Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

A poetry prize for Dana Gioia, and a reading in an “otherworldly setting”

Saturday, May 19th, 2018
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Dana Gioia has won so many honors, awards, positions, distinctions, that it’s hard to keep track of them, but we can begin with his current appointment as poet laureate of California, and his earlier appointment as National Endowment of the Arts chair. As of yesterday, he has a new one: he was awarded this year’s Poets’ Prize for 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf). The ceremony took place in New York City’s Nicholas Roerich Museum.

The winning book

“Dana has won many honors, but he has never won one of the ‘major’ poetry prizes,” said R.S. Gwynn, thinking of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize. “His well known role as an advocate for the arts has perhaps overshadowed his excellence as a poet. Our award is not, however, for lifetime achievement or extra-literary work; it is an award, pure and simple, for what the members of the committee consider the best poetry collection of the year.” (Sam Gwynn is stepping down after ten years as chair of the event. He will be replaced by poet Robert Archambeau, with Marc Vincenz, editor of Plume and MadHat Press, stepping in as the new co-chair. have stepped forward to keep the prize alive.”

A committee of 20 poets selects the winner of the $3,000 prize, which is administered by Lake Forest College. The award is offered annually for the best book of verse published by a living American poet two years prior to the award year. The $3,000 annual prize is donated by a committee of about 20 American poets, who each nominate two books and who also serve as judges. Previous winners include A.E. Stallings, X.J. Kennedy, Marilyn Nelson, and Adrienne Rich. In fact, Dana shared the award with Rich way back in 1992.

I cannot find my own copy of 99 Poems to search for a poem – however, I do have a broadsheet of this one, which is included in the volume. It’s among my personal favorites, and somehow fits the Roerich Museum:

The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves

The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead you where you know you must go.

Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.

And one small detail out of place will be
enough to let you know: a missing ring,
a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
a crack of light beneath a darkened door.

The verdict from one of the poets attending the event, Susan de Sola Rodstein: “Wonderful event in an otherworldly setting, with touching tributes to Colette Inez and Dick Allen, and memorable readings by prize-winner Dana Gioia and finalists” – the finalists were James May and John Foy. Susan also took the photos above and below.

Sam Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and Robert Archambeau

The second Sierra Poetry Festival this weekend – with Robin Coste Lewis, David Kipen, and me

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018
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Angeleno David Kipen will be in the Sierra foothills for an onstage convo this weekend.

Another gig this weekend. I’m heading to the hills to be (I’m told) a “celebrity presenter” at the 2018 Sierra Poetry Festival on Saturday, April 28, which will be held at Sierra College in Grass Valley. Ever so tiny a celebrity, I should think – a National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis, is the keynote speaker, after all. And as always, Executive Director of Nevada County Arts Council Eliza Tudor is the magnificent organizer and visionary behind the event. You can hear her discuss the event (with poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) over here.

I wrote about the Sierra festival in its inaugural year, 2017, when California poet laureate Dana Gioia was the keynote speaker. He gave a terrific talk – read about it here.

Last year’s poetry festival, with Dana Gioia and Moi (Photo: Mary Gioia)

Said Eliza of this year’s program: “We chose our theme, Ordinary Light, as a nod to our brand new United States Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, for the title of her award-winning memoir.” We’ve written about the poet, a Stanford alum, here.

I spent about a dozen years in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, “Gold Country.” The twin cities – Grass Valley and Nevada City – are the best and largest souvenirs of the Gold Rush period in California history, and have a growing tourist industry. (Both cities are now under state designation with the California Cultural District program.)

That’s one enticement. Then there’s the company. Consider this an invitation to come and join me. It’s an all-day one-day event. I’ll be having an onstage conversation with David Kipen at 3:30 p.m.

David, born and raised in Los Angeles, is the former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, during the time it was under the chairmanship of a fellow Angeleno … Dana Gioia. Since then, David opened the Boyle Heights bookstore and lending library Libros Schmibros in 2010.

He is also the former book editor/critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, which is where I encountered him in the late 1990s. I was a critic at that time for the august San Francisco institution.

However, he was for the most part telecommuting from Los Angeles. So we only had one brief encounter, years later, at an event for the National Book Critics Circle we both attended. He moved through the room like the sun, and his conversation is engaging and lively.

