.State of North Bay Literary Arts

The existential threats to what writer Terry Southern called “the quality lit game” are real but ephemeral.

Epochal shifts in media monetization, algorithmic mishegoss and the alleged death (and apparent rebirth of print) all portended the death of Writing as we knew it, yet it persists.

From primordial narratives grunted around campfires to the proliferation of Substack newsletters proving that email (also once thought dead) is still a viable medium, storytelling will never die. The current literary boogeyman, generative artificial intelligence, will prove no more a threat to creative writing than the printing press was to the oral tradition. Different styles, different tools, different times. There will always be a place for 100% organic, human storytelling—and one of those places is the North Bay.

To wit, what follows is an informal, idiosyncratic survey of literary happenings that reached my fine-tuned cultural antennae (by which I mean my inbox). Each suggests, in its way, that the making of literature is alive and well in Sonoma and Napa counties—at least for the coming weeks.

Accordingly, this is not your typical “round-up” article that dutifully lists a bunch of shit happening in the scene. Rather, it’s a mosaic of moments that prove to me at least that the Quality Lit Game is still on.

For example, Riley O’Hara, a Sonoma Valley High School sophomore, is this year’s California Poetry Out Loud statewide champion. The annual competition, which encourages youth to learn about poetry through memorization and performance, was held March 17 and 18 in Sacramento, where the 16-year-old O’Hara took first place. He competed against high school students representing 51 California counties at the event.

Next, he’s onto representing the state of California (let alone Sonoma County and the future of poetry recitation itself) at the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest beginning April 29 in Washington, D.C.

On the docket? O’Hara performed three poems at the California statewide finals: “Sonnet #29” by William Shakespeare, “1969” by Alex Dimitrov and “We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen.

“I have always had a strong passion for creating things, especially things that can make others happy,” says O’Hara. “Poetry Out Loud has shown me that I’m able to go places I didn’t think I could, like how I did not expect to make it this far in the competition.”

As poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote in The Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month.” It’s also National Poetry Month. I’m not sure how that squares, but I do know that since the Academy of American Poets launched the annual celebration back in 1996, National Poetry Month has inspired tens of millions of readers, students, K–12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary event planners, curators and publishers to participate in 30 consecutive days of poetry.

To that end, Sebastopol’s North Bay Letterpress Arts (NBLA) is stepping up to the mic and hosting a reading featuring the laudable Laura Moriarty, Elizabeth Herron and youth poet Athena Ryan as part of its inaugural reading in a series highlighting literary and print arts.

San Francisco State University alumni like me might recognize Moriarty as the former director of the American Poetry Archives at the Poetry Center at SFSU. Likewise, locals will recognize Herron as the current poet laureate of Sonoma County. All this is to say that emerging voice Ryan is in good company.

The reading commences at 5pm, Sunday, April 7, at NBLA, 925-d Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol. The event is free to the public, though reservations are encouraged at bit.ly/nbla-poetry.

Meanwhile, in Petaluma, writer Matt Reischling is teeing up his latest offering, Transmissions From a Restless Soul: More Essays on Life. The Bohemian asked him: What compels you to commit and share your thoughts as an essayist and writer?

“I love the question. My first answer is, I don’t know, as in, there’s never been a master plan to present myself as an essayist. However, over the years, I’ve discovered that it’s a style of writing I find challenging and ultimately, liberating. Now, almost anyone can write an essay (remember junior high?), but the real art of it is finding the thread or arc and finishing somewhere with a new level of understanding about yourself and the world. And it should carry some emotional weight, even if it’s lighthearted in nature. Otherwise, what’s the point?” says Reischling.

He adds, “For me, it’s all in the rewriting. I don’t even start until I know there’s a precious metal in there somewhere, and then I grab my pickaxe and dig, like Daniel Day-Lewis at the start of There Will Be Blood. It’s a deeply frustrating process, but once you uncover (or discover, really) what you were trying to say in the first place, the sky clears up, and you finally feel the sun on your face.”

Another motivating factor, says Reischling, is proving to himself that his first essay collection, Almost Weightless: Essays on the Journey to Myself, wasn’t a fluke.

“I was also deeply moved by the emotional reactions some people were sharing with me about it, as some approached me, often quietly and privately, and cited specific scenes or passages that affected them,” recalls Reischling. “From that point on, I was hooked and immediately started the first essay of the new book, which (as mentioned) completely changed shape over time until it revealed what it wanted to be. Then, I started the next essay. Rinse, repeat.”

Transmissions From a Restless Soul will be released in mid-April and will be available wherever quality books are sold. Next up, Reischling will be shifting to fiction and revisiting a film project.

I trust you’re familiar with the concept of a pub crawl. To the uninitiated, it’s a Grand Tour of pubs, imbibing one or more drinks at each, eventually leading to questionable ambulatory skills. A “lit crawl” is the same thing, but with literature either substituting or supplementing the booze.

I’m unclear on Lit Crawl Sebastopol’s official position on this point, but its website touts four hours of “literary mayhem,” which sounds promising. Ditto the fact that over 119 authors from around the Bay Area will be featured, drawing hundreds of readers and revelers who will take over downtown Sebastopol as they listen to readings celebrating Sonoma County’s “spirited and diverse literary community.” The free-for-all is free to all, from 2 to 6pm, on Saturday, April 13. You may recognize some names on the bill. The schedule and locations can be found at sebarts.org/litcrawl.

And if literary mayhem is your jam, consider the unique blend of spoken word, humor, hip-hop, theater and storytelling proffered by traveling performers Scott Raven, Mikumari Caiyhe and Mason Granger. The trio operates under the collective moniker of… Mayhem Poets.

bit.ly/mayhem-poets-yountville. ’Nuff said.

Daedalus Howellhttps://dhowell.com
Daedalus Howell is the writer-director of the feature filmsPill Head and the upcoming Werewolf Serenade. Learn more at dhowell.com.

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