Backwards to the Present: More New New California Writing (Part II)

Forgot to mention a couple of the other must-have-read already writers in the newest anthology of best California writing of the year from Heyday. You might recall from last week my weird reading triage, first noting what I remembered from journals originally printing short stories, poems and essays which ended up in New California Writing 2013. Then starting in the back and making it a third of the way in before having to stop to exclaim, remark and share. Naturally, Joan Didion appears, as she should, with an excerpt from her memoir Blue Nights, and Susan Straight, our Inland Empire (and beyond) chronicler of pain, division, reunion. Keenan Norris, also from the IE you might have noticed is Heyday's own latest James D. Houston Award-winner, and a young writer who appeared in, you bet, Santa Monica Review. Just sayin!

But plenty more to be reminded of, introduced to, discover. I really admire that editors Wattawa and Glaser include work from all media, as Straight's piece from public TV station KCET, with photographs. Big and small lit journals are included, from all over the country, including one poem offered in both Spanish and English, from an outfit called Editorial Polibea, by Juan Velasco Moreno. I am skipping all over the place now, too disorganized to follow my Post-It Notes blizzard of comment, which makes this volume look like Mardi Gras. Except to say that the poem by Moreno, "Custodio and the Dream Darts" is lovely: "Shards of horror kiss me, sacrificing themselves just so I will stay in California" or, if you prefer, ""Trozos del horror me besan, Se sacrifican para que me quede en California."

There's more wonderful fantastical work from Jess Row, in a short story called "The

Dispatcher." His second short story collection is Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Guess who just ordered it? And, of course, there's a chapter in New California from Steve Erickson, from a book which critics have argued - hard to do - is one of his best. These Dreams of You is one of his more accessible, but no less imaginative and wonderful than his other eight books. It is the kind of perfect combination of real and allegorical and fabulist that you'd like, especially if you were already an Erickson fan, and who isn't?

I did not know the real-life story of the late Elmer Morrissey. I didn't need to, but he was a friend of Shanthi Skaran and a well-known and beloved Irish scientist. In "Imperfect Eulogy for Elmer Morrissey," we get his biography by way of the sailing accident that killed him off the Farallons, and a kind of love letter, too.

That's the poet on the left.
That's the poet on the left.

There more biography, autobiography. I like the way it seems to blend together easily in this collection. A hero of mine, poet Robert Hass, might have arrived with a poem but I was thrilled, not to mention affirmed, with the inclusion of the commentary he wrote for, of all places, the New York Times. It's stuck on our refrigerator, was shared with friends, photocopied by this instructor and distributed to students. The meditation he offers, on the occasion of being beat up by cops at a protest at UC Berkeley (where the former US poet laureate teaches), consider the "contingencies" of violence against Occupy, the Free Speech Movement, Ronald Ray-gun, Prop 13. All this while he and his poet (and wife) Brenda Hillman are being brutalized he insists that the UC and public education "...belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest sysems of public education in the world." Hass tallies up the injuries, the arrests, the signs - "Beat poets not beat poets" - and shows that he's an acknowledged legislator, indeed, at least of my world.

Places pop up all over this collection, from the City of Commerce in Stephen Gutierrez's "The River in My City" to the Bohemian Grove to beautiful Point Reyes, twice! And a hilarious confusion about where and what exactly Lemoore, CA is in an essay by one Lysley Tenoria called, yes, "L'Amour, CA." Memoirist and prolific essayist Poe Ballantine takes us to Eureka. There are visits to Japanese-American California and Native California, nearly fifty voices singing together and individually in this chorus of California perspectives, revisionist history, confession, and writer Carolyn Abram seems to take us to some kind of strangely familiar dystopic future in the story "It's All Performance."

Which is to say, past, present and future, there's somewhere in New California for everybody here, country to city to desert to Central Valley to imagination. And I'm still not even done reading the whole, wonderful deal.

New California Writing 2013, Gayle Wattawa and Kirk Glaser, eds., Heyday, 353 pgs, $16.95


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