As difficult as this post is to compose, I have been avoiding the task. But for those of you familiar with her work and her presence, it imust be told: we have lost Kathleene West. Below is her obituary, written by her dear friend Harriet Linkin. If like me you are an admirer of Kathleene’s work, keep an ear to the ground. Two new manuscripts are in the hands of publishers and will, we hope, emerge into the world posthumously.
Advice to a Young Woman who Hesitates
to Cross the River on a Fallen Log
You can manage alone, but hope for others
to support the beginning
and end of your bridge.
When a hand stretches toward you,
think of it offered in praise
rather than aid,
and accept it with love.
Forget tightrope artists
and slim-footed models. They survive
on what is too meager to maintain you.
And be dependent
on a stout stick to hold your weight.
Do not clutch it close
like a weapon. Allow the staff
its own crossing
away from your body.
Expect the log to dip and pitch
but do not assume
it means to roll you into the river.
It also must adjust.
If you are a novice, you will forget all
of this, and waver like a child
attempting a first step
on this log that has shrunk
to a sapling, as you try to balance,
steady yourself with your will,
pulled by the clamor
of the water below.
Then listen
and follow your own voice. Listen
and cross the water.

~ Kathleene West, from The Farmer’s Daughter


Kathleene Kay West, December 28, 1947-July 7, 2013

It is with great sorrow that I announce the death of Kathleene West, emerita Professor of Poetry at New Mexico State University (1987-2008), who ended her life on July 7, 2013. She chose to leave us as she lived: with courage, fortitude, ferocity, and passion.

She was born on December 28, 1947 in Genoa, Nebraska, the fifth child of Alfred Nicholas Linnerson and Irma Naty (Samson) Linnerson, grew up on the family farm and completed her early education in her mother’s schoolhouse. She left home for college at 17, later calling herself the proverbial farmer’s daughter, and completed her BA in English and Spanish at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. After a brief marriage to Charles West and life in Texas as a high school teacher of English and Spanish, she pursued her vocation as a poet, completing an MA in Advanced Writing (Poetry) at the University of Washington. She worked as a Poet-in-the-Schools in Washington and Nebraska and apprenticed as a letter-press printer with Copper Canyon Press and Abbatoir Editions before returning to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to pursue her doctorate in English Literature and Icelandic Studies. A two-year Fulbright Fellowship in Iceland enabled her to complete the research in the Icelandic language and poet-warriors of the medieval sagas that shaped her creative dissertation, “Plainswoman: Her First Hundred Years” (1986).

She was the author of ten books of poetry and two books of fiction: No Warning (Jawbone Press/Blue Heron Press, 1977), The Armadillo on the Rug and Other Tales (The Seal Press, 1977), Land Bound (Copper Canyon Press, 1978), Water Witching (Copper Canyon Press, 1984), Plainswoman (Sandhills Press, 1985), The Farmer’s Daughter (Sandhills Press, 1988), The Death of a Regional Poet (Huraćan Press, 1988), Romance tercermundista/Third-World Romance (Ediciones Catedral, 2000), The Summer of the Sub-Comandate (Intelibooks, 2002), Greatest Hits 1978-2011 (Kattywompus Press, 2012), and the forthcoming Tourists of the Revolution (Stephen F. Austin Press). The personae of her poems and stories reflect the many emotional and physical landscapes she inhabited with wry grace, exuberance, and fierce honesty. When she shared her unpublished novel of her life in Port Townshend with her mother, her mother said “You need to tell the truth.” She told the truth, but told it slant and with sharp wit: she sometimes said she would have pursued life as a stand-up comic had she not listened to the call of the muse, and would laughingly invoke the diamonds and toads fairy tale. We are lucky she chose imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

During her tenure as a professor of poetry at New Mexico State University she became a renowned and beloved teacher of undergraduate and graduate courses in creative writing, form and technique, international literature, women writers (notably Plath and Sexton), and Norse sagas and mythology. She served as poetry editor of Puerto del Sol (1993-2008) and brought significant attention to contemporary Caribbean, Spanish, and Latin American poets through a series of translations that enabled Anglophone audiences to read their works. In addition to her two years in Iceland she travelled to and researched in Viet Nam, Cambodia, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Russia, and Ukraine and was planning a visit to Burma.

The last words she wrote in her journal epitomized her diamonds, her toads, and above all her precision: “I wish there was another way. Were. I wish there were another way.” She is survived by her three sisters, her brother, many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, and grand-nephews, and the thousands of students and friends whose lives she gave meaning and who gave her life meaning.