The following is an excerpt from The First Books of David Henderson and Mary Korte: A Research by Iris Cushing (Ugly Duckling Presse; 2020), published with permission of Ugly Duckling Presse.
Sometime in the spring of 1968, Sister Mary Norbert Korte walked out of the St. Rose Convent, on the corner of Pierce and Pine Streets in San Francisco, with a basket of food from the convent kitchen. The basket might’ve contained canned pears, powdered milk, and whole-wheat bread; it might’ve held coffee, or tomato sauce, or ham. The cool morning air carried the damp smells of eucalyptus and new clover. The fog over the bay was just beginning to dissipate, vapor rising out of its opaque mass and burning up into the clear sky. Korte brisked along in her boots down the city’s formidable hills and back up again. She did not have permission to leave the convent.
After morning prayers and breakfast, the poet-nun had surreptitiously packed her basket of food while helping to clean the kitchen, then slipped out the kitchen door while the other sisters went off to attend to their own daily errands. She walked in her Dominican black-and-white habit to the Haight-Ashbury district, passing long-haired men in colorful clothes smoking hash in the early light. She was going to meet a fellow poet, Diane di Prima. Di Prima was working on behalf of the Diggers, an anarchist community-action group fashioned after the seventeenth-century English Protestant radicals by the same name. The San Francisco Diggers offered free meals, transportation, and medical care to anyone who wished to receive them, and distributed parcels of food to families throughout the Bay Area. Di Prima, one of the food coordinators, had agreed to meet Mary that morning at the Diggers’ headquarters on Haight Street to collect her foodstuffs. The two had never met, but had heard about each other from other poets on the scene, maybe Michael or Joanna McClure, or their mutual friend Robert Duncan.
Korte pushed the buzzer for an apartment the Diggers shared with the San Francisco Oracle, an underground newspaper that specialized in psychedelic, spiritual, and politically subversive content. Di Prima, hearing the buzz, hurried down a few flights of stairs to answer the door. The two women clasped hands and smiled at each other. Di Prima transferred the items from Korte’s basket into a paper sack, making note of what was there, fitting it into a mental inventory of the other provisions upstairs. The voices of two of di Prima’s children, Alex and Mini, echoed down the stairwell. The meeting was quick, even clandestine.
Both women were thirty-three years old. Di Prima had recently moved into a communal house on Page Street with her four kids; Korte had been in the convent since she was seventeen. Although their worlds differed wildly, the two women lived less than a mile from each other. Having transferred the food from basket to bag, di Prima and Korte exchanged glances of solidarity, and Korte turned back toward the convent. If she hurried, she could get back before anyone noticed she was missing. The ham or pears Korte carried went on to fill the stomachs of single mothers in Oakland, or homeless men in the Tenderloin, or perhaps the bohemians and poets of North Beach and the Haight.
At the time that Korte and di Prima met in 1968, both were involved in the making and publishing of poetry in unlikely ways. Korte’s first book, Hymn to the Gentle Sun, was published in Berkeley by Robert Hawley’s Oyez Press, with hand-set letterpress printing by renowned printer Graham Macintosh, in the fall of 1967. Hawley (1929–2017) had come to San Francisco ten years earlier, in 1957, after studying with Charles Olson, John Weiners, and Robert Duncan at Black Mountain College, and had started Oyez Press in 1964 with Stevens van Stum of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. Di Prima—in addition to being a widely-published poet in her own right—had been publishing books under the imprint of Poets Press since 1963. Di Prima put out early books by Robert Duncan, John Ashbery, Michael McClure, Herbert Hunke, and Timothy Leary, in addition to the first book of her longtime friend Audre Lorde, First Cities; indeed, Poets Press was ahead of its time for its unusually large number of first books by black poets, including the first books of A. B. Spellman (The Beautiful Days, 1965, introduced by Frank O’Hara), Jay Wright (Death as History, 1967), and Julia Fields (Poems, 1968). In the summer of 1967, as she was busy with raising her three children, moving away from New York City, and living in Leary’s experimental LSD community in Millbrook, New York, di Prima had found time to print and distribute David Henderson’s first book, Felix of the Silent Forest.
The work done by Robert Hawley with Oyez Press and di Prima with Poets Press established a lifeline for each of these poets, giving them a home in small press culture that they hadn’t had previously. These communities formed at a time when small-press publishing was a primary form of countercultural resistance; these publishers’ work constituted a significant node of 1960s anti-institutional cultural production. Korte entered the poetry scene by way of this handmade book, published in a single print run, printed in an edition of nine hundred copies.
Critical considerations of Korte have mostly classed her as a “beatnik nun,” a figure straddling the unlikely worlds of Catholic mendicancy and subversive poetry. But before she became boxed-in by these somewhat narrow categorizations, she made the work that appears in her first book—work that functioned as a hinge, a point of transformation between one life and another, greatly expanded life.
