Writing Covid – Interviews with Matt Woodman and Rachel Stratemeier
Interview of Matt Woodman about Writing Covid
By Carla Joy Martin
On Friday, May 13th, 2022, there was a public reading as contributors to Matt Woodman’s publication, Writing Covid, gathered in the Humanities (HOB) building at CSUB at 6:00 p.m. What transpired was 2 ½ hours of shared pandemic experiences, as folks read their poetry and prose, contemplating what they went through the past two years. The evening just flew by, as each person’s reflections were unique and thought-provoking. The words read aloud also expressed shared sorrows and joys, heartbreaks and hopes. It was truly a cathartic experience.
The following is an interview of Matt Woodman, the man behind Writing Covid, as well as Kern County’s current Poet Laureate, who also made the arrangements for this special evening.
Q. What was your motivation or interest in starting and continuing the CSUB series, Writing Drought, Writing Flora and Fauna, Writing Fields, Writing Sound, Writing Covid? How has it evolved? What have you noticed about the folks who contribute? (different ages, walks of life, educational backgrounds?) What are your thoughts about the future of this series?
A. I created the Writing/Reading series in order to A) connect poets from across the Kern County community, B) help my CSUB students gain experience and confidence sharing their voices with a larger audience, and C) establish an artifact/record of how local writers responded to larger issues (as defined by each year’s theme). I am pleased by the cross-section of writers that have been featured: there is a wide variety of ages and socio-economic backgrounds, and a healthy mix of genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. As for the future of the series, Writing Covid may be the grand finale, as I was able to cover the printing costs through a one-time university grant, and I am not sure how I would cover any future costs.
Q. Writing Covid was dedicated to Jack Hernandez. What was his role in the Bakersfield poetic and creative community? What would you like folks to know about this thoughtful man?
A. Years ago, Jack Hernandez had a reading of local poets for the Levan Center, and that was one of the inspirations for creating the Writing/Reading series. I conversed with Jack only a few times, but I always looked forward to reading his thoughts in the Bakersfield Californian, and I admire the work he did in establishing the Levan Center as a community hub.
By Jack Hernandez
Nose and mouth masked
as required he pushes the
sanitized shopping cart
through familiar aisles
where small choices
confront him, what wraps
to buy for lunch salads for
dinner apples or berries
for daily dietary guidelines.
As a young man once
he chose wide roads
to unknown futures,
leaps of faith that
winged him where he
could not have
known. Ah, the angst
Now he simply pauses
before some bagels
and cereal boxes. Ah, his cart
full he checks out,
wheels through the door,
with two familiar bags.
Leaps of faith no more.
Interview with Rachel Stratemeier, contributor to Writing Covid, Matt Woodman’s CSUB anthology which just came out this May.
By Carla Joy Martin
Rachel shared the following poem at the public reading held in the Humanities Building (HOB) on Friday, May 13th, 2022, at 6:00 p.m. It resonated with us because we are also concerned and saddened by the lack of water that is in the Kern River (see our interview with Jonathan Yates, the man behind the “Bring Back the Kern” movement. Just type “Jonathan Yate” in the search box and the article will appear).
I remember when there was water in the river. We used to drive to the tiny parking lot on the edge of an old water-reserve where people who wished they were at the beach came to see the sunset. I rode my bike, a trusty, pink Christmas present that was serving me in its fifth year, down the bike lane. “You don’t swim in that river” repeated in my head as I passed it. My friend died in that river. And like a spilled pitcher of lemonade off the kitchen counter, it flowed as though it never hurt a soul in all the world. I rode to the bird sanctuary: The river was beautiful because it was rare.
But there’s no water in the river anymore.
That was the last thing I did and the unresolved flew into the wind. I sat in a Panda Express and watched a concerned, blonde face talk to me on the television about how it was really happening. The wall-mounted set was drowning in its own thirst, news tickers frantically sweeping by so I might be lucky enough to be informed of the apocalypse. Everyone was terribly informed. Even Amazon was out of toilet paper. And a stone’s throw away from the river, at the neighborhood Target, nobody could hear the water draining away.
The water was going out of the river.
It was gone, suddenly. The world shut down in a matter of days. It was as if someone stopped time. The normal rhythms of life ceased to operate, the hum-drum, the grind, the release: It was as though none of it ever existed. In the face of a tiny foe, one that in its tininess was too powerful to conquer, our forces retreated. It was like Napoleon and Borodino. The Russians led him straight to their capital and let him and his men burn it dry. The only way to get rid of him was to give him exactly what he wanted, now that he had crossed the Dnieper.
