46. Leaning into the Sharp Points
In the oppressive mid-day heat I am pulling warm blackberries and currants from the hedge along the back fence. I can’t get enough of the dark sweetness; I don’t even stop to wash the berries, and my hands look as if I have been butchering chickens. The fruit is dessert after a lunch of vine ripened tomatoes, romaine, and cucumbers straight out of the garden.
This is the season of continuous bounty in the Valley—even in smoke, swelter, and pesticide drift—and in the middle of my summer feasting, I receive an invitation to introduce two poet laureates at a reception in the McHenry Museum. I hesitate. I know that picking blackberries is not as thorny a task as introducing poet laureates simply because of the built-in tension between poetry as individual and collective wilderness and poetry as crafted on demand by an official public persona, a city’s poet laureate. The role seems to be fraught with opposing expectations if it is understood at all.
I remember poet Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel’s wry account of her brother’s appearance at her doorstep. He wanted to know what a “laureate” was exactly. There was an article about her, the Poet Laureate of Tulare, in The Los Angeles Times, and he wanted to make sure she was not sullying the family name. I also remember that she never wrote an official poem, simply ignoring any requests to do so, because, she reasoned, she was already doing her job by recording the lives of folks in Tulare as part of her daily work. In one sense, she was right; a poet is granted a laurel wreath in recognition of distinctive work already accomplished.
Poems, like all wild creatures, like to be unfettered and autonomous, dictated
by daimons rather than cultural commissioners, yet poet laureates such as Robert
Hass and Billy Collins have demonstrated that poets have tremendous power to
raise not just the literary, but also the socio-political and environmental
awareness of entire communities. They can be arbiters of reality, and one
profound facet of the job is to be a corrective to blanks in public discourse.
Sam Pierstorff is Modesto’s under-utilized, two-term outgoing poet laureate and a colleague at Modesto Junior College. Dynamic, accomplished and brilliant (and the nation’s youngest poet laureate), Sam brought an outsider’s detachment, compassionate honesty, and explicit diction to the job. In his poem, “I Didn’t Know They Sold That at the Farmer’s Market,” he writes about hookers, why they like Modesto but don’t attend poetry slams, and what “the hot water of our words” could do for them in an imagined ritual of purification. The poem is a plea for language as a source of power, of personal revelation and wholeness, and also as a vehicle for expressing subterranean desires and emotions, but some readers never got past the four letter word that also happens to be the first name of our vice president, as Sam has noted.
To value Sam’s poem, a reader has to value language that moves beyond a cosmetic image or nostalgia to get at hard realities, an operation Buddhists call “leaning into the sharp points.” A poem can be an outlet for high-pitched emotions and a societal safety valve. It can be a declaration of anger or rage that doesn’t become a gun shot, a knife wound, or a battered woman. We are all in need of poetry in this role, but especially young people (for whom Sam has created an important forum with his monthly and annual slams) need this modeling of linguistic empowerment. I would call this creating culture, but I’m not sure the civic and cultural representatives of our fair city understand the role of poet laureate in this way. Will they, as Sam has asked, “align the city with poetry” and “elevate public events with a few words from the city’s official poet” without requiring him or her to be a booster for the city? Can their notion of a poet laureate be this spacious?
Modesto’s incoming poet laureate is Ed Bearden. Born in Ceres and raised in Empire, Ed brings a lifetime of community service to his role as poet laureate. Throughout his careers as social worker, counselor, trustee of the Empire School District and owner/operator of a real estate business, Ed has steadfastly sustained his interest in the arts and has been publishing his writing since 1964. Ed writes that for him, “…poetry is a way of dealing with feelings about things that scare me….a way of dealing with feelings about things I long for.” He considers his poems “gritty and not so pretty,” but I think many of his best poems are a sorting through childhood experiences.
“Flight Zone Vietnam,” written for his friend Ron Cone, a helicopter pilot in Nam, is one of those gritty poems in which sex, violence and death merge in a visceral account of war and its toll, but it is in a poem like “Golden Gate Bridge,” that Ed recovers a child-like tenderness and equilibrium more powerful than grit in recalling a family car trip: “If I could do anything again/it would be this. A found place/in time where time machines don’t take you anywhere, but/ keep you where you are. My/mother and father in the front seat,/the tall bridge passing overhead,/my brothers pressing themselves/close to my body as they strain/to see the huge cables….”
Poetry is a report on reality, its complexity, its eroticism, its dark pockets of suffering and injustice, its hobo beauty. It is the tender surprise of our jeweled inner life. Poetry, though it plays, is not child’s play and though beautiful, is not just about beauty. And we need good poetry desperately, right alongside a scintillating arts center, to give us a sturdier sense of what is real and a luminous sense of what is possible.
Sources: Richard Estrada, The Modesto Bee; City of Modesto Application & City Council Policy for Selecting the Poet Laureate; and Sam Pierstorff, “Some Thoughts on Being Modesto’s Poet Laureate.”
1. This tip comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists: Driving over the speed limit actually wastes gas. According to the scientists, dropping from 70 to 60 mph improves fuel efficiency by an average of 17.2 percent. Dropping from 75 to 55 improves fuel efficiency by 30.6 percent! Put another way, in a family sedan, every 10 mph you drive over 60 is like paying 54 cents per gallon more for gas you bought at over $4 a gallon. That extra cost is even higher for big SUVs and other less-efficient vehicles.
And the time you save by going easy on the accelerator may not add up to as much as you thought. On a 300-mile trip, driving 65 instead of 70 mph would cost you only 20 minutes — but save money and spew less carbon. Driving at a constant pace is recommended. Rapid acceleration and braking can increase fuel consumption by as much as 40 percent.
2. This tip comes from the Sierra Club via a 13 year old girl who wants to help save the arctic. Her advice? Keep your tires inflated properly is to save gas and the arctic. Under-inflated tires wear quickly and require more energy to turn. Check your tire pressure monthly when the car is “cold.” Find your ideal tire pressure by looking in your car’s owner manual, or open the door and look at the inside part that connects to your car when the car door is shut. Don’t use the recommended pressure listed on the tire-that is the maximum amount allowed, not the recommended air pressure. To find out more about her web site, go to www.pumpemup.org Download a worksheet to figure your miles per gallon at PumpEmUp
3. Consumer Reports says cruising around town with your windows open is more efficient than using your air-conditioner. However, at speeds over 40 mpg, it is more efficient to use the air-conditioner.
4. To find out how to make greener choices when traveling on vacation this year, take the quiz “How Green is My Getaway” from the Sierra Club at http://www.sierraclub.org/howgreen/getaway/
5. Don’t forget carpooling and public transportation. BART and Amtrak are relatively inexpensive, and save the hassle of driving and parking in the Bay Area. Find out who lives near you at work and see if anyone wants to carpool. Even one or two days per week can make a difference.
6. Contrary to popular belief, idling your car is not less expensive than turning it off. Consumer Reports advises turning your car off rather than idling and to avoid using drive-thrus. Anytime your car is idling, you are spending extra money for gas.