- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival has been succeeding for 27 years. The annual event draws renowned poets from around the country, while highlighting the best local voices. This year’s events will kick off on Nov. 11 and feature 24 poets at eight different readings. Organizer Kevin Sullivan told New Times most readings include a reception with food, wine, and a chance to mingle with the poets.
“We get a good cross section of people in the audience: students, seniors, and everybody in between,” Sullivan said. “People relate to it. There’s something special about connecting with a human voice.”
Sullivan said literary arts are the building block of culture and that poetry is flourishing in the age of the Internet, which allows poets to share work and arrange readings with ease. He explained how Eleanor Lerman, a celebrated poet from New York, was tapped to speak at the festival.
“A local rabbi used one of her poems in a sermon,” he said. “Someone emailed it to Kevin Clark [a poet and professor at Cal Poly]. He forwarded it to me and a few other people, and eventually there was such a buzz going around that people started asking, ‘Why don’t we bring her?’”
So they did. Sullivan found Lerman’s contact information online and arranged for her to read at the festival’s opening night at SLO Museum of Art. Simple as that.
“That poem [‘Starfish’] has become the Internet version of the Carpenters’ song ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’” Lerman said in an interview with New Times. “It’s used at funerals, weddings, sermons. It’s been illustrated by preschoolers. It’s all very touching.”
The poem begins with the line, “This is what life does,” and follows the narrator as she walks her dog beside a pond. She reflects on her youth and ponders whether an overheard snippet of conversation—“Last night, the channel was full of starfish”—is some sort of omen or just a coincidence.
Clark, the Cal Poly professor, said contemporary poetry consists of many strains and styles, but that it seldom rhymes and usually has an emphasis on personal experience. Even complex political themes will focus on impact on an individual.
“The goal is to deal dead on with real problems but to render possibilities of hope and redemption,” Clark said. “It’s an old art form, but it’s very vital right now.”
According to Clark, SLO offers an ideal community for poets: The university is filled with people who want to hear new ideas. The coffee shops and bookstores are eager to provide venues for readings, and the visual pleasure of the scenery serves as catalyst for poetic expression. He’ll be reading his own works at the Philips Recital Hall on Nov. 12.
“I’m amazed at how the festival has grown,” he said. “Kevin [Patrick Sullivan] consistently brings in cutting-edge writers.”
Another of those writers will be new SLO Poet Laureate Bonnie Young. She’s a grandmother who facilitates a poetry workshop and hopes to use her laureate position to lobby ARTS Obispo for a grant that would allow local schools to publish a yearly book of children’s poetry.
“Being poet laureate is kind of an honor, kind of a job,” Young said.
She described her poetry as lyrical and scenic. Her new book, Inside Pockets, deals with family, love, and the sudden loss of her husband, who died within months of being diagnosed with asbestos-related mesothelioma. Young will be reading at 1 p.m. on Nov. 20 at Dallidet Adobe in SLO.
“I want my work to communicate,” she said. “Otherwise, why do it?”
Intern Nick Powell likes to read poetry on candlelit beaches. Send comments to Arts Editor Anna Weltner at firstname.lastname@example.org.