The conversation will be moderated by author Kim Culbertson, who will try to rein in David and me. Our topic: “What does it mean to be a literary citizen?”

She’s back: U.K.’s Mel Pryor (Photo: Radu Sava)

I don’t think the type on the poster is quite readable when reduced to blog size (bel0w), but you can go and see the full line-up and more legibly here. You can also register for the event online here.

The highpoint: Keynote Speaker Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis will speak at 9:30 a.m.

From The Guardian:

At age six, Robin Coste Lewis told her aunt that she wanted to be a writer. This, she thought, meant being a novelist.

“I thought that if one wanted to be a writer, one had to write novels because I didn’t know that one could be a poet,” says Lewis, whose debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus won this year’s National Book Award for poetry. She believed this in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and afterward while teaching, and trying to write fiction. She believed it when she published She Has Eight Arms But Only Shows Me Two in the Massachusetts Review, a work that she thought was a short story, “even though all my poet friends at the time were like, ‘Girl, that’s a prose poem.’”

To the marrow … National Book Award winner Lewis

Things changed after she was in an accident that caused permanent brain damage and kept her in bed for two years.

The recovery was difficult. Lewis had to do speech-language therapy and stop reading and writing. “My neurologist told me, ‘You can only write one sentence and read one sentence a day,’” she says. “I decided, ‘OK, if it’s one line a day, it’s going to be a goddamned good line.’” …

“I am an artist through to my marrow,” she says, though adding, “which might be a curse and not necessarily a good thing.”

And poet Mel Pryor will be flying in from England – as she did last year – to attend. Closer to home is Nevada City poet Molly Fisk.  But read the schedule here, and the list of presenters here. Tickets are here.

See you there.


Never heard of her? A poet who endured illness, poverty, and the “snotty standards of British reviewing.”

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018
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Elizabeth Jennings – rediscovered.

Dana Gioia has a superb essay over in First Things, “Clarify me, please, God of the galaxies,” about Elizabeth Jennings, the only woman in the “Movement” poets of the U.K. (We’ve regularly written about a few of the others – Philip Larkin, Robert Conquest, Thom Gunn.) She echoes the Movement credo, with a soupçon of Christian mysticism perhaps, when she writes: “Only one thing must be cast out, and that is the vague. Only true clarity reaches to the heights and the depths of human, and more than human, understanding.”

Never heard of her? “Although mocked by the press and neglected by scholars, Jennings enjoyed a popular readership in the U.K.,” Dana writes. “Her Selected Poems (1979) sold more than 50,000 copies. Her poems became A-level texts for secondary schools. Her steadfast publisher, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, claims she became his bestselling author—’the most unconditionally loved’ poet of her generation.”

She lived her life almost entirely in Oxfordshire, where she experienced mental breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, under-employment and unemployment, and shabby poverty, but nevertheless earned many awards and much recognition. When she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E) at Buckingham Palace in 1992, the press criticized her for looking like a “bag lady.” She died in 2001, at 75.

“Jennings was not a great poet. Greatness had no appeal to her. She admired epic visionaries, such as Dante, Milton, and Eliot, who offered sublime visions of civilization and belief. She recognized, however, that her muse was lyric. Jennings’s ‘great’ subject was how the individual—fragile, isolated, but alert—worked her way through life’s difficulties and wonders. Her sensibility was romantic, but her style was neoclassical. The characteristic Jennings poem presents the ache and exhilaration of romantic yearning expressed in exquisitely controlled rhyme and meter. She acknowledges her own confused romantic longings—emotional, artistic, and religious—but subjects them to lucid analysis. Her goal is not to resolve the contradictions but clarify them.”

Dana says there are two ways to introduce the public to an unfamiliar poet. The first is to describe particular qualities of the work. He opts for Door Number Two:

“The second way to introduce a poet is simpler. Quote the work. Here is the opening of ‘I Feel.’

I feel I could be turned to ice
If this goes on, if this goes on.
I feel I could be buried twice
And still the death not yet be done.

I feel I could be turned to fire
If there can be no end to this.
I know within me such desire
No kiss could satisfy, no kiss.

