Night of Poetry at Levan Center, Bakersfield College
The “movers and shakers” of poetry were together to read poems of nationally acclaimed poets at the Levan Center on February 16, 2017.
Each of the presenting local poets read a poem by another nationally known poet who was either born in the Central Valley or was a California native who grew up in the Central Valley.
Two of these nationally acclaimed poets were born in Bakersfield: Frank Bidart and Sherley Ann Williams. A third poet, Robert Duncan, began writing poetry as a teenager while living in Bakersfield.
The event was organized by Don Thompson, the current (and first-ever) Poet Laureate of Kern County. Thompson introduced the eight poets that presented.
Jack Hernandez, a poet and the Director of the Norman Levan Center for the Humanities, welcomed the audience.
A previous story, “Valley Poets February 16 at Levan Center,” was posted on this website Feb 12, 2017. There is additional information on the nationally acclaimed poets in this previous story.
The format of this story begins with a description of the local poet. Each poet was asked to comment on the poem that they had selected to read at the event. This story then presents the poem that was read, followed by a poem authored by the local poet.
Catherine Abbey Hodges presents William Everson.
Catherine Abbey Hodges, a California native, was the first presenter. Her poems have appeared widely including in the Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac. Her book Instead of Sadness was winner of the 2015 Barry Spacks Poetry Prize. In addition to her work as a poet, she teaches composition and literature at Porterville College.
Hodges chose to read “These Are the Ravens” by William Everson. Everson was also known as Father Antoninus. Hodges says that the poem “demonstrated two Everson quintessentials: his preoccupations with the natural world and with spirituality.” Hodges’ feels that preparing for the event was “a welcome excuse to indulge myself in learning about the life and work of a poet I’d only known by reputation, which is why I chose Everson. Reading poems, interviews, and prose of his alongside a nuanced biography expanded my knowledge and experience of our literary landscape.”
THESE ARE THE RAVENS
By William Everson
These are the ravens of my soul,
Sloping above the lonely fields
And cawing, cawing.
I have released them now,
And sent them wavering down the sky,
Learning the slow witchery of the wind,
And crying on the farthest fences of the world.
William Everson, “These are the Ravens” from The Residual Years.
HOW TO BEGIN
By Catherine Abbey Hodges:
Wipe the crumbs off the counter.
Find the foxtail in the ear of the old cat.
Work it free. Step into your ribcage.
Feel the draft of your heart’s doors
as they open and close. Hidden latches
cool in your hand.
Hear your marrow keep silence,
your blood sing. Finch-talk
in the bush outside the window.
You’re a small feather, winged seed, wisp
of cotton. Thread yourself
through a hole in the button on the sill.
You’re a strand of dark thread
stitching a word to a river. Then another.
Catherine Abbey Hodges, “How to Begin” from Instead of Sadness.
Matt Woodman presents Robert Duncan
Matt Woodman is an English professor at California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB). He hosts an annual Poetry Month reading every April at Stiern Library. Thompson says of Woodman, “he is an Orphic poet, deep in the mysteries of the craft.”
Woodman said that Duncan grew up in Bakersfield. He attended high school which became Bakersfield High. Woodman chose to read the poem “Poetry a Natural Thing” by Duncan. Woodman chose the poem because it was about poetry, “the writing process, finding inspiration, finding meaning.” There was “allusion to Stubbs, who painted a moose.” It was “nice to see connection between poetry and art.” In preparing for the presentation, Woodman read a lot of Duncan’s “interviews, to his speaking voice.” It was like getting to “know the poet, to meet a person.”
POETRY, A NATURAL THING
By Robert Duncan
Neither our voices nor our virtues
further the poem. “They came up
just like they do every year
on the rocks.”
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
To breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping
This beauty is an inner persistence
Toward the source
striving against (within) down-rushet of the river,
a call we heard and answer
in the lateness of the world
from which the youngest world might spring,
salmon not in the well where the
but at the falls battling, inarticulate,
blindly making it.
This is one picture apt for the mind,
A second: a moose painted by Stubbs
Where last year’s extravagant antlers
lie on the ground.
