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Versed in Matters of the Heart

David St. John gives a frank assessment of the poetic tragedy of L'amore — without missing a beat.

David St. John, poet and professor of English in USC College. Photo credit Roger Snider.
David St. John, poet and professor of English in USC College. Photo credit Roger Snider.

David St. John exudes the grace and aplomb of a holy man, perhaps a monk or sage. He actually does resemble a bit of bespectacled, bearded spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle — especially in his quiet gaze and half smile.

But this poet and professor of English in USC College is no saint — even if his surname does pay homage to the preacher who is said to have baptized Jesus. That St. John’s head was later delivered on a platter to King Herod’s stepdaughter-niece, Salome. At least St. John’s poetry would not be considered saintly. Erotic, sensual and brutally honest, his poems mine the complex relationship between woman and man.

“For me, that’s the topos, that’s the locale of the most interesting and complicated psychological reckonings with all aspects of one’s life,” St. John says. “That’s the lens through which all kinds of experiences can be seen and understood. Tracing the psychological dramas of that relationship is to me the most compelling way to talk about faith, desire, loss and hope.”

She said that loathing is
Too strong a word since what
I feel now is so much closer
To contempt & pity both

That it’s become wearying even
To watch you pour the wine
& so depressing to feel
The draft of the night

—From St. John’s “Patience”

The Other Venice

Dishes clank in his kitchen as St. John prepares tea. Twice-divorced, father of two, and raising his precocious 16-year-old daughter Vivienne, St. John gives off the vibe of a sophisticated Mr. Mom at one with the small rituals of domesticity.

He is explaining why streets have no right angles in his beloved Venice, Calif., where he has lived for 22 years. Walking across his wooden floors carrying two steaming cups, he effortlessly finds the perfect words to describe the connecting canals that during the turn of the 20th century flowed from the city’s Grand Lagoon.

“They radiated like the spokes of a star,” St. John says, setting the cups on a large, antique wooden dining room table. A bright ray from the skylight illuminates him as if preparing to beam him up — perhaps to Venus, St. John’s favorite planet.

His friend and fellow poet Mark Irwin, assistant professor of English in the College, laughs at the notion of St. John being described as an alien from Venus.

“Yes, say that!” Irwin says. “David will love it.”


Photo credit Roger Snider.

St. John’s transporting poetry is simply not of this world. Comparing brushstroke to line in his works, Irwin says, “We’re talking about the decadence and attention of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.”

“Who else but David’s persona could say, ‘The opaque stroke lost across the mirror,’ or, ‘The opal hammock of rain falls out of its cloud,’ or, ‘Hymn away this reliquary fever,’” Irwin says, quoting from St. John’s poem, “Elegy.” “What other poet could equate ‘seeds’ with ‘nerves’? What other friend would offer you ‘smudges of bud’ or ‘a blame of lime’?”

Inside his 1912 low-pitched, side-gable roofed Craftsman home, St. John is sipping yerba mate, a strong South American tea he prefers over less caffeinated teas. His house, he says, is situated where canals once snaked along the city styled after Venice, Italy — or “that murky soup of dreams” as he calls the capital of the Veneto region in The Face (HarperCollins), his 2004 novella in verse.

“If you know (expletive) about me, or ever cared to, Italy is where my heart is,” St. John wrote in The Face while traveling on a rapido between Rome and Florence, moving through a “cinemagraphic journal of the soul.”

But mostly, he writes in longhand sitting in a black leather chair in his living room between a piano — an instrument he has played since boyhood — and his fireplace, its mantle made from wood salvaged from Fraser’s Million Dollar Pier after Venice, Calif.’s disastrous 1912 blaze.

When his children were small, he worked into the night when the house was quiet. Now, he usually writes in the mornings after dropping off Vivienne at school.

“I still write late at night,” he says. “I like being awake when the world’s asleep.”

He writes amid the comfort of his many shelves packed with volumes of poetry and books on Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael — the last being the subject of his current project. There are biographies, history and photography books, and ones featuring rock legends such as Jim Morrison, who lived in Venice Beach in the ’60s, when the area was the center for the Beat Generation.

Those unfamiliar with St. John’s background might wonder why a poet owns so many books about tennis. But St. John comes from a family of tennis aficionados. His father, a track and basketball coach, and uncle were superb players. So was his grandfather, an English professor and dean of humanities at California State University, Fresno. St. John, an only child, has played the game since he could hold a racket. In his teens, he played against experts his age who went pro.