The poem’s language is direct, musical, and intense. The strict form feels less like an abstract framework than a cauldron barely able to contain its scalding emotions. The poem’s impact is so immediate and tangibly personal that it is easy to miss its quiet but profound engagement with the Catholic literary tradition. The paradoxical combination of ice and fire imagery goes back at least as far as Petrarch. More interesting, however, is the poem’s connections to Christian mysticism. Although “I Feel” initially seems an expression of erotic longing poisoned by despair, close examination reveals it can also be read as a tortured expression of spiritual hunger, the mystic’s excruciating desire for rapturous union with God.

Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

She was prodigiously productive, and produced great poems at every stage of her life. Yet her Catholic religion set her apart as much as being being a woman did: “Jennings’s literary reputation never surmounted the limits imposed on women of her generation. By the time of her death in 2001, the situation for female writers had become less grim, but her Catholicism isolated her from the feminist vanguard leading the cultural change. In her later years, reviewers often treated her with condescension and hostility. One young critic mocked her as a ‘Christian lady’ and ’emotional anchorite’ inhabiting a world of ‘shapeless woolens, small kindnesses and quiet deaths’ —an odious remark even by the snotty standards of British reviewing. Jennings understood the dilemma and bore it, but not without a touch of bitterness. (Few Catholic poets extend the concept of redemptive suffering to include their own bad reviews.)”

Read the whole thing here.

Anton Chekhov, a lady, and her dog: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life.”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
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I’m working rather feverishly to finish writing against an important and non-negotiable deadline, and began two blog posts to you, Faithful Readers, but got strangely tangled up in my own words and couldn’t finish. Nevertheless I finally got a chance at last to read poet Dana Gioia‘s discussion of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” His thoughts about it are over at his website here. In the course of it, he writes, the hero (if you can call him that) “undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Dana begins with some background on Chekhov:

Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.

Dana and friend.

It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.

What do you know? I got this off without too much fuss. And I even found an image of a small yapping dog (you can read the story behind the painting here.) Read the Dana’s essay here.

How-to guides and texting aren’t enough: “Children, from the very earliest age, need to read stories,” says Dana Gioia.

Friday, November 24th, 2017
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Still on the road – but it may be some time before he gets to Lassen County.

Dana Gioia, California State Poet Laureate (and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts), is continuing his mission to visit all of California’s 58 counties during his term. It’s not always easy: “I’m trying to go to Lassen County, but Lassen doesn’t have any libraries,” he said. “There are 3,000 people [in the county], and the person who runs the arts for the state there, it’s a part-time job. She also works as a forest ranger. In a lot of these places, I’m the first person who’s ever given a poetry reading.”

And some counties need to be visited more than once. For example, his home turf, Los Angeles County. At an event last week at California State University, Northridge, Prof. Robert Gohstand quoted from one of Dana’s articles, in which the poet claimed that  “literature awakens, enlarges, enhances and refines our humanity in a way that nothing else can.”

At the inaugural Sierra Poetry Festival last spring. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Dana’s remarks at the Northridge event reinforced what Ursula K. Le Guin said in the previous Book Haven post: that we need to train the imagination. “One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice,” she said (read the rest here).

In short, it’s not enough for kids to read cellphone texts, tech manuals, comics, wikipedia, or science magazines. They need to read literature.

An excerpt:

“The early experience of reading opens up something in an individual’s mind and imagination, which makes him or her begin to lead their lives differently,” Gioia said. “Children, from the very earliest age, need to read stories. They need to know how many possible outcomes any story has, how many characters, how many plot reversals. If you don’t train the imagination early on, it tends to be locked into a very narrow set of possibilities.

“It’s the books that capture the imagination that deliver the practical outcomes, rather than the books that are designed with cold-blooded pragmatism to teach people mechanical skills of reading,” said Gioia, who also serves as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

“Literature has the power to arrest the attention to create an empathetic connection as you’re reading, to use your imagination, to fill out the details,” he said. “That’s why reading is a more powerful imaginative exercise than watching a film. The debt that I owe to books, to public libraries, is immeasurable. It made a huge difference in my life.”

Read how libraries changed his life here.

England takes notice of California’s poet laureate: Dana Gioia on the BBC

Saturday, September 30th, 2017
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“I don’t want to be a visiting celebrity. I want to be a catalyst,” says California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia. The Book Haven has already discussed his efforts as poet laureate here and here, but it’s nice to see his work getting international recognition. He’ll be on the BBC tomorrow, Oct. 1, at 10 a.m. California Time (PST). The program, called “a radio road movie,” will be available shortly after broadcast.

