Purchased a FORA.tv video on another website? Login here with the temporary account credentials included in your receipt.
Sign up today to receive our weekly newsletter and special announcements.
Bill Deverell:And its a great pleasure to welcome my USC colleague, professor Dana Gioia, former head or Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a distinguished poet and critique of poetry and a literary thinker of broad ranging skills, talents and experiences to be with us this afternoon for about a half an hour investigation of both his own poetry and the California inflections thereof as well as the poetry of others whom Dana admires as a poet and a thinker. So with that, please join me in welcoming Dana Gioia for a reading of poetry. [Applause] Dana Gioia:Good afternoon. What I thought I would do is read about 6,7 of my own poems and 6 or 7 poems by other California poets who, just, you know, represent the range of what goes on in California. I wanted to say just a couple of things which is that it seems to me that California literature is a branch of American literature, but its a branch that is so evidently distinct that it reminds meI dont know, how many of you have been to Luther Burbank Garden up in Santa Rosa where he would take an apple tree and he would graft on a pair of branch, a fig branch, that with California literature is a branch that it utterly distinct from the rootstock of American literature. Its really like a poem growing out of an apple tree or perhaps maybe since its more Mediterranean than an olive growing out of an apple tree. Its because the sight and the feel, the taste and the touch of our history, of our landscape, of our mythologies are different from the rest of the United States. You know, Theodore Roosevelt observed and I'm sure somebody else will quote this sometime in this conference, he says, When I'm in California, I'm not in the west, I'm west of the west. And social, the political, the economic, the religious, the cultural forces that have made California different, which have been laboriously cataloged by California historians, pre-eminently Kevin Star, I dont know if hes in the room but he was here earlier. And we have this Latin, Spanish, Mediterranean, catholic, pagan quality that is notnot Connecticut, you know, its Alabama, and weve always been multicultural, weve always been multilingual. This is a polyglot state and the fact that about 95% of the people who first arrived here were men whether in families, you know, formed San Francisco, formed California fundamentally differently from Nebraska or Iowa or Massachusetts. Weve had a different relationship with humanity, different sense of humans, place in the world around us, which we found in a way that was pristine when American history was far enough along that it could recognize the difference. We faced Asia and Latin-America, as one of our earlier panelist said, and we feel very remote or dare I say, free from the northeast and from Europe and the centers of traditional power in the west, and all of this makes Californians feel as if they stand slightly outside of history. I mean, were connected to history but it seems that we have a chance in some ways, and it may be an illusionin some ways to escape it. Its like when Kenneth Rexroth writes about poems, you know, and this, he's not thinking about the next generation or posterity, he's thinking about mankind being blotted out its geological time, its cosmic time. And so these are things that are different. So I think that the tendency of the United States in traditional history to think of things in binary oppositions, black versus white, north versus south, formalist versus free, pale face versus red face, on both cultural and political terms dont make much sense. I dont think California is a binary place except for possibly down Silicon Valley in a very technical sense. There's something more complicated going on here that is multi-variant. And so it makes less sense to define, you know, California literature, California poetry as sets of static qualities than it does as a kind of, a series of conversations and arguments that have never really gone on in the English language before. I'm going to read a few of my poems and I'm going to switch back and forth to some other poems. I mean, I try to mostly take poems that were written, you know, about the timeactually, I was born in 1950 and trying to get more things that were maybe about 10 years, you know, on either side of that, which are really quite different from each other. But let me begin with a poem of my own. I was raised about the ugliest part of Los Angeles, Hawthorne. If youve seen Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, you know, Tarantino captured the beauty of my neighborhood, you know, and I've never really seen nature until I came up to Northern California, I've sort of been raised in working class. My mom was Mexican, my dad was a Caecilian, and this is a poem really about practically the first that I was in agricultural California where I was in love with this girl and I found myself in an orchard. Its up in Sebastopol back when Sebastopol still had orchards. Now they're all vineyards. The Apple Orchard. You wont remember it -- The apple orchard. We wandered through one April afternoon, Climbing the hill behind the empty farm. A city boy, Id never seen a grove Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust. A quarter mile of trees and fragrant rows Arching above us. We walked the isle, Alone in springs ephemeral cathedral. We had the luck, if you can call it that, Of having been in love but never lovers The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire. Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light! There was a moment when I stood behind you, Reached out to spin you toward mebut I stopped What more could I have wanted from that day? Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point To learn that what we will not grasp is lost. In my first book, which I published when I was living in New York, a lot of the poems were about California and the poems were about one half in meter, one have in free verse, you know, one of the mini things that sort of confused, you know, I think the reviewers, Bob has walked in to the room and I remember for the first time that I read his first book. The thrill that I got in the California of a poet who actually knew every tree he was looking at. And if you knew them too, if you have grown up among them, there was this sense of actuality, which I think is very much at the heart of the best California poetry. I mean, a real engagement, being able to actually name the things that surrounded this. And so this is a poem that I wrote in my first book when I heard in my office, a guy who had gone out to California and somebody asked me how it was, Oh its so ugly, everythings all dried out. He said, Its not beautiful like Vermont. So I wrote this poem, which imagines the way that an easterner would see this landscape versus the way that a native would. It was written in one long [PH][jamesean] sentence, but the editors of the New Yorker judiciously placed a period at the end of each stanza, giving it a grace that perhaps the original did not possess. 