The forlorn moosey-face poem wears
“a little heavy, a little contrived”,
His only beauty to be
By stress and syllable
By change-rhyme and contour
We let the long line pace even awkward to its period.
The short line
and keep for candor.
This we remember:
Ember of the fire
catches the word if we but hear
(“We must understand what is happening”)
And springs to desire,
a bird-right light
This is the Yule-log that warms December.
This is new grass that springs from the ground.
Robert Duncan, “Poetry, a Natural Thing” from The Opening of the Field.
by Matt Woodman
In 1924 on the southside
of Nineteenth Street between Chester and Eye
the Pastime Theatre unveiled a sign
promoting the latest wise-guy
feature, but fourteen million years ago,
this was all a shallow saltwater sea
starring sea lion and shark, a dumbshow
one can excavate from Ant Hill to reel
in whale song, salt on the tongue, vertebrae
the temperature of sedimentary
Miocene siltstone, a fossil bouquet
the color of your slow trajectory
through anniversary sales and visits,
for glaucoma, to the optometrist.
Matt Woodman, “Optical Allusion” in https://matthewwoodman.com/2015/09/18/ekphrasis-pastime-theater/
LisaAnn LoBasso presents Frank Bidart
LisaAnn LoBasso is known for public readings throughout the nation. Thompson says of her poems that they are “powerful, often gritty poems.” LoBasso can be watched on YouTube. She is the author of poetry books, In the Swollen and Oleander Milkshake.
LoBasso discovered Bidart’s poetry while an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley. She was drawn to Bidart’s style and voice before she even knew he was from Bakersfield. LoBasso met Bidart in April 2010 at a poetry event in Bakersfield. She chose to present Bidart’s poem, “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” because it was just published in the New Yorker. It was also the “perfect poem that represents Bakersfield and speaks to the current social climate of our world today, and also speaks to the heart.”
MOURNING WHAT WE THOUGHT WE WERE
By Frank Bidart
We were born into an amazing experiment.
At least we thought we were. We knew there was no escaping human nature: my grandmother
taught me that: my own pitiless nature taught me that: but we exist inside an order, I
thought, of which history is the mere shadow—
Every serious work of art about America has the same theme: America
is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired.
Bakersfield. Marian Anderson, the first great black classical contralto, whom the Daughters of the American Revolution
would not allow to sing in an unsegregated
Constitution Hall, who then was asked by Eleanor Roosevelt to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before thousands
was refused a room at the Padre Hotel, Bakersfield.
My mother’s disgust as she told me this. It confirmed her judgment about
what she never could escape, where she lived out her life.
My grandmother’s fury when, at the age of seven or eight, I had eaten at the home of a black friend.
The forced camps at the end of The Grapes of Wrath were outside
Bakersfield. When I was a kid, Okie
was still a common term of casual derision and contempt.
So it was up to us, born in Bakersfield, to carve a new history
of which history is the mere shadow—
To further the history of the spirit is our work:
therefore thank you, Lord Whose Bounty Proceeds by Paradox,
for showing us we have failed to change.
Dark night, December 1st 2016.
White supremacists, once again in America, are acceptable, respectable. America!
Bakersfield was first swamp, then desert. We are sons of the desert who cultivate the top half-inch of soil.
Frank Bidart, “Mourning What We Were” in The New Yorker, Jan 23, 2017.