From the BBC website:

When Dana Gioia was appointed Poet Laureate of California in 2015 he was invited to read in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. But Gioia believes the role is to encourage poetry throughout the state. He has a mission: to visit every county in the state of California.

There are 58, stretching from Del Norte 1,000 miles south to Imperial, bordering Mexico; from the Sierra mountains and redwood forests to the desert; densely populated Los Angeles (almost 10 million) to almost empty Modoc (fewer than 10,000); with established communities from Mexico and Europe joined recently by people from the Far East.

Everywhere Gioia is joined by other poets and young people participating in Poetry Out Loud. For nine years Gioia was Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. One of his initiatives was this nationwide competition for young people to memorise and recite poems. It is astonishingly popular.

40-odd counties in, producer Julian May joins Gioia to create a radio road movie for Radio 3. Gioia reads in a pub yard in Mariposa, an old gold-mining town, while humming birds dart and hover. A few days later Gioia hears of a huge wildfire coming within a mile of the wooden town. In a library in Madera, roasting in California’s central valley, a woman from Peru recites a love poem in Spanish. In marches a squad of lads – military boots, buzzcuts. They are from the juvenile hall youth correctional facility. Each, says Officer Martinez, can recite a poem by heart. There is an event in Turlock, settled by Assyrians, another in San Diego near Mexico and, in his home county, Sonoma, Gioia appears at poetry event in a vineyard.

All this, and more, in ‘Every County in the State of California’, a radio road movie.

It airs tomorrow morning, October 1, at 10 a.m., California Time (PST). You can read the press release, too, here.

California poet laureate Dana Gioia vowed to visit every county: 14 more to go!

Friday, August 11th, 2017
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When Dana Gioia became California poet laureate a year ago this week, he vowed to visit all 58 counties of California during his tenure. From my own emails and conversations with him, I know that’s taken a lot of miles – out of him as well as his car. But he’s done it. Or is close to doing it. He’s visited 44 of California’s 58 counties. Only 14 to go in his second year. What will he do then? He’ll start all over again. Why? He replied, “because it is important to visit the large counties several times to reach different communities.”

“Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million people. That requires lots of events. The same goes for the Bay Area. When I was asked to read a poem at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Presidio’s National Cemetery, I immediately accepted because the gathering served a different audience from the venues I had already visited in San Francisco,” he said in a California Arts Council interview. “I also knew that poetry was important for the troops, veterans, and families on such a solemn occasion.”

Obviously, he hasn’t just been catering to the big cities. I attended his event last spring in Nevada County, which held it’s first-ever poetry festival, where he gave a terrific talk, one of his best:

At first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

“We bear a certain kind of spiritual wisdom,” he said. “It’s something that happened to all of us. We saw and experienced, at a really very early age, the transformation that beauty affords. We encountered things that changed who we were.”

“You have this beauty, which leads to joy, which becomes wisdom, which becomes a kind of helpful humility about what you can possess, and where and what you are. That has happened to everyone in this room repeatedly. Once you experience that, you want more. You will bring yourself at great expense and great difficulty” to those places that provide such occasions, whether Yosemite, the National Gallery of Art, or a small poetry celebration in the Sierra Foothills.

“It awakens you to the full possibilities of your own humanity,” he said. “What we are sold by society are generic, prepackaged versions of what our lives should be and how we should experience them– and what it’s going to cost us to have those predictable experiences,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Netflex: they don’t want beauty, they want to own beauty. They ‘like’ art, they want to own art – and turn it into entertainment.”

“They want to take all the unknowns and pre-package them, and sell them as a predictable product that they can own as a kind of property. We’re rather helpless and hopeless in front of this enormous global power which is trying to narrow and define our lives in ways that are not the way we want to live. It’s not the kind of mystery that has to unfold unpredictably and personally,” he said. “Joy is something I cannot own.”

“We don’t lead global lives. We don’t lead generic lives.”

Well, read the whole thing here.

But let’s go back to the California Arts Council interview: “We got big audiences in the smallest towns. There was also a wonderful mix of people. There were, of course, the local poets, musicians, and teachers we expected. But we also got mayors, ranchers, shopkeepers, accountants, almond farmers, veterans and veterinarians. The ages ranged from newborn to near centenarians.”

