First Saturday Open Mic at Dagny’s, October 1, 2022
Interview with Don Thompson, Featured Poet for Kern Poetry at Dagny’s Open Mic on October 1, 2022.
Including an interview with Nelson Varon, who also performed that evening.
By: Carla Joy Martin
A festive evening was spent with our favorite creative people on October 1, 2022 Open Mic at Dagny’s. The following people shared their original work: Don Thompson, Eric Warnock, Christopher Robert Craddock, Shelley Evans, Carla Joy Martin, Nelson Varon, Heather Ponek, Samuel Rain Benjamin, Cynthia Bermudez, and Julie Bonderov.
We were eager to hear Don share his thoughtful, evocative poetry. Don read selections from his chapbook, A San Joaquin Almanac, in which he carefully observes the fauna, seasons and wild creatures of our valley to make wise and provocative observations about life.
After Don read, the Open Mic began, and Nelson Varon was one of the presenters. Nelson is a song writer as well as poet, and we asked him to share some of his lyrical sentimental works for this article. You will find his work after Don’s interview below.
It was a pleasure to ask Don Thompson further questions about his work. We encourage you to read previous interview with Don, July 2, 2021, to enrich your understanding of his poetry and working philosophy.
Q. Don Thompson — how did you first become interested in writing poetry? Was there a seminal moment, or was it a gradual process?
A. Some of my friends in high school were writing and we were all reading poetry, but I was a bit too timid/intimidated to try. This was the group at BHS that put out the first issue of the venerable Ikon literary mag in 1960. But I suppose there was some closet scribbling going on because a couple of years after graduation (married with a baby and working, not in college) I was reading Thoreau one afternoon and came across a phrase—“I saw a bat by daylight”—that somehow triggered me, and I jotted down a short piece vaguely in the manner of Marianne Moore. This was subsequently published in a decent journal I probably couldn’t get into now. How did I even know about such things if I was so ingenuous? Hmm?
Anyhow, I was writing. In another year or two, while back in school as a forestry AA major at Santa Rosa Junior College, I was browsing the stacks in the library and noticed a book because of the green and black woodcut graphics of its dust jacket. I glanced inside and—pow! Turning those pages I knew that this was what I had to do. Been writing day in and day out for nearly sixty years since then. The book, you ask? William Stafford’s Traveling Through the Dark.
Q. What is your connection to our San Joaquin landscape? How does it inform and inspire your work? What features are of particular interest to you?
A. I think of myself as fauna of the San Joaquin. A decrepit old coyote loping through the scrub. I do remember returning from a vacation at about the age of fifteen (the beginning of the get-me-out-of-here years). At that place on the 58 coming down from Tehachapi where the valley first comes into sight, opening endlessly to the north, I was hit in the heart by a powerful sense of being home. Never lost it.
When I discovered William Everson’s work (cf The Residual Years) sometime in my early twenties, that sense of place was confirmed. It’s the bare ordinariness of the valley that draws me, I think. Everson talks about people escaping to “Yosemite and the sea” while he is attracted to the local landscape which is “nature neither freaked nor amazing”.
And when I say confirmed, I’m choosing the word consciously for its Christian connotation. For me, the valley landscape is sacramental—i.e. a visible sign of an inward grace. If the world is not a random assemblage but a creation, it seems obvious that the Creator would be present in it, communicating with us through it. N’est-ce pas?
Q. How does one become disciplined to write, as you do, every day? What advice can you give to those hoping to become more intentional in their creative process?
A. You’re not asking for a discipline but to contract a disease, perhaps fatal. You write daily because you simply can’t help it. OCD. That being said, I’d say write your writing rather than talk it away. And secondly, get something on paper, anything, and then see what happens.
I’ve retired now, which is to say I no longer write new stuff that I attempt to get published somewhere. Anywhere. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped scribbling incessantly. If I live long enough, I’ll need another trunk to fill. I already have two so packed the lids won’t latch.
Q. Are there any other poets that you admire, in addition to the ones you have mentioned in previous interviews?
A. I’m pretty sure whom I’m mentioned on other occasions: Stafford, Mary Oliver, John Haines. I might have added Basil Bunting and maybe the whole Deep Image crew of the seventies.
Plus Spanish moderns and ancient Chinese.
But I’ll list two more; the first, I’m sure, will be a great surprise: Christina Rossetti. A master lyricist and quietly innovative without drawing attention to it. I suppose she’s no longer read because of the Victorian religiosity that dominated her mature years.
The other is, I’m afraid, something of an obsession: Charles Wright. I can’t get enough of those southern backyard meditations that float slightly above consciousness, making no sense, then making sense, then not again. You like it or you don’t. Me? I binge—I binge.
Here are the three poems Nelson shared with us at October 1, 2022 Open Mic:
Like wooden stakes
Supporting newly planted saplings,
Teachers dedicate their lives
Guiding and supporting young students
That they may grow unbent.
Feeding newly planted seedlings,
Teachers nourish students
With reservoirs of knowledge
That they may fully blossom
And one day touch the sky.
