5 Questions with Stephen Kessler

Veteran Bay Area poet, translator, essayist, editor, and journalist Stephen Kessler presents his three newest books in an evening of readings and conversation about heteroformalism, hybrid writings, the prose poem as journalism, the personal cultural essay, and the art of literary translation at City Lights Bookstore this Tuesday. Find Stephen’s answers to our 5 questions below.

Event: Tuesday, June 16, 2015 @ 7:00PM. Stephen Kessler celebrates the release of Where Was I? (from Greenhouse Review Press), Need I Say More? (from El Leon Literary Arts), and his new book of Luis Cernuda translations, Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems (from Black Widow Press)

About the Books:

where was i1. Where Was I?: In these hybrid writings—a mixture of memoir, prose poetry, personal essay, travel journal, and spiritual meditation—Stephen Kessler synthesizes a lifetime of experiences in language of extraordinary concentration, vividness, and lyricism. The stories he tells and the visions he evokes of places and people he has known could be anyone’s, but they are the distillation of a singular personal history in a voice uniquely his own.

need_i_say_200h2. Need I Say More?: Following his first two books of essays, organized around themes of poetry and cultural criticism, in this third collection he gets more personal and political. Kessler’s keen eye, sharp wit, and readable style—whether reflecting on Viagra, multilingualism, Miss America, fatherhood, Gertrude Stein, cooking, anarchism, education, Robinson Jeffers, Vivian Maier, the pleasures of gossip, a trip to Cuba, Steve Jobs, Charles Bukowski, shopping for a used car, or getting mugged in New York—keep his writings vividly alive. The eclectic essays in Need I Say More? have both the immediacy of the present moment and the lasting value of literature.

forbidden3. Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems by Luis Cernuda: This book is the most comprehensive collection of the poetry of Luis Cernuda ever to appear in English. The original Spanish texts are presented opposite Stephen Kessler’s new translations, to complement Kessler’s previous translations of Cernuda’s collected prose poems, Written in Water (City Lights Books, 2004), winner of a Lambda Literary Award, and his selected later poems, Desolation of the Chimera (White Pine Press, 2009), winner of the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.

About the Author: Stephen Kessler is the author of ten books of original poetry, sixteen books of literary translation, three collections of essays, and a novel.  He is the editor and principal translator of The Sonnets by Jorge Luis Borges (Penguin), and was editor of the quarterly Redwood Coast Review from 1999 through 2014.  His previous translations of Luis Cernuda have received an NEA Fellowship, a Lambda Literary Award and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Photo by Dina Scoppettone
Photo by Dina Scoppettone

Stephen Kessler: I’ve been to City lights many dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the last 45 years, usually as a customer, until Lawrence [Ferlinghetti] published my translations of Julio Cortázar, Save Twilight, in his Pocket Poets Series in 1997, when I believe I had my first reading upstairs; then again in 2004 when City Lights brought out my translation of Luis Cernuda’s prose poems, Written in Water. And I think I’ve read there another time or two besides. It is of course a wondrously historic venue, the room is intimate and literally wall-to-wall with poetry, the audience is always smart and attentive–one of the great places to present a book, a secular temple of intellectual curiosity.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

SK: Well, it’s kind of embarrassing, but I have three books all coming out at the same time, which I’ll be reading samples from: Where Was I? (prose poems) would probably have a jazz soundtrack, maybe Thelonious Monk, as music is a recurrent theme, and the style of the writings is idiosyncratic, personal and improvisational.

Need I Say More? is a collection of essays written between 1982 and 2014 which could probably be accompanied by another jazz pianist, Bill Evans, whose album Conversations with Myself suggests what is actually happening in the essays.

Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems by Luis Cernuda (translation) would best be accompanied by the piano music of the great Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, or maybe one or more of his guitar concertos, as Cernuda is Andalusian–though he spent nearly half his life in exile in London, Glasgow, Massachusetts, and finally (after teaching at SF State in 1961-62) Mexico.

Piano music of one kind or another turns out to be a good soundtrack for all three books, perhaps because the writing has the same reflective quality, and the keyboards of the instruments on which they are played have similar expressive possibilities.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

SK: I don’t remember that far back, but the first book I read three times was Saul Bellow‘s The Adventures of Augie March.

CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?

SK: I’d be a star baseball player (for the Giants, of course) and a philanthropist with my millions. But it’s a bit late for that. When I was even younger I wanted to be a jockey, but then I grew just a little too much.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no Wi-Fi).

SK: Prescription progressive UV-protective sunglasses, solar-powered blender, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (weatherproof edition), a large empty wooden crate, several reams of paper and an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. An opportunity to write the Desert Island Elegies. Oh, and a big water-cooler bottle to launch the manuscript in.


Stephen Kessler already has two books with City Lights Publishers, and we are so happy to have him in the building this Tuesday to share his 3 new projects! The event is this Tuesday, June 16th at 7:00PM–all three books will be available. For more about Stephen, go to his official site.

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