From an interview with the California Arts Council:

You’re a native Californian. Having traveled to some lesser known and less populated parts of the state, have you gained new perspective on the state and what it means to be a Californian?

Absolutely! I thought I knew the state pretty well, but these trips have been a continuous discovery. I now realize how little I knew about the eastern half of the state, especially up in the Sierra Nevadas. Those counties are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are also central to the state’s history. There were also a lot of towns I knew only from driving through them on the way to somewhere else. How different it is to meet local people and spend a day or two there.

I just finished spending two weeks with BBC, which is doing a documentary on the statewide tour. I asked that the show only be partially about me. I wanted it to be mostly about the California that the British don’t know—the mountains, the Central Valley, the desert, and the north coast.

One last question, just for fun. If you were hosting an intimate dinner party, and could invite any three people, living or dead, who would they be, and why?

Honestly, I’d invite my mom, my dad, and my late Uncle Ted, because I miss them. But if I had to exclude family, I’d ask William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. I’d open up a bottle of good California wine and then listen to the conversation.

And we’d join him. Make it a BYOB. Meanwhile, read the whole interview here. Congratulations, Dana!

“We don’t lead global lives!” Dana Gioia gives a passionate defense of the arts at inaugural Sierra poetry festival

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
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Dana Gioia_5

California state poet laureate launches the first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Dana Gioia, California’s poetry laureate, vowed to visit each of California’s 58 counties, and by gum he’s keeping his word. He’s visited Los Angeles County, 9.11 million, and Alpine County, 1,114. He also helped launch the first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival in Grass Valley in April (that means he gets to check off Nevada County on his list). While there, he gave perhaps the most passionate and eloquent defense of the arts, literature, and poetry I’ve ever heard.

Sierra Poetry_1

Poet from afar: U.K.’s Mel Pryor leads a workshop at Sierra festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

The former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts lauded the people gathered in the room, some of whom had come from some distance and personal sacrifice, praising them as people who have “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media.”

Those values, he said, could be summarized in three terms: “money, power, and other visible forms of social status.” That’s why, he said of one of his predecessors as state poet laureate, Al Young, who was in the audience “operated at a level any celebrity chef would look down upon.”

He countered society’s values with “three words our society is suspicious of, and professors of literature absolutely hate: beauty, truth, goodness. Are there three more discredited words in our society?”

Dana cited Robert Frost‘s words, that a contemplation of stillness moves you from delight to wisdom. “That is what it’s about. To make something that is beautiful. … to get something right.”

Sierra Poetry_12

Pablo Frasconi on William Everson (Photo: Radu Sava)

Intellectual rationales don’t capture the motivation that drives us. The real reasons, he said, are “experiential” – “to restore our souls, to give us a drink of what refreshes us.”

“We bear a certain kind of spiritual wisdom,” he said. “It’s something that happened to all of us. We saw and experienced, at a really very early age, the transformation that beauty affords. We encountered things that changed who we were.”

“You have this beauty, which leads to joy, which becomes wisdom, which becomes a kind of helpful humility about what you can possess, and where and what you are. That has happened to everyone in this room repeatedly. Once you experience that, you want more. You will bring yourself at great expense and great difficulty” to those places that provide such occasions, whether Yosemite, the National Gallery of Art, or a small poetry celebration in the Sierra Foothills.

“It awakens you to the full possibilities of your own humanity,” he said. “What we are sold by society are generic, prepackaged versions of what our lives should be and how we should experience them– and what it’s going to cost us to have those predictable experiences,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Netflex: they don’t want beauty, they want to own beauty. They ‘like’ art, they want to own art – and turn it into entertainment.”

“They want to take all the unknowns and pre-package them, and sell them as a predictable product that they can own as a kind of property. We’re rather helpless and hopeless in front of this enormous global power which is trying to narrow and define our lives in ways that are not the way we want to live. It’s not the kind of mystery that has to unfold unpredictably and personally,” he said. “Joy is something I cannot own.”

