Words Wise

Local literary laureates keep art alive


When the Greeks ruled the world—or at least, part of it—writers wore a laurel wreath to signify their connection to Apollo, the patron god of poets. Later, Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales and the first unofficial poet laureate of England, was rewarded for his duties with a daily allotment of wine. The job generally involved crafting odes to whatever royalty happened to rule the roost.

These days, laureates are more likely to be teaching workshops than drinking wine and penning paeans to Henry VIII. And since culture in the United States these days is increasingly defined by watching Snookie get punched on Jersey Shore, it is a relief to note that the tradition of honoring language masters thrives in the North Bay. With that thought, we rounded up the laureates across Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties.

Sonoma County’s sixth poet laureate, Gwynn O’Gara, has just come from picking forget-me-nots in her Sebastopol garden. It is experiences like these, as well as watching tiger salamanders, scrub jays and garden snakes, she says, that inspire O’Gara to write poetry.

“Poets grow in silence and obscurity and darkness, like carrots or onions,” she says of being nominated. “To be brought out of the ground and to have my work held up is a great honor. I’m very pleased and still a little shy about it.”

According to nomination materials, the laureate is a person whose poetry manifests a high degree of excellence, who has produced a critically acclaimed body of work and who has a demonstrated commitment to the literary arts in Sonoma County. It’s no surprise that O’Gara—the author of three chapbooks, a teacher for California Poets in the Schools since 1989 and a current facilitator for a girl’s poetry workshop at the Sierra Youth Center, a juvenile hall facility—fit the bill.

When asked why poetry remains important today, O’Gara says, “People need the truth, and you can find truth in poetry. People need to ask questions that may not have answers, but we still, as individuals and as a culture, need to ask these questions.”

O’Gara says that one of her goals as laureate is to encourage people who may never have written a poem to pick up a pen and start writing. She is working to set up a system where people—she calls them “citizen poets”—can send her their poems, possibly winning an opportunity to read onstage with her at official appearances. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they fortify the inner life. With that as my inspiration, and the times as they are now, my goal is to help fortify people’s lives through poetry,” O’Gara says.

And while Chaucer may have relished his allotment of wine, Stefanie Freele, Healdsburg’s 2010&–2011 literary laureate, doesn’t find her inspiration in the grape.

“I’m one of three people in Sonoma County who doesn’t drink wine,” Freele says with a smile when asked if that was part of her laureate stipend. “What is wonderful is that I automatically have this connection to the literary world. Maybe I’m a little bit of a hub of communication with other writers.”

Author of the short-story collection Feeding Strays, which is a finalist for the Foreword Review‘s Book of the Year Award, Freele—who was raised in Wisconsin but has made her home in Northern California for many years—was nominated as laureate by members of the Healdsburg Literary Guild.

Freele sees the position as a way to champion “literary citizenship,” a phrase borrowed from PEN USA president Kate Gale, and based on writers helping other writers by writing reviews, buying books and attending each other’s events. She also frequently spreads the news about submissions and contests via email. Her first official project will be to review and recommend books for adult and young readers for local newspapers and KCRB 91.1-FM.

“I’m trying not to choose authors who are on big presses. I’m trying to spread the news of smaller press folks who can use a leg-up,” Freele says, likening herself to a “visitor-center-type person” for ongoing literary events. “I need a little kiosk,” she adds with a laugh. “I can sit there and ask people if I can direct them to the nearest reading.”

Retired Napa Valley College English instructor Gary Silva was crowned Napa County poet laureate in 2008 and still serves. Inspired to write poetry by Philip Levine while attending Cal State Fresno, Silva has since published dozens of poems in small magazines across the country He says that his goal as laureate is to “help create exciting and ongoing poetry events in the communities of Napa Valley.”

As Marin County’s first poet laureate, Albert Flynn DeSilver believes deeply in the power of language; in fact, he sees the laureate position as being an ambassador to this line of thinking.

“It is a way of getting out there and reminding people that this power of language exists in our culture, it shapes everything that we do. To consider our words more carefully can have a huge impact on our community, on the politics, on the direction of our lives,” DeSilver says.

A strong commitment to community is a main component of the nomination requirements. A few years back, as a California Poet in the Schools, DeSilver worked with elementary school children in a program that had elders creating paintings based on third-graders’ poems. He has conducted workshops at a grief camp for kids, and he continues to work in the community as the CEO of Visiting Angels, a senior caregiver service.

DeSilver’s main project as laureate has been the implementation of the “poetry chair”—an actual chair made out of poetry books designed by artist Todd Pickering. “I showed up one day at Stinson Beach. People sat down and started writing poems. There are all of these classic literary events at the libraries, but I wanted it to be a more publicly integrated process,” he says.

Even as our culture seems to move further away from seeing poetry as essential, DeSilver—who recently self-published a chapbook of his own poems titled A Field Guide to the Emotions—believes that it continues to bear importance.

“At the most crucial points of everybody’s lives, they turn to poetry. Funerals, weddings, times of crisis—poetry is always there, and they count on it. It’s like this food that we’ll only eat at certain times, but it’s a necessary food.”

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