Friday, December 01, 2006


Nuova Poesia Americana – San Francisco is the second volume (Los Angeles was the first) in a series of nice fat anthologies translating American poetry for the Italian reader, published by Oscar Mondadori under its Poesia del ‘900 imprint. Edited by Luigi Ballerini & Paul Vangelisti, it’s an interesting take on San Francisco poetry since, say, 1950, and makes some attempt at being broadly inclusive, containing everyone from the North Beach street poet scene (Bob Kaufman, Neeli Cherkovski) to language poets (David Bromige, yours truly, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer) to the SF Renaissance (Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, Lew Welch, Phil Whalen, David Meltzer, Philip Lamantia) to the School of Quietude (Stan Rice, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Gillian Conoley), stretching in time from George Oppen to Jeff Clark.

There are some gems of inclusion here – Kaufman is one example, too often by-passed for any other member of the Beats, or James Schevill, the Berkeley-born poet who, having refused to sign the loyalty oath at the University of California, went on to become perhaps the defining director of the San Francisco Poetry Center before moving to Providence in the mid-60s, or Ronald Johnson, long a San Francisco poet before he returned to his native Kansas in the last decade of his life, whose prickly personality kept him from being fully active in any of San Francisco’s various literary communities. And I was ecstatic to see George Stanley included, given his importance to the scene in the 1960s. Like Joanne Kyger, also present & accounted for, Stanley is one of those writers without whom that decade of American verse – let alone Bay Area poetry – ceases to make sense, but who all-too-often is not included because he’s lived in Canada for 40 years.

There are choices here as well – this is a 500 page book, but because everyone is represented by work in both English and Italian, it has the range one might expect from a collection half its size. Contrast this with Stephanie Young’s Bay Area Poetics, which has roughly the same number of pages, but 109 contributors. It’s great to see work by Norma Cole, Leslie Scalapino & Laura Moriarty in Nuova Poesia Americana, but Jean Day, Kit Robinson & Bev Dahlen are absent. The School of Quietude selections underscore the fact that, at least after Louis Simpson fled Berkeley in the wake of the 1965 Poetry Conference, the “traditional” or “conservative” poets in the Bay Area have never really been very traditional or conservative. Adding Thom Gunn, John Logan or Kay Ryan wouldn’t really have changed that perspective (tho possibly including Chana Block or William Dickey might have). And given all the warriors from the 1950s, it’s odd that Lawrence Ferlinghetti – to whom the volume is dedicated, along with Kenneth Rexroth (also not present), Ambrose Bierce, Dashiel Hammett & Joe DiMaggio – is not found in these pages. Ditto Carl Rakosi, who spent nearly 30 years in the City after he retired. Or Tom Clark or Bill Berkson, poets whose aesthetics may shout New York, but who have lived in the Bay Area for decades. Or – and this might have been harder to articulate within the space of an anthology – writing associated with the New Narrativity: Bob Glück, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Mary Burger, Camille Roy, Michael Amnasan. How to identify a kind of writing that most often opts for fiction as its genre-coat, but also is integral to the poetry scene, as such? Realistically, tho, there are only one or two spots in this collection where one wants not just more, but different poets – I don’t see how you choose Cherkovski, for instance, when you don’t include either of the two Jacks, Hirschman or Micheline.

Given the space constraints, I wonder actually about my own inclusion here, as well as that of Jeff Clark, since both of us have moved on to other parts of the country. I did live in the Bay Area – in San Francisco as well as three different cities in the East Bay (Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, to be precise) – for over 45 years and I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t pleased to be thought of in this context, just as I am to have a plaque on Berkeley’s poets’ walk on Addison. But when resources are finite, it feels odd to be on board when others are not. And it raises the question of all the other poets who made their mark first in the Bay Area before moving elsewhere: Rae Armantrout, Erica Hunt, Stan Persky, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Jack Gilbert, Carla Harryman, Kathy Acker, Tom Mandel, Shirley Kaufman, John Wieners, James Liddy, Ted Pearson, Linda Gregg, Andrei Codrescu, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Myung Mi Kim, Larry Fagin, Mary-Margaret Sloan, Arthur Sze, Lytle Shaw. Even Louis Simpson.

Two larger absences are writing from people of color – Ishmael Reed & Kaufman are the only representatives among the 29 contributors – and writing explicitly related to the feminist movement, such as the work of poets like Pat Parker & Paula Gunn Allen, Judy Grahn or Susan Griffin. Parker & Allen would have helped on both counts. The feminist literary movement that first emerged in the 1970s is inconceivable without the presence of the Bay Area, and those writers were hardly cordoned off from the rest of the scene. Susan Griffin & I both took the same classes at San Francisco State, Parker & I read together quite regularly in the open reading series at Shakespeare & Co Books in Berkeley in the mid-1960s, Grahn & Allen both read at the Grand Piano. (Some others, like Kathleen Fraser, Frances Jaffer & Edith Jenkins, clearly drew from both that world as well as the heritage of the post avant – none of them here either.) I can make virtually the same argument for more than a few poets of color, from Al Young to Al Robles to Ntozake Shange to Janice Mirikitani to David Henderson to Jessica Hagedorn to William Anderson to Victor Hernandez Cruz to Nate Mackey to Harryette Mullen – all are completely a part of the history of Bay Area poetries. Big Oops not find at least two or three more of them here.

Some of this may just be a combination of space limitations and the difficulty of editing an anthology of this kind at some distance – Vangelisti is a long-time Los Angeles resident & chairs the MFA program at the Otis College of Art and Design. Ballerini divides his time between L.A. and New York. I certainly couldn’t do half the job they have if I were trying to put together an anthology of the Los Angeles region. But at the same time, having lived not that far outside Philadelphia now for 11 years, I’m not at all sure that I could begin to do the same job for Philly either. It really takes a full immersion in a major regional scene like that of the Bay Area – or Philadelphia or Detroit, or any major metro – to completely appreciate its richness, breadth & depth. Indeed, that’s why finding Schevill, Johnson & Stanley is so great here. Vangelisti & Ballerini have come within shooting distance of having accomplished the impossible, making this a good book to own even if you don’t read one word of Italian.

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