I first met kari edwards in the autumn of 1998. Sie was then living in Denver and was a MFA student at the Naropa Institute. Sie had registered for a special graduate seminar I was teaching that semester at the invitation of Anne Waldman and Reed Bye: a fifteen-week spin through Robert Duncan's life and work. It became an intense and terrifically fruitful class for all involved. It was a small group, and over those weeks we became a strange close-knit family, meeting both in the seminar room on Monday afternoons, and in Jane and Anselm Hollo's living room on Sundays to read Whitehead's Process and Reality and Jane Harrison's Themis. Derek Fenner and Ryan Gallagher (now of Bootstrap Productions) were in the class, as was Brakhage scholar, poet, and journalist Christopher Luna, Lisa Trank, Saskia Wolsak, Jeni Olin, Cedar Sigo, and a handful of other folks.
It probably took a couple weeks before someone pointed out to me that kari was "in transition", a fact that mattered and didn't matter. It mattered in that I had the initial fear of screwing up or not knowing the protocol for addressing hir. I hadn't up to that point had any friends in transition, and didn't know much about the trans community. At the same time there was something ultimately familiar and familial about kari. Sie was so much like the tough working class women of my childhood neighborhood. Cigarette smoking cleaning ladies and the like. No nonsense people with a will to survive. Later I learned that kari had grown up a town away from me just south of Buffalo, and even later I learned that her childhood had been more rough than mine. Any feelings of intimidation (she was the oldest student in the class, and knew an awful lot about everything) melted away in a snap. kari had business to attend to: sie wanted to write a paper on Robert Duncan and experimental music and sie needed my help. Sie confided in me that sie was dyslexic and at times not entirely confident of how to proceed academically. (Though sie had two degrees under hir belt before sie began the MFA in poetry.) I told kari to call me, and sie did: to my surprise, often early in the morning on weekends: sometimes sie had an idea and sie wanted to run it by me, sometimes sie was anxious to have me look at a piece of writing, once sie was calling simply to report the excitement of having talked to Pauline Oliveros on the phone. I came to look forward to the wake up calls from kari, and in the end hir research for the class spanned across Duncan, Stravinsky, Oliveros, Cage, and Partch. It was remarkable savvy work, with an end-of-the-semester multi-media classroom presentation that wowed all of us.
That was the beginning. In the years that followed, kari was there. One summer sitting outside the hippie organic chai-happy cafe at Naropa sie told me about hir recent big step: the surgery. The nerves were regenerating: Wow! Sie said. Sie was happy.
When kari showed me a new manuscript called a day in the life of p I was hooked on its energy. I thought it should be in print and sie thought it should be in print and I fortunately had the resources to publish it through subpress collective.
In January of 2000 I was back in Boulder for a semester, this time teaching at the University of Colorado. My students were, alas, confessional poet ski bums. I assigned them some of kari’s work to read, and sie came to talk to the class, arriving with a reading packet that included excerpts of:
Suzan-Lori Parks. The America Play.
John Keene. Annotations.
Helen Cixous. Stigmata: Escaping Texts.
Riki Wilchins. Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender.
David Antin. Talking at the Boundaries.
Kathy Acker. In Memoriam to Identity.
Celine. Death on the Installment Plan.
Artaud. Where Others...
Kate Bornstein. Gender Outlaw.
kari was a great teacher. Faced with a bunch of undergrads who were neither here nor there, sie read her work, talked about hir experiences, answered questions, and arrived at funny aside: sie had decided that sie could have only been an SS Officer in hir last life to end up in the very complex situation of being dyslexic and transgender in Reagan-Bush Era America.
It was always clear that kari had plenty to contend with and it was clear at times that sie could get emotionally wiped out. At the same time sie knew hirself well, sie had an intensely psychoanalytic mind, and sie quite simply dealt with humiliations head-on. Sie’d laugh when sie told the story of being called “sir...or...or...ma’am?” by a cashier. (Her response was "no.") Sie recalled the looks sie got of coming into or out of public restrooms. Sie worried about the maintenance involved in “passing,” but sie was also very keen to be who sie was and to chip away at deep dark archaic social structures of gender.
When kari and I talked we went to places I wanted to be: falling into collage of chatter about Sigmund Freud, Kenneth Anger, Aleister Crowley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman.
The real gift kari gave me was an entrance point into the history of and evolving politics of the transgender movement. Sie gave me a chance to reconcile with my own modest insecurities about gender and desire, and more importantly to come into a clearer understanding of the socially-constructed aspects of who-we-are. These days it feels beside the point to make the judgement of male or female or male-to-female or female-to-male. kari was kari, and when I think of the people I love, there’s a real beauty in the places where the boundaries of gender begin to melt.
This last summer when I was teaching Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw in a class at Wesleyan, I got an email out of the blue from kari. She and her partner Fran were at the end of their stay in India and preparing for a return to San Francisco. She’d happened upon the class website, wished she could be there, and provided a reading list for my students:
McCloskey, Deirdre N. Crossing: a memoir.When I told kari that the students were overloaded and agitated with the radical perspectives on gender, she wrote back to tell me that I was doing my job. She included the advice that she sometimes gave out as a counselor:
Richards, Renee with Ames, John. The Renee Richards Story: Second Serve.
(interesting how they both speak of themselves as displaced person,
another, not them.)
(and I think the two below are in the same league at kates...only from
a different perspective)
Wilchins, Riki Anne Wilchins. Read My Lips: Sexual subversion and the
End of Gender.
”parts are parts... you can name
them any things you want. but if it feels good go for it.”
There's a lot to come to terms with in kari's death: hir work as a writer is remarkable, unique, and simply high-energy trans-genre beautiful, and hir commitment to social justice emanated from the core of hir being. Sie gave an awful lot to a world that often didn't have much to give back to hir.
A couple notes:
There are a few variations of gender neutral pronouns. I've used here the ones that kari settled on in writing a day in the life of p.
Kevin Killian sends news from kari’s partner Fran that donations can be made to
the international cinema in Auroville, the visionary community in southern India where kari and Fran had spent a happy year + together.
Checks should be made out to:
Auroville Maintenance Fund
Financial ServicesTown Hall Annex
Auroville 605101Tamil Nadu
Please note that it's to support "Cinema Paradiso" and that your gift is in memory of kari edwards.
kari’s latest book, having been blue for charity has just been put online by Geoffrey Gatza at Blazevox.