February 6, 2009

Keith Abbott: brilliant Naropa writing teacher; writer; calligrapher.

When I briefly attended Naropa University’s grad Writing School some years ago, I had a bunch of great teachers—all great writers themselves. But one of my professors was, in addition to being a proficient writer and artist, a master at teaching we students how to write. This summary of Keith Kumasen Abbott’s work is offered with the encouragement to check him out if you get the chance.

Click here and go to bottom to see Keith Abbott’s books and art. From the Naropa University web site. 


Associate Professor Writing & Poetics, Visual Arts

University of Washington, Philosophy 
BA San Francisco State, English
MA Western Washington State University, English

Year started teaching at Naropa: 


The tradition of Naropa’s Writing and Poetics remains that working writers teach our students about writing and I am in that tradition. I teach different genres, because I write in many genres.  My publications and productions include poetry, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, essays, articles, drama and screenplays.  Lately I enjoy writing linked verse form renku, short stories and novels: all three involve narrative and/or disjunctive narrative principles.

Essentially I am a comic writer.  My prime subjects are love, friendship, loyalty, social class, justice, compassion, impermanence and enlightenment.  Take the last. Enlightenment is a unique subject for tragedy and comedy as it paradoxically involves compassion and love, two of the world’s most powerful binding forces.  Recall Huck Finn’s impassioned notion that on the river he may live free from social tyrannies and how this decision complicates his life wonderfully.  Or King Lear’s great insight to divide his kingdom among his daughters and how that idea ruins his monarchy and his mind.  Instead sealing off the world’s strife and turmoil, an insight or enlightenment plunges one into the thick of them.

My novel, Mordecai of Monterey, works on this belief that a condition of being a Bodhisattva necessarily involves comedy.  My main character Mordecai suffers from melanoia, the reverse of paranoia: he believes he is following someone and that someone is about to give him something.  One Californian reviewer, Thomas Simmons, wrote of the latter novel:

            “Among these people Mordecai moves like a crippled sage, absorbed in the erratic rhythms of their lives but is pulled back from them in crucial moments by his so-called disease–which, at heart, is simply a love of mystery, a belief in the possibility of resonant friendship and a quiet dissatisfaction with anything less. Though this novel looks like a patchwork quilt of hang-loose life in the ’70s, it presents a more profound and more disturbing portrait than one might first expect. It’s no accident that the most thoughtful man in the book is the one whose disease is a blessing – a release from the real emotional diseases haunting his friends and his time.”

            Essentially my fictions are set in two locales, California where I enjoyed interacting with a wide range of social and ethnic classes and the Northwest, where I was born and grew into a young man with limited access to society.  My Northwest novels and stories, such as The First Thing Coming, involve a different style of writing than my California writing, because they deal with young people working inside a certain social system and set of values.  This needs stricter point of view techniques and what I call a “window-pane” writing style that involves a maximum intuitional compassion and insight.  An intimacy results that I find thrilling and inspiring. A Northwest writer, Kirby Olson, reviewed these Washington stories in this manner:

             “Like great rock ‘n roll songs, [Abbott’s stories] rip through a succession of beautifully modulated changes going from crude to tender and back again as easily as shifting gears at the race track. Each story leads into the next, exploring the great 5O’s themes of whether to live a stable married life or to be an automobile nomad; to drink and boogie to rock ‘n roll or to carry on the Protestant work ethic. Each story has several layers of meaning all played against the center-short, crisp, and as fun as Chuck Berry. The writing is spare as in New Yorker fiction, but the lives underneath the prose are like hotrods going around a tight hairpin turn . . .. “

My California fictions, such as Rhino Ritz and Mordecai, are picaresque in form and stylistically perform in what was once termed magical realism, but now also called fabulist or hybrid.  A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote:

“{Rhino Ritz] manages to combine both mystery and sci-fi genres while following the activities of dead but not gone (they’re immortal, after all) authors turned-private eyes Ernest (Rhino) Hemingway and F. Scott (Ritz) Fitzgerald.  The case that the Rhino Ritz detective agency has undertaken is a tough one: Sherwood Anderson has been kidnapped.  There’s action aplenty—i.e. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are abducted by terrorists–and fast dialogue . . ..”

            In my non-fiction essays and in my memoirs, the mix of personal experience with literary, sociological and historical events takes a great deal of planning and work.  I prefer the autobiographical essay, therefore, and have only written one book-length memoir, Downstream from Trout Fishing In America, an account of my friendship with Richard Brautigan and witness to his life and times.  Brautigan came from a similar Northwest working class background as myself and provided an early inspiration via his literary ambitions and eventual success as a writer. Much to my delight, Raymond Carver, another Northwest writer from the same milieu, wrote of my Brautigan memoir:

            Truly the best thing I’ve ever seen written on the man.  You write of him with love and affection, that’s obvious, but also with deep and clear understanding.  It’s really quite good. . . and a cautionary tale as well.”

