Monday, December 18, 2017

Ina's Spark

Ina Coolbrith believed in poetry, in California, and in you.

Poetry was seared into Ina's soul when at age eleven she read Lord Byron and Shakespeare under open skies on her way to California by prairie schooner. She began to publish her own poems by the age of fifteen, and within a few decades had become a respected contributor to the Overland Monthly and other literary magazines. Even though she worked full-time as a librarian (which meant 70-hour workweeks), she managed to publish two collections of poetry and to command a dominant poetic presence in the West.

When California crowned Ina its first poet laureate during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the gesture made her America's first state laureate. In her acceptance speech Ina told the standing-room crowd that for her poetry was "the supremest of the arts," a "divine gift," and a "labor of love."

"Poems are children," she later said. "They are things. There is something supernatural about poetry. You cannot define it any more than you can define love."

While many poets turn to love for their muse, Ina turned to California. She explained why in an introduction she wrote for a special folio printing of  "California," a commencement ode that she had written for the University of California graduating class of 1871. The 1918 folio printing was the seventh book printed by The Book Club of California. In it she wrote:

"For California is a poem! The land of romance, of mystery, of worship, of beauty and of song. It chants from her snow-crested, cloud-bannered mountain ranges; it hymns thro' her forests of sky-reaching pine and sequoia; it ripples in her flowered and fruited valleys; it thunders from her fountains pouring, as it were, from the very waters above the firmament; it anthems from the deeps of the mightiest ocean of the world; and echoes ever in the syllables of her own strangely beautiful name—California."

She believed in California, and foresaw it would produce exceptional writers. A California-born writer had yet to achieve greatness, she said at end of the 19th century, noting that writers known for their California writing, including herself, had been born elsewhere.

“What would I not give to cast a look hitherward a century, nay, half a century hence and read the record of accomplishment along the lines of art, music, drama and letters,” she said.

Ina would have been pleased to know that Dana Gioia, California’s current poet laureate, was born here, and has visited and read poetry in every county of California during his term.

Ina encouraged many writers including Jack London, Isadora Duncan, Mary Austin, and George Sterling. I believe she would have encouraged you, too. She had a premonition that you would arrive—by birth or by car—and write about California.

Ina honored the past, lived in the present, and gathered sparks from the future, dogmas that are still held today by the Ina Coolbrith Circle, founded by their namesake in 1919.

She was proud to be one of the West's pioneer writers, and benefited by the inspiration that comes from living on the edge of a frontier. "A new country is virile, and like youth, is adventurous and unafraid. It makes for originality. It is radical… Always there is a golden fleece to be found in a new land."

A landscape and a place can also be made new by cultural shifts. Today, California is new again. We don't live in Ina's California, and we don't live in the same California we were born in. The world is changing—ever changing—and in each metamorphic state it is virile again.

Be adventurous, unafraid, and radical. Ina would have loved that.

This essay originally appeared in The Gathering 13, the Ina Coolbrith Circle 2015-16 poetry anthology.

I will be speaking about Ina Coolbrith and San Francisco, her city of love and desire, at The Book Club of California on Monday, January 22, 2018.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I won an Alan Jutzi Fellowship from The Huntington--Who is Alan Jutzi anyway?

I knew nothing about the man last year when I applied for a Huntington fellowship named in his honor. I still knew nothing about him when I won The Alan Jutzi Residential Fellowship for Non-Traditional Scholars in its inaugural year.

My first reaction was "Yahoo!" a month of supported research at the beautiful Huntington Library in San Marino, where researchers have the privilege of walking the world-class gardens at lunchtime.

I've been to The Huntington on my own dime twice before, and on these visits I crammed a month worth of work into a week. This time I will spend an entire month at the Munger Research Center to work with the Jack London Papers. (It still won't be enough time!)

The Huntington awards 200 fellowships a year, but until this one came along, they were all reserved for faculty or doctoral candidates associated with an educational institution. I received one of two Alan Jutzi fellowships given this year. The other fellow is Lynell George. (The two Georges were a coincidence!)

Given the unprecedented nature of this fellowship, I wanted to know more about Alan Jutzi. So I called Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photography at The Huntington. Jutzi hired Watts 25 years ago, and she wrote a blog about him upon his retirement. 

I learned from Watts that Jutzi, the former chief curator of rare books, is beloved by colleagues and researchers. When he announced his retirement, the idea for a non-traditional fellowship was floated and he loved the idea.
1973 photo by Gusmano Cesaretti

"He has a free, open, and generous spirit. He is a lifelong learner and is not restricted by disciplinary boundaries," said Watts. In other words, his interests are not limited by his title, and his desire to help people pursue ideas is not restricted by academic pedigrees.

To raise money for the fellowship, his colleagues circulated manila envelopes to staff and sent letters to readers and affiliate organizations. "The fundraising was like stealing money from a baby. Everyone loves Alan and people want to honor him," said Watts.

The Huntington announced the fellowship in 2016. The annual fellowship offers up to two months of research support to an independent scholar that isn't tied to a university. It is open to writers, journalists, planners, architects, collectors, independent scholars, librarians, and others.

