Remembering Kay Boyle

by Red Shuttleworth

A Bunchgrass Press Project

© Copyright 2024 Red Shuttleworth

“Have no communion with despair…”

Kay Boyle

Advice to the Old

Songs and Shouts

Kay Boyle (February 19, 1902 – December 27, 1992) was a distinguished, Nobel Prize-worthy American writer who published nearly fifty books (novels, collections of short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction).

A ferociously independent woman and writer, Boyle was in Paris -as an equal- with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, and a raft of other writers.

As years and decades passed, she became increaingly political… a singer and a shouter for social justice, for fairness, for the dispossessed and the wounded.  Her political concerns blended with her work as a writer.

Kay Boyle in her San Francisco home on Frederick Street in the early 1970s.

Photo by Kate Shuttleworth.

Questions Held

I am a decade older now than how old Kay Boyle was when I was one of her students at San Francisco State University.

The poet William Dickey insisted that I try to get into her Directed Writing course.  Since I had spent most of 1969 in Ireland, then parts of 1970 and 1971, Bill thought that Kay might be helpful.  She had not yet visited Ireland, but she was familiar with Irish poetry and history.  Through Amnesty International, Kay had met Sean MacBride, son of 1916 Rising martyr Major John MacBride (semi-absolved of this and that sin by Yeats in Easter 1916) and Maude Gonne (Yeats’ true, true, truest love).  Sean MacBride had swung from being Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army to being an advocate for peace and a supporter of political prisoners worldwide.

Kay knew a former IRA Chief of Staff and I knew the soon-to-be-deposed IRA leader, Cathal Goulding.  Goulding was Brendan Behan’s cousin and something of a literary man.  Goulding was among the first to read my earliest poems… and he said he liked them… and that my future was in making poems… not in any revolution. 

Dickey said that Kay and I would have something to talk about as well as discuss sonnets against prose-like long-lined verse: political and poetical Ireland.

Although I was an undergraduate majoring in Speech-Communication in the spring of 1971, Kay, encouraged by Bill, allowed me to enroll in one of her Directed Writing classes.

Directed Writing was a one-on-one course. Kay met writing students for three-hour sessions at her home on Frederick Street.

Kay greeted me at her front door, smile and a tinkling chuckle.  She asked what I liked to drink.  Irish, I said, Power’s.  She did not stock Powers, not yet, and brought me a glass and a bottle of bourbon and a pitcher of water.  She set a bottle of Dubonnet for herself on a nearby table.

I handed over a portfolio of my poems and we eased onto comfortable, not quite plush, arm chairs.  She set my poems aside and began her recollections of Paris… the 1920s… Robert McAlmon, Ernest Walsh, Hemingway, Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein….

Kay had known everybody… strengths, triumphs, failings, glories, tragedies.

We would not discuss my poems for weeks and weeks.  Kay kept a bottle of Powers Irish Whiskey for me.  She sipped her Dubonnet and spoke of Paris… anecdotes… literary criticisms… and personal criticisms.

When she came to the door to greet me, she was like a great actress making an entrance… straight up and down posture, chin lifted to indicate that every entrance is an exit and that every exit is an entrance… Kay was of purpose and in motion… advancing and well-motivated.

For weeks I drank good Irish whiskey, and listened… took mental notes… asked no questions.

Hemingway and White Male Writers

Early on, Kay said, No one reads Hemingway anymore.  And, In the future fewer will read him.  Kay told me that the future was for non-white writers, like her former student Shawn Wong.  “White male writers have nothing more to say.  I asked, then, why bother with me? 

I wasn’t speaking of you.

Stay Lean, Stay Alert

Every so often, Kay would remark that fat writers were never any good.

There were exception, like Irish poet James Liddy, but….

At the time I was in my athletic mid-twenties.  Kay remarked that I had a good body for sport and for writing… lean from running miles and mile at Ocean Beach in the outer Sunset District.   She warned against eating too much and eating with self-indulgence.  Writers must not get flabby and obese writers are awful.  Kay judged that I had a bright future.