This camaraderie such as this is also important for my teaching and I work with our writing students to create mutual support systems that goes beyond our workshops. 

            About my latest work and art circa 2006 I can offer this.  Recently Ellipsis magazine (Number Nine), commissioned an interview along with some of my art about the relationship between painting and writing, art and literature.  Here’s an excerpt:  

Is your creative work project-based? Do you have things in progress now? Or do you work when struck?

Normally yes: projects continue to fuel my work.  In progress is a memoir, Whack Jobs, about my short stay in a thrillingly corrupt college athletic program.  

            A linked-verse renku, Random Rocks, is ongoing with poets Pat Nolan, Maureen Owen and Michael Sowl.  One never knows when their latest links will arrive, and that keeps me engaged in a disciplined, yet random, collaboration. Renku is improvisation like jazz that way.  You have to work with someone else’s take intimately.  

            And when unable to write fiction or poetry (or just to kick back), I may create, revise and edit something minor or small. Lately I’ve fashioned essays derived from Naropa lectures on contemplative fiction techniques and/or on specific writers.  Journalism and reviews I enjoy for the same reason: to take my language and ideas for short walks.

            On my writing workshops I have yet to publish a full account for what I do in the classroom.  But here is a short list of my principles.      

Teaching Philosophy:

In writing my professional goals are

  1. to teach students how to read like a writer
  2. to teach students editing skills that will get them past a second draft
  3. to demonstrate how emotion informs all good writing
  4. to demonstrate how compassionate character building via Point of View practices may structure and refine student writing
  5. to build student peer groups for inspiration and editorial support throughout the writers’ careers
  6. to respect all genres of writing and incorporate as many professional tools from those genres for adaptation in the student’s writing
  7. to run a non-competitive mutually supporting workshop atmosphere to max out every writer’s potential

My most important personal aims are to be the best editor I can for our student writing, to enjoy literature with students, and to embody respect for each student’s awareness and mind in a relaxed and open atmosphere.  I attempt to start my work with each student at the level where his or her writing is located and work for improvement. Here are some results.

Selected Prose Concentration Alumni Publications, Honors and Awards

Over the past nine years, Naropa graduates in the prose concentration have achieved notable publication, honors and awards.  Alumni include novelists Chris Baer Kiss Me, Judas and Penny Dreadful (Viking Penguin) Hell’s Half Acre and Godspeed (Macadam Cage), Jimmy Gleacher It’s How You Play the Game  (Scribners), Laird Hunt The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana and The Exquisite (Coffee House Press).  Sean Murphy The Hope Valley Hubcap King(Ballantine), The Finished Man (Delta) and One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories (Renaissance Books). 

We value our graduates. Alumni books are often taught in workshops, such as Baer Kiss Me, Judas Laird HuntIndiana, Indiana and Sean Murphy One Bird, One Stone.  Also alumni essays and short stories are cycled through each generation, such as esssays of Veronica Stapleton (’03), Amy Arenson (‘03), Mark Bernheim (’05) and Joan Harvey (’05) recently published in the anthology Richard Brautigan: A Collection of Essays, (McFarland 2006).  New workshop students often remark that this Writing and Poetics alumni tradition inspires and motivates them. 

            Alumni with scripts produced or optioned include Marlowe Fawcett The Other Half, Karen Rathert Prairie Fire, Junior Burke American Reel, Ozzie Cheek Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Dylan Patterson The Other Road andJabberwocky In Mexico, and Barbara Purbaugh Tracks. Our alumni, their scripts and adaptations also return to our workshops as examples for emulation and study.

            Alumni awards for fiction include The Ernest Hemingway First Novel Award, Story Magazine Competition, The Raymond Carver Short Story Award, Atlantic Monthly Fiction Competition, Prism International Award, and American Academy’s Nicholas Screenplay Awards. Grad Laura Hawley (‘01) placed a story in The Best New American Voices 2002 judged by Joyce Carol Oates.

            In many cases these alumni publications began during their MFA Ms. work  or were their MFA Manuscript.  Because of the multi-genre approach many writers are able to morph their works into other genres after graduation.   Our workshop editorial process has aided our graduates in gaining representation from agents and inclusion in anthology and magazine publication.  Also, from the writing workshop experience and from the various professional workshops available (such as Publishing Matters and Designing a Writing Workshop), graduates have found editorial positions and teaching jobs leading university workshops down to a one-day workshops.

