Erato among the tomatoes

Sacramento poet laureate Viola Weinberg finds her muse at Raley Field—and elsewhere around town

Viola Weinberg, obviously hard at work.

Viola Weinberg, obviously hard at work.

Photo By Larry Dalton

What qualifies one to be a poet laureate? Is it reading at the tender age of three, with innocent eyes devouring the antics in a Little Iodine comic book, long before those little oxford-clad feet can hang over the sofa’s edge? Or is it sitting in Monet’s kitchen, over a half-century after the painter brewed his last pot of tea, writing a saucy and impassioned ode to him that’s as warmly hued as his own Impressionist works?

Viola Weinberg has lived both scenarios, and her early love affair with words no doubt contributed to her appointment last year as one of Sacramento’s two poets laureate.

The other is retired CSU Sacramento English professor of poetry Dennis Schmitz. In 1996, the late Mayor Joe Serna awarded Weinberg and Schmitz the first Mayor’s Award for the Arts in Literature. The laureates were crowned last year, fittingly in April—National Poetry Month.

“Dennis and I were installed at the largest arts event at the Library Galleria, and actually crowned with laurel leaves,” the titian-tressed poet recalls, pointing to a dried wreath reigning high on a bookcase in her art-studded home.

“In Roman and Greek times, the laurel crown was offered to Caesar, the winners of the Olympics, poets laureate and those in elevated positions. They were paid in cases of sherry in 16th-century England. And I thought, since this is Sacramento, maybe I’ll get a case of tomatoes.” The poet duo did indeed receive tomatoes—plus Blue Diamond almonds, Campbell’s soup, rice, beer and other local products, all delivered to the ceremony stage via forklift.

Weinberg takes her appointment, which runs until April 2002, very seriously. “Sacramento poets laureate are the literacy ambassadors of the region,” she says. “I believe literature and literacy are intertwined, and a higher quality of life exists if you read and write. Without it, you die.”

During their tenure, Weinberg and Schmitz will edit an anthology titled 100 Poems on Sacramento, which the Arts Commission will publish this fall; submissions will be accepted until the end of this month. With Weinberg’s and Schmitz’s input, a new, single poet laureate will be appointed to represent the program at the end of their tenure.

Weinberg and Schmitz host “Second Monday at Central: A Noontime Poetry Series,” at the Downtown library. Capital Public Radio has aired the two laureates’ commentaries on poetry, literature and community on its Morning Edition program.

In another laureate duty, Weinberg offered a poetry workshop to students at McClatchy High School, the magnet school for humanities. By written request to the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, which administers the city-funded program, laureates are available for events in parks, community centers, city and state buildings and in schools.

Weinberg has read for the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and for the Sacramento Rotary Club meeting. Her vision puts poetry in nontraditional places—she even read a favorite poem at the California Franchise Tax Board.

“My personal mission is to take poetry [to] places where people don’t have access to creativity,” she says. “The love of [words] might begin in school, but it shouldn’t end there. Poetry is everywhere in pop culture and music. You can find the rhythm of poetry in everyday places.”

Even her own workplace, EDFUND, held a poetry reading this month under her guidance. And longtime Sacramento band dRaw Pinky will feature Weinberg reciting poetry against the backdrop of its music at the Michael Himovitz Gallery.

Weinberg comes by her writing and love of the arts easily. Born in Ashland, Oregon, where, she jokes, “there is much ado about Shakespeare,” her military father’s appointment took his wife and daughter to Japan. There she learned about traditional Japanese graces, ikebana (flower arranging), calligraphy, and dabbled in painting.

Weinberg also credits her uncle Conley for instilling a love of art in her at an early age; he took her to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and introduced her to works by Edward Hopper, Picasso and Van Gogh.

“He told me, ‘I can come here and like or dislike these paintings. I have the freedom and you do, too. That’s the beauty and wonder of art, it’s so broad.’ He romanticized art—my whole family does. It’s a healthy thing to find beauty in life, or else it’s ugly.”

