I was saddened to hear the news via Facebook that Judith Roche died at her home in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood tonight. (Thursday, November 14, 2019). I had a chance to visit her last week and she was not able to speak after having several strokes. I attempted to let her know telepathically that I loved her and to have strength in her journey. I am very grateful that I had a chance to see her one last time and that she told her daughter Tari that she would like to see me was much appreciated.
As I said many times when introducing her at different SPLAB events, she ran the Bumbershoot Literary stage at the height of its excellence, with a broad aesthetic range shaped by her studies with Robert Duncan and her friendship with Diane di Prima, two giants in the New American Poetry. Her stewardship of that stage was like the beginning of the literary season in Seattle after the summers when the Seattle literary arts were, by and large, on hold. The list of giants she had read there is like a who’s who in North American poetry. When she left that post, Bumbershoot was never the same. Her own work was informed by the New American poetry, but had a grace and feminine power, like the work of her friend Diane di Prima. This in an era where it was not an easy role to have. She mastered it. We shared Midwest roots. She was from Detroit and I grew up in Chicago and I felt we had many affinities.
The Seattle literary arts community is not the same tonight. I am grateful I had a chance to interview her in 2016 and it is likely the last time she was interviewed. Rest in power dear poet.
The second interview with former Catholic Nun Mary Norbert Körte was conducted by your humble narrator on Friday, October 25, 2019. While the woodstove fire crackled in the background, she elaborated on her family because she felt that she had been too harsh on them in our interview the previous day. See: https://paulenelson.com/2019/11/05/interview-with-beat-nun-mary-norbert-korte/ She also relatd how her mother was worried about her because she was hanging out with “people who commit adultery and don’t eat right.” She talked about the connection of Beat (as in Beat poet) to the word beatitude, the notion of poets as “oddballs” like the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, the coincidental names of places where she has found herself living and how she has felt guided all her life. She also talked about how that guidance in life also happens in her process of composing poetry as Jack Spicer talked about. Poet as radio “receiver.” Part 3, 9:43.
She discussed how her Mother Superior at the convent attempted to censor her poetry and her response to that effort. She discussed the last line of her 1968 Oyez press chapbook Beginning of Lines and how the Catholic church would never allow such material to be published in association with the church. She declined to read from that book because at the time she was struggling and it was a painful time for her. She said that the church put into her a “terror of the afterlife” and she can’t let that go.
She also talked about being in the convent and visiting the Allen Cohen at the offices of the underground paper The Oracle, wanting to be in the company of poets and the trouble she had when one of her poems was published there and how she respected Lenore Kandel’s work, though many at the time felt it was pornographic. Part 4, 10:58.
She discussed how her body of work is scattered around (“all over the place”) and how much of it was lost in a fire, some lost in a flood and some lost in a crashed computer. She talked about her friendship with Denise Levertov, how Levertov’s work scared her, that it “cut to the bone” and this in contrast to her person, which was “kind, gentle and kinda school-teacherish.” She talked about her influence on people and she said if she ever influenced someone the impulse came through her and from “somewhere else.” She talked about how she ended up in Willits, California,with her then partner Peter Veblen Van Fleet, answering an ad in the paper for a caretaker of land and how she heard a voice in her said saying that she would live on that property forever. She recited one of Peter’s poems. Part 5, 12.21.
She discussed the local indigenous culture, that she realized when seeing a billboard that said: “STOP TERMINATION” she understood that she lived in, in her words: “Indian Country.” She talked about teaching English to the local Native people, then running the literacy program and then becoming the Environmental Director. She talked about having a mortgage in her 80s, wishing someone would donate $60,000 to her cause someday and discussed local indigenous use of the area where she lives. She also discussed how she learned about proper handling of indigenous artifacts. Part 6, 11:12.
She talked about her response to Michael McClure’s book Ghost Tantras and how she wrote a response poem in the margins of the book and how it was discovered by Ammiel Alcalay and is set to be published as A Strange Gift and as part of the Lost & Found Series organized by The Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She talked about her relationship with “beast language,” the language in which McClure mixed with English to create the Ghost Tantras. She found it hard to look at her old work, saying her life: “used to be the lines of the Goddess, now it’s gas lines and water lines.” She read a few of her responses. She talked about her friendship with McClure. Part 7, 9:25.
She discussed Hunter Thompson, Gertrude Stein’s notion that “we feel the same inside all our lives” and read two of her poems, “Tell the Doc” and “The Cult of Firewood.” Part 8, 10:57.
She made a splash as “the nun” at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, where she engaged Jack Spicer about 30s union songs, considering them as poetry and had a spiritual (poetry) epiphany. Since the early 70s she’s been living off the grid in extreme Southern Cascadia, getting arrested for civil disobedience, fighting for environmental justice and writing poetry inspired by former teachers Lew Welch and William Everson, among others. Mary Norbert Körte was featured in the anthology Women of the Beat Generation as a Redwood Mama Activist and, at 85, she still is.
Mary and Bhakti
Bhakti Watts and I had the good fortune to travel the seven mile dirt road off Highway 20 west of Willits, California to visit Mary at her off-the-grid home and get a sense of the territory she has come to know so well and commit her life to preserving.
On Thursday, October 24, 2019, Mary wasted no time talking about her life. We launched right into the beginning of the questions I had prepared, starting with the blurb she got decades ago from William Everson, aka Brother Antoninus, who like Mary was in the church for a significant period of time.
A series of women poets emerged in San Francisco who identified with the established Beat Poets even as they challenged them on their grounds [including] Joanne Kyger and Mary Norbert Körte… of these, the career of Mary Norbert Körte most sharply defines the historic tension between the women of service and the women of passion. The strongest woman poet to emerge in the West … she became a student of Lew Welch, cracking convention within the bastion of the religions order.
In the first segment, she talked about going into the church and felt that to call her family “devout” was a simplistic way of stating what happened. She wanted out of the conservative, upper middle class, world of “white privilege” in which she was raised.
She read the poem: Eddie Mae The Cook Dreamed Sister Mary Ran Off With Allen Ginsburg (sic) and discussed how her community of nuns valued scholarship. She told a story about translating chants from Latin and how she had to slightly alter the translation to create something that would not be as controversial. She also talked about her Mother Superior and how, at the Berkeley Poetry Conference: “the world of poetry opened up to” (her). She ended the segment by reading the recent poem Lares Et Penates.
In the second segment recorded October 24, 2019, she discussed correspondence with Jack Spicer, Lew Welch and Thomas Merton and how she has lost all of those letters. She talked about meeting Lew Welch and studying with him. Said in his letter to her he wrote that the call of poetry was as great as any priesthood and any religious persuasion could ever imagine to be. She discussed her antiwar activism, about watching the 1963 March on Washington, how Dr. King’s presence and the music by Peter, Paul & Mary (If I Had a Hammer) and Bob Dylan changed the way she heard music and opened her eyes to a different world than the world of white privilege which was all she had ever known. She also talked about her friendship with poet William Everson, Brother Antoninus and how he was concerned about the position of the poet in the world. She said that “poets are the soul of any nation.” She discussed bringing turkey to the Diggers and Diane di Prima. She read her poem Hibernian Voodoo. Listen to Part 2 of the October 24, 2019 interview. 15:10.
Next post, a longer interview from October 25, 2019, and more photos.