“We don’t lead global lives. We don’t lead generic lives.” Speaking for myself (and the Book Haven), that’s one reason why I’m so uncomfortable about the politicization of our culture, which is another attempt to co-opt the private sphere, the personal “aha” into a collective, ready-made experience, which is necessarily narrower and more generic. This trend, of course, is accelerated by the social media, by television, and even by our academic institutions.

Dana Gioia_11

“The battles are mostly local.” (Photo: Radu Sava)

I was happy to hear, at the end of the day, Dana’s eloquent championing of the writer William Everson, in an onstage conversation with filmmaker Pablo Frasconi, who is doing a film on the too little-known poet of the San Francisco Renaissance.

During the morning address, Dana also mentioned Everson, recalling his frequent misrepresentation and neglect over the years. It returned him to his main line of thought: In his research, he recalled a Poetry Foundation article that was riddled with errors, and noted that, in 1947, Everson became “a poet of national importance.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Dana asked. “Poetry is not something that happens and is judged in New York or Paris or London. We lead our lives in a particular place, in a particular time, in a particular body.”

“We have battles to defend that. The battles are mostly local. Why is there no arts education in local schools? It’s not because anyone in Washington made that decision.” Those decisions are made at the city and county level.

Yet an education in poetry, literature, the arts, is the way we shape our students’ emotions and intuition, he continued. “To produce people who are not educated in that experiential part of their humanity,” he said, is to process students who are “not educated, not able to take their particular life into a complicated society in the complicated business of living to have a productive life.”

Dana & Cynthia

Dana poses for a photo with Humble Moi, with flowers by the matchless Eliza Tudor, who organized the event. (Photo: Mary Gioia)

“We are here because we know these things are of value,” he said to the audience. “It rests on us unfortunately to communicate those beliefs to society, be it in the U.S. senate and House of Representatives, where unfortunately I have spent a great deal of my energy and time in the last three months – not to mention the previous decade – or the local schools boards or county supervisors.”

May the Book Haven add a note to this? Too often, arts education has yielded to a wrong-headed notion of self-expression, rather than as an apprenticeship to something more enduring and more profound than the limited ego and short-lived self. For example, it is a lesson in humility to write write essays, articles, even blogposts, and then read Great Expectations on the train, or memorize Shakespeare on the elliptical, just as it must be for an artist (or anyone else really) to study Giotto before returning to the commercial art studio. It subsumes us into something greater than ourselves, and one is happy to put a nail into the most obscure cupola in the magnificent edifice of civilization. It teaches one humility, and we could all use a little o’ that.

“I love California, I want to see every corner of California. Every place matters,” said the Angelino poet as he concluded his remarks. And a few hours later he hit the road again. I got an email from him a little while later – he’d traveled over a thousand miles by car in the past ten days, not counting flights to and from Los Angeles, where he currently holds the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

Listen to his whole talk here. Kudos to Eliza TudorExecutive Director of Nevada County Arts Council, for pulling off a smashing launch of a promising annual event. And congratulations to Molly Fisk, Nevada County’s inaugural poet laureate!

 

NEA? NEH? PBS? We told you so!

Monday, May 1st, 2017
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Donald_TrumpI’ve always maintained that the three most beloved words in the English language are not “I love you,” but rather, “You were right.” So I’m waiting…

Still waiting… Crickets?

When I said that President Trump doesn’t have the ability to eliminate federal agencies, as he suggested by recommending the complete defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was challenged. One Facebook friend, a well-known editor, flamed and unfriended me. Others expressed expressed skepticism. Meanwhile, champions of the agencies lobbied fiercely in Washington D.C., where the NEA and NEH  have wide bipartisan support, as I reported here.

Dana Gioia was one of them, and he said to the Sierra Poetry Festival in Grass Valley last month that he was 99% certain all would be well. (More on that event later.)

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The spending bill that Congress is expected to vote on this week includes a promotion for the two agencies:  $150 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and the same for the Humanities endowment. In both cases, that’s a $2-million increase over last fiscal year. No cut in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney had advocated the cuts, saying that it was unfair to take money from working families to support programs such as the endowments and public television.

But it was clear from the outset that Trump’s plan would face trouble in Congress. Most NEA funds go to support community arts groups in all 50 states, with rural, Republican-leaning states topping the lists of spending per person. As a result, arts programs have a strong constituency in Congress, especially on the appropriations committees that dole out spending.

