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Real and Imagined Journeys

Local poet Peter Streckfus is making a big splash in the literary world, but his work is no easy reading.

San Francisco poet Peter Streckfus is having an experience that only a handful of poets will ever have: a national book tour that took him from Chicago to Cambridge and continues with three Bay Area appearances and an interview on KQED radio, totaling nearly a dozen stops along the way.

Streckfus is getting a marketing jolt from his publisher usually reserved in the literary world for young photogenic novelists, not 34-year-old poets just releasing their debut collections of elegant, often frustrating work. But not everyone gets to be a Yale Younger Poet.

<a href="http://www.yale.edu/yup/subjects/poetry.html#comp">The Yale Series of Younger Poets</a>, one of the oldest and most prestigious poetry awards in the country, selects and publishes one manuscript each year by a poet under forty who has not yet published a book. Started in 1919, the list of past winners reads like the table of contents in a best-of-the-20th-century anthology: W.H. Auden, John Ashbery, Robert Hass, and Adrienne Rich, to name a few. All began careers with the prize.

Streckfus' collection The Cuckoo was chosen for the honor in 2002 by U.S. poet laureate Louise Gluck, who also penned a glowing introduction. (Among other things, she calls him "a seer raised in the world of George Lucas.") "The prize has made this object I've worked on for the past seven years suddenly visible to the public," Streckfus wrote via e-mail. "It now has a life of its own."

Not surprisingly, a major poetry prize does not necessarily allow a person to quit his day job. After his recent East Coast tour, Streckfus went back to work as publicist and head writer for the San Francisco Art Institute, a position he has held since 2001. The school has been supportive, he says, and has granted him time off to give readings. Balancing poetry and work is nothing new for him. A San Antonio native, Streckfus moved after college to Port Angeles, Washington, where he spent two years as an apprentice organic farmer, working four days a week and writing poems the other three. During this time many of the poems that became The Cuckoo took root. He continued to live and work on another organic farm during his time in the poetry MFA program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. (He even thanks the two farms in his acknowledgements.) It's clear from his poetry that he has spent many hours quietly observing the natural world.

The Cuckoo is a deceptively slim volume that is both exhilarating and frustratingly dense. Take for example "The Organum," a ten-part poem cycle that closes the book. Streckfus assembled "Organum" mostly from phrases borrowed from two historical sources: Journey To The West, an anonymously written 16th Century Chinese novel that details a monk's travels to India and back; and The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman, an 1875 travelogue about a very different westward journey. Streckfus also hides an acrostic word puzzle in the first letters of each line, so that all ten poems together spell out "The Organum" (Latin for "instrument"). In its maddening intricacy The Cuckoo also hides poems such as "As in Bedtime For Bonzo" which reads, in its entirety,

"The cuckoo drops its eggs in another's nest."

Sometimes it feels Streckfus writes in koans, the elaborate but unsolvable riddles Buddhists use for meditation. "Although I had much of the work published in journals, as a whole, it was a private object," Streckfus says when asked about his work's accessibility. "Now it's yours to consider."

Or, as he puts it in the last line of "After Words":

"I'll speak nonsense. You speak truth. We'll see what comes of it."

With spare language, Streckfus paints vivid images of journeys both real and imaginary: Chinese monks on an endless pilgrimage, settlers in the American West struggling to make sense of the natives, characters such as Ronald Reagan and Streckfus himself in search of unclear goals.

The Cuckoo's ultimate mythological traveler is the reader, who if willing to stretch imaginatively and intellectually, will be changed more by the journey than by any particular destination. Those looking for a truly transformative experience should block out a few afternoons, find a good encyclopedia, and keep in mind Streckfus's final lines in "The Frontier":

"As it was, it was to be a long and arduous voyage/
(on which the persevering reader, if he so chooses,/
may accompany him)..."