April National Poetry Month Zoom Open Mic, April 18, 2021

To commemorate National Poetry Month in April, there was a second virtual open mic.  

The poets who participated were Anke Hodenpijl, Annis Cassells, Carla Martin, Christopher Craddock, Christopher Nielsen, Cynthia Bermudez, Mandy Wallace, Matthew Woodman, Portia Choi and Suzanne Weller.

The two poets interviewed for the story from the open mic are Matt Woodman and Mandy Wallace.  

If you want to see the video from the Open Mic here is the link:  

April National Poetry Month Zoom Open Mic, April 18, 2021
– video on  Kern Poetry – YouTube 

Interview with Matthew Woodman, Kern County Poet Laureate

By Carla Joy Martin

Q.  Your poem alluded to several occurrences in Kern County history (the 1952 earthquake caused by fracking, for one).  How did you discover these rather startling facts?  Why do you think they are not popular knowledge?  Do you see the role of a poet as truth-finder and political activist?

A. I’m working on a long book-length poem that explores place through the lens of history (human and natural), biology, and geology, so I’ve been conducting research and following rabbit trails of citations to see where they take me. They’ve unearthed many facts of which I previously was unaware. I think “popular knowledge” has become equated with “popular culture,” so if a person doesn’t seek out fact-based knowledge, it remains hidden in the background. Furthermore, some entities have vested interest in keeping this sort of information from becoming public knowledge, and I would argue that the role of any artist is to nudge (or shock) the audience into considering new and various perspectives. I wouldn’t say that “the” role of a poet is to be an activist or truth-finder, but I would argue that this is one possible path a poet could take (in an individual poem or in a career).

Q.  What direction do you see your poetry taking recently?  Has the pandemic shaped your verse/themes? Or what other elements are you musing about?

A. The pandemic was not conducive to my inspiration or drive to write, so I am looking forward to being in the world again. With my current work-in-progress, I am working on methods and techniques to integrate various ways of “seeing” the world — through the lenses of biology, geology, history, sociology, and so on.

Q.  As a beloved CSUB professor, you have a unique perspective on what is on the minds of the upcoming generation of writers.  What issues/concerns are these young people grappling with, especially in their creative works?

A. At CSUB, my writing students are just beginning their writing paths, so I see my role analogous to that of a tradesman; I’ve worked to stock my own writing workshop with various tools and skills, and I try to pass as many of those as I can to the next generation. In terms of the issues/concerns that interest them, they are drawn to the same themes that have interested us since we first put pen to paper: the building/breaking of human relationships, the search for substance and meaning, and the fear of what goes bump in the night (i.e., death). 

Q.  As our Kern County Poet Laureate, what are your observations this year on the state of poetry in our area?  Have you met any promising new voices or heard of new Zoom gatherings?  Any things to look forward to as things open up again?

A. Writers of Kern is a great resource for local writers, and I am looking forward to a resumption of First Friday’s Open Mic at Dagny’s Coffee. Furthermore, there are quite a few former CSUB students who have gone on to pursue their Master of Fine Arts in Writing, including Mateo Lara, Shelby Pinkham, and Shawn Anto. I would keep an eye out for their future success.

For this interview, Matt has agreed to share with us his scathing, thought-provoking poem about the elements of our valley — from Writing Fields:

Periodic Tables

by Matthew Woodman

Satellite spreadsheet consultants survey 

     and source cyclical precipitation 

          where multiple tributaries converge 


& pool at the earthen dam, reservoir 

     to be allocated in acre-feet

          channeled along steep concrete-lined canals


terminating in strict rows and channels 

     of cotton, of orange, of almond &

          pesticide drift beside which hands of spare 


children practice forming their names, signing

     binding liability releases 

          & swallowing leached compounds of nitrite,


sundry volatile organic compounds,

     and fumigant 1,2-dibromo-3-

          chloropropane with each sip from the tap


or the fountain before they take their turn

     in the field or distribution center

          the city attracted by dangling tax-


breaks & blank guarantees of exemption 

     from investing in the community,

          which has become the nation’s capital


of methamphetamine, unemployment,

     teenage pregnancy, & particulate

          matter spikes via inversion layer


that burn one’s eyes and trigger asthma rates

     to plume at unprecedented volume

          & for elementary school staff to shelve


inhalers beside the ice packs inside

     the cabinet the administration stocks

          following the district regulations  


or rather what the insurers deem meet 

     minimally sufficient standards, but

          what does it matter what with the dropout


rate hovering around twenty percent

     & the county being the nation’s least 

          literate, which would explain the upward


trend of off-label applications &

     the glut of complications arising

          from contraindicated procedures


or treatments patients cobble together 

     by flashlight on linoleum counters

          so as not to wake the spouse in whose name


the pills have been doled as the local news

     projects colors, shapes, & sounds that congeal

          into neutered features of another 


officer-involved shooting about which 

     details, including the deputy’s name

          & disciplinary record from his 


or her personnel file, have been withheld

     to protect the integrity of the

          investigation that will find, despite


the victim being unarmed, the badge cleared

     of all charges, all records of course sealed

          pending court order as a crowd gathers


in the park with a plastic megaphone

     to protest while the traffic doesn’t fail

          to compartmentalize or turn & spit


a profanity through the side window

     as they pass the library the county

          has tried to privatize when it isn’t


shuttering the far-flung branches to plot

     efficiency in sincere surety

          that the best government is entropy


while the local congressman is robo-

     calling his constituents to invite

          participation in a telephone


townhall so as to avoid actual

     eye-contact & accountability,

          his predecessor’s legacy an air-


port constructed & funded to service

     oil executives who have seeded rigs 

          and drilling pads in configurations


to extract & transport cash from many

     to few, a system of concentration

          in which shareholders form the populace


& collateral fill the pews to hear

     tell of foundation of the rock that holds

          us all in the divine palm’s fractured grain


of faultline & assurances the lamb

     won’t be shorn & led out back to the oak

          to be hung, bled, & butchered like the calves


before the golden hills thick with foxtail 

     & wildfire, as cars spin in the traffic

          circling a stone missionary statue


whose cause for canonization the church

     has opened, as the blessed friar died

          at the hands of the oppressed, a patent


charter to incentivize a tight grip

     on the chain, to consolidate even

          one’s understanding of the elements. 


Interview with Mandy Wallace, 

By Carla Joy Martin

Mandy is hoping to publish the poem she shared with us that evening, so we are not printing it so she may do so.  Instead, she has offered to share with us another one of her poems that was published in Plath Poetry Project:

Breakfast with Sylvia Plath

by Mandy Wallace

Sit with Plath, taking meals in quiet

At her round, in-kitchen table

Near the patio doors.

Surprisingly everyday, her white tablecloth,

Its scattered breadcrumbs, and

Butterknife in the jam jar.

Observant as any good writer must be,

She watches you without looking

So you don’t know she sees

The nervous way you smoke, your pen

Arrested in the search for glamour, the way

You dismiss her mind for its plain facade—

A face you’d never notice in a crowd.

And reading her work, scythe-sharp

The likeness and alive,

You see yourself naked in the words

And cringe.

reprinted from Plath Poetry Project

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

A.  “Breakfast with Sylvia Plath” was one of the first poems I wrote after a long stretch of writer’s block—”long” as in kind of my whole life.

I’d always felt like a writer. And, alongside my freelance work, I did publish some creative things here and there. But it wasn’t until I thankfully found and finished Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way that I could write with the consistency and freedom I’d always felt was missing. 

“Breakfast with Sylvia Plath,” in particular, came out of an annoyance with myself after reading Plath’s Ariel that I’d allowed health and personal hangups to get in the way of writing when writing has occupied so much of my mind since childhood. 

In “Breakfast” I imagine what judgements Plath might have of me. She’s known for her debilitating and ultimately fatal mental health issues—and still she wrote. Then again, who knows what price she paid for this superpower. Julia Cameron’s coursebook, on the other hand, was only $35 and twelve weeks of my life.

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?

A.  It wasn’t until adulthood I discovered poetry I flat out loved. Most of the poems I was exposed to growing up were either of the Mother Goose variety (which are wonderful and also quickly outgrown) or in antiquated formalism on topics that are hard to relate to as a young person. 

But then I came across Sharon Olds’s “Quake Theory” and finally understood what poetry could be. How it could actually make you feel something. And how it could make you feel seen and connected to the wider world. 

Lately, I love reading the annual Best American Poetry anthology for its variety and to find new-to-me poets to obsess over. There’ve been a few Kern County natives in that anthology over the past few years, actually—Frank Bidart of Bakersfield and Shara Lessley of Tulare just off the top. 

Other favorites on my nightstand right now are Jill Alexander Essbaum, Natalie Shapero, and AE Stallings. Plus my lovely mentor, Despy Boutris, is an amazing poet worth reading (and rereading!). Anyone with a musicality to their poems, a little word play, the unexpected, and of course knock-out emotional impact. 

I actually love formalist poems, too, when a poet can still make that feel fresh. Probably why I love AE Stallings.

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.  Everyone’s creative process is so different. And each poem is different, even if it’s the same poet writing them. I think being flexible about how poems come and capturing whatever your subconscious offers up can be a reliable way to produce work consistently. 

Some poems I’ve come at with an idea I wanted to explore within a specific given form. Some I labor over with a thesaurus. Lately, I’ve gotten better at recognizing those moments I’m spaced out and thinking *really* hard about something and then channeling whatever that is onto the page (or into my notes app). The kinds of things that come to you in the shower where you’re having an imagined argument, or thinking of something you wished you’d said, or what you wish you could say to someone who maybe has been dead for two centuries. My last few poems have been like this.

Reading poetry you love, I think, is the ultimate motivation to write and is a big part of my creative process. It’s how I find new things to try, ideas or elements I want to combine, or just flat out get excited about and inspired by what poetry can do.

But prompts are always great, of course. And given forms. Exploring old forms can be like working a puzzle, and that forces me to think in a different way that often goes to unexpected places. 

Anything that gets those images going through your mind or gets you excited to say something that feels important to you. And just being willing to follow that and see where it goes, knowing that sometimes it goes nowhere. Enough of them go somewhere. And when they do, man it’s worth it. It’s worth it.


Mandy Wallace is a writer, freelancer, and Bakersfield native. Her creative work has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Plath Poetry Project, and “on the streets of Bakersfield.” See more from her at mandywallace.com.