Elizabeth Herron: Sonoma County’s Poet Laureate with a place at the table
Elizabeth Herron, Sonoma County’s new poet laureate, would rather talk about the “Being Brave Poetry Project” than talk about herself. That’s understandable. Over the past half century during which she has been writing and performing poetry – she’s a brilliant performance poet—she has not made herself the center of attention. Still, as the new poet laureate, she’s now in the eye of the public and so she has agreed to talk about herself for The Gazette. In the process of revealing aspects of her life, her past and her present, she wanders forward and backward in time, changes directions, but always keeps her focus on poets and poetry.
Born in Chicago, she moved around a great deal with her family and experienced upheavals until she, her siblings and their parents settled in Hawaii where she was outdoors more often than indoors and where most of her family lives today. “Mother Nature was always my source of security and comfort,” she says. Her parents introduced her to the poetry of Robert Frost, Edna St Vincent Millay and Lewis Carroll. “The sounds, the rhythms and the music of the language caught me,” she says.
After she graduated from high school, Herron attended the University of Hawaii, and, after moving to San Francisco, she earned an M.A. at San Francisco State University. Later, she studied biopoetics, focusing on empathy and the origins of aesthetic behavior. She received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University for Integrative Learning, a distance learning program founded by graduates of the Harvard School of Education.
Her life and her work changed decisively when she traveled across the Golden Gate Bridge, settled in Sonoma County and discovered Sonoma Mountain and the Sonoma Coast, two landscapes to which she feels deeply connected. “Sonoma County has always been a hotbed of poets,” she says. “That’s a big reason I ended up here.” Sonoma’s seasons touched her deeply and affected her writing. They still do. “Usually I write very little during the summer, which is such an extroverted time,” she says. “I write more when people are out less. Now, I miss the rain terribly and the long drought makes me avoid the creeks because it’s so sad to see them dry.”
For years, Herron taught at Sonoma State University, wrote and published poetry and fiction and kept her eyes on environmental disasters and global climate change. “The vastness of The Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on Mar. 24, 1989, freaked me out,” she says.
Then two years later came the Southern Pacific train accident at Dunsmuir, Calif. when railroad tank cars spilled 19,000 gallons of the soil fumigant metam sodium into the Sacramento River. More than one million fish were killed, thousands of trees died along a 41-mile stretch of the river and dozens of citizens showed up at local hospitals with a variety of illnesses. “I knew I had to go up there and bear witness,” Herron says. “Everything that had once been alive along the Sacramento, between Dunsmuir and Lake Shasta, was wiped out. I wrote about what I saw: lifeless water, dead fish, seared trees and dead animals feeding off the dead fish. For over a decade after that my work focused on wild fish and watershed health.”
Then soon afterward, the Society for Conservation Biology (founded by E. O Wilson) released a statement that said climate warming was the greatest threat to all species. “That shifted my attention again,” Herron says. “If wasn’t just wild fish. All species were at risk because of global climate change.”
Decades later, Herron continues to monitor environmental disasters, and keeps an eye on global and local climate change. These days, she writes what might be called “contemporary nature poetry.” She thinks that poetry, perhaps more than ever before in recent times, has a lot to say to readers and environmentalists. “Somehow poetry among all the arts has caught the attention of the public,” she says. “Amanda Gorman, rap, and poetry from the ground up have given people the sense that verse isn’t just for the literati, isn’t just for academics. There’s a healthy interest in the way that language can speak to our own experiences.”
In her new role as poet laureate, Herron would like to seize the time, and offer workshops in the “Being Brave Poetry Project.” “I’m thinking I can get folks to write about how they see courage,” she says. “Courage at every level, from risking failure to admiration of courage in people like Ukraine’s Volodomyr Zalensky and Cassidy Hutchinson testifying before the Jan. 6 hearings.” She adds, “Or maybe the poem is about the failure to be courageous. We need more conversations about values.”
Meanwhile, she’s courageously aiming to publish two complete chapbooks that are collections of what she calls “persona poems” that she likes very much and that she also describes as “step-children.” They have not yet found homes. As always, Herron is hopeful. “The biggest positive shift I see now is in the valuation of indigenous science. All too often, in the history of American culture and American literature there wasn’t a place for native American writers. But now the public is reading differently, and writers with the wisdom of generations are finding a place at the table.”
Now, too, Herron has a place in Sonoma County at the table for poetry and courage. It’s a place she will use wisely to expand our conversations about values, about writing and about the landscape we call home.