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Don Thompson

Kern County Poet Laureate Don Thompson speaks at Writers of Kern

Story by Portia Choi

Photos by Greg D. Cook

Don Thompson, the Kern County’s first-ever Poet Laureate, spoke at the Writers of Kern (WOK) meeting on November 19, 2016.  Thompson has written about Kern County for over 50 years in his poems.  He was born in Bakersfield, went to Bakersfield High School.  He currently lives in Buttonwillow with his wife Chris on a cotton farm that Chris’ family has had for over four generations.  During the six decades, Thompson has published fourteen books and chapbooks of poetry, a number of e-books and in hundreds of journals, too many to recall, his website is http://www.don-e-thompson.com/.

At the meeting, Joan Raymond, the president of WOK, was asked why Don Thompson was asked to speak to the group. “Because we have poets in WOK, I wanted to expose them to an accomplished and recognized poet like Thompson. He has written, been rejected, and been published.” Raymond thought Thompson would encourage writers knowing “if they have a dream of writing poetry, they can accomplish that dream.”

And Thompson accomplished what Raymond wanted.  During his talk, he encouraged the members of WOK to write poems and publish them as a chapbook.  Such collection of a poems can make a “sweet” gift for one’s family and friends.  He had that “this is the golden age of small presses.”  He said due to computers, there is Print on Demand (POD) and now writers are no longer “stuck on New York (publishers) anymore.”  He described a chapbook which is small and inexpensive with about twenty to forty poems.  Thompson described his experience with chapbook from the first one in “1959, maybe 1960” to the most recent ones published in 2016.  He displayed the cover of the one of the two chapbooks published in 2016, “A Journal of the Drought Year.”  He liked the colors in the cover and the design; it was created by his high school friend.

Then Thompson gave further encouragement to the writers.  He said the one word to remember is “perseverance, to never give up.”  He has been known rejection.  His chapbook, Where We Live, was rejected twenty-five times before it was accepted for publication.  He advised the poets in the group to submit all the time and to have “five out there all the time; within twenty-four hours of rejection, send it (the poem) out.”  He writes and wrote poems; he may keep 25 out of 125 poems he had written.

The announcement of Thompson as the first poet laureate of Kern County was made in March 2016 by the sponsoring organization, The Arts Council of Kern County.

There is a long history of a poet laureate. Information on the history of the poet laureate was found in the internet source, Wikipedia.  “In ancient Greece, the laurel was used to form a crown or wreath of honor for poets and heroes. . . As the concept of the poet laureate has spread, the term ‘laureate’ has come in English to signify recognition for preeminence or superlative achievement.  As a royal degree in rhetoric, poet laureate was awarded at European universities in the Middle Ages. The term might also refer to the holder of such a degree, which recognized skill in rhetoric, grammar and language.”  Upon further search on the internet, Wikipedia stated “The United States Library of Congress appointed a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1984. An Act of Congress changed the name in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. . . Juan Felipe Herrera is the current laureate.”  (Juan Felipe Herrera is from the Central Valley, and was born in Fowler, California in 1948.)  Regarding the California Poet Laureate, Wikipedia stated that “in 2001, Governor Gray Davis created the official position. Each poet laureate for the State of California is appointed by the Governor of California for a term of two years and must be confirmed by the senate. Previous to Governor Davis’ action in creating the position, the title was unofficial and the position was held for life. The program is run by the California Arts Council.”  The current California Poet, Dana Gioia, “was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown on December 4, 2015.”

According to Annis Cassells, a board member of Writers of Kern, the poet laureate is a poet connected to an area or group who is chosen as a representative that keeps the fire of poetry alive as a literary art. The poet laureate teaches and encourages, writes and shares his own work, and promotes the appreciation of poetry throughout the region.  The Kern County poet laureate will be a recognized poet/spoken word artist with a proven history of substantial publication of individual poems or books and will demonstrate an appreciation for Kern County.

Toward the end of his talk, Thompson read very movingly from his many poetry chapbooks.  From the poems he read, following are examples from two of the poems:

“Where We Live” (from Where We Live)

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.

 

 

Time (an excerpt from Turning Sixty)

It takes hours to make ice cream, a few minutes to make love,

seconds to die, though sometimes months, a long hard night to

be born,

just a heartbeat to get your heart broken and a lifetime for it to mend. . . . .

 

Everything takes time.  Everything.  And the time it takes is

never enough,

not to appreciate its iridescence before the rainbow vanishes

with a flick of fins,

not to hold the newborn before she slips through your fingers

Into her own life;

never enough time to slice hot bread, butter it, and watch the

butter melt,

not to better your odds against the house or hacksaw your

shackles

without getting caught because you had to stop for a smoke.

 

How could there be enough?  Even if you had eons like a rock,

geological time, you’d still want more when it ran out—

more life, more love, more homemade ice cream.

 

 

After his talk, Don Thompson had his book and chapbooks for sale.  All the proceeds were donated by Thompson to the Gary Sinise Foundation, an actor.  The foundation’s mission is:

At the Gary Sinise Foundation, we serve our nation by
honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders,
their families, and those in need.

We do this by creating and supporting unique
programs designed to entertain, educate,
inspire, strengthen, and build communities.

Don Thompson first Poet Laureate of Kern County

 

 

Photos by Martin Chang

    In 2016, Don Thompson was selected as the first Poet Laureate of Kern County.  Thompson has written poems about Kern County for fifty years.  He is prolific in his publication, of over 150 journal publications and dozen books. His love for Kern County is expressed in his poems.  He has influenced the poets in Kern County and shared his poem at various readings and workshop over the years.  Also reading were students from local high school, college and university.  The vitality of the poetry community was reflected in the reading of the works by these talented poets.  These students were Liz Greynolds, Mateo Lara, Adriana Sanchez, and Alex Victoria.

    National Poetry Month, April, was inaugurated in our country by the Academy of American Poets in 1996.  In Kern County, National Poetry Month started in 2010, and celebrated each year.  It was started by local community poets in memory of two poets who have passed on, Helen Shanley and Lee McCarthy.