By Walter Stormont
Photos by Ezekiel Espanola
Flora: the Yucca Plant, the Golden Poppy, the Giant Sequoia and the Kern County Larkspur.
Fauna: the Roadrunner, the Kit Fox, the Golden Trout and the Honeybee.
All the above are examples of plants and wildlife native to California. Each was immortalized in poetry shared by local authors whose works are collected in Writing Flora, Writing Fauna: A Collection of Poems from the Southern San Joaquin Valley. It’s the third in the “Writing” series conceived and edited by English professor Matthew Woodman of California State University, Bakersfield. The books are published in collaboration with the Walter Stiern Library. They can be purchased through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
On April 10 in the library’s stately Dezember Room, the tome’s contributors gathered to recite their works before a gathering of about 100 aficionados, many of whom received a copy of the beautiful anthology. It was one of a series of events organized to mark National Poetry Month.
Annis Cassels of Writers of Kern put in a good word for her group and noted, “I’m thrilled to see seven of our members represented in this book.”
CSUB Outreach Librarian Terezita Overduin kicked off the evening by welcoming the poets and audience and introducing the evening’s emcee, professor Woodman. He in turn called each contributing poet to the microphone after sharing their biographies from the book.
One by one, the poets presented their thoughts on flora and fauna in verse. They spoke from the heart, some even using visual effects and a bit of performance skills. At one point, Mother Nature, who was being celebrated, actually got in on the act as Tim Vivian recited “The Startling Wild Grasses of Amsterdam.” Blustery winds outside caused a dramatic whistling sound through a couple of side doors, which added to Tim’s moment.
When David Kettler came up to recite his selections, “The Snake” and “Cold Grass,” he quipped, “This is the first time I’ve read a poem and it wasn’t at a wedding or a funeral.” His skillful rhyming, sometimes with a touch of humor, proves why he is often called upon to do public presentations.
Professor Woodman has already announced the topics for next year’s anthology: Bakersfield and Sound, so surely the tumblers of many poetic minds are now spinning.
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Several of the Flora and Fauna authors agreed to answer a few questions about themselves and one of their featured poems.
Among them is Don Thompson, Poet Laureate of Kern County, who told the gathering, “The poetry scene in Bakersfield is amazing. There are things going on in the big city that don’t match this.” His website, don-e-thompson.com, is where you can find out about his books and chapbooks, including the latest collection, From Here On: Four Sunday Drives.
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Sequence In Which The Roots Could Be Praying For Us
By Don Thompson
- Burned Chaparral
The deep roots could be praying
Inaudibly, taking time
From their own slow recovery
To make intercession for ours.
The wreckage of this almond grove,
Dead leaves the color of dried blood,
Shouldn’t trouble anyone—unless
Every loss reminds you of all losses.
The sparse shade beneath it tattered
Like rotten cloth, it has nothing to offer.
Dry branches twist in on themselves,
Choosing half-death as a way of life.
Among things that feed on light,
Communion: faith in rain,
Fear of drought, of fire and pale nodes
For which there is no known cure.
In the rain, burnt umber nut trees
Finally come to the dark end
Of the brown scale. That means
We’ll see leaf buds in less than a month.
From here to the barren hills,
Nothing but sand grass and thistles—
Except for one spindly mesquite
With roots six inches deeper than doubt.
* * * *
QUESTIONS FOR DON THOMPSON:
From first thought until completion, how long would you say it took to write this poem?
It depends on how you look at it: an hour or so in one sense and fifty years in another.
This is an interesting form, the “sequence” format. Is it your own invention?
A whole book of stand-alone quatrains would be tedious, I think, so I wanted to find some way to gather them into groups around a subject of some sort. Ultimately, these groups will accrue since I tend to write about the same things over and over: trees, rocks, and critters. The idea of calling them “sequences” occurred to me, then the wicked impulse to add something quirky or goofy.
Tell us about your routine as a poet. Are you always thinking about it? Do you carry a notebook around?
No notebook. But I’ve always written daily for the most part, early in the morning since there’s no way I would have had any energy left after working all day. Retired, I keep up the routine, being a notoriously inflexible creature of habit.
What is the first poem you remember writing (and some background on it)?
As I recall, I was reading Marianne Moore and came upon a phrase that set off something in me. I jotted down a ditty beginning with those words: “I saw a bat by daylight.” Surprisingly, it was published in a poetry mag in 1964. Of course, this story may not be true – only a true memory.
How often, if at all, do you use rhyme in your poetry?
I spent a year (about ten years ago) writing only rhyme and meter. Never could publish those things as a book, but you can find them as a free e-book online if you’re interested. It’s called Nowhere. There should be a link to it on the website: San Joaquin Ink (don-e-thompson.com).
