First Friday:  Open Mic, November 1, 2019
eaturing Annis Cassells. 

Annis Cassells was the featured poet at the First Friday Open Mic at Dagny’s Coffee on Nov 1, 2019, she read from her book of poetry, You Can’t Have It All.  Even though the event was over a year ago, it seems fresh as we remember the excitement of the poets and musicians sharing their original creations. 

There were three performers interviewed:  Annis Cassells, Cynthia Bermudez and Nelson Varon.  These interviews allow us to know the poets and their poems in greater understanding and liveliness. 

Other poets and musicians performing at this Open Mic were Zack Alqaisi, Cynthia Bermudez, Tim Chang, Christopher Craddock, Shelley Evans, Carla Martin, Jim Merrick, Alyssa Morataya, PAWN, David Tetz, Fabian Tolan, Nelson Veron, and Suzanne Weller.

Open Mic November 1, 2019
Photos by Josh Burgos


Interview with Annis Cassells

By Carla Martin

Q.  You read to us poems from your chapbook, You Can’t Have It All.  How did you choose the poems for this collection?

A. All of our writing is a revelation — not only to our audience, but to ourselves. So the so-called themes of my poems did not reveal themselves to me until they were written and gathered. They were just poems I’d written over a number of years that I thought were good enough to include.

Q.  What inspired you to write your poems?  What are their back stories? 

A.  I’ve always been a writer, kept a diary as a child, wrote for my high school newspaper, wrote with my students when I taught, and served as editor and writer for two different newsletters. Through the years I dabbled in poetry, but I became more serious about poetry and learning the craft after attending workshops for a couple of years at the San Miguel Writers Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. That’s where I first encountered the poets Ellen Bass and David Whyte and really became hooked.

Many of my poems are autobiographical and the incidents must have made an impression on me since those childhood memories are more than 65 years old. I clearly remember the time recounted in “First Taste”– that cellar and my sweet grandmother’s joy at sneaking that grape juice. As I think of it now, it was probably one of the first secrets an adult shared with me.

I wrote her name Annie Cass-ells because that’s the way she pronounced it “CASS-els.”


First Taste

by Annis Cassells

The Cassells home-place cellar,
must-scented, raven-aired.

Grandma Annie Cass-ells
and ten-year-old me,
we heave worn wooden doors,

throw daylight underground,
pick our way down brick slab steps,
stand still, let our eyes adjust.

She leads
bound for thick, unpainted plank shelves
jammed against an uneven patched wall.

She reaches
for a dusty jug
amongst canned pickles, peaches, beets.

She pours
a half-pint jelly jar one-quarter full,
“grape juice.”

She savors
A dark liquid sip

She passes
the almost-empty vessel
to me.

She cautions
“Just a little now.
Makes you feel warm inside.”

She stretches
knobby fingers for the rest
as the jar leaves my lips.

We ascend
hugging peach and pickle jars
Silent glances sealing our secret.

Daily life is inspiring. Looking around and seeing what’s going on, noticing things that catch my attention for whatever reason, or listening in on what others are saying might spark a thought that germinates into a poem. My poem “Don’t Slice My Bread” started with a trip to a farmers’ market in Coos Bay, Oregon and stopping at the stall of a local baker. When the vendor asked if my friend wanted her newly purchased loaf of bread sliced, she responded, “Oh, no! Don’t slice my bread!” I immediately said aloud, “That sounds like a poem!” and it became a poem that’s a metaphor for my philosophy of life.


Don’t Slice My Bread

by Annis Cassells

Measured segments bore me
The best we can hope for,
a yeast bubble
Or slight deviation in height

Uniformity restrains

Let me gouge boulders
Catch crumbs
Inhale the yeasty aroma
of finger-held fissures
Oozing melted butter.

Let me delight in haphazard hunks
Leave none untried, untested
Skirted or ignored.

Let me taste it all
In its simplicity
In its complexity
Stale or fresh,
Life’s staff and stuff.

