Jerry Kamstra
Jerry Kamstra

Obituary of Jerry Kamstra

Jerry Kamstra (January 2, 1935 – November 26, 2019) was an American novelist, poet, artist and community organizer. Kamstra is best known for his novels Weed: Adventures Of A Dope Smuggler and The Frisco Kid. Kamstra was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts NEA Writers Grant in 1978 for his novel General Popo: A Novel of Mexico. He was a prominent artist denizen and “Beatnik” of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as chronicled in The Frisco Kid, his novel of the Beat Generation. The novel has become a cult classic which literary critic and Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia claims is “a Beat masterpiece on par with On The Road.” Early Life: Jerry Kamstra was born January 2, 1935 in Riverside, California. Kamstra’s father, Richard “Dutch” Kamstra was a Dutch immigrant who made his living as a hard-rock miner, spending 50 years working underground. Dutch learned to speak English by reading The Katzenjammer Kids comic strip, arriving on a three-masted sailing ship in San Francisco in 1928 from Holland. Dutch became a member of the IWW (International Workers of the World) as a longshoreman. Dutch moved to southern California, and among his first jobs down there was milking cows for author Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzana, California. Kamstra’s mother, Lexie Kamstra, was the daughter of a fruit tramp, Nettie Cody, a distant relative of Buffalo Bill Cody. Jerry had three siblings – two brothers Richard Kamstra and Robert Kamstra; and one sister Bessie Kamstra. By the time he was 14 years-old, Jerry Kamstra had broken his arm four times and had read most books in the Colton Public Library. From an even younger age, Kamstra was an avid sportsman which later culminated into a position of captain of the third best high school basketball team in California. He was also a diver specializing in the 3-meter board, becoming champion of the Inland Empire and, while a member of the United States Air Force, he tried out for the 1956 Olympics. Kamstra worked with his father as a miner shortly after graduating from Colton Union High School in 1953. He received a full fellowship to ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles where he moved in the fall of 1953. Kamstra was studying to be a cartoonist, but after two semesters in art school, he quit to join the U.S. Air Force in 1955 to see the world. He was stationed in Guam. In 1957 he was busted and sent to the military stockade for a month for disobeying an order to march in a military parade, whereas he instead went skin diving in the deep waters of Guam. Jerry Kamstra was given an honorable discharge from the Air Force in late 1957 under family hardship conditions after 2 ½ years of military service. His father was injured in a mining accident. Since Kamstra’s mother was already disabled in a wheelchair, he went home to help his family until his father recovered from his accident. After leaving the U.S. Air Force and assisting his family, Kamstra took his first trip to Mexico and was turned on to the country. He met a girl named Anno on Isla Mujeres, where they made love in a Mayan temple amidst 6-foot iguanas staring at them. At the tail end of 1957, Kamstra moved to San Francisco and “discovered a community existing on the edge of the city unlike any other in America. Reckless, creative, frenetic, insane, it was too insane for a lot of people, for not many survived,” said Kamstra. “I did, however, and in surviving came of age in the cheap pads and artists’ lofts in North Beach. In the process I lost my innocence and my youth, but gained an indelible memory of a bunch of crazy people who lived, fought, struggled, loved and even died together with a sense of élan and community that I had never experienced before nor have found since.” Jerry Kamstra was married twice and is father to four children: Ameliana Kamstra, Duke Kamstra,Tcherek Kamstra and Miakje Kamstra. He has four grandchildren: Kaitlyn Thompson , Madison Kamstra, Mio Kamstra-Brown, and Tyler Kamstra, North Beach life: From his novel The Frisco Kid: “San Francisco is not America; it’s what’s left of America. It’s the Great Wall of China of America’s forgotten promises! Here in San Francisco have gathered all of society’s children, space-age dropouts from the American dream, Horatio Algers in reverse, descending from riches to rags and gathering now on the corners of Grant and Green in their beads and spangles and marijuana smoke to watch the entire structure crumble.” In reference to the preceding quote from The Frisco Kid, Anthony Ashbolt[1] of the University of Wollongong, Australia, stated, “Kamstra’s words reverberate with imagery from the 1960s, yet they are from a novel about Beat life in San Francisco during the Fifties. The passage is but one example of the way in which the city has been marked out as different, as a refuge, a depository of discontent and cauldron of rebellion.” Kamstra co-owned Cloven Hoof Bookstore on Grant Avenue in North Beach, San Francisco, from 1959-1960. At that time, Kamstra organized a rally against police brutality of North Beach artists and Beats, the first protest of the 1960s in Washington Square Park on January 15, 