1970–1995, a collection from her previous twelve books of poetry, spans the thematic, formal, and philosophical ways in which she has addressed loss, love, and writing poetry. In one of the earlier poems included in the volume, "The History of My Feeling" from What I Want, she accounts for personal emotional weight:
I knew clearly that I hated you for entering me profoundly, for taking me inside you, for husbanding me, claiming all that I knew and did not know, you letting me go from you into this unpredictable and loneliest of weathers.
Clear language and image mark these earlier poems and evoke considerable emotional depth. Pushing toward identification in the form of a shared language, however socially acceptable, is what Fraser terms an "osmosis of rubbing up." When she utilizes this pressure in the sphere of a wider social landscape, her poetry gains even more force. She addresses notions of the present that lie buried in the past as well as ideological and cultural tensions. A deeper personal context becomes contingent on a deeper cultural context. Personal indeterminacy finds its origins outside the self. History gains as a critical lens through which to centralize the self.
"Etruscan Pages," from when new time folds up, marks this turn to an equation between the cultural and the personal, between history and memory. The meditation on a trip to Etruscan burial sites includes the statement "we know what each mark [of Etruscan writing] is equal to / but not, in retrospect, what was intended." Ultimately the desire for a language outside the personal so that one might avoid the eclipsing power of history seems to be at the core of these poems. She writes in the poem, "Medusa's hair was snakes. Was thought, split inward," "Historical continuity / accounts for knowing what dead words point to." The apparently personal concerns become laced with the significance and permanence of history:
Grief is simple and dark
as this bridge or hidden field where something did
and may again, or your face receding behind the window
a possible emptying
Loss is part of the circumscribed self—"your face receding behind the window"—but the subjective and the historical are contingent on one another. For Fraser the poem is the site of such a conflation:
Writing is, in part, a record of our struggle to be human, as well as our delight in reimagining/reconstructing the formal designs and boundaries of what we've been given. If we don't make our claim, the world is simply that which others have described for us.
Fraser's world is lush with the power of language and its vigorous forms. For her the infusion of the personal in the historical is the concern at the "heart" of her generous and brilliant life of poetry and letters.
—Marjorie Perloff and