“I loved playing and was winning up to a point,” St. John says. “But I wasn’t world class. In my mind, this was not crushing news. I was incredibly realistic about it. There came a point where I wanted to do other things.”

He taught himself to play guitar, starting with folk music, then rock, playing in bands for a time until poetry exploded his rock-star-wannabe bubble.

The Tipping Point

Born and reared in Fresno, St. John attended Fresno State and took a class with Philip Levine, a then-emerging poet who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Levine became St. John’s mentor and has remained a dear friend.

“When a freshman comes into your class familiar with Wordsworth and Milton, you take notice,” Levine told Ploughshares in 2005. “Sometime that year, two new Philip Larkin poems I’d never seen before came into my possession. I shared them with poet friends; I even read them to my classes. I no longer recall how I discovered they were not by Larkin but by St. John, who was having a ball gulling his teacher.

“Here was this 18-year-old tennis whiz with an ear so perfect for rhythm, tone, nuance, he could completely fool someone who had read and reread everything by Larkin.”

Encouraged also by his mother, a drama teacher, St. John leapt into the world of poetry, earning a master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he served as poetry screener for The Iowa Review. He became good friends with his office mate at the literary journal, T.C. Boyle, who was fiction screener.

St. John went on to teach at Oberlin College then Johns Hopkins University, where his closest friend was Leo Braudy, also a professor there.

After Boyle joined the English faculty in USC College in 1978 and Braudy followed five years later, they began attempting to recruit St. John.

Boyle is now a Distinguished Professor of English and Braudy has additional titles of University Professor and Leo. S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature.

“I knew if I took the job, I was going to live by the beach,” St. John says, as seagulls caw in the background. “The only place I could afford was Venice.”

Ph.D. Writing Program Prospers

St. John arrived in the College in 1987 when its creative writing programs were beginning to flourish. In 2001, Carol Muske-Dukes, now California’s poet laureate, founded and directed USC’s first Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing program. Two years later, St. John became director. St. John and Muske-Dukes teach in the program, along with Boyle, Irwin, Aimee Bender, Percival Everett and Marianne Wiggins, among others.

Under St. John’s leadership, the program is producing some of the most interesting and successful writers in the country: Chris Abani, Bridget Hoida and Jennifer Kwon Dobbs to name a few.

In a class taught by St. John and Frank Ticheli, a professor in USC Thornton School of Music, the program’s writers work with graduate composers to produce acts of operas and poems set to music. St. John’s students also collaborate with photographers and other visual artists.

“All of the arts are in conversation with one another,” he says.

Accepting four to six students per academic year, the program selects those showing great promise as well as proven accomplishments in their writing and scholarly work. The program produces prolific authors and often professors.

“All aspects of our culture are courting people who can use language,” St. John says. “Good writers are always in demand.”

Becoming Achromatic

St. John became a published poet at 26 with his book Hush. Now the author of nine collections of poetry, he has earned some of the biggest prizes for poets, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, the Rome Prize (Prix de Rome) and an Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also won Discovery/The Nation, James D. Phelan and O.B. Hardison, Jr. poetry prizes, the last being a career prize for poetic achievement and teaching awarded by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The decorated poet shuns the tired topic of why poets seem to be marginalized in American society.

“There has never been as broad or deep an audience for poetry as right now,” he says.

When he is not at USC, he can be found shepherding in new generations of poets at Beyond Baroque, the Los Angeles area’s leading literary and arts center, located in Venice.

Recently, Beyond Baroque honored St. John in an event where friends read his poetry, played the guitar, piano and cello, and told stories. Some sang a tongue-firmly-in cheek song, to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black,” about why St. John always wears black.

If you’re wondering, St. John will first explain he wears black because it is a post-punk holdover of the ’80s. After a few awkward moments, he’ll give you the real reason: “When my second marriage ended 10 years ago, I thought, ‘OK, black is my uniform.’ ”

But remember the heart of St. John’s works — man and woman — and consider the last lines in his poem, “Vespa Vestals”: 

To begin yet again as if, each time one loved,
One loved as a virgin, helplessly, if faithlessly —
Until the life that was once long ago imagined

Begins laughing again, silently, in the ruins.

The poet in black seems to weave into this expression of hope hints of Technicolor.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue