RJA 2017 Conference Report

by Geneva M. Gano, Outgoing President

The Robinson Jeffers Association was honored to have been hosted by Occidental College, in Los Angeles, California, for the 23rd Annual Conference and Meeting, held Feb 24-26, 2017. Occidental College is Jeffers’ alma mater (1905) and home to a substantial collection of Jeffersiana, much of which is housed in the Special Collections and College Archives in the Mary Norton Clapp Library.

Los Angeles was the place in which Jeffers came of age: not only did he go to college and graduate school there, but it was in Los Angeles that he committed himself to becoming a poet and met and fell in love with his future wife, Una. His children were born there and his parents died there. And though he is known for his revulsion to cities, it is undeniable that Los Angeles made its mark on him, even if only as a specific place to react against.

Accordingly, the theme for the 2017 conference was “Robinson Jeffers and the Modern Metropolis: Los Angeles and Beyond” and the goal was to “re-envision the role of Los Angeles and the city more broadly in Jeffers’ work, career, and personal life.” The conference was small—as has tended to be the case for our conferences held outside of Carmel—but the audience was engaged and enthusiastic.

The conference began with a special Friday afternoon event, “Blackness and Nature: Artists in Conversation,” a panel discussion that was co-sponsored by the RJA and a coalition of Occidental College groups. Writers Camille Dungy, Douglas Kearney, and Zinzi Clemmons shared their work and experiences as black writers who have engaged with the white-dominated form of nature writing. That evening, Jeffers scholars and enthusiasts were treated to a lovely reception and a peek at some of the rare archival materials that were on display in the beautiful Braun Room at the library; some of these materials are available digitally on Occidental’s library website.

On Saturday, a varied program showcasing very strong scholarship by Jeffersians was presented, including recent work by Whitney Hoth, Brett Colasacco, Robert Zaller, Kevin Batton, and Mick McAllister.

The conference keynote was given by Camille Dungy, author of four collections of poetry, an edited anthology titled, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and a volume of essays. Her talk was titled, “The View From Hawk Tower Today: A Contemporary Environmental Poet Reflects on What Robinson Jeffers Has Meant to Her.” Dungy interwove readings of her own poems, many of which are set in California’s wild landscapes, with comments on Jeffers’ writing and her very personal connection to it.

Dungy was introduced to Jeffers at a very young age by no other than renowned Jeffers scholar Robert Brophy, her godfather. In her presentation, Dungy recalled that as long as she had imagined herself a poet, she had Jeffers’ example and influence to guide her. For the listener, the echoes of Jeffers were plain to hear: the reflective tone of Dungy’s speakers, the meditative comments on the relationship between humans and nature, and the concern with extinction—of the planetary and personal forms—were familiar ones.

The very full day concluded with a special session titled, “Inspired by Jeffers,” which included poet and actress Lili Bita’s dramatic reading of some of Una Jeffers’ letters and a presentation by Occidental librarian Helena de Lemos on Jeffers’ college experiences. Conference attendees were delighted to receive a limited edition run of a fine-press edition of Jeffers’ “Natural Music,” created by students in Professor Jocelyn Webb Pedersen’s Letterpress Printing class.

On Sunday morning, the RJA reconvened at El Alisal, the home of Charles Fletcher Lummis, for the annual business meeting. Future priorities for the RJA were laid out at this meeting, these included a major updating of the RJA website with a reintroduction of the online discussion forums hosted on the website itself, an updating of the 1912 bibliography, and the selection of Rob Kafka as the president elect. The conference concluded with a wonderful presentation by director of the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles and historian Jeremiah Axelrod, who described the bohemian scene in Highland Park at the turn of the century.

The 2017 conference and meeting was memorable for the great weather, excellent hosting, and fine quality presentations and conversations. We hope to see you back in Carmel in 2018!

Leave a Comment