On not being named poet laureate …
In between decorating your Easter eggs and being buffeted by the strong winds of Natural Heritage 2020, you may have heard that, like many other states in the union, we are going to have a real poet laureate of California soon. This comes to pass because last year, the politician who had appointed himself in that role for many decades finally died.
You may also have heard that the initial pool of candidates nominated for the post numbered only seven as of the deadline last month, and a hint was sent out through the media for more (the selection committee had been expecting a figure closer to 250, since California is full of good poets).
This plea worked, and the pool swelled to 55 potential laureates, of whom three were chosen as finalists and their names submitted to Gov. Gray Davis last week. He will make the final decision. Not really to my surprise, my name was not among them, although I was one of the 55.
The finalists are all wonderful poets, beloved in very different ways by their peers, and known to the population at large to different degrees. They are Diane Di Prima, one of the only female Beat poets from that eclectic group that had so much fun in the ’50s and ’60s in San Francisco; Francisco Alarcon, a Hispanic poet and children’s book author who’s done interesting work with Mayan forms and teaches at UC Davis; and Quincy Troupe, a black poet working in a more performance-oriented style in Southern California (he’s won the Taos Poetry Slam at least once).
I have to say it was with some relief that I read their names. I think whomever Gov. Davis chooses, the fate of California’s poetic reputation will be in good hands. And if it had been me, I’m not sure that would be the case.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m not a good poet – I’m very good. And it isn’t that I couldn’t go speak to kids about words and language – I’m due at Seven Hills School in about an hour to do just that. I can even write a decent poem-on-demand for a holiday or stately occasion (which is a different sort of art than regular poetry writing).
The trouble is, I’m just not venerable yet. I haven’t put in enough time. And furthermore, I’m pretty much famous only in my own backyard.
Diane DiPrima began her writing career when I was 5. Quincy Troupe started when I was 20. It’s not really a matter of age, though, since Francisco Alarcon is only two years older than I am. But he became a writer early in his life, whereas I only started writing 10 years ago. In honor of California, I was willing to suffer those awkward moments when some poet I have studied and looked up to for years said, “Molly who?” But it’s great that I don’t have to.
The whole business got me thinking about what the word “laureate” means, words being one of the tools of my trade. Laureate has to do with honor, of course, and comes from the Roman (or was it Greek? – my dictionary does not say) tradition of placing a wreath of laurel leaves on the head of someone who’d won a foot race or done some other worthy thing. In essence, it’s a blessing, a measure of praise.
And it occurs to me, mixing metaphors, that the shoe is really on the other foot: It’s not the poet who should be wearing the laurel. What poets do all day is praise the world they see around them; they are giving out laurels all the time to the subjects of their poems and, in that sense, every poet is a laureate.
Therefore, without any help from Gray Davis, I am already a poet laureate for California, especially for this little corner of the state. I’m poet laureate of the half-demolished building at the corner of Pine and Commercial streets in Nevada City, of the ash still caught in nearby gutters, of the McCourtney Road Transfer Station and the noisy trucks hauling the debris.
I’m poet laureate of the SPD parking lot, whose spacious length I’ve immortalized in a sexy poem.
I’m laureate of Seven Hills School, and my students there are laureates of everything they write about: basketball, wild animals, their friends. I’m laureate of all the die-hard lands-rights advocates and every tree-hugging, river-bathing environmental soul; of the smoke rising from Burger King’s funnel and lingering over Brunswick Basin.
I’m the laureate of Steve Baker’s” Morning Show” on KVMR and Monica’s dance class at Club Sierra, of the library’s main branch Books on Tape section, Arco’s pumps for regular unleaded, of B&C at 8 in the morning over by the bolts and screws.
Every poet in this phenomenally literary county is a laureate, from Gary Snyder (now that’s venerable) to the new voices on Radio Poets Society (self-consciously anti-venerable) – from Chris Olander at 6-foot-4 to Roo Cantata, 5-foot-maybe.
And isn’t it wonderful? I love an egalitarian ending. What luck that there’s room for all of us together, and how necessary it is, for there is so much waiting to be praised.
Molly Fisk is a poet and writer from Nevada City.
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