Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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A Poetic Happy New Year to Us All

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The dawn of a new year brings the best and the worst: promise of new beginnings, anguish over old endings.  Great new ideas to nurture, bad old ideas to quash. The new year’s plans, the old year’s mistakes. And, then of course, there are those pesky resolutions.

How about — as opposed to New Year’s resolutions — a little irresolution for 2016? The talented singer/songwriter Michelle Krell apparently turns to poetry from time to time. This rumination on life and time was enclosed with her holiday letter. It is presented below, with her permission, as a New Year’s gift to readers: the procrastinators, the disorganized, the well-intentioned, God bless us every one.

THE BACKLOG

Youth has no unfinished projects

No half-written melodies

No scribbled first lines of a musical comedy starring somebody famous

No first pencil sketch for a rolling 19th century landscape in oils

No first brushstrokes for a portrait, you know, a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa

No evenly-spaced staff lines mapped out with hundreds of tiny sixteenth-notes in pencil, some crossed out

No shoeboxes with unsorted glass beads on broken strings

No velvet bag of unrepaired, unmatched earrings, some plastic, from the 1970s

No shelves of unread books

No socks needing to be matched with mates missing for 9 years or more

No basket of mending from when your aunt was alive, you got it when you cleared out her house

No collection of spools of thread from the ‘30s from the same aunt, the thread permanently, hopelessly tangled

No boxes of unsorted photos from decades of family reunions

No garden that has had no improvements since you bought the house 20 years ago

No roses that are far past their lifetime and needed to be dug up long ago

No battered and faded curtains that would dissolve if washed; and why are they still up?

No seed of a book of poetry in which poems have been re-written until they stopped breathing

No undated lists of good intentions on wide-ruled binder paper

No itemized plans for rearranging small possessions that can now not be found

No single favorite patent leather shoe that knows the mystery of its lost mate, but will not tell

No collection of old toothbrushes that have a use which will reveal itself someday

No half-begun intricate stencil decoration across the upper wall of the baby’s room; he now has a family and lives in Toledo

No splintered and rusted garden shed that would look like Sunset Magazine, or could perhaps…

No pile of gravel overcome with weeds—the beginnings of an elaborate walkway through what are now rusted garden benches next to a ghost of a trellis for grapevines that never climbed anywhere

There are no grapes and no hint of a garden path

But—there could be…

Money, media and Emily Dickinson

You always want your own kid to be #1. Best all round.

So of course I bet on True/Slant having gotten its name, in part at least, from Emily Dickinson. True: the celebrities, literary and otherwise, who most frequently pop up on these pages are more 21st century than 19th. Can Emily hold her own amid the likes of Rima Fakih, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga? (These fellow femmes come from assorted recent True/Slant pages, this good site not yet having a Literature section.) Slant: I suspect she can hold her own against Elena Kagan or Sarah Palin, any day.

The good husband and I attended an interesting play over the weekend, Tell It Slant, a Southside Theater production of a play by Sharmon J. Hilfinger and composer Joan McMillen at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. It tells, with both truth and slant, the story of young Emily. Was she gay? Did she have a secret lover? Did sister-in-law/romantic interest Susan go running off having abortions after she married brother Austin? You’ll have to read a biography or two, and you still may only gain a slant. What IS true is that one of the extraordinary poems penned by the Amherst recluse reads as follows:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

This occasion (dinner and a play) came at the instigation of our erudite physician friend Bob Liner. He says of course the subliminal reference to ‘Tell it Slant’ was intentional when T/S settled on its name. Far more cynical husband says, nahh, it’s a matter of reported news always having a slant, and T/S pursues the true one. I weigh in on the lofty hope of such a connection — this being the closest I’m ever likely to come to Emily Dickinson despite my A in poetry while  pursuing an MFA at the University of San Francisco.

Alas. Pure coincidence say the esteemed editors. But in the Sunday New York Times Magazine article in which writer Andrew Rice extensively quotes T/S founder Lewis Dvorkin I read that the name was picked “off a list of compound words that were made up by a Web developer.”

Now if I can just track down that Web developer. Surely she was a fan of Emily Dickinson.