Stephen Kessler, longtime—make that legendary—Santa Cruzan, poet, translator and editorial troublemaker, is the 2023 recipient of the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission Artist of the Year award. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Kessler has spun out a dozen volumes of original poetry, sixteen books of literary translation, three volumes of collected essays and countless impeccably crafted opinion columns for newspapers from the golden age of alternative journalism to today’s daily paper.
As a publisher and editor of numerous literary and community journals, Kessler has won awards, dazzled admirers and outraged his critics. Despite his versatility, it is as a poet that most of us have known him. “It wasn’t a choice,” he admits. “It just came and got me.”
He also admits that the word “poet” seems a ridiculous label, “especially since there’s no cultural support for being a poet. Poetry plays such a marginal role in our culture. But it is a high calling. I wanted to be part of that company who excited me when I was young.”
Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski, Kenneth Rexroth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman. These are among his pantheon of giants.
“I prefer to call myself a writer, but poetry is the core of my practice,” Kessler says.
Baudelaire had Kessler in mind when he advised him to always be a poet, even in prose. Poetry infiltrates his journalism.
“I don’t write conventional journalism,” he notes. “Personal experiences, nature, events of the day, my world—I think people appreciate the poetry in my pieces.”
Kessler embodies the Nietzschean observation that poets exploit their own experiences. For decades he won awards and is a renowned translator of Spanish poetry.
“I learned more from translation than reading—it increases your range and stimulates poetic practice,” he notes. “When you translate, you’re essentially apprenticed to the writer you’re translating. It’s a workshop. When you spend hours, days or even years hanging out with these people, it’s an intensive tutorial—a lot like acting. You’re playing this other person, adopting their tone, nuance, style, persona—a Method school of poetic experience. I’ve learned so much from those different voices.”
Kessler abandoned the piano for baseball at eight, but music continues to influence his work profoundly. “My poems aspire to music,” he says. “When I go to a concert, a performance or a poetry reading, I want to be enchanted. I have a good musical ear, and I think writing is a way of processing experience.”
He also knows that the very words “poetry reading” can put people to sleep.
“A great reader is key to keeping the audience engaged,” he says. And Kessler is an excellent reader; he keeps the swing, the jazz that energizes his poems alive, most of which exploit the poet’s adventures in true Nietzschean fashion. Kessler describes his work as “totally intuitive.” His most recent collection, Last Call, illustrates that intuition and controlled improvisation.
Asked what he thinks has made him good at what he does, he unhesitatingly responds, “Practice! Younger writers often think they can sit down, and it just happens. But you need to practice, practice, practice. Practice creates technical skills so that you’re ready to catch inspiration when it shows up. Just as in any of the arts. If you’re a pianist, you can give a great concert because of all the hours each day, for years, that go into practicing a performance.”
Kessler also admits that his writing “is a kind of compulsion. I couldn’t not write. I have a pen and notebook with me all the time.”
He’s disillusioned by what he sees getting published these days and can’t stand “the noise of digital culture.”
However, Kessler isn’t done yet, and he appreciates the arts community of Santa Cruz.
“I’m still writing and still having fun,” he says. “Poetry as a hobby is no worse than golf. I think I’m more tolerant of beginners’ efforts now than I was when I was younger. I know how many not-good poems I’ve written.”
Stephen Kessler’s Santa Cruz County 2023 Artist of the Year presentation happens Saturday, May 20, 7-9pm at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Free. kuumbwajazz.org
STEPHEN KESSLER QUICKIES
Biggest professional mistake:
Wanting to be famous before I understood how embarrassing it was.
The New York Times
Giving the eulogy at my father’s funeral.
Being unkind (more than once) when I should have been tender and understanding.
A really good Caesar salad.
Different ones at different times for different reasons.
Best advice you received:
George Hitchcock’s counsel not to return to graduate school after my second leave of absence.
What you’d be doing if you weren’t a writer:
A musician? A psychotherapist? A rabbi?
John Coltrane, Joaquin Rodrigo, Hoagy Carmichael, Antonin Dvorak and Duke Ellington, among many others.
What you love most about Santa Cruz: Good weather, lots of interesting and accomplished people and Kuumbwa Jazz Center.