But there isn’t any water in the river anymore.
Sundays became Mondays. Mondays became Tuesdays. Eventually, Thursdays became Saturdays, and Saturdays became Tuesdays, and then everyone lost track of it entirely. To mask or not to mask. To Fauci or not to Fauci. To cry, to scream, or to dream your way out of it. I thought of what I didn’t have only for a short time, because when I get forced into my own head, I can create utopia there. I wrote a novel. Then, I wrote another one, and I actually liked it. I’m like a cat that way. I get used to the routine, used to the mental habits and the solitude, and I can make a city in the sky out of mud, or a river out of tears.
But I still knew there wasn’t water in the river anymore.
And the thing about cats: They don’t like change. They’re moody, temperamental. You can never tell what they’re thinking, and whether or not they’ll listen to you, and they most likely won’t. They’ll do what they want, and they’ll inform you about it when it’s convenient for them. Taking a dog and forcing it to be a cat is like condensing air. The particles get closer together, their motion faster, their collisions more frequent. It gets hot in there. The pressure against the cylindrical container grows and grows. Then the dog is a cat. And all of a sudden, you’ve got something explosive on your hands. You know what they say about a dream deferred? It doesn’t dry up like a raisin in the sun. It explodes like a can of over pressurize air and gasoline. It howls like a chained dog. It pulses like water behind a shoddy dam.
And there isn’t any water in the river.
Who knows when they dammed up the river? It was before I was born, before they built the park by the Target and the McDonald’s as per a city-councilman’s bad idea. They let the water flow down that far for about a year, and then it stopped. It was too dry. Water was at a premium. People wondered why they lived in this backwater. To me, all of it was normal: dryness, dustiness, a parched look to the trees that were fooled into thinking this place was their home.
Then the spring seemed to blossom. The water flowed in the river again, people frolicked in it irresponsibly, my first-grade best friend, now fifteen, went swimming in the river, was swept away by the current and drowned. Consequently, wildflowers bloomed everywhere. The ratio of sun and rain was right to make this dirty, dusty, dry city something to marvel at. It co-incited with the dawn of my possibilities. Dreams, horrors, joys were all conceived in the warm, meandering waves. I had my first real crush. I had my first real ambition. I had my first real sadness. Childhood is like a soft, snowy winter. It’s pretty, but it melts into a spring of electric sunsets and water in the river.
The year of the COVID-19 pandemic had little rain. People praised the sunny weather, saying it made them feel less depressed. I couldn’t disagree. It would have been unbearable to be deprived of the sun. But the river didn’t have any water in it. It still doesn’t. Perhaps this year, the snow in the mountains will melt and the river will flow once again like it did before.
But today, when I passed that parking lot, it was empty.
There wasn’t any water in the river.
Q. What inspired you to write your poem? What is its back story?
A. This poem was inspired by a writing assignment I received from Matthew Woodman while taking his creative writing class at CSUB. In it, I had to write a poem with a repeating line that dealt with the Coronavirus pandemic. For some reason, I could not stop thinking about the Kern River and how I would ride past it on my bike before the pandemic. It was full of water then, and I thought it was beautiful. Additionally, I had many memories connected to the river, some good, some bad. I thought making that the focal point of my poem would allow me to talk about the pandemic in a complex and interesting way.
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. Though most of my reading in recent years has focused on fiction, I have come to appreciate the work of T.S. Eliot. His poems strike a balance between lyric and prosaic, which I like. I have also been influenced by Tolstoy, Tolkien, and the Bronte sisters immensely, and I am interested in any literature that examines humanity on a personal level, giving insight into an individual’s experiences.
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. Here is my best advice: If you want to write a poem, write it! Don’t worry about whether or not it’s good or if other people will like it. The most important value in any art is the value you get from creating it. In other words, just enjoy it! Also, it’s important to remember the first draft of your poem doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s always room to go back and change something later or to take a new approach. I will often write a poem or a story, let it sit for a few days, and then change it drastically. I also need an environment that is free of distractions while I write. I tend not to work well in busy or loud environments, and I find I don’t have as much fun when I can’t focus solely on writing. My favorite place to write is in my room, but I will often get ideas while I’m out in nature or listening to my favorite music.