Sacramento writers Tim Kahl and Valerie Fioravanti jump into the fray with new books that take on class, culture and change
There’s something to be said for outsiders. Perhaps it’s that necessary bit of distance that lets them speak the truth that the artist sees most clearly when he or she is able to focus on what really matters: writing, and the stories that need to be told.
That’s certainly the case with Sacramento poet Tim Kahl and fiction writer Valerie Fioravanti, both rare birds: literary writers who make their art the center of their lives, without a university appointment—and outside one of the so-called “literary cities” such as New York City or San Francisco.
They’ve both got new books out—Kahl’s second poetry collection and Fioravanti’s first collection of short stories—and they both exemplify a particular literary indie spirit.
Kahl is well-known in Sacramento’s extremely active poetry scene. He’s been in town for 15 years, in service at the venerable Sacramento Poetry Center (he’s vice president and the events coordinator) with regular readings throughout the area. He’s also picked up some teaching gigs in the Los Rios Community College District system.
And with his second book, The Century of Travel (WordTech Communications, $19), he’s entered into a poetic conversation about the state of the country and, particularly, the West. In poems like “Bear and Bull” and “Lebensraum in the Wild West,” Kahl adheres to his usual high aesthetic standards while taking on some sacred cows.
“I’ve always kind of hoped for a nice, safe little academic job—and I have that to a certain extent—but I also understand that I’m not going to be part of the academic star-making mainstream,” he said. “As a result, you give yourself a certain permission to then go out and be more pointedly critical about things.”
What he’s done with Century, he said, is “jump into the fray and make some criticisms of class, which is a big thing, because it’s really the elephant in the room in American society.”
And he does that in a collection shot through with notions of traveling the American landscape where “the men of interests and not of ideals would prevail,” as he writes in “Bull and Bear,” a poem about the great mess of excitement and speculation that is California history.
The centerpiece is a lengthy description of the cruelty of an Old West-style Sacramento entertainment: forcing a bull and a bear to fight to the death. Kahl points out that the grizzly on the state flag is the same one forced to fight:
The bull and the bear
are bet on by the vaqueros on the day of
the patron saint of gravediggers. They are all
related to each other by their wagers, in love
with the fullness of life, in love with their
dear mothers who showed them how to submit to
something other than the lesson of fortune.
“Bull and Bear” sets the tone for—and is, essentially, the heart of the rest of the collection. It grew organically, Kahl said, once he’d noticed that he tended to have a great many poems about travel.
“It’s not always people that are moving around,” he said. “It’s feelings, it’s ideas, it’s memes. Everything is in motion to a certain extent.”
And so he went back to the very first poem he wrote after moving to Sacramento, “Hierophany”—the title comes from the word that derives from the Greek and invokes something sacred or holy, but not directly related to a god or God. It’s more of a spiritual understanding than a moment of revelation.
That makes sense, both in light of the poem’s origin and subject matter, inspired by an event that happened shortly after his move here.
“I opened up [The Sacramento] Bee and saw a story about a guy committing suicide by jumping off a bridge over the American River while dressed in a bunny suit,” said Kahl, “and I thought, ’Wow, this is going to be an interesting place to live.’”
The poem builds around the list of places to which one can drive from the site of the bunny-costume suicide, thus opening up the theme of movement beyond just one’s location but also one’s existence itself.
“I’ve always been a fan of Josiah Royce, whose quote opens the book,” said Kahl. “He was up there in Grass Valley and wrote about the movement of the 19th century, of all the changes displacing his countrymen. And I thought, ’Well, if you thought the 19th century had a lot of that, what would you think of the next one?’”
So he wrote about it, perhaps to Royce, and perhaps to us. The Century of Travel is a collection that marks both a transformation in Kahl’s work and an artful look at what is good and bad about this place—both California and the 21st century—that we call home.
Kahl’s poems take a close look at an emerging understanding that “there are a lot of opportunities that are not going to be there for you and coming to realize that the reason for that is the way things are structured socially and politically.”
In that sense, it’s got a lot in common with Valerie Fioravanti’s short stories.
Fioravanti, a Sacramento resident since 2009, came to California after finishing an Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction at New Mexico State University, and she’s got some big cred as a writer, including a Fulbright Program fellowship. She makes a living—albeit “a modest one,” she noted—by teaching through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and working as a private writing teacher and coach.
And she writes about poor people.
The stories in Garbage Night at the Opera (BkMk Press, $15.95)—which won the 2011 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction from BkMk Press through the University of Missouri-Kansas City—are set in North Brooklyn in New York City, the neighborhood in which Fioravanti grew up. They unfold over time, as the largely working-class neighborhood suffers industrial collapse that closes the factories where most of the residents work, attempt to survive in a transitional service economy and are eventually pushed out by gentrification.
But that’s just the background. In tales such as the title story, we meet Massimo, a widowed Italian immigrant who deals with heartbreak and his fully Americanized daughter Franca in a changing North Brooklyn.
Although it is fiction, Fioravanti pointed out that “these are the lives of real people. Even though the work is invented, these people live in our United States. We don’t see much of them in our literature.”
For Americans who’ve been forced out of the working middle class, something as simple as seeing a theatrical show becomes a trial. In Garbage Night at the Opera, Massimo wants to share his love of opera with his daughter, and his struggles—and pride—in trying to give her a decent life are depicted in loving detail.
“Massimo clips the advertisement from Oggi, the Italian newspaper, as proof of the small price for students. He fears it is a misprint, but if he brings the clipping along it must be honored. He has learned this much in his years here, the attitude so different from home, where such mistakes are laughed at and accepted. He puts the clipping in his wallet, along with his photo card from the community college.”
As the night unfolds, Massimo sees clearly how his daughter is becoming very different from him, but she retains his most important values. It’s thoughtful, respectful, honest—and most importantly, a really good read.
And, like the rest of the stories in the collection, it’s upfront about the way that working people are being displaced, both in employment and in their own neighborhoods. It’s a subject Fioravanti knows intimately, as the North Brooklyn neighborhood in which she grew up, Greenpoint, is being transformed from a working-class community to an enclave for hipsters and the literati.
“I was visiting some of my family that remains in Greenpoint,” Fioravanti said, “and I was sitting on a stoop while my cousin was pouring her heart out about the people who were no longer living on the block. They’d been squeezed out. And as she was lamenting this, some of the literati came down the block and shouted out, ’Hey, Valerie!’
“The look on my cousin’s face was just like, ’You traitor!’”
The fact is, she said, some members of her family do see her as one of “them”—the people who are displacing the neighborhood’s former inhabitants.
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book,” she said. “It is sort of mortifying to see yourself as one of ’them’ who upend the people you grew up with.”
Fioravanti also noted that this subject matter isn’t exactly mainstream.
“I’ve been told, specifically by New York City publishers, that I should stop writing about poor people, and I think not,” she said.
“I think I’m going to keep writing about poor people. I think they deserve to have their stories told.”