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 Autumn, 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. Somebodys doing a big LA poetry anthology right now and they said, We want to use a bunch of your poems. And I said, Oh good. I said, I have a lot about LA, about California and they said, Yeah, but the one we really want to use most of all is called money. So this is what at least one LA editor thinks is the most LA poem I've ever written, and I have to say that every line in it I heard my parents speak, although not in this order, its made entirely of slang and itsI use this in epigraph Wallace Stevens notebook comment, Money is a kind of poetry. Money, the long green, Cash, stash, rhino, jack Or just plain dough. Chock it up, fork it over, Shell it out. Watch it Burn holes through pockets. To be made of it! To have it To burn! Greenbacks, double eagles, Megabucks and Ginnie Maes. It greases the palm, feathers a nest, Holds heads above water, Makes both ends meet. Money breeds money. Gathering interest, compounding daily. Always in circulation Money. You dont know where its been, But you put it where your mouth is, And it talks. Now let me do a poem butI mean in contestably the greatest poet of California, the greatest poet of the American west. One of the greatest American poets, Robinson Jeffers. This is asome of the later poem he wrote after whenafter living in Carmel, I would imagine about this point almost 40 years. Its called Carmel Point. The extraordinary patience of things! This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses How beautiful when we first beheld it, Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs; No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing, Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads Now the spoiler has come: does it care? Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide That swells and in time will ebb, and all Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty Lives in the very grain of the granite, Safe as the endless ocean that climbs over cliffs.As for us: We must uncenter ourselves from ourselves; We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident As the rock and ocean that we were made from. Now here's a poem that was written about, I think 10 years after that by Bob Kaufman, half Jewish, half African-American, and when he heard about a disciplinary action at Alcatraz, which was then still a federal facility. No more jazz at Alcatraz. Now listen to this poem and see if it has the same meter that Kool Herc will use about 30 years later in the South Bronx when invents rap. No More Jazz at Alcatraz No more piano for Lucky Luciano No more trombone for Al Capone No More Jazz at Alcatraz No more cello for Frank Costello No more screeching of the Seagulls As they line up for Chow No More Jazz at Alcatraz Let me do another poem of mine. This is what I actually think of as my most LA poem. ItsI'm working with a composer named Helen Sung, a jazz pianist to do a jazz song cycle, which is a great concept, dont you think? Except we have no idea what a jazz song cycle is. So Sung, what would it sound like? She says, well me write us some lyricsyou know, I wrote her a poem that was as transparent as the lyric and this is what I came up with. Its called Pity the Beautiful. Pity the beautiful, the dolls, and the dishes, the babes with big daddies granting their wishes. Pity the pretty boys, the hunks, and Apollos, the golden lads whom success always follows. The hotties, the knock-outs, the tens out of ten, the drop-dead gorgeous, the great leading men. Pity the faded, the bloated, the blowsy, the paunchy Adonis whose lucks turned lousy. Pity the gods, no longer divine. Pity the night the stars lose their shine. And this is a poem that takes place in Sebastopol where my parents, you know, years later moved. They bought an old apple orchard. And it refers to a Caecilian custom, that when your first child is born, you save the umbilical cord. You wrap it in the roots of a tree and its usually a very practical tree, a fig tree or an olive tree, and you plant it in an orchard. I think the symbolism goes without saying its a way of rooting your clan in to the earth that feeds it. The you that is being addressed is a tree, but in this case its a California sequoia thats being planted and I wrote this poem shortly after the death of my first son, who died of sudden infant death syndrome at four months. Its called, Planting a Sequoia. All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard, Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil. Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific, And the sky above us stayed the dull gray Of an old year coming to an end. In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son's birth An olive or a fig tree-a sign that the earth has one more life to bear. I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father's orchard, A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs, A promise of new fruit in other autumns. But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant, Defying the practical custom of our fathers, Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant's birth cord, All that remains above earth of a first-born son, We will give you what we can our labor and our soil, Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail, Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees. We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light, A slender shoot against the sunset. And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead, Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down, His mother's beauty ashes in the air, I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you, Silently keeping the secret of your birth. One of theI edited, you know, about 10 years ago, a book called California poetry and I had very strict guidelines about who could go into it depending on how long they were in California. So I had to leave out one of my favorite poets, Weldon Kees, who some of you may know, who came here, was very active in the literary scene and in the arts scene and then in July of 1955 presumably killed himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. This I think is the next to the last poem that he wrote and its called, If this room is our world. If this room is our world, then let The world be damned. Open this roof For one last monstrous flood To sweep away this floor, these chairs, This bed that takes me to no sleep. Under the black sky of our circumstance, Mumbling of wet barometers, I stare At citied dust that soils the glass While thunder perishes. The heroes perish Miles from here. Their blood runs heavy in the grass, Sweet, restless, clotted, sickening, Runs to the rivers and the seas, the seas That are the source of that devouring flood That I await, and I must perish by. This suicide does not come as a great surprise if you read that poem. One of Rex RothKees you know, real supporters, the person who really wrote the very first, you know, serious thing on him was, Kenneth Rexroth who is in some ways, I mean, just one of the central figures of California literature--