Marin County's rich wellspring of poetry has generated many groups of writers who come together regularly to help one another in the subtle art of composing poems. At least one such group of women poets has been at it for more than a decade, meeting every other week to share and critique one other's work. What makes a group like this successful? The responses below reveal the character, diversity, and successful chemistry of this group.
What brought each of you to poetry?
What led me to poetry was winning a contest in the 6th grade for a poem I wrote about my pillow. I can still remember it:
A pillow's the place you rest your head
When you are in your nice soft bed
You sink into your pillow slowly
You cry in it when you feel lowly
You clonk people with it when you are happy
But it's the best when you feel nappy!
I think Wordsworth started out pretty much the same way.
I always wanted to write, maybe it was growing up in Minnesota -- those long winters. I found poetry at Emeritus College of Marin around 25 years ago, and found my mentor, Tom Centolella, around the same time. I've studied with other poets, but always circled back to him. If something works, keep at it.
At seven I wrote my first poems in the form of greeting card text. My dad said they were better than what we found on [commercial] cards. It didn't look like much of a career, so I drew pictures for a while. At the age of 10 I had read, thanks to my dad, "Call of the Wild" and on my own, "The Count of Monte Cristo." My favorite radio program was "The Lone Ranger," partly because of the music. I'm fond of the William Tell Overture to this day. I rewrote the Lone Ranger because his character seemed a little one-sided. "Mom," I would call, "How do you spell 'unconscious?'" She knew I was up to something. At twelve I asked her, "What do I do when I've read all the good books?" She kept a straight face and said almost the only positive comment I remember her making to me about my writing: "Maybe you'll write one yourself."
I grew up in Germany reading poets such as Schiller, Goethe, Eichendorf and Rilke. I did not start writing poetry until 1990. My poems are written mostly in English although the subject matter reflects my German heritage.
In the early nineties, I was writing memoir in a class taught by Tom Centolella. Surrounded by poets, I began to experiment and discovered that I could express the essence of my experiences in poetry form. Fewer words and "the best words in the best order." For me the creative process clarifies and heals. I'm putting together a group of poems about my husband's enduring twelve years of Alzheimer's. Actually it's the story of my survival. Tom Centolella continues to be my inspiring teacher.
How did you all find each other?
In 1998 the group was formed. We were taking a poetry class at Book Passage. Our teacher was Dianna O'Hehir, who had been head of the Creative Writing Department at Mills College. Students came from all over the Bay Area. Seven of us decided to continue writing together. In the past thirteen years, participants have changed, but the spirit stays the same.
I had to work as a legal secretary -- a wipe-out job for writing anything with detail, so one day my friend Louise Murphy suggested we take a poetry writing class taught by a Dianna O'Hehir. She was a good teacher, but I loved some of the other students. When the class ended, I couldn't stand to let go of them. Others felt the same so we decided to keep meeting. That was 12 or more years
ago. I still write poetry because, as I said before, some things can only be said as a poem.
I met these fine women in the Book Passage writing class taught by Dianna O'Hehir. They were very cool and good writers and already good friends. But I screwed up my courage to ask, "um, if they knew of any writing groups that wanted a new member?" And they welcomed me with open arms.
What makes this group work so well?
I love the people in the group. The act of writing poetry opens a door into the soul. Sharing that for years with the same women is such a blessing. Also, sometimes what you are writing seems so apparent to you that you can be surprised when others don't see it. That is useful, after all, you want your work to be accessible. Then there is the necessity of a poem for the next meeting. It keeps you working.
It's an organic and beautiful thing. We really enjoy one another, and we love and respect each other's writing, and are good stewards with the work that has been placed in our hands when we critique each other's poems. After doing an MFA program and some other workshops, I no longer let strangers critique my work -- only people I know and trust, and only people whose writing I love and respect. A good writing group is like gold. And besides, Ella always makes popcorn.
Our group works so well because we're not competitive. This is rare. Each person listens with the writer's work and style in mind (rather than her own style) and offers anything, big or little, she thinks might make it clearer or more of what it already is. I feel absolutely SAFE with this group. You have to feel safe to put
out there the tenderest, most vital, inner realizations.
We meet every 2 weeks, [a time frame] which keeps us very connected to our writing and sharing of poems. I so much appreciate this supportive environment. I respect and admire the writing of each one of our group: their unique approaches and styles. I treasure their feedback and always work on refining my poems. Since English is not my native language, I don't always catch mistakes of prepositions or awkwardness of expression; this is why it helps me to have other people reading and commenting on my writing. After a meeting I often get new ideas to write about. We feel comfortable with each other and share our vulnerable side in some of our personal accounts. We are not only poets but also friends who share a part of our being with each other.
