California as “the epicenter for literary wars”


California boy.

Not all of us took to California naturally – I wrote about Czesław Miłosz‘s difficult adjustment to the West Coast here.  But some of us were born to the place:  Dana Gioia, for example, was born in gritty little Hawthorne outside L.A., and even during his long years as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he kept his enchanting Santa Rosa home.  Since August 2011, he’s been the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California. We never thought we’d see him in academia – in California or anywhere else.

The spring issue of The Los Angeles Review was dedicated to him.  I know, I know, it’s summer now, but I’ve just gotten round to reading the Q & A he did with the review’s nonfiction editor Ann Beman – plus, I’m including his poem about California in August, so in a sense, I’m early.

The last part of the interview discusses a favorite theme of his – California literature.  (Check out his earlier controversial essay “Fallen Western Star” here). But California as “the epicenter of literary wars”?  Who knew?

From the interview:

A.B.:  When you think of a journal such as The Los Angeles Review that tags itself as “Divergent West Coast Literature,” what do you envision?

D.G.:  I envision a journal that approaches West Coast literature as it really is rather than how outsiders imagine it. California, for instance, has a far richer and more diverse literature than commonly presented. It contains all sorts of enriching contradictions.  Competing aesthetics exist side by side. The state has been the epicenter for most of the literary wars that have been fought for the past century.  Out of these battles have emerged all sorts of major trends and genres – naturalism, multiculturalism, science fiction, hard-boiled detective fiction as well as the beat movement, language poets, and new formalists.  I would love to see a journal that embraced the notion of West Coast culture as a dialectic rather than a consensus.

A.B.: What is Los Angeles’s literary legacy? What do you see as literary L.A.’s future?

D.G.:  Los Angeles has had its richest literary legacy in fiction, especially populist forms of fiction. Contemporary science fiction and detective fiction were essentially invented here.  There has also been a rough and tusantarosa1mble school of naturalism. Our masters have been Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Heinlein, Octavia Butler, John Fante, Budd Schulberg, Charles Bukowski, and Joan Didion.  (Most of these writers were not taken seriously initially.)  L.A. was also a place that tranformed writers who came from the Europe or the East – authors such as Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, and Thomas Pynchon. For poetry, L.A. has often labored under the shadow of San Francisco.  Our greatest poet, Robinson Jeffers, did not emerge as a major talent until he had lived sequestered in Carmel for many years.  Things have begun to change recently.  It seems to me that L.A. is on the verge of a great poetic period.  Perhaps The Los Angeles Review can play a part in that efflorescence.

A poem elsewhere in the issue seems aimed at those of us who never quite got the hang of California, but who, somewhere along the way, became Californians anyway. We are legion.

California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

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