You hate it, they live it

The announcement of Sacramento’s new poetry czar inspires a waxing of the city’s poetic innards and impulse

Bob Stanley is stuffing his brain with poetry goodness at the Sacramento Poetry Center, 1719 25th Street.

Bob Stanley is stuffing his brain with poetry goodness at the Sacramento Poetry Center, 1719 25th Street.

Photo By Gabor Mereg

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On one of the first cold nights of winter in Sacramento, I stand in the parking lot of the Sacramento Poetry Center, which is nestled in the corner of a shabby warehouse on 25th Street. I watch Bob Stanley through a window: He’s bundled up in a jacket and a knit cap, smiling as he moves chairs around a room. In the freezing cold space on a Monday night, Stanley happily prepares for a poetry reading that’s going to start in about one hour. If he’s lucky, 20 people might show up to watch the poets.

As I watch him, I recall an e-mail I got over the summer from a local poet who was really pissed off about Stanley getting the laureate position.

He too applied for the laureate post, and felt cheated when he didn’t get it. He wanted to sue the city. Nothing came of the it, but the initial anger by a poet who felt shunned reminded me of how important, and crucial, literature can be to people.

To some Sacramentans, poetry is more than words on a page; it’s a life.

You hate poetry

For some—OK, most—the mere thought of poetry, however, conjures up the image of an acne-riddled teenager using clichéd cadence to rhyme about how talented he is with the ladies. And then there’s also the other kind of poetry enthusiast: the insufferably boring one, the kind who writes letters to the editor in poetry publications, like this one in the July/August 2008 edition of Poetry magazine:

“ I checked several dictionaries. The Encarta College Dictionary says that ‘noodle,’ as a verb, means ‘to improvise on an instrument in a random, meandering fashion, often in order to warm up.’ … Finally, harkening back to the pre-Internet days, the Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, edited by poet Clarence Major, says: ‘In jazz, to play in a testy manner; also, the human head.’”

In case you fell asleep, that was Joseph Bednarik, the marketing and sales director at noteworthy publisher Copper Canyon Press, defending his use of the term “noodling around.”

Sometimes, poetry enthusiasts can bludgeon all the fun out of reading while reinforcing poetry’s stereotype: stuffy, pretentious, self-indulgent and mind-numbingly boring. Don’t worry, though, not all of it is. In fact, it’s funny that, in Bednarik’s diatribe, he mentions Clarence Major: a painter, poet and professor at UC Davis whose work is a good example of how poetry can reach beyond stereotypes and speak to an audience with raw simplicity.

In Major’s poem “Vietnam,” he tackles the subjects of race and war:

“ we can’t tell / our whites / from the others / nor our blacks / from the others / & everybody / is just killing / & killing / like crazy.”

The final lines of the poem offer no excessive language, no meandering around a point, no cryptic footnote. In fact, the poem itself might be more valuable than an actual footnote in a textbook about war.

So while a poem can be cheesy and self-involved, it can also read like a type of perfect journalism that slices beyond the meat of a story and stabs at its innards.

Bob Stanley: agent of poetry

The Library of Congress defines the national poet laureate as the “official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,” but that seems a little dramatic. After all, the Library of Congress assumes that Americans actually have a poetic impulse.

Have you heard of Kay Ryan? Nope, and that’s because Americans have as much poetic inclination as we do the impulse to give money away to total strangers.

But Sacramento Poetry Center president Bob Stanley begs to differ. And, to Stanley’s credit, it’s his job to know these kinds of things and to give a damn. He teaches creative writing and English at Sacramento State, Sacramento City College and UC Davis Extension. As the city’s new poet laureate, he’s an agent for Sacramento’s body of poetry, if you will.

The laureate program was established in February 2000, by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, to encourage literary awareness and to celebrate the Sacramento poetry community (previous laureates included Dennis Schmitz and Julia Connor). While the city can no longer afford a large laureates project stipend, SMAC still gives the poet a small amount of stipend money (about $2,500 per year) to use as they see fit. Sacramento’s third laureate, José Montoya, used his project money to create the Flor y Canto poetry and music festival at the Crest Theatre. With his stipend, Stanley plans to offer the city a smaller-scale poetry festival.

Why isn’t poetry more mainstream?

There was a time when poetry was cool. Or at least cooler than it is now. It was in the 1950s, around the time of the Beat generation, when poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso wrote opiate-injected verses that tossed aside the rules of traditional literature. Art was a big nasty stew, and you couldn’t really tell what the ingredients were; poetry, painting, music and sexual intercourse took the form of a disheveled body that stumbled into the public and trampled everything that was held sacred.

In this case, poetry is nostalgic. “It’s kind of a throwback,” Stanley explains.

“Fifteen people in a room all sharing one thing and talking about it, rather than everybody sitting in front of their computer or watching Grey’s Anatomy … it gives us a sense that we’re doing something.”

So, budgetary restraints and lack of interest aside, does Sacramento actually have a poetic impulse?

Stanley argues that there are people out there who like poetry, but that they don’t know where to go. “A lot of people don’t know that every Thursday night Luna’s [Café & Juice Bar] has had a reading; they don’t know about the [Sacramento Poetry Center]; they don’t know about Mahogany [reading series]. … And yet when they stumble into one of those places, they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this was here. This is cool.’”

He concludes that people are inclined to enjoy poetry. He points to the award-winning poet Molly Fisk, who, in her 30s, was a working professional in New York and didn’t pay much attention to poetry. That is, until her friend sent a Mary Oliver poem, which, like most important things, she stuck to her refrigerator. The poem “Wild Geese,” ends:

Stanley’s fingers are on the poetic pulse of Sacramento.

Photo By Gabor Mereg

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagina tion,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

That poem “gnawed away at her soul,” Stanley says. “And so one day she just said, ‘I’ve got to do that.’”

Stanley himself was drawn to writing because of Walt Whitman and E.E. Cummings, who exhibited “a playfulness [with] the sound,” he says. And then he started writing his own poems throughout college (“God, I have so much bad poetry … but I can’t quite let it go”). His keen sense of nostalgia, and his love of Sacramento, is evident in many of his newer poems, like “Night Watch”:

Full red moon, warm September night, crowd a breeze
in black, the scene a city makes when stops are pulled.
Saturday the second, Twenty and J, lights on, eyes on each other, music roiling into one roar, voices blend
beneath the watchful eye, cops every corner, drinking
it in, checking glances, sound levels, how men move around men.
Jazz corner woman slides her guitar, her self, drummer
cool in the understanding of where she’s going.
We circle the curb where the sewer vents, her voice
close to the edge, feel it for a moment, wander on.
As music rises we move with the rhythm, faster, trolling
for another corner, another decade long past.
So full of life, an old man might draw back before long,
slide back to the car to move on, to put it down in paper
fantasies of what the street means, to live the thousand
songs folding into one, to chant the quiet chant of all things, <pbr>to touch the impossible, swirling bodies, sense the shadow
of the dance, see at last his city in this painting of the night.

For Stanley, who spends his Monday nights rearranging furniture in the poetry center and many other days attending small literary events around the city, poetry is the structure in which he, like others, lives. It’s a modest structure, but fascinating, if you just sit and look at it for a while. It’s Stanley’s job as laureate, then, to make sure that the rest of us get to peek inside, and go in if we want.