The syncopated imagery for which Kessler’s body of poetic work is known has never felt more effortless than in Garage Elegies, a 125-page collection of musings on the deeper vagaries of life. Kessler probes the revelations of volatile events storming the poet’s vantage point, a garage with an ocean view. Swaying to an existential samba, some of Kessler’s words and lines are blatantly confessional.
From “Tattooed Ladies”:
I inscribe myself as obviously as I can
in order to beat the odds of oblivion.
Most explore enigmatic twists in which an opening question circles back on itself. From “What It Is”:
You have made some thing
of what wasn’t and you wonder
what it is.
“I can’t seem to stop writing poetry,” Kessler confesses with a chuckle in his new studio in an old building overlooking downtown Santa Cruz. “It’s a mixed blessing. The world isn’t crying out for poems.”
Writing poetry has never been a choice for the longtime Santa Cruz resident. Kessler, who left his native Los Angeles for graduate studies at UCSC, abandoned academia to pursue his muses. “I probably would have been an English professor,” he says. “But I love literature too much.” The muses have never left.
“What sparks a poem is invariably a phrase that starts in my head. And I want to see where it will go. It’s a process of discovery, of being open. Writing in public places is great because it gets you out of your routine,” he says. “Travel helps, too, because you notice life in a different way.”
Kessler always writes with pen on paper. “I try to write the first draft without interruption, I just keep going. Then I go back and figure out where the line breaks belong, or choose a different word. I try to leave as much as possible to the unconscious.”
Writing steadily—a pen and notebook are always with him—he reached a critical mass and realized that a collection was building. “It was five years of my life in which some friends died, big losses, and in which domestic crises occurred,” he says. “I didn’t set out to write ‘the ideal poetry book’ filled with MFA-industry poems.”
The poet decided to take a chance placing these works in an anti-poetic setting, “a very American kind of setting—a garage. I’m exploring the human condition from this lowly vantage point.” Kessler, who has styled himself an outlaw from the get-go, enjoys his “anti” persona. “Like the English romantics, and later the Beats—it was all part of the counterculture, not mainstream. And that gives me freedom.”
Anti-establishment attitude defined his personal choices as well as his poetic point of view—a “blues orientation” perfumed by gallows humor, jazz lyricism, and late-career prophecy. Homer and Walt Whitman are influences in the sense that “the way you learn how to write is by imitating others,” he explains, “until your own voice emerges.” Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan are also on his all-star team of influences. He admires Denise Levertov (“her refined lyricisms had a tremendous influence on me”) and Charles Bukowski (“he’s one of the most courageous writers I’ve ever read”).
Work in translation of renowned Spanish poets has provided Kessler with “the greatest workshop I could ever have,” he says. “I got to stretch my own chops by burrowing inside their heads. When you’re living inside their work, you realize how individual they are—it’s the individuals who are out of step who are so great.”
Known for writing elegant, closely argued essays, Kessler describes the form as “a public communication”—whereas “poetry reveals the poet.” And revelation is the subtext of the gracefully edgy poems in Garage Elegies. “These poems are comprehensible. I ask the reader to meet me halfway, to sit with the text long enough to get it,” he says.
Stephen Kessler’s poetry speaks the American vernacular spun through a West Coast sensibility. They are the work of an L.A. bohemian who has spent the past four decades in and around Santa Cruz, savoring the ocean view through a metaphorical garage door. And they swing to the tune of smart-ass perceptions and midnight irony.
Stephen Kessler reads from Garage Elegies at 7:30 p.m. on July 10 for ‘Poetry Santa Cruz: Doreen Stock and Stephen Kessler’ at Bookshop Santa Cruz.