Copyright – 2020 Nelson Varon
Children gaze in wonder through
As cascades of lacey flakes
On snow-laden bent branches
of bare trees
Standing grimly, buried deep
Whiteness which blankets the ground
In the hushed silence of the
Copyright – Nelson Varon, January 2021
Revised – October 1, 2022
I remember lover’s dreams
We dreamed in Spring
And the carefree summer love songs
We would sing
And then the Autumn came
And now the Winter’s here
How full the days
That we have known
How quickly they
There’s so much life to live
We’ve so much left to give
Each moment is so dear
Now that the Winter’s here
We’ll find the fun
In each new day
And when they’re done
How sweet it was each year
To live my life with you so near
Now that the Winter’s here
Now that the Winter’s here
Copyright Nelson Varon, 1998
Revised October 2022
Q. Nelson Varon — What inspired you to write your poems? What are their back stories?
A. Teachers was written in 2020. to honor all teachers during “Teacher Appreciation Week” ‘
The back story:
It is an indisputable fact that teachers are the underpaid, underappreciated unsung heroes whom society trusts to feed children’s insatiable need to know and to develop their inquisitive minds. Through the years, I have become increasingly aware of how so much of my life has been influenced by the great teachers I have been fortunate to have had. This was my tribute to them, and to all teachers everywhere who devote their lives to their chosen mission.
Winter was inspired by a photograph I had seen of a man and a woman in Sweden sitting in front of a window in their home through which the wintry, snowy landscape was clearly visible.
The back story:
As I looked at the photo of this older couple seated in front of a window in their home as giant snowflakes silently blanketed the landscape, my mind recalled the utter amazement of my young children as they watched through the window at the rapidly falling snow during the first winter in our new home in Northport, Long Island. This poetic muse is intended to describe that nostalgic moment in time.
Winter’s Here is actually the lyric I wrote about twenty-five years ago to the melody of a song previously titled Hello There which I had composed about twenty-five years earlier to a different lyric.
The back story:
The melody of Winter’s Here was one of several I had composed about 50 years ago to lyrics written by an author and lyricist named Frank Daly, who wrote both the book and lyrics to his musical, Two Minutes from Broadway. After unsuccessfully shopping the musical for over a year, we ended our collaboration with each of us retaining the rights to our respective writings.
The original title of this song in the musical was Hello There, the melody for which I had composed to Frank Daly’s lyrics. The melody itself, however, was one of my favorites and over the years I would often play it as a piano solo.
After relocating to Los Angeles, I began attending Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) songwriting workshops. The SGA lyric writing workshop was being given by Jack Segal, a gifted lyricist who over the years had written the lyrics to many published hit songs which were recorded by, among others, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Barbara Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Blossom Dearie and Michael Bublé,
Having taken a full semester of poetry at college as part of the college’s four-semester required core curriculum in English, I read and studied the classic poets and learned about the various craft aspects of writing poetry. I had always dabbled in writing the lyrics to my songs but did not consider myself to be a good lyricist. When I learned that Jack Segal was going to be giving the lyric writing workshop at SGA, I welcomed the chance to take those workshops with this master craftsman in the art of lyric writing. The melody to the previously titled, Hello There was one of the melodies I decided to rename and rewrite the lyrics to for one of those workshops. The retitled Winter’s Here was the result of that effort. It is dedicated to my wife, Edith, who passed away five years after its completion.
Q. Do you like to read poetry? What poets have inspired you?
A. Yes, I do like to read poetry though I haven’t read many of the classic poets nearly as often as I used to. My favorite poets were and still are, among others, Coleridge, Browning and Byrnes whose narrative poems have influenced my muses and poems. I currently read the poems of fellow-WOK members, Annis Cassell, Portia Choi and Carla Martin, all of whose poems I admire.
More to the point of my lyric writing, however, I have read collections of the lyrics to many of the songs in the so-called “Great American Songbook” by lyricists like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Caesar, and Ira Gershwin. Their lyrics ingeniously blend inspiration with craft to succinctly tell a story, express a feeling or describe a circumstance,
The lyricist who most influenced my writing, however, was Jack Segal during those SGA workshops I participated in during which he taught the basic crafts of lyric-writing. One of the most important things I learned from him was that if you choose to establish a rhyming pattern in your lyric it should be consistent and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes. He would frequently quote his friend Johnny Mercer who said that “imperfect rhymes were the mark of a lazy writer”. He also taught me that less is more and that a good song lyric should be conversational and able to stand alone. To determine if your lyric meets that criterion, he suggested that it be recited aloud in front of a mirror,
Q. What is your creative process?
A. My lyric writing is mostly while I am seated at the piano. As I play random “doodles” on the piano, a melody may begin to develop. If I like it well enough, after playing it over and over a few times, I will write it down on a sheet of manuscript paper which I keep at the piano. When the melody suggests a title to me, which can sometimes take a few years, I will write the lyrics to that titled melody. At other times, I may write a lyric at the desk in my home office and compose a melody to that lyric afterwards. At other times, as was the case of Shalom, Shalom, the melody and the lyrics (which, by the way does not have any rhymes), seem to magically come out at the same time. I would add that even years after a lyric or a poem is completed, I will revisit it several times and continually refine it. (Both Winter & Winter’s Here, which are attached, have revisions which I wrote after reading them aloud at Dagny’s .)
Q. What advice would you give to other folks wanting to create song lyrics?
A. My advice to other would-be songwriters is to seek out whatever instructional information may be available in books or on the internet or in workshops at a college and learn everything you can about the craft of writing a good lyric. If you can play an instrument on which to compose a melody all the better, but if not, try to seek a composer with whom to collaborate. Once you feel a lyric is complete, continue to revisit it and revise it if necessary to perfect it.
Above all, as Irving Caesar, who wrote the lyrics to melodies composed by George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans and others, once told me, “Try to write a new song every day”