Kay Boyle

(photo by Kate Shuttleworth)

This Reading is Not for You

(The Day Carolyn Kizer Read)

Looking back, this must have happened at San Francisco State University over a year after I took my M.A. in Creative Writing.

Kay Boyle had become a rare on-campus presence. 

Carolyn Kizer, a most distinguished literary/poetry presence, came to give a reading.  I was there… in the Humanities Building, downstairs, outside the larger classroom where Kizer would read.  She arrived, flanked by adoring faculty, dressed like a Junior League woman….  I waited outside the reading room, perhaps waiting for a friend. 

Kay Boyle showed up before everyone was in the room… and immediately worked toward a boycott of the reading.  Decades later, I can’t remember what the grudge was, but grudge there was.  And this, Kay made plain, was about integrity and literary loyalty… loyalty to Kay.

Not enthused about spending an hour watching and listening to Carolyn Kizer, I stood back and watched Kay discourage those who might have planned on seeing Kizer read.

Then it was just Kay and me and an empty hallway.  She had succeeded with some and others had gone inside to hear Kizer.

Kay waved me to her side.  Let’s go, she said.

In memory, Kay gave me a ride to the semi-Victorian house that my wife Kate and I rented on 48th Avenue near the ocean, dunes, and Great Highway.  Kay lectured me on drinking, said that I must always be good to my wife Kate, who Kay liked a great deal.

Kay drove me to that house on 48th Avenue in the days before I had my first car.  And she did speak… lecture about drinking and on not drinking with alcoholic poets.

Young Writers and Influences

Although Kay widened my circle of poetry influences, her writing, her poetry, was far from the turf where I could naturally work.  It’s natural for student writers to be strongly influenced by mentors… to consciously or unconsciously imitate them.  I had not the talent, personal experience, or sensibility to attempt the form, style, and structure of the poems that my mentors was brilliant with.

From the outset, I knew I could move well-past the poetry of Dan Langton, my first teacher at San Francisco State.  A lyric formalist with nothing particularly pressing to write about, Danny confected an heroic, eventful past that was tissue-thin for facts.  But he did publish in many a literary journal and he eventually did win the Devins Prize.

Bill Dickey’s early poems were so much like Auden’s work that Auden chose Dickey’s Of the Festivity for a Yale Younger Poets Prize.  Once Dickey loosened up, allowed the hard, real world into his poems, he made many wonderful, hilarious and touching poems.  He was perhaps the first of our major contemporary Gay poets.

Both Dan Langton and Bill Dickey introduced me to a luxury liner of poets I could learn from… to enlarge my reading tastes beyond the Irish (young Seamus Heaney, Yeats, Mangan, Pearse, MacDonagh…).

From Kay, I picked up an enthusiasm for political poetry… Pablo Neruda in particular.  Kay’s poems were a mix of the personal and the dire-events of her time.  Her poems came from a moral center that embraced the poor, the hungry, the cold, the beaten-down, the wounded. 

The Parkside Library Reading

Ever generous to her students, Kay located opportunities for them.

One afternoon at her home, taking pause from discussing my banal attempts at making some manner of poetry from time I had spent in Ireland (Arranmore Island, Dungiven in Derry, wanderings and stumbles in Dublin, Belfast, Kerry), Kay stunned me, It’s time for us to do a reading.

Kay immediately presented the notion that a small number of poets could have a fine night… a public poetry reading… featuring Bill Dickey, Kay, and another student of Kay’s, Barbara Riddick.  Kay told me to get Bill Dickey on board as soon as possible… then look for a venue.

I was astonished, ever more hyper-astonished and enthused, for I was on my second or third Powers Irish Whiskey.  Kay smiled, laughed.

A day or so later, I spoke with Richard Schaff, the head librarian at the Parkside Branch of the San Francisco Public Library.  Richard immediately agreed to have a reading at his library… for, after all, it would star Kay Boyle and William Dickey.  Wine and crackers, Richard said, wine under tables and crackers and cheese… fruit punch.  Posters.