What would you say to encourage the budding or aspiring poets out there?
Read. Write, even if it’s only practice. If a poem drifts by, you’ll miss it if you’re not sitting there waiting. Also, I have a Latin motto on my desk: “Opus fac. Nihil aliud valet.” (Do the work. Nothing else matters.)
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A third-year English major at CSUB, Andrea Franco selected an example of flora that many of us can relate to:
* * * *
By Andrea Franco
She sits there, peacefully.
Occasionally swaying back and forth
As the forceful winds
Of winter nights approach.
She sits there, puzzled.
Not knowing her purpose,
Nor understanding the means
Of her existence.
She sits there, impatiently
Waiting upon his arrival.
Hoping he’ll finally act
On his temptation.
Dressed in red,
Bursting of exotic beauty,
She screams, settling the voices
Of those around her.
She is the outspoken one
Sitting quietly among the ones
Less talked about.
Although grown, she blooms
At the sight of him.
Observation is no longer enough.
He must have her. Cherish her.
Not just momentarily, rather,
For all of eternity.
He reaches for her- nature’s gift,
Finally ceasing to resist the urge.
Carrying her away,
She sits peacefully in palm.
No longer impatient.
No longer puzzled.
* * * *
QUESTIONS FOR ANDREA FRANCO:
What prompted you to write this poem?
“Rose” was inspired by my fondness of roses, specifically red ones. I find that a rose’s beauty lies in its intricacy, and its rich, intense red pigment is incredibly luring to the naked eye. It’s hard to pass by one without taking a second glance. Not only did I want to express the beauty of a flower such as this one, I wanted to express the beauty of unconditional love.
Is the poem written in any particular form or style?
This poem was written in free form. I did want each stanza to convey a certain idea, however, rather than focus too much on the structure of it, I was preoccupied with making sure the poem clearly captured all my thoughts and ideas. I find it is most satisfying to have my ideas expressed in full, on the page, rather than making sure I write a sonnet or develop a poem that uses a specific poetic meter. The use of imagery and personification helped capture the ideas I had for the creation of “Rose.”
How long did it take to craft your poem “Rose”?
It took about a week to craft “Rose.” Each day I worked on it I spent hours on end trying to mold it to perfection. I tend to be a little picky, so I wanted to make sure I felt nothing but fulfillment when reading the poem entirely. I wanted to make sure it expressed romanticism, and that it rolled off the tongue as a sort of love story while reading it. I can honestly say I am quite happy with the result.
When did you start exercising your poetic gift, and what caused you to want to be a poet?
Since youth, I’ve always thought there was a sort of sophistication that came with being able to develop your own piece of literature. I’ve always been fond of novelists and poets and appreciated their intelligence. Although I felt this way at a young age, I never really had the urge to write works of my own until recently. I did, however, craft one poem when I was about ten years old. It was inspired by the hardships my mother was going through at the time. I wanted to express what she may have been feeling so she could read it and relate to it. Now, I’ve been writing poems and short stories for a creative writing class I am taking, which has given me the want to continue expressing myself through writing when the class is over.
Do you have a favorite poet?
I can appreciate the works of all poets, however, I would not necessarily say I have a favorite. There are a few poems that spark my interest belonging to different authors. These include: “Tell the truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson, “To My Dear and Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet, and “Sadie and Maud” by Gwendolyn Brooks. These are the few poems I have come across that stuck with me. I enjoy the way Bradstreet expresses passionate love in her poem, as well as the underlying message and suggested meaning in Dickenson’s and Brooks’ poems.
As a poet, what is your routine like, or is there one? Do you write every day?
I do not have a set routine when it comes to writing poetry. I do, occasionally, write down how I’m feeling. Finding the words to express myself verbally is a struggle for me, so I sometimes like to sit down and give myself time to think about how I would like to describe the way I’m feeling and write it down. I would like to start writing in a diary, daily, and use it as a reference to write more poetry.
What is your normal poetic style? Do you use rhyme often?
I am very much fond of poems that rhyme. I also like reading poems I can easily comprehend, rather than ones I would start pulling my hair out to try and decipher. That being said, I enjoy writing poems that rhyme and can easily be understood. Making sure a poem rhymes, however, is not always a main concern. With “Rose,” my main concern was making sure it captured a sort of romantic flare. It is most important that all my poems capture the concept I initially had for each of them.
Please tell us a about yourself… where you grew up, your family, anything you would like to share.