By LisaAnn LoBasso
It’s 11:14pm, the night before you will wed
The rehearsal dinner just ending, we slipped out
hours early, for the needs
of our abandoned bear
scratches on her head
The girls henna and polish, scrub and thread
The black and white flashdrive missing
No, no, not in the hole
of my coral cross-body bag
It’s the final hour
The sweet short poem I was to read is tossing back
a nightcap with the flashdrive
I scour the world wide web for something to
capture a moment, a poet’s perfected ppppp
(But) there is no alliteration for marriage
I know I should be writing your wedding poem
But I don’t write poetry anymore
I read Sharon Olds
holding each other by the hand, yet I also
stood as if alone, for a moment,
just before the vow…
…I felt the silent, dry, drying ghost of my
parents’ marriage there…
one of the plummeting flies…
I’m zombie-ing through, you
insert yourself to claim a promise
set into motion more than two decades ago
Two weeks, only my back to you
as wedding moments whisk
I remember my apartment in Rockridge, 18, before you
As your Grandma and Grandpa set me out on my own
I remember my mother’s back
My father scolding
“Look what you’ve done now”
Stuck in the transition, I think liar,
my mother doesn’t cry
But, I edge around her
and I see
Today is your third marriage
I should be practiced for this rehearsal, but
Leanardo never took you from the sinking ship
or my arms, when you confessed your love,
kissing the television
It was a marriage of sweet spirit
the storyline already laid out
Number 2 was simple too
your sister’s secret elopement with you
never made the newspapers
Or the scandal rags
It was a marriage of fantasy
sisters as close as hands and feet
Today, this marriage,
your third marriage
is all about reality
That you would rather share a coke
With him, than anyone
Mothers do not walk brides down aisles
lift veils, or shake hands
Letting go is in the grace
It’s a love like sugarloaf pines
High on the moantian
you stand to the left, my baby, pewter eyes
tradition signaling marriage by capture,
your groom saving his fighting hand
to pick up the reigns, protect you
Weddings are the same everywhere,
families, complaints, promises,
reverie we can forget without the camera click
A few moments stick
Like Sirius XM calls
traditions disturbed by music
salesmen dropping uninvited
into this intimate moment
Your groom is quite sure
“No, no, I do not want to renew my service.”
Inconvenient rings magnifying. Freezing.
This is one of those stone moments
But hold them, don’t throw them
My father once said I will wed many times
I say, let the third be your last, my doll
My mother says: What,
no chocolate cake?
Fluffy promises of a covert cake operation.
My eyelashes fall off. I say
Let them not eat cake!
–completed 2:21 am May 15. 2015
© LisaAnn LoBasso, “Third Marriage”
Annis Cassells presents Sherley Ann Williams
Annis Cassells is a poet, life coach and speaker, and an officer of the Writers of Kern. She is the “go-to writer” for poetry matters for this organization.
Cassells chose Sherley Ann Williams’ poem, “If he let us go now,” from the Peacock Poems. Cassells chose this poem because of the “Black language.” The poem was also from Williams’ as she was a single mother. When Cassells was preparing read a poem of Williams, she at first felt that it was “a little daunting”. Williams had written so much. Cassells said that Williams “wrote children’s books, a play, historical fiction novel. She was getting ready to write a sequel to the historical novel” when Williams died at age of 55.
If he let us go now
By Sherley Anne Williams
let me strap
the baby in the seat, just don’t say
nothin all that while . . .
I move round to
the driver side of the car. The air
warm and dry here. Lawd know what it be
in L.A. He open the door for me
and I slide behind the wheel. Baby
facin me lookin without even
blinkin his eye. I wonder if he
know I’m his mamma that I love him
that that his daddy by the door (and
he won’t let us go; he still got time
to say wait. Baby blink once but
he only five week old and whatever
he know don’t show.
His daddy call
my name and I turn to him and wait.
It be cold in the Grapevine at night
this time of year. Wind come whistling down
through them mountains almost blow this old
VW off the road. I’ll be in
touch he say. Say, take care; say, write if
you need somethin.
I will him to touch
us now, to take care us, to know what
we need is him and his name. He slap
the car door, say, drive careful and turn
to go. If he let us go now . . . how
we gon ever take him back? I ease
out on the clutch, mash in on the gas.
The only answer I get is his back.
~ Sherley Anne Williams. The Peacock Poems, p. 15, 1975
By Annis Cassells
What kinda talk is that
My mother’s moon-wide hazel eyes shine
harsh light on my unacceptable grammar
We don’t say ain’t in this house
It’s That’s not right
And I don’t have any
I yearned to please
Learned the code
Knew when not to say Ain’t got no
And when to talk proper
Learned double negatives negate
Tacked on the i-n-g’s
Precise, equalizing speech
a life-long saleable commodity
She talk white
Like a col-lidge gurrl
She think she bettah den us
©Annis Cassells. 2015. All rights reserved. “Talk” first published in Yellow Chair Review 2015 Anthology.
Marit MacArthur presents Kay Ryan
Marit MacArthur is a professor of English at California State University at Bakersfiels. She hosts poetry readings on the campus. Her poems and translations from the Polish have appeared in Southwest Review, Leveler, Front Porch.
MacArthur chose to read a poem by Kay Ryan, “A Certain Meanness of Culture.” It was the first poem that MacArthur read of a poem by Ryan. MacArthur wrote by email that “in the Central Valley and many rural areas, there is a perceived lack of culture, or a sense of cultural inferiority. And Ryan has a keen awareness of that, and plays with it” in the poem.
A CERTAIN MEANNESS OF CULTURE
By Kay Ryan
What else can we do,
born on deserts
by borax traders
aspiring to a
if they’re real lucky?
Someone has to get here
before the mythology,
to be happy in the
first tailings of industry,
and of course lonely
and susceptible to
the opinions of donkeys
since donkeys are the
main company out here
among the claims.
Snakes and wild things
skitter off too fast
You can get an appreciation
You can get an appreciation
for why a donkey is
fussy about books
since she has to carry them.
You start to value culture
like you would water. . . .
. . . And when
you dream, it’s not romance.
Things are too thin
out here already to chance
sad endings. You get
pretty stringy and impatient
with the fat smoke off
old cities. You get cranky
and admire just what stands up
to the stars’ cold and the
sun’s fire. You like winches
and pulley’s, picks and khakis,
and the rare sweet grass you can
find for your donkey.
Kay Ryan, “A Certain Meanness of Culture”
Standing Female Dignitary (Hillary Clinton) in the Form of a Pre-Columbian Whistle
By Marit MacArthur
From the outposts
of Lovemaking and Motherhood
she advanced, a vessel
worked into the desired form.
No slenderness to the waist,
her feet are gone beneath
the long heavy dress of terracotta
stitched with nails.
Slack chin, hawk nose, high
cheekbones, eyes half-closed
in an easy smile, all
beneath a uniform
A giant brooch clasps the cape
to draw the eye away from
spent breasts. She’ll ring if lightly
struck, her iron-rich reds
oxidizing blue, hands held up
in supplication or defense.
Visible from the crowd, giant spiral
earrings match the coiled headdress,
itself the mouth-piece of the whistle,
her hollow body the resonant chamber.
Puffs of air split by the fipple
pierce the composure of the other
dignitaries, who all outrank her so far.
After the strictly ceremonial
peace talks, she follows them
back to the palace.
Marit MacArthur, “Standing Female Dignitary (Hillary Clinton) in the Form of a Pre-Columbian Whistle” from Southern Pacific Review
Don Thompson presents Larry Levis
Don Thompson is the current Poet Laureate of Kern County. Thompson was born in Bakersfield. On his website, Thompson states that he has lived most of his ife in southern San Joaquin Valley, “the setting for most of his poems.” He lives on a farm that has been in his wife’s family for generations.
Thompson says that Larry Levis “is a poets’ poet. . . because of that fire-in-the- belly evidence of authenticity.” Thompson says of Levis, “elegiac is the word most often associated with his mature work, often also nostalgic in an unsentimental way for our Valley and life on his father’s farm.” Levis was born on a family farm near Selma, CA.
In preparing for the event, Thompson says that “reading Levis is like sitting with him in a backyard on a Valley summer evening with a few beers, listening as he lets his imagination run free.”
THE OLDEST LIVING THING IN L.A.
By Larry Levis
At Wilshire & Santa Monica I saw an opossum
Trying to cross the street. It was late, the street
Was brightly lit, the opossum would take
A few steps forward, then back away from the breath
Of moving traffic. People coming out of the bars
Would approach, as if to help it somehow.
It would lift its black lips & show them
The reddened gums, the long rows of incisors,
Teeth that went all the way back beyond
The flames of Troy & Carthage, beyond sheep
Grazing rock-strewn hills, fragments of ruins
In the grass at San Vitale. It would back away
Delicately & smoothly, stepping carefully
As it always had. It could mangle someone’s hand
In twenty seconds. Mangle it for good. It could
Sever it completely from the wrist in forty.
There was nothing to be done for it. Someone
Or other probably called the LAPD, who then
Called Animal Control, who woke a driver, who
Then dressed in mailed gloves, the kind of thing
Small knights once wore into battle, who gathered
Together his pole with a noose on the end,
A light steel net to snare it with, someone who hoped
The thing would have vanished by the time he got there.
Larry Levis, “The Oldest Living Thing in L.A.” from Elegy. Copyright © 1997 by Larry Levis.
WHERE WE LIVE
By Don Thompson
Nocturnal creatures must teach their young
to be heard and not seen.
Coyotes yip to the east of us
and to the west, frogs beat their drums.
Somewhere to the south, a bird calls—
two thin, falling syllables
in a language we’ll never know,
except for rough translations into loneliness.
Where we live, you have to listen hard
through cricket static to hear yourself think.
I like that. For once,
everything human has to shut up and sit still.
You can’t even hear the traffic on I5,
only a few miles to the northeast,
where big rigs drift by like ghosts with lanterns
trapped in a long, dark hallway.
Don Thompson, “Where We Live”, from Where We Live and www.don-e-thompson.com
Diana Ramirez presents Juan Felipe Herrera
Diana Ramirez’s primary work is as a Community Outreach Coordinator at Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) of Kern County. She recently organized “Words Come to Life.” This event included art inspired by poetry, the performance of poetry and live music.
Ramirez recited a poem of Juan Felipe Herrera, the national Poet Laureate.
She chose the poem “Half-Mexican.” Ramirez said the “title drew me.” As she kept reading the poem, she found that the poem was very different, “there was so many references to the past.” She said that as she recited the poem at home, she became “more connected with the poem.”
Ramirez said that she felt “excited and nervous” preparing to present at the event. She “had not recited another poet’s poem . . . to recite the poem and be respectful. The more I read the poem, I felt okay reciting it.”
By Juan Felipe Herrera
Odd to be a half-Mexican, let me put it this way
I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the question of the half
To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing
One could say only Mexican
Then think of pyramids – obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with
Flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts – these are not Mexican
They are existences, that is to say
Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum
Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees
What is the other – yes
It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles
European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect
Better to think of Kant in his tiny room
Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time
Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation
Concerning the way light bends – all this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half-being
How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your life-long project, that is
You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half
Mexican, then the half against itself.
Juan Felipe Herrera, “Half-Mexican”
By Diana Ramirez
When’s the last time you went to sleep,
Hoping never to wake up,
To remain corrupt,
in this nightmare,
A nightmare called life.
In my dreams I am magic,
Coloring clouds in the sky,
The rain still exists,
It paints passion on my lips,
Faded in red I fly,
Descending into a world
Where love never mends,
Scattered in the ocean floor,
Dive into the blue,
Seek what you never thought to be true,
Committed to forever,
Forever lost in foreign lands,
And when I seemed confused,
It was in the starved desert I would stand,
On a search for beauty
That would blossom
From the sands,
Moonlight at my feet,
Sounds of the night is all I see,
share in my dream,
Revel in it,
Shine in the dark,
Days and nights know nothing of time,
And pain and sorrow are strangers in my heart,
Bliss lives in the air,
And I’m not scared
To never be discovered,
As I discover my own journey
Where my poems will unfold,
And my life will be told,
Unlike my nightmares,
And more like my dreams.
Diana Ramirez, “Dream”
Portia Choi presents David St. John
Portia Choi is described as “Impresario of Poetry in Bakersfield” by Don Thompson. Choi maintains the Kern Poetry website and hosts the monthly First Friday Open Mic, at Dagny’s Coffee House at 6:00 pm. She says that she “promotes poets and poetry.”
Choi read a poem by David St. John. He was born in Fresno. He is currently the Chair of English at the University of Southern California, where he teaches the PhD Program in Creative Writing and Literature.
Choi recited a poem “Hush” by David St. John. She was deeply moved by the depth of emotion of St. John for the child that he had lost. She immediately connected with the
“Chippewa woman” in the poem. Choi felt a connection to the poem as she had written a poem about her own doll, Oaksun.
