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A circuit bard for Silicon Valley

Computerese isn't the only language in the capital of high tech. Today, Silicon Valley -- which has long had a robust poetry infrastructure -- introduces its first poet laureate.

March 24, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

SAN JOSE — Joel Katz stands before a clutch of wordsmiths assembled one recent Thursday night on mismatched folding chairs at the back of Willow Glen Books. There is a wall of cookbooks behind him, titles shouting, "Onions," "Salads," "Fruit!"

With his rimless glasses, rumpled khakis and maroon polo shirt adorned with corporate logo, Katz looks more like a software consultant than a published poet. He happens to be both. He clears his throat and begins "Lessons":

Back in 1961 my mother decided to learn

how to smoke -- not to become a smoker,

just the art of smoking: how to hold it

and light up in one unbroken gesture,

an exhaled cloud entwining the conversation --

something useful for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

To Katz, there is a "direct tie-in" between poetry and the well-crafted computer program. In poetry, he says, language is used "to view the world in a clearer, fresher way, just like computer language -- when properly crafted into programs -- allows you to get a clearer picture of what you're doing in your business."

Never mind that it's hard to find a decent poem written about the computer; the last one might have been Richard Brautigan's 1967 work "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace." Forget that computer-generated poetry doesn't have a wide audience, that it is the rare -- and not very good -- poem that's written by machine without human intervention.

And it doesn't matter that the birthplace of the personal computer is better known for corporate culture than the other kind. This morning in San Jose, the first Silicon Valley poet laureate -- official versifier 1.0 -- will be introduced.

San Francisco has Lawrence Ferlinghetti, inaugural poet laureate of The City (And now our government / a bird with two right wings). Oakland is best known for Ishmael Reed (I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I bedded / down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo). South Los Angeles owns bragging rights to Wanda Coleman (usta be young usta be gifted -- still black).

Now, the capital of high tech wants its own bard.

The reason, says poet Kevin Arnold, is to "validate" what he describes as a robust "poetry community, which exists and has flourished for many years but doesn't have the recognition."

Arnold is a former IBM executive, a member of the laureate selection committee and president of Poetry Center San Jose. He points to the regular Willow Glen reading, which featured Katz this month, as proof of the region's poetry infrastructure

Still, he says, "it's hard to compete with Steve Jobs, but we are -- for mindshare."

Bruce Davis is executive director of Arts Council Silicon Valley, the group that has spent the last two months shepherding the selection process. For 20 years, his organization has awarded grants to assist painters, writers, dancers and other creative souls living in a region expensive enough to put the "starving" in "starving artist."

Davis argues that "it isn't that incongruous" for a place obsessed with computers to desire an official poet-in-residence.

"Creativity," he insists, "translates to all fields of enterprise," from technology to terza rima.

But should the laureate here be digitally literate?

Poet Charles O. Hartman, co-director of creative writing at Connecticut College, has no strong feelings on the matter, even though he is the author of "Virtual Muse," an early exploration of computer poetry, and a creator of verse-writing software.

In Hartman's view, however, "surely every place needs a poet laureate." The ancient Welsh, he noted via e-mail, viewed the bard as a powerful figure "who, in their endless battles, cursed the opposing tribe." One Welsh chieftain, Hartman recalled, was never defeated "because his name did not fit any of the Welsh meters, so that he could not be cursed."

The job is a little safer these days. One major role, the call for applicants says, is to "present appropriate works at the annual State of the County ceremony and at least four selected county-sponsored events, dedications, or memorials per year."

Alan Soldofsky, a poet and director of the creative writing program at San Jose State, hopes that the laureate will draw attention to the region's poetic life and help create a literature of place in this "Hollywood for engineers."

"I always preach to my students," said Soldofsky, who is also on the selection committee, "you have to go out there and write the poems of this place, the agricultural past, the ethnic mosaic and the complex relationship between technology and culture."

Stanford University is well-known for fostering the likes of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Intel co-founder Andy Grove, and William Hewlett and David Packard, founders of the eponymous tech firm.

But Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner, born 100 years ago last month, founded Stanford's creative writing program, and the university has produced two U.S. poet laureates: Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky.

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