Poetry floods Downtown Petaluma streets


Michael Shufro, Co-editor-in-chief

As dusk falls on the corner of 2nd and H Street, the last of the poets, muses and local literati settle inside Aqus Café to soak in the last of the 16th annual Petaluma Poetry Walk. Avotcja, a middle-aged poet, wails a soul full of words into the microphone on stage, her arm stretched out toward the crowd as if the spirit of her poem had traveled up through her body, then out her fingertips and into the audience.
Poised and quiet, Shirley Kazuyu Muramoto, seated beside Avotcja, plays the delta blues on her koto, a Japanese harp with 13 strings and a 6-foot-long body built from kiri wood. Muramoto pushes down on one string, and pulls another taut; then strikes a swift series of melodic notes, elegant and sudden.
Both performers, internationally renowned for their unique artistry, show an arresting contrast to the standard experience of art and entertainment today. But tonight they are only one of dozens showcasing the power of rhythm, rhyme and the extraordinary range of the human voice.
Sprawling more than 10 blocks of Petaluma’s historical downtown district, the Walk spanned a full 10 hours of free events, starting at 11 a.m. Sept. 18 in the Petaluma Art Center, and switching locations every hour.
Performance venues included Copperfield’s Books, the Phoenix Theatre, Pelican Art Gallery and three cafés, with readings and contributions from nationally renowned poets such as Jane Hirshfield and Gerald Fleming, to San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland based writers, Sonoma County Poet Laureates and multiple SRJC faculty and staff.
Of those representing SRJC’s community and culture of poetry, SRJC Counseling Instructor Donna Emerson read aloud from her new book, “Wild Mercy,” to a crowd of 40 outside Jungle Vibes Café; SRJC English Instructor and Sonoma County’s third Poet Laureate Terry Ehret hosted and introduced three poets at the Petaluma Art Center; and SRJC Librarian Karen Petersen volunteered her time, as she has for years, with the Walk’s setup and promotion.
Each year Ehret invites her students to join in the Walk and offers SRJC attendees extra-credit plus a free copy of “Lost Body,” her first book of poems. For many students the Walk is their first introduction to poetry, Ehret says, and opens up an entirely new world for them to explore.
“There are always some students who are drawn to poetry and find an emotional home there, but most get very nervous,” Ehret says. “Their poems start to sweat and they look for an exit route, but as they begin thinking through images, they calm down a bit and can move around in the poems and often find their own way to the meaning.”
As a counseling instructor and practicing psychotherapist, Emerson encounters life’s heavier burdens carried by hundreds of students on a daily basis. Due to poverty many SRJC students struggle to simply get by, Emerson says, sleeping in their cars and living out of vans parked in abandoned lots.
“People tend to go home and not read poems, they read novels,” Emerson says. “But when they get in trouble they read poetry.”
She often presents poems in her classes to show students how powerful and effective plain language can be when used to talk about issues of a painful or complex nature. When a former client lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome, Emerson wrote a poem to illuminate her role as the counselor in the situation and better understand the best approach toward healing.
This year’s poeticized stories included everything from the love poems of dragon hunters to slam poems about Christ and American Indians.
Under the house lights above the bare, black stage of the Phoenix Theatre, A.D. Winans, a beat poet and old friend of famed beat Bob Kaufman, rolls his voice in long incantations as if to awaken the haunted spirits of dead poets with his séance of words.
His whole voice and body tighten around the microphone as he wheezes out in dreamlike prophecy, “Until every newborn is encircled in a poem,” then softens in silence before igniting his next line.
Several of Winan’s listeners sit with their faces pointed to the floor and eyes closed contemplating each word; some intently watch him read down the page of his book, as others shuffling in their seats scratch their beards, cock their eyebrows and wrinkle their foreheads.
Other performers approached their audiences with a slant of humor like poet and playwright Marvin R. Himestra who yelped and crooned behind a frog mask while reciting a poem titled “Three Poet Frogs about to Croak.”
Geri Digiorno, founder of the Petaluma Poetry Walk and Sonoma County’s fourth Poet Laureate, says the event came to life after a friend from out of town had visited and recommended Petaluma as the perfect place to celebrate poetry. Digiorno followed the idea and started inquiring with local businesses and calling upon prominent poets like Diane di Prima and Dorian Locke for support. “And the event has been a huge success, all 16 years,” Digiorno says.
Sonoma County’s current Poet Laureate Gwynn O’Gara and her Laureate predecessor Mike Tuggle shared the patio stage with Digiorno in the early afternoon at the Apple Box at the Mill.
O’Gara says the poet’s role today is the role of the dreamer, musician and truth teller, the polisher of thought, the one who can praise when everyone else is despairing and sometimes the leader in the chorus of grief. And in Sonoma County, O’Gara and her colleagues are discovering poets who inherit these roles everyday.
“What’s unique about this area is how supportive literary members of the community are and how minimal the competition is,” Ehret says. “What’s front and center is the way we celebrate and support each other.”
Apart from the Petaluma Poetry Walk, Ehret notes the slew of local opportunities for writers to come together: open mics, poetry slams, literary speaker series, the Sonoma County’s Book Festival and WordTemple, a radio show series about poetry on KRCB FM. For those interested in learning more, Ehret encourages exploring her community website, Sonoma County Literary Update, a calendar and archive of local events, writers and all things literary at www.literaryfolk.wordpress.com.
As her set comes to an end, Avotcja, who’s traveled and performed with artists from California, New York, Cuba and Peru, stands up smiling as the crowd applauds. “This is the only place I know of where the whole town turns into poetry once a year,” she says. “It’s truly amazing.”