I am originally from Santa Maria, California. I am 21 years old and have no siblings. I’ve always been socially awkward, at least, that’s what I think. It has always been incredibly difficult for me to interact with people partly because I struggle communicating verbally, and because I don’t know how to be myself. As cliché as this may sound, I don’t really know who I am entirely. One of my biggest difficulties is forcing myself to stray away from conformity. I don’t want to act a certain way or do certain things because people tell me to. I want my actions to be the result of my true feelings, and I want those feelings to be accepted by others. I may be rambling here, but I mention these things not only because it’s incredibly therapeutic, but also because I want those who can relate to feel better knowing they’re not alone. You’re not alone. On a new note, I have two amazing parents who express their love for me in their own unique way. How hard they work to take care of me and provide a sense of stability is beyond incredible. They have endured so much, and still they fight for achievement. Still they remain sane, even if one argues otherwise. Still they are the kindest known to man, and still they conquer the world.
As a poet, do you have any goals?
My goal is to create works of literature people can relate to. I want to express myself through poetry in hopes my finished works will touch the souls of others. I also want to continue expressing my love of love.
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Mateo Lara has published two books of poetry, Kita-Miha and Other Poems and La Futura Tuga, plus a chapbook, X, Marks the Spot. These are all available on Amazon. He has also had works published in Orpheus and The New Engagement. A note to keep in mind as you read the Q&A: Mateo attests he enjoys cheap wine and bad horror movies.
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By Mateo Lara
Pardon its lethal dose, side-winding its way through California dystopia.
Forgive vicious flicking, glare sharp, piercing through thin skin,
Satisfying quick tantrums.
The real: do not tread on me.
It must resist, look for heart, sweltering, hissing,
Bit into every fiber of your identity.
Rattling against a temple, conveying power,
This pattern bursting on hazardous journey through golden state terra.
And I’m hissing now, I’m cold-blooded,
Minding my own, witness the dry storm of us.
Scales connecting brown skin
Between ivory fang, poisonous to the veins,
Let me strike you. I will love you like you are non-threatening.
And the click-clack, is just my warning.
My tribal noise is just reminding you.
Leave me where I need to be, and walk the other way,
You’ve done enough, your first error, was coming here.
Yellow eyes, fixed on radiating warmth, scent through my tongue,
I cannot let go, I remember what you taste of.
* * * *
QUESTIONS FOR MATEO LARA:
What prompted you to choose this topic for your poem?
Well, we were instructed to write a poem based on California fauna. I didn’t want to do something traditional. I am sure someone might have done the kit foxes, or the birds, or California bear, you know, just something like that. So, I decided to go the reptile route and see what was native to California. I picked the rattlesnake because it gets a bad reputation for being venomous but oftentimes, it is because people go into its territory and get bit. Reptiles mind their business, so with my poem I wanted to make it about the rattlesnake, but also how people just want to be loved, but sometimes it is hard to do that because they have a bad reputation as a toxic person.
Can you say how much time you spent on it? Did it come quickly or was it a gradual process?
I was sitting on a line for a poem for a long time. I didn’t know how to incorporate it or make it more. When this prompt came up, it fit perfectly with the idea I was going for. The line was: “I will love you like you are non-threatening”, and the rest of the poem gradually came. I think I wrote it in like three days. After getting the prompt.
What reaction have you gotten to the poem?
Some people think it’s one of my better poems. They like the comparisons of the rattlesnake to human beings.
What is the worst horror movie ever made? Does that make it the best?
I think the worst horror ever made was probably any of the movies from the Leprechaun franchise. No, it does not make it the best. My favorite horror movie is Nightmare on Elm Street.
Okay, back to poetry… When and how did you become interested in poetry?
I was interested in poetry in high school, but I didn’t take it seriously until my freshman year of college. I had always been writing, but I never had a specific outlet to put my thoughts and observations, but I found poetry and it helped put everything together.
Do you have a preferred form, or do you mostly “do your own thing?”
I usually write in free verse. Sometimes I add rhyme schemes, just depends on where the poem wants to go, but I usually stick to free verse. I like it because of the freedom and different styles that have emerged from it.
What is it about poetry that keeps you writing it?
I think there is something important to say. Finally, I’ve found that is okay to empower myself through words. Whether bringing power to the LGBTQ+ community or the Latinx community, poetry helps me say what I need to say. If something is bothering me or someone is hurting me or the world is doing something, I have this outlet to bring it out there and discuss it. Poetry has many forms and reasons and it is inherently political, identity politics and world politics, whatever comes to the front and burns in my heart. Well, I can talk about it. We each have a unique perspective and poetry helps lend our voices to the fight for change and understanding.
Are you interested in writing a novel, or being a playwright or other writing pursuits?