Some poems, though autobiographical or concern social issues, came about because of themes for upcoming publications, like the community poetry anthology our current Kern County Poet Laureate, Matthew Woodman publishes through CSUB. So when he announced the call for poems about drought, I asked myself, “What do I know about drought?” and came up with very little. I began listing all the types of drought and what that could mean. The process took me back to my own experience, of course, and I wrote about societal drought.


Inner City Girls Survive

by Annis Cassells

Drought distresses inner city girls.
Oh they have water
take twenty-minute showers
soak hours in claw-footed tubs.
Come summer, they cavort beneath
oscillating lawn sprinklers.

Inner city girls living it survive
a different type of drought.
Reduced by a lack of civility
Controlled by an absence of compassion
Restrained by a want of understanding
Checked in their right to equality.

Civility, Compassion
Understanding, Equality
Commodities in short supply.
All the water in the world
cannot compensate
for societal drought.

Inner city girls living it possess a thirst
A craving that begs to be slaked
Ambition that needs to be fulfilled
Potential that expects to be reached.
By wits and will, and bits of kindness,
inner city girls survive.

Q. What poets have influenced you?  Who have messages you connect with, or styles you admire?

A.  I’ve always loved Lucille Clifton’s work. Her poem “Blessing the Boats” is one I often read and hand out during “Poem in Your Pocket” Day. Of course, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Poets I heard and loved from programs at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, our own Kern County Don Thompson, Sandra Cisneros, Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Clint Smith, Ada Limón, my cousin, poet Cyrus Cassells—and so many that I’m newly encountering since I’ve been able to put more concentration on poetry and have been able to hear and read their works.

But, a major influence in my writing has been Ellen Bass. The first time I saw her, as keynote speaker in San Miguel, she opened her program with the poem, “At the Padre Hotel in Bakersfield, California” and I was an immediate fan. At the conference I took a half-day workshop with her and since then have done a week-long retreat with her in Canada and two six-week craft workshops over Zoom during the pandemic.

One of the good things that has come out of the pandemic is the ability to have access to poets, readings, classes, workshops all over the world. And this year I’ve truly taken advantage of that. Since the Dodge Poetry Festival was virtual, I was able to fulfill my dream of attending and heard so many new-to-me poets as well as ones I was familiar with. Right now, I’m in a 4-week workshop with poet and teacher Erin Redfern.

Q.  What advice would you give to other folks wanting to create a book of poetry?  It might be interesting and helpful if you describe your journey in making your book.

A.  First, write and write and write some more. Then write some more. I had amassed quite a body of work, over eight or more years’ worth, but when the time came to publish my collection, about 25% didn’t get included. Either I didn’t think they were good enough or they didn’t seem to fit.

Enlist people to read your poems and give you feedback. I have a critique group and other readers whom I trust. Send some of your poems out to journals and magazines for publication and see how that goes. Sometimes you get rejection, sometimes you get feedback, sometimes you get a note of acceptance.

Have someone read your entire manuscript, give you more feedback, and suggest an order to put the poems in. By the time I reached this point, I was weary and could not keep anything straight. I’d read and worked with those poems so many times. I handed off my set of poems to two different people whom I respect. Both gave me helpful feedback. Some suggestions I took and others ignored. One of those readers ordered the poems for me and gave me an idea of which two should be the beginning or final poems.

I published my book through Amazon’s KDP. I decided to go the self-publishing route because I wanted my book out into the world. And, I did not want to wait around for a traditional publisher to pick it up. At that point, I was 75 years old and felt I had no time to waste! I certainly didn’t want any more suggestions for changes.This is the plus side of self-publishing: the author is in control of it all.

KDP was ALL new to me. After reading through the instructions, I knew I needed to print them out so I could re-read off screen and highlight directions. Once I decided on the title, I chose my cover photo and author head shot from my Pictures file on my computer. So they were ready to go.

Designing the cover was challenging. Yes, KDP has templates, but I had to try out several to discover the look I wanted (placement, fonts, back cover), and that meant starting over a number of times. It’s a good idea to study the covers of books you own to note what is usually displayed on a cover and to see what design elements appeal to you.

