Review of Baby Beat Generation, Companion Quote: Kaye McDonough by Charles Ries
Charles Ries likes to interview the poets whose work he reviews. Charles spoke to a number of the poets included in Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance (also reviewed in this issue), but Kaye McDonough’s remarks especially struck a chord with him. Too long to include in the review, McDonough’s assessment of the roles and lives of women during the 2nd San Francisco Renaissance was also too important to leave on the cutting room floor. Charles forwarded me the full statement he took from her, and I have decided to present it as a companion piece to his review. —Ed.
Blue, Kristen, Jackie Baks, Tisa Walden, and my closest friend from that time, Alix Geluardi, would each have quite a story to tell. All the women from that period were just terrific, exciting people—well—the men, too! What brought us all there? I’m still trying to sort it all out.
The thought of a safe and comfortable bourgeois married life in Pittsburgh (where I am from) seemed constrained to me. When I was 18 (1961), I remember trying to convince a friend (a woman) to go on an expedition in search of the Lost Dutchman Mine in the Southwest, a place I’d never been, not because I wanted the gold, but because I wanted an Adventure with a capital “A.” I have a feeling I wasn’t the only woman coming into North Beach who just did not want to settle for a woman’s life as it was then. At that time (mid to late 60s) women’s job listings in the newspaper were actually separate from the men’s. When I got into Vassar College on Early Admissions, my father saw no point in my going. He wanted me to go to the secretarial school Katie Gibbs instead, but my mother prevailed. With the help of my grandmother and Aunt Lihi, she paid for me to go college. As the first woman realtor in the Allegheny Valley she was able to. I knew only two women who had gone to graduate school. I thought all women did was get married. If you were unlucky, you’d go be a teacher, or worse a secretary—but I didn’t actually know anyone who did that. In the Pittsburgh I grew up in, women got married and lived off their husbands and went to “the club” even if they’d gone to college.
My mother was an exception. She was independent and I wanted to be independent, too. How to live a different kind of life—or at least try out a different kind of life before “settling”—that was the problem in a nutshell.
At Vassar, before I went out West, I was an English writing major and had a wonderful teacher Miss Mercer who encouraged me. But my sophomore year I had so many disagreements with my narrative writing teacher that I left my major altogether for Art History. Most of my Vassar and Pgh. friends were engaged to be married, or about to be, before they even graduated. I was lucky and met one or two wild cards among the women—Hudgins and Connie Berry—they wanted to travel and talk about literature and art and explore. (We’re still friends—Hudgins, aka Elizabeth Spinner, being one of my closest) As I saw it, you couldn’t live back East and live an unconventional life—so I went to California.
I Ended up graduating from Berkeley in 1967. I met my first poets in Berkeley and fell in love with one of the best, Frank Sears. (He was killed when I was 24.) Other than Edna St. Vincent Millay, the only role models among women poets and writers I had heard of by that time were Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf—They had all committed suicide, not something I really looked forward to doing!
I remember the thrill of going into Vesuvio’s all by myself and standing at the bar and ordering a drink just the way a man did. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the men, paid for myself, just like a man, I supported myself in a minimal way, and met some of the most wonderful poets writing in the 20th century as an unforeseen result. Lucky me!
Unlike the circumscribed world of the college poetry workshop now in vogue (as far as I know they didn’t even have poetry workshops then—no one I ever knew or had heard about before I went to California was a poet, let alone a woman poet), literary life in North Beach was open to everyone—rich, poor, blue, green, red.
Readings at Minnie’s Can Do (run by Ruth Weiss) and at the Coffee Gallery were open. The hotels like the New Riv, the Tevere, the Basque, were open to everyone with the price of admission, $25 a week I believe they were then. Even some of the restaurants like the San Remo were communal—you’d sit at long tables with anyone who wanted to join you, or vice versa. The bars like Spec’s, Vesuvio, 1232, certainly were open. What a wild mix of people from all parts of the country—the whole American spectrum!
The poets in North Beach circles came from all over the place—What a great brew of surrealists, tough Bukowski types, beats and bibliophiles—and the range of literature discussed blew away the limited scope of any college course I’d had. Poets were reading everyone from Nelson Algren to Vosnesensky, Breton to Lorca—you had to read all the time to keep up at all. It was fabulous! Then readings were happening all the time—exciting.
The bohemian life agreed with me—I liked the freedom and independence. The only part about it that was upsetting was the difficulty of finding a partner and the near impossibility of having a child and raising him or her with any kind of stability.
Bohemian men don’t want to settle down—and maybe I didn’t want to either (whether I could admit it to myself or not), a possible reason why I had a problem finding a mate. Being an alcoholic didn’t help either! By my thirties, I had stopped drinking and wanted the whole experience of being a woman. More and more that included having a mate and a child. I fixed on Zelda Fitz as a woman who had tried to do everything: have the husband, the child, be a writer, a dancer, a free spirit—she and Isadora, another hero of mine, tried for all of it. Even if everything didn’t work out perfectly for them (to put it mildly! all that tragedy) at least they embraced life and gave it their best shot—and they didn’t kill themselves. Thank you, Zelda. Thank you, Isadora.
I got the great education of my life in North Beach with the most fascinating poets, writers and artists in the arts at that time—and I certainly got my Adventure. It just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.