Oils became Weinberg’s chosen medium; by 1965, she’d entered UC Davis as an art major. But, after hearing a visiting poet speak, she found it easier to write than make visual art. She asked ceramics teacher Robert Arneson if he thought she’d be better at writing or art.

“Before I had the words out of my mouth, he said, ‘Yes. You think in words, not images.’ ”

Weinberg switched to a communications major with an emphasis on radio.

“Being a poet is at the bottom of the art totem pole,” she states. “It’s the orphan of the arts. No one makes a living writing poetry unless they teach.”

So Weinberg worked in radio, commercial and public, including nine happy years as news director for the now-defunct KZAP. As photography editor for Mother Jones magazine, in 1990 she founded the International Fund for Documentary Photography; she’s also served as adviser for numerous foundations. During a three-year stint teaching at CSU Sacramento, she co-founded the Women’s Studies program there.

But no matter where her day jobs took her, Weinberg was still driven to express herself through personal writing.

“Even when I had four jobs,” she recalls, “while I was patching my life together [after a broken marriage], living on the Sea Muse, a houseboat in Sausalito, all the natural beauty around was inspiring and became everything to me. It was my favorite place to write and see beauty in simple things of life, even when it’s brutal.

“Writing is the thing that gets me up in the morning,” she adds. “If I deny it when it’s punching me hard, I suffer greatly. It’s a creative fission, and I’m extremely open to it. It’s addictive. A lot of people have it, and in different forms.”

Typically, Weinberg wakes at 4:30 a.m. and travels down the hallway to the study she shares with her husband of four years, chiropractor Peter Spencer, whom she met through a creative-writing project. There she’ll write for a couple of hours, almost every day.

“I’ve been getting up early since I’ve had children,” she says. “My daughters [now 30 and 31] are 13 months apart. I didn’t have a study in those days and I was writing on a yellow pad. I’d sneak around to write and then I’d be like a runaway car to get in the throes of it.”

Weinberg admits that writing is usually a long process.

“Something will strike me,” she says, pointing to a cardboard box in the corner of her study. “It’s full of slips of paper and napkins and the backs of magazines, all with just two or three words jotted on them. They can sit on my desk for a few months and sometimes something totally unexpected will leap out.

“But,” she confesses, “more often that note gets put away until I suddenly have a real imperative.”

Which may take 20 years. Other times she’ll get lucky—a poem will drop into her lap. “When I wrote ‘Monet’s Kitchen’ it was like that,” she says. “Maybe I changed a comma from the first writing; it’s so pure and wonderful. I think it came from Claude Monet himself—who realized in Giverny that you could make art and be happy.”

Another of Weinberg’s poems materialized while she stood at a concession stand during last summer’s River Cats playoff against the Tacoma Rainiers. Her “On Raley’s Field” was recently published in Coming Home: The Magic of Raley Field.

Weinberg doesn’t limit her writing to poetry. In 1997 she was a finalist out of 4,800 applications for the Thomas Wolfe Award for Fiction. Her short piece, “Lorenzo’s Story,” was based on the death of her friend Father Larry Tozzeo, a Franciscan priest.

“It was the most difficult piece I’ve ever written,” she says. “But I read it out loud twice, and sobbed at the last reading during the last two paragraphs. People rushed the stage.

“It’s still not published,” she adds.

And, with William Fuller III, Weinberg—an avid baseball fan—created The Baseball Secrets of Cuttlefish and Spike, a poetic, experimental play that premiered last May at Sacramento’s Geery Theatre under the direction of Ivan Sandoval. One of Weinberg’s current projects is a mystery novel set in Veracite, a fictional town in Yolo County.

Amazingly, Weinberg admits she never gets writer’s block.

“I might get slow, but I never say, ‘Oh I can’t.’ I guess I’m just lucky. The writing goes on and on. And so do I.”