Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year Stephen Kessler gets the star treatment May 20 in a celebration of his work as a poet and translator in a free event at Kuumbwa Jazz.
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Stephen Kessler has read aloud his poetry at public readings so many times, going back 50 years or more, that he’s lost count. He has likely forgotten many more of those readings than he can remember. But the poetry event on May 20 is going to be memorable, if for no other reason than merely for what it represents in Kessler’s long career.
In January, the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission announced that Kessler had been chosen as the county’s 2023 artist of the year, and on May 20, the county will host a celebration of Kessler’s work as a poet and translator in a free event at Kuumbwa Jazz. The event will give Kessler a platform to reflect on a literary life, tell stories from Santa Cruz’s rich artistic subculture, and present what he considers the best of his poetry.
There are, he said, a myriad of things that he is not very good at. But sharing poetry to a live audience is something he’s quite good at. “It’s a very natural environment for me,” he said of his experience at poetry readings. “I enjoy it. I don’t get nervous. I don’t even plan too much about what I’m going to do except a sort of a general outline of my intentions. And then I kind of feel the room, what the audience is. I’ve read [in all kinds of settings], from an audience of three people, to a few hundred at poetry festivals.”
Kessler, 76, joins a select company of writers, visual artists, musicians and performers who have been honored as the county’s artist of the year. Past winners include composer Lou Harrison, writer James D. Houston, dancer/choreographer Tandy Beal, actor Paul Whitworth, novelist Laurie R. King and many more. Last year’s winner was Annieglass founder and glass artist Ann Morhauser. The award is presented to outstanding artists who reside within the county, but enjoy a national or international reputation.
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In Kessler’s case, though poetry is his primary passion, he has built that national/international reputation on his career as a translator. Among the prominent international writers he has translated into English are the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and Argentinian/European poet Julio Cortazar, and Spanish-born poet Luis Cernuda. Kessler’s translations of Cernuda’s work has earned him numerous high-profile awards including a PEN Center award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Locally, Kessler is probably best known for his work in journalism, as an editor and writer for a wide variety of alternative newspapers in Santa Cruz’s history, including The Independent, The Sun, The Express, and Santa Cruz Weekly. For the past several years, Kessler has been perhaps the most prominent editorial voice in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. He has also published a couple of collections of essays and a novel.
But behind it all is the voice of a poet. Dating back almost 50 years, Kessler has published a dozen books of poetry, most recently “Last Call” in 2021. He also played a foundational role in Santa Cruz’s rich history in poetry, first appearing in the local poetry journal Kayak, edited by the legendary George Hitchcock. A member of the UC Santa Cruz faculty for 20 years, Hitchcock published many leading figures of the era in Kayak, including Robert Bly, Raymond Carver and Anne Sexton.
“I’m going to thank George from the stage,” said Kessler. “George had confidence in me as a poet before I even had confidence in myself.”
Kessler grew up in the Los Angeles area and earned his undergraduate degree at Bard College in New York after a stint at UCLA. He came to Santa Cruz when he was offered a four-year fellowship at UC Santa Cruz to pursue a graduate degree, arriving in 1968. He did not, however, last long in the graduate program, taking a leave of absence due to what he characterizes as a mental health crisis that landed him in hospitals.
“Look, it was 1968-69,” he said. “The culture was just in turmoil, especially in the Bay Area.” A self-described “pot-smoking hippie,” Kessler dropped out of school “because that was what my psyche was trying to tell me.” The only novel he ever wrote was about his experiences dealing with a psychological break that derailed his original intentions to be an academic.
“I was an aspiring academic when I lost my mind,” he said. “And I realized that what I really wanted to be was a poet. I was in and out of hospitals and jails and did all kinds of things that I would never have done if I had been the good middle-class boy that I was trained to be. But I just snapped because the contradictions were too great.”
Once the personal crisis had passed, Kessler stuck around bohemian Santa Cruz and quickly got drawn into, and helped actively shape, the local poetry scene, which featured such memorable characters as Hitchcock, the brilliant and eccentric poet and handset printer William Everson, and the often combative and intellectually restless poet and critic Morton Marcus.
“There was a very lively, very intense, very intimate kind of poetry community,” said Kessler, remembering that era in the 1970s. Kessler brought that community out in the open through his work in the alternative press of the time. He wrote poetry and participated in poetry readings, but he also helped to shine a spotlight on other writers and poets, all of it in hot pursuit of that ancient Greek decree: “Know thyself.”
Like others at that time (and since), Kessler was transformed by his encounter with Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” The point of that book, he said, was, “The hero in every culture is pretty much the same, somebody chosen from adolescence and put through a series of ordeals, sent to the wilderness and made to suffer torments of exile. Then, through the ordeal that they’ve experienced, having enlightenment then coming back to the community as a priest or a rabbi or something.”
He found what Campbell described as meaningful in his own life: “It matched completely. I mean, when I read that book, it blew my mind because it was what I had been through. And I was saying, ‘Holy s—, I fit this pattern, you know? I didn’t become a rabbi or anything, but what do you think my newspaper column is? It’s like my attempt to be a teacher, outside of an academic setting, though it’s really not being a teacher. It’s about being a student and thinking out loud.”
Stephen Kessler’s Artist of the Year performance takes place Saturday, May 20, at Kuumbwa Jazz, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free.