Remembering Kathleen Fraser

In Memoriam: Kathleen Fraser (1935-2019)

By Stephen Motika

In 2004, I asked Kathleen Fraser to teach a poetry workshop at Poets House. Shearrived in New York with scissors to encourage her students to cut up and collage their poems. She had recently completed “hi dde violeth i dde violet,” which began as a poem written over the Easter holiday in Italy to amuse her friend, the poet Norma Cole, who had just suffered a stroke in San Francisco. Kathleen found the poem static and uninspired, so filed it away, until invited to participate in a gallery show, then blew it up and cut it up, creating something a new. The finished poem is rooted in sound and shape, the typographic expression of Kathleen’s voice and then the manipulation by her hands. It was the most inventive of scores; I saw her read the poem a handful of times and she always read it as if making a discovery.

Discovery might have been Kathleen’s middle name, which is in fact Joy, and her work in language in all its capacities caused her great joy. She was not a fast writer, but she wrote consistently from her late teens until a couple of years before her death. She arrived in New York in the late 1950s and learned to write an accomplished lyric poem; she sold three of these poems to The New Yorker. Harper & Row published two of her books in the 1970s, but she then left New York and it’s patriarchal publishers behind. Her heart was with small presses. She published books with Kayak, Penumbra, Tuumba, The Figures, Kelsey Street, Lapis, Chax, Apogee, and finally Nightboat, where I worked with her on her last book, movable TYYPE. The book is comprised of her collage work–many created in collaboration with visual artists and published as artist’s books–and her forays into short-form narrative writing. She was an avid fiction reader and film watcher late in life, and you can see the impression of those genres on those last poems. I love the way the wild, fragmentary collage work is sandwiched between her more narrative prose pieces, both the result of rigorous editing and rearranging, another set of her core values.

After the publication of movable TYYPE, her once robust missives began to dwindle, then ceased to arrive, first stuck in drafts, then left unrecorded as fragments in her mind. On her last visit to New York, we went too see an exhibition of paintings by Fay Lansner and poet Barbara Guest. She had no trouble reading the looping letters and words of her late friend’s poetry, immediately drawn to the visual play and inventiveness of “MAKING LARGE MARKING,” as she herself described it in her poem “ii ss.” Her making/marking will forever be a favorite of mine. How I miss getting to see her in action.

From “To book as in to foal. To son.”

By Kathleen Fraser

3. pedagogy
Catching two words… pulling apart and repasting… to tear at its lines, to
open… watching lines elasticize… recovering one… often to be starting and not
finishing… and scribbled over pages drawn to their edges… to find this peculiar
path and follow its constant changing… to choose the ticking body parts and the
knocking poem unable to speak… to talk to it… to glue each sentence together
with parts of its making… to have written the sentence’s smooth beauty and, later,
to break it apart… to let the poem pour from the closest, long erratic music-
tugging lines and word horde of the broken-in-on nightlight.