With the help of the instructions, experienced friends, and some YouTube videos about formatting, I finished the project. It took several weeks of treating the work on the book like it was a job. Each day I spent from 6:00 to 8:00 am “at work.” Sometimes it was a little longer if I wasn’t at a good stopping place.

It felt so great when it was time to press “PUBLISH” and order my advance reader copies! But, that feeling didn’t compare to the elation of having the actual book in my hands.

Q.  What steps have/are you taking to promote your book? (readings, Facebook promos, etc.)

A.  Authors these days must be willing to promote their own book, and that seems to be true with traditionally published books as well as self-published. The online steps I took were announcing and showing the book on my blog, The DayMaker, and on Facebook and Twitter. I added an author page to my Facebook account and have posted videos of me reading poems on both pages.

I approached Indie bookstores and coffee shops to do readings and contacted libraries to read and participate in their Meet the Author programs.  I read at Open Mics, here in Bakersfield at Kern Poetry’s First Friday, virtually in Durham, NC, Florence, OR, and Salem, OR. I displayed and sold books at the Writers of Kern Spring Conference and participated in a book fair in Oregon at which I sold a dozen books.

I had help from others, too. My family alerted the world my book was out and urged folks to buy it. One daughter invited friends to a reading when I visited her. She also gave my book to a friend as a gift. That friend is a professor at UNC in Chapel Hill, NC, and she determined my book fit in with the curriculum of one of her classes, so it became required reading and she taught from it. I was able to visit her classroom shortly afterward and read and answer questions from her and the students. That was a real highlight and blessing that came from writing and publishing You Can’t Have It All!

One of the loveliest things is the many folks I’ve met because of my book. They’ve attended readings, or received the book as a gift, or they’re fellow poets and writers. So publishing my collection has enriched my life in so many ways.



Interview with Cynthia Bermudez

By Carla Martin

Here is the poem and vignette that Cynthia shared with us on First Friday:


Snow Stars

by Cynthia Bermudez

They fell from the sky looking like white-colored sea urchins, sharp spines penetrating their first contacted surface: people, cars, buildings, everything.

One attached itself to me as I sat on a park bench. It landed on my forehead piercing my skin.

A thousand tiny teeth digging into my flesh. Tendrils thinner than silk spread across my face eyes, cheeks, nose —a myriad of lines coloring my face a pale blue.

They called themselves Snow Stars, loosely translated. Although, they weren’t made of snow but instead of a crystalline structure not found on Earth.

Everything looked like distorted candy dots as if porcupines painted the world and people were now flocked trees with meat ornaments. Everywhere a pristine white.

The sun rose and set, rose and set.

I hadn’t noticed how my movement stopped. My cells, every atom slowed to nothing I realized I still sat on the bench.      

The sun rose and set, rose and set.
I heard the others in my mind, others like me,
connected by pale blue veins rooted into and through my body down through the bench and into the ground.

I … no. We.


The House on Agate Street

by Cynthia Bermudez

When I was eleven years old, I packed a small plastic bag with a week’s worth of clothes and my favorite book and stayed in an old abandoned house down the street, something I had seen my older sister do when she was angry with my mother. Two teens were already sheltered there, a boy and girl. They took a spot near the ashen fireplace. Charred wood scorched the firebrick. They held hands and kissed and asked me questions. What my name was and why was I there. We all slept under a thin cotton throw on cold concrete. The wooden floorboards ripped from the ground. The smell of dust and mold filled every corner, every break in the wall, the crumbling popcorn ceiling.

A teenaged boy named Mason, who rode around the neighborhood on his bicycle, brought us scraps of half-eaten corn ears and burnt tortillas and day-old cold chicken. We feasted on the floor, a turned over crate the finest table, our food on plastic bag plates. Mason called the lovebirds Elvis and Marilyn and every time they’d chuckle. Elvis played music on a guitar he had bought with six whole dollars, money he saved cleaning yards and cashing in plastic bottles at a Five and Dime. He strummed the cords and Marilyn watched him dreamily. Elvis was going to be a big star someday, Marilyn his wife. He’d build her a house in the woods; she’d be safe there. He said I could come, too. Marilyn put her arm around me and said of course. Mason said he’d bring the food.

