Posts Tagged ‘Dana Gioia’

“She has put a planet on the table”: Dana Gioia on poet Shirley Lim

Monday, January 24th, 2022
“An unusual economy and panache”

Over at The Los Angeles Review of Books, poet Dana Gioia praises Shirley Geok-lin Lim as “a poet of exile and assimilation, loss and recovery, journeys and explorations.” His friendship with the Malaysian-born poet goes back four decades, when they first met in Katonah, NY. During an awkward conversation, he recalls, “Finally, I asked a polite but banal question about her graduate studies in English. Shirley replied that she had worked at Brandeis with J. V. Cunningham. His was not a name to impress most people, but to me, Cunningham was a gold standard. He was the greatest American epigrammatic poet — ever. He was also a formidable scholar, mordant curmudgeon, and semi-recluse. Tell me more, I said. And she did.”

“A year later Shirley sent me her first book, Crossing the Peninsula & Other Poems (1980). Published in Kuala Lumpur by Heinemann Asia in a tiny format, the book gave the impression of slightness. I always worry when reading a book of poems by an acquaintance, Will I like it? Will it be interesting or awful? In Shirley’s case, I was immediately engaged, though I recognized her debut volume was a very unusual collection.”

“A gold standard”

Why? He explains: “Most first books have a grab bag quality. Young poets want to show all their steps toward creative maturity — different styles, subjects, and stances. Lim’s book did that, too, but with an unusual economy and panache. The poems had ambitious subjects — Adam and Eve, Christ, shopping, divorce, Cezanne — but they were mostly short. They didn’t waste a word. (Surely the terse Prof. Cunningham’s influence at work.) Few young poets show such control, especially mixed with such an appetite for ideas and experience.”

He soon added her poem, “To Li Po,” to a new edition of An Introduction to Poetry, which he co-edited with X. J. Kennedy. “Since then I have hardly published an anthology which did not include one or more of her poems.”

Dana Gioia recalled the words of literary critic Hugh Kenner, who once described American Modernist innovation as a “homemade world” — “unorthodox creativity free from pomp, precedent, and pretension.” Then he added “Shirley’s best poetry has that ‘homemade’ quality. Like Wallace Stevens, she has put a planet on the table, a ‘homemade world’ of her own experience.”

Lim’s In Praise of Limes, will appear in March from Sungold Editions. Meanwhile, read more about her in The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Dana Gioia’s lament for Los Angeles and Scott Timberg’s essays

Wednesday, December 15th, 2021

The Christmas season brings interesting surprises through the mail – and this year was no exception. Dana Gioia‘s new monograph Psalms and Lament for Los Angeles arrived in my mailbox, letterpress and hand-bound by Providence Press in Ojai. The press was founded by the celebrated printer Norman Clayton, who publishes some of the special editions for the Book Club of California. It’s not the poet and the publishers’ first collaboration: Providence printed The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz in 2018 as its first-ever project. (The book is now in its second printing.)

The three long poems in Psalms and Lament represent Dana’s “late style,” composed between 2018 and 2020 – the first two before the pandemic, the last one, “Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels,” praising his Latino origins (“a mutt of mestizo and mezzogiorno/The seed of exiles and violent men”), at the height of coronavirus.

They were previously published in The Hudson Review, Rattle, and First Things.

Here’s the first part of the second poem in the monograph, “Psalm of the Heights,” describing his native Los Angeles:



You don’t fall in love with Los Angeles
Until you’ve seen it from a distance after dark.

Up in the heights of the Hollywood Hills
You can mute the sounds and find perspective.

The pulsing anger of the traffic dissipates,
And our swank unmanageable metropolis 

Dissolves with all its signage and its sewage— 
Until only the radiance remains. 

That’s when the City of Angels appears,
Silent and weightless as a dancer’s dream.    

The boulevards unfold in brilliant lines.
The freeways flow like shining rivers. 

The moving lights stretch into vast
And secret shapes, invisible at street level.

At the horizon, the city rises into sky,
Our demi-galaxy brighter than the zodiac.

