An Interview With San Francisco Poet Laureate Devorah Major

Q. Perhaps you could give us your feelings at this point, half a year into things as San Francisco's Poet Laureate, about the position. Is it what you expected? More fun, less fun? What opportunities, obstacles have you encountered? What have you accomplished so far, what is out there on your horizon as goals?

A: I find myself caught in the ease it would have been to talk and the work of the word when it falls in lines across the page. That said: the answers.

I had no real expectations, other than the fact that things would change in my life as a writer. And it has decreased the incline, and smoothed a bit of the pavement on the road which I have travel and have traveled for decades. Now, there are even more performances, there is more inclusion on panels, there are more opportunities to help support poetry activities in and out of this area.

The range of my voice has been widened. You, for example, are talking with me and that wouldn't have happened six months ago. Yet my work is essentially the same work. That is my work as writer, as poet, as poet performer, as poet-in-residence has not gone through any startling developments. But the fact is you are not seeking me out because of the work, my work, as poet, but indeed because of my position as San Francisco's third poet laureate. Yet it was my work, that got me the position.

A strange spiral, this journey as P.L., so often I find myself circling around the body, rather than diving into the heart of poetry.

I am not sure what I have accomplished so far. So far as what? How do you measure accomplishment if one appears at an event, speaks on a panel, raises issues, encourages thought, reads a poem, is read a poem? What's the standard? Where's the scale? Is there a six months quotient, one year, term?. When a plant turns from seed to food crop, who gets the credit? The one who planted it? The one who fed it? The one who watered it? The one who tied up the sapling? The one who harvested?

There are three stated duties for the poet laureate of San Francisco. One is to make a "state of poetry in Sam Francisco" address. I did that in April. The text of that address will be one part of my forthcoming poetry book, where river meets ocean (City Lights 2003). This will be the third book in City Lights Publishing Poet Laureate Book Series following, of course, Laurence Ferlinghetti's San Francisco Poems and Janice Mirikitani's Love Works. A second stated objective is that the poet laureate participate in some way in the San Francisco International Book Fair. That wonderful festival is currently on hiatus, however in its stead I was a part of an exciting Litquake, a weekend literary arts festival that took place in San Francisco in October.

The third obligation is to create some kind of a project. I am still planning but should have the project moving in the next few months.

Oh... and yes, all in all, it is definitely fun!

Q. As you say, accepting the position of poet laureate has increased attention to what you "do" as a writer, now Devorah Major has the chance to "be more Devorah" in the public eye.

A. I am in the public eye more, but I am as much of myself as I always was.

Q. With the increased attention, has your awareness of your own writing as a public act altered at all?

My main issue is that I have less time to write, and am expected to do any number of things which pull me from the core work of being a poet. Writing remains a case of some days chicken, some days feathers.

Q. To what extent do you see the act of writing as a public act or fulfilling a social/political role for you?

A. The acting of writing is, for me, a private act. I write alone, rewrite alone. On the other hand, I see poetry as both a written and an oral art form. It comes fully to life when lifted from the page and given the breath of air to shape its meaning. Thus performance is a public act, but writing private. And in pubic performance the poem changes. Rhythm, inflection, accent, all color the way an audience receives a poem, and the audience, in its action and interaction, in turn effects the performance, the reading of the poem.

In terms of politics I am not sure we use the word in the same way. I know that there is a definition that views the political as a world with people in one sphere and politics in another, sometimes overlapping sphere, that supports or impedes their lives. But I see all life as political. Do we choose to be wasteful or recycle? Do we choose to be work to become better parents, better neighbors, better people? These are political choices.

So, I also see all art as political, whether by commission or omission.

The choice of what to focus on is a political act, the choice of what to reveal or conceal is a political act, the choice of what to assert or deny is a political act. The choice of writing for a broad audience, or writing a text that can only be understood with a specialized vocabulary and particular aesthetic training is a political act. The choice of being a formalist and only writing in accepted Euro- specific poetic forms, or writing experimental verse, or writing with a myriad of approaches and styles are all not just artistic choices, but because of their cultural impact, also political acts.

But that does not mean that creating art is, or should be, an act of creating propaganda. It is not about doctrine, or political parties, but about the body politic. By the same token, bringing poetry as performance, as written art, or as writing workshops to people in schools and jails, libraries and half-way houses, homeless shelters and community centers is also a political act. Encouraging people to not only listen and hear, but also to use their own voices to critically examine their selves, their lives, and the world around them, is a political act.

To have people not just consciously or unconsciously purchase and consume the culture around themselves, but to be conscious and involved arts creators and presenters, as well as arts supporters is also a political act
All of which is to say I don't find the act of writing, performing, or being a writer in residence as a "role" that I fulfill; it is simply the work that I do.

Q. How would you assess the social/political role of the poet as an element in the stream of poetry on the contemporary San Francisco writing scene?

A. I was recently at a community arts meeting where a local poet and novelist, Peter Plate, commented that we should "use history to fight amnesia." I understood the amnesia as something that clouds our minds and makes us keep recreating the wheel, keep seeing everything as new so that we don't really progress, don't find new solutions because we keep retrying ones that were tested and found to be ineffective- an amnesia that prevents us from being able to access and use the experience of the past as one tool in the struggle for the future.

I think that the artist, the poet being one kind of artist, should be on the front lines of fighting this amnesia, helping people to remember, to look and to see; reminding us to feel in a time when drugs, mass media, dissatisfying work situations, etc. seem directed at making us more and more numb.

I have always used my art as one way to struggle with and for humanity. In the Bay Area, I am in good company.

Q. Where do you weigh in on the "Fallen Western Star" debate, wherein some literary critics are discussing the vitality and centrality of San Francisco as a vortex for poetry in America.

A. San Francisco is a special place. Besides the geographical beauty of the place, there are ways cultures mix, blend, collide, and inform each other artistically, spiritually, physically that produces some very dynamic art. Our diversity seems to be a fertile bed for innovation and experimentation, and at the same time a growing foundation creating interconnectedness within and between communities. We do have it going on out here! Is it happening in other places too?

Of course, but there is no doubt about it, the Bay Area has a whole lot of dedicated, focused and evolved talent in poetry and spoken word.



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