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An English of pomegranates and nightlights

SLO's Poetry Festival blushes silver



William Faulkner charged poets with the duty of serving as a prop and pillar for society, enabling humankind to forever struggle, endure, and prevail; Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed that no poet could exist where there wasn’t also a philosopher; Christopher Morley said that poets were reporters interviewing their own hearts; and Oscar Wilde insisted that these denizens of the mind are, in fact, seers reliant upon “the eyes of the mind” rather than the corporal.

- THE SEEKER :  Prodigious SLO poet laureate James Cushing has been especially inspired and prolific lately, having written more than 100 poems in six months. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • THE SEEKER : Prodigious SLO poet laureate James Cushing has been especially inspired and prolific lately, having written more than 100 poems in six months.

But San Luis Obispo’s eleventh poet laureate—James Cushing—tries to escape the many trappings of the title, burrowing instead into subconscious realms where poetry flows like manna. Poet refers to the self-conscious relationship between writer and public, rather than the more important creative connection between writer and word, he insists.

The fact that poetry has altered the way Cushing occupies the world is undeniable. He can even pinpoint the precise date, in 1965, when his blue-haired battle-axe of a teacher first ushered him into the dazzling imaginative realm. The culprit was a recording of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

“It was about a 21-minute experience and it would be fair to say that I was a different person after that 21-minute experience,” he said. “I can still hear it right now, the way language was able to interact with life experience. I knew after the record was over, I knew that this was the most extraordinary experience I had ever had.”

As poet laureate for SLO’s 25th Annual Language of the Soul Poetry Festival, Cushing’s purpose is to translate this experience for new audiences. Cushing, along with more than a dozen fellow poets, both local and not, will sound the walls of such spaces as the Art Center, Linnaea’s, and the Steynberg Gallery with their words between Nov. 7 and 16.

Cushing might harbor ambivalent feelings about the title of poet, but for those who insist on putting his work in a “stylistic bag,” as he calls it, the term romantic surrealist might be the most applicable. And in the past year his typewriter—a 1955 Royal Quiet Deluxe model—has hardly had a moment’s pause, overflowing with the romantic surrealist contents of his imagination. Not that the 40 years that preceded it were uneventful; with three published books of poetry—You and the Night and the Music, The Length of an Afternoon, and Undercurrent Blues—and Pinocchio’s Revolution slated for release next year plus a weekly jazz program on KCPR (Miles Ahead, on Thursdays from 8 to 10 p.m.), few could accuse the newly crowned poet laureate of sloth.

But between the final month of 2007 and the middle of 2008, Cushing completed more than 100 poems in a staggering surge of creativity.

“I’ve never written more than I’ve written this year,” he said, baffled but happy. “I hope it doesn’t mean that I’m getting ready to die soon. That would be the darkest possible interpretation.”

With two public readings—one for the monthly Corners of the Mouth series and one for the poetry festival—he should have plenty of material from which to select. In agreement with the poet John Ashbury’s statement to the effect that the ideal response to a work of art is another work of art, Cushing began writing poems inspired by Poems for Endangered Places. The recently published book of poetry features six local poets—self-titled “plein air poets.” Reading the poems vertically rather than horizontally, Cushing responded with a poem titled “Danger Places.”

Any subject or thought carries the possibility of a poem to Cushing, though his readers will not encounter the blatant political reckoning popular with many other local poets. You will not, for example, encounter an ode to Obama or a rant about hockey moms in one of his poems, primarily because Cushing subscribes to another brand of politics altogether.

“If you take the imagination seriously, I think that is a political statement,” he reasoned. “Because most people don’t take the imagination seriously. They only take rhetoric seriously.”

And Cushing’s chrysanthemum-encrusted literary world is rife with imagination, many of his poems reading like children’s lullabies. “Here, darling, let me reinflate your pillow / with your favorite laughing gas,” his poem, “Relaxing with Tristan and Isolde” commences, parading with an unconcerned illogic both graceful and anarchistic. “Tonight we sleep in his / museum, I in the Milton wing, you in the / Plato suite,” the poem continues, referring later still to “an English of pomegranates and nightlights.”

Like most writers—and poets especially—Cushing has a particular fondness for words, ruminating and reveling over them. He cites the words “throwback,” “limn” and anything derived from a plant name as special favorites, along with “extravagantly creative names for very ordinary things,” such as Zoloft and Prozac and shades of lipstick called Confusion or Delaware. Cushing doesn’t merely lift his hat to such words, as Emily Dickinson was wont to do, he puts his hand on their shoulders.

Cushing has fielded complaints to the effect that his poems are difficult to understand, respectfully disagreeing. But he was also surprised to learn that readers sometimes stumble through T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, insisting that the contents of his dreams are equally fractured. For that matter, social contradictions within American culture are scrambled as well. What Cushing asks of his readers is that they relinquish their stranglehold on reality and tumble into the recesses of their subconscious. Or, at the very least, attend his reading with an open mind and sans tomatoes.


INFOBOX: Do souls speak?

The 25th Annual Language of the Soul Poetry Festival kicks off Nov. 7 at the SLO Art Center and includes readings on Nov. 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16. All events start at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $5 or $3 for students and seniors. For more information visit

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach shall wear the bottoms of her trousers rolled. Tell her you have lingered in the chambers of the sea at [email protected].


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