Bill Dickey was agreeable.  He suggested that Jim Hubert be added to the bill.  Jim was studying writing with Dan Langton and with Bill Dickey… was corresponding with James Dickey (who would soon publish a poem of Jim’s in Esquire) and Jim Harrison. 

I knew Gene Ruggles from the poetry reading circuit around North Beach… and Ruggles agreed we could make a great night of it and he wanted to be one of the stars.

The big night came on June 5, 1973.  What a fine venue for poetry readings.  I remember a large room and huge windows… a podium at one wall, many chairs, food and drink at a far wall.

I have no memory of Barbara Riddick except that she did a short reading to get the event underway.  She must have been Kay Boyle’s student.

The second reader was Jim Hubert.  He wrote about growing up in Kankakee, Illinois, about being mired in sorrow, about getting drunk against sorrow, about the prospects of a life in deadfall saloons.  That drunken misery was Jim’s given, and we all thought it would take him through the writing of many an acclaimed poetry book.  He did publish in good literary journals for a while, but then left poetry to become a watercolorist in Mendocino.  That night Jim’s ten-minute reading was a crowd-pleaser.

My ten-minute reading was between Hubert’s and Gene Ruggles’.  I read love poems and poems about Ocean Beach.  Nothing remarkably good, but audience was kind.  Kay and Bill Dickey assured me later that I had read good poems and had read them well.

Gene Ruggles was a North Beach favorite, well-known and adored in the poetry world of coffee houses.  He loved wine, poetry, and he was devoted to social causes.  He could get wild when in his cups… would sometimes attend readings at The Intersection to heckle lesser poets.  Ruggles knew the Beats and was friends with Lawrence Ferlingetti, but he was more of a Deep Image poet than a beat… writing about rural Michigan.  Gene lived close to the bone… lived entirely in the poverty of being a poet and only a poet.  His ten minute reading stretched at least to fifteen minutes, but that was okay with our audience.

A few minutes into her fifteen minute reading, Kay Boyle paused, pointed into the audience, and told a couple of people to be quiet or to leave.  Kay then read with elegance, nothing showy, read with purpose and keen devotion to the poems she presented.  I was particularly moved by her reading of Thunderstorm in South Dakota, a love poem that echoed The Dead, a James Joyce short story.

The final poet of the evening was Bill Dickey… reading the wittiest poems from his recent book, More Under Saturn.  The audience loved his poems and he beamed with joy.  Never conclude a reading, he told me, with abject tragedy, torture, and disfiguration… open with them or leave them in a folder.

The readings were over.  Most of the audience was out the door and a junior librarian was cleaning up.  My Kate and I were anxious to get home to our Wolfhound and rental house at the beach.  Jim Hubert was happy and a small group of San Francisco State University creative writing students were gathered around him.  Bill Dickey and Kay Boyle talked with admirers and a handful of teaching colleagues. 

I wondered if Gene Ruggles would head for North Beach to finish the night with wine, with other poets at Leo Reigler and Matt Viddiver’s coffee house, but then I saw that Ruggles had two young children with him.  Parkside Librarian Richard Schaff took them to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken spot and then, fearful of a Ruggles drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, drove Gene and his young children to Marin County.

The late fifties of the Beats were gone.  The sixties were gone, too.  A 1973 reading at a library on Taraval, miles from North Beach, was a triumph… of poetry-possible.

In following days, there was hallway praise at San Francisco State University for the readings presented by Bill Dickey and Kay Boyle… for Jim Hubert… and some kind words for me. 

No, Not Secretaries

Kay Boyle bridled whenever anyone even mildly suggested that she and Samuel Beckett had been secretaries to James Joyce in Paris.

Not long after Kate and I married, Kay asked my bride, How do you think life with a poet will be?

