Author Archive

Ta-daa! “Czesław Miłosz: A California Life” is becoming a reality.

Tuesday, October 12th, 2021

Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Heyday Books) will be out at last on October 19. And Miłosz’s life is a California life, despite the barred “l”s in the poet’s name that stumped so many Americans and marked him as part of “the other Europe,” the half-continent that had been behind the Iron Curtain for much of his life. Hence, his American byline became Milosz, not Miłosz. (Incidentally, the diacritical signifies, in Polish, that the “ł” is pronounced like a “w” … and Polish “w”s are pronounced like “v”s.)

The Nobel poet spent more time in California than any other place during his long 93-year life. He wrote poems about the California landscape, engaged with our culture, and taught generations of students at UC-Berkeley. Some of those students became eminent translators of his work.

The Golden State is truly a state of mind as well as a place, and I was intrigued by how he embraced the land and its people – psychologically, intellectually, and as a poet. I was interested in portraying the California that sinks into us, that we never fully understand, no matter how long we live here – not the media cliché that conceals it. And I wanted to tell the story of the man who had escaped from Stalinist Poland by a miracle, and discuss his great, and often unacknowledged, good fortune to land here among us, where the poet of what he called “an unheard-of tongue” could become a poet of world renown. In California, he could champion Polish poetry, bringing poets such as Zbigniew Herbert into English and publishing the landmark History of Polish Literature and Postwar Polish Poetry. After an initially rocky reception in the United States, he lived for decades on idyllic Grizzly Peak, a literary landmark for Poles today, though little known outside Berkeley.

California Magazine named one the top picks for the fall (see below). And the current Publishers Weekly has a great review: “’The irony is that the greatest Californian poet… could well be a Pole who wrote a single poem in English,’ suggests journalist Haven (Evolution of Desire) in this detailed biography of Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004). California was crucial to Miłosz’s life and work, Haven argues, and notes that the Polish poet had a complicated relationship with the U.S.: ‘He longed for America yet loathed it, too.’” 

It concludes: “Much has been written about the poet, and Haven finds new ways into his life […] her examinations of the influence of place on his poetry are insightful. Fans of Miłosz’s work should give this a look.”

As the Mamas and the Papas warbled, “California dreamin’ is becoming a reality.”

LitHub interviews Heyday’s Steve Wasserman on California’s indie publishing

Friday, October 8th, 2021
At the helm

Corinne Segal profiles Heyday Books in the current LitHub, in a look at California’s independent publishing scene. I have reason to be grateful. Berkeley’s Heyday is now my publisher, too. Czesław Miłosz: A California Life will be out in a week or so. It’s a Q&A not only with Steve, but several of his staffers, too – Emmerich Anklam, Kalie Caetano, Marthine Satris, Gayle Wattawa. And all of them have a lot to say.

Segal writes: “When Heyday Books, an independent press founded in Berkeley in 1974, approached publisher Steve Wasserman with a job offer, ‘I still had the scent of night jasmine and a wee bit of the old Berkeley tear gas in my nostrils,’ as he recounted to UC Berkeley’s Linda Kinstler in an interview last year. It led him back to the city where he had grown up and taken part in some of the most important civic demonstrations of its past, including, notably, the movement to build People’s Park in 1969—and to an important addition to the independent publishing scene of the Bay Area.

Why did Steve, then editor at large for Yale University Press, make the move? We’ve already written about that here. Steve, of course, can speak for himself (we’ve written about his words about the current publishing scene here), but here’s what he says on this occasion:

“A lack of bureaucracy and freedom from corporate pressures are chief among the pleasures to be derived from independent status. Still, all of us—no matter where we find ourselves in the ecology of publishing—must endeavor to cultivate the means and nimbleness to cut through the noise of the culture and gain attention for deserving work. Curiously, though independent presses are often resource-poor, we are rich in imagination and this is a huge benefit and, indeed, an advantage.”

Asked what particular projects he’s jazzed about, he was kind enough to mention my own humble labors: “We have a few soon-to-debut fall titles that we’re excited to launch in the coming weeks, including Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, a book that explores the times and outlook of the Nobel Prize-winning poet who survived the bombing of Warsaw in World War II before embarking on a four-decade long exile as a California ex-pat. Author Cynthia Haven, who knew the poet personally, offers an account of his work and worldview that reveals how eerily prescient his insights continue to be, especially in light of the catastrophism of our times—from politics to climate breakdown.”

Read the whole thing over at LitHub here.

In Praise of Purgatory: translator Robert Chandler writes in The Financial Times

Friday, October 1st, 2021
Dante, Beatrice, the Eagle, and the collective voice of the just

The supreme translator honors the supreme poet. It is the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri‘s death – and Robert Chandler, who has translated Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate and Stalingrad, among other Russian stunners, turns his attention from the Russian classics to Dante’s Italian masterpiece.

A sadist? We think not.

The occasion for the article is a new translation of The Purgatorio, by poet D.M. Black, published by New York Review Books with a preface by Robert Pogue Harrison, who estimates that there are more than a hundred translations of The Divine Comedy into English already. So why do we need a new one? Because The Purgatorio is special.

If Russia seems a long way from Florence, Chandler threads the connections together in his new article, “Divinity and Damnation: Why Dante Still Matters,” at The Financial Times: “Anna Akhmatova’s last public appearance was in October 1965, during a celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.  In a moving affirmation of loyalty, she wrote in her preparatory notes that the deepest bond between her and her fellow-poets Nikolay Gumiliov and Osip Mandelstam, both killed decades earlier by the Soviets, was ‘love for Dante.’” (Mandelstam described the Divine Comedy as a perfect crystal with 14,233 facets – the number of lines in the poem.)

