SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Writer Stephen Kessler has been named the 2023 Artist of the Year by the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission.
Kessler has written a dozen volumes of original poetry, 16 books of literary translation, three collections of essays and a novel, “The Mental Traveler.” Additionally, he’s edited numerous literary journals and community newspapers and is the editor and principal translator of The Sonnets by Jorge Luis Borges.
More recently, he’s become a well-known columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. His influences include everyone from Charles Bukowski to Joan Didion and Norman Mailer to James Baldwin.
“I’m very grateful to the Arts Commission for selecting me,” Kessler said. “I think it just shows that if you persist in what you’re doing, eventually people will recognize that.”
Kessler arrived in Santa Cruz in 1968 on a Regents Fellowship to study with the first graduate students in UC Santa Cruz’s doctoral program in literature. The following year, a personal crisis led him on a different path, away from academia and eventually into journalism, specifically local underground and alt-weeklies.
He was a founding associate editor and writer with the Santa Cruz Express and the founding editor and publisher of The Sun, which was put out of business by the Loma Prieta earthquake—but not before its final issue chronicled the event.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Kessler was active as an organizer and an advocate for the Santa Cruz poetry community. He held readings, wrote reviews and essays for local weeklies and co-hosted “The Poetry Show” with Gary Young and “Bards After Dark” on KUSP, serving as a bridge between the literary world and the general population.
The credits go on: Kessler’s work has been published in Poetry Flash, Exquisite Corpse, San Francisco Review of Books, East Bay Express, Los Angeles Review of Books and North Bay Bohemian. As editor of the Redwood Coast Review, he received the California Library Association’s “PR Excellence Award” four times.
For Kesller, writing is a type of discovery.
“Writing is a way of discovering what I think and how I respond to experience,” he said. “I don’t really see writing as self-expression or manifesting what you already know, but finding out what you know.”
The Artist of the Year award is presented annually to local artists for performing, visual or literary arts achievement. Nominees must be a resident of Santa Cruz County, have a national or international reputation, have created or presented work in Santa Cruz County, and “contributed to the cultural enrichment of the local community,” according to the commission. Over the last 37 years, the commission has selected artists nominated by the public.
“Santa Cruz is a tremendously dynamic arts community,” Kessler said. “I have some friends who have won this award. It’s great to be able to say, hey, they noticed me too.”
A free profile performance with Kessler will be held in May at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. The event will have Kessler presenting some of his work from the past 50 years.
“At this stage, it doesn’t matter too much to me who likes my work or the prizes I receive—writing is something I’m doing no matter what,” he said. “But I’m hoping this highlight on my work will arouse some curiosity. Inspire a few more people to check out my work.”