"The Problem of Beauty"
Barbara Guest interviewed by Susan Gevirtz and Kevin Killian

Traffic over the Bay Bridge was terrible so we were half an hour late by the time we pulled up to the curb on Milvia. It's a few blocks away from the "strange new cottage in Berkeley" in which (1955) Allen Ginsberg wrote "Sunflower Sutra" and "A Supermarket in California." Barbara Guest, Small Press Traffic's lifetime achievement award winner for 2003, has been living in Berkeley for eleven years with her daughter, Hadley.
It's a house with a great deal of personal style, and what seems to be a catwalk on the second floor above one's head. Seated underneath, trying to plug in the tape recorder, we felt like important visitors at a Paris fashion show. We cheated and spied at her coffee table to see what books
and papers were lying around. Bookforum. Artforum. The premier issue of NO magazine. The Fiction of the Poet, a study of Mallarme and Symbolism by Anna Balakian, the late NYU comparatist. ("She was Armenian, born in Istanbul, forced out by the Turks," says Guest. "And what a wonderful writer.") Guest's new book had just arrived, a fearsomely chic assemblage designed within an inch of its life by the estimable artist Richard Tuttle.
Durer at the Window (Roof Books) is a collection of many of her art writings from the old Art News days onward. "Oh look at this," we sighed, leafing through the pages, "you knew Helen Frankenthaler." She nods benignly, as one who had known everyone might. The book is edited by Africa Wayne, the young poet who, when a student of Elizabeth Willis at nearby Mills College in Oakland, met Barbara Guest and solicited her opinions on what to include.
How does it feel, being the 2003 recipient of the Small Press Traffic Lifetime Achievement Award?
"It's a great honor. Yes. Does it come with anything? Any coinage?"
You'll see at the presentation ceremony in November. But its not spoiling any surprise to reveal that it's a piece of paper--a certificate.
But many would cut off their right arm to get this particular piece of paper.
"Oh of course! What's more I understand that last year's recipient felt exactly as I do."
When was your first trip to San Francisco?
"In Pasadena we'd a very kind neighbor, Mr. Hendrickson, who would roll our bumpy old lawn into a tennis court for us, and he had been exiled from San Francisco by his family, his terribly upper-class family."
What had he done? What was his crime?
"He had fallen in love with -- married -- a woman who made bouquets. A lovely woman. And so, when my aunt and uncle took me to San Francisco, I thought it the most glorious sight on earth. And yet in San Francisco that first time I was very aware that somewhere in this city was the huge house of Mr. Hendrickson's youth, and the Oriental rugs on which they'd sat braving the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906."
Someone told us you'd studied at Berkeley with Josephine Miles, the first woman in the English Department at Cal and a strangely neglected West Coast modernist poet.
"I got all As and A pluses, and I never knew why, for I never said one word in class. It was a sad time for me, at Berkeley, because of" [she flicks her gaze to each of us] "a boy who was supposed to be there, and wasn't--he had gone to war. I admired Josephine Miles' poetry. We were on the same wavelength. I never told her, though she might have picked it up."
And then--New York?
"Oh, with many a step in between." [Shrewdly.] "You're really asking me to sing for my supper, aren't you?"
Carl Rakosi did! Jen Hofer got a big interview out of him!
"Well, let me think. Did I tell you I knew Henry Miller, in Coldwater Canyon? He asked me, 'What are you doing here' [i.e., in L.A.] Where
else was I to go but on to New York?"
What was it like, writing for Art News way back when? Did you work there at the same time as James Schuyler?
"Oh yes."
Did you argue with Schuyler about who was going to get to cover which show?
"Tom Hess decided all that for us. It was a lovely place to work. One day Fairfield Porter came up to me in the office, said [lowers voice
dramatically], 'You and I should know each other.' Oh, it was heavenly."
Joe LeSueur's recent book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara concludes with a fine tribute to you, as his, Joe's, staff of strength when O'Hara died.
"Joe was a big part of Frank's life. [Smiles.] And Bill [Berkson] was the other part. When Frank O'Hara died the world broke up, the whole world of writing. There had been none of that jealousy that so besmirches poetry. And there were so many good poets! Frank, of course, and Jimmy, and John [Ashbery]. But when Frank died that world dispersed. It had to. That's part of poetry too."


Susan Gevirtz & Kevin Killian are Small Press Traffic Board Members as well as authors, separately, of many books.