Readers are generally drawn to the Inferno, partly because of the set pieces like Paolo and Francesca, but also for the same reason people prefer horror films to mid-century musicals.

“Some have see Dante as a vengeful sadist, while for T. S. Eliot he was an epitome of classical restraint.  Some see Dante as a mystic visionary; others see the Divine Comedy as Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotelian Catholicism put into verse,” Chandler writes. “In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has described him, during his long exile from Florence, as ‘an itinerant diplomat and secretary for the lords of northern Italy’ and as an ’embittered asylum-seeker.’”

I’ll plump for The Purgatorio too. It has more movement. But Stanford’s William Mahrt would also point out that it is the only one of the three sections of the Divine Comedy that has music. There is no music in The Inferno – just noise and wails and grunts. The Paradiso leads us beyond music. But the Purgatorio rings with hymns and psalms and chant. Chandler adds: “The Purgatorio, however, is a more satisfying whole.  The structure is more meaningful, the verbal music more delicate – and, above all, it is more human.  In Hell and Paradise everyone is fixed in their despair or bliss; in Purgatory everyone and everything is in flux.  Sinners struggle to resolve their inner conflicts.  Above all, there is a sense of freshness and hope.”

Chandler, translator extraordinaire

Chandler concludes: “The Purgatorio is, above all, a search for meaning, and in the final cantos Beatrice enables Dante to understand that the only source of meaning is love.  One of Black’s previous publications is titled Why Things Matter: The Place of Values in Science, Psychoanalysis and Religion (Routledge, 2011).  Both in this translation and in his afterword Black shows us why Dante matters, and how, 700 years after his death, he can still help us to understand what may give meaning to our own lives.”

Read the whole thing here.

What does a homeless man have to give? Four pristine words.

Sunday, September 26th, 2021

A guest post from Joe Loya, screenwriter and author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber. We’ve written about him here, and published his previous guest post here.

His newest aperçu from his Los Angeles digs:

A homeless man walked up to me at a gas pump in L.A. His outfit was one dark smudge. He could barely hold up his pants. I was unscrewing my gas cap.

He was ten feet away from me when I heard him gently ask for change. I looked at the guy as I grabbed the pump. He was my height. 30 years younger. 165 pounds lighter. I started gassing up.

“Nah,” I said. “Sorry, but I literally just gave all my change to a homeless man down the block.”

Which was true.

I suppose I didn’t want him to think I was heartless. That’s the only reason I can think of for responding with such an idiotic reply. Selfish and thoughtless. Then he said something I will always remember. He said with absolute genuine solidarity in his voice, “Yeah. I feel ya.”I loved that boney mendicant so hard right then. He tried to let me off the hook.“

“Yeah. I feel ya.” Four darling words.

Joe on the road.

I laughed for a few minutes when I got in the car because I’m overweight, I got a car, I was driving with a dear loving friend, I’d just eaten two delicious tacos, making money using my creativity, and he said he could feel me.

I’m not certain about much but I’m certain he couldn’t feel much of my life right now.

But in that moment he could feel something. And his kindness — his sweet “Yeah. I Feel Ya” — felt utterly pristine. And a little bit holy.

Some days I love and delight in the human material more than other days.

“I Say It Burns.” Poet/post-rock musician Grzegorz Kwiatkowski in conversation with Cynthia Haven on October 8. Be there!

Friday, September 24th, 2021
His work is “powerfully necessary, unrelentingly direct.”

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski is fast becoming one of the most vital poetic voices from today’s Poland, with six volumes of acclaimed poetry and translated editions on the way. He is also celebrated as a musician: his internationally known post-rock band Trupa Trupa has been featured on NPR, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere.  At noon, on Friday, October 8, I’ll be having a zoom conversation with him, sponsored by CREEES (the Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies). The link to register is at the bottom of this page.

Kwiatkowski’s minimalist poems explore not only conflicted pasts of Eastern Europe – for example, the Nazi “Aktion T4” euthanasia program – but also the paradoxes of contemporary genocides. As he said, “I’m intrigued by the combination of ethics and aesthetics in one person, one life, one story.” His poems have been perceived as quasi-testimonies, provocative and lyrical utterances delivered by the dead.  

“My grandfather was a prisoner in Stutthof, the Nazi concentration camp east of what used to be the Free City of Danzig. Later he was forced to become a Wehrmacht soldier,” Kwiatkowski said. His poems also explore the paradoxes of contemporary genocides, for example in Rwanda.  “I am not a moralist – as the third generation, I am simply trying to understand what happened in the past and what is increasingly happening around me now.” 

Yale critic Richard Deming said that Kwiatkowski’s work “reveals that the unforgettable is also the undeniable. Is it beautiful? I say it is powerfully necessary, unrelentingly direct. I say it burns.”  

Kwiatkowski has hosted workshops at the University of Oxford, and lectured at the University of California (Berkeley), the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and others.  

This zoom discussion will be moderated by Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. Her Czesław Miłosz: A California Life will be out with Heyday Books in October.

Register here:

Martha Graham: “No artist is ever pleased.”

Friday, September 17th, 2021
At the Martha Graham Dance Center in lower Manhattan, 2014 (Photo K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

The legendary Martha Graham’s memorable advice to the young dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille comes to us courtesy the poet Katherine Levy. Since what would have been Ms. de Mille’s 116th birthday is tomorrow, let this mark the moment with her words:

The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.  As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”