Kay said that one day in Paris she and Beckett were in the Joyce apartment and were typing parts of Finnegans Wake, as a gift to Joyce (his vision had dimmed terribly).

Kay and Beckett took turns at the typing.  Weary, exasperated by the sight of Nora Joyce swinging-swaying on an indoor hammock, Beckett snapped, Kay and meself are writers, too, and we’ve works of our own to type.  Instead of lazing, you could help with the typing.

I think he writes filth, Nora said, and I think someone should stop him.

Kay Boyle

Photo by Kate Shuttleworth

Enough of Dying! Voices for Peace

Probably no one in the late Sixties and early Seventies was as articulate and passionate about social and anti-war issues as Kay Boyle.  She was one of the leaders and voices of the San Francisco State strike, marched for peace, went to jail for righteously demonstrating.

It took a toll on Kay’s writing… at least as Samuel Beckett suggested in a letter to her in which he implored her to get back to literary works. 

In 1972, Kay, along with retired professor Justine Van Gundy, brought out Enough of Dying!  Voices for Peace… a mass market Dell paperback prose and poetry anthology.  The authors in the book included Albert Camus,

Allen Ginsberg, Bertolt Brecht, William Butler Yeats, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Merton, Eldridge Cleaver, Li-Po, Robert Lowell… and presented pieces by Kay, too.

Upon publication of the anthology, San Francisco Bay Area public radio station KPFA broadcast a panel discussion, from Kay’s front room, of Enough of Dying.

Kay, with co-editor Justine Van Gundy at her side, led the small panel on the book.  The other panelists were poet William Dickey, fictioneer Herbert Wilner, and… me.

Kay could’ve invited a raft of other students or former students she had nourished.  I felt honored to be on that panel, but I was not really a pacifist in any context, so I was uneasy, too.

Kay was for Peace and Justice!  This was authentic and her activities in behalf of causes were born of sincerity and a spirit of love.  Born in 1902, Kay was fourteen during the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, a teenager during the War of Rebellion and then the Irish war between the anti-treaty Irish Republicans and those who accepted the treaty and were happy enough to work for Ireland as citizens and officials of the Free State.  Murderous times.  Kay, a natural romantic, was quite moved by the heartbreaking quest for a free Ireland.

I was on the panel for the anthology because I had lived in Ireland most of 1969… trying to learn how to write a poem.  I had met Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff of the IRA and Brendan Behan’s cousin and childhood pal.  Maybe that connection was enough to have me near a radio microphone.

Violence for political aims struck me, in 1972, as a vicious circle, cycle of pain for all participants… an evil.  So… (in a way) I was in concert with the objectives of the many writers in Enough of Dying!  But….  The possibility of everlasting peace and justice?

One sad Northern Ireland political leader, Eddie McAteer, noted in 1969 that violence is in the marrow of our bones.  If you witnessed The Troubles, which began with Loyalists (Protestants) attacking a peace march along the route from Belfast to Derry, at Burntollet, you might not have been sanguine about any peaceful solution to many a national conflict.

Both Mao Zedong and Irish Rising leader Padraig Pearse had insisted, Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.

Kay knew about Padraig Pearse (his body of plays and poetry as well as essays and speeches) and chose to most appreciate Pearse’s gentler, more romantic pieces.  In the course of the evening panel for KPFA Radio, I quoted Pearse: The unarmed man can have as much freedom as the armed man allows.  Oh, boy, welcome to a moment of radio silence!

The evening quickly turned a corner back to adulatory chat about Enough of Dying.  Bill Dickey drank one scotch after another, I drank lash after lash of Power’s Irish Whiskey, Kay sipped her Dubonnet….  We got through the broadcast amiably.

Kay and Justine Van Gundy stayed behind in Kay’s front room as Bill Dickey weaved toward a taxi cab, as Herb Wilner and his wife led me to their car for a ride.

Enough of Dying is hard to come by these days.  We are in yet another cycle of war upon war.  Kay Boyle meant well, had been a strong moral voice, and Enough of Dying was a sweet and strong call for Peace… now a hard to get book… forgotten.

