Remembering John Oliver Simon, distinguished poet, teacher, translator

John Oliver Simon. Photo: Kaare Iverson

John Oliver Simon, one of the Bay Area’s most beloved poets, died in the early hours of Jan. 16th, from cancer, in the home of his fiancée Susie Kepner. He is survived by daughters Kia Simon and Lorelei Bosserman, son-in-law J.D. Moyer, granddaughter Tesla Rose Moyer, and former wives Pam Simon Hazel, Alta, and Jan Courtright Simon. He was 75.

Born in New York City in 1942, he wrote his first poem under a full moon in 1956. Educated at The Putney School, Swarthmore College (Phi Beta Kappa), and the University of California Berkeley, Simon was mentored by John C. Adler, Jeffrey Campbell, Daniel Hoffman, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and Carol Lee Sanchez.

While at Cal and after, Simon was active in the Free Speech Movement and in the famous struggle to liberate Berkeley’s People’s Park. Of this time, he wrote “I was a newcomer to the Bay Area, having arrived in Berkeley in September 1964 in time to sit down in the crowd on Sproul Plaza surrounding the police car which was holding Jack Weinberg prisoner in the back seat in the first act of what would become the Free Speech Movement. I came west three months after graduating from Swarthmore College, planning to get my Ph.D. in English at Cal since I had not been accepted to graduate school at Harvard, and because my mother’s forebears had arrived in San Francisco a 110 years before that and California was my terrain of legend.”

Simon’s nine full-length books of poetry included Caminante (praised by Gary Snyder and Juan Felipe Herrera), Roads to Dawn Lake (Oyez Press, 1968), Rattlesnake Grass (Hanging Loose Press, 1978), Lord of the House of Dawn (Bombshelter Press, 1991), and Grandpa’s Syllables (White Violet Press, 2015). His poetry was published in numerous literary journals and reviews, “from Abraxas to Zyzzyva.” He also co-founded and edited the poetry magazine Aldebaran Review, which ran from 1967 to 1978.

In 1989, Simon was awarded an Individual Artist’s Fellowship by the California Arts Council. He also received an NEA Fellowship in Translation for his work with the great Chilean surrealist poet Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011). On Jan. 20, 2015, Simon’s contributions to the Bay Area writing and educational community were recognized by the city of Berkeley with “John Oliver Simon Day.” On May 14, 2016, the Berkeley Poetry Festival presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

As an educator, Simon devoted himself to teaching children to write poetry. He co-founded and taught at the People’s Community School in Berkeley, 1969-1973. He was a former president and board member of California Poets in the Schools (CalPoets) and served as the artistic director of Poetry Inside Out, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation. In 2013, he was named the River of Words Teacher of the Year by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass.

Despite not learning Spanish until the age of 40, Simon became a noted translator specializing in contemporary Latin American poetry. His cultural reporting was featured in Poetry Flash and American Poetry Review. In 2017, he traveled to Madrid to attend a conference of translators of Gonzalo Rojas.

In addition to his daily writing practice, Simon was an avid backpacker, kayaker, gardener, and baseball fan.

John Oliver Simon touched the lives of thousands with his teaching, friendship, and poems. Mexican poet Alberto Blanco wrote, “The poems of John Oliver Simon, like all true poems, trace a map, a psychography, which allows us to enter, not only into another life but into the voyage of that life, and not only into another culture, but into other cultures: into another point of view.”

Simon himself wrote, “Language is the central human invention, the hive which we are ceaselessly elaborating, even as I speak.”

A memorial service will be held at the Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, on Feb. 3rd, at 2 p.m.