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In Memory of Kirby Congdon, an Unsung Hero of American Poetry

The following is written by Rich Dana, Sackner Archive Project Coordinator Librarian

Black and white photo of a young man sitting in a chair, wearing all leather and sunglasses
Image of Congdon in 1966 from issue of Juggernaut, Sackner Archive

On June 3, 98-year-old Kirby Congdon passed away in Key West, Florida, a town that had recognized him as its first poet laureate. Although the arts community of Key West understood the importance of Congdon and his work, much of the rest of America’s literary establishment is yet to recognize him.

According to his obituary, he was born in Pennsylvania in 1924 and was drafted at age 19, serving with valor as an Army sharpshooter in Europe during WWII.  “At a time when the United States government and its military were enacting criminalizing edicts against gay service personnel, Kirby fought Nazi snipers to defend and expand the democratic freedoms that he would, only by virtue of his longevity, see come to fruition 70 years later with the establishment of equal rights and protections for LGBTQ+ citizens, such as gay marriage.”

With the help of the GI Bill, Kirby attended Columbia University where he studied philosophy and literature, earning a Bachelors degree… despite his rebellious nature. During this time in New York City, he became part of the Beat poetry scene, along with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac. There he gained notoriety as both a writer and indie publisher as part of the “Mimeograph Revolution.”

Cover page of Juggernaut by Kirby Congdon
Cover page of Juggernaut, Sackner Archive

Stunningly handsome, a motorcycle enthusiast and leather fetishist, Kirby was a flamboyant and fearless gay man during a time when homosexual activity was still illegal and most of his beatnik compatriots opted  to seek refuge in tweedy intellectualism and academia. Although he was published in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, his own Interim Books imprint and ground-breaking publication Magazine (a storehouse for ammunition) published work that was cutting-edge, sexy, and transgressive.

Later in life, Congdon divided his time between Key West and Fire Island, New York. His works included Aipotu (1998), Poems from Fire Island Pines and Key West (1999), Novels, prose poems of people, Old Mystic, Connecticut Sixty-five Years Ago (2003), and Selected Poems & Prose Poems (2006). His work has been anthologized in Gay Roots (1991) and Inside the Outside (2006). (Source: The Poetry Foundation)

He is survived by his husband, the art critic, Darren Jones.

Works by Kirby Congdon from The Ruth And Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry can be found at UI Special Collections.