Q.  What inspired you to write your poem?  What is its back story? 

A.  I set out to write two short pieces: a poem, “Snow Stars,” and a vignette, “The House on Agate Street.”

“Snow Stars” was written from a contest prompt. The challenge was to write a short 250-word narrative about an alien invasion. I thought what if aliens arrived not in massive space ships with advanced technological weapons but as small creatures from another world drifting slowly down from the sky. And what if these aliens assimilated the Earth and its inhabitants, indiscriminately altering life on Earth and terraforming the land. I didn’t win the contest, but the poem was bought by Devolution Z and later purchased as a reprint in an anthology titled, “Untimely Frost.”

“The House on Agate Street” was a personal assignment. I wanted to write a character sketch and a vignette, though I cannot remember what my motivation was. I had read The House on Mango Street some time before and loved the idea. I set out to write two short pieces: a one-character sketch and one vignette. The fantastical/imaginative elements are fictional but the vignette was inspired by one of my own experiences. “The House on Agate Street” was published by Vine Leaves and later reprinted in their 2014 “Best of” anthology.

Q.  Do you like to read poetry?  If you do, what poets have influenced you?  Who have messages you connect with, or styles you admire?  What other art forms inspire you, like songs or paintings?

A.  I love reading and listening to poetry. My early exposure to poetry were poets like Frost and Yeats, but I feel like more contemporary and even a few unknown poets have influenced me. I love listening to spoken word poetry and my favorite site is Button Poetry. Also, I read pseudonymous poetry from various forums that have influenced me. Other types of art forms inspire me as well. I love music and visual art.

There are many poems that have resonated with me. “Dolor” by Theodore Roethke. “All for a Day” by Robert Sward. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. Works by spoken word poets: Rudy Francisco, Sabrina Benaim, Phil Kaye, Guante, Porsha Olayiwola, just to name a few.

Q.  What advice would you give to other folks wanting to create poems?  How do you make a poem?  Do you have a special place you go to, or music you listen to, etc.?  Give us a glimpse into your creative process.

A.  There are poetic forms and styles a writer can choose to use. Or they can write free verse. My personal preference is free verse, narrative-style poetry and songs. I think if you want to write something, just write it. Don’t worry about anything or anyone else. As for my creative process…I’m not even sure if I have one. I write when I can. Anything can inspire me: music, art, a conversation, etc.



Interview with Nelson Varon

By Carla Martin

Nelson read us his poem “Shalom, Shalom,” which was one of the poems read at the Bakersfield World Peace Day rally in September 2019. Here is his poem, which Nelson also wrote music to:


(A   S o n g    o f    P e a c e)

by Nelson Varon


The roar of oceans filled with tears,
The thunder of the silent dead,
Together cry, for once for all,                                              

The babies in their mother’s arms,
Are held with desperate urgent prayer,
That G-d will grant them in their world                                        

No more the waste, and 
No more the shambles,
The human suffering,
No more, no more.

The promise must be made again,
“All war will end, all war will end”.
And we must somehow learn to find

Dear G-d, how long must it go on
‘Till neighbors learn to live as one?
Please help us live in love and peace,

No more the waste, and
No more the shambles,
The human suffering,
No more, no more.

The promise must be made again,
“All war will end, all war will end”.
Then shout with ever-lasting joy,

So brothers, sisters take my hand
And sing with all your hearts a song
Of peace for all the earth, Amen!

Copyright 1973 – Renewed 2001 All Right Reserved                                                                          

Q. What inspired you to write your poem/song?  What is its back story?

A.  By the time I had come home from work at my organ and piano store very late one night in 1973, my wife, Edith, and our three children were already fast asleep. After eating the dinner she had left for me, I turned on the TV in the family room to the “Late, Late Show” and sat down to relax before going to bed.

