I learned recently that the poet and publisher Gwen Head died in April of this year. It’s a sign of the times that I found out through amazon. I’d ordered a Laura Jensen book I’d lost somewhere along the way, Memory, that was published by the press Gwen founded, Dragon Gate, in 1982. It came from an independent seller, and when I saw the return address, Dragon Gate, my eyes filled with tears. The press had long been shut down, and I’d been out of touch with Gwen after we’d both moved away from the northwest and Gwen’s own memory had begun to fail. I contacted the seller, who has most of what’s left of the Dragon Gate inventory, and he told me about her death. My online search for mentions of Gwen and her own poetry books, and of Dragon Gate and its publications, confirmed how quickly the poetry universe I’ve known is disappearing under the avalanche of the present.
There will be a memorial for Gwen at Open Books in Seattle next February, but for those of you who don’t know her or the press, I want to offer a little introduction here. I’d be grateful if those of you who did have a connection to her would pass along any stories you have.
Gwen published four volumes of poems: Special Effects (1976) and The Ten Thousandth Night (1979) in the Pitt Poetry Series; Frequencies (University of Utah Press, 1992, which included selections from the first two books in addition to new poems); and Fire Shadows (LSU, 2001). Amazingly, you can find them all for sale online.
Gwen founded Dragon Gate press in the early eighties, to publish poetry and short fiction. She did an enormous amount of research in advance, and set it up in her home in Port Townsend, Washington (Scott Wolf’s Gray Wolf was once in part of that same house, so it must be embedded with poetry). She published books by Laura Jensen, Linda Gregerson, Richard Blessing, Henry Carlile, Joan Swift, Richard Ronan, Jim Simmerman, Katharine Hake, John Woods, Jeanne Murray Walker, Anthony Piccione, and many others. All small presses are labors of love, and Dragon Gate was no exception: she provided a home for good work that might not have made its way into the world without her generosity.
Here’s Gwen’s poem “Rain” from Frequencies. I also recommend a beautiful pantoum in the same volume, “The Swans of Saigon.”
Rain is the original stereotype,
billions of identical units, each intent
on the din of its own tiny bit of information:
about ice crystals, say, at forty thousand feet,
wind shear, or the pollen count
on the Siberian tundra.
It begins like a sprung nerve, twitching.
An invisible junco lands
on the laurel. Then a flock of them.
Something plays the ferns like a marimba.
It continues, in Satie’s directions, monotonously, whitely–
like a nightingale with a toothache.
But this is more accurately rodent weather:
a clatter of nails and tail-tips on roof and walls,
the sour smell of a sickroom,
fear of bites while sleeping.
Awake and needing something, I go downtown.
Rain draws the maimed in thunderous masses
out into the slick streets as if to a shrine.
The dwarfs, the obese, the amputees, the mumblers, the dropsical
old women whose feet would make fine umbrella stands
crowd stupefied beneath the gray fountain
to be healed or drown,
and my taxi driver, taking a wrong turn, asks, “Lady
why do you look so sad?
You must be some kind of artist.”
Thank you, Sharon. What a touching remembrance. The poem, “Rain,” is wonderful. It takes such a surprising turn to first person in the 3rd stanza.
I agree. I love that turn and opening, the reveal of it.
What a wonderful poem! I did not know Gwen but I attended a reading she gave at the U.W. A friend (also now dead, dammit) and I were impressed with her elegance–demeanor and poems–and afterward, Kathleen said, “She makes me feel like mashed potatoes.”
What a wonderful poem! I do remember Dragon’s Gate Press and how active it was in its time. I didn’t know Gwen personally, but I knew of her. I heard her read at the U.W. The friend I was with (also now dead) and I were both struck by her elegance–demeanor and poetry, and afterward Kathleen said, “She makes me feel like mashed potatoes.”
I’m so glad you got to hear her read. Yes, she was very elegant, and very funny. I love the mashed potatoes comment.
Wonderful poem. And your words–“avalanche of the present”–boy do I know what you mean!
Thanks, Jeffrey. So much gets lost so fast. I hope you’re doing well.