Tribute to Kay Boyle

for Ian

Under a bright San Francisco starI earned my MA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State in 1968.  I had the good fortune to have Kay Boyle standing in my proverbial corner. Kay is (I use the present tense because, once set down, literature is here to stay) an amazingly accomplished and well-versed author with some 40 published books to round out her long lifetime (1902-1992).

Kay Boyle in Crowd, San Francisco State College Strike, 1968-1969 by Gerald Grow

Throughout her writing career, Kay had paid steady homage to the protean human spirit with her abundant heartfelt and beautifully crafted poems, stories, novels, and essays. Kay Boyle was practiced in the arts of both fiction and non-fiction.

Particularly reflective of her great writing gifts and enormous sympathy for students and their continuing educations is The Long Walk at San Francisco State and Other Essays (1970) whose copy I first saw on the shelf at Shakespeare & Co Book store in Paris in 1971.

At SF State in the society-transforming 1960s, talented, student-oriented teachers, of which Professor Kay Boyle was a splendid example, offered life-changing first-class instruction.  Supportive, ever attentive, Professor Boyle brought out the best in us, overseeing our youthful flurries in the arena of literature-making.  She coached us at ringside, as it were, looking for value and a refreshingly human spark in our earnest efforts. “A writer must make every word matter,” Kay taught.  With her unfailing respect for the craft of writing, the choice of the right word — le mot juste — was most incumbent upon any emerging or established writer. Kay recommended Roget’s time-honored Thesaurus for this purpose.

I was not even twenty-one when my private slender path joined the much grander and wider Avenue des Champs-Élysées of this seasoned world-class veteran of letters and advocate of global humanitarian causes.

After she had retired from SF State, Kay spent the remaining years of her life at the Redwoods home in Mill Valley, California, sleeping on a bed that had once belonged to surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp.  And two years before she let go of her earthly existence, Kay was so happy that her book about Germany, The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany had made the best-seller list in Germany.  (She had proudly posted a poster commemorating this momentous event on the wall of her Redwoods retirement studio wall.)

[Editor’s note: on The Smoking Moutain,see also this post on Tom Bigelow’s blogsite]

This was the sweetest news for this lifelong battler for human justice. Kay helped found the San Francisco chapter of Amnesty International; this in addition to her own literary output and teaching duties day and night at SF State, even baby-sitting the infant child of poet Sonia Sanchez, Kay’s colleague in the English Department. 

A legend in her own time, Kay’s teaching and personal manners were graced through and through with her engaging human touch.  A book of Kay’s stories, Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart (1966), speaks to this admirable quality.

As I had a face-to-face Directed Writing class with Kay, I routinely  found myself in her office as she returned my manuscripts with her comments and suggestions  hand-written in ink  with one of her Sheaffer fountain-pens,  her writing instrument of choice.   (Kay kept several fountain-pens handy in a case on her desk.) Her calligraphy was of fine arts museum quality, for before becoming a full-fledged author, Kay had studied architecture at the Ohio Mechanics Institute in Cincinnati.  

During an office hour conference one day, Kay put a question to me out of the blue. For the sake of further soul-searching, she had divided the world’s people into two groups: those bent on having power over others, coldly ordering them about and much worse; and those who loved and cared for others, having their best interests at heart.  Then, with diamond-bright look in her eye, Kay asked point blank: “Victor, to which group do you belong?”

As great teachers are apt to do, Kay’s question about the human conditionhad left me tongue-tied.  I was far too young to fathom its profound reach. But over the years, it has also inspired a lifetime of self-review and reflection.

During her long tenure at SF State, Kay had walked the familiar walk on her way to class, always beautifully arrayed and bejeweled; Kay was regal with a handsome leather portfolio tucked under one arm, containing books and papers, her life’s work.  The campus path passed tall majestic pine trees rooted firmly in the grass-covered earth.

With each passing semester at SF State today, the old trees still stand, and it is hoped, continue to bear silent witness to such lasting teacher-student encounters we celebrate today.  

by Victor Turks (BA, 1967, MA, 1968)

[Editor’s note: this text was first read at the KBS panel session, “Dissent by the Bay: Framing Kay Boyle’s political activism in San Francisco,” 233rd American Literature Association Conference, San Francisco, May 26th, 2012.]

Contributor’s Note:

A San Franciscan resident since 1950, Victor Turks has taught English to Mexican educators in the American Language Institute at SF State, and at UC Berkeley Extension. Victor taught English in Hamburg, Germany, and Nagoya, Japan.  This Spring 2017 semester, Victor has just retired after teaching ESL at City College of San Francisco for 44 years. Two of his students won the California Community College Essay Awardsponsored by Oxford University Press. His Master’s Thesis, Concrete Roses, (a novel-in-progress) is in the SF State Library. His writing has appeared in the Kansas City Star Magazine, and the San Francisco City College newspaper, The Guardsman, and literary magazine, forum. Victor, his wife Michiko and their three boys, pug Pebbles, and cat Mimi, live in San Francisco.

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