Archive for May, 2024

Pierre Saint-Amand celebrates Robert Harrison: “a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity”

Friday, May 31st, 2024

On April 19, Stanford celebrated the remarkable and many-faceted career of Professor Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the Department of French & Italian. We published Andrea Capra‘s tribute to him “How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison,” on the Book Haven. Capra, a grateful former student, is now Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton. Today, we share the presentation from a colleague who attended the festivities. Pierre Saint-Amand, Yale University’s Benjamin F. Barge Professor of French (he was formerly at Stanford), focuses his research on 18th-century literature, especially the libertine novel, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and literary criticism and theory. Some of you may remember also him from the Another Look 2019 discussion of Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. He was a brilliant addition to the Another Look panel, and a lively presence at Stanford day-long symposium for Robert Harrison as he officially transitioned to “emeritus.” Here’s what he said:

I am pleased to say a few words about Robert Harrison as we open this conference on the occasion of his retirement. These will be not savant words but words of affection. Robert and I were both young assistant professors in the early eighties, here at Stanford. Robert was then a specialist of Dante, fresh from Cornell, having written on the Vita Nuova. I am glad I had a front row seat to the immediate rise of his global success and his amazing career. I saw him mutate to become a philosopher, in the old sense of the term, one expressing his views on the human condition, and a public intellectual as he took to the waves. Everything started with Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a prescient book of which I remember the humble and patient beginning. Robert put it together assembling erudition and swaps of visionary poetic language, going from Vico to Zanzotto. I am attached to Robert’s early books, as I felt a part of them when they were being written, and as they got especially a second distinguished life in French. Robert enjoyed naming these translations (beautifully realized by Florence Naugrette): he repeated those names as if they contained a special essence; he would say Forêts, Jardins, Les Morts. They were not books but some kinds of ecstatic emanations of the originals. Robert was a true professor of French and Italian; he was the eminent bridge of these two linguistic regions of this department and certainly the major intellectual spirit linking the two communities.

Pierre Saint-Amand

 He writes beautifully of this place, Stanford, that he will never attempt to leave, as I did (for Robert likes the woods as much as I like the city life). The university, he writes in Jardins, gave him so much. It’s strange to think of Robert as a man of institution, but he valued the university, this university, as a place of humanist exception and certainly of civilized friendship. He sees the university positively as a perfected garden. He has stayed here to live at Stanford, finding his habitat, his habitation, on the most perfect and secret street, Gerona Road, a hidden route in a wooden local. Robert finally left a modest cottage in a garden where he wrote his most precious books, now, for his house: a modern construction barely elevated above the land; an almost invisible structure hidden in the landscape of trees. This place resembles him and entertains his monastic and savage legend. I am reminded that in the cottage the forest once came magically to him when a branch of foliage pierced through a window to keep company to his computer. That was an awesome sight, a miracle of provoked thought, we could say, that wanted to prove to Robert he was writing the right books on nature.

 Robert is retiring. He will be gone from his classroom, gone from the Quadrangle, but you will still be able to hear him when he takes to the waves. For he has this other life, really a voice, a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity. Who says KZSU like Robert Harrison? Where is the location of that electronic space that invites his baritone eloquence? You say it comes from the Stanford campus, better it is a global digital agora. That’s where you will find Robert Harrison, Robert the prophet, warning us of the impending doom and delivering an activism of the thought. In the manner of Hannah Arendt, his muse, he sees those dark clouds threatening of a rain that doesn’t come. Recently, Robert has left the forest for the cosmos (I mean by that the worlds) making an even more giant intellectual, philosophical, and critical leap. We have all become followers of Entitled Opinions, hooked to the news of dark times. Robert though has a secret, a pharmakos at the ready, nothing other than the poetry of his vision, a poetry that is always the promise of a survivable redemption.

Robert Pogue Harrison with  Chloe Edmondson and Pierre Saint-Amand discussing Princesse de Clèves (Photo: David Schwartz)

Cheers to the man whose name is a rhyme! Poetry champion Mike Peich turns 80!

