Kevin Opstedal: The Poet Laureate of PCH

Thursday, January 28, 2016
(PLEASE NOTE: The inability of WordPress to enable bloggers to easily quote indented lines of poetry so that they appear as the poet being quoted intended them to be placed on the page remains an ongoing problem. I cite the lines of Opstedal’s poems with regret at my inability, in this blog’s format, to render these lines properly spaced.)

Kevin Opstedal: The Poet Laureate of PCH

Back in 2012, the poetry blog “Harriet” posted an entry in which two poets made a plea on behalf of Kevin Opstedal as one of the most important poet-editors on the West Coast. The poets in whose development Opstedal made a difference include Noel Black, Patrick James Dunagan, Cedar Sigo, Will Yackulic, Eddie Berrigan, Micah Ballard, and Lewis MacAdams. Among the little magazine projects he edited were GAS: High Octane Poetry, Blue Book, Yolanda Pipelines Magazine and Little Horses’s Magazine.

I don’t know how that fund-raiser turned out. It wasn’t, in fact, clear to me whether the fund-raiser was on behalf of Opstedal’s publishing projects or whether it was launched to help him out of a personal crisis. In either case, he certainly deserves more recognition than he has received up to now. The likelihood of any significant accolades from the East Coast poetry establishment ever showing up in his Santa Cruz mailbox is very slim. In part, this is due to his predilection for publishing his poetry in chapbooks with that format’s traditional small runs, somewhere between 100 and 200 copies. It is also the case that these collections of poems didn’t begin to be published until Opstedal was past the usual debut age (he turns 60 next year). I personally admire this degree of contumacious circulation of one’s writing. Unfortunately, one of the best ways for this kind of literary visibility to work in the writer’s favor has fallen on hard times. Independent literary bookstores such as the ones Opstedal haunted as a youth (Papa Bach in West Los Angeles and Either/Or in Hermosa Beach) have become less important in the cultural scheme. It’s not that non-chain stores don’t exist; it’s that they don’t have sections for chapbooks or want to bother stocking something sold for less than two dollars.

I have never met him, and perhaps I never will, but his poetry has a West Coast resonance that is hard to miss. It’s not the references to places on the West Coast that generate this palpable alignment; rather, it’s a tone that Opstedal achieves by opening his lyrical ear to the pleasure receptors of sense memory. His rendering of images seems to have an instinctual grasp of when the groundswell of the poem should begin. First lines cut back with the precision of an inner glow:

Shadows falling across the threshold of sunset
to sucker punch the ocean fog
(“Liquid Sky”)

Opstedal is that rare poet in a period in which the workshop has replaced the library as the preferred studio space. He is a plein air poet, and his palette is both subtle and luscious, burgeoning with the recoil of aerated pigments. His poems are outward bound, west of PCH. One enters the color spectrum of his poems as if partaking of an ancient, slowly spinning communion.

Gravity on the streets & in your eyes
is only temporary
as these crashing waves of traffic turn
to leaves

silver green yellow orange

clattering over the pavement


It was as though the entire coastline was enclosed in
a powdergray agate
(“Beneath the Radar”)

Opstedal is especially deft in moving between sound and color, blurring the cadence count of synaesthesia.

This is where the pavement meets the sea
all solid WHOMP
& the light is folded over the edge of the sky
like a blurry panel truck somewhere between here & there,
mid-stream, casting rogue shadows upon the pavement

gray-black palm fronds & washed out silhouettes

I will leave it to readers to seek out this poem (“Island Whamy”) and to discover for themselves the singular visionary use to which Opstedal puts the word “disentwined” and how a subsequent line-break juxtaposes the perfectly unanticipated one word parallel. It’s a jewel of a lyric, but Opstedal is not a one-hit wonder. A few pages later on, in Rare Surf, Vol. 2: New & Used Poems, one finds yet another substantially gorgeous poem, “Built for the Road Ahead.”

If Whitman were alive today and had a surfboard, he would probably be catching waves alongside Opstedal, whose poems glide with an inner balance that belies the turbulence hurling his imagination forward, and back, again and again.

Here is a partial bibliography:
Sand in the Vaseline. Mike & Dale’s Press, 1997.
California Redemption Value. Blue Press, San Francisco. 1998.
Variable High Cloudiness. The Dozens Press, P.O. Box 448, Santa Ynez, CA 93460-9110. Edition of 100 copies. 2002.
9th & Ocean. Auguste Press, 659 Filmore, #4. San Francisco, CA 94117. 2002.
Radio Beach. Pelican Press, San Mateo. 2003.
The Deep End. Plywood Press, 2032 Bluff Street, Boulder, CO 80304. An edition of 150 copies. 2004.
Straight Up & Down. Blue Press, 515 Walnut Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Fall, 2004. 200 copies.
Minus Tide. Smog Eyes, 913 Vista de Mar, Playa Del Rey, California 90293. 2005.
Rare Surf, Vol. 2: New & Used Poems. I Smog Eyes, 913 Vista de Mar, Playa Del Rey, California 90293 2006.
User’s Manual to the Pacific Coast Highway. Seven Fingers, 2031 Bluff Street, Boulder, CO 80304. 2007.
Maybe Ocean Street. Seven Fingers (Airstream Eidtions). Boulder, Colorado. 2009. 100 copies.
Like Rain. Angry Dog Press, 1999.
Beach Blanket Massacre. Smog Eyes, 2003.
Heavy Water: poems (with Pamela Dewey). Surf Donkey. Topanga, CA. 2003.
In the bio note in The Deep End, two other collections of poetry are mentioned: Radio Beach (Pelican Press, 2003) and El Tsunami (Auguste Press, 2004).

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