1960. Also speaking at the protest were Beat poets ruth weiss and Bob Kaufman. Kamstra was arrested in the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) riots at San Francisco’s City Hall in May 13, 1960 while taking photographs of the riots. He resisted arrest, landing photos of him on the front page of numerous local newspapers, including one with the caption “Novelist netted” in the San Francisco Call Bulletin. From the Cloven Hoof Bookstore, Kamstra designed, published and sold his first book Forbidden Limericks in 1959, collected by C.V. J. Anderson. The book became a best-selling staple of his bookstore with over 100,000 copies sold. He also published the last edition of Underhound magazine in 1960, volume 1, number 4, with an emphasis on local Beat poets, originally founded by Beat and surrealist poet Bob Kaufman. Kamstra illustrated these books under the pseudonym Shem The Penman. In the summer of 1960, Kamstra sold his half of Cloven Hoof to his ex-girlfriend in order to move to New York City’s Greenwich Village to start his first novel Tom Fool. Kamstra used proceeds from the sale of Forbidden Limericks to survive and write. While in Greenwich Village, Kamstra met Beat poet Jack Micheline on a park bench in Washington Square, a friendship that would extend to North Beach and span the rest of their lives. Career: Kamstra wrote articles, reviews and feature stories for numerous periodicals, including San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Examiner, High Times, Scanlan’s Monthly, Beatitude magazine, Desperado and Good Times. Kamstra’s first published article was a homage to Beat novelist Jack Kerouac upon his death which appeared in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle in October, 1969, followed up with an article in the same publication November 16, 1969 titled “Jack’s ‘Road’ was the Beat Children’s Beacon"[2] That same year, Kamstra went to Taos, New Mexico to interview actor, producer and director Dennis Hopper, who had just made the film Easy Rider, for an article assignment for Scanlan's Monthly, published by Warren Hinckle, political muckraker of the Gonzo journalism genre. Hinckle’s controversial magazine quickly brought heat from the FBI for lambasting the Nixon administration, so some of Kamstra’s articles were published under the pseudonym Roger Tichbourne to evade possible federal prosecution of the author for marijuana smuggling. During his time as a marijuana smuggler from 1966 to 1972, Kamstra sold his story of “Gringo Smugglers” first to Life magazine, who paid him a large advance on the story but refused to publish it once they realized he was the actual gringo smuggler documented in the story. Then Look magazine bought the article, yet reconsidered publishing it because it was too hot for their readership. An article published in Scanlan’s Monthly led to Kamstra’s novel Weed: Adventures Of A Dope Smuggler (Harper & Row, hardback edition, 1974 and Bantam Books paperback edition, 1975). The novel has been optioned by Hollywood producers five times in attempts to make a movie. The first option was from producer Tim Zinnemann in 1974 – intended to star actor Richard Gere in the lead role. Weed sold over 200,000 copies between the Bantam Books and Harper & Row editions combined. The success of Weed paved the way for the publishing of his novel The Frisco Kid (Harper and Row, 1975), which was heralded as the “San Francisco novel of the year” by critic William Hogan of the San Francisco Chronicle upon its release. Famous columnist Herb Caen called it “Intensely readable…a picaresque, Saroyanesque celebration of life in the North Beach netherworld.” Kamstra’s friend, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti owned a cabin in Big Sur, California where Kamstra wrote most of The Frisco Kid. The cabin was also a renowned retreat for other famous authors, most notably Jack Kerouac. Santa Cruz Poetry Renaissance: In addition to being a marijuana smuggler, artist and novelist, Kamstra worked as an abalone and salmon fisherman, a club manager for Big Brother & The Holding Company and a construction worker. He was also a community organizer of literary events from San Francisco to Big Sur, California, including the popular Santa Cruz Poetry Festivals. There were five festivals at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, spanning from 1972 to 1981, which were the largest poetry festivals in the United States [3] Kamstra was involved with all five of these festivals, and was director of two of them – the 2nd Santa Cruz Poetry Festival “Benefit for AIM-J (Americans In Mexican Jails) on November 25, 1974 and the “Fifth Annual Poet Tree Festive All” on November 13-14, 1981. Kamstra started the AIM-J organization and 30 American prisoners in one of Mexico's most notorious prisons received some “getting by” money as a direct result of the AIM-J poetry benefit held in Santa Cruz Nov 25. “The reading itself was one of the more exciting events to hit Santa Cruz since the invasion scares of World War II,” said Sam Silver of the Berkley Barb. [4], referring to the bomb scare that took place at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium while Allen Ginsberg recited his poetry to a crowd of 1,600 people. Also performing at