Posts Tagged ‘Eliza Tudor’

Language, memory, and the poems of Robin Coste Lewis

Friday, May 4th, 2018

She came to the Sierra festival thanks to an unusual invitation. (Photo: Radu Sava)

At the Dodge Poetry Festival two years ago, Los Angeles poet laureate and National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis was one of the honored guests. She sat at a table to perform the inevitable ritual of signing books for her many fans.

But one of the people in the queue was much more than a fan: she was the mother of Jeanne-Marie Crowe, the midwife who had delivered Lewis’s son. “It felt like meeting the grandmother of an angel,” she said. A visitation, she said, because “doors opened in so many directions in my heart and mind.”

Judy Crowe was also a member of Nevada County Arts Council’s Literary Arts Committee, and so she invited Robin Coste Lewis to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Sierra Poetry Festival, which took place last weekend. “I’m southern,” said Lewis. “There’s nothing you can say to your midwife’s mother other than, ‘Yes ma’am.’”

Memory is “a tricky thing” for the African diaspora. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Lewis has a masters degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from Harvard University’s divinity school, and PhD from the creative writing and literature program at the University of Southern California. She used to be ancient language professor. She now teaches at a low residency MFA program in Paris, which sounds like heaven to me. When she won the National Book Award for her 2015 collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, however, her life changed.

“One of the things I’ve learned on tour for a year-and-a-half straight,” she said. “I became a public servant, using poetry to do that.”

She was welcomed by Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nisenan and Executive Director, California Heritage Indigenous Research Project, and also a singer, a songwriter, musician, and storyteller.  The Nisenan are part of the southern Maidu tribe that had been native to the Nevada County region.

The gesture was particularly moving for Lewis who, as poet laureate, has launched a truth and reconciliation effort for Los Angeles. “It occurred to me that I have been waiting for centuries for our country to have Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Native Americans,” she said. “I’m hoping to create model for other communities.”

She applauds the movement to “reclaim the language and culture that had been wiped away,” she said. “It’s a dream come true.”

She opened her reading with another “indigenous language” – an entrancing, babbling poem called “Dog Talk.” (You can read it here, if you scroll down a bit.)  “All the kids in the neighborhood spoke this language, to the chagrin of our parents. It’s a statement of gall and tenacity of children to live anyway – and retain cultural agency.”

“What we’re starting to learn is that children are the arbiters of cultures almost as much as adults” – as revealed in architecture, sculpture, and the games children carved into stone at foot of temple stairs.

She also read a “riddle poem” recalling her parents “reading the newspaper in bed when I was tiny,” while she was cuddled between them until she was sent to her own bed. She remembers her father’s riddles and jokes, and her poem, “Red All Over,” recalls his frequent repetition of the old saw, “What’s black and white and red all over?” The answer to the ancient joke is, of course, the newspaper…or is it?

This was the ’60s, and the deaths of black people was very much in the news. “What he was talking about was blood and segregation,” she later realized. “The laughter was more sinister.”  The poem is here.

But always her conversation returned to language and memory, the latter “a tricky thing” for the African diaspora, she said. But sometimes the two come together. She noted the vegetable okra, popular in the American south is called “gumba” in Senegal – almost identical to “gumbo,” the famous stew of the U.S. South in which okra is a crucial ingredient. “So some things remain.”

“Judy, are you happy?” she called out. I suspect that Judy was.

“I became a public servant, using poetry to do that.” (Photo: Radu Sava)

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

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

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.

“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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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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!


Blenheim at dusk: the most beautiful spot in the world?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Winston Churchill said it was the best view in England … or perhaps the world. For him, it very likely amounted to the same thing.

Tussling at dusk: Georgina, Fabian, and Milo Tudor Caruncho

At Blenheim Palace at dusk, or dawn, or any other time of day, it’s hard to argue the point. You walk in through the gate that leads from the town of Woodstock (not the grander entrance on the main road), look to your right, and you see this delicious scene.

Churchill’s views on his birthplace (he described the estate’s origins in his massive work,  Marlborough: His Life and Times) were related to me by my friend Eliza Tudor, who lives in nearby Wootton, next to Woodstock, the ancient burg where her ancestor Edward the Black Prince was born.


Blenheim is, of course, the 18th-century palace where the Nobel writer Churchill was born, where he proposed to his future wife Clementine, and where all the Dukes of Marlborough lived (Sir Winston was, alas, was the son of a younger son).  It also represents the labor of England’s legendary landscape architect Capability Brown (marvelous name, that), who created two thousand acres of verdant slopes, leading to this lake, with architect Sir John  Vanbrugh‘s Grand Bridge.

Anyway, these pictures (except for Capability’s) are taken from Eliza’s iphone.  Not bad.  With only a little imagination, they take me away from a messy house, a score of emails and letters to write, and the dishes in the sink on a long holiday weekend.

Hope they do the same for you.  At least a little.