On a YouTube video Steve Kowit stands in front of a crowd at Ducky Waddle’s Emporium in Encinitas.
Harsh fluorescent light brightens one side of the room, the rest is dark save for the the shop’s neon-red marque. Colorful crosses and macabre Mexican folk art decorate the wall behind him. Visions of pale calavera catrinas and red and green devil men stare at the onlookers.
As Kowit starts to read his poem “I Attend a Poetry Reading,” the dark ambiance subsides and the audience begins to laugh their asses off.
Kowit, who passed away in his sleep from cardiac arrest on April 2, was the Warren Zevon of the San Diego poetry scene – capable of creating transcendent beauty and wicked humor. He once haunted Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, but loved teaching at Southwestern College. Kowit was revered by his peers in both literary and academic circles. His poetry and teaching style exemplified a man who could make readers cry and bust a gut in the same stanza.
Born in 1938 in Brooklyn, NY, Kowit cut his poetic chops in the Lower East Side, giving frequent readings at New York’s bounteous coffee houses, such as the now closed Les Duex Megots. He earned his BA from Brooklyn College after a stint in the Army Reserve. He moved to San Francisco when he was 27 and spent time with the Beats, a generation of writers who explored the counterculture, in the Haight-Ashbury district. Kowit earned a MA at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) when he was 30. After refusing Army induction at the beginning of the Vietnam War – or as Kowit called it, “America’s genocidal slaughter of the Vietnamese people” – he traveled to Mexico, Central and South America with his wife, Mary. After the war Kowit returned to the States and resided in San Diego, where he began to teach at SDSU and UCSD.
Among Kowit’s numerous achievements and awards are two Pushcart Prizes and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Poetry Award.
Kowit published numerous books of poetry, including “Lurid Confessions,” “Cutting Our Losses,” “Passionate Journey: Poems and Drawings in the Erotic Mood” and the non-fiction book, “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop.”
Before his death, University of Tampa Press was in the process of editing a new collection of Kowit’s poems titled “Cherished: New and Selected Poems.” It is scheduled to be published posthumously later this year.
Kowit taught English at SWC from 1990 until he retired in 2011.
“Steve was an amazing man,” said English Professor Andrew Rempt. “I used to stand outside his classroom and listen to him teach and, on occasion, I’d walk in and give him a hug. He wouldn’t miss a beat, just hug me back without comment and keep on teaching.”
A memorial in honor of Kowit was held in the Academic Success Center, where numerous faculty paid their respects and read poetry in honor of their colleague two weeks after his death.
English Professor Francisco Bustos performed a “poetic invocation” called “Aguilar Poeta” with Javier Maldonado and San Diego poet Jim Moreno, where they called the spirit of Kowit into the room through the use of drums and chanting.
“I was a student at SWC in the 1990s and I took one of Steve’s classes,” Bustos said. “I vividly remember how in love with teaching he was. He made the class fun with his humor and wit, you wanted to be there. Afterwards I used to do little readings and performances with him and it was great.”
Kowit’s former office mate, English Professor Heather Eudy, remembered going on frequent walks with him where they would talk about life and the universe.
“During one of our beach walks,” Eudy said, “I was taking a photography class and I needed to take portraits of people and Steve said, ‘I’ll be your faithful assistant.’ I am kind of shy, so he would go up to random people on the beach for an hour and he would be personable with everyone. Ever since then he would always sign his emails ‘Your faithful assistant’ and I just found that so endearing.”
Dr. Joel Levine, dean of the School of Language and Literature, said Kowit was a marvelous teacher.
“When I started at SWC I noticed the looks on the student’s faces after they got out of a class with Steve,” he said. “He never treated his students like they were students, he treated them like they were writers.”
His “perpetual student,” award-winning journalist Claire Accomando, said she met Kowit when she took one of his writing classes and instantly fell in love with Kowit’s amiable personality.
“My friend had to drag me to the class, beacuase I had always loved poetry, but never dared writing it,” she said. “Steve was probably the most honest person I know, besides my husband. While he wasn’t very organized, the minute he started to teach, I was transfixed, inspired.”
Kowit’s death came as a shock to the San Diego literary community.
Moreno, who runs a monthly open mic night at Café Cabaret, dedicated an entire night of poetry reading in honor of his friend.
“I first met Steve at a poetry reading and I was immediately mesmerized,” he said. “I then took a class he taught at SWC and became friends with him. He was laughably and likably irreverent. He was a social justice priest and a loyal friend, a patriot of truth and self-effacement.”
Moreno said he remembered interviewing Kowit for his KNSJ radio show “Poetry is Political.”
