Only in Special Collections

Elizabeth Pusack

“A kayak is not a galleon, ark, coracle or speedboat. It is a small watertight vessel operated by a single oarsman. It is submersible, has sharply pointed ends, and is constructed from the light poles and the skins of furry animals. It has never yet been successfully employed as a means of mass transport.”

This is the only slightly illuminating welcome note printed on the first page of the inaugural issue of kayak, a poetry journal captained from 1964 to 1984 by George Hitchcock, a poet, a painter, and, most importantly for our purposes here, an avid and bizarrely principled editor.

The above definition doesn’t stray far from the contemporary Concise Encyclopedia entry for “kayak,” which adds: “can be designed for two or three,” and, “Now often made of molded plastic or fiberglass, kayaks are widely used for recreation.” I doubt Hitchcock would have been very fond of three-man fiberglass kayaks. He was a lone oarsman. The Robert McDowell- and Joseph Bednarik-edited George Hitchcock reader is called One Man Boat. kayak—never with a majuscule k—was not operated by committee. Committees, Hitchcock felt, resulted in publications full of poems that hadn’t offended anybody too terribly. Hitchcock harbored not a soft spot, but a hard preference for “surrealist, imagist, and political poems, for “vehement,” and “ribald,” poetry criticism. He hoped kayak could “relieve the tedium.”  He had no manifesto beyond these solicitations, just intransigence and idiosyncrasy. But a singular vision is a singular vision and Robert Bly, in his “attack” of the first ten issues of kayak, commissioned by Hitchcock and printed in the twelfth issue of kayak (1967), identifies and maligns a certain Hitchcock-friendly formula, before deciding that the magazine is “valuable” despite its predilections:

“One gets the feeling that as long as there are a few skeletons of fossil plants in the poem, or some horses floating in the mind, or a flea whispering in Norwegian, in it goes! The images even take on a certain grammatical skeleton of their own. For instance they are often made of a) an animal or object, b) a violent action, c) an adjective (often tiny, dark, or great), and then d) the geographical location. ‘Lighted cigars fall like meteors on a deserted football field in Pierre, South Dakota (III, 17).’”

These disses crack me up. I love them. Luckily, every issue of kayak contains a colorfully-articulated complaint about another publication (they really have it out for the Kenyon Review), poet, school of poetry, or the institution of poetry itself. Being a regular contributor to kayak grants you no immunity.  The 64 issues of Kayak, enjoyed as a group, provide a totally rollicking chronicle of the projects and polemics, relationships and rivalries gripping the poetry world during these years.

Louis Z. Hammer in issue 2: “In reflecting on contemporary American poetry, one is led to wonder sometimes whether anyone, especially poets, wants poetry to exist at all. Poetry isn’t trusted even by poets; many of them would probably rather write novels and often they seem to think of the poem as a sort of penny-candy novel.” (1965)

kayak’s list of contributors.

Charles Simic, in the 13th issue’s critical essay on Lou Lipsitz (acquitted of the crime mentioned below):“There is a simplicity and directness of which poetry is capable that can be truly devastating. It doesn’t seem to lie so much in the actual words and images of the poem, but in an overwhelming presence of a living human being behind it. So many poets are forever deprived of these qualities by a compulsive need to intellectualize their experiences and make them fit into frameworks of various literary theories. The spectacle they produce thus is of someone with heavy mittens attempting to thread a needle.” (1968)

Robert McDowell in issue 48: “It is still an age in which too many poets believe that the best way to be heard is to emit a series of resounding burps.”(1978)

The magazines, which were printed with a charming lack of fastidiousness by the man himself, bound by a ragtag bunch of his comrades, and sold for around dollar a pop, are also thrilling to look at. Professional illustrators were rarely playful enough for Hitchcock, so he illuminated the poems himself, juxtaposing antique medical engravings, catalogue offerings, and technical diagrams snipped from books like Boston’s Main Drainage (1888) and Practical Coal Mining (1879). I’m sure Bly could have codified the one-man-art-department’s combinatorial strategies too. Little Maiden with Hairpieces under a Visceral Sky is an especial favorite of mine.

Most of my Saturdays of late have been spent at the recently reopened, reinvigorated,  wonder-filled (and totally free to visit) John Wilson Special Collections Room, where you can stand on a char in your polka-dotted socks and survey all 64 issues of kayak. Spread out over a large wooden table, their covers form an alluring collage of acrobats, serpents, and deer moose eyeballs-come-covergirls. Located in the main branch library in Portland, Oregon, this must see collections room even comes with its own digital doorbell, which every so often chimes sweetly, as if to says Someone is about to patter up the final flight of stairs into the cave of wonders and ask to see something cool! A first edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women maybe, one of two Nuremberg chronicles, or some rare materials on the Timberline Lodge.

On quiet days, Jim Carmin, the keeper of the crypt’s six core collections, “those devoted to the book arts and the history of the book; children’s literature; natural history; Pacific Northwest history; literature with particular strengths of Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence; and Native American literature,” provides me with a break from my work. “Check this out!” is the library decibel level exclamation I’ve come to expect from Jim. There’s so often a serious twinkle in his eye—he’s charmed by what he’s about to show you and knows you will be too.

One postcard in particular—sent from Allen Ginsberg in Seattle to William Borroughs (Ginsberg calls him Bill) in N.Y.C in August of 1965—nearly charmed me into a conniption fit:

“Dear Bill, out in Fresno awhile, + visited Big Sur, then spent $2000 and bought a Volkswagen 1964 Camper-like a transistorized trailer-now I’m a householder!-and went up here then Crater Lake + 2 days backpacking on Mt. Rainier + we’ll go on foot 8 days into Olympics or Cascade Mountains-Seattle a lovely 1920’s America City- great Goodwill shops + 2nd-Hand clothes + Tambourine markets-I’ll weave with Peter [Orlovsky] across states to N.Y. in a month or more. I’m up here with Gary Synder before he goes to Japan again. How long you be around? I see the heat is closing in on me (?)- Love, Allen.”

And in the margins, “We saw the Beatles concert in Portland.”

Jim points out that Ginsberg’s VW camper would have been brand-new and I crack up again. I crack up a lot in Special Collections, say “WOW!” a lot and “Oh my gosh!” As do all SC users. During my first visit Jim handed me a tiny startling something the size of a pop-tart, covered in real fur. Upon closer inspection the varmint in my hands was a first edition of Margaret Wise Brown’s 1946 children’s book Little Fur Family, one of a number of “undersize” books in the collection. Harper skinned 15, 000 rabbits to make that book, but cut out the killing eventually. You’ll find no fur-bound books in the open stacks. Only in special collections (my new favorite motto).

Some of my new favorite poems are also nowhere to be found in the library at large, or on the Internet. They’re only in Special Collections, only in the kayaks collected— specially—by the library. Check out the list of regular contributors thanked in the magazine’s final issue. kayak contains poems you already love, and ones you’ll never see anywhere else. Here’s a teaser from James Spencer’s “A Noise in the Forest,” which I won’t reproduce in full because I’d like you to go visit the collections for yourself (ask for kayak, issue 3):

“My grandmother droned / Of virtue and Armageddon / When all I wanted to do / Was run through the world with a ten-pound hammer, / Smashing coke machines. Nothing seems to help.”

Elizabeth Pusack is a poet and curious person living in Portland, Oregon. She co-hosts the roving poetry reading SLEEP. Visit her at or on twitter @newpertinence.

Photo Credits courtesy of John Wilson Special Collections, Multnomah County Library.