Mulvaney and his allies in the most conservative wing of the GOP have tried to cut money for arts programs in the past with no success.

The deal only lasts through the end of September, and the fight could be renewed for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, but the basic congressional dynamics aren’t likely to change.

Of course, it still has to get voted on, but I refer you to the third paragraph above, and also my earlier report.

What’s that? Oh yes. You’re so very welcome.

“A Titan”: Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s last voyage, 1930-2017

Friday, March 17th, 2017
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Shakespearean energy and scale

A few weeks ago, when I met Robert Pinsky for a quick coffee on San Francisco’s North Beach, he passed on the sad news that Nobel poet Derek Walcott wasn’t doing well, and to expect the bad news soon. And so I did, all the more when a Facebook friend, in touch with Walcott’s daughter, said the poet had slipped into a coma some days ago. He died today at 87.

The official cause of death has not been cited, but I’m pretty certain the poet died in the place, if not the way, he would have wished: on his native St. Lucia in the Caribbean, the sea that was the lifelong inspiration for his poems and plays. “I go back to St. Lucia and the exhilaration I feel is not simply the exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia,” he once said. “It is almost an irritation of feeling: Well, you never got it right. Now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.

He was born on the island, and attended the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad. He was awarded the Nobel in 1992. He is best remembered for his epic poem Omeros. The Caribbean’s brutal colonial history, as well as the native beauty of these islands, were his themes.

“He’s a titan.” That was from Garrett Hongo, another islander from another ocean, the Pacific: a Japanese-American poet from Hawaii. He continued:  “I’m weeping quietly and slowly. I cannot even begin to think of all the ways he has inspired me at different times in my life since I was a boy in an audience of a theater weeping at hearing his words in the dark, stage rain glittering down on the floorboards in front of me.”

“He was kind and encouraging to me when I was starting out. And he once called out my name as I stood in an autograph line, waiting with others. He said something to me I will never forget.” What did he say? “It was praise, I’ll just say that.”

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Another island poet remembers.

Garrett had hoped to travel to St. Lucia in February for his birthday but was told he was ill and would not be seeing any visitors this year. He thought to present the essay that was a tribute to him, which had been presented at the Folk Center on St. Lucia. It didn’t happen. “He mana’o he aloha,” [I have a feeling of love] he said, in tribute.

According to NPR, when Walcott was teaching at Boston University 1984, he said that a book-length poem like Midsummer was a natural extension of the language all around him. “You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena,” he said in an interview, “You would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody as a minor character in Shakespeare. Because here you have a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language, very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages of the Caribbean. So that you didn’t make yourself a poet — you entered a situation in which there was poetry.”

More from The Guardian:

Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

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Accepting the Nobel from King Carl Gustav

In 2012, he told The Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

We’ve quoted Dana Goia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the embattled National Endowment of the Arts, a lot in the last few days. Let us do so once more. This afternoon he said: “Derek Walcott was justly celebrated as the historic figure who entered the great tradition of English-language poetry with his Caribbean identity intact, thereby both enriching and transforming the canon. It’s less known what a superb playwright Walcott was. His theatrical legacy is in every way equal to his poetry. Foremost among his dramatic achievements was his reinvention of contemporary verse drama in plays bristling with Shakespearean energy.”

I had the same thought when reviewing his verse plays, The Haitian Trilogy fifteen years ago for The San Francisco Chronicle. I wrote that Walcott was attempting to re-create West Indian history on a canvas as large and mythic as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses:

Commenting about his plays to the Caribbean Quarterly in 1968, Walcott said, “I hope that there is a moment, or there are moments, when the thing becomes a poetry on stage; and I would prefer to eventually write a play which would be a poem.”

If so, Walcott has hit the target. “The Haitian Trilogy is like the great hull of a lost ship, its crushed timber shot through with starlight. And what lies at the bottom of the seas it once sailed is the inevitability of time, the inevitability of history to crush kings and the certitude of conquerors, the inevitability of remorse for things done and undone – and, as always, the ability of gold to betray men.”

Godspeed, Mr. Walcott. Requiescat in pace.

Postscript on 3/18: Courtesy Elizabeth Amrienwe have a 52-minute podcast with Derek Walcott at Boston University, on the theme “Poetry and Politics.” Irena Grudzinska Gross moderates. It’s here.