“After the interview he took me to lunch in a small café near his home,” Moreno said. “When we were leaving to eat, he stopped his car and said goodbye to his dogs. I couldn’t hear what he was saying from my car, but he was talking to them like they were great old friends. Steve never cared about appearances, he cared about substance. Even with his dogs.”
Many local poets went and paid respect to their fallen friend, including Jett Keyser, who said he was a friend and longtime fan.
“Steve liked to blend genres,” Keyser said. “There was the funny and the mundane and the extraordinary and the sorrowful. It was an eclectic melding of styles that is unique to his work.”
Poet Judith Hanson read a tender poem in honor of Kowit and recalled his workshops, saying that Kowit would pass out candy before every class to relax his students.
“He just wanted to break down the stress that gets in the way of producing good writing, to get out of oneself and just be when creating,” she said.
Another of his many fans was poet and political activist Donna Hilbert. She first met Kowit at a reading at CSU, Long Beach where he had brought down the house.
“Steve was one of the best poets America produced in the last thousand years,” she said. “He could see the light in the serious, the magic in the mundane. His poems were genuinely human, written so that everyone could understand them.”
Poet Ishmael von Heidrick-Barnes would take hikes with Kowit where they would talk extensively about literature and poetry.
“Steve was passionate about poetry and poets,” he said. “He was generous with his knowledge and time. He went out of his way to encourage and help young writers. Steve had opportunities to be an even more famous poet himself, but he turned down offers that would have required him to move away from San Diego. He loved our city and state, so much that he wouldn’t leave for anything.”
Aside from being an immensely talented poet, Kowit was unafraid to voice his political views.
Artist and activist Doris Bittar remembered joining Kowit for political activities when she and her husband moved to California in 1986.
Last year Bittar worked with Kowit at SWC when she curated the “Labor Migrant Gulf” art exhibit, where he read poems.
“Steve was always approachable,” she said. “His visions were feisty and at the same time joyous. He really believed in people power and knew how to motivate people into action.”
Poet and writer Terry Hertzler said Kowit was outspoken.
“Steve was also not shy about letting people know his political and social opinions,” he said. “I would call him a politically incorrect progressive. He didn’t care what current acceptable views were if they ran counter to his own views.”
Kowit met controversy in his views on religious tensions in the Middle East. Despite being raised Jewish, Kowit felt that the Palestinians were treated unfairly by Israel. Just a month before his death, the U-T San Diego published an opinion piece by Kowit titled “Is the U.S.-Israel Love Affair on the Rocks?”
In the piece Kowit advocated for Palestinian rights and addressed Israel’s relation with Palestinians over the past 70 years. He said the majority of Congress supported Israel due to “significant campaign funding” from the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Even though Kowit had controversial views, SWC Administrative Assistant Bertha Rose Williams said he had a big heart and helped his friends in need.
Williams wanted to erect a memorial bench in the Balboa Park Rose Gardens in honor of her daughter who had passed away. She had already raised part of the money but she was still far from her goal.
“In walked Steve,” she said, “and after he heard that I was trying to raise money for the memorial he asked how much I needed. I told him that I had $300 so far and that it cost $1,200. Without batting an eye he just said, ‘I’ll go get my checkbook.’ He donated $900 without another question asked and I’ll always thank him and remember him for that.”
Kowit was heavily involved in bringing a deeper understanding of poetry and the literary arts to San Diego, conducting numerous workshops for San Diego Writers, Ink, a non-profit literary organization that offers reading, workshops and classes, and worked many times with Border Voices, which brings poetry to students in the K-12 grades.
John Webb, the founder of Border Voices, remembered how well Kowit worked with children.
“He was just fantastic,” Webb said. “The way he got even the extremely shy kids to talk was phenominal.”
“Steve was a champion of poetry that was unambiguous, musical and imaginative, and as he said in the introduction to his anthology, “The Maverick Poets,” ‘tuned to the spoken language, free of decorative rhetoric and distinguished by its clarity, humanity and power’,” Hertzler said. “That was the kind of poetry he produced and encouraged in his students.”
Professor of Theater Dr. Carla Kirkwood remembered Kowit as one of a kind, a man of principle in not only his politics, but also in his writing.
“We used to have a running joke whenever someone in the college moved up in ranks,” Kirkwood said. “He used to tell me that he thought that it was an incredible tragedy that the best dream in the world you can have is to be a dean, a boss or a manager. And he was right.”
Kirkwood said Kowit achieved artistic immortality.
“People like Steve, the artists and the creators and writers, they’re never really gone when they die,” she said. “They still have the world that they helped to create and it never really goes away. It may get lost in the shuffle from time to time, but the work will always be there, waiting to be rediscovered by those who really care enough to sift through all the crap.”