By Karen Laws
When Joyce Jenkins, the editor of Poetry Flash magazine, wants to describe poet David Meltzer, she uses language evoking his love of jazz music and association with the San Francisco Beat and Berkeley Renaissance poetry movements: “He’s a colorful cat,” she said. “Nobody can riff like him.”
Meltzer is one of ten East Bay authors who will be honored this Sunday at the Northern California Book Awards ceremony in San Francisco. Michael Pollan will receive the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement, and winning books will be announced in a range of categories, from Young Adult to Creative Nonfiction. Besides Meltzer, whose When I was a Poet is in the running for the Poetry Award, the East Bay finalists are Barry Eichengreen, Sandra M. Gilbert, Adam Hochschild, Andrea Lingenfelter, Mary Mackey, Edie Meidav, Amy Reed, and Katherine Silver. The Poetry Flash-sponsored event has been held every spring for the past thirty years.
Berkeleyside sought out Meltzer in his Oakland home, which has the feel of a poetry salon with its walls of books, CDs, and boxed sets of LP records, arm chairs upholstered in contrasting fabrics, vintage lamps, a braided rug, and piles of bills to pay. The seventy-five year old Meltzer has a thistle-down beard, the laughing eyes of a sage, and shoulder-length white hair. He is suntanned and wears a Thelonius Monk t-shirt over Blackwatch plaid pants. When asked about his raised left shoe, he recalls his Brooklyn childhood and the old guys in the neighborhood; the big black shoe was common among polio survivors. Although his “adult poetry life” has been lived entirely in the Bay Area, Meltzer sees himself as having been formed culturally and politically in World War II-era New York City. “To me nature is a succulent at the top of a stoop in a pot with a bunch of cigarette butts,” he said.
Meltzer was diagnosed at age thirty-five with hemochromatosis, a hereditary disorder. For decades he composed, performed and recorded as a singer/songwriter, but lately his osteoarthritis has gotten so bad he can no longer play the guitar. He’s had four hip replacements and is shrinking in size. “Soon I’ll be a little pile of bone meal with glasses,” he said. “I belong to the uncertainty realm and I’m pretty chipper in it. You adapt. You move on.”
While Meltzer’s sense of humor is evident throughout When I was a Poet, an elegiac note predominates. The subject matter, vivid detail, and use of typographical shorthand combine to create the eerie effect of a man communicating from beyond the grave via his beloved Olympia typewriter. (In reality, Meltzer writes on a computer.)
These lines are from his poem “Mr. Peanut”:
talk of “making yr nut”
leads to concept of concealment
Mr. Peanut’s shelled & w/in him
25¢ bag of hot goobers
shared w/ Tina
Tina was Meltzer’s wife, and one of the most moving and beautiful poems in the book is about her death from ovarian cancer fifteen years ago. Meltzer wrote the poem, “All the Saying Said,” fairly recently. “It came out quickly as a complete thing. There was no need to fuss,” he said. Last September, he married fellow poet Julie Rogers. Pictures from their wedding are placed about the room, their faces beaming with happiness.
“It’s important to keep interrogating the elemental key words,” Meltzer said. “Love. Evil. What do they mean now? All creative gestures, no matter where they’re going, always occur now.”
The Northern California Book Awards Ceremony, Book Signing, and Reception will take place from 1:00-4:00 pm on Sunday June 10 at the San Francisco Main Library. To view a complete list of nominees and for more information about the Book Awards, please visit Poetryflash.
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To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. The calendar is self-serve so we encourage you to submit your own events.