A Favorite Course

I love to teach Building Blocks.  First semester students study the basics of character-based fiction such as exercises in Monologue, Dialogue, Point of View, Character, and Scene construction.  The writing assignments are minimal but are based on the supposition that particular technical skills may often solve several motivational and structural issues for students.  The approach here is “Try this, see if you can use it in your work.”  Some exercises have been adapted from contemplative practices.  I like to excerpt scenes from films to teach.  Texts/films by Sam Shepard, Lucia Berlin, David Mamet, Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), Lorrie Moore, Elmore Leonard, Amy Hempel, Dagoberto Gilb, Buck Henry (To Die For) David Lynch (Mulholland Drive)and Quentin Tarrantino. Students adapt for the screen the opening chapter from NU alumnus Chris Baer’s noir classic, Kiss Me, Judas and then compare them to past alumni adaptations.  Alice Munro’s Selected Stories is used as a corrective to linear rules for character-based fiction along with alumni Laird Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana.  Our dialogue segment features examinations of gender, ethnicity and social class.  The writing business (manuscripts, publication, agents, editorial practices, contracts and PR) are reviewed.  Half the class is devoted to critiquing student writing, half to assignments.  Thirty-five pages of edited prose is our goal.

Related Interests:

I teach Brush calligraphy and paint and collage works.  I also love to garden, carve Chinese style seals and collect rare books. I like to exercise my photographic imagination. I study and practice Tai Chi Chuan. I am an ordained lay monk in the Soto Zen lineage.

Selected Literary and Artistic Curriculum Vita

Fiction And Nonfiction

The Best Deal I Ever Made. (Blue Suede Shoes, 1972) Story.
Hero Pills. (Blue Suede Shoes, 1974) Stories.
Gush. (Blue Wind Press, 1975) Novel.
Rhino Ritz. (Blue Wind Press, 1979) Novel.
            ibid.  German edition. (1993)
Harum Scarum. (Coffee House, 1984)  Stories.
           ibid. German edition. Maroverlag (1989)
The First Thing Coming. (Coffee House,1987)  Stories.
            Totale ÜberraschungEin Roman In Kurzgeschichten. German edition. (1993)
Mordecai of Monterey. (City Miner, 1985)  Novel.
Racer.  (Maroverlag 1993) German Edition Novel.
            (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006).
Downstream From Trout Fishing From America: a memoir of Richard Brautigan.  (Capra Press, 1989)  Nonfiction.
            Un rêveur à Babylone (L’Incertain, 1992) French edition.
             Un rêveur à Babylone (Domaine Etranger, 1991) 
The Last Part Of The First Thing Coming. (Grey Spider, 1991)  Story.
Skin and Bone. (Tangram, 1992) Story.
The French Girl. (Rodent, 1996)  Stories.
Downstream, an excerpt.  (The Beat Scene Press, 1999) Memoir.
Richard Brautigan: The Edna Webster Collection (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) Introduction.


Dumptruck. (Cranium Press, 1967).
Putty.  (Cranium Press, 1970).
Moving Postures. (Snazzy Wah Press, 1970).
Short Change. (Snazzy Wah Press, 1970).
Thin & Thin. (Blue Suede Shoes, 1971).
Joie de Vivre. (Blue Suede Shoes, 1972).
Treys. (The Other End, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1972).
Being Alone With A Girl. (Blue Suede Shoes 1974).
Erase Words. (Blue Suede Shoes, 1974).
Red Lettuce. (The Fault, 1974).
12 Shot. (Z Press, 1975).
Erase Words. (Blue Wind, 1975) Expanded edition.
The Book of Rimbaud. (New Rivers, 1977).
What You Know With No Name For It. (Cranium, 1976).
Word Nests. (Privately printed, 1979).
Good News Bad News. (Doris Green Editions, 1984).
Flashes. (Kavayantra, 1996).
Twisty Chunks. (Kavayantra, 1997).
Ballads.  (Blue Suede Shoes, 2034).
All Ears. (Empty Head, 2004).
Next Door to Samsara. (Fell Swoop, 2004).