Among the canon of Beat and New American poets, Mary Norbert Korte is more obscure than most. This may have something to do with where she’s spent her time; much of her life has been in some form of semi-hermitage. For the last forty-five years, she has lived in a two-room cabin in a defunct logging camp at the end of a very long, unmaintained rural road in the redwood forest between Willits and Fort Bragg, California. Between the ages of seventeen and thirty-four, Korte was a nun in the Dominican Catholic order at the St. Rose convent in San Francisco. There was a brief window of time in her life after she left the convent, between 1968 and 1973, when she was living “out and about” in and around the Bay Area, working jobs, getting into environmental activism, participating fully in the poetry scene. Her first book, Hymn to the Gentle Sun of 1967 was, in many ways, the catalyst for Korte’s transition from nun to radical poet. The writing of the poems marked a meaningful departure from her years of disciplined monasticism, and the publication of the book made a path for her to walk from the convent doors into the rest of her life as a poet.
The time of the writing of that book was characterized by the frequent clashing of cultural ideologies. Sometime in the mid-1960s, when she was still in the convent—she’s not exactly sure when—Mary began to spend time in San Francisco’s North Beach, in and around City Lights Bookstore. Across from City Lights was a second-hand bookstore where the poet David Meltzer worked. Mary would stop in and chat with Meltzer, and the two became friends. Mary recounts reading an early issue of the Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a radical ecology-poetry magazine founded by Meltzer and Michael McClure. The issue she was reading featured an account written by Meltzer of his wife giving birth to their child. Meltzer had used the word “cunt” in his telling of the story; although the Journal for the Protection of All Beings was Meltzer’s publication, the printer of the journal insisted on censoring the word out, and Meltzer included a footnote in the story indicating that the word had been omitted. Mary admired Meltzer’s forthrightness about his experience with censorship, for she had had her own writing censored. When, as a nun, she began to send poems she had written to journals for consideration, she first had to give copies of the journal to the Mother General for inspection, as well as the poems themselves, in order to get her approval before she could send the work out. In 2019, when I asked Mary about her friendship with Meltzer, she emphasized that they connected over their shared experience of censorship.
Around this same time, Korte heard about the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, and received a special dispensation from the Mother General to attend. In the middle of July of that year, she boarded public transit in her nun’s habit, and crossed the Bay Bridge into Berkeley. She told me that she went to the conference planning to “represent” formally rhymed and metered poetry, such as the Petrarchan sonnets and Scottish ballads in iambic pentameter that she’d read and loved since she was a child. She felt an intense need to defend what she felt were the essential traditions of poetry, even as she was becoming curious about the subversive capacities of Beat and “New American” poetry emerging at the time. When she arrived in Berkeley (which was, interestingly enough, her hometown) she found herself attending lectures and readings that opened her mind to possibilities for poetry she hadn’t previously considered. She heard Charles Olson’s lecture titled “Causal Mythology”; she heard Robert Duncan speak about “Psyche-Myth and the Moment of Truth.” Hearing these poets speak about these ideas activated something—something about the aliveness of poetry, its ability to utterly transform reality—that had been quietly building in her consciousness for years.
Korte met several of the poets at the Berkeley Poetry Conference who would go on to play an instrumental role in her blossoming as a poet in her own right. She engaged, for example, with Jack Spicer in the Q&A portion of his lecture “Poetry and Politics.” He’d proposed that political poetry and political action were separate enterprises, and she responded with her own proposal that drew on her knowledge of one type of rhymed ballad: “Perhaps you don’t consider this poetry, but what about the labor songs of the Thirties?” Spicer agreed that those songs could, in fact, be considered a form of political action, and commenced singing Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” (the song famous for coining the term “pie in the sky”). She and Spicer struck up a conversation that led to a correspondence; the final letter that Spicer wrote before he died the following month was to Korte. She also met Lew Welch, who would become a poetic mentor to her after she left the convent. She made contact with Lenore Kandel, Robert Duncan, and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom she would get to know later on as a newly-fledged “secular” poet. Korte crossed the bridge and went home to the convent, transformed. She began to surreptitiously seek out the work of the poets she’d encountered, and experiment with breaking from tradition in her own poems.
A little over a year after the Berkeley Poetry Conference, Meltzer told Korte in one of their conversations that she might consider submitting some of her poems to Oyez Press for consideration—“possibly [for] a book, or a broadside of one of them, or whatever.” Robert Hawley had published Meltzer’s The Process in 1965, and Korte had become familiar with the other books that Hawley and Macintosh had produced, such as Robert Duncan’s The Year as Catches, Philip Lamantia’s A Touch of the Marvelous, Josephine Miles’s Civil Poems, and Lew Welch’s On Out. The time after the Berkeley Conference marked a quantum leap in Korte’s life. She began to step outside of the convent with increasing frequency to meet with other poets, attend poetry readings, and learn about the intersections of countercultural literature and activism happening in San Francisco.
