Story by Portia Choi
Photograph (at council meeting) by Ezekiel Espanola
Don Thompson is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Kern County. It is a well-deserved recognition of a poet who has written about the south San Joaquin region for four decades.
Thompson is a native of Bakersfield, California. He attended Bakersfield High School. He currently lives with his wife, Chris, on her family’s farm.
During National Poetry Month in April 2018, as Poet Laureate of Kern County, Thompson recited his poems at the Kern County Supervisors meeting on April 10 and at the Bakersfield City Council meeting on April 11. On April 10, Thompson recited his poem “Aqueduct” and on April 11 his poem “Yokuts.” Both of these poems can be found at the end of this story.
Accompanying Thompson at these meetings were David Gordon, the Executive Director of Arts Council of Kern and Portia Choi of Kern Poetry. The Arts Council of Kern was the organization that made the Poet Laureate for Kern County possible.
The following interview of David Gordon (DG) was done by email.
Could you comment on the Art Council of Kern’s role with the Poet Laureate for Kern County?
(DG): The ACK’s role with the Poet laureate is to further the role poetry plays in the arts and the arts in Kern County. By appointing the first Kern Poet Laureate, the ACK has demonstrated the importance of a person who represents poetry in our County. The Council’s mission is to provide, support, and promote arts access, advocacy, and education for all Kern County residence and visitors and that includes poetry. The ACK uses the Poet Laureate to validate and elevate this art form.
What was it like to be at the meetings with Don Thompson at the presentations?
(DG): Mr. Thompson is a serious artist. His command of his craft is professional, inspiring and emotional. I felt pride in our City and County for supporting the art of poetry by giving Mr. Thompson the opportunity to read his work at these public meetings.
The following interview of Don Thompson (DT) was done by email.
How and when did you become interested in poetry?
(DT): Hard to say. I was fascinated by Mother Goose rhymes as a child. In high school, I came across a copy of Shropshire Lad in a box of old books in the garage and was blown away. Still have that book. I started writing after high school and published the first poem I wrote. But the real beginning, the vocational call, came with discovering William Stafford’s Traveling Through the Dark while browsing in a library when I was a student in forestry school about 1965.
When did you write your first poem?
(DT): I was about twenty, newly married and with a baby on the way. Reading Thoreau’s journal, I came across a phrase that grabbed me for some reason, sat down and wrote the poem beginning with his words: “I saw a bat by daylight.” I still have the magazine it appeared in. Stylistically a bit under the influence of Marianne Moore, whom I still read every few years–starting her again right now, in fact.
Do you have a discipline or practice of writing, such as certain time of day, so many hours?
(DT): Basically a daily writer–well, Monday through Friday. Up at five, do push ups and stretching, pray and read the Bible, feed the animals, take my morning two-mile walk, and then write for about an hour.
Which poet(s) or writing influenced you the most?
(DT): First major influence, as mentioned, William Stafford, whom I visited in Lake Oswego, Oregon, in 1972, on my way to grad school in Vancouver. Wonderful, gracious man. My influences and tastes have varied over a wide spectrum: Spanish and Latin American, Classic Chinese. Early John Haines. All writers with a close connection to the land. In later years Mary Oliver, though I can’t quite see what attracted me so much anymore, and especially Ted Kooser.
What inspires you to continue writing?
(DT): Writing inspires me to write. I have only about a dozen poems that I write over and over again like a jazz musician improvising on the same tunes every night. The Valley landscape is part of me–as a person; but the writing itself comes from the language, from the actual word-work, which I love more than anything else.
What is it like being the first Poet Laureate of Kern County?
(DT): Well, I have nothing to compare it with. But being the PL (Poet Laureate) is gratifying, of course. A validation–recognition of a lifetime of poems about the Valley, which is very welcome indeed, although I would have kept writing without any recognition. Writing is more who I am than what I do.
More about Don Thompson and more of his poems can be found at www.don-e-thompson.com.
Following are the two poem by Thompson which he recited at the Kern County Board of Supervisors and Bakersfield City Council meetings.
By Don Thompson
Some rivers become so sluggish,
They can barely feel their way around a rock;
Others are manic in spate & rip trees from the banks.
What about the California Aqueduct,
In a concrete suit, relentless, obsessed
With draining the North dry?
If you fall in, it’ll file you away forever
In its deep archives.
Drown in a ditch & we’ll close the weir
To search for you….
But the Aqueduct flows on & on
& won’t stop for anyone:
Los Angeles is always thirsty.
By Don Thompson
They say the dust rises by itself
Sometimes, even if there’s no wind at all,
But absolute stillness under the flat sky….
I don’t believe it.
They haven’t considered, for instance,
How the coyotes in their afternoon slumber
Where no one can find them
Breathe out their dream whimpering;
Or how the birds dozing on their perches,
Holding on so tight,
Puff & deflate like bellows—
Thousands of breaths that begin to add up.
Nor do they take into account the rodents
Down in their burrows
Busily opening passageways
Through which the earth itself can exhale;
Not to mention the Yokut ghosts
With nowhere else to go
Who wander aimlessly across the valley,
Their bare feet kicking up clouds of dust.