By Zara Raab
Stephen Kessler is the author of eight books of poetry, fourteen books of translation, as well as a novel, The Mental Traveler (2009) and two books of essays, Moving Targets and The Tolstoy of the Zulus (El León Literary Arts, 2008, 2011, respectively). He was a founding editor of Green Horse Press and Alcatraz Editions, as well as the international journal Alcatraz and the newsweeklies the Santa Cruz Express and The Sun. He is also the editor and principal translator of The Sonnets by Jorge Luis Borges. His many works of translation include Luis Cernuda’s Written in Water, which received a Lambda Literary Award, and Desolation of the Chimera, which earned the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. He edits the award-winning literary newspaper The Redwood Coast Review. He divides his time between Gualala and Santa Cruz.
Zara Raab: The Mental Traveler, your wonderful comic novel, tells the story of an artist as a young man, growing up with maids and chauffeurs in the west side of L.A., the youngest of four children, coming of age in the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. Is the character in The Mental Traveler a kind of literary offspring of Henry Miller, whom you write about in The Tolstoy of the Zulus? How close is The Mental Traveler to an actual portrait of you, the artist as a young man?
Stephen Kessler: It’s very close. It’s based on actual episodes in my history. I wrote it as fiction because I thought I could make it more true to the actual experience than if I tried to give a factual account. Some episodes are invented, some transposed from other times, some telescoped. It’s fiction the way a lot of autobiographical fiction is fiction. I was trying to get at the subjectivity of the experience of mania and an almost mystical apprehension of the surrounding reality, to show how a spiritual, visionary understanding can tip over into madness. It’s the only long narrative fiction I’ve ever written. It’s a story I had to tell as a way of giving a comprehensible shape to a watershed moment in my life.
ZR: You’ve written a lot about the 1960’s and its cultural icons from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But you admit in several places in your essays that the Sixties was a difficult, “confusing” time for you. Why was that?
SK: A secondary motive for writing The Mental Traveler was to offer a corrective to the cultural clichés about the sixties. Some people liked the sixties because it was easy to get laid. Things were opening up in a way that liberated people from a lot of confinements. But most of my contemporaries, the ones who were at all sensitive, were haunted by the terrible social and political realities of that period––the assassinations of political leaders like Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and President Kennedy; the Vietnam War, which, in a much more pervasive way than Iraq and Afghanistan, really corrupted consciousness. In spite of all the flower children and the psychedelics, the sixties had a very dark side that materialized at home in the Manson gang and episodes like that.
For me, coming from a conventional middle class background, the combination of disillusionment with American culture––largely on account of the Vietnam War––and the sudden shattering of expectations, was more bewildering than liberating. It was exciting, but in a scary way. In terms of the bourgeois values I was brought up with, it was freaky to be thrown into this freedom that I wasn’t really ready for.
The Vietnam War haunted everything. I knew people who died. The news coming back from Vietnam was so morally appalling, to feel that our country was perpetrating this atrocity on another culture, it was hard to take. Maybe it’s different now because there’s an all-volunteer army, and few of my friends know people who are directly touched by these new wars. It was really the Vietnam War more than anything that made the sixties so fucked up, underneath the rock and roll and peace and love—and drugs and sex.
ZR: The mental traveler in your book goes to the 1969 Altamont Rolling Stones concert and goes insane. He believes the Revolution is about to begin, and that he’s an ambassador of that revolution led by the Rolling Stones and the Black Panthers. He thinks the drinking water is spiked with LSD. . .The novel vividly and comically describes the main character’s magical, delusional thinking. How close is the artist’s imaginative thinking to this kind of magical/delusional thinking?
SK: A certain imaginative extravagance is essential to anybody who wants to be creative in an artistic way. You have to be open to the unreasonable. The difference between the delusions of the madman and those of the artist is the artist has a channel through which to process that strange information and turn it into something else. The conclusion the narrator in The Mental Traveler comes to is that there is nothing wrong with being crazy as long as you don’t make a public spectacle of yourself. I’m one of the sanest people I know and it’s partly because I’ve been on the other side, and I know what it’s like. One key gift of the artistic sensibility is being able to recognize the subtle connections between things; it’s being present for serendipitous encounters and noticing coincidental things. If you’re paranoid it can really set you off on a very confusing trip, but if you acknowledge that it’s the way the world is organized, you see it as the way any kind of work of art is built. Compositional elements are related to one another. You have to recognize that to be able to see or hear it in your own work. Openness to synchronicity—in poetry it’s known as rhythm and/or rhyme—is one of your most valuable resources as an artist. But when you start seeing connections between everything, it can take you over the edge.
ZR: In The Mental Traveler, the central character describes L.A. as “the money-driven movie-deluded smog-coughing flash-in-the-chrome syphilitic philistine hamburger drive-thru whorehouse. . .” Is that how you, Stephen Kessler, felt about L.A.?
SK: It’s an accurate description of my attitude at that time in my life. I grew up in Beverly Hills, in a privileged, protected environment. I went to school with kids whose parents were in the movie business. My brother ended up in the TV business. I wanted to get as far away from it as I could. For years after I left LA, all through my twenties and into my thirties, I had an aversion to LA––the materialistic ethos, the superficiality.
Eventually I realized I wasn’t personally to blame for growing up in LA, I just happened to be born there. Now even though I wouldn’t want to live in LA, I usually enjoy visiting. I still have some family there, and I know my way around. Even though it’s changed exponentially, it still feels familiar. You can see what a great place it was, right up through the 1950s, but especially in the 20s and 30s and 40s––such a beautiful natural environment. It still has a great appeal for a lot of people. I’m glad I don’t live there anymore. I was disillusioned with the lifestyle of the town very early. There’s a scene I cut from The Mental Traveler of an LA wedding––such an excessive, decadent Hollywood thing. I was a freshman at UCLA, and the wedding was an event with all these people associated with the movies and with glamorous Hollywood life. It was the first time I was invited to hang out with my older brother’s friends. I had a revelation that I didn’t want to be part of that world.
