WESTERN STAR DEBATES:
SAN FRANCISCO: DEAD OR ALIVE
is...distinguishing between [the] personal need to see the
strong, self-contained mind as the creator of its own values
and the general modes of writing and reading great poetry-which
requires a literate and thoughtful public and a poet who knows
how to communicate with other minds and needs to do it....
-A.S. Byatt, Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their
"I'm teaching my students to publish in New York." -A
teacher at New College of California
In the Winter 1999-2000 issue of the Hungry Mind Review
(now the Ruminator Review) poet-critic Dana Gioia published
an article, "FAllen Western Star," on the San Francisco
Bay Area as a literary region. Bart Schneider, editor of
The Hungry Mind Review, explained that he had asked Gioia
"to write an essay about the literary life of his region,
and he delivered so provocative and thorough a piece that
I asked eight other writers from around the country to report
on the literary doings in their regions."
Subtitled "The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary
Region," Gioia's 9,000-word historical/theoretical article
is not easy to characterize: its strength lies partly in
the wide range of its insights. Yet the general argument
is clear. "In 1899," writes Gioia, "San Francisco was a
major literary center": it "represented a bohemian and democratic
alternative to the East Coast's genteel and academic traditions.
Its best writers not only added to American literature,
they transformed it." Now, however, "San Francisco no longer
ranks as an influential literary center," though "the demise
of its cultural power does not result from a paucity of
talent": "What San Francisco-and by extension all West Coast
cities-lacks is a vital and complete literary milieu." In
1899 the city boasted "a diverse literary ecosystem of newspapers,
magazines, publishers, and theaters that not only fostered
but also promoted local talent." Today, he sighs, "the publishers
have mostly moved to New York"; the "dynamic milieu" of
a hundred years ago has been replaced by pockets of activity
which may give the writer "privacy" but deprive him of "the
considerable intellectual energy of social interaction":
"As Bay Area intellectual life spread out and suburbanized,
bohemia slowly broke up." At this point, Gioia argues-despite
the many talented writers living in the area-San Francisco
has become a "museum city," a place which remains "fixated
in its last moment of natural literary glory-the Beat movement
of the 1950s."
Gioia's article grew partially out of the introduction
he had written to my book, O Powerful Western Star (Pantograph
Press, 2000), which is, among other things, a celebration
of the San Francisco literary region. The title of Gioia's
article is a reference to the line in Walt Whitman's "When
Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" which gave me my title,
and his essay begins with an explicit reference to my book.
Flying in the face of the popular conception of San Francisco
as a wonderful place for writers-a conception which this
tourist-oriented city is eager to foster-Gioia's chAllenging
piece immediately aroused interest. Like the author's earlier
and equally chAllenging "Can Poetry Matter?" [The Atlantic
Monthly, vol. 267, no. 5, May, 1991; reprinted in Can Poetry
Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf
Press, 1992)], "FAllen Western Star" had its passionate
adherents. Kevin Berger, a lifelong Bay Area resident and
senior editor of San Francisco Magazine-for which Gioia
writes a regular column-requested a summary of the piece.
BBC radio recorded a shortened version of the article for
broadcast in Europe. I recorded Gioia reading the piece
in its entirety for my KPFA radio show, Cover to Cover.
Poet and anthologist David Mason; Jacqueline J. Marcus,
editor of the online magazine, For Poetry; Michael Lind,
Washington editor of Harper's; and Scott Timberg of the
LA New Times all greeted the article as a breath of fresh
air-a moment of refreshing honesty in the midst of a situation
which had grown increasingly murky.
Controversy began almost at once. Howard Junker, editor
of ZYZZYVA, sent a blistering letter to The Hungry Mind
Review. Jonah Raskin, chair of the Communications Department
at Sonoma State University, also responded to Gioia's article,
though Raskin's tone was considerably milder than Junker's.