I love these women and the ones we've added. Sometimes when I go to the meeting I don't have a poem, but I go to hear what they've come up with.
I would encourage anyone without a group to form one. Just ask, eventually you will succeed. Then what is required is a sincere desire to help each other achieve the best that they can do, and to do that with tact and affection.
- Reviewed by Joseph Zaccardi
, published by Red Berry Editions, is a work of art; from the way the poems are placed on the page, to the font by John Baskerville, whose letter "J" levitates above and anchors below, the lower cased letters. And to the art of Art Riggs, whose peaceful and monochromatic photograph of branches along a river wraps around the entire book.
The first section, "Listen," opens with the title poem, "Bare Branches." Its tone is prayer-like. The last stanza, a couplet, ends with these words of inspiration and contemplation, "Soon, I hope snow will come. Like a poem, / a miracle each time it arrives." What follows are poems of loss and loneliness. The poems rise up from experience, from remembrance of a lived and shared life with Stephanie's husband John. The impressions build from poem to poem, from place to place: Pittsburgh, and the imaginary "…town of Lionel," to a child's tale and a childhood's end, to the 1960s World Series baseball game. This is not confessionalism, these are the day-to-day happenings that we recognize in ourselves; because Stephanie Mendel writes about the universal, she writes to and for the reader. We become a part of her joys, her hopes, her love, and, yes, the tragedies of her life.
These poems feed the heart as surely as blood in the veins feeds the body. Why do these poems of loss and sorrow bring us not toward hopelessness, but rather toward the truth? They do so because, as the poet writes, "…I couldn't tell this to anyone / only interested in logic." (p.33) Perhaps there's an analogy here, that one must experience hunger to fully appreciate fulfillment. The opposites of satisfaction and deprivation strengthen both the body and the spirit. There are in Bare Branches poems that are meaningful but playful, such as "Secrets," and "When Bill Mazeroski Hit His Home Run." And in "Visitor to Vinahaven," and "Ode to Living Alone," poems of pleasure. The unhappy and joyous parts of all our lives are celebrated in these songs and poems. The poet raises her voice, and says that each day will become smaller, a reminder of the ones we have loved and lost; that each day there will be minutes that no one else can find. We become a choir. The breath inside the body itself. There are shadows in Mendel's poems, they exist and they are not left unexpressed, they are not floating in the nebulous. They are discernible and solid.
In the second section, "The Beginning," Mendel takes us through the horrible day, Tuesday, September 11, 2001. She relives, relates, and tries to comprehend the terrible acts committed on this day and how it affected all of us; not just in America but throughout the whole world. She recalls the conversations between relatives and friends. The phone calls. The ringing and ringing. How we all struggled to return to some kind of normalcy. I'm reminded of the poet T. Carmi, who wrote about an equally difficult time in Israel and Lebanon that took place forty years earlier. I quote here a few lines from his poem, "Diary Entry:" "I keep to my schedule. / First stop: the accountant. / What can be accounted for on such a day? / The pocket calculator lights, turns off, / adds up; it stores, remembers, / predicts what is to come."
The final section in Bare Branches
is "Every Moment a Threshold." That title alone makes me hold my breath. I know what will transpire; I know her beloved husband John is going to die. I say to myself, I will read these last poems slowly. I will hold each page between my fingers and let what must come to pass, settle in, slow down time; even back away from the threshold; let hours pass before going on to the next poem, maybe let a day or few days go by. I think while you're reading this you know what I'm going to write next. I read all the poems straight through, almost in a rush. Line breaks and stanzas blurred. And at the end I stopped. I said out loud in a soft voice, No! Then as I promised myself, I re-read each poem with care; let the weight of what they held coalesce.
I find it interesting that Bare Branches
comes after her first collection, March, Before Spring
, seamlessly, and can only believe that there is yet another book to come that will complete a trilogy. From reawakening to dormancy, where the life cycle is temporarily stopped, to the predictive; before the onset of an adverse condition occurs, to the consequential, to understanding. And to ask of oneself, is it the changing of the seasons that accounts for the absence of the leaves on the branches or the surcease of the life force? the untimely death of her husband John? It is, I think, both. It is the constant reminder of time passing.
I end this review, this tribute to a fine poet, with a short poem by her entitled, "Entering." (p.62)
Like the infant's outstretched arms
that eventually must push away,
you had to listen to death,
and I had to prepare to live.
and March, Before Spring
are available at Book Passage, in Corte Madera, Amazon.com and from National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association, NSDA online (no shipping fee or taxes).