On one of her visits to the apartment-office of the Diggers and the San Francisco Oracle on Haight St., Korte was invited by Allen Cohen, the Oracle’s founder, to use the typewriter if she wished. She began to take her handwritten poems to the office there, and type them up. She got to know Cohen during these afternoons typing up poems, and she began to share what she was writing with him. At one point, to her delight, Cohen asked if he could print one of her poems in the Oracle, and she agreed. The issue of the Oracle with Korte’s poem in it found its way to the Mother General, who was, in Mary’s words, “horrified”: The issue had an image on the back cover of two people in a tantric sex position. This and similar events began to drive a wedge between Mary and the moral gatekeepers of the Catholic Church.
When Meltzer encouraged Korte to submit some of her work to Hawley for Oyez Press in November of 1966, she sent a sheaf of poems (ordered chronologically) written in the convent and typed up at the Oracle/Diggers office. This order of events is remarkable, as a symbol for Korte’s liminal position between two worlds: The work was generated in the cloistered quiet of her familiar, orderly religious world, but typed up in preparation for the poetry-reading public in the chaotic hub of two countercultural organizations. The poems, like Korte herself, straddled both realms in the way they were rendered onto the page. Her contact with Hawley represented a major foray for Korte into the “outside” world of poetry as distinct from the protected realm of the convent.
In her initial letter to Hawley, Korte claims that she hates all of the poems, but hopes that Hawley finds something worthwhile among them; she also praises the beauty of the books she’s read published by Oyez, and signs her missive, “Sincerely in Christ, Sister Mary Norbert Korte.”
In January of 1967, Hawley replied with an offer: “A book in wrappers, perhaps 500 copies, 30 to 50 pages, similar to the others we have published.” He asked to publish all of the poems she’d sent, and asked her if she had any longer new poems that might be included in the book. Korte wrote back a few days later with the information that once a final selection had been made, she would need to share the manuscript with a censor in the convent, who would have to approve of the book’s contents before publication could proceed. This censor was Sister Nicholas, the head of the English department at the Catholic grammar school where Korte taught. In addition to being read and potentially altered by Sister Nicholas, the final, censored version of the book would also need to be approved by the Mother General of the convent before the book could be printed. Korte described Sister Nicholas as “a fine scholar” who, as it turns out, did not want to alter anything in Korte’s manuscript for Hawley. In fact, when Korte mentioned the idea of changing a line from one of the poems, Sister Nicholas said, “don’t change that! It’s my favorite!” Clearing things with the Mother General, however, was another matter.
Between November 1966 and October 1967, Korte and Hawley exchanged what appears to be a lively series of letters; her archives at the University of Rochester contain mostly her side of the correspondence, but the few letters I found there that are written by Hawley communicate his stake in Korte’s emergence as a poet. The series of letters reveals the process by which the poems were selected, gathered, passed through the censorship procedures, and published as Hymn to Gentle Sun. But what also appears in these letters is the earnest and mysterious meeting of two contrasting realities: the strict, spiritually rigorous world of the Catholic Church, and the intuitive and affinity-based workings of independent poetry publishing.
In a letter dated April 26, 1967, in her inimitable all-caps handwriting, Korte begins by thanking Hawley for his gift of William Everson/Brother Antoninus’s book Single Source, which he had published in 1966. She then moves on to the purpose of her letter: that she wants to sign the publishing contract for Hymn to Gentle Sun, and endorse the check for the advance that Hawley has sent her, but she hasn’t yet received written permission from the Mother General to publish the book. She wants to hold off on signing anything until she’s received this permission, as the convent will not allow her to publish her book without it. She notes that the book’s official censor, Sister Nicholas, is in favor of publishing the book, but the Mother General is still hesitant. “I think Mother’s main concern is that the work be good, and she needs reassurance on this point,” Korte writes, and asks Hawley to communicate to the Mother General that the poems that make up Hymn to the Gentle Sun do, in fact, merit public readership. On May 11, 1967, Hawley sent his letter to the Mother General of St. Rose Convent, Reverend Mother Mary George.