ZR: But you also, I gather from the poems in your book After Modigliani, know New York City. You attended Bard College outside New York?
SK: Yes, I got my BA at Bard. And I love New York City. I lived there a couple of years. It’s a tough place to live. As an urban environment, I prefer it to LA, apart from the weather, because of the public transport system and because there’s so much more going on culturally there. I understand why painters are drawn to New York: the sensory stimulus of the place is tremendous, you are constantly being fed amazing images, so much human drama on the subway, on the street. One of my favorite columns in the New York Times is the Metropolitan Diary. It’s little anecdotes people send in about what they’ve experienced or witnessed on the street. Because of the concentration and density of the human environment, all these really remarkable, funny, dramatic things are happening all the time. In LA everybody is in their car. In New York people are bumping into each other physically on the streets. So I’m a huge appreciator of New York. It can certainly jolt you alive if it doesn’t totally wear you out.
ZR: But you’ve made Santa Cruz your home for many years. . . And I gather you spend part of your time in Gualala where you edit the Redwood Coast Review?
SK: I went to Santa Cruz for graduate school, bailed out of graduate school, and ended up staying in Santa Cruz as it developed its own creative culture. That’s when I started writing for newspapers. Two great things about Santa Cruz are the Mediterranean climate and the geographical configuration of mountains hemming in the town and inhibiting urban sprawl. I’ve always like Santa Cruz, it’s very congenial to me. I was fresh out of graduate school. I loved being part of the community. I had serious literary ambitions. I wanted to be a poet.
ZR: Yet journalism has always been a part of your writing life, as well. Your new book, The Tolstoy of the Zulus, gathers essays written over four decades on culture, the arts and letters––essays on everything from Google to Disneyland to Charlie Manson to the nature of Beauty.
SK: I realized if you wrote for newspapers you could be part of the community in ways you couldn’t as a purely literary person. I found that exciting. Instead of converting to a more journalistic turn in my writing I was able to enter the public discourse as a poet who happened to be writing journalism. My whole approach to the kind of journalism in The Tolstoy of Zulus was to bring a fresh, poetic sensibility to things that might not get the same treatment by a straight journalist.
ZR: And how did you come to be editor of the Redwood Coast Review?
SK: I first went to Gualala to hide out after a breakup and a very intense couple of years in New York City. I settled in Gualala to finish The Mental Traveler and get on with my other literary work, but I was cajoled into joining the board of the local library; their newsletter needed an overhaul, and I was asked to do it, so I decided I would make it a hybrid newspaper, published as a section of the local weekly Independent Coast Observer.
The RCR got me more involved in the community up there. I’m still doing it thirteen years later. I don’t have as deep a connection in Gualala and Point Arena as I do in Santa Cruz. My place up there is much more isolated, 15 minutes from town at the end of a private road. It’s very peaceful, with the trees and the ocean, and it smells good, so it was a very useful place for me to move to from New York and re-enter the silence of my own imagination. And I got a lot of work done in the first ten years there.
Then I met my wife, and we decided it would be better for us to live in Santa Cruz, so we found a place there and moved. Having been in Santa Cruz now for five and a half years, and living in town, I’m thriving. I write for the Santa Cruz Weekly on occasion, so I’m able to keep a finger in the local media, and at the same time I live my senior citizen’s quiet existence. It’s funny to be in Santa Cruz at 64, because I first moved there when I was 21. So many of my fundamental associations with Santa Cruz are with my young adulthood. I feel the evolution I have made from that 21 year old, and see my changing role in a particular place where I had been a public figure through my previous newspaper and radio work.
Santa Cruz is just my speed, too. It’s lively enough, it’s got good music, good movie theaters, two really good book stores, good restaurants, and it’s not too hectic. It’s easy to get to San Francisco. We just had lunch with Malcolm Margolin at Heyday here in Berkeley; we’re reading tonight in San Francisco; and then we’ll go home to sleep. Being close enough to do that is ideal for me. In terms of day to day life, I love living in the country, but I have an urban sensibility, because I grew up in a big city. So Santa Cruz is a reasonable compromise; it’s culturally alive but not too big, and Monterey Bay is beautiful. I like being near the ocean.
Don’t miss Part Two of our interview with Stephen Kessler. In Part Two, Stephen will talk about the value of psychoanalytic self-exploration for the writer and the special skills and roles of the literary critic. He’ll also share his thoughts and reminiscences of other California writers, such as Denise Levertov and the infamous Charles Bukowski.
Zara lives in Berkeley and is one of the first women to graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley. She grew up along California’s North Coast, attending school in Portland when she was fourteen, and later Mills College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) for college and graduate school. In her twenties, she traveled, living in Paris, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where she made a living as a freelance editor and writer, participating for a time in the Capitol Hill Poetry Group, before returning to the West Coast to raise her children.
Early California is a subject of her book Swimming the Eel, just as the drama of family life is the subject of The Book of Gretel. In leaving behind the rural counties, she became a part of the human potential movement of the 1960′s, and that movement perhaps more than anything, shapes her life and her work. Since she was a teenager, she kept journals, and sometimes returns to those early notebooks for ideas. Her poems appear in many literary reviews and magazines, including The Dark Horse, The Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Arts & Letters, and others. She also review books and writes essays on literature for various publications, including the Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review, and The Boxcar Poetry Review.