Stephen Kessler - Confessions of a Heteroformalist Home



Stephen Kessler 1981

Stephen Kessler, San Francisco, 1981, photo by Juan Felipe Herrera. 

Neither a manifesto nor a guide to writing, this essay-memoir attempts to explain the author’s evolution from a young lyric poet in the Romantic tradition to an older, more versatile contemporary writer engaged with a range of diverse forms in verse and prose. (For more about Stephen Kessler's essays, click on photo above.)

Confessions of a Heteroformalist

My writing comes in many different forms.  It started when I was little, imitating my brother Rick, eight years my senior, who would compose funny parodies of poems from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (Oscar Williams edition), classic English lyrics of rhyming metrical verse that awakened in me some innate musical-verbal sense of the strange magic of language raised beyond its routine function of communication into a realm of fun and wonder.  Whether I understood the poems was secondary; I liked the sounds and rhythms of the words, much as I liked pop music on the radio—it stayed with me, the tunes stuck in my head.  Even now, decades later, just through primal and repeated readings and listenings, I am a walking jukebox of songs and poems.
      Borges writes of hearing, in early childhood, his father read aloud to him, in English, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and feeling an enchantment that infused him forever after with a love of poetry.  I suppose what I experienced in reading the poems in Palgrave’s anthology was more pedestrian, like the joy I felt in hitting a baseball, an ineffable excitement of connecting sounds and sensations—the solid crack of the bat vibrating with the sweet strength of my wrists receiving the impact of the pitched ball was like the way the words fell just so on the page to link the lines together as in some harmony sung on the air by the Andrews Sisters.  Whatever it was, it hooked me on the sounds of words and on the patterns lines and stanzas made on the page.
      This must have been when I first discovered Wordsworth, whose poems later moved me in a way that made me realize poetry was more than a game and could in fact express things that couldn’t be said in any other way.  In high school, reading him and the other English Romantics, I started writing what I felt were more serious poems, still in regular rhyme and meter, but trying to get at some of the confusions and agonies of adolescence.  The poems were no good, anachronistic, full of clichés and recycled sentiments, but the exercise of writing formal verse served to train my ear in listening for the echoes, the rhymes and rhythms and resonances of the language, so that eventually, when my prosody opened into more contemporary modes, I retained what had by then become a second-nature formal and musical sense of a poem’s structure.
      This may sound merely technical, but technique is an essential means to an end; it is a servant of style, without which there is no individuality in writing, no virtuosity in music, no grace in dance, no visual harmony in art.  From experimenting with formal verse through attempts to sound more up to date in what Denise Levertov called “organic form”—a stylistic flexibility increased and expanded in my translation of different Spanish-language poets, having to impersonate them to reliably represent their diverse voices—gradually, over many years, with many digressions into various kinds of prose, I’ve come to subscribe to what I call heteroformalism, or writing in a variety of forms and styles and genres. 
      This range of formal variations derives in part from a desire to surprise myself, and I hope the reader, with unpredictable alterations of mode and mood and tone from page to page in any particular book yet with a voice that is recognizably mine, a personal sound that’s been synthesized over several decades of echoing and emulating, mimicking and appropriating the work of other writers I admire.
      In the early 1970s, on top of translation, I started writing journalism and criticism—once my brain had been detoxified of what I’d been taught in grad school—and since then the essay has become one of my favorite forms, partly because it too is flexible with plenty of room for variation.  Composing newspaper columns, interviews, features, satire, reviews, cultural commentary, poetic riffs on current events, imaginary memoirs, political analysis, polemics about whatever was bugging me, obituaries, cryptic journalistic love songs to elusive muses—all this was fantastic exercise for extending my range as a writer.  Though I still thought of myself primarily as a poet, it was through the regular practice of prose that I discovered my writing did not have to limit itself to the marginal place of poetry in the culture and could speak to nonspecialists in a language they could understand, and in the newspaper, no less.
      In the early 1990s I wrote a novel, The Mental Traveler, based on a watershed episode in my personal history, a book conceived as fiction rather than memoir because that was how I felt I could reach a deeper subjective truth.  I believe all memoirs (including this one) are a form of fiction because they are the creation, or reconstruction, of one person with a particular point of view and selective memory and incomplete research, and the past, despite the efforts of Proust and lesser searchers since, can never be recaptured.  But subjectivity is another thing, and if it’s deep enough it reaches the universal, and that is one of the specialties of fiction.
      Over the last few years, egged on by former editor Traci Hukill of the Santa Cruz Weekly for a column of local color she called Street Signs, I’ve been writing short texts of around 350 words that I call prosems (a word I confess to have stolen from Julio Cortázar, who called some of his writings prosemas), which I like to think of as a hybrid of the personal essay, local reporting, memoir, lyric poetry, amateur philosophy and “creative nonfiction,” whatever the individual prosem (often based on or inspired by or invoking a specific place) demands. 
      Since 1999 I’ve also been working with the prose of other writers in the quarterly literary newspaper I edit, The Redwood Coast Review.  I try to clean up sentences, if necessary, to help the authors sound more like themselves.  I write headlines, house ads for the publisher, solicitations for letters to the editor, corrections, subscription pitches, library propaganda, whatever’s needed.    
      So what began as a fascination with poetic form has, over more than half a century, expanded to embrace a range of genres, each best suited to a particular kind of writing to fit a particular kind of experience or assignment.  And within those forms—verse, translation, the essay, fiction, editing—the streams keep branching, and thus enriching the palette, broadening the canvas, widening the screen on which I write.  I feel freer to experiment and to explore when I have at hand such an assortment of polygraphic possibilities.  Formal and “free” verse (which is also formal, in a different way), journalism, personal narrative, cultural and literary criticism, each has its role and is a means to diverse creative ends; each is a tool with a different purpose, an instrument with a different sound.
      The pleasure I find in writing is perhaps in part a result of having cultivated this array of distinct yet integrated formal resources.  A heteroformalist practice keeps me engaged in an ongoing process of discovery, and keeps me interested in what comes next.

January 2013

Scratch Pegasus || Poems of Consummation || Street Signs || Confessions of a Heteroformalist || The Redwood Coast Review || The Mental Traveler || More About SK || Readings

FloodLIght Feature by phren-Z   A Santa Cruz Writes Publication