Words on high
Squaw Valley poets come down the mountain to read at the Crocker Art Museum
Sacramento, CA 95814
Think of it as a poetry boot camp—but without drill instructors.
That’s how Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, describes the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. The annual gathering has a four-decade history of bringing together America’s greatest poets and writers—and America’s next great poets and writers—for a week of community, writing and relaxation in the Sierras.
This year’s poetry program’s faculty will visit Sacramento for a group reading this week at the Crocker Art Museum. The lineup, featuring Hass, Brenda Hillman, Cathy Park Hong, Major Jackson and Sharon Olds, reads on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Setzer Auditorium.
Proceeds from the $20 tickets support community scholarships to benefit younger and emerging writers who, as Hass explained, might not otherwise be able to afford the chance to retreat, write and learn in the company of established poets.
Hass, who directs Squaw’s poetry program (there are two other programs, one for fiction, nonfiction, and memoir; and one for screenwriting), has been involved with the community for 25 years.
“The origin of the community was a group of writers in the late ’50s and early ’60s, mostly San Francisco writers, who rented unused ski houses in the summer as a way to get into the mountains and write and play tennis and have people to talk to,” Hass said.
“They had the idea of putting together a summer gathering of writers, and it’s been going for decades.”
Eventually, the poetry program’s founder, Galway Kinnell, decided it was a “distraction” for the poets to hang out with all those fiction and screenwriters, doing things such as drinking and playing tennis.
“Galway’s idea—and Sharon Olds, who joined him—started this separate program for poets in 1985, because he thought poets should be off writing poetry.”
Hass, who joined the group in 1986, says the “boot camp” aspect comes from a simple premise: Everybody writes a poem every day.
“The idea of the week is [for everybody to] produce new work every day, like the seven days of creation.”
It differs from most poetry workshops and conferences in more than just its outstanding Sierra Nevada scenery and the proximity of Lake Tahoe (the conference is held on the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and offers outdoor and sports activities). Here, the focus isn’t on critiques or career tips—though there may be some of that, as well—but instead on getting each poet to come down from the mountain with new works of their own.
“Rather than doing what is often done, like with Bread Loaf and other writers conferences, which are very strong on criticism and publishing and lectures, this focus was to be on writing and community and getting things done,” Hass said.
The routine is well-established, he added. Each day, each participant produces a new poem, turning it in by 7:30 a.m. so that it’s distributed for a group meeting three hours later.
“For some people, it’s a little stressful, and the staff poets have to produce, too. Often I’ve had the least interesting poem in the group.”
At the end of the session Hass added, “Everyone looks exhausted, like figures in a Renaissance painting. [After], we go out and explore the mountains.”
At 5 each afternoon, the group reconvenes to discuss poetry before breaking off to write again.
There are plenty of other activities—a barbecue, bird-watching and nature hikes, at least one softball game—but the emphasis is on writing poems and discussing poetry with other poets. That’s enough to attract plenty of applicants—especially given that the list of notable alumni is full of well-known poets who’ve won national prizes galore.
But the heart of the community is writing poetry.
“An enormous number of writers have participated and been discovered there,” he noted, forging relationships that continued afterward.
The benefit reading serves as a kickoff to the poetry program, which runs July 16 through 23, and it’s a chance for Sacramento residents to hear some of the finest contemporary American poets gathered in one place.
Hass says he’s quite pleased to be reading at the Crocker, and addressed the relationship between poetry and the visual fine arts.
“In my case, in my college years, abstract expressionist painting and new poetry and jazz all seemed part of one controlling set of new energy in the world.”
“The term that I’ve only recently become aware of—there’s a technical term for poems based on a work of art—it’s called ekphrastic poetry,” he said. “Especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, there’s been a sort of parallel energy between painting and poetry. It’s a rich and elegant conversation.”
In addition to having served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1995 to 1997, Hass is the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry as well as the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and a National Book Critics Circle award. His most recent book is The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems. He is a professor of English at UC Berkeley.
The other poets on the program are also accomplished. Hillman, s a professor of poetry at St. Mary’s College; her most recent book is Practical Water. Hong is a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and her third book, Engines West, will be published next year. Olds is, next to Hass, probably the best known of the group, having won a number of awards, served as the New York state poet laureate and currently as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her most recent book is One Secret Thing.
And yet despite such impressive résumés, once these accomplished writers get to Squaw Valley, they’ll all be writing a poem a day, just like all the poets at boot camp.