“Just give me something to talk about and I’ll go to town,” admited Stephen Kessler as he adjusted his spectacles in front of an attentive crowd at Bookshop Santa Cruz this past Thursday night, Aug. 25—a crowd that gathered to hear Kessler, the poet, translator, editor and novelist, as well as general cultural humorist, read three excerpts from his new collection of essays entitled: The Tolstoy of the Zulus.
These essays that Kessler describes as part of an “elastic genre” date back as far as 30 years. If you are not familiar with Kessler’s work, as I am a bit embarrassed to say I was not just a few days ago, his essays combine journalism, autobiographical information, poetry and prose, as well as an element of exploration and ambiguity. His words carry highly conversational tones that invite discussion, and despite much of the serious nature of his work, Kessler still manages to find amusement in such universal themes as the human condition of loneliness within his stories. Kessler categorizes this compilation of essay-type writings in a form of their own: “long-winded responses or a form of trying to figure out what I think about something that interests me.”
Kessler began his reading in the arts section of his collection: a post-mortem obituary piece he wrote in 2002 for Metro Santa Cruz about his dear friend Mary Holmes, an all-around influential artist and founding faculty member of UC Santa Cruz. Kessler prefaces this reading by explaining that he hopes to “evoke the essence of the [deceased’s] accomplishments.” He certainly did this, yet obviously not through a mechanical and generic formulation. This piece was quite heart breaking and covered, in a personal manner, the beliefs, virtues and passions of Holmes. I also found it to be very inspiring, as Kessler detailed Holmes’s urge to have all people contemplate the meaning of life through creativity and an explosion of the arts.
Moving right along to the letters portion, Kessler shares a column he wrote in 1995 for the Mendocino County Outlook. “Poor Nietzsche,” Kessler starts, “the guy gets a bad rap.” He then goes on to explore in an exceptionally fluid and understandable conduct the deep abstractness of the subject matter, some of the philosophy of Nietzsche as well as the male psyche. Still, Kessler’s work always remains relatable and accessible, as even he admits cheekily, but honestly, in this essay that “Nietzsche’s work is not reducible to thought bites,” and that similar to Bob Dylan and The Bible, one may find countless meanings and messages in Nietzsche’s work.
Again, having not been familiar with much of Kessler’s work before this night, I must say I was already captivated by these two aforementioned pieces. I think I should also note that despite being one of the youngest people in the room, by far, I still found Kessler’s words timeless and engaging. It was Kessler’s last reading, however that was so beautifully haunting, which really gave me an appreciation for his work. The essay, called “Hollywood Wax Museum,” was written in 1989 for The Sun Santa Cruz, a short-lived weekly newspaper, and recalls Kessler’s adolescence within Hollywood. He describes Marilynn Monroe’s constant presence throughout Hollywood, her face, “as sad and lifeless as ever.” He recalls the night James Dean died, who was coincidentally a racing buddy of Kessler’s brother. And rounding out this, “ghostly trinity,” he reminisces about Elvis, though he is sure to clarify, not the later Vegas Elvis.
I immensely enjoyed Kessler’s readings, which he describes as, “poetry cleverly disguised as prose,” as well as his complete candidness: during the question and answer fragment, one of the last things he said to the crowd was “I am sick of poetry. Poetry was just my gateway drug to harder stuff.”