the 1974 festival were Charles Bukowski, Linda King, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, jazz musician Charles Lloyd and a full-slate of “the biggest names in verse” according to Silver. The “Fifth Annual Poet Tree Festive All” of 1981 was a two-day event that showcased Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Wanda Coleman, Ishmael Reed, Diane DiPrima, Lorna Dee Cervantes, William Everson and many other performers. Kamstra opened the festival reading Henry Miller to the musical accompaniment of Max Hartstein’s 25th Century Jazz Ensemble. Three decades later, after taking young poet and Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts (SWBG) literary series founder Daniel Yaryan under his wing, Kamstra inspired Yaryan to bring the poetry festival back to Santa Cruz at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom on February 12, 2012. [5] Kamstra’s artwork was showcased in several of the SWBG Anthologies, including as the featured artist of Volume 1, Number 4. SWBG published The Buzz From The Bees in its Volume 1, Number 3 Anthology, February 2010 -- here’s an excerpt: “At Cape Canaveral they sprayed the mosquitoes to make them dead. Yes they did. And they killed the bird it is said, that when it’s dead, even God would count the least of its head – and it’s dead. Yes, it’s dead. The last Dusky Sparrow is dead.” In 2015, SWBG and its umbrella organization The Mystic Boxing Commission created an archive for artwork, books and memorabilia related to the SWBG series at the Old Sash Mill complex in downtown Santa Cruz. This archive, dedicated to Kamstra, is known as the Jerry Kamstra Sparring Archive. “The Sparchive” (as it is also called) also had a location in Scotts Valley, CA and is now located in the NoHo Arts District of Los Angeles, CA. Events continue to be held at the Sparchive in Kamstra’s honor. Henry Miller and Big Sur: In 1990, Kamstra was chosen as the first director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California. While director, he published the first two editions of the HMML (Henry Miller Memorial Library) Review. In 1991, Kamstra’s Peeramid Press designed and published Henry Miller: The Paris Years by Bob Cross. Miller is the most influential author on Kamstra’s writing career. Writing influences: Among Kamstra’s writing influences are Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller), Ulysses (James Joyce), On The Road (Jack Kerouac), Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammet), Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe), Walk On The Wild Side (Nelson Algren), This Side Of Paradise (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Ginger Man (J.P. Donleavy), Walden (Henry David Thoreau), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickenson and Cry The Beloved Country (Alan Paton). • Bibliography: • Weed: Adventures Of A Dope Smuggler (Harper & Row, 1974, New York) • The Frisco Kid (Harper & Row, 1975, New York) • Santa Cruz Poetry Festival Anthologies (PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1975-1981) • Stand Naked and Cool Them (PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1982) • The Holy eARTh Journal (PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1983-1997) • Don’t Kid Around With Jellybeans (Written and illustrated, PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1984) • The Poet Tree (Written and illustrated, PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1988) • The Littlest Christmas Tree (Written and illustrated, PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1989) • Satori In Santa Cruz (PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, Don’t Kid Around With Jellybeans (Written and illustrated, PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1984) • The Poet Tree (Written and illustrated, PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1988) • The Littlest Christmas Tree (Written and illustrated, PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1989) • Satori In Santa Cruz (PeerAmid Press, Santa Cruz, 1996) • The Last of the Bohemians (Collectible edition, Roger Jackson, Anarbor, Michigan, 1998) • The Buzz From the Bees (Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts, Santa Cruz, 2010) • Big Sur & The Sour Grapes of Henry Miller (Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts, Santa Cruz, 2016 References: Ashbolt, Anthony, Bohemians, Bridges and Bolsheviks: Radical San Francisco Before Flower Power, Illawarra Unity - Journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 11(1), 2012, 27-50. Available at:http://ro.uow.edu.au/unity/vol11/iss1/3 2. Kamstra, Jerry. "Jack's 'Road' was the Beat Children's Beacon," SAN FRANCISCO SUNDAY EXAMINER AND CHRONICLE, 16 November 1969, This World section, 51 3. Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 13, 1981. 4. Berkeley Barb, December 6, 1974 5. Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 13, 2012 – “Back in rhythm: Poetry Festival returns after 30-year absence”: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/article/ZZ/20120212/NEWS/12021758 On behalf of the Kamstra family, thank you to Daniel Yaryan ( long time close friend of Jerry's) for this write-up.
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