Stephen Kessler reads from his newest book on Aug. 25. Photo by Dina Scoppettone
Essay writing is a sideline to Stephen Kessler’s life’s work: the “marginal yet essential” creation of poetry, the translation of Spanish verse and the editing of the Redwood Coast Review
, a quarterly literary broadsheet. Kessler’s new collection The Tolstoy of the Zulus: On Culture, Arts & Letters
(El Leon Literary Arts, $20) on the whole looks backwards to older writers, artists and technologies: the little magazine, the postcard, the personal letter. The author, a longtime contributor to, and sometime publisher of, Santa Cruz’s many weekly newspapers since coming here to attend UCSC in the 1960s, looks at the scenes of his Southern California youth, at Disneyland and Watts Towers. He revisits Hollywood Boulevard, with its crap icons of Marilyn Monroe (“Marilyn is everywhere, lifeless, and sadder than ever”). There’s also a celebration of the typewriter many of us still have cached in case of worldwide computer crash.
Sometime during the last decade, Kessler got a website. “A loss of the soul,” he calls it. The constant fray of tweeting and posting—all that blogorrhea—thins the skin. Then again, is it better to have a thin skin or a thick one when you’re in the cultural prognostication grift?
Kessler’s 2001 essay “Terror, Propaganda and Imagination” is expert soothsaying, perfectly timed for the Ten Years of Dismal Insanity celebrations for this Sept. 11. Even though Kessler was in New York so soon after the attacks that he could still nose “the stench of smoldering synthetics” from the crater, he didn’t want revenge; rather he hoped for “vaccinations against blind hopelessness and blind obedience.”
To describe his task in these essays, Kessler appropriates a Julio Cortazar term, “polygraph”—meaning someone who can or must write about any subject—which longtime readers of Santa Cruz weeklies will recognize as the name of Kessler’s column in the Express
from 1981 to 1986. Here are subjects the author knows well, such as reportage on Carlos Fuentes’ 1994 visit to Santa Cruz.
On Bob Dylan, Kessler falters a bit. He’s panning for gold in a stream that’s been visited by too many miners. He tries to defend Dylan at his most unlovable: in the Renaldo and Clara period and in Dylan’s born-again Christian phase.
Otherwise, even Kessler’s passing brushes with literary giants are enlightening. Visiting Henry Miller’s house, Kessler caught sight of a card on the door with “something to the effect of: THE GREATEST TRIBUTE YOU CAN PAY THE MASTER IS TO LEAVE HIM ALONE.” He was close enough to Bukowski’s radius to suspect Ham on Rye
’s title reflects The Catcher in the Rye
. (In Kessler’s view, J. D. Salinger’s withdrawal from the world was “his masterpiece.”)
Kessler’s reminiscences of local writers, professors, poets and artists, several of which first appeared in Metro Santa Cruz
, are invaluable. Maybe the best piece in Tolstoy of the Zulus
is a profile of Futzie Nutzle (real name Bruce Kleinsmith), whose spidery works appeared in Rolling Stone
and were longtime staples of the Santa Cruz cafe-newspaper scene. Nutzle says early work back in Ohio as a steel puddler honed his esthetics: the changing glowing hues of molten metal seen against the Great Lakes sunset were “better than any Hopper painting.”
I’d missed the news of the death of the outsized George Hitchcock, editor of kayak, the Santa Cruz digest that published, among others, the current poet laureate Philip Levine. I was one of his students; 30 years later, I can still hear Hitchcock’s voice wobbling with passion as he read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Kessler’s work gets even closer to home in the pieces on James D. Houston and Morton Marcus. Kessler describes their passing as a pair of devastating blows to the area’s cultural scene. I relished Kessler’s summing up of Mort’s energy, his engagement with the world, his pugnaciousness. I was sadly surprised to read that Mort once confided his feelings that he’d missed becoming “a truly great and famous writer.” I understand what he meant, but disagree. Mort wasn’t the most famous man I ever met. But he was certainly the greatest.
One of the delights of literature is time’s redemption of neglected figures. It is famously not a race that goes to the swift. There’s a number of not-household names here—among them the San Jose poet Greg Hall (“Poetry has lost one of its truest souls, and hardly anyone will ever know,” Kessler laments) as well as the out-of-print New York novelist Richard P. Brickner, whom Kessler met when he was writing his own novel The Mental Traveler
Such pieces cast light on the title of Kessler’s book, taken from Bellow. Here, memorialized and analyzed, are stories of first-rate writers. Because of the way the publishing game goes, they might as well be the leading talents of some remote nation.
Stephen Kessler, The Tolstoy of the Zulus
Thursday, Aug. 25, 7:30pm
Bookshop Santa Cruz