Yes! I hope to write one novel in my life. I do want to keep writing plays and maybe screenplays. I have been working on plays and short film scripts, so maybe I’ll keep pursuing these other writing outlets while Poetry stays my focus.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Delano, California. I moved to Bakersfield in 2005. My life was definitely different back then than it is now. I did a complete 180 as an individual. I am learning more about myself and learning to love myself more after years of hating who I was. My mom basically raised me and my brothers by herself, with help from my grandma and grandpa, but mostly it was a rough time, but we were always taken care of. I like horror movies, cheap wine, and I know that life is a growing process and I will always grow and get better if I am open to it.
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Sidney Russell and her sister Bailey Russell are not only identical twins who dress exactly alike, they have identical goals in life: to become pediatricians and authors. They are pursuing PhDs in English before attending med school, and they both work at CSUB’s Writing Resource Center. They and their mother, Caroline Russell, are all published in Writing Flora, Writing Fauna. For now, we’ll let Sidney represent the family.
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One Stalk for All the State
By Sidney Russell
Standing Proud and strong
In the field beneath the sun
On the mountainside
In the day and in the night
Swaying gently with the breeze
A vibrant orange
Like the fire, like the dawn,
Deep green too as the verdant grass
Reaching for the sky, never trembling
Signaling the power and the grace
Of the entire state and all its glory
And the majesty of a mother so enduring
Even in the driest years,
Yes, even in the drought
Still quietly standing, never stirring
Though lessened mass not at all diminished
In the eye of the beholder
A symbol of so much
Yet so little of frame, of stature
This is the California Poppy.
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QUESTIONS FOR SIDNEY RUSSELL:
How did you go about preparing to write your poem? Did you study up on the California Poppy?
I actually didn’t study the California Poppy for this particular poem, but I have always been fascinated by them. When we were little, Bailey and I got to go on field trips (or the equivalent of them for home-schooled students) with our grandparents which were in the wilderness looking at wildflowers (Grandma had studied botany and knew a lot about them making it more than just seeing a flower or two – we even learned some of the edible ones like Miner’s Lettuce, Brodiaea, and Lemon Grass). When the flora/fauna topic came up, I had a hard time picking what plant to write about because there are just so many wonderful ones, but eventually I decided to write about one that stuck in my mind – the California Poppy. I remember driving by a hill covered with the orange flowers when we were little – orange is my favorite color by the way, so it really stood out to me – and then I got to thinking about how the Poppy is also our state flower and how it represents so much, and I wanted to write a poem that reflected that. The rest just sort of flowed without much more preparation than Googling a picture so that I could check the color of a poppy stem.
Was there any other example of the state’s flora that you considered?
Yes, I considered many other plants in the state. One was the Redwood, but, ultimately, I thought the image of a small, delicate flower that was somehow representative of us all just might make a mightier poem than the more obvious ancient and towering Redwoods. Still, it was a close call.
In your busy life, how often do you find time to sit down and exercise your poetic gift?
Rather than finding time to sit down and exercise my poetic gift, poems just sort of knock me over the head and I scramble to find somewhere to write them down. I’m always on the go, whether in classes or working at the Writing Resource Center, or at an academic conference (three of the four weekends in April), so my poems tend to be written in weird places like in the back of a notebook (I have actually taken to writing notes only on the front side of the page so that the back is free for poems, story ideas, and sketches), on a napkin (I have pens that I carry for just that purpose), in an obscure Word document on my laptop that I may have to hunt down later, or on some scrap of paper – I’ve even emailed a short snippet of a poem to myself. I try to make time at least once a week to formally sit down and write, but I find keeping schedules like that is rather difficult and I would rather write when the mood strikes me – I just have to be prepared to multitask!
What poets, if any, would you consider your inspirations?
Oh, there are so many poets I consider inspirations that it is hard to list them all. Among them are my Mom who taught me to write (she was my teacher until I started high school), J.R.R. Tolkien whose snippets of poetry and verse throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stick with me always, and Shakespeare (as well as anyone else who has the patience to write in Iambic Pentameter! I do occasionally and find it fun, time consuming, and sometimes difficult.)
Have you and your twin sister ever collaborated on a poem, maybe trading off stanzas?
Bailey (my twin sister) and I often collaborate when we write – not just poems, but stories as well. That said, there is no rhyme or reason to how we co-write. Sometimes it’s by line or stanza; other times, we just start talking and see where it goes. We are also each other’s critics – so a poem that you see of mine has usually been read at least once by Bailey for feedback and vice versa.
Did you ever consider writing a novel? If so, what would it be about?
Consider! I have already started writing a novel – a few to be exact – and on all different topics. One is based in a country after a war has just ended, following the 17-year-old female leader of the victorious army who feels responsible for all the deaths in the war. Another is set in a more fantasy-like world (Tolkien-esque, if you will). As for any other details… those are a secret until they’re written!