Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gerald Stern Tells It as Is

Heard Gerald Stern read on Monday in a private home just around the corner from where I live. The reading was organized by PL, held under the auspices of the ALSCW, of which I am a new council member. Talked with SS about the conference and the panel on translating Asia. HS introduced me to RW, who seemed very nice. Then Stern read, and talked, for about half an hour. I liked the more compressed poems better, especially a powerful one about the uselessness of cultural assimilation. You still have to pack your leather bag and go when they tell you to. "Tell" is, of course, an euphemism. Stern's parents were Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. There is a lot of truth-telling in his poetry.

During the Q&A, I asked him about the controversy over Rita Dove's anthology of American verse, whether his sympathies lie with the editor's principle of "diversity" or with Helen Vendler's "aesthetic" critique of Dove's choices. Given the hedging so often sounded in such sessions, I was surprised by how quick and direct his answer was. He immediately said, Dove. And said that he thought that Dove offended people because she is a black woman who dared to decide on the American canon. The Norton anthology is just as arbitrary in its selection, but it does not receive the kind of flak that Rita did.  In response to a subsequent question, Stern told the story of a boy who used quite innocently the word "black" to describe African Americans. His immigrant mother warned him not to use such a word in their new country. The boy learned, Stern said, to be correct but also learned deceit.

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