By David St. John
for my son
The way a tired Chippewa woman
Who’s lost a child gathers up black feathers,
Black quills & leaves
That she wraps & swaddles in a little bale, a shag
Cocoon she carries with her & speaks to always
As if it were the child,
Until she knows the soul has grown fat & clever,
That the child can find its own way at last;
Well, I go everywhere
Picking the dust out of the dust, scraping the breezes
Up off the floor, & gather them into a doll
Of you, to touch at the nape of the neck, to slip
Under my shirt like a rag—the way
Another man’s wallet rides above his heart. As you
Cry out, as if calling to a father you conjure
In the paling light, the voice rises, instead, in me.
Nothing stops it, the crying. Not the clove of moon,
Not the woman raking my back with her words. Our letters
Close. Sometimes, you ask
About the world; sometimes, I answer back. Nights
Return you to me for a while, as sleep returns sleep
To a landscape ravaged
& familiar. The dark watermark of your absence, a hush.
David St. John, “Hush” in Hush
Oaksun, My Doll
by Portia Choi
Oaksun, you are my love,
you make me smile
Oaksun, my dear Oaksun,
dressed in silk stripes of grass green, tomato red,
butterfly yellow, and sky blue.
Your slip sewn together of tattered, thrown-away clothes.
I find a torn piece of red balloon among pebbles and dirt near the chain fence.
I suck a circle into my mouth, out pops a rounded, shiny ball.
My teeth rub back and forth, squeaking the rubber.
For you, Oaksun, your balloon.
I am your mother, Oaksun.
I will protect and hide you from the soldiers.
I will look for you, so you cannot see the shattered arms.
I will cuddle you to sleep, so you cannot hear the cries.
I protect you.
You know Oaksun, I am frightened of the night.
I think that dying man may grab for you in the dark.
I will hide you.
Oaksun, no one will take you from me.
I feed you a kernel or two of rice. I find one stuck on your cheek.
Just a kernel dried from yesterday’s dinner.
You are very lucky, Oaksun, having rice two days in a row.
You are very smart too, saving one for tomorrow.
Yes, Oaksun, who knows when we will eat again?
The sun is out. There is clover among the grass, Oaksun.
See, I made a bracelet for you and a ring for me,
the white crescent flowers and the three leaves playing together.
I toss you up in the sky. You fall face down in my palms.
I toss you again, you fall with your back down.
Fly higher and higher, Oaksun.
You are with me and I am with you.
I am your mother. Oaksun, my love, my doll.
Portia Choi, “Oaksun, My Doll” in Sungsook.
Don Thompson presents Gary Soto
Don Thompson presented Gary Soto on behalf of another presenter who was unable to attend the event.
Thompson said that he “once read with Soto at the old Cody’s Book Store just off the UC Berkeley campus. It was 1978.”
Thompson said that Soto was born and raised in the Fresno Barrio. Soto’s father died when he was five. Soto and his siblings worked in the fields to support the family. Soto eventually became a professor at Berkeley.
Thompson chose to read “The Drought” by Soto. It was an early work that “has been most important to me” said Thompson.
By Gary Soto
The clouds shouldered a path up the mountains
East of Ocampo, and then descended,
Scraping their bellies gray on the cracked shingles of slate.
They entered the valley, and passed the roads that went
Trackless, the houses blown open, their cellars creaking
And lined with the bottles that held their breath for years.
They passed the fields where the trees dried thin as hat racks
And the plow’s tooth bit the earth for what endured.
But what continued were the wind that plucked the birds spinless
And the young who left with a few seeds in each pocket,
Their belts tightened on the fifth notch of hunger—
Under the sky that deafened from listening for rain.
Gary Soto, “The Drought” in The Tale of Sunlight
By Don Thompson
A lost tribe of tumbleweeds
crosses the road
a half mile or so ahead of me,
while little ones hustle to keep up.
They’re uprooted, or course,
subject to the wind’s whims,
and could end anywhere—
maybe against a fence
to be gathered and burned by farm hands.
I know that …
But they seem so cheerful,
confidant and in control,
as if pulling the wind behind them
caught on thousands of tiny hooks.
Don Thompson, “Tumbleweeds” in Everything Barren Will Be Blessed