A Blue Baby Rattle

Soon after Kate and I learned in the summer of 1975 that she was pregnant with our first child, we shared the happy news with friends.

Kay Boyle was happy for us.  More than that, she insisted that we accept no gifts for the coming baby… not until she gave us something.  Kay said that she had to give the first gift… for luck.

Within a week, Kay gave us two tall stacks of cloth diapers.  And… a blue infant’s rattle.

We let our girl, Maura, play with the rattle for a few months, then set it aside to be kept with her baby book.

Now… nearly half a century later, we are searching for the blue rattle… as touching as a book inscription.  We hope to soon find Kay’s rattle in a set-away box… we hope.

Our Maura was born in early March, 1976… in Galveston, Texas.  I had taken a job at a Texas junior college.

When it was time to have Maura baptized, the godparents we chose were in San Francisco, so Kate and Maura caught a plane… and I stayed behind to teach.

The baptism was at St. Gabriel’s Church in the Sunset District.  It was a small group that attended, including Kay.  As it turned out, the only pictures we received of the ceremony were taken by Kay.  She was the only one of us who realized a photograph would be treasured… a Kay Boyle photograph.

The Last Time with Kay Boyle

I was back in the Bay Area in 1979, teaching high school English and PE… and that Fall teaching a Saturdays Introduction to Creative Writing course at San Francisco State University.  I had a desk in the part-time faculty office, a long, fairly large room with three desks against one wall and a desk and a stained old plush couch at the other wall. 

Above the first two desks in the Creative Writing part-time instructor office were framed, bolted-to-the-wall black and white photographs… Kay Boyle above one desk and Wright Morris above the other.

I went to a couple of Creative Writing faculty meetings, but Kay was not attending.  Kay was seventy-five and seldom came to campus.

By the fall of 1989, Kay and I seldom ran into each other.  One day she phoned and suggested a meeting… at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, a short distance from my Kate’s mother’s home.

That sunny day Kay and Joan Baez, Sr., were already in the parking lot of the bookstore when I arrived, each with a handful of new books.

Kay and Joan were either coming-from or going-to a protest or rally for some social cause.

Kay was enthused and spoke of justice and equality and goodness of heart.  I listened.  As we were parting, Kay cautioned me about drink and writing… said that alcohol ruined writers… much sooner than they realized.

Her parting words were, May we live to see the revolution.  It was like a stock Kay Boyle book inscription.  May we live to see the revolution.

Kay was not at all in favor of violence, so I have wondered how Kay envisioned any new American revolution.  Perhaps she was hoping for a change in human nature… a coming to kind, generous terms about humanity’s differences and needs and socio-economic disparities.

Kay was of noble heart… of truest love for humanity.

Kay Boyle 1979 Menlo Park, California

Photo by Joan Baez, Sr.

Selected Books by Kay Boyle

Being Geniuses Together: 1920-1930, edits and additions to Robert McAlmon’s book (Michael Joseph, London, 1970)

Fifty Stories (Doubleday, 1980)

Words That Must Somehow Be Said   (North Point Press, 1985)

Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1991)

Red Shuttleworth, a student of Kay Boyle’s in the early 1970s at San Francisco State, has published poetry, fiction, plays, and essays in numerous literary journals.  He has received numerous honors, including a 2017 Tanne Foundation for Poetry and Playwriting.  His Woe to the Land Shadowing: Poems earned the 2017 Western Heritage Wrangler Award for Poetry. His most recent book is Eclipse of the Sun: Boxing Poems.

The Kay Boyle Society is grateful to Red Shuttleworth for sharing “Remembering Kay Boyle” with us. The PDF below does justice to the poetic layout of these memories. Thanks also to the author for sharing the now invaluable pictures of Kay Boyle and posters.

This material cannot be reproduced without permission from the author.

Cite this blog post
redshuttleworth (2024, April 22). Remembering Kay Boyle. The Kay Boyle Society. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

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