Raskin's piece, "Local Literary Scene is Worth Celebrating,"
appeared in The Press Democrat on Wednesday, December 15,
The most detailed response to Dana Gioia's article was
written by Richard Silberg, respected critic and Associate
Editor of Poetry Flash. It was titled, "On 'FAllen Western
Star': Dana Gioia Stirs it Up in the Hungry Mind Review"
and it was published in Poetry Flash, Number 285, May-June
2000. Silberg makes a number of valuable points. My response
to his piece, "The Black Hole of Criticism: Richard Silberg
on Dana Gioia's 'FAllen Western Star,'" appeared in the
following issue, Number 286, September-October 2000, along
with Silberg's response to what I had written. Jacqueline
Marcus, David Mason and Scott Timberg also produced pieces
dealing with "Fallen Western Star." I was interviewed about
the subject on Dancing Bear's Poetry Program, KKUP, Cupertino
in September, 2000, and a transcription of the broadcast
appeared in my column, "Foley's Books," in The Alsop Review
(http://www.alsopreview.com). All these pieces-including
Gioia's original essay-appear in this book. Though Gioia's
essay deals with literature in general-prose as well as
poetry-the debate has tended to center on poetry.
Is the controversy over "Fallen Western Star" a tempest
in a tea-pot-Californians arguing over regional trivialities-or
are larger issues involved? Gioia, like Scott Timberg a
native Californian, asks,
Is urban culture still a viable reality for American cities
outside the Northeast corridor? Or is some new social means
of concentrating human talent needed? Is the delocalized
and disembodied cyberspace of the Internet the American
writer's only alternative to New York? These questions are
especially pressing in the West where huge distances separate
urban areas and the major cities often lack identifiable
centers. Does the concept of Western literature still have
meaning as a collective entity, or does it exist only as
a remote abstraction in the work of isolated individual
These are not abstract issues to California writers. Any
serious literary artist in California, at least one writing
in English, feels the competing claims of language and experience...Our
seasons, climate, landscape, wildlife, and history are alien
to the world views of both England and New England. The
world looks and feels different in California from the way
it does in either York or New York-not only the natural
landscape but also the urban one...The deepest European
roots are Latin and Catholic, not Anglo-Saxon and Puritan.
Asia and Latin America are omnipresent influences. There
is no use listening for a nightingale among the scrub oaks
and chaparral. Our challenge is not only to find the right
words to describe our new and complex experience but also
to discover the right images, myths, concepts, and characters.
For us, this is an essential task, and one impossible to
have done elsewhere. We must describe a reality that has
never been fully captured in English.
"Human existence," Gioia's article reminds us, "is local."
Whatever the marvelous possibilities of the Internet-and
they are many-the air we breathe, the climate we take in
(intellectual as well as physical) is always right here,
right now. What effect does that have upon us? What does
it mean to say, as so many poets have, that poetry comes
from the "body"? How does a "disembodied" medium like the
Internet-like print, for that matter-serve poetry? Beyond
this, what California poets are "important"? Which poets
Richard Silberg's or Howard Junker's list of "important"
California poets would be very different from Dana Gioia's.
As all these writers know, the question is not merely a
matter of taste but of history. Richard Silberg takes the
position that the Bay Area is indeed "a vital, influential
poetry scene": i.e., it's doing just fine. Similarly, Howard
Junker writes, "A lot of things suck in the Bay Area-the
Warriors, the 49ers, the theater, the layout of the new
Main Library, the collection of the Museum of Modern Art,
bagels...but the literary scene does not." Gioia's criticisms
are taken by both men to be an insult to the honor of the
region, and they are quick to defend the Bay Area from such
ungallant, upstart opinions.
Gioia's criticism of the Bay Area's poetry scene in turn
arises partly out of his thrust towards "a reality that
has never been fully captured in English": it is a deliberate
movement towards a possible future. But a new future means
a redefinition of the past, a new naming of predecessors.
Interestingly, three distinguished California writers who
are extremely important to Dana Gioia-Weldon Kees, Yvor
Winters, and Janet Lewis-are nowhere to be found in James
D. Hart's supposedly "comprehensive" A Companion to California
(Oxford University Press, 1978).
The reader will have to decide who is right in all this.
The evidence is here. Focusing on issues such as the relationship
of the body to communications media, localism versus cyberspace,
the possibilities of a resurgence of regional writing, the
question of what constitutes a literary community, the question
of what makes for great poetry, the debate enunciated here
is surely a defining moment not only of California literature
but of contemporary American literature-of writing itself.
Like Coleridge, Gioia recognizes "the strong, self-contained
mind as the creator of its own values." California literature
is filled with such rugged individualists. But, like Coleridge,
Gioia also insists upon "the general modes of writing and
reading great poetry-which requires a literate and thoughtful
public and a poet who knows how to communicate with other
minds and needs to do it."
These are the questions. The answers are not, finally,
in our power to give. "FAllen Western Star" takes us into