Visit Stephanie Mendel's website at www.stephaniemendel.com
Previously published in Pacific Northwest Poetry Review 2011
Po Lo Corner
- An Update from Marin County Poet Laureate 'Lyn Follett
I am currently working on a Latino outreach in Point Reyes, and an American Indian outreach as well. The Corazon Latino in the Canal District continues as well.
ROAR has 13 active senior facilities with readings monthly, every other month or quarterly. The response from the leaders, the readers and the listeners has been very heartening for all.
There are ten Poetry Exchange boxes around the county. I have more boxes, if anyone thinks of other venues. This includes schools, libraries, bookstores etc.
Don't forget to carry poems with you to leave in doctors' offices, post offices, on the bus, pinned to a tree, handed to someone on the street etc. Pass the Poem.
Wednesday Dec 7, 7:00 pm
in the Supervisors' Chambers at Sausalito City Hall, 420 Litho,
ROAR is sponsoring a performance of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by the wonderful Rebound Players
Nomination Process Opens for Third Marin Poet Laureate
On Thursday, December 1, nominations will be open to select the third Marin Poet Laureate. Application forms will be available through the Marin Arts Council website: www.marinarts.org
I will be completing my two-year appointment in March 2012.
The Martin Poet Laureate selection committee, having reviewed nominations, will meet in mid-February to interview nominees and select the next Poet Laureate, whose term will run from April 2012 to April 2014.
MPC Newsletter Editor Needed
Are you a poetry enthusiast? Do you love meeting fellow poets and talking shop? Are you interested in the happenings of the Marin County and greater Bay Area poetry world? If so, this is the job for you. Calvin Ahlgren and Kirsten Neff will be happy to show you the ropes if you are interested in editing the Marin Poetry Center's quarterly newsletter. Please contact
Kirsten Jones Neff email@example.com
or Calvin Ahlgren firstname.lastname@example.org
ASAP. Thank You.
Marin Poetry Center Monthly Reading Series
Third Thursdays @ 7:30 pm (unless otherwise noted)
Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission St. at E, San Rafael
MPC Annual Holiday Party and Read Around
Black Poets Read in Honor of Martin Luther King Day
Robert Sward and Joseph Stroud
Troy Jollimore and Dean Rader
International Poets Reading and Panel Discussion
For more information, visit www.marinpoetrycenter.org
or email Becky Foust or Cathy Shea at email@example.com
MPC Readers: Do you have a favorite poet? Maybe a secret favorite poet? We would like to
hear about that poet you believe everybody must read! Please introduce us to a poet, or remind
us why we must seek out or rediscover a certain poet. Please send your thoughts and inspirations
Open Mic/Poetry Critique at Falkirk Cultural Center, on the fourth Thursday of
each month (except Dec.), starting at 7pm. Bring ten copies of your poem, no more than
one page in length. This event is free, and is open to everyone.
1408 Mission Street, San Rafael. (No meeting during the month of December;
event resumes Thurs. Jan 26, 2012.)
Marin Poetry Center Bookgroup meets at 7pm the second Wednesday of each month, rotating
among living rooms of participants.
For more information contact Roy Mash:
A Child's Christmas in Wales
By Dylan Thomas
The Rebound Players
with Joel Eis, Colm Martin, Roy Mash, and Margaret Stawowy
||in the Supervisors' Chambers at Sausalito City Hall, 420 Litho.
||at Larkspur Library, 400 Magnolia, Larkspur.
||at Rebound Bookstore, 1611 4th St, San Rafael.
This event is sponsored by Marin Poetry Center, Larkspur Library, and
the Marin Poet Laureate program ROAR.
Poetry Farm is a monthly reading series held at Dr. Insomnia's Cafe in
Novato. This is a well-attended and high-spirited reading series now in its fifth year.
We feature one published author each month. If you would like to be
considered for our "Featured Farmer" spot, please send an email describing
your work to Kirsten@Neff.Org. Otherwise, come
join the audience or sign up for open mic.
Second Mondays, 7pm,
Dr. Insomnia's Cafe on the corner of Grant and Reichert in Novato.
December 12 7pm: the featured reader will be Sonoma County poet Greg Randall.
Sunset Poetry By The Bay
, has moved to the Second Wednesday
of the month.
Located at: Studio 333, 333 Caledonia Street, Sausalito.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011: Cecil Giscombe, Kathy Evans & Brian Kirven.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012: Stephanie Mendel, Karen Benke & Susan Woolridge.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012: Ellery Akers, Charles Entriken.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012: Chris Olander, Terri Glass & Bill Gainer
For more information, see:
Book Publication Announcement
All This, by Lily Iona MacKenzie, is now available through Amazon and
Little Red Tree Publishing’s website: www.littleredtree.com.
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mailing-list events notification, please contact
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MARIN POETRY CENTER
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