Watts said that the proposals from the first round of applicants were strong, thoughtful, and fit well with the collections at the Huntington. Here is the opening of mine:

Jack London was famous for writing about distant seas and exotic places. He sailed the world as a deckhand, a journalist, a celebrated author, and a captain. He learned about sailing and adventuring as a teenager, and his training ground was the San Francisco Bay. 
The San Francisco Bay is the largest Pacific estuary in the Americas and it offers an advanced degree for sailors. Fed by five rivers, its mountain-born currents swirl around islands and inlets, and its tides flush in and out of the Pacific Ocean at the Golden Gate. 
In London's time, a teenage boy could turn to the estuary for a taste of the same rough weather and rough men that he would meet on the open sea and at distant ports. London said that as a young man he was drawn to this "free floating life of the bay, the domain of moving adventure, and the companionship of real men."
London leaned into that life like a mainsail meets the wind, and the experience helped him to become one of the most popular writers in the world. Though he traveled the globe, London said that he had found himself on the bay as a youth, and as a man was "wedded to 'Frisco Bay.
As I dive into a sea of materials at The Huntington to explore London's relationship to 'Frisco Bay, I am certain that Jutzi's generosity of spirit and dedication to new ideas will help me to keep the creativity vessels wide open.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ina joins her friends in the Berkeley Hills

Thanks to the Berkeley Historical Society, the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, and the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, Ina Coolbrith has joined her friends in the Berkeley Hills. It's a gesture that is more than a century overdue.

In East Berkeley, where you can walk pleasantly in the hills for hours, there is a constellation of streets, stairways, and paths that immortalize the early literati of the San Francisco Bay Area. Clustered between Marin Avenue, Euclid Avenue, Shasta Road, and Grizzly Peak Boulevard you will find byways named after Coolbrith's colleagues including Joaquin Miller, Mark Twain, George Sterling, Charles Warren Stoddard, Charles Keeler, and Bret Harte.

Bret Harte had four named after him--until now.

The City of Berkeley has changed the name of a stairway from Bret Harte Lane to Ina Coolbrith Path. It's a stairway that connects Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Miller Avenue. At the base of the stairway, the Berkeley Plaque Association and the Berkeley Historical Society has installed a new plaque to honor Ina Coolbrith.

Why Ina Coolbrith you may ask? Read the argument in Berkeleyside.

Now I'm happy to report it's official. Ina is cavorting with her friends and literary companions in the hills of Berkeley.

A big heartfelt thank you goes to those who made this happen: Charlie Bowen, Jeanine Castello, Steven Finacom, Robert Kehlmann, Carl Wikander, and especially Burl Willes, Ina's angel.

EVENT: Sunday, November 12, 2017
10 a.m. to Noon
Hosted by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association

More info

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Seven reasons to remember Ina Coolbrith

1. She was a woman of firsts. Ina Coolbrith was California's first poet laureate; the nation's first state laureate;  the first woman in America to write a commencement ode for a university (University of California, 1871); Oakland's first public librarian; and one of the first white children to come into California over Beckwourth Pass in the Northern Sierras.

2. She walked to California from Illinois. At age 11 she came to California by covered wagon on the Overland Trail, a fact that inspired one reviewer to dub her a "bad ass."

3. She escaped polygamy. Although she was a niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, she wanted nothing to do with polygamy. At age 16, she told her teenage cousin Joseph F. Smith (later the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints):
"Is it right for a girl of 15 or even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60… I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some old driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. This, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never!"
4. She chose not to marry again after her husband tried to kill her. At 20, her jealous husband came after her with a six-shooter. She divorced him, changed her name, and moved to San Francisco. When her friend John Muir tried to play matchmaker, Ina sent Muir a poem to
Courtesy of University of the Pacific Library
stop his attempts:

"...The earth may quake, the heaven fall, 

The ocean fail, or (thought appalling) 
I may never wed at all! 
But this is certain—write it down— 
Or if you smile, or if you frown,
I do not want your Mr. Brown."

5. She flirted with the idea of same-sex marriage. Ina was a little bit in love with writer Charles Warren Stoddard, but eventually came to accept his preference for men. Once she did, she turned the tables and told him that a woman had taken a liking to her. "She is as fond of me, I verily believe, as you are of Fred." She then proposed a double wedding with she and Mrs. Flint, and Stoddard and his young pal Fred.

6. She mentored the young Jack London and Isadora Duncan as Oakland's public librarian. London later told her, "No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so
Courtesy of Oakland Public Library
noble as you." Isadora Duncan wrote in her memoir, "The librarian was a very wonderful and beautiful woman, a poetess of California, Ina Coolbrith. She encouraged my reading and I thought she always looked pleased when I asked for fine books."

7. Ina didn't let age deter her from pursuing her passions. At 78, she moved to New York to write poetry and to be near her protégée Carl Seyfforth, a young and handsome concert pianist. She wrote enough poetry to fill a final collection.