I took a futuristic train out of town and ended up on the steps of Wheeler Hall, built in 1917. Inside, I ran into a couple of poets – Sam Sax and D.A. Powell, one of the readers that night. We had to climb two flights of stairs, which Sam regarded as an athletic event. The Maude Fife Room is not easy to find, and there was no sign outside the building letting people know that “a special night of poetry” was about to occur involving “four of the country’s most acclaimed poets.” A small piece of paper on the wall next to the door was all that signified the reading. The only thing more understated than academics is a cemetery.
I think these writers deserve something more, but so do the students of U.C. Berkeley, most of whom were walking by and unaware of many things, including the fact that four professors would be spilling their cerebral guts at 6 p.m. You could have likely thrown a stone and hit a student who could use some money and maybe wouldn’t mind wearing a sandwich board saying “TONIGHT: HEAR REFINED EXAMPLES OF ORAL DELIVERY.”
In the early 1980’s, I heard Michel Foucault give a talk in the auditorium, which has a capacity of over 700. The Maude Fife Room has a capacity of 150 and it was less than 2/3 full. Surprisingly, each poet read for only ten minutes, and the whole reading was over in less than an hour. It was co-hosted by Oscar Villalon, managing editor of Zyzzyva, and Andrew King, editor of the Berkeley Poetry Review. We were told there were “…books for sale. Veil yourself.” I may have misheard that.
W.S. Di Piero: He was somewhat tentative and quiet. There is no applause at these academic readings, except when the reader is finished, so a person can recite a piece and go on talking about something else and one barely notices the transition. Low-key to a fault. However, “the absences keep us alert.” Di Piero is professor emeritus of English at Stanford and the author of many books. The following is from a Di Piero article on Poetry Foundation “…on music, myth, and shapely speech:
Memo to literary high society, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academy of American Poets, the Percy Dovetonsils Poetry Institute, the Mickey Rourke Poetry Society, et alia: Ruskin says in The Stones of Venice that an artist “should be fit for the best society, and should keep out of it.
The last poem he read was “Hub Cap,” which refers to an album by Freddie Hubbard, the trumpeter. It had a phrase which lingered with me: “… giving incoherence a restless shape.”
D.A. Powell: He teaches at USF, has a good delivery and a sense of humor. At one point, some bells were ringing in the distance and he said, “Is it my time?” The Central Valley shows up in his writing. (I did time there when I was a kid, so it resonated.) He read several poems, including “Landscape with Figures Partially Erased” from Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys. “I like to think we dismantle thought / as much as tortuous thought dismantles us.” I was grabbing phrases out of the air, like “Roll me in coyote brush…” I scribbled a note about a distilled homoeroticism as dry as the valley, and a minute later he referred to “a homoerotic sidekick.” He has been around for half a century and was the youngest of the readers tonight. Here is a short one, called “Outside Thermalito”:
Persimmons ripen with the first frost.
The bitterness inflicted on them
takes their bitterness away.
Would that there were some other way.
Lyn Hejinian: The introduction by Andrew King was a hard act to follow. He said “authorial certainty is imploded” in her writing, and mentioned her work as an anti-privatization activist. She teaches at Berkeley. Her reading from My Life in the Nineties sounded like an autobiographical prose-poem. It was not uninteresting, but I was missing some of the subtleties in her stream of consciousness and would recommend approaching her work on the page. “We are ominous. The future promises nothing.” That sounds like an existentialist motto where anything can happen, but it makes it hard to plan ahead. I know the feeling. There was reference to “saturating experience” and someone “lacking objectivity among the objects.” I found a line online which said Hejinian is “an empiricist in the tradition of Gertrude Stein” which made me pause. Stein believed she was the equal of James Joyce, which does not suggest a firm grasp of the empirical, but maybe it was the pot brownies? At any rate, I prefer the intelligence of Hejinian, a writer who has had close encounters with the non-referential and lived to tell about it. She ended the reading with a line that set well with the audience: “… no deeper secret to immortality than having lived.”
Robert Hass: Wearing jeans and a black sweater, Hass took his long introduction in stride. Casual and unassuming, even with so many accomplishments hanging over his head (Poet Laureate of the U.S., 1995-97; the Pulitzer Prize, 2008; Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.) His first book, Field Guide, was published in 1973. I had never heard him read and was pleasantly surprised. He rocks a nature poem with much ado about the rocks and trees, taking an inventory of what exists, with the implication that it matters. I later found these lines in “Interrupted Meditation:”
… here, gesturing out the window, pines, ragged green
of a winter lawn, the bay, you can express what you like,
enumerate the vegetation. And you! you have to, I’m afraid,
since you don’t excel at metaphor. A shrewd, quick glance
to see how I have taken this thrust. You write well, clearly.
You are an intelligent man. But – finger in the air –
silence is waiting. Milosz believes there is a Word
at the end that explains. There is silence at the end,
and it doesn’t explain, it doesn’t even ask.
Review the river and reveal the verisimilitude. His lines are long, sinuous, prosy. “All you have to do is say the word…” He said it well in “Ezra Pound’s Proposition” (and in an article in The New York Times, expressing his sympathy for the Occupy Movement.) Hass ended the reading with “Three Propositions About a Subject to be Determined.”
The last line: “I’ll have the usual, he says.”
There was a reception in a room down the hall with some decent wine and cheese. I ended up talking with Hass and Powell about poetry as a written vs. an oral form of expression, the pros and cons of both approaches. Jack Foley, who has a radio show on KPFA, used to tell me about the Homeric roots of poetry. It isn’t a poem until it is delivered in person to other persons, but don’t sweat the theatrical concerns. That’s when it comes alive. There is a young generation of poets for whom publishing means standing on a stage with a microphone. Having their words lying silent and inert in a book that no one reads is not very appealing, like a dead flower flattened in between the pages.
The conversation with Hass continued down the stairs and out of the building. We were talking about hiking in the wilderness near Lake Tahoe where both of us have gone a number of times, although he has gone further. We walked to his car and he drove me to the BART station where I disappeared underground and he headed to the airport to pick up his wife.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).