Being a California Poet
A California poet almost inevitably feels the competing claims of language and experience. Here on the western edge of North America, we speak a European language that was transported centuries ago to a new continent. English is a northern tongue—born originally of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, and Norse. However rich its vocabulary with later overlays of Latin, Greek, and Italian, this island tongue was shaped in other latitudes. By the time it had moved westward to the Pacific, Spanish was already rooted in California among the state’s indigenous languages. New places and unfamiliar things had already been named, and those names have endured. This situation presents the poet with a paradox. Although English is our language, it remains at some deep level slightly foreign to our environment—like an immigrant grandparent whose words and concepts don’t entirely fit the New World.
I am a Latin without a drop of British blood in my veins, but English is my tongue. It belongs to me as much as to any member of the House of Lords. The classics of English—Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats, and Tennyson—are my classics. The myths and images of its literature are native to my imagination. And yet this rich literary past often stands at one remove from the experiential reality of the West. Our seasons, climate, landscape, natural life, and history are alien to the worldviews of both England and New England. There were no ranches or redwoods, abalone or adobe, in the Old World or the East. Spanish—not French—colors our regional accent. The world looks and feels different in California from the way it does in Massachusetts or Manchester—not only the natural landscape but also the urban one. Our towns are named Sacramento and Santa Rosa, not Coventry or New Haven. There is no use listening for a nightingale in the scrub oaks and chaparral.
Although the seasonal imagery of British poetry—so carefully developed over centuries from close observation of nature—has both beauty and resonance to a Californian, it seems hardly less fantastic than the wizards, fairies, and dragons who also inhabit those literary landscapes. To us, England is as exotic as Ilium or Cathay. Summers here are brown and dry, winters green and mild, and every month finds something blooming. The reality of California doesn’t fit the poetic archetypes of the English tradition. Our history has no knights or kings, princesses or peers. We can muster a few broken conquistadors, but it was an army of indefatigable Franciscans who claimed California for their invisible, celestial empire. Wandering through a vast unarticulated landscape, they christened the rivers, mountains, harbors, and settlements after Catholic saints until they had exhausted the roll call of heaven. Then they borrowed Spanish words—descriptions, nicknames, and even jokes—or adapted Indian terms to complete the mission. San Pedro, Sausalito, La Mirada, El Segundo, Shasta, Cotati, Topanga, and Soledad are not places one would find in Wordsworth or even Whitman. Our challenge is not only to find the right words to describe our experience but also to discover the right images, myths, and characters. We describe a reality that has never been fully captured in English. Yet the earlier traditions of English help clarify what it is we might say. California poetry is our conversation between the past and present out of which we articulate ourselves.
I was born and raised in Hawthorne, California, a tough working-class town in Southwest Los Angeles. Hawthorne was also my mother’s hometown. Her Mestizo father had fled his reservation in New Mexico to settle on the West Coast. My father’s family had immigrated from Sicily at the turn of the century and gradually made its way west. Surrounded by Italian-speaking relations, I grew up in a neighborhood populated mostly by Mexicans and Dust Bowl Okies. I attended Catholic schools at a time when Latin was still a living ritual language. I went to Junipero Serra High School, a Catholic boys school run by the French Marianist order—many of whom were Hawaiian, Chinese, or Mexican. The school was located in Gardena, which then contained the largest Japanese population in America—a city in which Buddhist temples outnumbered mainstream Protestant churches. Having experienced this extraordinary linguistic and cultural milieu, I have never given credence to Easterners who prattle about the intellectual vacuity of Southern California. My childhood was a rich mixture of European, Latino, Indian, Asian, and North American culture in which everything from Hollywood to the Vatican, Buddha to the Beach Boys had its place.
My adult life has comprised equal parts of wanderlust and homesickness. The first journey, from Los Angeles to Stanford, still feels like the farthest since I was leaving the world of the working-class and immigrant family for parts unknown. Since then I have lived in Vienna, Boston, Rome, Minneapolis, and New York, but I always called myself a Californian. And I always knew I would return. In 1977 my girlfriend and I went to New York, planning to stay two years. We married, had children, and eventually remained there for nearly two decades. It was an exhilarating and rewarding place, but it was never truly home. In 1996 we returned to live in rural Sonoma County. It is too easy in our society for an artist to become rootless, but I believe that it is essential for some writers to maintain their regional affinities. To speak from a particular place and time is not provincialism but part of a writer’s identity. It is my pleasure and my challenge to speak from California.
"Being a California Poet" was included in My California: Journeys by Great Writers. Edited by Donna Wares and published by Angels City Press, My California is an innovative project to benefit the California Arts Council, and includes writing by some of the state's best known voices.