Ordinary Miracles: Creating While Sheltering Part III

David Rosen dives into the world of Sonoma County Poet Laureates to discover how the pandemic has changed the way they study, read and write.

Vesta Copestakes, an amazing life!
Vesta Copestakes, an amazing life!

One of the joys of working on this column has been the freedom to connect with so many creative and inspired people throughout Sonoma County. And this month’s column is certainly no exception! But first I want to take a moment to share my heartfelt gratitude to Vesta Copestakes for giving me this opportunity. I know that so many of us wish her all the good stuff in this next chapter of an amazing life as she hands over her baby, The Gazette, to Sonoma Media.

Amie Windsor our new Publisher, a great human.
Amie Windsor our new Publisher, a great human.

The new Publisher, Amie Windsor, another great human who is very committed to maintaining Vesta’s legacy. Welcome aboard, Amie! May the pages turn to unfold wonderful new things for us all!

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CREATING WHILE SHELTERING — PART III

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

~T.S. Eliot

“A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of themselves and the world around them.”

~Dylan Thomas (with no apologies for demasculinizing the quote)

This “Creating While Sheltering” series has been a fantastic experience. Part I focused on singer/songwriters, Part II on visual artists—and now with Part III I wanted to explore how poets have responded to the pandemic. I had the honor of speaking with our current Sonoma County Poet Laureate Phyllis Meshulam as well her two predecessors, Maya Khosla and Iris Jamahl Dunkle.

The power, beauty, playfulness, mystery, sound and the sheer energy of words—the pulse, rhythm and flow—is near and dear to my heart. As a songwriter, I devote a great deal of attention to them. But, by choice, I am constricted to a tempo and a form. So it’s exhilarating for me to read the work of these fabulous poets who write any way and every way they choose. For example, Iris used to do computer programming back in the day and her first book actually has a poem that uses PERL, XML, HTML & DOS. My fellow geeks know these are coding languages—not usually associated with poetry. But as Iris said, “What is programming, but containers you can put around words to give them superpowers?!?”

https://www.creativesonoma.org/artist/maya-khosla

The pandemic has caused significant shifts in the way most of us go about our daily lives. But for these poets, it has actually provided more opportunities. Maya is not only a poet, she is also a Wildlife Biologist and filmmaker, so she most often works outside, which is not affected by the pandemic. “I can keep socially distant and maintain my contact with the environment, and that’s where the majority of my writing comes from.”

However, the timing of the pandemic definitely had an impact. Phyllis’ selection as the new Sonoma County Poet Laureate came just as Covid hit, so the traditional Sebastopol Center for the Arts reception had to go virtual ( see video below). Iris had just published a biography of Charmian Kittredge London where she tells a complete story of Charmian’s life, well beyond the shadow of being Jack London’s husband. She spent the last six years writing the book, only to have her major book launch and tour put on hold.

Announcing 2020-2022 Sonoma County Poets Laureate

The Sonoma County Poet Laureate Selection Committee is proud to announce that Phyllis Meshulam has been named Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022 from a field of four gifted and well qualified finalists. Her term runs from April, 2020 through March, 2022. Full entry: https://sebarts.org/poet-laureate/

A poem by Phyllis Meshulam on the Pandemic

“I’m With Stinky,”

the tee-shirt read.

My mother was appalled.

“Why would one put

such a thing upon a child?”

I was older than a child when

an impromptu palm reader

told me my intuition

line did not exist.

Intuition / indecision – Always was

good at the latter, bad at the former.

In these [fill in your own hyperbolic

adjective] times, when the family

of the familiar is estranged,

I’m cultivating a new companion –

Instinct.

I call her “Stinky.”

I ask, “What say you, Stinky?

Shall we, or no?”

She nods, shakes or nudges.

I’m with her.

But the pandemic did provide more opportunities to write—and to read. At the beginning of the pandemic, Iris just could not focus enough to read novels, so she began binging on poetry books, and was able to support her friends and colleagues by reading their new work—as well as being exposed to poets she may not have read otherwise.

All three are active in virtual writing groups. Maya’s group is now meeting weekly rather than monthly and “doing a lot more freewriting...It’s amazing and interesting, it’s changed the dynamic of the group, and we’re all in our inner-spaces being much more productive.” Phyllis’ and Iris’ groups stayed active during the first couple of months, writing a Poem A Day, but as the weight of the pandemic began to hit, and we all began to slowly realize how big this was, the poets’ groups also had a month or two of “being overwhelmed, eating cookies and watching Netflix” (for me, I would add Ben & Jerry’s). But then their groups came together again and they began to, as Iris said, “write their way through it.” Phyllis is fond of Mary Oliver’s reminder to make regular appointments with your muse, or else they will feel jilted and may not show up when you need them...

https://norcalpublicmedia.org/video/shelter-in-poetry/shelter-in-poetry

Shelter in Poetry Lesson 1 with Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Poet Laureate Emerita - click link above the image  for video of this fascinating lesson in poetry and the evocation of sounds of nature through words.
Shelter in Poetry Lesson 1 with Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Poet Laureate Emerita - click link above the image for video of this fascinating lesson in poetry and the evocation of sounds of nature through words.