Hawley’s tone in the letter is delicately entreating, emphasizing Korte’s skill as a poet, ultimately making the claim that “the publication of [Korte’s] work could only reflect favorably on her order.” Reading this wonderfully unlikely piece of correspondence—small-press publisher to Mother Superior of a Catholic convent—I am struck by the ways in which Hawley attempts to appeal to Mother George. He makes his appeal with self-effacement and with a sense of what Mother George would like to hear about Korte and her poems: “It is undoubtedly indicative of my naivete that I was surprised by the delightful occasional touches of humor . . . her gentleness, compassion, and the calmness which is derived from a soul at peace with its maker were more expected.” Hawley frames both Korte’s poems and his own work as a publisher as bastions of wholesomeness and good taste, assuring Mother George that the book’s publication will be a “discreet and professional” endeavor. One can almost feel the tension under the surface of this letter. Behind Hawley’s measured evocation of “craftsmanship,” “calmness,” “taste,” and “distinction” is the knowledge that Korte’s poetry was emerging in a very radical cultural context, one characterized by overthrowing the precise forms of authority to which Hawley is addressing himself.
The next letter in the folder is from June of 1967. Korte writes to Hawley from Monterey, where she is visiting another convent. Only a few days before, the legendary Monterey Pop Festival had taken place there; the smoky haze of incense, marijuana, and Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar had barely cleared the air as Korte sat down to write. She says in the letter that she’s looking forward to receiving page proofs of the book—so we can assume that the Mother General did grant permission to Hawley to publish Hymn the Gentle Sun. Korte also asks Hawley to share Denise Levertov’s and Robery Creeley’s addresses with her, so that she might write to each of them. Her engagement with poets was growing, especially in the form of correspondence, and she was further escaping the confines of her nun’s existence with each passing season. The final letter in the series between Korte and Hawley is from October 1967, after the book was printed and is available on bookstore shelves. She writes to invite Hawley to her own reading:
Mary Fabilli has invited me to read and lecture for the Third Order Chapter at Saint Albert’s and I accepted for November 12. She has been most kind and deeply gratifying in her delicate handling of the matter. She has won Mother George completely—and that is wonder indeed. I now have one poetic compatriot who is not nervous-making to the order…
As I finish reading the letter and close the folder, I pause to think about this revelation of Korte’s. From it, I can infer that the rest of her “poetic compatriots” made the nuns in St. Rose Convent very nervous indeed. Less than a year later, Korte would finally throw off the double-bind of Poetry versus Church (and with it, Community versus Isolation, and Freedom versus Obedience). On August 1, 1968, seventeen years to the day after she was initiated as a nun, Mary Korte left the Dominican Order.
Korte’s first book establishes certain patterns that would continue to emerge in her work for years to come. Nineteen of the thirty-four poems in Hymn to the Gentle Sun, for example, are either dedicated to another poet, or have a line written by someone else as the title. This pattern is an indication of the intense intertextuality that became one of Korte’s signatures—a mode of writing in continuous conversation with peers. The eighth poem in the book stands out from the others. It bears a line from Cicero as its title: never less alone than when alone. In this poem, Korte considers her lifelong propensity toward solitude, moving through images of her mother’s concern for her “self-ness,” her siblings standing hand-in-hand at her father’s grave while she stood alone, the “finality inexorable the ordained/order of it// self-chosen separation/surgical in necessity.” These lines were written at a moment when Korte was considering her own commitment to monastic solitude. She weighs the potential for damage inherent in attachment to others, concluding with
the knowing that to share means to
wound and to love must mean stilly to keep within
those gifts I would most give.
In the years following her departure from St. Rose Convent, Korte thrived in offering up her gifts of writing, reading, teaching, and fighting on behalf of the redwood forests of Northern California. After five years living around the Bay Area, Korte settled in 1973 in Irmulco, where she still resides today, and began her vocations of togetherness in activism and teaching. She served as the Northern California coordinator for Poets in the Schools, bringing published poets (di Prima among them) to teach poetry workshops to school children. She threw herself into the local communities in Mendocino County, teaching writing and Environmental Studies for the Coyote Valley Tribe of the Pomo Indians and working tirelessly to preserve a four-hundred-acre area of old-growth California Redwood trees at the headwaters of the Noyo River. At the same time, she’s lived alone in her tiny cabin for most of the last forty-five years, and now, in her late eighties, she spends the majority of her days in solitude, except for regular visits from her neighbors, who bring her groceries and firewood.
Iris Cushing is a poet, scholar, educator and founding editor for Argos Books, an independent poetry press. She is the author, most recently, of Into the Long Long Time: How Mary Korte Saved the Trees (Ink Cap Press, 2019). Her poems and critical writings have appeared in numerous publications, including the Boston Review, Fence, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series, and her poetry collection Wyoming won the 2013 Furniture Press Poetry Prize. She has edited three chapbooks for the Lost & Found Poetics Documents Initiative: Diane di Prima: Prometheus Unbound as a Magickal Working (Series VIII, 2019), Bobbie Louise Hawkins: The Sounding Word, and Judy Grahn: Selections from Blood, Bread and Roses (Series VI, 2016). A doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, Iris is currently at work on a biographical dissertation titled Pierce and Pine: Diane di Prima, Mary Norbert Korte and the Question of Matter and Spirit.