For the third time in as many weeks, prominent U.S. poets have visited Sacramento. Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate emeritus, read at SummerWords, the first annual American River Colloquium. Next came Dana Gioia. The poet and former National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) director, who developed the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition, read at the Northminster Presbyterian Church. This past Friday evening Kazim Ali, Robert Hass and Sharon Olds read their poetry to a near-capacity crowd in the Crocker Art Museum’s Setzer Auditorium.
Friday night’s reading was the 21st annual Squaw Valley Community of Writers’ Benefit Poetry Reading. This was the second benefit reading to be held in Sacramento after a move from San Francisco. The event was co-sponsored by the Sacramento Poetry Center and the El Dorado Arts Council.
Friday’s event could not have happened without the efforts of Moira Magneson, the event coordinator who mobilized a network of volunteers, including the Red Fox Underground, a poetry collective. Volunteers also included Shawn Pittard, Paco Marquez, Alice Anderson, Marcelo Hernandez and numerous people from northern California. The El Dorado Arts Council and an anonymous donor sponsored hotel lodging for the poets.
Magneson is also the coordinator for all Poetry Out Loud events in El Dorado County, and Shawn Pittard, who opened the evening’s events, is a past participant of the Community of Writers, one of Magneson’s assistants and a Poetry Out Loud coach for El Dorado County.
Pittard talked about his experience with Poetry Out Loud.
“For three years now, I’ve served as El Dorado County’s Poetry Out Loud Poetry Coach. I have had the pleasure of working with students in nine high schools, including juvenile hall. I work with students in groups… and then individually with each of the school winners to prepare them for the county-level contest. After we have a county winner, I’m joined by actress Heather Brooks Freer and we team-coach the county winner,” Pittard said.
“This year, Heather and I helped El Dorado County champion, Corbin Gomez, prepare for the state contest and we were thrilled when he won, and eager to continue coaching him in preparation for the National Finals. He was a pleasure to work with and we are so proud of his efforts and achievements. Hands down, this is the best job I’ve ever had.”
Pittard introduced Gomez, the California Poetry Out Loud champion who placed 12th in the national competition in Washington D.C., the highest for a California finalist.
Gomez recited “The Pomegranate and the Big Crowd” by Alberto Rios to an engaged crowd.
“He’s very good,” Hass said.
Robert Hass, Pulitzer Prize winner, U.S. Poet Laureate emeritus, director of the poetry program of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, poet, translator and essayist – opened by thanking everyone, “especially Moira.” Hass read from Claudia Rankine’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” before speaking about his poems that were influenced by a month-long stay in Rome.
The “city poems” became a theme throughout the evening. Hass read poems of San Francisco, New York and of Leiden, where “even the junk was neatly stacked.” Hass concluded his reading with a poem translated from Basho and the reminder that “inside that mystery is poetry.”
Hass introduced Kazim Ali, a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator who opened by reading C.D. Wright’s poem, “And It Came to Pass.” Ali spoke about his translation work of the Iranian poet, Sohrab Sepehri, before reading in a voice that captured the attention of the audience and showed this poet’s love for poetry. Ali read “Fairytale,” “Bright Felon-Deleted Scene #3,” and spoke at great length on topics from Oscar Wilde’s tomb to the death of Federico Garcia Lorca. Ali concluded his reading with “Laramie Journal,” in which he spoke of the “sapphire sky.”
Ali, a former attendee at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, introduced Sharon Olds.
“She’s one of the bravest women in the world,” he said, and spoke about her way of making “everything in the world” at stake in her poems. He spoke about her ability to make us read and experience the world she presents to help us understand more about our own world.
Olds expressed her gratitude to the audience and those who brought the event together, and then read her own work including, “Sitting on Stage,” a poem written, she said, “the morning after the last benefit reading.” The poem explored what might be going on in a poet’s mind as he or she sits on stage awaiting the chance to step up to the microphone.
Olds spoke about her forthcoming book and how she had lost “a banker’s box of poems,” then found them, but that one poem was missing. She spoke briefly about part of her revision process, then read “Ode to the Condom,” “Telling My Mother” and “Tahoe City, Softball Ode, January 2010,” as well as pieces from her just-filled notebook and new manuscript.
Gomez, Hass, Ali and Olds returned to the microphone for a group reading of “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, each taking turns reading a line or two. They tried to engage the audience, but there was more interest in hearing the poets onstage read than in participating.
After the reading, attendees had the chance to purchase books, all donated by publishers, to help raise scholarship funds for Community of Writers attendees, and to meet and speak briefly with Hass, Ali and Olds.