Sheltering in place has also caused a definite shift in the content of what our Poet Laureates—and their students—have been writing. Iris teaches Creative Writing at Napa Valley College, and she was able to guide and watch her students process the pandemic. “It was probably the most intimate workshop I have ever had”. Because of everyone being so isolated, she adapted the course materials to provide an opportunity to come together in community via Zoom and began to help the class focus on historical readings about past plagues for context, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, and on reading a wealth of African American poets.

To do in-service training this fall for classroom teachers around the county Phyllis recorded a video lesson plan to help, The “I Am” Lesson, both in English and in Spanish.
To do in-service training this fall for classroom teachers around the county Phyllis recorded a video lesson plan to help, The “I Am” Lesson, both in English and in Spanish.

Phyllis teaches at Monroe Elementary and part of her Poet Laureate proposal was to do in-service training this fall for classroom teachers around the county. But she soon recognized that they had so much to handle already that she recorded a video lesson plan to help, The “I Am” Lesson, which she recorded both in English and in Spanish:

English:

Spanish:

But how has the pandemic affected the content of what they write about? Maya: “I haven’t directly written about the pandemic, I’ll be honest. I’ve written more about fires & evacuations and the air quality... and also wildlife that are being impacted by our actions.” Iris had just finished working on the Charmian biography, so her focus had been much more outside of herself, and “I had to shift back into myself... It became more of an historic exploration of myself, and also an historic exploration of what women are going through in this time—an historic exploration of the cultural moment that we’re in...that sense of danger at all time.” The situation became so heightened that she was finally able to put on paper many of these feelings she had been having for years, as one Sonoma disaster piled on top of another. Phyllis felt a definite obligation to speak and write about these issues as part of her public position, but her main focus right now is the importance of the upcoming election, our shared adversity, a divisive world and our natural disasters.

This is Maya’s focus. “85% of fires nationwide and a vast majority in California are human ignition sources. The urgency of the climate change movement is upon us, and I can’t help being deeply impacted by it.” She has been writing extensively about her experiences documenting rampant clear-cutting and “a lot of people that are making a lot of very quick money trying to destroy live and dead trees... And it’s happening very fast.” Many don’t recognize that simply because a tree has a dead branch or two, that the entire tree is still quite alive. “So on one hand I’ve been out there enjoying the beauty and incredible bio-diversity of wild places after fire—and on the other hand, a lot of those places are very quickly being obliterated.” This work inspired a wonderful short film of her poem “Rejuvenation” (see above video). She is also one of the organizers of the Sonoma 2021 Climate Summit, which will be taking place via Zoom on Sunday January 10, 2021 from 2-5 pm. You can register for the free event here: SoCoCAN! [SonomaCountyCAN.org]

An Armstrong Woods ranger recently pointed out to her a “nurse log”, a term Maya had never heard before. It describes when a log falls down in the forest, and how much is growing off it, giving an incredible amount of life back while it is slowly disintegrating. There is often little understanding of how these “charcoal homes” are indeed still vital habitats for a wealth of living creatures, and she has begun a film project for Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods documenting the healing of Armstrong Redwoods.

And in her role as our current Poet Laureate, Phyllis has begun working on an anthology that will explore “obstacles we face in aligning our society with the needs of the planet as a whole and all its inhabitants”. You can check in on her monthly updates at her Poet Laureate Archive.

“A gift of these kinds of natural disasters is that it makes you have to adjust, and you realize how important your art form is to you.”

~Iris Jamahl Dunkle

“The pandemic is creating a writing evolution”, Iris told me. “I started writing completely different kinds of poems during the pandemic. It was a natural evolution because I had different kinds of information coming in.” It changed the way she was writing poetry, and it’s a very exciting way for her to evolve and change. “It’s a new way to think about my art. A gift of these kinds of natural disasters is that it makes you have to adjust, and you realize how important your art form is to you. I can’t function without writing, and it’s been such a gift to have that to carry me through this time.”

Feel free to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you! [David@OrdinaryMiracles.com]

David Rosen
David Rosen

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