Monday, May 20th, 2024
Mike Peich tirelessly shares his fine press books to visitors. Here in 2014

Way back in 1995, a literary movement was born: the West Chester Poetry Conference, with 85 poets and scholars in attendance gathering in the small burg outside Philadelphia. The original core faculty members included Annie Finch, R. S. Gwynn, Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, and Timothy Steele.

Mike Peich’s “Aralia” fine press books on display

They had a mission. In a world where poetry has become almost irrelevant, the poets gathered in West Chester wanted to return it to a general audience. Their weapons of choice? Traditional forms, rhyme and meter, those age-old tools of the poet’s craft, which fell out of fashion in the last century but were making a startling comeback. Why did it appeal? Because it echoes with cadences that have been familiar to English-speakers for centuries.

The conference was co-founded by a maverick California poet, Dana Gioia, and a local fine-press printer, Michael Peich. It soon became perhaps the largest such ongoing symposium in America, with more than 200 by the time the century turned. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “a true event, one of the most important such conferences in the United States.” Over the years, it’s pulled in such heavyweights as Richard Wilbur – arguably America’s greatest living poet – as well as Anthony Hecht and Britain’s Wendy Cope, among others. Together, Gioia and Peich made this small suburban campus into an unlikely literary mecca.

The birthday boy: Mike Peich turned 80 last weekend on May 18.

Not everyone was a fan of what the West Chester conference represented. The movement that gave birth to it – loosely called “New Formalism” – has been locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle with several of the more powerful institutions in today’s poetry world. Notable among them is Philadelphia’s prestigious American Poetry Review, which in 1992 published a blistering attack on it as “dangerous nostalgia” with a “social as well as a linguistic agenda.” Another critic labeled the group “the Reaganites of poetry.” And a recent issue of the American Poetry Review makes a dismissive reference to “neo-conservative formalism.”

Well, you can read the whole story here. It’s disappeared from the Philadelphia Magazine online, but we have preserved the article, “The Bards of the ‘Burbs,” just for you.

Meanwhile, many of the West Chester veterans praised him in – what else? – poetry, beginning with Dana himself, riffing on Tennyson‘s “Ulysses” with his good friend and fellow poet David Mason:

Michael Peich Turns Eighty

It little profits that an idle man
By a still press, with a half-empty can
Of beer should undertake a survey of his life.
One might as well carve water with a knife,
And water passeth underneath a bridge.
He flushes and returneth to the fridge.

The long day wanes. The game shows now begin. 
The existential question—switch to gin?
It is the evening makes him think this way,
As repetitious as a roundelay.
He can’t stay up too late, can’t see the stars,
The doctors have forbidden him cigars.

Old age hath yet its honor and its trauma,
From scheming poets and their endless drama,
Their endless readings and their endless woes,
Self-laureled poets with their souls of prose.
No blinded Cyclops roaring in a rage
Is half as awful as some poet’s page.

Such steady service to the Thankless Muse 
Would drive a less heroic man to booze.
(A recreation he can’t even try;
His poet friends have drunk his cellar dry.)
But wise Ulysses sees his shelf and smiles.
The books he printed are his Happy Isles.

Turn off the screen, and let the low skies darken.
Time to reread Dick Wilbur, Kees, and Larkin.
Though much is taken, he will undertake—
For Dianne and his worthy spirit’s sake—
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to growse,
Or let another poet in the house.

From Meg Schoerke

Tell all the truth but tell it “Peich”—
Success in Printing lies
Not in Broadsides, nor Matchless proof,
No Letter out of Line—
But Truest—be—the Type of man
For whom Ink Brayers roll—
His Font of Generosity
And Impress on our Soul—

From Leslie Monsour

Dear Mike,

The time has come, now that you’re eighty,
To turn to matters deep and weighty.
By now, you must be sage and wise;
No need for doubt or compromise.
Of lessons, you have gathered plenty.
Your insight measures twenty/twenty.
Now share with us your deepest findings
And what you’ve learned from life’s hard grindings.
And, while you share all this and more,
Don’t hesitate to freely pour,
Along with your profoundest self,
That twelve-year-old Macallan…up there…on the shelf. 