Selected Anthologies

Fiction and Poetry

Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry (Soft Skull, 2006)
Autumn Trout Gathering: Looking Back at Richard Brautigan (MacFarland Press, 2006).
Merrill At Sixty (Prairie Rose Press, 2005).
The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, ed. Dodd (Free Press 2005).
Rimbaud Après Rimbaud. Claude Jeancolas, ed. (Except Collection Textual, 2004).
Thus Spake The Corpse. Vol. I, II ed. Codrescu. (Black Sparrow, 1999).
American Poets Say Goodbye To The 20th Century, (Four Walls, 1998).
What Book, ed. Gary Gach. (Parallax Press, 1998).
Black Ice. ed. Mark Amerika. (Altx. Website. 1998).
Biennale 96, ed. Minganti (La Biennale di Venezia, 1996).
Degenerative Prose, ed. Amerika & Sukenick (Black Ice, 1995).
Beat Generation ed. Minganti (Communa di Cesena, 1994).
Rosarot and Katzenjammer (Luchterhand, 1992).
Out of This World, ed. Anne Waldman, (Harmony/Crown, 1991) .
Hands, Joining. Poet Calligraphers, ed. Green (Brooding Heron Press, 1988).
Black Box, Anthology of American & German Writers, (Maroverlag, 1988).
Concert at Chopin’s House, Polish/American Writing, ed.  Minczeski, (New Rivers, 1988).
Up Late. ed. Andrei Codrescu (4 Walls 8 Windows, 1987).
The Best of California. ed.  Harold Hayes, (Capra, 1986).
Men Talk, ed.  Fried & Singer. (Pacific House Books, 1985).
Parkplatz Fur Johnny Weismuller, American Writing on Hollywood, ed. Ohnemus, (Machwerk Verlag, 1984).
Das Rowohlt Abenteuer Lesebuch. Travel Writing, (Rowohlt, 1984).
Sweet Little Sixteen. Growing Up In America, ed. Jurgen Schoenich, (Rowohlt, 1983).
City Country Miners. ed. Michael Helm, (City Miner, 1982).
Broadway. ed. James Schuyler & Paul Violi, (Magpie, 1981).
Nuovo Romanzo Americano. Selections and Interviews with New
American Novelists. ed.  Franco La Polls, (Carte Segrete, 1980).
Califea. California Writers, ed. Ishmael Reed, (Wingbow, 1979).
The Little Magazine in America. ed. Newman & Kinzie, (Pushcart Press 1978).
The Big House. (Ailanthus, 1979).
Omens From The Flight of Birds. ed. Vincent, (Momo’s Press, 1977).
The Story So Far.  (Coach House, 1975).
Another World. ed. Anne Waldman, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972).
Under 30. ed. Newman (Indiana Univ.  Press, 1969).
Cannery Row Anthology. ed. Nolan, (Polygon Press, 1966).

Selected Screenplays

The First Thing Coming.  Adaptation of “Spanish Castle”.  Keith Abbott and Ozzie Cheek.  Ziji Productions.  2004.


Keith Abbott’s fiction and poetry have been translated into French, German, Czech, Russian, Romanian and Italian.  Fiction: Racer, Harum Scarum (Maroverlag, 1985, 1989), Rhino Ritz and The First Thing Coming,(Palmenpresse, 1992) have been published in German.  Downstream From Trout Fishing In America was twice issued in French and selections from the Brautigan memoir Un rêveur à Babylone were quoted by critic Jean-Luc Douin in his omnibus review “Brautigan Generation” (Le Monde, October 1, 2004) discussing the new translations of ten Brautigan titles by writer and critic Marc Chenetier.  Abbott’s fiction was included in the study Un Posto Nella Mente, Il Nuovo Romanzo Americano  Franco La Polls (Longo Editore Ravenna, 1983).

Selected Reviews

Reviews or notices have appeared in:  The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, Newsday, The Village Voice, San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, The American Book Review,  The San Francisco Book Review,  Seattle Times,  Seattle Post-intelligencer,  The New York Times, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Publisher’s Weekly, Choice,  Library Journal, Die Zeit, Muenchner Zeitung Review, Neue Zurcher Zeitung.


Solo Shows

Common Zens Retrospective 1990-2000. Naropa University, Boulder, CO 2002.
Sweet Nothings. Artemisia Gallery Boulder, CO 2002.
The Ink of An Eye.  Critical Edge, Gunterville, AL, 2001.
Masks and Mountains. Trident, Boulder Colorado, 2000.
Recent Paintings.  Roasters Gallery, Boulder, Colorado, 1998
Birds Beasts Bugs Buddhas & Baseball.  CDOT, Denver, Colorado, 1998.
Buddha Comes To White America.  UMC Gallery, Boulder, Colorado. 1998.
Glue, Ink, Brush and Paper.  Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado. 1994.

More Books 

  1. The First Thing Coming. St. Paul: Coffee House. (1987). Stories.
  2. The Last Part Of The First Thing Coming. Mt. Vernon: Grey Spider. (1991) Story.
  3. Skin and Bone. Berkeley: Tangram Press. (1992). Story.
  4. Richard Brautigan: The Edna Webster Collection. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1999.) Introduction
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