Poet calls UC Merced visit 'a kind of homecoming'

St. John plans to read from his latest book

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comMarch 12, 2013 

A nationally recognized poet with Central Valley roots is scheduled to stop at UC Merced on Wednesday to speak with students.

David St. John will be at the campus reading from his latest book, "The Auroras," which is partly set in the San Joaquin Valley. The reading is slated to happen at 6 p.m. inside the Leo and Dottie Kolligian Library, Room 355.

St. John, who serves as the director of University of Southern California's Literature and Creative Writing program, grew up in Fresno, and recalled taking trips to Merced as a youth with his father.

"I come back to the valley really regularly to see family. So it's always a kind of homecoming for me," he said. "I am a valley kid. What can I say?"

In "The Auroras," St. John said the bulk of his poems have, as their backdrop, landscapes in the San Joaquin Valley or the lower Sierra Nevada.

"Those poems all have to do with figures, men and women who are trying to come to terms with some experience in their lives that has been challenging or transformative," he said. "All of this is really sketched against the fields, the mountains."

According to his biography, St. John has published 10 books during his career and has been nominated for the National Book Award.

"The Auroras" isn't St. John's first book to explore the valley and those who live here. In his second book, "The Shore," St. John said he wrote extensively about the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast.

His path into the literally world was influenced by his grandfather, an English professor at California State University, Fresno. He grew up in a house full of books, wrote songs for bands in which he played and was encouraged by his parents to pursue his dream.

During his freshman year at CSU, Fresno, St. John met poet Larry Levis, who in turn introduced him to Pulitzer Prize- winning poet Phillip Levine -- who ended up becoming his lifelong teacher, mentor and friend.

After graduating from CSU, Fresno, St. John attended the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. From there, Levine taught as a professor at Oberlin College, and released his first book "Hush."

" 'Hush' kind of paved the way for the beginning of all these many books since," he said.

Poetry is a family affair for St. John. His wife, Anna Journey, is also an accomplished poet.

St. John's also supportive of genres of poetry that over the years have become popular among younger poets, such as "slam" poetry and hip-hop spoken word.

"I am a real pluralist in all of this. I believe anything that engages people with bringing their own experience into language is a good thing," he said. "I don't feel at all hierarchical about that."

Vanesha Pravin, a lecturer in UC Merced's Merritt Writing Program, said she's looking forward to St. John's visit.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for the greater Merced community to hear a poet of his stature read work that has been inspired by a landscape that Mercedians know and understand firsthand," Pravin wrote in an email.

St. John's additional accomplishments include Discovery "The Nation" prize, the James D. Phelan Prize and the prix de Rome fellowship in literature, according to his biography on www.poets.org.

The UC Merced event is free.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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