From James Matthew Wilson

To Michael Peich on His Eightieth Birthday

The great Romantic poet speaks of acts
Of “unremembered . . . kindness and of love,”
As, in our human lives, redeeming facts,
Graces descending like a blazing dove.
How many are the poets you have aided
In finding their first feet in verse and rhyme?
Your memory of such things may, now, have faded
As do most things beneath the wash of time.

So, at the rounding of these eighty years,
I write to recollect your kindest deeds
While offering you as well my hearty cheers
As your ninth decade in the world proceeds,
Such cheers come as a sonnet to ensure
That they and you alike may long endure.

From Robert B. Shaw

For Michael Peich’s Birthday

Poets, if you are out to seek
a paradigm for life and art,
observe how Peich has scaled his peak.
What’s eighty years? A fresh new start.

From Shirley Geok-lin Lim

I never met Mike.
This counts as a strike
Against me. No like
On FaceBook. Dislike
Me. I’ll take a hike,
You poets, a shrike
Among songbirds. 

From Mark Jarman & Robert McDowell

Celebrating Michael Peich
Is like riding a Schwinn bike.

Though he’s hardly a tyke,
He’s still someone we like.

He’s younger than Ike, 
He’s Mighty Mike!

Need a patched dike?
Depend upon Mike.

Transcontinental Mike
Drives home the golden spike.

You’ll quickly cycle
Through the best rhymes for Michael. 

But he is unique
Like the tip of Pike’s Peak.

If it’s favors you seek
Any day of the week

In a pet or a pique
He will soothe you and speak

Of the beauty of books
In crannies and nooks

Handcrafted, handmade
And never mislaid.

That’s the magic of Mike
Whom you know that we like.

On horseback or trike
Our Michael will strike.

And what is our takeaway?
80 bells for his birthday!                  

And a personal favorite from David J. Rothman:

Michael Peich
Is no longer a tyke.
His thoughts are more weighty
Now that he’s…fifty.

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.” How a small publishing house found a new life.

Sunday, May 12th, 2024
Steve Wasserman among his 20,000 books (Photo: Ximema Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The story of small publishing houses in today’s world often aren’t happy ones. Here’s the story of one that is.

I know Malcolm Margolin, the legendary founder of the valiant publishing house, Heyday Books in Berkeley. I know his successor, Steve Wasserman, even better. I wrote for Steve when he was the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books when it was the best newspaper in the nation. And now I’ve published with Heyday – well, I wrote about that here and here. Czesław Miłosz: A California LIfe is now a reality, and about to appear with Kraków’s Znak, the Polish poet’s favored publisher. I’ll be writing from Kraków as that event happens next month.

This, however, is the story of Heyday. Here’s an excerpt from Joanne Furio‘s article in Berkeleyside. Read the whole thing here:

In November 2016, four months after becoming the publisher of Heyday books, the independent, alternative press Malcolm Margolin founded in Berkeley in 1974, Steve Wasserman faced what he described as “a major hiccup.” The nonprofit imprint was  $250,000 in the red and couldn’t pay salaries. There were few options, including the possibility of closing up shop. 

“We had to really look at each other and say, maybe we could throw a 40th anniversary wake and celebrate the achievements that were made during the first four decades of Heyday,” he said. “On the other hand, if you look at the sweat equity that was put into the place over those 40 years, maybe there was something worth nurturing and a path forward.”

The staff chose a path forward. As Wasserman put it, everyone — himself included — cinched their belts and took a temporary pay cut. The 15-member staff was also reduced by a third. 

“Fortunately, the business rebounded,” he said. “We put our house in order, and now we are thriving. We’re in the best fiscal position we’ve ever enjoyed in 50 years.”