The film, which had just started, was about a ship called the SS St Louis which had picked up almost 1,000 Jews, who, in 1938, were fleeing Germany for their very lives following “Kristallnacht” or Crystal Night. The ship first docked in Cuba asking for permission to disembark their passengers as refugees but were denied entry. The ship, according to the film, then went on to Miami in the United States and to various ports in South America only to be denied entry over and over again. In desperation, the SS St Louis, having no other alternative, was forced to return to Germany with their cargo of desperate human beings, all of whom knew they would be facing certain death at the hands of the Nazis upon their return home.

Being a musician and a retailer of organs and pianos, we had a music room in which was a grand piano and a Lowery organ. I was so moved by the film that, notwithstanding the late hour (about 1:30 am), I sat down at the organ and began aimlessly playing. Almost immediately my fingers started playing a melody over and over again. Each time I played this haunting melody, words came into my consciousness from seemingly out of nowhere until, after about a half an hour, the lyrics and the song were completed and remembered in my mind.

As a songwriter, however, I always kept manuscript paper and pencil on the organ to jot down song ideas which would come to me from time to time before I forget them. I stopped playing long enough to write down the entire melody and the lyrics. I then continued playing the completed song over and over again, singing it out loud in my music room in the middle of the night, with tears streaming down my face the whole time. I will never forget that experience, (nor will my daughter whose bedroom was adjacent to the wall in which the organ speakers were mounted and kept waking her up).   

The poem, “Shalom, Shalom,” is actually the lyrics to that song which I had named, “Shalom, Shalom:  A Song of Peace.”  The poem (lyric) is included for you to read.

Q.  Do you like to read poetry and if so, which poets have influenced you?

A.  Yes, I do like to read poetry, but tend to prefer those poets who write in a narrative style. One of my treasured books is A Treasury of Great Poems, English and American. I frequently will randomly select poems to read in this book of poems from all periods dating back to the fifteenth century and up to the twentieth century. Three poets who have influenced me, though not on a conscious level, are Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a favorite poem of mine), Robert Byrnes, (Jon Anderson, My Jo is another favorite) and Robert Browning (My Last Duchess, also a favorite).

Q.  What advice would I give to other folks wanting to create poems? What is your creative process?

A.  I can only say that I still have much to learn myself about writing poetry. It would, therefore, be presumptuous in the extreme were I to even try to advise anyone on this topic.

I can only say that in my experience, poetry, like any other type of writing, is a trial-and-error process in which you can learn to write poetry by simply writing poetry. Sharing your work with others in critique groups of other would-be poets is really helpful. I would also suggest that you try to become familiar with various structural formats in which established poems have been written. These formats can be learned in poetry classes but can also be identifiable as you read poems written by iconic poets. In that regard, it would probably would not be a bad idea to read as many ageless great poems as you can.

As far as how I go about writing poems, or song lyrics (which has comprised most of my poetic writings so far) it usually starts with an idea I may have for a poem or, as in the case of lyrics, a melody that I have written. I will generally write a first draft, then rewrite it and then rewrite it many, many times over the course of days, weeks, months and sometimes years.

Many of the great song lyrics that have been written are, in fact, excellent stand-alone poems. Song lyrics have a great deal in common with good poetry, particularly in the observance of the admonition, “show, don’t tell” and in their use of imagery to define a feeling. Great love longs, for example, seldom mention the word “love” in the lyric but instead use extraordinary imagery to poetically communicate love, or remorse at its loss. (To see an example of this, you might want to Google the lyrics of Irving Berlin in describing the loss of his first wife in “When I Lost You,“ or the lyrics of Jerome Kern describing his love for a woman  in “All The things You Are”).

I usually do my writing seated at the desk in my home office if it is a poem or seated at the piano (I no longer have an organ) if it is a song. I write about my observations of things I see or experience, or about the feelings I have about love or relationships or the loss thereof.  I do not have a disciplined time which I regularly devote to my writing but rather tend to write when I have something to write about.