Interview with Beat Nun Mary Norbert Körte

November 5, 2019
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.

Listen to Part 1: 24:06

Video of MNK Reading 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.



  1. Judith Copithorne

    A great interview. I only so far have listened to part 1. She is quite a woman. I have trouble these days dealing with mushy thinking about the RC church, it had done so much damage in the world and that is a lot more out in the open so it is harder than ever to just call it conservative and let commentary on how it is still operating go. None the less or aside from that she is definitely worth hearing and so thank you for producing this.

  2. Judith Copithorne

    I have made a couple of comments but they just disappear. I am wondering why. Mary Norbert Korte is definitely impressive. She obviously has a brilliant mind. I appreciate your interview!

    • Splabman

      Judith! Once you make a comment it is not automatically posted unless you have made a previous comment. I was out driving and could not approve it until now. Yes, Mary has lived a mythic life. She left the church about 50 years ago thinking the same thing you are articulating here. Thanks for reading.

  3. Judith Copithorne

    But then why is she called a nun though? Ex-nun might be more applicable perhaps. I will see if i can find some of her poetry. Great that she has that back ground in the latin classics. I would like to hear more about what she got up to regarding feminism in particular especially at the 1964 or later big San Fransisco poetry conferences. I need to see wat I missed in the interviews also.

  4. elsewhereintherain

    She is Siddhartha! Amazing poetry and an amazing life. Thanks for introducing her.

  5. Jerome Fitzmaurice

    Interesting. Another leaf from the Beats. Thank you.

  6. Linda Alioto Wendt

    Interesting to discover this site. Sister Norbert was my teacher in 1965-68.


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