Heyday’s occupied a few rented offices around Berkeley over the years and is now in a ground-floor suite of a newish apartment building at 1808 San Pablo Avenue in Northwest Berkeley. Some 20,000 books belonging to Wasserman line the walls, practically from floor to ceiling. Storing the books in the Heyday offices, where employees had access to them, was a condition of his hiring and seen as a win-win for both. Wasserman’s been hauling them around the country for years. 

For Wasserman, returning to Berkeley closed a circle. He went to Berkeley High and UC Berkeley and has returned to the North Shattuck neighborhood he grew up in. He joked that his hometown has become “the La Brea Tar Pits of the counterculture,” which he also played a role in. 

At Garfield Junior High (now King Middle School), he organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. In 1968, he co-led a successful student strike there that founded the first Black history and studies department at an American high school. In 1969, he organized a sleep-in to protest the military occupation of Berkeley, a.k.a. People’s Park. 


Wasserman had known Margolin for years when he learned of the opening and called him. “‘Why would you want to leave the New York big-time to work at Heyday, this farshtunken publisher in Berkeley?’” Wasserman recounted, providing the translation for the Yiddish word farshtunken, which means “stinking.” 

Malcolm Margolin at his home in 2021 by Christopher Michel

“‘After all,’ he said, both flattering me and slightly insulting me, ‘you’re a big-time New York publisher. Why would you want to waste your time?’” Wasserman said. “I said, “What do you think big-time New York publishers do? They do the same thing you do. They look for good ideas and for fresh, original voices. The scale is different, the work is the same.” 

Wasserman sees his role as a steward to safeguard Heyday’s editorial and publishing program in a fiscally responsible way that honors the DNA of its founder as he helps write its second chapter — in his own way. 

“While Malcolm’s shoes are singular,” he said, “I walk in my own shoes.”

Since taking the helm, Wasserman has stabilized Heyday’s balance sheet and expanded its stable of writers to include the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley. “We’re expanding in every realm,” he said. 

Under Wassermann’s stewardship, Heyday’s no longer in the red and has managed to break even every year. Each year, the imprint has raised about $1 million, with sales revenue at just over $2 million. Sixty-five percent of its revenue comes from book sales, according to Heyday’s 2023 Annual Report. 


Recent books Wasserman has shepherded include Linda Rondstadt’s Feels Like Home (with Laurence Downes), Tony Platt’s The Scandal of Cal and Don Cox’s Making Revolution: My Life in the Black Panther Party.

In addition, Wasserman has recently tried on the hat of “author.” At the suggestion of staffers, he has collected his essays in a memoir titled Tell Me Something, Tell Me Anything, Even if It’s a Lie, due out Oct. 8. The book is being blurbed by such literary heavyweights as Joyce Carol Oates and Vivian Gornick

He has also written, with Gayle Wattawa, Heyday’s general manager, the intro to the book Heyday at Fifty: Selected Writings from Five Decades of Independent California Publishing, coming out Aug. 13 to celebrate Heyday’s 50th anniversary. Gary Snyder, Jane Smiley, Ursula Pike, Greg Sarris and Susan Straight are among the contributors. 

Looking ahead, Wasserman is encouraged by Heyday’s prospects in an industry that appears to be rebounding from the gloom-and-doom predictions of a decade ago. He noted that more independent bookstores have opened up in the last five years, and e-book sales have declined. He admits that attention spans are shortening, and that remains a challenge, but books as we know them are not disappearing anytime soon. 

“Ultimately, I want to no longer be the best-kept literary secret in the state of California. I want us to be the principal independent publisher that would-be authors think about when they want to publish their books,” he said. “My ambition is that we become a magnetic pole that attracts to our side like iron filings writers of ambition and talent who yearn to be published by us. And I want to do that by continuing the bespoke tradition that has been so well established, which is part of our identity.” 

Again, read the whole thing at Berkeleyside here.