Mother shares snapshot memories of a world-class poet

The other night I picked up the phone. In Spokane, my mom answered. After chatting about her garden and the weather, I casually brought up the real reason for my call.

It was an interview for this column. I didn’t want it to seem like that, although I did say I was writing about a woman she h

ad known in high school. My mother is 88.

I wanted her thoughts to flow as naturally as secret-sharing between schoolgirl confidants. My mother’s memories were lovely little snapshots, the stuff of poetry.

Her friend was — is — Carolyn Kizer.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet went to school with my mom at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School. My parents have lived in Spokane all their lives. Kizer’s life couldn’t have turned out more different from theirs.

After high school, she kicked the Eastern Washington dust off her heels and went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Or, as my mom said, “she went East.”

Kizer’s father was a Spokane attorney. Her mother had a doctoral degree in biology. They were “older,” my mom said. An only child, Kizer grew into a superstar in the world of poetry.

In 1959, she was co-editor, along with Richard Hugo and Nelson Bentley, of a new quarterly magazine called Poetry Northwest, which was started by Errol Pritchard.

In 2010, I wrote about Poetry Northwest now being published at Everett Community College. Kevin Craft, the magazine’s editor, teaches in EvCC’s written arts program.

My mother’s memories of her high school friend have been on my mind since I saw the magazine’s latest issue, for spring-summer 2011. Its cover story, illustrated by an evocative photo of the poet, is “Carolyn Kizer: A Tribute to our Founding Editor.”

On May 4, Craft hosted a panel discussion and poetry reading of Kizer’s works at the college. I regret I didn’t make it to that event. At the Poetry Northwest website, the celebration of Kizer’s art continues with a series of tributes to the 85-year-old poet, who lives in California.

In the magazine, David Rigsbee writes about the poet’s Spokane past in his article, “Still Cool: Re-Reading Kizer’s Collected.”

“Looking back at her history, you notice the poems to her father, a prominent lawyer from Spokane, who overlooked the comforts of provinciality in favor of an old-fashioned insistence on the reality of art and one’s duty to be politically forward-thinking.”

My mom, the young Jeanne Tiefel, had an up-close view of her friend’s household, which was far outside the Spokane norm in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“She invited me to lunch,” my mom said. She remembers the Kizer home in the Browne’s Addition of Spokane, an old neighborhood of huge and stately houses built largely by wealthy timber and mining families.

My mom described sitting at the dining room table and pushing a button to summon a server from the Kizer kitchen. Kizer’s first husband was Stimson Bullitt, scion of a wealthy Seattle family and onetime president of the KING Broadcasting Co.

Describing her friend as “exotic” and “a real student,” my mom recalled Kizer once being distraught about getting a B in school. “She didn’t have many friends, but we were good friends,” my mom said.

My mother has given me books of Kizer’s poetry. I have copies of “Carrying Over” and “Mermaids in the Basement,” both signed by the poet. Kizer is well known for “Pro Femina,” a poem written in sections, with a through line of feminist ideas.

My mom, who never ventured far from home, saw her old friend about 20 years ago in a downtown Spokane bookstore. My signed books came from that visit.

“She didn’t come back to Spokane very often. She was surprised to see me,” my mom recalled.

Kizer, my mother said, also was surprised her girlhood friend had stayed — all those years — in their hometown.

Memory plays a strong role in Kizer’s poetry. I cherish hearing the memories of my mom, a woman who never got around to writing them down.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

Poetry Northwest

Learn more about Poetry Northwest, a magazine published at Everett Community College, and about poet Carolyn Kizer at:

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