Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Starting in San Francisco (O. K., Berkeley)

Prominent California poet and former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia has written eloquently of the Bay Area literary scene. In his 2004 book Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, Gioia reminds us that at the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco was a literary hub, home of a "Populist Modernism" in which "Poetry was not conceived as a self-enclosed text for private meditation but as a direct address to an audience" (92). Between the early twentieth century and the publication of his book, Gioia claims, Bay Area literary culture had waned, a development he blames on the rise of West Coast suburbia and the ascendancy of automobile culture. No longer is it easy for Bay Area poets and artists to gather, as they did in the time of Jack London and Bret Harte, or of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. San Francisco thus no longer offers "a critical mass of enterprise and opportunity" (95) to support a vital local literary community.

And, in what is perhaps his most trenchant comment, Gioia remarks that the lack of critical mass and the resulting lack of a local coterie of the best writers and critics the region can offer has led to local "boosterism, the uncritical praise of all things local," which is "not merely a poor substitute for arts criticism, it is also...a slow poison to native excellence" (102-103). Anyone who takes part in a local poetry scene, who is aware of the historical development of various poetic conventions, and who believes that poetry should offer not just observation, but also insight and in some cases spiritual and moral vision, can see truth in Gioia's remarks. (Of course such a position may be fairly understood as cultural snobbery.) What can happen, and often does, on such as scene, is that a city's or other locale's literary culture can thrive, but will likely become "necessarily retrospective," worshipful of its past literary glories. In the Bay Area today, as in some other places around the country, the objects of worship remain the Beats, a group that has produced an uneven body of work, at least as measured by the culturally "snobbish" standards described above; and a group whose existence in large part depended on their creation of a performance poetry scene.

I don't yet know how literary culture and the poetry scene of the Bay Area have changed over the last decade, but I do know, as Gioia predicted in 2004, that the literary community there has leveraged the power of the Internet to create a myriad of new journals and to develop connections that have resulted in a scene averaging a half-dozen readings daily at a variety of venues. Of course the migration of money and ambitious intellect back to urban areas of the last decade (Brooklyn being a leading example) has also been a factor in reestablishing the "critical mass" that Gioia laments.

Still, a lot of the Bay Area's and the nation's literary activity has migrated not back to the City, but to the Internet, of which the Bay Area has been the cradle, the nursery and now the proving ground. What then have our poetry scenes become in the Age of the Internet? And what better place to ask that question than in San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley? I will head there this fall, to seek answers.

Gioia claims, finally., that literary culture has been centralized in New York City" and fears that the "global standardization of electronic media" (105) will lead to homogenized literature and literary scenes. He believes too that local culture "matters because human existence is local" (106). I hope my research both questions the idea that our literature has taken a turn toward homogeneity; and that it reveals more about the state of our local cultures.


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