Gone too soon

The dedication for the monograph is to his friend Scott Timberg, the gifted Palo Alto-born journalist, culture writer, and editor who committed suicide two years ago this month – all too young at 50. He is best known for his 2008 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press). You can read a retrospective of the writer over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here, or on the Book Haven here and here.

Here’s some exciting news: Dana Gioia’s dedication precedes another announcement: my publisher Heyday in Berkeley, Steve Wasserman, will be publishing Scott Timberg’s essays, in a collection called Boom Times at the End of the World. I’m looking forward to it. Hope you are, too.

Poet Al Young is dead at 81: “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met.”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021
Dana Gioia with Al Young at the Sierra Poetry Festival a few years ago.

Poet Al Young, who suffered a massive stroke in February 2019 and never fully recovered, has died at 81. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia recalled, “Al Young was a treasure of the Bay Area cultural scene. I first knew him as a jazz lover who wrote movingly about the music—and I would run into him frequently at clubs and concerts. But he was probably even better known in the literary world, and Young would eventually serve as poet laureate for California. But he was also a teacher, a screenwriter, a novelist, an editor, and a mentor to many. In fact, you couldn’t find a better role model. Every encounter I had with him was an inspiring one.” Young was named California poet laureate in 2005.

Dana Gioia, a recent state laureate himself, had known Young since 1972, when Dana was at Stanford, where Young spent much of his career. Young had been a Jones lecturer in the Stanford English Department when both Gioias were undergraduates. (Young was a Jones lecturer from 1969 to 1979.) “Al Young represented the best in literary life. He was enormously talented in both fiction and poetry, though as he got older poetry came to be his natural means of expression. He was a powerful and persuasive reader with a beautiful bass voice which sometimes broke out in song,” said Dana.

“He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met. People were drawn to his warmth and humor. He inspired people. Eliza Tudor told me that once Al had accepted the invitation to speak at her new Sierra Poetry Conference, she knew the gathering would be successful.”

“I particularly admired Al in his term as California State Poet Laureate. Not many writers have a gift for public service. The role came naturally for Al. He liked to meet people – all kinds of people. He listened to them and laughed with them. He travelled to rural areas of the state that previous laureates had overlooked. He spoke in urban schools where he was a powerful role model of the African American artist. He became my role model for the state laureate. I loved being (and basking) in his company. I’ll miss him.”

Young has received the American Book Award twice, for Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs (1982) and The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000 (2002). He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Whittier College in 2009. He is a recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Wallace Stegner fellowships, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, the PEN-USA Award for Non-Fiction, two American Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and two New York Times Notable Book of the year citations.

I don’t ask to be forgiven
nor do I wish to be given up,
not entirely, not yet, not while
pain is shooting clean through
the only world I know: this one.

Postscript on 4/23Berkeleyside published a terrific retrospective on April 21. “Remembering Al Young, a California poet laureate, musician, teacher,” by Frances Dinkenspiel, is here.

An excerpt: “…Young was not as famous as he deserved to be, said Ishmael Reed, a longtime friend, collaborator and fellow writer. Some of that had to do with the fact he lived on the West Coast, far from the star-anointing powers of East Coast critics. ‘He’s probably one of the most underrated writers in the country,’ said Reed, who published The Yardbird Reader, a literary magazine that highlighted contemporary Black writers, with Young in the 1970s. ‘He lived on the West Coast. The people who receive a lot of publicity live in the New York-Washington, D.C. shuttle area. It’s difficult for a writer like Al to achieve prominence with critics who see Northern California as a stepchild of Manhattan.'”

Here’s another: “In 2007, during his term as poet laureate, Young traveled around California, reading his work in 40 rural communities in the Central Valley and mountain areas in 11 days, often accompanied by a musician. For Young, poetry and music, particularly jazz and blues, were intertwined. He frequently wrote while listening to music (he knew so much about music he was almost a music ethnologist, one friend said) and incorporated jazz rhythms into his poems. ‘He wedded poetry and music together,’ said Sharon Coleman, a poet and instructor at Berkeley City College ‘He brought music to poetry in a very integral way.'”

Read the whole thing here.