.New Beginnings: Poets read at Occidental Center for the Arts

This has been a good year, and is set to end on a positive note if Phyllis Meshulam has any say in the matter—and she does.

On Sunday, Dec. 18, from 4–5:30pm, she and numerous local poets will read their work from her new anthology, The Freedom of New Beginnings: Poems of Witness and Vision from Sonoma County, at West County’s own Occidental Center for the Arts (OCA). The free reading will be followed by a Q&A, as well as book sales and signing. Refreshments will be available, with wine, beer, coffee and tea for sale.

Containing work by 72 poets, most of them current or past county residents, the anthology is broken into three distinct sections borrowed from Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects—“gratitude,” “honoring our pain for the world” and “seeing with new eyes.” Attending authors will include Pamela Stone Singer, Lilah Tuggle, Raphael Block, Kat Winter, John Johnson, Iris Dunkle, Bill Greenwood and Donna Emerson, as well as Meshulam herself and three co-editors, Terry Ehret, Gwynn O’Gara and Gail King. Joy Harjo and Juan Felipe Herrera are among the numerous included poets who will not be in attendance.

Like many other Sonoma County artists and writers, Meshulam, a Sebastopol-based poet and educator, has past ties to OCA. In 2014, she edited a poetry lesson plan for California Poets in the Schools, and OCA hosted the book launch. She has also attended and read at past OCA poetry readings.

Meshulam, whose poem, “Oh, Gulf”—about the aftermath of an oil spill—is in the anthology, became the Sonoma County poet laureate in April of 2020 and served until June of 2022. This anthology is one of the projects that she described in her initial application. “I had an idea that I wanted to get a bunch of people to respond to the challenges of our times—environmental and racial and a whole bunch of things,” she says.

Unfortunately, COVID struck right about the time she assumed the mantle. In addition, her health suffered greatly during that period. So the release of the book took on extra meaning when it coincided with the end of the pandemic. “New beginnings come with the end of COVID,” she says.

Co-editor Gail King, of Monte Rio, launched her book, Hello Life, at OCA in 2014. “I am a huge supporter of what they do there, including music and literary events,” she says. “The great perk to Sonoma County brought by this anthology has been the revival of the huge literary community that has been out of touch or zooming for the last few years … now we are finding each other again.”

Sebastopol-based Gwynn O’Gara edited the “gratitude” section of the anthology, which contains two of her poems: “Ramalina and the Healing Forest” and “Autumn Equinox 2018.” OCA published her chapbook, Sea Cradles, in 2016 as part of a larger project.

“Poetry is alive and kicking in Sonoma County,” O’Gara says. “There’s wonderful, sustaining, nourishing poetry in the anthology. We’ll feed people’s souls, especially in the darkness of winter.”

Suze Cohan, who serves on OCA’s board of directors, notes that the event coincides with the first day of Hanukkah. “One of our illustrious volunteers suggested we honor that as well,” she tells me. “[So] I’ll provide a menorah, and we can feature special cookies and snacks!”

Cohan is pleased that this event will give OCA “an opportunity to end this year through the reflections of poetry.” She adds, “And then in January, we have Elizabeth Herron, our new poet laureate, to start off the New Year of hope and bravery with her new poetry collection, on Sunday, Jan. 29.”

With roots stretching back to 1998, nonprofit OCA was born of the wish to bring world-class talent to Occidental while creating “a space for local artists to perform, develop and display their work.” Per its website, the 10-mile radius of Occidental is home to some of the most talented musicians, artists and performers in Sonoma County. In addition, OCA “is located on the scenic Bohemian Highway and just minutes from world class vineyards, dining, tourist activities, the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River,” making it an optimal destination for day or weekend getaways.

OCA offers membership and art exhibits, and regularly hosts art, music and literary events in its auditorium and amphitheater. Ongoing programs include Gentle Yoga via Zoom, Watercolor Classes, Songwriting Circle, OCA Reader’s Theatre Group and Figure Drawing. Its annual Fool’s Parade, with live entertainment, children’s activities, an art contest and loads of foolish community fun, resumed in April 2022 after a two-year hiatus.

In addition, the OCA facility can be rented for events. Volunteers and donations are welcome and encouraged. Interested persons can sign up for OCA news, updates and events at www.occidentalcenterforthearts.org.

Sunday, Dec. 18, 4–5:30pm, Occidental Center for the Arts’ Literary Series presents a selection of poets from this year’s anthology, ‘The Freedom of New Beginnings: Poems of Witness and Vision from Sonoma County.’ OCA, 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental. 707.874.9392. Occidentalcenterforthearts.org

Mark Fernquest is intrigued by all things mysterious and unusual—including Occidental.

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