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'This Sonoma Vineyard, My Prison':
Gioia Scalded for Essay, "Fallen Western Star"
by Maureen Holm
Assertions like this one provoked a flurry of public seed-spitting from steadfast husbands of California's poem-growing regions. Essayist Jack Foley collected most of it. [*]
Proud of the crops from his fifteen seasons as editor of ZYZZYVA, Howard Junker retorted, "The hell with writing on writing." Richard Silberg, editor of Poetry Flash, which does publish reviews, urged critics to acknowledge that poetry "knows more" than they do and to approach it in "loving openess to the boogie profusion." Wendy Lesser, editor of Threepenny Review, apparently let her critical inventory speak for itself.
While duly crediting California writers who have achieved national stature (though with no thanks to local cultivation), Gioia faults their home journals for scant participation in the broader discourse and, more importantly, for failing to articulate and advance regional distinctiveness through competent evaluation of native art in local terms. He points to Southern quarterlies which help readers define criteria for judging, in regional context, the new work they present, and says most local literati practice boosterism—the uncritical praise of all things local. Thus, either poetry-only journals forsake homegrown writers to evaluation from a New York perspective—a fate potentially worse than obscurity?—or lose them altogether to migration.
Writers keep commuter's hours in a hundred Northern California towns
Gioia is convinced that criticism and opinion flow from close and regular encounters among writers, publishers, all the elements in what he calls the literary 'eco-system.' There is no suggestion that the meetings need be formal. ("Weirdly, Dana means actual talk, itself."—R. Silberg)
Michael Peich, co-founder, with Gioia, of the annual West Chester Poetry Conference on Form & Narrative relates that the two conceived the conference in his kitchen over a leisurely bottle of wine, evidently a 'what if' result from a face-to-face exchange of impressions about trends and traditions, and the imagined potential diversity of impressions if the participants in it were multiplied. For eight years, the event has drawn visitors from around the country for a three-day series of seminars and presentations, but also garden parties and meals; opportunities, that is, for debating and considering topics beyond the annual agenda. [Review]
In areas of concentrated writer presence and activity such as New York, encounters are informal and much more frequent, Gioia says, allowing continuity of discussion from one meeting to the next. In California, geographic distance creates isolation. The mild climate draws people outdoors to the wordless enjoyment of nature: "When urban culture and the natural world compete in the imagination of a Western writer, nature always wins."
In a vigorous response, Richard Silberg praises the Bay Area's lively poetry performance scene: "There's no more social, more hooked-up large poetry scene in the country, and I've read often enough in New York to know that that's so." After acknowledging that the area produces little fiction, he draws genre distinctions: fiction exists on the page, with print distribution its pay-off; poetry lives in performance, automatically creating communal spiritual rewards. This remark, coupled with his exhortation to 'loving openness,' invites the inference that public readings, as such, should be exempt from critical review. [**]
Gioia grants that raw artistic talent is plentiful; his concern is development. To be sure, uncritically received public performance plays a minor role in the refinement, say, of craft—unless one designs deliberately for spontaneous appeal. Writing from Colorado, David Mason responds to Silberg's poetry off-the-page argument, saying that the poets cited as popular examples owe their prominence to reviews of their on-the-page work which have appeared outside the Bay Area. Mason finds Gioia's identification of geographic sprawl as a prime dissipating influence on cultural life utterly convincing: "I think we in the West had better ask ourselves why so much of our cultural energy is spent in or sustained by the East."
For all of the journals and infrastructure in New York,
While diversity of poetic expression is commonly acknowledged as a worthy imperative, fragmentation, its corollary, causes Gioia concern. Silberg takes it for granted that "poets tend to break into groups according to poetics and do most of their talking with their own."
If the feared dynamic is one of splinter group to disintegration, then how do we identify and make the poetry center hold? Gioia: "Cities create artistic excellence by setting up standards to recognize and acclaim it." Silberg's Poetry Flash is a Bay Area publication dedicated to serving a much wider area, which "tries to bring poetries together." Still, he asks, 'Just what is it we're expecting criticism to do for us?' Here, '—that we can't do for ourselves?' may be the unspoken extension of his question.
Mary Kinzie might answer: "Read you, slowly, follow your poem (as few will) through the thicket of word for word, like the path through a fairytale forest." In her introduction to The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet's Calling (Univ. Chicago, 1993), Kinzie requires the poet to be 'answerable to standards of serious human response' and the critic, following her to an 'uncertain inner space,' to know whose woods these are:
Critics cannot elect not to read slowly and closely unless they are to be resigned to irrelevance. . . . [T]he ideal reader is better able to articulate the inner workings of the artist's calling so as to estimate that threshold where variegated culture stops and the implacable demand of depth begins.
For Silberg, Harold Bloom writes meta-criticism, his reflections on literature like those on philosophy or religion, while Hugh Kenner "breathes forth the spirit" of Pound, Eliot, Beckett.
Both Silberg and Gioia overlook Contemporary Poetry Review, which emanates from small-town Pacific Grove, just south of the Bay Area perimeter, an independent, online journal devoted exclusively to the criticism of poetry in any and every medium or format in which it is found.
From its inception [in 1998], the mandate of the Contemporary Poetry Review has been to provide the general reader with a guide to contemporary poetry, and to serve as an organ of intelligent criticism. To do so, the Contemporary Poetry Review has attempted to encourage criticism that is clear, spacious, and free of academic jargon and politics.
Edited by Garrick Davis, CPR's highly credentialed regular contributors write broadly and at length from New York, San Diego, Georgia, Arkansas, Prague, the UK, India. With a look as familiar as the Hudson Review, the magazine's design is straight-forward and clear, its contents rich.
American letters needs an alternative
As author of the 1992 essay collection, Can Poetry Matter? (Graywolf), Dana Gioia is again treating poetry issues within the broader social context of our general devolution: "Is urban culture still a viable reality for American cities outside the Northeast corridor?"
He frames his central question—whether regional literature can maintain a meaningful identity—in terms of Northern California (his home again, after nearly twenty years in New York), but underscores that it pertains equally to New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago or St. Paul. And indeed, each is arguably as susceptible as San Francisco to losing the vitality of its center, becoming a museum city, an installation exhibit of its past, more visited than inhabited. Uniquely, Midtown Manhattan, while still thriving as a real urban center amid the working ornaments of Grand Central, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, is marred beyond recognition by the 42nd Street grotesquerie of alien visitation by Disney illusion—a California archaism we deeply resent.
Gioia asks whether some new social means, an alternative to cities, is needed to concentrate human talent. Fully aware of the world's reach and its possibilities, he doubts whether delocalized cyberspace is the means to resurrect regional specificity. To the extent that a regional capital ceases to operate as critical mass for the creation and consumption of local arts and culture—especially live performance—one might well ask: How much likelier is it then to cease functioning as a disseminator of national- or international-level artistic excellence?
A statement Dana Gioia made in a seminar at West Chester in June 2000, heard as a hopeful challenge then, rings ominous now:
[*]The "Fallen Western Star" Wars: A Debate About Literary California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2001, 85 pp. $14) ISBN 0-9670224-4-4. Published contributors to the debate are: Jack Foley, Dana Gioia, Howard Junker, Jonah Raskin, Richard Silberg, David Mason, Jacqueline Marcus, Michael Lind, and Scott Timberg. [Back to text.]